How to influence legislation in the Scottish Parliament

Scottish parliament

Robert McGeachy and Mark Ballard give a preview of their book, The Public Affairs Guide to Scotland: Influencing Policy and Legislation

TFN Guest's photo

1st October 2019 by TFN Guest 1 Comment

Amid all the furore over Brexit, prorogation and potential general elections it is easy to overlook the fact that the Scottish Parliament has a busy legislative programme ahead for over the next year. As we move to the halfway point in this session of the parliament an increasing number of legislative commitments are turning into draft bills, and draft bills are moving through the stages of parliamentary consideration.

Many of these bills are of great interest to the voluntary sector. There has been significant civil society campaigning over bills such as the Climate Change (Emissions Reduction Targets) and the Period Products (Free Provision) (Scotland) Bill. The Scottish Government’s Programme for Government 2019-20 is probably the last chance to launch new legislation that can be completed before the 2021 election.

Over the next 18 months some of the greatest opportunities for voluntary sector organisations are likely to be around helping to shape and influence proposed bills as they move through the parliamentary process, rather than seeking to persuade the government to adopt new proposals. There are major opportunities to achieve positive changes to legislation which will benefit their organisations, and those on whose behalf they work.

It is also always worth remembering the significance of the current political balance in Holyrood. The Scottish Government’s lack of an overall majority in the Scottish Parliament, and in its committees, has improved the chances of campaigning organisations being able to secure changes to bills.

However, many voluntary organisations are wary of engagement with the final, amending, stages of legislation. While there can be a great deal of activity in responding to government consultations and the Stage 1 inquiry by the relevant parliamentary committee, relatively little of this is sustained through the legislative process. Obviously a successful amendment to a bill can be one of the most effective things a voluntary organisation can do to advance the interests of their beneficiaries.

So why do so many organisations end their active involvement on a specific Bill after submitting evidence for the Stage 1 inquiry?

Robert McGeachy

Robert McGeachy

We think there are three main reasons. Firstly, a lack of knowledge and understanding of the processes involved. Secondly, clerks and bill teams can at times (potentially inadvertently) discourage organisations taking a lead on amendments themselves. Finally organisations can worry about undermining close working relationships with civil servants and ministers by changing legislation without their permission.

Despite the arcane language – manuscript amendments and marshalled lists – the Scottish Parliament’s rules for amending legislation are actually very simple. 

To increase accessibility still further, we recently produced a guide for voluntary organisations to lobbying and influencing the Scottish Parliament. This sets out in detail the steps you need to take to successful secure legislative changes at Stage 2 and 3 of a bill. 

Hopefully armed with the knowledge of what to do, organisations will be more confident in approach MSPs with proposed amendments. However, we have found that the Scottish Parliament’s clerks are sometimes keen to promote the idea that the practice of drafting amendments to legislation should be left to them. Contacting an MSP with an idea for an Amendment to a Bill, after which the MSP asks the parliamentary clerks to draft the amendment is certainly one option for you to consider. However, this does put a lot of power in the hands of the clerks who many not be clear about the nuances of what you want to achieve.

Mark Ballard

Mark Ballard

It may strengthen your case, and ability to lobby, by choosing to draft your own amendments. This may sound quite daunting, but after 20 years of the parliament there will probably be examples from previous bills of amendments that can provide a template. Having your own list of amendments makes you look much more credible and serious players in the process.

Having your own amendments ready means you do not have to wait until Stage 2 or 3 of the Bill. You can start having the meetings with key politicians much earlier, linked to emerging Stage 1 evidence and discussion. Even if such meetings produce no immediate concessions, it will focus government and bill team attention at Stage 2, and may lead to the government producing their own amendments to address your concerns.

Finally, there is the fear of upsetting relationships. The Scottish Government, including civil servants and Minsters have worked very hard to build positive stakeholder relationships with the voluntary sector. There may be a fear that the opportunities to continue to do this will be lost if an organisation tries to use parliamentary processes to change the government’s preferred destination. However, in our experiences the opposite may be true. If the Government is wary of the influence your organisation may have at Stages 2 and 3 of the Bill, and knows you are well prepared to take advantage of its lack of a majority to potentially overturn elements of its planned legislation, it will take your concerns much more seriously. Even where there is push back, if you have done your work to secure cross party support at Stage 2, the government will probably end up trying to reach an accommodation.

Mark Ballard and Robert McGeachy are award winning public affairs professionals, and the joint authors of The Public Affairs Guide to Scotland: Influencing Policy and Legislation published by the Welsh Academic Press. The book is available to order from your local independent bookshop or from a number of book-selling websites.

4th October 2019 by Kevin Wilkinson

The strap line is “… a preview of their new book, The Public Affairs Guide to Scotland: Influencing Policy and Legislation”. But the only one I can find from a range of book sellers (not just the big ones) is the April 2016 version. So is there an up-dated version of the 2016 book coming?