Today, for the first time this session, Patrick Harvie had a scheduled question at First Minister’s Questions. That’s almost a year without having a question taken in advance even once, zero out of more than thirty sessions, and it’s pretty inexplicable.
Sure, Patrick and Alison aren’t a massive Parliamentary group, but then neither are Willie Rennie and his four associates.
In May last year, the Presiding Officer wrote to all party leaders explaining how regular access to FMQs would be divided. The letter is at the end of this post. Two weeks out of three, Willie Rennie gets a question.
That’s maybe 20 scheduled questions for him over the first year of this arrangement, given recess. And yet Tricia Marwick also promised we would see “the Green Party being selected from time to time on a roughly proportional basis“.
The maths aren’t terribly hard. Willie Rennie is leader of a group of five, Patrick Harvie is co-convenor of a group of two. If Willie gets 20 shots, the equivalent for Patrick would be to be heard 8 times. Not a mere 1. That, Presiding Officer, is nowhere near “roughly proportional“. This isn’t about more chances for point-scoring or partisanship – the public who voted Green have the same right to have their concerns heard as those who voted Lib Dem, and “on a roughly proportional basis“. Holyrood was established to reflect the diversity of views in Scotland, as partially reflected in our electoral system, and that principle needs to apply to MSPs’ only opportunity to hold the First Minister to account.
While the Green Party is substantially under-represented, it turns out the Christine Grahame party is substantially over-represented. I like Christine – she’s probably the best SNP committee convenor we have right now, for one thing, and she asks pertinent questions too, both with her constituency hat and her convenorship hat on, but the Presiding Officer has essentially turned FMQs into the Christine and Alex show. Here’s her showing since the last election:
- March 2012: Lockerbie
- February 2012: Business in Tweedbank (constituency)
- January 2012: Benefits and child poverty
- December 2011: Access to courts (supplementary)
- December 2011: Double jeopardy
- November 2011: Carloway report (supplementary)
- September 2011: Waverley line (constituency)
- September 2011: STV access (supplementary)
- September 2011: Lockerbie
(Parliament is in recess for July and August)
- June 2011: Cadder ruling
- June 2011: Waverley line (constituency)
Since the last election there has been only one month when Tricia Marwick hasn’t called Christine Grahame, not counting the summer recess: October last year (and there were two weeks of recess in October, so only two rounds of FMQs). Seven of those have been scheduled questions. Patrick Harvie has had supplementary questions taken over that period, like this, but the dire new Parliament website has a broken search function and is returning precisely zero results for Patrick at FMQs.
I like the Presiding Officer, even if she’ll probably never speak to me again, and the explanation for this gross disproportionality isn’t clear. But it’s hard not to conclude it’s personal.
Presiding Officer’s letter of 25 May 2011
I am writing to advise you of the decisions I have taken in relation to the future management of First Minister’s Question Time.
There are two important principles that have underpinned my deliberations. Firstly, the prime purpose of First Minister’s Question Time is to hold the Scottish Government to account and I therefore intend to ensure that all of the parties represented on the Parliamentary Bureau are given the opportunity to do so. Secondly, I intend to ensure that backbench Members have a greater opportunity to ask questions of the First Minister, and more prominence when doing so during the half-hour weekly slot.
On that basis, the approach I will adopt is as follows:
* Questions 1 and 2 will follow the same format as in Session 3 (ie, allocated to the Labour Party and to the Conservative Party with four and two supplementary questions respectively).
* Question 3 will be allocated to the Liberal Democrat Party for two weeks out of three. For one week in three, I will select what I consider to be the best quality question from a backbench Member submitted that week, regardless of party.
* Question 4 will be allocated to the SNP and question 5 will be allocated to the Labour Party.
* Question 6 will be allocated equally between the Conservative Party and the SNP with the Green Party being selected from time to time on a roughly proportional basis.
Following the principle of giving backbenchers more scope and prominence, it is also my intention to take questions of a local nature after Question 2 rather than after Question 3 as has previously been the case.
I will, of course, reserve the right to alter the above on any week, depending on the topicality and suitability of the questions submitted.
First Minister’s Questions is, for many, the high point of the parliamentary week and I intend to do all I can to ensure that this session plays its part in holding the Government to account on the issues of the day.
TRICIA MARWICK MSP