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21 December 2001

It’s Panto Season!

I’ve been to the pantomime. And that doesn’t mean Parliament, although I must confess that just occasionally…

No! It was Fraserburgh Junior Arts panto. Now, as an MSP I am of course supposed behave responsibly and set an example. Or so my Chief Whip in Parliament, Kay Ulrich MSP, has told me. But I must confess to being transported back to a more irresponsible age when I accepted the invitation to sit in on the dress rehearsal for Sleeping Beauty.

Sitting on the back row of the Dalrymple Arts Centre with three other ‘sober suits’, Councillors every one, we were soon joining in the fun and shouting all these silly things that are compulsory at a panto.

Isn’t it always better to experience rather than read about what’s going on in our community? And this was.

So I’ve now seen the talent which I hope will be delivering another cracker in 2002, the 50th year of the Junior Arts panto.

Well done, and thanks for inviting me!

Rural Concerns

For one reason or another, country issues have been much in the press and on TV. And some people are very dissatisfied with Parliament’s response to rural problems.

But in reality, our Rural Development Committee has many people of all political parties who care deeply. So we have decided that as part of our investigations into making the countryside a better place to live and work in, we’re going to go on our travels. And that doesn’t mean using our passports. It means getting out into our country.

So my colleague Richard Lochhead MSP and I have suggested Huntly as a reasonably central point to cover NorthEast rural areas. We’re optimistic that we’ll be there early in the new year.

But will it make a difference? Yes, if we let it. And that means local people taking an interest and turning up to give evidence and to listen. Parliament mustn’t just be about what happens in Edinburgh and this is our chance. If this actually happens do come along.

And if you can’t, then don’t forget that Parliament itself will be coming to Aberdeen in the last week of May 2002.

Land Reform

Over the next months there will a lot of debate about the Land Reform Bill. My special interest will be on the “Access Rights” part while my colleague Duncan Hamilton MSP will be focussing on “Right to Buy”.

With the people of Eigg, Knoydart and, most recently, the Isle of Gigha all buying the area in which the live, there’s quite an awareness of the Bill.

But for our area it’s probably the walkers, riders and cyclists who may be most affected by it.

Mostly it’s good for them. It puts into law what we’ve regarded as our traditional rights to walk on land without fear of being prosecuted for trespass. Indeed, like many, I had thought that there was no law of trespass in Scotland, but there is. And the Bill also specifically permits powered wheelchair users to have access.

So far, so good. But a little wrinkle might just cause problems. The Bill states that it’s not giving rights to people for commercial activities. And I’m worried that might have some drastic effects.

For example if a group of disabled people are going into the country and they have a paid worker from a private company to help them, that seems to be commercial activity.

So if we’re not careful we could make things worse for people in our society that we all agree we want to help. But with a fair wind we should be able to deal with that one and ensure continued free access for people who are prepared to act responsibly.

Christmas

Throughout our area the Christmas lights are up. The excitement is obvious wherever I’ve gone recently. But down in Edinburgh as I write this it seems much more sober.

Yes there are streetlights, although once one leaves the main shopping streets, they’re little better than our much smaller towns and villages. Yes, the shops are pushing Christmas hard. But in Parliament it’s almost invisible. Yes, the Parliament’s shop stayed open on our last night before recess, but that’s it.

So whatever problems we might have, we sure know how to celebrate up here. My Chief Whip at Home, Sandra, has given me list of my duties for next two weeks.

Be sure to enjoy New Year just as I hope you did at Christmas. I plan to!

12 December 2001

Royal Mail

While many of us are looking for a wee rest at Christmas, it’s not true of everyone.

I visited our local posties in Peterhead this week. I was surprised to find that 53 work out of the sorting office there. And without them our cards and presents from distant friends just wouldn’t get through.

Although I’m a great user of e-mail, I like to receive real cards and find any electronic substitute a poor imitation. So I asked whether e-mail was hitting the traditional mail service.

It seems not. In fact with people communicating more, and buying goods over the Internet, it seems there’s even more business for our posties.

So it’s particularly bad news that Consignia, for that’s what the Post Office would have themselves called now, plan to pay off 30,000 staff. They’re making losses at the moment. But let’s remember that the government has been taking large ‘dividends’ from the company over the years.

And now they’re allowing competitors to muscle in on postal delivery. Not that we’re seeing new companies bidding for delivering our Christmas cards. No way! It’s profitable city centres the new boys want and not vital rural services where we’ve long relied on our Post Office.

So just as our posties are supporting us, we all need to support them.

Swimming Pools

Sometimes the most unexpected things crop up the most unexpected places. At our Parliament’s Justice Committee meeting I learned something that won’t please everyone in our area.

The good folk of Mintlaw have been working very hard for years now to raise money for a swimming pool for central Buchan. And at the last moment, the Council decided they couldn’t provide the financial guarantee necessary to proceed. Not money mind you – just stand behind community efforts.

So that’s back to square one and much thought’s going into what Mintlaw and the area around should do now.

So I don’t think these hard working folk will be well pleased to hear what I heard about Polmont Young Offenders’ Unit in central Scotland. It seems that – yes – they’ve got a swimming pool!

So it seems that our young folk in central Buchan will have get themselves ‘banged up’ for Christmas if they want a local swimming pool.

Christmas

As this is my last column before Christmas it’s entirely appropriate that I tell you about an important visitor to the North East.

Whitehills lays out the red carpet for all who come here. But on Saturday our special visitor was Santa Claus. I was summoned to give him a helping hand.

Our locals are not resting on their laurels after winning the Community of the Year award. So fund raising for village causes continues apace. And Santa was there to help.

He had hot chestnuts and mince pies during his visit to the local kirk hall. And he told us he was looking forward to seeing us again on the 25th.

So it’s thanks to Santa for help with our moneymaking efforts today. And it’s thanks for everything he’ll bring us soon.

Merry Christmas!

5 December 2001

Digital Hearing Aids

My wife has a long-standing grievance with me. I have a very retentive memory except for things she wants me to so. But it’s not for want of my hearing herself give me the instructions. Others are not so lucky.

My twentieth speech in debate since coming to Parliament was on digital hearing aids. And my own experience suggests that the deaf and hard of hearing suffer one of the most isolating afflictions.

I used to have a number of blind people worked for me. And one very hard of hearing.

Our blind staff had the sharpest memories on the team. They rapidly became our talking reference books. They remembered while the rest of were content to go back and search the textbook. We valued their contribution immensely.

But our deaf colleague had a much harder time. His occasional lack of understanding was because he didn’t catch quite what we said. Visitors sometimes thought him rude. He was never that. And he always making allowance for our failure to understand his sometimes difficult speech. It was quite humbling.

Today there is an opportunity to help the hard of hearing. The new digital hearing aids can help. They don’t whistle. They don’t amplify sounds that are already being heard. But they aren’t available in Scotland on the Health Service. Unless you are a child and live in the Highlands.

So that’s what our debate was about. It emerged that people attending a clinic in Elgin might get a digital hearing if Highland Health Board sent them there. But if it was Grampian – no chance!

I ending my speech on this subject with a comment from my wife. “It’s not hard of hearing you are. It’s hard of heeding!”

Let’s hope that the New Labour – Liberal coalition listen our call for better hearing aids from the Health Service. And aren’t hard of heeding.

Victims no more

As a member of a Justice Committee in the Parliament, I’m part of an investigation into how Scotland’s prosecution service is working. And pretty depressing much of it has been.

The fiscals across Scotland are clearly over-stretched – and my postbag also tells me that’s true locally. The High Court is probably worse. But what has come as a real shock, is how victims, and victims’ families, are treated by the system.

This week we heard from two families who had suffered as the hands of prosecutors.

The first family had a member murdered. Two men were charged. After the prosecution evidence was completed, one was discharged. The remaining accused then promptly blamed the other man. And the jury brought in a Not Proven verdict.

Now, while the family members were very disappointed at the outcome and at the poor way in which the prosecution was conducted, their major beef was something different.

It seems there’s no way to deal with complaints about a prosecution. And the fiscal who appears to have conducted this case so abysmally got made a judge. His conduct still hasn’t been assessed because there’s no way to do it.

The other family told a similar story. In their case they also had to travel to court seven times, and 50 miles each way, before the case even started. And the communication with them? Abysmal to non-existent.

Let’s hope our Committee report makes a difference. This is precisely why we need a Scots Parliament.

Positively Public

I’m sitting here sucking a lollipop. And why? Well I’m just back from the launch of the ‘positively public’ campaign. The lollipop is one of these little reminders handed out by event organisers to remind you you’ve been there.

So what is it? The trade union UNISON represents workers throughout the public services, especially in the Health Service. They have long had grave concerns about PFI or PPP – both often privatising their members’ jobs. So the campaign is designed to make us think positively about public services.

Now in the North-East we already have a public service ‘Beacon’, recognised as such by the government and endorsed by Jim Wallace, Justice Minister in an answer to an oral question in Parliament from me. It is? Peterhead Prison of course.

It remains a disgrace that over a year after plans were submitted to ministers, the uncertainty remains.

But the good news may be that the new First Minister has appointed a Minister for the Public Services and made his support clear.

Something quite simple might help aid understanding among politicians. I’ve suggested to UNISON and to the STUC that they lobby for better information about government spending. The current data are incomplete and it may be no surprise that MSPs and others don’t see the financial slight-of hand.

What you can’t see you can’t understand. Maybe that suits the government!

1 December 2001

A Scottish Paddler

It may seem slightly unexpected for a Member of Parliament to be talking about canoeing. But then one gets invitations from a wide range of people. Recently one was from the Scottish Canoe Association to join them on the Tay.

As I spent much of my youth with my rear hanging over the side of a sailing dinghy on that river's estuary, the idea of a day out canoeing seemed interesting. After all I had once been quite used to drinking more than my share of brackish Tay water.

And the reason for the invite? Like many outdoor types, canoeists have a keen interest in the Scots Parliament’s Land Reform Bill. So a day's paddling was an opportunity for me to enjoy myself and for paddlers to pound my ear while trapped far from shore.

In the event we went to Loch Faskally rather than a very turbulent River Tay. A couple of days of downpour had created very treacherous conditions and the canoeists didn't want to be responsible for a by-election.

The new Bill is designed to entrench the traditional rights of Scots to access land, free of the threat of a trespass accusation. But as is often the case, the original proposals might just have made things worse. And it's not just the canoeists who say so.

I almost concluded that the paddlers had indulged in a little ‘spin’. Our first attempt to reach the water was thrawrted by a landowner! Luckily it was easy to move a little further along the bank. Oh that it was always so easy!

So when we start debating the next stage of land access, I'll certainly have quite a lot to think about. But this outing gave me a very pleasant surprise as well.

It seems that Sandend in the North West of my constituency of Banff & Buchan is one of a small number of superb sites in Scotland for kayak surfing. And that's not unimportant as Scotland does very well internationally. In fact, in the 2001 World Championships at Santa Cruz, Tracy Stewart won the women's event.

So that's a Scottish world champion that I didn't know about. And we need every one we have! I'm certainly going to try and see her next time the paddlers are at Sandend. But this time I'll be 'canoeing' from the shore. I don't fancy drinking lots of Moray Firth salt water!

7 November 2001

The Space

Events for an MSP have been dominated by events surrounding Labour’s First Minister. His resignation was not unexpected. As I made my way up to Parliament on Thursday morning, I was in company with a rather gloomy Labour backbencher. Like me his concern about events focussed on the damage to Parliament. And he said, “Watch this space.” Within two hours the space existed.

When a politician of any party breaks the rules, even accidentally as I accept the First Minister appears to have, all politicians are damaged. And yet it is not typical. Like any profession, there is a mix of talents, experience and standards of probity.

For every 100,000 dedicated local doctors, admired by their patients and the broader community there is one Harold Shipman. But it is the 99,999 who represent doctors not the one black sheep.

Henry McLeish has said that there has been a ‘muddle’. I thank him for being big enough to take it on the chin and make way for another. He is not even faintly a Harold Shipman. At worst he might be a ‘grey sheep’. But he just couldn’t carry the burden of high office that others in his party insisted he carry.

I met Henry on a number of occasions in my short time in Parliament. And I liked the man even if I disagreed with his policies.

His successor, whoever he or she may be, has a big job to rebuild confidence and little time in which to do it.

Petitions Committee

Meanwhile the Scots Parliament has been showing off what is does well.

The European Parliament’s Petitions Committee visited our equivalent at its most recent meeting. And by coincidence the first item on the agenda was the petition from the Banff Chalmers Hospital campaigners. Sandra Napier, leading light in that campaign was there to speak to the Committee.

With our Parliament Chamber filled with visitors of many tongues and the translators present to provide simultaneous translation, Sandra should have felt at home. For she was once a translator in the EU Parliament.

And the Committee heard the case for our local hospital. So that’s more pressure on Grampian Health to support our community and its needs. Well done the Banff campaigners!

New Pitsligo Women's Action Group

Despite television generally only showing the ‘argy-bargie’ or politics, much of the work of the Scottish Parliament is broadly consensual. And in that spirit Malcolm Chisholm, New Labour’s Deputy Health Minister stopped in the corridor recently. The reason?

He had met some of the members of the New Pitsligo Women’s Action Group and had been mightily impressed by their energy and commitment. They’re busy raising funds to improve their local play park.

The ‘Fun Day’ in the local hall was crowded and lively when I visited them. I’d timed it right as they had had an auction to shave someone’s head and raised £75 in the process. I’ve suspicion that had I been there earlier it might have been me.

Inflicting ‘pain’ on a politician might have raised even more! But I’ve made my own ‘hairy sacrifice’ when I shaved my beard of 25 years standing off before standing for Parliament.

The Group’s activities reflect well on New Pitsligo as a commmunity.

Capability Scotland

I attended an event designed to lobby Members of Parliament about access for the disabled to vote. Although things are improving, a substantial number of polling stations at the recent election were unsuitable for wheel-chair users.

But surely they can vote by post you might say? True but not a complete answer respond Capability Scotland.

Many people want to wait until they have heard all the arguments before casting their vote. And that means that they would miss the deadline for posting their vote.

But I was able to help a little. I let them know that it’s possible to hand in one’s postal vote envelope to your polling station on the normal day of voting. Now that’s not a complete answer. But it’s a start.

3 November 2001

Ocean Recovery

I took part in a debate recently on Ocean Recovery. With most of the earth's surface covered with water rather than land, it's a bit surprising that we haven't talked much about it before now.

But my preparation for the debate took an unexpected turn. On the very day of the debate, seven Norwegian teachers visited me for lunch in the Parliament. The longstanding friendships between Peterhead Academy and Norway saw Deputy Rector Michael Doig add the visit to their itinerary.

And their first question? On the day when Norway's new Prime Minister suggested suing the UK government for Sellafield nuclear station's pollution of their seas, it was to ask whether Scotland would do the same..

So my reference to this during debate had a very direct input from Norway. And I wasn't alone in expressing concern about developments in Cumbria. Because our oceans cannot be the property of any single nature.

We share the fish in our seas across nations. After all they know no boundaries. And if we foul the environment, we lose our fish and much more besides.

Free Personal Care

After much huffing and puffing, Scotland's New Labour & Lib Dem government finally agreed to introduce free personal care to give our old folks the dignity they deserve. But as we've seen in recent weeks that they're not going to get support from their London colleagues.

The new money will be very welcome in many households. But because it will increase people's incomes, London is saying that they will no longer provide people with some current benefits such as Attendance Allowance. So they want a new benefit, paid for with Scottish money, to save London about £20 million a year.

But it turns out that the debate so far has become deeply worrying for many of our old folk. I had to reassure one lady at my surgery this week that whatever happened, no one in Scotland will be worse off whatever the outcome of political discussion.

But it's another example of the worry New Labour's London branch is prepared to inflict in the name of dogma. We'll need to keep fighting for the resources we deserve.

Global Warming

There's been flooding in Cruden Bay. A number of fishermen tell me that cod stocks have moved north from traditional areas. And there's a dispute about a proposed park and ride in Mintlaw. It might not be obvious, but the link is global warming.

The Scottish Executive, our government in Edinburgh, is providing support for schemes to get drivers off the road and onto public transport. The park & ride is one such.

But the money provided to the Council can only be spent on this kind of scheme. It's another example of how little discretion they actually have. So it's not too surprising that council members and officials are anxious to ensure we can spend this money before it gets taken back.

The paradox is that many in the local community believe that the addition of over 70 buses a day passing to and fro by the school may bring new risks rather than gains.

Let's hope that other sites in Mintlaw can be considered before we finally plump for one that seems to be causing local concern.

24 October 2001

Whisky

The Scot's Parliament recess is just over. Not as you might think a holiday for Members of Parliament - if only! Rather an opportunity to catch up with things you don’t get time for when you’re stuck in Edinburgh three or four days a week.

So it was a very great pleasure to visit Macduff Distillery. I hadn’t realised that the Deveron brand is one of Scotland’s top export malts. And yet, apart from Duff House in Banff, we can’t buy it in local shops!

The power of the supermarkets has long been a concern of mine and of many local businesses. Our fine products struggle to get shelf space while bland food trains a new generation of palates to accept the mediocre and cheap. And it’s not just whisky I worry about.

But at least some Scottish residents taste Macduff Distillery’s products. The waste from the brewing process goes to make animal and farm fish food. The latter appeals to me greatly as it displaces fish meal in farmed salmon diets.

And much current fish meal is produced from industrial fishing in the North Sea. Many of our fishermen tell me that the, mainly Danish, industrial fishing industry is fast removing the food upon which white fish depend. So our distillery is doing its bit for cod stocks as well as generating vast sums of excise duty for the London Exchequer.

Flooding

The weather in recent weeks has been ‘weet’. And my various trips up onto the roof of my house in Whitehills seem to be paying off. No further ingress of water - so far!

A long-running issue of flooding in Cruden Bay also seems - fingers crossed - to be moving to a conclusion. A culvert there has failed to take sufficient water away and flooding of a new housing estate has been the result. When I was there over the summer I had to hold a street surgery with the two dozen or so folk who turned up to see me. Our caravan just wasn’t big enough. Thank goodness it was a warm sunny day.

A complicating factor in getting this problem solved has been a recent change in the regulations. Previously culverts had to carry away water and fail only once every 50 years. But global warming is catching up with us and the standard has been uprated.

Funny how we all know that we’ll pay in winter for a warm summer. But it’s taken more than a few phone calls from me to get this one moving so maybe the obvious isn't always to everyone.

3 October 2001

Farmer’s Markets

Each month a farmers’ market is held in Banff and I am an enthusiastic visitor. Saturday I was cook and it presented a chance to shop for high quality local produce. So my steak came from a local field. After some discussion a stallholder guided me towards a variety of potato waxy enough to make ‘rosti’. Organic purple basil caught my eye. And the single fresh carrot, onion and tomato I needed completed my basket. And the total bill for one – my wife’s away looking after her mother for a few weeks – less than £5 for a ‘luxury’ meal.

My question to a witness who was before Parliament’s Rural Development Committee revealed that I am now in a minority in being able to prepare a meal from raw ingredients. So thanks to the Boy Scouts all these years ago! But if I buy a ‘ready meal’ from a supermarket I don’t know where the ingredients have come from, can’t control their quality and probably pay more. So supporting the local farmers’ market is good for them and good for me.

So it’s very disappointing to learn that plans to extend farmers’ markets into Peterhead may be stalled. Re-development of central Peterhead has taken some time and even included the provision of power points installed precisely to enable street stalls. But farmers’ market representatives have been met with an official’s comment that their stalls might damage the new stonework. So the next farmers’ market is now likely to be in Inverurie and not Peterhead. Time to get a grip methinks.

Asbestosis

At their request I met with the Clydeside Action on Asbestos group. Not an obvious interest for a North-East MSP one might think. But in fact some six people from Banff & Buchan die each year from the effects of asbestosis, the horrible disease that kills many who have been exposed to its dust.

The group has been petitioning Parliament for fair and speedy compensation from previous employers of asbestos victims. And the Justice Committee of which I am a member has been given the responsibility by our Public Petitions Committee to respond to the Clydeside group’s petition.

This well illustrates a key difference between Westminster, where petitions are merely placed in a sack behind the Speaker’s chair, and the Scottish Parliament where we genuinely engage with the public who have submitted nearly 400 petitions so far.

So when Banff’s Chalmers Hospital petitioners visit Parliament shortly to lodge their petition they can be confident of a serious hearing.

26 September 2001

Abbey Bridge

In Ireland they have the 'Book of Kells'. In Buchan we have the 'Book of Deer'. Or rather we don't; it's in Cambridge, England. So while the 'Book of Kells' is a major attraction for tourists in Dublin, our own book makes little contribution to the local economy.

But if everyone could go rambling with George Smart as I did, at least they'd know much more of their locality and origins. He's a modern 'Book of Deer' on legs and an over modest encyclopaedia of local history.

About a thousand years ago the monks at Deer wrote down all they knew about the ownership of local land. They used any scrap of paper that was to hand. Mostly it was practice pieces from their time developing skills as artists. In those days all books were made by hand and the monks illustrations were a highlight in these precious tomes they produced.

So valued were the 'Books of Deer', books because there were once many while now only one survives, that the monks carried them with always and only showed the pictures to the dying as an insight to salvation. And as they took them around, they wrote their knowledge of local land ownership in the margins.

The books were written in Latin, the language of the Church then. But the notes were written in the vernacular, which then was Gaelic. And therein lies one of the most precious facets of the surviving 'Book of Deer', it is the earliest known book of Gaelic.

My walk with George took me around Aikey Brae, the sight of the old horse fair still just surviving as an annual funfair. And passed the Abbey Bridge. Here in our own area lies a reminder that conflict and misunderstanding is nothing new. And sometimes deliberate.

The Abbey Bridge was a joint venture by two of the local lairds, Pitfour and Aden. Such was their distrust of each other that although they agreed to share the cost of rebuilding the bridge across the Ugie, neither would pass their money to the other. In the end they agreed that each would build half from their side of the river to meet half way.

The result was a bridge wide enough on the Pitfour side to take that laird's fancy new carriage. But on the other side it's a good three feet narrower and only wide enough for Aden's more modest vehicle. Some although the stream was bridged and the lairds met halfway, Pitfour could not drive across to Kirk on Sunday and show off his new carriage.

In today's dangerous world we might have to settle for an Abbey Bridge but if we are to build a real partnership it will need understanding, co-operation and respect for each other's needs. Our bridge to the future needs more than a quick fix.

Parliament in Aberdeen

Next year, the Scottish Parliament will be in Aberdeen for a number of weeks. Hurrah! But have we thought about the opportunity that represents for us to 'showcase' the North-East.

It is not enough that our Parliament moves from one city to another. What we actually need is to use the opportunity to communicate rural needs to the wider community.

When Edinburgh moves to Aberdeen it is not just 129 MSPs who travel. The press, the officials and the cameras come with them. And they'll be hungry for stories to justify their time away. As I go around the constituency I've suggested to a number of groups that now is the time to be thinking about their plans to grab attention next year.

What are your thoughts?

19 September 2001

World Challenges

Just as this is a new column for me in the Gazette, the world faces new challenges in the wake of events in the USA. And it’s hard to start without a personal comment, a personal view, on recent events.

In the second half of the twentieth century, the West generally viewed an enemy of our enemies as a friend. And that’s why we supported the Mujahadeen against the Soviets during their ‘adventure’ in Afghanistan. Now we reap the harvest with Osama Bin Laden, whom we previously supported, emerging from there as our most virulent opponent.

But we must do more than deal with our immediate problem, enormous as it will undoubtedly prove to be, we must start to redefine how we relate to events inside other countries. And the first must be respect for those with faith, all faiths. Every faith has extremists who distort and abuse others beliefs. True faith stabilises society in an uncertain world.

Abuse (Scotland) Bill

And while the world focuses on great conflicts, our Parliament’s Justice Committee has been considering how we deal with smaller conflicts.

About twenty years ago the Matrimonial Homes Act introduced a legal basis for deciding how to proceed when there are disputes inside a house. And it’s generally thought to have worked well.

The Abuse Bill now addresses disputes outside the house. Firstly the definition of abuse is widely drawn. And it doesn’t just address disputes between neighbours. It covers behaviour by children and mental abuse. And would be a criminal offence to continue abuse after a court order.

So there should be new ways of dealing with problem members of families. I’m certainly supporting the principles in the Bill.

The Book of Deer

George Smart is a local sage who under-rates his knowledge. He recently took me on a ramble to Aden Country Park over a somewhat damp patch of Buchan. We met archaeologists from Reading who were excavating a stone circle. We saw fence posts made from re-cycled plastic bags.

But most interesting of all was what he had to say about the 'Book of Deer'. It seems that is defaced by scribblings, the earliest surviving written Gaelic, around the margins. And it’s the scribblings that we now value most, not the wonderful illustrations it also contains.

Unlike the ‘Book of Kells', a broadly equivalent Irish book which attracts many tourists to Dublin, our ‘Book of Deer’ languishes in Cambridge, England.

So how about an exhibition of the ‘Book of Deer’ in the North-East to coincide with and commemorate the visit of the Scots Parliament to Aberdeen next year? Now there’s a thought!

12 September 2001

A World Changed – A Democracy Short-changed – A Humanity Diminished

When thousands have died through the wilful and irrational acts of terrorists it is difficult to see around these acts to glimpse the future. But it is certain that the world’s agenda has been wrenched from the comparatively mundane to issues of civilisation’s survival.

It was entirely right that the Scottish Parliament abandoned normal business and that party leaders from across the political divide in Scotland joined together to reflect on events in the United States of America.

On the evening of the 11th people stood in disbelief on the concourse of Waverley Station in Edinburgh and openly wept. I felt a sense of lethargy, then anger and finally immobility.

The morning commuters stood unnaturally silent on the platforms. Each seemed captured by private thoughts.

But as the days go on we shall all – governments, citizens, businesses – have to reshape our world in defiance of those who oppose rational debate.

Defence

After the attacks in the States, the issue of national defence will be one which exercises many. SNP members will shortly be debating their attitude to membership of NATO for the first time in a number of years. Until now the argument has been between those who gave priority to entering a military alliance for improved defence and those who refused to join because NATO was armed with nuclear weapons which could kill large numbers of civilians.

I suspect that recent events indicate that the world faces threats against which the nuclear bomb is little deterrent. With many new nations queuing up to join NATO and the focus moving strongly to the fight against terrorism, I suspect that the old argument is dead and that we may see new thinking.

The Internet

The Internet has become a major source of news and information in recent times. At times of crisis I know of many people who now turn first to it. A distributed system that avoided the concentration of computer power in a few places that earlier systems required, it was designed to strongly resist physical attack. As far as I can see it has been unaffected by events over the Atlantic.

Parliament has been debating the provision of ‘broadband’ communications in rural areas in recent days. The technologies that deliver it are vital if we are not to be left behind in allowing our businesses easy access to promote and sell their goods internationally.

I wonder now whether we are witnessing the end of the city. Probably not, but just as the Internet is distributed and can survive attack, so concentration of activity and decision-making in cities creates large targets vulnerable to small numbers of determined attackers.

Provided we get modern communications, and a modern affordable transport infrastructure, we could see the start of a rural revival. And not one based on 'The Good Life’ model of opting out but rather of towns and villages becoming closer to the core of our 21st century society.

Neighbours

Leader of the House from Westminster, Robin Cook has been visiting the Scottish Parliament to see how it’s done when you start with a blank sheet of paper. And his comments certainly suggest that he thinks there are lessons to be learnt. One of these relates to the role of committees.

I joined two of committees this week and besides being impressed by the relatively consensual way in which they operate, I was concerned about the workload. Just how adequate scrutiny of the government’s business could be provided by a smaller parliament is hard to see. Every one of our 129 MSPs has a real job.

One of the most interesting things in the Justice Committee this week was discussion about the Protection from Abuse Bill. It became apparent that the term abuse is very widely drawn. In response to my question the Deputy Minister for Justice revealed that it could be applicable to neighbours, even relatively distant neighbours, who create problems through abuse. And furthermore any breach of an interdict granted under this bill can be treated through the criminal justice system.

Although it will be some time before this bill completes its progress through Parliament, it does illustrate the useful cross-party work being done.

Community Councils

I took part in a cleanup of some streets in Banff recently. Someone used to say to me that if the Parish pump is working, everything’s OK in the world. Our Community Councils come in all shapes and sizes. Some are very active and others seem all but moribund.

But sometimes it is simple ideas that energise. And Banff & Macduff Community Council organised the cleanup thus taking practical action in response to community concerns. Getting a Councillor and an MSP (me!) along to help on a very wet Sunday morning meant that other elected representatives can’t hide from what’s going on – or not!

Well done the Community Council.

15 August 2001

Accidents

During my vacation on the west coast, the report was published into the crash at Glasgow of an aircraft en route to Aberdeen with Airtours staff. Eight people died in that accident and it was right and proper that the Air Accident Investigations Bureau spent a painstaking 18 months researching every aspect of so that lessons could be learned and applied.

As it happens I had a personal interest as the captain of that flight, one of those who died, was a personal friend and someone whose skill and judgement I respected. I was able to read the accident report on the Internet and like anyone else, learn any lessons that I as a private pilot might learn apply to my flying.

Here in the North-East we also see the Marine Accident Investigations Bureau resuming their investigations into the sinking of the Trident all these years ago. We know that any lessons learned will be published.

There have been a spate of accidents on our roads which have already caused more deaths in our area than either of these flying or marine accidents. As I was told by a constituent about one of these, the police spent a considerable period studying the causes of one of these.

In fact it seems clear that this accident may be a repeat of one only a year ago and that that road conditions are likely to have been a major factor.

For air or sea accidents, we have specialist units centrally funded and with an absolute focus on safety who investigate all accidents.

There seems to be no equivalent unit focussing on roads. And yet it is roads which kill more of our citizens than ships or planes.

SQA

By now students across Banff & Buchan will have received their exam results. Although it seems that we have to treat any statistics coming out of the SQA with a bit of caution it does seem that they confirm one trend. Girls get better results than boys.

In my business career I employed large numbers of women and many of those were the most effective performers in my teams. And those who were, shared one defining characteristic, they were hungry for success.

Things have changed a great deal for many women. I recall that some 20 years ago my wife, who then held a senior position with a London merchant bank, used to have to use the gents toilet whenever she was in their headquarters. Why? They didn't have a ladies toilet!

On average women still earn less than men so the battle for equal rights may not be over. But at least the doors appear open to today's young women of talent and the SQA's figure suggest that they're motivated to walk though them.

The challenge now is to bring the loons' performance up that of the quines'. With worldwide research showing that small classes in early primary school are a major contributor to later success, it reinforces my view that class sizes of no more than 18 should be our target.

3 July 2001

Peterhead Prison

The Government's motion in the Scots Parliament on Violent and Sexual Offenders was an occasion that saw the kind of debate that the public say they want.

The issues were presented, points were picked up and developed from speaker to speaker. And the SNP presented no amendment to the Labour-Liberal motion. Only the Tories spoilt that party mood, and then only slightly, by tabling their own amendment. In the end they supported the government.

For me it presented the opportunity to make a speech about Peterhead Prison. Sixty-seven members of Parliament had supported Alex Salmond's motion in January which congratulated the Prison on their pioneering, and world-class, work with sex offenders. This was the time to build on that and to ask the government to end the uncertainty about Peterhead's future. I got warm words of support from the Minister which praised the Prison's work. But we'll have to wait another six months before we can be sure that it has a future.

And during this measured and useful debate there were how many journalists present? One! They only seem to want report disagreements. When we're all pulling in the same direction and doing our bit with common purpose, they're not interested in telling the public about the good things we do.

A Modern Transport System

Scottish Enterprise Grampian presented an update for local MSPs on a "Modern Transport System" for the North-East. For me it was more of introduction. And I found it rather depressing.

We are a one car family with no prospect of ever becoming a no car family. The reasons are entirely practical and financial. To get a bus from my Whitehills home the three miles into Banff is a £1.40 journey and the frequency is not that great. I contrast that with the Bridge of Don Park & Ride which I hear about at the seminar. It allows a family of four to park their car on the outskirts of Aberdeen, take a 5-mile trip to the centre of the city and back, for £1.60. The rate per mile is about one-eighth of my journey. No wonder I usually chose to spend about 25 pence on petrol for our car rather than take the bus to Banff.

And when I travel to Parliament in Edinburgh it's little better. I catch the 6.17 a.m. train from Huntly, about 20 miles from Whitehills. That gets me there by about 10.45. Yes I'm relaxed and I've been working on the train. But there's no public transport, other than an expensive taxi ride, to get me to Huntly at that time in the morning and the trains are only every two hours.

But for a young man in rural Banffshire things are much worse. He needs a wheelchair to get around. And he gets a free bus pass because of it. But his disability means that he can't lift his wheelchair onto his local bus. And the driver is not allowed to under Health & Safety regulations. Therefore this young man has to use taxis.

We might have a strategy for Aberdeen. With a little help from Scotland's Euro 2008 bid we might get a Western Peripheral Route round the city which we'd all welcome. But at grass roots level, we've still a lot to do.

Mintlaw School Visit

The second last day before the recess was my fifth day in Parliament and saw my first visit by constituents. A group of Mintlaw Academy pupils and their teacher have arrived to see what we do.

I suspect they weren't all that impressed to find that I start my day like many office workers by clearing the overnight emails. Unlike Westminster, every MSP is hooked into a Parliamentary computer system that brings day by day news of what's going on. And which connects us to the outside world of constituents, special interest groups and others with an interest in our work.

But they've chosen quite good day to be here. The Education Minister will be making a statement on the Scottish Qualifications Authority, the SQA. And our school students are keenly interested in seeing the whites of the Minister's eyes when he talks. Things have got better - could they have got worse? - and I get to ask my question. But by that time it's late and my visitors no longer sit in the gallery.

Earlier my visitors found it more impressive. Grampian TV arrive unexpectedly at my desk to ask if they can film a response from me on a probable expansion of Grampian Country Foods in Banff. For a new member this is manna from heaven. For my visitors it seems surprising that four minutes later the TV crew have gone having filmed my answers to three questions and taken shots of me at my desk. And it makes North Tonight's lead story. Good news for Banff.

Working with the media is fun but the real work is in the chamber, on the phone and on the keyboard.

Surgeries - Broadband

One of the key expectations constituents have of their MSPs is that they be accessible. And indeed the Scots Parliament's code of conduct for members require that we be so.

My first round of surgeries threw up a mixed bag of personal problems, administrative failures by various parties and one strategic shortfall in the constituency. We ain't got broadband communications.

Now, every so often a new "buzz-word" becomes "hot". An example would be WAP phones. The mobile phone operators have been pushing these like mad so they can boost their profits. And like so many new "techie" things it is falling out of favour as fast as it rose. The technology ain't much good.

Broadband is different. Small businesses in our area struggle to break out of their local area because we are further from our markets than many of our competitors. A visitor to one of my surgeries delivers training throughout the world over the Internet. But without broadband connections they're paying too much and getting poor service compared to companies in our cities.

So what can an MSP do to help? The answer turns out to be relatively simple. A letter from a member of parliament asking for information can work wonders. And in a day or two we discover a broadband cable running through the constituency - but without local connections. The Chairman of the Post Office says all their offices are going online to broadband and there are plans to install the technology in schools.

So all we need to do is bring all this together, generate enough demand from local business and we can be part of the new "wired world". That's my next step.

School Holidays


Communities all over have celebrated the Millenium in their own way. In Whitehills we have a compass rose set in the ground to show us the way North.

Sandhaven has a box. It's filled with things that matter today and will, they hope, intrigue people in a hundred years' time. And the end of year assembly at the Primary School is where it is officially closed.

When I was at school, I always thought the holidays were the best part. Today's Sandhaven pupils seem genuinely attached to their school and each class in turn puts on a wee show for the visitors.

The one that affects me most is when the senior pupils who will be leaving for the Academy tell us of their memories of school. It brings back a time in 1952 when my father's car had to follow the snow-plough to get me to my first day at school. And what is more precious in life than memories? Thank you Sandhaven for bringing back one of mine.

And Parliament's off for the Summer too

After only three weeks in Parliament it seems hard to remember a period before. And my "end of term" review? Well I've managed two speeches, two interventions, one oral question and a contribution to a committee. And outside Parliament, meetings galore, three surgeries and a mountain of correspondence.

The next eight weeks are an opportunity to visit people in some of our smaller villages and towns. I need to do some research as I expect to be appointed to Parliament's Rural Development Committee. There's two years of meetings to catch on. And Sandra tells me she wants a break. Two weeks on the West Coast will be our first real holiday for three years. We're looking forward to it.

21 June 2001

The New Boy

By 10 p.m. on the Friday when the by-election result was declared, a car had arrived at my door with my first papers from the Scottish Parliament. Impressive, but what might have been even better would have been an email. The car probably cost £100 to send from Edinburgh to Whitehills but an email would have cost nearly nothing.

On Tuesday, I walked over the threshold of Parliament HQ to be greeted by two large security gentlemen who already recognised me. The Chief Whip, an old friend is waiting too, and she wants to make sure that I know what’s happening in my first week. By the end of the day, my case is bulging with paper.

But on Wednesday I take the oath and become a fully fledged member of parliament. And within minutes the chamber is resounding to vigorous debate on Stage 3 of the Housing Bill. 202 amendments tabled and a ten hour day in prospect. My first day is the parliament’s longest so far.

But Thursday has to be the highlight of my first week. There’s a debate on the European Committee’s review of the Common Fishing Policy and my name’s on the speakers’ list. With the Committee deciding to support ‘Zonal Management’ we’ve seen an encouraging change of view. For some time, we’ve been in favour of the countries near the fishing grounds looking after them rather than ‘the one size fits all’ approach of the CFP. Our local fishing industry appears greatly encouraged that both European Parliament and Scottish Parliament now support our view that we should manage our own fish stocks.

But we still need a tie-up scheme to protect the haddocks in particular and my question on the subject draws a predictably negative response from Fisheries Minister Rhona Brankin and I quote, “Following hard on the heels of Mr Salmond ..”. I think she meant that I’m representing the fishing community’s views just as effectively as Alex has always done. High praise indeed.

Bravery

There are occasions when the sea reminds us who’s in charge. The discovery of the Trident, lost in 1974, by some amateur divers is a sombre event. But my very first constituency appointment is to celebrate and recognise a much happier outcome.

At the Fishermens’ Mission in Peterhead, John Duncan is to receive a certificate from the Royal Humane Society for the saving the life of his fellow crewman. It’s a big occasion with the Lord Lieutenant there to read the citation and make the presentation. Few of us who make our living on dry land can imagine conditions in northern waters on 4th January this year. And yet I suspect that John Duncan found giving his speech of thanks a more intimidating experience that diving overboard to rescue his colleague. From the dedication and courage of such men is the North-East hewn. Men of granite.

Networking

One of the essentials in the Scottish Parliament is working with members of other parties for a common cause. The SNP leader, John Swinney, received an award last year, jointly with Labour’s Henry McLeish for working together on the Enterprise and Lifelong Learning Committee.

My networking with colleagues from other parties got off to a good start. On my first day I was able to attend a briefing for the Rural Affairs Committee on fish conservation developments, courtesy of the Liberal Convenor. And both Labour and Conservative members have spoken to me in support of retaining Peterhead Prison in its present form. While Denis Canavan, the independent member for Falkirk East and Robin Harper, the Green congratulated me on my maiden speech.

The surprise has been how many of the members I’ve never heard of. It’s clear the majority of members work hard and try to co-operate with others. But there’s a worrying few, who seem to be along for the ride.

Rosehearty

If you want to know what’s going on in a community, ask a Councillor. That’s a maxim that stood me well during the election and it’s clear that it applies equally as a member of Parliament.

The Rosehearty AFC are working hard to raise the money for a new pavilion. Wherever one goes, a pretty constant refrain form youngsters is that there’s ‘nothing to do’. Well I’m prepared to do my bit and open a coffee morning to help the Rosehearty community do something about that. And the contact for this? Councillor Mitchell Burnett.

But it turns out that the real visitor Rosehearty would like to see is Cathy Staff, the actress who plays Nora Battie in ‘Last of the Summer Wine’. Apparently she used to come with a touring rep company who played in the local Community Hall. And some of the people I meet actually played on stage with her. Can get her back they ask? I don’t know but we’ll certainly try!

School Buses

One of the good things about the Scottish Parliament is the Public Petitions Committee. Unlike Westminster it provides a home for petitions where they actually consider how to respond. It must be a success as they’ve dealt with over 300 so far.

On Tuesday, the indefatigable John Calder of Banff is presenting a petition on school buses. The Liberal Democrat Council have changed the rules and making many of children walk on dangerous roads or alternatively their parents have to pay about £4 per week for what was a previously free bus.

I know all about this as my home village of Whitehills is one of those affected. And as an adult I wouldn’t walk on the A98 to Banff. 30 to 40 ton lorries whistle by at speeds much more than the 5 ton 30 mph vehicles of 1947 when the rules were set.

The committee agreed that the rules for School Buses have to be looked at and refer the matter for consideration at the Parliament’s Education Committee. But the less happy news is that even more pupils will have to walk on dangerous roads or pay after the summer. Let’s hope the Education Committee can move rapidly.

Stewart Stevenson
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