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Wednesday, February 21, 2024

MSPs could grill ministers on ‘most significant issues of the day’

With the Presiding Officer also refusing to rule out the introduction of elected conveners for Holyrood’s committees, Ms Johnstone has stressed the need for parliaments generally to “always be looking at how they do their business”.

She has now raised the prospect of changing the parliamentary timetable to allow questions to be asked from MSPs on the key issues of the day in a letter to members of the Standards, Procedures and Public Appointments (SPPA) Committee.

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Ms Johnstone said: “It is probably fair to say that 25 years on, some of the procedures we have can and should be revised and refined.

“For example, I think it is really important on any given day the issue of the day can be raised in the chamber.

“That’s about responsiveness. You wouldn’t want the significant issue of the day to be unable to be raised because of procedural matters, so it is about having responsive question times.”

Ministers currently answer topical questions, covering recent issues, from MSPs every Tuesday, while members can also put questions to the First Minister on Thursdays.

But while there are questions about various government portfolios on Wednesday, Ms Johnstone noted on these days there is no opportunity for “questions on significant and more immediate political matters to be raised” unless they meet the criteria for an urgent question.

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She has allowed 45 urgent questions to be raised at Holyrood since becoming Presiding Officer in 2021, almost twice as many as the 23 such questions that were taken in the whole of the previous five-year term.

But she is still keen for MSPs to get the chance to raise pressing issues of the day with Scottish Government ministers.

Ms Johnstone said: “I certainly believe we need to make sure we are as responsive as we possibly can be.”

Speaking about the need for reform, she added: “Things move much more quickly these days, social media, the 24-hour news cycle.

“We have to amend our procedures accordingly and I would imagine most members in here would agree with that wholeheartedly.”

In her letter to the Standards, Procedures and Public Appointments Committee, she said her “aim is to ensure that every day the Parliament is sitting, members have the opportunity to raise the most significant issues of the day and that the Parliament can be as responsive as the public expects”.

It comes after Ms Johnstone introduced time limits both for questions from MSPs and answers from ministers in September 2023, with the Presiding Officer saying that while “at times” this had been effective, there is a “tendency perhaps” not to stick to the limits.

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Here she stressed the need to get the “balance right between robust scrutiny and getting in as many members as possible”.

She also refused to rule out introducing elected conveners at Holyrood, a move that its supporters say could enhance the scrutiny provided by the Parliament’s committees.

Holyrood was set up with committees specifically to scrutinise government legislation, but repeated concerns have been raised over how MSPs often simply vote on party lines on these.

On the issue of reform, Ms Johnstone accepted that “the suggestion that conveners of committees should be elected has been mentioned probably over most of the life of Parliament”.

She said: “It is something that hasn’t been brought forward to this point, but it is something that has certainly been discussed.

“An open transparent Parliament would always want to be looking at how we can strengthen our scrutiny, how we can make sure our bodies are as robust as possible, and that maybe something that the SPPA committee may look at.”

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