26 May 2004

Healthy Growing

When I was at school it was as part of the post-war baby boom that saw 450 in my high school year.

And of all that number three suffered from asthma – Roger, Teddy and me.

Like most asthmatics of my generation, the wheezy attacks vanished with adulthood but may return in old age.

My experience of the condition has left me with three things – a distaste of strawberry jam because my “powders” were delivered to me wrapped in the stuff on a spoon, an ability control my breathing through self-hypnosis and a determination to keep reasonably fit.

And keeping fit means exercise when the opportunity allows – I have probably the smallest taxi bill in Parliament because I walk – and a diet with very limited sugar and based around as much food prepared from raw materials as time permits.

The result is that although am no longer the 10 stone, 5 foot 11, “stick insect” that my wife married in 1969, I comfortably within my medically correct weight.

If only that were so for the next generation.

Scotland now has the fattest kids in the world – official.

With twenty percent of our children seriously overweight and a trend that will see that rise to a third in a few years, we are stoking up health problems in years to come.

The fat epidemic is already impacting in some areas of Scotland. Life expectancy is actually falling in parts of Glasgow as being overweight is taking its toll.

And being overweight derives from one simple equation – people eat more calories than they burn off in exercise. Because the amount we eat is rising and the exercise we take is falling.

Our habits are just that – habits. And the most persistent of our habits are formed early.

So if we can start children on a healthy eating road, there is a good chance they will stay there.

This is why my parliamentary colleague, Shona Robison, SNP MSP for Dundee East is introducing a Bill to control snack machines in schools. At present the fizzy drinks companies and the sweet snacks companies rule the roosts in many parts of Scotland. They want a new generation of customers addicted to their unhealthy, and expensive, snacks and where better to capture their eating habits than early – in schools.

So the multi-national companies pay to be allowed to site their vending machines in the corridors of our schools.

Shona gave birth to her first child in the first week of the parliamentary summer recess last year. Only a week earlier I had had the alarming experience of sitting next to her while she was making a major speech, watching the as yet unborn youngster kicking her stomach wall – from the inside! – desperate to join in. An MSP in the making indeed.

But Shona is determined that when her offspring go to school that the food habits they acquire there will be healthy eating ones. The alternative is lives shortened and impaired by diseases which often come with obesity – diabetes, heart failure and joints problems to name but a few.

Children’s Hearings

Lord Kilbrandon’s "Children and Young Persons Scotland" report was delivered to Parliament 40 years ago last month. It said:

"Wherever possible the aim must be to strengthen and develop the natural influences for good within the home and family, and likewise to assist the parents in overcoming factors adverse to the child's sound and normal up-bringing."

"In our view, referral should be made to ... panels for one reason only, namely that prima facie the child is in need of special measures of education and training."

Today’s Children’s Panels are based on Kilbrandon’s report.

Interestingly his report shows that between 1950 and 1962 the number of juvenile crimes was greater than today’s figures. So the panels certainly seem to be delivering something.

However, a lot has changed in our society since 1971, when the panel system started. Indeed, when one considers how short a distance ahead changes in our society can really be seen, it is remarkable that a system that was established so long ago still stands in good regard.

The Children’s Hearings are something which most MSPs support. But the time has come for a review and I hope we will see a good number of considered responses to the government’s consultation. I have already started preparing mine.

Dalai Lama

The signposts around Edinburgh are showing a welcome poster for the Dalai Lama’s visit to Scotland this week. In a material world, many people will approve of a focus, for a little while at least, on higher matters.

And among the lucky ones meeting and questioning the Dalai Lama will be a group from Peterhead Academy. I shall be joining them on Wednesday when he is in Parliament to address MSPs.

12 May 2004


The Scottish Parliament is not all-powerful – no news there then.

So I find myself having to look at what is happening at Westminster from time to time. We have a significant number of pieces of “secondary legislation” which relate to previous Acts which were passed before our Parliament came into being.

Each day approximately three such SSIs – Scottish Secondary Instruments – are tabled for consideration. Most are “negative” instruments.

By and large they represent a mechanism for Ministers to vary lists, set fees and similar low level activities delegated to the government by various Acts of Parliament.

At Westminster these constitute a significant volume of legislation. And we should not imagine that they are all benign.

It was just such a piece of legislation, published a few weeks before an election, that removed 6,000 square miles of Scottish fishing waters into English jurisdiction.

The other kind of SSI is the “affirmative” instrument – one which requires the agreement of Parliament before it can pass into law. These are generally dealt with in Committee and only reach the floor of Parliament if seen as particularly contentious.

One I moved against recently sought to raise the fees for planning applications that local authorities must charge. I asked why, when the government’s stated policy was to empower councils, they were setting such charges at all.

Why not allow Councils to set the charges themselves? The efficient, and those wanting to attract new industries and housing, could set low rates and lay out their stall as being “open for business”. The Councils which are badly run and inefficient could suffer.

But no – competition in this regard would be “unfair” – says Labour Minister Mary Mulligan.

With a uniform business rate across Scotland and with the formula which determines how much money our local council gets ensuring that we are chronically under-funded, we have few enough competitive advantages that our council can use to promote our area.

So it might have been just a little boost to have one tool in the box to fight with.

Instead I heard that this government plan a consultation – they have had about 600 already since coming to power – on the subject. If we need a motto for this government it could be “consult and avoid decisions” as that seems increasingly to represent their way.

Core legislation takes the form of Bills before Parliament – in Scotland as at Westminster. And it is perfectly reasonable that we look at the experience of another Parliament before taking a topic forward.

But for the lack-lustre crew running the Scottish government, this is a one-way process. They look all too often to follow Westminster.

I am taking an interest in the Westminster “Human Tissue Bill” precisely because Malcolm Chisholm, the Scottish Health Minister, has said that he expects to mirror the proposals within it when we legislate in the Scots Parliament.

The Bill is much needed. It seeks to prevent the abuses which arose at a number of hospitals which saw babies’ brains and other organs retained for research without the parents’ knowledge.

But its detail is likely to have much wider implications.

It basically says that before any tissue can be used for any purpose other than to promote the health of the individual from which it came, written permission must be provided.

On the face of it, a sound proposal.

On a visit to the Immunology Department at Aberdeen’s Foresterhill Hospital, I saw that it could make life very difficult even for routine lab work vital to patients.

The definition of “tissue” in the Bill appears to include blood samples and normal human waste. So?

Much of the delicate work of our labs requires “reference” material to go through the tests alongside suspect material taken from patients. This provides a vital check that lab processes and equipment are working correctly.

At present such material is readily available to the labs. In the new world it could cost as much as £30 per test for “consented” material and be in much shorter supply.

The rules in this Bill seem some way distant from protecting the rights of children and their parents.

I am going to keep a close eye on this as I have no problem with anyone “taking the P…” from me if that helps another human being.

A Day in Edinburgh

One of my favourite Parliamentary activities is meeting constituents who drop into Parliament. And school visits are especially well catered for by our Parliamentary staff.

Banff Academy joined us here this month and pressed MSPs, including myself, with some pretty hard questions. And then they had a mock Parliamentary debate.

It must have been a good day – the teachers have signed up to come again next year.

I welcome engagement of our youngsters in the democratic process. The alternative is dictatorship.

Stewart Stevenson
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