Body Image, Climate Emergency, Empty Homes and Local Commercial Radio

After time for reflection, Tuesday’s business in the chamber began with a topical question from Jamie Greene about the recent finding that a third of adults in Scotland are anxious about their body image. Clare Haughey, the Minister for Mental Health, informed members that one of the Government’s actions in the area was the setting up of an advisory group on healthy body image for young people that would make recommendations after carrying out a six-month review.

Topical question time was followed by a statement from the Cabinet Secretary for Environment, Climate Change and Land Reform, Roseanna Cunningham, on Scotland’s response to the global climate emergency. The statement came in the wake of the advice that the Scottish Government received earlier in the month from the UK Committee on Climate Change, which was itself a response to last year’s warning by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change that the world needs to act now because, by 2030, it will be too late to limit global warming to 1.5°C.

The cabinet secretary took questions on a wide variety of areas, including one from Stewart Stevenson on Scottish participation in international research

“to identify breeding changes for bovines that should, ultimately, reduce their methane emissions while protecting their meat yield”.

On Wednesday, the Local Government and Communities Committee began its inquiry into empty homes in Scotland by taking evidence from the Scottish empty homes partnership and Rural Housing Scotland. Andy Wightman asked about the council tax levy, whereby owners of homes that have been empty for more than 12 months are charged 200 per cent. Other subjects that were covered included the question of why there are more empty homes in rural areas and the extent to which compulsory purchase is used.

On Thursday morning, the Culture, Tourism, Europe and External Affairs Committee held an interesting session on local commercial radio. The committee heard first from a panel from Ofcom, whose decision last year to amend the relevant guidelines to provide greater flexibility for media companies in the area sparked questions from members who were concerned about the potential loss of local content.

Among the many issues that were addressed by the second panel, which comprised representatives of Bauer Media and D C Thomson, was the expansion of FM, which Tavish Scott asked about, George Adam’s argument that

“DAB is the Betamax of radio formats”,

and the suggestion from Ross Greer that greater deregulation of commercial radio disadvantages small local stations and benefits the larger players.

Twenty years of the Scottish Parliament

Twenty years ago, on 12 May 1999, the temporary clerk, a certain Mr Paul Grice, opened the first meeting of the Scottish Parliament established under the Scotland Act 1998. Once all members had taken the oath or made a solemn affirmation, Dr Winnie Ewing uttered the immortal words:

the Scottish Parliament, which adjourned on 25 March 1707, is hereby reconvened.”

She went on to set out her hopes for the Parliament:

“The first is that we try to follow the more consensual style of the European Parliament and say goodbye to the badgering and backbiting that one associates with Westminster.

Secondly, in the House of Commons, I found that there was a Speaker’s tradition of being fair to minorities. I am an expert in being a minority—I was alone in the House of Commons for three years and alone in the European Parliament for 19 years—but we are all minorities now, and I hope that the Presiding Officer, whoever that may be, will be fair to each and every one of us.

My next hope is that this Parliament, by its mere existence, will create better relations with England, Wales and Northern Ireland, and I believe that to be in the hearts of the peoples of all of those countries.

My last practical hope is that everyone who was born in Scotland, some of whom, like me, could not help it, and everyone who chose Scotland as their country, will live in harmony together, enjoying our cultures but remaining loyal to their own.”

On the following day, 13 May 1999, the Parliament selected its nominee for appointment as the First Minister. There were four candidates: Dennis Canavan, Donald Dewar, David McLetchie and Alex Salmond. In speaking in support of his candidacy, Donald Dewar said:

All my political life, I have worked with others to achieve this Parliament. Many of my allies and many colleagues in that cause are here today.

I am proud of what we have done, and I am proud of what Scotland has done. Scotland’s Parliament is no longer a political pamphlet, a campaign trail or a waving flag. It is here; it is real.”

Following his selection, Mr Dewar thanked his colleagues for their support and offered this observation:

“We in this place have a particular role. This must be a Parliament of Scotland’s people. We must look beyond the walls of this place to the people of Scotland. I pledge that I will lead a Government that will listen and respond to what the people of Scotland tell us. Co-operation is always possible where there are common aims and values, even though there may be great and dividing differences in other areas. I want to harness that potential good will, not just on behalf of this Parliament and those who have the privilege of serving in it, but on behalf of the people of Scotland.”

Here’s to the next 20 years of the Parliament fulfilling that role!

Brexit updates and subject choices at secondary school

On Wednesday afternoon in the chamber, all eyes were on the First Minister, as she made a statement on the implications for Scotland of recent Brexit developments.

On the issue of when she thought that people in Scotland should be offered a new choice on independence, she had this to say:

“To rush into an immediate decision before a Brexit path has been determined would not allow an informed choice to be made. However, if we are to safeguard Scotland’s interests, we cannot wait indefinitely. That is why I consider that a choice between Brexit and a future for Scotland as an independent European nation should be offered later in the lifetime of this Parliament.”

She set out the steps that the Government now intends to take, including the introduction of legislation

“to set the rules for any referendum that is, now or in the future, within the competence of the Scottish Parliament”,

which the Government aims to have on the statute book

“by the end of this year.”

In committee considerations, too, Brexit was prominent, with the Environment, Climate Change and Land Reform Committee focusing on the implications for the waste and chemicals sectors; the Rural Economy and Connectivity Committee receiving an update from the Cabinet Secretary for the Rural Economy, Fergus Ewing, on various agriculture and fisheries matters; and the Culture, Tourism, Europe and External Affairs Committee hearing from the Government’s Michael Russell on the article 50 withdrawal negotiations.

On Wednesday morning, the Education and Skills Committee held its second session in its subject choices inquiry. Some of the evidence that was presented on the reduction in parts of Scotland in the number of subjects that pupils can study at secondary 4 level was cited by Jackson Carlaw at Thursday’s First Minister’s question time, who set it in the context of Reform Scotland’s report, “National 4 and 5s: The accidental attainment gap”. The First Minister responded by pointing out that the senior phase in school does not consist only of S4 and highlighting statistics that show improved performance at level 5 and above. You can read the exchange in full here.

Twitter facilitates Divonne inspiration

Revoking article 50 was the subject of a topical Green Party-led debate in the chamber last Wednesday afternoon, in which the Parliament accepted amendments to Patrick Harvie’s motion from the SNP and Labour, while on Thursday morning, the Culture, Tourism, Europe and External Affairs Committee took evidence on a specific aspect of the article 50 debate—that of international agreements. The wide-ranging discussion that ensued, which you can read in full here, is a good illustration of the fact that reporting parliamentary committees can involve a fair bit of research.

Part of the process of producing a substantially verbatim report of what is said in such circumstances involves conveying the knowledge of the assembled experts—in this case, David Henig, Dmitry Grozoubinski and Professor Alan Winters. As numerous treaties, regulations and conventions can be mentioned, it’s important to correctly identify and keep track of exactly what is being referred to, particularly when shorthand can be used and there is scope for ambiguity. As reporters, we need to know whether “the partnership” is a reference to, say, the transatlantic trade and investment partnership or the trans-Pacific partnership. When someone says “DG1”, we need to look up which directorate-general of the EU they are referring to.

In most cases, a combination of an understanding of the context and a spot of googling throws light on the situation but, occasionally—when, for example, a witness drops an obscure term of art rapidly into the discussion, recalls one fact rather than another in the heat of the moment or is simply inaudible—it’s necessary to go straight to the horse’s mouth, as it were. That happened at this meeting when the subject of e-commerce came up and Dmitry Grozoubinski mentioned a place in France near the border with Switzerland where people in Geneva get their Amazon parcels sent to. To several pairs of ears, the town in question sounded like “Yverdon-les-Bois”, but research on Google Maps showed that the likely candidate—Yverdon-les-Bains—was in Switzerland, suggesting that it couldn’t have been the place that Mr Grozoubinski had in mind.

How to solve the problem? A quick Twitter exchange, in which Mr Grozoubinski clarified that he had been thinking of Divonne-les-Bains, so that’s what appeared in the Official Report.


Men’s sheds and other best friends

Those who were in the public gallery for Thursday lunch time’s members’ business debate on men’s sheds—who, included, appropriately enough, people from men’s sheds across the Borders, from Peebles to Eyemouth—were treated to a vintage performance from Christine Grahame, the member for Midlothian South, Tweeddale and Lauderdale and one of the Parliament’s Deputy Presiding Officers. After describing the evolution of the men’s shed movement, she went on to reminisce about the importance of her father’s shed to her family life when she was a child:

“My late father, with five children corralled in a small council house, took refuge and sanctuary in his small green wooden shed at the bottom of the garden … With the door open, he would sit admiring the growing vegetables, with the Sunday papers—he always had to read them before the rest of us—and his cup of tea, rain or shine, taking a moment away from the hurly-burly of his five children indoors. My late mother was happy to leave him to it. Domestic friction was reduced.”

In passing, Ms Grahame extolled the usefulness of the Scottish Men’s Sheds Association website, jokingly suggesting that the Parliament’s retiring assistant chief executive, Ken Hughes, might want to look there for something to do with his time. Her conclusion was humorous, too:

“to allay any rumours that, as a single woman of a certain age, I am frequenting men’s sheds with romantic intent, I assure the gentlemen in the gallery and beyond that my interest is purely professional.”

As someone who has been a member since 1999, Ms Grahame has a particular interest in this year’s 20th anniversary of the Parliament. It was with that in mind that, later the same day, during Scottish Parliamentary Corporate Body question time, she asked how the organisation planned to

“mark the contribution to the Parliament of staff past and present who were here in 1999.”

Liam McArthur, representing the SPCB, replied:

“our intention is for the Parliament to celebrate its 20th anniversary at an event on 29 June. All members of staff, past and present, will be encouraged to attend the event, and further announcements will be made later in the spring.”

Thursday was an especially busy day for Ms Grahame, who was also in action at that morning’s meeting of the Public Audit and Post-legislative Scrutiny Committee, at which the committee continued its post-legislative scrutiny of the Control of Dogs (Scotland) Act 2010, which she took through Parliament as a member’s bill—although, as she acknowledged, Alex Neil, now a member of the committee,

“did all the heavy lifting”.

She defended the act as “good legislation” and said that the problem lay with practical aspects of implementation. When asked by Alex Neil to give an overview of her proposed responsible breeding and ownership of dogs (Scotland) bill, she explained that it was about

“welfare of the animals and good relationships between dogs and owners.”

Another member’s bill that was discussed last week was Mark Ruskell’s Restricted Roads (20 mph Speed Limit) (Scotland) Bill. The Rural Economy and Connectivity Committee was holding its fifth and final evidence session on the bill at stage 1, and it heard directly from Mark Ruskell as the member in charge of the bill. Various aspects of the proposed legislation were explored in detail. In his opening statement, Mr Ruskell drew on personal experience in setting out a powerful argument for his bill:

“When I was at school, a classmate of mine was struck down and killed while out playing on his bike. He was not killed outside the school gates; he was killed in the residential street where he lived, like four fifths of child casualties on our roads.

Speed limits of 20mph make a big contribution to the safety of everyone on the streets where we live, especially children. They reduce speed, prevent deaths and injuries and encourage choices to walk and cycle. Public support for them continues to grow year on year.”


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)