Exclusive:Increasing the number of MSPs ‘should be looked at’, says Holyrood's Presiding Officer

In an interview with The Scotsman, Alison Johnstone said Holyrood’s powers have ‘increased considerably’

Increasing the number of MSPs in Holyrood is something that "should be looked at", the Presiding Officer of the Scottish Parliament has said.

Alison Johnstone said Holyrood's powers have "increased considerably" in the years since its establishment.

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She pointed to Wales, where plans to boost the number of politicians in the Senedd, the Welsh Parliament, were passed this week.

Alison JohnstoneAlison Johnstone
Alison Johnstone

In an interview with The Scotsman to mark 25 years of devolution, Ms Johnstone also spoke about the impact of social media on politics amid increasing concern over the toxic nature of debate.

There are 129 MSPs in Holyrood, but some argue there should be more given the parliament’s increased powers in recent years over areas such as income tax and social security. Jim Wallace, the former deputy first minister, has said it “needs to be looked at again”.

In Wales, plans to increase the number of members in the Senedd from 60 to 96 were voted through on Wednesday. The move is expected to cost as much as £17.8 million a year.

Ms Johnstone, who has been the Presiding Officer since 2021, said: "Where your responsibilities grow, it's not an unreasonable suggestion that you should have a look at this. Obviously, the situation in Wales, for example, has changed, and they are having a very good look at that. I think you just need to look at these matters, gather evidence and see what impact an increased workload has had.

"Because you want to make sure that all members here can properly represent their communities fully, and if members are covering several committees and they have a lot of work to do – they are obviously very keen to respond to constituents too – so you've got to make sure that the resource is there and that they have the capacity to do that."

Asked for her own view, she said: "I think powers have obviously increased considerably and I would suggest that it's something that should be looked at. It's not something that's being put to me on a regular basis, and I would imagine that you would start to hear more and more if there were a view that this was becoming incredibly pressing.

"But I know members are obviously very busy. They're speaking in plenary sessions, they're scrutinising committee papers, they're involved in legislation, they're out in their regions and constituencies representing their constituents. So the week is a very, very busy one."

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Sitting in Holyrood's historic Queensberry House, Ms Johnstone said the parliament has played “an incredibly important part in Scottish life over these two and a half decades”. She said it is still a “young institution” and will continue to grow.

Ms Johnstone, who was previously co-leader of the Scottish Greens in the Scottish Parliament, said she would like the institution to be as “responsive” as possible. This may involve refining how MSPs ask questions, she said.

Asked about divisions in politics, she said: “I would always want us to be able to debate really robustly. Disagree entirely with colleagues – have that passionate debate, and have it in the chamber – but we should not be falling out.

"We should be able to discuss policy very, very robustly. I will always defend members' right to scrutinise the government robustly; the government to defend its policy position robustly. But we mustn't get into the realms of personal offence. Every member in here is doing their best to represent the views of their constituents and I want to enable them to do that optimally.”

Ms Johnstone said social media has had a big impact, “because debate doesn't just end when you leave the chamber or you watch the television”.

She added: "It's ongoing, and there's the democratisation of politics in that everyone can get involved and express a view and you can go online and see what everyone is thinking, all at once. But sometimes that debate – I've experienced it, I'm sure lots of colleagues have experienced it, I know this from my discussions in the building – sometimes it can be upsetting and hard to hear. So I would just like us to be applying courtesy and respect regardless of the forum or the format. I think that's really important."

She said there is more to be done to improve equality and inclusion in Holyrood, but “real progress” has been made, with women now making up 46 per cent of MSPs.

"I think it would be fabulous if in the next election we became one of the few parliaments across the globe that was actually gender equal,” Ms Johnstone said. “And even then, that's not good enough. We can't just say, 'Oh well, do you know what, 46 per cent of our members are women, that's fine'. Well, is it? What about 46 per cent of contributions in the chamber, are they being made by women?

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"We've already done some work on interventions, because I had a perception that that wasn't the case. And it's transpired that actually, the majority of interventions were made by men, and that both men and women were more likely to accept an intervention that was made by a man. So we're looking at why this is the case."

She said the parliament "is not fully representative of all the communities, minorities of Scotland, so there's definitely work to be done there too".

Asked where she sees the Scottish Parliament in 25 years' time, Ms Johnstone spoke of her desire to see Holyrood “become ever more deeply embedded in the lives of people in Scotland”.



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