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Scottish Parliament
Pàrlamaid na h-Alba  (Scottish Gaelic)
The Scots Pairlament  (Scots)
5th Scottish Parliament
Coat of Arms of Scottish Parliament
Founded 12 May 1999 (1999-05-12)
Type Unicameral
Presiding Officer Ken Macintosh
since 12 May 2016
First Minister Nicola Sturgeon, SNP
since 20 November 2014
Opposition Party Leaders Ruth Davidson, Conservative
Kezia Dugdale, Labour
Patrick Harvie, Green
Willie Rennie, Liberal Democrats
Members 129
Scottish Parliament Political groups

Government (63)

  •       SNP (63)

Opposition (65)

Presiding Officer

  •       PO (1)
Scottish Parliament Committees
Scottish Parliament Voting system Additional Member System
Scottish Parliament Last election 5 May 2016
Scottish Parliament Next election 6 May 2021 or earlier
Meeting place
Debating Chamber, Scottish Parliament Building
Scottish Parliament Building, Holyrood, Edinburgh
Flag of Scotland.svg
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The Scottish Parliament (Scottish Gaelic: Pàrlamaid na h-Alba; Scots: The Scots Pairlament), is the devolved national, unicameral legislature of Scotland. Located in the Holyrood area of the capital city, Edinburgh, it is frequently referred to by the metonym Holyrood.

The Parliament is a democratically elected body comprising 129 members known as Members of the Scottish Parliament (MSPs), elected for four-year terms under the additional member system: 73 MSPs represent individual geographical constituencies elected by the plurality ("first past the post") system, while a further 56 are returned from eight additional member regions, each electing seven MSPs. The most recent general election to the Parliament was held on 5 May 2016, with the Scottish National Party winning a plurality.

The original Parliament of Scotland (or "Estates of Scotland") was the national legislature of the independent Kingdom of Scotland, and existed from the early 13th century until the Kingdom of Scotland merged with the Kingdom of England under the Acts of Union 1707 to form the Kingdom of Great Britain. As a consequence, both the Parliament of Scotland and the Parliament of England ceased to exist, and the Parliament of Great Britain, which sat at Westminster in London was formed.

Following a referendum in 1997, in which the Scottish electorate voted for devolution, the current Parliament was convened by the Scotland Act 1998, which sets out its powers as a devolved legislature. The Act delineates the legislative competence of the Parliament – the areas in which it can make laws – by explicitly specifying powers that are "reserved" to the Parliament of the United Kingdom. The Scottish Parliament has the power to legislate in all areas that are not explicitly reserved to Westminster. The British Parliament retains the ability to amend the terms of reference of the Scottish Parliament, and can extend or reduce the areas in which it can make laws. The first meeting of the new Parliament took place on 12 May 1999.

History of the Scottish parliament

Before the Treaty of Union 1707 united the Kingdom of Scotland and the Kingdom of England into a new state called "Great Britain", Scotland had an independent parliament known as the Parliament of Scotland. Initial Scottish proposals in the negotiation over the Union suggested a devolved Parliament be retained in Scotland, but this was not accepted by the English negotiators.

For the next three hundred years, Scotland was directly governed by the Parliament of Great Britain and the subsequent Parliament of the United Kingdom, both seated at Westminster, and the lack of a Parliament of Scotland remained an important element in Scottish national identity. Suggestions for a 'devolved' Parliament were made before 1914, but were shelved due to the outbreak of the First World War. A sharp rise in nationalism in Scotland during the late 1960s fuelled demands for some form of home rule or complete independence, and in 1969 prompted the incumbent Labour government of Harold Wilson to set up the Kilbrandon Commission to consider the British constitution. One of the principal objectives of the commission was to examine ways of enabling more self-government for Scotland, within the unitary state of the United Kingdom. Kilbrandon published his report in 1973 recommending the establishment of a directly elected Scottish Assembly to legislate for the majority of domestic Scottish affairs.

During this time, the discovery of oil in the North Sea and the following "It's Scotland's oil" campaign of the Scottish National Party (SNP) resulted in rising support for Scottish independence, as well as the SNP. The party argued that the revenues from the oil were not benefitting Scotland as much as they should. The combined effect of these events led to Prime Minister Wilson committing his government to some form of devolved legislature in 1974. However, it was not until 1978 that final legislative proposals for a Scottish Assembly were passed by the United Kingdom Parliament.

Under the terms of the Scotland Act 1978, an elected assembly would be set up in Edinburgh provided that a referendum be held on 1 March 1979, with at least 40% of the total electorate voting in favour of the proposal. The 1979 Scottish devolution referendum failed: although the vote was 51.6% in favour of a Scottish Assembly, with a turnout of 63.6%, the majority represented only 32.9% of the eligible voting population.

Throughout the 1980s and 1990s, demand for a Scottish Parliament grew, in part because the government of the United Kingdom was controlled by the Conservative Party, while Scotland itself elected relatively few Conservative MPs. In the aftermath of the 1979 referendum defeat, the Campaign for a Scottish Assembly was initiated as a pressure group, leading to the 1989 Scottish Constitutional Convention with various organisations such as Scottish churches, political parties and representatives of industry taking part. Publishing its blueprint for devolution in 1995, the Convention provided much of the basis for the structure of the Parliament.

Devolution continued to be part of the platform of the Labour Party which, in May 1997, took power under Tony Blair. In September 1997, the 1997 Scottish devolution referendum was put to the Scottish electorate and secured a majority in favour of the establishment of a new devolved Scottish Parliament, with tax-varying powers, in Edinburgh. An election was held on 6 May 1999, and on 1 July of that year power was transferred from Westminster to the new Parliament.

Building and grounds

The public entrance of the Scottish Parliament building, opened in October 2004

Since September 2004, the official home of the Scottish Parliament has been a new Scottish Parliament Building, in the Holyrood area of Edinburgh. The Scottish Parliament building was designed by Spanish architect Enric Miralles in partnership with local Edinburgh Architecture firm RMJM which was led by Design Principal Tony Kettle. Some of the principal features of the complex include leaf-shaped buildings, a grass-roofed branch merging into adjacent parkland and gabion walls formed from the stones of previous buildings. Throughout the building there are many repeated motifs, such as shapes based on Raeburn's Skating Minister. Crow-stepped gables and the upturned boat skylights of the Garden Lobby, complete the unique architecture. Queen Elizabeth II opened the new building on 9 October 2004.

In March 2006, one of the Holyrood building's roof beams slipped out of its support and was left dangling above the back benches during a debate. The debating chamber was subsequently closed, and MSPs moved to The Hub for one week, whilst inspections were carried out. During repairs, all chamber business was conducted in the Parliament's committee room two.

Temporary accommodation 1999–2004

Whilst the permanent building at Holyrood was being constructed, a temporary home for the Parliament was found in Edinburgh. The General Assembly Hall of the Church of Scotland on the Royal Mile was chosen to host the Parliament. Official photographs and television interviews were held in the courtyard adjoining the Assembly Hall, which is part of the School of Divinity of the University of Edinburgh. This building was vacated twice to allow for the meeting of the Church's General Assembly. In May 2000, the Parliament was temporarily relocated to the former Strathclyde Regional Council debating chamber in Glasgow, and to the University of Aberdeen in May 2002.

In addition to the General Assembly Hall, the Parliament also used buildings rented from the City of Edinburgh Council. The former administrative building of Lothian Regional Council on George IV Bridge was used for the MSP's offices. Following the move to Holyrood in 2004 this building was demolished. The former Midlothian County Buildings facing Parliament Square, High Street and George IV Bridge in Edinburgh (originally built as the headquarters of the pre-1975 Midlothian County Council) housed the Parliament's visitors' centre and shop, whilst the main hall was used as the Parliament's principal committee room.


Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II at the opening of the Scottish Parliament
Queen Elizabeth II at the opening of the Scottish Parliament on 1 July 1999 alongside then First Minister of Scotland Donald Dewar and then Presiding Officer Lord Steel of Aikwood

After each election to the Scottish Parliament, at the beginning of each parliamentary session, Parliament elects one MSP to serve as Presiding Officer, the equivalent of the speaker in other legislatures, and two MSPs to serve as deputies. The Presiding Officer (currently Ken Macintosh) and deputies (currently Linda Fabiani and Christine Grahame) and are elected by a secret ballot of the 129 MSPs, which is the only secret ballot conducted in the Scottish Parliament. Principally, the role of the Presiding Officer is to chair chamber proceedings and the Scottish Parliamentary Corporate Body. When chairing meetings of the Parliament, the Presiding Officer and his/her deputies must be politically impartial. During debates, the Presiding Officer (or the deputy) is assisted by the parliamentary clerks, who give advice on how to interpret the standing orders that govern the proceedings of meetings. A vote clerk sits in front of the Presiding Officer and operates the electronic voting equipment and chamber clocks.

As a member of the Scottish Parliamentary Corporate Body, the Presiding Officer is responsible for ensuring that the Parliament functions effectively and has the staff, property and resources it requires to operate. Convening the Parliamentary Bureau, which allocates time and sets the work agenda in the chamber, is another of the roles of the Presiding Officer. Under the Standing Orders of the Parliament the Bureau consists of the Presiding Officer and one representative from each political parties with five or more seats in the Parliament. Amongst the duties of the Bureau are to agree the timetable of business in the chamber, establish the number, remit and membership of parliamentary committees and regulate the passage of legislation (bills) through the Parliament. The Presiding Officer also represents the Scottish Parliament at home and abroad in an official capacity.

The Presiding Officer controls debates by calling on members to speak. If a member believes that a rule (or standing order) has been breached, he or she may raise a "point of order", on which the Presiding Officer makes a ruling that is not subject to any debate or appeal. The Presiding Officer may also discipline members who fail to observe the rules of the Parliament.

The member of the Scottish Government whose duty it is to steer Executive business through Parliament is the Minister for Parliamentary Business (currently Joe FitzPatrick). The minister is appointed by the First Minister and is a Junior Minister in the Scottish Government, who does not attend cabinet.


Parliament typically sits Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Thursdays from early January to late June and from early September to mid December, with two-week recesses in April and October. Plenary meetings in the debating chamber usually take place on Wednesday afternoons from 2 pm to 6 pm and on Thursdays from 9:15 am to 6 pm. Chamber debates and committee meetings are open to the public. Entry is free, but booking in advance is recommended due to limited space. Parliament TV is a webcast and archive of Parliamentary business back to 2012. and on the BBC's parliamentary channel BBC Parliament. Proceedings are also recorded in text form, in print and online, in the Official Report, which is the substantially verbatim transcript of parliamentary debates.

Since September 2012, the first item of business on Tuesday afternoons is usually Time for Reflection at which a speaker addresses members for up to four minutes, sharing a perspective on issues of faith. This contrasts with the formal style of "Prayers", which is the first item of business in meetings of the House of Commons. Speakers are drawn from across Scotland and are chosen to represent the balance of religious beliefs according to the Scottish census. Invitations to address Parliament in this manner are determined by the Presiding Officer on the advice of the parliamentary bureau. Faith groups can make direct representations to the Presiding Officer to nominate speakers. Before September 2012, Time for reflection was held on Wednesday afternoons.

The Presiding Officer (or Deputy Presiding Officer) decides who speaks in chamber debates and the amount of time for which they are allowed to speak. Normally, the Presiding Officer tries to achieve a balance between different viewpoints and political parties when selecting members to speak. Typically, ministers or party leaders open debates, with opening speakers given between 5 and 20 minutes, and succeeding speakers allocated less time. The Presiding Officer can reduce speaking time if a large number of members wish to participate in the debate. Debate is more informal than in some parliamentary systems. Members may call each other directly by name, rather than by constituency or cabinet position, and hand clapping is allowed. Speeches to the chamber are normally delivered in English, but members may use Scots, Gaelic, or any other language with the agreement of the Presiding Officer. The Scottish Parliament has conducted debates in the Gaelic language.

Each sitting day, normally at 5 pm, MSPs decide on all the motions and amendments that have been moved that day. This "Decision Time" is heralded by the sounding of the division bell, which is heard throughout the Parliamentary campus and alerts MSPs who are not in the chamber to return and vote. At Decision Time, the Presiding Officer puts questions on the motions and amendments by reading out the name of the motion or amendment as well as the proposer and asking "Are we all agreed?", to which the chamber first votes orally. If there is audible dissent, the Presiding Officer announces "There will be a division" and members vote by means of electronic consoles on their desks. Each MSP has a unique access card with a microchip which, when inserted into the console, identifies them and allows them to vote. As a result, the outcome of each division is known in seconds.

The outcome of most votes can be predicted beforehand since political parties normally instruct members which way to vote. Parties entrust some MSPs, known as whips, with the task of ensuring that party members vote according to the party line. MSPs do not tend to vote against such instructions, since those who do are unlikely to reach higher political ranks in their parties. Errant members can be deselected as official party candidates during future elections, and, in serious cases, may be expelled from their parties outright. Thus, as with many Parliaments, the independence of Members of the Scottish Parliament tends to be low, and backbench rebellions by members who are discontent with their party's policies are rare. In some circumstances, however, parties announce "free votes", which allows Members to vote as they please. This is typically done on moral issues.

Immediately after Decision Time a "Members Debate" is held, which lasts for 45 minutes. Members Business is a debate on a motion proposed by an MSP who is not a Scottish minister. Such motions are on issues which may be of interest to a particular area such as a member's own constituency, an upcoming or past event or any other item which would otherwise not be accorded official parliamentary time. As well as the proposer, other members normally contribute to the debate. The relevant minister, whose department the debate and motion relate to "winds up" the debate by speaking after all other participants.

Scrutiny of government

Declaration Glasgow Kelvin
The result for the Kelvin constituency being declared at the Scottish Parliament election, 2007. Ordinary general elections for the Scottish Parliament are held on the first Thursday in May every four years.

The party, or parties, that hold the majority of seats in the Parliament forms the Scottish Government. In contrast to many other parliamentary systems, Parliament elects a First Minister from a number of candidates at the beginning of each parliamentary term (after a general election). Any member can put their name forward to be First Minister, and a vote is taken by all members of Parliament. Normally, the leader of the largest party is returned as First Minister, and head of the Scottish Government. Theoretically, Parliament also elects the Scottish Ministers who form the government of Scotland and sit in the Scottish cabinet, but such ministers are, in practice, appointed to their roles by the First Minister. Junior ministers, who do not attend cabinet, are also appointed to assist Scottish ministers in their departments. Most ministers and their juniors are drawn from amongst the elected MSPs, with the exception of Scotland's Chief Law Officers: the Lord Advocate and the Solicitor General. Whilst the First Minister chooses the ministers – and may decide to remove them at any time – the formal appointment or dismissal is made by the Sovereign.

Under the Scotland Act 1998, ordinary general elections for the Scottish Parliament are held on the first Thursday in May every four years (1999, 2003, 2007 and so on). The date of the poll may be varied by up to one month either way by the Monarch on the proposal of the Presiding Officer. If the Parliament itself resolves that it should be dissolved (with at least two-thirds of the Members voting in favour), or if the Parliament fails to nominate one of its members to be First Minister within 28 days of a General Election or of the position becoming vacant, the Presiding Officer proposes a date for an extraordinary general election and the Parliament is dissolved by the Queen by royal proclamation. Extraordinary general elections are in addition to ordinary general elections, unless held less than six months before the due date of an ordinary general election, in which case they supplant it. The following ordinary election reverts to the first Thursday in May, a multiple of four years after 1999 (i.e., 5 May 2011, 7 May 2015, etc.).

Several procedures enable the Scottish Parliament to scrutinise the Government. The First Minister or members of the cabinet can deliver statements to Parliament upon which MSPs are invited to question. For example, at the beginning of each parliamentary year, the First Minister delivers a statement to the chamber setting out the Government's legislative programme for the forthcoming year. After the statement has been delivered, the leaders of the opposition parties and other MSPs question the First Minister on issues related to the substance of the statement.

Parliamentary time is also set aside for question periods in the debating chamber. A "General Question Time" takes place on a Thursday between 11:40 a.m. and noon where members can direct questions to any member of the Scottish Government. At 2:30 pm, a 40-minute-long themed "Question Time" takes place, where members can ask questions of ministers in departments that are selected for questioning that sitting day, such as health and justice or education and transport. Between noon and 12:30 p.m. on Thursdays, when Parliament is sitting, First Minister's Question Time takes place. This gives members an opportunity to question the First Minister directly on issues under their jurisdiction. Opposition leaders ask a general question of the First Minister and then supplementary questions. Such a practice enables a "lead-in" to the questioner, who then uses their supplementary question to ask the First Minister a question on any issue. The four general questions available to opposition leaders are:

  • To ask the First Minister what engagements he/she has planned for the rest of the day?
  • To ask the First Minister when he/she next plans to meet the Prime Minister and what issues they intend to discuss?;
  • To ask the First Minister when he/she next plans to meet the Secretary of State for Scotland and what issues they intend to discuss? and
  • To ask the First Minister what issues he/she intends to discuss at the next meeting of the Scottish Government's cabinet?.

Members who wish to ask general or themed questions, or questions of the First Minister, must lodge them with parliamentary clerks beforehand and selections are made by the Presiding Officer. Written questions may also be submitted by members to ministers. Written questions and answers are published in the Official Report.


PercentageScottish Parliament election, 2016Scottish Parliament general election, 2011Scottish Parliament general election, 2007Scottish Parliament general election, 2003Scottish Parliament general election, 1999
Election results by political group, 1999 to 2016. Left to right:

     Labour      Lib. Dems

     Independent      SSCUP

     Socialist      Greens

     Conservative      SNP

There have been five elections to the Parliament, in 1999, 2003, 2007, 2011 and 2016.

The next Scottish Parliament election is due to be held on Thursday 6 May 2021. Under the Scotland Act 1998, an ordinary general election to the Scottish Parliament would normally have been held on the first Thursday in May four years after the 2016 election, i.e. in May 2020. This would clash with the proposed date of the next United Kingdom general election. In November 2015, the Scottish Government published a Scottish Elections (Dates) Bill, which proposed to extend the term of the Parliament to five years. That Bill was passed by the Scottish Parliament on 25 February 2016 and received Royal Assent on 30 March 2016, setting the new date for the election as 6 May 2021.

As with all elections in the UK, Irish and qualifying Commonwealth citizens are entitled to vote. Unlike elections to the Westminster parliament, citizens of other non-Commonwealth EU member states who are resident in Scotland are entitled to vote in elections to the Scottish Parliament. Overseas electors on Scottish electoral registers are not allowed to vote in Scottish Parliament elections. From the 2016 election, the franchise for Scottish Parliament elections was expanded to include 16 and 17-year olds.

Current composition

Parties in the Scottish Parliament, May 2016
Composition after the election.
ed {{{2}}}Scottish general election, 2016
Party Constituencies Regional additional members Total seats
Votes  % ± Seats ± Votes  % ± Seats ± Total ±  %
SNP 1,059,897 46.5 Increase 1.1 59 Increase 6 953,987 41.7 Decrease 2.3 4 Decrease 12 63 Decrease 6
[[Scottish Conservative Party|Template:Scottish Conservative Party/meta/shortname]] 501,844 22.0 Increase 8.1 7 Increase 4 524,222 22.9 Increase 10.6 24 Increase 12 31 Increase 16
[[Scottish Labour Party|Template:Scottish Labour Party/meta/shortname]] 514,261 22.6 Decrease 9.2 3 Decrease 12 435,919 19.1 Decrease 7.2 21 Decrease 1 24 Decrease 13
[[Scottish Green Party|Template:Scottish Green Party/meta/shortname]] 13,172 0.6 Increase 0.6 0 Steady 150,426 6.6 Increase 2.2 6 Increase 4 6 Increase 4
[[Scottish Liberal Democrats|Template:Scottish Liberal Democrats/meta/shortname]] 178,238 7.8 Decrease 0.1 4 Increase 2 119,284 5.2 Steady 1 Decrease 2 5 Steady
[[United Kingdom Independence Party|Template:United Kingdom Independence Party/meta/shortname]] 0 Steady 46,426 2.0 Increase 1.1 0 0 0 Steady 0.0
[[Solidarity (Scotland)|Template:Solidarity (Scotland)/meta/shortname]] 0 Steady 14,333 0.6 Increase 0.5 0 0 0 Steady 0.0
style="background-color: Template:Scottish Christian Party/meta/color;" | [[Scottish Christian Party|Template:Scottish Christian Party/meta/shortname]] 1,162 0.1 0.0 0 Steady 11,686 0.5 Decrease 0.3 0 0 0 Steady 0.0
style="background-color: Template:RISE – Scotland's Left Alliance/meta/color;" | [[RISE – Scotland's Left Alliance|Template:RISE – Scotland's Left Alliance/meta/shortname]] 0 Steady 10,911 0.5 Increase 0.5 0 0 0 Steady 0.0
style="background-color: Template:Women's Equality Party/meta/color;" | [[Women's Equality Party|Template:Women's Equality Party/meta/shortname]] 0 Steady 5,968 0.3 Increase 0.3 0 0 0 Steady 0.0
Independent 0 Steady 4,420 0.2 0 Decrease 1 0 Decrease 1 0.0


Wfm scottish parliament construction
Enric Miralles' Scottish Parliament complex in Holyrood Park during construction. The building was completed in 2004. Above and behind the new Parliament is the neoclassical Old Royal High School, which was prepared for a previous devolved Scottish parliament, but never used.

The resignation of Henry McLeish as First Minister, brought on by an office expenses scandal, generated controversy in the first years of the Parliament. Various academics have written on how the Scottish Parliament can be improved as a governing institution.

West Lothian question

A procedural consequence of the establishment of the Scottish Parliament is that Scottish MPs sitting in the UK House of Commons are able to vote on domestic legislation that applies only to England, Wales and Northern Ireland – whilst English, Scottish, Welsh and Northern Irish Westminster MPs are unable to vote on the domestic legislation of the Scottish Parliament. This phenomenon is known as the West Lothian question and has led to criticism. Following the Conservative victory in the 2015 UK election, standing orders of the House of Commons were changed to give MPs representing English constituencies a new "veto" over laws only affecting England.

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