Holyrood committee shake plans could encourage more backbench MSPs to be independent minded and fewer to be ‘nodding donkeys’, supporters have claimed.

Members of the standards committee are considering whether committee conveners should be elected by whole parliament rather than appointed by the party leaderships.

They are seeking the views of all 129 MSPs and have recently sent out an email to them and decision making bodies in the body including the parliamentary bureau which is made up of the political parties business managers or whips.

“The standards, procedures and appointments committee is looking into the possible introduction of a system of elected conveners for committees,” the committee’s convener Martin Whitfield told MSPs.

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“As part of that work, the committee is seeking to gather views from MSPs, the conveners group, the parliamentary bureau, the SPCB, and other political parties.”

The move comes after concerns some SNP MSPs do not sufficiently holding the Scottish Government to account - an issue noted last year by the former Cabinet minister Alex Neil who said there were too many 'nodding donkeys' in all parties in Holyrood.

Under the current system the allocation of convenerships is allocated to parties on a proportionate basis with the largest party having the most.

Individual convenerships are then given the positions by party whips and the leader - often in return for being loyal and uncritical.

But there are concerns that under this process outspoken MSPs lose out.

The Herald: Former Cabinet minister Alex Neil.    Photo Kirsty Anderson/The Herald.

Critics also argue that the existing procedure of appointing conveners also encourages backbench MSPs from the governing party to hold back on strong criticism of policies being brought in by ministers.

This in turn can mean ministers are not properly held to account by conveners intent on protecting the government, which can then lead to flaws in government legislation.

Westminster brought in a system of elected committee chairs in 2010 and since then some notable strong minded backbench MPs have come to prominence.

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They have included the Conservative MP Sir Bernard Jenkin who as chairman of the Commons privileges committee led the inquiry into whether the former Conservative Boris Johnson misled parliament over the ‘partygate’ allegations.

Mr Johnson announced his resignation as an MP in June last year after he received the committee's final report, which found that he had misled parliament.

Mr Neil, who stood down from Holyrood at the 2021 election, criticised some of his party colleagues in what he believed was insufficient scrutiny of the gender reform recognition bill.

MSPs passed the bill in December 2022 but it was then blocked by Scottish Secretary Alister Jack with the Scottish Government later losing a legal challenge against the UK Government's veto.

Mr Neil took issue with the way the bill had been examined in parliament particularly by some SNP backbenchers as he called for reforms.

“Party leaders just want yes people, they want nodding donkeys — people who will do as they’re telt”," he said at the time.

"We have very few people in the parliament, in any of the parties, who (are) prepared to stand up and act independently of their party leadership."

The former Airdie and Shotts MSP praised SNP and other MSPs who spoke out against their party lines during the highly-charged parly debate on gender self-ID laws last month.

He said: “I think any parliament worthy of the name has to encourage people who are dissenting voices, they’ve got to be given their view.

“It was good to see the nine people being prepared to defy the whip on the Gender Recognition Reform Bill. I’m not saying I agree with their argument.

“What I am saying is they at least had the guts to stand up for their principles. There aren’t enough people like that in either parliament — Holyrood or Westminster — Too many careerists.”

Mr Neil a cabinet minister under both Alex Salmond and Nicola Sturgeon, also called for an axing of the practice where party whips hand lists of speakers to Holyrood’s Presiding Officer, determining which politicians speak and when.

He said: “I would like to see the Presiding Officer tell the party whips to put them [the lists] where the sun don’t shine and tell them that the Presiding Officer will decide who will speak, when they will speak and how long they’ll speak for.

“And it’s the job of the Presiding Officer to ensure that everybody, even those who have fallen out with their party leadership, get a fair crack of the whip.”

James Mitchell, pictured below, professor of public policy at Edinburgh University, said having elected conveners should encourage more independence of mind among backbench MSPs.

He said the change in role would also offer ambitious MSPs an alternative way of having major influence over policy and an alternative career path from that of becoming a minister.

The Herald:

He also suggested an additional payment could be given to the elected committee conveners to take account of their beefed up responsibilities which would see them accountable to parliament and not their party.

Asked by the Herald if having elected conveners would encourage more MSPs to be independent minded and not "nodding donkeys", he said: "Absolutely.  That has been the experience in the Commons.  In essence, what we need and elected convenors would contribute towards is a system in which MSPs would have an alternative way to increasing influence without having to become a minister. 

"At the moment the most direct way to influence policy is to become a minister.  Backbenchers are fairly powerless but creating an alternative source of authority, not dependent on demonstrating fealty to the leader to gain promotion to the front bench, would be a positive development. 

"This would help redress the existing imbalance in government/parliament relations.  It should encourage many MSPs to be more independent.  It would make sense to offer an additional allowance to serving elected convenors, though not as much as paid to ministers."

Professor Mitchell added that having elected committee conveners should strengthen parliament's ability to hold the government of the day to account.

"The founders of the Scottish Parliament envisaged a strong committee system as a key element in achieving a better balance in the relationship between the government and Parliament compared with the then experience in the Commons," he said.

"That has simply not happened. Elected Chairs of Commons’ Select Committees introduced elected chairs in 2010.  This has helped rebalance the executive/legislature relationship. 

"Scotland is lagging behind. There are issues that would need to be addressed though can be overcome.  The most important would be to avoid whipping and the leadership to continue to decide who should be convenors.  Lessons can be learned from the Commons in this respect."

He added: "Elected conveners would become accountable to those who elect them.  Conveners appointed in the current way are accountable to those who appoint them. 

"With necessary safeguards in place to avoid whipping and leadership control, not too difficult as the Commons has shown, then the new elected conveners would be able to be more independent of leaders.  This would not affect all MSPs but with their own mandate, elected conveners would be in a stronger position."

Former first ministers Henry McLeish and Jack McConnell called in 2017 for committee conveners to be elected by backbenchers.

They made the case to the Scottish Parliament’s Commission on Parliamentary Reform.

Lord McConnell said at the time committees were becoming  “more and more partisan”.

Professor Mitchell said he had previously made representatives to Holyrood calling for committee conveners to be elected appearing before the convenors’ group to make the case for reform in 2009.

He added that he had written a paper to the Standards, Procedures and Public Appointments Committee in February 2015 backing the move.

The 12 committee chairs of the Welsh Parliament are elected in a secret ballot. Nominees for chair can only be from the political group that’s been allocated that committee.

A Scottish Parliament Spokesperson said: “Part of the Committee’s role is to look at how the Parliament operates, this includes considering changes such as elected conveners. This work is currently on going and the Committee will make its findings public in due course.”