Parliamentary Procedures and Practices

– in the Scottish Parliament on 16th December 2021.

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Photo of Alison Johnstone Alison Johnstone Green

The next item of business is a debate without motion on behalf of the Standards, Procedures and Public Appointments Committee on shaping parliamentary procedures and practices for the future.

I invite Martin Whitfield to open the debate on behalf of the Standards, Procedures and Public Appointments Committee. You have up to eight minutes, Mr Whitfield.

Photo of Martin Whitfield Martin Whitfield Labour

Thank you, Presiding Officer. It is truly a pleasure to see you in the chair for the first of the Standards, Procedures and Public Appointments Committee’s debates.

In essence, we chose to debate the subject of future procedures and practices here, in this building, because of what Donald Dewar said on the opening of the Parliament—albeit that that ceremony was held in a different place. He said:

“Wisdom, justice, compassion, integrity; timeless values. Honourable aspirations for this new forum of democracy born on the cusp of a new century.”

He went on to say:

“I look forward to the days ahead ... when this chamber will sound with debate, argument and passion. When men and women from all over Scotland will meet to work together for a future built on the first principles of social justice.”

Those principles are equity, access, participation and rights.

I am joined today by members of the committee, who will offer their own contributions. We are at the start of the sixth session of Parliament. These may be the Parliament’s terrible teenage years, when we can talk about things that our parents would gasp at and can suggest ideas that others may laugh at. The environment allows us to consider how we go forward to maturity, so that we can respect and represent the people of Scotland.

This is a time to look at our rules, conventions, procedures and practices. Some of those have crept up on us; some have been thrust on us by circumstances outwith our control. I thank the Scottish Parliament information centre for producing a helpful report on the changes that the Covid-19 pandemic has forced on Parliament and on the way that those who decide on our procedures took the opportunity to make sure that we stayed open and relevant and that we could hold the Government to account and represent the people of Scotland.

We find ourselves in the great debating chamber that is the centrepiece of the architectural Parliament. It is also the room that best sums up the intentions of this Parliament. We are not to scream and shout. We do not have to be to sword lengths apart. We do not have to sit so far back that a thrown shoe cannot hit someone who is speaking at the front. We are here to see each other and to hold a debate in which we can agree or disagree and in which we can put forward ideas that hold other ideas to account.

Is this a controlled arena? Those of us who are old enough can remember the wrestling on 1970s television, when the end was known before the match began. Is this a bear pit, where we tear others’ ideas asunder? Is this a debating chamber where we can inquire about ideas, push people further in their thinking and perhaps make them consider whether they are in a cul-de-sac? The people of Scotland look for answers from this venue.

Photo of Daniel Johnson Daniel Johnson Labour

I do this because I know that the committee convener has encouraged interventions to his speech. This is the first debate that I can remember in which we have considered how we do business here. I appreciate the committee bringing the debate forward. Does the committee intend to continue with this and to return to the chamber in the future, so that we can continue contemplating our development, or is this a one-off?

Photo of Martin Whitfield Martin Whitfield Labour

The intervention allows me to offer the opportunity for all who are here to contribute their ideas and thoughts when the committee calls for evidence in the new year. This debate is the seedling that will start that process. Ideas, pros and cons can be put on record so that we can consider them as part of our evidence. There will also be an opportunity for people from across Scotland to contribute their ideas.

We want to look at debate. I will put that idea to one side. I have exercised my mind, but I am desperate to hear others’ ideas before sharing my own.

We want to consider the functionality of BlueJeans and Teams. I raise that subject with some trepidation today, after the BlueJeans system was cut off yesterday. That issue goes to the heart of whether we see the value for our political community of having hybrid meetings in committees and in the chamber. Does that make us more family friendly? Does it draw in a wider group of people who might be interested in making a contribution? What are its implications for us as individuals and parliamentarians? It might affect work patterns and workloads, travel practices, constituency work and—I raise this because it is important—family life.

Photo of Stephen Kerr Stephen Kerr Conservative

I am grateful to the committee’s convener for giving way. He alluded to tea-time wrestling on “World of Sport” and likened our proceedings to a pre-baked formula. Has the hybrid meeting arrangement, particularly in the chamber, not just cemented the feeling that proceedings are sometimes a little sterile and that there is not enough engagement? What does my friend think?

Photo of Martin Whitfield Martin Whitfield Labour

I thank Stephen Kerr for his excellent intervention. I am going to take the lawyer’s approach, which still hives at the back of my brain, and say that I will listen to others rather than throw in my conjecture. However, the need for and existence of the information technology certainly creates a different perspective, given the control that is needed for events to work.

Photo of John Mason John Mason Scottish National Party

On the point about hybrid meetings, does the member agree with my feeling that the norm should be for us to be in the chamber but that there should be exceptions for various reasons, one being that some members have constituencies that are much further away?

Photo of Martin Whitfield Martin Whitfield Labour

I thank John Mason for that intervention, to which I will respond with the same lawyerly philosophy—again, I will listen to what is said and comment on the subject later. However, he raises a very important point. What expectation do the people of Scotland have of their MSPs? What is it to be an MSP? What are the responsibilities that go with that? Where should they be crafted and carried out? Should that happen in the chamber? By necessity, particularly given the diverse nature of Scotland, the distances that are involved and members’ travel arrangements, it is sometimes impossible for them to make it to the chamber.

That brings me to a question on which I have been cornered by a number of people, and which I wish to put on the record. Should criteria be developed for circumstances in which Government ministers may participate virtually in parliamentary proceedings or should they always be in the chamber or in front of committees?

The final issue that I will mention, merely to ask the question and not to close down any ideas that are offered, is proxy voting for members who are ill or on parental or maternity leave. Should they have the right to exercise their vote through a colleague? They still represent their constituents. They are at a time when, I think it is fair to say, the debates and statutory instruments that come before Parliament might not be at the forefront of their minds, but why should their constituents lose out on the opportunity to express their views through their representative when there is a vote?

Having made that point, I intend to sit. I encourage as many members as possible to contribute to the debate. The committee will soon start to take evidence on the subject, and I look forward to the speeches that members will make this afternoon, which will help enormously. I finish by again quoting Donald Dewar, who looked forward to the days

“When men and women from all over Scotland will meet to work together for a future built from the first principles of social justice.”

Photo of George Adam George Adam Scottish National Party

I thank Mr Whitfield for his excellent speech in opening this extremely important debate. I did not get his reference to wrestling in the 1970s, being too young. [

Laughter

.] I certainly did not know that it was on just before the football results, in any event.

I welcome the fact that the Standards, Procedures and Public Appointments Committee has brought the subject to the chamber for debate. As we all know, the Covid pandemic of the past 20 months has brought us many challenges, including for how the Parliament functions day to day—but function it must, and Parliament must continue to be flexible as we deal with the many challenges that we face.

It is no exaggeration to say that it has been essential to the delivery of democracy in Scotland that this Parliament has continued to meet and hold the Government to account over the past 20 months, but it has not been a simple process. Over the past 20 months, we have had all kinds of problems and we have had to understand new ways of working. The Government has had to deal with that, as have MSPs, and the parliamentary authorities have had to adapt to the ever-changing situations that we have found ourselves in.

It has been a strange time for us all, including me. I love people, and I love it when this place is full of people, when there are events and when we are moving forward. We truly see the best of this place when we have a fully functioning Parliament.

However, we have had to deal with the challenges that have been in front of us, such as working in hybrid form, with some members working from home and some of us working from Parliament. It has been a difficult time for us.

I have seen the changes happen. I have had a front-row seat on the Parliamentary Bureau, first as an observer in my role as the Scottish National Party’s chief whip, and now as a participant in my role as the Minister for Parliamentary Business.

Things have not been easy, and we have had problems along the way. I put on record my gratitude to all parliamentary staff, who have managed to get us to a position in which we have the option, via technology, of hybrid working. I know for a fact that, during the many meetings that we had in the early days of the pandemic, the ability to work in a hybrid way came from a standing start. The technology was not there for us to use or even to push that approach forward. I thank all parliamentary staff for ensuring that, as a Parliament, we have been able to continue. They have kept Scotland’s democracy functioning by creating a virtual Parliament from nothing, enabling us to work in hybrid form in the chamber and in committee.

There have been many teething issues along the way. I will admit that there have been times when even I have become extremely frustrated by it all, but who has not at some point?

Photo of Daniel Johnson Daniel Johnson Labour

I agree with the minister: what we have managed to do in a short space of time is remarkable.

However, I think that it would be a mistake if we were to approach the debate assuming that everything was perfect prior to the pandemic and that it was merely a question of adapting to the circumstances. Does the minister not think that there is a question about how we used the chamber prior to the pandemic and how we use it in future? Critically, is there not also a question about how the Government uses the chamber? I question whether the Government uses the chamber enough to think out loud. It uses its time to congratulate itself a bit too much, rather than to think about the big topics of the day. Does the Government not need to consider that?

Photo of George Adam George Adam Scottish National Party

Mr Johnson brings up some valid points that I agree with. When we look at the processes that we have had to deal with and work through over the past while, we can see that there are many new ways in which we can work, and many different ways in which this place can work. We can adapt to take on board some of the ideas that we have had. However, I believe that the whole point of the debate is for us to step back, take a deep breath and think about how we as a Parliament decide to move forward.

We are moving back to holding our proceedings online. As I have already said, there have been many teething issues along the way, but issues such as the one that we experienced yesterday have been in the minority. Most the time, when issues have arisen, it has been a member’s broadband that has been at fault. I have to admit that that has happened to me on many occasions.

Photo of Stephen Kerr Stephen Kerr Conservative

Indeed. I recall some difficulties of late with the minister’s home broadband.

I am not sure that the minister gave Daniel Johnson a definite answer to his question. Does the minister accept that, prior to the Parliament’s meetings during the emergency of the past 20 months, there were procedural issues with how business is conducted in the chamber and elsewhere in the Parliament that could be improved or reformed?

Photo of George Adam George Adam Scottish National Party

I think that I said to Mr Johnson that we can take this opportunity to look at the issues and move forward. There have been many new ways of working and many new ideas have come up. We have ensured that we are having this debate. We are moving forward.

I for one recognise the value of today’s debate in allowing us to reflect on the changes that we have had to make and the lessons that we have had to learn to enable Parliament to adapt during the pandemic.

I find that, in a time of difficulty, it is good to keep a clear, positive attitude. I always have a glass half full attitude to such debates. During these testing times, we have to be positive and look at what has worked and how we can make things better.

It is extremely important that the Parliament looks at what we can continue to achieve with the technology.

Photo of George Adam George Adam Scottish National Party

I have a couple of points that I want to make first.

I appreciate that not everyone is a fan of virtual or hybrid proceedings. We can all acknowledge that the debates and the statements have a different character in those circumstances. However, such proceedings offer a clear advantage: they have kept us all safe for the past 20 months.

Photo of Gillian Mackay Gillian Mackay Green

I thank the minister for taking the intervention and apologise to Mr Mason. Does the minister agree that we need to keep the hybrid system? It has been hugely important for those of us in the chamber who have a disability, and it could be important for those who might have a long-term health condition in future?

We congratulated ourselves on electing a more diverse Parliament this time round. If we are to continue to keep attracting new people, we need to keep that hybrid way of working.

The Presiding Officer:

I appreciate that we are discussing ways of working, but we use members’ surnames, too, minister.

Photo of George Adam George Adam Scottish National Party

I apologise for that, Presiding Officer; I think that it is the first time in 11 years that I have made that mistake.

I agree that hybrid meetings give us the opportunity to include those who have a different type of lifestyle. For example, my wife has multiple sclerosis, and for someone with multiple sclerosis who could be great one day in the chamber and the next day unable to come to work, the hybrid system would clearly make the Parliament more accessible. There is something for us all to look at there.

As we look to the future, which I admit seems difficult in current times—

Photo of John Mason John Mason Scottish National Party

I thank the minister for his generosity. One of the things about hybrid meetings that I find difficult is that those of us in the chamber cannot intervene on people who are participating remotely, on screen, and those who are participating remotely cannot intervene on those of us in the chamber. I hope that there is some way around that because it is a big disadvantage. Does the minister agree?

Photo of George Adam George Adam Scottish National Party

The parliamentary authorities will need to look at that. We have often asked at Parliamentary Bureau meetings how we can find a way to make the technology more interactive for hybrid meetings. I agree that we need to find a solution.

I hope that I manage to get a few lines in before I end up with another intervention, Presiding Officer.

The benefits of hybrid working can be seen in our carbon footprint, as many of us have stayed at home, including those who live in other parts of the country.

We can use the technology to help with other ideas, too. We have to look at that. For those who cannot come into Parliament regularly, or find that difficult, technology gives the option of working from home and offers a future in Parliament to people who are thinking of putting their name forward.

At the end of the day, we have had a very difficult 20 months and have had to find new and important ways of working. The Parliament has done that and, as we move forward, we can find in many other ways of doing that. Let us not forget why we did that: we were trying to find a way to keep ourselves, the parliamentary staff and our own staff safe, while still serving the people of Scotland.

Photo of Stephen Kerr Stephen Kerr Conservative

I welcome the debate. It is an enormous privilege to be a member of the Scottish Parliament. We have all been sent here to a do a job, which is to scrutinise and hold the Scottish Government to account, regardless of party or constituency. However, I often feel that I am doing that task with one hand tied behind my back.

I will begin by relating some of the specific issues that I am referring to. On 25 November, I submitted three separate questions to the Government, relating to the national transition training fund. I received a single answer on 6 December, and not one of my questions was answered—I refer members to question S6W-04621. That is the just the tip of the iceberg of unsatisfactory parliamentary answers.

Photo of John Mason John Mason Scottish National Party

Will the member accept that it works both ways and that some members, including the member, misuse points of order?

Photo of Stephen Kerr Stephen Kerr Conservative

I do not agree with John Mason in the slightest about the inappropriate use of points of order—that is ridiculous.

I return to the subject of unsatisfactory parliamentary answers. Funnily enough, I raised the issue as a point of order on 18 November.

Photo of Stephen Kerr Stephen Kerr Conservative

I think that it was an appropriate point of order.

I asked question S6W-01381 on suicide prevention, and was told that the Government did not maintain data on the topic. The lack of data held by the Scottish Government is a matter for a different day, but it speaks volumes that the Government is unable to answer such significant and important questions. All members deserve better answers. As I said to the committee, and to my friend, the committee convener, we need a revolution in parliamentary questions.

For example, why do we need to read out the questions that are already printed in the

Business Bulletin

? Why do we need to lodge questions so far in advance? Next week, we have to lodge specific questions to be answered three weeks from now. Why oh why do ministers not answer questions succinctly? They read out lengthy briefings that have obviously been prepared for them by civil servants and special advisers.

Photo of Neil Gray Neil Gray Scottish National Party

I understand where Stephen Kerr is coming from, having previously served with him as a member of the Westminster Parliament, where there is a different style in relation to reading out initial questions. However, does he not accept that while members may understand what the initial question is, our constituents at home—some of whom might have accessibility issues—may not understand, and that reading them out is very helpful to ensure that they know what we are asking about and that everyone understands the proceedings?

Photo of Stephen Kerr Stephen Kerr Conservative

Neil Gray makes a very fair point. However, the question is obvious from the first answer that is given and from the supplementary, which is really the meat in the sandwich when it comes to asking parliamentary questions in a debating chamber.

Photo of Daniel Johnson Daniel Johnson Labour

I am grateful to Stephen Kerr for giving way, especially as he had only just got back on to his feet.

Are supplementaries not the nub of the question? A supplementary question should be impromptu. It should be a response, so it should not be read out any more than the minister’s response to it should be read out. Do we need to tackle the reading of supplementary questions?

Photo of Stephen Kerr Stephen Kerr Conservative

That is a first-class point, and I definitely welcome that intervention. I will talk further about spontaneity, because we need to develop spontaneity in the chamber.

I am afraid that one of the reasons why ministers stick so rigidly to their answers is that there is a degree of contempt from the Government towards the Parliament. I will give a current example. Last Friday, the First Minister announced various new measures, restrictions and substantive policy matters relating to Covid-19 in a television studio. That was not the first time that that happened.

Photo of George Adam George Adam Scottish National Party

I will make a simple intervention. Does Stephen Kerr believe that what he has just said is complete and utter nonsense and that what he said was not the case? We have had that discussion in the Parliamentary Bureau on numerous occasions, and he cannot seem to just let things go. Can he not accept that what he has just said is complete and utter nonsense?

Photo of Stephen Kerr Stephen Kerr Conservative

I will tell the minister what is complete and utter nonsense. The Scottish Government claims that a press release that was issued by Public Health Scotland at 5 o’clock last Thursday, after the Parliament had risen, was somehow unknown to it. The Scottish Government is renowned for its grip on and control of everything to do with its remit. What I have said is far from nonsense; it is highly relevant to the debate.

That was not the first time that the First Minister resorted to a TV studio.

Photo of Stephen Kerr Stephen Kerr Conservative

I will give way one more time, although I do not want to strain the patience of the Presiding Officer.

Photo of Neil Gray Neil Gray Scottish National Party

I can understand where Stephen Kerr is coming from on ministers reading out answers, but does he accept that there were similar occurrences when we served at Westminster and ministers read out responses? There are often very good reasons for that, which include legal reasons and ensuring that correct information is given. Sometimes there have to be very carefully worded responses to questions that we ask.

Photo of Stephen Kerr Stephen Kerr Conservative

Neil Gray knows well that, had some of the ministers in Westminster attempted to read answers the length of those that we get in this place, the Speaker would have been all over them. That is exactly what does not happen here. We need some temperance on the part of ministers when it comes to their answers.

The Scottish Parliament is the forum of this nation, and it should be respected. In my opinion, it is not appropriate for the Government to resort to external means of delivering substantial statements to the people of Scotland, other than in front of those who have been elected to represent the people of Scotland. It is an enormous privilege to be a member of the Scottish Parliament, and I would come in here on a Friday, a Saturday, a Sunday or a Monday, and I would stay after 6 o’clock or come to the chamber before 2 o’clock to hear statements of such importance. I know that many members, especially my colleagues, would be delighted to do so as well.

I want members to know that we held six meetings of the Parliamentary Bureau in a very short period over the weekend. All were attempts on the part of the Labour Party and myself, for the Conservatives, to call a meeting of the Parliament so that the First Minister could be scrutinised in relation to what she said in a TV studio. However, all those attempts were blocked by the Government parties. That cannot be right. No Parliament should be so totally in the control of the Executive that it cannot meet to scrutinise the actions of the Executive. It is just not right that journalists from

The Scottish Sun or the

Daily Record have the opportunity to scrutinise the First Minister and her Government, but the Scottish Parliament does not.

Some might say, cynically, that the media might ask better questions than we do. That is not the point, however. It is our responsibility—[

Interruption

.]

Can I give way one more time, Presiding Officer?

The Presiding Officer:

I ask Mr Kerr and the minister both to take a seat. I remind members that the Parliamentary Bureau’s discussions are private until the minutes are published. The bureau came to decisions that were taken forward.

I will now allow the meeting to continue. Is Mr Kerr content to accept the minister’s intervention?

Photo of George Adam George Adam Scottish National Party

I am happy to intervene and to give Mr Kerr some time to calm down and bring it down a couple of octaves.

As you rightly said, Presiding Officer, we had our discussion at the Parliamentary Bureau. There was no point in bringing in the Parliament when there was nothing new to say. That was the whole point of the discussions that we had. Mr Kerr seems either to have had a lapse of memory or to have decided not to report what was said.

Photo of Stephen Kerr Stephen Kerr Conservative

I am only reporting factual information to the Parliament about what occurred in those meetings. I respect what the Presiding Officer has said about the nature of the meetings but, when the minutes are published—if they have not already been published—they will show that we sought to have a meeting of the Parliament.

I recognise that I am now testing the patience of the Presiding Officer.

The Presiding Officer:

Yes—we have time in hand, but please wind up.

Photo of Stephen Kerr Stephen Kerr Conservative

I will do my best to wind up right now.

We have a culture of conformity in this place, which needs to be broken. Members should feel free to stand up for a principle greater than party loyalty—and I remind members that I am the chief whip for my party, so I take a risk in saying that. They should stand up for something greater than party loyalty: for an idea, for representing a constituent or for championing a cause.

There are many other issues that I would like to raise.

The Presiding Officer:

Thank you, Mr Kerr, but I need to ask you to conclude your remarks at that point.

Photo of Sarah Boyack Sarah Boyack Labour

I thank the members of the Standards, Procedures and Public Appointments Committee and its clerks for the work that they did to produce the report. It could not be more timely and this afternoon’s debate must be part of an on-going discussion. I also thank all our parliamentary staff for the fantastic work that they have done to enable the changes that we have made over the past few months and for enabling us to have safe working practices as an option throughout the pandemic, whether by socially distanced or virtual working. As other members have said, there have been huge challenges, but we have kept this place going, and that has been critical.

We are here to represent our constituents, to raise the issues on which they need answers urgently and to ensure that views are properly considered in this place. Critically, we are here to hold the Scottish Government to account as effectively as possible. As others have started to debate, that means that we need to make the maximum use of our time, not just here in the chamber but in committees, too. Slots for Opposition days, committee debates and members’ business are all critical. They are at the core of our scrutiny and representation as they are not automatically decided by the Government. There is a degree of conversation across the parties about how we use our time.

I particularly wish to focus on topical questions. This session, it feels as though topical questions are being used more flexibly. They are an important way for members to raise urgent issues, rather than waiting for months for a minister to respond to a parliamentary question. I suspect that that is partly to do with the number of letters that we are all writing, but there is a real issue, during the pandemic, about urgent constituent concerns, and it would be worth considering adding another slot, perhaps on Wednesdays, in addition to the slot on Tuesdays and the greater flexibility that has been introduced for First Minister’s questions. There have been some very good changes.

The Presiding Officer and the Deputy Presiding Officers have started to tell us to think about the brevity of our questions; they have also told ministers to think about the brevity of their answers. I have been in both positions, and I know that ministers get incredibly lengthy options, but there is something in editing down and cutting to the chase.

To return to an earlier point, we need to make the best use of our time here, because it is not infinite. I will come back to that.

The Presiding Officer:

I should say that we have some time in hand for interventions.

Photo of Alexander Stewart Alexander Stewart Conservative

I very much concur with what the member has said. There is no doubt that there is frustration from many members across the chamber that time constraints sometimes do not allow us to get through the questions that are set by the Parliament on working days. I believe that there is an opportunity for us to take more urgent and topical questions during the week.

Photo of Sarah Boyack Sarah Boyack Labour

I thank the member for that helpful intervention. We are coming through a pandemic, but we are not yet through it, so this is a good chance for us to think about and cast a fresh eye on how we do things, and to think about why we are here.

Members have mentioned that we can be proud of our Parliament being diverse. It is currently the most diverse in our history, but that creates challenges for us, in particular with regard to how we ensure that parliamentarians can fully participate in our work.

One key challenge that we have faced concerns the last-minute changes to parliamentary business that we often get, in particular regarding decision times. That is hugely disruptive to members who have family or caring responsibilities. I totally understand why it happens, but we need, collectively, to try to avoid it as much as possible in the future.

I know from talking to colleagues that the impact of such changes in the previous session was a massive disruption to people’s family life, so I am glad to hear from Martin Whitfield that the committee is thinking about addressing that issue. That is critical, because in the previous session of Parliament we had experienced female MSPs who decided not to stand again. We can be proud of the fact that we have the most representative Parliament that we have ever had, but we have to make it work effectively, day to day.

Photo of Daniel Johnson Daniel Johnson Labour

Would the member like to give way on that point?

The Presiding Officer:

I reiterate that there is time for interventions.

Photo of Daniel Johnson Daniel Johnson Labour

Would Sarah Boyack agree that it is important not only that we do not have endless flexibility on decision time, but that hybrid procedure actually makes family life a lot more possible for members who are parents, especially of younger children?

Photo of Sarah Boyack Sarah Boyack Labour

Definitely. I am not speaking from personal interest here, but I have spoken to colleagues and I think that we need to tackle that. Hybrid working can also be a challenge, as I understand from MSPs who have younger members of the family who can appear unexpectedly, but we can live with that.

Working in a hybrid way has been really important, because it has enabled quite a few colleagues to attend evening meetings, deal with correspondence from constituents and prepare for committee meetings. It has given us different options, which is something to reflect on.

Photo of Sarah Boyack Sarah Boyack Labour

Yes—again, if it is very brief.

Photo of Finlay Carson Finlay Carson Conservative

As a father, the most important thing to me is certainty. If I know that decision time is going to be at 5 or 6 o’clock, that is fine, whether the meeting is hybrid or I am sitting in the chamber. I can make sure that my wife or my mother-in-law knows that I am going to be home at a particular time. In the previous session, the biggest problem was the lack of certainty over decision time, which was generally to do with failures in the voting system.

Photo of Sarah Boyack Sarah Boyack Labour

I absolutely agree with that. We should have a strong preference for keeping to our decision time, and we should keep it at a reasonable time. We can plan ahead, by adjusting timings, in order to give people as much advance notice as possible. It is good to see that there is cross-party agreement on that.

As we come out of the pandemic, the provision of childcare in the Parliament needs to be considered. I welcome the fact that there has been a questionnaire. However, with regard to the needs of visiting constituents, staff and MSPs, we need to go back and look carefully at the provision of childcare, because there are many benefits to enabling parents, and women in particular, to use this place as much as possible.

The SPICe briefing is useful in giving us a sense of what we can learn from different approaches. Other members have mentioned the use of proxy or remote voting for those who are ill or on maternity or paternity leave, or for those who have crisis childcare or caring responsibilities. I hope that the committee will look at that issue. Just as important is the need for guidance to ensure that, if we introduced such changes, we could prevent people from abusing those options. There is an issue with ministers, as has been mentioned, and the unique responsibilities and duties that they have. We need to ensure that if we are more flexible, the accountability feature is still absolutely built into how we operate.

I will briefly mention travel disruption. Recent floods and storms meant that roads were closed and public transport services were cancelled, so we also have to think about the impact of future extreme weather issues on the capacity of colleagues to attend the Parliament.

It is also worth thinking about the work of the committees. Most of the discussion thus far has been about what happens when we are in this room. However, the ability to have witnesses give evidence to committees without having to be in the committee room is a potential bonus. In the past, that has been done in exceptional circumstances—for example, we once heard from a representative from the northern isles—but this morning, the Constitution, Europe, External Affairs and Culture Committee heard from witnesses in Brussels, Germany and London. It was an excellent session.

I am being asked to wind up—I should not have taken those interventions.

I am not suggesting that we should not travel in future, but we need to ensure that we have a mix, so that we still have the personal connectivity that works, while also having the option of hybrid meetings. Post-COP26, I want to briefly flag that we should think about hybrid cross-party groups.

The past few months have turned our worlds upside down, but we have an opportunity today to think about how to change how we work, how to work more effectively and how we use our time as effectively as possible. Hopefully, the Standards, Procedures and Public Appointments Committee will think about how we can learn from other approaches across the world.

Although Covid has resulted in a massive change in how we work, we need to seize the moment. We need to think about what changes we can make and go back to our initial ambitions for the Parliament 20-odd years ago. We need to make our work democratic and accountable, and do it to the best of our ability.

Photo of Maggie Chapman Maggie Chapman Green

I thank the

Standards, Procedures and Public Appointments Committee for bringing the debate to the chamber. It will probably not be the most exciting debate of the year—no offence to the committee’s members or its work—but I really appreciate the opportunity to contribute.

How we conduct ourselves, do our business and deal with the issues that we have to deal with in this place—how we work—is really important for us to consider. How we can build on the hope and optimism of the Parliament’s beginnings, as Martin Whitfield outlined, and how we serve our constituents, our communities and our country are vital issues, because how we do our jobs is as important as what we do in our roles.

How we do what we do is about our cultures of debate, of engagement and of inclusion, all of which contribute to the culture of politics. I do not mean just the political discussions that we have in this chamber or in the committee rooms in this building, or in the exchanges that we have on email or on any of the other platforms that we use regularly. More broadly, the culture that we generate and sustain in all those processes affects the trust and confidence that the people we are here to serve have, not only in we MSPs, but in politics more generally.

I want to focus on the culture of our debate and exchanges, drawing on work done by the Young Academy of Scotland of the Royal Society of Edinburgh. YAS’s charter for responsible debate, of which I and several members in this place are signatories, aims to create a set of norms for debate that enable us to better make decisions together. It does that by setting out a number of principles that underpin responsible debate. Those principles are based on the belief that joint decision making should be informed, respectful and inclusive. They speak to issues of accuracy, diversity and honesty. They require careful, empathetic listening, the use of respectful language and acknowledgement of persuasive points. They challenge us to communicate in ways that unite rather than divide, to address imbalances of power and to seek to identify common ground.

We can all think of times when those principles have not been adhered to. We can all think of times when we, personally, have probably not met those high standards. There are many significant issues on which we need to reach agreement, perhaps not unanimous agreement, but some way of coming to a place from which we can move forward. Those issues range from the climate emergency to how we govern data, how we understand artificial intelligence and the impact that it has on our lives, our freedoms and the freedoms of those we serve. We must, therefore, create the conditions for debate in which we can interact and adapt our positions—

Photo of Tess White Tess White Conservative

Thank you for taking my intervention. Bearing it in mind that the minister is on first-name terms with an Opposition colleague, whose party is in coalition with the minister’s party, is it right that the Green Party should have the same allowances for questions and challenges in debates, now that they are all one together?

Photo of Maggie Chapman Maggie Chapman Green

I thank Tess White for that intervention. She and everybody in this chamber should be well aware that we have a co-operation agreement with the Scottish Government, not a full coalition. I know that she is very fond of using that word, but that is not where we are. My colleagues in the chamber this afternoon and I remain Opposition MSPs.

We have important issues on which we need to reach agreement, so we need to make sure that we can get to that point of agreement or point of moving forward in a way that we can live with and which takes our citizens and constituents with us. That is the aim and the challenge for us in this debate.

Photo of Stephen Kerr Stephen Kerr Conservative

I am very grateful to Maggie Chapman for giving way. Does she have any concerns about the Parliament’s ability to hold the Executive to account?

Photo of Maggie Chapman Maggie Chapman Green

Thank you for that question. Accountability is really important for us all. We have probably all been frustrated by how questions are answered and issues are dealt with. The way to deal with those frustrations, however, is not to shout at each other across the chamber, but to speak to each other with the principles of respectful, empathetic ears and open listening. Just in the past few months, there have been many examples where that has been far from what we have seen in this chamber.

Three themes can help us to think about the ways in which we can be better at the job that we have to do. We need to be informed, which means that we need a strong understanding of risk. In that context, the recommendation of the Royal Society of Edinburgh’s Post-Covid-19 Commission that we create an institution to help us with foresighting and futures is of vital importance. I would welcome the committee’s view on that over the course of the coming months.

Rather than seeking to reinforce our own positions all the time, we need to be respectful of different viewpoints, allowing each other to change our minds and positions and not be ridiculed for that change.

The Presiding Officer:

Please conclude, Ms Chapman.

Photo of Maggie Chapman Maggie Chapman Green

We also need to be diverse. There has already been much discussion about how we can create structures in order to hear the voices that we do not always hear.

In closing, I offer my immense thanks to the Scottish Parliament’s participation and communities team for the incredible work that it does to get other voices into this building; that must be one of the aims that we take forward over the next parliamentary session.

Photo of Elena Whitham Elena Whitham Scottish National Party

I rise to speak on this topic as a newly appointed member of the Standards, Procedures and Public Appointments Committee. I have only three meetings under my belt and I am a new parliamentarian who had no real working experience of this place before the advent of Covid-19 and the pandemic. Of council chambers, I could write “War and Peace”, but of this Parliament, I know only social distancing, Teams, masks and BlueJeans.

All of us who were participating virtually yesterday experienced what happens when a worldwide internet system crashes; it was frustrating and meant that some who were due to speak remotely were unable to deliver their speeches and those who were in the chamber endured delays and frustrations.

However, I do not characterise that as the norm for the virtual or hybrid space that we currently inhabit. Like many, I have experienced those sudden and intense itchy-oxter moments when, on joining a BlueJeans session that is already in progress, I am that weird little swirly thing up in the left hand corner of everyone’s screens. We cringe as the youngest child enters the room and loudly demands a snack, the dog turns into the hound of the Baskervilles as a parcel is delivered, or the family chicken decides that it wants five minutes of fame and hogs the airwaves. All of that rapidly detracts from the salient points that we were trying hard to communicate.

Those frustrating and sometimes amusing moments have been borne with levity and a sense of pragmatism. We all recognise that, in order for us to represent our constituents, create impactful legislation and perform our scrutiny function, quickly ensuring that remote working was possible has stood us in good stead.

There is an old saying often used in Ayrshire: huv tae is a guid maister. To get the folk of Scotland through the pandemic, this place and all its component parts had to respond swiftly by suspending standing orders, amending procedures and passing emergency legislation, all with an army of amazing tech support in the background working night and day to create a virtual world, the idea of which was previously unthinkable and often dismissed. Sometimes it takes an extreme event to provoke change. It is now up to us to ponder what we want to keep and what we cannot wait to dispense with.

Before coming to Parliament, I was the wellbeing spokesperson for the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities for several years, but I was not just a spokesperson; I was a co-spokesperson. I shared the role with Councillor Kelly Parry, who required support to be able to undertake maternity leave, just like any other woman right across Scotland. It was, and still is, amazing to me that such role sharing had never happened previously at COSLA, nor indeed in any council setting. The concept caused a bit of a stramash when it was first introduced—but huv tae is a guid maister, and with the support of officers and council group leaders, the benefit to all of that role being shared between two councillors meant that she did not lose out on her role or her earnings by having a baby. Her rights as a parent and as a woman were protected. By breaking out of that custom and practice, Kelly Parry and I helped to pave the way forward, and I see some parallels with what we must do now in this place.

As a family-friendly legislature, we need to recognise that this country might be small, but the nature of its constituencies and regions mean that some members travel nearly a whole day to get home. It takes me three hours to get to Ayrshire by train—an hour and a half by car, but three hours by train. The crèche is closed due to the pandemic, but were it open, votes being held later and later in the day would still cause issues for parents relying on that facility.

Some form of continued hybrid system that can allow for parents or those of us who care for older or disabled relatives to be at home must be on the cards. I am sure that many members have experienced the abject terror that is associated with remote voting when there is the usual after 5 pm moment when everybody is arriving home and demanding dinner and you are shushing them and kicking them all—including the dog—out of the room that you are in as you try in vain to hear what the Presiding Officer is talking about and which vote we are on, especially if it is a stage 3. If it means that a member can be at home to breastfeed a new baby or get dinner ready for their elderly mother, I think that those stressful moments are worth it.

Widening access to this place for more women, young parents, those with disabilities and those with caring responsibilities is a must, and this is one way in which we can do it. As Sarah Boyack has already said, we just have to look at the talent that we lost when several MSPs did not stand again in 2021 because they could not balance their work/life and constituency/parliamentary duties in such a way as to ensure that they could remain MSPs. Think for a moment about all the talent that left.

Photo of Daniel Johnson Daniel Johnson Labour

I very much agree with the member’s points about virtual working. However, would she agree with me that we also have to bear in mind that virtual appearances can be a disadvantage for certain people with disabilities, such as those with sensory impairments or those who, like me, have attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, who really struggle to stare at a screen?

Photo of Elena Whitham Elena Whitham Scottish National Party

I absolutely agree, and that is why we need to have hybrid proceedings going forward, in my opinion. We need to look at everybody’s needs and address them effectively.

If that means that we need to create some kind of justification for why a member needs to meet in a given way, as another member has mentioned, that is fine. I think that hybrid working, and not one or the other, is the way forward for sure.

The same can be said for those who give evidence to committees. We are hearing from new voices—from those for whom the trip to Edinburgh was too arduous and too expensive and took too much time out of their days. Their evidence is invaluable and totally reflective of the wider population we serve. Indeed, the international voices that we now hear are hugely important, too.

As we have already heard, such a system saves us money by reducing costs and expenses, and it reduces our carbon output.

Photo of Liam McArthur Liam McArthur Liberal Democrat

Mr Kerr, could you speak into your microphone?

Photo of Stephen Kerr Stephen Kerr Conservative

I am very sorry—I beg your pardon. It is hard to look in this direction while speaking to someone over there, which is another thing that we could discuss.

Would the member agree that, although she is making lots of fair points about committee structure, it is still vital that Government ministers appear in person before committees, rather than appearing virtually? That is a very difficult format for scrutiny and holding ministers to account.

Photo of Elena Whitham Elena Whitham Scottish National Party

I am not so sure that I agree with that. I have taken evidence from ministers in the committees that I have been on so far, and we have been able to scrutinise them quite fairly in that situation. If a minister is self-isolating or dealing with another illness, their opportunity to give evidence should not be taken away, but I get the point that sometimes it is easier when they are in the room and members can see the whites of their eyes.

Stephen Kerr talked about being in the building at any time and being able to be recalled and said that we should all be up for that. I have a disability that means that I cannot do that and I would not be able to do that. We have to remember that this is a family-friendly and an MSP-friendly situation that we are in and we have to be mindful of everybody’s situation.

I look forward to hearing from colleagues; there will be conflicting views—we have already seen that. It has been quite eye opening so far. However, let us get the evidence and get the inquiry off to a roaring start.

The Deputy Presiding Officer:

I call Jackson Carlaw—you have a generous six minutes, Mr Carlaw.

Photo of Jackson Carlaw Jackson Carlaw Conservative

I come to the debate with no fixed agenda; I have been mulling over the issues involved. I was interested in Martin Whitfield’s speech and I thank him for the debate that he has initiated.

I have had an interest in parliamentary procedure over the years that I have been in the Parliament, and I am the last serving MSP who sat on the Commission on Parliamentary Reform as an MSP in the previous session, albeit that Pam Duncan-Glancy was there as a lay member. I also published a rather contentious report at the end of my first session here in 2010.

The report was contentious because I observed, as somebody who had come from a business world to the Parliament, that I was surprised at the number of colleagues who turned up for work at the crack of noon back then. I also commented on what I felt was a disparity between the workload that I had as a regional member and the workload that constituency members appeared to have. I think that the workloads have balanced out in many respects over the years.

A lot of the points that I made were subsequently picked up, and some came about in the Commission on Parliamentary Reform. When I looked at my report today, I was struck to see that on First Minister’s question time I had observed that

“What we have in First Minister’s Questions each week is 30 minutes of tedious verbal torture. Despite the repeated and determined efforts of the current Presiding Officer, there is clear need for procedural change.”

We have reformed. Ken Macintosh made it 45 minutes of “tedious verbal torture” and today we managed more than an hour.

I also noted that I quoted something that Lord Foulkes, who was a member in that session of Parliament, said:

“Question Times are pathetic rituals of questions which are read, often badly, and answers drafted by civil servants with no apparent input from the minister delivering them.”

I feel that some of those criticisms are still true today. However, I note that nobody who joined the Parliament in May has yet sat in it as a full chamber of members. That is regrettable, but I am not sure how fundamentally important I have come to believe it is. For all the reform as a result of the commission, the most radical reform of the Parliament was brought about by the events of the pandemic—reforms that we would never have contemplated in any other circumstance. The hybrid arrangement that we have arrived at works very well. As a constituency member, I find that my time is far better deployed by not being here on a day when I have no particular contribution to make.

Photo of Gillian Mackay Gillian Mackay Green

Would the member support retaining the hybrid working system to allow more people—as Elena Whitham said, that might be committee witnesses or MSPs—to access Parliament in the future?

Photo of Jackson Carlaw Jackson Carlaw Conservative

Yes. Those points have been well made and I support them, which is not what I might have expected to hear myself say when we began this experiment. I think that the hybrid arrangement has worked well and that it would be a retrograde step to decide that we ca nnot function in that way. It has its faults. We have seen its positives and its negatives. The comment made by John Mason about the lack of ability to intervene in a hybrid arrangement is a valid one and sometimes, of course, the technology has failed, which has caused its own issues.

I might say and may consider whether we need to have decision time at the end of business. Could we not have it at the start of the next day’s business? Some people might say that that would interrupt the vote and the passion of the debate, but we are having yesterday’s votes tonight. It would give us a more fixed certainty if we knew that we were going to have decision time for the previous day’s business at 2 o’clock every day. We would then be without the extended uncertainty about when decision time might come.

Photo of Martin Whitfield Martin Whitfield Labour

Could I push you on a point over the way that we vote? I ask this just to listen to your answer. Another event that—

The Deputy Presiding Officer:

Speak through the chair, please, Mr Whitfield.

The Deputy Presiding Officer:

Could you direct the comments through the chair, Mr Whitfield?

Photo of Martin Whitfield Martin Whitfield Labour

My apologies, Presiding Officer.

Would Jackson Carlaw give his view on the use of electronic voting, which was another thing that Covid brought in?

Photo of Jackson Carlaw Jackson Carlaw Conservative

I am in favour of electronic voting. To be able to deploy my time as a constituency member more efficiently, I am not here on certain days when I am not contributing to the proceedings of the Parliament. It follows that being able to vote remotely is fundamental.

If we move to a more permanent arrangement in which remote voting is allowed, I hope that we will be able to evolve a more robust technology that we can rely on.

I was slightly concerned yesterday that parliamentary proceedings went ahead when it became apparent that the BlueJeans network had failed. I am not sure that, as a corporate body, we have approved that process as an operational practice for the Parliament. My understanding is that we have approved a hybrid process for Parliament, which, as far as I know, does not include a provision that one can watch the proceedings on television and that is in any way satisfactory. If we are going to have a hybrid arrangement, it has to work within rules and not be adjusted ad hoc, as we ended up doing yesterday.

I finish with a particular point that relates to lengthy answers and questions. One of the problems that the commission established is that the Presiding Officer’s powers are limited. The Parliament would be required to agree to enhance the power of the Presiding Officer to the equivalent of that of the Speaker of the Republic of Ireland’s Parliament, who is able to set a limit of 90 seconds on ministerial responses, after which their microphones switch off. He is also able to say to ministers that they have not answered the question.

When I spoke to the Speaker, he said that, in practice, he never had to do either, because ministers had now disciplined themselves to answer within 90 seconds and to answer the question—to be upbraided in the chamber for not doing so is seen as a serious offence against Parliament. We could have something similar.

To come back to Sarah Boyack’s point about concise answers and questions, I do not know what the time limit would be. Unfortunately, we have never successfully achieved or implemented the voluntary arrangement or admonition to us all to proceed on that basis. If we think that the matter is important, we would require a procedural change to enhance the power of the chair. I am in favour of that because, at times, our struggling along with interminable speeches—not questions and answers—undermines the cut and thrust and the import of the job that we are trying to do.

I offer that contribution because Mr Whitfield has said that this is the beginning of a process. These are some of the thoughts that I have had in the time that I have been here.

The Deputy Presiding Officer:

Thank you, Mr Carlaw. As you proceeded to talk about the enhancing of the powers of the Presiding Officer, I was disappointed to see you stop, but stop you must.

Photo of Daniel Johnson Daniel Johnson Labour

I found the opening remarks of my friend Martin Whitfield, the convener of the Standards, Procedures and Public Appointments Committee, interesting and important. We need to keep asking ourselves the question about the kind of Parliament that we want this to be.

I find myself in wonder that I am in the place that I hoped would come into being in the 1990s. I passionately believed in the need for and importance of a Scottish Parliament. We need to ask ourselves whether this place lives up to the promise of Parliaments in general, and to the potential of the Scottish Parliament in particular. We need to think about what makes a good Parliament and about whether we are doing politics differently, because that was what many of us hoped would happen when we created the Scottish Parliament.

Unfortunately, some of the things that we put in place to bring about the latter have actually stymied the former. Some of the rules, practices and procedures have prevented the flow of debate and the reflection that we need and, ultimately, have reduced our ability to hold the Government to account. We have already heard thoughts about that. In particular, I was interested in Maggie Chapman’s points on the importance of the way in which we conduct debate—the culture of debate—as well as her points on reflection.

What is important in the Parliament is not debate per se, but reflection and dialogue. The Parliament is not just a platform for delivering speeches; it is meant to be a space where ideas are exchanged and where there is the possibility of changing minds—that is sometimes missed. That is the difference between parliamentary and presidential democracy, which is just about holding the executive to account. It is also the difference between parliamentary and direct democracy, in which people make decisions without necessarily being provided with space for reflection. It is really important that we consider whether we are doing that.

Let me just say one slightly impudent but important thing. If there were one change that I could make in the chamber, I would get rid of the lecterns. They hold us back, because they mean that members come here and read out speeches. I know that it is difficult, but if the words that we say in this space have not changed from the night before when we typed them out, we are doing something wrong. It is really important that, when we debate, there is the possibility of changing our views and minds.

Photo of Elena Whitham Elena Whitham Scottish National Party

Does Daniel Johnson agree that there are some circumstances when we need to have a speech in front of us? I am going through menopause—there will be other women in the chamber who are doing so—and I lose my train of thought if a hot flush overtakes me. That has happened several times in here and, if I did not have my words in front of me, I might have ended up greetin and sittin back down.

Photo of Daniel Johnson Daniel Johnson Labour

I thank Elena Whitham for that intervention—we certainly do not want her greetin after making a speech. She makes an important point. I am not saying, “No words”; I am saying that perhaps we could consider rules whereby members are encouraged to refer to other speeches in the chamber. Our standing orders say that we must be “relevant”. I argue that to be relevant we should reflect what other members have previously said in the chamber.

We should perhaps also think about timings and whether, to get their full time, members should have to take interventions.

Photo of Stephen Kerr Stephen Kerr Conservative

I am grateful for Daniel Johnson’s thoughtful speech. I point out that Winston Churchill, no less, wrote out his speeches and referred extensively to his notes—I do not think that anyone would criticise his debating style, although I do not think that that is what Daniel Johnson is saying by any stretch of the imagination.

I invite Daniel Johnson to give his thoughts on the fact that the speakers who appear in debates have been chosen by their business managers. As an incomer to the Scottish Parliament, it seems strange to me that the parties stage manage debates. What are the member’s thoughts on that?

Photo of Daniel Johnson Daniel Johnson Labour

I very much agree.

Some of the points that Jackson Carlaw made are really important—I was going to come on to them myself. We need to think carefully about the role of the chair. We need to empower the Presiding Officer to determine whether things are relevant; to shape the time that is given to agenda items so that, if something transpires and needs to be given more importance, time is given to that; and to make a determination on whether answers, as well as questions, are relevant.

I can understand the need for notes for speeches but, for supplementary questions, I wonder whether—I have already mentioned this in an intervention—it would be more helpful, and help spontaneity, if we discouraged that practice.

The role of the Presiding Officer is important in another way. At times, the Parliament is guilty of proceduralism. When the Scottish Parliament came into being, we were determined to get rid of the flamboyant flummery of and all the nonsense that happens in Westminster. However, by the same token, we have extinguished flexibility and the ability of the Parliament to be dynamic. Critically, some structures, such as the Parliamentary Bureau, the role of the business managers and, to an extent, the role of the clerks have stymied debate. The bureau can sometimes be little more than a formalised smoke-filled room with clerks acting as gatekeepers. As parliamentarians, we need to take back a bit of control and we need to empower the Presiding Officer a bit more.

I realise that I am running out of time, but I would like to make the point that we must hold on to hybrid proceedings. In contrast to what some other members have said, the key point is to get these things right. The issue with hybrid proceedings is not that the people are remote; it is that we need to make sure that they are relevant to the debate. If we get that right, some of the problems with hybrid proceedings would be taken care of.

Being consistent about decision time while being flexible about how we meet around it is absolutely vital.

I wish that I had more time, because I would like to talk more about some of these critical points as we consider the issues.

The Deputy Presiding Officer:

I feel as though I ought to leap to the defence of the clerks, who are unable to contribute to the debate, but I will not.

Photo of Neil Gray Neil Gray Scottish National Party

It is a pleasure to follow Daniel Johnson, which I do while reading from my heavily annotated notes. Daniel Johnson is looking to empower the Presiding Officer and I say, with some self-interest, why should we stop there? Why not look also at the committee conveners? We should all be thinking about those points.

It is a pleasure to speak in the debate. I thank colleagues on the Standards, Procedures and Public Appointments Committee for bringing it to the chamber. It has given me the opportunity to reflect on my first six months here and compare them to my previous six years at Westminster. Like all workplaces, the Scottish Parliament has had to make major changes to its way of working to ensure that we keep people safe during the pandemic while doing our important work in scrutinising the Government and raising our constituents’ concerns.

It has been crucial to keep MSPs, our staff, the staff of Parliament and everyone who is involved in the running of this place safe, and that is why we have kept our hybrid proceedings going. I reiterate our thanks to the staff for everything that they have done and continue to do to implement that. That safety-first approach is now paying off as we face the rise of omicron. Because we have a hybrid Parliament, I have been able to keep doing my work while limiting the amount of time that I have had to be here, which has also reduced the number of times that I have used public transport to get here. It is the sensible thing for us to do. I find it crazy that, for months now, Westminster has been cramming people into narrow benches and voting lobbies.

Hybrid working has also increased opportunities for us to engage more widely. The Social Justice and Social Security Committee, which I convene, has heard from people with lived experience of poverty, debt and fuel poverty who we otherwise would not have heard from for a number of reasons. As welcoming an institution as the Parliament is, with wonderful staff, it can still be intimidating to contemplate coming here and sitting opposite a group of MSPs. It can be a major challenge to get people here from a wide geographical spread, and it can be difficult for people with disabilities or caring responsibilities to take part in our proceedings.

Obviously, we want as many people as possible to visit and to experience our Parliament, but there is no doubt that virtual proceedings have broken down many barriers and enriched the evidence that we receive on the crucial issues that we are interrogating.

Photo of Stephen Kerr Stephen Kerr Conservative

I had the pleasure of observing Neil Gray at work in the House of Commons, where he was very much a vibrant contributor. Does he accept that the hybrid arrangement and the virtual setting do not facilitate the type of debate that I know he enjoyed in the other house?

Photo of Neil Gray Neil Gray Scottish National Party

I did indeed enjoy that, but I lament the fact that colleagues such as Amy Callaghan were blocked from taking part in debates because of their illness and because they were not able to travel. There is a real lesson for Westminster colleagues there.

From a family-friendly perspective, hybrid working has also been transformational. How many of the colleagues that we lost at the end of the previous parliamentary session might have stayed if virtual voting and participation had been in place prior to the pandemic? It gives us all much more flexibility to do our jobs well, as Jackson Carlaw rightly said. Just as being stuck in London for three or four days a week meant that I could not keep the family and constituency plates spinning as fast as the parliamentary ones, so it must be for many other colleagues, including you, Presiding Officer, who have to stay overnight in Edinburgh when they come to Holyrood.

Of course, we all want to be here to make our contributions, but having the virtual option is important for us to be effective here and in the areas that we represent, as well as making sure that we are there for our families.

Photo of Daniel Johnson Daniel Johnson Labour

I completely echo Neil Gray’s points, but does he agree that we must also reflect on how we can improve hybrid working and allow interventions to ensure the relevance of contributions? I sneak in my agreement with his point about committee conveners. Does he agree that committee conveners should be elected by members of the Parliament?

Photo of Neil Gray Neil Gray Scottish National Party

I absolutely agree that the Standards, Procedures and Public Appointments Committee should look into that.

On Daniel Johnson’s point about using the technology to allow members to intervene on colleagues who participate remotely, reflecting on what John Mason said, it is absolutely right that, rather than do away with the technology because we want to have better debates, we should seek to improve the technology. That is how we should go about it.

As an institution, we must reflect on the fact that four incredibly able MSPs—Aileen Campbell, Jenny Marra, Gail Ross and Ruth Davidson—all cited an inability to balance working at Holyrood with family life as the reason for standing down. We should never allow ourselves to be in that situation again. Frankly, it shames us that we did not do more to ensure that they felt that they could stand for election again. How many more would have stood for election if we had had the technology?

A linked area of concern, and one where I feel that we have gone backwards, is about voting time—specifically, the apparent fluidity of what should be a fixed voting time. I absolutely concur with Sarah Boyack on that. Having a fixed voting time gives certainty to us all when colleagues have caring responsibilities. Sometimes, there are understandable reasons for the voting time to shift—it might have to do so for technical reasons that are outwith our control, or if an emergency statement has had to be made or a piece of emergency legislation considered—but we must do better on that.

Having such a shifting voting time has certainly made it challenging for me, as a father of four, to perform the careful logistical childcare balancing act at home, but it also has implications for our staff and for the staff of Parliament. I reiterate that I am fortunate in that I live a 20-minute train journey away; the situation is much more challenging for colleagues who live further away.

With regard to what Sarah Boyack said about childcare, I welcome the fact that there is a consultation on that, but I lament the fact that we are still considering only a three or four-hour window of opportunity. If a much longer period of childcare was available, people such as me might be able to enjoy the service.

Hybrid working has enhanced our Parliament and has made us even more relevant, accessible and relatable. It has given all of us with caring responsibilities or geographical challenges the opportunity for more flexibility to do our jobs well, it has helped to ensure that we can contribute equally, without the discrimination that we see at Westminster, and it has kept us and everyone who works for the Parliament safer during the pandemic.

As Daniel Johnson said at the start of his speech, we must reflect on what we want to be as a Parliament and where our priorities lie. I hope that being a family-friendly Parliament remains a priority. I very much welcome having had the opportunity to take part in the debate, and I thank Martin Whitfield for leading it. I look forward to further engagement with the Standards, Procedures and Public Appointments Committee as it does its work.

Photo of Tess White Tess White Conservative

I, too, am proud to be a member of the Parliament. It is a diverse Parliament, 45 per cent of the members of which are women, and we are working to make it more inclusive. I do not want to be dictated to, and I also want my lectern to be up.

This debate is set against the background of the public health constraints that have been necessitated by the outbreak of Covid-19 and how the Scottish Parliament has adapted its procedures and practices to meet those challenges. I thank parliamentary staff for the support that they have provided to all MSPs during the pandemic, which has allowed this legislature to operate safely at a time of crisis and deep uncertainty.

More than two decades after the Scottish Parliament was created, today’s debate is an opportunity to look at how it operates not just during Covid-19 but more generally. It is, after all, a nascent Parliament but one that is steeped in history and one of which expectations are very high.

There is a wide spectrum of parliamentary experience in the chamber. For my part, I am contributing as a new MSP, with what I hope is a fresh pair of eyes.

The Parliament was created 22 years ago to address a perceived democratic deficit in Scottish politics. I, too, was interested in the reply from Maggie Chapman on culture. A different kind of deficit exists now. As my colleagues have pointed out, rather than having spontaneous debate, too often the process is scripted, with the First Minister reading out prepared answers to planted questions from Scottish National Party back benchers, and responses are often drawn out to fill the time.

Just a few weeks ago, when the First Minister read out the wrong pre-scripted answer twice in two weeks, the Presiding Officer said that the content of MSPs’ contributions is not a matter for her. MSPs are often pulled up by the Presiding Officers on the relevance of their contributions to parliamentary debates. It should therefore follow that a representative of the Scottish Government who fails to answer a question that has been posed to them should also be reproached.

As we have been reminded this week, the threat of Covid-19 still looms large. It is more important than ever that MSPs can scrutinise the decision making and actions of the Scottish Government. We have far too frequently seen the First Minister announce new restrictions from a podium during a press conference, not in Parliament. In June this year, the Scottish Government’s decision to impose a travel ban between Scotland and Manchester had a direct bearing on the north-east of Scotland when EasyJet decided that it was no longer commercially feasible to operate a new route between Aberdeen and Manchester. The travel ban was announced by the First Minister on a Friday—a non-sitting day—during a press conference and with no opportunity for scrutiny by MSPs. That was a contemptuous move.

The Scottish Government’s evasiveness in written answers to parliamentary questions is also worrying, as is the time that it takes to respond to those questions. Those issues were highlighted in the previous SPPA Committee’s legacy report. On 20 September, I lodged a written question about the maintenance of hospital estates. That question was especially important because of what has been happening at the Queen Elizabeth university hospital in Glasgow. I did not receive a response until 15 November, almost two months later. The standing orders require that written questions receive a response within 10 working days. That response was not good enough. Parliament is too often sidelined by this SNP-Green Government. That should not be allowed to happen.

When the Scottish Government does engage with the parliamentary process, we often find ourselves debating matters outside the Parliament’s devolved remit, as part of a grievance-stoking exercise. That is not the accountability that the public deserves or expects.

My final comment relates to parliamentary privilege. It is well-known that MSPs do not have the same parliamentary privileges as our Westminster counterparts. In order to facilitate free speech and effective scrutiny, I would encourage the SPPA Committee to reflect deeply on whether it is possible to extend and strengthen parliamentary privilege for MSPs.

Photo of Tess White Tess White Conservative

I am in my last minute. You could have asked earlier.

The Deputy Presiding Officer:

I can give you back the time.

Photo of Daniel Johnson Daniel Johnson Labour

I am grateful, and I will be brief. The New Zealand Parliament recently passed an act entrenching parliamentary privilege. Does the member believe that that could act as a model for this Parliament, and should this Parliament study that?

Photo of Tess White Tess White Conservative

That is a good question. We have a good example from the New Zealand Parliament. During our committee meeting this morning, we heard a good example from the Canadian Parliament. Our committee’s role should be to bring together different ideas. Ms Whitham joined us a few weeks ago. We are a diverse committee with two female members and three men. We have different experiences. We should pull together and discuss the best practice from New Zealand, Canada and other parts of the world.

We need to look at parliamentary privilege—I am glad that the member agrees with me on that. We should extend members’ privileges and can look at the example of other countries.

As a member of the SPPA Committee, I hope that the remit of the inquiry that we will undertake in 2022 will include those and other issues.

If we want to ensure that we can serve our constituents to the best of our ability, can effectively and robustly scrutinise legislation and can hold the Scottish Government to account, it follows that we must honestly evaluate how this Parliament works and how it can work better.

Photo of Kaukab Stewart Kaukab Stewart Scottish National Party

It is a pleasure to take part in this lively and timely debate. In solidarity with Tess White—those are words that I did not think that I would say—I am also going to use my lectern.

The committee’s inquiry has the potential to make considered recommendations on how this Parliament works, not just for us, as members, but for the people we serve as elected representatives. I will focus on three important issues that I urge the committee to investigate in depth—the work of the committees, flexible working and support for parliamentarians.

As one of the newest members of the Parliament, I have experienced only the current procedures and practices. I welcome the views of more experienced members and those of my colleague Neil Gray, given his experience of the House of Commons, no matter how archaic it sounds, particularly to people such as me.

The House of Commons is often held up as a model of good governance and parliamentary effectiveness, but I understand why, in 1999, the consultative steering group was adamant that a new Scottish Parliament must be better. The CSG got its principles right. To paraphrase, it said that the Scottish Parliament should embody and reflect the sharing of power between the people of Scotland, the legislators and Government; that it should be accountable to the people of Scotland; that it should be accessible, open and participative in the development, consideration and scrutiny of policy and legislation; and that it should promote equal opportunities in all its operations.

As the first woman of colour to be elected to this Parliament, I recognise that it has taken a bit of time to implement the fourth principle. This place is now looking and sounding more like the communities that we serve, but there is more to do. “Nothing about us without us” is an important principle.

The first two principles, on the sharing of power and the Parliament being accountable to the people, are often regarded as the “taken for granted” element of a fully functioning legislature, but I hope that we will take time to take stock of them.

However, I believe that it is the third principle, on being open and accessible, that the impending inquiry is most relevant to. We truly live in a digital age. Against the backdrop of Covid, we all became accustomed overnight to online meetings of all shapes and sizes and to online teaching for all children. Information and communication technology has evolved beyond expectations.

Last night, I read the report of the nine original CSG members, who met in 2019 at the Festival of Politics to reflect on how their report had fared after two decades of implementation. It makes for interesting reading. For instance, it was always envisaged that the committees would be more powerful, consensual and innovative in developing policy. Through successive Scotland Acts, the volume of legislative business has increased way beyond what the consultative steering group envisaged, and, as a consequence, the more aspirational role for our committees might have been lost somewhat. Perhaps now is the time to have a subject committee that has no involvement in scrutinising proposed legislation and can focus purely on how the ideals of the CSG can be enacted in the light of what we now know.

On the practicalities of conducting parliamentary business, I note that hybrid and online meetings have been a blessing for many. Some of our more experienced members may have misgivings, but I have not experienced business in any other way, and the current procedures have demonstrated to Scotland that our democracy can work from our kitchens as well as from the chamber.

The Scottish Parliament’s original design principles included the need for it to be more family friendly in its working hours. To be frank, that has been eroded. If hybrid and online meetings can contribute to achieving that specific aim, that is a lesson that we can benefit from. Some may have concerns about costs, but we should ask what the cost is of not being flexible and inclusive. I hope that the committee will explore the economics of our current parliamentary practices but balance them against the social cost of non-inclusive practices.

Being an effective parliamentarian requires good support systems as well as the flexibility to respond to and engage with constituents and stakeholders. That is as much about the team that we parliamentarians employ to help us to carry out our duties. I urge the committee to broaden the remit of its inquiry to consider the impact of the procedures and practices of the Parliament on MSP staff and not just on elected members.

I would like to see a broader range of data and evidence gathered in investigating the impact of our current practices on the staff of the Scottish Parliamentary Corporate Body as well as on the staff employed through members’ resources. There is a lot of anecdotal evidence, but perhaps now is the time for the committee to commission its own research, either directly or through the corporate body.

If there is one thing that the status quo is teaching me, it is that a one-size-fits-all approach to chamber and committee procedures does not necessarily make for good governance. I have not heard anything that suggests that parliamentary democracy can be effective only if we are physically present. The committee should broaden the remit of its inquiry, fulfil the consultative steering group’s aims and include everyone who plays a part in our democratic ecosystem.

Perhaps we all need to rely more on the robustness of debate rather than on the robustness of our tables. Perhaps we all need to talk a little more softly and listen a little bit more loudly.

The Deputy Presiding Officer:

I call Graham Simpson, who is the final speaker in the open debate. You have around six minutes.

Photo of Graham Simpson Graham Simpson Conservative

That is extremely generous, Presiding Officer—I was not at all planning on speaking for six minutes.

Photo of Graham Simpson Graham Simpson Conservative

Yes, it is up to six minutes.

I am not on the whip in this debate, which is a rarity. We would not often come across any speaker in this Parliament who is not on the whip. Normally, in my group, Stephen Kerr chooses who gets to speak and who does not. I was not on the list for this debate, so I had to approach the Presiding Officer, and your good office said that I could speak. That does not normally happen. That seems entirely wrong to me. When I saw the topic of the debate, I felt that I had something to contribute. All parties need to look at their practices and allow members in that position to do so.

Photo of John Mason John Mason Scottish National Party

I agree with that to some extent. Does the member agree that it is up to back benchers to challenge, to some extent, those on the front bench of their own parties?

Photo of Graham Simpson Graham Simpson Conservative

How refreshing to hear an SNP back bencher say that. Yes, I agree with that.

Presiding Officer, you said at the start—

Photo of Graham Simpson Graham Simpson Conservative

Just a sec—allow me to make this point at least.

The Presiding Officer mentioned the time limit at the start of my speech, Stephen Kerr mentioned spontaneity and Daniel Johnson mentioned the issue, too. MSPs are very often limited by time. I think that they write out their speeches so that they can fit in with that time. If we were to be more flexible—

Photo of Martin Whitfield Martin Whitfield Labour

Does the member agree that a convention that has grown up is that individuals in parties dictate who speaks? There is nothing contained in the standing orders about that. What is the member’s view on limiting the time that members get to speak in debates to allow a broader number of people to contribute?

Photo of Graham Simpson Graham Simpson Conservative

That idea is worth looking at, because the more members that contribute, the better. One of the good things about this debate so far is that we have heard a lot of really good contributions. Interventions have been made because people have not felt constrained by time.

Photo of Stephen Kerr Stephen Kerr Conservative

I wish I had eyes in the back of my head. I was going to make a point—

The Deputy Presiding Officer:

I doubt that that would just be for making these sorts of interventions.

Photo of Stephen Kerr Stephen Kerr Conservative

I was going to make a similar point to Martin Whitfield’s. It is not a convention, as such, that the parties choose the speakers. Every week we get an email asking us to submit the lists of speakers and it is all very controlled. Is not that aspect of party control the very thing that is driving out the spontaneity that the Parliament badly needs?

Photo of Graham Simpson Graham Simpson Conservative

I completely agree. Mr Kerr could take a lead on that in our own party and perhaps introduce some reforms in our whip’s office to allow more spontaneity. I look forward to that happening.

I wanted to speak today because I will be launching a consultation on a member’s bill in January. One aspect of the bill cuts right across some of the issues that we are discussing today. If the bill gets beyond the consultation stage, it will eventually come to the Standards, Procedures and Public Appointments Committee.

There are several aspects to the bill, but I will discuss just one. I want to replicate the situation in councils: if councillors do not turn up for work or do not do any work for six months, they can be removed as councillors. That is a matter of law, but it is not one that applies to MSPs. It struck me that that is entirely wrong. If someone effectively decides to stop work, they should not be allowed to do that job.

That simple idea occurred to me before the pandemic. Since then, we have changed the way that we work. However, I have proceeded with the bill, and the consultation will deal with some of the issues that we have discussed today. A big question now is what constitutes work. It was quite easy before—we just had to turn up, vote or take part in proceedings here—but now it is not so simple. The consultation paper will raise those questions. I encourage all members who have taken part in today’s debate, since they obviously have a keen interest, to contribute, because I am interested to hear people’s views.

Photo of Daniel Johnson Daniel Johnson Labour

This is somewhat of a cheeky intervention. Is not the real point that doing this job properly means doing a great deal more than simply showing up and voting?

Photo of Graham Simpson Graham Simpson Conservative

Absolutely. The consultation addresses that point. I encourage Daniel Johnson to take part in it.

I have gone over the time allocated to me—I did not expect to do that. It has been a fascinating debate and I look forward to engaging with the committee.

The Deputy Presiding Officer:

Thank you, Mr Simpson. There was never a doubt that you would fill the six minutes. We will move to the winding-up speeches.

Photo of Paul Sweeney Paul Sweeney Labour

It has been a great pleasure to listen to members’ contributions to this extremely important debate. I thank the convener of the Standards, Procedures and Public Appointments Committee in particular for bringing the debate to the chamber. He reflected on the original ideas behind the establishment of the Scottish Parliament and the Constitutional Convention that gave birth to it, as well as on Donald Dewar’s reflections on the idea of quality of debate being essential to the performance of the legislature.

I am minded of the comment by Ron Davies, the former Secretary of State for Wales, who said:

“Devolution is a process. It is not an event”.

We cannot be prisoners to the initial ideas of what the Parliament should be like. Rather, there should be iterations and the institution should be constantly responsive. The debate is necessary in order for us to reflect on how things have been done well over the past 21 years and on how things could be changed and reformed. Members have offered some worthwhile suggestions in that regard.

Maggie Chapman mentioned the tone of debate and the quality of being able to disagree well. We can all reflect on how to do that better in the chamber. Fundamentally, the common themes that came out today were the role of members and the inherent tensions that the job presents. A member of the Scottish Parliament is simultaneously a legislator, a scrutineer of Government in committee and someone who has to undertake the duties of representing the people as a constituency or regional representative in the Parliament, as well as being a community troubleshooter, leader and campaigner. It is quite a hybrid role, and it requires a myriad set of skills. Some people are better at some things than others are, and the role requires a significant level of capacity that often comes at significant personal cost, as we have heard from members.

The Minister for Parliamentary Business made some good points about the huge learning curves that have been required over the past year by the institution as a whole in building, virtually from scratch, an online system for participation and in moving towards a hybrid Parliament. I think that there has been broad consensus that that has been highly effective at opening and improving the performance of the legislature, and that we definitely want to build and improve on that in the future.

It is important to recognise the purpose of the Scottish Parliament in its foundations. That drives at the heart of some of the tensions between the Executive and the legislature and the roles that are performed therein that have been described. Devolution was not just a big-bang event in 1999 in which everything was suddenly devolved from Westminster. In effect, the Scottish Government has existed as a discrete body of power since 1885 and the creation of the Scottish Office. The post of the Secretary of State for Scotland was created in 1926, and the construction of St Andrew’s house on Calton Hill, which was built between 1935 and 1939, was a direct result of that. The evolution of Scotland’s governance needs to be reflected on.

The Parliament’s purpose is not simply to sit here as a forum for ministers to broadcast their views on things; it is very much a vigorous forum for the scrutiny of Government power. That seems to have been somewhat forgotten in the past 20 years.

Photo of Daniel Johnson Daniel Johnson Labour

Does Paul Sweeney agree that we need to re-examine our standing orders, particularly on what is a relevant comment, and require ministers’ and members’ comments to be relevant and germane to the topic of debate? Does he agree that that might improve the quality of debate?

Photo of Paul Sweeney Paul Sweeney Labour

Absolutely. I was struck by the mention by the member for Eastwood of the Dáil and the privileges of its Speaker in being able to hold ministers to account in respect of time limits on responses and the relevance of the contributions. That is well worth further inquiry.

I want to reflect on the nature of the Scottish Parliament as an evolution from the Scottish Grand Committee in the House of Commons. The House of Commons is so constrained by time that the Scottish Grand Committee was not able to effectively perform the duties of a legislature—hence the creation of the Scottish Parliament. However, there are still constraints on the capacity of the legislature to hold Government to account that we have to deal with.

A lot of frustrations about that have been expressed—for example, about the capacity and flexibility to hold the Government to account in topical questions and the time constraints in First Minister’s question time. Perhaps the Government having prior sight of people’s questions gives a degree of intelligence that is not afforded to the Prime Minister at Prime Minister’s question time, for example. There is a sudden-death hit, and the Prime Minister simply has to be very responsive in dealing with that, because he or she does not have any prior knowledge of what will be put forward. There are certain tweaks to the system that can definitely improve the scrutiny of Government.

There are many contributions to the debate to refer to, and I am mindful that I have already eaten up five minutes of my time. I am not sure how much time I have remaining.

On the discussion about the balance with family life, the member for Carrick, Cumnock and Doon Valley made a very important point about life flexibility. Having maternity leave flexibility could be a way of reforming the chamber and improving access. Proxy voting is another alternative. I know that many women members of the Parliaments at Westminster and Holyrood have described the pressures that impinge on their ability to perform their functions and duties as members.

My friend the member for Edinburgh Southern made a point about getting rid of lecterns. Sometimes they can be useful, but I take the point that they can create a psychological gap and block in debates. The importance of iterative debate was brought up, and several members brought up the issue of breaking the control of business managers. Allowing the Presiding Officer’s office to determine who is called to speak in debates could improve their quality.

The role of the member as a parliamentarian first and party hack second should be another focus in trying to foster a greater culture of back-bench interventions and contributions that are not necessarily governed by the whips.

Photo of Neil Gray Neil Gray Scottish National Party

I can understand the point that Paul Sweeney is making about power, but will he reflect on the fact that the Speaker of the House of Commons has the power to take speeches from parliamentary colleagues at Westminster? I do not think that that has particularly changed the element of party hackism at Westminster compared to here.

The Deputy Presiding Officer:

I ask Paul Sweeney to start winding up, please.

Photo of Paul Sweeney Paul Sweeney Labour

No problem.

That was a fair point for Neil Gray to make. There is something worth testing there, to check whether we can improve the situation. This is intended to be an iterative process and the beginning of a series of inquiries that will no doubt present some really interesting alternatives for how we do our business.

I will wind up now, even though I have taken so many notes about other members’ contributions—which I do not have time to address, unfortunately. Fundamentally, we must consider the question of power in the Parliament. It is the role of the Parliament to hold the Executive to account, and there are so many more ways in which we can improve that capacity and ability to do so, but in a way that is powerful and that includes people in the process. That is where the great opportunity of the reforms to create a hybrid Parliament has shown great promise, particularly in committees, in involving more people in shaping the debate of the country.

The Deputy Presiding Officer:

I note the comments that various members have made about the interactive debate that we have been able to have. I can advise members that we have now exhausted all the additional time that we had in hand, so I will have to be a bit more draconian with speeches from here on in.

Rather trepidatiously, I invite Edward Mountain to wind up.

Photo of Edward Mountain Edward Mountain Conservative

Thank you very much, Presiding Officer, for allowing me to give the “wind up” speech, as you call it. Let us see if I can do just that.

I welcome today’s debate and have listened to all members’ speeches with huge interest. Let us be clear: we have a huge impact on our constituents with the work that we do in Parliament. However, the Scottish Parliament is 22 years of age, and I do not believe that it is wearing well.

The Parliament prides itself on being a modern Parliament, but it is clear that we are poorly served by our broadcast information technology and by the protocols that go with it. I remember raising this very issue as convener of the Rural Economy and Connectivity Committee in 2017. We held virtual meetings in the bowels of the Parliament building, because there was only one screen and one room that could do it. I sometimes wondered whether tin cans and a piece of string would have been a better option.

The pandemic has forced us to focus our minds on resolving such issues, but progress has been painfully slow. Parliament saying continually that we have a robust system and that it has everything in hand does not work for me. Although Parliament can go virtual, when I deliver a virtual speech—as I am doing now—all I see on my screen is myself. I can see part of the chamber, but I cannot see a clock, and there is no way of taking interventions. Indeed, I tried to make an intervention in this debate, but I was refused. I would like nothing more than to allow interventions on my speeches.

All that leads to sterile lectures, not debate. Take my word for it: I have been virtual for all of this term since September, but not through personal choice and it has been pretty rubbish. I have contributed as fully as I could to Parliament. The sterile lecture is now the norm for the chamber, I fear. Having four-minute speeches, with many members not taking interventions, kills debates. That is why the majority of people in Scotland are not tuning in to watch Parliament. Who can blame them?

When it comes to questions—I am not talking about the patsy questions that are asked by Government party back benchers—who ever gets a real answer? Presiding Officer, I believe that it should fall totally within the remit of your office to resolve that. I implore Parliament to drive forward on the matter. Questions need answers, not political statements.

I remind Parliament that it is not just the Irish Parliament that sets time limits; so does the Canadian Parliament—[

Inaudible

.]—think more about that and set time limits on questions and answers.

I believe that although Parliament continues to function during the pandemic, it is a pale imitation of the real thing. I can say that, having not been there since September. I do not think that it is good for democracy and accountability to do everything remotely. We need more accountability, we need people in the building, and we need to be able to talk to one other—and not just across the chamber.

We also need strong and effective committees. Having been a convener in the previous session, it is my experience that a committee functions at its best when party politics are left at the door. I was sorely disappointed on the many occasions when that did not happen.

I will give members a perfect example. When the Rural Economy and Connectivity Committee considered the bill that became the Transport (Scotland) Act 2019, an SNP committee member publicly spoke out, in the months preceding the vote on it, about the introduction of a workplace parking levy. The next month, when the vote came along, he caved in as a result of party pressure and voted with the Government.

The Government might deny that there is whipping in committees, but in the previous session that was very clear and commonplace. It is clear that the committee system is broken and needs a complete overhaul—a complete rethink. Until that happens, we will have a Government that can do what it wants, when it wants, however it wants. To be honest, I say that that is not a good or effective way to make legislation. In fact, it is an embarrassment to the people of Scotland and to parliamentarians who try to use Parliament to change things.

I will turn to some of the key points that have been raised in the debate. Our SPPA Committee convener made many important points—perhaps the most important of which was about the need for debate, which, by definition, is when opposing ideas are discussed and not just put forward without discourse. The number of interventions that the convener took during his speech proves that he favours debate, and that he is a man of his word.

I am slightly disappointed that the Government minister, George Adam, did not identify any of the key failings of parliamentary procedure that are clearly evident to other members of the Parliament.

I was struck by Stephen Kerr’s point that questions need answers, and not just an answer that has been prepared weeks in advance. I also take Sarah Boyack’s point on the verbosity of ministers; it was well made.

Jackson Carlaw made some valid points and comments about the need to reform FMQs and the format of all questions and answers. I look forward to finding a way around that. I agree with Daniel Johnson that Parliament should be about dialogue, which means debate, which means reaching out and talking to each other.

I was struck by the plea from my colleague Tess White that Parliament be used to make announcements so that the Government can be questioned on them, rather than using the media to strip out the statements that it will not make in Parliament.

I am conscious that my time is running short, but I want to make one point entirely clear. I have benefited from the fact that there is a hybrid Parliament in which I can take part from home. I do not propose that we change that, but it should not be the norm. It should be used with care and sparingly, when it is needed to allow members to contribute. After all, we are better if we negotiate with each other face to face, when that is possible. I support the hybrid format, but I do not want it to be the only way we operate.

There is a lot that this Parliament needs to do to evolve and mature after the 22 years since it was originally set up. From the chamber to the committee rooms, we need changes that nurture debate and encourage scrutiny instead of encouraging lectures, blind loyalty, patsy questions and no answers being given to Opposition members or, indeed, to members of the party that is in government. I do not believe that the Parliament will be working for the benefit of the people of Scotland until we make such changes.

The Deputy Presiding Officer:

Thank you, Mr Mountain. I gave you a little extra time as you were not able to intervene during the debate.

Photo of George Adam George Adam Scottish National Party

I will start with Mr Mountain. It is good to see that his time at home has not stopped his feistiness and his ability to put his point of view across. That gives us an example of how the system has worked for us, and where members have been able to use it. I know that Mr Mountain said that in his speech.

Mr Mountain talked about being able to see himself on his screen—surely that is a good thing. Nonetheless, even someone as vain as I am finds it off-putting to see myself on screen, so we can maybe look at that, as we go on.

An issue that has been brought up during the debate—Maggie Chapman, in particular, made this point—is our culture and how we work and deal with one another in Parliament. Mr Mountain and I are perfect examples—we get on well one to one, and we talk and engage with each other all the time. That is one of the things that we need here. I said the same to Stephen Kerr. When he was appointed chief whip, I said to him that we can fight all we like in the chamber, but as long as we are out of the chamber, we will talk to each other like human beings and get on with the business in hand. That is important in relation to the point that Maggie Chapman made about how we conduct ourselves and the importance of the culture of the Parliament.

This has been an interesting, constructive and valuable debate about the future and how we can achieve flexibility. We have proved already that flexibility has been extremely helpful to every one of us.

I have made suggestions in the past 20 months that the Presiding Officers did not think were a good idea. I suggested putting a “Countdown” clock from the Channel 4 show up there at decision time, and playing the “Countdown” theme music, to make it a wee bit more interesting and guarantee that we get there. There have been times when we have lost members and decision time has ended up being almost like the Eurovision song contest, with members phoning in from other places and saying, “My app didn’t work.” Decision time can sometimes be as long as the Eurovision song contest, although that has not been the case on the majority of occasions.

The exception was my friend and former colleague Gil Paterson. It seemed that every single night Gil could not work the technology. My argument, however, having been in bureau meetings for the past 20 months, is that a lot of the time the problem has not been the technology on the Parliament side. The problem has been on members’ side—it has been a user problem or broadband issues.

Photo of Stephen Kerr Stephen Kerr Conservative

Once again, the minister is, not incorrectly, looking at the hybrid arrangements and discussing their merits. I would be grateful if he would comment on suggestions about procedures in Parliament that pre-date changes that have been introduced because of the Covid emergency.

Photo of George Adam George Adam Scottish National Party

I was coming to that; I will go through bits and pieces from what colleagues have said.

Ms Boyack acknowledged that we need to retain the hybrid system, and she mentioned the length of questions and answers. Let us not kid ourselves: the questions are sometimes as long as the answers. As anybody does when they are asked a long question, we automatically want to give them value for money and a long answer.

Question times can be quite difficult for ministers, because if we give a short answer, an Opposition member might say, “That was a terribly short answer. This is a very important issue, minister, and I want you to take it seriously.” I admit that there is a balance to be struck. I tend to try to keep answers as short as possible, because I was trained under the tutelage of Tricia Marwick when she was Presiding Officer, and she made sure that I cut my questions as short as possible.

We need flexibility, because we are dealing with the on-going Covid situation. Sarah Boyack and other members mentioned that business can be changed at the last minute. I agree with what they said. I try to ensure that that does not happen, because I understand that everyone has a life; everyone has to be in other places and members have their constituencies to deal with, too.

However, there are occasions on which an issue must be dealt with straight away. For example, in the case of the Deputy First Minister’s statement on storm Arwen, we had to deal with that right then, on the Tuesday. I grant that the change was at the last minute. On the whole, however, I try to ensure that we do not have to debate issues at the last minute.

I mentioned culture earlier. How we present Parliament to the world is extremely important. My colleague Stephen Kerr and I had one of our usual wee barneys earlier, which is not necessarily what the public want to see from their legislators. We might enjoy it, but we know, from talking to the public, that it is not really what they want. Maggie Chapman made a very interesting point about culture.

Elena Whitham spoke about the practical issues of home working. Home working can be difficult—for example, when the computer starts buffering—and we worry about that. However, such issues have got better as time has passed.

Stephen Kerr spoke about just about everything that he and I have spoken about over the past two or three weeks, and I will probably have the same discussion with him next week. I will therefore move on to what other members said.

Photo of George Adam George Adam Scottish National Party

I will finish. I need to talk about some of members’ remarks.

I appreciated a lot of what Jackson Carlaw said. He said that colleagues come in at the crack of noon. He and I worked in the same industry, back in the day. We all had to work hard, and it was not a case of just coming in at the last minute. That is part of the culture here, but members need to accept that this is a workplace like any other. I see that Stephen Kerr is nodding in agreement. However, we have to give members flexibility so that they can work around their lives.

On the whole, the debate has been very good and interesting. We need to have debates like it more often.

Photo of George Adam George Adam Scottish National Party

When we consider any type of reform, we cannot do it piecemeal; we have to look at reform in its entirety. I hope that the committee and the Parliament can look at the debate as a way forward for us.

The Deputy Presiding Officer:

Thank you, minister. I apologise to members for cutting across them, but we are almost out of time. I call Bob Doris to wind up the debate on behalf of the Standards, Procedures and Public Appointments Committee.

Photo of Bob Doris Bob Doris Scottish National Party

As others have done, I start by thanking parliamentary staff, who are the glue that have kept this Parliament going in the most difficult of times. From the cleaners and catering staff to the kitchen and IT staff, they have all faced massive challenges, and I thank every one of them.

I also thank every member who has spoken in the debate. I am keen to express a variety of views on some of the comments, but I am speaking on behalf of the committee, so I will be reflective rather than pejorative about some of the comments that I have heard this afternoon.

In particular, I thank the convener, who started the debate with an excellent tone, which members mostly followed, although, since the convener mentioned 1970s wrestling, I thought that the exchange between Mr Kerr and Mr Adam felt more like Big Daddy and Giant Haystacks than a parliamentary exchange.

Parliament has reformed through necessity, but we have to reflect on that and innovate, so, this afternoon, we are here together as a Parliament to tease out a starting point from our committee. We must embed the progress that there has already been and be open and honest about where that progress has not been what we would have liked it to be. We must identify and rectify shortcomings and innovate differently, perhaps by trying something completely different.

Of course, there were issues in Parliament before Covid and before 2007, but, when we look through the lens of this debate, let us try to do so in a non-tribal way and come together as a Parliament. Let us shape, mould, nurture, develop and co-produce what the Scottish Parliament of the future will look like.

I will spend some time talking about a hybrid Parliament. By and large, there is almost unanimity that, although we should perhaps reform how it works, we should stick with a hybrid Parliament. Gillian Mackay mentioned how those who have disabilities can benefit, and Kaukab Stewart said that it could promote diversity. The minister mentioned people who think that coming to Edinburgh routinely would be a barrier to standing for election, so a hybrid Parliament would encourage more people to stand for election. Sarah Boyack was very clear about how the hybrid Parliament allowed for the flexible management of casework by busy MSPs and constituency offices, and Jackson Carlaw made a very similar point.

I will spend a little time on the aspect of family life, which Daniel Johnson and Neil Gray mentioned, which I absolutely agree is important. I became a dad shortly after being elected for the second time. I have to be careful how I phrase this, but I have found it a huge challenge to balance my parliamentary and constituency duties with being a good dad and husband at the same time. Something has to give, and, quite often, what gives is that my wife does more than she should have to. Quite bluntly, we have to think about the balance of family life for men and women, whether they are members in this place or partners back at home.

Photo of Finlay Carson Finlay Carson Conservative

Being in the same position, I absolutely share Bob Doris’s view.

One of the main factors is uncertainty because, otherwise, we can generally plan. We cannot have everything our own way, and being an elected politician is never going to be a normal life, but the difficulty with the way that Parliament is at the moment is the uncertainty over when we can get home and when we are expected to be in the chamber. That needs to be tackled as a matter of urgency.

Photo of Bob Doris Bob Doris Scottish National Party

I absolutely agree with Finlay Carson, who slightly went on to the issue of decision time, which I was going to come on to later but which I will deal with now. Yes, it gets pushed back later and later on many an evening, and it can change at very short notice. It is not possible to plan around that, and that situation is simply not acceptable.

Jackson Carlaw made an interesting point about setting decision time at the start of business the following day, and that could be a way forward. We absolutely have to look at that.

Finally, it is fair to point out that we have to make sure that the dynamic is not lost in hybrid working, and interventions absolutely have to be part of that. I want to put that on the record.

There was a wide-ranging debate on the scrutiny of Government in relation to pre-prepared questions and supplementaries from Government back benchers, Opposition members and ministers. There was discussion of the balance of Opposition time, members’ business debates and committee debates; the use of topical and emergency questions; and the idea of scripted speeches. I think that there was an acknowledgment by Graham Simpson that scripted speeches often come not just from Government but from the Opposition as well, and there is a carved-out position in advance of a debate. I think that that is a political reality in this place.

I will not say much about my own committee because of time, but I wish that folk had spoken more about committees, because they are the lifeblood of this Parliament’s scrutiny. The major scrutiny will not happen in this chamber, which is for set-piece debates. The committees are the absolute lifeblood of scrutiny.

Elena Whitham spoke about job sharing with Councillor Kelly Parry at COSLA. Job sharing is something that we have to start thinking about if we are to be realistic about work-life balance and being an inclusive Parliament.

Elena Whitham and others also mentioned remote voting in relation to those who have an elderly relative, for example, or other caring responsibilities. Neil Gray mentioned how Amy Callaghan had been frozen out of voting at Westminster. I am not allowed to comment on that situation, as I am speaking on behalf of the committee, but I wanted to reflect that it had been mentioned in this chamber.

We do need to reform. We have to bring Parliament together in doing that, and we have to strike a balance. Hybrid proceedings must not and will not replace human face-to-face contact. They must complement it and they must support it. We must seize the opportunities of hybrid working but also address the pitfalls.

Relationships are also the lifeblood of this Parliament, even when we disagree with each other. Those relationships are often fostered not online or by virtual contact but face to face, before committee, after committee, in the canteen or at parliamentary receptions. Those relationships have still to be forged by many of the people in this place, because they have simply not had the chance to do that. That really has to happen, and it is important to put that on the record, too.

In the very limited time that I have left, I will say this. Let us shape parliamentary reform not on the basis of any individual’s self-interest or any party’s self-interest, nor on the basis of whether we are in government or in opposition. Let us get the tone right as we shape Scotland’s Parliament moving forward. Let us get the relationship right between Government and Opposition in the legislature. Let us get the scrutiny right. Let us make sure that Parliament remains accessible, transparent and fit for purpose. Let us also remember that many good things exist in the Parliament right now—let us not dismiss them, either.

Let us shape Scotland’s Parliament going forward in the best interests of all the people of Scotland—non-tribal, non-partisan, open-minded, bold, innovative and inclusive. That is no small challenge for our committee, but it is one that I know we are up for and one that I am absolutely convinced that Parliament is up for, too.

The Presiding Officer:

That concludes the debate on behalf of the Standards, Procedures and Public Appointments Committee on shaping parliamentary procedures and practices for the future.