24 February 2015

S4M-12382 Building Scotland’s Infrastructure

The Deputy Presiding Officer (Elaine Smith): The next item of business is a debate on motion S4M-12382, in the name of Keith Brown, on building Scotland’s infrastructure for the future.

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

Although I speak in this debate in a personal capacity, I draw members’ attention to my honorary vice-presidency of Railfuture UK and to my being the honorary president elect of the Scottish Association for Public Transport. In the current climate, I should say that I receive no pay whatsoever for either of those appointments. I should perhaps also say that I am a regular user of the one Scotland card that gives me access to scheduled bus services throughout Scotland at no cost to myself.

This is a timely debate that will allow me to celebrate what has been achieved in public transport and to highlight some of the remaining challenges. We have had interesting contributions so far. Given his remarks, I take it that Gavin Brown is responsible for the fact that flying from central London to central Paris is slower than it was in 1931, when the Imperial Airways service, which operated from Croydon to Le Touquet, cost 4 guineas—which is a lot cheaper than today, although, of course, the value of money is different.

Likewise, I take it that—reductio ad absurdam—when Willie Rennie criticises proposals to spend more on capital expenditure and improving the economy, he would abolish the entire capital programme, because that would be of enormous benefit to the economy. Perhaps I am carrying that a little further than he would seriously take it.

Scotland’s railway network makes a great deal more geographic sense than many. Less than 10 per cent of rail journeys starting in Scotland end outwith our country. That is a smaller proportion than is the case for any other area of the Great Britain rail network. However, that underplays two important things about cross-border rail.

First, only 10 per cent or so of public transport journeys from Scotland to London are by rail. Most are by air. That is a ferocious and unnecessary burden on our environment. Currently, travel times are slightly better by air, perhaps by about an hour. However, the reliability of rail travel is substantially greater, and the nature of rail travel from city centre to city centre, using transport that gives one access to wi-fi, hot and cold running drinks and so on, without mode change, means that passengers are more relaxed and ready for work at journey’s end.

We can look at what is happening with the climate. The east coast of the United States of America is having the worst of all winters, demonstrating the effect of climate change, and there are significant difficulties in getting access to water in the west, a situation that is extending into the midwest in the summer. That shows that, if the environment is overexploited, it will bite back. The issue of high speed rail concerns economic issues but also climate issues. We have to get out of the air and on to rail.

In the shorter term, if we can speed up the journey, that will be helpful. It has to happen soon. It will take some time to get HS2 into place, but there are huge economic benefits as well as huge benefits in terms of the climate. It is one of the most important projects for everyone who lives on this island, and addressing climate issues is important for people around the world.

I want to say a few targeted remarks, chosen more or less at random, about some of the things that we might be thinking of doing but which have not yet been mentioned.

First, we need to find ways of ensuring that the rail infrastructure can better support freight. We have seen huge success with Tesco putting its dry goods on the railway network up to Inverness.

David Stewart: I believe that the freight facilities grant was in the member’s remit when he was a minister. I strongly support the freight facilities grant, but does he share my view that it is crucially important, particularly for lines in the north, that we have more dualling of track, because the basic problem that we have is a constraint and a lack of capacity on those lines?

Stewart Stevenson: Where freight is concerned, I would suggest that the problem is slightly different. I do not underplay the value of dualling, but not in relation to freight. For freight, if we are to get the fresh goods on to the network, the important thing is that we have a resilient network with alternate routing, so that the delivery of fresh goods is not compromised by technical problems that will occur even in the best managed of networks.

We need to freight-enable more of the network and the alternate route around Aberdeen. A lot has been done by the previous Government and this Government in that regard. To that extent, I hope that signalling between Aberdeen and Inverness will become a priority.

It is quaint and fascinating to see the token working between Elgin and Forres, but, really, a 160-year-old system might be capable of being updated. By the same token, north of Inverness it is perhaps time that we saw a little about the plans to replace the obsolete—no longer just obsolescent—radio token system.

Looking to roads, the success of the average speed cameras on the A9—saving lives, reducing accidents and improving journey times overall for the mix of traffic that we have—indicates that we should have more of that on our road network across Scotland. I hope that Willie Rennie will speak to his colleague Danny Alexander, who should be prepared to change his mind, as others have done on other subjects.

I travelled on the Stirling-Alloa-Kincardine line on the day it opened, travelling on the footplate of the Great Marquess—a steam train. I have it diaried to travel on the first day of the Borders railway. I travelled across the Forth road bridge in 1964 on the day that it opened. My great uncle was chair of the campaign committee for it in the 1930s. I very much look forward to crossing at the earliest possible opportunity on the new road bridge across the Forth.

We are making huge progress. There will never be a day when each and every one of us does not have more things that we want to do, so we have to prioritise. I think that broadly we are making good choices. I look forward to much more being spent on rail than perhaps has been spent in the past as a share of the budget, but good progress is being made. I give my congratulations to the Government.


S4M-12381 Legal Writings (Counterparts and Delivery) (Scotland) Bill: Stage 3

The Presiding Officer (Tricia Marwick): The next item of business is a debate on motion S4M-12381, in the name of Fergus Ewing, on the Legal Writings (Counterparts and Delivery) (Scotland) Bill. ..

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

My experience says that this is a real issue and it is not a particularly new issue. On one occasion, 25 years ago, I had to fly from Vienna to San Francisco so that a contract could be signed. I had a very nice dinner with a director at Bank of America, who was the other party to the contract, I had a good night’s sleep, and then I got a taxi back to the airport and flew to Glasgow. I spent a total of 14 hours in San Francisco and for most of that time I was sleeping. Anything that helps us to address such situations—which, frankly, are a waste of time and money—has to be good news.

Quite reasonably, Annabel Goldie raised the issue that, potentially, different versions of a document could be signed in the belief that they were the same version. One issue that I pursued in the committee at stage 1 of the bill—with the Faculty of Advocates and with others—is harnessing the power of mathematics and of electronics to inhibit that particular possibility. It is perfectly possible, with a public algorithm and a public key, to derive a hash that represents uniquely a particular document. A single dot, comma or letter being changed in the document would result in a different key, so even if there were multiple copies, it would be possible to know whether those multiple copies were identical by the application of appropriate technology.

The bill does not provide for that option but it formed part of the consideration of the bill and I hope that, at some future date, we will be able to return to that subject and enable and require that procedure to be used.

Mike MacKenzie (Highlands and Islands) (SNP): I seem to recollect that a similar mechanism was used by Mary Queen of Scots, yet some of her letters were intercepted, which ultimately led to her demise. Would the member care to comment on how effective that mechanism may be in reality?

The Presiding Officer: Mr Stevenson, can we keep to the topic of legal writings?

Stewart Stevenson: I was referring, of course, to some of the stage 1 discussions. I will simply say that of course we should consider the decryption work of George Scovell, who worked for Wellington and broke the codes of Napoleon. That is a much more significant thing. However, that is beyond the scope of the debate and perhaps cannot be fitted in, even in a generous six minutes.

The real point that came up and which we put to witnesses at stage 1 was whether we should create the electronic infrastructure in Scotland so that a single copy can be held in one place and signing can be done electronically from dispersed geographic positions. There was some acceptance by witnesses that that was a good idea, but it was an idea that they would like to be the second jurisdiction to implement rather than the first. However, there comes a time when we have to be bold and perhaps take up that option.

Sometimes we have to take such things for granted if we cannot understand some of the mathematics that make them possible; in mathematics, there are P problems and NP problems. In essence, the NP problems are the ones that cannot be solved and the encryptions that we use these days are of that character.

The Faculty of Advocates and others in the legal profession are, not unreasonably, intensely conservative in their approach. They want to move in small steps, test, confirm that things work and provide the necessary security. However, the danger with the process that the Law Commission undertakes—it involves a rigorous examination before fully developed proposals are brought to Parliament, which is extremely helpful—is that all the contentious and difficult bits have been removed from the proposals, so we end up with something that is the lowest common denominator, to some extent.

Although the bill levels the playing field for Scotland and enables us to stand shoulder to shoulder with jurisdictions that allow counterpart operations, it does not take us ahead of the pack. The witnesses agreed that there was scope for returning to the issue in the future.

We must be confident, if we decide to hold contracts in a central database, that a document’s confidentiality will be protected. That raises a difficult issue for Governments of whatever complexion, and wherever they may be based. Governments naturally have a difficulty with absolutely secure secrecy of information, conversations and communication, but in this case we will not get commercial adoption unless that assurance is present.

We will need to return to looking at how—as the committee heard in evidence sessions—we can provide absolute security in a legal framework that places such onerous responsibilities on those who use that kind of unbreakable encryption and security to respond to legal requests for access. That has been done before—it is not particularly new—and we need to return to the subject.

In appearing before the committee, lawyers showed that they were willing to listen to the arguments but would proceed slowly. Indeed, it was 25 years ago that I was invited by the Faculty of Advocates to talk to its members about whether it could introduce a secure email system. They listened politely, but decided that they would not do so.

Lewis Macdonald spoke about the new generation, and how people under 30 view the electronic world. It is 35 years since I sent my first email, so some things have been around for an awful long time. We need to think about how rapidly things move on.

My grandfather was born when Abraham Lincoln was President; my father was conceived before the Wright brothers flew; and I was 11 years old when the first transatlantic telephone cable came into operation. Every life takes us forward, and we may have to speed things up a wee bit in the legal world to ensure that we keep up with the pack and that we can draw new business to Scotland rather than simply protect the business that we have.

The bill is an excellent piece of legislation, and I am sure that all members of the committee very much welcome the gracious comments with which the Presiding Officer opened the debate. I look forward to hearing what our committee convener has to say if he is called to speak; I see that his button is pressed. I am happy to support the bill, and I hope that the Delegated Powers and Law Reform Committee gets many more opportunities to engage in the overwhelming excitement that is legislation in the Scottish Parliament.


19 February 2015

S4M-12222 Young Voters and School Debates

The Deputy Presiding Officer (John Scott): The next item of business is a members’ business debate on motion S4M-12222, in the name of Patrick Harvie, on young voters and school debates. The debate will be concluded without any question being put.

Motion debated,

That the Parliament celebrates the many school debates that took place in Glasgow and across Scotland during the independence referendum campaign, allowing young voters to engage with the issues and hear the arguments from campaigners on both sides; welcomes the broad cross-party consensus that has built up for a reduction in the voting age to 16 for Scottish Parliament elections; believes that high quality voter education and participation events in schools have great potential for harnessing young people’s interest in politics and establishing patterns of high voter turnout at an early age; considers that lessons must be learned from the best examples of this work during the referendum to ensure that engaging, creative and politically balanced debates become the norm in schools during future elections; welcomes the work of the Devolution (Further Powers) Committee in examining this area, and notes calls for all relevant parties and agencies to work together to maximise the democratic participation of young people.

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

I offer my hearty congratulations to Patrick Harvie on giving us the opportunity to discuss this important subject.

He said that he wants a bit of excitement and passion so let me start with some. I was a rather sickly young kid, so I read a lot of books because I was at home a lot of the time. One of the early books I read—the first political book I read—when I was about seven, was a biography of Lloyd George. I found it fascinating because it had excitement and passion. The passion was that his mistress was Frances Stevenson, although at the age of seven, I did not quite understand what that meant. It was certainly something to do with passion and it was interesting. In those days, of course, the press was less interested in the private lives of politicians; Lloyd George conducted an affair with Frances Stevenson that extended over 45 years. He eventually married her after his wife died and just before he died.

The first election that I participated in was in the 1961 East Fife by-election when Sir John Gilmour won the seat for the Tories. I was out campaigning for the Liberals and, as a result, a few months later I joined the Scottish National Party in the Duncan institute in Cupar. There, 25 of us 15, 16 and 17-year-olds joined our first political party.

Getting youngsters engaged is therefore not new. There is a bit of a cycle to it and hopefully we are in an upward cycle that will continue.

Getting involved in public life can happen at a very early age. Mary Queen of Scots was eight days old when she became Queen when James V, her father, died after she was born in Linlithgow palace. I think her engagement with politics at that time would have been pretty minimal.

The motion that is before us contains a lot of interesting things. There is a consensus around votes for 16 and 17-year-olds; an online survey of young people shows that only 8.5 per cent are opposed to it. We can now say without much risk of contradiction that giving our youngsters the vote is pretty much generally the settled will. The survey also showed that there were some special issues to consider around data protection and so on related to registration, because this was the very first time we had registered people of that age. According to the survey, 50 per cent of people got information at schools, so schools played an important part in the campaign by ensuring that people were informed.

There was variation in the engagement of schools and, to some extent, the national campaigns on both sides of the argument had shortcomings. In my constituency I was, and during the campaign remained, and still am friends with people who espoused and campaigned for a different viewpoint. Politics can be conducted in a gentlemanly way, at least in Banffshire and Buchan Coast. Neither side had realised the extent to which we would empower and activate people at the grass roots.

In many places, we found that schools were trying to work with national bodies when the real energy of the campaign was in the plethora of small locally-based bodies. Schools found it difficult to engage. The pattern of politics had changed but the old methods were still being applied. Schools played it safe. If they could not get someone from both sides of the argument, they cancelled debates, which was fairly disappointing.

Tam Baillie, Scotland’s Commissioner for Children and Young People, points to what the Scottish Youth Parliament did through its aye naw mibbe campaign. It is important that young people themselves reach out to other young people. If we look at the survey we find that the overwhelming source of information for young people who voted was their peer group. That should be no surprise to us.

I return to Lloyd George—my great hero. As I approach my 70th birthday, I note that in 1908 he introduced the first national pension, which entitled 70-year olds to 5 shillings a week. Well done, Lloyd George, and well done, the Liberals, for encouraging me to get involved in politics. It is their loss that I chose to join the SNP because of their manifest shortcomings.


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