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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.


Stewart Stevenson
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