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27 September 2018

S5M-14094 Veterans and the Armed Forces Community (Support)

The Deputy Presiding Officer (Linda Fabiani): The next item of business is a debate on motion S5M-14094, in the name of Clare Haughey, on Scottish Government support for veterans and the armed forces community in Scotland.

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16:26

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

I declare that I am a northern area committee member of the Highland Reserve Forces and Cadets Association, and in that role I am happy to support reservists, many of whom are former servicemen. I noted James Dornan’s reference to the cadets, who play a valuable role, often under the leadership of former service personnel and who work with young people across Scotland and the UK.

The Highland RFCA covers approximately one quarter of the landmass of the United Kingdom, extending north from the Forth and Clyde valley to encompass the whole of the Scottish Highlands and Islands.

On Tuesday, I had the privilege of meeting the Defence Medical Welfare Service, which Brian Whittle referred to. That is a fantastic organisation that, since 1943, has given support to more than 1 million patients and their families. I was greatly impressed by the work that has been done by that organisation and by many others. It was a privilege to hear many of its stories on Tuesday.

The backdrop to all this was well illustrated when, in May 1915, Lieutenant Colonel John McCrae wrote the poem “In Flanders Fields” after witnessing the death of his friend the day before:

“We are the Dead. Short days ago
We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,
Loved and were loved, and now we lie
In Flanders fields.”


That illustrates the experience of service personnel and it should be no surprise that that experience can lead to people having needs after they have served in the forces; we are addressing those needs today and will have to address them for a long time. The poem has echoed down the 100-plus years since it was written, and is the reason why we wear a little red poppy on armistice day. As I said in my intervention on the minister, we approach the 100-year anniversary of the armistice, not the end of the conflict, and we should celebrate that. We have seen many memorial services and preparations to honour those who fought in that great conflict, and the great sacrifices that they made.

In my life, I have been fortunate enough to travel to many corners of the world, in many of which one sees the imperial war graves. When I was in Burma, some 40 years ago, the only thing that seemed to work effectively was the graveyard outside of Rangoon, where every blade of grass was within a millimetre of its neighbour, where the book of remembrance was pristine and where the memorial was excellent. Nothing else in that country worked properly, so it was great to see such dedication.

A week ago in my constituency, the community came together for the re-dedication of a memorial marking the commencement of the war. Bands played, prayers were given, and scriptures and poems were recited, including the poem that I just quoted. The Lord Lieutenant of Banffshire, Clare Russell, said:

“The dedication will in no way glorify war or mark any kind of celebration of what was one of the darkest moments in the history of mankind. Rather it will be an occasion for people to remember and to work for peace.”

It was a truly inter-generational tribute, as members of the Royal British Legion stood alongside uniformed youth organisations. That happened around Scotland, which indicates the respect and regard that we have for our veterans.

I am proud that we have taken the steps that we have in Scotland. Other nations in these islands equally respect our veterans, but they support them in different ways and they could learn a little bit from the way that we do it.

Gordon MacDonald referred to the Scottish veterans fund, which has supported 19 projects in the past year and continues to be an important support that is provided to veterans.

The motion before us refers to Eric Fraser, the former veterans commissioner—many members have referred to him, too—and to Colonel Charlie Wallace, our new veterans commissioner. The commissioner’s role is important, because there are something like 400,000 veterans in Scotland who have served in our armed forces at some point in their lives. Further, about 20,000 people in the UK leave our armed forces every year, and the transition to civilian life can be quite difficult for some people.

There are more than 50 veterans organisations in Scotland, which are part of the 300-plus charities that Maurice Corry referred to. Poppy Scotland is well known to us, as is veterans first point. Those organisations, often working with the Scottish Government, are integral to what we do.

The Scottish veterans commissioner’s report described testimony from John Johnston, a veteran and a research project officer at Borders general hospital, who was helped by veterans first point. John stated:

“The whole ethos of veterans first point is that they go the extra mile for everyone who accesses the service. They helped me get out of the house and meet with like-minded people which ultimately is the reason I am still here today.

“Even once you’ve finished treatment or completed a programme ... it never closes its doors on you.”


My personal connections are modest. I inform James Dornan that my father knew Lloyd George. He was his election agent when he stood for the rectorship of Edinburgh university. And his cousin James Stevenson was in Lloyd George’s Government during the first world war and was ennobled by Ramsay MacDonald in the 1920s.

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19 September 2018

S5M-13945 Primary 1 Tests

The Deputy Presiding Officer (Christine Grahame): The next item of business is a debate on motion S5M-13945, in the name of Liz Smith, on primary 1 tests.

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

I am afraid that, of all the speakers so far, I probably bring to the debate the least amount of relevant life experience. Three years of lecturing postgraduate students does not qualify me as a teacher—that is for sure—and I am not a dad, so I have nothing to offer in those respects. On the other hand, I have nine great-nieces and great-nephews, a goddaughter and seven nephews and nieces, so I have had some exposure to the issue.

I will pick up on what Daniel Johnson said about multiple-choice tests being stressful. I found it quite stressful to stand beside my goddaughter with a Portsoy Ice Cream gift voucher in her hand—she was not yet three years old—as we experienced the multiple choice of 32 flavours of ice cream. That illustrates the general point that developing skills starts early. I think that by the time they get to five, every child has gone through many multiple-choice examinations; it is just that none of them has been in the academic sector. There is nothing unfamiliar to them in being presented with choices. That is an illustration of how we might all be guilty of overplaying some of the issues.

In the early stages of the debate—this was remedied later, in particular by Alison Harris—members made comparatively little mention of children, but we should put children, rather than teachers, at the centre of the debate. However, teachers are clearly not unimportant and neither are parents. That is for sure.

The real thing in the debate is that the Conservatives have changed their minds: they are entitled so to do. I have occasionally changed my mind, and my political colleagues have occasionally changed theirs. There is nothing wrong with that. If new information comes along, new conclusions can, reasonably, be reached.

However, the question is on what the overall Tory position is on testing, which takes me back to my intervention on Liz Smith, during the first speech in the debate. South of the border, the Tories are moving in a very different direction. From September 2020, the new reception baseline assessment will be statutory for all pupils in England. That is for the reception class or, in other words, kindergarten—before pupils get to primary school. That will be coupled with testing in the first and second years of primary school.

The National Foundation for Educational Research said:

“Our experience in producing a reception baseline assessment in 2015 demonstrated that it is possible to undertake a robust assessment of children’s language, literacy and numeracy skills at this age.”

In other words, at age four, five or six. We should hold on to that expert advice. It is vitally important to lasting and significant change that parents and teachers be provided with transparent and consistent information. That is what the Tories are introducing in England. They have bluntly tried to disconnect the Tories in Scotland from that and take a different position, but there is one Tory party, so I am not at all clear on what basis we should properly look—

Liz Smith: I have to say that there is a lot of opposition and concern about what is happening south of border for exactly the same reasons as there are concerns up here.

Stewart Stevenson: I think that we had a confession there that the Tories are getting it wrong, which is quite interesting. If they are getting it wrong in England, it is perfectly possible for us to consider that they might be getting it wrong in Scotland. [Applause.]

Brian Whittle (South Scotland) (Con): It is interesting that we would take a different position from the one that has been taken down south. Will Mr Stevenson concede that the SNP might be getting it wrong up here?

Stewart Stevenson: I am rarely accused of getting it wrong and I never admit to it. That is not true.

I always look at evidence, but the evidence in this case is that, as has been the case for Maureen Watt, not one constituent has contacted me on the subject. It is simply not the talk of the steamie among those for whom it matters—the pupils and the parents. That is the kind of evidence that is driving me.

It has been said that children at age four, five or six should not be exposed to computers. I spent 30 years working in computers, but I find that most six-year-olds are more adept at working a tablet than I am. Therefore, that is not a particularly credible argument.

Even in Denmark, local government wants to introduce statutory testing for three-year-olds in kindergarten. There are many different ways of looking at the problem. I am very happy to support the Scottish Government’s approach.

Finally, testing is important. Would we let a driver on the road without their having passed the driving test?

16:25

13 September 2018

S5M-13876 Food and Drink

The Presiding Officer (Ken Macintosh): Good afternoon. The next item of business is a debate on motion S5M-13876, in the name of Fergus Ewing, on celebrating Scotland’s food and drink success story.

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

It is interesting to hear a Tory member talk about the Chequers plan and demand that the SNP gets behind it. I will be interested to hear when the Conservative Party gets behind it—it has at least six different views on the Chequers plan. However, I am not going to waste time on the Conservative Party’s internal difficulties, which at every turn it tries to deflect on to others who are trying to do the right thing for Scotland.

Our food and drink fortnight is an excellent example of Scotland coming together—mostly, members have done that in this afternoon’s debate—to promote the great-quality food that we produce in our country. I agree with Mr Chapman about the importance of salmon farming, although it is by no means the only food and drink export that we have, as we have heard from others.

The vision of Scotland as a good food nation is one that, in this year of young people, we should relate to the contribution of future generations, in particular. James Withers, the chief executive of Scotland Food & Drink, said:

“Now is an exciting time to be involved in the sector in Scotland and the opportunity for the next generation to raise the bar even higher is hugely compelling.”

I absolutely agree.

On Tuesday this week, Austin Wilkins from the United States joined me as a new intern. He has told me that, at secondary school, he participated in the Future Farmers of America, which is an organisation that seeks to educate people on where their food comes from and to help them to value their food better. When it surveyed a group, one person asked whether only brown cows could make chocolate milk. That is a classic, albeit humorous, example of the disconnect between people’s understanding of food and the real importance of food.

Scotland has almost 20,000 food businesses that employ well over 100,000 people, but whatever the outcome of Brexit will be, it is currently overhanging our industry and its success. I need only cite the example of live langoustines, the premium product that comes largely from the north-east. They go on the buggy to Boulogne-sur-Mer market once a week. If they arrive at 8 o’clock in the morning, they get the price that they command by virtue of their quality, but if they are delayed only until 2 o’clock in the afternoon, they get half the price that they would have got at 8 o’clock in the morning. The challenge lies in how long they will have to wait in the queues to get into France and reach Boulogne-sur-Mer. That is an example of the practical risks that we face if we do not get Brexit right.

Geographical indication status is very important to many of our great Scottish products, particularly Scotch whisky, which has been well regarded around the world for more than a century. Since the Immature Spirits (Restriction) Act 1915, for which my cousin was responsible in Parliament, the whisky has been kept in bond, which has improved its quality. Previously, I referred to the American whisky industry’s desire to have us abandon that three-year storage and go down to one year, to level the playing field.

Whisky has challenges around the world. Many years ago, when I first went to Nepal and walked down Khatmandu’s main street, the Durbar Marg, in the windows was something that looked superficially like Vat 69 whisky. However, it was Kat 69, with the “K” carefully drawn to obscure the fact that it was Nepalese whisky. We are copied all over the place: India has a huge second-hand market in Johnnie Walker bottles; and when I asked for whisky in Burma 40 years ago, what I received was purported to be Scotch whisky but had the faint flavour of paraffin—it had been made out the back the night before.

A great industry in my constituency that sounds as if it is simple is seed potatoes, but it is an eight-figure-a-year industry. It is one of many. Let us support them all.

16:16

5 September 2018

Programme for Government 2018-19

The Deputy Presiding Officer (Linda Fabiani): We continue the debate on the Scottish Government’s programme for government 2018-19.

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15:29

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

That was an interesting opening observation from the Conservative benches. It is the first time that I have heard Murdo Fraser boast that the pound in his pocket is worth less than it was worth before Conservative policies and actions affected it. I will welcome hearing what he says in two years’ time when the effect of higher costs for importing components that are required for manufacturing industry in these islands hits home. There is a short-term benefit, but the long term is much more problematic. We should talk about Brexit in relation to the economy. It is a huge challenge to the Scottish economy and the economy in these islands, but it will not inhibit the Scottish Government from taking the actions that will support Scotland’s further development.

I will say a few words about a few of the announcements in yesterday’s statement from the First Minister. Before I talk about banking, I remind members of my entry in the register of members’ interests. I spent 30 years in banking and came into politics to improve my reputation.

I strongly support the establishment of the Scottish national investment bank. The way that the world of finance and cash works is changing fundamentally for businesses and will do so even more for individuals. For example, in Sweden, there are now only 25 bank branches that deal with cash because the society has, in essence, become cashless. We will get there as well. The Scottish national investment bank, which will focus primarily on investment in the first instance, could in the longer term consider how we support communities that will lose more and more local branches—as they are already—so that the right kind of financial services are available. That will often be through technology assisted by trained people.

I welcome the proposed biometrics bill. I encourage the Government to pay close attention to what has happened in India with the Aadhaar system. That is an identity card system that has issued cards to 1.22 billion cardholders since 2009. An important point about it is that around 50 per cent of the cardholders are functionally illiterate. Therefore, it is an easy-access system and it has many lessons for what we might want to do on biometrics. The Aadhaar card is based on retinal scans.

I will say a wee thing about electoral reform. I hope that we can persuade the Boundary Commission for Scotland to give us more granular detail when it makes boundary changes so that we can see what houses are at the edges of our constituencies. It is not a big deal.

On non-domestic rates, I would like the Government to work with the assessors on how they factor empty premises into the assessment of the value of rents. In the north-east of Scotland, quite a lot of fish factories are empty. The actual rents paid are taken into account for the ones that are occupied, but no account is taken of the fact that it is impossible to let other factories at that rate of rent. The assessment should be made across the board. The valuers know about the empty factories because they consider them as well. I will talk to them about it because I realise that the Government does not control that subject, although it provides guidance.

I warmly welcome the increased investment in infrastructure. I hope that we will think about whether we can support industries that will be particularly hard hit by the absence of workers from Europe when people go back to Europe because of the immigration rules. Perhaps we can help the fish processing industry to increase its levels of automation and the soft fruit industry to develop new technologies for harvesting. In turn, that would create new products that we could sell around the world. I hope that those ideas will be considered for inclusion in the infrastructure investments. Of course, it is up to the industry to come forward with proposals and I have been talking to people in both of those industries about what they might do in that regard. That is about middle-term to long-term investments rather than short-term ones, but it is important nonetheless.

If you will allow me, Presiding Officer, as there is no motion, I will pick up on one thing that is not directly to do with the economy but which I am particularly interested in—the announcements in relation to mental health. In 1964, I worked in mental health as a nurse for eight months. My father-in-law was a psychiatric nurse and my sister-in-law is a psychiatric nurse. I am absolutely clear about the value of investing in people’s mental health and of helping people with early signs of mental ill-health in schools. That mental ill-health might otherwise develop into a real cost to the economy—to come back to that—but, more fundamentally, investing in mental health will benefit people in Scotland: it will improve their lives, not just their wallets.

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