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26 May 2016

Subject Debate: Taking Scotland Forward

The Presiding Officer (Ken Macintosh): This afternoon’s business is the continuation of the debate on taking Scotland forward.

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14:20

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

I join others in welcoming you to your post, Presiding Officer. I hope for a favourable disposition in all your decisions.

When I became a minister in 2007, one of the first events that I recall was the whole ministerial team sitting in Bute house listening to the then chief medical officer, Harry Burns, talking to us about the effect of poverty on very young children and how it would blight their existence throughout their lives. The new Cabinet Secretary for Education and Skills, John Swinney, put early learning at the heart of his opening remarks. That chimes absolutely with what Harry Burns said to the ministerial team in 2007, which resonates with me to this day. If we do not get it right at the beginning, we sure as heck will get it wrong at the end. I very much welcome all the initiatives that there will be: initiatives to support mothers back to work, to support children before they get to school, and to increase investment in communities where there are particular needs because of social and economic circumstances.

Like John Mason, I will pursue one or two of my obsessions. I will continue from time to time to suggest to any education minister that the Trachtenberg system for mental arithmetic is worthy of further consideration. I was a pretty indifferent student at all levels of my studying. Fortunately, I was brought up in a house that was filled with books. Essentially, I am an autodidact—I am self-taught. I therefore have no one but myself to blame for my shortcomings.

I represent an area that has substantial rural communities. It is interesting to go round schools in those communities and to see how different they are from schools in urban communities. The relationship between teachers and their pupils is quite different—it is more intimate and there is more knowledge in both parties of what is going on. One of my standard questions when I am at a rural primary school is to ask everyone who has driven a tractor to put their hand up. The really good news is that in the majority of such cases, these days, more young girls in rural schools put their hands up than young men. That tells us about a good change in society.

I have longer-run experience of rural schools. My grandfather started teaching in a rural school in 1881 as a pupil teacher. He ended his career in 1926 in Peddieston school in the Black Isle. The world then was very different; even though there were more than 20 pupils there, it was a single-teacher school. My grandmother made soup for the pupils from the vegetables that the pupils themselves brought to the school. Infrastructure was very limited.

Today, schools are resourced in a very different way and work in very different buildings. Education is now not simply face-to-face, but can be online as well. That is important for rural communities and for tertiary education in those communities. That is why it is important that we get rural broadband up to the required speeds. I very much welcome the Government’s commitment to provide 100 per cent of premises in Scotland, including in rural areas, with broadband by the end of this parliamentary session. My wife in particular is looking forward to that—she reported to me yesterday that our broadband was running at 50Kbps.

It is also worth thinking about how important communication is more generally for rural communities. The Romans were a much more successful empire than the Greeks because they had an effective system of communication and the Greeks did not. The Romans could get a message from Londinium to Roma in 24 hours by a system of hilltop signalling. Thankfully, we have moved on a little bit from that, but we should remember that the first public access speech call across the Atlantic was made in 1957. That is within my living memory; I remember my father having to make a call across the Atlantic in 1958 in relation to a patient of his.

The number of my constituents who have tertiary educational qualifications is lower than that in most constituencies in Scotland. Historically, that has been for the good reason that lots of school leavers have been able to go straight into employment. However, in the future the world will be more difficult, and education will play an important role in helping people into new jobs and long-term employment. That is why I particularly welcome the substantial investment in the North East Scotland College in Fraserburgh. Its campus is gleaming and efficient and is ready for 21st century.

The number of apprentices at the college has risen dramatically because we are focusing on ensuring that the tertiary sector delivers people who are fit to work, which helps the economy and it helps individuals. Rural areas such as the one that I represent benefit particularly from the policies of this Government. Please keep it up, education secretary.

14:27

S5M-00190 Scotland’s Future in the European Union

The Presiding Officer (Ken Macintosh): Our business this morning is a debate on motion S5M-00190, in the name of Fiona Hyslop, on Scotland’s future in the European Union.

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12:02

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

Thank you, Presiding Officer. I congratulate you on your elevation to your position. I will crave a boon from you at some point in the future; let us get in credit at the outset.

Like fellow rebel Mike Russell, I voted yes in 1975 not because the arguments were absolutely decisive and compelling, but because, as a child who was born in the immediate aftermath of the war that ended in 1945, the value that I placed on international collaboration in the cause of peace overrode other considerations.

John Mason talked about 41 years. Interestingly enough, 41 years before the 1975 referendum there was another referendum, which was on whether the United Kingdom should remain a member of the League of Nations. It was not organised by the Government, but was a mass franchise that was open to the voting of everyone in the United Kingdom. Of the electorate, 38 per cent chose to vote and 96 per cent of those said that they wanted to remain part of that international organisation. I crave our achieving such an overwhelming result on 23 June, but I am not holding my breath.

To Elaine Smith I say that a further 41 years back the inaugural meeting of the Independent Labour Party took place in Bradford, chaired by Keir Hardie. There must be something about 41 years in politics.

The debate around how we should engage with each other is not particularly new. In 1606, in the Westminster Parliament, it was said:

“If we admit them into our Liberties, we shall be overrun with them”.

There was a fear that if Scotland and England joined together, the English would be overrun with Scots. In that debate in 1606, the member went on to say:

“witness the multiplicities of the Scots in Polonia.”

Today, part of the debate concerns the number of people who are using the provisions for free movement of people across Europe to come to our shores, and the 2 million UK citizens—including substantial numbers of my family—who have moved elsewhere. However, in the 17th, 18th, 19th and early 20th centuries, substantial numbers of Scots migrated to many of those countries, and to Poland in particular, to the extent that there are areas called Nowa Szkocja—New Scotland—in Warsaw and Krakow, as well as in Danzig, which is now part of Poland. If the Scots are anything, we are a people of international interests.

I am happy to recruit Margaret Mitchell and Graham Simpson to the campaign to abolish the House of Lords. Margaret Mitchell said that an argument against the EU is that nobody knows who the members of the European Parliament are; I would bet that we will not find many people who know the names of people in the House of Lords. I do not even know those who might claim Scottish connection, and I am involved in politics. Graham Simpson made remarks that support that, too.

When I made my first speech in the chamber, on 14 June 2001, I referred to fisheries policy bringing zonal management. There has been some progress on the common fisheries policy, which will continue, but it would be fair to say that the overwhelming majority of skippers in my constituency, who catch fish in the North Sea and elsewhere, are likely to vote no, because the common fisheries policy is one of the great failures of the EU. On the other hand, for those who produce fish products and export fish, the free movement of goods across borders allows fresh products that would perish rapidly to make it to the markets of the EU and to generate huge economic benefit. The fishing industry, therefore, is deeply divided between those who produce products and rely on access to the wider market and those who share the bounty of the seas in a way that is unfair to them. Reform is needed and is probably coming. I encourage the UK, which will have the European presidency in the second half of next year, to take a much more proactive role in promoting the interests of those who catch fish in our seas.

12:07

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