Citizen Participation and Public Petitions Committee
Meeting date: Wednesday, January 18, 2023
Official Report 586KB pdf
Agenda: Continued Petitions, New Petitions, Decision on Taking Business in Private
A832 (Adoption as Trunk Road) (PE1980)
Item 2 is consideration of new petitions. As always, I say to anyone who is following our proceedings and has lodged a petition that we are considering that a considerable amount of work is done in advance of the consideration of petitions. The Scottish Government’s views are sought on every petition in order to help to inform members as we consider petitions for the first time, together with other briefings that we have received.
We will consider together two new petitions that focus on upgrades to the road network in Highland Scotland. PE1974, which was lodged by Derek Noble, calls on the Scottish Parliament to urge the Scottish Government to adopt the A890 as a trunk road and to resolve the safety problems that are associated with the Stromeferry bypass. PE1980, which was also lodged by Derek Noble, calls on the Scottish Parliament to urge the Scottish Government to adopt the A832 between Achnasheen and Gorstan as a trunk road, connecting the route into the existing trunk road network.
I note again that we are joined by Rhoda Grant this morning. I will set out a little of the background before I invite her to speak to the issues that have been raised. On PE1974, Derek Noble tells us that the A890 is mainly single carriageway but that it frequently reduces to a single track with passing places along the stretch between Attadale and Ardnarff. He highlights a history of rock falls, which have occurred since the road was opened and which continue to pose a risk to the road and its users.
Derek informs us that Highland Council has undertaken feasibility studies into two alternatives to the Stromeferry bypass, with the cost of pursuing those alternatives being estimated at between £23 million and £60 million. He believes that that level of funding should come from central Government, and it is for that reason that he calls for the road to be adopted as a trunk road.
In relation to PE1980, Derek tells us that the A832 links the previously mentioned A890 to the A835, helping to complete the west-to-east road network. He highlights that, if the Scottish Government was to adopt the A890 as a trunk road, the A832 should also be adopted, because that would provide a trunk road connection between existing trunk roads the A87 and the A835. There is now a complicated map in our heads. Derek believes that that provision could transform connectivity between Scotland’s east and west coasts and bring social and economic benefits at local and national levels.
In responding to both petitions, Transport Scotland indicates that
“the Scottish Government has no plans to trunk the A890”
or the A832. Its response also states that there are currently
“no plans to undertake a formal review of the trunk road network”
but that ministers
“keep the trunk road network under continual review with the issue last considered following publication of the Strategic Transport Projects Review”.
That was all quite complicated and technical. Before I ask members whether they would like to say anything, I invite Rhoda Grant to speak to both petitions.
I am grateful to be able to speak to the petitions. I have been involved with the campaign to improve the Stromeferry bypass for many years—probably for much of the time since I was elected—and I am really pleased that Mr Noble has brought the petitions to the Parliament.
As you said, convener, parts of those roads, which link the current trunk roads on the route to Skye, are single track. However, the big issue is the Stromeferry bypass, which is subject to landslides. At that part of the road, the road and the rail line run side by side, so the landslides impact on both, and there is a risk to life. Children use that road daily to get to Plockton high school, which is also the National Centre of Excellence in Traditional Music, and ferry traffic for Uist and Harris uses the route that goes up to Uig on Skye.10:15
When there is a landslide, the road can be closed for months, and it impacts badly on the community and commuters. I am concerned that the road is not recognised as a trunk road because it links the Highland Council mainland to the Western Isles via Skye.
The road is also essential for secondary education and medical cover. The local hospital that serves the whole area is in Broadford in Skye, but it can become cut off from the community, creating stress and disruption to care. You can imagine what it must be like for families who cannot get to a loved one who is in hospital. Closing the road also cuts children off from their high school, which is unacceptable. The only alternative route involves a 130-mile diversion, which is impossible to take on a daily basis.
The cost of improving the road is beyond the financial reach of Highland Council, which already has the greatest mileage of road to cover. Going by the mail from constituents, it would seem that most of it is falling into disrepair. It is pretty grim in places, and finding that amount of money for repairs is impossible.
I am disappointed by Transport Scotland’s response. It says that one of the ways in which it gauges whether a route should become a trunk road is that it must
“Provide the users with a coherent and continuous system of routes, which serve destinations of importance to industry, commerce, agriculture and tourism”.
The route is part of the north coast 500, which is an internationally recognised tourist route. Indeed, there has been a lot of concern about how busy that route is. It is the main route between the Highlands and the southern Hebrides and Western Isles. It is the main route to the National Centre of Excellence in Traditional Music and it is critical to industry, farming, crofting and aquaculture, and also to the renewables and decommissioning industry because of the yard at Kishorn, which I hope is set to grow and provide a much-needed economic boost in that area.
I therefore believe that the route fulfils Transport Scotland’s criterion. I ask the committee to raise that directly with the Scottish Government to persuade ministers of the merits of the route becoming a trunk road. It would serve well an area of Scotland that has largely been ignored in the past. We really need to create jobs and repopulate the area, which is under a lot of pressure from tourism and holiday homes. We need get people back to the area to make sure that it grows.
The petitions raise important issues. Colleagues, do you have any suggestions or comments?
We should write to Highland Council to seek its views on the issues that are raised in the petitions and to ask for further information on its plans to develop alternative routes to the Stromeferry bypass.
Rhoda Grant has pursued the issue doggedly for a number of years, and rightly so. In doing that, she has raised a conundrum. If my memory serves me correctly, Highland Council has a geographical area of more than 25,000 square miles, which is nearly a third of the landmass of Scotland. Its area is 20 per cent bigger than Wales and is bigger than Belgium, and its budget has to cater for the area’s huge network of roads.
Convener, you alluded to the figures and the petitioner’s point that the cost of the repairs that are required is in the tens of millions. When writing to Highland Council, therefore, could we specifically ask whether, given that it has such a disproportionate responsibility for roads maintenance in Scotland as it covers a third of the land mass, its budgetary allocation is fair? As a Highland MSP, albeit one who represents a constituency, I absolutely share the sense of grievance that the petitioner has, which underlies the petition, so I want to add that to our particular request.
I would also be interested to formally ask for the views of local communities via their community councils. I think that that includes Lochcarron as well as Stromeferry and Achmore, Plockton and Applecross. I do not know whether there is anything else that Rhoda Grant thinks we might usefully do, but if there is, I would be most interested in giving that sympathetic consideration as well.
I very much concur with Mr Ewing’s comments. It is vital that we engage with local communities, and Rhoda Grant made an articulate case. In her representations, she talked about us contacting the minister. That may well be another route that we should consider in order to find out exactly what is happening. It appears that the roads meet the criteria that should be considered, so let us get some more clarity on the process from the minister.
It is important that we deal with Highland Council but, as Mr Ewing said, its resource is limited in relation to the expanse that it has to manage across its large geographical area. I therefore think that we should take forward Rhoda Grant’s suggestion about contacting the minister.
Colleagues, are we agreed? We also want to contact Highland Council in relation to PE1980, as well as contacting IAM Roadsmart, the Road Haulage Association and VisitScotland to seek their views on the Achnasheen and Gorstan petition. Along with acting on the suggestions that have been made, are we collectively content to keep the petitions open and begin our investigation by pursuing our inquiries with those bodies?
Members indicated agreement.
Strategic Lawsuits against Public Participation (PE1975)
The second of our new petitions, PE1975, calls on the Scottish Parliament to urge the Scottish Government to review and amend the law to prevent the use of strategic lawsuits against public participation—SLAPPs. The petition has been lodged by Roger Mullin, who joins us in the public gallery and is a former member of an alternative elective legislative body that sits elsewhere in the United Kingdom. I welcome him to the gallery.
The SPICe briefing explains that SLAPPs is a term to describe court action taken by rich and powerful interests with the intention of silencing critical views. Court action can include defamation and data protection claims. The briefing highlights the Justice Committee’s stage 1 scrutiny of what is now the Defamation and Malicious Publication (Scotland) Act 2021. That committee noted a proposal to create an unjustified threats court action and recommended that the Scottish Government consider the issue further. Currently, both the UK Government and the European Commission are working to strengthen legislation in order to tackle SLAPPs.
The Scottish Government’s response to the petition states that it does not intend to undertake a review of SLAPPs, adding that the 2021 act “goes some way towards” addressing concerns.
The petitioner, Roger Mullin, has provided a written response, stating that there has been a lack of recognition of the scale of the problem. He raises concerns about the potential for “defamation tourism” if Scotland does not keep legislative pace with England, Wales and the EU.
We have also received written submissions from our colleague Michelle Thomson MSP, the anti-SLAPP research hub at the University of Aberdeen, and Ekklesia, all of which support the petition. The written submissions echo Roger Mullin’s concerns and raise some additional issues, such as the importance of investigative journalism and the impact of frivolous litigation on the court system. Ekklesia’s submission highlights the model anti-SLAPP law drafted by the UK anti-SLAPP coalition and its key features, and it urges the Scottish Government to enact similar measures.
It is an interesting petition and there is an interesting variation in how the matters are being pursued. Do members have any comments or suggestions for action?
I welcome Roger Mullin, who is one of my constituents.
I wonder whether the committee could write to key stakeholders, including the Law Society of Scotland, the National Union of Journalists and the Scottish Newspaper Society, seeking their views on the action that is called for in the petition.
Does anyone have any further thoughts?
I am aware of Michelle Thomson’s interest in the petition. In fact, she would have liked to have been here, but she is across the corridor in another committee meeting.
It seems a little inconsistent that the Scottish Government is not planning to do more than it has said, in the light of the fact that the UK Government is doing more, as is the European Union. I would like a more specific response from the Scottish Government on how it feels that the defamation law that was passed fairly recently covers the issue. The petitioner is plainly of the view that the Scottish Government does not recognise the scale of the problem.
The scenario that we are concerned about is that the UK passes legislation, leaving Scotland as the jurisdiction of choice of very rich people who, basically, wish to attack the freedom of the press using the courts as a shield. I do not think that we want that to happen in Scotland. Therefore, I find the lack of any obvious enthusiasm from the Scottish Government disappointing. However, if it argues that the law that was passed last year is a sufficient shield, we need a lot more information and a lot more of a specific response than we have had at the moment.
If we do not get that specific information, as I think might happen—I struggle to be an optimist in life, convener, and I hope that I am wrong—there is a case to have a hearing at which the petitioner and the University of Aberdeen academics who have submitted a written response, particularly Professor Borg-Barthet, who has been a key adviser to the European Union, along with the Law Society of Scotland and a Government minister might give evidence. If we are not satisfied by the initial responses, it might be helpful to indicate in the letters to everybody that we are contemplating holding an inquiry and therefore we hope that, again, the pencil will have a high lead content when we get the response.
Well, if your glass is usually half empty and mine is usually half full, therein is a full glass that we can hope to achieve.
I am working on it.
I might be less surprised—he said, trying not to be party political—that the Scottish Government is not rushing to follow the UK Government. However, the fact that the European Union is pursuing a similar legislative solution leaves us as a bit of an outlier and potentially open as the source of comfort to those whom we least want to potentially assist.
Moreover, I take Mr Ewing’s point that it is one thing for the Scottish Government to assert that the 2021 legislation will have dealt with matters here. We would like to understand how that is to be achieved, rather than it just being asserted that it is the case. I agree with Mr Ewing that this is an important issue and that the committee could pursue it further in the light of the evidence that we receive. It would be useful for the people whom we contact to know that we are minded so to do if we feel that the answers that we receive are in the first instance less than persuasive.
Mr Sweeney, you look like you are seeking to intervene.
I am sympathetic to the petition and the public interest in it, and I agree with the recommendations and proposed actions thus far. It might also be prudent to inform the Delegated Powers and Law Reform Committee of the petition, because that committee has a locus in this area of work. We should also perhaps invite the Scottish Law Commission to give its view and ask it whether it has done any projects in this area. Changes in this area would usually come through in a Law Commission bill.
As the petitioner is present, I point out that it might be worth exploring the member’s bill route and engaging a sponsoring member of Parliament to pursue the issue. That would also involve engaging the non-Government bills unit, and it might be an opportunity to drive the agenda further. Certainly, the petition could help in that regard. That is just another avenue by which Parliament can give effect to such changes.
I am happy to pursue those things. I hesitate in relation to the member’s bill point, simply because, as a member of the Scottish Parliamentary Corporate Body, I know that we already have a record number of members’ bills before us in this session of Parliament, and I struggle to see how we are going to get round to considering them all before 2026. However, we would certainly want to pursue Mr Sweeney’s other suggestions in the first instance.
Although I note the point about parliamentary time, the ideal solution would be to do the groundwork through the member’s bill route. The Government might adopt the legislation and take time to progress it if we cajole it a bit.
As Mr Ewing’s glass is half empty and mine is half full, maybe that will mean a successful outcome. I think that we agree that we want to pursue the issues raised in the petition, and we have detailed the ways in which we will do so. The petitioner will have heard all that.
People with Dementia (Council Tax Discounts) (PE1976)
PE1976, which was lodged by Derek Brown, calls on the Scottish Parliament to urge the Scottish Government to require council tax discounts to be backdated to the date on which a person was certified as being severely mentally impaired, if they then go on to qualify for a relevant benefit.
Derek Brown submitted a freedom of information request and found that 22 of the 32 Scottish local authorities backdate council tax discounts to the date when a person received their first qualifying state benefit payment rather than the date from which they were certified as being severely mentally impaired. The SPICe briefing highlights the requirement for someone applying for attendance allowance to have needed support for at least six months before being eligible for the benefit, potentially creating a gap of six months between diagnosis and receipt of a qualifying benefit. The briefing also notes challenges in navigating benefit application processes and accessing post-diagnostic support.
The Scottish Government states that local authorities have the ability to backdate applications to the later date of either the medical certification or the date of application to a qualifying benefit. Because of that, the Scottish Government has no plans to amend the law in relation to council tax discounts.
Derek Brown’s submission details his personal experience and that of his wife, Margaret, who suffers from Alzheimer’s disease, in England. He explains that they only became aware of his wife’s entitlement to attendance allowance months after her diagnosis and then her entitlement to a council tax discount the following year. The council applied the council tax discount from the date on which Margaret received attendance allowance, ten months later.
Do members have any comments or suggestions for action? It is an interesting petition.
Yes, it is, convener, particularly because of those discrepancies across local authorities. The committee could write to the relevant stakeholders, including Citizens Advice Scotland, Dementia Scotland and Alzheimer Scotland to seek their views on the actions that the petition calls for; the impact of the legislative requirement in relation to eligibility for a qualifying state benefit; the variation in the approaches taken to assessment by local authorities across Scotland; and the level and variation across Scotland of referrals for post-diagnostic support for people who have been newly diagnosed with dementia.
I am also interested to know whether the Scottish Government is aware of the variation that is being applied to assessments by different local authorities. It would be useful for us to draw the situation to the Government’s attention along with the consequential issues that arise for individuals as a result.
The petitioner has raised a point of principle. If it is right that those benefits, whatever they are, should be paid from the date when the individual is certified as having dementia, surely that should apply to all benefits. It is a general principle. We could not and should not tolerate a system whereby some authorities, whether they be local authorities, quangos or whatever, decide to give help to those individuals and others do not. It is a postcode lottery—that would be the rather pejorative way of putting it. However, a lot of people around Scotland who should be getting the benefit of a 25 per cent reduction in council tax are not getting it. That is prima facie unfair.
All I am saying, convener, is that, in addition to the actions that have been suggested and if members agree, the point might be made that, as a general principle, there must be a universal application of the system. Whatever that system is, it should be universal and some people should not be left out.
We are really indebted to the petitioner for highlighting the issue. I was not aware of it and the petitioner has done us a good service for bringing it to the Parliament.
I agree with that.
I very much concur with that. The petition has identified that there is a risk of financial loss to individuals. Mr Ewing has articulated that it should not be the case that individuals who have been diagnosed and have certification are not given the proper benefits to which they are entitled. That financial loss should be unacceptable at any level.
People should neither be denied the benefits to which they are entitled, nor should their entitlement to receive them be from a variable date depending on where they happen to live. I have a great deal of sympathy with the argument that the petitioner articulates.
Are we agreed on how to progress the petition?
Members indicated agreement.
The petition is important, and we will take forward the issues that it raises.
Biological Fathers (Right to be Informed of Welfare Concerns) (PE1977)
PE1977, which was lodged by Helen Duncan, calls on the Scottish Parliament to urge the Scottish Government to amend the law and update the national guidance for child protection to require social services to inform biological fathers of concerns about their children.
Helen Duncan tells us in her submission that social services are not required to inform a child’s biological father when concerns have been raised about the welfare of their child. She highlights her family’s experience of finding out about child welfare concerns months after social work had become involved in the case. In researching the issue more broadly, Helen has become aware of situations in which fathers have not been informed of child welfare concerns and they have had to fight to have their child released from foster care.
Responding to the petition, the Minister for Children and Young People refers to the “National Child Protection Guidance in Scotland 2021” and its emphasis on listening to children and the participation of and support for families. She also refers to multi-agency partnership being one of the core elements of child protection processes, and indicates that, when child protection measures are required, social work should include fathers when appropriate and when they have active involvement in the child’s life.
Recognising that each set of circumstances is different and would require professional assessment before information is shared, the minister notes that introducing an automatic notification for biological fathers could place significant risks on children and adults—for example, in cases of domestic abuse, or where the child has requested that their father is not made aware.
The petition is interesting, and raises conflicting emotions and potential consequences. Do members have any comments or suggestions as to how we should proceed?
As you identify, this is an interesting petition. We should seek more information from stakeholders on where they are on the issue. It would be useful to write to CELCIS, Shared Parenting Scotland, The Promise Scotland, the Scottish Children’s Reporter Administration and the Scottish Child Law Centre to seek their views on the issues that are raised. As the convener rightly identifies, the current situation seems to require a complex on-going process.
As there any no other suggestions, are colleagues content to proceed on that basis?
Members indicated agreement.
We will keep the petition open and progress it as suggested.
Sale of Raw Milk (PE1978)
Our final new petition, PE1978, which was lodged by Cristina Rosique-Esplugas—I apologise if that was not the correct pronunciation—calls on the Scottish Parliament to urge the Scottish Government to allow raw drinking milk to be sold in Scotland, which would bring it in line with England, Wales and Northern Ireland, and allow farmers the opportunity to sell unpasteurised drinking milk.
Cristina Rosique-Esplugas highlights in her submission that the sale of raw drinking milk is permitted in the rest of the UK, as well as in most European countries. She believes that it is time for raw milk to stop being considered a public health hazard, and notes that measures can be put in place to control food safety, as is the case with many other food products.
Responding on behalf of the Scottish Government, Food Standards Scotland states that raw drinking milk has historically been recognised as high risk to public health due to its association with a number of food poisoning outbreaks in Scotland. It notes that mandatory pasteurisation of cows’ drinking milk was introduced in 1983 and was extended to drinking milk from all farmed animals in 2006. It suggests that, since then, illnesses linked to the consumption of raw milk in Scotland have virtually disappeared.
Food Standards Scotland also highlights the report of the UK Advisory Committee on the Microbiological Safety of Food in 2018, which concluded that there had been an increase in the microbiological risk associated with the consumption of raw drinking milk in the UK. As a result, there are no plans to lift the ban on direct sales of raw drinking milk in Scotland.
Do members have any comments or suggestions as to how we might proceed? There seems to be very clear guidance from the Scottish Government in this instance.
On the basis of the guidance from Food Standards Scotland, historic evidence and the weight of opinion from the scientific community, can we close the petition under rule 15.7 of the standing orders? I do not think that Food Standards Scotland or the Scottish Government will shift on this issue.
How do colleagues feel about that? Obviously, we could explore the matter further with Food Standards Scotland, but the direction in relation to Scotland seems to be pretty clear, so I am not sure that that would lead to a productive route forward.
I can understand the point about whether we will be able to get anywhere with the petition. However, I am curious as to why there is a difference between the jurisdictions and why it is not seen as such an issue in other parts of the UK as it is here. Also, does the farming industry have a view on whether a change in policy would improve its commercial opportunities?
Clearly, the 1983 ban would have been introduced pre-devolution. The ban in 2006 was post-devolution, so I do not know whether we were following any national advice at the time. The issue is whether, by extending our investigation into all that, we become better informed of the circumstances but no further forward with regard to taking the petition anywhere, because the direction from the Scottish Government and Food Standards Scotland is clear. I just wonder what the mood of colleagues is. Mr Torrance has proposed that we close the petition on that basis, but how are other colleagues minded?
I am content to close the petition, because we know what the answer will be and extending our investigation would only prolong the situation. Where we are with the matter is clear cut.
Are we minded to close the petition but nonetheless think that it is worth while to ask the question, so that we have the answer to hand? What do you think, Mr Ewing? I think that Mr Sweeney is erring on the side of exploring things a bit further before we close the petition.
I suppose that our primary function is to give voice to petitioners. I agree with Mr Torrance that there is zero chance that Food Standards Scotland will move on that, for the very good reason that, as I understand it, raw milk can carry salmonella, E coli, listeria and campylobacter—I think that I have pronounced that correctly—and can cause food poisoning. We have seen very serious illnesses and death with other foodstuffs as a result of food poisoning. Therefore, it is a very serious matter, indeed, and I agree that it is most unlikely that that view will change, irrespective of what further information we get.
On the other hand, we have a duty to the petitioner. The petition is new—it has just been lodged—so, as Mr Sweeney said, it would be interesting to know why the sale of raw drinking milk has been made legal in England and what the experience has been there. I do not know that we are in a position to conduct a detailed inquiry, but, in the interest of fairness to the petitioner, that question should be asked, because it is not clear to me why it has been legalised in England, given that the health experts in Scotland say that the risks are so serious that the ban must remain in place.
As a relative newbie to the committee, perhaps I am being a bit softer than Mr Torrance, but we owe some kind of duty to the petitioner. We could write to Food Standards Scotland, and perhaps to the Food Standards Agency in England as well, to ask why, in England, the sale of raw drinking milk is legal. It would be interesting and illuminating to know why they have legalised that in England and whether, having done so, they have had any cases of food poisoning, for example.
It is clearly reassuring to those of us on the committee that the Scottish National Party is such a broad church in terms of the views and personalities that it incorporates. The committee is largely agreed on what we think the final outcome might be, but I take the point that we have reached a conclusion without actually understanding why there is a variation. In the first instance, it might be useful for us to have some further understanding of why that variation occurs. Are you content with our pursuing it on that basis, Mr Torrance?
I am quite happy to withdraw my recommendations and to write to—
It is not so much that you are withdrawing your recommendations as it is that we are deferring them subject to that further advice being received.
Yes—until we get that information back.
That makes perfect sense.
Is there a successor to the Milk Marketing Board? Does that exist any more, or was that function disbanded long ago? I remember that there was a national authority that dealt with milk production.
You are looking at me as if I ought to be an authority on these matters. Although Mr Ewing and I might be at the older end of the lifespans that are represented on the committee, I must say that I am not an expert on that subject. No doubt others might be able to tell us more.
Dairy UK is the national trade association, so it might be worth asking it the question, too. I was just looking online to see whether I could find out more while we were talking.
I suppose that we might also usefully ask the industry for information. I am not quite sure whether the petition is arising out of an industry concern or whether it sits outside of an industry concern—for all I know, the concern might not exist in the industry in Scotland at all.
We could ask NFU Scotland as well, but I suspect that its members will be concerned about the reputation of dairy farmers, because it is a highly specialised area—
That is my thought, too. We could write to the NFUS.
The dairy farmers do a brilliant job. Anyone who watched “This Farming Life” on television yesterday evening will have seen dairy farmers in the south of Scotland who provide a great service for the country, and I assume that they would be concerned about the reputational risk arising from any food poisoning incident involving milk.
Do members agree to take the action as discussed?
Members indicated agreement.
From our liberal consumption of the milk of human life, we come to the end of our consideration of new petitions.