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29 March 2018

S5M-11350 Housing (Amendment) (Scotland) Bill: Stage 1

The Deputy Presiding Officer (Christine Grahame): The next item of business is a stage 1 debate on motion S5M-11350, in the name of Kevin Stewart, on the Housing (Amendment) (Scotland) Bill. I invite members who want speak in the debate to press their request-to-speak button now.

16:04
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16:40

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

Through the chair, I will say a couple of words to Andy Wightman, who gave us a 40-year horizon since housing associations came into play. “The Digest of Justinian” covered the co-operative housing associations in ancient Rome, and Babylon had co-operative models 2,500 years ago, so Scotland has come to the party quite late.

Members might reasonably ask why I am speaking in the debate. I forced my way to the front of a long queue that the whips had drawn up to fill the last speaking place from the Government benches. The temptation for my part arose, of course, when I read in the committee report at paragraph 10 that

“The Bill is short and technical”.

That word “technical” inevitably drew me in.

It is fair to say that this is not the most contentious thing that we have debated since I came to Parliament in 2001, but it is quite interesting. It illustrates some of the unintended side effects of revising the way in which we do accounting—in particular, the accounting of bodies that have to report their assets, liabilities, income and expenditure. In 2001, I found that, under the old financial reporting standard 17, the accounts for the private finance initiative contractor Kilmarnock Prison Ltd—I was interested in prisons at that time—treated Kilmarnock prison as a disposal in the second year of trading because it had a commitment in the 30-year contract to pass the prison to the Government. It vanished off the contractor’s balance sheet as an asset but, as far as the Government was concerned, it did not appear as an asset on its balance sheet until 30 years hence. That asset appeared on no balance sheet for almost 30 years, under the old system.

We are now under the international financial reporting standards and have a new thing called “contingent assets”. That means that the prison now appears on the balance sheets of both Kilmarnock Prison Ltd and the Government. The bottom line of all that, in relation to the issue that is before us today, is that we need to have the right balance as to where things appear in our public accounting.

The problem that has been presented to us by the Office of National Statistics is perfectly proper. The question is whether the associations were in a place in which they had sufficient freedom of action that they could control, manage, dispose of and buy assets without the Government telling them what to do. The next question is whether they were creating assets for the Government, and the final question is whether they, by their actions, created involuntary liabilities—contingent or otherwise—for the Government. It was uncertainties in those accounting areas that properly caused the Office for National Statistics to say that those bodies are connected to the public sector—although they are private bodies, as Mr Wightman reminded us—and are really part of the public sector. If that was the case it would, of course, inhibit the Government in its spending plans and, more fundamentally for the policy that we are interested in here, inhibit the ability of those societies to borrow money and build housing. Alex Rowley is perfectly correct to say that we have to build more houses, by whatever means.

Elaine Smith (Central Scotland) (Lab): When he read about the bill, did Stewart Stevenson come across comments by UK Finance that lenders might have to “ramp-up their ... due diligence”? What does he think about that point?

Stewart Stevenson:I was very pleased that UK Finance came to a position of supporting what is proposed—I gather that there was some doubt about that initially.

Elaine Smith makes a valid point: whenever we change a system, we risk creating greater complexity. That would not be good news if it got in the way of our building more houses and made life more difficult for housing associations. However, the bill strikes the right balance and I shall be very happy to support it, come decision time.

16:45

27 March 2018

S5M-11056 Cancer Awareness for Young People

The Deputy Presiding Officer (Christine Grahame): The final item of business is a member’s business debate on motion S5M-11056, in the name of Rona Mackay, on cancer awareness for young people. The debate will be concluded without any question being put.

Motion debated,

That the Parliament understands that 40% of cancers in adulthood are preventable; notes the view therefore that there is a need to make sure that every young person is educated about cancerous signs and symptoms; commends the vital work carried out already by Teenage Cancer Trust through its Education and Awareness programme in schools to empower young people to take control of their own health, and notes the calls for more to be done to protect the next generation and for Members to work together to ensure that every school in Scotland, including in the Strathkelvin and Bearsden constituency, can help pupils to receive the cancer education that they need, particularly with 2018 being the Year of Young People.

17:01
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17:22

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

As others have done, I thank Rona Mackay for the opportunity to discuss such an important subject.

As we have started to eliminate many infectious diseases over a long period of time, our focus has moved to cancer. Cancer is, mostly, an adult condition, and it is not, of course, a single condition. However, there are very particular issues around cancers in the young. They tend to be different cancers and are often driven by DNA imperfections. There is a huge variety of cancers that affect very small numbers of people.

In terms of preparing for adulthood, how our young people behave as youngsters can affect their propensity to being diagnosed with cancer in later life. Education that is not simply about cancer in the young but that is directed at young people has a wider lifelong benefit. The work that the Teenage Cancer Trust does in schools, to empower young people to take control of their health, helps when they are young, and it sets good habits for the rest of their lives.

ASH Scotland’s “Scotland’s charter for a tobacco-free generation” includes a principle that states:

“every child has the right to effective education that equips them to make informed positive choices on tobacco and health”.

Of course, it is not simply choices on tobacco and health that are important.

Cancer Research UK gives us some interesting, and rather disturbing, statistics. In the past 20-plus years, there has been a one-third increase in the number of incidents of cancers in teenagers and young adults. A proportion of that will be because our diagnostic abilities have increased, but it also reflects a genuine increase.

We, as adults—in this debate we perform that role among other roles—are what might be described by the Teenage Cancer Trust as adult influencers. In other words, we are here, potentially, as sounding boards for youngsters.

There is a case for children from backgrounds where there is a history of cancer, particularly in the young, to have DNA testing, so that we can seek to identify the risk of diseases that may develop at a later date. I am not sure whether any country has done that systematically. It is not the cheapest intervention that we might make, nor, I think, is the science fully there, but if we know that there is a propensity for cancer, we can prepare a child to look at their bodies and perhaps identify cancer sooner. If we catch a cancer at stage 1 or even stage 2, the outcome is substantially better than if the cancer becomes apparent at a much later stage.

We have heard a few words about obesity. That is unlikely to be a direct cause of cancer in youngsters, but it underpins some cancers of adulthood. Tom Arthur referred to junk food. As I said a couple of weeks ago, we should not use the words “junk food”, because doing that is criticising the person who eats it. We should talk in different terms.

Can young adults avoid cancers? The American Cancer Society identifies a range of cancers that affect young people. I have spent an awful lot of time in the sun and, as a 10-year-old, I was hospitalised with sunstroke in Oban—yes, in Scotland.

The bottom line is that we need to educate our youngsters to be persistent if they see a change in their body, because it may be something non-trivial. We want them to be in charge of their lives, and to be equipped to deal with cancers as they arise in order to prevent them from having an impact.

17:27

20 March 2018

S5M-11111 Forestry and Land Management (Scotland) Bill

The Deputy Presiding Officer (Linda Fabiani): The next item of business is a debate on motion S5M-11111, in the name of Fergus Ewing, on the Forestry and Land Management (Scotland) Bill at stage 3.

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17:52
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18:20

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

I agree with Peter Chapman’s highlighting of the opportunities that exist for forestry and agriculture—perhaps I should say arboriculture and agriculture—to work together. Arboriculture includes vines, and I look forward to there being vines in Scotland in the future. There is an underexploited opportunity there.

Alex Rowley highlighted the issue of climate change, and I absolutely agree with him on the importance of forestry to managing and mitigating the effects of climate change.

I have a small point to make about unused powers. We have had discussion about compulsory purchase powers that have never been used. However, the fact that they have not been used is not to say that they have no effect. The very existence of powers forces people over whom they might be exercised to come to conclusions.

I will give an example of an unused power that touches on the life of us here. Forging the great seal of Scotland is high treason. It has been in the Scots law canon for more than 500 years and, as far as I can establish, it has never been used. Nevertheless, it is of such value that it is part of our legal system. That demonstrates that unused powers are not powers without value.

As I mentioned in the stage 1 debate, when the Great Michael was built in 1513, it weighed 1,000 tons and was the biggest warship in the world. All the forests of Fife were cleared to build it, and wood had to be imported from elsewhere. A couple of years later, the English decided that they wanted a bigger vessel, so they built an even bigger ship and the Great Michael—impressive achievement though it was—was never used for any particularly useful purpose.

In the time that remains to me, I would like to draw on personal experience. My wife reported to me that, earlier this month, two men came to the door. We live on 4 acres of land, and we are surrounded on three sides by about 70 to 80 acres of forest. One of the men was the new owner of the forestry and the other was from the Forestry Commission, and they had come to make my wife aware that some of that forestry was to be harvested over the next few years and to discuss the plans. My wife felt that it was an excellent intervention to be talked through what was going to happen and to be given sufficient notice—three years’ notice, in fact—to allow us to put up some protective trees that might start to grow in that period that would continue to give the shelter that the forest provides.

The Forestry Commission is one of our crowning glories, and I hope that the bill as enacted will support its future development and success.

18:23

13 March 2018

UK Withdrawal from the European Union (Legal Continuity) (Scotland) Bill

The Presiding Officer (Ken Macintosh): The next item of business is a pre-stage 2 debate on the UK Withdrawal from the European Union (Legal Continuity) (Scotland) Bill.

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16:01

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

Through the chair, I say to Graham Simpson that, from my very first speech in June 2001, I have whole-heartedly, unambiguously and continuously opposed the common fisheries policy, and I am immensely glad that we should be leaving that. Nothing in my previous 728 speeches is at odds with that.

I direct something to the convener of the Standards, Procedures and Public Appointments Committee. Why are the groupings of amendments not numbered at stage 2? They are at stage 3.

I will speak to what would be, if it was numbered, group 11, which is called

“Exercise of powers under sections 11 and 13: integration with UK Government policy”.

I start by looking at Jamie Greene’s amendments 148 and 154. In his speech, he said that we should have watertight law and that we should judge our law by its content. In both his amendments, he uses

“UK Government policy or the negotiating lines of the UK Government”

as the basis upon which they are founded. Neither of those things is available to me. In particular, the “negotiating lines” are not available. Not only that, but they appear to change from week to week and day to day. Whatever merits there might have been in his amendments, they are certainly not watertight law, and they should be judged to be inadequate.

More substantially, I turn to Adam Tomkins’s amendments. By the way, I am going to say that there is an amendment from the Tories that I would be prepared to accept. I will come back to that. [Interruption.] Members should keep listening. That got the Tories’ attention for a brief second.

The key point about Adam Tomkins’s amendments 150, 151 et al is to take back powers that we currently exercise over agriculture, environmental protection and in particular fisheries, because amendment 150 states that

“No regulations may be made under subsection (1)”

unless

“the consent of a Minister of the Crown”

is provided.

Adam Tomkins: Does the member accept that there is no such thing as taking any of those powers away from this Parliament, given that this Parliament cannot currently exercise powers in any of those domains because they are subject to EU law and we may not exercise powers contrary to EU law?

Stewart Stevenson: Mr Tomkins is clearly not much engaged in the fishing debate. In fishing, we make our own regulations, which differ from regulations elsewhere, in requiring landing of species that are not caught on quota, for example. There is a difference between regulations here and those in the rest of the UK and what occurs elsewhere in the EU. The regulations form part of a framework, and we support frameworks—that is without doubt.

The same is true in relation to environmental protection and agriculture. There are clear differences in agriculture. In Scotland, 85 per cent of the area that is under agriculture has less favoured status, whereas south of the border the figure is 15 per cent. Therefore, there are entirely different requirements, which lead to the different legislative solutions that we definitely require.

The amendment that I could accept, were I in the Government, is amendment 122, which says that

“A Minister of the Crown may not withhold consent ... where ... a United Kingdom common framework has been agreed”.

That is fine, but it is a simplex amendment where we need a duplex solution. In other words, I would accept that amendment if the UK withdrawal bill had exactly the same provision in relation to UK ministers’ inability to act without the consent of the devolved Administrations. Therefore, it is possible to accept an amendment from Adam Tomkins and the Tories, but that would have to be utterly conditional.

We have joint decision making. As a minister, I was involved in joint decision making across the border on canals and on appointments to the Committee on Climate Change, on which all Administrations had to agree. Those are only some examples. We know that the Governments in these islands can work together effectively. Where fishing is concerned, we have to get a solution that moves us away from having 60 per cent of the fish that are caught in our waters being caught by foreign vessels, without legal oversight from the Scottish jurisdiction. We have to get that changed, and nothing that the UK Government could do, will do or has threatened to do that would take powers and the right to catch fish in our waters away from Scottish fishermen has had my support in the past or will have my support—not now and not ever.

16:07

7 March 2018

S5M-10407 Electronic and Internet Voting

The Deputy Presiding Officer (Christine Grahame): The final item of business is a members’ business debate on motion S5M-10407, in the name of Stewart Stevenson, on electronic and internet voting. The debate will be concluded without any question being put.

Motion debated,

That the Parliament acknowledges that there is an increasingly wide spectrum of applications for digital technology, including those related to internet shopping, banking, travel and automated supermarket checkouts; understands that the latest digital technology has the potential to be developed for electronic and internet voting and deliver electors flexibility in their choice of voting method; considers that the traditional paper voting method has remained virtually unchanged since 1872 and has yet to benefit from advancements in technology; notes the calls by the Institution of Engineering and Technology for government to embrace the latest knowledge in electronic voting, which it believes will encourage more young people in the Banffshire and Buchan Coast constituency and across Scotland to vote and help reduce the costs of the traditional paper voting system; recognises that there are important security considerations relating to confidentiality and eligibility that must first be resolved; believes that when these issues are resolved and public confidence is earned, electronic voting has the potential to deliver lower cost elections and improve voter turnout; acknowledges what it sees as the opportunity presented by the Scottish Government’s consultation on electoral reform to further investigate the potential benefits of electronic and internet voting systems, and notes the calls on individuals and organisations to take part.

17:05

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

I start by drawing attention to my entry in the register of members’ interests—particularly my membership of the Institution of Engineering and Technology, which is promoting e-voting, and my membership of the Association for Computing Machinery, which is leading a debate on the subject in the USA, in particular.

A professor of computer science at Stanford University, David Dill, who is the founder of the Verified Voting Foundation, captured the challenge of electronic voting—indeed, of any form of voting—when he wrote:

“The winners of an election are usually satisfied with the outcome, but it is often more challenging to persuade the losers (and their supporters) that they lost. To that end, it is not sufficient that election results be accurate. The public must also know the results are accurate, which can only be achieved if conduct of the election is sufficiently transparent that candidates, the press, and the general public can satisfy themselves that no errors or cheating have occurred.”

Until 1872, voting here was done by attending the polling place, orally advising the returning officer for whom one wished to vote and seeing them record that against one’s name in a ledger. Many of those ledgers survive today. Is that a perfect system that would have met Professor Dill’s challenge? No. The ledgers often show that, at the end of voting, there was debate as to what an individual elector had said or whether the clerk had correctly recorded his—in those days it was always “his”—preference.

The change to the use of voting papers and a ballot box was made solely because changes in the franchise qualification led to a dramatic rise in the number of electors and oral voting was too cumbersome. Today, we have a system that works pretty well, in which those who vote have confidence and which broadly allows losers, in particular, to observe the process and be reconciled to the fact that their loss derives from their having failed to win the argument rather than from the voting system having cheated them.

The Open Rights Group says that any voting system must be secure, anonymous and verifiable, and technologists accept those tests. Professor Dill quoted the ACM, which stated that

“voting systems should enable each voter to inspect a physical record to verify that his or her vote has been accurately cast and to serve as an independent check on the result”.

Professor Kaliyamurthie, the head of the department of information technology at India’s Barath university in Chennai, wrote that

“Internet voting is about making the act of voting as convenient as possible”

but qualified that statement by adding that

“this voting channel introduces risks to some of the fundamental principles of democratic systems.”

The question that I pose is whether more convenient voting is of value. Would greater convenience enhance the democratic process?

I have heard some people say that those who do not make the effort to get out of their armchairs to vote do not deserve the vote, but I take a different view. Every political party—and every independent candidate, for that matter—devotes an enormous amount of effort to getting people out of their armchairs and into the polling places. However, there are three numbers that should challenge us: 53, 44 and 34. Fifty-three per cent of people on the electoral roll voted “armchair” in the 2017 council elections, 40 per cent did so in the most recent Scottish Parliament elections and a third stayed away from the 2017 Westminster vote.

The IET has called for the Government to embrace the latest in electronic voting. Can technology help to boost turnout, and can it do so securely, with voter anonymity and in a way that is verifiable by lay observers?

What helps turnout? When I stood in 2003, our local voter database included 6,000 people who had committed to vote for the Scottish National Party in the previous two contacts with the party but had failed to vote in the two most recent elections. We concluded that we needed to get those people to vote. A huge number of activists spent considerable time knocking on the doors of those 6,000 people, and we got 4,000 of them to sign up for a postal vote.

Typically, about 70 per cent of postal voters actually vote. It is fair to say that there is imprecision and uncertainty about that, because we can only infer the number of postal voters from looking at those who voted in person and how many postal votes were issued, thereby indirectly concluding how many votes were postal votes. Nevertheless, the rate of voting is clearly higher among postal voters.

In 2003, which was an election in which the SNP’s vote in Scotland was heading downwards—pretty sharply downwards, it is worth saying—our local vote went up by 3,000. Members might care to think about that. We signed up 4,000 postal voters, and I assert that 70 per cent of postal voters vote. Therefore, I draw a line between our effort to sign up 4,000 people for postal votes and the increase of 3,000 in our vote. People with a postal vote have 21 days over which they can vote from their armchair, which might be one of the reasons why our vote shot up. Of course, the excellent candidate and terrific campaign in Banff and Buchan contributed to the result, but I think that making it easier for people to vote helped.

Have countries that have adopted internet voting seen benefits? Do their systems meet the tests of security, anonymity and verifiability? There are mixed results, but there is substantial evidence of increased voting.

Eindhoven University of Technology researchers de Vries and Bokslag assessed the Estonian system and the Dutch internet voting system against eight criteria, which, in essence, encompassed the three tests to which I have referred. Estonia, which is generally regarded as the most advanced country online, following its experience of suffering a cyber attack from the Russians shortly after becoming independent, did not pass the Open Rights Group’s three tests; it passed only two of them and met only half of the Eindhoven researchers’ criteria. The Dutch system met only one of the researchers’ eight criteria, and it did so very marginally.

The key difficulty in any electronically aided voting system is verification—that is, allowing the observation of every step in the process from voter registration through voting and counting votes to the determination of the final result. Is that an unsolvable problem? No. However, it is probably a problem that is not yet solved.

I cannot describe my solution in my remaining 100 words, but it would leave paper as the medium for each vote that is submitted for counting and would allow secure submission from smartphone to counting centre and verification by voter and observers.

The Government’s consultation on electoral reform closes on Monday—I am sure that the minister will refer to it. Members will be able to read my submission to ElectionsTeam@gov.scot when I publish it on Monday, on my website at ivoting.stewartstevenson.scot. I hope that other members will respond to the consultation.

There are seven unsolvable maths problems—the millennium problems. If someone solves one, they win $1 million. I am working on one of them—the queens problem—and I think that I am halfway there. The problem that we face in relation to electronic voting is by no means unsolvable.

17:14

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