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Chamber and committees

Meeting date: Tuesday, May 19, 2020

Meeting of the Parliament (Hybrid) 19 May 2020

Agenda: Topical Question Time, Business Motion, Care Homes, Civil Partnership (Scotland) Bill: Stage 1, Civil Partnership (Scotland) Bill: Financial Resolution, Agriculture (Retained EU Law and Data) (Scotland) Bill: Financial Resolution, Points of Order, Decision Time, Correction


Contents


Topical Question Time

The Presiding Officer (Ken Macintosh)

I know that the Deputy First Minister and Cabinet Secretary for Education and Skills, John Swinney, is also joining us by videolink, so we will pause when we get to that stage.


Contact Tracing (Confidentiality)

1. Willie Rennie (North East Fife) (LD)

To ask the Scottish Government, in light of the reported concerns regarding the Nike conference in Edinburgh, how the contact tracing process that is being piloted will balance patient confidentiality and the need to alert people of public health threats. (S5T-02184)

The Cabinet Secretary for Health and Sport (Jeane Freeman)

Contact tracing involves the person who has the disease identifying people with whom they have had close contact while they may have been infectious. Outbreaks are investigated by means of a risk assessment, which takes into account patient confidentiality, public health needs and individual consent issues. To protect patient confidentiality, only close contacts are informed that they may have been exposed, so that they can be given relevant health information and, in the case of Covid-19, know how to self-isolate in order to interrupt chains of transmission. The index case is always asked for permission to disclose their personal details. The use of information about patients is subject to data protection legislation and all personal health information is held under strict ethical and legal obligations of confidentiality.

In circumstances such as this pandemic, there are difficult balancing discussions between the importance of patient confidentiality and the importance of information to the public. As we move to the scaled-up use of test, trace, isolate and support in the next phase of our response, we are giving active consideration to how that balance should be struck.

Willie Rennie

The issue has moved on again today. In addition to the Lloyds staff, the kilt shop and the digital agency, we now know that the Nike delegates were taken on a walking tour of the old town by tour guides, none of whom were contact traced by the incident management team. The issue is confidence in the contact tracing system. The First Minister said yesterday that the process was rigorous, but if that is the case, why were those people not contacted?

Jeane Freeman

I believe that, as the First Minister said, the process that was undertaken at the outset and subsequently in contact tracing that we have carried out elsewhere—probably most recently and notably in and around the Home Farm care home in Skye—is rigorous. It is a clinically led process that is governed by Health Protection Scotland, which uses risk and specific infection science.

The member mentioned other contacts. Those will be contacts that the contact tracers were not aware of from their conversation with the index case, which led to the tracing of eight individuals in Scotland and, from memory, 25 individuals globally, and involved other countries and their health protection teams.

I consider the process to be rigorous, and I think that it is the right process. However, a difficult balance has to be struck. Patient confidentiality is an important ethical part of how our clinicians and health service work and it is important that people have confidence that their information is being held confidentially, unless they agree to circumstances in which it should be released. Public health is important, too. Therefore, a difficult balance has to be struck between individual patient confidentiality and public health and the need for the public to understand the situation that they are facing. I therefore understand the concern. As we look to move into the next phase in our response to the pandemic, we are giving careful consideration to what that balance ought to be. We are taking views not only from members and others but from Health Protection Scotland and our clinical teams, including our Caldicott guardians, about what would be the best balance to strike in any given circumstance.

Willie Rennie

The tracing process is an important part of keeping us safe as we ease out of the lockdown, and the public must have confidence in it. If we are meant to be treating the public as adults, should the incident team not have put the information into the public domain? If that had been done, anyone at the hotel, or anyone who was in contact with the Nike delegates, would have been able to take precautions. I want to protect patient confidentiality, but alerting people about an event, or about a building, does not breach that. In hindsight, should the incident have been made public? Looking forward, is there ever a circumstance in which the knowledge of an outbreak would be put into the media?

Jeane Freeman

All of us have the benefit of hindsight. With the information that we had at the time, I believe that we took the right decision. However, I recognise the competing calls on protecting patient confidentiality and letting the public know, particularly in relation to this virus or any other virus that causes widespread harm. This is a pandemic. Therefore, we are giving that situation—the balance between the judgments that need to be struck—careful consideration as we move to the test, trace, isolate and support strategy, and at the scale at which we will need to do that.

I agree with the member about the need for the public to have confidence in the process. Their confidence needs to be twofold. An individual needs to have the confidence to reveal all the information that we need them to reveal and to be confident that we will hold that securely. Alongside that there has to be wider public confidence in the whole exercise and strategy, with people being confident that it will be capable of spotting, hunting down and suppressing the virus, where outbreaks occur.

It is not straightforward. However, I recognise the concerns and, as we move forward into the next phase of dealing with the pandemic, we are considering whether there are better ways to strike that balance.

Neil Findlay (Lothian) (Lab)

Was anyone in the Livingston Nike shop contact traced as part of the post-Nike conference events? Was the shop deep cleaned? Were any other shops in Livingston shopping centre deep cleaned? If so, were staff made aware why that was happening?

Jeane Freeman

I cannot answer the specifics of that question, because I do not have the detail of the contacts that were traced as a consequence of the index case that was linked to the Nike conference. I do not have that information—I would not have that information in the normal course of events; it is something that Health Protection Scotland’s local contact tracing team would know and pursue. I cannot answer the member’s question in any respect.

Ruth Davidson (Edinburgh Central) (Con)

When the Nike conference infections—Scotland’s ground zero of community transmission—occurred, the Scottish Government said that a contact trace team swiftly got to work. We now know that the team did not contact or test staff, guests or other company conferences that were exposed in the hotel when the outbreak occurred. It did not contact or test staff at a kilt fitters who fitted 10 of the delegates at the ground zero conference. It did not contact the company or test staff who shared public areas with Nike staff at the Glasgow headquarters. It did not contact companies or test staff who shared the retail space at Nike’s Edinburgh hub. It did not contact or test guides who took the delegates on an Edinburgh walking tour.

This was the first major outbreak, so there was no competition for resources. How many contact tracers were put on the incident and actively spoke to individuals whom they deemed to be at risk in Scotland? How many people in Scotland were contacted by the contact tracers after the outbreak? How many people in Scotland, if any, were tested for Covid-19?

If the minister does not have the answers, can she give them in a written response at her earliest convenience please?

Jeane Freeman

I will be happy to provide that written response in due course.

Daniel Johnson (Edinburgh Southern) (Lab)

Many people in Edinburgh will be struggling with the fact that this outbreak took place in a very busy hotel, in the middle of their city, on the very doorstep of Parliament. Relying on people’s memories about who they had contact with as they passed through hotel lobbies and bars is, frankly, an impossibility and very difficult to reconcile with seriousness of the outbreak. The cabinet secretary has said that there is a balance to be struck. Does that mean that the guidelines on publicising outbreaks in public places is changing and will be different if future outbreaks occur in similar public places?

Jeane Freeman

It is important to remember what constitutes a contact. It is not someone you pass on the street or in a bar. A contact is someone you have been within 2m of for 15 minutes or more. In that circumstance, we are not being overly reliant on knowing who people passed in a bar—we are not relying on that at all—or who someone passed in the street. The definition of a contact is very specific and it is clinically led for a specific infection to show how the virus was transmitted on the basis of what was known at that time at the beginning of March. That was the definition of a contact and it remains the definition of a contact. It is not as random as the member is suggesting.

On what we will do in future, I will repeat what I have said. I understand the concerns and I understand, as I hope members do, the balance that needs to be struck in these cases. As we look to move into the next phase, in which test, trace, isolate and support will be a central feature of all that we are doing, we are considering whether there is a better way of striking that balance.


Covid-19 (Scottish Government Guidance)

2. Gordon MacDonald (Edinburgh Pentlands) (SNP)

To ask the Scottish Government what it is doing to ensure that any Covid-19 related information that United Kingdom-wide companies and organisations are issuing to employees, customers and the public in Scotland is reflective of the guidelines from devolved Administrations. (S5T-02182)

The Minister for Business, Fair Work and Skills (Jamie Hepburn)

We are working with employers, trade unions, regulators and other stakeholders to develop specific sector workplace guidance, which will take into account the UK Government guidance while recognising the needs of Scotland.

Our partnership approach is creating the conditions for businesses, trades unions and regulators to share expertise and work together to develop sectoral guidance. We will shortly publish that guidance, sector by sector. Our initial priority is to give guidance and visibility to those in the construction, manufacturing and retail sectors on how to prepare their business and then how to operate safely when changes to the current restrictions are permitted. That approach will provide assurance and confidence to workers, employers, customers and businesses when the time is right to return to the workplace.

Gordon MacDonald

A constituent forwarded correspondence from a well-known website that matches home owners with various trades stating that the Government is now encouraging tradespeople to return to work. The Scottish Government has been clear and consistent in its advice to stay at home except for essential purposes. What dialogue has the Scottish Government had with the UK Government about ensuring that UK companies are communicating and following guidelines from the devolved Administrations now that there are variations between the four nations?

Jamie Hepburn

If Mr MacDonald provides me with details of that specific circumstance, I will be happy for us to look into it. Our own guidance sets out that work that is carried out on people’s homes, for example by tradespeople on repairs and maintenance, can continue. However, it remains contingent on the tradesperson being well and not showing symptoms of coronavirus and no one in their household being in self-isolation.

We are in regular dialogue with the UK Government about safer workplace guidance. As a result of the concerns that we and the Welsh Government raised and the representations that we made, the UK Government guidance acknowledges that public health is devolved and that the guidance should be considered alongside local public health and safety requirements and legislation in the devolved Administrations. It also states that businesses in other parts of the UK should see the guidance that has been set by the devolved Administrations. That is a clear message to UK-wide businesses that they must be cognisant of the guidance that we have issued in Scotland.

Gordon MacDonald

I have also been made aware by a care home worker that the UK-wide care home company that they work for is allowing visitors into its care homes, including in Scotland, as of Friday. I believe that that might be a result of misinterpretation of UK Government guidelines. Can the Scottish Government clarify what guidance on care home visitors is currently in place?

Jamie Hepburn

What Mr MacDonald has laid out is an issue of genuine concern. Health Protection Scotland published revised guidance on those matters last Friday. There is an expectation that all care homes comply with it and with the Government’s requirements for protecting the safety of care home residents. Of course we understand the importance of visiting loved ones in care settings, in particular when it might be the final days of the resident in question. The guidance that we have issued allows for such circumstances, but the bottom line is that we need to ensure that that is done in a safe fashion. The bottom line is that care homes must follow the guidance that we have issued.

Again, if he has a specific concern, Mr MacDonald should write to the Scottish Government, and we will look at it quickly. Given the nature of the concern that he has raised, I urge him to do that as soon as possible.

Mike Rumbles (North East Scotland) (LD)

The Health Protection Scotland regulations state that it is a defence to a charge of committing an offence to show that the person had a reasonable excuse. That includes travelling to work. I cannot find anything in the law that we passed unanimously in this chamber that says that travelling to work must be travelling to essential work. Could the minister identify the law that says that people may travel only for essential work? As far as I can see, that is not the law.

Jamie Hepburn

The member will be as well versed as I am or anyone else in the chamber is in the law as it has been passed. We have worked closely with Police Scotland. We have set out very clear guidance and expectations as to the responsibilities of people and how they should be acting. The clear message is that, if people can work from home—we know that many have been successfully working from home—they should continue to do so, and they should travel to work only for essential purposes.


Reopening Schools

3. Jamie Greene (West Scotland) (Con)

To ask the Scottish Government whether it has taken a decision regarding reopening schools in the current academic year, in light of the plans in other parts of the United Kingdom. (S5T-02181)

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

The Scottish Government will publish a route map on Thursday 21 May, which will include consideration of the issues connected with the reopening of schools, as guided by discussions within the education recovery group.

That group has brought together the Scottish Government, local authorities, professional associations, parents and other stakeholders in education. It is considering all practical options that will allow us to address the questions of safety, healthcare, wellbeing and learning that will affect the reopening of schools. It is vital that we conduct that exercise based on the circumstances that prevail in Scotland.

Jamie Greene

I thank the cabinet secretary for the update, albeit that it was not an answer to my question. Given that Scotland follows a different academic calendar from other parts of the UK, it seems reasonable and not entirely unexpected that, as most parents have come to accept, schools are unlikely to open meaningfully before August.

The key question on the minds of many parents will be: if schools remain closed for some months to come, how on earth will they be able to plan a route back to work? Parents are currently unable to access childminders, after-school clubs, summer schools or babysitters, or even drop off their children with friends or relatives, such are the current restrictions.

Will the Government produce updated guidance on changes to those restrictions, so that parents can start to have those conversations with their employers?

John Swinney

Mr Greene raises a fair and representative range of issues that must be considered around the question of relaxing lockdown in general in Scotland. There is clearly an interrelationship between access to education and individuals’ obligations to carry out employment.

The route map that the Government will bring forward on Thursday will air those challenging and complex issues, which are related and can be difficult to resolve because of the health imperatives with which we have to wrestle. Those questions are actively being considered by the Government and will be set out as part of the route map.

Of course, the Government will be very happy to engage with Parliament on all aspects of the details that are set out on Thursday and to address some of the complex issues that Mr Greene raises.

Jamie Greene

Given that the announcement will be made on Thursday, when the Parliament is not sitting, how will the Government ensure that members who are in the chamber today and other MSPs will be able to ask relevant questions of the strategy, rather than just receive a briefing through the media?

We learned in the media today of the potential for schools to reopen early in August—the date given was 11 August—using a form of blended learning, which involves pupils splitting their time between home and the classroom. The First Minister did not rule that out earlier. Can the cabinet secretary shed more light on how that might work in practice? Who was consulted on the approach? How will part-time schooling fit into our plans for an economic recovery, if parents are unable to work full time due to the new, blended approach?

John Swinney

It is essential that we are guided by all the scientific and health advice that is relevant to coronavirus. We continue to face a significant challenge with the prevalence of coronavirus in our society. The statistics with which we have all become far too familiar about the level of fatalities and infections that individuals have suffered are reminders of the importance of addressing the health imperatives that we face.

The Government wishes to relax the lockdown as quickly as it can, but we cannot be cavalier about the health implications of so doing. We have to look carefully at the arrangements to deliver schooling in a fashion that is compatible with the health advice that we receive.

Those are the questions with which the Covid-19 education recovery group has wrestled. Mr Greene asked who has been consulted. I deliberately set up the education recovery group to bring together local authorities, professional associations, representatives of the teaching profession and parents to make sure that we had an open conversation about those questions. I am very grateful to members of the education recovery group for the way in which they have engaged with the issues. It has been part of trying to reach an agreed approach, which is what I am committed to doing. It will serve the interests of every one of us, as has been said, if we can create unity on our education priorities and proceed on an agreed basis.

Iain Gray (East Lothian) (Lab)

The Government’s framework document talks about the possibility of pupils who are transitioning into primary 1 or secondary 1 returning to school for some of June for the school experience. In my constituency of East Lothian, which is a small education authority area, even secondary 1 has more than 1,200 pupils. The Government’s suggestion would mean many tens of thousands of pupils going back to school in June. Can the cabinet secretary rule that out or explain how it could be done safely?

John Swinney

If that option were pursued, it would have to be undertaken safely and in a way that was consistent with the health advice that is available to us. I assure Mr Gray that the Government and the Covid-19 education recovery group are following closely the scientific advice that is available to us. The Government regularly receives updated advice and I have shared relevant information on the questions that we are wrestling with about education.

Of course, as we consider the issues that the education recovery group raises, the transition experience is at the heart of how we might resolve some of the issues about access to education, recognising the significance that the transition period represents for access to education for young people in Scotland.

Kenneth Gibson (Cunninghame North) (SNP)

The cabinet secretary mentioned engaging with parents. The majority of parents still support school closure, but with schools opening in England in June, I imagine that it is likely that that will change over the summer. How can we ensure that the majority of parents support the Scottish Government when it does decide to end the lockdown in schools? If schools do not go back in August, how will that impact the attainment gap? All the evidence suggests that the longer schools remain closed as a result of lockdown, the wider the attainment gap gets.

John Swinney

In my discussions with the Education and Skills Committee, I have expressly acknowledged the detrimental effect on young people of not having access to full-time education. That detrimental effect takes a number of forms: young people lose out on access to formal learning within schools; and schools are central to acting on vital issues of child protection and wellbeing to protect children and young people within our society. Mr Gibson raises significant issues that I have openly acknowledged and that run the risk of being detrimental to the interests of children and young people in Scotland.

We musst act to build parental confidence about the return to school. It is crystal clear from all the publicly available polling evidence—it has been a consistent trend in that evidence—that parents in Scotland are anxious about their children going back to school. Representatives of the parental body that has been engaging with us on education recovery have certainly expressed that view. It is important that we put information and measures in place that will boost parents’ confidence about the return to education so that when children do return to school, that is done in a way that commands parental support and is in the best interests of children and young people within Scotland.

Jamie Halcro Johnston (Highlands and Islands) (Con)

At the Education and Skills Committee on 6 May, I asked the Deputy First Minister how many pupils in Scotland do not have access to the technology required for online learning. At the time, he was not able to provide that information. I will ask again. How many school pupils are unable to access online learning because they do not have the required technology or broadband? If he still does not know, given that some children will continue to need to be educated at home for some time, even when schools reopen, what is he doing to find that out?

John Swinney

One of the priorities of the remote learning strategy that was set out as part of the term 4 guidance that I put in place was to ensure that young people could have access to digital connectivity. As part of the connecting Scotland initiative, the Cabinet Secretary for Communities and Local Government, Aileen Campbell, has proposed to deploy devices and support to individuals who do not have them. Individually, local authorities are taking forward some of those measures to ensure that young people are well supported. I have seen excellent examples of that around the country. Schools and local authorities are focusing on individuals who do not have connectivity to make sure that they can access a remote learning approach.

It is clear that we are going to face disruption to education for some time because of coronavirus and the Government is working with its local authority partners to make sure that young people can access education in the most appropriate way for them and that they can rely on digital connectivity to enable them to sustain their learning.


Recycling Centres

4. Mark Ruskell (Mid Scotland and Fife) (Green)

To ask the Scottish Government for what reason it has not yet published guidance on allowing recycling centres to reopen. (S5T-02183)

The Cabinet Secretary for Environment, Climate Change and Land Reform (Roseanna Cunningham)

As I have previously indicated, decisions regarding the reopening of recycling centres are a matter for individual councils, which need to carefully balance a number of factors, including the ability to operate sites safely and ensure that physical distancing is maintained. We continue to work closely with the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities and local authorities on the issue.

As the First Minister set out today, we will publish a route map for easing the current lockdown measures on Thursday, which will confirm our position on the public health aspects of reopening recycling centres.

Mark Ruskell

We discussed the issue two weeks ago in Parliament. Since then, I have written to the Scottish Government to ask for further clarification but have had no reply. Meanwhile, we see escalating levels of fly-tipping in communities. In today’s Dunfermline Press, it is reported that council chiefs have agreed to work towards a reopening date of 1 June across Scotland. Can the cabinet secretary confirm whether that date has been agreed? If so, what measures will councils implement to ensure the safety of staff and the public at recycling centres?

Roseanna Cunningham

I do not want to keep repeating the point that much of the issue is about decisions that will be for local authorities to make. We know that work is under way by councils to prepare for a reopening of household waste recycling centres on 1 June, but we also know that that will not be the case for every council or every recycling centre.

The matter is rather more complicated than people understand at first glance. COSLA has made it clear that the sites will reopen only when it is considered safe for them to do so. As I have said on a number of occasions, local authorities are responsible for the operation of recycling centres, and they will need to consider several factors before they reopen them. We will continue to work closely with councils on the issue.

Mark Ruskell

A number of councils say that a national approach is needed to prevent waste from crossing council boundaries and overwhelming certain key facilities. Some councils, such as Fife Council, which have been testing an online booking system for when their centres reopen, have told me that the development by the Scottish Government of a national system to control and record the number of visits to recycling centres would be far preferable.

What discussion has the Scottish Government had with COSLA regarding such a national system and a national approach to reopening? Can the Government commit to that if social distancing measures remain in place in the long term?

Roseanna Cunningham

That is the first that I have heard of a demand for a national system for booking slots at recycling centres as and when they reopen. If it is a serious suggestion, I would have to look at it carefully, but I think that it would be extremely difficult to manage. Local authorities run more than one recycling centre within their boundaries. It is for them to make the decisions about how best to control and manage access to recycling centres, and about which ones are the most appropriate to open. That is the conversation that we are having with COSLA. If some local authorities are arguing for a national system, as far as I am aware, that is not yet part of what COSLA is asking the Scottish Government to look at.

Angus MacDonald (Falkirk East) (SNP)

What engagement has the Scottish Government had with the waste industry since the beginning of the coronavirus outbreak?

Roseanna Cunningham

From the beginning of the outbreak, the Scottish Government has had considerable, frequent and regular contact with local authority and commercial waste operators to manage risks and ensure resilience in the sector.

A waste and resources sector forum, which includes representatives from local authorities, COSLA, NHS Scotland, the Scottish Environment Protection Agency, Zero Waste Scotland and the waste industry, has met weekly. There is active engagement with commercial waste organisations and, on 7 May, I met representatives from the waste sector to hear at first hand about key issues, the impact of the measures that have been taken to date and on-going challenges.

Graham Simpson (Central Scotland) (Con)

The cabinet secretary keeps saying that this is all down to councils, but councils are saying that they will be able to open their recycling centres from 1 June; not all of them will be able to open on 1 June. They are waiting for the green light from the Scottish Government. Is the cabinet secretary prepared to give the go-ahead?

Roseanna Cunningham

I am not going to repeat myself. I have said what the position is. The member knows perfectly well that a route map will be published on Thursday. I have already flagged up that there might well be a signal in respect of that; members would not expect me to pre-empt any announcement of that sort. I hope that the member will understand that simplistic questioning and a simplistic approach are not reflective of the reality out there across Scotland right now.

David Torrance (Kirkcaldy) (SNP)

What concerns have councils raised with the Scottish Government about the need to reopen recycling centres?

Roseanna Cunningham

As I have set out, local authorities need to consider a range of factors when reopening sites to ensure the safety of staff and the public, including ensuring that physical distancing can be maintained on site. Managing demand for the service is also an important consideration and, as I have said, I know that local authorities are looking at how to manage that challenge.

Some local authorities continue to experience significant levels of staff absence, and they will need to ensure that other key services on which the public rely, such as residual waste collection, are not affected by their efforts to reopen recycling centres. We are actively supporting local authorities in considering all the issues, including through the development of guidance in partnership with COSLA.

Annie Wells (Glasgow) (Con)

As we have already heard, some councils could be ready to open their recycling centres at the beginning of June. As the crisis goes on, more and more services will need guidance and the proper protection. Will the cabinet secretary guarantee that staff will get the right personal protective equipment, if required?

Roseanna Cunningham

I do not know that that is entirely in my gift; it is for local authorities to make the appropriate operational decisions in relation to the work that they ask their staff to do. I hope that every member in the chamber will understand and acknowledge the importance of allowing local authorities to make those decisions in the current circumstances.

Andy Wightman (Lothian) (Green)

On a point of order, Presiding Officer. In the answer that the cabinet secretary gave to a question from Graham Simpson, she indicated that the answer to his question would be revealed on Thursday. My understanding is that Parliament is not meeting on Thursday and that the cabinet secretary is referring to a press conference that will be held on Thursday. Presiding Officer, what conversations are you having with the Scottish Government to ensure that important announcements on public policy are conveyed to Parliament before they are conveyed to the media?

The Presiding Officer

I thank Mr Wightman for that point of order and assure him that I and the business managers raised that very point with the Government this morning. The business managers, representing all the parties in Parliament, have continued to be co-operative and collaborative in their approach to the Government, and similarly, the Government is looking into presenting Thursday’s announcement as a virtual statement to Parliament that will be examined by leaders’ questions. The Parliamentary Bureau will meet again at 4.30 today to consider that very matter, so we will know more by the end of the day.

Mike Rumbles (North East Scotland) (LD)

On a point of order, Presiding Officer. I am sure that you will agree that the Scottish Government must always operate under the law as decided by the Parliament. Earlier, I asked whether the Scottish Government could clarify that its guidance does not go further than the law as we unanimously agreed it. I wanted to know where in the law it says that people could travel only to essential work. I understand that that is in the guidance and yet, day after day, the First Minister says in Parliament and to the nation, “You may travel only to essential work,” giving the impression that she is going beyond the law as decided by members in Parliament. Could you comment on that, please?

The Presiding Officer

I understand Mike Rumbles’s point. It is a point for debate between himself and the Government, and perhaps other members. It is not a point of order for me to rule on. I suggest that Mr Rumbles continues to ask his questions or write to the Government, and I am sure that he will get an answer.

Neil Findlay (Lothian) (Lab)

On a point of order, Presiding Officer. In response to Andy Wightman’s very legitimate point, I think that you said that there will be some sort of broadcast, followed by questions from leaders. Is that correct? The Parliament exists for all members—not just for leaders and the whips but for back benchers. What opportunity will there be for back benchers to ask questions on Thursday?

The Presiding Officer

That issue was very much at the forefront of our minds at this morning’s meeting of the bureau. I raised the very point that Mr Findlay has raised.

In the normal course of business, the Parliament and I, in particular, are very strict about making sure that all announcements are made to Parliament first. The Government has abided by that by using methods such as inspired questions and other parliamentary procedures.

In the middle of the Covid outbreak, the Parliament has not been meeting on its regular cycle of three meetings a week with constituency meetings on Mondays and Fridays. There has been an understanding between the Parliament and the Government with regard to the difficulty of making evolving news available to the Parliament first in all circumstances. The Parliament and business managers have been understanding. However, the point has been very much made to the Government that the Parliament expects major announcements to be made for the benefit of all members.

The Government has yet to come back to Parliament with its proposals for Thursday’s announcement. The proposal that is under discussion is that party leaders will have the opportunity to ask questions, and that there will be an opportunity on Tuesday next week—as I understand it—for all back benchers to ask questions. Those are the proposals, and it will be up to the member’s business manager—not Parliament—along with all the other business managers, to decide those matters. [Interruption.]

I suggest that, when we go without our time for reflection on a Tuesday, things in the Parliament do not get off to a very good start.

Graham Simpson

On a point of order, Presiding Officer. I think that this is only the second time that I have made a point of order as an MSP, but I am quite incensed by what I am hearing. The Government answers to the whole Parliament. It should make its important announcements to the whole Parliament, and the whole Parliament—not just party leaders—should have the opportunity to ask questions of the Government on such important matters. When the bureau next meets—which I understand will be later today—will it reconsider that point?

The Presiding Officer

I repeat: the very point that the member makes, and that other members who have raised the same point of order have made, has been made to the Government. It was made this morning, first by myself, and then by the business managers. The Government is currently considering how to respond, and we agreed to meet again at 4.30 today.

I did not mean to mislead members about what we are then going to propose to the Parliament. It will be up to the business bureau to make a proposal. It will then be up to Mr Simpson and every other member to vote on that proposal—in the end, the decision is for members individually.

However, the point that members have made will not have been wasted on the Government, nor on the business managers, and we will be discussing the matter later—[Interruption.] Mr Findlay!

I hope that we will come back to Parliament with a decision after 4:30.

I will take a very brief point from Mr Findlay.

Neil Findlay

How does the independent MSP make his views known?

The Presiding Officer

The independent MSP can consult directly with me, as can Mr Findlay and every other member of the Parliament. The business team makes specific arrangements to ensure that the independent member is informed of decisions and of the information that is circulated.

All members have the opportunity to approach the business team, or me as Presiding Officer, directly at any stage. However, the process is one of collaborative decision making and discussion within the bureau. A proposal is then put to the Parliament, and the Parliament then votes on that proposal. Each individual member has the opportunity to vote.

On that note, we move to the business motion.