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A new normal for Parliament?

I generally start my week by looking at my diary. Making sure I have the assets I require for my meetings. Looking backwards over four weeks, I discover to my surprise that I have attended 12 Committee meetings and three sessions of Parliament.

The new normal is that Parliament is here in my study in Banffshire.

And as I look to my right, I see the neatly ordered piles of paper waiting. On the floor.

The main action this week will be progressing the Coronavirus (Scotland) (No.2) Bill.

We start at 0900 on Tuesday and are currently scheduled to spend four and a half hours dealing with the 55 amendments submitted for consideration in twenty-two separate debates. That's a nominal twelve minutes per debate. We'll see.

I spent much of yesterday getting my mind around the proposals.

The first read-through is always a bit alarming as some quite major proposals are unclear in their intent. On the second read-through, the alarm diminishes for most. But for some, it rises sharply, as you wish you weren't seeing some of the proposals from certain Parliamentary colleagues. "First read" alarm confirmed.

It's the usual—Government proposals, prepared with the analytical horse-power of the civil service behind their drafting. I have one small question about a bit of drafting in one. And a more substantial one where it may be that something is missing. I send off questions to the Government Minister in charge.

A couple of opposition amendments have minor typos. I send off courtesy emails to their authors. No need, or point, in using precious Committee debate time on these. They have no policy effect anyway.

So the amendments break down into the usual categories I use. And do not share with colleagues.

Firstly the sensible or necessary. Pleasingly some opposition proposals look sensible although it's not clear that they are necessary. In some cases, these will be "probing amendments" that the author will not ultimately ask to be approved. They just want the Minister to put something "on the record" or fix an issue by some other means.

Next, the interesting and plausible but unimplementable. Mostly they are something where the costs have not been estimated, and every indication is that they will be ginormous. Or they will require diversion of effort away from solving actual problems to counting things every four hours, OK I exaggerate, but only a bit. Producing reports that few will read and even fewer will gain new insights from. But which will allow pointless political debates which may divert attention away from what may be difficult issues for these amendments' authors?

Nearly there. The irredeemably impossible. There's some of those. They may be markers for future political debates about the post-COVID-19 world. Well and good, but ultimately diverting our limited time into political cul-de-sacs. Or we may have to wait to discover what purpose their author will proffer to explain their submission when he or she speaks to them in the debate.

Finally, the pure dead brilliant. No really. Hardly ever see any of these in legislation, fascinating as it is to a detail geek like me, this process is much more perspiration than inspiration.

I have two wee amendments which tidy up drafting. They will take two minutes of Committee time; or less. They, of course, fit into the last category - pure dead brilliant. If only; they will be forgotten 5 minutes after being in front of the Committee. Properly so. I won't even issue a press release.

But the real excitement in Committee is about the process. Not excitement for those who watch our activities, but for Parliamentarians. It will be the first occasion we have done a formal stage amending a Bill as it makes it way through Parliament with most Members "dialling-in" from their home offices. I have already participated in voting in a virtual Committee already - our Environment Committee - a couple of weeks ago. But the challenge of dealing with 55 amendments is of a whole different order.

I am happy to name-check our Convenor Murdo Fraser, a man with whom I will continue to have some pretty fundamental political differences, but who has shown a deft hand in his chairing of the Committee - so far. Tuesday will be his biggest test. Perhaps it's the technology though that could present his biggest challenge for him as he has "dropped out" briefly in previous meetings.

The fall-back is for the Deputy Convenor to take over. That works. But as we are voting on the wording of an important Bill, we must all be able to send our vote in. That may involve our texting or using other messaging services. For me, that's a particular challenge.

If my broadband drops out, only twice this year for brief periods, I have fewer options than others. Having no mobile phone signal at home, even outside, if my broadband drops off so does any texting or voice that I might access via that phone. Because my mobile phone only works at all because it uses my broadband.

In my case, we can only drop back to that invention first demonstrated in public by Alexander Grahame Bell, a Scot, in 1876. I refer to the electric telephone. Should be OK. But if I want to worry, I can remind myself that my broadband and telephone arrive at home on the same pair of copper wires. A tractor travelling along our country roads with its forklift gadget up in the air at the front can tangle and snap those wires as some hang quite low between poles. Yep, it happened to a near neighbour about ten years ago.

Thinking about contingencies in our domestic setting is something I wrote about a month or so ago.

In my professional life, it was about commercial life or death, not mere domestic inconvenience. Or missing a Parliamentary vote. Traditional retail banks, that's the ones you and I have our accounts with, turn over all their money every three days. That means if the computer centre is out of action for three days, the bank is out of business - forever.

So our centre had eight electricity generators, forty tons of car batteries to cover the twenty seconds between power failure and the gennies spinning up. We needed 3 megawatts at peak. And there was lots more. Three companies provided data cables into our building. Each was duplicated by physically different routes. And even more. A farm tractor was not going to affect us.

I am much more focussed on the paperwork than on the technology.

Interesting that something invented 2,000 years ago remains vital. Last year's inventions, merely very helpful.

I expect to be reading off a computer screen on Wednesday when I dial-in again for the Stage 3 debate, the final stage, of this Bill. But with a paper copy of my speech near to hand. In case.

Old tech wins.


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