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Public Services Reform (Scotland) Bill

Part of the debate – in the Scottish Parliament at 4:03 pm on 25th March 2010.

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Photo of David Whitton David Whitton Labour 4:03 pm, 25th March 2010

This has been a long process, so a speech of no more than five minutes is perhaps a bit of a godsend.

At last, at last, we are debating the final throes of the Public Services Reform (Scotland) Bill. Only time will tell just how much reform we are going to see.

As a result of this morning's votes, Waterwatch is being disbanded and its staff and responsibilities are to be split between the Scottish Public Services Ombudsman and Consumer Focus. I have to say that that is a pity. Earlier, the cabinet secretary said that the move would save £300,000 a year, but at what cost to the efficiency of investigating customer complaints against Scottish Water? I am told that the money is mostly being saved by abolishing the regional board structure, which could have been done without disbanding the organisation altogether.

When the Finance Committee spoke to the bill team, we were told that the bill was not about saving money, but about better government.

However, I think that the decision on Waterwatch seems to reverse that policy intent.

In his opening comments this morning, the cabinet secretary got quite exercised about my speech on order-making powers and demanded an apology from me for misleading Parliament. I have taken the time to look again at my speech and I do not believe that I have anything to apologise for.

Let me give the facts. Committees are vital to the proper working of the Scottish Parliament. The Finance Committee undertook a consultation on the Public Services Reform (Scotland) Bill, which closed on 14 August 2009. Among other things, the bill sought to reduce the number of public bodies in Scotland, to introduce order-making powers, to impose duties on scrutiny bodies to co-operate and ensure appropriate user focus, and to amend the corporate governance of Audit Scotland.

All the committee's members supported the bill's general principles, but there was concern about the proposed order-making powers in part 2. The provision to Scottish ministers of order-making powers to improve the exercise of public functions by scheduled bodies, and to remove or reduce burdens in the public, private and third sectors was not welcomed. That is the position that Labour took in the Finance Committee at stage 2, when we warned that we could not support the provisions of part 2 of the bill as they stood. We said that we looked to the cabinet secretary to introduce some new proposals to address the concerns that had been expressed.

We were not alone in expressing our disquiet at the cabinet secretary's proposals. Three other parliamentary committees were similarly minded. Many respondents said that the proposals would vest too much power in the hands of current and future ministers, and a number of public bodies believed that, despite the preconditions that cover the use of the powers, their organisations might be subject to future changes that would have implications for their independence.

Mr Swinney could have avoided some of the mess if he had followed normal procedure with some pre-legislative consultation on the principle or practical implementation of the order-making powers. He said that the benefit of the powers is that they will avoid the need to find legislative time and allow him to move further and faster in his reform agenda. I suppose that I should count it as a victory that Labour came within one vote of having the order-making powers removed from the bill this morning. The fact that the vote was so close should serve as a warning to Mr Swinney to be careful as he proceeds with whatever reform plans he has in mind.

As a natural optimist, I take it as a positive thing that the Scottish Government knew that it had to lodge amendments in response to the Subordinate Legislation Committee's recommendations, which required proposals for an order made under section 10 or section 13 of the bill to be subject to an enhanced form of super-affirmative procedure. I simply point out again that none of those proposals was included in the first draft of the bill. However, at least the cabinet secretary listened and made a gesture towards dealing with the criticism.

I am afraid that the same cannot be said for his colleague Mr Ingram, the Minister for Children and Early Years. It was, to say the least, patronising of him to accuse my colleague Karen Whitefield of not understanding what the Government was doing with the merger of Her Majesty's Inspectorate of Education and the Social Work Inspection Agency and the impact that it would have on child protection inspections. HMIE is a universal service and social work is not. Not all children are already in the social work net. HMIE was brought into the child protection regime to drive up standards and to take the lead as the universal service. We are two thirds of the way through the child protection cycle and to remove HMIE now could adversely affect the continuity of the inspection regime.

If the Government had supported Labour's amendment on the matter, that would have sent a message to education services that they must continue to take their share of responsibility for child protection throughout Scotland. Again, however, we lost the vote on that amendment by only one vote, so I am sure that ministers have been warned.

I repeat how disappointed I am that my attempt to establish a separate negotiating body for people in non-departmental public bodies also failed to gain support. However, I paid attention to what the minister said about progress, so I will watch that with interest.

In conclusion, I, too, thank the clerks, particularly the clerks to the Finance Committee, for their hard work. I do not know how many amendments we have debated and discussed, but it has been a lot.