It is a pleasure to open the SPPA Committee’s second committee debate on future parliamentary procedures and practices in the chamber and in our institution.
I thank members of the committee—present, recent and less recent—for all their work on the report. It is a great pleasure to see so many familiar faces around the chamber—I look forward to the contributions of those members. I also thank the clerks—both current and recent—for their efforts and work in the preparation of the report. However, most of all, I thank the members who are here today.
The report was published on 6 July. At a mere 41 pages and 207 paragraphs, it is a small, trivial report by committee standards. Therefore, I hope that it has been well digested and well thought through, and that members have come here today with questions.
One of the lessons of the pandemic is that change should not be shied away from. The ways in which the people of Scotland work and engage have changed profoundly since the beginning of 2020 and this Parliament would be out of step with those changes if it reverted to its previous practices. It is the committee’s view that it is important to be mindful of the kind of institution this Parliament will want to be in 10 years’ time, not just in the next six months or two years.
Evidence has been gathered from members from across this chamber, from Parliaments and parliamentarians from across the United Kingdom—including the Scottish Youth Parliament—and from far wider. We have spoken with experts in democracy and change, and with those who speak for those who find it challenging to engage with this Parliament currently because of geography or disability or who feel excluded.
I was struck by the contributions in the report that reflect on the importance of face-to-face discourse and debate. Might those comments lead to future work by the committee to look at how we can maximise face-to-face discourse, which is clearly a core role of this Parliament?
Mr Whitfield says that much has changed because of the pandemic, which we all accept, but some things should not be scrapped or changed. For example, we have a bill that we will put through this place in a matter of a few hours and with minimal scrutiny—the cost of living (protection of tenants) (Scotland) bill. Does the member agree that we are driving a coach and horses through any scrutiny that this Parliament can give?
It would probably be slightly perfunctory of me, while I stand here as convener, to anticipate the scrutiny of a bill that will arrive next week. However, I will comment later on the question of how the Government is scrutinised by this chamber.
I am grateful for the two interventions, as I was about to signpost to members the areas that I will cover, thereby enabling them to slip their interventions into their social media. I will look principally at the hybrid nature of this chamber and of our committees. Finally, I will raise the question of proxy voting. Members now have the headlines, so they can either wait to intervene on those points or they can leap up if I have not covered something that they would like me to.
Regarding hybrid debate in the chamber, the evidence presented shows that the Scottish Parliament did great work to ensure members were enabled to speak, to ask questions and to vote. However—this answers the most recent intervention—that enabling of Parliament does not mean that things are the same as they were prior to our hybrid meetings, and we recognise that there have been challenges in conducting scrutiny while using the hybrid method.
The committee notes that, in comparison with other legislatures, we introduced more measures to ensure that members were able to participate in parliamentary business, that all types of business continued and that all MSPs were able to vote. That important achievement, which should be acknowledged with thanks, should also endure.
The report’s conclusions and recommendations confirm that there is a case for the continuation of hybrid meetings and that it is important to provide for and enable iterative change in the future. The committee considers that, rather than returning fully to previous practices, there is potential to build on gradual and progressive change as technology improves and that that can bring the Parliament closer to the people of Scotland in accordance with the key principles that have underpinned its work since it was established in 1999.
Although we must recognise that the voting process has been cumbersome at times, it has been extremely important in allowing every member to vote on every occasion. Statistics show similar levels of voting prior to and during the pandemic and following our return. Although some still consider the voting process to be cumbersome, that is proof that people have been able to exercise their democratic right, which is the reason that they were sent to this place.
The committee very much welcomes the specific plans to introduce a new platform for hybrid meetings and, as I indicated earlier, it considers that that will help to improve members’ ability to debate by allowing interventions to be made or taken both by members in the chamber and by those who are participating remotely.
The committee believes—it heard a substantial amount of evidence to the effect—that the Parliament is currently most effective when its members come to Holyrood to represent their constituents and participate in person in the chamber. However, we also recognise from the evidence that there is a number of circumstances in which members should have the option to participate remotely. Those circumstances might include situations in which illness, bereavement, caring commitments, travel or weather disruption—imagine that, here in Scotland—or personal commitments inhibit their ability to come to the Parliament.
The committee heard very strong arguments for requiring ministers to always be present in person in Parliament. The committee agrees that that is important for scrutiny, and it calls on the Scottish Government to ensure that ministers are present, apart from in exceptional circumstances, when they are being scrutinised by the Parliament.
A further reason for continuing hybrid arrangements is to encourage a more diverse range of people to stand for election to Parliament. That will provide the Parliament with the flexibility in the future to offer alternative means of participating in parliamentary business, rather than requiring elected members to fit into an established method of working, notwithstanding their personal circumstances.
I appreciate the points that the member is making around better representation in the chamber, but considering that the exception relates to ministers, does he realise that that would create an issue for those who are disabled or face other challenges? It would make their becoming a minister unattainable.
I am grateful for the intervention, which raises an extremely important question about how every person who seeks election to Parliament would be able to move through the system—should they wish to do so—including up to the grander heights of Government. It is a point of scrutiny and review, and it is why the report and the committee talk about iteration—slow movements of change—to confront the problems that are in front of us, and to have a system that is flexible enough to allow for that. I absolutely understand the member’s point; however, I suggest that our report—and supporting our report—does not prevent that iteration from occurring as we are confronted with the issue, and we need the flexibility to do that.
I am conscious of time, so I will speak about committees. The committee very much feels the same as MSPs more generally that committees need to remain in hybrid format. A responsibility needs to be placed on members to be present at committee meetings. There are different committees across the Parliament with different remits, so it is important that each committee retains the flexibility that hybrid arrangements provide. Most important, from the committee’s point of view—
Has the committee, which I was on previously, fully considered how members who are attending virtual committee meetings should get classified papers, given that it is not possible to send them out in advance by email under the current parliamentary system?
The report says that the Conveners Group has asked for guidance on how to deal with a variety of committee matters. I think that some conveners sought that guidance to support their right to say to members, “Please can you come and be here?”; other conveners sought that advice to give them evidence to say, “This is how we want matters to be dealt with.” Having witnessed challenges with regard to papers, I envisage that that is one of the areas that will be addressed.
I am desperately conscious of time, so I will seek the indulgence of members to raise the question of proxy voting. Following consultation, the committee will propose a temporary rule change, which would provide for a scheme that would permit members in certain defined circumstances, including parental leave and long-term illness, to nominate a proxy. We believe that such a scheme should be allowed to run, and be monitored, for a period of around 12 months before we re-evaluate the system for any permanent rule changes. I will put to one side the lovely and poetic platitudes that I was going to use to explain the wonders of and the need for proxy voting.
During the inquiry, the committee said that it is thinking about what the Parliament should look like in 10 years’ time. We believe that the Parliament should commit to a culture of iterative change to allow it to be more representative, more open and more accessible in 10 years.
On behalf of the Standards, Procedures and Public Appointments Committee, I move,
That the Parliament notes the Standards, Procedures and Public Appointments Committee’s 6th Report 2022 (Session 6),
Report on inquiry into Future Parliamentary procedures and practices
(SP Paper 213).
I thank the convener of the Standards, Procedures and Public Appointments Committee for opening the debate, and I welcome the opportunity to participate on behalf of the Scottish Government. Although instances of national emergency are never welcome, they necessitate real-life action during inherently challenging circumstances for all concerned. It is vital that the Parliament not only maintains its scrutiny function; it must also be equipped and available to pass any emergency legislation that is required to protect the public interest. The Scottish public rightly look to both Government and Parliament to protect their interests, even more so during times of trouble, and to do so swiftly, flexibly and effectively.
I know that the minister sincerely believes that Parliament should fulfil its scrutiny function, as he has just mentioned, but how on earth is that the case in relation to the proposed cost of living (protection of tenants) (Scotland) bill, which drives a complete coach and horses through the conventions and procedures of this place?
Mr Kerr is never one to labour a point. As other members have said, let us wait to see what comes before us and we can take things from there. It is important that the emergency legislation goes through, as we are talking about real people and real-life issues.
Although the pandemic led to a steep learning curve for all and presented us all with many challenges, the operational adaptations that the Parliament has subsequently developed and adopted have proven essential to maintaining the good governance of Scotland. I thank everyone in the Parliament for the close partnership working that we have enjoyed. That partnership helped us during Covid, and it will no doubt be important in helping us to respond quickly and flexibly to all future challenges. The finding in the committee’s report that, despite recent events, the Parliament was able to fulfil its scrutiny function was especially welcomed by the Scottish Government. That is a principle that the Government has worked constructively with the Parliament to uphold.
Concentrating now on the committee’s report itself, the Scottish Government welcomes the findings of the committee’s recent inquiry into virtual and hybrid procedures. The recognition in the committee’s report that the working practices of all Scots have changed is well observed by us. The Government very much supports the overarching principle that the Parliament should maintain the flexibility of arrangements to enable hybrid and virtual proceedings.
The new ways of working were born out of necessity, but many of the people who gave evidence to the committee noted the opportunities that have arisen for increasing participation in proceedings and for Parliament to engage generally with the public. Those aims have featured strongly in the governance principles that we aspire to in Scotland, and the committee’s report shines a light on the possibilities that might develop from increased flexibility in our business methods. Business has had to adapt under hybrid or virtual circumstances, but the Parliament’s continuing ability to function and act is paramount.
I remember when we first dealt with that challenge in the early days at the Parliamentary Bureau, when I was chief whip. We effectively moved from having absolutely nothing in place to a system that, although it might have been clunky at times, was functional and the Parliament was still able to commit to its duties.
I note the committee’s findings as to the action that it considers that the Parliament should take to build on and improve virtual and hybrid proceedings in future. The Government stands ready to assist the Parliament in whatever measures it sees fit to pursue.
One on-going issue, which is sometimes seen as a thorny one, is the attendance of ministers in Parliament in person. I touched earlier on the committee’s finding that the Parliament was able to fulfil its scrutiny function despite recent events. The availability of ministers is clearly crucial to its achieving that objective. The Government is aware of its accountability to the Parliament and its membership. That responsibility applies whatever the prevailing circumstances. Given the recent pressures that we have all experienced, it is especially welcome that the committee found that scrutiny had been fulfilled, despite the impacts of the Covid pandemic.
I would reflect that the minister is in a better position to give the Government’s assurance regarding people who are differently challenged attending the Parliament. That would not prevent anyone succeeding in Government, if their ability allowed them to do so, simply because of their inability to attend, in the way that was referred to earlier.
With my background—my wife has multiple sclerosis and I am her primary carer, although she sometimes wonders who cares for who—I think that it is always a positive thing for people to have the opportunity to achieve all that they can when they come to this place.
It is testament to the excellent partnership working between the Government and the Parliament that we managed to get ourselves into a place where we could continue. The important point for everyone here is that the default position remains one of caution. However, ministers operate on the basis of physical attendance in the Parliament wherever possible. That is consistent with the findings in the committee’s report.
That brings me to proxy voting. It is for the Parliament to consider any proposals in relation to the operation of proxy voting, including any changes to voting arrangements. The merits of a proxy voting scheme are clearly outlined in the committee’s report, as is the need to ensure that any such arrangement is robust and fit for purpose. In my role as a member of the Parliamentary Bureau, I am aware that the committee has already sought comments on some of the finer details of any such proposal.
One key aspect would be the criteria for seeking a proxy and the period of time for which it is sought. Also, the definition of illness is not altogether straightforward. Clarity on that issue would be central to management of the scheme and evaluation of its fairness.
Mr Johnson brings me to the next line of my speech, which is that a balance requires to be struck between recognising the personal circumstances of members and representation of constituents’ interests in Parliament. The Scottish Government notes the Speaker’s oversight in the equivalent arrangements for the House of Commons.
Whether proxy voting is to be permitted for all parliamentary business also requires careful consideration. The Government will closely follow developments in that area, including the operation and experience of the pilot scheme.
The Presiding Officer and members will be pleased to hear that I do not propose to take up much more time.
I consider it beneficial for as many members as possible to offer their thoughts on the committee’s report.
The Government commends the Standards, Procedures and Public Appointments Committee for its work on these matters. We welcome the committee’s report, its findings and the direction of its recommendations for Parliament’s further consideration. We also note the scope for the Parliament to derive long-term benefits from new ways of working and, in so doing, build further resilience into the operation of the Parliament, as well as Scottish governance more generally.
I look forward to hearing other contributions to this important debate.
I, too, congratulate the committee and convener on their report and their on-going work.
I am really pleased to be able to speak on the topic of parliamentary reform. The minister might have thought that he had seen the last of me as a sparring partner, but here we go again. I assure him that my interest in parliamentary reform remains as strong as ever. I have always found the minister to be someone who genuinely believes in the scrutinising powers, and the other powers and authority, of this Parliament. I respect that enormously.
As we have heard, the committee’s report covers a number of issues, such as hybrid working and proxy voting. During my time on the Parliamentary Bureau, I considered both those issues when drafting the Conservative and Unionist Party’s response to the committee.
Although I know that hybrid working is here to stay, I do not personally think that it has necessarily changed everything for the better. I absolutely believe that there is no adequate online substitute for an in-person debate.
However, I do believe in proxy voting. I think that it should exist, particularly in the case of parental leave. I also believe that the party whips’ offices should not be in charge of allocating proxy votes. The member on leave should be the one to choose who will vote for them, and I look forward to seeing how any upcoming trial might progress. We should start that trial as quickly as possible so that we can make an assessment.
The report also mentions the iterative approach that Parliament will take on identifying and implementing reform going forward. I fully support that, too. My concern is that the minister, on behalf of the Scottish Government, has in the past raised the view that changes to Parliament would need to be done in one go, rather than through what he has described as a “piecemeal” approach.
First, I point out gently that parliamentary reforms are not in the minister’s, or the Scottish Government’s, gift. His comment highlighted something that I am deeply concerned about, which is the blurring of lines between Government—the executive—and Parliament, and how that has been allowed to happen over the past couple of decades since devolution.
In an answer that the minister gave in a previous debate, I think that he simply assumed that the Government’s word would be final in respect of parliamentary reform. Sometimes I am afraid—I say to the minister that this is my perception—that the Scottish National Party views this Parliament as a branch of Government; I also fear that Parliament has started to succumb to that view.
There is nothing that I can do about Mr Kerr’s perceptions and interpretations of what I say, but I fear that he veered quite far from what my intention was. If that misunderstanding was because of anything that I have said, I apologise to Mr Kerr. However, I fear that it might have just been his interpretation.
I am very grateful for the minister’s clarification. He is, once again, being true to the colours that I pinned on him at the beginning of my speech, which are those of a genuine parliamentarian.
Secondly, anyone who has a connection with any kind of project management knows full well that the iterative process of improvement and reform has its merits. It delivers change in an agile way, which allows for a greater focus on individual changes, and therefore I was very pleased to see the committee back it and even more pleased to hear the minister agree with its use.
Thirdly, it is no surprise to me that the Scottish Government, at one time—I accept the minister’s correction—might have wanted this done in one fell swoop, because that would have been a great excuse for not doing anything. However, I take the word of the minister, as a man of honour, that that is not the Scottish Government’s position, and he has said that on the official record.
I fear that Mr Kerr has reinterpreted his reinterpretation of what I said previously. What I said in that debate was that it was better to do parliamentary reform as one big area. At no time did I say that it was within the Scottish Government’s control to do it. Throughout my speech in today’s debate, and at any other time, I have said that the Scottish Parliament makes the decisions about how Parliament works.
The minister is showing admirable accountability to Parliament in the way that he is allowing me to be corrected through his interventions. I am pleased to hear all these interventions—I welcome them. I hope that the minister’s position—because I know that it is genuine—reflects that of his party, because sometimes I think that the SNP quite likes a weakened Parliament, so that it, as an executive, can run roughshod over procedures, practices and conventions, such as I have mentioned in two interventions in relation to a forthcoming bill.
What should the Scottish Parliament be? I have long argued that this Parliament’s powers to scrutinise the Government are too weak. The Government has ignored motions that it does not like and it has imposed its will on our acclaimed committee system. I am afraid that, too often, it appears to me—
I completely agree. Whether I was speaking here or in another Parliament, I would say the same thing. Parliament provides a crucially important constitutional role in checking the powers of the executive and holding it to account. That is as true here as it is at Westminster.
I do not like to think that the Government whips its committee members, but sometimes, frankly, I am left with that conclusion because of the evidence of my experience in this Parliament since I was elected. Given the design of the committee system, I do not think that it is right that, in committees, we should be led by anything other than evidence that builds consensus, which is then used to produce reports that are based on evidence and not political dogma. Committee rooms cannot simply turn out to be echo chambers for Government orthodoxy.
I will be summing up later on, as deputy convener of the committee, but I have a question for Mr Kerr. Does he think that the Standards, Procedures and Public Appointments Committee has done its best to reflect, without political interference or political dogma, the balanced views of Parliament in a measured and responsible way?
I absolutely do, and I am pleased to be able to agree with Bob Doris on that point.
I have wider concerns that come from the report in relation to the spontaneity of Parliament. Before anyone intervenes, I will say that this is not true of today’s debate, but, sometimes, proceedings in this chamber feel like a stage-managed and scripted puppet show. Because of that, we are not getting the respect of people who observe our proceedings. On that point, I note that it is quite hard to observe proceedings. Anyone who wants to watch this debate will have to go through myriad Google searches and clicks to find it. That, in itself, causes me concern, because this Parliament needs to have the respect—should earn the respect—of the people of Scotland, but the people of Scotland need to be able to see the proceedings of this place.
We need to be more spontaneous and more responsive. At the moment, the Presiding Officer has the power to call urgent questions. Why does the Presiding Officer not have the power to call an urgent debate? I think that they should have that power. On leaving the Parliamentary Bureau the other day, I said to the Presiding Officer that my motto is, “More power to the Presiding Officer.”
In that regard, the Presiding Officer will now seek the co-operation of the member in bringing his remarks to a close. I have been generous with the member’s time, as, indeed, the member himself has been generous in taking interventions.
You have, indeed, been generous, Presiding Officer.
I have much more that I wanted to say, but I will close on a point about the need for this place to be rigorous in its debate. I cite the example of the statement on the programme for government. We all sat through a half hour where the First Minister enjoyed interruption-free, intervention-free speaking time, but the first response to that statement was a speech from Douglas Ross that was subject to interventions and interruptions. I do not think that the Government should have protection from the rigours of this place—I do not think that the First Minister needs the protection of the Presiding Officer in that regard.
I draw a comparison with Westminster. When the Prime Minister gave that important energy statement on 8 September—
Mr Kerr, I think that you are digressing a wee bit in terms of where you said that you would end up. We want to allow other members to speak. I am sure that you will have opportunities to intervene during the debate.
I start by thanking the committee for the report. It is right that the Parliament keeps its procedures under review and ensures that they are modernised as required. That said, none of us could possibly have foreseen the impact of Covid-19 on our procedures. That the Parliament successfully found and implemented a system that enabled people to participate in parliamentary business so quickly is down to our support staff—those people behind the scenes who work hard to find solutions. On behalf of the Scottish Labour Party—I am sure other parties would concur—I thank them for that. I also want to thank them for their patience while we all got the hang of the system. Given that some of us are still grappling with it, they must be so looking forward to the new system coming online.
There is a balance to be struck with regard to meeting online in a hybrid format or meeting in person. Each system has benefits and drawbacks. We took meeting in person for granted but, as we saw during the pandemic, there are times when that is not possible or even safe. Before the pandemic, people came into the building when they were unwell, simply because they had to do that in order to take part in proceedings. Colds and viruses spread because of that but, if people did not come in, they were not able to represent their constituents. Because we now have the hybrid system that was set up to deal with Covid-19, people who would otherwise not have been able to participate can do so. However, those taking part remotely lose out—the flow of the debate is stilted and it is difficult for them to get a feel for the mood of the debate. I hope that the new system will enable people online to intervene on people in the chamber, and people in the chamber to intervene on people online.
What cannot be replicated is meeting people in the time around the debate and exchanging more information that way, or even having informal chats with ministers and cabinet secretaries. All of those activities are useful in terms of enabling us to represent our constituents.
We need to balance that against the benefit of enabling people who are unwell or who have caring responsibilities to take part. Certainly, from my point of view, allowing people who are at a distance to take part in giving evidence to committees has been successful. I would often suggest the names of people from the Highlands and Islands to come to committees, only to discover that they could not commit the time. Allowing remote contributions also allows the Parliament to open up and take evidence from all over Scotland.
As someone who is pretty much chained to my Samsung—not my iPhone, I have to say—I do not think that I would like that. I would feel absolutely bereft if those devices were to be banned from the chamber. I am owning up to that.
I thank my colleague for supporting me.
In the previous session, a number of women stood down because the Parliament was not family friendly; it did not allow them to bring up their children in the way that they were happy with and be parliamentarians at the same time. That is disappointing.
However, rather than responding to that positively to find solutions, the Parliament appears to have become even less family friendly. Here we are in a new session, yet late sittings and variable decision times are causing members real problems. A decision time that runs a few minutes late can have an impact on what train a member, or, indeed, a member of staff, can catch and whether they can pick up their children as organised, as can adding statements at the last minute and pushing decision time way back.
We should adhere to a set decision time if we are going to be family friendly. The Scottish Government needs to be more organised with regard to business planning and it needs to support the family friendly ethos that the Parliament was set up to deliver. I really do not want to see a system where those who have caring responsibilities need to remain remote because the Scottish Parliament cannot be more disciplined.
As I have said, people who are working remotely lose out on the other activities of the Parliament, so they must have choice and flexibility. Due to fluctuating decision times, a number of members have indicated to me that they drive rather than take the train—I include myself in that. For people who live away from home while attending the Parliament, it has never been family friendly. Remote working could provide an alternative.
If I may, I will turn quickly to proxy voting. I believe that there is a place for it within our system. We currently have a pairing system for those who are on maternity leave, but a proxy system could work just as well, and it could also be used during sick leave and compassionate leave, when remote voting does not work. I am pleased that the committee is going to pursue that, albeit with some caution.
I am also pleased that the committee is keeping an eye on future developments and what the Parliament should look like in 10 years. One of the advantages of having a new Parliament was that there were no traditions or cultures. Over the years, I have seen that each new Parliament is very different from the previous one—and I like that. I hope that the Scottish Parliament continues to evolve as a result of circumstances and challenges, and that it remains fresh and modern while retaining its founding ethos.
I apologise to Stephen Kerr for having the audacity to read my speech off a screen.
I welcome not only the report but the fact that an inquiry was carried out at all. Given the talent that the Parliament has lost due to working practices that many consider to be anachronistic, an inquiry was, in my opinion, overdue. I am aware that many would have liked to never see an inquiry take place, so I thank the committee for conducting it and for allowing me to give evidence.
This place can be a bubble. Things that would not even register as an issue for most people feel like the battle of the day: who gets called for a supplementary question, which reception a colleague chose to go to or whether your synonym made it into a committee report—I have seen all of those things cause serious rage and upset. Those who are listening know who they are.
The bubble is more pronounced for those who live far from the Parliament building. Last year, in my first few weeks as an MSP, I realised that, when I was sitting on the train somewhere around Dalwhinnie, I would feel like I had passed through a portal and returned to earth from some other planet where we breathe coffee instead of air and use votes as currency.
Central belt politicians, with a few exceptions, do not understand the different challenges experienced by representatives of other places, and that is before we even consider caring responsibilities, disability or other factors. They do not understand the travel—the extra time that is needed just to get around and speak to constituents. My work travel so far this year has been the equivalent of 50 per cent of the circumference of the earth. For many people I want to meet in my island communities, my recess is their holidays, and they often shut up their shops or businesses, with many using the Scottish Government’s annual gift of two return ferry journeys to come over to the mainland for a bit.
When explaining that being here on a Tuesday morning and later than 5 o’clock on a Thursday means that I cannot carry out regional work on a Monday or a Friday—the so-called constituency days—I have been told that my constituents want to see me here in Parliament every day. That is not true. For the most part, in the minds of highlanders and islanders, being here every week is a sign that I am not doing my job. The north of my region is further away from the Parliament building than the House of Commons is—that is as the crow flies, before taking transport links into consideration. Presiding Officer, I represent people who are further away from where you are sitting than Liz Truss is during Prime Minister’s questions. I am sure that my colleagues, particularly my SNP colleagues, will understand why folk living in my region might not feel connected to decisions that are made this far away from those they affect.
In 2015, the then Scottish Cabinet came to Inverness to listen and be visible. I went along and asked Nicola Sturgeon how she was encouraging 18-year-old teuchters like me to be politically involved. Being there was how she was doing that—that was progress—but we need to keep it going.
Technology now allows us to vote, to contribute to debates and to scrutinise legislation and ministers from anywhere with an internet connection. If we want people in the Highlands and Islands to feel represented and heard, and if we want Highlands and Islands representatives to be able to connect with people outwith this bubble and know what is happening on the ground, we need to be able to reliably be in our region.
In my very first speech in the Parliament, I applauded the hybrid system and said that I was looking forward to doing my job here, but also
“from Skye, Sutherland or Shetland from time to time.”—[
, 1 June 2021; c 42.]
Acceptance in the Parliament of more flexible, more inclusive—and, frankly, better—working practices is not where it needs to be.
I hope that the report and all its detail will mean that, next time, we do not lose more Gail Rosses and Aileen Campbells, and that more of the rural and island voices that, as we have been hearing over recent weeks, are so important to Government decisions can dial in to the conversation as well.
I come to this debate not sure whether I have anything terribly useful to say—before some members say, “There’s no change there, then,” I do have a number of observations.
The first observation is something that I said in the original debate on this topic. I did not think that I would be open to change, but then, to my surprise, I found that it actually worked perfectly well and to the benefit of the Parliament and I have therefore become quite a fan and quite an advocate of it.
However, the point that I would start from is this: when do we take the view that we are at a settled position in which to make any judgments? If we take out the summer recess, the Parliament has had really quite a short working period since we returned to an environment in which we did not have social distancing in the chamber. Therefore, what has become almost quite normal again quite quickly is actually not a practice that we have lived with for very long.
I notice that the number of contributions that are now being made remotely has shrunk to very few altogether, but who knows what is coming this winter? There could be a major flu epidemic, a revival of some other issue or very bad weather, as Martin Whitfield said, and the remote engagement of members in the chamber could change again.
We have to be very careful and watch how things develop over time. We should not rush to any settled view as to when we are at the point at which we can say, “This is now how it should be.” Let us keep an open mind.
Yes, we can, and I think that that is the point. However, we had better be careful that we do not close down the point at which we think that we are in a position to say, “These are the ways in which we think the Parliament could work better”, because I think that things could continue to evolve and change.
Does the member agree that part of the report’s value concerns the empowerment of back benchers as a result of hybrid working, in particular when—as we have heard—distance is an issue and the option to participate virtually is still available to them? We do not necessarily see such practices being used every day, but that does not mean that they should not be available when circumstances—which can be very broad—mean that members need to use them to represent their constituents on an important matter that is being debated in the chamber.
I absolutely agree with that, and I do not think that a member has to be somewhere remote or at a great distance to need that option. As a member who represents a central belt constituency, I note that there are days when I feel that I could represent my constituents much more productively by being in the constituency and participating in a number of events that are taking place, which would directly benefit them, than by being in the chamber. Historically, I have sometimes been in Parliament only to participate in five minutes of business before hanging around until 5 o’clock for decision time, which is a wholly unproductive use of time.
The virtual option is one of the real advantages that has been demonstrated during the hybrid working arrangements.
I agree with Stephen Kerr on one point: the use of remote technology in the chamber. I believe that people should put up or shut up, and I do not like it when members do not intervene in a debate but then, from a sedentary position, tweet out that what somebody else in the chamber has just said is absolute rubbish and they fundamentally disagree with it. I do not think that that is quite right.
We should start to consider afresh in what way social media should be used, if we want the Parliament to have respect and to evolve not just through its infrastructure but in the way in which we conduct ourselves. During the years in which I have been a member of the Parliament, the level of courtesy that is shown has declined, as has the wider understanding of parliamentary business. We all used to get a written
Official Report and people used to read what had been said in other debates beyond their particular focus and discipline. A lot of that has been lost.
In 2024, the Parliament will be 25 years old. We should work towards that date, not necessarily 10 years hence, to see what more we can do to radically improve the way in which the Parliament works and the way in which we operate.
Sitting above that is the fact that the Citizen Participation and Public Petitions Committee has been charged with carrying out an investigation into deliberative democracy. We are currently awaiting the Scottish Government’s response to its own working group on that, but that, too, will provide some challenging questions for members as to how we sit alongside a culture of deliberative engagement in our politics.
Ross Greer was here for the previous debate—he is not here now, but I know that he is a big fan of Churchill. I say, therefore, that
“This is not the end. It is not even the beginning of the end. But it is, perhaps, the end of the beginning” of our consideration of how we might evolve as a Parliament.
I thank the committee for bringing the report to Parliament, and I commend the convener, Martin Whitfield, and the deputy convener, Bob Doris, along with the other committee members, for producing it.
In May last year, 43 new MSPs were elected, which amounted to one third of all MSPs. It was a much more diverse intake, and we need to ensure that that continues. We were all elected in the midst of Covid, and alternative forms of working were the norm for many months.
It is great that the SPPA Committee agreed to look at future parliamentary procedures and practices and to give us the opportunity to debate the issues this afternoon. I was fortunate enough to be a member of the committee for a period of time, and I know how much work went into the report.
In December last year, as the convener said, the committee held a debate to inform key areas for its inquiry. A range of issues were debated, and the committee agreed to look at the following areas: scrutiny and debate, and whether that is best conducted in hybrid or virtual format; the resource implications of virtual participation, which have not really been touched on today; wider changes to procedures and practices that would improve parliamentary scrutiny; and—as has been mentioned today—different methods of voting, including proxy voting. I will look at some of those areas in the short time that I have available this afternoon.
With regard to hybrid and virtual meetings, when we came into Parliament, we went straight into virtual meetings. That went quite well, and it made the Parliament—I think—more inclusive and accessible for everybody. Emma Roddick and Rhoda Grant both touched on that, and it is a key point.
As the report says, hybrid working
“will provide the Parliament with the flexibility in the future to offer alternative means of participating in parliamentary business, rather than requiring elected members to fit into established methods of working notwithstanding their personal circumstances.”
Jackson Carlaw touched on that, and it is important.
The committee says that
“the impact of hybrid meetings should be monitored over the longer term to assess the extent to which they provide for equal participation in parliamentary business, promote diversity and support participation levels.”
That is important.
On virtual participation, the committee’s view is that
“committees, like the Chamber, should continue to have the capacity to hold hybrid meetings.”
In the time that I have been involved in various committees, virtual participation has gone well. It needs to continue, because it gives members and witnesses more flexibility, which is incredibly helpful. That is a key thing.
“believes that Members being present supports effective and collaborative work in undertaking scrutiny and for this reason considers that the normal expectation should be that Members come to the Parliament to participate in committee meetings.”
That is maybe for debate. As we have heard, that might be something for the committee to consider.
The committee also
“welcomes the introduction of the new platform for remote participation in committee meetings as well as in the Chamber.”
A couple of members have touched on proxy voting, which I will look at a wee bit. The committee
“considers that there is a value in piloting a proxy voting scheme.”
I remember that the issue was brought up in evidence to the committee and well debated. I would very much support such a pilot. The committee
“intends to consult on how such a scheme would function with a view to proposing a temporary rule which would provide for a scheme that would permit Members, in certain defined circumstances including parental leave and illness, to nominate a proxy.”
“suggests that such a scheme should be allowed to run for a period of around 12 months and that any permanent ... changes to provide for proxy voting should ... be considered following a full ... evaluation of the scheme.”
That approach is correct, and the issue should come back to the chamber.
The committee’s report quotes a witness who said that, in the inquiry,
“we should be thinking about what the Parliament should look like in ten years’ time”, and the report says that
“the Parliament should commit to a culture of iterative change to allow it to be more representative, more open and more accessible”.
That is the key closing line in the report, because that will allow us to attract a more diverse range of candidates to stand for election. The committee also
“hopes that the Parliament can be more inclusive, seeking evidence from witnesses all over Scotland who reflect Scottish society more fully.”
I welcome the report and its recommendations on hybrid working and remote voting, which enable MSPs to better balance their responsibilities in the Parliament and in their constituencies and which support family-friendly practices. I agree with Rhoda Grant that fixed times for decision making help those who have caring responsibilities and help with meeting other commitments.
We should support the proposed pilot of proxy voting, particularly for members who are suffering from long-term illness, having an operation or taking maternity leave. I agree with Stephen Kerr that the member themselves should choose their proxy.
It is fair to say that the Parliament’s operation of remote voting during the pandemic maximised members’ participation in voting, which was not always the case in other Parliaments. The use of points of order when the technology failed was a feature that this Parliament used and other Parliaments did not always use. We need to incorporate scepticism and cynicism about the reliability of technology in our working patterns, because we are reliant on the technology that is available to us. I look forward to the day when we have the technology to make interventions possible in hybrid situations, which will make a considerable difference when a person who is participating virtually wants to intervene on someone who is contributing in the chamber.
Any move towards hybrid working must be made in a way that allows for effective scrutiny, so ministers and key witnesses should continue to need to be present in person to be scrutinised. It is worth noting that, although the proposals came out of consensus, many of the changes that the Parliament needs might not necessarily be fully agreed on and might not be the subject of consensus in the Parliament now. We need to debate how we ensure that this Parliament operates in a more effective way and we must listen to some of the criticisms that have been made, which have already been referred to today.
Wider changes are needed. We need to look at how we scrutinise legislation and at the quality of some of the legislation that the Parliament is asked to consider. We also need to look at why some people are calling for a second chamber to provide that scrutiny function. We need to take on board some of the criticisms that are made about the lack of spontaneity and about the increasing stage management and choreography. That is partly a result of the way we organise ourselves.
We are right to be positive about what is successful in this Parliament. Much of this culture is a massive step forward, but we also have to look at the criticisms. Therefore, I hope that we will look at the founding principles of this Parliament and at how we can, for example, improve freedom of information legislation, so that there is a presumption in favour of publication. I hope that we look at the rights of individual MSPs, at how this place operates, at how speakers are chosen and at how committees can be more effective.
I hope that the committee will look at those issues, that we have a transparent view of the Parliament’s processes and that these debates continue to happen.
As the only female member of the Standards, Procedures and Public Appointments Committee, I am happy to speak in the debate and I will focus on the challenges and opportunities of hybrid working.
I thank the committee clerks for all their help in getting us to this stage. In our report, we noted that, compared with other institutions, the Scottish Parliament was ahead of the game, because we had appropriate measures to ensure that committee and chamber business continued and that members were able to participate sufficiently and vote. I pay tribute to all the Scottish Parliament staff who were instrumental in making the switch to digital chamber sessions at the beginning of the pandemic and who have continued to work hard to improve and develop the hybrid model that we now have.
Many of the committee’s conclusions focused on the need to continue with hybrid arrangements, in order to give members the flexibility to participate remotely. It is important that we build on the lessons that have been learned over the course of the remote and hybrid participation and to try to improve the experience, as the new platform should do. The potential for proxy voting was also considered as part of the inquiry, and it will be interesting to see what happens next with that—including any pilot trial.
The ability for witnesses to join committee meetings remotely brings clear benefits and possibly makes it easier to facilitate evidence sessions. A permanent hybrid model for cross-party group meetings could ensure that we maximise public engagement with the Parliament, and ensure that CPGs are as accessible as possible to members of the public.
When it comes to accessibility for MSPs and members of the public, there is a need to consider people with disabilities, women and people from rural or remote areas.
The committee will return—not far in the future—to the issue of gender balance of committees, so I give warning on that, because it is a very important element.
Does Ms Stevenson agree that one of the interesting aspects of the evidence that we heard was about witnesses who find it challenging to come in because of the very nature of this building? Being able to give evidence remotely, with support from officers in the Parliament, often allows people to share their experiences, which otherwise would go unheard in this chamber.
I whole-heartedly agree with the member and, having attended several CPGs, I know that that issue is firmly evident. We see it regularly in the attendance of witnesses who can give evidence remotely, compared with that of those who have had to come in and attend meetings in the building.
For example, we know that, in general, women are disproportionately impacted by caring responsibilities, so hybrid working in Parliament could ease some of that burden.
I also very much welcome the Presiding Officer’s gender sensitive audit, which will investigate the representation and participation of women in the Scottish Parliament. The SPPA Committee will commission an academic to do a full analysis and to consider who is participating virtually and see what else can be done.
We received an interesting bit of evidence from Karen Bradley MP, who is chair of the House of Commons Procedure Committee. She told us that female MPs were participating more during virtual proceedings than they had previously. We also heard from Professor Meg Russell, who cautioned that on-going hybrid work should be well defined so that we avoid a situation where the only people attending Parliament in person are the non-disabled white men.
Overall in our report, we have recognised that Parliament is most effective when MSPs are in Holyrood but that there are circumstances where remote participation is necessary, as has been pointed out by several members in the debate. For example, during periods of illness or bereavement, or—particularly with winter approaching—if there are any travel or weather disruptions, members would still be able to vote and participate. One possibility could be that every member engages virtually perhaps once per month, so that remote participation is normalised, and some can do so more often if required.
I will move on as quickly as possible.
There are lots of things to think about in terms of what Daniel Johnson pointed out as Parliament adapts. However, any change is an iterative process, as has already been pointed out, and not an end of parliamentary reform. The report sets out many sound recommendations and I hope that members and others find it useful.
I, too, thank the members of the SPPA Committee for their work on the inquiry, and thank all who gave evidence. One of the key points from the report was that, compared with other legislatures, the Scottish Parliament introduced more measures to ensure that our members could continue to participate and that the functions of Parliament could continue. I place on record our thanks to all those who made that possible and worked to ensure that Parliament could continue to function.
As a new MSP and one with a disability, the hybrid system has allowed me to participate when I might otherwise have struggled to be here or have exacerbated my condition as a result of trying to get here—or, indeed, as this week, when I am recovering from a cold.
We were rightly proud at the start of this session when Scotland elected its most diverse Parliament yet. I hope that, by continuing and improving remote participation, more people may consider putting themselves forward to stand. We cannot be complacent or content with the progress that we have made so far.
As well as enabling diversity among elected representatives, the hybrid system has allowed committees to take evidence from people we might otherwise not have been able to be physically present. That opens up opportunities to hear, either formally or informally, from groups and individuals who for health reasons, or because of caring responsibilities or travel implications, would not normally have attended Parliament.
Remote participation is also one way to move towards the Parliament’s net zero ambitions, as was pointed out in the Scottish Parliamentary Corporate Body’s contribution to the committee’s report.
I hope that, in committees, those factors will continue to be taken into consideration and that remote participation will be offered as a genuine alternative, rather than simply seeing a default return to in-person participation. I take on board the comments in the report that, particularly for committee proceedings, the current system is not ideal for discussion compared with having everyone in the room. I hope that the upcoming roll-out of the new system will allow hybrid proceedings to more accurately reflect how chamber and committee business function.
I agree with the committee that there should not be a system to request remote participation and that it should be left to the discretion of individuals. Putting in a system to request remote participation would, in my view, be onerous.
Proxy voting, which has already been mentioned—and, indeed, is mentioned in the report—would be a good addition to the adaptations that have been made so far. The report notes that there is
“value in piloting a proxy voting” system and that the committee would consult on
“how such a scheme would function”.
It would allow those who are unable to attend sessions remotely to cast their votes and to represent their constituents. Paragraph 194 of the report refers to
“certain defined circumstances including parental leave and illness” and I ask that, in its consultation, the committee add bereavement leave to the list of eligible circumstances for a proxy vote. I do not think that anyone in the chamber would expect a member to have to be present after the loss of a loved one.
The system that is used to request proxy voting should mirror human resources practices that are conducted elsewhere in Parliament. We expect our staff teams to give sick notes and, although I respect everyone’s right to privacy, especially with regard to their health, such an approach would provide a straightforward way of making a proxy voting request.
However, we should be aware that caring or parental responsibilities that would stop a member being able to vote might need to be met suddenly, and whatever approach we design should be adaptable to such situations. I also recognise the comments that were made earlier about the parameters for a scheme. That issue will require careful consideration and is probably not something that we will sort out this afternoon.
We would very much welcome a wider conversation on substitute arrangements for committees. The suspension of standing orders in the first part of the session allowed parties to adapt quickly if someone was ill or unavailable, and we would like that flexibility to be made permanent. It would provide greater flexibility to parties and has the potential to stop knock-on disruption to multiple committees as a result of one MSP’s absence.
I am pleased that there is agreement on keeping the hybrid system, because I believe not only that it will allow those in the current chamber to deal with workload, health and family situations in a flexible and manageable way; if we continue to make progress, it might be the change required to ensure that more people consider standing for elected office in 2026.
I am pleased to be able to speak in this debate as the Parliament considers how it will carry out its business in the most effective way possible, just as the Scottish public rightly expect.
As with many modern Parliaments, the Scottish Parliament has always strived to be flexible, open and accommodating to members from all different backgrounds. It is therefore to this Parliament’s credit that Scotland was ahead of the curve in responding to the pandemic and introducing changes to ensure that all members could participate in parliamentary business.
Although remote or virtual contributions were originally introduced as a necessity, members will agree that the period helped shine a light on what were old ways of thinking. With committee evidence-taking sessions, for example, the hybrid format has significantly expanded the potential pool of witnesses. The committee process is a vital part of the scrutiny provided by the Parliament, and there is no doubt that certain aspects of the process are now more effective, because of the hybrid format.
However, it is clear that the introduction of virtual contributions to the chamber, particularly in debates, has not been entirely unproblematic. Although such contributions are more seamless now than when they were first introduced in 2020, it is clear that there is a problematic divide between contributions made in the chamber and those made remotely. Although many important improvements and contributions have been made through the virtual format, it cannot be said that, even with their heartfelt contributions, those who are not in the chamber but in a remote situation are as deeply involved in a debate.
The chamber is where members can participate in the cut and thrust of debates; indeed, as has often been pointed out, the situation is only made worse by the fact that those making such contributions can neither make nor receive interventions. Losing the spontaneity of responding to others’ remarks has been a price that people have not felt prepared to pay; I hope that the proposed hybrid platform is able to address the issue properly, and I look forward to seeing that happen. It should be up to members to decide how they contribute to debates. After all, the Scottish public expect to see MSPs representing them as effectively as possible in Parliament, and they will be able to judge for themselves whether that is the case.
Given Parliament’s role in holding the Government to account, it would be reasonable that such an approach is discarded for ministers. It is important that ministers are subject to the highest possible levels of scrutiny, which is something that can take place only in the chamber.
The Parliament is already a better place as a result of the hybrid measures that were introduced two years ago, but there is still much more work to be done to ensure that those measures complement parliamentary business and do not detract from it or diminish the Parliament’s role. It remains the case that in-person contributions to Parliament are very much to the fore.
We all want a Parliament that can accommodate members from as many different backgrounds as possible. I know that that can be achieved without diluting the Parliament’s vital role in our democracy, and, by setting aside time for the debate, we have set a clear goal to help to achieve that. Alongside other members of the Standards, Procedures and Public Appointments Committee, I will continue to work collectively to strike the balance that is required to ensure that we accommodate, support and encourage members, including new members. As we have heard, many new members joined the Parliament this session, and it has taken them some time to get used to the format, which is not the same as in previous sessions. We have a lot to learn and a lot to give.
It is not an exaggeration to say that the Covid pandemic has changed all of our lives for ever. We had no choice but to make changes to our lives while restrictions were put in place to keep us safe. Working at home where possible was the key to keeping businesses going, and people adapted well to that—so well, in fact, that many employers have changed their business model to accommodate it. Like everything else, there are negatives as well as positives, but at least now there is choice.
Out of necessity, and not before time, we are looking at family-friendly options, a better work-life balance and doing business differently. As we have heard, the Standards, Procedures and Public Appointments Committee took time to strike a balance when it came to adapting the working practices of the Parliament. With an eye on the future, the committee decided that the pandemic had been a watershed and that it was an opportune time to examine practices that had been in place since the Parliament began in 1999.
All praise must go to the Parliament authorities, which reacted quickly to introduce a remote voting system to enable normal business to continue while most staff were working from home. There were teething problems but those were, largely, overcome as time went on.
The report shows that there was a variety of views and opinions when it came to deciding whether hybrid meetings should continue. That is hardly surprising in a place that is full of opinionated politicians. The majority view had to prevail, which was to seize the opportunity for greater flexibility and to become more accessible and inclusive to encourage diversity. Hybrid voting allows members with caring responsibilities and those who are ill to fulfil their duties, and it takes into account unforeseen family emergencies and travel difficulties.
As my colleague Collette Stevenson has already highlighted from the committee report, it is important to note that, according to the evidence that the committee took, in comparison to other legislatures,
“the Scottish Parliament introduced more measures” to allow important business and scrutiny to continue, which I welcome.
Proxy voting was another important focus for the committee. As we have heard, it would be the subject of a fully evaluated pilot before any permanent change to the Parliament’s rules and procedures were made. I look forward to hearing more about that. It would be an important development, and I hope that it comes to fruition.
I am fully supportive of the proposals in the committee’s excellent report, which strike a sensible and realistic balance. However, the hybrid platform does not and should not replicate in-person participation in parliamentary business. There is no doubt that having fewer interventions, which are not yet possible in the remote system, reduces the quality of debate, and members who participate remotely can feel isolated and lose out on the atmosphere of a debate.
Committee work in Parliament is crucial for making legislation, conducting inquiries and scrutinising Government on the issues that keep Scotland running. Remote participation can be limiting for members and for witnesses who give evidence, and it should always be a last resort. However, the committee notes
“the Conveners Group support for the production of guidance to accompany the formalisation of long-term hybrid capability for committees and suggests that the Guidance on Committees be updated.”
That is eminently sensible.
Most importantly, MSPs were elected to represent their constituents in Scotland’s Parliament and it is vital that we do just that. As the report notes,
“unless exceptional or urgent, constituency work and interparliamentary business should be undertaken on non-sitting days.”
We should be here. The default position is that parliamentarians should be at their place of work on Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Thursdays, allowing time in constituencies on Mondays and Fridays. The public deserve nothing less. Technology has given us options, which I welcome. The report sets out the way ahead.
I thank the committee for its excellent work and, more important, for the opportunity that it has given us all to talk about the way that we work and how we can make the Parliament better. It is only by having the time and space to talk about ideas about what works and what does not work that we can do that. We have too few such opportunities. I encourage the committee to think about what future reports it can bring to the Parliament so that we can have further opportunities to discuss that, because it is important that we make progress.
I am thankful for the broad scope of the report. I have looked at the proposals on accessibility, the use of technology and proxy voting, and at the important reflections on the nature of what takes place in the Parliament, the broader nature of discourse, the fact that debates are not confined to the chamber or the committee rooms, and the importance of face-to-face meetings. That is one of the things that we have discussed this afternoon.
It is important to be mindful that there is a difference between the work that we do in the chamber and committees and the demands of scrutiny, and what different forms of technology enable us to do. There is no doubt that virtual working makes the Parliament more accessible, and that is a very good thing.
Emma Roddick’s contribution was excellent in reminding us what is important about the job that we do. It is fundamentally important to serve our constituents, to hear what they have to say, to understand their concerns, and to represent them. If technology makes that more feasible, Emma Roddick is absolutely right that we must embrace it and entrench it in the way that we work.
I am a central belt member, and it is only two minutes’ walk to my constituency. That makes me ever more mindful of the fact that I can nip out of an afternoon and do a constituency engagement. Most other members cannot do that. In fact, I get home to my house every night after I have been in this place. Most members do not get to do that. That is a true privilege, but it makes me think about what more we can do to ensure that that happens.
However, technology is not a panacea. As Rhoda Grant pointed out, the wider participation is important. I caution against the thought that virtual work is somehow the only way in which we can make the Parliament family friendly or accessible. The things that we do with our timetabling, the other provisions and the support that we provide in the Parliament are just as important, if not more so.
May I tempt Daniel Johnson on to the subject of decision time? A number of colleagues have mentioned, in relation to family-friendly hours, the constant moving of decision time. Given that decision time moves only because of the business that is allotted in the time in which the Parliament sits, would it not be better if we sat for longer on one night a week and had a set decision time—maybe at 7 o’clock or even 8 o’clock?
I can see that Daniel Johnson is going to have something to say, so I will give up.
I was almost with Stephen Kerr until he proposed decision times at 7 o’clock or 8 o’clock. Perhaps our flexibility should not be about the timing of decision time but about what decisions we take at what points in time. If business has to continue further, perhaps it could continue after decision time for members who want to continue. Decisions could take place later. However, that is probably an equally bad idea to other members. My point is that there are options that we could look at for how and when we take decisions compared to when the business has been dealt with.
The issue of proxy voting is critical. For all manner of reasons—whether that is bereavement, illness, maternity or paternity—it is vital that members are given the ability to do the most fundamental part of our job, which is to vote, while we are not in the Parliament. Proxy voting is the best way to do that, but that must have caveats. Other members have pointed out that it should not be about giving the vote to the whip; that has to be given to members.
Likewise, I think that there should be very specific mandates.
We should embrace technology, welcome flexibility, and look forward to further opportunities to discuss how we work in the Parliament in future.
Unsurprisingly, as a member of the committee, I think that our report is spot on and I thank the clerking team and the convener for all their support in driving the inquiry forward. I welcome the debate, which I have found really interesting. I think we all agree that Parliament must embrace change and that change must always protect the core values on the basis of which the Parliament was set up.
The biggest change that we have experienced recently is the introduction of virtual technology in the chamber. That was forced on us by the pandemic. If we are honest, the technology in Parliament prior to the pandemic was poor and remote working would not have been possible. I remember holding a committee meeting in a room below the canteen, with five committee members huddled round a screen trying to take evidence from witnesses from Transport for London. They could not see us and we could hardly see them.
We have been through a change that was really important because it stopped our democracy from becoming an autocracy, but we struggled as we went through that change. Members will never forget the technical issues that led to voting delays in the “robust” system that we were told we were working with. There was also a complete disconnect in delivering virtual speeches without being able to see a live feed to the chamber. I speak from experience, having been forced into remote working for six months. It was perhaps pleasing in my case to look at the screen and see myself, but I would have liked to see how the speech was going down in the chamber, which was not possible, and it was certainly not possible to take interventions.
The on-going development of the hybrid Parliament is something that we can now control, as we should. I am pleased to hear that MSPs who are attending debates virtually after recess will be able to make interventions and will actually be able to see how their speech is going down in the chamber, which I think is really important. It will stop them feeling detached, because you do feel detached if you are speaking to a computer for what seems to be hours on end, if you get the chance and the Presiding Officer does not cut you off. There is a lot to be done on that.
I do not think that having virtual meetings of Parliament should stop parliamentarians from coming in. To my mind, it remains crucial to attend Parliament physically. You cannot bump into someone for a coffee or sound them out on an idea on Zoom—that just does not happen. To me, that is what politics is all about: meeting and talking to people and building trust and cross-party relationships. Hybrid working can complement that, but it will never replace the ability to look someone in the eye and see how things are going.
Another way in which Parliament could improve the system would be by allowing proxy voting. There has been a lot of talk about that. I concur by saying, as a former member of a whip’s team, that it is not the place of whips to hold the proxy vote. That vote should be held by someone that the person who gives it believes will represent their views.
I believe that we have failed to address the issue of how parliamentary business is carried out. I believe that the domination of business by the Parliamentary Bureau is not satisfactory. I ask members who are present if they have ever been to a Bureau meeting. You can go if you want to. You have to ask permission and get approval from the whips, but you ought to go and to see whether it is as edifying as you think it might, or might not, be.
My other big bugbear, which we have not discussed, is that members come to this chamber with prepared speeches along party lines and with patsy questions. I do not believe that many members are prepared to take interventions or to engage. Debate is about just that: it is about debating issues and having an informed discussion. I think that is really important and I think that Parliament needs to mature to allow that to happen.
I thought that I would take up the member’s invitation to engage.
Does the member think that, in their contributions, members should, at the very least, reflect previous speeches rather than just read out their own speeches?
Of course, and Mr Johnson will not be surprised that I now come to do that, and I am sure that the deputy convener will also do exactly that.
I agree with the convener that we should be looking forward 10 years, and I agree with the minister that it should not be the Government that dictates the way in which the Parliament changes. I also agree with Stephen Kerr that Parliament should agree on and make the changes that it wants to see.
I was delighted to hear from Jackson Carlaw that he is progressive and open to change. He did actually have quite a lot to say, despite the fact that, at the beginning, he thought that he would not.
There is one area that I would like to drift on to—
Katy Clark mentioned the issue of decision time, which is something that we need to discuss. I believe that limiting a debate to a set time is wrong, although that might mean that decision time is carried forward to the next day. That might be worth considering.
In summary, the Parliament needed to evolve, and it has evolved. We need to go further and make our IT work for parliamentarians. However, our IT can never replace the Parliament, and we should never lose sight of the fact that the best way to work together as a Parliament and as parties—which might have different ideas—is by sitting down, talking to one another, trying to find consensus and realising that we do not have a monopoly on good ideas.
Presiding Officer, you and I meet up regularly, as you do with all business managers in the Parliament. You have mentioned to us all that you want open debates in which ideas are pushed forward and members intervene. I feel that today’s debate is probably an example of that. Therefore, having seen you earlier today, I feel that I have delivered exactly what you wanted. The debate has been full of ideas, although members have not always agreed with one another.
Is it not interesting that we saw an example of a remote contribution during which a member in the chamber sought to intervene—although they were unable to do so due to the technology—and no one seemed to bat an eyelid and the flow of debate carried on?
I am coming on to talk about decision time, if I can get to that point in my notes.
I understand some of the criticism of the technology. As I said before, I was on the Parliamentary Bureau at the time when there was a major worldwide pandemic, Parliament had shut up shop and we needed to do something about it. During that period, what the parliamentary officials did to set up a system was nothing short of remarkable. The system did have problems, which was difficult at times, but, as I said in my opening speech, it gave us the opportunity to continue to scrutinise the Government and it allowed the Parliament to do what it had to do during a very important time for the people of Scotland.
The operational adaptations that were developed and adopted by the Parliament in the light of Covid have been essential in maintaining good governance of Scotland. I welcome the committee’s view that the Parliament should maintain that flexibility to enable hybrid and virtual proceedings. That principle is very much supported by the Scottish Government and it will no doubt be important in helping to respond quickly and effectively in the future. The finding in the committee report that, despite recent events, the Parliament was able to fulfil its scrutiny role, is especially welcome to the Government.
I will talk about some of the contributions to the debate. Martin Whitfield, the convener of the committee, spoke about how we will deal with matters in Parliament in 10 years’ time. I agree that we have to challenge ourselves in that regard because, regardless of what happens in the future, we do not want to be in a position of having to go from a standing start to develop new ways of working.
We need to see that the technology works and we need to find other ways of making it better. However, as we will all experience with the new technology to allow members to intervene, the technology must be in place and it must be robust. We must ensure that the technology is working for us. Mr Mountain brought that up; he has, at times, been a critic. He participated from a rural location, being unable to attend for six months. He had to rely on the technology, and it was quite difficult.
Daniel Johnson brought up an important point about the need to maximise the time for face-to-face discussions. Having sat next to Mr Johnson in a committee, I know the reasons why he wants that. He asked a question about that during the debate, and I am probably one of the few people who understood why he did. It is exactly as Rhoda Grant said—she referred to how we want to judge the feeling of what is happening in the room. For Mr Johnson, that is even more the case when it comes to being able to make a contribution. I understand why that can be difficult when we are not physically in the same room. Online, we could all find ourselves misjudging what we say and going to a completely different place. There needs to be a balance, and we need to ensure that you, Presiding Officer, are not sitting in your chair on your own in an otherwise empty chamber, which is hardly a good look for Scotland’s Parliament.
Katy Clark and Rhoda Grant discussed decision time. As you will be aware, Presiding Officer, I try to keep things within certain parameters, but there are certain challenges. Those challenges can come from me—they sometimes, but not always, come from the Government perspective, and sometimes they come from other members, who possibly push things a certain way. I want to see my grandchildren before they go to high school, and I want to have family-friendly hours so that I can spend time with them.
I recognise that the minister understands that to an extent. It must, however, be terrifying for a parent sitting here, watching the clock tick by, knowing that their child’s childcare is finished, and that their child may be standing outside in the rain on their own, waiting for their parent to turn up. That must be really difficult for a parent.
I am totally appreciative of that situation, and I try to work to that.
There are always challenges, from my perspective. We all know—because we have been here for many years—that December and June will always feature the end of our consideration of legislation at stage 3, when times will be pushed. We need to find a way, in between those busier times, to keep decision time at 5 o’clock and to adhere to the family-friendly ideals of this place, as Ms Grant and, I think, Katy Clark, rightly mentioned. It is important that we stick to that, and that is one of the points that we continue to bring up.
This has been a very good debate, Presiding Officer, and I hope that, after asking us, over many weeks, to have debates full of ideas, you have enjoyed it. They are ideas that the Scottish Government will listen to and take forward. It is the Parliament authorities that will make the decisions, and we will engage in whatever way we can to be constructive.
My thanks go to all members for their contributions this afternoon. Just as was the case when, a few months ago, parliamentarians had a debate that kick-started our committee inquiry, today’s debate has been invaluable and informative. It demonstrates the commitment of the Standards, Procedures and Public Appointments Committee to have an on-going dialogue with MSPs and wider society about any reforms to working practices in this place and how those practices may change.
The committee heard from MSPs at focus group sessions and through its survey. It was clear that there is a spectrum of views, just as we have heard in the chamber this afternoon, ranging from those who wish to return completely to previous practices—there were some who expressed that view—to those who wish to embrace all the changes, unquestionably and immediately. The debate today has been much more nuanced and balanced, I feel.
On balance, MSPs and others we spoke to would wish—with caveats and safeguards, of course—to build on the innovations made over the past couple of years. Those innovations were necessitated by a global pandemic but they offer a great opportunity to further develop a modern and inclusive Scottish Parliament. They may be gradual, iterative, monitored, careful and considered, but changes are absolutely required.
Inclusive in how it enables us to support individuals and groups across Scotland and beyond who wish to offer evidence to parliamentary committees or to participate more generally in the life of the Parliament, the hybrid Parliament offers a wonderful opportunity. Rhoda Grant, Paul McLennan, Alexander Stewart, Gillian Mackay and other members spoke warmly about that opportunity to involve witnesses. Given the debate and surveys that the committee has carried out, I would say that that is pretty much a bolt-on as a way forward for committees.
The hybrid Parliament is also inclusive of those watching Parliament today who might consider standing for election but who think that there are too many hurdles to overcome. They are deterred from standing for election in the first place due to family circumstances, geography, health concerns and a variety of other barriers. Indeed, as we heard from Rhoda Grant, Emma Roddick, Colette Stevenson and others, MSPs have left Parliament because it was not suitably family friendly.
The Scottish Parliament is at the forefront of embracing change and continuing to provide for hybrid meetings and virtual voting. Such things will not be an everyday occurrence, because we believe that face-to-face interactions still have significant and enduring benefits for parliamentarians. Rather, a hybrid Parliament is a reasonable adjustment when circumstances dictate—the exception, not the rule. Daniel Johnson and Stephen Kerr were strong on that point. Rhoda Grant and Edward Mountain made important points that we heard in the committee, too, about the informal chats, the ability to read the room in a debate and the quiet corners where MSPs from all parties can have a discussion and build up relationships. That cannot happen in a virtual Parliament.
Rhoda Grant, Colette Stevenson and Rona Mackay said that a hybrid approach should not mean that we do not make the Parliament building as accessible and family friendly as possible to all MSPs. We heard about the danger that, if we say that Parliament can go hybrid, it means that Parliament has to stop being physically accessible to all. As members said, that must not be allowed to happen.
We heard quite a lot about proxy voting. I remind members that the intention is to propose a scheme for proxy voting that will be piloted on the basis of a temporary standing orders rule change. The committee recommended that a pilot should cover parental leave and illness. If the evaluation of the pilot—which will be consulted on before it is embarked on—deems it successful, we would propose a permanent rule change. We have heard this afternoon that proxy voting will not be straightforward. What will the definition of illness be, and who will have oversight of that? One MSP asked whether sick notes will be required, and whether the whips will be involved. My view, and that of Stephen Kerr, Katy Clark and Edward Mountain, is that that should absolutely not be the case. I think that that represents the broad swell of opinion in Parliament, too.
Gillian Mackay asked whether we should extend the list of occasions when proxy voting could be used to bereavement leave. The report does not mention that but, intuitively, it is hard to argue against.
We will soon have the technology in Parliament to allow interventions during a hybrid debate, so that there can be two-way interaction between those at home and those here, which will improve the flow of debate. The technology is being modernised to facilitate smoother voting and so on. The system will not be perfect—we will continue to have to work on it during the iterative process to ensure that we improve both the technology and our working practices.
Issues were raised in the debate that were not covered in the report. The committee did not look at the wider scrutiny role of Parliament, the role of social media, the issue of spontaneity in debates and the matter of when decision time should be. During our previous debate, Jackson Carlaw suggested deferring decision time to another day. Stephen Kerr and Edward Mountain told us today that, to provide certainty, they would like decision time to be one night a week, and to be longer. I agree with all three suggestions. The problem is that I am agreeing with three Conservatives, but there we are—I am speaking on behalf of the committee.
I thank the clerks—which I did not do at the outset—for their work in marshalling the views of MSPs.
Most members were not in the chamber for the bulk of the debate. I urge all members to get involved in the issue—I urge them to get active, scrutinise the issue and have their say, because the committee needs a measured and balanced view that will garner the maximum support for the changes that we want to introduce. Those changes are being introduced not for MSPs, but for the people of Scotland, whom we all serve. We need to ensure that this Parliament is as accessible as possible and does its core job of representing the people of Scotland in a modern, accessible and accountable way.