4. COMMITTEE MEETINGS
Committee work programmes
4.1. Under Rule 12.3.1 it is for each committee to agree its own programme of work. In practice, most committees plan their work programmes for at least six months ahead and sometimes for twelve months ahead.
4.2. To consider what should be included in a committee work programme, committee members often find it useful to get together informally towards the end of the summer recess. Members can make an assessment of the likely workload as a result of Bills, subordinate legislation, European legislation and petitions as well as the time needed to scrutinise the Scottish Government budget. They can also assess the time that is likely to be available to undertake committee inquiries and give consideration to possible topics for inquiries.
4.3. Topics for inquiries can be generated by committee members themselves, other MSPs, stakeholder/interest groups and members of the public as well as arising from briefing papers prepared by Parliamentary staff. Work programmes agreed by committees in this way require to be flexible and are reviewed during the year to take account of changing priorities and the political climate. A work programme may, for example, require refinement following the First Minister’s statement on the Scottish Government’s legislative programme which normally occurs in September, and may need further adjustment on the introduction of a Bill, when a timetable for completion at Stage 1 and Stage 2 will be agreed with the Bureau.
4.4. Although the initial discussions of committee work programmes may take place in an informal setting, the work programme is then agreed by each committee in a committee meeting.
4.5. Under Rule 12.3.1 it is for a committee to decide the dates and times of its meetings. The frequency of committee meetings is determined by a committee’s work programme but it is normal for a committee to meet either weekly or fortnightly. From time to time, committees require to meet more than once a week if the work programme so demands. Also under Rule 12.3.1, the agenda for each meeting is set by the convener with the assistance of the clerk, who notifies members by publishing the agenda in the Business Bulletin14. In general, agendas are available the preceding Thursday for committees meeting on a Tuesday, the preceding Friday for committees meeting on a Wednesday and the preceding Monday for committees meeting on a Thursday. The committee clerks also send copies of the agenda and papers to members of the committee concerned.
4.6. The agenda gives details of the time and venue of the meeting.
4.7. Under Rule 5.5.1 the agenda published in the Business Bulletin must give details of the business to be considered. As a result, any changes to the agenda can only be made if there is still time available to publish an amended agenda.
4.8. To ensure that both committee members and members of the public get proper notice of the business to be considered, items on agendas are specific about the business to be taken and items such as “matters arising” and “any other business” do not appear.
4.9. The Business Bulletin and committee web-pages also contain information about forthcoming business expected to be taken at subsequent meetings of committees.
Timing and location of meetings
4.10. Committees can meet on any day, whether a sitting day or not, although standing orders (Rule 12.3.3) provide that committee meetings shall “not normally” be held in the Parliamentary recesses. In practice, it is extremely unusual for committee meetings to be held during Parliamentary recesses.
4.11. Rule 12.3.3A provides that committees cannot meet when the Parliament is meeting although they can meet when a meeting of the Parliament is suspended or has been adjourned. In practice this means that committees can meet, if necessary, when the Parliament has been suspended for a lunch break. This does not happen frequently but can be useful if a short additional meeting is needed, for example to finalise a report when time is of the essence. It is still necessary to comply with the formalities of publishing the agenda in the Business Bulletin.
4.12. Committees normally meet on Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday mornings. The Conveners Group agrees an outline timetable of meetings allocating each committee a regular half day slot. The outline timetable takes account of members’ other commitments such as membership of the Scottish Parliamentary Corporate Body (SPCB) or the Parliamentary Bureau or membership of more than one committee.
4.13. Within this framework, committees can, if need be, schedule additional meetings when required, for example, to meet the timetable agreed with the Parliamentary Bureau for consideration of Stage 1 or Stage 2 of a Bill, although regard must be had to the availability of accommodation and resources.
4.14. Committees can meet anywhere in Scotland, with the approval of the Parliamentary Bureau and the Conveners Group (Rule 12.3.2). Meetings outside Edinburgh provide a valuable opportunity for people from different parts of Scotland to attend parliamentary proceedings – the Finance Committee, for example met in Cupar when taking evidence as part of its scrutiny of the budget in 2004. Members find it particularly useful to hold meetings outside Edinburgh where topics under consideration have a local interest. For example, the Education Committee met in Skye when carrying out its inquiry at Stage 1 of the Gaelic Language (Scotland) Bill 2004.
4.15. Committees cannot hold meetings which are part of the proceedings of the Parliament in venues outside Scotland. Members of committees may, in certain circumstances, travel abroad in connection with the work of the committees but these visits are for the purpose of fact finding or to undertake case studies. As these visits do not form part of the proceedings of the Parliament, the provisions of section 41 of the Scotland Act 1998 do not apply15.
Public and private meetings
4.16. Rule 12.3.4 provides that committee meetings shall be held in public except where a committee decides, under Rule 12.3.5, to hold all or part of a meeting in private. That rule, however, goes on to provide that a committee cannot agree to meet in private when it is considering proposals for legislation (whether before the Scottish or UK Parliament) or EC legislation, international conventions or proposals for law reform – although committees can decide to take evidence in connection with these matters, if appropriate, in private. The Presiding Officer has also ruled (4 September 2002) that committees can consider draft Stage 1 reports on Bills in private.
4.17. It is good practice not to leave a decision to meet in private to the day on which the item is scheduled to be taken. Taking such a decision in advance allows proper notice to be given to all interested parties and avoids members of the public turning up to hear an item, only to find the committee agreeing to take it in private. If a decision has been taken at an earlier meeting, then the agenda item for the business concerned will clearly indicate that the agenda item will be taken “in private”.
4.18. When a committee is considering an item of business in private, the effect of Rule 12.2.2 is that only committee members (including substitutes), support staff and any witnesses from whom evidence is being taken in private can remain in the room. Everyone else, including other MSPs who are not members of the committee, will be asked to leave. However, Rule 12.2.3 provides an exception in relation to the situation where a committee is taking evidence in private on a Bill when, in addition to committee members, the member in charge of the Bill and, for non-Executive Bills, the relevant minister may attend and participate.
4.19. When a committee is meeting in private, its proceedings are not broadcast and, unless the Parliament has directed otherwise, there is no Official Report of its deliberations (Rule 16.5.2). However, the committee minutes record the business taken and any decisions reached during the private as well as the public items16.
4.20. Where committee meetings are held in private, the papers considered and the detail of the committee discussions remain confidential and are covered by section 9.4 of the Code of Conduct for Members. Under that code it is a breach for any member to circulate, show or transmit any such material to any other person or body, including to other MSPs who are not members of the committee or to the Scottish Government.
4.21. Committees have taken items in private where they wish to discuss confidential material in connection with a third party (for example individual claims for witness expenses or shortlists of committee advisers). Committees have also met in private to take oral evidence or to consider written evidence of a particularly sensitive nature (for example evidence involving commercial confidentiality or evidence from vulnerable or intimidated people). Committees have also met in private to discuss draft reports when they have considered that this will facilitate the achievement of consensus and prevent media focus on preliminary conclusions which may not feature in the final report. Each decision to meet in private has, however, to be taken based on the facts and circumstances of the particular item of business.
Participation in committee meetings
4.22. The general rule is that only members have the right to participate in the proceedings of the Parliament, which includes proceedings in committees. This stems from an interpretation of the Scotland Act 1998 in which provision is made in section 27 for the Lord Advocate or Solicitor General to participate in the proceedings of the Parliament if they are not members of the Parliament. It therefore follows that, in the absence of any further such special provision, participation in the proceedings is otherwise restricted to members.
4.23. Rule 12.2.2 and Rule 12.2.3 contain provisions which apply specifically to participation in the proceedings of committees. Rule 12.2.2 allows any MSP to attend committee meetings held in public and participate with the convener’s permission, but not to vote. In practice it is relatively unusual for members to attend meetings in this way although, where they do, it has been the practice for conveners to allow them to participate in the committee’s consideration of business.
4.24. When a committee is considering a Bill, Rule 12.2.3 gives the member in charge of the Bill and, in the case of a non-Executive Bill, the relevant minister or deputy minister the right to participate in committee proceedings, but not to vote.
4.25. Witnesses attend committee meetings for the purpose of giving evidence (Rule 12.4.1)17.
4.26. Staff and advisers attend committee meetings to provide advice or clarification if requested to do so by the convener18.
The role of the convener in meetings19.
4.27. A convener convenes and chairs meetings of a committee, ensuring that the procedural requirements are fulfilled.
4.28. The convener is responsible for ensuring that the published agenda is followed, for keeping order in committee meetings and for calling members and witnesses to speak. Conveners facilitate debate in the committee and, where possible, allow the committee to reach a consensus view, whilst acknowledging that there will be differences between members.
4.29. The convener also has a role as a full member of the committee and, on occasions, may be the sole representative of his or her party on the committee. Accordingly, in addition to chairing the meeting conveners also participate fully in committee meetings by, for example, asking questions of witnesses, expressing opinions on matters under discussion and voting as an individual in the event of a division.
Declaration of interests
4.30. A member must make a declaration of interests at committee meetings wherever the requirements of section 13 of the Interests of Members of the Scottish Parliament Act 2006 apply. If a member is uncertain as to whether a declaration is required, he or she can consult the clerks to the Standards, Procedures and Public Appointments Committee or his or her own legal advisers. Responsibility for complying with the rules on declarations of interest, however, lies with the individual member.
4.31. It has been established as good practice for members to declare interests relevant to the remit of a committee at its first meeting, irrespective of the business before the committee at that meeting. Members attending a committee as a substitute member should also declare interests relevant to the remit of that committee at the first meeting of the committee they attend or on the first occasion on which they address the committee, irrespective of the business before the committee at that meeting.
4.32. Thereafter, a declaration of interest must be made at each committee meeting where a relevant subject is on the agenda and a member participates, other than by simply attending or voting.
4.33. The declaration should be made at the start of the relevant agenda item (or as soon as possible thereafter) and, in any event, before the member participates in the proceedings.
4.34. The declaration must be made whether the meeting is in public or in private. It is good practice to make the declaration in public, even if it has already been made in private. It is also good practice to ensure that witnesses are aware of the declaration, if it has been made earlier in the meeting.
4.35. Also, as a matter of good practice, members should declare any business or personal relationships they have with witnesses or advisers to a committee. In the case of a witness, this should be done before the witness gives evidence. In the case of an adviser, the member should advise the clerk to the committee at the stage that the person concerned is being considered for appointment, so that this can be drawn to the attention of other members. If the committee subsequently decides to appoint the person as an adviser, there is no need to make a further declaration.
4.36. The quorum is the minimum number of members required to allow a committee to commence an item of business. Under Rule 12.2.1, a committee shall not commence consideration of any business or vote if the number of committee members present (including the convener) is fewer than three. The effect of this is that if attendance falls below three members during the course of a meeting, the committee can conclude the item of business under consideration, but the committee cannot vote on that item and cannot commence another item of business.
4.37. A member may be present at a committee, count towards the quorum and participate fully by means of video conference.
Conduct during committee meetings
4.38. Although proceedings in committees tend to be less formal than in the Chamber, it is important that order is maintained not only out of respect for the Parliament but also to ensure that an accurate Official Reportcan be produced of the proceedings and that committee members, witnesses and the public gallery can keep track of the proceedings.
4.39. Under Rule 7.2, a member should speak only when called upon to do so by the convener. A member who has been called upon to speak should not be interrupted by any other committee member except the convener. The convener is entitled to enforce time limits on members’ speeches, although this is relatively unusual as committee meetings rarely involve formal debates.
4.40. During committee meetings, the convener is generally referred to by title although he or she can be addressed by name if he or she wishes. Members normally address each other by name rather than by their title. It is not uncommon in committee meetings for members to use first names. However, when that happens it is helpful if a member’s full name can be used on at least the first occasion, to help identification by all present, particularly those with sight disabilities or listening to a sound broadcast. Members and witnesses remain seated during committee proceedings (unlike in the Chamber where members stand to speak).
4.41. If the convener considers that business is being disrupted by the behaviour or conduct of a member, the convener will ask the member to desist. Ultimately, the convener has the authority under Rule 7.3.3 to order a member to leave the meeting and to exclude him or her for the rest of that meeting (or any other meeting held on the next following sitting day).
4.42. The convener cannot exclude a member from subsequent meetings of the committee although this can occur if a decision is taken by the Parliament on a motion of the Parliamentary Bureau.
4.43. Under Rule 7.5, a member may not make reference in a committee meeting to any matter in which legal proceedings are active (as defined in section 2 of the Contempt of Court Act 1981), unless special permission has been received from the Presiding Officer. If a member raises an issue without the Presiding Officer’s permission which, in the view of the convener is, or may be, sub judice the convener will order the member to stop.
4.44. The Presiding Officer issued guidance on the matter of parliamentary privilege in August 1999 and the text of his announcement can be found in Business Bulletin 38/1999 . It is strongly recommended that anyone seeking information on privilege in the Scottish Parliament read this guidance in full.
4.45. In the Scottish Parliament, any “privilege” is conferred by or under the Scotland Act 1998.
4.46. Section 41 of the Scotland Act 1998 provides that for the purposes of the law of defamation, any statement made in “proceedings of the Parliament” (which includes proceedings in the committees) and the publication under the authority of the Parliament of any statement is absolutely privileged. This means that such statements cannot form the basis of an action of defamation. “Statement” in this context means “words, pictures, visual images, gestures or any other method of signifying meaning”. Accordingly, this protection applies to any statements made in public or private meetings of a committee and any committee reports, including written evidence published in or as an annex to a committee report.
4.47. It is, however, important to note that the protection applies only to statements made in the proceedings of the Parliament and publications under the authority of the Parliament. The effect of this is that privilege does not attach to statements made when a member is undertaking any activities such as a fact-finding trip or a case study visit which is not a committee meeting convened under Standing Orders. It also means that any written material published on a committee’s webpage, such as written evidence, which is not published as a committee report under the authority of the Parliament, is not covered by privilege.
4.48. It is also important to note that the protection provided by section 41 relates only to the law of defamation. It does not shield members from the operation of the law in relation to other matters, for example incitement to racial hatred.
Decisions and voting
4.49. In general, under Rule 11.8.1, it is for the convener to decide the time at which members will take a decision on any item of business. The exception to this is in connection with amendments to Bills where the convener is obliged to put the question immediately after the amendment is debated (or immediately after the amendment has been moved, if the amendment has already been debated) (see Rule 11.8.2).
4.50. In practice, committees take many decisions by consensus without the need for a division20. Where consensus is not arrived at and a division is necessary, members vote by show of hands unless a member has requested a roll call vote and the convener has agreed to that request (Rule 11.8.3).
4.51 In the event of a division
only members of the committee (including substitutes attending in that capacity) can vote;
members can only vote once on any question;
members may vote yes, no, or to abstain, although they do not have to vote;
the convener may vote as an individual and must also exercise a casting vote in the event of a tie.
4.52. In a roll call vote, the convener or the committee clerk will call the names of the committee members in alphabetical order and each member may answer “yes”, “no”, “abstain”, or not vote.
4.53. Decisions are taken by a simple majority unless Standing Orders or any other enactment specify that an absolute majority is needed (Rule 11.11). A simple majority for an outcome means that, if there is a division, more members present vote for that outcome than against and no account is taken of members who abstain. An absolute majority for an outcome means that more than half the total of committee members (as opposed to more than half the number of members present) vote in favour of that outcome.
4.54. The convener has an individual vote and a casting vote which he or she is required to exercise in the event of a tie (Rule 11.8.4b). The purpose of the casting vote is to ensure that an issue that has gone to a division is decided one way or another. There are no conventions on how the casting vote should be exercised and it is a matter for the discretion of the convener. It is good practice for the convener to explain the basis on which he or she is using the casting vote immediately before doing so.
Suspension and closure of meeting
4.55. A committee meeting continues until suspended or closed by the convener (Rule 7.4).
4.56. A meeting is normally closed after the committee completes its consideration of all the agenda items. In exceptional circumstances, a committee could agree to defer business to a future date, but this should be avoided in order to minimise disruption to members, witnesses and members of the public.
4.57. A convener can suspend a committee meeting (under Rule 7.4.1 as applied by Rule 7.8.1) in the following circumstances:
if an emergency occurs which would place members attending the meeting at risk;
if a disturbance interferes with the conduct of business;
if items of business have been timetabled, where a particular item has concluded before the time set for commencement of the next item;
for a meal or other break.
4.58. If the convener suspends in the event of a disturbance, the meeting is suspended when the convener leaves the chair after ordering the person or persons causing the disturbance to stop (Rule 7.4.2).
4.59. Where the convener has suspended because of an emergency or a disturbance, he or she can reconvene the meeting only at a time later in the same day. If proceedings are suspended as a result of timetabling issues or for a meal or other break, the convener can specify a time at which the proceedings will be reconvened. A suspended meeting which is not reconvened at a time later in the same day is deemed to have been closed at the time when it was suspended (Rule 7.4.3).
Suspension/variation of Standing Orders
4.60. Proceedings in committees are regulated by Standing Orders. A committee cannot take a decision to suspend or vary Standing Orders. Any decision to suspend or vary Standing Orders for the purposes of a committee meeting or part of a committee meeting or for any item of business taken in a committee meeting must be taken by the Parliament on a motion of the Parliamentary Bureau (Rule 17.2).
Points of order
4.61. During the course of committee meetings, members may ask for clarification of the provisions of Standing Orders or guidance on practice and procedure in committees. Where these arise, they may be answered by the convener or the convener may ask the clerk to respond. However, such requests for clarification are not “points of order” in terms of Standing Orders. The provisions of Rule 8.17 do not apply to committees and points of order can only be made in the chamber and can be answered only by the Presiding Officer21.
Access to information about committee proceedings
The public gallery
4.62. When a committee is meeting in public, proceedings can be viewed from the public gallery, free of charge but subject to availability. Seats are bookable in advance via the Parliament’s Public Information Office.
4.63. When attending a committee meeting, members of the public must comply with conditions determined by the Presiding Officer under Rule 15.2 (Presiding Officer's Guidance on Behaviour) as well as to instructions from the committee convener. In particular, committee conveners have agreed that they consider it disruptive for notes to be passed from the public gallery to anyone seated at the committee table22.
Minutes of committee meeting
4.64. In terms of Rule 16.1 the minutes of each committee meeting require to be drawn up by the clerk. The minutes record all the items of business taken in the committee at the meeting and the results of any decisions taken and of any divisions and elections which took place. This includes items taken in private, though in such cases it may be necessary (depending on the circumstances) for the minutes to record decisions in such a way as not to reveal the details of private discussions. The minutes are published on the committee webpage as soon as possible after conclusion of proceedings and normally within 24 hours.
4.65. The Official Report (OR) produces a “substantially verbatim” transcript of what is said during public committee meetings. Usually two official reporters sit at the committee table (next to the clerks) in order to “log” the proceedings (although the transcript is prepared from a digital audio system). The Official Report is produced, in hard copy and on the Parliament’s website, within a few days and – other than in exceptional circumstances – before the next meeting of the committee. Rules for the prioritisation of the publication of Official Reports of committee meetings have been agreed by the Conveners Group.
4.66. During a committee meeting, it may be necessary to clarify what a member or witness has said in which case a note will be passed from the official reporter to the individual in question seeking the information required. Once the Official Report is published, a copy is sent to each witness giving them the opportunity to request corrections. The corrected, final version is normally available within a few weeks of the meeting on the Parliament’s website and it is usually that final version which is included in any published committee report.
4.67. Unless otherwise directed by the Parliament, proceedings of committees held in private are not recorded in the Official Report. To date, no such direction has been given.
4.68. Committee proceedings are broadcast live within the Parliamentary complex. They are also web cast live on the Parliament’s web site.
Committee annual reports
4.69. Rule 12.9.1 requires all mandatory and subject committees, as soon as practicable after the end of each Parliamentary year23, to report to the Parliament on the committee’s activities during that year including details of its meetings and the number of times that it has met in private. In the case of the parliamentary year ending on the dissolution of the Parliament before a general election, each committee is required to submit a report before the Parliament is dissolved.
4.70. The Parliament’s website is a useful source of information about the committees. Each committee has its own web page which gives information about membership as well as providing access to committee agendas and public papers. Official Reports of committee meetings can be accessed through the committee web pages, as can minutes of meetings and committee reports.
Staff at committee meetings
4.71. Each committee is supported by a clerking team. The clerks are responsible for ensuring the preparation of all meeting papers (including draft reports), providing procedural advice to the convener and committee members, managing inquiries (including receiving written evidence and arranging oral witnesses), responding to correspondence and liaising with both internal and external contacts regarding the work of the committee. When a committee is taking Stage 2 of a Bill, the clerks are also responsible for handling all amendments lodged for that stage (and subsequently for Stage 3).
4.72. At least one member of the clerking team will be in attendance at a committee meeting and will be seated next to the convener. A committee cannot meet without a clerk in attendance as the clerk is required to produce the committee minutes.
4.73. Although clerks cannot participate directly in a committee’s consideration of any item of business and do not normally speak in meetings, they can be called upon by the convener to speak to give advice on procedural matters. The convener can also ask the clerk privately for procedural advice during a committee meeting.
4.74. In addition, clerks to the Standards, Procedures and Public Appintments Committee can be asked for advice on matters of policy being considered by that committee.
4.75. Members of the staff of the Official Report attend public committee meetings and sit at the committee table, normally next to the clerks, for the purposes of preparing the report24.
4.76. A member of broadcasting staff is present at each committee meeting to operate the sound and broadcasting system, including operating the microphones. Members and witnesses do not have to press the “request to speak” button before contributing, as members do in the chamber.
Scottish Parliament Information Centre (SPICe) staff
4.77 Each subject committee (and some mandatory committees) are supported by one or more specialist researchers from the Parliament’s information centre (SPICe). Part of the role of the researchers is to support the work of the committees by producing research briefings, for example on Bills and Legislative Consent Memorandums. SPICe researchers also frequently assist in planning inquiries, identifying potential advisers and witnesses and providing access to publications.
4.78. Staff who have provided research services to committees are often in attendance at committee meetings. They do not normally sit at the committee table or speak in meetings.
4.79. Members of staff from the Parliament’s Legal Services Directorate may be in attendance, particularly at meetings of the Delegated Powers and Law Reform Committee. Where this occurs the legal adviser will usually sit at the committee table, by the clerks, and provide advice if asked to do so by the convener.
4.80. Members of the Parliament’s security staff are present during all public meetings. Their role is to assist with public access and any issues relating to the security and safety of the building and its occupants. They do not sit at the table
4.81. Where a committee has appointed an adviser (see paragraphs 5.52 to 5.54) he or she may be present at a committee meeting and may be seated at the table. The convener may invite the adviser to provide advice or clarification during the committee meeting. An adviser cannot, however, participate directly in committee meetings by questioning witnesses.
14 Business Bulletin A publication produced by the Clerk of the Parliament containing details of current and future business, such as the business programme, the daily business list, agendas for committee meetings, written questions, motions, and other matters to be notified to MSPs. It is produced daily during Parliamentary terms and less frequently during recesses.
15 For more information on privilege, see paragraphs 4.45.
16 For more information on Minutes, see paragraph 4.65.
17 For more information on witnesses, see paragraphs 5.12 to 5.17 and 5.20 to 5.43.
18 For more information on advisers, see paragraphs 5.52 to 5.54.
19 For more details on the appointment of conveners, deputy conveners and temporary conveners see paragraphs 2.16 to 2.28, and the Guidance for Conveners.
20 Division – this is a formal term used to describe a decision that is taken by members voting.
21 Point of order - An intervention, of no more than three minutes, by a member during parliamentary proceedings questioning whether proper procedures have been or are being followed and responded to by the Presiding Officer, usually straight away. A point of order takes precedence over the business under consideration (Rule 8.17).
22 This does not prevent individuals who are attending in support of a witness, but not themselves sitting at the committee table, from passing notes discreetly to the witness. See also the Guidance for Conveners, paragraph 44.
23 Parliamentary year - A period, normally 12 months, beginning on the date of the first meeting of the Parliament following a general election, and on each subsequent anniversary of that date within that session.
24 For information on the Official Report, see paragraphs 4.66 to 4.68.