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Early starts

Today I rose early at 0500. It's one of these mornings that rewards you for doing so—a gentle sun shining through a modest, moist haze and the grass glistening with dew. 

Blue sky above and a crisp one degree outside providing a wake-up jolt as I open my study window to let the fresh air in and a cat out. She decides that heading off to the bedroom to join a somnolent spouse is a better bet for now.

But the early rise is not for the "joy of the morning". That's a short poem written by Edwin Markham more than a century ago.

"I hear you, little bird,
Shouting a-swing above the broken wall.
Shout louder yet: no song can tell it all.
Sing to my soul in the deep, still wood :
‘Tis wonderful beyond the wildest word:
I'd tell it, too, if I could.

Oft when the white, still dawn
Lifted the skies and pushed the hills apart,
I’ve felt it like a glory in my heart
(The world's mysterious stir)
But had no throat like yours, my bird,
Nor such a listener."

No, it is because a busy day beckons. The first of two Parliamentary Committee meetings requires members to muster at 0830. 

The start of the first, our Environment, Climate Change and Land Reform Committee (ECCLR), is billed as a "dress rehearsal". Not because we will be "fixing" the outcomes in private before presenting a united front in public. Politics doesn't really work that way. Rather it is precisely because there will be outcomes.

We are undergoing an external event-driven reform of how we do business. A new weekly shape to our schedule is emerging. That's good. My staff describe me as "rather OCD". I like to see a well-defined plan for at least a week ahead, preferably several months.

As a description, it's rather unfair, both by underplaying the seriousness for people who experience the condition for real, and to me. I simply like to organise. But obsessive? Distressed if the plan needs changed suddenly? No. Neither of those.

But I do like to know why we are meeting and what we are seeking to achieve. Meetings simply held because they are "weekly", "monthly", "quarterly" meetings are generally pretty pointless.

In the late 1980s I found myself as the Senior Manager of the Bank of Scotland's computer operations. About 180 staff working over three shifts, to produce, among many things, about 110 kilometres of printed output every day. That could be 4 million letters being collected by the two 44 tonne trucks that collected the mail each night. One of my great achievements at the end of my 3-year appointment was getting the print-run down to about 70 Km per day.

One of my first changes was more important. At the end of the night shift at 0800 we had a daily review meeting involving the management of the outgoing team and the day shift which took over from them.

We sat around a table to discuss issues that had arisen in the last 24 hours, identify solutions and allocate actions. A perfect meeting with a purpose? Yes and no.

It served the functional needs of the organisation. But it took place around the boardroom table with coffee and biscuits. And, because it lasted an hour or more, it delayed the departure to their homes of people who just completed a nine-hour shift.

So I organised a new room for the meeting. No furniture. No tables and no chairs. No coffee and no biscuits. Just walls against which people could lean, while we discussed the same issues that had previously taken an hour, in ten to fifteen minutes.

And with a "scribe" standing near the door with a clipboard and a single sheet of A4 paper to record the "what, when and who" that represented our agreed actions, we lifted happiness all round. At the end of the meeting, we decamped en masse to the photocopier to receive our copy of the action list. Handwritten but timely, unambiguous and in our hands. Nearly an hour handed back to participants.

Meetings are there to make decisions. Less often to simply inform. Too often to create the illusion of meaningful activity, when objectively, there was little.

Today's ECCLR is about decisions.

And, I think, it's the first time that members from a' the airts will be making Parliamentary decisions without being physically in our shared building. Possibly dividing in a vote.

Now MSPs are adapting to new ways of working. But our rule book, the "Standing Orders", have yet to make all the adaptations which may be required.

Our Committee clerks wisely gathered us together yesterday for a "pre-dress-rehearsal" which included a dummy run vote. I don't think I speak out of turn if I say, "more work required", would be the proper conclusion. And that's partly why we started early.

The rules are clear. There are a couple of formal Parliamentary resolutions before the Committee today. We shall hear from the responsible Cabinet Secretary in her home in rural Perthshire. We shall ask probing questions.

The main subject is the first stage of introducing a Deposit Return Scheme which is designed to improve our waste recycling. It seems to be supported in principle by all interests. But the detail and the timetable are matters where there is not yet a single view. In particular, manufacturers who will have to provide new product labelling, and retailers who will need to have facilities to accept back things like empty bottles, need time to prepare.

While today's debate about the framework regulations does not directly affect company operations out there, they do start the process.

So how will we decide whether we shall recommend the legislation before us today for approval?

The Convenor of our Committee, the estimable Gillian Martin, her place in history assured as the first to preside over this process (I think, I'm sure a reader will correct me if required), will ask members if they agree to the motion. If so, then so.

But if we are divided in our view, we need to vote. Normally in the Committee Room we simply put our hands up in turn for each option - Agree, Disagree, Abstain (yes, one can also sit out altogether but ..) and the Committee Clerks count the votes. And Convenor announces the result.

To give certainty in a virtual meeting where the Clerks cannot be sure to see whether our hands are up or not, we need to use a roll-call vote where each member in turn, alphabetically, is asked how they wish to vote. 

But the Standing Orders, only permit a roll-call vote after the Committee has taken a vote as to whether to permit a roll-call vote. Still with me? We first have to have a vote to decide how to vote before we have the actual vote.

Ask me what happens if we need a roll-call vote because we are divided about whether to have a roll-call vote? I don't know.

Thank goodness my second meeting of the day, the COVID-19 Committee, is more straightforwardly simply taking evidence from Ministers. Oops - wrong! We are making two decisions there too.

Methinks an early decision Parliament might be making is to change our Standing Orders.

My study is a TV studio for five or six hours today. 

It's now 0750—time for a shower and a shave. Only 40 minutes to go.

Amazing how an early start still leaves one looking carefully at how little time is left.


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