Holyrood to expand virtual proceedings to increase scrutiny

MSPs will soon be able to take part in a ‘fully virtual’ Scottish Parliament, as Holyrood bosses radically change the operation of committees and extend First Minister’s Questions to allow increased scrutiny of the Scottish Government during the coronavirus lockdown.

Currently MSPs have been able to sit in Holyrood – with social distancing measures in place – just one day a week, to hear ministerial statements and to conduct FMQs, while seven committees have taken place through virtual feeds.

However after complaints by opposition politicians at a lack of time to put questions to the Scottish Government, particularly its reponse to tackling Covid-19, the Presiding Officer Ken Macintosh has said “enhanced scrutiny measures” are to be put in place.

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In a letter to all 129 MSPs, Mr Macintosh said FMQs would be extended from 45 minutes to one hour, virtual question sessions would increase to allow for supplementary questions and that plans for a “fully virtual Parliament involving all MSPs” were underway.

He also said there would be the creation of a ‘hybrid’ style Parliament where all MSPs can ask questions, speak in debates, and vote remotely in all business that takes place at Holyrood.

Mr Macintosh wrote: “You know just how devastating the impact of the coronavirus pandemic has been on the people we represent and the many ways we have all had to adjust and adapt over recent weeks.

“Everyone’s mailbox will have been inundated with constituents sharing their fears and anxieties and in some cases, their grief and these are stories you rightly want to highlight in Parliament and prompt questions you want to raise.

“I fully recognise your frustration when there are insufficient opportunities to do so and I wanted to assure you that addressing your needs is at the heart of my thinking. The primary focus of our efforts at the Parliament has been on supporting you in finding new ways of working both in the Chamber and on committees, in person and remotely.”

He went on: “I am working with the parliamentary authorities and business managers to explore new options which will help us meet your needs… I hope I can assure you that the primary aim is to give all Members the chance to raise their constituents’ concerns whether in person at Holyrood or remotely from home.”

On top of a virtual Covid-19 question session sitting today focusing on the impact on local government and communities he said an additional virtual question session had been scheduled for tomorrow with ministers Michael Russell and Fiona Hyslop, while First Minister Questions will be extended next Wednesday from 12.30 pm until 1.30 pm and that he was working “closely with business managers” to ensure additional time is scheduled for questions after ministerial statements

He added: “Committees have a crucial role in scrutinising the coronavirus response and its impact and I am aware that a number of committees have already started work in this area, issuing calls for evidence and hearing from witnesses.

“Parliamentary colleagues and staff have been working incredibly hard to ensure that remote committees can meet formally as well as informally and, by the end of this week, there have been seven formal virtual committee meetings, including two virtual meetings of the recently established Covid Committee. We continue to expand our capacity and I can confirm that we can now support 16 virtual meetings of the Parliament and committees over four days.

“I am also pleased to advise that by next Thursday we will also be in a position to hold a full virtual meeting of the Parliament involving all Members should there be demand to schedule this. The format of that meeting has still to be agreed, however, I would expect it to be a mix of a set number of Members indicating in advance that they wish to participate, with all other Members able to request to speak during the meeting and called at my discretion in the normal course.”

Mr Macintosh also said that the Parliament’s business bureau was considering options for proxy voting arrangements for MSPs unable to attend Holyrood in person, and that “we’re now working towards creating a ‘hybrid’ style Chamber where all members can ask their questions, speak in debates, and in time vote remotely in all business that takes place at Holyrood. It is my hope that by the week beginning 11 May we will be in a position to test this hybrid approach, with a view to it being operational by the following week.”

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