Two decades into devolution, with Holyrood firmly established, Reform Scotland asked prominent Scottish politicians what they would change to make the Parliament work better.
I fear that even the most enthusiastic admirers of the Holyrood Parliament would struggle to remember any truly outstanding debates in the Chamber. To be sure, there have been some great speeches, from Donald Dewar’s famous words at the Parliament’s opening, to the Aberdeenshire SNP MSP Dennis Robertson’s tribute to his late daughter, delivered while opening a Member’s Debate on Eating Disorders. But too few of such fine contributions have been followed with equally high-quality debates.
The Parliament does have set-piece occasions which provide the perfect opportunity for quality debate, with MSPs from all political persuasions arguing their case, among them the Annual Programme for Government, and the Budget debates. In these, frontbenchers have the chance to shine. But after the opening exchanges, there can often be too little to engage the observer. The overall quality of debate has undoubtedly got better as the Parliament has matured over its 20-year lifespan, but there is still substantial room for improvement.
Too many debates consist of a series of backbench contributions, sticking rigidly to the party line, and often (one suspects) written by a parliamentary researcher from a politically partisan viewpoint. Such contributions do not lend themselves to interventions from members of other parties, and indeed often those delivering them will refuse to take any interventions at all.
The best debates I can remember have been on issues where there has been no set party line, for example the Bills on Same-Sex Marriage or Assisted Suicide, with MSPs having to think for themselves and come up with their own arguments, rather than simply regurgitate those spoon-fed to them by the political hierarchy.
A significant issue in all this are the time limits set upon debates at Holyrood. With the exception of frontbenchers who make opening speeches, most contributors will have a maximum of six minutes in which to make their points. For shorter debates, the time limit can be as low as four minutes. This is barely sufficient time to make more than a couple of points, and if a speaker takes one or two interventions that can substantially eat into their available time. Taking more than two interventions effectively means that the opportunity to say anything substantive in the time allocated is lost altogether. With some speakers
refusing to take interventions altogether, it hardly adds up to a debate worthy of the name.
While we should not always be contrasting Holyrood with Westminster, this is an area where the House of Commons does much better. A competent speaker in the Commons can take as many as seven or eight interventions in succession, dealing with each point before moving on, and yet still make his or her own substantive points. Such a speech might last 15 minutes or more. A balanced, in-depth contribution of this nature is simply impossible at Holyrood.
So what might be done to improve the quality of debate in the Scottish Parliament? Instead of having sessions with a long list of speakers, many of whom may have little interest in the subject at hand, we could use the same allocated time to have fewer contributors but each with more minutes allocated. This would encourage those genuinely interested in a subject to speak, expanding in detail on their points. Crucially, it would allow much more time for interventions, thus encouraging a genuine exchange of views, rather than the stultified one-sided conversation that presently occurs.
Such a change would improve the quality of debate in the Chamber, it would encourage interested MSPs to expand their knowledge of particular subjects, and it would promote greater expertise amongst politicians. It is an approach that would be welcomed by those with a genuine interest in debating a topic, while being equally popular with those backbenchers currently dragooned into speaking on subject in which they have no particular interest, but where their political party has a number of short slots that have to be filled.
This is a reform that would cost nothing, there would be no additional burden on parliamentary resources, and the overall length of debates would not need to be extended. But it would, I believe, encourage debates of greater quality, and perhaps lead to a situation in future where we are not struggling to recall the highlights of the last 20 years of parliamentary oration.
Murdo Fraser is a Conservative MSP for Mid Scotland and Fife and Shadow Finance Spokesman