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30 June 2004

S2M-1481 Hepatitis C

The Deputy Presiding Officer (Trish Godman): The final item of business is a members' business debate on motion S2M-1481, in the name of Keith Raffan, on the urgent need to tackle hepatitis C, public health crisis. The debate will be concluded without any question being put.

Motion debated,

That the Parliament welcomes the launch of the UK Hepatitis C Resource Centre for Scotland; recognises the urgent need to raise awareness of what the Royal College of Physicians of Edinburgh described in their UK Hepatitis C Consensus Statement of April 2004 as a "public health crisis" which affects between 45,000 and 65,000 people in Scotland, and believes that the Scottish Executive should acknowledge that, as with HIV/AIDS, this epidemic can only be effectively tackled through central, ring-fenced funding for both treatment and prevention.

17:02
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17:27

Stewart Stevenson (Banff and Buchan) (SNP): I congratulate Keith Raffan on securing this important debate. Watching the minister scurrying to his advisers at the back of the chamber throughout the debate, we can tell that a wide range of issues has been raised that he is committed to responding to.

One of the issues that we should return to is that of hepatitis C in our society and the way in which we view people who suffer from the disease. Of course, as other members have said, one of the immediate problems is that we do not know all the people who suffer from the disease, which, in its early stages, is relatively hidden—a silent killer. Some people have contracted hepatitis C through their lifestyles but, of course, addicts rarely choose their lifestyles—virtually no one is an addict through choice. Other people have inadvertently become infected with hepatitis C.

It is interesting that a social stigma is attached to hepatitis C. We do not speak about methicillin resistant staphylococcus aureus victims in hospitals in the same way, yet in a sense people can become infected by hepatitis C just as innocently as they can fall victim to MRSA.

If we stigmatise people who suffer from HCV, we will make it harder to find out who they are and to provide support to them. That is a moral issue, but there is also a practical issue about not stigmatising hepatitis C sufferers. If we do not support them, they are more likely to pass the disease to others. Therefore, besides the moral case for being non-judgmental, self-interest is involved.

From the various documents on the subject, it is perfectly clear that the means of transmission of the disease is imperfectly understood. There are clear paths through which transmission of the disease is understood to happen—in particular, in relation to injecting drug users who share their gear—but we must remember that there are other ways of transmission. Whether mother-to-baby infection can take place to any significant extent and to what extent the disease can be passed on through sexual contact or through sharing shaving instruments, for example, is not clear.

Addicts are victims, but everyone who is a victim of the disease is not an addict. There is a high incidence of the disease among prisoners because the chaotic lifestyles of injecting drug users throughout Scotland often lead those people into criminality. Therefore, we must address the continuing scandal of inadequate throughcare from prison to reintegration into normal life. Of course, that is partly a financial issue, but it is also an issue of priorities. We must recognise that supporting prisoners should not be at the bottom of our pile of priorities; we should treat that matter seriously if prisoners are not to be a reservoir of infection for others.

I close by highlighting one fact from the statement issued on 22 April by the "Consensus" conference on hepatitis C. The statement says:

"Only half of those referred attend clinics".

We need more people in the community to make non-judgmental contact with people who are infected by the disease. It is in all our interests, and not only in the interests of those who are infected, that we step up the action.

17:32

Subject Debate: Volunteering

The Presiding Officer (Mr George Reid): The next item of business is a debate on a celebration of volunteering in Scotland. The debate will be concluded without any question being put.

14:34
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14:46

Stewart Stevenson (Banff and Buchan) (SNP): When I volunteered for this debate—

Members: Oh.

Stewart Stevenson: I thought that I would get that joke in before anyone else did. When I volunteered for this debate, I did not realise that I would have the most dreadful frog in my throat. If I do not use my full time—

Phil Gallie: That will be a change.

Stewart Stevenson: Phil Gallie should not encourage me; I might just run over.

It was particularly appropriate that, before this debate, we heard from the Mercy Corps Scotland. In my constituency, the Banff rotary club is working closely with Mercy Corps Scotland in relation to mercy ships that are providing medical assistance off the coast of Africa. I am sure that we all have examples of local organisations that are selflessly supporting those who are less well off than themselves.

When I disagree with the Executive today, I will be disagreeing with myself and other colleagues by the same token. I say that because I think that we all—individually and collectively—have more to do and responsibilities that we do not fully acknowledge.

The other day, someone said to me, "There's a lot of it about." What she was referring to was Government interference in volunteering. Given the plethora of Government announcements, research and consultation that touches on the subject, it would be tempting to agree with her. I certainly accept that the Government sees volunteering as a good thing. Jack McConnell stated in the preface to the "Working Group Report into a National Youth Volunteering Programme":

"I wholeheartedly endorse the recommendations of this report" and he stated that he wants to bring together

"the public, private and voluntary sectors in a long term creative partnership",

which is first class.

There is a particular social value in encouraging those with more resources and skills to contribute to society. There is a moral case for volunteering, although, of course, we sometimes think that we see more of a financial case. That is a temptation to which we are all subject. If we can get a volunteer to do something for us rather than our having to pay someone, there is a clear and defined benefit from doing so.

As politicians, I hope that we are all used to the practical benefits of volunteering, as our own political parties depend on, and are sustained by, our local party workers who work as volunteers. Indeed, I spent 40 years as a volunteer before I gave any real thought to coming to places such as this. I would argue that political parties are perhaps over-professionalising nowadays and are depending too much on the services of people whom they buy in. The role of the volunteer, who will fold and deliver leaflets, knock on doors, man stands in our high streets and participate in local democracy at all levels, remains absolutely vital, but there is a sense in which it may be being marginalised. There is a message for all of us in that perhaps the public see that and are getting a little disconnected from politics. However, this debate is not about politics per se. I am merely illustrating some aspects of volunteering.

The Executive's compact with the voluntary sector is interesting in the light of the minister's remarks. Few members would disagree with its statement that

"The Compact acknowledges that the voluntary sector and the Executive have their own spheres of action".

However, there are issues in some of the Executive's material that are causing concern to people in the voluntary sector. For example, under the heading "Sources for funding" in the voluntary issues unit section of its website, the first thing that the Executive says is that a number of grant schemes are available

"For activities that promote Scottish Executive objectives".

I say to Margaret Curran that that is perfectly proper and that it might be perverse for me to say that the Executive should support people who are working against the Executive's objectives, but that raises real difficulties for a government of whatever complexion in allocating money to the voluntary sector.

In announcing the renewal of the partnership with the voluntary sector, the Government said:

"We share a commitment to delivering the best for our communities."

On the other hand, there is something in the announcement that causes difficulties for some volunteers. The Government added:

"We are also committed to driving up standards in the voluntary sector, by modernising the legal and financial frameworks".

That is good, but in a sense puts on to the voluntary sector many things that volunteers—particularly of my age group—have spent their lives working with in large organisations, and want to escape from.

The statement mentioned

"the challenge of delivering a real culture change and the need for all partners to recognise Compact implementation as a core function within their everyday business".

In a sense, we may be over-regulating and over-guiding some people in the voluntary sector to the detriment of government objectives and perhaps to the detriment of wider public policy. The challenge is, are we transferring interesting and challenging work from local volunteers generally to paid professionals and leaving the low-grade work for those who will work for nothing? Perhaps that is turning people off in general.

Initiatives that seem to come from the centre are welcome, and it is heck of a difficult for somebody in my position—or for anyone else in the chamber—to argue against them. However, some things that are going on cause me a little concern. For example, Pat Shearer, who is an assistant chief constable in Grampian police, is doing an excellent job in getting more special constables on board. I thoroughly support that, but one mechanism that is being explored is starting to pay them to some extent. I wonder whether that really is the right way to go. In the McInnes report on the legal justice system, we see an attempt to support the professionals' view that there is little place in the criminal justice system for unpaid lay justices, and I have concerns about that, which I know that others share.

We want to raise standards and create opportunities for involvement, and we must do that, but by directing centrally we may be turning off some of the very people who bring professional standards, expertise and broad life experience who would enhance the volunteering benefit that the community would accrue. As one gains life experience, one is perhaps wearied by the filling out of forms, the evaluation of outcomes and the working within defined structures. We must retain space to be outside the box.

When I worked in the business world, I managed many staff on a substantial budget and I thoroughly enjoyed it. My last company medical, in 1998, showed that my blood pressure was 140/90—well within the range for a 52-year-old, as I was then. Interestingly, today it is 110/60. Why has it dropped in those six years? I am now doing a job that I volunteered for. When I get up in the morning, I decide pretty much what I do each day. There are more constraints on me now than there were during my previous 40 years as a political volunteer, but there are far fewer than there were in the world of business. The result is contentment—modest contentment, as my party is not in Government—and a lower blood pressure, despite another six years under my rather expanding belt.

That neatly encapsulates the objectives—assuming that one ever thought in such structured terms—of the great majority of Scotland's volunteers. It is hard to disagree with Margaret Curran, who wrote:

"In its early days volunteering was about the 'haves helping the have nots'";

however, we must not create an environment in which the haves discontinue to support the have nots. There are disturbing signs that the level of charity giving in areas of relative prosperity in Scotland is relatively low compared to the excellent giving in areas of relative deprivation. We must, therefore, be careful and realise that there are more things to learn.

The minister said that she has put £374 million into the voluntary sector. The information that I have is that £262 million has been given in direct grants to organisations. So, there is plenty of evidence of Government good faith on this subject, although there is a danger that that will distort the operation, as talk of money raises awkward issues for us all.

I conclude by going back to James VI, who in 1604, as I said in a previous debate on smoking, identified the fact that smoking could cause strokes and exacerbate problems in the brain. I very much welcome the awarding of the Queen's award for voluntary service to the Deveron stroke club—one of the many worthy awards that have been made. On a final note, the honours system perhaps focuses on financial contributions from political has-beens at the expense of rewarding the volunteer. It is time for change, minister.

14:58

24 June 2004

S2M-1119 School Education (Ministerial Powers and Independent Schools) (Scotland) Bill: Stage 1

The Deputy Presiding Officer (Murray Tosh): The next item of business is a debate on motion S2M-1119, in the name of Peter Peacock, that the general principles of the School Education (Ministerial Powers and Independent Schools) (Scotland) Bill, be agreed to. ...
15:41
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16:27

Stewart Stevenson (Banff and Buchan) (SNP): I occasionally take lessons from the Executive. Paragraph 4 of the Education Committee's report on the bill states that 3,400 consultation documents went out and 49 were returned. Similarly, I have consulted in order to discover why such a bill is before us. I, too, sent out 3,400 consultation documents and—curiously enough—received 49 replies. Initially, I was puzzled about which member of the Labour Party failed to return their response, but I realised that the minister would probably exclude himself from doing so.

At the risk of transgressing Chatham House rules that govern what happens in the members' lounge from time to time, I will tell members exactly why the bill is before us. Initially, there were three theories. The first theory was that the minister, in the ever-fevered competition to have the right to introduce a bill, won the three-legged race last summer on the banks of the Kelvin in the Labour Party's summer sports. However, I realise that that theory was entirely inappropriate because Peter Peacock, as a member for the Highlands, would be performing his civic duty of allowing the midges to bite him back on his native heath.

The second theory that was put forward was that he participated last Easter in the world politicians' arm-wrestling championship in the Bow Bar. However, it was put to me that the residents of Castle Bar in Inverness would feel greatly disquieted to know that their member was spending his money in someone else's establishment.

Therefore, I can exclusively reveal that Jessie Chisholm organised the Christmas party for the Labour Party last year—which was provisioned by McDonald's, of course—at which there was a bran dip and the minister drew out the right to introduce a bill and get his strike count up. It is no coincidence that bills are printed on purple paper, as the minister thought that it was time that he was in the bill.

I have a serious question for the minister about a trivial bill. How much did it cost to bring it forward? There is little cause for us to rejoice at the bill and little cause among SNP members that, for the first time, we have to oppose a bill at this stage of its process.

The reality is that many issues require to be addressed in our schools. Indiscipline is rife throughout Scotland. Inclusion is a very worthy aim, but it has side effects that are not yet fully taken into account and standards in schools are variable.

One of the key things that the Parliament—encouraged by the Executive—has done has been to give local authorities the power to promote well-being. That is something that my colleagues and I welcomed very much, as it touched on a matter of principle for the SNP. Decisions should be made as close as possible to the point of application. That is why, at every opportunity, we argue for more powers for the Scottish Parliament and the disconnection from our affairs of houses of little relevance that are located elsewhere. However, in the Executive's behaviour we often see things that run against that principle. For example, Mary Mulligan brought a Scottish statutory instrument to the Communities Committee that defined planning charges for all councils in Scotland. She did not want councils competing to be cheaper for planning charges. The bill is another example of the centre dictating to the periphery.

Ultimately, when power lies elsewhere, the assumption within councils will be that responsibility lies elsewhere. We risk breaking the link of accountability between local delivery and local accountability, and that could damage democracy itself. At 15:30 today, Andy Kerr said:

"I do not want to dictate from Edinburgh to local health boards".

We should not dictate to local councils either.

16:31

17 June 2004

S2M-1407 Antisocial Behaviour etc (Scotland) Bill

The Presiding Officer (Mr George Reid): The next item of business is a debate on motion S2M-1407, in the name of Margaret Curran, that the Antisocial Behaviour etc (Scotland) Bill be passed.
17:33
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17:40

Stewart Stevenson (Banff and Buchan) (SNP): It is a pleasure to rise to speak in this stage 3 debate—at last. There have been times during the passage of the bill when ministers have perhaps sought to portray themselves as the only true guardians of the spirit of peace and tranquillity across Scotland. I hope that we have now reached a broad consensus, if not a total consensus, across the chamber that there is a real problem and that there was a real casus belli underlying the Executive's determination to pass the bill. We find ourselves with some continuing disagreements, however, about whether the remedies that the bill proposes are proportionate and appropriate. Despite that, my colleagues and I will of course support the bill, because it moves the issue forward.

One of the bill's great achievements is that I am now beginning to feel that Johann Lamont has become almost house trained under my tutelage in the Communities Committee—I am quite sure that I will pay for saying that next week. I make an important point when I say that. Johann Lamont has displayed something a little bit too uncommon in the Parliament: a true and sincere passion. I have not always agreed with her—I still have disagreements with her—but I utterly respect the passion that she has brought to the bill and I congratulate her on her single-mindedness in pursuing the issue. Therefore I ask her, as my convener, whether that will get me credits for next week.

Dispersal remains an issue to which we could apply, at best, that bastard verdict of Scots law, the not proven verdict. The Executive is very much on trial. I am glad that it has accepted the amendments that will require it to undertake early investigation into the success of its dispersal proposals.

There are still some unresolved issues in the area of housing. There is a lack of balance between the various categories of tenure, whether owner-occupiers, tenants in the social rented sector or tenants in the private sector are involved. There are potential difficulties with that lack of balance, which might yet come back to haunt the implementation of the bill. I hope that those difficulties do not destroy the ethos of the bill, which is to address very real problems, particularly in the west of Scotland.

The Parliament deals with about 600 pieces of secondary legislation each year and the bill will bring a very substantial number of statutory instruments. I am in two minds about that. In some cases, it is clear that the minister has put in additional ministerial powers in order to postpone making some difficult decisions. Perhaps that is because the policy is not yet entirely clear in some areas. On the other hand, as was the case during consideration of the Land Reform (Scotland) Bill, when I pushed for certain things to come out of the bill and into the accompanying access code, the approach that has been taken provides the flexibility to respond to developing situations, and increased understanding comes as the legislative environment changes.

I wish the bill good speed. Our communities need it. I have found it particularly interesting to go to parts of Scotland with which I am not particularly familiar. I confess to members that I had been south of Edinburgh only three times in my life before I got married and came here in my 20s. The first time in my entire life that I went to Glasgow was for the Garscadden by-election in 1978, when I was in my 30s. I have had my knowledge of Glasgow updated, and I understand the real concerns of people in the west of Scotland and in communities in Glasgow.

I congratulate the Executive on finally getting its bill through, but we are still on watch for the implementation.

17:45

16 June 2004

S2M-1464 Family Law

The Deputy Presiding Officer (Murray Tosh): The next item of business is a debate on motion S2M-1464, in the name of Cathy Jamieson, on "Family Matters: Improving Family Law in Scotland", and two amendments to the motion.
15:40
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16:14

Stewart Stevenson (Banff and Buchan) (SNP): Let us hope that the debate extends understanding throughout the chamber. I welcome the debate because we must safeguard the interests of children and promote family stability. It is time to reform family law so that it reflects the reality of many families in Scotland. Those are worthy principles with which no one could disagree.

The minister made some important points. She pointed to the need for services to be available to all families in distress. We will not resolve all the issues in this area of public policy simply by legislating. She touched on the fact that family counselling and mediation services are not well co-ordinated, on which I want to speak at some length. There are considerable gaps in the way in which we deal with such matters. Tomorrow we will debate at stage 3 the Antisocial Behaviour etc (Scotland) Bill. It is a widely held belief in the Parliament and beyond that better support for families at the earliest possible point when social distress becomes manifest is crucial to achieving stability in families—we will debate that subject further tomorrow.

I want to illustrate some of the issues by referring to a meeting that I had on Monday with a representative of the Family Mediation Scotland network in my constituency. Family Mediation is a voluntary organisation that is very much on the front line. One of the most important services that it provides are contact centres for families that have broken down, where parents who can no longer meet each other can remain in contact with children who would otherwise be disconnected from one or both of their parents. The contact service in Aberdeenshire and Moray is a successful service that has been running for approaching four years. However, it is a paradox that when we are saying that family mediation is a vital part of the infrastructure to support family values and families that are in considerable difficulties by taking the stress out of relationship breakdown, the centres in my constituency are virtually on the point of closure because of lack of funding. The minister might say, quite properly, that £0.25 million was provided recently to develop a better national infrastructure for family contact centres and family mediation generally. However, the reality is that that does not deliver services on the front line, which is where they are needed.

Child contact centres have no legal status and no definition in Scots law. Their development to date has been ad hoc, which the minister's opening remarks reflected. However, they support an important principle of Scots law and of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child. The Executive's social research unit's report, "Building Bridges? Expectations and Experiences of Child Contact Centres in Scotland" notes that the service provided by

"Child Contact Centres ... although not a formal part of the Scottish legal system ... was widely regarded as critical".

Although the primary focus of the debate is on reforming the law, I hope that in summing up the debate the minister can give hope to child contact centres in my constituency and elsewhere that a lifeline is around the corner, because the corner is approaching very rapidly indeed.

16:18

9 June 2004

Subject Debate: Smoke-free Environments

Scottish Parliament

Wednesday 9 June 2004

(Afternoon)

[THE DEPUTY PRESIDING OFFICER opened the meeting at 14:30]

... ... ...

Smoke-free Environments

The Deputy Presiding Officer (Murray Tosh): The next item of business is a debate on promoting choice and good citizenship: towards more smoke-free environments. The debate will be concluded without any question being put.

14:46

... ... ...

16:41

Stewart Stevenson (Banff and Buchan) (SNP): This afternoon we have heard from the moderates on the smoking issue, but there will be no more Mr Nice Guy, because I am not moderate on this subject. The Government has told us a number of things in its consultation on reducing exposure to second-hand smoke, such as that exposure to second-hand smoke is a cause of heart disease and represents a substantial public health hazard. It has also told us that exposure to second-hand smoke is a cause of lung cancer and can cause childhood asthma. However, colleagues should not imagine that those insights are anything new.

I will share with members some other quotes. First:

"smoking is dangerous to the lungs."

Secondly, it is

"hurtfull and dangerous to youth."

Thirdly, it is

"very pernicious to the heart."

Those quotations were published respectively in 1604, 1606 and 1637, by James VI, Eleazar Duncon and Tobias Venner.

James VI got it spot on when he wrote in "A Counter-blaste to Tobacco", to which my colleague Stewart Maxwell and our friend Scott Barrie referred,

"This filthy smoke makes a kitchen oftentimes in the inward parts of men, soiling and infecting them with an unctuous and oily kinde of soote, as hath bene found ... that after their death were opened."

He did not just know about the effect of smoking in theory; he went to dissections and examined the state of the inner man after exposure to this pernicious evil. Are we so short of knowledge that our deliberations must begin anew 400 years after James so correctly described smoking as "lothesome to the eye" and "hateful to the nose"?

At the heart—and lungs and brain—of the issue is addiction. I do not criticise addicts; they are captured by their addiction. As James VI said, the smoker is "piece by piece allured" until he craves it like

"a drunkard will have as great a thirst to be drunk."

However, James was wrong to compare smoking to alcohol, because drink is addictive to a small minority of its users, albeit that the abuse of alcohol is one of our most widespread social ills. By contrast, smoking is generally thought to be as addictive as heroin, which I imagine the free marketeers on the Conservatives benches would, like the SSP, liberalise and make available to anyone with the money to buy it. Like heroin, smoking captures the majority of its users in its deadly embrace.

I find it baffling that, after 400 years of knowing the evils of this wicked weed, we are still supporting the evil tobacco companies who prey on the addictive misery of our citizens. We are faced across the chamber by a Government that wants to listen rather than lead. We should be absolutely aware that, if tobacco were a new product today, there is not the faintest chance on earth that permission would be given for it to be sold freely across any counter in any shop in any country in the world. We have heard about personal choice, but the tobacco companies, with their pernicious recruitment of new generations of addicts, remove choice from the people whom they ensnare.

During the two and a half hours of this debate, five of our citizens have died as a result of tobacco addiction. Our lack of urgency does us no credit. Every day that we postpone engaging in a meaningful response to what is one of the great issues of modern times, we all share responsibility for 52 deaths. We view Iraq as a dangerous place. We see turmoil and death there nightly on our televisions. However, tobacco kills at a far higher rate in Scotland than is being experienced in Iraq, even in these dangerous and turbulent times.

James VI recognised the evils of tobacco. In 1603, when he took over from Elizabeth as the monarch in England, one of his first acts was to increase the taxation on a pound of tobacco from 2d to £6 10/. If we had the same level of taxation that James introduced to discourage the consumption of tobacco, a pound of tobacco would cost—by comparing the then average earnings with today's—between £30,000 and £40,000. In that case, price would be a bit of a discouragement. [Interruption.] As the minister has just observed, discussion of the issue of tobacco taxation is academic because we are denied the powers that a normal country has to take the action that would enable us to exercise fiscal powers to reduce the consumption of this pernicious weed. That is why I support my colleague's excellent Prohibition of Smoking in Regulated Areas (Scotland) Bill. I was delighted to see support from other members, such as Scott Barrie and Helen Eadie, and I look forward to their stage 2 amendments, which will strengthen its implementation, extend its remit and deliver cleaner air for people in Scotland.

In the 20th century, with 13,000 people dying every year as a result of tobacco addiction, we have lost—pro rata—1 million Scots to this pernicious addiction. That is more than were killed in all the wars in the millennium from 1000 to 2000. We might soon run out of tombstones for those killed by our tobacco barons. After 400 years of relative inaction, we are quite simply out of time to fail to engage meaningfully with this scourge on our society.

16:49

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