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24 March 2005

S2M-2640 Nuclear Weapons

Scottish Parliament

Thursday 24 March 2005

[THE PRESIDING OFFICER opened the meeting at 09:30]

… … …

Nuclear Weapons

The Deputy Presiding Officer (Murray Tosh): The next item of business is a debate on motion S2M-2640, in the name of Roseanna Cunningham, on nuclear weapons.

10:42

… … …

11:30

Stewart Stevenson (Banff and Buchan) (SNP): It is always interesting to hear the straw men that are put up by the other parties to represent the SNP's position. Much of the debate has been characterised by members constructing an edifice and then shooting at it rather than addressing the real issues, but I think that there is consensus in the chamber that we wish to see nuclear weapons removed.

Michael McMahon: I would like to make a frivolous intervention, as there have been frivolous interventions by SNP members. Did the member's dad happen to have a nuclear weapon given to him, which he shoved in his cupboard?

Stewart Stevenson: Michael McMahon welcomed the end of air-launched nuclear weapons. So be it. However, it does not matter whether weapons are launched from the air, land or water—what matters is where they land. Weapons cause damage when they land rather than when they are launched, and nuclear weapons in the UK are designed to damage civilians rather than military targets—that is the morality behind the debate.

Troops from our islands—from Scotland in particular—are deployed in conflicts here, there and everywhere throughout the world. They are stretched thin and worked hard—perhaps they are overworked—because we choose to divert our resources to weapons that we hope we will never use and for which we cannot envisage the circumstances in which we would use them.

In 1985, in the fictional "Yes, Prime Minister" television series, James Hacker visited defence chiefs and discussed the nuclear deterrent. Afterwards, in a review of what was happening, he was asked what the deterrent was for and whom it deterred, but he could not say. In the modern world, we certainly cannot say what the deterrent is for and whom it deters. Hacker was asked how the deterrent deterred, but he could not say. He said that he would use it, but certainly not if the East Germans crossed into west Berlin or if the Russians went in to support civil unrest in west Berlin. All the scenarios developed. As he came up Whitehall, he still could not say when he would use nuclear weapons. We remain in the same position today.

Jackie Baillie asked why there are SNP members in the House of Commons. Perhaps she should consult the House of Commons library. All the SNP members in the House of Commons are in the top 10 for activity, but the feeble 50 Scottish Labour members languish at the bottom of that table. In an independent Scotland, Scotland's defence forces would be active and engaged to meet Scotland's priorities just as we now have defence forces—a wonderful five members—defending Scotland in Westminster.

Jackie Baillie, properly, mentioned jobs in her constituency and she favours the elimination of nuclear weapons, of course. What preparation is she making for the elimination of jobs that depend on nuclear weapons? Service personnel should have no fears. Again, I remind members that we are committed to ensuring that every person who is employed in the services in Scotland will have the opportunity to work in the Scottish independent defence forces when there is independence.

We are clinging grimly to immorality, twitching in fear of the advance of rationality and failing actively to support a world order. Eliminating nuclear weapons from the world is a long and difficult job, so we must start to do so now. Where better to start than with ourselves? There is no time to waste.

11:35

S2M-2622 Firearms Legislation

Scottish Parliament

Thursday 24 March 2005

[THE PRESIDING OFFICER opened the meeting at 09:30]

Firearms Legislation

The Presiding Officer (Mr George Reid): Good morning. The first item of business is a debate on motion S2M-2622, in the name of Kenny MacAskill, on firearms legislation.

09:30

… … …

Stewart Stevenson (Banff and Buchan) (SNP): I remind members of an important point: people outside the Parliament will not judge us by our actions today, nor by what we say, but by what we achieve in delivering a safer Scotland. We should put aside what are, frankly, semantic debates about the SNP motion and the amendments and focus on the core issue of how to deliver improvements in public safety.

A paradox that has intrigued me for a considerable time is that, 30 years ago, the two countries in which I felt safest were the United Kingdom and the Soviet Union—two countries in which the police were not armed. Of course, in one country, the situation was an indication of a submissive, highly controlled population that lived in fear of a draconian Government; in the other, it was the result of a society that had many common purposes and goals.

When my father died some years ago, it came as a great surprise to me to find that he had a blunderbuss in the house. My father was a GP and a patient had apparently given it to him as a present for a service that he had rendered. The weapon was likely to be more lethal to the user than to anyone at the other end of it, but, as many people who are faced with that circumstance do, I took it to the police at once and told them that I wanted nothing whatever to do with it. That illustrates and builds on Jeremy Purvis's point that the issue is not only the prevalence of air-guns, but the behaviour of those who have weapons of one sort or another.

I welcome the increased attention that is being given to the subject in the Parliament, at Westminster and in Europe. I do not entirely agree with what is going on at Westminster. For example, in the "Control on Firearms" consultation paper, David Blunkett stated:

"We do not believe that licensing of low-powered air guns and imitations, or restrictions on their sale, is proportionate or enforceable."

I disagree—we must do something about that. I say that as someone who used to have the 10-bob licence that people bought at the post office if they wanted to carry an air-gun in public places.

Jeremy Purvis rose—

Stewart Stevenson: Sorry, I do not have time, because the debate is short.

The House of Commons Home Affairs Select Committee has stated:

"We recommend that the purchase or sale of any imitation firearm by or to persons under eighteen via telephone, mail order or Internet should be prohibited".

Maybe, but the real issue is that when people buy a weapon, a face-to-face transaction should take place that is predicated on the requirement that the person who receives the weapon must show that they are authorised to have it. We need a debate about how we can achieve that. There is room for further debate on the recommended age limit of 18, given that we give kids access to the lethal weapon with four wheels and a steering wheel at age 17. Similarly, the committee suggested that the appropriate minimum age for the legal possession of a lethal firearm ... is eighteen".

We need to find a solution that is consistent and immediately understandable.

I welcome the fact that high-energy air-guns are now treated differently from other air-guns. However, with some air-guns it is possible to create a high-energy charge without the projectile containing the charge. Although there are other substantial loopholes in the legislation, the danger comes not from the energy that propels the bullet—be it explosive or compressed air—but from the person who holds the gun. Therefore, we must license people, register weapons and inspect their storage. Like other members, SNP members will welcome legislation and enforcement wherever it comes from, be that the EU, Westminster, the Scottish Parliament or through the actions of local authorities and police forces. However, we will stand condemned if we stand aside and do not take every opportunity to improve safety in Scotland.

10:17

S2M-2644 Life Sciences

Scottish Parliament

Thursday 24 March 2005

[THE PRESIDING OFFICER opened the meeting at 09:30]

… … …

Life Sciences

The Deputy Presiding Officer (Trish Godman): The next item of business is a debate on motion S2M-2644, in the name of Jim Wallace, on life sciences.

15:00

… … …

16:02

Stewart Stevenson (Banff and Buchan) (SNP): I will take a slightly different tack from that which has been taken by my colleagues around the chamber and look a little wider. Scotland has a proud and long record in the life sciences. Edinburgh, in particular, became one of the leading centres—if not the leading centre—in Europe for the study of medicine. The reason for that was the specific local "asset"—ill health, or morbidity, made the old town of Edinburgh an excellent area for scientists and doctors to study, to test whether their remedies could deliver for the community.

That opens up an important area of interest. Just as we had, in the past, that pool of morbidity for a medical school, we now have for the future an enormous pool of knowledge in Scotland, which we are under-exploiting. We have a community that is genetically diverse, so we have a wide range of people who can be part of the community that participates in the developing and testing of new drugs. We also have one of the best-documented genealogical systems in the developed world. Our register of births, deaths and marriages records more information about both the mother and the father than is recorded even today south of the border. That is an important way in which we can create a database of information that may or may not be used in vivo—as distinct from in the computer—to support the life sciences. It is a priceless resource that very few countries have.

Yesterday we had an interesting debate on entrepreneurship, albeit that there was no motion for debate and perhaps a slightly uncertain purpose. Today we are touching on that vital subject again. The support for universities and the additional funding that the minister has adumbrated are terrific, because our universities are the intellectual engine of an important part of our future economy. However, that pool of information about our community and that intellectual engine are but two legs of a three-legged stool. They are not in themselves sufficient.

The Government's "Scottish Life Sciences Strategy" document makes reference to the disconnection between the financial community and the life sciences community. I agree that there is little connection. However, that might be based on something of a misunderstanding of the nature of our financial community. Our clearing bank system is highly developed, experienced, effective and world class, but it exists to support mature enterprises; it does not exist inherently—even through business and corporate banking—to do other than support mature enterprises. At the other end of the scale are start-ups, which are relatively well supported by our enterprise network. If start-ups can sell their idea to the enterprise network—if they cannot do that, they will not be able to sell their developed product to anyone—they are probably in with a semi-decent shout of getting some seedcorn money to get on with the job.

In the middle, frankly, there is a muddle. Scotland is far from alone in that. There are successful entrepreneurs who make their way through that muddle; they might get access to funds informally, or they might be more successful in persuading people to take risks. There is not enough support for businesses in the middle. That is not because of a lack of venture capitalists, because they do not always suit all our enterprises. Too many of our ideas falter after the idea has been proven by use of seedcorn funding, but before it has developed into something that can be delivered. We must examine that area.

Alex Neil referred, properly, to the need to fail. Oil companies demonstrate that very well—they strike oil by drilling enough dry wells. In other words, we must follow through on the things that we do not know will succeed so that we can find some that do succeed. When I worked in banking for 30 years, one of the dreadful things that used to happen to my colleagues in the branch network was that inspectors would appear periodically to look at the branch's books. If there was no bad debt on the books, the branch manager was relieved of his post immediately. If he had no bad debt, he was not taking sufficient risk in supporting his customers. The same must be true of us. We must have courage and ambition, and we must be prepared to allow for failure, but we must also be geared to learning from failure.

One of the interesting things about life sciences is that, compared with other scientific areas, the discipline is comparatively accessible to the broader non-scientific public. People can see the benefit that the life sciences deliver to human beings, whereas it is difficult for them to see the benefits of sub-atomic research with its quarks, mesons, charm, spin, charge and mass, all of which are only mathematical concepts. It is very different with the life sciences.

I will highlight some of the areas of the Government's document that the minister might want to consider further. On page 14, there are six objectives; I like that. However, only indicators are shown rather than something that would enable us to measure and manage the way forward. On page 18, there are 11 milestones, which give the dates by which the tasks will be undertaken. However, if we do not say how we will measure or how we will know that we have achieved what we set out to achieve, we will find it difficult to help the minister to help Scotland in that area. I encourage the minister to consider the subject further.

Some money can be made from having ideas in Scotland. Some money can be made from manufacturing, consequent on our developing those ideas, but our future is not likely to be in mass market manufacture. Once the manufacturing process is established and understood, international competition is likely to undercut us—competition is very fierce. The key for us is to occupy the middle ground of turning ideas into intellectual property, which is the process by which manufacture can take place in the future. We must retain control of intellectual property. We may need to have hunters who travel the world to find other people's ideas that are under-exploited. We will then become a centre that is known for turning ideas into products and which will attract more people here. The trick is not to discover or invent—it is to discover again when the time is right.

16:11

23 March 2005

Subject Debate: Enterprise Culture

Scottish Parliament

Wednesday 23 March 2005

[THE PRESIDING OFFICER opened the meeting at 14:38]

… … …

Enterprise Culture

The Presiding Officer (Mr George Reid): The next item of business is a debate on the subject of growing an enterprise culture. The debate will be concluded without any questions being put.

14:42

… … …

15:25

Stewart Stevenson (Banff and Buchan) (SNP): We have to learn what has already been achieved in entrepreneurship because, in that way, our entrepreneurs can adapt and develop existing ideas. One of the key attributes of entrepreneurs, which the rest of us do not have, is blindness to the impossible. An education and parenting system that too often tells kids what they cannot do closes down options—that is not a party-political point; it is merely a practical point—but a person who does not know that something is impossible might prove that it is not. That is a critical point to hold on to when we consider entrepreneurship. It was thought for 300 years that it was impossible to prove Fermat's last theorem but, fortunately, a number of mathematicians disregarded that advice and recently proved it to be true. However, it took 150 pages of closely reasoned mathematical argument that I do not pretend to understand.

Mrs Margaret Ewing (Moray) (SNP): Shame on you.

Stewart Stevenson: One should always get the admissions out of the way first in the vain hope that the audience might faintly come on side. [Laughter.] Quiet please, class.

I did not know that the theme of the debate was to be a strategy for schools and colleges—perhaps, for any future debate without a motion, a faint hint from the ministers might be of some help. Be that as it may, we in the Scottish National Party are entrepreneurial and will rise to any challenge that meets us—however unexpected—because, to use the minister's words, we are determined to succeed.

I will make a couple of observations. Many members seem to advocate education as the bedrock for development of future entrepreneurship. If that is the case, it is curious that I have met few entrepreneurs who learned how to be entrepreneurs in the education system. Actually, I exaggerate—I have not met any, and if we think about what education is, we can begin to understand why that might be the case. When I was in education, if I copied from wee Jimmy's jotter on the desk next to mine, I got thumped roundly for so doing—and properly so. If, in preparing an essay at university, I had simply copied another student's existing work, I would have been punished severely. However, the reality is that, once I got into the world of work, that situation was stood on its head and I would have been punished if I reinvented what I could already acquire from somebody else's knowledge.

Christine May: Stewart Stevenson said that he is not convinced that education is the bedrock of an enterprise culture. How does that square with his support for the Irish approach, which—as everybody knows—was based on long-term investment in education?

Stewart Stevenson: I was not advocating the idea that uneducated people would make the best entrepreneurs; on the contrary, we need to acquire the set of skills that will enable us to respond to the opportunities with which life presents us. I mentioned something of which we must take account without being partisan: entrepreneurship will not be learned in the education system, but the skills that can help us when we are entrepreneurs might well be. However, the education system might teach us not to be entrepreneurs by making us risk averse. There may yet be more that we can to do in the education system, but for us to be entrepreneurs the key lesson that we must learn—whether in the education system or elsewhere—is how to learn. The world will change, so the very successful entrepreneurs are those who are able to learn from and adapt to unforeseen circumstances.

In business, it is said that it is possible to tell what phase a company is in by the following means. When a company is growing and developing, engineers—be they software engineers, textile engineers or traditional lathe-based engineers—are at its heart; when the company is mature, the accountants run it; but when the lawyers run the company, nobody should put their money anywhere near it, because it is on the home straight. One of the difficulties might be that we have too many lawyers and accountants and not enough engineers. If the education system has to be reoriented, I venture to suggest that it perhaps ought to be reoriented—

Brian Adam: Re-engineered, surely.

Stewart Stevenson: I thank Brian Adam for that sedentary intervention. I venture to suggest that it should be "re-engineered" to produce more engineers.

Margo MacDonald: I do not mean to patronise the member in any way—I have thoroughly enjoyed his speech and have agreed with everything that he has said. However, on growing a generation of engineers, I point out that, if the situation remains as it is at present, we will educate them and then they will leave. That is the gap that has to be explained.

Stewart Stevenson: I am glad that our friend on the back bench has been listening to Mr Mather with such keen attention because, of course, her point is perfectly correct. Other members will address that point further.

I believe that I have the pleasure and privilege of representing the constituency whose workforce has the highest proportion of people whom I would regard as entrepreneurs—in other words, people who are self-employed. In my constituency there is something like two and three quarters times the Scottish average of self-employed people.

Earlier, Murdo Fraser talked about entrepreneurs, and mentioned "the few that we have". Is not that rather an elitist view of what entrepreneurs are? It applies the word only to the Tom Hunters of this world, welcome as they are for their contribution to our economy. However, every entrepreneur starts with an idea and a small venture.

Murdo Fraser: For the sake of clarity, the point that I was trying to make—which is perfectly clear from the statistics—is that compared with the rest of the UK, we have fewer self-employed people and fewer start-up businesses.

Stewart Stevenson: Yes, but when he was talking about the big entrepreneurs, Murdo Fraser used the words, "the few that we have". The point is that we have to empower large numbers of people to feel that they can become entrepreneurs rather than create an economic climate that is skewed towards retaining a few wealthy individuals in our economy.

Our greatest untapped talent—which Christine May quite properly touched on—is our female population. Too many females are discouraged and find that they are unable to make progress because of inadequate infrastructure. I welcome the changes that are being made that will, over time, make a difference in that regard.

We have heard about failure and we have to be absolutely honest about the fact that we politicians are failure averse. Opposition politicians and back-bench members of the Executive parties will kick ministers—even Allan Wilson—to shreds for failing. Perhaps we should instead forgive them their sins, provided that they learn from them and demonstrate that they are going to mend their ways.

The Deputy Presiding Officer (Trish Godman): I will forgive you for running two minutes over your allotted time if you wind up now, Mr Stevenson.

Stewart Stevenson: We have had little indication of how the Executive will measure its performance. I have brought a tape measure with me, which I will happily give to the Executive.

I have bifocals. If the minister looks through a different part of the lens, he will see that the glass is half full, not half empty. It is time for us to take the powers of a real Parliament and a real Government and move on.

15:33

17 March 2005

S2M-2353 Protection of Children and Prevention of Sexual Offences (Scotland) Bill: Stage 1

Scottish Parliament

Thursday 17 March 2005

[THE PRESIDING OFFICER opened the meeting at 09:30]

... ... ...

Protection of Children and Prevention of Sexual Offences (Scotland) Bill: Stage 1

The Deputy Presiding Officer (Murray Tosh): The next item of business is a debate on motion S2M-2353, in the name of Cathy Jamieson, on the Protection of Children and Prevention of Sexual Offences (Scotland) Bill.

15:35

... ... ...

15:44

Stewart Stevenson (Banff and Buchan) (SNP): The Scottish National Party will support the general principles of the bill at decision time. A reading of the introduction to the bill leads me to say that it would be a very brave person who would seek to oppose the general principles of the bill.

The SNP will work hard to improve the bill as it progresses through the Parliament. We believe that the bill misses the mark in a number of important ways and we are not alone in thinking that that is the case. The Justice 1 Committee report highlighted many issues, and I hope that the Executive will work with the committee and individual members in dealing with them. I commend Hugh Henry, the Deputy Minister for Justice, for writing to the committee last night in response to its various requests for information, although he had to acknowledge that a number of points continue to be considered. That was a proper response from the minister—let us hope that that spirit of co-operation and collaboration will continue.

I share with members the alarm that I felt—I think that "alarm" is the correct word, and I believe that my committee colleagues felt the same—when officers of the national hi-tech crime unit gave us some insight into their work to protect children in internet chatrooms. I had never visited an internet chatroom before, so it was all a new experience to me.

The officer who showed us what goes on there was definitely not participating in a set-up. He went on to Google, asked for "teen chat" and picked the first chatroom that came up. We went into that chatroom with the officer who, for the purposes of the interaction, had the handle, if I recall correctly, of "Linda13" to suggest that he was female and 13 years old. He joined the online conversation, playing the role of the tethered goat for the internet jackals. Within about four minutes—shorter even than the speech that I am making—sexually explicit responses were being received. Clearly, there is an issue to be addressed—of that there is no question.

It was disappointing that the drafters of the bill did not ensure the earlier involvement of the national hi-tech crime unit. However, the unit is involved now; it is fully engaged and its contribution will be very valuable.

One of the things that looking at that chatroom showed us was that there is scope for harm in the grooming process itself, even if it goes no further. We heard that there are people out there whose gratification comes from the grooming process. I will be open and honest and say that I do not have a suggestion on how we legislate for that, but we should try, as the bill progresses, to find a way of doing that, because the bill does not quite go far enough. Furthermore, the police and others tell us that the bill's complexities may well severely limit its effectiveness.

In his recent letter, the deputy minister appeared to think that the committee's concerns about paedophiles operating in concert may have been misplaced. The English legislation, in many ways, is drafted in a superior way to the bill that is before us. The Sexual Offences Act 2003 says:

"A person commits an offence if ... he intentionally arranges or facilitates something that he intends to do, intends another person to do, or believes that another person will do".

The interoperation of these very cunning people is caught by the 2003 act, and our eventual act would be better if it included something similar. Conspiracy there might be, and there might well be societal offence, but legal recourse under the bill as drafted seems doubtful. The offence does not exist unless all the components exist. Even though there might be a conspiracy to undertake all the bits of the offence, unless they are committed together, I am doubtful that an offence would be committed under the bill.

I will talk briefly about the matter of age. Line 6 of the bill says that an adult is

"A person aged 18 or over"

and line 7 says that a child is

"a person aged under 16".

However, the offences that are listed in the schedule to the bill can be committed at a range of ages. Offence 15, for example, relates to

"abduction of girl under 18 for purposes of unlawful intercourse".

The bill does not add a new offence unless the girl is under 16 and the offender is over 18. The opportunity to get defence from the bill is not provided by what is currently written in it.

The imposition of 18 as the age at which the offence can be committed risks excluding dangerous sexual predators who might, from the age of puberty, be committing the sort of behaviours that we are seeking to deal with. I am not saying that such people should go anywhere other than the children's panel, but we should try to amend the bill to provide the support that victims of young sexual predators might need.

I ask the minister to examine section 14 of the Sexual Offences Act 2003, which has much to commend it. Police forces south of the border believe that that section is of more use to them than section 15 of that act, which is similar to section 1 of our bill. I hope that the minister will pay close attention to that.

15:50

10 March 2005

S2M-2554 Infrastructure Investment Plan

Scottish Parliament

Thursday 10 March 2005

[THE PRESIDING OFFICER opened the meeting at 09:30]

… … …

Infrastructure Investment Plan

The Deputy Presiding Officer (Murray Tosh): The next item of business is a debate on motion S2M-2554, in the name of Tom McCabe, on the infrastructure investment plan.

15:02

… … …

15:37

Stewart Stevenson (Banff and Buchan) (SNP): I welcome the opportunity to participate in the debate. I start by congratulating members of the Finance Committee and Des McNulty, the current convener, on their work over the period since the Parliament came into being in helping the Executive and the Parliament to improve the factual basis upon which we hold debates such as this. The draft budget this year improves our access to and understanding of what is going on, compared with previous budgets. That is very much to be welcomed, just as the publication of the plan is to be welcomed. It shows an appropriate and urgent focus on raising our game in relation to infrastructure in Scotland, and it enables us to debate on the basis of plans that the Executive has laid out. That is all very welcome indeed.

Before I get into the meat of the debate, however, I would like to talk to the Hibs supporter on the other side of the chamber for a moment. Unlike Mr Monteith, I am all too aware that the A90 does not stop at Aberdeen. It continues on through Peterhead to Fraserburgh. I am not the only member of Parliament who has constantly raised the need to dual the A90 north of Aberdeen. Mr Monteith's Conservative colleagues Nanette Milne and David Davidson have also called for that improvement, and I welcome that. For that matter, Nora Radcliffe also supports the dualling of that road, so it is a matter of cross-party agreement.

If Mr Monteith is going to lodge long, rambling amendments, he should at least try to get them right. Furthermore, when given the opportunity to show just a little humility he should, for once, take it.

Mr Ted Brocklebank (Mid Scotland and Fife) (Con): That is the pot calling the kettle black.

Stewart Stevenson: I make no claims myself—no claims whatsoever.

There is not one dual carriageway north and east of a line from Elgin to Ellon. The Tories certainly did not help us on that score; perhaps the current Administration will.

I will welcome some specific measures in "Building a Better Scotland: Infrastructure Investment Plan: Investing in the Future of Scotland" shortly. However, I can never resist an invitation to take the opportunity to be a wee bit tactical, so I invite Mr McCabe to consider the International Financial Reporting Interpretations Committee's deliberations. The committee's work is designed to ensure that countries across the globe apply similar standards, so that we can account for the activities of multinationals. Many of the new standards will apply to us from 1 January 2006. In particular—I have referred to this subject previously—IFRIC draft interpretations D12, D13 and D14 refer to how to deal with assets in a public private partnership situation.

Kilmarnock prison, which was discussed earlier today, currently appears neither on the Executive's balance sheet nor on the balance sheet of Kilmarnock Prison Services Ltd. In fact, the company's 2000 accounts show that the prison was sold to the Home Office—it meant the Scottish Executive, but in either event it was wrong. There must be more clarity in PPP arrangements. One of the reasons that we have rather sterile debates on the subject is that we do not have possession of all the facts that are necessary to promote debate. I hope that the minister will consider the issue and continue the good work of developing the way in which figures are presented to us in the Parliament.

I will be parochial for a moment and welcome very much the confirmation, on page 33 of the document, of the £6.9 million for Chalmers hospital in Banff. I also welcome the fact that there will be money to extend broadband to every community in Scotland. However, I ask the minister to what extent that applies to individuals in Scotland who are part of communities that have broadband, but are technically at the end of infrastructure that is incapable of supporting it. I have constituents who are in that position. They would very much welcome hearing from the minister that they will have support.

The figure of £107 million is given for spending on information technology infrastructure for the health service over the next three years. That is welcome, but it is a huge distance back from the £8 billion that the English and Welsh health service is investing in a patient record system. One of my enduring concerns about NHS 24 is that, although it is a welcome way forward, it makes the health service less efficient if it does not have the infrastructure with which it could operate efficiently. The same is true for the arrangements for out-of-hours services. Because they have no access to patient records, they must waste time discovering what the health service more generally already knows. That £107 million figure must, when the money is available—I hope that the minister can tell us when that might be—rise dramatically.

I am not terribly convinced that capital funding for Highlands and Islands Airports Ltd is a good investment, based on its track record so far. I hope that Oban airport remains with the private company that so effectively operates it.

I welcome the fact that there is a phase 2 in the estates review of the Scottish Prison Service. There must be new investment in the north-east of Scotland. Peterhead prison is generally acknowledged to be no longer fit for purpose.

I have covered a series of items in the document, but the one thing that is still missing is a statement of assets and liabilities. The document states:

"For accounting purposes, capital spending"

is something that is on the Government's balance sheet. It is time that we saw that balance sheet, saw what assets we have and saw whether they are working to our benefit or otherwise.

15:43

S2M-2549 Dentistry

Scottish Parliament

Thursday 10 March 2005

[THE PRESIDING OFFICER opened the meeting at 09:30]

Dentistry

The Presiding Officer (Mr George Reid): Good morning. The first item of business is a debate on motion S2M-2549, in the name of Shona Robison, on dentistry.

09:30

… … …

09:56

Stewart Stevenson (Banff and Buchan) (SNP): I thank Mike Rumbles for that interesting insight into the Executive's announcement of next week. Obviously, Magnus Gardham has dropped below the standards that I expect of him in reporting the Executive's plans. However, let us give the Executive credit for its ambition. If what Magnus Gardham says in today's Daily Record is correct, the Executive

"intends that the service will be open to everyone."

If that is not a recognition of the fact that that is not the current situation, I have never heard one. Of course, Magnus prefaces that statement with the word "eventually". In the same article, Rhona Brankin is quoted as saying:

"In Glasgow, more than 60 per cent of children have dental disease before they reach the age of three. So there is a huge job to be done."

Furthermore, Andy Kerr is quoted by Douglas Fraser, in The Herald, as saying that the problems with children's oral health and dental services throughout Scotland are "quite appalling". We cannot disagree with any of those statements: on the contrary, we agree whole-heartedly with them.

The Executive's record on the issue is quite interesting, and I will go through some of the statements that it has published on the subject. On 28 October 2004, in response to parliamentary question S20-3755, asking how many dentists we would have in 10 years' time, Rhona Brankin replied that the Executive did not know. Two years ago, in March 2003, in response to parliamentary question S1W-34277, asking how many dentists there would be, Mary Mulligan replied that the Executive did not know. In response to parliamentary question S20-4341, asking about the average waiting time for NHS dentistry, Rhona Brankin replied that the Executive did not know. So it continues.

Rhona Brankin: Does Mr Stevenson recognise that it is expected that, by 2006, more than 130 dentists will qualify each year?

Stewart Stevenson: If that is true—and I accept the minister's word for it—it is very welcome. However, let me point the minister at some other documents, such as the draft budget for 2005-06. It has nine objectives and targets for the health service, but not one on dentistry. It is not a one-off, though. If we go back a year and look at the budget for 2004-05, we find 14 objectives but not one on dentistry. It is not even confined to two years. If we go back another year, again we find not one objective on dentistry.

Rhona Brankin: Will the member give way?

Stewart Stevenson: Just one moment.

If we look further, we will find in the current draft budget that one of the statements of priority is to

"improve dental services through incentives".

Nevertheless, the spending plans in the draft budget show that the money allocated to general dental services for 2004-05 and the following three years flat-lines at £225,176,000.

Does the minister still wish to intervene?

Rhona Brankin: Absolutely. I presume that the member welcomes our commitment to provide free dental checks for everyone by 2007.

Stewart Stevenson: Of course I do. However, how will the minister pay for those checks and who will carry them out? Given the record to date, there is not the slightest evidence that we will see any measure that will meaningfully address the matter.

The scope of the problem becomes apparent in a parliamentary answer that the minister gave me yesterday. It appears that Nora Radcliffe, Mike Rumbles and I share the unenviable record of having the lowest number of dentists in any parliamentary constituency. In fact, when I work out the numbers, it becomes clear that we have one dentist for more than 4,000 people. Ken Macintosh is a great deal more fortunate in his constituency—he has one dentist for every 1,700 people. If the extra money—which some suggested before the debate would amount to £10 million—were to be spent in our three north-east constituencies alone, we would still not reach the level of dental care that is available in Eastwood. I hope that, given what Mr Rumbles has—perhaps—announced about the north-east receiving more than that, things will move forward.

Indeed, the number of dentists in the north-east and the Highlands is so low that the resulting high work rate is making it extremely difficult to attract any more dentists. I believe that Mr Rumbles said that everyone should be able to enjoy access to NHS dentistry

"regardless of where they live".

However, we must do something about people in the north-east.

A golden hello scheme has been introduced to attract more people into NHS dentistry. However, in its first year, it was singularly ineffective and brought only six new dentists into the health service. Moreover, those dentists went to NHS Forth Valley, NHS Lothian, NHS Greater Glasgow and NHS Dumfries and Galloway; not a single one went to the areas of greatest need.

Yes, it will help to double the dental practice allowance, but we will wait with interest to see whether that makes a difference for local dentistry. As for the £10 million that has been given over the past year, the previous figures that I received on dentists in the three constituencies to which I referred were obviously optimistic, because there have been closures since they were released. In fact, in my constituency, some people cannot even get a private dentist, never mind an NHS dentist. It is clear that the minister will have to spend money and energy on this substantial problem. Furthermore, some real objectives must be set down in tablets of stone that the Executive can be held to account for in future.

Some of my constituents have had to travel to the Czech Republic, the Netherlands and even Hungary to receive dental treatment. Well, we are hungry for dentists, and we need them now.

10:03

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