From No Go to Old Locos

Parliament says “No”

In the news this week was Tuesday’s decision by Parliament not to give legislative consent to the UK Government’s European Union (Withdrawal) Bill. Read the Official Report to find out how the debate panned out.

Bandit country

Earlier that day, during the Justice Committee’s evidence taking on the Management of Offenders (Scotland) Bill, George Adam wanted to know whether ready online access to information about people’s past convictions was a problem and whether legislation might be required to deal with it. The Howard League Scotland’s representative had this to say:

We can legislate for the Google effect, but it would be incredibly difficult to try to wrangle what goes on in those areas that are beyond legislation—social media is a bit like bandit country.”

Good-as-new trains

When you buy a second-hand car, you want to know how many miles it’s done, don’t you?

So ran Mike Rumbles’s thinking at Wednesday’s meeting of the Rural Economy and Connectivity Committee, when he was eager to find out what the expected lifetime mileage capacity of a high-speed train is. He was asking because ScotRail is in the process of taking delivery of and refurbishing a fleet of these trains—the old Intercity 125s—to improve some of the longer journeys on Scotland’s railway. The transport minister, Humza Yousaf, deferred to his official, who didn’t think there was “any such thing as a mileage capacity for a train”, so well are they maintained and upgraded.

Mr Rumbles might or might not be reassured to learn that, according to an online rail forum, the 40-year-old workhorses in question cover between 220,000 and 250,000 miles a year, meaning that many of them might well have more than 8 million miles on the clock.

Powerful words and essential procedures

Young people share their stories

The United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child is legally binding in Scotland. This week, the treaty’s 54 pledges were looked at alongside the reality of streets, school yards and home life in Scotland, when a panel of young people spoke frankly to members of the Equalities and Human Rights Committee.

The panellists gave examples of how childhood can be blighted by the loss of many of those promised rights and by violence, drugs, discrimination, hardship and fear. Nevertheless, they told MSPs of their optimism and how, once they became aware of their human rights, they developed hopes for the future. They are now spreading the word to other young people and are active in voluntary groups and democratic bodies such as the Children’s Parliament and the Scottish Youth Parliament.

Their clear, calm evidence was immensely powerful. One witness, a boy whose childhood was deeply affected by drugs and who experienced a difficult time in care, chose to focus on this right:

“I would love to live in a world where young people have the right to feel loved, to be loved or have the opportunity to give love.”

Budget process

Taxes: a topic guaranteed to end dinner parties in acrimony, and one on which we all have an opinion, whether well founded or not!

This week, the Parliament agreed to revise its procedures to provide more visibility and scrutiny of how budgets are arrived at and agreed. That is important because, as Bruce Crawford, convener of the Finance and Constitution Committee told the Parliament:

“around 40 per cent of the Scottish Government’s annual budget comes from taxes agreed to by the Parliament. As we know, an additional 15 per cent of social security spending is being devolved at the moment, and further taxes are due to be devolved in the future … In the light of those new powers, it is only right that we adopt a new approach to how we scrutinise the Scottish Government’s budget”.

A report by the budget process review group recommended that committees should take a full-year approach to budget scrutiny and include public engagement in that work. It also said that scrutiny should follow a continuous cycle and that it should be output/outcome focused. Finally, scrutiny should be fiscally responsible and focus on the interdependent nature of policies.

Bruce Crawford succinctly summarised what that means for MSPs:

“perhaps the biggest challenge that we as politicians face will be cultural. We need to move from a position of judging success based on the number of police on the streets or the number of nurses in our national health service to one that involves measuring the sustainable outcomes that are achieved by public spending in Scotland.”

The Cabinet Secretary for Finance and the Constitution, Derek Mackay, pointed out that

“Under the revised process, committees will write to ministers at least six weeks prior to the publication of the budget, setting out their views on the delivery and funding of existing policy priorities, on any proposed changes and, crucially, on how they should be funded—something that I will be particularly interested in.”

The Parliament unanimously agreed to both the written agreement on the new process between the Scottish Government and the Finance and Constitution Committee, and the changes to the Parliament’s standing orders to permit revised timetabling and a committee debate prior to stage 1 of the budget bill.



Breeders, Broadband and Brexit

Salmon Farmers Grilled

On Wednesday, the Rural Economy and Connectivity Committee took evidence from Fergus Ewing, the Cabinet Secretary for Rural Economy and Connectivity, and his officials on the Scottish Government’s proposed approach to reform in the complex area of crofting legislation, on which it held an extensive consultation last year. Members heard that, in the short term, the Government proposes to introduce a bill to make practical changes for which there is widespread support while, in the longer term, it will take a more fundamental look at some of the more challenging issues that crofting faces.

The committee also continued its inquiry into salmon farming and heard from representatives of such industry stalwarts as Marine Harvest, Grieg Seafood and the Scottish Salmon Company. Richard Lyle wanted to know why, despite Scottish salmon production being a success story and the ambitious plans that exist for expansion, output has flatlined recently. Members were told that that was because of efforts to deal with raised fish mortality rates—which companies have “thrown the kitchen sink at”—and high numbers of sea lice on some farms, and that the industry is now in a “much better place”.

One issue that farms are trying to address with a view to future expansion—in exports to the US, in particular—is how to stop seals getting at their salmon without having to shoot them. The committee heard about the use of different kinds of netting and acoustic deterrent devices, but was also told: Context is important. In 2017, the capture fisheries sector recorded that 610 seals were killed, compared with the 48 that were killed by the aquaculture industry. Although the industry battles and works hard to reduce its levels to zero, it is important not to beat up the farmed industry too much when it is also an issue for other sectors.

A Matter of Consent

What’s in a word? Quite a lot, it seems, when it comes to the European Union (Withdrawal) Bill. In its two meetings last week, the Finance and Constitution Committee explored in depth the meaning of “consent” and in particular the idea of a “consent decision”. In response to Willie Coffey, Scottish Government minister Michael Russell said that it means that language does not mean what it should mean.

The Secretary of State for Scotland, David Mundell, however, argued:  “A consent decision is not the same as consent. A consent decision is a decision in relation to consent, which can be yes, no or a specific refusal.”

Patrick Harvie gave an everyday example to illustrate his point that “Asking for consent is a pretty clear signal that you need consent”  and later expanded that to make a point about the meaning of the word “normally”. Chloe Smith, the UK Government’s Minister for the Constitution, responded by extending the analogy further.

Read the Official Reports of both meetings to decide for yourself whether clarity was achieved.

Making a Connection

Thursday in the chamber saw a debate on the Scottish Government’s R100 programme, in which Fergus Ewing, committed the Government to 100 per cent coverage of superfast broadband by the end of 2021, with an initial investment of £600 million –  the largest investment in any single project in the UK.  For those who understand such things, the target is 30 Mbps, as opposed to the UK Government’s target of 10 Mbps.

Colin Smyth emphasised the problems that a lack of access to superfast broadband was causing to hoteliers, business people, farmers and families in South Scotland, pointing out that deprived communities in urban areas were also missing out. Meanwhile, Gillian Martin focused on the potential transformation in Aberdeenshire, where the proportion of homes with exchange-only lines is twice the national average.

Whatever the outcome, the broadband connectivity of the future will be an improvement on the Roman “wig-wag” system that, as  Stewart Stevenson reminded the chamber, carried a signal from Londinium to Roma and back in the course of a single day, replacing the three months that it would have taken, by sea and by cleft stick.

Gaelic, Social Security and Human Rights

On Tuesday in the chamber, the Parliament debated the national plan for Gaelic. Several speeches, including that of the Minister for International Development and Europe, Alasdair Allan, were made in Gaelic and members used headphones to listen to a simultaneous interpretation. That was not necessary for the speech of Iain Gray, who began by saying:

The interpreters can relax: I do not have the Gaelic and I will not torture any word of the language by pretending otherwise.”

Interpreters—this time, British Sign Language interpreters—were at work again in the chamber during Wednesday’s extended proceedings on the Social Security (Scotland) Bill. Following consideration of the stage 3 amendments, the Minister for Social Security, Jeane Freeman, opened the debate on the motion to pass the bill thus:

This is a historic day for this Parliament. When we vote on the Social Security (Scotland) Bill, we will be marking the single biggest transfer of powers since devolution began.”

The bill was passed when the motion was agreed to unanimously.

The Equalities and Human Rights Committee is undertaking an inquiry into how well human rights are woven into the fabric of the Parliament’s work. It’s the latest in a number of pieces of work on human rights that the committee—formerly the Equal Opportunities Committee—has done since adding human rights to its remit in 2016.

At last week’s meeting, representatives of 13 organisations spoke about the improvements that are needed in Scotland and identified a number of priorities for action. Judith Robertson from the Scottish Human Rights Commission argued that recognition of rights was not enough. That was supported by Bill Scott from Inclusion Scotland, who said:

Rights are absolutely useless if people cannot access them.”

In asking which human right takes precedence when two rights clash, Mary Fee cited the moving evidence of the Northern Ireland public services ombudsman, Marie Anderson, who had earlier described having to judge whether a hospital trust was right to override the rights of concerned parents and comply with the demand of their 17-year-old son to be discharged. Despite the fact that he committed suicide a few days later, her finding was that the trust had not mishandled the case and that

the voice of the young person is important and sometimes supreme”.

Record breakers

The past two weeks have been somewhat hectic for the official report, including, as they have, the stage 2 and stage 3 proceedings on the UK Withdrawal from the European Union (Legal Continuity) (Scotland) Bill.

Last Tuesday and Wednesday, the Finance and Constitution Committee met for a record-breaking total of 10 hours 12 minutes to complete its stage 2 consideration of the bill in a highly compressed timescale. Such was the demand for the Official Reports of its meetings that, exceptionally, production of those reports—which entailed marathon late nights for many of our team—took priority over that of reports of last week’s meetings of Parliament.

This week’s stage 3 proceedings in the chamber were positively brief by comparison, taking a mere 4 hours 31 minutes, although the clear winner in the brevity stakes was the Delegated Powers and Law Reform Committee, the public part of whose lunch-time meeting last Thursday lasted a whole 20 seconds—again, almost certainly a record.

You can trace the progress of the continuity bill from its introduction through to its passing at half-past 7 on Thursday evening by following the links below. In the meantime, we’re going for a lie down—after publishing today’s Official Reports, of course!

Statement by Michael Russell on the introduction of the UK Withdrawal from the European Union (Legal Continuity) (Scotland) Bill

Statement by the Lord Advocate on the legislative competence of the UK Withdrawal from the European Union (Legal Continuity) (Scotland) Bill

Debate on treating the UK Withdrawal from the European Union (Legal Continuity) (Scotland) Bill as an emergency bill

UK Withdrawal from the European Union (Legal Continuity) (Scotland) Bill: Stage 1

UK Withdrawal from the European Union (Legal Continuity) (Scotland) Bill (pre-stage 2 debate)

UK Withdrawal from the European Union (Legal Continuity) (Scotland) Bill: Stage 2 (part 1)

UK Withdrawal from the European Union (Legal Continuity) (Scotland) Bill: Stage 2 (part 2)

UK Withdrawal from the European Union (Legal Continuity) (Scotland) Bill: Stage 3


Laws, Lice and Little Dorrit?

The Full Weight of the Law

The wheels of justice are said to turn slowly, but the wheels of Scotland’s law making have geared up to a more turbocharged pace as the Government seeks to pass a bill many times faster than under the typical legislative timetable.

Legal expert Dr Tobias Lock dashed between two committees in one morning this week to brief members on the scale of their task in scrutinising the implications of the UK Withdrawal from the European Union (Legal Continuity) (Scotland) Bill.

So many laws and regulations are affected by Brexit that Dr Lock found them almost easier to weigh than to count. There are “tonnes of statutory instruments”, he told members: “There are thousands of them.” From that daunting total, members of the Equalities and Human Rights Committee picked out several familiar examples including regulations covering workers’ rights to annual leave.

Less familiar to the public will be the loss to all UK citizens of the right to claim Francovich damages, which people in all EU member states gained after a 1991 case in which 34 Italian workers won damages of 253,000,000 Lira from their Government.

By next week’s Editor’s Picks, we’ll be within four days of the bill’s third and final stage.


Wrasse to the Rescue

On Wednesday, the Rural Economy and Connectivity Committee held the first session of its inquiry into salmon farming in Scotland. Members heard from a number of experts on a wide range of issues including the value of the industry to the Scottish economy and how it might be affected by Brexit.

The committee took a close interest in fish health issues, asking questions about the use of “cleaner fish” such as wrasse and lumpsucker to deal with the problem of sea lice and the extent of antibiotic use in salmon farming in Scotland.



A wealth of facts were brought to light—did you know that the density of farmed salmon is 15kg per cubic metre?—but perhaps the issue of most interest to consumers is whether farmed salmon is as good as the wild variety. In the opinion of economist Steve Westbrook, the fat in Scottish farmed salmon “makes it perfect for frying, baking and so on, while I find the wild fish drier”—although, as he observed, it is a matter of taste!

Hard Times for Holyrood?

Had he been observing Tuesday’s business in the chamber from the reporters’ booth, Charles Dickens would have been amused to hear Derek Mackay likened to not one but three of his creations. Graham Simpson compared the Cabinet Secretary for Finance to Mr Micawber and Ebenezer Scrooge, Bruce Crawford said that he was benevolence personified, like Samuel Pickwick, and Murdo Fraser echoed the Micawber comparison.

Dickens was a parliamentary reporter at Westminster in the 1830s, where he honed the skills that would contribute to his success as a writer of popular fiction. He has been described as a master of the reporting art and the most celebrated of our predecessors. However, in David Copperfield, which is considered to be somewhat autobiographical, Dickens suggested that he was fairly happy to leave the job to enter the more exciting world of journalism when he had his eponymous hero say,

“I had been writing in the newspapers and elsewhere so prosperously that when my new success was achieved I considered myself reasonably entitled to escape from the dreary debates. One joyful night, therefore, I noted down the music of the parliamentary bagpipes for the last time, and I have never heard it since.”

Readers of the Official Report should be reassured that your trusty reporters at Holyrood are made of sterner stuff than Dickens and that the cut and thrust of parliamentary debates remains music to our ears.


Members’ Puns Leave No Stone Unturned

At Graeme Dey’s members’ business debate on Thursday, members welcomed the establishment of the Scottish Stone Group, which was set up in 2016 to raise awareness of the country’s indigenous stone sector and of the economic and environmental benefits of using domestic stone as a building material.

Paul Wheelhouse, the Minister for Business, Innovation and Energy, acknowledged that the stone industry may not have had the attention that it deserves but said that the stone producers’ expertise gave them a “rock solid foundation” for success. The subject matter invited other puns, with Bill Bowman hoping to “carve out a ‘boulder’ future” for the sector.

Ailsa Craig

However, it was Maurice Corry who cited the most topical and high-profile use of Scottish stone this week: every one of the curling stones that are currently in play at the PyeongChang winter Olympics is crafted from Ailsa Craig granite.

Curling Action

Linguistic teaser

Wednesday was International Mother Language Day, and as part of the Parliament’s EMBRACE network’s programme of activities to mark the day, we devised a special official report quiz on language use in the Parliament. If you haven’t yet done so, why not have a go by clicking below? Good luck!

International Mother Language Day Quiz