Holyrood's finance committee today began to take evidence for its inquiry looking into the role, cost and plans to expand the number of commissioners.
The cross body committee, which sits under the convenership of SNP MSP Kenneth Gibson, announced the probe at the end of last year. It will hold a second evidence session next week before publishing its report in May or June. 

What are commissioners and what do they do?
A commissioner is usually created to give under-represented groups a voice or to focus on a particular issue. A Scottish Government report on their role, published in May last year, stated: "Parliamentary commissioners and ombudsmen are typically responsible for safeguarding the rights of individuals, monitoring and reporting on the handling of complaints about public bodies, providing an adjudicatory role in disputes and reporting on the activities and conduct of public boards and their members."

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Commissioners can focus on under-represented groups – like children, older people, women, victims of crime or disabled people – or a particular issue – like domestic abuse, social mobility and disadvantage, biometrics, ethical standards or health. In Scotland there is a range of commissioners. However, there is very little published research on the subject and no handbook or blueprint within government for designing the role.

A commissioner is an individual who advocates for a certain group, generally supported by a team of staff. These are very individual roles, and the individual appointed can make quite a difference to how the role is undertaken.

Examples of a single commissioner role in Scotland include the Children and Young People's Commissioner Scotland, the Scottish Information Commissioner and the Scottish Biometrics Commissioner. Each commissioner has a staff team supporting them.

The roles and responsibilities of commissioners are generally set out in the law, and the powers commissions have can vary.

Commissioners function independently of the government, and can hold the government to account. They are generally appointed by the Scottish Parliament. Commissioners are generally appointed for a set time period (usually 3-5 years) and there are normally rules about how many terms they can serve as commissioner.
Commissioners are responsible for employing their own staff, who are not civil servants, and managing their own budgets from funding provided by the Scottish Parliament.

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There are currently seven commissioners with an eighth - a patient safety commissioner - agreed to by Parliament last year.

The existing ones are:

  1. Commissioner for Ethical Standards in Public Life in Scotland
  2. Scottish Biometrics Commissioner
  3. Scottish Commissioner for Children and Young People
  4. Scottish Human Rights Commission
  5. Scottish Information Commissioner
  6. Scottish Public Services Ombudsman
  7. Standards Commission for Scotland

How much do they cost a year?
The office of the seven commissioners in Scotland cost the public purse a total of £16.6m in 2023-24 and this sum is forecast to rise to £18.4million in 2024/25. With plans to double the number to commissioners to 14 by the end of this five year parliamentary term this cost will rise further.

What are the plans for the future?
A Scottish Government Bill is going through Parliament that would establish a Victims and Witnesses Commissioner.

Draft proposals for Members Bills could see the following three created:

  1. A Disability Commissioner
  2. Older People’s Commissioner
  3. Wellbeing and Sustainable Development Commissioner.

The Scottish Government is also considering creating: A Future Generations Commissioner and Learning Disability, Autism and Neurodiversity Commissioner 

Why is the finance committee holding an inquiry and what will it examine?
The remit of the probe is as follows:

  • To foster greater understanding of how the Commissioner landscape in Scotland has evolved since devolution
  • To enhance clarity around the role, and different types, of Commissioners and their relationships with government and parliament
  • To establish the extent to which a more coherent and strategic approach to the creation and development of Commissioners in Scotland is needed and how this might be achieved
  • To provide greater transparency to how the governance, accountability, budget-setting, and scrutiny arrangements work in practice, and whether any improvements are required
  • To identify where any lessons might be learned from international Commissioner models
  • The inquiry will not be considering the overall public body landscape nor make recommendations on the merits or otherwise of individual Commissioners.

What concerns have been raised to date about the plans to expand the number of commissioners?

Gina Wilson, head of strategy at the children and young people’s commissioner for Scotland, said the “proliferation of commissioners’ offices will be a costly exercise and may not provide good value for money for taxpayers, especially if there are multiple bodies tasked with intervening on similar or identical matters”.

In a new submission to the committee, Ms Wilson said: “Currently, a range of proposed new commissioners have been tabled. There is little evidence of coherence to the approach. There is also little evidence of consideration about how new commissioners would work together or be resourced.”

She added: “There is a further risk of scope creep and competition between commissioners — deliberate or unintentional ‘power grabs’. It will be important to establish boundaries and ways of working, or you risk threatening the ability of the offices that exist to carry out their functions properly.”

What does the Scottish Government say?
In a letter to the finance committee sent last month Deputy First Minister Shona Robison noted that the Scottish Government’s Ministerial Control Framework (MCF) "aims to ensure that decisions around the creation of new public bodies are made based on evidence and value for money against the backdrop of significant pressure on public spending".

She said the MCF includes the following three principles:

  1. The Scottish Government’s policy is that any new public body should only be set up as a last resort
  2. Only after consideration of all other delivery mechanisms has been exhausted, should the approval process for setting up a new public body through the MCF be followed
  3. Approval for setting up a new public body must be sought formally from Cabinet before any decision or announcement is made.