SO many key decisions affecting life in Scotland are now made without even a debate – never mind a vote – in the Scottish Parliament that Holyrood risks being side-lined to the point of irrelevance.

Consider just two recent examples. Last week it emerged that the Lord Advocate was unilaterally changing Scotland’s drug enforcement laws such that possession even of the most harmful Class A drugs would not lead to arrest or criminal investigation. This decision – a major change in the way Scotland attempts to deal with its shameful drugs crisis – was made wholly without regard to Parliament.

MSPs had no opportunity to debate the matter, and the decision was taken without any parliamentary vote. There has been no consultation. No committee of the Scottish Parliament has taken evidence on the matter. There have been no hearings, no taking stock, no listening to expert testimony, no consideration of alternative views.

In recent days it has also emerged just what a shambles John Swinney’s vaccine passport idea is. All summer he said he was not minded to introduce vaccine passports. At no point during the summer did his civil servants do any of the preparatory work required to make a success of vaccine passports. Then he u-turned. Not for reasons of sound public policy. But for reasons of cheap party politics.

The Scottish Government is manifestly unprepared to make a success of this initiative. They keep changing their minds about who it will apply to, under what circumstances, and subject to what conditions. This week the matter will come before the Scottish courts, as Swinney and his madcap scheme are finally held to some form of account. Holyrood’s secretive but all-powerful Bureau, which meets behind closed doors to determine parliamentary business, decided last week that there was somehow no need for a ministerial statement on this shambles.

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Instead, Holyrood will be debating the future of universal credit – an important subject, for sure, but one that the Scottish Parliament can do nothing about, universal credit being reserved to Westminster. This is typical of the way the SNP routinely abuses the Scottish Parliament. Imposing on it grievance debates on matters beyond its powers, whilst pulling every lever to avoid effective parliamentary scrutiny over matters that Holyrood can actually do something about – like drugs deaths; like vaccine passports.

Now, some might say it does not matter that the Scottish Parliament has become more or less redundant. It should never have been created in the first place, some will say; or it would make no difference even if MSPs could debate and deliberate upon these matters. I disagree.

It matters because parliamentary debate does make a difference. Governing through Parliament makes for better policy – and better policy outcomes – than governing without it. If you are a minister, having to defend your policy choices in the face of your political opponents forces you to sharpen your arguments and to ensure that there is at least some sort of link between what you are proposing to do and what you are hoping to achieve by doing it.

Likewise, if you are in opposition, parliamentary debate is your chance to say what you think is smart about what the government is doing, and where you think ministers are either going too far or not far enough. Responsive ministers will listen. The best ministers will even adjust policy accordingly. Open, deliberative consideration of policy options makes for better choices. Closed, secretive, unscrutinised decision-making, by contrast: that’s when things go wrong.

Things were bad enough in the last parliament. The selection of topics for debate, the curtailed nature of debate (with chronically time-limited speeches), ministers routinely avoiding scrutiny, and endlessly pointless statements about Brexit. None of the unhappy lessons of that parliament have been learned in the new session. And, moreover, things have got markedly worse.

We still have a Parliament unwilling to control its own agenda; we still have debates with speeches so pointlessly short they add nothing to the sum of human knowledge; and we still have ministers avoiding scrutiny at every turn.

But now, on top of all this, we also have a Parliament that has grown used to government-by-Covid. A year and a half ago, Covid was a genuine public emergency that meant we could not always afford luxuries such as full parliamentary deliberation. All that evidence-taking and hearing other points of view takes time. When you are fighting for the life of the NHS, it is inevitable – and right – that short-cuts will be taken.

However, governments grow used to be able to make up rules as they go along. Emergency powers continue in force long after the emergencies themselves have come under control. And the mentality of those in power – that they can simply rule by public pronouncement and govern by decree – rather than having to go to all that wretched inconvenience and time-consuming hassle of taking matters to Parliament first – has proved mighty hard to shift.

Happily, there is someone whose job it is to work to ensure that the Scottish Parliament is not side-lined, maintains itself at the heart of Scottish public debate, and does not become irrelevant. That person is, of course, Holyrood’s Presiding Officer. Alison Johnstone is new in her job and, to be candid, I do not envy her. She has inherited a Parliament already weakened by years of neglect. She needs to stop the rot.

She needs to insist that ministers make statements to Parliament not just from time to time, but routinely, on the matters within their responsibilities that are affecting the lives of the people who live here. She needs to give time to parliamentarians to take soundings, and to offer constructive interventions, as to how we improve public policy. It’s a tall order, fixing a broken parliament. But that is the job to which Alison Johnstone must set her mind. It is in all our interests that she succeeds.

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