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Meeting of the Parliament

Meeting date: Thursday, November 23, 2023


Scottish Parliamentary Corporate Body Question Time

The Deputy Presiding Officer (Liam McArthur)

The next item of business is Scottish Parliamentary Corporate Body question time. I recommend brief questions and responses, wherever possible. Anyone looking to ask a supplementary question should press their request-to-speak button during the relevant question.

Fairtrade Products

To ask the Scottish Parliamentary Corporate Body under what circumstances Fairtrade products are used in catering in the Scottish Parliament. (S6O-02785)

Claire Baker (Scottish Parliamentary Corporate Body)

It is incumbent on our catering services provider, Sodexo, to source and use Fairtrade products whenever possible as part of the delivery of the catering service in the Scottish Parliament. The Scottish Parliament serves a wide range of Fairtrade products, including fresh fruit, coffee, hot chocolate and a range of tea and fruit and herbal teas.

Colin Smyth

A member of the cross-party group on fair trade raised with me, in my capacity as convener of the group, that non-Fairtrade coffee was being served at a recent parliamentary reception. I am keen to know on what occasions and why the decision would be taken to serve a non-Fairtrade product when a Fairtrade option was available, which is the norm in the Parliament. Will the SPCB consider publishing the level of Fairtrade spend in the Parliament?

Claire Baker

I thank the member for raising that issue. Fairtrade tea, coffee and sugar sachets are served where possible. I know that, recently, due to a supply chain issue, an alternative had to be sourced.

The team will continue to work with the supplier to ensure that the sachet options are Fairtrade, which should be standard. The coffee that is served in flasks is always Fairtrade.

We can look at disaggregating the spend. I think that we spend around £25,000 on Fairtrade products, which is about 5 per cent of our total spend at the moment. I can write to the member with a fuller response.

Exhibition Spaces

To ask the Scottish Parliamentary Corporate Body whether it will consider having a third exhibition area, in light of there being considerable demand for such spaces. (S6O-02784)

Christine Grahame (Scottish Parliamentary Corporate Body)

Apart from the two existing spaces, there are currently no other suitable spaces in the busy parliamentary campus or available resources to support an additional member-sponsored exhibition space. However, the SPCB is sympathetic to the issue and we are happy to explore it as part of future work on the use of the building.

Although there is a lot of demand for member-sponsored exhibitions, most can be accommodated within the current arrangements. When that is not possible, parliamentary officials will always seek to offer an alternative date to accommodate the exhibition or, where appropriate, offer organisers a member-sponsored event instead.

John Mason

I have to slightly disagree with the member and suggest that there are other places where we could have an exhibition. Near the pass office, there is quite a lot of space in the garden lobby. I would be happy to discuss other options with her because, just the other night, we were at the Scottish Gypsy/Traveller community cross-party group, which has been able to book a space, but not until next October.

Christine Grahame

It is not simply a matter of space; it is to do with resources, the equipment that is required, the staffing and so on.

As I said, the SPCB is sympathetic to the issue, and we will see whether another space can be found as we explore future work on the use of the building, especially as the use of the building has changed following the Covid pandemic.

Staff Cost Provision Uprating

To ask the Scottish Parliamentary Corporate Body how the staff cost provision uprating for 2024-25 will be calculated. (S6O-02795)

Jackson Carlaw (Scottish Parliamentary Corporate Body)

We know that Christmas is coming, because this question always precedes it. I can say to Jackie Baillie that, as part of the annual budget cycle, the SPCB considers the indexation of all provisions, including staff cost provision. The index to be applied is a matter for SPCB judgment rather than automatic application, and it will, of course, be confirmed when the SPCB submits its budget for consideration to the Finance and Public Administration Committee in the coming weeks.

Jackie Baillie

And here was me thinking that Jackson Carlaw was auditioning to be Santa, but I fear that he might disappoint me. I point out to him that the SPCB has used a figure of 6.7 per cent for average weekly earnings and 6.2 per cent for the annual survey for hours and earnings. However, data published last week shows that the annualised increase in AWE from October to September this year was, in fact, 7.5 per cent. I encourage Jackson Carlaw and the SPCB to use the most recent figure to uprate the staff cost provision to ensure that staff receive the uplift that they deserve, and that he gets the title of the best Santa ever.

Jackson Carlaw

Well, if I am Santa, Jackie Baillie can be one of the elves, and I am happy to support her application in that regard.

I take note of what Jackie Baillie says. The corporate body considers the various indices at a point in time. I am not sure that I recognise the figure that she has quoted, but we applied AWE to the staff cost provision last year, and we thought that that was an admirable decision.

Staff Recruitment

To ask the Scottish Parliamentary Corporate Body what difficulties there are, if any, in recruiting staff for jobs in the Scottish Parliament. (S6O-02781)

Jackson Carlaw (Scottish Parliamentary Corporate Body)

The corporate body is proud of its ability to attract and retain talented staff from a wide range of backgrounds, despite on-going challenges, with which we are all familiar, in the recruitment market, and with vacancies for some roles outstripping the number of people who are actively looking for work.

The corporate body continues to be successful in attracting people with the right skills and experience for our roles. The SPCB takes a strategic approach to recruitment. We assess the market constantly, including benchmarking salaries, and we engage with candidates at all stages of the recruitment process to learn about how we can improve. Our competitive salaries and benefits, including flexible and hybrid working arrangements, are attractive for jobseekers, which means that we continue to be successful in attracting high-quality candidates for our vacancies.

Kevin Stewart

I thank all the hard-working staff who keep the place going and look after us so well.

It seems that, in recent times, there have been a number of vacancies in security and catering in particular. What is the corporate body doing to ensure that we have good—the best—pay and conditions in place for our staff? Have shift pattern changes had an impact on recruiting and retaining staff?

Jackson Carlaw

The corporate body puts fair work at the centre of its approach to employment, and staff survey results show that our staff consistently respond positively regarding the employment package that we offer. We take a number of approaches to ensure that that is the case. Salaries are regularly benchmarked with comparator employers to ensure that they are fair and competitive and attract candidates with the right skills and experience. We also have a no compulsory redundancy guarantee in place until the end of this parliamentary session, which gives staff security and reflects the organisational values of inclusiveness and respect by ensuring that SPCB staff feel safe to be themselves at work.

I am not aware that shift working has created any particular difficulty. The one area in which we have found an exception to our ability to recruit has been in the appointment of senior software developers. However, we have reviewed our recruitment approach for those particular vacancies and are confident that we are well placed to advertise the roles again, with the expectation that we will be successful this time.

Crèche (Restriction on Hours)

To ask the Scottish Parliamentary Corporate Body whether it will provide an update on its work to ensure that the crèche facility can offer more than four hours per week per child. (S6O-02747)

Claire Baker (Scottish Parliamentary Corporate Body)

We are working hard to find a solution. The main reason for the current four hours per week restriction is the lack of access to an adequate outdoor space. The facilities management office met the Care Inspectorate and our crèche provider on Tuesday 7 November to look at options for creating a new outdoor space that would allow the current restrictions to be eased. An initial feasibility report has been drafted by our property services consultant, and outline design work is now under way. Once the design work has been completed, further work will take place in relation to timescales, budget and liaison with the Care Inspectorate.

Kate Forbes

Of course, the facility has not changed; only the limits that have been imposed on it have changed.

Last term, at least four MSPs who were also mothers stepped down from Parliament, with some citing the impossibility of balancing childcare and political office. That figure is guaranteed to increase unless the ridiculous and unnecessary limit of four hours per week per child is resolved. If it is not resolved, that will, ultimately, mean less representation in Parliament of working parents in Scotland. Does the SPCB understand the urgency of the matter and will it work tirelessly to resolve it?

Claire Baker

I appreciate how challenging it can be to combine the role of an MSP with caring responsibilities. I was a user of the crèche when I was first elected and my daughter was one year old, so I recognise how important it is for MSPs to get that level of support.

We are working hard to find a solution, in the first instance, to get us back up to the four hours a day provision that we had before, but it is the Care Inspectorate that is putting those restrictions on us.

With regard to our longer-term ambition, we are having discussions with the Scottish Government that might enable us to use its nursery. As I said, we have set out a design consultancy process and we will look at all the options that are available to us.

Stephen Kerr (Central Scotland) (Con)

I support the efforts that Kate Forbes and Meghan Gallacher are making to have the hours of the crèche facility extended. However, I have grave concerns, which I hope that Claire Baker can address, about security in relation to children in this building. I was baffled, and greatly concerned, that a member of the SPCB, Maggie Chapman, encouraged, endorsed and applauded an illegal protest on the roof of this very building. That is totally unsatisfactory from a member of the SPCB. Can she give me assurances in that regard?

I do not think that that is relevant to the original question. We will move on to question 6.

Michael Matheson (Use of Parliamentary Device Abroad)

To ask the Scottish Parliamentary Corporate Body when SPCB staff were notified by Michael Matheson of his holiday to Morocco and intention to take a parliamentary device abroad. (S6O-02796)

Claire Baker (Scottish Parliamentary Corporate Body)

Mr Matheson did not notify the Parliament’s information technology team about his intention to take his device abroad. As the member himself has confirmed to the chamber, he contacted the Parliament’s IT team on 28 December, from Morocco, seeking assistance with a parliamentary device.

Edward Mountain

Obviously, some arrangement has been made to allow Michael Matheson to pay only £3,000 from his office expenses to offset the £11,000 bill. Will the member confirm when Michael Matheson first offered to pay a contribution, who set the amount and on what basis it was set?

Claire Baker

As the member will know, the SPCB has today issued a statement that was circulated to all members of the Scottish Parliament. This morning, the corporate body determined that it would undertake an investigation in line with its duties under the MSP code of conduct.

The investigation will consider whether the claims for £11,000 of public money, incurred through data roaming charges, were proper and met the requirements of the scheme and whether resources were used for parliamentary purposes in accordance with all corporate body policies.

We will seek to conclude our investigations promptly, and our findings will be published. Depending on those findings, a number of options might be open to the corporate body, as set out in section 9 of the code of conduct, including referral to the Parliament’s Standards, Procedures and Public Appointments Committee.

I am sure that Edward Mountain will appreciate that, in the interests of fairness to all, and to avoid prejudicing our investigation, the corporate body will, as of now, not comment on any matters that could have a bearing on the process. It is important to stress, however, that the corporate body remains wholly committed to openness and transparency and will release all material that it can, when it can, in line with our legal obligations.

Jackie Baillie (Dumbarton) (Lab)

I am grateful to the member for the information that has been given, but I would be grateful if the corporate body could give an idea of the timescale for its investigation into Michael Matheson’s inappropriate use of expenses. I note that the statement says that it will be done “promptly”, but what does that mean?

Claire Baker

I am sure that Jackie Baillie will appreciate that the investigation was announced only this morning. However, the corporate body recognises members’ interest. We will undertake the work as promptly as we can, and we will respond. I am afraid that, this afternoon, I cannot give a proper timescale for that. We want to make sure that it is a fair and transparent process, and we will undertake the investigation in those terms. I refer the member to my earlier statement.

Douglas Ross (Highlands and Islands) (Con)

I believe that, after First Minister’s question time this afternoon, in response to the announcement of the investigation, the First Minister’s official spokesperson confirmed that Humza Yousaf will co-operate fully with the corporate body’s investigation. Will the member confirm that all interested parties, including the Cabinet Secretary for NHS Recovery, Health and Social Care, will be interviewed as part of the process and that such interviews will feed into the investigation that has now been launched?

As the member would expect, this will be a fair and due process. The member who is involved in the investigation would be able to provide us with further written representation if he wished to do so.

Michael Matheson (Office Expenses)

7. Alexander Burnett (Aberdeenshire West) (Con)

To ask the Scottish Parliamentary Corporate Body what its position is on whether the £3,000 used from Michael Matheson’s office expenses for roaming charges constituted value for money, as required of all expense claims under the reimbursement of members’ expenses scheme. (S6O-02788)

Claire Baker (Scottish Parliamentary Corporate Body)

As I have said, the investigation that we are undertaking will consider whether the claims for £11,000 of public money, incurred through data roaming charges, were proper and met the requirements of the scheme and whether resources were used for parliamentary purposes in accordance with all SPCB policies.

Alexander Burnett

My supplementary question relates to the management of the Parliament’s website, not the investigation itself.

Michael Matheson’s roaming charges bill, which was partially paid for out of parliamentary expenses, was more than double the value of the rest of the MSP mobile phone bill claims combined. That clearly cannot represent value for money for the taxpayer, and the expenses claim has now been deleted from the Parliament’s website. Was the expenses claim removed from the Parliament’s website because it blatantly did not comply with the requirement that expenses claims must represent value for money?

As the member will know, Michael Matheson recently paid the £11,000 back to Parliament, and the expenses database has been updated to reflect that.

That concludes SPCB question time. Before we move to the next item of business, there will be a brief pause to allow for a change of front-bench members.