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Chamber and committees

Meeting date: Wednesday, December 1, 2021

Citizen Participation and Public Petitions Committee 01 December 2021

Agenda: Interests, Continued Petitions, New Petitions


Continued Petitions

Lifeline Ferry Service (Campbeltown to Ardrossan) (PE1853)

The next item is consideration of continued petitions. The first continued petition is PE1853, which has been lodged by Councillor Donald Kelly and Councillor Douglas Philand and calls on the Scottish Parliament to urge the Scottish Government to provide a lifeline all-year-round freight and passenger ferry service between Campbeltown and Ardrossan.

We last considered this petition at our meeting on 1 September, when we agreed to write to the Scottish Government. In the Scottish Government’s initial submission to us, we were told that it was not operationally possible to extend the current operating period of the Ardrossan to Campbeltown service as there were no available vessels. It was noted that the Scottish Government has committed to securing two new ferries, which are currently under construction. Subject to a robust business case and funding, it might be possible to use one of the new vessels to provide a year-round Campbeltown service. The MV Sannox is due to be delivered between July and September of next year.

The petitioners themselves had also explored whether it would be possible to use an available vessel that was not currently part of the Caledonian MacBrayne fleet to provide the service. In its most recent submission to the committee, the Scottish Government suggested that suitable second-hand vessels were rare but that the recent purchase of—and I hope that I say this correctly—the MV Utne indicated a willingness on its part to consider this as an option. The Scottish Government also highlights the creation of the islands connectivity plan, which will be prepared as the successor to the 2013 to 2022 ferries plan.

The Government also states that determining the long-term future ferry requirements for Campbeltown will involve a community needs assessment, which will be carried out with communities and other stakeholders throughout 2022 for all Clyde and Hebrides ferry services and northern isles routes as part of the islands connectivity plan. It is expected that the plan will be published by the end of 2022.

Bearing in mind the subsequent submission from the Scottish Government, do members have any comments or suggestions?

Given what you have just outlined and the expected delivery of a new vessel and consultation with communities next year, I suggest that we close the petition under rule 15.7 of standing orders.

Does that meet with colleagues’ approval?

Members indicated agreement.

We will write to the petitioners to thank them for the petition, to detail the actions that have been outlined and to indicate that we will be closing the petition.

Taxi Trade (PE1856)

PE1856, which has been lodged by Pat Rafferty on behalf of Unite the union, calls on the Scottish Parliament to urge the Scottish Government to protect the future of the taxi trade by providing financial support to taxi drivers; setting up a national stakeholder group with trade union driver representatives; and reviewing low-emission standards and implementation dates.

When we last considered the petition on 1 September, we agreed to write to the Scottish Government to raise concerns highlighted by the petitioner and to highlight his suggestions that funding be extended and incentive levels increased for drivers to upgrade their cabs; that there be greater clarity on exemptions to the low-emission zones and for taxi cabs to be considered exempt from LEZ charges in line with other forms of public transport; and that the Energy Savings Trust should increase the current £10,000 grant for liquefied petroleum gas retrofit by £2,500. We also sought further details of the national stakeholder group and the timescales associated with establishing it.

In response to the committee’s most recent correspondence, the Scottish Government states that, in relation to increasing the grant offering to taxi drivers, funding and budget plans have already been set for the current fiscal year, and future funding rounds will be subject to the usual spending review process. The Scottish Government also provided further information about LEZ exemptions, noting that LEZ-compliant taxis are

“an important and valued part of the urban transport mix”

and stating that funding is available in the current fiscal year for operators wishing to take up the support on offer.

Finally, the committee might wish to note that the petitioner has been put in touch with the relevant officials at the Scottish Government to discuss engagement between Transport Scotland and the taxi sector.

In light of the Scottish Government’s most recent submission and further contact from the petitioner, do members have any comments or suggestions for action?

Notwithstanding the Scottish Government’s submission, I think that it would be appropriate to take further evidence directly from stakeholders in the sector, particularly taxi drivers. I understand from my casework that there are significant problems of lack of sufficient support and that that has led to the exit of a significant number of drivers from the sector, which, in turn, is having a substantial impact on the availability of taxis in Scotland’s major cities and towns. On that basis, it would be worth conducting further investigation and seeking further submissions from relevant taxi owner associations and the relevant trade union branches.

I agree with Paul Sweeney. There has been a mass exodus in some locations, with 20 to 30 per cent of the industry suffering through lack of resources. We have an opportunity to take some evidence and find out exactly what is happening on the ground, and that will help us assess how we progress with the petition.

I think that I am right in saying that taxi drivers operate under licences from local authorities, so we could write to the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities for an audit of the number of licence holders prior to the pandemic and the current number. That would indicate the strength of licence holders on the ground, which I think would be helpful.

I take Paul Sweeney’s point, so I think that we will take evidence on this matter. It would be quite nice to get some geographical representation; I do not know whether the taxi associations will be able to give us a steer on this matter, but it would be useful to hear from the wider country. I realise that we cannot hear from every local authority, as that would make things quite busy. We will write to people in the first instance, but I think that we will end up taking evidence directly.

Upland Falconry (PE1859)

PE1859, which has been lodged by Barry Blyther, is about retaining falconers’ rights to practise upland falconry in Scotland and calls on the Scottish Parliament to urge the Scottish Government to amend the Animals and Wildlife (Penalties, Protections and Powers) (Scotland) Act 2020 to allow mountain hares to be hunted for the purposes of falconry.

This is another petition that we previously considered at our meeting on 1 September. Members might wish to note that we have received 18 submissions in connection with this petition, with two additional late submissions being shared with the committee only yesterday.

The Scottish Parliament information centre briefing accompanying the petition explains that, following the passage of the 2020 act, mountain hares are a protected species under the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981 as amended. That means that it is illegal to intentionally or recklessly kill, injure or otherwise take a mountain hare at any time of year, apart from under specific circumstances where a licence can be obtained. That means that mountain hares can no longer be hunted in the course of falconry practices such as game hawking, where birds of prey are flown to hunt small mammals or other birds, unless it is for a licensable purpose such as forestry.

The petitioner references the Animal Health and Welfare (Scotland) Act 2006 and Scottish Society for Prevention of Cruelty to Animals and Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals guidance, and states that there is a legal obligation to allow freedoms to trained captive-bred birds of prey, including the freedom to express the natural behaviours of the species. The petitioner believes that the current legislation is taking that freedom away.

That is the area about which the committee is uncertain. How does one demonstrate the freedom to express natural behaviour? The Scottish Government states in its latest submission that it does not believe that the current licensing scheme for the control of mountain hares impacts

“on the ability of falconers to enable their birds to exhibit normal behaviour patterns”

because they can still be used to

“take mountain hares for other purposes where carried out under a licence granted by NatureScot”—

for example, preventing serious timber damage or natural habitat conservation—and legally hunt other species such as grouse and rabbits. The petitioner estimates the number of mountain hares taken through falconry each year at 1,000 and notes that that is less than 4 per cent of the average quoted numbers previously accounted for by shooting.

Other submissions that we received point out that birds of prey will not differentiate between species such as mountain hare and rabbits, and that falconers risk prosecution if their bird takes mountain hare. That is one of the questions that I cannot satisfactorily answer. How is a bird of prey to understand the difference between a mountain hare and a rabbit? This seems circular to me; where do members think we should go next? Does anyone wish to offer a view?

It may do no harm to raise the question of whether falcons and other birds of prey can differentiate—obviously, they cannot—between hunt species and ask what the petitioner’s response is to that question.

That is reasonable. We could ask that question and raise the issue of the circumstances in which those falconers might be likely to face prosecution. It would be reasonable to try to understand that issue. It is not the principle that is the issue but the practice of asking the bird to differentiate. I do not know whether the response would be that the falconer should be able to differentiate, but a bird of prey in the air sighting prey on the ground is not necessarily under the control of the falconer—it is hunting.

To be honest, I do not know anything about falconry other than the broad outline, but the issue here is how falconers can maintain their work without causing damage to protected species. The falconers’ response to that would be interesting.

I am happy to pursue that. I can see us taking evidence with a bird of prey in the room. That would add a bit of novelty to proceedings.

Cancer Blood Tests (PE1863)

The next petition, PE1863, which was lodged by Michael Campbell, calls on the Scottish Parliament to urge the Scottish Government to provide mandatory annual cancer blood tests to people from the age of 55. When the petition was previously considered on 1 September, we agreed that we would write to various stakeholders to ask for their view on the petition. Those stakeholders included the United Kingdom National Screening Committee, which is the independent scientific advisory body that advises ministers on matters of population screening, including any proposal to consider a single blood test to detect cancers. The UK National Screening Committee’s submission notes that it

“has not looked at the evidence to screen for cancers using a single blood test.”

However, its call for topics to consider runs from September to December each year.

Cancer Research UK notes that there are currently no blood tests that can

“reliably detect the early signs of cancer in people without symptoms”,

and it suggests that a “lot more research” would be required before such a test could be used in cancer screening. Cancer Research UK also provides information about a large screening trial on a single blood test, which it believes will be “crucial” in answering whether such a test can find cancer, whether it can do so at an earlier stage and whether it can avoid causing undue levels of harm. Cancer Research UK concludes:

“Regrettably we cannot endorse this petition, but we hope that it will not be too much longer before a general cancer blood test suitable for use in cancer screening becomes available.”

It looks as though the petitioner’s aims might be feasible at a later date, but we cannot find any advisory body that wishes to pursue the matter at the moment. On the basis that there is no such test at this time, I am minded to suggest to colleagues that we close the petition under rule 15.7. In doing so, we could say to the petitioner that there is an expectation and a hope that such a test might be possible in the not-too-distant future. We could also write to those in the national health service who are running the Galleri trial, to see what information they have for us to consider.

Wheelchair Users (Improvements to Bus Travel) (PE1866)

The next petition, PE1866, which was lodged by Daryl Cooper, calls on the Scottish Parliament to urge the Scottish Government to introduce legislation so that wheelchair users are able to face frontwards when travelling on a bus. The petition was previously considered at our meeting on 8 September—I am pleased that we have moved on from our meeting on 1 September.

At that meeting, we decided to write to the Scottish Government to seek clarification on whether a requirement to provide forward-facing wheelchair-accessible spaces on buses could be addressed via non-legislative means. The Scottish Government had previously stated that the matter is reserved and, in its response, the Government reiterates that the Public Service Vehicles Accessibility Regulations 2000 are reserved legislation. The UK Government has committed to a review of the regulations by the end of 2023.

The Scottish Government notes that the provisions in the Transport (Scotland) Act 2019

“operate in such a way as to place the setting of any service standards for local bus services within the competence of local transport authorities”,

and that

“Whilst there is no provision for Ministers to intervene directly, we would expect local transport authorities and bus operators to work closely together to ensure that the required service standards meet the needs of local communities including people with disabilities.”

In the light of what we have heard, do members have any comments or suggestions for actions?

I do not find the Scottish Government’s response remotely convincing. There are extensive means by which ministers in Scotland can exert influence on the bus sector to change its practices, given the significant level of public funding that the sector enjoys, which is vital to its operation.

Furthermore, it seems like a bit of a cop-out for the Government to say, on the one hand, that the regulations are reserved and, on the other, that the operating administration is dealt with by local councils. That is not convincing. The Government is basically trying to bat away the issue. More can be done, and more scrutiny is required.

My Glasgow region colleague Pam Duncan-Glancy has given testimony that she has had significant issues with access to buses in Glasgow. In particular, First Bus Glasgow has a policy that only one wheelchair user is permitted per bus. Her husband is also a wheelchair user, so they are regularly split up and have to take two different buses to get somewhere by public transport. That seems appalling, given that there is adequate space on buses for both wheelchairs. Apparently, the company does that in order to preserve space for a potential pram user.

Those things are problematic and need further investigation, so I am minded to invite our colleague to address the committee on this and potentially consider additional submissions.

I agree with that. Although we were advised that a review will take place by 2023, there is a duty of care for transport authorities and bus operators to ensure that individuals are not discriminated against if they attempt to use transport in situations similar to the one that Paul Sweeney has just described. We should investigate other ways to take further evidence from individuals who have experienced that kind of situation, to see whether we can clarify the situation and put some pressure on.

Yes, I am happy to do that. The Parliament has a proud record of support for wheelchair users. In my first parliamentary session, Trish Godman led on the subject of bespoke wheelchairs. At that stage, Scotland provided a very poor service, but the Scottish Government introduced significant additional funding, which has transformed the lives of many people. However, sometimes, we forget that those better, bespoke wheelchairs have to be able to be deployed in a practical way in order for the individual to get the additional access. Some things are out of sight and out of mind. We have previously heard about issues relating to taxi access for people with wheelchairs, but there is something here for us to hear about as well and I would welcome any evidence that our colleague Pam Duncan-Glancy might be able to give to the committee. I suggest that we hold the petition open on the basis that we hear from her, and see whether that stimulates anything further that we might be able to do. Are we agreed?

Members indicated agreement.

Autistic Pupils (Qualified Teachers) (PE1870)

The next continued petition is PE1870, which was lodged by Edward Fowler. It calls on the Scottish Parliament to urge the Scottish Government to introduce legislation that requires teachers of autistic pupils to be appropriately qualified, in order to improve educational outcomes. The petitioner states that he

“would like the education authority only to employ teachers with an appropriate autism qualification to teach pupils with autism.”

The petition was last considered at our meeting of 22 September. At that meeting, we decided to write to the Scottish Government to seek an update on progress that has been made against the “Additional Support for Learning Action Plan” and to write to key stakeholders to seek their views.

Since the petition was last considered, we have received a number of stakeholder submissions, which are summarised in the committee papers and make a number of suggestions for how teaching provision for children with autism could be improved.

Scottish Autism notes that

“There is currently a lack of alternatives for young people who cannot thrive in mainstream school”

and that

“inclusivity can only be achieved with a sound understanding of autism, comprehensive individual profiling, flexible teaching practice and low-stress environments.”

The National Autistic Society Scotland highlights a survey of over 1,400 parents, of whom 72 per cent suggested that

“staff having a better understanding of how their child’s autism affects them, including their communication needs, would have made a difference to their child.”

The Cabinet Secretary for Education and Skills has provided a written submission that notes many of the developments that have taken place—or are planned—in relation to the petition’s aims. That includes new content for initial teacher education on autism. Earlier this month, the cabinet secretary shared with the committee a copy of an updated “Additional Support for Learning Action Plan” and progress report, and noted that the action plan is next due to be updated in spring 2022.

Do members have any comments or suggestions for actions?

I think that a lot more discussion of the petition is required. I did not see the views of the teaching unions in the documents, so I suggest that we invite the unions along to give evidence or ask them for written submissions.

Thank you. As colleagues have no other suggestions, I think that we all agree with that. In the first instance, we will write to the teaching unions and get their parallel evidence in relation to the evidence that we already have and see where that takes us. It may well be that it leads to our agreeing to take further evidence on the petition at a forthcoming committee meeting.

Members indicated agreement.

Scottish Qualifications Authority (PE1875)

The final continued petition is PE1875, which was lodged by Jordon Anderson and calls on the Scottish Parliament to urge the Scottish Government to order a public inquiry into the actions of the Scottish Qualifications Authority during the academic years 2019-20 and 2020-2021.

We last considered the petition at our meeting on 22 September 2021, when we decided to write to the Scottish Government to clarify whether the remit of the public inquiry into Covid-19 will include consideration of the SQA’s actions. The Scottish Government has now responded. It states that there was public engagement earlier this year on a draft aims and principles paper for the inquiry. That will help to inform the terms of reference for the inquiry, which will be agreed between ministers and the inquiry’s chair, once they have been appointed. The Scottish Government concludes by saying that

“decisions about the scope of this Scottish public inquiry are yet to be taken”

and that

“this includes matters raised in this petition.”

It therefore makes sense to leave the petition open until we have some clarification of whether the inquiry will take into account SQA review as part of its work. We will keep it open on that basis.

Members indicated agreement.