McConnell suggests moves to be accountable to Parliament

JACK McConnell wants to follow Tony Blair’s example and face gruelling two-hour question-and-answer sessions from leading back-benchers if he is returned as First Minister in May, he revealed last night.

Mr McConnell set out his plans for a reform of the parliamentary system over the weekend, but yesterday he went further, suggesting radical changes to the way legislation is passed and the way that the parliament holds the First Minister to account.

Speaking to The Scotsman, Mr McConnell said he believed that first ministers should make themselves available, twice a year, to face intense and detailed questioning from parliamentary committee conveners.

This would be a cross-party body, made up of the leading back-benchers who chair Holyrood committees.

The Prime Minister has been doing this for more than a year and has faced several tough inquisitions on detailed aspects of government policy which do not get explored during the brief exchanges of Prime Minister’s Questions.

Mr McConnell has already made it clear that he wants to reform First Minister’s Question Time to give back-benchers more time for spontaneous questions on topical issues and to extend it from its present 20 minutes to half an hour.

He said last night: "I personally am very much in favour of questioning by a committee of conveners. If I am still First Minister I will propose to the parliament that I face questioning twice a year."

Mr McConnell admitted that there had been criticism of the way the parliament passed legislation, with accusations that bad law had been passed because the parliament rushed the process.

He said: "In the absence of a second chamber, there is an absolute duty of responsibility on the parliament not just to scrutinise legislation to the full but also to be seen to scrutinise amendments and legislation to the full at every stage."

Mr McConnell said he would like to see bills referred back to committees, after they had been through the committee stage, if important amendments had been added at a later date. In this way, the MSPs on the committee which scrutinised a bill could bring their expertise to bear on the changes to prevent bad law from being made.

The Scottish Labour leader also suggested introducing a "pause" after major amendments at a bill’s final stage, allowing parliamentarians to reflect and think about the changes they had made to a bill.

"It’s something I have felt uncomfortable with over the last four years.

"Sometimes we have passed major amendments on the day they were introduced and half an hour later we pass the bill," he said.

Mr McConnell said he also wanted to see longer hours for the main chamber business, allowing MSPs to make longer speeches to develop their arguments, an extended first minister’s question session as well as departmental question sessions. He is also suggesting a greater formality to debate, restricting the use of first names as a form of address in the chamber.

The First Minister’s recommendations follow a growing debate, in the press and among politicians, over the need to reform and revamp the parliamentary system before it gets too settled.

Critics from all parties have argued that the new group of MSPs elected on 1 May should learn from the mistakes of the past four years and make the parliament better. Mr McConnell’s endorsement of these moves makes it much more likely that changes will be made, improving both the quality of debate and the parliament’s law-making ability.

The First Minister is acutely aware that the parliament has found it difficult to win over the public and that sitting for just one-and-a-half days a week in the chamber and another two days in committee has not helped the public’s impression of the institution.

Mr McConnell will address the Scottish Trades Union Congress in Inverness later today during which he will make his first real attack on the SNP.

He will devote much of his speech to an all-out attack on the Nationalists and their policy of independence, accusing the SNP of deceit and "hoodwinking Scotland".

Describing the SNP as "the chameleons of Scottish politics", Mr McConnell will accuse the party of "changing their colours, changing their words, changing anything to cheat the voter".

And he will add: "And this makes me very angry. Politics is nothing if it is not based on respect for the people whose votes we seek. Respect. To tell the truth. To say clearly what we mean and to mean what we say.

"The Nationalist deceit is a deceit played with cold calculation against the people of Scotland. You can’t trust their words. You can’t trust their promises. You can’t trust their sums. We can’t trust them to run Scotland."