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Chamber and committees

Meeting date: Thursday, November 18, 2021

Meeting of the Parliament (Hybrid) 18 November 2021 [Draft]

Agenda: General Question Time, First Minister’s Question Time, Road Safety (Falkirk), Scottish Parliamentary Corporate Body Question Time, Portfolio Question Time, Shared Prosperity Fund and Levelling Up Agenda, Point of Order, Parliamentary Bureau Motion, Decision Time


Contents


Scottish Parliamentary Corporate Body Question Time

Good afternoon. I remind members that Covid-related measures are in place and that face coverings should be worn when moving around the chamber and across the Holyrood campus.

The next item of business is Scottish Parliamentary Corporate Body question time. I ask members who wish to request a supplementary question to press their request-to-speak button now or indicate in the chat function by entering the letter R during the relevant question. Succinct questions and answers would be much appreciated.


Local Offices and Surgeries (Security)

To ask the Scottish Parliamentary Corporate Body, in light of reported concerns, what consideration it is giving to additional funding for increased security personnel and security for MSPs’ surgeries and local offices. (S6O-00413)

At our meeting on 4 November, we considered options for further security support that could be made available to members following the death of Sir David Amess.

We recognise that any changes to security provision would be expected to have budget implications. However, the corporate body is clear that the safety of members and their staff should not be compromised on the ground of cost.

We have commissioned the following urgent work: a review of advice regarding lone working in local offices, including extending the provision of lone work devices; working with Police Scotland to introduce an annual security briefing targeted to issues in members’ regions; and a project to establish how to effectively provide security support to MSPs at surgery meetings, including an assessment of the viability of providing security operatives, if appropriate.

As Jamie Greene will appreciate, these matters are too sensitive to discuss in a public forum, so the corporate body has agreed that a fuller security update will be shared with members soon.

I appreciate the sensitive nature of the discussions. Everyone in the chamber sends their thoughts and condolences to the friends and family of Sir David Amess.

No one in public office, public service or politics should go to work and not come home. We have a duty to protect our staff and members of the public who attend our surgeries and local offices, but we are keen to be as accessible as possible.

Has consideration been given to offering a centralised approach to the procurement of a third party security presence for those members who feel that they need it? Are members who want to contract services privately now free to do that? Will their current office provision allow them to do so?

Jamie Greene raises important points, and I appreciate his comments about the security of members and their staff.

The Parliament currently offers a centrally managed security upgrade for local offices, although members can choose to go ahead and contract work themselves. I advise members to contact the Parliament’s security office to discuss the matter further if they wish to proceed with security measures.


MSP Staff Allowances

To ask the Scottish Parliamentary Corporate Body when it will make a decision regarding the level of MSP allowances for staff for 2022-23. (S6O-00407)

All my antennae have been trained to suppose that that is a trick question, because I think that Ms Baillie knows the answer to her question even better than I do.

The SPCB will submit its 2022-23 budget for consideration at the Finance and Public Administration Committee meeting on 21 December. It will include the proposed uprating of the staff cost provision for 2022-23.

I would never ask a trick question—I assure you of that, Presiding Officer.

I am delighted to hear the timetable. When the Scottish Parliament last uprated the staff salary allowance, it did so on the basis of the annual survey of hours and earnings, and average weekly earnings. At that time, ASHE and AWE generated an increase of 2.96 per cent. This time, according to the Scottish Parliament information centre, the comparable figure from those sources would be 4.4 per cent. Is that the figure that will be applied effective from 1 April 2022?

It would probably be inappropriate of me to pre-empt the presentation of the budget to the Finance and Public Administration Committee. However, Ms Baillie is absolutely correct that we have been using the measures that she has suggested to uprate the office and staff cost provision.


Trade Unions (Meetings)

 

3.

To ask the Scottish Parliamentary Corporate Body when it last met trade unions representing Scottish parliamentary service and MSP staff. (S6O-00406)

The corporate body has a partnership arrangement with the Scottish parliamentary service’s three recognised trade unions—the Public and Commercial Services Union, Prospect and the FDA. Parliament officials regularly meet those unions on a range of employment matters. The last formal partnership board meeting took place in October this year.

The SPCB has had no recent meetings with trade unions representing MSP staff.

As a member of the GMB trade union, I welcome the strong relationship with trade unions representing parliamentary staff, but such a relationship is sorely lacking when it comes to the unions that represent the staff that members and party groups employ. If we truly value the principles of fair work and giving workers a stake in decisions affecting them in this place, surely the SPCB, as the ultimate financial controller of the allowances that we use to pay our staff, must properly engage regularly with trade unions such as the GMB.

I understand that various party groupings have arrangements with trade unions, but the SPCB has no locus to do so in relation to MSPs’ staff. The SPCB is responsible for funding of the reimbursement of members’ expenses scheme, including the staff cost provision, and for determining which indices are used to uprate the overall provisions of the scheme.

In 2020, the SPCB reviewed the indices used for the uprating of the scheme and, in so doing, was made aware of representations from trade unions representing MSPs’ staff. The SPCB agreed to use a basket of indices for uprating the SCP on the basis that it would provide a more steady basis for future increases.

We do that on the basis that individual MSPs remain responsible, as employers of their staff, for setting and managing their staff’s pay and cost of living increases, within the provisions of the expenses scheme. That is not within the locus of the SPCB, as we are not the employer of MSPs’ staff; MSPs themselves are.


Armed Forces Reservists

 

4.

To ask the Scottish Parliamentary Corporate Body what support it provides to MSPs in connection with the employment of armed forces reservists, and to armed forces reservists who work for the Scottish Parliament or MSPs. (S6O-00420)

The corporate body is committed to supporting members of the reserve forces or those wishing to join the reserve forces. Staff who are armed forces reservists are entitled to take five days paid special leave each year to attend training. MSPs, as the employers of their staff, also have discretion to grant the same entitlement to their staff.

Reservists who are mobilised for acts of service are protected in law from detriment, such as the termination of their employment, because they have been called up to acts of service.

Mobilisation of reservists can sometimes happen at short notice, leaving employers with unplanned training and recruitment costs. The Ministry of Defence acknowledges that and reflects it in the form of compensation provided to non-public sector employers. Would the SPCB consider making additional budget available to MSPs who have staff mobilised, to cover expenses arising from mobilisation?

That is an interesting suggestion and it is one that I shall take back and discuss with my colleagues on the corporate body.

Question 5 is from James Dornan, who, hopefully, is joining us remotely.

If I cue him in again, that might work. I call James Dornan.

We will slightly change the order of questions, to see if we can sort out whatever technical difficulty has arisen.


Heating and Ventilation

 

6.

To ask the Scottish Parliamentary Corporate Body what review has been undertaken of heating the Parliament building, in light of the updated ventilation requirements. (S6O-00417)

Ventilation of workplaces is an increasingly important mitigation in limiting the spread of Covid-19 and other viruses. A review of the ventilation system at Holyrood took place earlier this year, which confirmed that the mechanical ventilation systems at Holyrood are working well.

There is a building management system at Holyrood, which monitors temperatures across the campus. It controls the temperature during the preset hours of occupancy and automatically activates the heating system if temperatures fall below a certain point. However, there are parts of the building that rely on natural ventilation, which means opening windows, vents and doors to provide sufficient fresh air.

Given the importance of staying safe and healthy this year more than ever, can the corporate body advise what the ambient temperature should be in the Parliament building, specifically in offices? Can it outline what support can be given to members’ staff and SPCB staff to ensure that they have a comfortable and safe working environment?

I appreciate that this can be a challenging building to heat, and that the temperature varies between different parts of the building. I would urge the member to contact facilities management and report any issues if there is a particular concern about her own circumstances or that of staff. Facilities management staff will work quickly to resolve any issues.

We are facing winter, and we are trying to find a balance between sufficient ventilation and making sure that members and the staff are comfortable in their workspaces.


Collective Decision Making

To ask the Scottish Parliamentary Corporate Body what its position is on collective decision making, following media reports of division, regarding the security of MSPs and the Scottish Parliament building. (S6O-00412)

As the member will know, members of the corporate body are elected by the Parliament, and when they are acting as members of the corporate body, they do so in a non-party-political manner. All members of the SPCB are entitled to their views on the range of significant policy, operational and resourcing decisions that are considered by the corporate body. However, at the end of the day, any decision is taken in the name of the corporate body, and that is what is important.

We all found out about the Parliament’s designated status through Maggie Chapman’s briefing of the press. I have been on a number of boards of directors through my years, and I cannot fathom a situation in which a board member would publicly criticise one of our decisions as a board and retain their place on that board. One simply cannot work in a situation where one person is intent on sabotaging the collective decisions of the board. Does the corporate body agree that any of its members who publicly undermine its decisions should resign from the board?

The member raises the issue in his characteristic fashion, and his views are noted. I say to him that the minutes of each meeting are published, our work is transparent and open to scrutiny, and the corporate body operates on a collegiate basis. Of course, as the member would expect, there can be differing views, and that is to be encouraged as they are important in shaping our decisions. Our discussions often reflect the wide range of views that might be shared by members in the chamber as well as wider society. The important thing is that all decisions are fully discussed and determined in the name of the corporate body and are not party political. I am satisfied that members of the corporate body are working effectively in a co-operative way.


Scottish Parliament Website

To ask the Scottish Parliamentary Corporate Body what action it has taken to assess the effectiveness and utility of the new Scottish Parliament website. (S6O-00414)

We use web analytics and user research and feedback to assess the effectiveness of the website on an on-going basis. We have a continuous improvement programme for taking forward work on the Parliament website, and we use the insights from that to inform how to prioritise various bits of work. We are proactive in seeking feedback. For example, we are about to launch an online user survey to gather further information.

I am not speaking for myself: I have had conversations with colleagues, students, stakeholders and constituents who are having trouble finding the information that they need on the new website. For example, the pages in the committee section are difficult to navigate and they list meetings without any context, unlike the previous website. It is frustrating to me, as a convener who inherited two different session 5 committees, that the dropdowns that were on the old website have now been changed, making it very difficult to search the Official Report.

I am concerned that this could cause reputational damage to the Parliament. I ask the corporate body to consider having an independent review that includes a comparison with the websites of other legislatures—[Interruption.] Apologies, Presiding Officer.

That is okay. Had you finished?

Yes.

I call Maggie Chapman.

I think that some of the frustrations that the member has outlined are shared by members of the corporate body as well. In response, my answer is that no website is ever finished. We have an on-going programme of changes and enhancements to make to the website, and it is informed by feedback—the member’s feedback and that of others.

The previous website was over 10 years old and built on outdated technology that was no longer supported, so we had to make substantial changes to the technical side of the website to make improvements.

We know that there are things that we need to adapt. For example, the search function is part of on-going work. We have already made changes to filtering options and that kind of thing in response to feedback, and other improvements will be made by the end of this financial year. Things such as committee reports and Scottish Parliament information centre briefings are currently on a different site, which makes things difficult. We are in the process of creating the uniform site, which should be done in the next few months.


School Visits (Budget)

To ask the Scottish Parliamentary Corporate Body what the Scottish Parliament’s budget is for both inbound and outbound school visits. (S6O-00419)

Before Covid, our education services offered three different support packages to schools: a visit to the Scottish Parliament; a visit to the school; and resources for independent use by the teacher in the classroom. The average annual spend across 2018 to 2020 was £194,260. The cost of providing inward and outward visits was roughly equal, at £97,802 for inward visits and £96,458 for outward visits, including travel costs.

We are budgeting for a similar amount in 2022-23, as we anticipate a gradual return to pre-Covid demand and service levels towards the end of this academic year. In 2020-21 and 2021-22, we have not been travelling, and have ensured that the budget has been available to support other areas of the Parliament where required.

Which schools, if any, are regulars? How can schools that do not engage or that are in harder-to-reach areas be encouraged?

There are a couple of things to consider. We want to ensure that the offer that we make to schools is available for all schools, regardless of their proximity to Parliament or regularity of engagement. The team has been doing work to reach out to schools over the past few months. We are reaching new schools and are trying to enhance that engagement to ensure that we do not see some schools with repeated engagement while other areas are neglected or out of touch.


Local Offices (Ventilation)

To ask the Scottish Parliamentary Corporate Body what assistance it will provide to MSPs to make improvements to the ventilation of their local offices, in order to support their reopening when that decision is taken. (S6O-00408)

As recognised in a previous answer, ventilation of workplaces is an increasingly important mitigation in limiting the spread of Covid-19. The SPCB recognises the different types of premises that members have for their local offices, so a range of support will be put in place.

First, general advice is being prepared that will point members and their staff towards helpful information that is available from the Scottish Government and the Health and Safety Executive. As part of that guidance, tools will be available that can be used to identify where ventilation improvements may be needed. Secondly, a drop-in ventilation clinic will be run online later this month—officials will be in touch with details. Thirdly, specialist expertise will be made available over the telephone or in person for offices that have particularly complex or unclear requirements.

At some point, we will be allowed to fully reopen our constituency offices. Will the Scottish Parliamentary Corporate Body prioritise those members whose offices are shop fronts or on high streets, where other challenges will also have an effect? I am sure that colleagues across the chamber want to ensure that their staff who work in those offices have a healthy and clean working environment.

Stuart McMillan will appreciate that the priority so far has been ensuring that Holyrood can operate as safely as possible. That has, rightly, been the focus. However, local offices will need to be given support to carry out risk assessments around how to operate those premises safely. The focus will now shift towards local offices and addressing ventilation considerations there. I recognise the importance of meeting the needs of all offices. Members have various arrangements and challenges in relation to achieving a safe workplace for their staff and constituents. The corporate body will look at that closely as we develop plans for the reopening of offices.


MSP Annual Reports

To ask the Scottish Parliamentary Corporate Body whether members’ annual reports can be delivered after 4 February 2022 and, if not, what the reasons are for its position on the matter. (S6O-00409)

As per the allowances notice that was issued to all members on 10 November, members’ annual reports cannot be issued in the period between 5 February 2022 and the local authority election on 5 May 2022 inclusive, in line with the SPCB’s long-standing policy on members’ publications.

The corporate body has taken that long-standing position to ensure the neutrality of any election without any undue or perceived influence—intentional or unintentional—coming through the issuing of members’ parliamentary funded publications. Advance notice has been provided to enable members to plan the issuing of their publications over the next three months prior to the deadline. Annual reports and other parliamentary funded publications can be issued as normal following the election.

If the main reason is that it is a long-standing decision, I do not accept that every long-standing decision is necessarily the correct one. It seems to me that three months is an excessively long period to stop members—especially, perhaps, new members—issuing important annual reports. Parliament stopped six weeks before the election last year, for example. Six weeks seems to me to be a more reasonable time than three months.

I thank Mr Mason for that observation.

The corporate body last considered the matter in 2019, in the previous session, in relation to the unexpected United Kingdom general election. At that point, it agreed that it remained vital to maintain the prohibited period and the neutrality that comes with not issuing such publications.

I have some sympathy with Mr Mason’s argument, but I think that there is the potential, when the Scottish Parliament is sitting—I note that the UK Parliament does not fund such publications—for publications submitted by members of the Scottish Parliament to include people who might be standing in the local authority election, for example. There is that opportunity, however intentional or unintentional. That would be an unreasonable use of parliamentary resources and would potentially breach the intended political neutrality of the annual reports, which are for members to communicate with their constituents. We give as much notice as we do to allow people to make proper provision so that they can fit within the schedule.


Services Outwith Usual Hours

To ask the Scottish Parliamentary Corporate Body what consideration has been given to providing parliamentary services outwith usual hours. (S6O-00421)

The SPCB recognises the importance of providing flexible and responsive parliamentary services that support MSPs and their staff in fulfilling their roles. The pandemic has shown us new ways of working, and there are lessons, such as the value of extending information technology support until the end of members’ business, that we can take forward in our response to the pandemic and more broadly in relation to the provision of services.

Providing comprehensive parliamentary services has to be balanced with staff rotas and shifts, a commitment to fair work employment practices, and the budgetary constraints that the Parliament works within. The SPCB is discussing how services may be able to adapt and improve post pandemic. We will seek to take members’ views as part of that so that we can ensure that we are providing excellent parliamentary services to support members and the way in which they choose to work.

I thank my colleague for that answer. I am content with that response and am happy to allow us to move on to the next item of business.

Jamie Greene has a supplementary question.

When is it likely that cross-party groups will be able to meet in person? Cross-party groups are a vital function of the Parliament and enable members of the public to engage with members and their Parliament. I am sure that all of us would like to see them running as soon as possible, given that other members of the public are already coming into the Parliament for other functions.

Jamie Greene is right: CPGs and others are eager to get back to meeting in person. We review that on a regular, on-going basis, and we balance mitigations and the risk of virus transmission in the building. We hope that we will have an update prior to the Christmas recess, before we return in January.

It has not been possible to hook up with James Dornan, so that concludes Scottish Parliamentary Corporate Body question time.