Since the beginning of the Coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic, the Scottish Parliament has had to adapt to new ways of working. This blog examines how the Parliament has adapted to ensure that it can operate safely whilst continuing to function as a legislature at a time of national emergency.
Overview of key changes
The Parliament agreed to suspensions and variations of Standing Orders to ensure that it was able to continue to sit in light of the public health emergency. It was vital that the Parliament be able to meet given the need to pass emergency legislation in response to the pandemic. The suspensions and variations to Standing Orders:
- enable remote and hybrid participation in meetings of the Parliament and committees
- enable the introduction of a remote voting system for meetings of the Parliament
- provide flexibility in relation to methods of voting in committees
- suspend the requirement for public access to meetings of the Parliament and committees
- provide flexibility on the nomination of committee substitutes
- enable the use of the electronic voting system in the Chamber for the election of an additional Deputy Presiding Officer
- suspend the requirements in relation to the scheduling of Members’, committee and opposition business.
Social distancing in the Chamber
A maximum of 70 (of the 129) Members can be in the Chamber for proceedings. The remaining MSPs use enhanced videoconferencing to be present in proceedings virtually. The Chamber now has 66 desks and there are an additional 4 speaking positions in the lower public gallery. Seating allocation in the floor of the Chamber reflects party balance. MSPs are required to wear a face covering as they move around the Chamber and may continue to wear their face covering when seated. Members remove their face covering when speaking. Cleaning materials are also provided at each desk.
Topical questions, Portfolio Questions and First Minister’s questions continue to go ahead on a weekly basis. The weekly General Questions session is not being scheduled at present. Question sessions are hybrid with MSPs able to join either from the Chamber or virtually on the Parliament’s remote platform. The official report for each meeting of the Parliament indicates whether proceedings were hybrid or wholly virtual.
On 15 October 2020 an all-virtual meeting of the Parliament was held. This was for the First Minister to give an update and take questions on COVID-19.
All MSPs, whether in the Chamber or using the remote platform, vote using the digital voting system.
How are Committees working?
Committees are generally able to meet in person in the Scottish Parliament, in hybrid format or wholly virtually, although guidance on this changes in line with wider COVID-19 guidance. Likewise, witnesses are generally able to give evidence in person or remotely. Again, this is decided on a case by case basis and in line with COVID-19 guidance on matters such as social distancing and travel restrictions.
COVID-19 specific work
The COVID-19 Committee, established in April 2020, continues to meet. The Standards, Procedures and Public Appointments Committee is holding an inquiry into the resilience of the Scottish Parliament’s practices and procedures.
Other parliamentary committees have carried out a wide range of COVID-19 related work, summarised in this blog on scrutiny of COVID-19 by committees. For example the Environment, Climate Change and Land Reform Committee held an inquiry into a Green Recovery from COVID-19, reporting in November 2020, and the Economy, Energy and Fair Work (EEFW) Committee has been running an inquiry since March on the impact of COVID-19 on businesses, workers and the economy, which also reported in November 2020.
Immediate response – March 2020
On 17 March 2020 the Parliament agreed to the suspension of a number of Rules under the Standing Orders of the Parliament. The suspensions were agreed to by business motions S5M-21283, S5M-21284, S5M-21285, and S5M-21286. Each suspension was for “the duration of the public response to the Novel coronavirus COVID-19”. Information on the changes made by each motion is set out below.
- Rules 5.6.1(a) (b) and (c) (by motion S5M-21283) have been suspended. This means that the Parliament does not have to dedicated specified amounts of time for special cases of parliamentary business, that is opposition days, committee debates and Members’ Business.
- Rules 11.9.4, 11.9.5, 11.9.13 and 11.9.16 were suspended (in accordance with Motion S5M-21284). These suspensions related to the ballot for an additional deputy Presiding Officer to be elected by the Parliament.
- Rule 6.3A.1 (by motion S5M-21285) was amended to include after “member” the words “or members”. This change allowed parties to have more than one substitute member on a Committee.
- Rule 6.3A.2 (by motion S5M-21285) was suspended so that a nomination for a substitute Committee member need not be made in writing to the Bureau.
- In Rule 6.3A.4 (by motion S5M-21285) the first sentence was suspended. This means that a member is able to be a substitute on various committees at the same time if needed. Members are usually not allowed to be a substitute member on more than two committees at once.
- Rule 6.3A.5(d) (by motion S5M-21285) was amended to include a point (e) which allows committee substitutes to cease being substitutes where “ a political party withdraws in writing to the Bureau that nomination of the member or members nominated for the purposes of the duration of the public response to the Novel coronavirus COVID-19.”
- Rule 12.1.15 was amended (by motion S5M-21285) with the words “(other than a committee substitute)” omitted in both instances where they occur. This change allows a committee substitute to be temporary convener of a committee if necessary.
- Rule 15.2.1 (by motion S5M-21286) was suspended. This suspension means that members of the public do not have to be let into the public gallery when the Parliament is sitting. The Parliament remains closed to the public.
The Parliament continued to meet for reasons relating to COVID-19 and time sensitive legislation on 18 and 19 March 2020.
Lockdown and emergency COVID-19 legislation
The UK lockdown began on 23 March 2020. On 24 March 2020 the Parliament met to discuss COVID-19 and time sensitive business.
The Parliament did not then meet until 1 April 2020 when it considered the Coronavirus (Scotland) Bill 2020 as emergency legislation. All three stages were completed on 1 April 2020 with the Parliament passing the Coronavirus (Scotland) Act 2020.
On 9 and 16 April virtual leaders’ questions sessions were held. These gave party leaders the opportunity to ask questions of the First Minister. On 17 April a virtual members’ questions session was held.
Further changes to Standing Orders – April and May 2020
On 21 April 2020 the Parliament met to consider COVID-19 related business. On this date a number of further suspensions and amendments to Standing Orders were agreed, including on virtual proceedings.
S5M-21507 suspended rule 2.7.1 and replaced it with a rule which allows for a virtual or hybrid Parliament to meet. 2.7.1 now reads:
“Subject to Rule 2.7.2 and 2.7.3, meetings of the Parliament shall be held either in the Debating Chamber of the Parliament, Holyrood, or remotely, by video conference in a virtual Debating Chamber hosted on such platform as may be provided by the Parliamentary corporation; and references in the Rules to ‘the Chamber’ are to be interpreted accordingly.”
S5M-21507 also amended Rule 11.7.1 with the words “the electronic voting system” being replaced with “an electronic voting system” and suspended Rule 12.3.2. replacing it with a rule which allowed committees of the Parliament to meet in hybrid.
The motion specified that these changes were for the duration of the response to Coronavirus – that being defined as “17 March 2020 up to and including 26 June 2020, and such further period or periods as are determined by the Presiding Officer from time to time following consultation with the Bureau and notified to the Parliament in the Business Bulletin.”
The Parliament also agreed by motion S5M-21508 that in regard to motions S5M-21283, S5M-21284, S5M-21285 and S5M-21286 the references to “the duration of the public response to the Novel coronavirus COVID-19” be read as references to (a) the period from 17 March 2020 up to and including 26 June 2020 and (b) such further period or periods as are determined by the Presiding Officer from time to time following consultation with the Bureau and notified to the Parliament in the Business Bulletin.
The motion also specified that the suspensions and variances agreed by the Parliament on 17 March 2020 apply as appropriate, to meetings of the Parliament, including meetings of committees or sub-committees.
12 May 2020 the Parliament passed motion S5M-21721. This suspended Rule 11.8.3 and replaced it with a rule to allow for Committees to vote electronically.
On 1 September 2020 the Parliament agreed motion S5M-22597 which further varied rule 12.3.2 (previously varied by motion S5M-21507) to allow for Committees to meet wholly remotely by video conference.
Determinations by the Presiding Officer
A determination by the Presiding Officer was published in the Business Bulletin on 26 June 2020 indicating that, following consultation with the Bureau, the suspension and variation of Rules by motion S5M-21508 would be extended until 9 October 2020.
At a meeting of the Bureau on 29 September 2020 it was decided that the Standing Order suspensions and variations in light of COVID should be extended to apply until 24 December 2020.
A determination by the Presiding Officer was published in the Business Bulletin on 9 October 2020 indicating that the variation and suspension of Rules (motion S5M-21508) would be extended until 24 December 2020.
The suspensions and variations are now in place until dissolution (5 May 2020). The Bureau was consulted on this extension at its meeting on 8 December 2020 and the Presiding Officer’s determination appeared in the Business Bulletin of 23 December 2020.
Sarah Atherton, Senior Researcher, Parliament and Constitution