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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.


Stewart Stevenson
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