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24 December 2002

Family and Friends

Reviewing the Christmas card list is not a chore but a reminder of a year past. In some cases, new additions the list, in others the sad deletions.

And for the North-East, the near inevitability that we shall see deletions of a number of the fishing vessels tied up in our harbours for what should have been a season of family and festivity.

But the meeting between the First Minister, Scotland’s Fisheries Minister and representatives of the fishing industry was a sombre affair. One concentrating on compensation rather than recovery.

Yes, we must ensure that crews can ride out this ‘European Union’ inspired storm. But how will we see future generations compensated for the brutal ‘down-sizing’ of our core industry?

And many trades and shops depend on fishing for the business that makes them the profit that keeps them going. Businesses deep into the countryside, and ones at the core of rural villages, will share the pain.

With trawler deckhands self-employed, I have long argued that our unemployment numbers understate the scale of this area’s economic difficulties. And with a numbers driven support system, we have been cut off from the opportunities to diversify, the opportunity to reduce our dependence on fishing.

Nonetheless it has not been a totally bad year. But our victories – saving Peterhead Prison, a new hospital for Banff, a move from two to three-shift working for Fraserburgh’s ambulance station, jobs saved in baking and fish-processing – can be overwhelmed by the magnitude of fishing’s problem.

When Parliament returns on 7th January, I shall be straight back into it.

That day the big issue had been planned as a discussion with Ross Finnie, our Fisheries, and Rural Affairs, Minister on how the new European regulations on moving grain around the country might open the door to cross-contamination by Genetically Modified crops.

But that is bound to overwhelmed by questions on fishing. If the Minister will allow us that is. Because on the following day he will make his statement to Parliament on the outcome of the fishing talks.

That only allows a limited time to ask questions and none for a debate.

With the Presiding Officer, Liberal Sir David Steele, concluding that the fishing crisis was not serious enough for a recall of Parliament – not many in the area will agreed with that judgement – our opportunity for a debate, and a chance to change the government’s mind before the new plan starts on 1st February will be very limited.

The moral campaign for 2003 – and this is the time of year for such thoughts surely – must be on ‘industrial fishing’. The Danes – an independent nation at the European talks – were able to stay fishing for sandeels, pout and immature cod.

The major companies like Unilever who are behind such a trade carry clout. And 2003 is the year to kick back. For if the cod’s food is hoovered up, will we ever see cod in numbers again?

Here is hoping for the best in 2003.

18 December 2002

Candles in the Wind

As I write the outcome of fishing talks hangs in the balance. I contemplate the candlelit vigil scheduled for Saturday.

If air miles measured effort by all who have been campaigning in our communities, then many would be contemplating luxurious holidays when they cash them in.

The reality is frustration. Mine because I am on Parliamentary duty in Edinburgh. But those in Brussells are hardly better placed if the phone calls and emails reaching me tell the story.

Elliot Morley, the Westminster Minister who ‘leads’ the UK delegation, seems disconnected from those who would be affected by any proposal agreed.

Our fishermen are learning more from their French colleagues than from ‘their’ minister. For they are constantly briefed and referred to for information as negotiations continue. The UK Ministers brief when requested, when they can find the time, and seem concerned to manage down expectations rather than manage up what they deliver as a result.

My colleagues Richard Lochhead MSP, our Scottish Parliament Shadow Fisheries Minister, and Ian Hudghton MEP tell me that they have barely slept since Monday.

It puts in perspective my rising at 4.15 am that day to travel to Fraserburgh sorting office. The Cod Crusaders say they have little time to prepare for Christmas. The mail figures suggest that they may not be alone. Figures are down, a bit, and our posties wonder when the rush will come.

And yet fishing is not the only candle flickering uncertainly in the wind.

I convened a meeting on Monday to discuss Broadband communications services. The Scottish Government has announced a £24 million package to enable access for 70% of our population in the next couple of years. But are we still the other 30% denied any realistic opportunity to diversify our business base?

Even with Council, Grampian Enterprise, BT, and representatives of the business community around the table, we still didn’t find the answer. Although we agreed a way forward which will increase demand in the area, it may not enable us to reach the target to get this technology.

And announcements on transport this week were of uncertain value to us.

The first of these was the new web site to enable us to plan integrated travel throughout Scotland.

So I tried it for my journey from Whitehills to Edinburgh – incidently we are in the process of moving a short distance out into the country having sold our house down south at last – and what did it recommend as the fastest route?

Well it sure was integrated! It started with the bus to Elgin. Then the train to Inverness and bus to the airport. Then fly down to Edinburgh and get the bus into the centre. Fastest certainly, and using almost every mode of transport.

But practical? I will leave you to judge.

Of more importance to Scotland was new funding for railways – some £25 million from the government. But of course we have no railways so that is simply us once again paying for others improved transport.

But the 18th also saw the launch of the public consultation on Aberdeen’s Western Peripheral Route. Between 7th January and 14th February your views are being sought.

For a long time Aberdeen has been a major blockage on our road south. So will it be easy for you to contribute to the debate? Not really! The nearest exhibition will be Newmachar between 4 and 8 pm on 21st January.

But roads are not the only area of congestion troubling us.

For a considerable period, the gas-fired power station at Peterhead has only been able to put about two-thirds of its possible output onto the national grid. Because there ain’t the capacity to carry it away to other markets.

So it seems to be a bit of mystery that a major wind farm is being contemplated in the same general area. Its power would be similarly trapped.

And it would be fair to say that not everyone views very large noisy structures as ideal neighbours. Other plans for offshore wind farms could yet be a better bet.

But amid the doom and gloom that comes with the dark nights and the annual battle over fisheries each December, there is always the spectacular decorations mushrooming all over the north-east.

The central belt is dull and dreary by comparison.

And if the fishing negotiations deliver a hammer blow I shall probably be back down here for a recall of Parliament that might be on Tuesday.

If so, and the news is bad, then it will be our Minister’s candle blowing in the wind – and out.

4 December 2002

Cod Squad

I have just returned from 24 hours in Brussels meeting officials on fish.

The road there is now a well-worn path for folk from the North-East and the messages remain fairly mixed. But my colleague Richard Lochhead, our Shadow Fisheries Minister, and I had a new suggestion that seemed to our listeners to offer a new way forward.

With the Danes holding the EU Presidency until the end of the year it was clearly important that we heard their views. They are the biggest industrial fishing nation and have long been envied for their success at getting their way in the EU’s corridors of power. Ironic is it not that they are allowed to keep fishing for the very food eaten by cod, haddock and other white fish only to turn what they catch into pig or chicken food while we cannot catch for human consumption.

Kenn Fogtmann represents Denmark’s fish, food and agriculture interests in Brussels and is currently, along with 139 other Danes, part of the EU President’s team. With five million Danes represented by 140 staff and Scotland’s five million by less than ten, it is easy to understand why Denmark gets its own way and we are left standing at the altar time and again.

But our meeting with Kenn suggested some hope. Our ‘big idea’ is that quotas should be rolled over for 2003. The EU’s Common Fisheries Policy is to change from 1st January 2003 and it seems absurd to set quotas under the old scheme but implement them under the new.

We suggested that the ‘new CFP’ provisions for Regional Advisory Committees should be used early in 2003 to allow the nations adjacent to the North Sea fishing grounds to rapidly draw up plans for agreement by the European Commission.

All this would allow fishing communities to avoid the brutality of total closure. And vitally, it would deliver responsibility to propose a solution to the problem to those most directed affected by the success or failure of any plan – the local states and their fishermen.

While Danes indicated that they have to hold back from the debate because they hold the EU Presidency, they could see our proposal as one they could put forward to break the anticipated deadlock in discussions later this month. And it would avoid having to make two big decisions – the ‘new CFP’ and quotas – at the same Council of Ministers meeting.

So that was one team warm to our thoughts on fishing for 2003 and beyond.

Next stop seemed a harder nut to crack. She was Franz Fischler’s advisor on fishing, Maja Kirchner. I have written previously about the incongruity of a land-locked Austria being the EU state which provides the Fishing Commissioner. Meeting Maja did not initially instil confidence either. Rather than being an expert on fishing, she is a lawyer. And has been involved in fishing for only two years.

With Fischler seeming to be ‘all over the place’ in his responses to the future of North Sea fishing it was important that we understood why this was so.

One thing said by Maja soon re-emphasised the merits of our proposals.

It seems that Fischler’s office only had seven days in which to draw up their 170 page document on the future of fishing. Squeezed by the timetable for the delivery of the scientists’ reports and decision at the December Council of Ministers that was all they got.

For the first time, the real irrationality of some of the EU’s processes was brought into focus for me. And the apparent lack of knowledge on the Fishing Commissioner’s part could, to some extent at least, be put down to simple lack of time to master a complex brief.

So when we put forward our thoughts, involving as they did moving the decision into 2003, they were more warmly received than we had imagined that they would be. For it seems that Franz Fischler’s office is not unaware of the hazards of making decisions based on a rapid read of the evidence and the pressure of a ludicrously tight decision-making timetable.

And of course that timetable reduces both the chance that the recommendation is well thought out or well argued and increases the chance that it will be power politics that governs the decision rather than logic.

But the fly in the ointment was Maja’s observation that for all the good ideas that we were putting forward, they would only really carry weight if tabled by a government – preferably ours.

So that’s why our own ‘Cod Squad’, those feisty female Cod Crusaders from Fraserburgh are the ace in our hand. Pressure from outside the normal political channels alarms ministers. It worked for Peterhead Prison. It must work for our fishermen and all who depend upon them.

27 November 2002

“Scotland’s Parliament: Triumph and Disaster” by Brian Taylor of the BBC - A Review

There is an end of term feeling about in the Scottish Parliament. And Brian Taylor, Scotland’s doyen of television political analysts, has sought to write a report card.

But I find myself asking where one can feel the Parliament’s pulse. Is it in the Chamber, in the canteen, the black & white corridor, with the Executive at Victoria Quay or in Deacon Brodie’s?

For despite the number of journalists who swim symbiotically in our political sea with MSPs, I suspect that much of the truth remains hidden, even from Brian.

Is the relationship between politicians and journalists is based on trust and understanding? Journalists failing to understand politicians, and politicians distrusting journalists. Or is it the other way around? Is Brian the exception?

With public view of Parliament and politicians more influenced by what they read and hear through the lens of a journalist than by actual contact with day to day politics, the likes of Brian must be listened to with care.

So it is disappointing that he does not seem to have travelled far below the surface in his analysis. Of those seeking the levers of power yes, but the Parliament no.

In his book he brings new insights into the thinking of the players in government. And those who would replace them from both Executive and Opposition benches.

But as to Parliament, and how it might differ from what went before, Brian writes more as one who observes from the surface rather than as a Jacques Cousteau with an acqualung and swimming deep in the salty seas of the Mound.

And what would he have seen and who would he have met if he had actually dived in?

At the National Library of Scotland there are attracted a substantially larger group of MSPs than the usual evening event. Even the First Minister was seen relaxed and tie-less after what had been a very difficult day. The majority of them paid for the privilege albeit that they were offered a discount.

For this as the launch of his book. For the Edinburgh University Press, the first welcome clink of a cash register as eager members bought the book so they could turn instantly to the index to find their entry.

If that was their sole motivation for buying, many would be disappointed. A bare majority, sixty five from 129, bear mention and many only by association with the parliamentary equivalent of the ‘rich & famous’.

Because this is a history the new Scottish government more than of the Parliament. More a history of ‘Kings and noblemen’ than a social history in the mould of T.C. Smout et al.

But absence from the index should not deter ‘omitted members’. I speak as one who like the other 63 or so has apparently made no impact. And I thought that my establishing a committee of ladies to campaign with me for Peterhead Prison and overturning a key Executive policy in the process would earn me my place in the sun.

Perhaps Brian has not forgiven me for inviting Alex Salmond to join my campaigners in Aberdeen when they handed in their petition. But at least my ensuring one of the ‘noblemen’ of Scottish politics played an active part in the campaign earned it a short mention in the book.

Taking the book on its merits uncovers a few new stories and confirms Brian Taylor’s position as the Scottish media’s ‘man inside’. Time and again he seems to get under the skin of senior Scottish politicians and shows us how they think.

His collaboration with Alex Salmond, yes him again, in writing up a disgraceful attempted smeer campaign during the 1999 election shows some of the dilemmas faced by people in public life. His description of the McLeish troubles shows an empathy with those who hold public office.

But his lens always seems to focus on government rather than parliament. His excursion into considering committee activity makes this point.

John McAllion gets a well-deserved pat on the back for his stewardship of the Public Petitions Committee. But of its success in providing a door through which civic and individual Scotland can engage with Parliament little is written. We read of a serial and ‘vexacious’ petitioner but nothing of contributions made to policy changes through petition.

The game is finally given away in ‘The Uncivil Service?’ chapter. Four pages, 1% of the book, present a distinctly cool response to the Committee system. And the analysis doesn’t suggest that the author has wasted much time sitting on the press benches listening to its work.

No mention of the forensic analysis by Justice One Committee of the Prison Service’s Estates Review. It set a standard to which others, in the Scottish Parliament and Westminster, should aspire. And on a controversial subject, delivered unanimity across the political divide by listening to the evidence.

In ‘A Question of Money’, Brian is more comfortable and better informed. Indeed there will be few better analyses of the different and evolving views of parties in our parliament. He provides a benchmark against which the evolution of this debate can be measured.

But ultimately for me, the unanswered questions frustrate. Does the existence of coalition government shift power away from the executive towards the Parliament? Or does the structure and practices achieve that? Or have we replicated the ‘absolute’ power which resides in government at Westminster?

In the end, MSPs who put down their money for this book, and who queued up to have Brian Taylor sign their copy, will not find their trust in his writing, in his ability to tell a story, misplaced. And it is written in a way accessible to sell in a market place beyond the incestuous bounds of the Mound.

Whether readers will feel that the story is about Scotland’s Parliament rather than Scotland’s government is more open to question.

20 November 2002

Fishing

I sense a macho confrontation coming on fish with some European officials.

After being taken into the Common Fisheries Policy by Tory PM Ted Heath in 1973 and having had many of our fishing rights traded away in the early 90s by John Major, there is common agreement that the CFP has failed. It has failed to protect fish stocks and it has failed communities, like ours, which depend on fish.

So it is with a bitter sense of disappointment that we see a continuing focus on closing our fishing and no sign at all – yet - that officials are prepared to tackle the scandal of industrial fishing.

Our fishermen deliver a healthy food and they support important onshore industries around Scotland’s coasts. The industrial fisheries – mainly Danish – use nets that have a fine mesh that prevents the escape of even the smallest fish. And all to provide pig food and fertiliser.

All of which makes the broadening of the campaign for our fishing communities to cover the whole of Scotland so important. Because it is an industry not well understood by people outside fishing dependent areas.

A debate that engages people in central-belt Scotland is a debate that will go places. And a planned lobby of Parliament by the campaign led by some of our fiesty Fraserburgh ladies will certainly drive the point home.

My party has welcomed the small moves towards returning control of fishing grounds to coastal communities. About time – but too little and probably too late.

But fishing can be higher up the agenda – in some countries.

I had a private meeting with the Norwegian Fisheries Minister, Svein Ludvigsen, when he visited the Scottish Parliament for the 50th meeting of the Nordic Council.

This alliance of five northern European nations is an important forum for coordinating policy on matters of common interest. Like fishing.

And I was interested to hear of the Norwegian Government’s response to a cod crisis in 1989. Not because it tells us what we should do. But because it tells us the priority we must give to fishing communities.

When the Norwegians had to close their cod fishery that meant potential ruin for small towns and villages along Norway’s coast.

Their government decided that it was vital that fishermen and factories should be ready when the fishery reopened. So they made £200 million available to communities hit by the closure. That from a country much smaller than Scotland.

And it worked. The Norwegians still have a white fish fleet and thriving coastal communities.

They also recognise that a ‘right sized’ fleet is the key to long term sustainability and keep tight control on who fishes in their waters.

I was pleased that our own fisheries minister also met Mr Ludvigsen. But I want to hear that he is leaving his desk more often and not just relying on people visiting Scotland. We can only win through alliances of interest.

And the Nordic nations see the future of fishing – and its importance – much as we do. Might we see an invitation for Scotland to join the Nordic Council soon?

Unity of purpose across politicians of all parties in Scotland is important but it can only be sustained if our ministers are out there working for our industry – and are seen to be doing so.

Norway: Lessons for us? Lessons for our government? Certainly!

SlowBand

I have written on broadband communications technology before. This week the Scottish Executive have proudly announced that they have gone out to tender for connections to public facilities in Highlands and the Borders.

This was announced this week. It seems astonishing that it was on 26th September last year – 14 months ago – that the Liberal-Labour government minister informed me of their intention to do nothing until their pilots were complete.

If it takes 14 months merely to issue an invitation to tender how can we have any realistic prospect of getting the technology into use with people any time before it is obsolete.

Losing One’s Memory

In Parliament members, press and staff live in such close and continuous contact that it is difficult to conceal individual idiocyncracies.

For example I can tell you that one government minister was seen recently undertaking an unusual strategy to warm a part of his anatomy after spending some hours in a drafty, cold committee room.

And there is opposition member who has their assistant print out all their emails, then they dictate answers into a tape recorder which their assistant types up and sends.

But this week it is a senior member of the press core who is in the frame. They made a mess of changing the batteries in their electronic organiser and lost all their contact names and addresses. So that’s no more midnight calls from one national paper. Hurray!

6 November 2002

For Cod’s Sake

A tiny bit of sense seems to be surfacing in the EU. Franz Fischler is the Fisheries Commisioner and is the man who has swung this way and that on whether the North Sea will be closed to all catching of white fish.

And yet it seems that the Danes and Norwegians, the latter outside the EU but party to the Common Fisheries Policy, were going to be allowed to continue their industrial fisheries.

That sees them catch up to a million tons of sandeels and pout each year. And what do cod, haddocks and so on eat? Sandeels and pout!

But more critically, it simply isn’t possible to catch sandeels and pout without also catching white fish. Some estimates put the ‘by-catch’ of white fish as being greater than our industry’s permitted total catch of cod and haddocks. Some ‘by-catch’!

The influence of the Danes in particular - like Scotland, a nation of some five million people – over European fishing policy has been considerable. Their civil servants, government ministers and industry have worked closely together to progress national aims on fishing. And that has always meant leading the debate, not just trying persuade minds after the terms of discussions have been set by others.

The Scottish White Fish Producers are holding meetings in Fraserburgh and Peterhead this week to brief a very wide range of people in our community on the crisis. A very welcome move.

In Parliament, SNP Shadow Fisheries Minister Richard Lochhead and I have written to the Commissioner asking for an urgent meeting.

The fishing industry are regular visitors to Brussels. So we hope to have the opportunity to add our weight to their arguments.

Is it not ironic that the European Fisheries Commissioner is from Austria, a country with no coastline and no fishing industry.

Would things be as bad if we were EU members in our own right and could appoint our own Commissioner? Perhaps even the Fisheries Commissioner?

It is inconceivable that they would be worse – for sure.

Community Campaigning Wins Again

The very welcome news that there will be a substantial new investment in the Chalmers Hospital in Banff did not happen by accident.

It was just after my election in June 2001 that I was first approached on the subject. The suggestion was made that I lead a campaign to ‘Save Chalmers’.

I took another tack and suggested that community leadership which I would facilititate, advise and work with would work better. And I was delighted to attend and support many meetings and events organised by the campaign that was formed.

The Parliament’s Public Petitions Committee played its role and provided a platform for bringing our concerns to a wider audience.

The advantages of a campaign not aligned to any particular political party are obvious. It enables people of all views, and of none, to feel able to participate without ‘signing up’ to support a particular politician’s politics. And it taps into a new source of energy and imagination to fight the campaign.

After all when you represent the very many interests of some 80,000 people it is difficult to lead all the campaigns yourself.

But I think the biggest long term pay-off with the ‘Chalmers Hospital Campaign’, just as with the ‘Peterhead Prison Campaign’ which arose in the same way, is a demonstration that politics is relevent to people generally and that participation pays dividends.

Well done the ‘Chalmers Hospital’ campaigners!

Taxing Times

It seemed a welcome relief for businesses when Labour Finance Minister Andy Kerr promised in September that he intended to freeze business rates at the current levels. That suggested a saving, against inflation, of some £35 million in real terms.

So it was a very unwelcome surprise to my colleague, Shadow Finance Minister Alastair Morgan, when he read the detail in the Liberal-Labour Executive’s budget and saw a very different story.

It appears that Ministers expect the ‘take’ to rise from £1,570 million this year to £1,909 million in 2005-06. That is a very substantial rise of some 22%.

So unless the Executive knows something about growth in our economy that no professional economist has spotted, businesses will once again be picking up the tab for this government’s failures.

Fuming in Parliament

A well hidden Tory campaign, well at least a Tory leader McLetchie campaign, is for a smoking room in the new Parliament building. Apparently just like the fictional lawyer ‘Rumpole of the Bailey’, this Tory likes a ‘small cigar’ and the new building has no provision for smoking inside.

As a non-smoker, in ‘remission’ for 30 years that is, I welcome the absence of such a room. And the costs associated with one.

Is McLetchie’s campaign a sign that he wants to spend more on the Parliament building? We should be told!

25 October 2002

Fishing!

Many years ago I spent three intensive days honing my skills in ‘getting my own way’. Or perhaps more properly ‘getting my employer’s way’.

And I will let you into the two secrets I learnt on that negotiating course.

First, one should always phrase any offer one makes in negotiation as “if you will ‘x’, then I will ‘y’”. Always put what they must do first.

The second secret has the aide memoire ‘LIMit’. That is a list you prepare of what you want from a negotiation. The categories are ‘like’, ‘intend’ and ‘must’ and they are headings for what you want.

Oh and the third secret on this list of two?– don’t tell your opponents what your strategy is.

You now have a better understanding of how we should be approaching the European fishing negotiations than Ross Finnie, the Labour-Liberal Scottish Executive’s Fishing Minister.

Because it has been astonishing to watch the man who is supposed to be our industry’s champion give up even before the negotiations. A bit of the beligerence of the Danish fishing Minister, or the Spanish or the Irish, would do nicely.

So when I meet fishing industry leaders shortly, I expect to come away with a a simple message for Ross Finnie.

Our ‘LIMit’ does not include closure of the North Sea for white fishing.

Money, money, money

In the Scots Parliament we are as ‘online’ as it is possible to get. And a large number of people email us their thoughts.

In the stream of ‘advice’ that reaches me from all over the world, the way we spend Scotland’s money comes well up the list.

The cost of the Parliament’s new building has been in the spotlight again.

When a new office block for some of Westminster’s MPs cost over £600 million – and generated little comment – to some people at least, the £300 million or so for a whole Parliament might not seem like a lot.

But Donald Dewar promised us the building for £40 million. And signed the contract even before our MSPs were elected.

So it is a matter of regret that one group of 19 MSPs have steadfastly refused to nominate anyone to the group trying to sort out Donald’s mess. The Tories seem content, as they always seem to be, to criticise the idea of a Scottish Parliament without being prepared to work on the real problems associated with change.

My colleagues in the SNP and I would have located the new building on Edinburgh’s Calton Hill, used existing facilities and saved considerable time and money.

At the end of the day, we shall have a tangible asset for our money, and that’s something.

But as my recent investigations into the government’s advertising budget have shown, money can be spent for no visible benefit.

A Parliamentary question by me has led to the government publishing an analysis of their ‘foolsspeed’ campaign. This has going on for over three years, has cost a seven figure sum in advertising, and is designed to stop us speeding.

So you might expect the government to trumpet a reduction in speeding convictions. No! Their research tells us that attitudes have changed – to a limited extent.

And revealingly, the research tells us that campaigns which seek to change attitudes are rarely successful. So that’s another few million down the drain.

But what else could we do to stop speeding?

Well, with a typical speeding fine rather similar to the parking fine rate in Edinburgh, the Justice system is hardly sending out a message that speeding is a critical problem.

So why not just double the speeding fines? That wouldn’t cost millions and might even make some money.

The answer is that the Scottish Parliament does not have the power. The Road Traffic Act remains firmly in the hands of London and no matter how high a priority it might be for us, we have to wait for them to act – or choose not to.

Email Fraud

When you receive an email, do you know who it is from? Yes of course – because it says so in the ‘from’ field.

As MSP Fiona Hyslop has found out, not necessarily so.

The Internet allows anyone to send an email with anybody’s email address in the ‘from’ field.

And someone in Panama has been sending out marketing emails using Fiona’s email address.

How so? Well when we publish our email addresses on the Web it opens the door to this kind of abuse.

The price of openness.

16 October 2002

Spend, Spend, Spend

It was years ago that a pools winner coined the phrase ‘spend, spend, spend’ to describe what she did. And soon she was back were she started – with little or nothing.

The advertising budget of the Labour/Liberal-Democrat Executive might suggest that they’ve won the pools as well. In the three years since they were elected their spending has gone from £1.6 million a year to over £6 million.

So I have been asking whether we get value for money. Firstly they told me it would be too expensive to even consider giving out information about their many campaigns.

I tried again and invited them to choose any one of their campaigns and tell us about it. And on Friday they finally did.

The advertising they have given us information on was “Foolspeed”. It is targetted at getting us all to stop speeding on our roads.

Well with our twisty, single carriageway roads carrying a large volume of mixed traffic – slow farm vehicles, large lorries, faster moving cars – our accident record certainly suggests that this is a campaign that we should support.

But do expensive TV adverts actually make a difference?

The evidence suggest perhaps not. It seems that even the evaluators did not think that this kind of advertising was effective. Less than a third of people asked could recall the adverts.

And this from the Scottish Executive who have now spent themselves into being the biggest advertiser in Scotland.

Ministers have been chanting ‘spend, spend, spend’ with our money for rather too long methinks.

Fifty Not Out

At the end of this week it will be 500 days since I was elected to Parliament. And last week saw me speak in my fiftieth debate. It was time a for wider look at the work of the Parliament.

One of the mistaken impressions left with electors is that we all sit in Edinburgh voting as our whips tells us. And that could suggest that we are not allowed to think through the consequences of our actions.

I have been looking at some of the statistics and a very different picture emerges.

In the Justice Committee of which I am one of seven members, we have been undertaking detailed consideration of the Land Reform Bill.

Over the last eight parliamentary committee days of debate, we have had sixty votes on proposed amendments to the Bill. A fair number are withdrawn after the government made a commitment to bring forward further changes.

With their access to lawyers to assist with drafting sometimes complex law, that’s fair enough.

I have tabled nearly fifty amendments so far but we’ve voted only a minority of them.

It seems that on 13 our of sixty votes, the three Labour members voted in different ways. And my SNP colleague and I diverged on 7 occasions.

So if my 500 days since joining the Parliament have shown me anything, it is that we are there to think, not just to “do as we are told”.

9 October 2002

Torture

It is a very odd life being a Member of Parliament. I find there is little time to watch TV for example. So I miss seeing people humiliated on Anne Robinson’s “The Weakest Link”.

I am pretty uncertain of the enduring fascination there is for this program which in a relatively short period has become a cult. Some of its editions even seem to border on self-parody.

That esteemed publication “Private Eye”, which every serious politician buys each week, even has a special column in each edition featuring the more inept answers given by contestants.

It is bought I may add not so much to inform MSPs, MPs and the like, as out of fear. The fear that one may find oneself featured and the need to act at once if one is.

I carry my solicitor’s telephone number everywhere with me.

But politicians’ interest in “The Weakest Link” is not so limited by a lack of opportunity to view it as to deny them an understanding of the program’s purpose.

It is there to make fun of 8 people randomly selected from a group of nine. I say randomly selected because it is not enough to be a smart cookie able to answer the questions. Indeed that may see one summarily ejected by other competitors as representing an all too significant threat to their own more limited knowledge and intellect.

When the producers contacted me – well I think they tried everyone! - a few months ago with an invitation to appear on a special edition of “The Weakest Link” it was fairly easy to say no. Politicians are not quite as daft as some people think.

So when I heard that Andrea, a teacher from St.Combs, was on the program recently, my admiration for her courage was considerable. And she did well enough to survive to about the fifth round. Congratulations!

But I wondered if the real lesson was about today’s teachers.

We know that teaching is one of today’s tougher jobs. Is the tumult and stress of the classroom now so great that it is relaxing to appear instead on the “Weakest Link”?

Dutch Treats

Although it has been a few years since I last visited Amsterdam, it remains one of my favourite destinations for a short break.

The Dutch are quite like the Scots in their ‘matter of fact’ approach to life and their practical responses to the challenges they meet. And looking at Dutch as a language one often feels an affinity. For example what Scot could mis-understand ‘ingang’ and ‘uitgang’ written on bus doors?

The efficiency of their transport system is relaxing and could not be in greater contrast to the often-stressful journeys we often undertake at home. An efficient, and very busy, Schiphol Airport connects directly to fast intercity, even international, trains.

I recall on occasion leaving the office in Scotland at 5 p.m. and in just over three hours – one plane, two trains later – sitting down to dinner with business colleagues in Utrecht. I can’t get from the same office at 5 p.m. in Edinburgh to home in Banff & Buchan by public transport any earlier than 11.15 p.m. and that is only two trains and no flight.

So it is illuminating to contrast the Dutch Government’s response to the need to support its ports with our Scottish Government’s caution about supporting Peterhead harbour.

Lloyds List, an essential daily read for many people but not generally for me, reported some time ago that ports in Zeeland, at Groningen, Harlinggen and Den Helder in the Netherlands would get about £11 million in state aid for developments that would protect their competitive position.

And the parallel with our own situation at Peterhead Bay is quite clear.

For Den Helder in particular the investment is directly related to the need to allow the port to diversify away from dependence on offshore activity.

Just like Peterhead.

ASCO and the base has been good for the area – and good for workers with one the industry’s best safety records - since it started operations nearly 30 years ago but we have always known that it would not last for ever.

So we have a choice. Prepare now for new business opportunities. Or wait until a disastrous downturn in activity and try to firefight.

The Dutch have shown the way.

We quite rightly saw about £9 million of public money spent at Rosyth to enable the new Zeebrugge ferry service to start. That was 90% of the total need.

At Peterhead we only need 30% of the funding to come from a grant and the benefit in jobs is probably much larger.

The Dutch government and Rosyth show what can be done. All we need now is our ministers to act in a pro-active way to support us too.

2 October 2002

Cairngorm

Scotland is at last getting National Parks. One, the first, is around Loch Lomond. The second is on our doorstep and includes the high hills in Cairngorm National Park.

The Rural Development Committee, which I am on, will be meeting on 11th October in Kingussie so that local opinion can express its views on the proposed boundaries.

And as a ‘warm-up’ to that we grilled Deputy Minister Allan Wilson in Edinburgh this week.

I suspect that we will hear a great deal more sense in Kingussie than Edinburgh. No change there you might say.

But there is real debate about Laggan – which wants in and isn’t, and about planning powers for the park.

The government want to leave planning with local authorities, and I broadly agree, but some argue that this would deny the Park ‘world heritage’ funds that would help protect and develop the natural beauty of the area.

So the debate needs clarification.

Local Government

Despite what many might think, we are the most under-represented people in Europe. We actually have fewer elected politicians per head of population than any other country.

For each 100,000 population we have about 33 people elected to represent us. England has over 40 and Greece about 650!

So the a Bill on councils could help. But if it doesn’t make it easier for a wider range of people to stand for election, if it doesn’t help share the load a little wider, it probably won’t.

I shall be watching the Parliamentary debate with interest.

Leaves on the Line

I may be treading in the footsteps of royalty this week. Like Prince Charles, I have become a friend of a tree.

When I am down at Parliament each week, where I stay has an elderly sycamore in one corner of the garden. And it is right next the Glasgow – Edinburgh railway line.

It transpires that when the railway opened in about 1840 it had only been possible because a part of the garden had been taken to build it. And thus the sycamore is very near the railway. But it does not overhang it.

The problem, as Railtrack see it anyway, is that the railway curves gently round the tree. So gently that the speed limit is 90 mph.

Foolishly when electric signals replaced the old semphore ones of my childhood, they put the new signal ‘round the bend. And when the sycamore is in full flower, the densely packed leaves limit the ability of drivers to see past the tree and see the signal.

So they think the tree should be cut down.

The alternative suggestion that since the tree was there first, Railtrack should move the railway – or the signal, has not been greeted with approval.

The tree is a local landmark and we are going to win this one. So it looks like a compromise will see a few low-hanging branches lopped off.

So we will be doing our bit to remove the excuse of ‘leaves on the line’.

25 September 2002

Village Law

Every change – in business, in technology, in life – brings some new words into general use. I doubt that ‘Unicameral’ will ever grace the front page of every newspaper but it is a word much more used than in days of yore.

And its meaning? It describes the system of government provided by the Scottish Parliament. It means that we have one chamber of parliament.

At Westminster, the House of Lords revises legislation passed by the Commons. It is a ‘second house’.

In the USA they have a House of Representatives and a Senate. A system of checks and balances.

But in Scotland we review and revise proposals for changes to our law with our committee system.

And sometimes that is an onerous task for a small number of people.

The Justice 2 Committee, of which I am one of seven members, is ploughing its way through the government’s Land Reform Bill. It puts into law our right to access the countryside and creates a legal framework for community and crofting ‘buy-outs’ of land.

And to date it seems to have attracted the largest number of amendments of any Bill before Parliament so far.

So when we started our debate four business days ago it was on a schedule that said we would reach clause 12 on day 1. Well when we finished day four we had only completed four pages of a sixty-nine page Bill.

Time for desperate measures.

Have you heard of the clock being stopped at five to midnight at important international conferences? That way they can reach agreement before a deadline expires.

We have adopted a similar tactic. Day 6 of our debate took place over the 24th and 25th September and day 7 will cover two days the following week.

But even so the flood of suggested amendments continues.

Friday is my ‘surgery day’. I am scurrying from town to town across the North-East. And my mobile phone rings.

I have been talking to Aberdeenshire Council officials about the ‘local authority’ part of the Bill. And I have put forward a number of their suggested amendments.

But COSLA, the association representing most of Scotland’s councils, is running late with its list of changes. And hasn’t yet found an MSP to put them forward.

So, strange but true, they have asked the Ramblers Association if they can help. And it’s from them that my phone call has come.

Sure, I will submit the changes in my name if I can get to a ‘landline’ telephone and connect my portable computer to the parliament’s system.

If you saw me risking indigestion as I rapidly gulped down my egg, bacon, sausage and chips in the “Four C’s” café in New Pitsligo last Friday, this was why.

The email with the suggested changes reached me at 1 p.m. and the deadline for submission to the parliamentary clerks was one hour later. And checking and understanding twenty-one amendments to a complex piece of law is not that easy.

Unless I had told it here, I don’t think many people would have realised the key role the community café in Pitsligo will have played in framing an important change to our country’s laws.

A Parliament for all of Scotland indeed!

The Sporting Life

Plans for Fraserburgh and Banff to have better community facilities are being strongly promoted by members of these communities. And I support both.

After a false start for Banff, the Princess Royal seems to getting the attention and support that their complex project deserves.

And I enjoyed the Vale vs. Buckie match. Especially as my father used to tell me of his times playing in the Highland League for – whisper it – Ross County. My loyalties will be sorely tested again this year if Fraserburgh and Vale are once again competing at the top – and I hope they will be.

But is it not a paradox that in an area dominated by proximity to the sea, not all our secondary schools have access to swimming pools.

I hope that we can find a way to ensure that ‘access for all’, a recurring theme in the government’s policies, actually includes the North-East.

But with a drop in Lottery receipts, and it is payouts from there that have become core to so much of our leisure life, we may have to work even harder to catch up with the rest of Scotland and get our share.

13 September 2002

Criminal Justice

As a member of the Scottish Parliament’s Justice 2 Committee much of my time over the past few months has been taken up helping take evidence on the government’s Criminal Justice Bill.

So it has been particularly disappointing that the conclusions of our Committee were leaked before our report was published and in a way that distorted what we had decided.

There has already been a considerable public debate about the proposals to ban the smacking of children albeit that few people commenting seem to have actually read the Bill’s proposals.

So now we have headlines that our Committee has decided that the government’s smacking ban should be rejected. Yes but.

The reality is that all members agreed that striking a child on the head or with an implement – a spoon, a belt or whatever – must stop. Some thought the law already banned that, the majority like me thought we should make it clear in law that Scottish society won’t tolerate it.

And smacking was not something we were keen on. But none of us wanted parents to become criminals for lightly tapping a child when no other punishment was available.

The trouble with the government’s proposals was that they wanted to make it illegal to smack a young child. But then also to persuade us that Procurators Fiscal would not prosecute.

Minister Jim Wallace was trying to promise something he couldn’t deliver. Because he does not control the Fiscals.

So we actually recommended more support and education for parents. Especially for those – the majority? – who are finding their children more of a handful than they expected.

Who said parenting was easy!

Emergencies

There are many groups across Scotland organising meetings, setting up conferences, having debates. And on a wide range of subjects.

It may be curious to some, but many feel that it adds credibility and spice to invite along a politician or two.

It was my turn. And the topic? - "How Politicians Relate to Emergency Situations" with the meeting set up by Scotland’s Emergency Planning Officers. An all too topical subject for the week.

My initial conclusion was that it wasn’t a hot topic for Parliament.

An exploration of the Parliamentary Questions database revealed that only 13 questions on the subject had been asked on the subject in over 3 years. That out of a total of 29,563 questions answered. Mine was on arrangements for detecting anthrax in letters to Parliament – and the answer told me little.

But one was particularly revealing. It showed that our government only allocated £3.5 million a year to local councils for this subject. Just about enough for each to employ a couple of people in a back room.

And yet the cost of our most recent emergency – foot & mouth disease – cost several hundred times as much. So it seems clear that the money may be here to clear up afterwards but not to plan for or prevent them happening.

For the Emergency Planning Officers the ultimate paradox is that if they talk up the risks, they are scare mongering. And if they do not, they are denied the funds they need.

11 September 2002

Anniversaries

In any given week there will be anniversaries of importance to someone.

It was my wife’s birthday on the 9th and a distinct coolness on that day was explained when she reminded me of that fact on the 10th. My staff have helpfully promised to save me next year!

Five years ago Scotland voted overwhelmingly for the establishment of a Scottish Parliament.

And 29 years ago a Chilean dictatorship committed mass murder against its citizens.

But dominating the newspapers and TV was remembrance of the events of 11th September when nationals of some 70 countries died in the attacks on the USA of that date in 2001.

And it was right that our Parliament debate the close relationship we have with our friends across the Atlantic on the 11th.

The hunt for the terrorists has claimed a similar, some say greater than on “9-11”, number of lives in Afghanistan. Action in Iraq may claim more. And there are some pacifists in most parties in Parliament for whom war is anathema.

I am not one of those. What I hope is that when Westminster assembles on the 24th that we hear evidence of a character that removes ambiguity and maps a way forward. Be it for peaceful ways of dealing with dictators or otherwise.

Healthy Options

My sister-in-law is a very healthy lady who will reach retirement age this week. And she prompted me to ask our Health Minister how many nurses will retire over the next ten years.

The answer was worrying.

While the average age of our population continues to rise, we will also see retirements from nursing more than double within five years.

Just like recruitment of dentists and general practitioners, the supply of new people coming forward for nursing training just ain’t enough.

And the incentives for encouraging trained nurses back, perhaps after raising a family, are limited.

Perhaps this might be some of the explanation for why just spending more on the health service is yet to deliver the real improvements we cry out for.

The recent debate which saved Peterhead Prison highlighted that it was people that deliver excellent service, not buildings.

Health and the public services generally do need extra money – but they need more people even more. And that must mean more more for these people.

Summer at Last?

As I write here in Parliament, I have every available window open. For someone like myself who worked for 20 years in a windowless computer centre, this is almost unimaginable luxury.

In winter, we only used to see the sun at weekends. It was dark in the morning and black at night. We only knew that the snow could make our journey home a difficult one, when someone phoned us or when we left.

But the reason for the open windows is not self-indulgence. Summer has arrived and it is too hot!

And the Parliamentary business reaching my plate today would seem to confirm that. For I have to consider “The Common Agricultural Policy (Wine) (Scotland) Regulations 2002”.

Now I admit to the occasional quaff of Cairn O’Mhor’s excellent wines from Perthshire – the ‘dry oak leaf’ springs to mind at once - and a glass or two of wine produced north of Inverness.

However I can’t recall any locally grown grapes being converted to wine. But that’s what the regulation is about. So maybe the government has discovered the secret of political success – an ability to control the weather?

For a single day perhaps. But certainly no more.

Emergencies

There are many groups across Scotland organising meetings, setting up conferences, having debates. And on a wide range of subjects.

It may be curious to some, but many feel that it adds credibility and spice to invite along a politician or two.

It was my turn. And the topic? - "How Politicians Relate to Emergency Situations" with the meeting set up by Scotland’s Emergency Planning Officers. An all too topical subject for the week.

My initial conclusion was that it wasn’t a hot topic for Parliament.

An exploration of the Parliamentary Questions database revealed that only 13 questions on the subject had been asked on the subject in over 3 years. That out of a total of 29,563 questions answered. Mine was on arrangements for detecting anthrax in letters to Parliament – and it told me little.

One answer was particularly revealing. It showed that our government only allocated £3.5 million a year to local councils for this subject. Just about enough for each to employ a couple of people in a back room.

And yet the cost of our most recent emergency – foot & mouth disease – cost several hundred times as much. So it seems clear that the money is there to clear up afterwards but not to plan for or prevent them happening.

4 September 2002

Bingo!

Parliament is back and we have plunged straight into a wave of different issues.

Lib-Dem Water Minister Ross Finnie has just to appologise for misleading Parliament during a debate on the recent water crisis. Trihalomethanes, Cryptosporidium and immuno-compromise are terms that are on the lips of MSPs. Well perhaps not quite. But at least we recognise them and the public risks associated with them.

My colleague Richard Lochhead revealed that the recent water crisis in Glasgow and Edinburgh was not the whole picture. A problem in the Aberdeen area early this year affected a large number of people. And the source was not discovered for a couple of months!

But nae word in the so-called national media published in the Central belt of Scotland. So nae change there.

Parliament’s Justice Committee is working its way through the Land Reform Bill – slowly! And our consideration of the Criminal Justice Bill grinds on.

It seems increasingly likely that Scottish politicians will feel it is time to end the use of implements to punish children. And banning the hitting of children about the head is widely supported.

But proposals for totally banning ‘smacking’ seem bogged down. The inconsistencies in Jim Wallace’s proposals make it seem unlikely that they can proceed in their present form.

Much of the legislation in our Parliament is so-called secondary legislation. Many of our Acts of Parliament provide for Ministers ‘laying orders’ which vary the terms of legislation.

And in my first two days back I have been involved in the consideration of seven of these SSIs – Scottish Statutory Instruments.

Usually these pass without much comment. Not so in Justice Committee this week.

As a matter of policy this Lib-Lab Government has decided that all users of the court system should fully pay their way. One consequence of this is a raising of court fees.

Fair enough one might say. Indeed for those unable to afford legal fees there is always legal aid. Or is there?

In fact it is rare to get aid for civil cases. And the type most exercising our Committee involved people suing their employers for injury at work.

The Committee has long been on the side of asbestosis victims and it is precisely these far from rich members of the public on whom increased costs would bear. So we had a lively discussion. And a promise to look further from the Minister.

The other SSI debate was on bingo hall fees. The government wants to raise them by nearly a third.

Medical research indicates that playing bingo is good for the health of older people. Tracking three or four sheets is fine mental exercise. And for many of the widowed, a night out the bingo is the highlight of their social life.

So bingo could be saving our health service a lot of money. But at the end it was 2 SNP votes in Committee to keep fees the same and 5 Liberal, Labour and Tory ones to raise them.

29 August 2002

Time To Be Free

One of the great powers of any executive is to delay. It is quite the most effective way in which opposition can be ground down. It demonstrates who is in control.

But a key thing about the Peterhead Prison Campaign has been its breadth and depth. By involving the wider community, and in particular the officers’ partners, it has had the strength to share the burden and hold the line.

Nevertheless, we have fingers crossed that Thursday coming will be last time that campaigners have to make the long trek down our inadequate roads for a 9.30 a.m. ‘date with destiny’ in our Parliament in Edinburgh.

For at that time Lib Dem Executive Minister Jim Wallace will rise to his feet to make an announcement on his government’s response to the Prison Estates Review.

When First Minister Jack McConnell came to power last year he promised an open and on the record way of press briefing. And with the publication on the Executive internet web site of the daily, sometimes twice daily, dialogue between press and First Minister’s Official Spokesperson, it seemed that he had delivered.

So it was disappointing to see him revert to type with an off the record, and unattributable, briefing of two selected papers two weeks ago. The substance seemed exciting – ‘Peterhead Prison Saved!’. But the press’s opportunity to question and dig into the substance of what was being said – absent.

The Executive are now on a warning that for ‘Peterhead Prison Saved!’ to actually mean anything, we need the money to replace our 114 year-old house blocks.

Anything less – say a very modest refurbishment of the existing accomodation – could merely be a reprieve and a recipe for further closure plans in a few years.

So be careful Jim, the campaigners are still on the case and will not hesitate to harry and hound you if you hold back from whole-hearted support for our prison. And that means the promise of a long term future.

Getting Our Teeth Into Parliament

In a Parliament of 129 members, the opportunity for each of us to put forward a topic for debate comes up reasonably often. And the subjects can be quite wide ranging.

Our first week back sees Margaret Ewing promote the need for NHS Grampian to improve provision of Health Service dentists in her constituency of Moray. And it is a very welcome return for Margaret who has been on sick leave recovering after an operation for breast cancer. It was diagnosed after she visited a screening unit as part of her constituency work.

Her speedy recovery to health is a reminder of the important role of regular health checks and is a tribute to Health Service staff.

On dentistry, Margaret will be making the point that her constituents have currently to travel to Aberdeen if they wish to register with a dentist. Not a reasonable prospect in summer. Wholly unreasonable in winter.

But it is not just Moray. I intend to put our case too. For it is all but impossible for people moving into the North-East to find an NHS dentist.

We have about half the number of dentists per head of population that Edinburgh has. And a quarter of the number in Manchester.

If one ever needed an illustration of ‘Catch 22’, dental care here provides it.

A dentist moving here has to work twice as hard as one in Edinburgh. So where will they go? – Edinburgh. And for those here already, the pressure of patient numbers in NHS dentistry is so great that increasing numbers of dentists are going private. To ‘get a life’, to spend more time with individual patients and to earn a decent living.

And for North-East people, an inadequate dental service is more than personal inconvenience. It could become a disincentive for companies looking to invest here.

So well done Margaret for giving us the opportunity to debate this.

All Fired Up

Our other member’s debate this week will be on the Fire Service. Not on their pay. Although I support firefighters in their efforts to restore decent wages after years of sliding down the relativity scales.

No it is a public safety issue.

Mindless thugs have been attacking firefighters when they are attending ‘shouts’. This is a particular problem in the West of Scotland but it is important that we debate how to ‘nip this in the bud’ before it becomes an epidemic spreading across the country.

And of course it has been other members of the emergency services such as police and paramedics who have been sharing the weight of this problem.

With Parliament debating water – ‘hot water’ for the Scottish Government? – and Fuel Poverty, as well as the usual sessions of Question Time, it will be a busy week back after summer.

21 August 2002

Back to …

Summer is over and as I left home for my day’s appointments earlier this week, I was treated to an eager procession of mums and youngsters on their way to Whitehills School. Even a three year-old was tagging on with her older sister. Strangely I saw no dads taking their share of the responsibility.

I remember my first day, not in August but in February. The snow was stacked up on the pavements. But the excitement was just the same and my memory still carries the experience 50 years later. And it was my dad who took me to school not mum.

For some unlucky pupils in West Lothian this week it was ‘no go’. Their PFI schools weren’t ready.

In Banff, the new primary school is very welcome, even if we will still be paying for it on the ‘never never’ when today’s five year-olds are married with their own youngsters.

But there are worrying suggestions that organisations are finding it more difficult to make bookings in the school. After all, under PFI, it is owned by a commercial company.

In England they obviously have a different climate – we have all seen their rain on TV have we not? And they are just getting accustomed to their holidays.

Londoners have dispersed to a’ the airts. Radio 4 comedy production teams are busily recording ‘Just a Minute’, ‘Dead Ringers’ and so on before Edinburgh audiences.

But there are traps for the unwary. Apparently a comedy skit based on a Barclays Bank advert fell very flat. We don’t see that ad and they didn’t realise it.

It is not just Radio 4 comedy on the road. On Monday a ‘World at One’ reporter was in Peterhead doing a piece on the Prison Campaign. And ‘The Economist’ has an article waiting for the announcement.

So given the fact that even the London media are tuning in to Peterhead Prison, it was astonishing that when Liberal-Democrat Justice Minister visited Aberdeen this week, he couldn’t tell us anything at all about the timetable for a decision.

It is beginning to be like getting on an NHS dentist’s list in Grampian. A lot of pain, a lengthy wait for relief, no solution in sight. Even our 16 year-old cats had their teeth sorted quickly last week, albeit expensively, in a few days from diagnosis.

But it is beginning to feel like pulling teeth getting action on prisons. Two and half years since the uncertainty started.

Our Prisons Minister had better get himself better briefed pretty quickly. Parliament will be back shortly and it doesn’t take much insight to know that the report on prisons published some six weeks ago by our justice committee will be the ‘talk of the steamie’.

Ministers who can’t get a grip of their civil servants are unlikely to be Ministers for long.

14 August 2002

It pays to advertise?

One of the key jobs of an opposition Member of Parliament is to ask questions. To test the resolve and preparedness of Ministers for the future. To identify incompetance wherever it exists.

And on those, hopefully few, occasions when it occurs, to uncover unethical behaviour on the part of governments.

So when I received a letter from the Enterprise Minister in the Scottish Parliament enclosing a poshly printed card extolling her ‘success’ in something or other, I had wondered why she had produced it and how much it cost to do so.

It didn’t take to establish ‘why’. She was speaking at a conference and needed a hand-out. Fair enough then?

Not when my Parliamentary Question revealed that it had cost £8,960! And the leaflet actually contained fewer words on its subject of “Scotland’s Economic Future” than this article.

But then perhaps the Scottish Executive only had a few hundred words to say on the subject. Perhaps that why Scottish unemployment has risen again this month when elsewhere in the UK it continues to fall.

Our economy continues to grow more slowly, even shrink, while the UK grows. Shortage of ideas, shortage of boldness and meaningless leaflets instead of meaningful action.

But at least in the North-East we see people taking things into their own hands.

This week’s purchase of Fisher Foods by interests locally based gives us a fighting chance of avoiding the risks of decisions being made by distant head offices. Think of Simmers – thankfully now moving into local ownership. Think of our prison – local campaigners have impressed people across Scotland. And now Fishers ‘going local’. All very welcome.

But the Enterprise Minister’s little leaflet had created a mental itch that I just had to scratch.

Just how much were the Liberal-Labour Executive actually spending on useless advertising?

And no sooner than had I tabled a question on the subject than our local TV weather forecasts are being sponsored by the NHS. Grrrrrr!

Not that I grudge Grampian a wee bit advertising revenue. And I am an avid watcher of weather and find the recently introduced ‘fly through’ forecast which relies on computer graphics, particularly fascinating.

But do we need more customers for the NHS? And will we get them through TV advertising?

So what answer did I get this week on advertsing? A fourfold increase in Executive advertising since they came to power in 1999. Last year they spent £6.6 million of our pounds and could have been on target to spend about £7.5 million this year but for my question.

Apparently they have spent £3.5 million on road safety advertising over the last three years. Hands up anyone who opposes ‘road safety’. Thought so – none of us.

But how many accidents have been avoided by spending this £3.5 million on advertising? I don’t know and the waffle which came with the answer wasn’t reassuring either.

The real story wasn’t the numbers. It wasn’t the waffle.

As soon as my answer was delivered to me, the First Minister announced that he was ‘taking control’. The Finance Minister would review existing plans and spending would fall by a quarter.

Does that sound like there was a good reason for spending all that money on advertising?

No! You have been found out again guys and gals. In the Scottish Parliament, opposition backbenchers like me CAN change government policy. What about Peterhead Prison next week please?

Leisure Pursuits

Even during the Parliament’s summer recess, I have to drop into to Edinburgh from time to time. I had forgotten that it is festival time.

That meant that I had to press my way in past a crowd outside watching a fire-eater’s free show. And then by a group of tumblers tempting serious injury on the cobbled pavement outside the High Court.

Even more adventurous, in my view, were the performers sitting on the ‘Heart of Midlothian’. This is a design on the pavement indicating where the town gallows used to be. And the Edinburgh citizens take it as a matter of pride to spit on it as they pass. Urgh!

But all the commotion reminded me that we benefit from ‘time off’. Not just once a year, but a regular period of relaxation.

Watching TV is probably what most do most often. Smoking still engages large numbers in our society although a new report this week shows that even three ciggies a day doubles health risks.

But our pleasures are addictive and cost money.

Lots of pursuits – like my hobby of flying – are regarded as expensive. But in fact I spend the eqivalent of 14 cigarettes a day on my hobby. But the cost of constant work would be higher.

So I will try to enjoy Edinburgh for a couple of days. Especially if it is free!

7 August 2002

Many Happy Returns

Today is a first for me. I am sitting out in the back yard tapping away on my portable computer. And it is the third fine day in a row.

But much more important, I am one of a very large crowd of North-East folk who topped up their tan at the Turra show on the two previous days. A very happy return indeed after last year’s cancellation.

And I actually met a few farmers who told me that things are looking up.

But we still have an overhang from foot and mouth even here where it came no nearer than a four hour drive away. Stockmen have to suffer a 20-day quarantine after their beasts have moved. And provide special areas isolated from their other fields in which to hold these animals.

My colleague Richard Lochhead and I previously pressed the Minister in Parliament for a science-based reason why it should be 20 days. But answer came there none.

And then a chink of light had appeared. The Rural Affairs Department were to review this restriction. But lo and behold they wouldn’t hold their meeting until the English DEFRA people had taken their decision.

The people we hoped were ‘our folk’ in the civil service then meekly followed the decision that their southern colleagues had taken the day before. So no change and frustration all round.

With Liberal minister Ross Finnie sorting his mess with Glasgow’s water supply I suppose it was too much to hope that he would see our farmers as his priority.

Visitors

My travelling surgeries are well under way again this year. While the high profile part of an MSP’s job might be the press releases on high profile issues and the speeches in Parliament, I am in little doubt that the real job satisfaction comes from helping individual constituents.

And you really hear people’s concerns as you go around.

I am sure a village I visited during my tour won’t be alone in continuing to pay the price for closed toilets. I was told that in a single day, four visitors’ cars were seen to draw up to the local facilities. And four sets of visitors disappeared round the back when they found the door locked.

At the height of our holiday season not exactly the welcome we should offer. And not very savoury for the locals either.

But the real price is more difficult to measure. How many have diverted to Moray or Aberdeen for their day trip. Last year a number of old folks’ bus trips certainly did so. And reports suggest this year is the same.

The long term costs will far exceed the small savings made from the closures. One shopkeeper tells me of a dramatic fall in customers while others give more mixed messages.

Some villages have found local volunteers to staff the toilets. Well done!

But when they find our closed toilets how many of this year’s visitors will give us a 2003 ‘happy return’?

31 July 2002

Stress?

What does 118/60 mean to you? Not much? But it is a clear sign of the benefits of our week away.

I have just had my annual medical and my blood pressure is satisfactorily below par for a 55-year-old. So maybe six days in Shetland were the cause.

Apparently the people of Out Skerries have had to have water brought out to them as they are suffering a drought. Well the Shetland Mainland seemed to suffer no such problem last week!

Our first couple of days were dreich but when the sun appeared on the Wednesday it was uncomfortably hot. And then it was wet again. No pleasing some folk!

As it happened our visit coincided with the retiral of one of the pilots at Sullom Voe. And he is an old pal. When the phone rang it was with an invitation from him to visit the oil terminal while he was still there.

Our afternoon there was fascinating. The control room is awash with technology and the challenge for pilots who conduct large oil tankers through the ‘voe’ was clear.

But George Sutherland, the General Manager, was able to tell us that after 25 years of operation the latest environmental assessment shows zero impact from their intensive activities.

By contrast the roads, schools and community centres across Shetland show clearly the benefits of oil. And much of it is down the far-sightedness of one man – Iain Clark.

Clark had been the Council’s Chief Executive when oil first looked like coming to the area all these years ago. He ‘cut a deal’ that delivered a flow of cash over the years for the Council and for the people of Shetland.

So when a tanker departs after loading oil from the Council owned and operated terminal, it is local people who benefit.

If only we had had people looking after the rest of Scotland’s interests in the same way. It shows what one can do when you take charge of your own affairs.

On my pal Iain Barclay’s last day, what did he do? He took out the ‘Golden Victory’ from its berth to the open sea. Four hours’ work and definitely a job for a mature pilot to manage. A third of a million tonnes manuevering in a tight space.

In fact one of the world’s 12 largest ships outbound with Scottish oil to, of all unlikely destinations, the USA! And another £120,000 berthing fee for the locals in Shetland.

Fish

My wife Sandra was brought up on a steady diet of fish. Her mother used to have an occasional fish or two heaved at her when a trawler passed by on Loch Ness.

And when she lived in Burghead my mother-in-law was part of a fishing community and family. To this day Auntie’s ‘Herring Box’ sits on the dressing table with bits and pieces in it.

It is no surprise that fishing has been an important local industry for Shetland as there is isn’t much prime farm land and the sea seems to be in sight from everywhere you are.

An invitation to the North Atlantic Fisheries College in Scalloway was a real treat.

The student canteen is open to the public – by appointment. And it is so popular that demand often exceeds the space available. But we were lucky and went there with our pals.

My huge lemon sole was just one of 8 fish dishes on the menu with only one ‘veggie’ and one ‘meat’ alternative for those eccentrics not attracted to seafood. And it was good, very good indeed!

And after lunch we were shown one vision of the future for fish. They are providing stock for cod and halibut fish farming.

The brood cod we saw were mean and large. Much larger than most I see on my visits to the market. But the staff don’t see cod farming displacing hunting for wild stock for many years if ever.

They see farming as a way of filling in the gaps in supply and so if we manage it right, it could be an ally in delivering the constant supply of fish that supermarkets demand.

Halibut present a significant economic challenge for the fish farmers. Because they live at the bottom of the tank rather than swimming at all levels, it takes a lot of tanks for a halibut farm.

And they grow slowly.

But the College confirmed my concerns on one aspect of fish farming. The food for farmed fish is made very largely from the catches of ‘industrial fisheries’. We need to catch some five tons of fish to grown one ton of farmed fish.

And so fish farmings’ real effect on the ecology of the sea is probably negative. So hunting for wild fish will be with us for a while yet.

10 July 2002

Insect Life

As anyone who holidays in west coast Scotland will know, the one thing that can spoil one’s day is – midges.

So it was with interest that I saw a TV item about insects as human food. Now I must admit to chewing the odd insect.

When I bit down on a wasp that had flown into my mouth, accidently I must say, it got its revenge by biting the in side of my cheek. Not fun! And other Scottish insects have made their way in from time to time.

In our travels around the world over our 33 years married, Sandra and I have encountered many foods new to us. We first tasted frogs legs in a Chinese Restaurant’s Annex in Unjang Pandang. That is in Sulawesi in Indonesia.

Annex is actually a bit of an exaggeration. We sat at a long table under the stairs in a part-built office block opposite the restaurant. I think they’d done a deal with the night-watchman for extra space. They needed it. Their food was excellent!

And on trips to the Middle East and in Africa, I have been variously offered ants in chocolate, bumble bee in honey and stir-fried locust.

But it is a Thai entrepreneur who has started a chain of cooked insect stalls. And he plans to bring them to the West. I wish him well.

If we could only harvest Scotland’s midges we would be world-beaters.

Our family used to caravan at a rather ‘midgie’ Achmelvich, near Lochinver in West Sutherland. It was a wonderful place for kids. And for some reason it attracted lots of medics like my GP father.

Dr David Hendry was a favourite. It seems that he had been a tunneller in a PoW camp in the last war. And he helped us build a network of tunnels in the sand dunes. Each year under his expert supervision we opened our previous efforts and extended them.

So I took happy memories with me when I sadly joined his family at his funeral last week.

Another doctor had not been so ‘lucky’. As a Jew he had been in a Nazi concentration camp.

Even on holiday, memories haunted him. He had to have a slice of bread constantly at his bedside so that if he woke in the night he would know that he was free. Free of Hitler, but never free of his memories.

I was criticised by a daily paper for my ‘P45 Stunt’ to focus attention on the failings of the Head of the Scottish Prison Service. In a free society they can make their comment.

When Parliament is not in session, we have to find other ways of getting messages across. Sometimes we match the mood, sometimes not.

But the use of Hitler by anti-Euro campaigners in the last few days to demonise our friends across the English Channel made me cringe. I don’t think that was just a matter of taste. I thought of that doctor and his bread.

26 June 2002

Young Voters

We have had some good news in Hatton this week. The Simmers’ biscuit factory which has been operated by United Biscuits for some years is to be closed in late summer.

But after a lot of hard work, a new owner has been found, So in September, Paul Allan and his team will taking over and preserving an important employer in one of our small villages.

Not initially with as many jobs as before but young Paul is an energetic entrepreneur with a proven track record. So it is ‘watch this space’ time.

And with all the flurry of press camera men and women, and a TV crew from Grampian, the formal announcement attracted the attention of passers-by.

A school mini-bus stopped to refuel at the Simmers shop and I soon found myself in conversation with youngsters who had escaped from a stuffy class-room for the afternoon.

“You’re our MSP aren’t you?”. “Yes I’m Stewart”. “So what’s going on here then Stewart?”.

Questions, questions; the bane of parents lives but necessary to learn and grow.

And it shows the potential of youth. Paul Allan is just 28 but will carry responsibility for many workers futures. And these school kids will be all our tomorrows.

So would they be more inclined to vote than their increasingly apathetic parents if we gave them the chance?

I believe so and support moves to reduce voting age to 16.

And there is currently a consultation under way on the subject. All our 14 to 25-year-olds are invited to contribute of the next few weeks. Not by the ‘stuffy’ old way of writing in, but by ‘txt msg’.

To take part in the Scottish Youth Parliament’s campaign ‘Vote4IT’, all you need to do is call 0870 747 1425 and register your name and mobile telephone number.

Later you will receive a message on your phone about what next. So you don’t even need to leave your seat to take part. If only all elections were that simple.

But maybe they will be. And there’s also an online petition at www.vote16.co.uk

We have a couple of council by-elections in Banff & Buchan over the next few months. And the Electoral Commission is encouraging the Council to try some new technicques to encourage voters to put their wee crossie on the paper.

Some think voting in supermarkets is the answer. I am far from sure and I don’t want our excellent local shops further undermined by the distant power of big chains who just see us as consumers rather than known and valued customers.

An all postal ballot was tried with some success in Stirling recently. For some of our more rural areas that sounds a pretty good one for us to consider.

And there are machines available for counting the votes rather than the laborius manual counting process currently used. But I can’t see how that will persuade more people to the poll.

21 June 2002

Foyer

Of all my constituents – and I hope the rest will not be offended – I most enjoy activities that help the old and the young. The rest of us, like me, are stuck in the middle.

So an event co-hosted by The Princes Trust and Aberdeen Foyer was interesting.

They provide accomodation for youngsters. But it was their plans to extend their support courses into Fraserburgh and Peterhead that attracted me.

I heard from youngsters who have gained immensely in confidence and ‘life skills’ through their courses in Aberdeen. They even run one of the best restaurants in Aberdeen as a fundraiser and project.

Let’s hope current plans move ahead rapidly and our young folk get access to this new opportunity for 16 to 25 year-olds.

19 June 2002

Football Mania

It is not that I was brought up in a football household because I wasn’t. Nor that even though my father played for … whisper it … Ross County. Or so I took from what he said but I have never got around to verifying it.

So it came as a shock to see the ‘Official Report’ of one of our Parliamentary Committees. It actually reads as if I were a football guru.

In response to a question from the Convenor as witnesses changed over, and I had joined to visit this Committee, I informed all present that Ireland had won 3-0.

A salutatory reminder that everything, just everything, we say in Parliament gets written down and reported.

Generally they get what we say just spot on. But every so often the results are amusing. So when I am reported as saying that the French have egg-shaped prisons you shouldn’t necessarily believe it. They are actually X-shaped. And they are correcting the report.

And we cannot relax in the corridors either. The 129 Members are shadowed – closely – by 41 accredited journalists and a flock of others. But not all of them work to the standards of Parliament’s Official Report.

So when First Minister Jack McConnell rose to his feet at Questions Time and congratulated SNP Leader John Swinney on his birthday, he was being unwise. Because he had relied on an Edinburgh daily paper. And they had it wrong, not just by a day, not by a week, but by a whole two months.

Anniversaries

One of the games newspapers play is the ‘anniversary game’. You know - who was born on this day, what happened on this day through history, that sort of thing. It is a useful and interesting way of filling up column space.

And I have found myself doing some of this introspective navel-gazing because of a personal anniversary.

It was only when I was preparing for a speech in Parliament on the subject of the Common Fishing Policy that I realised that like last year’s debate it was taking place on the second Thursday of June.

But more significantly for me, that previous debate marked my maiden speech, my first speech in Parliament. And thus it was a year since the election. Both the by-election that took me to Edinburgh and Prime Minister Blair back to power.

For me it has been a busy year. Seventy nine surgeries, about forty speeches, innumerable letters, telephone calls, Parliamentary Committee meetings, about 250 Parliamentary questions. And this doesn’t please me as much - a current mileage record running at a rate of about 42,000 miles driving a year.

The past year has seen the Labour backbenches go through many changes. One day your First Minister, the next you’re sitting on the backbenches. Henry McLeish is no longer First Minister and is seen in Parliament only occasionally and heard less but he has plenty of company amongst former ministers who join him on the Labour backbenches.

Rhona Brankin, the former Fisheries Minister, whom I clashed with a year ago – the person described by our local fishermen, in a totally non-sexist way, as ‘that woman’ – now sits on the back benches and no longer draws a ministerial salary. That’s the price paid for thwarting the will of Parliament on the tie-up vote.

The new First Minister is showing every sign of being a bit more politically acute. He has clearly recognised that the support for Peterhead Prison is strong. He also sees that his back-benchers are, at the very least, uneasy about private prisons.

So we know that he won’t be backing the Scottish Prison Service proposals. Because that would be to risk Parliamentary defeat. He’s a canny politician and when he visits Peterhead Prison over the summer it won’t be because he wants to see what we’re doing here.

He wouldn’t dare bring us bad news would he? So perhaps a little optimism is in order.

Jack McConnell and his cabinet have had a bit of a wake up call over the review of the Prison Service. There are cries of a backbench revolt among his Labour faithful who are opposed to privately run prisons. Jack McConnell and Jim Wallace need to be very careful over the next few months. The decisions that they make over the Summer will either make or break our Prison Service.

5 June 2002

Haste Ye Back

It hardly seems credible that it was only last week that we were in Aberdeen. And I have yet to hear a word against the city from MSPs dragged, less than willingly in some cases, from the cosy centre of Edinburgh.

Leaving the city for the week was not a voluntary act of course. We normally meet in the Church of Scotland’s Assembly Hall. But last week the Kirk had its annual shindig and we were homeless.

Since Labour’s Scottish Secretary, Donald Dewar, decided even before the elections for our Parliament, that our new building should be at Holyrood in Edinburgh we have been waiting, waiting, waiting … for our permanent home to be ready.

And the £40 million figure produced by him as the cost to build it has risen, risen, risen … while we will have spent our whole first term in temporary accomodation.

But it has always been said that Scotland’s Parliament should be for all of Scotland. Just how much work we have to do to make that true was illustrated by debates and lobbying in Aberdeen.

It came as a surprise to members to find how primitive our transport infrastructure is in the North-East … poor rail, no city bypass and limited international air services.

A debate on the provision for helping drug addicts, and hence reducing the impact of their crimes on the rest of us, flushed out that we get only four fifths of the money that the rest of Scotland gets. And we only get 90% of the health funding per head in Grampian that Scotland gets. We have half the dentists that Edinburgh has.

An Oil & Gas debate was more positive … about our past at least. The future looks less certain with new taxes from Gordon Brown putting a severe damper on future development.

For me personally a week working in Aberdeen meant I could commute from home rather than relocate for the week to Edinburgh as usual … oh joy!

But just as my colleagues in the Parliament took happy memories of the North-East back to the south, I revisited happy old ones.

I met the pupils of Banff Academy and from Mintlaw in my old ‘Logic and Metaphysics’ lecture theatre. And … no … I can’t remember much about the subject even though I passed the exams.

So should Parliament make regular forays out to meet Scotland? David McLetchie, Tory leader in Scotland, thinks it is a waste of time and money. But then he is an Edinburgh lawyer and there is no more parochial breed.

Every other political persuasion appears to think it worth considering. Although less than 40 Committee meetings of Parliament have travelled from our capital, the frequency seems to be rising and communities seem to value this.

So I am far from being in a minority in being fully signed-up for taking us out of the central belt at least once a year.

In Free Fall?

And just as travel around Scotland can extend the understanding of MSPs in general, I have been working on increasing my personal knowledge.

The Peterhead Prison saga grinds on. And it is worth remembering that the greatest power of government is not their ability to change things. Neither is it to make laws. It is very simply to delay. That is the most powerfull tool for wearing down opponents.

In Banff, Chalmers Hospital campaigner Sandra Napier has highlighted that after initially encouraging news from our health board, we now seem to be entering a period of worrying delay. Well I know Sandra well and she and her colleagues won’t let them wear them down.

But I have been focussing on the Prison. I have just returned from France where Euro MP Ian Hudghton and I visited La Bapaume prison.

A nice jolly for your MSP? Not quite. The Parliament gave me a budget for the visit…a small one. And it was nearly blown out of the water straight away when I got the quote for our one day trip.

To fly from Aberdeen I was quoted nearly £1,000 for two. Edinburgh was only £2 cheaper.

So Ryanair and Prestwick Airport got our business and charged under £200 for our flights to Paris. The planes left on time and arrived early both times. And we didn’t miss the meal and coffee an expensive flight would have given us!

Our visit to the French prison confirmed that the Scottish Prison Service just has not done its research. There are workable examples of how to build prisons which are affordable and sensible.

But perhaps the greatest surprise was the range of ‘outside’ activities for prisoners. Who would have thought that a prison team would be participating in the French free-fall parachuting championships next month? Strange but true!

29 May 2002

Working from Home

This week has been an unusual treat. Instead of having to trek down to Edinburgh for Parliament, it has come to me in Aberdeen. I have been able to commute from home.

Now it wasn’t just for my benefit this relocation. The Church of Scotland wanted its building back for the week. So it has been King’s College, my old University, for our debates.

The red carpet has been laid out for us. Is that because the Queen came to visit? In part, but the natural hospitality of the North-East is the main reason.

The benefit of sleeping in my own bed each night has been limited. The receptions and meetings have extended well into the evening in an attempt to bring MSPs ‘up to speed’ with our issues and opportunities in a few days – an almost impossible task.

But we have debated transport in the North-East – yes, that means Aberdeen’s non-existent bypass, the poor funding for tackling drug misuse and the oil and gas industry. And the Presiding Officer has selected questions for us to put the First Minister that have a distinct local slant. In my case – and this won’t surprise you – that means prisons.

The best of all is none of that though. Being here gives our folk a chance to see what they have only read about.

Today I was grilled – over a low fire? not quite! – by pupils about what I actually do when I’m away at Parliament. Banff Academy second years have just released me from Lecture Theatre G7 – I’m fairly sure that I used to attend my Logic and Metaphysics lectures there all those years ago.

Like most people who’ve thought about it, they wanted to know how I fill my day. And once I had described a typical week of meetings, briefings, speeches in Parliament, answering letters and phone calls from constituents, the next question was obvious – “When do you get a life?”.

Because I had worked six and a half days out of the last seven. I suppose I should have expected their puzzled looks when I said that was my life. So we had a discussion about choices and they asked what I would do if it wasn’t this.

And that was the most difficult of all. I ended up suggesting that I would like to fly a small Loganair plane on their schedules around the Scottish islands.

And lo and behold it was Air Services which were the next debate in Parliament – and I have now to write my speech. So maybe that’s why that came into my mind.

So what have Parliamentarians thought about their visit? I have not met one who isn’t impressed by the vim and vigour of life in our area. And most have taken on board at least some of the messages about our needs.

More important – what have folk taken from of our visit? Most seem to like the Parliament better now they’ve seen us. Good! It was worthwhile then.

22 May 2002

Parliament comes to us

Edinburgh’s loss is the North-East’s gain this week. Parliament has to move out of its temporary home in the Church of Scotland’s Assembly Hall because the church needs it for – its annual Assembly.

So this week we’re much closer to home in King’s College, Aberdeen.

For me that is a return to the 1960s. And yes, I was there and yes, I do remember them. In fact if I remember correctly I shall be in my old mathematics lecture theatre when I meet local school students.

Because Banff Academy will be visiting Parliament on Wednesday and Mintlaw Academy comes in on Thursday. But it is not just a passive experience. They will be grilling MSPs, including me, as part of their visit.

Our week in Aberdeen is also an opportunity to look at North-East issues.

So my colleague Richard Lochhead has secured a debate on the drugs problem in our area. Aberdeen has the highest level of drug injectors in Scotland. Although we are rather luckier - so far - in Banff and Buchan, we share a real problem with the rest of Grampian.

Although there we have this serious drugs problem, we only get 4/5ths of the Scottish average funding to tackle it. So Richard’s debate will be a key opportunity to bring our special issues to a wider audience.

And how many of us have been trapped, frustrated by traffic in Aberdeen. Not just an Aberdeen problem. Not one that can simply be solved by the increasing number of ‘park and ride’ facilities.

So I wasn’t well pleased by Labour’s motion for debate on North-East transport. Not a single word about the much needed bypass. But the good news is that they have responded to pressure and broadened the terms of their motion so that we can debate that issue.

We won’t be alone in Aberdeen. You may have seen a number of foreign leaders speaking to the Scottish Parliament over the last three years. No you haven’t actually.

They have spoken to MSPs in our debating chamber – but we’ve not been in formal session. Why so? Well protocol rules that the first leader to speak to the Scottish Parliament must be the Queen.

So the Queen’s Tuesday visit to speak to Parliament sorts that one.

A big week for Parliament. But an even bigger one for the North-East.

French Justice

I send out a regular newsletter to constituents who request it. And for the last six months there hasn’t been a single edition without an article on the ever evolving Peterhead Prison story. But the uncertainty has hung over staff there for over two years now.

So as we approach the end of the consultation period on the Scottish Prison Service proposals for our prison, the pace of work on the subject has stepped up.

Parliament’s Justice 1 Committee has sat for three straight days taking evidence, a record for any committee. And it has emerged that despite a wide range of people saying how expensive it would be to upgrade the existing prison buildings, no one actually knows – because no one has done that work.

This is so characteristic of the whole exercise. A narrow and incomplete view of buildings and little thought to the critical job actually done within them.

The Prison Service have not looked one key option for Peterhead’s future – funding of a new prison by private funds with operation by the existing staff. And they even deny that any examples exist. Curiously that is exactly what the French do.

So next week I will find myself in the curious position of visiting a French prison to ask the questions not yet asked by prison bosses. And carrying with me questions our government want me to ask!

If you were ask me I would say that government ministers are pretty fed up with their civil servants at the Scottish Prison Service.

Our Health Service

Politicians of all parties spend quite a lot of time commenting on our health service. And not much of our recent comment has been favourable.

But I have been reminded, not that I really needed it, that once you are in the hands of our nurses and doctors, you place your trust in the best staff in the world.

My dear mother-in-law, Isabel Pirie, was nursed through her final illness last week. We miss her dearly.

But our loss is made much easier by the knowledge that she could not have been better cared for. The staff in St. John’s in Livingston even found a wee nip of whisky for her at night. So it was a home from home.

She was grateful for their attention, and so were Sandra and I.

Thank you health service workers everywhere. Thank you from us and from Isabel.

Stewart Stevenson
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