3 July 2001

Peterhead Prison

The Government's motion in the Scots Parliament on Violent and Sexual Offenders was an occasion that saw the kind of debate that the public say they want.

The issues were presented, points were picked up and developed from speaker to speaker. And the SNP presented no amendment to the Labour-Liberal motion. Only the Tories spoilt that party mood, and then only slightly, by tabling their own amendment. In the end they supported the government.

For me it presented the opportunity to make a speech about Peterhead Prison. Sixty-seven members of Parliament had supported Alex Salmond's motion in January which congratulated the Prison on their pioneering, and world-class, work with sex offenders. This was the time to build on that and to ask the government to end the uncertainty about Peterhead's future. I got warm words of support from the Minister which praised the Prison's work. But we'll have to wait another six months before we can be sure that it has a future.

And during this measured and useful debate there were how many journalists present? One! They only seem to want report disagreements. When we're all pulling in the same direction and doing our bit with common purpose, they're not interested in telling the public about the good things we do.

A Modern Transport System

Scottish Enterprise Grampian presented an update for local MSPs on a "Modern Transport System" for the North-East. For me it was more of introduction. And I found it rather depressing.

We are a one car family with no prospect of ever becoming a no car family. The reasons are entirely practical and financial. To get a bus from my Whitehills home the three miles into Banff is a £1.40 journey and the frequency is not that great. I contrast that with the Bridge of Don Park & Ride which I hear about at the seminar. It allows a family of four to park their car on the outskirts of Aberdeen, take a 5-mile trip to the centre of the city and back, for £1.60. The rate per mile is about one-eighth of my journey. No wonder I usually chose to spend about 25 pence on petrol for our car rather than take the bus to Banff.

And when I travel to Parliament in Edinburgh it's little better. I catch the 6.17 a.m. train from Huntly, about 20 miles from Whitehills. That gets me there by about 10.45. Yes I'm relaxed and I've been working on the train. But there's no public transport, other than an expensive taxi ride, to get me to Huntly at that time in the morning and the trains are only every two hours.

But for a young man in rural Banffshire things are much worse. He needs a wheelchair to get around. And he gets a free bus pass because of it. But his disability means that he can't lift his wheelchair onto his local bus. And the driver is not allowed to under Health & Safety regulations. Therefore this young man has to use taxis.

We might have a strategy for Aberdeen. With a little help from Scotland's Euro 2008 bid we might get a Western Peripheral Route round the city which we'd all welcome. But at grass roots level, we've still a lot to do.

Mintlaw School Visit

The second last day before the recess was my fifth day in Parliament and saw my first visit by constituents. A group of Mintlaw Academy pupils and their teacher have arrived to see what we do.

I suspect they weren't all that impressed to find that I start my day like many office workers by clearing the overnight emails. Unlike Westminster, every MSP is hooked into a Parliamentary computer system that brings day by day news of what's going on. And which connects us to the outside world of constituents, special interest groups and others with an interest in our work.

But they've chosen quite good day to be here. The Education Minister will be making a statement on the Scottish Qualifications Authority, the SQA. And our school students are keenly interested in seeing the whites of the Minister's eyes when he talks. Things have got better - could they have got worse? - and I get to ask my question. But by that time it's late and my visitors no longer sit in the gallery.

Earlier my visitors found it more impressive. Grampian TV arrive unexpectedly at my desk to ask if they can film a response from me on a probable expansion of Grampian Country Foods in Banff. For a new member this is manna from heaven. For my visitors it seems surprising that four minutes later the TV crew have gone having filmed my answers to three questions and taken shots of me at my desk. And it makes North Tonight's lead story. Good news for Banff.

Working with the media is fun but the real work is in the chamber, on the phone and on the keyboard.

Surgeries - Broadband

One of the key expectations constituents have of their MSPs is that they be accessible. And indeed the Scots Parliament's code of conduct for members require that we be so.

My first round of surgeries threw up a mixed bag of personal problems, administrative failures by various parties and one strategic shortfall in the constituency. We ain't got broadband communications.

Now, every so often a new "buzz-word" becomes "hot". An example would be WAP phones. The mobile phone operators have been pushing these like mad so they can boost their profits. And like so many new "techie" things it is falling out of favour as fast as it rose. The technology ain't much good.

Broadband is different. Small businesses in our area struggle to break out of their local area because we are further from our markets than many of our competitors. A visitor to one of my surgeries delivers training throughout the world over the Internet. But without broadband connections they're paying too much and getting poor service compared to companies in our cities.

So what can an MSP do to help? The answer turns out to be relatively simple. A letter from a member of parliament asking for information can work wonders. And in a day or two we discover a broadband cable running through the constituency - but without local connections. The Chairman of the Post Office says all their offices are going online to broadband and there are plans to install the technology in schools.

So all we need to do is bring all this together, generate enough demand from local business and we can be part of the new "wired world". That's my next step.

School Holidays

Communities all over have celebrated the Millenium in their own way. In Whitehills we have a compass rose set in the ground to show us the way North.

Sandhaven has a box. It's filled with things that matter today and will, they hope, intrigue people in a hundred years' time. And the end of year assembly at the Primary School is where it is officially closed.

When I was at school, I always thought the holidays were the best part. Today's Sandhaven pupils seem genuinely attached to their school and each class in turn puts on a wee show for the visitors.

The one that affects me most is when the senior pupils who will be leaving for the Academy tell us of their memories of school. It brings back a time in 1952 when my father's car had to follow the snow-plough to get me to my first day at school. And what is more precious in life than memories? Thank you Sandhaven for bringing back one of mine.

And Parliament's off for the Summer too

After only three weeks in Parliament it seems hard to remember a period before. And my "end of term" review? Well I've managed two speeches, two interventions, one oral question and a contribution to a committee. And outside Parliament, meetings galore, three surgeries and a mountain of correspondence.

The next eight weeks are an opportunity to visit people in some of our smaller villages and towns. I need to do some research as I expect to be appointed to Parliament's Rural Development Committee. There's two years of meetings to catch on. And Sandra tells me she wants a break. Two weeks on the West Coast will be our first real holiday for three years. We're looking forward to it.

Stewart Stevenson
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