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Chamber and committees

Public Petitions Committee

Meeting date: Thursday, December 7, 2017

Agenda: Continued Petition, New Petitions, Continued Petitions


Continued Petitions

Judiciary (Register of Interests) (PE1458)

The Convener

The fourth and final item today is consideration of five continued petitions. The first petition for consideration under this item is PE1458, from Peter Cherbi, on a register of interests for members of Scotland’s judiciary

We last considered the petition in June, when we took evidence from Lord Carloway, the Lord President. We agreed to reflect on that evidence and we have a briefing note that summarises the issues that came up in that evidence session. We also have two submissions from the petitioner that convey his response to the evidence and provide information about additional developments in relation to the recusal of judges.

As members are aware, the petition has been under consideration for five years and we have a good understanding of the arguments for and against the introduction of a register of interests for judges. There has been some movement on that.

Do members have any comments on what we should do next?

Angus MacDonald

As you say, convener, the petition has been on-going for five years. It is worth noting that it was originally based on the consideration of the Register of Pecuniary Interests of Judges Bill in New Zealand, which was dropped after we started to take evidence on Peter Cherbi’s petition.

We have taken extensive evidence on the petition over the past five years, including from the former Lord President, Lord Gill, the current Lord President, Lord Carloway, as well as the former Judicial Complaints Reviewers Moi Ali and Gillian Thompson. We appreciate the time that they have all given to the committee.

The petition has already secured a result, to the extent that there is more transparency because judicial recusals are now published, which did not happen previously. It is worth pointing out that that still does not happen in England, Wales and Northern Ireland. We should be proud that the petition has achieved that.

However, I note that the petitioner has suggested that we take evidence from Baroness Hale, President of the UK Supreme Court, as well as from the new Judicial Complaints Reviewer. It would stretch the bounds of the petition to take evidence from Baroness Hale, as the petition urges the Scottish Government to create a register of judicial interests in Scotland. I am not sure that our remit extends to the UK Supreme Court. Mr Cherbi should perhaps take that aspect of the matter to the UK Parliament Petitions Committee, which may have the remit.

The Convener

I sense that we have agreement to the approach outlined by Angus MacDonald, which is not to take further evidence, but to bring together our conclusions and write to the Scottish Government, recognising that there has been some progress. Do we agree to draft a letter on our conclusions in private, although the final letter will be in the public domain?

Members indicated agreement.

I agree, but we must move forward. We have been considering the petition for five years and Mr Cherbi’s latest submission shows a degree of frustration, which I share.

The Convener

We understand that, but there should also be recognition of the fact that there has been some progress.

Do members agree to send the letter to the Lord President as well as the cabinet secretary?

Members indicated agreement.

Prescribed Drug Dependence and Withdrawal (PE1651)

The Convener

The next continued petition is PE1651, by Marion Brown, on prescribed drug dependence and withdrawal. We last considered the petition on 29 June 2017, when we agreed to write to the Scottish Government, the British Medical Association, the Westminster all-party parliamentary group for prescribed drug dependence, the Scottish Association for Mental Health and the Samaritans. Responses and a written submission from the petitioner have now been received and that information is included in our meeting papers.

The Scottish Government’s written submission highlighted that the significant rise in the number of people being prescribed antidepressants can be attributed to a reduction in stigma attached to mental health, better diagnosis and treatment of depression and that it reflects the sustained rise in demand for mental health services across Scotland.

The petitioner re-emphasised her concerns that people are taking antidepressants over a longer period of time because they have not been supported to come off them safely. The petitioner also highlighted that although SIGN—Scottish intercollegiate guidelines network—guidelines recommend initial alternatives to antidepressants in all but the most severe cases of depression, those alternatives are often not available and that waiting times for non-pharmacological treatment

“make a mockery of the application of the SIGN guidance”.

Members will recall from previous consideration of the petition that the British Medical Association published an analysis report focused on prescription drugs with an established dependence potential and withdrawal effects. One of the recommendations in the report is for the UK Government to work with the devolved nations to introduce a national 24-hour helpline for prescribed drug dependence. The Scottish Government has indicated that it does not have the resources available to fund such a helpline.

The committee might also wish to note that the Welsh Assembly is currently considering a similar petition and that a number of recent news articles have highlighted the issues that are raised in the petition. The petitioner has also brought to our attention the recent publication by the NHS Information Services Division of statistics for death by suicide in the period from 2009 to 2015. In relation to the 5,119 individuals who died from suicide in that period, the report notes:

“Over half (59%) had at least one mental health drug prescription dispensed within 12 months of death. Over four out of five ... of these individuals were prescribed an antidepressant drug, alone or in combination with other medication.”

The report also notes:

“The most common form of recorded contact with health services was a mental health drug prescription”.

It would perhaps be interesting to connect this to our earlier discussion. When I read the Scottish Government submission, I was concerned that it implied that more prescriptions suggests that there is more awareness, when it might be that people are just more likely to be prescribed inappropriately. We do not know what the truth is, but a correlation is not necessarily the same as a causal link. Do members have any comments?

Brian Whittle

Those kind of conclusions are anecdotal at best. There is good work being done, but there are also more things to be explored. With an earlier petition, we discussed bringing in the Minister for Mental Health, so perhaps we could ask her about this one at the same time.

Michelle Ballantyne

It would be good to have her here to cover both, but the petitions should not be taken together. We should take them separately, because one very much relates to children and young people—it is about how we work with them and the services for them. I do not know whether the minister could cope with dealing with one petition after the other, but it would be logical to do that.

The Convener

They should be scheduled one after the other, with plenty of time for the minister to address the questions. There is a connection, in that people, through whatever circumstances, end up being prescribed prescription drugs but there is no means by which they can be supported to come off the drugs. I do not pretend to be able to properly interpret the statistics that the petitioner highlighted, so it would be useful to have that conversation with the minister.

Michelle Ballantyne

Obviously, the issues are strongly linked because, as we heard earlier, the majority of problems start in adolescence and some problems will be a continuation of those that were not solved in the first place. Perhaps we should allow the whole meeting for that.

The minister would be able to bring along the relevant officials to ensure that that is addressed.

It is a hugely important issue, so it would be good to have the minister along to allow us to ask the relevant questions.

The Convener

The information that was provided by the petitioner gives us a lot of food for thought about why the petition matters so much to her. We need to tease out the issue about appropriate prescription because—this was said earlier but it is important to underline it—it is necessary for some people to be prescribed drugs and there ought not to be stigma about that, but there is a question about whether people are being supported to come back off the drugs or whether they are inappropriately prescribed in the first place.

Is the committee agreed?

Members indicated agreement.

Thank you, and I thank the petitioner again for her interest.

Forestry (Regulation) (PE1654)

The Convener

The next petition is PE1654, by Ian Munn, on forestry regulation. At our previous consideration of the petition, on 22 June 2017, we agreed to write to the Scottish Government, Confor, Forestry Commission Scotland, the Forestry Contracting Association, the Scottish Timber Trade Association, the Woodland Trust, the Royal Scottish Forestry Society and relevant local authorities. Responses have been received from them, as well as a written submission from the petitioner, and that information is included in our meeting papers.

The committee asked the Scottish Government what progress has been made on the road by sea timber transport initiative and what the benefits and limitations are of such initiatives. The Scottish Government’s response highlighted that it provides a subsidy for the timberlink service, which moves 80,000 to 100,000 tonnes of timber by sea from Argyll to Ayrshire, removing up to 1 million lorry miles per year from the road network. The Scottish Government’s response recognised that, in the majority of cases where timber is shipped to market, at least some part of the rural road network will need to be used.

The committee also asked the Scottish Government whether it intends to introduce measures on consultation in the forestry sector in either primary or secondary legislation with the introduction of the Forestry and Land Management (Scotland) Bill. The Government’s written submission confirmed that it has no plans to do so, reporting the strong culture of collaborative working that currently exists between local authorities and the forestry sector on a non-statutory basis, as well as the high level of consultation and guidance within the sector. That was also reflected in the majority of written submissions received. However, the petitioner re-emphasised the importance of including timber transport in the bill, as the industry has been shown to be either unable or unwilling to self-regulate.

I thank the local authorities and others who have sent substantial responses, which have helped the committee’s thinking.

Do members have any comments?

Angus MacDonald

I understand the petitioner’s frustration on the matter, but judging by the responses that we have received from stakeholders—albeit some of them have a vested interest in the industry—it would appear that, thanks to schemes such as the Scottish strategic timber transport scheme, significant progress is being made. Given that the majority of respondents do not support or recognise the need for the introduction of statutory measures, there is a strong argument to close the petition under rule 15.7 of standing orders.

Rona Mackay

I support Angus MacDonald’s point. We have had a fantastic response and from it I can only conclude that there is a strong argument to close the petition. It is clear that, when it comes to forestry routes and so on, local authorities have the power to sort things out by imposing traffic restrictions. That has been working and so there is no need to introduce statutory measures.

Michelle Ballantyne

I have huge sympathy with the petitioner, because I live in a rural area that experiences a lot of timber transport movements. There is no doubt that he has real frustration, which is shared by much of the population. However, we cannot introduce legislation that would solve most of the problems. Agreements have to be made place by place and it cannot be one size fits all. We need individual solutions for each area and much of that is achieved through relationships, negotiations and agreement. That is the only way to do it, so we must encourage that. The excellent response that the committee had is indicative of the work that is going on behind the scenes.

The petitioner mentions damage to private property and I would remind him that he has the same rights to claim against that as one would have for any damage to private property. That can be difficult sometimes, but that is what people need to do. I understand that much of the damage that he refers to is verge ripping, which is difficult to address and is a result of the nature of our narrow roads. That will be an on-going problem that we will keep working on—it is the reality of the world that we live in.

I support the view that there is nowhere to go with the petition at the moment and that we should close it.

I agree, given that the Scottish Government has indicated that it has no plans to do anything in that respect. There is nowhere left to go.

The Convener

I was struck by two things. First, the petitioner was sceptical about whether the responses had been co-ordinated. However, whether or not they have been co-ordinated, there was a strong feeling that the petition should not be taken forward, particularly the idea of recognising responsibility in the form of a levy. Secondly, however, closing the petition would not close the opportunity for individual members of the Parliament to lodge amendments to the Forestry and Land Management (Scotland) Bill to test the issues further and see whether a legislative route is available. That is another possible action for the petition, although not one that the committee would be able to undertake—it would be up to individual members who have been presented with the case to consider whether they want to do that.

I sense that there is agreement that we should close the petition under rule 15.7 of standing orders, on the basis that the majority of written responses received do not support the action called for in the petition, but we thank the petitioner again for highlighting the issues and getting a response that seeks to reassure around the responsibility for the industry to work together with local authorities and others. Is that agreed?

Members indicated agreement.


Angus MacDonald

When we write to the petitioner advising him of our decision, will there be a section in the letter giving him the advice that one option is to attempt to secure amendments to the Forestry and Land Management (Scotland) Bill?

Yes, we can do that.

The bill is at stage 2.

Somebody might take up the issue at stage 2, but it could certainly be done at stage 3.

I believe that the bill was at committee yesterday for stage 2, so time is really tight.

I did not realise that.

The Convener

It would be slightly more difficult to secure an amendment as suggested at stage 3, but that is an option. It should be remembered that a forestry and land management strategy will come out of the bill, so the petitioner might want to influence the shape of that strategy.

Elected Members (Threats or Assaults) (PE1656)

The Convener

The next petition is PE1656, by Rob McDowall, on threats or assaults on sitting members of Parliament, their staff and families. We last considered the petition on 22 June 2017 and agreed to write to the Scottish Government, the Crown Office and Procurator Fiscal Service, the Faculty of Advocates, the Law Society of Scotland, Police Scotland and the Scottish Sentencing Council. Responses have now been received and are included in our meeting papers.

The majority of responses received highlighted that the existing common law and statutory legislation provides for the prosecution of assaults and threatening behaviour committed against anyone, including parliamentarians, their staff and families. Police Scotland’s written submission highlighted that the statutory aggravations being called for by the petitioner could complement the existing protective security measures to mitigate risk to parliamentarians. However, the Scottish Government is of the view that there would be significant challenges in setting out in statute all the aggravating and mitigating factors for a court to consider in sentencing an offender.

Do members have any comments?

I have not changed my view. I think that the law sufficiently covers already what the petition seeks and that it is a question of applying it and not creating new laws.

Rona Mackay

Agreed. The existing law covers what the petition outlines and the responses that we have received make that clear. We should therefore close the petition, because I do not think that there is anywhere else for it to go.

Brian Whittle

I think that the same conclusions have been reached for other public servants, such as those in the police, the fire service and the ambulance service, which is that the existing law adequately covers them with regard to what the petition outlines.

The Convener

I remember that, when the Emergency Workers (Scotland) Bill went through, it was felt that there was a need to signal the value that we place on people running towards danger. We looked at examples such as firefighters being assaulted as they ran towards a fire or somebody going to a road traffic accident being assaulted, but the point was made that everybody who works in the emergency services can be at risk.

I suppose, on balance, in terms of the risk to elected representatives, I would be comforted by the existing law. We might think more about issues such as making sure that our staff are safe. It is legitimate to assess security risks to our staff and any risks that we take on. When I was first elected, I would do surgeries on my own in a place where nobody was keeping an eye on me, but that just would not happen now. A lot of progress has been made on protecting people against incidents, which is maybe as important as ensuring that, if an incident takes place, the court takes it seriously.

It is important that we do not end up with a siege mentality, because the majority of people are decent. We have quite robust laws around how people behave; the issue is how we implement them.

The Convener

My sense is that the petitioner was motivated by recognising that parliamentary staff in particular can be vulnerable and be seen as a target. Certainly, on all too many occasions, front-line staff answering the phone can be subject to abuse. That is probably true for the public sector generally, but staff ought not to be treated that way.

We therefore recognise the motivation for the petition, but I think that we agree that we should close it, under rule 15.7 of standing orders, on the basis that existing legislation and common law are considered to provide sufficient protections for elected members, their staff and family members. Is that agreed?

Members indicated agreement.

Pluserix Vaccine (PE1658)

The Convener

The final petition on our agenda is PE1658, by Wendy Stephen, on compensation for those who suffered a neurological disability following administration of the Pluserix vaccine between 1988 and 1992. The petitioner has requested that we defer consideration of the petition until a future meeting—I understand that she would like to attend a meeting and observe our discussion of her petition—and we might want to get further comments on the petition before we consider it. I have agreed that we should consider her request that the petition be deferred. Are members content to defer consideration of the petition until our meeting on 21 December?

Members indicated agreement.

With that, I thank members for their attendance and close the meeting.

Meeting closed at 11:21.