Points of Order

– in the Scottish Parliament at 2:34 pm on 8th January 2003.

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Photo of Tricia Marwick Tricia Marwick Scottish National Party

I have given you notice of my intention to raise the point of order, Presiding Officer.

At the end of last year, the Parliament approved the general principles of a local government bill, but the Local Government in Scotland Bill that is before us today is not the same bill that was approved then. Indeed, as the Scottish Parliament information centre background paper to the debate says,

"the general principle of the Bill was expanded to accommodate" the stage 2 amendments. Those amendments have added new parts and sections on enforcement and scrutiny, rating, waste management and capital expenditure and grants. Presiding Officer, you will have noted that in the Local Government Committee, which considered those amendments, I tried to move a motion that would have allowed the committee to take evidence on the amendments. However, the convener would not allow that motion to be heard.

I turn to the stage 3 amendments that were lodged by the Executive during the recess and not published until Monday. Amendment 59, which would repeal section 19 of the Fire Services Act 1947, is designed to ensure that the most contentious recommendation of the Bain report is not scrutinised by any committee of the Parliament. It is unacceptable that an issue of great public concern will be debated and disposed of in 15 minutes. If the amendment is passed, it will have the effect of denying the public the right in the future to be consulted about the possible closure of their fire stations. That is unacceptable.

Presiding Officer, you have publicly expressed your concern about the quality of legislation coming from the Parliament and you have suggested that the Parliament needs a second chamber. I say to you, with the greatest respect, that the imperative is to ensure that the Parliament and its committees are allowed to use the powers that are already available to them to examine and scrutinise legislation effectively and that it is for the Presiding Officers to offer the Parliament protection from the abuse of power by the Executive. In the interests of the Parliament and the people of Scotland, I invite you to reconsider the decision to accept amendment 59, in the name of Andy Kerr, and to reflect on the type of amendments that will be accepted in the future at stage 2 and stage 3 of bills.

Photo of Tommy Sheridan Tommy Sheridan SSP

On a similar point of order, Presiding Officer. In the past, you have told me that some amendments have been inadmissible. I feel that you have to use your authority in this case to protect the credibility of the Parliament. Amendment 59 is not just another amendment; it is a very important amendment, yet there has been no committee scrutiny of it. The credibility of the Parliament and its committee system is therefore under scrutiny. I appeal to you to reconsider your decision. If the amendment was essential, the Executive should have lodged it in time for stage 2 consideration. The amendment should not have been lodged at the 11 th hour in such a devious and underhand way. I ask you to reconsider your decision to accept the amendment and to reject it on the grounds of admissibility.

Photo of Michael Russell Michael Russell Scottish National Party

On a related point of order, Presiding Officer. There is a procedure in the standing orders to cover what Tricia Marwick and Tommy Sheridan have rightly drawn to our attention—an unprecedented, major amendment being lodged at stage 3, which has not been considered by a committee. Rule 9.8.6 of the standing orders allows the member who is in charge of a bill to refer back a proportion of the bill, after the stage 3 debate in the chamber, for further committee consideration. In trying to find a way to make that manageable, I seek your permission to move the following motion without notice:

"That the parliament calls upon the Member in Charge of the Local Government in Scotland Bill to propose that any sections relating to section 19 of the Fire Services Act 1947 which may be agreed at Stage 3 be referred back to the Local Government Committee for further Stage 2 consideration as permitted under Rule 9.8.6."

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

I am grateful to Tricia Marwick, Tommy Sheridan and Mike Russell for giving notice of their points of order, and I have an important ruling to make.

On the general point, the Executive's amendments at stage 2 and for today's stage 3 debate have been lodged in conformity with the relevant standing orders. None of the amendments that were selected at either stage falls foul of the rules on admissibility of amendments. There is no question of ruling them out on the grounds of admissibility. However, there is no doubt that the amount of new material that has been added to the bill by amendment at stage 2 and that is proposed to be added by further amendments this afternoon is considerable. It is, therefore, not unreasonable to question whether this is an appropriate way in which to make legislation.

The Presiding Officers have a role not just in ensuring that the letter of the rules is complied with, but in upholding the underlying spirit of those rules. In that context, we have some sympathy with the concerns that have been expressed and we gave serious thought to them at our regular meeting before we came to the chamber this afternoon.

The three-stage process for considering bills is intended to ensure that proposals to change the law do not reach the statute book without adequate consultation and scrutiny by members. There is a difference between amending a bill—even quite substantially—at stage 2 or stage 3 in response to issues and concerns that have been raised at earlier stages, and adding in by amendments, particularly at stage 3, entirely new issues that were not anticipated at earlier stages. I repeat that the Executive has done nothing that the rules prohibit, but ministers might wish to reflect on whether the approach followed in this instance has been consistent with the principle of the most sound parliamentary scrutiny.

Let me now deal with Mike Russell's request to move a motion without notice. The motion is to invite the minister to exercise his right under rule 9.8.6 of standing orders to move that certain sections of the bill be referred back to committee for further scrutiny. For the reasons that I have given, I consider this an exceptional case and I am therefore minded to accept Mr Russell's request and allow the chamber to vote on whether such an invitation should be made to the minister. However, I should explain that the minister is not, in any case, entitled to move today the motion to refer the bill back to committee because such a motion would require notice. What the minister could do today is move without notice, under rule 9.8.5, to adjourn the remaining stage 3 proceedings to a later day. The minister's opportunity to move such a motion without notice, which he has a right to do whether or not the chamber agrees to Mr Russell's motion, would arise after the stage 3 amendments before us today have been disposed of, but before the debate on the motion to pass the bill begins. If that were agreed to, a date would have to be set for the remaining stage 3 proceedings. It would then be open to the minister to lodge a motion under rule 9.8.6 for consideration on that later day, to refer the bill back to committee.

That is my clear—I hope—ruling and I invite Mr Russell to move his motion without notice.

Photo of Michael Russell Michael Russell Scottish National Party

Thank you, Presiding Officer. You rightly draw attention to the founding principles of the Parliament, which are, of course, contained in the report of the consultative steering group, whose work was chaired by Henry McLeish. Section 3.5 of that report lays out the legislative process for the Parliament. As you said, Presiding Officer, there are three stages to that process: the initial consideration of the general principles of a bill; the line-by-line consideration of the bill; and the final consideration of the bill, which can include line-by-line scrutiny, but which the CSG suggested should not include significant new material. Indeed, section 3.5, paragraph 15, of the report made a recommendation for stage 3:

"Further amendments should be allowed at this stage. Standing Orders should specify tight criteria for what sort of amendments might be moved."

The Procedures Committee might like to consider whether the time has come to act upon that recommendation.

Such recommendations arose not out of thin air, but from a general concern that the process of legislation as practised at Westminster was alienating the public and giving legislation a bad name. The opportunity for committees to consider at length and in detail all the issues surrounding a bill was an important principle for the Scottish Parliament. To bring to the chamber at stage 3 a major proposal that was not considered by the Local Government Committee and on which no opportunity was given to any interested parties, whether that be the Fire Brigades Union or anybody else, to put their point of view is fundamentally wrong and counter to the founding principles as they operate in the Parliament.

Today in The Herald newspaper there is a letter from Patricia Ferguson and Euan Robson, who know a great deal about the procedure of the Parliament. They say in their letter:

"Each bill before the Parliament is, and will be, carefully scrutinised as part of the standard process."

Unfortunately, within hours of that letter being written, a major legislative issue was proposed that could not, by definition, be carefully scrutinised as part of the legislative process.

Amendment 59 proposes a major legislative change. I take no position on it in terms of the debate, although I know that my party is opposed to it. That major legislative change will go through at a crucial time during sensitive negotiations with the Fire Brigades Union with only 15 minutes of debate, as John McAllion indicated, and less than 48 hours after it was published in the business bulletin. That is not the way in which it was intended that this Parliament would legislate.

Fortuitously, the standing orders of the Scottish Parliament contain a means by which this situation can be avoided, even at this late stage. Rule 9.8.6, which we referred to earlier, allows the minister in charge of the bill to take the issue away and to have it considered by a parliamentary committee, in this case, the Local Government Committee. That means that the proposal could be passed at a later stage—although, rightly, it will be opposed—but only after it has been subjected to the sort of scrutiny that was envisaged by the CSG. That process is fundamental to the legislative process in this Parliament and should be endorsed by every member of this chamber—as it has been by you, Presiding Officer—and by the guardians of the business of this chamber, including the Minister for Parliamentary Business and her deputy, whose letter to The Herald I mentioned earlier.

We have an opportunity to vote not on an issue of party politics but on an issue concerning the way in which political debate should take place in Scotland's democratic chamber. It should take place by careful consideration, democratic participation and consent. It was never intended that it would take place by diktat and fiat from an Executive that could steamroller through major legislative changes two days after publication with only 15 minutes of debate and no scrutiny whatever. That would be wrong and I urge the chamber to support the motion without notice and ensure that, while this debate can go ahead today, the minister has an opportunity to think again and give the legislative processes of the Parliament the chance to operate as they were intended to.

I move,

"That the parliament calls upon the Member in Charge of the Local Government in Scotland Bill to propose that any sections relating to section 19 of the Fire Services Act 1947 which may be agreed at Stage 3 be referred back to the Local Government Committee for further Stage 2 consideration as permitted under Rule 9.8.6."

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

Mr Peacock has a right to respond to the motion.

Photo of Peter Peacock Peter Peacock Labour

I am slightly surprised that Michael Russell has raised the matter in this way, because, as he said, the standing orders provide for a member to make an approach to ministers to invite them to do what he would like me to do. As Michael Russell has made no such approach to me or to Andy Kerr, one wonders about the motivation behind his desire to raise it in the way that he has.

Michael Russell implied that the issue that amendment 59 deals with is an entirely new one for the Parliament and that the time that has been allowed for debate today is inadequate. However, that is not the case; the issue has been debated by the Parliament.

Photo of Peter Peacock Peter Peacock Labour

I will tell the member precisely when. The issue was part of a consultation paper, "The Scottish Fire Service of The Future", which was issued by the Executive in April 2002. That consultation ran until July 2002 and the SNP made no response to it. In May 2002, the Executive sponsored a two-hour debate in the chamber on the consultation paper, during which a number of members of the SNP spoke. However, the issue that we are dealing with was not raised by the SNP at that time as an issue of contention.

The First Minister made clear to the Parliament on 19 December the Executive's intention to take an early legislative opportunity to repeal section 19 of the Fire Services Act 1947. That announcement followed confirmation that the Bain committee supported the position that the Executive had set out on the matter and the debating of the issues around the matter in Parliament. The First Minister made that announcement in response to a question on the fire service that was asked by Tricia Marwick. Tricia Marwick failed to raise any concern or to scrutinise the decision at that point, although it would have been proper for her to do so.

The key question for the Parliament this afternoon is whether it can give adequate consideration to the issue on top of the scrutiny and consultation that have already taken place. The answer is clearly that it can. We have met, as the Presiding Officer indicated, all the obligations that the Parliament places on us for lodging amendments. Indeed, the Parliament allows for the procedure specifically to permit such matters to be debated at stage 3. Tricia Marwick herself has lodged stage 3 amendments that have not been debated at stage 2.

The timetabling motion that we have just approved gives amendment 59 more time than any other single amendment today. It gives amendment 59 even more time than the other amendments that I indicated are coming. There is a guaranteed slot of time. If we get through the other amendments quickly, there will be even more time to debate the substance of the issue. The whole Parliament has an opportunity to debate the issue today, which seems proper in the circumstances. The Parliament is more than capable of asking the pertinent questions and scrutinising the issue properly this afternoon. That is perfectly obvious to all members who have witnessed the affairs of the Parliament over a number of months and years. We should get on with debating the issues and scrutinising them properly this afternoon. I suggest that we do that now.

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

The question is, that Mr Russell's motion without notice be agreed to. Are we agreed?

Members:

No.

Division number 1

For: Adam, Brian, Aitken, Bill, Brown, Robert, Campbell, Colin, Crawford, Bruce JP, Cunningham, Roseanna, Douglas-Hamilton, Lord James, Fabiani, Linda, Fergusson, Alex, Fraser, Murdo, Gallie, Phil, Gillon, Karen, Goldie, Miss Annabel, Gorrie, Donald, Grahame, Christine, Hamilton, Mr Duncan, Harding, Mr Keith, Harper, Robin, Hyslop, Fiona, Ingram, Mr Adam, Johnstone, Alex, Lochhead, Richard, MacAskill, Mr Kenny, Marwick, Tricia, Matheson, Michael, McAllion, Mr John, McGrigor, Mr Jamie, McGugan, Irene, McIntosh, Mrs Lyndsay, McLeod, Fiona, McLetchie, David, Monteith, Mr Brian, Morgan, Alasdair, Mundell, David, Neil, Alex, Paterson, Mr Gil, Quinan, Mr Lloyd, Reid, Mr George, Robison, Shona, Russell, Michael, Scanlon, Mary, Scott, John, Sheridan, Tommy, Smith, Elaine, Smith, Mrs Margaret, Stevenson, Stewart, Sturgeon, Nicola, Swinney, Mr John, Tosh, Mr Murray, Ullrich, Kay, Wallace, Ben, Welsh, Mr Andrew, White, Ms Sandra, Wilson, Andrew, Young, John
Against: Alexander, Ms Wendy, Baillie, Jackie, Barrie, Scott, Boyack, Sarah, Brankin, Rhona, Chisholm, Malcolm, Craigie, Cathie, Curran, Ms Margaret, Eadie, Helen, Ferguson, Patricia, Finnie, Ross, Fitzpatrick, Brian, Godman, Trish, Grant, Rhoda, Gray, Iain, Henry, Hugh, Home Robertson, Mr John, Hughes, Janis, Jackson, Dr Sylvia, Jackson, Gordon, Jamieson, Cathy, Jamieson, Margaret, Jenkins, Ian, Kerr, Mr Andy, Lamont, Johann, Livingstone, Marilyn, Lyon, George, Macdonald, Lewis, Macintosh, Mr Kenneth, MacKay, Angus, Maclean, Kate, Macmillan, Maureen, Martin, Paul, McAveety, Mr Frank, McCabe, Mr Tom, McConnell, Mr Jack, McLeish, Henry, McMahon, Mr Michael, McNeil, Mr Duncan, McNeill, Pauline, McNulty, Des, Morrison, Mr Alasdair, Muldoon, Bristow, Mulligan, Mrs Mary, Peacock, Peter, Radcliffe, Nora, Raffan, Mr Keith, Robson, Euan, Scott, Tavish, Simpson, Dr Richard, Smith, Iain, Stephen, Nicol, Stone, Mr Jamie, Thomson, Elaine, Wallace, Mr Jim, Whitefield, Karen, Wilson, Allan
Abstentions: Munro, John Farquhar, Peattie, Cathy

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

The result of the division is: For 55, Against 57, Abstentions 2.

Motion disagreed to.