21 December 2010

Difficult conditions

I don’t think many people will have failed to notice that the weather has been rather inclement. Or as a senior police officer at Strathclyde said; “unprecedented”. There is a ready debate as to whether it has been the worst weather since 1993 or since 1963, but no debate that it has been bad.

That has meant that my investment in a 4x4 in spring this year has definitely paid off. With the help of a neighbouring farmer my wife was able to open up our track down to the house and communication with the outside world restored – albeit with care.

For those of us who live in a rural setting a degree of self-sufficiency and mutual aid is a normal way of life. As yet, the snow fall at home – about 2 feet – is well short of last winter. But many of our old folk have needed a helping hand and I’ve been heartened to see many people doing just that – keeping an eye out, clearing the path, doing the messages.

As a Minister – or as you will now all know, former Minister – in the Government, the weather has been a pretty full-time pre-occupation. I have attended 15 meetings of the Cabinet Sub-Committee on Resilience to discuss the bad weather in the last few weeks and many other meetings forbye. I have also worked with three UK Ministers to co-ordinate action – in particular to get relaxation of drivers’ hours restrictions.

But back to that word “unprecedented”.

On Sunday when we received the forecast at 4 p.m., it said there would be snow in the central belt of Scotland – 2 to 5 centimetres generally, up to 10 cm on the hills.

We sent out the gritters to prepare. And indeed they went out many times overnight.

Later in the evening the forecast was updated but the necessary preparations indicated by that forecast remained the same – and continued.

At 8 a.m. on Monday morning there was still no suggestion that the depth of snow fall would be of the 20 cm depth that areas in the central belt – definitely not “on hills” – actually received.

But at 10:41 a.m. the first confirmation that the snowfall was much greater than expected came in. Too late to pre-emptively close our main roads and prevent an almighty snarl up. Indeed so unexpected, so unforecast, was the snowfall that BBC reporters were going out on routine assignments with no expectation of such a fall. The same BBC that later complained that the Government had not been listening to their forecasts.

But don’t let’s kick the forecasters too hard. It is not an exact science and cannot be. It is a statistically, a mathematically, derived prediction with inbuilt margins of error. Too often by the time it reaches your TV it assumed an entirely false sense of absolute certainty that cannot be true.

Now there are many lessons we can all learn, particularly regarding communication. People who have been caught up in such conditions want to know what is being done to help them and just as importantly, what will be done to improve future responses to extreme weather. It is an area where I believe I could have done better and that is why I offered the First Minister my resignation on Thursday evening.

While I am saddened to have left the Scottish Government, I am immensely proud to have had the opportunity to serve as a minister in the first ever SNP Government. I am now looking forward to a bit more time in the North East and bit less time with the BBC.

7 December 2010

Parliament at its best

This week saw the Scottish Parliament discuss one of the most contentious pieces of legislation to have come before it since devolution began. Margo MacDonald’s End of Life Assistance Bill, which proposed the legalisation of assisted suicide, has seen widespread activity amongst both supporters and opponents of the measures over the course of this parliamentary term. The passionate arguments over the issue culminated in the Stage 1 debate on the bill last week, an example of parliament working at its best.

That this a difficult issue should go without saying and every single MSP in the parliament has received a huge volume of correspondence from constituents arguing both for and against the legislation. With every member having been given a free vote on the issue, each MSP was left to examine their own conscience in reaching their conclusions.

Absent from the debate was any form of partisan or personal attacks and instead we saw speaker after speaker from all parties make impassioned but well reasoned arguments in favour of the conclusions they had reached. Each member was forced to study their conscience and consider the moral and philosophical implications of the way they would cast their vote. It was perhaps politicians acting in the way that members of the public so often hope they will but which political differences often make difficult.

For my own part, I did not feel able to support the legalisation of assisted suicide. The Hippocratic Oath which has governed the behaviour of doctors for centuries explicitly states that: ‘I will prescribe regimens for the good of my patients according to my ability and my judgment and never do harm to anyone. I will not give a lethal drug to anyone if I am asked, nor will I advise such a plan; … But I will preserve the purity of my life and my arts.’

I do not believe it would be right to fundamentally change the relationship between doctors and their patients by asking them to administer death, even for the best of intentions. To do so would undermine a healthcare relationship that has been fundamental to society since the ancient Greeks and would represent an extremely worrying change in the role of the medical profession.

Other MSPs reached their own conclusions by varying paths and at the end of the debate the legislation was voted down. This will come as welcome news to some and a great disappointment to others. Yet regardless of what position one holds on the issue, I believe people should be able to take pride in the way the debate was conducted in such a mature and responsible manner.

Negotiating priorities

The same day in Parliament also saw the annual debate on fisheries negotiations take place, where the negotiating priorities of the Scottish Government are discussed. Scotland is of course hindered in achieving such priorities by the fact that despite being home to 70% of the UK’s fishing fleet, it cannot speak with its own voice but must first convince the UK Government of our position and hope they will argue effectively on our behalf.

That said, a key priority in these negotiations is to secure EU support for the wider roll out of catch-quotas, where instead of limiting what can be landed fishing vessels are allowed to catch less but land more. This rewards skippers for greater conservation and also helps to end the heartbreaking sight of perfectly good fish being discarded. Scotland has shown the way in developing this practice and now it is time for full EU backing.

Stewart Stevenson
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