Holyrood needs rude awakening, says Lord McConnell

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THE Scottish Parliament has been accused of lacking seriousness and of resembling a tourist attraction rather than a debating chamber by the longest-serving First Minister.

In a damning critique of the way Holyrood goes about its business, the newly-ennobled life peer, Lord McConnell of Glencorrosdale, declared that some of Holyrood's rules are "ludicrous" with ministers who should be pinned down by MSPs on policy receiving little or no scrutiny in question sessions that are "rarely lively or interesting".

McConnell, who will leave Scottish politics after the May election, also said the parliamentary timetable has become too casual, noting there are large parts of the week when the supposed cockpit of Scottish democracy has hardly any politicians in it.

He said: "As people are walking round it should be obvious that they are in a parliament, not in a museum or a gallery."

In what could be seen as the ultimate insult, he said he has been "shocked" to discover that, in spite of its reputation as a sleepy hollow, the Lords is often far more interesting and lively than Holyrood, and does a better job holding the Executive to account.

He has written to the Presiding Officer at Holyrood and all the Scottish party leaders calling for a complete overhaul of the way the parliament operates. He said that, with the parliament about to get new powers on income tax, it is all the more urgent to shake up the way the chamber is run.

McConnell said there were plenty of other MSPs who felt major changes were required to make it a "serious parliamentary working space".

Lord McConnell was among the first intake of MSPs to the new Scottish Parliament in 1999 and served as a minister under both Donald Dewar and Henry McLeish. He was First Minister between 2001 and 2007 and remains the longest incumbent of Bute House so far. He stepped down after Labour lost to the SNP in 2007.

His letter to the Presiding Officer, Alex Fergusson, contained a series of recommendations for reform. When the government loses a vote, he advised, the relevant minister must be forced to make a statement. He declared: "I think it has been ludicrous for the last four years that regularly they (the Scottish Government] have lost votes in the chamber and never had to come and make a statement to parliament about how they would respond to that."

The full parliament should meet for at least three days a week instead of the present day and a half, he suggested. "It is just simply wrong that something can happen on a Thursday night and the first time you get a chance to raise it is the next Wednesday afternoon."

And he said there should be specific grillings of individual ministers to replace the current system under which ministers gather together to answer questions from MSPs. He added: "Ministerial questions is the worst failing of the current parliamentary structure. Question times are largely ignored, rarely interesting or lively, serve almost no purpose in holding ministers to account and have no topicality."He also said there should be an assumption that MSPs do not read from prepared scripts and should be given more time to debate issues in the chamber. He noted how MSPs were told to sit down before they had finished their speeches because of the time limits imposed. He also asked for a review of the committee system and First Minister's Questions.

He even claimed that question time in the Lords is "a damn sight more interesting… and that has shocked me". In reply, Fergusson said he had "some sympathy with some of the points you raise - as I'm sure do other members".