The Relevance of First Ministers Questions

The introduction of Parliament sitting on a Tuesday and Topical Questions, which allow MSPs to lodge questions over urgent issues early in the week, have all been welcome reforms from the Presiding Officer. She is now looking at reform of the Committee system, and the possibility of elected Conveners. One hopes that following this, a more considered look is given at how our democracy is presented to the world, and how best to recapture that air of dynamism can be recreated for a younger, more digital savvy audience.

When the Scottish Parliament was established in 1999, its founders were keen to create a fresh, dynamic institution which could be contrasted with what was perceived as the creaking old fashioned world of Westminster.

It would offer unprecedented transparency, from the non-frosted glass in its meeting rooms (a small but very symbolic point) to every Committee meeting and debate in the Chamber easily accessible by the public. A digital petition system, one of the first of its kind in the world, was introduced, allowing a quick and easy method for people to petition Parliamentarians.

Indeed the physical layout of the Holyrood chamber was designed to be in sharp contrast to that of Westminster. Where the House of Commons has the traditional set up of the Government and Opposition starring at each other from across the benches, Holyrood went for a horseshoe shape, reflecting the ambition  for a more consensual style of politics.

One area which did transfer over to the new Parliament without too much alternation was the format of First Ministers Questions. Much like Prime Ministers Questions, it is the centrepiece of the political week in Scotland, allowing backbenchers and Opposition members the chance to question the leader of the Government.

However over the years it has come under increasing criticism, not least due to the perceived in-balance between questions from the opposition leaders and the questions from back benchers (who are inevitability encouraged to get to the point by the Presiding Officer). A typical Prime Ministers Questions can see twenty plus questions asked in a thirty minute period. The rate for FMQs is far lower. This is as much about a culture change in the Scottish chamber. The line between a question and a speech can sometimes be blurred. Given that television will at best, pick up 20 seconds of an exchange in FMQs, there may be no harm in being more targeted in the questioning (and indeed, in the responses).

First Ministers Questions was initially held at 3.10pm on a Thursday afternoon, and followed General Question Time. However in 2003 it was moved to noon, with General Questions starting at 11.40. The idea was that it would be more user friendly, and allow visitors to the Parliament to witness proceedings. However the impact of this change saw viewing figures collapse from 46,000 to 18,000 according to the BBC in 2004.

How can scrutiny in Parliament be better achieved? While there has to be an acknowledgement that with the best will in the world, much of what happens in Parliament is, let’s be chartable, unengaging, some of the following could be considered to refresh FMQs and Subject Questions.

Opposition Leader: “To ask the First Minister what engagements she has planned for the rest of the day.”

The First Minister: “Engagements to take forward the Government’s programme for Scotland.”

Long-time viewers of First Ministers Questions tend to now tune out what has become the customary opening question and answer from the Leader of the Opposition to the First Minister. It is a strange feature of the Scottish Parliament that ahead of First Ministers Questions, the Opposition leaders put down the same initial question and (more often than not) receives the same response First Minister, before the real questions can be asked. It makes for a stilted start to proceedings and reflects poorly on the more energised way in which PMQs is conducted. It contributes nothing to the Parliamentary process.

Extend First Ministers Questions. In some weeks, the questions from the Opposition Leaders can take up more than half of the thirty minute session, leaving backbenches with scant time to get their questions answered. The simplest solution? Extend FMQs or hold two sessions along the lines of Opposition Questions and Backbencher Questions. The thirty minute long PMQs was a feature only brought in during the 1990s, and there is no real reason why the Scottish Parliament has to adopt the same stance as its London counterpart.

Cabinet Secretaries, Ministers and First Minister are accustomed to the scrutiny from their political counterparts, but does it need to be solely up to Opposition members to hold the Government to account? In the spirit of inclusiveness, Parliament could look to create themed Question Times whereby public individuals connected to those topics could either submit questions or directly question the Government in a public setting. This would open up the process, create another layer of scrutiny should majority Governments occur, and demonstrate real openness. The chances of this happening are close to nill (would the Government put themselves through the pain?), but it is an example of one way in which Holyrood can become ever more open to the public.

If reform isn’t achieved it may not only be Westminster which the public perceive as bring old fashioned and unresponsive to the modern world.

By Rob

2 thoughts on “The Relevance of First Ministers Questions

  1. I love the idea of interested members of the public and those with expertise asking questions. However, I am sure that many Ministers and the FM might find it difficult to cope with experts without the backup of their own advisors as no-one can be an expert on everything. But as another means of opening up government decision making the asking of searching questions would be desirable and ‘show’ that democracy was really working. The current system is too predictable and often uninformative, with questions and answers often related to the seeking of party advantage/publicity, rather than informing Parliament and the electorate.

    1. Many thanks for your comments – agreed that something like that would be hard to implement, and might require Ministers and advisors being questioned.

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