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Public’s return to Holyrood has been ‘real highlight’ for Presiding Officer

The public were allowed back in the Scottish Parliament last month (PA)
The public were allowed back in the Scottish Parliament last month (PA)

Seeing the public return to Holyrood as Covid restrictions ease has been a “real highlight” for Presiding Officer Alison Johnstone after a busy year in the role.

It has been one year since she became Holyrood’s sixth Presiding Officer and the second woman to do the job.

Speaking as she marked her first anniversary in the post, Ms Johnstone said: “It feels like a fast year.

“It’s been busy, there’s a lot to learn, but there always is in Parliament, that will never change.”

Alison Johnstone
Presiding Officer Alison Johnstone said she is proud the Scottish Parliament has continued to sit throughout the pandemic (Russell Cheyne/PA)

She told the PA news agency it is a “real privilege” to preside over the most diverse Scottish Parliament ever, with a record number of women elected to Holyrood in 2021, including the first women of colour and the first permanent wheelchair user.

She said seeing the public return after Covid restrictions forced the Parliament to close its doors to them in March 2020 had been a highlight for her – as well as seeing more MSPs sitting in the chamber.

Throughout the pandemic, social distancing requirements limited the number of MSPs who could be present in the chamber for debates and question time sessions.

It was not until April 19 this year – more than two years after the initial Covid lockdown began – that members of the public were allowed back into the Scottish Parliament.

Ms Johnstone said: “It’s been a real pleasure these last few weeks to see the public coming back into their Parliament and sitting in the public gallery in numbers.

“It just changes the dynamic, it changes the atmosphere. The people that the Parliament represents are there with us. That has been a real highlight.”

Empty seats in the closed public gallery during First Minster’s Questions in March 2020 (PA)

While she said she is “very proud of the way the Parliament has continued to sit throughout the pandemic”, she added that hybrid working procedures brought in to allow business to continue during Covid should not be ended entirely.

The Presiding Officer recalled how when the Beast from the East snowstorm hit the UK in March 2018, she had walked in from her Edinburgh home through “deep snow” – with the six-mile journey taking 90 minutes.

Ms Johnstone said she had no choice but to come in then, as she was moving amendments to a Bill at one of Holyrood’s committees.

She recalled: “I had been phoning the convener as I marched ever closer saying ‘please don’t start’.”

Holyrood’s Standards, Procedures and Public Appointments Committee is currently carrying out an inquiry into hybrid working, and the Presiding Officer said: “I don’t think we will ever put it away, because it brings us too many advantages.”

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