ACCOUNTABLE, open, power-sharing and equal opportunities. These are the four bedrock principles from the Shaping Scotland’s Parliament report in 1998. The report was developed after a wide public consultation on how the Parliament should work for the people it serves. Some 20 years later, how well does it live up to its founding principles?

Last week, the Scottish Parliament did a U-turn and decided to take evidence on the Fair Rents (Scotland) Bill. You can now have your say on the Bill at until December 7. Please do so. The fact that this had to happen at all is astonishing. Evidence could have easily been invited four months ago.

The bill would enable private rent increases in Scotland to be capped at no more than inflation plus 1%; provide tenants with a right to seek a lower rent where justified; and require rent and tenancy details to be disclosed to local authorities.

When the Parliament’s Local Government and Communities Committee (LGCC) met on June 26 to consider how it would proceed with the Fair Rents Bill it did so privately. There was no minute taken, no vote, no public record whatsoever in relation to this Bill. No declarations of conflicts of interest – despite two LGCC members being on record as private landlords.

The only slither of what happened on June 26 was an e-mail from the LGCC convenor, James Dornan MSP, to the Bill’s sponsor, Pauline McNeill MSP.

That e-mail said the LGCC “agreed at their meeting on 26/06/20 that, at this stage, we were unable to progress with your Members’ Bill. Given the volume of work we have and expect to have between now and the end of Parliament it was not felt that we would be able to give your Bill the time and justice it would clearly require”.

And that was that. The Bill was effectively binned despite the fact committees have no power to derail Bills. Their job in the standing orders is to consider a public Bill, take evidence on it, and produce a “stage 1” report for the full Scottish Parliament to decide whether or not to support its general principles.

With the Fair Rents Bill now frozen in carbonite like Han Solo from Star Wars, Govan Law Centre raised judicial review proceedings against the Parliament at the Court of Session on behalf of a private renter in Edinburgh. The tenant petitioner, Ms Ely, a member of Living Rent, sought a declarator that the Parliament had acted unlawfully and contrary to its own standing orders and the Scotland Act.

The position of the Scottish Parliamentary Corporate Body (the legal entity of the Parliament) in those proceedings was revealing. It maintained committees were entitled to discuss public Bills in private as part of a “workplan”. This was despite the fact the rules of the Parliament say consideration of public Bills must be in public.

More strikingly, its position was if a committee broke the rules that wasn’t a matter for the court; it was a matter for the Presiding Officer. It also argued that Ms Ely as a private renter didn’t have sufficient interest to bring proceedings. Parliament could, in effect, do whatever it liked – it was accountable to itself.

I appeared at a judicial review permission hearing last month, with James Mure QC appearing for the Parliament. Lady Wise ruled that procedural mechanisms of the Parliament such as the timetabling of public Bills were not justiciable and not within the supervisory jurisdiction of the Court of Session. Timetabling in the court’s opinion was not a “substantive consideration” of the Bill and so the Bill had not been “considered”.

Of course, Ms Ely’s challenge was never about timetabling. It was about the Fair Rents Bill being disposed of in a private meeting of a committee when the Parliament’s own rules made it clear that shouldn’t happen. It was about acting unlawfully in terms of a clear statutory framework.

As the Scottish Parliament doesn’t enjoy the immunity of the House of Commons and must act within the confines of the Scotland Act, I advised my client to reclaim (appeal) to the Inner House. She did so and some weeks later the LGCC changed its mind. Many tens of thousands of private renters will welcome that.

However, troubling questions remain unanswered. How can the Scottish Parliament be open and transparent if it makes big decisions in private? How can it be accountable if MSPs are free to disregard rules or interpret them in any way they see fit? How can it share power if a Members’ Bill that takes years to develop can be jettisoned in private?

The Scottish Parliament serves the people. It is our Parliament.

I believe it’s time for a new independent consultative group to examine whether the Scottish Parliament continues to adhere to its founding principles, or whether it has lost sight of its bedrock of open and accountable democracy over the passage of time.