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Inside Track: Vote on Aquaculture and Fisheries Bill

I TURNED up at the BBC Scotland HQ in Glasgow for a stint as the "presenter's friend" on Holyrood Live last week and I have to admit I was more nervous than usual at the prospect of doing an hour of live telly.

The reason for my butterflies was fish – or more specifically the Scottish Government's Aquaculture and Fisheries Bill, which MSPs were debating and passing into law that afternoon.

There seemed an alarmingly high chance that sooner or later presenter Andrew Kerr would turn to me and say: "So, Magnus, some important things in the aquaculture bill?" At which point I would have been well and truly floundering.

In the end I was spared the agony of trying to bluff my way through. The producers of Holyrood Live were no more interested in the intricacies of fish farm regulation than I was so the Bill wasn't discussed at all.

My great relief, however, has since been tempered by a touch of embarrassment. It turns out we were all wrong to pay so little attention. The Bill itself may have been uncontroversial but in the end it was voted through only after a quiet but significant protest over the way it was handled by ministers.

Labour, Conservative and LibDem MSPs were furious that three key sections were introduced only at Stage Three, the final series of votes before legislation is approved, leaving no possibility of the measures being consulted upon or scrutinised in committee.

For the record, the new sections dealt with boats used to transport fish, the role of the Crown Estate and fixed penalties for causing pollution. They were largely uncontentious but opposition MSPs were so incensed by their late appearance they chose to abstain rather than vote in favour.

Tory MSP Alex Fergusson, who as a former Presiding Officer is a keen defender of parliamentary process and protocol, told me: "I think it sets a dangerous precedent.

"A number of us had very serious reservations about this because it effectively by-passed the committee stage when we have a chance to scrutinise the detail of legislation, call witnesses and engage with stakeholders.

"We felt we had to abstain on a point of principle even though we would probably all have supported the measures in question."

Mr Fergusson believes the incident is another example of the difficulties faced by the committees in the current Parliament, dominated as it is by a single party.

Senior opposition MSPs have already warned that SNP-dominated committees have chosen to conduct too much business in private and have regularly refused to launch inquiries which might embarrass the Scottish Government.

If the committees – once regarded as a great strength of the Holyrood system – are not involved in testing, challenging and ultimately improving legislation, there is little point in having them.

It goes without saying that Mr Fergusson is very anxious indeed not to see a repeat of last week's legislative late, late show.

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