I would be lying to say I wasn’t nervous and excited to start shadowing Tavish Scott MSP and Liam McArthur MSP at their Scottish Parliament office! In the parliament building the offices of the MSPs from the same party cluster together, so the Scottish Liberal Democrats share the ground floor with MSPs and staff from the Scottish Green Party. Laura, the parliamentary assistant for Tavish Scott MSP, helped me settled down and introduced me to everyone in the Lib Dem offices. In the Shetland and Orkney MSP offices, Eleana is the parliamentary researcher for their portfolios and David is Liam’s media officer and researcher. It’s a super busy office, and they have kindly taken me on, so I hope that during my time there I can be of use to the office!
In the morning, the Holyrood Parliament office had our weekly conference call with the Shetland and Orkney offices as well as the Westminster office of Alistair Carmichael, who is the MP for Orkney and Shetland. I also attended a team meeting with all the Lib Dem MSPs and their staff. In both team updates, I found the coordination of work and efficiency incredible!
On my first shadowing day, I was tasked with three pieces of work. Laura gave me some info to draft a motion for Tavish Scott MSP to recognise a grant awarded to the local council and NHS board by Energy Action Scotland. Later I helped to draft a letter of support for an organisation trying to secure future funding. It was difficult trying to adopt the MSP’s writing style and thinking what and how much information to include. A massive thank you to Laura who reviewed my drafts and before they went public and provided me with some previous letters to study the writing style!
My third piece of work was helping with Eleana’s research for the Europe portfolio. I was writing a note to help dissect the composition of the relationship between UK and non-EU countries with each other, and putting in information necessary to make a decision on the best options for Scotland. I love discovering knowledge through research and this aligns with one of my main interests, so I’m very happy to be given this piece of work!
It was a very fruitful day, and I enjoyed every second of it. As a History and Politics student and growing up a city where citizens can’t even vote in the upcoming chief executive election in March 2017, it’s been an eye-opening experience to see how democracy works in practice and the people that keep it running.
Today Eleana picked me up from the reception, and we walked through the crowd in the lobby to get to the office- Thursdays are usually the busiest day in the parliament because of FMQs at 12pm. I started the day by drafting a letter for the MSP. It does get a little bit easier after doing it in the last shadowing day, and a previous letter on the same topic helped a lot!
Later in the morning, Eleana met with me to talk through why and how we do Parliamentary Questions. Writing a list of Parliamentary Questions was my main task for today. I read through a Scottish Government publication published earlier in the day and come up with some questions to submit to the Scottish Government. Under Rule 13.5.2 of Standing Orders, written parliamentary questions must be answered within 10 working days (20 working days during recess). I asked her a few questions regarding the challenges of writing these questions and working as a parliamentary researcher. As a pro, Eleana, is able to read carefully between the lines. In order to get a helpful answer with information we are looking for, we have to be very specific and word our question concisely.
Eleana reviewed my list of questions and gave me some very helpful feedback on how to improve. The questions were further edited by the Chamber Desk. The Chamber Desk went through the questions and make edits to language and structure, and also recommended changes and edits for the questions to be clearer and more precise.
In the afternoon, David gave me some information from a local newspaper and I drafted my second motion! Motions can be lodged for debate in Parliament as part of parliamentary business, for debate as part of Members’ Business, to propose that legislation is agreed to or passed, or simply to generate support. Other MSPs can sign up in support of motions that have been lodged. The motion I drafted was to recognise a constituent’s contribution to the Orcadian community.
In the morning, I was tasked with reading through all the national newspapers in Scotland and created a five page daily press brief. In included the Lib Dems, Labour, and Conservatives in the news; news relating to Lib Dem MSPs’ portfolios; and lastly a section on all the headlines. I spent two hours reading through the Daily Record, Scottish Sun, Herald, Scotsman, Press and Journal, Courier, Express, Daily Mail, Telegraph, Times, Guardian, Independent, and iNews. It was quite challenging reading through every single page of the newspaper and trying to pick out names of MSPs and party spokespersons, while judging whether the news might be helpful for Lib Dem MSPs’ portfolio. It reminds me of reading old historical documents in the library when I’m doing research for my university coursework. Comparatively, it’s so much easier when reading online news—I could just use the ‘Find’ function to search for relevant information.
Following that, David and I discussed what the daily press brief could be used for, and the ways to maximise Lib Dem exposure in the news. David also talked me through publicity in print and broadcast. We discussed press releases for national and local news and our relationship with various media outlets. We also talked about the specifics of writing a press release, including writing a snappy title, using ‘rag out’ in the 2nd line, building up the content in a press release, and what to put in the ‘Notes’ section. I have learnt that I should catch the editor’s attention ASAP in the body of the press release, and include any relevant information in the ‘Notes’ so journalists wouldn’t have to spend so much time researching for relevant information. David also told me about using ‘trail lines’ to build up a story.
In the afternoon, using David’s advice, I drafted a press release/ blog post on International Women’s Day (tomorrow!). Max from the press office briefed me about what is needed for the press release/ blog post, and introduced to me what a typical week in the press office is like. Max and I also discussed how we work with MSPs and the media.
Thank you for reading my blog, since today is half way through my shadowing at the Scottish Parliament!
I’ve heard it’s a very busy week here in the Scottish Parliament, especially after the announcement yesterday that the First Minister will seek another Scottish independence referendum.
First thing today for me was writing some speech notes for Tavish Scott MSP for the debate tomorrow in the Culture, Tourism, Europe and External Relations Committee (CTEER) debate. The motion to be debated tomorrow is:
S5M-04570 Joan McAlpine: Reports on the Implications of the European Union Referendum on Scotland—That the Parliament notes the conclusions and recommendations contained in the Culture, Tourism, Europe and External Relations Committee’s 1st Report, 2016 (Session 5), The EU referendum result and its implications for Scotland: Initial Evidence (SP Paper 5); 1st Report, 2017 (Session 5), Brexit: What Scotland thinks: summary of evidence and emerging issues (SP Paper 64); 3rd Report (Session 5), EU Migration and EU Citizens’ Rights (SP Paper 84) and 4th Report, 2017 (Session 5), Determining Scotland’s future relationship with the European Union (SP Paper 99).
Eleana gave me an example of speaking notes she prepared for Tavish for a previous Committee debate. She also suggested I read the Committee Reports mentioned in the motion and have a look at some previous speeches Tavish gave. I read through the reports and picked out a couple of main points, and wrote down how I think they could be turned into a speech, given our party’s position.
Today is my fourth shadowing day already, and I can talk a little bit about how parliamentary research is done. There is a branch of the Scottish Parliament called SPICe (which stands for Scottish Parliament Information Centre). It is based on the ground floor as well, just a little away from the MSP office block. SPICe has a team of researchers based here, and regularly publish research on a variety of issues as well as parliamentary briefings. Here in the office, we rely on the in-depth research from SPICe to form the basis of a lot of our work. Previously, Laura had taken me there to find newspapers - SPICe has copies of many Scottish newspapers and they keep them there for a certain period of time to enable parliamentary researchers find information more easily. My inner nerd was super excited when I saw the collection! J
The Scottish Parliament website has a ‘Motions, Questions, and Answers Search’ function here: http://www.parliament.scot/parliamentarybusiness/28877.aspx. You can search by keyword, MSP, and date range. We rely on this to see what motions or questions were previously submitted so we can follow up and avoid asking the same questions twice when the answer could be out there already! You can see who had supported the motion, whether the motion achieved cross-party support, the status of the motion (for example the status for the motion above that Tavish will speak on is ‘Due in Chamber’ on 15/03/2017). If it’s a question to the Scottish Government, you can see the minister who has provided an answer and on which date they had done so, and of course the content of their answer as well.
Today is my last day in the Scottish Parliament office! I drafted a letter reply to a constituent in the morning, and I read through some publications Laura gave me to pick out information that could be relevant to Shetland and Orkney.
David then talked me through our website and campaigns. We walked through the Scottish Lib Dem’s and Liam McArthur MSP’s websites and had a look at the website-building software. In the past, the website, email newsletters, and database were separated. Now it is combined under the same interface. The website also allows us to create groups for our supporters - for example, creating a group for Orkney’s residents for newsletter purposes. Liam McArthur MSP sends out a weekly newsletter to let his constituents know things he is working on every day in the week. It is an incredible way to keep locals engaged with the MSP’s work.
Under the ‘Campaign’ subpage in our websites, we have a number of petitions that supporters could sign. The process of writing a petition text is similar to writing a press release—I tried to keep it short and interesting to the audience. The only difference is that the press release goes to journalists, who decides what and whether to publish the press release, and the online petition text is directly aimed at the public. After signing the petition, the supporter might receive an email asking them to share it with their family and friends. The terminology of including actions in the emails is called ‘activation ladder’. For example, there are petitions on Liam McArthur MSP and Tavish Scott MSP’s website petitioning for fair ferry fares- Orkney and Shetland are excluded from the Road Equivalent Tariff Scheme. While the Firth of Clyde islands and Inner Hebrides ferry fares are cut by 44% for passengers and 55% for cars, the ferry fares remain high for Orkney and Shetland! Both petitions collected more than 2,000 signatures each, reflecting that it is a huge issue for constituents!
My internship experience with the MSPs and their parliamentary staff had been excellent. Reflecting on my upbringing, in Hong Kong, politicians are given very negative connotations. I think it’s mostly because some citizens have two votes in the Legislative Council through the unfair functional constituency system, as well as the lack of an effective electoral monitoring system. Speaking of my personal experience with the Scottish Liberal Democrats, I feel the MSPs are passionate and dedicated. The fact that Tavish Scott MSP and Liam McArthur MSP travel every week from Shetland and Orkney on an early morning flight, and stay at the parliamentary office until the evening and travel back to spend weekends with their family is respectable. It is a tough job with lots of public scrutiny! I would like to thank both MSPs for having me in their office.
Since it’s my last day at the office, I would like to thank Laura, Eleana, and David for accommodating me in their Scottish Parliament office and teaching me loads of things that I would not have the opportunity to learn about otherwise. On top of their busy work routine, they had read through draft documents I produced and took the time to give me written feedback. It’s been a very humbling experience.
I have always been very curious about how things work in the offices. Due to financial constriants of shadowing Tavish Scott MSP or Liam McArthur MSP’s work in Shetland or Orkney, Alex Cole-Hamilton MSP and his staff accommodated me for a day in the Edinburgh West constituency office. I spent the day working with Vita and Jenny at Alex Cole-Hamilton MSP’s constituency office in Corstorphine.
In less than a year since Alex Cole-Hamilton MSP was elected, the office already accumulated more than 1,200 cases! As you can imagine, that means a lot of paper work and a lot of filing to be done. MSPs usually spend Tuesdays to Thursdays in the Scottish Parliament for debates and meetings, and Mondays and Fridays in local offices to work on constituency issues.
Traffic is a big issue in this constituency. In the morning, I shadowed a meeting with a local constituent. St John’s Road, which runs through Corstorphine, is one of the main roads connecting Glasgow and Edinburgh. It faces speeding issue and heavy traffic/ pollution. It is particularly a big concern for constituents with children. As you can imagine it’s quite scary walking to school on a narrow pavement when a lorry speeds past! Mr Cole-Hamilton listened to what the constituent’s concerns were, and reassured them what he’s been working on with the press, the Scottish Parliament, the Edinburgh City Council, and even the Edinburgh airport; as well as the limitations of his work. For example, due to financial constriants, the Edinburgh City Council is unable to place any speeding camera in the area.
I am most impressed with the MSP being responsive to constituents of different opinions than his own. A large number of constituents emailed to express their opinion on the possibility of a second Scottish Independence Referendum. I helped to reply constituents both for and against another referendum, and made a record of the numbers supporting each. I think it is very democratic to not only reply to those in line with our views, but also those who disagree. It’s very respectable to have dialogue with people who disagree with us through communication and understanding each other.
My internship experience with the MSPs and their parliamentary staff had been excellent. Reflecting on my upbringing, in Hong Kong, politicians are given very negative connotations. I think it’s mostly because some citizens have two votes in the Legislative Council through the unfair functional constituency system, as well as the lack of an effective electoral monitoring system. Speaking of my personal experience with the Scottish Liberal Democrats, I feel the MSPs are passionate and dedicated, even solely on the fact that Tavish Scott MSP and Liam McArthur MSP travels every week from Shetland and Orkney on a 4.30am flight, and stay at the parliamentary office until the evening. I would also like to use this opportunity to thank CRER for their support from the very beginning.