The Beaver Deceiver and the Black Arrow

On Tuesday, the Environment, Climate Change and Land Reform Committee took evidence from Marine Scotland representatives on regulations concerning the conservation of salmon. The background to the regulations, as Keith Main explained, is the

“continuing downward trend in salmon returning to Scottish waters.”

When John Scott asked about how the expected introduction of beavers might impact on salmon numbers, the “beaver deceiver” was mentioned, which is a method of managing the effect of beavers on the fish population that involves the use of a pipe to allow smolts and salmon to migrate through beaver dams. The name comes from the fact that, because the entrance to the pipe—which reduces the water level behind the dam—is some distance upstream of the dam, the beaver

“cannot figure out why that is happening and it tries to repair the damage rather than block the pipe.”

On Wednesday, the Finance and Constitution Committee considered the highly complex issue of Scottish VAT assignment. At times, the answers of the panel, which included the director of the Fraser of Allander institute and the chief executive of the Scottish Fiscal Commission, had members of the committee scratching their heads. For example, when it emerged during the discussion that the methodology used in the assignment model relied heavily on the living costs and food survey, the sample size for which struck several members as small, Adam Tomkins asked:

“Why should we not be thrown by it? Why should we feel reassured that 720 respondents is a big enough number?”

John Ireland’s response—

“You should feel reassured because the statistical properties of samples do not vary in size with the sample size; they vary in size with the inverse of the square root of the sample size”—

prompted laughter and bemusement in equal measure.

Anyone taking a stroll in the environs of the Parliament on Thursday will have been able to see the Black Arrow, the UK’s only rocket to successfully launch a British satellite into orbit, which, until recently, had remained where it crash-landed in the Australian outback 48 years ago. The occasion for its appearance in front of the Parliament was Thursday afternoon’s chamber debate on Scotland’s strength as a space nation, which Ivan McKee, the Minister for Trade, Investment and Innovation, opened by declaring:

“These are exciting times for the space industry in Scotland … At a time when Scotland aims to be the first place in Europe capable of launching small satellites into orbit, it seems fitting that the Black Arrow is now here in Edinburgh, and I congratulate Skyrora—one of Scotland’s rocket manufacturing businesses—on successfully bringing it back to the UK.”

Another exciting happening outside the Parliament last week was the school strike for climate that took place on Friday morning, which was trailed by several members in Wednesday afternoon’s debate on the year of young people 2018. It was also mentioned in Tuesday’s fair work debate by Alison Johnstone, who argued:

“there cannot be fair work unless our economic model is fair to the planet. This Friday, hundreds of our young people will gather outside the Parliament to ask us to take action to address climate change, which is not an unconnected issue”.

Parliamentary synchronisation: a first

On Tuesday afternoon, Nicola Sturgeon opened a debate on a motion that reiterated the Parliament’s opposition to the UK Government’s European Union exit deal, set out that a no-deal exit would be “completely unacceptable” and called for the article 50 process to be extended. Later the same afternoon in the National Assembly for Wales, Jeremy Miles, the Welsh Brexit minister, opened a debate on the same motion.

Nicola Sturgeon pointed out that it was

“the first occasion in 20 years of devolution when the Scottish Parliament and Welsh Assembly have acted in unison in this way.”

Scottish Parliament debate on EU withdrawal negotiations (5 March 2019)

Welsh Assembly debate on EU withdrawal negotiations (5 March 2019)

The motion was agreed to in Edinburgh at 18:04 by 87 votes to 29, with one abstention, and in Cardiff at 18:09 by 37 votes to 13.

That decision was followed, in the Scottish Parliament, by a heavily subscribed members’ business debate on mesh implant removal, led by Labour’s Neil Findlay. The debate concerned the widely reported offer of the American obstetrician-gynaecologist, Dr Dionysios Veronikis, to come to Scotland to help patients by using his pioneering surgical methods to fully remove transvaginal mesh and other implants that are causing life-changing pain and disability, and to train other surgeons in how to perform the procedure safely.

Several mesh survivors were in the public gallery for the debate, including Mary McLaughlin from Ireland, who had full mesh removal carried out by Dr Veronikis in the US in January. She had travelled to Edinburgh, Mr Findlay said,

“as living proof of what the procedure can mean.”

Members’ business debate on mesh implant removal (5 March 2019)

At Thursday’s meeting of the Social Security Committee, the committee took detailed evidence from representatives of Citizens Advice Scotland and Age Scotland on the forthcoming changes to pension credit that were announced by the UK Government in January, which will mean that new claimants who are mixed-age couples where only one person is of state pension age will cease to qualify and will instead have to submit a claim for universal credit.

When Alison Johnstone of the Greens put to Adam Stachura of Age Scotland his organisation’s stated view that,

“While the UK Government says that Pension Credit was not designed for working age claimants, Universal Credit was certainly not designed for pensioners”,

he said that the new policy would have a “devastating impact”, while Rob Gowans of CAS agreed that it had the potential to increase the workload of citizens advice bureaux.

Following the evidence session, committee members decided to discuss in public what course of action to take. You can read what transpired here:

Social Security Committee pension credit discussion (7 March 2019)

 

Bill to end physical punishment of children begins its progress

On Thursday, the Equalities and Human Rights Committee held its first formal evidence session on the Children (Equal Protection from Assault) (Scotland) Bill, a member’s bill introduced by John Finnie of the Green Party, which the Scottish Government has said that it will support, to end the physical punishment of children by parents, or those with a caring responsibility for a child. The bill aims to remove the defence of reasonable chastisement or justifiable assault, which, at present in Scotland, a person who is charged with assault of a child can claim when they have used physical force to discipline the child.

Members of the committee began the meeting by reporting back on various informal engagement sessions they had had by way of preparation for consideration of the bill, before moving on to take evidence from two panels. The four members of the first panel set out their stalls early on. Professor Jane Callaghan of the University of Stirling said:

“The ending of the reasonable chastisement justification is long overdue, and the balance of evidence in both psychological research and research on domestic abuse and other forms of family violence suggests that this is the right choice.”

Dr Anja Heilmann of University College London said:

“Our report on the evidence on physical punishment shows very clearly that such punishment has the potential to harm children; that it is not effective as a parenting strategy, because it tends to increase problem behaviour and children’s socioemotional difficulties; and that it carries the risk of injurious abuse.”

Diego Quiroz of the Scottish Human Rights Commission said:

“there is consensus internationally and certainly in Europe that the corporal punishment of children is unacceptable, and that view is supported by broad scientific and medical evidence.”

The sociology and criminology lecturer Dr Stuart Waiton of Abertay University, on the other hand, said:

“it is a tragic, depressing bill and yet another one that appears to represent the aloof, elitist nature of politics and professional life that treats parents in a very patronising and degrading way … The claim that all the evidence proves that any level of smacking of children damages them is absolutely untrue and the opposite of the truth”.

When Alex Cole-Hamilton asked about the practice of “back-up smacking”, which the American academic Robert Larzelere supports

“as a parenting tool that can be effective when other parenting techniques fall down”,

Professor Callaghan’s response was:

“The balance of evidence suggests that there is a strong correlation between parents who are willing to use smacking and who use smacking and parents who are likely to lose control in their disciplinary practices.”

Dr Waiton, in contrast, argued:

“The idea that there is proof or evidence that a light form of smacking damages children is not borne out. I make a plea to your common sense. If you think that smacking a small child on the wrist is a form of violence that harms them, you are living on another planet.”

The members of the second panel were supportive of the bill, although Amy-Beth Mia of the Who Cares? Scotland collective drew on her own experience of placements and argued that the bill raised “a grey area”. She explained:

“When a child is removed from their family home to be placed in care, the state becomes the child’s corporate parent, and it is suddenly okay for the state to restrain the child and to act in an almost assault-like manner that breaches human rights. However, the bill wants to take away parents’ ability to smack children. We should encourage such an approach and pass the bill, but we have left out a grey area.”

The committee will hear from two more panels of experts on the bill, including the Children and Young People’s Commissioner Scotland, this Thursday.

Rallying roon the Caley

The headline items in the chamber last week were Tuesday’s debate on the Scottish rate resolution, which preceded the Parliament’s voting to set all rates and bands for Scottish income tax, and Thursday’s stage 3 debate on the Budget (Scotland) (No 3) Bill. As Kate Forbes, the Minister for Public Finance and Digital Economy, explained, under the Parliament’s standing orders, agreement to the motion on the rates resolution is a necessary precursor to the holding of the debate to pass the budget bill. The latter was a lively affair, with Pauline McNeill and Adam Tomkins being particularly exercised about the Government’s workplace parking levy proposal, while the finance secretary’s rejoinder to Willie Rennie’s remark about the Catalan flag flying on his “flagpole in Renfrew” was the source of much hilarity.

Scottish rate resolution debate (19 February 2019)

Stage 3 debate on Budget (Scotland) (No 3) Bill (21 February 2019)

The threat of closure facing the St Rollox railway works in Springburn—or “the Caley”, as the facility is affectionately known locally—was the subject of not one but two members’ business debates last week, and it followed last month’s late-night House of Commons debate on the same topic. Tuesday evening’s debate was led by James Kelly of Labour, and Wednesday’s was led by the SNP’s Bob Doris. While members learned of the historic significance of the works, which were built in 1856 on the site of the first railway in Scotland, the focus of both debates was on urging the current employer, Gemini Rail, to delay the running down of operations so that viable options for the future of the works, including the electrification of the line into the site, could be fully explored.

Members’ business debate on St Rollox railway works (19 February 2019)

Members’ business debate on St Rollox railway works (20 February 2019)

House of Commons debate on St Rollox railway works (14 January 2019)

On Thursday morning, the Social Security Committee considered various sets of regulations on new benefits for those at the start of life and those at the end of life that will be administered by Social Security Scotland, one of which is funeral expense assistance. In raising the possibility that people might not apply for the benefit, even though they would be entitled to it, Keith Brown gave a touching example:

“I am thinking of my granny, who was born in Inverness but lived all her days in Edinburgh. Her funeral was in Inverness, and she had bought everything—she had ordered the cakes and the tea; in fact, she had specified which cakes were to be eaten.”

He mentioned the desire of many older people “not to put a burden on others”

and the

“avalanche of adverts on television … encouraging older people to use their pension entitlement or the equity in their house to make provision for funeral expenses, which plays on that guilt about being a burden on others”,

and put it to the Cabinet Secretary for Social Security and Older People, Shirley-Anne Somerville, that television advertising of the availability of benefits such as funeral expense assistance could be a way of addressing the issue.

Social Security Committee evidence on funeral expense assistance regulations (21 February 2019)

Also on Thursday, the Public Audit and Post-legislative Scrutiny Committee received some powerful evidence as part of its post-legislative scrutiny of the Control of Dogs (Scotland) Act 2010, hearing first from people who have been directly affected by dog attacks or who have knowledge of the impact of such attacks, and then from representatives of various organisations with an interest in how effective the act has been and what needs to change.

Representing the Royal College of Surgeons of Edinburgh, Dr Judy Evans explained:

“It is a myth among the public that children scar better than older people. The situation is exactly the opposite. Those of us who are old enough know that we have facial creases that can hide scars. Children who still have to grow have worse scars, because their tissues are actively growing, which means that their scar tissue is actively growing, too.”

Dave Joyce of the Communication Workers Union, a staunch defender of posties and passionate advocate of reform of the law, didn’t hold back, describing the Dangerous Dogs Act 1991 as “a stupid and ineffectual piece of legislation” and arguing that

“People need to realise that if they are bad owners, they will face the consequences in court.”

Public Audit and Post-legislative Scrutiny Committee evidence on control of dogs legislation (21 February 2019)

New 20mph and workplace parking levy legislation

Proposed legislative changes affecting motorists were the subject of attention in Parliament this week: the Rural Economy and Connectivity Committee held its first evidence session on the Restricted Roads (20 mph Speed Limit) (Scotland) Bill, while the Finance and Constitution Committee, as part of its examination of the Budget (Scotland) (No 3) Bill, discussed the mooted workplace parking levy with finance secretary Derek Mackay, and it was also the topic that the Conservatives’ Jackson Carlaw chose to raise with John Swinney, who was standing in for Nicola Sturgeon at Thursday’s First Minister’s question time.

REC Committee evidence on speed limit bill (6 February 2019)

Finance and Constitution Committee budget bill evidence (6 February 2019)

First Minister’s Question Time (7 February 2019)

The Restricted Roads (20 mph Speed Limit) (Scotland) Bill is a member’s bill, introduced by Mark Ruskell of the Green Party, to reduce the default speed limit on restricted roads from 30mph to 20mph. Understandably, several members of the committee were keen to get an understanding of what percentage of the 30mph roads in Scotland are restricted and would therefore be covered by the bill. They were told that that data is difficult to collate but that, in Edinburgh, where a 20mph limit has already been rolled out,

“about 80 per cent of the roads … are covered by the 20mph limit”.

Adrian Davis, professor of transport and health at Edinburgh Napier University, brought his academic expertise to bear. He revealed that,

“for every 1mph reduction in average speed, there is a 6 per cent reduction in the number of collisions”.

When the convener suggested that cyclists “doing 30mph or 40mph downhill” might be a problem, Professor Davis responded that that was “an outlier question” on a “minor point”, observing that

“Getting up to 30mph is quite difficult for most people on bikes. The science is based on mass and speed … It is the mass of the vehicle that will do more damage … A bike is much smaller … Most people are hit by motor vehicles.”

On the workplace parking levy, Derek Mackay told the Finance and Constitution Committee:

“We have agreed, in principle, to accept an amendment that introduces the power for local authorities to adopt the levy.”

The fact that the amendment in question will be to the Transport (Scotland) Bill, the stage 1 report on which the Rural Economy and Connectivity Committee is currently drafting, and that it will be lodged by Green Party member John Finnie, led the REC Committee to change its agenda so that its handling of the issue could be discussed.

Among the concerns expressed, Mike Rumbles emphasised, “this is not a normal process”, but John Finnie reassured committee members:

“I am flagging this amendment up only as a courtesy, given the profile that the issue has received. I do not want to circumvent any procedures, because I think that they are absolutely important.”

REC Committee Transport (Scotland) Bill discussion (6 February 2019)

Letting the genie out of the bag

On Wednesday, the Education and Skills Committee held an interesting evidence session as part of its inquiry into Scottish national standardised assessments, hearing first from Andy Hargreaves, an academic with expertise in the impact on teachers of educational reform and experience of the systems in a number of countries, including the US, the UK and Canada, and then from Jackie Brock of Children in Scotland and Sue Palmer of Upstart Scotland.

Professor Hargreaves described the change in approach that has taken place in Ontario, where there is now a focus on

“what they call mystery students or students of wonder. A student of wonder is a wonderful student who is struggling with a particular aspect of their learning, and teachers in the school, who work together collaboratively, wonder why. The school will bring together the teacher who teaches them now, the teachers who used to teach them, the special education support teacher, the language specialist, a school counsellor and a speech therapist … to look at that student of wonder and to work out how to advance their learning.”

An exchange with the convener on parents’ awareness of testing was the occasion for the coining of the phrase “the genie is out of the bag”, which Sue Palmer said was

“particularly significant when it comes to P1, because the ratcheting up of parental anxiety impacts on the children. Within a year of the announcement that we would be testing primary 1 children, workbooks on how to help your child with P1 literacy and P1 numeracy had already appeared in the bookshops.”

In the chamber, Thursday’s stage 1 debate on the budget bill was a feisty affair from the off. In his opening speech, Derek Mackay, the Cabinet Secretary for Finance, Economy and Fair Work, was pressed by Mike Rumbles, Kezia Dugdale and James Kelly on, respectively, the abolition of the council tax, local authority cuts and support for low-income families. Uproar followed during Murdo Fraser’s opening speech for the Conservatives when, in response to an intervention from the Greens’ Andy Wightman, Mr Fraser mentioned Mr Wightman’s book “Who owns Scotland” and asked, “Who owns Andy Wightman?”, with SNP members gesticulating to indicate their view on who owns Scotland.

The combative atmosphere continued throughout the intervention-strewn contributions of James Kelly and Patrick Harvie, with matters subsequently coming to a head during the speeches of Miles Briggs and Tom Arthur. When Neil Findlay sought to intervene on the latter, the Deputy Presiding Officer, Linda Fabiani, made a plea:

“I ask that the temperature of this debate be lowered because it is becoming ridiculous.”

With the support of the Greens, the Government’s motion on the budget bill was agreed to at decision time.

 

No room for hatred: the Holocaust remembered

At Tuesday’s topical question time and Thursday’s First Minister’s question time last week, the Cryptococcus infection incident at Glasgow’s Queen Elizabeth university hospital was the focus of attention. On Tuesday, responding to Monica Lennon, Jeane Freeman, the Cabinet Secretary for Health and Sport, revealed that the source of the infection was pigeons getting into a plant room on the 12th floor of the building. She announced that a review would be set up, the remit for which would be made available by the end of the week.

Topical Question time (Cryptococcus infection) (22 Jan 2019)

First Minister’s Question Time (24 Jan 2019)

It was a busy week for Ms Freeman. On Wednesday, she gave the chamber an update on the situation as regards clinical waste services for the NHS in Scotland following the ceasing of operations of the Shotts-based Healthcare Environmental Services, while on Thursday she gave evidence to the Public Petitions Committee on three health-related petitions: one on access to glucose monitoring for people with type 1 diabetes; one on MRI scans for ocular melanoma sufferers; and one on the treatment of people with ME.

Ministerial statement (clinical waste services) (23 Jan 2019)

Public Petitions Committee (24 Jan 2019)

On Wednesday, the Local Government and Communities Committee heard from Rosemary Agnew, the Scottish Public Services Ombudsman, on the ombudsman’s annual report and accounts. Ms Agnew spoke of her desire

“to lead the way with a modern ombudsman service”,

but expressed frustration about the lack of progress on giving people the ability to make a complaint “in any format”. She also talked of her desire for the SPSO to have the power to launch its own investigations, as ombudsmen in other countries do.

Local Government and Communities Committee (23 Jan 2019)

At Thursday lunch time, Richard Lyle led the annual members’ business debate on Holocaust memorial day. In a powerful speech, Adam Tomkins quoted Primo Levi asking, with amazement, in his autobiographical account of the Holocaust,

“how can one hit a man without anger?”,

and concluded

“There is plenty of room in politics for emotion, for frenzy and even for anger, but not for hatred … Let that, for us, be the lesson of the Holocaust.”

Several members paid tribute to the outstanding heroism and humanity of particular individuals: Gillian Martin spoke of the paediatrician, journalist and children’s author, Dr Janusz Korczak; Ross Greer highlighted the role of Mordechai Anielewicz, who led the Warsaw ghetto uprising; and Annabelle Ewing singled out for praise the young Polish social worker Irena Sendler, who saved 2,500 children over a period of four years.

Members’ business (Holocaust memorial day) (24 Jan 2019)