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Chamber and committees

Public Petitions Committee

Meeting date: Thursday, January 16, 2020

Agenda: New Petitions, Continued Petitions


Contents


New Petitions


Fire and Rescue Legislation (Human Rights) (PE1767)

The Convener (Johann Lamont)

Welcome to the first meeting of the Public Petitions Committee in 2020. I wish everyone a happy and peaceful 2020. The first item on our agenda is the consideration of new petitions.

The first new petition for consideration is PE1767, on Scottish fire and rescue legislation and human rights, lodged by Stewart Munro.

The petition calls on the Scottish Government to conduct a review of the Fire (Scotland) Act 2005 and the Fire (Additional Function) (Scotland) Order 2005 to ensure full compliance with article 2 of the European convention on human rights, the Human Rights Act 1998 and the Scotland Act 1998.

The petitioner is concerned that legislation pertaining to the principal functions of the Scottish Fire and Rescue Service is not compliant with article 2 of the ECHR: the right to life.

With regard to firefighting, the 2005 act provides that the SFRS must make provision to extinguish fires and protect life and property in the event of fires.

With regard to road traffic emergencies, the 2005 act sets out that the SFRS must make provision for the purpose of rescuing persons in the event of road traffic accidents and, to the extent that it considers it reasonable to do so, protect persons from serious harm in the event of road traffic accidents in its area.

The petitioner has provided a written submission that challenges the supposition in the Scottish Parliament information centre’s briefing that

“The SFRS’s principal function to protect life and property in the event of fires would include the rescue of individuals from fires, but only on the basis that to effect such a rescue would not endanger the lives of others or firefighters themselves”.

The petitioner contends that

“it is practically impossible to carry out the successful rescue of victims from a fire without exposing firefighters to some degree of risk”

and that, were the SFRS operating to this criterion,

“the vast majority of … rescues would not have taken place.”

Do members have any comments or suggestions for action? Brian Whittle?

Brian Whittle (South Scotland) (Con)

Do not come to me—that is a hospital pass. I am struggling with this, to be honest. I do not understand exactly what the petitioner is asking for. Is he suggesting that firefighters should try and rescue somebody from a fire no matter what? There must be a judgment call in circumstances where the likelihood is that effecting a rescue would put others in danger. For me, that must remain a judgment call for those who are in that position. I do not quite understand what the petitioner is asking for.

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

Firefighters put themselves in situations in which they have to rescue other people, and everything is relevant on a case-by-case basis. They are trained to the highest degree.

It would be interesting to write to the Scottish Government to ask about the contravention, almost, of the ECHR. I cannot imagine that there is a contravention of the law, but it would be helpful to get that in writing.

Maurice Corry (West Scotland) (Con)

As has been mentioned, such matters might come down to a judgment call at the time. The Scottish Fire and Rescue Service is a body of professional people who have been trained to the highest degree. Obviously, their aim is to save lives, but equally they have to make judgment calls at the time of incidents. I agree with Brian Whittle and Gail Ross on that. I cannot believe that they do not put that into full operation every time an incident happens.

The Convener

I recollect from our briefing that the Scottish Government made a commitment to review the 2005 act, which I do not think has happened. It might be worth while asking whether it intends to do so, which in itself might offer some resolution to the petitioner, who might then feel that the matter has been considered. We might ask what the balance is, in firefighters’ roles, between firefighting and ensuring the safety of all those involved, about which everyone will be concerned.

I think that the committee would want to be reassured that the logical and rational things that we would expect firefighters to do are being done, with the greatest consideration for the safety of all involved. More specifically, we should ask about the review of the 2005 act, which might reassure the petitioner.

Does the committee agree to write to the Scottish Government and the Scottish Fire and Rescue Service, to seek their views on the action that the petition calls for?

Members indicated agreement.


Water Safety (PE1770)

The Convener

The second new petition for consideration is PE1770, on improving water safety, which has been lodged by Margaret Spiers. The petition calls on the Scottish Government to work with all relevant bodies across Scotland to improve water safety by ensuring that all waterways have life-saving equipment—such as lifebelts and buoyancy throw bags, with ropes to allow multiple attempts at rescue—and that tampering with water safety equipment is made a criminal offence under the heading of endangering public safety.

The petitioner was due to give evidence today, but that has not been possible due to circumstances beyond her control. In advance of our consideration she was able to provide a written submission, which is included in our meeting papers.

Do members have any comments or suggestions for action?

Gail Ross

The petition concerns really emotive and tragic circumstances. It is completely logical that there should be life-saving equipment beside all our waterways in Scotland—I cannot see an argument against that. From what I have read in our meeting papers, it seems that in Glasgow there has been real progress towards achieving what the petitioner asks for. We should definitely follow up such issues with the Scottish Government and other appropriate bodies, such as Water Safety Scotland. I know that the cross-party group on accident prevention and safety awareness, of which Maurice Corry is a member, is also considering them.

I have every sympathy with the aims of the petition, and I agree with what the petitioner is calling for.

Maurice Corry

As Gail Ross said, I am on the cross-party group on accident prevention and safety awareness—I am its deputy convener. One issue that the group is considering is that there is no statutory requirement for a local authority to have a water safety policy in relation to coastal or inland waters. At the moment, only three authorities have or are in the process of establishing one, so the group is pushing that aspect, as is the Royal Society for the Prevention of Accidents.

When I have asked the Government the questions that are in the petition, the response has been much as members will have seen from the committee papers—that it is very much left to councils to do what they think is appropriate. However, I think that the issue has now got beyond that stage and that we need to ask the Scottish Government perhaps to put a little more pressure on local authorities, from a national level, to address such issues.

All the time, we see situations in which lifebelts are found to be damaged, vandalised or missing or ropes are not there—as the petitioner has rightly highlighted. I will give an example of that. Last year, RoSPA lodged a petition concerning water safety issues relating to beach toys, in which it requested that people should keep such toys for use in pools rather than on beaches. I refer to the types of toy that float away and on which, sadly, kids drown or narrowly escape doing so. We have discovered that, in the past six months, there has been a distinct drop in the number of lifeboat call-outs in such situations, so it seems that that advice is having an effect.

My take is that we should challenge the Government to see what it can do to encourage local authorities to establish such policies, perhaps through the Convention on Scottish Local Authorities.

The Convener

I am interested in two aspects of the matter. The first is that we should highlight how unacceptable it is to tamper with water safety equipment. Why anyone would want to do so, heaven alone knows. We must bring to public attention the very serious impact that such actions can have. I am sure that a lot of work on that is already being done in our schools. The other aspect is to look at life-saving equipment that goes beyond, for example, throwing lifebelts into the water, on which I am sure that work has been done. The petition highlights ways in which people could think about how such tragedies might be prevented, which has been useful.

Clearly, all committee members have been struck by the petitioner’s direct personal experience. As we often do, we recognise the courage that people show in highlighting aspects of their experience in their desire to prevent the same thing from happening to anyone else. It is unfortunate that the petitioner is unable to be here. If she would find it useful, perhaps a couple of committee members could meet her to talk through the issues that she has highlighted, so that we can ensure that those are put into the system. However, that would be very much a matter for her.

Sadly, such incidents happen far too often. If practical measures could be taken to help to prevent them, clearly we would be supportive of those.

Do members agree to write to the Scottish Government, to the Royal Society for the Prevention of Accidents and to Water Safety Scotland, after which we will reflect on their responses?

Members indicated agreement.


Local Government (Decision Making and Complaint Handling) (PE1771)

The Convener

The third new petition for consideration is PE1771, on potential abuse within Scottish local authorities, which has been lodged by William Tait. The petition calls on the Scottish Government to close or overhaul COSLA and to review and rewrite the remit of the Scottish Public Services Ombudsman in relation to council complaints.

In 1975, COSLA was set up to act as a national voice for local government in Scotland. It is a politically led, cross-party organisation, and currently represents all 32 local authorities at Scottish, UK and European levels. COSLA works with the Scottish Government and the Scottish Parliament to influence public policy and represent the views of Scottish communities. The organisation encourages political consensus and continuous improvement.

Our briefing note for the petition goes on to explain that, although the Scottish Government can make changes to the structure and role of local government, it is not responsible for the formation of COSLA, which it would be unable to close or overhaul as it did not establish it.

The SPSO has a wide remit, covering a variety of functions and services, but has three distinct areas of statutory function. It is the ?nal stage for complaints about most devolved public services in Scotland. It also has speci?c powers and responsibilities to publish procedures for and to monitor and support best practice in complaints handling. Further, it is the independent reviewer of the Scottish welfare fund, with power to overturn and substitute decisions made by councils on community care and crisis grant applications. The SPSO is independent of Government and has a duty to act impartially. Although the Scottish Government can legislate for changes to the powers of the SPSO, it does not scrutinise the ombudsman.

Members will note that we have before us a written submission from Ewen Cameron, who supports the action that is called for in the petition

Do members have any comments or suggestions for action?

Brian Whittle

I should declare to the committee that Mr Cameron is a constituent of mine, on whose behalf I have previously acted on the matter. In my correspondence with the relevant ministers I found it difficult to get any information back from them—I am not suggesting anything other than that. When the SPSO has been asked for information by the general public or members of the Scottish Parliament, it should consider how it delivers it, because it seems to be reticent about going into any great detail. Whether there is a case to answer on that is an issue for the committee, but my initial thought on the petitioner’s case is that information has not been free flowing—let me put it in that way.

What particular information do you mean?

09:30  

I wrote to Michael Matheson and Annabelle Ewing, who were the relevant ministers at the time, and their replies, in relation to funding and accountability, seemed to be slightly at odds with each other.

To clarify, are you talking about the extra written submission or the petitioner?

Brian Whittle

I am talking about the extra submission, which is how I know about the petition. When the petition was lodged, I was aware of my constituent’s case. The extra submission arrived quite late, and I am not particularly surprised to see Ewen Cameron writing in support of the petition.

We do not want to go into the details of a case not relating to the petitioner, but would those matters be resolved by closing COSLA or reviewing the remit of the Scottish Public Services Ombudsman?

Brian Whittle

No. My view is that the call to close or overhaul COSLA will not fly. However, there is a reticence to engage and to allow information to flow. In relation to reviewing the SPSO, I hope that it is constantly looking at how it operates, given its role in public life. There is no harm in writing to the SPSO with that ask. We can discuss it if we like, but the idea of closing COSLA will not fly at all and it would be a retrograde step, in any case. However, if COSLA is not operating as it should be operating, that is a different matter.

The Convener

The question is whether an organisation is not operating properly in the view of an individual, based on their experience, or whether it is functioning albeit that individuals might be disappointed with it. That is the challenge.

That is exactly right. We need to find out whether the issue is with an individual case or whether there is something more substantial to the question.

Gail Ross

In her opening comments on the petition—this is also in our papers—the convener said that the Scottish Government does not have the power to close or overhaul COSLA. The question is whether what the petition is trying to achieve can be achieved. I do not think that it can be achieved, given the powers that are currently available.

Maurice Corry

I agree. The Local Government and Communities Committee scrutinises the SPSO annually, so there is a safeguard for that organisation. I want to clarify that.

COSLA is set up by its members. We need to be very careful, because authority has been delegated to local authorities, so it has a mandate for many issues. It may be that the petitioner has been unhappy with the outcome of a single issue. Unfortunately, that happens in some situations, but he can redress that by going through the normal channels.

The Convener

It is important that we do not misrepresent what the Public Petitions Committee can do. COSLA will continue to exist. It might be appropriate to flag up to the Local Government and Communities Committee that there has been a concern about the SPSO. There is an on-going issue. A long time ago, I was involved in the review of all the public bodies, ombudsmen and so on, so it would be good to have a sense of how things are. Maurice Corry’s point, however, is that the Local Government and Communities Committee has a specific role in relation to the SPSO.

Notwithstanding the particular issue that Brian Whittle flagged up, and given what Gail Ross said about it not being in the Scottish Government’s power to get rid of COSLA, and that there is a specific mechanism for reviewing the SPSO’s work, we could agree to close the petition. In doing so, we could write to the Local Government and Communities Committee to flag up the issue and to say that we are keen for it to reflect on that in its review of the SPSO’s work. Our paperwork would be available to that committee. Does that sound acceptable?

I agree. That is straightforward.

That is notwithstanding the individual circumstances of people’s experience with the SPSO or COSLA.

Maurice Corry

I want to point out that Mr Tait is a constituent of mine and he has had various constituency issues, which we have resolved, so we have obviously been in contact. That is similar to the situation that Brian Whittle described.

The Convener

I think that we agree to close the petition, although we recognise the issues that have been flagged up. In closing the petition, we will write to the Local Government and Communities Committee to highlight the importance of scrutinising the SPSO, particularly in terms of individual constituents who have expressed concerns. We thank the petitioner for lodging the petition. Of course, in a year’s time, if he feels that there has not been progress on the specific issue about the SPSO, he will be entitled to lodge another petition.


Vaping-related Illnesses and Deaths (Recording) (PE1774)

The Convener

The next petition is PE1774, by Craig Edward, on formally recording vaping-related illnesses and deaths. The petition calls on the Scottish Government to collect data on vaping-related illnesses and vaping during pregnancy to ensure that the best health interventions are provided to all.

As our briefing note explains, because of the known harms of smoking, the data tends to track prevalence of smoking and cessation via surveys. Maternal smoking rates are recorded by the national health service’s Information Services Division from information that is collected antenatally. The Scottish Public Health Observatory provides sources of data on smoking and on smoking-related illness and behaviour. The observatory also provides information and data on illnesses related to smoking such as cancers and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease. Not enough is known about vaping to make any direct causal links to particular diseases or conditions.

In response to a question about the recording of health harms, the Scottish Government stated that, as yet, there is no international coding for harms related to vaping but that, in October 2019, guidance was issued to enable the coding of health harms linked to vaping under existing codes.

Do members have comments or suggestions for action?

Brian Whittle

For me, there are two aspects to vaping. Obviously, there is the smoking cessation aspect, which all the vaping companies make great play of; the use of vaping in that way is an NHS intervention that I think we probably all support. The other aspect, which is what sticks in my throat, is the fact that vaping products are in the main owned by tobacco companies. The idea that tobacco companies are trying to prevent people from smoking does not fly. Those are two completely separate aspects.

The petitioner is absolutely right that we do not have any evidence of the negative effects of consistently vaping although, personally, I think that inhaling anything into your lungs that is not supposed to be there is not going to be great for you. In the United States, certain health issues are over time starting to be linked with vaping.

I am sympathetic to the petition. I suggest that we write to the Scottish Government to ask whether it will accept the petitioner’s suggestion. We should also link that with the work that has been done on the issue in the US. I would like us to make the distinction between using vaping as a smoking cessation mechanism and vaping for vaping’s sake, because those are two completely different things.

David Torrance (Kirkcaldy) (SNP)

I support Brian Whittle’s points. My main concern is with the number of people who now buy vaping products on the internet, because that is unregulated and people do not know what is in the products. Like Brian, I would like to know what effect vaping has on individuals.

As vaping products are regulated at a United Kingdom level, maybe we should write to the UK Government to find out whether it has any plans to regulate in this area.

I agree with that.

The Convener

It comes out in the paperwork that, if vaping is used to prevent the harmful effects of smoking, it is a positive thing, but there is anecdotal evidence that some young people vape despite never having smoked, even though the advice is that people should not vape unless they are trying to stop smoking. Vaping is not good for people, but it stops them doing something that is even worse for them. That is the trade-off that people will have to make.

We agree that there is an issue here. Do members agree that we should write to the Scottish Government and the relevant body at UK level to seek their views on the action that is called for in the petition?

Members indicated agreement.


Allergy Care Legislation (Nurseries and Schools) (PE1775)

The Convener

The final new petition for consideration today is PE1775, on the introduction of legislation on allergy care in nurseries and schools, which has been lodged by Catrina Drummond. The petition calls on the Scottish Government to introduce legislation that will make the provision of an allergy care policy a statutory requirement for every nursery and school, and to establish appropriate standards of medical training, education and care for children with anaphylaxis.

Concerns about the treatment of anaphylaxis in schools grew after the tragic death of a boy in a school in London in 2017. Following the inquest, the coroner raised concerns that pupils

“had a patchy understanding of his allergies, what they were and the consequences of exposure to allergens.”

The coroner was also concerned about the school’s care plan. Following the coroner’s conclusions, the Anaphylaxis Campaign established its making schools safer project to support schools’ allergy awareness and planning.

The Scottish Government’s guidance, “Supporting children and young people with healthcare needs in schools”, provides detailed guidance for schools and early learning and childcare centres on the use of adrenaline auto-injectors, such as EpiPens, in schools. Since 1 October 2017, schools have been able to obtain, without a prescription, adrenaline auto-injector devices for use in emergencies, if they wish to do so. The guidance notes that any member of staff can volunteer for training but that no member of staff can be forced to do it, and that schools should ensure that a reasonable number of designated members of staff are available to provide sufficient coverage.

The guidance, which is also applicable to early learning and childcare centres, states:

“Schools must arrange specialist anaphylaxis training for staff where a pupil in the school has been diagnosed as being at risk of anaphylaxis. The specialist training should include practical instruction in how to use the different AAI devices available.”

Do members have any comments or suggestions for action?

Gail Ross

If you do not mind, convener, I will go first, given that I have been named as the member who has been dealing with the matter for Catrina Drummond, who is a constituent of mine. I want to start by thanking her for getting in touch.

We have received a response from the Highland Council and, without going into details of the case that we have been dealing with, I can report back to the committee on what the council’s policy is and what is being done to move it forward. The council says:

“The implementation protocol and procedure in the case of severe allergies begins at the time of enrolment, which in most cases is 6 months prior to the child starting in the setting. The process begins with effective communication between the health visitor as the keyperson and the setting manager to ensure that they can plan for any child transitioning into the setting. In severe cases there should also be a letter from the paediatrician detailing the diagnosed allergy with recommended guidance on how best to manage the diagnosis. A child’s plan meeting with relevant health professionals in attendance takes place identifying and implementing a plan to meet the individual needs of the child, including specific allergy/anaphylaxis training for staff and a robust risk assessment of the setting.”

The council goes on to say that it is

“committed to ensuring that staff have access to ‘anaphylaxis training’ as required”,

and that the protocols that are in place are

“monitored and approved by the Care Inspectorate.”

In addition, it points out that

“the Highland Council catering team are currently developing specific allergy awareness training for Early Years Practitioners and there is an online course which staff undertake as an introduction to the topic.”

We have written back to the council with another set of questions, and we are waiting for a response on who delivers the anaphylaxis training, whether a health and safety professional carries out the risk assessment and what communication takes place. However, as the petitioner states, there is no statutory training—staff have to apply to receive it.

I would be inclined to write to Highland Council to get an update on where it is with the training and its response to what the petitioner has said. We should also write to the Government to ask whether staff should have a statutory responsibility to undertake the training as part of their overall training.

09:45  

I would be quite concerned if something had been missed, if training had not taken place because a staff member had been absent, or if anything had fallen through the net because training was not mandatory, especially when we are dealing with something as serious as an allergy that could affect a child’s life. I would want to follow that up with the Scottish Government as well.

Obviously, we are not taking up an individual case. We are taking up the general concerns that have emerged from that.

That is it—we do not know who else is affected, Scotland-wide.

Highland Council has been specifically mentioned, so the committee could write to it for an update.

Brian Whittle

This is one of those petitions that causes you to raise your eyebrows. I would have assumed that this kind of training was already standard in these kinds of settings. If it is not, and we are going to write to Highland Council, it would be interesting to compare what it is doing with what other councils are doing or not doing. It seems reasonable to me that this kind of cover should be available.

The Convener

Would it be worth while writing to COSLA in the first instance? There might be a general issue. I am thinking back to my own time in teaching and how little awareness there was of children who could have epilepsy or diabetes, or who could not eat a banana, for example. I am always struck by how little I knew about all the young people who were in front of me. I am sure that things have moved on a million miles since then. Some of the information is simply about being alert and being able to refer the young person to the right person to help them. The issue is also about getting the balance right between general information for staff and specific training.

Not to widen out the discussion any further—

Please do not.

In our day, there was a school nurse—I will say no more.

I think that you are generous to say “our day”, but never mind.

It would be interesting to find out whether first aiders in schools are trained in this. Most youth organisations and other organisations have designated first aiders. I trained as one.

Maurice Corry

My wife is a first aider at her school—a primary school in Helensburgh—and I know that first aiders there have been told of certain cases of whatever the issue is, and they are ready for that. They are given specific training, I do not think that it is the same in all schools. Perhaps we should write to COSLA and ask what the situation is in individual councils and schools. Filtering it down in that way should be the first approach that we take to try and get a handle on the issue.

The Convener

We agree that there is an issue. Gail Ross has given us an update with very helpful information on Highland, but we are agreeing to write to it specifically because it has been mentioned. We also want to write to COSLA to get its response to the petition and to get its view on getting the balance right. The petition has a proposal for a statutory responsibility. Is that the way forward, or is there some other way that it can be done? We would welcome COSLA’s comments on that. We can also write to the Scottish Government to highlight these issues. Is that agreed?

Members: Yes.

I will suspend the meeting briefly before we move to item 2.

09:49 Meeting suspended.  

09:55 On resuming—