28 November 2019

S5M-20049 Scottish Elections (Franchise and Representation) Bill: Stage 1

The Deputy Presiding Officer (Christine Grahame): The next item of business is a debate on motion S5M-20049, in the name of Michael Russell, on the Scottish Elections (Franchise and Representation) Bill at stage 1.

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

It may be worth reminding ourselves that there have been no major or significant changes to the franchise in the last 200 years that the Tories have not opposed, starting with the great reform act of 1832, or the first reform act and its Scottish equivalent, which, incidentally took the vote away from women. The Pittite faction had its fingerprints all over that. The Tories also opposed the removal of the property qualification.

The only time that the Tories had a momentary point of self-doubt was during the 1922 election when Winston Churchill lost his seat in Dundee to a Scottish prohibitionist party in a hangover from the pre-1832 provisions, whereby boroughs elected multiple members, and Dundee elected only two members. Voters had only one vote, but they could elect two members, and in the 1922 election Winston Churchill came third. He did not think much of the system then—

My mother had to wait until she was 30 to get the right to vote, and when she got that right she got two votes, because she was a university graduate. Every stage of the way, major changes have been resisted by the Tories. Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose.

Adam Tomkins: Will the member take an intervention?

Stewart Stevenson: I will take an intervention from Mr Tomkins now that I have finished my point.

Adam Tomkins: I am excessively grateful to the member for taking an intervention.

Surely, in this wonderful and not entirely accurate history of Conservative franchise reform, Mr Stevenson is not going to overlook the Reform Act of 1867, which was pioneered by Benjamin Disraeli, a Conservative Prime Minister, and provided for the biggest single increase in the franchise in the 19th century.

Stewart Stevenson: That is correct; indeed, that led to the introduction of the first secret votes, as a result of the doubling in the franchise that derived from the three acts—it was not just one act; there were a number of acts over a four-year period. The first secret ballot took place in August, in a by-election—in Uttoxeter, if I recall correctly, but I am slightly uncertain about that; it is not in my notes, for which I apologise to Mr Tomkins.

We have heard a lot about residency and so on. The bottom line is that we need to be cautious about taking away the right to vote from residents who are citizens of other countries. I have three family members who are not resident in the UK—they are resident in the EU and elsewhere—and who have the right to vote in the country in which they reside. If we interfere with the rights of people in this country, there might be reciprocal action elsewhere. However, that is speculation, not certainty. I very much support the provisions on qualification.

More fundamental, on prisoner voting, a person is deprived of their liberty as a punishment and perhaps for the protection of society. In other jurisdictions—I have a niece who is now a Swedish citizen because of Brexit, so I am particularly well informed about Sweden—better connections are retained between people who have to be deprived of their liberty and their pre-prison lives, and we find that the chance of a prisoner resuming their life in a proper fashion after prison is enhanced by the number of civic connections that they have with their previous life. The ability to retain their house, their residency, connections to their family and their right to vote: it is not that a single measure makes the difference, but that the aggregation of all the measures provides assistance. In our own jurisdiction, we know that, when we send someone to prison, we reduce the chances of their effective rehabilitation and we increase the chance of their recidivism. That is a more general point.

Like others, I have gained considerable experience since coming to Parliament. I have attended 278 Justice Committee meetings and I have visited prisons—I have not been in prison—in Scotland, Wales, France and the Republic of Georgia in the Caucasus. Different jurisdictions do things in different ways, but the bottom line is that we have to think about the practical effects.

I support what we are trying to do, but there are a couple of things that we can think about. The 12-month rule is a relatively arbitrary one, but it is simple to understand, which is a great merit, and we could tweak it if we think that it should be a different period. I thought that the bill might make a distinction between convictions under a summary procedure and those under a solemn procedure, but that could actually make things more complicated.

In my mind, there is a wee difficulty with the way in which section 7(4) is constructed, because it talks about

“the date of the election”.

However, proxies can of course be postal proxies, so, in a strict sense, votes can be cast before the date of the election. Therefore, I think that it might be worth revisiting the drafting.

On uninterrupted residency, it is possible to have multiple places of residence. I have residences both in my constituency and in Edinburgh, as perhaps some colleagues here do, too. I am not allowed to vote in the same election twice, but I am allowed to be registered in the electoral register twice, although I choose not to be, I hasten to add. I think that there are wee issues around that point as well.

I strongly support the provisions of the bill, not simply because of the ECHR issues or the court cases, but because it is a modest and useful contribution to the rehabilitation of prisoners as they return to society by preventing the total disconnection that the prison system often creates.

Finally, I congratulate Tom Fox, whom we all know as our connection with the SPS, as he retires at 5 o’clock today.


20 November 2019

S5M-18139 International Year of the Periodic Table

The Deputy Presiding Officer (Christine Grahame): The final item of business is a members’ business debate on motion S5M-18139, in the name of Iain Gray, on the international year of the periodic table. The debate will be concluded without any question being put.

Motion debated,

That the Parliament acknowledges that 2019 has been designated by UNESCO as the International Year of the Periodic Table (IYPT) in tandem with the 150th anniversary of the Mendeleev periodic table; understands that the periodic table is an intrinsic tool to the study and practice of science and is regarded as one of human history’s greatest advancements; commends the work of the Royal Society of Chemistry and others to promote IYPT and inspire the next generation of innovators; celebrates Scotland’s rich scientific history and the impact that it has had across the world, and recognises a need to continue to support scientific research, STEM education, international collaboration, skills development and sustainability in order to continue Scotland’s legacy as a world leader in science.

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

I do not know what my chemistry teacher would have said about me, but it probably would not be very flattering. In fact, Bert Seath, for it was he, whenever an experiment was taking place in the lab, used to leave the room, stand just outside the door and peer inside, so afraid was he of the potential results. That was entirely attributable to the students and not to any deficiencies in his teaching. Poor Bert had previously been blown up in an experiment and did not want to repeat that.

Iain Gray touched on an important point in relation to science. When we talk about subjects such as this, they do not stand alone from moral and social issues. Mr Gray was entirely right to talk about the conditions in countries such as Congo, which we depend on for much of our technology. Lithium, too, is extracted in appalling conditions yet electric cars depend on it and will continue to do so unless we change the technology.

The debate has been an excellent opportunity for my two interns, Claire Brigden and Anna Coleman, who this morning I asked to prepare some speaking notes. They have limited scientific knowledge so, as always, it was interesting to see how much they could discover in a short space of time.

I thank Iain Gray for providing the opportunity to discuss the periodic table. It is one of those visual things that sticks in people’s memory from their education. Even if the detail escapes them, the shape will stick with them. It is a rich tool for teaching and for remembering. To me as a mathematician—a very humble and poor one, I hasten to add—the periodic table is one of the great things in chemistry, because its symmetry and pattern mean that it lends itself to mathematicians in particular.

Like Iain Gray, my interns identified Sir William Ramsay and found that he is described as one of the greatest chemical discoverers of the time. I have always thought that it was a particularly notable achievement for someone, back in 1894, to discover a chemically inert gas, because how could it be detected when it does not interact with anything? My interns tell me that, when he named it argon, he did so because that is the Greek word for lazy, and as a gas it does not have any particularly notable chemical properties. Of course, having discovered one noble gas, he went on to discover another three, which was absolutely excellent.

That is an example of Scotland being a leader in scientific discovery. Of course, Iain Gray correctly identified that that did not come out of nowhere. It happened because we had a well-educated population who took an interest in philosophical and scientific matters. We are only about 500m away from the memorial to David Hume in the old Calton cemetery at the top of the hill next to the Scottish Government building. That celebrates one part of our achievement. At the end of George Street, we have a new statue to Maxwell. We celebrate our achievements.

However, we must have a new bank of highly skilled, STEM-literate employees, and they must be men and women. If we fail to engage the females of our race, we miss out on 50 per cent of the terrific intellect that is out there.

The periodic table gives us a universal language to talk about elements and molecules, and helps us to catalyse and synthesize scientific knowledge and excellence. Of course, it is used around the world and promotes joint progress, because we have a shared model, and collaboration will always be of value in science.

I very much welcome the opportunity to recognise the momentous contribution of the periodic table and acknowledge its continuing importance in scientific development and education.

I must say that, in the science wing of the school that I attended, my favourite thing was always the Van de Graaff generator, which we could use to charge ourselves up to 1 million volts, and then go and discharge on other people—to their great shock and alarm. However, I also remember the periodic table, which is immensely valuable to us and will be to others.


19 November 2019

S5M-19922 Fisheries Negotiations

The Presiding Officer (Ken Macintosh): The next item of business is a debate on S5M-19922, in the name of Fergus Ewing, on sea fisheries and end-year negotiations.

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

My throat might mean that I will sit down early, which I am sure that you will welcome, Presiding Officer.

Just to pick up on the points that Finlay Carson made, I think that his comments are an abuse of parliamentary privilege and I will explain why. We are granted privilege to protect us from the legal consequences of what we say for very particular purposes. The vote that Mr Carson referred to never took place in the form that he set out. The reason why is that the clerks at the European Parliament recorded the SNP votes incorrectly: that was corrected within hours of its being drawn to their attention. Therefore, anyone who asserts otherwise is abusing the privileges of this Parliament.

Having said that, let me congratulate Finlay Carson. I join with him on this, and I shake hands with him across the chamber, having said what I have said: when he refers to our “brave” fishermen, there will be no one in the chamber who disagrees with that. We see that in the Government’s motion, and we have heard that from Colin Smyth. We unite in that.

My very first constituency activity after being elected in 2001 was to attend the Fishermen’s Mission in Peterhead for the presentation of a Royal Humane Society medal to a fisherman. He had been on a vessel off the coast of Greenland in January or February, when there was ice on the superstructure of the fishing vessel, and one of the crew members got swept overboard. This gentleman leapt into the sea, where the survival time was a matter of a few minutes, rescued the other fisherman and brought him back to safety. As my very first activity in my constituency, that reinforced my previous understanding of the risks to which fishermen expose themselves and of the bravery that they are prepared to show. Incidentally, the fisherman who won the award said that he was much more concerned about speaking to the audience who were there to see him receive his medal. I sort of understand that.

Now to the matter in hand and the end-of-year negotiations. Unusually, there are some particular and acknowledged difficulties with the scientific information this year. There is also a long-run problem with some of the baselines for the scientific information, which I think that it is time for the scientists to do something about. They acknowledge the difficulties. The science is not an exact one—let us not pretend that it is—but, this year, we are hearing of particular problems.

It is a great delight that Fergus Ewing has such a high regard for George Eustice, his opposite number in the UK Government, but I hope that in the aftermath of the election we will see Fergus Ewing taking the lead if George Eustice is not available—or, more to the point, if he cannot get any guidance from the new UK Government.

Where are we in the whole thing? Conservative colleagues are focusing on but one aspect of the industry—that of the catchers. I led a members’ business debate on the sea of opportunity campaign, and I welcome the sea of opportunity for our catchers. However, that cannot be disconnected from the seafood sector and the need for wider coastal communities to benefit, should it be the case that more fish can be caught by our fishermen—and, fundamentally, landed in Scotland to be processed.

Leaving the customs union and the single market presents immense challenges for the processing sector, however. That sector does not just involve the big processors in my constituency; there are also the wee smokehouses on the west coast, which are a vital part of very small communities there. Like my constituents, people there might employ one or two EU workers, who are vital to making that local enterprise work. We are already seeing that workers are not so willing to come to the north-east and elsewhere in Scotland as they once were, partly because of the devaluation of the pound but also because of the hostile immigration environment that is promulgated and operated by the UK Tory Government.

The notion of thousands of new jobs in processing is utterly fictional, at a time when we have record vacancies in the industry in the north-east. If the industry cannot process, we have to have the same rights and privileges that our friends and colleagues across the Irish Sea in Northern Ireland are being given: they are allowed to stay in the single market and the customs union—so our competitors and our rivals are potentially undermining our industry.

I end with a word about how well prepared the Tory Government is for this sea of opportunity and everything that goes with it. Two days before the end of October, the UK Government still could not tell fish processors what labels to print to put on the side of fish exports. That tells us something about the shambles of this Tory Government’s approach to fishing.


13 November 2019

S5M-19822 Artificial Intelligence and Data-Driven Technologies

The Presiding Officer (Ken Macintosh): The next item of business is a debate on motion S5M-19822, in the name of Kate Forbes, on artificial intelligence and data-driven technologies: opportunities for the Scottish economy and society.

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

I will respond to some parts of the debate, but particularly to the remarks that we have just heard about the R100 programme. It might be worth reminding members that, in schedule 5 to the Scotland Act 1998, the reservations that we are not responsible for include two specific areas: telecommunications and internet services.

Therefore, where we are moving ahead to implement high-speed broadband in every premise in Scotland that wants it, we are doing that, we are picking up the failure of the UK Government to deliver on its legal responsibilities. The UK Government is contributing only 4 per cent—one twenty-fifth—of the cost.

Let us move on to—to be blunt—more interesting things and talk about quantum computing, which Tom Arthur raised. It is related to the quantum excitation of the Higgs field, which affects the operation of the Higgs boson. The Higgs boson is a particularly interesting sub-atomic particle with a spin of minus one half, which has a referential between two instances at a distance that is not constrained by the speed of light—it is a unique particle. There is a connection to Edinburgh, in that Professor Higgs is from here.

Artificial intelligence sprang from the work of Professor Wolfson at Heriot-Watt University in the 1970s. At the weekend, I tried to find my book on that, which is somewhere in a box in my garage, but I just could not find it. He designed a manual computer constructed of matchboxes that was a self-learning machine. It was mechanical, not electronic, and a very interesting thing it was, too.

Daniel Johnson might care to note that algorithms have been around for a while. The first algorithm was created by Ada Lovelace in the mid-1800s.

The debate is not about artificial intelligence but about artificial learning—that is just a quibble that I have. Intelligence is about being able to invent and learning is about being able to innovate; computers can innovate, but I am not at all sure that they can invent.

A lot of the debate is about data and some concerns about data are not particularly new. I will quote that most reliable of sources: myself. Forty-five years ago, in a talk that I gave, I said:

“There is talk of databanks and the undesirable uses to which they may be put ... George Orwell casts a long shadow.”

I was not alone in saying that 45 years ago, and many of the things that we are discussing today are not particularly new.

The power and ubiquity of computers are having a profound effect on many parts of our economy. It is just another industrial revolution, which will eliminate some jobs and create many more, as previous revolutions have done. China and the US are probably the leaders in that. The US is a country that is pretty good at creating companies and individual wealth—we can debate that on another occasion—and China is a great technological innovator. Those are complementary strengths.

I very much welcome the fact that the UK Government has produced an AI sector deal—leaving aside the fact that I do not think that it is AI. It is interesting that the companies referenced in the AI sector deal are almost all companies that have come to the UK. That is good and they are welcome, but the intellectual property that comes from that effort does not remain in the UK; rather, it is to the benefit of jurisdictions elsewhere. We certainly have to step up to the mark in improving our education system.

Emma Harper was correct to talk about the use of AI in health. It is important to make services more cost effective and to improve patient treatment and outcomes. We will be able to speed up diagnosis by learning from information available from diagnoses that were previously made by humans. Automating the process will speed things up, but it is important that we leave the oversight and responsibility with humans.

The Industrial Centre for Artificial Intelligence Research in Digital Diagnostics was launched last year at the University of Glasgow, so that is Scotland’s contribution to using AI in a way that will benefit society as a whole.

We will have new tools. We will be able to deal intelligently with the huge challenge of climate change; AI can help us with that. Leaving aside autonomous vehicles, AI in vehicles is already reducing the consumption of fuel, by helping them to use it in a more intelligent way. Public transportation can be improved by the application of AI in individual vehicles and in controlling and making better use of the network.

AI amplifies human skills; it does not replace them. Our job is to ensure that we always know where the data that we are using has come from and that we protect it. We must always ensure that the paramountcy of the human being remains.


7 November 2019

S5M-19743 Referendums (Scotland) Bill: Stage 1

The Presiding Officer (Ken Macintosh): The next item of business is a debate on motion S5M-19743, in the name of Michael Russell, on the Referendums (Scotland) Bill at stage 1.

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

I will pick up on what were almost the last words that we heard from Donald Cameron about there being no oversight or scrutiny of secondary legislation. That is unmitigated tosh, if such a word is allowed to be used in the chamber. That can be illustrated by the current activities of the Environment, Climate Change and Land Reform Committee in looking at the deposit return scheme, which is being introduced by secondary legislation. The committee and Parliament have decided that there will be an extended period of consideration and the committee will produce a report. There will therefore be evidence. That is exactly the process that we would have in scrutiny terms—

Mike Rumbles: What tosh!

Stewart Stevenson: I say to Mr Rumbles that that is exactly the process that we would have for scrutiny of primary legislation.

Adam Tomkins: Will the member take an intervention?

Stewart Stevenson: Adam Tomkins refused me three times. I ask him to please sit down.

I readily acknowledge that there is a difference between primary and secondary legislation in terms of accepting and rejecting it, but that is a decision-making difference, not a scrutiny difference. Members should take account of that. In that regard, I was very surprised by Adam Tomkins’s opening remarks when he said that Parliament could not debate secondary legislation. Someone of his experience and educational background should know better. Of course, I have been involved in politics a lot longer than him. In fact, I participated in three parliamentary elections before he was born.

I will now draw on some of that experience to consider the detail of what is before us, as this debate is about the detail of the bill.

On the functions of chief counting officer and other counting officers under section 9(4), I suggest to Mr Russell and the Government that it would be useful if we also gave the number of ballot papers that were issued. That is something that political parties know, but the public do not. We might have a wee think about that.

Turning to section 10(3)(d), which identifies

“a person providing goods or services to the counting officer,”

I think that we might also consider whether we should include a person providing services to someone who wishes to vote. If public transport failure means that someone cannot get to the polling station, that would be of a similar character. We should look at those provisions.

Section 13, on campaign rules, is about

“the conduct of campaigning”


“restricting the publication of certain material”.

We need to be careful to consider what rules might apply to those who are not directly involved in a referendum but who might be seeking to influence its outcome. I am thinking about newspapers and newspaper articles.

Section 16 is about the destruction, concealment or alteration of documents. I relate that to paragraph 38(1) of schedule 2, under which the ballot papers must be retained for a year. However, there is no such provision in relation to the materials that a campaigner might have, saying how long those materials should be retained for. One of the problems with previous referendums has been that the campaigns fold up and disappear quite rapidly after the result is declared. There is a case for saying that the materials that they produce should be retained for a specified time. I will not say how long but, if it is a year for the ballot papers, that gives us an insight.

On section 20, on the attendance of the Electoral Commission at proceedings, and sections 21 and 22, there is no direct provision for the attendance of international observers at referendums. We would generally accept that that is part of good practice. I am not saying that the bill as introduced prohibits that from being provided for; there are ways in which that can be done, at section 20(4)(c), which specifies

“a person appointed by the Electoral Commission for the purposes of this section.”

However, that kind of conflicts with paragraph 15(2) of schedule 2, under which the presiding officers also have power—and they are the people in the polling stations. Indeed, I turn now to some of the powers that they have under the bill—some of which are slightly odd. The presiding officers may decide who is admitted to a polling station, without restriction. That seems a very broad thing, and different decisions could be made in different polling stations. That is unhelpful for the integrity of any vote, whether on a referendum or on another subject.

On the casting of votes, proposed legislation of this kind might sensibly at least make provision for the future bringing forward, by secondary legislation—being a subject that we could debate—of electronic voting as an additional means of voting. The bill as introduced is silent on that.

According to schedule 2:

“The hours of polling are between 7am and 10pm.”

I think that, for major events such as these, it is time to think about whether polling should take place over three days—a Thursday, Friday and Saturday. If we make big decisions, they should be made by the maximum number of people.

There is also an issue about ballot boxes. We should ensure that a minimum number of votes should go in a ballot box. I know of a ballot box that gets only four votes in it so, when it is tipped out, the secrecy of the ballot is compromised.

I will now conclude—as you are indicating that I should, Presiding Officer—by saying that there have been local authority referendums before, of which Strathclyde water and Edinburgh road charging are examples. Those are referenda—oh dear; I mean referendums—that would have benefited from a structure such as that proposed in the bill, as indeed would the 1934-35 peace referendum, which was on whether the UK should stay in the League of Nations. Even I was not around then, although some might suggest so.

Finally, I counsel my colleagues that “referenda” is not the plural of “referendum”, which is a fourth-declension noun. “Referenda” means something altogether different, and is a plural gerundive.


6 November 2019

S5M-18960 UN Year of Indigenous Languages and European Day of Languages

The Deputy Presiding Officer (Linda Fabiani): The final item of business is a members’ business debate on motion S5M-18960, in the name of Angus MacDonald, on the United Nations year of indigenous languages and European day of languages. The debate will be concluded without any question being put.

Motion debated,

That the Parliament recognises that 2019 is the UN Year of Indigenous Languages, and that the European Day of Languages will take place on 26 September; acknowledges the strong contribution that indigenous languages bring to Scotland’s rich and varied culture; notes that it is through language that we communicate with the world, define identity, express history and culture, learn, defend human rights and participate in all aspects of society; believes that, through language, people preserve their community’s history, customs and traditions, memory, unique modes of thinking, meaning and expression; notes that language is pivotal in the areas of human rights protection, good governance, peace building, reconciliation and sustainable development; praises the work of Bòrd na Gàidhlig for its efforts to promote, encourage and grow indigenous Gaelic language and culture through supporting local learning groups and events, as well as supporting the national Gaelic Language Plan and providing support for Gaelic-medium education; highlights the work of the Scots Language Centre in promoting and encouraging Scots and the regional dialects of the language throughout Scotland and, in doing so, raising the understanding of Scots, Doric and Lallans and how Scotland's language came to be; notes the work of the Scots Language Society in its efforts to promote and encourage the Scots leid, best known for its “Lallans” journal and annual “Sangschaw”, which is a competition of singing and writing in Scots equivalent to the Scottish Gaelic Mod or Welsh Eisteddfod; understands that the Council of Europe declared 26 September the annual Day of Languages after the success of the European Year of Languages in 2001, and is marked across all 47 member states of the Council of Europe; recognises that the aims of the European Day of Languages are to alert the public to the importance of language learning and diversifying the range of languages learnt in order to increase plurilingualism and intercultural understanding, promoting the rich linguistic and cultural diversity of Europe, which must be preserved and fostered, and encouraging lifelong language learning in and out of school, whether for study purposes, professional needs, purposes of mobility or pleasure and exchanges; considers that Scotland’s colourful, multicultural society is only enhanced by the languages that bridge its diverse communities together, from Polish, Indian, Chinese, Italian and many more to the languages of Scotland’s culture in Scots and Gaelic; believes that, by celebrating the European Day of Languages, people are promoting the objectives of raising awareness of Europe’s rich linguistic diversity, the need to diversify the range of languages people learn and the need for people to develop some degree of proficiency in two languages or more to be able to play their full part in democratic citizenship in Europe, while fully understanding that language skills are a necessity and a right for everyone; notes the calls for people to celebrate both the 2019 UN Year of Indigenous Languages and the European Day of Languages across all communities in Scotland, and looks forward to celebrating Scotland’s indigenous languages and what it considers Scotland’s diversity and acceptance of other cultures in the future.

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

I congratulate Angus MacDonald, not only on lodging the longest-ever motion in the Parliament but, more important, on securing the debate.

I thank my intern Anna, who is bilingual English and Mexican Spanish, for providing my speaking notes for tonight. She is familiar with bilingualism.

I want to pick up on a point that John Finnie made. My mother was born in Dalmeny Street, in Leith, in 1909, to a Gaelic native speaker father and an Anglophone mother. She learned Gaelic to some degree before she went to school, but when she went to school she was punished if she used Gaelic. She left school with no Gaelic. It is ironic that she became a language teacher, teaching French and German, although she had no Gaelic. That has been the message down the ages.

I am very much looking forward to hearing from Peter Chapman, whose Doric far surpasses my trivial amount of the language. It is worth making the point that Doric is, I think, a language in its own right. It is as close to—or as distant from—English as Norwegian is to Swedish, and Norwegian and Swedish are recognised as separate languages. It might be time for Doric to have similar recognition.

I join other members in congratulating Bòrd na Gàidhlig on its successful work in promoting Gaelic and, in particular, for facilitating access to Gaelic for people at an early age. The number of people who speak Gaelic is stabilising, after a period of particular difficulty, and there is an increase in Gaelic speakers under the age of 20. If Gaelic becomes a language of the young, we can see a future for it, so I hope that that trend continues. We know that Gaelic is the key to Highland culture, heritage, tradition and society.

We have other languages that sort of dribble into our perception. Just a mile outside my constituency is the town of New Pitsligo, which has the alternative name Cyaak, which is Brythonic—it is really Welsh. We have a long history of many different languages in Scotland.

Teaching is important, if we are to preserve our traditions, but individuals can play their part, too. Expressions that we inherited from our ancestors are important, and it is good to use the oral tradition to pass them down.

Multilingualism is a key European value and a crucial component of economic growth and social cohesion, but not all Governments agree that that is the case. We have been particularly disappointed by the failure to allow into Scotland at first asking some Gaelic teachers from places elsewhere that use Gaelic. I hope that we will not see a repetition of that. There is an acute shortage of qualified Gaelic teachers, and we do not need further barriers to teachers coming here to help.

In September, the Scots language awards made an excellent contribution to that area of policy and gave much deserved recognition to the many talented writers, performers and educators who work in Scots.

On the doorstep of the Parliament, outside the Canongate kirk, there is a recent statue of Robert Fergusson. I will close with one verse of his nine-verse poem “Braid Claith”. It was published in 1773 and is directed at us politicians and our potential arrogance.

“Ye wha are fain to hae your name
Wrote in the bonny book of fame,
Let merit nae pretension claim
To laurel’d wreath,
But hap ye weel, baith back and wame,
In gude Braid Claith.”

In the 21st century, we can learn a lot from the Scots language, even if we have to go back to the 18th century. Robert Burns described Robert Fergusson as

“my elder brother in the muse”.


S5M-18574 World Day Against the Death Penalty

The Deputy Presiding Officer (Christine Grahame): The first item of business is a members’ business debate on a motion in the name of Bill Kidd, on world day against the death penalty. The debate will be concluded without any question being put.

Motion debated,

That the Parliament recognises World Day Against the Death Penalty 2019 on 10 October; considers that the death penalty is the ultimate denial of human rights; notes that Amnesty International’s most recent annual report on the death penalty recorded at least 690 executions in 20 countries in 2018, a decrease of 31% compared with 2017, which is the lowest number of executions recorded by Amnesty International in the last decade; further notes that most executions took place in China, Iran, Saudi Arabia and Vietnam in that order; welcomes news that Amnesty International’s overall assessment of the use of the death penalty in 2018 indicates that the global trend is towards its abolition, despite regressive steps from a small number of countries; notes the statement from UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres in October 2018 calling for all nations to abolish the practice of executions, and stands against the death penalty in all circumstances.

... ... ...

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

As other members have done, I congratulate Bill Kidd on securing this important debate on the pressing issue of human rights. I also thank my intern, Claire, who joined me last week, whom I asked to look at the subject and write my speaking notes for me.

Despite Scotland being at the forefront of the movement to abolish the death penalty, we should not forget that it was practised in our country until relatively recently. The last execution on Scottish soil was that of Henry John Burnett in 1963, and—as was just referred to—it took until 1998 for the death penalty to be fully abolished under the European convention on human rights. Although we can be proud that injustice of that kind no longer occurs in Scotland, we must not fall into complacency, as we are not yet all free from the threat of the death penalty.

Opposition to the death penalty is based not only on the fact that it is a denial of human rights, but on the fact that it sets a precedent for a more broadly vindictive society. The continued existence of capital punishment forces us to ask what sort of society we wish to live in, and what sort of society we wish to help others to live in. The utilisation of the death penalty creates an authoritarian, brutal and regressive atmosphere that seeps into every part of life.

We must aim for our democracies to set an example to countries that are not democracies of how we should value compassionate justice and choose rehabilitation over retribution. Rehabilitation is difficult if the person who needs to be rehabilitated has been executed.

Such priorities are not about being weak on crime; in fact, they better equip us to reduce it. It is no coincidence that states that still employ the death penalty have higher murder rates than those that uphold the human rights of their citizens. The argument that it provides a deterrent is simply not borne out by the evidence from countries that are—or claim to be—democracies in which the death penalty is still part of the criminal justice system.

Today’s motion cites the trend towards the abolition of the death penalty. We heard that two thirds of countries have abolished the death penalty in law or in practice. The tide is turning against the death penalty, as more countries choose to reject such an outright denial and termination of human rights.

In 2018, Burkina Faso’s National Assembly abolished the death penalty, making it the latest of many countries to move away from capital punishment. The European Union has been at the forefront of the fight against the death penalty; not only does it ban it in all member states, but it is the largest donor to anti-death-penalty campaigns. In 2007, it declared 10 October as European day against the death penalty. We in Scotland, and in the UK, share that commitment to protect and ensure the rights of all our citizens.

Although progress is being made every year, as many colleagues referred to, at least 20 countries carried out executions in 2018. As we look to the future, we should rightfully acknowledge, through the motion, the firm support of Scotland—of which we, as a Parliament, are a part—for the abolition of the death penalty.

I hope that we continue to take the time to recognise world day against the death penalty. Let us continue to promote and uphold human rights around the world as we push to eliminate such a cruel punishment from existence.


Stewart Stevenson
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