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Chamber and committees

Meeting date: Thursday, November 22, 2018

Public Petitions Committee 22 November 2018

Agenda: New Petitions, Continued Petitions


Contents


Continued Petitions


Ocular Melanoma (MRI Scans) (PE1629)


The Convener

The first continued petition this morning is PE1629, by Jennifer Lewis, on MRI scans for ocular melanoma sufferers in Scotland. Members will recall that, in our earlier consideration of the petition, we invited the Scottish Government to respond to questions provided in a submission from Iain Galloway.

The clerk’s note sets out the Scottish Government’s response to those questions, along with subsequent submissions from Mr Galloway and the petitioner. In her submission, the petitioner refers to a specific case and to a meeting that the Cabinet Secretary for Health and Sport had with an individual in that case. Members will recall that we also agreed to invite the cabinet secretary to provide evidence at a future meeting.

Do members have any comments or suggestions for actions on the petition?

For what it is worth, I will start off by saying that you can feel the frustration and annoyance in the submissions. I was very concerned at the extent to which it was almost as if they were talking about two completely different things. The petitioner and Iain Galloway were rational and logical in talking about the importance of MRI scans but they are almost being batted back without the Government actually hearing their concerns. I hope that we can do more on this.

I think that underlying the petition is the fact that, because the condition is so rare, people are not hearing what the petitioners are saying about the condition, even though they seem to know more about it than anyone else does.


Brian Whittle

I echo that frustration. Sometimes we hear petitions that just seem so logical and we cannot work out why what they are asking for is not already happening. This is one of them.

I know that we have invited the Cabinet Secretary for Health and Sport to appear before the committee quite a few times, and that she is coming to see us in the near future, but I would like to bring the petition directly to her attention. From the evidence that we have received, there is certainly a logic to what the petitioner is asking, so I would like to ask the cabinet secretary whether she thinks differently.


The Convener

Two things jumped out at me. One was the fact that minutes of a meeting that happened a year and a half ago were asked for, but the minutes were not yet available. Even the weakest local branches in our own political parties would be able to deliver minutes in less than a year and a half.

The other thing, which is an important point, relates to the mesh implants petition. When the independent review was established with patient representatives, there were questions about who the patient representatives would be and how they would be identified. The petitioner and Iain Galloway are clearly at the front line and understand the issue that the petition is concerned with, but the Scottish Government does not seem to think that they might be the best people to be representatives on the group.

Those are two small points that perhaps indicate a broader lack of engagement with the issues that the petition highlights.


Rachael Hamilton

The timing is also important if we are considering meeting the cabinet secretary, so that she can bring evidence to the committee. The Scottish Government’s submission says that the Scottish guidelines group

“expect to have an initial draft complete in autumn 2018”,

so it is important to agree the timing for Jeane Freeman’s evidence to the committee.


The Convener

For the record, I note that we are asking the Cabinet Secretary for Health and Sport to provide evidence on a number of petitions: PE1533 on the abolition of non-residential social care charges for older and disabled people; PE1545 on residential care provision for the severely learning disabled; PE1619 on access to continuous glucose monitoring; and PE1690 on the review of the treatment of people with myalgic encephalomyelitis in Scotland.

The cabinet secretary has indicated that she is willing to meet the committee, so the question is simply about establishing times. Our preference is to have two separate sessions, so that we can give every petition a proper hearing and give the cabinet secretary the opportunity to respond.

Does the committee agree to invite the cabinet secretary to give evidence on the issues that are highlighted in PE1629, and that our preference is for evidence to be taken in two separate sessions, so that we can give each petition the time that is required?

Members indicated agreement.


Active Travel Infrastructure Strategy (PE1653)


The Convener

The next petition for consideration is PE1653, by Michaela Jackson, on behalf of Gorebridge Community Trust, on active travel infrastructure. During our previous consideration of the petition, we agreed to write to the Scottish Government to seek an update on when it intended to publish its active travel task force report and trunk road walking and cycling strategy. We also agreed to seek information about evidence that was provided to the Environment, Climate Change and Land Reform Committee by the acting chief executive of the Committee on Climate Change in relation to the environmental impact of cycling on air quality and climate change. That information is in the committee’s meeting papers. Do members have any comments or suggestions for action?


Brian Whittle

The petition interests me because of the work that the committee is doing on the A77 and the A75, specifically in relation to the Maybole bypass. I wrote to Transport Scotland to ask what consideration was being given to active travel in the development of that project. At the time, active travel had not been considered, but it is now being considered.

The petition is important, because it seems obvious to me that we should consider active travel in the development of trunk roads. The only thing that I can think of doing next is to get an update from the Government on when it will publish its strategy. It is certainly worth continuing to push the Government on the issue.


Rachael Hamilton

I agree with Brian Whittle. The active travel task force report says that the national transport strategy must consider active travel, including walking and cycling, and that it must be

“mainstreamed into Regional and Local Transport Strategies.”

How our local authorities mainstream active travel in their own priorities and strategies is integral. At the moment, there are active travel strategies in place, but they might not be as strong in every single local authority in Scotland as we think they are.

10:30  


The Convener

From memory, I think that evidence that we received on the petition suggested that even the most committed cyclist would think twice about going on to the particular road. Speaking for myself, I would not even go somewhere that was considered very safe, but confident cyclists are deterred from using that route, and that is against public policy. Therefore, it would be worth while to pursue your suggestion.


Angus MacDonald

It is worth putting on record that it was good to get clarification from the Scottish Government on the national transport strategy. We had asked for more detail on it and whether transport users and the general public would have an opportunity to feed into it, and it is good to see that there is a timeline for engaging with the public and stakeholders in spring 2019. It looks like we will be seeking further information on the matter, but is it within our remit to feed into the national transport strategy ourselves once we have concluded the work on the petition?


The Convener

We will look into that. We will seek an update, and we can then consider how best we can inform thinking on the matter, bearing in mind the responsibilities at the Scottish and local authority levels. Are we agreed?

Members indicated agreement.


Rachael Hamilton

Can the clerks also find out whether other committees are considering any active travel matters? Our work on the petition might feed into that work, but I am unaware of any other committees that are looking at active travel matters.


Angus MacDonald

The issue is always on the ECCLR Committee’s radar. Obviously, the funding for it has been increased, but I note from the papers that the petitioner has suggested that

“if the Public Petitions Committee is liaising with other committees, the most relevant committee on cycling is the committee which deals with transport policy.”

She does not mention the Rural Economy and Connectivity Committee by name, but that is the committee that she would be talking about. I do not serve on that committee—


The Convener

—but it could be arranged. [Laughter.]


Angus MacDonald

You never know.


The Convener

We will put in a bid for a transfer for you, if you want.

We recognise the broader issues that the petition has highlighted, and there is a series of actions that we can take and updates that we can seek.


Cat Population (Management) (PE1674)


The Convener

PE1674, by Ellie Stirling, is on managing the cat population in Scotland. We last considered the petition in May, when we agreed to write to Professor Anna Meredith, the partner organisations of the Scottish wildcat conservation action plan and the Scottish Government. The clerk’s note summarises the submissions that we have received.

Professor Meredith and the SWCAP steering group both refer to Professor Meredith’s previous report, which is included in our meeting papers as annex B to the petitioner’s submission of 22 November 2017. Those submissions appear to suggest that the findings of that report are still relevant and require to be addressed. We have also received a submission from the Royal Zoological Society of Scotland that supports the specific aspect of the petition that calls for the compulsory neutering, vaccination and microchipping of domestic cats.

The Scottish Government is open to any public awareness-raising efforts and education campaigns and refers to its on-going consultation on the licensing of dog, cat and rabbit breeding. That consultation, which is due to close next week, is expected to collect helpful information that might be relevant to the petition.

The petitioner has provided two written submissions in which she poses a number of questions and provides her perspective on the issues that are still to be addressed.

Do members have any comments or suggestions for action?


Rachael Hamilton

Given that we have, as you have pointed out, the consultation and the awareness-raising campaign and that, as the Scottish Government has indicated, a further paper from the Scottish wildcat action project is to be published shortly, I wonder whether we should wait for what comes out of the consultation and then take evidence from the cabinet secretary.


The Convener

I was quite struck by the strength of the responses on an issue that I had not really thought about. I found some of the evidence on the consequences of not doing something to tackle the issue and—from an animal welfare perspective—on the suffering of cats quite alarming. Although it was suggested that there were dangers with the procedure of neutering, I thought that the balance of evidence was quite strongly in favour of action needing to be taken on the cat population, even were it not to affect the wildcat population. Important animal welfare issues were raised.


Brian Whittle

It is not a topic that I had been aware of, but the petitioner has brought it into the light. I agree with the convener. The issue is obviously one on which we should be considering taking action.


The Convener

Quite serious people provided us with challenging evidence to the effect that not doing anything is not an option.

Does the committee agree to the proposal that we invite the Cabinet Secretary for Environment, Climate Change and Land Reform to give evidence? We can ask the clerks to think about when the best point would be to hold that session, bearing in mind the on-going consultations. Is that agreed?

Members indicated agreement.


The Convener

We put on record our thanks to the petitioner and to those people who took the time and trouble to provide us with thoughtful and substantial submissions.


Local Authority Executive Committees (PE1684)


The Convener

The next petition, PE1684, which was submitted by James Swan on behalf of Whitburn and district community council, is on the composition of local authority executive committees. It calls for the Local Governance (Scotland) Act 2004 to be amended to ensure that, where an authority has an executive body, that body reflects the political party membership of those who have been elected.

The clerk’s note summarises the submissions that we received from 11 local authorities and the Scottish Government following our previous consideration of the petition in May of this year. The submissions do not support the action that is called for in the petition for a variety of reasons, including the fact that the operation of a local authority is a matter for that local authority; the fact that such a body can have external members; and the fact that checks and balances are available through the current structure.

In his response, the petitioner considers that the single transferable vote system has caused difficulties that result in the electorate being the loser.

Do members have any comments or suggestions for action?


Angus MacDonald

The responses from the local authorities and the Minister for Local Government, Housing and Planning, who said that

“local authorities should be able to decide their decision-making processes for themselves”

rather than have those processes imposed on them from on high, are quite telling.

Although I can understand the Scottish Government’s reluctance to interfere in local authorities’ decision-making processes, I have seen how unfair the current system can be. I can give an example from my local authority area, where the situation was far from democratic for a while. However, those involved managed to sort things out among themselves eventually. That is proof that local authority decision making can resolve a specific issue with regard to representation in an administration. The issue is solvable.


The Convener

Every local authority is constrained by the law and by the standards process. I am not quite sure how that works, but there is a standards process for how local councillors conduct themselves. Nobody would suggest that, because a range of parties are represented in the Scottish Parliament, the Cabinet must represent them proportionately. I found that an interesting argument. I get the idea that representation on committees is done on a d’Hondt basis, but none of us would assume that membership of the Cabinet should be worked out on that basis.

If it is possible for political parties to construct alliances to create an executive, they are accountable to the electorate for that, and I am not sure that we should apply to local authorities a standard that is different from the one that we apply in Parliament. Of course, everything should be considered in the context of fairness, transparency and a willingness to work together, so that elected members are not excluded from scrutiny.

An issue that emerged from the evidence was the existence of checks and balances through the way in which scrutiny committees operate at the local level. There might be a question about how much support they are given to do that but, in my view, that seems to get the balance right.


Rachael Hamilton

The submission from Moray Council is quite interesting. As far as I am aware, local authorities have not supported the action, but they have made some quite interesting comments. For example, Moray Council says in its submission:

“it is hard to see how it would resolve our governance issues. Annual budget setting would still need to go to full Council.”

As the convener said, there are scrutiny committees and checks and balances. I think that what the local authorities are saying overall is that things are in place to ensure that there is a fair balance.


The Convener

One local authority said that the scrutiny committee can refer a cabinet decision back to the cabinet to reconsider it. If the issue is not resolvable, it is then referred to the full council, which means that everybody will have a say. I felt that that model perhaps works.

It is evident from the submissions that there are differences between local authorities in relation to the committees. Some have always been independent, some have been majority independent, and others may have been more famous battlegrounds for the political parties.

We are grateful to the local authorities for their measured responses. We recognise the points that the petitioner has made. My view is that those points are about accountability and transparency, and a citizen’s right to challenge their local authority to provide accountability and transparency and ensure that it responds to them. However, on the point about the need for external imposition in regard to how local authorities do their business, I do not think that the committee is minded to agree with the petition. I am wondering what options we have.


Rachael Hamilton

I am being led by the evidence that I am reading. As you say, it is an interesting petition, but we may decide that we cannot go any further with it, and we could perhaps consider closing it.


David Torrance

I support that approach.


The Convener

I think that we agree that we should close the petition under standing orders rule 15.7, on the basis that there is no support for the action that is called for in it. I think that, as a committee, we feel that the checks and balances are operating in the system in relation to how the executive of a local authority operates. We want to ensure, of course, that there is scrutiny of a local authority’s actions.

Do members agree to close the petition but also to thank the petitioner very much for raising questions with us and giving us the opportunity to explore further the questions that his petition identifies?

Members indicated agreement.


Free Instrumental Music Service (PE1694)


The Convener

The next petition for consideration is PE1694, by Ralph Riddiough, on free instrumental music services. When we considered the petition in September, we agreed to write to local authorities to ask them to respond to questions on three issues: the drop-out rate of children having instrumental music tuition in the past two years; the projected drop-out rate for this year if charges for instrumental music tuition continue to increase as they have done in recent years; and whether there is a particular reason that instrumental music tuition is not being regarded by education departments as a core subject.

Responses have been received from 24 local authorities, which is a substantial number, and we thank them for those responses, which are included in our meeting papers.

In his submission, the Deputy First Minister and Cabinet Secretary for Education and Skills sets out ways in which the Scottish Government is supporting music education, including the provision of £3 million to Sistema Scotland since 2012 and £109 million to the youth music initiative since 2007. The cabinet secretary states that he respects the autonomy of local authorities but says that he is

“concerned by decisions by a number of them to reduce access to instrumental music tuition.”

He states that he is

“committed to working collaboratively with other stakeholders to find solutions.”

He adds that he is due to appear before the Education and Skills Committee in early December in relation to its inquiry into musical tuition in schools.

The petitioner acknowledges the submissions from local authorities but considers that they demonstrate a “marked difference” in the approach across Scotland to the provision of musical instrument tuition. He also refers to the Education and Skills Committee’s inquiry, adding that he has provided a written submission to that inquiry. He states that he would like the petition to be referred to the Education and Skills Committee for consideration as part of its inquiry.

Do members have any comments or suggestions for action?

10:45  


Brian Whittle

The petition has generated an awful lot of interest. It probably speaks to a wider and more general issue about access to opportunity outside what we class as the core subjects in school. It is about the driving of inequality. The drop-out rate has been marked over the past couple of years. There is certainly an issue about access to opportunity, and the situation flies in the face of everything that the Parliament has discussed in relation to closing the attainment gap and reducing inequality.

However, given that the Education and Skills Committee is doing a big inquiry on the issue, the best thing that we can do, rather than duplicate work, is to send the petition to it for its consideration.


The Convener

I am struck by the scale of the response, by some of the figures that have come back and by the range of what local authorities do. As the deputy convener of the Education and Skills Committee, I can reassure members that its inquiry has been substantial. We have had informal sessions with young people and with people who deliver instrumental tuition. Last week, we had a session with young trainee music teachers who are at the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland. We have met parents and all sorts of groups. We have also had three formal evidence sessions and we will meet the Deputy First Minister in the near future. It is a substantial inquiry.

The inquiry has thrown up a lot of questions, but the answers are slightly more challenging. What comes across strongly is that nobody wants young people not to get music tuition. There is a question about why music tuition is seen as slightly outside the core business of schools for some local authorities. A lot of the issue is to do with budget constraints and balancing one thing against another. I do not know what the conclusions will be, but it strikes me that there is a strong understanding and appreciation of the power of music in young people’s lives, and we have had testimony from young people on that.


Brian Whittle

During the inquiry, is the committee considering the impact of what seems to me to be almost extracurricular provision on attainment in the core subjects? Has the committee considered whether there is a correlation between those?


The Convener

That has certainly been asserted, and I find that point compelling. There is that whole thing about self-esteem, capacity building, team building and learning to work with other young people. There are parallels with sport—


Brian Whittle

Yes, and with art and drama.


The Convener

Yes. All those things shape young people’s capacity to learn in other ways.

One interesting point on which we have had evidence is about the way in which concessions and access to free tuition vary widely across the country. There are very different criteria. Members will remember from the evidence that we got that there are a group of people who are not really entitled to anything but who are very squeezed by charges going up. Some of the evidence that we have had raises the issue of whether there is displacement because, when people simply cannot afford it, that opens up places for those who might not have been selected because they were not the best performers but who can afford to take up the places. There are all sorts of inequities.

Yesterday, the Education and Skills Committee heard evidence from Perth and Kinross Council, West Lothian Council and Glasgow City Council. Although their approaches are all very different, they all cite budget constraints and challenges and are having to make choices. Should they ration by aptitude or by charging? It is not a question of anybody being able to do any instrument that they want at any time. There is a range of issues. I was certainly struck by the evidence from the councillor from West Lothian, who said that the council will need to review the decisions that it has made on charging because of the marked drop-off rate. He expressed a lot of concern about that.


Rachael Hamilton

I was also struck by the variation. The high level of engagement on the issue has been amazing. There are big differences in the provision of instrumental tuition across local authorities. We all agree that the provision is wide and varied and that it is based on budgetary constraints or decisions.

The Education and Skills Committee will be looking at the issue for quite a long time. I heard from Liz Smith that it is getting comparisons with other countries such as Finland and how they look at instrumental tuition. That inquiry will be quite thorough. I have a huge interest in the petition and would be sad to pass it on to the Education and Skills Committee, but I note the petitioner’s comment that he would be happy for us to do so.


The Convener

As an aside, any member of Parliament can attend any committee meeting that they wish to attend. If we make sure that you are notified about the Education and Skills Committee’s session with the Deputy First Minister and you are able to attend, you might hear something of interest.

It is true that this committee has also taken the issue seriously, and I note from the papers that a whole range of people, including the Musicians Union and others, are talking about the consequences for them, which I found interesting. One of the things that comes out is the reduction in the number of ensemble orchestras and the lack of capacity to put together an orchestra, because people are no longer learning the more unusual instruments. There is a massive cultural issue for us.

Do members agree to refer the petition to the Education and Skills Committee for consideration as part of its on-going inquiry into music tuition in schools?

Members indicated agreement.


The Convener

That is agreed, so we will pass on committee members’ comments about the evidence that we have accrued. As I said, members can attend the Education and Skills Committee if they choose to do so. I thank the petitioner for bringing the petition to the committee’s attention.


Medical Care (Rural Areas) (PE1698)


The Convener

The final petition for consideration today is PE1698, by Karen Murphy, Jane Rentoul, David Wilkie, Louisa Rogers and Jennifer Jane Lee, on medical care in rural areas.

During our previous consideration of the petition in September, we agreed to write to the Scottish Government and the Rural GP Association of Scotland to seek their views on the specific action that is called for in the petition. Responses have been received and are included in our meeting papers.

Members will note that we have also received written submissions from one of the petitioners, as well as from other interested parties, including two rural doctors. The submissions all raise concerns about how the new general practitioner contract will work in practice for rural communities, as well as concern about how the workload allocation formula was calculated and the transparency of the remote and rural general practice working group. Do members have any comments or suggestions for action?

Again, I was struck by the strength of feeling around the petition—it is not the first petition today on which that has been the case—and the level of frustration and concern that has been expressed. One thing that struck me was the suggestion that the allocation formula is unfair to not just remote and rural communities but deep-end GP practices in some of the poorest parts of our cities. It has been raised with me previously that some of our poorest communities are not well served by the funding allocation because, if you use age as a criterion, our poorest communities, where people suffer from co-morbidity and die early, do not get the funding that they need. I know that the deep-end initiative is supposed to help with that a bit, but the petitioners say quite explicitly that it does not. That feels counterintuitive, but it is a challenging situation.


Brian Whittle

The issue has been exercised in the wider Parliament and the debating chamber. If I am right, stage 2 of the Health and Care (Staffing) (Scotland) Bill will take place next year.

There is undoubtedly a strong view that there is a disparity between how the GP contract delivers for rural areas as opposed to urban areas. As the convener said, deprived areas are also affected. There is certainly something to investigate and to report back on to inform the Government. It seems as though the issue is exercised in Parliament almost every week.


Angus MacDonald

I agree. It is not as if there had been no warnings in advance of the GP contract that issues would arise, but it is clear that we must look into the matter in a bit more detail. There is certainly no doubt that there is a lot of concern in rural areas.


The Convener

There are some process issues to take into account; for example, I think that the chair of the group resigned out of frustration, civil servants suggested that the group should not comment on its work and there is a general sense that things were being driven through without people being particularly clear about the consequences. I think that I also read somewhere that the figures were slightly misrepresented, that the numbers who voted were not high and that, of those who voted, the result was not conclusive. Whatever the solution might be, there will always be challenges with regard to allocation, but if you manage not to fund rural and fragile communities—which, as the evidence tells us, rely more on GP practices, because they have no access to other services—as well as some of our poorest practices, something is not right.


Brian Whittle

The question is: who do we ask about this? The suggestion that we ask the Scottish Government how the workload allocation was calculated is an interesting one that I would support.


The Convener

So we should write to the Scottish Government to flag up the key issues that have arisen in evidence, such as the workload allocation formula; the transparency of the working group, on which we want some reassurance; and the lack of understanding that appears to have been shown in the design of the GP contract of the fact that remote and rural communities rely on GP practices in a different way, in that much of the delivery of health services in such areas needs to come through GP practices in a way that does not happen even in small towns and other non-urban bits of Scotland.


Rachael Hamilton

Because it was highlighted in the evidence, it is important that we reiterate how the issue will affect the recruitment and retention of GPs. Moreover, the point that applies to the transparency issue also applies to the scrutiny of the process. I note that, in its submission, the Government says that it intends to carry out

“a programme of visits to rural areas ... engaging with patient groups”,

and that the chair of the remote and rural working group will

“attend the next meeting of the Rural Parliament”.

It might be interesting to find out whether the Scottish rural parliament is also looking at the issue as part of its responsibilities to rural areas.


The Convener

Those are all reasonable suggestions, but my sense from the submission is that it is possible to get quite bogged down in the technicalities, because that is what the Scottish Government keeps pushing back on. However, the question for me is whether we are risking these services, which brings me back to Rachael Hamilton’s point about recruitment and retention. What is the rationale for having a formula that seems, irrationally, to draw resource from rural and vulnerable poor communities? The Government says that no one loses money, but the fact is that such practices do not get increases in the way that other parts of the system do.


Rachael Hamilton

It might well be that, in future, rural practices will not offer certain services, such as flu jabs. We just do not know what might happen as a result of the change in funding.


Brian Whittle

The danger is that, if we do not get this right, we will not be able to retain GPs, and if we cannot retain them, we will have to recruit them. That means having to consider the pay structure that we require to recruit people into more difficult rural areas, which will just skew the whole system.


The Convener

I do not think that anyone is suggesting—I am certainly not suggesting—that there is a straightforward solution to the problem. There will always be tensions with allocations, because everyone is fighting for their own patch, and there will always be pain when we reallocate funding from one area of spend to another. However, it looks as though this particular process has been poorly done, and it is worth pursuing certain questions about transparency, as well as the question of the rationale behind and logic of what is being done in order to get people to sign up to the contract. The alarm that has been expressed in the evidence that we have received should, in itself, give us pause and lead us to think about at least exploring the matter.

Do we agree to write to the Scottish Government in the terms that have been suggested?

Members indicated agreement.


The Convener

I thank everyone for their attendance.

Meeting closed at 11:00.