Two new bills, a cabinet secretary’s debut and a cinematic release

Health and Care (Staffing) and Transport Bills

Last week, two bills began their journey through Parliament, with the Health and Sport Committee taking evidence on the Health and Care (Staffing) (Scotland) Bill from two panels of stakeholders, and the Rural Economy and Connectivity Committee hearing from three groups of Scottish Government officials with responsibilities in areas covered by the Transport (Scotland) Bill:

Health and Sport Committee stage 1 evidence on the Health and Care (Staffing) (Scotland) Bill (11 Sept 2018)

Rural Economy and Connectivity Committee stage 1 evidence on the Transport (Scotland) Bill (12 Sept 2018)

Brexit implications (justice)

Meanwhile, Humza Yousaf, the new Cabinet Secretary for Justice, made his first appearance before the Justice Committee to talk about the impact of Brexit on the justice system and policing in Scotland:

Justice Committee evidence on Brexit implications for justice and policing (11 Sept 2018)

Chilean-Scottish solidarity

At Thursday lunch time in the chamber, Linda Fabiani led a debate on the film “Nae Pasaran!”, which premiered at this year’s Glasgow film festival, the recent full cinematic release of which coincided with the 45th anniversary of the Chilean military coup. Members heard how the film tells the story of the Rolls-Royce engineers in East Kilbride who, in 1974, showed their support for the people of Chile by refusing to repair jet engines for the Chilean air force:

Members’ business debate on “Nae Pasaran!” (13 Sept 2018)

Jam-packed return to business

Programme for government

The first week back after summer recess was dominated by the programme for government, which Parliament debated on three successive afternoons, following Nicola Sturgeon’s statement.

Plenary debate on the programme for government (4 Sept 2018)

Plenary debate on the programme for government (5 Sept 2018)

Plenary debate on the programme for government (6 Sept 2018)

Trade post-Brexit

Another focus of attention was the UK Trade Bill, with George Hollingbery, the UK Government’s Minister of State for Trade Policy, giving evidence to two committees, followed—in the case of the Finance Committee—by the Scottish Government’s Mike Russell.

Finance and Constitution Committee evidence on the UK Trade Bill (5 Sept 2018)

Delegated Powers and Law Reform Committee evidence on the UK Trade Bill (5 Sep 2018)

Building regs, fire safety and the age of criminal responsibility

Other noteworthy sessions were the Local Government and Communities Committee’s evidence taking on building regulations and fire safety from Kevin Stewart, the Minister for Local Government, Housing and Planning, and some eminent experts in those fields—

Local Government and Communities Committee evidence on building regulations and fire safety (5 Sept 2018)

—and the Equalities and Human Rights Committee’s focus on the Age of Criminal Responsibility (Scotland) Bill at stage 1, which saw Duncan Dunlop of Who Cares? Scotland argue passionately that the Government should be bolder and raise the age not to 12, as proposed in the bill, but to 16 or 18:

Equalities and Human Rights Committee evidence on the Age of Criminal Responsibility (Scotland) Bill (6 Sept 2018)

A summery message

By the time the parliamentary summer recess comes round, even the normally exuberant staff of the OR can be feeling a little weary. In a time of pretty unprecedented political uncertainty, it’s a pity that the serious and often cross-party work of our elected members in their committees and constituencies can get lost amid the spin and party-political point scoring that make for a spicier headline. We are always grateful when a particular speech or speaker brings us back to the profound purpose of this institution.

We had an example of that in the Health and Sport Committee on Tuesday, when witnesses round the table discussed services for children and young people. Denisha Killoh from Who Cares? Scotland spoke with honesty and clarity about the realities of being a care-experienced young person.

In her final plea to the committee, she asked it to recognise that
“the dark reality is that the system is built around loss, rather than love … To make a serious change, we need to start making the care system about love”.

As a society, we ask the women and men whom we elect to represent us to take on the enormous challenge of sifting and assessing the evidence and putting in place policies that will tackle complex and deepening problems of inequality, mental unwellness, precarious employment and environmental degradation, to the benefit of everyone. Wouldn’t it be wonderful if Denisha Killoh’s wise proposal were taken up more widely, so that not just the vital job of enabling children and young people in care to flourish but all public policy was approached in a spirit of kindness, generosity and love?

Have a good summer, everyone.


A New Word and Some Old Favourites

A new word—or a very old one?

A Googlewhack is a contest for finding a Google search query consisting of exactly two words without quotation marks that returns exactly one hit. A Googlewhack must consist of two actual words found in a dictionary. Every so often, when we are reporting committee or plenary business, we come across a word that has not appeared in the Official Report before, which is perhaps our equivalent of a Googlewhack.

At the Environment, Climate Change and Land Reform Committee meeting on Tuesday, when the Climate Change (Emissions Reduction Targets) (Scotland) Bill was under discussion, Dr Tom Russon laid out some potential scenarios that might require changes to the interim targets but stressed: “These are necessarily entirely hypothetical examples, in that I am foreguessing the future, the advice of the Committee on Climate Change and the will of ministers, all of which I should not be foreguessing.”

After a bit of research, we discovered that foreguess was not a new fusion word made up of “forecast” and “guess” but rather a very old word. The 1913 edition of Webster’s English dictionary defines it as “to conjecture”, as does Samuel Johnson’s English dictionary of 1755. Other definitions include “to guess beforehand” and “to assume”.

We wouldn’t want to foreguess when it might come up again.

If music be the food of love, play on …

On Wednesday, the chamber hosted Adam Tomkins’s members’ business debate on music tourism in Glasgow. In the week when the O2 ABC in the centre of Glasgow was ravaged by the fire that devastated the neighbouring Glasgow School of Art, it was inevitable that MSPs would pay tribute to the venue. Professor Tomkins noted: “People could always get close to the stage and, because of the acoustics in the room, bands could turn it up and up without compromising the sound quality. I have seen countless great gigs in that venue, including by some of my favourite bands, the Felice Brothers, Jason Isbell and Drive-By Truckers among them.”

Sandra White echoed those sentiments, calling the ABC a “much-loved and historical place”, observing that it has been, at various times, a circus, an ice rink and a cinema.

In a trip down memory lane, Tom Arthur revealed that his first gig was Def Leppard at the SECC, Brian Whittle disclosed that his first gig was Saxon, in 1980, and Fiona Hyslop, the Cabinet Secretary for Culture, Tourism and External Affairs, remembered seeing The Alarm at the Barrowlands.

Pauline McNeill spoke for many concert-goers when she said, “As a Glasgow citizen, I think that it is great that we can attend a concert by Beyoncé or whoever our favourite artist is and be home in half an hour for tea and toast.”

Assistance with funeral expenses

Although the Parliament passed the Social Security (Scotland) Act 2018 earlier this year, many of the details of the individual types of assistance, such as eligibility rules and payment levels, will be set out in regulations. On Thursday, the Social Security Committee took evidence on funeral expense assistance, which will be among the first devolved benefits to be introduced.

It emerged that, although the new Scottish system will be largely similar to the existing UK-wide one, there will be significant differences. For example, most people who are entitled will receive a payment of £700, which is in line with the UK scheme but, as Paul Cuthell of the National Association of Funeral Directors pointed out, “the £700 figure has remained static since 2003.”

The Scottish scheme will begin to address that by annual uprating in line with inflation, although there were calls for the amount to be increased substantially to cover the minimum cost of a funeral. As Paul Stevenson of the National Society of Allied and Independent Funeral Directors said, “£700 is not nearly enough for all the funeral director’s arrangements—the hearse, the coffin and the trained, professional staff.

Mordor comes to Fife

Defamation: Vlad Impaled

Last Tuesday’s meeting of the Justice Committee was the scene for an interesting round-table session on defamation, following last year’s publication by the Scottish Law Commission of a report and draft bill on the subject. Drawing on their expertise and experience, the invited panel presented a rich and colourful array of examples to illustrate various aspects of defamation.

Gavin Sutter from Queen Mary University of London observed:

“In the defamation context, I think that we need to be very careful that the law guards against those who would abuse anonymity to further a deliberate defamation, as distinct from somebody using a pseudonym because they do not want the kids they teach to google them and find them in Rocky Horror costume, as a wild example.”

He went on to recount that

“about 20 years ago, a descendent of Vlad Țepeș attempted to sue Francis Ford Coppola because he had made a connection between Dracula and Vlad the Impaler.”

In the context of the internet, the convener, Margaret Mitchell, remarked:

“I think that it was Mark Twain who said that a lie can be halfway round the world before the truth gets its shoes on.”

Passported Benefits

Later in the week, the Social Security Committee engaged in a wide-ranging discussion with two panels of witnesses on passported benefits, which are benefits that people are entitled to because they receive some other benefit. Examples are free school meals, blue badges, the Motability scheme and concessionary travel.

Michelle Ballantyne raised the issue of the stigma associated with free school meals, which

“work really well at primary level, but, when we get to secondary level, a lot of the youngsters go down the street. They do not want to be isolated or alienated.”

Later in the discussion, Hanna McCulloch of the Child Poverty Action Group in Scotland identified

“an opportunity to make accessing the passported benefits feed a person into the wider system of information and advice.”

Flaring at Mossmorran

In leading Thursday’s members’ business debate on flaring incidents at the Mossmorran petrochemical plant in Fife, Alex Rowley set out the impact on his constituency in vivid, Dickensian terms:

“Last June, on a beautiful sunny afternoon, I was in shock as I saw thick black smoke belch from the top of a stack and form a massive black cloud that sat over the top of the houses in Lochgelly, Glencraig, Crosshill, Lochore and Ballingry.”

In describing the flaring’s ominous presence, he related an evocative literary allusion to “Lord of the Rings”:

“I do not know how many members have witnessed the flare of Mossmorran. At night time, the pulsating orange glow illuminates the surrounding towns … I was told by someone driving past the plant during a flaring incident that they felt as if they were driving past Mordor.”

Sectarianism and Srebrenica, environmental governance post-Brexit and a catty exchange

Sectarianism and Srebrenica

Understandably, given the subject matter, emotions ran high during Thursday’s debate about the Bracadale review of hate crime legislation. Rather than focus solely on the review’s recommendations for developing and consolidating hate crime legislation, James Dornan used the opportunity to tell members of his recent visit to Srebrenica, on which he met genocide survivors and heard their stories. In a moving speech, he highlighted how similar to Scotland Srebrenica seemed to have been, prior to the Bosnian war.

“We have political and personal differences but, in general, we get on and we certainly do not hate because of our differences. More than any other example that I can think of, Srebrenica highlights how easy it is to take our eye off the ball and let things escalate until it is perhaps too late to stop them.”

Mr Dornan’s experience in Srebrenica has motivated him to establish a cross-party group on sectarianism in Scotland. He cautioned members:

“my main message to the Parliament is that we must be careful with our use of language and that we should never be complacent. We should remember that, if the events that I described can happen in 20th century Europe, they can happen anywhere.”

Brexit and environmental governance

The Environment, Climate Change and Land Reform Committee took evidence this week from the round table on environment and climate change, which was formed to consider issues relating to environmental governance in Scotland post-Brexit. The round table’s report seemed to pose more questions than it answered. In response to John Scott, who asked about the gaps in oversight and governance of environmental law after Brexit, Professor Campbell Gemmell gave the example of access to technical professional information, saying:

“It would be horrendously expensive to duplicate the EU law framework on chemicals in every jurisdiction or subordinate component of a jurisdiction.”

Professor Gemmell argued that the uncertainty of what lay ahead made it impossible to draw firm conclusions:

“one of the challenges is simply knowing what the end of the story might be. Frankly, a lot of this will be subject to future agreement between Scotland and the United Kingdom, as well as between the UK and the EU. It is not entirely clear. We have identified the risk of gaps, rather than having any certain knowledge of what gaps will emerge.”

On this day

Five years ago, in June 2013, Christine Grahame asked the Scottish Parliamentary Corporate Body whether it would consider acquiring a parliamentary cat. The serious question was about pest control in the Parliament, but members seized the opportunity to enjoy a lighter moment in the chamber. The exchange can be read here.


Branch Closures, A Vision for the Screen Sector and Thinking Out of the Box

Bank Branch Closures

Feet were a recurring image at the Economy, Jobs and Fair Work Committee on Tuesday, which is undertaking a highly topical inquiry into the closure of bank branches in Scotland. The way in which footfall is measured was questioned and the accuracy of statistics was disputed. Later in the meeting, Keith Dryburgh from Citizens Advice Scotland noted the lack of alternatives, saying, “some people just do not have the option to vote with their feet.”

The elderly and the disabled are most affected by bank branch closures, Cliff Beevers from Juniper Green and Baberton Mains Community Council told the committee, and Allister Mackillop from Currie Community Council noted the effects of waves of closures.

An interesting perspective on the effect on other businesses came from Paul Alexander from the Scottish Building Society, which, as a small-scale business, is dependent on banking connections.

The impact on employees was also noted, with Lyn Turner from Unite Scotland citing security concerns regarding mobile banking operations. He also picked up on the theme of banking as a service, noting that “People want to speak to someone when they do the big things in life.”

The Screen Sector

On Thursday, the Culture, Tourism, Europe and External Relations Committee held two final evidence sessions in its inquiry into Scotland’s screen sector. The committee heard from representatives of Creative Scotland and the Cabinet Secretary for Culture, Tourism and External Affairs, Fiona Hyslop.

A major talking point in the discussions was the proposal to establish a new screen unit within Creative Scotland as opposed to a stand-alone agency.

In an interim report, the committee had argued that such an agency was required to “help nurture, develop and support indigenous talent, deliver more studio capacity, attract major productions, and represent Scotland to the rest of the world.” However, the cabinet secretary argued that a new screen unit within Creative Scotland “will be decisive and empowered, and with more staff it will be able to deliver a more complete service in areas where there have been gaps.”

Islands (Scotland) Bill

In the chamber on Wednesday, the Parliament passed the historic Islands (Scotland) Bill, which will require the Government to create a national islands plan and ensure that public authorities, including the Government, must have special regard to the impact on island communities of any new policies, legislation or strategies. In the future, they will have to prepare an island communities impact assessment when a policy is expected to affect island communities differently from mainland communities in a process that is being called “island proofing”.

Tavish Scott also amended the bill to ensure that, in the future, when public authorities produce maps of Scotland, Shetland will no longer be drawn in a box near the Aberdeenshire coast. Mr Scott expressed Shetlanders’ annoyance at the practice, saying, “We will no longer accept the lazy interpretation of maps that we have put up with for so long”. The purpose behind the amendment is to highlight the unique challenges that Shetland faces as an extremely remote community that is over 200 miles distant from the Scottish mainland.

Stewart Stevenson suggested that this would be Tavish Scott’s legacy, saying, “When his obituary is published, at the top of the page will be written, ‘The man who saved Shetland from obscurity’”. This prompted Jamie Greene to quip, “I have no idea what will be in Stewart Stevenson’s obituary, but I dread to think.”