Legislative Process

– in the Scottish Parliament at 2:30 pm on 15th March 2006.

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Photo of George Reid George Reid None 2:30 pm, 15th March 2006

The next item of business is a debate on improving the legislative process. Members who wish to contribute to the debate should press their request-to-speak buttons now. I call Margaret Curran to open the debate.

Photo of Margaret Curran Margaret Curran Labour 2:33 pm, 15th March 2006

We are now approaching the final year of this, the second session of the Scottish Parliament since devolution. In that time, the Parliament has passed 95 acts of the Scottish Parliament. Of course, that is no virtue in itself, but I argue that those acts have contributed materially to improving the lives of the people of Scotland.

The legislation has covered a huge range of subjects. It includes: legislation on housing and homelessness, which has been independently described as being the most progressive in western Europe; legislation on antisocial behaviour, which is protecting decent families from the unacceptable behaviour of a small minority; the smoking ban, which is the most significant measure in a generation or more to improve public health in Scotland; and the long-overdue legislation to reform land law in Scotland, which will sweep away feudalism and guarantee access and the right of communities to own the land that they live on.

Furthermore, there has been legislation to protect children and adults, and there have been wholesale changes to the law on mental health. Those are laws that I am sure most of us would agree would never have found proper space at Westminster. There are now laws to provide protection for victims of sex offenders, and we have passed the Freedom of Information (Scotland) Act 2002, which is part of a system that offers unparalleled openness and transparency between people and their Government.

That represents a significant achievement by Parliament in the seven short years of its existence—whatever we say in today's debate, I hope that we remember the context of our achievements.

Photo of John Swinney John Swinney Scottish National Party

The minister mentioned a number of acts, many of which have been supported by the Scottish National Party. I am concerned, in terms of the legislation that we pass, about our ability to guarantee that the aims of the legislation are delivered at local authority level effectively and in line with our aspirations. Has the minister—as I have—had concerns raised with her by constituents about the Education (Additional Support for Learning) (Scotland) Act 2004? The concern is that local authorities have not delivered on the aspiration to provide the support for children with special needs for which we in Parliament legislated. Will the Government reflect on how it allocates resources in order that it can ensure that its legislative priorities are delivered by local authorities?

Photo of Margaret Curran Margaret Curran Labour

Mr Swinney raises a range of issues. I have not had specific constituency representations on the matter that he mentioned; I would refer those issues to the portfolio minister. The Executive always monitors the use of resources, the impact that they have and the effectiveness of their use. It is fair to say that there is on-going dialogue between local government and the Executive about how effective use of resources is achieved.

On the more general issue of post-legislative scrutiny, it is important that we all pay attention to the legislation that we pass, that we investigate whether it has the desired impact and that we consider any changes that we might want to make. That is one of the strands that I want this debate to address. Parliament has a reputation for carrying out such scrutiny, in particular through its very robust committee system. However, that does not mean that our minds are closed as to how we can ensure that the legislation that we pass has the desired impact. The conversation with Parliament will continue; I may refer to the matter later in my speech.

As I said, we are coming to the end of this session of Parliament, which is an apposite time for the Executive and Parliament to consider what improvements might be made for the next session so that we can empower new members and those of us who wish to return—

Photo of Margaret Curran Margaret Curran Labour

Can we please strike from the record Alasdair Morgan's laughter at that comment?

We should consider what improvements might be made so that we empower members to make proper use of the legislative systems in Parliament.

Members now have considerable experience as ministers, former ministers, committee members and sponsors of member's bills. Members from other institutions have also visited their wisdom upon us as we have developed our processes—in particular, we are familiar with the Westminster system. I look forward to learning from the experience that can be brought to bear in the debate.

In the course of carrying out my ministerial responsibilities as the Minister for Parliamentary Business, many members approach me—formally and informally—with a range of suggestions and with issues that they want the parliamentary processes to address. I know that my colleagues have the same experience. I appreciate the spirit in which such exchanges are conducted, which is largely constructive. There is a genuine desire among all members to make Parliament work and to ensure that we carry out robust and effective scrutiny.

It is now time to take soundings more formally from Parliament about how we want to take matters forward. Today, I will set out some of the issues that the Executive has identified as being part of the conversation and I will indicate how we want to take the matter forward. I hope that we can consider some of the matters that might be examined.

At the outset, I pay tribute to the work of the Procedures Committee in the current session and in the previous session. Its work has been significant in developing the procedures of Parliament and in allowing us to have settled procedures that work effectively. I have regular conversations with members of the Procedures Committee, most notably the convener. We want to record his assiduous commitment to ensuring that we have appropriate committee procedures. I obviously would not want our work to substitute for the Procedures Committee's work; it will continue to do its work in its own way, but the Executive is interested in any proposals that that committee makes.

In autumn 2004, the Procedures Committee produced a well-researched and invaluable report and many of its recommendations have already been implemented. I know that the Procedures Committee is currently considering the use of parliamentary time more generally and will report on the matter in due course. The Executive will be interested in that work because an effective system of parliamentary scrutiny is at the heart of effective legislation.

Our system should seek to perform two related but distinct functions.

Photo of Sylvia Jackson Sylvia Jackson Labour

On parliamentary scrutiny, the minister will know that the Subordinate Legislation Committee is finishing its inquiry into secondary legislation, from which I am sure there will be many recommendations. One will probably be on the time between stage 2 and stage 3 consideration of a bill. When subordinate legislation powers are inserted into a bill at stage 2, the Subordinate Legislation Committee must consider those powers. The current timescale allows the committee one or possibly two meetings at which to consider them, one of which will usually be in the week of the stage 3 debate, which means that the committee is limited to lodging manuscript amendments if it has concerns about any provisions. The timescale is increasingly becoming a problem.

Photo of Margaret Curran Margaret Curran Labour

I suppose I should take this opportunity formally to pay tribute to another assiduous convener, who certainly makes strong representations to me on interests that arise from her role as convener of the Subordinate Legislation Committee.

I look forward to the detailed report that the committee will produce—Sylvia Jackson will know that we have been heavily engaged in the committee's discussions. Obviously, I will want to read the eventual report and to see what the Subordinate Legislation Committee recommends. I always want to give members in plenary meetings and committee the maximum time that they need in which to undertake their duties. Sylvia Jackson will, however, appreciate that that has to be balanced with ensuring that we get through the legislative programme and that different interests are represented proportionately. However, I assure her that we will consider in detail the question that she has asked and that we will do what we can to give the assurance that the Subordinate Legislation Committee needs to undertake its duties.

Photo of Margaret Curran Margaret Curran Labour

Yes—but this might have to be the last time I give way.

Photo of Margo MacDonald Margo MacDonald Independent

On the same point that my successor as convener of the Subordinate Legislation Committee raised, although I warmly welcome the minister's endorsement of Sylvia Jackson's concern and interest in the subject, can I say that we made the same request as her of one of the minister's predecessors. I do not know that all that much has changed. Warm words are great, but can the Subordinate Legislation Committee have two or three extra days instead?

Photo of Margaret Curran Margaret Curran Labour

I assure Margo MacDonald that we will not look more favourably on the request just because Sylvia Jackson is making it, influential though she is. I will want to go as far as I can in making practical and real improvements in the process. However, before I do that, I want to see the committee's report and ensure that we can properly take into account and address all the different needs that must be balanced.

Photo of Margo MacDonald Margo MacDonald Independent

Will that be before stage 3 of the Bankruptcy and Diligence (Scotland) Bill?

Photo of Margaret Curran Margaret Curran Labour

I must move on. We obviously want to ensure that all interests are properly addressed.

As I said, our system must perform two related but distinct functions. First, it must subject legislation to detailed scrutiny and amendment. As a legislature, we have a duty to ensure that the laws that we pass will be effective and coherent. Parliament has a track record of doing that. I have taken bills through Parliament as a minister and I can confirm that we are put to the test, as is quite proper. We must inquire into the bills that are brought before us and we must propose changes, should they be necessary. Again, we have a significant track record in that area.

Secondly, we must give democratic approval to legislation to ensure that it has the legitimacy to bind the people of Scotland. The Smoking, Health and Social Care (Scotland) Act 2005 is a good example of that. We took the bill through Parliament and the measures have gained widespread support because of the process that was undertaken. The approval of the majority of the people's elected representatives expressed through a vote is what gives legitimacy to laws in a parliamentary democracy. Our process is significant in that respect.

Our parliamentary system has a number of strengths that allow it effectively to carry out its legislative roles. The committee system has rightly been the subject of much praise—I make no apology for repeating that praise. Parliament is sometimes the focus of questioning—that has been the case in the past few weeks—but we should never allow possibly justified reflection to prevent us from noting the international regard in which this Parliament is held. Our committee process is the focus of part of that regard. The committees play a central role in legislation and are regarded as being effective and robust; indeed, they gain widespread praise for being so.

The stage 1 procedure allows committees to investigate subjects in depth, which they do. It also allows stakeholders to express their views in writing and in person. The consultation that we undertake as part of the legislative process is thorough. Again, that has gained recognition. Further scrutiny of bills by the Finance Committee and the Subordinate Legislation Committee ensures that a full picture is given to Parliament before it considers the general principles of bills.

Issues have arisen over how long stage 1 should take and over the assumptions that we should make about that length of time when we are planning parliamentary business. I have received representations on those time issues from many members from all parties in the chamber and I am trying to grapple with those issues.

I am interested in hearing views on what the length of the cycle for a whole bill process should be. I have to consider everything, from the introduction of a bill all the way through to the end of stage 3. I have to consider what factors should be taken into account—the length of a bill, its complexity, its subject matter and the interest in it, all of which could affect that cycle. As the Minister for Parliamentary Business, representing the Executive, I would of course always consult committees on timetables.

Stage 2 is the main scrutiny and revising stage of a bill. The role of the lead committee ensures that that crucial task is carried out with experience and expertise. Other members of Parliament can and do get involved in meetings and in lodging amendments at stage 2—although perhaps not as many members as we would wish. I understand the pressures on members' time, but the wider involvement of members beyond the membership of the lead committee is important to the proper functioning of stage 2. We want to encourage such wider involvement. That also applies to stage 3.

In points of order if not in debates, it has been suggested that stage 3 debates tend to involve mainly committee members rather than a wider range of members. Sometimes, members have felt that they have not had the opportunity to participate properly. There might therefore be an issue about how we can involve members more thoroughly between stage 2 and stage 3. We must consider how members are given information—whether that should be done by means of a formal report or perhaps an oral statement. I would be interested in hearing members' views on that.

A related issue is the level of information that Parliament receives from the Executive before and after the introduction of bills. It may be that other forms of pre-introduction information would be helpful in involving members in the widest possible way. Again, I would welcome views on whether such procedures would allow members to participate more fully in bills, especially at stage 3. Obviously, such involvement would have to be balanced against the already significant responsibilities of members.

So far, our committee system has been very effective in scrutinising the principles and enactment of bills and our system allows the detailed examination that is required. However, there are areas where we can improve—particularly at stage 3—in order to broaden the involvement of members.

In my closing speech, once I have heard members' speeches, I will discuss points that have been made about post-legislative scrutiny. We will have to think about that. Good work has been undertaken, although I do not know how well known that work is. I will want to talk to committees about it.

Many of the issues that I want to make progress on are actually internal issues for the Executive. For example, we have to consider how the legislative programme as a whole is managed and how individual bills go through. We also have to consider collective ministerial decision making; I am seeking to tighten that and have taken action within the Executive—often in response to issues that committees have raised.

However, many of the issues that are at the forefront of my mind are issues for Parliament. Before I move forward, it is important that I hear the broadest possible range of views from members. To date, the discussion across the parties has been constructive; I hope that that can continue. I have to be realistic about the things that we have not managed to achieve in the past, and I have to be pragmatic about what we can seek to do in the future; but we must remain focused on the achievements of devolution and on what has been an effective and robust legislative process.

Photo of Alasdair Morgan Alasdair Morgan Scottish National Party 2:49 pm, 15th March 2006

I thank the minister for bringing the debate to the chamber; I am not sure what we would have been doing this afternoon had she not done so, although I had better not go down that route.

I am speaking for myself and am not taking a party position, and I suspect that other members will bring their individual—or even idiosyncratic—views to the chamber this afternoon.

I suspect that we are going to debate suggestions rather than solutions—that is the nature of this particular beast. I shall talk first about the adequacy of scrutiny—a point that the minister made in respect of stage 3—and particularly the question of how we can get more members involved in what can be complex and challenging issues. If we did manage to get more members involved, how would we balance what I see as being the potential dangers? On the one hand, a small number of members may be well informed but out of synch with the views of Parliament as a whole. On the other hand, there are members who come in at stage 3 who fly in the face of much—or even the majority—of the evidence that is received during stage 1 and stage 2, of which they may be unaware or have not made themselves aware.

We then have the problem of how we rectify any technical or political mistakes that are made at stage 3, which is a real concern. Let us consider the Licensing (Scotland) Bill. This is not a party political point—I will hold my hands up to this one as well. There were passionate speeches at stage 3 by Frank McAveety and others about the dangers of alcoholism. We addressed those dangers by closing off-licences between 9 and 10 in the morning—hardly our most shining hour.

On consultation, it has been argued—and mentioned in a 2004 Procedures Committee report—that there is too much consultation in the earlier stages of legislation. There is Executive consultation before a bill is even introduced and there is stage 1 consultation in committee. However, during the later stages of bills, when quite significant changes can be made, there is often little or no real consultation.

Photo of Mike Rumbles Mike Rumbles Liberal Democrat

I would like to concentrate on the solution. At stage 1 the lead committee produces a report to everybody on the general principles, which is useful. As Alasdair Morgan has outlined, by the time we get to stage 2 people do not know what the issues are. Would a simple solution be for the committee to produce a short report for MSPs at the end of stage 2, before the stage 3 debate?

Photo of Alasdair Morgan Alasdair Morgan Scottish National Party

There might be something in that. Part of the problem is that the issues that are addressed at stage 2—on how the principles that have been debated at stage 1 can be turned into legislative practice—can be rather technical. There is often a gulf between the two stages and totally different arguments can be introduced. Mike Rumbles is right that members have to be informed.

On the possibility of undoing damage that has been done at stage 3, I share the view of the late MEP Allan McCartney that there is a case for our having a second chamber. Given the history of the Parliament over the past few years, however, I would not be straying far from the truth if I was to say that the people of Scotland are not yet up for a second chamber, even if it was to share the same building, which means that it is important that we get things right first time.

On post-legislative scrutiny, Parliament has now passed so many bills—95, I think—that we need to consider what has worked and what has not, but we also have to ask how we could accommodate that post-legislative scrutiny. How would we implement the results of the post-legislative scrutiny? How could it be guaranteed that the results of committees' investigations were translated into Executive action? We pass a lot of bills, but, as John Swinney asked, how do we ensure that the will of Parliament is being obeyed? The Finance Committee has often expressed concerns about financial memoranda—particularly about what the committee sees as the undercosting of Executive proposals. We have a task in examining after the event whether that concern was well-founded, whether the funding was adequate and, if it was not adequate, whether the functions of the bill were fulfilled.

Another issue I want to touch on, given my former membership—which I greatly miss—of the Subordinate Legislation Committee—

Photo of Alasdair Morgan Alasdair Morgan Scottish National Party

Absolutely. Tuesday mornings have never been so empty.

I wish to touch on the balance between statutory instruments and guidance on the one hand, and primary legislation on the other. We are not necessarily getting the balance right. Clearly, there is a difference: the bill decides the principle and the politics, and statutory instruments or guidance decide the changeable details.

However, there is significant and growing criticism here and at Westminster that too much is being left to statutory instruments and guidance and that those are not available early enough in the process to inform debate on bills. If a substantial matter of detail will be in guidance or statutory instruments, those should be available at the same time as the bill. The Legislative and Regulatory Reform Bill that is going through Westminster is a case par excellence of that situation. We all sign up to regulatory reform, but to what extent should it be left to a stroke of the Minister for Parliamentary Business's pen?

Photo of Alasdair Morgan Alasdair Morgan Scottish National Party

Whoever the minister might be—Mr Murphy or otherwise.

The pressure on committees is also significant. Some are heavily overburdened before they take on any post-legislative scrutiny but some have light workloads—non-mandatory workloads at that. Therefore, we need to consider questions such as whether we need a separate Procedures Committee and Standards Committee and whether the Equal Opportunities Committee is necessary or equal opportunities should be mainstreamed. We must remember that the debate is about the legislative process, but much of our work in Parliament is not about that process. In our scrutiny of legislation, we must leave time for our scrutiny of the Executive and we must ensure that that is not squeezed out when we overburden committees with piles of legislation.

We need to prepare the ground for the time when Parliament is a true national and independent Parliament. The overwhelming body of opinion in Scotland realises that we need more powers. In many areas, such as defence and foreign affairs, that would not add to our legislative burdens, but in some areas—particularly the powers that we are more likely to get earlier, such as finance and fiscal powers and perhaps even power over pensions—a considerable amount of law making will be involved. We need to ensure that we are ready to take on those new burdens willingly and capably when they arrive on our doorstep.

The question is not how good the process is, but how good its results are. Others will pass judgment on that, perhaps as soon as next May.

Photo of Bill Aitken Bill Aitken Conservative 2:57 pm, 15th March 2006

At a time when the Parliament finds itself being criticised—extremely unfairly on this occasion—it is worth while underlining some of the achievements to which the minister referred. Since 1999, 95 pieces of legislation have been passed. That was not achieved without a great deal of hard work and commitment on the part of all concerned. I am not saying that I necessarily agree with all the legislation, but I cannot question the commitment. It is also worth while recalling that the first piece of legislation that we passed related to mental health and followed on from the Ruddle case. On that occasion, the Parliament acted swiftly and greatly in the interest of the security of the people of Scotland.

It is right that we should consider what has succeeded, what has failed and what can be improved. Some aspects of the legislative procedure have certainly been successful, but I will run through the stages of a bill and discuss how they can be improved.

The stage 1 debates have, in many respects, been the most interesting of all debates on legislation. On those occasions, the Executive is setting out its stall and is open to attack and question. However, I worry at times about consultation and I must ask whether the present consultation process truly represents the views of the people of Scotland. It is inevitable that, when an issue arises, those who have a particular interest in or an axe to grind on the subject will respond to a consultation, but it appears that the usual suspects respond in many instances. Those vested interests do not give the correct impression. I am not saying that anybody should be precluded from making appropriate representations, but their representations sometimes need to be weighed against the consensus. That could be considered.

The role that is played by the committees at stage 2 has been largely positive. I am not sold on the idea that our committee process is absolutely inviolate or superb, but in general terms it has been a success.

Photo of John Swinney John Swinney Scottish National Party

Before Mr Aitken leaves the subject of stage 1 and the point about hearing evidence only from the usual suspects—a point with which I completely agree—does he accept that, in effect, the power rests with committees to act on that issue now? The committees have it within their remit, scope and responsibilities to say that they are fed up hearing from the usual suspects and that they want to hear evidence from a broader canvas of individuals.

Photo of Bill Aitken Bill Aitken Conservative

The balance is difficult. We would not wish anyone to be excluded from the consultation process. My suggestion is that the appropriate weight should be applied and that the representations of the usual suspects should not carry any extra strength compared with those of the average member of the public.

The committee process has worked. There have been times when the whip has been used ruthlessly to force through legislation that the Executive wishes to pass but with which a committee might not agree. I recall a very interesting exchange at the Justice 2 Committee several years ago, when Hugh Henry made it quite clear that a certain Gorrie amendment to the Criminal Justice (Scotland) Bill would be brought back, despite the real reservations of the majority of committee members. That was an instance of the ruthless application of the whip—it was perhaps a little bit unfortunate.

The real problems have arisen at stage 3. I do not think that the Minister for Parliamentary Business is unsympathetic about this. Sometimes, we rush things through. The First Minister shares that view. One of the Parliament's least glorious moments was during a debate on the Mental Health (Scotland) Bill, when a plethora of last-minute amendments were rushed through, with no time for scrutiny and a basic lack of understanding on the part of the vast majority of members. There simply was not time.

As Alasdair Morgan pointed out, this is a unicameral Parliament—if something goes wrong, the only way that we can put it right is by relegislating. I do not know what the solution is, but we cannot go on in the same manner because, one day, something horrible will happen and we will not be in a position to put it right.

Photo of Stewart Maxwell Stewart Maxwell Scottish National Party

Does the member agree that one of the problems with stage 3 is that there is a limit to the amount of time by which we can extend the period for discussion? I have been involved in stage 3 debates in which a number of members who wanted to contribute were blocked—correctly—by the Presiding Officer, because we had run out of time. The time extensions had been used up and we had no further opportunity. Why is there any block on the length of time by which debates may be extended?

Photo of Bill Aitken Bill Aitken Conservative

I agree absolutely with Mr Maxwell's point. We must look into that. We must ensure that stage 3 is conducted in a manner that is professional but much more leisurely, to ensure that we do not experience the problems that I have outlined.

The committees should do more under the post-legislative process. Having acknowledged that getting through 95 pieces of primary legislation is no mean achievement, I suggest to Ms Curran that there is perhaps no need to legislate to the same extent in the future. There was clearly a backlog from the Westminster situation, which should be getting overtaken now. Legislation should be passed as a last resort, not a first resort.

I do not disagree with all the legislation that has been passed. Some of it has been very good. However, an awful lot of it has been unnecessary and has been conditioned by the fact that the Executive is keen to be seen to do something, rather than simply to utilise the existing law. I sometimes wonder who is advising the Executive. In many instances, the law has been in existence and has needed only to be enforced. We have much still to learn, but progress has genuinely been quite good so far.

Photo of Donald Gorrie Donald Gorrie Liberal Democrat 3:04 pm, 15th March 2006

I welcome the debate, which gives members the opportunity to set out their views on how the Parliament could be run better. The Procedures Committee has no position on these matters because we are still holding an inquiry, but we have on the agenda for our next meeting a discussion of our response to the points raised today—those points will go into the Procedures Committee machine. I am speaking today merely as me, so nobody else will take the blame for anything that I say.

My starting point is this problem: I do not think that the Parliament really exists in a sense—although it obviously exists in one sense. The Executive exists; it does good things and bad things. Each party exists; everyone understands that and fights for their corner. Even the committees exist to some extent; they have their personality and process their legislation. However, the Parliament as a whole does not seem to me to have a persona. The timetabling reflects that, because it is determined entirely by the Executive and the Parliamentary Bureau, which is a sort of trade union gathering of whips, which, by definition, is non-democratic—whips have no connection whatever with democracy. We have to address that.

The Procedures Committee is considering parliamentary time, which has a bearing on the legislative process. Some members have mentioned scrutiny, in relation to which I think that we are failing in our duty. The specific point has been raised with us that after ministerial statements there is often a queue of members waiting to speak when the stumps are drawn, which means that five or six members are deprived of a chance to speak. There follows a debate on a motion such as, "That the Executive is pleased that the sun has risen today", for which the whips drive in members to speak because nobody wants to.

We should have more time for ministerial statements and less time for Executive motions, many of which are extremely vacuous and pointless. They would be less pointless if motions were lodged earlier and there could be more discussion about amendments that might reflect areas in which there is agreement and disagreement between parties. We should not hide the fact that we have disagreements, but the way in which we conduct a lot of debates conceals areas of agreement and disagreement. The timetable for such debates should be extended.

We should have more scope for members to make a serious contribution other than just at 5 o'clock. If members say anything interesting in their motion, it is not allowed to be discussed.

The Procedures Committee has been visiting other Parliaments. I visited Catalonia and Norway, which have a procedure called interpellations, which is not a word that comes to us readily. We need not have exactly the same system, but the idea behind it is that a member can pursue a general policy issue. He or she gets half an hour for an interchange of speeches with the relevant minister. If other members think that the issue is good, he or she can lodge a motion, which is voted on. We could have motions saying that the Executive should do X; if they were agreed to, the Executive would have to do X. That would provide real power.

Photo of Donald Gorrie Donald Gorrie Liberal Democrat

Yes.

We need more time to consider legislation at stage 2 and stage 3. I am a great believer in negotiation, discussion, studying amendments to try to make them more sensible and finding out where the weight of opinion lies. At the moment, both the preliminaries and the debate are far too rushed. There must be more time for lodging amendments, which would give us time to adjust them through negotiation to make them more acceptable.

Ministers are too defensive about the details of bills. Obviously the main thrust is important, but ministers could have much more sensible dialogue on the details. I hope that we can get more co-operation between the parties and between committees and ministers. Everyone who wishes to speak at stage 3—either on an amendment or in the full debate—should be called. That would be a step towards our having a bit more democracy.

It is important that we try to involve more non-committee members in such matters. The minister referred to that. We could have seminars. A colleague on the Procedures Committee suggested that, at the end of stage 2, the committee convener could make a statement in the chamber to set out the state of play. There have been a lot of good ideas about ways in which we could involve people more. We do not involve ourselves enough in matters to do with other committees. Post-legislative scrutiny is extremely important, but the time for it must be ring fenced so that the committee cannot be bullied by the minister into not doing such scrutiny properly. At the moment, the committees are bullied by ministers and are too spineless adequately to resist them.

Photo of Gordon Jackson Gordon Jackson Labour 3:10 pm, 15th March 2006

The fact that we are having this debate implies that there is room for improvement and that the system could be better. That is true and it is what we will focus on today.

Without being sycophantic to the minister, however, it is important to say that there are some good features about what we do. The early stage of the process is good. The detailed consideration that the subject committees give to proposals at stage 1 is extremely useful. I take Bill Aitken's point that, sometimes, we talk only to the usual suspects. However, the process gives an opportunity for those who are outside Parliament but who have an interest in the legislation to present evidence. At the very least, that means that members of the committee come to the bill with a much greater understanding of the issue than would otherwise be the case. I think that that results in better legislation. My view is that, through that process, we have avoided to some extent a situation in which we identify problems only after the legislation has come into force. Any lawyer has experience of such a situation with regard to other legislation. We front load our consideration in a useful way.

However, there is genuine disquiet about the process thereafter. Having spoken to members, I am aware that there is a widespread feeling that there is insufficient time before the stage 2 amendment phase and that members do not get sufficient opportunity fully to consider the issues involved. I am not sure how far I go along with that general view. My experience is that, no matter how much time people are given, they leave things until the last minute anyway. However, sometimes the time between lodging amendments, having the minister consider them and having them debated is too compressed. Similarly, at stage 3, members often have too little time to consider amendments before they are debated. As has often been suggested, by Donald Gorrie in particular, the actual time for debate at stage 3 can often appear less than adequate.

Photo of Tricia Marwick Tricia Marwick Scottish National Party

Does the member agree that one of the other problems that we have at stage 2 and stage 3 is that the Executive tends to lodge substantive amendments that have not been consulted on at stage 1 and which can radically change the bill?

Photo of Gordon Jackson Gordon Jackson Labour

I do not have the expertise to say how often that happens. The minister will no doubt deal with that point. I agree, however, that the timescale can be too compressed sometimes and that members do not have sufficient time.

Of course, none of that would matter if, as Donald Gorrie suggested, we were all just lobby fodder for the Executive or our whips. However, we do not want to be that. It is in everyone's interest for us to produce the best possible legislation. Members need ample opportunity to consider and deal with amendments.

As Sylvia Jackson noted, we do not deal only with Executive-led primary legislation. A huge amount of our law making is done via subordinate legislation. Here, again, there is room for improvement. As Sylvia Jackson mentioned that issue, I will not go into it in detail. The Subordinate Legislation Committee has been conducting a full inquiry on that matter and will soon finalise its report, which will include proposals. Already, the committee is in discussion with the minister and her officials.

I am conscious that, to most members, the Subordinate Legislation Committee is a twilight world staffed by parliamentary anoraks, but it is the sort of committee that members realise how good it is only once they have left it. However, most of us cannot get off it. Having said that, subordinate legislation is extremely important. With more hope than anything else, I urge members to take an interest in the Subordinate Legislation Committee's report and proposals when they are published. There is room for improvement and I hope that, with the minister, we will be able to make changes without adversely affecting the Executive's work. I do not want to go into detail on that—the Deputy Presiding Officer, Murray Tosh, knows the detail and he will be more than happy that I do not propose to go into it—but I flag up the issue because members should be aware of it. Subordinate legislation is an important part of our legislative process and a little interest in it would be no bad thing.

We also have private bills, as Tricia Marwick knows. I suspect that she will talk about that, but my experience on the Waverley Railway (Scotland) Bill committee suggests that we need to reform the private bills procedure. I think that we took the current procedure from Westminster; I do not know how well the procedure worked there, but in our context it is extremely lengthy and cumbersome and it places a huge burden on the members involved. If members ever see their whip approaching them to suggest that they should get involved in a private bill committee, they should dive under the table.

The burden on members is not that important—although I think that, as members of private bill committees, we spend a huge amount of time on things that we have no real expertise on and for which we are unsuitable—but members of the public are affected terribly by the cumbersome procedure. In relation to the Waverley railway proposal, some people's lives have been blighted because they have been put into limbo for much longer than is necessary. For them, that is not a trivial matter. I do not know whether we need private bills for such projects—we might have them only because of an historical anomaly—but we need to do something to improve the system. If I wanted to be cynical, I would say that there would be a huge clamour for change if all members were involved in the private bills procedure from time to time.

Having said that, I applaud the Executive for holding a debate on the issue. On questions of reform, there is a healthy lack of complacency in the Parliament. I sincerely believe that there is a genuine desire to improve the ways in which we do things.

Photo of Carolyn Leckie Carolyn Leckie SSP 3:17 pm, 15th March 2006

I agree with almost everything that Donald Gorrie said. He seems to have been liberated from his whip. However, as a member of the Parliamentary Bureau, I want to stick up for myself. I am not a whip but a representative on the bureau because the Scottish Socialist Party does things democratically. Perhaps we can share some lessons with the other parties.

Today's debate needs to be placed in the context of the definition of democracy. It is supposed to mean government by the people for the people. When we talk about the legislative process, we should test it against that definition and ask ourselves how much influence the people have. The consultation phase and stage 1 consideration at least allow the usual suspects to have an input, but things get worse as we get to stage 3 because by then it is only the usual suspects who can influence the process. Only the keen, the vigilant and the motivated are in a position to influence the outcome of stage 3 debates. People's ability to participate at that stage of the legislative process is extremely limited. Given members' comments so far, I think that everyone would agree with that.

The Parliament could do better in areas where it has power. There is a big issue about areas where it does not have power, but I will not revisit that in detail today. I will concentrate on members' bills. People will know that Scottish Socialist Party members have taken a number of members' bills through the legislative process—or have sought to do that, if we can get them past stage 1. We have conducted a number of consultations on a number of issues. Again, that needs to be tested against the principle of democracy. For example, it is clear that there was overwhelming civic support for the Abolition of NHS Prescription Charges (Scotland) Bill, but did the legislative process match the test of government by the people for the people? It did not.

Photo of Mike Rumbles Mike Rumbles Liberal Democrat

The Health Committee agreed to the general principles of that bill at stage 1, but it would not have been entitled to produce a report at stage 2. This morning, an ad hoc committee—the Interests of Members of the Scottish Parliament Bill Committee—finished its work. We on that committee disagreed on several points with the Standards and Public Appointments Committee, but as the ad hoc committee no longer exists, we have no way to inform other members of what we thought. A report at stage 2 would help.

Photo of Carolyn Leckie Carolyn Leckie SSP

I agree absolutely. Resources are also involved—I will talk about that later.

I hope that everybody has sympathy with the interests of small parties, which are a democratic matter. We are not represented on all the committees and it is very difficult to keep track of the detail of what is happening when we do not have somebody who is close to a subject to advise us of what has happened. At stage 3, amendments can be quite controversial and we rely on our researchers to identify the issues and form an opinion at short notice. If resources permitted, everybody would benefit from summary briefings on stage 3 amendments. That might produce more informed stage 3 debates on the detail of amendments.

I agree absolutely that time should not be guillotined and that nobody should be prevented from participating in a debate. Stage 3 appears to be hurried. Stage 3 of the Licensing (Scotland) Bill, which has been mentioned, is the epitome of how not to do it. Politically, that debate ended up as a race to take the most holier-than-thou attitude to licensing—it was almost as if the Band of Hope had appeared in the Parliament that day. Bruce Crawford has not been mentioned, but he must take the blame, alongside members such as Frank McAveety and—what is his name?—Paul Martin.

Photo of Stewart Maxwell Stewart Maxwell Scottish National Party

Bruce Crawford is not here to defend himself, but surely it is unfair to castigate members who hold serious opinions about, and who take a firm stand on, alcohol abuse in our society. Whether Carolyn Leckie agrees or disagrees with those points, those members are entitled to make them.

Photo of Murray Tosh Murray Tosh Conservative

Okay—point made. Ms Leckie has one minute.

Photo of Carolyn Leckie Carolyn Leckie SSP

Bruce Crawford is absolutely entitled to his view, but he took the whole SNP with him in the vote. The result was a licensing debacle. Yes—others disagreed, but that is democracy. Someone who expresses such views does not have to take their whole party with them. However, we are in danger of revisiting the licensing debate.

More time to consider the consequences of decisions that could be taken at stage 3 of the Licensing (Scotland) Bill might have avoided the situation in which we find ourselves. In such situations, procedure can very much influence policy and the Parliament's reputation. I strongly suggest that stage 3 should be re-examined; I know that there is sympathy for that view.

To wind up on members' bills

Photo of Carolyn Leckie Carolyn Leckie SSP

Equality of access to resources is needed to develop members' bills, to research them and to obtain help with drafting.

Photo of Carolyn Leckie Carolyn Leckie SSP

The Parliament was based on power sharing. Equality of resources is needed to achieve that.

Photo of Christine Grahame Christine Grahame Scottish National Party 3:23 pm, 15th March 2006

I agree with various points by various members. I share Bill Aitken's view that too much legislation has been introduced. I did not know that 95 acts had been passed—it feels like more. That has had an impact on our scrutiny of bills. Another issue is whether we needed legislation in the first place or whether aims could have been achieved under the existing law or through policy changes.

Members are right that, in general, stage 1 has been reasonable. I say that as a member of committees and as a former convener of the Justice 1 Committee and the Health Committee. However, stage 2 and stage 3 need to be revisited. Committees have very little time to consider some stage 2 amendments. The number of substantive stage 3 amendments to the Mental Health (Care and Treatment) (Scotland) Bill, on which no evidence could be taken and which could not even be discussed, brought the Parliament into disrepute.

However, there have been high moments at stage 3. I remember stage 3 of the Adults with Incapacity (Scotland) Bill when we debated the proposed section on hydration and artificial nutrition. That was a serious moral debate in which—Carolyn Leckie will be glad to know—whips were not in operation and parties allowed members to vote according to their personal view. That was one of the high moments in the Parliament's debates.

Post-legislative scrutiny must be carried out, but I will come to that issue when I deal with the role of regulations.

Other good measures that the Parliament has introduced include free personal care, the issue of consent in the Adults with Incapacity (Scotland) Act 2000 and the important asset of the Freedom of Information (Scotland) Act 2002. Although some members might wish that freedom of information legislation had not been used by the press, many of us make use of the act. Another important measure is the Planning etc (Scotland) Bill, which might not be the sexiest or most interesting bill but is terribly worthy.

However, a problem with the Planning etc (Scotland) Bill is that the bill amends existing legislation rather than provide for things in its own right. That just makes a mess of things. The bill is cumbersome and has been approached in the wrong way. I think that ministers and their legislative staff could have found a better way to draft that legislation.

The real issue, as I mentioned previously, is the impact of regulations. The meat of the legislation is often to be found in regulations, yet substantive draft regulations have frequently not been available at stage 2. As every lawyer knows—and as everyone who has been on the end of the law will be aware—the devil is in the detail. That is what lead committees want most of all.

I will move on to other issues because I want to pick up on points that have been made. Ministers could extend our freedom of information regime by using the provision in the act that enables them to extend the legislation to other agreed agencies. Freedom of information should be extended to housing associations, which are currently exempt despite the substantial role that they play in housing. An interesting point is that, under the equivalent legislation in South Africa, any private company that has a contract for services that are wholly publicly funded is subject to freedom of information legislation, which extends to the terms of the contract. In Scotland, information on public-private partnership/private finance initiative deals is denied to MSPs because we are told that commercially sensitive information belongs to the private company. That makes something of a farce of openness and scrutiny.

At the moment, the Communities Committee is like a sausage machine for legislation. It is not good for the well-being of committee members to be continually given legislation. They need to be kept flexible by having the opportunity to conduct inquiries and have a balance in their work. Some inquiries could even relate to the legislation that comes before the committee. There is a danger that some committees will become standing committees and lose the scrutiny function that they perform in inquiries. That is certainly what has happened to the Communities Committee.

Another issue is that members' bills seem to get hijacked these days. Very few members' bills have been passed. For example, Stewart Maxwell's Prohibition of Smoking in Regulated Areas (Scotland) Bill was taken over by the Executive. The Executive also took over my proposed member's bill, which was taken into regulations. Members wonder whether there is any point in introducing a member's bill because any good idea will get nicked and the member will usually not get the credit.

Presiding Officer, I am not sure how much time I have remaining because of the funny clock.

Photo of Murray Tosh Murray Tosh Conservative

I usually call "One minute" when a member has one minute left. I promise to do so.

Photo of Christine Grahame Christine Grahame Scottish National Party

Let me make my final point. Many members of different parties are frustrated that the Parliament can deal only with devolved issues but the reserved issues impact greatly on what we are trying to do. I know that the minister sincerely wants to eradicate fuel poverty, child poverty and poverty amongst our pensioners—

Photo of Christine Grahame Christine Grahame Scottish National Party

However, until we can deal with housing benefit, pensions and macro-economics, the Executive's hands are tied. If the SNP came into Government under the same rules—although they will not remain the same—our hands would be tied. A huge issue is how we can turn Scotland round in things that matter while this Parliament does not have powers over those major issues.

I remind the minister, in addition to all the procedural points that I have made, that devolution is a process rather than an end in itself.

Photo of Susan Deacon Susan Deacon Labour 3:29 pm, 15th March 2006

Less than a decade ago, we could not have had this debate. At that point, the desire to have legislative powers was only an aspiration, whereas today it is a reality. Picking up from where Christine Grahame left off, I suggest that it is worth reminding ourselves that our ability to have this debate is a product of the fact that people worked long and hard for decades on end to get us a legislature in Scotland. Many other members have started off by highlighting the Parliament's achievements, but it is perhaps worth reminding ourselves of the big-ticket achievement that got us here.

That said, some issues demand immediate attention to improve the way in which we do business. As the minister said, this point towards the end of the second session feels as good a point as any to get serious about doing that work. A comment was made about the usual suspects going to committees: some members feel like the usual suspects in debates such as this one in the Parliament.

The major point that I will emphasise is not about what changes should take place; it is about how we can make progress with some of the ideas that we have. Many of the themes that have emerged in the debate have, to be frank, been aired in many other places. There is a serious question mark about how we make progress with those ideas. The Executive or the Parliament, or even a part of the Parliament, cannot in isolation make improvements. The different bits of the institutions work on some aspects, but there is no mechanism to bring together a programme of work, action and improvement.

I am doubly burdened. As well as being a usual suspect on process and a self-confessed anorak— like many members who are here—I used to work in management consultancy. Any self-respecting professional organisation, whether in the public or private sector, whether a business or a charity and including institutions of government and governance, needs to have in place ways of reviewing how the organisation functions, considering how improvements can be made and providing opportunities for people to feed in ideas and reflect on their experiences. We do not have such opportunities in any systematic way. The one idea or plea that I leave on the table is that we put in place a mechanism to provide that.

Members may say that we have a Procedures Committee, or they may take from what I have said that I advocate another committee. I do not. The committee process will not achieve what is needed. That process has and must have a place, for example, in taking formal decisions about changing the Parliament's rules, procedures or standing orders, but a different form of discussion, dialogue and work needs to take place if we are to make progress. For example, how do we draw on the research that external people have done on the devolution project? Just last week, the minister and I attended a conference in which there were presentations on six years of work by the Economic and Social Research Council on how devolution has functioned. How do we draw on that work coherently and collectively in reflecting on how we can improve in the future?

I will not prescriptively suggest what the mechanisms may look like, but I feel passionately that the gap needs to be filled and that if we do not do so, we will continually return to debates such as this one, float lots of ideas and make progress on bits of them—when people feel clear in their roles and responsibilities—but we will not get a grip on a meaningful programme of improvement. As we have heard this afternoon, members would be happy to engage in such a programme.

I have a wider point about time. The First Minister once famously said—he perhaps regretted it afterwards—that we need to do less, better. While we can debate the wisdom of that comment or how it might be applied, in the present terrain it is as good a guiding principle as any. Serious issues arise about the amount of legislation that the Parliament passes and about how individual members spread themselves thinly over a range of activities.

Alasdair Morgan pointed out that, as the Parliament does not simply produce legislation, we need to consider how to give due time and attention to our other areas of work in the Parliament. I will widen that out and say that we need to give due time and attention to all the other work that members do in their constituencies, with local communities and on the wider national stage, where we engage in all sorts of debate and discussion on public policy and other aspects of Scottish public life.

I worry that the Parliament's publication on what MSPs do describes in great detail the legislative process, but barely mentions the range of other work that we do and try to do well. We all want to feel that we do what we do well but, sadly, no matter how hard we try, achieving that is all too often a real uphill struggle—it is hard to put our hand on our heart and say that we have achieved it.

If we go from here and put in place a means of continuing not just this conversation, but taking forward action from it, not only will we feel better about the job we do, we will be able to point to the fact that this institution is fulfilling its potential and delivering real and positive change for the people of Scotland.

Photo of Chris Ballance Chris Ballance Green 3:35 pm, 15th March 2006

As has been said, because ours is a unicameral Parliament, the scrutiny that goes on outside takes the place of a second chamber. Civic Scotland is the second chamber of this Parliament. I therefore suggest that not just pre-legislative scrutiny is important; it is also vital that we enable civic Scotland to get involved throughout stages 2 and 3. That means that we need greater notice of stage 2 and 3 debates and longer to lodge amendments.

We need to have enough notice, so that not only professional lobbyists, who are paid to look at and respond to the Business Bulletin every day, but voluntary organisations with no paid lobbyists—the people who work on the ground—have a schedule that enables them to get involved with legislation and its processes.

We need longer to discuss bills at stage 3 and we need longer to look at stage 2 amendments. There is a particular concern about amendments that do not arise from the evidence that is heard at stage 1. At the moment, we have no mechanism for assessing properly amendments that have not been covered in evidence heard at stage 1. Such amendments are frequently lodged.

In its 2004 report, the Procedures Committee said, at paragraph 3,

"that enough time should be allocated for Stage 1 and Stage 3 debates to allow all those who wish to contribute to do so".

That has not yet happened. Although I am keen that we keep to the 9 am to 6 pm, family-friendly working hours of this Parliament, there is a strong case for allowing an extension into the evening for stage 3 debates, to allow more people to contribute.

Photo of Carolyn Leckie Carolyn Leckie SSP

As I said in my speech, I agree that there should not be a guillotine in stage 3 debates. It does not necessarily follow that the working day is extended because the debate is extended.

Photo of Chris Ballance Chris Ballance Green

That is true to an extent, although it becomes complicated when we do not know until we get into the chamber exactly how many members want to get involved with a particular amendment. There are logistical difficulties.

My final point relates to resources, particularly to the way in which the resources of the non-Executive bills unit are divided up. There will always be limited resources: the question is how we divide them up. The decision that the Scottish Parliamentary Corporate Body—on which my party is not represented—took last year was that bills should not receive drafting support unless they are simple, narrow in scope and short. That decision was fundamentally unsound. We ought to put resources into legislation that has the cross-party support of most members of Parliament and from outside in Scotland—in other words, legislation that is important to Scotland and stands a good chance of being passed. It is important that the legislative process is not the Executive's process and that it belongs to back benchers.

Photo of Richard Baker Richard Baker Labour 3:39 pm, 15th March 2006

Although discussions on our legislative processes are not always great crowd-pullers, nothing can be more important than how we make law in this chamber and this afternoon's very constructive debate has highlighted many good ideas.

This debate and, indeed, previous discussions, have been marked by a general recognition of key areas where we must improve our legislative process. Some contentious debates have highlighted the current pinchpoints. Although the process has been improved, we will no doubt have to make further improvements, which is why this debate is so useful.

The Executive has worked hard on measures that have already improved the process, particularly with regard to pre-legislative scrutiny, which some members have referred to. Chris Ballance touched on how we consult wider Scotland, not just those whom other people have referred to as "the usual suspects". I have to say that I think those usual suspects feel that they suffer from consultation overload. We can address that problem by trying to reach beyond the usual consultees, to those who traditionally have not been consulted enough. John Swinney was right to say that committees could concentrate more on that.

Our consultation on the Smoking, Health and Social Care (Scotland) Bill and on the Antisocial Behaviour etc (Scotland) Bill, which involved communities throughout the country, showed that we can secure views from a far wider section of the population.

Another area of progress with regard to pre-legislative scrutiny is the publication of draft bills. At first, people, particularly those outside the chamber, feared that by choosing to publish a draft bill the Executive would limit the frame of debate on proposed legislation. That has not happened. Indeed, it has improved legislation. For example, the draft Further and Higher Education (Scotland) Bill attracted a great deal of debate. That interest helped to inform the overall debate and, because ministers were prepared to listen to comments about the draft, it resulted in better legislation. The Executive should expand and build on that practice.

It has been suggested to the Procedures Committee that members who are not directly involved with bills should receive more information on their progress after stage 1. That would be useful, as indeed would some kind of ministerial or committee report after stage 2, to outline the progress of legislation and how it has changed.

The debate has tended to centre on stage 3. When I first took part in a stage 3 debate, I was, like other members, hugely surprised by the brevity of the debates on crucial issues. I had assumed that, as it was the last chance to amend the bill, there would be adequate time to do so. The Procedures Committee has already proposed to give the Presiding Officers greater flexibility in, for example, allocating time for discussing amendments and stipulating an hour for the open debate.

As members have said, this is not just a matter of the Parliament's procedures; it is a political issue about the allocation of chamber time. We need further progress in this area. I realise that, more often than not, a full day is allocated to stage 3 debates, but I hope that the Parliamentary Bureau and the parties will consider how further time can be allocated to ensure that vital debates at stage 3 are given the necessary time.

On post-legislative scrutiny, I hope that committees can be afforded time to examine the impacts of legislation once it has been passed and that the Executive can report to them on such matters. We all know that committees are already under huge work and time pressure. Perhaps the Procedures Committee will examine this issue in its inquiry on the structure of the parliamentary week, which will, after all, impact on stage 3 debates. However, I take Carolyn Leckie's point that any extension of stage 3 need not go into our family-friendly hours, but could be carried over into the next day.

The situation is evolving, and this kind of debate shows how well chamber time can be used. I hope that, as the legislative process evolves, we can have further such debates to give all members the opportunity to inform the process and reach the stage that we all want to get to.

Photo of Murray Tosh Murray Tosh Conservative

I express my regrets to Ms Marwick, but we have to move now to the closing speeches. I call Iain Smith, who will have six minutes.

Photo of Iain Smith Iain Smith Liberal Democrat 3:45 pm, 15th March 2006

On a cold—and now, I think, wet—afternoon such as this, only those of us who have anoraks have come up to the Hub for the debate. Nevertheless, it is a useful debate to have.

One of the advantages of being a young Parliament is that we are not set in our ways and are willing to consider revising our procedures so that we can make improvements. Before we start doing that, however, we should remember that it is not all bad. This Parliament has quite a good, robust legislative process that is the envy of many other Parliaments, particularly because of our stage 1 procedures which, by and large, work extremely well.

Our stage 1 process has improved significantly since the Parliament began, particularly as the Executive has become more comfortable with it, has engaged positively with committees and has come back with recommendations on how to proceed based on the evidence that committees have taken. That is extremely useful.

Stage 1 allows the wider community to get involved in the legislative process in a way that does not happen in some other Parliaments—particularly Westminster. It allows for proper engagement with civic Scotland and others who may be directly affected, to ensure that we get it right. It is important that we do that, because we do not have a revising chamber. We have to get it right first time. We do not have the opportunity of batting bills on to another place to correct our errors; we have to get the bill—or at least the general direction of the bill—right at stage 1.

We have to be clear about defining what is meant by the general principles of a bill. Stage 1 is supposed to be consideration of the general principles, yet nobody has ever quite defined what is meant by that phrase. Committees consider much wider issues than the general principles of bills; they examine the details and suggest amendments that may be needed. We have never had a clear definition of what is meant by the general principles, which has an impact on what can be amended at stages 2 and 3.

Carolyn Leckie spoke about democracy and the democratic process. We must bear in mind that this is a legislative Parliament. We are all legislators and we have an important role to play, but the driver for the legislative programme will always be the democratically elected Executive. We have a democratic mandate from the public to put forward a programme for government, and that will always drive the legislative programme. For all Carolyn Leckie's complaints about members' bills, the reality is that hers is a small, minority party that does not have the support of the general public, and it is trying to force through a separate programme for government that is not the one the Parliament has agreed.

Some changes could still be made to the way in which members' bills are handled. We made some improvements to the members' bills process while I was convener of the Procedures Committee, but we need to look further at the matter. We might be able to resolve some of the resource issues if we have a pre-legislative stage that allows the Parliament to determine whether it supports the proposal and the need for legislation before a bill is drafted and assigned to a committee, as happens with committee bills. There is a stage missing in the process. Perhaps the process for members' bills should be a bit more like the process for committee bills.

We have talked quite a bit about stages 2 and 3. We can always ask for more time for amendments between stages and at the stages, but Gordon Jackson was right to remark that, whatever guideline is set, people will always run up to those buffers and there will always be complaints that there is not enough time to meet deadlines. When I was convener of the Procedures Committee, a report by that committee introduced some improvements to that system, particularly to try to ensure that there is at least a full weekend between the deadline for amendments and the discussion by the committee, so that members have at least that much time. Previously, amendments could appear on a Monday for debate on a Wednesday, which was most unsatisfactory.

I do not think that we have got stage 3 right yet. We need to look at it again. There is nothing new under the sun, as they say. I have been looking again at the consultative steering group's report. Being an anorak, I have one of the few remaining copies. The section on the legislative stages of bills states:

"The third stage of the Bill should be a debate and final vote on the Bill, as amended in Committee. The Bill returned to the Plenary from the subject Committee should be accompanied by a report explaining the Committee's reasons for the amendments made. Plenary should then consider the Committee report. Further amendments should be allowed at this stage. Standing Orders should specify tight criteria for what sorts of amendments might be moved."

If we had introduced that CSG recommendation into our standing orders at the start, we might not have had some of the problems that we have had at stage 3.

There is a tendency to rehearse at stage 3 the debates that should have taken place at stage 1 and stage 2. Stage 3 should be about revising the bill to ensure that it is consistent throughout; we should not go over previous debates.

We must consider the pressure that the legislative process places on committees. A heavy burden is placed on some committees, which limits their ability to perform their other significant functions such as scrutiny of the Executive and, perhaps more important, scrutiny of outside bodies. We do not carry out enough scrutiny of bodies such as the Scottish Qualifications Authority and Scottish Water. Committees should have more time to conduct inquiries. Most important, committees need to be able to carry out post-legislative scrutiny. Many committees are not able to do that to a significant extent because they do not have the time to do so.

The parliamentary session lasts for four years, but we still have a mad annual rush to get bills through in a year. We should consider how we can plan the legislative timetable more wisely. Perhaps the Procedures Committee can address that when it examines the programme of the Parliament. Significant improvements could be made without throwing the baby out with the bath water.

Photo of Alex Johnstone Alex Johnstone Conservative 3:51 pm, 15th March 2006

It has become something of a cliché for members who wind-up for their parties to say that the debate has been useful. I will not change that: this has been a very useful debate.

The debate has been particularly useful for me because I learned something of value. The Minister for Parliamentary Business made it clear that she has indulged in conversation on this subject with business managers and others in the Parliament. I was involved in one of those conversations. I can tell members that my role tended to be to listen. The debate has been particularly useful because the formality of Parliament has allowed a true exchange of views. Nevertheless, parliamentary procedure will—as ever—deliver the last word to the Minister for Parliamentary Business.

It became obvious during some of the opening speeches that there has been a glut of legislation since the Scottish Parliament came into being. I once heard it said that there are those in Scotland—not only in the Parliament—who believe that we have been catching up on a 300-year backlog. Anyone who has sat on any of the major committees in the Parliament could well believe that 300 years'-worth of legislation has been passed during the past seven years.

The minister said that the Parliament has passed some 95 bills. I agree with Jack McConnell and Susan Deacon: it is perhaps time the Parliament learned to do less, better.

Timescales seem to tax most minds, particularly that of Donald Gorrie. Now that he has become the convener of the Procedures Committee, the issue will go up the parliamentary agenda accordingly.

It is particularly concerning that so many members have expressed worries about whether the parliamentary process permits proper scrutiny. There are issues about the adequacy of scrutiny during the pre-legislative stage 1 process. Many members have also made a good case for the introduction of a report at stage 2 to inform Parliament about what happened during that stage. That would sit well with the excellent stage 1 reports that are already produced and which we debate at length in Parliament. However, the matter that has caused most concern—and has done for some time—is how the stage 3 process operates.

Stage 3 provides us with an excellent opportunity to consider amendments at length, but one or two things that have crept into the process cause grave concern. The first, which has been discussed in the past and which Tricia Marwick raised today, is the fact that, occasionally, amendments appear at stage 3 that have not figured in the consultation process. If Parliament is asked, on the final day of debate before the bill is passed, to pass judgment on matters that were not part of the bill at any previous stage, there is a grave danger that we will pass law that is inappropriate, inadequate or bad.

The second issue, which has become Donald Gorrie's hobby-horse and on which I increasingly agree with him, is the fact that we do not give adequate time to stage 3. I know what Donald Gorrie has said about that, but I also know that during the two years when I was a business manager in the Parliament there was never at any stage an attempt to prevent time being allocated to discussion.

If the Parliament's ideals are to be adhered to, and if we are to keep the family-friendly notion, it must be possible to predict when business will finish. Consequently, timetabling motions become a kind of necessary evil. However, I increasingly take the view that we are in danger of passing bad legislation by pursuing that particular practice.

I will not offer members a solution, but I will say that Donald Gorrie has ensured that we will consider timetabling in the Procedures Committee's inquiry report. I will take my place in the process to ensure that we take radical decisions on recommendations about how we might best achieve some kind of expansion of time. I must say that Carolyn Leckie's suggestion that we could have more time without using up any more of the parliamentary day takes us into the theory of relativity a bit further than I was previously prepared to go, but if we are going to warp time perhaps we could not do it for a better reason.

The debate has been interesting and a number of issues that the Parliament must address have been raised. If we are to make legislating a sound process, we must do less, better. We must spend more time on bills, particularly at stage 3. We must have more time to consider amendments at the latter stages. I believe that there have been one or two embarrassing pieces of legislation, but there has not been a disaster. The legislative roof has not fallen in quite yet.

Members:

Ooh!

Photo of Alex Johnstone Alex Johnstone Conservative

I believe that this debate is the start of a process that might help us avoid that.

Photo of John Swinney John Swinney Scottish National Party 3:57 pm, 15th March 2006

It is my pleasure to close this debate for the SNP, particularly as the minister started the debate by making a helpful contribution when she said that there was now a well-established consensus that we were all here to make the Parliament work. That, of course, is a view that I have always taken about the Parliament. However, I do not remember that featuring in much of what the minister and her party said during the 1999 Scottish parliamentary election campaign, when some of us in the SNP were accused of being, dare I say it, likely wreckers of the Parliament. Nothing could be further from the truth, as can be seen from the way in which we have deployed our skills and energies over the past seven years. There will be no change in our approach over the next 12 months and beyond. The consensus that we are here to make the Parliament work—that we are determined to do so—is important.

The consensus in the debate is that we need to consider the Parliament's procedures and how we handle much of our business, and we have an opportunity to undertake that work. However, I caution members that we should avoid an endless review of the issue. What was said in the debate sounded a bit like we were preparing for another Scottish Executive consultation on process.

I have every sympathy with Susan Deacon's point that as there is consensus among members that certain issues must be addressed, we should just get on with doing that speedily and consensually. I certainly do not detect among members a great deal of dispute about the issues that we could undertake to address to make a quantum difference to how we all feel about the process in which we are involved.

There are a number of technical points that we can take forward as legislators to improve the process, and members articulated them well. There is the possibility of producing a report at the end of stage 2, and Iain Smith quoted from the consultative steering group report—all of that is eminently sensible. There is also consensus about the importance of ensuring that stage 3 is undertaken more effectively than happens at present. We could make progress in that respect.

I joined the Finance Committee a number of months ago, and I have been horrified to see the way in which the financial provisions in bills are dealt with. I recognise that the Finance Committee has expressed for a long time its concerns about sparse and threadbare information on the financial consequences of bills and about financial memorandums not being particularly well drafted or crafted before the Finance Committee considers them.

Those are some of the technical points that we can undoubtedly address, and I hope that we can do so swiftly and speedily—whether through the Procedures Committee or through consensus in the Parliament. I think that that consensus exists.

Not all the issues that concern us will be addressed by means of technical changes; some of them will require the political atmosphere and culture of this Parliament to change. A number of members have spoken of their frustration at the way in which the whips operate. Here I am—poacher turned gamekeeper, former party leader—now thinking that whips have to be treated with care and respect rather than just being those who enforce everything that party leaders dictate. However, other members and I are frustrated, and members of the public cannot believe it, when we hear a sound argument made in Parliament—one that expresses a view that we know is widely shared across the political spectrum, often on points of detail in legislation—and see that the argument has been convincingly won, but then find that it is lost in the vote because the whipping structure of Parliament has so decreed. I am not talking about the big strategic flashpoints of debate on which we all have our set opinions—

Photo of John Swinney John Swinney Scottish National Party

I will, in just a moment.

Donald Gorrie said that he felt that ministers were too defensive of the detail of legislation, and I support his view. There should be a relaxation of the political culture to allow us to accept points that are made by members who do not sit on the Government benches and which would enhance legislation. That would enhance the reputation of the Parliament.

Photo of Susan Deacon Susan Deacon Labour

In the spirit of consensus that has peppered this debate, and for the avoidance of doubt, will the member confirm that the political culture to which he refers applies equally to all the parties in this Parliament and not only to the Executive parties?

Photo of John Swinney John Swinney Scottish National Party

Absolutely. However, points of view expressing all sorts of shades of opinion in the Parliament in the shape of amendments to bills—even when they are lodged by members of the Government parties—are invariably defeated at stage 3 because the whips have so decreed.

Iain Smith said—and I do not dispute this at all—that the Parliament is driven by the Executive's agenda. However, it would enhance the process if a more reasonable and relaxed attitude were taken to points of detail that are of infinitely better quality than the Executive's points but which come from other sources.

I will end by talking about where we go from here. I have spoken about the mechanics and the technical changes, and I wish Donald Gorrie and the Procedures Committee well when they reflect on the issues in a week's time. However, the minister and others have accepted that, at the end of the second session of the Scottish Parliament, we have to consider where the institution is going.

There is now a much broader consensus within Scotland, reinforced by the contribution of the Steel commission last week, that the powers of the Parliament are in need of urgent review and strengthening. The Parliament has to be able to do much more in order to deliver on the aspirations and hopes of the people of Scotland. A broad cross-section of opinion feels that the Parliament must have a broader and more decisive range of financial powers so that we can make a difference to the lives of ordinary citizens. I hope that, as well as looking into the nitty-gritty of parliamentary life, the debate will look at the strategic position of our Parliament. We are on a journey towards ensuring that our Parliament can deliver on the aspirations of the people.

No one will be surprised to hear that I believe that the logical destination of the process is for this Parliament to be an independent Parliament; equally, no one should be surprised that many on the SNP side of the chamber want to engage in a debate about extending and expanding the powers and responsibilities of the Parliament to ensure that we can deliver. I know that a broad consensus—even among people with different shades of opinion from mine—supports that proposition.

Photo of Margaret Curran Margaret Curran Labour 4:05 pm, 15th March 2006

As I often say—I hope that Alex Johnstone is listening—this has been an interesting and useful debate. I do not want to say that I genuinely mean that this afternoon, because that would imply that I have not meant it at any other time—that could never be the case.

For a moment, I thought that I could cling to the heady status of anorak on legislative matters, but when I looked around me at the people who were due to speak in the debate—Sylvia Jackson and Donald Gorrie, with all their knowledge, and Mr Jackson, who regularly informs me about the legislative process—I became nervous that I could not quite claim that status. Iain Smith's quotation from the consultative steering group's report has completely humiliated me, because I could not recall that part of the report. That shows that I am not an anorak quite yet. In case I get too carried away with myself, the ritual abuse of the whips is always there to temper me and keep me humble. I appreciate that when one is stuck for anyone else to blame, one should just have a go at the whips. I am amused by Donald Gorrie's description of the bureau as a trade union for whips. I am delighted to show the Tories the benefit of trade unions and a good trade union experience, and I will continue to do that. Perhaps I represent the Transport and General Workers Union on that particular trade union collective.

John Swinney made some interesting points about the process of whipping in Parliament. He was not quite as sweeping or as disingenuous as others have been about the role of party politics in that process. Iain Smith's perspective was that we are elected on a platform: I have been elected on a platform; I am here to implement that platform; and there is no point in my pretending that I will trade that platform away, which I think would be essentially undemocratic. Whipping is about collective organisation, and there is nothing wrong with collective organisation or with operating in solidarity with other people.

I feel as though I cannot win. As a minister, I have taken bills through the process, and I have listened to rational argument, in which reasonable points that do not come from the platform that I stand for or from Executive policy have been made and which I have conceded. However, it seems that one never gets any credit for that when a bill comes to the chamber. Indeed, I have taken that approach to today's discussion. In discharging my ministerial duties and in exercising my responsibilities, I want to hear the views of members of the Parliament and the varied discussions that take place. I think that I have some credibility when I reassure members that I listen and that, as I try to improve the parliamentary process, I will not necessarily do so from a dogmatic position that takes account of only my party's interests.

Photo of John Swinney John Swinney Scottish National Party

I do not doubt that the minister would have an open mind about parliamentary procedure. My point relates to what are, in the greater scheme of things, relatively minor points of detail in legislation. There seems to be an unwillingness to accept arguments for change because they have not come from the right place in Parliament—in which I include the Government's back benches as well as the Opposition benches. Is the minister able to say a bit more about the attitude that might prevail in the Executive for the remaining 12 months that it has in office before it is replaced by a better Administration, and how the culture might be enhanced?

Photo of Margaret Curran Margaret Curran Labour

I do not know what is in the bottle that John Swinney is drinking from, but it is obviously going to his head and affecting his judgment. I do not accept the premise that ministers are not willing to negotiate with back benchers or listen to reasonable arguments. I can point to my own experience of accepting members' amendments—although, obviously, I do not know about every time that that has happened.

Just because we do not accept the arguments that are made does not mean that our reasons for dismissing them are inappropriate or unfair. Sometimes I might not be persuaded of an argument, and I have the holistic programme to think about. However, that is not the substance of what we are here to address. On the culture that John Swinney spoke about, we have a culture in the Parliament of sharing challenges and problems and coming together to consider ways of addressing them. Susan Deacon made a significant point about that.

As a minister, I have made considerable changes to internal procedures to ensure that our approach is more robust and that we pay proper attention to the will, spirit and feel of Parliament on certain issues. It is appropriate that we respond to Parliament, and I have made some efforts to do so. Our partnership with Parliament is essential to the implementation of our programme, but perhaps we do not have the proper mechanisms in place.

Photo of Christine Grahame Christine Grahame Scottish National Party

Would it be appropriate, as part of the partnership with Parliament, to publish with a substantive stage 3 amendment a reason for that amendment so that members can consider it before going into the debate? Would the minister consider doing that?

Photo of Margaret Curran Margaret Curran Labour

Christine Grahame's question takes me on to the points made by members during the debate, which I was going to go through, category by category. We will give reasonable attention to the points that were made in the debate and will respond as appropriate. If I do not cover everything, I will happily pursue points with individual members.

I take the points that Alasdair Morgan and Bill Aitken made about the timing and nature of consultations. It is vital that we reach beyond the usual suspects and actively try to get to the hard-to-reach groups. There are certain groups in the population that are not easily engaged and will not easily contribute to our process, but others have easy access—Chris Ballance made that point— and we want to change that. We also need to think about the timing of legislation, and the Executive is about reconsider that. It could be argued that the consultations that were undertaken for various bills—particularly the Antisocial Behaviour etc (Scotland) Bill—took varied and innovative approaches. We have considered different methods of consulting on bills and will continue to do so.

Most members have acknowledged that the committee process works well. The committees discharge their responsibilities well and, to date, the work that they have to do is fairly balanced, but I take on board the time pressures that members have signalled.

Indeed, if one theme emerges from the debate, it is, understandably, that of time. However, I am sure that members appreciate that we are anxious and eager to implement the programme on which we were elected. We want to push full ahead with implementing our programme, but we must give the Parliament the proper amount of time to consider it. I am giving serious attention to that point.

I think that it was Alasdair Morgan who asked us not to become so focused on the process that we lose focus on the result of legislation. Obviously, the two are intertwined, in that a good process leads to a better result. That is where the balance has to be. I accept that we cannot focus on one at the expense of the other, but thorough, robust processes lead to much better legislation.

I wish that I could say to Stewart Maxwell that members could have as much time as they wanted, but we need to ensure that a parliamentary session is balanced overall. There would have been no point in spending two years considering the Protection of Wild Mammals (Scotland) Bill and not enough time on housing or health legislation. I am sure that he accepts that we have to engage in reasonable time management. Of course, the whips, the business managers and I in particular are always regarded as bad people because we come along and say, "Sorry, you've had long enough. Time is up." Somebody has to do that, but that does not mean that we cannot think about time and try to be a bit more creative in empowering members from all parties to get through the business that they want to get through.

Bill Aitken said that stage 3 should be conducted more professionally. However, it was appropriate that he acknowledged some of the achievements of the legislative process, and I appreciate that he spoke about it in those terms. He used the phrase "a more leisurely pace"; leisure does not fit well with such a discussion—I do not recognise it—and perhaps "measured" is a more appropriate term. We will try to address that. That is where most focus needs to be in the discussion at the moment.

The Parliament has recognised that a range of issues needs to be discussed, but not all of those issues can be addressed in the short term. The focus must be on managing time, particularly at stages 2 and 3, and I want to work on that with the Procedures Committee and the parliamentary authorities. I acknowledge that there are certain parties in the Parliament that—no matter how often we say, "Gosh, aren't they constructive and consensual?"—will look for the one non-consensual point that they can make and rush at it. That is life. I have to live with that kind of approach.

Irrespective of where members stand on other issues—I am always one for a good, healthy debate about political difference—the big prize for us is making devolution work. That is by far the most important point to the people who elected us. It is about effective legislation with good results and improving Scots' living standards. Those should be our focus and we should never lose sight of the fact that the people who elect us send us here to do effective business, not to spend all our time talking about ourselves and dreaming about another world. We have done well in the first seven years, but there is far more that we can do.