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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.

Stewart Stevenson
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