INTRODUCING a member’s bill in the Scottish Parliament might look easy, but it never is, for any MSP and their team. It’s a long process that begins well before anyone sees a proposed piece of legislation. In the case of Pauline McNeill’s Fair Rents (Scotland) Bill it was a process that took the best part of two years.

A draft bill proposal with a public consultation ran over a period of three months from May to August last year, with a final proposal lodged thereafter. The final proposal gained the support of 28 MSPs from four political parties.

It’s at the early stage of a draft proposal that the committee whose remit the bill falls under is given an initial heads-up by the parliamentary bureau. In the case of Pauline’s bill, that was the Local Government and Communities Committee (LGCC).

Fast forward a year. A little over a week ago, the LGCC met in “private session” and decided to bin the Fair Rents Bill. Incredibly, no public explanation for this decision was recorded in the parliament’s official report or minutes for its meeting on June 26. Under what power was the LGCC acting?

Likewise, there are no public details of whether there was a vote and, if so, who voted to terminate the bill. The official report for this meeting discloses no declaration of potential conflicts of interests. According to the Parliament’s register of interests, two of the committee members were also private landlords. Why no declaration of conflicts during the meeting?

The membership of the LGCC consists of seven MSPs: three SNP, two Conservative, one Labour and one Green. Given this simple arithmetic, it is not unreasonable to suggest that the demise of the Fair Rents Bill was at the instance of SNP and Tory MSPs on the committee. At the very least a committee majority would have been required.

This is very curious for SNP elected members. At the SNP spring party conference in 2016, party delegates voted overwhelming for a system of national rent controls. So why did SNP MSPs not support even a fig-leaf debate on the rent control measures of the Fair Rents Bill?

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For me there is a worrying democratic deficit in a handful of MSPs being able to kill off a member’s bill in a secretive committee session. Death by bureaucracy; with the bill suffering a similar fate to that of Josef K in Kafka’s great novel The Trial. Yet, there is also a huge parliamentary governance problem here.

The standing orders of the Parliament make it crystal clear that any consideration of proposals for legislation have to be in public (rule 12.3.5). The only exception is when the committee decides it is more appropriate to do so in private session for the purpose of taking evidence. No evidence on the Fair Rents Bill was taken on June 26. So under what power was the LGCC acting?

The LGCC appears to have acted contrary to the Parliament’s own standing orders. It should never have terminated the Fair Rents Bill in private session. From a reading of the Parliament’s standing orders I am at a loss to ascertain the power the LGCC has to decide that a member’s bill should “fall” at all. That isn’t its job remit in the rules.

The standing orders make it clear that it’s for the Parliament’s 129 MSPs as a whole to decide whether a bill should proceed or fall at its first stage (rule 9.6). I first wrote about the tendency of the Parliament to overuse private sessions back in June 2002 in The Herald.

Openness and accessibility were the hallmarks of the then newly reconvened Scottish Parliament, but it quickly began to default into private sessions. No doubt that was convenient for elected members, but not for the people they represent.

I compared the level of private sessions in the first six months of the Parliament’s life with

that some 18 months later. The amount of agenda business conducted in private by the Social Justice Committee rose from 11% to 38%.

The Local Government Committee was even more reluctant to open its doors to the people of Scotland. Its private business shot up from from 3% to 46%.

No one voted for an opaque Parliament back in September 1997. I certainly didn’t. The idea that a bill could be derailed in a private session of a committee would have been viewed as egregious in 1999. I spent a lot of time back then drafting over a dozen bills and three acts of Parliament, so I do not say this lightly.

In a week when the courageous Scottish martyr, Glaswegian and campaigner for universal suffrage Thomas Muir was posthumously restored to the roll of the Faculty of Advocates, you have to wonder what he would make of such a sorry state of affairs.