Sitting Days

– in the Scottish Parliament at 3:54 pm on 19 May 1999.

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Photo of Tom McCabe Tom McCabe Labour 3:55, 19 May 1999

Under rule 8.2.6 of the standing orders, I move without notice that the motion, That this Parliament agrees that the office of the Clerk should be open on each of the following days: Monday 24 to Thursday 27 May, Tuesday 1 to Friday 4 June, Monday 7 to Friday 11 June and Monday 14 to Friday 18 June, should be taken now.

Photo of Lord David Steel Lord David Steel Presiding Officer, Scottish Parliament

I agree that this motion without notice should be taken. The question is, That the motion in the name of Mr Tom McCabe should be taken now. Are we all agreed?

Question agreed to.

Photo of Lord David Steel Lord David Steel Presiding Officer, Scottish Parliament

I call Mr Tom McCabe. The debate will last no more than 30 minutes.

Photo of Tom McCabe Tom McCabe Labour

Rule 2.1.3 requires that the days on which the office of the clerk is to be open shall be agreed by the Parliament on a motion of the Parliamentary Bureau and that until the Parliament has so decided, the Presiding Officer should appoint those days. The Presiding Officer has announced, through the business bulletin, that Wednesday 12 May to Friday 14 May, and Monday 17 May to Friday 21 May should be days on which the office of the clerk is open. This motion seeks the Parliament's agreement to the days until mid-June on which the office of the clerk should be open. I should make it clear that I am speaking on behalf of the Parliamentary Bureau.

It may be helpful if I explain briefly the significance of the office of the clerk being open. The Parliament normally meets only on sitting days. The standing orders define sitting days by reference to the days on which the office of the clerk is open. That is why weekends are not included in the motion. The omission from this motion of 28 May and 31 May means that the office of the clerk will be closed on those public holidays and that those days are not sitting days.

The Parliamentary Bureau will continue to consider the timing of the parliamentary recess as required under rule 2.3 of the standing orders, and a motion will be brought to the Parliament in due course. In the meantime, I hope that this motion clarifies the situation until mid-June.

I move,

That the office of the Clerk should be open on each of the following days: Monday 24 to Thursday 27 May, Tuesday 1 to Friday 4 June, Monday 7 to Friday 11 June and Monday 14 to Friday 18 June.

Photo of Andrew Wilson Andrew Wilson Scottish National Party 3:56, 19 May 1999

I would like to repeat the point that I made earlier on a point of order, and I hope that the Government's Business Manager will respond.

My understanding from the chamber office is that parliamentary questions will not be taken or read until 2 July, after which we go into recess. That means that legitimate questions will not be answered until September. Earlier I said August, but a quick calculation shows that they will not be answered until September. I do not think that that is acceptable, given that the Government is now in place, its members are performing their duties, and each minister has a role to fulfil.

In the coalition agreement-a piece of research, although to be polite I should perhaps call it a document-we have had substantial changes to the Government's expenditure plans. Those plans were, as I said, previously given in "Serving Scotland's Needs", which was published at some expense and was rather nicely done. Earlier today, when I asked the First Minister about those substantial changes, he was-despite a glib attack on my position-unable to answer the question.

Surely we in a Parliament that is supposed to be a legislator should have the right to an answer to this very legitimate question: if the Government is making public spending announcements-as it has done-why are we not being told, in a zero sum budget, where the money is coming from? There must be an unanswerable case for parliamentary questions to be lodged at this stage and to be answered within a fortnight.

Furthermore, rule 5.8.1 of the standing orders provides:

"In proposing the business programme, the Parliamentary Bureau shall ensure that sufficient time is set aside-

  1. between the beginning of May and the end of June each year for the consideration of financial proposals".
What plans does Mr McCabe have to fulfil that provision in 1999?

Photo of Keith Raffan Keith Raffan Liberal Democrat 3:58, 19 May 1999

I share Mr Wilson's concern about questions and the fact that we will probably not be able to get even written answers until the early autumn. If the Parliament rises on 2 July, that will certainly be the case and it will slow up proceedings a great deal. I would be grateful for guidance on when we will be able to lodge both written and oral questions.

I would also like some further information. How far in advance does the Business Manager intend to let us know the Parliament's business?

The earlier the better would be helpful. I do not know whether there is a plan to have a business question time such as that in the House of Commons-which I know is sometimes abused when members ask spurious questions-but it would be useful to have the kind of question time in which we would be able to put points regarding the business of the following week to the Business Manager, and for individual members to raise the concerns they feel should be debated.

Could Mr McCabe also let us know the current situation with committees and the prospect of their being set up in the near future? Can he give us any guidance on what is happening regarding both statutory committees as set out in the consultative steering group report and subject committees? The subject committees can now be set up because we know who the ministers are and what they are responsible for.

Photo of Fergus Ewing Fergus Ewing Scottish National Party 4:00, 19 May 1999

I welcome the fact that the days of opening of the office of the clerk have been published. What opportunity will there be-for all opposition parties and not just the Scottish Nationalists as the main opposition-to have substantive issues debated, such as the removal from Scottish jurisdiction of 6,000 square miles of fishing waters? This appears to have been carried out by stealth by Order in Council shortly before the election in which we were all engaged.

The First Minister remarked that during the election campaign the SNP promised the sun, the moon and the stars. I would challenge that, but what is undoubtedly clear is that while we were all fighting an election campaign, London Labour was stealing Scotland's sea without any consultation with even members of the Scottish Fishermen's Federation-who are present here today and met with us at lunch time. They are anxious to meet with every other party in Scotland.

There is a real sense of concern throughout Scotland that there should be a very early opportunity for every party to raise issues of substantive concern, such as the plight of Scottish fishermen and the serious implications that that order passed by stealth at Westminster will have in relation to prosecution under the English jurisdiction of Scottish fishermen, such as the impact of regulation of the fisheries industry and such as the fact that none of the bodies concerned appears to have been consulted.

I would, finally, ask Mr McCabe to express concern about the fact that this Parliament, whose essence was to be consultation, should find itself in this situation where no consultation about such an important matter has taken place with any of the relevant bodies. Westminster passed that under a cloud of darkness and during an election campaign.

Photo of Dorothy-Grace Elder Dorothy-Grace Elder Independent 4:03, 19 May 1999

It is absolutely ridiculous that this Parliament should be inaugurated and that we should then simply cut and run into what looks to me like a ridiculously long Westminster-style recess. Some of us will refuse to have more holidays than does an average member of the Scottish public. There is a lot of work to be got on with.

As Mr Ewing said, what we have seen here in this Parliament is a dodgy deal that has been steamrollered through in England. Mr Blair has contrived what is virtually a one-party state. We will not permit that in Scotland. We have seen in the alliance between Labour and the Liberal Democrats what Roy Hattersley has described as an alliance between a Venus flytrap and a bluebottle. The SNP is not prepared to cut and run and leave major business unfinished, including the discussion of student fees. This Parliament should stay here to do the duty that it was put in place by the public to do.

Photo of Dennis Canavan Dennis Canavan Independent 4:04, 19 May 1999

Would Mr McCabe be good enough to explain in his summing up the implications of his motion for our ability to put questions to the newly appointed members of the Scottish Executive?

I understand from some unconfirmed media reports that, supposedly, as this Parliament does not as yet have legislative competence, we should not have the opportunity to ask questions of the Executive until such time as we officially have legislative competence. However, I would draw a distinction between the role of this Parliament as a legislature-making laws-and its role in bringing the Scottish Executive to account. It is important that the Executive is accountable to the people of Scotland through us, their elected representatives, right from its creation.

Today, the members of the Scottish Executive have been approved by the Parliament. I understand that the Queen, as head of state, has also already signified her approval of the First Minister, so the Executive exists, whether or not we, as a Parliament, have legislative competence. We ought, therefore, from an early date to have maximum opportunity to put questions to the Executive. We may have to postpone deliberations on legislative measures, but I hope that we will be able to have debates and ministerial statements as well as the opportunity to put important questions on behalf of our constituents and the people of Scotland.

Perhaps Mr McCabe will be good enough to address those points as well as the serious point raised by Dorothy-Grace Elder. Here we are, a newly formed Parliament, and we seem to be cutting and running already by going into a recess. I believe that the people out there would prefer to see us getting our sleeves rolled up, getting some work done and bringing the newly appointed Executive to account, which is the important and immediate role that we have to play.

Photo of Lord David Steel Lord David Steel Presiding Officer, Scottish Parliament

Before I call the next speaker, I should make it clear that we are not discussing the original motion lodged by Mr McCabe, but the revised motion, which does not deal with the summer recess. We have not got to that yet.

Photo of Johann Lamont Johann Lamont Labour 4:07, 19 May 1999

It is for this body to decide how best to scrutinise ministers, when we meet and so on, but I would like to make a point about where the work is being done. I do not know what Dorothy-Grace Elder thinks she will be doing when she is not here. If I am not here, I fully intend to work on behalf of my constituents, the people whom I represent in Glasgow Pollok. With respect, it is old politics to think that sitting in this chamber talking to one another makes change. What will make change for Scotland is us working in our constituencies, representing the people there and, above all, listening to what they have to say about what we should be doing.

We must get away from the idea that to prove that we are working hard for our constituents, we must sit in this chamber. That is part of our role, and holding people to account for what they do is an important part of the democratic process. However, it is as important to ensure that the people of Scotland can participate actively in that democratic process through the people whom they chose to elect to this body.

Photo of Alex Salmond Alex Salmond Leader, Scottish National Party 4:08, 19 May 1999

That is true, but one of the duties of members of this Parliament is to hold the Executive to account and to ask questions of the relevant ministers. That is only part of a member's duties, but it is every bit as important as being in the constituency and carrying out constituency work.

Members will find that their constituents will expect many of the things that come up in the constituency to be pursued with ministers and with the relevant responsible bodies. There are members of the Scottish Fishermen's Federation in the gallery today-

[Interruption.] . It is perfectly in order to mention them. They are here because they expect this Parliament to have something to say about their immediate concern, to which Fergus Ewing referred. Not just Opposition members, but every member of this Parliament who is not a member of the Executive has a responsibility to hold the Executive to account. I welcome the redrafted motion, because it does not preclude the possibility of us having the opportunity, before the summer recess, to question the ministers who have been approved today. That is part of our democratic responsibility.

Whether it be ministerial Mondeos or not, there are perks that come with ministerial office, and rightly so. The First Minister has been sworn in and he is entitled to the perks that allow him to pursue that office. One of the responsibilities of ministerial office is to be accountable to Parliament. It would not be correct for this Parliament not to have the opportunity to question the ministers who have been elected today and the First Minister before the summer recess. There is an obvious choice: either we find a method of having substantive questions before 1 July 1999 or, alternatively, we delay the recess until we have had at least one opportunity to question each minister who has been trusted by this legislature today. That is not just a point for the Opposition parties, but one for every member of this Chamber.

Photo of Robin Harper Robin Harper Green 4:10, 19 May 1999

There was an earlier reference to the fact that the previous debate was mainly about tuition fees. If I had not been pulled from the list of speakers in that debate, I would certainly have opened up the debate on the environment. I certainly would like the opportunity to question ministers on the issue of the environment before the summer recess. There are many questions. I accept that ministers may not be able to clarify many of the policies immediately, but it is only fair for us and the people of Scotland that we should be able to find out as much as possible before the summer recess.

Photo of Lord David Steel Lord David Steel Presiding Officer, Scottish Parliament

No other members have asked to speak, so I give the floor to Tom McCabe to reply to the debate.

Photo of Tom McCabe Tom McCabe Labour 4:11, 19 May 1999

On the first question, on a factual point, powers do not pass to ministers until 1 July 1999. Today, we have endorsed the ministers, but legal powers do not pass to them until 1 July 1999.

I fully support and sympathise with many of the points made about the opportunity to ask substantive questions. So far, the legal advice that has been given to the Parliamentary Bureau is that that will not be possible until 1 July 1999. At that date, people can lodge questions and then there is a further requirement for those questions to lie on the table for eight days before the ministers answer them.

I do not think that that advice has satisfied any representatives on the Parliamentary Bureau from any party, and the representatives will be interested in finding ways in which substantive discussions can take place in the weeks ahead and certainly prior to 1 July. I would stress, however, that the decision is not a whim of either the Executive or any other party within the Parliament. If the legal advice is that questions are not competent until such a date, I think it would be prudent, to say the least, to pay attention to that advice.

With regard to the arrangements for finance in this year, the quotation from the standing orders is correct. However, in the first year of the Parliament special arrangements are in place and therefore there is no requirement in the time scale stated to deal with that issue at this time.

With regard to the business motion and how far in advance Parliament will know exactly what is to be debated, the intention is that there will be a business motion presented each week-from memory it will be on a Wednesday-and, in a similar way to today, 30 minutes will be available to discuss that motion.

With regard to committees, again, discussion is on-going in the Parliamentary Bureau. Systems of allocation are under discussion and the bureau will meet again tomorrow. We would hope, as early as possible, to be able to come forward to the Parliament and advance the question of committees both mandatory and subject.

With regard to the comments relating to the summer recess, I well understand that there may be some confusion, given that the earlier motion was lodged not on behalf of any party but mistakenly, I think, by the office. Today the motion deals only with our business until mid-June. There has been no decision as yet on the starting date of the summer recess.

There may be an opportunity to discuss environmental issues between now and July. Of course, that depends upon how that discussion is framed, and advice will be taken on that. On behalf of the Executive, I would stress that there is no desire to stifle debate within the Parliament.

Photo of Andrew Wilson Andrew Wilson Scottish National Party

I would like to clarify two issues that are at stake. The first is debates before the Parliament that Mr Salmond, and others, raised, and the second is the putting down of questions for written answer. The practice in the House of Commons is that written answers can be tabled and will be replied to in the form of letters to the members concerned. As I understand it, answers are placed in the House of Commons library over the summer recess. That does not seem to be the case for this chamber. Is there a facility whereby we can lodge questions on 1 July or 2 July and they will be answered immediately, even though the Parliament is in recess?

Photo of Tom McCabe Tom McCabe Labour

I made it clear that there is no will on behalf of the Executive to stifle debate, and if a mechanism can be found that is legal and complies with the requirements of the Scotland Act 1998, we will investigate it and try our best to put it in place. I stress again that there is no desire to stifle debate, but the advice that has been given is not helpful at the moment. We will do our best to correct that advice.

Photo of Dennis Canavan Dennis Canavan Independent

Is Mr McCabe saying that the legal advice is that it would be illegal for members of the Executive to answer members' questions in this Parliament? Is the legal advice that that practice would be illegal until such time as the Executive gets legal competence?

Photo of Tom McCabe Tom McCabe Labour

The advice is that it would not be competent for that to be done until such time as the powers pass to the ministers. As I have already said, the advice is that once those powers pass, eight days must be allowed for questions to lie on the table before answers can be given. I have already stressed that no party on the Parliamentary Bureau is happy with that situation and we are investigating ways by which it can be corrected.

Photo of Keith Raffan Keith Raffan Liberal Democrat

If powers are not transferring to the new ministers until 1 July, presumably if we have casework or questions that we wish to raise we raise them with the existing Scottish Office ministers?

Photo of Tom McCabe Tom McCabe Labour

I understand that that is the case.

Photo of Lord David Steel Lord David Steel Presiding Officer, Scottish Parliament

One of my responsibilities is to chair the Parliamentary Bureau. As Mr McCabe said, we are meeting tomorrow morning and we will have a second round of discussions on some of the issues that have been raised. We have had one meeting already, we will have another tomorrow, and we are looking as sympathetically as we can, given the advice that we are constrained by, at those points.

However, it may be helpful if I tell the Parliament that we have already decided that whatever meetings there may be in the next couple of weeks, there will definitely be a full meeting of the Parliament on Tuesday 8 June. The reason for that is that we are bound, under the standing orders, to have elected the three mandatory committees within 21 days of our coming into being. That is how we know that there will definitely be a meeting on Tuesday 8 June. There may be other meetings before that, but that will be determined tomorrow. I hope that that is helpful and clear.

It may also be helpful if I tell members that since I know that there is a meeting that day, I have decided that that should be the day when, as Presiding Officer, I invite you all to a reception in the evening in the Old Parliament Hall. It would be helpful if members put that in their diaries before they receive the invitations.

Photo of Michael Russell Michael Russell Scottish National Party

On a point of order, Mr Presiding Officer. It is my recollection that there was a discussion that the bureau had accepted that under rule 5.6(c) of the standing orders, members' business might be taken after decision time. I think that I am right in saying that that was discussed; therefore, there is a procedure by which motions can be lodged and discussed, because rule 5.6(c) allows a half-hour discussion every day. In my view, that is an inadequate step forward, but it is a step forward.

Photo of Lord David Steel Lord David Steel Presiding Officer, Scottish Parliament

You are correct. Members can lodge questions for members' time, which is the half-hour after the end of the official business. What I cannot tell you-because we have not decided it yet-is when the next meetings will be, but there will be a half-hour debate on, for example, 8 June. That is a helpful point.

We have now to put the question on the motion in the name of Mr Tom McCabe:

That the office of the Clerk should be open on each of the following days: Monday 24 to Thursday 27 May, Tuesday 1 to Friday 4 June, Monday 7 to Friday 11 June and Monday 14 to Friday 18 June.

Are we all agreed?

Motion agreed to.

Meeting closed at 16:20.