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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.

Stewart Stevenson
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