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Chamber and committees

Meeting date: Wednesday, September 8, 2021

Citizen Participation and Public Petitions Committee 08 September 2021

Agenda: Continued Petitions, New Petitions


Contents


New Petitions


Adult Disability Payment (Eligibility Criteria) (PE1854)

Item 2 is consideration of new petitions. It might be useful for anyone who is following the proceedings to know that, as a standard working practice, the committee used to meet and then agree to ask the Scottish Government for its views on a petition. Now, as a matter of course, the committee writes to the Scottish Government and other stakeholders to ask for their views on petitions, in order that, when considering a petition, the committee is as informed as possible for each meeting. I would not want anyone who is following our proceedings or any petitioner to think that that unduly influences the committee’s subsequent discussion or consideration. It allows us to have at least a basic understanding of the Government’s reaction to the petition, along with the response of other stakeholders.

The first new petition, PE1854, which has been lodged by Keith Park on behalf of the MS Society, calls on the Scottish Government to

“remove the 20 metre rule from the proposed adult disability payment eligibility criteria or identify an alternative form of support for people with mobility needs.”

The adult disability payment is due to replace the personal independence payment in Scotland from summer 2022, following a pilot scheme that will take place in spring 2022. Under the principle of safe and secure transition, the Scottish versions of the Department for Work and Pensions disability and carer benefits will, at least in the short term, have much the same rules as their DWP equivalents. In its submission, the Scottish Government states that it consulted on the draft regulations for adult disability payments between 21 December 2020 and 15 March 2021. The Scottish Government has advised that it will review the responses to the consultation and, if required, adjust the draft regulations in light of the feedback.

The Scottish Government’s submission highlights that the DWP has been clear that, in order for ADP to be considered a comparable benefit to PIP, and to ensure that Scottish clients remain entitled to various reserved payments, it must be delivered on a “like for like basis”. The submission notes that

“any changes which widen eligibility risk DWP deciding that ADP is not a comparable benefit to PIP and withdrawing automatic entitlement to reserved payments from Scottish clients.”

As such, it advises that while the period of transition from PIP to ADP is on-going, it has decided

“not to make any significant changes to eligibility criteria before ADP is launched.”

The submission advises that the Scottish Government is focusing on the significant changes it can make

“to how disabled people in Scotland experience accessing disability assistance, such as providing additional application channels and replacing assessments with person-centred consultations.”

The Scottish Government has committed to facilitating an independent review of ADP in 2023, one year after delivery has begun, which it believes will enable all of the eligibility criteria to be considered

“in the round rather than any changes being made in a piecemeal way.”

In their submission, the petitioner points to the Scottish Government’s consultation on proposals for ADP, highlighting that, in their responses, people with disabilities and organisations working on their behalf identified the need to remove the 20m rule. The submission notes that in the Scottish Government’s proposals for ADP, it is not argued that the rule is an effective way to measure mobility.

In response to the risk of ADP not being considered a comparable benefit to PIP, the petitioner argues that changing the 20m rule to a 50m rule would not impact on passported benefits on the basis that an enhanced rate of mobility, compared with the standard rate, does not entitle individuals to any additional DWP benefits.

That is quite complicated, but also direct. Do members have any comments?

We could write to the Scottish Government to seek an update on the outcome of the consultation, ahead of the independent review in 2023, which is a wee while away yet. It would be good to get an update on progress on the consultation and what is being considered in that, as it might answer some of the issues that the petitioners have raised.

I agree with Bill Kidd that we should keep the petition open and I back up his suggestions. I would like to get a legal opinion on the suggestion that ADP must be delivered on a “like for like basis” and that

“any changes which widen eligibility risk DWP deciding that ADP is not a comparable benefit to PIP and withdrawing automatic entitlement to reserved payments from Scottish clients.”

I would like to know whether that is definitely the case.

I echo that challenge to the DWP on the issue of a “like for like basis”. It is also important that we test the provisions of the Scotland Act 2016 on where the competence for devolved benefits and the topping-up or enhancing of existing benefits lies. It is an important issue that we need to interrogate; it merits thorough exploration by the Parliament.

There has been a risk-averse approach in the civil service in designing the benefit, which could cause significant harm to the people in Scotland who we are trying to assist. Fundamentally, the entire system of arbitrary tick-box exercises for assessing eligibility is absurd and has no basis in clinical evidence. It is a policy that is bigoted against disabled people. Redesigning the policy to move away from that would be advantageous from my perspective.

The idea that the Scottish Parliament should default to the same policy is not reasonable. We need to test that issue as such a presumption might be having a chilling effect. The petition is a valid way to interrogate the provisions. There is also the wider constitutional element in testing where the threshold of the 2016 act sits and what discretion the Parliament has. It is important that we do not make people who are suffering significant hardship wait until 2023 for some sort of risk-averse approach to be introduced on a like-for-like basis, and then test it after that. We need to move more urgently.

11:30  

Thank you. We can write to the DWP. The Scottish Government has asserted that the DWP has taken a position. We do not know whether it is actually the case that the DWP would regard a change from 20m to 50m as a significant violation of the like-for-like principle. I simply see from the submissions that the Scottish Government suggests that that might be the case. It would be worth testing that.

The petitioner has noted that it would not lead to any enhancement of benefit, as such; it would just make access to the benefit slightly easier for the people whom it is meant to assist. We should clarify that point, at least, in addition to the suggestion that came forward. We might see where the response to those representations takes us, and pursue the discussion after that. Does that seem reasonable?

Members indicated agreement.


Surgical Mesh and Fixation Devices (PE1865)

PE1865 calls for the suspension of all surgical mesh and fixation devices. It is a new petition and has been lodged by Roseanna Clarkin, Lauren McDougall and Graham Robertson. The petition calls on the Scottish Government

“to suspend the use of all surgical mesh and fixation devices while ... a review of all surgical procedures which use polyester, polypropylene or titanium is carried out; and ... guidelines for the surgical use of mesh are established.”

In his submission, the Cabinet Secretary for Health and Social Care has stressed the seriousness with which the Scottish Government takes all issues relating to mesh. He has outlined the actions that the Scottish Government has taken in relation to the use of transvaginal mesh for the treatment of stress urinary incontinence and pelvic organ prolapse. We discussed those things in our consideration of the first petition this morning.

The cabinet secretary has also highlighted the high vigilance scrutiny protocol, which was introduced for some other procedures, including abdominally inserted mesh for pelvic organ prolapse, and the research that was commissioned by the Scottish Government into the use of mesh in inguinal hernia repair, which concluded that

“mesh resulted in lower rates of recurrence, fewer serious adverse events and similar or lower risk of chronic pain”

than non-mesh procedures. As a result, the cabinet secretary does not believe that there is evidence to justify a pause in the use of relevant devices.

In response, one of the petitioners has highlighted the many personal testimonies that have been shared with the committee, detailing the life-changing effects of having mesh procedures. The submission suggests that not all patients are being given sufficient information to be able to give fully informed consent. Neither does it seem that all surgeons are clear about when it is appropriate to use mesh.

Since the publication of our papers, we have received two additional submissions from the petitioners. The first details key questions to which the petitioner seeks answers. The second highlights the importance of the Cumberlege review and asks why more progress has not been made in delivering on its recommendations—which, from memory, I believe the Scottish Government accepted, in full, in a response that it made in the chamber.

It is important also to emphasise, for those who have followed mesh procedures historically, that the petition relates to all mesh procedures—for men, women and children—and is distinct from the petition that we considered previously, which related to issues that affect women’s health exclusively.

The petition is new and is important. Do colleagues have any proposals that we might consider?

I suggest that we write to the cabinet secretary to ask for further information. When I read the petition, I empathised and sympathised. It is very upsetting to see what some people are having to go through.

I am struck by the words in the response from the cabinet secretary that there are

“fewer serious adverse events and ... lower risk of chronic pain”

than for non-mesh procedures. I think that we received exactly the same testimony in relation to the original mesh petition at the first point of hearing. Until people knew that there was an issue to speak out about, it was not much in the public domain.

Can we ask the cabinet secretary to appear before us, rather than write to him, so that we can ask questions and hear evidence?

Constituents who have contacted me have raised a wider issue that merits investigation. The use of such products and the potential defects that result in significant chronic pain and other medical complications are not well understood, but the significant level of anecdotal evidence merits formal investigation. Insufficient effort has been put in to achieve that, so the petition is worth while. It would be reasonable to initiate inquiries with the cabinet secretary in the first instance by inviting him to say how the Government will proceed with a formal investigation.

I think that the committee is inclined to make such a request. We might say that we will raise progress on the recommendations that the Cumberlege review made on mesh at the same time as we pursue the fresh issues.


Wheelchair Users (Improvements to Bus Travel) (PE1866)

PE1866, which was lodged by Daryl Cooper, calls on the Scottish Government to introduce legislation so that wheelchair users can face frontward when travelling on a bus.

The Scottish Government has explained that legislation that governs bus travel for wheelchair users is reserved to Westminster and is dealt with in the Public Service Vehicles Accessibility Regulations 2000. The submission highlights that, as part of the UK Government’s recently published national bus strategy, “Bus Back Better”, it has committed to completing a review of the regulations by the end of 2023. The review is expected to be wide ranging and to consider the extent to which the regulations effectively support access to services and how they could be improved.

In response, the petitioner has highlighted that the regulations are in place

“to enable disabled people to travel safely and in comfort.”

He argues that being forced to travel in a rear-facing space might not be comfortable for disabled people and that it should not be for bus operators to choose whether wheelchair spaces are rear facing. Do members have comments?

We must close the petition under rule 15.7 of standing orders, because the matter is reserved to Westminster. However, I ask the committee to write to ask the petitioner to engage in the review that the UK Government will undertake by 2023.

I resist the move to close the petition. The issue seems prima facie to be reserved, but significant provisions are in devolved legislation, and particularly the Transport (Scotland) Act 2019. That act provides for establishing bus services improvement partnerships, which probably represent the weakest form of regulation after a purely laissez-faire system. The act also contains provisions on franchising and direct public ownership. The Scottish Government has significant regulatory capacity when defining a bus franchise—for example, it can insist on the achievement of certain service standards. That depends not necessarily on legislation but on how well designed a franchise agreement is.

There are significant financial incentives. About 45 per cent of all bus company turnover in Scotland is from public subsidy, and provisions or conditionality could be attached to that public subsidy, which is from the Scottish Government. New vehicles that were procured could be required to meet a certain quality of specification, which would provide such capability in a service.

Given those factors alone, there are significant provisions for the Scottish Parliament as a legislature to design a better service standard that would meet the petitioner’s concerns. The issue is not solely about reserved powers. The committee also has capacity to engage with the Scotland Office and ask what efforts it might make to amend legislation at Westminster to back up any action. There is a breadth of opportunity for us to pursue the petition.

I certainly have long memories of the petition on seat belts in school buses, which, I seem to remember, eventually led to the minister, Mike Penning, agreeing to devolve competences to the Scottish Parliament. I do not know whether that ever actually happened—[Interruption.] Apparently it did, some time ago.

David Torrance, having heard from Paul Sweeney, would you be content for us to explore some of these issues further with the Scottish Government?

Yes.

I am happy to do that and to keep the petition open on that basis. Is that agreed?

Members indicated agreement.


British Sign Language (National Qualification) (PE1867)

PE1867, which was lodged by Scott Macmillan, calls on the Scottish Government to encourage the Scottish Qualifications Authority to establish a national qualification in British Sign Language at SCQF level 2, under the Scottish credit and qualifications framework. The petitioner is calling for the new qualification so that BSL can be eligible to be an L2 language, which would allow it to be taught from primary 1.

In her submission, the Cabinet Secretary for Education and Skills explains that the establishment of new qualifications is a matter for the SQA. However, she highlights that children must be able to study an L2 language

“at secondary school to the level of a National Qualification”.

There are currently no national qualifications in place for BSL. Therefore, as matters stand, even with the creation of a national qualification in British Sign Language at SCQF level 2, BSL would still not be eligible to be an L2 language.

That is definitely a chicken-and-egg definition. What thoughts do members have in response to the petition?

Can we write to the SQA to invite its comments on the proposal? Personally, I think that the significant numbers of our constituents who use BSL on a regular basis, including people who use it as part of their occupation, some of whom are interpreters, deserve the opportunity to be recognised in this manner.

My sympathies are very much in support of that proposal. People and organisations have regularly come to us in the Parliament and have done their best to educate and train MSPs in the use of sign language. I remember thinking previously that it would be useful to have a professional or educational qualification that could be pursued in that regard.

In the first instance, let us see whether the SQA can explain to us whether such a qualification could be introduced, what would be required in introducing it and what the SQA sees as the obstacles to the proposal being progressed. Once we have the response, we will consider the petition afresh.


Working Single Parents (PE1868)

Our final new petition this morning is PE1868, which was lodged by Laura McKain and which calls on the Scottish Government to provide support to single parents by increasing the council tax discount available to single parents from 25 per cent to 50 per cent and lobbying the UK Government to create a working single parent tax allowance and a household income-based child benefit.

In its submission, the Scottish Government highlights its commitment to reforming council tax and measures that it has in place to support low-income households. Those include the council tax reduction scheme, which provides relief to just under 500,000 low-income households, and the Scottish child payment, which pays £40 per week per eligible child. The Scottish Government has committed to extending eligibility to under-16s by the end of 2022. The Scottish Government argues that the Scottish child payment, alongside the best start grant and best start foods, could provide more than £5,300 of financial support to families by the time that their first child turns six.

Having had a chance to consider the submissions, I wonder what suggestions members might have as to how to proceed. It is quite a complicated matter. There appears to be a determined course of action that has been put in place by the Scottish Government. It has committed to extending eligibility. It does not have the competence to intervene on matters relating to UK income tax if they are beyond the responsibility of the Scottish Parliament. The Scottish Government has indicated that it is supporting 500,000 low-income households.

As important as the issue is, I am not immediately clear as to what further course of action lies open to us, having now sought and obtained the views of the Scottish Government. I do not know whether colleagues are minded to close the petition on that basis, or whether you feel that there is some further avenue that we could possibly explore.

I agree that it is very difficult to explore any other avenues. I am happy to close the petition under rule 15.7 of standing orders.

I do not think that we do that with any great pleasure.

No—I do not.

However, our options are limited. If the committee is agreed, that is the course of action that we will follow.

Thank you all very much for your contributions this morning. I thank our colleagues who joined us.

Meeting closed at 11:46.