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Debate - Issue Briefs

Scottish Parliament - guide

Thursday, 17 Aug 2006 12:36

'There shall be a Scottish parliament' Scotland Act 1998, section 1(1)

The Scottish parliament has the authority to initiate and pass primary legislation and to vary the basic rate of income tax by up to three pence in the pound from the UK-wide rate.

The transfer of powers from London to Edinburgh took place on July 1st 1999, when the parliament was officially opened by the Queen following its first meeting on May 12th. Elections had been held on May 6th as required by the Scotland Act 1998, which brought the parliament into existence.

Labour had made a manifesto commitment in its 1997 manifesto to hold a referendum on Scottish devolution and on tax-varying powers. After the May 1997 landslide a white paper was published in July. A referendum was held on September 11th 1999 in which 74.3 per cent of voters endorsed proposals for a parliament and 63.5 per cent backed tax-varying powers on a turnout 60.1 per cent of the electorate.

Scotland had shared a parliament with the rest of the United Kingdom since the Act of Union in 1707. The Scottish Office - the first recognition of Scotland as a distinct entity in UK government - was formed in 1885. The first secretary of state for Scotland (George Trevelyan) was appointed the following year.

The next key date was 1979. The government of James Callaghan held a referendum on self-government. Although a majority of those who voted backed the proposal, a low turnout meant that the 'yes' vote did not represent the required 40 per cent of the potential vote and the plan was shelved.

The Scottish Office was subsumed into the Department for Constitutional Affairs in 2003.


The parliament is made up of 129 elected MSPs, elected by the additional member system, a form of proportional representation. Elections are normally held every four years on the first Thursday in May. Anyone who can stand for election to the House of Commons may stand for election to the parliament. Peers may also stand.

Each voter has two votes - one for a constituency and one for a member from a regional list.

For the first vote, Scotland is divided into 73 single member constituencies, which are the same as those for UK general elections. Voting is the same as in UK general elections using the first-past-the-post system in which the candidate with the most votes, though not necessarily the majority of votes, is returned as an MSP.

The second vote is more complicated. Scotland is split into eight regions - Highlands & Islands, North East Scotland, Mid Scotland & Fife, West of Scotland, Central Scotland, Glasgow, Lothians and South of Scotland. Each region returns seven MSPs. Before the election each political party chooses a list of candidates for each region. A candidate in a single member constituency can be on a party's list for a region. Candidates on a party's regional list are arranged in the party's order of preference, with the candidate that the party would most like to see elected placed first.

In the second vote, votes are cast for parties. The number of MSPs returned for each party in each region is shared out in proportion to the share of the vote received by each party. If a candidate on a party's list has already been returned in a single member constituency, the next candidate on the list is successful. Parties use this 'closed' list system as a form of insurance policy to ensure that key candidates have a better chance of becoming an MSP.

If a constituency member resigns or dies, then a by-election is held. If a regional member resigns or dies then the vacant seat is taken by the next person on the regional list for that party.

The Queen officially opens the parliament after each election but her address is not a 'Queen's speech' in the Westminster sense - the first minister outlines the legislative programme in a speech to parliament. A presiding officer is elected by MSPs at the first meeting after an election.

The first elections to the parliament were held on May 6th 1999. Further elections were held on May 1st 2003. The first meeting of the parliament was on May 12th 1999. The Queen officially opened the parliament for the first time on July 1st 1999.


The Scottish Executive (or cabinet) is made up of the first minister, the two law officers (the lord advocate and the solicitor general) and other Scottish ministers.

The party or coalition of parties with the majority of seats in the parliament forms the executive. The first minister is elected by MSPs and is normally the leader of the majority party or the lead party in a coalition. Because the electoral system makes an overall majority for one party unlikely, the first minister is normally elected by a coalition of parties that have agreed to form the Executive. This coalition would normally include the largest party. In both 1999 and 2003, Labour formed the executive with the Liberal Democrats.

The first minister nominates MSPs to be Scottish ministers and junior ministers. Their names are then agreed or rejected by a vote in parliament. The first minister also recommends the appointment of two law officers to the Queen. The law officers may or may not be MSPs and normally they are not. For the duration of their appointment, they are considered to have the same status as MSPs but they do not vote in parliament.

The 1998 act devolved control over policy and the implementation of UK statute in areas that were not specified as 'reserved' by the act inasmuch as they extend to Scotland or are wholly within Scotland.

These are the reserved areas in which the parliament has NO powers:

Constitution (succession, the union, treason)
Registration and funding of political parties
Foreign affairs and human rights
Civil service
Defence and armed forces
Fiscal, economic and monetary policy
Regulation of financial services and markets, money laundering
Drugs laws
Data protection
Electoral law
Film and video classification
Immigration and nationality
Animal testing
Gambling and lotteries
Business associations (including insolvency provisions) but not charities
Competition regulation
Intellectual property law
Import and export controls
Sea fishing outside the Scottish zone except in relation to Scottish registered vessels
Consumer protection and product standards and safety
Weights and measures
Telecommunications and wireless telegraphy
Post office and postal services
Scientific research councils
Designation of assisted areas under industrial development legislation
Protection of trade interests
Electricity, oil and gas, nuclear and coal industries
Energy conservation
Driving and vehicle standards
Provision and regulation of rail services
Maritime transport except ports and harbours and Highlands and Islands transport
Aviation except certain Scotland-only functions
Transport of radioactive material
Social security, child support, occupational and personal pensions
War pensions
Regulation of professions
Employment and industrial relations
Health and safety at work
Job search and support
Embryology, surrogacy and genetics
Medicines, medical supplies and poisons
Broadcasting and the BBC
Public lending right
Property accepted in satisfaction of tax
Judges' pay
Equal opportunities
CBN weapons control
Ordnance Survey
Outer space

These are the areas in which the parliament has powers inasmuch as they extend to Scotland or are wholly within Scotland, although this list is not exhaustive:

Education, training, lifelong learning
Local government including electoral provisions
Social work
Economic development
Criminal and civil law
Criminal justice, prosecution and rehabilitation
Police and fire services
Environment and natural heritage
Built heritage
Agriculture and food
Statistics, public registers and records
Charities law

Some statutory powers are shared, being exercised by Scottish ministers for matters wholly within Scotland and by the UK government for cross-border, UK-wide matters. Additional existing powers can be accorded to Scottish ministers by order, while new powers must be created by UK act before being devolved by order.

Occasionally, it makes sense for the UK government to legislate on devolved issues - for example when limited provision in a UK bill would affect Scotland. In this case the Scottish parliament is asked by Scottish ministers to approve a Sewel motion (named after Lord Sewel). This is the parliament's means of indicating approval for the clauses in a UK bill regarding devolved functions.

Extradition is a good example of this. Extradition is a reserved area, which means that the parliament cannot legislate on it. But Scottish ministers exercise powers under UK extradition legislation in determining whether an individual is to be extradited. These have been given to them by order. When the UK government wanted to change the law on extradition in 2003, it introduced a bill at Westminster. The Scottish parliament debated those clauses that would affect Scottish ministers and approved a Sewel motion endorsing the bill. If the UK government wanted to devolve the right to legislate on extradition to Scotland, it would have to pass primary legislation to that effect.

The work of the executive and its agencies is funded by the grants formerly provided to the secretary of state for Scotland. These are paid into the Scottish consolidated fund. Any increase in the basic rate of income tax would lead to the Inland Revenue making additional payments into this fund. The Revenue would make a charge to the fund if tax were reduced.

The 'Barnett formula' is used to share out increases in UK public expenditure between the constituent parts of the UK (not Northern Ireland). This complex formula was first used in the late 1970s by then chief secretary to the Treasury Joel (now Lord) Barnett. Put simply, certain increases in UK-wide expenditure are divided up according to population, which means that historic additional per capita spending in Scotland tends to be preserved.


Parliament is overseen by a presiding officer who is elected at the first plenary meeting following an election. An official report of plenary meetings is normally published on the morning following the end of proceedings. MSPs almost always deliver their speeches in English, but they are permitted to use Scots Gaelic if they wish. A translation into English is always provided.

In contrast to the House of Commons, MSPs refer to each other by name. Although they practise the same convention of referring to each other only in the third person, enforcement is less stringent than in Westminster.


Fridays are normally set aside for constituency business. The parliament meets in plenary on Wednesday afternoons and all-day Thursday. Committees meet on Mondays, Tuesdays and on Wednesday mornings. Rarely, parliament will meet in plenary all day on a Wednesday.

The following is a guide to normal recess dates:

Summer - normally eight weeks from end of June to end of August
October half-term - normally two weeks in mid-October
Winter festivals - normally last week in December and first in January
February half-term - normally one week in mid-February
Spring festivals - normally two weeks around Easter

A 'sitting' day is a day that is not during a recess and is not a Saturday or Sunday or public/bank holiday. A 'counting' day is a day when the Office of the Clerk is open, which is normally every weekday except public/bank holidays.

Voting and decision time

Voting in the parliament is electronic and almost instantaneous. MSPs can choose to abstain instead of voting for or against a motion. Voting normally takes place at decision time, which is usually at 5pm on days when the parliament is in plenary but it can be brought forward by a special motion if necessary.

Votes are called in the order that they came up during preceding business. Votes on motions that would alter the business of the day before Decision Time are taken immediately. Similarly, votes on sections of bills at stage three are taken immediately.

Business and the Parliamentary Bureau

The agenda for the parliament is decided by the Parliamentary Bureau, which agrees a weekly business motion. Chaired by the presiding officer, it is made up of representatives of each party with more than five MSPs and meets in private. Representatives' votes are weighted in line with their parties' seats in the parliament, so the executive can use its block vote to control business.

Twelve half-days are allocated to committee business and sixteen half-days are given over to non-executive parties. The Bureau also nominates committee members and designates the lead committees for bills.

Its decisions are put to the parliament by the business minister as Parliamentary Bureau motions. Any vote on a business motion is taken immediately, rather than at decision time. Other votes are postponed until decision time.

The presiding officer can grant emergency debates and statements in response to events or to calls from individuals.

When the parliament is sitting, it in plenary session on Wednesdays and Thursdays. The order of business is normally as follows:


Statement (if any)
Debates or legislation
Decision time
Short debate


Debates or legislation
Questions to the First minister (FMQs)
Break for lunch
Questions to Scottish ministers
Statements or Urgent Questions (if any)
Debates or legislation
Decision Time
Short debate


The weekly 60-minute question session for Scottish ministers and the law officers allows MSPs to ask oral questions of relevant Scottish ministers on a pre-determined theme for 40 minutes, followed by a general question time lasting 20 minutes. This takes place on Thursday afternoon. Questions to Scottish ministers and the law officers can be tabled between 14 and eight days before Thursday's question time. Questions are randomly selected for answer; their order is random too.

Slightly different rules govern the tabling of questions to the first minister. This session, also known as FMQs, lasts for 30 minutes and is at noon on a Thursday. Questions to the first minister can be tabled up to three days before Thursday's question time. The presiding officer selects six questions for answer based on their topicality and on the need for political balance. The leaders of main parties are normally selected.

At the scheduled time, the presiding officer calls questions in the order that they appear on the list. The minister responds to the questioner's tabled question. The questioner then asks a follow-up or 'supplementary' question on the same subject. After the minister has responded, the presiding officer may call MSPs from other parties to ask a supplementary on the same subject, with opposition spokespersons given priority. When the chair deems the subject to be exhausted, the next question is called.

During FMQs, the format is the same, except that leaders of main parties are entitled to more than one supplementary.

Questions not reached during question time receive a written answer.

Written questions to specific ministers are tabled in the same manner as oral questions. When the parliament is sitting, answers are normally given within ten 'counting' days (20 days during a recess). A holding answer may be given. Written questions can be tabled and answered during a recess. The Official Report of the answer to a written question is normally made available after one or two days.

Primary legislation

The Scottish parliament may legislate on any issue that is not in a reserved area. To become law, a bill must be introduced to the parliament, be considered and passed by MSPs, be agreed by the UK government and be given Royal Assent.

A bill can be introduced in three ways:

Executive bills are introduced on behalf of the executive by the relevant Scottish minister. Non-executive (or members') bills are introduced by an individual MSP who has garnered the support of at least 11 other MSPs in the month since the bill was proposed. Committee bills are introduced by the convenor of the relevant committee in line with its members' wishes. Individual MSPs may only introduce two bills in any parliament and, in calculating this, a committee bill counts against a convenor.

Stage 1

The Parliamentary Bureau designates a 'lead' committee for each bill introduced. This is normally a relevant subject committee but other committees may consider a bill if it is relevant to them as well. The subordinate legislation committee considers any order-making powers in proposed legislation.

Having taken evidence on the bill, the lead committee publishes a Stage 1 report, which is laid before the parliament. The parliament Bureau then allocates time in plenary for a debate on the general principles of the bill (Stage 1 debate). This is akin to a second reading at Westminster.

Committee bills, which have received a degree of pre-legislative scrutiny, go straight for their Stage 1 debate, without the need for a committee report.

Stage 2

The bill goes back to a subject committee (normally the designated lead committee) for line-by-line consideration, although it may take further evidence. Amendments are moved, considered and approved or rejected. A timescale may be set by the Bureau and Stage 2 may take place on the floor of the parliament in exceptional circumstances.

Committees do not normally consider bills that they have proposed and introduced.

Stage 3

The Parliamentary Bureau allocates time in plenary for Stage 3. Further amendments are moved, considered and approved or rejected and the bill may be sent back to committee for further detailed consideration, although this is rare.

After detailed consideration at Stage 3 is complete, the parliament immediately debates whether the bill should pass. This gives MSPs a chance to return to the general impact of the bill and whether or not the whole measure should become law.

Reconsideration and Royal Assent

After the bill is passed by the parliament, the UK government's law officers, including the advocate general for Scotland, have four weeks to consider the bill to ensure its compatibility with the devolution settlement and with the UK's international obligations. If no such legal challenges arise, the presiding officer sends the bill for Royal Assent and it becomes law.

(Any successful challenge would lead to a motion for reconsideration, allowing for the amendment of the passed bill to resolve the issues raised by the UK law officers.)

Budget bills

A Budget bill must complete Stage 3 30 days after its introduction.

With no requirement for a report, Stage 1 comprises only a debate on the general principles of the bill. Stage 2, which must not commence fewer than 10 days after Stage 1, is taken in the Finance Committee. Only Scottish ministers may move amendments to the bill.

Secondary legislation

A statutory instrument's passage through parliament is limited to 40 days from the day on which it was laid. During this period a lead committee and the subordinate legislation committee report to parliament on any issues raised by the instrument and MSPs approve or reject it. They may also debate an instrument. Most statutory instruments are not contentious and are passed without debate.


Debates in the Scottish parliament are on a motion tabled by a minister or other MSP. In most debates, most parties will table at least one amendment to the motion to reflect their views. Debates allow the parliament to deliberate on pertinent issues that affect Scotland or Scottish people. A spokesperson is called from each party to speak to the motion or to move an amendment. Backbench MSPs indicate to the chair that they wish to speak and the chair time limits contributions accordingly.

Except in the case of debates that come at the very end of a day's proceedings, where no votes are taken, votes on amendments and motions are taken at the decision time following the debate. Votes are cast on each amendment move and then on the motion, which may have been amended in the preceding votes. The executive normally prevails.


Scottish parliament committees scrutinise both the work of the executive and all legislation. They are also deliberative, coming up with proposals for new bills, taking evidence on current affairs and reporting on issues affecting Scotland and Scottish people. In this way, Scottish parliament committees resemble those of the European parliament more than those at Westminster.

The parliament can establish a committee on any subject and for any purpose. Committees can have between five and 15 members, but they normally have about nine. Members are nominated by the Parliamentary Bureau, which tends to reflect the party composition of the parliament in each committee.

There are two types of committee - mandatory committees and subject committees

The mandatory committees include the finance and subordinate legislation committees, which are key to the passage of the Budget and statutory instruments. The other mandatory committees are the procedures, standards, audit, European and external affairs, equal opportunities and public petitions committees.

The presiding officer decides the subjects of the non-mandatory committees after each election. As such the subjects chosen vary and they do not always mirror the portfolios of Scottish ministers. Nonetheless, the delineation between committees is less rigid than in some other models, allowing for joint-working and for different committees to investigate the same subjects.

For this reason, the Parliamentary Bureau designates a 'lead' committee in the scrutiny of legislation, but this does not preclude other committees from considering relevant provision. In the same way, the subordinate legislation committee looks at all statutory instruments alongside all relevant subject committees.

Committees sit in both public and private, depending on the nature of their business. They normally meet on Mondays, Tuesdays and Wednesdays when the parliament is sitting. They do not sit while a plenary session is in progress and, while they can sit during recesses, this is rare. On occasion, some committees hold meetings outside Edinburgh.

Office of secretary of state for Scotland

Following devolution the Scottish Office became the Office for the Secretary of State for Scotland. This is now part of the Department for Constitutional Affairs.

The secretary of state for Scotland, who is a member of the UK cabinet, exercises the following functions:

Representation of Scottish interests in reserved areas
Ensuring the smooth-running and success of the devolution settlement and intervening as required by the act
Transfer of funds into the Scottish Consolidated Fund
Accountability for Scottish issues to Westminster; monthly oral question session

The act established a new UK law officer - the advocate general for Scotland - to advise the UK government on all matters pertaining to Scottish law and on the referral of Scottish bills to the judicial committee of the privy council where questions on devolved competence arise.

End of story