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23 February 2006

S2M-3877 Air Ambulance Trials (Orkney)

Scottish Parliament

Thursday 23 February 2006

[THE PRESIDING OFFICER opened the meeting at 09:15]

... ... ...

Air Ambulance Trials (Orkney)

The Deputy Presiding Officer (Trish Godman): The final item of business today is a members' business debate on motion S2M-3877, in the name of Jim Wallace, on air ambulance trials in Orkney. The debate will be concluded without any question being put.

Motion debated,

That the Parliament notes the proposal of the Scottish Ambulance Service to replace the Kirkwall-based BN Islander aircraft, successfully used for many years to provide air ambulance cover for Orkney, with an Inverness-based EC 135 helicopter which also covers a much wider area of the Highlands and Islands and beyond; further notes that trials of the helicopter on service in Orkney, carried out since spring 2005, have done little to provide assurances that it can provide even an equal level of service to that provided by the Islander aircraft, with particular concerns relating to its ability to fly in Orkney's winter weather and also its ability to provide adequate cover for the wide area it will be required to serve, and believes that, if the Kirkwall-based Islander aircraft is not retained as a back-up facility beyond the end of March 2006, Orkney will be left with poorer quality and potentially unsafe air ambulance cover.

17:08

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17:43

Stewart Stevenson (Banff and Buchan) (SNP): I thank Jim Wallace for the opportunity to talk about flying, which is one of my favourite subjects. I will not disappoint my many fans in the chamber. I will try not to be influenced by the fact that my particular set of flying qualifications would allow me to fly the Britten-Norman Islander but not the EC135, although I have to say that in no sense do I aspire to fly in the conditions that are faced by the expert pilots who provide air ambulance services in Scotland. They do something that few pilots would wish to do, however highly qualified or experienced they are.

I will make one or two points about aircraft and equipment. The issue of icing has been mentioned. It might be of interest to members—or perhaps not—to know that the icing level above ground is 500ft for every degree Celsius by which the ground temperature is above zero. If the ground temperature is 3°C, the freezing level will be 1,500ft. It would be fair to say that in winter in the northern islands, there will be many occasions when the ground temperature is at or close to freezing. That does not automatically mean that there will icing in the air; there has to be cloud as well and it is only in cloud that icing will occur. On that basis alone, the Islander beats the EC135 hands down, although we should not overplay its ability to deal with ice because it can deal with only the lowest of the three categories of ice.

That brings me neatly to one of the things that I would like to bring to the minister's attention. When we went to the market to look for a contract for this service, perhaps we did so without taking the opportunity to look at new technologies and simply bought the technologies that happened to be available. For example, the King Air is a fine aircraft but because it has retractable undercarriages, it is simply unsuitable for landing on beach airstrips such as those that are used by the ambulance service in Mr Morrison's constituency at Northton in Harris, in South Uist and at Solas in North Uist, and of course by the regular commercial services that go into Barra and elsewhere. Virtually every island in Scotland has an airstrip; Arran is the only exception that I can think of at the moment.

If we were being challenging and ambitious—if we wanted to show the world—we would have specified the gold standard and seen to what extent we could achieve it. I suggest that that standard might be a Britten-Norman Islander with a piston diesel engine. Despite how that sounds, that is modern technology that is just coming into use. It is technology that can fly in all conditions. The engine can be started and stopped without any cooling-down time. It can burn any available fuel, so if the aircraft got to an island and was short of fuel, it could use fuel drained from the tank of a car or lorry. That is terrific in the bush-type flying conditions that the aircraft experience.

Mary Scanlon: Will the member take an intervention?

Christine Grahame: I hope that Mary Scanlon is not going to ask a technical question.

Mary Scanlon: No, but I am so bowled over by the member's expertise that I want to ask him whether he has offered that incredible advice to the Scottish Ambulance Service.

Stewart Stevenson: I regret to say that I have not and I suspect that the service would look at the information in a different way. All I am saying is that we should consider the new technologies that are out there and ask what we could do that would best meet our needs; fuelling is one of the issues to consider. At the core of the argument is the real issue, which is where the aircraft is rather than what it is. If the aircraft is in the islands, the cloud base is at 100ft, the ground temperature is 0°C and it is icing at 100ft, the Islander can take off and fly. It cannot land again and it would be forbidden to conduct normal commercial operations under those circumstances. However, it is permitted to—and the pilots are prepared to—operate humanitarian missions under those circumstance. The EC135 cannae do that, and that is the bottom, middle and top of the issue. The issue is where the aircraft is, not what it is, and the aircraft need to be near the patients.

17:48

S2M-3990 Waiting Times

Scottish Parliament

Thursday 23 February 2006

[THE PRESIDING OFFICER opened the meeting at 09:15]

... ... ...

Waiting Times

The Deputy Presiding Officer (Murray Tosh): The next item of business is a debate on motion number S2M-3990, in the name of Andy Kerr, on "Fair to All, Personal to Each"—the progress on waiting.

14:57

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15:44

Stewart Stevenson (Banff and Buchan) (SNP): An interesting thing about the health service and the politics that have surrounded it from the outset is that there has been broad, all-inclusive consensus across political parties that we want a health service that is free at the point of delivery. That consensus has been almost unique to our islands, compared with what has happened elsewhere in the world. For most of their history since the health service was first discussed in the early 1940s—Beveridge was, of course, a Liberal; perhaps Helen Eadie has forgotten that—even the Tories have wanted such a health service.

Helen Eadie: I know that, but did not want to say it.

Stewart Stevenson: Even I am prepared to acknowledge the contributions of others, as I am doing in my introduction.

That consensus of objective is something that we must not forget when we agree—with vigour, with passion—about the details of the policy to deliver on the community-accepted, politicians-accepted consensus. Of course, we have some fundamental differences over the details, but it is remarkable that that consensus has stood up for more than 50 years. It may show signs of breaking down, from time to time, but it basically stands up.

I characterise the Executive's current approach to the health service as one that has merit but also presents future difficulty. It is somewhat reminiscent of the generals of the first world war: one last heave, some more resources, and by throwing bigger munitions at the target we move a mile or two forward. Then something happens in the health of our community—its aging profile, or new, expensive procedures—that moves us back. That is a real difficulty for any Executive of any party to consider. While we look at the issues that are before us today to do with the current and recent past operation of the health service, we must not blind ourselves to the need to look to the significantly distant future and see what we need to do today to help it.

One of the ways in which we might consider the subject is through the prism of the current state of our dental service. Dentists have not been mentioned so far in the debate, although the Auditor General quite properly includes

"Consultation with GP or dentist"

in exhibit 1 on page 5 of "Tackling waiting times in the NHS in Scotland". Of course, the Executive has not set any meaningful targets for and has not targeted the improvement of dental care in the same way as it has done for other parts of the health service.

Mr Kerr: Will the member give way?

Stewart Stevenson: I will let the minister in, but first I want to make an important point. We are where we are on dental care, with the very real difficulties that we have, not because of what has happened since 1999—I accept that, and I think that it is useful to say that before the minister rises to speak—but because of a long-term neglect of that part of the health service.

Mr Kerr: On Stewart Stevenson's substantive point about the future of the NHS, if he looks at the trajectory of the number of patients who are waiting more than six months, he will see that there has been a gradual decline. That suggests to me that substantial changes are taking place inside the NHS that are sustainable and will continue to deliver. It is not a one-off throwing of resource; it is a consistent, sustained effort.

Stewart Stevenson: I acknowledge the changes that have been achieved in both the processes and the delivery of service. Nevertheless, slipstream planning—looking over one's shoulder at the past—is not an adequate basis for planning for the future. That is my key point. Yes, we have got where we are by throwing huge resources at the problem. That was the only thing that we could do in the short term, but our aim is somewhat imperfect.

The problems with the dental service have occurred over a long time because of a lack of training and a lack of appreciation of what we need in dentists. Are we planning adequate provision for doctors, dentists and nurses in the future? People may decide today to become a doctor and start on that road, but it will be 10 years before they are doctors, and we have no material planning for the health service that goes that far ahead. For nurses, the period is probably six years. There are huge problems.

One initiative from which we have, as yet, seen little material contribution is the e-health strategy. Yes, things have happened. However, when we introduce, for example, new out-of-hours services—which bring not the GP but other people to the table—and NHS 24, which brings other people who are unfamiliar with and who do not generally have access to patients' records to the triage process, we reduce the operational efficiency of the health service. Albeit that those are things that we should do, we are doing them in the wrong sequence and we are not putting the resources in place before we move forward.

I think that, in England, much more substantial efforts are being made in the use of computer technology, which we might look to copy in Scotland. Much has been done, but there is a great deal still to do.

15:50

S2M-3894 Animal Health and Welfare (Scotland) Bill: Stage 1

Scottish Parliament

Thursday 23 February 2006

[THE PRESIDING OFFICER opened the meeting at 09:15]

Animal Health and Welfare (Scotland) Bill: Stage 1

The Presiding Officer (Mr George Reid): Good morning. The first item of business is a debate on motion S2M-3894, in the name of Ross Finnie, on the general principles of the Animal Health and Welfare (Scotland) Bill.

09:15

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10:47

Stewart Stevenson (Banff and Buchan) (SNP): To date, I have not been party to consideration of the Animal Health and Welfare (Scotland) Bill, but as someone who lives in the country and has a wide range of constituents whose lives will be touched by the bill in one way or another, I welcome the opportunity to mention some of the concerns that they properly have.

In the minister's opening remarks, he referred to companion animals. Section 14(1) defines an animal as

"a vertebrate other than man."

It is a matter of deep regret to me that it does not appear to be possible to extend the definition to include man and thus ensure that my wife treats me with the same care as she deploys in looking after our two cats. Nevertheless, it might be possible to address that issue at stage 2.

Ross Finnie: Will the member suggest the wording for an amendment, so that I can give it some consideration?

Stewart Stevenson: It would be, "At line 34 on page 27, delete from 'other' to 'man'."

Our lives are touched and enriched by companion animals, but animals are equally important in the agricultural environment and I welcome the provisions in the bill that will improve the situation for them. Like other members of the SNP, I have no difficulty in supporting the general principles of the bill.

In extreme circumstances, everything goes out of the window. The most recent occasion of which I have any particular knowledge was the siege of Paris some 150 years ago, when dogs were sold for human consumption. They cost 1 franc. Cats cost 50 centimes and rats cost 25 centimes. However, I suspect that we are no longer likely to use animals in that way.

In an earlier intervention, I mentioned farms and the ownership of animals. I invite the minister to think carefully and at greater length about that. It is generally agreed that we have a big problem with recruiting youngsters into the farming industry. One way in which youngsters can become involved in the family business is through their having their own animals and the right to buy and sell them under supervision—I am not talking about unsupervised activity. That engages them in the real-life concerns and the economy of the farm. I would regret it if families such as my neighbours in Banffshire were unable to have their lambs, to rear them and to feel a sense of pride in preparing them for market. I hope that we will be careful to send out the right messages even if we do not change a single word in the bill.

Section 14(3) contains the power for Scottish ministers to make provision that

"extends the definition of "animal" so as to include invertebrates".

Fishermen will watch the exercise of that power with great care and perhaps with a degree of suspicion. I hope that it will not open the door to further restrictions on our already beleaguered fishing industry. I mention that for future reference.

I have a few miscellaneous comments that touch on the Parliament's inability to exercise all the powers that we need to exercise. We can probably ban the recording of animal fights but we cannot ban the broadcasting of animal fights. Nowadays, of course, broadcasting is not controlled simply by the Radiocommunications Agency. Things are broadcast on the internet, which is entirely unregulated. I am not sure that we can address that, but perhaps we can.

Secondly and more subtly, given my interests, pages 7, 9, 10, 13, 24 and 46 of the bill give a definition of premises that includes vessels and vehicles but does not include aircraft. If someone who has a rare breed of fowl wishes, in extremis, to protect their birds from slaughter, all they need to do is to keep them in an aircraft. There is no power in the bill to allow inspectors or slaughterers to enter aircraft. There is a farmer in the Parliament who has at least two aircraft in his constituency that would be suitable for that purpose. One of them is G-BOAA—that is the registration of the Concorde that is kept at the Museum of Flight at East Fortune. It is still on the register of aircraft that is maintained by the Civil Aviation Authority—I checked yesterday—and it is the aircraft in which I first flew when my wife and I took our honeymoon. The aircraft whose registration is G-ASUG, which is also in the museum, could be used for the same purpose.

The Animal Health Act 1981 provides powers throughout Great Britain for people to enter aircraft, but only for the purposes of horses and not for the purposes of fowl. The Animal Welfare Bill, which is being considered at Westminster, does not provide for the power. The omission in our bill is entirely due to the fact that we cannot include aircraft because the Parliament does not have the power to do so. That is worth thinking about. In the Westminster bill, we have been able to ban transport by air within the British isles, although, interestingly, not via Ireland or Northern Ireland. The Prevention of Terrorism Act 2005, which covers flights, might cover the matter. However, we see that, as is often the case, some details in the bill touch on the constraints within which the Parliament operates.

I have at the front of my mind a regular visitor to my surgeries. He is called Arnie and he is a greyhound who has been abandoned, as so many have. If the bill makes life better for the Arnies of the world—and the many other pets that we have—it will serve a noble purpose indeed.

10:54

2 February 2006

S2M-3786 Police, Public Order and Criminal Justice (Scotland) Bill: Stage 1

Scottish Parliament

Thursday 2 February 2006

[THE DEPUTY PRESIDING OFFICER opened the meeting at 09:16]

... ... ...

Police, Public Order and Criminal Justice (Scotland) Bill: Stage 1

The Deputy Presiding Officer (Murray Tosh): The next item of business is a debate on motion S2M-3786, in the name of Cathy Jamieson, that the Parliament agrees to the general principles of the Police, Public Order and Criminal Justice (Scotland) Bill.

14:55

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15:32

Stewart Stevenson (Banff and Buchan) (SNP): After extensive consultation with my political colleagues, I make an apology and an offer. I apologise for causing confusion by sitting beside the other Stewart in the Parliament and I offer to avoid creating situations in which such difficulty might arise in the future. I hope that that is helpful to Annabel Goldie.

I start with a part of the bill about which I will say absolutely nothing. My father used to play for Ross County 85 years ago and that is my excuse for knowing nothing whatsoever about football; unlike the minister, I will say nothing on the subject.

The bill touches on very serious matters. I am delighted to see that the mainstream parties in the Parliament share a broad consensus and I anticipate a willingness for us all to work together to refine in detail our similar, if not identical, objectives to improve the situation for the people of Scotland.

Although the events of the past week have concerned a single person, namely the young girl involved in the drugs scene in Glasgow, they give us a window or keyhole into a much bigger and more general problem. That is why I am particularly enthusiastic about anything that will beef up our ability to meet the drug barons' economic and organisational firepower with something equivalent in our criminal justice system. For me, and I suspect for many others, the war on drugs is a more immediate, real and bigger threat to us than the war on terror, about which we hear so much—not that I want to dismiss the latter; I only want to see emphasis on the former.

I give my whole-hearted support to the changes in the SDEA. The people in the SDEA, who are drawn from many disciplines—traditional police and others—are precisely the people who can understand how the drugs business operates and how it can be intervened in, disrupted and destroyed. The key, however, will be to get the money off the drug barons. It does not matter how many drug barons we take out of the equation, because as long as it is possible to make £1 billion out of the industry throughout Scotland—that is my estimate; according to some, the sum is five times that—people will come back into it. It is vital that the strategy that is laid down for the new agency addresses the banking system and the way in which lawyers collaborate with the major drug barons. Of course, the problem is not just Scottish but transnational, by which I mean that it is a problem throughout the developed world. It is right, therefore, that there should be incentives for everyone who is involved in our agency to work with as many people as possible.

The bill talks about immunity and incentives—I see a place for those and I know that others do too. However, I am cautious, because it is all too easy for people to try to buy their way out of difficult situations into lesser difficulties by a tissue of invention when the complexities of the interlocking parts of the organised crimes network make it difficult to test the veracity of what is being said. I can see the possibility of people being planted into the system deliberately to mislead and disrupt the efforts of the law enforcers.

Jeremy Purvis: Does the member agree that the aspect of the bill that would allow prosecutors to withdraw offers is a welcome step forward, in contrast to the black and white system that we have at the moment?

Stewart Stevenson: I agree entirely—that is good.

I very much welcome the increased emphasis on special constables. That initiative stems from the work of Pat Shearer, when he was assistant chief constable—he is now deputy chief constable—of Grampian. He is an excellent fellow, who has done some good work there. Of course, constables come from the community and all this will work if there are good attachments to the community.

Section 75 prohibits retesting for drugs when someone is being held. The minister should perhaps reconsider that, simply because drugs can be available inside prisons. There is an issue there that we might want to consider. Section 74 mentions a device for obtaining a record of the skin on a person's fingers, as distinct from a fingerprint. We should confirm whether DNA would be collected by that process. I welcome further attention on sex offenders—the minister knows of my special interest there.

The challenge for us all in the bill is the continuing debate between local decision making and central institutions. We have not resolved that debate; the bill moves it in one direction and, on this occasion, I welcome that. The key issue is that legislation will not solve all the ills. We need to do other things as well.

15:38

1 February 2006

S2M-3893 Council Tax Abolition and Service Tax Introduction (Scotland) Bill: Stage 1

Scottish Parliament

Wednesday 1 February 2006

[THE DEPUTY PRESIDING OFFICER opened the meeting at 14:15]

… … …

Council Tax Abolition and Service Tax Introduction (Scotland) Bill: Stage 1

The Deputy Presiding Officer (Murray Tosh): … (the) next item of business, … is a debate on motion S2M-3893, in the name of Tommy Sheridan, on the general principles of the Council Tax Abolition and Service Tax Introduction (Scotland) Bill.

14:37

… … …

15:54

Stewart Stevenson (Banff and Buchan) (SNP): Tommy Sheridan opened his speech by talking about justice and injustice, which is the correct context for the debate, so I will talk about whether the bill addresses that issue. As I will explain later, I welcome in particular the bill's support for family values and for marriage. I want to make it clear that the Scottish National Party unambiguously agrees with the first 21 words of the bill and to a lesser and qualified extent with lines 5 to 13 on page 4. We agree that the present system is unfair, but I will argue, as my colleagues have done, that the bill is not the solution.

I say to Tommy Sheridan that volume is no substitute for reason and analysis.

It is worth making one or two important points. Ephraim Belcher and Brian Souter will welcome the bill with open arms, because the tax that is proposed in it is entirely optional. Very few MSPs will have to pay it and no MSP who has bought parliamentary accommodation would have to pay tax on it if the bill were passed.

Let me explain. I refer in particular to the meaning of "qualifying individual", for which three tests are provided as alternatives. The first is that the person "is domiciled in Scotland". That is fair enough. The second is that the individual

"resides in Scotland (for whatever reason) for not less than 91 days (whether consecutively or otherwise)".

That would allow a person to be present for 270 days—members should speak to the Inland Revenue if they doubt me—because it is the number of periods from midnight to midnight that determine the 91 days. Thirdly, the qualifying individual would be

"the owner of heritable property in Scotland."

Section 3 qualifies that.

Here is how I would avoid the tax in total and pay not a penny. Almost all members could do this. I would transfer my house to the sole ownership of my wife—that is all I would need to do. As long as her income was below £10,000 per year, she would pay no tax on the house. I would own no house, so I would pay no tax. It is that simple. Members do not need a high-powered accountant to advise them on that; I have just completed the task for them and what I have told them is all they need to know. Members might think that there are capital gains implications in doing what I have outlined, but if one is married or in a civil partnership there would be no capital gains implications in such a transfer. Lest they think that they would lose the right to live in that house, I tell members that the Matrimonial Homes (Family Protection) (Scotland) Act 1981 preserves that right. They would hold no title or real right to such property in the land register of Scotland or the register of sasines, nor would they be the beneficiary of a trust deed conferring rights to heritable property. If one was in a legal partnership with someone who earned less than £10,000 a year, it would be quite easy to avoid paying the tax.

There is more. I direct members' attention to my register of interests, where I say voluntarily that I am the owner of some 40,000 shares in the Bank of Scotland. They can look it up, so I will tell members that they are worth £14,000 a year to me in dividend payments. Even if I did not want to change the ownership of my house, I would have only to transfer the shares to my wife and I would eliminate the taxation on them. That would be worth a £540 reduction in my taxation each and every year under the bill.

If I had £60,000 in unearned income, as many rich people do, and four kids and a wife, I could distribute my assets among them and pay no tax whatever.

Ownership of property is not as clear as one might think. For the past five years, we have been trying on behalf of the community of Longmanhill in my constituency to find the owner of a property in the village. In the past couple of months, we have tracked down the owner; it is a company in the state of Panama. It would be a bit difficult to get the money off the people in Panama.

It is interesting that there might be an effect that the SSP would welcome. If the bill were to be passed, there would be a huge advantage in renting property rather than buying it, and in transferring property into companies. Incidentally, if I were not married, I would be able to transfer my house to a company and so avoid the tax. There would be capital gains implications to that in that I would not be an individual owning a property.

Frances Curran: Will the member take an intervention?

Stewart Stevenson: It is too late.

In refusing to come before the Local Government and Transport Committee, the Inland Revenue denied us the opportunity to see the flaws in the bill.

My good friend and former boss, Sir Peter Burt—who used to be the boss of the Bank of Scotland—used to run everywhere. On one famous occasion, when he was in charge of our international division in the office in St Andrew Square, he ran down the stairs, tripped, fell, did two somersaults, landed on the floor and continued running as if nothing had happened. I must say to Tommy Sheridan that his bill is going to trip and fall, but I do not think that it is going to get up again.

16:00

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