The burd has blogged before on the need for the Scottish Parliament to up its game, so I was delighted to read that Bruce Crawford MSP intends to reform Holyrood, focusing not just on processes and format, but also its culture. Hurrah!
As the Cabinet Secretary for Parliamentary Business points out: “the review cannot be allowed to be an exercise in what best suits the politicians.” And one only needs to read the companion piece in Scotland on Sunday on banning faxes and printers to understand why.
According to Alex Johnstone MSP, making MSPs share printers and faxes is fundamentally flawed. “The potential exists… for members of staff to be queuing up at printers, while leaving telephone calls from constituents unanswered.”
Frankly, some MSPs have an over-inflated sense of their own importance and need to catch themselves on. If this is the kind of matter that gets them all worked up, then Bruce Crawford’s proposed review has arrived just in time, emphasising the shift in culture required, away from navel-gazing on the trappings of office to more outward-focused activity that highlights and justifies their role in our society.
In Scotland and the UK, we pay little heed to what goes on in the European Parliament but we could learn a thing or two about making the chamber and the discourse dynamic and fast-moving.
How about the one minute contribution? With so many MEPs wanting a say these days, the European Parliament introduced a rule for some debates allowing members to speak for only one minute and boy does that focus minds. No flummery, no asides, just straight to business, making for effective and punchy contributions. It would suit short, topical debates of fifteen minutes with an opening statement by whomever has laid the motion, followed by one minute contributions by members.
We could – should – still have longer debates for big themes and especially Stage three of bills. Currently, these generally come across as a collective sigh of relief from all protagonists at having got to this point at all. Yet, arguably, this stage is the most important of all, particularly when a bill has been amended furiously throughout stages two and three and ends up a very different beast from its original form when placed before Parliament.
What Chamber sessions need are flexibility and a schedule of debate lengths and formats to suit a wide range of business. Mixing it up would add tempo, currently lacking on most days.
Others have suggested that there is a need to accommodate the topical, to enable more emergency statements and debates. Look at last week’s big news stories. An emergency debate, not just a short dialogue at FMQs, on the redundancies at the Daily Record and Sunday Mail would be valid. As would one on the huge hikes in energy prices announced by Scottish Power. Cabinet Secretary for Finance, John Swinney has announced through the media that he is seeking an urgent meeting with Scottish Power, but it would be far better for him to do so through the Scottish Parliament and gather the views of MSPs on what issues and points he should be raising with the energy giant. He could then return to Holyrood to make a statement and collectively, the Parliament could determine how to proceed – a committee inquiry, representation to the UK Government, bringing forward energy efficiency and fuel poverty measures. It would make for a much more rounded approach to a current but longterm issue and helpfully, indelibly links the roles of government and Parliament in providing Scottish solutions.
Another way to address the topical would be to allow interventions at the start of plenary debates from members, as they do in the European Parliament. Currently, our parliamentary week starts with a prayer or other spiritual address. Which is nice and actually, usually well worth a read. But it settles the mood into serene when our Chamber sessions are crying out to be noised up a little. A little bit of passion on issues members care passionately about wouldn’t go amiss.
Take this example from last Thursday’s voting session in Strasbourg. There were two interventions, one on the failure of Brazil to extradite an Italian wanted on mass murder charges, followed by a poster protest by MEPs, and one from a female MEP calling on the Parliament to reinforce its family friendly credentials. What the video clip does not show is the MEP referred to breast feeding her newborn baby as she prepared to vote. Both interventions met with resounding applause and were effective because they included visual actions as well as warm words.
Holyrood prides itself on its supposed family-friendly culture but it lags behind Brussels and Strasbourg. One modernising proposal is to lengthen Wednesday sessions beyond their current finishing time of 5.30pm. For years, I have opposed such a move but recently- yes the burd can and does change her mind occasionally – that has shifted.
For every West coast MSP who can hop on the train and be home in time for bathtime or to help with homework, there are many others from much further afield who every week have to say farewell to their families for two, sometimes three days, leaving such parenting staples to their partners, conscripted/willing grandparents and child carers. Frankly, it ain’t fair. And if a longer session on the Wednesday evening meant more business and more work conducted through the Parliament rather than outside it, it would be a compromise well made.
In any event, there are more meaningful ways to demonstrate the Parliament’s family-friendly credentials. Encouraging more MSPs to bring their young families to work with them, including into the Chamber, as well as praising MSPs for taking their full parental leave rather than gossiping nastily behind their backs would be a start.
As the man suggests, changing the culture is just as important as improving the processes.