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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.


Stewart Stevenson
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