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.

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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.


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