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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’?

Stewart Stevenson
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