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Chamber and committees

Meeting date: Thursday, September 17, 2020

Meeting of the Parliament (Hybrid) 17 September 2020

Agenda: First Minister’s Question Time, Scottish Parliamentary Corporate Body Question Time, Portfolio Question Time, Employment Support, Parliamentary Bureau Motion, Decision Time


Scottish Parliamentary Corporate Body Question Time

The next item of business is Scottish Parliamentary Corporate Body question time. There are four questions and we have 20 minutes, so I should be able to take a couple of supplementaries.

Members’ Allowances

To ask the Scottish Parliamentary Corporate Body what consideration it has given to re-establishing members’ ability to vire an element of office cost provision to staff cost provision so that they can make their own spending decisions on using the allowances. (S5O-04606)

Parliament agreed to remove the ability to vire between the office cost provision and staff cost provision at the end of session 4, when it amended the overall members’ expenses scheme.

Consideration was given to re-establishing viring during the recent members’ expenses scheme review. However, the SPCB determined that the best way to ensure that all members were supported in a more consistent and sustainable manner was to go to the root of the issue and re-examine the overall staff cost provision. That is currently under way. As such, we do not propose to reintroduce a viring provision in the scheme for the next session.

However, the point that Bill Kidd makes about flexibility within the scheme is something that we have considered. The SPCB aims to create more flexibility for members in other ways by creating two new provisions—an office property cost provision and an engagement provision—that members can flex within set parameters to better suit their costs and ways of working.

I thank the SPCB for its reply, which is very interesting. The rationale behind my question is that, as all MSPs know, there has been an exponential rise in the number of inquiries from constituents and organisations since the advent of Covid-19. Our members of staff are inundated with questions on a very wide range of issues and subjects, and I believe that they are due whatever payment our allowances allow for their hard work on those tasks.

Bill Kidd is absolutely right to point out what he described as the “exponential rise” in demands on MSP staff, and, indeed, on Parliament staff generally over the past five or six months. We all owe them an enormous debt of gratitude.

The allowances scheme currently has capacity to allow for overtime—not bonuses—to be paid, albeit within set budget limits. There is general recognition that there are increasing demands on parliamentary staff due not just to Covid, but to expansion of the responsibilities of the Parliament. It is with that in mind that the SPCB is undertaking its review to ensure that, going into the next session, the staff cost provision is fit for purpose and meets the needs to which Bill Kidd alluded.

Members’ Local Offices (Covid-19-related Costs)

2. Christine Grahame (Midlothian South, Tweeddale and Lauderdale) (SNP)

To ask the Scottish Parliamentary Corporate Body whether it will pursue establishing an account to allow for the costs of Covid-19-related requirements at local offices to be paid directly by the Parliament. (S5O-04605)

I thank Christine Grahame for that question, which is of interest to all MSPs in the operation of their constituency offices.

The SPCB has looked to assist members by using our current providers to enable members to order items that they need to reopen their offices. We have also made arrangements with other suppliers, which will directly invoice members for any order that they place.

If members purchase items through either Parliament’s suppliers or direct from another supplier and receive an invoice for it, the invoice can simply be authorised and emailed to the allowances office. The allowances office will pay the supplier direct, which means that the member is not out of pocket. The costs will be met from the incidental and ancillary employment provision, as detailed in the Covid-19 advice pages.

I thank the corporate body. I think that that is the answer that I wanted, although I am not sure. [Laughter.] I was trying to follow it.

I think that the gist of it is that we no longer have to purchase, pay the bill and then recoup, which we had to do previously, and which was going round the houses and a waste of everybody’s time. Can the SPCB confirm that now we simply put in our order and everything else is done by the Parliament?

I thank Christine Grahame for elaborating on that. We must be clear on that issue, because it is important to members.

The answer to the question is yes: as long as the member has a receipt from the supplier they can submit it to Parliament under the ancillary employment provisions, and the amount will be paid direct to the supplier. Members must first get a receipt. Does that answer the question?

It is probably not my place to say so, but I think that Ms White used the word “receipt” instead of the word “invoice”. Would you like to come back again, Ms Grahame? This could develop.

It is a double act.

I was puzzled by the word “receipt”, because that seemed to me to be exactly what I am trying to get out of.

It is never simple to deal with Christine Grahame.

I did say “invoice” in my first answer. I apologise for my slip of the tongue in saying “receipt”. I meant “invoice”.

I will make my question a little easier.

Many members are keen to re-open region and constituency offices. The information that has been provided by Parliament has been comprehensive, and the offer of assistance from parliamentary staff is very welcome. However, the process of understanding what to order, who to order it from and who pays for it is not simple. It is not a case of ordering just hygiene or safety items: some offices might require physical modification. Who will undertake that work? Who will risk assess the premises?

Will the SPCB ask Parliament to provide a dedicated single point of contact and resource for members who are trying to reopen their offices, who will project manage all that and consolidate all members’ concerns in one place, so that we can open our offices as quickly and as safely as possible?

The SPCB has discussed that. We are looking at new ways to assess offices. Guidance will come out next week and Parliament will notify members of that.

Mr Greene makes a good point about having one point of contact. I say at this point—I have said “point” three times now—that if the member wishes to notify Jackson Carlaw, who represents his party on the corporate body, he can raise the matter, too. There is a point of contact, and members will be updated on the assessment of offices.

I think that that is called collective responsibility.

Voting System

To ask the Scottish Parliamentary Corporate Body whether it has confidence in the hybrid system of voting. (S5O-04607)

In short, yes. The corporate body has confidence in the voting system. I should clarify that we do not have a hybrid voting system; we have one voting system that has been put in place to enable members to take part in hybrid meetings and to do so at home, remotely or in the chamber.

The voting application, which was developed during the summer recess—I thank staff for their work on that—allows all members participating in proceedings, whether remotely or in the chamber, to cast their votes accurately and securely from any device with an internet connection and a suitable browser.

We are aware that some issues have arisen with that system. The Presiding Officer wrote to members on 9 September and a written question on that matter from Daniel Johnson was answered on 10 September. Issues have arisen with the system and with the communications that it relies upon, and also with members and users themselves. The system has been constantly tested and refined to ensure that votes continue to be recorded accurately and I assure the member that analysis of the logs and the voting results confirms that we can and should have confidence in their accuracy.

The SPCB recognises that this is a new system and a new way of working for Parliament. It is a vital way of working that enables members—for example those who are shielding and for whom it is impossible to come to the chamber—to contribute remotely.

As I have said, the SPCB recognises that, during the introduction of the new system, several issues have arisen, and it would like to reassure Neil Findlay and all other members that Parliament staff are working hard to address the issues that have been identified and to make improvements to the system and the procedures that are involved.

I think everyone wants a system that works and that we can all have confidence in. Unfortunately, depending where in the country members are, connection to the current system can be unstable, voting is subject to problems and delays, problems are slow to be remedied, and results are subject to the Presiding Officer’s interpretation.

Parliament staff are doing everything that they can to help, but I am not sure that things are getting an awful lot better. When the big decisions that are made here—sometimes by a single vote—can have such a big impact on people’s health, jobs, businesses, life chances and wellbeing, a voting system in which too many factors can go wrong does not instil confidence. What action is being taken to resolve the problems and how much has been spent on the system so far?

We will get back to Neil Findlay on the question of costs, as I do not have them to hand.

Any system that is developed, and which is designed to be able to be used remotely, will rely on communications. The communications for members who are in Aberdeenshire or in Dumfries and Galloway, or in their home or constituency office, will all vary. It is important to recall the advice and guidance that was given to members in relation to using the voting system. It is now well established that, if any member is not confident that their vote has been recorded, they can either raise that via the BlueJeans platform if they are taking part in proceedings in that way or they can raise a point of order in the chamber.

I understand that voting takes time, and that there is still a delay for testing, but the point of that is to ensure that every member who is participating in proceedings is able to cast their vote. We ask for continuing patience from members.

On the question of the Presiding Officer’s interpretation of results, we are not responsible for that. The Presiding Officer has ultimate discretion and authority to make decisions on the votes in the chamber. If it is of any assurance to Neil Findlay, we have a detailed log of every member who has logged on to the BlueJeans platform, when they did so and when they logged off, when they logged on to and off the voting system, the votes that have been recorded and whether they have been changed. If the Presiding Officer has any doubt as to the validity of a vote, including votes that are tight, he will, in the normal course of events, and as happened last week, seek to delay declaring the results, in order to satisfy himself from an analysis of the voting system and the logs that all votes were recorded correctly.

I can say little more than to assure Neil Findlay that the system is under constant review, and that any member who has ideas or feedback has been encouraged from the beginning to feed them in. I stress that we need a system of voting to enable parliamentary business to continue. We are doing all we can to make sure that the voting system continues to command confidence.

I have a lot of requests for supplementary questions, and we have had quite a comprehensive answer from Mr Wightman. I wish to take all the supplementary questions because the issue is important, but could we be aware of the time, please?

Under the system that we had in the Parliament, if we missed a vote for any reason, such as speaking to a pal, being in the toilet, or daydreaming, the vote was rightly not recorded. At the moment, that can happen, but someone just needs to say, “On a point of order, Presiding Officer: my vote was not recorded.” Is that correct?

As I understand the standing orders, under the previous system, if a member was daydreaming, in the toilet or delayed by a train, their vote was not recorded—there was no means by which they could have the vote recorded because they were not present in proceedings. If a member is present in proceedings—that is to say, they are on the BlueJeans platform or in the chamber—and has any doubt as to whether their vote was recorded in the way in which they intended, they should raise a point of order. [Interruption.] Mr Findlay is asking about missing a vote. If a member has missed a vote, they have missed the vote.

I want to raise the issue of the extreme length of time that it is taking to vote. Last week, it took us 40 minutes to get through four votes. We are all busy people with more important things to do than to sit in here waiting for the voting system to work. This is supposed to be a family-friendly Parliament; there are many members with childcare commitments in the evening, and an extra half hour suddenly being added to the day wreaks havoc with that. If we cannot get the system to work more quickly, can we ditch it for one that does?

I understand Murdo Fraser’s point about delay, which is a significant issue for some members with caring responsibilities who have plans to get home from Parliament. It is probably a timetabling issue to be raised in the first instance with the Parliamentary Bureau.

We need to allow a period of time to ensure that all members who are present during proceedings are capable of voting. I am sure that if Murdo Fraser was sitting remotely and having connection problems, he would want that time to be allocated—perhaps in particular for a tight vote or a vote on his own amendment—and that is what the Presiding Officer is doing.

I know that it is frustrating, particularly at the end of a busy and long day, but these are some of the compromises that we have to make to ensure that we have a Parliament that can continue to function when many members are not able to be present.

I congratulate the SPCB on what is an excellent technical solution, which supports my health and that of other older members who wish to be remote from Parliament, if possible.

In the light of the difficulties, which seem to be mostly human rather than technology based, will the SPCB look at standardising the technology platforms that we use more generally? Sometimes, we use Microsoft Teams and BlueJeans. Not everyone is comfortable using multiple platforms and there are opportunities for simplification of the interface. Will that be looked at?

I do not know what evidence Stewart Stevenson has for saying that most of the problems have been human; certainly, a lot of the problems are down to users’ continuing unfamiliarity and user error, but there have also been issues with communication. We have a log and we know exactly what all the problems have been.

Stewart Stevenson makes a point about standardising and having one platform, but among the reasons for developing the app in its current specification are that it is secure, which is important for a legislature taking votes, and it can be deployed across a range of platforms. Members use a range of platforms, so it accommodates their needs and wishes. It would be inappropriate and might add far greater complexity if we were to insist on standardising platforms that members might perhaps have been using for years.

In the letter from the Presiding Officer to members on 9 September, which Andy Wightman referred to, there was a reference to external partners being asked to validate and make any necessary improvements to the app. Has any independent specialist been appointed to undertake that work?

I do not know; that is an operational detail. We will ensure that the SPCB gets back to Miles Briggs to let him know.

Everyone appreciates the hard work that staff are putting in to ensure the integrity of the voting system, but there is no doubt that it is causing anxiety.

When somebody’s vote has not been recorded and they raise a point of order, the Presiding Officer deems that he can add on the vote accordingly. Is that consistent with the Parliament’s standing orders for the recording of votes?

Questions on the interpretation of standing orders are not really for us in the SPCB to address, although I note the fact that the Presiding Officer has substantial discretion in ensuring that he is comfortable with the votes and that they have been recorded. I have no doubt that the Presiding Officer is applying the standing orders correctly, but I am not in a position to interpret the standing orders myself.

Mr Kelly, I will ensure that the Presiding Officer’s office sends out an answer to your question.

Staff Cost Provision (Review)

To ask the Scottish Parliamentary Corporate Body when it will publish the terms of reference and timeline of its review into the staff cost provision. (S5O-04608)

I announced to the chamber at the previous SPCB question time in March 2020 that there would be a review during this parliamentary session of the staff cost provision. Following that, the Presiding Officer wrote to business managers on 13 May 2020, and a memo was issued by SPCB members to their parliamentary group members on 14 May. That included the report and recommendations arising from the review of the reimbursement of members’ expenses scheme, as well as the agreed terms of reference for the review of the staff cost provision as commissioned by the SPCB. The remit for the staff cost provision review, along with the report of the wider review of the members’ expenses scheme, are available on the SPCB pages of the Parliament’s website.

The review is on-going, and the SPCB expects to consider its findings later in the autumn. If, following that consideration, any changes to the staff cost provision are recommended, those will be subject to a resolution of the Parliament. The SPCB expects that to take place towards the end of the current session in order that any changes could be introduced from the beginning of the next session in May 2021.

As was highlighted earlier, there is no doubt that there has been substantial growth both in the number of queries that members’ offices have received during the Covid-19 pandemic and in the complexity of those queries. I pay tribute to all parties’ staff for their work in serving our constituents.

The pandemic has also highlighted the need for members to have capable, experienced staff who are able to assist them with such queries and to support them in scrutinising legislation and Government activity in the Parliament. Therefore it is essential that the staff cost provision review is carried out timeously and comes to an appropriate conclusion. There must also be sufficient transparency around it. The GMB union has raised with me its concern about the lack of consultation with trade unions and with those in the workplace.

What is the process for the review? Will the SPCB set out a clear plan for engaging not only with members but with staff representatives and trade unions?

I thank James Kelly, who, perhaps prompted by Bill Kidd’s earlier remarks, has rightly pointed out the substantial increase not just in the number of questions but in the complexity of the issues that members’ staff are having to deal with. That situation is very much informing the current review. It is considering not just the scale or the level of the provision but the way in which job descriptions and roles are defined, both to provide the flexibility that members quite clearly need and to reflect the changing nature of the roles themselves.

I also thank Mr Kelly for his involvement in the review. A number of members have committed to being interviewed as part of it. I encourage Bill Kidd and any other member with an interest to make their interest known to the Scottish Parliament information centre so that it can involve them. Following a survey of members’ staff, interviews are also taking place with individuals among them.

The involvement of trade unions has been raised previously. Ultimately, members are the employers of their staff, so the review needs to take into consideration the views of both members and those staff. I am sure that the concerns that the GMB has made known to the SPCB in writing will be reflected through the interview and survey process.

We cannot lose sight of the fact that the ultimate responsibility will fall to members, but we must ensure that the staff cost provision provides them with the wherewithal to employ the staff they need if they are to perform their roles on behalf of their constituents.

That concludes Scottish Parliamentary Corporate Body question time. There will now be a short suspension so that some of the desks can be cleaned.

14:53 Meeting suspended.  

14:56 On resuming—