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27 February 2002

Tinnitus

I had a visit from a constituent who has tinnitus. By coincidence I had a few hours recently when I had a mild bout of this very distressing condition. So what is it?

The common name is ‘ringing in the ears’ but its effects are actually much more complex than that. The symptoms can range from mild noises in the ear to totally disabling continuous sound that prevents sleep.

And it is not just old people who suffer. A significant number of young people do too.

So it was heartening to see a substantial public gallery in Parliament when my colleague Dorothy Grace-Elder opened a debate on chronic pain.

It soon became apparent that Scotland lags far behind other countries in the provision of clinics for pain sufferers.

But at least the admirable hospice movement has developed strategies for managing pain in the terminally ill. In fact Parliament heard of one patient in the Highlands who was sent to a hospice for their chronic pain simply because that was the only source of help.

Another example of how our health service limps along, particularly when faced with health problems that disable rather than kill.

My visitor with tinnitus was fairly lucky compared to many of the pain cases Dorothy and others told us of in her debate. His tinnitus is not as severe as some others’.

But what I promised I would do for him was to talk about this problem in my column and put out a plea for any others interested in forming a local self-help group to come forward. If they contact my office in Peterhead, I will pass their names on.

Modern Studies

Much of what is written about our Parliament is far from the everyday experience of the people like me who work there. So I always extend a warm welcome to constituents who are prepared to make the long trek south to Edinburgh to see for themselves.

This week it was three members of the sixth-year modern studies class at Peterhead Academy - Jacquiline, Blair and Lorna. I had previously been into the school to be mercilessly grilled by them. Give me Jeremy Paxman any day!

And they struck it lucky, from spectator’s viewpoint at least.

The Justice Committee was on its high horse when they arrived. We were discussing a complex amendment to the final stage of the Sexual Offences (Evidence & Procedures) Bill.

And the reason for our irritation?

We had only just received the government’s amendment and were hearing witnesses from the Law Society and from a law professor. Both were expressing concern about some of the wording and we had only 48 hours in which to act.

Next stop lunch and opportunity to get up close to people they only see on TV.

A visit to the floor of Parliament and a seat on the government front benches always seems to fascinate. They seemed to think it become a career option for them.

But the highlight seemed to be a very busy afternoon’s debate when we passed two Bills. I suspect that’s a first for us to do two on one day.

It is ‘pot luck’ what is on when visiting Parliament but I think Peterhead Academy though they had struck lucky. I think so too.

Double Vision

Our one-week Parliamentary recess is an opportunity for me to visit people and events in our area mid-week. Normally I am a prisoner in Edinburgh Tuesday through Thursday and miss out.

So this week I was able to accept an invitation to a play being presented in Mintlaw Academy. Not just any play but a modern morality play, a play with a message.

The acting was superb and the session afterwards when the actors came back to answer questions from the audience, in character, was convincing. These actors required no lessons in ‘method acting’, the getting inside the mind of their character.

And what was the subject of the play that dragged this parliamentarian out on a driech winter night? The demon drink!

But of course I am not at Westminster where they have what others have described as ‘liquid dungeons’, a range of in-house bars. In the Scottish Parliament we have to cross the road to ‘Deacon Brodies’ or ‘The Jolly Judge’, or so I am told (ha!).

The serious point about the evening is that the recreational ‘drug of choice’ for most adults is alcohol. And when abused, when used to excess, its effects are severely damaging to health, wealth, family and the community.

Well done to Central Buchan Lifelong Learning and Drinkwise Grampian. I am sure that the rest of the tour across the North-East and Moray will deliver a useful message to senior school students and adults that it is well worth our while listening to carefully.

20 February 2002

Communicating

It's official - the government is our biggest advertiser! And I know where some of the Scottish Executive’s money is going.

I have just received a leaflet from our Enterprise Minister.

I’m not sure that I know who it is intended for. But it must be important as it is called – “Scotland’s Economic Future” - and that sure is important.

It is 18 inches wide and 9 inches tall. The outside is glossy – and I mean GLOSSY – a bright silver ink which almost requires sunspecs for reading safely.

Inside we have about 600 words – that’s only 100 more than this column. So what does it say? Well for example it says, “We are driving out broadband communications capability across Scotland”.

But I had a Parliamentary answer saying that even the pilot announced last year won’t deliver anything until late 2003. This technology will be obsolete before anything happens.

I will be talking to business people in Turriff shortly. I’ll ask them how much they think the leaflet is worth. I bet it will be different from what the government paid.

Fiscal Economy

The Procurator Fiscal Service is one which divides our community. One half hopes to never meet one. The other has never heard of them.

But without them, our system of justice would creak, groan and crack. And it does.

As part of the Parliament's Justice Committee, I've been learning much more about the people who work in this vital service. And the ones I have met on official visits and those who have contacted me have the same message - they are under pressure.

The police are the most visible part of our justice system. It is not uncommon for folk to say, "we need more police".

Our Procurator Fiscals form the vital link that brings the accused to court. But I don’t hear anyone saying we need more Fiscals. We do.

All the evidence is that they are the 'pressure point' in bringing criminals to justice. The decisions they make are probably much more important than those of our judges.

Perhaps it is because Fiscals are lawyers that we don't have a natural sympathy with them. But all the evidence is that we've been treating them disgracefully.

They are paid much less than lawyers employed elsewhere, perhaps only two thirds of what a local solicitor makes. Even further from a Sheriff's wages.

So I have tabled a series of questions to get more information about how the service is run. If we don't fix the Fiscal shortage, stress and overwork will overwhelm the justice system.

Double Talk

According to ‘Holyrood’ magazine, I have been a naughty boy. Apparently I told a joke in a September debate and told it again in December. Well good jokes are worth repeating. And it’s good to see that my words are so closely read.

But I will have to go some to beat the Scottish government who have re-announced some of their spending six times. That sure is no joke.

15 February 2002

True Love?

St. Valentine’s day is for saying, “I love you”. Well I suspect Hugh Henry, MSP and Deputy Health Minister, is not my Valentine.

For at quarter to three on the 14th, he answered my question about Fraserburgh and Peterhead Ambulance stations with these words,

“I am not familiar with staff hours in the locality that Stewart Stevenson mentioned and members would not expect me to be familiar with them”

A perfectly reasonable answer except for one thing, I have had eight written parliamentary answers on this subject in the last two months.

For all the extra money we pay MSPs when they are Ministers, we should have people familiar with the topic of the day.

Hugh Henry knew in advance that the Ambulance service was the single subject he would be questioned on. So yes, we do expect the minister to be familiar with the topic. And this subject has been around for some time.

So flowers for my wife on Valentine’s day but none for Hopeless Henry.

Sitting Comfortably?

The volume of mail received by Parliamentarians is formidable. Sometimes it is difficult to separate the wheat from the chaff. So a paper titled ‘Anthropometric Study to Update Aircraft Seating Standards’ only got read because of the word ‘aircraft’.

In fact it contains quite good news for holiday charter travellers.

But one has to struggle through statements like “The current 660mm will only accommodate up to the 77th%ile of the European population” to get to the meat.

But the bottom line is - more room for bottoms, and legs, and arms. For the first time we are in sight of a pan-European minimum standard for airline passengers seats. And it is designed to give us more space.

It won’t mean less cramped flights to Spain in 2002. Perhaps we will get more room next year.

The only challenge now is the one laid down by my campaigning colleague, Kenny Macaskill – more flights from Aberdeen.

Arresting Moments

The most upright citizen has a moment’s pause for thought when a meeting with the police looms. But contact with the local police is another matter.

I’ve always found them highly responsive to the issues I raise with them. And I generally find a high regard for our police among constituents.

Not that people think there are enough of them. And I agree; we need more.

Our new Superintendent for the area is Ewan Stewart.

He appears not to be a tall gentleman, standing a clear six inches short of his Chief Inspector colleague. But as I approach I release that our new man is actually well over six feet.

It is just that the Chief Inspector is actually six foot eight! So when these two are seen on our streets, and they often are, criminals tak tent.

The police have cracking down on vandalism to very good effect in Fraserburgh. And the numbers show it. I will certainly be supporting similar initiatives throughout the area. The often small scale thuggery that vandalism really is, drags down morale in the community and success in tackling this is very welcome.

My SNP colleague Fiona Hyslop has found that there is a very serious problem with funding Fire Brigade pensions. Even though firemen and women have been contributing to their pensions all their working lives, the money has not actually gone into a fund anywhere. Instead it has been used to top up day to day Fire Service spending.

But with a large recruitment of fire service personnel in the mid 1970s, we are starting to see a sharp rise in retirements in the 2000s. And today’s funding is being diverted away from front line fire services to pay for pensions.

And it turns out that the police are in exactly the same position.

They pay in for a pension. But when they retire, the pension will be paid directly from money provided for policing. So in few years’ time, we could see enormous pressure on police budgets just to pay pensions.

And actual policing on the streets could suffer. So I’m working with my colleagues to ensure that police pensions are funded properly. The first steps are a raft of Parliamentary questions to find out the numbers.

Foxing Times

The biggest round of applause during this week’s Parliamentary on fox hunting debate came when a Labour member said,

“I would not have chosen the banning of fox hunting as a priority for legislation in our new Parliament.”

And so say all of us.

13 February 2002

Madame LaFarge

I couldn’t help wondering whether it was a comment on the Parliament’s activities. On the front row of the public gallery was a lady in a red jersey. But that was not what caught my eye. She was knitting.

I recalled that as the nobility were being brought to the guillotine during the French revolution, Madame LaFarge sat and watched, and knitted.

So was it a political comment? Perhaps. Certainly the biggest round of applause of the day came from all political persuasions and in response to what? To the comments of a Labour member who said,

“I would not have chosen the banning of fox hunting as a priority for legislation in our new Parliament.”

But because of Lord Watson debating it we were.

Was it coincidence that the ‘Time for Reflection’ for the day was from Ms Kathryn Hendry of Brahma Kumaris World Spiritual University? And that she persuaded Parliamentarians to relax and meditate for a few moments.

Her plea was for us to imagine all our weight transmitting itself onto the chair upon which we sat – easy so far. Then we must visualise a bright star radiating power as a third eye from the middle of our forehead – more difficult.

And finally we must relax and enjoy ourselves – impossible with a very complex debate ahead and a free vote meaning that we all had to pay close attention and make up our own minds on 100 amendments.

Sitting Comfortably?

The volume of mail received by Parliamentarians is formidable. Sometimes it is difficult to separate the wheat from the chaff. So a paper titled ‘Anthropometric Study to Update Aircraft Seating Standards’ only got read because of the word ‘aircraft’.

In fact it contains quite good news for holiday charter travellers.

But one has to struggle through statements like “The current 660mm will only accommodate up to the 77th percentile of the European population” to get to the meat.

But the bottom line is - more room for bottoms, and legs, and arms. For the first time we are in sight of a pan-European minimum standard for airline passengers seats. And it is designed to give us more space.

It won’t mean less cramped flights to Spain in 2002. Perhaps from next year.

So the only challenge now is the one laid down by my campaigning colleague, Kenny Macaskill – more flights from Aberdeen.

Arresting Moments

Even the most upright citizen has a moment’s pause for thought when a meeting with the police looms. As a Parliamentarian I find it disconcerting that even Chief Constables defer to me.

But contact with the local police is another matter. I’ve always found them highly responsive to the issues I raise with them. And I generally find a high regard for our police among constituents.

Not that people think there are enough of them. And I agree; we need more.

So with a new Superintendent, Ewan Stewart, in post at Peterhead, there was a good excuse for a visit.

He appears not to be a tall gentleman, standing a clear six inches short of his Chief Inspector colleague. But as I approach I release that our new man is actually well over six feet.

It is just that the Chief Inspector is actually six foot eight! So when these two are seen on our streets, and they often are, criminals tak tent.

The police have cracking down on vandalism to very good effect in Fraserburgh. And the numbers show it. I will certainly be supporting similar initiatives throughout the area. The often small scale thuggery that vandalism really is, drags down morale in the community and success in tackling this is very welcome.

My SNP colleague Fiona Hyslop has found that there is a very serious problem with funding Fire Brigade pensions. Even though firemen and women have been contributing to their pensions all their working lives, the money has not actually gone into a fund anywhere. Instead it has been used to top up day to day Fire Service spending.

But with a large recruitment of fire service personnel in the mid 1970s, we are starting to see a sharp rise in retirements in the 2000s. And today’s funding is being diverted away from front line fire services to pay for pensions.

And it turns out that the police are in exactly the same position.

They pay in for a pension. But when they retire, the pension will be paid directly from money provided for policing. So in few years’ time, we could see enormous pressure on police budgets just to pay pensions.

And actual policing on the streets could suffer. So I’m working with my colleagues to ensure that police pensions are funded properly. The first steps are a raft of Parliamentary questions to find out the numbers.

Stewart Stevenson
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