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Charting Parliament: Questions & Motions

Lawrie Scott-McFarlane

The Scottish Parliament’s Presiding Officer, Ken Macintosh, recently announced the creation of a new body to spearhead reforms in Holyrood. Questions and motions are two of the key ways in which members interact with Parliament and in light of the renewed focus on parliamentary reform, it’s worth looking at the broad trends of how these have been used over the years. Helpfully, the Scottish Parliament has recently been developing an Open Data Service which provides datasets containing almost every motion and question that has been lodged at Holyrood.

For starters, the datasets make it easy to see the total number of motions and questions that have been tabled over Parliament’s lifetime, giving a partial view of how active MSPs have been and the volume of parliamentary scrutiny. The monthly figures are charted below.

Some interesting long-term patterns are immediately apparent. Most notable is the decline in the use of written questions, particularly in Session 4, and the steady increase in the number of motions. It’s worth stating that the trendline here is a six-month moving average, intended to smooth out the sharp variations that occur due to recess and election periods.

Written questions are used to probe the Government on points of detail, while motions are used to raise issues for debate and determine Parliament’s will. In practice, the vast majority of motions will never make it into the chamber and many of them relate to local matters, like congratulating prize-winning sausage makers. Time for debating substantive motions is also necessarily limited, there can only be so many Government, Opposition and Member’s Business debates in a given session. This isn’t to say that the increase over the last few years has been driven entirely by minor, constituency-related motions though. Motions on national and international issues are also common but in many cases they simply act to signal the priorities of an individual MSP or party.

There was an increase in the number of Members’ Business debates in Session 4. These debates are generally consensual, but still relate to substantive issues appropriate for discussion in the chamber. The increased likelihood of securing a debate in the could have incentivised some members to lodge a greater number of motions. More broadly, it’s possible that the rising profile and status of the Scottish Parliament may have contributed to the increase in the number of motions lodged.

It’s also worth looking at the breakdown across different parties. The chart below shows how many motions the average MSP from each party lodged per month in a given Session. This accounts for differing session lengths and party sizes. MSPs in Sessions 1 and 2 were generally lodging around one motion each month. This more than doubles in the following sessions.

This second chart maps the total motions lodged across the Parliament’s life. As you can see, the rise in activity in the major parties has a substantial impact.

These figures suggest that the rise in the number of motions can be partly attributed to SNP members in Sessions 3 and 4, following the party’s success in the 2007 election. Not only were SNP members more numerous, but each MSP was submitting nearly twice as many motions on average compared to Session 1 and 2. That said, a similar pattern is visible among members of other parties over the period.

Another point to note is the relatively equal distribution of motions in Session 5. The data on the current session is limited, but suggests that the Conservatives have significantly increased their activity, bringing it into line with other parties when it was previously relatively muted. This is to be expected given the party has been boosted with new MSPs and a higher profile following the election.

The other side of the overall trend outlined above is the long-term reduction in the use of Written Questions. As before, the charts below show the monthly activity level in terms of the individual ‘average MSP’ from each party, and then the raw totals.

 

Written questions oblige the Scottish Government to provide an appropriate answer within a reasonable timeframe. They are often linked together into long threads of inquiry on specific, detailed points. Unlike motions, questions are almost exclusively a tool of the opposition, which is clearly reflected in the switch from SNP to Labour and Lib Dem questioners over recent sessions.

Liberal Democrat members appear to be the most prolific questioners. However, you might expect smaller parties to have MSPs that are proportionately more involved, given that they have an outsized party infrastructure concentrated behind fewer people. It’s also worth noting that the Lib Dems lost two-thirds of their MSPs going into Session 4. There appears to have been an effort to maintain levels of activity despite these losses.

The volume of questions peaked during the SNP minority government in Session 3. It’s also interesting to see how the numbers tail off in the latter part of Session 4, a period dominated by the referendum, and don’t seem to pick-up until Session 5. The fact that parties have been lodging fewer questions doesn’t necessarily mean that levels of scrutiny are getting lower. It’s quite possible that as MSPs and parties become more experienced in opposition they are more careful about pursuing fruitful lines of questioning and making use of alternative sources of information.

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