Alison Johnstone: Women MSPs to be given more time to speak in Holyrood

The Scottish Parliament’s new Presiding Officer has said she wants to ensure female MSPs are given equal speaking time in the Holyrood chamber.
Presiding Officer Alison Johnstone MSP pictured in her office in Queensberry House.Presiding Officer Alison Johnstone MSP pictured in her office in Queensberry House.
Presiding Officer Alison Johnstone MSP pictured in her office in Queensberry House.

Former Scottish Green MSP Alison Johnstone who was elected as the parliament’s second woman Presiding Officer (PO) last month, said the diversity in the new intake of politicians after the May election was inspiring and she is determined to ensure female voices are given equal opportunity to speak.

Ms Johnstone, who was elected as a Lothians MSP before standing for the PO role, also said she wanted the pace of First Minister’s Questions to improve so more backbench MSPs could quiz Nicola Sturgeon, warning party leaders and the First Minister that they would need to make their questions and answers shorter.

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In an interview with Scotland on Sunday Ms Johnstone, who replaced Ken Mackintosh as PO, also revealed that even on the day before her election to the post she was hesitant about putting herself forward, although she was ultimately the only candidate for the position.

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Scottish Green MSP becomes Holyrood's new Presiding Officer

“It's a unique role, an important role,” she said. “Parliament's always been very important for me, I joined the campaign for a Scottish Parliament before I joined the Scottish Green Party. But it's fair to say that deciding to even put yourself forward for this role requires a great deal of thought.

"I did have conversations with several people but I certainly wasn't going through the elections thinking I'm going to put myself forward for this position. Absolutely not.

"I think the circumstances were such that after having conversations with a few folk who did, you know, suggest that I may be a good fit for the role, I started to think about it. But it's a really hard decision to leave a [political] group that you've been part of for a long time.”

She also took soundings from her family given the high-profile nature of the role and the levels of abuse women in politics are known to receive on social media. “I discussed this with my family, as you do before you get involved in politics at any level. They are tremendously supportive.

"They know that this is a new and demanding role and that I've got an opportunity to be involved in the very heart of politics in Scotland and they understand why that's important.”

But she added: “Even on the day before the election took place, I was very hesitant, and probably at that point, would have been more likely to not put myself forward. But I suppose a big part of my politics is a strong belief that we needed to see more women in these high profile roles in roles that can make a difference.”

As part of that belief, she said, she was already investigating how equitable the Parliament is in terms of women MSPs being given time to speak.

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“Forty five per cent women [MSPs] is a great step in the right direction, because we've seen from previous elections, that we can’t sit back on our laurels, that progress isn't linear, and we had taken a step backwards.

"So we've got that welcome progress and I'm speaking to officials about this to see if 45 per cent of contributions are made by women, and who are making the most interventions? Are women being intervened on more?

"There's a lot to look at there – I'm really interested to learn if having more women makes a difference and that will only happen if those contributions are occurring. So I am quite keen to do what’s required to make sure that time is used as equitably as possible.”

Electing a Presiding Officer is the first job of MSPs in Holyrood after an election, and in her first four weeks in the role, Ms Johnstone has already made clear her determination to ensure the Scottish Government is held to account. She has allowed a number of Urgent Questions to be put to government ministers before the reshuffle had taken place and this week before First Minister’s Questions was clear that she wanted the 45-minute session to be used more fruitfully.

"All members of the Scottish Parliament are equal and I want to make sure that they all have optimal opportunity to ask questions of the First Minister and the government,” she said. “So I would like to see a change of pace. I'd like to see First Minister's Questions moving a bit faster. I'd like it to be a bit more free flowing.

“And I am absolutely determined to ensure that more questions are taken in that session, you know, we only have a finite amount of time. But I think we can, I think we can make very good use of that time and make it more inclusive.

“I am in no doubt at all as to the challenge there. I think some people who've been doing it for a long time are in a rhythm that maybe suits them, but I do believe that we can involve more backbenchers, and have wider engagement in that session in particular.

“It is the session that's most tuned into and there's a bit of theatre about it but it is also a really good opportunity for parliamentarians to step up and represent the concerns of their constituents or their particular areas of expertise. So I want to make sure that we're benefiting from all that expertise and diversity that we have in Parliament.”

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Scrutiny of government though, she added, was not just a job for opposition MSPs. "If we're all parliamentarians then we all should be scrutinising. Obviously there are members of the government, but there are members of the larger party [the SNP] who aren't members of the government and can have an absolutely crucial role to play in ensuring that the government is doing all that it can to deliver for the people of Scotland.

"So scrutiny isn't just an opposition matter, scrutiny is for the whole of the Parliament. Our Parliament should always be the focus of debate in Scotland, it should lead the debate and the discourse. So if people aren't convinced that the questions that are being asked are the ones that they want to hear being asked, I've got no doubt at all, they will be in touch to to let their parliamentarians know.”

During the election campaign there were calls from parties for reform of how Parliament operates, including the committee system with the potential for electing convenors rather than the positions being appointed by party leaders and Ms Johnstone said she believed the issue should be looked at during this parliamentary term.

“The Commission for Parliamentary Reform looked at it and had a fairly positive view. And then committee work took place which came back with perhaps a less positive view. But I certainly think we should continue to look at any avenue that might better improve scrutiny.

"So I would suggest that in this session of Parliament would revisit that issue if elected convener ships, I don't have a strong position one way or the other, but I think this should be kept on the table."

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