Section 2A — Transfer to certain bodies of functions of Waterwatch Scotland

Public Services Reform (Scotland) Bill: Stage 3 – in the Scottish Parliament at 9:00 am on 25th March 2010.

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Photo of Alex Fergusson Alex Fergusson None 9:00 am, 25th March 2010

Group 1 is on regulation of the water industry. Amendment 1, in the name of Patrick Harvie, is grouped with amendments 4, 79 to 81, 5, 84, 85, 91, 2, 3 and 92.

Photo of Tricia Marwick Tricia Marwick Scottish National Party

On a point of order, Presiding Officer. There are no printed copies of the marshalled list or groupings of amendments at the back of the chamber for the benefit of members. Can somebody look into that?

Photo of Alex Fergusson Alex Fergusson None

There should be. We will put that right as soon as possible, if that is the case. I call Patrick Harvie.

Photo of Patrick Harvie Patrick Harvie Green

Presiding Officer, I cannot tell you how pleased I am to be the first member to speak in the stage 3 debate on this mess of a bill—at least I could tell you, but we have rules against the kind of language that I would use.

My amendments deal with one organisation that the Government wants to change, but they also speak more widely to the bill as a whole. Stage 2 amendments transferred

"Waterwatch Scotland's customer representation and complaints handling roles to Consumer Focus Scotland and the Scottish Public Services Ombudsman ... to allow for the transfer of staff to either body and to require those bodies together with the Water Industry Commission for Scotland, to form co-operation agreements."

My amendments propose to reverse those amendments.

The Cabinet Secretary for Finance and Sustainable Growth may well make the case in favour of the amendments that he proposed and persuaded the Finance Committee to accept at stage 2—indeed, surely he will make that case— on the basis of the better functioning of arrangements or lower costs, but there is also a case against. As we have heard, the present complaints handling function is working well. Complaints are down by around 75 per cent and the arrangements, which allow one body to cover both the public and private sectors and are funded by a levy on the industry, have genuine benefits. The current arrangements do not cost a lot. Indeed, Waterwatch has identified savings that could be made if it was allowed to retain its current powers. In short, there is a case against, and it boils down to if it ain't broke, don't fix it.

I lodged my amendments not because I am utterly persuaded of either case—for or against change—but because the first that I knew of the changes, as the convener of the Transport, Infrastructure and Climate Change Committee, which scrutinises water industry bodies in Scotland, was after stage 2, by which time the amendments had been made. If the Scottish Government wishes to inspire people with confidence that any order-making powers that the bill creates will be used responsibly and that consultation will be meaningful and in advance to give everyone the chance to make their view heard, that was not the way to go about things.

My committee takes evidence regularly from Waterwatch and other water industry bodies, after which we follow up by taking evidence from ministers. At no point did the cabinet secretary or ministers say, "By the way, I am thinking about abolishing this body. What does the committee think?" The Government should have sought our views in that way. That would have been the responsible way to go about making this change and perhaps would have inspired confidence among members that any order-making power will be used responsibly and consistent with the principles of transparency and accountability that members will no doubt debate later. That is my objection to the stage 2 amendments, and it is why I am seeking to reverse them.

I move amendment 1.

Photo of John Swinney John Swinney Scottish National Party

I turn first to the Government amendments. Amendments 79 to 81 are technical amendments. They amend the Scottish Public Services Ombudsman Act 2002 to ensure that the ombudsman can handle complaints from customers against licensed providers. Amendment 92 is a consequential amendment that was omitted at stage 2. It removes the convener of the water customer consultation panels and the panels themselves from schedule 3 to give consistency with the current text of the bill.

I turn to Patrick Harvie's and Derek Brownlee's amendments. Patrick Harvie raised concerns about the lack of Parliament scrutiny of the Waterwatch proposals. I welcome the opportunity that he has given the Parliament to discuss the matter. Waterwatch has two functions: to consider complaints about Scottish Water and to represent the views of water customers. It is a small organisation that employs seven staff, and although it has performed its functions well, as a small organisation it has disproportionate overheads and limited access to specialist advice.

Photo of Jeremy Purvis Jeremy Purvis Liberal Democrat

For clarification, can the cabinet secretary confirm that the ombudsman will now be involved in contractual disputes with Scottish Water, Scottish Water Solutions and subcontractors?

Photo of John Swinney John Swinney Scottish National Party

As I have set out, the ombudsman will be able to take forward the functions of Waterwatch.

The provisions in the bill will transfer Waterwatch's complaints handling function to the Scottish Public Services Ombudsman and its representative role to Consumer Focus Scotland, both of which are significantly larger bodies than Waterwatch and operate across a wide range of sectors.

Photo of John Swinney John Swinney Scottish National Party

No. I have to make progress.

The transfer will create a number of benefits for consumers. It will simplify access by moving towards a one-stop shop for consumer complaints handling and representation. It will allow the Scottish Public Services Ombudsman and Consumer Focus Scotland to bring to bear the expertise and experience that they have built up in related fields and will ensure that the lessons that are learned from complaints handling and customer representation in any service can lead to improvement across all services. The proposals will also save money. The Parliament has now seen the updated financial memorandum. The transfer of Waterwatch's functions to the Scottish Public Services Ombudsman and Consumer Focus Scotland will save water customers £300,000 a year—more than a third of Waterwatch's budget. In light of my comments, I hope that Patrick Harvie will agree not to press amendment 1 and not to move his other amendments in the group.

Derek Brownlee's amendment 91 proposes that the transfer of Waterwatch's functions should not occur until one year after royal assent is received. I am perfectly happy to support that. It will ensure that there is sufficient time for careful transition planning, thereby ensuring an uninterrupted service for consumers and allowing time for Mr Harvie's committee to consider the issue and report on it. Mr Brownlee's amendments 84 and 85 would introduce either affirmative or negative procedure into the process for commencement of the Waterwatch provisions, which would be a highly unorthodox process for commencement. Of greater concern is the uncertainty that those amendments would create for Waterwatch, particularly when combined with his amendment 91 to delay commencement for a year. In effect, Waterwatch as an organisation and its staff would be left in limbo, unsure of what the future would be. That would be hugely unsettling and would be likely to result in poor staff morale and lower service to customers. In short, Mr Brownlee's approach is not the correct one. On that basis, I invite him not to move amendments 84 and 85.

The purpose of the Government simplification programme is to declutter the public bodies landscape in Scotland to improve the quality and efficiency of the services that are provided to the people of Scotland. In the current financial climate, we must explore every avenue of public service reform that will improve services and reduce cost. The transfer of Waterwatch's functions to the Scottish Public Services Ombudsman and Consumer Focus Scotland achieves both. I commend it to Parliament.

Photo of Derek Brownlee Derek Brownlee Conservative

I am perhaps not quoting Patrick Harvie directly, but he suggested, if I picked him up correctly, that the issue is finely balanced, which is what the Review of SPCB Supported Bodies Committee and the Finance Committee found. On the general issue of Waterwatch, there are questions about whether what is proposed is a meaningful simplification. The sums of money involved are relatively small. I appreciate, though, that that does not take away the need to consider savings.

The cabinet secretary said that my amendments are unorthodox. They may be, but I still believe them to be competent. Delaying commencement until 12 months after royal assent is received would effectively move the issue into the next session. I think that we all accept that there is a significant possibility that Scottish Water, as an entity, will not be in the same position in the next session. At that point, we may take a different view on the appropriate regime for complaints handling. Amendment 91 would allow Parliament to reconsider the issue in the next session of Parliament.

Patrick Harvie's concerns in relation to the Transport, Infrastructure and Climate Change committee are fair. Malcolm Chisholm has made the same point in connection with other provisions in the bill. The issue comes down to the fact that, rather unusually, the Finance Committee was the lead committee for the bill. However, that reflects the fact that the bill is a rag-tag of various issues rather than a coherent whole. I intend to press amendments 84 and 91, and encourage members to support them.

Photo of Alex Fergusson Alex Fergusson None

Four members wish to speak in the open debate. I can give them no more than two minutes each.

Photo of Jackie Baillie Jackie Baillie Labour

I speak in support of amendments 1 to 5, in the name of Patrick Harvie, which seek to reverse the amendments made by the cabinet secretary at stage 2 and keep Waterwatch Scotland intact. It is worth recalling the context of our discussion on Waterwatch. Members will be aware of the work of the Review of SPCB Supported Bodies Committee, which was ably led by the Deputy Presiding Officer Trish Godman. The committee reported in May 2009 after spending some time considering a range of bodies and their value and governance arrangements. Of course, Waterwatch was included in that. The committee concluded that

"Waterwatch should not be transferred as proposed."

Photo of Jackie Baillie Jackie Baillie Labour

No, I do not have time.

Mr Swinney's plan to split Waterwatch Scotland's functions between the SPSO and Consumer Focus Scotland was therefore denied, after due consideration, by the Review of SPCB Supported Bodies Committee. His decision to fly in the face of that considered position by introducing amendments at stage 2 was disappointing and perhaps had a touch of "the cabinet secretary knows best". Of course, the cabinet secretary knows his own mind, because did he not say that he was happy for the future of Waterwatch Scotland to be considered and decided by the Scottish Parliamentary Corporate Body? We now realise that he meant that only if the SPCB agreed with his view. So, out went the dummy from the pram and in came a raft of stage 2 amendments. I am sure that the cabinet secretary will tell members—he has done so—that the abolition of Waterwatch will have no impact on services and will save money. Well, that is not entirely accurate, because savings will be generated not by the proposed merger but by dismantling the statutory regional panel and national committee structure.

The Parliament amended the Water Services etc (Scotland) Bill at stage 2 in 2005 to set up Waterwatch, including its consumer consultation panels. I observe that Waterwatch has stated that the saving would be greater if it was required only to investigate complaints. However, the cabinet secretary has ignored that view, because it is a case of his way or no way.

Photo of Alex Fergusson Alex Fergusson None

I really must hurry you.

Photo of Jackie Baillie Jackie Baillie Labour

Okay. I simply add that when the then Environment and Rural Development Committee considered the issue, Rob Gibson, Richard Lochhead and, indeed, Alex Johnstone actively supported the measure. We believed in an holistic approach in 2005 and we believe in it now. I urge support for Patrick Harvie's amendments.

Photo of Jeremy Purvis Jeremy Purvis Liberal Democrat

The cabinet secretary said on 9 December 2008:

"I do not think that it would be appropriate for the Government to add something else to the remit of the Scottish Public Services Ombudsman, as that would begin to contaminate the sense of judgment that members of the public will want to have."[Official Report, Review of SPCB Supported Bodies Committee, 9 December 2008; c 29.]

When he appeared in front of the Finance Committee only a month later, the Government's view had turned 180 degrees. That is why the Finance Committee was surprised when it was given the amendments for consideration. Committee members abstained during that consideration because we wanted to know why the cabinet secretary had changed his view. We did not receive an explanation, and we have not subsequently received one. The cabinet secretary has not convincingly explained why what he said on 9 December 2008 no longer stands.

There is an issue of substance that is of concern, which the cabinet secretary has not addressed fully in the Government's amendment 81. That amendment makes the SPSO a body that will be involved in and

"investigate contractual or commercial transactions" relating to Scottish Water, any of its subcontractors and Scottish Water Solutions. I know that the minister responsible, Mr Stevenson, has been involved in a flurry of activity with his officials at the back of the chamber. I am not sure what the results of that relating to—

Photo of Jeremy Purvis Jeremy Purvis Liberal Democrat 9:15 am, 25th March 2010

And Mr FitzPatrick will, no doubt, contribute to this debate, if he is so confident.

There are concerns with regard to amendment 81 and the justification that the Government has not provided. That is why we will support Patrick Harvie's amendments.

Photo of Richard Simpson Richard Simpson Labour

I rise to speak because Waterwatch is in my constituency and that of Keith Brown. We will be interested to see how he votes on amendment 81. Waterwatch was part of the dispersal policy of the previous Administration, and dispersed jobs to an area with relatively poor employment. Thirty jobs in the constituency will go back to the centre if the bill is enacted as it is. I am not going to repeat other members' points, but the other important point is that the SPSO cannot deal with systemic complaints; it can deal only with individual complaints. Waterwatch has shown that, by dealing with systemic complaints, it has improved the performance of Scottish Water. Frankly, what the Government proposes is vandalism for the sake of numbers, and it should be opposed. I support Patrick Harvie's amendments.

Photo of Alex Fergusson Alex Fergusson None

I call Patrick Harvie to wind up and either press or withdraw amendment 1. I ask him to do so as briefly as he can.

Photo of Patrick Harvie Patrick Harvie Green

The cabinet secretary has, indeed, argued the case in favour of the change that he proposes, arguing that it will simplify the service that will be offered to consumers, that lessons learned from the sector will be more widely applicable and that there will be some cost savings. There have been queries, even within the few minutes that we have had to debate the issue, from several sides of the chamber about whether cost savings can be achieved given the structure of Waterwatch and whether some of the cost savings will be achieved at the expense of the purpose of previous legislation that we passed. That issue runs through the whole bill. We should be very cautious about reversing and ignoring, for cost savings alone, the objectives that we had in mind when we passed legislation in the first place. As Richard Simpson and Jeremy Purvis highlighted, the question is whether there would be weaknesses in the system under the SPSO.

The cabinet secretary has stated clearly that his purpose is to declutter the landscape—that purpose is not shared by all of us in the chamber. We should ensure that the landscape works better rather than simply make it clearer for the sake of it. We should look to achieve that objective rather than decluttering. I will press amendment 1.

Photo of Alex Fergusson Alex Fergusson None

The question is, that amendment 1 be agreed to. Are we agreed?

Members:

No.

Photo of Alex Fergusson Alex Fergusson None

There will be a division, but there will be a five-minute suspension before it.

Meeting suspended.

On resuming—

For:

Alexander, Ms Wendy (Paisley North) (Lab)

Baillie, Jackie (Dumbarton) (Lab)

Baker, Claire (Mid Scotland and Fife) (Lab)

Baker, Richard (North East Scotland) (Lab)

Boyack, Sarah (Edinburgh Central) (Lab)

Brankin, Rhona (Midlothian) (Lab)

Brown, Robert (Glasgow) (LD)

Butler, Bill (Glasgow Anniesland) (Lab)

Chisholm, Malcolm (Edinburgh North and Leith) (Lab)

Craigie, Cathie (Cumbernauld and Kilsyth) (Lab)

Curran, Margaret (Glasgow Baillieston) (Lab)

Eadie, Helen (Dunfermline East) (Lab)

Ferguson, Patricia (Glasgow Maryhill) (Lab)

Finnie, Ross (West of Scotland) (LD)

Foulkes, George (Lothians) (Lab)

Gillon, Karen (Clydesdale) (Lab)

Glen, Marlyn (North East Scotland) (Lab)

Godman, Trish (West Renfrewshire) (Lab)

Gordon, Charlie (Glasgow Cathcart) (Lab)

Grant, Rhoda (Highlands and Islands) (Lab)

Gray, Iain (East Lothian) (Lab)

Harper, Robin (Lothians) (Green)

Harvie, Patrick (Glasgow) (Green)

Henry, Hugh (Paisley South) (Lab)

Hume, Jim (South of Scotland) (LD)

Jamieson, Cathy (Carrick, Cumnock and Doon Valley) (Lab)

Kelly, James (Glasgow Rutherglen) (Lab)

Kerr, Andy (East Kilbride) (Lab)

Lamont, Johann (Glasgow Pollok) (Lab)

Livingstone, Marilyn (Kirkcaldy) (Lab)

Macdonald, Lewis (Aberdeen Central) (Lab)

Macintosh, Ken (Eastwood) (Lab)

Martin, Paul (Glasgow Springburn) (Lab)

McArthur, Liam (Orkney) (LD)

McAveety, Mr Frank (Glasgow Shettleston) (Lab)

McCabe, Tom (Hamilton South) (Lab)

McConnell, Jack (Motherwell and Wishaw) (Lab)

McInnes, Alison (North East Scotland) (LD)

McMahon, Michael (Hamilton North and Bellshill) (Lab)

McNeil, Duncan (Greenock and Inverclyde) (Lab)

McNeill, Pauline (Glasgow Kelvin) (Lab)

McNulty, Des (Clydebank and Milngavie) (Lab)

Mulligan, Mary (Linlithgow) (Lab)

Murray, Elaine (Dumfries) (Lab)

O'Donnell, Hugh (Central Scotland) (LD)

Oldfather, Irene (Cunninghame South) (Lab)

Park, John (Mid Scotland and Fife) (Lab)

Peacock, Peter (Highlands and Islands) (Lab)

Peattie, Cathy (Falkirk East) (Lab)

Pringle, Mike (Edinburgh South) (LD)

Purvis, Jeremy (Tweeddale, Ettrick and Lauderdale) (LD)

Rumbles, Mike (West Aberdeenshire and Kincardine) (LD)

Scott, Tavish (Shetland) (LD)

Simpson, Dr Richard (Mid Scotland and Fife) (Lab)

Smith, Elaine (Coatbridge and Chryston) (Lab)

Smith, Iain (North East Fife) (LD)

Smith, Margaret (Edinburgh West) (LD)

Stephen, Nicol (Aberdeen South) (LD)

Stewart, David (Highlands and Islands) (Lab)

Stone, Jamie (Caithness, Sutherland and Easter Ross) (LD)

Tolson, Jim (Dunfermline West) (LD)

Whitefield, Karen (Airdrie and Shotts) (Lab)

Whitton, David (Strathkelvin and Bearsden) (Lab)

Against:

Adam, Brian (Aberdeen North) (SNP)

Aitken, Bill (Glasgow) (Con)

Allan, Alasdair (Western Isles) (SNP)

Brocklebank, Ted (Mid Scotland and Fife) (Con)

Brown, Gavin (Lothians) (Con)

Brown, Keith (Ochil) (SNP)

Brownlee, Derek (South of Scotland) (Con)

Campbell, Aileen (South of Scotland) (SNP)

Carlaw, Jackson (West of Scotland) (Con)

Coffey, Willie (Kilmarnock and Loudoun) (SNP)

Constance, Angela (Livingston) (SNP)

Crawford, Bruce (Stirling) (SNP)

Cunningham, Roseanna (Perth) (SNP)

Don, Nigel (North East Scotland) (SNP)

Doris, Bob (Glasgow) (SNP)

Ewing, Fergus (Inverness East, Nairn and Lochaber) (SNP)

Fabiani, Linda (Central Scotland) (SNP)

FitzPatrick, Joe (Dundee West) (SNP)

Fraser, Murdo (Mid Scotland and Fife) (Con)

Gibson, Kenneth (Cunninghame North) (SNP)

Gibson, Rob (Highlands and Islands) (SNP)

Goldie, Annabel (West of Scotland) (Con)

Grahame, Christine (South of Scotland) (SNP)

Harvie, Christopher (Mid Scotland and Fife) (SNP)

Hepburn, Jamie (Central Scotland) (SNP)

Hyslop, Fiona (Lothians) (SNP)

Ingram, Adam (South of Scotland) (SNP)

Johnstone, Alex (North East Scotland) (Con)

Kidd, Bill (Glasgow) (SNP)

Lamont, John (Roxburgh and Berwickshire) (Con)

Lochhead, Richard (Moray) (SNP)

MacAskill, Kenny (Edinburgh East and Musselburgh) (SNP)

MacDonald, Margo (Lothians) (Ind)

Marwick, Tricia (Central Fife) (SNP)

Mather, Jim (Argyll and Bute) (SNP)

Matheson, Michael (Falkirk West) (SNP)

Maxwell, Stewart (West of Scotland) (SNP)

McGrigor, Jamie (Highlands and Islands) (Con)

McKee, Ian (Lothians) (SNP)

McKelvie, Christina (Central Scotland) (SNP)

McLaughlin, Anne (Glasgow) (SNP)

McLetchie, David (Edinburgh Pentlands) (Con)

McMillan, Stuart (West of Scotland) (SNP)

Milne, Nanette (North East Scotland) (Con)

Mitchell, Margaret (Central Scotland) (Con)

Morgan, Alasdair (South of Scotland) (SNP)

Neil, Alex (Central Scotland) (SNP)

Paterson, Gil (West of Scotland) (SNP)

Robison, Shona (Dundee East) (SNP)

Russell, Michael (South of Scotland) (SNP)

Salmond, Alex (Gordon) (SNP)

Scanlon, Mary (Highlands and Islands) (Con)

Scott, John (Ayr) (Con)

Smith, Elizabeth (Mid Scotland and Fife) (Con)

Somerville, Shirley-Anne (Lothians) (SNP)

Stevenson, Stewart (Banff and Buchan) (SNP)

Sturgeon, Nicola (Glasgow Govan) (SNP)

Swinney, John (North Tayside) (SNP)

Thompson, Dave (Highlands and Islands) (SNP)

Watt, Maureen (North East Scotland) (SNP)

Welsh, Andrew (Angus) (SNP)

White, Sandra (Glasgow) (SNP)

Wilson, Bill (West of Scotland) (SNP)

Wilson, John (Central Scotland) (SNP)

Photo of Alex Fergusson Alex Fergusson None

The result of the division is: For 63, Against 64, Abstentions 0.

Amendment 1 disagreed to.