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24 December 2003

Holidays

When I was young, Christmas Day was much less of a celebration than it is now. My father was a country doctor and his concession was to take a half day – no evening surgery. So our Christmas dinner was after he had seen his mid-day patients.

And as a student I worked with the Post Office delivering the Christmas mail. We were paid off on Christmas Eve so that the "regulars" did Christmas day – and collected the tips!

But now two things have happened since I were a laddie.

Christmas is for families. The Christmas dinner is – hopefully – a relaxed family day when the youngest are at the heart of our enjoyment.

And it has – for some – become a time of "political correctness".

Members of Parliament send out cards to a large number of people. And not paid for by the public purse – that ain't allowed! We can buy one of several designs from our Parliamentary shop, go elsewhere, or make our own.

It was a bit disheartening to read an ill-informed attack on our cards in one national paper because – allegedly – they don't say Merry Christmas. One type is designed for members to add their own message and doesn't refer to Christmas – true. All the others do.

And we have seen stories in other papers about carols being banned in schools in case they offend those not of the Christian faith. I have yet to meet a member of the Islamic faith who would take such offence – and I know quite a few. So the real problem is people making assumptions about others without consulting them.

So if there is one message about Christmas time, it is surely that it is a time for communication, a time for getting in touch – with old friends, family and people with other views and faiths.

Above all a time for setting aside "political correctness".

Fire Hazards

The news that some half a million Christmas lights have had to be recalled due to manufacturing defects which could cause a fire is alarming. It has been many years since open candles were the norm on Christmas trees and that source of household fire all but eliminated.

But although progress has been made, Scotland has a fire death rate twice that of any of England, Wales or Northern Ireland. We lose 20 people for each million of our population each year.

And non-fatal casualties are much higher too at 399 per million in 2001.

So it is good news that my SNP colleague Michael Matheson has brought forward a Bill to require fire sprinklers in certain types of dwellings. And the recess provides me with the opportunity of reviewing the evidence with his proposal.

In an Arizonian community they have had rules for nearly 20 years requiring new domestic properties to have fire sprinkler systems.

The proof of the effectiveness of this is that they have had 49 fires in homes fitted with sprinklers and no deaths. During the same period the homes without have seen 13 deaths.

And the cost of a fire in a "sprinklered home" averages $2,166 while those without have come in at $45,019 per fire – more than 20 times as expensive.

In Vancouver similar provision has cut fire fatalities to nearly a tenth of the previous figure.

Michael's Bill would make it a requirement for sprinklers in new sheltered housing and houses in multiple occupation from 2005.

One of the objections until now has been cost and appearance. But recent developments mean that it would add only about £800 to new sheltered housing units.

And the only visible sign would be a concave metal plate about the size of a 2 pound coin in the room. When fire heat is detected the plate drops out and the spray nozzle springs into action. With it operating only in the room where there is fire, water damage is limited.

The fire-fighters are enthusiastic. It will reduce danger to them as well as save occupants. And the average time at a house fire should come down from the present four hours so costs will fall.

My parliamentary committee should be starting work on the Bill in March. It is a fine example of the sort of thing we should be doing in our parliament.

All we need is a fair wind from the government, the Scottish Executive, and this Bill, sponsored by a back-bench member, can save lives and money. A perfect combination.

And...

I trust you and your family and friends will all have had a Merry Christmas and will enjoy a Happy New Year. And that the holiday season leaves you envigorated for next year's challenges.

10 December 2003

Fishing

It does seem a particularly cruel choice of timing that that the EU Fisheries Council should fall each year in the last full week before Christmas. At a time when communities all over Scotland are preparing for a happy family occasion, our people worry about the latest blows about to fall on their way of life.

Not that we are lacking in resilience. But it would be encouraging if just in a while we saw a bit of encouragement. There might be some.

The fishermen’s demonstrations at Antwerp and elsewhere show some international solidarity – good.

Commissioner Fischler’s proposals to the December Council don’t suggest making things worse – although they fail to make things better.

And UK Fisheries Minister Ben Bradshaw acknowledged that the information from John Rutherford, Chief Executive of the Sea Fish Industry Authority about methods of catching haddocks without cod was “valuable”. He promised to take the news to Brussels.

Because the international research group, ICES, that is used by the EU to “inform” its decisions has confirmed that haddocks are in very plentiful supply.

Good news for fish and chip emporia all over Scotland. But no value to our fishermen if they ain’t allowed to catch them for fear of lifting scarce cod from the sea when they do.

The haddock are vital to maintaining our white fish fleet until we can once again harvest cod in decent numbers.

So where stands the Scottish government, the Scottish Executive, on all this? At sixes and sevens.

We have a Liberal Democrat minister, Ross Finnie, who continues to defend the EU’s Common Fisheries Policy. And he is part of a government that will not pressure the Westminster government to “red line” proposals in the draft EU constitution that would make things worse.

But opinion against the present arrangements is hardening across the political spectrum. In particular, Liberals when faced with their fishermen have found it impossible to sustain the pro-CFP position promoted by Ross Finnie.

In Shetland, Tavish Scott is the local MSP. Although a Minister, he is in open conflict with his own government’s fishing policy.

His Liberal colleague who represents Orkney and Shetland at Westminster is not a member of a government. Freed from that restraint, his critical comments are robust. I can do little better than quote his contribution to the Westminster fishing debate on 9th December;

“One of the most difficult things that I have ever had to do was to stand up in the Lerwick Fishermen’s Mission hall on 19 December last year, six days before Christmas, and face more than 100 skippers and crew members. I had to try and explain the bad, corrupt and downright deceitful deal foisted on them by people in Brussels. It was a vicious deal, and they were its victims. They were staring ruin in the face—that is the human cost of the decisions taken last year. I do not believe for one second that Franz Fischler could have been a party to that deal if he had had to stand where I had to stand on that day. That is why I say that the remoteness of Brussels in respect of fishing cannot be overstated”

The key words are “bad, corrupt and downright deceitful”. I find them easy to agree with and quoted them when I spoke in the Scottish Parliament debate on the 10th.

Liberal Iain Smith represents the fishermen of the East Neuk of Fife. Dramatically fewer in number than in years past, they still epitomise the character of the fishing villages clinging to that part of our country’s coastline.

He appeared to agree with his political colleague, Andrew George, the Liberal MP who represents a Cornish constituency said that; "We must move away as quickly as possible from the CFP".

A political consensus is developing. And with fishing at its core we have more power at our elbow than for some time.

Railways

I enjoy meeting young people – and being questioned by them. They stop us falling into ruts of stale thinking.

So when Liam Geraghty, a pupil at Peterhead Academy, challenged me about why Peterhead had no railway station, it initially rocked me back on my heels.

Although we once had a very extensive railway network with Banff, Macduff, Fraserburgh, Peterhead and practically every town and village in the area connected to the national network, today we are far distant from railways.

Liam, his class mates and I did a quick sum. It suggested that we might need 3,000 people daily to use a Peterhead station if it were to pay.

But it gave me the locus to raise the idea with the Transport Minister in a debate this week.

We need the young to bring forward the bold ideas. A journey of a thousand miles starts with the first step.

26 November 2003

Airwaves

As a child, broadcasting meant the BBC.

Although commercial television started in 1956, I had left home some time before my parents had felt it necessary to upgrade their original, 9 inch screen, black and white, “BBC only”, TV.

In fact the first time I recall seeing commercial TV was when I was much fitter and appeared on Scotsport in the late 60s.

Radio became more exciting around 1960 when I discovered Radio Luxembourg. It was then that our family acquired their first portable radio. I could retreat to my bedroom to listen to it alone and savour the eccentric delights of Horace Batchelor extoling the delights of his betting system.

Offshore pirate radio started for the UK in 1964 with Radio Caroline broadcasting from two ships off the Isle of Man and the Essex coast. Many is the dispute that we had in the hospital ward where I worked as a nurse that year. Young bucks like myself wanted Caroline. The staff nurse retuned to the BBC Light Programme every time he passed by.

So an invitation to the opening of Grampian TV’s new studios in Aberdeen was a timely update on 21st century broadcasting.

In the North-East we have plenty of radio broadcasting to us. The major independents are Northsound in Aberdeen and Moray Firth in Inverness.

While with Waves in Peterhead, Kinnaird in Fraserburgh, NECR in Inverurie and Deveron looking to go full-time in Banff, local programming is never far away.

But we perhaps overlook how lucky we are with Grampian. For a UK commercial TV station it covers a small population but by far the largest area of any.

So we get local news on TV too. And with their new facility now open, modern digital technology should help broaden their ambition.

They already cover international stories and we see their reporters far afield when necessary.

By contrast we regularly see BBC sports commentators abroad but seldom does the rest of Scotland get a international view moderated by a Scottish perspective.

The only exception must be the excellent BBC program, Eorpa. Its success can be measured by the fact that although a Gaelic language program, its number of viewers regularly exceeded the number Gaels recorded in the census. Yes – it is subtitled and I would struggle without. But it is a rare beast. A regular Scottish look outwards at the world.

The frustration of Scottish Parliament politicians is that without power to help raise broadcasting’s game in Scotland, we continue to have to watch large parts of London news bulletins which are of no relevance to us. Or worse, downright mislead because they talk about plans and policies which do not and will not apply to Scotland.

We regularly have people talking about “injunctions”, about “mortgages”, about “deed poll” when in reality these are all terms not applicable to us. For us the rough equivalents should be “interdicts”, “standard securities” and well actually I am told that there is no need for deed polls since we can change our names by habit and repute.

Broadcasting is subtly, and not now so slowly, changing our view of ourselves.

That is why it remains vital to have strong local broadcasters, like Grampian, that reflect our lives and aspirations.

Crown Planning

Part of the policy responsibilities of the Parliament’s Communities Committee is for planning in Scotland. Early in the life of our Committee we have been assailed by Executive officials briefing us. They hope that we shall be more understanding and compliant when they come later with their Minister’s Bills for our consideration.

Understanding – hopefully. Compliant – nae chance!

A little quirk of planning law that came to light during this process was that its writ stops at the high water mark. You do not need planning permission for an offshore structure.

The Crown Estates exist to manage the sea-bed – and to charge us for the priviledge.

But it does put a slightly different gloss on plans for offshore wind farms. They will be easier for developers to implement as they will not have to have the adjacent community’s permission. One to keep an eye on methinks!

The Crown Estates themselves were the subject of Parliamentary debate recently.

Until now when they have wished – on behalf of the Ministry of Defence, Historic Scotland or any of the numerous government bodies that there are – to erect a new building, the law has not required them to apply for planning permission.

They had “Crown Immunity”. In practice, but only as a courtesy, they did consult planning authorities.

We are have agreed to change that – and about time too.

But because of a historical convention we cannot have the “Crown” prosecute the “Crown”. So they remain immune from criminal prosecution.

An area ripe for reform in a modern 21st century state surely.

12 November 2003

Working Away

In the last week we have seen the formation of the United Fishing Industry Alliance. Pushed through against all the odds by those remarkable women – the Cod Crusaders – it has brought a wide spectrum of our industry together for the first time in many years.

And the Scottish Parliament played a significant role. It provided the neutral territory upon which the founding meeting could take place.

In our temporary accommodation in Edinburgh, we use a range of meeting rooms scattered around the Parliament. On this occasion it was the Quaker Meeting House. Entirely appropriate as they are people of peace.

And the meeting marked the breaking out of peace in fishing. Not just in Scotland. With Northern Irish and South-West English interests present too, it represents a formidable campaigning body.

The Scottish Government – the Scottish Executive – seems to recognise that too.

Three phone calls from Ross Finnie’s office to me apologising for his non-attendance at the meeting speak volumes about their sitting up and taking notice of the Alliance.

And with my colleague Alex Salmond’s Bill to abolish the EU’s Common Fishing Policy’s hold over our industry gaining support across Westminster, a genuine chink of light for fishing’s future is glinting hopefully.

But as I write, the junior coalition government partners – the Liberals – remain firmly split – internally and from their voters.

A weekend with his constituents seems not to have persuaded Tavish Scott that Shetland’s dependence on fish matters more than his Ministerial career. After his tergiversation – a wonderful word that means swinging from one opinion to another – Scott seems after perhaps as many as 3 different positions to have settled on the one that will cause him most long term trouble – support for the CFP.

This puts him at odds with his party membership who support the abolition of the EU’s control of our fishings. And against his 10,000 constituents who have signed a petition.

Just as our fishermen sail dangerous waters each working day so the Liberals have chosen a politically fraught path.

The representations at the door of Ross Finnie – Fisheries Minister in the Scots Government – grow larger.

He has had many meetings in the run up to the EU Fisheries Council in mid-December.

The Adjournment Debate in Westminster on 11th November, did not suggest that he will have the whole-hearted support of Ben Bradshaw – the Labour man now carrying the poisoned chalice of Fisheries Minister in that place.

Despite a very limited familiarity with our industry – he even referred the Scottish Fishermen’s Association when he meant the Federation – he stuck doggedly to the line that has failed us in the past. Despite the success of the Faroes and Iceland – who manage their own waters – he blames our fishermen and not the EU CFP for any current crisis.

Our hope is that the improving scientific reports will sway the day.

But the fishing industry does not all exist offshore.

Many more are employed in our factories turning out what our shops and supermarkets need.

And a recent analysis of 2001 Scottish census figures could suggest that we are doing fairly well. Or are we?

As a Parliamentary Constituency we have 63% of our people working. That is above the Scottish average of 60.6%. But the crunch comes when we look at what they doing.

We are in the bottom 10% when it comes to the type of jobs. We are a quarter higher than the Scottish number who work in ‘elementary jobs’ – jobs not requiring a high degree of skill. And we are in the bottom 10% for people employed as managers or senior officials.

And with 13.3% of our population holding degree – across Scotland it is 19.5% - we are less well educated by a long margin.

So it is very welcome to see Banff and Buchan College rising to the challenge.

I was with them for the launch of their Modern Apprenticeship course in fishing. A small but enthusiastic group of young men told me that they are enjoying the course enormously. And looking forward to getting to sea in our much depleted fishing fleet.

But the 10 on the course does not compare with the 60 or so there would have been a few years ago.

If there are not the mates and skippers in years to come, then it will not be the EU that does us down, it will be our inability to crew our boats.

I hope that when Fisheries Minister Ross Finnie came up here to launch the course he recognised the vital need for a vibrant industry in years to come.

Otherwise these young people’s efforts will be for naught. And like many before them their working life will be spent elsewhere.

We cannot afford to all be working away instead of working here in our communities.

29 October 2003

Vacancies

Reform of the health service is firmly on the agenda. With the general public disillusioned with long waiting lists and “postcode” prescribing denying patients in some parts of Scotland which is available elsewhere, confidence in the government’s ability to deliver for the NHS is shaky. So reform is welcome.

I met the Royal College of Nursing at Parliament this week. They have a monthly Parliamentary forum where MSPs can discuss with a wide section of nurses current issues.

This month it was car parking.

For Banff and Buchan, this is the one NHS problem yet to hit us. But for nurses, and others who work in our health service, the new PFI-funded Edinburgh Royal Infirmary presents a major problem.

It is well away from the city centre. And well off the main bus routes. In any event travel at night – except by car – is nigh impossible.

So with nurses being charged large sums of money to park at their work, there is a big issue for many of our precious and rare staff.

And patients are not exempt. Some are finding that their parking bill can be as much as £50 a month to visit their relatives in hospital. Is the money collected going to help the NHS provide better services? You bet not! Instead it goes straight into the profits of a private company.

But if nurses in Edinburgh – and across Scotland’s central belt – are suffering from huge parking charges, elsewhere in Scotland it has emerged that other – even bigger – transport issues have arisen.

Community Nurses spend their time on the road. We would expect that the NHS would pick up the tab wouldn’t we? Not necessarily so it turns out.

Many are having to provide their own car – as many others outwith the NHS have to – but are being far from fully compensated.

In my calculations – admittedly on the back of an old parliamentary document while at the nurses’ meeting – I found that 10,000 miles a year in their own car could mean that a nurse was up to £1,000 out of pocket. And that from their tax-paid income.

No wonder nurse recruitment is struggling. And with Parliamentary answers showing an aging nurse population expected to be retiring in droves over the next few years – big trouble looms.

But we are there already in many respects. Most major hospitals rely on agency, or “bank”, nurses. A major cost for the NHS and a dripping roast for many agencies.

The major reform exercising the Scottish government, the Executive, concerns GPs – the people with whom 9 out of ten of us make our first contact when we are ill. There is much in the proposed bill on the subject that all will welcome.

GPs will be assured time off overnight and at weekends. A welcome change. The payments to general practices will be better balanced with the work.

But there are warning signs.

GPs in training are at a lower figure than ten years ago. And in our area vacancies are creeping up alarmingly. Across Scotland vacancies are increasingly difficult to fill. A smaller proportion of medical graduates are choosing general practice as their career.

Indeed in Edinburgh we may see the future.

Nearly 300 doctors work as locums. They do not have permanent positions. Instead they choose when they work, whether they work. And hire themselves out on an ad hoc basis. Making much more in the process than their permanent colleagues.

We seem to be heading towards a GP service reliant, as nursing has become, on agency GPs.

Over a number of years we have seen the position of GPs decline to the point where their substantial training and the commitment we require of them is rewarded little better than a parliamentarian.

When we have rising vacancies in GP – and even more so in nursing – with declining numbers of applicants and can contrast that with the average 5 applicants (candidates) for every MP or MSP vacancy – it is time to ask whether the rewards of working in the NHS are sufficient.

But then not every political job attracts the high class, high number of applicants that can ensure that quality is achieved.

Just think about the vacancy caused by the ejection from office of Tory leader, Iain Duncan Smith.

Population Growth

For the second time in recent months the SNP has been experiencing growth. MSP Colleague Shona Robison gave birth to Morag in July. And Richard Lochhead, well known as Shadow Fisheries Minister, and his wonderful wife Fiona have just taken delivery of Angus Findlay Lochhead.

All the best from us all.

24 October 2003

Fishing

It has been said that the relationship between fishermen and scientists is based on trust and understanding. The scientists do not understand the fishermen and the fishermen do not trust the scientists.

This comes after a period where the two seemed to be moving together.

But last year’s so-called conservation measures have driven a wedge between practice and theory. Only occasionally do we get glimpses of the fisherman’s world in the reports of scientists.

With our vessels able to find cod in numbers and size much greater than predicted by the - generally accepted to be imperfect - science, the frustration among hunters is immense.

Indeed the only stock which we can all agree is in jeopardy is the all too clearly shrinking size of our fishing fleet, our all too rapidly falling numbers of fishermen.

Complicit in all this are the Council of EU Ministers who have constantly used fishing as a bargaining chip on other issues. Right from the point when Tory PM Ted Heath agreed that fishing could be sacrificed during the UK’s negotiations to join the Common Market, our lack of control has crippled us.

Contrast that with a conversation I had this week with the Icelandic Fisheries Minister, Árni Mathiesen. He pointed to their ability to respond rapidly, and in close collaboration with fishing interests, to any unexpected changes in catch profiles.

And firmly reminded me that the two successful nations whose fishing nets are full, and whose fleets are prospering, are Iceland and the Faroes – both outwith the reach of the EU’s Common Fisheries Policy.

The immediate challenge is to see a vigorous defence of our fishing industry at the upcoming Fisheries Council in December. And the signs are not encouraging.

Negotiations on the EU Constitution are heading rapidly towards a permanent removal of our rights to our fishing grounds. And at key meetings recently on the subject, countries like the Czech Republic, Slovakia, tiny Malta were all sitting around the table contributing their views on North Sea fishing. Scotland was not there. Not even as a ministerial observer.

ICES scientists have once again said that cod fisheries should be closed. This despite increasing concern about the lack of proper ‘peer review’ of the scientific processes used to underpin their research. And significant contrary views being expressed by eminent scientists.

The report that the plankton necessary as food to the development of very young cod have moved north is one significant indicator that climate change is likely to be far more important a factor affecting stocks than ‘over-fishing’.

Other research emerged last year that cod and haddock – the latter a vital crop for Scots fishermen – did not invariably shoal together. Too late to influence last year’s decisions it has been backed up by more substantial research available to EU decision-makers this year.

The Scottish Fishermen’s Federation proposals to have ‘closed areas’ to allow cod the breed and grow makes such obvious sense that we must hope their plans are read with understanding this year.

But none of this will matter much as if Scotland does not speak clearly and with authority at the negotiations.

The new UK Fisheries Minister, Ben Bradshaw, has – after prodding by the SNP – at least visited some Scottish fishing ports, but shows little signs of knowledge of, of sympathy with, fishing. He wants to move on rapidly to a ‘bigger’ ministerial appointment.

So will Scottish Liberal Minister Ross Finnie get to speak? Will he ensure that Bradshaw exhibits no back-sliding in support for Scottish interests? Or will we once again sign up to a plan to prune our fishing fleet while paying for new boats for the Spanish?

At the end of the day Ministers are sensitive to public pressure. The fishing industry is diverse. Onshore and offshore have often seemed to have different priorities.

So although the need for a single body to represent the whole industry is not yet made, there seems little doubt that we need a united campaign which is heard loud and clear all the way to Brussels. Indeed all the way to the land-locked Austrian redoubt of EU Fishing Commisioner Franz Fischler.

Anything less lets our minsters off the hook and damages Scottish fishing.

15 October 2003

Who is in Charge?

For all the Scottish Parliament Committees this is a season of perplexity. It is later than usual for us to be reviewing the Scottish Government’s budget.

Only two of us in Parliament admit to being mathematicians – First Minister Jack McConnell and me. And I think there is only one accountant – my colleague Jim Mather.

So the scope for questions that focus on the budget’s numbers is more limited than it should be. And with each Minister having to appear in front of the relevant subject committees, that has to be disappointing. But there are other ways of analysing whether the budget makes sense.

In the Communities Committee this past week my focus was on accountability. Not whether the figures add up, but whether we know how the claimed benefits from all this expenditure will happen.

As an opposition we are regularly ‘on the case’ about National Health Service failings – among others. And just as regularly the Government will repeat their mantra that spending on the NHS has never been higher – record investments – highest priority.

And yet the regular feedback from patients is that little seems to be improving.

In local government it is much the same story.

Record grants from central government to councils and yet record rises in council taxes. With little evidence of the increased money reaching the front line.

I was listening to a carer’s tale the other day. More and more restrictions on access to money from Aberdeenshire Council. A very firm drive to restrict and delay access to the respite help that many carers need. And a dramatic rise in stress for them in consequence.

While the Government claims to “have provided record levels of funding to local government”. You get the picture.

Somewhere between Edinburgh and Peterhead there is a ‘black hole’ into which our money seems to be disappearing.

Now in the case of money for the councils we can see some of the problem. If the Government announces (say) a £20million initiative to help carers get respite care you would think that would mean £20million more for respite services.

But not necessarily. Governments these days will ‘ring fence’. They will say to councils, “Here is £500,000 which you must spend on respite care. You cannot spend it on anything else.”

If like most councils claim to be, you are under pressure from your local communities to spend more on something like roads, say, then you will gratefully accept the £500, 000 which must be spent on care. And say that’s great – that frees up £500,000 of “our own” money to spend on roads.

Only to make it less obvious, it may be that what the respite care budget in the council is used to buy may be changed. Or it will be raised a bit but by less than £500,000.

All of which means that firstly it is difficult for government to actually deliver half a million of improvement to respite care services delivered to our local council.

Now if you think like most politicians, there appears to be two possible answers to this problem. Either take the responsibility for respite care, or whatever, away from what central government sometimes describes with some irritation as ‘incompetent’ councils – actually they are all too competent at getting their own, rather than the government’s way. Or further restrict the ability of local councils to respond to local priorities by further removing choice as to how they may spend their money.

But in the Communities Committee questioning of the minister this year I took another approach, a businessman’s approach. I asked whose career would suffer if the Government failed deliver on its published objectives.

Initially the answer was that the Minister was ultimately responsible and would carry the can. Perfectly right and proper but ‘no banana’ if that failure failed to equip the next minister to deliver any more than the ‘failing’ one.

So I pursued my line by asking whether there was a civil servant whose career would falter.

And the lights went on in the Minister’s head. The answer turned out to be maybe.

Prior to the establishment of the Scottish Parliament there was of course a Scottish Government. But in practice this meant the civil service. Doing their best for us but without today’s detailed oversight.

Not every employee of the Scottish Executive has yet come to terms with this. They feel a job well done when they have sent the money to (say) councils. But have felt that delivering the benefit was someone else’s responsibility.

I suggested that one of staff should carry the can if the benefits of spending the money did not occur.

The Minister actually said that she would be taking my words back.

I think she actually feels in charge for the first time.

1 October 2003

Winter comes

Over the last week I have been in sharing mood. Sharing a very heavy cold that is.

In consequence colleagues seem to be falling like nine-pins with the sore throat and splitting headache that I had last week.

But colds and flu are not the only cause of headaches for politicians.

My political party met for its annual conference in Inverness a week or so ago. We went there with a bit of a headache. A leadership challenge had focussed our attention on internal party matters.

A successful conference and a resounding vote of confidence in John Swinney were the outcome.

More important in the long term was the debate on the proposed European Constitution. Fishing, and the desire by EU bureaucrats to forever imprison fishing policy in that document, was a large issue in our discussions.

But we remained clear and focussed – we will have sustainable fishing only when we regain control over our fishing waters.

Each party in turn has its conference at this time of year. The Liberals started the month and New Labour have just completed theirs. The Tories come soon.

But unlike the SNP conference, the gulf between leadership and party activists seems to have widened as a result of the New Labour shindig by the sea. With decisions by the party at large being rejected by the Prime Minister, the real danger is that all politicians, in all parties, are diminished in the public’s eyes.

After all, if the Prime Minister cannot even listen to those who could have been thought to be his colleagues and supporters, what confidence can the wider public have that he would listen to their fears and concerns.

A winter cold has arrived early and is sweeping its way from the party conference towns of Southern England.

Social Behaviour

The Scottish Government, the Executive, is consulting as part of its plans to further address anti-social behaviour.

As a member of the Communities Committee in the Parliament, I joined another member on a visit to nearby Lossiemouth.

Our Committee expects to be the lead for the government’s Bill when it appears in a month’s time and our visit was to gather background information.

The first thing to strike me was how Lossiemouth’s issues and concerns seemed to mirror those I hear from our streets.

The Derby and Joan Club – many Joans and no Derby – were clear that most of their area’s problems derived from the misuse of alcohol. Far fewer were worried by the effects of drugs on their community – a huge problem for addicts they thought, but less for everyone else.

Moray Council has introduced street-drinking bans in a number of their towns – nearby Elgin is one – and Lossiemouth’s oldsters would like one too.

The youngsters who are trying to establish a community café told us that a decade ago there were five places where youngsters could go in and sit. Now there is just one.

So the Executive’s idea of providing a new power to allow police to move groups of youths did not go down well with them. They said, “Where are we to move to?”

But the reality in Lossie, as in our larger towns, seemed not to be lack of powers, but lack of police.

I trust that when we see the Bill, as a wide a section of our communities actually look at what is proposed and puts in their tuppence-worth. Otherwise we will get what the central belt thinks they need. And that could be at the expense of what people in our communities believe we need.

Welsh Talk

In the Westminster Parliament, my party works with Plaid Cymru – the Party of Wales – as the fourth party in that place. And this year it was my turn to travel to their conference with the SNP’s fraternal greetings.

Much is Wales in similar to Scotland. But in one certain respect it is very different.

While Fraserburgh and Peterhead are being equipped with broadband communications and a new support scheme has just been announced to support business broadband connections, we remain far behind Wales.

Their government, the Welsh Assembly Executive, has long since put aside £100 million to ‘wire’ Wales and ensure that they are not left behind in the modern world.

And for Plaid Cymru it makes a difference too.

They have an advanced computer system which can be accessed by all their members via the Internet.

That is the kind of step change Scotland’s political parties, but more importantly Scotland’s businesses and communities, will be denied until we start a serious catch up.

Well done Wales.

17 September 2003

Teething Troubles

There are two subjects which engage politicians and public alike. And on which both will readily express firm views. The Health Service and Schools.

Why? Because we both experience them at some time in our life. And because both touch us at our very core.

Schools are the responsibility of our local councils. Although the quality of the service they can deliver is very much determined by whether the Scottish Government, the Executive, provides enough money.

Although I certainly receive a fair number of contacts about school issues, the numbers are far outweighed by those on health.

Because it increasingly seems that the National health service is in poor health. Just like too many people all across Scotland. And it is unlikely that we can improve the health of our people without racking up the quality of our health service.

The health minister, Malcolm Chisholm – who carries the sobriquet “Jessie” in the Parliamentary press gallery – has, in fairness, not sought to hide some of the problems.

For example, he has acknowledged that cancer services are way below the standards of achievement elsewhere in the ‘developed’ world. And I believe he has honestly set out to do something about it.

The Beatson in Glasgow is an institution with a world class reputation. In part, I imagine, due to the astonishment of international visitors at what can be achieved in decrepit Victorian buildings.

But that is changing and new premises are partly commissioned.

Is it too little and too late?

In a world where cancer specialists are in very short supply, resignations have made the headlines over the last couple of years. New doctors have been reluctant to come to a hospital, however great its past achievements, if that meant substantially harder work to make up for the present shortfall in staff numbers.

Determined efforts by health managers and tightly focussed support by the Minister have to led to what may be the beginning of a turn-around.

But the Beatson is not alone. It is merely more in the public eye, perhaps more in the eye of the press, than most parts of the health service.

And although the Minister might, just might, be achieving improvements, welcome improvements, at the Beatson, the picture elsewhere is dismal.

A recent sequence of answers to questions I have posed is revealing.

The problems with lack of dentists in the North East is not something with which we are unfamiliar.

While in Manchester they have one dentist for just over 1,000 people and Edinburgh is near one for every 2,000, we crunch along with a ratio around one for 4,000. And the shortage means that lists for NHS patients are all but closed. Even private dentists’ lists are closing.

So just how aware are the Scottish Government – and their Liberal and Labour backbenchers – of the problem?

Question – how many 16-year-olds have dental decay? Government answer – don’t know. That is answer S2W-2032 in case you want to see the complete wording.

Question – how much do dentists earn from the NHS? Government – don’t know. (S2W-2355)

Question – how long do people have to wait to get on a dentist’s list? Government – don’t know. (S2W-626)

Question – how many people are waiting to get on an NHS dentist’s list? Government – don’t know. (S2W-625)

Question – how many foreign dentists are working temporarily for the NHS? Government – don’t know. (S2W-2356)

Question – how far do patients have to travel to get NHS dental treatment? Government – don’t know. (S2W-2352)

And most astonishingly – How many dentists are there? Government – don’t know. (S2W-2353)

But they seem to know that there is a problem. For over a year there has been a “Golden Hello” scheme to provide extra payments to dental practices who – somehow – manage to recruit an additional dentist.

It can pay up to £10,000 over three years to these lucky practices.

So how many payments have been made? Six in total. In the health board areas of Forth Valley, Lothian, Greater Glasgow and Dumfries & Galloway.

Absolutely none in Grampian or Highland which it appears are the worst served areas.

When the depth of ignorance about dental provision is revealed by Parliamentary answers, one has to wonder whether there is a NATIONAL health service at all. There is certainly little evidence of one for dental health.

So it is all OK elsewhere then?

Perhaps not. GP vacancies are rising too. Around 50 across Scotland – I await the definitive figures but that is what ‘insiders’ say – and rising. And once again it seems that these shortages are concentrated in our remoter communities where access to hospital emergency services is much more difficult than in our cities.

Maybe the Government fails collect the data on our failing NHS because it already knows the answers.

Whatever we think about that, it is clear the problems are deep-rooted.

3 September 2003

Harnesses

Summer recess over - Scottish Parliamentarians have returned to Edinburgh and to debate big issues.

But not everyone has returned in quite the same spirit.

The heat might be to blame. Or was it the exertions of summer tours around constituencies. Or what? But the effect has been to send three of our parliamentary colleagues back with practical experience of one or another country’s health service.

My political colleague – and Shadow Deputy First Minister – Roseanna Cunningham “Beckham’ed” herself when she stepped awkwardly off a pavement . A broken metatarsal and an early end to her holiday.

One Labour member is wearing a sling and another is wheelchair-bound with a “stookie” on her foot. I have not dared to ask what has been going on.

But the insanity does not seem to be confined to breaking legs and arms.

The similarly named Tory, Struan Stevenson, is a member of the European Parliament. Confusion of names can lead to the occasional hilarious phone call. Some to people who think it is him when I call. And when people call me to ask about Tory policies. I always rise to the bait on the latter.

But there is nothing remotely hilarious about his latest move.

As part of my pack of information from SNP HQ in preparation for our National Conference in Inverness at the end of the month, I have been sent a 160-page book which is the proposed new European Constitution. Every one of the over 1,000 conference attendees will get one.

The proposal in there that sticks in the craw is on fishing. It proposes to make the Common Fisheries Policy a “sole competency” of the EU. In other words to remove for ever – for a generation at least – the prospect of our being able to repatriate control over our fishing grounds to our own government. It would make permanent the EU regime that has wreaked havoc with fish stocks and damaged the interests of all in the North-East.

And Tory Struan Stevenson’s crime?

As Convenor of the EU Fishing Committee, he is supporting this move.
Parliamentarians may be back in harness after their break. But it does not seem to have done some of them much good.

Food, Glorious Food

I am old enough to remember food rationing. The first day after the ending of the “sweetie ration” was one which sticks in my memory. Having enough money rather than having enough points became the issue. And a very welcome problem for a small boy!

Today our problems with food are largely those of excess. Too much fat, too much cholesterol, too much sugar, too much salt.

During World War II, we had a dreary but adequate diet. It was balanced and people were actually much less likely to be unhealthy through diet than they are now.

We do think, we do worry, much more about our diet than we used to. And with many more taking an interest in food, we have seen a wheen of rules about how it may be produced passed into our law in recent years.

In particular, regulations governing the welfare of farm animals such as pigs is now very tight. And quite costly for farmers. Fine if that is what the we want.

But having passed laws protecting pigs, and other animals, from inhumane conditions, why does government buy from producers in other countries where standards are lower than our own? And why does the public?

The reality is that picking up a packet of processed food in the supermarket is no substitute for asking the butcher about his or her meat. They will know.

But the bacon wrapper does not tell the buyer what standards applied to the production of the contents. And despite our apparently operating under a common set of regulations across the EU, they differ materially.

Can our government do anything?

Actually they can. Contracts for purchasing can specify the standards to which products need to be produced. They could demand that food must have been packed with the 24 hours before delivery.

All simple and sensible steps that would help local producers. All ways in which consumers could know whether the food they buy meets the standards they have demanded.

I am going to make an issue of this in coming weeks.

Teething Troubles

I continue to ask questions about dentistry. And continue to amazed at the lack of knowledge professed by our government.

There must be real doubts as to whether there is a national health service in relation to teeth.

Too many ministerial answers repeat the mantra – “The information is not available centrally” or “This is a matter for local Health Boards”.

With more dentists’ retirements in prospect and longer journies for patients for treatment, we look in vain for government engagement in the issue.

22 August 2003

Follow Failure

After twenty years of failure to deliver a decent cod fishery for Scotland's fishermen one might think that governments would look at something different. But last year only the most intensive efforts budged Prime Minister Blair's people away from a total ban to follow the decades of restriction.

Now we hear that scientists are indicating a further decline in stocks. Proof that the present approach is not working.

Bullying and bribing boats into another redundancy scheme that will see even fewer Scottish white fish boats plying their trade is a policy of despair.

Already our processors have to source much raw material from our fishing competitors in the Faroes and Iceland. Because their catchers are doing well by comparison with ours. Why?

At the beginning of March this year I met a remarkable man from Reyjavik. Jón Kristjánsson is an Icelander who has been advising the Faroes government. His approach over recent years has been very different from the slash and burn policies coming from Brussels and London – yes; we must recognise Scotland's very limited influence.

In short-hand he says that we must keep fishing if we are to have healthy stocks. How so?

As I understand it, Jón argues that if we do not have a balanced group of all ages of cod, we shall instead see boom and bust cycles carrying us downwards towards extinction. Because stopping fishing means large year classes of fish swimming alongside very small ones. And that leads to starvation and cannibalism.

Now I do not have to fully understand Jón's argument to accept it. I just have to look at the results of his advice to the Faroes. They are flourishing and we are in decline.

We know that more of the same "conservation" policy means more pain for our communities.

I have only been to Iceland once. And that was during the 1970s "Cod War".

When I arrived at Keflavik airport I cleared Immigration and headed for the Customs post with my suitcase. The burly Icelander there lifted my case as if to open and search it. But no; he wanted to read my address label. Seeing I was Scottish he smiled and said, "Two hundred mile limit for Scotland too."

The difference then was that they had the power to do something about their problems. And choose to do so with the successful outcome we can see.

We choose to do other's bidding then as we do now instead of running our affairs. And we get the crises that go with that.

It is time we tried something new and stopped following failure.

Blind Alley

Recess brought an invitation from Grampian Society for the Blind to join their Board for lunch.

Across our area they are supporting people with a range of difficulties. For some with a less severe, but nevertheless disabling, sight loss, the provision of a prescription magnifying glass can make an immense difference to their quality of life.

Total loss of sight can, if the appropriate support is not available more or less at once, can bring significant loss of confidence with it. That is where the Society come in.

Not only are they advocates for the blind – that is why they had four Scottish Parliamentarians across the table from them in their Board room – but they provide a wide range of services for them.

But that is being made difficult. Training for people to work with the blind is limited and certainly not available locally. And it does not lead to a "recognised" qualification and thus does not attract grants for students.

We – and that included a Scottish government minister – quickly understood one reason why we were there.

Like most people with a disability, it is the exclusion from the world of work that excludes from the wider benefits of our society. Blind people are no exception in finding it difficult to locate and retain good jobs.

Obviously there are a range of jobs requiring good eyesight from which are excluded. Anything involving driving for example. So it is right that companies are given money to support the employment of blind people.

But this is provided for three years only. So jobs seem to last – only 3 years.

I do not think the Minister was well pleased when I observed that for MSPs our help to employ disabled people was permanent.

Perhaps we might just embarrass the government into doing the right thing. Or are they unembarrassable?

6 August 2003

Showing On

We take for granted much of what we have in the NorthEast. And wonder why more visitors don’t come our way.

Fully two years after ‘foot and mouth’, our show season is back up to strength. A few missing stalls but substantial gate takings as people are back.

The fly in the ointment has been the weather. Not the weather that last year saw me struggling to drive out of the mud in one rural show’s car park. This time the heat.

For my part I much prefer ‘cool’ to ‘hot’. When I visited the New Deer show I sweltered in the 20s and at Turriff it must have been well over 30 deg C in the narrow, crowded alleys of the stalls area where my surgery caravan was based.

But the person for whom it was very definitely too hot was, Rural Minister Ross Finnie. I met lots of people at the Turra Show who wanted a word in his ear. And many of the words are not ones I would wish to write here!

I had one brief glimpse of him scurrying between appointments with a retinue of civil servants sweating in his wake.

Farm incomes might have risen this year – a bit, the weather may have been kinder than often to our crops, but the long-term outlook remains uncertain – at best.

On farmer suggested that I should follow up on the 1959 Weeds Act. Hogweed is a dangerous plant for many of our farm animals and our roadsides are awash with this pest. And how many prosecutions have there been for failure to cut it back? I am told it is none.

Another is very concerned about changes in the scheme which currently prevents beasts over 30 months entering the food chain.

While a third spoke to me of the unfair competition he experiences from foreign meat producers who do not have to work to the very high animal welfare standards in force here.

I hope that the Minister heard these issues and plans to act on them. He will hear them from me in any event.

The ending of the Aikey Fair has been a disappointment. It was one of the last of the real ‘horse fairs’ in our area. But the agricultural shows continue from strength to strength.

The Royal Highland Show at Edinburgh is a major national and international attraction. For tourists are encouraged to visit it and add to the diversity of their Scottish holiday.

But despite our strong local shows, and with Turra’s national reputation, there is little evidence that bodies like visitScotland are promoting them as visitor attractions for foreign tourists.

With history, scenery, beautiful beaches and weather we should be awash with visitors. Yes, there are more than last year, but far fewer than our assets deserve.

Our Shows are on. It is now time for a little showing off.

Drugs

Like much of Scotland the mis-use of drugs is a problem for us albeit that it is on a substantially smaller scale than towns in the central belt where much larger parts of their populations are affected.

But a new dimension, a new drugs problem, appears in my email ‘inbox’ almost every day. That is online retailers attempting to bypass the strict controls on prescription drugs.

Today I received a claim to be “your secure source for medications that help you achieve your goals”. And so on.

In the 19th century, anybody could make up and sell drugs to the general public with quite outrageous claims made. Such ‘snake oil’ salesmen were quite properly brought under control to protect the public.

With the Internet enabling emails to be imported into our country offering products which bypass our strict standards, we could be the brink of a significant health problem. Because there is almost no drug without a side effect.

If unsupervised by medically qualified people, or delivered at concentrations higher than can be safely self-administered, drugs can damage and kill.

I do not yet know of people who have bought drugs by this route. Are they being ripped off? Are they being hurt?

We must not find ourselves fixing the problem after it has happened if we can stop it.

Supply through our local chemist is safe and proven. Let’s stick with that.

Orchid Allies

It seems that the Scottish Prison Service may have been caught out again. Their site for a planned new prison in West Lothian is home to three varieties of wild orchid.

Although it might be possible to move the ‘common spotted’, ‘heath’ and ‘northern marsh’ orchids to another site an alternative move might make more sense.

Increase prison capacity with a new build on the prison land at Peterhead.

The Peterhead community knows it makes sense. When will SPS HQ wake up?

23 July 2003

Life Upside Down

The summer recess seems to be long time – two months. But when all the appointments which have been waiting for me in Banff and Buchan are taken account of, perhaps not.

The only two-week gap for a vacation is now over. But visiting relatives on the other side of the world means the journey rapidly eats into the time available.

With my new role as Shadow Deputy Health and Social Justice Minister in mind, it is no bad thing that the relatives in question include two doctors and a nurse.

The husband of our niece is a newly appointed Professor. He is setting up a new research facility at the James Cook University in tropical Queensland in Australia.

With his having developed a vaccine which should prevent the development of diabetes in youngsters, he has already made a significant mark in scientific circles. If the treatment makes it through to the market, I suspect the public might get to know his name too.

So why is he setting up shop in Queensland's northern capital, Townsville?
The obvious answer – that he was born and brought up in Australia – is not the reason.

In recent years the 'Prof' spent time studying in his native Melbourne. Then a couple of years undertaking research at Harvard in 'the States'. Later, Cambridge in England hosted his diabetic mice for a while before the University of Sydney made him an offer.

The relatively young medical faculty at James Cook University has money to spend and took a year persuading our nephew that they could offer him the facilities and support he needed to continue his research. So a move from Sydney to tropical Queensland has been made.

But it could have been very different.

With a Scottish wife and a love of our country – I always take some of our whisky to him – he looked very hard at whether he could set up his base here.

But there was not the money to fund his research. Far less the cash to build a new team with a new laboratory to continue his research.

This week we have had the perfect illustration of our government's poverty of medical ambition. The Beatson Institute in Glasgow – our premier centre for cancer treatment – has won a large grant from a charity to undertake primary research. From the government? Not a penny!

Do we wonder why our bright young scientists lose heart and depart these shores? We shouldn't.

Our relative is almost as far away as it is possible to be – four flights from Aberdeen for us this year – but he is receiving world class support in a small city of 150,000 people. That is how he can do top notch research.

And he is not alone.

One of my wife's many cousins is an anaesthetist near Brisbane. Born and bred in our North-East, he too has ended up, treating, teaching and researching in Australia.

When we visited him, the idea of returning to our creaky health service was inconceivable.

And not just because he now has a family brought up as Australians. Nor the better weather. But even under a government not much respected by any of our Ozzie relatives, the commitment to health care there is greater in practice than in Scotland.

The Scottish government, the Executive, has started a consultation on their NHS Reform Bill. I shall be reading it very carefully over the summer.

Perhaps we all should. Otherwise we only continue to have a health system which struggles.

Fishing for Facts?

The Prime Minister's office in 10 Downing Street has a task force looking at fishing. And I shall be meeting them shortly. So recess makes possible a round of visits to people in the industry as part of my preparation.

And I hear that little is improving. Sixty-nine boats accepted for de-commissioning means we are heading for a near 40% reduction in whitefish catching capacity in less than two years.

Harsh new rules are coming our way this autumn to make life very tough for our scallop fishermen. With Scottish boats being hit worse than English ones and both suffering more than our EU competitors.

So clearly one message that I must get across is the ever more urgent need to de-couple from the EU's Common Fisheries Policy.

The real test of the Prime Minister will be whether he will place a high enough priority on fishing to veto the new EU Constitution which would prevent our ever regaining control of our fishing grounds.

Unity among the various interests in our fishing industry is a rare beast. But my visits have told me that it is there on this. No-one I met wants to stay inside the CFP. And everyone agreed that it has failed over decades to manage fish stocks effectively.

25 June 2003

Healthy Options

The average Parliamentarian seems to be fairly healthy. Despite the stress, despite the opportunities for self-abuse through being away from home and networking in the pub, despite the propensity to travel by taxi when walking would do.

But what might be true for MSPs is not representative of Scotland.

We remain the sick people of Europe and our health service is none too healthy either. Burdened by long waiting lists, trapped by mountains of paperwork, and with inadequate numbers of staff.

So it was appropriate that the government brought us an opportunity to debate the NHS.

And one the first issues we had to grapple with was “What is the health service for?” Because it is no longer clear what divides what provided to all from services available only to those who pay.

The shortage of dentists in our area illustrates the problem. The government have no figures for the numbers of people unable to register with an NHS dentist. Indeed it seems that neither does NHS Grampian or any other Scottish board.

Unlike the responsibility of the NHS to allocate a general practitioner for every person who cannot find one willing to accept them on a ‘list’, there is no duty to find a dentist. Emergency care must be provided – yes – but the check-ups and preventative care which would prevent most emergencies arising are entirely a matter for the patient.

And it is not just dentistry. Chiropody is a service once widely available. Now only those with the most serious foot problems are gaining access to care.

Perhaps part of the reason is that the general public are not at the top table when decisions are made. That is why my party’s amendment to the government’s motion for debate asked for a majority of health board members to be directly elected.

In my contribution to the debate, I focussed on how the voice of younger people should be heard. In particular I recalled how many years ago I was a mere 12-year-old spectator of attempts to cure me of the very virulent acne that had led to my referral to a consultant.

The options for treatment, the possible side-effects of the treatments available, the practicalities of the treatments offered – none were explained.

But as a young, near teenager, I would have liked to help decide.

The Tories brought forward the bizarre thought that only the qualified should be involved. Fortunately not a notion shared by others.

With the telephone industry having Oftel to supervise its activities and Ofgen for power companies, it be time for a supervisor for health services.

Perhaps it should currently be called – Of-Ill. But we really need a Well-Of!

Everyone Loves a Winner

Being a Member of Parliament, there are a lot of invitations. If you do not like meeting people, it is not a job you are going to enjoy. I do, so that is fine.

Every so often something a little different comes along. And an invitation to Hampden fell firmly into that category. In the days when amateur sportsmen and women were paramount, my father had a trial with Queen’s Park so there was a personal interest in the visit.

And my MSP interest was because Mintlaw Academy girls had succeeded in fighting their way through to the finals of the Scottish seven-aside football finals. Sponsors Coca Cola had invited parliamentarians representing the constituencies from which each team had come, to be their guests for the day.

So the rivalry in the stand at Hampden was just as intense as down on the three pitches. If only the quality of ‘play’ among politicians in Parliament was as high as our North-East girls.

Because it was pretty clear from the outset that Mintlaw had some star players. And the wistful comments from officials of the Scottish Schools Football Association about the standard of Scottish boys emphasised the point.

Apparently the win which I saw in April at Banff when the boys’ national team beat England was only a one-off break from a dismal run against the ‘auld enemy’.

So in a week when a girl became her golf club’s champion before reaching her teens, Mintlaw’s girls also showed us that skill, commitment and talent are very far from a male monopoly.

End of an era

I have never flown in Concorde. But would certainly not turn down the chance. A short member’s debate sought to bring one of BA’s retiring aircraft to Scotland’s National Museum of Flight.

As the first plane I ever flew in is already in Hanger 4 there – a Loganair Beech-18 – I have a personal attachment to the idea.

Let’s hope someone out there is listening.

11 June 2003

Prison

With 129 members in the Scottish Parliament it is possible to know most and easy to ‘bump into’ Ministers to whisper messages in their ear.

In the last few weeks I have had four conversations with Cathy Jamieson, the new Justice Minister, about Peterhead Prison. That in addition to a formal meeting which included her officials.

The Minister is a vegan – a vegetarian that does not eat any foods derived from animals – and I have made her an offer. The White Horse Hotel in Strichen is close by Peterhead and has a growing recognition as a centre of vegetarian excellence. When she visits Peterhead Prison, I will buy her dinner at the White Horse.

Hopefully that will tip the balance in favour of a visit to our prison sooner rather than later. Because she says she shares my disappointment at the lack of progress in addressing issues at Peterhead after Parliament said it should stay open.

With the new Chief Inspector of Prisons report suggesting that conditions are worsening, it would not require rampant paranoia to believe that the Scottish Prison Service senior management is deliberately running things down to justify their previous recommendation for closure.

Doubling up in cells just confirms what we have said for some time. There are more sex offenders across Scotland who should be housed in a specialist unit.

And the best way of achieving that? A new build prison for 500, constructed alongside the existing buildings, and at Peterhead.

The issue of allowing prisoners access to toilets at night gains added importance when cell-sharing is in operation. Only the rampant fear of innovation in the SPS seems to be holding back the proposals from prison officers that could solve this problem.

But most worrying of all, is the failure to adequately support the programs work at Peterhead. Management appear to be dragging their heels in recruiting the additional specialists that are necessary to allow the very work upon which the prison’s reputation is founded to continue.

But it is back up the news agenda. If conditions in the prison have not changed I can nonetheless be confident that our community’s determination to keep our prison also remains undiminished.

Europe

My party’s first debate in the new Parliament was on Europe. One might think that strange given that the Scottish Parliament’s ability to influence things in the EU is so slight. But then that is not the point.

The draft constitution catapults the “exclusive competency” that the EU claims through the Common Fisheries Policy over Scottish fishing waters into a virtually permanent institution.

So we have been testing the Scottish government’s, the Scottish Executive’s, resolve to resist this. And it does not seem encouraging.

The First Minister, Jack McConnell, had previously claimed that the UK government had written to the EU on this issue. Of this letter there seems no sign. Certainly the debate showed no sign of a response from government ministers.

As there is a broad consensus among Scottish fishing interests that the Common Fisheries Policy is bad for Scottish fishing one might think that unity against proposals that would may that policy permanent would be possible. But no. Some difference about tactics, some disagreement about motives, continue to prevent all parties from sitting down at one table.

We will just need to keep trying.

If we cannot unite, we weaken the effectiveness of our opposition.

Land

They have stopped making it – land that is. So when communities are gifted land for their permanent benefit, communities quite properly place a very high value on that land.

So the right old stushie about the possible sale of Canal Park in Banff which is now reaching the airwaves is perfectly understandable. The land is Banff’s and Banff no longer has its own Town Council to directly protect its interests.

Aberdeenshire Council, who have to make the decisions, can seem far away. So it is reasonable that the people of Banff are showing that they are not going to let decisions which may be made there become disconnected from the interests of Banff.

The difficulty at present is that Banff folk have a fair view of what they might lose – Canal Park and the associated facilities. But we have little clarity on what we might gain.

I hope that we will shortly see what we can get if we sell. It could just the opportunity to get the boost for Banff that so many say our town needs. Or maybe not.

But the interests of the people of Banff must be decisive and not based solely on public meetings where only the outspoken and confident are heard.

The process used by the Liberal-Independent Council on this issue can set a model for openness and accountability. Or confirm that they are distant and out of touch.

28 May 2003

New Session – Old Ideas

The Parliament’s business is at last beginning to move forward. But that brings mixed news.

Labour backbenchers were seen in a huddle – I know because I joined them for a bit of fun – poring over the “Partnership Document”. Why? Well they may have fought an election a few weeks ago on their manifesto. But now their program is something cobbled together in a few days and without their involvement.

I was treated to the sight and sound of joy when one of the group eventually said, “It’s here on page 38 – it mentions the environment”. The relief on the faces of the others was palpable because they had just come from a chamber when the SNP Environment Spokesperson, Bruce Crawford, had taunted the First Minister on the subject.

But that is what coalition government is about. Early uncertainty for all. So my task is to read their agreement. Perhaps next week.

With the First Minister’s statement on “his” program – actually the coalition program and the one which his backbenchers were reading with alarm – now over, it is time for the hard realities to kick in.

A statement focussing on youth crime which is announced the same day as very alarming violent crime statistics is generally thought to lack credibility.

And for the North-East, the revelation from my colleague, SNP Fisheries Spokesperson Richard Lochhead, that not a single penny of the promised £50 million support for fishing industries has yet been paid, left the First Minister without an answer.

Even worse, he had not known that his Labour colleague, the Westminster Fisheries Minister Elliot Morley, had given the game away when he spoke to an English fishermen’s conference in Derby. He suggested that none of the money promised by the Scottish Executive in January will ever be paid.

Worrying as this all is, it is nothing to what is hidden in the possible new European constitution.

Proposing a new way of working in Europe is not contentious. I don’t meet many people who think the EU is a model of efficiency and responsiveness to people’s needs. And with enlargement to a union of 25 states coming “real soon”, a new and less cumbersome way of working is needed urgently.

But at the heart of the new EU proposals is one to strike fear into all our hearts.

They suggest that fishing has to be a core issue controlled by the very people who have master-minded the white fish fiasco – among others.

I have argued previously that we must escape from this Common Fisheries Policy if our fisheries are to prosper. The introduction of the CFP into the new constitution simply makes it impossible for me to support it. And that is the position my party is also taking.

I see an early meeting with European colleagues looming.

New Boys and Girls

One new arrival at Parliament after the election has yet to put in an appearance. The new MSP for Dundee East, my SNP colleague Shona Robison, is what I can only describe as heavily pregnant. Fortunately one of the new Socialist arrivals is a midwife!

My previous experience as a nurse, a psychiatric nurse that is, in no way equips me to assist at an unexpected confinement. Although my recent attendance at the birth of a lamb at least reminded me of the mechanics of the matter.

But those more vocally present in the new Parliament are beginning to speak up. So far, thankfully, without too many signs of the “madness and mayhem” which one had promised.

A member’s debate on dental services in Grampian attracted 19 speakers. And the sponsor was a newly arrived Labour member.

We have known for some time of the difficulties people in our area experience in getting onto a Health Service dentist’s list. Further disturbing information emerged during the debate.

It appears that over 11,000 have been removed from NHS dentists lists this year already. And the closure of a dental practice in Banff has led NHS Grampian to offer NHS places in Aberdeen or Banchory – hardly on patients’ doorsteps.

But most disturbing of all was the information which showed that less than half of Grampian residents are currently on any dentists’ list, NHS or private.

Prior to the dental debate we turned once again to scallops.

Once again we found ourselves proposing the closure of fishing grounds due to algal bloom.

But interestingly it seems that as many as 10 million scallops may have been delivered from supposedly affected areas over the last four years. And not a single health issue has arisen.

The Rural Development Committee previously pursued this issue. If the new one doesn’t, I surely will as an individual.

Yet another EU regulation fulfilled. But yet another such regulation that seems only to cripple our interests.

14 May 2003

Contracts

When I was in business I quickly discovered that it took a little time to do a good deal. But much longer to deliver what the deal promised. And if one had to get the contract out of the drawer to check the details, one had started on the long and winding road to the courts to fix the problem.

As I write the Liberals and Labour have shaken hands on their deal for the Scottish Parliament. Their 47-page agreement will be pored over for time to come.

Labour get to send failing parents to jail – probably! The Liberals get a “fair votes” system for local council elections – but when?

If I were a betting man – and I am not – Labour will get a Bill through that involves parents in sorting out their children’s problems. And that is precisely what the SNP argued for during the election. But jailing parents – no way will the Liberals go for that.

And my “bet” for the Liberals? They will get a new voting system for local government – and they will get it too late for the 2007 elections. So Labour might hang onto their Central Scotland monopoly a bit longer.

Because the real danger for them is clear. If other parties get to share power in council areas that have only known Labour rule and if it seems better, Labour’s hold on power at Holyrood could also fold quickly thereafter.

But the one thing that I really want to see – and I know I am not alone – is a rapid end to the farce of the new Parliament building. Yes – we may all love it in ten years time. Just like the people of Sydney grew proud of their opera house over time.

Today it remains a symbol of Labour’s arrogance in stitching up a deal before the first session of our Parliament even started. When we already had a building waiting at Calton Hill in Edinburgh.

Priorities

One of the new kids on the block in the second session of Parliament is the Green Party. Yes – one Green MSP was there last time. But now they have broken through the barrier and are large enough to be recognised as a group and to share in the decisions about Parliamentary business.

So I have taken time to read their manifesto. Not something I did before the election as there was no Green standing directly against me. But now I have to work with them – and have to know them.

I will not be alone in thinking it rather strange that their first major action was to table a bill which related to none of the six priorities they laid out for a Green government. Instead they shot forward to some small print on page 8 of their manifesto and have tabled a bill to create – in effect – a new form of marriage which would be available to same-sex couples as well as those in traditional male-female relationships.

Perhaps it was the priority that Labour’s Enterprise Minister, Wendy Alexander, gave to reform of “Section 28” that most damaged the Scots Parliament in the eyes of many during the last session. Did that contribute to the low turnout in the election that we are now agonising over?

Now the Green’s new bill is not the aberration of a single new and naive member of their group. No – it has been signed by all seven of their MSPs – including their leader who with four years’ experience should have known better. And the Socialists have signed up too.

I have seldom seen political “capital” spent so rapidly. I wonder how many of the Green voters when they made their cross on the “list” paper on 1st May realised that this was the Green Party’s priority above all else.

Craibstone

My colleague Brian Adam, now MSP for Aberdeen North, has made an early bid for a debate on the Scottish Agricultural College Board’s plans which threaten to close the rural parts of the college in favour of Edinburgh.

I have met students, staff and farmers who are all united in their view that a college focussed on agriculture should be located in the country. I firmly agree.

But Edinburgh MSPs have already started a fight back. They want the city to have a monopoly in rural education. And have tabled their own motion in Parliament to that effect.

It is rather depressing to see a divide between city and country opening up so early in this Parliament. With a more diverse membership, it simply is not going to be useful to polarise opinion when what we need is common purpose – across party lines – and across town and country.

I am not alone in fighting for SAC’s Craibstone campus in the North-East. We must not lose this one.

2 May 2003

All over but not bar the shouting

This time the results are confusing. Just as I saw numbers of voters struggling with the very large peach ballot paper for the Scottish Parliament list, so pundits struggle to understand the meaning of a six-party system.

The Scottish Greens and the Scottish Socialists are now in Edinburgh in some numbers. Was this the electorate saying “a plague on the established parties”? Or was it a genuine desire to have government take account of what these parties stood for?

If the latter there might be some difficulty. The Socialists have said they are there to bring “mayhem and madness”.

Does that mean that they think we should suspend the business of government for four years? Does that mean that a proper debate of a serious topic must be interrupted by juvenile and spurious interventions designed for a newspaper headline rather than have a forensic analysis of the matter before Parliament?

The Greens would seem to want a serious engagement with Parliament and perhaps the electorate recognised that. They are the larger of the two new parties.

For us in the North-East it would seem that Green issues are the more important as we elected one Green but no Socialists.

My party did pretty well in our area. North of the Tay the SNP are now firmly established as the main party. We gained the largest vote in both North-East Scotland and in Highland and Islands areas.

And with gains in Dundee and Aberdeen, we have for the first time constituency seats in three of Scotland’s cities.

My own delight at being returned was tempered with disappointment at the loss of some Council seats. We have always believed in proportional representation. That would mean that each party would have a number of seats approximately the same as their share of the vote.

That creates a difficulty for “Independents”. But this campaign saw them combine and operate as a party. Paradoxically I suspect that will soon be seen to devalue their “offer” to the voter of being independent. Because all that any other party is, is a group of people operating for a shared purpose. And that is now what the “Independents” have become.

So on share of the vote at the Council elections, we moved slightly towards a fairer distribution of seats in reflection of the voters’ views.

In Parliament any Liberal-Labour coalition government will have a tough time. Depending on who gets elected as Presiding Officer on Wednesday afternoon, they would have only a two or three seat majority.

So one Minister away on business, a couple of members off sick with a cold, a lady member’s pregnancy and the government won’t be sure of winning their votes.

It should also mean that the Liberals can strike a hard bargain about proportional representation – widely known as “fair votes” – for the next local council elections. They compromised on that last time – and I might argue on much more besides – but many of their backbenchers won’t let them this time.

So my party can expect a further adjustment of members in 2006 or 2007 when Aberdeenshire next elects its Council.

I have one personal problem arising from the election – loss of weight! The month of the election is a month of frantic scurrying around. My waistline has shrunk – three notches on my belt – and I am going to have to drill another hole if I maintain my new slim figure.

There were innovations in this election. Local radio station Deveron FM – bravely I thought – gave each candidate five minutes air time in exchange for being pummelled with listeners’ questions. That seemed to work well. I certainly had surprisingly widespread comment from people “on the street” about my contribution.

Less happily, national papers concentrated – as a matter of policy – on national campaigns and ignored individual candidates except in “one-off” constituency profiles. That disconnected electors from “on the ground” campaigning and may have helped stiffen voters resolve to vote against the glitzy, polished politics that was all they saw on TV.

It will be back to “normal” work for MSPs shortly. And a vital need to reconnect by LOCAL campaigning focussing on voters real needs and interests.

30 March 2003

From “Property Executive” Magazine

After thirty years working in technology, it was appropriate that we found our new home on the Internet. Appropriate but not inevitable, for the ambitions of dot com entrepreneurs remain largely unfulfilled.

And the 'middle land' in Banffshire where we live, is neither urban enough to have telecommunications companies fighting over market share nor deprived enough to gain government support for modern communications technology like broadband.

So any internet search is constrained by lesser quality copper cable little different than that installed 100 years ago. But what is undoubtedly superior is quality of life. Despite the fears of some academics I have yet to meet a 'new local' who regrets the move from congested city to rural idyll.

The explosive boom in house prices, and the mirrored ramp-up in commercial property rents, has not yet swept far enough away from Aberdeen to make our new farm steading unaffordable for anyone who, like us, is selling a property in the Edinburgh area.

So there is an inexorable migration North. The accents in our local 80-pupil primary school are clear testament to that.

But migration simply is not an option for too many of our population trapped by inadequate housing and poor local employment. In parts of Glasgow, the majority of homes have no adult in employment.

Bringing housing stock up to modern standards is essential. The contentious Glasgow housing stock transfer has that laudable aim. But the sell-off of Council housing stock seems a dubious way to achieve it.

When I worked "in computers" at Bank of Scotland, I never used to lose any sleep about the odd million or two in my budget. And indeed I remember visiting our London Dealing room when it was still a manual operation. The books failed to balance at the end of the day – by £50 million. Nobody panicked and they found the money three days later.

That is what happens when you work with something every day – like millions of pounds – one becomes desensitised to the meaning for the wider community.

So to spend many hundreds of millions of pounds to fix a problem, such as the Glasgow housing crisis - created by the very political party who is spending our money, must raise hard questions.

In the Scottish Parliament the cheerleaders for discontent among the media have seemed to have the loudest voices. And they say that business has had little attention.

All that means is that they have yet to come and see the heart of the Parliament's activity – our Committees. The Enterprise and Lifelong Learning Committee has been one of our most active. With good relations with business, academia and social enterprises it gives the lie to the critics.

And for those who complain about the power of party whips, a little bit of research into Committee activity tells a very different story.

The heart of making legislation lies in Committee. Sixty two Acts in the last four years. On the Land Reform Bill, seven MSPs (3 Labour, 2 SNP, 1 Tory and 1 Lib Dem), spent months poring over the detail. I know I was one.

Of the first sixty votes, Labour's opinion split on 13 occasions, the SNP's on 7. And no response from party whips because we are expected to be there to listen to the evidence and make up our own minds.

The new Parliamentarians after 1st May will build on their predecessors successes and failures.

There will be just as many challenges for parties that grow in size – and move into power – as there will be for those that shrink.

But for all of Scotland it is there for keeps. And it is up business to step up to the task of lobbying, persuading and perhaps even getting their own way occasionally. Just like everyone else.

28 March 2003

End of Term

After four years of the Scots Parliament the papers are full of end of term reviews. And Parliament is full of retiring members fighting to the front to make their last speeches.

Of course there will be others whose future is less certain. An election is the ultimate appraisal. And like most work appraisals it will not be wholly objective.

As I have written elsewhere, “People are not influenced by what you do, nor by what you think. What matters is what people think you do.”

So the perceptions that people have of Parliamentarians do actually matter.

In four years MSPs have asked 36,377 or so questions about the governance of Scotland. Far more than would have been asked if the Scottish Parliament had never been established. I have asked my fair share – about 550 in two years – while one Labour backbencher has been so incurious about the nation’s progress as to ask ten questions in four years.

Instead of the occasional late night debate on Scottish affairs that we were allowed at Westminster, I have spoken in our Parliament on 76 occasions in only 22 months.

Some parts of the media would paint a very different picture however.

There is genuine concern about the cost of the Parliament building – now eight times what Labour’s Donald Dewar promised – but little recognition that everything that mattered was decided before any of us were elected.

The so-called foxhunting bill attracted disproportionate attention. It actually occupied a relatively modest amount of parliamentary time. And it was a backbench bill. Meatier matters occupied us more.

But the main failure of the media has been in failing to distinguish between Parliament and Executive. Now Westminster saddled us with this confusing nomenclature. Instead of ‘Government’ we got ‘Executive’. Instead of ‘Prime Minister’ we got ‘First Minister’.

And all too often the failures of government (the Executive) have been blamed by some of the press upon Parliament and parliamentarians. Curiously when the Westminster government is faulted it does not lead to blame being heaped on that Parliament as an institution.

In a sense this can been seen as ‘noises off’. Over the next few weeks neither the press nor the politicians will be making the important choices.

In Banff and Buchan we have been fortunate to have many people prepared to join with politicians and campaign on local issues. That is how we kept Peterhead Prison. That is how we wrung the promise of new investment for Banff’s Chalmers Hospital out of reluctant decision-makers.

And that shows that politics does matter to people. And that the choices made on 1st May do matter and can make a difference.

Fishing for Facts

The main difficulty confronting us continues to be the brutal regime imposed upon our fishing industry,

Although it targets our catching sector, it affects others. The processing sector has had to source much more of its fish from foreign catchers. And redirect its efforts away from fish types suffering more limited availability.

Highlighting the increase in imports illustrates the industry’s problem. But it must not be seen as a criticism of processors who support so workers.

The £10 million transitional support scheme for the fishing industry has been published but the EU, as if their Common Fisheries Policy was not a big enough burden for us, are moving at a snail-like pace to approve the scheme. Indeed will the prospective recipients still be around when the money finally arrives?
The prawn catchers are suffering, in part because of the diversion of some white fish boats into catching prawns, from a 20-year low in prices.

In Committee this week we learned of the plans to allow the ‘prawners’ to fish with 95mm nets instead of their current 100mm. Great stuff! This allows them to stay at sea for 25 days each month instead of the 15 that 100mm permits.

One panel of 95mm in a 100mm net makes the whole net 95mm. So it should be a modest upgrade cost for the industry. Thank goodness we have learned something from the French – at last – about how to implement EU regulations. Ignore the intention. Just find the way that suits us.

But does this not just show the whole absurdity of the new restrictions? Nets that catch less allow our fishermen less time at sea. Nets that catch more allow them more time at sea. Very wee nets allow the Danes to sweep up 1.5 millions tonnes of fish from their ‘industrial fishery’ each year.

19 March 2003

Off the Beaten Track

For some years Sandra and I were able to travel to many countries in the world which were regarded as firmly “off the beaten track”.

In 1976 I well remember standing on the hill above Amman, the capital of Jordan, and looking westwards.

With the naked eye one could see the Israeli port of Haifa, some 60 miles away. What that did was to put into my mind one of the reasons why Israel feels vulnerable. Tanks from Jordan would take only a few hours to cross their country.

We crossed from Jordan to the Israeli-occupied West Bank. The Allenby Bridge across the Jordan river was no more than 60 feet wide. A temporary structure, with a Jordanian army machine-gun post at one end, an Israeli one at the other – pointing at each other, linked by a “field telephone”. And a three hour security search before we were allowed in.

Today the middle-east is even more unstable and dangerous than when we were there over a quarter of century ago.

My late father-in-law had been there too. He was part of our armed forces trying to maintain order and stability under the Palestine Mandate. He made a quick exit in 1947 when it was no longer possible to keep the peace.

And now that the political decision has been made that “our boys” – and increasingly, “our girls” – will march into Iraq, our first concern is for all in our armed services who do the government’s bidding. My doubts about the legality of the war – and like most thinking people, I still have them – have to be secondary. Until afterwards.

We are now captives of our US friends and allies. Why? Years of spending on nuclear weapons – useless in today’s conflict zones – have left our armed forces too small. Well trained – yes. Determined and committed – yes. Well equipped – doubtful.

So the safety of our soldiers, sailors, aircrew and all their support services, civilian and military, will depend on the high-tech American forces – and their equipment.

Be in no doubt that George Bush wants us there as a “political” ally much more than as a “military” one.

I have yet to meet an apologist for Saddam Hussein or his brutal regime. And I do not expect to.

If Saddam is toppled that is well and good. The fight for a fairer regime in Baghdad can then start – fairer for the Iraqi people that is.

But if a US-led attack on Saddam is seen by the public across the middle-east as an attack on “their people”, we will, as after 55 years of Israeli-Palestinian conflict, continue to pay the price in wider unrest – a more dangerous world for years to come.

We must judge success not by the toppling of Saddam but by whether world security improves or worsens.

George Bush’s high-tech weapons of war may win the war but cannot win the peace. That requires skills of persuasion, diplomacy and respect for others’ cultures and traditions that he has yet to demonstrate.

12 March 2003

Arguments or Logic

The great debates in Parliament get lots of attention. But the really important debates take place in the Committee Rooms and the corridors.

So it was not particularly unusual to find me sitting with a government Minister at a table in our canteen in Edinburgh. With us were tenant farmers to whom the fine detail of the Agricultural Holdings (Scotland) Bill mattered a great deal.

And the subject of debate at lunch? Whether an SNP Amendment to an Executive Amendment should be supported. We wanted, and the tenant farmers wanted, the operation of a key part of the Bill to be back-dated to Aprtil 2002. The Minister and his civil servants wanted September.

In the event, I spoke later in the Chamber using the notes written over lunch on a canteen napkin. A first I think!

But the government remained obdurate and our proposal fell. Was that the end of the matter? Not really.

The parties to this issue outside the Parliament had actually agreed that our amendment made sense. An unusual alliance, the National Farmers’ Union Scotland, the Scottish Tenant Farmers Action Group and the Scottish Landowners Federation. Yes – tenants and landlords working together to common purpose.

The SLF even put down a note from the public gallery in Parliament so the Minister was aware that they supported our amendment.

But at the end of the day the timidity of the Minister’s civil servants won the day. The amendment fell. And that happens a depressingly large number of times.

In the Scottish Parliament we can make things happen by building alliances. That was how I managed the MSP end of the Peterhead Prison campaign and ended up saving that institution.

The over-arching question remains – what directs political decision-making?

In a word – fear. Fear of losing the next vote in Parliament. Fear of losing the next election. Fear of exposure in the press.

So where a concensus can be built – as with the Argicultural Holdings Bill – many opposition amendments, especially those pressed in Committee, can be accepted and Bills improved.

But logic – the power of evidence – plays a smaller part in decision-making. So even when the Rural Development Committee came forward with cross-party agreement firmly based on evidence drawn from meetings in Aberdeen and Edinburgh that suggested a different way forward for fishing recovery, it could still be rejected.

Despite the many individuals and fishing organisations who gave evidence – and who often submitted written material to make sure that we knew the right questions – Ministers still determine outcomes.

And Ministers’ advisors are civil servants who will keep whispering ‘caution, caution’ in their Minister’s ear.

The first task of a new government after the forthcming elections is to make sure that they control their civil servant advisors and that they are not controlled by them.

So if we are going to get a change in fishing policy, we need a change of ministers. And that means a change of government.

Still Crusading

The fishing industry is one with many competing interests. Inevitably when prices in the market are high, the skippers and crews are happy – provided they are first in with their fish and have enough on board to make money.

Processors suffer when supplies are short and prices high.

But at the moment prices are low. So catchers are suffering. And this on top of the EU’s pernicious restrictions.

So it is galling for everyone – including the consumers – that supermarket prices have not budged an inch while landing prices are so low.

With the traditional fishmonger disappearing from High Streets across Scotland, the big retailers control fish sales.

That means that they set the price for supplies and control what we pay. Margins – the profit they make – are higher in our supermarkets than in the USA for example.

So it is good to see the first signs of some coming together in the fishing industry. The Fishermen’s Association has joined with Northern Irish fishing interests to make a stronger, bigger negotiating body.

Now that more and more politicians agree with me when I say that getting out of this EU Common Fishing Policy must be a priority, it should be time for divisions in the industry on this issue to end.

And not just between the various catchers’ organisations but stretching out to create an alliance between the SFF, FAL, the processors and the new Fishing Services Association. Because as the old saying goes – if we don’t hang together then surely we will be hanged together.

Will not EU Commissioner Fischler just rub his hands in glee at every split and division in our industry and every attempt to split major political parties from fishing?

That’s why the Cod Crusaders were giving MSPs fresh fish this week. We may not have it much longer unless we unite.

Stewart Stevenson
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