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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!

Stewart Stevenson
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