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Chamber and committees

Public Petitions Committee

Meeting date: Thursday, March 30, 2017

Agenda: Decision on Taking Business in Private, New Petitions, Continued Petitions


Contents


New Petitions


Enterprise Agencies (Boards) (PE1639)

The Convener

Under agenda item 2, our first new petition is PE1639, by Maureen Macmillan, on enterprise agency boards. We are joined by Maureen and by Rhoda Grant, Edward Mountain, Douglas Ross and Liam McArthur, all of whom have an interest in the petition. I welcome you all to the meeting.

I invite Maureen Macmillan to make a brief opening statement of up to five minutes, after which members will have an opportunity to ask questions.

Maureen Macmillan

Thank you, convener. This is really a personal statement. I grew up in the west Highlands in the 1950s, and the situation in the whole Highlands and Islands region at that time was that young people were haemorrhaging away, the traditional primary industries were exporting their produce south with little added value, hydro schemes were coming to an end, the short tourist season was about to be hit by cheap holidays in Spain—people preferred to go to Benidorm rather than Oban—and there was massive emigration to the central belt, Canada, Australia and New Zealand of everybody from hotel workers to university graduates. The Highlands were emptying.

In 1965, Harold Wilson’s Government, convinced that one-off schemes for the Highlands were not getting to grips with the underlying problem, set up the Highlands and Islands Development Board. If Willie Ross, the Secretary of State for Scotland, had stood up in Parliament and said, “We are setting up a development board for the Highlands and Islands, which will have its priorities and strategy decided by an economic committee of a dozen or so bodies meeting in Edinburgh and chaired by me”, we would have despaired. However, he did not say that. To great acclaim, he gave the board power to make its own strategic, operational and budget decisions in the Highlands, by the Highlands and for the Highlands. As he said, he gave the board

“powers to act at its own hand”.

That power is very precious to the Highlands and Islands, which is why every council leader in the region has opposed what is now proposed, as have Professor Jim Hunter, the very highly regarded former chair of Highlands and Islands Enterprise, and David Alston, the present chair of NHS Highland and former depute leader of The Highland Council.

The people of the Highlands and Islands feel that they are all stakeholders in HIE. They have a strong sense of ownership of it and they feel that they are in a position to influence priorities, which is why the Press and Journal campaign has been so well supported. I hope that you will read in full what Willie Ross said on that day in the House of Commons, as it still has resonance—look for the phrase “on Scotland’s conscience”, which I am sure you are familiar with.

Willie Ross also tasked the new board specifically with growing and supporting communities. That is not just an add-on; it is integral. It means that HIE has to not only attract and encourage industry to the hubs such as Lochaber and the Moray Firth—I am very pleased about the recent great news from Fort William—but work in the face of economic realities to sustain often hard-pressed communities in the northern isles, the Western Isles, the small isles and Skye, the Argyll islands, Kintyre, Lorne, Morvern, Ardnamurchan, Moidart, Knoydart, Wester Ross, north-west Sutherland, Caithness and east Sutherland. I could expand that list, but it gives an idea, I hope, of the diversity and vastness of the task.

Communities have been nurtured by being given a sense of their own worth and through the support for community projects such as village halls, community shops and cultural events. I wonder whether that nurturing will survive under the new regime. I fear that the social remit might be compromised. Would an overarching, hard-aligned, economic committee in Edinburgh have agreed to support the fèisean movement, or to build Sabhal Mòr Ostaig in Sleat? Would we have had the University of the Highlands and Islands, with its unique structure? Would such a committee be impressed that, not long ago, HIE stepped in when three teachers at Kinlochbervie school needed childcare provision to carry on working? That is a great example of HIE carrying out its social remit.

Audit Scotland did not find any weakness in HIE. Our experts are as expert as any other experts. HIE has consistently outperformed against expectations. What problem is the Government trying to resolve here?

Since my husband Michael and I decided to return to settle in the north in the late 1960s, we have seen a huge change in the fortunes of the area—not just a massive increase in population, but an increase in confidence. It would be an injustice if that was taken away by decision making being removed from us. HIE is very close to the communities that it serves and it is part of the fabric of the Highland way of life in a way that other non-departmental public bodies are not. We value the autonomy that HIE enjoys—perhaps that comes from centuries of other folks telling us what to do.

There is still work to be done. Not all areas have had that increase in population or confidence, and some are still losing their populations. Many of the remote rural and island communities are still fragile and they need a continuing strategy to support their economic and social fabric. Special attention needs to be paid to Argyll, the Western Isles, the Orkney islands, Caithness and Sutherland. Remote rural and island needs cannot be hard aligned with the needs of towns and cities. Remote and rural communities are themselves diverse and every island is unique. I fear that the proposals will be too inflexible to let those communities flourish.

The encouragement of good ideas from the grass roots might also be lost. If we consider the example of the north coast 500 route, what Edinburgh-based committee would support the marketing of a tourist trail around single-track roads up there somewhere that it has never heard of? Yet, the route has been a huge success and could create up to 200 jobs in remote communities.

There is a lot at stake for HIE and for the Highlands and Islands. HIE has never fitted into a Government department box and it should not be made to do so—that would kill it. For the good of the Highlands and Islands, any alignment should be with other regional bodies such as the local authorities, the health boards, the University of the Highlands and Islands or the third sector. A one-size approach for Scotland does not fit us. It will be a great shame and an insult if a power that was given to us by a Westminster Government is taken away by a Scottish Government.

I hope that I have given the committee some food for thought and that you will help to get the best possible outcome for the Highlands and Islands. As far as I am concerned, that would be retention of the status quo and restoration of the local enterprise companies.

The Convener

Thank you. There has been some scrutiny in the Parliament of the proposals, which have been debated and voted down in the chamber on two occasions. The Rural Economy and Connectivity Committee has committed to keep a watching brief on the issue, and the Education and Skills Committee and the Economy, Jobs and Fair Work Committee have also been scrutinising the enterprise skills review. Given all the attention that the issue is receiving, what do you hope that your petition will achieve?

Maureen Macmillan

I know that there has been scrutiny, but I am not aware of any results of that. I know that committees have been looking at the issue and that there was a debate in the chamber with a vote that the Government lost. I just want to keep up the pressure on the Government on the issue. There are so many people in the north who object to what is proposed—I do not know anybody who supports it. I have spoken to a lot of people about it, including Jim Hunter, Margaret Davidson, the leader of Highland Council, and Sandy Cumming, a former chief executive of HIE.

I have with me a copy of the book “On Scotland’s Conscience: The case for the Highlands and Islands”, which has been published today. That is the reason why Jim Hunter cannot be here to help me with my evidence—he had to be at the book launch in Inverness today. I recommend the book as background reading for anybody who wants to get to grips with what HIE was and the fears about what it might become.

I know that there will be a ministerial statement on the issue this afternoon, and I hope that the minister will listen to what I am saying here today. Although I do not have any great hopes, it might make him change his mind.

Maurice Corry (West Scotland) (Con)

I declare an interest as a councillor in Argyll and Bute Council. I fully understand the concern about the island issues.

The Scottish Government has consulted on phase 1 of the enterprise and skills review and, as we have noted, the Scottish Parliament has had an opportunity to debate the review’s phase 1 report. What is your view on the process that the Scottish Government followed in conducting the phase 1 review? Do you believe that people had an adequate opportunity to voice their opinions on the proposals?

Maureen Macmillan

To be honest, I did not realise that anything much was happening. As Iain MacDonald says in his introduction to “On Scotland’s Conscience”, the announcement was slipped into the answer to a parliamentary question. Iain MacDonald states:

“While on his feet, Mr Swinney slipped in the news that there was to be a shake-up.”

Mr Swinney said that the Government planned to bring together the various bodies. I like what Iain MacDonald goes on to say in his introduction:

“It was Rhoda Grant, a Highlands and Islands list MSP who had pursued the government relentlessly”

on the issue. I thought I would say that so that Rhoda would get a smile on her face. [Laughter.]

Nobody realised what was happening. There was no consultation beforehand; it was just an announcement. However, people then began to realise that something awful was going to happen. I really did not pick it up until The Press and Journal started its campaign. I then phoned Rhoda Grant and said, “What on earth is going on?”

As far as I am aware, there has been no consultation in the north. No committee has sent a rapporteur up around the Western Isles to see what people there think about what is proposed, and no rapporteur has been sent to Argyll to see what people’s views are there. I am not aware that there has been much consultation. There might have been consultation in private with the great and the good, but that certainly did not include James Hunter, Brian Wilson, Michael Foxley or Maggie Cunningham, who are the authors of the essays in “On Scotland’s Conscience”.

Brian Whittle (South Scotland) (Con)

The Scottish Government has yet to come forward with phase 2 of the enterprise and skills review. As you said, however, there will be a ministerial statement on the issue this afternoon. Do you have any evidence or concerns that the Scottish Government is not listening to the Scottish Parliament or to wider concerns in formulating phase 2 of the review?

Maureen Macmillan

We will see whether that is the case when we hear the statement this afternoon, but I do not have any great hopes for it.

Previously, there was Lorne Crerar’s take on what might change, but that did not go down terribly well either. I have copies of letters here from Highland Council—in fact, from the leaders of all the councils—objecting to phase 1, and I have a letter from Margaret Davidson, the leader of Highland Council, objecting to Lorne Crerar’s conclusions. She hoped to get the other council leaders to sign up but, unfortunately, she was unable to do that because the councils have gone into election purdah. However, I imagine that they are not terribly happy, either. I really do not see that there has been much change over the piece. I hope that that answers your question.

09:30  

Brian Whittle

In the debating chamber on 28 February, the Cabinet Secretary for Economy, Jobs and Fair Work said that a number of members of the convention of the Highlands and Islands had expressed support for the continuation of the HIE board, but that they also said that it had to change to take account of developing circumstances. He acknowledged that it is important to listen to views, that some of the fears being expressed

“might not come to fruition”

and that

“the best chance of achieving that outcome will come through having a dialogue about what might happen in the final stages of phase 2 of the review”.—[Official Report, 28 February 2017; c 10.]

Do you have any views on that? Do you expect or hope to contribute to that dialogue?

Maureen Macmillan

I would want to see what the proposals were first. Sometimes, it is not worth contributing to a dialogue. If the cabinet secretary has totally set his face against letting HIE keep its autonomy, what dialogue is there to have?

I would like to see the board change back and be more like what it used to be. It used to be Highlanders who were on the board. Now, it seems to be more civil servants. That is what I am told, although I cannot say that for sure because I have not met many members of the board.

The feeling among the people who I speak to is that the HIE board has changed—it is not as Highland as it used to be, and therefore not as committed to the Highlands and Islands as it used to be. If there are to be any changes to the board, I would prefer to see it revert to being a proper Highlands and Islands board with Highlands and Islands people on it.

Rona Mackay (Strathkelvin and Bearsden) (SNP)

The committee has been given a briefing that highlights HIE’s responsibilities and funding, including its role in account managing 50 communities. What is your understanding of how HIE’s existing role would or would not be undertaken by a Scotland-wide statutory board? Will you outline what the problems might be with that?

Maureen Macmillan

Those 50 communities will be small, and there are even smaller communities where HIE does not act as account holder. However, that is all part of the social fabric of the Highlands and Islands. That element seems to have been missed by the cabinet secretary when he wanted to set up his overarching board. It was reported—it was in the Press and Journal, so it must be true—that he did not know that HIE had a social remit. If that is the case, he has been badly advised. The civil servants have always been a bit wary of HIE’s social remit because it does not deliver the economic goods; rather, it delivers cohesive communities.

There would be a big difficulty in a new, hard-aligned board looking after those small communities and being their account holder. A lot of the good work that goes on in the Highlands and Islands might be lost or, once the particular phase is over, not replicated. I am extremely worried about what will happen to the small communities if the proposal goes through.

I take it from your response that you are not convinced that a Scotland-wide board would look at what had gone before and try to build on it or replicate good practice.

Maureen Macmillan

I am very wary about that. It would have no background in doing that. I do not see Scottish Enterprise doing that as it does not recognise that as part of its role. I worry that the proposed board would be a kind of also-ran. I consider that dealing with those aspects is one of HIE’s main reasons for existence, but the new board would not see it that way.

I hail from the Western Isles originally—

Maureen Macmillan

I can hear that.

Angus MacDonald

I am happy to state for the record that I have sympathy for the petition. I have seen the benefits of the HIDB and HIE first hand. That said, in his evidence to the Education and Skills Committee in December last year, the Cabinet Secretary for Economy, Jobs and Fair Work, Keith Brown, explained that the Scottish Government gathered evidence from account managed companies and those that are being provided with services by HIE and Skills Development Scotland, and that the evidence had led the Scottish Government to the view that there are elements of duplication and a lack of joint working, for example on international activities. I am curious to hear your view on that.

Maureen Macmillan

I am sure that there is evidence of duplication. That could be examined, but I do not think that it means that everything has to be taken under one umbrella. Such things can often be sorted out just through dialogue. I am sure that, if there is a particular problem with duplication, it can be sorted out through negotiation. I do not think that such draconian measures are needed to sort it out.

You do not think that that is an insurmountable problem.

Maureen Macmillan

I do not think that it is an insurmountable problem at all.

I know that, in the past, there has been a bit of pushing and shoving between, for example, Highlands and Islands Enterprise and Highland Council with regard to who does what, but such things can be sorted out through negotiation and compromises, with people accepting that there is no sense in two people doing the same thing. You do not need an overarching committee in Edinburgh to sort that out.

Do any of our visiting colleagues wish to ask a question?

Rhoda Grant (Highlands and Islands) (Lab)

I am here to support Maureen Macmillan. I am pleased that she has brought the petition to Parliament and am even more pleased by her warm words about me. I had better put that on the record.

There are concerns in the Highlands and Islands about what will happen to HIE and whether the work that it was set up to do will continue. There probably are issues to do with organisations being co-ordinated and working together, but surely the appropriate thing is for the cabinet secretary to start banging heads together. We should expect all Government agencies to work together—after all, they are being paid from the public purse, and that is their job. I hope that that could happen without changing the whole format of HIE, because, as Maureen Macmillan said, it was set up in recognition of the fact that there are particular issues in the Highlands and Islands—the geography, problems with depopulation and so on.

Some of those issues have been addressed. For example, for a while, Inverness was the fastest-growing city in Europe, and that was down to HIE. However, as Maureen Macmillan said, there has been creeping centralisation of the board, and solutions that work for some things—account managing and the like—do not work for very small companies and organisations with only one or two people in them. HIE needs the freedom to work in the urban sectors and in the rural sectors. Booming growth has been encouraged in the inner Moray Firth, for example, but some of our island communities are still experiencing depopulation, so we need to ensure that HIE has the power, the strength and the local responsibility to do something about that.

This might be unfair to you, convener, but even though you have roots in the islands, you represent an area in Glasgow where jobs are short, so I imagine that, if there was a choice between creating two or three jobs in Tiree or 100 in Glasgow, the decision would be almost a no-brainer for you.

Well—

Rhoda Grant

Maybe it would not be: I should not put you on the spot like that. The point is that anyone in that position would think about the value for money per job, but might not really see that a few jobs on Tiree would underpin the economy of the island and keep it going. Those are the kinds of decisions that I am talking about in this regard.

I do not really have a question for Maureen Macmillan; I simply want to support her petition and say that I hope that the committee will examine the issues closely. A lot of issues are being missed and I think that if the cabinet secretary was aware of what we could lose as a result of the proposal, he would not be going down this road at all.

Douglas Ross (Highlands and Islands) (Con)

I declare an interest, as I am a councillor in Moray Council. Clearly, HIE has a big role to play in Moray.

I thank Maureen Macmillan for bringing the petition to Parliament. She is right to have highlighted the involvement of Labour MSPs, but I think that it is also fair to say that Scottish Conservative MSPs led a debate in Parliament that ultimately led to the defeat of the Government on the issue. Edward Mountain, Donald Cameron and I all spoke in that debate and we all agree with what has been said about the petition today. Further, at First Minister’s question time, Tavish Scott asked a question on behalf of the Liberal Democrats on the issue, and John Finnie, for the Greens, also questioned the First Minister on plans to centralise HIE. That shows the strength of feeling across Parliament on the issue—certainly among representatives from the Highlands and Islands.

I was struck by Maureen Macmillan’s point about HIE being in the Highlands, by the Highlands and for the Highlands. That is something that we have to stress at every point. HIE is based in the heart of the area that it has successfully improved over many years, and that it wants to continue to improve.

Moray is often caught in the middle, because we are not quite in the Highlands and we are not quite in Grampian. However, HIE makes significant investment in Moray through initiatives such as Forres enterprise park and through the significant work that it has done, and continues to do, with the Moray economic partnership. A lot of the successes that have been achieved in Moray could not have been achieved—certainly not to the extent to which they have been achieved—without the investment and support of Highlands and Islands Enterprise. The north coast 500 route was mentioned, and, since coming to Parliament, I have been struck by the number of times that the governing party and politicians from all parties celebrate things such as that route and the new jobs that were recently created at the Forres enterprise park, with HIE managing to bring in another outside agency to secure more jobs in the area. However, that raises a question: if Highlands and Islands Enterprise is doing all this great work that is being recognised locally in communities and by politicians across the political spectrum, why are we trying to change the situation?

My Scottish Conservative colleagues and I fully support the petition. We hope that, even at this late hour, Keith Brown is watching the proceedings of the Public Petitions Committee and is considering his statement to Parliament today. We will be watching carefully and asking critical questions to ensure that the will of Parliament is observed this afternoon, with the aim of ensuring that HIE should not be dragged down and merged with other organisations.

I will end by asking a question of Maureen Macmillan, rather than just making a statement. Can she give me an example of any time when, after centralisation, someone has said, “Do you know what? Since local decision making was taken away from the local area and dragged down to the central belt, the local decisions have been better and more informed”? Alternatively, does she agree that that never happens and that, consequently, we should not do it on this occasion?

Maureen Macmillan

I have to say that I cannot think of a single example of that being said.

Liam McArthur (Orkney Islands) (LD)

Welcome back to Parliament, Maureen.

Douglas Ross has clearly set out the cross-party feeling on the issue. I acknowledge the example of Jim Hunter. I think that there is some sympathy among SNP MSPs for many of the arguments that have been made today. On that basis, like Douglas Ross, I hope that the cabinet secretary is watching proceedings this morning and will, even at the 11th hour, be minded to take a different course.

I was particularly struck by the point that Maureen Macmillan made about the proposal being a solution that is searching for a problem. Angus MacDonald was right to highlight the argument about improving collaboration around internationalisation. There is probably something in that from some companies’ points of view. However, one of HIE’s successes, to which Maureen Macmillan alluded, is that it is able to provide targeted support to businesses and individuals who have absolutely no intention of internationalising and do not aspire even to branch out terribly widely across the Highlands and Islands. Interventions at that level, which have been made since HIDB was set up, are at risk if we bring about a situation in which there is a central board that will scrutinise issues by matching numbers, because in a numbers game enterprises and sectors in the Highlands and Islands will rarely, if ever, register on the radar as enterprises and sectors elsewhere in the country might. Is that a fair assessment?

Maureen Macmillan

Yes. Community cohesion is terribly important and will not be delivered through focusing on a drive for exports, for example. The tiny communities in Harris, Lewis, Orkney and so on are not going to be significant at that level.

With regard to the drive for exports, for the past nine years, I have been chair of the Moray Firth partnership—the coastal forum. We had a big project to encourage fishermen not to export their local seafood but instead to make it available to local people to eat and to support lovely fish restaurants in a trail all around the Moray Firth. One hand does not know what the other hand is doing. At the moment, all that fish is going to Spain. However, we would quite like to keep some of it at home and provide jobs at home in restaurants, fish vans, fishmongers and so on for local people. At the moment, that initiative is being undertaken in the Moray Firth area, but it could be replicated anywhere in Scotland that has a fishing boat coming into a pier.

09:45  

I would not like to create the impression that we are an inward-looking region. There are sectors that are truly international and world class—

Maureen Macmillan

Absolutely.

Liam McArthur

HIE has recognised the significance of those and got alongside individuals and businesses early on in my constituency. The support for the European Marine Energy Centre is an example. There are fashion and jewellery businesses that do not look particularly significant on a national scale but within the Orkney and Highlands and Islands economies they are absolute linchpins in terms of job creation, wealth creation and skills development, which are the sorts of things that HIE has been very eager to support.

Maureen Macmillan

Yes. Craft industries are very important to small communities because they can export—not abroad, necessarily, but out of their area—and bring money into their area in that way. For example, I get my smoked salmon for Christmas from somewhere in Uist, which means that money is going into the Uist economy. All those little enterprises are underpinned by HIE.

Liam McArthur

The argument is that, 50 years on from the birth of the HIDB, there is, in a sense, a need to reinvent HIE, to some extent, so we are dealing with what the Scottish Government has proposed to enable that to happen. Where do you suggest HIE needs to go next to address challenges and opportunities?

Maureen Macmillan

HIE now needs to look at the remote rural areas and islands more specifically. The area around the Moray Firth is doing pretty well. As somebody from east Sutherland said to me not long ago, the Moray Firth just looks after itself now; it does not need the input that it used to have. That is perhaps not quite true, but that is the perception from further north and further west. There are places that are still struggling; 50 years seems like a long time, but after years and years of decline in the Highlands, it is not all that long a time in which to get things turned around.

As I think I said earlier, Argyll needs attention, the Western Isles need attention, the Orkney islands—not so much mainland Orkney, perhaps—need attention and Caithness needs attention. Whatever one thinks of nuclear power, Caithness had a big industry on the north coast with very high-class jobs. It does not have that any more—the decommissioning will finish and although there are renewable energy jobs there, they are not in the same category as what was there before, so that needs to be looked at, too. There is still a lot to do, so to start interfering with HIE by doing what is proposed would be counterproductive.

The Convener

Okay. As there are no further questions, I thank Maureen Macmillan very much for the evidence that she has given. We now need to think about how we want to take forward the petition. As has already been said, there will be a statement this afternoon. I suggest that we do not let go of the petition until we know what the statement says.

From my point of view, I say that I went to school in Glasgow, where every west coast island community was represented. We were the children of depopulation—of Tiree, Islay, Lewis, Harris, and Skye—because our parents had to move away to work. I am glad to see that my nephews—that must be about 50 generations in Scottish terms—are now able to contemplate staying on the island of Lewis and getting good-quality work there. In my view, that is largely because of what HIE has done. Also, Scottish Enterprise got rid of its social remit, which was a matter of great regret to me as somebody who represents a city that needs community attention as well as chasing the big companies.

At the Education and Skills Committee, we took evidence from the cabinet secretary. He said that the solution had come out of the consultation, but of course when we asked who had suggested it, it appeared that nobody had—except perhaps the minister himself—and folk said, “Maybe yea, maybe nay.” The problem has been that stage 1 has produced the answer but stage 2 is not about testing the answer; it is about implementing it. The petitioner has exposed in the petition that we are losing the bit in the middle, which is about asking what is the driver and what are the consequences.

I certainly hope that we will either do something or perhaps refer the petition to the Rural Economy and Connectivity Committee. However, I think that it would be useful to wait until after the statement before we make a decision.

It might be sensible to wait until we know what the statement says.

Brian Whittle

In any case, I am kind of inclined to want the committee to hang on to the petition. I am not sure how specifically the Rural Economy and Connectivity Committee looks after the Highlands and Islands. It has a much broader remit.

Angus MacDonald

It all depends on this afternoon’s statement and the Government’s response to Professor Crerar’s comments. I was keen to refer the petition directly to the Rural Economy and Connectivity Committee, but there is a strong argument for waiting to see what the statement says.

I agree with that, convener.

The Convener

We are looking for something more from the statement than a nod in the right direction. We are looking for a body that does what HIE is already doing. What Maureen Macmillan said about how such a body might be strengthened by reverting to its original function is interesting.

We therefore agree that we think that there is more for the committee to do once the statement has been made, but we certainly think that Parliament should be doing more on it, and we can decide after the statement has been made whether we want to let the petition go to the Rural Economy and Connectivity Committee or hold on to it.

With that, I thank Maureen Macmillan for her evidence. It was very useful. I thank our guests for coming along. I will suspend the meeting briefly while we get ready for the next item.

Maureen Macmillan

Thank you, convener. I recommend the book, “On Scotland’s Conscience”. I promised Iain MacDonald that I would show it around the committee. It is being published today and it only costs a tenner.

I hope that you are getting paid for the plug.

09:51 Meeting suspended.  

09:53 On resuming—  


Private Criminal Prosecutions (PE1633)

The Convener

The next new petition is PE1633, by Bill Alexander, on private criminal prosecution in Scotland. Members have a copy of the petition, which collected 37 signatures and 10 comments. The petition calls on the Scottish Parliament to urge the Scottish Government to change the law to give the people of Scotland the same legal rights as those in the rest of the United Kingdom by removing the requirement that the Lord Advocate must first give permission before a private criminal prosecution can be commenced in Scotland. Background information to the petition is set out in the SPICe briefing, which members have been provided with in the meeting papers.

Do members have any comments or suggestions for action?

Brian Whittle

There is certainly a much higher level of private prosecutions south of the border than there is up here. The question is whether that is a good thing or a bad thing. I suppose that that is what we are considering.

Maurice Corry

I suggest that we write to the Crown Office and Procurator Fiscal Service, the Health and Safety Executive and the partnership on health and safety in Scotland to seek their views on the petition. They are the ones at the sharp end.

The Convener

Yes. There are issues that we need to understand properly. I get the idea that prosecution is done in the public interest, but I have had experience—I am not sure whether other members have—of constituents seeking a fatal accident inquiry but not getting it because it is not regarded as being in the public interest. They were also unable to get a criminal prosecution or to get the Health and Safety Executive involved, and were left feeling that there was nowhere to go. I wonder whether having to seek the permission of the Lord Advocate for a private criminal prosecution would compound that feeling, because the Lord Advocate does not grant such permission lightly. The committee papers state that only two such permissions have been granted in the past.

I am working on one just now.

Really?

You will understand that that is why I am saying that we should look at what happens down south, where there are a huge number of private criminal prosecutions. The question is where we go on the issue.

The Convener

There are some high-profile examples of private prosecutions that have not ended to the satisfaction of people who feel that they have had a terrible experience.

Another issue that the Smith commission and my party’s devolution commission wrestled with is the fact that the health and safety regime covers the whole United Kingdom, which I think is a good idea while we are part of the UK. However, I do not know whether the Scottish Affairs Committee at Westminster has the power to address health and safety breaches in Scotland. For me, the petition poses a lot of questions.

Rona Mackay

What you say is right, convener, but it is maybe a different area from the one that the petitioner is talking about. The petitioner has written to the Health and Safety Executive, the Crown Office and so on, so I am not sure what would be gained from writing to them again. I suggest that we write to the Scottish Government to seek its view on the petition and to ask for clarification on what action it is taking to improve health and safety outcomes in Scotland, so that we have that on the record. However, it is a huge issue and what the petitioner seeks is a huge ask.

The Convener

I think that the committee agrees that there is an issue and that we should get a better understanding of it. We should write to the Scottish Government to ask what action it is taking to improve health and safety outcomes in Scotland. The suggestion is that there is not much of a difference between Scotland and the rest of the UK in that regard, but my recollection is that, for example, there are more fatalities in the construction industry in Scotland than in the rest of the UK. There are probably explanations for that, but does it mean that the health and safety regime here needs to be stronger? We should write to the Crown Office, the Health and Safety Executive, as Maurice Corry suggested, and the partnership on health and safety in Scotland to seek their views. Even from the papers before us, we can see the logic of the argument about public prosecution in the public interest, but it is about dealing with the situation of people who feel that they are not getting justice.

Do members agree with what has been suggested?

Members indicated agreement.


Council Tax (Payment Options) (PE1634)

The Convener

PE1634 is on equality in council tax payment options. It is a new petition that collected 51 signatures and calls for clarification of council tax legislation so that people can choose to pay their council tax in 12 monthly instalments in all local authority areas in Scotland. Currently, 22 of the 32 local authorities in Scotland offer residents the option to pay their council tax bill by instalments over 12 months. Of the 10 local authorities that do not allow payment by 12 instalments, only Fife Council has announced plans to introduce such payments, following the petitioner’s research. A number of councils have cited the lack of legislation in the area and the legal framework being unclear as reasons for not introducing such payments.

What are members’ views on the petition?

Rona Mackay

My view is that it is a local authority matter and it is up to them whether council tax payments should be spread over 12 months or 10 months, as is the case with some councils. We could write to the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities to ask for its view on the matter, but I definitely think that it is a local authority matter.

I agree. In my experience, different local authorities have different pressures and there might be valid reasons why some of them spread payments over 10 months rather than 12.

Brian Whittle

I would like to find out about that and understand why. I agree that it is a local authority issue, but local authorities obviously work within a framework, and the responsibility for that lies in this place. I would certainly like to understand the reasons for the differences that the petitioner indicates, because undue pressure is being put on some council tax payers but not on others. I would like to understand why that is the case before going any further on the petition.

Angus MacDonald

I agree. Although the petition does not seem to be a big ask, this is clearly an issue primarily for local authorities. I would be keen to get more information from COSLA and to hear its views on the issue.

10:00  

The Convener

I am intrigued. We owe a debt to the petitioner, who has done her own research. She has established the differences between local authorities, as well as local authorities’ explanation for the situation, which is that they are unable to do anything because the issue is determined centrally. At the very least, we need to resolve that conundrum.

I am interested in the motives behind a local authority preferring 10 monthly payments to 12. Is it about securing payment? Are they more likely to get the money in? Can they manage their budgets better if they collect over 10 months rather than 12? I do not know whether that is the case. It looks as if some local authorities introduce 12 monthly payments when people are under pressure financially—when they have got into debt. In order to prevent debt, would it be more logical to allow payments over 12 months? I assume that those are factors that local authorities must have thought about.

The petitioner raises some interesting questions. I would be interested to hear what the Scottish Government and COSLA say about the issue. I get the sense that, so far, the Scottish Government has said, “That’s the way it is. It’s not a matter for us,” and local authorities have said, “It’s a matter for regulation.” We need proper clarification of the situation and then we need to tease out from local authorities what the downside would be of offering people a 12-month payment period. I presume that it is only about local authorities securing their budgets, which I guess is a reasonable response to pressure. Do we agree to write to the Scottish Government and COSLA on the action that is called for in the petition?

Members indicated agreement.


Children (Scotland) Act 1995 (Section 11) (PE1635)

The Convener

PE1635, by Emma McDonald, is on the review of section 11 of the Children (Scotland) Act 1995. The petition did not collect signatures. Members have a copy of the petition, the SPICe briefing and a note by the clerk. Members will recall that we had the opportunity to meet informally with the petitioner in order to assist our understanding of the background to the petition. The note by the clerk summarises the issues covered in that meeting. I think that I speak for all members when I say that we were very grateful to the petitioner and those who attended with her for giving us such clarity on the issues that have created the need for the petition in the first place.

Those issues include the unregulated nature of child contact centres; the location and security of the centres; and the qualifications that are required of or the on-going training that is delivered to volunteers, staff or other professionals who are involved in the child contact process. Included within that last point are questions of who is responsible for the safety of children and adults while they are on the premises.

On the issue of the suitability of contact being required at all, the underpinning concern of the petition is that the voice of children should be heard. For example, should sheriffs ordering the contact be required to undertake professional development? How can professionals such as teachers and doctors have input? Another issue relates to funding and accountability. The briefing material that we have indicates that parents can be required to pay for the service, which may raise concerns about who contact centres are accountable to.

The Scottish Government has signalled its intention to bring forward a family justice modernisation strategy, which is intended to ensure that the child’s voice is heard, but the timescale for delivery of the strategy is not clear.

Do members have any thoughts on what action we might take on the petition?

Rona Mackay

The petition raises a number of serious issues relating to child welfare and current practice, some of which we heard about when we spoke to the petitioner in private. We should seek the Government’s views on the action that is called for in the petition and establish the progress of the family justice modernisation strategy. I am very much in favour of holding a round-table evidence session with all the stakeholders involved. Suggestions include Relationships Scotland, the Sheriffs Association, the Children and Young People’s Commissioner and the Scottish Courts and Tribunals Service, as well as expert individuals or organisations who are trained specifically to represent and support children through the justice system, and professionals such as doctors, teachers and childminders. Virtually anybody who is involved in child welfare should be involved in the petition.

I agree absolutely. That is important.

Brian Whittle

A round-table evidence session would be an interesting way of tackling the issue, because the evidence that we have gave us raw examples of the practice that is going on. I would have liked the other stakeholders to have been around the table listening to that evidence and giving their response. I agree that that would be a positive way forward for the petition.

At our meeting with the petitioner, I was struck by what Rona Mackay—who has experience of the hearings system—said about not being aware of those issues.

I was shocked, because the comparison between the hearings system and what I was hearing was like night and day. Clearly, something has to be done.

The Convener

The petition is timeous, given the Scottish Government’s approach to domestic abuse and coercive control. Over many years, I have had experience of the way in which the contact system is often used as a means of continuing that abuse, which is evidenced in the paper that suggests that a mother dropping off the children and the children themselves can feel quite frightened. It would be a good idea to get people who have experience in that field, including women’s organisations, around a table. We could perhaps come up with some solutions, as well. It would be particularly useful to have Relationships Scotland there, as it runs the service—for the best of reasons, I am sure—and it should be aware of the way that the service is experienced.

The other organisation that I would suggest is the Women’s Support Project in Glasgow, which has done a lot of work on the point where contact, the legal system and domestic abuse meet. We can leave it to the clerks to think about who it would be useful to invite.

We should invite Scottish Women’s Aid, as well.

The Convener

Yes. We also heard from a child support worker, which was interesting. I am not sure that that role exists right across Scotland, and it would be useful to know to what extent local authorities have such individuals.

I wonder whether it might be useful to hear from Childline. It gathers a lot of evidence, so I wonder if it has anything on the issue.

The Convener

Before we hold a round-table meeting, it would be appropriate for us to flag up that we are interested in the issue. Any organisations or people who have a view but who might not be able to attend—realistically, there is a limit to how many can come—could provide evidence or information about their direct experience, so we could alert people to that.

Maurice Corry

Paragraph 3 of the back-up evidence for the petition from Emma McDonald says:

“Currently there is no system of regulation or inspection of child contact centres.”

That is absolutely appalling. Sheriffs are making decisions about something that they do not know about.

We rightly take child protection very seriously, but this issue appears to have fallen through a loophole and it needs to be addressed as quickly as possible.

The centres have been created to solve a problem about confidence with secure contact, so the motivation is right, but we need to attend to the lived experience.

I have found that some councils work very well in that area and the system that they operate is excellent. However, it is not regulated in any way and how it is dealt with is down to the individual council.

There is loads for us to be getting on with. I thank the petitioner and those who are with her for highlighting what is a very challenging issue.


Single-use Drinks Cups (PE1636)

The Convener

The final new petition for our consideration this morning is PE1636, by Michael Traill, which suggests that all single-use drinks cups be 100 per cent biodegradable. Members have a copy of the petition, which collected 51 signatures and five comments. The clerk’s note identifies that a constraint in making disposable cups recyclable is the mixture of materials that is used to make the cups. The note refers to European standards, which define what characteristics a material must have to be compostable, and highlights recent initiatives that have been developed to address that issue.

Do members have any views on what action to take on the petition?

Angus MacDonald

As a member of the Environment, Climate Change and Land Reform Committee, I thank the petitioner for flagging up the issue. I am sure that most of us are surprised that many single-use drinks cups are not 100 per cent recyclable. I think that that even includes the ones that we use in Parliament—indeed, members are encouraged to use their own cups in order to cut down on the number of single-use containers that must be disposed of.

I am keen to hear the views of the Scottish Government and the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities. I would also like to seek the views of organisations and companies such as Vegware, the Environmental Paper Network and the Hubbub Foundation, which are developing initiatives to address issues such as the one that is identified by the petition.

There is an argument for contacting the Organics Recycling Group. I would also like to hear from Zero Waste Scotland. I know for a fact that the issue is on its radar and it would be good to know what action it is taking to address it. Furthermore, we should contact Keep Scotland Beautiful, which is aware of the issue. That is quite a list, but it would be good to hear all those organisations’ views.

We should consider the impact of the fast-food chain companies and seek their views, as well as those of the Food and Drink Federation, to ensure that we carry out an all-round review.

We should contact whatever organisation represents them, rather than writing to all the companies individually.

Exactly.

The Convener

The scale of use of the cups has exploded. Like Angus MacDonald, I had assumed that the cups were recycled because they were cardboard rather than plastic. I am looking at the issue upside down and in the wrong way. The petition has been useful in providing information to us. Angus has suggested a good way forward by setting out the organisations that we might want to contact.

Maurice Corry

I know from my knowledge of the drinks and food industry that a technical problem is that the cups are coated with plastic. If they did not have that coating, the cups would disintegrate in your hand. The coating is the problem, not the main material.

There is lots there to pursue. We thank the petitioner for highlighting the issue.