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Party No More - Members' Business Debates

Laura MacLaughlin

Members’ Business debates are one of the most popular ways for MSPs to raise the profile of a local issue, highlight the work of an organisation or mark an anniversary or event.

Any MSP can lodge a motion for potential debate, to be selected by the Parliamentary Bureau. Motions are eligible so long as they have attracted cross-party backing (from at least two other parties) by the Monday of the week preceding the debate, subject to a few additional criteria.

For motions to be selected, they must have a clear local relevance or raise issue-commemorating anniversaries, themed-days or special events. Crucially, they must not call on the Government or any organisation to do anything, including taking or reversing decisions.

Language which the Parliament encourages MSPs to avoid includes instructions like “calls on, urges, encourages, asks” and in many instances words like “should and hopes”. Members can request that live, published motions are considered for debate, but they may have to be edited to comply with the above criteria. Amendments to Members’ Business motions may also be submitted, but these are subject to the same criteria as motions and are not taken as part of the debate, should one be scheduled.

As a result of these rules, Members’ Business motions are carefully worded to facilitate cross-party support. The resulting debates are among the most wide-ranging and consensual you will see at Holyrood. Parliament maintains a list of all the subjects selected for each session, recent ones have covered issues as broad as Holodomor Remembrance Day, driverless cars, whisky tourism and the establishment of the Scottish Stone Group.

While party lines are still visible, MSPs are much more likely to speak from a constituency/regional perspective and it is much easier for politicians to find common ground when they are not being asked to decide anything. The debate is almost always closed by a speaker from the Government – who, depending on the subject, could take the opportunity to make a significant announcement or confirm new Government funding.

From our perspective at newsdirect – Members’ Business debates are definitely the most fertile ground for finding “Quotes of the Day”, the most popular section of our daily political bulletin – Parliament Today.

Recent favourites have included:

  • Tavish Scott during the Members’ Business debate on sport: “I, too, donned the T-shirt that said ‘Vote for Sport’—I think that that was when I was a party leader during the 2011 election, and I have to say that that message was a darn sight easier to sell than ‘Vote Lib Dem’.”
  • On driverless cars and employment issues, Jamie Greene made this salient point: “Before there were cars, people travelled by horse and carriage, and the introduction of cars did not lead to horses finding new jobs. It probably led to a decline in horse employment. Some might think that that would be a blessing—not least the horses.”
  • Willie Rennie modestly requested members of the public to stay in the gallery for his Member’s Business debate on first responders: “I am disappointed that so many people are leaving the gallery, because they will miss the debate of the year. They still have time to turn around if they wish to hear the fantastic speech that I am about to make.”
  • Christine Grahame on shock collars: “I have had pets all my adult life—a dog and a series of cats. I would think of using a shock collar on my lovely and indomitable Mr Smokey no more than I would think of using one on myself, although some might think that the latter would not be a bad idea.”
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