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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!

Stewart Stevenson
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