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Chamber and committees

Meeting date: Thursday, March 5, 2020

Meeting of the Parliament 05 March 2020

Agenda: General Question Time, First Minister’s Question Time, Whitburn Academy Be Herd Group, Scottish Parliamentary Corporate Body Question Time, Portfolio Question Time, Budget (Scotland) (No 4) Bill: Stage 3, Parliamentary Bureau Motion, Decision Time


Scottish Parliamentary Corporate Body Question Time

Good afternoon. The first item of business is questions to the Scottish Parliamentary Corporate Body. Questions 2 and 5 are grouped together, as are questions 3, 9, 10 and 11 .

The Big Lunch

To ask the Scottish Parliamentary Corporate Body what its position is on facilitating the Eden project initiative, the big lunch, in June 2020 to bring people who work at the Parliament together and help strengthen the sense of community. (S5O-04233)

The big lunch looks like a really worthwhile event, with a strong message of community engagement. I know that all members and the SPCB would want to be supportive of such an initiative. As the member will be aware, in recent years, we have supported a similar event, the great get together, which is a project that was initiated by the Jo Cox Foundation. As such, I suggest that the Eden project make contact with the Scottish Parliament’s events and exhibitions team to discuss the event in more detail, so that it can be considered along with other events, such as the great get together.

I thank the member for that positive answer. Would the SPCB also consider other community initiatives on the back of the big lunch, such as regular exercises or healthy workshops to give all MSPs and parliamentary staff the opportunity to socialise and improve their mental and physical health and wellbeing during work break times?

Those are exactly the sort of positive suggestions that the SPCB would consider in the future. Our events team is designed to help members and outside organisations to facilitate such events.

Given the current situation around the coronavirus and in the context of the question on the Eden project initiative and the promotion of other large gatherings of people, what immediate and practical steps will be taken to safeguard building users, such as the disabling of the fingerprint entry system? What further steps will be taken should the virus move beyond the containment phase?

Officials have been monitoring the spread of coronavirus over recent weeks and recognise that if the number of cases increases, it may have significant impact on us all, whether we work at Holyrood or in a local office or are a visitor to the Scottish Parliament. At our meeting this morning, the corporate body discussed our approach to pandemic planning and considered the options open to us in limiting exposure to the virus. The corporate body is mindful of its duties and responsibilities, including those under the Health and Safety at Work etc Act 1974, to its employees and those who work at the Parliament.

At present, our focus is on promoting hand and respiratory hygiene as the main measures in preventing the spread of the virus. Hand sanitiser dispensers have now been placed around the building to help with that.

On the two-factor identification system, while we take steps to mitigate the impact of the coronavirus, it is important that we remain vigilant and do not introduce vulnerabilities into our agreed approach to security. The readers used at the entrances carry no more risk of cross-contamination than a door handle, so two-factor identification will not be suspended. For those with concerns about cross-contamination, hand sanitiser is available at each of the main entrances.

On large gatherings, other legislatures, such as the European Parliament, have chosen to stop their engagement activities and, to limit exposure to those who normally work at Holyrood, we may choose to do the same, should circumstances warrant that. The corporate body recognises that that would be done only in the most extreme circumstances and would be informed by advice from officials such as the chief medical officer.

Could the SPCB publish guidance on, and could more attention be paid to, fighting the spread of infection, for example by putting paper towels back into toilets, replenishing soaps quickly, supplying wipes for keyboards and situating hand gels at the public entrance and the entrance to the MSP block? I also ask the SPCB to look again at the fingerprint entry system in the context of infection.

I reassure the member that the SPCB will continue to monitor the situation in accordance with our teams and engagement activity with other official bodies, including other UK legislatures and the Scottish Government resilience room.

We have already communicated with members and others on the outbreak and we will continue to do so regularly as the situation develops.

Officials are creating a frequently asked questions sheet on how public health advice can be followed. The aim is for that advice to be as applicable to members and their staff as it is to staff and contractors at Holyrood. We recognise that mitigation steps may need to be increased in future as risks change or emerge. If required, we will take steps that are in line with the advice from public health agencies.

On the specific issues of hand sanitiser at the public entrance, replacing paper towels and so on, we had a discussion this morning about the work that cleaning crews do and how we can increase what they do as the situation merits it. We will continue to take advice on that from public health bodies.

International Cyberattacks

To ask the Scottish Parliamentary Corporate Body what assessment has been made of the level of threat to information technology systems from international cyberattacks. (S5O-04192)

The Scottish Parliamentary Corporate Body fully recognises that the importance of cyberresilience for all organisations has never been greater. Digital technologies are vital to the successful operation of all modern organisations, and the corporate body has put in place a variety of tools, technologies and procedures to protect the Parliament from a successful attack.

The effectiveness of our critical cybersecurity controls is regularly and independently assessed. That has earned the Scottish Parliament a cyber essentials plus certification, which is revalidated annually.

In addition to the technical measures and controls that are in place, the Scottish Parliament is a member of the cybersecurity information sharing partnership and is in regular contact with the national cyber security centre and other bodies that provide advice on the current threat landscape and on cybersecurity best practice.

How does the corporate body stay apprised of current cybersecurity developments?

The SPCB does that by working with the NCSC and the Scottish Government. We update our technical safeguards regularly while balancing security with ease of use. As I mentioned, the SPCB has recently undertaken an independent assessment of critical cybersecurity controls, which has led to the award of cyber essentials plus certification once again.

International Cyberattacks

To ask the Scottish Parliamentary Corporate Body what recent evidence has been received that its information technology systems have been subject to cyberattacks from international sources. (S5O-04194)

The SPCB has monitoring systems that are designed to provide early warning of cyberattacks and their origins. Although significant targeted cyberattacks against the Scottish Parliament are relatively rare, we encounter periodic smaller-scale attacks. So far, no attacks are known have been successful.

The distributed nature of the internet means that it is not always possible to attribute attacks to particular nation states, but the origin of some of the attacks is known to be outside the United Kingdom. As network users, we all share a responsibility to protect the security and cybersecurity of the Scottish Parliament.

Is the SPCB security budget adequate to protect our systems from those attacks, and has it been increased to ensure that we keep up to date with developments in information technology security?

I acknowledge James Kelly’s expertise in this area. The corporate body ensures that the level of protection that is offered to our systems meets or exceeds the baseline standards that are outlined in the public sector action plan on cyberresilience. That action plan was developed by the national cyberresilience leaders board and the national cyber security centre. It aims to ensure that Scotland’s public bodies have a common baseline of cyberresilience practice in place, and budgets will follow that. Or efforts in this area are independently assessed by the cyber essentials plus certification process.

The corporate body also recognises that cybersecurity measures must continue to evolve as new threats emerge. There are organisational procedures in place to ensure that we are kept aware of emerging threats and that we continue to update our systems while balancing the security of those systems with the flexibility that allows members and their staff to work at any time from anywhere.

If members such as James Kelly have any specific concerns—including about the budget—I am very happy for our cybersecurity expert to meet him for a more in-depth discussion.

MSP Staff Cost Provision

To ask the Scottish Parliamentary Corporate Body when it will make a decision regarding the level of members of the Scottish Parliament allowances for staff for 2020-21. (S5O-04190)

With your indulgence, Presiding Officer, I will take a little time to respond to Mr Neil’s question in the hope of helping to answer questions that other members have lodged.

The corporate body met this morning, as planned. Among other issues, we discussed the annual uprating of the staff cost provision. I can announce that, with effect from 1 April, the provision will be uprated by 2.96 per cent.

There is an important distinction between MSPs and the SPCB when it comes to employment matters. It is the corporate body’s responsibility, under the terms of the members’ expenses scheme, to uprate the staff cost provision, which members then use to employ and pay their staff. The SPCB is not the employer in this relationship and it is for individual MSPs to budget for their staff salaries and the cost-of-living award.

The SPCB must uprate the scheme by 1 April each year, having regard to such indices as it considers appropriate. Members will be aware that we have previously used ASHE—the annual survey of hours and earnings—which is retrospectively based on the pay of public sector workers in Scotland. However, members might also be aware that that annual index is currently 1.4 per cent, which is below the current rate of inflation and what we might expect by way of growth for public sector wages in Scotland.

This morning, we agreed that a more appropriate mechanism for the coming year and future years would be to use the average of ASHE and the average weekly earnings index. Both of those indices are wage related and, taken together, will better reflect wider pay conditions in the public sector. The corporate body agreed that that combined use of indices, which results in a 2.96 per cent uplift to the staff cost provision, was fair and affordable.

I would like to move on the wider issue of the overall staff cost provision. The corporate body noted with interest the increase announced yesterday by the Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority to the staff cost provision for members of the House of Commons, which is uplifting it by £21,000 per member. At the start of this session, the SPCB increased the overall staff cost provision by £30,000 per member, in recognition of the increased powers of this Parliament.

As members will be aware, as a matter of good practice, the corporate body has been reviewing the provisions in the current members’ expenses scheme ahead of the next session. As part of that review, the SPCB has committed to reviewing the overall staff cost provision. It will do so in the current session, with a view to implementing any changes at the start of session 6.

I apologise for that slightly more involved response, but I hope that the additional detail and content have been helpful to both Mr Neil and other colleagues who, understandably, have an interest in the issue.

I hope that we can have short supplementary questions after that full statement.

I draw the corporate body’s attention to the fact that our staff are the worst-paid staff and our staff allowances are the worst of any Parliament in the United Kingdom. The 13.9 per cent increase at Westminster now means that there is a huge differential between what MPs get and what MSPs get. We owe it to our staff to look after them and make sure that they get fair treatment.

The Westminster rise is based on what other people get in similar jobs throughout the UK. I ask the corporate body to fundamentally review the situation, because it is unacceptable that our staff continue to be so badly paid compared to other staff who are doing equivalent jobs in the rest of the country.

I thank Mr Neil for his supplementary question, and I would not distance myself at all from the sentiment that he expresses. That is why, at the start of this session, there was an attempt to uplift the amount that is available through the staff cost provision to reflect the additional workload for members and their staff. We are going through the process that I outlined, with a view to putting in place, at the start of session 6, a system that should reflect that additional workload and the expectations that, as Mr Neil rightly said, we place on our staff. We owe them a duty of care in that regard.

I associate myself with Alex Neil’s remarks and say that I am delighted that the corporate body has recognised the unfairness of differential pay rises for staff in the Parliament this year. I welcome the pay uprating of 2.96 per cent.

I also thank the GMB for its intervention—

No—I am afraid that you have to ask a question.

I am just about to.

No, you should be asking the question—

In terms of the future review, will the corporate body—

No—the question that is on the paper, please.

Oh. I thought that you were dispensing with that when you grouped them.


Oh, fine. Okay.

That is a chatty way to address the issue, and I do not know if I quite approve of it. Ms Baillie, start again. We will wipe the slate clean. Begin.

MSP Staff Cost Provision

To ask the Scottish Parliamentary Corporate Body whether it will uprate members’ staff cost provision in line with the Scottish Government uprating of 3 per cent. (S5O-04232)

I cannot add much to what I have already said.

I was simply trying to save you time, Presiding Officer.

I thank the GMB union for its intervention.

In its future review, will the corporate body ensure that there is a comparison with the Welsh Assembly, where there is a larger budget for staff despite its having fewer pounds?

In response to the point that Alex Neil and Jackie Baillie have made, I can say that comparisons with other legislatures inform the discussions that the corporate body has and the decisions that we make. Across the expenses scheme, there are differences between the arrangements that the Welsh Assembly has and what we have here, in the Scottish Parliament. However, such comparisons will feature prominently in the deliberations that we have in the run-up to the start of the next parliamentary session.

MSP Staff Cost Provision

To ask the Scottish Parliamentary Corporate Body what steps it is taking to ensure that members can appropriately remunerate their staff. (S5O-04231)

Again, I say that I am not sure that I can add much to my earlier response.

I want to put on the record that I will have to restructure my office and lose head count—that means a member of staff—if I am to pay my staff the appropriate amount that they deserve. Given that, will the SPCB consider a step change, and substantially increase MSP staffing budgets, perhaps in line with Westminster, before it decides on any future annual increases?

As I said, the corporate body has a responsibility to uprate the staff and office cost provision in line with indices. It is for individual members to make decisions about employment of staff and the terms that they are on. I encourage Bob Doris to engage in discussions with human resources colleagues on the specific circumstances in his office. They may be able to help him.

MSP Staff Cost Provision

To ask the Scottish Parliamentary Corporate Body what discussions it has had regarding the increase in the MSP staffing budget. (S5O-04189)

Again, I say that I do not have anything to add to my initial response.

I associate myself with the comments that my colleagues have made.

The 2.96 per cent increase is welcome. However, the means by which we have arrived at it are not. The voice of trade unions is distinctly lacking, as are the voices of MSP staff. Will the corporate body look at having better union and staff representation in future talks and examinations of pay structures?

As I said, the SPCB is responsible for uprating staff cost provision in line with indices. We have described the process that we went through in setting the annual survey of hours and earnings as an index: we have moved to using ASHE and the average weekly earnings index. A basket of indices is the measure by which future staff cost provision will be uprated. It is for individual members of the Scottish Parliament to make their own arrangements for employment of staff.

I echo the general sentiment in the chamber.

I am also concerned that over the coming weeks and months, many MSP staff might have to take sickness leave or be in isolation. Can the corporate body assure us that staff cost provision will be flexible enough to ensure that none of us is in a position in which our staff have to lose pay, or our offices cease to function, and will the same principle apply to corporate body staff and contractor staff?

I thank Patrick Harvie for raising that issue, which came up during this morning’s discussions. I assure him that that is part of the live consideration of an evolving situation. We are very cognisant of the fact that members, through their staffing arrangements, and other building users, might be affected over the coming weeks and months. We need to be responsive to that, so we will be.

MSP Staff (Equality Monitoring)

To ask the Scottish Parliamentary Corporate Body what equality monitoring of staff employed by members of the Scottish Parliament it undertakes, and what steps it is taking to address any underrepresentation from any section of society. (S5O-04195)

The Scottish Parliamentary Corporate Body does not undertake equality monitoring on behalf of members. As each member is an employer in their own right, the responsibility lies with them to gather data on equalities information on their staff. However, the SPCB provides advice and guidance to members to assist them to monitor the diversity of staff in their offices.

All staff have the option to add their personal equalities information to the electronic human resources system, which is the same management information system that is used for holding payslips and other personal data. If they request it, members can access that information through the human resources office, which can provide a breakdown of the information. That could help members to review diversity in their offices, if there are any barriers for staff or if any groups are underrepresented.

MSP staff, especially those who work in local offices, are ambassadors for the Parliament and are, in many cases, the only point of contact with the Parliament that some members of the public have. It is therefore vital that MSP staff are representative of the public whom we seek to serve. For that to happen, a targeted recruitment and delivery plan, similar to the SPCB’s 2020-21 plan, is required. Will the SPCB look further into that issue, and publicise the fact that it gives advice and guidance on the monitoring of, and on good practice in, equality issues?

It is important not only that such advice and guidance exists, but that members know about it. It is also important to say that the HR office is available to provide support and guidance to members on promoting best practice and being an inclusive employer. It can provide advice and assistance to members on recruitment of staff, including drafting job descriptions and vacancy adverts, and placing recruitment adverts appropriately in order to attract candidates from diverse backgrounds.

A range of factsheets and guidance is available to members on their responsibilities under the Equality Act 2010. I am aware that they have not been updated for some time; they are currently under review.

I take on board Elaine Smith’s point that there is work to do, and I hope that that work is being carried out.

That concludes SPCB question time. I apologise to the four members whose questions were not answered. I think that they will understand why we had an extensive list of questions on certain items.