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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.

Stewart Stevenson
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