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Chamber and committees

Meeting date: Tuesday, May 16, 2017

Meeting of the Parliament 16 May 2017

Agenda: Time for Reflection, Business Motion, Global Ransomware Incident, Further Education (National Bargaining), Disabled People, Decision Time, Outdoor Education


Contents


Further Education (National Bargaining)

The Presiding Officer (Ken Macintosh)

The next item of business is a statement by John Swinney on national bargaining in the further education sector. The cabinet secretary will take questions at the end of the statement, so there should be no interventions or interruptions during it.

14:37  

The Deputy First Minister and Cabinet Secretary for Education and Skills (John Swinney)

Over the past 10 years, the Scottish Government has been implementing an ambitious programme to reform post-16 education. Our purpose has been clear and consistent over that time: to create a national college sector that is more efficient and effective and that is able to meet stretching measures and outcomes. We remain committed to creating a sector that is better suited to our national priorities, including the delivery of skills and opportunities, particularly for our young people, to meet their needs and those of our economy. I am increasingly confident that our colleges have a clear, focused role in delivering a skilled workforce for their regions and have developed new and enhanced relationships with employers around curriculum planning, work experience and employability skills. Delivering the right curriculum in the right place has been critical to that development, alongside significantly improved partnership arrangements with local authorities, universities, schools and community planning partnerships.

The focus is now very much on full-time learning opportunities that lead to recognised qualifications and employment, particularly for young people, and the evidence increasingly demonstrates that that approach is working. The number of full-time funded students aged 16 to 24 has increased by more than 11 per cent since 2006-07. Our youth unemployment rate is at its lowest level since the series began in 1992 and is the third lowest in the European Union. In 2015-16, almost 12,000 more students successfully completed full-time courses in further and higher education that led to recognised qualifications than did so in 2008-09.

Colleges are not just delivering for young people. Under this Government, the number of full-time students aged 25 and over has increased by more than 33 per cent since 2006-07. The sector is also delivering for women, with the number on full-time courses up by more than 12 per cent over the same period.

Our colleges play a key role in our success in higher education. More than 41 per cent of all full-time college activity in 2015-16 was in higher education, which is the highest proportion ever.

Colleges are also playing a crucial role in widening access. Many students from the most challenging backgrounds begin their post-16 education journeys in college. More than 16 per cent of college provision was delivered to students from the 10 per cent most deprived areas in 2014-15, and more than 29 per cent of all students came from the 20 per cent most deprived communities.

Those are real achievements, of which our colleges can be proud. Lecturing and support staff, and the students themselves, have all helped to make that happen.

I am in no doubt that our college sector is now better placed than ever to enable students to flourish and succeed, and to build the workforce that Scotland’s employers need—now and in future. Our colleges must continue to develop and innovate to deliver the type of learning that society, the economy and individuals need for the future.

All college staff and leaders are committed to our ambitious programme of change and improvement. Over the past few years, there has been significant restructuring of the sector to create a more sustainable and viable platform for delivering high-quality further and higher education. College staff have played a full part in securing those necessary and beneficial changes, and I commend them for their commitment. Nevertheless, there is more still to be done to secure our vision of a world-class college sector.

From the outset, we agreed with college employers and staff that a harmonised approach to pay, terms and conditions for lecturers and support staff was integral to creating a modern, flexible sector. We agreed that that would best be delivered by a system of national bargaining that rightly places responsibility for reaching agreement with representatives of employers and staff, through their national joint negotiating committee. The present dispute has its roots in the agreement reached last March by that committee, and a disagreement between the Colleges Scotland employers association and the Educational Institute of Scotland on the relationship between pay and terms and conditions.

On pay, while the precise levels of increase will vary depending on personal circumstances, the agreement that has already been reached will see all unpromoted lecturing staff receive an average pay rise of 9 per cent over a three-year period. That means that, at the top of their salary scale, unpromoted staff will now earn up to £40,026 a year. While some details remain to be resolved, that part of the agreement has been in place for some time.

What has not been agreed are the terms and conditions. While both parties agree in principle to harmonisation in order to create the right platform for a further education workforce for the future, the nature of that harmonisation is disputed. The employers are clear that a national pay award should be linked to agreement on harmonised terms and conditions, while the EIS maintains that they should be separate. Although both sides agree that matters such as staff teaching hours and annual leave should be the same across the country instead of varying from college to college as they do now, they disagree on what the harmonised terms and conditions should be.

There are two key issues: the number of core teaching hours; and the number of annual leave days. The employers have proposed that the majority of lecturers should have up to 24 hours a week of core teaching time; the EIS has proposed that it should be up to 22. The employers believe that they are asking for no more than the sector norm on hours; the union does not accept that.

On annual leave, the employers’ offer is for existing staff to retain their current entitlement without change, while new staff would have 56 days a year. The EIS has proposed 64 days a year for all lecturers, with no detriment for existing staff.

This dispute, then, is not simply about pay. The issues of core teaching hours and annual leave are among the most difficult to resolve.

Talks have been under way for some time. The Minister for Further Education, Higher Education and Science has met each side on several occasions in the past six months to encourage and facilitate a resolution. In the past few weeks, the sides have made some welcome progress, but a settlement has not yet been reached. We remain in the middle of a period of strike action that is having an impact on students. Four days have already been lost to strikes since the end of last month, and a further two days are planned for this week. The EIS plans to escalate the action to three strike days a week until the beginning of next month. As a result of that escalation, the impact on students will deepen and harden; in this crucial, end-of-year period, some will be at real risk of not being able to progress to future years’ study or indeed to qualify. That is not acceptable.

I have therefore decided, alongside the Minister for Further Education, Higher Education and Science, to formally intervene. We met both sides separately on Sunday evening to that effect. Through that intervention, we actively sought a way forward that allows both sides to work constructively for a solution, so that the sector can focus on delivering the high-quality education that its students have a right to expect.

There are five key elements to that intervention. First, I emphasised in both meetings my serious concerns about the detrimental and disruptive impact of the current dispute on students and said that that should be to the fore of all our thinking.

Secondly, I insisted that a robust evidence base was needed to establish baselines on the issues of key importance—the sector norms for class contact time and annual leave—so that competing bids could be fairly assessed. Without agreed baseline data and an undisputed understanding of the current terms and conditions of lecturers, there is no prospect of agreement.

Thirdly, in both meetings I reaffirmed the Government’s absolute commitment to securing national bargaining. I know that the unions are concerned that the employers are not committed to national bargaining, so I made crystal clear to the employers association my firm expectation that employers would act collectively to deliver national bargaining.

Fourthly—and most significant—I informed both the union and the employers that I was making a significant change to the way in which the talks will be conducted from now on. We are placing in the talks a Scottish Government-appointed mediator, who is charged with seeking to help the parties to break the deadlock. John Sturrock is a highly respected Queen’s counsel and is widely recognised as a leading mediator and facilitator. As an independent guide to the process, he will now facilitate the talks, in an effort to bring about improved relations between the parties, encourage effective communication and respectful dialogue, help to identify options for progress, and work with the parties to try to break the logjam.

Finally, to assist that process, I asked the EIS to suspend the planned strikes that were due to take place this week and going forward while the process of active dispute resolution is in progress. I asked that the union give that careful consideration following our meeting, and I reiterate that request today.

I want the dispute to end, and I want agreement to be reached on harmonising pay and terms and conditions for college staff through national bargaining. If the Scottish Government directly intervened and forced a resolution, that would mean the end of national bargaining, and I am not prepared to consider that outcome. I therefore urge both parties to work constructively with our independent facilitator to find common ground and achieve an agreement. That will enable all to move forward together, to the benefit of the sector and its students. The students in our colleges deserve nothing less.

The Presiding Officer

There will now be about 20 minutes for questions.

Liz Smith (Mid Scotland and Fife) (Con)

I thank the cabinet secretary for early sight of the statement. I restate the Scottish Conservatives’ strong condemnation of the strike action that is taking place. I am sure that I am not the only member who has received letters and emails from constituents who are—rightly—angry about the detrimental effect that the action is having on their studies, for exactly the reasons that the cabinet secretary set out, especially at this crucial time of exams.

My first question to the cabinet secretary reflects those constituents’ concerns. What discussions is he having with the colleges to ensure that, in the marking of those students’ exams, consideration is given to the industrial action?

Secondly, on page 8 of his statement, the cabinet secretary demands “robust evidence” for the baselines to support the key bargaining demands on terms and conditions. Given the nature of the long-running dispute and the commitments that the Scottish Government originally made, why has it taken more than a year for the cabinet secretary to make a call for evidence that is clearly crucial to resolving the dispute?

Finally, what timescale has been put in place for the baseline evidence to be submitted by both sides, so that mediation can be effective?

John Swinney

I know that Liz Smith has to say certain things from her perspective as the Conservative education spokesman, but my perspective is that I want to resolve the dispute because of the effect that it is having on students’ wellbeing and prospects. That is driving the actions that I am taking, and that is why I want to secure an agreement between both parties to resolve the issues.

On marking examinations and other materials, I know that college staff, despite being out on strike, are in many ways working beyond their normal arrangements to put in place support and assistance to minimise the effect of the industrial action on students. The best way to minimise the effect on students is for the strike to end so that the education process can return to normal.

I have in front of me baseline evidence that has been provided to me. It indicates, for example, that if core class contact time was set at 24 hours, the number of hours that are taught would increase at five colleges. If contact time was set at 22 hours, the number of hours that are taught would reduce at 18 colleges. I have that information in front of me, but it is disputed by the trade union that is involved in the industrial action. It became clear to me in my discussions at the weekend that, unless there is an evidence baseline that brings all the material together and unless that is accepted across the board—it cannot be the source of dispute—there is no prospect of us reaching an agreement.

Liz Smith asked why the process has taken so long. That is not the Government’s responsibility. There is a national bargaining process between two sides—the employers and the trade union—and I would have expected such work to have been undertaken and agreed to facilitate the process. It is a regret that I have had to make that happen.

In relation to the deadline, John Sturrock commenced his work, at my request, at short notice yesterday. Work is going on today to assemble the baseline evidence, to enable swift progress to be made as soon as possible. I assure Liz Smith that all urgency will be applied to the process.

However, I reiterate my point. The Government has made an unwavering commitment to national bargaining, so there can be no doubt that national bargaining is here to stay. We have put in place a system that is designed to break the impasse, and there is therefore every justification for suspending the industrial action to enable the talks to take their course.

Iain Gray (East Lothian) (Lab)

I thank the cabinet secretary for early sight of his statement. This is the 10th anniversary of the Scottish National Party Government, and—my goodness—those who work in colleges have suffered, even more than most, at its hands. They have seen their colleges forced to merge, their workplaces displaced across cities or regions and budgets slashed, and thousands of their colleagues and 150,000 of their students have disappeared from the sector altogether.

The only positive thing that SNP ministers promised FE staff concerned national pay and conditions: equal pay and terms for doing the same job, wherever they work. That is pretty basic fairness. However, as of today, those staff are still waiting. It is a disgrace that they have had no option but to strike, with all the impact that that has had on students, to get ministers’ attention.

For months, we have called on ministers to intervene, keep their promise and honour the deal. Will the cabinet secretary apologise to college lecturers and their students for taking so long to intervene, and will he apologise to Parliament for bringing us a process instead of a resolution to the dispute?

John Swinney

Iain Gray obviously paid no attention whatsoever to the points that I made in my statement about the further education sector’s achievements. The number of full-time students has increased by more than 33 per cent; the sector is running more full-time courses for women; we have secured the third-lowest youth unemployment rate in the European Union; and young people are going through their courses.

What Iain Gray says is just part of the on-going relentless narrative that he wants to peddle, in which he can see nothing positive that exists in Scotland—[Interruption.] Mr Gray can say all that he wants, but that detail stands.

I counter Mr Gray’s question and point about strike action being required to get ministers’ attention. Ministers have been involved for some time in discussions with both sides. The Minister for Further Education, Higher Education and Science has undertaken that work to encourage national bargaining, which is a process of dialogue between the employers and the trade unions. That is exactly what we have done, and we encourage the parties to resolve the dispute.

I would have thought that if Mr Gray was remotely interested in the education of students in our country—he never demonstrates any interest whatsoever—he would have welcomed the fact that the Government is intervening to bring the matter to a head in the fashion that we are doing. I simply say that perhaps he should focus on the outcomes that can be achieved in our colleges and not come here with a diatribe of complaints that help nobody.

The Presiding Officer

We need to make progress through the rest of the questions.

Bob Doris (Glasgow Maryhill and Springburn) (SNP)

My immediate concern sits with students and families, not employers or unions. Many students from Glasgow Kelvin College in my constituency have contacted me, as have several others, as they are distressed and anxious about their educational progress. How will the colleges mitigate that detrimental impact? What support can be given to student constituents of mine whose pathways into employment or university are being jeopardised?

John Swinney

I encourage the colleges to take every step to ensure that there is no disruption to students’ education. As I indicated in my statement and in my answer to Liz Smith, measures are being taken to support young people and to ensure that they can secure the necessary support.

On specific examinations, 1,541 students sat the higher English exam in colleges last Thursday. The affected colleges made sure that those exams happened as planned. They continue to ensure that students who are taking Scottish Qualifications Authority qualifications at this time will be provided for and that no student’s exam diet will be disrupted. The measures include reallocation of work to support students.

In addition, the Universities and Colleges Employers Association has issued comprehensive guidance on the practical steps that colleges should take to mitigate any effect. That is available to all colleges.

Adam Tomkins (Glasgow) (Con)

Teaching at any level—in school, college or university—is a great privilege. Does the Deputy First Minister agree that the overriding professional duty on all teachers is to act at all times in their students’ best interests? Given that the industrial action is manifestly contrary to those interests, does he agree that the union should call it off immediately and apologise for the harm that its action has caused to Scotland’s college students?

John Swinney

Adam Tomkins has said what he has to say on such matters, slightly more bluntly than Liz Smith did. I take the view that the best thing that Parliament can do is encourage both sides to seek a resolution. The minister and I have put in place a process for resolving the dispute on the basis of evidence and dialogue, to ensure that young people’s education is not interrupted in any way.

The proposals that I put on the table at the weekend are designed to provide a means of taking a course that would see the industrial action suspended to enable discussions to take place in an environment in which they can succeed, so that young people can secure the education that they deserve. That is the approach that the Government will take in advancing the issue.

Clare Haughey (Rutherglen) (SNP)

I welcome the Deputy First Minister’s statement. What progress is being made in harmonising the terms and conditions of support staff in colleges? I refer members to my entry in the register of members’ interests.

John Swinney

As Clare Haughey correctly says, there is an on-going process to ensure that the support staff unions are part of the process to secure the necessary harmonisation. At a meeting that is scheduled to take place this coming Thursday, issues around job evaluation, a workforce for the future, 2017-18 pay claims and the NJNC work plan will be looked at. The minister recently met support staff unions as part of her engagement in the process.

I put on record my thanks to Unison and to support staff for their patience and willingness to engage in the national bargaining process. We will continue our dialogue to ensure that they participate fully in the process.

Monica Lennon (Central Scotland) (Lab)

Given that the cabinet secretary has asked the EIS to call off the planned strike action, can he tell me why he has not directly asked employers to implement the first part of the pay deal—it was agreed that it would be paid on 1 April 2017—as an act of good faith, so that the strike action can be suspended? [Applause.]

The Presiding Officer

I remind people in the public gallery that all members of the public are welcome to join parliamentary proceedings but they must not applaud or intervene in any way.

John Swinney

The issue that Monica Lennon raises goes to the heart of the March 2016 agreement, clause 5 of which says that both parties agree

“To jointly develop a roadmap towards a harmonised workforce for the future”,

with subsequent references not only to salary but to terms and conditions. The obligation is on both parties to agree on all of it. That is the process that both parties must take part in and must resolve if national bargaining is to prevail. That has been the Government’s position throughout the process. If we require individual parties in the dispute to agree to certain terms and conditions, we break national bargaining. That would be an undesirable move and would set back the national bargaining process, which is an important reform that the Government has been determined to put in place.

Ross Greer (West Scotland) (Green)

I declare that I have a family member on strike today due to the dispute.

I am sure that a number of students have got in touch with every member. Every single one of the emails that I have received was from a student requesting that their lecturers get the fair pay that they deserve; none of them undermined lecturers in the dispute.

As Monica Lennon said, a fair pay deal was agreed last year. The Deputy First Minister has outlined the importance of the strike action ending. The EIS has offered three times to suspend strike action if the pay deal is delivered. If the Government’s priority is ending disruption to students, surely it should recommend that Colleges Scotland accept that agreement and then continue to negotiate on terms and conditions.

John Swinney

I refer Ross Greer to what I said to Monica Lennon. There is an obligation in the March 2016 agreement

“To jointly develop a roadmap towards a harmonised workforce for the future”,

which includes issues around pay and terms and conditions. Making advances on and resolving all those questions will allow people to get their pay increases and get back to work. However, all the issues have to be resolved. I appeal to both parties to ensure that they secure the necessary agreement to enable the pay increases to be delivered, the terms and conditions to be applied and, most important of all, the students in our colleges to access their education resources.

Tavish Scott (Shetland Islands) (LD)

I thank the Deputy First Minister for advance sight of the statement.

Mr Swinney has to accept that there is nothing positive about a strike that affects students and lecturers across Scotland. That is happening on his watch, after 10 years of his Government. He said that he had no responsibility for the baseline data. Why is that his position, given that the situation started, as he said in his statement, in March last year, which was 14 months ago? Why was there no intervention earlier?

John Swinney

It was for the very simple reason that we have been encouraging the process of national bargaining between both parties. National bargaining is about the employers and the trade unions working together collaboratively to resolve the issues by putting in place the necessary information that enables that to happen.

We have regularly encouraged progress on national bargaining and the resolution of the issues but, fundamentally, national bargaining ceases to exist the minute the Government starts specifying the terms of agreements that are to be reached. We are facilitating the process of an agreement. That is the approach that I set out in my statement and am encouraging both parties to follow.

Stuart McMillan (Greenock and Inverclyde) (SNP)

The Deputy First Minister indicated that agreement on pay was reached last year, with an average 9 per cent increase in pay. Can he provide further detail on what the agreement means for lecturing staff?

John Swinney

As I indicated in my statement, under the pay agreement, all unpromoted lecturing staff at the top of their salary scale will earn up to £40,026 per year. It is useful to note that the 9 per cent increase in pay is the average. No lecturing staff member will lose pay as a result of harmonisation. Admittedly, some will stay the same and will have no increase but, for many, the increase in pay will be substantially more than 9 per cent. Obviously, that will be applied to individual circumstances as part of the process.

Jeremy Balfour (Lothian) (Con)

The students who have contacted me, unlike those who have contacted Mr Greer, are deeply concerned about what is going to happen to their futures. I welcome the cabinet secretary’s remarks about intervening in the process. The students who have contacted me are particularly concerned about assessments that should have taken place but which have not because of previous strike action. What assurances can he give my constituents and people across Scotland that, where an assessment has not taken place, that will not mean a lower final grade?

John Swinney

Obviously, discussions will be had in colleges and, with notification in certain circumstances, the Scottish Qualifications Authority about those matters to ensure that, where there has been industrial action, that is not detrimental to the educational opportunities and possibilities of young people in our colleges.

The Presiding Officer

I have three more members who want to ask questions. If they are concise, and if the cabinet secretary is also concise, I will squeeze them all in.

Gordon MacDonald (Edinburgh Pentlands) (SNP)

It is my understanding that a harmonisation process through national bargaining needs to involve both sides willingly moving towards each other’s position and that, by its very nature, harmonisation involves compromise by both sides. Will the Deputy First Minister provide more detail of how the respective positions have shifted during the negotiations in order to help reach a compromise?

John Swinney

I indicated in my statement that there has been movement and compromise by both sides and that some progress has been made. However, that has not allowed us to get to a resolution, which is why I have taken the action that I have taken to try to close the remaining gaps and resolve the dispute. I agree in principle with Mr MacDonald that there is an important emphasis on dialogue and compromise to ensure that the process of national bargaining is successful.

Daniel Johnson (Edinburgh Southern) (Lab)

What will John Sturrock be able to achieve that the Advisory, Conciliation and Arbitration Service was not, and how much will he cost the public purse?

John Swinney

I am prepared to spend the money to try to resolve the issue rather than do nothing. I am always mindful of the importance of the public purse—

Anas Sarwar (Glasgow) (Lab)

You have done nothing for 14 months.

John Swinney

Mr Sarwar accuses us of doing nothing for months and, when we do something, Mr Johnson accuses us of spending public money. That lot are just a disgrace, with the interventions that they come up with.

We will get involved in the process to try to resolve the issue. Any nice gestures of support from the Labour Party would be quite helpful in the process, but we are not holding our breath for them.

Jenny Gilruth (Mid Fife and Glenrothes) (SNP)

I remind members that I am the parliamentary liaison officer to the cabinet secretary.

Will the cabinet secretary advise how the proposed terms and conditions and in particular the changes to annual leave that are sought by the EIS further education lecturers association compare to those for other roles in the public sector?

John Swinney

Clearly, there will be comparisons of the arrangements, which vary from sector to sector. It is important that we focus on the evidence in the college sector to find a common base, that we then resolve those questions to ensure that the strike is drawn to a conclusion and the dispute resolved and that we implement national bargaining, which is the Government’s objective.

The Presiding Officer

I thank all members for their participation.