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Welcome move to reassert committees

So Alex Salmond is "honoured" to be the "first First Minister" to go before committee conveners to answer questions about his new legislative programme.

Come September, Mr Salmond will be questioned in public by a new super-committee made up of the chairs of each individual committee in Parliament, something he described as "a very important step forward" for the committee conveners.

Those who have long suspected the Government party of trying to limit committee power – especially the power to hold inquiries that might prove embarrassing for ministers – will no doubt raise an eyebrow at those words. They have won the point. The head of the executive being grilled by the chief scrutineers of the legislative body has symbolic importance. The new supercommittee session is a highly visible reminder that committees matter. They are one of the essential checks and balances in Scotland's unicameral system and if they do not function as they should in holding the Government to account, then democracy suffers.

The presiding officer Tricia Marwick, herself a former SNP parliamentarian, deserves credit for recognising the need to reassert the committees' clout.

The hope now must be that, with the symbolic status of committees in the parliamentary system restated, they are reinvigorated as the vital forums for open criticism and dissent that they should be in a health democracy.

MSPs are expected while in committee to put their party affiliations to one side as far as possible, but there have long been rumblings of discontent among opposition MSPs about the failure of SNP-dominated committees to hold the Government to account.

In the midst of the confusion last summer over whether an independent Scotland would automatically become a member of the European Union, as the SNP claimed, or whether it would have to apply for membership, it would have been legitimate for the European committee to investigate the matter. No wonder Labour members were angered when their calls for an inquiry were refused.

Anxiety that committees were being effectively muzzled reached new heights earlier this week when three key sections were introduced to the Aquaculture and Fisheries Bill at stage three, meaning there was no opportunity for committee examination. Conservative MSP Alex Fergusson, himself a former presiding officer, regarded it as setting a "dangerous" precedent. It may seem an arcane point, but it is anything but: committees test legislation, calling expert witnesses and stakeholders to assist them in their task. Without that test, bad legislation can result.

The public nature of the new supercommittee evidence sessions with the First Minister can only be a good thing. Any committee convener of the Government party who might feel inclined to bowl the First Minister an easy ball would have to do so under the sceptical, searching gaze of the public and the media.

Committees are one of the pillars of the Holyrood system; if they start to crumble, then democracy could go awry. This initiative shows a desire, emanating from Holyrood itself, to flex parliamentary muscle.

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Local government

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