Skip to main content

Language: English / Gàidhlig

Seòmar agus comataidhean

Meeting of the Parliament [Draft]

Meeting date: Thursday, March 21, 2024


Scottish Parliamentary Corporate Body Question Time

The Deputy Presiding Officer (Liam McArthur)

Good afternoon. The first item of business this afternoon is Scottish Parliamentary Corporate Body question time. I invite members who wish to ask a supplementary question to press their request-to-speak button during the relevant question. The time for this item of business has been extended, but there is an awful lot of interest, so I make the usual plea for brevity in questions and responses, as far as possible.

External Stakeholder Events

To ask the Scottish Parliamentary Corporate Body whether it will provide an update on the waiting time for external stakeholder parliamentary events sponsored by MSPs. (S6O-03251)

Jackson Carlaw (Scottish Parliamentary Corporate Body)

I can confirm that the extension was not at the request of members of the corporate body.

I thank Rachael Hamilton for her question. I know that the issue is of interest to a number of MSPs. The member-sponsored events and exhibitions programme is very popular. With that in mind, the corporate body previously agreed that event organisers could book up to 12 months in advance, which means that the events and exhibitions team is currently taking bookings from event organisers and sponsoring members for events up to March 2025.

Rachael Hamilton

I thank Jackson Carlaw for that answer. According to the website, which was changed very recently, the next opportunity for a member-sponsored exhibition was December 2024 and is now early 2025. Given that we pride ourselves on being a people’s Parliament, what is being done to ensure that stakeholders and citizens have the opportunity to engage with parliamentarians? Is there an issue of bureaucracy, or do we need to offer more flexibility in respect of spaces that can be used for events?

Jackson Carlaw

In order to manage resources across parliamentary staff teams and the campus on busy business nights, agreement was given by the corporate body to limit the number of events accordingly. We currently deliver and support between nine and 10 member-sponsored events and two member-sponsored exhibitions weekly. The events and exhibitions team, which leads on delivery and programming of member-sponsored events and the exhibition programme, also designs and delivers the corporate body’s agreed major events and exhibitions programme, which supports the goals of the Scottish Parliament’s public engagement strategy. Outwith that, it is open to members to organise events that are consistent with the meeting-room booking policy, should they wish to do so, but they have to provide infrastructural support to allow such meetings to take place. That is, reasonably, not practical for large gatherings, but it would be practical for smaller gatherings.

On the wider point, the corporate body will see whether, if we find that there has been a significant increase in demand for member-sponsored events, it would be appropriate to suggest in the legacy report from this session of Parliament to the next that that part of the corporate body infrastructure should receive additional resource.

You might not have asked for the extension in time, Mr Carlaw, but with answers that long we will need a further extension.

Head of State Portrait

To ask the Scottish Parliamentary Corporate Body what plans it has to commission a portrait of King Charles as head of state. (S6O-03248)

Christine Grahame (Scottish Parliamentary Corporate Body)

I thank Murdo Fraser for his question. The SPCB is happy to consider suggestions for new commissions. We have asked parliamentary officials to explore options with a view to providing advice and recommendations to the SPCB in due course. We will keep you fully informed of those decisions, Deputy Presiding Officer.

Murdo Fraser

I thank Christine Grahame for that answer. I am sure that she is as enthusiastic as I am about the prospect of having a portrait of our head of state displayed in the building, as would be appropriate in a national Parliament. We, of course, already have a photographic portrait of the Her late Majesty Queen Elizabeth II opposite the public entrance. It is much admired by visitors, and I am sure that we would not want it to be removed but to be complemented by a portrait of our new head of state. Can Christine Grahame tell me whether there are any plans to relocate the existing portrait of Her late Majesty the Queen and to ensure that it continues to be displayed in the building?

Christine Grahame

I thank Murdo Fraser for his questions, which I am delighted to answer.

The position on whether we keep the portrait of the late Queen will be considered by the SPCB in due course, when we consider the new commissioning of a portrait of King Charles.

Ethnicity-related Pay Gap

To ask the Scottish Parliamentary Corporate Body what steps it is taking to address any ethnicity-related pay gap among SPCB staff. (S6O-03215)

Jackson Carlaw (Scottish Parliamentary Corporate Body)

This is a complicated response. The corporate body is proud of the steps that it has taken to develop our minority ethnic staff, including an award-winning emerging leaders development programme, which was jointly developed by the Scottish parliamentary service, Edinburgh College and the Scottish Association of Minority Ethnic Educators. That programme supported 13 staff to develop their leadership skills and prepare them for career development and advancement.

The corporate body has also implemented a positive action approach to recruitment, which has significantly increased the numbers of applications that are received from people who identify as being minority ethnic, and of successful appointments of such applicants.

Although progress has been made, we recognise that more needs to be done to further reduce our ethnicity pay gap. That is why we have made a commitment to develop a race strategy to tackle barriers in the workplace.

Carol Mochan

Recent reports on diversity monitoring and pay gaps for 2021-22 show that the ethnicity pay gap for all staff increased from 27.6 per cent in 2021 to 30.1 per cent in 2022. Furthermore, in 2022 just 18 per cent of applications for jobs in the Scottish Parliament were from minority ethnic candidates—compared with 78 per cent having been from white candidates—and gaps exist in respect of success rates from those applications.

Can the corporate body be clearer about the steps that it is taking in the coming financial year to ensure not only that staff from minority ethnic backgrounds are paid fairly, but that vacancies are adequately promoted to ensure their accessibility to such candidates?

Jackson Carlaw

The Scottish Parliamentary Corporate Body began reporting on its ethnicity pay gap in 2018-19. The median ethnicity pay gap for 2022-23 stood at 20.1 per cent—I think that that is a more up-to-date figure than the one that Carol Mochan has. That was down from 30.1 per cent in the previous year. In large part, that reduction has been achieved through concerted positive action in our recruitment approach, which has successfully increased the proportion of applications from, and successful appointment of, people who identify as being minority ethnic. We have also reviewed our pay arrangements to ensure that they are transparent, equitable, consistent, flexible and fair.

Crèche Access

To ask the Scottish Parliamentary Corporate Body whether it will provide an update on its plans to increase access to childcare in the crèche beyond three hours per day. (S6O-03253)

Claire Baker (Scottish Parliamentary Corporate Body)

After considerable engagement with the Care Inspectorate and our service provider, My Ohana, we successfully achieved a variation to our registration in December last year. That increased the hours from four hours a week to three hours a day, which more than doubled the hours of childcare that can be provided. Alternatively, four hours can be taken in a single session if that is the only visit in a week.

Since then, we have considered further improving access to the crèche with outdoor space, so that children would have free-flowing access to an outdoor space. That might give us more flexibility with the Care Inspectorate.

However, to be clear, the Parliament was designed with a crèche; a nursery has very different requirements that our facilities cannot meet. We want to deliver the best facilities for children that we can, and we want to meet the most up-to-date guidance and criteria.

Kate Forbes

I record my immense thanks to the SPCB, the Care Inspectorate and the parliamentary authorities for pursuing the issue, and especially for getting, in such a timely manner, the change that Claire Baker has outlined. I know that a huge amount of work went into that, and I am enormously grateful.

I think that, since I previously asked the question, there have been two reports of MSPs having children this summer—other members might be able to correct me on that. They, too, will need childcare when it comes to their return to work. I am sure that the SPCB will agree that MSPs work more than three hours a day. It is therefore quite likely that there will continue to be demand for a facility that delivers what parents need in the Parliament, rather than a facility that is based on guidance that does not really meet need.

Claire Baker

I appreciate Kate Forbes’s welcome for the work, which has improved our offer, that has been done by the corporate body and the Care Inspectorate.

We recognise that members have a particular challenge with childcare. They need care in Edinburgh and in their constituencies, and the crèche is a service that can offer some support. However, as I said, Parliament was designed to include a crèche for occasional use and, unfortunately, it is not possible to convert that facility into a nursery that would meet the Care Inspectorate’s requirements.

The Parliament is trying to be more family friendly. Our on-going investment in remote working for MSPs provides members with some flexibility in managing their caring responsibilities, and we are continuing to speak to the Scottish Government about the nursery at Victoria Quay. We recognise that late business can have an impact and that unpredictable hours can be difficult for parents and members with caring responsibilities, and we have made representations to the Parliamentary Bureau regarding that.

Badge and Apparel Policies

To ask the Scottish Parliamentary Corporate Body how many visitors to the Scottish Parliament have been asked by security and other SPCB staff to remove badges and other apparel since May 2021. (S6O-03259)

Claire Baker (Scottish Parliamentary Corporate Body)

We do not hold data on the number of visitors whose items were retained; we hold data only on the items’ details.

Since the Parliament reopened to the public in March 2022, security staff have retained at the main public entrance 26 items that meet the criteria that apply in the member’s question, including five badges. The reasons for the retention of those items are not held.

Tess White

From badges to suffrage colours, it seems that parliamentary staff are, with growing frequency, subjectively enforcing the visitor code of conduct. It has become the case that there is a rule for some but not for others. In the seat of Scottish democracy, policies of so-called inclusion are leading to exclusion of women, which is a worrying and dangerous precedent. That is unacceptable, and it must not continue.

Will the Scottish Parliamentary Corporate Body commit to reviewing not just the Scottish Parliament’s visitor behaviour policy, but all guidance and policies in relation to banners, flags and political slogans, in order to ensure that there is clarity, fairness and public participation?

Claire Baker

The corporate body has commissioned a review of the protest policy, which will include looking at items and dress. I recognise the need for policy to be consistent and to provide clarity.

Corporate body staff must conduct themselves in an impartial manner. In an update to that policy, whereas until recently corporate body staff were allowed to wear personalised lanyards—that provision was introduced in 2017 as part of the diversity and inclusion strategy—a review of the code of conduct has just been completed, and the decision has been taken that all staff who are employed by the corporate body must wear the Parliament-issued purple lanyard. That decision will help to minimise the risk of perceived bias and will avoid any perception that wearing of such items might influence our decision making.

Events (Scheduling)

To ask the Scottish Parliamentary Corporate Body whether it will give further consideration to allowing events to start in the Parliament building while members’ business debates are on-going. (S6O-03258)

Christine Grahame (Scottish Parliamentary Corporate Body)

As my written answer to the member’s question in November said,

“To enable all Members to take part in events and recognising that parliamentary business needs to take precedence, events do not take place at the same time as parliamentary business in the chamber.

However ... when business runs late, parliamentary officials will”—

when appropriate—

“work with the event organisers to ensure refreshments are served to event guests and they can go to the room where the event is taking place and meet with Members, where possible ... speeches should only take place once parliamentary business is concluded so all Members have the opportunity to hear them.

This pragmatic approach appears to be working but we continually keep this under review.”—[Written Answers, 23 November 2023; S6O-02790.]

Graham Simpson

I got a written response because, at the time, I was not able to ask my question verbally.

I am asking for a review of the policy. I did not want to know what the policy is—I know what it is. People look forward to visiting this Parliament and they can go to a lot of time and expense in order to be here, so I think that we should do better by them.

Some events have had to be cancelled. The worst example is one that was sponsored, I think, by Michael Marra, on colleges, which was cancelled when people were on their way to the Parliament. People are kept waiting in the lobby, and events have to be curtailed.

I plead with the corporate body to have a review of the current policy, which seems to be devoid of any common sense.

Christine Grahame

As the member will appreciate, late sittings are a matter not for the corporate body but for the Parliamentary Bureau, over which we have no control.

I will provide some context. Between January and June 2023, six events were cancelled due to the Parliament sitting late. However, from September 2023 until this week, only one event had to be cancelled—that was this week. That is a total of seven out of 324 events. Of the seven events that have been cancelled since January 2023, three have been rescheduled. We always try to give priority to events that we have had to reschedule.

However, I hear what the member says. I am sure that the corporate body will consider whether improvements can be made.

Accessibility Options

7. Karen Adam (Banffshire and Buchan Coast) (SNP)

To ask the Scottish Parliamentary Corporate Body whether it will look into rolling out accessibility options, such as British Sign Language and easy-read, as standard across all forms of public participation. (S6O-03254)

Maggie Chapman (Scottish Parliamentary Corporate Body)

When planning what participation support is needed for parliamentary activities, including committees, staff generally recommend a targeted approach that is based on the audiences that have been identified as priority groups for each piece of work, taking into account the barriers to their participation.

Accessibility options that are relevant to the audience are developed with partners. For example, information as part of the inquiry into healthcare in remote and rural areas was developed in easy-read, as we knew that adults with learning disabilities would face additional barriers. Work planned for the Disability Commissioner (Scotland) Bill will include providing BSL and easy-read versions of the call for views. Lastly, Karen Adam will be interested to know that a public consultation for our new BSL plan, due to run from 2024 to 2030, is scheduled to take place this summer. It will involve the use of citizen space and will be made fully BSL accessible.

Karen Adam

I am delighted by the member’s answer. I am particularly proud that the Equalities, Human Rights and Civil Justice Committee, which I convene, will be the first committee in the history of the Scottish Parliament to trial the use of WhatsApp to allow BSL users to respond to our call for views on Jeremy Balfour’s Disability Commissioner (Scotland) Bill. We also ensured that easy-read and other accessible versions of our call for views were ready at the time of launch in order to ensure parity. Will the SPCB join me in encouraging other committees and the Scottish Parliament more widely to promote equality and inclusion by adopting those practices?

Maggie Chapman

The WhatsApp trial will provide really good experience on how to receive evidence by video. We hope that that will be of use not only to our BSL communities but to others, too. Of course, it is not for the corporate body to dictate to committees how to do their business, but, if the pilot works, other committees might wish to use that method. The Conveners Group can perhaps discuss the issue. We want to make sure that we promote different practices and alternative ways of widening participation.

Jamie Greene (West Scotland) (Con)

Given that it is British Sign Language week, I find that response slightly disappointing, as I am sure many BSL users will. It is not for us or the corporate body to make editorial decisions about what committee business BSL users might or might not be interested in. Surely, in this modern day and age, we could make better use of technology to ensure wider participation in parliamentary activities.

Maggie Chapman

We recognise that people who have accessibility requirements are interested in many issues, as the member outlines, not just those that are specifically linked to their access needs. By focusing on the removal of barriers, we think that we have the balance of interests right between improving access and limiting the cost to the public purse and so on. The Citizen Participation and Public Petitions Committee’s recent report welcomed our work to develop systematic and cost-effective approaches to the use of different languages and formats in order to increase the accessibility of our consultation and participation work. Of course, we are always eager to do more and would welcome further conversations with the member on any ideas and suggestions that he might have.

Michael “Mick” McGahey Memorial

To ask the Scottish Parliamentary Corporate Body what consideration it is giving to the establishment of a permanent memorial to Michael “Mick” McGahey in the Parliament. (S6O-03214)

Christine Grahame (Scottish Parliamentary Corporate Body)

We are due to consider the request that the member has made to the SPCB at our next meeting, on Thursday 18 April, and we will update him as soon as we can. The SPCB noted the support that was expressed during the recent members’ business debate and will take that into consideration.

Richard Leonard

The National Union of Mineworkers, the McGahey family, Green MSPs, Labour MSPs, Liberal MSPs, Scottish National Party Government ministers, journalists past and present and, just this week, the Scottish Trades Union Congress all support a memorial, so will the corporate body meet with the NUM, the family and me to work out how a fitting legacy to this working-class hero can be delivered in time for the centenary of his birth next year?

Christine Grahame

That is a very kind invitation, but it is not the practice of the corporate body to meet any individuals. We will discuss the point that has been made at our meeting. Such decisions are not taken based on a blank canvas. The SPCB has a number of relevant policies, including the memorial policy and the Scottish Parliament’s art collection development policy, which we will take into account when we come to a decision on whether to establish a memorial to Mick McGahey.

John Swinney (Perthshire North) (SNP)

On the topic of permanent memorials, one of my constituents, who actually approached me 27 years ago in one of my first constituency cases, was affected by the contaminated blood scandal, and he is keen to establish some form of memorial in the Parliament to recognise those who lost their lives in that scandal. As the United Kingdom inquiry is expected to report shortly, will the SPCB consider whether the Parliament might be a suitable venue for a memorial to those who lost their lives in the contaminated blood scandal?

Christine Grahame

I duplicate my answer to Mr Leonard: if the member makes an application to the corporate body, we will consider it, against the backcloth of the memorial policy, the Parliament’s art collection development policy and other representations.

Information Technology Process Changes

9. Ivan McKee (Glasgow Provan) (SNP)

To ask the Scottish Parliamentary Corporate Body what systems are in place to ensure that changes to IT processes in the Parliament, that will impact on the daily working practices of MSPs and their staff, are consulted upon, tested, introduced, explained and evaluated. (S6O-03256)

Maggie Chapman (Scottish Parliamentary Corporate Body)

When projects will change the way in which members and their staff work, officials will build in opportunities for consultation and feedback and will often roll out the change to a smaller pilot group in order to gather feedback, tweak implementation and prepare appropriate training and communications.

There are times when it is necessary to introduce certain changes at short notice—for example, to protect against emerging cybersecurity threats. The corporate body is keen to hear from members if and when they feel that we, collectively, can do better to keep them and their staff informed of any changes or developments.

Ivan McKee

My question is prompted by the introduction of system changes—for example, the recent quarantine system, which has added another layer of complexity; made it more difficult to find, and, in some cases, easier to lose track of, important communications from constituents; and added to the workload of MSP staff. Prior to that, there was the introduction of the new reimbursement system, which was, in its early stages, cumbersome and difficult to operate.

To what extent does the corporate body feel empowered to push back on the business information technology department in that regard? It might bring forward new whizz-bang systems to introduce, but the implications of those systems on workload—and whether they are, in fact, necessary at all—might not have been thought through and checked with MSPs and staff.

Maggie Chapman

Mr McKee highlights an interesting issue, which might have come as a bit of a surprise to some in the chamber. In the main, the corporate body accesses software and cloud services, including the Microsoft 365 applications for our email system and other office functions, on a subscription basis. Microsoft makes modifications and updates, which are available immediately to users, to enhance functions or address cybervulnerabilities. Quarantine is one such update; it was introduced to protect users from potentially harmful emails, such as phishing or malware.

BIT recently introduced the new alerting system to let members know when email messages have been placed in quarantine; I think that that is the change to which Mr McKee referred. The notification system was introduced by BIT because it would otherwise not be automatically obvious to users that messages had been quarantined. That was in response to something that Microsoft had done behind the scenes.

With regard to the updating of the allowances system, members and staff were offered a range of training options during the roll-out of the system, with step-by-step instructions available on the intranet. The allowances office and other parts of the parliamentary estate continue to provide support and advice to members.

Of course, we always welcome feedback and challenge, and we push back when members or their staff think that something will not work. Those views will be taken into consideration.

Alcohol-free Beverages

To ask the Scottish Parliamentary Corporate Body whether it will consider stocking alcohol-free variants of spirits, wine and other alcoholic beverages in the Scottish Parliament gift shop. (S6O-03257)

Christine Grahame (Scottish Parliamentary Corporate Body)

I agree that it would be good for the shop to stock alcohol-free options. Our retail manager regularly checks the market for such products, and did so most recently at the start of this year. Unfortunately, we have so far been unable to find a product that could be branded and would meet our requirements for low-minimum-quantity ordering. We will keep checking, however, and update the member if we are successful.

Jackie Dunbar

Many people now do not drink alcohol, for all sorts of reasons, including health and religion—not that anyone ever needs a reason. A recent survey suggested that 44 per cent of 18 to 24-year-olds now regularly or occasionally drink alcohol alternatives. Alcohol alternatives mean that people do not now need to drink alcohol to be able to enjoy the taste of some of our nation’s most famous drinks. What more can be done to encourage producers and suppliers to the Parliament to offer alcohol-free alternatives, thereby allowing our Parliament to move with the times and stock a more inclusive range of gifts?

Christine Grahame

I advise the member that the difficulty is that branded items—from tartan scarves to malt whisky—that are designed for us and available nowhere else remain popular with customers. We know that our alcohol products are popular because of the Parliament’s branding and uniqueness. Our whisky range is currently supplied under contract by the Own Label Company, which is based in Edinburgh. Unfortunately, it does not yet have alcohol-free drinks in its product portfolio, but we continue to investigate the matter.

Parliament Campus Safety

11. Jamie Greene (West Scotland) (Con)

To ask the Scottish Parliamentary Corporate Body what steps it is considering to ensure the safety of the public, MSPs and staff entering or exiting the Scottish Parliament campus, in light of a number of recent events of concern. (S6O-03249)

Claire Baker (Scottish Parliamentary Corporate Body)

The corporate body takes its security and safety responsibilities very seriously. A wide range of physical and personal security arrangements are in place to ensure the safety of everyone who visits or works in the building. The security arrangements reflect a heightened response. That is the required stance for the United Kingdom threat level, which is presently set at substantial. There have been recent incidents, but the threat and subsequent response levels have not changed since February 2022.

Jamie Greene

Despite all of that, in recent weeks, we have seen a spate of attempts to disrupt democracy in the Parliament. There has been interference from the gallery during First Minister’s question time; members of the public have been harassed or even prevented from entering the building during protests; members, as well as our staff, have been accosted by protesters upon exiting various points of the building; and, of course, the building’s exterior was daubed in red paint just last week, although some people might say that that was an improvement. In the current febrile political environment, that is more than unacceptable; it could be dangerous.

Has there been any investigation into those specific protests? Were any of them facilitated or aided by any MSP or MSP group? Why is the Parliament’s exterior security clearly failing to keep us all—the building, our staff and the public—safe?

Claire Baker

Jamie Greene has raised a number of points. With regard to protests outside the building, we welcome peaceful protests, but I recognise that some recent incidents have been a cause for concern. The management of protests and the safety of the public are matters for Police Scotland. Although we work closely with Police Scotland, it is responsible for public safety.

However, I can confirm that a review of the protest that took place last month—which will consider its impact and lessons learned—was immediately commissioned by the security team and is under way. I also confirm that we are looking into allegations that, by sharing information, passholders helped protesters to block entrances.

Stephen Kerr will ask question 12.

Protests (Investigations)

12. Stephen Kerr (Central Scotland) (Con)

I was going to come in with a supplementary question in order to be helpful.

To ask the Scottish Parliamentary Corporate Body what steps it will take to ensure that any protests and demonstrations that disrupt the ability of MSPs, staff and the public to access the Scottish Parliament are fully investigated, with any findings and lessons learned available to MSPs. (S6O-03250)

Claire Baker (Scottish Parliamentary Corporate Body)

As I said, we welcome peaceful protests outside the building. We recognise that there have been recent incidents, and a review of the protest, its impact and lessons learned is under way. The safety of the public outside the building is a matter for Police Scotland. We are assured that the security office is making progress on the review. If any recommendations require corporate body approval, we will consider the findings in due course, and we will notify members of any approved recommendations.

Stephen Kerr

I heard the answer that was just given and the previous answers. It is clearly unacceptable for any group or individual to attempt to disrupt the workings of the Parliament or bar people from entering or leaving the building, but we have had a number of incidents, as Jamie Greene described. It is clearly intolerable that some of those activities were aided and abetted by members of this Parliament. That happened, and we all know that it happened, because it has been boasted about on social media. When the findings of the reports that were described become available, can information on any breach of the MSP code of conduct be published and made available to members? As is now established in precedent, will the corporate body make any reports that relate to MSP complicity in such activities subject to referral to the Standards, Procedures and Public Appointments Committee of this Parliament?

I assume that the member is aware of the mechanism for reporting any concerns about MSPs’ behaviour, which would not be a matter for the corporate body. As I said—

It is.

Claire Baker

It is not a matter for the corporate body. As I said earlier, we are looking into allegations that passholders helped protesters to block entrances by sharing information, but, at this point in time, those are allegations.

That concludes Scottish Parliamentary Corporate Body question time. There will be a brief pause before the next item of business to allow members on the front benches to change over.