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INSIDE TRACK: When newspaper man becomes fair game himself

IN a slightly daunting case of poacher turned prey, I'll be giving evidence to a Scottish Parliament committee this week.

The Standards, Procedures and Public Appointments committee is looking into the Byzantine process by which Bills are passed into law.

At the end of their inquiry MSPs will take a view on whether the system is fit for purpose and what, if any, changes might be required. The focus is not just on simplifying procedures which even time-served MSPs find confusing but also on looking at ways to ensure amendments introduced in the final stages of a Bill's passage through the parliament receive proper scrutiny.

My invitation to appear before Thursday's committee meeting follows an Inside Track column I wrote back in December so I suppose I only have myself to blame. Airily, I opined then that Stage 3 debates - the final debate and vote in the legislative process - were unintelligible to pretty much everyone and the committee's inquiry had come along not before time.

Now, from where I'm sitting, it's starting to feel as if convener Stewart Stevenson and his colleagues are being a bit keen. Like most Holyrood hacks I've spent endless hours sitting through committee meetings muttering under my breath that MSP X has failed to ask the right question or that witness Y has tied him or herself in knots. Perhaps a big slice of humble pie is about to be plonked on my plate. Not before time, you might think.

My own discomfort nothwithstanding, the inquiry is an important one. That Stage 3s are extremely complicated is beyond doubt. So complicated, in fact, that MSPs are presented not only with an official list of "marshalled amendments" - the order in which certain revisions will survive or fall depending on a series of votes - but an unofficial list (using a system originally devised by Mr Stevenson, as it happens) in an effort to explain what's going on. I'll be giving evidence on behalf of the Scottish Parliamentary Journalists' Association, the body which represents the interests of reporters based at Holyrood, so the question I'll be discussing beforehand with colleagues is whether such bamboozling complexity affects what we write or broadcast. My hunch is that we all cut corners. Reports concentrate on the main points of the Bill and whatever Government ministers and opposition MSPs have to say in response to the final vote. The hard-fought battles over proposed last-minute changes, often far-reaching in their impact on a Bill, are often overlooked or dealt with in a single sentence. It means possible remedies, which were discarded on the floor of the chamber in a flurry of quick-fire votes, are usually long-forgotten by the time it becomes clear a newly introduced law is not working as intended. Such omissions in press coverage are all the more likely as Stage 3 debates tend to drag on beyond parliament's usual 5pm decision time and towards newspaper deadlines.

Talking of omissions in press coverage, by the way, I'll be hoping on Thursday that my fellow Holyrood reporters decide there is nothing remotely newsworthy in the Standards, Procedures and Public Appointments committee.

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