1 June 2011

Holyrood's new Justice Committee...

Dawn is, I find, a friend of the Muses. I don't know which of those nine benevolent and inspiring spirits stoops her watch over bloggers, dispensing their inspiration and frustration by fickle turns. In my case, however, my creative mornings have been snatched away from me for the next couple of weeks. Anticipate fairly limited bloggery by consequence. 

However, I do want briefly to mark the fact that Holyrood has just agreed on the constitution of its Committees for the fourth Scottish Parliament. As longterm readers will know, I tend to take a particular interest in the work, deliberations and evidence laid before Holyrood's Justice Committee. Since many of its personnel are likely to be with us - and potentially winding me up - for the coming half decade, it is worth taking a wee moment to remark on these tribunes and their backgrounds. 

On a broader level, the Justice Committee has been subject to change in a number of particulars. Most strikingly, very few members of the 2007 Committee return, with plenty of new faces and folk to be contending with. From the SNP, who will convene the Committee, we have five of nine members, including Christine Grahame, Roderick Campbell, John Finnie, Colin Keir and young Humza Yousaf. From Labour, who will furnish the band with their Deputy Convenor, James Kelly and Graeme Pearson. The Tories have put up John Lamont. And finally, like the coelacanth, presumed extinct but showing some signs of life, the Liberal Democrat rump has put forward North East list MSP Alison McInnes, who has the unenviable task of being the party's spokesperson on health and justice.

A word on experience. Five of these MSPs entered Holyrood for the first time in 2011, four from the SNP and one for Labour. In the last session, Labour Member James Kelly sat on the Committee between 5 November 2009-22 March 2011 while John Lamont was the Tory substitute member, briefly (24 February 2011-22 March 2011) taking over from the now-retired Baillie Bill Aitken as Convenor of the Committee, after the latter resigned over remarks made about a rape in Glasgow city centre. Robert Brown was ranked second on the Glasgow regional list for the Liberals in the recent election, effectively deselecting him from any chance of retaining office. His party colleague Katy Gordon's priority placing didn't do her much good either, however, the Liberals losing and losing badly on the regional ballot there, returning no member.  Other past and now departed members from the last session include Labourites who lost their seats - Bill Butler, foiled by seven votes in Glasgow Anniesland and Cathy Craigie (with the best will in the world, a fearful dunce) who was handily kicked out of Cumbernauld and Kilsyth. Angela Constance left the Committee on becoming a minister late in the last session, the SNP's Stewart Maxwell entered it having lost his ministerial job, but recovers neither membership nor ministry this time around. Similarly, the SNP's Nigel Don does not return for a second stint at Justice. While some of these folk are certainly losses to the parliament's scrutiny of Justice measures, others certainly are not. So what might the new boys and girls bring?

In terms of experience, several of these folk have legal backgrounds of some stripe. Christine Grahame has a degree in Scots Law and practised as a solicitor for a time and is known for her interest in the Lockerbie Case. Roderick Campbell is a qualified advocate, albeit called to the Scottish Bar fairly recently, in 2008.  With a particular interest in the law of professional negligence and an Master of Laws in human rights, according to his professional biography, Campbell spent 18 years in a London-based law firm before donning his wig and gown - and exchanging those for the politician's suit. As his shortbread tin accent might imply, the young but twee John Lamont also qualified in law at the University of Glasgow, working as a solicitor before being elected. Labour's Graeme Pearson presents a more interesting novelty for the parliament and committee, having worked as a police officer since he was nineteen years of age, rising to the position of director general of the Scottish Crime and Drug Enforcement Agency in 2004 before quitting in 2007. Similarly, the SNP's John Finnie, while most recently Leader of the SNP Group on Highland Council, "served as a police officer for 30 years, the last fourteen as an elected full-time official of the Scottish Police Federation".

It is terribly important, however, the justice not turn into a lawyer's (or as a novelty, a polisman's) fief. Although too often overlooked, we should remember that the Justice Committee does far more than scrutinise criminal matters, the drafting of new offences or the state's enforcement mechanisms. Although the Justice section of the SNP manifesto clearly privileged "law and order" aspects of the broad portfolio, these folk will have to scrutinise a range of proposals in the field, including some tricky civil matters, in the coming term. The remaining four members of the Committee, best I've been able to discern, have no especial background in law or its enforcement. Alison McInnes and Colin Keir are former cooncillors. Humza Yousaf, still in his middle twenties, studied Politics at the  University of Glasgow - and I dare say hasn't had time to accumulate much legal experience in his short life. As I noted, James Kelly served in the Justice Committee for part of the last session - and on the basis of the parliamentary motion, either he or Pearson will be deputy to the SNP's Christine Grahame in this session, assuming widely reported predictions of her installation are fulfilled.

I must admit to being slightly dismayed that James Kelly continues to serve, not out of especial animus against the fellow. To your average punter, unobsessed by the inner workings of Holyrood's deliberative organs, Kelly is an unknown figure. For anyone, however, who has been forced or forced themselves to sit through any of his perorations, his voice is like a particularly cruel form of anaesthetic. Its lifeless monotone leeches away all sprightliness and vitality, sapping interest and attention, robbing his words of any force - but is insufficiently mighty completely to conk you out.  Cruelty to innocent peat worriers. Surely it would bring a tear to a glass eye! Since we can expect this Committee to scrutinise the SNP's highly problematic anti-sectarianism proposals - and ridiculously, the Government propose to afford them less than a month to think about them - the Committee's new members will have plenty to amuse themselves with in short order. They will also find their scrutiny scrutinised, not least by yours truly. I wish them luck. Not least because they'll be in fearful need of it...


  1. Yes, Kelly is a phenomenally dull ember in the funeral pyre of boredom.

    I listened to his opening speech this evening (some of it, as much as I could), an entirely forgettable experience that still does lasting damage to the psyche.

    There should be government health warning displayed on the bottom half of the screen when he gets up to drone.

    "Viewers listen at their own risk, the Scottish government accepts no responsibility for brain cell death caused by the present speaker's discourse".

    And thus he is able to do his work.

  2. Jeez, this is getting a bit personal. In all honesty, I didn't even know I was on the Justice Committee.

  3. James,

    I understand you'll be participating in the workings of the Committee from the House of Lords, to get around your pesky unelected status. Hope you've got an ermine-lined anorak, to suit.