Meeting date: Thursday, March 21, 2019
Meeting of the Parliament 21 March 2019
Agenda: General Question Time, First Minister’s Question Time, Men’s Sheds, Scottish Parliamentary Corporate Body Question Time, Portfolio Question Time, Land Reform, Decision Time
- General Question Time
- First Minister’s Question Time
- Men’s Sheds
- Scottish Parliamentary Corporate Body Question Time
- Portfolio Question Time
- Land Reform
- Decision Time
Scottish Parliamentary Corporate Body Question Time
The next item of business is Scottish Parliamentary Corporate Body question time. I would like to get in as many people as possible, so I ask for succinct questions and answers, please.
To ask the Scottish Parliamentary Corporate Body what steps it is taking to ensure that offices receive post before the start of parliamentary business. (S5O-03045)
As members will appreciate, for security reasons it is important that we screen all mail that comes to the Parliament off site. In 2011, it was agreed that we would no longer pay Royal Mail for the early extraction of the Parliament’s mail and that we would bring the sorting in house. That means that screened mail from Royal Mail is now delivered to Holyrood at about 9.30 am. After time is allowed for our mail team to sort the mail, the first postal delivery is at 11. Those changes enabled us to operate one shift instead of two, which freed up a member of staff, who was redeployed in the facilities management team. We have no plans to reintroduce an early mail delivery, which could involve significant additional costs.
The Parliament’s posties do a fabulous job, and I do not want anyone to think for a moment that my question is a criticism of their work, because it is not.
The member mentioned shift changes, and the first post is now much later than it was before. That change is only recent—it did not happen a long time ago—so is there a possibility of restoring the earlier postal delivery, so that we can give our constituents a good service from the start of the day?
I appreciate that the member is a keen bean and that he wants to get to work as quickly as possible. However, returning to the old system would have an additional cost of about £100,000 every year. I ask him to carefully consider whether the additional time would be worth a cost of £100,000 to the Parliament. We made a saving and we managed to redeploy staff in the building. If the member is desperate to see the newspapers, for example, they are available in the Scottish Parliament information centre from 8 in the morning—he does not have to wait until 11 to access them. The corporate body is pretty confident that taking this approach is the right and proper thing to do.
Car Park (Booking System)
To ask the Scottish Parliamentary Corporate Body whether it will carry out a review of the car park booking system. (S5O-03008)
The car park policy is aimed at maximising the number of spaces that are available to members on business days, and the car park booking system has been in place since we moved to Holyrood. We have reviewed the system several times and have found the current process for booking a parking space to be the fairest and most flexible way of allocating the limited number of spaces that are available. We appreciate that technology is continually evolving and we would be happy to look again at other booking options, including an online booking system.
That is exactly what I suggest—an online booking system that would allow MSPs and parliamentary staff to make and cancel bookings outside normal parliamentary working hours and to see spaces as and when they became available. Will the SPCB look into that?
We are keen to look at the option of an online booking system. We have looked at it before; the software does not currently exist for what we want to do, but we will continually review that.
A lot of people do not know that they can book spaces for half a day—people automatically think that they might be required to book a full day. There is more flexibility than members might think, but we will continue to review the position.
Passholder Entrances (Delays)
To ask the Scottish Parliamentary Corporate Body, following the installation of new security devices at passholder entrances, what action it is taking to address queues forming and delays to entry. (S5O-03046)
The question is of interest to a number of people. We are all aware that, during busy periods—mainly between 8.30 and 9.30 on business days—queues have been forming, particularly outside the Queensberry house entrance. Three reasons are driving the delays. The Parliament has experienced a software issue that has resulted in the entry system occasionally resetting, which has caused a delay; engineers are on site this week to implement an agreed fix. The other causes are the volume of people who arrive during peak times and the fact that some passholders have not yet perfected their technique, so they present their pass and finger too quickly to the reader, which means that the pass has to be presented again.
To address those issues, we will remind all pass users that, alongside the single entry turnstile at Queensberry house, there are two turnstiles at the Canongate entrance, which offer direct access to the garden lobby, as we all know. We have security staff on site to offer support, and we encourage anyone who is having issues with accessing the Parliament to schedule a follow-up appointment with the pass studio.
We are also discussing with the manufacturer of the turnstiles the possibility of changing the exit turnstile at Queensberry house, where there is both an entrance and an exit turnstile, to a bi-directional turnstile, allowing it to be used to alleviate queues during peak times.
All that fancy language means that we are still establishing the technical fix and the costs and timescales of the initiative.
That will be one of those succinct answers, then. [Laughter.] I call Patrick Harvie.
I am resisting the ample opportunity for innuendo here. [Laughter.]
Look—I might be prejudiced and biased on this issue, because when I am expected to have my fingerprints taken and to present biometrics to go into my place of work, my natural instinct is to feel that it is something of a dystopian nightmare. However, this system is more “Brazil” than “1984”; it does not work, and it takes ages. I am all in favour of technology that makes things easier, but this technology makes getting into and out of the building worse, more difficult and more time consuming. If it does not work, can we just rip it out?
I hear what Patrick Harvie has said about the difficulties that have been experienced in facilitating the new system, but he will know that the problem with the old one-factor authentication system was that many people were, quite inappropriately, handing their passes back to others who did not have a pass to allow them into the building. It is obvious, when one thinks it through, that that presented serious security risks.
Two-factor authentication is designed to make access to the building more secure. The biometrics are contained exclusively within the card and are not held anywhere else, so Mr Harvie need not be concerned that there will be any breach of personal data. It might well take some time for us to perfect the system and ensure that it works efficiently, but it is there to ensure that all the public access points into the building are as secure as they have to be so that we can all operate safely in the building at all times.
Payroll Deductions (Credit Union Take-up)
First, I remind the chamber that I convene the cross-party group on credit unions.
To ask the Scottish Parliamentary Corporate Body what the take-up is of the credit union payroll deduction. (S5O-03044)
I thank the member for her very interesting question. At the moment, 35 individuals have chosen to make a payment into their credit union account through the payrolls managed by the corporate body. Of those 35, 19 are SPCB staff, 10 are MSP staff and six are MSPs, and that is from a total of 1,399 people who are served by our payroll service.
The role of credit unions in reducing poverty and the impact of financial worries is well recognised. Everyone will know that the membership is based on a common bond, and it seems a wasted opportunity not to offer staff and members the benefit of direct wage deduction to one of their local credit unions. For example, I would love to be able to offer my staff or, indeed, anyone from Ayrshire the opportunity to make deductions to 1st Alliance Ayrshire Credit Union. Will Sandra White meet me to see how we can make that happen for everyone?
I agree entirely with the member that access to credit unions is very important. She will be aware that the SPCB advertises the fact that we facilitate payments to a credit union, but the idea that she has proposed is an excellent one. Obviously, I cannot give an answer on my own behalf, but if the member is content, I will take the matter to the next SPCB meeting for discussion. I am also more than happy to discuss the matter with her.
Twentieth Anniversary (Marking Contribution of Staff)
To ask the Scottish Parliamentary Corporate Body how it will mark the contribution to the Parliament of staff past and present who were here in 1999. (S5O-03049)
In our 20th anniversary year, the corporate body wishes to express our thanks to those staff past and present who helped establish the Parliament in 1999. Christine Grahame might be interested to know that around 80 members of the current parliamentary service staff group joined before the first election in May 1999 and a total of around 120 started at some point during that year. The corporate body values the contribution made by all staff and contractors in the Parliament from all parts of the organisation, regardless of how long they have worked here.
Throughout 2019, staff will reflect on their time at the Parliament in the in-house newsletter, and that will be an opportunity for those who joined in 1999 to share their memories from that year and their reflections on how the Parliament has evolved over the past two decades.
I associate myself with the member’s remarks about congratulating staff, past and present. Here is my wee plan: if we are to have a modest 20th birthday bash and ask former MSPs to attend, I ask that we also invite former members of staff, because the Parliament very much operates as a team.
I reciprocate by echoing the sentiments that Ms Grahame has expressed. As she will know, our intention is for the Parliament to celebrate its 20th anniversary at an event on 29 June. All members of staff, past and present, will be encouraged to attend the event, and further announcements will be made later in the spring. I understand that the chief executive, Sir Paul Grice, will write to current and former staff to that effect.
Members’ Staff (Contract Variation)
To ask the Scottish Parliamentary Corporate Body whether it is possible to vary contracts of employment for MSP staff in order to give flexibility to suit local circumstances. (S5O-03047)
The SPCB recognises—as, I am sure, the member does—that members are the employers of their staff. To help members to fulfil their role as employers, the corporate body has provided a minimum set of terms and conditions on which members’ staff should be employed. Provided that members ensure that their staff are employed on terms and conditions that are no less favourable than the minimums that are set by the corporate body, they are free to vary the terms as they see fit, as long as they do so within their capped staff costs provision.
I will not get into all the details, but I am trying to get a contract adjusted for a new member of staff. I have asked for five changes to the standard contract, but the human resources department is resisting two of them. It seems to me that, year by year, there is less and less flexibility and more and more rigidity, so I would like an assurance from the corporate body that it will maximise the amount of flexibility that staff and MSPs have.
As I indicated, it is for members to determine the terms and conditions on which their staff are employed, provided that they are no less advantageous than the minimums that are set by the corporate body. We are not in a position to discuss the particular details of the contract of Mr Mason’s member of staff. If he wishes to raise the matter with any of us, I will be happy to meet him to discuss the particular issues that he is having, and to find out whether they are issues that pertain to the standard terms and conditions on which members’ staff are expected to be employed. I am not aware that the conditions have become tighter over the past few years, but if Mr Mason wants to present evidence in that regard, we can have a look at that issue. We want to ensure that members have flexibility, because we all expect them to be able to employ staff on terms and conditions that meet their circumstances.
Car Park (Barrier System)
To ask the Scottish Parliamentary Corporate Body whether it will provide an update on the on-going issues with the car park barrier system. (S5O-03007)
The car park barrier system was installed in 2007. In January this year, we experienced a series of component failures that led to the car park barrier system being out of service for 10 days. Following those component failures, a comprehensive root-cause analysis of the equipment and controls was carried out by the manufacturer, and measures have been put in place to prevent a similar incident from happening again.
When there is a fault with the barrier system, staff need to be deployed outside in all weathers. Surely there is a greater risk to the building because the barrier system is down. What further measures can be put in place to reduce the risks to staff and the building?
There is no increased security risk when the barrier system is out of service, because there are roller shutters in front of the car park entrance.
I share the member’s concern about asking security staff to be out in the cold, which is why we try as much as possible to avoid that.
The barrier system is not out of service as often as the member might think it is. In any given year, there are three periods for scheduled maintenance. Beyond that, there were seven instances during 2018 when the system was out of order. Many of the issues that caused those problems have now been resolved, and we look forward to a more positive future.
Scottish Parliament Staff (Support for Carers)
To ask the Scottish Parliamentary Corporate Body how it supports staff who are carers. (S5O-03048)
The Scottish Parliamentary Corporate Body recognises that many staff face significant caring responsibilities and is committed to helping them to balance their home and work lives. We appreciate the demands that that might place on staff and that, at times, it might be difficult for them to combine their work and their caring responsibilities.
As an employer, we are committed to providing an inclusive working environment in which carers feel valued and supported. To help us to meet that commitment, we have put in place a range of support options for carers, including access to carer-friendly policies and working practices that offer staff the flexibility and support to manage their time when care at home is needed.
Kezia Dugdale will be aware of the carer positive initiative, which recognises employers that promote carer-friendly policies in the workplace. The Scottish Parliament is a carer positive employer, but it is currently at the entry level, which is “engaged”. How does the SPCB see the Scottish Parliament progressing to become an “established” and, eventually, an “exemplary” carer positive employer?
We are, indeed, a carer positive employer. The SPCB continues to demonstrate its commitment to staff with caring responsibilities and, more widely, to supporting staff to lead independent, healthy and active lives.
I can reassure Tom Arthur that we are committed to achieving the highest level in the award scheme by becoming an exemplary carer positive employer by 2020. That means providing exemplary support to carers by enhancing our workplace policies. Our carers staff network, which is led by carers in the building, will have a key role to play in helping us to achieve the highest possible standard.
That concludes SPCB question time. I remind all members that the SPCB question slot is considered in the same way as portfolio question time, which means that, if anyone asks a question or attempts to ask a question, they should stay for the full session.