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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.

15 May 2002

Midges

Friday the 7th of June approaches rapidly. That is important because that is when I and the other members of Parliament’s Rural Development Committee will be visiting Huntly.

SNP colleague Richard Lochhead and I pressed hard for one of our meetings on our ‘Integrated Rural Development’ study to take place in the North-East. It is now important that we get the public along.

So far the Committee has been to Kirkcudbrightshire, Fort William and this week we were in Lochgilphead. The format of our meetings has evolved to allow more time for the public to participate.

One of the less satisfactory things we inherited from the London Parliament is an over-rigid set of rules about agendas for meetings.

Basically no one can speak to the Committee unless their name is on the agenda. And if people turn up ‘on spec’ then they can’t speak – officially. But we have managed to get round the rule. We have a ‘half-time’ break where we ask the public to ‘step-up’ and speak to us. Even our ‘Official Report’ staff are now recording what they say.

We just don’t formally include that in our own meeting report. And thus we don’t break the rules.

This open session can be quite amusing, although generally very useful.

So this week, it is thanks to a member of the Lochgilphead public. The Committee now knows much more about the life of the midge.

Apparently the scourge of the midge is due to excessive afforestation. We probably all know that plenty of trees are good for the environment. They recycle the CO2, the carbon dioxide, in the atmosphere.

But midges use CO2 to detect us humans. Apparently they sniff us out when we breathe out carbon dioxide and home in on us.

The forests eat up the CO2 and drive the midges out to look for humans.

So now you know. Or was our witness at Committee just winding us up?

Free Personal Care

Much against our Scottish Government’s initial preference, Parliament pushed through a ‘Free Personal and Nursing Care’ scheme for our elderly. And it comes into operation at last on 1st July.

It covers the over 65s in care homes and in their own home. And I expect that care home staff will make sure that all their residents who qualify will get this new help.

For those at home it might be up to all the rest of us to lend a hand. But there is a free telephone number, the NHS Helpline is on 0800 22 44 88, where information is available. And for the computer savvy, all you need is on the Internet at www.scotland.gov.uk/freepersonalcare.

Now in the North-East we are hardy, independent folk. And the second worst area in Scotland at winkling out money from the National Lottery.

Let’s make sure that we come near the top of the league on the free personal care. Our old folks deserve it!

1 May 2002

Educayshun

It seems a long ago when the Scottish Qualifications Authority got itself into deep trouble with exams. It seemed that it just couldn’t get its sums right.

So a huge Parliamentary investigation took place. Four substantial reports were issued. Top people left the organisation. And a Parliamentary Bill was laid before the Scottish Parliament.

It illustrates very well some of the MSP’s work in Edinburgh.

Had this all happened when Westminster ran things it would have a ‘five-day-wonder’. But with 41 Scottish journalists accredited to Parliament and hovering at MSP’s elbows it has run and run. And quite properly so.

The 2nd of May is the end of the road as far as Parliament is concerned – we hope! The passage of the SQA Bill into law will allow the new Board and Chief Executive to get on with the job.

But this wasn’t my only brush with ‘educayshun’ this week.

I had a visit to the Headmaster of Fraserburgh Academy where I learnt of their achievements. It was much different from my time at my local school.

The students take a far bigger role in school life and it struck me as I looked at photographs in the lobby that the range of activities is very wide.

And I had a quick meeting at Heriot-Watt University with students I have been working with. I can only do a few hours over many months but it is well worth meeting the people who may be the next generation of community leaders.

They were presenting their case studies for their lecturers’ approval and I had been invited along.

One study was on outsourcing. What we would call in public service – privatisation. And they concluded after quite extensive research that sometimes it worked and sometimes it did not. But that it was never easy.

Perhaps I should send them along to talk to our Justice Minister about the proposal he has on his desk for private prisons.

Inspection

Just as a schools, there used to be periodic inspections so the Chief Inspector of Prisons has just completed a look at Peterhead Prison. And it couldn’t have been more timely.

Now Clive Fairweather, for that is his name, is not someone with whom I would wish to disagree. He used to be an officer in the SAS. And he was part of the team that went in and ended the seige in the Libyian Embassy in the 1960s.

So when he says that the arguments for closing Peterhead are deeply flawed, we should listen. But more to the point, government ministers have to listen to.

With each passing week the arguments for our prison grow stronger. The Prison Officers Partners are very actively gathering signatures for a petition to Parliament. Churches and businesses are ‘on-side’.

In Edinburgh we almost certainly have a majority of MSPs supporting us. And from all political parties.

So it has been another educayshunal week at Holyrood.

Stewart Stevenson
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