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25 October 2002

Fishing!

Many years ago I spent three intensive days honing my skills in ‘getting my own way’. Or perhaps more properly ‘getting my employer’s way’.

And I will let you into the two secrets I learnt on that negotiating course.

First, one should always phrase any offer one makes in negotiation as “if you will ‘x’, then I will ‘y’”. Always put what they must do first.

The second secret has the aide memoire ‘LIMit’. That is a list you prepare of what you want from a negotiation. The categories are ‘like’, ‘intend’ and ‘must’ and they are headings for what you want.

Oh and the third secret on this list of two?– don’t tell your opponents what your strategy is.

You now have a better understanding of how we should be approaching the European fishing negotiations than Ross Finnie, the Labour-Liberal Scottish Executive’s Fishing Minister.

Because it has been astonishing to watch the man who is supposed to be our industry’s champion give up even before the negotiations. A bit of the beligerence of the Danish fishing Minister, or the Spanish or the Irish, would do nicely.

So when I meet fishing industry leaders shortly, I expect to come away with a a simple message for Ross Finnie.

Our ‘LIMit’ does not include closure of the North Sea for white fishing.

Money, money, money

In the Scots Parliament we are as ‘online’ as it is possible to get. And a large number of people email us their thoughts.

In the stream of ‘advice’ that reaches me from all over the world, the way we spend Scotland’s money comes well up the list.

The cost of the Parliament’s new building has been in the spotlight again.

When a new office block for some of Westminster’s MPs cost over £600 million – and generated little comment – to some people at least, the £300 million or so for a whole Parliament might not seem like a lot.

But Donald Dewar promised us the building for £40 million. And signed the contract even before our MSPs were elected.

So it is a matter of regret that one group of 19 MSPs have steadfastly refused to nominate anyone to the group trying to sort out Donald’s mess. The Tories seem content, as they always seem to be, to criticise the idea of a Scottish Parliament without being prepared to work on the real problems associated with change.

My colleagues in the SNP and I would have located the new building on Edinburgh’s Calton Hill, used existing facilities and saved considerable time and money.

At the end of the day, we shall have a tangible asset for our money, and that’s something.

But as my recent investigations into the government’s advertising budget have shown, money can be spent for no visible benefit.

A Parliamentary question by me has led to the government publishing an analysis of their ‘foolsspeed’ campaign. This has going on for over three years, has cost a seven figure sum in advertising, and is designed to stop us speeding.

So you might expect the government to trumpet a reduction in speeding convictions. No! Their research tells us that attitudes have changed – to a limited extent.

And revealingly, the research tells us that campaigns which seek to change attitudes are rarely successful. So that’s another few million down the drain.

But what else could we do to stop speeding?

Well, with a typical speeding fine rather similar to the parking fine rate in Edinburgh, the Justice system is hardly sending out a message that speeding is a critical problem.

So why not just double the speeding fines? That wouldn’t cost millions and might even make some money.

The answer is that the Scottish Parliament does not have the power. The Road Traffic Act remains firmly in the hands of London and no matter how high a priority it might be for us, we have to wait for them to act – or choose not to.

Email Fraud

When you receive an email, do you know who it is from? Yes of course – because it says so in the ‘from’ field.

As MSP Fiona Hyslop has found out, not necessarily so.

The Internet allows anyone to send an email with anybody’s email address in the ‘from’ field.

And someone in Panama has been sending out marketing emails using Fiona’s email address.

How so? Well when we publish our email addresses on the Web it opens the door to this kind of abuse.

The price of openness.

16 October 2002

Spend, Spend, Spend

It was years ago that a pools winner coined the phrase ‘spend, spend, spend’ to describe what she did. And soon she was back were she started – with little or nothing.

The advertising budget of the Labour/Liberal-Democrat Executive might suggest that they’ve won the pools as well. In the three years since they were elected their spending has gone from £1.6 million a year to over £6 million.

So I have been asking whether we get value for money. Firstly they told me it would be too expensive to even consider giving out information about their many campaigns.

I tried again and invited them to choose any one of their campaigns and tell us about it. And on Friday they finally did.

The advertising they have given us information on was “Foolspeed”. It is targetted at getting us all to stop speeding on our roads.

Well with our twisty, single carriageway roads carrying a large volume of mixed traffic – slow farm vehicles, large lorries, faster moving cars – our accident record certainly suggests that this is a campaign that we should support.

But do expensive TV adverts actually make a difference?

The evidence suggest perhaps not. It seems that even the evaluators did not think that this kind of advertising was effective. Less than a third of people asked could recall the adverts.

And this from the Scottish Executive who have now spent themselves into being the biggest advertiser in Scotland.

Ministers have been chanting ‘spend, spend, spend’ with our money for rather too long methinks.

Fifty Not Out

At the end of this week it will be 500 days since I was elected to Parliament. And last week saw me speak in my fiftieth debate. It was time a for wider look at the work of the Parliament.

One of the mistaken impressions left with electors is that we all sit in Edinburgh voting as our whips tells us. And that could suggest that we are not allowed to think through the consequences of our actions.

I have been looking at some of the statistics and a very different picture emerges.

In the Justice Committee of which I am one of seven members, we have been undertaking detailed consideration of the Land Reform Bill.

Over the last eight parliamentary committee days of debate, we have had sixty votes on proposed amendments to the Bill. A fair number are withdrawn after the government made a commitment to bring forward further changes.

With their access to lawyers to assist with drafting sometimes complex law, that’s fair enough.

I have tabled nearly fifty amendments so far but we’ve voted only a minority of them.

It seems that on 13 our of sixty votes, the three Labour members voted in different ways. And my SNP colleague and I diverged on 7 occasions.

So if my 500 days since joining the Parliament have shown me anything, it is that we are there to think, not just to “do as we are told”.

9 October 2002

Torture

It is a very odd life being a Member of Parliament. I find there is little time to watch TV for example. So I miss seeing people humiliated on Anne Robinson’s “The Weakest Link”.

I am pretty uncertain of the enduring fascination there is for this program which in a relatively short period has become a cult. Some of its editions even seem to border on self-parody.

That esteemed publication “Private Eye”, which every serious politician buys each week, even has a special column in each edition featuring the more inept answers given by contestants.

It is bought I may add not so much to inform MSPs, MPs and the like, as out of fear. The fear that one may find oneself featured and the need to act at once if one is.

I carry my solicitor’s telephone number everywhere with me.

But politicians’ interest in “The Weakest Link” is not so limited by a lack of opportunity to view it as to deny them an understanding of the program’s purpose.

It is there to make fun of 8 people randomly selected from a group of nine. I say randomly selected because it is not enough to be a smart cookie able to answer the questions. Indeed that may see one summarily ejected by other competitors as representing an all too significant threat to their own more limited knowledge and intellect.

When the producers contacted me – well I think they tried everyone! - a few months ago with an invitation to appear on a special edition of “The Weakest Link” it was fairly easy to say no. Politicians are not quite as daft as some people think.

So when I heard that Andrea, a teacher from St.Combs, was on the program recently, my admiration for her courage was considerable. And she did well enough to survive to about the fifth round. Congratulations!

But I wondered if the real lesson was about today’s teachers.

We know that teaching is one of today’s tougher jobs. Is the tumult and stress of the classroom now so great that it is relaxing to appear instead on the “Weakest Link”?

Dutch Treats

Although it has been a few years since I last visited Amsterdam, it remains one of my favourite destinations for a short break.

The Dutch are quite like the Scots in their ‘matter of fact’ approach to life and their practical responses to the challenges they meet. And looking at Dutch as a language one often feels an affinity. For example what Scot could mis-understand ‘ingang’ and ‘uitgang’ written on bus doors?

The efficiency of their transport system is relaxing and could not be in greater contrast to the often-stressful journeys we often undertake at home. An efficient, and very busy, Schiphol Airport connects directly to fast intercity, even international, trains.

I recall on occasion leaving the office in Scotland at 5 p.m. and in just over three hours – one plane, two trains later – sitting down to dinner with business colleagues in Utrecht. I can’t get from the same office at 5 p.m. in Edinburgh to home in Banff & Buchan by public transport any earlier than 11.15 p.m. and that is only two trains and no flight.

So it is illuminating to contrast the Dutch Government’s response to the need to support its ports with our Scottish Government’s caution about supporting Peterhead harbour.

Lloyds List, an essential daily read for many people but not generally for me, reported some time ago that ports in Zeeland, at Groningen, Harlinggen and Den Helder in the Netherlands would get about £11 million in state aid for developments that would protect their competitive position.

And the parallel with our own situation at Peterhead Bay is quite clear.

For Den Helder in particular the investment is directly related to the need to allow the port to diversify away from dependence on offshore activity.

Just like Peterhead.

ASCO and the base has been good for the area – and good for workers with one the industry’s best safety records - since it started operations nearly 30 years ago but we have always known that it would not last for ever.

So we have a choice. Prepare now for new business opportunities. Or wait until a disastrous downturn in activity and try to firefight.

The Dutch have shown the way.

We quite rightly saw about £9 million of public money spent at Rosyth to enable the new Zeebrugge ferry service to start. That was 90% of the total need.

At Peterhead we only need 30% of the funding to come from a grant and the benefit in jobs is probably much larger.

The Dutch government and Rosyth show what can be done. All we need now is our ministers to act in a pro-active way to support us too.

2 October 2002

Cairngorm

Scotland is at last getting National Parks. One, the first, is around Loch Lomond. The second is on our doorstep and includes the high hills in Cairngorm National Park.

The Rural Development Committee, which I am on, will be meeting on 11th October in Kingussie so that local opinion can express its views on the proposed boundaries.

And as a ‘warm-up’ to that we grilled Deputy Minister Allan Wilson in Edinburgh this week.

I suspect that we will hear a great deal more sense in Kingussie than Edinburgh. No change there you might say.

But there is real debate about Laggan – which wants in and isn’t, and about planning powers for the park.

The government want to leave planning with local authorities, and I broadly agree, but some argue that this would deny the Park ‘world heritage’ funds that would help protect and develop the natural beauty of the area.

So the debate needs clarification.

Local Government

Despite what many might think, we are the most under-represented people in Europe. We actually have fewer elected politicians per head of population than any other country.

For each 100,000 population we have about 33 people elected to represent us. England has over 40 and Greece about 650!

So the a Bill on councils could help. But if it doesn’t make it easier for a wider range of people to stand for election, if it doesn’t help share the load a little wider, it probably won’t.

I shall be watching the Parliamentary debate with interest.

Leaves on the Line

I may be treading in the footsteps of royalty this week. Like Prince Charles, I have become a friend of a tree.

When I am down at Parliament each week, where I stay has an elderly sycamore in one corner of the garden. And it is right next the Glasgow – Edinburgh railway line.

It transpires that when the railway opened in about 1840 it had only been possible because a part of the garden had been taken to build it. And thus the sycamore is very near the railway. But it does not overhang it.

The problem, as Railtrack see it anyway, is that the railway curves gently round the tree. So gently that the speed limit is 90 mph.

Foolishly when electric signals replaced the old semphore ones of my childhood, they put the new signal ‘round the bend. And when the sycamore is in full flower, the densely packed leaves limit the ability of drivers to see past the tree and see the signal.

So they think the tree should be cut down.

The alternative suggestion that since the tree was there first, Railtrack should move the railway – or the signal, has not been greeted with approval.

The tree is a local landmark and we are going to win this one. So it looks like a compromise will see a few low-hanging branches lopped off.

So we will be doing our bit to remove the excuse of ‘leaves on the line’.

Stewart Stevenson
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