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Inside Track: Should lawmaking process undergo a makeover?

A Parliament is a place of words.

In the week before Christmas the unsung heroes of Holyrood, our Official Report, recorded 160,000 or so. "Christmas" came up 60 times, from our debates and committees. And we created 74 pages of new law.

The clashes in debates, the questions to ministers and the answers given may amuse, irritate and inform in equal measure.

But when we put words into law it matters. People's lives can be changed.Over the centuries our law has become more wordy, more complex.When the Scottish Parliament passed the 1705 Fisheries Act it contained about 250 words. This year our Aquaculture and Fisheries Act was 70 pages. And, like all law, it ain't an easy read.

How parliaments around the world make law has evolved over a long period. From our Royal Mines Act of 1424 to this month's Landfill Tax Act, we politicians are still learning how to do it. When the Scottish Parliament was reconvened in 1999, we made some changes. We vote electronically, sometimes more than once a minute. Westminster MPs walk out through the Ayes and Noes lobbies to be counted. That takes 20 minutes.

But we kept the essence of how we make law. Debate the principle, refine with amendments in committee and then allow the whole parliament to make final amendments, debate and then agree or reject the final text.

The processes and the engagement in them by MSPs, the understanding of the policy decisions being made, attention to detail, advice from officials, lobbying from external interests all contribute to the final results.

The final test is - is it good law? We know it can get challenged in the courts, occasionally successfully. We know we have to re-visit laws to fine tune them. Not all laws tabled make it to the statute book - Parliament does exercise its right to say no.

Our Standards, Procedures and Public Appointments Committee, of which I am convenor, looks at our processes. And always wants to hear good ideas for improvement from as wide a cross-section as possible.

Next year the Committee will discuss our approach to legislation in detail. Let me pose a couple of entirely personal questions we may consider. Big laws often attract hundreds of amendments which we need to discuss. Our clerks number them as they come in. But we debate them grouped by subject matter not in number order. And then vote on them in the sequence they affect the text. Three different orders.

It's not just a technical issue. Ten years ago I put forward in Committee a couple of related amendments. We discussed them in late June and decided on one of them. The second decision came 16 meetings later in late October. Could we remember that earlier debate? Is it time to vote in the order we debate?

We vote electronically - good. But does the speed give us time to grasp what's going on? Should there be time-outs when the whole Parliament's making amendments?

It's been said that the making of law is like the making of sausages; not a pretty sight. Is it time for a makeover?

* Stewart Stevenson is SNP MSP for Banffshire and Buchan Coast

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