24 May 2016

A word in all your ears

Now that the hubbub of election is over, we have 51 new members of the Scottish Parliament. A larger number than at any time since Parliament resumed in 1999.

The physical heart of our institution lies in the Garden Lobby. You pass through it many times a day as you travel from one place to another. And it contains the one indispensable person in the building – Kirsty – our award-winning dispenser of caffeine.

Presently it is busy with stalls to provide information to new members, show them how our computer systems work, even to teach our monoglots a little Gaelic with which to greet visitors.

But our one universal need is to be able to articulate our constituents' concerns in Parliamentary debate and in committee. During the election, we all stood shoulder to shoulder with our agents, spouses, families and others, receiving a constant stream of advice which sculpted our discourse with electors.

When we stand to speak in Parliament, we stand alone. By our own efforts as we speak shall our colleagues – in all political parties – form a view of our capabilities. And decide how they will work with us, if at all.

The queue to make a maiden speech will not be exhausted any time soon.

So how to how to make an impression? A good impression. A lasting impression.

Humour helps. Former Tory member Bill Aitken got very frustrated with me in a debate and intervened to say, “Mr Stevenson is a very special person; he can trace his ancestry all the way back to his mother”. We all laughed – including me – and his frustration was on the Parliamentary record in memorable form.

In November last, my colleague Kevin Stewart produced a ten word contribution that captured his whole anti-nuclear weapons position, “teachers before Trident, nurses before nukes or bairns before bombs”.

It used all three rhetorical tricks that turn mere words into a speech to remember, to grab attention.

It seems that the human brain likes threes (triples). We can remember in threes. Not two ideas – less engaging. Not four ideas – too much for our short term memory.

We like certain repetitions, like Kevin's repeating the same initial letter, “bairns before bombs”. It seems to help hammer ideas into our brain (alliteration).

And we capture the debate by putting competing options close against each other, “nurses not nukes”, and in an order that advances ones' argument (antithesis).

Our new Presiding Officer, Ken McIntosh – an excellent choice – the first from the Labour benches, will be watching and advising our new brood as they launch themselves on their careers.

Reeling them in if they step beyond acceptable language, controlling the length of their speeches.

Typically they will get 6 minutes – that's 786 words for me – and the “chop” if they are much over that.

So the very old advice is the best – stand up, speak up, shut up.

And if you don't have much to say, don't say it.

10 May 2016

No "business as usual" in Parliament

by Stewart Stevenson for The Herald

Candidates are advised not to expire during the election period. That was the sobering advice offered by the handbook issued to candidates and agents by SNP HQ. Thankfully everyone – in all parties – stuck to the script and unlike the 18 who died during Parliamentary elections in the last 100 years, all candidates remain in life if not in office.

But now it's time to think not just about Government, but also about how Parliament should work. For Governments, of any complexion, should remember that they owe their office to Parliamentary decisions expressed through the views of the members elected by the public.

The first week back is swearing in and electing – in a secret ballot – the Presiding Officer and two Deputies. Week two is choosing a First Minister with week three seeing the Ministerial team in position. And then it's down to “business as usual”. Or is it?

Each new Parliament has the opportunity to look at the experience of their predecessors and move on from that. So it shouldn't simply be exactly the same as last time, it shouldn't simply be that easy option, unless we have reached a pinnacle of perfect practice. Not many, inside Parliament or outwith, will suggest that.

The Parliament's Standards, Procedures and Public Appointments Committee is where most proposals for changing Parliament's rules and practices come from. But the new session will be well under way before anything much can come from that source.

So it's down to the Presiding Officer at their hand to set Parliament on a new road. Tricia Marwick, our outgoing PO, drove change. And her successor has to show from day one that they too, will do so.

Three changes could be considered before the first parliamentary activity after getting the Government fully in post. And all could be done by the Presiding Officer directly and quickly.

From day one in the Welsh Assembly, members had a computer before them to support their activity in the debating chamber. With the technology available 17 years ago, it brought some uncomfortable constraints. At Holyrood we need to consider how technology can support us better in debates and questions. We have allowed speeches to be read from computers, and by implication adapted, during debates. But is that enough?

If it is permissible to bring a report, book, newspaper or periodical into the chamber to refer to during a debate – and it is, why not a computer? But just as reading the Beano would not be appropriate, there are many possible computer activities that would equally bring Parliament into disrepute.

The Presiding Officer can decide an initial code of conduct – operating from day one – for using technology during debates. Our Standards Committee can take a deeper look at this later.

A source of frustration for backbenchers, both opposition and government, is how one gets to ask questions of ministers. Questions to the First Minister and Topical Questions are selected by the Presiding Officer on merit and, broadly, respect the political balance of the Parliament. That's nine or so questions a week.

But the remaining 30 are by lottery. That is fair, but fails the test of providing any member beyond party leaders with any continuity, week by week, to develop a sequence of questions over time on a subject which may be of significant interest to an individual member. They can't be sure when or if, their name will come out of the hat. I once went 13 months without being selected to ask a question.

Until the Standards Committee looks at alternative systems for the Presiding Officer to consider, the PO could permit a member “winning” the chance to ask a question to pass that right on to another MSP.

Finally at the end of the last session, Parliament found itself deeply uncomfortable, or worse, when it could not formally tell Westminster that it did not like what they were doing on Trade Union legislation. Government to Government relations are well developed but Parliament to Parliament rather less so.

We need a formal way for our Presiding Officer to exchange views with Westminster on our behalf. And for MSPs to request the PO to do so.

I didn't expire during the election and I'm leaner and healthier after 400 km walking. On Thursday I shall take the oath in the same suit I wore in 2001. Elections can be good for MSPs.

6 May 2016

And Now the Work Starts

Stewart Stevenson in the Evening Express, Friday, 6th May 2016

A constituency as diverse as Banffshire and Buchan Coast presents challenges for all parties contesting an election. And besides the four of us bidding to be constituency MSPs, there were 12 options for people's regional vote. Although visiting all 59,194 eligible voters is impossible for any candidate, I certainly visited over 40 communities and met electors in each.

Royal Mail delivers an Election Address, at no cost to the candidate, to each elector. So it was very disappointing for the democratic process that six of the 12 regional list parties sent nothing to people in our area. And one of the six that did, UKip, did not tell us the name of any of their candidates.

Any candidate taking their campaigning seriously will end the campaign fitter, leaner and (perhaps!) with a sun tan. I certainly lost about 3 kilos and jogged quite a lot of the 400 or so kms that my pedometer suggests I covered on foot since 23rd March.

So it is with great pleasure when I am sworn into Parliament for the fifth time, that I shall be wearing the same suit that I wore on 13th June 2001 and on each occasion since. A good suit can last a lifetime if you look after it, and look after yourself.

When first elected to Parliament, I set myself the target of speaking to three quarters of the members in my first fortnight – and beat that target. With lots of new members this time I shall do that again. Because even with one party much bigger than others, making common cause with people in other parties on issues of shared concern is the best way to support constituents and achieve results.

And meeting constituents at my surgeries – I will soon hold my 1,000th – and elsewhere is deeply satisfying in particular when you can make a practical difference to their lives.

I thank all who voted for me. And promise those that didn't that I will be there for them when they need me.

The election is over. The hard work of the next five years starts now.

Stewart Stevenson
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