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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.

Stewart Stevenson
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