We turn to the stage 3 proceedings on the Islands (Scotland) Bill.
In dealing with the amendments, members should have with them a copy of the bill as amended at stage 2, which is SP bill 15A; the marshalled list and the supplement to the marshalled list; and the groupings paper.
The division bell will sound and proceedings will be suspended for five minutes for the first division of the afternoon. The period of voting for the first division will be 30 seconds. Thereafter, a voting period of one minute will be allowed for the first division after a debate. Members who wish to speak in the debate on any group of amendments should press their request-to-speak button as soon as possible after I call the group.
It is a pleasure to get stage 3 of the Islands (Scotland) Bill under way. It feels slightly counterintuitive to start by focusing on uninhabited islands rather than islands that sustain populations and communities but, as the committee acknowledged at stage 2 when it supported my original amendment on the subject, the importance of uninhabited islands should never be underestimated.
As I said at stage 2, although fewer than 20 of Orkney’s islands are inhabited, all 70 or so play a crucial role in making Orkney the unique place that it is, not least in sustaining populations of birds that are of not just national but global significance.
In its briefing, as well as drawing attention to the fact that uninhabited islands can be a refuge for some of Scotland’s most at-risk or sensitive species, RSPB Scotland points to the fact that islands such as St Kilda can also be of considerable cultural significance. The committee agreed, and at stage 2 it took the step of reflecting what it saw as the
“cultural, environmental and economic significance” of uninhabited islands and including a provision to that effect in the bill.
However, it was accepted by everyone that we needed to ensure that the changes properly reflected our collective intent, and amendment 1 seeks to achieve that by making more explicit the link between uninhabited islands and the inhabited islands to which they make such a significant contribution.
I am very grateful to the minister and his officials for their help in this tidying-up exercise. I also thank RSPB Scotland and committee members—in particular, John Mason, who lodged similar amendments at stage 2—for their support to date, and I hope that Parliament will follow suit.
I move amendment 1.
At stage 2, I indicated that the Government agreed with his original amendment to bring uninhabited islands within the scope of the bill. I also indicated that we had a technical concern about the wording of his amendment and the way in which it fitted into section 2—it read as though an “island community” could be an uninhabited island on its own.
I am pleased that the member has worked with us to produce amendment 1, which makes it clearer that uninhabited islands fit within the
“common interest, identity or geography” of the people on islands rather than constituting communities in their own right. I am happy to support amendment 1.
Amendment 6 is a technical amendment. Section 2A, which was introduced into the bill at stage 2 by amendment 29, in the name of Colin Smyth, provides a definition of “islands authority” in the list of key definitions. The definition was intended to be used for the purposes of amendments that were not agreed to by the committee, and the term “islands authority” is therefore not used in the bill as amended at stage 2. As such, the definition of the term is redundant and serves no legal purpose. The local authorities that are covered by the bill are already listed in the schedule, so amendment 6 simply removes section 2A from the bill as amended at stage 2.
As the minister said, amendment 6 will remove the definition of the term “islands authority”, which was added at stage 2 as a result of one of my amendments. That amendment was consequential to two other amendments that I lodged at stage 2 that were not agreed to. Accordingly, the inclusion of the term “islands authority” is no longer necessary.
I have lodged amendments at stage 3 that are similar to the two amendments that were not agreed to at stage 2. However, I have chosen not to use the phrase “islands authority”, so there is no longer a requirement for that phrase to be in the bill. Therefore, I am content with amendment 6, which will remove that definition.
I also support amendment 1, in the name of Liam McArthur, which will amend the current provision and cover the fact that uninhabited islands can be considered island communities. The amendment rightly recognises such islands’ natural, cultural and economic value, and it has Labour’s full support.
There has been a wide-ranging discussion throughout the bill process about the level of detail that should be included in the national islands plan. Although I have expressed my wariness about putting too much detail on specific points in the bill, I have welcomed the debate and the good discussion that we have had on the issue.
I hold to my central premise on the matter. It would be unfair for Parliament to present to island communities and other stakeholders a pre-populated plan for them only to tinker around the edges with. We have to allow a meaningful process for developing and populating the plan. That said, there is clearly an appetite for the plan to consider and cover particular issues, and I have taken that on board. I welcome the positive discussions that I have had with members across the chamber on a series of amendments.
Amendment 7, in my name, is a minor and technical amendment that will restructure section 3 to allow for more topics to be listed.
Amendments 18 to 21, in the name of Liam McArthur, will include “improving transport services”, “improving digital connectivity”, “reducing fuel poverty” and
“ensuring effective management of the Scottish Crown Estate” as topics in the national islands plan. I am happy to support those amendments.
“enhancing biosecurity (including protecting islands from the impact of invasive non-native species)” as a topic in the national islands plan. I am happy to support that amendment.
Amendment 23, in the name of Jamie Greene, deals with an issue that was raised at stage 2. Jamie Greene proposed that all the objectives in the national islands plan should be measurable. I raised some concerns during the stage 2 debate that I do not think that it is possible to guarantee that every objective, particularly high-level objectives, that will be covered by the plan could realistically be measured. Amendment 23 takes those concerns on board and will place a duty on ministers to consider how to measure the improvement of outcomes, whether quantitatively or qualitatively. It is a good amendment that will require ministers to consider the measurement of outcomes but which will allow for flexibility when it would be difficult to measure outcomes. I am happy to support amendment 23.
Amendment 8, in the name of John Mason, follows from an amendment that he lodged at stage 2. He argued that, although the bill sets out those who must be consulted about the national islands plan, it misses a broader constituency of people who are not based on the islands but who have an interest in the islands—John Mason and I are such people. Amendment 8 is straightforward and will help to deliver John Mason’s aim of including the wider public interest in the national islands plan.
I hope that members will agree to all the amendments in the group.
I move amendment 7.
I will speak to amendments 17 and 8, both of which concern the national islands plan.
The focus of the bill is, rightly, on island communities. Therefore, in section 3(3), the bill focuses on improving and promoting sustainable economic development, health and wellbeing and community empowerment. The focus on those issues is absolutely fine. However, as we heard in the debate on the first amendment, which was about uninhabited islands, there is more to islands than people. That is why the RSPB and I were keen to have a specific mention of the natural heritage of Scotland’s islands in the bill, as that means that it will be embedded in forthcoming and future island plans.
Using the phrase “environmental wellbeing” is more consistent with other legislation such as the Community Empowerment (Scotland) Act 2015 and the Scottish Crown Estate Bill. I therefore hope that members will support amendment 17, so that the three pillars of sustainable development—economic, social, and environmental interests—are all included in the bill.
On amendment 8, as the minister said, I lodged an amendment at stage 2 to widen the range of those consulted on the islands plan to include a broader constituency of people who are not based on the islands but who have an interest in the islands. As it stands, the bill does not limit those who can respond to consultation but rather provides that certain persons and groups must be consulted. Amendment 8 aims to include the wider public interest. I see that as positive, because there is a genuine commitment to our islands beyond those who normally live on them. Should the amendment be accepted, the relevant provision in the bill will say that the Scottish ministers must consult such persons
“as they consider likely to be affected by or have an interest in the proposals” that are contained in the plan.
I hope that members will support both of the amendments.
Although the national islands plan enjoys widespread support, it is fair to say that there has been healthy debate about what it should contain, and about the extent to which legislation should set that out explicitly.
I appreciate the balance that needs to be struck here. If the content of the plan is too rigidly defined, it is unlikely that it will have the necessary flexibility to meet effectively the different and changing needs of island communities now and into the future. Nevertheless, as I pointed out at stage 2 when speaking to amendments that Tavish Scott and I lodged, there are key areas on which it would be inconceivable for the plan to remain silent, and it would be helpful for those to be reflected in the bill. The examples that we cited were ferry services, broadband, fuel poverty and Crown Estate powers. Other colleagues made further suggestions. Again, I am grateful to the minister for his willingness since stage 2 to work with me and Tavish Scott in coming up with ways of achieving our shared objectives.
Amendment 18 reflects the fact that, although ferry services are crucially important to our island communities, they are not the only lifeline transport links on which our island communities depend. Similarly, amendment 19 is an acknowledgement that, more than high-speed broadband, the future vitality and even viability of many of our island communities will be reliant on digital connectivity—I say that with apologies to my colleague Tavish Scott, who I know has an aversion to the phrase—that keeps pace with technological advances.
Amendment 20 also includes in the bill an acknowledgment of the importance of national islands plans also addressing the scourge of fuel poverty, which continues to affect a higher proportion of households in rural and island areas than anywhere else.
Again, I thank the minister and his colleague Kevin Stewart for meeting me last week to discuss on-going concerns that I and many people with a direct involvement in rural fuel poverty issues have about the fact that, in redefining fuel poverty, the Government risks ignoring the specific rural dimension to the problem. I hope that, by the time the Government publishes its fuel poverty bill, it will have addressed those concerns. In the meantime, by including the reduction of fuel poverty in the national islands plan, we make that outcome more likely.
Finally, another issue on which the substantive debate will take place in the context of other legislation revolves around the devolution of the Crown Estate’s functions and responsibilities. The stand-alone bill will provide an opportunity for us to debate our respective positions on where those responsibilities are best exercised. For the record, I believe that that should be at island authority level, where there is a desire for that to be the case. For now, amendment 21 will ensure that the national islands plan reflects the importance to our island communities of the effective management of these assets.
Through the islands plan, the bill offers a chance to put in place firm commitments and safeguards to ensure that the provision of services in our islands meets certain standards as a minimum, and that our island communities are not constantly left as an afterthought. I hope that the amendments in my name will go some way to making sure that that happens.
I hear what the minister said about pre-populating a plan. I also align myself with Liam McArthur’s comments about the general direction of travel and I echo his comments about the positive engagement that there has been with the minister and officials.
The Scottish Green Party will support all the amendments in the group, which will enhance what is already a good bill. I will talk in particular about amendment 22, which provides for consideration of
“enhancing biosecurity (including protecting islands from the impact of invasive non-native species).”
Internationally important breeding populations of birds are concentrated on the islands and are vulnerable to predation from ground-based predators such as rats, mice and stoats. Those mammals are not native to the islands, and when they are introduced, whether that happens deliberately or by accident, there can be significant effects, because species cannot breed at the same rate at which they are being predated.
Our breeding seabirds are a global asset—a phrase that has been used—and it is imperative that we protect our islands from invasive species by implementing a biosecurity and early warning rapid response capacity.
Would it be helpful if the member indicated that in referring to “invasive non-native species”, the member is referring to the ecostructure of individual islands rather than Scotland?
Yes, of course. Each island is different, and different threats are posed. There are species that are indigenous in some islands but not in others.
Seabird colonies face climate change-driven impacts. There has been a massive impact, particularly in Shetland and Orkney, which has been linked primarily to the falling population of nutritious prey fish, especially sand eels, whose declines, in turn, are linked to warming seas. We must therefore maximise the resilience of Scotland’s seabird population.
Members might be aware that there is a rolling programme of island restoration, which has included Ailsa Craig, Canna and, more recently, the Shiants, where rodent eradication has taken place. However, that ambition will be pointless unless there are solid biosecurity arrangements for our islands. The protection of currently uninvaded islands is where amendment 22 comes in.
In July 2017, the international island invasives conference was held in Dundee. The event happens only every six or seven years, and it took place in Dundee because the world-leading rodent eradication project in South Georgia, which has officially been declared a success, was led by a team that is based at the University of Dundee.
In the context of the success of past projects and the challenges of unfolding issues, such as the presence of stoats in Orkney, we are well placed to develop a timely and groundbreaking public policy in this regard. I hope that members will support amendment 22 and the other amendments in the group.
I will speak to my amendment 23 and to other amendments in the group.
As the minister said, we came to a position on amendment 23 after I lodged an amendment at stage 2 to give effect to a recommendation of the Rural Economy and Connectivity Committee. The committee said in its stage 1 report:
“The Committee recommends that the National Islands Plan be developed with clear outcomes, targets and measurable indicators by which to establish performance.”
That is important. We should be able to hold the Government of the day to account on the plan, and the introduction of measurable objectives, where possible, would be helpful. I appreciate that we have come some way in the language of amendment 23, and I thank the minister and his bill team for the element of compromise in that regard. I am pleased that we will have support for the introduction of the concept.
It is fair to say that we are broadly supportive of most of the other amendments in the group. However, the problem is that we are doing at stage 3 what we said that we would not do: we are putting in primary legislation a list of items that we agreed we would hope to see in the national islands plan. The committee agreed that a large number of policy areas particularly affect islands, and there are key priority areas, including transport and digital connectivity.
Therefore, although it is pleasing to see members bring in those elements, it is also slightly disappointing that it is happening at stage 3, when it is difficult to say no to some of the concepts. They are indeed things that we should think about in considering outcomes for islands, but I am slightly disappointed that, at this stage, we are trying to create an exhaustive list. The proposed elements do not include access to education, health and social care, housing or workforce and employment opportunities or some of the other things that the committee identified as equally important measures that should be in the plan. We are creating a very small list of things that must be in the islands plan, but we are leaving out things that maybe should be in it. That is my concern about the addition of the list.
I take the member’s point that we should not have too much detail, but does he accept that all the proposed additions are at a fairly high level and do not go into a huge amount of detail, and that they are certainly not exclusive?
They do not go into a huge amount of detail and they are high level, but it is only two or three issues. Are we therefore saying that those issues are more important than some of the other high-priority areas that the committee discussed? I would hate to think that people would see digital connectivity, transport, reducing fuel poverty and the Crown estate as the only issues that are of importance to the Parliament.
Yes, we could have, but at stages 1 and 2 the committee collectively thought that it was not right to start creating lists, for the reason that I set out, otherwise we would not be having this discussion. We could have added things, but we would have ended up with a very long list of things that we think the islands plan should contain. Nonetheless, I hope that, when the minister produces the islands plan, those things will be in there so, for that reason, we will support the amendments on those issues.
We will also support Mr Finnie’s amendment 22, on enhancing biosecurity on islands. That is an important addition, and there is little to disagree with in it.
However, we are less in favour of two of the amendments. The first is John Mason’s amendment 17, on environmental wellbeing. I thank the member for explaining that in a little more detail, but the term “environmental wellbeing” is unclear and a little vague for the bill. What does he mean by it?
The original wording was “natural heritage”, and the RSPB, the Government and I were comfortable with that. However, to get consistency with other legislation, the preference is for “environmental wellbeing”. The two phrases are really meant to mean the same thing.
I do not think that they are the same thing. I still think that “environmental wellbeing” is a very non-specific phrase that does not have a huge amount of meaning in legislation.
Amendment 8, which is also from John Mason, is on the duty to consult on the production of the plan, which we had a lot of chat about. If the amendment were agreed to, it would mean that anyone who had “an interest” in islands would have to be consulted in the production of the plan. I hope that it would not be a consequence of that that any stakeholder with any interest would somehow get involved in the process, as that would detract from the fact that islanders should be at the heart of consultation on and preparation of the plan. The phrase “have an interest in” would open up the process far too much to any stakeholder anywhere in the country who had a vested interest in any matter that the plan may address. For that reason, we are unable to support amendment 8.
I welcome amendment 7, in the name of Humza Yousaf, which ensures that the reference to increasing population remains in the bill. At stage 2, I lodged an amendment to ensure that increasing population was included in the aims of the national islands plan, and I am pleased to see that the minister recognises the importance of that in his amendment by retaining the reference, albeit that it is now worded slightly differently. Depopulation is a key challenge that islands communities face, and it is essential that the national islands plan sets out proposals to tackle that challenge. Explicitly stating that in the bill is an effective way to ensure that it remains a priority not just now but in the future.
I am pleased to support amendments 17 to 22 from John Mason, Liam McArthur and John Finnie, which all provide more detail and a statutory underpinning to the aims of the national islands plan. I support the principle of outlining the aims of the plan in the bill as a means to ensure that the plan’s ambition and aims are not watered down over time. The issues that are referenced in amendments 17 to 22 are critically important to island communities and should be included.
Amendment 23, in the name of Jamie Greene, creates a reasonable and useful requirement for ministers to outline how they will measure the extent to which the aims of the plan are realised. That is a valuable addition to the bill, which I am happy to support.
I am also happy to support amendment 8, in the name of John Mason, which broadens who should be consulted in the preparation of the national islands plan to include those with “an interest in” the relevant proposals. That is a logical amendment, which serves to strengthen the consultation process and, I hope, the final plan.
I will talk about amendment 17. I listened carefully to what John Mason has just said about the definition of “environmental wellbeing”. The term still seems very vague to me and is open to all sorts of interpretation. If Mr Mason would be any clearer in his definition, rather than saying that he thinks it that it means the same as something else, I would be delighted to hear it now, as that may sway the Conservatives. I am prepared to give way to Mr Mason if he is prepared to defend it.
I am not sure that I can add an awful lot to what I have already said. Our first choice was “natural heritage” and, as I said, it is our intention that “environmental wellbeing” means the same as that. We are seeking consistency with other legislation; if we use such terms in a variety of legislation, it is better to use the same terms, and those words seem to have been accepted in other legislation.
I thank Mr Mason for trying to explain that. The problem is that “environmental wellbeing” will mean different things to different people with regard to different environments; the wellbeing of one environment may be improved by something, but that of a different environment may not.
I come to the chamber with 15 years’ experience as a land manager and a degree in land management—[
.] I have never before come across this term or definition, which seems unquantifiable. Because I believe that good legislation requires tight definitions that are explainable and definable, it is impossible for me and the Scottish Conservatives to vote for the amendment.
In the interest of good legislation and good government, we want to get the bill right at stage 3. I ask for some clarification from the minister on John Mason’s amendment 8. I heard what Jamie Greene said about whether the amendment will open up the process too widely to those with “an interest” and take the focus away from islanders. Is the Government content that the amendment will make for good legislation? I am genuinely interested to hear what the minister has to say, as it would be very helpful.
Once again, the debate has been good and informative on the content of the plan. I give reassurance to Jamie Greene that he is absolutely right that there has to be a balance with regard to not producing an exhaustive list and, in some respects, it could be argued that we are starting to fall down that trap. However, we have safeguards and checks and balances, because we are discussing generally high-level objectives.
The list is not exhaustive, and the important part is section 4, “Preparation and scrutiny of plan”. The island communities will be very much part of the engagement process when we come to develop the national islands plan. Others might have an input—perhaps those who do not live on islands and represent the mainland—but, realistically, pragmatically and practically speaking, there is no doubt in anybody’s mind that we will travel to many island communities to hear directly from them about their needs and interests in relation to the national islands plan.
The point is well made—it is on the record—that there is no need for an exhaustive list. We have a general direction of travel about high-level important issues. Amendment 17, in the name of John Mason, falls into that category of high-level objectives, and we would be splitting hairs if members cannot accept that “environmental wellbeing” is an overarching high-level objective, which it very much is. We will support John Mason’s amendment and all the amendments in this group.
I am pleased that we have achieved a degree of consensus and agreement on the plan, and I ask members to support the amendments in my name and the other amendments in the group.
Amendment 7 agreed to.
Amendment 17 moved—[John Mason].
I will speak to all the amendments in the group, including amendment 25, which is also in my name.
Amendment 24 introduces into the bill the concept of retrospective island impact assessments. That concept was widely supported at stage 1 across all parties, but it was not supported at stage 2. It is a simple amendment that seeks to ensure that
“A relevant authority must prepare an island communities impact assessment in relation to a—
(b) strategy, or
(c) service, which, in the authority’s opinion,” has had
“an effect on an island community which is significantly different from its effect on other communities”
It is clear that the Scottish Government and members of the Rural Economy and Connectivity Committee support the concept of island proofing, and amendment 24 would enable authorities to submit an assessment to the Scottish Government on any previous legislation that has significantly hindered island communities. It was argued at stage 2 that that simple amendment could create an overbureaucratic exercise for authorities and could open the door too widely to change, but the amendment makes it clear that it would operate in the same way as future island impact assessments, and only if an authority felt that a policy, service or strategy has had a significant impact on an island community would it have to prepare an assessment.
I appreciate that the Minister for Transport and the Islands has verbally committed to reviewing any past legislation that has had a significant impact on an island community. Given that commitment, if a relevant authority brings something to his attention, I think that it is appropriate to acknowledge that in the bill.
Amendment 25, which is also in my name, is consequential on amendment 24. As a technical change, it copies the wording in section 8(1) to ensure that relevant authorities do not have to publish explanations for not carrying out island communities impact assessments unless the policy, strategy or service has
“had an effect on an island community which is significantly different from its effects on other communities”.
We support amendment 10, in the name of the minister. Amendment 10 is a technical amendment that ensures that relevant authorities can effectively comply with the section 7 duty to
“have regard to island communities”,
and therefore to produce island communities impact assessments, as set out in section 8.
We also support amendment 12, in the name of Liam McArthur, and amendment 28, in the name of Colin Smyth. Those amendments also relate to retrospective island communities impact assessments, but they are much more prescriptive than my amendment.
Amendment 12 sets out a process for Scottish ministers to follow in responding to requests from relevant authorities, and also places on Scottish ministers a duty to publish retrospective island communities impact assessments. That would be particularly useful for authorities that do not have the time to carry out their own assessments. Amendment 28 ensures that new regulations set out by ministers must be laid before the Parliament, and that each local authority listed in the schedule, and any other relevant person, must be consulted.
Both amendments 12 and 28 add to the scrutiny of the Scottish ministers’ role in the process, which is important to ensuring that the Scottish Government commitment is met. Amendment 33 is consequential on amendment 28, and we will therefore support it, too.
I move amendment 24.
Amendment 24, in the name of Peter Chapman, is a repeat of an amendment that he lodged at stage 2. I am afraid that I still cannot support it. I will reiterate a lot of what I said at stage 2, as it remains relevant.
The amendment seems to require all the relevant authorities to review all previous policies, services or strategies that they believe may have had a significantly different impact on island communities from their effect on other communities. As there are no criteria or thresholds for the retrospective element, the amendment has no time limit on how far back the relevant authority would need to go. Would it have to go back years, or even decades? I asked that question at stage 2 and the answer still seems to be that it would be mandatory for an authority to review and potentially prepare an impact assessment for every policy, strategy or service that it has ever developed, delivered or redeveloped. That is neither practical nor reasonable. Undertaking those reviews could also take a significant amount of resource, which could be deployed elsewhere.
Amendment 25, which was also lodged by Peter Chapman, seems to require that, when a relevant authority does not prepare an island communities impact assessment for a policy, strategy or service that
“is likely to have or have had” a significantly different effect on an island community from its effect on other communities, it must publish its reasons for not doing so. Under section 8(1), if there is a significantly different effect on an island community, the relevant authority is under a duty to prepare an island communities impact assessment. It has no choice. There would be no question of the authority publishing the reasons for not undertaking such an assessment because, in those circumstances, it would have done the assessment.
I hope that that reassures Mr Chapman that there is already adequate provision in the bill to achieve broadly the same purpose as that of his amendment 25 and that he will not press it. If he does press it, I cannot support it, as it is a measure that duplicates process and requires that an excessive burden be placed on the resources of affected relevant authorities.
I think that the minister is saying that amendment 24 would mean that all historical legislation must be looked at for its effect on islands, but the key phrase in the bill is “in the authority’s opinion”. There is still an element of subjectivity in relation to which historical legislation has to be looked at, so not all pieces of legislation would have to be looked at. If amendment 24 were agreed to, the safeguard of the phrase “in the authority’s opinion” would remain in the bill.
I accept Jamie Greene’s point, which could, in a sense, make the proposal redundant. What is the purpose of Peter Chapman’s amendment if the power rests with the authority to determine whether to review legislation? I will come on to a couple of other amendments that tackle that issue slightly better.
Colin Smyth’s amendment 28 would require ministers to develop regulations to set up a scheme to allow island local authorities to make a request that legislation be amended. I know from experience that one island authority can indicate that it is having difficulty with the requirements of a particular piece of legislation and is keen to see it changed, but other islands authorities will have no issues with the same legislation. The problem might be a more local issue regarding implementation rather than a problem with the legislation itself. I fear that, if amendment 28 were agreed to, it could become the default starting position for islands authorities that do not like a particular piece of legislation, rather than their engaging proactively to seek resolution through other means.
Colin Smyth’s amendment 28 seems to ignore the fact that we are creating island proofing of legislation in the bill. His amendment would create a future in which, no matter that a piece of legislation had been through the island-proofing process as set out in the bill, a local authority could still put in a request and essentially relitigate the whole process at any time.
I turn to Liam McArthur’s amendment 12, to which a number of issues that are similar to those that I outlined in speaking to amendment 28 apply. However, amendment 12 has the benefit that it would create a simple and straightforward process that focuses on requests for island communities impact assessments rather than leaping to the need for legislative change.
I understand the point that has been made. I have listened and tried to work out what we can do to respond to members’ concerns flexibly and proportionately. To address those concerns, I lodged amendment 10, which is based on a stage 2 amendment that was lodged by Colin Smyth, to whom I am grateful for his input. Amendment 10 will put in place a requirement to have an on-going, flexible and proportionate review process that would have the same effect as a retrospective assessment process. Indeed, it would support better governance all round. The Government, public authorities and agencies should keep policies and legislation under review, and we should want to test continuously how things are working in practice and make necessary adjustments or changes as needed. Amendment 10 recognises that there is a continuing need to reflect on current policies and strategies and to undertake island communities impact assessments when required in a flexible and proportionate way.
In order to give members even further reassurance, I agree that it would be useful to determine whether there is existing legislation that the Parliament has passed that needs to be addressed in view of the interests and needs of islands. My offer to islands authorities has always been that I have an open door and that they can come forward with any proposals on legislation that they think needs to be re-examined. I give members a further undertaking that I will continue to work with cabinet secretaries and fellow ministers to proactively trawl their portfolio interests for recent legislation, policies, strategies and plans in order to review the impact on islands. That action would have the impact and effect that are being sought, without the need for legislation.
I hope that members will support amendment 10, in my name. I urge Mr Chapman to withdraw amendment 24 and not to move amendment 25. I urge Colin Smyth not to move amendments 28 and 33, as they would lead to the many problems that I have outlined. I ask Liam McArthur not to move amendment 12, although if he moves it, I will be happy to support it.
T he centrepiece of the bill is its promise of so-called island proofing. It is a commitment that future policy and legislation will be tailored to reflect the needs and circumstances of island communities and is a move away from a damaging one-size-fits-all approach to governing. That is welcome, of course, but it cannot be the extent of our ambition.
For years, I have highlighted examples of decisions by Government and its agencies that have failed to take proper account of the island dimension. For island proofing to be properly effective in meeting the needs of our island communities, we need to be able to look back as well as forward. I accept that that cannot be wholly open ended. Unfortunately, an amendment that I lodged at stage 2 risked the prospect of legislation down through the ages being subject to some kind of island-proofing MOT. Government, whether at the national or at the local level, does not have the time, resources or appetite to get bogged down in a never-ending review of every piece of legislation on the statute book.
Having listened to the minister’s concerns at stage 2, I believe that my amendment 12 now offers a proportionate means of enabling island proofing to take place retrospectively. Islands authorities would be the route through which an application for a review of existing legislation or strategies would be made to ministers. Ministers would then have three months in which to grant or refuse any request, giving reasons in the case of the latter. Where a request was granted, ministers would have six months in which to prepare a retrospective island communities impact assessment.
Those are reasonable timescales and a proportionate response to the case made by all three island councils, the committee and many others for island proofing to be extended to existing legislation, policy and strategies. I acknowledge and welcome the steps taken by Peter Chapman and Colin Smyth to address the same issue, although I hope that they and their colleagues might agree to support my amendment 12 in order to take forward our common objective.
Previously, I have given examples of regulations governing issues as diverse as building standards and homecare provision that, in an Orkney context, risk achieving the opposite of the laudable intentions behind them. That is in no one’s interests, least of all those of our island communities. The bill must prevent such situations from arising in future, but amendment 12 allows us an opportunity to right at least some of the wrongs that already exist. I am grateful to the minister for the indication of his support, albeit caveated, for amendment 12. I am also grateful to Colin Smyth for the collaborative approach that he has taken to amendment 12, and I look forward to voting on it later.
Amendment 28, in my name, would require ministers to establish a scheme for requests by local authorities to improve or mitigate the effect of existing legislation. Amendment 28 is entirely in keeping with the aims of the bill. The introduction of island impact assessments recognises the unique nature of the islands and the need to ensure that protections are in place against any unintended negative consequences of legislation. To limit that solely to new legislation when the impact of existing laws could be detrimental to our island communities would not capture the spirit of the bill.
I believe that my amendment 28 complements Liam McArthur’s amendment 12 on retrospective impact assessments. There is a need for a general retrospective impact assessment mechanism and I fully support Liam McArthur’s amendment 12 in that regard. However, what amendment 28 seeks to do is slightly different and might help reduce the administrative burden of retrospective impact assessments. If a specific problem with existing legislation has already been identified, going through the entire impact assessment process would be unnecessary; instead, local authorities would have the ability to request that legislation be amended.
Throughout the bill process, the Government has been keen to suggest that the inclusion of any retrospective impact assessment mechanism would be a bureaucratic burden and that we would be creating scope for endless assessments of every piece of legislation. However, I do not think that that is the case with amendments 28 and 12. Under both those amendments, local authorities would be required to make the case as to why any given piece of legislation should be assessed or amended, and if the request was groundless, it would be rejected. Moreover, we should trust local authorities not to make frivolous or unnecessary requests. Given that the bill came about following the excellent work done by islands authorities in the our islands, our future campaign, it would be disappointing to send a message to island communities that we do not trust them to highlight legitimate concerns about the impact of existing legislation and will not give them a formal mechanism for doing so.
Just as legislation should be subject to the new duties created by the bill, so too should the policies, strategies and services of relevant authorities. Amendment 10, in the name of Humza Yousaf, requires relevant authorities to review policies, strategies and services to ensure that they are compliant with the new statutory duty to have regard to island communities. As the minister said, amendment 10 came about as a result of my discussions with him after stage 2. Members may recall that at stage 2 I proposed an amendment setting out a requirement to review a decision not to conduct an island communities impact assessment. I did not press my amendment at the time, after the minister indicated that he would lodge a suitable amendment at stage 3, which he has done. I hope that all members will support amendment 10.
Amendment 33, in my name, requires that any regulations brought forward as a result of amendment 28 should be subject to the affirmative procedure. It simply adds an element of oversight and accountability to ensure that ministers bring forward a scheme that is in keeping with the spirit of amendment 28, as well as the letter of the law, and that requires the affirmative endorsement of Parliament.
I have a great deal of sympathy with the intention behind Peter Chapman’s amendment 24, which seeks to ensure that relevant authorities’ existing policies are subject to island impact assessments. I am, however, concerned that, as worded, the amendment would create an unreasonable and unnecessary burden for the relevant authorities. Under amendment 24, they would be required to conduct an impact assessment of any policy, strategy or service that has had, at any point, a significantly different impact on an island’s community, regardless of whether it continues to do so.
Furthermore, I believe that the aim of amendment 24—of ensuring that existing policies are subject to the new statutory duty to have regard to island communities—is already met in amendment 10, which requires the relevant authorities to review their policies, strategies and services as needed to ensure that they comply with that duty.
My interpretation of Peter Chapman’s amendment 25 is that its purpose is similar to that of my amendment 26, but I am concerned that it may weaken the existing provision. Under amendment 26, relevant authorities would be required to provide an explanation as to why they did not conduct an islands impact assessment in relation to any decision affecting an island community. Under Peter Chapman’s amendment 25, it would seem that relevant authorities would be required to do so only in instances in which the effect is likely to be significantly different from the effect on other communities.
That is an important distinction and significantly raises the bar with regard to which decisions require an explanation. In instances in which relevant authorities do not consider that an impact assessment is necessary, on the ground that the policy will not have a significantly different impact on island communities, it is right that local communities receive an explanation as to how that decision was reached. That does not appear to be the case under amendment 25.
Therefore, we will not support amendments 24 and 25.
I rise to speak to Peter Chapman’s amendments 24 and 25. Amendment 25 uses the phrase “in the authority’s opinion”. I read that as meaning that the authority has to have an opinion—it cannot avoid having an opinion. It is to have an opinion and, given that in the amendment we also read the words “or have had”, the authority must also have an opinion on every single thing that affects the island. It has to invest time and effort only to discover that it ends up with no material opinion on anything—but it has to have an opinion.
No, not at this stage.
The equivalent amendment at stage 2—amendment 62—was voted down. At the time, I referred to the Common Good Act 1491, because Comhairle nan Eilean Siar has no common good funds and is therefore different from other islands. It would therefore be necessary to consider the effect of the 1491 act on the Western Isles as compared with other islands.
However, I note that the legal effect of the 1491 act is minimal, so I bring forward a different example, not from decades ago but from centuries back—the Minority Act 1663. That act relates to the position of minors who have property on which the leasehold will expire before they achieve their majority. Is there a difference in the islands? Actually, there is, because in Orkney and Shetland there is property law called udal law, which applies only on those two groups of islands. Udal law has an effect on the way that leaseholds work. People who are minors without tutors are affected in that particular regard.
You have just pre-empted me, Presiding Officer. I was just going to say that the final point that I want to make is about the phrase “significantly different”. Udal law is significantly different, but of course it is significantly beneficially different to Orkney and Shetland. Under amendment 25, they would still be forced to consider whether they should continue it, even though it is beneficial.
My colleague Liam McArthur said that the centrepiece of the bill was island proofing. That phrase has recurred frequently. It has led to a lot of expectations, not least with regard to the question of retrospection. Although no reasonable person would expect there to be a blank cheque associated with this, and a retrospective application would be unusual, of the amendments that are before us, Liam McArthur’s amendment is measured and proportionate. I urge him to press it; I hope that members will also support the minister’s amendment 10.
The Presiding Officer:
As we are nearing the agreed time limit, I am prepared to exercise my power under rule 9.8.4A to allow the debate on this group to continue beyond the time limit in order to avoid the debate being unreasonably curtailed. I ask Peter Chapman to wind up and to press or withdraw his amendment.
Amendment 26 amends the wording of my stage 2 amendment 69 requiring that, should a relevant authority decide not to conduct an island impact assessment, it must publish an explanation as to why. Amendment 26 clarifies that that provision relates only to policies, strategies or services that have an effect on an island community. I should make it clear that it is not intended to weaken or limit the current provision and will exclude only decisions that are entirely irrelevant to island communities.
Amendment 9, in the name of Humza Yousaf, concerns a review mechanism for island impact assessments. In its stage 1 report, the committee described such a mechanism as “essential”—a view that I entirely share. If island communities are to have faith in the process, there must be greater accountability, and the introduction of a review mechanism is a straightforward way of ensuring that decisions can be challenged and the voices of island communities are heard. The wording that is proposed by the minister would make the creation of that mechanism a possibility, whereas I believe that it should be a requirement. Therefore, amendment 9A, in my name, seeks to make that the case.
Amendment 2, in the name of Tavish Scott, requires that the guidance that is issued in relation to authorities’ new duty to have regard to island communities be approved by the Parliament before it comes into force. I fully understand why Tavish Scott wishes that requirement to be included in the bill. Indeed, a great deal of the bill’s potential remains to be realised—its impact and scope are dependent on the development of guidance, regulations and the national islands plan. As a result, there is a strong case for parliamentary oversight of future provisions, so I am sympathetic to amendment 2.
I have no objection to amendment 11, in the name of Humza Yousaf. Likewise, I am happy to support amendment 15, in his name.
Tavish Scott’s amendment 5 outlines ministers’ duties to consult island communities on changes to any relevant policy, strategy or service. Establishing island communities’ rights and ministers’ responsibilities in that regard is obviously very beneficial, and I have no objections to that amendment.
Finally, amendment 34, in my name, simply edits the wording of my stage 2 amendment 59—which included integration joint boards on the list of relevant authorities—in order to future proof the provision and ensure that any changes are automatically captured.
I move amendment 26.
I am happy to support
amendment 26, in the name of Colin Smyth. Having discussed with him the impact of his stage 2 amendment 69, which put the new section 8(4) into the bill, I welcome his amendment 26. Amendment 26 provides helpful clarification that relevant authorities would not be required to publish reasons for not undertaking an island communities impact assessment if the policy, strategy or service did not impact on an island community in any way.
I am also happy to support Colin Smyth’s amendment 34. It makes a technical change to future proof his stage 2 amendment 59, which included all the IJBs as relevant authorities in the schedule to the bill.
Amendments 9 and 15 are in my name. At stage 2, Colin Smyth lodged an amendment that attempted to create a process that would allow for a review of a relevant authority’s decision not to undertake an island communities impact assessment. There were a number of problems with that amendment, and I offered to come back at stage 3 with a revised proposition and a compromise—which is to include a power that would allow ministers to make regulations with respect to reviews.
If the operation of the new island-proofing measures in the bill identifies issues and problems that mean that a review would be beneficial, my amendments would allow a review to take place on the basis of the evidence. That seems to be the sensible approach to take. It enables a remedy to be sought, should one be required, instead of imposing a remedy before anyone can determine whether one might be needed. Taking a power to set up a review mechanism through regulations also allows greater flexibility. Although the provision is silent on this, my intention is to enable the views and feedback of stakeholders and communities to inform how subsections 2(a) to (f) of the proposed new section could best be implemented to ensure that reviews take place in the most effective way.
Although amendment 31, in the name of Jamie Greene, will be discussed with group 10, it can be considered as complementary to my amendment 9. Amendment 31 would establish a mechanism to review the operation of the act as a whole, including the provisions on island communities impact assessments, with that review taking place within four years of the bill receiving royal assent. Taken together, those two amendments would provide evidence that would enable us to reach a conclusion as to whether a separate review process was required, and they would provide the means to put that into effect. On that basis, I ask members to support amendment 9 and amendment 15, which is a technical amendment that would ensure that the regulations were subject to the affirmative procedure.
On that basis, I cannot support amendment 9A, which was lodged by Mr Smyth. His amendment replaces “may” with “must”, which would mean that we could not wait until the publication of the report and the evaluation of the act nor establish whether any evidence had emerged of the need for a review process. Instead, ministers would have to make regulations to set up a review process as soon as they could after the provisions had come into force. That seems unnecessary and disproportionate, and it would risk our creating a process for its own sake without thinking through what resources that would take or, indeed, whether it was needed. We could decide that it was not needed but, unfortunately, we would have to go ahead with it because of Colin Smyth’s amendment.
Nevertheless, I understand why Mr Smyth thinks that a review might be needed. I therefore give him an undertaking on the record that we will evaluate the operation of the impact assessments process and that we will create a review process, should one be necessary, which will have the statutory underpinning that is set out. I hope that that is sufficient to persuade the member not to move amendment 9A. If he does, I ask members to vote against it.
As I have said, amendment 11, in my name, is another technical amendment. The criteria under section 12(3) were changed by Jamie Greene’s stage 2 amendment 78, which added a financial implications requirement to the section 12 island communities impact assessment of legislation. That means that the criteria in section 12(3) are now different from, and more onerous than, those in section 8(3). My amendment 11 makes it clear that an assessment that is completed under the more stringent criteria of section 12 should also be considered to be an island communities impact assessment under section 8, thereby demonstrating compliance with the duty in section 7.
Amendment 2, in the name of Tavish Scott, is drafted in the same terms as his stage 2 amendment 23. As I said at that time, I understand what he seeks to achieve with the amendment, but I cannot support it. The content of the guidance is crucial to understanding what is expected of public bodies in practice in relation to implementing and delivering the island-proofing duty, and section 10 makes it clear that public authorities will be expected to follow that guidance, which will be developed in full consultation with islands authorities, island communities and other relevant stakeholders. I am determined to ensure that that is a meaningful process.
However, amendment 2 would stop the application of that guidance until Parliament had considered and approved it. It therefore has the potential to slow down implementation of the island-proofing duty substantially. It would also potentially require every iteration of the guidance to come before Parliament for approval, meaning that relatively small changes or additions would be subject to a lengthy and cumbersome process. I believe that that would reduce flexibility and adaptability and would slow things down.
The guidance will need to adapt with experience, to highlight good practice and caution against bad practice. It is not normal practice for the Parliament to approve guidance that is issued by the Scottish ministers rather than guidance that is issued by the Parliament itself, for the very good reason that the Parliament has limited time and resources. To look at detailed guidance every time it is changed would be quite a burden.
I offered a compromise at stage 2, and I am happy to offer it again. I committed to bringing before Parliament the very first version of the guidance in draft before it is published, so that Parliament can contribute to the development process. That seems to be the most important stage for members to have sight of the guidance, rather than every single time that it is altered. I undertake to do that and, on that basis, I ask Tavish Scott not to move amendment 2. If he does, I ask members to vote against it.
Amendment 5 is also in the name of Tavish Scott, and I am grateful to him for lodging it. The amendment includes a further step for ministers, after they have prepared an island communities impact assessment under section 8, requiring them to undertake a further consultation in circumstances in which a “material change” has taken place. I have some worries because the amendment would introduce a new term—“material change”—that is not used elsewhere in the bill and because such a process could add another layer of complexity. However, I understand the principle behind the amendment, so I am happy to support it.
I am terribly tempted to start with a debate on udal law, but I will spare members that for another day. I am really exercised to lodge an amendment on udal law, but at some stage there will be a bill that allows us do so.
I will speak briefly to amendments 2 and 5. I hear what the minister says about bringing a first draft of the guidance to Parliament. I also recognise what he said about amendment 2 slowing down island proofing, which is very much against what I would argue for. Therefore, although, as Colin Smyth set out rather well, the arguments are in favour of the guidance being scrutinised adequately and properly—this is an enabling piece of legislation, and it is important that any bill that is constructed in such a way is properly scrutinised by Parliament—I take the minister’s line, which he has read on to the record this afternoon, that presenting the first draft to Parliament will allow proper scrutiny not just by committees and members of the Parliament but by island communities themselves. On that basis, I am minded not to move amendment 2.
Let me be blunt in saying that amendment 5 would not have been lodged were it not for Highlands and Islands Airports Ltd. The principle of consultation is enshrined in numerous Government documents of all political persuasions, yet HIAL—which, for those who do not know, is and always has been wholly owned by the Government—plans to impose car parking charges on Kirkwall, Stornoway and Sumburgh airports without consultation. It has flatly refused to consult, which no one in the islands appreciates at all—nor, I believe, should the Government.
HIAL’s defence—I will not even give it credit for having mounted one—is that it knows the answer to the question, “Would you like to pay for parking at our airports?” Could the Government imagine Shetland Islands Council, for example, deciding to close a school and saying, “We’re not going to bother consulting parents, because we know what they would say”? Not surprisingly, the Government’s response would be to say, “No, you can’t do that. You must consult, and here’s why: there’s legislation, there are all these documents and there are your own strategies and many other mechanisms in place. You must consult.” I cannot conceive how a Government agency—in this case, Highlands and Islands Airport Ltd—could get away with not consulting on such a matter.
I hope that, even at this late stage, the minister recognises that, in the context of island proofing, it is extremely important that HIAL is made to consult properly, just as any other local authority or public agency would have to. That is the basis for amendment 5, and I ask members to support it.
We support amendment 26, in the name of Colin Smyth, as it would provide a safeguard for relevant authorities that may not have the time or the resources to publish reports quickly. The amendment would give an authority the time and latitude to publish
“as soon as reasonably practicable afterwards and in such manner as it considers appropriate”.
That would be appropriate.
We will support amendment 9, in the name of the minister, but only if it is amended by amendment 9A, in the name of Colin Smyth. Amendment 9 would add a new section titled “Reviews of decisions relating to island communities impact assessments”. Although I am glad that the minister wants to add that section, Colin Smyth’s amendment 9A is necessary, as it would change “may” to “must”, ensuring that the provision allowing the appeal of decisions must be included in the bill. That change, which was recommended at stage 1, is important, as it would enable authorities to challenge a decision on an island communities impact assessment when they felt that there had been a significant impact on their community that had not been successfully assessed.
We support amendment 2, in the name of Tavish Scott, which would ensure that Scottish ministers would have to lay the
“guidance they propose to issue” to islands authorities “before the Scottish Parliament” for it to be subsequently approved by the Parliament. The amendment would ensure cross-party scrutiny so that local authorities would receive the best guidance for their community.
We support amendment 15, which is a technical amendment.
We support amendment 11, in the name of the minister, which came about as a result of amendment 31, in the name of Jamie Greene, which has yet to be debated. In the light of the minister’s comments, we can now support his amendment 11.
We support amendment 5, which would add a new section to the bill, ensuring that island communities are statutory consultees.
We also support amendment 34, which is another technical amendment and which would make a change to the bodies that are listed in the schedule.
Amendment 4 would require the Scottish ministers to prepare an island communities impact assessment in relation to existing legislation and strategies on waste management. The impact assessment would have to describe the effect of that legislation and those strategies on the recovery and disposal of waste in island communities.
I take on board the arguments that Jamie Greene and other members made earlier in relation to the list, but amendment 4 has a specific purpose that relates to the waste flow in Shetland. The issue that my amendment deals with is a very simple one. Waste is used in a waste-to-energy plant. The energy that is produced heats water that is pumped through Lerwick’s district heating system, which heats the Gilbert Bain hospital in Lerwick, care centres and schools across the capital, and many homes. That is the way in which recycling of waste is done there. The system, which was built many years ago using local and central Government moneys, completes a waste loop.
I appreciate that much waste regulation has changed and that it will continue to change. My intention in amendment 4 is simply to ensure that, in the waste legislation and strategies that Government and local government devise and adhere to, there is an understanding of the dynamics of what happens in islands. In the example that I have given, that is not currently the case. I look to the minister for recognition of that fact, and I hope that he might be able to find a way to deal with the situation in the context of my amendment.
I move amendment 4.
I will be brief. It is worth saying that islands are allowed to be different in all sorts of different ways.
I have some technical issues with subsection (2) of the new section that amendment 4 seeks to insert in the bill, which hooks the whole thing to royal assent. It is worth looking at what the bill says. On the day after royal assent, only sections 1, 2, 22 and 24 will come into force, so the new section that amendment 4 provides for would not be included. There is therefore a wee bit of a lacuna in the way in which the amendment has been constructed.
In any event, given that, on royal assent, only the housekeeping bits of the bill—not the powers—will be brought into force, it is only when a commencement order is laid that any parts of the bill that matter to islands will come into effect. I am therefore slightly doubtful about the construction of amendment 4 and I ask Tavish Scott to address that in his closing remarks.
I thank Tavish Scott for bringing the issue to the Parliament’s attention through amendment 4. It deals with a specific issue that relates to a localised area on a specific island. I see what the member is seeking to do. One could argue that the bill is not the place to address such specific environmental issues, but it is the Islands (Scotland) Bill, and if it is not the place and now is not the time to deal with such issues, where and when should they be dealt with?
For that reason, and given that there is nothing in particular in amendment 4 for us to disagree with, Tavish Scott will have the support of Conservative members for it.
This is a graphic example of the importance of geography. Tavish Scott talked about understanding the dynamics. This is a clear example of a situation where we could argue that there are conflicting policies. There might have been an expectation that I would rise to say something, but I am not going to say it. We need to have a pragmatic approach and look at everything in the round. If Tavish Scott presses amendment 4, the Green Party will support it.
I appreciate that remote communities, including our island communities, can face challenges to meeting our policy ambitions for tackling waste. That is why we continue to work closely with island councils, through Zero Waste Scotland, to assist them in achieving compliance.
I am aware that island councils are making steady progress towards achieving compliance with the existing legislation. For example, we expect the recycling rate in Shetland to increase significantly as new recycling services are rolled out with assistance from Zero Waste Scotland, particularly in light of Shetland Islands Council’s decision in 2017 to sign up to the Scottish household recycling charter.
A retrospective impact assessment of existing legislation and strategies, as proposed in amendment 4, would be of little value because a significant amount of our existing law and policy is underpinned by European Parliament and European Council directives. Any deviation from those requirements could result in costly infraction proceedings being undertaken. It is more constructive to focus on the practical steps that are needed to improve recycling performance and consider waste management options, which is what we are doing through Zero Waste Scotland.
Bearing in mind the good points that Tavish Scott articulated, I am happy to commit to review the best practical environmental options for the collection and processing of recyclable waste in Shetland, in order to assist island councils in their duties. I am happy to ask my colleague the Cabinet Secretary for Environment, Climate Change and Land Reform to meet Tavish Scott to discuss that work, and to bring together the relevant stakeholders. I believe that she has given Tavish Scott that undertaking outside the chamber, and I am happy to give that commitment again.
Given those assurances, I hope that Tavish Scott will not press amendment 4.
I thank colleagues for speaking to amendment 4 in the way in which they have. I take John Finnie’s point given his party’s position on what I might call a waste energy plant and what he might call something else.
I take the minister’s point about a Government review of the best environmental options. I accept that concession and the spirit in which it was given. I am grateful to the minister for that. Given that Parliament will agree to Liam McArthur’s amendment 12, which we debated a few minutes ago, there will be a mechanism in place to pursue the issue in a different way. Those two factors make it clear to me that the parties that need to come together to resolve the matter in the round can do so, given what the minister and Parliament have said. On that basis, I will not press amendment 4.
Amendment 4, by agreement, withdrawn.
Amendment 12 moved—[Liam McArthur]—and agreed to.
Amendment 28 moved—[Colin Smyth].
Amendment 27 would require ministers to create a scheme in which local authorities can request devolution of functions to be considered. Similarly, Liam McArthur’s amendment 13 would require the creation of a scheme for local authorities to request additional powers. Amendments 32 and 16 would require both schemes to be subject to affirmative procedure.
Either one of amendments 27 or 13 would make an invaluable contribution to the bill. Accordingly, I will support both.
The bill was created on the basis that island communities have unique and varied needs, and it purports to strengthen those communities. However, it could do more by way of community empowerment and strengthening decision-making powers for those communities. The amendments in group 6 would create a mechanism whereby islands authorities could request additional powers, if they were needed. That would improve their ability to respond to specific local problems and to develop policy in line with communities’ needs and priorities. It would put power in the hands of communities and help to protect island communities against centralisation.
As was the case with regard to the amendments on retrospective island proofing requests, the case would have to be made for having the powers by the local authority. The amendments in group 6 do not seek to overburden already stretched councils with powers that they do not want, nor would they create a system in which any power could be devolved automatically on request. The systems that are proposed are practical and balanced.
In recent months, there has been much debate—rightly so—about so-called power grabs, and about which powers should or should not be devolved to this Parliament. However, our local councils are often forgotten in that debate. As more and more powers come to the Scottish Parliament from the United Kingdom Parliament, they should not automatically rest in Edinburgh, which can often seem distant from our island communities. If this Parliament genuinely believes in local democracy, it should support the modest mechanisms in the amendments in group 6, because they could make that happen for our island communities.
I move amendment 27.
I associate myself with Colin Smyth’s comments. As was the case with the earlier amendments on retrospective island proofing, I am conscious that he and I have our tanks parked on each other’s lawns. For the record, I state that I am not partisan with regard to which of the amendments Parliament chooses to support.
My amendment 13 and the consequential amendment 16 are an attempt to future proof the legislation. As Donald Dewar once wisely observed, devolution is a process, not an event. The bill should not and must not be the sum total of our ambition to empower our island communities. We must leave open the possibility and the option for local authorities, acting in the interests of the communities that they represent, to request additional functions and responsibilities; perhaps we must even encourage them to do so. The granting of any such request would not be a foregone conclusion. A robust case would need to be made, weighing up the pros and the cons. By the same token, any refusal by ministers would need to be based on sound evidence and be subject to appeal.
As with my approach on retrospective island proofing, I believe that amendment 13 is both reasonable and proportionate in meeting what has been a consistent demand from all three of the islands authorities. On that basis, I hope that it, or Colin Smyth’s amendment 27, will find support across the chamber.
I rise to give the Conservatives’ support for amendments 27 and 13. They make important points. The Rural Economy and Connectivity Committee took a lot of evidence throughout the progress of the bill, and much of the evidence that we got from people on islands was about decentralisation of power and decision making; it is felt that decisions that are made closer to communities are better. The amendments would merely facilitate schemes for requests for devolution of specific functions, and would not create a major new governance framework change. I do not think that the bill would be the place to do that.
The rationale behind the amendments in group 6 is an important one for us to consider in the context of what the bill is seeking to achieve. For that reason, Conservatives will support all the amendments in the group.
Colin Smyth said that islands
“have unique and varied needs”.
I absolutely agree. Jamie Greene talked about bringing decision making closer to the islands. However, having read amendments 27 and 13, I see quite the opposite effect: they would prevent the islands from deciding how to present a case for devolution, because they would mandate that we in the Scottish Parliament dictate to the islands how such a case must be constructed. If either amendment were to be agreed to, lawyers in local authorities would inevitably be required to verify that requests were being presented in the correct legal form.
Quite frankly, I trust local authorities and would much prefer that they would decide how to make such requests. Neither amendment 27 nor amendment 13 would create a new power for local authorities; in contrast, both amendments would handcuff local authorities by prescribing a particular way in which they must do things. I feel very uncomfortable about that approach.
Amendments 27 and 13 would put in place a process. Stewart Stevenson might take issue with the process, but the islands authorities support the amendments that Colin Smyth and I have lodged. The amendments would put in place a process that does not currently exist—a mechanism whereby additional powers could be devolved to local authorities. Therefore, unless one of the two amendments is agreed to, we will miss an opportunity to future proof the bill and to enable powers and responsibilities to be exercised more appropriately at local level, if that is desired.
I disagree. There is such a process—it exists. The whole bill will empower island communities and local authorities. We are talking about communities and local authorities; it is not just about saying what local authorities must do.
“specifying consultation to be undertaken by an authority before making a request”.
Although I acknowledge that what Tavish Scott had to say about consultation by HIAL had some merit, I am reluctant to put handcuffs on local authorities and, potentially, to place additional legal costs on them by prescribing what they must do, when they can do everything already. If neither amendment 27 nor amendment 13 is agreed to, no local authority or community will be prevented from requesting that the rules be changed to benefit the community.
Devolution of power is what the Greens are about, and there is a clear role for the recipients of devolved power and their communities. Lest we all think that such devolution is some kind of nirvana, I can tell members that when Rural Economy and Connectivity Committee members were out and about we heard that some communities are wary of powers going to local authorities.
I am aware of on-going reviews and work with the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities and the minister, but I do not think that we can wait for ever. The bill is the vehicle through which some of what we seek can be delivered. There are challenges, not least because half the recipient authorities contain landward areas and most if not all local authority areas include some coastline, in relation to which the authority might have aspirations. All things considered, a lot of work will be required, but that will be done during discussions about the regulations that will follow. Therefore, the Greens will support amendments 27 and 13.
Amendment 13, from Liam McArthur, and amendment 27, from Colin Smyth, seek to allow islands authorities to request devolution of functions from the Scottish ministers. Amendments with that effect were debated at stage 2, and Colin Smyth has amended his version of the proposed approach, following their defeat in committee.
There are two main reasons why we will not support the amendments in group 6. First, we do not think that the bill is the right place to put the approach. Secondly, we think that the amendments could have negative unintended consequences for island communities, as opposed to councils.
In December, we took an important step on the community empowerment journey when, jointly with COSLA, we launched the local governance review. That is the right place for the discussion about the approach in amendments 27 and 13. The review’s purpose is to reform how Scotland is governed at local level. Our approach is built on work that others have done on the issue—for example, the COSLA-backed commission on strengthening local democracy in Scotland and the 2014 report on Parliament’s Local Government and Regeneration Committee’s inquiry into the flexibility and autonomy of local government.
The review’s focus on local governance requires consideration of a wide range of Scotland’s public services over which people may want more local control, and not just services that are provided by councils. Under the joint political oversight arrangements, the Government and COSLA leadership will meet next month to discuss an invitation to individual local authorities, community planning partnerships, regional partnerships and other public sector organisations to come forward with proposals for place-specific alternative approaches to governance. In last year’s programme for government, we made a commitment to support islands authorities that want, for example, to establish a single authority model of delivering local services, and we know that islands authorities are already actively working with local partners to develop concrete proposals.
The review is part of a process that will include a local democracy bill, which we are committed to introducing in this session of Parliament. That bill will provide a more appropriate legislative vehicle with which to make provision for the transfer of powers, because it will build on the collaborative work that will be undertaken throughout the review. It will also ensure full and proper consultation on such a significant issue as transfer of powers, which was not available to us when amendments have been discussed at stages 2 or 3 of the Islands (Scotland) Bill.
My second point is on local communities. Our starting point has always been the power that local communities hold rather than the powers that are held by institutions. Ultimately, we want power to be transferred to local communities, rather than to local government. I know from the many island visits that I have undertaken that, for some island communities, the local council seems as distant as Holyrood—on many islands that I have travelled to in the Argyll and Bute Council area, as well as Barra in the Western Isles, people have suggested that. We want to ensure that, ultimately, power is devolved to local communities, which should not be conflated with local government.
On Monday, the Scottish Government invited people the length and breadth of Scotland to join a conversation about community decision making in order to help to make public services more locally focused. That conversation, which is called “Democracy Matters—Your Community. Your Ideas. Your Future.”, will run for six months. We can expect many good ideas to emerge from the conversation with island communities. As members know, communities on the islands have often blazed the trail in community self-determination, whether that is community development trusts making use of renewables, community landowners driving inclusive economic development or the recent buyout of Ulva by the North West Mull Community Woodland Company.
Although my colleagues across Government and I agree with the spirit of the amendments in group 6, we believe that something as fundamental as transfer of powers needs to go through a proper and rigorous engagement and consultation process, which will best be achieved through the local governance review. I therefore cannot support the amendments. In particular, Colin Smyth’s amendment 27 focuses on promoting legislation. That may be too restrictive, because non-legislative avenues might better meet such requests from authorities, so the amendment could confine rather than liberate. As such, I ask Colin Smyth not to press his amendment 27 and I ask Liam McArthur not to move his amendment 13.
I fundamentally disagree with Stewart Stevenson’s concerns and, more important, so do the islands authorities. It is strange for Stewart Stevenson to accuse islands authorities of trying to handcuff themselves.
My amendment 27 and Liam McArthur’s amendment 13 would put in place a mechanism that does not already exist to devolve more powers to our island communities. Both amendments should be supported, and I am sure that it would be possible to bring forward regulations to deal with both.
The minister said that there is no need for amendments that provide a mechanism to devolve more powers to our communities, because that will be dealt with in a possible future local democracy bill. My response is simply to say that if members support giving more power to our island communities, they should vote to provide those communities with a mechanism to request those powers. We should not wait for a bill that may or may not include such a provision some time in the future, and which Parliament may or may not pass. We have a duty to consider the legislation that is before us now and not what may come at a later date. I therefore urge members to support all the amendments in the group.
I press my amendment 27.
The Presiding Officer:
The result of the division is: For 62, Against 60, Abstentions 0.
Amendment 27 agreed to.
We are slightly ahead of schedule. We will take a short break.
15:45 Meeting suspended.
15:52 On resuming—
We resume with group 7. Amendment 3, in the name of Tavish Scott, is grouped with amendment 3A.
Amendment 3 would create a “Shetland mapping requirement”. With a single vote, it would stop the practice—intensely annoying to islanders and with which they have put up for too long—of placing Shetland not in its correct place 200 miles to the north of Aberdeen, but in a box off the Scottish coast. Whether that is the Moray coast, the Orkney coast or any other coast, it is not the right coast. We will no longer accept the lazy interpretation of maps that we have put up with for so long, which has been the case with Governments of all political persuasions, including the one that I might have been involved in—it is best to fess up on that before the minister comes up with an example.
It is right that we get this correct, and this is why: just after stage 2, when we debated the issue fully and the minister rightly drew attention to the fact that the permanent secretary had addressed the Government with a circular intimating that maps were to be correct in future, I read Twitter the very next day—probably something that one should not do—and alighted on a tweet from the energy minister. I have a copy of it here. It was about renewable sources—it was all good stuff—but the import of the tweet was a map of Scotland that excluded Shetland altogether, which was on a Scottish Government news release. [
I have a lot of sympathy, because Shetland should not appear next to Aberdeen. However, does the member accept the reality that the scale of all maps of Scotland would have to be reduced and Shetland—and everywhere else—would appear smaller?
I am grateful to Mr Mason for his intervention, but that is the cartographer’s argument. That is the argument that the men and women of maps have made to me and, no doubt, to other members. I just do not buy it.
We have put up with this for a long time. The cartographers make an intellectually coherent argument, but if one lived in a different part of the country, or if one was not particularly happy with the BBC weather map, for example—some colleagues expressed that view during stage 2—members of all political persuasions would raise it and ask for it to be corrected. I understand intellectually the cartographer’s argument, but I just do not accept it. If the member represented Shetland, he would not accept it either.
“provide in such manner as they consider appropriate” the reason why Shetland cannot be shown in the correct place? Subject to that point, I am grateful for the support of colleagues across the parties in making sure that, when we pass an islands bill, we put the islands in the right place.
I move amendment 3.
I know how important the issue is to Mr Scott and many other members, and I am sympathetic to his position and the spirit of his amendment. Any one of us as constituency MSPs would be concerned if our constituency was distorted on any map. I certainly would not like Glasgow Pollok to be misrepresented as being in the central belt or beside Edinburgh—heaven forfend. We can therefore all have sympathy with the spirit of Tavish Scott’s amendment and it is important that he has brought it to the debate.
In conversations that I had with Mr Scott subsequent to stage 2, I tried to highlight why I am not convinced that the bill is necessarily the best way of dealing with the issue. We now have a standing instruction with our publishing contractor to ensure that images of Scotland in future publications published by the Scottish Government should seek to portray accurately the geographic location of all Scotland’s islands, not just that of Shetland. My understanding is that there have been no further issues since then, but in shaming my colleague Mr Wheelhouse, Mr Scott made the point that these things sometimes happen.
I have had useful discussions with the member and with other members who represent island communities and are concerned about this issue and the ways in which we can reinforce the message. I have also written to public bodies to highlight the issue and ask that they, too, ensure that wherever possible they represent Scotland’s islands as accurately as possible in relation to the rest of Scotland.
I recognise the continued desire for recognition of the issue in statute, specifically in relation to Shetland. I therefore looked closely at amendment 3 and the changes in the proposal from that in Tavish Scott’s stage 2 amendment, in particular the leeway offered when an authority would be “unable to comply” with the mapping requirement. While some flexibility in that type of legal duty is a welcome improvement, “unable to comply” is still a high bar to reach and it could have the unintended consequence of making the duty quite inflexible in many cases. I know that flexibility was a specific concern for the committee at stage 2. We do not want too inflexible a requirement. There might be good reasons for an authority not to comply; indeed, it might even want to make Shetland disproportionately larger on the map, for whatever reason.
Amendment 3A therefore suggests a slightly different test for the flexibility that we are looking for: when ministers or a public authority consider that there are reasons not to comply, they may not follow the mapping requirement, although they must still provide information about those reasons. I hope that that reassures Tavish Scott.
The change proposed in amendment 3A is small, but I think that it is helpful; it will allow more discretion and flexibility when the circumstances dictate, such as allowing different maps to be produced when that will help the reader or the authority to make a particular point about Scotland. Compliance with the mapping requirement should remain of a fairly high standard, and it should take into account that a public authority has a duty to act reasonably and will not be able to just ignore the basic requirement without good reasons.
Amendment 3A also spells out more clearly who is covered by the duty, specifically identifying Scottish ministers and local authorities without limiting the Scottish public authorities that would be covered by amendment 3.
I am happy to support amendment 3 and I ask members to also support amendment 3A in my name.
I move amendment 3A.
As a group, the Conservatives note Tavish Scott’s amendment. I guess that the issue has aggravated many people in Shetland and beyond over the years. However, having been contacted by several professional cartographers—to return to John Mason’s argument—from a research institute in my region, I have some concerns over amendment 3. It would mean reducing the size of the rest of Scotland by something like 40 per cent, because there is just so much water surrounding Shetland, thus losing much of the detail in any maps that we produce. I therefore support the minister’s amendment 3A, which states that, where that cannot be taken into account, an explanation can be published as to why. That gives flexibility, which I welcome.
We therefore support amendment 3A, in the minister’s name—the amendment to Tavish Scott’s amendment—as it makes the best out of an impractical amendment.
“in a manner that accurately and proportionately represents their geographical location in relation to the rest of Scotland.”
We might even, for the first time, see the relationship that the Shetland Islands have to near neighbours Norway, which most maps utterly fail to show, despite Shetland being closer to Norway than to many significant cities in the United Kingdom.
When I was at school, Mercator’s projection was what produced globes and maps, because the earth is round and a map has to be put on a flat surface. I recommend to the minister that he consider using a Lambert International Organization for Standardization conformal projection, which would produce not a map but a chart. The reason that that is important is that, whenever one lays a ruler on it, one gets the correct distances between any point on that chart. If it is a chart, not a map, it is impossible for the proportion of Shetland to be other than accurately and proportionately represented. In the implementation of the issue, I encourage the minister to consider that option, even though it will not be legally required if, as I hope we do, we agree to the amendments.
Chapman, being from the north-east, might oppose getting Shetland in the right place. I do not know how many times, when I ran a farm in a previous life, his colleagues from the north-east would come up to buy lambs and would complain about there being 200 miles of sea to cross before those lambs got to Mr Chapman’s neighbours. If we were where some of Mr Chapman’s maps have us, the transport distance for our lambs would be much shorter, and we would be paid £5 more a head, but that is a matter for a different debate.
I hope that the minister was listening to Stewart Stevenson. I did not follow all of what he said, but I absolutely take his point, even if I did not necessarily get it. It was, nevertheless, an important lesson for us all. The serious point is that I recognise what the Government has done in this area, and I hope that the minister will accept that there would have to be a very good reason—not necessarily for me, but for those people at home who feel incredibly strongly about this—for a public agency or an authority to say, “No, we’re not doing it that way, we’re going to do it in a different way,” and then still keep us in a box off the Moray coast. Having said that, I recognise what the Government has done to bring the issue to a sensible conclusion, and I will certainly support the amendment in the minister’s name.
There is nothing for me to add other than to thank members for their contributions. We have found a sensible way forward. I was going to use a phrase from “Dirty Dancing” and say, “Nobody puts Shetland in a corner”, but that is exactly where we are going to end up putting it on the map.
Amendment 3A agreed to.
Amendment 3, as amended, agreed to.
A big part of the bill is about the creation of one and two-member wards in local authorities on islands. We know that the needs of island communities can be quite different from those of mainland communities. The current rules under the Local Government Boundary Commission for Scotland on the creation of electoral wards have two key recommendations. One is that local authority wards should comprise only three or four members. The bill seeks to address that with the potential creation of one-member and two-member wards, which is, I think, welcome across the chamber. The second recommendation is to do with the principle of parity. Across each individual local authority, the ratio of electors per councillor should be the same. That is not exactly the case in all wards. The commission recommends that wards should have no more than 10 per cent variation from parity with one other. There is not a standard Scotland-wide number of electors per councillor.
Councils are divided into five categories, depending on the degrees of rurality and deprivation in their areas. Let us look at the councils that are impacted by the bill. The three island councils have a ratio of 800 electors per councillor; Argyll and Bute Council has a ratio of 2,800 electors per councillor; and North Ayrshire Council, which is in my region, has a ratio of 3,000 electors per councillor. The current rules dictate that there must be the same number of electors per councillor across the entire local authority area. The problem with that is that it fails to recognise that islands may have degrees of rurality and deprivation that are very different from those of the adjoining mainland areas in the same local authority area. That is very much the case in North Ayrshire.
My amendment 29 seeks to allow the Local Government Boundary Commission for Scotland to alter the electors-to-member ratio in an island ward in a local authority area that contains islands and mainland areas. That does not apply to all island authorities. The amendment has been carefully worded to affect only three authorities—North Ayrshire Council, Argyll and Bute Council and Highland Council—and its effect would be to revoke the rules that require parity across the entire local authority area. It would allow the commission to consider arguments that are based on geography and local ties, for example, for a different electors-per-councillor ratio to apply in island wards, and any decision on that would ultimately be for the commission. Other mainland parts of the local authority area would be unaffected. The important thing to note is that due process must always be followed with those requests.
I have consulted North Ayrshire Council on the specific anomaly, and I believe that there is a broad consensus of support in that council and its electorate across partisan views.
I will do so shortly, but I first want to further clarify what the amendment would do.
I would not want the bill to rightfully allow for the creation of one-member and two-member wards with the net effect of a reduction in representation on the Isle of Arran, for example. Currently, the 3,000 electors per councillor ratio would mean that, if we created an Arran-only ward, there would potentially be one councillor there. For the people of Arran to have two councillors, the ratio would need to be changed to around 1,800 to one. That would be a great variance from parity with other wards in that council area, and there is no precedent for doing that. In fact, I believe that the percentage of disparity would be such that the Local Government Boundary Commission for Scotland would be unable to approve that. Allowing for such a change is what the amendment seeks to achieve.
Yes. Last week, I had a very long conversation on the phone with the leader of Highland Council, who had questions about the wording of the amendment. I am happy to tell members that one of the concerns that were raised was whether the change would be automatic across all the island authorities. If one island in a local authority area made a request to the
Local Government Boundary Commission for Scotland and the change was agreed to, that would not have an automatic consequence across all the other island authorities. Things would still be done on a case-by-case basis. The current process of applying to the commission would still apply. All that the amendment would do would be to allow the commission the power to create a disparity that does not already exist. Therefore, there has been consultation with other authorities.
In the Argyll and Bute example, where there are a number of smaller islands with small populations, at the moment there is nothing stopping the council from making representations to the Local Government Boundary Commission for Scotland to create a ward under the normal process. What my amendment would specifically allow is the creation of one-member and two-member wards where the ratio is different. It would be a shame if we passed the bill with the result that we had no tangible changes for some of our largest island communities. I therefore ask members from across the political spectrum to support amendment 29.
I move amendment 29.
I speak in support of amendment 29, in Jamie Greene’s name. As has been indicated, amendment 29 relates not just to the bill but to the Local Government (Scotland) Act 1973. Schedule 6 to the 1973 act sets out that the ratio of electorate per councillor should be the same in each ward in a local authority. However, as Jamie Greene has said, there is a strong case for ensuring that the bill allows for exemptions to that ratio for not just all-island wards but all wards that consist wholly or partly of one or more islands.
North Ayrshire Council, whose area includes the island communities of Arran and the Cumbraes, supports amending section 14 of the bill. The council says that, to make the most of section 14, there must be flexibility around the underlying ratio. In North Ayrshire, where 95 per cent of the population lives on the mainland, the ratio of population per councillor for the authority as a whole is driven by the mainland’s profile of rurality and its demographics. However, the bill’s proposals for island proofing should allow the unique characteristics of island communities to be taken into account. North Ayrshire Council believes that the Local Government Boundary Commission for Scotland should be able to consider an island ratio of electorate per councillor that reflects the profile of the island, not the mainland. However, that will not be possible under the bill’s current wording.
Amendment 29 would simply give the commission power to consider arguments that islands that have widely different demographics from their adjoining mainland should be able to have a ratio of electorate per councillor that reflects their unique circumstances. In practice, and with all other things being equal, an unamended section 14, as Jamie Greene said, could result in Arran getting one fewer resident councillor than it gets at present, because of the application of the ratio. That is why North Ayrshire Council believes that the commission should have more flexibility. As Jamie Greene said, the commission currently has only limited power to deviate from electoral parity and aims to restrict any deviation to 10 per cent. The commission does not have power, as things stand, to propose a variation from parity of 36 per cent in Arran or 63 per cent in Cumbrae, which is required to island proof the democracy of North Ayrshire and create a two-member ward for Arran and a one-member ward for the Cumbraes. That is why amendment 29 is required.
North Ayrshire Council has made compelling arguments in support of amendment 29, which would strengthen democracy and accountability in island communities in my region. I am happy to support amendment 29.
As far back as 26 September last year, North Ayrshire Council asked me, as a constituency member, to lodge an amendment like amendment 29 to increase the number of North Ayrshire councillors from 33 to 35 by having an additional councillor for the island of Cumbrae and an additional councillor for the island of Arran. I declined to support the council’s position and explained my reasons for that, which I will share with members shortly. However, I am curious as to why Mr Greene has moved amendment 29, given that North Ayrshire Council Tories made a right song and dance about what they alleged to be a waste of public money when an increase from 30 to 33 councillors was mooted prior to the 2017 local authority elections.
Nowhere in North Ayrshire Council’s briefing on the proposed amendment is it mentioned that current legislation already allows the Local Government Boundary Commission for Scotland to depart from electoral parity where “special geographical considerations” apply. Paragraph 2 of the relevant rule states:
“The strict application of the rule stated in paragraph 1(2) may be departed from in any area where special geographical considerations appear to render a departure desirable.”
I support single-member wards for island communities far from the mainland and argued for that, in relation to Arran, when the Local Government and Communities Committee took evidence from Joe FitzPatrick, the Minister for Parliamentary Business, and Derek Mackay, the finance secretary. Both ministers expressed sympathy for that argument. However, I am also in complete agreement with schedule 6 of the Local Government (Scotland) Act 1973, which states that there should be parity across any local authority area. The Western Isles has 674 voters per councillor and North Ayrshire has 3,294. What is important is that each vote within the local authority area is of roughly the same value.
It would be completely undemocratic for a vote in Arran, which has two councillors for 3,904 electors, to be worth almost twice what a vote in Saltcoats is worth, or for a vote in Cumbrae, where there are only 1,098 electors, to be worth three times more than a vote in Largs—Cumbrae is an 8 mile ferry trip from Largs. Other areas of Scotland, such as Argyll and Bute, would also have their arrangements distorted if the amendment is agreed to.
One of my constituents has contacted me to support the view expressed by the previous two speakers. Both Arran and Cumbrae voted strongly for the Scottish National Party in recent years, so backing such an amendment could benefit my party electorally. Nevertheless, because it breaks the principle of vote parity within a local authority, I urge Mr Greene to withdraw amendment 29. If he does not, I urge members to vote against it.
Notwithstanding that it could benefit us politically, I will not be supporting Jamie Greene’s amendment 29 for a couple of reasons, which Kenny Gibson articulated very well. I will briefly go through some of what I said at stage 2. For North Ayrshire, the trouble is that it would potentially mean there would be two different ratios for the islands of Arran and Cumbrae. Amendment 29 seeks to disapply the rule requiring electoral parity for wards that consist wholly or partly of one or more inhabited islands, in local authorities that have wards both on islands and on the mainland of Scotland
I agree that the bill as it stands does not change the priority of electoral parity in the relevant legislation, but the current legislation already allows the Local Government Boundary Commission for Scotland to depart from electoral parity where special geographical considerations apply, as Kenny Gibson said. At stage 1, Jamie Greene asked the chair of the commission, Ronnie Hinds, a question on whether there should be an ability to change the ratio. I will quote Mr Hinds directly, as his answer is important.
“Our feeling is that, in the spirit of what the bill is seeking to achieve, the ability to have a choice between one or two-member wards and three or four-member wards in the island areas would probably get us to a position comparable to what is being sought. For example, we can readily construe a means by which we would change the current representation in Arran. That might mean that a ratio applied in Arran that was different from the ratio that applied in the rest of North Ayrshire, but to achieve such an end there would be no need for a new provision in the bill; it could be done by means of what is being offered in the bill.”—[
Rural Economy and Connectivity Committee
, 27 September 2017; c 28.]
That statement shows that the Local Government Boundary Commission for Scotland is willing to look at what could be done for each local authority area and to work flexibly. Whether it will be able to go as far as Jamie Greene and North Ayrshire Council want is another question.
Gail Ross’s intervention was important, because she asked whether there had been consultation with Argyll and Bute Council and Highland Council. Jamie Greene talked about some of the concerns those local authorities had raised, but did not indicate whether they supported the amendment.
Argyll and Bute, for example, has 23 inhabited islands. No doubt many of them will at some point argue the case for having more island councillors, and the impact could become onerous. Some very small islands could argue the case for having their own councillor. What is to stop an island with only two people living there asking for their own councillor? Electoral reviews can already be contentious and disputed and I am not sure that amendment 29 would reduce the potential for those disagreements.
Also, as Kenny Gibson highlighted in his contribution, I am not sure that the mainland parts of a local authority area will be unaffected. If the Local Government Boundary Commission for Scotland maintains its approach of determining council size and then determining the wards, increasing the number of island councillors may result in a decrease in the number on the mainland. Does Jamie Greene think that that will happen? Does he have a view on how we should respond to that?
If the commission does not take that approach to council size and there are more councillors on the islands, it could lead to an increase in the total number of councillors. Taking the example of Argyll and Bute, where there are 23 islands, there could be up to 23 additional councillors, with all the associated costs and so on.
Stage 3 of the bill process is a difficult point at which to introduce new proposals such as this, because we cannot reflect further on those important questions and amend the bill later. The issue would perhaps be better addressed through appropriate local government legislation, which I have already said will be coming before Parliament, so I ask Mr Greene to withdraw amendment 29. If he does not, I urge members not to support it.
The minister said that in his view the commission is comfortable that it can already make these ratio changes, but at the moment the precedent is for a difference of no more than 10 or 15 per cent. We are talking about a disparity of around 63 per cent in the example of Cumbrae and there is no precedent in that regard. There has been no confirmation on the record that the commission would be willing to make that type of ratio change. My amendment would allow it to do so.
On the idea that every island in Argyll and Bute, for example, will tomorrow suddenly request its own councillor, I point out that they could do that today if they wanted to. The amendment would not change the process that would have to be gone through, either today or after the bill passes. However, it would ensure that if island councils made representations to the commission for an alteration, the commission would have the ability to create those member wards. There would be no deviation from existing due process and practices. There was a suggestion that the councils will suddenly want 23 extra councillors, but that is not the case at all.
I do not think that it is worth spending a huge amount of time reflecting on Kenny Gibson’s comments. Given that he sought to make cheap political points out of a very important bill, those comments do not deserve any more of my time. Mr Gibson might not think that the votes of Arran and Cumbrae are worth it, but we on the Conservative benches absolutely do. That is why I ask members to support my amendment.
The purpose of amendment 14 is to amend the Marine (Scotland) Act 2010 to allow the Scottish ministers to delegate regional marine planning to a single local authority in the three island Scottish marine regions of the Orkney Islands, the outer Hebrides and the Shetland Isles in order to carry out the functions related to preparing a regional marine plan.
As it stands, section 12(2) of the 2010 act states that any council or public authority cannot have outright delegated authority on its own; there must be another person nominated by the Scottish ministers.
Marine Scotland has been working closely with Orkney Islands Council to consider the options for creating a partnership there and to try to address some of the issues that the council has had in finding a partner for the purpose of marine planning.
The difficulties in Orkney were raised by the local authority in its written submission on the bill at stage 1. Colin Smyth lodged an amendment at stage 2 to try to address the issue and I thank him for doing so. I gave a commitment then to liaise with him and come back with an appropriate amendment to address the technical requirements of this issue at stage 3. The result is amendment 14, which I lodged after discussions with Colin Smyth on what was quite a technical drafting exercise. The amendment provides for the situation where, if there is difficulty in establishing a partner for marine planning for an island council in Orkney, the Western Isles or the Shetland Isles, it may be appropriate to allow for delegation to a council as a single entity. The amendment will not affect any of the other eight Scottish marine regions.
Even if the local authority were to be delegated to as a single entity, there is a legal requirement—under section 12(5) of the Marine (Scotland) Act 2010—that the ministerial direction on marine planning includes a statement of the reasons for delegating to a public authority instead of to a group.
There is also a requirement under section 12(5) of the 2010 act for the public authority to consult with others and
“to have regard to any representations made” when preparing a regional marine plan, so although the local authority will take the lead in the regional marine plan, others will be able to have their say. I consider that these measures provide the remedy that is needed here.
I move amendment 14.
As the minister said, his amendment 14 concerns an issue that I raised at stage 2. I thank the minister for making good on his commitment to lodge an amendment at stage 3 to address that issue. Island authorities can often face particular challenges in finding the required partner for the delegation of marine planning functions, preventing those local authorities from being granted those functions.
Amendment 14 provides an exemption, allowing Orkney, Shetland and the Western Isles to carry out functions for regional marine planning as single public authorities if they are able to demonstrate difficulty in finding a suitable partner.
That reflects the unique problems that those local authorities can have in that regard and ensures that they are able to experience the benefits of delegated marine planning functions in spite of the barriers that they face. That will improve efficiency and promote the integration of terrestrial and marine planning. It will therefore be no surprise to learn that I fully support amendment 14.
Amendment 14 agreed to.
Briefly, amendment 31 is about having a report on the operation of the act. The amendment says that ministers must prepare
“a report on the operation of this Act” and, more importantly, that ministers must consult the island
“authorities listed in the schedule”.
I lodged a similar amendment at stage 2, with a perhaps slightly onerous timeline of one year. That may have been a little bit optimistic, given the timescales for the introduction of a new bill. After some discussion with the minister and his team, I am pleased to be able to bring back a revised amendment with the intention that we review and report on the operation of the act after four years.
I think that it is right that this act receives some scrutiny in the next parliamentary session and that island authorities can be involved in that scrutiny to make sure that the act achieves its intentions.
I move amendment 31.
I will simply say that I very much welcome this amendment. Jamie Greene lodged an amendment at stage 2 to include a report on the act. Although his timescales were a little short, I was happy to agree in principle. We had good and useful discussions in the lead-up to stage 3. Amendment 31 requires that, four years after royal assent, the Scottish ministers must publish and lay before Parliament a report on the operation of the act and must consult public authorities and others as appropriate in preparing that report. That is a sensible proposal with an eminently sensible timescale and I am happy to support amendment 31.
Amendment 31 agreed to.
The Presiding Officer:
That concludes consideration of the Islands (Scotland) Bill at stage 3.
At this stage, I have to make a determination. As members will be aware, I am required, under the standing orders, to decide whether, in my view, any provision in the bill relates to a protected subject matter—that is, whether it modifies the electoral system or franchise for Scottish parliamentary elections. In my view, no provision of the Islands (Scotland) Bill relates to a protected subject matter, and therefore the bill does not require a supermajority at stage 3.
Before we move on to the debate, we will have a short suspension.
16:33 Meeting suspended.
16:41 On resuming—