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Parliamentary debates and questions

Standards, Procedures and Public Appointments Committee 12 January 2017

The agenda for the day:

Decision on Taking Business in Private, Cross-party Groups.

Decision on Taking Business in Private

The Convener (Clare Adamson)

Good morning and welcome to the first meeting in 2017 of the Standards, Procedures and Public Appointments Committee. I remind everyone to switch mobile phones and other devices to silent, as they might interfere with broadcasting.

Agenda item 1 is a decision on taking agenda item 4 in private. Do members agree to do so?

Members indicated agreement.

Cross-party Groups

The Convener

Agenda item 2 is evidence on proposed cross-party groups. First, we will take evidence on the proposed cross-party group on Brexit. I welcome Tavish Scott MSP, who is a proposed deputy convener of the group. I invite him to make an opening statement.

Tavish Scott (Shetland Islands) (LD)

Thank you very much, convener.

Above all, the intention of the proposed group is to create a forum for debate and lively interpretation of an on-going political issue that will, I suspect, govern our lives for the remainder of the session. I hope that the strength of our proposal for the committee is that the group would be not only cross-party, but would include people who argued and voted on both sides of the matter. That would be helpful and constructive. We want to ensure that there is a genuine forum outwith the formal parliamentary committee structures in the Scottish Parliament and at Westminster to bring together people who maybe have not had their views heard before. Subject to the committee’s approving the formation of our group, of course, we would do that in a variety of ways.

For the avoidance of doubt, we simply have not had enough time yet to invite and pull in external members, but we certainly plan to do that. That is very much part of our plans for the future.

The Convener

Thank you very much. I invite questions from committee members.

Alexander Stewart (Mid Scotland and Fife) (Con)

There is a real need for such a group, because we are moving into new territory. As the registration form indicates, it would be “a watchdog”. That is important.

My question is about engagement. There is a very broad church of individuals and organisations out there that you might need to try to capture. How do you plan to do that in a reasonable timescale? How will you engage effectively with them?

Tavish Scott

That is a fair question. I am not sure that we have totally worked that out yet. I suspect that we will be governed by the ability to react or to attempt to judge the process that we all believe to be under way now. For example, we hope to bring to Edinburgh—although we are not wedded to just having events in Edinburgh—a number of speakers from different parts of Scottish and international life. The four group office bearers will get together. Dare I say it, if you see any conspiracy at 8 o’clock on a Wednesday morning when we are having breakfast together—that is when things would be decided—and you want to intervene, please feel welcome to come along.

The serious point is that we hope to bring people from outwith Scotland who would bring an international perspective to a meeting or a discussion that is hosted by an independent chairperson. That is how we plan to develop things.

Alexander Stewart

The Scottish Parliament information centre has recently put together breakfast briefings in which Brexit issues have been discussed. They have been extremely well attended, and that is very encouraging. I think that the proposed group would get a good turnout at all its meetings, as well.

Tavish Scott

Thank you. That is fair.

There is an onus on us to raise the bar a bit. We all sit around many committee tables, and that is what it is—Daniel Johnson and I reflected on that yesterday in relation to the Education and Skills Committee. We have a job to do in bringing a calibre of person to meetings that will, we hope, provide interest to elected members and a wider audience.

Believe me, the proposed members of the group cross the divide—I should not refer to a divide, as that is a very pejorative term; rather, they cross the Brexit debate. Some are for Brexit and some are remainers. We will keep things that way, too.

Patrick Harvie (Glasgow) (Green)

Good morning. I have two questions, the first of which is on the first of the three purposes of the group that are set out in the registration form, which is:

“To act as a watchdog over the BREXIT process”.

How will that connect or relate to the responsibilities of the Culture, Tourism, Europe and External Relations Committee? How will they overlap, and what will the balance of activities be?

The second question is on the third purpose, which is:

“To make contact with other European countries and institutions to examine the best ways forward for Scotland and the UK, post BREXIT.”

I recognise and value the fact that you said that the group will contain people who voted and campaigned for yes and for no, but I wonder whether there is an implication in the third point—and whether it is a deliberate implication—that the group is restricted to those who accept that Brexit is happening and that Scotland is going along with that. How do you intend to relate to or reflect the views of those who do not accept that Scotland should be taken out of the European Union?

Tavish Scott

That is a very fair question. The third point is a subtle one rather than a hard one, just as the question around a hard or a soft Brexit is a soft point rather than a hard one. I would not overinterpret it. Those of us who campaigned for Scotland and the United Kingdom to remain within the EU are never going to allow that to become a hard interpretation of how our cross-party group would operate. Our very strong intention would be to make sure, as I said before, that we cover both aspects of what could happen in the future. I think that that is very important. So, is that purpose sloppily worded? Yes. Could it have been worded a little less pejoratively? Yes.

On your first point, in no way would we seek to cut across a parliamentary committee. We will not have the resources to do that anyway. I have just sat upstairs, going through 108 pages of Stephen Imrie’s latest epistle on Brexit and all that it means for Scotland. It is very good—as you would expect from Stephen Imrie, it is extremely well written. We simply will not have the resources, never mind the secretariat, to do that. So, as Alex Neil and I have observed, “watchdog” might be slightly too strong a word—probably more Labrador than Rottweiler on that one.

Clare Haughey (Rutherglen) (SNP)

I want to ask about the proposed membership of the group. You said that you were short of time before the registration form was submitted, but that was done on 30 November 2016. In the month and a half since then, have you explored who you would invite to be non-MSP members of the group? Could you explain how you are going to source that membership?

Tavish Scott

We have not explored the issue of inviting members, for the simple reason that we thought that there was not a lot of point in all of us pushing that any further until the group was set up. Once we are under way—subject, of course, to your agreement—we will issue an open invitation to wider organisations and groups.

As most cross-party groups do, we are seeking to establish a secretariat. I am quite open about the fact that that has not been as straightforward as we would have liked. It is tricky to get just the right kind of organisation that would service that group but, once we do that, we will have some administrative firepower as well as, we hope, some intellectual firepower.

There are no caveats on who could be a member. We will be very open and, indeed, we would be happy to furnish the committee with a letter indicating how we plan to proceed on that, subject, of course, to your agreement.

Clare Haughey

I note that you are talking about bringing international speakers to the group—is that correct?

Tavish Scott

We hope to do so, yes.

Clare Haughey

There is no indication on your application of how that would be financed.

Tavish Scott

No, indeed. That is where our secretariat is important, because we hope to have an organisation that will see the benefits of, frankly, paying the travelling expenses that are involved in bringing people to Edinburgh to allow the debate to happen. As members know, we cannot produce funds out of thin air. However, such expenses must be paid. Again, we will be happy to write to you with that detail.

Clare Haughey

Thank you.

John Scott (Ayr) (Con)

Do you have a secretariat in mind?

Tavish Scott

We do, but, if you will forgive me, Mr Scott, I am not at liberty to say who it is. As a minister would say—you will remember how I used to say this when I was a minister—discussions are at an advanced stage and we will be happy to provide details when we can.

John Scott

How do you propose to contribute to the Brexit process here in Scotland? Will you be feeding in views to the process? If so, to whom? Are you just going to be a forum, or will there be another purpose for the group?

Tavish Scott

The view of the four of us who have got together to discuss that is that the best role that we can play is to be a forum. At times, the debate has been too low or not deep enough, although I think that the report of the Culture, Tourism, Europe and External Relations Committee, which Stephen Imrie is producing and which will be published in a few weeks’ time, is very strong on analysis.

In effect, we are getting a running commentary coming from Governments all over Europe at the moment. We want to be part of that and to make sure that there is a very clear focus on Scotland, but also that there is a different perspective on Scotland. We hope to bring in people who will provide that different perspective, and to create a genuine forum in which colleagues from right across politics and people from outwith politics can think about and question Brexit. It is probably the biggest decision or set of circumstances that we are going to have to deal with in our lives, and the group hopes to add a little bit to that.

Daniel Johnson (Edinburgh Southern) (Lab)

Both as a declaration of interest and a context for my question, I inform the committee that I have held a few discussions on the possibility of setting up a cross-party group on Europe, the purpose of which would be to look more broadly at the interaction between Scotland and Europe beyond the EU, with regard to the social and cultural elements of Europe and other European institutions.

Do you think that, although there would be overlap, those two groups could co-exist, or would it be problematic if a CPG on Europe were to be proposed?

Tavish Scott

I would not wish to prejudge where you would take that, Mr Johnson, although it strikes me as a very wide remit. Our group will be pretty strong around politics. The people who we want to come and participate in the forum and the discussion will be broadly in the political sphere, although they will come from industry and different backgrounds as well. They will be talking about the on-going political process that will be what we all go through for the next number of years—that is where our focus will be.

If your group, with its much wider and therefore probably more long-term and constructive approach, is focused around the future of the arts and culture and the much wider perspective on Europe, that is by definition a good thing. Our group is going to pretty strong on the politics of what we are dealing with and we hope to bring in some interesting people to engage in that.

Daniel Johnson

You mentioned that there had been some issues around finding a secretariat. Are those issues potentially relevant and worth drawing to the attention of the committee?

Tavish Scott

We will be happy to write to the committee or to the clerks once we have got that ironed out. All cross-party groups are challenged by the need to have a secretariat, depending on the scale of the activities that they want to undertake. Last night, I was at a meeting of the cross-party group on Tibet, which operates with a very small and dedicated group of people who just do it because they love the subject and care passionately about it. That is different from bringing people to Edinburgh in order to create the kind of forum that we want. Frankly, we need some money in order to pay people’s travel expenses. That is the process that we are going through at the moment.

The Convener

Thank you. If there are no further questions from committee members, I will ask one. Obviously, we have a number of CPGs established in the Parliament, many of which will be considering the impacts of Brexit on their particular area of interest. Have you thought about how your CPG might interact with other CPGs in the Parliament, so that there is no duplication of effort? Have you considered perhaps working in joint meetings with other groups?

Tavish Scott

That is a fair point. The short answer is no, we have not considered that, but we would be happy to do so in order to achieve the objective that you have just pointed out.

The Convener

Okay. We will be considering your application under agenda item 3, and you will be informed of our decision as quickly as possible.

I will just say, as a matter for all CPGs, that the make-up of the secretariat is a decision that is made autonomously by the CPG members once the group is established; the secretariat will normally be a member of the CPG; and, when new members come on board, the clerks of this committee should be informed within 30 days of that happening. That is just a timely reminder for all CPGs.

I thank Mr Scott for his attendance.

10:14 Meeting suspended.  10:14 On resuming—  

The Convener

The second group for the committee’s consideration is the proposed CPG on improving Scotland’s health: 2021 and beyond. I welcome Kenneth Gibson MSP, the proposed co-convener of the group, to the committee and invite him to make an opening statement.

Kenneth Gibson (Cunninghame North) (SNP)

Thank you, convener. I was not going to say much. Basically, it is all there on the side of the tin, so to speak. The purpose of the group is primarily to consider how we can improve people’s health, particularly when it comes to reducing tobacco usage and alcohol misuse, as well as to consider the obesity epidemic.

I am delighted that it is truly a cross-party group in that all five parties that are represented in the Parliament have members. As you said, convener, there is a joint convenership between me and Jenny Marra. We will alternate convenership of the meetings, and we will meet four times a year.

We have already had substantial interest from outside the Parliament. About 20 organisations have already joined the group, subject to its being approved. We have started to consider the agenda that we will have over the next year. We are clear that we want to set goals that can be achieved and that we can benchmark year by year.

Like other cross-party groups, we hope to raise our group’s profile through debates in the Parliament and questions, and we also want to engage fully with the Scottish Government, for example by having members of the health team making presentations and answering our questions at various meetings.

That is it, really. The secretariat is being provided jointly by ASH Scotland and Alcohol Focus Scotland. There is no membership fee for anyone to join. I encourage MSPs on the committee, if it is agreed that the group should be formed, to join and participate in it.

Patrick Harvie

The proposed group is an interesting one. The particular issues that you propose to focus on—

“the health harms caused by alcohol, tobacco, poor diet and obesity”—

predominantly relate to areas where there are commercial vested interests on the part of industries.

Kenneth Gibson

Yes.

Patrick Harvie

Are you intentionally focusing on those issues rather than on the wider environmental or lifestyle factors, where that is not so much of a barrier? If so, what thought have you given to any overlap or connection with the cross-party group on food?

Kenneth Gibson

We have not put up any barriers in relation to the group. The thinking has initially been about what we want to achieve. I certainly believe that there is room for co-operation with other cross-party groups. I am convener of the cross-party group on epilepsy, and in the previous session we had joint meetings with the cross-party group on mental health. I would be happy to engage with all sorts of organisations.

We have been strict about membership restrictions in relation to the tobacco industry and lobbyists for that industry. At our next meeting, we will have a discussion about our views on alcohol. Personally, I am against the Scotch Whisky Association being associated with the group because of its obvious opposition to minimum unit pricing. Others may have a different view on that.

We are not here to argue for certain aspects of industry; we are trying to pull organisations together to see how we can work with the Scottish Government and various other organisations, including in the third sector, to tackle some of the huge societal impacts. We are also considering social levers for change. The group is trying to have a broad remit.

In 1999, I formed the cross-party group on tobacco control. I am trying to remember the exact name of the group that it became when Willie Rennie was the convener—I convened the group for nine years and he took it over for four years. The wording was not “tobacco control”; it was the cross-party group on tobacco and health, I believe. When it comes to addiction, there is so much linkage between tobacco and alcohol that it would be wise to link the two and have more of an umbrella group.

The idea seems to have resonated with the third sector, which is why at the first meeting there were already 20 organisations that wished to participate. They included Obesity Action Scotland, the British Heart Foundation, Macmillan Cancer Support, Scottish Families Affected by Alcohol and Drugs, the University of Glasgow and the Royal College of Physicians of Edinburgh. Loads of different organisations from a wide spectrum are interested in participating in the group.

Patrick Harvie

I can understand why you would be cautious about or hostile to tobacco industry lobbyists being involved as external members. There might be more controversy or mixed opinions on, for example, voices from the electronic cigarette industry. I am not sure whether you have reached a view on that area.

Kenneth Gibson

I do not think that we have as yet. I imagine that most members would take a cautious approach to that, but it is not something that we have sat down and defined as yet. It is early days—we have just had the first, introductory meeting. There was a lot of discussion about a lot of issues, and there is a lot of enthusiasm. With so many organisations in the room, all of which want to say how the group should develop, it might take two or three meetings before we set everything down in tablets of stone.

Patrick Harvie

Thank you.

Alexander Stewart

There are some huge challenges, but I think that you appreciate what you are taking on. It has the potential to be a massive issue.

Education, marketing and promotion all come into the process, because the choices that individuals make are sometimes dependent on what they perceive from the advertising by the organisations and industries that you have touched on. How are you going to market and promote the group to make sure that you get the right people from those organisations to join it? If you are going to exclude any organisations because you feel that they are creating the problem, how are you going to manage that? There could well be a conflict.

Kenneth Gibson

Decisions on who to exclude or include are a matter for the wider group. Where possible, we will try to take those decisions on a consensual basis.

Marketing of the group will depend on what it is trying to do. We would market it through social media and the press, within the Parliament itself and through direct contact with MSPs and organisations. There is already a kind of network of organisations that are involved in the areas, so a lot of them are already interconnected. I think that there is a kind of bush telegraph that will help to market the group.

Previously, the cross-party group on tobacco control was very much involved in the lead-up to the smoking ban. It was really the driving force for that—the group put it in the public domain. It had discussions with ministers, and people such as Bill Aitken from the Conservative Party, Robert Brown from the Liberal Democrats and Richard Simpson from the Labour Party were all very influential in taking the agenda forward. That showed that cross-party groups could be effective in raising ministerial and public awareness of health improvement issues.

There is huge awareness of some of the issues, but there is also a concern—certainly among members of our group—that people think that, with the smoking ban being put in place, tobacco is not an issue anymore. Smoking still kills thousands of people every year in Scotland and we want to ensure that it does not fall off the agenda. I do not think that we would quite support President Putin’s view that anyone born in 2015 or later should automatically be banned from ever smoking a cigarette, which is apparently a policy that he is talking about. I think that persuasion and education over a period of time will be more effective.

Alexander Stewart

Thank you.

John Scott

Will you develop your point about not being overly prescriptive? You say that you are going to exclude lobbyists for the whisky industry, for example.

Kenneth Gibson

No—sorry, I have not said that. That is my personal view. The group has not taken a view on the matter yet as we are still to discuss the position with regard to alcohol companies. For example, should the Portman Group be included or not? At this stage, the only groups that we have decided should be banned are the tobacco companies and those that serve their interests. On alcohol, the group is likely to take a more nuanced approach.

John Scott

What about the food industry and others? My question is really about where you stop and start when you decide to ban one group of people from a cross-party group, which is a forum for discussion. In the interest of fairness, I would like to think that all voices can be heard. Perhaps that is not your intention.

Kenneth Gibson

That is a matter that we still have to decide on. If we are going to be talking about obesity, is there an argument that a chocolate manufacturer should be banned? As I said, we will take a more nuanced approach on such organisations. We all have different views and we will come to a consensus. Tobacco is the only industry that we have decided will not be in any way connected to the cross-party group at this stage.

John Scott

Thank you.

Daniel Johnson

The aims and purpose of the group are laudable and valuable. The title of the group mentions “improving Scotland’s health”, but in terms of where it is coming from, it is very focused on alcohol and tobacco. Is the intention to remain focused on those two issues or do you want to look more broadly at the wider preventative health agenda and reflect that in the group’s aims in the future?

Kenneth Gibson

That is a good question. The blunt answer is yes. We are looking at the preventative health agenda and at trying to encourage people in Scotland to have healthier lifestyles in terms of what they eat and, I hope, to smoke and drink a bit less.

We do not want to try to encompass everything in the group’s early stages. The reason why we have given the group the title that it has is that we want to say that it is not just something for now. The title mentions “2021 and beyond” because, although we want to see some achievements during the current parliamentary session, we also want to be clear that the issue is a long-term one. We want people to be much healthier in 20 or 30 years’ time than they are today. We want them to live longer and live healthier.

The group is about lifestyle and environment. It is about all the issues and how we can draw them together and focus on taking things forward. We will take ideas from the group’s constituent organisations and the members of the Scottish Parliament to narrow down our focus and set achievable goals so that, a year from now, we will be able to see whether we have made a difference.

Clare Haughey

Thank you for bringing the proposal to the committee. It sounds a really interesting cross-party group. I have two brief questions. The first is about the organisations that have already signed up. I see that you have three medical associations: the British Medical Association, the Royal College of Physicians of Edinburgh and the Royal College of Psychiatrists. Have you looked to the—

Kenneth Gibson

The Royal College of Nursing?

Clare Haughey

Yes, but not only the RCN. Have you looked to other healthcare professional organisations to join the group? Has an invitation gone out to them?

Secondly, I declare an interest as co-convener of the cross-party group on mental health. Given that mental health plays a huge part in people’s health and that we need to look at improving it across the country, how do you see your group working alongside the cross-party group on mental health?

Kenneth Gibson

Invitations have gone out and the list on our registration form shows the initial organisations that have joined. I hope that once the group is established—if it is approved—other organisations will wish to join. I am sure that the RCN will have a role to play, as will other organisations across the board, including third-sector organisations.

I and Jenny Marra as co-convener and other members will be more than happy to work with other cross-party groups. Previously, the cross-party group on epilepsy, which I chaired, and the cross-party group on mental health, which Malcolm Chisholm chaired, had a productive and well-attended joint meeting that looked at how mental health and epilepsy interact.

Given the issues that we want the group to look at, I certainly think that having a joint meeting with the cross-party group on mental health would be a positive development. I do not think that it would be likely to happen at the next couple of meetings because we have to find our feet, but it would certainly not be as far into the future as a couple of years. Perhaps in a few months’ time, I would certainly be happy to have a joint meeting. I am sure that Jenny Marra and I will be happy to discuss with the secretariat to the cross-party group on mental health how we will set that up and what focus such a meeting will have. It will not just be a meeting; it will have a specific agenda and we will try to achieve an outcome.

The Convener

As there are no further questions, I thank Mr Gibson for his attendance. We will deliberate on the proposed cross-party group under agenda item 3 and you will be informed of our decision as quickly as possible.

Kenneth Gibson

Thank you, convener.

10:29 Meeting suspended.  10:30 On resuming—  

The Convener

The final proposed cross-party group that the committee will consider today is on nuclear disarmament. I welcome Bill Kidd MSP to the committee and invite him to make an opening statement.

Bill Kidd (Glasgow Anniesland) (SNP)

Thank you, convener. The cross-party group on nuclear disarmament is a well-established group. Sadly, our secretary, who performed all the roles of the secretariat, passed away near the end of last year. That stopped things on that side, although not on the operational side—we cannot stop nuclear disarmers from talking, but they did not put their work together well enough to get here sharpish prior to the start of the new year.

The idea behind the group is to act as a policy forum for discussion and updates on how policy impacts on nuclear weapons issues in Scotland. The idea is to share information on and expertise in nuclear weapons issues in Scotland between MSPs and the general public as well as with organisations such as Scottish CND, the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom—which was established in 1917, as I am told whenever anyone from WILPF is around—and other organisations that have an interest in ensuring that the issue of nuclear weapons in Scotland, in the UK and worldwide is addressed.

The Convener

Thank you. I invite questions from committee members.

Patrick Harvie

As someone who is involved in the group—members should be aware of that—I take this opportunity to put on the record our sincere respect for the work of John Ainslie over many years in keeping the group on track and working well.

My only comment on the registration form is that Andy Wightman’s name is spelled wrongly. I trust that that can be corrected pretty easily.

Bill Kidd

Thank you, Mr Harvie. We will correct that—or Mr Wightman may care to change his name. [Laughter.]

John Ainslie committed himself to the idea of and his belief in nuclear disarmament for more than 20 years. Janet Fenton, who is a member of WILPF, has now taken over as secretary. She is equally capable and will fit into the role.

The Convener

As there are no further questions, I thank you for your attendance, Mr Kidd. We will consider the proposed cross-party group under agenda item 3 and you will be informed of our decision as quickly as possible.

Bill Kidd

I thank the committee for being so nice to me.

The Convener

Agenda item 3 is the committee’s consideration of the proposed CPGs. First, we will consider the proposed CPG on Brexit. Do members have any comments?

Alexander Stewart

It is an excellent idea. It crosses over many areas and it will give us an opportunity to focus. I am very supportive of the group, convener.

Clare Haughey

I have some concerns about it. There are lots of gaps in the information that has been provided to us. I am minded to ask the group to come back to us with some more information before we approve it as a CPG.

The Convener

I think that we had a similar situation with a CPG a couple of weeks ago and we approved it subject to an annual review of its external membership. Is the committee happy to approve the proposed CPG on that basis?

Members indicated agreement.

The Convener

The next proposed CPG is on improving Scotland’s health: 2021 and beyond. Are there any comments or concerns? If not, are we content to approve the group as a CPG?

Members indicated agreement.

The Convener

The final proposed CPG is on nuclear disarmament. Are there any comments?

Daniel Johnson

I have a minor point. As well as spelling Andy Wightman’s name incorrectly, the registration form states simply “NA” for objective 3. Am I missing something?

Patrick Harvie

I think that the group is saying that the question of whether the proposed CPG overlaps with existing CPGs is not applicable.

Daniel Johnson

Ah. Understood.

The Convener

Are we content to approve the proposed CPG?

Members indicated agreement.

The Convener

Thank you very much. We will take agenda item 4 in private.

10:35 Meeting continued in private until 10:39.