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20 Years of Race (In)equality in Holyrood

In the 20 years since the Scottish Parliament opened in 1999, what has been done? Overall, a lot: approximately 300 bills have been passed, 1700 public petitions have been lodged, 8500 committee meetings have been held, and 660 FMQ sessions have taken place. [i]

When we consider what precisely has been done for race equality, the answer is a bit trickier.

CRER has conducted an overview of how race has been considered in the past two decades of the Scottish Parliament, looking particularly at the topics of Chamber Debates[ii]; committee items of business[iii]; and questions posed during First Minister’s, General, and Topical Question Times[iv][v].

What we found was a marked decline from Session 1 (1999 to 2003) in debates, committee meetings, and parliamentary questions focused on race.


Over the past two decades, there have been only five Chamber Debates (i.e. not Members’ Debates) on race alone, with an eleven year gap between a debate on Race Equality led by the Minister for Communities in June 2006 and one held in December 2017, led by the Cabinet Secretary for Communities, Social Security, and Equalities.

The debates addressed subjects including the Race Relations (Amendment) Bill (2000), the Scottish Executive’s anti-racism campaign (2002), the Scottish Executive’s race equality scheme (2005), the Scottish Executive’s national strategy and action plan on race equality (2006), and the Scottish Government’s Race Equality Action Plan (2017).

There were more debates which focused on equality in general (e.g. the Executive’s Equality Strategy, mainstreaming, the Equality Bill) or where race featuring during a debate focused on a different protected characteristic (e.g. a Scottish Labour-led debate on Misogyny, Racism, Harassment, and Sexism Against Women). We counted nine such debates, with a wide variation of the proportion of contributions from MSPs which had specific race content.


Analysing the work of the Equal Opportunities Committee (renamed the Equalities and Human Rights Committee in 2016), we examined the business undertaken by the committee (whether over a single meeting or multiple meetings) which specifically considered a race issue.

While there were eight items of business which focused on race during Session 1 (with a heavy emphasis on justice/policing-related issues), there has been a steady decrease since then. The focus has remained largely on justice/policing, although one inquiry looked into race and employment. It is worth noting that this inquiry, which resulted in a committee report, did not receive a Chamber Debate.

At the same time, the proportion of attention given to Gypsy/Traveller issues has increased. For example, in Session 4, of the four race-related items discussed, three related to Gypsy/Traveller issues in particular. While a focus on this is welcome, the downturn in more general race discussions is apparent.

In terms of other committees, we found that only two committees have undertaken race-specific items of business: the Public Petitions Committee (considering a variety of petitions on issues including BME adoption procedures and Gypsy/Travellers and Council Tax) and the Justice Sub-Committee on Policing considering Police Scotland’s engagement with BME communities.


In Session 1, seven First Minister’s Questions (FMQs) had a race focus, whether addressing racist attacks, calling for work to tackle racism, or promoting Scotland as a welcoming and inclusive place. There has been a decrease in FMQs about race since then, with two or fewer FMQs on race in each of Sessions 2, 3, and 4. The change in the structure of FMQs during Session 5 makes it difficult to analyse the current session in the same way.

There has also been a decrease in Topical and General Questions with a race focus, from 16 in Session 1 to six in Session 5 (with Session 3 only featuring two).

It is clear that, overall, race is simply discussed much less now than it was in the early days of the Scottish Parliament. This is to say nothing about the quality of the discussions, which was beyond the scope of this research.

Is this decline owed to the passage of the Equality Action 2010 (and the corresponding repeal of the Race Relations Act 1976) and an overall amalgamation of equality stands? Perhaps, although the same time period has seen several more Chamber Debates addressing gender, disability, and sexual orientation.

Could it be down to the distinct lack of BME representation in the Parliament? While there have never been more the two BME MSPs in a parliamentary session (and never a female BME MSP), there were no MSPs with a BME background in either the first or the second sessions of parliament, and yet race remained higher on the political agenda.

Perhaps the Scottish Government is simply not undertaking work on race that can be scrutinised? While the first two sessions of the parliament saw debates on an anti-racism campaign (which the Scottish Government does not currently operate), there were debates on its anti-racism/race equality strategies. However, there were no Chamber Debates on either the Race Equality Statement 2008-2011 or the Race Equality Framework 2016-2030. This is particularly concerning, as these policies set out the Scottish Government’s overarching strategy for tackling racial inequalities across all aspects of society. It should be an area ripe for scrutiny (as should the 5 year gap between strategies) – so why was it not?

Instead, maybe, is there a lack of race expertise in the Parliament that inhibits MSPs discussing issues? Was there a greater understanding of race and racism two decades ago? If so, what has changed?

Regardless of the reasons, the deprioritisation of race equality in the Scottish Parliament is evident. What does this say about Scotland as the welcoming and inclusive country it purports to be?

During the first Chamber Debate on race in the Scottish Parliament – a debate on the Race Relations (Amendment) Bill in 2000 – Ministers noted that, “no institution in Scotland can afford to ignore…the evidence that proves that racism exists here in Scotland,” and that, “the new Scotland is entitled to strong leadership from its politicians on [race equality].”

Two decades later, BME groups still experience significant inequalities and disparities across all areas of public life, from employment, to housing, to education, to justice. Nearly a quarter of those living in Scotland believe there is sometimes a good reason to be prejudiced against certain groups.[vi]

Isn’t this Scotland, 20 years on, entitled to strong leadership from politicians and an acknowledgement that racism exists in our institutions and structures?

It is time to put race back on the parliamentary agenda.

(CRER has written to party leaders to make them aware of our findings. You can find a link to this letter on our website.)


[i] Scottish Parliament Twitter, 1st July 2019.

[ii] For this exercise, we used the Scottish Parliament’s website to search an alphabetical listing of debate subjects from 1999 to present for the use of the terms ‘race’, ‘racism’, ‘racial’, ‘ethnic’, and ‘ethnicity’. We also looked at debates which had equality as their stated subject.

[iii] For this exercise, for Sessions 1-3, we used the Scottish Parliament’s website to search the Official Report for committee meetings in which the terms ‘racism’, ‘racial’, ‘ethnic’, and ‘ethnicity’ were used. This helped us compile a list of items of business related to race, as well as note other items of business in which race was frequently discussed. We did not search for the term ‘race’, as this brought up results not related to race equality, (e.g. athletic races, use of the phrase ‘race to the bottom’). The way in which the Official Report can be searched changed towards the end of Session 3, complicating our process. Thus, for Sessions 4-5, an amended version of this method was used.

[iv] For this exercise, we used the Scottish Parliament’s website to search the Official Report for question times in which the terms ‘race’, ‘racism’, ‘racial’, ‘ethnic’, and ‘ethnicity’ were used in the question posed. For the ‘scripted’ questions from party leaders during First Minister’s Questions (e.g. ‘To ask the First Minister when he/she next plans to meet the Cabinet), we have used the substantive question which followed this. In Session 5, the way in which First Minister’s Questions are conducted was changed, allowing for more questions to be posed which were not lodged previously (and thus lack an official tag, such as S5M-00001). Efforts have been made to include these questions as well.

[v] CRER has taken the decision to not count discussion of international issues, migration, or sectarianism; debates specific to a particular BME community; or mentions of race equality or BME groups in a list alongside other equality groups in our analysis. We also did not include forced marriage, female genital mutilation, or human trafficking, as, although these issues do disproportionality affect people from BME communities, they are not specifically related to issues of race and racism.

[vi] Scottish Social Attitudes Survey 2015.

Photo: Members' Debate on the UN International Day for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination (21st March 2018)