Party machines 'strangling' Holyrood's ability to scrutinise government, says Alex Salmond ally

A former Cabinet secretary for health and an ally of Alex Salmond has said Holyrood is being “strangled” by controlling party machines, leading to a decline in the quality of debate in the Scottish Parliament.

Alex Neil who served as health secretary under Mr Salmond between 2012 to 2014 and as a minister under Nicola Sturgeon, said the hold over members by parties had also highlighted “fundamental flaws” in how Holyrood holds government to account, most clearly shown during the Holyrood inquiry into the Scottish Government’s handling of harassment complaints.

The MSP for Airdrie and Shotts, who is due to retire following the election in May, was reflecting on his 22 years in the Scottish Parliament as a member of the class of 1999 in the coming episode of The Scotsman’s new political podcast The Steamie.

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Alex Neil has criticised the quality of debate in Holyrood, blaming party machines for 'strangling' members
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Asked whether the quality of debate had declined during his tenure as an MSP, Mr Neil said “it is not as good as it was” and hit out at political parties for having too much control over their MSPs.

Mr Neil said: “The party hierarchies have too much control. You don’t get to be a candidate for any of the major parties unless you are a party hack.

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“If you look at the debates in the Parliament, in every case with every one of the major parties, too many people get a briefing from the party’s central unit and basically stand up and make a speech, which is essentially reading out the briefing provided by the party unit.

"There is not enough originality, not enough individual thought, a fear that if you step out of line you’ll be punished.”

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Mr Neil said he was told he would not be given a members’ debate in Holyrood by Graeme Dey, the minister for parliamentary business, after he voted in favour of the Scottish Government’s legal advice around Mr Salmond’s successful judicial review.

The retiring MSP said such a situation was “absurd”, calling it an example of “where Parliament is getting strangled by party whips”.

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He said: “Now there has to be a certain level of discipline, collective decision making and all the rest of it, but the balance is not right and we need fundamental reform as shown up by the recent inquiry on harassment.

"There are fundamental flaws now in how the Parliament works, in the powers of the Parliament and in the Parliament’s ability to scrutinise and control the executive government function, and all of that needs to be changed.

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"There are too many people who come straight into Parliament after having a fairly narrow career, who have come straight from university, straight into a research or parliamentary assistant function, then they become MSPs, then they become ministers.

"We don’t have enough of a balance. There are far, far too many career politicians who have done nothing else, but practise party politics and I think that is bad thing not just in the Holyrood Parliament, but it is a bad thing in Westminster as well.

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"But again the way the parties are organised, I think is detrimental to doing that.”

The full interview with Mr Neil will be available from Tuesday as part of the latest episode of The Steamie.

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The Steamie is available from all of your favourite podcast providers, including Apple Podcasts and Spotify.

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