A cliffhanger and a new TV drama

Horsing about

Chambers dictionary, the official reporter’s trusty friend, defines “cliffhanger” as “an ending line of an episode of a serial, etc that leaves one in suspense”. In a break from the norm for parliamentary debates, Liam Kerr left members in a state of suspense—and amusement—when he became possibly the first MSP ever to have used such a fiendish device in a speech.

Speaking in Thursday’s debate on support for veterans and the armed forces community, Mr Kerr recounted a visit to HorseBack UK, a charity that uses horsemanship to help wounded, injured and sick servicemen and women. Its co-founder, Jock Hutchison, introduced one of his horses to him. Having set the scene, Mr Kerr continued:

“Demonstrating what not to do, Jock instructed the horse to move, but it refused. He then stood respectfully next to the beast. He spoke to it and I could see him gently gesticulating about what he would like the horse to do. Then he stood still next to the horse. The horse was still. He looked in its eye, smiled and raised his hand. And then—

Jock will tell members exactly what happened next when he comes to the reception for my members’ business debate on 7 February. [Laughter.]”

And with that, members, clerks, members of the public and all of us in the official report were left on tenterhooks. We look forward to reporting the conclusion of the story early next year.

Legal soap

You might not think that the Civil Litigation (Expenses and Group Proceedings) (Scotland) Bill would get the pulses of “River City” or “EastEnders” viewers racing. However, Paul Brown from the Legal Services Agency, who gave evidence to the Justice Committee this week on the bill, would beg to differ. He spoke of the need “to encourage the right sort of soaps on telly” to explain the basics of law, which prompted Mairi Gougeon to respond that she was looking forward to “the TV dramatisation of civil litigation.”

Football has often been associated with colourful language, but the colour took an unexpected turn later in the same meeting, during the committee’s consideration of the bill to repeal the Offensive Behaviour at Football and Threatening Communications (Scotland) Act 2012 when Andrew Tickell told the committee that the common-law offence of breach of the peace is “notoriously vague” and “has been used to prosecute everything from playing marbles on a Sunday on the island of Lewis to walking the streets of Aberdeen wearing women’s clothing.” More controversially, he argued that

“striking this act completely aside is like using a sledgehammer for a task for which a scalpel is better devised”.


The First Minister apologises

Readers might not be surprised to hear that business in the chamber is not always as engrossing as the cut and thrust of First Minister’s question time would suggest. Occasionally, however, we are privileged to report matters that are truly historic. Tuesday afternoon’s meeting of the Parliament was one such occasion, as First Minister Nicola Sturgeon announced the publication of the Historical Sexual Offences (Pardons and Disregards) (Scotland) Bill. The bill has two purposes. First, it will provide an automatic pardon to men who have been convicted of same-sex activity that would now be legal, and, secondly, it will establish a procedure whereby those men will be able to apply for their offence to be disregarded from criminal records.

In a heartfelt speech, the First Minister stressed that, in addition to its practical value, the bill sends an unequivocal message that “the law should not have treated you as criminals and you should not now be considered as such.” The First Minister wanted to go further than pardoning those punished by historic laws against consensual sex between men. After all, a pardon can imply that the person being pardoned has still done something wrong. However, in this case, “the wrong has been committed by the state, not by the individuals—the wrong has been done to them.” She apologised “categorically, unequivocally and whole-heartedly” for the laws and for “the hurt and the harm that they have caused to so many people.”

The First Minister’s apology was met with emotional scenes in the public gallery and unanimous support from all parties, with members commenting on the progress that has been made in Scotland on matters of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex equality. Since its inception in 1998, the Scottish Parliament has overseen the removal of section 2A, the equalisation of the age of consent and the introduction of same-sex marriage.

Although the First Minister and other members accepted that—as is so often the case in politics—more needs to be done, Tuesday was a day on which the Parliament joined together to commit to working for equality for all. It was a day that many of us in the official report will never forget.

A tribute to our colleague Ian Methven

On Friday 27 October, our dear friend and colleague Ian Methven died suddenly at home. His untimely passing has had a profound effect on everyone at the official report and many others in the Parliament and more widely. Rather than bring you our usual Editor’s Picks, we thought it would be fitting simply to post what the deputy convener of the Equalities and Human Rights Committee had to say about Ian at Thursday’s meeting of the committee:

“Before we move on to our first item of business, I would like to take a few moments to acknowledge the very sad passing of Ian Methven, one of the official reporters who support our committee. Along with his colleague Simon Eilbeck, Ian attended our meetings each week to assist with the transcription of our proceedings. Ian was one of the longest serving members of the official report. He joined the Scottish Parliament with the original group of staff back in 1999. During one of the first committee meetings of the Parliament back in June 1999, the convener of the committee in question decided to introduce all the support staff by reading their names into the record. When he turned to the official report staff, there was some debate as to whether reporters should remain anonymous. One committee member playfully remarked that official report staff

“do not have time to have names, they just write.”—[Official Report, Procedures Committee, 22 June 1999; c 16.]

The convener did read the names of both official report staff present that day into the record, and one of them was Ian. All of us know that Ian and his colleagues in the official report do so much more than “just write”.

Like his colleagues, Ian dedicated his career to making the Scottish Parliament a success. He worked daily to deliver the founding principles of this Parliament to be open, accessible and accountable to the people of Scotland through his high-quality reporting work. That work has earned Ian and his official report colleagues the respect of all of us in this place.

I know that it will be very difficult for Ian’s colleagues to transcribe these words into the very Official Report that Ian worked so hard to produce. However, just as our predecessors did 18 years ago, I think that it is fitting that we acknowledge Ian’s quiet and steadfast contribution to the work of the Scottish Parliament by reading his name into the record again here today.

On behalf of the convener, Christina McKelvie, and all the members and staff of the Equalities and Human Rights Committee, I offer our sincere condolences to Ian’s wife Elizabeth and his family, and to his professional family and friends in the official report and across the Parliament, who are grieving his untimely loss.”

A new signing, Brexit marmalade and the sound of mew [sic]

British Sign Language in the Chamber

The first official report staff joined the Parliament in November 1998 and a fair few of us are still here, nearly 19 years later. You might think that by now we’ve seen it all, but parliamentary business keeps us on our toes. This week, the Government published its national plan for British Sign Language, as required by the British Sign Language (Scotland) Act 2015. In an exciting first for the chamber, the Presiding Officer introduced the item in BSL, which required us to think about how to reflect that in the Official Report. Previous BSL users attending committee meetings have spoken with interpretation and we have reported that. The Presiding Officer, however, simply used BSL and then continued in English.

Jam Tomorrow?

At Tuesday’s meeting of the Delegated Powers and Law Reform Committee, the committee heard from Michael Russell, the Scottish Government’s Minister for UK Negotiations on Scotland’s Place in Europe, on the European Union (Withdrawal) Bill, which even the most casual observer of the UK political scene will know is making its way through the House of Commons at the moment. In keeping with the committee’s tightly drawn remit, the focus of the discussion was on the technicalities of getting the legislation right rather than areas of policy. Mr Russell explained that there were two main areas of concern: clause 11 of the bill and the so-called Henry VIII powers.

When questioned by Bill Bowman on the need for co-ordination with the UK Government, Mr Russell cited UK minister Damian Green’s use of the example of a jam manufacturer in Dundee wanting to sell his jam in Newcastle. That prompted Mr Bowman to reveal that he had recently bought Mackays marmalade in Faro, to which Mr Russell replied, “I just hope that you can continue to do so after 2019.”

A Holistic Approach to Homelessness

The Local Government and Communities Committee’s thought-provoking inquiry into homelessness in Scotland, which we have previously mentioned in Editor’s Picks, continued on Wednesday. Dr Adam Burley, a consultant clinical psychologist at the Access Point holistic housing, health and social care service, argued that “from a psychological point of view, the idea of homelessness … is something of a red herring in that it covers up what has brought somebody to the point at which they are homeless in the first place.” Dr Burley pointed out the need for services to respond to the whole person, not isolated symptoms such as homelessness and addiction, and the need for flexibility to allow services to adapt to the different ways in which individuals can engage with them.

Feline Better

On Wednesday evening, Tom Arthur introduced a members’ business debate on the effect of Brexit on musicians and the music industries. We heard both from members who perform and from members who are fans. Michael Russell, closing the debate for the Government, cited the philosopher—and organist—Albert Schweitzer, who said that the way to overcome the misery of life is to be fond of music and cats.

Who could argue with that?


Orkney pow-wow, the Pow of Inchaffray, and lions, tigers and bears

Each week, our team at the Official Report brings you a selection of parliamentary highlights from recent meetings

In committee

On Monday evening, the Rural Economy and Connectivity Committee met in the theatre of Kirkwall grammar school in front of an audience of locals. The committee was visiting Orkney as part of the process of gathering evidence on the Islands (Scotland) Bill, and the evening meeting followed a full day of activity that included talking to local businesses, communities and organisations and making an extremely blustery visit to the European Marine Energy Centre.

Islands (Scotland) Bill

When John Mason—whose journey to Orkney by train and ferry had taken 13 hours—asked the invited representatives of Orkney Islands Council and Shetlands Islands Council whether the bill should include a specific overarching objective such as that of “stabilising and strengthening the population of every island in Scotland”, the Orkney council leader, James Stockan, said that that was a given in everything that the councils did on the islands and, in general, the councillors did not want the bill to be prescriptive.

One aspect of the bill is about marine development, and in response to a question from Peter Chapman, Steven Heddle of Orkney Islands Council joked that “we have our navy in the form of tugs and ferries, we have our early warning system and we also have an air force, because we operate the internal air service”.

Members’ journey home by Loganair was considerably quicker!


O wad some Pow …

Occasionally the Parliament considers a private bill. We have a couple going on at the moment, and one is about updating the arrangements for maintaining the Pow of Inchaffray.

“Pow” is a Scots term for a slow-moving stream or channel, and the word is attached to a few waterways in Scotland—a Pow Water in Dumfriesshire and Pow burns in Ayrshire and Angus, for example. The Inchaffray pow is not just any old drainage channel; it dates from the 13th century and was dug by the Augustinian monks of Inchaffray abbey, with further improvements made on the orders of no less a person than King Robert the Bruce, after Bannockburn.

Last week, the committee discussing the private bill on the pow heard details about, among other things, the creation of beaver barriers and Scotland’s first beaver exclusion area to prevent beavers from entering the pow area.

In the chamber

In the final debate of the week in the chamber, Roseanna Cunningham asked Parliament to agree to the general principles of the Wild Animals in Travelling Circuses (Scotland) Bill.

Emma Harper set out the ethical arguments, memorably comparing the use of wild animals in circuses to historical exhibits once thought acceptable involving “Siamese twins” and Joseph Merrick:

“There was a time when people like him were displayed in travelling circuses for the amazement, amusement and entertainment of paying customers, but, eventually, the time came when that archaic practice was no longer acceptable ethically.”

Other speakers supported the ban but would have preferred it to have been done on animal welfare rather than ethical considerations. Mark Ruskell was “perplexed” by the route taken by the Government, which “had us, quite frankly, chasing our tails”, and favoured introducing a framework for animal performances more generally.

The lack of definitions in the bill was also raised—the absence of a definition of “circus” was, according to Graeme Dey, “the elephant in the room”.

Roseanna Cunningham summed up the debate by saying that, given that no travelling circuses with wild animals are likely to visit Scotland in the future, the bill is important as a “symbolic marker on how we value and treat all our animals” rather than for its practical impact.

Beethoven’s fourth stage, information sharing and positive Paisleyness

Each week, the Official Report’s editorial team brings you a selection of parliamentary highlights from the week just gone …

Measuring Economic Progress

As part of its inquiry into data collection in Scotland, on Tuesday the Economy, Jobs and Fair Work Committee took evidence from experts in the fields of economics, statistics and public policy. Graeme Maxton was speaking on behalf of the Club of Rome, which some might think sounds like something from a Dan Brown novel but is actually a global think tank. Rather than focus on how data in Scotland should be collected, Mr Maxton offered a broader perspective on the usefulness of traditional measures of economic progress in today’s evolving society. He argued that we are entering the fourth stage of economic development, in which automation will be central and jobs will be based primarily in services and care, and therefore productivity and economic growth as we know it will come to an end. “We cannot improve productivity in services and care by cutting hair faster or looking after an elderly person faster—we cannot improve productivity by playing a Beethoven symphony faster,” he said.

Professionals Sharing Children’s Information

On Wednesday, the Education and Skills Committee continued its consideration of the Children and Young People (Information Sharing) (Scotland) Bill. The bill was introduced following the Supreme Court’s judgment on information-sharing aspects of the Children and Young People (Scotland) Act 2014. The session covered the sensitive and complex areas of when and how professionals share information about a child, the obtaining of consent and the effect of putting good practice into law.

At one point, Dr Gary Clapton from the University of Edinburgh had official reporters reaching for their Latin dictionaries when, in the same week as the European day of languages, he commented that partnership with parents is the “ne plus ultra” of good practice in social work.

Frankie Goes to Holyrood

Ol’ Blue Eyes was back this week, in support of Paisley’s bid to be the UK’s city of culture in 2021, and his back catalogue was heavily referenced in Tom Arthur’s speech in Wednesday’s debate on Paisley’s bid and Dundee’s bid to be the European capital of culture 2023. George Adam’s mention of a Frank Sinatra concert in Glasgow included a reminder—which members and other regular readers of the Official Report who are familiar with Mr Adam’s “positive Paisleyness”, as he described the afternoon’s business, may not necessarily have needed—that Paisley is Mr Adam’s kind of town. That inspired Mr Arthur to produce a dizzying amount of Sinatra-related wordplay, prompting Deputy Presiding Officer Christine Grahame to wonder who was counting the Sinatra quotes. We were, of course, but we’re not telling.

Energy efficiency, gemba, homelessness and tackling homophobia in sport

Each week, the Official Report’s team of reporters and sub-editors bring you a selection of parliamentary highlights from the week just gone …

Energy efficiency in the Parliament

On Tuesday, the Parliament’s chief executive, Sir Paul Grice, and the environmental manager, Victoria Barby, updated the Environment, Climate Change and Land Reform Committee on the Parliament’s environmental performance. This year, the Parliament has done well in reducing its energy use, and the new chamber lights use 50% of the electricity that the old ones used.

New Chamber lighting
New light fittings in the Scottish Parliament chamber

Nevertheless, energy usage and production remain big issues as public buildings are required to reduce their emissions under the Government’s climate change plan, and plans are afoot to replace the existing solar panels and increase their number. The biggest challenge is behaviour change in respect of turning off lights, increased use of videoconferencing and travelling sustainably to and from the Parliament. The committee learned that some members have already tried the Parliament’s electric pool car, and Finlay Carson was keen to get on his bike. The Parliament also has plans to meet the green kitchen standard, a Carbon Trust and Soil Association joint initiative that will focus on local and organic produce, the energy efficiency of cooking and the procurement of ingredients involving fewer food miles.

Linguistic discovery

A common trait of all of us in the official report is a fascination with language and its evolution, so we always enjoy finding out about a new word. At the Health and Sport Committee meeting this week, a group of health board representatives were discussing staff governance when one of them mentioned “gemba”, which she described as “the place where work happens”. We initially wondered whether we had misheard what was said, but subsequently discovered that it is actually a Japanese management term that has been exported.

Homelessness: first-hand accounts

Perhaps the most compelling evidence to be heard this week in committee was that given by the participants in the Local Government and Communities Committee’s evidence session on homelessness. Thomas Lyon told members, “I went to the buroo, and the next minute I was sleeping under a bridge with a jacket.” You can read more of this evidence in the Official Report of the meeting.

Homophobia in sport

In the chamber, Tuesday’s members’ business debate was about tackling homophobia in sport. Leading the debate, Mary Fee expressed shock at Stonewall Scotland’s finding that 70% of football fans have heard homophobic abuse at games, while Miles Briggs noted that “The fact that no professional footballer in the UK has felt able to come out since Justin Fashanu in 1990 speaks volumes”. In her speech, Aileen Campbell, the Minister for Public Health and Sport, recognised the work of sports bodies on the issue and concluded that “it is time for us to blow the whistle on homophobia”.