Meeting date: Thursday, December 14, 2017
Meeting of the Parliament 14 December 2017
Agenda: General Question Time, First Minister’s Question Time, Bank Branch Closures, Draft Spending and Tax Plans 2018-19, Race Equality, Writers to the Signet Dependants’ Annuity Fund Amendment (Scotland) Bill: Final Stage, Decision Time
- General Question Time
- First Minister’s Question Time
- Bank Branch Closures
- Draft Spending and Tax Plans 2018-19
- Race Equality
- Writers to the Signet Dependants’ Annuity Fund Amendment (Scotland) Bill: Final Stage
- Decision Time
Writers to the Signet Dependants’ Annuity Fund Amendment (Scotland) Bill: Final Stage
The next item of business is a debate on motion S5M-09128, in the name of Alison Harris, on the final stage of the Writers to the Signet Dependants’ Annuity Fund Amendment (Scotland) Bill.
The Presiding Officer is required under standing orders to decide whether, in his view, any provision of the bill relates to a protected subject matter. To put it briefly, that is whether it modifies the electoral system and franchise for Scottish parliamentary elections. If it does, the motion to pass the bill will require support from a super-majority of members—that is a two-thirds majority of all members, which is 86.
In the case of this bill, the Presiding Officer has decided that in his view, no provision of the Writers to the Signet Dependants’ Annuity Fund Amendment (Scotland) Bill relates to a protected subject matter. Therefore, the bill does not require a super-majority in order to be passed.
I call Alison Harris to speak to and move the motion on behalf of the bill committee.16:53
I am delighted to open this final stage debate on the Writers to the Signet Dependants’ Annuity Fund Amendment (Scotland) Bill. I thank my colleagues, Mary Fee and Tom Arthur, for all their input during the various stages of the bill, and also the committee clerks.
Historically, the Society of Writers to Her Majesty’s Signet—the WS Society—looked after writers to the signet and their widows by making ad hoc charitable donations. The fund was formalised by private legislation in 1803, which provided for the payment of annuities to WS Society members’ widows.
The legislation was subsequently updated, most recently by the Writers to the Signet Dependants’ Annuity Fund Order Confirmation Act 1982, which sets out the current legislative framework. The 1982 act provided for the change of name from the widows’ fund to the dependants’ annuity fund, in recognition of the fact that women were then admitted to the WS Society, and the fund was opened up to orphans. More recently, the fund regulations were updated to cover the civil partners of contributors to the fund.
The bill was introduced as a private bill to the Scottish Parliament on 18 May 2017, and the Writers to the Signet Dependants’ Annuity Fund Amendment (Scotland) Bill Committee was established to consider the bill during its passage through the Parliament.
Private bills are bills that impact primarily on private interests—that is, on specific groups or individuals. They differ from public bills, which have a broader and wider effect on society. The private bill process is very much focused on giving those whose interests might be engaged by a private bill the opportunity to make representations to the Parliament, or to object to the bill. The objection period for the bill ran until 18 July 2017. No objections were received, and nor did the committee receive any written evidence.
The value of the fund is about £55 million, and the value of each annuity is £8,400. In 1989, the fund was closed to new members. There are 141 beneficiaries of the fund—known as annuitants—and up to 500 potential annuitants with an expectation that the fund will continue paying annuities into the 2040s.
The bill has two objectives relating to updating the 1982 act. First, section 1(1) seeks to update the definition of “actuary”. That is a minor technical change that follows the merger of the two professional actuarial bodies. Secondly, section 1(2) seeks to remove the requirement for the collector to be a contributor to the fund, and places a new requirement for the collector to be an individual. The bill does not otherwise affect the role, or functions, of the collector.
The second objective is to widen the pool of people who are eligible to be elected as collector and to ensure that the contributors will have the opportunity to elect someone with relevant experience and expertise.
The committee considered the bill’s objectives during the first—or preliminary—stage of the bill’s scrutiny and agreed with its general principles. The committee remains content that the bill is necessary and worth while. As a result, I am pleased to move the motion in my name.
That the Parliament agrees that the Writers to the Signet Dependants’ Annuity Fund Amendment (Scotland) Bill be passed.
I call Mary Fee. It would be appreciated if you could deliver your speech in two minutes, Ms Fee.16:57
I will do my very best, Presiding Officer.
Like all committees considering legislation, it is the role of a private bill committee to consider the general principles of the bill at the first, or preliminary, stage and any amendments to the bill at the second, or consideration, stage.
Excuse me, Ms Fee. I ask everyone to be quiet, please. This is an important piece of legislation.
Thank you, Presiding Officer.
At preliminary stage, the committee took evidence from the promoters of the bill. The committee discussed the updated definition of “actuary” in section 1(1). The promoters confirmed that the definition was being updated in the light of the 2011 merger of the Faculty of Actuaries in Scotland and the Institute of Actuaries. The promoters considered that the update was not strictly necessary, as
“A court would take a pragmatic and sensible approach”—[Official Report, Writers to the Signet Dependants’ Annuity Fund Amendment (Scotland) Bill Committee, 20 September 2017; c 5.]
should statutory interpretation be required, but that the update was
“proposed for the avoidance of doubt.”
The committee was content with that explanation.
At consideration stage, the promoters sought to further future proof the definition of “actuary” by way of an amendment in response
“to further changes that the Institute and Faculty of Actuaries might make.”—[Official Report, Writers to the Signet Dependants’ Annuity Fund Amendment (Scotland) Bill Committee, 22 November 2017; c 2.]
We were satisfied with the promoters’ explanation and agreed to the amendment.
With regard to section 1(2), which defines who is eligible to be the collector, the committee agreed that the future administration of the fund required a change to the 1982 act, given the diminishing pool of contributors to which Alison Harris referred.
The committee explored a number of issues in order to satisfy itself that the proposed amendment to the 1982 act was the best solution to the problem. The promoters confirmed that reopening the fund to new contributors was not an option. They argued that the reasons for closing the fund in 1989, namely that changes to the tax regime had made the fund
“a tax-inefficient way of saving”—[Official Report, Writers to the Signet Dependants’ Annuity Fund Amendment (Scotland) Bill Committee, 20 September 2017; c 8.]
were still valid.
The committee explored the reasons for the requirement that the contributor must be an individual rather than a company, a limited liability partnership or an unincorporated association. The promoters explained that the provision had been prompted by feedback from the contributors themselves, who
“were quite clear that they wanted an individual in the role, although they recognise that a number of the functions required the support of a professional firm or professional organisation.”—[Official Report, Writers to the Signet Dependants’ Annuity Fund Amendment (Scotland) Bill Committee, 20 September 2017; c 7.]
The promoters highlighted that all the fund’s contributors in living memory had been supported by their own solicitors’ firm. The committee noted that that would be a matter for the trustees of the fund when advertising the role of contributor; that process is not covered by the 1982 act and therefore does not need to be set out in the bill. The committee was content with those explanations and agreed that the new provision relating to the collector was the most sensible solution.
The committee also asked the promoters about the future administration of the fund and particularly the trustees’ expectations of how it will be managed as the pool of contributors further diminishes. As the contributors elect the trustees and collector each year, their diminishing number will ultimately impact on the administration of the fund. The promoters envisage that at some point the fund will be converted to cash and the cash used to purchase annuities for the remaining annuitants. At that point, the fund would effectively be wound up. The committee agreed that that strategy seems the most appropriate way forward.
On the basis of the promoter’s evidence, the committee agreed with the general principles of the bill. That remains our view and, accordingly, I am happy to support the motion for the bill to be passed.17:01
I thank the committee clerks and the researchers for all their support; I also thank my committee colleagues Alison Harris and Mary Fee. As my colleagues on the Writers to the Signet Dependants’ Annuity Fund Amendment (Scotland) Bill Committee have spoken about our consideration of, and full support for, the bill, I will use this opportunity to provide very briefly some of the broader context of the private bills that the Parliament has considered so far this session.
Alison Harris, Mary Fee and I have sat as members of the three private bill committees constituted by the Parliamentary Bureau to consider the three private bills that have been introduced so far this session. The other committees are the Edinburgh Bakers’ Widows’ Fund Bill Committee and the Pow of Inchaffray Drainage Commission (Scotland) Bill Committee—I have acted as convener on both those committees.
The Edinburgh Bakers’ Widows’ Fund Bill was introduced on 20 March this year and sought to transfer the property and assets of the Edinburgh Bakers’ Widows’ Fund to a modern, non-statutory charitable trust that would support education and training opportunities in baking. The committee supported the bill, which received no objections and was not amended at the consideration stage. The bill was passed by the Parliament on 21 November.
Slightly earlier than the introduction of that bill, the Pow of Inchaffray Drainage Commission (Scotland) Bill was introduced on 17 March this year, and seeks to make various changes to the Pow of Inchaffray Drainage Commission. It is a more complex bill and is taking longer to consider because three objections have been lodged, so its final stage will not be reached until the spring of next year. You have not seen the last of us yet, Presiding Officer.
The third private bill to be introduced this session was the Writers to the Signet Dependants’ Annuity Fund Amendment (Scotland) Bill, which was introduced on 18 July. As Mary Fee explained, no objections were lodged in respect of the bill, but one amendment of a very minor and technical nature was agreed at the consideration stage. Like my bill committee colleagues, I am content that effective scrutiny has been done on the bill and that it therefore deserves the Parliament’s support. On that basis, I am happy to support the motion for the bill to be passed.
All in one breath. [Laughter.]