In the latest blog from our Legislatures in Uncertain Times conference, Anouk Berthier (Scottish Parliament) and Hugh Bochel (University of Lincoln) discuss their research into the diversity of witnesses to committees in the Scottish Parliament.
In the Scottish Parliament, as in other legislatures, committees are an important part of the parliamentary structure. The combination of executive and legislative oversight means that they play a major role in scrutinising the policies and legislation of the Scottish Government, while they are also able to hold a variety of public bodies, and indeed others, accountable for their actions, not least through gathering written and oral evidence, the publication of reports, and their access to the media. Their interaction with external actors also provides a potentially important linkage between parliament and civil society. In addition, there are clear links with the principles on which the Parliament was founded, such as power-sharing, accountability, openness, participation and equal opportunities, support for which was reiterated by the Commission on Parliamentary Reform in 2017. Committees also potentially provide one means of participation, and thus ‘presence’, in non-electoral elements of the democratic process. Understanding how they gather evidence and which voices they hear from is therefore of considerable importance for the committees themselves, Parliament and Scottish society. However, there have been concerns that the committees have been hearing from the ‘usual suspects’, and in particular those that might be categorised as professionals representing a limited range of interests and consisting largely of white, middle-class men.
From the perspective of committees, there are a number of potential benefits from accessing a diversity of voices, including in oral evidence, such as:
- hearing claims made on behalf of some groups which may not always be well represented in the legislature and providing a variety of perspectives to improve scrutiny of policy and legislation;
- benefiting from additional insights providing external challenges to policy and legislation;
- increasing the extent to which parliaments are seen to be engaging with and representative of society; and
- demonstrating a commitment to broader democracy by hearing from a wide range of voices.
In order to consider the degree of diversity of witnesses giving oral evidence to the Scottish Parliament’s committees, this research drew on analysis of data provided by the Scottish Parliament Information Centre (SPICe) on witnesses from the parliamentary years 1999-2000, 2015-16 and the first ten months of 2016-17, and 38 interviews with MSPs and parliamentary staff, as well as relevant literatures. The research focused primarily on gender diversity, but sought to note issues associated with diversity more broadly.
Over the period since its creation the Parliament’s committees appear to have seen an increase in the proportion of witnesses who are women, although there are very significant differences between committees in terms of both the number and gender of witnesses (Figures 1 and 2). Some, such as Health and Sport, Public Audit and Education and Culture committees in 2015/16, and the Equalities and Human Rights, Health and Sport and Public Audit and Post-legislative Scrutiny committees in the first ten months of 2016/17, have had women as around half or more of their witnesses; at the same time, a number of committees have had women as one-fifth or fewer of witnesses.
Figure 1: Percentages of male and female witnesses, 1999-2000, 2015-16 and 2016-17 (first ten months)
There are likely to be both ‘demand’ and ‘supply’ factors contributing to these figures. For example, it is possible to identify differences among the organisations that provide witnesses, with non-profit and NHS bodies tending to provide higher proportions of female witnesses, while the Scottish Government, trade unions, local authorities, private companies and Police Scotland tend to provide more men. However, as with other legislatures, it is also important to recognise that these figures will be skewed in different directions by other factors, such as the particular topic of inquiries, and the gender balance among ministers and senior officials.
There is also considerable reliance upon ‘representative bodies’ for the supply of witnesses, which, at least in some respects, would appear to align the Parliament more with the practices of some of the Nordic states than with Westminster, although both approaches can be seen as having their own strengths and weaknesses in terms of the voices heard.
Figure 2: Number and gender of witnesses by committee, 2015-16
Interview respondents tended to emphasise that the key issue with regard to witnesses was about enabling good scrutiny and holding the government to account, and for this, ‘it is very important to have a high-quality evidence base’, although there was perhaps less agreement about what might constitute that. Both the quality of information and hearing from a broader range of views were seen as important in contributing to scrutiny. These perspectives are not necessarily incompatible, but rather reflect different views of the paths that committees can take in seeking to undertake informed, high quality scrutiny. In addition, some interviewees emphasised that one of the purposes of having witnesses is to provide Parliament with a range of views; others noted that the selection of witnesses also matters as it can send a message to people outside Parliament about how Parliament works, what it is interested in and who it listens to.
Many interviewees suggested that there might be a tendency to call upon the ‘usual suspects’, and there was considerable support for greater engagement with other parts of Scottish society, but at the same time both officials and MSPs also highlighted important characteristics of witnesses that arguably makes the involvement of the ‘usual suspects’ more likely. For officials, these included a desire to have witnesses who could usefully inform the committee (expertise), a view that panels should generally be ‘politically balanced’ in relation to the topic, and the ability of witnesses to ‘perform’, with clerks and Members having confidence in them. In addition, ‘representing’ an issue or sector, or being seen as a key stakeholder, was seen as a valuable characteristic. However, some interviewees also questioned whether these characteristics were always the most valuable, and, for example, suggested that while senior representatives of an organisation would be able to give clear views on particular issues, they could sometimes make it harder for committees to get to know what happens on the front line.
Committees receive evidence in a number of different forms and through a variety of different paths. In addition to oral evidence, the most obvious source is written evidence, which interviewees clearly identified as vital in informing the work of the committees. But committees also utilise a variety of other forms of information gathering, including less formal activities, such as visits, breakfast meetings and the use of social media. Such initiatives were seen by interviewees as valuable for a variety of reasons: they can provide different views from those typically received in both written and oral evidence; they can therefore provide different drivers and directions for inquiries; and they can help focus Members’ minds and allow them to explore issues with those delivering and receiving services. At present, despite the perceived value of such informal mechanisms, some interviewees suggested that they do not always get sufficient prominence in reports, and indeed they are not always recorded as part of the formal evidence. There was also a recognition that such initiatives in terms of engagement and diversity have so far been rather ad hoc, with different committees trying different things, although more recently there has been a move towards better and more consistent testing and dissemination of the results and learning across committees. There was also a recognition among many of those interviewed that efforts to engage with a wider range of groups and to hear different voices may require different approaches and additional resources.
It is clearly important that witnesses and evidence make a meaningful contribution to the work of committees, and thus to parliamentary scrutiny of government. That is likely to require both expertise and input from a variety of perspectives, including from those who will be involved in implementing and who will be affected by policy and legislation. The voices sought and heard will therefore inevitably vary with the topic being considered, and it seems reasonable that committees should be able to decide which witnesses and forms of evidence are most appropriate for individual inquiries.
Nevertheless, given that there are both ‘demand’ and ‘supply’ dimensions that affect the characteristics of witnesses, there is scope to provide additional guidance to committees and organisations that might reinforce the requirements of different types of inquiry and encourage a broader reflection of Scottish society. Similarly, monitoring and publication of the characteristics of witnesses, including not only gender, but potentially other protected characteristics and age, would provide more information; similarly, recording witnesses’ home postcodes would provide an indicator of geographic spread and allow an element of linkage to socio-economic characteristics.
In addition, recording informal meetings and similar events in the reports of inquires would better reflect the nature of the evidence gathered by committees, and the range of voices being heard, while at the same time helping make clear to those who engage through such means that their voices are being heard.
Finally, of course, it is arguable that the very act of requiring those who select witnesses to think about their diversity (or otherwise), may itself encourage them to think differently, for example about the representation of particular groups, and that might in turn increase diversity further.
This blog is based on the findings of the research paper Committee Witnesses: Gender and Representation published by the Scottish Parliament on 27 February.
Anouk Berthier is a Senior Reseacher at the Scottish Parliament Information Centre (SPICe).
Hugh Bochel is Professor of Public Policy at the University of Lincoln and was held a SPICe Academic Fellowship in 2017.