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Chamber and committees

Meeting date: Thursday, October 8, 2020

Public Petitions Committee 08 October 2020

Agenda: New Petitions, Continued Petitions, Mental Health Support for Young People


New Petitions

Bereavement Education (PE1820)

The Convener (Johann Lamont)

Good morning. I welcome everyone to the 16th meeting of the Public Petitions Committee in 2020. The meeting is being held virtually.

The first item on our agenda is consideration of new petitions, the first of which is PE1820, on compulsory bereavement education in schools, which was lodged by Sameena Javed. The petition calls on the Scottish Government to introduce compulsory bereavement education into the school curriculum. We have received submissions from the Scottish Government and from the petitioner.

The Scottish Government’s submission notes that, although

“the Curriculum for Excellence (CfE) ... is a broad framework at national level, it is not a statutory curriculum prescribed to the level of individual courses that must be followed by each individual school.”

The Government advises that the framework can be adapted

“at individual school level as appropriate and in response to the needs of each individual school.”

It further states:

“there are resources on Education Scotland’s website to support teachers to deliver learning on bereavement”.

The petitioner’s submission notes:

“Many schools appear to be lacking the basic resources to teach this topic, and there have been instances where parents themselves have had to personally provide resources so that this topic can be taught to their children.”

Do members have any comments or suggestions for action? The petition addresses what is obviously a difficult matter that has come from direct experience. There is a concern that young people are not supported. I think that there are issues around how we can be sure that young people individually who have experienced tragedy are supported and also, more generally, around how young people learn to talk about these issues.

There is something here in our papers about what further might be done, but I shall call Gail Ross first.

Gail Ross (Caithness, Sutherland and Ross) (SNP)

As you say, convener, this is a very sensitive topic. The petitioner is quite right that it is one that we should be talking about and encouraging our young people to talk about and therefore understand.

I completely get why many parents are not equipped to talk about it, and it should perhaps be included in personal and social education in schools. The Scottish Government’s submission states that curriculum for excellence is in effect a guide that allows schools to adapt to their local circumstances, but the petition covers something that touches absolutely everyone in society.

I would like us to write to stakeholders such as Child Bereavement UK, YoungScot and the Childhood Bereavement Network to ask for their views and to see whether they have any suggestions about how the subject can be dealt with in a more robust but sensitive way in schools and about how it is being dealt with at the moment.

Tom Mason (North East Scotland) (Con)

My apologies, convener, for not being at the pre-meeting session. My technology is hopefully on track now.

I agree with what Gail Ross has said. This is an important area, and we must do something more about it. We need more information from stakeholders. I would be particularly interested to receive information on the childhood bereavement co-ordinator’s brief and terms of reference. If we get that information, we can make further deliberations on the subject.

David Torrance (Kirkcaldy) (SNP)

I agree with my committee colleagues that we should write to all the relevant stakeholders. I would also like to find out about the role that counsellors play in high schools, now that nearly every high school has a counsellor in place, in relation to pupils and child bereavement.

Maurice Corry (West Scotland) (Con)

I agree with what all my colleagues have said. I recently had an interesting visit to Children’s Hospices Across Scotland at Robin house in Balloch. We should write to CHAS, because it has first-hand experience in this area and I would value what it has to say.

Apart from that, I have no further comments.

The Convener

I think that we all recognise that there is an issue, but we would want to reflect on what needs to change. I was a teacher myself; it was a long time ago, but I remember a young boy in my class who died, and there was no conversation about it. Nobody knew how to talk to young people about how they felt about it. I have no doubt that the situation in that regard will have improved massively over time.

There is an important role for counsellors in dealing with young people who have experienced bereavement, but the whole school community needs to be supportive, and it is very important to have those conversations in school. I think that the committee generally agrees that there are issues in that regard.

Members have made a range of suggestions about who we should contact, and the clerks will take that up. We are agreed that we will look further at how best we equip our young people to cope with the reality of bereavement and at how schools can be geared up to support individuals when they are facing very difficult times. I thank the petitioner for bringing the issue to our attention.

Neonates (Brain and Body Scans) (PE1823)

The Convener

The next new petition is PE1823, on full-body scans for all neonates in Scotland. The petition, which was lodged by Sameena Javed, calls on the Scottish Government to offer full-body scans to all neonates in Scotland with the aim of detecting—and, it is hoped, treating—rare and hidden conditions.

The Scottish Government’s response advises that Scotland’s pregnancy and newborn screening programme does not currently include the condition to which the petition refers, which is arteriovenous malformation. It describes developments that are relevant to the petition, such as the new congenital anomalies and rare diseases registration and information service for Scotland.

Genetic Alliance UK states that it

“agrees with ... the Scottish Government that full body scans for all neonates would ‘carry an element of risk’ and does not recommend routine scanning of newborns.”

It advises nonetheless that it “fully supports” the petitioner’s aim of improving the early detection of rare conditions and the opportunities for treatment. It states:

“One way to achieve this would be for the Scottish Government to review and expand the existing Newborn Screening Programme.”

It goes on to note that

“Scotland currently screens for just nine conditions”,


“Iceland, for example, screens for 47 conditions, the Netherlands for 34 and Norway for 28.”

The petitioner’s response to the Scottish Government and Genetic Alliance UK highlights that early detection gives a greater chance of a successful outcome. She therefore proposes that

“Body scans for neonates should be offered to all parents”,

and that parents should have the choice of whether to accept the scan, as it may save their child’s life. She agrees with Genetic Alliance UK that the newborn screening programme in Scotland should be reviewed and expanded.

This is another challenging petition. It comes from the family’s direct experience, and we appreciate the petitioner bringing it forward as a result of her own terrible and tragic circumstances.

The suggestion that is offered acknowledges that there is a risk involved but says that the scan should be offered to parents. How would parents feel about that? Would they even be informed enough to know whether they should take up the offer? I certainly think that there is an issue. Questions around the value of a young person’s life and the ability to capture a condition early on are obviously powerful, but the benefits have to be balanced with the risks. I am interested to hear what other committee members think, starting with Tom Mason.

Tom Mason

This is a difficult area. I have some personal experience in my family of the choices that have to be made in deciding whether to scan for genetic diseases; that experience had a considerable effect on the whole family.

Before we deliberate fully on the petition, we need more information. In particular, we need to know why there is a limit on the number of conditions that are scanned for in Scotland in comparison with other countries. The rationale in those other countries needs to be established. We should write to the Government to see what its views are and to the General Medical Council to see what it can come up with. Further consideration is appropriate here.

David Torrance

I agree with Tom Mason. We need more information about the issue. I definitely think that we should write to the Scottish Government and the General Medical Council to seek their views.

Maurice Corry

I agree with what both colleagues have said and have nothing further to add. We need to explore the issue further and seek further information from the Government and other appropriate bodies.

Gail Ross

Like the convener, I was struck by the paragraph in the Genetic Alliance UK submission that compares what happens in Scotland with what happens in Iceland, the Netherlands and Norway, which screen for many more conditions. I back up my colleagues’ calls to write to the Scottish Government to find out why that is and what can be done about it.

As the convener said, a fine balance of offering something and ensuring that parents are fully informed is involved. As many people will understand, having a baby can be quite a frantic time. A person being given the choice of a scan when maybe they do not know whether they should have it could bring a lot of guilt if they do not have it and something comes out later.

It was good to see Genetic Alliance UK agreeing with the premise of the petition, but it has warned what it could mean. There could be a compromise in expanding the programme to look for more conditions without going to full-body scans, which might include too many risks.

We should look for more information and discuss the petition further.

The Convener

I think that there is a consensus that there is an interesting and challenging issue, and I think that we want to explore Gail Ross’s point about comparisons with other countries. We agree to write to the Scottish Government, the General Medical Council and relevant stakeholders that might have a view on the benefits and, indeed, the disbenefits and problems that might be caused by the proposal in the petition.

We thank the petitioner for bringing the issue to our attention. We will return to it once we have received responses from the organisations that we have written to.

Government Contracts (30-day Supply Chain Payments) (PE1824)

The Convener

The next new petition is PE1824, on 30-day supply chain payments for Government work, which was lodged by Bill Alexander. The petition calls on the Scottish Government to ensure that the 30-day supply chain payment policy is being complied with.

I welcome to the meeting Jackie Baillie MSP, who is in attendance for the discussion of the petition.

We have received submissions from the Scottish Government and the petitioner, which are summarised in the clerk’s note. The Scottish Government’s submission states:

“We strongly encourage the prompt payment of suppliers and expect those who deliver public contracts to adopt the highest standard of ethical business practices.”

It says that the

“Scottish Government aspires to a 10 day target for paying bills to businesses”,

but it notes that how other contracting authorities comply, including with

“prompt supply chain payment provisions in their contracts, is a matter for them.”

The petitioner has noted that

“It is one thing to ‘strongly encourage’ it is another thing to then do nothing about it”

and that

“Failure to comply with the new clause in the standard conditions of contract is a breach of contract.”

I ask Jackie Baillie to give her views on the petition. She will have a further opportunity to speak to it once we have had our own discussion.

Jackie Baillie (Dumbarton) (Lab)

I will try to be brief.

The petitioner is spot on. Legislation is always full of good intentions, but that matters little if we do not afford equal importance to ensuring that it is implemented properly. I have no doubt from the submissions that you have received that the Scottish Government does relatively well on paying its bills within 30 days, but that is not the point; the point is that the rest of the public sector, other contractors and the supply chain may not be quite so effective. The evidence that I would proffer for that is that, when I was a member of the Economy, Energy and Fair Work Committee many moons ago and we did an inquiry into the construction sector, we found that there were late payments as a matter of course, that companies deliberately withheld payments, and that others did not release cash retentions—that is common in the construction industry. The problem was therefore endemic.

The committee need only consider the evidence from the Federation of Small Businesses, which tells us clearly that the issue is a problem not only in the private sector but equally in the public sector. I am clear that the legislation on the issue, which is now 11 years old—I seem to recall, convener, that you and I were both in the chamber when it was passed—has not been properly implemented. The Scottish Government needs to monitor the situation and do so not on the basis of a one-off survey but on a regular basis. I hope that the committee will consider that.


The Convener

Thank you for reminding me of my longevity.

It strikes me that the gap between saying that something should happen and then not doing anything to check that it is happening is a problem. The Scottish Government perhaps has responsibility to ensure that the policy is complied with.

David Torrance

The petition is important, especially for small businesses, which have to pay their bills within the 30-day period, and for which credit is very short. It is interesting that the Scottish Government says that it encourages organisations to comply rather than that they have to do it. I would like us to write to the Scottish Government to ask when it will consider changing the legislation on the issue. We should also write to Audit Scotland, which must have to deal with the issue quite a lot, so it will be able to give us good information.

Maurice Corry

I agree with David Torrance. It is important that we find out where the Scottish Government is on the issue and ensure that it is following through on the matter. I have had experience of audit boards in a council, where the issue used to be raised fairly frequently. I agree that we should write to Audit Scotland to ask what can be done to help contractors and those that are in receipt of various payments from local authority bodies or contractors generally that are operating on behalf of the Government. I endorse David Torrance’s points that we should write to the Scottish Government and to Audit Scotland.

Gail Ross

I always worry when I see phrases such as “strongly encourage” when we have evidence that something is not happening. Maybe we should have the word “ensure” or even “enforce”. David Torrance is right that the issue is important, particularly for smaller contractors that are under a first and maybe even a second contractor, for cash-flow reasons and so that they can keep their business afloat. It is more than just good manners that invoices are paid on time; it is a matter of keeping people in jobs. Therefore, I absolutely endorse the suggested course of action of writing to the Scottish Government and Audit Scotland.

Tom Mason

The issue is important, particularly for smaller businesses. As with many issues, there are good intentions, and legislation is in place, but it is not pushed through to the final conclusion or actually made to happen. It is appropriate for us to write to the Scottish Government and Audit Scotland.

The Convener

Members have made important points. In the current times, the issue can be the difference between a business surviving and not surviving. We know that big organisations often lean down or press heavily on smaller ones, and that cannot be acceptable in times when people are hanging on by their fingertips.

I ask Jackie Baillie whether she has any final comments.

Jackie Baillie

I think that the committee has agreed an appropriate course of action. I emphasise that a one-off survey does not do the trick and that we need regular and robust monitoring to ensure that there is compliance.

The Convener

We can flag up that point in writing to the Scottish Government. We can ask how it makes the approach meaningful, given its purpose and aims.

We will write to the Scottish Government and to Audit Scotland. I again thank the petitioner. We will return to the issue at a future meeting once we have responses.

Maternity Facilities (PE1825)

The Convener

The final new petition for consideration today is PE1825, on dedicated facilities for women with unexpected pregnancy complications, which was lodged by Louise Caldwell. The petition calls on the Scottish Government to ensure that maternity departments have dedicated facilities for women who experience unexpected pregnancy complications.

We have received a submission from the Scottish Government that recognises that women who experience a miscarriage must be provided with the right information, care and support in a way that takes into account their individual circumstances.

The Scottish Government advises all health boards to have facilities available for women who experience unexpected pregnancy complications. Such facilities include early pregnancy units or areas for early loss and rooms or areas in a labour suite for those women. The Government further advises that, although some units are able to provide safe care within gynaecology services, there can be additional clinical reasons that mean that a labour suite is the best and safest place for individual women.

I found the petition, which was born out of direct experience, very moving—I had quite an emotional reaction to it. Just this week, the Parliament has debated support for women who experience miscarriage. We are very conscious that the petition was driven by the personal impact of the issue on the petitioner, and it raises important issues, which it would be good to explore further.

I seek comments from other members, starting with Maurice Corry.

Maurice Corry

I was fortunate to attend the members’ business debate on miscarriage, which included descriptions of dramatic situations and real-life stories from individual members. I have full sympathy with what, as the convener said, is a moving petition, in support of which the petitioner made a moving statement.

I think that we should write to relevant stakeholders, including the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists, the Stillbirth and Neonatal Death Society—which is known as Sands—Tommy’s and the Miscarriage Association, and any other appropriate bodies to seek their views on the action that is called for in the petition, because it is important that we understand the issue and get on top of it. I commend that approach to the committee.

Gail Ross

Like the convener, I was very moved by the petition and the petitioner’s personal account of what she had to go through—she had an absolutely awful experience. She was extremely brave to come to us and detail her experience in the way that she has done.

I agree with Maurice Corry that we need to obtain further information on the issue, even though the Scottish Government has said that all health boards have such facilities available. Obviously, in such situations, clinicians have the best intentions for the patient and, as the Scottish Government’s submission says, there are circumstances in which women who have miscarried might have to go into a labour suite.

Although all health boards might have appropriate facilities, some of those might be in hospitals that are miles away from where the people concerned stay. In NHS Highland, for example, Raigmore is the centre, but people in parts of my constituency are hundreds of miles away from that hospital. I would be interested to find out how such facilities are spread out within health boards. Are local services available? How local are the services that are provided?

We need a lot more information on the subject, so I back up Maurice Corry’s call for us to write to relevant stakeholders.

Tom Mason

Such situations must be absolutely devastating to mothers who have suffered miscarriages or experienced similar problems.

We certainly need to write to the various stakeholders to find out what information is available on the situation in this country, but I would also like to know whether we could gain any information on good practice in other countries. I am not sure who could provide us with such information, but it would be useful to have. We are always in danger of looking in on our ourselves, rather than looking outwards, and I think that we should explore whether we can learn from other countries.

The Convener

We may include that specific point in our questions if we write to the charities and organisations that are involved. They will have some awareness of the issue or can perhaps direct us if they do not.

David Torrance

I agree with colleagues about writing to all relevant stakeholders, but can we also write to all the national health service boards to find out what facilities they have in place? I have nothing else to add, convener.

The Convener

That is probably a useful suggestion. Let us leave that with the clerks to decide whether to write to boards or NHS Scotland to see whether we can get the information that way first, if that is acceptable to you, David.

We are trying to get a picture of whether there is an understanding of the problem and, in understanding the problem, what is then provided. It will be different in different parts of the country. Gail Ross made an important point, but we recognise that these things, by definition, cannot be planned for. There is an issue about how health boards respond to an emergency to ensure that women are supported as sympathetically as possible.

We have agreed to do quite a lot. We recognise the significance of the petition and the heartache behind it for many people. We thank the petitioner and we will return to the petition when we get submissions back.