15 February 2010

Holyrood's Health 2 Committee...

So, there we have it. The Health and Sport committee won’t be summing up the End of Life Assistance (Scotland) Bill. Or will it? After the vote confirming the parliamentary bureau’s divided decision to set up a new, ad hoc committee to scrutinise the Bill on the 10th, committee memberships were proposed by the respective parties. The SNP tribunes, hostile to the ad hoc wheeze, defeatedly sneaked in their nominations during the Thursday session of the 11th of February. Wondering who would likely serve, I took to gently ransacking the parliamentary record, the press having failed to do my collating work for me. There is something rather striking about the confirmed list of commissioners which I discovered.

As an aside, I’m not terrifically happy with the name. Catchily baptised the ‘End of Life Assistance (Scotland) Bill Committee’, this is a thing of mortal dread and head-stopping boredom to rattle off the keyboard every time. If I was Sarah Palin, I’d warm to mortuary theme and call it the ‘death panel’. Given the gravity of its business – and lest I be accused of lodging baseless allegations about partiality in their ranks – I can’t go down that road. For brevity, therefore, I’ve decided to call them the ‘Assisted Dying Committee’ throughout. But back to our personnel. Finnie bristling authoritatively in the front rank, his five firm-fetlocked privates are as follows:

Convenor Ross Finnie (LD)
Michael Matheson (SNP)
Ian McKee (SNP)
Helen Eadie (Lab)
Nanette Milne (Con)
Cathy Peattie (Lab)

Compare this with the Health and Sport Committee, who Unionista Holyrood business managers determined couldn’t review the legislative material, whether on the grounds of its ‘moral content’, an argument about the wealth (i.e. not just health) of issues engaged by the Bill, or because of some spurious ad hominem against Grahame or MacDonald for that matter:

Convenor Christine Grahame (SNP)
Dept Convenor Ross Finnie (LD)
Helen Eadie (Lab)
Rhoda Grant (Lab)
Michael Matheson (SNP)
Ian McKee (SNP)
Richard Simpson (Lab)
Mary Scanlon (Con)

I’ve heard it persuasively argued that pattern-recognition and systematising of knowledge is a feature of the human brain. Pray, can you detect any eye-smiting similarities here? The Assisted Dying committee’s obvious primary difference is a thinned number of ranks. While the Health Committee numbers eight parliamentarians, the ad hoc is numbered two shyer, at six. That aside, continuity is conspicuous. No less than four of the six folk drafted currently serve on the Health Committee. Milne served on the equivalent committee in the parliament’s second session, from February 2005 to April 2007.

You might well argue – this is predictable enough from the SNP, who gloomily underline their point even in defeat by sending two of their healthmen out to bat. But what of Eadie and Finnie? From perusing her page at the parliament, I gather that Nanette Milne qualified as a Doctor in the 1960s, but lapsed to look after her children, and in her own words “worked part-time in cancer related research”. Peattie alone seems a mysterious choice, not sent to the committee either by dint of her background in the health professions or membership of the health committee. There may be a dynamic at work which escapes me, here. I’d be delighted to be illuminated as to why she might have been plucked from the Labour positions. So, we’ve functionally achieved an anti-health committee, stacked with members of the health committee and health professionals. Spiffy. On reflection, maybe I shouldn’t have dedicated myself so soon to the shorthand title of ‘Assisted Dying Committee’. From the foregoing, Health 2 Committee, as was the style in the last parliament, could serve us just as well and just as accurately. At which point, I wanted to stir a little fly into the parliamentary ointment. But first, an apt quote from Margo’s roaring dissent on the 10th of February.

“That I believe that the balance of opinion is probably against the bill is of no import, but it is very important that the committee's composition should result in balanced scrutiny. That is relevant because, with such a bill, on which members will have a free vote that they will cast according to conscience, the expected outcome is not a report signed off in the committee's name that has the support of the majority of members but an in-depth summary of the information that the committee's investigation has uncovered, which will be presented to MSPs as a neutral document, not as a recommendation.” 11th February Official Report at Col 23700

Although I appreciate the work of doctors and allied health professionals – I’ve never found them to be amongst the most erudite or lucid sections of society. This makes perfect sense on one level – if you’ve got your head buried in septic colons or ulcerous bladders, you won’t be attending to your philosophical studies or musing critically and systematically on the existential travails of the human spirit and its seeking after knowledge. You won’t have time. Even opening another book may seem a terrible chore. Crawling inside a bottle may become your only recreation. Not that I wish to suggest, in some crass generalisation, that those with medical backgrounds are any more incapable than any other cretin of thinking cogently about matters of autonomy, sacral or ungodly arguments about the sanctity of life, or ethics, or the implications for the administration of justice (to whit, Eadie is standing or sitting rebuttal, depending on her posture). Merely that their health credentials may be of more imagined usefulness that real tools to excavate ourselves from the moral, ethical and practical complexities surrounding the End of Life Assistance (Scotland) Bill. For now, I’m willing to suspend judgement and see how the six souls selected perform.


  1. I believe that Peattie's position on the committee may be down to rule-wrangling. MSPs may only sit on a certain number of committees at a time (I believe at present it's two) and they must resign from a committee if they want to move to another one.

    In this case, I suspect Peattie has been put forward because Labour don't want to lose a more valuable place on another committee by sending someone else.

    Of course, I could be doing Ms Peattie a great dis-service with this suggestion. She may be there to represent voluntary sector or equality interests, as laid out in her constituency website (http://cathypeattie.wordpress.com/info/cathypeattiemsp/).

  2. That sounds perfectly plausible Hythlodaeus - though as you say, hardly a glowing tribute to the virtues of Ms Peattie!

    That said, my understanding of how committee resignations are handled (without dipping into the Standing Orders, I haven't the heart...) is that the MSP's party names their replacement. Hence, when Paul Martin fled the Justice Committee, Scotland was gifted the sagacious James Kelly in his place. In this respect, who was available for the Health 2 Committee presumably depended on how happy the individual MSP was to give up their place on one of the standing committees for a moonlight round on an occasional body.

    One wonders, just a little cheekily, whether Labour had to tout around and received a few first refusals before nominating as they did...

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