Scottish Questions has never been the most enjoyable experience for Scottish National Party Members of Parliament but this monthly session seems to be descending further into frustrating farce. Notionally, it exists to question the operation of the Scotland Office and examine the impact of reserved issues in Scotland. In reality it seems to be nothing other than an exercise for English MPs to turn up and shout ”SNP bad ” at the Scottish Government. Out of all the Departmental Question sessions it is by far the most dysfunctional and the frustration felt by bewildered Scottish viewers unfortunate enough to observe this unedifying spectacle on TV is shared by Scottish Members of Parliament.
Up until May this is how it used to work. Random Scottish Labour MP would get up and ask a question ostensibly about Scotland Office responsibilities only to attack the Scottish Government. Scotland Office Minister would then respond agreeing with said Scottish Labour member before going on to further attack the Scottish Government with an even more prolonged description of Scottish Government failings. During the referendum ‘Scottish Government’ was replaced by ‘case for independence’ and the co-ordination of the UK parties reached its zenith.
Now, of course, there is only one Scottish Labour Member, as there is the one solitary Conservative. They inhabit their respective front benches remaining the focus of Scottish Questions exchanges whilst the majority of Scottish Members fight over the crumbs of remaining opportunity. There is one innovation. Deprived of any Scottish Conservative colleagues the Secretary of State enlists Ministers from around the UK and from other departments to answer some of the questions on his department’s behalf. Scottish Questions has therefore become a sort of strange general question session handled by whatever unaccountable Minister is able to give up half an hour of their time on a monthly Wednesday morning.
The other new feature is of course English Votes for English Laws. And there is not the least bit of embarrassment from our English colleagues in turning up to participate in Scottish Questions on ostensibly Scottish issues when we are at the sharp end of an English veto and excluded from stages of consideration of their ‘English only’ legislation.
There must be a better way to raise issues about Scottish concerns in the House of Commons and Scottish Questions is in desperate need of reform. It should be a session where Scottish members can legitimately raise questions on the broad range of reserved issues that impact on our constituents in the full expectation that we will secure a response. There has been some tinkering in recent years so it can be done. In the last Parliament the Scottish National Party Westminster leader has been allowed to ask a further second question to the Secretary of State. This, whilst progress, falls short of the Labour front bench who with their one Scottish MP also secures the same privilege along with a further two allocated questions.
EVEL has also meant that we change the arrangements in how we prosecute our business in the House on the basis of nationality. There is now no good reason then why there can’t be further reforms to accommodate the Scottish interest. Members representing English constituencies should continue to play a part in these proceedings (it is the UK Parliament as we’re constantly told) but questions could be rotated so that there would be two questions to the opposition to one from the Conservative side, that would allow more Scottish members in. With 55 out of 59 MPs the SNP should also have full front bench entitlements in Scottish Questions and at least have parity with Labour.
Most importantly English Members of Parliament need to exercise a bit of self discipline in the age of EVEL. If they think they are doing their Scottish colleagues a favour with their bungling, usually poorly informed, critique of devolved Scotland, they should be invited to observe the response from Scots to Scottish Questions. This Government thinks that they have cracked the nut with their EVEL plans but this works both ways in the unitary UK Parliament. In the age of English Votes for English Laws something close to Scottish Questions for Scottish Members should be the standard.