McConnell wants longer hours for MSPs

JACK McConnell has called for a radical shake-up of the operation of the Scottish Parliament in an attempt to improve its status and credibility in the eyes of the public.

The First Minister yesterday wrote to the newly-appointed Presiding Officer, George Reid, setting out proposals which would extend the working hours of the parliament and give opposition party leaders and back-benchers more time to quiz him on Executive issues.

"Fundamentally, I believe that the status and credibility of the parliament will be enhanced in the eyes of the public if we can encourage longer debates, greater back-bench involvement and a move away from the perception that debates are almost pre-programmed on a party political basis," the First Minister said.

His call for changes in the way the parliament conducts its business came as Labour and the Liberal Democrats continued their delicate negotiations on a coalition agreement.

It was disclosed last night that the negotiators may come under pressure from Lib Dem back-bench MSPs to insist on their party being given the high-profile post of finance minister, or deputy finance minister - a demand that is likely to be resisted by Labour.

The proposal has been put forward in an internal party document produced by a leading Lib Dem MSP, Donald Gorrie. In the paper, he says so many issues are bound up in finance that his party needed to have a voice in the running of that department.

Mr McConnell’s move to reform the way the parliament operates follows the scenes of clenched-fist protests and singing that marked the appearance of a new group of six Scottish Socialists in the parliament’s first post-election meeting on Wednesday.

A spokesman for the First Minister said Mr McConnell’s letter to Mr Reid followed issues he raised during the election campaign. However, the election result - producing a larger and more varied number of groups in the parliament - had made Mr McConnell even more determined to call for changes in the way the parliament operated, the spokesman said.

At present, the full parliament sits for only a day and a half each week and is usually finished by 6pm.

But in his letter, the First Minister said: "I believe that the performance of the parliament as a whole would be enhanced through greater spontaneity, more time for back-bench speeches and some flexibility in, or an extension to, the working hours of the parliament."

Mr McConnell proposed that the weekly First Minister’s Question Time (FMQs) should be extended from 20 minutes to half an hour. He said the session, which currently takes place on a Thursday afternoon, should be moved to before lunchtime to allow more schoolchildren to attend.

Mr McConnell suggested that, following their gains in last week’s election, the Green Party leader, Robin Harper, and his Scottish Socialist Party counterpart, Tommy Sheridan, should be able to question him once every two weeks.

He argued that the moves would "make FMQs more free-flowing and natural".

Mr McConnell added: "I do believe there is a case for the whole Question Time slot to be radically changed."

In his letter, Mr McConnell said back-benchers should be given more time to ask supplementary questions during FMQs.

He also suggested that committee conveners should be able to question him on a twice-yearly basis, while individual ministers should also be grilled more thoroughly by back-bench MSPs.

Mr McConnell said the package of measures would only require minor changes to the parliament’s rule book and could be in place by the time MSPs return after the summer recess.

Mr Sheridan said last night that Mr McConnell’s offer was not enough - and insisted he wanted to be able to grill the First Minister every week.

Mr Gorrie’s paper, leaked to last night’s Grampian TV Crossfire programme, suggests that the positions held by Lib Dem ministers and deputy ministers must be agreed in the negotiations and not be in the gift of the First Minister.

Mr Gorrie said: "I think there is a widespread feeling that finance was a very critical one; so many issues are bound up in finance. So you can have a nice policy, but if there’s no money it doesn’t happen. What we need is a voice, particularly in finance."