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Painting a picture of parliament

IN 1997, the newly elected Labour Government held a referendum on a Scottish Parliament. The vote was overwhelmingly in favour of a devolved parliament with tax varying powers and the Scottish Parliament opened 20 years ago with great fanfare.

I was elected in 1999 as the constituency MSP for Coatbridge and Chryston and I will always consider it an honour and privilege to be the first MSP to serve my home town. The most satisfying part of being an MSP for me has been helping individual constituents with their problems and advocating for them. However, this can also be deeply frustrating when you cannot achieve the outcome constituents want.

From the start, some major changes were immediately noticeable like the number of women elected with our parliament being the third highest of any parliament in the world. However, women’s representation has plummeted from third in 1999 to 32nd. A critical mass of women is important and results in legislation in areas such as domestic abuse, breastfeeding and period poverty.

At the outset, it was expected that this parliament would be different to Westminster and easier to access by the public. The Scottish Parliament starts each week with a short speech called Time for Reflection, which is in contrast to Westminster’s more traditional Christian prayers and MSPs are asked to nominate the contributors. To date I have successfully nominated a number of Catholic bishops, priests and members of our wider community and I have submitted Fr Lockhart, National Director of Missio Scotland, for a slot this session.

One the highlights of this current session for me was hosting the first ever Mass in the Scottish Parliament in 2018. The Mass (above) was celebrated by Archbishop Leo Cushley and was well attended by MSPs, staff and other building users. I was also pleased to host a parliamentary event for the Bishops’ Conference, which also included a rare outing of the relics of St Andrew.

The Scottish Parliament’s committee system was supposed to operate as a second chamber to hold government to account but hasn’t worked as expected. Committee members work hard scrutinising legislation, but are too often affected by pressure from party whips. On a parliamentary visit to Malawi I found out that the committees there only have members who are not in the governing party. Whilst this might not work for us, it is nonetheless interesting to learn from other countries. The committees do, however, engage far and wide on all legislation and this is evident in April last year when a submission to the Equalities and Human Rights Committee-Human Rights Inquiry was made by Anthony Horan, Director of the Catholic Parliamentary Office of the Bishops’ Conference of Scotland. This submission included information on the excellent human rights work undertaken by Missio Scotland.

Private members bills can be a way of changing legislation but are dependent on gaining cross-party support and ultimately the support of the governing party. One main personal achievement of my 20 years of service was the passing of my own bill, the Breastfeeding etc. (Scotland) Act 2005. The act provides legal protection to support mums and babies breastfeeding in public. When I was taking the bill through parliament, I hosted a visit by a delegation of Tanzanian women MPs. They were shocked that such legislation was needed are were pleased to note that in their country breastfeeding is the norm and fully supported.

In terms of access to parliament, voting systems, and sitting times there have been some improvement over the Westminster system. However, 20 years ago, the idea that people now, including those in work, would be dependent on foodbanks—unheard of in 1999—would have been met with disbelief. Homelessness is on the rise and child poverty is set to dramatically increase.

Christian charities, including the Catholic Church, have responded to these needs by opening and operating food banks, running projects for the homeless and giving financial help to struggling families. And that’s not surprising since, in the words of Pope Francis: “Charity is at the heart of the Church, it is the reason for its action, the soul of its mission.” However, the aspirations invested in the parliament in 1999 did not include the need for so much charity 20 years on to help social ills. I won’t be standing again after this session, but I truly hope our parliament, and Scottish Government, can do better over the next 20 years.

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