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11 December 2014

S4M-11811 Flexibility and Autonomy in Local Government

The Deputy Presiding Officer (John Scott): Good afternoon. The first item of business is a Local Government and Regeneration Committee debate on motion S4M-11811, in the name of Kevin Stewart, on flexibility and autonomy in local government.

14:30
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15:05

Stewart Stevenson (Banffshire and Buchan Coast) (SNP):

I have been a member of a political party now for 53 years and I am going to say some things that are perhaps negative about the involvement of political parties when they get close to communities. First, let me visit a little bit of history. In 1831, there were fewer than 3,000 electors in Scotland for parliamentary elections. Therefore, the connection with the wider community was all but nil. Incidentally, we tend to forget that the 1832 great reform act removed the right of female persons to vote in parliamentary elections, although it left them able to vote in council elections, subject to the property qualification. When we look at the history of this topic, we see quite a lot of interesting things.

Of course, until the Pontefract by-election, which took place on 15 August 1872, people voted by going up to the front, to the returning officer, and saying what candidate they were going to vote for. Indeed, before 1872, the way in which people voted was published. I have the electoral roll for the Blofield district, which happens to be near Norwich; it was the only one that I could readily find. It shows that in the 1871 parliamentary by-election, James Bond voted Tory but his neighbour on the electoral roll, John Bailey, voted Whig. People’s votes were all recorded. Of course, democracy worked in a substantially different way from how it worked once the 1872 Ballot Act came into operation, for the 1872 elections.

That is relatively recent history because all my grandparents were already born by the time of the Pontefract by-election, so a lot has changed in recent times. Indeed, it is as well to remember what has happened in the 20th century. When Churchill lost his seat in 1922 in the general election—at that point, he was an MP for Dundee—Dundee elected two members in a single first-past-the-post ballot, so it was actually a first and second-past-the-post ballot. Even though people had only one vote, they elected two members. When my mother first voted, she had two votes, because university graduates had a vote for a university MP as well as for their own constituency member. Indeed, the university vote was by single, transferable vote, which continued until the 1950 general election, so quite a lot has changed and continues to change.

What effect do such changes have on people’s engagement? The answer is, as far as I can make out, almost none. As regards international comparisons, the figures that I was able to conveniently find cover a period from 1960 to 1995—an arbitrary period, but it is probably useful. Top of the league is Malta, which in that period—without compulsory voting—had an average turnout of 94 per cent. Helpfully, the committee has visited some Scandinavian countries. In the period between 1960 and 1995, Denmark had 87 per cent turnout, Sweden had 86 per cent turnout and the UK had 76 per cent turnout.

In the United States, turnout in that period was lower, at 48 per cent. That is interesting because the US has a very different model of democracy. Basically, all power is held at the bottom of the heap and the states choose what powers to give back up to the top. However, that does not seem to make any difference to engagement, although instinctively I feel that I would be a little bit more comfortable with that model.

Marco Biagi: Has the member considered the model of town hall democracy that is very common in New England, and the levels of participation that that affords? Perhaps he will be arranging another Local Government and Regeneration Committee fact-finding trip?

Stewart Stevenson: I think that some of the smaller communities, perhaps in the West Indies or the Indian Ocean, would be the appropriate places to go. However, as I am only a substitute member of the committee, I shall be left guarding the gates back here.

We talk about turnout going down, but the turnout among those who could vote in the 1945 general election was 70.05 per cent, and the turnout in the 1997 general election was almost identical, at 69.39 per cent. So, what motivates people to vote is perhaps something quite subtle. The high turnout that we had in the referendum might be because people felt that they could change the system, which they wanted to do, rather than simply change the faces, which they were perhaps less interested in doing.

I have some useful proposals in relation to local elections in particular, and I know that the committee has not considered them. We talked about randomising the order of people on the ballot paper. However, there is a much easier way of doing it: have circular ballot papers, which could just be turned around, with nobody being at the top and nobody being at the bottom. That would work.

When I first voted, the party designation did not appear on the ballot paper. I wonder whether, particularly in local elections, it would be helpful if people voted only for people whom they actually knew, free from any influence of party—I say that as a member of a party for 53 years.

I will close on the issue of a postcode lottery, which the committee touched on. I am in favour of variable delivery, which allows for core requirements to be met but does not require every community to do the same thing. We need strong messages that reinforce that throughout Scotland if we want people to be engaged.

15:11

9 December 2014

S4M-11825 Fisheries Negotiations

The Deputy Presiding Officer (Elaine Smith): The next item of business is a debate on motion S4M-11825, in the name of Richard Lochhead, on the end-of-year fish negotiations.

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16:25

Stewart Stevenson (Banffshire and Buchan Coast) (SNP):

When I came to Parliament in June 2001, my very first speech was on fisheries. In that speech I harked back to the work of Allan Macartney, a member of the European Parliament, in relation to localities management. It was he who championed the change of approach that we see a little of in the progress that is being made in European fisheries policy. On that basis, I very much welcome the call in Labour’s amendment for “greater flexibility and regionalisation”. That focuses on some important things.

The very least that I can say is that all three Opposition parties have been unwise in proposing to delete what the Government motion says about our fisheries minister, the most experienced in Europe, leading the UK delegation

“where it is clearly appropriate to do so”.

The motion is not seeking an absolute right; it proposes only that the minister leads when appropriate.

Let us consider the issues for fisherman in other parts of the UK besides Scotland. It helps them to have the most experienced minister at the table. The issue is not simply about, as the Tory motion says, benefiting from

“the UK’s negotiating strength in Europe”,

but about the UK benefiting from the strength of experience that a Scottish fisheries minister would bring to the table.

I do not know the member of the House of Lords who led the UK delegation. He may be an excellent person. We address only the issue of his inexperience and the fact that he works in a very different brief. As far as I could see in my research, his sole parliamentary contact with fishing had been to answer three written questions on it on the same day in October 2013. I rather guess—as I former minister I might say this—that civil servants wrote the answers and did not draw on the minister’s knowledge. No doubt we will return to that matter on another occasion.

The SFF has provided us with a briefing, which I very much welcome and which highlights the adverse interaction between old, unreformed and as yet not abandoned legislation and the new schemes that seek to eliminate discards. It is in precisely that kind of area that an experienced fisheries minister will always sacrifice an inexperienced one.

We have heard some of the difficulties that the pelagic fleet faces, less from biological factors and much more fundamentally from political decisions vis-à-vis the relationship between the Faroes and the EU and, of course, the developing difficulties for the industry in relation to trade with Russia.

The Scottish Pelagic Processors Association points out that restrictive legislation from Tórshavn seems to be designed to distort the market and is adding burdens to our industry. Fish caught in Scottish waters by Faroese boats are required, in essence, to be landed in the Faroes. That is probably not much in the interest of Faroese fishermen because it restricts their market opportunities. More fundamentally, it is potentially restricting our processing industry’s opportunities.

We have seen many years of sacrifice in our fishing industry. The number of boats has come down, although that decline has more or less stabilised, and total allowable catches are going up this year, which is very good news. That is because of our fishermen’s sacrifices. However, where previously that quota might have been used usefully to increase economically valuable landings, it is quite likely that a lot of the quota will have to be allocated to fish that might have been discarded. Therefore, it is not clear that we have a system under the EU rules that will be of value to our fishermen to the extent that a better-thought-out fishing quota system would be.

Of course the catching sector is very important, but even bigger is the processing sector. Many people are employed in processing, packaging and promoting our food. In my constituency there are thousands of such people.

I recently attended a Seafish presentation. I was very impressed by the interaction that those who retail our fish, either as wet fish or in our restaurants, have with Scotland. We want to get more Scots eating this good-quality product, for their health but also for the health of our industry.

The SFF welcomes what has happened in the negotiations with the EU and Norway this year, which is good. The SPPA is much less happy about the Faroese tax position. Seeing cod quota and haddock quota rising is absolutely first class.

The price of fishing for the fishermen at sea is high. My very first constituency event in 2001 was to see a bravery award presented to a fisherman, who in January of that year went overboard near Greenland to fish out one of his colleagues. He said that he was more frightened going up and speaking to the audience in the fishermen’s mission at Peterhead than he was diving off the boat. Little he knows—one is easy and the other one is difficult.

I share my apologies with members here. A rather urgent matter will take me away and I will not necessarily be here for the next two speeches, but I will return for the closing speeches.

16:31

Stewart Stevenson
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