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Last Updated: Monday, 14 May 2007, 00:32 GMT 01:32 UK
Q&A: Holyrood presiding officer
MSPs have elected Alex Fergusson as the new presiding officer of the Scottish Parliament, but what exactly does the job entail?

Here, BBC Scotland political reporter Andrew Black answers the main questions about this senior and prestigious post, sometimes under-rated in the public eye.


What does the presiding officer actually do?

The presiding officer, who is chosen from one of the 129 MSPs, operates a bit like the speaker of the House of Commons.

They are best known for chairing proceedings in the Scottish Parliament. This involves swinging their gavel about, shouting "order" a lot, selecting motions and amendments and deciding on speakers during debates.

They must also rule on points of order and make sure the MSPs behave themselves in the chamber - which can prove tricky at times. (You may recall a sit-in protest by some Scottish Socialist politicians as one of the more memorable incidents).

The position is seen by some as the most important in Scottish devolution, after the job of first minister.

What about when they're not in the chamber?

The presiding officer also chairs "the bureau", which decides on parliamentary business, as well as the corporate body - essentially the Scottish Parliament management team.

Is it all really such a tough job?

Well, yes actually. As well as all of the above, the presiding officer has an important role to play as the national and international face of Scottish devolution.

A major part of the job involves attending Royal functions, delivering speeches at international conferences and receiving delegations from across the world - a role which calls for sharp diplomatic skills.

The election of the third presiding officer was delayed by parliament. Why was that?

One of the most important qualities of the presiding officer is impartiality - and that also means loosing their vote in the chamber.

Because the election result was so tight, with the SNP the biggest party by only one seat, MSPs felt more time was needed to discuss the best candidates for the job.

How is the presiding officer chosen?

MSPs firstly submit nominations, which have to be seconded by another member, before ballot papers are printed.

The outgoing presiding officer announces the nominations and the MSPs cast their votes in a secret ballot before a result is announced.

If a candidate wins more votes than the total number received by all other candidates and the total number of votes cast is more than a quarter of the total number of seats in the parliament - that candidate is elected. Still with me?

Just about - so is that it?

Not quite. If there is no outright winner, successive rounds of voting will be held with the candidate receiving the fewest votes in each round being eliminated.

This continues until one candidate is left or until one candidate wins more votes than the total won by the other candidates.

If there is only one candidate, MSPs are asked to vote for or against that contender or abstain. A sole nominee is elected if they win a simple majority in their favour and the total number of votes cast is more than a quarter of the total number of seats in the parliament.

Phew, so it sounds like the job of presiding officer is a tough and important one after all. How do they do it all by themselves?

Help is at hand. Holyrood also chooses two deputy presiding officers, who have the same range of responsibilities and powers when acting in place of the presiding officer.

The difference is that they both retain their party allegiance and will vote in the chamber, unless they happen to be chairing proceedings.


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