Diary column – July 2011
It is a slightly strange fact that, following each Scottish Parliamentary election, we MSPs spend about seven weeks confirming the Government and Ministerial appointments, establishing the committees and generally setting up the new Parliament in time for the official opening. Thereafter, we immediately go into the summer recess! This session has been no exception and everything (well, almost everything) is now in place for the Parliament to hit the ground running when we reconvene in September. As I mentioned in my last diary piece, I have returned to the committee from whence I came – the Rural Affairs, Climate Change and Environment Committee (RACCE for most – ‘though known already by many as the ‘Rural Affairs etc’ Committee) and, although we have all had a first input into what we feel our priorities should be, we will be having a full day’s session before Parliament returns in order to agree our work programme. For the last four years, the Government has not had a majority on any committee, as committee membership has to broadly reflect the political make-up of the whole Parliament, so it will be very interesting to see how they operate with a Government majority on each committee. Part of the committee role in a Parliament with no second chamber is to hold the Government to account, and one of the big questions over the next five years is how effective will they be in that role when the governing party effectively controls the committees? Watch this space.
Reform on the Agenda.
Towards the end of the last Parliament, various MSPs started making headlines by calling for a review and reform of the way our Parliamentary business was carried out. As Presiding Officer, I felt that the proper time to consider such reforms was in the early days of a new Session of Parliament rather than in the dying days of an old one, although I was, and remain, very much in favour of some changes. I was therefore delighted when my successor wrote to all members asking for their thoughts on how we might make better use of our sitting time. Currently, committees meet on Tuesday and Wednesday mornings with full plenary sessions on Wednesday afternoons and Thursdays. There is therefore a keenness amongst Members to be on ‘Wednesday’ committees which, theoretically, means you can have an extra constituency day on a Tuesday. There is a thought that perhaps committees should meet in the mornings, with full plenary in the afternoons, and I think that is worthy of serious consideration. We are also currently constrained by our ‘decision time’ which is held at 5pm on Wednesdays and Thursdays and at which we vote on the day’s business. This can be very constraining on debating time and during the last Session I encouraged the Business Bureau to pioneer ‘ Stage 3 Wednesdays’ so that, with due warning, we sat until at least 6pm on some Wednesdays which we devoted to the final stage of a Bill. This was popular, ensured full debate, and again I believe merits further consideration. I have no doubt either that our questioning of Ministers and indeed First Minister’s Questions itself needs a radical shake-up. FMQs is the session everyone wants to see, but is has become tired and predictable and in need of spontaneity. I am delighted that my successor as P.O. is going to tackle these issues – we will have a much improved Parliament if some changes are introduced and now is definitely the right time.
Most people, when referring to our Parliamentary recesses say, “so that’s you on your holidays then!” In fact, so many people do so that I decided to have a summer break this year for the first time in 5 years, and I have just returned from two weeks in the USA, bringing the North Carolina sunshine home with me, it would appear! Suffocatingly hot on the coast, where our eldest son lives with his family, Mrs F and I took to the Appalachians for five days with the seven-year-old twins – and what a lovely few days we had. Having been told greatly exaggerated tales by our son about our having had tea in the Queen’s tent at the Garden Party at Holyrood Palace the week before, the twins, like most Americans, were fascinated by all things Royal. Top memory for me was at supper on the balcony of a wee mountain cabin that we were staying in. I disposed of the liquid remains of a fruit salad by raising the bowl to my mouth and drinking it – perfectly acceptable holiday behaviour, in my opinion. The bowl was large, and I was completely blinded by it as I drained the delicious liquid. All I heard was my granddaughter’s voice saying witheringly – “I don’t think you’d be doing that if you were with the Queen.” What is it about children!
The result of a two and a half week absence is a very full in-tray on my return. Dealing with the backlog is not made easier by having to move office, as the boundary changes which came in at the last election mean that my former constituency office in Thornhill was no longer in the constituency. Finding an easily accessible alternative has not proved easy, but I am delighted to say that we have identified eminently suitable premises in Castle Douglas, at Wallets Marts, and will be moving in over the course of this week. It will take a little time to get it up and running and, at the time of writing, I don’t even have a telephone number. The postal address however is Alex Fergusson MSP, Constituency Office, New Market Street, Castle Douglas, DG7 1HY, and I can always be contacted through my Parliamentary office on 0131 348 5638 or through my website at www.alexfergusson.org.uk. Full contact details will be available next month, and I will be taking other steps to circulate them as widely as possible. I will miss the convenience of my former office very much but it will be good to be located in the very heart of this new constituency.
And it’s agricultural show-time again – my favourite time of the year. I suspect it’s the farmer in me, but I never tire of visiting the four local shows at Stranraer, Wigtown, Stewartry and Dumfries every year. In good times and bad our local stockmen, who are as good as any in Scotland, take huge pride in showing off their stock to the rest of us. ‘Showing’ is a very time-consuming activity and a devoted commitment to it is required. Yet year after year they turn out for the simple pleasure of doing what they do best. Obviously a winning ticket is a bonus, but most are there just to take part in a true spirit of competitive camaraderie. I hope that our shows will follow the Highland Show’s lead with record attendances – Princess Anne’s presence should certainly boost Wigtown Show numbers, and here’s hoping for continued sunshine – it makes all the difference.