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21 October 2004

Fishing

The Banff and Buchan area contains communities rooted in traditional industries and values. Both fishing and farming depend heavily on the environment and weather.

Both breed exceptional people able to respond and adapt to changing circumstances.

Since the late 1980s, unemployment has fallen substantially to a current level just over a quarter of that when my colleague Alex Salmond was first elected.

That has been possible with changes in the world and state economy but has utterly depended on the spirit of entrepreneurship in local folk. We have over twice as many self-employed people in our area when compared to Scotland as a whole.

But despite the presence of good schools and the very active and successful Banff & Buchan College embedded in our midst, we retain a substantially lower level of qualified people than elsewhere.

This may be about to bite.

It is well documented that our major industry of fishing has faced over recent years, and continues to face, quite exceptional challenges.

Our pre-eminence in the fishing industry in all its variety – catching, processing and servicing – has always been firmly based on catching, without which other sectors would never have existed.

While the pelagic sector has grown and prospered, despite the best efforts of UK and EU governments to deny our fishermen fair quotas, it remains the junior partner in the catching sector.

White fish catching remains paramount. But for how much longer?

Each year has seen unreasonable the EU and its Common Fishing Policy bite deep into the capability of our industry. The recent scientific report once again recommending a complete ban on cod catching in the North Sea does not signal any useful change of heart.

But it is not just those currently hunting the cod and haddocks that are affected by the current artificial restrictions in catching.

Faced with an industry palpably in decline and an apparent inability or unwillingness of the present governments to fight for it, youngsters are making choices about future careers outwith fishing.

And not just catching. Processing factories depend on special skills. As earnings have dropped among filleters, paid largely on a piecework basis, new entrants to the industry have dropped and advertised positions attract few applicants.

When the catching sector suffers, the effects are widespread and subtle. Clearly fewer boats mean fewer shore-side jobs – painters, engineers, icemakers, etc.. – supporting them. But when you have a limited number of days at sea each month it is compounded by crews undertaking self-maintenance that would previously have been done by shore based locals.

And what economists call ‘third level effects’ also kick in. The butcher’s shops – we have about 16 in Banff and Buchan – suffer as fewer crews buy their grub for fewer voyages. Paper shops sell fewer small items as fewer men stop for last minute items enroute to their boats. Fewer new cars are bought as earnings drop.

So the ill effects of policy decisions do not just affect those directly employed.
The oil industry has helped mop up some of the slack. But this notoriously boom and bust business has two generations – at most – to go.

Individuals in the industry continue to innovate. And that is one of our community’s great strengths.

One of the most interesting suggestions I have heard is to develop a ‘brand loyalty’. The ‘Eddie Stobbart Fan Club’ personalises and glamorises an English trucking company – ‘Eddie spotters’ collect numberplates!

The ’16 Men of Tain’ are part of the legend that has kept the Glenmorangie brand pre-eminent in a crowded industry and meant a £300 million price tag on their heads.

Perhaps we will see the faces of our notable skippers beaming off the supermarket shelves as southerners fight for the last pack of cod on the shelf caught by their favourite, and trusted, north-east man.

And then the justified pride that we have in our industry, and in those who go to sea to sustain it, will carry forward for more future generations than we can number.

13 October 2004

Female Talent

One of my nieces, Jo, visited me in Parliament within the last few weeks. As a member of the UK Orienteering squad she is a top line athlete and lives in Sweden.

And she has until recently been a recipient of a development grant from sportsScotland. So when we saw Scotland’s Sports and Culture Minister at the next table when we went for lunch in the canteen, I nobbled him to come across for a chat.

Now while orienteering – nicknamed “cunning running” – is a very popular sport and attracts thousands of participants for its Scottish Week event each year, it is not an Olympic sport. And it has therefore been taken off the list of sports being supported by our government.

That despite it being a very cheap sport, and a sport where we do well. Jo’s brother Jamie won the world sprint orienteering championship last year and others do very well.

So while Frank McAveety made encouraging noises, seemed interested at how little it took to support a sport that only needs the countryside as its resource, and asked Jo to write to him, I counselled speed.

Rumours of a re-shuffle were rife and Frank’s coat was generally thought to be on a “shooglie nail”. For it was he who had been eating a mutton pie, beans and chips in the canteen when he should have been I front of Parliament answering questions.

In any “proper” government, Frank would have had his jotters that same day.

Instead it took until the beginning of October – many months later – before the First Minister finally gave Frank the right to linger in the canteen for as long as he wants.

But while the fate of Frank might concern my niece and her fellow orienteers – personal contact made, personal contact broken in less than a week – the re-shuffle has a more interesting story to tell.

Our new leader of the opposition – Nicola Sturgeon – is the first woman to have held a party leader’s position in our Parliament. And Jack has struggled for every one of the five weeks of encounters at First Minister’s Question time.

That tells us something about our First Minister. But so does his continuing failure to use the undoubted talent of impressive women on his own backbenches such as Susan Deacon, Jackie Baillie and Wendy Alexander.

The question is whether they were asked and said “no” or why were they not asked.
In a new Cabinet with as little talent as the old one, many are now coming to the conclusion that Jack is afraid to have talent in the same room as himself.

The poor soul is now besieged by clever females behind him and in front.

Open At Last

George Reid was elected as the SNP member for the parliamentary constituency of Ochil in 2003. Previously a list member, he had been one our Deputy Presiding Officers.

In this Parliament he was promoted – by secret ballot of all MSPs – to Presiding Officer.

In this role he keeps order during our debates. But, more critically, he chairs the Corporate Body that manages the operation of Parliament.

By general consent, it has been George who has finally knew how to crack the whip and get our new building ready for its formal opening on 9th October.

As a senior official at the Red Cross in Geneva, he had been involved in disaster relief and knows how to make things happen. He tells of one occasion when he arrived at an earthquake zone ahead of much needed Red Cross supplies.

They were stuck in customs and local officials were insisting on seven copies of each bit of paperwork. And insisting on one original and six carbon copies – photocopies would not do. The snag was no one in that country had carbon paper.

George simply chartered a plane from Germany to bring carbon paper and the relief work went ahead.

So it was no surprise that when George took charge of our faltering, failing building project, things started to happen.

On a fair but chilly day, I found myself on the “Riding” from the old Scots Parliament – the oldest purpose built such building in Europe and now an ante-room to our highest court – down the Royal Mile to our new home at Holyrood.

A “riding” it may have been called – after the ridings of the old parliament – but we walked down the hill. There were a few muttered curses from the ladies – high heels, long walks and cobbles don’t mix – but we enjoyed it.

My guest for the day, Ellon Steele from Chalmers Hospital A&E, and I waved and laughed with the crowds. And yes, she gave our First Minister a brief insight into life at the NHS coalface.

29 September 2004

Private Agenda

The 7:84 Theatre Company are about to reach the climax of a highly successful tour across Scotland with their play “Private Agenda”. They close shortly with a week in Edinburgh. And I have commended their efforts to a number of pals who live there.

As a political, campaigning theatre group it is unlikely that their efforts will meet with universal approval.

In the 1970s they first made their name with “The Stag, The Cheviot and the Black, Black Oil”, a play about the bonanza off our shores. With oil prices now hovering around the $50 a barrel level, one could be forgiven for imagining that the good times were about to roll for Scotland again.

But the contrast with Norway could not be starker. Sharing North Sea oil fields across our boundary with them, Scotland has done so much less – and had so much less opportunity – to make good use of a once in a lifetime find for our country.

With their own government, the Norwegians have made sure that much of the oil wealth has been invested in ensuring prosperity “after oil”.

Without a government of our own we have, by contrast, seen our oil wealth squandered on propping up the feckless spending plans of successive London regimes. And the result? Little permanent change to our infrastructure. Over the very long term, no real benefit.

This was the ironic and pessimistic message that 7:84 brought to stages across Scotland 30 years ago – and they were correct.

So their present play on this government’s use of the Private Finance Initiative – PFI – deserves equally close attention. Because we shall see the effects of today’s policies on a similar time-scale – thirty years.

I have to say that 7:84’s play about PFI did not immediately sound like a recipe for an evening’s fun-filled entertainment. But first readings can be misleading.

After my watching – and participating in – their performances in Paisley and Fraserburgh, I can report a lively re-invigorated company engaging in a serious subject in an interesting, engaging and entertaining way.

Because when you tell the story of “ordinary people” – but then the most interesting and “extraordinary” people generally turn out to be “ordinary people” – you find humour and mordant comment in abundance.

The 7:84 play “Private Agenda” has the four actors speak the words of people affected by PFI. Hospital workers forced into organisational structures that actually prevent them being able to help patients directly – schools denied their books because PFI bills had not been paid – and Skye Bridge Toll campaigners being charged with two further offences each time they went (non-paying) across their bridge to appear in Dingwall Sheriff Court.

But it is more than a play. The second half has the cast, artistic director & writer Lorenzo Mele and various politicians, on stage to discuss the play with the audience. At a time when the public does not turn out for political meetings, I have found my two “performances” stimulating, and the public’s ability to express their reaction to a political topic greatly heartening.

Political supporters and opponents of PFI have had their opportunity to be on stage, albeit that Labour MPs and MSPs seem to have been very reluctant to appear before the public.

With a parliamentary motion commending 7:84’s efforts, there is support for their efforts among politicians. Perhaps this will be the way to re-engage the public in political debate.

But it appears that the Scottish Arts Council, whose support has been important in allowing the play to tour small towns across Scotland, may be having cold feet.

I will certainly be supporting such ventures in future – although I cannot know whether I will find all as politically compatible with my views as this one.

Big Money

This week has seen the budget announcement for Scotland. Following a lack-lustre launch by First Minster Jack McConnell of his program for government, this was an opportunity to put flesh on the bones. They failed by the reckoning of the media – no flair, no new ideas.

On the face of it there was a large increase in transport spending. But all but the Aberdeen City Bypass – “announced” for the umpteenth time – were on central belt projects.

At long last we heard something of a national free transport pass for pensioners – we thought we were to get that last time and didn’t – but it turned out to cover buses and not railways or ferries. For people living on islands, no improvement at all.

All further evidence that the government simply does not have people who understand rural concerns.

But hidden away seemed to be further spending on building and improving prison facilities but this is coupled with cuts on the money spent on preventing re-offending.

Confusion but some hopes as well.

1 September 2004

In at last!

I now have a very large key for an office in the new Parliament. Simple arithmetic tells me that each MSP’s key cost £3.34 million instead of the £300,000 or so that Donald Dewar promised us.

The fact that new offices for MPs in London cost even more per head is little consolation for a general feeling of having been misled.

The space is fine although it is always possible when you have had no opportunity to influence the design, to make suggestions for improvement. That won’t happen – we have spent more than enough.

The MSP offices are “good enough” – workmanlike and with all the facilities we need. The tea and coffee machines haven’t arrived yet but the walk to the staff canteen might keep us fit.

One MSP’s suggestion that we should have a bus from the centre of Edinburgh seems misguided. I have timed the walk from the railway station to Parliament at a brisk ten minutes.

We should all take 30 minutes exercise each day, so that walk twice a day and using the stairs and not the lift, will just about do it.

Tuesday, 7th September at 9.30 is when we first use the Debating Chamber for real. A statement from the First Minister on his “Program for Government” and two days of debate on that – interspersed with the weekly question times – will show whether the visual elegance of our new chamber lives up to expectations.

But if it is all show and just the same Labour-Liberal Democrat gruel we have had of late, there will simply be no point and public disillusionment will grow further.

Because this government must raise its game. And with our new Scottish Parliament leader of the opposition in place by then, my colleagues and I will be “up for it”.

The SNP’s leadership election has been a very successful exercise in democracy. It has engaged our membership in our first “One Member – One Vote” election and persuaded nearly 80% to actually cast their vote – much more than in Parliamentary or Council elections.

As I write, I do not yet know the result. But I do know that whoever ends up in Leader and Deputy Leader positions will be fit for the job.

And ready to challenge the prevailing mediocrity.

Council Tax

I spoke at the Scottish Conference of the Institute of Revenues Rating and Valuation in Crieff last week.

My political philosophy in relation to taxation – and that of my party colleagues – derives from Acts 4:34 & 35 –

“..those who were possessors of lands or houses sold them, and brought the prices of the things that were sold .. and distribution was made unto every person according as they had need ..”

which was later rendered as

“.. from each according to his abilities, to each according to his needs ..”

For the mark of a truly civilised society is one where the better-off support those in need. But we must be fair to taxpayers as well.

And that is why the SNP are in favour of a local income tax for councils to raise their local income.

The current arrangements for an average Scottish band D property in 2003-4 meant a Council Tax charge of £1,059.

For older people – owning property, but mostly on fixed or cost-of-living linked incomes – this has been a serious burden.

The poorest saw 3.3% of their income going on Council Tax in 1997 but that rose to 4.8% in 2001/2. The richest in our society continued to pay only 1.4%.

That’s why many pensioners are campaigning for change. And that is the message I put to the Councillors and officials who attended the conference, the SNP alternative which would relate payment to ability to pay.

But I said more to them.

The cost of the present system, and the uncollected tax, amounts to some £250 million pounds. And the income tax system we would use to collect local tax is already there. So we can save substantial sums of money for the public purse.

We see the kind of changes that I advocated as being fairer to taxpayer, and to those our taxes support, as well as being more efficient.

With the government currently undertaking a consultation on the issue and probably a majority of MSPs now in favour of an income-related local tax – including all the SNP and Liberal Democrat members – change seems unstoppable.

Privacy

The forms that ensure you stay on the electoral register will be coming your way soon. Make sure you send them back!

And if you want to get less marketing mail, make sure you tick the column to stop your name appearing in the “Edited Register”. It then becomes illegal for anyone to use your register entry for marketing purposes.

But you can still vote.

23 July 2004

Beef

For the first time in ten years, Sandra and I have managed to visit France for our fortnight's holiday. And it has been quite revealing.

Every restaurant has to display where they source their meat. So when we stopped for a snack at a motorway service station, there it was – meat from Brazil, Germany and France.

None of our prime Scottish beef anywhere.

But that was not all. I picked up a well-produced leaflet about all the steps being taken to ensure that French customers eat safe meat. It described many of the types of beef available in France – including Irish “Aberdeen Angus” beef, described as superior beef – but no mention of our fine meat.

Any why is this? Yes – because of BSE – but mainly because of our government's inaction.

We know that failures in government administration of beef in England were largely the cause of the BSE problem. But that need not have been a major problem for Scotland if the Dutch approach had been adopted.

With regional variations in the incidence of BSE across the Netherlands, they broke their country into beef regions and allowed farmers in areas not much touched by BSE to continue exporting.

But for Scotland's Labour government the idea that Scotland should have a distinctive solution to a very different situation to that in the South-West of England was abhorrent.

And the result? – a very successful export trade killed off at a stroke and the French now believing that Aberdeen Angus beef comes from Ireland.

Trains

The failures of the Tory rail privatisation are too well known to be worth revisiting. But the return to the idea that infrastructure – the big networks of roads, rail, communications and the like, that enable other things – should be created as a result of government action has to be welcomed.

As Sandra and I motored across France we saw just how different things can be when government takes such responsibility on to its shoulders.

The TGV [Train Grand Vittesse] is a model of effective, high speed rail travel. And would not have happened without government action.

But it does not stand alone. We saw that the TGV station for Lyon was integrated with the local airport terminal and the bus station was adjacent. Even the car hire rental facilities were there. So true “inter-modal” transport in action.

Meantime we see a West Coast rail link from Glasgow to the south being delayed and possibly abandoned in its original form.

For us in the North-East, the most vivid demonstration of a failure to support railway infrastructure relates to freight facilities between Aberdeen and Dundee. To accommodate modern container traffic on our railway we need £2.6 million of upgrades. That is less than the cost of a small suburban railway station such as that built on the west of Edinburgh at Edinburgh Park.

The return on investment for our modest upgrade is way above that delivered by current railway projects. But progress? A study but no commitment to do the work.

One cannot help noticing that the announcement of additional powers for the Scottish Parliament in relation to our rail network was made in London – and without comment from the Scottish government. That does not exactly fill me with confidence about their preparedness for the additional responsibility.

But it is a start, even if light years away from the French approach to railway, road and communications development.

Scottish Water

As with most people who live in the country, we do not have access to mains sewerage facilities. We rely on our own drains and septic tank.

And last week we needed a blockage in our sewer cleared before I could have a bath. This happens occasionally because the pipe has a slight dip where it should not. When the problem recurs, the remedy is obvious and relatively quickly implemented.

But for people in urban areas, the option of the septic tank and direct control over their own facilities, is not practical.

So they have their sewerage provided by Scottish Water. Or not. Because the investment guidance provided by the Scottish government has directed money away from domestic housing developments.

We therefore have the spectacle of new house building across Scotland being delayed by Scottish Water's inability to provide connection to the mains sewer.

Too much time wasted ignoring problems of waste.

23 June 2004

Uncivil Servants

At long last one has the feeling that the building of the new Parliament is sticking to an agreed schedule.

I actually have a time and date – 10. a.m. on Monday, 30th August – when I move into my room in the MSP block at the “real” Holyrood – G.19 it is. The ersatz version at the top of the Royal Mile in Edinburgh has lasted five years when about 18 months was the plan. And the new building has cost about £430 million when the original figure was £40.

But the real issue has been the obfuscation – that is a fancy word some people use instead of saying “lying” – about the true cost.

I arrived at the Parliament in 2001 after two years in which Alex Salmond had represented us there.

For both of us the frustration of a “done deal” for our new building – stitched up even before any MSPs were elected – has overhung anything that could be achieved within the walls of our new institution.

I had worked within a brick shed, of no architectural distinction, on the industrial outskirts of Edinburgh for some 20 years. About 110,000 square feet in size and housing nearly 1,000 staff, it had cost approaching £100 million long before Parliament was in prospect. So I had always thought £40 million was fantasy.

Civil servants with no project management skills and, it seems, even less common sense, were put in charge of the building works. Being 8 weeks behind schedule after only 20 weeks into the project meant nothing to then manager, Barbara Doig.

For me a slippage of that size that early would have been a firm red light signalling “STOP” until we understood what was wrong. But to the civil servant in charge, the conclusion was very different – there was plenty time to make up the slip.

A distinguished American author on computer project management, Professor Fred P. Brookes, poses a key question in his book “The Mythical Man Month” – “How do projects get late?” and gives the answer – “One day at a time”.

This was clearly not a book read by our civil servants.

There are many excellent and professional civil servants around. I meet loads of them in my day to day business.

But the Holyrood incompetence virus seems to be spreading. And to our disadvantage in the North-East.

It has been two years since we won the battle to save Peterhead prison. Looking at the behaviour of the Scottish Prison Service senior management, it seems that they are determined to thwart government minister’s policies. And damage our local interests.

As long ago as 2000, the local staff put forward a proposal that, at modest cost, would avoid the legal mess now surrounding “slopping out”.

The suggestion has been “safety proofed” but not acted upon. And the recent court case on the issue brought by a Barlinnie remand prisoner has shown the SPS senior managers as incompetent.

These were also the people who could not recall how much their private prison cost when asked in parliament in 2001. Who could not answer provide the information necessary for Reliance to take over prisoner transport. And who blame everyone but themselves for the many problems throughout their service.

So far, Justice Minister Cathy Jamieson, has carried the can but we can expect to see her patience snap shortly. I have invited her to visit Peterhead in August, and she has agreed to come.

The only question is whether the necessary changes at the top of the SPS will have taken place before or after that visit. But there seems little doubt that changes there will be and that they will benefit us.

Change

The North-East has much more to offer people than our friends in the South seem to realise.

It was a real coup for Turriff when they persuaded the British Pipe Band championships to come north. On a warm day it was a magnificent sight and sound.

And later the same day I was at a Deveron Music Festival event in Banff Academy.

A new work based on the mathematics of the shape of the bay between Banff and Macduff and the rhythms of oil exploration did not strike me as an appealing theme. Wrong! A magnificent piece of music performed to a high standard.

But underpinning important events in Banffshire is Duff House. An outstation of the Royal Scottish Academy it depends very largely on support from our local council.

Like at Scottish Opera, a meanness of spirit – and wallet – is threatening this valuable local asset. With visitor numbers on the up after last year’s excellent Vetriano exhibition, it seems an act of philistine folly to be planning winter closure for Duff House. Just like the Scottish government’s apparent determination to end full-scale opera in our country.

New Votes for Old

When the Scottish Parliament was first elected in 1999, Scotland was first introduced to a proportional voting system But as it simply required two votes on two separate papers, it did not require much new thinking by voters.

This week we finally passed a Bill that will change forever the face of local government elections – and local government councillors.

At the next election, we shall elect councillors in “multi-member” wards and by a system of single transferable voting. What it will undoubtedly achieve is a break of the electoral stranglehold that Labour has over councils across Scotland. No longer will they win 9 out of ten seats with only half the vote. So it will undoubtedly be a fairer reflection of public opinion.

So how does it work?

For electors in Fraserburgh, for example, we shall probably see a single ballot paper to elect four councillors for the town. People will rank their choices. Instead of an single “X” against one choice on the ballot paper, they will put “1” against their favourite, “2” against their second choice and so on until they have put a number against each of the perhaps 12 to 20 candidates there might be for the four places.

Now if someone is particularly unpopular with an individual elector, then one won’t be forced to put any number against their name. That will mean, “I will never support this person”.

My political party, the SNP, has supported this voting system for many years. For our internal decision-making we have used it for many of our elections. The whole membership of the SNP will use it to elect our new leader shortly.

If the EU election results indicate the outcome for the next Council election, the SNP will gain somewhat and will be the biggest party on Aberdeenshire Council. In Angus, we might lose a bit.

But it whether we gain or lose is secondary to the importance of having a “fair votes” system.

Local Fraserburgh Councillors will have to represent the whole town. And our current crop will be judged in about three years time by how they have supported the entire community in the meantime.

Good luck colleagues!

9 June 2004

Unreliable Words

From time to time one hears someone make the general comment about politicians, “you can’t trust a word they say”. Curiously the people who say that rarely mean a specific politician or have a particular comment made by one in their mind.

But this past week in Parliament we perhaps got some insight into why such attitudes exist. The Parliament’s Justice Committee heard from Labour’s Justice Minister, from the head of the Scottish Prison Service and from a Reliance boss. You will have guessed by now that the subject was – prisoner transport – and the manifest deficiencies in the new privatised arrangements which have seen unauthorised releases of dangerous people.

The rich colour of the English language contains just the phrase to describe what the committee heard - pusillanimous persiflage. What the Oxford English Dictionary (www.oed.com) defines as “a frivolous manner of treating any subject” which is “lacking in courage and strength of mind”.

Because according to the Reliance loon, the prison service had not provided proper information about the workload they were expected to take over. So it was not their fault it all “fell about” on the very first Monday at Hamilton Sheriff Court then.

Next up to the witness box, the Justice Minister pleads alibi – the prison service is a government agency, not a department, and is therefore not a direct responsibility of hers. That’s OK then?

Pusillanimity reached a new level when “old lag”, and prisons boss, Tony Cameron took the stand. Now in the Scottish legal system, the jurors do not normally hear of the accused’s previous convictions. There are exceptions, for example, in the case of previous rape accusations and a track record for perjury.

So it is as well to note that Cameron has relevant “previous”.

During the campaign to save Peterhead prison, he also had to appear before the same committee. On that occasion he seemed not to know, among other things, how much it had cost to build Scotland’s only private prison. This despite his service having published proposals to privatise more of the prison service.

His latest pleadings included the astonishing information that he had not been party to a contract being signed by the service he is paid (quite substantially) to manage – a contract worth more than £100 million. Once again, the boss is nowhere to be seen when a complex and expensive contract is agreed.

He did accept that the information given to Reliance was poor but suggested that the people taking over from his service were in a better position to know what was needed than he was!

So with the three parties to the prisoner transport debacle all pointing fingers at each other, and denying that “they” were responsible, it may not be surprising that some members of the public say; “you can’t trust a word they say”.

Let’s restore a little public confidence and make sure someone pays, and is seen to pay, the price for incompetence. Prison boss Cameron is number one in the frame for me and with previous form, a long sentence is appropriate.

But maybe a short one would do. How about; “You are fired”?

Unreliable Words - 2

A deluge of secondary legislation comes MSPs’ way. This week I had the pleasure of having to study the draft “Town and Country Planning (Electronic Communications) (Scotland) Order 2004. Don’t you just love these snappy titles?

A perfectly well intentioned Order which will allow certain communications to be made by email. If that speeds things up and lets people make faster, cheaper progress with their planning applications, well and good.

But, and it is a big but, the implementation does not suggest that the civil servants understand this “new” way of passing messages.

For one thing there is no service standard that requires that email be delivered within any particular timescale. And in any event what does “delivered” actually mean – available to be retrieved by your computer for you to read? – actually read by you? – perhaps even it means “sent”.

Because in planning as in many other areas of government, time is important to the processes.

More fundamentally, as anyone who receives unsolicted emails – spam – knows, one cannot be certain that the apparent sender is really who sent it.

Imagine acting on a “false” and malicious message – for which there no specific legal remedy.

But even if it came from the right person it might have been deliberately altered during transit. Emails are like postcards. Anyone handling them once they are “in the system” can read them and could change them.

So for a piece of legislation to ignore the technology that would mean secure messages can be sent and received is simply not good enough.

The Order has already been withdrawn, amended and re-tabled once. Hopefully they’ll make further changes.

Dentists

The excellent news that Banff is to get half a million pounds for a new dental centre is very welcome.

With the government announcement of £2.5 million more across Scotland for dentistry came the news that twelve more salaried dentists would be recruited by the NHS. But given the very real difficulties that local dentists have already experienced in recruiting new assistants, where are they to come from?

Such an investment ought to give heart to dentists considering Banff as their base as it indicates, at very long last, a serious commitment to tackling our long term shortage.

But where should it go? With the Chalmers hospital development committed but distantly timetabled, the planning for that may have some awkward interactions with our new dental facility.

I hope that townsfolk with an interest in the subject will join me in writing to NHS Grampian and express their view. The alternative might a decision in a vacuum and we would be unlikely to approve.

Charity Begins at Home

The government has just issued a consultation on their proposed new charity law. My initial view is that we have between three and four hundred voluntary bodies or trusts in the Banff and Buchan constituency who might be affected by proposed changes.

As I will be on the Committee which will consider this Bill, I will be taking a close interest in this.

Although I shall try to contact as many charities as I can, there is no complete central list. I hope they will put their view to me – soon.

6 June 2004

Sloppy Management

The Justice portfolio in the Scottish Executive has not been a comfortable one for Minister Cathy Jamieson.

The “missing prisoners” fiasco brought to her desk courtesy of Reliance. And the “slopping out” case brought by remand prisoner Robert Napier.

With tabloid headlines inches high, recent events have not been the foundations upon which ministerial careers are built.

But perhaps there is a deeper and wider malaise than even recent events have shown.
A problem touching not just ministerial incompetence but illuminating a failure of management within the civil service. A failure of some to adapt to the existence of the Scottish Parliament and an unwillingness to accept political decision-making.

And a long-term failure of certain civil service managers which has been allowed to continue for the five years since this government came to power is also a failure for that Executive team. Because just as Parliament must hold the government to account, the government must hold our civil servants to account.

We can explore civil service performance through the justice portfolio because of recent manifest failures but also because of other less publicised incompetencies in the last five years.

The activities of the Scottish Prison Service in particular provide a fruitful area to study. As an agency rather than a government department, its activities are a little, just a little, more visible. And the civil service personalities more visible.

It is no surprise to observers that the SPS has been at the heart of recent embarrassments for the Justice Minister.

In 1999, the SPS was already working on plans for replacing outdated prison buildings. With large numbers incarcerated in Victorian buildings and without access to overnight sanitation it was already clear that something had to be done if the government was to avoid legal challenge.

Previous Chief Inspector of Prisons, Clive Fairweather had already commented adversely and recent weeks have seen a fierce critique from his successor, Andrew McLennan of the long-term failure to tackle slopping out.

We now hear some briefing that the £13 claw-back from Prison Service spending in 2000 undermined the SPS's ability to deal with the problem.

But senior insiders suggest that Chief Executive, Tony Cameron, may have volunteered the return of these funds soon after his appointment. He wanted to “look good” with his newly-elected masters and mistresses and hang the future. So it may not have been a claw-back but a gift.

However, Ministers share some of the blame in not looking too closely at the implications of the cash windfall delivered to their budget. Jack McConnell, the then Finance Minister, may be a mathematician but his credibility as an effective manager is less clear. Perhaps this was an early sign of his inability to think strategically.

The Scottish Parliament is a comparatively small body, one where I was able to personally speak to four fifths of the members within 6 working days of my becoming a member in 2001. It is therefore not surprising that opposition members can build useful and direct relationships with government ministers.

Within a short period of my taking my seat in Edinburgh it was evident that the potential closure of Peterhead prison had to be top of my in-tray.

Having cancelled a significant investment in gatehouse facilities at the prison within weeks of taking office, prison chief Cameron was already determined to close an inconveniently successful institution. Peterhead was planned as one of the sacrifices to promote his career.

But when the SPS Prison Estates Review was published, with the plan for closure, the fear took concrete form and the Peterhead community started mobilisation to save a valued and valuable local employer.

In Parliament both SNP and Tories took early positions in support of Peterhead. With Liberal Democrat Jim Wallace as Prisons Minister taking a publicly neutral position and his political colleagues initially unwilling to retain a old prison without modern toilet facilities in the cell, their support was harder to earn.

But the local Prisoner Officers Association committee had told me of a proposal to solve the slopping out issue at Peterhead. In 2000 they had put forward a plan to change the deployment of the existing staff complement to enable higher supervision levels at night. This would enable the safe opening of cells on request to allow prisoners toilet access.

Their proposal met with a brick wall and they were told that this was not acceptable to ministers.

So it came as a surprise when I probed Labour attitudes to Peterhead with the then Deputy Justice Minister, Richard Simpson. Ministers had heard nothing of the proposal.

Now one could dismiss the SPS response to the local POA as their expressing an opinion as to what ministers' attitude to their suggestion would be rather than reporting ministers' actual views were it not for a further incident.

The SPS proposals for the prison estate were complex. In particular the SPS wanted to build two private prisons. This would have ruled out a re-build at Peterhead for sex offenders as no one in government, or opposition, wanted to hand over this category of prisoners to the private sector.

So I sought other options which might be acceptable to the Scottish government. The French approach to involving private finance in the public sector had been established since Napoleonic times - “La Concession” - and looked of possible interest.

Adoption of their approach would avoid having to force the government into accepting the SNP's policy of using a financial trust to get public investment “off balance sheet” while delivering that same benefit with public sector staff providing the service.

My Parliamentary assistant quickly established that getting permission to visit a prison, provided through this hybrid model, would not be easy.

So I approached Richard Simpson again. He was relatively keen on any idea that would remove the government from the SPS cul-de-sac. He promised that he would have his staff approach the French authorities and offered me a place on the resulting visit. I would have to pay my own way but I thought that worthwhile.

I jokingly said that we would continue to pursue our own attempts to set up a trip and that he could come with me if I was successful.

A week later I had the agreement of Madame Martine Birling of the Minstère de la Justice to visit La Bapaume prison north of Paris. A request to extend my group to include a government minister clearly amused them but was agreed.

I was therefore surprised to be told by the Deputy Justice Minister a few days later that his officials had found it impossible to obtain permission to visit a French prison.

To his very great credit Richard Simpson accepted my offer to accompany me. But it was little surprise to me that he was told that his diary was full for the agreed date.

My visit to La Bapaume was useful and I filed my report with SPICe, the Parliament's Information Centre.

I think the obvious tactics to prevent ministers having meaningful access to sources of information other than the SPS were sufficiently blatant to contribute to Labour's support for Peterhead prison at senior levels.

For the Liberal Democrats I had to bypass the SPS and ensure that the Peterhead POA's offer was seen by ministers. That proposed way of dealing with quite creditable Liberal concerns about slopping out was sufficient to gain their support.
But as we now know, the slopping out story had much further to go.

Despite the ticking time-bomb that the Robert Napier case represented, the SPS have continued to stonewall any implementation of the plan to address slopping out for 300 or so prisoners at Peterhead.

The local staff proposals, first tabled about four years ago, have been rigorously, and successfully, risk assessed. Indeed in Cornton Vale, a system similar to that proposed for Peterhead is already in operation.

But an SPS paper of 11th March this year, shows a determination to reject staff proposals. This despite the risk profile of almost all sex offenders at Peterhead being compliant and low-risk while in prison.

In advance of the results of the Napier case being known, the paper shows prescience when it says, “Its findings could have enormous implications”. And yet by 19th May, after the case result is known, the SPS Chief Executive is still writing to me to say, “No final decision has been reached”.

The ultimate culmination of four years consideration is drift, delay and indecision.
With the blunder over processing the government's appeal of the Napier decision and a history of, at the very least, incompetence in the SPS, patience must surely be at an end.

Those with an operational response for the many failures of the prison service must be dealt with. But the Minister is there to take political accountability. Failure to spot the operational weaknesses and dissembling are her problems.
It is time the price for failure was paid.

26 May 2004

Healthy Growing

When I was at school it was as part of the post-war baby boom that saw 450 in my high school year.

And of all that number three suffered from asthma – Roger, Teddy and me.

Like most asthmatics of my generation, the wheezy attacks vanished with adulthood but may return in old age.

My experience of the condition has left me with three things – a distaste of strawberry jam because my “powders” were delivered to me wrapped in the stuff on a spoon, an ability control my breathing through self-hypnosis and a determination to keep reasonably fit.

And keeping fit means exercise when the opportunity allows – I have probably the smallest taxi bill in Parliament because I walk – and a diet with very limited sugar and based around as much food prepared from raw materials as time permits.

The result is that although am no longer the 10 stone, 5 foot 11, “stick insect” that my wife married in 1969, I comfortably within my medically correct weight.

If only that were so for the next generation.

Scotland now has the fattest kids in the world – official.

With twenty percent of our children seriously overweight and a trend that will see that rise to a third in a few years, we are stoking up health problems in years to come.

The fat epidemic is already impacting in some areas of Scotland. Life expectancy is actually falling in parts of Glasgow as being overweight is taking its toll.

And being overweight derives from one simple equation – people eat more calories than they burn off in exercise. Because the amount we eat is rising and the exercise we take is falling.

Our habits are just that – habits. And the most persistent of our habits are formed early.

So if we can start children on a healthy eating road, there is a good chance they will stay there.

This is why my parliamentary colleague, Shona Robison, SNP MSP for Dundee East is introducing a Bill to control snack machines in schools. At present the fizzy drinks companies and the sweet snacks companies rule the roosts in many parts of Scotland. They want a new generation of customers addicted to their unhealthy, and expensive, snacks and where better to capture their eating habits than early – in schools.

So the multi-national companies pay to be allowed to site their vending machines in the corridors of our schools.

Shona gave birth to her first child in the first week of the parliamentary summer recess last year. Only a week earlier I had had the alarming experience of sitting next to her while she was making a major speech, watching the as yet unborn youngster kicking her stomach wall – from the inside! – desperate to join in. An MSP in the making indeed.

But Shona is determined that when her offspring go to school that the food habits they acquire there will be healthy eating ones. The alternative is lives shortened and impaired by diseases which often come with obesity – diabetes, heart failure and joints problems to name but a few.

Children’s Hearings

Lord Kilbrandon’s "Children and Young Persons Scotland" report was delivered to Parliament 40 years ago last month. It said:

"Wherever possible the aim must be to strengthen and develop the natural influences for good within the home and family, and likewise to assist the parents in overcoming factors adverse to the child's sound and normal up-bringing."
and:

"In our view, referral should be made to ... panels for one reason only, namely that prima facie the child is in need of special measures of education and training."

Today’s Children’s Panels are based on Kilbrandon’s report.

Interestingly his report shows that between 1950 and 1962 the number of juvenile crimes was greater than today’s figures. So the panels certainly seem to be delivering something.

However, a lot has changed in our society since 1971, when the panel system started. Indeed, when one considers how short a distance ahead changes in our society can really be seen, it is remarkable that a system that was established so long ago still stands in good regard.

The Children’s Hearings are something which most MSPs support. But the time has come for a review and I hope we will see a good number of considered responses to the government’s consultation. I have already started preparing mine.

Dalai Lama

The signposts around Edinburgh are showing a welcome poster for the Dalai Lama’s visit to Scotland this week. In a material world, many people will approve of a focus, for a little while at least, on higher matters.

And among the lucky ones meeting and questioning the Dalai Lama will be a group from Peterhead Academy. I shall be joining them on Wednesday when he is in Parliament to address MSPs.

12 May 2004

Tissues

The Scottish Parliament is not all-powerful – no news there then.

So I find myself having to look at what is happening at Westminster from time to time. We have a significant number of pieces of “secondary legislation” which relate to previous Acts which were passed before our Parliament came into being.

Each day approximately three such SSIs – Scottish Secondary Instruments – are tabled for consideration. Most are “negative” instruments.

By and large they represent a mechanism for Ministers to vary lists, set fees and similar low level activities delegated to the government by various Acts of Parliament.

At Westminster these constitute a significant volume of legislation. And we should not imagine that they are all benign.

It was just such a piece of legislation, published a few weeks before an election, that removed 6,000 square miles of Scottish fishing waters into English jurisdiction.

The other kind of SSI is the “affirmative” instrument – one which requires the agreement of Parliament before it can pass into law. These are generally dealt with in Committee and only reach the floor of Parliament if seen as particularly contentious.

One I moved against recently sought to raise the fees for planning applications that local authorities must charge. I asked why, when the government’s stated policy was to empower councils, they were setting such charges at all.

Why not allow Councils to set the charges themselves? The efficient, and those wanting to attract new industries and housing, could set low rates and lay out their stall as being “open for business”. The Councils which are badly run and inefficient could suffer.

But no – competition in this regard would be “unfair” – says Labour Minister Mary Mulligan.

With a uniform business rate across Scotland and with the formula which determines how much money our local council gets ensuring that we are chronically under-funded, we have few enough competitive advantages that our council can use to promote our area.

So it might have been just a little boost to have one tool in the box to fight with.

Instead I heard that this government plan a consultation – they have had about 600 already since coming to power – on the subject. If we need a motto for this government it could be “consult and avoid decisions” as that seems increasingly to represent their way.

Core legislation takes the form of Bills before Parliament – in Scotland as at Westminster. And it is perfectly reasonable that we look at the experience of another Parliament before taking a topic forward.

But for the lack-lustre crew running the Scottish government, this is a one-way process. They look all too often to follow Westminster.

I am taking an interest in the Westminster “Human Tissue Bill” precisely because Malcolm Chisholm, the Scottish Health Minister, has said that he expects to mirror the proposals within it when we legislate in the Scots Parliament.

The Bill is much needed. It seeks to prevent the abuses which arose at a number of hospitals which saw babies’ brains and other organs retained for research without the parents’ knowledge.

But its detail is likely to have much wider implications.

It basically says that before any tissue can be used for any purpose other than to promote the health of the individual from which it came, written permission must be provided.

On the face of it, a sound proposal.

On a visit to the Immunology Department at Aberdeen’s Foresterhill Hospital, I saw that it could make life very difficult even for routine lab work vital to patients.

The definition of “tissue” in the Bill appears to include blood samples and normal human waste. So?

Much of the delicate work of our labs requires “reference” material to go through the tests alongside suspect material taken from patients. This provides a vital check that lab processes and equipment are working correctly.

At present such material is readily available to the labs. In the new world it could cost as much as £30 per test for “consented” material and be in much shorter supply.

The rules in this Bill seem some way distant from protecting the rights of children and their parents.

I am going to keep a close eye on this as I have no problem with anyone “taking the P…” from me if that helps another human being.

A Day in Edinburgh

One of my favourite Parliamentary activities is meeting constituents who drop into Parliament. And school visits are especially well catered for by our Parliamentary staff.

Banff Academy joined us here this month and pressed MSPs, including myself, with some pretty hard questions. And then they had a mock Parliamentary debate.

It must have been a good day – the teachers have signed up to come again next year.

I welcome engagement of our youngsters in the democratic process. The alternative is dictatorship.

28 April 2004

Competent?

With the announcement of a referendum on the proposed European constitution and the looming EU Parliament elections, focus is once again on fish.

Inevitably much of the debate is legalistic. And I now carry a copy of the draft with me because hardly anybody knows what is in it.

But it would be a ‘cheap shot’ if I were to hand it to every person I meet who makes a comment on the constitution.

The reality is that referenda are blunt instruments. They deliver political verdicts on governments rather than answers to the questions posed.

And for us, the key part of the Constitution is Article 12 which is headed up as ‘Exclusive Competence’. Let me make sure all readers can argue from an informed position. Here is the first, and relevant, of the two paragraphs:

“The Union shall have exclusive competence to establish the competition rules necessary for the functioning of the internal market, and in the following areas:
  • monetary policy, for the Member States which have adopted the euro,
  • common commercial policy,
  • customs union,
  • the conservation of marine biological resources under the common fisheries policy.”
And in case there is any doubt what ‘exclusive competence’ means; it means that the EU decides and we must legally do it – if we sign up.

The very real debate about whether Europe already has the power to force us to conform to their lunatic ideas about fishing – or not – does not matter. The point is that now, while we are discussing the introduction of a formal constitution for the first time, we can make a change of benefit to Scotland.

The Liberals and Labour in the Scottish government seem to be taking the very strange position that we signed a treaty on this in the early 70s and cannot get out of a commitment made by the Conservative government of the time. This despite the proposed new constitution being a new treaty which replaces all the previous ones.

Since when have Labour in particular been reluctant to change previous Tory dogma? Well actually less in practice than on paper. But you know what I mean.

In any event one can search previous treaties in vain for the word ‘exclusive’. The reality is that if exclusivity exists at all, it derives from a court case in 1976. And there is no doubt that a treaty over-rides case law.

The bottom line is – who wants to protect our fishing industry?

The Labour and Liberal Scottish government say that the EU’s CFP can be ‘fine tuned’ to deliver what we need.

Thirty years of EU fishing failure, and the lack of action by Tory and Labour governments at Westminster to respond to those failures, does not convince many that this time we shall get we need.

Unless we persuade them to force through changes to the constitution.

Back to School

My wife and I went back to school last week. I was one of 52 in my P7 class in the 1950s. Sandra attended a country school with a total of 24 pupils – rather similar to New Byth who had invited us in.

The key thing the pupils wanted, was to engage us in the campaign to ensure that all the world’s children had at least some access to free education.

Well they convinced us. An example to us all.

Feet

The Scottish Parliament is claiming a world first – or at least a first in these islands. We are the first to have a debate on chiropody, or as it is now called podiatry. The science of looking after feet.

And this is by no means a trivial matter. The dramatic increase in diabetes over recent years is one reason.

A side effect of diabetes is problem circulation. Not enough blood gets to the feet in particular. And regular foot care by a professionally qualified podiatrist increases the chances that problems will be spotted early and fixed.

So it is reasonable that diabetes sufferers can now get free chiropody. But that does not mean all is rosy in the world of feet.

Our older citizens, whose health and independence depends on their mobility, are routinely denied such free access.

A slightly ingrowing toenail can develop into a seriously debilitating condition. Someone previously active and asking little from the public purse can quickly become housebound and dependent. And cost very much more than the cost of the chiropody that would have prevented it.

So it was right that we challenged the deputy health minister on the subject of feet. Many warm words resulted.

But his closing words in the debate carry a stark warning for any watcher of this government; “we will continue to monitor the situation”.

And we will monitor the minister to see if any action actually results.

31 March 2004

Family Life

In Scotland we are faced with a considerable number of challenges in public life. Recent years have seen our population shrink and within the decade we are likely to us cross the 5 million barrier – downwards.

At the same time we have, like other EU countries, an aging population. A challenge for any country wanting to prosper. And a subject now receiving cross-party political attention.

So it came as a great challenge to me personally when a visitor to one of my surgeries brought me an unpleasant letter he had received from “Jobcentre Plus”.

To divert for a moment, I find many of the “brand” names which government adopts quite baffling. Just what would a visitor from Mars make of names like “Jobcentre Plus” or “The Power of Well-Being”? You will be hearing more about the latter in the next year by the way – you have been warned.

Now back to the letter.

My constituent is someone with a range of skills, a pleasant and articulate manner and a wife. Besides sharing a desire to live in our area, they share a pre-school age child.

As a “Jobseeker” he has been actively looking for work – he showed me his letters – while his wife looks after their family. A familiar division of effort and a commitment to the next generation of Scots that we need if our population is to grow.

So he was baffled to receive a threatening letter requiring his wife to attend an employment interview – or else.

She has not been “signing on” and had planned to take five years out from here working career to see their child into school. But it seems that our “big brother” government have decided that it is “abnormal” to make child-rearing a priority for part of one’s life.

If this is not an attack on family values I do not know what it is. And like this gentlemen who sought my help, I wanted to know more.

My research has found that in fact there is no compulsion to work. But there are “sanctions” for those who fail to attend an interview designed to “sell” the benefits of employment. None of this is properly explained in the letter sent.

It is time this Labour government realised that they are there to serve our needs and to support families. Our community is not simply cannon fodder for their political “project”.

Life Challenges

For people who have planned to supplement their state pension with a personal one, life has been desperately hard of late.

The collapse in stock market confidence – and prices – has hit hard many of the funds in which people’s pension nest eggs have been invested – and hit hard.

But the news that Standard Life is paying off people sends out a wider message about our economy and the government’s stewardship of it.

Because the first action of Gordon Brown when Labour came to power in 1997 was to change the tax position of ordinary people’s pension funds.

Since then he has taken nearly £40,000 million – or about £5,000 million each year – out of our pension funds. Some mess you’ve got us into Gordon. And the next payoff is Scottish staff employed by one of major companies.

Like many others I have a personal interest in Standard Life. I have a “with-profits” policy with them. And with Gordon Brown nibbling at it the profits ain’t what they were.

But the real tragedy is the prospect of this nearly 200-year-old company being sold off. And that could mean further loss of control and the loss of yet another head office.

A shrinking economy coupled with policy to shrink our population – a deadly combination.

Olympic Hopes

I have long campaigned for more lottery money to come to the North-East. So the news that Scotland is lose £70 million of our money to pay for London’s bid for the 2012 Olympics is hardly welcome.

With our sporting record in recent years we can hardly afford the £30 million that out sports clubs will lose. And another £40 million lost to “good causes” hardly seems like a good idea.

But we are told that we would all benefit. Even the most imaginative of us would be hard pushed to add up all the benefits that Scotland could get from the London Olympics and come to £70 million.

And for this corner of Scotland, it translates into a near £1 million loss. An average of £14 for every person in the country.

With the concerns raised by the House of Commons select committee about the costs, funding and benefits of the London bid, there no guarantee that it is only £70 million.

But they are pushing ahead regardless of the impact that it could have on Scotland and on Scottish sporting and community activities.

17 March 2004

Taxing Times

We have had Gordon Brown’s election budget and commentators do not seem to think much of it.

Despite passionate pleas the whisky strips are here. These are not a new football outfit for any of our teams but an “excise” strip to be stuck over the top of a whisky bottle when tax has been paid on its contents.

Dubious figures have driven “Broon” to this measure. That National Audit Office was only able to suggest that whisky tax fraud was in the range £10 million to £1,000 million – hardly a convincing case for something that will cost one of Scotland’s leading industries dear.

The changes mean whisky producers paying the tax sooner – they have to buy the strips from the government in advance – and upgrading their equipment to stick them on. A costly business.

In Banff and Buchan we have but one distillery and its product – Glen Deveron malt – is “export only” with the sole exception of Duff House where the gift shop supplies this fine dram. But in neighbouring Moray whisky is not just “uisge beatha” – the water of life – it is life itself. A vital industry.

Meantime back at the Scottish Parliament it is another tax issue that is exercising minds and debating time – Council Tax.

A tax that hits our older friends harder has moved firmly onto the agenda.

In recent years the Council Tax has risen well above inflation. And for those on a fixed income like the retired, it has been taking a larger and larger slice of their monthly money. Because, like the “Poll Tax” before it, the Council Tax takes very little account of ability to pay.

The pressure for change is substantial. Older folk suffer and older folk are more likely to vote and older folk are now speaking up in increasing numbers. I am far from the only MSP to have a queue at my surgeries on the subject.

So will things change?

Labour’s First Minister, Jack McConnell answered a question from SNP Leader, John Swinney earlier this month thus, “my personal view that there is a role for property taxation in any democracy that wants progressive taxation systems”.

The difficulty is that he has announced an “independent” review of council finance and here he is also announcing his view of the outcome. Doubts about the “independence” of the review he will establish are growing.

Every other party in the Parliament seeks reform – a majority favours a move away from buildings related tax. And given that Labour is a minority in Holyrood one would imagine that change would therefore follow. In the world of coalition politics it ain’t necessarily so.

While the junior partners in the coalition – the Liberals – have long campaigned, like the SNP, for a local income tax, there is a strong suspicion that they may once again be brought to heel by Labour on this issue as on so many others.

Liberal Minister Tavish Scott has said in Parliament “all taxation alternatives will have to be compared against agreed tests of fairness, economic impact, ability to pay, collection and cost of implementation”.

Fair enough in an independent review. But with the First Minister nailing his colours firmly to the mast in favour of a property-based tax we may already know the outcome – a Council Tax mark 2 – a tax no fairer to our older citizens than the present one.

Nursing a grudge

The Royal College of Nursing held its conference in Edinburgh this week. And took the opportunity to engage with MSPs.

With some fundamental changes looming up in the health service, more than ever will be expected of our nurses. Because with local GPs being able to opt out of providing “out of hours” cover overnight and at weekends, other health professionals will be likely to play a bigger role.

Not that that is necessarily a bad thing.

If I were to need to provide a sample of blood would I prefer a nurse or a doctor to take it? A nurse every time. They do it more often and are more expert as a result.

If I have to attend an Accident & Emergency department to have a cut stitched up, who does it? A nurse. But it has to be a doctor who decides what antibiotic drug I will take to prevent infection. Even though the nurse will invariably recommend the required drug.

So our nurses are a vital part of our NHS.

The government has an “Agenda for Change” in the health service. And the nurses made very clear what changes they think would enable them to deliver for patients.

With most new nurses completing their training as graduates, their skills and knowledge is much as doctors had only a few years ago.

The future should be bright for the profession.

3 March 2004

Conservation

Scotland’s Parliament has provided a forum we did not have previously for fishing. In previous crises during the ‘Westminster’ years’, it barely hit the headlines because of the lack of interest and lack of understanding down there.

In Scotland, there is the interest. More doubtful is whether there is an adequate understanding.

Debating the rules which keep our fishermen in port most of the time, the Parliament’s Environment and Rural Development Committee saw a most bizarre spectacle – the Greens supporting one of the most anti-conservation measures ever to affect our industry.

With the haddock permit scheme which the EU and the Scottish government want, we have fishermen having to discard dead cod when they are fishing for haddocks and throwing away haddocks caught when they are after cod – in both instances despite having quota which permits them to catch and land these fish.

So the effect of the new rules, supported by Labour, Liberal and the Greens, is to INCREASE the quantity of dead fish thrown back.

But if the lack of understanding of that were not enough – it is complex and buried in the interaction of various regulations but forcibly expressed in briefings to MSPs – what was unacceptable was these same people refusing to allow industry members time to appear before their committee.

To do so would not necessarily have delayed the progress of measures on the table, but would have certainly left MSPs with a better understanding of the anti-conservation effects of the new rules.

Because fishermen have a vital interest in ensuring that there will be fish in the sea for their sons and grandsons.

The good working relationship established between WWF – a leading conservation body – and fishermen shows that our industry has nothing to fear and everything to gain from working with the pro-conservation lobby.

What we now need is some preparedness among Green politicians to listen up.

Making Friends

I am sitting here with a new friend at my elbow. With a rather whimsical smile on his face, he is called Buchan.

While his conversation is rather limited, he has prompted a number of strangers to engage his attention on my journey to Parliament this morning.

Because this small bear, a native of Peterhead, is an appealing sophisticate.
I visited Glendaveny Teddy Bears in Peterhead a few weeks ago and they effected my introduction to Buchan.

But we are hoping that Buchan has a star-filled future ahead of him.

We may just be within sight of the finishing post for the construction of the new Parliament building. Much to my continuing frustration, the final cost will probably not be known for some time afterwards.

And completion means an opening ceremony. Not an expensive one but a high-powered one. The monarch is probably coming sometime in October to cut the ribbon.

A quality product, produced for the opening and on sale to the 600 to 700 thousand visitors should fly off the shelf of our Parliament’s shop. A numbered series of Buchan’s brothers would be much better than ‘tourist tat’ and a useful contribution to Glendaveny’s income.

So we will see if we ‘cut a deal’ with our shop.

Healthy living

It seems a very long time ago that the National Health Service was established. Approaching sixty years in fact.

And some of the original structures and agreements are still in place.

More recently, the previous government – obsessed as ever by market-driven reform – introduced a system of trusts and an ‘internal market’. Predictably that was complicated, expensive and distracting from patient needs.

Much of that has been dismantled. The new NHS Reform Bill going through Parliament takes what are probably the final steps in putting a 21st century structure in place.

Health board boundaries aligned with Council ones – a bigger role for the public – greater involvement of staff. Or so Ministers claim.

There is clearly more work to be done. In particular the Scottish government, the Scottish Executive, seems to believe that all this can be done without any new money.

The Parliament’s Finance Committee begs to differ. And the initial debate which we had this week on the government’s proposals confirmed that start-up costs for many of the changes had not been considered worthy of funding.

For my part, I will be supporting moves from Bill Butler, a government back-bencher, to have Health Boards elected. That would be an excellent way of ensuring that there is a direct path of accountability back to the public whose health service it is.

Challenges

Our Parliamentary team has completed its ordeal on TV’s University Challenge. The Welsh Assembly proved worthy opponents and Jeremy Paxman congratulated both teams on being better than “a totally useless Westminster team last year”.

I cannot tell you who won! You need to watch when it is broadcast.

4 February 2004

Through a Glass Darkly

Some debates in Parliament get close and personal. That might be a way to describe fundamental disagreements between politicians. Or, as in this case, it might describe cross-party agreement on a matter affecting individuals.

The debate on macular degeneration this week was a clear example of the latter.
Members of all parties spoke out on behalf of the 650 people in Scotland who start to lose their eyesight from the “wet” form of this condition.

Our Parliamentary debate focussed on this. And I quote from my contribution;

“It is difficult to engage with the subject at a technical level. For example, the description of the condition that one of my constituents has is:

“’classic with no occult subfoveal choroidal neovascularisation’.

“It is not especially useful to go into such technical complexities in the debate. The issue is really—and inevitably—about people and the effect that the condition has on them.

“I have known the constituent of mine who suffers from the condition for many years. He is a lively 80-year-old, but I can see a change in him. He has the misfortune—in one sense—to live in the NHS Grampian area, which has not had the discretionary funds to make treatment available to him. That has been particularly difficult for him because he has seen people come from south-west Scotland with NHS funding to one of the only treatment centres in Scotland, which happens to be in Aberdeen.

“Of course, he could have bought treatment from the NHS and an offer was made. I understand the difficulties that are involved in deciding a fair and equitable policy for providing treatment in the early stages. However, let us consider the 650 people and the costs that are involved. I do not think that the cost of providing the treatment in question exceeds £1 million. I do not have such money in my back pocket and it is not a trivial amount, but we must make the important contrast between it and the several millions of pounds that those 650 people would end up costing the public purse if they were not rescued from having a lack of sight. The difficulty is that different budgets are involved.

“Fortunately, I managed to get my constituent in contact with a specialist in Edinburgh and we managed to get him on a programme. However, he suffered from the wet form of the condition, which is a matter of extreme urgency. There was a delay of some six or seven weeks before he was treated on the NHS, which, with the wet form of the condition, is enough time for a person to lose around 50 per cent of the remaining sight that is provided by the macula, or the centre of the eye, which is the part of the eye that enables a person to recognise people, watch television and read books. One can be left with orbital sight, which enables one to navigate and move around, but the condition is serious. For people such as my constituent who are well stricken in years, such things can be difficult to cope with.

“I hope that the minister will tell us that moneys will be available in the future to treat people with the condition and that there will be a relatively consistent policy throughout Scotland. I also hope that he will tell us that the two and a half years that it has taken before treatment for some forms of the disease is approved is not the kind of period that might be experienced with diseases that need treatment similarly urgently in future.”

The 1961 film directed by Ingmar Bergman, “Through a Glass Darkly”, was shot in black and white. It contains the highly relevant dialogue from Karen, “It's so horrible to see your own confusion and understand it.”

And for sufferers of a rapidly developing condition where their eyesight can deteriorate over a matter of weeks, it strikes me that Karen was right.

So it is important that our NHS responds rapidly with help for sufferers.

Holyrood

The evidence about mismanagement of the Holyrood building project is stacking ever higher. The Fraser enquiry has been set up to get to the bottom of why we are paying more than £400 million when we expected a building for Parliament for much less.

The revelation that Liberal David Steel presided over a cover-up is sheer dynamite. Previously it looked like the now deceased Scottish Secretary, Donald Dewar, and the late architect, Enric Miralles would carry the can alone.

But with the damaging admission that Steel allowed only “edited” minutes of meetings about the building project to be seen by MSPs, we now know that the truth there to be told – and it was concealed.

Watch this space.

21 January 2004

Transport Agency

Everyday experience tells us that our transport infrastructure is poor. Compared to the price and frequency of buses and trains in the central belt, our area does very badly.

And our roads are slow and often dangerous.

The Scottish Government, the Executive, are planning to establish a Transport Agency. Although we have yet to see their detailed plans, it seems likely that it will establish transport “executives” across Scotland.

If that means a co-ordinated approach, that will be fine.

But how much more focussed would they be on rural transport issues if they lived and worked in a rural area and experienced the difficulties at first hand.

Would they be astonished at the twists and turns on our “main” roads? Would they miss dual carriageways? Would they fume at Aberdeen station at the interminable wait there is for the connecting train to Inverurie or Huntly?

And the Transport Agency is not another “Scottish Natural Heritage”. SNH staff, about 200 of them, are being forced to consider moving with their employer to Inverness. Not something I personally would resist if trapped in Edinburgh but immensely disruptive for those with working partners or children at local schools.
No, we are looking at a new agency here. It would be a signal that rural transport issues are being taken seriously if the agency was established in a rural area.

Special Constables

When I went out on night patrol for five hours with Fraserburgh Police some time ago, the duty Inspector had been hoping that he might have some support from Special Constables.

I confess that at that time I had little knowledge of the important role played by these unpaid volunteers. This despite my having had one work for me in my previous career before becoming an MSP.

Paul was 6 foot 8 inches tall – a real gentle giant. But when he was in his Police uniform and on patrol at “events”, not many felt the need to “noise him up”.

Like about 1,100 others across Scotland, he was a volunteer working with the police on the front line because he believed it was a worthwhile community activity.

But a Parliamentary answer I have obtained shows that numbers of “Specials” in Grampian have dropped dramatically in recent years. This mirrors the situation in England where more than a quarter have stood down since Labour came to power.

In Tayside they are conducting an experiment whereby they pay Special Constables. While I am personally as dubious about this as I am about suggestions that we pay blood donors, I am prepared to wait and see.

I am not in favour of “policing on the cheap”. But having volunteers working with our police strikes me as a useful way of building links back into our communities. Because the police cannot solve many of our problems alone.

An increase in the numbers of Special Constables would be very welcome in the next few years. Along with more full-time cops on our streets.

Longside Airfield

The many North-East folk who work offshore will be among those who will welcome the results of research undertaken at Longside Airfield.

Night landings on oil rigs and production platforms have long been – in pilot’s jargon – “interesting”. The confusing mixture of platform lights and landing lights has made the task of setting the helicopter down safely one of their more challenging activities.

But experiments with a circle of blue lights laid on the runway at Longside has shown that improvements can be made. Longside also makes a contribution to offshore activity as a “diversion” airfield. What is missing is the regular activity that would provide local employment and income.

After all, many of the helicopters inbound to Aberdeen fly straight and low over our local airfield so we experience much of the noise already.

It would save oil companies money to make use of Longside. We have more to contribute than simply as an experimental base.

Granada TV

In a few weeks time I shall be down at Granada TV’s studios in Manchester. Not for one of their political programs. No – I am instead following Westminster MPs into a lion’s den. The Scottish Parliament will have a team in the next series of Granada’s University Challenge, The Professionals.

Our aims as a team are modest. We wish to do better than the MPs did last time. They achieved an all-time record low score of 25 points. If we get 30 plus we “beat” them.

But worst of all for the MPs, they were beaten by a team of journalists.

7 January 2004

Do the handcuffs fit?

A statement this week in Parliament from Liberal Fisheries Minister Ross Finnie has confirmed, in his words – “further difficulties” – for our fishing industry.

And we do not have to take his word for it. Fishermen know it. And they look with envy at – for example – Danish and Belgian fishermen.

Our fleet has seen two successive years of de-commissioning – state-sponsored redundancy without money to the people most affected by that – to the point where the number of people in the white-fish sector is as small as it has ever been, others sail on and fish on.

Even though the number of “trawler days” available to Scots fishing have been dramatically cut by the huge reduction in our fleet, there is no relief from the drastic days-at-sea limits.

But while our boats have to sit in the harbour for half the month, the Belgian and Danish fleets – unaffected by draconian de-commissioning – have no restrictions on day to fish.

I asked Finnie why so in Parliament after his statement. Answer came there none.
No surprise there.

With a Euro election on 10th June, perhaps that’s when our industry’s people with give him their answer. And it won’t be a surprise either.

Fat or fit?

January may be an awkward time for some to look down at the news from the bathroom scales. But with over a fifth of Scotland’s population obese there is probably no more appropriate time.

When my wife and I married nearly 35 years ago, one present we received was a set of such scales. Time has taken its toll and we binned it recently.

The space next the bath they once occupied remains empty and I measure my weight by the notch on my belt and the occasional glance at the mirror.

Before Parliament I had a very sedentary occupation and there was little opportunity during the working day for exercise. And my belt showed it – notches progressing rightward across my front with time.

But I now get my thirty minutes exercise a day and the presence of two previously used belt notches now reclaimed by my shrinking waistline boast of it.

Not that I go out of the way to the gym. My treadmill is free – or at least paid for by Edinburgh taxpayers – the streets and steps between accommodation and Parliament. And I very rarely use the lift between my second floor office and the debating chamber up the street.

If my legs feel a bit tight and stiff at the end of the day, I see that as good news. More exercise than usual.

Walking is good for you and requires no special equipment.

But not everyone has such a simple solution to achieving the health professionals’ recommendations of 30 minutes of exercise per day for adults and an hour for children. If your work requires the walk, you get the benefit, otherwise you need make a positive decision.

There are some signs that Scots are taking their health more seriously.

Numbers smoking have fallen. The Charity, Cancer UK, has found that a quarter of men are now ex-smokers. And the payoff is seen in a three-year drop of an eighth in the number of lung cancer cases among males.

Women are not doing so well – yet. A slight fall in lung cancer. Too many young women taking up smoking and not enough giving up.

For health care professionals it has been a 20-year struggle to persuade people to stop smoking and they still have nearly a third of our population who remain smokers to work on.

It is today’s dramatic rises in obesity that can present the biggest future challenge.

So this week’s announcement of “fat czars” – 600 of them – to work in schools to raise exercise levels sounds a good idea.

However when you look at the funding which – to quote from the Scottish Government’s press release, “is funded by the Executive from the £24 million set aside in the 2002 Scottish budget” – one is left unclear how much will be available. Even if it were the whole £24 million, that is still only about £9.50 per year for each obese person in Scotland.

And if our children’s diet remains dependent on prepared meals from the supermarket – high in fat, high in sugar, high in salt – low in locally-sourced, quality ingredients – increasing exercise, welcome as that would be, might not make enough difference.

Who are the government’s new 600 people and what qualifications will they have. Are they ersatz physical education teachers – all the responsibilities but none of the training? Is this PE on the cheap? What are these “co-ordinators” to co-ordinate?
If exercise, diet and obesity is moving up the political agenda, that should be welcomed.

But it will take more than £24 million to replace fat with fit.

Stewart Stevenson
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