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Chamber and committees

Meeting date: Tuesday, September 14, 2021

Meeting of the Parliament (Hybrid) 14 September 2021

Agenda: Time for Reflection, Business Motion, Topical Question Time, Covid-19, Urgent Question, Health and Social Care, Parliamentary Bureau Motion, Decision Time, Tokyo Paralympics


Urgent Question

I remind members that social distancing measures are in place in the chamber and around the Holyrood campus. I ask that members take care to observe those measures, including when entering and exiting the chamber. Please use the aisles and walkways only to access your seat and when moving around the chamber.

Scottish Parliament (Designated Status)

To ask the Scottish Parliamentary Corporate Body for what reason it applied for designated status for the Scottish Parliament under the Serious Organised Crime and Police Act 2005, and whether it will publish the background paper upon which this decision was based.

On behalf of the Scottish Parliamentary Corporate Body, I welcome the opportunity to correct some of the significant misunderstandings and inaccuracies that have been reported and commented on regarding our decision to seek designated status for the parliamentary estate.

The SPCB takes its responsibility to provide a safe and welcoming parliamentary estate very seriously. As members all know, the Parliament welcomes and facilitates thousands of protests all year round as an essential part of the expression of democracy in Scotland, and I categorically assure the Parliament and the public that that will not change.

Corporate body members considered a paper, received a comprehensive briefing from Police Scotland, and had an opportunity for full discussion. The decision to seek designated status was unanimous, and no member requested that it be put to a vote.

In applying for designated status, we are not seeking to curb or limit protest. The reason for applying for designated status is to give the Parliament the means by which to address protests by individuals whereby they try to prevent the Parliament from meeting to carry out its essential role, or seek to interfere with the rights of others to engage at Holyrood, or where their actions make it unsafe for others. Unfortunately, the Parliament has experienced such disruption, impacting on its democratic role.

In taking the decision to apply for designated status, the SPCB has listened closely to police advice. We have considered the experience of other Parliaments, such as Westminster and the Welsh Parliament, where the same measure is available. After very careful consideration, we were assured that the measure offers additional support that will be used in only a small number of the most exceptional circumstances, when the situation cannot be resolved by the usual means via our on-site security and Police Scotland.

In practice, we are assured that the corporate body will be consulted and engaged on any circumstances in which the designation will be used.

As the chamber knows, the corporate body does not publish papers that include security advice.

Colleagues will recognise the significant concern around the change of status of the Scottish Parliament estate from 1 October, which will criminalise forms of peaceful protest, as we have seen elsewhere, such as the reading out of the names of dead soldiers. Unfortunately, statements from the SPCB have failed to recognise that.

I know that many MSPs have joined protests outside the Scottish Parliament, as I have, on a whole range of issues. Protest is a fundamental part of our democracy and the Parliament should be open, accessible and welcoming of peaceful protest. I urge the SPCB to reconsider the decision, which I do not believe can be justified.

I make it very clear that the measure will not criminalise protesters who come to put their case outside the Parliament. I have been on marches and demonstrations all my life and I would not support measures to curtail them. They are a vital part of our democracy and I fully support people’s right to protest at this Parliament.

The measure is about protecting the functions of the Parliament, our ability to conduct business, the health and safety of all who come here, including our Parliament security staff, and being cognisant of the impact on the public purse of the current limited options that are available to us.

I also have concerns about how the process has been conducted. The minutes of the SPCB’s meeting on 24 June note that the corporate body discussed the matter and highlight that concerns were raised by Maggie Chapman.

The minutes make no mention of consulting MSPs or the public. In fact, MSPs were not informed of the change until legislation had already been laid in the House of Commons. Does the member not accept that the controversy around the matter could have been avoided if the SPCB had adopted a more transparent approach, in line with the Scottish Parliament’s key principles of accountability and open participation?

The member will know that members of the corporate body have a responsibility to make decisions on behalf of the Parliament in certain circumstances. Often, that is when an issue includes the security of the Parliament and involves security advice that we receive from Police Scotland.

We had a thorough debate at the corporate body. No member proposed that we hold a vote. We listened very carefully to the arguments that were made. We expressed some of the concerns that have been raised by members, and we were satisfied from the answers that we received that the approach was the correct course of action to take.

Given the public interest in the matter, I will call a couple of members to ask supplementary questions.

I thank Claire Baker for her clarification of the matter. I was dismayed to see that it was a member of the Scottish Parliamentary Corporate Body who was guilty of passing on the kind of misinformation that we have seen in the media and elsewhere. Does the member agree with me that, as parliamentarians, we have a duty and responsibility to ensure that the public is not misled?

I am pleased that, this afternoon, I am able to give clarity to some of the reporting over the weekend and make it clear that the measure is not about criminalising protests that take place at the Parliament.

Members should avoid making misleading comments in public. We all have a responsibility to ensure that the information that we provide is clear and accurate. Last Thursday, all MSPs received an email from the Presiding Officer explaining the corporate body’s decision.

I echo Stephen Kerr’s conclusion that this is a good opportunity to clarify the situation that arose over the weekend. This is possibly a situation in which better communication at the start might have avoided that. I know that that is challenging, given that much of the evidence that the SPCB receives from the police is confidential—rightly so—and the corporate body makes decisions based on that. However, could you give an example of a situation to which the designation would apply, if not to people who want to gather outside to make their views known to us in here?

It is difficult, in the chamber this afternoon, to provide an example that links directly. However, members can reflect on instances that the Parliament has had to deal with in recent years, when solutions have been protracted and costly. The designation will, I think, help in those situations.