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Meeting of the Parliament [Draft]

Meeting date: Tuesday, December 6, 2022

Agenda: Time for Reflection, Topical Question Time, COP27 Outcomes, Standing Order Rule Change (Proxy Voting), Urgent Question, Motion without Notice, Decision Time, Carers Rights Day 2022, Correction


Contents


Standing Order Rule Change (Proxy Voting)

The Deputy Presiding Officer (Annabelle Ewing)

The next item of business is a debate on motion S6M-07078, in the name of Martin Whitfield, on behalf of the Standards, Procedures and Public Appointments Committee, on a temporary rule change to standing orders to allow a proxy voting pilot.

16:32  

Martin Whitfield (South Scotland) (Lab)

It is a pleasure to open the debate, even if the topic has one of the longest titles those in the chamber will have been confronted with.

The founding principles of this Parliament are openness, accountability, the sharing of power and equal opportunities. It is worth considering those foundations as we go forward. We need to design a Parliament for the future; we must not become a Parliament that is stuck in the past.

However, I will revisit the past, and 1999 in particular. As Susan Stewart recalled in “‘Lords o State’ and ‘Lusty Banquetting’: Images of Scotland from 1999-2003”:

“A lot of the MSPs, when they were taking their oath, had their children in the gallery, so it had a less formal feel to it than the parliament that we were used to: Westminster. Right from the start it signalled, ‘This is a family-friendly parliament. It’s going to be a parliament that represents all Scotland and both women and men.’”

Despite that hope of being a family-friendly Parliament, before the last election, four female MSPs cited family as their reason for not seeking re-election. It is on that foundation that the committee looked at what changes could be made.

It is an important pillar of the Parliament that we are family friendly, because it speaks to the principles that I have mentioned. However, currently, our standing orders do not provide for proxy voting—that is, one vote cast by one MSP on behalf of another MSP. The committee’s “Report on inquiry into Future Parliamentary procedures and practices” included the recommendation that a proxy vote pilot should take place. The evidence indicated that MSPs, like the rest of the population, have times in their life when circumstances such as illness, bereavement or parental responsibilities mean that they cannot vote in person or use the remote voting platform and they are unable to attend the Parliament.

Stuart McMillan (Greenock and Inverclyde) (SNP)

The committee’s report refers to three different categories to which proxy voting might apply, which I agree with. However, Mr Whitfield will know about the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association and other international events that parliamentarians can attend. Did the committee give consideration to those aspects in its work?

Martin Whitfield

I am grateful for that intervention. It is right that, in our short-term investigation, we limited the areas in which we think proxy votes should be used, but that does not mean that the Parliament cannot look at other areas in the future. Indeed, if parliamentarians and colleagues have responsibilities that take them to other countries—for example, through the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association, which has just been mentioned—we could look at that.

The measure is temporary, and we will observe how it works over the year. It would be helpful for the committee to be informed of situations in which a proxy vote was not available to a member, so that we can take that into account, too.

What lies behind today’s motion? The committee published a relatively short report following consultation with members, the Presiding Officer and the Parliamentary Bureau on key elements of what the chamber proxy voting scheme should look like. It is important to say that the change applies only to the chamber; proxy voting will not be available in committees, for which there is a separate substitute provision.

The proposed pilot is a means of complementing the existing remote voting platform and the informal pairing arrangements that are in place for some members. It provides an institutional provision that will allow members an additional route to vote in certain circumstances.

The committee is mindful of one person holding a significant number of proxy votes for other members of their party or, indeed, for members across the chamber, so we recommend that a member should hold no more than two proxy votes. The holding and granting of such votes is based on trust between two members, so that is best dealt with by members who trust each other. The members might be from different political parties, but the proxy vote will be given on the basis of trust.

The committee has made a number of recommendations on the proxy voting scheme, but I will draw attention to two in particular. First, for the prevention of doubt, the proxy vote will have the same status as a vote cast by a member in person. Secondly, the proxy vote will be recorded in the minutes of the meeting so that that pillar of transparency can be addressed.

There is a crucial relationship between MSPs in the Parliament and their constituents, which speaks volumes to the trust that constituents place in us when they cast their votes to send us here. The same basis should exist when a member, in certain circumstances, trusts another member to cast their vote; respect between those two members must be held.

We have invited the Presiding Officer not to adjudicate on proxy voting but to administer the scheme, and she has consented to do that.

On that basis, I invite members to endorse the temporary change so that we can see whether proxy voting is right for the chamber and for the Parliament.

On behalf of the committee, I move,

That the Parliament notes the Standards, Procedures and Public Appointments Committee’s 7th Report, 2022 (Session 6), Report on a Proxy Voting pilot (SP Paper 270), and agrees that the temporary rule change to Standing Orders set out in Annexe A of the report be made with effect from 4 January 2023.

16:38  

The Minister for Parliamentary Business (George Adam)

As always, I welcome the opportunity to participate in such debates on behalf of the Scottish Government. On 22 September, the Parliament held a debate on the subject of the committee’s report and its inquiry into virtual and hybrid working. There was clear and broad consensus on the need for the Parliament’s working practices to retain the flexibility that has been offered by new ways of working. The Scottish Parliament has adapted over time, not only because of the need to react to the pandemic but in the light of practical experience and Scotland’s ever-evolving constitutional journey.

The committee identified the establishment of a proxy voting scheme as a necessary and prudent reform. I reiterate that it is for the Parliament to consider any proposals relating to its operation, including any changes to its voting arrangements. Colleagues might recall that I noted that the merits of a proxy voting scheme, as outlined in the committee’s report, were clear. That view was widely shared, as evidenced by those who contributed to the committee’s inquiry.

The committee recognised the need to ensure that any such arrangements were robust and fit for purpose, and it said that it would engage further with the Parliamentary Bureau and others to refine the details of the model scheme. As a member of the bureau, along with other business managers, I had the opportunity to consider the correspondence from the committee seeking further input on the practical implications of proxy voting and how any issues could be addressed. I found those exchanges on the technical and procedural aspects of the arrangement to be helpful and productive.

The Scottish Government welcomes the committee’s position that decisions on agreeing a member’s request for a proxy vote should rest with the Presiding Officer. That will ensure the integrity of the scheme and that such requests are monitored and considered on a consistent basis. I believe that that is extremely important as we move forward with the pilot, and it is especially important to the success of the pilot scheme in handling requests for proxies in relation to illness. That aspect of the scheme clearly adds a further dynamic to the implementation, in terms of evaluating fairness.

The Government also highlights the issue of ensuring that those who are nominated to exercise a proxy vote do so in a manner that is consistent with the wishes of the absentee—in other words, that the person who is nominated votes the right way for the individual who asked for the proxy.

It is important to mention the committee’s finding that, despite recent events, the Parliament was able to fulfil its scrutiny function. The Scottish Government welcomes that.

Members who are also ministers should of course be treated equally when it comes to requests for proxy votes. To be clear, that would not detract from the Government’s commitment to ensuring that ministers are made available in order to be held to account.

I do not intend to take up too much more time. The Scottish Government once again commends the Standards, Procedures and Public Appointments Committee for its work on this matter and will closely follow the operation and experience of any pilot scheme.

16:41  

Alexander Stewart (Mid Scotland and Fife) (Con)

The Parliament prides itself on being a flexible and open institution that accommodates people from as many different backgrounds as possible and with different lifestyles. That has been particularly clear since the pandemic, when remote participation in parliamentary business was put in place. The introduction of virtual proceedings has not been without its problems, but there is no doubt that it has helped the Parliament to evolve. Given that, it is right that we consider how further improvements to parliamentary business can be made. Therefore, I welcome this debate on the proposed pilot for a proxy voting system.

We know that virtual participation has been made possible, with members voting remotely, but there are also times when it is neither practical nor reasonable to expect members to participate in that way. A proxy voting system would help to address many of those circumstances. Although informal pairing arrangements have existed and worked reasonably well, there is an opportunity to ensure that individuals who want their vote to be dealt with at decision time get that chance, and proxy voting will allow that to happen.

As a member of the Standards, Procedures and Public Appointments Committee, I am happy that the report outlines how a pilot could be effectively installed. One important aspect of the pilot is the circumstances in which the proxy vote will be granted. Those circumstances have been outlined as being illness, bereavement and parental leave. Those may not be the most effective set of circumstances, but they will be the starting point for the scheme, and a judgment will be made on what can be achieved.

The report is right to emphasise the importance of the Presiding Officer having the final say on when proxy votes are granted and ensuring that a large number of votes are not controlled by a small number of people, which is vital. Various issues have arisen in circumstances and situations in the past, including in stage 3 debates, which involve votes on a large number of matters. Several possible solutions have been proposed, and I know that the trial and error approach of the pilot scheme will help to determine the system that we adopt going forward.

Many members will be aware of previous examples in which a proxy vote system would have been beneficial to individuals. My colleague Edward Mountain MSP has very much been involved in that regard. For a significant time, he was unable to be here due to ill health, and he has spoken about the fact that the current system made him feel that his vote did not count. I have no doubt that the introduction of a proxy voting system will support MSPs effectively and that it will be done in accordance with the committee’s report to ensure that individuals have the right to select someone to be a proxy for them. That would have been of great support to Edward Mountain and, like him, I want the process to proceed as soon as possible.

The introduction of proxy voting could be another important step forward in making the Parliament a place that is truly accommodating to people with different needs, backgrounds and circumstances. The success of the pilot scheme will depend on clear communication between members, the Presiding Officer and the designated proxy. It is important that the whole Parliament is clear about the role, the process and what will take place during the pilot. However, I am very confident that, working together, which we have seen many times before in Parliament, we will arrive at a system that truly works for better democracy in this establishment.

16:45  

Neil Bibby (West Scotland) (Lab)

I join other members in commending the Standards, Procedures and Public Appointments Committee for its work on this issue, and I am pleased to support the measure on behalf of Scottish Labour. I believe that it is a victory for common sense.

All members elected to this Parliament should have the opportunity to have a say on legislation or in debates that impact on their constituents. Illness, bereavement and parental leave should not be obstacles to that.

If we recall the circus that surrounded the knife-edge Westminster votes on the Brexit deal—when MPs were wheeled into the lobbies in wheelchairs and expectant mothers voted when past their due date—those were not the images of a modern democracy and they shamed our politics. It was frankly embarrassing, at a time when faith in our political process among the public was already wearing thin.

I just make Neil Bibby aware that that was not the first time that such activity took place in Westminster. The previous time I remember it happening was when there was potential reform of the House of Lords.

Neil Bibby

Mr McMillan is right. It has happened over a number of years and, frankly, it is a situation that should not be able to come to pass.

We in the Scottish Parliament have always prided ourselves on being a different kind of Parliament, less bound by ancient traditions and more open to a family-friendly outlook for its members. However, our actions have not always met that rhetoric.

Today, the committee has put forward a fair proposal to allow colleagues in those circumstances to represent the electorate and to allow all members of Parliament to have their say on the matters of the day. It is up to us, now, to make a success of the trial and build confidence in the processes.

The pandemic was a dark chapter in this country’s history and the consequences are still being felt today. One of the silver linings, though, was that it forced us all to rethink working practices so that we could function during the necessary lockdown periods and to embrace technology where possible to make us more efficient. That meant that changes to the way that we operate as a Parliament that were seen as theoretical or experimental became the norm, as we were forced to make them work.

Today is a welcome update to that, and I am confident that the proposed trial will be a success. As a Parliament, we should not fear change and we should be open to better ways of working, particularly as the world around us is rapidly evolving and opening up opportunities to work smarter.

My only regret, which is similar to Martin Whitfield’s, is that this has come too late for many colleagues who in the past have been unable to balance family life with their responsibilities as a parliamentarian. As a father, I know the daily juggling act and how difficult it can be for new parents to keep all the balls in the air. I consider myself very fortunate that I can make all of that work, but we all know colleagues who, for different reasons, whether it be geography or the lack of a support network, simply could not maintain that, and our politics is all the poorer for it.

We all want to see the brightest and the best attracted to public service and this is a small but progressive step, removing a potential barrier to elected office for good people in the future. With this welcome reform, there is also a responsibility on elected members to use the allowance wisely, as Alexander Stewart said. It is right that proxy voting is enabled on the basis of trust, with appropriate privacy safeguards in place, but our constituents expect us to be in Parliament when possible, representing them in person when we can.

I agree that proxy voting is a privilege, that it should be used judiciously and that we should be mindful of our responsibilities in order to preserve the accommodations. After all, being a politician is a very fortunate position; we must always remember that plenty of other workers are not afforded anywhere near the level of flexibility that we enjoy. In any case, this is a positive step for Parliament and I look forward to working with colleagues to ensure that the trial is a success.

I call Gillian Mackay, who joins us remotely.

16:49  

Gillian Mackay (Central Scotland) (Green)

I thank the members of the Standards, Procedures and Public Appointments Committee for their work on the proxy voting scheme over the past few months.

Following the steps forward taken during the pandemic, and considering the potential issues that could arise from the current pairing system, I am pleased that we are now at this point. As a member of the Parliamentary Bureau, I confirm that we have discussed the issue on a number of occasions.

Proxy voting will provide individual members with the ability to exercise their vote on matters that are important to them when they cannot otherwise participate. With the ability to participate online, which I am doing today, there is less likelihood of the mechanism being used than in previous parliamentary sessions, but it is still an important part of voting in the chamber.

I am pleased that the pilot will cover illness, parental leave and bereavement, but I ask that, after the pilot is concluded, caring responsibilities be considered for inclusion in the scope of reasons for a proxy vote. We should be aware that, for some, caring means more than parental responsibilities and the omission of caring responsibilities from a full scheme in future parliamentary sessions could put someone off putting themselves forward for election, if they perceive there to be a lack of flexibility.

I agree with other members that the Presiding Officer administering the scheme is the correct, appropriate and fair route.

I am sure that many members across the Parliament appreciate the focus on confidentiality throughout the report. The measure is in no way intended to allow us to avoid scrutiny or duck questions on why we might or might not be present, but it will prevent the possibility of any member’s medical condition or family situation ending up being made public against their wishes.

As with any new system, the proof will be in the implementation, and any issues will need to be considered as part of the evaluation of the pilot.

I note that there are no recommendations in the report with regard to corrections if a member who is exercising a proxy accidentally exercises their vote in the wrong way. I am keen to understand from the convener or any other member of the committee whether that was discussed.

Obviously, a vote cannot be changed once it has been cast—

Ms Mackay, I have received a request for an intervention from Martin Whitfield. Do you wish to accept the intervention?

Absolutely.

Martin Whitfield

I am grateful to Gillian Mackay for giving way. During the trial period, we will sit under the same restrictions that apply now for voting in the chamber: namely, if a vote was incorrectly cast or not counted, it could appear in the record, but it would not affect the numbers in the calculation of how the vote went. I hope that that helps.

Gillian Mackay

I thank Martin Whitfield for that helpful clarification.

I would also be interested to hear about the timescales for notifying the Presiding Officer of the need for a proxy. Obviously, bereavements, caring responsibilities and parental responsibilities can happen suddenly and are outwith members’ control, so I hope that the process will be responsive and adaptable to members’ needs, while respecting the need to give clerks time to get a proxy in place.

I welcome, in paragraph 36 of the report, the flexibility around allowing members to participate in chamber business

“for a period of time when the proxy is in place”.

Something akin to a phased return and participating in some but not all business would be beneficial to members who have been off with a long-term illness.

I welcome the report and the piloting of the proxy voting system, and I look forward to the outcomes of the pilot. I again thank the SPPA Committee for its work.

16:53  

Bob Doris (Glasgow Maryhill and Springburn) (SNP)

This important, if brief, debate is part of a far wider consultative process. The committee thanks members who attended focus groups, completed surveys or participated in the two parliamentary debates in the chamber, all of which were designed to tease out how Scotland’s Parliament can reform, enhance and modernise itself.

This temporary rule change takes forward a key recommendation of our inquiry into future parliamentary procedures and practices, the report on which was published in July. Our committee has sought to listen to and reflect the emerging broad consensus in the Parliament on the reforms. Our proposals for a temporary rule change to permit a year-long pilot for proxy voting fit in well with that consensus. It is our hope that the proxy voting pilot will contribute to making our Parliament more flexible in its working practices to support parliamentarians to fulfil their democratic duties, and that it will send a clear message to people who might consider stepping forward for elected office in the future that Scotland’s Parliament will do what it can to support them and their life circumstances.

Ill health, parental circumstances and bereavement are everyday realities for the people we represent and for members in this place.

The temporary rule changes feel like measured and reasonable adjustments. History may very well show that this could have been rolled out some time ago. As we have heard, had the adjustments been in place, along with the important innovations for a hybrid Parliament and remote voting that were developed at pace and out of necessity, we might even have retained some now-departed MSPs. That is our loss.

I will focus on two aspects of the rule changes. The first is that parental circumstances and parental leave should be seen as widely as possible. We talk about parents and about adoptive, foster and kinship parents. All modern parenting relationships must be reflected in the rule changes.

Secondly, as we heard earlier, someone who is using proxy voting is gone but should not be forgotten. They might still want to participate from time to time in the life of this Parliament. They may have a fluctuating health condition; they may be interested in a particular issue. I think that Mr Mountain would have had something to say about that, had he been here today. It is important to know that a person can temporarily withdraw a proxy vote so that they can participate in the life of this chamber and Parliament without that interfering with the long-term request for proxy voting.

The pilot must be evaluated. The SPPA Committee intends to do so towards the end of next year, with a view to deciding whether to recommend a permanent rule change. It is also worth noting that this is the first time that a temporary rule provision introduced at the end of the previous session of Parliament is being used to pilot such a procedural change.

The contributions made today will help in the preparation of the proxy voting scheme. Although the committee has made recommendations, there will be further detail in the scheme about how a proxy vote can be arranged and cast. If Parliament supports the motion, that detail will be in place before the temporary rule change comes into effect.

As previously indicated, today’s motion is about being a modern and flexible Parliament and ensuring that all who live in Scotland can step forward and play a full part in Scotland’s national Parliament. Getting our Parliament right for the future is an important responsibility for MSPs. I thank colleagues for their support in fulfilling that important endeavour.

That concludes the debate.