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Chamber and committees

Meeting date: Tuesday, April 28, 2020

Meeting of the Parliament 28 April 2020

Agenda: Time for Reflection, Business Motion, Covid-19 Legislation, Health (Covid-19), Transport (Covid-19), Topical Question Time, First Minister’s Question Time, Business Motions, Parliamentary Bureau Motions, Decision Time, Point of Order


Point of Order

On a point of order, Presiding Officer. I do not intend to expand on the conversation about the business motion, which is between the business managers. Instead, I seek some guidance from you.

The sense that I get from ministers when we are questioning them in the chamber is that they are more than happy to answer questions, and to come to the Parliament to answer the important questions that people have. I also get the sense from members that they travel through to the Parliament with an inbox that is crammed with people raising concerns, whether they are employee concerns; employer concerns; front-line medical staff concerns about personal protective equipment; or concerns from members of the general public who want to know what will happen in the future.

I do not think that it is an unrealistic expectation to ask the Parliament to consider how we conduct business with regard to the strict timetabling of each individual statement and the expansion of where we get to at decision time. If a member chooses to leave their home—that is, to break the natural rules that we are setting for the general public—in order to come to this Parliament one day a week to ask a question that is relevant to the response to Covid-19, every effort should be made to enable that member to ask that question, and for ministers to get the opportunity to answer it.

What can be done with regard to the timetabling of individual statements and ministerial questions in order for members to have the opportunity to raise issues? Could the debate be expanded without notice for 30 minutes if there are individual questions, for example, so that we do not have a sense of frustration when members come to the Parliament to ask a serious question and do not get the opportunity to have that question answered? I am sure that the ministers themselves would be frustrated if they were not able to answer questions in Parliament.

I thank Mr Sarwar for that point. I utterly recognise what he is saying. I consulted the chief executive earlier today about writing to all members to address that very issue, which was raised by Mr Kelly earlier today as well as last week.

I recognise that members make a big effort to come along and that if they are not even able to ask a 15-second question, that is a source of enormous frustration. The bureau—the political parties, voted by all members—is responsible for the allocation of time. However, we are working on a reduced timetable and the bureau—every member here—has agreed that we would meet in person on only one day a week. That severely restricts the number of opportunities for members to ask questions.

Within that constraint, there are some steps that we can take. For example, today and last week we delayed decision time by 15 minutes; extending business without notifying members or the public is not something that we do lightly, because it is inconvenient for many people, not least broadcasters. However, we are looking at further steps. The subject of coronavirus is serious—a more sombre subject than usual—and questions and answers tend to be slightly longer. Perhaps we should adjust our speaking times in statements to account for that fact.

More use could perhaps be made of virtual remote questioning. The time that we are allocating is reduced and there is therefore a lot of frustration. Mr Sarwar and Mr Kelly are not the only ones to have raised the issue—Mr Tomkins and other members have done so today, too, and I recognise the frustration that is being expressed. We are trying to address it.

I very much appreciate Mr Sarwar’s comments as well as yours, Presiding Officer. There is also a job that party managers need to do. Some members were able to ask three questions today, while others in the same party were not able to ask any at all. The issue is not just how the parliamentary authorities go about it, but how the party managers arrange for the questions to be asked.

That point was not wasted on me either—I also noted that today.

Members are raising legitimate concerns. No one doubts the pressure that the Government—or any other public agency—is working under at this time. It is the understandable length of time that it takes to get answers back on a whole range of issues from a whole range of organisations, combined with the limited opportunities to ask questions in Parliament, that exacerbates the frustration.

Every member has people in their constituencies who say to them that they have not received an answer to a question that they asked them four weeks ago. Could the Presiding Officer, with the business managers and the Government, look at all those issues and try to address some of them? All of those points build up the frustration.

That point is widely recognised, not just by Opposition parties but by the Government, which has put in place a number of procedures. The Parliament’s chamber desk recently established a service—it is available on the website—that puts together every Covid-19-related question. It might not help the member to know this, but a lot of submitted questions have already been submitted by other members and have been answered. The issue is being able to find those answers in all the information. The Parliament is providing a service in addition to that, which is already available through questions and answers.

The underlying frustration is an issue that is shared among all members. There is a limited amount of time: all members want to get their points on the record on behalf of their constituents and there are not enough opportunities for members to contribute every week. However, we are trying.

I will take on board all those points and work with the parliamentary authorities, particularly with business managers, in order to address those issues and see whether that circle can be squared.

I hope that this is helpful; it is certainly intended in that spirit.

In relation to a comment that was made earlier, parliamentary business is not for the Government to decide, and it is certainly not for me as the First Minister to decide. However, given the uniqueness of the circumstances that we are in, and if it is helpful, I am more than happy for First Minister’s question time sessions to continue until such time as everybody who wants to ask a question has asked their question. Obviously, that has to be timetabled in a way that fits in with other parliamentary business, but I have no objection to that approach, and if it is something that the bureau wants to consider, it would be absolutely acceptable to me. [Applause.]

Thank you. From the reaction, we can judge that that suggestion was well received and will be acted on.

Business in the chamber starts at 2 pm. Bearing in mind that we are already here, if we could start business earlier, rather than have people stay later, that might assist.

All the points and the general frustration have been noted. We have been aware of the issue for some time and we have been trying to address it. I note that we have one virtual session this week, on local government, and there will be two days on which to meet next week.

Meeting closed at 17:31.