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Chamber and committees

Public Petitions Committee

Meeting date: Thursday, September 10, 2020

Agenda: New Petitions, Continued Petitions


New Petitions

Water Poverty (PE1793)

The Convener (Johann Lamont)

Good morning. I welcome everyone to the 12th meeting in 2020 of the Public Petitions Committee. This meeting is being held virtually.

Agenda item 1 is consideration of new petitions. The first new petition is PE1793, on alleviation of water poverty. The petition, which was lodged by Gordon Walker, calls on the Scottish Parliament to urge the Scottish Government to remove water and sewerage charges from all households in Scotland that are on a low income or on benefits.

The written submission from the Cabinet Secretary for Environment, Climate Change and Land Reform explains that water charges are linked to council tax banding, because that

“will frequently reflect ability to pay”,

and allows reductions and exemptions to apply to both council tax and water charges.

The Scottish Parliament information centre briefing and the cabinet secretary’s letter highlight the Scottish Government’s proposals to increase both the discount that is available and the number of households that are eligible when the new charging period begins next year.

It is an interesting petition. In my view, there is often concern when people are told that they do not have to pay council tax but still have a charge for water and sewerage. I do not think that people quite understand the connection between the two. I do not know whether anybody knows the view of the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities, but the cabinet secretary has provided interesting commentary on the matter.

I invite views from members. I will bring in Maurice Corry first.

Maurice Corry (West Scotland) (Con)

Thank you, convener. I will pick up on the points that you raised. We should write to COSLA to get its say on the petition. I think that there is an anomaly in the system. When I was a councillor, low-income families and, certainly, people who were unemployed were given the 25 per cent discount on the council tax, but I think that we need to look at the subject in a bit more detail. I ask that COSLA be brought in and asked for its opinions.

Gail Ross (Caithness, Sutherland and Ross) (SNP)

There is a good explanation in our papers of why water charges are linked to the council tax. As you said, convener, the Scottish Government has consulted on changes for the new period that will start next year, and it plans to increase the discount that is available.

I am happy enough to involve COSLA to see what its opinion is. I agree with that course of action.

Tom Mason (North East Scotland) (Con)

I, too, agree. It is disappointing that the petitioner has not come back to us with a further submission in response to the Government’s comments. With some of the decisions that the Government has made, it is not clear exactly what it has done, although it is doing something. I would like more information from COSLA. I think that that is the route for us to go down.

I am happy to go with members’ recommendation that we write COSLA to get its views.

The Convener

Thank you for that.

My sense is that members think that there is an issue. Gail Ross is right to say that our papers, including the cabinet secretary’s letter, provide an explanation of how the Government has progressed. I note that it has consulted on the matter, so there is recognition that there is an issue.

I wonder whether COSLA has the view that separating water and sewerage charges from the council tax would create problems for collection. I know that, in the past, some local authorities have objected to the fact that they have had to collect water charges from people from whom they were not collecting council tax.

The committee agrees that we should recognise that there is an issue, but for our own satisfaction we are interested in the views of COSLA on whether what is proposed in the petition is credible or doable, and whether there are issues around that. No member disagrees, so we will write to COSLA about the petition.

Cyclists (Safety) (PE1802)

The Convener

The next new petition for consideration is PE1802, on improving safety for cyclists, which has been lodged by Pat Johnson. The petition calls on the Scottish Government to establish a standard mandatory brightness and width of flood for bicycle lights, to carry out a publicity campaign to encourage responsible cycling, and to increase availability of training facilities.

The Scottish Government advises that establishing a mandatory brightness for bicycle lights is a reserved matter for the United Kingdom Government. It also advises that it is committed to improving the safety of vulnerable road users, including cyclists. Cyclists were identified in 2016 as a priority in the mid-term review of “Go Safe on Scotland’s Roads: road safety framework to 2020”. The Scottish Government does not think that a campaign is required at this time, but it encourages, and is increasing, cycle training for adults and children in order to increase cycling standards and safety.

My view is that the matter is becoming increasingly important. People have been heartened by the number of people they have seen out cycling during lockdown and it is clear that they have been taking the opportunity to test their own courage by going out to cycle. We are seeing local authorities trying to make that easier. I think that it is an important issue.

I am interested to hear the views of other committee members on whether enough is being done. The numbers that were flagged up around cycling training for young people seem to me to be a bit low. On the other hand, the Scottish Government clearly recognises that this is something that it should be doing. The question is whether the Government is flagging a direction of travel that we are content with.

Gail Ross

I have a lot of sympathy for the petition, having also got back in the saddle this summer. I used to do a lot of cycling when I was younger.

I absolutely agree with the petitioner’s point about lights but, unfortunately, the matter is reserved to the UK Government. The petition mentions dynamo lights and how, by their very nature, they work only when a bike is moving, so there is an issue about what happens when cyclists are stopped at junctions. I hope that the petitioner could take that up with the UK Government, because it is a very important issue.

The Scottish Government also said that it has invested more than £1 million on bikeability training in schools. Assuming that that is the same as the old cycling proficiency test, which is what I did many moons ago in primary school, I think that that is a worthwhile investment. The younger people are when we teach them how to be careful on the road, the better. However, as the petitioner has said, many adults are getting back on bikes. It is not just children, so education has to happen across the board.

There is investment in cycling training from Cycling Scotland and from Sustrans. In my area, there has been investment in more user-friendly streetscapes, which is good to see, and I know that that has been happening in other towns and cities, as well.

I have great sympathy with the petition, but the Scottish Government thinks that it is doing enough on road safety and prefers to focus on drivers, rather than on cyclists, and there have been awareness-raising campaigns in the cycling community. I do not see how we can take the petition further, unfortunately. I would like to see the brightness of lights being addressed, but that is outwith our capabilities. With regret, I think that the only course of action is to close the petition under rule 15.7 of standing orders.

Tom Mason

I do not have much to add. The area where Scotland could generally improve the situation is in enforcement of bike regulations. A lot of bikes that go around do not have the right reflectors or are in a bad state of repair. If bikes have the right reflectors, particularly on darker nights and even if they are stationary and their dynamos are not working, car headlights will indicate their presence. Being noticeable on dark nights is important for bicycles; it is quite frightening for drivers who suddenly come across bicycles that are not lit, particularly at dusk. We need to keep the training programmes going. The more people are trained and understand the interrelationships between pedestrians, cyclists and cars, the better life will be for everybody.

Gail Ross summed up the position perfectly. I am happy to close the petition under standing orders rule 15.7.

Maurice Corry

Following on from what Tom Mason was talking about, I note that there are still a lot of bikes out there without proper legal illumination on the back or front. We are also seeing an increase in the number of little sports bikes that young people ride, sometimes on the pavements. They certainly do not have lights, and so on. I would like the Scottish Government to persuade the local authorities to make sure that the current legislation is implemented and acted on. However, I agree with Gail Ross and David Torrance that taking the petition further will not achieve much beyond the advice that we are asking the Scottish Government to give local authorities to implement the regulations. Because it addresses a reserved matter, we have no choice but to close the petition.

The Convener

There is a sense that the petition covers an important issue, but there is not much that the Public Petitions Committee can usefully add, apart from flagging up that we think that the issue is a concern. The petitioner might want to contact their local MP on the specific important issue of lights.

On more general awareness raising, we could, in closing the petition, write to the Scottish Government to say that we recognise that a lot of positive work has been done around encouraging cycling, but that there are consequences to that. We can flag up to the Government the issues that the petition has flagged up, and say that we hope that it will keep a watching brief on the impact of there being a greater number of cyclists now than there were in the past, and that it will consider how it can provide information to people.

If the petitioner feels in a year that no progress has been made or continues to be concerned, the petition can be brought back to the Public Petitions Committee.

My sense is that the committee agrees to close the petition but also recognises the importance of the issues, that we encourage the petitioner to pursue the reserved matters with their MP, and that we agree to write to the Scottish Government to flag up the key issues around cyclists’ safety, which to an extent have been exacerbated or accelerated by lockdown. I do not see any disagreement with that, so we can close the petition.

Obviously, we thank the petitioner for raising the issue with the Public Petitions Committee. I emphasise again the petitioner’s right to bring the petition back in a year, if they feel that it is important to do so.

Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (PE1803)

The Convener

The next new petition for consideration today is PE1803, on the right to boycott, divestment and sanctions, which has been lodged by Dr Eurig Scandrett on behalf of the Scottish Palestine Solidarity Campaign. The petition calls on the Scottish Government to support the right of public bodies and institutions in Scotland to debate and, where doing so is democratically supported, to endorse and implement boycott, divestment and sanctions? against foreign countries and those who trade with them.

The Scottish Government advises that it does not advocate a policy of boycotting Israel, believing that engagement with the Israeli Government provides an opportunity, but it strongly discourages trade with and investment in illegal settlements. The Scottish Government also advises that it does not wish to mandate how Scottish public institutions, organisations or individuals approach the issue.

Do members have any comments or suggestions for action? I am interested in hearing the committee’s views, beginning with Tom Mason.


Tom Mason

I have no strong views on the matter. In this case, we should support the Scottish Government’s attitude and encourage the UK Government to develop its UK-wide legislation. At this stage, we should close the petition and not proceed with any further action.

David Torrance

I have some sympathy with the petition. However, seeing as the Scottish Government does not support it and does not wish to impose such a mandate on public institutions and organisations, I am happy for us to close it, under rule 15.7 of standing orders.

Maurice Corry

I am of a mind to close the petition, under rule 15.7. I do not want the Scottish Government to mandate how institutions source their material or services from a country, provided that the entities involved are legal. We should simply close the petition.

Gail Ross

That is the correct decision. The Scottish Government has made it clear that it does not want to mandate how institutions approach the issue. In a democratic society, that is entirely the right way to go. I therefore suggest that we close the petition.

The Convener

There is a strong view from the committee that we should close the petition. We recognise that the petition raises important issues, and there is nothing that would prevent the BDS campaign from pursuing and arguing for such an approach with individual institutions. Nevertheless, the Scottish Government takes the view that it is not its job to advocate for that campaign.

Members recognise the issues, but we agree that we should close the petition under rule 15.7, on the basis that the Scottish Government does

“not wish to mandate how Scottish public institutions, organisations or individuals approach this issue”,

but instead would

“encourage the UK Government to develop ... legislation in a manner which restricts the scope of application, and respects the autonomy of Scottish institutions in making decisions on this issue.”

That is the other side of the argument. Although it is not for the Scottish Government to direct people, institutions and organisations should be able to campaign in that way if they wish to do so.

Members agree that we should do so, so we will close the petition.

Paying University Students (Compensation) (PE1807)

The Convener

The next new petition for consideration is PE1807, on compensation for paying university students. The petition, which was lodged by Jordan Hunter, calls on the Scottish Government to make funding available for Scottish universities to compensate them for paying students for lost class time and for receiving a lower quality of education as a result of staff strikes and the Covid-19 crisis. We have received submissions from the Scottish Government and from the petitioner.

The Scottish Government says:

“The sector has already done a huge amount of work both in terms of contributing to wider efforts around responding to the impact of the pandemic and in terms of providing advice to staff and students.”

It notes that it has

“announced a £5 million digital inclusion support fund for Further Education, Higher Education and Community Education learners”,

among other support. The Scottish Government also advises that

“Universities are autonomous bodies with responsibility for managing their own affairs”.

We will hear first from David Torrance.

David Torrance

The petition opens up a whole can of worms, because universities are autonomous bodies and are responsible for their own affairs. The Scottish Government is not allowed to intervene in internal matters, such as decisions on such issues. As the convener mentioned, the Scottish Government has, as a result of Covid-19, invested in digital so that universities can provide additional learning facilities. I would be happy for us to close the petition under rule 15.7.

Maurice Corry

I do not want us to close the petition at this stage. We need a bit more information, so we should ask the Minister for Further Education, Higher Education and Science to respond to the concerns that are raised in the petitioner’s written submission. The committee needs to verify that the petition has been given due consideration.

We are in extremely unusual and difficult times. I would be happier if we could explore the petition with the minister before we come to a decision to close it, if that is the way forward.

Gail Ross

I am a bit torn both ways on this one. I acknowledge what has been said in our papers and what the Scottish Government said, which David Torrance referred to. Universities are autonomous, but there are other organisations, such as local authorities, to which we have given extra funding to get through the Covid crisis. We have put extra money into the digital inclusion support fund.

There is a difficulty in quantifying what compensation would look like. Learners did not stop learning altogether, and we need to acknowledge the amount of work that was put in by further and higher education institutions, their lecturers and staff to get courses online. Although students did not get the face-to-face teaching that they would normally expect, there was still a level of teaching.

I agree with Maurice Corry. I would quite like to hear from the minister to get his response to the points that have been raised in the petition, and to find out whether students have raised the issue with the Scottish Public Services Ombudsman. I am happy for us to keep the petition open on that basis.

Tom Mason

It is a bit too early to close the petition. There were interruptions in the past academic year and students who are starting the new academic year face an unknown situation. We do not quite know how an on-going steady state will be achieved as we go forward.

I think that we should collect more information on the issue and decide what to do after we have sought the answers to our questions from various sources. Keeping the petition open and asking for information from the education directorate would be the right thing to do at this stage.

The Convener

My own feeling is that, as Gail Ross said, it is not sufficient for the Scottish Government just to say that universities are autonomous bodies. It has intervened in not just the public sector but the private sector to support organisations that are living with the consequences of the virus, lockdown and so on.

I agree that it might be very difficult to establish what the compensation would be, and there is the argument that people might catch up after losing days to strike action, but there is an issue about the consequences of Covid. A lot of people have invested a lot of money. I am thinking of people I know whose masters courses stopped halfway through. It can be asked whether they had the opportunity to do as much as they might have done if the course had been able to run to its conclusion.

I will bring David Torrance back in if he objects to this, but my sense is that the general view of the committee is that we want to explore the matter further by writing to the ombudsman to ask whether it has had complaints and whether the issue is one that it would look at, and asking the Minister for Further Education, Higher Education and Science to respond to the concerns that are raised in the petitioner’s written submission, which have not been addressed.

Do members agree to our taking that course of action? I am not seeing disagreement; I think that David Torrance accepts that. In that case, we agree to take the action that I outlined.

Public Service Employees (Remuneration) (PE1808)

The Convener

The next new petition is PE1808, on remuneration of vital public service employees. The petition, which was lodged by Gerald Seenan, calls on the Scottish Government to substantially increase the remuneration of vital public service employees, especially national health service and community care staff. The Scottish Government advises that doctors and dentists in Scotland have received a 2.8 per cent uplift and that agenda for change staff in England and Scotland are subject to separate three-year pay deals, which were agreed in 2018. Pay for staff members in Scotland has increased by 9 per cent and, in some cases, staff who are not yet at the top of their band will have had their pay increase by 27 per cent.

Do members have comments or suggestions for action?

Maurice Corry

I suggest that we write to the Scottish Government to ask what discussions have taken place on the remuneration of community care staff. We have seen incredible acts of professionalism during the Covid pandemic. We should address the issue in the context of the public and private care roles, and relate it to what has happened in the recent period. The whole situation since March has brought out glaring gaps in remuneration.

I am keen for the committee to write to bodies that represent employees, such as the Scottish Trades Union Congress and Unison, to seek their views. We should also write to employers, if that is deemed appropriate. I am keen for us to continue the petition and to write to the bodies that I have suggested.

Gail Ross

It is absolutely right that the wages for a job should reflect the value that we as a society place on that profession. Up until the pandemic, there were care and medical staff who possibly felt undervalued. The pandemic has really brought into sharp focus the fact that it is the people on the front line, not big hedge fund managers or money people in big cities, who keep the economy going. We can never thank them enough for what they have done and continue to do.

I agree with Maurice Corry that we need to write to the Scottish Government to find out what discussions are taking place on pay deals and that we should also write to Unison and the STUC. I would also be interested in finding out from the Scottish Government about the scope of the upcoming care review. I would like to know whether it is only about residents and how we look after elderly people or whether staff and others who are involved in the care of elderly people will be included in the review. If the review is to have any teeth at all, it needs to look at the full package. I am interested to find out whether care staff’s wages, responsibilities and terms and conditions will be included in the review. We could add an extra paragraph on that in the letter to the Scottish Government on the issue of wages and remuneration.

Tom Mason

I agree with Gail Ross that various professions have performed exceptionally well during the pandemic and we will never be able to thank them enough. As a society, we are obliged to look at the whole area of care and health to ensure that we get the answer to the problems. The new care review might provide some answers.

We have an on-going situation, and it will be some time—possibly years—before we come to the right conclusions. Collecting information, identifying where we are at and establishing baselines would be a good start. At the moment, it is right to ask those questions and to keep the petition open.

It is appropriate that we write to the Scottish Government and relevant stakeholders to get information. I agree with what other members have said, and I have nothing further to add.

Maurice Corry

Gail Ross raised an extremely interesting point about the on-going care review, and it should be put across strongly to the Scottish Government—if that has not already been done—that staff should be included in the review. That should not just be a paragraph, as it is a very important issue. I believe that we should convey that point, if that is the wish of the committee. I very much support what Gail Ross said.


The Convener

I think that there is general agreement that the petition addresses a big issue. The world turned on its head, did it not? The people who were theoretically the most important turned out to be at the mercy of those who cared for and cleaned for people. Very often, the poorest paid and those in the least secure work in the public and private sectors—I am thinking in particular of cleaning staff and so on—have been absolutely fundamental to looking after people, and they have put themselves at risk.

I know from direct experience that there are people who work in the care sector who do not get paid an extra coin if they work on high days or holidays. Whatever day they work, they get paid the same money, and they do fundamentally important jobs without an awful lot of protection. I strongly agree with Gail Ross’s point that we should ask about the extent to which the care review will take account of that. We will flag up that point.

In writing to key stakeholders, we should recognise that there are other unions that organise in the sector. The GMB certainly organises among care workers. I think that we can agree to allow the clerks to consider who the key people might be. In writing to the STUC, we could ask it to consult groups and organisations that it is in contact with to respond on the issues that we have highlighted. I think that there is agreement that the issue is an important one and that we would want to pursue it in the way that has been outlined, by writing to the Scottish Government and to key stakeholders.

If that is agreed, we will move on.

General Dental Practitioners (Continuing Professional Development Allowance) (PE1809)

The Convener

The final new petition for consideration today is PE1809, on reinstating continuing professional development allowance for general dental practitioners. The petition, which was lodged by James Millar, calls on the Scottish Government to reverse the withdrawal of national health service general dental practitioners’ continuing professional development allowance.

The Scottish Government has confirmed that, following discussion with the British Dental Association, which represents the dental profession, about the discontinuation of the continuing professional development allowance, it has agreed not to proceed with the withdrawal of the allowance. It looks as though, without even doing anything, we have a result, as the Scottish Government has already agreed to withdraw the proposal.

Do any members wish to take the opportunity to say something on the petition?

I just want to thank the petitioner. We have a result, and I think that it is the correct result. The action that was called for has been agreed, and we need to close the petition.

We have a process, and it seems to have worked.

Thank you—that was short and sweet.

I am happy for us to close the petition.

I am very glad that the petition has worked, and I support its being closed, as we have achieved our result.

The Convener

There is nothing like taking credit for something without ever having to do anything. Heaven forfend that we politicians would do that.

There is a recognition that the Scottish Government has responded to the concerns on the matter that were reflected in the petition. What the petitioner sought has been achieved, so I think that we are agreeing to close the petition on that basis, under rule 15.7 of standing orders. In doing so, we thank the petitioner for his engagement with the Public Petitions Committee, and we welcome his work to bring the petition before us.

That concludes our consideration of new petitions.

10:04 Meeting suspended.  

10:10 On resuming—