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Parliament's back in business

Yesterday was the search for perfect answers in an imperfect world.

And real heavyweight stuff. I logged in to the COVID-19 Ctte, of which I am a member, at 0830 and logged off from Parliament broadcasting at 1730. We had two five minute tea breaks and twenty-five minutes for lunch. So about eight and a half hours in front of the cameras.

It's much worse broadcasting from your own home studio than being in Parliament. Why? In Committee rooms, you can see where the cameras are pointing and you can see which is "active" by looking at the monitors. So if the irresistible need to scratch your nose arrises there, you can pick your moment, confident that it ain't going to be broadcast.

At Westminster, it's been some time since they started televising proceedings. One of those who vociferously resisted the move was Tam Dalyell. His reservations were wholly justified when he was seen picking his nose. Or so I have been told. Never saw it myself.

Now given that the Westminster authorities have strict rules about the shots that may be used. It must have been a "wide shot" of the whole chamber. A close up of a non-participant ain't allowed there.

In the Scottish Parliament, there will be "cut-aways" to show members' reactions to whoever may be speaking. So that risk is there. Only one rule - "in the Chamber" equals "in a TV studio". All the time.

But it's not just visual risks. Although it won't be broadcast, it's as well to remember that the Presiding Officer, who sits down at the front can hear a conversation that is taking place on the back row, even at a normal conversational volume. The acoustics of the Chamber throw voices very effectively from the back to the front. Paradoxically that doesn't happen in the centre. But then the PO can see you are gossiping. In either event, he or she may choose to comment on the activity; to issue a "cease and desist" order from the chair.

In one's home studio there is only one camera, so anything out of shot is just that, "out of shot". The broadcasters in Parliament will switch one's camera and microphone off and on, and one can see they have done so. But one has no idea what shots are actually being transmitted. The camera is on most of the time—so very limited opportunity to relax.

There is a little "chat" box. We now use that for voting in Committee. But we can also, hidden from the public but visible to all who are "signed in", exchange messages.

In my previous "computing" career, we had loads of TLAs. That means "Three Letter Acronyms". And "TLA" is a TLA.

The new courtesies of online Parliament have introduced a couple of new ones. The first is "AFD" which is preferably followed by something like "abt 3 mins". It means "Away from Desk" and suggests that nothing be broadcast showing an empty chair. Hint: don't fall out with the TV folk.

Upon return type "BCK", not strictly a TLA but an abbreviation. It means I am back.

Being in front of a camera for more than eight hours is surprisingly exhausting. Even though my on-the-record words during the day were no more than about 1,300, I had to vote about three dozen times and to have listened carefully to the preceding debate before doing so.

Constant engagement in a complex and novel process. Novel? It was the first time a Committee has sat in session by dial-in and debated and concluded the amendment of a Bill. Even when we are all in the same room, it is an activity which requires constant attention and engagement.

The connection for one member switched off for a couple of minutes. A Minister's microphone refused to cooperate briefly. And there was a fire alarm in Parliament which stopped us for a short while. A pretty standard day at the office.

Our Convenor knew he was breaking new ground. And had clearly prepared himself for the occasion extremely well. It went as he would have wished. Indeed better than some "in-person" meetings to discuss amendments. So, and this is something I expect to say but rarely, "Well done Murdo Fraser".

In terms of the subject matter of the debates, there were 56 proposed amendments to the Coronavirus (Scotland) (No.2) Bill. There were 28 votes with the Government prevailing on 22 occasions, the opposition on six. That's minority Government for you.

As is often the case, the preparation that had gone into a few of the amendments was risibly poor. And, more critically, while long-serving members like Jackie Baillie had taken their proposed amendments to Ministers for discussion, and gained something for her point of view in return, others failed to seek that opportunity and lost out.

It is almost as if some MSPs want to lose the vote so that they can girn on Twitter afterwards.

Yes, you've spotted it. My supply of patience runs out before the time does.

Others spoke on relatively straightforward issues where there was every prospect of consensus, at such length as to almost encourage a vote against them as an act of revenge. Almost but not quite.

But if I have a mild grump, that's nothing.

Amendments for today's debate had to be in by 0930 this morning. And yesterday in Committee I heard the minister make several commitments to work with members to refine their proposals into a more implementable form.

I translate that into meaning that quite a few several civil servants and Ministers may have to be up all night doing precisely that.

I had been scheduled to speak this afternoon, but the number of amendments is such as to cut our backbench speakers from five to two.

I am away to embrace the sofa. If only. Rural Committee starts shortly.

Parliament's back in business.


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