Czar wars: MSPs warned watchdog reforms threaten basic rights
Tom Gordon, Published on 20 Sep 2009
Sweeping new powers which would let Scottish ministers scrap dozens of independent watchdogs risk damaging child protection and undermining the public’s basic rights, MSPs will be warned this week.
The Public Service Reform Bill has been condemned by several of Scotland’s “czars”, including those responsible for young people, human rights, and freedom of information. In a highly unusual step, the Scottish Parliament’s presiding officer has also raised concerns about the bill.
The legislation is meant to “simplify and improve” the country’s many public bodies, as well as create the arts quango Creative Scotland.
However, in addition it would give ministers the power to change, merge or abolish more than 100 specified public bodies, including all health boards, children’s panels and national parks.
Also listed are several independent watchdogs, including Audit Scotland, the Mental Welfare Commission, and the Scottish Criminal Cases Review Commission.
Although many of the bodies were established by a full act of parliament, under the proposals they could be scrapped via a simple ministerial order. Some – like the Scottish Information Commissioner – were designed to be wholly independent of ministers and are funded by the Scottish parliament, yet could be axed by the government.
In written evidence to this week’s finance committee meeting, the watchdogs will demand that they be removed from the scope of the bill.
Tam Baillie, Scotland’s Commissioner for Children and Young People, said the powers were of “great concern”, and could result in “weakened rights protection for Scotland’s children”.
Kevin Dunion, the Scottish Information Commissioner, whose decisions on freedom of information (FoI) often embarrass ministers, said the powers were “inappropriate” and “anomalous”.
Despite government assurances that any changes would be merely “administrative”, he said they would “also have the effect of fundamentally changing Scotland’s FoI regime”.
Writing on behalf of the Scottish Parliamentary Corporate Body, presiding officer Alex Fergusson said he was “surprised” to see bodies funded by the parliament included in the bill, all of which are independent of government.
“We consider it is important to avoid actions which could limit or compromise that independence,” he said.
The newly established Scottish Human Rights Commission also said giving ministers sway over its operations was “not appropriate” and would undermine its independence.
The Commission for Public Appointments said the bill would give ministers “an incredibly wide and unfettered power”, which the Law Society of Scotland said was “constitutionally significant”.
A government spokesman said: “We are making public services simpler, sharper and better co-ordinated. The Public Services Reform Bill provides necessary changes to legislation to dissolve and merge more bodies and puts a new framework in place to manage future change … Any proposals would be subject to prior consultation and parliamentary approval.”
In a speech to the Liberal Democrat conference in Bournemouth today, Scottish leader Tavish Scott is due to attack the SNP for the “creeping centralisation” of government services.
Chief judge joins attack on public reform bill
Tom Gordon, Published on 27 Sep 2009
Scotland’s most senior judge has joined the attack on a new government bill that would give ministers unprecedented powers to abolish scores of public bodies.
Lord Hamilton, the Lord President, has told MSPs the Public Services Reform Bill is “incompatible with the constitutional position” of the Scottish Court Service and causes him “concern”.
Dr Jim Dyer, the former Scottish parliament standards watchdog, has also accused the government of “political machismo” on the issue, the Sunday Herald can reveal.
The criticisms are the latest blow to the bill, fast becoming one of the most controversial of the current parliament. As the Sunday Herald reported last week, the proposed legislation would allow ministers to change, merge or abolish more than 100 public bodies.
Many agencies covered by the bill are currently independent of government, and were never meant to be under ministerial control. These include the commissioners for young people and children, freedom of information, and human rights.
Last week, in evidence to Holyrood’s finance committee, the bill was criticised as heavy-handed by the Law Society of Scotland, as well as by the independent commissioners.
In further written evidence to the committee, Lord Hamilton says the bill could see ministers use a parliamentary order to axe, without its consent, the entire Scottish Court Service (SCS), which underpins the judiciary “as a third arm of government”. Given the SCS was created by a full act of parliament, “it should ... not be capable of being abolished by the power which is sought to be created by this bill”. He goes on: “I would regard it as incompatible with the constitutional position of the SCS that any modification or transfer [of powers] could occur without the consent of the SCS.”
Dr Dyer said ministers seemed hell-bent on culling public bodies. “There are dangers in an approach which is too doctrinaire and which involves some degree of political machismo, eg deciding … that the number of public bodies and the number of scrutiny bodies should be reduced by an arbitrary figure of 25%, then working out the rationale for abolishing and merging bodies afterwards.”
A Scottish government spokesman said: “There are no plans to make changes to the Scottish Court Service. We are making public services simpler, sharper and better co-ordinated.”