REFORMS aimed at strengthening the role of women in the Scottish Parliament could “make a real difference”, Holyrood’s presiding officer has said.

Alison Johnstone spoke out as a new report, making a series of recommendations for changes, was published.

A group made up of MSPs from all parties – of whom all but one were female – together with academic experts, have been working since early last year on an audit looking at equal representation at Holyrood.

It comes after several female MSPs stood down from Holyrood in 2021, citing the difficulties of balancing family life with their work in the Parliament.

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The report, titled A Parliament for All, has made a total of 34 recommendations for change, which include for 40% of committee conveners at the Scottish Parliament to be female, together with the introduction of a rule that there should be no single-sex committees at Holyrood.

The Parliamentary Bureau – the body which schedules all business at Holyrood – is being recommended to review sitting times to “determine what changes will be made to limit unpredictability of sitting times and maximise inclusion and wellbeing”.

MSPs stayed till after midnight on two consecutive nights in December last year when considering legislation reforming the gender recognition process, and while Johnstone said that was “very much an outlier in terms of late sittings” she would “very much hope” this does not happen again.

What does the report suggest?

The report called for a minimum 40% female representation on both the Parliamentary Bureau and the Scottish Parliamentary Corporate Body, which is responsible for budgets, security and staffing.

And it suggested a quota to ensure that Holyrood’s presiding officer and deputy presiding officers are never either all male or all female – with the report saying this formalises the “existing Scottish Parliament norm” and thus “protects and further legitimises this for the future”.

A women’s forum should be be established at the Parliament, the report recommends, which would be open to all female MSPs so they could “discuss issues of mutual interest and to provide a support network”.

And the proxy voting scheme being trialled, which allows MSPs to nominate a fellow parliamentarian to vote in Holyrood on their behalf during parental leave, illness or other absences, should be made permanent.

"They can make a real difference"

Speaking about the proposed changes, Johnstone said: “Taken as a package, they can make a real difference.”

It comes as she insisted that the Scottish Parliament was doing “remarkably well” in terms of female representation.

Of the MSPs elected in 2021, a record 46% are female, with the elections also seeing women of colour elected to Holyrood for the first time.

“It is fair to say at 46% women, on a global scale, the Scottish Parliament is doing remarkably well,” the presiding officer said.

“Generally, everyone appreciates in 2023 the more diverse the Parliament is, the better it reflects the people of Scotland.

“What we see in the chamber now is notable progress, parties are very keen to see that maintained.”

Johnstone stressed the proposals were “designed to strengthen equal representation and participation at Holyrood”, adding that the report was “only the first step towards substantive reform”.

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She added: “I look forward to working closely with colleagues to make sure that these recommendations are implemented.”

Board member Dr Meryl Kenny, a senior lecturer in gender and politics at the University of Edinburgh, said: “The recommendations together promise an inclusive Scottish Parliament for the 21st century, one that in its work, procedures, and institutional culture is representative and effective.”

Fellow board member Professor Sarah Childs, also of the University of Edinburgh, said: “This report marks an important moment, with Scotland building on its record and joining a growing number of countries around the world committed to reforms that will gender sensitise its Parliament.”