As part of our Parliamentary Responses to Crisis series, this is the third and last part of our articles about perspectives from each of the UK’s devolved Parliaments, in Northern Ireland, Wales, and Scotland.
The importance of research provision in virtual/hybrid parliaments
Accurate, independent and impartial research is vital to the effective functioning of any parliament. During national, or in the case of the COVID-19 pandemic, global crises, access to such research is even more crucial. When parliamentarians are required to make quick decisions which affect citizens’ fundamental freedoms, such as the right of free movement and the right to work, it is of the utmost importance that they have the most up to date intelligence possible.
During the present crisis, Members of the Scottish Parliament and parliamentary staff were as restricted as any other citizen by the sudden closedown of much of society. Initially, they were unable to travel to work or meet to carry out their democratic functions. They relied entirely on parliamentary staff to set up and provide digital systems to enable them to meet and debate government policy, plans and legislation remotely. Even then, changes to the Parliament’s standing orders were often necessary to allow virtual meetings and remote voting to take place.
In Scotland, as in many countries, most of this was achieved in a remarkably short time. Within days, staff had adapted procedures to enable much parliamentary business to go ahead, including new processes for lodging parliamentary questions and for enabling committees to meet virtually. Within a couple of weeks virtual and hybrid plenary meetings were also taking place.
Over this period, Members were even more reliant on the research and information provided by the Scottish Parliament Information Centre (SPICe) to effectively scrutinise government policy and actions and to make informed decisions on various pieces of emergency or accelerated government legislation.
Fortunately, our Business Information Team had already provided most parliament staff, including all members of SPICe, with laptops with full remote access to all parliamentary systems. So, from the beginning of lockdown we were in a position to deliver virtually a full research, information and enquiry service to Members and their staff.
While access to the necessary IT equipment and sources was a prequisite for providing a full research and information service during this period, it would not have been possible without SPICe staff adapting quickly to the new communications technology while, at the same time, balancing home and caring responsibilities, often in a less than optimal working environment.
The fact that the level of enquiries from Members has barely reduced during this period and that SPICe staff have been able to produce briefings on every Bill, as well as publishing blogs on many aspects of the COVID-19 pandemic while supporting every committee meeting, is testament to both the resilience of SPICe staff and to the reliance Members place on the impartial research and information we provide.