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25 May 2005

Numbers

Many years ago I was taught by a charismatic maths teacher.

Doc” Ingles was a blunt Yorkshireman with a ferociously short, military haircut and occasionally a demeanour to match.

Full of eccentricities, he fascinated his pupils as much as he alarmed them. On the anniversary of our headmaster’s appointment he – the deputy head – wore a black tie. He thought he should have the job.

First year pupils would be taken around the school looking for infinity. I remember accompanying a search of the school dustbins, peering behind the blackboards and investigating the outside toilets.

We did not find infinity. But we retained the idea that it was a concept rather than a number.

The sixth year had an annual treat when they worked though his tax return. Was this to equip us for the future when we too would have to undertake that task? Or was it to show us how ill-rewarded even a senior maths teacher was?

Either, neither or both – we never found out. But the time spent with “Doc” was time well spent.

In the last few years the number of maths teachers has shrunk dramatically. Over a period during which our society’s need for numeracy has grown.

The craze for sudoku – a numbers based puzzle now appearing daily in certain papers – is hardly as important as our ability to manage money, remember PINs, understand statistics, but is a faint encouragement that numbers might become “cool”.

In Parliament last week, numbers once again moved to centre stage.

First we had a debate on student debt. Followed quickly by a round of health statistics at First Minister’s Questions. Only this week, mathematician and First Minister, Jack McConnell was in Africa. So lawyer, holder of a sixth form certificate in statistics, and Deputy First Minister, Jim Wallace was standing in.

Now exchanges between Nicola Sturgeon and the First Minister on the subject of the NHS at Question time are not new. The answer to “Is it working?” is probably what will win or lose the 2007 Scottish Parliament election.

Did the stand-in do better than the main man against Nicola?

Imagine that you standing in line for health care. The people in front of you will take varying times with the doctor. What matters to you is how long you wait.

To measure how well we are doing let us see how long the person in the middle of the queue has to wait for treatment. If the person in the middle has to wait longer this month than last it might be because there more people in the queue this month. Or maybe the queue is just moving slower.

If you get to front of the queue from the middle position faster than last month, the result is happiness. Longer to wait, result – grumpiness.

This way of looking at things is what government statisticians describe as "the most robust measurement of performance" – the median time to be technical about it.

The trouble is that if you are in the middle of the NHS queue you were waiting 5 days longer this month to enter hospital and six more days for an outpatient appointment.

So trying to defend the government’s record is difficult even if you have a certificate in statistics.

Our student debt debate suggested that fewer will have such a certificate in future.

An average graduate ends up with £18,500 in debts at the end of their course. Another year and more debt to train as a teacher hardly makes the profession attractive.

And for female graduates doubly so.

Many women will spend some years out of their chosen profession for child-rearing and may only work part-time thereafter.

If their earnings don’t exceed about £22,000 their debt will keep growing. In the worst cases women could end their working lives with between £30,000 and £40,000 owing to the Student Loan Company.

Because the repayments are through the tax system and until earning over £22,000 the debt piles up faster than the repayments.

So we take the risk that numeracy will decline as even fewer maths graduates pass on their skills and knowledge. Even fewer First Ministers, or their deputies, will understand the numbers they bandy about in Parliament.

Do We Kerr?

The National Health Service has been a topic of big debate for years. And with the resignation of the Chair of NHS24, many of the thoughts of people in our area are confirmed.

Recent changes in the NHS have not seemed to benefit the Broch. The revised “Out of Hours” GP service has led many to visit me at my surgeries.

Not everyone knows that only one town in Scotland with a population over 10,000 is more than an hour’s travel away from a major Accident and Emergency Unit – Yes, it is Fraserburgh.

So the report on the NHS which was laid before Parliament last week by Professor Kerr may matter a great deal to us.

Although we had statement by and questions to the Health Minister – also Kerr; Andy Kerr – it was well short of a full debate on current NHS issues and the professor’s conclusions. The government do not wish to have that until after the summer break.

They have promised a period of consultation on the Kerr report. So the challenge for members of the public is to read the report and respond. There will probably be a meeting on the topic in the North East over the next few months.

But if we do not make our views known, it will be assumed that we do not care about our NHS.

I will be responding and feeding in as many views of our communities as I can.

Show Kerr you care. Health Minister Andy Kerr that is.

Two Hundred up and Counting

Speaking about counting – or do I mean counting about speaking – this week saw me pass a significant personal milestone. My contribution to the debate on Ageism is the NHS was my 200th speech in Parliament.

Since my first speech on fishing nearly four years ago, I have spoken on every subject area, written about 120,000 words in articles, held 296 surgeries, driven 150,000 miles, asked 1,100 questions, attended over 1,000 constituency events and sent countless letters.

Now I will need to count other MSPs’ speeches and see where I stand in the statistics.

11 May 2005

Elections, Elections

School children across Scotland have traditionally welcomed elections. Not because of a commitment to democracy but as it often means a day off while their classrooms and halls become polling places for the day.

Scottish Parliament politicians too had a day off – from Parliament – to allow them to support their Westminster colleagues in the election.

The scholars returned to their studies refreshed by idleness. The politicians to their endeavours, thinner, and more tanned by exercise and a welcome May burst of early summer. Indeed I have had to make another hole in my belt to prevent my breeks falling off my slimmer belly.

But for the 20 or so of the previous 72 Scottish MPs who will not be returning to their desks – some voluntarily, others by verdict of the voters – the 5th of May will have made a greater impact.

Tam Dalyell is one in particular who has made his mark over the years and who has now retired.

Since being elected at a by-election as a Labour MP in 1962 for the then constituency of West Lothian, he has been an implacable opponent of my party, the SNP. But much respected by most of us nonetheless.

Latterly sitting for Linlithgow constituency, a part of West Lothian, he had through time become the “Father of the House” – the oldest member. A position previously held in the Scottish Parliament by my colleague Winnie Ewing who therefore was in the chair at the start to say the memorable words, “The Scottish Parliament is hereby reconvened …”.

Above all Tam will be remembered as a member of the “awkward squad”.

Despite his energy and intellect, the nearest he came to the front bench was during a brief period as a Parliamentary Private Secretary – in effect an unpaid ministerial bag-carrier – in the 1960s. He soon resigned in disagreement over a government policy initiative.

His campaigns are not all well remembered. An early one was to oppose – successfully – the conversion of an Indian Ocean atoll to a military landing strip. The diversity of wildlife there was, for him, of much higher priority than the needs of the US Air Force.

For 30 years he campaigned against devolution. He believed that it created difficulties at Westminster. The reduction in the number of Scottish MPs from 72 to 59 for the election this month is an expression of his concerns revealed in practice.

And Margaret Thatcher feared Tam Dalyell’s frequent interventions on the subject of the sinking of the Argentinean naval cruiser, the Belgrano, during the Falklands War nearly as much as she was annoyed by our own Alex Salmond’s pointed parliamentary questions.

As an old Etonian, a baronet – he is “really” Sir Tam Dalyell of the Binns, and living in a grand country house now operated by the National Trust for Scotland, married to Lord Wheatley’s daughter, he nonetheless sent his own children to the local state schools and felt comfortable amongst the miners whose president Abe Moffat had originally sought him out to stand for the Labour Party in 1962.

But the Labour Party has moved on, moved far away from Tam’s party. In the election to replace him, the elector’s of Linlithgow read absolutely nothing of his achievements over 43 years in the literature of the new candidate.

A shabby way to treat an honest man, if one fundamentally out of tune with the people – one cannot say his colleagues – in the party to which he gave his all.

A final thought from me about Tam. He revolutionised the role of a constituency parliamentarian. He seems to have been the first MP to have operated a system of parliamentary “surgeries” for his constituents to meet him and express their concerns, seek his help, gain his advice.

Today MPs, MSPs, Councillors and constituents assume such surgeries are part of political life.

Good luck to his wife Kathleen and a very happy retirement to Tam Dalyell – a man whom I respect and fundamentally disagree with.

VE Day

Our Parliament debated a motion on “Veterans” to mark Victory in Europe day.

With a disturbing majority of school children apparently not knowing what VE Day was, the need to refresh all our memories of the debt we owe to previous generations is obvious.

Without the men and women who fought fascism in World War II, we simply could not be having the open debates – and elections – that enable us as a community, and in our parliament, to make decisions openly and accountably.

My party colleague, Christine Grahame, read in the debate from the diary of a relative whose merchant ship was torpedoed. He survived, others with him did not.

I have a tenuous link with the war. I was born on the day Himmler died.

We must never see his like again, in power, anywhere.

Elections, Elections

School children across Scotland have traditionally welcomed elections. Not because of a commitment to democracy but as it often means a day off while their classrooms and halls become polling places for the day.

Scottish Parliament politicians too had a day off – from Parliament – to allow them to support their Westminster colleagues in the election.

The scholars returned to their studies refreshed by idleness. The politicians to their endeavours, thinner, and more tanned by exercise and a welcome May burst of early summer. Indeed I have had to make another hole in my belt to prevent my breeks falling off my slimmer belly.

But for the 20 or so of the previous 72 Scottish MPs who will not be returning to their desks – some voluntarily, others by verdict of the voters – the 5th of May will have made a greater impact.

Tam Dalyell is one in particular who has made his mark over the years and who has now retired.

Since being elected at a by-election as a Labour MP in 1962 for the then constituency of West Lothian, he has been an implacable opponent of my party, the SNP. But much respected by most of us nonetheless.

Latterly sitting for Linlithgow constituency, a part of West Lothian, he had through time become the “Father of the House” – the oldest member. A position previously held in the Scottish Parliament by my colleague Winnie Ewing who therefore was in the chair at the start to say the memorable words, “The Scottish Parliament is hereby reconvened …”.

Above all Tam will be remembered as a member of the “awkward squad”.

Despite his energy and intellect, the nearest he came to the front bench was during a brief period as a Parliamentary Private Secretary – in effect an unpaid ministerial bag-carrier – in the 1960s. He soon resigned in disagreement over a government policy initiative.

His campaigns are not all well remembered. An early one was to oppose – successfully – the conversion of an Indian Ocean atoll to a military landing strip. The diversity of wildlife there was, for him, of much higher priority than the needs of the US Air Force.

For 30 years he campaigned against devolution. He believed that it created difficulties at Westminster. The reduction in the number of Scottish MPs from 72 to 59 for the election this month is an expression of his concerns revealed in practice.

And Margaret Thatcher feared Tam Dalyell’s frequent interventions on the subject of the sinking of the Argentinean naval cruiser, the Belgrano, during the Falklands War nearly as much as she was annoyed by our own Alex Salmond’s pointed parliamentary questions.

As an old Etonian, a baronet – he is “really” Sir Tam Dalyell of the Binns, and living in a grand country house now operated by the National Trust for Scotland, married to Lord Wheatley’s daughter, he nonetheless sent his own children to the local state schools and felt comfortable amongst the miners whose president Abe Moffat had originally sought him out to stand for the Labour Party in 1962.

But the Labour Party has moved on, moved far away from Tam’s party. In the election to replace him, the elector’s of Linlithgow read absolutely nothing of his achievements over 43 years in the literature of the new candidate.

A shabby way to treat an honest man, if one fundamentally out of tune with the people – one cannot say his colleagues – in the party to which he gave his all.

A final thought from me about Tam. He revolutionised the role of a constituency parliamentarian. He seems to have been the first MP to have operated a system of parliamentary “surgeries” for his constituents to meet him and express their concerns, seek his help, gain his advice.

Today MPs, MSPs, Councillors and constituents assume such surgeries are part of political life.

Good luck to his wife Kathleen and a very happy retirement to Tam Dalyell – a man whom I respect and fundamentally disagree with.

VE Day

Our Parliament debated a motion on “Veterans” to mark Victory in Europe day.

With a disturbing majority of school children apparently not knowing what VE Day was, the need to refresh all our memories of the debt we owe to previous generations is obvious.

Without the men and women who fought fascism in World War II, we simply could not be having the open debates – and elections – that enable us as a community, and in our parliament, to make decisions openly and accountably.

My party colleague, Christine Grahame, read in the debate from the diary of a relative whose merchant ship was torpedoed. He survived, others with him did not.

I have a tenuous link with the war. I was born on the day Himmler died.

We must never see his like again, in power, anywhere.

27 April 2005

Dentistry Heaven?

There will not be anyone in Banff and Macduff and beyond who will fail to welcome the announcement of dental facilities' investment for the area. The challenge now is to find dentists.

As a member of the Scottish Parliament one of the unexpected benefits is my access to the rather more numerous NHS dentists in the central belt.

And after a painful infection of my gum – which my spouse tells everyone, made me grumpy – I have had treatments to rebuild a tooth which had broken. Good as new.

With progress being made to bring some new dental training to Aberdeen – a proposal I welcomed some three years ago – we might see some of these students settle here after completing their courses.

Because there is particular and perhaps surprising benefit to training dentists in Scotland.

A research report, "Access to Dental Health Services in Scotland", indicates that 72.5 per cent of our NHS dentists were born in Scotland. But 88.8 per cent of our dentists were trained in Scotland.

So training dentists in Scotland who have come from elsewhere results in a significant number enjoying our country so much that they stay. Quite the opposite of a view sometimes expressed that we train other people's workers.

In fact the 285 dentists from elsewhere who stayed in Scotland because they were trained here represent one sixth of all our NHS dentists. That is why training is so vital and why I and others in different political parties support every effort to provide additional training in Scotland and in the North East in particular.

These numbers and the Parliamentary debate on the subject this month will give us something to chew over for some time to come—that is, for those of us who still have teeth with which to chew.

A Banker for Scotland's Future

A debate last week on the Scottish government's strategy for the financial service industry was an opportunity to remind ourselves of the role Parliament has played in making Scotland the third – arguably the second – most important financial centre in Europe.

And with that, over 100,000 well paid jobs in Scotland.

The credit due to our Parliament is substantial but was created some time ago.

It was an act of the Scots Parliament in January 1695 that established the Bank of Scotland, which opened for business on 17 July of that year. Of course, the Bank of Scotland was set up because William Paterson, a Scot, had established the Bank of England the previous year, causing a certain amount of resentment. Therefore, English interests came to Scotland to establish the Bank of Scotland together with local businessmen and persuaded our Parliament to pass the necessary legislation.

The initial board of the Bank of Scotland had 12 members, six English and six Scottish—very fair and very reasonable. Of course, the articles of association passed by Parliament stated that only directors who lived in Scotland could vote at board meetings—very fair and very equitable. If only we had such rules in business today.

There are some consequences of Bank of Scotland operating under a parliamentary act which is 310 years old – although they are more interesting in theory than in practice.

One may notice that unlike other companies Bank of Scotland is not a “plc”. And because it is not a “limited company” operating under the Companies Acts, it does not need to obey them.

So it is (probably) not legally obliged to publish annual accounts. And only started doing so in the late 1940s. But the practical men and women who run the bank do in practice operate to the laws that bind others.

An exception is that they have long provided accounts to homeless people who are “Big Issue” sellers despite the various acts requiring customers to produce council tax bills, electricity bills and the like to prove who they really are. Something the homeless cannot do.

And the bank informed government that it was doing it. Government knew better than to tackle the bank and I believe the practice continues!

But the strategy we debated in Parliament might take the forelock tugging to banks interests a wee bit too far. It is full of what banks want of government. What government and people want of banks is all but absent.

We must hope that any dispute about that does not go the way of a falling out that the Bank of Scotland's manager in Kirkcaldy had with one of his customers in the second half of the nineteenth century.

By way of offering to settle the matter, the customer challenged the manager to a duel – and the manager was foolish enough to accept – and lose!

The gun that killed that manager may be examined in the Bank of Scotland museum to this day.

13 April 2005

Electioneering

Many of the Scottish Parliament’s journalists have decamped to follow candidates around the country. And the MSPs who have not gone to boost the election hopes of their southern colleagues are walking on eggshells lest they inadvertently create some hostage to political fortune that will hurt their party at the ballot box.

So we are actually having some rather good debates on issues where a measure of agreement can be seen.

Paradoxically that means government backbench members can challenge their own ministers because they are not having defend their colleagues against fierce attacks from opposition benches.

At precisely the time one might expect political conflict to increase, we see an outbreak of consensus and constructive debate.

This week I have had the opportunity to speak in three good debates – on Women in Prison, on Nuclear Waste, on Skills – and in each case to get a fair hearing from ministers.

Female Offenders

The previous Chief Inspector of Prisons, Clive Fairweather, wrote after visiting Cornton Vale – our only specialist prison for women in Scotland – that it contained “the bad, the sad and the mad”.

Certainly the majority of inmates have had or have mental health problems. Similarly many come in as drug abusers who prostitute themselves to pay for their habit, cannot pay fines and serve a short sentence to “pay them off”.

In March this year 26 women went into Cornton Vale for not paying their fines but as only 2 resident currently fit this category of prisoner, it is clear that the sentences are extremely short.

So what can the Scottish Prison Service do to reform and re-habilitate someone they have for a week? Nothing – nothing whatsoever.

It does not even work as punishment. Many of these sad cases – and I have spoken to quite a few female offenders – find a week in prison a respite from abusive partners or from other men who prey off them while they “work the streets” of our cities.

There was cross-party agreement that it is pointless to lock up women for short sentences and leave their behaviour unchanged, their circumstances no better, their drug addictions un-addressed.

But there are some very bad women in prison too. It is the right place for the 16 lifers currently in Cornton Vale for example, although one speaker from a minor party thought – even when challenged – that no women at all should be kept in jail!

Women are more than five times less likely than men to go to prison – 10 per 100,000 of our population as against 53 men – and need different treatment and specialised support.

Parliament will continue to seek ways of achieving that.

Nuclear Waste

Our civil nuclear industry now has a Cross-Party Group in the Scottish Parliament looking at its activities. The group, like all good groups contains a wide range of opinions ranging from enthusiastic supporters of new nuclear power stations to implacable opponents.

But we – and I am a member – all share a desire to be better informed and argue from facts not myths.

The areas of disagreement emerged during the debate on the subject sponsored this week by my party.

But where there was common agreement was that the problem of nuclear waste remained our shared challenge.

Whatever political party runs Scotland, whatever its attitude to nuclear power stations, the government of the day will have to deal with the legacy of waste built up over the last fifty years. And with the decommissioning of a nuclear station projected to take 90 years, it is an issue that many future generations of Scots and Scottish politicians will continue to wrestle with.

But Scotland has one ace in a rather poor hand.

At Douneray in North Caithness, we have the skills to develop techniques that will make the best of this extremely difficult task. And not just for Scotland. We should make a business of training, advising, supporting other countries around the world to tackle their problems. Making a useful living while we do so.

Skills

Which neatly brings me briefly to my last speech of the week.

Our basic industries continue to decline. So we will have to rely on our ingenuity, knowledge and skills to earn a living in the modern world.

But although we have about half of our youngsters continuing education after school, we still have too many unskilled and unemployable in the modern world.

Once again agreement across the Parliament that we must invest even more in training and education. Differences about how – but that is healthy debate.

The other topic of the week was council tax. The debate we also sponsored this week showed that pensioners – leading the charge for change on this subject – have got through to politicians of all persuasions. Perhaps the election will help show which politicians pensioners think have been listening.

29 March 2005

Learning to be Entrepreneurs

We recently had a debate in Parliament about Entrepreneurship. This was one of a number of debates that we now have which are not followed by a vote. Well and good as far as it goes. But in this case the Executive had not given the faintest hint that we would be talking about entrepreneurship in education.

So the first challenge for Parliamentarians was to re-write their speeches to adjust to what the minister was saying.

But it became clear as the debate progressed that school, college and university were unlikely places to learn to be an entrepreneur. Education is largely about acquiring skills and learning how to solve problems to which the solution is already known.

However one of the key attributes of the entrepreneur is to be blind to the impossible. Because one person's “impossible” is another's opportunity.

The world of business places a high value on efficiency. And efficiency means not re-inventing something already discovered. A student found copying another's work is rightly punished. But a businessperson who fails to use others' work is likely to fail in business.

But nonetheless Parliamentarians were in broad agreement that our education system has to undertake the essential preparation for the world of work.

One of the things worrying me significantly, because I am a mathematician to trade, is the dramatic fall in the number of maths teachers in our schools.

I was fortunate to have a charismatic teacher at my school. He was “Doc” Ingles.

In first year he took us around the school looking in dustbins, behind the blackboards, in store cupboards to see if we could find infinity. We concluded – and remembered – that we could not.

In senior school “Doc” brought in his annual tax return and we worked through it with him. Was the lesson that maths helped one with the Inland Revenue? Or was it that teachers, even the Deputy Rector like him, earned much less than they should. I still do not know, but I do remember the lessons taught.

The only other parliamentarian in Edinburgh who is also a mathematician is First Minister, Jack McConnell. In a previous life he was one of our increasingly scarce maths teachers.

But as research I have done shows, he presides over a government whose sums do not add up. Now that comment is not a classic piece of political knock about. It is a factual statement.

I spotted that the total in a parliamentary answer did not look right – and it wasn't.

I now have eighty one pages of answers with errors in them. Indeed in a single week in February there were eleven answers with totals of data. And I found seven errors in arithmetic.

But what has this to do with our debate on entrepreneurship? Well without the basic skills or reading, writing and 'rithmetic – and an ability to check and take care – businesspeople will have difficulty knowing if they their business is making money or losing it. Being able to add up is a fundamental skill.

This Labour Liberal government's sums do not add up.

That bodes ill for good governance and for the ability of our education system to turn out the next generation of successful entrepreneurs.

Tourism Troubles

April is when the old Area Tourist Boards are replaced by a central VisitScotland structure run from Edinburgh.

As I meet people who depend on tourists coming to our area, I meet worried people.

There had always been some concern that the previous Aberdeen-based organisation focussed too much on the city and on Deeside. We did not see enough visitors encouraged to visit our area in the rural north-east.

The current advertising campaign under the aegis of the new national body is well produced, contains the right messages about Scotland and will probably bring more weekend-break visitors to our country.

But it appears to think that our three airports are Glasgow, Edinburgh and Inverness. Where is Aberdeen? Nowhere!

So the early days are worrying.

But the very fact of the re-organisation is causing difficulty. Instead of looking out towards the potential visitors, too much effort is looking inwards about getting the organisation right.

Because the change-over has taken place before all the staff know where they will be working, before all the structures are in place, and on the eve of our peak tourist season.

The government has set the objective of increasing tourism in Scotland by half in ten years. But my questioning has failed to have them explain how we shall get there without an investment plan.

The industry does not want key questions to remain unanswered for much longer. Or we shall lose out to new states who recently joined the EU who are pitching hard for our tourists.

16 March 2005

Dentistry

The Scottish government is at last showing some signs that they may eventually live up to their plan for NHS dentistry "that the service will be open to everyone."

We know the problem in our area is acute. And Rhona Brankin, the Deputy Health Minister is quoted as saying:

"In Glasgow, more than 60 per cent of children have dental disease before they reach the age of three. So there is a huge job to be done."

Across Scotland the problem is serious.

The Executive's record on the issue to date is quite interesting.

I have asked how many dentists we would have in 10 years' time – they did not know. I asked about the average waiting time for NHS dentistry – they did not know. And on the back of last week’s announcement of new funds for dentistry when I asked what fee level their new money was based on – they did not know.

In documents such their draft budget for 2005-06 they set nine health objectives but not one on dentistry. It is not a one-off, though. If we go back a year and look at the budget for 2004-05, we find 14 objectives but not one on dentistry. It is not even confined to two years. If we go back another year, again we find not one objective on dentistry.

A written answer showed why we suffer. The three Aberdeenshire parliamentary constituencies have about 18 NHS dentists each. A constituency near Glasgow has 43. No wonder a dentist from there is offering us NHS dentistry!

But there may be hope.

A rise of £50 million each year, the figure suggested by my party colleagues during a debate earlier this month, can make a difference. But will it?

The government’s plans are to increase the number of dentists by 200 across Scotland. Aberdeenshire needs 75 of these alone to come up to the standard of Eastwood near Glasgow. Spreading the remainder over the remaining 69 constituencies means two for each.

So 200 may not be enough to reduce workloads, enable every person in Scotland who needs an NHS dentist to find one and start to tackle dental ill-health across the country.

Watch this space for updates.

Infrastructure

It might not be obvious to everyone what infrastructure actually is for government. But with the publication of a Scottish government infrastructure plan for the first time we can see. Basically it is our road, railways and other arteries of communication coupled with investment in school and hospital buildings.

So what are the plans?

A welcome indication that the Scottish government has laid aside £6.9 million as their contribution to a new Chalmers Hospital in Banff is one.

But to see only £107 million for information technology in the NHS was not so welcome.

In England and Wales they have embarked on an £8,000 million patients’ records system. With more and more initial contact being with people other than one’s GP – NHS24 and “Out of Hours” spring to mind – it is vital that good access is provided to existing medical information on the caller. And at present there is virtually none.

One might imagine that for a modest sum we might “piggy back” on the new system being developed south of the border. Alas, like so many government computer projects, it is late, over budget, generally in difficulties.

But it is still needed and Scotland needs it too.

Prisons

The stage 2 review of prisons estates is lumbering on to a conclusion. For us in the North-East that means an opportunity to put the case for a replacement for Peterhead’s 1888 building.

Contrary to the view in some quarters, the case for a new prison in Peterhead has never been stronger. During her visit to our prison last year, the Minister for Justice made it clear that she valued community support for our prison. And she was impressed by the work there.

Over the period since, many others have met with her and reinforced that message.

Signs are that there will be more money for prison buildings in 2007. But clearly the decision will come much sooner – in my view, an indication before summer – with a firm decision towards the end of the year.

But with the Minister taking over many of the important decisions from the Chief Executive of the Prison Service – he is no longer permitted to sign documents like the fatally flawed Reliance prisoner transport contract – we may see a faster pace driven by her need to sort things out well before the next Scottish Parliament elections.

The last prison estates review recommended closure for Peterhead and was defeated by our community.

This time I am confident that they will not dare propose that again.

Our prison is firmly established in the future of the Scottish Prison Service.

2 March 2005

Election Fever

The “phoney war” is clearly over. I have attended my first pre-election hustings.

The traditional view that many have of the Young Farmers Association is either that it is a marriage bureau or an offshoot of the Tory Party.

If the meeting I spoke at in Kinross last week is anything to go by, neither is now true.

A room full of young businessmen and women were representative of the concerns of rural Scotland. And rather depressed and worried about their futures.

It would be fair to suggest that these farmers were not fans of the supermarkets. I found it easy to share many of their concerns.

The advantage of the supermarket is fairly well understood – a one-stop shop, a wide variety of food from around the world, many cheap goods. And people have taken to shopping in supermarkets with relish. Now we have over 80% of the £53 million spent in the UK on food each year being spent in just four companies’ shops.

But UK supermarkets make profits four times higher than their American counterparts. That is why US firm Wal-Mart was so keen to buy ASDA a couple of years ago. For them it was a way of delivering more for their shareholders.

The price farmers get for their milk is falling – it was 25p per litre in 1996 and now it is 19p. But the price in the supermarket remains around 50p per litre and the profits of the big chains continues to rise.

So, when like other businesses, farmers have seen costs rise significantly, they feel controlled by large buyers who control the market.

With health high up the public agenda beyond the farm, it was no surprise that they wanted to discuss the link between what we eat and what we are.

Scotland is clearly not going to compete with low cost countries in producing basic products. My involvement recently in some issues surrounding the import of Scottish seed potatoes into Thailand illustrates that.

The Scots seed-stock will grow in Thailand and then return to be converted into Walkers crisps.

So the future for our farmers, as with our fishermen, is to produce food of outstanding quality – good beef, fine lamb, excellent cereals.

But if supermarkets sell purely on price and create an impression of quality largely through packaging, how do farmers get their quality, and more expensive goods, on the shelves.

One place to start is with the public sector taking the lead.

If schools, hospitals, even prisons, show an example and source fine local produce, they can demonstrate the benefits.

In the West of Scotland in particular, the appalling health of many of our citizens is down to three things – smoking, lack of exercise and poor diet.

Poor diet means too much fat, little fruit and vegetables and too much salt and sugar.

Smoking are about to make substantial progress with. Exercise remains a challenge. But for the health service, in particular, an across the board investment in good food will pay back that money many times in reduced demand for health care and longer, happier, productive working lives for many people currently blighted by ill-health.

So the pressure on health boards to cut even further their budgets for patients’ meals is disgraceful.

One thing we should be considering is ensuring that our local shops have a fair opportunity to compete. Because they are much more likely to stock healthy local food.

And that means looking again at the system that sees large supermarkets paying only one or two percent of their turnover in local rates to our councils. Downtown the local high retailers are paying nearly twenty percent in some cases.

Time for a real level playing at last.

Slopping Out

Our prisons contain the 7,000 or so people who are least prepared to behave as members of society. Instead they are there because they prey on others who are making a contribution.

But locking up convicts presents an opportunity to re-direct at least some of these people into more socially acceptable activities when they come out after their sentence. And experience has taught that humane conditions help that process.

Ending slopping out, either by toilets in cells or through a system that allows prisoners out to the toilet, is an essential part of the process.

We now see 41 advocates in court, paid for by our taxes, representing prisoners who have been denied access to proper toilet facilities.

A waste of money and wholly avoidable.

When this government took many millions away from the prisons budget some years ago, they created today’s problem.

How much better it would have been to spend the money on a new prison at Peterhead and avoid today’s court battle.

There is still time and the time for that move forward is now.

16 February 2005

Name Calling

One of the government's arguments for ID cards is to help prevent 'identity fraud'. And it is an issue for many people.

With many of life's 'transactions' taking place over the phone, by post, or through the Internet, there has to be some way of identifying the respective parties to each other. The ID card may help us open accounts with banks and the like.

But the main argument the government has is the benefit they derive from our having ID cards – they can keep track of us. However their plans are deeply flawed.

For rural dwellers the cost of obtaining an ID card will much more than we have to pay the government. For to have a robust ID card, the applicant has to show up in person to allow their identity to be verified before the new legal document – their ID card – can be issued.

To make an ID card a robust method of confirming identity, there needs to be a link between the card which shows the identity and the person whose identity it is.

Passports have for many years relied on a photo and a signature which could be checked to make sure that the passport you proffer is your own. Fingerprints could be carried on your ID card and be checked against your finger.

But after the 'Shirley McKie' case where a policewoman was wrongly accused on duff fingerprint data, this no longer seems a reliable enough method of linking ID card to owner.

So the government are planning to use retinal scan technology.

Each person has a unique pattern of lines in their eye that can be used more reliably than the traditional fingerprint to check who you really are. But the 'eyeprint' is rather difficult to capture.

The number of offices where you can go to be 'scanned' for your ID card will be quite limited. Probably no more than six in Scotland.

So there are long, and expensive, journeys in prospect for rural dwellers who will have to travel at their own expense to a city.

But of course having this data on your ID card is only of any use if it can be checked.

And that means having a machine scan and compare your 'eyeprint' with the one on your card.

If there are only six machines in Scotland able to issue your card how are the police, in Stornoway for example, going to be able to check your ID card?

And there is worse.

In their rush to race ahead with their ID card scheme, the government are choosing a technically insecure system. A much bigger issue than the civil rights argument about government storing our personal data in their databases and then abusing it. And that is a big issue.

Let me put it this way – would you like every commercial organisation you deal with to have a copy of your fingerprints, or a copy of your DNA profile – or of your new 'eyeprint'?

Almost certainly not!

Whenever you proffer your ID card for an 'eyeprint' comparison it will be necessary to extract the data from your card and compare it with your actual eye.

But it does not need to, and should not, work that way.

Think about using your cash card and PIN number at a cash dispenser.

You probably think that your PIN number is stored in the database on your bank's computers. No!

What they do keep is an 'encrypted' version. And every machine you key your PIN into 'encrypts' your PIN inside a special computer chip that self-destructs if it is tampered with. That data is sent to your bank where their computer simply says 'Yes' or 'No' depending on whether or not you actually keyed your PIN correctly.

So to check your PIN nobody needs to know what your PIN is. A neat trick that keeps your PIN a secret that is not shared with anyone who accepts your card for payment.

That is how the ID card should work if it were secure.

But in their rush, this government are racing ahead of international standards that would allow your card to work in the safe way that your bank card does.

We know that the Royal Bank of Scotland issued the first Cashline cards in 1977, the first Scottish bank with online cash machines, and were able use the system I have just described.

So were are talking a well-proven approach.

Technology decisions made in a rush are always bad decisions. And governments have exceptionally bad records with technology projects.

This is a project which will cost the same as 2,000 extra police in Scotland.

And one which will mean your sharing your private information with any commercial company you deal with.

Time for a rethink methinks.

4 February 2005

Money, Money, Money

Some of the best debates in the Scots Parliament come when we try to look beyond the immediate needs of our citizens. The SNP debate last week on the economy was just such an occasion.

But in looking at the future, one inevitably sees a range of possible threats, opportunities and outcomes.

Many of those who are frightened by the idea of making all our own decisions, latch on to something in today's world to worry about.

In our debate that was exactly what Maureen Macmillan, Labour member for the Highlands and Islands did.

She told us that Scotland has an enormous and growing deficit, and concluded that we must therefore change nothing. She said that we should stick with present policies and the people who are managing our economy. In effect she was saying that we must endorse failure.

But then with the UK also suffering a large imbalance between income and spending, perhaps she did not wish to criticise a Labour chancellor at Westminster.

To be positive in the debate I gave an outline of the budget speech I would like to hear being made.

"The theme of the speech and the Budget as a whole is Open for Business. There is a natural process of change in our economy and I give notice that the Government will do everything in its power to ensure that our businesses remain competitive.

I speak of the need to promote success in the face of changing times. Our priorities are to remain competitive within an international marketplace, in which new rivals could emerge from anywhere around the globe. They can impact upon our ability to maintain our current standard of living and provide high quality public services.

However, in so doing, we must remember the social needs of all our citizens, especially those who are unable to directly participate".

I would want to continue:

"We have received confirmation of our Triple A credit rating from both Standard and Poors and Moody's rating agencies, providing further evidence of the esteem in which our finances are viewed externally.

In 2004-05, our economy is set to grow at a rate of 4.5% in real terms, a figure that exceeds the expectations of most other countries. We have a capital programme that will continue to afford work to many and promote full employment.”

We might even take initiatives to create small but significant opportunities for us to position ourselves for the future. For example, we might launch a,

"Zero rate of tax to businesses operating within the space industry. There are many new opportunities in this small but exceedingly promising area, including the manufacture, operation, sale or other activities provided in respect of launch vehicles".

Now of course that sounds like pure fantasy if you are already convinced that we are doing well – even with a large deficit.

Or you might think that a small country like ours could not be in a position that our government's money person could give such a speech.

Wrong!

Almost word for word my speech was a straight lift from the Isle of Man Treasurer's speech to the Manx Parliament, the Tynwald, on 17th February 2004. Read it for yourself on pages 729 to 738 of their Official Report if you want more.

The contrast with Scotland could not be more stark.

I have received answers from the Labour-Liberal Democrat government about their future planning. And been ridiculed for asking about their views of our needs in a mere ten years time.

Where there is no vision, the people perish.

And if the debate showed anything, it was that this government has no vision.

Expensive Phone Calls

If you go up to the “man in the street” and ask them what the significance of a telephone number staring 0845 is, many will think they know. They will say, “that's a local call”, or if they are really well-informed, they give it its Sunday name, lo-call.

And if you asked about an 0870 number many would say “that's a National Call”.

But if you asked them what they pay for such calls, they might be puzzled. They might imagine that an 0870 call – a “National Call” - would be charged at the “National Rate”. The reality is that you will pay twice what a call to Cornwall would cost.

So much so that companies providing an 0870 number to businesses will give those businesses about 3p a minute as a reward for encouraging their customers to use such numbers.

And so too with 0845 numbers, albeit much less so.

OFCOM have woken up to this “scam” and we might see something done soon.

Meantime keep your eye on your telephone bill and work out how much an 0870 call is costing you each minute.

21 January 2005

The Asian Tsunami

With the passage of time our knowledge of the impact of the Asian tsunami grows, As I write the number dead approaches quarter of a million killed by the wave alone. The challenge now is to prevent further deaths and aid recovery.

But other parts of the world have long needed our help too. Much of Africa starves. And much of that is due to government failure in the affected countries.

So it was right that we have had two debates in the Scottish Parliament on the subject. Neither led to a vote as there was a common desire to avoid dividing, or seeming to divide, opinion at a time when unity is vital.

Now while the untimely loss of a single person diminishes us all, this scale of loss overwhelms our capacity to understand.

We remember the blitz during the last world war, but it killed only a fifth of the number of people who have died in the tsunami. We shiver at the recollection of atomic bombs falling Hiroshima and Nagasaki, but the bombs there killed only a third of the number who were killed on 26th December.

The measure of our humanity rests in the scale and appropriateness of our response now. Impressive deliveries of food and water have tackled short-term need. Deliveries of generators, hospital infrastructure and water-purification plants have started to rebuild vital infrastructure.

When money is spent directly in the affected areas, it can start the economic recovery that must follow such disasters. Fundamentally, however, we must equip the people who will continue to live on Asian shores with the tools, the skills and the capital that will sustain their long-term future.

Over the past 30 years, I have visited many of the affected countries, including Malaysia, Indonesia, Burma, Thailand, India and Kenya. Based on that experience, it is clear that one size will not fit all.

Even before the tsunami impacted on each of those countries in different ways and on others that I have not visited, those countries were extremely different in terms of their cultures, peoples, languages, beliefs and development.

The best people to judge the need of people in those countries are the ordinary people who live in those countries and who can work together to decide what their needs are in relation to their local circumstances.

Some countries in the area have bureaucracies and institutions that are able to identify and articulate their people's needs. Others, however, are not so fortunate. Indonesia has particular issues—and the government is flexing its muscles to control relief. Fine if that helps, but it is beginning to seem otherwise.

Parliament have been told that a significant number of our civil servants have been seconded to help. That is a start.

And across the North East schools, churches, community groups, fishermen are all mustering to help. And that has to be good.

The Red Cross has produced a pack for schools to aid understanding.

An irony is that our communities with least, where government here seek to help, are giving more than our richer areas. So assisting others far away seems to have broad support.

But if we not still engaged with people in need around the world in a year's time, it will have made little difference.

And that was something about which there was universal agreement in our debates in our own Parliament.

Sewell who?

One of the enduring difficulties with our devolved Parliament is managing the relationship with Westminster where other powers are retained and where legislation for England and Wales is considered.

To allow for what Donald Dewar, the Labour politician who led Prime Minister Blair to the devolution trough, saw as no more than an annual need, a convention named after Lord Sewell was created.

When a Sewell motion is passed in the Scottish Parliament we are allowing Westminster to do our work for us. And allowing MPs with little or no knowledge of Scots law to legislate for us.

So alarmingly high has the usage of these become – about one a month – the Procedures Committee of our Parliament is looking at the results.

But we need look little further than two current issues.

A Sewell means that Westminster will change the arrangements for legal appeals. This despite that subject being covered by the 1707 Treaty between Scotland and England which established a UK government and that treaty preventing any change.

And more alarming in a day to day sense, it seems that a UK body, directed by PM Blair and his successors, will have some control of Scots police forces.

We need better collaboration between law enforcement agencies – yes. And across Europe and beyond. But dis-empowering our police and opening them to political interference is not the answer.

Scottish decisions are better decisions.

7 January 2005

Looking Forward

When large disasters confront us it can be difficult for us to grasp the scale. But with the loss of life in South East Asia about the same size as the population of Aberdeenshire we can feel the scale all too easily.

And being a natural disaster, the limits of our ability to anticipate and prevent are all too obvious.

The tsunami detection monitoring in place in the Pacific could certainly have helped if it had covered the Indian Ocean too. But many of the communities lost in the tidal wave were unlikely to have been able to receive the warning and respond within the time required.

Friend and SNP colleague Malcolm Fleming now works for OXFAM Scotland and was flown out to Sri Lanka soon after the event. He has been telling of the pain and loss among the survivors he has met on the BBC web site.

But for us the question must be, how can we help the survivors?

Our fishermen know the power of the sea. They stand ready to provide practical assistance.

Highland NHS staff showed the way with their donation of a day's pay to relief efforts. And the SNP proposal to do likewise in our Parliaments is gaining increasing support.

We recall the horror of atomic bombs at the end of the war with Japan. The bomb blasts killed far fewer than this wave. But in the aftermath many more died. Sixty years on we still feel the horror.

As individuals we could do little to prevent the natural event that brought death to Asia. But we can each do our bit to minimise further harm to vulnerable people and communities.

Scotland in the World

For a people to be independent and self-governing, they must control the basic communication tools of the society they inhabit.”

Not my words but a statement from New York City Council. But words I find easy to agree with. And if they are true for New York, they are surely true for Scotland.

Now of course communication comes in a variety of forms.

We have rich and diverse newspaper industry. Rather too much is owned and controlled from furth of Scotland. But enough is truly local to ensure diversity of viewpoint and independence of thought.

Radio flourishes long after the time many had thought it would have withered and died. And from community level – think of Kinnaird Radio – to Northsound and MFR, Scottish operation and control is there and active.

And Grampian TV, with sister station STV down south, report our local affairs.

BBC Scotland has a distinct identity but receives much less than its fair share of BBC spending.

But in 2005 possible take-overs threaten Scottish control of radio and TV.

The internet is the fastest growing, and least regulated, area of communication. And with most of the north-east and much of Scotland enabled for broadband, new opportunities exist for Scots entrepreneurs.

To quote the New York City Council again, “As we enter a time where most person-to-person, person-to-group, business, and government communication takes place over the Internet, an independent, vibrant, self-governing community must control the fundamental elements of that communication network. Domain names are a key part of that control.”

What they mean is that a distinct independent identity works on the internet just as it does elsewhere.

Wherever you see a web or email address ending “dot UK”, you know where the base is.

But although Ireland, the Isle of Man, Jersey, Guernsey also have their own identities on the internet, Scotland does not.

With recent changes to the way names are allocated on the internet, it would be possible for Scotland to bid, as New York City Council resolved to, for a new “dot” name.

As the NY Council said, “a dot NYC will make our community more governable, provide opportunities for small businesses, raise city revenue, and make navigating the Internet easier for our residents, prospective tourists, and businesses.”

And what makes sense for a city, ought to make sense for a country like ours with a First Minister who keeps says we should be “the best small country in the world”.

But we need our identity on the internet.


Stewart Stevenson
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