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Chamber and committees

Public Petitions Committee

Meeting date: Tuesday, April 16, 2013

Agenda: Interests, Decision on Taking Business in Private, Current Petition, New Petitions, Current Petitions, School Bus Safety


Current Petitions

Lesser-taught Languages and Cultures (University Teaching Funding) (PE1395)

The Convener

Agenda item 5 is consideration of current petitions. The first current petition is PE1395, by Jan Culík, on targeted funding for lesser-taught languages and cultures at universities. Members have a note from the clerk and the submissions. Hugh McMahon, who has been a strong supporter of the petition, is in the audience.

The petition has been interesting because it is about how we assess demand for courses that are no longer running. As members know, we have received a number of comments. We have been in touch with the Scottish Further and Higher Education Funding Council and universities generally. A further paper has been commissioned by the Higher Education Academy and authored by John Dunn, who is a retired Scottish academic.

There might still be some merit in asking Michael Russell or one of his colleagues to come and give the committee a final contribution of evidence. I can see Jackson Carlaw’s face and I know that members might feel that we have spent too long on this petition, but the petition is valuable and its point has been well made. To take the example of the number of Poles who are working in Scotland—and I do not have evidence for the figure—more people speak Polish than Gaelic in Scotland. That is an important development and we should get the minister along to give us some final comments before we conclude the petition. As always, I throw the question open to committee members.

Jackson Carlaw

I will not object if that is what my colleagues believe, but we have brought together quite a body of evidence and there would be merit in referring it to the Education and Culture Committee, which, having broader experience of the subject matter in hand, might want to raise the issue with the minister directly.

Anne McTaggart

I reiterate the convener’s concerns about the Polish community. I do not have the exact figure. I would prefer to get the education minister to answer the petition at the committee. I am aware that we have collated a lot of evidence and that the petition has been going on for a long time, but it is an important issue and I do not want it to get lost, so I would like the education minister to speak to it.

Angus MacDonald

My initial reaction is to refer the matter to the Education and Culture Committee. It is fair enough if the majority of colleagues would like to have the cabinet secretary here, but I am certainly minded to refer the petition to the relevant committee at this stage.

I agree.

I am happy to refer it on to the Education and Culture Committee.

The Convener

Either course of action is acceptable to me so, by a majority, the committee has decided that the petition is important and we should refer it on to the Education and Culture Committee. I thank Hugh McMahon for all the effort that he and his colleagues have put into the petition. I know that the petition will not be lost, because it is going to the appropriate committee, which will consider it further.

Flood Insurance (PE1441)

The Convener

The third current petition is PE1441, by David Crichton, on flood insurance problems. Members have a note by the clerk.

I highlight to members that Westminster has to make key decisions in June and July. The UK Government underwrites the insurance industry, which, in turn, insures people who have properties on flood plains across the UK. There is some debate about whether the renewal of the agreement between the UK Government and the industry will take place. The Scottish Government has been making representations on the matter. However, it is extremely worrying, particularly with climate change, that there will be thousands of people across the country without flood insurance if the agreement does not go ahead.

I met a constituent in Moray the other day who has a major business. She will not get flood insurance because she has been flooded twice, and she cannot sell the business or lease it to anybody else. Flood insurance is unlike car insurance, which is a statutory obligation. Its position is quite different. What will happen in the longer term is worrying.

We need to monitor progress on the issue. What happens in June and July will be crucial. My strong suggestion is that we keep the petition open until that crunch period, and keep up to date with what the Scottish Government is doing.

I invite contributions from members.

Chic Brodie

I support that suggestion. I am aware of the July timetable. I recently visited my family in Surrey and I am aware that there has been no change or increase in the assistance given to local authorities in the Thames basin. It is right that we monitor the situation. We need to be fairly assertive with the Government to ensure that it seeks information that we are not being disadvantaged in relation to what happens not only in the Thames basin, but in the south-west of the UK.

The Convener

We were awaiting an update from the Scottish Environment Protection Agency, and members may have not seen its submission because it arrived late. Basically, it contains positive news. Twenty-nine out of 32 local authorities that responded to SEPA’s request for information have

“no constraints or restrictions on SEPA using the data or sharing it through the SFDAD”—

Scottish flood defence and asset database—


That is good news, and we will keep members up to date with the position.

Chic Brodie

I am sorry that I am becoming a bore on this subject, but I want to mention an issue that I raised at another committee. Since 31 January, three local authorities have not provided information. Do they think that we ask for information—in this case, SEPA is asking for it on our behalf—just for the sake of it? Should we communicate that message through SEPA? Public bodies are here to serve the people of Scotland and find out exactly what is going on. Any public body that is asked for information should at least address that as quickly as it can. I understand the constraints, but I do not see why 29 can do it but three cannot.

The Convener

Chic Brodie makes a good point. You will recall at the previous meeting that I promised to raise that issue at the Conveners Group, which I did. As Maureen Watt can testify, we are not alone—other committees have experienced similar frustration with public bodies such as health boards and local authorities. How we raise the issue across the piece is being dealt with at a senior level in the Parliament.

At one level, I am pleased to tell you that other committees have experienced that and that the public bodies have not been picking only on the Public Petitions Committee. However, we are the public face of the Parliament and it is ridiculous that public bodies are not responding to our requests in time.

Do members agree with the course of action that I identified earlier?

Members indicated agreement.

Miscarriage (Causes) (PE1443)

The Convener

The fourth current petition is PE1443, by Maureen Sharkey, on behalf of Scottish Care and Information on Miscarriage, on investigating the cause of miscarriage. Members have a note by the clerk and the submissions.

There is a strong suggestion from the British Medical Association Scotland that we should write to the Royal College of General Practitioners Scotland to seek its views, as it is the key body. Do members agree with that course of action?

Members indicated agreement.

Congenital Heart Disease Patients (Care) (PE1446)

The Convener

The fifth current petition is PE1446, by Dr Liza Morton, on behalf of Scottish adult congenital heart patients, on Scottish standards for the care of adult congenital heart patients. Members have a note by the clerk and a submission.

A suggestion in the clerk’s note is that we write to the Scottish Government to seek clearer responses to the points raised by the petitioner. There was unhappiness about the Scottish Government’s earlier response, so that is a reasonable course of action in the circumstances. Do members agree?

Members indicated agreement.

Organ Transplantation (Cancer Risk) (PE1448)

The Convener

The sixth current petition is PE1448, by Grant Thomson, on improving awareness of the cancer risks in organ transplantation. Members have a note by the clerk and the submissions.

Again, there is a technical suggestion, which is that we write to Professor Forsythe, who is the Scottish Government’s lead clinician on organ donation and transplantation and chair of the Scottish transplant group, to seek a response to the suggestions that further research is required. That suggestion seems sensible. Do members agree to do that?

Members indicated agreement.

Hyperemesis Specialist Nurses (PE1454)

The Convener

The seventh current petition is PE1454, by Natalie Robb, on hyperemesis specialist nurses. Members have a note by the clerk and the submissions.

The suggestion is that we follow up the awaited response from the Royal College of Midwives—[Interruption.] I apologise—that has come in. It is suggested that we ask the Scottish Government to provide responses and write to the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists. Again, that is a technical suggestion, which I think makes sense. Do members agree to take that approach?

Members indicated agreement.

Judiciary (Register of Interests) (PE1458)

The Convener

The eighth current petition is PE1458, by Peter Cherbi, on a register of interests for members of Scotland’s judiciary. Members have a note by the clerk and the submissions.

Members will be aware that there has been a lot of press coverage of the issue and that Lord Gill, the Lord President, declined the invitation to appear before the committee. As members will know, under the Scotland Act 1998 we have no power to cite judges to appear before us.

We received a courteous letter from Lord Gill, but it is important for us to get key figures in the judiciary to help us with the petition. I suggest that we send a courteous letter back, reinviting Lord Gill and asking him how many judges have been recused and whether there is more detailed evidence on the effectiveness of the current system.

We should also seek the views of the Judicial Appointments Board for Scotland and the judicial complaints reviewer. If members think that it is important to have people in front of us, we could ask representatives of those latter two bodies to attend.

I know that several members have fairly strong views on the issue.

Chic Brodie

We have seen the answer from the Lord President. No one has said that the Scotland Act 1998 is perfect and, in this instance, it is not. We are all equal before the law, even those who dispense it. We should send a courteous letter, but it should be robust, on the basis that the Lord President has written to us but his letter does not necessarily answer all our questions. What is there to hide?

I am sure that we all want openness and transparency in our Parliament, which is the sovereign Parliament of the Scottish people. As a member of that constituency, the Lord President, like anyone else, should at least pay obeisance to a request by the committee on behalf of the Parliament for him to attend. I sincerely hope that he reconsiders his position and attends at the earliest opportunity.

Jackson Carlaw

We cannot compel the Lord President to give evidence, but I would say that he has already set aside that provision by choosing to contribute evidence in writing. We are seeking to explore that evidence with him further, now orally, which I think is entirely reasonable.

I would put an accent on Chic Brodie’s point, because the unintended consequence of the Lord President’s not coming is to gather support for the petition in the committee in the absence of our being able to establish for ourselves the necessity for progressing with its proposals. That is unfortunate. Therefore, we should say as politely as possible that, although the Lord President with his great erudition and extraordinary intellectual capacity might not be able to anticipate what further advice he could give us that we would find of interest or helpful, that is nonetheless something that we might be able to determine.

The Convener

To recap, we will write to Lord Gill and ask him to attend. We will ask him how many judges have been recused and whether there is more detailed evidence on the effectiveness of the current system. We will also seek the views of the Judicial Appointments Board for Scotland and the judicial complaints reviewer. Do members agree to that course of action?

Members indicated agreement.

Coastal Erosion Protocols (Review) (PE1459)

The Convener

The ninth current petition is PE1459, by James Mackie, on a total review of coastal erosion protocols and responsibilities. Members have a note by the clerk.

As members will have discovered on reading the petition papers, the responses are in fairly broad agreement that what the petitioner seeks is unnecessary. In fairness, the petitioner disagrees with the responses. It is unfortunate, but I cannot see any way forward other than to close the petition under rule 15.7. I thank the petitioner for all his hard work in creating the petition. Do members agree to close the petition?

Members indicated agreement.

Chronic Pain Services (PE1460)

The Convener

The 10th current petition is PE1460, by Susan Archibald, on behalf of the Scottish Parliament cross-party group on chronic pain, on improvement of services and resources to tackle chronic pain. Members have a note by the clerk and the submissions.

Jackie Baillie will speak briefly on the petition. Before that, I thank Susan Archibald and Dorothy-Grace Elder, who I think is with us today in the public gallery, for their excellent evidence at our meeting on 8 January. It is fair to say that they are less than enthusiastic about the responses from the various public agencies, which I will say more about later.

Jackie Baillie

That is probably the greatest understatement that I have heard today, convener.

I thank the committee for its attention to this petition and I state that Jackson Carlaw, John Wilson and I are all co-conveners of the cross-party group on chronic pain. If there is any interest being shown this afternoon, it is by the three of us.

The convener is right: there are substantial concerns about Healthcare Improvement Scotland’s response. I dare to suggest that it has failed even to answer some of the committee’s pointed questions, and responses have not been forthcoming. A number of people suggested that the HIS report into chronic pain and chronic pain services across Scotland has been less than transparent, and I am grateful to the Cabinet Secretary for Health and Wellbeing for acknowledging that.

An example of the differences that the committee’s work has exposed is that, although HIS will claim that 75 per cent of people across Scotland have access to pain management services, the real figure is a good 10 per cent lower—it is 64 per cent, and the services exist in only six out of Scotland’s 14 health boards. We expect public agencies to provide us with accurate information, and I hope and trust that the committee will pursue HIS for that.

I am not being slightly mischievous; I just want to get people to the point: could we consider inviting HIS to the committee? We have had one go at writing to it and we have not received answers, so perhaps it might be helpful to get it to provide answers and amplify them through oral evidence to the committee. We are in your hands, convener.

The Convener

Thank you for that. A key point that came through was about the residential pain relief centre in Bath and that, as I understand it, Alex Neil was talking about a similar facility for Scotland. I would have thought that the Scottish Government would be very proud to develop that. Along with the suggestion about HIS, it would be useful to have Alex Neil or one of his ministerial colleagues come here and speak directly on the issue.

I throw the discussion open to my colleagues for their views and observations on those suggestions.

John Wilson

Jackie Baillie has suggested that we invite a representative of HIS to the committee, and we could also have the minister at the same time, so as to get the two of them in the same room to answer the same questions. It would be useful to get clarity from both the minister and HIS on the direction of travel. The Cabinet Secretary for Health and Wellbeing has indicated a particular route, particularly on residential care in Scotland. The issue is whether the minister and the Government are happy with the responses that we have had from HIS.

The petitioner and Dorothy-Grace Elder have to be commended for their responses to the responses so far. I suggest that we write to the Scottish Government and HIS to ask them to respond to the issues that Susan Archibald and Dorothy-Grace Elder have raised, so that we can forewarn them—if they need any warning—of some of the questions that they may face when they come to give evidence to the committee.

As I have said, it would be useful to get the minister and HIS before us at the same time to answer the committee’s questions, but before that we should ask them to respond in writing to the issues that the petitioner and Dorothy-Grace Elder have raised.

Are members agreed?

Members indicated agreement.

The Convener

So we will send HIS and the Scottish Government the petitioner’s views, get their responses back and then ask a representative from HIS and a Scottish Government minister to give evidence at a future meeting.

I thank Jackie Baillie once more for her attendance.

Thyroid and Adrenal Testing and Treatment (PE1463)

The Convener

Our final current petition is PE1463 by Sandra Whyte, Lorraine Cleaver and Marian Dyer on effective thyroid and adrenal testing, diagnosis and treatment. Members will have the clerk’s note and the various submissions.

I ask Elaine Smith, who is attending for this petition, to give us her views before we take any decisions.

Elaine Smith (Coatbridge and Chryston) (Lab)

Thank you very much for letting me speak, convener. In my written submission, I offered to give official oral evidence to the committee if it decided to take the petition forward, but I did not come along today with that particular purpose. I just wanted to hear the committee’s deliberations; after all, it is up to members to decide how it will take the petition forward.

I do not want to say too much more about my own situation, because I am sure that the committee has read my written evidence. I know that the committee has received a lot of other written evidence but I make a plea for further work to be done on what I believe is as much of an equality matter as it is a health matter. Although some men suffer from this condition, it is mainly a women’s issue.

If you want to take further evidence, there are other people in Scotland who might well respond to such a call. For a start, I am sure that you would hear from a lot of people who have been suffering with this condition. For example, Margaret McGregor, whom I mention in my letter to the committee, has a phone line and takes calls from what I am sure she would describe as women in a desperate situation whose condition might have been misdiagnosed and who might be on the wrong level of levothyroxine. You might also be able to invite along Dr Anthony Toft who although officially retired from the Edinburgh royal infirmary and the health service is now practising independently because he wanted to carry on his work in this field.

In any case, if you decide to continue the petition, there are many more people in this country from whom you could take evidence. I hope that you might even consider carrying out your own inquiry; I do not know how your timescales are fixed but if you cannot do that you might consider referring the issue to the Equal Opportunities Committee or the Health and Sport Committee for further examination.

I do not want to say any more than that, but I am more than happy to answer the committee’s questions. I should perhaps make one final point: I submitted my own written evidence because when I heard the petitioners I was struck by their bravery in coming here to give evidence and felt that it was time for me to tell my own story. I hope that I have done so in a positive way that helps the petition.

Thank you for coming along. Do members have any questions for Elaine Smith?

Maureen Watt

I do not have a question as such, but I should declare an interest in that I, too, am on thyroxine. I was very interested in learning about Elaine Smith’s condition and I believe that the petition should be taken further. After all, a lot of people are suffering in silence at the moment.

The Convener

One recommendation is that we write to the Scottish Government, recommending the establishment of a short-life working group to examine all the available clinical evidence on the treatment of patients suffering from thyroid and adrenal disorders. That would certainly make a lot of sense. Do members agree to that course of action?

Anne McTaggart

Before we move on to that, convener, we should thank the petitioners. Since their evidence session, I have met more than a few people with the condition whom, with the knowledge, experience and education that we received that day, I have been able to refer on. I thank the petitioners not just for their bravery but for the knowledge that they imparted and which has assisted others.

John Wilson

I thank Elaine Smith for coming along and sharing her experience with us.

Although I agree that the holding of a short-term inquiry on the subject should be considered, the issue is whether the Health and Sport Committee or the Equal Opportunities Committee would be willing to take that on board. The recommendation is that we ask the Scottish Government to establish a short-life working group to look at the issue, but if it is not prepared to do that I am keen that we get an assurance that one of those committees would carry out such an inquiry, because I would not want us to pass the petition on to either committee only for it to shut down the petition. In such circumstances, we would have no recourse—we could not reopen it.

Therefore, it would be useful if the clerk could speak to the clerks of the two committees to find out whether their timetables would allow them to carry out such an inquiry. If they were not able to do so, I would be keen for us to carry out our own inquiry.

In addition, we should get from Elaine Smith details of the organisations to which she referred, so that we can write to them to gather further information. I note that our paper recommends that we should seek responses from the Royal College of Physicians and the World Health Organization on the issue.

It would be useful for us to agree to write to the Scottish Government to ask whether it would be minded to set up a short-life working group. If it is not minded to do so, we should find the time to carry out an inquiry.

That is a sensible suggestion.

Do any other members wish to comment?

Chic Brodie

I support that. I welcome Elaine Smith’s attendance and the information that she has provided, which has clarified matters for me. I suspect that a large number of men have no idea of what the implications of the condition are.

Regardless of whether the Scottish Government sets up a short-life working group or we carry out our own inquiry, it is critical that a short timescale is set for whatever work is done.

The Convener

In summary, we will write to the Scottish Government about the setting up of a short-life working group. We will also write to the clerks to the other relevant committees to find out what they are doing and will feed that information back to ensure that the opportunity to hold an inquiry on the subject of the petition is not lost. We will look at the issue again in the future. Does that cover all the points? Do members agree to do that?

Members indicated agreement.

I again thank Elaine Smith for coming along.