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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.

Stewart Stevenson
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