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Islands (Scotland) Bill

Overview

This Bill does a number of things in relation to Islands. 

It seeks to:

  • promote islanders’ voice
  • harness island resources
  • enhance islanders’ wellbeing

As part of the Bill, a National islands plan will be prepared and published by Scottish Ministers. The plan will set out how to improve the lives of island communities across Scotland.

As part of the Bill a clear definition will be given for an:

  • island
  • inhabited island
  • island community

Public authorities and Scottish Ministers must prepare impact assessments for island communities. The Bill will give more powers to minimise any negative impact of decisions on islands.

You can find out more in the Explanatory Notes document that explains the Bill.

Why the Bill was created

Scotland’s island communities face unique challenges including:

  • geographic remoteness
  • declining populations
  • transport 
  • digital connections

Policies and strategies for Scotland don’t always take into account these challenges. This can mean that island inhabitants and communities are at a disadvantage. 

You can find out more in the Policy Memorandum document that explains the Bill.

Becomes an Act

The Islands (Scotland) Bill passed by a vote of 122 for and 0 against or abstentions. The Bill became an Act on 6 July 2018.

Introduced

The Scottish Government sends the Bill and related documents to the Parliament.

Islands (Scotland) Bill as introduced

Related information from the Scottish Government on the Bill

Opinions on whether the Parliament has the power to make the law (Statements on Legislative Competence)

Information on the powers the Bill gives the Scottish Government and others (Delegated Powers Memorandum)

Scottish Parliament research on the Bill 

Stage 1 - General principles

Committees examine the Bill. Then MSPs vote on whether it should continue to Stage 2.

Have your say

The deadline for sharing your views on this Bill has passed. Read the views that were given.

Who examined the Bill

Each Bill is examined by a 'lead committee'. This is the committee that has the subject of the Bill in its remit.

It looks at everything to do with the Bill.

Other committees may look at certain parts of the Bill if it covers subjects they deal with.

Who spoke to the lead committee about the Bill

Video Thumbnail Preview PNG

First meeting transcript

The Convener

I welcome Liam McArthur, who has joined us to observe the session on the Islands (Scotland) Bill, which is the subject of item 2. This is the first evidence session on the bill, and I welcome from the Scottish Government Ian Turner, who is the team leader for community empowerment; Darren Dickson, who is a policy officer; and Kirsten Simonnet-Lefevre, who is a solicitor.

The committee has various questions. The first, which will develop theme 1, will be asked by the deputy convener, Gail Ross.

Gail Ross (Caithness, Sutherland and Ross) (SNP)

Good morning. To start us off, will you comment on the development of the bill, including the involvement of the our islands, our future campaign?

The Convener

If whoever wants to answer looks at me, I will bring you in. It looks as though Darren Dickson has been nominated.

Darren Dickson (Scottish Government)

I will take the question, given that I have been involved longest with the Government’s islands policy work. I will try not to repeat what is in the bill documents and the helpful Scottish Parliament information centre briefing.

The bill’s origins date back to 2014, when the Government produced the prospectus “Empowering Scotland’s Island Communities”. That was the first time that the Government signalled its commitment to look at bringing forward an islands bill. It led to the consultation in 2015, which talked about the provisions that would be in a future bill. In 2016, we made a programme for government announcement that committed the Government to introducing the bill that we are discussing today.

It is probably fair to say that the catalyst for the work that we are doing through the bill was the launch of the our islands, our future campaign by the three wholly island councils back in June 2013. Since then, the Government has worked closely with those three island councils—first and foremost through the island areas ministerial working group. Latterly, we have brought into the new islands strategic group the other three councils that have responsibility for island communities—North Ayrshire Council, Highland Council and Argyll and Bute Council. That is where we are today.

The Government is keen to ensure that the bill is about all inhabited islands. That is partly why ministers decided, last August, to bring the other three councils round the table. We have worked closely with them through the islands strategic group, and they have helped us to shape and develop the bill. That work will continue as the bill progresses through its parliamentary journey and beyond in the drafting of regulations for the implementation of the national islands plan.

The current islands minister, Mr Yousaf, and his predecessor, Mr Mackay, have spent a great deal of time in not just speaking to the councils but getting out and about around the country, meeting island communities and speaking to them about the bill as well as engaging with them on wider island issues. I know that the committee was recently on Mull, and it was useful to read the information about that on the committee’s web pages. We are getting out and engaging with people on the bill as much as we can.

Gail Ross

Quite a lot has changed, given the United Kingdom’s vote to leave the European Union. Has the approach to the bill changed since the Brexit vote?

Darren Dickson

It is probably fair to say that the approach has not changed. The Brexit vote was last summer and the bill was announced only in September last year, so it has been running alongside the Brexit process. I imagine that the bill process will conclude in advance of any Brexit outcome, so it will be difficult to see any impact on the bill. We do not expect any significant or dramatic changes to the bill because of Brexit, although I do not want to prejudge any amendments that might be lodged at stages 2 and 3.

If the bill is passed with commitments to provisions for island proofing and a national islands plan, those are probably the areas in which the outcomes of Brexit might be addressed, as future legislation that is required will have to be island proofed and commitments will be made in the national islands plan.

Gail Ross

Are any issues that were raised in the pre-bill campaigning not in the bill as it has been introduced?

Darren Dickson

The bill is pretty much what was consulted on. The 2014 prospectus made a commitment to consider extending the powers under the Orkney County Council Act 1974 and the Zetland County Council Act 1974. Having looked at that with solicitors, colleagues across other offices and Marine Scotland, we think that it is clear that extending those acts would be difficult, partly because they are private acts and partly because how we handle legislation has changed over the past 40 years.

The provision in the bill is for a marine licensing scheme. I imagine that the committee will have questions on that, so I will not go into further detail now.

John Mason (Glasgow Shettleston) (SNP)

I have just a minor point. When the bill was prepared, was it a unanimous view that Skye should be included? The bill says that bridges should be ignored, but surely Skye does not have the problems with ferries and other transport that real islands do.

Members: Oh!

The Convener

I will let the witnesses gather their thoughts on that and how the bridge was taken into account. I am sure that we all agree that Skye is a real island.

Darren Dickson

This is quite a surprising issue. We have been asked three times whether Skye is covered by the bill, so people must not be reading the explanatory notes, which clearly state that Skye is included. The basis for that is that it is an inhabited island—according to the 2011 census, there are about 993 inhabited islands, and Skye is on that list.

Peter Chapman (North East Scotland) (Con)

I will follow that up. Really remote areas on the mainland have all the same issues as the islands have—particularly Skye, given that it has a road bridge. Someone who is on an island relies on the ferries to get from A to B, but Skye does not have that problem. Many remote rural areas on the mainland have problems that are equal to those of the islands, so where do they fit into the bill, if at all?

Darren Dickson

Not at all is the answer to your question. It is a bill on the islands—that is what we were asked to draft and introduce and that is what we have done. I acknowledge your point about issues for remote rural locations on the mainland, but we are working within the scope of a bill that addresses the islands.

The Convener

The point is made.

Fulton MacGregor (Coatbridge and Chryston) (SNP)

I understand that the bill relates to the islands, but do you envisage it having any positive knock-on effects for the rural communities that Peter Chapman mentioned?

Darren Dickson

I imagine that it will. Island proofing and the national islands plan are key elements of the bill. Island proofing will have implications for our health boards, and many of our islands health boards have close links with mainland health boards, so it will probably tighten up that working relationship. It is not for me to comment, but the success or otherwise of island proofing may lead the Government to consider its approach to other areas.

The Convener

Before we move on, I remind the committee that when we have taken evidence, a lot of remote communities have said that they feel that they are islands, just as much as island communities are. That issue is specifically outwith the bill’s scope, but I am sure that there will be questions on it as a result of the evidence, which we will direct to the minister when he comes to the committee.

After Stewart Stevenson comes in, we will move on to the second theme, which Rhoda Grant will lead.

Stewart Stevenson (Banffshire and Buchan Coast) (SNP)

In planning, there is a series of definitions of communities. I will focus on remote rural communities, which, if I recall correctly, are defined as communities of fewer than 10,000 people that are more than 30 minutes’ travel away from a community of more than 10,000. That captures every island that is proposed to be covered, but it would also capture places such as Campbeltown.

In drawing up the policy and drafting the bill, what consideration was given to using existing definitions that are used for a wide variety of purposes in local and national Government? That would mean that the word “island” was not wholly appropriate, but it would suggest a similar policy intention of protecting remote communities and supporting them in a proper way.

The Convener

I apologise to Darren Dickson—I am going to be rude and jump in. Stewart, I totally take your point, but can I ask you to hold that question until the minister comes? It is important that he is the one who answers such questions.

Stewart Stevenson

I am entirely content to do that because the question is now on the record, but I point out that I framed it in relation to the formulation of the policy.

The Convener

I totally understand. Christine Grahame said when somebody asked a question yesterday that that was a clever way of doing it. I accept the premise and will make sure that you get a chance to ask the minister.

Stewart Stevenson

Thank you very much.

Rhoda Grant (Highlands and Islands) (Lab)

The bill is largely enabling legislation but, as I speak to constituents, I know that there is a huge amount of expectation about it. I fear that it will be a huge disappointment, because I can see nothing tangible that will come out of it. Everything will follow after, but the bill will make no real difference when it is enacted. Is that the case or will people see something tangible as an outcome of the bill?

Ian Turner (Scottish Government)

You are right to say that the bill provides a framework for action in the future in relation to national islands planning and particularly for island proofing. Island proofing is designed to ensure that the interests and needs of island communities are placed at the centre of future legislation, policies, strategy, and service design and delivery.

Although the bill is hard to connect to tangible local actions, it will certainly have an impact. It will ensure that island communities are involved in the decision-making processes early enough to have an impact on what happens in their communities. What that impact is and what the future policies and strategies will be is obviously hard for me to say, but that will come through the actions that are taken over time.

Rhoda Grant

The national islands plan has the potential to make a difference, but would it have been possible to have a plan without the legislation?

Ian Turner

We could have had the plan without legislation—that would have been the alternative to legislation. However, we thought that the rigour, transparency, scrutiny—particularly by Parliament and others, including island communities themselves—of the work being undertaken by the Government and the consultation that legislation would require would produce a different level of impact from that of just having a national plan that was designed by ministers. Having the plan in statute means not only that the Government will have to prepare the plan following the passage of the bill but that it will have to review the plan after five years and keep it going.

The bill is not just for now; as Darren Dickson said, it will maintain the momentum that arose from the our islands, our future campaign. That led into the different groups that ministers formed and then into the bill, which will keep the momentum going so that island communities continue to be a focus in the future. Moving away from having a bill could mean that the priority changed and that the Government moved on to something else. With a bill, that cannot happen, because the statute means that the measures must be in place.

09:15  



Rhoda Grant

What do you envisage will be in the national islands plan? What additional powers will there be for islands in relation to, for example, transport, digital connectivity and control over the marine environment? What is the expectation?

Ian Turner

As the bill says, the purpose of the plan is to set out

“the main objectives and strategy of the Scottish Ministers in relation to improving outcomes for island communities”.

We do not set out in detail what should be in the plan. That is partly because one of the first things that we will need to do is consult the people who are interested in and will be affected by the bill. In doing that, we will find out people’s priorities, which we will get into the plan.

There will be all the big issues that we would expect to see in the plan—transport, health, digital connectivity and so on—but what that will mean for powers or commitments that might be given will come up during the consultation process. It would be wrong for me to sit in Edinburgh and say, “These will be the priorities of islands in the future.”

Jamie Greene (West Scotland) (Con)

I get the impression from speaking to folk in island communities that, although people were excited about and welcomed the bill’s introduction, there is, as Rhoda Grant said, a great deal of disappointment about the lack of content and specifically about the lack of an overall objective in the bill. Will you comment on that? For example, is it the bill’s purpose to grow the population or facilitate economic regeneration? People have commented that there are few overarching aims or ambitions in the bill. Given that we could do much of what the bill does without having a bill, is it just a bill for a bill’s sake?

Ian Turner

I do not think that it is just a bill for a bill’s sake. The national islands plan is about

“improving outcomes for island communities”.

Just one aim, such as increasing the population, might not capture the different needs of all the islands across Scotland. Not all islands necessarily have a depopulation issue; some do and some do not.

Rather than prioritise one overriding issue over others, the national islands plan needs to cover the issues that arise across the islands and to ensure that the Government and its partners in local authorities and health boards are part of the plan. It is about bringing the partners together so that there is an overall strategy and an overall objective.

Things might change over time. An objective that is relevant now might not be relevant in 10 or 15 years’ time and might need to be changed. The bill’s purpose is to make sure that we maintain a focus, now and in the future, on islands issues.

Jamie Greene

Is there a worry that we are missing a trick by not specifying the issues that affect island communities? Those issues are long standing and will not go away overnight or even in 10 years’ time—I am thinking about access to healthcare, affordable transport, affordable housing and all the other things that we have heard about from people who have given evidence to us.

Do we have a unique opportunity to use primary legislation to ensure that the minister or Government of the day will address those issues, rather than leave things wide open by referring to a strategy, the contents of which we have no idea about? Do island communities not deserve an opportunity to have such issues properly addressed through the bill, rather than left to the minister?

Ian Turner

The bill could contain a list of issues that must be included in the islands plan. It would have to be a non-exhaustive list, because issues that we do not anticipate now could arise during the consultation or in the future.

I think that you are right to expect transport and digital connectivity to be in the plan, but I am not sure to what extent requiring their inclusion would change things; this is about what ministers say about the issues and the objective of bringing things together as a whole.

The minister has always made it clear when he has talked about the bill that he is open to ways in which it might be improved. If the committee feels that particular issues should be in there, he will be more than willing to consider them.

The Convener

I will bring in Liam McArthur, briefly.

Liam McArthur (Orkney Islands) (LD)

Thank you, convener. I will follow up the comments made by Jamie Greene and Rhoda Grant. I do not necessarily have an issue with the legislation being enabling—it is about enabling island communities. I am happy to share with colleagues my perspective on why islands are different from mainland remote communities and how the benefits of island proofing could spill out to the ways in which policies develop and legislation impacts those remote communities.

However, there is a sense of expectation about what the bill will achieve. Rhoda Grant is quite right to say that there is a serious risk that the legislation will not match that expectation. People have a clear view of how island proofing would be valuable in dealing with the problems that they face because of the way in which policy and legislation have been developed and implemented. What capacity will there be through the bill—from the minister’s intentions, based on your dealings with him—to look at existing examples of how legislation and policy work against the interests of islands, and to take early measures to address them? Promises on what will happen in the future can best be evidenced by a demonstration of a willingness to use island proofing and the purposes behind the bill to address some of the concerns that are real and present now.

Ian Turner

The bill is not retrospective, particularly in terms of island proofing; it is about future legislation, policies, strategies and services. That does not just mean when new policies are being developed but when they are redesigned or revised, so that other issues can come in—there are already many different routes. The bill raises the profile of a lot of the issues that members have talked about and how they can be addressed. The Government is willing and open to look at whatever we may do to bring forward the issue of what might be the appropriate route to make those changes. For example, if a health issue on a particular island needs to be looked at because the regulations do not quite work for the island, ministers are more willing than ever to look at how to adapt and change what is there.

The idea of island proofing is that one size will not necessarily fit all in future, particularly with regard to legislation. We might need to tweak legislation or make sure that it focuses on island issues in a particular way. That applies not just to primary legislation; it includes secondary legislation, where a lot of the detail of how we deliver policy is often given. Ministers are more than willing to consider what options might apply, but the bill as it stands is about the future of island proofing; it is not retrospective in the way that has been raised.

Rhoda Grant

The more that I hear, the more puzzled I become. The three island councils are clear about being empowered and getting decision-making powers that they do not have at the moment. They have the infrastructure to deliver decisions about transport, connectivity, planning the marine environment and so on. The island councils can preside over such matters and deal with them. Smaller islands, such as Barra, Westray, Unst and Mull—which the committee visited—are talking about being empowered over such things as education, care in the community and healthcare.

I do not know how you can draw up an islands plan that meets all those expectations in those very different areas. Some island groups have the infrastructure to deal with such things, but how can small islands that do not have a council and are perhaps lucky to have an active community council take those powers and use them? If they cannot, does that mean that no island community will get those powers?

The Convener

From the evidence that we have heard about islands, that question cuts to the chase.

Ian Turner

The bill needs to be seen alongside a lot of other work that is being done. For example, I do a lot of work in community empowerment and implementation of the Community Empowerment (Scotland) Act 2015.

You mentioned Mull. There is a fantastic development trust there, which is doing a lot of work in and for the community. The bill is not necessarily what the trust needs to enable it to do things; it is about it owning its own land and making decisions in its own way. Members are right that, whether the trust uses participation requests through the 2015 act to get involved in the council’s decision-making processes or the asset transfer powers to get more land that it can develop for its own purposes, the bill will not in itself matter too much. However, the overall strategy on the islands probably will matter to it.

If we talk about the Crown estate, which will be addressed in a separate bill, or the local democracy bill, which was mentioned in the programme for government last week, the question is what powers will be relevant to local authorities and communities in future and how they will be used. Ensuring that islands have their voice in those processes and ensuring that the Crown estate bill and local democracy bill are island proofed will be essential in ensuring that the powers go down to the people who can use them.

The Convener

Mike Rumbles will start us off on our next theme.

Mike Rumbles (North East Scotland) (LD)

The theme is about island proofing. When we took informal evidence on Mull, communities told us that they were concerned that island proofing must not turn into a tick-box exercise. How will you ensure that that does not happen?

Looking at the 60-odd organisations that are mentioned in the schedule to the bill, I can imagine a situation in which one of them—let us not name any particular organisation—simply says, “Right, how does this affect the islands? Oh, that’s fine,” and ticks the box. The people on Mull suggested to us that the only way in which we can really island proof is that, when any of those organisations wants to do something, it should consult the islanders. That does not seem to have been highlighted in the bill. Would a good way forward be to put something in the bill to say that those organisations should consult islanders on new initiatives?

Ian Turner

The bill sets out the general duty on those organisations to have regard to island communities when they exercise their functions. That is the overall duty and, if there is going to be a significant difference, they must do an island communities impact assessment.

The bill also provides that the 60-plus public bodies in the schedule must have regard to any guidance from Scottish ministers on that duty. We need to consult on that guidance and go through the process of putting it together, which will include islanders. We expect that the guidance will set out what the authorities will need to do consistently and transparently, including publishing information and consulting islanders. That is how they will need to comply with the duty.

There could be a lot of detail in the guidance, including about how public bodies might comply with the duty. We will always want a degree of local discretion for public authorities in how they do that. We do not want to say that they must do it in a certain way at all times because that may well lead to a tick-box approach. We need to be able to provide authorities with the ability to innovate, do things differently and consult islanders when they need to.

We expect consultation to be a key part of the process. We always consult when we do legislation. We always consult before we do a bill. Therefore, we expect the guidance to highlight when consultation will need to take place with islanders, including the need to ask the initial question whether a proposal will make a difference to islanders, before the public body even needs to think about doing an impact assessment. That will enable islanders to get in at the start of the consultation.

Mike Rumbles

I am not suggesting that you should be prescriptive about how it has to be done. You say that consultation could be part of the process, but should it not be a necessary part of it when those 60-odd organisations implement change? Some of the residents on Mull from whom we heard expressed their fear that the impact assessments are made in Edinburgh, Glasgow or wherever and do not deal with what happens on the ground in Mull. That is the experience of members of the public on Mull.

09:30  



Ian Turner

Yes. Partly because that is the current experience, you would hope that, when island proofing comes in, it will not only put a legal duty on organisations but will also be about a culture change in how they do business. Community empowerment is often about ensuring that communities have the ability to participate in the decision-making process, and this is part of that. However, we do not want to make it overly complex for public bodies to do things—as you say, to be too prescriptive—because that tends to lead to more of a tick-box process in which they can just say that they have done what is required and think that, because they have sort of spoken to the communities, they can go ahead. That is not what this is about. Putting the requirement to consult in guidance gives us the flexibility to take a case-studies approach and show people what best practice is, which will come out during the process.

Mike Rumbles

Will the guidance say that public bodies must consult local people in the islands?

Ian Turner

At the moment, I cannot say what the guidance will say.

Mike Rumbles

That is the problem, is it not?

Ian Turner

That is partly because we have to consult on it and ensure that what is in the guidance is what people want.

Mike Rumbles

I understand, but that is the crux of the problem.

The Convener

When the bill was being drafted, the bill team and the minister must have considered the implications of island-proofing decisions, and any person who considered those implications must have considered their cost and would have had an idea of how much it was going to cost to island proof future legislation. However, I have not seen any indication of what that cost will be. What will it cost the Scottish Government on an annual basis to island proof its decisions? Do you have an estimate of that, or will the cost be met by councils as they implement decisions? I think that councils do not find it easy to estimate that cost.

Does Darren Dickson want to answer those questions, or is it still Ian Turner?

Ian Turner

I think that it is still me.

The Convener

Darren is probably thankful for that.

Ian Turner

The financial memorandum sets out the cost of the bill’s implementation and the on-going cost of incorporating island proofing into the decision-making process.

The Convener

I understand that, and we are going to ask questions about that, but that is not what I am asking about. You have asked people to come up with an islands plan and they are going to do that. You must have had some idea of what was going to be in the islands plan. I am asking you how much it will cost the Government to ensure that the islands plan is implemented.

Ian Turner

Given the process that we have to go through, there are too many variables to say what the implications will be. The bill requires that, in producing any new legislation, policy or strategy, the Government must consider whether it will have a significantly different impact on the islands. If it will have, the Government must carry out an impact assessment that will draw out the features of that impact.

I cannot predict what the future plans will be—what the Government will do each time—therefore, I cannot predict what the impact assessments will find. However, as part of an impact assessment, the Government will have to set out whether it can improve or mitigate the outcomes if the policy could have a negative impact on the islands. That will be part of the process. It is very difficult to predict what the outcome—and, therefore, the cost—of every new policy strategy or piece of legislation will be. In fact, it is probably impossible to do that.

The Convener

I understand that. The danger is that people on the islands will expect the Government to island proof its policy, which is going to cost a lot of money, but at this stage we have no indication of what that is going to cost.

Ian Turner

I do not think that it will cost a lot of money if we do it properly—if we incorporate it into the consultation process, which we have just discussed, and if we figure out what impact the policy will have on the islands through an impact assessment. We do a lot of these things already; we just do not talk about the process in quite this way. The bill will make the process much clearer and more consistent, and how we reach decisions will be much more transparent. Whether that will incur additional costs in what we do is hard to say at the moment, but it should just be part of the process.

The Convener

Okay. However, I stand by the fact that people on the islands will expect to have the same ability as people on the mainland to receive medical care, for example, and that there will be a cost to that.

John Mason

I would like to pursue the theme of island proofing. Will consideration be given to looking retrospectively at previous legislation, plans or anything like that, or is this purely about island proofing going forward?

Ian Turner

As I mentioned to Mr McArthur, as it stands, the bill is about the future and there is no retrospective element to it.

Mike Rumbles

You said that it was impossible to judge whether it would cost any more money. However, as the convener said, there is an expectation that, if the policy is to make any difference rather than being a tick-box exercise, there will need to be extra funding for the islands, which will not be needed on the mainland, to implement the policy in regard to certain issues. In the forthcoming Scottish Government budget, will there be a budget line for the bill with regard to island proofing, other than in the financial memorandum?

Ian Turner

I cannot say at the moment.

The Convener

I have one further question before we move on. If a model is developed for island proofing to encourage a consistent approach to be taken by all public bodies, what do you envisage would happen to a public body if it failed to comply with the approach that is laid down in the bill and in the plan?

Ian Turner

With regard to compliance, each public body will be under the new legal duty to perform island proofing on all its functions as it comes through. Public bodies that fail to comply with their legal duties will be held accountable through their normal accountability arrangements. For example, ministers are accountable to Parliament and to the electorate; in performing their functions, local authorities are accountable to their councillors and to local communities; and, with regard to the accountability arrangements that will come through, other bodies are the same. That is where the compliance aspect will come in.

The Convener

We move on to the next set of questions.

Richard Lyle (Uddingston and Bellshill) (SNP)

Good morning. You have heard about the themes that everyone is talking about. I will turn to constituency boundaries.

Under schedule 1 to the Scotland Act 1998, Orkney and Shetland are fixed as two of the 73 Scottish constituencies. The parliamentary constituency that takes in the Western Isles does not currently have that protection, but section 13 of the bill will provide it. However, there are islands in different local authorities where the people feel overlooked and forgotten about. They feel that what has happened on the mainland has not been replicated or taken care of in the islands.

If we have councils of varying sizes, why can we not have a further islands authority? Has any thought been given to the constituency and local authority structure of island groups? One of my colleagues is going to ask questions about members shortly, so I would like you to contain your reply to the islands. People in Mull feel that they are forgotten about, so should we not have another authority that would take in all the islands? It would be stretching it quite a bit, but people would then feel that their particular island was being looked after.

Darren Dickson

The commitment for the Western Isles stems back to the prospectus in 2014, and it was a specific ask of the Western Isles at that time. For the past couple of years, the Scottish Government has not had the power to act on it, but, under the Scotland Act 2016, the power has been transferred from Westminster to Holyrood and we now have the ability to deliver on the commitment that was made in 2014. That is why the focus is on doing that for the Western Isles. Some would say that it is an anomaly that Orkney and Shetland have that protection at both Westminster and Holyrood but the Western Isles has it only at Westminster, and that is why the Government is delivering it.

I will deal with the question of constituencies first and will come on to local authorities. The Local Government Boundary Commission for Scotland undertakes reviews of constituencies for the Scottish Parliament, and I believe that it will carry out another review of the Holyrood boundaries in the not-too-distant future. It might make recommendations for changes in that regard, but I am not sure about that. The committee will speak to the boundary commission soon, and you might want to raise that point.

I take your point about local authorities, but my current understanding—this may be more a point for the minister to answer—is that the Government has no intention of considering local authority boundary changes at present. Ultimately, it would have to be a Government decision.

Richard Lyle

Have you ever dealt with the Electoral Commission?

Darren Dickson

Do you mean the Electoral Commission or the Local Government Boundary Commission for Scotland?

Richard Lyle

I mean the boundary commission in relation to changing boundaries. I dealt with it several times and it is not easy to get it to go along with a change even when a boundary passes down a street and then goes off at a tangent. However, I will park that issue. Is there no thought of creating an islands authority?

Darren Dickson

No, not under the bill.

The Convener

Fulton, do you want to address that local authority point?

Fulton MacGregor

My questions follow on from Richard Lyle’s point about constituency boundaries, but I will move on to the member wards. We heard a wee bit of evidence on the issue when we were in Mull and had quite an interesting debate with the local authority there. Do you have any indication of how that idea might work? There is talk of having one or two councillors for an island if it is populated. From what I heard, that might be a good idea. Have you any idea how that system might work in practice and how long it would take to implement?

Darren Dickson

At this time, we do not have any indication of that. The main reason for that is that, assuming that the bill is passed, the Local Government Boundary Commission will be asked to undertake reviews of the six local authority areas that will be impacted and bring back recommendations for ministers. The expectation is that the recommendations could be implemented in time for the next local government elections, in 2022. The Local Government Boundary Commission would have to do that work, and we would get an indication from that.

Fulton MacGregor

Are the recommendations likely to include considerations such as the number of local councillors, whether that number is likely to change, the practicalities of how councillors might travel between islands and so on?

Darren Dickson

Yes. The Local Government Boundary Commission would make the recommendations, and I assume that it would take into account the logistics of travel. I might be wrong about this, but I think that, although Mull has a councillor at the moment, Tiree does not. We met the people from Tiree—the minister was there recently—and the issue was quite close to their hearts. They felt that they lacked a connection with the local authority because they did not have a councillor on Tiree. However, Tiree has a very small population. We will have to look at that as well.

Fulton MacGregor

Yes, we met the councillor who lives on Mull and she took part in the evidence session that we held, which was good.

The Convener

We will move on to the next theme. Peter Chapman is going to lead on that.

Peter Chapman

My questions are about marine development. The bill provides a regulation-making power for Scottish ministers to establish a marine licensing scheme for development activities. I wonder what “development activity” means in practice and what powers are envisaged. Will the provision for marine development licensing apply to all Scotland’s islands?

Ian Turner

Section 16(1) of the bill sets out what “development activity” means:

“(a) construction, alteration or improvement works of any description (either in or over the sea, or on or under the seabed)”

and also

“(b) any form of dredging (whether or not involving the removal of any material from the sea or seabed).”

That is the encompassing form of what “development activity” means. The regulations can provide for exemptions within that, and specific exemptions that are not development activities are set out in section 16(2). That covers the specifics.

On whether the provision will apply to all Scotland’s islands, the bill provides for an iterative process. It requires a local authority that has inhabited islands to apply for a designation to be made to ministers, so it would be for the local authority that wished to have more control in the seas around its islands to apply for that designation. That would kick off a process that would include the requirement that ministers consult before bringing any draft regulations for Parliament to look at.

In theory, the provision could apply to all Scotland’s islands. However, in practice it will often depend on whether the local authority wants to take on the new powers.

Peter Chapman

Obviously, there will be further consultation. What is your timescale for that process?

Ian Turner

That would depend on when the application for designation was made. When a local authority submitted an application, we would have to consult on that, and there could be six different applications coming forward at different times or there could be more coming forward at the same time—we do not know. It would depend on what the local authorities wanted to do.

Peter Chapman

Will it be possible under the new powers for local authorities to say something about fishing activity around a particular island, or is that outwith the scope of the bill?

09:45  



Ian Turner

The provision is specifically about construction, alteration and improvement works; it is not really about fishing. However, anything that is built in the sea could cause navigation issues, and that is where fishing might come into it. Fish farms are also excluded from that activity.

Peter Chapman

Fish farms are excluded.

Ian Turner

Yes, because they are covered under the planning regime. They are also excluded from the Zetland County Council Act 1974, which is where we took the process from.

John Finnie (Highlands and Islands) (Green)

I accept that they are two completely unrelated issues, but I wonder whether you have had regard to the experience of marine protected areas and how they might interact with that provision.

Ian Turner

In this part of the bill, we have tried to give a practical impact to what we meant by extending the powers of the Zetland County Council Act 1974. Once the regulations are in place and the consultation is done, the provision will have to be developed in relation to all the things that already exist, including the national marine plan, marine protected areas and any local marine planning that might already be in place. It will need to fit into that structure, but I cannot say at this stage what will need to be done, because we need to work through the process.

The Convener

Let us move on to the financial implications of the bill with a question from John Mason.

John Mason

I realise that we have already touched on finance through questions from the convener and from Mr Rumbles, but I would like to press the officials a little more on what the financial impact of the bill will be. I understand, from what I have heard so far, that there will be a plan and that there will be more of an onus on the Government, local authorities and others to consider the impact of decisions on the islands. However, if that is as far as it goes, I struggle to understand how the people on the islands will be greatly advantaged.

I was impressed by the representatives of Argyll and Bute Council when we met them. They know that there is no care home on Mull. They have thought about that and realise that there would be a cost to putting a care home on Mull. They know that the situation is having an impact on the community, because when people want to visit their relatives in a care home they have to go to the mainland. Nevertheless, having thought about it, the council has decided that the costs prohibit it. I therefore struggle to see what difference there will be in the future if there is no money to put a care home on Mull and all that we are telling councils to do is think about putting a care home on Mull.

Ian Turner

People are aware of the care issues on Mull and their implications. Island proofing is also about ensuring that other issues that might not be quite as clear or as thought through are thought through. However, you are right to say that the bill does not require local authorities to do something as a result of that. It would be quite onerous for them if, once they had done an assessment, they always had to do what they assessed was necessary. There could be quite a lot of cost involved in that. The bill puts a clear, transparent and—most important—consistent system in place so that people are at least aware of those issues and can start to tackle them in different ways.

John Mason

That answers my question. Thank you.

The Convener

That will be an interesting issue to deal with.

Jamie Greene

My question follows on from what John Mason has said. It is about a worry—which has probably been picked up over the course of this evidence session—that the bill does not require anyone to do anything other than create a plan and that island proofing does not require anyone to do anything other than consider. There is no budget indicated anywhere in the bill or the financial memorandum that would benefit the islands in a true and proper sense, nor does the bill empower local authorities to do additional things that they are not able to do at the moment, either through legislation or via additional finance.

That relates back to my earlier point about whether the bill goes far enough. Is the bill just enabling legislation or should it go further? Is there an opportunity for us to propose further measures to make the bill stronger, so that it will bring meaningful change to the island communities?

The Convener

I am sorry, Jamie, but I am going to do the same as I did with the previous question. What you have asked about is something that we need to push the minister on, because it goes to the nub of the problem. If Ian Turner or Darren Dickson wants to offer a short answer to Jamie Greene’s question, I am happy to take it, but they might feel that the minister is a better person to answer it.

Ian Turner

I think that the issue is what consideration might be given. The minister is probably the most appropriate person to ask about that because what Jamie Greene asks about the bill relates to the framework for providing that things can take place. The future actions that there will be thereafter are not necessarily a matter for the bill, because there are wider considerations. There is other relevant legislation, and other processes are taking place that the bill’s provisions will impact on, because it will make clear what needs to be done in those processes and how that might be done. There will be plenty of opportunity to talk about the finances that might be required within the Crown Estate or within local democracy for any changes and power shifts that might come from the bill.

The Convener

I have a direct question on the financial memorandum. There is an estimated cost of £142,000 over the first five years of the implementation of the bill’s provisions to draw up the islands plan—have I got that right?

Ian Turner

Yes. We estimate that it will cost £100,000 every five years to prepare the plan, which will involve staff time and administrative costs. The annual progress update will cost £8,400, and adding the cost of that over five years to the £100,000 gives us the figure of £142,000.

The Convener

What strikes me about the consultation is that, although there might be overarching issues for the islands, each island has individual issues that are critically important to it. Given the number of inhabited islands that there are around Scotland, £142,000 will not go very far—especially if the Government gets to use the residue of that money to come up with an overarching plan.

Ian Turner

That is the administrative cost of the plan, but it is not necessarily the cost of any actions that might arise from it.

The Convener

I understand that that cost is nothing to do with the actions. Nevertheless, if you are going to use consultants or experts to prepare the plan, the money will amount to a lot less than £10,000 per island. That is not a big figure, and some of the bigger islands will have more complex problems and will require a more complex plan. Are you sure that you have got those figures right? My personal experience of drawing up plans in the private sector tells me that that figure is way off target.

Ian Turner

We base the figure on the costs of the national plans and other large plans that the Government has costed in administrative terms.

The Convener

I understand your answer, but I reserve my position on that.

I invite Liam McArthur to make a final point.

Liam McArthur

I have heard the discussion about the financial memorandum. From my perspective, island proofing will expose the issue and, if there is a case for additional funding, it will make that case more compelling. I therefore have less of a problem with the figures in some respects.

However, the bill will need to demonstrate its mettle in those areas where there is not necessarily a financial cost and the irritation is that the way in which legislation has been formulated and enforced, or the way in which policies have been developed and implemented, has a cost for island users—whether island businesses or households—because, although it makes sense in a mainland or urban context, it makes no sense in an island context. The notion is that the bill is only about developing things that will cost money, but, from my perspective—I presume that this will be part of the development of the bill—there is an expectation that the bill will reduce costs in some instances by making policy and legislation apply in a more rational and commonsense way in island communities and, indeed, remote communities on mainland Scotland.

Ian Turner

I think that that is the case, but it is a difficult case to make because we do not have any examples to use, which is why it is not referred to in the financial memorandum. I do not think that we could provide a reasonable estimate of what any savings might be. However, as I said previously, the bill is getting away from the idea that one size fits all.

If, at the moment, there are costs that can be adapted and changed for the islands so that the cost to the authority or, in particular, the cost to service users or whoever the policy, strategy or services are affecting is lower, that is a good thing. We may reduce those costs and that may have an impact on those people’s day-to-day lives.

The Convener

Thank you. That is the end of our questions. I just want to clarify something that I said about the amount of money that will be available for each of the inhabited islands. It is not £10,000 per island for each plan, but £1,000 per island. To me, that will not even scratch the surface.

I thank Ian Turner and Darren Dickson very much for their attendance. I am afraid that Kirsten Simonnet-Lefevre did not get in, but I thank her very much for attending.

I suspend the meeting for four minutes to enable a changeover of witnesses and to allow the cabinet secretary to take his place.

09:56 Meeting suspended.  



10:01 On resuming—  



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Second meeting transcript

The Convener

Item 2 is the second evidence session on the Islands (Scotland) Bill. There will be two panels. I welcome the first panel, which consists of Fergus Murray, who is head of economic development and strategic transportation at Argyll and Bute Council; Andrew Fraser, who is head of democratic services at North Ayrshire Council; and Dr Audrey Sutton, who is head of connected communities at North Ayrshire Council. I remind witnesses, in case they have not given evidence before, that they do not need to push any buttons on their console—it will all be done for them.

We will go through various themes, which will be led by members. Anyone who wants to respond should catch my eye, and I will try to bring you in. If you all look the other way, I will try to bring in the one who does not look away quickly enough.

On that basis, I ask John Finnie to start.

John Finnie (Highlands and Islands) (Green)

Good morning, panel. I thank you for your written submissions. First, is the bill’s overall intention in line with expectations?

Andrew Fraser (North Ayrshire Council)

Very much so. The broad view is that it accords with the general direction of travel of the Christie commission with regard to subsidiarity and locality planning. It is an extension of that approach that targets the particular needs of islands. The broad direction of the bill is absolutely in line with expectations. I am conscious that the bill is quite broad, but it is the starting point and North Ayrshire Council very much supports its aims.

Fergus Murray (Argyll and Bute Council)

Argyll and Bute Council welcomes the bill and a lot of its specific provisions. There is some concern—I am reflecting the views of our island communities, which we consulted before coming to the committee today—that the bill could have gone a bit further and addressed some of the issues that the island communities may have expected it to cover, but there is an understanding that those issues will perhaps come in later through the national plan or other aspects of the process.

The Convener

Does John Finnie want to follow up on that?

John Finnie

Audrey Sutton wants to come in first.

The Convener

I am sorry, Audrey—I took it that your response would be in line with Andrew Fraser’s comments, but perhaps that was wrong.

Dr Audrey Sutton (North Ayrshire Council)

Like Fergus Murray, I want to balance the views of our island communities with the views of our own area. I am certainly in line with his view, and with Andrew Fraser’s comments, that the bill recognises the considerable work that we did as part of the consultation on provisions for a future islands bill. That work stood us in good stead, and the elements of the bill that have emerged from it feel right to the islanders. However, as Fergus Murray said, the devil will be in the detail, and the islanders would very much have liked to explore more of the detail than is available to us all at this stage.

John Finnie

Will the bill as drafted lead to greater empowerment for island communities?

Dr Sutton

The sense among our island communities is that it will strike a delicate balance between the national islands plan, the role of local authorities and the role of the island communities. Again, I stress that the islanders are very keen to be involved in the debate as it continues. The potential is there in the bill, but the detail will be important in terms of the relationship between, for example, single outcome agreements and local outcomes improvement plans.

As Andrew Fraser mentioned, locality planning is particularly important to us in North Ayrshire. We have co-produced the plan with our communities as part of our scheme of decentralisation, and we have reached a powerful place in terms of our sense of locality planning. We need to make sure that all the elements respect each other.

Fergus Murray

The communities are very hopeful that the bill will enable that to happen. They are a bit wary of top-down decisions coming through the bill, and of control coming from Edinburgh. They are looking at how powers can be delegated closer to their communities; that aspect came across strongly when we spoke to some of the island communities.

As is usual in Argyll and Bute, there is a lot of variation. Some islands are very strong on what they want to control, while others are a bit more relaxed about it. However, there is not so much a fear but a general apprehension that the bill will be another way of placing more controls on island communities.

John Finnie

I want to ask about the chronology and the background to the bill. The three island authorities face a range of challenges that are clearly different from those that your authorities face. Were the mainland authorities with inhabited islands brought into the process quickly enough? Would you have preferred to have had greater input at an earlier stage?

The Convener

Audrey Sutton did not look away quickly enough—she looked like she was about to come in.

Dr Sutton

Thank you, convener.

To some extent that depends on the relationships that exist locally. With regard to hearing the voices of the island communities, I feel—I am sure that Fergus Murray takes the same view—that our island communities very much feel that they have a voice. On Arran and on Cumbrae we already have in place our locality planning partnerships and our health and social care partnerships, which are contiguous. We also have the Arran and Cumbrae economic fora and economic plans. The islands feel that their voices are very well reflected in the bill.

On the point about the local authorities, there is perhaps a sense that we are less experienced in the process of considering island proofing and the political agenda around the islands, although that has always been central to some of our thinking. We potentially feel less experienced in considering the issues.

The Convener

Does Andrew Fraser want to add to that?

Andrew Fraser

There was an appreciation that the three island councils were trying to do something that would benefit all the councils that had islands. We engaged informally with the island councils and had an overview of their aims, and there was nothing in what they were trying to do that prejudiced our position as combined mainland and island authorities.

Harking back to an earlier point, it is important to recognise that islands are obviously different, and the national plan and national guidance should not try to categorise them as one type. There are places such as Cumbrae, from which one can commute daily to the centre of Glasgow. That is very different to the situation on some of the more remote islands, but equally the islands will all share some commonalities such as transport links in particular.

Fergus Murray

There is a sense in Argyll and Bute Council that we came to the party a little late. There are a number of reasons for that, which do not necessarily stem from us. There may have been a lack of full understanding of the significance of the discussions in the early stages. Our council also had other priorities, given that it has to deal with a range of issues. However, we very much feel that we are catching up, and we recognise the importance of the bill. We are strongly of the view that we are playing a full part in the process, and that is certainly reflected in our communities. What has come from our consultation with our island communities is a sense that we have come to the party a bit late and that that may be why the bill has been drafted without taking account of Argyll and Bute.

John Finnie

Do you feel part of the party now? Are you fully included?

Fergus Murray

Very much.

Dr Sutton

Yes.

The Convener

That seems to be nods all round.

Rhoda Grant (Highlands and Islands) (Lab)

The bill covers island and also mixed island and mainland council areas. Where do the challenges lie? You both represent council areas that have islands, rather than island councils. Will it be more difficult for you to meet the aspirations of the bill? Are there specific challenges for you, or does the bill deal with that adequately?

Andrew Fraser

It deals with it adequately if we look at it through the lens of locality planning and subsidiarity. Essentially, the bill is about the Christie objective of empowering islands and about community planning partners working together with their communities to target priorities and objectives specific to the needs of those individual islands. In many ways, it is no different for other communities in our area. For example, North Ayrshire split our area into six individual localities, all of which have their own demographic profile and individual needs. I do not think that the focus of the bill on Arran or Cumbrae in any way detracts from a similar locality planning process that deals with our mainland areas, which, in our case, often have more deprivation.

The Convener

Does Fergus Murray want to come in on that?

Fergus Murray

Yes, from our point of view it certainly makes the consideration of the close relationship between islands and remote peninsulas more complex. The islands have picked that up because of concern that there may be the potential to create inequalities between those communities. Actually, the islanders are talking about it because the different nature of our islands could potentially create inequalities between different island groups. There is a need to take care with how the bill is taken forward and the decisions that are made so that it does not do something that it does not want, which is to create inequalities within close-lying communities that have extremely strong relationships with each other. The island communities in Argyll and Bute strongly recognise that and wish the bill to take full account of that as it moves forward.

Rhoda Grant

Given the fact that, under the bill, the island councils probably have a stronger negotiating position with the Scottish Government to gain devolved powers, will they not face the same issues within their island groupings? There is always a bigger island and some smaller islands, and the smaller islands may have the same aspirations as arise in the mixed mainland and island council areas, in that they would be looking at the centre and saying that it is not just about devolving powers to the island council, but from that council to the other islands. Is that not the same or are there specific challenges because of the geography?

The Convener

Fergus, I am going to let you answer. You were ready for that one.

Fergus Murray

I am conscious of who is in the audience. I totally recognise what Rhoda Grant is saying. I lived in Shetland for 11 years and there was a different relationship between the mainland of Shetland and some of the outer islands—there was actually a difference between the town of Lerwick and the rural community—but I think that there may be more specific issues for remote peninsulas. It may be more complex in Argyll and Bute than in the island communities. I cannot speak for the island councils, only for Argyll and Bute. People are concerned that whatever happens in relation to additional powers or delegation of control for the islands—which is welcomed—does not somehow disadvantage the remote rural areas that lie next to them.

10:15  



Andrew Fraser

That is not as much of an issue for North Ayrshire as it is for Argyll and Bute, because North Ayrshire has two, distinct islands: Great Cumbrae and Arran. The issue is very much about subsidiarity. If there is a genuine commitment to the principle of subsidiarity, from everyone who is engaged, that principle will apply equally to the larger islands and the smaller islands. I think that the bill promotes the principle of subsidiarity, by recognising the needs of island communities and enabling them to be addressed.

Dr Sutton

An underlying issue is community capacity and the willingness and determination of communities to demand more subsidiarity. We can probably say that the social capital and capacity that our island communities have, partly because island communities need to be resilient, will define communities and their ask of local authorities or the Scottish Government. A lot of this will be about capacity and relationships. We can determine principles of subsidiarity or locality planning, but a lot will depend on what comes through from the communities themselves and how we manage the relationships.

In North Ayrshire we have tried to do locality planning, because that is a powerful driver for us. We have tried to ensure transparency and visibility across the whole local authority area and an understanding of reciprocity in relation to prioritisation, so that our urban communities understand the issues that the island communities face, and vice versa. There is an issue to do with capacity and managing local circumstances, which is separate from the theory.

Rhoda Grant

Are you saying that the bill’s aims are okay, but how island communities will be able to implement and live up to them will depend on the fabric and economy of the community and the know-how of the people who are part of it? I guess that the size of a community will be an issue in that regard.

Dr Sutton

That is certainly a factor. The support that communities are given to maximise the potential of the bill will be an important factor, too.

Rhoda Grant

The witnesses have talked about a sense of being left behind by the our islands, our future campaign and coming to the party too late in the day. Why was that? Did the mainland councils with islands feel that the campaign was not for them, or did the island councils steal the march on you?

Dr Sutton

I think that the point that I made—perhaps badly—was that in North Ayrshire we were fully engaged in the our islands, our future work, which set the context for our continued involvement in the next stages.

Andrew Fraser

Also, it is important to recognise that the boundaries proposals in the bill came from Arran, as I understand it. They came out of a meeting between Arran community groups and the minister. It was not a case of our being cut out in any way.

To be frank, the three island councils were doing such a good job that we did not want to prejudice what they were doing.

The Convener

I will bring Liam McArthur in on that point.

Liam McArthur (Orkney Islands) (LD)

It is worth reflecting that our islands, our future was born out of the recognition that the three island authorities often did not play to their strengths in terms of what united them; too often, there were opportunities to play one off against the other. That was driving a lot of the process, initially.

I was interested in Dr Sutton’s point about the different capacity there is in islands. Will the bill need to provide safeguards for island communities where there is not the appetite or the capacity to take on some of the powers and responsibilities that might flow from the bill? Do we need to avoid a situation in which power and responsibilities are simply foisted on communities and they are told to get on with it, which might set them up for failure? Unlocking the potential of islands is one thing, but that potential needs to be gauged by the island communities themselves.

The Convener

Technically, that requires a yes or no answer, but I am sure that all the members of the panel will want to flesh out their answers a wee bit. I would appreciate it if you could keep your answers short.

Dr Sutton

The bill’s links with the Community Empowerment (Scotland) Act 2015 are one of its notable features. In places, the spirit of the two documents feels very similar. If we look at them in parallel, we see that, from the point of view of the advantages that they offer and the support and capacity building that are inherent in the 2015 act, they complement each other.

The Convener

Andrew, would you like to add to that?

Andrew Fraser

Very briefly. I think that the guidance will need to support empowerment and avoid the risk of imposing minimum standards, which might in turn be viewed as the imposition of a one-size-fits-all approach. Given the islands’ diversity, that would not work.

Fergus Murray

I agree. Given the range and size of our islands—some have very few people on them, some are more isolated than others and some have relationships—it is essential that there are some safeguards to help to empower communities and give them the experience and skills to take full advantage of the bill.

The Convener

I ask Jamie Greene to move us on to the next theme.

Jamie Greene (West Scotland) (Con)

Good morning, panel. I have three very distinct questions to get through, so please do not feel obliged to answer every one of them.

My first question is about the strategy of the bill, which is to require a national islands plan to be laid before the Parliament. Do you think that that is the best approach to enable the bill to empower island communities? In other words, do you think that the strategy of providing for a national islands plan rather than putting detail in the bill is the right approach?

Andrew Fraser

It is important to set out the overall strategy and to link it to community empowerment, the work of the Christie commission, locality planning and so on. From that point of view, a clear statement of Government strategy is essential. The difficulty with including precise provisions in the bill relates to the islands’ diversity. I view the bill as the starter for 10. It is a developing journey. I cannot think of anything better than having a national strategy. I am sure that others might have some reservations, but I cannot propose any alternative.

The Convener

Fergus, you were nodding. Do you agree with that?

Fergus Murray

I think that there is strong support from our communities for a national islands strategy, but they believe that it needs to come down to Argyll and Bute level, or even to island level, so that it can deal with the different issues that islands have. It cannot be a one-size-fits-all approach.

Our communities welcome the idea of a national islands strategy with key themes, but they also want provision that is broken down to a more local level. They have made that quite clear.

Jamie Greene

That leads nicely on to my next question. The feedback that the committee got in one of the sessions on our visit to Mull was that the bill lacked a specific objective. There was a feeling that although it would allow a national strategy to be introduced, it had no specific aims or objectives. Do you have a view on the bill as it is currently drafted?

Dr Sutton

The view that we got from our island communities was pretty much in line with the one that you have described. I think that it is important to separate out in the general principles of the bill the approach that is driving it and the issues that might be tackled by it. The underpinning view of the island communities is that the issue of a top-down approach can be overcome through co-production of a national strategy. The vision is certainly clear, but the objectives are less clear. If they could be co-produced, I think that there would be huge buy-in to developing the appropriate approach.

Jamie Greene

To clarify that, should the objectives be in the bill or the strategy?

Dr Sutton

The island communities would be reassured to some extent if some of the objectives were in the strategy, so that there would be a clearer understanding of what we are trying to achieve nationally.

Fergus Murray

I do not have a clear view on whether the objectives should be in the bill. Our island communities recognise that the bill is an enabler. They are very keen to see the key themes and aims of the national plan and to be involved in framing it, so that as the plan is developed a wider range of community views can be included to guide the key principles behind what we are trying to achieve in those communities. That is the feeling that has come through from our consultation.

Jamie Greene

It is clear that there is some commonality in the issues that island communities face—and have faced for a long time—with things such as transportation, affordable housing, access to mainland healthcare services, social care and so on. We have had lots of anecdotal evidence of that.

When I questioned the Scottish Government bill team during our evidence session last week, Ian Turner responded to the same question about whether the bill should have more detail by saying:

“The bill could contain a list of issues that must be included in the islands plan.”

He also said:

“I think that you are right to expect transport and digital connectivity to be in the plan”.—[Official Report, Rural Economy and Connectivity Committee, 13 September 2017; c 8.]

It comes back to my question about whether the bill lacks detail about the plan—not necessarily what the plan is, but what should be in it. As the bill progresses through its various stages, is there an opportunity for us to ensure that it lists certain areas of life that must be addressed by the bill or the strategy?

Dr Sutton

I think that our island communities would be disappointed if at least some of that detail was not enshrined in the approach.

The Convener

You are all nodding.

Fergus Murray

I agree. I think that there is quite a long list of overarching issues that are clearly identified and could be included, as long as those are not the only things that would be considered. There needs to be room for flexibility and for issues that we have not thought about, because specific communities have strong views on different things. I agree that there is a list of key things that should be included, such as digital and transport connectivity.

The Convener

Can I push slightly on that to clarify things for the committee? Do you think that the island communities will be frustrated if those things that you believe should be in the plan are not included, which might undermine the whole point of the plan?

Fergus Murray

Our community has expressed a bit of frustration about the lack of detail in the bill. People thought that that might be reflected on and dealt with in the national islands plan. However, if it could be dealt with before that, that would reassure people that some of the critical issues that they face—and have faced for generations—can be dealt with through the bill.

The Convener

I am sorry, Jamie—I cut across you. Do you want to push that?

Jamie Greene

No. You made a good point, convener. The difference lies in whether that non-exhaustive list of items that should be addressed in the plan goes into the plan or is referred to in the bill as needing to be in the plan. My point is whether the bill should specifically, although perhaps non-exhaustively, list issues that the plan should address but currently does not.

The Convener

Two of the witnesses are nodding. Andrew Fraser is looking pensive. Does he want to comment?

Andrew Fraser

I suppose that it is partly a matter of thinking about the purpose of the national islands plan. To me, that is probably twofold. One purpose is to bring strategic direction to national policy and agencies, and I think that it would be useful for the bill to include a list of the national issues that the islands plan should address. In addition, the national plan should encourage a process whereby local authorities and community planning partners would adopt a data-led approach with their communities to identify the needs of specific islands and to agree and take forward priorities. We need a process that not only captures the national issues but ensures that the particular needs of islands are addressed in a local context.

10:30  



The Convener

That brings us to the next question, which is from the deputy convener, Gail Ross.

Gail Ross (Caithness, Sutherland and Ross) (SNP)

Good morning, panel—it does indeed. I want to ask about the level of consultation that you expect in relation to the islands plan. Is the proposed timetable of one year after the act comes into force realistic?

The issue of top-down decision making was raised. When we were on Mull, as has been mentioned, the members of our group told us that they would like to be statutory consultees in all the decision making that goes on. The local authorities will be consultees, of course. How far down into the community would you like the consultation to go?

The Convener

There are quite a lot of questions in there. I will let Fergus Murray kick off.

Fergus Murray

The island communities have expressed a very strong view through our consultation that as many people as possible in the islands group should be consulted as part of the process as we move forward. There is a very strong view that young people should somehow be engaged in the process, because the communities are conscious that young people are struggling to get into it. There is some debate around how practical such involvement would be, but there is a very strong view from our communities that island people must be an integral part of the process as it goes on.

The timescale is very ambitious for developing a plan that is robust and deals with the issues that the islands face, considering the time that is taken to develop land use plans. A lot of the process is about having realistic and meaningful engagement with individual stakeholders, groups and bodies. That point must be highlighted. As I said, there is a strong view from the communities that, if the bill is going to make a difference, island communities must be integral to the consultation as it moves forward.

The Convener

Are there any additional points, or has Fergus Murray covered them all?

Dr Sutton

I will add one point. The response from our island communities to invitations to be involved would be really strong. One point that emerged—this is probably quite normal—concerned the care that we need to take to engage beyond the usual suspects and outside the standard range of consultees. Community councils, for example, do not necessarily have the level and depth of engagement in all our communities that we would like them to have. There is a strong message that we need to consider consulting a range of representative groups and organisations, as well as individuals who have clear views. Locally, we have the ability to do all that, but we need to be given the time to do it.

Island communities think that the bill is the chance of a lifetime, and a once-in-a-generation opportunity. As we move forward into more of a co-production process, as Andrew Fraser described, I hope that that will not be the case, but we would rather do things properly than quickly.

The Convener

You all agree that the timescale is ambitious. We move on to Mike Rumbles, who wants to talk about another issue.

Mike Rumbles (North East Scotland) (LD)

When we were on Mull, several islanders suggested to us in informal evidence that the only way to avoid a tick-box approach to the business of island proofing is to ensure that there is real consultation with the islanders themselves. The bill will place a duty on the 60-plus bodies that are mentioned in the schedule to island proof any change in policy, but the islanders told us that they were afraid that that might turn into a simple tick-box exercise. They do not want somebody sitting in Edinburgh or Glasgow, or wherever it is, saying that they have looked at how a policy will affect island X and that it is fine—box ticked. The only way to avoid that is to ask the islanders themselves what they feel about it.

Andrew Fraser

That is a good point. Similar to equality proofing, island proofing needs to be mainstreamed throughout all processes and all parts of a decision-making process. It is not sufficient for a body to make up its mind, gather evidence, get recommendations and—at the last minute—island proof its proposal; it should think about the needs of islands similarly to how it thinks about equalities when it starts to consult and gather evidence. It would probably be helpful to have guidance on island proofing to that effect.

Fergus Murray

There has been a strong response from the local communities that it cannot be just a tick-box exercise. To them, the proof of island proofing would be real evidence of agencies working together and co-ordinating things, with real results coming out of that. They want to see specific island impact assessments being undertaken and real evidence that things are making a difference. They also want regular reports back to communities on how different initiatives and policies have impacted on those communities, whether negatively or positively. I do not think that our island communities will accept a tick-box exercise under the bill.

Mike Rumbles

That is absolutely right. I agree with what you are saying. Impact assessments will be the key to all of this, because they show the reality as opposed to a tick-box exercise. Agencies will conduct impact assessments and consult people, but that will cost money. Has enough money been allocated in the bill process? If it is not allocated through the bill, and if the assessments are going to be done properly, the cost to all those 60-plus Government organisations will be increased. Do you have any thoughts on that?

Fergus Murray

You are right in saying that it will cost money. Argyll and Bute Council highlighted the resourcing of the bill as a concern.

The Convener

Sorry—we will cover the resourcing of implementation later. I think that Mike Rumbles is driving at the cost of doing the consultation and setting up the plan.

Mike Rumbles

Yes. I am trying to get at the cost of an impact assessment that is done not by the Government but by the 60-plus organisations that will be involved.

The Convener

Maybe you could focus on that specific bit. We will come on to the financial costs of doing all the work that comes out of the bill later. The question is about the consultation and planning stage. Perhaps Audrey Sutton would like to lead on that.

Dr Sutton

This is one subset of a range of discussions that we have between local authorities and public sector bodies. It is about the alignment, principles and culture of taking into account the needs and wants of our island communities. I wonder whether, in all the island and mainland/island authorities, the requirements of the impact assessments will be very far away from what we do at the moment. Our island communities are very important to us. They are vocal, have lots of social capital and are very much part of the fabric of what we do. In terms of considering them, it will be interesting to see how much more is required.

The Convener

We will cover the costs of the bill a bit later.

Mike Rumbles

Finance is an important aspect of it.

The Convener

We will come back to that. John Mason has some more questions on island proofing.

John Mason (Glasgow Shettleston) (SNP)

We are using two phrases—“island proofing” and “island impact assessment”—and I wonder whether the two concepts are the same. If my jacket is waterproof, that suggests that no water will get through, and island proofing suggests that people on the islands will get exactly the same services as everybody else. On the other hand, an impact assessment suggests to me that the organisations are going to think about it and try to work around it, but services on the islands will always be a bit different from services on the mainland. Is that fair thinking?

Andrew Fraser

Absolutely. I would compare it to equalities. The important thing is that we think about the needs of islands when we develop and implement policy. That is not to say that we have to do what the islands might want—clearly, there will be competing issues; in North Ayrshire, for example, our biggest areas of deprivation are not on the islands—but we have to think about the islands’ needs and do an impact assessment.

Fergus Murray

I agree. I do not have anything to add.

John Mason

We have discussed what should and what should not be in the plan. What should be in the ministerial guidance about island proofing? Should that guidance be quite prescriptive, which would mean that there was a lot coming from the centre about how councils and other public authorities should operate, or should it be more flexible because the islands are so different?

Andrew Fraser

Subsidiarity is the key principle, and we should empower islands and communities, but clearly there have to be certain minimum standards to ensure that all public agencies have regard to the needs of islands. I would address the issue using those principles.

Dr Sutton

I agree. This goes back to Jamie Greene’s question. We need to inspire confidence among island communities that there is sufficient in the bill to make a difference to them. We need to achieve a delicate balance between what sits above and what is fed from below.

The Convener

I will bring Mike Rumbles and Jamie Greene back in, and then I am afraid we will have to move on to the next section.

Mike Rumbles

This follows on from John Mason’s question and the responses to it. Many bills, and much of the guidance that the Government has issued over the years, say “have regard to”. If the Government says that people “must have regard to” something, they just have to show that they have regard to it. I think that John Mason was asking whether the Government’s advice to the 60-odd public bodies should be more prescriptive and say, “If you are going to island proof, you need to do it in this particular way,” or whether we should just revert to saying “have regard to”, which basically would mean that people could do anything they liked. The key will be in the guidance that the Government gives to those public bodies. Should it be prescriptive and say, “This is how you should do it,” or should it just say, “You should have regard to” certain things?

The Convener

I will let one person respond. Audrey Sutton looks as if she wants to lead on that.

Dr Sutton

There is a distinction between “have regard to” and “have due regard to”. We need to inspire confidence among island communities and assure them that we are serious. I hesitate to use the word “prescriptive” to describe what they expect, but certainly we would like to inspire confidence that the bill will make a difference.

The Convener

I will bring in Jamie Greene very quickly.

Jamie Greene

This is very relevant to what Mike Rumbles has just said. There is only one sentence in the bill regarding island proofing. It is in section 7, and it just says:

“A relevant authority must have regard to island communities in carrying out its functions.”

Is that really island proofing? Does the bill go far enough to island proof policy? I deal with a tremendous amount of casework from people in Arran who struggle to access services on the mainland. Does the bill island proof those public services?

The Convener

I will let one person respond on that.

Andrew Fraser

I suppose that the model is equalities legislation, which forces people to have regard to the needs of people with protected characteristics. The bill should do the same for islands. That has worked for equalities, so I have no reason to believe that it will not work for islands.

The Convener

We will move on to the next theme, which will be led by Rhoda Grant.

10:45  



Rhoda Grant

I have a quick question about constituency boundaries. You will see that the bill protects the Western Isles constituency boundary in the same way as Orkney and Shetland are already protected. Do you have any issues with that, or are you happy that it is in the bill?

Dr Sutton

Our island communities are of the view that they would like to support their island colleagues in their aspirations.

Fergus Murray

That is the same in Argyll and Bute.

The Convener

Okay, thank you. If Rhoda Grant is happy, we will move on to the next theme, which will be led by Richard Lyle.

Richard Lyle (Uddingston and Bellshill) (SNP)

Good morning, panel. The Local Governance (Scotland) Act 2004 brought in three and four-member wards. The bill provides the Local Government Boundary Commission for Scotland with the flexibility to recommend that the Scottish ministers propose electoral wards of one or two councillors to be created covering populated islands. I have some questions about that.

What practical issues do the current three and four-member wards create, and what would be the impact of switching to one or two-member wards? What will the proposal mean for the overall work of councillors in a local authority area? How would it work? Should candidates reside on the island and, if so, how do we ensure that that happens?

The Convener

Who would like to lead off on that quite complex series of questions?

Andrew Fraser

I can lead off from a North Ayrshire point of view. A number of our island communities and councillors have said to us that someone who does not live on the island will have difficulty in knowing what happens during the evening once the ferries stop running. So many community group activities and meetings take place in the evening that it is quite difficult to keep in touch with what is happening unless you consistently stay on the island.

There is also the issue of the ferries going off occasionally and so on. For example, if there is a civil emergency such as there was on Arran a few years ago, when the whole island shut down after a snow storm, a council member who did not live there might not be on the island to support the community. That is the key issue concerning members who do not reside on the island.

As regards the impact of switching to one or two members, I am afraid to say that in North Ayrshire we have a specific issue with the bill. It clearly amends the provision that there can be one or two members, but it does not amend the provision in local government legislation that provides that there has to be a certain ratio of electorate to councillors across the entire local authority area. For example, in North Ayrshire, the current ratio is 3,000 electorate per councillor. That ratio would remain the same once the bill is implemented, meaning that Arran, which has a population of about 3,800, would end up with one councillor rather than the two resident councillors that it currently has, and Cumbrae, with a population of 1,100, would end up with no councillors. Had Cumbrae been located in the Western Isles or Orkney, for example, with their quota of a councillor per 800 of electorate, it would have ended up with its own ward.

It is important to recall that that change was originally driven by the Arran community, which met Derek Mackay when he was Minister for Transport and Islands, and it was included in the consultation paper. I suspect that the Arran community will be surprised to learn that the impact of the change is for the number of their resident council members to be reduced from two to one.

As will probably be obvious from our consultation response when it comes, we think that that provision needs to be changed to allow the Local Government Boundary Commission to set a ratio for individual islands that is different from that applying to the mainland of an authority.

Richard Lyle

When I was a councillor, I found that the Local Government Boundary Commission did what it wanted and never listened to what we wanted. However, I will get away from that.

You mentioned the two local members on Arran. Should it be two for each island or should it be one? We talked about the consultation, ward sizes and structure. I do not know whether your councils have area committees. We are talking about relating decisions back to the islands and making people feel that they are part of the system. Should the islands have a local area committee, which could possibly have two island councillors plus other people?

The Convener

I ask Fergus Murray to answer that, to give Andrew Fraser the chance to recover his voice.

Fergus Murray

The merits of island councillors was an area of intense debate among our island communities, and there were very mixed views. However, there was strong feeling that island communities need strong representation—that was a definite.

We have four area committees, on a geographical split. Some include islands and some do not. At the moment there are 14 councillors in Argyll and Bute with island interests through the multimember ward system. If the proposal in the bill went through, maybe only seven of the 33 or so councillors would have a direct island interest. There was a concern that that might be counterproductive, although there is a recognition that those councillors would concentrate on island issues and would not have to take mainland issues into account.

Another big feeling was that it is good that councillors on the mainland who represent an island can, if they have a strong connection to the island, smooth things out between the two communities, with regard to their concerns and the issues that they face. There is strong support for recognition of that.

To have an islands-only area committee in Argyll and Bute would be impossible, because it would cover an area from Bute to Tiree to Colonsay, which have massively different issues. There are common issues, but when we mapped the issues that our communities face, we found that they are incredibly diverse. Some islands are suffering from major depopulation and others are dealing with tourism booms. Therefore, I am not sure whether such an area committee is workable.

Our message is that the situation is very complex. The islanders are very aware that any changes could have unintended consequences, so they must be taken forward very carefully.

The Convener

I will bring in John Mason and then maybe get the other two panel members to comment.

John Mason

My question ties in with that line of questioning and with what Fergus Murray just said. Is there potential for a bit of tension between mainland councillors and island councillors? If an island councillor is covering 3,000 people in a relatively compact geographical area and a mainland councillor is trying to cover, in effect, 12,000 people in a multimember ward over a very spread-out area, does that create an inconsistency that might be resented?

Fergus Murray

I would not use the word “resented”, but there are tensions in the practicalities of representing areas. We debated that when the Local Government Boundary Commission for Scotland was considering changes in Argyll and Bute to do with our sparse population. The area that was being looked at was enormous and councillors could have been dealing with up to 26 community councils. How would a member attend those? When you throw in the island dynamic, which involves things such as having to stay over, it becomes extremely difficult.

There is recognition locally that there is a need for tweaking, as some island groups have no representation, but there is no need to reinvent the entire wheel of democratic representation in the Argyll and Bute area.

The Convener

I want to move on to another couple of areas, but if Andrew Fraser or Audrey Sutton would like to add a brief point, I would be happy to hear it.

Richard Lyle

The question that has not been answered, although Fergus Murray touched on it, is: if we have island councillors, should the number of councillors in a council area go up?

Fergus Murray

There is potential for the number of councillors to increase to ensure valid representation in certain areas. The communities were very wary of the possible implications of an increase in the number of island councillors if that meant that there would be fewer councillors for the mainland. Given the size of the geography that we are talking about, it is challenging for councillors to get around. In Lorn, for example, councillors have 16 community councils to get round, which is a challenge for any councillor.

Andrew Fraser

To an extent, there are always tensions. For example, North Ayrshire Council has a single quota of 3,000 people per councillor. Mainland members have a much smaller area to represent, but it might include huge areas of deprivation, whereas the member who represents Ardrossan and Arran represents a huge area of rurality, which is not taken account of in their quota. Those tensions already exist.

The key to the changes is to allow the Local Government Boundary Commission for Scotland to set different quotas that aim to meet the aspiration that island communities can have their own ward, but whether that is a one-member or a two-member ward boils down to sheer numbers.

The Convener

We will move on to the next topic.

Peter Chapman (North East Scotland) (Con)

Good morning, folks. I want to explore the marine development provision in the bill. The bill provides a regulation-making power for the Scottish ministers to establish a marine licensing scheme for development activities in the Scottish island marine area. That would require a person to obtain a licence from a local authority. As local authority representatives, do you agree with the bill’s introduction of that regulation-making power? How could it be used in practice?

Dr Sutton

Marine licensing is a powerful issue in the islands. We are in a slightly strange position, in that Cumbrae is 2 miles away from the mainland. The 12-nautical-mile zone and how it might work have been a key area of discussion for us.

From a local authority perspective, again, the devil will be in the detail. There needs to be clarity on the relationship between the national marine plan and the regional marine plan. North Ayrshire is part of the Clyde marine plan. We have many interest groups in and around the islands. The local authorities have specific roles. We believe that the interface between each of those organisations and the various approaches will be key to reaching a definitive agreement about whether what is proposed is a good thing or a bad thing. Again, we need to be involved in how the system works through co-production.

The organisational requirements for local authorities have been addressed separately in the recognition that additional resources will be required, for example for the marine licensing agency. To an extent, that has been addressed, but the detail is not clear. The message that has regularly come back to us is that we need to understand more about the intention.

Fergus Murray

I am reflecting the views of our island residents when I say that, overall, in all the communities that we consulted, there was a general sense of disappointment about the proposed powers in the bill. In addition, people were fearful that another layer of bureaucracy might be introduced and that another decision-making process would be taken away from communities. There was a lack of knowledge about what the proposal means.

The added complication in Argyll and Bute is that the island communities were a bit worried about whether inequalities would be created with the remote peninsulas that are nearby. They wondered whether tensions might be created between communities. There was a bit of apprehension about that. A concern about inequalities emerged strongly from the island communities. They were not sure what the provision means, and there was a feeling that some of the most important aspects had been left out.

Peter Chapman

At last week’s meeting, I asked whether fisheries would be involved, and the clear response was that the measure is nothing to do with fisheries. We also have to respect marine protected areas. There is a real concern about what the measure means in practice. Do local authorities expect to take the licensing powers when they become available?

11:00  



Andrew Fraser

I echo the points that have been made that the devil is in the detail. I am conscious of the resource issue for local authorities. North Ayrshire Council does not have boats, so we would end up having to hire to regulate. We would need to look into that in depth.

Fergus Murray

Argyll and Bute has similar issues with regard to the unknowns of what the powers would mean for us as an authority. We would not say no to the powers but, as we consider them, we will need to know the implications for the authority and our communities.

Peter Chapman

You said that you have consulted with your island communities, and the message that came back is that people need to know a lot more about what the bill means. Do you accept that that is the result of your consultations to date?

Fergus Murray

That result is clear, and it will be followed up in what we write to you. The uncertainty comes across loud and clear about such genuine issues as inequalities and what that means.

The Convener

I am conscious that I did not give Audrey Sutton a chance to respond.

Dr Sutton

Thank you, convener. I was going to introduce the issue of the proportionality of the licensing approach. For an authority such as North Ayrshire, the number of related discussions and applications may be relatively small at times—we have reviewed that issue with our colleagues in planning. Could there perhaps be a regional approach, as opposed to necessarily a single-authority approach? That question may be worth considering, as it has come up in discussions internally and with our communities.

The Convener

Thank you. I will move on to John Mason for the final section.

John Mason

The final area, as usual, is the financial memorandum. Are the administrative costs in the memorandum realistic? Would the costs be the same or different for different kinds of authorities?

Dr Sutton

As Fergus Murray said, our written response will go into that area in more detail. I think that there may be a distinction between authorities with islands and island authorities. It is not that there is less of a focus on islands in our authority at present, but the proportion of officer time that will be required to be spent on island matters, including the impact assessments, may be proportionately greater in the early stages. That is not to suggest that the culture and ethos are not there, but there could be a question around the time required, so we suggest that the memorandum is possibly light on that cost.

Fergus Murray

We have clear concerns about the potential resources impact on the authority. It is an unknown, and we are struggling to find out the number of licences issued and the cost of doing that. We are resource-challenged at the moment, and anything that adds to resource issues is of concern to the authority.

John Mason

The financial memorandum says that Shetland Islands Council deals with only seven licences per year, which suggests that there would not be very many, but there is a dramatic difference in the fees that could be charged, from £57 to £33,000. I struggle to know whether those are realistic figures. I note the point made about considering a regional approach. Are there any thoughts specifically on the marine licences?

Andrew Fraser

This discussion emphasises that we are at the start of the journey; naturally, that is what the national islands plan and the impact of island proofing is about. It is difficult to quantify the costs, but I echo Fergus Murray’s comments that, in these cash-strapped times, with matters probably getting even worse, there are no new resources available.

John Mason

The financial memorandum also mentions duplication, because people would still need to apply to Marine Scotland as well as to the local authority. Is there potential for the local authority and Marine Scotland to work together on the licensing, or have you not got that far yet?

Andrew Fraser

We have probably not got that far but, ultimately, there is that potential. It is fair to say that our island communities, certainly in North Ayrshire, want more control. They are concerned that national bodies will not have regard to their issues so, from their point of view, anything that brings control more locally is better, but that must be balanced with issues of cost, resource and efficiency.

The Convener

We are told that coming up with islands plans for the inhabited islands will not cost very much, considering the amount of money that we have. We are also going to island proof against future considerations that may go against the islands. Are you concerned about the costs of delivering island proofing and about who will meet those costs, or are you relatively relaxed that it is all going to come from central Government as part of the bill?

Fergus Murray

We are very much concerned about that. If there is a meaningful plan that addresses the issues that islanders want to see addressed, it must have resource implications. The authority and even the island constituents have concerns about where those resources will come from and whether that will impact on other aspects of our communities.

Andrew Fraser

We are probably more relaxed with the high-level principles of the bill because they fit with what we have been trying to do in North Ayrshire through locality planning. To be frank, if the bill had not been introduced, we would be on that journey anyway. However, as the process moves forward, the devil will be in the detail.

Dr Sutton

To go back to Jamie Greene’s point, we are all here to do the very best that we can for all our residents, whether they live on an island or not. There is no doubt that the issues around the work that we do with the island communities are mainly resource based. That is to do with proportionality and access to specialist services, which are expensive. It is to do with things that cost money so, in order for us to make the greatest difference to our island communities, resources have to be considered.

The Convener

Thank you. That is a good place to draw the session to a close. I thank you all for your evidence on this very important bill. I suspend the meeting briefly to allow for a change of witnesses.

11:07 Meeting suspended.  



11:12 On resuming—  



The Convener

We continue item 2, which is evidence on the Islands (Scotland) Bill. I welcome our second panel. Stuart Black is director of development and strategic transportation at Highland Council; Norman MacDonald is convener of Western Isles Council; and Malcolm Burr is chief executive of Western Isles Council. The first question is from John Finnie.

John Finnie

I will kick off with the same series of questions that I asked the previous panel; I know that two of you were present for that. First, does the bill’s overall intent match expectations?

Malcolm Burr (Comhairle nan Eilean Siar)

Yes, it largely does. You will have noted in our submission a few points of detail—on island proofing in particular—that we would like to be clarified, to say the least. In general, however, the bill is an enabling bill that forms part of the community empowerment agenda and the review of local governance agenda. Most important, it is a key element of the our islands, our future campaign that we have been running with Orkney and Shetland, which is about ensuring that the islands have a playing field that is as level as possible; that structural disadvantage is diminished; that, at a time of change in public sector delivery and structures, the islands have their place and a clear place at the table; that our needs are recognised; and that the appropriate administrative and political mechanisms are in place to ensure that all that comes about.

Stuart Black (Highland Council)

In Highland Council, those who live on our islands make up a smaller part—about 5 per cent—of the total population. However, the islands are very important to us, particularly when it comes to promoting the Gaelic language and culture. We feel that the bill speaks to general needs. We have some specific issues on things such as the availability of broadband and the services that we would like to be subject to a universal service obligation-type approach so that our island communities get them and are not the last in line to get some of the technology upgrades.

Another point that we make is about some of our peninsulas. Places such as Knoydart and Scoraig do not have road connections and are reliant on ferry connections. Although they are not islands, they are significant remote geographies.

11:15  



John Finnie

My colleagues will pick up on some related issues later, but I would like to ask whether the witnesses expect the bill to lead to greater empowerment for island communities.

Norman A MacDonald (Comharile nan Eilean Siar)

We absolutely believe that it will mean greater empowerment for island communities. We are strongly of the view that it is not about empowering our island local authorities. It is about us sending that empowerment out into communities. That is our starting point. We are looking to have powers and the ability to make our own decisions on a series of issues that impact on us but not on mainland authorities, so that we have the tools at our disposal to be able to influence those things in a positive way.

We are not looking for equality with mainland authorities. We know that that is not possible. What we want is to diminish the negative impact. That is why island proofing is such an important aspect of the bill. It started off with the idea that, if agencies island proof their legislation and policies and the implementation of both, we will end up in a much better place and we will not have to put so much effort, time and money into trying to retrofix the unintended consequences of legislation and policies that have an adverse impact on our communities.

We do not see the bill as empowering island authorities. We will look to empower our communities much more than we can empower them at present given that we do not have the levers at our disposal.

John Finnie

I acknowledge that island communities form a smaller percentage of the Highland Council population. Does Stuart Black see the council’s island communities being empowered as a result of the bill?

Stuart Black

Highland Council is a very large council that covers 31 per cent of Scotland’s landmass. We have a series of local committees—the Skye and Raasay committee, for example, is a powerful voice for that community. We also have areas such as the small isles, which are part of Lochaber.

As Norman MacDonald said, a lot of this is about empowering communities at the grass roots rather than just empowering local authorities. The island of Eigg is a really good example of a community that has moved on from a troubled past, has taken things into its own hands and is helping to shape its own future. We have good examples of communities that have been empowered and are bringing forward developments. The spirit of the bill is about seeing more of that activity.

John Finnie

My final question is also for Mr Black. It is about the difference between the three island authorities and the mainland authorities that have inhabited islands. The latter authorities entered the process later in the day. Has that been a problem? Are you happy with the level of engagement? Do you feel fully engaged now?

Stuart Black

You are right that we came a bit late to the party, but we feel very engaged now. We have been taking part in the discussions through the islands group, which is chaired by Mr Yousaf, and we have been party to recent discussions when we were across with the council leader in Lewis. We feel part of the process. It is slightly different for us as we have a smaller proportion of our population on islands but, as I mentioned, there are also some remote geographies in the Highland area that have island-like characteristics, so it is important that we are involved.

The Convener

Before I bring in Rhoda Grant, Gail Ross will ask a question on that subject.

Gail Ross

Good morning, panel, and thank you for coming. My question follows on from what Stuart Black has just said. Highland Council’s evidence touches on the need to ensure that there is

“more general rural proofing of policies and legislation”,

and that this is not just for island communities. Do you have an opinion on whether island proofing will have knock-on positive effects for the more rural and remote communities on the mainland?

Stuart Black

It would certainly be good to see such effects. Many communities, particularly remote and rural ones, are facing challenges that cannot necessarily be addressed through a piece of legislation. However, if the spirit of the bill involves examining remote areas and considering that they need additional protection, that is positive for the wider Highland area.

The Convener

I am not sure whether I can comment on that. My interpretation would be that it is an islands bill, but I understand your sentiments.

Rhoda Grant

I want to ask about the different challenges that are faced by islands authorities and authorities with islands—there is a distinction between the two. Are the expectations on the islands different depending on the make-up of the authority that they are part of?

Malcolm Burr

I suppose that the expectations are inevitably different because of the political structures. I have worked in two of our islands councils and I believe that they are quite different from other councils in respect of the fact that, as well as being providers of statutory services, they carry an expectation of what I would call community leadership. I do not pretend for one moment that everyone loves their local authority all the time, but there is an expectation that an islands council will act as an external advocate for the area and will take on issues that are absolutely outwith its statutory responsibility, such as issues relating to ferries, air travel and health boards. That is a special role, and it is a privilege to work in that environment. I could not say to what extent that applies in other areas, but I think that islands councils are quite distinctive. That is why the three islands councils began our campaign. However, we did the campaign very much on the basis that whatever we achieved would be of benefit to councils with islands as well.

I take the point that Gail Ross made with regard to remote and rural communities. The same principles apply to them, and the same benefits and achievements can equally be applied to many other areas of rural Scotland.

Stuart Black

I think that it is more about fairness than expectations. Island communities have certain disadvantages, such as additional charges for mail order deliveries and so on. The issue is about fairness and having a level playing field. People who live on islands expect transport costs to be higher, but they do not expect companies to penalise them in the way that some companies do.

Islands have a special identity that is different from the identity of some mainland communities. However, there are strong identities in rural communities, so the issue is not always black and white.

The issue is about fairness, equality of treatment and ensuring that island communities have a voice. For many years, they have felt that they do not have a sufficiently loud voice.

The Convener

I am sure that people across the Highlands have views about delivery charges. It is not just people on islands who suffer in that regard.

Norman A MacDonald

The point that Rhoda Grant raises is relevant. There are great similarities between island communities that are not part of mainland authorities and those that are. We have the same issues even within our islands, with people who are removed from what is seen to be the centre of power or the centre of population in the islands feeling that they are worse off than those who are at the centre. The same feelings exist on islands that are part of mainland local authority areas. The issue is about reducing those inequalities and ensuring a degree of fairness. It is about ensuring that public agencies in particular think hard before they implement legislation and policies that will exacerbate those inequalities. That is the fundamental plank of the bill, and it is one of the key things that people are looking for. Our communities are beginning to understand that, and they believe that the issue is important for them.

Rhoda Grant

Does that make it easier for wholly island authorities to implement the bill and meet the aspirations of their communities? For example, in the case of an authority with both mainland and island communities, it would be quite difficult to manage a situation in which the islands in that area had power over decisions relating to the marine environment but the local authority did not have that power in the rest of its area. Do such issues mean that it is easier for wholly island authorities to implement the bill and meet communities’ aspirations, or do you think that that will happen regardless?

Norman A MacDonald

Part 5, which contains the marine provisions, is in line with the devolution of the Crown Estate from the United Kingdom Government to the Scottish Government and—I hope—down to communities. We believe that the two things go together in that respect. I do not think that it makes any difference whether we are looking at a wholly island authority or an authority with islands that have a marine environment that can be used to support the community. The same applies across the board. Small and remote communities in peninsulas, which Stuart Black mentioned, have an opportunity to take greater control of their marine assets, just as many of them have taken greater control of land-based assets through land reform. We have great confidence in the capacity of our communities right across the Highlands and Islands to take control of land-based assets and manage them effectively for the benefit of the community, and we see control of marine assets as a natural progression. That is why the discussions on the matter came up as part of the our islands, our future campaign and our consideration of the bill.

Stuart Black

Whether they are on an island or not, coastal communities are very interested in what happens to marine assets. The spirit of the bill applies to authorities with both mainland and island communities as much as it applies to the island authorities. Highland Council certainly campaigned a lot for the devolution of the Crown Estate and its assets, so I concur with what Norman MacDonald said.

Rhoda Grant

We spoke to the previous panel about the our islands, our future campaign and how it was driven by the three main island authorities, with the other authorities coming to the table later on, for a variety of reasons. What are your thoughts about why that happened? Was it a disadvantage to come to the table later on in the process?

Stuart Black

I do not think that it was a particular disadvantage. I can understand why the island authorities worked together; we have always had a strong partnership across the Highlands and Islands. Certainly, with regard to Highland Council, Argyll and Bute Council and North Ayrshire Council, I guess that our islands are more important to the local authorities than their population size would suggest, so they certainly punch above their weight. As I said, I do not think that coming to the table later was a disadvantage. We can help with areas of activity such as lobbying. For example, there are similar aspirations for city region deals and island deals, so we have tried to assist in that respect. Although we were a bit late to the party, we are very much playing a role now.

Rhoda Grant

With the other island authorities, Western Isles Council was one of the leaders in the process. Does the bill meet the aspirations that the council had when it set out on the our islands, our future campaign?

The Convener

I ask Malcolm Burr to keep his answer as brief as possible.

Malcolm Burr

As a chief executive, I think that the bill is a very important part of the set of aspirations that the campaign set out to achieve. There are other elements, however, one of which is our hope for an islands deal with the UK and Scottish Governments. Adjustments have been made to how business is done to accommodate islands, but the bill is a very important aspect. We wished to see the key policies of island proofing and having a national islands plan included in legislation and we hope that they will be.

The Convener

That leads us neatly on to the next set of questions, which will be led by Jamie Greene.

Jamie Greene

Good morning, panel. I want first to touch on something that was said earlier. I apologise for not remembering, but either Malcolm Burr or Norman MacDonald said that the bill will empower island communities, not island authorities. Was it Norman MacDonald who said that?

Norman A MacDonald

Yes.

Jamie Greene

I am intrigued by that comment, and I want to probe it further. How will the bill, in terms of its technicality, empower island communities? How will it physically do that?

11:30  



Norman A MacDonald

As was said earlier, people would like to see a number of things in the bill that are of key importance to island communities, particularly in relation to digital connectivity and transport connectivity. Those are two fundamental issues for island communities, although we recognise that they are also issues for peninsulas, which are similarly dependent on connections to population centres and services. We would like to see a number of things in the bill, but we recognise that it is a permissive bill and expect the specifics to be discussed in the plan and the guidance that will go along with the bill. We are comfortable with that because, as has been said many times, one size does not fit all, even within an islands authority, so it would be difficult to be prescriptive about issues in the bill, which deals with the principles. We are more than optimistic that that dialogue will happen as the process goes on.

Jamie Greene

The bill states only that the minister must produce a national islands plan and present it to Parliament. Is it your view that the bill should be more prescriptive? Should it dictate some elements of what should be in the plan? Currently, none of that is in the bill.

Malcolm Burr

We see the plan as being absolutely critical, as it should put the meat on the bones, as it were. However, we did not state in our response that the bill should be prescriptive because we hope that the plan will be there for all time. It will obviously change from time to time—we hope—and we would like to insert the important qualification that the islands authorities, other local authorities and, indeed, communities will be fully consulted and negotiated with on the national plan.

It is essential that the plan be clear, outcome focused and proportionate—recognising that some islands, island areas and councils with island communities may or may not wish to take advantage of all aspects of certain policies. They may want variation, and the plan will allow for that. One of the models that we looked at was the national Gaelic plan, which has a certain proportionality in areas but sets out clearly what is expected in implementing the Gaelic Language (Scotland) Act 2005.

In the short term, we would expect to see a great deal in the plan about connectivity, public service reform and transport—to name just three issues. The plan will be critical, as it will provide the substance behind the enabling provisions of the bill.

Stuart Black

Highland Council’s view is that the national plan will be important. This year, there have been issues around tourism, for example, where we have seen significant growth. We want that to continue, and we want to be able to maintain a strong, healthy economy in our island communities. Therefore, a strong focus on the economy in the plan would be welcome.

As has been mentioned, the guidance that will come with the bill will be where the detail is. It will put the meat on the bones of the legislation. Generally, we welcome the bill as a piece of permissive legislation, but what happens next will be important. The plan should be measurable, so that we can tell how well things are progressing. If the plan is vague and does not have targets, we will not really be able to measure success. We would like to see some targets in it, so that public bodies and others can be held to account if those are not met.

Jamie Greene

I worry that there is a lot of hope and expectation in what you are saying. You have talked about what you hope the plan will address and about things that you hope will be in the plan, including outcomes and objectives. However, the bill as introduced contains absolutely no mandatory duty to have any of those things in the plan—it just states that the minister should produce a plan.

That leads on to the question of who the minister should consult to create the plan. Again, the bill’s wording is loose. It says:

“Scottish Ministers ... must consult ... such persons as they consider represent the interests of island communities”.

That leaves it open, and the bill has been criticised because it does not place a statutory duty on the minister to consult islanders or any specific groups in island communities. Do you have any views on that?

Norman A MacDonald

It is about hope and expectation, and about a clear belief, based on strong messages from our own communities and the wider community, in the potential for communities to change how we, as local authorities, and Government generally go about our business in respect of island communities. That belief is growing. The land reform legislation and the community empowerment legislation have been mentioned. Irrespective of the bill, those pieces of legislation give communities the power to have a greater influence over the things that impact on people’s lives, whether adversely or positively.

There is an expectation that there will be co-production as part of the process—that has been the case with the bill to date. We began with three island authorities presenting a paper to the convention of the Highlands and Islands. All the local authorities in the Highlands and Islands strongly supported how the issues were to be taken forward. Since then, we have had nothing but positive engagement with our own communities and communities elsewhere in the Highlands and Islands, and with Government, too.

At this stage, it is more about an expectation. However, there are things that we want to see absolutely nailed down in the bill or in the plan and the guidance that goes with the bill.

The Convener

Before I bring in anyone else, the deputy convener will ask questions on consultation. A lot of expectation is being placed on consultation.

Gail Ross

Jamie Greene touched on the issue of who should be consulted, and we heard from the previous panel that all should have a voice—from the authorities and community councils all the way down to individuals in the communities.

I want to ask about timescales. The Scottish Government has said that the national islands plan will be laid before the Parliament within a year of the act coming into force. Is that realistic? It has also said that there should be a new islands plan every five years. Will you comment on that, too, please?

The Convener

I will bring in Malcolm Burr, then Stuart Black, which I hope will give us a balance of views.

Malcolm Burr

We want to see a specific provision on consultation with the islands councils as elected representatives of the areas and—I am trying to draft legislation as I speak—with those bodies representing islands and groups of islands. In my area, I am thinking particularly of community land trusts, which are elected, community councils, which are often but not always elected following competitive election, and the community development companies, which have an open membership and are elected by the communities where they operate. There should be a statutory provision requiring consultation with all those bodies.

In the Western Isles, we consider that the Government’s proposed timescale for laying the plan a year after the act comes into force is about right. We have been preparing for this for a long time, and we would have lots to put into an islands plan if the invitation were extended to us tomorrow to draw one up. I would not say that a year is ambitious. It is a tight timescale to allow the relevant consultation, but it is reasonable and we support it.

The period that the plan should cover is very much in the eye of the beholder. The first plan should perhaps stretch beyond the lifetime of this Parliament and then be reviewed every five years. We do not hold strong views on that point, except that we think that the plan should be for a reasonable length of time.

Stuart Black

Legislation such as the Community Empowerment (Scotland) Act 2015 sets the scene for local consultation. It will be challenging for the Government to achieve the proposed consultation. It will be difficult for the Government to get around all the islands, but modern technology enables consultation to happen through the use of the internet and other methods.

On the question of setting a timescale of publishing the plan one year after the act comes into force, as Malcolm Burr has mentioned, there has been quite a bit of local work. Although Highland Council has local priorities in places such as Skye and Raasay, they would fit into such a plan.

On the idea of reviewing the plan every five years, I point out that I am responsible for planning in Highland Council and know that five years can go by quickly. It is important that things are reviewed in the middle of that period to see how they are progressing. I do not think it is right to have a plan but look at it only after five years. Things can happen very quickly in economic developments and around decision making, and it will be important to review the plan during the five years so that it is not a done-and-dusted document that is looked at only five years down the line. Some review of progress during the course of the plan will be important as well.

The Convener

I will leave that issue there and move on. Sorry—Mike Rumbles would like to come in.

Mike Rumbles

This is about island proofing. We are all concerned to make sure that island proofing does not become a tick-box exercise. Can you give me an example of an initiative from any of the 60 or so public bodies that are mentioned in the bill that has been island proofed in the past? If so, what was it, how was that done and what did it cost?

The Convener

That is a difficult question to answer. The panel might want to gather their thoughts.

Malcolm Burr

I could start off with the so-called bedroom tax, which came in very quickly and on which there was the usual statutory consultation. It had such an effect on the islands—on which there is very little one-bedroom accommodation to which prospective tenants could move even if they were able to—that we had to seek and were granted a derogation. That is a classic example. Had there been discussion and engagement with our area, we would have said that we appreciated the aims of the legislation and the will of Parliament but that the plan could not practically be delivered in our area. That is the example that comes most quickly to mind.

Mike Rumbles

That is an example of a policy that was not island proofed.

Malcolm Burr

Absolutely—yes.

Mike Rumbles

My question was really about whether there was something that had been island proofed in the past and, if so, what it was and how much it cost.

Malcolm Burr

I am thinking prospectively, I suppose. This is not exactly in point, but it is relevant. There is the forthcoming review of local governance. We were pleased to note in the programme for government a reference to islands authorities that want to introduce a single public service delivery model being supported by the Scottish Government in so doing—obviously with a number of caveats. That says that public service reform is with us and that there will be a local governance bill but that there is recognition of what islands councils and others have been saying for some time. Perhaps Government is preparing for that or at least allowing the possibility of other models. That is the kind of thing that we are talking about.

The Convener

Would Stuart Black like to come back in on that?

Stuart Black

Mr Rumbles has asked whether I can think of an example. I am afraid that I cannot, so I will have to leave it at that. I cannot think of one example of island proofing having been done in the past. Malcolm Burr has talked about the future, which illustrates the need for island proofing.

Mike Rumbles

It is interesting that everybody is talking about island proofing, yet nobody seems to know how it is to be done or what the cost will be. Western Isles Council’s written submission states:

“There are no enforcement provisions listed either in relation to a decision”

by any of those public bodies

“not to conduct”

an impact assessment for that purpose. That raises the same issue. I am trying to get to the nitty-gritty of what island proofing is. We are asking those 60 or so bodies to do it, but I am not sure what it is or what costs are involved. The submission says that there are no enforcement provisions to ensure that those bodies do it.

11:45  



Malcolm Burr

Those are the improvements that we would like to see in the bill, although it does contain the provision that an assessment must describe the likely significant different effect of a policy before the assessment is made. There is a two-stage process: a government, an authority or an agency must first describe what the policy does and then assess it. That is a very good start. Our issue is that, because of the way in which the bill is written at the moment, the assessment would be solely the authority’s opinion, which would lack objectivity. Likewise, the assessment of significance would be entirely with the reviewing authority. We think that the best people to assess significance are those who live in and represent island communities, and we would wish to be involved in that process. Assessments should be co-produced.

You asked about cost. I am sorry that I did not address that. Frankly, we see a lot of this work in our day job as government. Local government is an arm of government, and we see the proposals as part of our work with the UK Government, the Scottish Government and the agencies that will have to set up administrative means of working with us to talk about forthcoming legislation, policy and strategy. It is hard to say what the cost will be, although we would willingly do that tomorrow. As I say, I see the proposals as part of the core business of any body that calls itself government. My points concerning the subjectivity of decisions about the need for an assessment and the assessment of significance are key for us, but there is the basis of a process in the bill.

The Convener

Let us say that the assessment goes ahead and does not require the decision to be island proofed, and that to do so will cost money—decisions to island proof or do anything else will have a financial effect. I am trying to understand where communities think that the money will come from. Will it come from local authorities or from the Government? How will you deal with that? Perhaps that is an add-on to the answer that Norman MacDonald was going to give. Can I bring you in here, please?

Norman A MacDonald

In response to Mr Rumbles’s question, it is key to ensure that island proofing is not a tick-box exercise, that things are clear and that it is not for the authority to decide whether it is relevant to island proof. That is very much part of our day job; however, as local authorities and communities, we would rather have that conversation with agencies before a policy is introduced or, if the policy comes from the Government, before legislation is introduced. That would save money. It cost more to retrofix the bedroom tax issue that Malcolm Burr raised, which was a totally unintended consequence of legislation that in other places was quite relevant for some folk. That is where the work gets done. It is part of the day job, but we would rather have that conversation the day before the decision is taken than try to persuade people to change it afterwards. We want the bill to be strengthened in that respect. That would not change it fundamentally, because the provisions are there, but it would make it more specific and we believe that it would send a clear message to those with whom we are engaging that the onus is on them to take it seriously. That perhaps addresses Mr Rumbles’s point.

The Convener

Who is going to pay for the island proofing?

Norman A MacDonald

I believe that there may, in some instances, be an additional cost to doing it, but that would be much less than the cost of trying to fix a problem afterwards. Again, that would be part of the discussion. It is better to get things right than to have to spend a lot of time and energy in trying to change things retrospectively. We do not see it as a huge issue, but it would have to be discussed as part of the process. If island proofing would be ridiculous because it had a horrendous cost, we would have to be reasonable about that, but that would be the form of the discussion and the impact assessment. Clearly, nobody is going to offer a blank cheque.

The Convener

I will bring in Stuart Black, then—

Mike Rumbles

Can I ask a question, convener?

The Convener

You can ask a small one, provided that it elicits a short answer.

Mike Rumbles

We heard evidence that islanders need to be consulted, to ensure that we do not have a tick-box exercise. Would it be sufficient for islands councils to be consulted in an assessment by the 60-plus bodies?

Norman A MacDonald

We would speak to the communities that were most likely to be affected. They could be communities of geography or communities of interest in terms of the range of services that we provide. We would not take part in that process without consulting the communities—absolutely not.

Local authorities are one vehicle through which consultation could be done, as are integration joint boards or whatever the relevant bodies are. What is important is that agencies do not feel that they can shy away from responsibility.

Stuart Black

In our submission, we refer to equality impact assessments, which have a screening process to determine whether a full impact assessment should be undertaken. We think that that process makes sense. There will be a requirement for a full impact assessment in some areas but not everywhere.

Impact assessments can be about mitigation. A policy could have financial impacts, and things could be done to reduce them. We feel that a two-stage process would be beneficial, as public bodies would be able to show that they had looked at the issue and, if it required a full impact assessment, they would conduct one. That would mirror environmental and equalities legislation, so it is a potential way forward.

The Convener

I will bring in John Mason, unless he feels that his question has been answered.

John Mason

We have touched on some of the things that I was going to ask about. On the question of what could be island proofed, the example that comes to my mind is ferries. We were on Mull—I realise that none of the witnesses represents that island—and the community there felt that it had not been consulted about the new ferry timetables. There is an immediate tension, because somebody has to decide where all the ferries are going and not every island can have exactly what it wants. I do not want to go into all the detail, but might that be an example of the kind of decision in which local communities could be a bit more involved than they have been?

Malcolm Burr

That example is relevant to the principle that communities and those who represent them should be involved in decisions at the earliest possible stage. That should be a requirement in statute.

Incidentally, on costs, part of the debate should be whether an outcome can be achieved on an island by different means, which may well be cost neutral or less cost demanding. That should be a key part of the discussion.

The issue has to be involvement in the decision-making process and the formation of policy. We live in an age of significant change to public services and public service delivery as well as significant financial constraints. Regional planning and delivery of services are of critical importance to the islands, and it is essential that the statutory element is there to ensure that communities and those who represent them are involved in decisions.

John Mason

We have discussed what should be in the bill and what should be in the islands plan. Another aspect is how much should be in the ministerial guidance. What and how much should be in the ministerial guidance? Should we try to minimise that and have everything laid out elsewhere?

Malcolm Burr

I am happy to start the discussion. The ministerial guidance is very important because it sets out the processes. The bill is about policy formation and process as well as the substantive elements. It is essential that the island-proofing elements are set out with sufficient detail of who will be consulted, in what form they will be consulted, at what level the consultation will take place, what the sign-off will be and what the discussion will be with islands councils and island communities.

The guidance must also set out what the review process will be if one authority does not see the need for an impact assessment or thinks that the policy will not have a significant effect but there is a radically different view in Lerwick, Kirkwall or Stornoway. There needs to be a process of review. I am talking not about a judicial review—that would be a last resort—but about a process that would enable each party to say that the consultation has been conducted fairly and reasonably and that, although they will not always agree with the outcome, they are clear that a process has been followed that has taken relevant matters into account. Guidance is absolutely essential to that.

John Mason

I presume that you would not want to have your hands totally tied by central Government with regard to who you would consult on every issue. As an islands authority, you would hope to consult slightly different people on different issues.

Malcolm Burr

Exactly. As Norman MacDonald said, we will at various times consult internally, with geographic communities and with communities of interest, depending on the subject matter.

Stuart Black

I concur with Malcolm Burr on the importance of guidance, because it sets out what has to be done and the way in which it should be done. I have nothing further to add on that point.

The Convener

The next question is from Rhoda Grant. I apologise that it will go one way only—there will be an evidence session next week at which Western Isles Council will have input.

Rhoda Grant

The convener is trying to say that the witnesses from the Western Isles should not answer this question because they will have adequate time to do so next week. I ask Stuart Black whether Highland Council is happy with the Western Isles having the same protections as Orkney and Shetland with regard to election boundaries.

The Convener

Bearing in mind the panel member who is sitting to your left, I am sure that you will answer carefully, Mr Black. [Laughter.]

Stuart Black

Yes. Interestingly, we support that. We also have a concern, which was raised at the council debate, about the size of Highland constituencies, which we feel is a significant issue. We are very supportive of the Western Isles, but we also have a concern about the size of parliamentary constituencies in the Highland Council area, and any potential reduction. It is my understanding that they are among the biggest constituencies anywhere in Europe.

The Convener

Well done for getting that in, but I am afraid that it is not covered by the Islands (Scotland) Bill, and I do not think that we can stretch it that far.

We move on to the next section, with some questions from Richard Lyle.

Richard Lyle

I agree that the Local Government Boundary Commission for Scotland should look at all those things. In 2004, there was a change to multimember wards. Just before the 2017 election, the commission put the number of councillors in my area up by seven—from 70 to 77—against our recommendation, but heigh-ho.

My question is also only for Highland Council, because the Western Isles will get a chance next week. Do you have any thoughts about the practical issues regarding the current three and four-member wards and the potential impact on islands of a switch to one and two-member wards? Does that proposal mean that the overall number of councillors in a local authority area should go up? How would that work? Should candidates who stand for island wards stay on the islands?

Stuart Black

Again, that was discussed in the council debate on the Islands (Scotland) Bill. On representation within Highland Council, Skye and Raasay is in a ward with four members, who represent that island community. The issue is probably more pertinent to the small isles, which are in the Caol and Mallaig ward. We were of the view that there should be a minimum threshold because the populations on those islands are very small. I have nothing further to add on that. We are fortunate that the Skye and Raasay island grouping is a four-member ward, so it is really an issue only for Caol and Mallaig. I think that the members there are very cognisant of the issues for the islands, and the small isles in particular. Our response may be less deterministic than some others.

Richard Lyle

Should local authorities be consulted by the Government and/or the Local Government Boundary Commission for Scotland with regard to putting a certain number of councillors in particular wards? I do not know whether you have area committees. I will ask a question that I asked the previous panel. Should an area committee be totally devoted to islands?

12:00  



Stuart Black

We have an area committee for Skye and Raasay, as I mentioned, and the small isles are in the Lochaber area committee. That ensures that they have good representation, and they are able to bring issues to the wider Highland Council, so I do not think that it is so much of an issue. Of course, the islanders on the small isles including Eigg might feel differently, but we would need to consult them. That goes back to your point about the need for consultation with those communities.

Richard Lyle

Will you remind me how many councillors you have in Highland Council?

Stuart Black

There are 74.

Richard Lyle

So the number should go up, in the same way as in my area.

Stuart Black

We have had a reduction, actually—there were 80 before.

Richard Lyle

That is amazing. Thank you.

The Convener

I am glad that we are not going to develop that debate here. I ask Peter Chapman to lead the next section.

Peter Chapman

My questions are about the provisions on marine development, including the regulation-making power for Scottish ministers to establish a marine licensing scheme. Do you agree with the power in the bill? How could it be used in practice?

Stuart Black

The council welcomes the provisions on a marine licensing scheme. We have sought to increase our influence over the marine environment around the coasts of the Highlands and our island communities. Echoing points that were made by the previous panel, I note that the resourcing could be difficult, but we want to have greater control and say. In the past, communities have been frustrated by their lack of ability to influence developments around the coast, so that is something that we are keen to see.

Peter Chapman

How do you see it working in practice?

Stuart Black

Again, the devil will be in the detail, but I know from the past that there are frustrations around some of the licensing conditions and some of the rentals that were required—from the Crown Estate, for example—for developments around the Highland coast. It was felt that the local community had very limited say on what was happening, and the revenues were lost from the local area. We want to see more local control over that.

Norman A MacDonald

I support what Stuart Black has said. The issue is entirely linked to the devolution of the management of the Crown Estate to the Scottish Government and, hopefully, down to communities, which will put a significantly greater degree of control into their hands. Historically, as a local authority, we knew nothing of marine developments—predominantly aquaculture—until we got planning applications for shore-based developments. By that time, all the consents and everything had been signed and were done and dusted and nobody in the community had known anything about it.

It is about having a lever so that we have greater control—not necessarily within the local authority, but within our communities—of what happens in the marine environment, as is currently the case with the land-based environment. I imagine that it is an awful lot easier to manage the marine environment than the land-based environment, which is cluttered with people in some areas. We get a lot more opposition and concerns raised by people than we do from anything that lives in the marine environment. [Laughter.]

I do not see it as an insurmountable problem for communities to take greater control of the marine environment, and a licensing regime is probably the best way to do that.

Peter Chapman

Is there an expectation that all the local authorities will take up that power? Do you feel that you will want to get involved in that?

Malcolm Burr

I suspect that some councils will and some will not. In the northern isles, there is experience of a works licensing regime that is already run by the local authority within its specific harbour area. I believe that that works very well and quite harmoniously with other regulatory interests. I imagine that those authorities that have significant coastal areas and strong views about the management of them will want to take up the scheme, but that not all authorities will do so.

The Convener

Does anyone have a different opinion? It seems not.

Peter Chapman

I have one further question. Have you consulted local communities on this aspect of the bill? If so, what feedback have you had?

Stuart Black

In general, Highland Council has a long history of examining issues relating to the Crown Estate and marine matters. Generally, there is a favourable response when we consult communities.

Norman A MacDonald

We have demands from our communities for greater control to be devolved to the community level with regard to what happens in the marine environment. They want us to do something about that, and that is why the issue has been raised in that way in the bill. It is one of very few specifics that are contained in the bill, and we believe that that is for a good reason.

John Mason

We have touched on finance, but I have a summing-up question on the financial memorandum. Are you comfortable with it? Do you think that the costs for administration are reasonable? Should any other costs be included that are not there?

Malcolm Burr

We are generally content with the financial memorandum. There will be an element of trial if the bill is enacted and those processes are set up. However, we have estimated that what is in the financial memorandum is reasonable.

Jamie Greene

There needs to be a differential between the cost of, for example, the implementation of island proofing versus the cost of doing the island proofing—that is, the administrative costs of doing it versus the actual realities of having to implement the consequences and the outcomes of that impact assessment.

For example, with regard to access to healthcare provision on the mainland and people travelling from island communities to access specialist services in a mainland hospital, true island proofing would mean that services would be provided on an island rather than on the mainland. However, the cost implications of that are tremendous. Are you confident that local authorities have adequate funding to back up the concept of island proofing? The bill does not come with any additional resource or funding to councils.

Malcolm Burr

Just to be clear, I was referring to implementation of the bill rather than the consequences. We are already engaged in the process that you describe. Island councils benefit from special islands needs allowance and we have a level of grant-aided expenditure that, although it is far from adequate for our needs, at least recognises some difference in the delivery of services in island communities.

One of the key elements of the bill is to put that negotiation and discussion on a formal constitutional basis that is clear to the agencies that work with us and in relation to the services that we provide. That is why I keep emphasising that it is part of our community empowerment and local governance agenda. It does not stand apart from that; it is a critical part of how we deal with the future delivery of public services in our communities.

Stuart Black

There are additional costs associated with delivering services on islands. If rural proofing leads to higher impacts on the council overall, the fact that we are not funded in that regard at the present time will mean that members will have to take a view on the priorities.

Malcolm Burr’s point about the additional costs of the activity that arises from island proofing needs to be considered by public bodies. For example, with regard to an islands plan, there would be an expectation that some resource would come from that to help to implement some of the ideas within the plan. I think that the bill will have cost implications beyond the actual implementation of the legislation.

The Convener

That is probably a good place to leave the discussion. I thank our witnesses for giving evidence. Next week, we will take further evidence on the Local Government Boundary Commission for Scotland.

We will now move into private session.

12:09 Meeting continued in private until 12:35.  



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Third meeting transcript

The Convener

Item 4 is the committee’s third evidence session on the Islands (Scotland) Bill. This session is specifically on part 4 of the bill and the financial memorandum.

I welcome Ronnie Hinds, the chair of the Local Government Boundary Commission and Isabel Drummond-Murray, who is the secretary. I also welcome Roddie Mackay, the leader of the Western Isles Council, and Derek Mackay, who is its depute returning officer.

There are questions for all of you. Please indicate when you wish to respond. There will not be the chance for everyone to answer each question, so try to pick the ones that you would like to come in on. If you indicate, I will call you in. To remind those who have not given evidence before, you do not need to touch any of the buttons in front of you. It all happens automatically.

Rhoda Grant

Historically, Orkney and Shetland have had protected boundaries for election purposes. Why is that not the case for the Western Isles?

Roddie Mackay (Comhairle nan Eilean Siar)

It seems an anomaly. People have said that it was as if the Western Isles were just forgotten through an administrative hiccup.

You are correct that Orkney and Shetland were specified in the Scotland Act 1998. The council is pleased that the opportunity has been presented to address the anomaly. That will allow the Western Isles to be treated consistently with the other island areas. We are the largest in terms of population. It just ensures that the Western Isles will be represented at parliamentary level.

The Convener

Does Ronnie Hinds have anything to add, or are you happy that that answer summarises the position?

Ronnie Hinds (Local Government Boundary Commission for Scotland)

I have nothing to add.

Rhoda Grant

Will the proposal in the bill have any implications? Will it provide confidence? Do you expect that, because it provides for the status quo, it will work well? Are there likely to be unforeseen consequences?

Roddie Mackay

On that particular aspect?

Rhoda Grant

Yes.

Roddie Mackay

No, none whatsoever.

Rhoda Grant

Is everyone happy?

Roddie Mackay

Yes.

Rhoda Grant

Good.

The Convener

Do you want to ask that question of the boundary commission?

Rhoda Grant

My question about the implications of the change was to the boundary commission.

Ronnie Hinds

We work within the legislation. I see no implications of an adverse nature from the proposal for the Western Isles to become a single constituency. It should be straightforward.

Rhoda Grant

Will the proposal open the floodgates for other requests?

Ronnie Hinds

Requests from other islands?

Rhoda Grant

Or from other parts of Scotland.

Ronnie Hinds

We do not anticipate any.

Richard Lyle

Good morning. Hello, Mr Hinds, how are you?

Ronnie Hinds

Fine, thank you.

Richard Lyle

It has been a long time since you and I have seen each other.

As you know, I was previously a councillor in North Lanarkshire Council. The change in the law in 2004 brought in the new multimember ward. How do the Local Government Boundary Commission and the council take account of the practical issues created by the current three or four-member ward system, and what impact will switching to a one or two-member ward for a particular island or islands have on the number of councillors covering island areas?

Ronnie Hinds

I will have first go at that; Isabel Drummond-Murray may also want to contribute. One of the things that we said in our submission is that in the course of carrying out the fifth reviews of local government as a whole, we were given notice by several councils that it would have been helpful to have more than a three or four-member option to work with. That response came from across Scotland, and not just from the island areas.

The commission welcomes the proposal in the bill that there could be occasions where one or two-member wards could be applied in the designated island areas. That gives us additional flexibility, which is always welcome when you are trying to draw boundaries, particularly in island areas. We think that that is a good thing.

Do you want to add anything to that, Isabel?

Isabel Drummond-Murray (Local Government Boundary Commission for Scotland)

It is about the greater flexibility that it offers us.

The Convener

Would that have an impact on the Western Isles? Is there something that we need to consider there?

Roddie Mackay

We agree. Getting more flexibility in general for the boundary commission around a one or two-member rule as opposed to three or four-member wards would be an achievement.

We strongly support the provision because it provides an opportunity for us to address concerns in some island areas where a council is too remote from the island community that it serves. There are anomalies in our system. The natural townships and communities within our island areas should be the drivers for the ward and the ward membership should be built on that.

We feel that sometimes, because it does not have flexibility, the boundary commission is driven solely by numbers and ratios, which has led to some unnatural combinations, leaving one village or township with much less representation than another. If the commission had flexibility in the island context, island communities and natural communities would be better represented, which would enhance democratic representation in the process. It would be good for us.

The Convener

I apologise, Richard. I asked a question in the middle of your line of questioning.

Richard Lyle

In the past, the boundary commission and councils looked at the sizes of particular wards and tried to even it out—they took the line down certain streets even when people like me said, “No, we shouldnae go there”. Bearing that in mind and the fact that there will be a lower proportion of electors on an island compared to the three or four-member ward that straddles it, what is your view on creating smaller one or two-member wards where the electorate may be 50 per cent less than the three or four-member ward of which it was previously part?

Ronnie Hinds

It would not matter if the electorate was smaller because it is the ratio of electors to representatives that really matters. However, I think that I get the thrust of your question. Given that we are focusing on island and, in the main, rural communities, it raises the possibility, especially if we have more strings to our bow—that is, one and two-member wards as well as three and four-member wards—that you could have quite different ratios within a given council area. We have to go into that with an open mind. We have not sat down and deliberated on our strategy, approach and methodology. However, we recognise the spirit of the bill.

Although we continue to have to work under the rules that apply for all local government reviews—namely that parity is paramount—we have been able to use special geographical circumstances in the past as a way of evening that out. We will probably have to do that to a greater extent when we consider island communities. Part of our approach will be to talk to the councils and communities and take their views carefully into account when we decide how to strike the right balance between parity and closer community representation.

Fulton MacGregor

You are talking about different types of representation in different places and different ward sizes and numbers of members. What do you think about council numbers overall? Can you see that changing for all the island communities and the Western Isles in particular? Will you go with the current number of councillors, following the most recent reviews, and distribute them about? Is there a possibility of an increase or decrease in the number of councillors?

11:45  



Ronnie Hinds

I will try to pick that apart a little. We do not have a pre-set notion that the existing number of councillors—either in the islands or in Scotland as a whole—is a limit on the work that we are about to take on. If you look at how we went about our business in previous reviews, you will find as many examples of areas where the number of councillors in a council went down as examples of areas where the number went up. That was not because there was an overall total that we were trying to work to; it was a reflection of the work that we had done.

The same approach would apply to the island areas. We do not go into this with the idea that if there are currently 22 councillors on Orkney there will always be 22 councillors on Orkney; that is not our approach. In spirit, the bill seems to offer a different recognition of the nature of island communities, and I think that we would be tying our hands if we went into the business saying that the number of councillors that councils currently have is some kind of ceiling.

Members should bear it in mind that when we ask councils what the right number of councillors is, the answer can sometimes be a surprise—the Western Isles can testify to that; they have told us on previous occasions that they have too many. Some councils have said that they would rather have fewer councillors, others have wanted more. We go into the exercise with an open mind and take councils’ views into account. I would not assume that our working to different legislation in this context will necessarily result in more councillors overall, although it could do.

The Convener

I will bring in Roddie Mackay—you do not have to answer the specific question about whether there are too many or too few councillors.

Roddie Mackay

I think that I am happy to say that our main aim today is to see an amendment to schedule 6 to allow the boundary commission to set different ratios for individual islands or for groups of islands that differ from mainland areas. That is our focus in relation to the question of having one or two-member wards as opposed to three or four-member wards.

We did not think that we would be focusing on the total numbers. Let me give you an example. We have 31 members at the moment. In earlier days, the boundary commission suggested that we should have around 28, but—like turkeys voting for Christmas—we suggested 26. We are quite flexible about the total number: we are realistic about that. That is not our driver today; our driver in this context is to get more appropriate and flexible representation for the islands.

Jamie Greene

North Ayrshire Council said that, although the bill makes provision for an adjustment to ward sizes, it does not make provision for altering the electorate to councillor ratio. It is far easier to serve a few thousand voters in an urban area than it is to serve voters who are spread over multiple islands. Should such provision be in the bill? Should there be an ability to change that ratio?

Ronnie Hinds

To do that would be tantamount to saying that parity was no longer paramount. That parity is paramount remains the position under the main legislation within which we work.

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.

The commission advocates not having different ratios in council areas, because the rock on which we are founded must be parity. We can work around it, as we have done in the past and will seek to do again in this context, but not having it would not give us a strong enough framework in which to work. I return to the point that the main objective of what we do is to ensure that democratic representation in this country is as fair as it can be. Comparable ratios within a council are an important part of that.

Derek Mackay (Comhairle nan Eilean Siar)

The comhairle is not advocating a move away from parity. The boundary commission has flexibility to take account of geographical circumstances in an island area. We do not see a great move from parity. A change of more than 10 per cent might sometimes be needed to take account of circumstances, but parity remains a key issue.

The Convener

Does Roddie Mackay want to add to that?

Roddie Mackay

No. Our thinking is the same. I know that the boundary commission considers parity to be paramount. If I could find a word that was a wee bit below paramount, I would go for that. Parity is crucial, but it should not be the sole driver of how we calculate things. We should work on the flexibility that we both agree would be good in the island context. It might inform and feed into different ways of doing things in other areas in the future.

Jamie Greene

That leads me nicely into the next questions, which concern any proposed changes. Ronnie Hinds mentioned that the commission would deliberate internally. What sort of external consultation might it participate in officially? How might that consultation play out—which stakeholders might be involved in it and what timescale would be involved—to ensure that everyone’s opinions and voices are heard?

Isabel Drummond-Murray

We recognise that consultation is always an important part of our work, but that is particularly the case with the islands for implementing the bill.

Jamie Greene

I ask the broadcasting staff to turn up the volume. I am still struggling a bit to hear.

Isabel Drummond-Murray

We recognise that consultation is important. The commission has not yet met to discuss how it will go about it, but there will be an absolute commitment to engaging not only with councils but with communities on the islands. Taking that consultation forward will be a priority.

There is a question of timing and not pre-empting any changes that might occur during the bill’s passage, but we will seek to undertake the review in time for the next local government elections. That points to our beginning the consultation early next summer.

Richard Lyle

I have just thought of a question that I do not think has been asked yet. Anyone can stand for anywhere in the area in which they live. I stay in North Lanarkshire, and I previously could stand anywhere there. However, for a two-member island ward, should we stipulate that the candidate must live on the island? Can we do that or should we encourage political parties to ensure that the candidates that they select for island seats live on the island? I know that Ronnie Hinds does not like to get into that.

The Convener

I am sure that you will not want to answer that last question, Ronnie, but please address the general point.

Ronnie Hinds

The general point is probably more a question for the Electoral Commission than for the boundary commission. The witnesses from the Western Isles might want to comment on the matter, but we could make our approach so restrictive that it would be difficult to get candidates to stand. When we consider the possibility of going down to a single-member ward such as is provided for in the bill, there is an important question of proportionality. As we draw the boundaries more narrowly—that is the way in which your question tends—we have an issue straight away about proportionality if one part of the council is represented by a single member and other parts by two, three or four members. Compounding that by putting a territorial stipulation on candidacy would make life difficult to manage.

The Convener

When we went to Mull, we heard about where the council works and the difficulties that some members face in travelling around more than one area. I ask Roddie Mackay to work that into his answer, because it seems to be a genuine concern.

Roddie Mackay

It is a genuine concern. I agree with Ronnie Hinds about the need to avoid having too many stipulations about who can or cannot stand. It would be a can of worms and would not work. We think that having the flexibility to go down the one or two-member ward route will give us more natural community representation anyway. More people will stand in their area because they know it well. We all aim to get the representation of the people as close to the people as possible, and what Richard Lyle asks about will happen through that process.

That will address the travel issues. There may also be savings, because people will not have to travel for two or four hours to serve the community. They will be able to attend their community councils, for example, for a much lower cost. We will be able to release member expenses—not that you want to vote for that—for front-line services, so there is a win in that too.

The Convener

That is a very clever lead-in; you must have seen the next question from John Mason.

John Mason

You will not be surprised to hear that it is on the finances in the financial memorandum. I will start with the Local Government Boundary Commission. It is a routine part of your work to look at boundaries; you are doing a lot of work on that anyway. How much extra work will be involved under the bill? Are the finances that are specified in the financial memorandum realistic? Some people would say that looking at boundaries is just part of your normal work, but others might say that there will be a lot of extra work involved.

Ronnie Hinds

The Local Government Boundary Commission works cyclically. The fifth reviews that we have just completed, which we mentioned earlier, have to be done every eight to 12 years. That means that, for a large part of the decade, the commission is dormant. A lot of people think that that is a good state for it to be in, but I think that we should be doing our work more continuously. That would work better. It would be less surprising to people if we did not appear only once every 10 years and say, “We’re going to have a look at your boundaries again,” because, in many cases, collective and organisational memory has been lost.

With regard to this piece of work, you will know that, for the three islands councils as they are conventionally understood, the Minister for Parliamentary Business took a decision not to go ahead with the proposals that we had produced. That work had already been done. From that baseline, therefore, one would say that, for us to do the work again will constitute additional work.

We think that it is the right thing to do—we had no difficulty at all with the minister’s decision. The additional work is part and parcel of what I would like to see in any case, which is a more continuous approach. It would be a better way of using the scarce resources that we have and of managing the business. The reviews would always be going on somewhere in the background, and the island reviews will be a step in that direction.

John Mason

You said earlier that you will be talking to councils and communities. There are six councils, so that is not too bad, but there are quite a lot more community councils. Are the costs in the financial memorandum realistic? You could visit all the islands, although that might be expecting a bit much. I presume that there will be an impact on mainland communities that currently share a ward with islands, so you may need to speak to them as well.

It strikes me that there could be a considerable amount of work involved. Have you really thought through yet how you will go about it in practice?

Isabel Drummond-Murray

The costs are an initial estimate. You are right, and we recognise the scale of the challenge, but it is difficult to pre-empt the commission’s consideration of how it wants to go about that work—for example, whether all commissioners will visit all islands or whether the work will be divided up. Similarly, for the team that I manage, there is a question around how we will address and engage people. We want to do so positively, and we are happy to take advice. I know that the committee has been out on visits, and other people have been consulting in the islands. Before we came into the meeting room today, we were talking about the challenges of visiting a lot of the islands, but we will want to do that. The cost is a ballpark figure—it may well go up.

John Mason

The memorandum specifies:

“Costs for travel, promotion and consultation £160,000.”

Is that feasible?

Isabel Drummond-Murray

The largest part of that is for a consultation portal. Until now, we have used an externally hosted portal, but we are exploring whether we can do that in-house, which would bring down the cost significantly and free up more money for things such as travel within the overall budget that has been set.

John Mason

The memorandum also specifies:

“Additional staff: £35,000 to £70,000”.

Isabel Drummond-Murray

Again, the challenge for me is to ensure that we have the resources to service the Local Government Boundary Commission and the Boundary Commission for Scotland, because we work for both. There will be questions around finishing the 2018 Westminster review. Responsibility for Scottish Parliament election boundaries was transferred between the two commissions back in May and decisions are pending about the timescales for that review. There is a bit of juggling, but we estimate that we will need one or possibly two more members of staff to help with the review. That is broadly realistic.

John Mason

I want to ask the council about costs, too. The memorandum suggests a cost of £30,000 per local authority, which I guess is to do with consultation in which councils can seek the views of their communities. It seems a bit odd to me that the cost is simply £30,000 for each authority times six, which is £180,000. As far as I am aware, North Ayrshire Council has two islands to talk to, whereas Argyll and Bute Council and Comhairle nan Eilean Siar have quite a lot of islands to talk to. Are the witnesses from Comhairle nan Eilean Siar comfortable with those figures?

12:00  



Roddie Mackay

We are comfortable with ours. You would have to ask Argyll and Bute Council about its figures. Because we live in, work in and move around our islands, a lot of the consultation that we do is possibly more real and on-going than the consultation in a lot of other areas. Given that we are so close to the people in our communities, we are continually garnering information. The issue of one or two-member wards, for example, has been on our agenda for a few years. There have been lots of consultations about different aspects of island life and different Government initiatives, but the issue of one or two-member wards is often a by-product that arises in consultations. We therefore already have a lot of information and feedback around that from our community consultations—we use a range of community consultation tools—and we think that £30,000 is more than adequate.

John Mason

Do you anticipate that it will be simple and straightforward in some areas, where everyone is going to agree, but that it will be more challenging in other areas and you may need to do more work?

Roddie Mackay

I do not think that we have such challenges in the Western Isles. I will not pre-empt what will happen and say that everyone is going to agree, but, in every consultation that we have had to date that has included the subject of one or two-member wards, people have said that they like the idea. They think that it will be more realistic and a more appropriate representation on the islands to have the flexibility of one or two-member wards.

John Mason

They agree with the principle, but that does not mean that they agree where the lines should be.

Roddie Mackay

Absolutely. We have not gone into the detail of where the lines would be. However, I think that we would put the lines where we know innately that people would like them to be, as long as they stack up with the boundary commission’s requirements.

John Mason

Okay. Thank you.

The Convener

I do not normally do this, but I am conscious that Roddie Mackay has travelled a long way, and I am mindful of Ronnie Hinds’s comment that he was dormant for 10 years. Given that we have you in front of the committee today, is there anything that you feel we have missed in our questioning that you would like to bring to our attention before I close this part of the meeting?

Roddie Mackay

We are gracious and recognise that Ronnie Hinds has been dormant, but we are offering him the potential to get out and about, meet people and see our lovely islands. Isabel Drummond-Murray has requested not to attend in the winter but only in the summer.

To be serious, we have been working very well on the our islands, our future initiative over the past few years—particularly on the Shetland and Orkney relationship, through which a lot of ideas have come up, which is great. The Islands (Scotland) Bill has also been useful, and we welcome the opportunity to come to the committee and say what we have to say about it all. However, we are being realistic and offering an alternative that will bring people closer to decision making. We are following the community engagement and community empowerment agenda that we constantly hear about, and the bill fits in well with that. In terms of island proofing, which has become an in-phrase at the minute, the bill will give a different slant to how we do things in the islands around the wards, so it is a welcome opportunity and the islands are a good place to test it.

The Convener

Thank you, Roddie. You will excuse my flippant remark. If Ronnie Hinds wants to add anything, we would like to hear it.

Ronnie Hinds

I will respond in kind. We are turning this into a mutual admiration society, but I have fond memories of the visits that we made to the islands in the course of the fifth electoral reviews, and I anticipate the same when we repeat our visits.

Mr Finnie’s question about the bill is a good one. It is not clear to me whether the £30,000 per council is supposed to be an allocated sum for each of the six or whether it is a pot from which they would draw. It might be worth getting some clarity on that, because I would not want to think that some of the work that we have to do with the councils would be constrained by the sense that £30,000 was not enough to cover their expenses. I do not think that that would happen, but it is worth getting some clarity on that.

There are one or two additional points that we want to emphasise in the light of the need for flexibility and the fact that we welcome the additional flexibility that the bill proposes. The bill’s wording regarding the possibility of one or two-member wards refers to islands that are “wholly or mainly” within a ward. We think that it would be more flexible to use the phrase “wholly or partly”, because there could be examples of an island being a minority part of a ward and not necessarily falling within the ambit of what the bill, as it is currently drafted, discusses. We think that it would be equally valid for one or two-member wards to be considered for such an island. We leave with the committee our view that “wholly or partly” would be better wording than “wholly or mainly”.

In a similar vein, with regard to having more flexibility for local authorities that have both an island and a mainland component—for example, North Ayrshire—the bill does not provide for us to consider one or two-member wards for the mainland part but provides for us to consider only the island part. For flexibility, it would be helpful if we could also consider having one or two-member wards on the mainland. That would avoid any clunky, knock-on consequences of saying that one or two-member wards might be the right solution for Arran or Bute, for example, without seeing the ramifications of that for Ardrossan and the surrounding area. We would be happier if we had the option of having one or two-member wards in the surrounding areas, too. That would be in the spirit of what the legislation is trying to achieve.

The Convener

Thank you. The committee is looking forward to its trips to Orkney at the end of the week and the Western Isles in the middle of October to take evidence on the Islands (Scotland) Bill. I thank the panel for attending the meeting.

12:05 Meeting continued in private until 12:20.  



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Fourth meeting transcript

The Convener (Edward Mountain)

Good evening and welcome to the Rural Economy and Connectivity Committee’s 27th meeting in 2017. I remind people to ensure that mobile phones are set to silent.

We have received apologies from Fulton MacGregor, and we welcome Liam McArthur, the local MSP, to the meeting.

I am told that I have to make a housekeeping announcement at the outset. If the fire alarms sound, people should wait and follow me out of the door or follow Gail Ross out of the other door—seriously, you are to go out of the doors and back out through the main entrance to the school.

The committee is pleased to be in Orkney to discuss the Islands (Scotland) Bill. We have had a series of meetings today on the bill and we will have further meetings tomorrow. We are delighted to welcome the members of the public who are attending this evening. I urge you to stay to the end of the formal part of the meeting, as we will then have a question-and-answer session with a roving microphone to allow you to ask questions.

This is our fourth evidence-taking session on the bill. We have heard evidence from the Local Government Boundary Commission for Scotland and from other local authorities that are affected by the bill: Argyll and Bute Council, Highland Council, North Ayrshire Council and Western Isles Council.

Today, we welcome representatives from Orkney Islands Council and Shetland Islands Council. From Orkney, we have Paul Maxton, the project manager for the our islands, our future campaign; Councillor James Stockan, the leader of the council; and Councillor Steven Heddle. From Shetland, we have Malcolm Bell, the convener of the council, and Mark Boden, the chief executive.

Rhoda Grant has the first question.

Rhoda Grant (Highlands and Islands) (Lab)

The two councils that are represented today are two of the three that set up the our islands, our future project. Does the bill’s overall intention fit with the expectations that you had when you started that process?

Councillor James Stockan (Orkney Islands Council)

We are delighted to see the bill coming through Parliament. On whether it is meeting our expectations, I would say that it is a start but that it could be much more ambitious. We think that the Government could give us a lot more powers and create more opportunities for us to take things much further. We do not want the opportunity to be missed, so we are keen to engage with you at this stage to see how far the bill can go. It could be truly transformational, if it is given the opportunity.

Councillor Malcolm Bell (Shetland Islands Council)

I agree. The bill is a start, but it is only a start. It could contain more, and there are certainly things in it that I would like to be developed further. Things such as the national islands plan will be key, and how that develops will be important. The bill is part of a suite of legislation that we hope will result in the empowerment of island communities.

Councillor Steven Heddle (Orkney Islands Council)

As Malcolm Bell said, the bill is part of the jigsaw for us. We are developing the islands deal, and we realise that the application of island proofing to other legislation, such as the local governance bill and the Crown estate bill, will be important, too. That is key to our aspiration of achieving sustainable economic development for our islands, and we hope that one way in which we will do that is through community benefit. That is one of our key asks, and one of the disappointments is that it is not dialled into the Islands (Scotland) Bill as it stands.

When the programme for government was announced, it spoke specifically about additional powers for islands councils as one of the five bullet points for the bill, but that has not come through in the bill as it is framed. There is a reference to additional marine licensing powers, but the bill adds nothing to what Shetland Islands Council has already, and it does not add substantially to what we in Orkney have already.

James Stockan mentioned the idea of having enabling powers, so that things that might come up through the island-proofing process could be achieved through secondary legislation rather than through primary legislation. We recognise that the Scottish Government might have difficulty in making such enabling legislation, so we have moved quite a bit in the way in which we have been discussing the issue.

We started by asking for complete implementation of the European Charter of Local Self-Government, which has been genuinely transformational for us. We moved to considering a general power of competence, and now we have moved to the idea of enabling legislation that would be enacted in a progressive form through application to the Scottish Government, to reassure the Scottish Government that it is not giving the islands a blank chequebook. We think that that is a not unreasonable ask.

Another thing that we have been looking for in the bill is the concept of community benefit for all major developments in the area. It would be transformational if that was understood. We recognise that major developments might not be able to deliver community benefit on day 1 but, when they are successful, it is not unreasonable to expect a community benefit. That is one of the things that we would be looking for through the devolution of the Crown estate, so that revenues from Crown estate activities in our area came back to our area to enable us to develop the economy.

I go back to our starting position when we were considering our campaign to the Government, which was in the spirit of the Montgomery committee, which viewed the development of the powers of the islands councils as an evolutionary process that should be supported. We stated up front that the council wanted the bill to explicitly express that the council

“as presently constituted, shall continue to enjoy all such special powers as they have at present; and that no legislation shall be passed which derogates from our powers or varies our territorial jurisdiction”.

That is an expression of the status quo. The bill is meant to take things to the next level, so we feel that, if it is seen as going too far to include the enabling powers in the bill, at least the retention of the powers of islands councils and support for community benefit should be forthcoming.

The Convener

That was a full answer, which I ask Rhoda Grant to come back in on. I clarify that the Crown estate will be raised in later questions, so we can park that at the moment.

Rhoda Grant

Does the bill as it stands sufficiently empower island councils to deliver what you ask under secondary legislation, or does something have to be in the bill to allow the powers to come afterwards in secondary legislation? Is there enough to empower you, or are you looking for something more in the primary legislation?

Paul Maxton (Orkney Islands Council)

We definitely feel that more empowerment is needed and that primary legislation is perhaps not sufficient in that regard. There is not sufficient flexibility, and we suggested in our submission a mechanism for providing flexibility through secondary legislation. We are moving into uncertain and changing circumstances with Brexit, and none of us knows what the future holds. Being able to adapt to future circumstances will be important.

Our submission is about improving outcomes for our communities; it is not just about having a power for the islands councils. The process might be by way of application. The application would be evidential—it would show support from communities, but we would also produce a business case. It is very much in our interest to demonstrate, not just to the Government but to ourselves, that we have the right case, financial or otherwise. There is potential for a flexible approach; the application could be made under a range of competences. There is scope for an application process in the marine licensing provisions, and we envisage something similar.

How would we use the power? We could use it for fuel poverty schemes. The committee will see from our submission and our consultation response that we have experience of having to rectify Scottish Government schemes. We would like to be proactive, take the initiative and go to the Government with our own ideas for local solutions that would benefit our communities.

Our proposal is very much in keeping with the Community Empowerment (Scotland) Act 2015—particularly section 22, which deals with participation requests. We suggest something that follows the same principle. Section 22 allows a community body to enter dialogue with public authorities about local issues, and even potentially to take over and deliver local services. What we propose involves a very similar principle. I do not think that this is a case of seeking power for power’s sake; we would have to be able to demonstrate, through the process that I have suggested, that a proposal was workable and that we had local community support.

The Convener

John Finnie wants to ask a small follow-on question.

John Finnie (Highlands and Islands) (Green)

Councillor Heddle mentioned the European Charter of Local Self-Government. Will you outline the difference between what that charter commends and what is proposed, and in particular whether a single purpose authority would be in line with the charter?

Councillor Heddle

It is difficult to answer that question concisely, because the charter is a large document. We have focused on the provisions in article 9, which suggest that subsidiarity—in effect, the general power of competence—should be assumed and should be accompanied by adequate financing for the local authority to carry out its functions. Those are the two things that I highlight from the charter. It made sense to frame our proposal in terms of the charter because both the Scottish Government and the United Kingdom Government have signed up to it and it is consistent with the direction of travel of democracies across the continent.

The Convener

Does James Stockan want to speak? I see that Malcolm Bell is ready to go, too.

Councillor Stockan

That is the point that I was going to make. The charter is behind much of what we are doing. When we look at the autonomy that is afforded to island groups across Europe, we see that we are light years behind them. We want all the levers to make our economy work—we want to make the best use of the public pound that comes here, so that we get the best service level and can stimulate the economy to the greatest degree.

When he was the First Minister, Alex Salmond made it clear in the Lerwick declaration that his party supported subsidiary and wanted local decision making. In fact, he went on to say that there should be the maximum degree of local decision making. That is what we want—the maximum. We do not want the bill not to work for the Government, for the people or for anyone in between; it has to tick the box for everyone.

On the European charter, I would almost say that island proofing should mean that we do not have to do things. It should apply only to things about which the Parliament says, “No, you can’t have a change to that.” We should look at it from the other perspective and do things the other way around. That would really transform how we operate, and we would get the best results for the community and for the nation as a whole.

18:45  



Councillor Bell

The short answer to the question is no—the bill as it is written does not empower. If it were to be taken in isolation, it certainly would not provide any empowerment, although it might provide for it—particularly through the national islands plan, which is critical. We expect to see measures in that plan that will help and provide empowerment. As the bill stands, it provides for empowerment, and we would not necessarily want it to be too prescriptive about that.

Stewart Stevenson (Banffshire and Buchan Coast) (SNP)

I request a quickie—a short answer. When we visited Birsay this morning, we heard that the community there is also looking to be empowered from the centralised decisions that are made in Kirkwall. Is such an approach part of the aspiration of the respective councils?

The Convener

Who wants to answer?

Councillor Stockan

We have started a new term of local government, but that is definitely our decision. We take that approach already for some of our islands, as we have an empowering communities agenda and are actively supporting community councils on these islands in a way that has never been done before. We are also looking to roll that out across the mainland areas, and that will involve a lot of things that councils have always done and seen as their right, but which communities can do for us and for themselves.

We want to pioneer a new way, because we think that we will have far better buy-in and will get far better results and that, as budgets get squeezed, there will need to be different ways of doing things. That is our modus operandi. In the same way as the Scottish Government wants to get powers from Westminster, we are looking to get them from Holyrood and pass them on to our smallest communities.

The Convener

I will let Rhoda Grant come back with a follow-up question and then see where the answers go.

Rhoda Grant

If the islands plan is the vehicle, people will deliver the aspirations that you talked about through it, rather than through the bill. There will be an islands plan that covers everyone, but are you talking about having individual plans that cover each area and give the powers that you are looking for? Steven Heddle and James Stockan seemed to say that each island community might be looking for something quite different.

The Convener

You can answer yes or no to that—that is, yes, you want your own plan for each island, or no—

Councillor Stockan

We want a chapter for each island. We are unique and different, and the islands that are outside the island authorities are different too. The plan needs to fit the bill so that it benefits everybody in the way that makes most sense.

The Convener

Would one of Malcolm Bell and Mark Boden like to answer that?

Mark Boden (Shetland Islands Council)

A national islands plan is most welcome and will be enormously helpful in advancing the aspirations of the island communities of Shetland. Just because it is one plan does not mean that it has to have only one-size-fits-all provisions. The Scottish Government is far more sophisticated than that. There will be many things that affect all the islands of Scotland that people live on—in which case we could have one section that dealt with everything—and there will be others that are unique to particular islands or, in our case, groups of islands.

We see the islands plan as a splendid development because it is not a once-and-for-all measure like the bill, which has happened once in my career and will not happen again. We cannot possibly deal with everything in the bill. However, the plan will be renewed every five years and will be reported on and discussed every year. It will be a document that can be added to as we learn, change and adapt as the world changes. It is a very public document, so there will be a public dialogue between the Government and the communities on the islands, which is a powerful thing in the world of politics. We are confident that we will be able to get into that plan—or at least have a public dialogue with the Government about it—and raise the issues that are relevant. There will be enormous pressure on all of us who sign up to things in the plan to deliver them. We do not need bureaucracy around that. We talk about secondary legislation, but there often does not have to be secondary legislation.

What we want with the sea bed and the Crown estate—

The Convener

We will park the sea bed for the moment, if you do not mind.

Mark Boden

Okay—I was just going to use that as an example.

The Convener

We will come back to it.

Mark Boden

Okay.

I will pick up on Mr Stevenson’s point about communities and centralisation. We do not recognise the concept of centralisation in Shetland. It is important to recognise the uniqueness of the three island councils and the three archipelagos that they represent. They are different from everywhere else, for a variety of reasons. One is the challenges that they face. In our case, the remoteness, rurality and insularity are extreme. It is a 14-hour ferry ride to our port of entry, where our businesses can come on to the same terms as everybody else. All the costs, delay and difficulty come before that, but nobody else shares those. There are also problems with isolation and rural poverty. The problems are quite distinctive, although, of course, so are the matching benefits and opportunities.

I emphasise the unique position of the three island councils. I will use Shetland as an example, as it is the one with which I am most familiar. I have pushing 40 years’ experience of councils of different types and sizes, and I can tell you that I have never worked anywhere else where the unity and the common identity between the community and the council are so strong. The council serves only 23,000 people, and the main settlement, Lerwick, has a population of only 7,000, so it does not even count as a town in national planning policy. There is no centre to centralise on. We are a dispersed group of islands with people living in very rural circumstances. There is great homogeneity in the islands. The communities are very tight, and there is a close relationship between the electors and the councillors who represent them.

That means that, in Shetland and the other two island groups, Scotland and its Government and Parliament have an opportunity to deliver community empowerment in a way that they do not have elsewhere. There is an entity—the council—that has huge commonality with its population and which represents them really well. It has community leadership, democratic legitimacy and operational capacity. The council can do things, so you do not have to create vehicles for that. There is a superb opportunity for community empowerment in the three island groups through the councils, which have a wide range of powers, the operational capacity and the democratic legitimacy all there ready and waiting to be used.

The Convener

This is the perfect time to bring in the deputy convener, Gail Ross, with the next question, as that will help us to focus on the issue.

Gail Ross (Caithness, Sutherland and Ross) (SNP)

Good evening, panel, and thank you for joining us. The catalyst for the bill came from the formation of the our islands, our future campaign, which as we have heard was led by the three island authorities in 2013. How well does the bill reflect the aspirations of that campaign?

Mark Boden

It reflects them very well. We are very pleased with the bill, as it will deliver two key enabling pieces of legislation, on island proofing and the islands plan. The proofing will lead to a significant change in the approach of national bodies, including the Scottish Parliament, to the islands and to fine tuning of legislation and policy to best suit them. We have every hope and intention that the plan will lead to an on-going dialogue whereby more and more responsibilities are delegated to the island communities and the councils that represent them as time goes by.

However, as has been said, the bill is only part of the jigsaw. It has to be taken in conjunction with things that we will come on to, such as the sea bed, the forthcoming bill on local government reform and the current education agenda. All those things play in, but the bill is central.

Councillor Heddle

As Mark Boden has said, island proofing is a key plank of what we were advocating in the our islands, our future campaign, and clearly the national islands plan is very much to be welcomed as something that could be a vehicle for empowerment.

On the issue of empowerment, I do not want to be negative about the bill at all—I think that it is fantastic, and we welcome provisions such as those on the national islands plan, island proofing, constituencies and marine licensing—but we are very keen for it to be something of substance that will be welcomed by us, the Government and the people whom we represent. The bill’s initial premise was to improve outcomes for people in island communities, and we believe that empowering local authorities and, in turn, the communities we serve is the best way of doing that.

We very much buy into the whole onward devolution concept, because devolution should not stop at Edinburgh—and, indeed, should not stop at Lerwick, Kirkwall or Stornoway. The work of the our islands, our future campaign was embodied in “Empowering Scotland’s Island Communities”, which is a very important document that we still go back to and which we see as part of the jigsaw of ensuring the delivery of everything that was discussed in the process through the bill, through the deal or in on-going work with the Government that does not require legislation. All those things are hugely important, and the “Empowering Scotland’s Island Communities” document recognises the role of the community planning partnership as central to our aspirations and, indeed, to the disbursement of community benefit.

Gail Ross

The three island authorities led the process in 2013, but the bill covers all inhabited islands. That will bring in Highland Council, North Ayrshire Council and Argyll and Bute Council, all of which face their own unique challenges in being mainland authorities as well as having responsibility for inhabited islands. Why were they not included in the original our islands, our future campaign?

Paul Maxton

They came in quite late in the process, when the joint position statement negotiated by the three island councils had been completed, engagement had already begun and the campaign had gained momentum. I believe that the Scottish Government itself decided that, because things had gone so far down the line, only the three island councils should continue to be part of the island areas ministerial working group process. However, that was subsequently altered still further down the line with the establishment of the islands strategic group.

With your indulgence, convener, I want to make a point about empowerment. The bill is very welcome, particularly given that we have had no island-centric legislation for 40 years—it has been quite some time. However, there is no additionality when it comes to empowerment. One of the key questions in the consultation was about the additional powers that consultees thought were necessary, and, from recollection, I believe that 73 per cent of respondents confirmed that the bill should contain additional powers. If we leave aside the issue of marine licensing, which relates to a separate question about the extension of powers in the local acts, and look at additionality in isolation, we see that there is really no additionality, unless you include the national islands plan. In a sense, that could be described as empowerment, but such a view places huge importance on the plan.

You will see from Orkney Islands Council’s submission that we have some concerns in that respect, and we think it imperative for the council—and, indeed, the other five authorities—to have a large say in the matter. As has been said, there are unique circumstances in every authority area, and it is imperative that that is manifested in the plan. That provision could be stronger. One of the recommendations from Orkney Islands Council is that the council, along with its community planning partners, should be a statutory consultee. That is reasonable.

19:00  



Liam McArthur (Orkney Islands) (LD)

I do not know whether my point cuts across what others were saying, but I want to pick up what Steven Heddle was saying about island proofing. One of the messages that we heard in previous evidence sessions and which I have picked up locally is that there are high expectations for the bill. I am not sure that there is necessarily a wide awareness of the enabling nature of the legislation, which means that the island proofing relates to policy to come, rather than applying retrospectively to problems that exist due to what might be construed as a one-size-fits-all approach.

I was interested in the specific reference to that in the Orkney Islands Council submission:

“It is also disappointing that there is no distinct mechanism to deal with retrospective island proofing. The Council gave numerous examples in its consultative response where its islands have suffered detriment through failure to island proof legislation.”

That becomes a recommendation in response to the first question of the consultation. Do you have any firm views about how that might be achieved, whether it be through the islands plan or through a commitment from the Government to look at some of the specific examples and retrospectively apply the island proofing to give some confidence about what it might mean in future?

The Convener

We will come to island proofing as a separate topic, and the question at that point will absolutely focus people’s minds on the area. I want to put that on hold for a moment—I am not putting it completely to one side—and offer Malcolm Bell a chance to come in before we move to the next topic.

I am mindful that we have quite a few themes and that the committee would like to hear from the audience. The first theme has taken half an hour and I would hate the members of the public to be sat here thinking that they will not get a look in before 11 o’clock. We will have to speed it up a wee bit. Liam McArthur, I will bring your question in at the appropriate moment.

Councillor Bell

I will be brief and go back to the deputy convener’s question about the difference between island authorities and authorities with islands. The beginning of the campaign came out of the early days of the independence campaign, when a very tight constitutional situation—constitutions tend to be frozen and are not easy to change—slackened off. We saw an opportunity and seized it and we make no apology for that. It made perfect sense to work together with our fellow island authority partners, with which we have so much in common. Although there are also differences between us, we have a lot in common, and we are very different from authorities that have islands. We provide services for islanders: 100 per cent of the people for whom we provide services are islanders. In the case of Highland Council, the figure is something like 5 per cent. We are very different from those authorities, but we are always very clear that any benefits that resulted from the campaign should apply equally to islands across Scotland. In the initial stages, it was clear that the three island groups would work together.

The Convener

We need to move on.

Councillor Stockan

I have one point on that. Please do not dilute this to try to make it a one-size-fits-all bill. It must maximise the benefit for the people who initiated the idea.

The Convener

I am getting the impression that people want it to be stronger, rather than for it to be diluted.

John Mason (Glasgow Shettleston) (SNP)

Our next theme is the national islands plan, which John Finnie and I will ask about. I realise that we have already touched on the plan; I just have a couple of specific questions.

I really enjoyed reading Orkney Islands Council’s submission, and I picked out one or two things from it. It says that the national islands plan was discussed by the islands strategic group and a comparison was made with the Gaelic language plan, which it was felt was quite a good model. Could you expand on what is good about it, which you would like to be replicated in the islands plan? I am not that familiar with the Gaelic language plan, and I assume a few other members are not, either.

Councillor Stockan

It has definite commitments and it holds both sides to account, which is what we want to see. It contains definite commitments from the Government and from us, as well as timescales in which they will be delivered. That is essential in ensuring that things do not drag on for years.

John Mason

In relation to the Gaelic language plan, your submission uses words such as “proportionate”. I took that to mean that Gaelic has a different significance in different areas of Scotland, so councils would treat it differently. In relation to the Islands (Scotland) Bill, I assume that that means that, because every council is different—even the three island authorities—you would want flexibility to be built into the plan or the bill.

Councillor Stockan

Your assumption is correct.

John Mason

Okay. I am getting very short answers.

The Convener

You are to be congratulated.

John Mason

Some people have suggested that the bill should include a specific overarching objective; I confess that, as a city person, I had wondered about that. The objective that occurred to me was that of stabilising and strengthening the population of every island in Scotland. Such an objective would apply to the Orkney Islands, the Shetland Islands, the Western Isles and other islands.

Is there a need for that? The Government’s feeling seems to be that it is better to leave any such objectives for the plan, because they might change. However, I would have thought that some objectives would be permanent for the next 100 years.

Councillor Stockan

The community planning partnerships on each of the islands would say that anyway, so it is a given in what we do. We are strengthening and sustaining islands and hoping that they have a more active role in the life of the nation. We must secure each and every island, because some are particularly vulnerable and need support from authorities or from the councils that look after them.

The Convener

I will bring in Malcolm Bell and then Steven Heddle.

Councillor Bell

James Stockan has said what I was going to say; I do not have much more to add. As I said, we do not want the bill to be prescriptive. Outcomes such as those that Mr Mason mentioned would clearly be desirable in any event, but the plan needs to be built on and renewed regularly. It will have to be reported on annually, and it should be outcome focused. The outcomes should be clear and easily measurable, but we certainly would not want such specific objectives to be prescribed in the bill.

The Convener

I do not want to put words into your mouth, so could you clarify that? You do not believe that there needs to be a description of what the bill is trying to achieve in the bill, as that can be covered in the plan. Is that what you are saying? Do you think that the bill should include an overarching description? I think that that is what John Mason was suggesting.

Councillor Bell

As James Stockan said, the things that Mr Mason talked about are part of the day job—they are what we do every day. The plan needs to be as flexible as possible, to allow us to meet changing and on-going needs.

Councillor Heddle

The bill should have high-level aspirations, so if it were to include an objective, it would need to be a high-level objective. As it is currently framed, the bill talks about

“improving outcomes for island communities”,

which is an objective that we could support. The objective of retaining population that Mr Mason mentioned is linked to jobs and opportunities. That is a high-level aspiration that I do not think that any of us would disagree with, if it were to be proposed.

The question was about the plan. The plan will be very important in setting out the detailed and specific objectives that the local authorities put forward. In previous evidence sessions, the word “co-production” was used a lot. We certainly agree that the islands plan should be co-produced by the local authorities and the Scottish Government, and that there should be specific chapters based on each local authority area—perhaps, indeed, within each local authority area for the specific smaller groupings.

Mark Boden

I understand why people, particularly those who are not lawyers, might have the aspiration for something rather more specific. However, “improving outcomes” is included as an objective, as Steven Heddle said; that is a good phrase. It would be very difficult to become more specific without leaving things out, and whatever is left out cannot be done—people will use its absence as a reason to say, “You can’t put that in.” It would be very dangerous to become specific in section 3, on the national islands plan, especially as the plan will last for many years and we cannot predict now what will come up in five or 10 years’ time.

When we become specific, we tend to focus on the negative and on correcting what is going wrong—for example, what we might want to do on islands with very small populations, where the whole community is fragile—and we tend to miss out the aspirational positive stuff. There are huge opportunities in our island communities to contribute not just to the wellbeing of the islands, but to the wellbeing of Scotland—to extract enormous social and economic benefit. That tends to be missed out when we put in specific objectives, because we tend to go with correcting the current ills rather than grasping that future.

John Mason

That was a very helpful answer.

John Finnie

The committee that is scrutinising a bill always gets lobbied to put specific information on the face of the bill. We know that transport, digital infrastructure, access to health and social care and education will be addressed in the plan. Should they be specifically mentioned in the bill?

The Convener

Who would like to answer that? One or two people have put their heads down when they would usually be quite happy to put them up. Mark Boden’s head is still up—would he like to start?

Mark Boden

I made the mistake of making eye contact.

It would do no harm to put in specific instructions from Parliament to the Government to do certain things for us. Please feel free, as long as it is not that alone that is required.

John Finnie

I used the phrase “access to health and social care”. We have already seen integration of those taking place. I return to the phrase “single purpose authority”, which I used earlier. I got no biters the first time round. Can you comment on whether that fits in with that general philosophy?

Councillor Stockan

Absolutely. We would love to investigate that, because we joined up our council social services with the health board long before the integration joint board became a Government prescription. We have been held back since it became a prescription, because that has added another layer of governance and effort for us, and we were already doing it.

We would love the opportunity to be a real microcosm test-bed or proving place for things that could be applied elsewhere in the country, as we are in energy and many other things. With the single purpose authority—we would not want to miss out the third sector, because we believe that it is important—we could do something quite transformational for our people and make sure that every pound note that comes into the community was used to its best effect to provide better services.

John Finnie

That is very helpful. May I ask about consultation? I just want a brief answer, because you have alluded to it already. What level of consultation would you anticipate there being on the development of the islands plan and how you would go about it? I will bolt on another question, which is about the timeframe. Is it realistic for the Government to talk about the plan being laid before the Scottish Parliament within a year of the act coming into force?

The Convener

Mark Boden indicated that he would like to give an answer to an earlier question. Maybe he could slip that in with an answer to this one.

Mark Boden

Thank you. I think that a year is realistic. We must not accept bureaucratic slowness; we must get on with things—if we get on with it, a year is more than long enough. We obviously want the island authorities and the key industry, public and voluntary sector groupings to be consulted directly by the Government, but we could use our well-established systems of consulting the communities in our island group, so it should not be a problem.

19:15  



Let me return to your earlier question, if I may. The answer is yes; the agenda of a single public authority fits really well with this. I think that there are two reasons for that. One is that, as public services develop in the way in which they are developing—not just in Scotland but in other places—in geographically remote areas there start to be big disadvantages as one goes for economies of scale. Services start to become remote; they move to Aberdeen and what have you.

However, there is scope for economies of scale through the merging of different public functions in the island group, and such an approach fits really well with autonomy. We need only look at some of the most successful island groups in Europe, which are of benefit not just to themselves but to the nations of which they are part—Åland and Faroe leap to mind. Faroe is a very successful place; it is a good place to live, with a very content population, and it draws virtually nothing from the Danish public sector spend. Åland is similarly successful.

I am familiar with a very successful council in rural Finnish Lapland. The area has a small population of 50,000, and the council does everything that a Scottish unitary authority would do, plus secondary health, plus water, plus sewerage—plus, plus, plus—and all that works really well. It is an ideal solution for the more remote, more sparsely populated areas.

The Convener

I want to push someone from Orkney to answer the question about whether the islands plan can be drawn up in a year.

Paul Maxton

The answer is yes, unequivocally. It is so important to us, as the input and commitment from Orkney—indeed, from all three island councils—in the our islands, our future campaign demonstrated, that I do not hesitate in saying, certainly from our perspective, that that is achievable. Of course, it will depend on other parties, but the commitment from the three island councils will be 100 per cent, I am sure.

The Convener

You are saying yes. I see that Steven Heddle is holding his hand up—I do not know whether you want to say no; I hope that there is no dissent. John Finnie might have had an answer to his question, so please be brief in whatever you are going to say.

Councillor Heddle

I will keep it brief. Two questions were being asked, I think. First, can we consult in time? The answer to that is unequivocally yes, because we have a good relationship with the third sector, which does consultation exercises for us, we have a good community planning partnership, whose consultation guidelines we use, and we have energetic and empowered community councils—we will be establishing 20 new community councils in short order.

Secondly, do we have ideas for the plan? The answer to that is unequivocally yes, too. Malcolm Burr offered to go away and write the plan for you, and we echo that. We have plenty of ideas that we could put into the plan, so the answer is very much a yes.

The Convener

We would want you to write that part of the plan. Let us move to the next issue.

Mike Rumbles (North East Scotland) (LD)

I want to drill down into the specifics of island proofing, which has proved a little problematic in the evidence sessions—formal and informal—that the committee has had. Part 3 of the bill places a duty on the Scottish ministers and the 60 or so public authorities that are listed in the schedule, which of course include the councils, to

“have regard to island communities in carrying out”

their functions.

We have been wrestling with what the phrase “island proofing” actually means. How do we do it? We want to avoid a situation in which someone in Glasgow, Edinburgh or anywhere else outwith the islands sits down with an organisation such as Scottish Water and says, “We’ve got an initiative, and we’ve got to think about Orkney or Shetland. Great. I’ve thought about that, so I’ve ticked the box and island proofed the initiative.”

What does island proofing mean, and how best do we go about it? Do we need to consult the people who live on the islands, for example?

Mark Boden

In thinking about this, we need to draw a distinction between island proofing in section 7 and impact assessments in the later sections. I am talking only about section 7.

It is an attitude of mind. A civil servant in a department or Government agency who is coming up with an idea for improving something thinks about communities in Scotland and how the idea might help them. All they have to do is have in their mind the fact that there is a variety of communities in Scotland and that one extreme of the spectrum is the three island groups—in the case of Shetland, the most remote northern area—with their particular issues. It is not complicated.

The failsafe that makes it a simple process is communication. At an early stage in developing their policy, such people should just speak to the relevant organisation—in our case, the council—for the relevant island and ask whether what they are thinking of doing sounds sensible to them. It is not a complicated process.

Mike Rumbles

You are saying that whoever is in charge of that initiative needs to go to, or speak to people who live on, the islands.

Mark Boden

Yes. I will give you a recent example. Later in the day than was ideal but not too late, Skills Development Scotland came out with a proposal to change the funding for modern apprenticeship training so that it would not be where people lived and they would have to go to it. SDS changed the funding of travel in a way that meant that nobody from Shetland would ever take part in a modern apprenticeship. We picked up the phone, I had a chat with the chief executive of SDS, other people chatted, the proposal was changed and the appropriate payments were put back in. The problem went away. It was dealt with. It was not complicated because SDS published the proposal before it was set in stone.

The initiative is on us as well. We have to keep our eyes open to what is going on and say to people, “Excuse me a sec. You are proposing that but hold on.” It was not difficult in that case.

Mike Rumbles

Does the bill need to be stronger? We have to interrogate the Scottish Government’s bill to improve it if we can. Do you think that the simple phrase “have regard to” is strong enough?

Mark Boden

Yes, I do. We would want to do island proofing by dialogue and partnership working, as we do with all the agencies and the Government. However, the bottom line is that I am not afraid of judicial review. If somebody cannot prove to me that they had sufficient regard to Shetland’s particular circumstances, off we will go.

The Convener

Mark, I am concerned because that is twice you have mentioned legal matters. It must be your background.

Councillor Stockan

The last thing that we want is judicial review. We can co-produce things and work forward from the beginning. We would want to have a really good chance to engage with any major pieces of primary legislation. Secondary legislation is another matter in which people identify knowledge of what is coming through. However, there is a lot of ministerial discretion. That is one of the things that we have the biggest problem with. People could make a change for us but they do not have the confidence to do it. If we set island proofing properly in place, people will have far more confidence to help us with the small things that may be an irritant to some but are fundamental to our life in other ways.

For instance, the money for the home energy efficiency programmes for Scotland area-based schemes—HEEPS ABS—that came through the Scottish Government used to come to our council and we had really good outcomes. More recently, the money came through in a far more prescribed way but we did not have the people trained in Orkney, so we missed the first £1.4 million of benefit to the place with the greatest degree of fuel poverty in the country because we had to tick a lot of boxes that were inappropriate and had probably been devised only for the central belt or further away. At the same time, the public money was not being put to the best use.

If island proofing comes through Parliament, we want to ensure that everybody is aware that there are opportunities to do things differently in the islands at every level.

The Convener

I rather rudely parked Liam McArthur’s question earlier and, if I do not bring him back in, he might make my life rather difficult.

Liam McArthur

I know that you are on my home turf, convener, but I think that you overstated my powers in these parts.

What I was trying to do was get the panel, in particular the Orkney delegation, to demonstrate what island proofing might be by applying it to cases from the past. Mark Boden made a suggestion about apprenticeships. I would like to hear from the panel a description of situations in which legislation or policy has been to the detriment of the islands but could be remedied without necessarily requiring that additional resources be spent. There is a risk—Mark Boden put it well—that what we are doing will be seen as simply putting in additional resources in order to island proof policy.

However, as the Orkney submission shows, the approach is often not about additional resources but about tailoring legislation or policy so that we get a better fit and better delivery of the public policy objectives for no more—or potentially for less—resource than is being spent at the moment. Would that be a fair characterisation? Could you help me with a few examples of that?

Councillor Bell

I could probably give many examples. We deliver public services on the edge—by that I mean the geographic edge of the United Kingdom as well as the edge of sustainability. It is probably never good to define something by a negative, but I will say that island proofing is not about giving advantages to the islands; rather, it is about not disadvantaging the islands by applying things that are detrimental to us. Liam McArthur is correct to say that, sometimes, island proofing does not require that money be spent. Often, money can be saved if island proofing is put in with the bricks, right at the beginning.

A recent example of informal island proofing concerns the involvement at an early stage of the islands councils’ heads of planning in the national review of Scottish planning policy. That resulted in flexibility being built in for the islands’ situation. That cost not a penny to do, but it probably saved a lot of grief and a lot of money.

Mark Boden

I would like briefly to address Mr Rumbles’s point. A detailed amendment would make the bill slightly better. The idea that legislation should “have regard to” island communities would be strengthened if, in section 9(b), the words “the authority considers” were deleted and the word “are” was inserted. That is a specific suggestion for a drafting change.

A recent example of what Liam McArthur is asking about is the islands screening assessment that was carried out by the Minister for Social Security on the implications of the Social Security (Scotland) Bill. That led to no extra costs for anybody. It picked up in particular the issues of fuel poverty and disability assistance in the islands. In due course it will lead, at the next level, to specific addressing of cold-weather payments, because of how the weather works in the islands. That did not cost anything, but it is really good.

On the other hand—I want to mention it to this audience, because Parliament is the guilty party—there has been a failure to sufficiently island proof the recent requirement for qualifications for headteachers, which will seriously put at risk small island communities’ small schools. We are extremely worried about what has happened. It would have cost nothing to have island proofed that policy properly.

Councillor Stockan

You asked for a retrospective, so I will go a long way back—to Scottish housing policy. If the intention of the bill is to retain island populations and so on, I have no problem with the system whereby different categories of people have different awarding schemes, and I have no problem with the movement of people across the country.

However, if the need of people on a small island is not first met in housing policy, there can be the crazy situation in which they have to move to another island or to the mainland to get a house. We hear that that is the situation at the moment on Arran. Young people in particular need to know that they will get a house in their own area. Some things could be island proofed in a way that could give a much better result than we could imagine.

19:30  



Councillor Heddle

In the interests of brevity, I will refer to our consultation response, which goes into some detail on lots of issues, including the early years, self-directed support and the bedroom tax, which have been mentioned. Those issues give us problems, as do recycling, affordable warmth and the lack of support for green electricity.

On the ferries plan, we supplied a chapter—and some verse—for it, but that was not incorporated in the plan. That, too, is now causing us problems.

On Mr Rumbles’s question, there is a spectrum of things that we can “have regard to”. The policy memorandums that accompany bills are meant to include consideration of the islands, but that is clearly not working for us. What we are moving towards with the suggestion on impact assessments is something akin to an equalities issue. We can see that equalities considerations work, so that gives us more confidence.

Do you need to consult island communities? Yes, you probably do. Again, the important word is “co-production”. The island councils, as the democratic representatives of the communities, would like to be consulted, in the first instance.

I will make the point that in our areas there is not the distinction between the council and the community that might be found in larger local authority areas: we are a community of 20,000 people and the council is in no way distant from its community. Any of you can accompany me any time to the supermarket and experience how close we are to the community and its representations.

The Convener

Paul—are you happy that sufficient examples have been given? For fairness, I will give you the opportunity to give an example.

Paul Maxton

Thank you, convener. The very building that we are seated in today is an example that is referred to in the submission. Under current building regulations, the most carbon-efficient way of heating this kind of building—according to the standard methods that are used for the energy modelling of buildings to achieve compliance with the regulatory regime—is to install liquid petroleum gas as a secondary heat source. For this building in Kirkwall and for Stromness primary school and the halls of residence, the council has to import LPG at great cost, but for no apparent reason. We have had quite a number of cases under the building regulations, which I understand are the subject of review by the Scottish Government.

Forgive me if I am pre-empting anyone, but I want to point out the importance of guidance. Am I allowed to speak about that?

The Convener

We will cover that, so maybe we can come back to your point later.

Paul Maxton

Absolutely.

The Convener

Your point about LPG was made and was picked up by the committee in one of the places that we went to today, as was the fact that islands can be disadvantaged by using renewable energy, which we saw being generated this morning. I do not think that there is a member of the committee who does not have a green tint to their eye when they look at this lovely building and the facilities here. It is something to be extremely proud of.

Jamie Greene (West Scotland) (Con)

Good evening, panel. This is probably an appropriate time to talk about the island communities impact assessments so that we can develop the concept of so-called island proofing. The bill will affect 66 public authorities from, at one end of the scale, Scottish ministers to, at the other, NHS Orkney, which is a very local public authority, as well as everything in the middle, including national bodies that cover all Scotland. The bill will require them to develop an impact assessment for

“the development, delivery and redevelopment of ... policy, strategy or service”.

That is quite wide-ranging. What happens if the impact assessment identifies that changes to a policy, service or strategy could have a negative effect on island communities? The bill thereafter only states that the council has to report that it has produced an impact assessment. There is no reference to what happens next. How would you deal with a scenario in which an impact assessment by the council or another body that is listed points to a potentially negative outcome? For example, there is no finance provision in the bill to mitigate the negative effects of policy decisions. What are your views on the impact assessments and how you might deal with them?

Paul Maxton

There is no provision in the bill for any form of review of any impact assessment. That is a failing: there should be something. We do not want a cumbersome process or anything that would be work intensive, but there has to be something.

There is always the fail-safe of judicial review, but nobody wants to go down that route. By the same token, we need a fair and transparent review process. There is no provision in the bill for publication of impact assessments. Orkney Islands Council’s submission states that assessments should be published. I do not think that there is any problem with that: publication is fairly routine in governmental issues, as we talk about transparency, nowadays.

I have thought long and hard about what would be a proportionate way of reviewing decisions, but I have not come up with anything yet. I do not doubt that there are various examples that the bill manager might look at; I feel that there should be something.

The Convener

I am going to let Mark Boden in, because I fear that there will be a judicial review if I do not. Do you have an answer?

Mark Boden

We need to be aware that the “have regard to” provision means that, as long as an authority can show that it has had “regard to”, that will be sufficient and it will be very public, which is good.

In respect of the impact assessments, we have to be careful not to create an expensive bureaucratic process that will slow everything down. The assessments need to be proportionate, and that will be important when we come on to talk about the guidance.

We also have to bear in mind the fact that this is not about anybody telling the decision-making bodies, especially the Government, what to do. The decision, as determined by Parliament, will rest with whomever it rests with. The point of the impact assessment, as in section 12(3), is to oblige ministers to consider the likely effects on the islands and, if there will be particular effects, to describe how they might be overcome, or not. Action has to be proportionate; we cannot put everything right every time. As long as the process is open—as I read the bill, the impact assessments that are to be published under section 12(3) would be public—and as long as the decision-making body can show that it has identified and thought about the issue, and has said what it is going to do, that will be fine. It is an open process. The political process will take place: there will be a public debate and so on.

One of the things that underlies what I am saying is that we are not seeking equality, because that is impossible. We are seeking equity. It is reasonable that people should have thought about things and can articulate that they have taken them into account. From my perspective, section 12(3) is fine.

Jamie Greene

I appreciate your view on that. It is fair to say that in much of the evidence that we have taken—perhaps not from local authorities, but from other stakeholders, down to community and individual level—the fear is that impact assessments and island proofing as a concept will really just be box-ticking exercises, and that if an assessment report identifies a negative outcome, there is no real meat on the bones of the bill to make anything change. There will just have been identification of a negative outcome.

It will therefore be down to the authority to decide whether to do anything about the negative outcome. It is quite possible that rectifying it would have financial implication, so it would require funding, from whatever source. The bill is not backed up in any way with promises of financial assistance or support. How do you feel about organisations being unable to mitigate the negative effect of policy decisions?

Mark Boden

My view is that the citizens of the islands are as important as the citizens of anywhere else. There does not need to be separate funding for or separate consideration of them. They should be thought about, and legislation and policy decisions should have regard to the quality of their life and their future as much as it has for any other citizens, so I do not think that any special—

The Convener

Does James Stockan want to add to that?

Councillor Stockan

We have to operate based on a degree of trust. However, if problems are clearly identified, people will not be able to stand in the way if really important issues arise where things needs to be changed.

The Convener

I will move on to the next question, which is from Mike Rumbles.

Mike Rumbles

My question was covered earlier.

The Convener

In that case I will move on to Stewart Stevenson.

Stewart Stevenson

I take a slightly different view from my colleague, Jamie Greene: I think that an impact assessment might identify positive as well as negative outcomes. However, there might be a negative aspect to identifying a positive outcome, in the sense that somewhere that is remote but not an island—Campbeltown, for example—might be better informed about how it would be disadvantaged by a something that would have a positive outcome for islands. That is just a comment and I will move on, although I think that that is a big issue that perhaps we need to think about.

Mark Boden said on several occasions “have regard to” and Malcolm Bell mentioned “not disadvantaging”. The outcomes of island proofing are going to be determined by ministerial guidance, to some extent. How light touch should the ministerial guidance be? Indeed, should there be any at all? In particular, should it be very flexible, so that it allows different authorities—there is a large number of them—to develop and publish their own ideas on how they would implement a policy, so that they can do so in the context of their responsibilities, rather than implementation being centrally directed? That is a very big question that might have a short answer.

Councillor Bell

I think that the guidance needs to be clear and concise. It is important, too, that it sets out clearly the process that is to be followed.

Stewart Stevenson

The thrust of some of the evidence that we have heard this evening is that a process that works in Milngavie will not necessarily work in Millport, so I challenge Councillor Bell: do you really want one process to apply throughout the system and in all circumstances? Is that what you are saying to us?

Councillor Bell

It is possible to set out the outcomes and the standards that are expected. The detail of the process may well vary, but the standards could be the same anywhere.

Stewart Stevenson

Right—so we want to work to the same standard, but we want to work to a process that is appropriate to the context. Is that a fair representation of what you are saying?

Councillor Bell

Yes.

Mark Boden

Yes.

The Convener

I will bring in Steven Heddle, and then I would like to get back to Mike Rumbles so that he can ask about a little point of detail.

19:45  



Councillor Heddle

I will take the chance to mention co-production again. Co-production will ensure that standards are to a degree led by the local authorities that engage in the work.

I would also like to touch on Mr Stevenson’s comment about Campbeltown. When we set out on the campaign, we were always clear that although we may be pathfinders for islands in general, we would be delighted if the benefits of what we are doing could be applied to other communities. Indeed, that is what has happened.

On the subject of adverse effects being identified for rural communities, I do not think that the Government would wantonly prejudice rural communities while giving the islands an advantageous situation. It is supporting the islands through the bill, but I think that rural communities will also benefit to a substantial degree.

Mike Rumbles

I appreciate that today we are speaking to representatives from Orkney and Shetland. When we were on Mull, the people who gave us informal evidence certainly felt that it was not just the councils that needed to be consulted on island proofing; we needed to go further down the line. We heard that, for people on the island of Mull, it would not be sufficient for Argyll and Bute Council to be the consultee. Similarly, should we not ensure for your island groups that when we are island proofing, we consult not just the councils but go further and consult people who live on the individual islands, so that it is effective?

The Convener

Paul, you were nodding. Do you want to comment on that?

Paul Maxton

Absolutely—we have to do that, in the same way that, if Orkney Islands Council was looking at any of its policies or considering something under the process of island proofing, it would consult community planning partners and community groups.

That brings me back to the importance of the guidance. The Minister for Transport and the Islands, Humza Yousaf, has made strong and vocal representations to the effect that he anticipates that the islands strategic group, which the six islands authorities take part in, will have an important part to play in producing the guidance.

You will see from our submission that Orkney Islands Council has put forward a number of distinct issues that we believe should be incorporated in the guidance, including articles 170 and 174 of the Lisbon treaty. We are talking not about seeking to transpose European legislation into the guidance, but about looking at the principles themselves. Why reinvent the wheel when there is a template there, to a certain degree? Principles that have been established at a very high level can be referred to when the guidance is drawn up.

The Convener

I see that both Steven Heddle and James Stockan want to come in. I am afraid that I am only going to let one of you in. Who will it be? Steven?

Councillor Heddle

The democratic mandates of the local authority and the community councils should not be missed out here. Consultation with other communities of interest and other islands should be done through them. Let us face it: the bill places a duty on the local authority to have regard to island communities, so that should happen anyway; there is a kind of logical cascade here.

The Convener

Malcolm, do you want to come in very briefly?

Councillor Bell

I will be very brief. Certainly where Shetland is concerned, no other body on the island has the democratic legitimacy that the council has, and it is clear that we would consult further. I do not think that there is a single community councillor in Shetland who has been elected in a competitive election. The council undoubtedly has a democratic mandate to carry out the consultation.

The Convener

I am sorry, but I am not going to let James Stockan in at this point. Before we move on to Richard Lyle’s questions, I want to mention for the sake of completeness that, in the Scotland Act 1998, Orkney and Shetland were fixed as two of the 73 constituencies for the Scottish Parliament, but for some reason the Western Isles were ignored. I am assuming that you absolutely believe that they should have the same protections as your islands have. Unless you are going to say that you are not ready for that, I will take the answer as yes. Do you agree?

Councillor Heddle

Yes.

Councillor Stockan

Yes.

Mark Boden

Yes.

The Convener

Right, let us move on to the next set of questions.

Richard Lyle (Uddingston and Bellshill) (SNP)

Mark Boden said that he had been 40 years in local government. Very boringly, I was a councillor in Lanarkshire from 1976 to 2012—a sum of 36 years—before I moved on to the Scottish Parliament, so he beats me by a number of years.

Mark Boden

By four years.

Richard Lyle

You will remember the many boundary changes, as I do. The 2004 changes brought in the three or four-member wards, which means that populated islands must be placed in an electoral ward that also contains a significant proportion, or a majority, of people from the mainland—I know that Orkney and Shetland might be only slightly affected, but I would suggest that you are affected nonetheless. That has led to concerns that the distinct interests of island communities might not be fully represented in council discussions. The bill proposes to make an exception to that rule about local government electoral wards to allow areas with inhabited islands to return one or two members instead of three or four. What do you think of those proposals?

Mark Boden

We are not the only people who are making them, but those are very much our proposals. We see the reason for three or four-member wards and we do not have a problem with that; and we do not think that there needs to be any change to the equality of representation or to the rules about who can stand as a candidate.

The proposal is simple. We have lots of islands that are part of Mainland—as in Shetland’s Mainland—and they have to be part of a larger ward because they are too small and too far from anywhere else. Our most obvious example is a ward that we call the North Isles, which is a three-member ward, although the three northernmost islands, Yell, Unst and Fetlar, could justify two on their own, and the eastern islands, Whalsay and Skerries could justify one on their own. In the previous council, we had a councillor on Unst who, with his colleagues, represented Skerries; there was no councillor living on Skerries. To go to an evening meeting in Skerries, he had to drive to the ferry, take the ferry to Yell, drive across Yell, take the ferry to Mainland, drive across Mainland, take the ferry to Skerries or Whalsay, and then try to get home again. Well, that did not happen. We want the ability to split up wards such as that, because the geography justifies their having a councillor of their own, and it would make it so much easier for the councillor to represent them, so we support that proposal.

The Convener

Is that a problem on Orkney?

Councillor Stockan

It is not something that we have discussed yet, even as a council, but we are interested in the concept. We were not keen on moving to the situation that we have at present, but we have better representation for our islands with the number of councillors who represent them, because we have six island councillors for people outside the Mainland, which is quite a strong lobby. We would need to think about it carefully. We are keen not to be forced in the direction of having a one-size-fits-all arrangement without careful consideration of the situation.

Richard Lyle

I assume that you would consult your local areas and councillors. As Mark Boden said, somebody who stays away up on a northerly island might have difficulty travelling to other areas. My view is that someone who is representing an island should stay on an island. There will not be a one-size-fits-all solution, but all the councils affected would consult on the issue and would have to be happy about the number of councillors. In North Lanarkshire, we went from 70 to 77 councillors, and I was opposed to that, but if the number of councillors in the islands were to increase, would you be quite happy about that, overall?

Mark Boden

We would be happy with the principle of it being possible but, at the moment, we do not have a particular need for that. With the ability to have one and two rather than three and four, the current ratio would work for us but, if it did not work, the principle of being able to change it would be a good one.

Jamie Greene

One of the pieces of feedback we got was that you are looking for flexibility, in that what works for Orkney might not work for Shetland, and what works for Shetland might not work for both Arran and the adjacent mainland. Do you agree with the concept that the bill should empower you to have more flexibility in how you structure your councils?

Councillor Bell

Yes, absolutely. It could be argued that it should perhaps have gone further, to allow five-member wards in some cases. There might be some areas where that would have been a fix. However, the principle is definitely welcomed. I agree with Mark Boden that it will be of limited benefit for Shetland, apart from in the example that he gave, but it is good to have the flexibility.

Councillor Stockan

The system of multimember wards was devised for party-political reasons and I do not know what would happen if party politics became more of a thing on the islands; it is not particularly at the moment. I do not know how that would work.

Having the opportunity to explore the options and to see how best to get representation allows discussion at a future date. If you leave us with as much opportunity as possible, the local solution will come through.

The Convener

Before I move to Steven Heddle, I think that John Finnie has a question.

John Finnie

Yes, indeed. This morning, concerns were expressed about powers being given to the councils because people do not know what independent councillors stand for and there is “no accountability”. Will the panel comment on that?

Mark Boden

Speaking as a constitutional lawyer, I believe that the accountability of every councillor, however they are elected, is through the ballot box and directly to their electors.

John Finnie

Don’t shoot the messenger, but there is a question about the direction of travel. Certainly with party politics, regardless of what party someone belongs to, people will know their position on a broad slate of issues. How is that addressed? A number of people this morning were expressing genuine concern about that. [Interruption.]

Councillor Bell

I will repeat my answer, which is that it is up to the electorate whether it wants a party-political council. In Orkney, party politics has never really taken off in local government. When it has been attempted, almost invariably, the people who stand as independents win through, so clearly the electorate want an independent council—warts and all, if that is their view of it; that is what they vote for.

The Convener

I will let James Stockan in and then we will move on. Steven Heddle—you will feature in the next line of questioning.

Councillor Stockan

We have an election every five years, when people go door to door, to every house—no one is untouched by the process that we go through. In our mostly independent council, every division in the chamber that I have been in for the past 14 years has reflected in a real sense the views of our community. If there is a very tight vote, we know perfectly well that that reflects the position in the community. It is truly representational: when you take the amalgamation of the 21 of us, with our different views, you get a clear idea of the position of the community. That has been really useful. That is why I think that we can be of use to the Government in doing something different.

John Finnie

Thank you for that. The issue having been raised this morning, it would be passing strange if we did not, in turn, raise it with the panel. You will understand that.

The Convener

Peter Chapman is leading on the next line of questioning. I put Steven Heddle on a warning that he will be the first to answer.

20:00  



Peter Chapman (North East Scotland) (Con)

Good evening, gentlemen. I am going to ask about marine development, which you were keen to talk about earlier, but I first want to say that I have been impressed by the whole panel’s great enthusiasm for the bill and your vision for how the bill could make a difference to your communities.

The bill provides a regulation-making power for Scottish ministers to establish a marine licensing scheme for development activities within the Scottish island marine area. There are differences on the issue, because Orkney and Shetland already have many of those powers, and I assume that you wish to continue with them. What is your experience of the marine development powers? What learning can you share with other areas that do not already have them?

The Convener

Steven Heddle does not have to go first but if he would like to do so, I will of course let him, as he mentioned the issue earlier.

Councillor Heddle

I think that Orkney and Shetland would say that the experience has been very positive and has been to the benefit of our communities. Through the marine licensing and works licensing powers that we have, we have managed the sustainable development of potentially controversial developments such as oil ports in a way that has maintained the environment and benefited our communities over a period of more than 40 years. It has been a very positive experience and one that I commend to the rest of Scotland.

The island councils have demonstrable expertise that could be shared. We have a sophisticated harbour operation that monitors the waters around our islands 24/7. We always joke that we have our navy in the form of tugs and ferries, we have our early warning system and we also have an air force, because we operate the internal air service here, so we are more like a small state than most local authorities.

On what the provisions in the bill would mean for us, we have powers over our harbour area, which is Scapa Flow and the Kirkwall bay area, but we would like to enjoy those powers out to the 12-mile limit. That would be an incremental move, and it would certainly fit well with the idea of an integrated process for developers. If we controlled marine licensing throughout the Orkney Islands area and we controlled the Crown estate revenues and management powers, the consenting, licensing and planning process could in effect be done through a one-stop shop in the local authority.

Paul Maxton

When the Scottish Government wanted to transfer responsibility for aquaculture to the planning system, it engaged with Orkney Islands Council extensively on our knowledge and experience of works licences. We have quite a pedigree, which has been acknowledged through the engagement that we have had to date with Marine Scotland and the Crown Estate Scotland on the further devolution of powers relating to the marine environment. In particular, we recently had very good engagement with the Crown Estate Scotland with a view to moving forward on pilot schemes.

It is about joining everything up and looking at the big picture. As Steven Heddle said, we can maximise efficiency and make the consent process a one-stop shop. Certainly, the pilot scheme in respect of the Crown estate will give us further experience in that regard and will potentially help the Scottish Government with framing the Crown estate legislation.

Peter Chapman

Is there an expectation that the new powers under the bill will be different from those that you already have? I am not sure how far out you can go under your current powers, but under the proposal in the bill, you will be able to go out 12 nautical miles. Is that as far as you can go at the moment, or will the bill increase your powers with regard to control of the sea bed?

Councillor Stockan

Shetland can go out to the edge, but Orkney’s limit is a bit of Kirkwall bay and part of Scapa Flow. We must ensure that we can go out to the full extent.

In the same way that Scottish Natural Heritage was moved to Inverness, there is a chance to move management of the Crown estate to the periphery, which would be a better result for all of us. Indeed, we are keen to share any expertise that we have with other coastal areas.

Mark Boden

There is a particular answer to the question, and then there is a general answer that goes to the heart of what we are talking about tonight.

The particular answer is that the Zetland County Council Act 1974 has been an enormous success for Shetland, and we will stick with it. We do not need the powers that are in the bill, because they are based on the 1974 act.

One tiny amendment that we would suggest to the bill relates to paragraphs (c) and (d) of subsection 19(3). We think that not only grants pre-dating the new legislation but variations of any such grants should be allowed to survive. However, that is a small matter that can be dealt with in paperwork.

The 1974 act has been central to the good management of the marine environment in Shetland in the face of substantial exploitation of oil and gas, fishing and aquaculture, all of which pose risks although they also deliver benefits. It has been central to the delivery of those benefits, and to the economic benefit that all of those things have brought to Shetland. It has been a huge success.

The 1974 act has also been very straightforward for the council to implement. There has been no problem in that respect, and we think that delivering that sort of thing is well within the capacity of any primary authority or council in Scotland. In short, we think that the act is great.

The more general answer is that this is just the start, and that brings us back to the islands plan that is proposed in the bill. In the coming years, we will want to explore things in ways that we cannot be firm about today—although I should say that we can be firm in relation to the Crown estate. Two things are running here: first, for the island authorities—and by that, I refer to the archipelagos that are just islands—the sea is everything. We are not about land; our wealth, our economy and our communities are based on the sea. As a result, it is vital for the benefit of the community, for Scotland and for proper exploitation that an authority with the capacity to focus on the sea has as much power and autonomy as possible over the sea and the sea bed in order to extract the maximum benefit with the greatest security with regard to environmental sustainability.

We are starting with the Crown estate—we want management of it in our area. However, we are not going to stop there. There is duplication with Marine Scotland, and we want that to be delegated so that we can deliver a one-stop shop to developers and industry in relation to exploiting the sea. We have a very successful shellfish management scheme that is not replicated elsewhere; it provides a good example of what can be done, and we want to do more of that.

I will not go into great detail about this now, but I want to say that our vision is the Faroes. You should do some research into the control that the Faroese have over fishing. That might well be where we go in years to come.

The Convener

Before I bring in Liam McArthur, I want to clarify something. Then I will come back to Peter Chapman.

I have no view on the proposal to take all the income from the Crown estate, but with that will come liabilities. Some people have asked whether some of the smaller islands—not necessarily those that are represented here—would be able to carry out the required enforcement and licensing with what, in some cases, would be quite minimal income. It appears that one size does not fit all. Do you agree? How can you make sure that the bill reflects the needs of the other islands around Scotland when it comes to the Crown estate?

Mark Boden

Such things should be powers, not duties. People for whom it is appropriate and useful to take on that level of autonomy should be empowered to do so, but where duties and responsibilities outweigh the benefits and practicalities, they should not be forced on people.

The Convener

That was my first question. My next question is rather like one that was raised earlier. It was put to us at one of our meetings today that planning feels remote from the fishermen who are trying to operate things and make them work. If aquaculture were imposed on coastal fishing, would there be no impact on the trade of local fishermen?

Mark Boden

If we are talking about town and country planning, that is already done.

The Convener

No. I think that the fishermen were suggesting that marine development and aquaculture may impede what they are trying to do around the coast when they are fishing.

Mark Boden

You are absolutely right. That is why we want a one-stop shop, in our case based in Shetland. A proposal was recently made for an offshore wind generation site that would have been right slap bang on top of the best fishing ground west of Shetland. We knew that, and we would never have proposed that site. We would not even have needed to ask the fishermen the question, although we would of course have done so. We need a local one-stop shop, with local knowledge and an intimate connection with local bodies. We work very closely with the fishermen’s association and the shellfish association. We are ideally suited to avoiding that sort of inadvertent conflict.

The Convener

I will bring in Liam McArthur before I let James Stockan come in.

Liam McArthur

I will perhaps tee James Stockan up. With characteristic warmth of hospitality, he threw in an offer to host Crown Estate Scotland. That got me thinking that, not so long ago, there were concerns about where Wave Energy Scotland would be located. Disappointingly, it did not have a real presence in Orkney, notwithstanding Orkney’s lead in wave energy. Does the bill need not just to address where decision-making powers rest but to include some form of relocation policy for civil service jobs, which we have not really seen for a number of years?

Councillor Stockan

Certainly, yes. When it comes to the social services stuff, I would have loved to see a cohort of those jobs go to the Western Isles, because they would have fitted well there. We do not always want to divide everything up into thirds; we want to do what is right for each community.

We have spoken about marine planning. Marine and terrestrial planning must join up somewhere. I do not think that, for a local area, they should join up in Edinburgh; they should join up in the local area so that there can be the necessary engagement with all stakeholders. A joint project between Highland Council and Orkney Islands Council on the Pentland Firth and Orkney waters recently won not only a Scottish planning award but a national planning award. We are really quite far ahead on some of these things, and it would be unforgivable if we dropped the ball at this stage. We must ensure that we bring that ashore so that we actually get something happening locally in these areas.

We must also watch where Crown estate revenues go. Revenues must follow activity. If they do not, this will become a farce. Not getting the revenue for the energy and work that it puts in might disbenefit a community. The sea bed—the marine environment—is our future. There is an awful lot of it around here, and we must ensure that we capture the full benefits.

The Convener

I will bring Peter Chapman back in. I would like to get a brief answer to his question and then move on to the next question.

Peter Chapman

It is more of a statement. Panel members are very enthusiastic about the powers in the bill, but you obviously want more powers than are proposed—you want powers over aquaculture, which are not in the bill, and you want the Crown estate money, too. You would like the bill to go much further.

The Convener

Steven Heddle can come in on that, and then we will move on to the next section. I am mindful of the audience, and I would like to get them involved.

20:15  



Councillor Heddle

I would certainly emphasise our enthusiasm. As a panel, we are enthusiastic and passionate about this whole subject, and we are keen for the islands to be empowered.

You mentioned that we want the Crown estate revenues as if we had not already been promised them. We have spoken about that and negotiated at length with the Scottish Government through the process that resulted in “Empowering Scotland’s Islands Communities”. I refer you to pages 37 and 38 of that august document, which notes the central role of local authorities as managers and disbursers of community benefit in their areas and the fact that Crown estate revenues—explicitly, the revenues that are accrued in each local authority area—are an adjunct to that process.

The Convener

We will leave that point there and move on to the final questions.

John Mason

Last but not least, we come to finances—an issue that is dear to my heart. We have already clarified that the bill does not deal with where the money would come from for a new school, hospital or ferry, but finances are relevant to the administrative side of things. The financial memorandum mentions various figures. Shetland Islands Council’s submission asks whether £5,000 is sufficient for the annual progress update that will be carried out by the Scottish Government. Another figure that jumped out at me was the £30,000 that each local authority would spend on consultation, representing island communities and so on. Do you have any comments on those two figures or on the financial memorandum in general?

Councillor Stockan

That is one of the things that I am interested in. People look at the costs, but they do not look at what the Government would get back. If you invest in the periphery, the amount in tax take and VAT receipts that the Government gets as it goes from pocket to purse all the way back to the centre is far greater than you would get from investment elsewhere. I want to ensure that people understand that. Investing in a strong periphery secures the centre of the country and brings revenue back in. I suggest that the figures in the financial memorandum are a trifle compared with the benefit that could come.

John Mason

Just to clarify, the committee is happy to accept that the sums are triflingly small. The question is whether they should be bigger. Is it realistic for the Government to expect your council to do all that work for £30,000?

Councillor Stockan

Thank you for giving us the opportunity to comment on that. We have already spent a lot of money on the our islands, our future campaign. We have joined with the other two islands authorities to put money into a joint pot—on more than one occasion—because we believe that it is so important to our future. Our commitment, as you can see, is whole-hearted. However, if the centre could support that more, it would get the value back in spades.

Councillor Bell

Shetland is already a net contributor to the UK public purse. Our comment on the £5,000 was about giving that work sufficient promotion. In general, the memorandum is pretty reasonable, although we felt that £5,000 was probably a bit too low to give that work sufficient drive and focus. The £30,000 is money that we already spend as part of our day job; we already carry out consultation—it is one of our budget lines.

The Convener

I will let Jamie Greene in for a final question, but I am then going to ask James Stockan and Malcolm Bell whether there is a key fact that we have not got to during the meeting and, if so, whether they can drill down on it now. Be ready to give us that key fact at the end.

Jamie Greene

My question is very relevant to the convener’s request. If there were one thing that you could change about the bill, what would it be? You can be brief, but now is the time to get it out there. If you could tell us what you would change, that would be immensely helpful.

The Convener

Our questions are the same. Is there anything that you would change or add?

Councillor Stockan

We covered the enabling powers at the beginning, but we want them to be secure because that is fundamental to the benefit of the bill to us. Secondly, giving the status of the island groups permanence in the bill—so that they are there in perpetuity—is really important for us. Finally, it is important that we can do something of community benefit to enable our communities to excel and be more than they are today. If those three things are enshrined in the bill, it will work for us.

The Convener

To be entirely fair, I must give Malcolm Bell the opportunity to mention three things and not just one as I suggested.

Councillor Bell

As I have said, we are generally happy with the bill. To answer the question directly, if we were to add something to it, it would be that we would wish to be a statutory consultee on the national islands plan. We also ought to be consulted on the guidelines. Those are the two must-haves that we would like to see.

The Convener

That concludes our consideration of agenda item 1.

We will take the next agenda item straight away, and then I will close the meeting. We will then move to questions and answers from the audience—I will explain how that will work. However, first I thank the panel for coming. It is quite clear that you are completely committed to achieving the best that you can from the process.

Councillor Stockan

We also thank committee members very much for coming here. It has been a joy to have you, and the meeting has been very useful for us.

The Convener

It is very kind of you to say so. We are enjoying our trip—that much is sure.

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Fifth meeting transcript

The Convener (Edward Mountain)

Good morning and welcome to the 29th meeting in 2017 of the Rural Economy and Connectivity Committee. I remind everyone present to ensure that their mobile phones are on silent, please. No apologies have been received.

Agenda item 1 is the fifth evidence session on the Islands (Scotland) Bill. We will hear from two panels this morning, and the first panel is now with us. I welcome Camille Dressler, chair of the Scottish Islands Federation; Rachel Hunter, area manager for Shetland with Highlands and Islands Enterprise; David Richardson, development manager, Highlands and Islands, for the Federation of Small Businesses; and Fraser Grieve, regional director for the Highlands and Islands with the Scottish Council for Development and Industry.

We will go through a series of questions. For those of you who have not done this before, you do not need to push any buttons on the panel in front of you. The sound gentleman will pick up when you want to speak and will activate your microphone. If you want to come in on a question, look at me, and I will bring you in. The secret is not to do as some people do, which is to continue to speak and look in the opposite direction. If you are going on a bit long, I might want to reduce your time, so I will catch your eye to ask you to come to an end.

The first questions this morning come from Rhoda Grant.

Rhoda Grant (Highlands and Islands) (Lab)

Good morning. Does the bill meet the witnesses’ expectations and, indeed, their aspirations?

Camille Dressler (Scottish Islands Federation)

We are delighted that the islands will be considered in this way. To us, island proofing is the same as rural proofing. We have slight concern about rural proofing, because we do not think that it has been done very well, and we would like island proofing to be done as well as possible. The concept is essential for the wellbeing of the islands.

Rachel Hunter (Highlands and Islands Enterprise)

Highlands and Islands Enterprise welcomes the bill. As you are aware—the clue is in our title—we are ambitious for the highlands and also for the islands across the region. We think that the bill could help to harness the islands’ natural resources and influence greater innovation and enterprise while sustaining and enhancing island communities.

Fraser Grieve (Scottish Council for Development and Industry)

There are some really welcome things for us, particularly the development of an islands plan. It is a matter of ensuring that it is long term enough to allow the economic potential of the islands to be realised. In many ways, island proofing should not be necessary. It should be incumbent on all public bodies and all legislation to consider the impacts on every part of the country anyway. It is important to consider where solutions will be different for island communities, which are essentially remote communities attached to other remote communities, as well as considering the particular amplification of the challenges that they face as a result.

The Convener

I will not leave David Richardson out. Would you like to say anything, or are you happy that everyone has reflected your views?

David Richardson (Federation of Small Businesses)

Broadly speaking, we think that the bill is a good idea. It will help people to have a better understanding of the aspirations of, and the issues faced by, the island businesses that we surveyed across all islands—and we got some very interesting results.

Yes, by definition, islands are bodies of land in the middle of the sea, so they are different. However, as Fraser Grieve alluded to, remote areas of the mainland also face the same sorts of issues. We tried to find out what the differences are. We think that there is a case for an islands bill.

Stewart Stevenson (Banffshire and Buchan Coast) (SNP)

Fraser Grieve made particular reference to island proofing and public bodies. Should what we are trying to do have any implications for private bodies?

Fraser Grieve

That is an interesting question. There are certainly issues around the delivery of some services. For instance, there have been issues around delivery charging, and there are issues around broadband provision and the service level that people in the islands get.

That should be considered as an aspect of the islands plan. I am not talking about helping to maintain the islands as the rest of the economy grows; I am talking about what can be done to transform them so that they can really utilise their assets and strengths, and to put them ahead, which is where they can be. It should not be a catch-up game, which is often the case with remote and rural areas. What are an island’s unique assets and strengths, and how do we amplify them so that we are not comparing like with like but are enabling islands to progress at a faster pace, where they have the strengths to do so?

Camille Dressler

I want to make a small but important point about article 174 of the Lisbon treaty, which recognises the permanent geographical constraints facing islands, mountainous regions and sparsely populated areas. We made a representation to the Scottish Parliament on that issue some years ago. I would like us to be clear that that principle is very important: islands have those particular geographical constraints, which will never go away—you will not be able to build a bridge to every island. That is why it is so important to have an islands bill.

The Convener

Just for balance, I note that we have heard in our evidence sessions that there are rural communities that feel as remote as islands.

Camille Dressler

They still do not have the same—

The Convener

Although they are not islands, ferries might still be needed to get from A to B. The problems are faced by many areas.

Rhoda Grant

Will the bill empower islands, or will it just change the attitudes of people in public bodies in relation to legislation and how islands are dealt with? Will there be more co-production, or will people think that they should treat islands in a different way? Will islands be allowed to start making decisions for themselves?

Camille Dressler

Let me give an example. Going back to the principles that were expressed in the Scottish rural parliament on having a holistic and proactive approach to development, our view is that development should be top led but very much bottom fed. If the bill allows islanders—the communities of people who live on islands—to inform and comment on policies and find ways to make them better, that will lead to greater wellbeing in the islands generally.

Rachel Hunter

I am from Shetland, and I am thinking about the example of the ZCC act—the Zetland County Council Act 1974—which talks about the waters around Shetland. No development can take place within 12 miles without a works licence. That gives the Shetland community a basis for negotiation. That is really important: the Shetland community feels that it is empowered and has influence over what happens in its waters. The creation of a marine licensing scheme seems to have been broadly welcomed by other island and coastal communities across the region.

Rhoda Grant

Is the bill sufficient to empower communities? That is what I am trying to get at. Do we need to strengthen the bill to create more empowerment, or is there enough in there?

Rachel Hunter

We need to consider other legislation that has come into force. For example, part 2 of the Community Empowerment (Scotland) Act 2015, which came into force in December 2016, is revolutionising community planning, ensuring that communities are engaged in developing locality plans and local outcomes improvement plans.

It is difficult. I do not have a crystal ball, so I do not know how the bill will impact in the future, but I think that, with island proofing and island impact assessments, there will be more thought about and consideration of island issues and challenges and that the development of a national islands plan will help to focus public bodies on island needs and challenges.

The Convener

I do not know whether Fraser Grieve wants to say something. Will the witnesses give me a pretty good steer with a nod of the head if they want to say something? When I look at some witnesses, they look away as if they do not want to answer the question. A bit of a steer would help.

Fraser Grieve

One of the challenges will be engagement, on which the success or failure of the bill will depend. The approach will not work if there is a tick box at the end of a form to say whether the islands have been considered. Issues such as whether a solution is right, whether there is a better way of delivering it, whether the body is the right one to deliver it and whether it would be better to deliver it locally have to be looked at. Part of that will not come out until the islands plan is developed and we see what it looks like. As a starting point, the bill sets the discussion going, and that is always helpful.

David Richardson

We believe that smaller businesses should be at the centre of the thinking, because they will drive the economy forward and will help communities and islands to achieve their full potential. The issue is how that takes place. There should be more consultation and proper discussion when things are being put through, rather than having a tick-box exercise. The Government, public agencies and communities should think about what is right for the business community because, ultimately, everything stems from that.

John Finnie (Highlands and Islands) (Green)

Good morning, panel. We have already received a lot of views about what should be in the bill and what should or could be in the plan. Does the bill take sufficient cognisance of different labour markets? I am thinking in particular about the labour markets between the mainland and the islands and perhaps even within island groupings.

David Richardson

Our survey showed that 38 per cent of the businesses that employ staff are being held back because they cannot find sufficiently skilled staff. That is a real issue. We also know that 41 per cent of businesses in the Highlands employ at least one person from the European Union. I presume that that applies to the islands as well.

Staffing is a critical issue. Thank goodness that we have low unemployment, but there is a lack of housing, so it is difficult to import staff. I am not sure whether the bill meets those needs, but they need to be addressed.

Rachel Hunter

I concur with David Richardson’s point about staff in island communities. We also find that succession is another issue facing businesses in island communities. Obviously, we want younger people to come in and be employed by businesses, but who will lead those businesses in the future? We have an ageing demographic, and island populations are ageing faster than the Scottish average. A particular challenge and area of work that HIE is involved in is supporting businesses with succession, leadership, management and development in the future.

Fraser Grieve

There are a number of issues. Access to labour and talent and upskilling the workforce are real issues. Many small businesses do not need one person to do one job; they need one person to do three or four jobs. How do we ensure that those skills are available locally? There is a real difficulty with average wages being lower than the national average. Businesses have to take that on board and do far more to improve their offer. They will simply not be able to attract people if they are not able to pay wages that people can afford to live on.

There are real issues around access to housing and public transport in island communities. There is a small travel-to-work area for many businesses in those areas, and it is almost impossible to get to work without a private car. What should we do to address those infrastructure points?

The challenge is that those problems are faced not just by island communities but by people across the piece. Thankfully, we have low unemployment, but we have high underemployment, and we need to do a lot more to address and improve that situation. I recently did a business survey that showed huge business optimism of 70 per cent, but less than 50 per cent of those businesses planned to invest over the next year. If businesses cannot invest when they feel optimistic, how do we help them to improve their profitability and drive up the wages that will sustain and attract more people into the island communities?

10:15  



John Finnie

A recurring theme is what the purpose of the bill is. Do you see addressing those particular issues as being that purpose, or is that for the plan?

Fraser Grieve

It is more for the plan. For us, the bill puts an onus on the consideration of the islands’ needs to get the thinking to take place. The solutions for island communities are different. In many places, there is no private sector housing developer that will suddenly move in and build the housing to meet their needs—the need is for two houses there, three houses there. How do we help to shape and develop a solution? The bill puts the onus on bodies to consider the needs of the islands and to develop a plan to bring in solutions that are appropriate for each island community.

Camille Dressler

With competitive tendering, if an electric bulb needs changing in an NHS surgery in Barra, would the NHS call an electrician in Barra? It would not; it has to bring in whoever has the tender, who is generally based in Glasgow or elsewhere. That is ridiculous and is one of the things that we would like the bill to change.

We would like the focus to be on the Office of Gas and Electricity Markets, utilities and other commercial bodies to make sure that they understand the issues of islands. Fuel costs, renewables and broadband are all issues that have a massive influence on our economies and the bill could be very useful to get the bodies to understand how the delivery of services has to be island proofed.

John Finnie

I will roll a couple of questions together. Is the panel’s view that the bill will support economic growth? Has the consultation engaged sufficiently with small and micro businesses and the self-employed?

David Richardson

The bill will help, but there has not been enough consultation in the past—there needs to be far more. The strategic objective that came out of our research is that the priority that people want in the next 10 or 20 years is to retain more young people—that goes to HIE’s heart—and attract young families to move in. With the ageing population and the decline in population in some areas, the only way to ensure success in everything else is to encourage new blood—that should be the bill’s primary aim. To do that, you have to tackle the broadband issue and all the issues that have just been raised.

Camille Dressler

That is essential. There has been so much frustration about the big companies not understanding the islands. Maybe the Government has not understood the islands either; on the broadband issue, the tender for delivery completely ignored the islands. In many cases, we have had to create our own broadband community businesses. It has got to be done across the board, but the devil is in the detail—how will it be done?

I have just come back from the European rural parliament in Holland. There was a very good example from Finland, which has a rural policy board that brings together policy makers and people from a wide section of the population, including NGOs. It would be really useful to look at that as a model for how the bill could be implemented. One of our frustrations as a grass roots-led NGO is that we never get a seat at the table, so how can we bring to the table the voices of the small communities that are our members? That is a question for the committee.

Rachel Hunter

On consultation, other members of the panel will know that HIE does a six-monthly survey of the HIE business panel, which includes 1,000 businesses around the region.

HIE account manages businesses in communities right around the region. We account manage 233 businesses and community enterprises on islands, which account for 40 per cent of our portfolio even though only 20 per cent of the Highlands and Islands population is based on islands. We disproportionately account manage a very high number of businesses and community enterprises on islands and we have a very close relationship with them.

They tell us that the problems and challenges that constrain growth are the same wherever you go. It is about timely, affordable, reliable transport infrastructure; it is about superfast broadband and enhancing digital and mobile connectivity; and, as other members of the panel said, it is about access to young people to help to attract young people to the islands and retain them.

One of the key barriers to that is housing and HIE has just completed a survey that looks at the housing market in the Highlands and Islands. It is interesting to note that there is a high proportion of young people who are what we call “young and stuck”, which means that they are aged 26 or over and they are in full-time employment or are self-employed, but they are not the main householder or the spouse of the main householder because they are living with family or others. We would expect them to be homemakers and to be creating the households of the future, but they do not have the opportunity to do that because of a lack of housing in their area. The top 12 areas—the hotspots—with a high proportion of young and stuck individuals are in the Highlands.

The Convener

There are other members who want to come in, but that is a good place to leave that issue at the moment.

John Mason (Glasgow Shettleston) (SNP)

The islands plan has been mentioned already. The bill says only that there will be a plan and, apart from a bit on timescale and consultation, there is not much detail. Are you comfortable with the concept of an islands plan—is it a good idea? Should there be more in the bill about the islands plan and about what the contents of that plan might be, or are you happy to leave the bill with no detail whatsoever? What about the timetable and the fact that it would have to be laid within 12 months of the legislation? Are you comfortable with that?

The Convener

Those are difficult questions. I expect that you will all have an opinion on those three things.

Camille Dressler

The idea of a plan is always good, but the plan must be fairly general and not too prescriptive because we do not want it to be a straitjacket. You need something in the plan that looks like the smart island initiative, which we have signposted in our submission. It basically shows how, if you allow them to be, the islands can be the leader in the low-carbon revolution and in sustainability. Those two principles underpin a lot of things that derive from them. The point is to give enough flexibility in the plan so that it can be responsive and modified.

John Mason

Would you put it in the bill that the plan must include sustainability, or would you leave the bill as it is?

Camille Dressler

Sustainability must be the underpinning principle.

John Mason

Do you mean that it should be underpinning principle of the plan?

Camille Dressler

Of course.

John Mason

But would you put that in the bill?

Camille Dressler

It would be essential.

John Mason

I am not sure whether we are understanding each other. Are you saying that it is essential that it is in the plan?

Camille Dressler

The concept of sustainability has to underpin the plan and, therefore, it needs to be in the bill.

John Mason

Okay. I have got that.

The Convener

The timing was the other thing. Is a year enough time to draw up the plan?

Camille Dressler

If the consultation is done in a proper and effective manner, I do not see a problem. Again, it is in the detail. How is the consultation going to be done? If there is something like the rural parliament, in which grass-roots and community organisations are consulted, I do not think it will be a problem.

The Convener

We have heard evidence sessions on various islands—we have been to Orkney, Mull and the Western Isles—where it appeared that a certain amount of consultation and pre-planning had gone on, but some of the islands may not be at that advanced stage. Is that one of John Mason’s concerns?

John Mason

I am not sure that I am concerned about it. Let us hear from all the panel and I might come back in after that.

Rachel Hunter

In HIE we support the concept of an islands plan. We think that the focus should be on outcomes rather than activities and that there should be a clear vision and ambition in the plan. Islands should have a say in what they want to look like in five to 10 years’ time. Also, the plan should track key indicators and metrics so that it demonstrates that progress is being made.

On the issue of sustainability, all islands are striving for sustainable economic growth, which should certainly underpin the premise of the plan. A lot of engagement work has already been done in island areas through the development of community local outcome improvement and locality plans and we should make sure that there is due cognisance of that work.

On the question of whether a year is enough time, there is challenging geography and a lot of voices want to be heard; it would depend on how much resource is put into it, but I think that it would be a challenge.

David Richardson

I think that the plan is right. Something that links policies and strategies in a more co-ordinated approach is good. It could be useful for identifying blockages in the current national system and solutions to those. However, it must not be prescriptive.

In our survey, to which I keep referring, we grouped islands—Shetland and Orkney, Argyll and so on. It is interesting that we found big differences in the answers between different islands. One size will not necessarily fit all nationally or in the islands; there has to be local determination. I keep coming back to the point that it is important that businesses are consulted. As an organisation, we can say that X per cent say this and Y per cent say that, but that should be supported by real-life case studies in which people go out and talk to businesses and get into the nitty-gritty with them. That is important.

John Mason

Can I take it from what you are saying that you are happy with the very general commitment that there will be a plan? You do not feel that the bill should be too prescriptive about it.

David Richardson

I do not think that it should be. It is about linking the policies and strategies of different organisations.

John Mason

Should the bill say that there will be that linking of strategies in the plan?

David Richardson

Yes. The bill should be written in such a way that HIE, for example, which might have export set as a priority—which is the right strategy for the Highlands and Islands as a whole—would be able to recognise that on some islands business survival and continuity are much more important than exporting a widget to somewhere else.

John Mason

So we would not put exports in the bill.

David Richardson

No. It must enable those organisations to have flexibility so that they can have different approaches to different islands and things.

The Convener

Although Fraser Grieve is last, I will give him a chance to be first by giving a short, concise answer. That would be appreciated.

10:30  



Fraser Grieve

I will be as concise and brief as I can be.

The development of a plan is very welcome, and a year is an absolutely sufficient period because, at the end of that time, the document will not be finished and put on a shelf—it has to evolve. For me, the plan is about saying that we are putting a duty on people to think about the needs of the islands. We can spend a year developing the plan and then say, “This is our plan and, when you are considering the islands, this is what you have to do.”

Rachel Hunter touched on issues to do with metrics. There absolutely have to be measurables, but there is always a danger that the islands get lost in spreadsheets. If an island loses a doctor, that could mean that it loses its entire health service. It is important, particularly for isolated and island communities, to think about people and how we develop continuity to ensure that there will be replacements for such professionals. We have to plan for the long term as well as having short-term actions.

John Mason

You mentioned health in particular. Should the bill say that the plan must deal with health, or should we just assume that it will deal with that?

Fraser Grieve

For me, the sustainability of island communities relies on all the issues such as health, housing, transport and skills. In developing a plan, it will naturally have to consider all those aspects anyway, so I do not particularly feel a need to have that in the bill.

John Mason

So you would not even put a requirement to consider sustainability of population in the bill.

Fraser Grieve

If there was not a need to think about the sustainability of the islands, the bill would not be necessary. I am not wedded to that being mentioned, because the whole purpose of the bill and of looking at the issue is to do with the sustainability of the islands.

The Convener

I see that Camille Dressler wants to say something. I will let her in at a later stage, but I would like to bring in Gail Ross, because there are a few more questions on the issue that we are discussing.

Gail Ross (Caithness, Sutherland and Ross) (SNP)

Good morning, panel. How could the national islands plan address some of the challenges that are faced by businesses on the islands? We talked about depopulation, and that discussion moved on to housing. If the plan addresses housing, how far into that should it go? There are issues to do with access to land, the price of land and the planning system. There are various factors in why affordable housing, or even housing full stop, is not available. I was particularly taken by Rachel Hunter’s point about the young and stuck. We have also heard that the cost of getting materials to the islands to build houses can be at least 40 per cent higher than the cost on the mainland. There are also issues to do with delivery charges. How could such issues be addressed in the plan, if they can be?

Camille Dressler

I was going to add earlier that, on a small island such as the one that I represent, the issue is not only economic sustainability but social sustainability. There are 30 people on the Isle of Rum, 35 people on the Isle of Muck, 105 people on Eigg and 12 on Canna, although that is going down to six. Without social sustainability, those islands will die. Economic sustainability is linked with social sustainability.

That means that access to housing and health services is dependent on a transport strategy that meets the aims and aspirations of the islands. The road equivalent tariff has done a lot, but we are working with Caledonian MacBrayne on how we can have a freight service that is fit for purpose, which is fundamental. There is an RET system for cars and passengers, but we have to have one for freight. It is not for us to say how that will be delivered. It is for all of us to work together with the committee, Transport Scotland and the ferries division. It is a complex issue.

David Richardson

I am not an expert on legislation by any stretch of the imagination, but it seems to me that it is a lot to ask one bill to look at broadband, housing and everything else. On the other hand, if the bill gets people talking about those issues and focusing on island problems, that is a very good thing. It is more a case of getting going a discussion that is focused on the islands than it is of saying, “There is an issue with broadband across Scotland,” or, “Housing is a problem in Scotland.” The plan should focus on the needs of specific islands. It is a case of getting minds focused.

Stewart Stevenson

I want to pick up on Camille Dressler’s reference to Caledonian MacBrayne. We will look at island proofing later; my question is more generic.

The list of bodies that are covered in the schedule to the bill includes—at number 13—David MacBrayne Ltd, but it does not include Caledonian MacBrayne. I am a bit uncertain about why that is the case. It is clear that a number of the Government’s companies are included, including David MacBrayne, but the subsidiaries of those companies are not. Certain councils are included, but not the companies that are owned by those councils. For example, Orkney Islands Council has an interest in six companies, which are involved in housing, towage, farming and ferries. Do we need a more generic approach that embraces all the bodies that are listed in the schedule and all the bodies that they control? The specific example of Caledonian MacBrayne came up, and it is not on the list. Only the owner of CalMac—David MacBrayne—is on the list.

The Convener

That is quite a specific question. Who would like to tackle it? Someone is going to have to give Stewart Stevenson an answer.

Stewart Stevenson

They do not have to.

Camille Dressler

I am happy to say yes, Caledonian MacBrayne should definitely be covered, but we are aware that Caledonian MacBrayne does not operate the ferry services for Shetland and Orkney. All the ferry companies that serve the islands must be included—all the relevant bodies need to be covered.

Stewart Stevenson

That was partly what was in my mind when I asked about private companies earlier.

Gail Ross

Camille Dressler was quite right to talk about social aims, but should the economic aims of the bill be more explicit? Does the bill have, or should it have, any economic aims?

Rachel Hunter

As David Richardson indicated earlier, having a sustainable economic base is the life-blood of an island. In the islands, we have high levels of employment, but if people cannot find a job, they just leave, which impacts on the sustainability of the services and the remaining populations. That is certainly the case in Shetland, where we have very high levels of employment, but when there is nothing going, people just leave, which has an impact on other services. Having a strong and sustainable economy should be a key ambition of the islands plan and the bill.

David Richardson

I will again refer to our survey: 88 per cent of businesses said that their islands were good places to do business, but it is clear that, for them, the lifestyle, the culture and the community were what held them. Twenty per cent had considered moving to the mainland for business purposes and, in the Western Isles, the figure was 29 per cent. At the back of business owners’ minds is always the question, “Is my business sustainable on this island? Can I continue?” There is always the potential that they will walk, so it is very important that the bill addresses the economic question.

As to whether there is enough in the bill by way of economic aims, I do not know. It is what is between the lines rather than what is explicitly in the bill that matters.

The Convener

Before we move on to the next section, I want to ask a question that was brought up during one of our visits. Somebody said that if the islands plan started off by saying that there should be no reduction in the current population and, indeed, that the aim should be to increase populations on islands, everything else in the plan would flow from that. Do any of the witnesses have views on that? Do you think that it is a reasonable assumption that there should be no reduction in island populations?

David Richardson

Yes—the whole point about economies is that they need to be sustainable and based on a diverse and vibrant population and, for that to be the case, it is necessary to have a cross-section of age groups and a growing population. A population that is declining is going backwards. We need to sustain the post office, the grocery shop and so on.

The Convener

So a growing population on the islands or at least a sustainable population would probably be the driver for everything else in the bill. I will bring in Fraser Grieve and then Rachel Hunter, and then I want to move on to the next section of questions.

Fraser Grieve

A growing population is important. We have seen the growth of some island populations—the demographics can change quite considerably. It is about striking a balance and making sure that there are the right number of working age people and that there are opportunities for young people.

The importance of transport links has been touched on. It is not just about the sustainability of the economies; without transport connectivity, it is very hard for businesses to grow. They might be able to sustain themselves with the population that is there, but how do we help them to grow?

Rachel Hunter

I echo what has been said already—it is about demographic balance as well. It is about making sure that we have people of all ages, right from the very young to the very old, in islands. That is what enhances island life. HIE did some research in 2015 looking at the attitudes and aspirations of young people across the Highlands and Islands. When we looked at young people living in or wanting to return to the islands, we found that young people really value the quality of life there. They recognise that they may have to compromise a little on career progression, but the islands offer a good quality of life and are great places to bring up children—those things more than compensate for the potential lack of career progression that they might face.

Mike Rumbles (North East Scotland) (LD)

First, I will just say that I am not trying to hide from people behind all this sound equipment—it would be nice to see the panel properly, but there we go.

I want to drill down on island proofing. It is a big part of the theme. With previous witnesses, we have explored the idea of how to ensure that island proofing is meaningful and avoid it being a tick-box exercise. There is a list of 60-odd public bodies—a duty will be put on them to “island proof”, whatever that means. That is what I am trying to find out from you. How would you wish island proofing to operate in practice?

Fraser Grieve

For me, it is about trying to change the question, sometimes. As public sector reductions take place and services are being cut, if there are not enough pupils to attend a school, for example, instead of thinking, “Do we need to close that school?” we should start going the other way and ask, “How do we attract more kids?”

We need to think about how to change the sustainability of the public services that are delivered on islands rather than saying, “Do we need to cut these things to meet the current population?” It is about trying to look at the longer term and to make sure that it is not just about meeting the needs of today’s population. We need to ask whether the move that is being made by the public body or the business or whoever will adversely or positively impact on where we want that island to be in five, 10, 15 or 20 years.

Mike Rumbles

I think that there is a slight misunderstanding. What I am trying to get at is that the bill puts a legal responsibility on these 60-odd public bodies. How do you want island proofing to operate? In other words, should somebody in headquarters, in an office in Glasgow or Edinburgh, think, “Oh, well, I’ve looked at that and I’ve ticked that box because I’ve thought about the islands and asked a few questions”?

Physically, what do you want an organisation to do, whether it be Scottish Water or any other body on that list? What do you physically want them to do? To give an example, should there be a requirement on each of those public bodies to consult people in the islands before they make decisions? That is just one example.

The Convener

That is a specific question. I might let Fraser Grieve back in at the end if we have time but I will move straight to David Richardson to answer that because he was nodding furiously.

David Richardson

Absolutely. We think that island proofing might be more effective in relation to considering economic strategy but when it comes to impact assessments it is often, as Mike Rumbles says, a tick-box exercise. Very seldom do people get out of their offices in Glasgow or Edinburgh or wherever else they might be and actually talk to real people.

People often come to us and say, “We want to talk to businesses, but how do we go and talk to a business?” You actually knock on the door, you go into the business and say, “Can I speak to you?” It is very simple, but not enough of it happens. It is a matter of getting out there, meeting people on islands and actually talking to them. You might have to spend a couple of days doing it, and there will be a bit of cost, but the benefit that you get is massive compared with sitting reading boring reports on a bit of paper. That is what needs to happen.

10:45  



Rachel Hunter

We think that there should be a clear link from island impact assessments to the national islands plan and the outcomes. They should consider the interventions that the islands plan seeks to undertake, and the potential impacts relating to population or demographic balance. The island impact assessment should clearly assess whether any interventions, policies or strategies will have a negative impact.

The impact assessment should not just be a tick-box exercise. Public bodies should be starting to think creatively about how they mitigate negative impacts. For example, Fraser Grieve spoke earlier about how, if one doctor moves out of a small island, the whole public health system can crumble. In that particular case, the public body could perhaps examine creative ways in which health services could continue to be delivered on that island. It is not just about doing a tick-box exercise; it is about asking public bodies to think creatively. We all have resource pressures, but how can we deliver services more innovatively and creatively in island areas?

The Convener

It appears that you are talking about positive discrimination to make islands work better.

Camille Dressler

That is one of the things that we were trying to visualise. It is a difficult point. First, we should ensure that whatever consultation is done is not tokenistic. A good example arose in the Highland Council education department, which tried to impose a complete change in our education system in the small isles. The council said, “But we have consulted you.” Yes—two days before the changes were due to be made. We need proper, meaningful consultation. There should be a list of stakeholders, and people should make use of those stakeholders—they should knock on their doors, phone them or email them, or they should do a survey. Many tools are available that can be used.

We should perhaps also ensure that some of the bodies to be island proofed are actually doing something about that. I am thinking about the National Trust for Scotland. How many surveys and plans has it made to ensure that Canna will not remain depopulated? It makes another plan, puts it on the shelf, and nothing happens—the island continues to be depopulated. You should give teeth to that island proofing, so that action follows the consultation.

Fraser Grieve

This is just about public bodies and others giving some thought as to the potential negative impacts and to whether their services can be delivered by other public bodies, if they have had discussions about that. It is a matter of showing evidence that they have properly considered the positive and negative impacts of what they are doing, and what mitigating factors there might be.

Jamie Greene (West Scotland) (Con)

We have heard some fascinating comments this morning. It is interesting, as we are starting to round up these evidence sessions and bring things together. Given the expertise around the table, I would like to focus on the economic potential of the bill, specifically around business.

The majority of the authorities listed in the schedule to the bill are so-called public authorities, public services, public bodies, government departments and so on, and very little is mentioned about the private sector utilities companies, telecommunications businesses and so on that have a substantial part to play. That follows on from what Stewart Stevenson said. Does island proofing, as it is currently written in the bill, actually address any of the economic issues that affect islands?

I open that question out to the panel.

The Convener

It would be logical for David Richardson to answer that first, then I will bring in Rachel Hunter, as I did not let her in on the last question.

David Richardson

I will give you a case study on the utility front. In June 2016, someone from a business in Barra phoned up and said that they had been without an EE signal for three months because, basically, the kit was out of date and could not be repaired. Having a phone signal is an essential utility now: CalMac might not be sailing and it would be unable to let passengers know; doctors and so on would not be able to find out what was going on if there was an emergency. We wrote to the chairman of EE and also to the press—we got The Times and the BBC involved. As a result, the matter was resolved fairly quickly. The question is, should such a situation require the involvement of the FSB, or should there be another mechanism by which you can contact someone when things go wrong with your broadband or some other crucial utility?

In Islay this year, a green cabinet was installed right beside someone’s house, but—for no good reason—the person’s business, which was 200 yards away, was not wired in. His ADSL line was switched off, which meant that he had no broadband at all. All his bookings—he had a boat company—went to pot and he could not trace them. He was also a member of the local lifeboat service, and he could not get a signal for that. Again, he had no means of ensuring that he was wired in quickly. We intervened and got the situation sorted out in good time.

Why are we having to intervene in those situations? I am not sure how the bill can help in that regard, but that issue needs to be addressed. How can island communities or individuals put things right? Who do they contact in these situations?

Jamie Greene

On that point, the companies that provide those services are not listed in the bill, so there is no duty on them whatsoever to island proof any decisions that they make.

David Richardson

You can raise that as a question. I am simply giving case studies. I do not know the answer to the point that you raise.

Rachel Hunter

Because of the significant impact that some of the utility companies, logistics companies and transport companies have on island life and infrastructure development, Highlands and Islands Enterprise suggests that consideration be given to extending the island impact assessment duty to those large corporate organisations.

Earlier, I wanted to make the point that we do not want island impact assessments to be something that holds up development or policy in island areas. We do not want an island impact assessment in a remote area to be done six months after the time of the proposal. They have to be swift and they must be incorporated up front in any business case or decision-making process.

The Convener

The Scottish Islands Federation talked about the possibility of having an islands office. Is the suggestion that such an office could address the problems of small businesses that David Richardson mentioned?

Camille Dressler

An island desk staffed by people who understand the issues of the islands well and who consult a range of stakeholders might be a short cut.

However, one of the problems in the bill is that the utility providers are not listed as bodies that need to engage in island proofing, but it is important that they be included in that. In our submission, we say that transport providers, utility providers, Ofgem and so on should be involved in island proofing because they have a great impact on our lives.

John Finnie

I absolutely understand what has been said about utilities companies and telecommunications companies. I am not sure whether it would be competent for Scottish legislation to say that those companies should become involved in island proofing, given that we are talking about reserved issues. It might be possible for an act only to express a hope that they should do so. However, even if it were possible, would doing so give people an unreasonable expectation? I note that there are frustrations with such companies in urban areas as well. Of course, regardless of the fact that it might be difficult to shape the policies of a multinational corporation, if such a duty were placed on public bodies in Scotland, that might set a direction of travel that would encourage those corporations to at least consider doing the same thing. Do you agree?

David Richardson

The problem is that, because islands have small isolated communities, they are bottom of the list when it comes to fixing things that have gone wrong, and when decisions are made to close banks or whatever, they get rid of the ones in the remote communities first, which has a huge impact on the viability of those communities. I do not know what you chaps in Parliament can do about that with legislation; I do not know enough about what you can and cannot do.

If we are developing the sustainability of the islands and encouraging more young people to stay there, we must have good communications with the mainland, and so on. We have to have those things, so if the bill can help with that, that will be great.

The Convener

Fraser Grieve is going to come up with a solution.

Fraser Grieve

Maybe not.

I do not think that islands are at the bottom of the list, but there is, at times, a lack of recognition of the importance of things. A mobile communications operator’s mast that goes down might be the only mast in an area. If a road is shut for maintenance, there might be no detour available, or the detour might take people on the full tour of the island, which might be very pretty, but is not very helpful. A bus that does not appear on time might be the only bus that day. We need recognition of the impact that failure to deliver a service will have on an island community that it would not have on a mainland or urban community.

We also need recognition that many of the challenges that are faced by island communities are faced by other communities, but the islands are also reliant on those communities and delivery of services in other parts of Scotland. For example, Orkney is reliant on the A9 to Thurso or Aberdeen harbours allowing ferry connections. We need to make sure that those connections are considered in terms of their own areas and of their consequences for the islands.

Jamie Greene

This might be a technical point, but it is probably worth noting that the very first body that is listed as having duties under the bill is the Scottish Administration and Scottish ministers. One would assume that “Scottish ministers” also means the relevant executive agencies, directorates, and so on. However, that might be a question we can ask the bill team. That might cover all the relevant bodies, such as those that deal with roads.

David Richardson mentioned that there are similarities between the problems that are faced by businesses in rural communities and on islands. We have heard a lot about those similarities. You said that you have done some work on specific differences, which we have not teased out of you. What can you share on that to enlighten us?

David Richardson

We asked businesses whether they feel that doing business on the islands makes them different to businesses in remote parts of the mainland, and 88 per cent of them said that they feel that their problems are different. They mentioned what the differences are and, with the obvious exception of ferries—two mainland areas, Knoydart and Scoraig, can also be reached only by ferry—everything that was mentioned also impacts on mainland businesses. It is a matter of degree: sometime the impacts are more, but sometimes they might be slightly less.

The problems that are faced by the various islands also differ: Skye faces very different problems from those faced by Shetland or the Western Isles. One might argue that Skye’s problems are more similar to those that are faced by Lochalsh or north-west Sutherland.

It is a matter of degree when it comes to the problems that businesses face. The one thing that came out clearly is that islanders feel different because they are on islands.

Jamie Greene

One of the problems that I have with the islands impact assessment provision is that it does not link to any plan or overarching strategy in the bill—it just talks about creating an assessment and reporting on that assessment. Rachel Hunter has mentioned the link between strategy and policy. Could the bill be beefed up to ensure that the islands impact assessments relate to specific objectives? Perhaps Rachel could answer that.

The Convener

I am going to let in Rachel Hunter. We are quite short on time, so I would appreciate a concise answer. I would like to get on to two other issues, briefly.

11:00  



Rachel Hunter

The island impact assessments will not make sense unless there is a clear link to the aspirations and outcomes in the national islands plan, which will be based on communities’ aspirations.

The Convener

We can leave that there. I ask Stewart Stevenson to lead the next questions and to roll them up.

Stewart Stevenson

I will do that. Essentially, the questions, which relate to costs, are directed at Rachel Hunter, but that does not debar others from saying something, if they wish to do so.

Do the administrative costs in the financial memorandum make sense? Are they proper? Will the costs be different in different public bodies? I suspect that some of the questions are almost rhetorical. Might other costs arise that the bill simply does not address?

Rachel Hunter

It is difficult to answer for other public bodies. Because HIE is very much embedded in island communities, our operating costs are partly for engaging with local businesses. We do not have a particular view on the numbers in the financial memorandum, but from what I can see, they are realistic.

Stewart Stevenson

That is fine. That is a good enough answer.

The Convener

Does anyone else have any views on the financial memorandum?

Witnesses indicated disagreement.

The Convener

I will allow Fulton MacGregor to ask a question. I ask the witnesses to give very concise answers. I will give each of you a chance to answer the question.

Fulton MacGregor (Coatbridge and Chryston) (SNP)

I want to ask a brief question about the elephant in the room. What impact do you think the Brexit process will have on the bill? I was particularly interested in David Richardson’s earlier response in which he talked about EU nationals being important to the islands. The convener said that answers should be very brief, but what thought have you given to that?

Fraser Grieve

Brexit will certainly have a major impact on island communities in particular and, obviously, everywhere else. Access to labour, fisheries and designated protections have particular impacts on the islands, so it is really important that they are considered as part of the process.

David Richardson

The tourism industry is vital to most islands, and tourism depends on staff; the industry is very much a staff service. Currently, many island people do not want to work in the tourism industry because of the conditions. We have to raise the profile of tourism as a career because we do not know what will happen to the workforce, which is the key issue.

Fulton MacGregor

How might Brexit impact specifically on implementation of the bill?

Rachel Hunter

I am not sure what impact Brexit will have on the bill, but we know from the businesses that we have surveyed throughout the Highlands and Islands that the current lack of a stable economic climate is hindering investment because there is so much uncertainty. However, there are differences in opinion among sectors: the fisheries community, for example, has broadly welcomed the Brexit vote. There are differences among business communities.

The Convener

Camille Dressler will have the last word on the matter.

Camille Dressler

As members can guess from my accent, I am one of the foreign nationals who will be affected by Brexit. Many people like me have moved to the islands in the past 10 years, and they feel that their lives might be completely destroyed by Brexit. That is why I wanted to bring in the principle in article 174 of the Lisbon treaty, which is a very important principle to repatriate to Scotland and the United Kingdom.

My concern is that the UK Government does not have a territorial cohesion policy such as the EU has. Our discussion with the islands commission of the Conference of Peripheral Maritime Regions of Europe has shown that we have an island policy at Europe level, but what will happen to that once Brexit happens?

We feel that islands are naturally interested in making contact not only with other islands in this country but with our counterpart islands in Europe. We have already started to work on the clean energy for EU islands initiative. What will happen to that policy, for which a massive amount of money is being set aside? I will leave it to members to consider that.

The Convener

There were a number of questions there. This is an opportune moment to bring the discussion to a close. I thank Fraser Grieve, David Richardson, Rachel Hunter and Camille Dressler for giving evidence and for their time. The session has been very useful.

11:06 Meeting suspended.  



11:10 On resuming—  



The Convener

We continue with our second panel. I welcome, from Bòrd na Gàidhlig, Shona MacLennan, the chief executive, and Daibhidh Boag; Ranald Robertson, the partnership director at the Highlands and Islands transport partnership; Iain MacMillan, the principal of Lewes Castle College, which is part of the University of the Highlands and Islands; and Stephen Whiston, the head of strategic planning and performance at the Argyll and Bute integration joint board.

I advise those of you who were not here for the first panel that you do not need to touch any of the technology that is in front of you; when your turn comes, your microphone will be made live. I ask you to catch my eye and nod, and I will do my utmost to bring you in at an appropriate moment. On a time management issue, I also ask you to keep an eye on me so that I do not have to cut you off in mid-flow—I will try to give you a wee warning that I want to move on to the next person.

The first questions will come from Rhoda Grant.

Rhoda Grant

Does the bill meet your aspirations and expectations?

Shona MacLennan (Bòrd na Gàidhlig)

Taing, a chathraiche—thanks, convener. We very much welcome the emphasis on an islands bill and the recognition of the special assets that there are in the Scottish islands. We suggest strengthening the bill by putting at its very heart what it aims to do, which we view as being to secure sustainable communities in the islands. That was the case with the Gaelic Language (Scotland) Act 2005, which set up Bòrd na Gàidhlig; it stated at the outset that its aim was to secure the status of the Gaelic language. We refer to that a lot in our work, and such a statement would help anyone who was involved in developing the plan or in ensuring that the impact assessments were carried out to effect that aim. Having such a statement in the bill could strengthen it considerably.

Stephen Whiston (Argyll and Bute Integration Joint Board)

I echo that from the viewpoint of health and social care. The bill is about sustaining our most remote and fragile communities, and we welcome its requirement to look at island proofing, building on what we have done to date.

Rhoda Grant

Do you think that the bill will empower island communities or change the way in which Government organisations and the like treat islands? From the top down, such organisations will need to have regard to how they deal with islands. Could that empower islands to start influencing how decisions are made?

Ranald Robertson (Highlands and Islands Transport Partnership)

I caught the end of the previous evidence session.

Early on, when I first glanced through the bill, I picked up on the fact that the first agency that is listed is the Scottish ministers. I was immediately prompted to check whether the provisions extend to Transport Scotland, which delivers critical services to our island communities, and I received clarification that they do—the provisions that apply to the Scottish ministers extend to the Government agencies. That means that the bill, coupled with other measures, particularly community empowerment, can only empower our island communities. It will take them much closer to being able to influence the specification of services that are essential to them and give them a much clearer pathway to influencing those processes and decisions.

Time and attention will probably be needed to get the impact assessment right, but having the impact assessment means that there will be an awareness around spending decisions—awareness not just of the impact on the island where the decision is being taken, but the impact on other islands. The Scottish Government is funding 32 ferry services, and a spending decision to develop one service may have an impact on others. A more holistic view will be taken as we develop our planning and policy frameworks.

11:15  



The Convener

That answer is interesting, because one question that arose on our Western Isles visit was whether Transport Scotland should be a separate consultee.

Rhoda Grant

When we work with islands, we assume that we island proof for the Western Isles or Orkney or Shetland, for example. There are mainland and island authorities, not just island authorities, and it is becoming clear that individual islands have issues. The question is how to have a bill that meets the aspirations of island groups but which also meets the aspirations of individual islands, which can sometimes be at odds with the island group. Does the bill allow for that, or will that detail have to go elsewhere?

Daibhidh Boag (Bòrd na Gàidhlig)

I return to the previous question about the power of communities. Bòrd na Gàidhlig works closely with the Gaelic community across the whole of Scotland, but islands have particular importance to the Gaelic language. In the Western Isles, for example, the majority of people speak Gaelic, with different percentages of Gaelic speakers in islands within the group. Gaelic is very important across the whole of the western seaboard, and empowering those communities is critical for the Gaelic community to grow.

On Shona MacLennan’s point about the bill’s overall purpose, it is important to make clear that the viability and sustainability of the economic activity of islands is critical. It is critical to our work of growing the Gaelic language to have economically viable communities in those islands who can continue to speak Gaelic.

The Convener

I will take supplementary questions from Jamie Greene and Gail Ross to widen out that point and bring in other witnesses.

Jamie Greene

Ranald Robertson raised the very important point that Scottish ministers are, first and foremost, responsible for island proofing. As a result of that, therefore, all subsequent Government agencies and directorates that fall under a minister are also liable, to use that word.

Does that go down to the lowest common denominator in the way that the agencies operate? For example, Calmac is listed indirectly under David MacBrayne, but another private ferry operator is not listed and, therefore, has no direct need to island proof. Would such an operator be covered by the fact that they are given subsidies or awarded contracts by public agencies, such as Transport Scotland? I am trying to explore how deep the liability goes.

Gail Ross

I am interested in island impact assessments. The point has been made that decisions made on the mainland can affect island communities. A bus company that shall remain nameless changed its timetable and did not meet the ferry from Orkney any more. Should such an issue be included, given that island impact assessments are not only about things that happen on the island?

The Convener

I am sure that you have not narrowed down which bus company that is.

Ranald Robertson

We know who it is.

Gail Ross

I think that we all do.

Ranald Robertson

On the contractual aspect of a Government-funded service, my understanding is that that does not apply, as the duty is on the contracting body—although I could be wrong.

In our written evidence, we suggested that, similar to the national living wage pledge, there might be some value in Government procurement encouraging a requirement to complete island impact assessments where there is Government finance. That is not just where there is a direct Government contract, because significant public funding also goes into air services, which, on paper, sit entirely on the commercial side.

There could be value in that, but I do not know how that might apply when we are looking at bus companies, and I am conscious of the proposed transport legislation that will be considered by the Parliament. It becomes very difficult to include mainland bus services as part of an islands bill and, in a similar fashion, I recognise that Scoraig or Knoydart would be very difficult to include in that.

Perhaps we need to ensure that other aspects of legislation link appropriately to one another. There is an opportunity with the transport bill that will come before Parliament to perhaps consider a hierarchy in the importance of different transport services with regard to their function of being strategic in providing important lifeline links to other services. There is also an opportunity to encourage better links. We have had frustrating experiences with new ferry services that do not connect with trains and so on.

Shona MacLennan

We also responded to the consultation on the socioeconomic duty and highlighted that, when contracts or policies are being made, the challenges that remote areas endure should be considered as part of a socioeconomic duty, rather than purely on a financial poverty basis. That links to transport and to this bill, too.

John Mason

The bill says that there will be a national islands plan and that there will be consultation, but it does not go into any detail. A statement has already been made to the effect that there should be something at the beginning of the bill about sustainable communities and that, therefore, that would feed through.

First, do you agree that a national islands plan is a good idea? Secondly, and perhaps more important, should there be more detail in the bill about what should be in the plan? I think that the previous panel got a bit confused about this: at the moment, we are discussing not what is in the plan, but what should be in the bill about the plan. Also, is the 12-month timescale realistic for bringing the plan into place?

Iain MacMillan (University of the Highlands and Islands)

The initial answer to the question is yes, the development of a national islands plan is a good thing. It would be difficult and not too helpful to be too prescriptive in the bill about what the plan should be. However, as was mentioned in the previous session, there is a need to keep it focused on the key outcomes that the Government wants for the islands.

John Mason

Is sustainable development the kind of outcome that you mean?

Iain MacMillan

At a fairly high level, it is. There is a danger that, if the plan is too prescriptive, it becomes a tick-box exercise because of the nature of that prescription. There is a need for the plan to outline where we want to be in five or 10 years’ time and what the direction of travel should be. It is important that the plan enables conversations to take place between the bodies involved and the communities, so that there can be open dialogue between the agencies on policy changes and what their service changes are. Dialogue is what will determine how successful it will be in future, so the bill and the plan should facilitate that dialogue.

The Convener

I will bring in Shona MacLennan and Stephen Whiston, because the issue of planning and how detailed it should be is fundamental.

Shona MacLennan

Under the Gaelic Language (Scotland) Act 2005, we have a responsibility to develop a national Gaelic language plan every five years, so our experience relates quite closely to the idea of having an islands plan every five years. We go through consultation with all our stakeholders and we present that to ministers for consideration.

Such plans give a great focus to what we want to achieve for a specific thing—in our case, it is Gaelic language and culture, and in this case it will be the islands. What are the overarching aims? Our plan is not a detailed document. Instead, it sets the strategy direction. We are currently on the draft of the third iteration. In our two previous plans, we focused on what we wanted to see happening, and research has shown that those plans have definitely brought improvements.

We have kept our plans at a high level. In the current iteration, we propose that we also have a delivery or implementation plan that sits alongside the high-level strategic plan, and perhaps something similar could be developed for the islands plan. That is not written down in legislation; it is just a different approach that we are taking.

John Mason

I am not familiar with the 2005 act. Does it give detail on the plan or is it like the bill?

Shona MacLennan

It is like the bill. It says that a plan will be prepared within a certain period, states a process for approval and says how we will go on to do the next one. It is very similar in that way.

Having just been through the process of developing the third plan, I would say that a period of 12 months would be very tight. We started the development process for the third plan in March 2016 and submitted it to ministers in June 2017—and we had had two plans already. We are also members of the Convention of the Highlands and Islands, and a lot of discussions about the economy, housing, transport, health and education are happening there, so a body of work is already going on that may feed into the islands plan. That might enable it to be done within 12 months, but I think that that period is tight.

The Convener

John, maybe we can get an answer from Stephen Whiston on the time issue that Shona MacLennan has mentioned.

John Mason

The 12 months? Yes—I am happy to hear from him.

Stephen Whiston

We view that as ambitious given the points that Shona MacLennan made, the number of agencies that are involved in bringing things together and our communities’ understanding of how it all fits together.

In health and social care, we have a three-year strategic plan, and our vision is mapped out for that. Our consultation process was compressed and we are still going through iterations of people understanding what that means, even with us establishing local planning forums for health and social care and bringing that up to the right maturity level. That is where we come to the difficult balance of communities’ expectations and aspirations as opposed to health and social care need and how we need to transform and support communities in delivering that. When we match that with the other agencies’ plans, it becomes complex, to say the least. We need to consider whether we are aligning things in the correct way, because transport infrastructure and cultural development absolutely impinge on all those areas.

To do the work within 12 months is ambitious. Can it be done? Anything can be done with the right level of resource and focus, but I would suggest that you might want to revisit that unless you are going to put in more resources.

John Mason

Do you think that health, which is your side, should be mentioned in the bill or are you relaxed that we can just assume that it is in the plan?

Stephen Whiston

The bill covers all public bodies, so health will be picked up within that. I do not think that there should be a specific mention of health.

From the information that we have presented, you will know about the way that we provide health across 23 inhabited islands. We have a resident presence on a few of those islands, but not on all of them. People have very different expectations as a consequence of the legacy around that. If you start to focus on a particular public body or agency, you will raise expectations beyond what needs to be delivered. I use the word “needs” again.

Gail Ross

Thank you for coming. How do you expect public bodies to feed into the development of the plan? To what extent do you expect to consult your stakeholders? Are there any resource implications with the consultation exercise?

The Convener

Gosh—that is a difficult question. Shona MacLennan is directly in the firing line, because she has had experience of that.

11:30  



Shona MacLennan

I will approach the question from two angles: how we work in developing a national plan, and the work that we have done in carrying out impact assessments for island communities for the third national Gaelic language plan.

On consultation and building a plan, it is fairly easy to recognise the Gaelic stakeholders, so we have done some work with them and brought them together. However, because the viability and sustainability of the language are dependent on people having jobs, housing, education and all the other things that we have talked about, we have also worked with the public bodies whose role and function it is to deliver and support those services. We consulted them, setting out our ambitions and asking how they can help us to deliver those. That discussion was also about delivering their ambitions, so there is collaboration.

It is not clear to me who will actually draw up the islands plan. One of Bòrd na Gàidhlig’s main functions under the act that set it up is to develop a national Gaelic language plan. When the bill says that ministers will develop a national islands plan, my questions are: “Who?” and “How?” I am not sure that you would want that level of detail to be in the bill, but I recommend exploring how that will actually be taken forward and who will collaborate with all the bodies that are listed so that they know that they have a role in developing impact assessments. They need to know that there is a desire and an ambition among the Scottish ministers to have sustainable island communities, and they also need to know what that means for their strategy and how they deliver services. For example, does it mean working from the outside to the inside? What does the financial modelling mean for issues such as housing? It is hugely ambitious to try to do that within 12 months. That is my perspective on developing a national plan.

For our island impact assessment for the Gaelic language plan, we looked at the high levels of Gaelic speakers in communities in the Western Isles and other west coast islands, which Daibhidh Boag mentioned, and considered what we need to do differently to support those communities, as opposed to the growing communities around Gaelic-medium education in cities and towns. We have said that different approaches are needed, and we have to take those different approaches.

The Convener

I will bring in Iain MacMillan, but I want first to make it clear that the term “island proofing”, which has been used, will come up shortly as a separate section in our questions.

Iain MacMillan

There is a clear role for community planning partnerships and for the Convention of the Highlands and Islands, which Shona MacLennan mentioned. It is critical that we are clear about how those different groups will work together to develop the plan. A lot of activity is already being undertaken in community planning partnerships. I understand that that is easier for those of us who are located completely on islands because our focus is completely within the islands, and that it may a bit more challenging for those in the Argyll and Bute Council and Highland Council areas. We are already very focused on developing our local outcomes improvement plans in the islands, which in effect look towards the same challenges that have been mentioned in relation to the bill and the national islands plan. A body of work has already been undertaken, and it would make sense to use that.

There is always a danger that we might end up tripping over one another because there are so many people involved in developing similar solutions. They might be the same people in different guises. One of the challenges that we face in the islands is that people tend to come to groups wearing a number of hats and carrying different responsibilities, with the result that it is sometimes hard for them to keep focused on why they are there and who they are representing.

The critical question is who will own and co-ordinate the plan. There are already bodies in existence that should be able to work together to involve all the stakeholders and pull the plan together.

Mention has been made of the timescale being ambitious, but I am afraid that it has to be ambitious. If we take too long over the process, we will not get anywhere particularly quickly.

Gail Ross

Given that the community planning partnerships are already in place and that the local outcomes improvement plans have been completed or are being worked on, do you think that the consultation phase will have any financial implications?

Iain MacMillan

I expect that there will always be financial implications, because we will have to change what we do, although that should be part and parcel of what we are about. I hope that one of the main reasons for our being there is to serve our communities. There is likely to be some additional cost as we move our feet to respond to a different requirement, but there is an increasing alignment of such policies, and I think that the national islands plan can pull all those together for the island areas and give us a clear focus. Although there might be an additional financial requirement initially, the situation should improve over time.

The Convener

That leads us neatly on to the next section.

Mike Rumbles

I want to drill down into the issue of island proofing. You will be aware that the schedule to the bill lists more than 60 public bodies for which it will be a legal requirement to island proof any policy or initiative that they propose. All our witnesses have said that that is great—island proofing is marvellous, and it is essential that it is done. However, from this side of the table, it seems that there is a bit of ambiguity about exactly how island proofing will be approached by those 60-plus public bodies.

Many witnesses have told us that island proofing must not be a tick-box exercise that involves someone in an organisation’s headquarters in Glasgow or Edinburgh, on realising that they have to think about the islands, doing so momentarily and then ticking the box. We know what we do not want, but how do you envisage that the practicalities of island proofing will operate? What must happen?

The Convener

Daibhidh Boag will go first on that.

Daibhidh Boag

That goes back to our discussion about the purpose of the bill and the aim of securing sustainable, economically active populations on the islands. Having that purpose at the start of the process will make it much easier to island proof against that benchmark. When we are talking about a new policy or a new service in education or health, we will have to think about whether it will have a positive or a negative impact on that purpose. It all relates back to the purpose of the bill of having sustainable, economically active island communities.

Mike Rumbles

But how would someone in Edinburgh or Glasgow know what the impact would be on people in the islands?

Daibhidh Boag

The question would have to be asked whether the proposed change in ferry services, schools or the health service would improve or have a negative impact on the sustainability of the economically active population of the island concerned.

We hear difficult stories about population projections for the Western Isles. Island proofing should be about putting in place as many policies as possible that make islands attractive so that people are not only retained in but attracted to the area; the policies should flow towards that. For example, if there is no school in the community, the community will not attract or retain young families. Is there employment? Is housing available?

You talked about private businesses in the earlier session. Some of the businesses are probably quite small scale—hotels, fish farms and so on. Are the policies of the public agencies and private businesses that are around the table aligning to make sure that aquaculture jobs are possible within that community? When we talk about building houses, we need to think about whether they are being built in the right place to make sure that everything happens.

Mike Rumbles

If I may, convener—

The Convener

I would like to bring in Ranald Robertson first, in case he has another opinion.

Ranald Robertson

It is not really a different opinion. An island impact assessment should not be a self-assessment. I do not think that self-assessment would be credible or would work. In our evidence, we suggested models such as the two-stage process for the strategic environmental assessment or the equalities impact assessment.

That suggests that there would be a gateway or an office that a body could consult about its policy or plan and which could say that there was no island impact. What that would look like, where it would be based and how the body would ensure that it had the cut-across to be certain that there was no impact requires a bit of thought and attention.

There would be no island impact in an awful lot of areas, so the question could probably be addressed quite quickly. However, people need the skills to do that or a body that could act as a gatekeeper, although I do not know exactly what that would involve or look like.

Mike Rumbles

Yes, that is what I am trying to get at. We all agree that that is what the policy should be—people should be thinking about all these things—but my question is about the practical implications. It is about how somebody sitting in Scottish Water’s office in Glasgow or wherever will know whether their initiative will have an impact on one of the islands.

Should an islands office be created? Someone on the previous panel suggested that there should be such an office, which would be staffed by people who know about the islands and could be the first port of call for those 60-odd public bodies. Would that be a practical way of dealing with the issue?

I understand that you are saying that it should not be done by self-assessment, but I am thinking about the practicalities for those 60-odd organisations.

The Convener

Before Ranald Robertson answers that, it would probably be fair to say that we heard last week on a visit to the Western Isles that unless you have actually lived on an island and have experienced the problems of an island, you do not know islands. Perhaps you could bear that in mind in relation to the person or the group that you are thinking about.

Ranald Robertson

As a person who has lived on an island—I am from an island—maybe I am on safe ground.

In all seriousness, we have talked about the preparation of the plan and a lot of the evidence that you have heard has been about co-production as an important element of that. It might well be a co-production of the gateway facility; it might well be that you identify a number of key agencies that would form that and act at quite a high level. For example, the first submission could come in and all those agencies, such as Bòrd na Gàidhlig, Scottish Natural Heritage or the local authorities, could say that they do not see an impact for their areas.

On the question of how the agencies would manage that, how they would consult and how they would engage with people—whether through community planning or something else—there is scope to come up with a concept. It links back to the co-production of the plan itself in any case. You need to think about what an island impact assessment will look like and how that process will work as well as what the plan itself will look like.

Stephen Whiston

If I understand the question correctly, Mike Rumbles is asking about how we will know whether a change in health and social care, for example, will have that domino effect. As we have flagged up, people have clear expectations about what type of health and social care should be provided to their communities, and often those expectations are based on history and the legacy of what has been in place to date and what might change.

11:45  



To give a simple example, there might be a change to dental services on an island because of a new policy on public dental services. Will that have a material impact on the viability of that community in the short, medium and long term? The community might access services on the island only very infrequently and in the future they might have to travel to the mainland. Will that change have a significant impact? In terms of health and wellbeing outcomes, you could argue that the impact will be seen 10 years down the line. Some people will not be able to travel for dental services, and that may have a knock-on effect in terms of health and care services. Will it prevent people from moving to the island if they feel that the service there cannot support their health needs? We might argue that the domino effect that will trickle down will be quite small—we might be talking about a very small community, or there might be ways of mitigating that effect. However, the change might be one of the key building blocks that will have a ripple effect. In health and care service terms, we may not necessarily understand that effect, although colleagues involved in some of the community planning discussions may understand it. Nonetheless, we will have to make a tough decision on what is required for that area. Have I picked you up correctly, Mr Rumbles? Is that what you are asking about?

Mike Rumbles

I understand the point that you are making, but who makes the decision? Is it you, sitting in Oban? How do you find out whether the lack of a dentist in Mull, say, will affect the island? Do you just look from your office in Oban and make that decision yourself?

Stephen Whiston

Our approach has always been about engaging with our communities. We develop locality community engagement and co-production processes, and we will continue to do that. To me, the bigger point is that we do that in a silo or in isolation—we engage with the communities that are directly affected, but we will not necessarily be thinking about the broader sustainability aspect at the time

People will be concerned about how they are going to continue to get that service, rather than the future sustainability and viability of the island. Communities reflect that, and that is where people will say that there is a risk that island proofing will slow down and delay things because they will have to go through a number of hoops, whether those are tick boxes or something else.

Jamie Greene

That leads on very nicely to my questions. You have given a practical example of how the bill may affect your agency. We have a unique opportunity, because each of the panel members represents an agency that will be directly affected and will have to produce island impact assessments when the bill goes live. I am very keen to draw out what onus you each feel the bill places on you in terms of producing those assessments.

As it stands, the assessments apply to the development, delivery and redevelopment of any policy, strategy or service that each agency performs, and they will look at the effect that that will have on an island community and what can be done to improve or mitigate the effect. They are all-encompassing. Specifically on health, how will you produce those island impact assessments for every decision that you make, in order to justify the decision and look at its potential effect on an island? What will happen next, once you have produced the assessment? Will you just present it to the minister and say that it shows the effect that the decision will have on the island, while nothing actually happens to mitigate that effect? What are the practicalities around the island impact assessments, and how can they actually improve life on an island?

The Convener

Health seemed to be the focus of that question. As soon as Jamie Greene had finished asking it, Stephen Whiston looked down, so I am assuming that that was because he wanted to speak.

Stephen Whiston

Absolutely. We recognise how important health and care provision is across all our communities—mainland rural communities as well as island communities. It is going to be a real challenge for us to manage the expectations around what is meant by island proofing and island impact assessments and how the process will operate in practice.

At the moment, when we introduce service change, we involve and engage our communities. As part of that, we have a range of processes that we follow and assess things against, which I have listed in our submission. The outcome of that engagement is that we say to those communities, “This is what we have found and this is what we would recommend as the change”, which is either in the originally prescribed form or as it has been developed and iterated through that engagement.

I guess that I put my head down a little because I was thinking that I have 23 inhabited islands and you could argue that, on some of them, people access services in an inequitable way compared to way in which people on islands that have resident health and care services access services. That is about scale, geography, history and legacy. We know that we have to change the way that we deliver health and care services and that the people in those communities have very high expectations and aspirations. They are highly concerned about the viability of their communities if there is a domino effect. We will absolutely look at health and care need—that is our biggest concern. I use the word “need” again rather than “aspiration” or “expectation” because, if we do not focus on need, there is no way in which we will have the resources to deal with it. Given the challenges that we are facing, we cannot have that.

We have a health and social care process. On the bigger question about how that affects future sustainability and viability, we need to set that within community planning partnerships or A N Other agency.

Shona MacLennan

I want to offer up our experience because, as well as producing a national Gaelic language plan, we have the function of requiring public authorities to develop Gaelic language plans for their services. That is not the same as doing a Gaelic proofing exercise; it is a more proactive approach that involves asking local authorities how they will support and promote Gaelic through the services that they deliver in their areas. We have a team of officers who work with officers in the public authorities, and we monitor those plans. That is different from proofing, but it is another approach, and it may link to the approach in the islands plan of saying what we expect to see and asking authorities to consider whether policies will fulfil that. That may be a way of measuring them.

John Finnie

Specifically on that point, who polices the plan and is there an enforcement role? I know that that sounds like a heavy term, but if a plan is to be meaningful, there has to be some outcome, and the outcome cannot be that it is put on a shelf and has no relevance. Is there any policing role?

Shona MacLennan

The bòrd has a monitoring role, and the authorities are required to submit reports on progress. We try to work collaboratively with the authorities, but there is an ultimate sanction: the minister can intervene if the view is that an authority has failed. The legislation gives that opportunity.

I should add that there is statutory guidance for the authorities on how to develop language plans. Perhaps the statutory guidance will describe how island proofing is to be done, implemented, monitored and reviewed. To answer your question, that might be one mechanism that could be used.

Jamie Greene

This is a really interesting point. It is important that we note that nowhere does the bill use the words “island proofing”. We talk about island proofing a lot, and the intention of the bill is to island proof, but part 3 simply says that there must be an island community impact assessment. Indeed, the only line that talks about having regard to island communities says:

“A relevant authority must have regard to island communities in carrying out its functions.”

There is no real island proofing mentioned in the bill. To properly island proof decisions would potentially require huge financial backing. For example, in health, island proofing a strategy would mean that, instead of closing a general practitioner service or a dentist’s surgery, a huge financial investment on the part of an agency would be required. Do you see any financial consequences to the bill, or are the financial consequences just those relating to introducing the impact assessments and not actually delivering properly island-proofed services?

Stephen Whiston

You are right that the term “island proofing” suggests providing a completely equitable playing field in all health and care services in all island communities, so that, for example, people on Bute could look across at Islay and say, “Yes, we have equitable service provision.”

In reality, achieving that would require not only a huge amount of finance, but a huge workforce. Where are you going to find the workforce and resource—in its fullest sense, which includes education, training, interdependencies, partner employment and so on—to deliver that? Those issues make it highly unlikely that that will ever be achieved.

The key issue for us when we conduct our impact assessments concerns mitigations around some of the changes and how we can prevent there being a significant change in service. Again, we operate under legislation that says that, if there is a significant change in service, we have to conduct a full consultation and that there will need to be a ministerial decision. That is particularly the case around health services. We are faced with really difficult choices with regard to transforming health and social care because of issues around our ageing workforce and a lot of other factors that I will not repeat today. However, in a case in which we cannot recruit a GP to an island, we have to conduct an impact assessment that involves mitigation measures that will ensure that that community’s need for GP services is met. That might involve a very different model from what was previously in place and from what we have put in place in other islands. The proofing element is really more about what the alternative service delivery might be, and that is balanced against the expectations and aspirations of those island communities, which might see some of the changes as threatening the viability of the services.

The Convener

Does anyone else want to pick up on the issue of cost?

Ranald Robertson

I appreciate the point about island proofing, but I am not entirely sure that I agree that island proofing means having the same level of service in every community that people in every urban settlement have. I think that it means that due regard is given to the needs of islands. I should perhaps have been clearer about that earlier.

In our submission, we suggest that there are some high-level issues that seem to be particularly felt by island communities, such as maintaining a sustainable population, fuel poverty and demographic shifts. If we are able to address the key areas that impact on island life and island communities’ sustainability, that would be better than focusing too much on the idea of having comparable levels of services in Bowmore and Bearsden. It is important to find the right balance, and it would be good if we could start to see a shift with regard to more sustainable populations. There needs to be a higher average wage in our island areas, because that is a real issue, as is fuel poverty, although that is something that I hear about more from the Orkney community planning partnership and the Outer Hebrides community planning partnership than elsewhere. The nature of the plan, with an annual report and a refresh every five years, means that we can shift our focus as we start addressing some of those big challenges.

The Convener

Stewart Stevenson will ask our next set of questions.

Stewart Stevenson

I will do a wrap-up on costs. We have covered costs relating to consultation, and I think that we have just covered island-proofing costs. The issue boils down to whether the financial memorandum properly addresses the costs that are associated with the bill. Do you feel that it does?

The Convener

Is there enough money for the plan in the bill? Who would like to answer that?

Iain MacMillan

That is a very open question. I would say that the way in which the issues have been laid out suggests that one size fits all, which is really what the bill is looking to challenge. It is extremely difficult to make an assessment of what the costs will be, but I am not comfortable with the assumption that one size fits all and that, therefore, the costs of one agency will be the same right across the piece.

Other than that, I acknowledge the need to cost the plan and, at the moment, I see no other way in which to proceed. There is always a danger that people will take a one-size-fits-all approach and one of the benefits of the bill and the move towards an islands policy is that it gives us an opportunity to change our mindset so that we no longer take that view of public services.

The Convener

Does anyone else want to comment or does that summarise the position? It appears that no one else wants to comment.

That brings us neatly to the conclusion of our discussion. On behalf of the committee, I thank you all—Stephen, Iain, Ranald, Daibhidh and Shona—for your evidence, including the written evidence that you submitted. It has been very useful and it will allow us to consider the points that you have raised as we draw up our report.

I will suspend the meeting briefly. I ask members to stay in their seats while we allow the witnesses to leave the room.

12:00 Meeting suspended.  



12:01 On resuming—  



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Sixth meeting transcript

The Convener (Edward Mountain)

Good morning and welcome to the 30th meeting in 2017 of the Rural Economy and Connectivity Committee. I remind everyone to make sure that their mobile phones are on silent. We have received no apologies.

Agenda item 1 is our sixth evidence session on the Islands (Scotland) Bill. I welcome Aedán Smith, who is head of planning and development for Scottish Environment LINK, and Cathy Tilbrook, who is head of coastal and marine ecosystems at Scottish Natural Heritage. We have questions for you both; if you catch my eye I will try to bring you in, so that you get a chance to answer at the right moment.

Gail Ross (Caithness, Sutherland and Ross) (SNP)

Good morning. Overall, do you think that the intent of the bill is in line with expectations?

The Convener

I see that Cathy Tilbrook nodded, which is always dangerous, because it means that you have the answer.

Cathy Tilbrook (Scottish Natural Heritage)

SNH supports the aspirations and intent of the bill to help island communities to achieve their aims for the future.

Islands are such an important and distinctive part of Scotland’s natural and cultural heritage that it is very important that we safeguard the assets on which island communities depend. That is an important part of the bill, which maybe has not been much dwelled on yet.

There are aspects of the bill that could be clarified, to better achieve the stated aims. We touched on some of them in our written evidence. Largely, they relate to the marine licensing provisions. We have views on how the provisions could be clarified to strengthen the achievement of the aims of the bill. Do you want me to expand on that just now?

The Convener

Not at the moment, because we will come on to that later.

Aedán Smith (Scottish Environment LINK)

Like Cathy Tilbrook, we welcome the bill, which has a lot of potential to co-ordinate a range of issues in the context of the islands, but we think that it is a bit surprising that the natural heritage value of Scotland’s islands is not explicitly recognised in the bill, given that that is one of the key things for which Scotland’s islands are particularly important and well recognised, within the islands themselves and beyond.

The other high-level point about which we are a bit surprised is the focus on populated islands. The bill covers only inhabited islands, although a lot of Scotland’s island communities are intrinsically connected with uninhabited islands. The focus on inhabited islands is a bit surprising and we would like it to be broadened out to include consideration of uninhabited islands.

Gail Ross

I think that we will touch on uninhabited islands later. Will the bill lead to greater empowerment of island communities?

Aedán Smith

It certainly has the potential to do that. It gives specific recognition to the unique circumstances that there can be in island communities and island places—if you like—but where the real difference is made will depend on the detail.

Cathy Tilbrook

I echo that.

There are a number of existing provisions, some of which have not yet bedded in, which would help to achieve the aims of the bill. I am thinking about the marine planning provisions, the Community Empowerment (Scotland) Act 2015 and other tools that exist. We are keen to consider how we can ensure that the bill adds value to and is properly integrated with those other provisions.

Rhoda Grant (Highlands and Islands) (Lab)

My question is for Cathy Tilbrook. Could powers that Scottish Natural Heritage currently holds be devolved to islands? I quite often hear from islanders that things are done to them, especially environmentally, rather than with them—I guess that they think that the knowledge that they already have is disregarded—and that some of those actions have proved to be detrimental.

Cathy Tilbrook

I am disappointed to hear that feedback. We are certainly very keen to consider how we can better meet the requirements of the Community Empowerment (Scotland) Act 2015 and work with communities to involve them much more in decisions about things such as protected area management. We are currently doing a lot of work on that, and we are looking at pilot studies to see how we can involve local authorities and local communities in the management of marine protected areas, for example.

The feedback from our recent consultation on marine protected areas around Scotland was quite good: it was that we make a real effort to talk to communities and involve them. The feedback from a number of stakeholders was that that process has been much more effective in Scotland than it has been south of the border.

However, I know that there are issues. Obviously, we want to work to strengthen the relationship with local communities, so we would be very pleased to try to do more on that.

Aedán Smith

On a similar point, there is absolutely no doubt that a lot of Scotland’s island communities are custodians of some of the best bits of Scotland’s natural environment, and there is often an obligation on island communities to look after that natural environment in a way that benefits the people on the islands and beyond them, because the significance of those areas is sometimes such that it is of value to visitors and people across Scotland and beyond. Communities perhaps need to be helped out a little bit in how they can manage those areas, but there needs to be certainty that there will be a minimum standard of protection for that natural environment and that local communities will be given the assistance to help to manage the areas in the required way.

Rhoda Grant

Island communities would argue that things are in place because they have looked after those areas through history. I think that they take it a bit tough that people come in, tell them how they should do what they have obviously already been doing, and impose on them what they see as nonsensical regulation. Could powers be devolved to them so that they could identify features that they know how to look after because of local knowledge? Could designations be handed down to islands?

Cathy Tilbrook

We are looking at that and at ways in which that could be made to happen. However, obviously, with designations—particularly the European level of designations at the moment—there are quite strict rules about how to go through the process of selection and quite a lot of technical issues are involved. That is not to say that, with help, local communities could not be a major part of that process; it is just a matter of working out how that could best be achieved. We need to pilot that, test it and see how we can manage to work side by side with communities more effectively.

Aedán Smith

I absolutely agree with that. It is really about how we can enable and assist island communities to continue a lot of the good work that they have been doing. Perhaps a good example of that is provided by the machair habitats on the Western Isles and the Uists, which have been managed with support from Scotland, the United Kingdom and Europe. If Scotland’s place in Europe changes as we move forward, we will need to really think about how we can keep that support going. That will be critical. That habitat is famous, and it is valued on the islands and beyond them. Maintaining it and helping local island communities to be able to maintain it in the future will be critical.

The Convener

We will move on to the next theme.

John Mason (Glasgow Shettleston) (SNP)

Mr Smith has already raised an issue that I was going to ask him about, but I will ask him about it anyway. Section 3 of the bill is on the national islands plan, which is, that section says,

“a plan setting out the main objectives and strategy of the Scottish Ministers in relation to improving outcomes for island communities”.

That suggests that the plan will totally ignore islands that are not inhabited, such as St Kilda, I presume. What are your thoughts on that? Can you suggest an alternative wording?

Aedán Smith

St Kilda is a good example, because there are strong cultural links to current inhabited islands. Given the interconnectedness of cultural and natural heritage, the bill would draw a false boundary around inhabited islands. We would like to see it broadened out to cover all islands. That would be the simple way of doing it.

John Mason

Would there not be a slight danger that communities would be undervalued if we simply look at islands? For example, if we said “improving outcomes for islands” and dropped the word “communities”, might that not be a problem? I am not asking you to rewrite the bill on the spot, but if it said “islands and island communities” would that be a possible answer?

Aedán Smith

Sure. It is about not drawing boundaries too tightly. St Kilda has a long-standing cultural and environmental connection to the main part of the Western Isles and to draw an artificial boundary around inhabited islands would seem to go against the spirit of what is trying to be achieved.

John Mason

Ms Tilbrook, do you have a comment on that?

Cathy Tilbrook

Not really. The uninhabited islands would probably be picked up geographically by the area coverage of the national islands plan. However, the focus of the bill is much more on communities and the challenges that they face. We felt that uninhabited islands and their requirements would be picked up by general planning measures and things such as the regional marine plans. However, I take on board Aedán Smith’s points and I would be interested in considering them.

John Mason

Let us widen our discussion to the question of the plan. There is really nothing in the bill about what should be in the plan; we have discussed that quite a lot in the islands and in committee. You mentioned natural heritage, as that is an area that you are involved in, and another suggestion for the plan was population. Should the bill say specifically that we want to raise or stabilise the population? Should there be more in the bill about the plan or should we just wait and see what comes up?

Aedán Smith

The plan is the logical place to address those issues. If the bill was amended to state that the plan should specifically pick up those issues, that would be one of the simpler ways to ensure that they were covered. We would support an amendment to the bill to require the plan to specifically address natural heritage issues. That could be a way forward.

John Mason

The counterargument is that if you put something in, anything that you have not put in might be considered to be undervalued. If we said that the plan must include natural heritage, population, transport, health and education, is there a risk that another area would feel undervalued?

Aedán Smith

Possibly. We would hope that the plan would act as a co-ordinating mechanism across areas of Government policy making. The primary benefit that it would bring would be to co-ordinate that and ensure that there is a single place where such issues are considered from an islands perspective.

Thinking back to what is special about the islands, it is of course the island communities, but also the natural and cultural heritage of the islands. If those things were not addressed in the plan it would be a missed opportunity.

Cathy Tilbrook

The bill does not need to be too prescriptive about what is in the plan. There are high-level statements about co-ordinating and focusing on what is special and distinctive about living on an island and the challenges facing island communities. That is the kind of high-level steer that needs to be in the bill. The detail will follow in the plan.

You talked about population issues and the sustainability of island communities. I must emphasise that so many of those island communities are very dependent on their natural resources and the surrounding seas, and therefore the sustainability of those island communities goes hand in hand with having a healthy environment.

10:15  



The Convener

I have read SNH’s submission, which very much argued that there should be a strategic plan. We have wrestled with the range of evidence that we have been hearing. Some of the islands with stronger communities believe that they should have their own plan, and some believe that islands within an island group are very different from the rest of the island group. It appears that some people feel that each and every island should have its own plan, while others do not. Do you think that the bill balances that, and that SNH balances it by saying that the plan should be strategic, or do you think that local people are going to feel marginalised?

Cathy Tilbrook

The difficulty is that we are perhaps not yet at the point at which we are with other systems, such as the marine planning system and community planning, of getting down to the level of detail at which local communities can feel that they are making a valid input into planning for their local area. I do not think that the islands plan is the place to do that; the plan is about pulling out the issues that are common to the challenges of islands in relation to things such as service delivery.

We should be using the existing planning process to plan in detail for particular communities and islands. Unfortunately, those systems are not yet developed well enough for people to see their benefits, and it will take time for them to bed in. I see the Islands (Scotland) Bill as being something higher that feeds into the other strategic plans and says, across the board, “Do not forget to focus on these issues”.

Aedán Smith

I agree with that. There are existing mechanisms to produce regional marine plans under the Marine (Scotland) Act 2010, and the terrestrial land use planning system has flexibility in relation to the area that is covered by development plans. The land use strategy has the potential to provide a bit of a hook for thinking about wider land use as well. Those three mechanisms are perhaps better for setting a vision for local places, whether marine or terrestrial areas, than the islands plan is. The plan is more about the common issues across island groupings.

Mike Rumbles (North East Scotland) (LD)

I am going to focus on the issue that we are calling island proofing, in shorthand. My questions are really directed to Cathy Tilbrook, as the representative of SNH, which is number 28 of the public bodies that are listed as “relevant authorities” in the schedule to the bill. Section 7(1) says:

“A relevant authority must have regard to island communities in carrying out its functions”.

Section 8(1) says:

“A relevant authority must prepare an island communities impact assessment in relation to a—

(a) policy,

(b) strategy, or

(c) service”.

The written evidence from SNH says that

“SNH have a ‘Balancing Duty’, through the Natural Heritage (Scotland) Act 1991, requiring us to take account of the interests of local communities. Rather than an additional process, we would prefer to adapt our internal approach to this duty to meet any new requirements”,

so it is saying that you do those things already.

Cathy Tilbrook

I hope that we do. We need to look carefully at whether there are any aspects that need to be tightened up. A national islands plan would help with that, by highlighting the kinds of issues of which we need always to remind ourselves. We would obviously still comply with the terms of the guidance in relation to how we report on that and make sure that we are properly monitoring what we are doing, but what we were really saying was that we feel that it would be more efficient to amend an existing process and make sure that we are covering any new duty or requirement, rather than to have another parallel process.

Mike Rumbles

My question runs on from what you have just said. How do you island proof your policies, strategies and plans at the moment? The islanders to whom we have spoken on various islands want to avoid a situation in which a tick-box exercise is carried out by public authorities sitting in Edinburgh, Glasgow or wherever they are. The islanders feel that consultation is extremely important.

In your written evidence, you said that SNH wants a system that is

“simple and quick to apply (including any consultation requirements)”.

That rather implies that you are not sure whether consultation is important, but that is not what we are hearing from the islanders.

Cathy Tilbrook

Dialogue and communication are really important. I do not know whether there will be a requirement for formal consultation; if there is, we will certainly have that. It is important to remember that we have got locally based staff in a lot of the island groups. They are in daily discussion with their local authority colleagues and communities and are in a good position to flag up when they think that a proposed new policy or plan will be detrimental to their local patch. They already do that—in those situations they are immediately in touch to ensure that we amend the proposal. We may need to ensure that there is a more rigorous, monitored approach in order to meet the duty, but I would say that we are trying to do that already.

Part of our early work in the marine protected area consultation was to work out which locations we needed to go to, for example all the islands that were directly affected by the proposals, in order to talk to local people about the MPAs. The key thing is to have an early screening process to ensure that you focus on the most relevant policies and plans and are in a position to influence them before they get too advanced. There is a danger with all of these things that you leave such considerations to the end and then fill out a box to see whether you have island proofed. It is too late by that point. You need to do it right from the early stage and ensure that you think about island issues and the issues of remote mainland communities as you develop your proposal.

Mike Rumbles

You are telling us that your system is good and that there is a proper consultation process. Do you think that the islanders feel that? You say that you talk to your staff working on the islands, but that is within your organisation. Are you sure that the people who are living on the islands recognise that that is the process that you are going through?

Cathy Tilbrook

We probably need to do a bit more to check that that is the case—I am sure that there are things that we could do to strengthen that process. I am not saying that we have got a perfect process at the moment, but there are ways that we can build on it, rather than having to come up with something brand new.

Mike Rumbles

Do you have any budgetary concerns regarding the requirements in the bill?

Cathy Tilbrook

It is just about allowing time. All of these issues to do with making sure that we are working with communities involve a bit more time, but hopefully we will end up with a better solution at the end of it.

Mike Rumbles

I want to clarify something. Whatever happens, whether it is island proofing or whatever, you do not think that there should be a prescriptive system for everybody. You feel that SNH basically does it already. Am I interpreting you correctly?

Cathy Tilbrook

Guidance would be helpful—for example, guidance about the screening process. There is some detail in the bill about reporting, but it is not particularly clear who would judge whether you have island proofed effectively. It might be helpful to have some clarity on who would be policing that.

The Convener

For the avoidance of doubt, I will declare an interest. I do not think that it is relevant, but I am part of a farming partnership.

My question is about the budgetary concerns. Sometimes it costs more to do things on islands than it does to do them on the mainland. If you are going to make some of your grant schemes suitable for islands, there may be financial implications. The islands might require more money than the mainland. Is that a concern for SNH?

Cathy Tilbrook

To be honest, I do not know whether we have looked specifically at that aspect of funding streams. We would probably just consider an application for funding that included those additional costs and take them on board. That would be valid; I cannot see that we would discriminate on that basis. As I say, we have got a lot of staff based on islands, and obviously we factor in the cost of travel. We are very aware of the additional costs of working and living on islands.

The Convener

We will give Cathy Tilbrook a break and move to the next section, because that was fairly intensive for her. I am warning Aedán Smith that he will be the first one up to answer John Finnie’s questions.

John Finnie (Highlands and Islands) (Green)

The bill introduces regulation-making powers in respect of marine development. Do you agree with those powers? How could they be used?

Aedán Smith

I agree with them in principle. I guess that my only possible concern is whether their management would result in a requirement for additional effort and resources.

It would be good to introduce a clear ability for island communities to get involved, but it is not entirely clear how that would relate to existing powers under marine licensing or how the two systems would work together without causing duplication of effort on the part of consultees and so on. Some more detail perhaps needs to come out in that regard.

John Finnie

You mentioned existing powers, and Cathy Tilbrook talked about the full use of existing powers. Could you say more about that?

Cathy Tilbrook

We strongly agree that island communities and authorities should have a stronger role in determining the use of the surrounding seas, but our concern about the proposal in the bill is that the local licensing system would add to the existing national licensing process that Marine Scotland operates. As Aedán Smith said, that risks putting an extra burden on developers, regulators and statutory advisers such as us, as well as on communities, and it might provide only a limited opportunity to influence the outcomes. If you already have the national system, what power does the local system have to influence that?

Our preference would be to formally increase the influence of island authorities and communities on the existing licensing process and to introduce a much stronger requirement for national and local authorities to work closely together. That can be done under the existing regime, and there are good examples of that happening. A colleague of mine was telling me about the case in Aberdeen harbour, where Marine Scotland, which is the licensing authority, brought in the local authority, Transport Scotland, which has a relevant interest with regard to the port, and other interested bodies, to ensure that the proposal was put together well right from the start.

The other thing that I mentioned that is relevant here is the new system of marine planning, which has not yet been properly rolled out around Scotland’s coasts and islands. The regional marine plans should be put together and developed by a group of local stakeholders with community input. They should set out the strategic vision for the surrounding seas, and licensing decisions should really follow that plan—there should be the same sort of plan-led approach that we see on land. Further, under the Marine (Scotland) Act 2010, the local authority and the regional marine planning partnership would be statutory consultees with regard to the marine licensing decisions in that regional plan area. Once we have those regional marine plans in place, that provision will give quite a lot of power and influence to the local authorities and local communities. However, we are not quite there yet.

I feel strongly that, rather than introducing dual parallel licensing systems that might not be that well integrated, we need to think more about how we can ensure that people have proper influence in the national system. It is important to have a national system because it provides consistency and gives a clear steer to developers.

Aedán Smith

Regional marine planning is important, as it should provide the framework for individual project consenting and allow things to be considered in a co-ordinated way, with full consultation on the vision for a local area of sea.

Some good work is happening on regional marine planning in some places—Shetland is doing really good stuff—but, elsewhere, things are a bit slower. It is really important to get the planning system sorted out, perhaps even in advance of the licences system being adapted, so that we are able to make decisions in that framework, which allows us to take a wider view of what everything should look like.

John Finnie

I will ask you later about how that approach would differ in practice from the provisions that are set out in the Orkney County Council Act 1974 and the Zetland County Council Act 1974, but I will first pursue a bit more the issue that we are discussing.

The perception is that the process is one of devolution, but Cathy Tilbrook seems to be suggesting that it is a process whereby an existing system is supplemented or added to. Is that correct?

Cathy Tilbrook

Yes. The policy memorandum makes it clear that the proposal would be an addition to the existing national marine licensing scheme in much the same way as works licences operate in Shetland at the moment. In Shetland, there has been a recognition that the process around the works licences has provided a degree of influence for the local authority and has enabled it to have a say in the national process. However, I do not think that you necessarily need that parallel licensing process in order to achieve that. As we said in our submission, it would be useful to do some work to see what the effects of the Shetland approach have been and what developers think of it, and whether there are better ways to achieve the objectives of having local influence in the licensing processes, which is what we want to see.

10:30  



John Finnie

If there is duplication, is there the potential to lose the central element and retain the local, devolved element?

Cathy Tilbrook

That would be quite difficult. We are still at quite an early stage with marine planning, as I said. The marine licensing system has not been in place for long, and we are still learning the lessons. There is innovative and very challenging development activity in our seas, particularly in relation to marine renewables, and it would be hard for individual local authorities and regional planning authorities to deal with such activity without there being some kind of national overview. It is better—at least for now, until we get to a more mature stage—to stick to the national system, while ensuring that we get proper local influence into the system.

Aedán Smith

I agree with Cathy Tilbrook. Her point was very well made.

Stewart Stevenson (Banffshire and Buchan Coast) (SNP)

In the narrow example of Shetland, the related powers that fishing interests have—they are outwith the scope of the bill—appear to operate successfully. That is my view; it might not be others’ view. How does that relate to planning delegation, given the interaction between local exploitation of natural resources and developments that are subject to planning consideration?

My position is that the more communities control—in a sustainable way—natural resources and the necessary interaction with planning, the better. I think that it is good news. However, the witnesses seem to be saying something different. From what you know about the powers that relate to control of natural resources that are available in Shetland but not elsewhere, can you say whether the Shetland model could be implemented elsewhere? Might the model be particular to island groups rather than coastal groups more generally?

Cathy Tilbrook

The model should not be specific to Shetland. The provision there uses a regulating order and is not related to the licensing system—it is separate from it. We would certainly encourage such an approach to be worked on by inshore fisheries groups elsewhere, so that they can come up with sustainable ways of managing their local resource. I am sounding a bit like a broken record here, but it is then about the links to marine planning, to ensure that fisheries management is well co-ordinated with all the other activities in an area of sea, and with local communities having a say in all of that. However, that will not be addressed by any kind of licensing provision.

As RSPB Scotland says in its submission, there is some confusion in the terms in the bill, in that the activities that can be licensed under the bill are a bit different from the activities that can be licensed under the Marine (Scotland) Act 2010. For example, the placing of materials such as pontoons is not covered in the bill. That is creating a bit of confusion about how the two systems might sit together.

Stewart Stevenson

I am coming from the position that exploitation of natural resources should be the paramount consideration. Are you suggesting that it should be secondary to planning?

Cathy Tilbrook

I am not in any way saying that. I am saying that although there is no suggestion that we would bring fisheries management under a formal marine licensing system, we need to ensure that the mechanisms that are in place for managing fisheries are well co-ordinated with other activities, through planning.

John Finnie

Stewart Stevenson has touched on potential deficiencies. To pick up on Rhoda Grant’s comments, if I may, there is a perception that it is the suits in Edinburgh who make the decisions. I appreciate that everyone has to be part of what happens in our islands, and that there are obligations that go wider than the immediate community, but we are told that the whole ethos of the bill is about pushing power down. Should marine development be specifically mentioned in, or linked to, the islands plan? I certainly would not support an approach in which all the islands were operating separately with regard to all the protections that currently exist.

Finally, I ask the witnesses to talk about the implications of Brexit, in this context.

Aedán Smith

That point highlights the risks of issues being considered in isolation, when in fact they are interconnected.

One of the big potential benefits of an islands plan is that it could bring those sectors together. For instance, terrestrial planning is considered separately from marine planning, and resource use is also considered separately. Something that allows us to think about them together at strategic level could help to co-ordinate matters and set a vision for how we want to make things more sustainable at sea and on land, because there is no doubt that there are connections between them. Fisheries activities are a good example. It would also make things more robust if and when the framework that we currently have within Europe changes. Something that provides a strategic framework would be helpful.

Jamie Greene (West Scotland) (Con)

For the record, I will press the witnesses a little bit further on the points that John Finnie made. I ask you to clarify whether the provisions for creation of the new marine licences should be in the bill. I am a little bit confused. Probably for the first time in our evidence-taking sessions, I am hearing some negativity about the implications. Should we introduce the licences under existing powers in the Community Empowerment (Scotland) Act 2015 or the Marine (Scotland) Act 2010, for example, or is there a requirement to do that in the bill?

Cathy Tilbrook

I am not an expert on how the changes would be made, but rather than setting out proposals for a completely separate new licensing provision, perhaps the bill could make amendments to the Marine (Scotland) Act 2010 to allow that important influence by local communities and local authorities. However, I am not an expert on what would be the best mechanism to achieve that. I am not sure about timescales, but to inform that it would be helpful to reflect on the Shetland experience.

Aedán Smith

I do not have much to add to that. Scottish Environment LINK supports the principle of giving island communities the ability to influence individual project consenting decisions, but there is concern about the level of additional work that might be required. We should think about how we can link the two systems more clearly to ensure that they are better connected, to avoid duplication and to ensure that we have as efficient a system as possible.

Jamie Greene

Do you agree that the bill creates an unnecessary new layer and that, instead, it should beef up existing regulations and licensing powers?

Aedán Smith

That is a slightly different thing. The bill will give to island communities a specific responsibility that will be additional to the existing national consenting regime. It is important to ensure that statutory and non-statutory consultation bodies have one point of contact to ensure that the decisions are made in a co-ordinated way without an authority having to respond to the two different systems.

Jamie Greene

How far down the chain should that empowerment go? Under the bill, local authorities will apply to ministers for the power to give licences to persons who apply for them, but some representations that we have heard have said that that should be devolved even further. John Finnie’s point was that the bill is intended to empower islands more. Are local authorities the right place for the new licensing powers to live, given that they do not currently hold that expertise or power? In practical terms, how could it work? How should communities have a bigger say in the issuing of licences for development purposes?

The Convener

I will bring in Aedán Smith, then I will take a question from Peter Chapman and give Cathy Tilbrook a chance to come in.

Aedán Smith

We do not really have a view about the level at which the powers should sit. The critical thing will be that the decision-making body has access to the specialist advice that is required, and that it is adequately resourced to deal with that. Development decision making can be complicated and can result in significant changes, particularly to the natural environment, but also to communities. Having access to specialist advice is the most important thing.

Peter Chapman (North East Scotland) (Con)

Good morning, folks. The bill will allow local authorities to decide whether to take up the powers, so obviously there is a chance that some will and some will not, which will inevitably lead to inconsistency and possibly confusion about rules and regulations. Given that, is it correct to allow the authorities to decide? If not, should there be a national licensing scheme so that we have consistency across the board, as regards the powers?

Cathy Tilbrook

We have a national system; the devil is in ensuring that we get effective local influence. To go back to the previous question, I say that even if local authorities have influence in the licensing decision process, the question is how to ensure that communities have a voice in that. I do not want to pass the buck, but it is for local authorities to consider carefully how they will achieve that.

On the marine planning process, as I said, the marine planning partnerships, which should be very inclusive, will be statutory consultees on licensing, so they will have a say on national licensing decisions. We must make sure that we end up with a process in which there is some sort of local input—not just in relation to the limited powers that can be devolved under the bill, but in relation to decisions on reserved matters including oil and gas or defence issues. Whatever provision we end up with, we need to ensure that it covers the broad range of issues that local communities want to try to influence, and not just a narrow range of things.

I take Peter Chapman’s point about potential inconsistency. As well as allowing that some local authorities might take up the powers and some might not, the bill allows flexibility on the types of activities that they can include and which would be exempt. That is another layer of potential difference and possible confusion. There are quite a lot of issues to be unpacked.

The Convener

I will bring in Fulton MacGregor, because his question builds on that.

Fulton MacGregor (Coatbridge and Chryston) (SNP)

Yes. My question is about the issue that we have been focusing on for the past wee while. I am interested to hear whether the panel members think local people will have enough say on what goes on in their waters. Where does the balance lie? If you think that people will not have a big enough say, how much more should they have?

Aedán Smith

The bill would certainly add opportunities for local people to have a say on some development decisions that relate to local waters, so that is positive for local engagement. To go back to comments that I made earlier, it is particularly important with regard to Scotland’s islands, where the natural environment is of particularly high value to the communities there, and to others beyond those communities, that those others beyond the islands can offer a bit of input to decision making.

Cathy Tilbrook

Again, I do not have a lot to add to what Aedán Smith has said. There is definitely a need and a real opportunity to increase the level of influence that local communities have on decision making about what happens on their islands and in the surrounding seas. We need to ensure that, at the end of the process, we have a more effective way of doing that. It is all about finding the best way to achieve that. That might partly be by making better use of existing provisions, as well as using anything that we want to add.

Fulton MacGregor

At the risk of putting you on the spot, have you an example of how that might work in practice, through a local authority or community council or any other example?

10:45  



The Convener

I would be delighted if Cathy Tilbrook would like to give us a relevant example, but I will also be happy if you would like to write and send in the example. The option to excuse you is there, if you do not have one that is particularly relevant to discuss now.

Cathy Tilbrook

I would like to reflect on that. I could probably give only hypothetical examples, so it would be good to talk to colleagues about a good example to feed back to the committee.

Fulton MacGregor

I appreciate that. Thank you.

The Convener

That will be fine. Please send that example to the clerks and it will get round to all the members.

Richard Lyle (Uddingston and Bellshill) (SNP)

You spoke earlier about what your organisations have done. I want to press you more on what role you think your organisations can play in the future of marine development, with regard to the bill.

Aedán Smith

I am here today to represent Scottish Environment LINK and RSPB Scotland, which are non-statutory bodies that engage in the processes. The key ways in which we can be involved are through the expertise and technical knowledge of LINK organisations, and our representing communities of interest. I have mentioned a few times the particularly high importance of the Scottish islands’ natural and cultural heritage. Many members of LINK organisations know the islands well and love their environments, which they are keen to see protected and enhanced, with rewards for the local communities that manage them. We can provide the input of specialist advice—sometimes technical—and the views of our membership on the direction of travel.

Cathy Tilbrook

SNH’s role in the marine licensing process is as a statutory adviser to the regulators and decision makers. We already provide help to communities through engaging in dialogue at local level about developments and decisions that we may be advising on—in particular, to share and explain the issues. Perhaps we could be more transparent or explain in a way that is accessible to people why we make certain comments on development activity. We try to do that, but maybe we could do it better. Our role is to provide advice on the process, rather than to make the final decisions on licensing.

Richard Lyle

I see the bill as a bonanza for both your organisations, because of your expertise; you will be able to develop schemes with people locally. Based on that expertise, what is your understanding of how the new licensing scheme may interact with current legislation? Do you foresee any issues?

Aedán Smith

I agree; it is great that there will be additional opportunities to engage with local folk—the potential is interesting. There may be opportunities for both organisations to bring examples to communities of good practice elsewhere. We have talked a wee bit about the risk of duplication, but there is the potential to bring examples of good practice from across different sectors.

Richard Lyle

What would be the impact for mainland coastal regions and for islands where local authorities choose not to take on regulatory powers? Your organisations and local community councils could be there, but local councils could say that they do not want to take on the powers. Should they be forced to do so, or should others be able to say they we will take them on, if the council will not?

The Convener

I will bring both witnesses back in. I ask for short answers.

Aedán Smith

I guess that in practical terms there would still be a way of feeding into the marine licensing process, albeit that the decision would be made at national rather than local level. Local communities would not be excluded from having the ability to influence decisions; it is just that the decisions would be made more nationally. That is the difference.

There will be resourcing implications for communities or local authorities if they take up powers, which might be a factor in their decisions. That is for them to decide.

Cathy Tilbrook

I echo that. Given the optionality of the provision, there might be a better way to achieve the intention by providing for a more formal linking of the influence of local authorities and communities to the national process. That approach would be more consistent and we would not have to rely on local authorities having to decide whether to go down that route.

Richard Lyle

Thank you.

The Convener

John Mason has a final question.

John Mason

I do not know whether the witnesses went first to the financial memorandum when they were reading all the bill documents. The costs that it sets out are mainly administration costs to do with many areas that we have not touched on today, for example ward boundaries. Are you comfortable with what is in the financial memorandum? Are you concerned about anything in it?

Cathy Tilbrook

I have to confess that I did not spend a lot of time perusing the financial memorandum. Our view is that a lot of what is in the bill is good practice, as I said. There will be some cost attached to it, but it is basically about investing time, early on in the process, in good consultation and dialogue.

If the aim is to ensure that decisions that are taken are amended on the basis of what island proofing has identified, there is potentially a cost but, again, it is a cost that should be found, because—

John Mason

For clarity, the financial memorandum talks only about the admin side. It does not cover building a new hospital or anything like that.

Cathy Tilbrook

I have no basis on which to know whether it is accurate, I am afraid. SNH would make sure that we had the budget to carry out the new duties.

Aedán Smith

I had a quick look at the financial memorandum. I have not assessed it in detail, but I think that it looks reasonable and realistic. That is as far as I can go in my comments on it.

The Convener

That brings us to the end of the evidence session. I thank you both very much for your evidence.

10:52 Meeting suspended.  



10:59 On resuming—  



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Eighth meeting transcript

The Convener

Agenda item 2 is the final evidence session on the Islands (Scotland) Bill. I welcome Liam McArthur, who is joining the committee for the evidence session; Humza Yousaf, the Minister for Transport and the Islands; Ian Turner and Darren Dickson, who are from the Scottish Government’s Islands (Scotland) Bill team; and Heike Gading, who is a Scottish Government solicitor.

Would you like to make a brief opening statement, minister?

The Minister for Transport and the Islands (Humza Yousaf)

Yes, please. Good morning.

I thank the committee for the opportunity to speak to the Islands (Scotland) Bill at stage 1. I will, of course, be happy to answer members’ questions about its measures.

The bill is the Parliament’s first-ever islands bill, and I am extremely proud to be leading the bill process. I welcome the committee’s close and careful scrutiny of the bill at stage 1. It has engaged with the communities themselves and heard the views of a wide range of stakeholders. I have listened to and carefully considered all the evidence that has been presented and am encouraged to have heard witnesses’ general agreement on the broad direction of the bill and its measures. I appreciate the consensual and very thoughtful approach that committee members have taken to date, and I hope that that will continue as the bill progresses through the Parliament.

At its very heart, the bill seeks to improve outcomes for our island communities. Our islands make a significant and unique contribution to Scotland’s culture, heritage and economy and, of course, to society as a whole. Our aim is to create the right statutory environment to underpin the economic and social wellbeing of our islands, to enable sustainable economic growth, and to empower island communities.

Through working with island communities and other partners, we are, of course, already addressing many of the challenges that our islands face. That is evident from a wide range of policy initiatives, including those on ferry services, affordable transport, air travel, housing, digital connectivity, economic development, infrastructure and, of course, the Gaelic language. The bill seeks to amplify that work and ensure that there is a sustained focus by all key parties, including the Government, to meet the needs of island communities and create the right conditions for growth.

I want to highlight briefly some of the bill’s key measures. The proposal to develop a national islands plan sits at the very heart of the bill. The plan will set out an agreed strategic direction for the Government and the wider public sector to adopt and implement in the future.

My initial thinking has been to create the space and the opportunity for island communities and other relevant stakeholders to be involved collaboratively in contributing to the content of the plan. The duty to consult in the bill is serious and meaningful. It would seem to be somewhat premature to put more provision relating to the plan in the bill at this stage, before that consultation has been undertaken. However, I understand why committee members and others might want us to provide more content on the plan, and I am happy to consider and discuss that matter.

Island proofing is another key element of the bill. I want all areas of Government and, indeed, the public sector, to be required to consider the specific needs of islands in relevant policy and decision making. I am determined to ensure that island proofing is approached seriously and undertaken meaningfully. To do so requires an element of flexibility. Many island communities share common challenges, although they do not always happen at the same time and they are not always treated with the same priority. Furthermore, some issues are specific to some island communities and not to others.

Public sector bodies clearly have a wide range of functions, roles and responsibilities, too. Being overly prescriptive on how island proofing should be undertaken in the bill could undermine its effectiveness, which is something that all of us wish to avoid. Although I am open to discussion on the matter, I am keen that we get the balance right between the sufficiency of direction in the bill provisions and the appropriate autonomy and space for innovation by public bodies and how they involve and work with island communities, with the practical detail on how they achieve that in the statutory guidance.

The protection of the Scottish parliamentary boundary for the Western Isles has been welcome, as has the flexibility to create one or two-member wards for islands, although I acknowledge that some may want the bill to go further in that regard.

The marine licensing provisions, which are generally seen as positive, create a step-by-step process for any new licensing regime. That recognises the opportunities, but also the risks, because we need to integrate any new regime into the current marine planning and licensing landscape.

I consider that the measures in the bill will provide the right statutory framework and underpinning to enable our shared ambition for Scotland’s islands to be realised. Although I hope that the committee will support the general principles of the bill, I remain open to suggestions that will improve it and, ultimately, the outcomes for our island communities.

I am happy to take questions.

John Finnie (Highlands and Islands) (Green)

Good morning, minister. You have provided a brief summary of the overall intent of the bill and touched on its high-level objectives. Perhaps you could reassure me about and reaffirm your position on that issue. Is there any merit in having high-level objectives in the bill?

Humza Yousaf

The bill’s high-level objective, which I mentioned at the start and the end of my opening statement, is to ensure that Government and public bodies place a sustained focus on island communities and to improve the outcomes for them. The bill would be a success if those things were to happen. However, on top of that, the high-level outcome is to have a national islands plan. I have travelled to a number of islands around Scotland and there is tangible interest in what the national islands plan will be able to deliver.

That is a clear statement that the main purpose—the high-level objective—of the bill is to create a sustained focus on island communities, while better improving outcomes for them across Scotland.

The second part of your question was whether it would be beneficial to include that high-level objective in the bill. I am always open minded on such things, so long as doing so would not restrict us in any way. Perhaps it would be better to include that in guidance or in policy memorandums.

As I said, the high-level objective is to create that sustained focus on island communities by Government and to improve the outcomes for them.

Rhoda Grant (Highlands and Islands) (Lab)

I will push you a little bit more on that, minister. When we took evidence, people told us that what they really wanted to see as an outcome from the bill was population growth and economic development, which they thought were lacking. They want the bill to make a tangible difference in those areas, rather than for them to be the focus of it. Would you consider putting such things in the bill so that those aims are foremost in people’s minds as they carry out island proofing?

Humza Yousaf

Rhoda Grant makes a good point. I have travelled to more than 30 islands around Scotland and touched on each of the local authorities that have inhabited islands in their area. Depopulation and how to overcome it is at the top of their list. Some islands are overcoming depopulation well, but most islands are struggling with the issue.

I would be wary of being prescriptive by putting that in the bill because I do not want to exclude certain items from discussion. That is why the national islands plan will be important. Again, I do not want to be prescriptive, but in order for it to be meaningful, the national islands plan would have to consider issues such as depopulation, which is linked to health, housing, economic opportunity, jobs, education, digital connectivity, transport and so on. You and I understand that all those things would have to be included in the islands plan in some shape or form because otherwise the document would not be meaningful, but I would be wary of putting that in the bill. I am not saying that my mind is closed on it entirely—I am willing to hear the committee’s view. However, I would not want to be so prescriptive as to tie future Governments into those issues because that might be counterproductive. We can talk about timescales and so on later.

Rhoda Grant

I will turn the question on its head slightly. What would success look like to you? How would you measure the success of the bill? Where would the tangible differences be?

Humza Yousaf

That is a really good question. Even before the bill has been passed, I have seen some evidence of success in the sense that my colleagues in the social security team have carried out island proofing on the Social Security (Scotland) Bill. They have chosen to go down that route, largely following the model of other impact assessments that we already use. In that way, we have already seen some success.

To answer your question more directly, the eventual publication of the national islands plan would be a marker of success, as would seeing Government legislation and policies from relevant authorities and public bodies being island proofed. A potential success of the bill would be local authorities wanting to have their own marine licensing powers and possibly generating revenue from that. If the Local Government Boundary Commission for Scotland makes proposals for one or two-member wards and those are accepted by ministers and others through the relevant process, that would be another success of the bill.

The bill’s success can take many forms. Some of that will rest on the work that we take forward as a result of the bill, such as the national islands plan.

The Convener

Jamie Greene will ask a brief question and then we will move on to questions from the deputy convener.

Jamie Greene (West Scotland) (Con)

Good morning, minister. I want to follow on from Rhoda Grant’s point. I take your point about not wanting to be too prescriptive around the elements that you expect to be in the plan and not putting them in the bill and I am sure that we will discuss that further. However, much of the feedback that the committee has had is around the absence of a high-level mission statement. You have said that a successful outcome would be the islands plan, but you also said that you would expect the bill to ensure that there is a sustained focus on islands by the Government and improved outcomes for islands. Given that you have said that to the committee, is there any reason why it could not be in the bill?

Humza Yousaf

I am looking to my officials on whether that is the usual practice for bills, but I do not think that there is any reason why we could not. I am not fundamentally opposed to it. If the committee feels very strongly about putting a mission statement in the bill, I am sure that we can consider it.

Gail Ross (Caithness, Sutherland and Ross) (SNP)

Quite a few of the witnesses that we spoke to raised concerns that remote and rural areas on the mainland face many of the same issues as the islands, and they emphasised that care must be taken to not disadvantage such communities. What does the Scottish Government intend to do to acknowledge and mitigate any impacts that the bill might have on remote and rural mainland communities?

10:15  



Humza Yousaf

I, too, saw that come out strongly from the evidence to the committee in many of the areas that you travelled to. The issue has been raised with me at the strategic group for local authorities. As members know, I expanded that group from the initial three wholly island communities to include the other three local authorities that have islands. Margaret Davidson from Highland Council made that point very robustly at several meetings. The point is not lost on me by any stretch of the imagination and I have a great deal of sympathy for that view. There is a very good argument to be made around some areas of the periphery of the mainland that face many of the same challenges as island communities.

The Government has taken sustained action with a focus on rural Scotland and its economy. I will not list everything, but that includes the rural poverty task force, the rural parliament, the rural housing fund and the rural and island tourism structure fund—tourism is an issue for rural Scotland as much as for the Scottish islands.

Rural communities should consider island proofing as a great opportunity. If the Islands (Scotland) Bill is passed, as I hope that it will be, and island proofing is successful in its implementation—as I hope and imagine that it will be—there is no reason why the Government should not look at that success and consider whether we want to explore that approach for rural Scotland as well. I have had conversations about that with my colleague, the Cabinet Secretary for Rural Economy and Connectivity, although I cannot give a commitment on it because we will have to wait to see how things pan out. I have sympathy for the general argument coming from certain areas of rural Scotland and we have to be cognisant of that. However, I would say that it is not a matter for the Islands (Scotland) Bill, which is specific to island communities.

Gail Ross

Yes, we should bear in mind that it is a bill on the islands. Liam McArthur and I have had conversations with a bus company that made a decision on the mainland that affected islands because of ferry connections and so on. How do we mitigate decisions that are made on the mainland that might affect island communities?

Humza Yousaf

The situation with buses is tricky—I know the service that you refer to because one or perhaps both of you have raised the issue with me. It is a bit more difficult when it comes to private companies. The schedule to the bill, which is on relevant authorities, contains quite a long list of about 60-odd organisations—my officials will correct me if I am wrong—that have an impact on island communities. Some of those organisations have a remit that stretches to the mainland communities, too. They will also have a duty to island proof. That is one way of mitigating such effects.

I take your point about the bus service example—it is more difficult when a commercial operator is involved.

The Convener

One of the points that was raised on one of our visits was that Transport Scotland is not mentioned in the list of consultees at the end of the bill.

Humza Yousaf

Transport Scotland would be included because it comes under the Scottish Government.

The Convener

However, it is not mentioned specifically. It would be helpful if you could assure us that Transport Scotland is adequately covered.

Humza Yousaf

Yes. It is absolutely covered, because it comes under the Scottish Government. If there were a reason to specifically mention Transport Scotland and our doing so would be a comfort to the committee, I am sure that we could state that it comes under the Scottish Government. We can consider that.

John Mason (Glasgow Shettleston) (SNP)

Everyone we met thought that there should be an islands plan, so that is a good starting point. However, people’s idea of what the plan would be was very varied, because there is nothing in the bill about it. For example, one issue that has been raised is whether the islands plan would make statements purely about all the islands, or whether there would be a bit about, for example, the Western Isles. Would the plan go even further down and mention individual islands, such as Barra? Is it the case that we will do the national stuff in the islands plan and it will be up to Western Isles Council to have its own plan—I think that some islands already have—for its island group and for individual islands? How will that fit together?

Humza Yousaf

I had a good discussion on the national islands plan at the last strategic islands group meeting that I held, which I think was in July. I took my cue and some guidance from the local authorities that were represented around the table. As you might have heard at your evidence session, some of them pointed towards the national Gaelic plan as a good example. That is, of course, a fairly high-level document, and I think that the national islands plan should also be high level. I do not envisage going right down to the level of islands. Parts of the national islands plan might refer to certain geographies—that is almost inevitable—but I do not expect us to take a focused geographic approach in that sense; rather, we would deal with a high level.

That being said, there would be nothing to stop local authorities developing their own plans on the back of the national islands plan. Doing so would not be an instruction of the national islands plan unless we chose to make it one, which would happen only in collaboration with this committee, the Parliament and other stakeholders.

The national islands plan would most certainly be high level so that we could seek to focus resource where necessary and provide targets for key areas of activity, some of which we have already talked through. The national islands plan would also have to work alongside other local and national plans, some of which I have already mentioned, such as the national marine plan and local outcome improvement plans. However, there would be nothing to stop local authorities developing their own individual island plans on the back of taking the steer and direction of the national islands plan.

John Mason

So individual islands are not your focus, as you are looking at a higher level—that is fair enough. On the particular subjects that would be included in the national islands plan, population, transport, housing, health and digital connectivity have been suggested to us. Would such things be in the plan?

Humza Yousaf

Exactly. When I travel to the islands, I make a point of trying to get to as many islands, big and small, as I can. I have been to islands with a population of 30 or fewer, right the way through to our larger islands. I have tried to hear from the island communities directly about what concerns them.

There are some very common themes—you have touched on a lot of them already—but particular issues are of priority to particular islands. I could give many examples in which there is a certain issue on one island but on the neighbouring island that issue is not such a high priority. That is one reason why it might be more sensible to have an overarching national islands plan and for local authorities perhaps to delve into the issues that are important to their island communities, where they can do that, bearing in mind that many local authorities have a number of islands and, as I said, neighbouring islands can have very different priorities.

John Mason

When the bill refers to the islands plan, it talks about

“improving outcomes for island communities”.

That suggests that islands with no people would not appear at all in the islands plan or be covered by it. The obvious case is St Kilda, which is hugely important from an environmental and historical point of view but does not have a community. Would the islands plan cover such situations?

Humza Yousaf

I read the evidence on that and it gave us food for thought. St Kilda, as you said, is the obvious example and has been spoken about during your deliberations. I would not be close minded about how to cover uninhabited islands such as St Kilda. I do not think that many more uninhabited islands would necessarily be within the scope of the national islands plan that would not be covered by other pieces of legislation, such as those on heritage and forestry, but I am happy to look at the issue. Again, if committee members felt strongly about that, I would not be close minded to it.

John Mason

Thank you very much.

The Convener

At a couple of evidence sessions that the committee held on islands, it was clear that some community groups aspire to coming up with their own plans. It appears that you are suggesting a strategic plan into which can be fed island plans, down to community-level plans, that respond to your strategic plan. Is that what you are suggesting? That seems to be a strange way of doing things—to have a strategic plan that islands build their plans around, rather than having community and island plans that develop into the strategic plan. Can you explain the plans? I am sure that the question will be asked.

Humza Yousaf

The national islands plan will be a fully collaborative and engaging process. We have already started the engagement; I mentioned the islands strategic group. My visits to 30 islands were not for the sake of going to 30 islands, but to hear from island communities what they want in the national islands plan, and to hear their priorities and needs. The plan has featured in many discussions on the 30-plus island visits.

If it would be helpful, perhaps we can consider producing for the committee a timeline of how we see the engagement process and what will be the milestones on the way to developing the national islands plan. I am getting a sense of where the committee is going with this. We will develop such a timeline internally anyway, so perhaps we could share it with the committee. It will have the feed-in from the bottom up that the convener suggests, which is the right way, whether it is for a national performance framework or for any other Government plan or strategy document. I am conducting a review of the national transport strategy that takes the bottom up, from the community, approach; the islands plan will have that focus.

The plan has to have a high-level focus—I know that the committee will understand that. Scotland has 93 inhabited islands, so to get to every nook and cranny, and to discuss every nuanced issue with the detail that we want for every single island, will be difficult for a national islands plan. We would leave it to the desire of local authorities and the wishes of communities, but we can see local authorities and communities creating their own local plans based on the direction of the national plan, into which they will have already fed. The process is circular, in one sense.

The Convener

The road map to getting to the national plan would be helpful for some of the community groups to which we have spoken.

Fulton MacGregor (Coatbridge and Chryston) (SNP)

Good morning, minister. I will pick up from what John Mason and the convener have said. What do you see as the priority areas? You have already reflected islands’ views. The committee has visited islands, as well. Have you got a sense of what the overall priority areas are for the future?

Humza Yousaf

For the islands plan, depopulation is one of the key challenges, as Rhoda Grant said. Anybody who has spoken to island communities knows that there is no magic bullet to tackle that issue. It is related to job opportunities, affordable housing, education opportunities, health and transport links, and digital connectivity. Those themes keep coming up, regardless of the size of the island, from small to large.

Some islands have done well and have found unique solutions: Eigg and HebNet CIC have come up with a solution on digital connectivity. Many islands have a few units of affordable housing: on Iona, for example, four or five units of housing have made a real difference. Other islands have made a big difference in relation to education, using unique and innovative approaches. I do not want to be prescriptive, because, as we engage in the consultation on the national islands plan, many island communities will want us to focus on other issues, as well.

10:30  



Fulton MacGregor

You mentioned a couple of times that there are good examples on islands. Could the islands plan act as a framework that might help islands to learn from good practice?

Humza Yousaf

Island communities are very good at speaking to other island communities. I give credit to the “Our islands—our future” campaign that was led by the councils for Shetland, Orkney and the Western Isles, which showed that, through collaboration, shared learning can mean that each gets a bigger slice of the pie and gets their priority areas higher up the agenda of Government and into public discourse. They did that by learning good practice from one another. For a model of collaboration and shared practice, you do not need to look much further than that campaign.

Individual islands also have a lot of shared learning, and the national islands plan could perhaps pick up some examples and extract from them, so that others could learn from them.

Fulton MacGregor

Are you open to the six relevant island authorities being named in the bill as statutory consultees, in order to share collaborative practice?

Humza Yousaf

I would probably prefer to keep the obligation to consult in the guidance, as it is now. Those six authorities are obvious consultees—I do not have the exact wording to hand, but the guidance says clearly that we should consult those who have an interest in island communities. There is no doubt that local authorities will be part of that, as will others. If we start being prescriptive in the bill about who should be consulted, we will inevitably end up being non-exhaustive and the chances of excluding someone could be fairly high. I do not want to be too prescriptive.

Jamie Greene

On our visit to Mull, the feedback in the session that I attended was that islanders want to be consulted, which is relevant to Fulton MacGregor’s point. The obvious difficulty is about which group on an island to consult: councillors, community councils or local authorities? Some people feel that the local authority does not always represent the full variety of views on islands. In the bill, the wording in section 4(1)(a)(ii) is this:

“such persons as they consider likely to be affected by the proposals”.

Could that be strengthened to state specifically that islanders must be consulted?

Humza Yousaf

Such wording would be difficult; how could we consult thousands of individual islanders? We can give them the opportunity to contribute in an open consultation, but if the bill were to be so prescriptive and we then did not consult a particular islander, we could be in difficulty if that person were to complain and object to the fact that we had not lived up to the letter of the words in the bill.

We are learning from other legislation and guidance that we have passed. As Jamie Greene mentioned, section 4(1)(a)(ii) says

“such persons as they consider likely to be affected by the proposals contained in the plan”.

If the committee feels that we can strengthen that, I am not closed minded. I am just wary about being too prescriptive: we do not want to exclude relevant bodies and stakeholders, and we want to be mindful of the fact that we do not want to slow down the legislative process or the process of developing a national islands plan, completion of which has a fairly ambitious timescale.

Jamie Greene’s very salient point has been made to me on a number of occasions when I have travelled to island communities. Some people feel that their local authority can be just as remote as Edinburgh or London. We have to be cognisant of that. It is not just about consulting local authorities and having a good relationship with them; it has to go much deeper than that. We can reflect on strengthening the language in the bill in a way that is non-prescriptive, and which gives the committee confidence that we are talking about island communities, as opposed to just local authorities and so on.

Mike Rumbles (North East Scotland) (LD)

How can we ensure that the impact assessments are not simply tick-box exercises?

Humza Yousaf

That is a good question, and “tick-box exercise” is the phrase that I have used as I have travelled to island communities all around the country. I am aware of the fear in island communities that the assessments will be just tick-box exercises, so we are working hard to make sure that they are not. To do that, meaningful engagement with and consultation of island communities have to be at the heart of the impact assessments.

There are a couple of examples that we can look at. I did a bit of research into the equality impact assessment and found that it goes through five stages. One of the stages is evidence gathering through involvement with and consultation of communities: we seek to engage and consult when it comes to island impact assessments, too. The bill provides for statutory guidance, which will contain the practical details of how the process will work.

On the theme of being too prescriptive, we will try to leave it a little bit open for local authorities and the relevant public sector bodies, because they are of different sizes and scales and have different resources. In order to avoid the tick-box exercise that Mike Rumbles mentioned, consultation has to be a key and meaningful part of an island impact assessment.

Mike Rumbles

I will turn the focus the other way around, if you see what I mean. In the bill, 66 public bodies are mentioned and there is a requirement to have an impact assessment, but how will islanders and island communities be made aware of the performance of the public bodies in terms of island proofing? We cannot expect people to read the annual reports of 66 bodies. I am interested in what will be the process to satisfy the communities on the islands that the 66 bodies are doing it properly.

Humza Yousaf

That is a sensible and fair question. To avoid people having to read 66 reports, we will produce an annual progress report on the national islands plan that will include information on the progress of the 66 bodies. If people have an interest in a particular public body, they will be able just to go that body’s report for more detail, so there will be transparency. However, we have already committed to including information every time we publish the annual progress report on how island proofing is being taken forward by each of the bodies.

Mike Rumbles

You will therefore want to ensure that all 66 bodies do the island proofing—the impact assessments—correctly and as you want them to. Will the guidance that you will issue be statutory, so that you can tell them what you want them to do, or will it be advisory?

Humza Yousaf

It will be statutory guidance. However, I repeat the point that I made in my previous answer to Mike Rumbles: we do not want to be prescriptive about how public sector bodies do that, because they are of different sizes and scales. The member is absolutely right that island communities want to have confidence that island proofing is being done. Often, decisions that are made by public bodies are more relevant than, for example, decisions that are made nationally. We will have to monitor that closely. If, in the committee’s view, there is a need to tighten up the guidance, we will be open minded about that.

Peter Chapman (North East Scotland) (Con)

There is currently no formal requirement for public bodies to consult when conducting an island impact assessment. Should that be included in the bill?

Humza Yousaf

That will have to be necessary as part of the guidance. We can reflect on that. Organisations already have a range of formal and informal mechanisms for engaging with and consulting communities. It is essential that communities are not engaged after a decision has been made, which is too late. Rather, they must be genuinely engaged as early as possible in the process. That is what the Government wants, but we also want to avoid additional unnecessary bureaucratic procedures that would hamper the legislative process. I welcome the committee’s thoughts on how we can make it clear that consultation of island communities and others is an essential part of the process. That will be necessary as part of the guidance, but I give Peter Chapman the same answer that I gave Mike Rumbles, which is that if the committee thinks that we should go further, I am not closed to that suggestion.

Peter Chapman

On a completely different issue, there are concerns that some of the language in the bill is subjective and not particularly clear. There have been criticisms of vague language and a lack of proper explanation of important terms in debates on other recent bills, including the Wild Animals in Travelling Circuses (Scotland) Bill and the Forestry and Land Management (Scotland) Bill, which Parliament debated yesterday. Do you recognise that criticism and is it something that you might need to consider?

Humza Yousaf

If Peter Chapman or the committee have specific examples, I will be happy to take them away for reflection. That concern has not been raised with me directly. If the issue came up in the committee’s evidence or deliberations and you have a specific example of where we could strengthen the wording in the bill, I will not be precious about doing so. It is important that we get the balance right, that we are not too prescriptive and inflexible, and that we do not add to the bureaucratic process.

Liam McArthur (Orkney Islands) (LD)

Rhoda Grant mentioned what island proofing might mean in practice. I appreciate the limitations or downsides of being overly prescriptive in the bill, but the committee and I have heard many examples of things that would benefit from island proofing—things that do not fit island circumstances. What consideration has the Government given, alongside the scrutiny of the bill, to demonstrating what island proofing would mean by applying it to such areas? The minister and I have corresponded on several of those matters in recent months. Can you illustrate what ministers expect the process to deliver and how it would operate?

Humza Yousaf

I thank Liam McArthur for his question and for his guidance, which has helped to focus our direction in some elements of drafting the bill. He and I had a good conversation at the very early stages—before the bill was drafted—in which he mentioned, for example, house building regulations and many other regulations that he considers have adverse impacts on island communities.

Although the bill is still going through the parliamentary process, the Government is already attempting to island proof as best we can. The Social Security (Scotland) Bill is an example of that: it includes a chapter and several paragraphs on island proofing. The Minister for Social Security, with whom I work closely, is very aware of island proofing. Although the Islands (Scotland) Bill has not been passed, we are in some respects already island proofing, just to get us into that mode of thinking in anticipation of the bill’s being passed. I do not want to be presumptuous.

I do not know whether this is the direction in which Liam McArthur’s question was pointing, but I would be wary of retrospectively island proofing legislation, which would be a difficult and bureaucratic process. However, where he and many others who represent islands have raised specific examples of problematic legislation, the Government and I will be open minded in trying to find solutions, where we can.

10:45  



Liam McArthur

I welcome that response to an extent, although I think that there will be some disappointment. People do not expect automatic retrospective application of the legislation as soon as the bill receives royal assent, but there are a number of examples in which island proofing would have had a beneficial effect on the framing of legislation and policy development. There will be a legitimate expectation that those areas will be looked at again, given that the Government and Parliament will have backed the principle of island proofing. Those decisions and that legislation continue to have effects now, including population decline. People will expect the Government to apply the principles respectively where there are negative impacts.

Humza Yousaf

I accept that it is better to go through island proofing early, rather than to fix a problem that has been created because island proofing did not exist. I repeat my offer to have conversations with Liam McArthur on specific issues that he feels are having a damaging impact on island communities, and which he thinks the Government should examine. I cannot promise that we will be able to take the action that he wants, but my door is always open for such conversations, and I know that my ministerial colleagues would say the same.

That said, I am sure that Liam McArthur understands the challenge, the bureaucracy and the impact on the legislative timetable that would be involved in retrospectively examining all legislation—I know that he is not suggesting that, but I would be wary of such issues. I am happy to engage with Liam McArthur in an attempt to find a compromise.

Liam McArthur

I will take the minister up on the offer, and suggest that the impact assessment that has been done for the ferries plan has shown the shortcomings around Orkney’s internal ferry services. I encourage the Government to look at that as a priority. That would enable the minister to give an early example of demonstrating the willingness that he has expressed.

The Convener

I have allowed you to ask that question from your constituency perspective, Mr McArthur, but I tactfully remind members and the minister that time is of the essence and that, in order to allow everyone to ask questions, it would be much appreciated if we could have short questions and short answers, without losing the meat of either.

Mike Rumbles

I will attempt to be useful and not use the word “retrospective”. I suggest that it might be the case that the compromise is already in the bill, in section 8(2), which says:

“Subsection (1) applies to the development, delivery and redevelopment of the policy, strategy or service”.

In other words, if one of those 66 organisations develops or redevelops a policy, there must be an island-proofing impact assessment. I am trying to be helpful.

Humza Yousaf

You are always helpful, Mr Rumbles. In order to respect the convener’s wishes for brevity, I will simply say yes—redevelopment of policy would certainly have to be island proofed.

Richard Lyle (Uddingston and Bellshill) (SNP)

You touched on this issue in response to an earlier question. Under the bill, an island community impact assessment will need to be prepared when a new or revised policy strategy or service is likely to have a significant different effect on an island community. How will the monitoring and review of impact assessments work? Will there be an appeals process to cover the decision not to undertake an impact assessment and to cover the outcomes of an assessment? Where will the responsibility for that lie?

Humza Yousaf

Again, it will be for each public body to perform its duties under the bill, as set out in the guidance. As I have already said, any public body that failed to comply with its legal duty would be held accountable for that under the normal accountability arrangements—ministers are accountable to Parliament and the electorate, local authorities are accountable to councillors and the communities, and so on.

It is also worth mentioning that, as I said to Mr Rumbles, when it comes to national islands plans, annual progress reports on island proofing and how public bodies have taken island proofing forward will be available and transparent.

With regard to the review of any decision that is taken by relevant authorities, we might want to examine how the equality impact assessment is done. Hopefully, because of the collaborative approach to engagement that is taken at the evidence-gathering stage of the process—generally, that is stage 2—the right decisions will end up being made. However, I freely admit that, from the evidence that you have taken, there is some concern about the reviewing of island impact assessments. We will give consideration to that issue.

Richard Lyle

What is your view on adding further public bodies to the list of those that are covered by the bill and having the duties applied to contractors or other subsidiaries of relevant public bodies? Does the duty on Scottish ministers extend to public agencies for which they are responsible?

Humza Yousaf

I will take the convener’s cue and say yes. There is a mechanism in the bill to add further public bodies if needed. If, before the bill is passed, the committee feels strongly that a particular public body should be included in the schedule, we would be happy to consider that.

The Convener

Jamie Greene has a particular point on that last question.

Jamie Greene

I want to push that a bit further, minister. The only reference to the Government and its directorates and agencies is in the schedule where, under “Scottish Administration”, it says “Scottish Ministers”. Is that the place to be more prescriptive by saying that it also covers all Government agencies and bodies, or could it be added to part 1 of the bill, as a defined term, for example? It is not made explicit that all Scottish Government agencies are affected by the bill.

To take that a step further, the other question that Richard Lyle asked was why subsidiaries and contractors of Scottish Government agencies are not included. I am thinking, for example, of a bus operator that receives public subsidy and reports to Transport Scotland but would not be required to island proof. How far down the chain does the bill apply?

Humza Yousaf

There were a few questions in there. If it would give the committee more confidence that the Scottish ministers and their public agencies are included, we can find a form of words to clarify that and make the committee more comfortable. Several committee members have mentioned that, so we will give consideration to a wording that will make Jamie Greene and other members more comfortable that the bill includes public agencies—as I think it does. That is not an unreasonable request.

On Government contracts, I look to my officials for some guidance. My understanding is that, if the contract is being awarded by the Government, we would have a duty to island proof it. It is more difficult with commercial operators. As I said in answer to Gail Ross, I do not know whether we would have the legislative competence to impose a duty on a commercial operator. Again, I will seek guidance from our legal officials on that.

That is not to dismiss the frustration that island communities and others might experience if they feel that they are getting a lack of service from a commercial operation. My officials might want to add to that.

Ian Turner (Scottish Government)

The duty to island proof would fall on the public body that was doing the contracting, rather than the operator. That is the background basis on which the body must draw up the contract—the duty falls on the public body specifically.

We would have some concerns about legislative competence, particularly in respect of utility companies, company law and similar issues, which are reserved matters. It might be difficult to impose island proofing on such companies directly, rather than through contracts with public bodies. We would have to look at the matter more closely, but it is likely that there would be competence issues.

Rhoda Grant

I have a question about enforcement. If an authority says that it has island proofed something but it is obvious to people on islands or to the Scottish ministers that there are negative impacts on islands, what comeback or enforcement is available? Given that the bill says that island proofing must be done when “in the authority’s opinion” something would have an impact, the authority almost has a “Get out of jail free” card on the matter.

Humza Yousaf

If it is a local authority, it will be held accountable by its electorate and councillors. It is for each public body to perform its duties under the bill and in legislation, as set out in guidance.

I will reflect on the idea of a review process. It may be difficult. Much as I said to Liam McArthur, local authorities, public bodies and the Government should get island proofing right from the beginning as opposed to having to fix the issue retrospectively. If the process is designed to be collaborative, engaging and consultative from the beginning, that should reduce the need for a review. However, I take the member’s point that that might not always be the case, so I will reflect on whether we are able to incorporate any kind of review.

There are other impact assessments in Government towards which we can look. I am impressed by the thoroughness of the equality impact assessment. Perhaps we can learn from that.

Stewart Stevenson (Banffshire and Buchan Coast) (SNP)

I have a wee comment on what Scottish ministers are. I hope that the minister and his team will carefully consider those Scottish ministers who are the law officers, who, in certain respects, are both ministers and independent; and the judiciary, who are Scottish public bodies but who should not necessarily be subject to the bill. It has been practice in the past to put “the Scottish Ministers” into a bill. It is a well-understood term and I am a bit reluctant to open it up and define it, because I see difficulties with that. I have given the matter only two minutes’ thought, so I will not have bottomed it out.

The Convener

Minister, that may be something to take away and consider with the earlier requests.

Humza Yousaf

Yes.

Gail Ross

We asked about the proposal to protect the Scottish parliamentary constituency of the Western Isles from change and it was largely agreed that that was a good idea. I come from one of the biggest constituencies on the mainland. Do you envisage that protection ever being applied to remote and rural mainland constituencies? Would that pose a problem? We certainly do not want them to get any bigger, but would it prevent them from getting any smaller, which would be welcome?

Humza Yousaf

I am wary of stepping on my Government colleagues’ toes on such issues. It would be a matter for the Local Government Boundary Commission for Scotland and then the decision would be for the Minister for Parliamentary Business, as the member knows. It will not be for the bill, which is what we are considering today. Constituency boundary protection exists for other wholly island local authorities. The measure is simply about equalising that for the Western Isles. Any proposal to change the boundaries or protect other local authority areas would have to be considered on its own merits. I would not like to comment on that any further.

The Convener

That was deftly dealt with, minister.

Mike Rumbles

I will focus on the number of members in a ward. We have been going around the islands. In Mull, for example, people thought that it was a good idea for the island to have its own councillor, so they welcomed the proposal. However, there are problems with designing one and two-member wards to fit into the population. What will your role be in reviewing the island ward structure at any consultation you might have? Will it be entirely the responsibility of the independent boundary commission to do all that?

Humza Yousaf

I could try to give Mr Rumbles chapter and verse on the matter, but the statutory process and responsibilities are set out in the relevant legislation. I concur that, as he said, many island communities consider reviewing island ward structures to be a good thing. However, ultimately, most of them understand that it is the boundary commission’s responsibility.

Once that review has been completed, the Local Government Boundary Commission will make recommendations to ministers. That is the stage at which ministers are involved. Ultimately, the decision is still for the Minister for Parliamentary Business. However—I had better be careful with what I say here—I imagine that if the issue particularly affected island communities, that minister might want to take the view of the islands minister into account.

11:00  



Mike Rumbles

What I am getting at is that the process will be for the independent Local Government Boundary Commission until it reports to ministers.

John Mason

I would like to pursue that a little further. If we allow a four-member ward that is partly island and partly mainland to be subdivided so that the island has one or two seats, that would leave the mainland part of the ward with only three or two seats, potentially. There would be a knock-on effect on the mainland. How would that be dealt with? Would we allow one or two-member wards on the mainland, or would the whole authority—Highland or North Ayrshire, say—have to be rejigged?

Humza Yousaf

It would apply only to islands, and a knock-on effect of that could be that you could increase the number of councillors in the entire local authority jurisdictional area. However, for the purposes of ward sizes, we are talking about having one or two-member wards only in island communities.

John Mason

I was not thinking of increasing the number of councillors in total—I was assuming that the number would stay the same. I am saying that, if a ward were split, you could end up with a ward on the mainland that was too small. How would that be dealt with?

Humza Yousaf

It would be for the Local Government Boundary Commission to make those recommendations. On what the implications would be for the mainland if there were, for example, a one or two-member ward, I do not want to give the member incomplete information, so I will reflect on the issue and give him a written response.

The Convener

That is welcome. If you submit it in the normal way to the clerks, we will ensure that it is distributed.

John Finnie

I have a couple of questions on marine development. The local authorities all start from a different place in that regard—indeed, each island authority starts from a different place. Is having the licensing power at local authority level the correct approach? There are, of course, community groups that could contribute.

Humza Yousaf

I believe that it is the correct approach. We want to provide an opportunity for local authorities and their communities to have more control of development in the seas around the islands. I believe that you heard from some local authorities that would like provisions to be included in the bill that would make it easier for them to manage and use any revenues. I am sympathetic to that approach, and we will work with authorities.

As I said in response to some of the questions earlier, there is no doubt that there is a desire for engagement on the part of local communities. Local authorities that I have spoken to understand that and are willing to work closely with them on the issue of development that could benefit their islands. I do not see that that will be restricted or limited at all by the provisions in the marine development part of the bill.

John Finnie

What are the intentions with regard to the revenue that is generated by the power?

Humza Yousaf

Again, we would like to see provisions in the bill that would make it easier for any revenues to be used for development. You will know that, in relation to licensing, the mechanisms in the bill enable revenue to be used to cover those costs.

The revenues that are generated from development depend on the type of development that takes place. There are some legislative hurdles that might have to be gone through but, ultimately, it should be easier for revenues to be managed and used for purposes that can include community purposes. Indeed, many local authorities and communities that I speak to say that the reason they want to undertake marine developments is to benefit communities.

John Finnie

I will cite two of the suggestions that we have received for changes and additions to the bill. One says:

“It should be made clearer that ‘any form of dredging’ does not refer to fishing activity.”

Another says:

“Scallop dredging and demersal trawling should be added to the definition of dredging.”

I am more sympathetic to the second one. This is a complicated area. How will the provisions interact with existing legislation? Why are there differences between the activities that are covered by the proposed licensing scheme and those that are covered by the Marine (Scotland) Act 2010?

Humza Yousaf

We have a couple of good examples of how it might work, because we have expanded upon the Zetland County Council Act 1974 and the Orkney County Council Act 1974, which provide examples of how a local authority might work alongside Marine Scotland and within the current national framework and licensing regime.

To give further comfort, the bill requires that the Scottish ministers must consult widely before laying draft regulations before the Parliament. Any issues of concern that stakeholders might have will inform the development of the regulations as they go through the process. Those regulations will need to be agreed to and approved by Parliament, ultimately, which gives further comfort.

Ian Turner has more detail on the specifics of dredging, so I will bring him in on that point.

Ian Turner

With regard to the question about section 16(1)(b), “development activity” includes dredging. We did not anticipate that it would include fishing, so we would probably want to be clear that dredging does not include fishing.

Like you, I have seen two people on different sides of the same issue, so I would like to explore that a bit more before we think about a change in the terms in the bill. We will welcome the views of the committee on that matter.

John Finnie

Could we hear back from the minister on that issue?

Humza Yousaf

Sure.

John Finnie

Thank you very much.

The Convener

Before we leave that matter, I will follow up John Finnie’s point on devolving powers as far down as we can, to councils and communities.

There is a method of appeal under marine regulations; if a decision was passed down to a community, it might not be able to fund any defence of an appeal against that decision. What is the Government’s view on that? With responsibility comes liability, and I am worried about whether you have considered the costs that may be passed on if the power to make decisions is devolved. How would you cope with such situations?

Humza Yousaf

I will look into that issue in a bit more detail, which is the whole point of our deliberations at stage 1. We have heard from a number of island communities and they have not raised any concerns about liability with me. I accept that it can be true that communities often see opportunities without considering fully the risks and liabilities.

I go back to my previous answer to John Finnie. We have two good examples that already work, with the Zetland County Council Act 1974 and the Orkney County Council Act 1974. In essence, we are expanding those provisions, but they give us practical examples that work. Although the issue has not been raised, I am not dismissing the fact that it is important and salient, and we will reflect on it.

The Convener

It will be useful to make sure that we are not burdening communities with costs that they might not be able to manage.

Stewart Stevenson

My question is about section 18, on island licensing areas, and is a bit technical.

The first point is that Scottish ministers have to be satisfied that an area “includes an inhabited island.” What does “includes” mean? An area that is licensed is sea, not land. Does it mean that the sea area has to go round the entire boundary of the island, or that the island needs to be adjacent to it? Let me illustrate the point. With a big island such as Mull, someone might want to do something in the north-west that they do not necessarily want to do in the south-east.

Humza Yousaf

I will hand over to the bill team to give you an exact definition of “includes”, if I may. Ian Turner will want to come in on that point.

The Convener

I am sure that Ian Turner looks forward to answering the question. I will give him a moment to gather his thoughts.

Ian Turner

I think that I know where Stewart Stevenson is coming from. Sections 17 and 18 work together. Section 17 says that the island marine area must be “adjacent to an island” and

“up to 12 nautical miles from that island”.

In order to apply for a designation, the local authority must have an inhabited island within its area—it does not matter which, just as long as it has an inhabited island within its area. That means that the authority must be one of the six local authorities with inhabited islands in Scotland. Once it is worked out that it is a local authority that can do it, the 12 nautical miles can apply. That is what the regulations will deal with in relation to what the boundary might be.

A boundary might stretch to the coast or between different local authorities, and there are different ways that that can be done. Last year’s regional marine planning order had a particular way approach—there are different mechanisms or different boundaries that can be used. That is what the consultation, the regulations and the process would do.

Stewart Stevenson

I understand perfectly that it has to be within the Scottish island marine area, but you are almost leading me to the point that it is coterminous with that area’s boundaries, rather than being a subset. Is that correct?

Ian Turner

Yes. The Scottish island marine area is determined by section 17 of the bill—

Stewart Stevenson

Yes, but I am talking about the island licensing area, which is what has to—

Ian Turner

Which goes to the limit of 12 nautical miles.

Stewart Stevenson

No—I am not interested in that; I am not talking about the limit. Does an island licensing area have to include an inhabited island? What I am saying is—

Ian Turner

No. The bill says that it must be adjacent to “an island”, but not necessarily an inhabited island.

Stewart Stevenson

I am sorry, but no. That is in section 17; section 18 says of an island licensing area that, under the regulations, an area may be designated

“only if ... Scottish Ministers are satisfied that the area includes an inhabited island.”

The definition is different from that of the Scottish island marine area, and properly so.

Ian Turner

I will need to look at that in a bit more detail just to make sure of the wording.

Stewart Stevenson

If you are going to look at it in detail, that is fine, but let me give you another example. Bute and Arran are in two different local authority areas. You might want to create an island licensing area that is between or within those two areas, and therefore two local authorities would be involved. Would you create two areas that abut each other, or would you create one area and give the responsibility to one local authority?

Ian Turner

The bill would anticipate that the application to designate the area would have to come from both authorities. It might then be possible to construct regulations that would work around that, but it would need to be done in that way.

Stewart Stevenson

Okay—you are alert to what I am saying.

Ian Turner

Yes.

Stewart Stevenson

My next question is broader. Why is marine licensing being addressed in the bill rather than in amendments to the Marine (Scotland) Act 2010 or the Community Empowerment (Scotland) Act 2015?

Humza Yousaf

The bill provides a clear approach to the development of any new licensing scheme and will work alongside existing legislation. Many island communities that I have travelled to want a licensing scheme—having spoken to my predecessor, I know that they have wanted one since before my time as minister. They would like more powers over marine licensing, just as Shetland and Orkney have those powers, and they would like to develop the system there.

I think that the bill is the correct place to deal with marine licensing because of its historic nature and because it takes cognisance of the need to work alongside the existing frameworks, such as the marine regions orders.

Stewart Stevenson

Finally, given that the provision can create a benefit for a community, but that it does so by potentially restricting the activities of developers, what consultation will you do to make sure that we get the right balance between the various interests that might be affected by the creation of an island licensing area?

Humza Yousaf

Again, we have to find that balance between the things that we want to do. We want to empower island communities by enabling those that want a marine licensing remit to have that remit, but we do not want to hamper or inhibit development. To go back to my previous answer, in Shetland and Orkney we have good examples that work.

The consultation would be very open. It would involve organisations—crucially, businesses—as well as communities. It is important that those who will be impacted by the provisions have the opportunity to feed into the process at a very early stage. To give you an assurance, although we are very aware that island communities and local authorities want those powers, they must ensure that they do not create bureaucratic challenges or hurdles, as that would be counterproductive.

Richard Lyle

Mr Stevenson touched on a point that I was going to make. It concerns me that, with 12 nautical miles, two local authorities could have a power or there could be a sea grab of the seabed or whatever by an authority. We had better set it out fairly, Mr Turner, so that everyone knows where they are coming from.

11:15  



Humza Yousaf

I want to make one point on the idea of boundaries. Boundaries may well overlap—that is a reasonable point—and island boundaries may touch mainland boundaries. I was given a helpful illustrative map that shows the demarcation of boundaries agreed through consultation and conversation between local authorities under the Scottish Marine Regions Order 2015. That shows that we can get to a point where the local authorities all agree on where those various boundaries go; we have done that in that fairly recent piece of legislation. The problem is not insurmountable, and I am not convinced that we will get to the stage of land grabs. I am sure that that will not happen.

Peter Chapman

We realise that the powers are fairly limited, but we have heard from several witnesses who think that fish farming should come under these licensing rules, so that the local communities can have some input into fish farming issues. Are you sympathetic to that?

Humza Yousaf

Yes. I will hand over to Ian Turner, because he has had conversations on that specific issue.

Ian Turner

Under section 16(2)(d), fish farming is not included as a development activity. It is already included in the planning regime and, therefore, that is where legislation would bite in terms of fish farming. Fish farming is also excluded as a development activity in the Zetland and Orkney acts. Under planning legislation, communities and local authorities can be involved. That is therefore where we see fish farming sitting, rather than having another regime on top for the local authority to have to deal with. There would be quite a lot of issues with the same thing being done in two different ways—under marine licensing and under planning—and we did not think that that was appropriate.

Rhoda Grant

Some island communities are really keen to take on marine designations and to manage the designations themselves. However, the evidence that we received from Scottish Natural Heritage was that it was not keen to devolve any of those powers to island communities. Can we move forward with that ambition?

Humza Yousaf

Yes. I can take marine designation forward as an issue, although not necessarily in the bill. If there is a specific issue that you would like to raise with me or the Cabinet Secretary for Environment, Climate Change and Land Reform, we can take it back and have a conversation with SNH. The issue has also been raised on some of my island visits. The specific issue that you raise is outside the scope of the conversation that we are having today, but it is on the record and I will have a look at it.

John Mason

We understand that the figures in the financial memorandum are to do with admin, consulting and so on; we are not talking about building new hospitals, for example. I would like your thoughts on some of the figures. For example, under “Representation of island communities”, the financial memorandum talks about £30,000 per authority and, under “Development in the Scottish island marine area”, it talks about £25,000 for each consultation. Are those intended to be average figures? If so, how will that work? The six authorities will face quite different situations.

Humza Yousaf

The language tries to mirror and reflect the fact that, depending on the size of the islands in the local authority area, different local authorities will face different associated costs. For example, under “Representation of island communities”, the financial memorandum says:

“Local authorities estimated costs up to £30,000 for each local authority”

The financial memorandum uses that language on purpose. The costs might well be less for some authorities, but we do not envisage that they will be any more than £30,000.

The costs have been done in conjunction and in consultation with local authorities. We also looked at the costs involved in other consultations that the Government has done, and we tried to reflect costs that we think are reasonable.

The Convener

I have a final question for you, minister. First, however, Jamie Greene has a question.

Jamie Greene

Thank you, convener. My point, which follows on nicely from the previous question, is worth pushing. The financial memorandum talks about the administrative costs of delivering the bill, which is fine. My concern is about the duties in part 3

“to have regard to island communities”.

That applies not just to the preparation of island impact assessments, but to the consequences of those impacts. For example, if any of the 66 bodies that are listed in the schedule were to make a decision that had a detrimental effect on an island, surely finances would be required to counteract any impact. I am thinking of a decision to close a general practitioner’s surgery or a school, reduce ambulance services or change a bus route—any decision by any of the bodies included in the comprehensive list in the schedule. Funding would be required to combat the impact of such decisions and to ensure that there would be no negative effect on an island. How can we balance that? There is a need to prepare impact assessments and identify the negative effect of a policy decision or redevelopment, but the missing element is that we are not backing that up with Government funding to ensure that there is no negative effect.

Humza Yousaf

If we went down that route, there would have to be a blank cheque. The purpose of the financial memorandum is to support the bill and to cost the provisions in it. The process of carrying out an island impact assessment and the consequences of carrying one out must be separated. For example, if a local authority conducts an impact assessment, it would have the option of continuing with the status quo, despite the fact that doing so might have a negative impact. It would also have the option of changing whatever process or strategy it wanted to progress so that it took cognisance of the impact assessment, or the option of dropping what it had intended to do in the first place. Whatever option it took would potentially have financial consequences, but it would be for the local authority—or another listed public body or the Government—to take on and shoulder those financial consequences.

The Government is undertaking a massive amount of work on a range of policy areas to tackle the many challenges that island communities face. That includes investment in housing and ferry services, and that funding will continue. Clearly, however, the consequences of an island impact assessment will be for the public body, the local authority or the Government to take a decision on; it will be for them to take cognisance of the financial resource that is available to them.

Jamie Greene

Let me be clear: under the bill, relevant bodies must identify the impact that the decision will have on an island, but they do not necessarily have to mitigate the impact.

Humza Yousaf

Effectively, it would be a choice for the Government, the local authority or the public sector body—whoever is carrying out the impact assessment—whether to mitigate the impact. That is the point of an impact assessment—it is that body’s choice.

I imagine that it would go down like a lead balloon if the impact assessment clearly showed that a proposal would have a negative impact on island communities and a public sector body or a local authority chose to ignore that. It would have to answer for its decision. As I said in an answer to Mike Rumbles, annual progress reports will be included in the national islands plan, so such decisions will be transparent.

The Convener

I will allow John Finnie to come in. Please keep your question as short as possible, so that there is time for me to get my question in.

John Finnie

Absolutely. To follow-on from Jamie Greene’s point, not every decision will have an impact on islands. You could argue that the implication of any downside would be more applicable to the three authorities that exclusively serve islands. Is there an opportunity to reflect that in the budget decisions for local government and other public bodies? I am loth to mention the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities. An element of that could be taken into account in the overall budget settlements.

Humza Yousaf

I am looking to my officials to answer that, but the budget includes a special islands needs allowance for those three island authorities.

John Finnie

If that is already catered for, why do we have the bill?

Humza Yousaf

I thought that you meant the financial implications—

John Finnie

Yes.

Humza Yousaf

The bill is not only about the financial implications but about island proofing measures. I agree with you: do the wholly island authorities effectively island proof already? I suspect that they do, but we must understand that we are talking about more than just the three wholly island authorities.

Orkney and Shetland have marine licensing powers, but other local authorities do not have those powers. There is also the opportunity to create one or two-member wards. There are many good things that even wholly island communities can get out of the bill.

I thought that the question was about the budget and finance. Given the unique nature of island communities, I would say that they are already catered for in the special islands needs allowance.

The Convener

The national islands plan must be produced within a year of the bill being passed. It sounds as though you have visited a lot of islands, and that you have a few more to go. Are you confident that you can deliver the plan in a year, having spoken to all the bodies that need to be spoken to?

Humza Yousaf

Yes. The deadline is ambitious but achievable. It will be challenging, but we are not starting with a blank canvas. As you allude to, my officials and I have done a lot of work in that regard. We are not starting with a blank piece of paper, but if the issue concerns or worries the committee, we could reflect on the timescale, although I think that it is absolutely achievable.

Despite the fact that I have visited 30 islands, I do not think that I will get around the other 63 within that 12-month timeframe, so that should not be an expectation. I will certainly do my best to get to many more of them, when I can.

The Convener

I thank the minister and his team for giving evidence to the committee. I suspend the meeting for five minutes to allow a changeover of witnesses.

11:26 Meeting suspended.  



11:34 On resuming—  



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13 September 2017

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20 September 2017

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27 September 2017

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2 October 2017

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25 October 2017

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1 November 2017

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8 November 2017

Rural Economy and Connectivity Committee Committee's Stage 1 report 

What is secondary legislation?

Secondary legislation is sometimes called 'subordinate' or 'delegated' legislation. It can be used to:

  • bring a section or sections of a law that’s already been passed, into force
  • give details of how a law will be applied
  • make changes to the law without a new Act having to be passed

An Act is a Bill that’s been approved by Parliament and given Royal Assent (formally approved).

Delegated Powers and Law Reform committee

This committee looks at the powers of this Bill to allow the Scottish Government or others to create 'secondary legislation' or regulations.

It met to discuss the Bill in public on:

19 September 2017:

20 February 2018:

Read the Stage 1 report by the Delegated Powers and Law Reform committee published on 1 November 2017.

Debate on the Bill

A debate for MSPs to discuss what the Bill aims to do and how it'll do it.

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Stage 1 debate transcript

The Presiding Officer (Ken Macintosh)

The first item of business this afternoon is a debate on motion S5M-10358, on stage 1 of the Islands (Scotland) Bill.

The Minister for Transport and the Islands (Humza Yousaf)

I am delighted to open the stage 1 debate on the Islands (Scotland) Bill. It is fair to say that being transport minister does not make me the most popular person on the planet, but my colleagues and members from across the parties envy the islands part of my portfolio. I am envied when I travel across Scotland, seeing some of the most stunning scenery and the most beautiful places in which to live in what is a naturally beautiful country, which for me is a great honour and privilege. Our islands are wonderful places in which to live, work and study, and to visit, and they contribute so much to Scotland. It is vital that Parliament acknowledges the unique role that they play in our identity, economy and society.

Since becoming the minister with responsibility for the islands and their communities, I have been struck by not only their geographical differences but their strong similarities. They share a resilience, vibrancy and warmth and, thanks to everyone who lives on them, our islands are welcoming and open.

Nevertheless, there are challenges. On every island to which I travel there is a common thread of issues. Anyone who lives on, travels to or represents our islands will recognise the common challenges: remoteness, transport, digital connectivity, housing, health and many other issues, which can all work together to contribute to the issue of declining populations.

The Scottish Government has been working in partnership with others to address many of those challenges through a range of policy initiatives and investment. They include investment of more than £1 billion in ferry services, including the budget proposal for £10.5 million for Orkney and Shetland internal ferry services; investment of £25 million in the rural housing fund and £5 million in the islands housing fund to deliver affordable homes; fuel poverty—Liam McArthur has mentioned that that is a huge issue for the Orkney islands—and energy efficiency programmes, with more than £16 million invested in island council areas; more than £270 million invested in airport facilities across the Highlands and Islands, with investment of more than £60 million in the air discount scheme; and the recently announced £6 million for the rural tourism infrastructure fund. I can speak more about some of those in my closing speech.

Liam McArthur (Orkney Islands) (LD)

I am grateful to the minister for referring to fuel poverty, which is experienced at the highest level in the Orkney Islands community. It is a policy area where island proofing now would be beneficial. He will be aware of the issue, as I have raised it with him and his ministerial colleagues. Will he reconsider the committee’s recommendation to apply island proofing retrospectively to some of the most egregious examples of where policy and legislation are not working for islands? It would be a sensible move.

Humza Yousaf

I thought that that point might come up, and I will address it later in my speech. It is fair to say that the committee recommendation was not to take a blanket retrospective approach to legislation, but to consider specific examples. Perhaps there is a way in which we can work closely to identify those examples and see whether we can come to a common solution. I will come to that in more detail later.

I want to improve outcomes by creating the right conditions for investment, empowerment and increasing sustainable economic growth. The Islands (Scotland) Bill is part of that, but let us be under no illusion that there is a simple solution, magic bullet or single policy that will make that happen. The measures in the bill, alongside the actions taken by the Government, local authorities, public bodies and communities themselves will contribute to creating the right conditions for growth.

I welcome the Rural Economy and Connectivity Committee’s report, which recommends that the Parliament supports the general principles of the bill. I thank members of the REC Committee, and other parliamentary committees, for their thorough scrutiny of the bill.

The Rural Economy and Connectivity Committee was no doubt helped by its efforts to take evidence from and consult a wide range of organisations and people. I know that meetings took place on Mull, Orkney and the Western Isles, and there was good use of videoconferencing to speak to people in the University of the Highlands and Islands and the people of Arran. It is heartening to see colleagues making it easier for people to participate in the development of a bill through the use of technology. Thanks are due to everyone who took the time to offer their views and experiences to the committee or to us in Government.

Time and time again, I have been encouraged to hear organisations and individuals express confidence that the bill will make a real difference in helping public bodies to look at islands differently. In particular, I thank the local authority leaders and chief executives who have been feeding in their comments and aspirations through the islands strategic group.

It was willingness to collaborate and co-operate that brought forward the bill, and credit must go to the fantastic our islands, our future campaign in that regard. I want to continue that collaboration, good work and engagement with the local authorities and council leaders. I have a good relationship with the leaders of not only the three wholly island councils, but the other three local authorities that have islands within their boundaries.

Tavish Scott (Shetland Islands) (LD)

Will the minister give way?

Humza Yousaf

I will first finish my brief point. It would be remiss of me not to give credit to the previous leaders of Orkney Islands Council, Shetland Islands Council and the Western Isles Council.

Tavish Scott

Having been beautifully pre-empted, I had better think of something else to ask. The Minister for Transport and the Islands will be well aware of the arrangements for inter-island ferries and of the need to resolve issues related to capital expenditure and revenue expenditure—indeed, he plans to have a working group with the Cabinet Secretary for Finance and the Constitution on those issues. I ask that the person whom he plans to chair that group will be someone who can give it the impetus that is clearly needed by not only the Government but those who use the services daily.

Humza Yousaf

Liam McArthur—my apologies, I meant to say Tavish Scott. I will move on. Tavish Scott makes a very good point. I completely understand that the agreement secured in the budget must be seen very much in tandem with the working group that is looking at longer-term arrangements. We must absolutely take forward that work, and I will take on board his remarks. I have to say that the conversation with the local authority leaders has been incredibly constructive, as it has been with the Liberal Democrat MSPs and members across the chamber. Tavish Scott is absolutely right to raise that point and to put it on the record.

I welcome that, at stage 1, we have already established a broad range of consensus on the bill’s provisions, although that makes me feel slightly nervous about the stages to come. I will always be happy to discuss issues where we have differences and attempt to come up with a common solution, where such a solution can be found.

Part 2 of the bill places a duty on the Scottish ministers to prepare, lay before Parliament and publish a national islands plan. The plan will set out the main objectives and strategies for improving outcomes for our island communities. That clear statement of purpose will also allow the Government of the day the flexibility to say what it will do to achieve that purpose. The plan will work alongside existing plans and frameworks, provide a strategic direction, focus resources and, where necessary, set targets for key areas of activity.

As a key component of the bill, the national islands plan has attracted a great deal of comment. The committee has made a number of recommendations about it, and I want to address some of those today.

The committee recommends that high-level objectives are placed in the bill. I appreciate the intent behind that, but we need to be mindful of the purpose of legislation. We make law to give legal effect to things that we want to achieve or, indeed, to prevent. Bills are not necessarily the place to make policy statements. Any overall statement of purpose would need to be legally meaningful to a court, and I am not convinced that that recommendation would achieve that.

However, I want to look at what alternatives are available, to see whether something can be done in, for example, the national islands plan. We can consider lodging amendments that would set out the high-level objectives within the current frame of improving outcomes for island communities. That would seem to have the potential to meet the overall purpose of the committee proposal, and I would be happy to discuss that further with members.

In the Government’s response to the stage 1 report, I said that I will accept the committee’s recommendation to make local authorities statutory consultees and consider other changes, including, for example, a time limit for the submission of the annual progress report, and strengthening of the language regarding consultation with communities.

Part 3, which is on island proofing, has been broadly welcomed and has attracted a lot of discussion and comment during the committee process. The idea is straightforward: we want to ensure that an awareness of the needs and circumstances of our island communities is embedded in the decision-making processes of public bodies. The bill places a duty on public bodies to do that, and it will ensure that the interests of island communities are placed firmly and squarely at the centre of legislative, policy and service considerations. Many members across the chamber have said that Government should already be doing that—indeed, Liam McArthur said that in his intervention. I give members the absolute assurance that that is already happening. A good example of that is the social security legislation that is being taken forward. Although the Islands (Scotland) Bill has not yet been passed, my colleague Jeane Freeman is already looking to island proof where she can.

To help with that, we have included an island communities impact assessment process. An impact assessment must be undertaken where new or revised legislation, policies or, indeed, services will have an effect on islands and our island communities that is significantly different from the effect on other communities. As with other impact assessments, the details of the process will be set out in statutory guidance.

Island proofing has the potential to change the practice, culture and values of our public bodies. I think that every single one of us agrees that we do not want to see a simple tick-box exercise—that was mentioned time and again in the committee’s proceedings. In the words of the committee:

“The process must be agile and fit for purpose”.

The committee has made a number of recommendations on island proofing, and we welcome and agree with most—although not all—of them, as is set out in our response.

John Mason (Glasgow Shettleston) (SNP)

The minister mentioned island proofing. Does he accept that there is a slight difference between island proofing and an island communities impact assessment, and that island proofing might suggest going further than the bill intends to go?

Humza Yousaf

The island communities impact assessment is, of course, the process that would have to be gone through. However, John Mason is absolutely right: it is not necessarily just about the impact assessment itself; it is about changing the entire culture of how we think about implementing legislation not just—this is important—in the Government, but in the 60-plus listed public authorities. John Mason has made a good point in that regard.

On the retrospective ask that some have made—Liam McArthur made it in his intervention—a specific provision in the bill on retrospective island proofing is unnecessary. It could lead to unrealistic demands across a range of policies and legislation that would be difficult to manage, and it would be overly bureaucratic. That would not be legislation that was, in the committee’s words,

“agile and fit for purpose”.

The committee has asked the Government to consider putting an appeals mechanism in the bill. I am concerned that that approach would risk creating the sort of tick-box exercise and culture that I am keen to avoid. Other impact assessments that are set out in legislation, such as equality impact assessments, do not have an appeals process, but they have been incredibly successful. They have worked because they have been clear, flexible and responsive. I seek to achieve that aim for island communities impact assessments. I will ensure that the issue is explored through consultation on the statutory guidance and that a dispute resolution process is developed. We all want the bill to have its intended impact and to focus on improving outcomes to achieve that.

Part 4 has two elements. The securing of a special status for the Western Isles Scottish Parliament constituency has been universally welcomed. The proposal to allow the Local Government Boundary Commission for Scotland the flexibility to recommend the creation of one or two-member wards consisting of inhabited islands has attracted much more comment. The comments have largely been very positive. I believe that we have the right approach in the bill to allow for greater flexibility, but I accept the argument that has been presented by the Local Government Boundary Commission for Scotland and the committee that a small change to the language in the bill might well increase flexibility further. I have therefore indicated that, in line with the committee’s recommendation, I will amend section 14, to change the wording from “wholly or mainly” to “wholly or partly”.

Part 5 relates to development and the new Scottish island marine area licences. I want all our island local authorities to have the opportunity to build on the experiences of Shetland and Orkney and to have more control over the development of the seas around their islands. We have taken a purposely cautious approach to that part of the bill to ensure that it properly reflects the needs and circumstances of our islands. The bill allows for a local authority with an inhabited island in its area to ask to be designated as a marine development licensing authority and, after consultation, regulations will be laid that set out the details of the scheme.

Lewis Macdonald (North East Scotland) (Lab)

Has consideration been given to the impact of the requirement that the island be inhabited, given that, under the Zetland County Council Act 1974, Shetland Islands Council can regulate in that area without having to meet such a requirement?

Humza Yousaf

Yes, consideration has been given to that issue. I will try to reflect on that in my closing speech. That point was put to me directly during the committee proceedings. Where the Zetland County Council Act 1974 and the Orkney County Council Act 1974 have worked well, we will look to replicate that, but where it is sensible to diverge from the approach that was taken in those acts, we will. The issue of the impacts on uninhabited islands has been considered with particular reference to St Kilda, so we are not unaware of them. As far as marine development licensing is concerned, I will deal with the effect on uninhabited islands in my closing remarks, because I must conclude shortly.

I am proud to be the minister who has introduced the first ever piece of legislation solely for islands in the Scottish Parliament, but I will be even more proud when we manage to get the bill passed into law in a few months’ time, as we hope to do.

I welcome the Rural Economy and Connectivity Committee’s deliberations to date. Its thoughtful approach has been extremely helpful, and I look forward to working with members across the chamber at stages 2 and 3. The Government will keep an open mind, because, ultimately, we want the same as any member: the best outcomes possible for our island communities for the future.

I move,

That the Parliament agrees to the general principles of the Islands (Scotland) Bill.

The Presiding Officer

I call Edward Mountain to open for the Rural Economy and Connectivity Committee.

14:46  



Edward Mountain (Highlands and Islands) (Con)

On behalf of the Rural Economy and Connectivity Committee, I say that we are delighted to present our report on the Islands (Scotland) Bill. Sadly, as time is limited, I will not be able to cover all the points in our report, so I will try to pick out the most salient ones. The committee notes the minister’s detailed response, which we received last Friday.

As part of our evidence gathering, the committee undertook visits to Orkney, Mull and the Western Isles. We took evidence via videoconference from islanders on Arran, as well as from students from multiple locations, including the University of the Highlands and Islands. We want to thank the islanders who met the committee—sometimes on very windy and blustery nights—to share their views. I would also like to thank the committee’s members for their diligence in tackling the task, and the clerks for their hard work in preparing the report.

The committee is very aware of the hopes that islanders have invested in the bill, which were embodied in the our islands, our future campaign, but we are concerned that there will be a gap between what islanders expect and what they will get from the bill. We urge the Scottish Government to manage those expectations carefully.

I turn to our key findings. The committee called on the Scottish Government to review the definitions of the terms “island”, “inhabited island”, “island community” and “high and low tide”, which the Law Society of Scotland feels require further clarification. The committee notes that the Scottish Government has reviewed the definitions, but that it has not, in its response, committed to any undertaking. We look forward to the Government providing a resolution at stage 2.

On the national islands plan, the committee recommended that island communities and other stakeholders be comprehensively consulted so that the plan reflects the priorities of islanders. We note that, in his response, the minister agrees.

The committee also felt that a national islands plan that has an overarching strategy and which takes into account the individual nature of each island is a prerequisite. We believe that that will best be achieved through local decision-making structures, so we recommend that the Scottish Government amend the bill to make the creation of local authority-level island plans a statutory requirement. We welcome the Scottish Government’s agreement to consult the six local authorities involved to seek their views on that recommendation.

The committee acknowledged the importance of the role that uninhabited islands can play in terms of their cultural, economic and environmental significance, so we recommended that uninhabited islands not be left out of the national islands plan. We welcome the Scottish Government’s reassurance that there is nothing to prevent uninhabited islands from featuring in the plan, and that they will feature in consultation.

The purpose of the Islands (Scotland) Bill is to improve outcomes for island communities: we feel that it is important that performance can be tracked. The committee therefore recommended that the national islands plan be developed with clear outcomes and targets, and measurable indicators. We also suggested that a time limit for the annual report be included in the bill. We are therefore pleased that the Government has acknowledged the need for monitoring and assessment of progress.

On island impact assessments, the committee called on the Government to provide clear and consistent terminology. We felt that the terms “island impact assessment” and “island proofing” were used interchangeably in the bill’s supporting documents. Both duties have significantly different meanings, so that confused many of the people whom we consulted. The committee notes the Scottish Government’s view that the terms were not used interchangeably, but we welcome its recognition that clarity and consistency in terminology are important, and we welcome the fact that it will ensure that the consultation and guidance around the duty are clear.

The committee and islanders are adamant that the island impact assessment should not be a box-ticking exercise, so I welcome the minister’s comment on that today. The assessments must be real and meaningful.

The committee agreed that, for islanders to have confidence in the island impact assessments, they must have a mechanism by which they can appeal against or object to assessments. Although the Government acknowledged our recommendation, I note that it is at this stage unprepared to include an appeal mechanism in the bill.

On retrospective island impact assessments, the committee recognised that it is unrealistic to assess all current legislation. However, we believe that retrospective action is appropriate if it can be demonstrated that specific legislation has had a negative impact on the islands. We note that the Scottish Government is in agreement and we welcome that. We also note that the Government does not believe that it is necessary to seek views on that issue specifically as part of its consultation on the guidance for legislation or policy that could be problematic for islands. The committee will have to consider that issue further at stage 2.

I turn now to marine licensing powers. The committee acknowledged that local authorities support the principle of greater marine licensing powers, and we look forward to seeing further details on that from the Scottish Government. The committee also recognised that the interaction between marine licensing powers in the bill and in existing legislation caused confusion for some stakeholders. Although the committee felt that a provision for marine licensing powers should be included in the bill, we are concerned about how it will work in practice. The addition of an extra layer of bureaucracy might overcomplicate the marine licensing scheme and there could be duplication. We call on the Government to provide further details on the relationship and interaction between the Islands (Scotland) Bill and the Marine (Scotland) Act 2010.

On constituency boundaries, the committee and everyone to whom we spoke welcomed the fact that the Scottish Government included in the bill a provision that will protect the Western Isles as a Scottish Parliament constituency. The committee also welcomes that the Scottish Government will act on the suggestion of the Boundary Commission for Scotland to provide greater flexibility to better balance council wards that consist of inhabited islands, so we look forward to seeing the Government’s amendment on that at stage 2.

Our report raises many issues, and the committee looks forward to seeing positive action on all our recommendations. The committee recommends that Parliament, subject to the points that we raise in our report, agree to the general principles of the bill.

14:54  



Peter Chapman (North East Scotland) (Con)

I am pleased to open for the Conservative group. I thank my fellow Rural Economy and Connectivity Committee members, the clerks and especially all the people who gave evidence, for getting the bill to this stage.

It must be remembered that the bill has its origins in the our islands, our future initiative, which was a piece of work that was started in 2013 by the councils of Orkney, Shetland and the Western Isles to look at constitutional reform to give the islands more autonomy and more powers over the sea bed and renewable resources.

The bill is an enabling bill that provides for future action by the Scottish Government. It is therefore important to manage the expectations of islanders who might expect more immediate and tangible outcomes.

The Conservatives support the bill. An extensive consultation process has got the bill to this point. As the convener said, the Rural Economy and Connectivity Committee held videoconferences with Arran community representatives, the University of the Highlands and Islands and Heriot-Watt University. We also visited the island of Mull, the Western Isles and Orkney to speak to island councils and islanders themselves. It was fantastic to get a feeling for the enthusiasm and expectation that island folk have for the bill. It was also a personal pleasure for me to see close up some beautiful parts of Scotland and the strength of the sense of community that they possess.

There are 93 inhabited islands in Scotland, with a population of just over 103,000, which is 2 per cent of the population. Only five of those islands are connected to mainland Scotland by a bridge or causeway, so they are dependent on ferries or planes to reach the mainland. It is clear that the constituents of those islands face considerable obstacles to accessing higher education and, in some cases, even secondary education. Access to healthcare and hospitals can be difficult and people who require long-term and on-going care often have to be away from their families for long periods. On some islands, there are no care homes for the elderly, which creates severe problems for families.

Access to such facilities is taken for granted on the mainland, so it is clear that if the bill is to mean anything it must start to redress some of those missing services, provide real assurance to islanders and improve outcomes for them.

We believe that the bill needs to include one or two high-level objectives to give it greater purpose and focus. We want to avoid confusion over what the bill is in place to achieve, so its purpose should be included and outlined from the beginning.

The bill will be judged on the practical difference that it makes on the ground for islanders. Targets and indicators will enable the public to see the progress at every review. I therefore welcome the Government’s response in accepting that those should be included in the bill.

The committee recommends that the six island authorities be made statutory consultees during the national islands plan’s development. The Government does not want to include a prescriptive list in the bill—I understand that—but the island authorities must be consulted. The national islands plan should be an overarching and strategic framework in which each individual island community can take full advantage of the opportunities that the bill offers.

I welcome the bill and its concept of the islands impact assessment, which mandates the Government and its agencies to take into account the impacts that any new services or policies would have on the islands and to address them appropriately. The term “island proofing”, which has been used interchangeably with “island impact assessment”, is one that the Government needs to use with caution. The enthusiasm that has been shown by the islanders during consultations must not turn to disappointment—expectations need to be managed. The use of the term “island proofing” provides much greater expectation than “island impact assessment” does, which might raise expectations that cannot be delivered.

It is quite clear that retrospective island impact assessments would be unrealistic, but I agree that there should be an opportunity for any current legislation that severely impacts on island communities to be retrospectively reviewed. Although that would lead to more questions for the Government, it would help to strengthen what the bill sets out to do.

There was a lot of support from the local authorities for increased powers for marine licensing, which would potentially be a big boost for coastal communities. However, there was some confusion regarding marine licensing, which needs to be reviewed by the minister. For instance, the applications to vary work licences that were granted under Zetland legislation would be exempt if they were made after the area had been designated. There is also confusion around the responsibilities and boundaries in relation to the 12 nautical miles limit. In some cases, islands would share some of that area, so that needs to be clarified.

The last and biggest concern that I want to raise is finance—or, in the case of the bill, the lack of it. The costs that are outlined in the financial memorandum are related only to delivery of the duties in the bill. There is no budget to implement new services on the islands or to implement the national islands plan, and there is no budget to mitigate anything that an island impact assessment indicates requires improvement.

John Mason

Does Peter Chapman accept that although some things would cost money, Orkney Islands Council told the committee that if it was given more powers, it could use the existing money to produce a better result?

Peter Chapman

I accept that, but I reiterate that there is a need for extra funds to address the many issues that we know exist.

If the bill is to improve island life, it must contain a budget to add new services, new facilities and new opportunities. There are expectations for significant improvement in those areas, but with no budget those expectations cannot be met.

It is clear that the bill needs further work and that we can expect changes and improvements at stage 2. I look forward to seeing the implementation of those changes and improvements, because we all want the bill to be a success for the people of the islands.

15:01  



Colin Smyth (South Scotland) (Lab)

Labour supports the principles and the spirit of the Islands (Scotland) Bill. Our islands make an enormous contribution to Scotland’s cultural and economic wellbeing, but as the our islands, our future campaign made clear, there is a real need to better support and empower our islands. It is to the credit of those who established that campaign that Parliament is debating the bill. I hope that the campaign has fired the first shots in efforts to address the decade of centralisation of power in Scotland. This is an opportunity to empower our island communities and put local experiences and expertise at the heart of decision making.

It would, nevertheless, be fair to say that the islands bill is more evolution than revolution. I suspect that, even if it is amended, it will not be as ambitious as the island communities that it seeks to deliver for. Managing expectations will be challenging. The bill’s important but modest provisions, although welcome, will not give our islands the power to fully transform their communities, as they clearly want to. Amendments can be made to strengthen the bill, though, and I look forward to working with parties across the chamber as the bill makes it way through the parliamentary process.

For example, the Rural Economy and Connectivity Committee rightly argues for the bill to be amended to include a purpose section that sets out clear, overarching objectives. Of course, such a section should not be overly prescriptive or limiting, and I acknowledge the minister’s concern that it must have a clear legal purpose. However, an explicit indication of the bill’s aspirations and how it will help to deliver equity and sustainability for our islands would help to ensure that the reality of the bill better matches its ambition so that provisions such as the proposed national islands plan do not fall short in practice.

Paving the way for the development of a national islands plan is a key element of the bill, as is outlined in part 2. That plan must set out not only a clear direction but practical measures to be delivered, and local communities and stakeholders must be at the heart of the plan’s development. I am pleased that the Government has agreed to the call from the Rural Economy and Connectivity Committee to make local authorities statutory consultees in the development of the plan and guidance. A one-size-fits-all approach would not work for such a plan, which must be about enabling local communities. As the Federation of Small Businesses argued in its evidence to the committee, we need local solutions to meet local needs and aspirations.

Jamie Greene (West Scotland) (Con)

Colin Smyth is talking about how we can empower local communities and decentralise decision making. Which section of the bill does that? I see very little in the bill, other than the creation of marine licensing powers, that will give statutory powers to local communities.

Colin Smyth

That is really a question for the minister. I am certainly not going to defend the scope of the bill, because I think that it does not go as far as it could to empower local communities. The call to make local authority-level island plans a statutory requirement would help in that regard, and I welcome the Government’s decision to seek the views of local authorities on that matter.

It is important that the bill acknowledges the differences between the islands that it covers and that the unique needs of each island and island grouping are fully recognised.

As a member of the Rural Economy and Connectivity Committee, I am pleased that the committee will undertake regular scrutiny of the national plan and its annual reports. In particular, I welcome the commitment in the committee’s report to provide stakeholders with the opportunity to present their views.

Likewise, I welcome the Government’s indication that the plan will include clear outcomes, targets and measurable indicators by which to assess performance. Giving Parliament a chance to monitor and scrutinise the plan’s impact is vital, so I echo the committee’s call for the bill to include a set time limit for the submission of the plan’s annual report.

Part 3 of the bill covers duties in relation to island communities, including the introduction of island communities impact assessments. The Government’s guidance on that process will be key to ensuring that the assessments function as they should. I am glad that a commitment has been made to lodge an amendment that would make the affected local authorities statutory consultees in the development of the guidance. In order for the impact assessments to be reliable, they must also have a strong evidence base, and the Government has made a welcome commitment to review the data that are available on island communities as part of the implementation of the bill and to address any gaps that arise. Such data will provide a crucial foundation for accurate and dependable assessments.

I am, nevertheless, disappointed that, in its response to the committee, the Government failed to take on board the committee’s recommendation that it introduce an appeal or objection mechanism for impact assessments. I appreciate that there are concerns about the bureaucracy that that might entail, but it would provide accountability and ensure that islanders had confidence in the process. There is a balance to be struck, but I do not believe that it is an unreasonable ask.

There is also a need to be cautious about the language that is used—a point that the committee stressed and that several members have raised in the debate. The phrases “island proofed” and “impact assessed” appear to have become interchangeable, but it is clear that they have different meanings. Impact assessing something does not immediately guarantee that action will be taken to resolve any issues that the assessment raises, and there is a danger that describing the process as “island proofing” may raise expectations beyond what the bill will deliver. As Liam McArthur said, there is a case to be made for retrospective impact assessments of carefully selected acts.

Part 4 of the bill includes the protection of the Scottish Parliament’s Western Isles constituency boundary to deliver parity with Orkney and Shetland, which is welcome, as is the provision of flexibility for the Local Government Boundary Commission for Scotland to recommend smaller wards where that will lead to island communities being better represented.

The need for such provisions highlights the wholly inadequate rules that are currently in legislation—and that are, on occasion, simply made up by the Boundary Commission for Scotland and the Local Government Boundary Commission for Scotland—when it comes to recognising local ties, particularly in rural areas. The requirement for the commissions to have regard to local ties is often meaningless, as arguments about parity completely outweigh arguments about the bonds of local communities. The wider issue of the need to address the complete carve-up of communities by the boundary commissions might be a debate for another day, but it is certainly one that we should have.

My colleagues will talk about other aspects of the bill, such as the inclusion of uninhabited islands. The last area that I will highlight is the proposal, in part 5, to establish new marine licensing powers. That is welcome, but it must be developed and implemented carefully and in line with the existing legislation. There remains a need for clarity on how exactly the powers would operate.

Labour welcomes the general principles of the bill, but work remains to be done. Not only will there be a need to amend the provisions in the bill; as it stands, the bill fails to explicitly reference natural heritage. Scotland’s natural heritage is of huge cultural, environmental and economic value, particularly on our islands. That should be reflected in the bill with a clear commitment to safeguarding natural heritage on our islands.

We also need to address local authorities’ understandable concerns about the financial burdens associated with the bill. With council budgets already stretched beyond breaking point, the Scottish Government must ensure that the implementation of the bill does not put our island authorities at a financial disadvantage.

The REC Committee highlighted that

“many of the issues which affect islands can also impact on remote and rural mainland areas.”

Although I appreciate that this is beyond the scope of the bill, there is an opportunity to reflect on the approach that is being taken and ensure that, in the future, we better support and seek to empower all our rural and remote communities.

15:08  



Kenneth Gibson (Cunninghame North) (SNP)

Since long before the launch of the our islands, our future campaign, island communities have demonstrated time and again that they are more than capable of setting their own agenda for development, and they are presenting their own ideas about how to deliver the best possible future for their own islands.

In my constituency of Cunninghame North, in the communities of Arran, Cumbrae and Holy Isle, I witness at first hand how passionate islanders are about protecting and promoting their islands. With everything from ferry committees to economic groups, from coastal protection task forces to community councils and from elderly forums to rescue teams, island communities are independent, resilient and, in many ways, self-sufficient. I believe that the bill not only will help to mitigate some of the challenges that island communities face but will empower them to make the most of their natural, economic and cultural resources.

Some of the challenges that are thrown up by island living are highly visible, and those of us who live in rural areas can relate to them. Transport, physical remoteness and infrastructure can all be significantly different from mainland services. However, more hidden challenges, including population decline and the lack of high-quality digital connectivity, can make modern life more difficult.

Of the 192 responses to the consultation that was published in 2016, over 85 per cent supported the Scottish Government’s aim of introducing a national islands plan. Respondents appreciated that such a plan, which is to be laid before Parliament within 12 months of the date on which the act comes into force, will tackle pressing issues, maintaining focus instead of offering quick fixes and addressing need as it changes and develops with time.

The islands plan will also increase accountability. By identifying objectives, setting measures and defining responsibilities, we can ensure that the bill delivers the real and lasting change that our island communities are calling for. Some respondents called for tighter definitions and better mechanisms for reporting and review, and I believe that those points should be considered as the bill progresses.

A phrase that we will hear increasingly often throughout the bill process—we have already heard it on a number of occasions today—is “island proofing”, which is the duty that is to be placed on ministers and public bodies to consider the unique nature of life on our islands in exercising their functions. That will bring awareness of our islands to the forefront of political decision making and ensure that proper assessment of any new or revised policy, strategy or service is carried out when it is likely to impact directly or indirectly on Scotland’s inhabited islands.

That proposal was supported by 91 per cent of consultation respondents, who appreciated the need for a tailored approach to legislation instead of our islands being shoehorned into one-size-fits-all policies, because all our islands are different. The Clyde islands are hugely different in size, population, governmental structure and character from the three island authority areas, and the Inner Hebrides and their communities also want the bill to work for them.

From working alongside my islands constituents, I know how proud they are of the coastal beauty and marine life that make their landscape unique. Islanders already take pride in the south Arran marine protected area and Lamlash bay’s no-take zone. I am confident that they will welcome the opportunity to have more control over the development of the seas around their islands via the implementation of a marine licensing scheme.

The adoption of a holistic approach to the process of marine planning has been commended by the Law Society of Scotland. It is vital that any new licensing regime fits into the national framework that has been in place since 2010. The 2010 act created a more open and transparent licensing process, and changes resulting from the bill should help, not hinder, this coherent approach to managing Scottish waters. Private businesses form an important part of island life, and the national islands plan should bolster support for sustainable island businesses.

The Federation of Small Businesses reported that 86 per cent of business owners on Arran and Cumbrae felt that their island is a good place to do business. However, 28 per cent of respondents admitted that they had considered relocating to the mainland.

Creating a positive business environment on our islands requires a multifaceted approach, with issues of transport and digital connectivity being of particular importance. Of course, the Scottish National Party Government is investing £600 million to reach 100 per cent of homes and businesses with superfast broadband by 2021. Were it not for Scottish Government investment to date, only 65 per cent of premises in North Ayrshire would be connected to fibre broadband. I am pleased that 94 per cent of North Ayrshire residents now have access to superfast broadband, and, with a new fibre cabinet currently being installed in Kildonan, even more Arran residents will achieve superfast speeds in 2018, with 100 per cent of even the most remote island residents across Scotland having access by 2021.

In addition to the connection of homes and businesses, more must be done to attract young, skilled workers to our islands to guarantee their future and to ensure that they are dynamic and attractive places in which to live and work. The challenge of Scotland’s ageing population is felt even more acutely on our islands, and the national islands plan must address that.

The Scottish Government has already been working for our islands. In my constituency, there have been a number of tremendous improvements in the past decade. There have been housing developments at Benlista on Arran and Saint Beya in Cumbrae, and we have seen road equivalent tariffs introduced for ferries, which has more than halved the cost of cars going to Arran. In addition, £61.1 million has been invested in two new ferries for Arran, £12 million has been invested in a ferry for Cumbrae and there is a new £31 million harbour at Brodick. Over the next year or so, a new harbour will also be built at Ardrossan, and there has been a £5 million development of Largs pier, which serves Cumbrae. Furthermore, when the university marine biological station in Cumbrae was threatened with closure, which would have meant the loss of 28 jobs, the Scottish Government stepped in to help to save it.

The islands bill should not be seen in isolation but rather as part of the larger framework of legislative and policy activity that is under way to protect our island communities. Work relating to the Crown Estate and the Community Empowerment (Scotland) Act 2015 is helping us to make significant strides towards returning more responsibility to island communities. This historic bill demonstrates just how much our islands mean to the fabric of Scottish culture and society. It is a bold step forward in meeting the unique needs of Scotland’s islands now and for years to come.

15:14  



John Scott (Ayr) (Con)

I am delighted to speak in the stage 1 debate on the Islands (Scotland) Bill, which will see real devolution to island communities at a time when we increasingly see greater centralisation to the central belt.

Although I am not an islands MSP, I admire and acknowledge the strength and tenacity of island communities. The difficulties and challenges that arise due to weather and inaccessibility require the residents of all islands to be resilient and determined to make things work. Naturally, we all want to see more power in the hands of our islands, and they are eager for positive change so that they can set the agenda to better themselves and their communities.

Back in 2014, when the our islands, our future vision was set out, we saw the islands grasp the bull by the horns and put themselves out there with a plan that, regardless of the outcome of the referendum, would see more powers devolved to the islands. The Scottish Government brought the bill to Parliament, but the island communities must be commended for their initiative to get the ball rolling—we must not forget that.

However, we must also not forget that the people who live in remote and rural mainland communities may be slightly worried about the bill. Many communities in those areas can be several hours from the nearest large town. That was highlighted in the stage 1 committee report and, rightly, the Rural Economy and Connectivity Committee welcomes the Scottish Government’s willingness to reflect on whether a similar approach to island proofing may be considered for remote rural areas. Places such as Ardnamurchan and the Mull of Kintyre are classic examples of peninsular mainland areas that are far from larger towns and, therefore, lack choice of public services and amenities.

The Mull of Kintyre, for example, is 37 miles from my constituency of Ayr as the crow flies, but the drive in a car would take nearly six hours through Glasgow traffic to reach Campbeltown. Those peninsular areas, while they are connected to the mainland, often face accessibility issues when a vital transport link is obstructed; to reach the Mull of Kintyre if the pass at Rest and Be Thankful is blocked requires a lengthy detour via Dalmally and Crianlarich. As we know, time is money, and that remoteness can have a significant knock-on effect on small businesses and delivery times. In short, that produces the same effect as if a ferry to an island were delayed. We do not want to see the elevation of islands in status at the expense of those remote rural areas and we welcome the acknowledgement of that point in the stage 1 report.

On the issue of constituency boundaries, I welcome the intention that the Na h-Eileanan an Iar constituency will be given the same protection as the Orkney and Shetland constituencies. It is important that the Outer Hebrides archipelago is recognised as a separate entity and community of interest. In the future, having those boundaries protected for geographical, historical and practical reasons will mean that the constituents who send their MSP to this place can be sure that they are fully accountable to their islands, and not to a part of the mainland as well.

John Mason

On John Scott’s point about rural Scotland, does he agree that we may need to review the three constituencies that cover the whole west coast of Scotland’s mainland?

John Scott

I can only imagine that that would flow from what I have just said; self-evidently there would be a need to do that.

I turn to the national islands plan, about which some Conservative colleagues have voiced their concerns. I stress that it is imperative that, with a national islands plan, we will see proper action and progress, not merely warm words and weak promises. I am glad that the committee recognised that and that it has called for clarity. We must ensure that there are achievable targets and objectives in order that the islands will experience the positive change that they seek, and that those are fully funded by the Government.

As the committee noted, it is important that local knowledge is harnessed and that there are local decision-making structures in place. I am therefore pleased that the committee recommended that the Scottish Government should amend the bill to make the creation of local authority-level island plans a statutory requirement. From speaking to my Conservative colleagues, I know that there has been a real sense of enthusiasm and passion from the islands to make a success of this, and we must not let them down.

Turning to definitions, I reiterate the Law Society of Scotland’s point that further consideration needs to be given to ensuring that the bill provides the clarity and certainty required to ensure that the legislation can be properly implemented. The committee and stakeholders have acknowledged that definitions need to be properly defined, particularly of the terms “island” and “island community”.

We want the enthusiasm for positive change in the island communities to translate into actions by the Scottish Government. For too long, the agenda of the devolved Scottish Government has been one of centralisation, and it still is. Finally, however, we have a bill that goes some way—in part—towards devolving power from Edinburgh into the hands of those who make the best decisions for the islands: the islanders themselves.

My Conservative colleagues and I will support the bill at stage 1 but will seek to amend it at stage 2 to ensure that it is robust and effective.

15:20  



Gail Ross (Caithness, Sutherland and Ross) (SNP)

As deputy convener of the Rural Economy and Connectivity Committee, I thank everyone who gave evidence on the bill in person and in writing, all the people whom we visited on the islands, all the councils involved and the people who have taken the time to provide us with briefings for this debate—their input has been extremely valuable. I also thank the committee clerks and the Scottish Parliament information centre for all their hard work and I thank my fellow committee members for a unanimously agreed stage 1 report. The report is a comprehensive, in-depth piece of work and I do not think that any of our committee imagined, when we started our scrutiny all those months ago, that we would produce a report with nearly 300 points.

The bill came about largely due to the work that was put into the our islands, our future campaign by Orkney Islands Council, Shetland Islands Council and Western Isles Council, and the subsequent report “Empowering Scotland’s Island Communities” in 2014. We also now include not just island local authorities but local authorities with islands, namely Highland Council, Argyll and Bute Council and North Ayrshire Council.

When our committee was tasked with bringing forward the stage 1 report on the bill, the obvious place to start was with islanders themselves. Many people were unsure how much scope the bill would have, what its objectives were to be and how that would be turned into something with tangible benefits. We were, and still have to be, very careful to try to manage expectations around what the bill is trying to achieve. The bill focuses on provisions that are designed to protect and strengthen Scotland’s island communities; it aims to meet the unique needs of Scotland’s islands by making sure that impact assessments are carried out on policy and decisions by public bodies to ensure that they do not have a detrimental or negative effect on our island communities; and it puts in place a provision for the development of an islands plan. We expect that to set out both a clear strategic approach and the practical approaches to delivery. We want to be assured that the priority areas featured in the plan will reflect the actual priorities of islanders.

We recommended that the consultation on the plan should be undertaken as widely as possible and that the plan should contain a list of who was consulted. There should be a method that allows a body or group that was not consulted, but feels that it should have been, to address any concerns to the Scottish Government. We would like to see young people being a focus of the plan in order to try to keep them on the islands and we want islanders to have the opportunity to present their views in the Parliament on the annual reports and the five-year refresh of the plan.

This is an islands bill, but many of the issues that arose as challenges on the islands can also be applied to remote and rural communities. As the representative of a large rural constituency, it is only right that I address those. When Highland Council’s director of development and infrastructure, Stuart Black, gave evidence to the committee, he told us:

“Many communities, particularly remote and rural ones, are facing challenges that cannot necessarily be addressed through a piece of legislation. However, if the spirit of the bill involves examining remote areas and considering that they need additional protection, that is positive for the wider Highland area.”—[Official Report, Rural Economy and Connectivity Committee, 20 September 2017; c 25.]

When the Minister for Transport and the Islands, Humza Yousaf, gave evidence to the committee, I asked him about remote and rural communities, and he replied:

“Rural communities should consider island proofing as a great opportunity. If the Islands (Scotland) Bill is passed ... and island proofing is successful in its implementation ... there is no reason why the Government should not look at that success and consider whether we want to explore that approach for rural Scotland as well.”—[Official Report, Rural Economy and Connectivity Committee, 8 November 2017; c 7.]

However, our islands face different challenges. We have never disputed that, and hearing islanders’ testimony at first hand has made us acutely aware that the bill is necessary. Being completely surrounded by water is one of those challenges, although the submission from the Law Society of Scotland threw up some questions about the definitions and it asked that we look at them in closer detail. In the light of that, we called on the Scottish Government to look at the terms “island”, “inhabited island” and “island community” as well as “high tide” and “low tide”. That is in relation to pieces of land that may be accessible at low tide by a natural causeway but which are surrounded by water at high tide, and not islands that are accessible by bridges, which are indeed islands, as my colleague Kate Forbes will attest to.

RSPB Scotland supported our call for the cultural, environmental and economic significance of uninhabited islands to be recognised, and it asked us to go further and include them specifically in the bill. We have sought reassurance that they will be included in the national islands plan, but I am interested in hearing the minister’s response to the idea that they should be included in the bill.

As a member of another committee in Parliament, the Equalities and Human Rights Committee, I am pleased to say that we included in our report recommendations on both equalities and human rights. We fully expect them to be considered as part of the implementation of the bill, and we have asked the Scottish Government whether the Scottish Human Rights Commission was considered as a consultee for the national islands plan.

There is much more in the report than I can cover today, and I urge everyone with an interest to read it. I once again thank everyone who contributed to it. One of the most important things that we heard was that islands are not looking for special treatment but are merely seeking equity. They are looking for the decisions that are made by public bodies not to disadvantage them, and a lot of islanders stressed to us their hope that the bill will also have knock-on effects for the mainland. As you can imagine, Presiding Officer, I hope that it will do so as well. I commend the report to the Parliament.

15:26  



David Stewart (Highlands and Islands) (Lab)

This is an important and historic debate for the islands and, indeed, all of Scotland. As a Highlands and Islands regional member, I am delighted to contribute. I put on the record my recognition of the work of Orkney Islands Council, Shetland Islands Council and Western Isles Council. Their first-class policy analysis and campaigning work on the issue was rightly recognised with a national joint campaign award. In addition, the minister has been a doughty and persistent campaigner for an islands bill—I hope that that praise from me does not ruin his political career.

Why a bill just for the islands? Surely mainland rural areas have the same problems. What about deprivation, unemployment and poverty in our inner cities? Well, of course, this is a not a zero-sum game. As iconic Secretary of State for Scotland Willie Ross said in the second reading of the Highland Development (Scotland) Bill,

“It has never been more important than today that all the country’s resources should be fully exploited, and the Highlands”

and Islands

“have much to contribute. This is not a case of giving to the Highlands”

and Islands.

“This is a case of giving the”

islands and the

“Highlands a chance to play their full part in the future of Britain.”—[Official Report, House of Commons, 16 March 1965; Vol 708, c 1086.]

Of course, much has changed in our island communities since Willie Ross’s stirring speech echoed across Westminster—the discovery of oil and gas; the development of the University of the Highlands and Islands, with five of its 13 academic partners being wholly based on the islands; the common agricultural policy; the minimum wage; the air discount scheme; the introduction of route development funding; the road equivalent tariff; the rural fuel rebate; and European structural and investment funds. However, whether the policy in question originated in Brussels, London or Edinburgh, the end result was a win-win for island communities. To echo the EU’s global Europe 2050 vision, policies should not be “territorially blind”.

However, some things have not changed. At a conference that was organised by Shetland Islands Council and the Committee of the Regions, the 2011 Euroislands study, which analysed island communities across the EU, was debated and discussed. The common characteristics are that islands have below-average connectivity, their gross domestic product is below the European average, economic convergence is slower, numbers of job and career opportunities are low and services are of variable quality and high cost.

As a counterweight, the 2012 Geospec survey concluded that islands have close-knit communities, high-value natural capital and the potential for renewable energy. Perhaps the minister will share my view that the UK should have joined the other 14 EU countries in the clean energy for EU islands initiative, which was signed in Malta in 2017. However, the survey also said that islands experienced higher vulnerability to climate change through heightening sea levels and an increased likelihood of storms.

I believe that the time is right for a new islands act that builds on the best practice from Scotland, as exemplified by the our islands, our future campaign, which has been mentioned often today and which looks to Europe and beyond.

Perhaps the best exemplar that I can find for future legislation—and the minister is aware of this—is the Japanese Remote Islands Development Act of 1953, with which all members will be intimately familiar. It was one of the first pieces of legislation in the world to recognise the distinct nature of island communities. As a result of that act, the Japanese island of Okinawa, which has close ties with the UHI, became a prefecture, which is the first level of jurisdiction and administrative division in Japan. Perhaps, in winding up, the minister could comment further on best practice. I hope that he has swotted up on the 1953 act since I last warned him about it. In addition, I ask the minister to say whether he supports the plea to have a single public service authority in the islands, which would combine health, local authority and elements of Highlands and Islands Enterprise.

Nearer to home, it is worth stressing that there is nothing new in the argument for strengthening our island communities. The Montgomery committee, which reported in April 1984, recommended consolidating, developing and extending the powers of island councils. One of the key elements of the Treaty on European Union was the principle of subsidiarity—that is, taking decisions in a localised, decentralised way. The EU has always had strong and consistent policies to give special attention to the specific characteristics of territories with serious and permanent handicaps, including islands. Those handicaps are well known to islanders: limited and costly modes of transport, restricted and declining economic activities, the fragility of markets and the loss of young people.

So what would an islands bill look like? As we have said, the template is the our islands, our future campaign. However, new powers need new financial muscle. Real devolution means resource-based control: transferring control of the sea bed from the Crown Estate to island authorities and onwards to the community land and harbour trusts. New powers need strategic decision making in the planning, designing and commissioning of mainland-to-island ferry services, and the recognition of island status in the Scottish constitutional set-up.

As well as gaining new powers, we must keep what works well. As the old cliché says, if it ain’t broke, why fix it? That is why many of my colleagues across the chamber are so keen to see HIE’s headquarters remain in the Highlands and Islands, with a single HIE board and chief executive, and continued decentralisation of staff in our island authorities. The bigger picture is that we need active Scottish Government and Westminster Government commitment to the relocation of public sector jobs to island communities—for example, CalMac jobs to the Western Isles, Marine Scotland jobs to Shetland and the Crown Estate’s headquarters to Orkney, as a starter for 10. It is clear that there is support for the principle of island proofing to fight isolation, remoteness and peripherality.

I will finish my speech as I started it, by quoting Willie Ross in the 1965 debate about the Highlands and Islands. He said:

“No part of Scotland has been given a shabbier deal by history from the ’45 onwards. Too often there has been only one way out of troubles for the person born in the Highlands and islands—emigration.”—[Official Report, House of Commons, 16 March 1965; Vol 708, c 1095.]

Those who are entrusted with carrying out the duties in the new Islands (Scotland) Bill might find themselves involved in a date with history and being part of the history of Scotland. In the words of Sir Walter Scott, all that we need is

“The will to do, the soul to dare.”

15:33  



John Finnie (Highlands and Islands) (Green)

I, too, would like to thank the various participants who have contributed to the debate and to the briefings, and also our staff. I am very grateful to my colleague David Stewart. Life is an education, and I did not think that I would ever be making a note of the Japanese Remote Islands Development Act of 1953, which will be my bedtime reading tonight.

A lot of reference has been made to the our islands, our future campaign, which is entirely what politics should be about—local communities coming together with shared interests and people working to shape policies. All the individuals, serving and past, who were involved in the campaign are to be commended. That ties in with paragraph 4 of the Government’s policy memorandum, which says:

“Some of the most resilient and supportive communities in Scotland are within the islands.”

Many of us knew that already, but if we had been in any doubt, it would have become apparent during many of our visits out. The policy memorandum goes on to say:

“However, island communities face challenges around geographic remoteness, declining populations, transport and digital connections, and other issues.”

It is fair to say that some of those are not unique to islands. Contributors have spoken about the challenges in remote areas in Highland and also in Argyll and Bute, and reference has been made to the other local authority that has island responsibility, which is North Ayrshire Council.

Very welcome steps have been taken such as the introduction of RET, and I was delighted to be part of the resolution of the internal ferries funding issue for the northern isles, which the Parliament was in agreement over and which has been a very positive development for the islands.

As the minister is aware, expectations have been raised by the bill. Indeed, others have referred to the expectations with regard to remote communities; in that respect, I would point out Knoydart and Scoraig in my part of the world which, although part of the mainland, are accessible only by ferry.

The policy memorandum goes on to talk about the issues that were consulted on, the first of which is island proofing. My word, but we had a lot of discussion about what that meant and the expectations that it raised. There is an opportunity for some retrospection. I do not think that that should mean revisiting everything, but if an arrangement or system is not working—for instance, my colleague Liam McArthur mentioned fuel poverty—it should be revisited, and part of that work should include island proofing. We should never say never.

As for the bill’s implications for the Parliament and local government, we have to be alert to unintended consequences. There was a lot of discussion about the implications for ward size, membership and make-up, with a particular issue with wards that straddle island and mainland communities.

As ever, nothing is straightforward. I believe that my colleague Peter Chapman talked about care homes; I absolutely think that there are opportunities in that respect, but they have to be realistic. Not every island will have its own secondary school or hospital, but if we had more of the collaborative working that was commended by the Christie commission—which we all talk about and on which we still have a long way to go—some of these things could be delivered. Indeed, I think that David Stewart asked the minister for his position on a single purpose authority.

Of course, such things have to be viable. With hospitals, for example, that might be about being able to recruit and retain staff and having the necessary flow of business to ensure people’s continuing professional development. However, there are also opportunities. In gathering evidence for our report on the bill, the committee looked at the use of information technology, which is very much the norm in many parts of the Highlands and Islands and is to be commended. After all, we have to grow our population, and not just in the islands; Community Land Scotland talked about repopulating areas that had been cleared. I absolutely agree. The glens used to be full of people, and I would like to see them full of people again.

With regard to the Rural Economy and Connectivity Committee’s stage 1 report on the bill, it says under the heading “Local empowerment and devolution of powers”:

“The Committee supports the empowerment of island communities and the devolution of appropriate powers by the Scottish Government.”

I would hope that that would be the position, without reservation, of everyone in the chamber, because that is what the very issue is. That said, there is still a debate to be had about the areas that should be covered and the implications of some of the legislation. As for the national islands plan, there is also an issue about the expectations that are being raised, and I am pleased that the local authorities will have an on-going involvement in that.

People on the islands have always been creative, but they should not have to keep finding ways of offsetting some of the implications of decisions that are taken here or elsewhere. The issue of assessment has been mentioned, but we need evidence for that, and many of the flawed decisions that have been made at UK, Scottish and, indeed, local authority levels have come about as a result of inadequate assessment of the implications.

In the very short time that I have left, I will mention something that would be very helpful to not only island communities but rural communities and, indeed, the whole place: a resolution of the procurement issue. When we visited the islands, we heard about the challenges of bidding for contracts; people find that contracts get awarded to one of the very large national organisations and are then subsequently subcontracted to local communities, obviously with a sum of money removed. We need to get procurement right.

Overall, there are lots of positives, but there is more work to be done.

15:39  



John Mason (Glasgow Shettleston) (SNP)

I am delighted to speak on the bill. I am not sure whether we are meant to enjoy our work in Parliament, especially when that involves working on a bill, but I have to say that I have not enjoyed working on any legislation as much as I have enjoyed working on this bill. Scotland’s islands are fantastic, and not only for their inhabitants; I believe that they are a central part of the culture and heritage of us all.

As members have heard, the committee had a formal meeting in Orkney and a full visit to Mull. Some of us went to Harris and Lewis and, along the way, I also managed to get to Skye and Ulva, so I am particularly delighted that the latter is now moving towards a community buyout.

The reality is that there was a huge amount of agreement on the committee and, I think, among the islanders and their representatives whom we met that we want to make things better for islands and their communities and that we want this Parliament and other organisations to have them more at the front of our minds rather than at the back. Therefore, we probably all agree on some 90 per cent of the bill. Inevitably, however, today we must focus on the 10 per cent about which we have questions or reservations.

The first issue is the question of a purpose clause for the bill. I think that there is an argument for all, or most, bills having a purpose clause. The act that re-established the Scottish Parliament stated:

“There shall be a Scottish Parliament.”

Donald Dewar liked that, and I like that. I wonder whether it should be more of the norm in our legislation that we put more emphasis on the principles behind an act and move away from a very legalistic approach where the focus is on the individual words, which brings with it the danger that we and the courts might sometimes lose sight of the bigger picture.

I accept that there are challenges to including a purpose clause and I have read the Government’s comments on that. For example, we would have to decide what the wording should be. However, something along the lines of “Our intention is that Scotland should have thriving islands” would be the kind of thing that I would like.

The second issue concerns the phrases “island proofing” and “island impact assessment”. In some of our meetings, those phrases were used interchangeably, as has been mentioned already this afternoon. We spent a bit of time in the committee discussing those two terms, whether they meant the same thing and what message they sent out. To me, “island proofing” suggests an idea such as waterproofing, whereby someone is just as dry standing out in the rain as they would be indoors because of the waterproof clothing that they are wearing. However, that cannot be what is meant. Living on an island has many benefits as well as many challenges. It can never be the same as living in a city or even in a remote mainland area.

The third issue—remaining on the issue of island impact assessments—concerns the decision not to fully mitigate differences. I think that it is important to clarify that. We discussed many scenarios around island impact assessments and what would happen when they were carried out. Clearly, what will not happen in every case is that the same services that are available on the mainland will be available on every island—John Finnie just made that point. One example was whether a care home on Mull could be justified. We asked whether, if the difference is not to be fully mitigated—for example, if there is a decision not to provide the care home on Mull—a cost benefit analysis and/or an explanation should be given. I am glad that the Government agrees with us on that point.

The fourth issue concerns uninhabited islands. The focus of the bill is on island communities, and rightly so. However, we have islands that used to be inhabited and are now uninhabited, the most dramatic example of which is St Kilda. The RSPB has argued that such islands are important in relation to wildlife. However, to me, St Kilda is much more than a place for birds to feed and nest. I always wanted to visit the island after reading its story and finding out about the struggles that people had before the evacuation in 1930. It is part of our heritage and our story as a nation. Visiting it was one of the most special experiences of my life. While I note the Government response that inhabited islands will be covered in the plan, I confess to being a little bit disappointed, because I think that uninhabited islands deserve a mention in the bill.

Gail Ross

Does John Mason agree that there are also islands that are inhabited at some times of the year and not others?

John Mason

That is a valid point, and I absolutely agree.

The fifth issue concerns the definition of an island. Having made some comments on this issue in the committee, I think that I need to make some comments about it this afternoon—I can see Kate Forbes looking at me sharply.

As members will have seen, we heard the argument that remote parts of the mainland such as Ardnamurchan and Cape Wrath have similar challenges to islands. However, on Mull, we were reminded that, if someone is seriously ill at night, the only option is a lifeboat or a helicopter. In that respect, islands are different. On Skye or in Ardnamurchan, it is at least possible to drive or get an ambulance, albeit the distances and travel times are very great.

I agree with the definition in Hamish Haswell-Smith’s excellent book on all Scottish islands, which says that an island must be

“entirely surrounded by seawater”

at lowest tide and have

“no permanent means of dry access”.

I accept that that is just one definition and that the definition in the bill is different and wider. I am sure that the Government will be glad to hear that I do not intend to lodge an amendment on that point. However, I agree with the wider argument that very remote parts of the mainland—such as Knoydart, which is on the mainland but must be accessed by ferry—need similar consideration.

I have really enjoyed working on the bill. I have visited 38 Scottish islands—by my definition—and I want to see a bright future for those key parts of our nation’s identity. The bill has room for amendment, but I look forward to it passing stage 1 later tonight.

15:45  



Mike Rumbles (North East Scotland) (LD)

The Scottish Liberal Democrats welcome the fact that we are debating the Islands (Scotland) Bill, which we support. That should come as no surprise, given that we said in our 2016 election manifesto that we would

“Introduce an Islands Act to island-proof all legislation, to give Scottish ministers the right to issue guidance to public authorities as to the way they can vary national services to make them more suitable for islands, subject to local authority consent.”

If the Liberal Democrats had laid an islands bill before Parliament, it would have been a little more robust than the Scottish Government’s bill—although, as I said, we welcome the bill that we are discussing today.

As we have heard, members of the Rural Economy and Connectivity Committee took a great deal of evidence when we examined the bill. It is testament to the constructive approach of all 11 members of the committee that we were able to agree a unanimous report. I hope that the minister takes that on board at stage 2, when he lodges amendments. It is almost always more effective for the minister to lodge amendments, which we can then all support.

As we have already heard, the committee heard from islanders and other stakeholders that they would have liked the bill to identify objectives because that would have given the legislation greater purpose and focus. However, the Government has declined to do that, preferring to address the issue in the national islands plan, which will be published some time after we have finished scrutinising the bill. As MSPs, it is our job to interrogate the bill and we must do so without sight of the Government’s plan. That is not a good start.

One of our main concerns about the bill relates to the issue of island proofing. Our worry is that the Government may be raising expectations among islanders that, for every one of their service changes, the 66 public bodies that are mentioned in the bill will have to adapt their plans to meet the needs of islanders. As we have heard, no extra public money is being made available to islanders as a result of the bill—and we are not requesting that it should be. However, the approach means that all 66 public bodies, which all affect the lives of our islanders, must show how they have taken account of the special circumstances of the islands when they make policy decisions.

When I have discussed the bill with islanders, one of their most important concerns is that the process of island proofing, or of undertaking impact assessments, must not under any circumstance turn into a simple tick-box exercise. That point came across time and again. I foresee that as a major issue that should have been addressed in the bill. We should have a clear process—as the Liberal Democrats outlined in our manifesto—by which those 66 bodies should conduct the impact assessments. We cannot have a board member sitting in an office in the central belt filling in a form to say that he or she has considered the impact of such and such a policy on the islands and is proceeding with it anyway. We need a clear direction from the Government as to exactly how public bodies should approach the impact assessments when island proofing their policies.

In its recommendations, the committee said that the guidance produced by the Scottish Government must require those conducting an impact assessment to make clear the ways in which the views of local people will be incorporated in the decision-making process. That does not necessarily mean that those public bodies must do what local people say, but they must make it clear why they have a particular policy or why they cannot do something. Although in its response to the committee’s report the Scottish Government welcomes that recommendation, it goes on to say that it does not want to be prescriptive—but that is the point. We are missing an opportunity here.

There are other missed opportunities in the bill, one of which is the lack of a section dealing with the retrospective island proofing of legislation. As colleagues have said, we do not necessarily have to throw open the doors to every piece of legislation, but the bill should include a process that allows aspects of previous legislation to be looked at.

Humza Yousaf

I will address that issue in more detail in my closing speech, but does the member have in mind a piece of legislation that he wants us to look at retrospectively, on which we can perhaps engage and have a conversation?

Mike Rumbles

I welcome that very constructive suggestion. My two colleagues Liam McArthur and Tavish Scott certainly have pieces of legislation in mind. We will come to see the minister as a result of that kind invitation.

I know that James Stockan, the leader of Orkney Islands Council, considers that a section on retrospective island proofing, among other things, would make a profound difference to island communities and would enhance this historic piece of legislation. We all want to see the bill transform communities; we do not want to miss this opportunity.

The Scottish Liberal Democrats welcome the bill and will support it, but it can be improved and we will aim to do just that—with the minister, we hope—at stages 2 and 3 of the legislative process.

15:51  



Angus MacDonald (Falkirk East) (SNP)

I refer members to my entry in the register of members’ interests: I own a non-domestic property in the Comhairle nan Eilean Siar area.

I am pleased to contribute to this debate on the Islands (Scotland) Bill, given that I was born and bred on the Isle of Lewis, where my family have farmed more than 400 acres just outside that great metropolis of Stornoway for nearly 100 years and where I have seen at first hand the challenges faced by businesses, especially by my family’s firms, which involved wholesale and retail butchering and livestock auctioneering.

It has always been a challenge to farm in the Outer Hebrides, as farmers are faced with the double whammy of Atlantic gales and transport costs; running successful businesses there is no mean feat. However, over the years, successive Governments have taken welcome measures to make life for island businesses easier—for example, our cattle lorries could travel one way on the ferry free as long as they were empty, which helped to reduce the added financial burden when transporting livestock to and from the island. The same measure applied to any lorries that we had coming over from the mainland with livestock feed or hay and straw.

Those measures were all very welcome, but they were not enough to stop us throwing in the towel in the mid-2000s, when we closed down our auction mart. We did not leave the crofters high and dry—we provided a purpose-built crofters’ co-operative with the land to build a new auction mart, for which they secured HIE funding.

Around the same time, faced with transport costs, supermarket competition in Stornoway and more excessive red tape, the scunnered factor well and truly set in and we closed down our wholesale and retail butchering businesses. Given the reported challenges that Brexit will bring to sheep farming in the Highlands and Islands, the days of the family farms in Stornoway may well be numbered, too.

The Islands (Scotland) Bill is coming along at just the right time and, along with the Community Empowerment (Scotland) Act 2015, the Land Reform (Scotland) Act 2016, the forthcoming crofting bill that is expected during this session of Parliament, and the Scottish Crown Estate Bill that was introduced a couple of weeks ago, as well as accelerated provision of high-speed broadband, there is hope that decline in the Inner and Outer Hebrides can be reversed.

That said, I agree with Edward Mountain, the convener of the Rural Economy and Connectivity Committee, that the Islands (Scotland) Bill is not a panacea that will solve all our island challenges. Furthermore, it will not exempt the islands from a lot of the pain that we will all feel post-Brexit.

The committee is correct to state in its stage 1 report that the Scottish Government will need to manage the expectations of islanders, who may expect more immediate, tangible outcomes to be delivered from the bill, should it be passed. Therefore, it is vital that the planned island-proofing provision in the bill is not token, and it is doubly important that the Scottish ministers should have the power to issue statutory guidance on island proofing to relevant public bodies. Those bodies would have to adhere to the guidance in the exercise of their functions and duties. As Comhairle nan Eilean Siar has suggested, an appropriate way to proceed would be to entrench the statutory guidance in the process for making decisions, in a similar manner to that used to fulfil the public sector equality duty. Comhairle nan Eilean Siar made the specific suggestion that the duty should apply to all public bodies, unless a particular public body can satisfy the Scottish ministers that the duty is not relevant to its functions.

Island proofing should apply to the development of any policy or law within the competence of the Scottish Parliament and, of course, it should be hoped and expected that the UK Government will adopt similar guidance for the consideration of policies that are reserved to Westminster and the agencies that have a remit in Scotland.

The UK Government’s proposal to ban live animal exports is a current salient example. Such a ban would have a devastating effect on livestock producers in the Western Isles as well as, I am sure, the northern isles. By necessity, livestock that travels from the Outer Hebrides to the mainland can often be on trucks for longer than livestock that crosses the English Channel, because of ferry timings and storm delays. Although that is far from ideal, it is the only way for island producers to get their stock to markets or to send their stock to better pasture for finishing. I was therefore delighted to see the Cabinet Secretary for Rural Economy and Connectivity, Fergus Ewing, take a strong stance on the issue a couple of days ago. He said:

“this is one UK-wide framework the Scottish government will not be participating in.”

That is a prime example of how, without island proofing, the economy of the islands and the livelihoods of crofters and farmers could be severely disadvantaged. I note that the Deputy Presiding Officer, Christine Grahame, is attempting to bring to the chamber a members’ business debate on banning live animal exports. If her motion secures cross-party support, I look forward to that debate taking place. Needless to say, I have not signed the motion.

The Deputy Presiding Officer (Christine Grahame)

I remind Angus MacDonald that I am in the chair, so I am silenced. However, inside I am not silenced.

Angus MacDonald

Okay. That is noted, Presiding Officer.

In written evidence to the committee, Community Land Scotland put forward a pertinent argument, saying that

“a key question to be asked”

when new policy and law is being considered

“would be whether the devolution of more power to the Islands Councils or Councils with islands would be potentially advantageous to the governance and sustainability of those areas.”

There is merit in that argument, and I hope that it will be considered during the development of the national islands plan, which will, I understand, be laid before the Parliament within 12 months of the act coming into force.

There are so many aspects to the bill that it is impossible to cover all of them in the time available, but I hope that I have given a sense of where I come from on it. Suffice it to say that I wish the Rural Economy and Connectivity Committee well for stage 2, and I look forward to the bill returning to the chamber for stage 3.

15:57  



Donald Cameron (Highlands and Islands) (Con)

I welcome the opportunity to contribute to this stage 1 debate on the Islands (Scotland) Bill, which marks a significant step towards real island devolution.

One of the great aspects of being a Highlands and Islands MSP is the ability to represent islanders in the Parliament. Having been to Islay and Lewis in the past month—I have another visit to Lewis tomorrow—I am acutely aware of what the bill could do for those communities. I commend the Rural Economy and Connectivity Committee for its visits across the islands. It has certainly succeeded in getting people talking—at least, the people whom I have met in the past months.

I join others in thanking the island councils and the communities in those islands for all their work in helping to bring the bill to fruition. It was their persistence—principally through the our islands, our future campaign, which other members have mentioned—that drove the Government to deliver on that, and it is because of their efforts that we are having this debate. That is why it is so important that they are still involved in the process as we go forward.

I have argued before in the chamber against the SNP Government’s centralising agenda. It is refreshing to see, for once, the Government looking to devolve power away from the centre and deliver real support for our island communities.

As others have said, it is crucial that we ensure that there is not simply a box-ticking exercise. Many people have used the phrase “tick-box exercise”—in a way, the phrase has been overused—but that says something very important. The legislation must be meaningful. It must strengthen and support those in our most remote areas, and it is important that we lay the groundwork for a national islands plan that can build on the bill and deliver real and tangible change. Mike Rumbles gave the very vivid image of someone in the central belt just filling in a form. We cannot allow that to happen. The legislation must be meaningful.

The Rural Economy and Connectivity Committee has recommended to the Government that the six local authorities with island interests be made statutory consultees in the development of a national islands plan, and I support that, because it is essential to guarantee that the island communities that inspired the bill and the plan, and which they seek to benefit, are at the centre of the process.

That recommendation recognises another point, which is that, although much of the debate is rightly centred on the three island authorities that have driven the process, we must be aware that they are not the only local authorities in Scotland that have islands in their areas and which face complex needs. In the Highlands and Islands region, which I represent, Argyll and Bute Council has some 23 inhabited islands in its area, which is more than any other local authority in Scotland, and the Highland Council area includes 15 inhabited islands, according to the most recent census. In addition, as John Finnie mentioned, there are many mainland areas that are in some ways like islands—they might have peninsulas or be very far away from other parts of the country—and I am glad that the committee covered them in its final recommendation.

Although all the councils with islands are administered from the mainland, with the bulk of their populations being in mainland settlements, we must not forget that they face issues that are very similar to those that are faced by the three island authorities. Council colleagues across the political spectrum who represent island communities regularly tell me that they often struggle to implement many of the changes that are directed by Government and, in common with the three island authorities, they find it difficult to do things such as fund care for the elderly, meet the additional support needs of the most vulnerable people, and assist children as they transition from primary to secondary education.

It is also important to note the diversity of the councils that cover large urban populations and remote island communities. The island-proofing process must be able to fit the unique complexities of all the authorities with islands because, as the report states,

“the success of the Bill will be determined by the practical difference that it makes to individual communities.”

That is the central point. That is how the bill will be judged. The islanders I know are independent minded and robust in their views, and they will be frank and honest if the bill makes no practical difference. It is clear that island proofing is a step in the right direction.

Other members have said that there is a strong case for retrospective impact assessments to be carried out, and I hope that the Government takes heed of those calls. After all, how can we bring about substantial change in our island communities if we island proof only new legislation? I believe that the Government needs to look at relevant previous legislation and determine whether it is fit for the islands, too. That will be no mean feat, but if we want to get this right, we must attempt it.

Beyond the intricacies of the bill, many members have mentioned the difficulties that islanders face nowadays. They have an ageing population; they face high delivery charges, high building costs and high fuel costs; and far too many premises still do not have a broadband connection. An issue that many island communities mention to me is the risk of depopulation. Argyll and Bute has a particular problem in that respect. Reversing that trend must be at the heart of the bill.

The Cabinet Secretary for Rural Economy and Connectivity (Fergus Ewing)

As far as broadband is concerned, Mr Cameron knows that we have the £600 million reaching 100 per cent scheme, almost all of which is funded by the Scottish Government—the UK Government proposes to contribute only 3 per cent. Will Mr Cameron join us in calling on the UK Government to increase its contribution to that scheme from a measly and pathetic 3 per cent of the total?

Donald Cameron

I will not rise to the bait, although I will mention that I have spoken to a business that could have set up anywhere, but which did so in the Western Isles. It had to move away after a couple of years, because it did not have a good enough signal or broadband of sufficient quality. That is the reality.

I welcome the bill’s intentions, and I sincerely thank local authorities for their efforts in driving it forward. It is essential that its provisions do not become empty words. The Scottish Government needs to clarify the overarching aim of the plan, to incorporate in the process those councils that have already worked so hard in developing it and to ensure that the bill is meaningful for all our island communities.

16:04  



Fulton MacGregor (Coatbridge and Chryston) (SNP)

As a non-declaration of interests, I say that there are no islands in my constituency. However, I am a member of the Rural Economy and Connectivity Committee, so I thank the clerks and all who gave evidence during stage 1.

I particularly enjoyed the opportunity to visit Mull and to hear at first hand how the bill will impact positively on communities. That was the only island visit that I managed to go on.

We have had much ground-breaking legislation in Parliament recently: the bill is certainly in that category. It aims to offer greater powers to the islands local authorities and to meet the specific challenges of their communities. Our island communities face a host of issues including depopulation, housing, transport and jobs. We must accept that the challenges in addressing those issues are different from the challenges in addressing similar issues on the mainland, which is why we need the bill.

The bill includes giving islands councils powers over activities that take place on or around their coastlines—the hope being that communities there can benefit from greater empowerment. I welcome the positive contributions of the islands authorities, which have fought for more powers for a long time.

The main principles of the bill include the creation of a national islands plan, which will set out the main objectives and strategies of the Scottish Government, including greater flexibility around councillor representation in island communities. I believe that my colleague Richard Lyle will talk a bit more about that later. It also includes extending to islands councils powers in relation to marine licensing.

I want to concentrate on a couple of areas. Tourism is probably most relevant to me. I recall my first trip to Skye many years ago—I say that Skye is an island—on a clear weekend with beautiful scenery and eagles flying in the sky. On the Sunday, it was difficult to find open shops or to get fuel for the car. Those were all new experiences.

As a member of the committee, how do I hope the bill will benefit tourism? Better transport and accessibility should increase tourism. People can fall in love with places like Skye and want to stay there, which helps to address depopulation issues.

The £6 million rural tourism infrastructure fund was announced by the First Minister in October to support sustainable growth in rural tourism across Scotland. The latest figures indicate notable increases in visitor numbers to rural tourism sites, and I am pleased with that. I know that Skye is one of those areas, but there was a lot of bad press about it which, I have to confess, I do not totally understand. I would have thought that an increase would be a good thing, but I stand to be corrected if that is not the case. Of course, we also have the “Outlander” effect at the moment, which means that people are visiting Historic Environment Scotland sites.

We have also touched on the broadband issue: it is talked about a lot in the chamber and at the Rural Economy and Connectivity Committee. Achieving better connectivity through providing broadband and through making it faster where it already exists will provide more scope for people to run sustainable businesses. Business brings people, which is good for island communities.

The SNP will build on earlier successes and, through the reaching 100 per cent programme—R100—and its £600 million, we will deliver a future-proofed national fibre broadband network that will make rural Scotland one of the best-connected places in Europe, and will underpin future economic growth. By the end of 2021, Scotland will be the only part of the UK where every single home and business can access superfast broadband. That is the level of commitment to all our communities.

It is worth mentioning equalities: the committee report welcomes the potential of the bill to improve equalities. In evidence, we heard about occupational segregation between men and women on the islands, and about issues around equality for the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender communities.

We did not take a lot of evidence on Brexit but, again, question marks hang over the status of EU citizens who work in our tourism and other sectors. On human rights, we discussed the lack of nursing homes and foster placements, and what people do when they need those services. People often need to leave the islands to go into a home, for example.

It is also worth mentioning how we scrutinised the bill. My colleague Jenny Gilruth is on the record talking about how the committee is all male, apart from the deputy convener, Gail Ross. It is worth recognising that we scrutinised the bill in that context. We should reflect on that.

Presiding Officer—you will know that I always take time to talk about my constituency in every debate in which I speak. From the outside, it might seem as though there is no link between the bill and Coatbridge and Chryston. In my opinion, that is untrue. One of the themes in committee was that many of the issues that island communities face are also faced on the rural mainland, as Gail Ross and others have mentioned.

This innovative bill can perhaps lead the way and teach us how to proof all our communities. I was born and raised in the largest and most urban part of my constituency—Coatbridge—but since being elected I have made it my business to understand the village communities that make up the Chryston part of the constituency name. There are some striking similarities with what we have heard about the islands. All the villages—Stepps, Chryston, Moodiesburn, Gartcosh, Glenboig and Muirhead—have fairly small populations but unique identities and issues, and they have passionate communities.

Working-class Moodiesburn has shocking poverty and health statistics, and is home to the Auchengeich miners memorial site, but, ironically, it has very little in the way of health and leisure facilities. There is a feeling that it has been left out in the transfer of the health boards. In more affluent Stepps, where many older people live, the last bank in town, the Royal Bank of Scotland, is being stripped from the community, and those people also face the closure of the only care home that covers the whole village area. The issue in those towns, including Gartcosh, is perhaps expansion rather than depopulation. We maybe need to think about how village identities can be maintained and how people’s voices can be heard. The list could go on—

The Deputy Presiding Officer

No it cannot, because you have had your six minutes.

Fulton MacGregor

The Islands (Scotland) Bill can lead on those issues for all communities.

16:11  



Lewis Macdonald (North East Scotland) (Lab)

Action to support Scotland’s islands is a good thing, but we need to be clear about what kind of action is needed and on which islands. That is why part 1 of the bill is important. Definitions matter; no amount of detailed provision will achieve the desired effect if the definitions fail to make it clear where the law will apply, or if the definitions are too narrow. I could mention the High Hedges (Scotland) Act 2013 as a recent example of such a failure, but that is for another day.

This bill’s definition of “island”, as we have heard, is now uncontroversial, and that is good. The problem is that the bill makes a distinction in law between inhabited and uninhabited islands, which in the context of the history and culture of Scotland’s islands is unnecessary and undesirable.

New legal categories such as “inhabited island”, “permanently inhabited island” and “island communities” are not required in order to deliver the policy purposes of the bill; island communities are not defined by counting heads.

For example, the isle of Harris, which I know well, is a permanently inhabited island with a very strong sense of identity and community. However, the community of Harris does not stop at its beaches—fabulous though so many of them are. The inhabited islands of Scalpay and Berneray off Harris are strong communities in their own right and more than meet the criteria in the bill. They are also part of the community of Hearachs—Harris people—and they are seen as such by the people who live there and by those who live on Harris itself.

The wider community does not stop there. Taransay, Scarp, Ensay and St Kilda all ceased to be permanently inhabited in the 20th century, and Pabbay was cleared for sheep in the 19th century. That does not mean that they have ceased to be islands with a history and culture of their own, nor does it mean that they have ceased to be part of the wider community of Harris.

St Kilda is well known. It is a world heritage site that belongs to the National Trust for Scotland, which works to conserve and protect the natural environment and the cultural heritage of the St Kilda islands in partnership with Scottish Natural Heritage and the Ministry of Defence.

Taransay hit the nation’s television screens with the series “Castaway”, which was one of the first—and certainly one of the best—reality TV series of this century. Scarp is famous for the experiment in rocket post in the 1930s, when people still lived there all year round. Pabbay and Ensay are less well known, but they are still included in the common grazings of crofters in Harris.

A definition of islands communities that excludes any or all of those islands would not reflect the community of Harris as it is understood by Hearachs, and an islands plan that covered Berneray but not Ensay would fail to address in a holistic and joined-up way the challenges that our islands face.

It is misguided, too, to create a legal category of “permanently inhabited” islands. The Law Society of Scotland objects that there is no such concept in Scots law, and proposes “ordinary residence” instead, but in fact neither of those constraints on the application of the bill is necessary or useful.

As far as local council wards are concerned, people included in the register of electors would count, so there is no need for further definition in that regard. However, if there are permanently inhabited islands, then there are, by implication, permanently uninhabited islands too, which is a notion that most islanders would strongly reject.

If Harris crofters can land their sheep on Ensay, that island is within the scope of human habitation, even if there is no one living there at the moment. When I went out to the Shiant Islands on a fast RIB—rigid-inflatable boat—last summer, there were clothes drying on a line next to a house on what this bill will, by default, define as an uninhabited island. What is true for Harris and its satellite islands is surely true for all the island groups, from Shetland to the islands of the Firth of Clyde. Island plans, which could include only permanently inhabited islands and exclude their neighbours, would not properly deal with whole island groups and communities.

For example, as I mentioned to the minister earlier, the policy intention of the bill is said to be to extend the provisions of the Zetland County Council Act 1974 to other island local authorities, but in fact it will limit island licensing areas to areas including an inhabited island. I can find no such limitation in the Zetland County Council Act, which means that the bill potentially reduces the scope of that act in the Shetland Islands—never mind extending it to other islands.

Neither human habitation nor the lack of it defines an island, nor should depopulation ever be defined by this Parliament as “permanent”. Islands that have been emptied of people can be inhabited again, as Vatersay has been. Where that has not been achieved, repopulation is often still the aspiration of those who once lived there or their descendants. To maximise the future potential for living communities in our islands we should plan for each and all of our island groups as whole groups and not only for the currently inhabited parts. If we take that approach, we can also envisage them in a holistic way from the point of view of nature conservation, protecting native species from invasive species, and maximising the tourism and economic potential of all our islands—inhabited or otherwise.

A national islands plan must cover all our islands—those that are inhabited only in the summer, those that are inhabited all year round and those that are currently uninhabited. That way, we can really deliver in support for our island communities the step change that they need and deserve.

16:17  



Kate Forbes (Skye, Lochaber and Badenoch) (SNP)

Our islands are not mini museums, visitor centres or somebody’s play park. They are homes, for the most part. It has never been so important to promote islanders’ voices, to harness islands’ resources and to enhance the wellbeing of island communities. We talk about remoteness, but the islands are not so much remote from Edinburgh as Edinburgh and London are remote from the islands. That is why the term “island proofing”, which has been used frequently in the debate, is so important, because islanders face changes in healthcare, education and public services, as they develop the huge renewable energy potential of their natural resources, and as they use community empowerment legislation and the £10 million community land fund to turn their ideas into reality.

As I see it, all that has one aim: to reverse the trend of depopulation on the islands. One of the greatest challenges, for example, remains recruiting and retaining staff in public services. Another challenge is enabling private businesses to grow by giving them access to talent pools. Just yesterday, the UK Government blocked a Canadian Gaelic teacher from coming to Scotland and starting her new job as a primary school teacher on the Isle of Mull after the role had been vacant for six months. There are serious questions about recruitment and retention, and about skills and talent pools, and the last thing that we should be doing is clamping down on immigration.

One size does not fit all. Highland Council does what it can in an area the size of Belgium and with a coastline that, including islands, is more than 20 per cent of Scotland’s total coastline. Changes that are rubber-stamped in Inverness, Edinburgh or London must recognise the geography of our island communities, where ferry timetables, stormy weather and long distances have got to be factored in. The bill is needed because decision making is not always sufficiently island proofed at the moment. I will give two negative examples of that, followed by two positive examples of where it works.

On healthcare, I have been fighting for overnight out-of-hours cover on the Isle of Raasay for almost two years since I was elected, but NHS Highland has still not recruited somebody to cover those out-of-hours overnight periods on an island whose link to the mainland ceases to exist at 6 pm every night when the ferry stops running and does not recommence until the next morning. It is not possible to hop in the car and get help and it is not always possible for emergency services to dock or land in stormy weather, so why is there still no out-of-hours overnight cover on the Isle of Raasay?

Over the water in Skye, island residents in the far north depend on out-of-hours urgent care in Portree but, despite the hard work and dedication of doctors and nurses there, the too-frequent suspension of that out-of-hours cover is not acceptable, because it is not sustainable.

Edward Mountain

I speak at this point as an individual, not as the convener of the committee, as I did earlier. One of the things about people moving to live on islands is the fact that that requires a huge commitment from families. Surely part of the island-proofing process must be to ensure that contracts are sufficiently long term to attract people. That is one of the messages that we should put across.

Kate Forbes

I agree. Contracts have to be long term and there have to be decent salaries, but consideration also has to be given to alternative jobs in island communities. That goes back to clamping down on immigration. A lot of people who are working in our health service have come from beyond the UK. We should actively recruit people with the necessary skills in education and healthcare to move to our islands, as we saw with the very effective recruitment campaign for the Isle of Muck.

The Government has a good track record in adapting policy to islands and rural communities, such as the £5 million island housing fund that complements the £25 million rural housing fund. That is vital because the gap between average incomes and average house prices in our remote communities is too wide, and it is not helped by the high number of holiday homes.

Our island residents know the meaning of the word “resilience”. The people of Muck, Rum, Canna, Eigg, Raasay and Skye, to name just a few, have known it for centuries. I am sympathetic to John Scott’s point about including remote and rural parts of the mainland, too, given that my family comes from Applecross.

I will close with a brief story, which could just as easily be applied to islands, about how Governments can make or break communities by either investing in them or ignoring them. In August 1883, in a village near Applecross, my great-great-grandfather appeared before the Napier commission to plead for a road. He told the commissioners that 400 people were living in the 12 villages on the north coast of the peninsula and that there were three primary schools but no road. The people promised to build the road themselves and they promised to raise their rents, but the Government would not build them a road. Over the next 100 years, people left and the schools closed. Finally, in the 1970s a bulldozer appeared to blast through the rock as Government funds were finally found to build a road because the Ministry of Defence needed the inner sound for a torpedo range. That is history, but it is the context to the bill. That is why I believe that the bill is making history.

16:23  



Jamie Halcro Johnston (Highlands and Islands) (Con)

As an MSP representing the Highlands and Islands, and as an Orcadian, I welcome the introduction of the bill and the commencement of its legislative process. I extend my thanks to the Rural Economy and Connectivity Committee for its stage 1 report and the scrutiny work that it has undertaken.

Scotland’s island communities are distinct societies with distinct identities within Scotland and the wider United Kingdom. Those communities have long histories that are intertwined with but often separate from Scotland as a whole.

I was only four years old when my family moved home to Orkney in 1979. There is no doubt that, even since then, the islands have changed. We have welcomed many newcomers to our shores over the centuries, and they have made a huge and positive contribution to island life, but our rich and distinct island heritage has not been lost and, importantly, it needs to be recognised, cherished and protected.

In one way, the bill is unusual—it was not introduced at the behest of a political party, but resulted from the campaigning of the islands’ representatives themselves. I welcome the fact that this work, led by the island authorities—particularly through the our islands, our future campaign—is raising the particular needs of island communities up the political agenda, at both Scottish and UK levels.

It is fundamental to any attempt to build and expand local democracy that communities are involved from the outset, and that their views and our views are taken into account throughout the process. A key part of this islands agenda will be the agreement of a coherent and robust national islands plan by the Scottish Government. The bill enables this but does not develop it; the islands agenda will be on-going and it must receive the attention and resources that it merits in the coming months and years.

As mentioned by my colleague Edward Mountain, who spoke on behalf of the Rural Economy and Connectivity Committee, the islands each have their own individual identities. I support the committee’s broad objective to ensure that local authorities also have island-level planning. We often speak of the islands facing challenges—in the delivery of public services, the availability of local employment, in relation to local infrastructure and in ensuring their communities’ sustainability for the generations ahead. In that, as John Scott and Gail Ross mentioned, the islands share many of the issues that are faced by remote and rural communities in mainland Scotland, where public services may be distant and connectivity may be poor. The islands serve as a helpful reminder that policy decisions made in Edinburgh must work not just for the populated central belt or the lowlands, but for Scotland in its entirety.

The bill’s commitment to island impact assessments is welcome and expectations are high that the Scottish Government and the 66 public bodies referenced in the bill will take full notice of the outcome of those assessments and address the need to mitigate policy choices that may have a negative effect on island communities.

In its response to the committee, the Scottish Government outlined that it accepted in principle that retrospective assessment of policies could take place where specific issues are highlighted. Additional clarity from ministers on how such a mechanism could be triggered would be welcome, because it is clear that there are policy decisions that have held the islands back. We know from recent figures that the islands lag seriously behind mainland Scotland and the rest of the UK in access to broadband as well as 4G connectivity and yet these are communities where, in many cases, the benefits of such connectivity could be greater than the benefits for mainland communities.

The wider point is that the impact must be interpreted as being about examining not only where islands are disadvantaged by change, but where they are left behind when change is being implemented in mainland communities. Within the island authorities, additional issues are often faced by the smaller islands, particularly in Orkney and Shetland. I am concerned that insufficient attention has been paid to those cases, where public services can often be at their most distant.

Sometimes, the wrong sort of investment can be a problem. During a trip to Westray, one of Orkney’s islands, in 2016, some residents told me that the broadband roll-out has left them with a less reliable and slower service than the satellite connections they had been encouraged to move away from. Island-level planning, as I mentioned previously, is one solution, but equally, island needs must be considered as part of wider planning from the Scottish Government.

Kate Forbes mentioned health services. At the end of last year, I spoke to the Cabinet Secretary for Health and Sport about the challenges facing Stronsay’s general practice; NHS Orkney suspended the resident medical team and reduced the service pending a review. Such services are vital and their importance should be understood across all tiers of government.

The private sector is of course a key provider of services to the islands. Although Orkney and Shetland have not been affected by the current round of RBS branch closures, we often see businesses and residents struggling when key services move away. The committee certainly recognised that the Scottish Government cannot place requirements on the private sector—although the Government’s response contained some welcome points on procurement—but I suggest that ministers could, in some cases, assess the level of access to such services as part of a wider view of island communities and their sustainability. That can affect how public services ought to be delivered, as well as highlight opportunities where the Scottish Government may be able to exert influence to positive effect.

There is hope on the islands that the bill could serve as a first step in giving greater recognition at the heart of Government to the priorities of island communities. Although I have joined colleagues and the committee in noting a number of concerns and areas in which further detail would be helpful, the bill remains a positive starting point for those discussions.

16:29  



Richard Lyle (Uddingston and Bellshill) (SNP)

I am delighted to contribute to this stage 1 debate on the Islands (Scotland) Bill, particularly as a member of the Rural Economy and Connectivity Committee, which takes a keen interest in the areas that the bill addresses. I pay tribute to all who gave evidence, the clerks, the convener and members of the committee, and, of course, Humza Yousaf, the Minister for Transport and the Islands.

I begin by reflecting on how historic, frankly, the bill can and will be. It will address the unique needs of Scotland’s islands, now and in the future. I hope that it will create the right environment for sustainable growth and, importantly, that it will empower communities. The development of the bill has had many milestones, and it is only right to acknowledge the Government’s work in getting us to where we are. I refer in particular to the work of the island areas ministerial working group, which responded to the our islands, our future campaign of Orkney Islands Council, Shetland Islands Council and Western Isles Council in 2013.

In 2014, the group published the prospectus “Empowering Scotland’s Island Communities”, which confirmed a commitment to principles of subsidiarity and local governance. The prospectus included a series of measures that were unanimously endorsed by the group, and the group reflected those principles by adopting the idea that decisions about island communities are best determined if they are made by those who know them best—the island communities themselves. The development of the measures was based on three fundamental objectives: promoting the voices of the islanders; harnessing island resources; and enhancing the wellbeing of our island communities.

In November 2014, the Government fulfilled the commitment that was made in the prospectus. I believe that the Government continues to provide a focus on the issues that are most important to all Scotland’s island communities and a voice for those communities at its centre.

A key commitment in the SNP manifesto in 2016 was that the party would

“consult on, and bring forward, an Islands Bill to reflect the unique needs of these communities and implement our ten-point manifesto for our islands”.

In addition, in its programme for government that year, the Government announced:

“to help the islands build a more prosperous and fairer future for their communities, we will introduce an Islands Bill and the new Islands Strategic Group will meet for the first time in the autumn to begin its work on the creation of a National Islands Plan”.

This is, indeed, a historic moment. The bill can be thought of as a key point—the culmination of many efforts made over the years by the SNP Government to deliver for our island communities.

Of course, we will always continue to do more and deliver the best outcomes for all Scotland’s communities. That is why the SNP has already invested £6 million in the rural tourism fund, which was announced by the First Minister on 10 October to support sustainable growth in rural tourism across Scotland, but especially in our island communities. We heard from the Cabinet Secretary for Finance and the Constitution that there is a further commitment in the budget to deliver for our island communities through the funding that has been assigned.

As a member of the REC Committee, I was delighted that it recommended to Parliament that the general principles of the bill be agreed. The committee’s consideration of the bill meant an opportunity for members to visit areas. I took part in visits to Mull and Orkney, as well as engaging digitally with Arran islanders and islanders who attend the University of the Highlands and Islands. All that engagement by the committee helped us to better understand the context in which the bill sits.

I am particularly pleased about the proposal to look at improved councillor representation for the islands. I am sure that that issue will be looked at closely as the bill progresses, and I hope that the Boundary Commission for Scotland will work closely with local authorities that have islands to ensure that they have the number of councillors that they deserve.

I was a councillor for 36 years, and I know that the needs of constituents require attention daily. I have been reminded that I was a councillor for a year before Jamie Halcro Johnston was born. [Laughter.] I agree that I look young for my age. Islanders must have the representation that they deserve so that their needs are represented in local authorities. There is a suggestion that island councillors may have a closer working arrangement with the council administration; many of them would welcome that, and I hope that it will happen.

I am also pleased by the record support for Scotland’s islands by our SNP Government as we work to tackle the many changes and challenges faced by island communities. Of course, that work can only be done, as it has been, by working in partnership with island communities, local authorities and other organisations to support the delivery of policy and change. Local authority partners and the Scottish Government have shown that, by working together, we can deliver positive outcomes in all our communities.

With regard to how the bill’s ambitions will be delivered, the bill requires the Government to island proof future legislation and policies. That means that, by law, our island communities will not be forgotten again and will always have a voice. Scottish ministers and relevant public bodies will be required to take into account the interests of island communities. I believe that they will do that. I wish the bill well.

The Deputy Presiding Officer

I call Rhoda Grant to close for Labour in six minutes or thereabouts. I see that you have got my cold, Ms Grant—although it is not mine but one that is going round.

16:35  



Rhoda Grant (Highlands and Islands) (Lab)

I sincerely wish that you had kept it to yourself, Presiding Officer. [Laughter.]

We on the Labour benches are happy to support the Islands (Scotland) Bill. It has the potential to make a step change in how islands are governed by empowering them to make decisions that affect their own future. However, the bill as it stands is far too timid and will achieve nothing unless it is strengthened. As David Stewart said, the bill is a tribute to the work of the three islands councils and their vision in the our islands, our future campaign. I hope that we can strengthen the bill to realise their dream.

We need high-level objectives in the bill, but I was disappointed to hear that the minister appears not to be keen on that. At the moment, the bill is simply warm words. It needs to be clear about why we are legislating. Colin Smyth said that the bill needs to have ambition in order for it to meet its aspirations. There are high expectations of what the bill can and will do, but those are not in the bill in its current form.

I believe that we need to have high-level expectations in the bill in relation to issues such as depopulation, which Donald Cameron spoke about. Last week, Community Land Scotland put forward a submission on the Planning (Scotland) Bill that addressed the issue of repopulation. Lewis Macdonald illustrated that issue in much more detail in his speech than I will be able to in this one when he talked about Taransay, St Kilda and Scarp and giving life to the policy of repopulation in places that were depopulated in the past. Angus MacDonald illustrated that point well from a personal point of view when he talked about the “scunnered factor” in illustrating why people leave. They do so because they have had enough: they fight against the elements for so long, but eventually they cannot fight any more and they leave.

That point has been recognised by the EU, and I think that that is why so many of us have concerns about Brexit. The EU recognises subsidiarity—David Stewart talked about that in some detail—and the need for local decision making. It also recognises that certain areas have permanent handicaps, which is true of our island communities.

John Scott

Does the member acknowledge that, regrettably, the desertification that she describes as taking place in the islands is also a feature of our remote and rural communities, and that it is a much wider problem, which needs to be addressed?

Rhoda Grant

Indeed I do. I come from an area where that has happened, and I recognise that it happens in remote and rural areas. However, it is worse in the islands because people have to cross the sea to get to services. We can find answers to some of those questions through the bill, and those answers could then be rolled out throughout rural areas as good practice, to everyone’s benefit. It is not about pitting people against people; it is about trying to find better ways to support communities and repopulate areas, which is incredibly important.

Some more work is needed on island impact assessments, or island proofing, because I do not think that all the organisations that affect islands and islanders’ wellbeing are covered. We must look at the list of bodies that will need to island proof their policies, and the Government must issue clear guidelines on how they are to carry out the impact assessments—Mike Rumbles made that point in his speech.

There must be a mechanism for a right of appeal, otherwise island proofing will just become a tick-box exercise, which will not help anyone. We also need retrospective assessments, and there must be a mechanism in the bill for that, too. John Finnie said that not all legislation should be revisited, and of course he is right. However, we all know of pieces of legislation that have serious impacts on island communities. We need to look back and, where there is a united expectation that things are going to be dealt with and enough people are asking for it, there needs to be a mechanism to allow that to happen.

So much of the bill hangs on the national islands plan. Very little detail appears in the bill and we are promised that all the detail will be contained in the islands plan. The bill should state the overarching principles, while the islands plan should say how they will be followed. It is important that there is an islands plan, but we must also recognise that all islands are different, and the plan must cover those differences as well as what binds islands together.

One example of how we can island proof—and indeed of how the islands plan needs to work—is to recognise how the islands differ. John Finnie talked about local contractors. When we were on Orkney, we noticed that the local hospital had put in a wood-burning stove. They have no wood in Orkney, but they have loads of cheap electricity, so that seemed absolutely crazy and a really bad policy.

John Mason talked about how the committee went out and about to a lot of the islands. My colleague Colin Smyth said to me that I had all the fun on the committee and now he has the heavy lifting to do, but I see those islands all the time. It is a real privilege to represent all but two of Scotland’s inhabited islands. I have a distinct knowledge of what they need if we are to make a real difference, and it is ambition. The three islands councils had the ambition to come forward with the our islands, our future campaign, which brought the legislation to this stage. We need to meet that ambition and those expectations and strengthen the bill at stage 2.

The Deputy Presiding Officer

I call Jamie Greene to close for the Conservatives. You have eight minutes, please, Mr Greene.

16:42  



Jamie Greene (West Scotland) (Con)

Presiding Officer,

“No man is an island, entire of itself”.

Those are, of course, the famous words not of John Mason but of John Donne in his famous 17th century poem, but the reality is that islands are entire of themselves in many ways: they face a unique set of challenges that mainlanders do not always face or even understand. A weekend in Millport or a week in August on the Isle of Arran might give people a flavour of the beauty of our islands or the warm reception that visitors receive there, but it probably does not give them an inside perspective on the difficulties that locals face.

Our island constituents come to us as members of the Scottish Parliament and rightfully point out discrepancies in access to public services, be it someone who needs to travel to the mainland to see a hospital consultant being given an appointment before the arrival of the first ferry, or the cost of importing goods when people are trying build a home of their own on an island. They all share common difficulties including the cost of petrol on islands, the lack of mains gas, the inflated prices of groceries and, often, the poor state of many of their roads.

Scotland’s 93 islands make up 2 per cent of our population, but the population of many of them and the business that is done there will balloon during the busy peak season. They are at the very heart of what makes Scotland unique on the international stage. Tourists flock to visit their distilleries, climb their mountains and sail their coasts. However, they are also home to people. Their thriving communities face harsh weather conditions, making connectivity tricky, and although their economies have changed and evolved, many are still struggling. In addition, their public services are struggling to recruit and retain doctors, teachers and carers. Kate Forbes eloquently outlined some practical examples of the illogical provision of public services.

Although many policies that aim to improve island life are welcome, such as RET, we also took evidence from islanders on some of the negative effects that inflated visitor numbers can have on the infrastructure of islands. Those islands that have not seen an exodus of their enthusiastic young generation are growing, but with an ageing population, as many flock to retire on islands and enjoy the next chapter of their lives with the stunning views and friendly communities that islands offer. All of that comes at a price, and we have a responsibility to address those challenges.

My colleague John Scott reminded us that the bill was not born out of top-down Government or party-political motivations, but has grown from a grass-roots need to look at how public bodies address inequalities on islands. For that reason, I, too, commend the work of the our islands, our future campaign.

As a member of the Rural Economy and Connectivity Committee, I have been privileged to have had a glimpse into island life through our visits and evidence sessions. While we sit in the wood-lined committee rooms here at Holyrood, it is easy to forget that the work that we do here affects those on the other side of a Loganair flight.

Islands are diverse and as different as rural Scotland is to urban Scotland. Indeed, island groups themselves often struggle with the remoteness of some of their own island communities, who feel as though their island’s mainland is just as disconnected from them as the mainland’s mainland. Our committee took a trip to Mull and Orkney, and we spoke to people with that very view. It is neither a criticism of the bill nor an expression of disappointment in it to say that, by its very nature, it is a one-size-fits-all measure, because it has to meet its objective as an enabling bill. However, we should remember that such an approach will not work for our communities when it comes to the national islands plan. As Edward Mountain and Colin Smyth mentioned, each island has an individual identity that must be taken into account in the production of the plan.

I would also like to touch briefly on some of the other issues that were raised today. In the committee’s evidence sessions, HIE made some important comments—they have also been made by members in the debate—about the issues that are faced by islands being the same as those that are faced by other remote rural communities. Although the bill is focused on islands, its consequences should not negatively affect or impact other rural communities: if anything, it is an opportunity to have a positive influence on them.

Much has also been said about the request from the committee, in its report, that the Government should consider a high-level aim or objective for the bill. I should add that that request came not from MSPs but from members of the community. I recall sitting around the table with a group on our visit to Mull. There was unanimous agreement that what was lacking in the bill was a high-level objective, which meant that it was difficult to see what its overarching outcome would be. It was felt that, rather than saying just that we should “have regard to” islands, it should have measurable objectives so that we, as a Parliament, could look back and decide whether the bill had achieved what it was meant to. Notwithstanding the legal implications around the language that might be used to achieve that, I ask the minister not to rule it out, given the broad support for it.

Another important issue that was raised was the retrospective scope of the bill. I agree that it would be unreasonable to propose a blanket retrospective assessment of all current policies or all service changes that have been made by every public body since devolution. However, there may be existing policies that could and should be looked at if they are currently deemed to be negatively affecting islands, and we need to ask what the mechanism for doing that is. In a similar vein, the committee recommended that islanders should have a clear mechanism to appeal against or object to an island impact assessment decision.

Perhaps the issue around the bill that carried the most contention was that of expectations. The concept of island proofing has been discussed at great length, both in the committee and in the chamber. The term “island proofing” has been used interchangeably with “island impact assessments”, but the two things are not the same. Much could be said about whether we can properly island proof all decisions that are made by all public bodies and all Government departments. If we were truly to do so, the cost would be unparalleled and probably unthinkable. The biggest risk facing us as we present the bill to Parliament and to the communities that it seeks to serve is that of raising false hope and expectations.

Many members spoke with concern about the financing of the bill and the need for clarity over the effect that it has on funding decisions. At present, the only costs that are outlined in the financial memorandum relate to delivery of the duties in the bill. I want to put this into context: this is not about Opposition parties asking for more money. Instead, it is an honest realisation by us all that true island proofing comes at a cost.

I am pleased to support the bill as a welcome step forward in how the Government and its public agencies address our island communities. We must ensure that its outcome is a robust national islands plan that reflects islanders’ priorities and which has clear outcomes and targets and measurable indicators. We must have honesty and transparency from Government to ensure that, when it makes decisions that might have a negative impact on islanders, it is honest about them and accepts that resources or funds might not be available to mitigate the consequences of every action that it takes. The bill’s end product should be a tangible and noticeable shift in mindset when decisions are made in the lofty offices of Government in Glasgow and Edinburgh that affect people on islands. We cannot just have warm words without any action or weight.

I ask the minister to consider the recommendations of the stage 1 report in his response. We welcome the bill, but policy decisions that are being made today should already be mainstreamed and ingrained in the culture. We do not need a bill to consider islands—that kind of work can be done today. Expectations are high among islanders, and we cannot let them down.

16:51  



Humza Yousaf

This has been an excellent debate, and the speeches across the chamber have certainly given me and my officials a lot to reflect on.

I will try to address some key themes but, first, I note that the debate has been largely consensual. There has even been praise from some members of the Opposition. I am sure that this will not be the kiss of death to him, but if there was one member of the Opposition I would want praise from, it would be David Stewart. Without him, I would never have known about the Japanese Remote Islands Development Act of 1953. After hearing about it at the committee, I looked it up for the purposes of research; although most of the information was in Japanese, I now know that in Japan there are 421 inhabited islands out of a total of 7,000. Every day is an education with David Stewart as a committee member.

As I have said, I want to address some of the key themes of the debate, and I want to get right into the issue of expectation management, which I believe was raised by almost every speaker. When I have travelled to the islands, I have tried to ensure that people do have expectations for the bill, but I have also pointed out that we are doing more than what is in the bill itself. We are taking forward a whole suite of measures for our islands; for example, there is the Scottish Crown Estate Bill, the community empowerment legislation and, indeed, the national islands plan. I want to ensure that the bill is seen not in isolation but as part of a suite of measures.

Many members also talked about putting a high-level objective into the bill. I have listened to the reasoning and rationale behind that proposal; although I am not convinced, I accept that many members across the chamber are, and I therefore promise to reflect further on the matter. I would say, though, that a reason for not putting a high-level objective into the bill is that it would not have any meaningful legal effect, which is, after all, why legislation should be there. It could be in the national islands plan or guidance, but I hear what the chamber is saying in that respect.

Mike Rumbles

Of course, in the Scotland Act 1998, Donald Dewar famously said:

“There shall be a Scottish Parliament.”

That is the sort of high-level objective that we are talking about. Surely if it was good enough for the Scotland Act 1998, it is good enough for this bill.

Humza Yousaf

Somebody else made the same point about the Scotland Act 1998. As I have said, I am not closed minded; I will listen to members. Indeed, I suspect that members will lodge an amendment at stage 2 to that effect. Let us not be closed minded about this.

As for some of the other important issues and key themes that have been raised in the debate, I note that, with regard to the suite of measures that we are taking forward, some members mentioned the financial memorandum and suggested that the finances for the national islands plan have not been accounted for. However, the fact is that I do not have a crystal ball. The plan is not just my plan; it is our plan, and every single one of us will be involved in its development. I will be discussing with the cabinet secretary, who is sitting to my left, the financial resource that will need to be put behind it once it has been developed.

Many members also mentioned statutory local island plans. As I said in my response to the committee, I will have that conversation with local authorities; indeed, I would rather do this with the authorities instead of imposing it on them. However, I am very aware of what members have said about that. I suspect that it will come about organically, anyway.

Other key themes that were mentioned in relation to the national islands plan concerned having national targets and measures that can be monitored and evaluated. I agree that the national islands plan has to be meaningful, and perhaps measurable targets and so on will be part of that. As I said, the national islands plan will be a consultative effort and I will therefore not be closed minded to such suggestions.

Gail Ross and Colin Smyth mentioned the need to give consideration to having national heritage in the bill. Again, that might be something that we can consider in the national islands plan. Once again, to continue the theme that I have followed since the beginning of this bill process, I will not be closed minded to that suggestion.

Gail Ross

Alongside the issue of heritage, does the minister agree that the massive renewable energy potential of the Scottish islands still needs to be realised?

Humza Yousaf

Yes, without a doubt. Of course, for many places to which I have travelled, such as Orkney, the issue of renewable energy is not just about the beneficial impact that it can bring but about the innovative technology that is being tested. Of course, we welcome the UK Government’s U-turn on this issue, which was brought about through pressure from my colleagues Paul Wheelhouse and Fergus Ewing among many others.

The chamber has clearly said that there needs to be some clarity about the definition of island proofing and island impact assessments. We will absolutely reflect on that. I should say that island impact assessments involve a process that is similar to the process for equality impact assessments. We have an extremely robust process for screening, evidence gathering, assessing, decision making, signing off and publishing. However, clearly, all of us agree that we do not want to have a simple tick-box exercise. Therefore, we will ensure that we reflect on the issues before the statutory guidance goes forward.

Jamie Greene

What does the minister think will happen in the event that an island impact assessment produces an outcome that states that a Government policy decision will have a negative impact on island communities? Is it likely that that decision would be reconsidered at that stage or that additional funds might be provided to mitigate the consequences of the decision? In practical terms, that would be real island proofing.

Humza Yousaf

I am conscious of time, so I will send Jamie Greene the example that I have just given of the equality impact assessment. Because of the five stages in the equality impact assessment, the scenario that he mentions should generally be avoided. That is one example, and I will send that to him.

I want to make some progress, because my time is limited. On the issue of island proofing, I refer to the point that Kate Forbes made very well about immigration. Undoubtedly, one of the biggest challenges that our islands face is depopulation. It would be useful if the UK Government could consider what we are going to do in relation to island proofing because, although we have some of the levers in our hands, many of the other levers that would help to reverse the trajectory of depopulation are in the hands of the UK Government.

I thought that Gail Ross, John Scott and others made good points about rural proofing as well as island proofing. Having travelled across much of Scotland, I know that the challenges that are faced by rural communities may well be just as challenging and difficult as those that are faced by many of our island communities.

David Stewart

Will the member take an intervention?

Humza Yousaf

I have only a minute left, but as the member is my favourite member of the Opposition, I will of course give way.

David Stewart

That just ruined my career.

I would like the minister to clarify a technical point. Will the Zetland County Council Act 1974 and the Orkney County Council Act 1974 be repealed or replaced?

Humza Yousaf

No; we have no intention of doing that.

In the time that I have left, I will address the points that were made by Mr Stewart’s colleague Lewis Macdonald. They were largely the points that were made in the submission from the Law Society, which I thought was useful and helpful. The definition of island community goes beyond geography. Section 2(b) makes clear that the meaning of the phrase goes beyond geography, saying that it

“is based on common interest, identity or geography.”

The definitions in the bill work for the purposes required. Uninhabited islands can absolutely be covered by the national islands plan—we have said that already.

Lewis Macdonald made many points about potential unintended consequences, and although I cannot go into them all given that I am in the last minute of my speech, we will reflect on the Law Society’s submission.

The Islands (Scotland) Bill is historic—I am pleased that members from all parties recognise that. Although I am proud to be the minister to introduce the bill, I must thank my predecessors—including the first-ever minister with responsibility for the islands, Derek Mackay—the local authorities, the islands strategic group and the committee, which gave such careful consideration to the bill. If we get it right, as we intend to, and take the other measures that I have talked about, I hope that we will reverse the depopulation of our islands.

We know that our islands represent 2 per cent of the population of Scotland, but their value to Scotland is immeasurable. As a boy who was born, bred and raised in Glasgow, it has been a great pleasure and honour for me to travel to 30-plus islands across Scotland. I intend to do the bill justice. I thank members for their careful consideration, speeches and suggestions. I look forward to passing what will be a historic piece of legislation.

Financial resolution

A financial resolution is needed for Bills that may have a large impact on the 'public purse'.

MSPs must agree to this for the bill to proceed.

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Financial resolution transcript

The Presiding Officer (Ken Macintosh)

The next item of business is consideration of motion S5M-09803, in the name of Derek Mackay, on the financial resolution for the Islands (Scotland) Bill.

Motion moved,

That the Parliament, for the purposes of any Act of the Scottish Parliament resulting from the Islands (Scotland) Bill, agrees to any expenditure of a kind referred to in Rule 9.12.3(b) of the Parliament’s Standing Orders arising in consequence of the Act.—[Derek Mackay]

The Presiding Officer

The question on the motion will be put at decision time.

Vote at Stage 1

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Vote at Stage 1 transcript

The Presiding Officer (Ken Macintosh)

There are two questions to be put as a result of today’s business. The first question is, that motion S5M-10358, in the name of Humza Yousaf, on the Islands (Scotland) Bill at stage 1, be agreed to.

Motion agreed to,

That the Parliament agrees to the general principles of the Islands (Scotland) Bill.

The Presiding Officer

The second and final question is that motion S5M-09803, in the name of Derek Mackay, on the financial resolution for the Islands (Scotland) Bill, be agreed to.

Motion agreed to,

That the Parliament, for the purposes of any Act of the Scottish Parliament resulting from the Islands (Scotland) Bill, agrees to any expenditure of a kind referred to in Rule 9.12.3(b) of the Parliament’s Standing Orders arising in consequence of the Act.

Meeting closed at 17:05.  



MSPs agreed that this Bill could continue

Stage 2 - Changes to detail 

MSPs can propose changes to the Bill. The changes are considered and then voted on by the committee.

Changes to the Bill

MSPs can propose changes to a Bill  these are called 'amendments'. The changes are considered then voted on by the lead committee.

The lists of proposed changes are known as a 'marshalled list'. There's a separate list for each week that the committee is looking at proposed changes.

The 'groupings' document groups amendments together based on their subject matter. It shows the order in which the amendments will be debated by the committee and in the Chamber. This is to avoid repetition in the debates.

How is it decided whether the changes go into the Bill?

When MSPs want to make a change to a Bill, they propose an 'amendment'. This sets out the changes they want to make to a specific part of the Bill.

The group of MSPs that is examining the Bill (lead committee) votes on whether it thinks each amendment should be accepted or not.

Depending on the number of amendments, this can be done during one or more meetings.

First meeting on amendments

Documents with the amendments considered at this meeting held on 21 March 2018:

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First meeting on amendments transcript

The Convener

Item 2 is stage 2 consideration of the Islands (Scotland) Bill. I welcome back the Minister for Transport and the Islands, Humza Yousaf, and his officials from the Scottish Government.

Everyone should have with them a copy of the bill as introduced, the marshalled list of amendments that was published on Friday and the groupings paper, which sets out the amendments in the order in which they will be debated.

It might be helpful if I explain the procedure, albeit briefly. There will be one debate on each group of amendments. I will call the member who lodged the first amendment in the group to speak to and move that amendment and to speak to all the other amendments in the group. I will then call other members who have lodged amendments in the group. Members who have not lodged amendments in the group but who wish to speak should indicate that by catching my attention in the usual way. If the minister has not spoken on the group, I will invite him to contribute to the debate just before I invite the member who moved the first amendment in the group to wind up.

Following the debate on each group, I will check whether the member who moved the first amendment in the group wishes to press it to a vote or to withdraw it. If they wish to press it, I will put the question on that amendment. If a member wishes to withdraw their amendment after it has been moved, I will ask whether any other member who is present objects to them doing so. If any other member who is present objects, I will put the question on the amendment.

If any member does not want to move their amendment when it is called, they should say, “Not moved.” Please note that any other member who is present may move such an amendment. If no one moves the amendment, I will immediately call the next amendment on the marshalled list.

Only committee members are allowed to vote. Voting in any division will be by raising of hands. I remind members that it is important that they keep their hands clearly raised until the clerks have recorded the vote.

The committee is required to indicate formally that it has considered and agreed to each section of and schedule to the bill, and I will put a question on each section and schedule at the appropriate point.

I have a note that says that we aim to complete stage 2 today. I doubt that that will be possible, but we will see how we get on.

Before section 1

The Convener

The first group is entitled “Purpose of Act”. Amendment 28, in the name of Colin Smyth, is the only amendment in the group.

Colin Smyth (South Scotland) (Lab)

I am conscious that we have a number of amendments to get through today, so I will keep my comments relatively brief. As members will know, a purpose clause aims to state and clarify the overall aims of a bill to ensure that its purpose is explicitly stated in law. I believe that underpinning the purpose in law captures the overall spirit of the bill rather than just the letter of the law, and it helps to prevent the misinterpretation of passages and the dilution of ambition over time.

Island economies suffer because of geographical disadvantage and distance from markets. I believe that it must be the overall purpose of the Islands (Scotland) Bill to try to redress that disadvantage. Agreeing to include a purpose clause at this early stage will help us when we consider the detail of the individual provisions throughout stages 2 and 3. There are, of course, examples of purpose clauses in other legislation. I believe that including one in the bill will help to strengthen it, and it will certainly not weaken it.

I move amendment 28.

John Mason

As I said in the chamber yesterday, I am in favour of purpose clauses. I would like the Government and anyone else who intends to introduce a bill to start with a purpose clause and then write the rest of the bill. It is extremely difficult to come in at this stage, when the bill exists, and put in a purpose clause. However, I still fundamentally believe that a purpose clause should be included. Purpose clauses guide the lawyers—although I do not think that they particularly like it—and force them to do what Mr Smyth said and focus on the overall purpose.

I have three specific problems with the wording of the purpose in amendment 28. First, the word “create” suggests that sustainable island communities are not there to start with. In some cases, we want to continue sustainable island communities. Secondly, the amendment focuses purely on island communities but, as will be seen from my amendments, I am also interested in islands that do not have communities. Thirdly, it focuses purely on the economy, whereas we are looking at culture, the natural environment and various other issues as well.

Stewart Stevenson

I understand and have sympathy with what Colin Smyth is trying to do, but his amendment risks diluting the bill’s ambition. All it talks about is creating “sustainable island communities”, whereas section 3(2), which would come after the text in this amendment, is drawn more widely in referring to

“improving outcomes for island communities ... by ... carrying out of functions of a public nature.”

In other words, the bill is not simply about creating “sustainable island communities”; it might improve the outcomes for island communities in a way that does not directly address sustainability. That is the risk with the particular formulation that Colin Smyth has proposed and—subject, of course, to what I hear in the discussion—it would lead me not to support his amendment in its present form.

Peter Chapman (North East Scotland) (Con)

I am minded not to support amendment 28. Although we discussed the matter at stage 1 and thought that such a provision might be necessary, I do not feel that it is. As with the Forestry and Land Management (Scotland) Bill, which was debated in Parliament yesterday, putting a purpose into a bill can limit it and make it too prescriptive. For that reason, I am not in favour of amendment 28.

Mike Rumbles (North East Scotland) (LD)

The Scotland Act 1998 says:

“There shall be a Scottish Parliament.”

As Donald Dewar said, “I like that.” It is really important to set out the purpose of a piece of legislation in order to give us a flavour of what it does, and I commend Colin Smyth for lodging his amendment. It does not matter whether the wording in amendment 28 is the right wording for the purpose of the bill; the advantage of stage 2 is that we can discuss the issue. I hear what John Mason and Stewart Stevenson have said, and I understand that the minister is listening, but if the minister thinks that there is a better way of wording the purpose of the bill, he can lodge an amendment to that effect at stage 3 for the Parliament to consider.

I think that it is important that we start off stage 2 by saying, “Let’s support this amendment and put this in the bill.” I certainly took from the evidence that we gathered at stage 1 that islanders wanted some sort of purpose and felt that there was something missing from the bill. Colin Smyth’s amendment is a good start, and I am inclined to support it.

John Finnie

I am supportive of Colin Smyth’s amendment 28. Although I suspect that you would not want us to do this, convener, we could spend all day discussing every word and every possible interpretation. I think that Colin would confirm that no criticism is intended by the use of the word “create”; after all, we all know that we are far from a situation in which any of our island communities is entirely sustainable. As for the use of the term “sustainable”, I am sure that due regard will be had to the environment and to cultural and economic matters.

The amendment’s reference to building island economies would not ordinarily win Green support, were it not for its preamble about creating “sustainable communities”. Those economies will be built in no other way than an appropriate way if they are going to be sustainable in the first place. For those reasons, I will support amendment 28.

Jamie Greene

I strongly feel that the bill should have an objective, given the evidence that we have heard and after speaking to islanders at many of the focus groups. Those views are not necessarily our views, but they are the views of those whom we have met during this journey and process.

As for whether the words in amendment 28 are the ones that should be in the bill, I am minded to agree with Peter Chapman. I do not think that this is all-encompassing; however, I think that it is headed in the right direction. As a result, although I will not be supporting this particular amendment, I ask the minister to reflect on the strength of view among committee members that the bill should contain a purpose.

The problem with amendment 28 is that uninhabited islands may not have economies or communities in the same way that inhabited islands do, and I would not like them to be ruled out on that basis. There is nothing to disagree with in the words that Colin Smyth uses. I just feel that they do not entirely encapsulate the essence or the feeling of where the bill is heading, and I think that there is general agreement on where it needs to go. It will be a difficult task to find a wording to encapsulate that, but I hope that the minister will be able to do so by stage 3.

10:30  



Humza Yousaf

I will speak to a number of amendments on which, where we, as a Government, can be helpful and reflect, we will, because we want to progress the bill in the spirit in which we started, which was to be as collaborative and consensual as possible.

I thank Mr Smyth for articulating the reasoning behind his amendment 28. I also thank other committee members for their very good and insightful reflections. However, I will ask Mr Smyth to withdraw amendment 28. Although I can appreciate the intent that he and other members spoke about, I cannot agree that his amendment is the best way to achieve the aims and outcomes that he desires. As a minister, I have a responsibility—as we all do—to ensure that the law that we make is good law that is capable of being put into effect. That is not a partisan issue or an ideological position: it is our position as lawmakers. Although there is a place for a purpose section in some bills, such a section is used for a specific reason and to achieve specific legal effect. The creation of an overall stand-alone purpose for this bill would be problematic. All the sections of a bill must have legal effect and be able to be interpreted by a court. It is not clear how amendment 28 would be interpreted in each part of the bill. I thought that Stewart Stevenson’s point to that effect was well made.

It is hard to give specific examples, as the whole process is uncertain and we cannot always anticipate the arguments that others might make. However, I give the example of the proposed marine development licensing regulations, which will allow for appeal of a decision in relation to a licence. That is a sensible and necessary provision. Would the appeal process have to take that purpose into account? How might those who have to consider such an appeal on any decision be expected to interpret the purpose in relation to their duty and responsibilities? Would the requirement to build economies tip the balance in favour of permitting a development even when there were other considerations or concerns, such as the impact on the environment? Therefore, although the intention behind such a purpose is laudable, I believe that including in the bill the purpose that Colin Smyth proposes risks unintended and unknown consequences.

Jamie Greene

Before we move to a vote, I want to clarify the minister’s position on that. Minister, are you saying that, at stage 3, you would not consider including a purpose for the bill, or that you would, but you would not use the words that are used in amendment 28? Clarifying that might help us in deciding where we should go with Mr Smyth’s amendment.

Humza Yousaf

I will come back to that, as I am just coming to that very point. I have a problem with putting the purpose on the face of the bill, but I think that we can get to where Mr Smyth and other members have articulated that they want to get to through other means.

As I have said, although the intention behind such a purpose is clearly laudable, for me, overall, amendment 28 would import a set of legal risks that we do not need. Of course, I would welcome Mr Smyth’s view on that in closing.

After the committee’s report and the stage 1 debate, I made it clear that I saw potential for the compromise that the committee wanted to achieve. My amendments 1 and 2, which I will talk about in more detail when we get to the relevant group, provide that the national islands plan will have the specific purpose of setting the objectives and strategy in relation to improving outcomes for island communities. It will include the three underpinning objectives that are listed in amendment 2: sustainable economic development; health and wellbeing; and community empowerment. That approach encapsulates the spirit of amendment 28, which Jamie Greene referred to in making his point, and it will ensure that, through the delivery of the plan, Colin Smyth’s aims are met.

Of course, I am always willing to discuss with Colin Smyth—or, indeed, other committee members—how we can improve the bill. I will be happy to continue this conversation in the lead-up to stage 3. I therefore ask that Colin Smyth withdraws his amendment 28. If he should press it, I ask that members vote against it.

The Convener

Thank you, minister. I ask Colin Smyth to wind up and to press or withdraw amendment 28.

Colin Smyth

I agree with John Mason’s point that a purpose clause should be introduced at as early a stage as possible. I had no control over the wording of the draft bill. This is the earliest stage at which I, as a committee member, can introduce such a clause, which is why I have lodged amendment 28.

Mike Rumbles made a very good point when he said that we could agree to the amendment today, and if members are unhappy with the specific wording of the purpose clause, it can be amended at stage 3. I do not fully accept the argument that a carefully worded purpose clause cannot complement the rest of the bill; it certainly would not undermine it—it is all in the wording.

I am aware that members might have a sense of déjà vu. I was not on the committee at the time, but we had a similar debate on the Forestry and Land Management (Scotland) Bill, during which a purpose clause was suggested and members expressed concern about the specific wording with a view to amending it at a later stage. I am tempted to go down that route again and not to press my amendment on the basis that members can come together to agree the wording of a purpose clause that could be inserted through an amendment at stage 3.

I will not press my amendment at this point, but I emphasise that I hope that we can work on the wording for an amendment to be lodged at stage 3.

Amendment 28, by agreement, withdrawn.

Section 1 agreed to.

Section 2—Meaning of “island community”

The Convener

Amendment 10, in the name of Liam McArthur, is grouped with amendments 30, 41, 44, 60, 63, 66 to 68, 72, 74 to 77 and 88.

Liam McArthur (Orkney Islands) (LD)

I welcome the work of the committee on the bill, and I thank the convener and other committee members for taking the time to come up to Orkney to hear directly from those affected in my constituency and that of Tavish Scott. It is much appreciated.

Members will be delighted to hear that, last summer, I managed to visit Auskerry, which is one of the smallest islands and is up in the north-east of my constituency. There, I met Simon Brogan—he and his partner Teresa Probert are the only inhabitants of the island, now that their sons Rory, Hamish and Owen have left home. That leaves just Gairsay as the only inhabited island in Orkney that I have yet to visit. I intend to rectify that some time later this year, weather permitting.

Although the needs of the island communities—some of which are exceptionally fragile—are the focus of many amendments that we will consider during the course of the morning, we must not lose sight of the importance of our uninhabited islands. Orkney has about 80 islands, of which just under 20 are inhabited, but all of which play a crucial role in making Orkney such a unique place, not least in sustaining bird populations of global significance.

Amendment 10 addresses a weakness in the bill by explicitly recognising our uninhabited islands and their importance in the context of our efforts to promote biodiversity and provide species protection. I hope that it reflects the committee’s conclusion at stage 1 that uninhabited islands have a

“cultural, environmental and economic significance”

that deserves to be fully reflected in the bill. I know that the amendments in John Mason’s name have much the same objective, and I look forward to hearing what he has to say. I also look forward to hearing from the minister and other members.

I move amendment 10.

John Mason

Some of my thinking is in line with what Liam McArthur has just said. The amendments are part of a package, so they all do the same thing. For example, section 3(2), which is on the islands plan, says:

“Scottish Ministers in relation to improving outcomes for island communities”.

My amendment 30 would add to that, so that it would say:

“improving outcomes for islands and island communities”.

That would suggest that islands have a value in themselves, as well in the people who live on them.

The bill is entitled the Islands (Scotland) Bill, but it deals almost exclusively with island communities. I agree that the communities are the number 1 and most important thing for any island. However, we have uninhabited islands—we have heard about examples in Orkney—that are of huge importance with regard to wildlife, the environment and our whole history as a country and a culture. The one that I am most interested in is St Kilda, which is officially uninhabited, although the military and the National Trust for Scotland have a presence there. The story of St Kilda and how the population struggled and was evacuated in 1930 is of huge importance. My key point is that uninhabited islands should be referred to in the bill.

Liam McArthur’s amendment 10 is gentler than mine—I do not know whether it is common for a Government member to take a more extreme line than the Opposition. It says that an island community

“may include a single uninhabited island”,

which I feel is, if not weak, then gentler, and certainly not compulsory. It also talks about an uninhabited island contributing

“to the natural or cultural heritage or economy of an inhabited island”.

I have reservations about that wording, because I think that islands such as St Kilda have a value in themselves and not just in relation to an inhabited island. In addition, some uninhabited islands might have more of a link with the mainland, but they are still important in their own right. This might be a weakness on my part, but I accept that St Kilda would be covered by amendment 10, because its strongest links have traditionally been with the Western Isles and Skye.

I am happy to listen to what other members and the minister have to say. My bottom line is that I would like uninhabited islands to be mentioned somewhere in the bill.

Stewart Stevenson

In 1930, Hirta, which was the only inhabited part of the St Kilda group, was actually part of Inverness-shire rather than the Western Isles—but that is history and does not matter.

Amendment 10, in Liam McArthur’s name, captures something quite important. However, if we agree to it now, we may want to revisit the wording a little bit. I am not concerned about its use of the word “may”; my specific issue is the mention of

“uninhabited islands ... and associated ecosystems”

that

“contribute to the ... economy of an inhabited island”.

If I wished to, I could make the argument that Australia or an uninhabited island off the coast of Australia, by virtue of climate change, contributes

“to the natural or cultural heritage or economy of an inhabited island”

in Scotland. I do not think that we are trying to capture that situation in the legislation.

I am content with the generality of where the amendment is trying to take us, but we might have to look at whether that is what we mean—I do not think it is—and perhaps tweak the amendment at stage 3 if Liam McArthur successfully persuades the committee now or brings it back in modified form. That is a matter for him.

Turning to John Mason’s plethora of amendments, all of which address exactly the same point, I have a very simple issue with what he is trying to do with the words that he uses. I do not know what an “outcome” for an island is—I just do not know what that means. I know what an outcome for people on an island can mean, but an island has no personality in a legal sense, so I just do not know what that means. If we include that wording, there is a danger that we dilute our focus on island communities in section 3(2) et alia. We are legislating to make the lives of the people who live on islands better. That is the core purpose of the bill.

We have just discussed an amendment—although we have not agreed to it—that would insert a section entitled “Purpose of Act” and that properly refers to “island communities”.

John Mason

Will the member take an intervention?

Stewart Stevenson

Yes, he will.

John Mason

Does he accept that, for an uninhabited island, having a community on it would be a positive outcome?

Stewart Stevenson

Yes, but I am not sure that that would be an outcome for the island; it would be an outcome for the community on the island.

I am conflicted on the matter, to be straightforward about it. I just do not feel inclined to support the formulation of Mr Mason’s amendments until I am persuaded that I should do so.

Peter Chapman

I agree with amendment 10, as I think that it is important that uninhabited islands are referred to in the key definitions of the bill.

Sections 1 and 2 refer to islands, inhabited islands and island communities, but there is no reference to uninhabited islands. It is important that there should be such a reference, because, as we have heard, although uninhabited islands have no constituents, they have natural and cultural heritage that needs to be respected. Also, some smaller, uninhabited islands might be neighbours to larger, inhabited islands with fishing interests that require them to be mentioned. Therefore, I support amendment 10.

I also support John Mason’s amendments, which are mainly technical but correct. I support the whole gamut of amendments in the group.

10:45  



Richard Lyle

I support amendment 10.

I ask John Mason not to move his amendments in the group and to discuss the issue with the minister. I do not doubt John Mason’s enthusiasm. As he knows, the current definition of an island is land that is

“surrounded on all sides by the sea”.

His amendments would bring in every piece of rock that is above water at high tide, which would be a large expansion. I suggest that he does not move his amendments and discusses the matter with the minister before stage 3.

I will support Liam McArthur’s amendment 10, but I will not support Mr Mason’s amendments.

John Mason

Will the member take an intervention?

Richard Lyle

I have finished. [Laughter.]

John Finnie

I support Liam McArthur’s amendment 10, and I support John Mason’s amendments. We can dance around, and I appreciate that lawyers will forever chew over the words, but there can be outcomes for islands that are uninhabited. For instance, there can be positive environmental outcomes that have wider ramifications. I will support John Mason’s amendments, if he moves them.

Humza Yousaf

I welcome the opportunity to speak to this group of amendments on uninhabited islands, which I appreciate is an issue of significance for many. The bill’s focus is on improving outcomes for those who live and work on the 90 inhabited islands in the seas around Scotland—the three inland islands are not covered. However, I have always been keen to stress that that does not exclude other islands that are uninhabited and that are important features of Scotland’s natural and cultural heritage. The two that have often been mentioned are St Kilda, which is an obvious example that has been mentioned today, and Ailsa Craig, whose claim to fame relates to curling stones. There is nothing to prevent the national islands plan from making reference to and provision for uninhabited islands.

There are instances in which a group of islands that are in close proximity, with some inhabited and some not, can have an interdependence or, indeed, a linked interest. That acknowledgement means that amendment 10 is worthy of consideration and, for that reason, I am happy to support it. Nevertheless, I have a technical concern about the amendment that relates to how easily understood section 2 would be if amendment 10 was inserted in its current form. Stewart Stevenson also referred to some of the issues with the wording. Section 2 has a particular structure, and we would be adding four lines that do not seem to fit. I am happy to work with the member, and perhaps he can work with our legal team, on the wording. Notwithstanding that, I am more than happy to support what I think is a worthy amendment.

Given my support for amendment 10, there should not really be a need for John Mason’s amendments in the group, so I hope that he will not move them. I can see what the member is trying to do, but I am concerned that, in his enthusiasm, he would potentially be widening the scope of the bill beyond what the Government and Parliament intend. His amendments would expand the duties in relation to island communities to islands more generally. That would mean that, for every island off the coast of Scotland, no matter where it is or how small it is, each relevant authority would need to consider impacts in relation to the island, notwithstanding the fact that there would be no effect on island inhabitants or communities. A cursory glance suggests that we would be talking about around 800 islands, which would be a significant extension from the 90 islands that the bill currently covers. I am not sure that that is what the member intends, but his amendments would potentially lead to a lot of unnecessary work and cost.

John Mason

Will the minister give way?

Humza Yousaf

Of course.

John Mason

I am willing to concede that Mr Lyle and the minister have made a valid point. I was thinking not of, say, the Bass Rock—there is an issue in that respect in that we have not consulted East Lothian Council—but primarily of the six authorities with islands that we have consulted.

Humza Yousaf

Perhaps, given that concession, I should quit while I am ahead. [Laughter.] I will end by noting that other duties, laws and policies relating to, for example, the protection of wildlife, biodiversity, the marine environment and fisheries will apply to uninhabited islands, so their wellbeing is already supported by public bodies in a range of ways. That said, there might be an opportunity to put a reference to uninhabited islands into the national islands plan, and I am happy to work with John Mason in advance of stage 3 to see what can be done in the plan, in particular, to address his concerns.

I am happy to support Liam McArthur’s amendment 10, and I ask John Mason not to move the amendments in his name.

Liam McArthur

Perhaps one man’s gentle is another man’s weak, but it would appear that the gentle approach might be the more appropriate in certain circumstances.

I thank members for contributing to the debate and for their support. I fully recognise that amendment 10, as currently framed, needs some work, but I hope that there will be an opportunity to reflect some of what John Mason was trying to achieve in his amendments. I certainly take on board the point that some islands might be more dependent on the mainland than on the other islands around them. If that can be reflected better in adaptations to the amendment for stage 3, I am more than happy to take that on board.

I am delighted to hear from Stewart Stevenson that, back in the 1930s, Hirta was part of Inverness-shire. Even back then, that would, no doubt, have led to screaming headlines about centralisation gone mad. That said, I am happy to work with the minister and with John Mason on the issue ahead of stage 3.

Amendment 10 agreed to.

Section 2, as amended, agreed to.

After section 2

The Convener

Amendment 29, in the name of Colin Smyth, is grouped with amendments 80, 81, 26 and 27.

Colin Smyth

Amendment 29 seeks to provide a definition of “islands authority” in the list of key definitions, and I lodged it with amendments 80 and 81 on local empowerment and the devolution of powers to clarify who is being referred to. If amendments 80 and 81 are agreed to, the local authorities listed in amendment 29 are those that would have the capacity to request that ministers devolve powers.

Amendment 80 would create a mechanism allowing ministers to devolve specific powers if a case for that could be demonstrated. Under amendment 80, islands authorities could make a request to ministers, arguing their case, and ministers would then have to make a decision and, if they decided to reject the request, would have to explain why. Ministers would be able to issue guidance on how the power should be used. At stage 1, the committee urged the Government to consider such a mechanism, although the Government said at the time that the proposed local democracy bill would be a better vehicle.

The power that is set out in amendment 80 is reasonable and workable. It would empower island communities and allow them to be more proactive in taking actions to address local problems, and it represents the kind of bold action that the bill currently lacks. If the Government is not opposed to it in principle, there is no reason to wait until the introduction of the local democracy bill to bring such a provision forward.

Amendment 81 seeks to create a process for how retrospective impact assessments would work. Islands authorities would be able to submit a request that ministers amend existing primary or secondary legislation where a detrimental effect on island communities could be demonstrated. As with amendment 80, the islands authorities would have to make their case, ministers would then have to respond and, if they rejected the request, they would have to explain the reasons why. That would not create an unreasonable burden, and it certainly would not require all past legislation to be checked, as some have suggested, but it would ensure that any problems in existing legislation that were highlighted could be addressed. The bill is supposed to be about empowering island communities, but local authorities are not being trusted to use that power responsibly.

I appreciate that amendments 26 and 27, in the name of Tavish Scott, are similar to amendment 80, but the difference is that my amendment sets out a mechanism for requesting additional powers. I am happy to listen to the debate on the amendments.

I move amendment 29.

Tavish Scott (Shetland Islands) (LD)

As Colin Smyth rightly says, amendment 26 is broadly similar to amendment 80, although Colin Smyth commendably puts more detail into the mechanism. Amendment 26 would simply create a mechanism to allow local authorities to request additional powers. It is important to note that it says “requests” rather than “demands”, which is a reasonable approach to an issue on which the islands authorities, in particular, have a reasonable case to make, although I respect the fact that we are dealing with more than just the islands authorities in this context.

The bill makes provision for an application to be made for additional powers in the context of marine licensing, which the minister mentioned earlier, and it is a commendable approach. Orkney Islands Council and others have argued that there should be similar provision for a more general power over a range of competences. The process is broadly similar to the process in the Community Empowerment (Scotland) Act 2015, so there is consistency.

I appreciate the Government’s argument that a governance review is under way—which, if I am correct, involves joint working between the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities and the Government. Although I have the greatest respect for COSLA, there have been times in my lifetime when the islands authorities have been somewhat left out of the discussions, and my amendments simply put the authorities that have island responsibilities centre stage in the argument.

Stewart Stevenson

My first comment is about a drafting issue in amendment 29. It is always unhelpful to repeat a list in a bill. The proposed list that is set out in amendment 29 is already present in exactly the same form in the schedule to the bill—it is always better to put lists in schedules as a matter of drafting; actions that require to be taken should form the body of the bill. The bottom line is that the list should occur only once in the bill, not twice. Indeed, the bill already contains powers for the ministers to amend the lists. If amendment 29 is required, it should just point to the list in the schedule. However, that is a drafting point and not a substantive point that need detain us terribly long.

My more substantive point relates to amendment 80 and, to some extent, Tavish Scott’s amendment 26. Tavish Scott said that amendment 26 would allow local authorities to make requests. It is news to me that they are forbidden from making requests—I merely make that point. I do not think that the amendment would create a new power for local authorities in any way, shape or form. I accept that it would create a structure within which such requests could be made, but I do not think that it would create a new power. The same observation can be made about Colin Smyth’s amendment 80.

There are a lot of real difficulties with the detail of amendment 80. Proposed new subsection (1) talks about making requests to ministers

“to promote legislation devolving functions to the authority”.

The obvious point is that devolution is not simply a legislative process. In relation to the Scottish Parliament’s powers, legislation is passed at Westminster that devolves legislative competence to the Scottish Parliament—which is good. We also have secondary legislation that devolves administrative competence. For example, sections 36 and 37 of the Electricity Act 1989 allow the Scottish ministers to approve requests for generation consent for transmission lines, which is a devolved matter. There is also a lower level of devolution to this Parliament, which relates to ministers and the Parliament—by agreement or by letter—agreeing that powers that lie with ministers will be exercised by people elsewhere.

11:00  



I think that the whole issue of devolution is oversimplified in the drafting of Colin Smyth’s amendment, which carries the danger that we might think that it is about only one way of dealing with the matter. I am anxious that we ensure that island communities have the greatest opportunity to maximise their individual and specific opportunities.

Amendment 80 is also quite lax, in a sense, and I do not understand what it means. Proposed new subsection (3) states that an islands authority

“must submit a business case”

that provides

“evidence of community support (including the support of island communities)”.

I am not quite sure how that could be done. Would it be done in the same way as community buyouts have been done—by a ballot of people in particular postal areas? Particularly in the three islands authority areas, would the whole of the islands authority have to demonstrate support or only the community that was directly affected by the devolution that was sought? I am unclear about that, and the amendment is simply not in a form that I can support.

The coup de grâce for amendment 80 is the timescale of “within three months”. Any of us who have been ministers—two of us, Tavish Scott and I, have sat before the committee—will know that that is very ambitious. I admire the ambition, but I must gently advise the committee against it. I have taken five bills through Parliament, and I advise the committee that there is not the faintest chance of such a timescale being achieved. The timescale in Tavish Scott’s amendment is a year, which is a wee bit more satisfactory. Nevertheless, in broad terms, I cannot persuade myself that I should support this set of amendments, however worthy the intention behind them is. I am as anxious as any other committee member—or any island dweller—to make sure that we maximise the opportunities that come from the bill.

John Finnie

We are making law here, and we all want to make very good law, so it is important that we discuss what our intentions are and perhaps refine the wording.

I will get a negative point about amendment 81 out of the way first. Any organisation should review all its policies and principles on an on-going basis. If there is a deficiency—whether it relates to a policy’s application to islands, cities or rural communities—that should be addressed, but I hope that that would not be a huge administrative exercise. When the bill is passed—as, inevitably, it will be—that will perhaps focus the minds of all the people who are listed in the schedule on looking at what, if anything, they can do. The issue of retrospection must be discussed and addressed, but I do not think that that will be a huge process.

I turn to substantive amendment 80, in the name of Colin Smyth, and amendment 26, in the name of Tavish Scott. Taking a different approach does not fragment things; in fact, if we get that approach right, it binds people together. In both amendments 26 and 80, there is an opportunity to look at what we should be planning to do here, which is to devolve as much as we can reasonably devolve. Whether that is functions or powers, it is important that we take the opportunity that the legislation provides to do that. I will support both amendment 26 and amendment 80.

Gail Ross (Caithness, Sutherland and Ross) (SNP)

To start off with Colin Smyth’s amendment 80, although I agree that it is good to have deadlines for these sorts of things because they focus minds, I disagree with Stewart Stevenson. I do not think that you have to be a minister to realise that a requirement to do something “within three months” or “within six months” could be quite constraining. I wonder whether Colin Smyth can explain how he came up with the three and six-month deadlines. Was there a legal reason behind it?

The Convener

I am sure that Colin Smyth will intervene if he feels that he needs to.

Gail Ross

As for amendment 81, we heard from island communities about looking retrospectively at existing legislation. Indeed, when we were in Orkney, people from Orkney and Shetland came up with several examples that we could be looking at right now. I have great sympathy for the proposals in amendment 81, but I do not know whether the bill is the right place to lay them out in such detail. Again, as with amendment 80, there is the issue of the three and six-month deadlines. I am interested in hearing what the minister has to say on that point.

Moving on to Tavish Scott’s amendment 26, I have a couple of points to make about the wording in subsection (3) of the new section that it proposes to introduce, which includes the phrases “must demonstrate reasonable cause” and “must not unreasonably refuse”. Those phrases seem to be quite subjective and I wonder whether the wording is quite right.

With respect to amendment 80 and amendment 26, in all the island communities that we visited and spoke to, the communities did not just want the local authorities to be consulted—they also wanted the islanders themselves to be consulted. I do not see anything in those amendments about consulting at lower than local authority level.

The Convener

Colin Smyth can respond to those comments when he sums up at the end.

Peter Chapman

I agree with amendment 29, in Colin Smyth’s name. It makes pragmatic sense that we understand what the islands authorities are. They are listed in amendment 29 and we can just refer to them as “islands authorities” from there on, so I support that amendment.

Stewart Stevenson

Will the member take an intervention to explain why we need to have a second list of islands authorities, when the list is already present in the schedule to the bill as drafted?

The Convener

When a member asks for an intervention, they should not leap straight into the question, because the member who is speaking might not wish to take the intervention. I am sure that now he has heard the question, Mr Chapman will want to answer it.

Peter Chapman

I take the point that the authorities may already be listed, but it does no harm to clarify who they are again. I support Colin Smyth’s amendment 29 on that basis.

I agree with the sentiment of amendment 80, but we have recognised throughout that this is a community empowerment bill. We want to empower everyone in the island communities and not simply hand over increasing powers to councils with islands or island authorities. I think that Gail Ross was making a similar point, and I agree with that.

We have to recognise that many councils are already stretched thin by budget cuts and I do not know whether they have the resources to manage the devolution of more functions. I am also not sure that that is what the bill sets out to do. I have sympathy with the amendment, but I do not think that I can support it in its current form. The same argument is relevant for amendment 81.

To a large extent, I have similar thoughts on Tavish Scott’s amendment 26. I appreciate the sentiment, but I am not sure that what it proposes is for the bill to decide. I think that imbalances of local government would be caused if local authorities requested different powers. Each island will have its own experience, and therefore we could end up with a bit of a mess.

John Finnie

Will the member take an intervention on that point?

Peter Chapman

Yes.

John Finnie

Will the member accept that quite often we hear from members on a number of different party benches, not only from members on his own party’s benches, that one size does not fit all and that it is important to have responses, policies and practices that apply to the different areas across Scotland?

Peter Chapman

I understand John Finnie’s argument. I have some sympathy with amendment 26 but it perhaps goes too far and is a step further than I am able to support. Amendment 27 follows on from that so, for the same reason, I will say no to it.

Mike Rumbles

It is curious that John Finnie just used the phrase “one size does not fit all” because I just wrote that down in response to what Peter Chapman said. I often hear Peter Chapman saying that, so I am surprised to find that he takes the view that he does in this instance.

All the amendments in the group are good but, if I have to make a choice between Colin Smyth’s amendments 80 and 81 and Tavish Scott’s amendment 26, I think that Tavish Scott’s amendment is much better in as much as it does not include the timescales that are in amendments 80 and 81. I listened to what Gail Ross said and I agree that the timescales in Colin Smyth’s amendments are difficult.

The good thing about having stage 2 and stage 3 is that we could choose either set of amendments. However, my preference would be Tavish Scott’s amendment simply because amendment 26 says:

“a relevant local authority must demonstrate reasonable cause for making a request”

and

“the Scottish Ministers must not unreasonably refuse to grant the request.”

Those are legal terms, so people know what they mean. Therefore, they are reasonable and I am sure that a reasonable person—nearly everybody around the table is a reasonable person—would accept that Tavish Scott has made a better stab at the matter than Colin Smyth at the moment. However, we can of course change that at stage 3.

Richard Lyle

Unfortunately, I cannot support Colin Smyth’s amendments 29, 80 and 81 or Tavish Scott’s amendments 26 and 27. I agree with Stewart Stevenson’s earlier point.

With the greatest respect, I say to Peter Chapman that I was a councillor for decades—I will not mention how many years—and I found that the 32 councils in COSLA had 32 different ways of doing things. It is commonly called local democracy.

Humza Yousaf

I ask Colin Smyth not to press amendment 29 and I ask Tavish Scott not to move his amendments. However, Tavish Scott’s amendments have more appeal to them and I will see whether I can work with him before stage 3 to give effect to what he is trying to achieve.

I will speak first to the Government’s policy. We are committed to the principle of subsidiarity, which means that decisions should be democratically accountable and taken as closely as possible to the people whom they affect. We recently took an important step on the community empowerment journey when the Scottish Government stood with COSLA at the launch of the local governance review last December, which a couple of members referenced.

Tavish Scott said that island communities and authorities do not always feel as though their views are at the forefront. We can reflect on that in relation to the local governance review and the legislative measures that we are introducing. The review seeks to reform the way that Scotland is governed at a local level. Our approach is being shaped by listening carefully to the development of ideas on the issue from, for example, the COSLA-backed commission on strengthening local democracy.

The key element of the review will be for the Scottish Government to invite individual local authorities, community planning partnerships, regional partnerships and other public sector organisations to propose place-specific alternative approaches to governance. One-size-fits-all solutions risk failing to recognise the huge diversity of Scotland. That is why we are interested in new local decision-making arrangements that have been designed with particular places firmly in mind. Extensive engagement with communities will also begin shortly in order to surface the best ideas on how to transform local democracy in Scotland. Again, island communities will have a stake, and a role to play, in that.

As members mentioned, we are committed to introducing a local democracy bill in this session of the Parliament. That will provide a more appropriate legislative option to make new place-specific governance arrangements—including, potentially, those that include, or are specifically for, island authorities. That would be a good example of island proofing in action. Those changes would sit alongside and complement legislative provisions to decentralise more powers to local communities more generally.

In last year’s programme for government, we made a commitment to support island authorities that want to establish a single authority model of delivering local services. Island authorities are already actively working with local partners to develop some concrete proposals. Those will be considered as part of the review process and we look forward to supporting new local governance arrangements that can help our island communities to thrive.

11:15  



The amendments in the group would pre-empt that work and could lead to a missed opportunity for the islands or result in a lack of coherence in relation to new decision-making arrangements that are introduced later. The Government certainly agrees with the spirit of the amendments, but we believe that something as fundamental as a transfer of powers needs to go through a proper and rigorous engagement and consultation process, not just with the local authority but with local communities. That has not happened on the matter in the context of the bill, and it would best be achieved through the local governance review process. I therefore cannot support the amendments.

Tavish Scott’s amendments have more appeal to me. They propose that regulations be used to set out the process, and there might be something in that as long as we are mindful of the local governance review. I am willing to work with the member on the matter before stage 3 and, if he is willing not to move his amendments today but to work with us, we can take that conversation forward.

Colin Smyth’s amendment 81 contains another interesting proposal. It would create a duty on Scottish ministers

“to have regard to requests from islands authorities in respect of improving or mitigating”

existing primary or secondary legislation for island communities. It sets out a process and timescales, and there has been a lot of good conversation among ministers and back benchers about the timescales that are involved.

I understand the thinking behind the amendment, but I do not think that the amendment is necessary. As things stand, any island authority can come forward to ministers with any concerns regarding pieces of legislation. They can set out their concerns in the ways that are described in the amendment, and we will respond. In my dealings with the six relevant local authorities since I took up my post, I have proactively encouraged them to do just that and to let me know of any difficulties that they are encountering.

Gail Ross

As I said earlier, we have heard about existing legislation that is possibly having a negative effect on some of the islands. Have any of the island authorities come forward with any requests?

Humza Yousaf

It is a good question. A number of local authorities have said that they are working on concrete plans, although they are not always to do with legislation; sometimes they are to do with guidance. House-building regulations, insulation guidance and a few other issues that members touch on in later amendments have often been raised with me.

The most recent discussion that I had on the matter with local authorities was in Millport at the meeting of the convention of the Highlands and Islands. I met the six authorities and reiterated that offer, and a couple of them indicated that they would come forward. Nobody really agreed with the blanket approach to looking at legislation, but they said that they would come forward, and also that they would look at opportunities for further devolution where they thought that there could be some proactive movement on that. That is in train.

I understand that we are short of time, but I want to reiterate a point that I think members have made. I know from past experience that, sometimes, where one island authority indicates that it has difficulties with the requirements of a particular piece of legislation, other island authorities have no issue with it, so the problem might be more to do with local implementation.

With provisions such as the one in amendment 81, there is a risk that we will create a system that could lead to endless requests to change legislation before it has been properly embedded or indeed implemented. I am satisfied that the powers on island proofing that are already in the bill will give practical effect to what Mr Smyth is trying to achieve with his amendment.

On the timescales, the requirement in amendment 80 that legislation must be introduced within six months is not practical. In order to introduce a bill, we need time to consult—a standard period is three months—and then time to instruct and to draft, and that is assuming that no tricky legal issues come up during the consultation. Working with the proposed timescale would risk the creation of bad and ineffectual legislation or, worse, legislation that could be outwith the Parliament’s competence.

Even if ministers initially support a proposal, there may be constraints on our introducing legislation. There are long-established processes for introducing legislation—including, of course, members’ bills. I fear that, if the amendment was agreed to, the provision could become the default starting position for island authorities if they did not like a particular piece of legislation, rather than their engaging proactively through the means that we already have.

On that basis, I urge Colin Smyth not to move amendment 81. If he moves it, I urge other members not to support it.

Colin Smyth

I believe strongly that amendments 29, 80 and 81 implement clear recommendations from the committee. I do not agree with Stewart Stevenson and the minister that there are existing mechanisms. If the existing mechanisms were satisfactory, we would not be having a discussion about future legislation on local democracy.

A number of valid points have been made on the detail of the amendments. They can be tidied up at stage 3. I refer, for example, to the comments on timescales. One thing that I discovered early on as an MSP is that, when the Government promises to do something, unless there is a clear timescale, you cannot hold your breath. For the Scottish Government, spring can sometimes last about a year and a half. I got commitments to do something in spring last year and I am still—[Interruption.] It can last even longer, as Stewart Stevenson has just told me, speaking from clear experience, I am sure.

I take on board the points that were made about timescales but they can be amended at stage 3 and the Government can put in what it regards as a realistic timescale. Timescales are important for focusing people’s minds.

Peter Chapman made the point that my amendments put burdens on local authorities. It is important to point out that the request for the powers comes from the island authorities themselves. The committee should not tell those authorities what is good for them but should listen to what they want. That is why they have requested that the matter be dealt with as part of the Islands (Scotland) Bill.

I am happy to press amendment 29.

The Convener

The question is, that amendment 29 be agreed to. Are we agreed?

Members: No.

The Convener

There will be a division.

For

Smyth, Colin (South Scotland) (Lab)
Rumbles, Mike (North East Scotland) (LD)
Mountain, Edward (Highlands and Islands) (Con)
Finnie, John (Highlands and Islands) (Green)
Greene, Jamie (West Scotland) (Con)
Chapman, Peter (North East Scotland) (Con)

Against

Stevenson, Stewart (Banffshire and Buchan Coast) (SNP)
Ross, Gail (Caithness, Sutherland and Ross) (SNP)
Mason, John (Glasgow Shettleston) (SNP)
MacGregor, Fulton (Coatbridge and Chryston) (SNP)
Lyle, Richard (Uddingston and Bellshill) (SNP)

The Convener

The result of the division is: For 6, Against 5, Abstentions 0.

Amendment 29 agreed to.

The Convener

I will suspend the meeting. I ask members to be back promptly in five minutes ready to reconvene.

11:22 Meeting suspended.  



11:28 On resuming—  



Section 3—National islands plan

The Convener

Amendment 1, in the name of the minister, is grouped with amendments 2, 2A, 11 to 16, 31 and 32.

Humza Yousaf

This group is about the content of the national islands plan and there is a large number of amendments in it. If they are all agreed to, section 3 will go from having two subsections to having 15. Therefore, it is fair to say in relation to this group—and others—that we will need to take stock of how the bill ends up after stage 2 consideration and see what needs to be revisited at stage 3 to ensure that the amended bill becomes the most effective legislation that it can be and reflects appropriately our shared ambition for the national islands plan and what it can achieve.

11:30  



I will discuss the other amendments in the group after explaining amendments 1 and 2 in my name.

We addressed some of the issues around the high-level objectives when we discussed the purpose of the bill as we dealt with the first group of amendments. As I set out again today, the national islands plan is a more meaningful place to deliver the committee’s aims for high-level objectives to be incorporated into the bill.

Amendment 1 seeks to adjust the language in section 3 to make the purpose of the plan clear. It amends section 3(2) to state:

“The purpose of preparing a national islands plan is to set out the main objectives and strategy of the Scottish Ministers in relation to improving outcomes for island communities”.

Amendment 2 expands the term “improving outcomes” for island communities to include the three underpinning objectives listed in the amendment: sustainable economic development; health and wellbeing; and community empowerment.

Those high-level objectives encapsulate the evidence that the committee heard during stage 1 and go to the heart of what we are attempting to do to improve the lives of those who live and work on our islands. They would not limit what can be included in the plan, but would help to provide strategic direction, focusing resources and, where necessary, targets for key areas of activity.

I hope that members will support amendments 1 and 2 today, although I recognise that members may have a view on omissions and what might usefully be added to the strategic objectives. I am, of course, willing to engage and work with and listen to any member who considers that section 3 could be further improved before stage 3.

I also recognise that, in your evidence gathering, you heard a wide variety of opinion on how prescriptive we should be in the bill about the areas that the plan should cover. Although I recognise that there are specific issues on which members might want to put more detail in the bill, I urge caution. The committee’s stage 1 report recommended that

“consultation should be undertaken as widely as possible”

and stated that

“When the Committee scrutinises the draft Plan laid before the Parliament, it will wish to be assured that the priority areas featured in the Plan reflect the actual priorities of islanders.”

Therefore, to place specific detailed points in the bill at this stage would be to go against the spirit of the committee’s stage 1 recommendations and would prejudge the views of island communities.

That is not to say that ferries, broadband and the other topics will not appear in the plan—I am in no doubt that they absolutely will—but it would be unfair to island communities and other stakeholders to present a prepopulated plan for them to tinker with around the edges. That is not my aim, and I am certain that that is not the aim of any members around the table. As well as Parliament having a role in setting the parameters and aspirations of the plan, we need to allow appropriate time and external input.

Amendment 2A, in the name of Colin Smyth, seeks to add to the high-level objective list by including

“taking steps to increase the population of islands”.

The goal of achieving population growth and the long-term future sustainability of our island communities are matters on which I think that we would all be in agreement with and I am therefore happy to support amendment 2A.

Before I go on to the other members’ amendments, I highlight that it is the form of amendment as lodged by Colin Smyth where we can perhaps find common ground. It adds to the objectives but does not prescribe what the solution would necessarily be.

On amendment 11 from Tavish Scott, I am aware of the member’s keen interest in the Crown Estate through a variety of conversations that we have had. He will be aware of the on-going dialogue that the Scottish Government and Crown Estate Scotland (Interim Management) have been having with the island authorities and others on the issue of transferring or delegating the function of managing the Scottish Crown Estate to local authorities.

I understand the reasoning for the member’s amendment, but Scottish ministers have shown their commitment to further reform of the Scottish Crown Estate. We consulted on proposals for reform before the devolution from the UK level was completed on 1 April 2017 and we laid a bill before Parliament in January. The consultation promoted the prospect of a phased approach, with further devolution of assets in the islands being considered under a first phase of reforms.

The member’s amendment seeks to include in the Islands (Scotland) Bill legal requirements relating to the process of planning for delegation of management of the Scottish Crown Estate. Unfortunately, that would lead to a confusing position as the requirements for planning reforms to management would be split across two pieces of legislation—this bill and the Scottish Crown Estate Bill—which could interfere with planning under the Scottish Crown Estate Bill. Amendment 11 is not necessary and, as it stands, presents technical problems.

Section 20 of the Scottish Crown Estate Bill would require a national strategic plan to be prepared and section 21 requires that plan to be reviewed at least every five years. That being the case, the appropriate place for planning the future of the Scottish Crown Estate is in the plans of its managers, and the islands plan should not predetermine the content of the national strategic plan. Requiring the intentions over the next five years to be set out could frustrate the policy foundations of part 2 of the Scottish Crown Estate Bill. I am happy to explore with Tavish Scott and Roseanna Cunningham, the lead minister on the Scottish Crown Estate Bill, how we might better address the effect that he is trying to achieve. Therefore, I invite Mr Scott not to move his amendment 11.

On amendment 12, in the name of Liam McArthur, I understand fully Mr McArthur’s desire to see ferries referenced specifically in the plan, given the importance of those services not only to Orkney but to island communities right across Scotland. There is no doubt that ferries and wider transport issues will be covered in detail in the national islands plan, and I give that undertaking. Reliable and efficient transport connections, whether by ferries or planes, are hugely important to our island communities and, in many instances, are regarded as lifeline services. Therefore, without question, I am happy to give a commitment that they will be prominent in any future national islands plan.

On the specific detail of Mr McArthur’s amendment 12, I suspect that he will not be surprised to discover that I do not think that it is necessary, at least in the level of detail that has been put forward. In 2012, the Scottish Government produced the first ever Scottish ferries plan, which covered the period 2013 to 2022 and which was the result of extensive analytical and consultation work. I have signalled recently that we will renew that plan and produce a new one in good time for the expiry of the current plan. Again, that will involve engagement with stakeholders, extensive analytical and consultation work and so on. The new plan will, of course, be island proofed, given the statutory duties in the Islands (Scotland) Bill.

I also want the new ferries plan to sit within the context of the national transport strategy and the strategic transport projects review. However, the timescales of the new ferries plan will not be deliverable ahead of, for example, the first national islands plan.

For all those reasons I am not able to support amendment 12 today but, again, I am happy to work with Mr McArthur to explore how we might better address the effect that he is trying to achieve. I urge him not to move his amendment 12.

On amendment 13, which again is in the name of Liam McArthur, everyone recognises the huge challenge that fuel poverty presents to communities across Scotland. I credit Liam McArthur because he has raised that issue—which is particularly acute in Orkney—on a number of occasions in Parliament both in committee and in the chamber.

The member is aware that the Scottish Government has recently concluded a consultation on a new fuel poverty strategy. Responses are currently being considered and they will help inform the development of the draft strategy, which is to be published in May, as well as inform the warm homes bill, which is due to be introduced to Parliament before the summer.

As members will be aware, fuel poverty is not just an islands issue. Our aim is to ensure that we direct help to anyone who is suffering from the impacts of fuel poverty. We have consulted on rural and island issues and we will seek to island proof the warm homes bill ahead of its introduction. Mr McArthur’s amendment 13 would predetermine how elements of the warm homes bill, the strategy and the delivery priorities are set out before Parliament has had the chance to fully examine them, which would potentially limit its options and hinder the parliamentary scrutiny process.

For those reasons, I cannot support amendment 13 but, again, I am happy to work with Mr McArthur and to arrange a meeting with the Minister for Local Government and Housing to explore how we ensure that the particular needs of islands communities in relation to fuel poverty are reflected in the legislation. I invite Mr McArthur not to move his amendment 13, on the basis of that guarantee.

I turn to amendment 14, in the name of Tavish Scott. As he knows, the Scottish Government is committed to extending superfast broadband across Scotland by the end of 2021. The procurement is well under way and we have embarked on a competitive dialogue phase with our shortlisted bidders. We expect to have suppliers in place and ready to start delivering in early 2019.

The current digital Scotland superfast broadband programme has transformed broadband access for our islands. Thanks to our investment and that of our partners, new sub-sea fibre cables have been deployed and there is now extensive fibre coverage on Orkney, Shetland and the Western Isles. The coverage footprint that is to be delivered by the successful R100 bidders and a detailed deployment plan will be confirmed only at the end of the procurement process, at the turn of the year. We are absolutely committed.

The member will acknowledge that the procurement and deliverability of projects of that scale require many months of proper investigation before timescales and targets can be identified. I caution against suggesting that the targets can be brought forward by nine months, as suggested by the member’s amendment 14. If the target can be met sooner, of course that would be welcomed by everybody, including the Government.

I cannot support amendment 14 as drafted but, as I have indicated previously in relation to other amendments in the grouping, I am more than happy to explore with the member an alternative form of wording to ensure that the importance of digital connectivity to our island communities is recognised in the plan. With those reassurances, I urge Mr Scott not to move amendment 14.

Amendment 15, also from Tavish Scott, relates to the continuing discussions between the Scottish Government, the UK Government and the three wholly island councils about the possibility of a future islands deal. I completely understand the intention of the amendment and appreciate that the member has a clear constituency interest.

I reassure all members that the Scottish Government is committed to 100 per cent coverage of Scotland with growth deals. That includes all Scottish islands. In line with the recommendations that the Local Government and Communities Committee made following its inquiry into city region deals, we have asked the UK Government to make a clear commitment to join us in that common purpose and agree a timetable for doing so. Government officials are in dialogue with local government and other colleagues leading the development of an islands deal and I have discussed the matter with island local authorities.

Amendment 15 is not the best way to ensure progress on that. Indeed, in seeking to oblige the UK Government to be part of an islands deal through primary legislation, it might arguably not even be competent. The Scottish Government has already successfully delivered three city region deals with the UK Government and more are in the pipeline. We do not need primary legislation to deliver those deals or to work hard towards our focus on 100 per cent coverage of Scotland with growth deals. Therefore, I ask Tavish Scott to not move amendment 15. However, as always, I am happy to have a discussion about how we can best make progress towards an islands deal.

Amendment 16, in the name of John Finnie, calls on the Scottish ministers to set out in the plan a

“strategy for the maintenance of biosecurity on Scotland’s islands”

to protect their unique natural heritage, cultural heritage and economy. I have discovered in recent days that biosecurity is a broad term that encompasses many aspects of disease and harm prevention. Good biosecurity has the potential to protect wildlife, fragile ecosystems and animal and public health. The Scottish Government is fully supportive of good biosecurity measures. Biosecurity is collaborative and we recognise the essential roles that stakeholders, the wider industry and local councils play in maintaining good biosecurity. That is demonstrated in the biosecurity codes and plans that the Scottish Government has already agreed with a number of sectors.

Although I appreciate amendment 16, as with other amendments in the group, the bill is not the right place for the level of detail that it seeks and the requirements that it places on ministers and other authorities. However, it is an interesting and commendable proposal and I am willing to explore with John Finnie an alternative form of words ahead of stage 3 to ensure that that important issue is recognised within the national islands plan.

On amendment 31 from Jamie Greene, as indicated in our response to the committee’s stage 1 report, we anticipate that the plan will include a series of outcomes, targets and measurable indicators across the full range of Government activities to allow for monitoring and assessment of its progress. That said, I am sure that the member will acknowledge that those will vary and, therefore, it is not always possible to guarantee that every objective covered by the plan—especially high-level objectives—can realistically be measured.

On that basis, the Government cannot support amendment 31. However, if Jamie Greene is willing, following stage 2, I am happy to explore with him an alternative wording that will deliver on the spirit of the amendment and that the Government could support at stage 3. Therefore, I urge him to not move amendment 31.

Amendment 32, which is also from Jamie Greene, is the final amendment in this group and seeks to ensure that the plan lists the public authorities that have duties under the bill. In principle, I have no objections to supporting the amendment but I wonder if it is necessary. It would be helpful to hear the thinking behind the amendment before I agree to accept it.

The schedule that accompanies the bill already lists all relevant authorities that have duties in relation to island communities. At my appearance on 8 November, Jamie Greene had questions about whether the reference to “Scottish Ministers” in the schedule included all Scottish Government agencies. I am told that it is normal for an act to refer to the Scottish ministers, which is the relevant legal person under the Scotland Act 1998 and, therefore, covers all agencies without naming them. That is desirable, as ministerial agencies can be created and change over time.

If that is the reason behind Jamie Greene’s amendment 32, perhaps he would consider not moving it at this stage with a view to exploring with me the best way of achieving the clarity that he seeks.

I move amendment 1.

11:45  



Colin Smyth

Amendment 2A seeks to amend Amendment 2 in the minister’s name to include action on depopulation. That is one of the key challenges facing island communities and it is important that it is included in the plan’s aims. I welcome the minister’s support for that.

I have a great deal of sympathy for the aims of the other amendments, and will listen to what members have to say about them.

Tavish Scott

I appreciate the tone of the minister’s remarks. It is always difficult to issue a great rant in response to a minister who is entirely reasonable when knocking amendments into touch. I will do my best.

I have three points to make on amendments 11, 14 and 15. On the Crown Estate powers, the minister made a fair point at the start of his remarks about the priorities of islanders. I am sure that he would take the observation that the devolution of the sea bed to the islands is unfinished business for the islands and is a priority for islanders. Amendment 11 seeks to address that. The matter was a commitment of the Smith commission, and I am grateful for the cross-party support of members of the commission, including the Deputy First Minister, which resulted in the clear language that is used on this issue. There is a difference between that and the wider aspects relating to the Crown Estate in the national strategic plan, which the minister mentioned, fairly, in his remarks. I would ask the minister to reflect on that in winding up. I take what he said in relation to the Scottish Crown Estate Bill, which his colleague Roseanna Cunningham is taking through Parliament.

On amendment 14, on broadband, I take the minister’s remarks. I entirely support what Government policy on broadband seeks to achieve. I could argue, although perhaps not successfully, that the amendment is entirely complementary to the Government’s work. The broadband roll-out is fundamental to all of the islands, and that is the reason for amendment 14.

On amendment 15, there simply should be an islands deal. I thought that the minister might rather like my suggestion that he should tell the UK Government what to do, in the spirit of what we will be dealing with later this afternoon on the UK Withdrawal from the European Union (Legal Continuity) Bill. However, I am possibly the least best person to make that argument, given what I will be arguing in a couple of hours’ time.

There is an important role for an islands deal. Amendment 15 was designed to bring that in front of the committee as an important next stage in the development of the islands, and in that sense it is consistent with the bill.

Liam McArthur

I, too, thank the minister for the tone and content of much of what he had to say.

Amendments 12 and 13 follow a similar theme to the amendments of Tavish Scott. There is an opportunity through this bill, specifically the islands plan, to ensure that safeguards and commitments are put in place so that the provision of services to island communities meets certain standards as a minimum and that the needs of island communities are not an afterthought, as so often appears to be the case.

Amendment 12 deals with ferry services, which I am pleased to say that Tavish Scott and I have managed to get the Parliament to speak rather a lot about over the last three or four months. As the minister rightly acknowledged, the 2012 ferries plan sets out minimum standards for levels of service. Sadly, however, those are not always met. The lifeline internal services in Orkney are a case in point.

That cannot continue. The agreement on the budget paves the way for resolving the issue. Before deciding whether to move amendment 12, I seek assurances from the minister that he will instil a degree of urgency to the negotiations with Orkney Islands Council on identifying a longer-term solution, commit to updating Parliament before the summer recess on progress and agree to help towards the funding of the business case on which the longer-term solution will be based.

On amendment 13, colleagues will be aware that Orkney has the dubious honour of being the area with the highest proportion of fuel-poor households anywhere in the country. The Government previously recognised the specific nature of fuel poverty in rural and island areas and the challenges in tackling it through the work of the rural fuel poverty task force. The revised definition of fuel poverty announced by ministers drives a coach and horses through that and risks artificially deflating fuel poverty levels in island and rural communities generally by as much as 20 per cent. All the indications are that, if that definition stands, the warm homes bill will fall far short of the needs of communities that desperately need a tailored approach to be taken.

Those concerns have been raised by those active in fuel poverty measures in Orkney and across the Highlands and Islands more widely. I welcome Humza Yousaf’s recognition not just of my efforts but of those wider efforts, and I also welcome his commitment to work with me and with the housing minister, ahead of stage 3, to ensure that the concerns that have been raised will be properly picked up in the warm homes bill, which will follow once the Islands (Scotland) Bill has been dealt with. On that basis, I am happy not to move amendment 13.

John Finnie

My amendment 16, as has been said, would insert into section 3 a requirement for a reference to biosecurity in the national islands plan. I hear what the minister said about pre-populating the plan, and we have the ever-present debate about what should and should not be in the bill. I will greatly curtail what I was going to say, but invasive species are a major driver of biodiversity loss, and islands are particularly vulnerable. Putting in place the sort of system that I propose would not only protect the natural environment but safeguard economic and agricultural interests. Experience suggests that having that in place would significantly reduce the risk of new incursions. The sort of thing that we are talking about is the eradication of mink in the Western Isles and the positive impact that that had for poultry, the clearing of rats from the Shiant islands, and the invasive species of stoats that are now an issue in Orkney. Techniques are involved in such efforts, and my amendment seeks explicit reference to them in the bill, but I hear what the minister says, and if he is minded to be supportive of that approach I would be happy to discuss those provisions appearing in the plan rather than in the bill.

I would like to touch briefly on some of the other amendments in the group. I will support some of the amendments with tidying-up language, including Mr Smyth’s amendment on island populations. Tavish Scott’s comments about the devolution of the sea bed are very important, and his amendments offer a fundamental opportunity that should not be lost. Ferry services are very important, and the minister acknowledges the huge challenge around fuel poverty, which is also important. I hope that my colleagues will take the approach that I have taken and will not press their amendments. It is important that those issues are highlighted, but I concede that we need to promote them rather than necessarily have them in the bill.

Jamie Greene

In the interests of time, I will shrink many of my comments, as this is a long group. I will deal first with amendments 31 and 32, and with the minister’s comments. The intention behind amendment 31 is to ensure that the objectives that are referred to in the islands plan are measurable. That is important for two reasons. First, a later amendment of mine, amendment 40, is about review of the act and of its success, and if objectives are not measurable in some way it will be difficult for ministers and for us to see whether those objectives have been met or not. I have purposely been light on wording. I have not said how they should be measured, whether there should be targets, or what forms of measurement the minister may choose to assess whether the objectives have been met, but it is important that we have some wording to ensure that the objectives are not just vague concepts, but can be targeted in some ways, as the minister sees fit when he produces his plan. For that reason, I would be minded to move amendment 31 to ensure that there is language around the fact that objectives must be measurable, unless the minister can persuade me otherwise when he sums up.

On amendment 32, I see the point that the minister makes, but let me explain why I have lodged the amendment. When the minister produces his islands plan, it is inevitable that it will be public authorities and bodies that will have to deliver much of the plan. The schedule as it currently stands, with the listed public authorities, relates only to part 3, on the duties in relation to having regard to island communities, and not to part 2, which is about the delivery of the islands plan.

For that reason, I felt that there was a gap. I have specifically stated that the list of public authorities does not need to be in the bill; it just needs to be in the plan. I am not asking the minister to include in the bill all the public authorities under the jurisdiction of ministers; I am asking for them to be listed in the plan, so that when the plan is produced there will be no ambiguity about which authorities have to deliver the objectives that are set in it. I have intentionally left it so that the list will be in the islands plan, which addresses the technical issue that the list in the schedule does not relate to the implementation of the plan. I hope that clarifies why I have lodged amendments 31 and 32, and that the minister will be supportive of the rationale behind them.

We are happy to accept that the minister’s amendments 1 and 2 follow on nicely from the discussion that we had about the purpose of the bill. The amendments have a very helpful purpose, which is to home in on some of the objectives that the plan should cover in relation to sustainable economic development, health and wellbeing, and community empowerment. Those are all very welcome additions at stage 2, although there may be room to tighten the purpose further at stage 3.

I have listened to the arguments from Liam MacArthur and Tavish Scott, who made some valid points. We had a long conversation about their amendments, which raise some valid issues on broadband, ferry access to islands, and fuel poverty. There is no doubt that those things should be included in the plan, but the committee also had a long conversation about the problem of being specific in the bill and creating lists, which are not exhaustive. The question arises as to where to stop; there are half a dozen other areas that I think should be in the plan.

Throughout this process, my worry has been that we should not create lists as such, but I do not want to detract from the amendments and the reasons why they have been discussed today. The issues are important, but I am unable to support the amendments, because I am nervous about being specific in the bill about what should be in the plan.

Mike Rumbles

There is a certain nervousness about the whole process. There is the legislation that we are looking at now and the minister will introduce the plan at a later date. Because of that process, MSPs will not be able to alter the plan that the minister produces, which is a bit like subordinate legislation. The only opportunity that MSPs have to get something included in the plan is to put it in the legislation.

I hear the minister and do not doubt his sincerity when he says that ferries will be prominent in the national islands plan—I am certain that they will be. The minister is an honourable man and my comments are not focused on an individual minister. However, there are two ex-transport ministers in the room, so I am not sure how long an individual will be in post.

Humza Yousaf

Oh!

Mike Rumbles

I put on record that I have a very good relationship with the minister. He does a good job and my comments are not meant to be personal. What I am trying to get across is that the problem is with process. Because the national plan can be reviewed—and is to be reviewed quite regularly—the current minister may well not be the minister who produces the next plan. The problem is that the only opportunity that MSPs have to influence what is in the plan is to put it in the bill.

Stewart Stevenson

Will the member take an intervention?

Mike Rumbles

I had finished, but—

The Convener

As the member has finished, we should move on. Stewart Stevenson has a chance to say something now, anyway. Before he does, I record the fact that Mike Rumbles will have to leave for a prior engagement with the Presiding Officer, so his substitute, Alex Cole-Hamilton, will be taking over.

12:00  



Stewart Stevenson

I have a brief point to make in response to what Mike Rumbles said. When his political colleague Ross Finnie was a Government minister, it was only when he brought forward the third version of the outdoor access code that came from the Land Reform (Scotland) Act 2003 that we finally consented to agreeing to it. There is, therefore, a process and it does work. However, we will stick that to the wall, because it is not really what I want to talk about.

I am going to talk briefly about two of the amendments, and my observations are designed to be helpful rather than obstructive. First, on Liam McArthur’s amendment 12, I am a bit concerned about any strategy that defines

“the level and standard of ferry services”.

If we had prescribed things in a particular way previously, I wonder whether we would have seen the innovation that Andrew Banks brought with Pentland Ferries operating across the Pentland Firth or, indeed, the innovation that Gordon Ross brought with Western Ferries at Gourock. In addition, in addressing only the needs of island communities, I do not see, as I think that it would be proper to see in a ferries strategy, provision for ferries that might go to Campbeltown, which is definitely not on an island but faces many of the same fundamental accessibility problems that islands face. Consequently, I do not think that the bill is the right place for what amendment 12 seeks.

Examples of possible innovations that might not naturally be included in the islands plan would be the use of hydrofoils—we do not currently have any hydrofoils in Scotland, but they are very successful in Norway as effective, high-speed transport—and hovercraft. Notwithstanding that Maurice Corry told us earlier this month that aviation would be coming to the Scottish Parliament, a hovercraft is actually a form of sea transport that requires a commercial pilot to operate it rather than someone with maritime qualifications.

Secondly, Tavish Scott’s amendment 14 refers to “30 megabits per second”, which is presumably meant to refer to download speed, but issues exist about latency and upload speeds. However, I think that, in a very short space of time, we will consider 30Mbps to be rather unambitious and we will be moving towards 300Mbps and, indeed, gigabit delivery. I do not want to embed the current target too firmly in our minds when, in fact, we should be moving on to much more ambitious ones.

John Mason

I agree with the minister’s argument, which Stewart Stevenson has reiterated to an extent. Given the nature of the bill, I do not think that we want to go into incredible detail. Some of the amendments go into too much detail on issues that will certainly be in the islands plan. For example, this committee has looked considerably at the issue of megabits per second, and its inclusion in the bill would cut across what we have been doing on the issue. John Finnie’s amendment 16 is the exception, in that it does not go into a huge amount of detail but addresses a big, overarching theme. I do not know whether John Finnie is going to move amendment 16, but I would be minded to support it.

Fulton MacGregor

I will pick up on some points. Jamie Greene made the point well that it might not be helpful to go into lists at this stage. I do not know whether Liam McArthur intends not to move amendment 16, but I would be interested in any further discussions with the minister about ferries. I have perhaps been influenced by a constituent coming to a surgery and giving me the book “Who Pays the Ferryman? The Great Scottish Ferries Swindle”. Before anybody asks me questions about it, I have to say that I have not read it in full yet. However, I think that the ferries issue is relevant to the islands plan. I hope that Liam McArthur will not move amendment 16, but I will certainly be interested to see whether at stage 3 something on ferries could be included in the bill or the islands plan.

The amendments by John Finnie and others have a lot of merit, but, given our time constraints, I just want to highlight the ferries issue.

The Convener

Does the minister wish to press or withdraw amendment 1?

Humza Yousaf

I will press amendment 1, which is in my name. If I can, I will be brief.

The contributions on the group of amendments have been insightful. Tavish Scott raised three points. I absolutely take his point about the importance to communities of the Crown estate and the devolution of control of the sea bed, which I hear about when I go to those communities. I have conversations not only with local authorities but with communities on the islands, so I appreciate that the issue is important to them.

I agree with Tavish Scott that broadband access is fundamental to island communities; some might argue that it is even more important to island and rural communities than it is to urban conurbations, but I will not get into that argument.

As I have said, the tricky part in relation to the islands deal is compelling the UK Government to do something through legislation. I am not sure whether such a provision would even be competent but, nonetheless, good conversations are taking place between the Scottish Government and the islands local authorities about a potential islands deal. The draft proposals for that are incredibly ambitious and I have no doubt that the conversations will continue. Wherever I and my colleagues can influence the UK Government to be involved in those discussions, we will be happy to provide that weight.

I undertake to give Liam McArthur, before the summer recess, the update that he asked for on the long-term ferries solution. I do not know how much progress will have been made by then, but we will try to make progress and put our shoulder to the wheel. I give him the assurances that he sought. The issue is more acute on Orkney than on Shetland, given the age of some of the vessels for the internal services. We will try to work towards progress and give him the assurances that he looked for.

Mike Rumbles made an important point about future proofing, although he seemed to have insight into my future political career that I do not have. That point is precisely why we should not put such issues in the bill. As we all know, changing primary legislation is not an easy task, so dealing with the issue through the national islands plan is the most appropriate approach.

Liam McArthur made a point about fuel poverty. I will attempt to arrange a meeting with him, Kevin Stewart and me before stage 3, as Liam McArthur requested, which would be sensible.

John Finnie’s point about invasive species was well made, and I have had conversations with local authorities about them. However, I hope that he sees my point that the bill is probably not the best place to deal with that. Perhaps we can have a conversation before stage 3 about how we can incorporate such matters into the national islands plan, so that he is reassured that the issue will be given the prominence that is due to it.

I urge those colleagues not to move their amendments but to work with me before stage 3 to see whether I can give them the reassurances that they require.

I am happy to accept Jamie Greene’s amendment 32, which requires the plan to list public authorities. I do not think that such a list is necessary and I am not convinced that it will have the effect that he wishes it to have, but I do not have too much concern about the amendment.

Amendment 31 is unnecessary. I believe absolutely in measuring, monitoring and assessing outcomes, and I am happy to work with Jamie Greene before stage 3 on how we can do that, but some high-level objectives are difficult to measure empirically, so I ask Jamie Greene not to move the amendment and to work with me before stage 3.

That was as quick as I could go, convener.

Amendment 1 agreed to.

Amendment 30 not moved.

The Convener

Does any member object to the amendment being withdrawn? [Interruption.] I am sorry; I have got the procedure wrong in my rush to move forward. I thank Mr Stevenson; it is always nice to be corrected by him.

Amendment 2 moved—[Humza Yousaf].

Amendment 2A moved—[Colin Smyth]—and agreed to.

Amendment 2, as amended, agreed to.

Amendments 11 to 16 not moved.

Amendment 31 not moved.

Amendment 32 moved—[Jamie Greene]—and agreed to.

Section 3, as amended, agreed to.

Section 4—Preparation and scrutiny of plan

The Convener

Amendment 17, in the name of Gail Ross, is grouped with the amendments shown in the groupings paper.

Gail Ross

During the committee’s evidence sessions, six local authorities with island interests made a strong case to be included as statutory consultees for the preparation of the national islands plan. My amendment is straightforward: in line with the committee’s recommendation, it requires Scottish ministers to consult the six local authorities that are listed in the schedule of the bill in the preparation of the national islands plan.

At a meeting on 8 March, Highland Council, which covers my constituency, showed support for, among other things, the inclusion of the six local authorities with island interests as statutory consultees to the plan. If other local authorities were to be added to the schedule in future, amendment 17 would also mean that they would have to be consulted as well. The amendment therefore allows for future proofing in a way that Peter Chapman’s amendment 33 does not.

I also believe that my amendment works better than amendments 34 and 35 in the name of Jamie Greene, which seem to include all authorities rather than just the island ones. I will wait to hear what Jamie Greene has to say on the rationale for that approach.

As a consequence of amendment 17, I have also lodged amendment 18, a technical amendment that adjusts section 4(1)(a)(i) to make it clear that persons other than those from local authorities that represent island communities must also be consulted.

I will be supporting amendment 19, in the name of John Mason, which adds “island communities” to those who should be consulted on the national islands plan. I will also support John Mason’s amendment 36, which seeks to include “natural heritage” in the matters that ministers must have regard to in preparing the plan. I feel that that is a welcome addition.

I also support amendment 3, in the name of the minister, which seeks to ensure that the linguistic heritage of our island communities is considered in the plan.

I am generally supportive of Jamie Greene’s amendment 40, which concerns the provision of information in the annual report on the actions that ministers are taking on the outcomes. I will listen to what Mr Greene has to say about his other amendments, but at the moment I do not think that they are necessary.

Finally, I will support amendment 4, in the name of Fulton MacGregor, which would require ministers to produce the annual report within three months of the end of the reporting year. It is a reasonable proposal.

I move amendment 17.

12:15  



Peter Chapman

Much of what I had to say has already been said. My amendment sets out another list; I suspect that Stewart Stevenson will not be overly enthralled by that, because he did not like the list the last time around. However, it provides clarity. After all, it is important that the six island authorities are statutory consultees, and that is what I am trying to achieve with amendment 33.

I will leave Jamie Greene to speak to his amendments, which I will support. I can also support John Mason’s amendment 19 and the minister’s amendment 3. However, I cannot support amendment 37 in the name of John Mason, although I cannot for the life of me remember why. [Laughter.]

Richard Lyle

He has lost the will to live.

Peter Chapman

I have been helped out by the member next to me, and he is not even a member of the committee.

I would question the use of the phrase “including inhabited islands”. Should it not be “uninhabited islands”, as the bill generally refers to inhabited islands? I am not sure whether I have made things any clearer, so I will move on.

Amendment 38, in the name of Colin Smyth, is similar to John Mason’s amendment 37, so we are not happy with that one either. I can support Fulton MacGregor’s amendment 4.

The Convener

I am pleased to say, Mr Chapman, that John Mason actually understood your question, so I am sure that he will address that point.

Jamie Greene

I support amendment 33 in the name of my colleague Peter Chapman. It is important to list the island authorities as statutory consultees.

As for my amendments, I take Gail Ross’s point about amendments 34 and 35, the purpose of which is to include local authorities as part of the consultation process. There is a variety of ways of wording the bill to achieve that, as is reflected in the conflicting amendments on the issue, but there is a general sense among members that not just local authorities but island communities should be part of the process. Indeed, that reflects the feedback we received on our visits to islands.

Gail Ross

Will the member take an intervention?

Jamie Greene

Yes.

Gail Ross

No one here would argue with the inclusion of island communities, but amendments 34 and 35 refer to “local authorities”, which would encompass all local authorities, not just island local authorities or local authorities with islands.

Jamie Greene

I take the point. The wording could have been tighter, but we were up against the wire with amendment deadlines. There is a purpose to the amendments, though, and I am happy to reflect on how we can strengthen the wording to include the relevant island authorities.

We support amendment 19. It is important to point out that it is not just local authorities that are the voices of islands; the voices of members of island communities must be heard, too. For that reason, I think that amendment 19 is an excellent addition to the bill.

Amendment 39 is a technical, tidying-up amendment, which says:

“The plan must be laid before the Scottish Parliament on a day on which the Parliament is sitting.”

The bill does not state that explicitly at the moment. It is important that the plan is not published the day after the summer recess begins—not that the minister would ever dream of doing such a thing, of course. Ensuring that the plan is delivered to Parliament on a sitting day gives the opportunity for urgent questions to be raised in the chamber or for scrutinising the plan as we see fit. The amendment is not being prescriptive about how we should scrutinise the plan, but it ensures that we get the plan on a day when Parliament can discuss it appropriately.

I welcome Gail Ross’s comments on amendment 40. The bill says only that the report will talk about the extent to which outcomes have improved since the previous reporting year. That is wonderful, and I hope that outcomes do improve, but the Government should also be accountable by laying before Parliament the details of where outcomes have not improved. That is what is required under amendment 40. I do not imagine that Government would ever want to avoid publishing negative news about or regression in any of its outcomes, but I hope that the amendment strengthens the minister’s ability to be forthcoming and frank about objectives that have not been met or which have not improved since the previous year. That is the rationale behind amendment 40, and I hope that it has the committee’s support.

On amendment 42, which relates to the reference on page 3 of the bill to

“any other matters which the Scottish Ministers consider appropriate”,

its inserting into the bill the phrase

“any financial implications arising as a result of this Act”

is important. We might find that, after a year, there has been a significant effect on the ability of local and public authorities to deliver the objectives of the plan financially or the mitigation requirements to help local authorities make decisions with due regard to island communities, and it is important that the minister is honest with Parliament about the potential financial consequences. That is not explicit in the bill as drafted.

John Mason

I will focus my attention on amendments 19, 36 and 37 in my name.

I am picking up positive vibes about amendment 19. The reason for lodging it came out of the committee report. Under section 4(1)(a)(ii), ministers are required to consult

“such persons as they consider likely to be affected by the proposals contained in the plan”.

The general feeling was that that was a bit too vague, and amendment 19 is intended to beef up the requirement by adding the phrase

“including members of island communities and other persons”.

I hope that that will not be contentious.

Amendment 36 adds the phrase “natural heritage” to section 4(1)(b), which talks about having

“regard to the distinctive geographical and cultural characteristics”

of each of the islands. By adding “natural heritage” after the word “geographical”, we will ensure that Scottish ministers have regard to everything to do with that matter, too. The term “natural heritage” is defined in statute under the Natural Heritage (Scotland) Act 1991 as

“the flora and fauna of Scotland, its geological and physiographical features, its natural beauty and amenity”.

The future plan should cover all that as well as aspects that have already been mentioned such as invasive non-native species. We also know about the links between natural heritage and the economy; for example, the sea eagles on Mull are thought to bring in £5 million per year to the local economy. As for Colin Smyth’s amendment 38, I know that it is very similar to mine. We do not need both, but we certainly need one of them.

Amendment 37 deals with the public interest in consultations. At present, the bill refers to Scottish ministers considering

“the interests of island communities”

and

“such persons as they consider likely to be affected”,

and then having

“regard to the ... characteristics of each of the areas inhabited by island communities.”

All of that is absolutely correct, but there is an issue of principle here, and we should add something specific about the public interest to make it clear that it is not just any public interest and to ensure that the term itself is not left totally vague. As a result, amendment 37 seeks to add to the provision the following wording:

“have regard to the public interest in the environmental, economic and social characteristics of islands (including inhabited islands)”.

This brings me to Mr Chapman’s point about whether the amendment should refer to inhabited and uninhabited islands. Given the assumption in the bill that most of its provisions relate to inhabited islands, I am using the term “islands” to include all islands, specifically inhabited islands. I accept, though, that the amendment could be worded differently.

Islands are important not just to island communities but to us as a nation. I am a city dweller and I like living in the city, but I love our islands and I love visiting them. Amendment 37 would bring in a wider public interest that is specifically about environmental, economic and social characteristics, and that would help to emphasise that we as a nation—not just the people who live on the islands—have a commitment to them.

Humza Yousaf

I will speak to amendment 3 first and then comment on the other amendments in the group.

In its stage 1 report, the committee called on the Scottish Government to consider an extension to the provisions of the bill so that, in addition to its having regard to the distinctive geographical and cultural characteristics of the islands, it would also have regard to their linguistic heritage.

We recognise the importance of the linguistic heritage of Scotland’s island communities. The bill already uses the expression “cultural characteristics”, which covers a range of matters including the Gaelic cultural traditions of the Hebrides and the Scandinavian heritage of Orkney and Shetland. However, I accept the committee’s suggestion that some clarification might be helpful. To that end, I have lodged amendment 3 to make it clear that, in preparing the national islands plan, the Scottish ministers must have regard to linguistic heritage.

I am happy to support amendments 17 and 18 in the name of Gail Ross. Through the ministerial islands strategic group, I have developed a strong and constructive partnership with the six island local authorities and the local authorities with islands. As I stated in my response to the committee’s stage 1 report, the six local authorities assisted us with the development of the bill ahead of its introduction. I always envisaged their continuing to play an active role in helping us deliver the provisions in the bill and guidance through their participation in the islands strategic group. Amendments 17 and 18 will ensure that all six local authorities are listed as statutory consultees for the national islands plan, and I welcome that.

Given the support for Gail Ross’s amendments 17 and 18, I, like others, see no need for amendment 33 in the name of Peter Chapman or amendments 34 and 35 in the name of Jamie Greene. Amendment 33 is not future proofed in the same way that amendments 17 and 18 are, and I ask Peter Chapman not to move it.

Amendments 34 and 35 in the name of Jamie Greene seek to provide that consultation will take place with all local authorities that represent island communities or which are affected by a proposal. Although it is useful to identify the six islands authorities in the schedule, we do not require to add in all the local authorities. If the member has concerns about other local authorities, I would note that they are already covered under section 4(1)(a), as, under the normal rules of statutory interpretation, a local authority is a type of legal “person”. I therefore ask Mr Greene not to move amendments 34 and 35.

I am happy to support amendment 19 in the name of John Mason. The amendment highlights simply and effectively that island communities must be consulted in the preparation of the plan. I am also happy to support Mr Mason’s amendment 36. Some of our island landscapes and habitats are truly world class, and it is therefore right that the national islands plan has regard to our islands’ natural heritage.

I am intrigued by Mr Mason’s amendment 37, and I listened carefully to what he had to say about it, but I am still not entirely convinced that it works as intended, not least because it includes uninhabited islands, which is an issue that we discussed in an earlier group. That said, I understand what he is trying to do. As a result, in an attempt to be helpful, I ask him not to move amendment 37 today but to work with me and my officials to see what can be done to give effect to his aim. If he is satisfied with that work, we will lodge another amendment; if he is not, he can lodge his amendment again at stage 3. I make that offer, because I am not entirely clear about his intention and I fear that amendment 37 and its particular reference to “public interest” might have unintended consequences.

12:30  



Amendment 38 in the name of Colin Smyth is not required if we support amendment 36 in the name of John Mason. As they essentially do the same thing, I ask members to support amendment 36 and ask Colin Smyth not to move amendment 38.

Amendment 39 in the name of Jamie Greene requires the final national islands plan to be laid before the Scottish Parliament

“on a day on which the Parliament is sitting”—

which, in effect, means not during recess. I assume that the member is worried that we will attempt to sneak out the plan during the recess when members are not looking.

Unfortunately, amendment 39 could mean our having to delay laying the plan until Parliament comes back from whatever recess got in the way. Indeed, under section 4(4), we would still have an obligation to publish the plan

“As soon as reasonably practicable”.

Whenever we lay and publish the final plan, it will be there for members to consider and debate as they wish. Section 4 builds in a 40-day parliamentary period after the draft proposed plan is laid and before the final plan is made. After that, I would not want to delay the final plan’s laying and publication any longer.

Jamie Greene

Will the minister take an intervention?

Humza Yousaf

I will finish this point and then take the intervention.

I completely understand where Jamie Greene is coming from. We have talked a lot about future proofing; as reasonable as a particular minister or Government might be at the time, we need to future proof the provision, and I am therefore more than happy to discuss the matter with the Minister for Parliamentary Business. It would be for the Scottish Parliamentary Corporate Body to have a conversation about an appropriate debate on the national islands plan when the Parliament is sitting. I also point out that the collaborative approach that we seek to take with the plan will mean that its contents will hold no surprises for members.

I am now happy to take Jamie Greene’s intervention.

Jamie Greene

Theoretically, as the bill stands, the minister could lay the plan at the beginning of, say, the summer recess, in which case Parliament would not be able to address it fully until it came back from recess. Will he clarify the timeline for the draft plan versus the final plan? By saying that the plan must at least be submitted on a parliamentary sitting day, I am trying to ensure that it is formally presented to Parliament while it is sitting. That would, for example, give MSPs the summer recess to review it. Could a draft be issued at that point? Would the 40-day deadline occur during the recess? I am a bit confused about the timeline as drafted.

Humza Yousaf

I can confirm that the 40-day period starts with the day on which the plan is laid before the Scottish Parliament. My understanding is that it is 40 sitting days, but I am happy to work with Jamie Greene to provide further clarification. Indeed, I can clarify it in writing to the committee. However, members of the Opposition, if no one else, would rightly be the first to pull us up if we attempted to sneak out something as important and as high up our agenda as the national islands plan without its getting the appropriate scrutiny.

As I have said, I do not expect there to be any surprises in the plan, given that we have discussed and know some of the main issues that will be in it and that we hear regularly from the island communities on those issues. Theoretically speaking, a draft could be laid just before summer recess and not get any scrutiny until we came back. However, I am happy to work with Jamie Greene ahead of stage 3 to try to prevent that from being the case and to devise a timetable that takes into account parliamentary recesses and appropriate levels of scrutiny.

Amendment 40 in the name of Jamie Greene asks Scottish ministers to set out the steps that they will take where an outcome identified in the plan has not improved. I am not sure whether it works with his amendment 31, which refers to the objectives—and not outcomes—being measurable; however, I understand what Mr Greene is seeking to achieve here, and it has some merit. After all, where an outcome or objective is not being met, the Scottish ministers should consider what they should do to seek to change that situation. I ask Mr Greene not to move amendment 40 at this stage on the basis that I will ask officials to consider the matter more fully and liaise with him before stage 3 to ensure that, if it is considered appropriate, a suitably worded amendment in the same vein can be drafted.

As for amendment 42, which is also in the name of Jamie Greene, I think that it is far too broad in asking the Scottish ministers to report on

“any financial implications arising as a result of this Act”.

As the legislation would apply to a very broad range of organisations, I do not think that such a requirement for information would be realistic.

Finally, amendment 4, in the name of Fulton MacGregor, seeks to require the annual report to be laid within three months after the end of the reporting year. As I am conscious of the Parliament’s focus on the desirability of transparency, clarity and accountability, I am happy to support the amendment. The Scottish Government always expected the annual report on the plan’s progress to be published and laid before Parliament in a timely fashion following the end of the reporting year.

I will conclude there, convener.

Colin Smyth

Amendment 38 is very similar to John Mason’s amendment 36 in that it seeks to add the phrase “natural heritage” to the bill. I feel passionately about the issue—indeed, I raised it during the stage 1 debate—but if amendment 36 is agreed to, I will not move my own amendment.

Fulton MacGregor

I will speak to amendment 4 as briefly as I can.

Section 5 places a duty on ministers to prepare and publish an annual progress report that provides information on the improvement of outcomes in island communities that has occurred over the previous year as well as information on how ministers have complied with the island-proofing duty in section 7. The bill currently provides that the report must be produced

“As soon as reasonably practicable”,

but to assist with tracking progress on the report, the committee recommended a time limit for its publication by Scottish ministers.

Amendment 4 ensures that the Scottish ministers must publish and lay before Parliament the annual report within three months after the end of the reporting year. I believe that three months is an appropriate length of time for the ministers to produce the information. Anything shorter would come with the risk of the information not being available, while anything longer would mean that the information could be out of date.

I support amendments 17 and 18 in the name of Gail Ross. Like the minister, I, too, support John Mason’s amendment 36 on natural heritage.

Like other members, I am not sure of the need for amendments 39 and 42 in the name of Jamie Greene. However, I see the benefits in his amendment 40, although I note the minister’s call for further work to be done on it before stage 3.

Richard Lyle

Because of the time factor, I will be brief. Amendments 34 and 35 by Jamie Greene have been slightly badly drafted, and with the greatest respect, I ask him not to move them. There is no island in my constituency, unless it is one in the middle of a lake.

As for the other amendments in the group, I take on board the points that the minister made when he asked members to reflect on them.

Stewart Stevenson

I want to make a brief comment on amendment 39 in the name of Jamie Greene. What it proposes is in conflict with rule 14.1.3 of the Parliament’s standing orders, which states:

“A report or other document may be laid before the Parliament at any time when the office of the Clerk is open.”

In order to agree to the amendment, we would have to look at what the standing orders say, and I do not know how we would change standing orders to conform to it. That is a procedural point.

In any case, I think that the best day for laying this particular material is the last day before the summer recess. That would allow us all to go and consult our constituents on the plan’s contents over the recess—a three-month period—before the period of 40 parliamentary sitting days started to operate. In short, and contrary to the argument that has been put forward, the best day to lay the plan is the last day before recess starts—or the day after, for that matter.

John Finnie

I would like to speak briefly on amendment 3, in the name of the minister. I am grateful that it reflects the committee’s stage 1 report recommendation. I have a deep interest in our linguistic heritage, and I am particularly grateful that the minister mentioned the Norse heritage of the north isles.

Clearly the islands plan must have regard to the one plan that is in place regarding our linguistic heritage—the national Gaelic language plan. In that respect, I have had various representations made to me, and the minister might be in a position to allay some concerns. Can he confirm, for instance, that Bòrd na Gàidhlig will be consulted on the preparation of the islands plan and play some role in the subsequent assessment of it?

Humza Yousaf

Yes.

John Finnie

Thank you very much indeed. Mòran taing.

Gail Ross

We have had a really thorough discussion of all the amendments and there are many points to consider. On amendment 39, in the name of Jamie Greene, we should note that, if the plan were to be laid on the last day before recess, that would still be a sitting day of the Parliament. That is an interesting point.

On my own amendments, I feel that amendment 17, in my name, is stronger than amendment 33, in the name of Peter Chapman. Because it provides for the list of statutory local authorities to be set out in the schedule, it allows for future proofing, as the minister has acknowledged. I therefore ask Peter Chapman not to move amendment 33, but I intend to press mine.

Amendment 17 agreed to.

Amendment 33 not moved.

Amendment 18 moved—[Gail Ross]—and agreed to.

Amendment 34 not moved.

Amendment 19 moved—[John Mason]—and agreed to.

Amendment 35 not moved.

Amendment 36 moved—[John Mason]—and agreed to.

Amendment 3 moved—[Humza Yousaf]—and agreed to.

Amendment 37 moved—[John Mason].

The Convener

The question is, that amendment 37 be agreed to. Are we agreed?

Members: No.

The Convener

There will be a division.

For

Smyth, Colin (South Scotland) (Lab)
Mason, John (Glasgow Shettleston) (SNP)
Finnie, John (Highlands and Islands) (Green)

Against

Stevenson, Stewart (Banffshire and Buchan Coast) (SNP)
Ross, Gail (Caithness, Sutherland and Ross) (SNP)
Mountain, Edward (Highlands and Islands) (Con)
MacGregor, Fulton (Coatbridge and Chryston) (SNP)
Lyle, Richard (Uddingston and Bellshill) (SNP)
Greene, Jamie (West Scotland) (Con)
Chapman, Peter (North East Scotland) (Con)

Abstentions

Cole-Hamilton, Alex (Edinburgh Western) (LD)

The Convener

The result of the division is: For 3, Against 7, Abstentions 1.

Amendment 37 disagreed to.

Amendments 38 and 39 not moved.

Section 4, as amended, agreed to.

Section 5—Report on plan

Amendment 40 moved—[Jamie Greene]—and agreed to.

Amendment 41 not moved.

Amendment 42 moved—[Jamie Greene].

The Convener

The question is, that amendment 42 be agreed to. Are we agreed?

Members: No.

The Convener

There will be a division.

For

Smyth, Colin (South Scotland) (Lab)
Mountain, Edward (Highlands and Islands) (Con)
Greene, Jamie (West Scotland) (Con)
Chapman, Peter (North East Scotland) (Con)

Against

Stevenson, Stewart (Banffshire and Buchan Coast) (SNP)
Ross, Gail (Caithness, Sutherland and Ross) (SNP)
Mason, John (Glasgow Shettleston) (SNP)
MacGregor, Fulton (Coatbridge and Chryston) (SNP)
Lyle, Richard (Uddingston and Bellshill) (SNP)
Finnie, John (Highlands and Islands) (Green)

Abstentions

Cole-Hamilton, Alex (Edinburgh Western) (LD)

The Convener

The result of the division is: For 4, Against 6, Abstentions 1.

Amendment 42 disagreed to.

Amendment 4 moved—[Fulton MacGregor]—and agreed to.

Section 5, as amended, agreed to.

Section 6 agreed to.

The Convener

I am afraid that that is as far as we are able to go today, but we will pick up next week where we have left off today. Amendments to the remaining sections of the bill can still be lodged, and the deadline for doing so is 12 noon tomorrow.

That concludes today’s business, and I close the meeting.

Meeting closed at 12:46.  



Second meeting on amendments

Documents with the amendments considered at this meeting held on 28 March 2018:

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Second meeting on amendments transcript

The Convener

Agenda item 2 is day 2 of our stage 2 consideration of the Islands (Scotland) Bill. I welcome back Humza Yousaf, the Minister for Transport and the Islands, and officials from the Scottish Government.

Everyone should have a copy of the bill as introduced; the second marshalled list of amendments, which was published on Thursday; and the second groupings paper, which sets out the amendments in the order in which they will be debated. The aim is to complete stage 2 today.

I remind committee members that, when there is a vote on an amendment, they should indicate clearly which way they are voting by raising their hands. It just makes our lives easier in recording the vote.

Section 7—Duty to have regard to island communities

The Convener

Amendment 43, in the name of Jamie Greene, is grouped with amendments 45, 73, 90 and 21 to 23.

Jamie Greene

First of all, I will give the committee some background about my amendments 43 and 45. Amendment 43 simply seeks to add the word “due” to the phrase “have regard to”. Although it might seem like a very minor addition, the phrase “have due regard to” is often used in contracts to give additional clarity.

There has been a lot of discussion about what the phrase “have regard to” actually means, and I am keen to hear what the minister thinks it means in the context of the bill. With amendment 43, I am seeking to change the phrase to “have due regard to” in order to strengthen things slightly by emphasising how strong that regard should be and the range of issues that one must have regard to. It is, as I have said, a very minor addition.

Amendment 45 seeks to add the phrase

“insofar as it is capable”

to section 7(1). The reason for that is that a duty to have due regard to all policies and services, and all decisions that are made, is a wide-ranging one. In my view, there might be situations in which a body or authority simply does not have the capability to have regard to everything. The use of the phrase

“insofar as it is capable”

will make it clearer that there is no expectation on a body to have regard to islands in cases in which, perhaps for reasons relating to resources, it simply cannot. In my summing up, I might provide an example but, in the interests of brevity, I will leave it at that for now. I am keen to hear what other members think about the proposed additional language.

Amendment 73 seeks to insert in section 9 the phrase:

“For the purposes of this section, the relevant public authority may determine what constitutes compliance.”

It is more of a probing amendment. It raises the question of who decides whether there has or has not been compliance in relation to the duties under the act. Will compliance be a clear-cut thing? Will there be a list of metrics, actions, deeds, words that have to be used or steps that have to be taken? Will that be set out in guidance rather than legislation? I am trying to probe whether it is adequate for each local authority to feel that it has taken adequate steps to comply with the legislation or whether that will be independently monitored somehow, with the remit for that lying with some as yet unknown third party. At the moment, it is unclear who will decide what compliance is and how that will manifest itself. The wording that I have suggested would ensure that each public authority that is listed in the schedule to the bill could feel confident that it had taken the necessary steps to comply with the legislation.

It remains to be seen whether amendment 73 is suitable for that purpose in the context of the bill, but it is important to note that we have not addressed how compliance will be monitored and measured. Furthermore, the repercussions for non-compliance are a bit unclear.

Gail Ross’s amendment 21 and Tavish Scott’s amendment 23 seek to achieve the same thing through the insertion of additional wording. Amendment 21 seeks to add the words:

“each local authority listed in the schedule”.

I am not sure whether there are any issues of pre-emption. Given that both amendments seek to do the same thing, perhaps the members who lodged them can clarify which of them we should support.

I move amendment 43.

Colin Smyth

Amendment 90, in my name, would require relevant authorities to review and revise strategies and services as they saw fit in order to have regard to island communities. That is a sensible measure and it is in line with the rest of this part of the bill. As the bill stands, those bodies will be required to have regard to island communities in the future, but there is no provision in relation to existing strategies and policies. Clarification is required to ensure that any existing problems are addressed so that the section 7 duty can be complied with.

I have slight concerns about amendment 45, which I think might offer authorities a potential way out of fulfilling their duties. For example, would financial pressures render a relevant authority incapable? Likewise, I am concerned that amendment 73 could create a loophole, as it seems to enable authorities to determine whether they are compliant.

I support amendment 21, which concerns a recommendation that the committee made. Amendment 22 is also fine, as it tidies up the language.

10:00  



Gail Ross

I will speak first to amendments 21 and 22, in my name. As we said when we debated amendments 17 and 18 last week, it is clear that the six local authorities that have island interests have a strong desire to be statutory consultees for the consultation on the guidance that must be prepared in relation to the island-proofing duty in section 7.

In line with those views and the committee’s recommendation in its stage 1 report, amendment 21 would require the Scottish ministers to consult the six local authorities that are listed in the schedule. Like the amendments that we considered last week, amendment 21 future proofs the consultation requirement in case new local authorities are added to the schedule in future.

As a consequence of amendment 21, amendment 22 is a technical amendment that adjusts section 10(2)(b) to make it clear that persons other than local authorities who represent the interests of island communities must be consulted.

When I first read the amendments in Jamie Greene’s name, I was unsure about the effect that they would have. That was particularly the case for amendment 45, because the phrase

“insofar as it is capable”

might have the effect of limiting and maybe even watering down the island-proofing duty. I look forward to hearing the example that Jamie Greene said that he would give when he sums up the debate.

The effect of amendment 73 would seem to be to make the relevant authority the sole authority that would determine whether something was compliant. Will Jamie Greene explain how his proposed approach would work alongside the guidance?

Amendment 23, in the name of Tavish Scott, would require the Parliament to approve the island-proofing guidance. I understand that that might be helpful and I accept that there are good intentions behind the amendment, but I am concerned that the approach might restrict the ability of island communities to input when guidance was being developed. I will wait to hear what Tavish Scott says about that.

I say to Jamie Greene that amendment 21 would not have the same effect as amendment 23. Amendment 21 is about consulting local authorities as we develop the guidance, whereas, as far as I can see, the effect of amendment 23 would be that every change to the guidance would require a parliamentary vote, which I think would limit community involvement.

Tavish Scott (Shetland Islands) (LD)

Amendment 23 would require the Scottish ministers to lay before the Parliament for its approval guidance on the section 7 duty.

I reflected on the debate that the committee had last week about the exhaustive—or otherwise—nature of the islands plan and matters therein, and I absolutely take the committee’s point that there is a debate to be had about whether to include a list. The example of broadband works both ways. Should there be a right to broadband coverage of a certain level in the islands? Absolutely, but would a provision on coverage of a certain level be future proofed, given that technology moves on? There is certainly a debate to be had, and I entirely take the committee’s views on that.

It follows that if so much is to be in guidance—and a theme of the bill appears to be that much will be done by way of guidance—it is appropriate that the Parliament should have an opportunity to see and approve the guidance.

I entirely take Gail Ross’s point. Amendment 23 is not intended in any way to restrict the ability of islands, or of any group, organisation, business or local authority, to take a view on the guidance and to get involved with Government in ensuring that the guidance is correct and appropriate for the islands. Such restriction would be entirely counterproductive.

Nevertheless, the Parliament should have a role in approving the guidance. The Parliament sees an awful lot of guidance, and given how little detail is in the bill and how much will come through in guidance, it is appropriate that we test the arguments as to how the Parliament oversees the process and carries out its proper role in scrutinising ministerial activity. I commend amendment 23 to the committee.

Stewart Stevenson

I support what Gail Ross and Colin Smyth said about amendments 45 and 73.

On amendment 43, we must consider how the insertion of the word “due” qualifies the word “regard”. I take it as restricting rather than expanding the regard that must be had—only “due regard” must be had. I cannot see an argument for adding “due”.

Mike Rumbles

With due respect to Jamie Greene, his amendments would not achieve what he thinks they would. The bill will be weakened if we agree to them, so I urge him not to press amendment 43 and not to move his other amendments.

Tavish Scott is absolutely right with his amendment 23; Parliament should approve the guidance by resolution, because a lot is going into the guidance. The bill is an enabling bill, and we had a discussion about what it should include. I cannot see anything wrong with the minister producing the guidance and then putting it before Parliament so that we can have our say on it. We can only say yes or no; it is not as though we will be interfering with the guidance, as it were. That is a proper role for Parliament, so amendment 23 is absolutely essential. I also support the other amendments in the group.

John Finnie

I will restrict my comment to Tavish Scott’s amendment 23. As Mike Rumbles said, the bill is a piece of enabling legislation and the amendment would be complementary to it. Importantly, it would give Parliament joint ownership, which can only be positive. Therefore, I support Tavish Scott’s amendment 23.

Gail Ross

I have a question about amendment 23. Would Parliament approve the guidance when it is complete, or would it have to approve every small change as the guidance develops? It will be a flexible rather than a fixed document. How many times does the member expect it to come back to Parliament?

The Convener

Is Tavish Scott asking to make an intervention?

Tavish Scott

I apologise, convener. I am not sure wha