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28 February 2007

S2M-5655 Organic Farming

Scottish Parliament

Wednesday 28 February 2007

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

… … …

Organic Farming

The Deputy Presiding Officer (Murray Tosh): The next item of business is a debate on motion S2M-5655, in the name of Sarah Boyack, on the future of Scotland's organic farming.

16:21
… … …
16:53

Stewart Stevenson (Banff and Buchan) (SNP): There has been a fair degree of change in the period of just more than four years since we last had a debate on organic farming—most of it has been for the better.

Having heard Andrew Arbuckle's less than enthusiastic support for organic farming, I understand why Iain Smith suggested, during a previous debate, that this debate should be truncated. He obviously wanted to avoid Liberal embarrassment, given that a Liberal minister is responsible for farming.

At the end of the debate, there is likely to be substantial consensus. We may come to similar conclusions for a variety of different reasons, but I suspect that we will all feel that the niche product that is organic farming—a niche product it is likely to remain more or less indefinitely—has an important contribution to make to farmers' profitability, to the good health of people in Scotland and, perhaps, if it is used in an appropriate way, to enable our children to better understand where their food comes from and make appropriate choices. Organic farming touches on many things beyond the farm gate.

The Executive's "Third Organic Annual Report", which I saw for the first time today, is interesting in its way. For example, it confirms that there are substantial problems in the pork industry. Under figure 6, it is noted that we cannot measure the amount of organic pork that is produced in Scotland. Because of the diktats of the processing industry and supermarkets, Scotland-produced pork goes elsewhere and we find it difficult to count it when it is returned for sale in Scotland.

The problem illustrates the fact that we must give further consideration not just to primary producers but to the chain from primary producers to the plate, which includes added-value processors who are able to deliver ready meals to appropriate organic standards. Ready meals are an increasingly important component of many people's diet—I plead guilty to buying them when I am in Edinburgh on parliamentary duty, when I cannot spend much time cooking, much as I would like to cook.

The report notes on page 8:

"The total of in conversion and fully organic land in Scotland has decreased by over 100,000 hectares".

However, the decrease has come about primarily because hill farmers have chosen not to remain registered as organic farmers, because of increased costs, which rather blurs our understanding of what is going on. It would be useful if the minister could enlighten our darkness on the matter.

Andrew Arbuckle talked about nitrates, which is an important subject throughout the farming sector. Were we to have a less blunt-instrument approach to our nitrate-vulnerable zones, we could farm in a more sustainable way in relation to nitrates. Instead of being driven by an arbitrary calendar that is probably appropriate in only one or two places in Scotland, seasons for spreading nitrates, which are largely a by-product of the milk industry, could be locally determined.

Mr Arbuckle: Will the member give way?

Stewart Stevenson: I am sorry, I am in the last minute of my speech.

I have difficulty with the claim that we are on target. According to the minutes of the 23rd meeting of the organic stakeholders group, which took place on 4 May 2006, the point was made that

"Data collection is going to prove very difficult".

Can the minister assure us that we are making the progress that she claims we are making? I am always suspicious when we are told that we are exactly on target.

16:58

22 February 2007

Point of Order

Scottish Parliament

Thursday 22 February 2007

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

... ... ...

Point of Order

12:30

Stewart Stevenson (Banff and Buchan) (SNP): On a point of order, Presiding Officer. Rule 13.5.2 of standing orders, which relates to written questions, says:

"An answer shall normally be lodged within 10 counting days of the day on which the question is lodged."

You might be aware that the Executive recently lodged with the Scottish Parliament information centre an audit of Scottish parliamentary questions for July to September 2006, which helpfully sets out each minister's performance over that period. It reveals, for example, that Mr Andy Kerr answered all but one of his 202 questions on time. In contrast, Mr Nicol Stephen answered a mere 46 of his 130 questions on time.

Not that the Executive's three-month review showed that Mr Stephen had simply had a one-off poor quarter. Since 1999, Mr Kerr has managed to answer 86 per cent of his 4,617 questions on time. However, Mr Stephen was late on 1,421 occasions out of the 3,437 replies that he gave. That is in excess of 41 per cent of occasions.

Presiding Officer, will you confirm that that constitutes a breach by Mr Stephen of rule 13.5.2 of the Parliament's standing orders? If so, what sanctions can you impose in the face of such substantial and sustained disregard for Parliament?

The Presiding Officer (Mr George Reid): I am grateful to Mr Stevenson for advance notice of his question, to which I have indeed given some thought. If a holding answer is given within 10 counting days—as I understand has always been the case—there is no breach of standing orders. The figures quoted by Stewart Stevenson are for substantive answers, not for holding answers; as a result, although the differences in performance are striking, they are a matter for the Scottish Executive, not for me.

12:33

S2M-5613 Criminal Law (Double Jeopardy)

Scottish Parliament

Thursday 22 February 2007

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

... ... ...

Criminal Law (Double Jeopardy)

The Presiding Officer (Mr George Reid): The next item of business is a debate on motion S2M-5613, in the name of Annabel Goldie, on double jeopardy.

10:29

... ... ...

11:26

Stewart Stevenson (Banff and Buchan) (SNP): The internationally recognised legal principle to which Mike Pringle referred is ne bis in idem, which, in England, of course, is now ne ter in idem, although it is known by the French phrase autrefois convict—I do not know what the French equivalent for ne ter in idem would be.

The debate has been interesting because there is a consensus that this is a subject that is worth debating. We should all welcome that. A variety of views has been expressed and I will digest them at leisure rather than addressing them in the four minutes that are available to me.

What England has done is certainly interesting. It has restricted to a narrow range of offences the ability to bring someone back for a new trial. Were changes to be made in Scotland, I think that there would be broad agreement that it would be necessary to restrict the offences for which a retrial might be sought.

It is interesting to hear a debate about the three Scots verdicts. I wonder, in a ruminative way, whether juries might be allowed to say, "Not proven, because we think that you should be capable of being retried." However, I suspect that, unfortunately, juries would probably say that all the time.

To Brian Adam, I say that we must not confuse someone being found not guilty with their being found innocent. If someone is found not guilty, it simply means that the required standard of proof has not been achieved. Further, in Scotland, it might simply be the case that eight jurors have decided in favour of one side of the argument and seven have decided in favour of the other side. Sometimes, verdicts can be quite finely balanced.

We could tackle the problem in other ways. For example—and I give this only as an example, not as a proposal—we could change sentencing law so that, if there were to be a prosecution on another matter arising from a trial, which could be shown to have affected the verdict of that trial, the sentence for the second offence could be equivalent to that which might have been passed for the first offence.

Gordon Jackson: Will the member give way?

Stewart Stevenson: I do not have time—in any case, in giving the example I am just flying a kite.

In civil law, of course, in many instances people can come back for a second bite of the cherry.

I suspect that things are not quite as clear cut as we might imagine if we were to go by some of the speeches that we have heard.

As a result of its consultation exercise, on which many Scottish lawyers and legal bodies commented, the Law Commission in England made a number of important recommendations. For example, evidence that was inadmissible in the original trial should continue to be inadmissible. If we were to make any changes to the system, we would want to consider that point. The Law Commission also pointed out that, in England, it is possible to retry when there is a tainted prosecution and recommended that that provision should be slightly extended to cover cases in which not only the jury but the prosecutor or the judge has been subject to external pressure.

In Scots law, what is proposed by the Tories can already happen: under a treaty between the United States of America and the UK, someone who is acquitted here can be extradited to the USA and tried for the same offence because there is no requirement to show cause. That is just a bit worrying.

11:30

21 February 2007

S2M-5608 Community Safety

Scottish Parliament

Wednesday 21 February 2007

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

… … …

Community Safety

The Deputy Presiding Officer (Trish Godman): The next item of business is a debate on motion S2M-5608, in the name of Johann Lamont, on community safety.

14:35
… … …
15:35

Stewart Stevenson (Banff and Buchan) (SNP): Once again, we have had a debate in which there have been points of agreement, the most fundamental of which has to be that a problem exists and it must be solved. I will hang the debate on that hook and examine how members' speeches have taken us forward.

I suspect that members across the chamber will agree with the reference in Mr MacAskill's amendment to

"the concern and anxiety in our communities caused by both low-level antisocial behaviour and serious and violent crime".

If we disagree—as we do on a number of issues—our disagreement is about tactics, not objectives. We should bear that in mind as this short debate draws to its conclusion.

I very much enjoyed my time on the Communities Committee, when the Deputy Minister for Justice was my ever-helpful and ever-supportive convener. Although we disagreed fundamentally about many things, it was always—if eventually—with a degree of good grace.

Johann Lamont: On your part.

Stewart Stevenson: On my part, as the minister has just reminded me. Even if I have not always agreed with her, I am pleased to see that her diligent endeavours on this matter have been rewarded with ministerial office. She is of a calibre that at least justifies such an appointment.

Christine Grahame: You have embarrassed her.

Stewart Stevenson: Have I really? That would indeed be a novel experience.

In response to Margaret Mitchell's remark about pay-as-you-go justice, many of us feel that, if we could arrange to abstract £50 from the back pocket of a visiting drunk on George Street on a Saturday night to prevent him from becoming even more drunk and violent, it would serve a decent community purpose. Even if it meant that he had to go to the police station on Monday morning to get the change from his fine, it might be okay. That proposal is not yet on the agenda, but—hey ho—it might work. Pay-as-you-go justice might be a good slogan for a policy that serves the public interest.

The now-absent Duncan McNeil described Mike Pringle as

"soft on thugs, soft on drugs".

I do not go that far, but I am glad that Mr Pringle is coming into line with our 2003 manifesto commitment to put an extra 1,000 police officers on the streets. However, as we will need to distance ourselves from the Liberals in some meaningful way, our new manifesto will have to call for an extra 1,001 police officers.

Margaret Jamieson is absolutely correct to say that alcohol is our biggest problem. Drugs are a huge criminal justice problem, but they do not pose the same kind of problem that alcohol poses on so many streets in Scotland's rural and urban areas.

As far as community wardens are concerned, they were adopted early on in my constituency and, as the minister has heard me say before, they have been a good thing. However, I would take the Executive's words on this issue a bit more seriously if they were supported by more long-term funding.

When my colleague Christine Grahame referred to sullen adolescence, Mr Aitken gestured at me as if I should be included in that description. I plead guilty to the charge. I was not a very nice adolescent—and I suspect that I am not the only one in the chamber whose first brush with alcohol came before they turned 18. Indeed, I see a few members nodding. However, the character of juvenile drinking has changed out of all recognition since the tentative experiments of my youth.

As for Phil Gallie, we will miss his passion, even as we rejoice at not hearing some of his arguments.

In relation to Paul Martin's suggestion, it would be unfair to inflict on the Army people who clearly cannot live up to the high professional standards that we now expect of that body. If the Executive had supported a replacement for the Airborne Initiative, which filled precisely the niche we are talking about, we would be more prepared to respect what it had to say.

Legislation is no substitute for resources. It may support action or it may inhibit it. We need more resources and perhaps a little bit of legislation. It has been a useful debate, so let us move on.

15:40

14 February 2007

S2M-5572 Making the National Health Service Local

Scottish Parliament

Wednesday 14 February 2007

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

... ... ...

Making the National Health Service Local

The Deputy Presiding Officer (Trish Godman): The next item of business is a debate on motion S2M-5572, in the name of Andy Kerr, on making the NHS local.

15:20

... ... ...

16:42

Stewart Stevenson (Banff and Buchan) (SNP): The Minister for Health and Community Care started this useful debate with a reminder of where we are coming from. He used the phrase

"as local as possible, and as specialised as necessary."

I heard nothing in the debate from any political party that disagreed with that central tenet of what we are trying to do and that central summary of the Kerr report.

On that basis, I will start with one or two issues on which we agree with the minister. I commend him personally for leading by example in a variety of ways, some of which I will put on record. First, his involvement in the interest of Mr Rumbles and me in maternity services in Grampian was helpful and constructive. It served well the interests of the constituents whom each of us brought to see him. When they went away, they felt that they had been listened to. I hope that other ministers take a leaf out of his book; occasionally, they do not appear to.

I also commend the minister for his personal contribution by leading by example on fitness. If only I still had joints that allowed me to run the occasional half marathon—or was it a marathon? I do not quite remember. For me, a half marathon would have been a marathon, but perhaps not for him.

I thank the minister for his support on maternity services by intervening to correct what would have been a serious wrong for essential local delivery of services in Mr Rumbles's communities and in mine. Of course, I say to Mr Rumbles that had we listened to the clinicians, Aboyne maternity unit would have been closed. He will have to read carefully his contributions to the debate in the Official Report.

Mike Rumbles: Will the member take an intervention?

Stewart Stevenson: Very quickly—come on.

Mike Rumbles: My point was that the Conservative approach is that doctor always knows best. Stewart Stevenson knows well that my criticism of Grampian NHS Board was that it always listens to clinicians.

Stewart Stevenson: I hear what Mike Rumbles says. Understanding may follow, but probably will not.

There is a tension in the system that the debate may not have explored fully, which will continue to challenge health ministers of whatever complexion. That is the tension between the minister, on the one side, the health board, in the middle, and the community, on the other side. That tension is a difficulty for whoever fills the post that the minister holds. The health board is appointed by the minister and is therefore seen by local communities as largely a creature of the minister—whatever the reality, that is the perception. For that reason, health boards must be much more sensitive in approaching communities when they believe that there is a need to redesign the services that are delivered locally.

Helen Eadie: Can Stewart Stevenson tell me how the SNP will set up the trusts that it will have throughout Scotland to finance all the capital initiatives? Will they be elected or unelected? Will they be quangos?

Stewart Stevenson: I suspect that that question goes a little beyond local services. Helen Eadie can read our manifesto on the subject, and members have heard our finance spokesman talk about how the trusts will be engineered. As someone who held large budgets and was involved in banking, I know how the idea works and that it can work. The argument will be whether it should work, and that will be for the electorate to decide.

Euan Robson made an important point when he said that we must move from focusing on the inputs in health provision to focusing on the outputs. People see the money being spent, but that means nothing if they do not see the services being delivered.

Another tension that the debate has not focused on as much as it might have is the tension between the focus on prevention and keeping people healthy longer, which we are now moving to and which we all support, and the continuing need to drive down waiting lists. I suspect that that tension is something that we will continue to debate.

In his intervention, back bencher Duncan McNeil exhibited tensions that were perhaps political rather than health related. I seem to recall seeing a picture of Duncan McNeil on the campaign line, ensuring that his own local services were not downgraded.

Mr McNeil rose—

Stewart Stevenson: There ain't going to be time—I am sorry.

Community care units are an important part of future provision; indeed, we should have more of them. They may well even serve a useful purpose by being co-located with accident and emergency units, and we should not close our minds to that possibility.

I will briefly give a practical example of the nature of the challenges, some of which are basic stuff. I went to hospital with a constituent who had been savaged by a dog—not too seriously, but seriously enough to require six stitches. We went to the nurse-led local accident and emergency unit in Banff and received a good service. The wound was cleaned, stitched and bandaged and the woman was inoculated against tetanus. The nurse signed the card to say that that had been done, but there was then a 100-minute wait for a return telephone call from a doctor to allow the antibiotics that were required to be prescribed. We have not quite joined the whole thing up. I know that the minister recognises that and realises that we must do something about it.

In response to some of the issues that Helen Eadie raised, I note that the Health Committee did not come to the firm conclusion that centralisation was the right answer. Conflicting views were expressed by various health professionals, and we should tak tent on that.

In today's debate, members have illuminated many of the challenges that remain, talked about some of the successes and touched on areas in which further progress is essential. However, the bottom line is that the debate in the chamber is a lot less important than the debates that local communities are having about the health services that they require in their local areas. I support my colleague's amendment.

16:49

8 February 2007

S2M-5425 School Transport Safety

Scottish Parliament

Thursday 8 February 2007

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

... ... ...

School Transport Safety

The Deputy Presiding Officer (Trish Godman): The final item of business today is a members' business debate on motion S2M-5425, in the name of Maureen Watt, on school transport safety. The debate will be concluded without any question being put.

Motion debated,

That the Parliament notes that current legislation regarding the provision of seatbelts on school transport does not require all school buses to be fitted with seatbelt facilities; further notes that the mandatory fitting of seatbelts on school buses only applies to those vehicles first used on or after 1 October 2001 or those manufactured six months before that date; recognises that this loophole can result in children's safety being jeopardised, as was experienced at a recent accident in Aberdeenshire, and considers that the Scottish Executive should make representations to the Department for Transport in order to have legislation amended so that all school buses, regardless of age and size, are fitted with adequate seatbelt facilities.

17:08

... ... ...

17:23

Stewart Stevenson (Banff and Buchan) (SNP): I am sure that there is unanimous agreement that we all wish to do whatever is practical and within the law to protect our youngsters. At the core of our thinking about that, we have to be aware that accidents are about not statistics or probabilities but people. When we take action to address an issue, there may well be unhelpful consequences.

It would be useful if, in responding to the debate, the minister stated the extent to which he agrees with the specific requirements that members have mentioned and then explored the routes by which it might be possible to meet those requirements, because, as we have already heard, the routes are part of the difficulties.

I first fitted seat belts in my car 43 years ago, in 1964. I did so because I met someone who was an accident victim and their brain, frankly, had disconnected from reality. He was a vegetable living in a hospital. That had a profound effect on me. What kind of profound effect must an accident involving a child have on parents, grandparents, siblings and other school pupils? The campaign led by my constituent Ronnie Beaty, who has given evidence to the Public Petitions Committee on another issue related to school bus safety, perfectly illustrates the problem that parents and others face.

We have to concern ourselves with road safety; indeed, the Parliament has duties in that respect. Although we do not have any control over a number of matters, including the construction and use regulations that determine whether seat belts are required to be fitted in certain vehicles, we have control over road markings, the quality of our roads and speed limits, such as the 20mph limit outside schools. Given that responsibility for these matters is divided—in saying that, I am not making a political point; it would not be appropriate—we have to be innovative in how we exercise our powers to achieve our shared objectives.

The fact that the Parliament is, essentially, the source of the transport budgets that schools spend gives us a firm lever—should we choose to use it—to persuade councils to work that little bit harder to write the kind of contracts that we all want and to pressure school bus providers into increasing protection through seat belt installation and other means. On balance, seat belts improve people's circumstances in most cases, although Mike Rumbles quite properly pointed out that, in certain cases, they can make things worse. I have no monopoly on knowing everything that should be done, and I suspect that the same can be said of everyone else.

Although our guidance is not statutory, that does not mean that we cannot take steps to ensure that it is followed. Indeed, just to be partisan for a tiny moment, if my party colleagues on Aberdeenshire Council have got this wrong, I am entirely happy to tell them so and give them the message that the Parliament is sending. I know that Mike Rumbles never hesitates to take a similar approach in his own party ranks.

As a private individual, I have made a number of submissions on safety issues to the Department for Transport. Although I hope that the minister will take every opportunity to get that department to help us, there are things that we can do to help ourselves, our children and our councils to add protection.

17:27

1 February 2007

S2M-5360 Rights of Relatives to Damages (Mesothelioma) (Scotland) Bill: Stage 1

Scottish Parliament

Thursday 1 February 2007

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

... ... ...

Rights of Relatives to Damages (Mesothelioma) (Scotland) Bill: Stage 1

The Deputy Presiding Officer (Trish Godman): The next item of business is a debate on motion S2M-5360, in the name of Cathy Jamieson, that the Parliament agrees to the general principles of the Rights of Relatives to Damages (Mesothelioma) (Scotland) Bill.

15:01

... ... ...

15:11

Stewart Stevenson (Banff and Buchan) (SNP): I join what I am sure will be a consensual debate, with all members pointing in the same direction, by saying that we support without reservation the bill that is before the Parliament today. We welcome the fact that it has been possible to get to this position.

Before I move on, I would like to add something to what the minister said. The Justice 1 Committee was told that there is no known cause of mesothelioma other than exposure to asbestos. It is important to eliminate even a scintilla of doubt about whether there can be other causes. What we are doing, which is focused on mesothelioma alone, to the exclusion of all other diseases, is founded on the absolute certainty of the causal link between mesothelioma, in either of its two variants, and exposure to asbestos.

There is a saying that is apt in this context: success never wants a father, but failure remains a bastard all its days. I apologise for my language, Presiding Officer. The bill has, quite legitimately, many fathers and mothers. That is very welcome, because civic and political Scotland has joined with the legal profession to promote the legislation that we are debating today.

Is mesothelioma a big problem? The "British Cancer Journal" suggests that there will be 90,000 deaths from the disease between 1968 and 2050, and that two thirds of them will take place during this century. I am sure that that is a United Kingdom figure. The projections are well founded, because they are backed up by a considerable amount of epidemiological research. Mesothelioma will affect a large number of people, admittedly over quite a long period of time.

The problem is concentrated in areas where there was shipbuilding, but it also affects other areas. I want to talk briefly about one of the mothers of the bill, who can no longer speak on behalf of victims. I refer to Margaret Ewing, who on behalf of those of her military constituents who had been exposed to asbestos was tireless in raising the issue and lodging parliamentary questions about it. I do not single her out above anyone else, except for the narrow and particular reason that she is no longer here to speak up on people's behalf. We all regret that.

The case of Margaret Ewing illustrates that people of all parties, rather than just one party, have been involved with the issue. In his Justice 2 Committee incarnation and otherwise, the Conservative member Bill Aitken has been equally closely involved with it, as have the many Labour members who represent a large number of the people who suffer from the disease, and their families. We must not forget sufferers who were in the military, whose legal position is slightly different because of concerns about whom they might sue and Crown indemnity. So far, there has been no sign that those issues will create difficulties, but I hope that my making the point will ensure that it is noted elsewhere.

The Parliament, through its committees, has touched on this subject before. The Justice 2 Committee in the previous Parliament, under the convenership of the present convener of the Justice 1 Committee, Pauline McNeill, was very active in promoting the Coulsfield rules to secure further reform of the operation of a particular part of the court system.

The committee had the best intentions and its work definitely had some value in giving some people a degree of certainty and some ability to bring forward the date of their engagement with the legal system but, with all the complexities of law, the reform also had the unintended side-effect of creating more anguish, as those in the terminal stage of their illness were faced with the choice of suing while they were still alive and feeling settled in their own mind and knowing that, in doing so, they were disadvantaging their relatives, who could sue only after the sufferer's death. This simple bill removes that choice. I certainly commend the size of the bill to the Executive, to my colleagues who might introduce bills in future and to everyone else in government.

On retrospection, I welcome the speedy, effective response to the agreement that the committee was able to negotiate between the witnesses representing various points of view. Initially, the Association of British Insurers was—not unreasonably—somewhat sceptical about the proposals and expressed some fear that mesothelioma might simply be a stalking horse for other conditions. The committee—and, I am sure, the minister—played a role in talking through these issues with the association, whose fears were calmed and who, in the end, said, "As long as we have certainty about what is happening, the date when it happens can be brought forward." I might have put the date back a bit more, but that does not matter; we all agreed that the provisions should apply retrospectively to cases raised on or after 20 December 2006. I am sure that Johann Lamont fulfilled one of her more pleasant parliamentary tasks when, during her evidence to the committee, she was able to tell us that the Executive had agreed to the proposal. However, she is nae off the hook, because we will scrutinise the amendment very carefully.

I am absolutely sure that there is good faith on the Government benches and that after we have progressed with the bill without any dissent, in a unanimous, cross-party manner—as we undoubtedly will—the people in the public gallery, their friends and relatives and those who come after will be grateful for this excellent piece of parliamentary business that does considerable credit to everyone who has been involved in it.

15:18

Point of Order

Point of Order
14:57

Stewart Stevenson (Banff and Buchan) (SNP): On a point of order, Presiding Officer. My point relates to what the Minister for Enterprise and Lifelong Learning, Nicol Stephen, said in response to question 1, from Derek Brownlee, at general question time, to which there were supplementaries. Rule 7.2.3 of the standing orders says:

"The Presiding Officer may order a member to stop speaking if ... the member departs from the subject".

There is a clear view in the Parliament that this morning Nicol Stephen, in no sense in any of his remarks on question 1, addressed the subject of the Executive's policies and their impact on economic growth. He was entirely silent on that subject and confined his remarks to the policies and practices of other parties.

You might of course point me to rule 13.7.7 of the standing orders, in the section on oral questions, and to rule 13.7.8, which states:

"A member may ask a supplementary question only on the same subject matter as the original question and shall, in asking the question, do so briefly."

That rule clearly constrains the questioner to stay on the subject, but it is silent in relation to the minister.

For your further information, you will, no doubt, be aware that the headings that precede sections in acts form no part of the legislation—they are merely descriptive—and that the legislation is encompassed wholly within the sections themselves. If that same test is applied to the standing orders of the Parliament, rule 7.2.3, on which I found my comments to you, is a general prescription, which is not constrained by its happening to be in a section described as:

"Calling speakers and content of speeches."

It would apply equally to responses to questions, particularly given that no other rule addresses the issue of answers given by ministers.

I realise that this is a somewhat complex point of order, but it is clear and to the point. I hope that if you are not able to give an immediate response, you are able to give a response that will satisfy the many members of this Parliament who thought that the minister's performance this morning was egregious in the extreme. 

The Presiding Officer (Mr George Reid): I will not knock that point of order back. Mr Stevenson raises an interesting point and makes some clever cross-references. However, I had only a short amount of advance notice of the matter and it will take time to consider. I am not going to make snap judgments. We shall have to examine the veracitude of your terminological exactitude, which is what I propose to do over the next few days. I shall then write to you.

15:01

S2M-5510 Scottish Water

Scottish Parliament

Thursday 1 February 2007

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

... ... ...

Scottish Water

The Deputy Presiding Officer (Murray Tosh): The next item of business is a debate on motion S2M-5510, in the name of Mark Ruskell, on Scottish Water.

10:28

... ... ...

11:23

Stewart Stevenson (Banff and Buchan) (SNP): I congratulate the Greens on securing this very important debate. I can confirm that the absence of an SNP amendment means that we will support their motion at decision time.

The debate has highlighted a number of important points and illustrated a number of fundamental flaws in members' thinking. Perhaps the most fundamental is the idea, which emanates from the Conservative benches, that private ownership is good and public ownership is bad. Equally, we should not imagine that the reverse is necessarily the case. Just as the public sector is capable of success and failure, the private sector is also capable of success and—something that is less seen—very significant failure. Indeed, when there has been a crossover between the two—for example the involvement of the Capita Group and Electronic Data Systems as major contractors to the Government down south—the private sector has failed massively to deliver.

However, does such an example tell us that when the private sector conducts its private business and does not interface with the public sector it is as capable of making mistakes as the public sector? The question—it is important that we ask questions—is whether people in the public sector are capable of delivering good financial performance, meeting public objectives and supporting the people of Scotland. Of course, the answer is yes. We simply have to choose structures that make that possible.

Sarah Boyack said that the Labour manifesto has not been written yet. Oh dear. We thought that the Labour Party campaign was not going too well, but we now realise that its state of preparation is even poorer than we imagined. It is okay that Labour's manifesto has not been published yet, but the fact that it has not even been written shows the extent of the challenge that Labour faces. I hope that, in her closing remarks, the minister will nail her colours firmly to the mast, as her party's back benchers have done and as I think the Liberals have done—although Iain Smith was a little equivocal—and say that the future of Scottish Water lies in the public sector.

Iain Smith: I am happy to be unequivocal—we will ensure that Scottish Water stays in the public sector. What is the SNP's policy? It has not even lodged an amendment to the motion.

Stewart Stevenson: We support the Greens' motion, which advocates keeping Scottish Water in the public sector. We are with the Liberals on that—it is an area of broad agreement, although we might differ on matters of detail.

The Tories talk about service to customers. Aye, but the whole point is that the water industry provides an infrastructure that services public policy as well as private customers. It is unlikely that we would have two infrastructures for water delivery, which would involve two sets of pipes going all over Scotland. That is why the water industry is different from some other industries that have been privatised.

I want to raise some constituency issues. I have mentioned the case of Banff and Buchan College before. A hotel in my constituency has just received a bill for £35,000. Again, that was the result of inaccurate and incomplete meter reading by the private sector company that was contracted by Scottish Water.

We warmly welcome the fact that, in Scottish Water's strategic plans, developments must be supported. That is good. My colleague John Swinney has been banging on about that for some considerable time. However, we must address how capital funding takes place and we must get from the minister a sincere assurance that Scottish Water will stay in the public sector. If she fails to make that clear, all protestations of Labour's support for Scottish Water will fall on deaf ears.

11:27

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