30 March 2003

From “Property Executive” Magazine

After thirty years working in technology, it was appropriate that we found our new home on the Internet. Appropriate but not inevitable, for the ambitions of dot com entrepreneurs remain largely unfulfilled.

And the 'middle land' in Banffshire where we live, is neither urban enough to have telecommunications companies fighting over market share nor deprived enough to gain government support for modern communications technology like broadband.

So any internet search is constrained by lesser quality copper cable little different than that installed 100 years ago. But what is undoubtedly superior is quality of life. Despite the fears of some academics I have yet to meet a 'new local' who regrets the move from congested city to rural idyll.

The explosive boom in house prices, and the mirrored ramp-up in commercial property rents, has not yet swept far enough away from Aberdeen to make our new farm steading unaffordable for anyone who, like us, is selling a property in the Edinburgh area.

So there is an inexorable migration North. The accents in our local 80-pupil primary school are clear testament to that.

But migration simply is not an option for too many of our population trapped by inadequate housing and poor local employment. In parts of Glasgow, the majority of homes have no adult in employment.

Bringing housing stock up to modern standards is essential. The contentious Glasgow housing stock transfer has that laudable aim. But the sell-off of Council housing stock seems a dubious way to achieve it.

When I worked "in computers" at Bank of Scotland, I never used to lose any sleep about the odd million or two in my budget. And indeed I remember visiting our London Dealing room when it was still a manual operation. The books failed to balance at the end of the day – by £50 million. Nobody panicked and they found the money three days later.

That is what happens when you work with something every day – like millions of pounds – one becomes desensitised to the meaning for the wider community.

So to spend many hundreds of millions of pounds to fix a problem, such as the Glasgow housing crisis - created by the very political party who is spending our money, must raise hard questions.

In the Scottish Parliament the cheerleaders for discontent among the media have seemed to have the loudest voices. And they say that business has had little attention.

All that means is that they have yet to come and see the heart of the Parliament's activity – our Committees. The Enterprise and Lifelong Learning Committee has been one of our most active. With good relations with business, academia and social enterprises it gives the lie to the critics.

And for those who complain about the power of party whips, a little bit of research into Committee activity tells a very different story.

The heart of making legislation lies in Committee. Sixty two Acts in the last four years. On the Land Reform Bill, seven MSPs (3 Labour, 2 SNP, 1 Tory and 1 Lib Dem), spent months poring over the detail. I know I was one.

Of the first sixty votes, Labour's opinion split on 13 occasions, the SNP's on 7. And no response from party whips because we are expected to be there to listen to the evidence and make up our own minds.

The new Parliamentarians after 1st May will build on their predecessors successes and failures.

There will be just as many challenges for parties that grow in size – and move into power – as there will be for those that shrink.

But for all of Scotland it is there for keeps. And it is up business to step up to the task of lobbying, persuading and perhaps even getting their own way occasionally. Just like everyone else.

28 March 2003

End of Term

After four years of the Scots Parliament the papers are full of end of term reviews. And Parliament is full of retiring members fighting to the front to make their last speeches.

Of course there will be others whose future is less certain. An election is the ultimate appraisal. And like most work appraisals it will not be wholly objective.

As I have written elsewhere, “People are not influenced by what you do, nor by what you think. What matters is what people think you do.”

So the perceptions that people have of Parliamentarians do actually matter.

In four years MSPs have asked 36,377 or so questions about the governance of Scotland. Far more than would have been asked if the Scottish Parliament had never been established. I have asked my fair share – about 550 in two years – while one Labour backbencher has been so incurious about the nation’s progress as to ask ten questions in four years.

Instead of the occasional late night debate on Scottish affairs that we were allowed at Westminster, I have spoken in our Parliament on 76 occasions in only 22 months.

Some parts of the media would paint a very different picture however.

There is genuine concern about the cost of the Parliament building – now eight times what Labour’s Donald Dewar promised – but little recognition that everything that mattered was decided before any of us were elected.

The so-called foxhunting bill attracted disproportionate attention. It actually occupied a relatively modest amount of parliamentary time. And it was a backbench bill. Meatier matters occupied us more.

But the main failure of the media has been in failing to distinguish between Parliament and Executive. Now Westminster saddled us with this confusing nomenclature. Instead of ‘Government’ we got ‘Executive’. Instead of ‘Prime Minister’ we got ‘First Minister’.

And all too often the failures of government (the Executive) have been blamed by some of the press upon Parliament and parliamentarians. Curiously when the Westminster government is faulted it does not lead to blame being heaped on that Parliament as an institution.

In a sense this can been seen as ‘noises off’. Over the next few weeks neither the press nor the politicians will be making the important choices.

In Banff and Buchan we have been fortunate to have many people prepared to join with politicians and campaign on local issues. That is how we kept Peterhead Prison. That is how we wrung the promise of new investment for Banff’s Chalmers Hospital out of reluctant decision-makers.

And that shows that politics does matter to people. And that the choices made on 1st May do matter and can make a difference.

Fishing for Facts

The main difficulty confronting us continues to be the brutal regime imposed upon our fishing industry,

Although it targets our catching sector, it affects others. The processing sector has had to source much more of its fish from foreign catchers. And redirect its efforts away from fish types suffering more limited availability.

Highlighting the increase in imports illustrates the industry’s problem. But it must not be seen as a criticism of processors who support so workers.

The £10 million transitional support scheme for the fishing industry has been published but the EU, as if their Common Fisheries Policy was not a big enough burden for us, are moving at a snail-like pace to approve the scheme. Indeed will the prospective recipients still be around when the money finally arrives?
The prawn catchers are suffering, in part because of the diversion of some white fish boats into catching prawns, from a 20-year low in prices.

In Committee this week we learned of the plans to allow the ‘prawners’ to fish with 95mm nets instead of their current 100mm. Great stuff! This allows them to stay at sea for 25 days each month instead of the 15 that 100mm permits.

One panel of 95mm in a 100mm net makes the whole net 95mm. So it should be a modest upgrade cost for the industry. Thank goodness we have learned something from the French – at last – about how to implement EU regulations. Ignore the intention. Just find the way that suits us.

But does this not just show the whole absurdity of the new restrictions? Nets that catch less allow our fishermen less time at sea. Nets that catch more allow them more time at sea. Very wee nets allow the Danes to sweep up 1.5 millions tonnes of fish from their ‘industrial fishery’ each year.

19 March 2003

Off the Beaten Track

For some years Sandra and I were able to travel to many countries in the world which were regarded as firmly “off the beaten track”.

In 1976 I well remember standing on the hill above Amman, the capital of Jordan, and looking westwards.

With the naked eye one could see the Israeli port of Haifa, some 60 miles away. What that did was to put into my mind one of the reasons why Israel feels vulnerable. Tanks from Jordan would take only a few hours to cross their country.

We crossed from Jordan to the Israeli-occupied West Bank. The Allenby Bridge across the Jordan river was no more than 60 feet wide. A temporary structure, with a Jordanian army machine-gun post at one end, an Israeli one at the other – pointing at each other, linked by a “field telephone”. And a three hour security search before we were allowed in.

Today the middle-east is even more unstable and dangerous than when we were there over a quarter of century ago.

My late father-in-law had been there too. He was part of our armed forces trying to maintain order and stability under the Palestine Mandate. He made a quick exit in 1947 when it was no longer possible to keep the peace.

And now that the political decision has been made that “our boys” – and increasingly, “our girls” – will march into Iraq, our first concern is for all in our armed services who do the government’s bidding. My doubts about the legality of the war – and like most thinking people, I still have them – have to be secondary. Until afterwards.

We are now captives of our US friends and allies. Why? Years of spending on nuclear weapons – useless in today’s conflict zones – have left our armed forces too small. Well trained – yes. Determined and committed – yes. Well equipped – doubtful.

So the safety of our soldiers, sailors, aircrew and all their support services, civilian and military, will depend on the high-tech American forces – and their equipment.

Be in no doubt that George Bush wants us there as a “political” ally much more than as a “military” one.

I have yet to meet an apologist for Saddam Hussein or his brutal regime. And I do not expect to.

If Saddam is toppled that is well and good. The fight for a fairer regime in Baghdad can then start – fairer for the Iraqi people that is.

But if a US-led attack on Saddam is seen by the public across the middle-east as an attack on “their people”, we will, as after 55 years of Israeli-Palestinian conflict, continue to pay the price in wider unrest – a more dangerous world for years to come.

We must judge success not by the toppling of Saddam but by whether world security improves or worsens.

George Bush’s high-tech weapons of war may win the war but cannot win the peace. That requires skills of persuasion, diplomacy and respect for others’ cultures and traditions that he has yet to demonstrate.

12 March 2003

Arguments or Logic

The great debates in Parliament get lots of attention. But the really important debates take place in the Committee Rooms and the corridors.

So it was not particularly unusual to find me sitting with a government Minister at a table in our canteen in Edinburgh. With us were tenant farmers to whom the fine detail of the Agricultural Holdings (Scotland) Bill mattered a great deal.

And the subject of debate at lunch? Whether an SNP Amendment to an Executive Amendment should be supported. We wanted, and the tenant farmers wanted, the operation of a key part of the Bill to be back-dated to Aprtil 2002. The Minister and his civil servants wanted September.

In the event, I spoke later in the Chamber using the notes written over lunch on a canteen napkin. A first I think!

But the government remained obdurate and our proposal fell. Was that the end of the matter? Not really.

The parties to this issue outside the Parliament had actually agreed that our amendment made sense. An unusual alliance, the National Farmers’ Union Scotland, the Scottish Tenant Farmers Action Group and the Scottish Landowners Federation. Yes – tenants and landlords working together to common purpose.

The SLF even put down a note from the public gallery in Parliament so the Minister was aware that they supported our amendment.

But at the end of the day the timidity of the Minister’s civil servants won the day. The amendment fell. And that happens a depressingly large number of times.

In the Scottish Parliament we can make things happen by building alliances. That was how I managed the MSP end of the Peterhead Prison campaign and ended up saving that institution.

The over-arching question remains – what directs political decision-making?

In a word – fear. Fear of losing the next vote in Parliament. Fear of losing the next election. Fear of exposure in the press.

So where a concensus can be built – as with the Argicultural Holdings Bill – many opposition amendments, especially those pressed in Committee, can be accepted and Bills improved.

But logic – the power of evidence – plays a smaller part in decision-making. So even when the Rural Development Committee came forward with cross-party agreement firmly based on evidence drawn from meetings in Aberdeen and Edinburgh that suggested a different way forward for fishing recovery, it could still be rejected.

Despite the many individuals and fishing organisations who gave evidence – and who often submitted written material to make sure that we knew the right questions – Ministers still determine outcomes.

And Ministers’ advisors are civil servants who will keep whispering ‘caution, caution’ in their Minister’s ear.

The first task of a new government after the forthcming elections is to make sure that they control their civil servant advisors and that they are not controlled by them.

So if we are going to get a change in fishing policy, we need a change of ministers. And that means a change of government.

Still Crusading

The fishing industry is one with many competing interests. Inevitably when prices in the market are high, the skippers and crews are happy – provided they are first in with their fish and have enough on board to make money.

Processors suffer when supplies are short and prices high.

But at the moment prices are low. So catchers are suffering. And this on top of the EU’s pernicious restrictions.

So it is galling for everyone – including the consumers – that supermarket prices have not budged an inch while landing prices are so low.

With the traditional fishmonger disappearing from High Streets across Scotland, the big retailers control fish sales.

That means that they set the price for supplies and control what we pay. Margins – the profit they make – are higher in our supermarkets than in the USA for example.

So it is good to see the first signs of some coming together in the fishing industry. The Fishermen’s Association has joined with Northern Irish fishing interests to make a stronger, bigger negotiating body.

Now that more and more politicians agree with me when I say that getting out of this EU Common Fishing Policy must be a priority, it should be time for divisions in the industry on this issue to end.

And not just between the various catchers’ organisations but stretching out to create an alliance between the SFF, FAL, the processors and the new Fishing Services Association. Because as the old saying goes – if we don’t hang together then surely we will be hanged together.

Will not EU Commissioner Fischler just rub his hands in glee at every split and division in our industry and every attempt to split major political parties from fishing?

That’s why the Cod Crusaders were giving MSPs fresh fish this week. We may not have it much longer unless we unite.

Stewart Stevenson
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