Holocaust Memorial Day 2018

At the Official Report, we tend to focus on clarity and accuracy in communication, and we respect the ability of language both to reflect and create the world in which we live. It’s the pond in which we swim, if you like. Members’ business on Wednesday, which was introduced by Professor Adam Tomkins, focused on this year’s Holocaust memorial day, on 27 January, the theme of which is “The Power of Words”.

Professor Tomkins introduced the debate with a moving speech in which he reflected on the responsibility that comes with free speech and an acknowledgement that MSPs, too, are creatures of language: “Words can wound. They can damage relationships, destroy reputations and darken any conversation, but words can also enlighten, inform, educate and inspire. That is just as well, because here in this chamber words are all we have. Words are our tools. We use them to make law, to question ministers, to engage in debate. The very word “parliament” comes from the old French “parler”—to speak.”

Kenneth Gibson used the debate to tell the story of Alfred Wiener, who established the Jewish Central Information Office in Amsterdam, which became the Wiener library in London, a vast repository of information about and against Nazism and anti-Semitism that provides a valuable resource for scholars, researchers, the media and the public.

Johann Lamont called for positivity as well as vigilance in parliamentary debates, urging that, “in marking the occasion today, we should recognise the power of words to heal as well as to divide.”

The theme of vigilance was also taken up by Patrick Harvie, who, in speaking about the widespread use of language to dehumanise people even today, warned, “The words that we use to remember the past matter, but if we want to prevent such things from happening again we need to talk about the words that we use to define the present and to shape the future.”

Finally, in responding to the debate for the Government, Dr Alasdair Allan reminded us of the need for those in power to lead through the language that they use, saying, “Whether they are delivered through a speech or a tweet, the words of our leaders are seen by millions as setting the context for everything that happens in our society.”

The closing words of this Editor’s Pick should perhaps be what Professor Tomkins referred to as the “beautiful words” that introduce the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which tell us that “the … dignity and … inalienable rights of all members of the human family are the foundation of freedom, justice and peace in the world”.

From Historical Earthworks to the Last of the Dinosaurs

Pow talk

In committee this week, the Pow of Inchaffray Drainage Commission (Scotland) Bill Committee started its consideration stage of this private bill, which seeks to update archaic arrangements for the maintenance of a medieval drainage channel—the “pow” of the title—in Perth and Kinross.

The promoters are the Pow of Inchaffray drainage commissioners, who have traditionally been responsible for maintenance and improvement of the pow, with the costs shared between the relevant landowners, or “heritors”. Recent building in the area means that more heritors need to be included. In addition, the old law governing the pow’s maintenance—the Pow of Inchaffray Drainage Act 1846, which itself repealed an act from 1696—is out of date.

As is often the case with private bills, the proceedings read more like a courtroom scene, with the promoters’ solicitors and the objectors setting out their cases and interrogating each other’s arguments. Columbo it isn’t, but it’s an interesting variation from the types of business that we normally report.

A heads-up

On Wednesday, in the chamber, Mairi Gougeon’s members’ business debate on the “Heads Up for Harriers” project and the role of species champions raised the plight of the hen harrier in Scotland, whose numbers have fallen catastrophically in recent years. Ms Gougeon pointed out that, according to research by the Joint Nature Conservation Committee, “the national hen harrier population of Scotland should be in the range of 1,467 to 1,790 breeding pairs. Instead, we have fewer than 500. The latest hen harrier survey shows that there are only 460 breeding pairs, which is a fall from 505 in 2010.” She went on to highlight the work of the project—which is led by Scottish Natural Heritage and PAW Scotland—to identify, monitor and protect nests, noting that, although it might not be a panacea, it is “a step in the right direction”. John Scott emphasised the need for good estate management, saying that “the safest place for hen harriers to raise chicks is on well-managed grouse moors where foxes are kept under control and a good supply of voles and grouse chicks exists.”

Flight of fancy

The same debate attracted a number of speakers who were also proud to announce their role as species champions, including David Stewart (great yellow bumblebee), Liam McArthur (Scottish primrose) and Gillian Martin (Yew). Deputy Presiding Officer Christine Grahame transported us 66 million years back into the past, “to the time when dinosaurs ruled the world”. In what must have been one of the most apocalyptic speeches ever given in the chamber, she described how an asteroid hit the Yucatán peninsula, wiping out almost all life on earth. Thankfully, one of the few species that survived might have been a relative of the house sparrow, of which Ms Grahame is the species champion. Having such resilient ancestors has left the house sparrow well suited to our present conditions. As Ms Grahame observed, “It is no skin off his beak to survive a Scottish winter.”

Air quality and fair delivery charges

A defence of coos

On Tuesday, the Environment, Climate Change and Land Reform Committee heard from the Cabinet Secretary for Environment, Climate Change and Land Reform and the Minister for Transport and the Islands, who were there to talk about air quality and, in particular, the Government’s plans for improving it.

Discussion began with the difficulty of doing anything about volcanoes—Eyjafjallajoküll was mentioned—because “air has no boundary”, as the cabinet secretary said. Questions ranged across transport issues, such as the green bus fund and timetable integration, the promotion of electric vehicles and their charging points—not forgetting electric bicycles, which the minister is keen on—and the importance of low-emission zones. The minister was in a bit of a bind, because later in the week he was due to give a statement on the Government’s plans for low-emission zones, so he couldn’t give too much detail to the committee. There was nonetheless some interesting discussion that adds to Thursday’s statement and questions in the chamber.

The meeting concluded with a member trying to get the cabinet secretary and the minister to clype on their colleagues whose portfolios might be causing air quality problems, rather than reducing them. The cabinet secretary refused to rise to the bait and said:

Despite the automatic assumption that this is about green coos as opposed to non-green coos, the emissions are mostly from the application of organic or inorganic manure to soils rather than the coos themselves. In fairness to coos, I have often wondered whether anybody has tried to measure the ammonia emissions from the human livestock on the planet, but I suppose there are some difficulties with going there.

Redrawing the map of Britain

In Wednesday’s members’ business debate on charges for parcel delivery to the Highlands and Islands, which was initiated by Richard Lochhead, we learned that, for the purposes of delivery charging, the Highlands, on mainland Britain, are not part of mainland Britain; that the inland town of Turriff is in the North Sea; that mainland Argyll, too, is offshore; and that if you want to order car parts, it’s best to do so from a German supplier, which will not charge you for delivery, unlike UK suppliers. We were also told that “free delivery” can actually mean a £70 delivery surcharge being applied.

The debate also gave us insight into historical delivery charges—specifically, the cost in the late eighteenth century of delivery of a duplicate Royal Navy service record in order to claim a pension (£1 and 10 shillings, as it happens).

It was pointed out that few debates will include references to “squirrels, fishing waders and referee whistles”, but such wide-ranging contributions are the beauty of our members’ business debates.

Although Santa’s helpers were cited in relation to the cost of a rural Christmas being greater because of companies’ delivery charges, fortunately, no suggestion was made that Santa himself intends to apply charges for delivery to the Highlands and Islands.

Brexit, bridges and bullseyes

Brexit’s implications for agriculture and fisheries

There were two eye-catching items of business at this week’s meeting of the Rural Economy and Connectivity Committee. The evidence that the committee took from Scottish Government ministers Michael Russell and Fergus Ewing on the implications of the outcome of the EU referendum will have been of keen interest to stakeholders in Scotland’s agriculture and fishing sectors.

Queensferry crossing closure

However,  it was the session with representatives of Transport Scotland (and Mark Arndt of Amey) on the Queensferry crossing that quickly made the news and subsequently became the focus of Thursday’s First Minister’s question time.

Members were given a rundown of the successful opening of the bridge and some parts of the project that remain to be completed, but it was the closure of the crossing to southbound traffic from Thursday evening until Wednesday of next week that the committee was most keen to ask about. It was told that the “snagging issue”—which it had learned about only a few days earlier in a written update from Transport Scotland, but which, it transpired, had been known about in August, prior to the opening of the bridge—was to do with the fact that the surfacing had been “laid marginally too high on either side of the joints”.

In order to allow traffic to travel over the bridge at 70mph, as intended, the areas around the joints need to be resurfaced. The committee was assured that all the associated costs would be borne by the contractor and that the bridge is covered by a five-year “defects correction period”.

Small business Saturday

Ash Denham’s reminiscences, during her members’ business debate on small business Saturday, about helping out in her grandparents’ sweet shop prompted this wistful recollection from Stewart Stevenson:

“First, I thank Ash Denham for the opportunity to talk about small businesses. I was immediately jealous of her access to a sweetie shop. I was six years old before I could go to the sweetie shop without my ration card. [Laughter.] There are four of us in the Parliament for whom that would be true.”

Consideration for the feelings of others prevented Mr Stevenson—and us—from identifying the other three ration-card veterans.

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.”