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Chamber and committees

Meeting date: Wednesday, September 9, 2020

Meeting of the Parliament (Hybrid) 09 September 2020

Agenda: Presiding Officer’s Statement, Point of Order, Portfolio Question Time, Hate Crime and Public Order (Scotland) Bill, Fisheries Bill, Business Motions, Parliamentary Bureau Motions, Decision Time, Dirty Camping


Contents


Presiding Officer’s Statement

The Presiding Officer (Ken Macintosh)

Good afternoon, colleagues. Following my decision to suspend voting at decision time last night, I wanted to bring members up to date with how we will resume proceedings today and, in particular, how we will deal with those votes.

I will begin, if I may, with an apology. Yesterday’s debate on the Baroness Cumberlege report was a powerful, compelling and emotive discussion of issues of real significance to the people of Scotland, not least to the women affected by the issues that the report dealt with and those who have campaigned so persuasively on the issue of transvaginal mesh implants. Not to be able to conclude our debate in a satisfactory manner was a disservice to everyone who followed the debate and to all those who follow Parliament. It is important that I apologise for that to them and to members.

I want to update members on the difficulties that arose at decision time. I have written to all members, who will have received that letter in the past few minutes, but I want to put the content of that letter on the record.

Taking the issues in order, the first issue that we experienced yesterday related to the personal identification number code being changed. That was an accidental administrative error, and I fully recognise how much confusion it caused. However, we can confirm that members using any of the PIN codes issued were still able to access the system and I can offer the further reassurance that we have since taken action by adding an extra authorisation process, which will avoid that happening in future.

Turning to the vote itself, I have now had the opportunity to consider all the information about members who did or did not record votes. That analysis shows that only one member who was entitled to vote was unable to do so at decision time last night. If that member’s vote had been recorded, the result of the vote would have been: yes 58, no 58, abstentions 0. In those circumstances, I would have used my casting vote and, in line with convention, I would have voted against the amendment. The outcome of the vote would, therefore, not have been different had that member been able to cast their vote.

On the basis of that information, I am confident that the result of the vote is reliable and, as such, the vote on Neil Findlay’s amendment stands. I appreciate and acknowledge that not all members will be happy about my decision, but I believe that to rerun the vote would be even more unfair.

That said, I understand that the earlier administrative error, followed by a lack of clarity in explaining what was happening, has had the effect that some members are starting to lose confidence in the system. I take this opportunity to apologise unreservedly for that.

The decision to go live at the earliest opportunity with the remote voting system that was developed over the short summer recess was taken in the knowledge that we would all be learning as we go along, and I know that we have some way to go to build more confidence in the system. The Parliamentary Bureau is, therefore, meeting again tonight to discuss how we can do just that.

In the meantime, we will take care to ensure that the messaging and communication about what is happening during the votes, both in the chamber and on the BlueJeans system, is clear. Importantly, learning the lessons of last night, we will also build in additional pauses to allow members—particularly those participating on the videoconferencing platform—to communicate any issues to the chair.

My letter to all MSPs this afternoon also highlights key issues from the remote voting guidance that I hope will be helpful to colleagues as we all continue to familiarise ourselves with the system.

Finally, I assure you that the Parliamentary Bureau is actively pursuing all options to ensure that we can iron out any remaining issues and work hard to rebuild your confidence in the voting system. Thank you for your patience.

Neil Findlay (Lothian) (Lab)

On a point of order, Presiding Officer. I thank you for that explanation. I have spoken to a number of members today, and a number have come to speak to me. Not one of those members is of the view that last night’s vote should have stood. With the greatest of respect to you, Presiding Officer, I find it inexplicable that that decision was made and I have no idea how the vote was allowed to stand. The issue that was at stake last night was very important and I believe that the decision that was made will have a negative impact on some women in Scotland and their health.

However, let us put that issue aside. This is about the integrity of the Parliament in taking decisions and having them correctly recorded. Yesterday was a shambles; that cannot be allowed to happen. As I said yesterday, rather than building it, every vote sucks more credibility out of the system. With respect to you, Presiding Officer, today I will lodge a motion to express members’ lack of belief in the system. I appeal to members across the chamber to support that motion, so that our collective view can be put across to the Scottish Parliamentary Corporate Body, the Parliamentary Bureau, the Presiding Officer and officials that we have no confidence in the system that is being operated.

The Presiding Officer

I thank Mr Findlay for the point of order and for the manner in which he raised it; I know how passionately he feels about the subject matter that was voted on last night. Members are at liberty to lodge any motions that they wish. I urge all members to bring any concerns they have to their business manager, the business team or directly to me. I assure you that it matters to me and all members that the voting system has the confidence of this Parliament.

The alternatives to the remote voting system are perhaps equally—if not more—unpalatable, and in the middle of the coronavirus pandemic, we have to work out how we ensure that all members are able to vote and participate fully in proceedings, despite the fact that they cannot attend in person.

Daniel Johnson (Edinburgh Southern) (Lab)

On a point of order, Presiding Officer. Further to Mr Findlay’s point of order and further to my point of order yesterday, are you able to advise how your ruling today fits with standing orders rule 11.7.3, which I read out yesterday? In my understanding, when

“the electronic voting system has produced an unreliable result,”

the standing orders state quite clearly that the vote must be repeated, and that, if that is not successful, a roll-call vote must be taken. The rule does not state that the results should be deliberated on or analysed; it says that the vote should be retaken. Likewise, it strikes me that a roll-call vote is perfectly possible using videoconferencing—members could register their votes. Members used that technology to communicate directly with you, Presiding Officer. Could you please advise how your ruling fits with that standing order? With the technology that we are currently using in the chamber, is a roll-call vote possible?

The Presiding Officer

I thank Mr Johnson for his point of order and I commend him for his knowledge of standing orders or his ability to Google them quickly. Mr Johnson is absolutely right and that was the correct standing order. Without commenting on the roll-call vote option, which is always open to the chair, the key point that Mr Johnson highlighted is whether the vote was reliable. I have looked at the vote. We are able to analyse all those who are eligible to vote and all those who voted. I assure you that all those who were eligible to vote, except for one person, used their vote. That information has been circulated widely to all members, so there is no doubt about the reliability of the vote. If Mr Johnson can name any member or bring any evidence that the vote was unreliable, I will look at that matter, but I am very certain that we are very sure about who is eligible and who voted; therefore, the vote will count. To rerun the vote would be more unfair than leaving it to stand.

Edward Mountain (Highlands and Islands) (Con)

On a point of order, Presiding Officer. I will reiterate some comments that have been made. The voting system brings the Parliament into disrepute. As a parliamentarian, I find that difficult to stomach. I also find it difficult to stomach that we have, on numerous occasions, been told that the system is robust. It is clearly not robust.

Presiding Officer, if you look back at the record, you will see that after a stage 3 division—I cannot remember exactly which division it was—you said that, if the vote had been close, you would have had no option but to rerun the vote. I think that those were your exact words. The vote in question could not have been closer, so will you reflect on whether it would be appropriate to rerun it, as you previously said you would do in such circumstances?

The Presiding Officer

I thank Mr Mountain for the point of order. I am very much aware of the advice that I gave members at that time, and I assure him that I was aware of it when I looked at the current matter. The key fact in this situation is that had the member who was eligible to vote voted, that would not have affected the outcome of the vote. That is the crucial factor.

Bruce Crawford (Stirling) (SNP)

On a point of order, Presiding Officer. My points of order relate to the others. First, I welcome your apology and I accept the ruling that you have made. I think that you have made the right decision.

However, I am concerned about a wider issue that people need to bear in mind when we are talking about remote voting systems. There are members in the chamber who are more elderly than I am—even though I am getting on a bit—and they are very concerned daily about being here. Therefore, as we go through the pandemic, it is essential that we have a remote voting system that operates effectively, so I hope that we can iron out all the problems.

I would like to raise another matter that concerned me yesterday. Many of the support staff who were trying to support MSPs who could not access the system had to come into pretty close contact with MSPs. My concern is for their safety, as well as ours. That issue about support staff, and people who are trying to help members to access the system when it does not work for them, needs to be reviewed. As we probably all recognise, the problem on many occasions is not down to the system, but to human error.

The Presiding Officer

I thank Mr Crawford for both his very constructive points of order. The point about the proximity of support staff has been noted, and we will issue reminders to MSPs and staff.

Neil Findlay

On a point of order, Presiding Officer. I want to follow up on Daniel Johnson’s point of order. First, I note that Bruce Crawford has made a very good point. Everybody wants a system that works. Everybody understands the circumstances that individuals are in.

Presiding Officer, you said that it would be more unfair to rerun the vote today. With respect, that is your opinion. Others have a different opinion: I certainly do. Daniel Johnson referred to standing orders. Nowhere in the rule that he read out does it say that, if such circumstances prevail, you can go away for 20 hours, consider what has happened, have an investigation and come back to make a decision. My understanding of the standing orders is that the vote should take place immediately after there has been confusion. Are we now saying that, if such circumstances prevail again, we will have a similar situation to yesterday, when we went away, had a stewards inquiry then came back the next day to find out what happened?

The Presiding Officer

I thank Mr Findlay for his point of order. I note the points that he has made.