I am pleased to open the debate on behalf of the Standards, Procedures and Public Appointments Committee.
The motion in my name invites Parliament to note the committee’s report on “Parliamentary Reform—Standing Order rule changes” and to agree the changes to standing orders set out in annex B to the report.
The changes to standing orders that we are debating follow the inquiry that the committee conducted into how Parliament can reform the way in which it conducts its business. Before I get into the details of the issue, I will explain briefly how we arrived at this point.
At the early meetings of the committee following the 2011 election, we discussed the idea of an inquiry into parliamentary reform. We were aware that voices within and outwith the Parliament had commented on how the Parliament could be more responsive to emerging and topical issues. Senior figures with significant experience of how this Parliament operates, including Henry McLeish, George Reid, Lord Steel, Lord McConnell, Bruce Crawford and the Presiding Officer—Tricia Marwick—all contributed to the debate. Some of those individuals were kind enough to share their ideas with us at our business planning meeting last summer and in our subsequent inquiry.
The Scottish Parliament is now 13 years old and has achieved much that is in line with its founding principles of sharing power, accountability, access and participation, and the inquiry confirmed that. For example, evidence to the committee from Scottish Environment LINK suggested that the Parliament has
“built an admirable legislative ethos and practice, consulting widely, building expertise and avoiding its committees being turned into servants of the executive”.
However, we took the view that the Parliament could not continue to be successful and evolve if it was not willing to look at itself with a critical eye. We believed that this parliamentary session was an opportune time to review whether existing parliamentary practices are serving their intended purpose.
In August last year, the committee received a letter from the Presiding Officer that prompted us to think, in particular, about changes to sitting patterns and the reform of parliamentary questions. Momentum for change had also come from the Conveners Group, which had begun its programme for change in relation to the Parliament’s committees. The Conveners Group has, for example, supported more focused and objective-based remits for committee inquiries in order to lead to increased quality of scrutiny and greater impact.
After due consideration, we launched our inquiry in September last year, with a tight deadline of completion by Christmas. Our objective was to conduct an inquiry that could provide a focal point for the parliamentary reform agenda. We wanted to explore on the record the different views on parliamentary reform and produce a clear set of recommendations for improving the way that Parliament operates.
In order to help us to focus, the committee developed three priorities for the inquiry: first, improving effective scrutiny in plenary session, including through more spontaneous and topical business; secondly, maintaining levels of engagement with outside organisations and individuals following change; and, thirdly, enlivening debate to improve the public perception of the Parliament and increase media interest.
The member mentioned broadcasting, which is a very important element in all parliamentary activity because that is usually what connects us to the people. The broadcasters do not really think that we are worth broadcasting now. Does that not worry the committee?
I think that we are well worth broadcasting. I sometimes think that the broadcasters should pay more attention to what goes on in our committees and in the chamber and not only to the fights that we have. There is very little coverage when there is consensus and we are pushing forward on very good issues and ideas in the Parliament. Broadcasters often do not pay as much attention to such matters as they perhaps should.
The committee held a series of public evidence sessions to hear the views of those who had responded to the committee’s consultation or had otherwise contributed to the discussion on parliamentary reform. We heard from a range of witnesses, including back-bench members, business managers, representatives of civic Scotland, journalists and even a former First Minister and a former Presiding Officer.
The committee took account of reports from previous Procedures Committees and of approaches taken elsewhere, including in the Irish Parliament and the House of Commons, both of which have recently reformed their systems. The committee is grateful to all the witnesses who took the time to give evidence to the inquiry, and to the helpful officials and parliamentarians of the Westminster and Irish Parliaments.
The Christmas deadline gave us a tight timescale, and I am grateful to my fellow committee members and the clerking team for their hard work in successfully meeting that deadline with only days to spare.
On 21 December, the committee published its report on parliamentary reform, which set out a series of 17 recommendations to improve—as we saw it—the Scottish Parliament’s topicality and responsiveness to events.
Following publication, the committee wrote to the Presiding Officer, the Parliamentary Bureau and the party business managers, highlighting the various recommendations that related to each of them and seeking a formal response to gauge the level of support for the recommendations.
In all of its deliberations, the committee has been mindful of the need to produce a report that does not gather dust on a shelf but instead forms the basis for real change to how the Parliament operates. To do that, we had to get wide agreement.
I am heartened by the fact that many of the committee’s recommendations have received the support of the Parliamentary Bureau, particularly the committee’s key recommendations for new sitting patterns and a new topical question time.
Following the Parliamentary Bureau’s response, the committee published a short report last month that set out changes to standing orders to give effect to those measures. I shall highlight the key proposed changes.
The first, and perhaps most significant, proposed change is that Parliament would meet on three afternoons a week—on Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Thursdays. Committees would meet in the morning of those days. That is important because, at the moment, if something significant happens in Scotland on a Thursday night, the first chance that the whole Parliament has to deal with it is on a Wednesday afternoon. I believe that that needs to change. Moving to a sitting pattern in which committees meet in the morning and chamber business takes place in the afternoon, with the first parliamentary question time of the week on Tuesday afternoon, would improve the Parliament’s ability to be the first forum for debating emerging issues of importance to the people of Scotland.
To help with my contribution later, will the member clarify whether the proposal for a Thursday afternoon means that committees will have to finish by 11.40? If so, in effect, committee meetings on those mornings will be curtailed.
It will be very much up to the Parliamentary Bureau to decide exactly how that will operate. At the moment, the suggested scheme indicates that there would be general questions at 11.40 on a Thursday morning. Committees can of course start at 9 o’clock rather than 10 o’clock, which would give them a bit of extra time. It is not an insurmountable difficulty. Some committees have much shorter meetings than others. It is readily manageable.
Secondly, the committee proposes the introduction of a new topical question time, which would enable back benchers to question the Government at short notice on matters that have national implications or national significance. At present, there is little scope for topical issues to be raised by back benchers at short notice, although there is a slot for urgent questions at First Minister’s question time. The only other avenue is to lodge an emergency question for consideration by the Presiding Officer. Only seven such emergency questions have been taken in Parliament in 12 years.
Topical questions will help the Parliament to hold the Government to account more effectively. In addition, they will increase the overall time available in the chamber for the questioning of ministers to one and three quarter hours—an increase of 17 per cent.
In addition, and importantly, under the new sitting patterns, question times will now open business on Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Thursdays—a significant improvement on the current arrangements, whereby questions to ministers take place only on a Thursday.
A further improvement would be the committee’s proposal for a shorter period between the lodging of a question and the date on which it is asked in the chamber. That will enable back benchers to ask more relevant questions and reduce the chance that questions are overtaken by events before they are asked.
The third main point is that there will be an additional members’ business debate each week, as the Parliamentary Bureau has accepted the committee’s recommendation that there should be more of a role for back-bench business in chamber proceedings, to remove the perception that chamber business is, as one witness put it to the committee,
“pre-programmed down party political lines.”
A third members’ business debate each week, which represents a 50 per cent increase in the time available for back-bench business, should increase the status of those debates.
The committee is proposing some further amendments to standing orders to allow procedures to work more easily and to make them easier to follow. For example, deadlines for the submission of questions are being aligned as far as possible. Taken as a whole, the reforms represent a significant evolution of the Parliament’s working practices and procedures. I believe that they will lead to a more responsive and accountable Parliament.
In introducing the proposals, I acknowledge the collaborative nature of the committee’s work and, in particular, the role of the Presiding Officer who, since her election last year, has played a key role in promoting the development of the Parliament as an institution. The committee has always shared the Presiding Officer’s aims of improving the topicality of parliamentary business and increasing the Parliament’s ability to respond quickly to emerging issues. The proposals, if approved by the Parliament, will go a long way towards achieving that.
The committee intends to keep a watching brief on how effective the parliamentary reforms prove to be and whether any further changes would be beneficial. The committee sees this as the start of a process that will run the full course of this session. We intend to look at the operation of committees and other matters after the summer recess.
The Standards, Procedures and Public Appointments Committee, with its report on parliamentary reform, has begun an MOT of the Parliament’s procedures. The overarching finding is that the Parliament needs to become more flexible in a number of ways, particularly so that it can respond quickly when matters of importance to the people of Scotland arise.
I consider that the package of changes being debated will increase the Parliament’s ability to react more quickly to developing events and will improve scrutiny of the Scottish Government, and that the debate marks a significant step forward in the evolution of the Parliament’s working practices and procedures. I look forward to continuing that work.
I have pleasure in moving,
That the Parliament notes the Standards, Procedures and Public Appointments Committee’s 2nd Report 2012 (Session 4), Parliamentary Reform – Standing Order rule changes (SP Paper 138) and agrees that the changes to Standing Orders set out in Annexe B of the report be made with effect from 20 August 2012.
Presiding Officer, as outlined by Dave Thompson, the convener of the Standards, Procedures and Public Appointments Committee, you have played a significant role in parliamentary reform, in that you invited the committee to look at the area. I acknowledge also the role played by my colleague, the Cabinet Secretary for Parliamentary Business and Government Strategy, who, almost a year ago to the day, set out his view of the direction of travel that we should adopt.
It is important that parliamentary reform is led by the Parliament itself. However, on behalf of the Government, I welcome the opportunity to contribute to the debate and to put our views on record. In that spirit, I make clear at the outset that the Government is committed to helping to implement whatever reforms the Parliament adopts.
I acknowledge the role that the Standards, Procedures and Public Appointments Committee has taken in driving forward the parliamentary reform agenda, but that did not happen in a vacuum. The Presiding Officer, you certainly played a role by commissioning the report on how the parliamentary week might best be organised and on how to ensure that question time is an effective forum for holding the Government to account.
The public perception of Parliament is important. A confident, positive and effective Parliament is an image that all of us in the chamber wish to project. Parliament must be relevant and be seen to be relevant. It must be a place where the topical issues of the day are debated and where the Government is held to account on them.
Margo MacDonald raised points linked to broadcasting. Broadcasting is certainly one way of communicating how members are involved in holding the Government to account and in putting forward alternative solutions to the problems of the day. How broadcasting fits in with plenary sessions and with committee sessions is equally important, because a lot of the scrutiny and the detailed work happen in committees—as the report demonstrates. As Hugh Henry pointed out, the timing of committees is also important.
That is not my responsibility as a minister any more than it is the responsibility of anybody else in the chamber. As Mr Thompson indicated, the matter will be under review as the reforms are implemented, and I am certain that he noted Margo MacDonald’s point. Material is available for broadcast because all committee meetings are recorded, as I am sure the member is aware. However, it is not the responsibility of the Government to tell the Parliament channel what it should show.
The committee consulted widely to inform the development of its recommendations. Broadcasters were just as able to communicate their views on what might best suit their interests as members of the Parliament were—and as those beyond the Parliament who had things to say were. The evidence sessions that the committee held ensured that a wide range of views could be taken into account. If those who have an interest in the Parliament chose not to contribute at that stage, I am quite sure that the committee would be more than happy to hear from our viewers as it monitors the effectiveness of the changes that we will, I assume, agree today.
I acknowledge the comparative work that the committee undertook, looking at the working practices of this Parliament and others—both close to home and further afield. The consideration of the issues has clearly been careful and thorough.
The committee was given a challenging task. Inevitably, there are conflicting pressures when one considers parliamentary reform in detail. For example, how to balance the desire to have a Parliament that is family friendly with the desire not to constrain debating time and how to strike the appropriate balance, particularly for MSPs from rural areas and further afield, between the dual responsibilities of MSPs—to be in their constituencies to address local issues and to contribute to the work of the national Parliament. Another part of the balancing act is the impact of adjustments to the parliamentary week on the important engagement between the Government and those who are governed. That engagement does not just happen in the Parliament. Ministers actively engage with communities right across Scotland.
No doubt other members will wish to comment on those issues and others, but the package of reforms that the committee has developed seems to the Government to have struck the appropriate balance.
I will not repeat the summary of the committee recommendations that Mr Thompson has already given. I will focus on two areas in particular.
First, the key change recommended by the committee is to the structure of the parliamentary week. The current sitting pattern has served us well, but it is appropriate to consider whether it remains the best one. The committee’s proposals have an obvious neatness and logic, with the recommendation to have committee meetings in the morning—even if there are some constraints around the timing, which clearly will need to be worked out in detail—and plenary sessions in the afternoon. However, the main practical benefit will be the additional flexibility to ensure that topical issues can be raised. The Government agrees that it is appropriate to reduce the time between the last plenary sitting in a week and the first plenary sitting in the following week.
The other key recommendation is on changes to question times. Both here and in other places, question times are often criticised as being parliamentary theatre—perhaps more beloved of broadcasters than is what appears to people to be the more mundane committee work—but there is no doubt that they interest the people. Question times can be criticised for having lots of heat but not a lot of light on occasion, and that may be true from time to time, but the facility for the legislature from which the Government is drawn to hold the Government of the day to account is a fundamental tenet of parliamentary democracy. Question times are a crucial means by which the Government of the day can be held to account, current issues of national importance can be discussed and matters of local interest can be brought to the attention of the national Parliament.
The Government supports the main changes that are recommended: moving to a situation where ministers will be questioned on three days a week rather than one; reducing the time between the lodging of questions and them being answered; and introducing a new facility for members to lodge short-notice topical questions for answer at the beginning of the parliamentary week. They are important new developments.
The minister has placed great emphasis on holding Government ministers to account and he said that question times are crucial in that regard. Does he agree, though, that it is a matter not just of extending the amount of time for questions, but of ensuring, perhaps through his own good offices, that ministers actually answer the questions that they are asked?
How ministers answer questions is of course a matter for them. We are all judged on how we deal with questions. I think that it would be beyond the wit of even someone of Mr Henry’s calibre to specify when a question has been properly answered, because quite often that is judged on the basis of whether someone got the answer that they wanted as opposed to whether they got an answer.
None of the changes that I have just described will make the life of the Government or of ministers easier. There will be real challenges for the Government in balancing ministerial duties outwith the chamber with the Parliament’s ability to hold ministers to account at committee and in plenary on three days of the week. However, the Government agrees that these are important and necessary changes to improve the topicality of parliamentary business and to increase the Parliament’s ability to respond quickly to emerging issues. The Government is therefore committed to working constructively in their implementation, if they are adopted by the Parliament today.
On behalf of the Scottish Labour Party, I advise members that we will support Dave Thompson’s motion on behalf of the Standards, Procedures and Public Appointments Committee. However, while we support the principles of the committee report as the convener set them out, I would like to highlight a number of issues that we believe require further consideration by the Parliament.
First, the committee’s recommendation that the Parliament plenary sessions take place on Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday afternoons—the committee referred to it as the remodelling of the parliamentary week—sounds good and laudable, but the extension of plenary sessions should ensure that the Scottish Government is, in fact, held to account. It is not often that I would look to Westminster for inspiration on parliamentary reform, but I would like to highlight how quickly Westminster was able to have a chamber statement from Jeremy Hunt, the Secretary of State for Culture, following the Rupert Murdoch story. Within hours of his aide resigning, we saw Jeremy Hunt giving an urgent statement to the House of Commons. In this Parliament, we still await a statement from the Government on the Murdoch issue, and any scrutiny that has taken place has been during First Minister’s question time.
The member makes the interesting point that, at Westminster, statements are perhaps produced more quickly and more often. However, does he accept that there is a tension here? On a Monday, the House of Commons starts at half past two and goes on until 10 o’clock at night, so it has a lot more time to play with. Taking an hour or 40 minutes out of a debate is therefore not as serious as it is for us.
That sounds to me like something from John Mason’s database of excuses for why Governments cannot be held to account. Governments should be held to account, and we should take cognisance of the example that Westminster has set. We are considering some parliamentary reforms that have not taken place at Westminster, but we should also look at areas in which it has tended to get things right. In the case of the Murdoch story, the fact that Jeremy Hunt was before the Westminster Parliament within hours sets an example to this Parliament, as does the scrutiny that the Prime Minister found himself under.
I will let Margo MacDonald in in a moment.
We also welcome the proposal for topical questions, which we see as a good opportunity for members to press the Government on issues that have seen significant coverage in the public arena. However, the Government of the day will need to ensure that ministers fulfil their responsibility to answer the topical questions that are put to them. Hugh Henry was right to make the point that it is important that ministers answer questions. That challenge has been put to the current Government, but it was put to previous Governments as well. We should learn from the experience that we have from the time of the previous coalition Governments. They did not always answer questions. I remember being on the receiving end of that on many occasions. We should approach the issue maturely and ensure that members are given respect when they ask questions in Parliament.
The remodelling of the parliamentary week will see us move away from Thursday mornings in the chamber, which have traditionally been set aside for Opposition business, so that the business lands in the middle of the parliamentary week. We are concerned that the new arrangements raise the possibility of a majority Government dictating that Opposition business should be placed at the end of the parliamentary week. On behalf of the Scottish Labour Party, I make it clear that we will oppose any attempt to place Opposition business at the end of the parliamentary week. We will do that not just because of the current challenges that we face, but for the benefit of future Opposition parties that find themselves in the same position.
I will take Margo MacDonald’s intervention.
The point that I wanted to comment on has passed, but in case I am not called to speak in the debate, I say in response to John Mason’s point that the Presiding Officer—or the Speaker, in the case of the House of Commons—can often determine whether a subject that is raised is relevant and whether a member is being apposite. Also, we should remember that, if we lose 40 minutes from a debate, somebody can move for an extension of 40 minutes in the next debate.
Margo MacDonald’s points are well made, and they are issues for further consideration by the committee.
We heard from the convener of the Standards, Procedures and Public Appointments Committee a commitment to review the effectiveness of the reforms. I welcome that. We need to recognise that we have not been effective at reviewing earlier parliamentary reforms. Let us put down a marker that we will review the reforms that we are discussing today to ensure that they are effective in helping us to hold Governments to account.
We might also wish to consider the possibility of an independent report, so that we have an effective audit of the delivery of the reforms.
We welcome the committee’s work and the fact that various external stakeholders were involved in the debate. I finish by stressing the importance of ensuring that Governments are held to account. We must ensure that the parliamentary reforms that we are discussing today are effective in ensuring that accountability.
It is fair to say that all parties share the desire for the Parliament to be modern, flexible and fit for the job that it was established to do—to pass laws that will benefit the people of Scotland and to hold the Scottish Government to account. Of course, the latter point has been given greater significance by the results of last year’s elections. It is more important than ever that the Parliament can hold ministers and Governments to account.
It has been 13 years since the Parliament first met, and it is right that we are now considering whether reform is necessary. The passage of the Scotland Act 2012 earlier this year means that the largest ever transfer of financial powers to Scotland since the United Kingdom was created has taken place. The Scottish Government will have to decide how best to use those significant new powers. As the Parliament’s powers increase, the ability to hold to account those who exercise those powers must be robust and effective.
Presiding Officer, parliamentary reform has been discussed before, but you must be praised for creating the momentum for change. The Standards, Procedures and Public Appointments Committee was tasked with considering chamber and committee sitting patterns and reported on the topic last December, as we heard from the committee’s convener. A range of recommendations was made, including the recommendation that the changes should be implemented before Easter. It is important to take our time to get any changes right, but that should not be used as an excuse for delay. Equally, we should view the reforms not as the final stage but as part of the process of continuing evolution of our Parliament.
The focus of our debate is the committee’s second report of 2012, on parliamentary reform, which outlines the standing order rule changes that are required to implement the proposals. The committee and the Parliamentary Bureau share the same aim for reform. The bureau did not accept some of the committee’s initial proposals, but it has supported fundamental changes to the Parliament’s working practices.
It is important to note that some of the committee’s recommendations involved matters that are outwith standing orders and therefore beyond the committee’s control and remit. For example, the committee recommended a trial of allowing a smaller number of longer back-bench speeches in open debate. In response, the Presiding Officer was correct to point out on behalf of the bureau that such a proposal is not for standing orders. I note that the Presiding Officer strongly shares the committee’s aim of encouraging debate and I commend the actions that she has taken to encourage interventions. To that end, we will continue our approach of sharing with members information on debates.
I turn to the recommendations that the standing order rule changes are to implement. The Scottish Conservatives are broadly in favour of the proposed changes. The creation of a three-day plenary working week will enhance Parliament’s ability to respond to live events. The proposal will not increase the length of the working week, but it will mean that three days a week are available for parliamentary business.
However, as we noted in our initial response to the committee, that change should be more than mere tokenism, and substantial business must be scheduled over all three days. The inclusion of question time on all three days and the introduction of topical questions will further enhance Parliament’s ability to respond to recent events and hold ministers to account.
The recommendation that committees should be able to meet at the same time as chamber business takes place, when circumstances do not allow them to meet at any other time, is a sensible suggestion to streamline committee business. It is right that that procedure should be used only in exceptional circumstances.
Some of the proposed changes raise concerns in my mind and the minds of my Conservative colleagues. The proposed changes will allow debates to take place on Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday afternoons. In theory, Government or Opposition debates could be scheduled on any of those afternoons. However, given that the Government in effect controls the allocation of debating time, the concern must be that a Government that was under pressure would allocate Opposition time to the Thursday afternoon, to avoid closer scrutiny.
Thursday afternoons are undoubtedly less attractive for a number of reasons, not least because they are at the end of the week and because the media focus on Thursdays is on First Minister’s question time. Like Labour, we argue strongly for a presumption against using the Thursday afternoon debating slot for Opposition debates.
It is correct to reduce the time between lodging and asking questions, but the bureau’s suggested timetable will mean that the deadline for lodging all questions will fall at 12 noon on Mondays. Although I am supportive of that, there is a risk of duplication of questions and a reduced opportunity for Opposition members to question the Government on a variety of topics, as all questions will be lodged around the same time. We may want to review how that is working in a few months’ time.
As made clear in the initial report, the committee sees this as the start of a process. It is important that the effects of any reforms are considered and further changes made, if necessary. It would be regrettable if another 13 years were to pass without any further consideration of the Parliament’s working week.
I am pleased to confirm that the Conservatives will be supporting the committee’s motion.
Thank you, Presiding Officer. At your request, the Standards, Procedures and Public Appointments Committee looked at the possibility of holding committee meetings on Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday mornings with plenary sessions being held in the afternoons, as others have mentioned. You also asked the committee to review ministerial question times.
Self-evidently, as someone who was elected just last year I found that challenge both interesting and somewhat daunting, as I am a relatively new kid on the block. However, although some procedural aspects are still unfamiliar to me, after a year in the Parliament I have been working here for long enough to form my own view on some strengths and weaknesses of the parliamentary week. I have seen things from my perspective, but I have also tried to see things from others’ perspectives. Although I am disadvantaged by a relative lack of experience in this place, as a new member I have one advantage, in that members who were elected in 1999 may never have been able to look upon the Parliament with the benefit of an outsider’s view,
“to see ourselves as others see us.”
We have some excellent debates and we have some poor ones. I welcome in particular the increased availability of time for members’ business, because members’ debates often tackle some of the most interesting subjects. Often the degree of enlightenment can be constrained by speeches being limited to four minutes, so I welcome the allocation of additional time. I will highlight a couple of examples: the debate on the cumulative impact of wind farms, which is referred to in the committee’s report, and the debate that John Lamont mentioned on rail services between Edinburgh and Berwick. Both subjects were very good and generated stimulating debates, but the debates would have been greatly strengthened if we had been able to have longer speeches with more scope for interventions.
However, even six minute speeches can be constraining when we are dealing with complex, multifactorial issues or technical subjects, and interventions can be made impossible in those circumstances—although perhaps too often members resort to using that as an excuse not to take interventions.
I am new enough to still have that perspective and, based on conversations that I have had with outside voices and stakeholders who gave evidence to the committee—the convener mentioned a number of them—I have come to the view that change is needed. We did all that we could to retain a family-friendly ethos, but we needed to strike a balance between realigning the parliamentary week to generate additional plenary opportunities, time for members’ debates—which has obviously been accepted—and opportunities for topical and ministerial questions, and allowing sufficient time for members, particularly those from rural areas, to attend constituency events, engage with local and regional stakeholders and work in their constituency or regional offices. The revised proposals meet those tests.
Moreover, if the committee’s reforms are adopted that will mark an important step in the evolution of the Parliament. Tony Blair showed his contempt for the Parliament when he infamously described it as having no more powers than an English parish council. Frankly, that said more about him than it did about the Parliament. This place is now a key part of Scots’ everyday lives and has a growing influence on them, as shown in the Scottish social attitudes survey.
As John Lamont said, regardless of the ultimate constitutional future of Scotland, this place will have to take ever-greater responsibility for the governance of Scotland. Even the somewhat limited powers that were delivered by the Scotland Act 2012 will require additional scrutiny in areas associated with repatriated powers and, especially, regarding the tax powers in areas such as the Scottish rate of income tax, landfill tax and the stamp duty land tax.
One of the biggest concerns of former colleagues and people in the media and academia who gave evidence to the committee was the evident lack of topicality of matters for debate. As the convener stated, currently we have a wait from Thursday afternoon until the following Wednesday to see the chamber sit, and an even longer wait for themed questions and First Minister’s question time.
The lead time for lodging questions further contributes to the lack of topicality and the reduction in perceived relevance to the public, media and other stakeholders. That lack of topicality is not good enough, and the changed sitting times and topical question session will address those shortcomings—I warmly welcome the bureau’s acceptance of that.
Those of us who have ambition for the Scottish Parliament to be a truly national Parliament—last week’s debate on Scotland’s future suggests that that is the majority of us—should see this as an opportunity to reposition the Parliament in the public eye. As Margo MacDonald said, Westminster dominates the media coverage between Mondays and Wednesdays, with Prime Minister’s questions on Wednesday afternoons. Only on Thursdays does the Scottish Parliament seem to get much oxygen, with First Minister’s questions, which is the only bit of theatre during the week. Topical questions and increased scope for ministerial questions have the potential to generate greater media interest if they lead to more topicality.
I hope that, in due course, the Presiding Officer and the bureau will consider the opportunity for more supplementary questions to be asked. That would be good for ministers but it would also allow members to hone their abilities and to probe deeper into the issues. By its nature, the chamber rota that we all sit on means that we will have to cover only one Tuesday afternoon session every three weeks—certainly, in the case of the SNP group—unless we volunteer to do more. Those members who have neither a Tuesday committee nor a place on the Tuesday chamber rota could find themselves largely unaffected by the change in sitting patterns.
I am delighted that Mrs Scanlon is here to listen to this interesting debate. However, as not all her party’s members are in the chamber for every session in the week there seems to be a pattern to their attendance.
I apologise, Presiding Officer, for being a minute or two late. I have no good excuse; I can only say that it is the earliest that I have ever been late.
Parliamentary reform is one of those rare pieces of work that has had the Presiding Officer, the Conveners Group, the Parliamentary Bureau and the Standards, Procedures and Public Appointments Committee undertake an MOT of the Parliament. Therefore, the work has been thorough. I am in full agreement with the thinking that the Scottish Parliament needs to be able to respond swiftly to topical issues and that it must be seen to be responsive. However, in committee, I took the view that the proposal whereby the committees would sit every morning and the Parliament would meet every afternoon would gain little additional chamber time for the Parliament. The phrase “moving the deckchairs on the Titanic” came to mind: a lot of perceived effort but little gain. I took that view at a relatively early stage in the deliberations—in December last year, when we published our report—and I do not think that any political grouping in the Parliament had, at that time, arrived at a view. Subsequently, however, the Labour Party deliberated on its views and agreed that the proposed change should be endorsed. I shall respect the party’s view and endorse it.
There will be political implications for any Government, as it will need to arrange to be in Parliament much more and to spend less time visiting hard-to-get-to areas of Scotland. For any Opposition that will be good news, as it will help to pin down ministers and their back benchers, who will be required to be in the Parliament for parliamentary questions, ministerial statements and the like. While Labour is in opposition, that will give SNP ministers a particular headache because, instead of campaigning for their referendum around the country, they will be pinned down here in the Parliament.
I was extremely concerned about the effect of the proposed change on the committees, which are perceived to be the jewel in the crown of the Scottish Parliament—that reputation will, undoubtedly, be affected. It is virtually certain that the time that members spend in committee will be forcibly restricted, as Hugh Henry said. The committee’s report acknowledges that that is the main negative issue. A few MSPs might welcome that, but I do not. For the reasons given, I suggest that the change will have unintended consequences for committees—and for the worse, as far as parliamentary scrutiny is concerned.
Not everyone approved of my former parliamentary colleague Bristow Muldoon’s convenership of long committee meetings, but the output of the meetings was certainly thorough. I well remember a meeting that famously went on until about 10 pm. Most commentators, especially committee members, questioned the wisdom of having such long meetings.
The changes will have other unintended consequences, so I am glad that the committee acknowledged in its report that further changes might be needed down the line, in the light of experience.
The approach requires each occasion to be brought to the Parliament for permission to be given, which removes flexibility on the part of committee members.
In the world of real politics, there is no putting the genie back in the bottle once it has been let out. Any suggestion that MSPs do not work hard enough usually resonates with public perception. I know that the public cannot understand why we are not all in the chamber all the time.
In the more than 13 years during which I have been an MSP, I cannot recall a time when I was not a member of two committees and was not in the Parliament three days a week and in my constituency for the rest of the time. Occasionally I needed to be in the Parliament on a Monday or a Friday, but that was relatively rare. In the course of the inquiry, I was surprised to learn that some MSPs have tried to be in the Parliament only on Wednesdays and Thursdays. That was an eye-opener for me. Some people said that a driver for the proposed change was the need to ensure that all MSPs are in the Parliament three days a week. What a sad reflection it is on our Parliament that some parliamentarians have tried to restrict their presence in the Parliament to two days. No names were given to me, so there can be no pack-drill in relation to the MSPs who have done that.
I hope that if we make the changes, committees do not find that there are severe limitations on them. I also hope that no wider parliamentary concerns emerge.
I am concerned that the Parliament did not begin to consult its staff on the changes until after the publication of the committee’s report. There was therefore no input from the Parliament’s clerking teams on changes in the working week, which is hardly the way for a progressive employer to behave. Consultation after the event, with no feedback to MSPs on staff views, means that we are taking decisions without being fully informed about the impact of the proposed changes.
I am a member of the Standards, Procedures and Public Appointments Committee and I thank the clerks and committee staff for all their work during our inquiry. I also thank the Scottish Parliament information centre for the briefing papers that it provided. Like Paul Wheelhouse, I was experiencing a parliamentary inquiry for the first time since becoming an MSP, and I thought that staff did an excellent and impressive job. I also thank everyone from inside and outside the Parliament who gave evidence, which helped to inform our discussions and deliberations.
My first parliamentary inquiry meant a steep learning curve for me on parliamentary procedure, which is not the most riveting topic, however important it is. Some people might ask how someone who is just in the door can decide on changes to the parliamentary week, when they barely know how the current arrangements work. However, the combination of newbies such as me and members who were more experienced in the Parliament’s workings, along with witnesses who gave evidence, meant that we could look at the situation from every angle and, as the convener said, conduct a thorough MOT for the Parliament. The Presiding Officer’s commissioning us to conduct the inquiry and to look at the Parliament as an institution and its relevance was the right way to do things.
During the inquiry, I was struck by the evidence from the Speaker of the southern Irish Parliament, which had recently reformed its week. The Parliament there and its politicians had been under constant attack by the press, which left the Irish public thinking that the Parliament was rarely in session and the deputies had an easy job. Because of that, every party in southern Ireland campaigned to increase the Parliament’s hours. That was done, but they are now struggling to fill the hours with relevant business, and the deputies are finding it difficult to find time for constituency work, which the public expect them to do. The Standards, Procedures and Public Appointments Committee did not want to make that mistake. It was clear that changes should not be made just for the sake of making them.
It has been said that there were valid arguments both for and against changing the sitting patterns for plenary sessions, but I believe that having plenary sessions three afternoons a week is the right way forward. After all, this is our national Parliament, and very few—if any—national Parliaments meet on only two days a week. It has also been said that the Parliament has additional powers from the Scotland Act 2012. No matter what happens in 2014, we know that the Parliament will have more powers, so it is essential that we gear up a notch in preparation for that. I also support the view that plenary meetings on Tuesday afternoons will increase the ability to respond to issues that have emerged over the previous five days.
I want to take up some of the points that have been made about the committees. The committee recognised that reduced time for committees could have a negative impact on the parliamentary process, but the proposals should not adversely impinge on committee time, as there is sufficient flexibility to allow them to meet on Mondays or Fridays during particularly lengthy inquiries if they choose to do so. As we have heard, a committee can meet at the same time as a plenary session is going on in exceptional circumstances, with the approval of Parliament.
The issue of scheduling is not for the committee, but we looked at the scheduling of committee meetings and how long they have met for. It was clear that not every committee meets for two or three hours on every occasion. Therefore, I think that the proposals can work without taking away committee time. The committee holds the view that plenary sessions on Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday afternoons with committees meeting in the mornings strikes the right balance.
The proposed question time changes, with questions at the start of every sitting, will provide more time to hold the Government to account, and shorter lead-in times for lodging questions will allow more topicality in the issues that are raised. I think that most of us have lodged questions that have been redundant by the time that we have got round to asking them. There will have been a debate on the issue the day before, or the question will have been answered previously. Therefore, I am sure that everyone will welcome the proposed question time changes.
The proposals to allow more time for back benchers’ business, with an additional members’ business debate each week, should be welcomed. I would have liked to go further on that by allowing the member whose motion was debated an opportunity to respond to the points that have been raised, although the minister would still be given the last word. I would also have liked to see other changes to members’ business debates, but I accept that they are in the remit of the Presiding Officer, not the committee.
To conclude, I believe that the proposed changes will meet the set objectives—that is, that they will improve the topicality of parliamentary business, lead to more effective scrutiny of the Scottish Government, and increase the ability to respond to emerging issues. We also have the assurance that the committee will keep things under review and propose further changes if they are required.
I welcome the opportunity to speak in this debate on parliamentary reform.
I suppose that it is surprising how quickly we can become set in our ways. When change is not part of the culture, as in this institution, it is often difficult to create the necessary change. Thankfully, we had the consultative steering group, which has been mentioned. Henry McLeish, the late Campbell Christie, Joyce McMillan, George Reid and Jim Wallace among others foresaw the need for on-going change in the Parliament, and they recommended that there should be self-assessment, monitoring and a taking stock of our policy and performance on an annual basis, set against the principles of power sharing, access, participation and equal opportunities.
I welcome the committee’s work: although the changes have been long in coming, that is no reflection on the work of the current committee. I look forward to its on-going work, which has particular relevance for the business of the committees.
The consultative steering group envisaged powerful committees that would ensure that our Parliament would not simply focus on debates in the chamber. The committees would have powers and responsibilities to initiate legislation, scrutinise the Government of the day, conduct inquiries and play a pre-legislative role in the development of policy. By any assessment—self-assessment, monitoring or taking stock—and balancing the results against the principles of the Parliament, the committees are sadly unable to meet that expectation.
Why has that happened? Perhaps the expectations were too high. In our desire to be different from Westminster, we created committees with both standing and select functions, but we have been more successful in the area of scrutinising legislation than we have been on policy development. Perhaps the steering group was too optimistic in the degree and level of cross-party co-operation that it expected to take place.
There are other practical intrusions such as the loss of institutional knowledge—which is sometimes referred to as churn—when the members of committees change, which does not add to the strength of those committees in some instances. There is limited time in which committees can be independent and proactive, and set work programmes with those who have an interest in them.
We have lost out institutionally to an Executive, to its desire and drive, and to its policy and manifesto. None of those is a crime in itself, but I am suggesting that there are imperatives in that regard that work against the stature of our committees. Political parties are reluctant to share power on policy—indeed, they think that only they should be developing policy.
Given the focus on the chamber and the set-piece debates, the Parliamentary Bureau, with its need to get the job done in the squeeze of time, impacts on committees and what they are able to do. The SPCB, with all its responsibilities to run the Parliament efficiently, naturally works with those powers in the Parliament to achieve that aim. It is clear that the 15 committees of this Parliament are no match for that collective, but that situation has led to an unequal balance of power within the institution, which was clearly not the consultative steering group’s intention.
The committees have been passive in that process, which has happened over a period of time. They now reflect the majority in the Parliament, which is an added complication that we need to examine. The system was never designed for a Government with a majority, but the process has been happening over time. Committee members and conveners have been too passive and too willing to accept the pressure of time; too willing to toe the party line; too slow to accept innovation and change in the committees; and too ready to discuss issues in private rather than in public.
I say that as someone who has some understanding of all the committees. I have been a whip in the Parliament, so I have had responsibility for ensuring that others toed the party line. I served two terms on the SPCB, I am currently serving my second term as a convener of a committee in the Parliament and I have served on the Parliamentary Bureau. I am therefore complicit in the process, but I am afraid that our committees have lost out.
Many of those issues have been recognised, and the Presiding Officer recognises them too. Many solutions have been discussed, but although they may improve the situation in the short term, we now need to ask the hard questions about whether we as parliamentarians want to fulfil our ambitions for our committees.
We need to ask whether our committees are fit for purpose at present, for dealing with additional powers or, indeed, for the situation that some foresee, which would involve an independent Scotland.
I very much enjoyed Duncan McNeil’s speech, in which he raised many key issues that the Standards, Procedures and Public Appointments Committee—of which I am a member—will look at in the future.
I thank the clerks to the committee, the witnesses from whom it heard, the MSP colleagues from all parties who sidled up to me to give me their views on parliamentary reform, the Parliamentary Bureau, business managers and, of course, the Presiding Officer for all their work in driving forward the reform agenda. I make special mention of the committee’s convener, Dave Thompson, and his absolute dedication and focus in driving forward the reform process. It should not go unsaid that his work has been absolutely remarkable.
Like others, I would like to provide some context for the debate. The Parliament is gearing up for additional powers. Those powers are coming anyway; there is no constitutional debate about that. The new Scotland Act 2012 is being put in place. Whether we are talking about devo plus, devo max or independence post-2014, there is a general consensus that this place will have substantially more power. Given that we will have greater powers, we must ensure that we scrutinise the work that is done in this place more effectively and that, as well as continuing to be topical and relevant, we are seen to be topical and relevant by the people whom we represent. I believe that the Scottish Parliament is held in high esteem across Scotland, but we should never be complacent. We must seek to enhance our structures to better meet the needs of the people whom we serve—the Scottish public.
I want to comment on the issue of the topicality of Scottish Parliament debates. In particular, I mention the proposed topical question time on Tuesday afternoons, which I believe is a fundamental part of the reforms. The current outbreak of legionnaire’s disease in Edinburgh is a relevant example of the need for such a question time. I am pleased that a statement will be made to the chamber on that issue tomorrow, and I acknowledge that Tuesday was a public holiday, but—
Of course—when I have finished my point.
The fact that there is to be a topical question time on Tuesday afternoons means that it will be possible for events that emerge over the parliamentary weekend—which begins on a Thursday evening—to be dealt with routinely.
In addition, the current system of themed question time and general question time involves a seven-day lag between the submission of a question and the asking of a supplementary. Many MSPs take a punt on what will be topical in seven days’ time. I do not find that acceptable. Having the ability to lodge a question on a Monday lunch time that can be asked of a minister on Tuesday afternoon represents a substantial step forward for this place.
I will take advantage of Bob Doris’s mentioning of legionnaire’s disease. Does he recognise that it is also important for the work of the committees to be topical? Next week, there is a space in the Health and Sport Committee’s work programme, when we could get in, rather than the politicians, some of the people who will not make a statement tomorrow—namely, someone from NHS Lothian, someone from the Health and Safety Executive and other people who are involved in the process. Let us do that next week.
I am the deputy convener of the Health and Sport Committee, and I say gently to the committee’s convener that if I had intervened on him to make such a suggestion, he would quite rightly have chastised me and told me that the committee’s work should be decided by committee members at a committee meeting and not in an ad hoc way, on the basis of a knee-jerk reaction, in the chamber. I appreciate the member putting that proposal on the record, but I think that it is a matter for the committee to discuss. As Mr McNeil knows, due process is rather important.
I turn to members’ business debates. I welcome the idea of having a third members’ business debate, which will be embedded in a plenary session rather than being an add-on at the end. I genuinely welcome that, although the slot after First Minister’s question time might be seen as an add-on in itself. We will have to monitor that. I am disappointed that the person who secures a members’ business debate will not have a right to reply after other members have had their say, but before the minister sums up. However, I take on board the Presiding Officer’s concerns that that might change the dynamic of members’ business debates, and that it would have to be handled quite seriously.
I have one or two further comments to make. We will have a plenary session on Tuesday afternoons. Some MSPs do not come to Parliament until Wednesday, although it is not because they are not working; they are working in their constituencies. That can mean that Tuesday afternoons and evenings are a bit of a graveyard slot when it comes to wider engagement with the public and evening events. If more MSPs are here on a Tuesday afternoon, it might mean a more vibrant Tuesday evening and more engagement with civic Scotland. That could be a benefit.
Paul Martin talked about holding ministers to account. The Standards, Procedures and Public Appointments Committee’s report says that we favour fewer questions being asked of ministers but more supplementaries. If a member is dissatisfied after asking their question and their supplementary question, rather than another member getting to ask the next question, the original member could get a second or third attempt at a follow-up question. The Presiding Officer has said that she will consider allowing that in the future once the current reforms have bedded in.
This is quite a dynamic set of reforms, which contains a lot of good news. Although I might wish the reforms to go further, it is important for the Presiding Officer and the Parliamentary Bureau to take a balanced approach. The reforms will deliver, not as an end in themselves but as an improvement to how we represent the people of Scotland.
I ask colleagues to excuse my voice; I have a bad throat today.
From the outset, there was clear determination to make the Scottish Parliament a different kind of Parliament. “Shaping Scotland’s Parliament”, the report of the consultative steering group that was set up in advance of the new Parliament, stressed the desire for a modern Parliament that was open, accessible and visible, while being family friendly. The standing orders that were adopted in the first session of the Parliament largely achieved that.
I am glad that our Parliament is a business-like one that is not hung up on archaic procedures. Standing orders have served us well and we have achieved a great deal in the formative years of the Parliament. However, no one should expect everything to stay the same as the day it was set up. It is right therefore to reflect on and review our modus operandi. Our parliamentary procedures should evolve in response to our changing role and public expectations.
As the Parliament matures, the Scottish people increasingly look to us to respond quickly to emerging concerns, but there is a sense that the current shape of the parliamentary week restricts our ability to respond as swiftly as we would like. I congratulate the Presiding Officer on her determination to make this parliamentary session the time for procedural reform. She has been resolute in that. We have already benefited from some changes that were within her remit to make, such as more time for questions from back benchers, longer speaking slots in debates, and so on.
Today we are considering what changes are required to standing orders to enable us to reform the parliamentary week. I thank the Standards, Procedures and Public Appointments Committee for the research that it has done for its report. It has helped us to see ourselves as others see us and has set out a well-reasoned case for reform of the parliamentary week. Scottish Liberal Democrats support the proposed changes and I am glad to note that there is cross-party support for them.
I do not doubt that the proposals will have an impact on MSPs. As elected representatives, we have a number of roles, and the challenge for us all is to strike the proper balance between constituency and parliamentary work. I am content that the proposals that we are considering today keep things in reasonable balance, but I welcome the indication that the matter will be kept under review.
We do need to monitor the impact on committee work. We need to ensure that committees do not feel squeezed. The proposals will limit the opportunity for committees to sit for a whole day, although in practice few currently do so, given that a number of members sit on more than one committee on the same day. With a little adjustment of start times, committees should have sufficient time to tackle their business. However, the proposals could further restrict the ability of committees to take their work outside the Parliament. In the early days, there was a hope that the Parliament would take its meetings beyond Edinburgh, and be active in communities across Scotland. That has not happened as much as I would have liked, so perhaps further consideration could be given to that.
Our Parliament has no revising chamber and our committees were intended to have a key role in scrutinising and amending legislation. They have a patchy record in doing that and we need to look again at that in the light of the changing circumstances relating to the majority Government that we have at the moment. We should not be afraid to question how effective our committees can now be. I hope that that will be the focus of further work by the Standards, Procedures and Public Appointments Committee and others.
A key role for MSPs is to scrutinise the Scottish Government’s work. The Parliament needs to have the time and opportunity to do so regularly. Current question times are rigid and, as members have said, there is a long run-in time for the lodging of questions, which makes them far from topical. Extending the plenary sessions as suggested into a Tuesday afternoon will provide a welcome opportunity for more frequent questioning, especially on developing issues.
The proposal to have topical questions on Tuesday, portfolio questions on Wednesday and general questions along with First Minister’s questions on Thursday will give MSPs a much better range of opportunities to scrutinise the Government and to explore issues of concern. If, as anticipated, the Presiding Officer selects a maximum of one or two topical questions per week, that will give the member who asks the question, and other members who are trying to follow through, plenty of scope for in-depth questioning of ministers. That is an important reform. The reduction in lead-in time for questions will engender more topicality.
The Parliament was set up to be as family friendly as possible, in recognition of the fact that we have other commitments as parents, carers, partners or whatever. A modern Parliament should strive for that healthy balance, which is why I am pleased that we have not opted for a blanket extension to sitting hours into the evenings on a Wednesday. For some of us who travel down from the north, a blanket extension would make no difference, as we are away from our families for at least three days a week anyway but, for those who can travel home of an evening, I wish to protect that ability and ensure that they can continue to travel home at a reasonable hour that allows for some family time.
As we are a family-friendly Parliament, surely that extends to the staff who work in the Parliament, whether in human resources, security, allowances or other areas. Have we taken enough cognisance of their needs?
I agree entirely that we must consider the family of people who are involved in the Parliament. I hope that, in developing the proposals further, we will give due regard to those needs. That takes me back to my point that it is important not routinely to extend the sitting hours, although it is correct to reserve the possibility of meeting for longer on Wednesdays if necessary; for example, when we deal with complex bills at stage 3. The business managers and the Parliamentary Bureau have a crucial role in ensuring that there is not a drift in the direction of doing that routinely.
I recognise the concerns that the Labour and Conservative business managers outlined and believe that there should be a presumption against having Opposition business on a Thursday. However, I accept that it is for the business managers on the bureau to try to accommodate that.
This process should be just the start of the reform. We must strive to continue to be open and accountable while being more flexible in our approach.
The fact that I have up to five minutes indicates one of the problems with the way in which the Parliament operates. If someone has a contrary view to express, their opportunity to advance that in the Parliament is limited. That is one of the reasons why we need change in the things that actually matter about the way in which we do our business. I have been an advocate of change for some considerable time and I agree with Paul Wheelhouse that change is needed. I support the Presiding Officer’s efforts to bring about change; the issue is just that I do not think that what is on offer is good enough to effect the change that we need.
Dave Thompson is right that we should approach the matter with a critical eye. We should look, root and branch, at the way in which we operate and we should be prepared to be radical if that is required. We should not rest on our laurels and say that we are a new Parliament and we do business better than Parliaments elsewhere, including Westminster. If others do things better than we do, we should be prepared to acknowledge that and learn from it. It is in that spirit that I say that, frankly, this is a wasted opportunity. We need fundamental change in the way in which we do our business.
One thing that has disappointed me in the debate is that members have spoken about the Parliament sitting only on a Wednesday afternoon and a Thursday. They treat the committees of the Parliament as though they are somehow different. I am sorry but, no, the Parliament meets on Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday. It is just that the committees of the Parliament meet at certain times and at other times the Parliament meets in plenary. To separate out the committees in that way does a disservice to what was seen as one of the pillars of this new Parliament.
I agree entirely with the points that Duncan McNeil made about the committees. If we were truly determined to change for the better, we should have started with the fundamentals of the committees. How do we improve our committees? How do we make them more effective? How can we make their ability to hold the Government to account that bit better than it is just now?
That debate has been going on since time immemorial and, as I have only five minutes, I will not even attempt to go there.
We should be looking to strengthen the role of the committees. We should have been thinking about bringing in ministers to the committees more regularly and for longer, in order to allow more detailed debate and scrutiny in the committees, with members having the opportunity to ask the minister question after question until they get some satisfaction. If we wanted to be truly radical, we should have asked why, given that the chair of the Public Audit Committee is always automatically allocated to a member of the Opposition, we do not do likewise with the chairs of the Finance Committee and some of the other important committees in the Parliament. That would help to ensure that committees are doing their job and holding the Government to account. Further, why not think about giving committees more time to do post-legislative work?
I am sorry, I know that I am rushing my points.
Although I am in favour of having questions that are more topical, we should ensure that, in those precious 15 minutes that have been allocated for topical questions, members can ask not only one follow-up question but two, three or maybe even four follow-up questions, so that they can get to the heart of the problem and ministers are not able to brush them off with a flippant or irrelevant answer. [Interruption.] Brian Adam says that someone of my calibre cannot say whether a question has been answered properly. That might be something that we need to look to the Presiding Officer to do, not just with regard to the detail of the answer but with regard to pointing out when the minister has not bothered to speak about the topic of the question that was asked.
We should have thought about taking some of the items of members’ business into committees, so that members of the public could be brought closer to the debate and be made to feel part of the process as it is televised and recorded.
There is much more to say on this matter. I think that, to an extent, we are guilty of participating in a cosmetic exercise. We are tinkering. I worry that we are enfeebling committees and I sometimes think that we are in danger of consolidating irrelevance.
I will respond to the previous speech by saying that structures are important, and I support these reforms, but what we do with structures is important, too. I do not believe that there is a perfect structure. The challenge to us is to do with how we use the existing and future structures.
I am a fairly new member, but I have had the opportunity of seeing how other places work. I support the proposed reforms. Meeting in the chamber three days a week makes sense. The constituents might want to see us in the constituencies, but I have constituents who feel that the real work that I am doing is done in the Parliament, and they are always asking how long I am here for and what I do while I am here. The idea of having more members’ business debates is also good, and I suggest that more of us need to sign the motions of members of other parties in order to encourage a wider range of subjects for debate. I also welcome topical questions.
If there are disadvantages to the proposals, they are to do with the curtailment of time in the constituency. However, we need to strike a balance. Under the Scotland Act 2012 we are getting more powers and that will require more time in the Parliament.
I will make a few comparisons with Westminster—I realise that some people do not like us making comparisons with Westminster and that, if I say anything good about the place, some of my colleagues will probably shout me down, but I think that we compare well with Westminster. We are more transparent, in that it is easier to tell who is getting to speak, when and for how long. We are fairer, in that it is not those who are the longest serving who get to speak the longest. Our voting system is more sensible, in that we do not have to go through lobbies and be counted through doors. Further, making even the changes that we are discussing today would be hugely unlikely at Westminster, where there is enormous resistance to any change at all.
We must, however, be realistic. There are 129 members here, whereas down south there are more than 600 members. That allows Westminster to do things that we probably cannot do, such as regularly have committees meet at the same time as the chamber. The downside is that members of Parliament can hide in the House of Commons, which I suggest is much harder for us. I find the time here more pressurised than it was down there.
I was in London for four days a week with no chance of getting back to my constituency through the week, although many of us here can obviously go back to our constituencies in the evenings. The point has been made that we have more time to meet civic Scotland, be it charities, national groups or whatever. The introduction of the new system should mean that activities that have taken place on a crammed Wednesday evening and Wednesday and Thursday lunch times can also take place on Tuesdays.
Some ideas are not being taken forward and it will be good if those can be looked at again in the future. I support the idea of encouraging interventions. It is noticeable that some members do not take interventions, although I am grateful to all those who have taken interventions from me during the debate. We need to have sympathy for members who do not like taking interventions, but the public enjoy and appreciate interventions. One idea, which comes from down south, is that at Westminster an extra two minutes are sometimes allowed for a speech if a member takes an intervention.
The issue of published questions from party leaders, especially at First Minister’s question time, has been commented on. It strikes the public and newcomers such as myself as a bit odd that the same question is repeated by the same person week after week. I accept that there are reasons for that and that it allows a width of supplementary questions, but that is perhaps another practice that could be revised.
I am happy to support the motion. There are wider questions in all this about the good of democracy as a whole. There is a low turnout at many elections and the public clearly wants politics to be done better. Although most of us are in parties and tend to put the party at the top of our agenda, we must balance that commitment with our responsibility for the good of the whole Parliament and our duty to strengthen democracy itself.
I am grateful for the opportunity to offer a small contribution on the issue. Although parliamentary reform would not exactly be up there along with the great debates heard in the chamber over the years, it is a crucial part of how we go about our business on behalf of the Scottish people.
The Standards, Procedures and Public Appointments Committee members have done a pretty thorough job and have responded well to the Presiding Officer’s request that they re-examine, after 13 years, ways in which to better meet the needs of the people we serve.
Members have already covered the ground pretty well. As speaker number five from my side, I probably do not need all of the allocated time and hope not to repeat too many of the messages that members have already heard.
The principal change, which members have already discussed, is the move to what the media might call a three-day week. It has always been unfair to portray the Parliament, as some sections of the media chose to do in the lead up to the reform, as being part-time and operating in session for only one and a half days a week. As members will confirm, our time is pretty well allocated throughout the three days to a variety of duties that involve committees—as Hugh Henry mentioned—engagements with constituents and debates in the chamber. However, the new proposal appears to level the workload out a bit and should bring the work of the Parliament to the attention of a greater number of people across a wider part of the week. Of course, time will tell, and the real test of the reforms will be the quality of the business that we transact and the attention that it gains from the wider public.
No, thank you. I have only four minutes and I have already chopped two pages off my speech.
The extra members’ business debate is very welcome, as is the increased provision for back-benchers’ topical questions.
As a member who was lucky to secure quite a number of members’ business debates in the previous session of the Parliament, I would say that the quality and topicality of members’ business debates has improved in this session.
The move to permit a wider scope of subject material for members’ business debates in the future will significantly enhance the role that back benchers can play in the Parliament. If we consider the experience and knowledge that many members of the Parliament bring to this place, it is a positive step forward to open up this part of our work so that we get the most from the experience of parliamentarians.
Who knows, in future members might be treated to a members’ business debate from me looking at the Scottish software industry, or at how Scottish and Irish traditional music has helped to shape the cultures of both countries, or at how the emerging democracies in the former Balkan countries, such as Kosovo, are looking to Scotland when they establish systems of governance and accountability, or even perhaps a glance at the impact of local football clubs, such as Kilmarnock Football Club, in contributing to their local economies. We do not hear from members on subjects that they have some knowledge of or are close to their hearts because there is not the scope to do that under the current arrangement. The new arrangement offers new opportunities to us all and that will, I hope, enhance the reputation of the Parliament.
If the proposals are agreed to by the Parliament, I very much hope that the Standards, Procedures and Public Appointments committee, and indeed the members, keep an eye on what is and is not working. We are right to claim that our Parliament is family friendly and I am certain that that aspiration can be maintained even if we spread the business across the three days as proposed. The fact that most of our parliamentarians will be here on the three days means that we can look forward to more requests to come here and I hope that we will see yet more schools and community groups coming to visit us after the changes take place.
The committee has carried out invaluable work on our behalf and has carefully weighed up the advantages to the Parliament as a whole of the changes that it proposes. I commend the work done by the committee members on the subject, and I look forward with great interest to the implementation of its recommendations.
I am for change, but not just for the sake of change—only when the case for change has been established. That is why I want to examine some of the proposals objectively. I will go back to some of the founding watchwords of the Parliament. It was to be family friendly, modern in practice, and certainly it was not to replicate the sitting practices of Westminster.
As a devolved Parliament of 129 MSPs, it was to balance the needs of constituents, public interest, representation and parliamentary function with allowing MSPs and staff to operate as parents and components of family. I am signed up to that. I warmly support the concept of family, and that breadth of representation has made this Parliament, as an elected forum for MSPs, accessible by people of all ages, not least those with parental or other family responsibilities. From 1999, the beneficial effect of that influence has been obvious and it has enhanced the breadth of contributions to debates and committee proceedings.
Presiding Officer, you are being vigilant and sensitive when you express the desire to ensure that the Parliament is responsive to developments and meets the needs of the people of Scotland by ensuring topicality and relevance in its deliberations. There are two sets of circumstances that did not apply in 1999, but which now give an added piquancy to such a desire. One is the overall majority of one party in the Parliament, and the other is the significant additional powers conferred upon the Parliament by the Scotland Act 2012. The former calls for a heightened emphasis on accountability and the latter places an even more onerous obligation upon our committees. I shall address that latter aspect in more detail in a moment.
I have never taken the view that the more MSPs sit, the better they get on. Indeed, for such a notably garrulous grouping as politicians, the opposite is probably the case. Hugh Henry is absolutely right to say that we should not be dealing with parliamentary sittings and committees in silos. What matters to me is why we sit, whether in the Parliament or on a committee, and what we do when we sit. If the extension of parliamentary sittings is to provide flexibility in dealing with topical issues and more accountability by debate and use of ministerial questions, then the time is spent usefully. If the extension of sittings is cosmetic—the “Well, it looks as though we’re working harder” approach—then, frankly, we are kidding ourselves, we are failing the Parliament and we are failing our constituents. The extended sittings can be justified provided that they are manifestly for the purpose of satisfying topicality and accountability.
I have one profound concern about the mechanism for asking questions, which operates utterly by chance on the outcome of a ballot, with the exception of First Minister’s question time. In my case, that has meant that over the past few months, I have been selected for questions on health, transport and justice. That is all very interesting, but the area for which I am the spokesman is culture. I last asked a culture question three months ago.
If we are really serious about accountability, surely the MSPs best able to ask ministers questions, to challenge them and to put them under the cosh, are the shadow spokesmen in the opposition parties. They know about the portfolio in depth and they are briefed by external organisations about issues. However those MSPs—the ones who are most likely to give ministers a hard time—have to rely on chance to be able to ask a relevant parliamentary question.
Hugh Henry alluded to that point and it is an important one. The current structure cannot possibly serve either topicality or accountability. Surely it is not beyond the wit of man—or woman, Presiding Officer—to change that structure.
We must never forget the unique importance of our committees in a unicameral Parliament—Hugh Henry made that point powerfully. Their scrutiny of legislation is vital and their ability to do that thoroughly and robustly is essential. That role cannot be adequately discharged without oral evidence. The committee structure is not there to suit us—it is there to be accessible to and by the public, not least to witnesses.
We need to ensure that witnesses are not deterred from giving evidence by an inconveniently timed committee meeting or by the brevity of the proceedings, because neither will serve the integrity of this Parliament’s committee structure well.
Given the founding watchwords of this Parliament, I was startled to find out that no equalities impact assessment had been carried out on these proposals at an early stage. There are implications for MSPs and for Parliament staff who are parents or who have other family responsibilities. Any regression in that respect would be a negative development for this Parliament.
My party supports change, but the changes that we make must be closely monitored and measured. They should be subject to a probation period of six working months—Paul Martin is correct about the need for review. The test must always be not what suits us because we happen to be here, but what serves the people of Scotland best—wherever they are.
I welcome the opportunity to close the debate for the Labour Party and to indicate that we will support the motion at five o’clock. It has been an interesting debate, and a number of strong views have been expressed across the chamber. Although there will be consensus when it comes to the vote at five o’clock, there are clearly some deep concerns about how we should take the issues forward. Members would do well to bear in mind some of the powerful speeches that have been made.
On taking forward the reform of the parliamentary week, we must bear in mind how effective we are as a Parliament in holding the Government to account. We must also take on board the theme of many of Margo MacDonald’s interventions, which was about how we relate parliamentary business to the public, and why BBC Parliament is not interested in some of the afternoon debates.
The reality is that on far too many afternoons we sit in the chamber and have filler debates—we while away the afternoon. We all enjoy a good debate and discussion, but what are we achieving as MSPs? What are we doing to represent our constituents? How are we stimulating interest in the Parliament? That is what we need to examine.
On the specific reforms that the committee looked at, Brian Adam made the case that the change to plenary sitting times will give a consistency to the parliamentary week, in that we will have committee meetings in the mornings and plenary sessions in the afternoon. There is a certain logic to that.
The debate around topical questions is interesting, and Annabel Goldie made a relevant point about members’ experience of asking questions. I have recently got in a couple of questions in the rural affairs ballot, but there are not too many farms in Rutherglen and Cambuslang. To an extent, that illustrates Annabel Goldie’s point.
I agree with Paul Wheelhouse’s point about members’ business debates. The change to having three such debates a week is encouraging because it will allow more members to bring to the chamber issues in which they are interested and which are important to their constituencies.
Does the member agree that there might be a more democratic way of allocating members’ business debates? Perhaps it could be done by ballot, which is how it is done in Westminster.
I am not trying to diminish the result of last year’s election and I accept how the parliamentary rules operate in that regard. I am merely pointing out that the schedule for members’ business debates shows that the SNP dominates them. Perhaps that is the issue that Margo MacDonald was alluding to.
I turn to concerns that were raised during the debate. Alison McInnes and Duncan McNeil made powerful speeches about the role of parliamentary committees in general, not just in relation to the proposed reforms. We need to examine closely what is being proposed, and we need to be wary of diminishing the role of the committees. The point was made that, with committees finishing at 11.40 on a Thursday morning, there is a chance that committee business could be curtailed. That situation will need to be monitored closely.
Helen Eadie made the point that although we will have an additional plenary session, that does not necessarily mean that the time that we spend in the chamber in a week will be much greater than the current total. We must examine whether the new way of working will make a substantial difference.
Hugh Henry made an important point about accountability and engagement. There is a real challenge for the Government in taking the proposals forward. The Government must engage with the proposals and show respect to the other parties in the Parliament and to the Parliament itself.
This has been an important debate. We must make the Parliament relevant to the public. In my experience of five years as an MSP, there have been substantive and serious debates, but too many debates take on the nature of an afternoon university debating society. We need to move away from that if we want to be a serious Parliament moving ahead in the 21st century.
We have had a wide-ranging debate. In response to some of the serious issues that have been raised about parliamentary committees, I point out to colleagues that, in phase 2 of its inquiry, the committee will look at precisely that issue. The committees, with their scrutiny activity, are indeed a very important part of the Parliament and its work. As Duncan McNeil suggested, there is no doubt that we can get set in our ways, but there will be real benefits from the rhythm of a week that will have committees meeting on Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday mornings and plenary sessions on Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday afternoons.
I am perhaps a little surprised that no member described how the changes will impact on them personally, but that shows that members have risen above personal interests in addressing the proposed changes.
On the length of speeches and the number and nature of supplementaries, we already have flexibility, which lies in the hands of the Presiding Officer and her two deputies. It is they who determine who gets to speak, who will ask supplementary questions and how many supplementaries there will be. However, they are constrained by standing orders, and I am not aware of anything in the motion or the proposed changes to standing orders that will change that. Perhaps that might be given further consideration by Mr Thompson and his colleagues on the Standards, Procedures and Public Appointments Committee.
I am certain that everybody benefits from having a rhythm to the week and some degree of certainty about how it will flow. It is not just members who benefit, but those who watch us, whether they do it professionally, such as broadcasters and other members of the media, or otherwise. It is important for people to know what will happen and when.
The other substantive point that has been made by the business managers from the Opposition parties is that they are concerned about when Opposition time will be allocated. There is nothing in the motion or the proposed changes to standing orders that will change the current practice. I heard the suggestion that Thursday afternoon is the fag end of the week. It is indeed, but I have never been aware of any politician who did not want to have the last word.
I ask the member to give me a minute or two.
Members in different parts of the country face different challenges in balancing their constituency roles with being members of the national Parliament, and we need to be sensitive to that.
I was pleased to note the constructive tone that was taken in many of today’s speeches, and I express again my gratitude to the Standards, Procedures and Public Appointments Committee for the thorough inquiry that it carried out. I am certain that it will be equally thorough during phase 2 of its inquiry, which should address many of the questions that were raised by Hugh Henry, Duncan McNeil, Alison McInnes and others.
If we agree to the motion and the proposed changes to standing orders are made, Thursday morning will not be an option because it will be committee time. What has to be fitted into plenary sessions are the items of business that are covered in standing orders, which include Opposition time, committee time and members’ business debates, as well as, quite properly, Government business, whether that is general debates or part of the legislative process.
I assure members that I am willing to listen and engage. Nothing on which we will decide today will change current practice, other than the fact that Thursday mornings will no longer be an option, as James Kelly was right to point out.
The package that we have been offered strikes the right balance. It is only right and proper to reflect on whether procedures and practices continue to be fit for purpose. I do not know whether we need a six-month limit for a review. I note that no amendment to that effect has been lodged.
On the Government’s behalf, I am delighted to support the proposals. I assure the Parliament that the Government will do all that it can to help to make the changes work well in practice, which will include continuing to engage with Opposition members on when Opposition time should be allocated.
I never thought that standing order changes could lead to such an interesting and at times impassioned debate. Of course, the proposals will lead to a fundamental change to the Parliament’s working practices, if members agree to them at decision time in only a few minutes.
As I said in my opening speech and as has been repeated by others, the major changes relate to the Parliament’s ability to respond quickly to emerging issues and improving back benchers’ ability to hold the Government to account. Like many members who have spoken, I believe that moving to morning committee meetings with afternoon plenary sessions of the full Parliament, tied in with the new short-notice topical question time on Tuesdays and additional members’ business debates, will help to achieve the aims that I described.
Those measures—plus more time overall for questions and debates; shorter periods between lodging and asking questions; allowing committees to meet on a planned basis at the same time as chamber business takes place; ministerial questions at the start of business on Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Thursdays, instead of only on Thursdays, as at present; members’ business debates in core plenary time; and the Presiding Officer’s encouragement of more interventions—will fundamentally change how the Parliament operates.
The member referred to the Presiding Officer’s role. Does he agree that the Presiding Officer would have the full Parliament’s support if they slapped down ministers who were being irrelevant or wandering from the topic that was at hand?
That is very much a matter for the Presiding Officer. Later on, I will touch on other issues that might help with that.
In his opening speech, the minister made the point that the changes will not make the Government’s life any easier. That is true. Ministers will have to respond at 2 o’clock on a Tuesday to questions that were lodged only at 12 o’clock on the Monday. Ministers will have to be in the chamber to answer those questions, and that short notice will create more difficulties than the present situation does. However, it will be manageable. Ministers and the Government will just have to accept the Parliament’s decision and deal with it.
I have no doubt that the proposals will make the Government more accountable and will allow back benchers, Opposition spokespersons and everyone else to lodge questions at what will be short notice, in comparison with the current system. That is a huge step forward for the Parliament.
I welcome the assurances from all the Opposition party spokespersons who said that they would support the motion at decision time.
Paul Martin and a number of other speakers raised the issue of keeping matters under review. I assure him that the committee is very keen to do that. He also said that there would perhaps be a need for an independent inquiry into some of these things. I do not believe that that will be necessary.
What we have before us today is the start of a process. Members will agree that the Standards, Procedures and Public Appointments Committee came to the right decisions when it drafted its report, and the bureau has accepted a lot of the recommendations. I assure members that the members of the committee and I are very independently minded, and that we approached the subject by looking at the benefit for Parliament and not whether the reforms would benefit any particular party or the Government of the day—the report shows that. I accept the point made by Hugh Henry and others that we can improve things, on which I will touch later, but the report shows that, even with a majority Government, major changes to the Parliament—changes that the Government will not necessarily like—can be brought forward through our committee system, and that we can get them through Parliament. That is a huge plus for the Scottish Parliament.
John Lamont raised a point about there being no increase to the parliamentary week, on which he was not exactly right. There will be increased time for questions of about 17 per cent and for debates of about 6 per cent. The draft programme that the bureau submitted in its reply to the committee shows increased time for debates and questions in the chamber.
John Lamont also raised the review of lodging times for questions. It was a good point—we will need to keep an eye on that. As part of keeping an eye on the whole process, the committee will review everything at the end of this year, as we move on. We will consider our work programme next week and will have that very much in our mind.
Paul Wheelhouse made a good point about the length of debates and speeches. One of the committee’s recommendations was that speeches should be longer, with more interventions. [Interruption.]
We are quite keen on that recommendation and the bureau did not reject it out of hand—it said that it would look at it in future, once some of the other changes had bedded down. The committee is happy for that to be the case. Such matters will be taken back for further consideration and I am sure that the committee will watch developments very carefully.
I thank my deputy convener, Helen Eadie, for her support and work during the inquiry. Helen took a particular point of view in December and she has stuck to her guns today, on which I congratulate her. I do not accept the point that Helen made about ministers having a problem—
Sorry. I do not accept Helen Eadie’s point that ministers will find it harder to get to all parts of Scotland. I am sure that ministers will manage that very well indeed.
We will look further at committees—an important issue that the conveners group is already looking at—in phase 2 of our inquiry. We decided to kick off with sitting times as we wanted to tackle things in bite-sized chunks—we are very much aware that the committee’s previous reports have sat on shelves and gathered dust, and that nothing happened with them. We are very pleased to bring forward very quickly a report on one aspect. We will come back to committees.
I see that my time is running out, so I will close there.