As we have discussed in previous articles (see Parliamentary e-bulletin of 31 May 2007) the Presiding Officer has a number of key functions within the Scottish Parliament. Most important is, of course, his role in chairing business within the chamber, keeping order and ruling on points of order. He also heads up the Parliament's Corporate Body and the Parliamentary Bureau, the latter of which determines the course of business conducted in the Parliament.
In addition to these tasks, the Scotland Act gives the Presiding Officer certain responsibilities for Scottish legislation. In particular, he is required to make a statement as to the legislative competence of the Parliament in relation to all bills introduced. Finally, the Presiding Officer also has a casting vote in the event that a Parliamentary vote is otherwise tied
The combination of these powers and responsibilities makes the Presiding Officer a very powerful force within the Parliament. Due to this powerful position Presiding Officers are traditionally politically neutral, suspending their party membership for the duration of their term in the role. They also traditionally avoid becoming concerned with substantive matters of Parliamentary debate.
However, maintaining this distance from politics is much more complicated when there is no clear majority within the Parliament, as is the case at present. The reasons for this are principally twofold:
- The Presiding Officer's role as chair of the Business Bureau and convener of the Parliament itself is likely to require a much firmer hand in light of increased Party divisions within the Parliament and the associated increase is Party discipline; and
- Perhaps more concerning for the Presiding Officer, is the increased likelihood of having to cast a deciding vote in relation to specific pieces of legislation. The lack of a clear majority in the Parliament means that it is increasingly likely that votes on key issues will be tied, leading to the Presiding Officer having to cast the deciding vote. Indeed, the Presiding Officer, Alex Fergusson MSP, has already had to do so this term. While the Presiding Officer's vote in such cases can be exercised according to conscience, it is usually exercised in accordance with a set of principles and precedents that have been developed over time by the holders of similar offices in the UK and other Westminster-style Parliaments.
The existence of minority government in Scotland is therefore subtly changing the role of the Presiding Officer. However, these changes are taking place within a clearly defined framework of principles and precedent that has existed for some time. Scotland's Presiding Officer is not alone in the world as presiding over a hung Parliament and has the advantage of the extensive experience of others in fulfilling this role.