The Scottish Parliament’s ‘First Minister’s Questions (FMQs)’, modelled on the UK Parliament’s ‘Prime Minister’s Questions (PMQs)’, sees the First Minister take questions in the chamber each week. Yet there’s a very significant difference which goes to the heart of what the parliament’s supposed to be all about.
PMQs lasts half an hour. Members put in a note to ‘The Table Office’ requesting to be called and there’s a lottery organised by the House staff. The speaker calls the top 20 members or so, sometimes more, to ask their question. The Speaker might also call a specific member if something huge is happening in their constituency. In addition, the leader of the opposition gets 5 questions and the leader of the biggest other group usually gets 2. Those ‘front benchers’ jump in when they want to, but ‘back-bench’ MPs always dominate the time available. Their questions reflect those of their constituents – in this way everyone can be represented directly and publicly at the highest level: it isn’t simply about parties taking a pop at each other. Moreover, if the speaker thinks the prime minister, or any questioner, is veering away from the proper business then s/he’ll immediately pull them up. Obviously, veering off topic is a device politicians use to try to evade proper debate and public scrutiny.
FMQs lasts 45 minutes. There’s a lottery for back-benchers in the same way, but party leaders get to go first. Sometimes, they go on at such length that there’s hardly any time left for MSPs to raise real constituency issues. And, as we saw yesterday, it seems that the President – the equivalent of the UK parliament’s Speaker – has no interest at all in whether the party leaders are time wasting. Remember, time-wasting is an abuse not only of parliament but also the public at large. When politicians do it they’re invariably trying to avoid something else the public is much more interested in.
Seven minutes of precious parliamentary time was spent at FMQs yesterday by the Scottish Labour leader challenging the First Minister over a single tweet someone with no government or SNP role sent 2 months ago. It was obviously an abuse of parliament and the public, but the president simply let it all go on. Amazingly, the Scottish Labour leader concluded by demanding that the government ‘shun’ a tweeter, Stuart Campbell. Seriously, ‘shun’. It was reminiscent of Alan Partridge instructing his audience (from 8.12) to boo his guests. It was pure farce.
There’s a general election going on; contentious issues in Education, Health and across the policy spectrum abound. It’s the job of the opposition to scrutinise and challenge the government on all the big policy issues of the day. MSPs are queuing up to raise important constituency issues they’ve had put to them by regular folk. Yet regardless of all of this, a single front-bencher was allowed to use a non-policy, non-government, non-parliamentary, non-SNP ‘Tweet’ as a means of ‘filibustering’. It was shocking. It treated the public with contempt and the president should have told the questioner to sit down and moved on to the next question. That’s a humiliating punishment the speaker at Westminster does not hesitate to use when someone tries it on in the same way there.
Filibustering is of course a term which usually refers to politicians using very specific rules on what may be said and for how long, in order to ‘talk out’ a bill. In this case, the ridiculous amount of FMQs time which was allowed to be spent on an issue unrelated to the job of the First minister amounted to a filibuster designed to stop anyone raising Labour’s suspension of the Aberdeen Council Labour Group. The president erred terribly not stopping it. MSPs should now use their undoubted powers act to change parliament’s rules; they should ensure that front-bench limelight hogging is consigned to the past, and that filibustering – as we saw yesterday – is put away for good.
Scotland’s parliament can be the big council chamber the unionists want it to be, or it can be a mature parliament where being an MSP representing regular folk actually means something. It really can’t be both.