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”.


Heat from sewage, fire service cuts, and seaweed more expensive than oil

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

In committees

 The UK’s first heat-from-sewage scheme at Borders College, where waste water is being used to generate heat for the local community, was one of the topics for discussion at Tuesday morning’s Environment, Climate Change and Land Reform Committee. The committee heard from the Water Industry Commission for Scotland (WICS), which regulates the water industry in Scotland.

Other subjects under discussion included pipe leakages, flooding, the commission’s new customer forum and climate change. Chief executive Alan Sutherland acknowledged that we are “not going to build our way out of climate change” but proposed the project in Galashiels as a way forward, although he believed its “light is being held firmly under a bushel”.

Three months on from the Grenfell tower fire, the Local Government and Communities Committee was told that the number of fire safety officers had fallen by 24 per cent since 2013. As part of the committee’s inquiry into building standards and fire safety, Denise Christie of the Fire Brigades Union told the committee on Wednesday, “We have had year-on-year cuts to our organisation, which we are finding it very difficult to cope with.”

In the chamber

The same issue was taken up at First Minister’s question time the following day, with interim Labour leader Alex Rowley asking for assurances about job cuts, and Local Government and Communities Committee convener Bob Doris asking whether  the Government agreed with the Fire Brigade Union’s call for “intrusive inspections” of fire safety measures in high-rise buildings in Scotland.

Chamber business was rounded off this week by a debate on Scotland’s food and drink strategy, “Ambition 2030”, which is a plan to increase the turnover of the industry to
£30 billion by 2030. As is typical on such occasions, members competed with each other over what their constituents have to offer—including Stornoway black pudding, Porrelli’s ice cream from Paisley, Mull of Kintyre cheddar, and whisky and gin from South, West and North East Scotland.

John Scott spoke about importing the French concept of “terroir” to add value by emphasising the regional diversity of Scotland’s food and drink. Fergus Ewing told members about the success story that is Mara Seaweed’s exports to the USA. He explained intriguingly: “Members might not know this—I certainly did not—but seaweed for consumption is stored in barrels. Each barrel is worth $1,000, which means that one barrel of Scottish seaweed is worth 20 barrels of oil.”

Child protection, prisoner voting and a change to First Minister’s question time

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

In the chamber

Business in the chamber focused almost entirely on debate on the Scottish Government’s legislative programme, which Nicola Sturgeon presented to members on Tuesday, so readers could be forgiven for having missed that Parliament agreed to a new format for First Minister’s question time. This is the first of the proposals from the commission on parliamentary reform, established by the Presiding Officer, to be implemented. The commission reported that diary questions by party leaders such as

To ask the First Minister what engagements she has planned for the rest of the day

were confusing and added little to proceedings, with the real questions being asked after the first, formulaic exchange, so from now on party leaders will dispense with inquiries about the First Minister’s engagements or the Cabinet’s meetings and simply open with a question.

In committees

The Health and Sport Committee got back to parliamentary business on Tuesday, interrogating representatives of the SFA and the SYFA as part of its inquiry into child protection in sport. New committee member Brian Whittle hit the ground running, bringing to bear his considerable experience of the world of sport, including as an athletics coach.

The discussion ranged from the technicalities of the disclosure checks process to the more general issue of the culture in youth football, with the football representatives fielding probing questions about the inherent power imbalance in the relationship between clubs and young players, the potential for treating young players as commodities, and the need to safeguard the welfare and interests of young sport enthusiasts in a situation in which a mere 0.7 per cent of youth academy players go on to receive professional contracts.

On Thursday morning, the Equalities and Human Rights Committee held a fascinating round-table discussion on the blanket ban on prisoner voting in Scotland with a variety of organisations and individuals with an interest in the subject, after first hearing from Patrick Harvie, who had written to the committee asking it to look at the issue.

Lucy Hunter Blackburn from the Howard League for Penal Reform in Scotland pointed out that the ban on prisoner voting is based on the concept of civic death, whereby prisoners are seen as no longer being citizens, which she suggested does not accord with the ideas of rehabilitation and integration.

Professor Fergus McNeill from the Scottish Centre for Crime and Justice Research continued the discussion of civic death by taking us back to the days of the Greeks and Romans, when a person who broke the law could not only lose the right to make the law but be killed with impunity. That was, as he put it, “the most brutal and extreme form of disenfranchisement.”

You can find out more in the Official Report of the meeting.


End of term picks

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

On Tuesday, the Environment, Climate Change and Land Reform Committee took evidence on waste in Scotland, which presented us with one of the few occasions on which it could justifiably be said that members talked rubbish. Finlay Carson elicited a few laughs (and possibly a groan or two) when he offered to “compact” his questions “to take out some of the wastage.” Members spoke to representatives from local authorities, Zero Waste Scotland, the Scottish Environment Protection Agency and the private sector. Scotland’s target of recycling 70 per cent of its waste by 2021 was a hot topic, as was the ban on biodegradable municipal waste going to landfill that will come into force on 1 January 2021. Both panels stressed that there are many challenges ahead, but there are “grounds for optimism”, as Martin Grey from Viridor said when he discussed the consumer-driven shift away from black plastic packaging (which is unrecyclable) in the food industry.

In a week that saw the start of the Brexit negotiations, the Finance and Constitution Committee took evidence from two constitutional law experts, Professor Alan Page and Professor Stephen Tierney, on the use of the legislative consent mechanism—otherwise known as the Sewel convention—with regard to the great repeal bill and its aftermath. The convener, Bruce Crawford, admitted at one point that the discussion was getting into “dancing on the head of a pin” territory, but he stressed that such issues could take on importance, particularly in light of the fact that, as Professor Tierney pointed out, there would be more than 12,000 European regulations to deal with in the event of Brexit. In any case, the witnesses agreed that what had to be avoided after Brexit was “legislative ping-pong” or some kind of “war of attrition” between the Scottish Government and the UK Government—and, indeed, between all the UK Governments and legislatures—in respect of legislation that would have to be put in place and suggested that better joint working and better intergovernmental relationships would be needed.

On Wednesday, MSPs debated motor neurone disease (MND) global awareness day. Christina McKelvie—one of several members with family or friends who have been affected by what she described as a “cruel” disease—opened the debate by noting that, “in the face of cruelty, we find community.” In the week when Scottish rugby legend Doddie Weir announced that he has been diagnosed with MND, his friend Brian Whittle made a heartfelt speech about the condition. Kezia Dugdale, who spoke earlier this year about her friend the MND campaigner Gordon Aikman, mentioned that the little zebrafish, which lots of us keep in tanks at home, is being used in research to find a cure for MND. Finally, noting the personal nature of some of the speeches, Deputy Presiding Officer Christine Grahame observed that MSPs’ contributions had shown “the Parliament to the public in a different light.”



Languages of Oaths

It would be fair to say that the official reporting team is a lover of language. We work with it every day and relish all of its complexities and proclivities. In the Official Report we publish English and Gaelic when spoken and we publish the simultaneous or offered translation for all other languages. We can cover quite a wide range of languages ourselves. The team speaks Gaelic, Scots, French, Spanish, German, Afrikaans, Punjabi, Russian, Chinese, Swedish, Norwegian, Italian, Japanese and of course English. And our publication and public information team manages a contract to supply interpreters and translators of other languages when required.

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