GOOD luck to soft play business owners from much of Scotland who demonstrated outside Holyrood yesterday against their continuing shut-down. They have been treated appallingly.

Whenever I have heard their representatives, the case has been articulated well and questions raised about comparative treatment have been eminently reasonable. However, the recurring theme which has been most striking is frustration over the Scottish Government’s refusal to provide scientific advice which backs up draconian action.

Similarly, the treatment of licensed premises, within and across local authority borders, has long lacked any consistent rationale or satisfactory explanation. The decision-making processes around pubs and fan zones owes little, one suspects, to the rigours of science.

But why are these issues not being discussed in detail inside Holyrood rather than protested against outside? What is a Parliament for if it is not as the vital forum for scrutiny of decision-making and holding an executive to account?

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Why not a substantial debate on soft play or licensing anomalies or the future of our night-time economy or any other impact of government decision-making in relation to Covid? That would be a proper use of the Parliamentary chamber – directly relevant to the needs and fears of the people it is supposed to represent.

In this scenario, light years away from the reality, a Minister would be called on to answer for the government’s actions, to explain the scientific rationale, to have sufficient knowledge of his or her subject to either justify the government’s position or be held to account for failure to do so. None of this happens.

We have been more likely to learn some tit-bits of superficial rationale from an unelected individual on a football comedy programme than from a Minister of the Scottish Government.

Apart from the unproductive ritual of questions being asked and not answered in any depth, there is almost no debate at Holyrood about the nitty-gritty of Scottish life; the things that are imminently affecting livelihoods, businesses, local environments and so on. The detail of these matters have no place in the chamber of the Scottish Parliament.

I took a look at this week’s Holyrood agenda and it bore out my point in spades. For starters, this is a lazy place by any working standards. The Parliament does not meet on Mondays and Fridays. Over the three days when MSPs are expected to put in an appearance, physical or virtual, they amass under 12 hours in the Chamber. Then everyone knocks off at 5 o’clock to be home in time for tea.

There is one debate each day, lasting a couple of hours. Yesterday was poverty, today is the climate change emergency and tomorrow is something called “Justice: Recover, Renew, Reform”. All worthy themes, no doubt, and each deserving a lot more than two hours debate. But there is absolutely nothing that holds to account the actual actions of government, on the basis of detail and debate.

Take another example. If ever an issue cried out for urgent Parliamentary debate it is the crisis in west coast ferry services. A full-scale debate at Holyrood should have been automatic at some point over the past few weeks. The expertise – or constituency interests - of MSPs should have been brought to bear. A Minister should have been forced to answer in full public glare.

For substantial parts of Scotland, this is a big deal. Devolution was meant to ensure this kind of issue was given more political attention, not less. Yet I would be pretty sure there were more real debates about ferry services at Westminster in the 1990s than there have been at Holyrood in recent years.

The stock answer to the paucity of activity in the Chamber is that our MSPs are beavering away in committees. It is exceptionally unconvincing. Staying with the ferry issue, a cross-party committee earlier this year did come up with a very decent report on the Ferguson Marine debacle. Its findings were then dismissed out of hand by a junior Minister. So what was the point?

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Committees have their place in any Parliament but it is in the Chamber – the floor of the House - when the full Parliament is sitting that politics are conducted in earnest. And that is a gross deficiency under the rules and procedures of the Scottish Parliament.

There are 29 Ministers. Heaven knows what civil servants find to put in some of their boxes each night to make them feel useful. But if there are going to 29 Ministers, with comparatively narrow briefs, the least that should be expected of them is detailed accountability on the floor of Parliament, on matters that affect people’s lives.

Without doubt, the pandemic has been used to concentrate even more executive decision-making in very few hands and once that kind of power has been achieved, there is little likelihood of it being voluntarily returned. Parliament becomes a nuisance to be tolerated but not encouraged.

Procedural issues do not set pulses racing but before this Parliament gets properly under way, opposition parties should unite to force major reforms. At present, it is an apology for a Parliament in terms of debate and scrutiny because of the ways the rules have been allowed to evolve.

I see the new Presiding Officer wants to perpetuate MSPs being able to dial in remotely rather than turn up for work. Under the current regime and in spite of the best efforts of some MSPs, staying at home might not be the most useless option.

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