26 November 2003

S2M-603 Scottish Parliament Founding Principles

The Deputy Presiding Officer (Murray Tosh): The next item of business is a debate on motion S2M-603, in the name of Iain Smith, on the previous Procedures Committee's report on the founding principles of the Scottish Parliament.

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Stewart Stevenson (Banff and Buchan) (SNP): Two weeks ago, Rosie Cunningham apologised for not being me—strange but true. Today, I apologise for not being Fiona Hyslop. She was going to open this debate but, unfortunately, the virus has caught up with her. In the interests of everyone here, she decided not to share it. I also apologise for the fact that I will be withdrawing from the chamber in about an hour's time. I have a previously arranged meeting with a minister.

The report before us is an exceptionally substantial piece of work. Representing, as it does, three years of effort, it predates my arrival in the Parliament in June 2001. I have therefore seen only part of the evolution of the report.

One thing that impresses anyone who picks up and reads the report is the quite exceptional number and variety of people—across the width of civic society and society generally—who have given their views on this subject to the Parliament. On that basis alone, we must consider what they have said extremely seriously. I will look in a little bit of detail at some of that evidence, and make some observations on it.

Praise of this Parliament from outside this Parliament is a pretty rare commodity. Were it to be too common, it would merely confirm us in our ways. Praise does not actually change anything. Criticism, on the other hand, should make us step outside our daily patterns of behaviour and force us to re-examine what we achieve and whether, in what we do in the Parliament, we support or inhibit the institution's founding principles.

Let me start with a mild word or two of criticism. When she was reading the response of the conveners of our committees, Fiona Hyslop found something that she wished to say. I will say at once that the conveners have an extremely tough job; one has only to ask any of them who have had me on their committee to confirm that. During my two and a half years in the Parliament, I have visited seven—or possibly six—committees and I have been very much taken by their general willingness to be driven by evidence at the expense of dogma. However, we have yet to reach nirvana—the standard of perfection that we wish to achieve.

The Conveners Group's response to the Procedures Committee's report was a little disappointing in its tone and content. The conveners might choose to reconsider their response to the report and to pick from the report those things that have most bearing on their activities.

Recommendation 106 attracted all-party support. It asked for increased powers over our internal processes. In the previous session of Parliament, our inability to increase the number of Presiding Officers, even temporarily, created a substantial increase in work load for the two remaining Presiding Officers when their colleague was unavailable for a period of time. This morning, the Queen's speech to the Westminster Parliaments has made it clear that the Scotland Act 1998 will be opened up to allow one part of it to be changed. Westminster ought to be able to respond to a request from the Scottish Parliament to make the non-contentious and widely supported changes that recommendation 106 proposes.

I will turn to some of the evidence that was put before the Procedures Committee as it drew up its report—in particular, to the evidence that was taken at the three public meetings, which were held in Hawick, Paisley and Ullapool. It was important that the committee went out to meet people in wider Scotland face to face—people whom they would have been unlikely to have heard from through other mechanisms.

I commend my colleague Bruce Crawford, because he has carried the concept of meeting the public to even greater excesses and has suffered great pain in the course of doing so, by going as far as the Netherlands with members of the public to hear their views on how the Parliament operates.

Mr Brian Monteith (Mid Scotland and Fife) (Con): I thank the member for giving way. Will he tell me whether Mr Crawford's consultation was as successful as the rest of his trip?

Stewart Stevenson: I believe that the consultation was the only part of his trip that gave him any enjoyment whatsoever. His wife, his bank manager and his family shared his pain—his excuse was that he took one of his offspring with him.

I will return to the subject at hand—engagement with the public. In Hawick, there was widespread approval for the Parliament coming out and speaking to the people, because it was felt that that would reverse apathy. In Paisley, on the other hand, we heard that answers to parliamentary questions were often obfuscating. I ask the Executive to please listen to the public, even if it often does not listen to some of us members who share the same views.

A more difficult point was raised in Ullapool, where it was observed that, on issues such as genetically modified crops and fish farming, the Executive has appeared to ignore the Parliament's view. I will not make a political point by developing an argument along those lines. There is a genuine difficulty, in that in promoting policy positions it is of course not always possible to please everyone. Perhaps we must communicate better on how we do that.

Other points that arose include the insufficient time that is given for responding to consultations and concerns about subordinate legislation.

The Deputy Presiding Officer: You have one minute.

Stewart Stevenson: In my final minute, I want to address recommendation 48, in which the committee expresses a desire that further research should be done on Sewel motions. I suggest that the research should consider whether the frequency of such motions is appropriate. My position and that of my colleagues is well enough known for me not to rehearse it. More to the point, the research should also examine whether Sewel motions are effective in delivering faster legislation and better law. The recent development whereby committees consider Sewel motions is a substantial improvement and I welcome it.

We have experimented with subject debates. My personal view is that the matter is a clear not proven, so they are perhaps not a good idea at all.

In closing, let me say that I think that it is better for us to aim for perfection in our processes and to fail, than to aim for failure and succeed. I commend the report to those members present.


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