Points of Order

– in the Scottish Parliament at 4:39 pm on 28th March 2002.

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Photo of Lloyd Quinan Lloyd Quinan Scottish National Party 4:39 pm, 28th March 2002

On a point of order, Presiding Officer. Business in the chamber has been brought forward and the members' business debate will now start early. Does that take into consideration attendance at the debate by members of the public, who will believe from the published business bulletin that the debate begins at 5 o'clock and not at 16:39? We are in danger of being exclusive. A number of people whom I know and who intended to attend the debate are not yet in their seats in the public gallery. It is at best ill-mannered of us to proceed with a debate at 16:40, when the debate was advertised in the public domain as beginning at 5 o'clock.

Photo of Murray Tosh Murray Tosh Conservative

In relation to this point of order and the previous one, today's business bulletin advised all members that decision time was likely to be early and that members' business would probably be brought forward. I asked earlier today whether the member who had lodged the motion for members' business would be aware of that possibility and whether people who were likely to attend the debate would be aware of that possibility. I was assured that that would be the case.

I am unable to say whether that was the case, but, as far as I am concerned, the Presiding Officers have done their best to ensure that people who would be attending this debate were aware that the debate would probably be brought forward.

Photo of Lloyd Quinan Lloyd Quinan Scottish National Party

Further to that point of order, Presiding Officer. You referred to the fact that members are informed of the time of the debate in the business bulletin, but I suggest that we should consider the information that is given to the public, because they should take precedence. That is particularly the case for members' business debates, which are primarily for the benefit of members of the public and specific groups. We cannot make decisions about when we will do things when we have previously publicised to the people who put us here that debates will happen at particular times on particular days. We must look seriously at this matter. I move that we suspend this meeting of the Parliament until five o'clock.

Photo of Murray Tosh Murray Tosh Conservative

You are not in a position to make that move, Mr Quinan.

Photo of Murray Tosh Murray Tosh Conservative

Let me rule on the first point of order, please.

The issue is that the business bulletin is a public document. Invariably, in my experience—which, I admit, is only that of a few months—when a debate is likely to be brought forward, contact is made with the member who lodged the members' business debate motion to ensure that the member is aware of what is proposed. I believe that that was done in this case. It is also generally the case that members of the public who arrange to come to a debate do so through contact with members who are associated with that debate. I am sure that that system is not foolproof, but it is all that is available to me under the existing standing orders.

Photo of Murray Tosh Murray Tosh Conservative

Mr McNeil previously notified a point of order.

Photo of Duncan McNeil Duncan McNeil Labour

I have a point of information. The issue of debates being brought forward was discussed in the Parliamentary Bureau, as the Presiding Officer described, and the conclusions were published. The Parliamentary Bureau also agreed that the business managers would inform members who lodged a members' business motion of the possibility of the debate being brought forward, so that they could contact organisations and so on. Perhaps Gill Paterson could inform us whether that action was taken in this case.

Photo of Murray Tosh Murray Tosh Conservative

So far, the member who will speak to the motion has not indicated any concern, but that is a matter for him.

Photo of Dennis Canavan Dennis Canavan Independent

Since I made my previous point of order, I have looked again at the business bulletin and checked the exact wording. It says:

"The Presiding Officer wishes to inform members that, should this afternoon's business conclude prior to 5.00 pm, Decision Time and Members' Business may be brought forward, subject to the agreement of Parliament."

It is surely not unreasonable to ask that in such circumstances we should be given at least five minutes' notice of a vote taking place. Some of us are at a particular disadvantage, compared with other members. I understand that members of certain parties get told through their pagers not just how to vote, but when to vote. Members such as me, who whip ourselves—I do not particularly like self-flagellation—are at a disadvantage because we do not get such notice.

I decide how I vote, but if I am not given reasonable notice of when a vote is taking place, I am effectively disenfranchised, together with the people whom I represent. I ask the Presiding Officer and the Parliamentary Bureau to consider this matter carefully. It is surely not unreasonable to ask for five minutes' notice in such circumstances, so that MSPs such as me, who are working in our offices down the road, can get here to cast our votes.

Photo of Murray Tosh Murray Tosh Conservative

The system that we have operated for almost three years is that when we come to the end of business before decision time, we either suspend and await decision time at five o'clock, or we bring forward a motion without notice to hold decision time immediately. There is no precedent for what Mr Canavan suggests. We could consider doing what he suggests, but, so far, the business managers have made no such a request, nor have the Presiding Officers received one.

I can only suggest that Mr Canavan do what I always do when I am in my office and am aware that business is likely to be brought forward. I have the television on and watch for the closing SNP speaker, knowing that that will give me time to come across to the chamber for decision time. In the absence of any change to standing orders or more formal procedures, I offer that as constructive advice. That is the best that I can do in the circumstances.

Photo of Murray Tosh Murray Tosh Conservative

If you are not satisfied, the mechanism is that you should put a proposal to the Presiding Officer, which can be discussed by the Parliamentary Bureau or the Procedures Committee. We do not make up rules at twenty to five on the last day before the recess. If you have specific proposals, you can make them in the proper way. You will be entitled to be represented at whatever stage the decision is taken.

Photo of Dennis Canavan Dennis Canavan Independent

For the record, I stress that I am not asking for the rules to be changed but for there to be a more helpful interpretation of the rules.

Photo of Murray Tosh Murray Tosh Conservative

I can say only that the rules have not been interpreted in that way for the best part of three years. Your request for a change in practice is perfectly appropriate. I invite you to make a formal proposal in the recognised way in which many members make such suggestions.