05 April 2009

Respectfully, Lord Foulkes is wrong

(What do you mean, "No change there, then!"?)

George Foulkes, on Thursday:

On a point of order, Presiding Officer. I understand that today's First Minister's question time has been suspended. I appreciate that a terrible tragedy has taken place in the North Sea. We all are deeply worried about the position of the families and share in the sympathy for them, but the suspension creates a precedent. There are a number of very serious issues that members on all sides of the chamber might wish to have raised today. The First Minister should be accountable regularly to the Parliament: we are about to go into our two-week Easter recess during which there will be no such accountability to Parliament.

Now, I sympathise, in a way, with the sentiments of what the Lord is saying: Parliamentary procedure has to continue under most circumstances. But the disaster in the North Sea would have hung over proceedings. FMQs in its usual format wouldn't quite have fit the scenario and had it proceeded, it would have ended up looking broadly like the session which unfolded: one question, tabled by Iain Gray, allowing the FM to make a brief statement on the situation and sober questions to come from the Opposition leaders, which sober responses from Alex Salmond. Politics as usual, particularly the kind we see as FMQs would have been deeply, deeply unsatisfactory.

But let's review the serious issues that were up for discussion at FMQs. Barring the three Leaders' questions, we had a question from Christine Grahame asking "whether the Scottish Government considers that a national police force would prejudice and undermine local policing intelligence". This could have been asked via a written question. Sarah Boyack had one in asking "whether the Scottish Government agrees with the head of the European Environment Agency that tougher targets are needed before the end of this year to avert catastrophic climate change". Now, you can see why, as a frontbencher, she might want something portfolio-related to come up at the highlight of the Parliamentary week. But, equally, she could have written a letter, and published the exchange. As could John Scott, who wanted to ask "what recent discussions the Scottish Government has had with the management, staff and unions of the National Trust for Scotland on its future". None of these issues required First Minister's Questions to be raised. None of them required FMQs for the Government to be held to account. And any urgent constituency questions would only have appeared insignificant, compared to the loss of life in the North Sea. Again, written questions would have to be the way forward. So the idea that all accountability was blown out of the water by the one-week rejig of FMQs is utter nonsense. Of course it wasn't.

Besides, if three weeks is too long to go without questioning the First Minister in Parliament, I'm sure George Foulkes will be voting against any schedule that involves recesses of longer than two weeks, like the Summer one, which goes on for two months?

If he did, it would be a change of tack: up to now, he has not done so.

So the Foulkes point of order seems a little hollow. FMQs in its usual format would have looked entirely out of place, the only issue that the party leaders could have possibly discussed was discussed in detail, the issues being raised by backbenchers can be raised by other methods and it's a bit rich for Foulkes to complain at not being able to heckle Alex Salmond for three weeks in the Spring when he doesn't vote against two-month holidays in the Summer.

Besides, how useful is FMQs in terms of accountability, anyway? For backbenchers wishing to raise an issue they view as important, not very: we rarely hear of anything that happens if it's after Question 3. And if it's raised by the Opposition leaders, it sometimes gets lost in the grandstanding.

Take the Lewis Doig questions, raised by Iain Gray the other week. Now, the issue that Gray wanted to highlight is important: how is the Government supporting apprentices in a time of economic hardship? It's a serious point, and it's one that any Opposition Leader worth his salt should be raising, especially if his party is making a big thing about apprenticeships.

But Gray tackled it all wrong. One, he personified the argument. Two, he tried to make it poor little Lewis Doig against the big bad Scottish Government. So when the FM was supportive of Doig's situation, the basis of Gray's challenge was undermined. And of course, by linking it all with this one case, journalists started digging, and it turned out that Doig's last post was not ended for economic reasons. Rather, he had been fired. It also emerged that before Gray had even asked the question, he'd found somewhere else to continue. So the issue got lost, this lad had his entire life dragged out into the press and Gray ended up looking like a chump who had managed to mislead Parliament.

So other than the chance to heckle the First Minister, FMQs is largely counter-productive. But then, when was the last time Lord Foulkes asked a serious question?


Mr Eugenides said...

What do you mean "Respectfully", MacNumpty?

If you'd said "Respectfully, Sir Walter is wrong" the deference would have made sense - but then again, Walter is not a fat, whisky-sozzled buffoon...

Will said...

It's "Yes, Minister" respect. :D