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Chamber and committees

Public Petitions Committee

Meeting date: Tuesday, January 28, 2014

Agenda: New Petitions, Current Petitions


Contents


Current Petitions


Free Methanol (Ban) (PE1376)

The Convener

Agenda item 2 is consideration of 11 current petitions, the first of which is PE1376 by James McDonald on banning the presence of free methanol in all our manufactured products and our diets. Members have the clerk’s note and the various submissions. I invite comments from the committee, but I am sure that members will have seen from their papers that the Scottish Government receives advice from the Food Standards Agency in Scotland and does not intend to run an awareness campaign. Moreover, the results from the Hull study do not indicate any need for action to protect the health of the public, and the European Food Safety Authority has concluded that aspartame and its breakdown products are safe for human consumption at current levels of exposure. As always, however, it is up to the committee to decide what its next steps with regard to the petition will be.

Chic Brodie

I realise that the petition has been going for some time and that the Hull study is now complete, but the fact is that we have just received an update from the FSAS. From the fair amount of reading that I have done and having listened to both sides, I am not sure that simply following the FSAS guidelines necessarily closes down the matter. I therefore ask that the petition be kept open until we get the full FSAS report.

Thank you. What are your views, Mr Wilson?

John Wilson

I, too, am happy to keep the petition open. With regard to the wider debate, I am aware of other opinions that are coming out, particularly from the United States, so before we close the petition we should ensure that we have the most up-to-date and relevant information for consideration.

11:15

I am not really sure what more we can do. We have received an array of information.

Is the suggestion that we should ask SPICe to do a bit more work on the issue and give us an update?

John Wilson

That would be helpful. Although the petitioners referred to the European Food Safety Authority, I know that debates are taking place and research is being carried out in the United States. I want to ensure that we have the most relevant and up-to-date analysis of the impact that the issue is having on food standards in Europe and across the world. I would hate us to drop the petition only for a major report to be produced that spurs the World Health Organization to say that it has decided to take action on the matter, and for us to find ourselves in a position in which we fall behind because we have not considered that information.

In that case, the suggestion is that we continue the petition for specific action, which is for SPICe to do an update. Is that acceptable?

I am not opposed to that.

Jackson Carlaw

I am with Anne McTaggart on this. There will always be a further report, there will always be somebody commissioning a report and there will always be someone who wants to embark on another report. However, if we intend to come to a conclusion based on the update from SPICe, then fair enough.

Do we agree to the suggested action?

Members indicated agreement.


Wild Animals in Circuses (Ban) (PE1400)

The Convener

The second current petition is PE1400, by Libby Anderson, on behalf of OneKind, on a ban on the use of wild animals in circuses. Members have a note by the clerk and the submissions.

There are two options. One is to close the petition on the basis that the Scottish Government has begun consulting on the issue that is raised and the petitioner has stated her intention to submit views to the consultation. The other is to defer consideration of the petition to a future meeting to await the outcome of the Scottish Government consultation on the issue.

Jackson Carlaw

The petition encouraged us to ask the Scottish Government to introduce a ban. If the Scottish Government is consulting on the matter, we have fulfilled our obligation. It is not for us to progress legislation to effect a ban. If the Government is doing that, then fine.

The situation is certainly moving on.

Do members agree to close the petition, under rule 15.7?

Members indicated agreement.

I thank Libby Anderson and OneKind for the petition, which we hope will achieve success.


Miscarriage (Causes) (PE1443)

The Convener

The third 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.

This was a thoughtful and good petition, but I think that there is now an argument for closing it, under rule 15.7, on the basis that the Scottish Government has stated its clear support for the current Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists guidelines, and the organisations that were contacted did not support the investigation or the offer of testing for women following a single miscarriage, for the reasons that are set out in their responses.

Jackson Carlaw

I support your suggestion. I seem to recall that, the last time we addressed the petition, we had not received a submission. It was subsequently received, but it has not altered the balance of opinion. I am grateful to the petitioners for submitting the petition but, given everything that we have heard, we are now in a position to close it.

Do we agree to close the petition?

Members indicated agreement.

I thank Maureen Sharkey for her work. She and her group spent a lot of time and effort on the petition.


Judiciary (Register of Interests) (PE1458)

The Convener

The fourth 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.

Members will recall that it was decided that the petition should be considered again once Chic Brodie and I had met the Lord President. We had a useful meeting with Lord Gill last week and we discussed what the petition is calling for and the current procedure for members of the judiciary to recuse themselves. Lord Gill confirmed that a recusal in a case is noted in the minute of court proceedings, which is part of the formal court process, but no central aggregate records of individual recusals are kept. That means that it would be virtually impossible for an ordinary member of the public to detect how many recusals there have been across Scotland at any particular time or whether any individual sheriff or judge has recused him or herself.

Lord Gill explained in more detail why he feels that a register of judicial interests would not be workable. The principal reason is that a judge cannot predict what might arise in each and every court case that might come before them. In any event, the petition seeks a register of pecuniary interests, and such a register would not address some of the concerns raised by the petitioner such as the concern about undeclared family relationships.

However, following a suggestion from me and Chic Brodie, Lord Gill has undertaken to check with the courts administration to see whether the information technology systems can be adapted to provide aggregate information about recusals, and he has undertaken to write to me on that in the next couple of weeks. Clearly, we are still awaiting that response. However, if it is possible to organise that information as suggested, it will mean that ordinary individuals with an interest will be able to find out how many recusals there have been across Scotland and by which sheriffs or judges.

My personal view is that, although that step does not include accepting the petition, it is practical and it moves things in the right direction. I am merely reporting that to the committee. Chic Brodie may wish to add some comments.

Chic Brodie

It was a reasonable meeting. The Lord President also drew to our attention the fact that members of the board of administration of the Scottish Court Service have to register their interests. Therefore, unbeknown to us, their interests were already in the public domain. I think that the letter will include a wider understanding of that and that he will talk to his colleagues about expanding that.

The Convener

That is true. Just so that members are totally in the loop, I add that only a small number of judges are involved in this, but the procedure that Lord Gill is going to look at has some merit.

My suggestion to the committee is that we wait until we get the full letter from the Lord President, which—to pick up on Jackson Carlaw’s point—will not be forever; it will be in the next couple of weeks. We will then be able to look at the issue in full. I have just summarised my account of the meeting, but I would like to see the Lord President’s view.

Jackson Carlaw

I only observe that, but for the belligerence of the committee in pursuing the issue, no letter would be forthcoming and there would be no investigation, explanation or other actions arising from it. That rather vindicates the tenacity with which we have pursued the matter.

Convener, was any kind of record kept of the meeting that took place between Lord Gill, you and the deputy convener? Were minutes taken?

The clerk was present and took notes in the meeting. It was not an official meeting of the committee so we do not have an Official Report of it, but if you want an account of the meeting we can certainly provide it.

John Wilson

It is just that one issue that arose was that Lord Gill refused to come to the committee and give evidence, and the compromise position was that the convener and the deputy convener would meet him. In the interests of natural justice, I want us to have something, as a committee, that we can put on the record to declare what took place at that meeting. We can then satisfy future petitioners that we will not be in a position to hold private discussions with individuals when we ask for evidence from them that could basically lead to them avoiding putting something in the Official Report. That has been my position all along on this debate with Lord Gill—that we required something to be put in the Official Report.

I welcome the fact that Lord Gill is going to write to the committee with a fuller, more detailed explanation of what actually happens in the judiciary in terms of recusals and the declarations of interest. We have moved forward slightly, but there is still an issue about Lord Gill’s refusal to come to give evidence to the committee.

The Convener

There is no difficulty about providing an account of the meeting. I informed Lord Gill at the start of the meeting that we would be making a summary of the key points. I wanted him to be clear before he said anything that that was the nature of the meeting.

As committee members know, Chic Brodie and I met Lord Gill with the committee’s agreement. We did not meet him in a secret way. I do not want to reopen the debate at this stage, but members will also be aware of the issue that Chic Brodie raised—that, under the Scotland Act 1998, we do not have the power to summon a judge or a sheriff to appear before us. Members will note from the Justice Committee that, if a judge, a sheriff or indeed the Lord President wishes to attend a committee voluntarily, he or she is able to do that. Chic Brodie was very thorough in pursuing that point with the Lord President.

I will make sure that that note is contained in the papers for the next meeting. In a sense, we are putting on the record what happened.

Chic Brodie

I was going to make that point. Under section 23(7) of the Scotland Act 1998, judges and leaders of tribunals—funnily enough—are not compelled to appear before committees or to provide documents. I find that wholly unsatisfactory and I believe that it is a flaw in the act. I have looked at the evidence and the parliamentary report that was produced in—I think—1998, and the argument for that seems to have disappeared in the mists of legal jargon. In fact, there was hardly any debate on the issue. Prior to the creation of the Supreme Court, judges were required to register their interests, but all of a sudden it transpired that they were not required to do that, and that happened without much debate. We need to ask what happened and why that decision was made. However, that is an on-going issue and not one for the committee to pursue at this stage.

All in all, the meeting with the Lord President was fairly favourable, and I thank the committee for allowing me to participate in it.

Do members agree that we should await the Lord President’s letter and discuss what course of action to take once we have it in front of us?

Members indicated agreement.

I thank members for their contributions, and I thank Chic Brodie for coming with me to the meeting with the Lord President.


Planning (Protection for Third Parties) (PE1461)

The Convener

The fifth current petition is PE1461, by William Campbell, on protection for third parties in the planning process. Members have a note by the clerk and the submissions.

Before I invite comments from members, I again put it on the record that I have known Mr Campbell for a number of years and have dealt with him, wearing a variety of hats, on various issues.

We have a number of options. One is to close the petition under rule 15.7 on the basis that the circumstances that are described in it are a matter for the police and do not fall within the scope of the land use planning system. The committee could, of course, take any other action that it considers appropriate.

Regretfully, I suggest that we close the petition on the basis that I cannot see anywhere else for us to go. However, if committee members have any insights that I do not have, I will be happy to hear them.

Do members agree to close the petition?

Members indicated agreement.

I thank Mr Campbell for the sentiment of his petition on what is an important issue. However, if any of the circumstances that he describes arise, that is clearly a matter for the police.


Scottish Living Wage (Recognition Scheme) (PE1467)

The Convener

The sixth current petition is PE1467, by Andrew McGowan, on behalf of the Scottish Youth Parliament, of which he is a member, on a Scottish living wage recognition scheme.

I think that circumstances have overtaken the petition in that the Government fully supports the principles of the living wage campaign and will fund the Poverty Alliance for a one-year pilot of an accreditation scheme that is designed to increase the number of employers who pay the living wage.

I thank Andrew McGowan for his excellent petition and, on the basis of the explanation that I have given, suggest that we close it under rule 15.7. Is that agreed?

Members indicated agreement.


Young People’s Hospital Wards (PE1471)

The Convener

The seventh current petition is PE1471, by Rachel McCully, on behalf of the Scottish Youth Parliament, of which she is a member, on young people’s hospital wards. Members have a note by the clerk.

Regretfully, I recommend that we close the petition under rule 15.7 on the basis that the responses that the committee has received demonstrate that health boards have suitable provision and services for young people and there is little support for extending the upper age limit for such provision to 25 years.

I thank Rachel McCully for an extremely thoughtful petition and for all the work that she does as a member of the Scottish Youth Parliament.

I invite views from members.

Chic Brodie

This petition and the previous one were submitted by members of the Scottish Youth Parliament. I think that we should encourage more participation by not just members of the SYP but young people in general. The amount of work that the petitioners put into producing the petitions and coming to speak to the committee is a credit to them. We should actively encourage that.

I endorse that view.

Do members agree to the suggested course of action?

Members indicated agreement.


Alzheimer’s and Dementia Awareness (PE1480)

The Convener

The eighth current petition is PE1480, by Amanda Kopel, on behalf of the Frank Kopel Alzheimer’s Awareness Campaign, on Alzheimer’s and dementia awareness. Members have a note by the clerk.

There are a number of options, but I think that it is particularly important for us to write to the Cabinet Secretary for Health and Wellbeing about the Scottish Government’s plans for dementia sufferers under the age of 65 and to seek details of the review. I got the opportunity in a question to the cabinet secretary to raise the issue of free personal care for under-65s, which is crucial in relation to the petitioner’s concern for dementia sufferers.

I seek members’ views on the petition.

11:30

I may be wrong, but I understand that Ms Kopel is to meet—or has met—the cabinet secretary.

One option is to invite the cabinet secretary to come and speak to us about this crucial petition, which addresses the huge area of younger dementia sufferers. Do members agree that we should invite him to come and give evidence to us?

Jackson Carlaw

Yes and no. The cabinet secretary has met the petitioner and has promised to close the loophole. It might be appropriate in the first instance to write and ask how he proposes to do that, as his response may satisfy our needs. I do not particularly want to call the cabinet secretary before us if a solution is in prospect. If we were not entirely happy about what we heard from the cabinet secretary, we might then wish to question him.

The Convener

We will not close down the option of having the cabinet secretary here. We will ask him for information in the first instance and, depending on his response, it might not be necessary to have him here. Is that an acceptable solution?

Members indicated agreement.

Thank you.


Single-room Hospitals (Isolation) (PE1482)

The Convener

The ninth current petition is PE1482, by John Womersley, on isolation in single-room hospitals. Members have a note by the clerk and the submissions. I welcome the Rt Hon Alex Fergusson MSP, who is in attendance on the petition as he has a constituency interest in it.

Welcome to the meeting, Mr Fergusson. I invite you to give any views that you may have in support of the petition.

Alex Fergusson (Galloway and West Dumfries) (Con)

Thank you for that welcome, convener. I am grateful for this opportunity to say a few brief words in continued support of the petition, which has emanated from my constituency and was brought to the fore by the decision by Dumfries and Galloway NHS Board to build a new hospital that is to have only single rooms for patients.

Members will be aware of all the arguments, and I do not wish to repeat them, as that would be a complete waste of your time and mine. However, I point out to the committee that I am receiving an increasing number of representations on the policy as more and more people become aware of it. As with a lot of these things, when it was first announced a lot of people just saw “new hospital” and did not see the details. However, people are becoming more and more aware of the detail now.

I have considerable sympathy with the case for having single rooms in hospitals for children and young people, but I am very much coming from the point of view of elderly people, of which Dumfries and Galloway has a disproportionate amount of the number in Scotland. The hospital will cater for a disproportionate amount of elderly people. It is more and more being brought to my attention that such people very often draw a considerable recuperative benefit from the ability to share rooms when recuperating.

I find that the rather top-down attitude that is being displayed in not properly consulting patients’ representatives in particular goes a bit against the grain when putting this type of policy into place. There are options for health boards to have a mix of accommodation in hospitals for clinical reasons. It has been made fairly plain that the Dumfries and Galloway NHS Board was certainly not encouraged to do that, even if it wanted to. To be fair, I am not convinced that it did want to, but the possibility was never looked at.

My main cause of concern, however, is the complete lack of consultation with patients’ representatives. I find it quite enlightening that in an online survey by the BMJ—it might not be scientifically delivered, but we cannot doubt the proper right of the BMJ’s subscribers to give their views on the issue—57 per cent of the 1,060 doctors who responded were against the policy of single-room-only hospitals.

I do not know what committee members’ thoughts on the petition are, but I simply ask that you take my thoughts into account as you continue your deliberations on it.

Thank you. Can I have comments from members? Jackson Carlaw is looking at me expectantly.

Jackson Carlaw

I am always interested in Mr Fergusson’s arguments for homoeopathic medicine, but I am not entirely convinced. There are single rooms across Europe and the rest of the world and in private hospitals, and there are clinical reasons for going in that direction. I am perfectly happy with the suggestion that we write to the Scottish Government to ask it to ensure that the views of patients and the public—including the petitioner’s views—are sought to inform the proposed review. However, I have not yet heard a convincing argument against the clinical benefits that will be derived from having hospitals that have only single rooms.

Chic Brodie

I understand the concern, and I have heard some comments from the area about the lack of consultation, so I support the petition.

When we first considered the petition, I raised the question of the cost implications and whether we were getting better value. It would be instructive, in writing to the Scottish Government on the clinical aspects of single rooms versus multi-bedded rooms, to ask in addition for evidence that single rooms are also cost effective. Clearly, the patients come first but, being a cynical person sometimes, I suggest that we consider asking the Government to share information with us—for example, on what the cost in Dumfries and Galloway might have been if plans had been made earlier and views sought on multi-bedded rooms.

Do members agree on the course of action that Jackson Carlaw has identified and the additional point that Chic Brodie has made?

Members indicated agreement.

The Convener

As you can see, Mr Fergusson, we are going to write to the Scottish Government and add in a cost element as well. We will continue the petition, and keep you and the petitioner up to date. I thank you very much for taking the time to come in and make your submission.

Thank you for your time, convener.


Schools (Religious Observance) (PE1487)

The Convener

The 10th current petition is PE1487, by Mark Gordon and Secular Scotland, on religious observance in schools. Members have a note by the clerk and the submissions. A number of late submissions have been received and have been circulated. Copies have also been put on members’ desks, but I am conscious that members may not have had time to absorb all the late submissions.

Before I invite contributions from members, I point out that the clerk has received representations from the clerk to the Education and Culture Committee, which has indicated that it is keen for the petition to be referred to it, as it expects the issue to be relevant to the work that it is currently doing. That is normal practice. If there is a relevant workstream in another committee, we get an alert and can refer the petition to that committee if members agree to do so.

I now throw open the issue for contributions and members’ views on whether we should refer the petition to the Education and Culture Committee as part of its workstream.

John Wilson

I would be content to refer the petition on to the Education and Culture Committee if it is considering the issue as part of its workstream. We would expect to pass it on to that committee eventually, so if it is willing to take it on at present, then so be it.

Angus MacDonald

Given the recent interventions in the debate by the Church of Scotland and the Humanist Society regarding the call for a time for reflection rather than a time for religious observance, and the knock-on effect of an argument this morning from the Free Church of Scotland, which fears the impact on schools of such proposals, the petition is clearly developing arms and legs, and I agree that it should be referred to the Education and Culture Committee.

The Convener

I think that we all agree that it is a very important issue, and it is important that the relevant committee considers it. Do members agree to refer the petition under rule 15.6.2 of standing orders to the Education and Culture Committee as part of its remit?

Members indicated agreement.


Secret Society Membership (Declaration) (PE1491)

The Convener

The 11th and final current petition today is PE1491, by Tom Minogue, on the declaration of secret society membership by decision makers. Members have a note by the clerk and the submissions, and a note from the petitioner, copies of which have been put on members’ desks.

As members will note, Mr Minogue has indicated that he does not wish to proceed with the petition. Before we talk about the individual case, I suggest that we ask the clerk to report back at our next meeting with advice on where we stand once a petition has been heard by the committee. Do we now have ownership over the petition and the right to make that decision, or are we obliged to close a petition if the petitioner has pulled out at any stage? That issue has not come up in my experience in the past three years, and it is important in the longer term that we get a clear administrative line on it as a guide for future petitions.

I will deal with the issues one at a time. First, do members agree that we should ask the clerk to find out and report back at a future meeting?

Members indicated agreement.

The Convener

We next have to deal with Mr Minogue’s petition. Clearly Mr Minogue has spent a lot of time and effort on the petition and has given us a lot of submissions. For one reason or another, he now wishes to withdraw the petition. Mr Minogue has sent me some comments, which I am in the process of replying to. Mr Minogue should get a reply to his letter at the end of this week. Nevertheless, he has intimated that he wishes for the petition to cease from today. I seek advice from the committee on how to deal with it.

Chic Brodie

In view of that commentary, without overpersonalising things I say that perhaps my robust questioning did not help Mr Minogue. Convener, I hope when you reply to him that you will encourage him to be a lot more accurate in his comments, some of which are completely distorted and incorrect and, frankly, should not have appeared in his letter. On the basis of his wish to withdraw, and subject to the caveat that he does more checking in future, I think that it is better that we do that.

John Wilson

Based on your opening remarks about the petition, I am keen to get a definitive view on whether the committee can continue with the petition if the petitioner decides to withdraw it. Before intimating that he wanted to withdraw the petition, the petitioner had suggested that we should seek the views of other organisations. We have not had responses from the other organisations from which we sought views.

I would have liked to have got some of the views. I was surprised at the Crown Office and Procurator Fiscal Service’s response to the committee. I would have liked it to submit something, even if that was similar to that of Sheriffs Association, so that we could refer to it. The Crown Office just does not want to respond to the issues raised.

I would also have liked to seek the views of the Scottish Human Rights Commission so that we could have a definitive response on whether it is appropriate that a register of membership of organisations should be kept and on what rights individuals have not to declare membership of particular organisations.

I think that it is important that we await further clarification before making any decisions on the matter.

Angus MacDonald

It is unfortunate that the committee has spent some time on the petition only for the petitioner to abandon it. Following John Wilson’s point, I note in the evidence a reply from the Grand Lodge of Antient Free and Accepted Masons of Scotland saying that it finds it disquieting that no freemason has been asked to give evidence during the process.

As long as I have been on the committee, we have never been in this position where a petition has been abandoned, and I am keen to get further advice at the next meeting.

The Convener

As I am sure the committee has gathered, one option is to continue the petition, get advice from the clerk on where we are in administrative terms and make a decision at the next meeting. We have a considerable amount of time before our next meeting so we will have time to do that. We can then take a considered view and we will not have delayed our action by much.

Jackson Carlaw

I advocate a different course of action, which is that, before considering Mr Minogue’s request to abandon the petition, we close it under our own aegis, on the basis that the evidence that we have received gives no credence to the petitioner’s arguments. If we closed the petition, the question of our considering his request to withdraw the petition would not arise.

We have agreed that we will take advice on the general point, but you suggest that we should close the petition, irrespective of the petitioner’s view.

11:45

Jackson Carlaw

I would prefer the petition’s destiny to lie in the committee’s hands. Notwithstanding the general advice that we are to receive, one proactive way to achieve that would be to close the petition before we consider Mr Minogue’s request. Closing it is a perfectly viable option and I might have advocated it in any event, on the basis of everything that I have read.

We do not normally have votes in the committee, but I do not see why we should not have one today, if members feel strongly about the matter. If Mr Carlaw proposes that we should close the petition, I can treat that as a formal motion.

Chic Brodie

I agree with the proposal. The committee does a fairly good job of highlighting issues, and many petitions are in the stream.

To be frank, I would have preferred it if Mr Minogue was here. If we are to spend more time on the petition, we should get some definition of the process, as has been suggested. However, it would be unusual for us to spend more time on a petition that the petitioner wants to abandon. It takes two to tango. In this case, we would be tangoing on our own.

I take it that you support Mr Carlaw’s suggestion.

I do.

The Convener

As no member takes a contrary view, we have decided to close the petition, in the light of the arguments that Jackson Carlaw and others have made. Separately, we will seek advice on what to do in the future if a petitioner wishes to withdraw their petition. We hope to have that information at our next meeting.

I thank members for their contributions.

Meeting closed at 11:47.