MSPs are to face tougher rules over their behaviour in a bid to crackdown on "everyday sexism" experienced by women in Holyrood and to combat growing concerns over a deteriorating tone in political debate.

The measure has been put forward in a major report, published today, into how the Scottish Parliament can strengthen women's representation and participation in the institution.

It is among a series of proposals examining Holyrood culture and follows complaints from female parliamentarians of being talked over and patronised by male MSPs in committees and in the debating chamber.

The report also highlighted increasing concerns in Holyrood over the increasingly adversarial nature of political debate and that is was becoming more "toxic " with discourse was descending into "yah-boo" style politics.

First Minister Nicola Sturgeon described the 'brutality' of politics in her resignation speech last month.

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The audit was commissioned by Ms Johnstone, pictured below, and set out more than 30 recommendations including overhauling the Scottish Parliament's rules to ensure women must legally make up at least 40 per cent of members of the key bodies and committees, and introducing proxy voting as a permanent mechanism to allow MSPs on maternity or paternity leave or sick leave, for example, to vote without having to return to work.

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On fears that an "increased adversarial tone" was putting off some women MSPs from speaking in the chamber and reluctant to fully participate, the report pointed to fewer women than men taking part in First Minister's Questions, the main weekly event in parliament in which the government is held to account.

It said that while there was "a recognition that there was a need for robust debate" at times the tone was seen to deteriorate beyond an acceptable standard.

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"Members are required to conduct themselves in a “orderly” as well as “courteous and respectful” manner at all times," said the audit, carried out by Dr Fiona McKay of University of Strathclyde, formely of Robert Gordon University in Aberdeen.

"While there was a recognition that there was a need for robust debate, at times this was seen to go beyond acceptable behaviour into a more “yah-boo” style politics.

"According to more established members, there was an impression of some slippage of this over time, which could bear further analysis of some form."

It added: "At times, this also had an impact and influence on the behaviour of newer members fully participating in making or taking interventions. The noise level of the Chamber was also a concern, which can have an impact on members with specific accessibility requirements

"There were also reports of gendered language and interactions, at times, in both the Chamber and committees, which could be perceived as sexist, such as talking over women, re-formulating and repeating the same questions, and making patronising comments.

"There were reports of instances of problematic comments and attitudes to women of different backgrounds and characteristics, such as at the intersections of age, race, disability (including hidden disabilities), neuro-diversity, or class.

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"This was attributed to the overall structural dominance of a masculine culture of the parliament – though members made a distinction that this applied to members and not parliamentary staff.

"Though members did not describe this behaviour as bullying or harassment, they did acknowledge that it could be considered more “everyday” and routine sexism embedded in the parliamentary norms and culture."

To help improve the environment the report proposed updating the code of conduct for MSPs, the rules governing their behaviour.

The draft of the revised code includes the following addition: "Members should not behave in a way that is contrary to the values of the Parliament. In particular, they must not behave in a way that is, or can be perceived to be, demeaning, discriminatory or harassing towards another Member based on that Member’s protected characteristics. Members should at all times be mindful of the impact of their behaviour on others."

Overall the report acknowledged progress had been on female representation in Holyrood since 1999 with more women MSPs elected in 2021 than ever previously. Women now make up 46 per cent of MSPs.

However, it also found there have been fluctuations in the number of women in leadership and decision-making roles suggesting equal representation is not embedded within the parliament nor is it guaranteed in future.

Other findings revealed that women tend to be under-represented in some of the most crucial and mandatory committees such as finance, audit and standards and procedures.

The report recommended rule changes to guarantee women’s representation on these key committees and also bodies such as the parliamentary bureau, which agrees business in the chamber, and the Scottish Parliamentary Corporate Body (SPCB). The SPCB is responsible for running the institution, such as hiring parliamentary staff, maintaining security and looking after the fabric of the building. Members of committees as well as the SPCB and the bureau are appointed by the political parties.

The research found that since 1999 a total of five committees had had an all male membership, whereas no committee had been made up of just women.

Currently, five out of 16 committee have just one woman member including three of the seven mandatory committees.

The report recommended that there should be no committees made up of a single sex.

Other recommendations include:

• The establishment of a cross party forum for women MSPs to discuss issues of mutual interest.

• A review of the parliament’s sitting time data to determine what changes need to be made to limit unpredictability of sitting times and maximise inclusion and wellbeing. 

• The establishment of an advisory group to oversee the implementation of the recommendations and make sure progress continues.

Ms Johnstone said: “We currently have the highest percentage of women elected to the Parliament since 1999, and women are well represented in some of our key positions. However, history shows us that progress cannot be taken for granted.

“The package of measures published today is designed to strengthen equal representation and participation at Holyrood.

“Having women in key roles and ensuring they are properly represented across the Parliament helps bring different voices and perspectives to decisions.

“This report is only the first step towards substantive reform. I believe that the recommendations will help drive institutional change over the short, medium and longer-term. "

Dr Meryl Kenny, of Edinburgh University and a member of the board which oversaw the work said: “The recommendations together promise an inclusive Scottish Parliament for the twenty first century; one that in its work, procedures, and institutional culture is representative and effective.”

Her colleague, Professor Sarah Childs, another board member added: “This report marks an important moment, with Scotland building on its record and joining a growing number of countries around the world committed to reforms that will gender sensitise its parliament.”