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26 February 2003

Mysteries

Hundreds of years ago there were the “Medieval Mysteries”. These were plays on contemporary issues.

Today we have the mystery of the SSIs. Perhaps we should call them “sighs”.

So what are they? SSIs are Scottish Statutory Instruments. It simply means a simple way of making law.

For us at the moment they are of vitally important interest. Why? Because SSIs will be used to lay before Parliament the “Decommissioning Scheme” for fishing boats and the other measures that form the government’s redundancy package for our industry.

But their very simplicity creates real difficulties.

The procedure means that MSPs cannot table amendments to refine the proposals in them. Nor do committees scrutinise them like Bills.

So we can only accept or reject them.

They do enable rapid response to situations that arise.

At a time when our white fish fleet is still trying to understand the new rules under which they are supposed to be operating, the SSIs which are appearing are yet another confusing restatement of rules that need analysis all over again.

So why is it so confusing?

In the main it has to be the European Union processes. The whole fishing fiasco stems from there. And their consideration of the plans that have got us into the present mess had an even more cursory examination there.

The plans themselves had to be published a mere 7 days after the scientific report upon which they had to be based became available.

I suspect I shall find few fishermen who would disagree with my view that we must build an alliance of interests to repatriate control of our fishery back to our coastal communities.

It won’t be quick. It won’t be easy. But it offers the only long term hope.

In the meantime, we shall just have to struggle on with the SSIs. The “Fishing Mysteries”.

Eating Out

There is rarely a week when there are not invitations to hear the views of some organisation or another. If it is one with a direct interest in Banff and Buchan I make every effort to be there.

Scottish Enterprise Grampian obviously fall into the ‘must attend’ category. And not just because they may have the money to help our local industries.

This week was a briefing on food and drink. In practice it turned out to be the former.

Our area is widely known to produce the finest food. Fish, fowl, pig and cattle to name a few.

But what we lack is a tradition of eating out.

With so many menfolk working away – on fishing boats, on oil rigs – their time at home is precious and eating with family has a special savour.

So it is a bit difficult to draw in visitors to sample our food in its prepared form. Without a customer base, we have fewer restuarants than elsewhere.

And yet when we try just a little bit harder, we do very well. I haven’t yet managed to get around every eatery in the area, but I am prepared to keep trying.

The White Horse in Strichen won an award for vegetarian food in 2001. And with good meat produced here, it was not an obvious specialisation for them.

However the real pay off for them is that non-meat eaters are bringing their carnivore friends in increasing numbers, and often over long distances, to eat there.

So it was pleasing to hear from Scottish Enterprise that such initiatives are their thinking too.

I never mind when good ideas get ‘lifted’ and copied.

Because our food entrepreneurs just keep coming up with the ideas.

Badgered

A number of our fence posts at home are coming adrift. Why? Badgers.

They are clever enough to keep out of sight during the day and I haven’t yet seen them at it. I do see buzzards flying overhead on the lookout for food.

Like most people I enjoy being close to nature and respect the creatures that share our environment with us.

Is it not strange therefore how many domestic animals seem to end up ill-treated by humans.

This was brought home to me when I attended the AGM of the Willows Animal Sanctuary near Strichen.

For several years now they have taken on responsibility for animals found in disgraceful conditions. And since the sanctuary’s move from Gardenstown, their future seems much brighter.

With a bright and interesting web site at www.willowsanimals.com and their public opening planned for 19th April they have their future clearly mapped out.

But it is the animals’ futures that matter.

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.

We could start by counting things. As I was previously a manager and am a mathematician by education, it is inevitable that I count. Not perhaps to the obsessive degree that has my wife unable to climb a flight of stairs without being able to tell one how many steps there were.

So 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 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 must not be 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 our needs.

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.

12 February 2003

Moray Makes Waves

Next door to my constituency is that of my colleague Margaret Ewing. Moray constituency is of course famous for whisky above all else.

But like Banff and Buchan it is affected by the EU-created fishing crisis. And like us they now have fiesty women fighting their corner.

So with our magificent trio of Carol, Morag and Caroline – the Cod Crusaders – now well known to us all, we now have Moray Making Waves.

And my first meeting with them was at our Rural Development Committee’s meeting in Aberdeen’s Town House. They are a fine addition to community campaigning for our industry across Scotland.

Less welcome were the gaps on Labour benches. We have four of their members on our Committee. But only two, and those with furthest to travel, could be bothered to come and meet community representatives.

And the tradition whereby local members give us the courtesy of their presence didn’t help either as Labour’s two Aberdeen members were nowhere to be seen.

Tories, Liberal Democrats and my own party, the SNP, had all made sure we were up to full strength to hear of the pain caused by Commissioner Fischler.

With the introduction of a system of substitutes in Committees last year, there really is no excuse for any party being understrength on such important occasions.

But the real passion of the speakers in Aberdeen who came to give us evidence – Gary Masson from Fraserburgh’s Northern Producers used his time most effectively for example – is fuel for our examination of the UK fisheries minister’s action.

Eliott Morley won’t know what’s hit him when he appears before our Committee in the Parliament Chamber in Edinburgh at 4 p.m. on Tuesday, 18th February.

The architect of many of our woes, the EU’s Franz Fischler, said ‘no’, so I guess the man who chose to sign-off the plans on behalf of the UK will just have to carry the brunt on his behalf.

And Elsewhere

With Parliament now sitting an extra half day each week we are sweating to get through outstanding legislation. Shortly we shall be spending two days on the new Criminal Justice Bill.

That’s the one that, thanks to my intervention, will not make criminals of parents who lightly smack children when talking to them fails. And which also bans the use of implements to hit and makes illegal blows to the head.

Useful advances in the protection of our kids.

It will also allow video links between court and jail. I well understood the value of that when I visited Tain Sheriff Court last year as part of the Justice Committee’s Crown Office & Procurator Fiscal Service investigation.

A prisoner was brought from Inverness’s Porterfield Prison all the way up to Tain for two minutes in court. His trial would come later. It was simply a procedural hearing.

To achieve that two policemen had to drive between Tain and Inverness and hang around at court for the hearing. They said nothing and the prisoner said less than 10 words. But it took these bobbies away from more useful tasks for about three hours!

So TV is not just about entertainment.

We shall also see email being allowed for the issuing of search warrants. And that will save a lot of time and effort too.

Worryingly though, the Minister did not seem very clued up when I asked about safeguards. After all the criminal justice system would be held up to ridicule if a hacker could mischieviously get warrants to search, say, the Chief Constable’s private house.

But the officials have come to the rescue and sent me a large briefing document that shows that they are ‘on the case’. More useful changes to bring the operation of our law up to date.

The week past also saw debates on two smaller but important Bills before Parliament. And to the shame of the Liberals in particular we saw them voted down.

For at least fifty years proportional representation has been a key manifesto commitment for Joe Grimond and his successors’ party. But Wednesday saw them vote against a Bill which would have empower ministers to introduce a system of proportional voting for local government elections.

And then they went further. Their green credentials took a severe knock when they voted against a Bill promoting production of organic food.

Now organics is a hot topic. Liberal minister Ross Finnie has been in hot water with his own party’s conference over his support for GM crops. And now his Parliamentary Party has voted to kill the Organic Targets Bill. So what is going on here?

It is part of the price the Liberals are having to pay for being in office with Labour. Large numbers of Labour Councillors would lose out if the voting system were made fairer.

Rock Challenge

Occasionally a constitiency engagement on a Thursday evening means that I can convince our Chief Whip to let me off Parliamentary duties early. And it was some occasion and no duty at all that dragged me north last week.

At Aberdeen’s Exhibition Centre the Global Rock Challenge was taking place. And I was invited.

After Peterhead Academy’s success there last year I sat up and took an interest. Youngsters dancing for 8 minutes and making an anti-drug statement is well worth watching.

But it is even better than that. About five hundred performers and several thousand spectators don’t just turn out for any old amateur production.

The Fraserburgh Junior Arts have a long tradition which shows the talent available in the town. And if the Academy’s “Dreamz” crew are anything to go by the Junior Arts will have a rich seem of talent to draw on in years to come.

A fine performance and one to build on for next year.

Let us hope that when I am presenting a prize then it is Fraserburgh hands reaching out to receive it.

Stewart Stevenson
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