Scotland politics

Holyrood highlights: The year in summary

Holyrood chamber
Image caption MSPs are heading off for their summer holidays after a busy year

Holyrood is in recess, and MSPs are heading off for their summer holidays. But what have they been up to in the first year of the fifth Scottish Parliament?

One year has passed since the Queen formally opened this latest parliamentary session.

Since then there have been two nationwide elections (and one Holyrood by-election), four new MSPs have been sworn in, three new bills have been passed and roughly 10,000 barbs exchanged at ministerial question sessions.

Nicola Sturgeon has pledged to spend the summer refreshing her government's outlook, but what have they achieved in the term so far?


Constitutional matters

Image copyright PA
Image caption MSPs have been somewhat preoccupied with two different Unions this year

"Get back to the day job" has become a favourite refrain of politicians on all sides of the debate at Holyrood, be it the SNP taunting the Conservatives about Brexit or the snap election, or pretty much any pro-Union party addressing the SNP.

But for quite a bit of the term, big-picture constitutional matters have been the day job at Holyrood.

Brexit was the big news event of the year - and might ultimately be the biggest news of the whole parliamentary term.

As a result, MSPs have spent a lot of time discussing it, both in the chamber - where more than a dozen debates have been held - and at committee level, with several groups compiling reports.

This is only going to intensify as the Brexit talks progress, with Holyrood's consent or at least input likely to be sought for a whole raft of legislation.

The only constitutional earthquake which could eclipse Brexit during the current Holyrood term would be Scottish independence - which may still be on the table at some point, but which has had several ups and downs in the last year alone.

At Holyrood, MSPs have formally voted to ask for permission for a second independence referendum, and were gearing up to study draft legislation which Ms Sturgeon ordered to be drawn up in the wake of the Brexit vote.

However, they have since heard from Nicola Sturgeon that she won't be pressing a bill any time soon, and will be back to update them on her timetable sometime next autumn.


New kids on the block

Image caption Four new MSPs have joined the 129 elected in May 2016

There was obviously a full new class of MSPs to kick off the year after 2016's elections, but there have been a number of changes in personnel even since then.

Four new MSPs have been sworn in, all on the Tory benches, and one member was actually sworn in twice inside a year.

The first change was the result of the sad and rather sudden death of longstanding MSP Alex Johnstone, who died aged 55 in December having been a member for the full span of the Scottish Parliament. Bill Bowman subsequently stepped into his North East list seat.

The general election triggered a sort of electoral merry-go-round, with John Lamont quitting his Holyrood constituency seat to win one at Westminster, Rachael Hamilton quitting her Holyrood list seat to win the vacant constituency one, and Michelle Ballantyne slotting into the vacated list seat.

Replacements were also needed for Ross Thomson and Douglas Ross, who became MPs for Aberdeen South and Moray respectively, and had their places taken by Tom Mason and Jamie Halcro Johnston.

The Conservatives can't really afford to keep up this kind of turnover of members - Mr Mason is the last name on their North East list, so if any member from that region were to leave for any reason, they would be left with an empty seat. No small matter in a parliament of minority government and tight margins.


Money, money, money

Image copyright AFP

Holyrood's steadily increasing set of powers has led to a succession of landmark moments where MSPs took the reins on various forms of taxation for the first time.

One big milestone this year saw MSPs vote to set separate Scottish income tax rates and bands for the first time. They opted not to alter the basic rate, but rejected increases to the threshold for the higher 40p rate implemented elsewhere in the UK.

Another change from previous years was the thawing of the council tax freeze, with local authorities allowed to raise rates by up to 3% without fear of penalty for the first time since 2007. MSPs also voted to increase the multiplier for the top four bands, meaning some Scots saw their bills rise regardless.

There is also the prospect of more taxing debates to come, with MSPs voting to replace air passenger duty with a devolved air departure tax. The first vote on the rates and bands of that will come later in the year.

In the big fiscal event of the year, Derek Mackay's budget passed after he struck a deal with the Greens.

As an interesting, if slightly trivial, aside, the £220m secured by Patrick Harvie's party represents 0.57% of the Scottish government's £38bn overall budget. The £1bn of spending secured by the DUP in their deal with the Conservatives is 0.12% of the UK government's £802bn total budget.

Mr Mackay referred to Mr Harvie as being a better negotiator than the 13 Tory MPs put together, but in percentage terms he might even outstrip the DUP.


Committee scrutiny

Image caption Alex Neil in full flow - a sight to strike fear into any public official facing a committee grilling

The Holyrood chamber may be the parliament's grandstand, but its committees are the engine room - a billing they've lived up to amply in the past year.

The public audit committee has been particularly compelling viewing of late, with members remorseless in their pursuit of officials from NHS bosses to top police brass.

In tandem with the justice sub-committee on policing, they claimed a significant scalp when Scottish Police Authority chairman Andrew Flanagan stepped down after a series of brutal evidence sessions on transparency. At one point, MSP Alex Neil saw fit to remind bosses that "it's not the Kremlin you're running".

MSPs said they lacked confidence in Mr Flanagan and called for him to go - and he ultimately resigned.

This is just a drop in the ocean of committee evidence heard across the year, of course. On the final day of term alone, MSPs quizzed several government ministers, the Auditor General, the Lord President of the High Court and the High Commissioner of Malta to the UK.


Legislation

Image copyright British Transport Police
Image caption Ministers have achieved a long-standing goal by beginning the process of merging railway policing into Police Scotland

It seems an odd thing to say of a parliament, but there hasn't been a lot to shout about on the legislative front in the term so far.

The first year of a new parliament is always a quieter one, thanks to post-legislative scrutiny and consultations on ideas for new bills. But this, combined with the various constitutional wranglings, has meant only three new bills have been passed aside from the mandatory budget bill - and all of them in the final fortnight of term.

There's still some big stuff in there, though. The Scottish government has achieved one of its longer-term goals, and started the ball rolling on the integration of railway policing into the single national police force.

As mentioned above, MSPs have also set up a devolved air tax, and unanimously approved changes to the statute of limitation for survivors of childhood abuse to seek compensation through civil courts.

Apart from the government's efforts, a couple of prominent member's bills have also begun working their way through the system. These include James Kelly's bid to repeal the Football Act, Claudia Beamish's attempt to ban fracking, Miles Briggs's move for free dementia care for under-65s, and Gillian Martin's bill for seatbelts on school transport.

That's just primary legislation - the big headline stuff - though. Parliament has also churned through lots of secondary legislation, tinkering with existing laws.

Perhaps the most headline-grabbing example of this was the recent decision to relax the previously blanket ban on puppy tail shortening. This was done via a secondary legislative instrument, an SSI, but the presiding officer allowed extra time for debate in the chamber due to the emotive nature of the topic.


Parliamentary reform

Image copyright Andrew Cowan/Scottish Parliament
Image caption Commission chairman John McCormick (left) launched the report alongside presiding officer Ken Macintosh (left)

Holyrood has been around for a few years now, so Presiding Officer Ken Macintosh set up an independent commission to look at giving the parliament "an MOT".

The premise was that parliament isn't broken but could do with a tune-up, but the commission swiftly heard calls for "radical" reform of more or less every element of Holyrood's work.

They ultimately came back with 75 recommendations, ranging from elected committee conveners to getting rid of the tedious opening questions at FMQs. "Can the first minister advise the chamber what she is having for lunch", no longer.

The primary goal? "Reducing waffle", and getting Holyrood working as smoothly as possible inside its current frameworks.

Some changes have already been made - such as the aforementioned sessions of questions to the first minister being extended to 45 minutes. Others are now certain to follow.

But one suggested reform has already been shot down - SNP backbencher John Mason's bid to have portion sizes reduced in the parliament canteen.

This move created almost unprecedented unity among normally rival parties, as members closed ranks in defence of their right to have chips and garlic bread with their macaroni cheese.

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