How MSPs are wasting time, food and the democratic process
NOW THAT THE MSPs are fully installed in their shiny new parliament building at the bottom of the Royal Mile there is a sense that they might even have upped their game a bit.
The spectacular new debating chamber seems to be having a positive effect on the quality of their contributions. There is even a sense that on a number of issues, such as free home care for pensioners, the quality of school meals and the banning of smoking in public places, Scotland seems to be leading the agenda which is being picked up later by the rest of the UK.
Where the MSPs have been less successful is in an area where you might expect them to excel – the art of meeting and dealing with the public. Viewers to the BBC programme The Gathering Place were surprised by a scene in which a parliamentary briefing had been organised for MSPs on the construction of the new parliament building and only 16 of the 129 bothered to turn up.
Given the many complex and controversial issues surrounding its construction and its major political significance, it seems quite incredible that so many MSPs had better things to do than attend a briefing session aimed at helping them understand what was actually going on.
In fact, as those who have organised other briefing sessions for MSPs can attest, a turnout of 16 MSPs for an event is actually quite an impressive one. Rooms are regularly booked at the Holyrood Hotel or Our Dynamic Earth, catering is laid on and the result is more often than not that only two or three MSPs actually turn up, the food goes uneaten and the rooms look very empty indeed.
Embarrassment all round – and an overwhelming sense that the MSPs don’t much care to get involved in real issues.
It doesn’t seem to be this way at Westminster. Admittedly, there are 659 MPs to draw from, but receptions and briefing sessions do seem to be better attended. One Scottish-oriented briefing that I was involved in drew well over 20 Scottish MPs from a potential pool of only 73.
It would seem that the London-based MPs have recognised that such events are an important part of the democratic process. Or maybe it is just that, being based away from home, they have more free time on their hands. Whereas at Holyrood, which keeps normal daytime working hours, a large proportion of MSPs travel home each evening after the sessions.
But by ignoring such events they are missing a trick and damaging the democratic process along the way. One of the advantages of a devolved Scottish government, we were assured, is that we would be closer to our political representatives.
Maybe what we need is an office at Holyrood which could help. It could advise on the best times to arrange briefing events so that they didn’t clash and help to identify the MSPs who would be most relevant to attend. It would then apply some form of gentle pressure, similar to the whipping instructions which all political parties undertake, and try to ensure that there is a reasonable turnout.
It should be made clear to MSPs that by never showing up for such events, they are damaging the democratic process.
And it would also cut down on wasted bookings and uneaten food.