8 October 2020

S5M-22985 Reducing Covid-19 Transmission

The Deputy Presiding Officer (Linda Fabiani): The next item of business is a debate on motion S5M-22985, in the name of Jeane Freeman, on Covid-19.

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

I want to pick up on some of the things that Christine Grahame has just been saying and what Clare Adamson said earlier. Testing has preoccupied quite a few speakers in this debate, but it has, of course, to stand a long way second to the behaviours that we adopt. If anybody doubts that prioritisation, they should just think about what we have seen happening at 1900 Pennsylvania Avenue, which is otherwise known as the White House. The President of the United States has been tested for Covid every single day for a very long period of time, but that did not protect him from catching the disease, because the behaviours that he and many around him adopted were not safe. It is the behaviours that protect us. However, testing is important, because it is a component of understanding where the disease is going and how we can follow it as it passes from one person to another, so that further sources of infection can be cut off. It is therefore vital that we have a good testing system.

I have read that blame is being attached to software in England that was used for doing some of the statistics associated with the pandemic. Using 13-year-old Excel software was not intrinsically a problem. The software was not to blame for the difficulties that were experienced in calculating the people who tested positive; the problem was the lack of professionalism of the people who used the software. It is like blaming a four-seat car for being unable to carry two soccer teams to a match. The car was designed to carry four people, and 22 people in those soccer teams would be the normal thing. We cannot blame the car, whether it is new or 20 years old; the issue is the person who decided to use the car in the way that they did. The deficiency that has been attributed to the software is actually a deficiency in the professionalism of the people who were using it.

In a sense, that goes to the heart of who we have as our experts. With software, we need experts who understand software. I speak with a particular interest as a professional software engineer—I am not the only one in the Parliament. I have software that I wrote more than 40 years ago that is still used millions of times every week. Age can bring maturity.

On the issue of age, I heard Richard Leonard say that we should have no restrictions until they have come to the Parliament and been approved there. I say to the member that I took my first driving test in the year in which he was born and I do not want somebody to have to stop me from stepping in front of the traffic that might be coming down the road—Christine Grahame referred to that—by going to the Parliament to get permission first. Grab me and then, post hoc, homologate the decision that is made. That is the approach that we need to take with the pandemic.

I have used the word “expert”, and it is important that we have all the experts that we require to hand and the statistics that they can gather explained to us laypeople who have to make the decisions. I do not envy the Cabinet Secretary for Health and Sport and I certainly do not envy the First Minister. I congratulate them on their fortitude in the face of the most impressive workload. I cannot believe that it is possible for them to be doing anything other than about 40 hours of work a day; it certainly looks that way. An expert is someone who brings expertise to the problems that we have to beat, and they do so without bias or taking a prior position.

We have heard quite a lot about the economy and I agree that it is vital that we protect it. That is why the money that is coming from the Scottish Government is to be welcomed. The hospitality sector has suffered in particular, and we need to be careful to support many small businesses. There are others, such as Tim Martin of Wetherspoons, who initially refused to pay his staff. He is worth about £0.5 billion and he has stopped paying his suppliers. I do not particularly want to be supporting the Tim Martins of the month; however, I want to support his employees, as that is very important.

I am delighted to see that we have a broad consensus and will support all the amendments, bar the Labour Party’s amendment. I welcome the debate.


29 September 2020

S5M-22845 The Social Security Administration and Tribunal Membership (Scotland) Bill - Stage 3

The Deputy Presiding Officer (Christine Grahame): The next item of business is the stage 3 debate on motion S5M-22845, in the name of Shirley-Anne Somerville, on the Social Security Administration and Tribunal Membership (Scotland) Bill.

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

Congratulations to Graham Simpson, who has made the bold and, I am sure, entirely justified claim that nothing went wrong on his watch. Of course, he was careful to draw his frame quite narrowly, so I dare say that we might have revelations at another point in his parliamentary career that draw a distinction from the claim that he has made today. However, he and the other members of the committee have done a fine job in bringing to the Parliament a proposal on whose merits there is universal consensus.

In a perfect world, everyone who requires assistance would be able to act in their own interest at all times. In the case of juveniles, of course, such actions on their part cannot be unqualified, and an adult is needed to oversee their decisions. However, the voice of juveniles must be heard in important jurisdictions that affect their futures. The children’s panel is an excellent example of where the child’s voice is often decisive in determining what should happen in particular circumstances.

The appointment of someone to look after a child’s interests with regard to social security is not to be thought about casually. It is important that, as parliamentarians and legislators, we are somewhat cynical when we look at this topic. Why cynical? Because a small number of the people who are given that responsibility will abuse that trust. We need to make sure that there are provisions to cover that circumstance and penalties for those who take away from the deserving youngsters the emoluments that are provided from the public purse. The bill takes good steps towards ensuring that we can protect the interests of our youngsters. It also makes some more general provisions in that regard.

The bill also tidies up some of the imperfections of previous legislation. It would, however, be naive of us to imagine that there is a perfect act out there that reflects the perfect parliamentary process and absolutely everything that might have been relevant to what is going on. Indeed, when the Parliament was established by the Scotland Act 1998, one of the little errors that it contained—it was not particularly important, but it was an error—was that it made no provision for what should be done about who got elected if, in calculating the last position to be elected from the list, there was a tie. As the 1998 act was first passed, everyone who was tied for last position would be elected to the Parliament. Far from having a limit of 129 members, we almost had, in a sense, no limit at all. That might be trivial, and it was very unlikely to happen, but every bit of legislation that we might get ourselves involved in will have some flaw somewhere. If we are very lucky, it never matters and it never emerges. It is, therefore, right and proper that the Government brings forward legislation that deals with some of the things that were not quite right in the first iteration of legislation.

I particularly welcome the provisions that take beyond the view of registered medical practitioners the ability to confirm whether someone is terminally ill. I spent a brief period 56 years ago as a nurse in a ward where quite a few of our patients could reasonably be so categorised, and it did not require a doctor to know that. Even as a callow 17-year-old, I could see that mortality was beckoning for some of our patients, although I would not have been sufficiently qualified to give an opinion that could be relied on. Nurses are, however, often closer to their patients than general practitioners or other practitioners in hospital. They spend more time with them, and that is a good and proper thing to say.

I will conclude my short contribution to the debate by welcoming some of the things that Rachael Hamilton said. She said that we should not be working together with the UK Government. Curiously enough, I think that we have a collaborationist Government, which is a good thing because we collaborate across the chamber, and we collaborate with the UK Government, if it is in our mutual interests to do so. If Rachael Hamilton wants to argue that we should not be doing that, I will make common cause with her—

The Deputy Presiding Officer: Can I stop you there, Mr Stevenson? You might think that you have made a short contribution, but you are already a minute and a half over.

Stewart Stevenson: I am most obliged to you, Presiding Officer. As I peer at my screen, I can now see the clock. I will draw my remarks to a conclusion there by saying that I will be happy to support the bill at decision time.


23 September 2020

S5M-22646 Heart Valve Disease Awareness Week

The Deputy Presiding Officer (Christine Grahame): The final item of business is a members’ business debate on motion S5M-22646, in the name of David Stewart, on heart valve disease awareness week. The debate will be concluded without any question being put.

Motion debated,

That the Parliament welcomes Heart Valve Disease Awareness Week, which takes place from 14 to 20 September 2020; notes what it sees as the need to improve early detection of heart valve disease in Scotland; acknowledges the reported increasing prevalence of severe heart valve disease in an ageing population; notes what it considers the missed opportunities to detect the disease during the COVID-19 lockdown restrictions; believes that, in the medium term, this may result in a second wave of deaths from non-COVID-19-related diseases, and notes the calls for more funding to be made available for minimally invasive, proactive and curative treatments, which it considers have a huge advantage of reducing critical care occupancy by shortening the convalescence period and increasing treatment capacity.

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

I thank David Stewart for bringing a topic that is clearly important to the chamber.

I express sympathy for all those who live with heart valve disease. We are in exceptional times. Covid-19, which has rightly been referred to, is placing stress on the health service and on many people physically and mentally. There is a real risk for people who have serious health conditions such as heart valve disease, and I recognise the struggle that they may be experiencing. I hope that, in the near future, they will be more comforted by the way that things are going.

I am part of the ageing population; I will be 74 in a couple of weeks’ time. For me, the stethoscope test probably does not matter very much, because I have seen a general practitioner only once since I was elected to the Parliament 20 years ago, so a GP has not had the opportunity to put a stethoscope on my chest. I have my fingers crossed that nothing is going on in there that I should be worrying about. However, age is the big risk factor, so perhaps the next time the nurse inoculates me against the flu, I should ask her or him—although they are all female at my practice—to have a listen if possible. For me, there is a bit of self-interest in my interest in the issue.

Age is not the only risk factor; genetics can be a significant factor in predetermining whether people have heart problems of one sort or another. HVD risk factors include lifestyle issues, such as smoking, physical inactivity and being significantly overweight or obese. With a little professional help, we can do something about some of those things at our own hand.

Since lockdown, I have managed to walk 600-plus miles because a bit of time has been created by my not commuting for 12 hours a week between home and the Parliament. I have experienced the health benefits of doing that. Walking is, of course, a cheap, non-medical intervention. Lifestyle is important, and I hope that health professionals will aid people to understand what they can do at their own hand.

However, the stethoscope test is the main thing that we should focus on. It is disturbing to hear that so many people with heart valve disease are undiagnosed. Perhaps people do not notice the slow attrition of their health that comes from it and do not seek the assistance that they should seek as early as possible. It is widely recognised that one of the risks associated with the coronavirus pandemic is that people are a little less eager to see their GP and more likely just to lift the phone and talk to NHS 24. I certainly encourage people to go to their GP and get that stethoscope on their chest, as recommended by the British Heart Foundation. After all, HVD causes 22 per cent of premature deaths.

I agree with David Stewart and the British Heart Foundation about the importance of HVD, I congratulate David Stewart again for bringing the issue to the Parliament and I am grateful for the opportunity to make a small contribution to the debate.


S5M-22780 Prioritising Education

The Deputy Presiding Officer (Linda Fabiani): The next item of business is a debate on motion S5M-22780, in the name of Jamie Greene, on prioritising education over independence. 


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

My personal connections with teaching are relatively substantial. My grandfather was a fellow of the Educational Institute of Scotland and was a teacher; my mother was a teacher; I have nephews and nieces who are teachers in England, Scotland and Denmark; and I have great-nephews and great-nieces scattered across the globe, so I get regular reports on what goes on.

We have heard from the Tories in particular the suggestion that STEM is important and that is one thing on which I can absolutely agree with them. Jamie Greene wants us to spend more time on education and less time talking about independence, so I will use my mathematical background to look a little bit at how the Tories talk about independence. I decided to get up early this morning, at about 4.30, and do a quick analysis, using the website, of how often different parties reference independence. I had time to check only the Conservative and the SNP members. Of the top 11 members who most frequently use the word “independence”, five are Conservatives, and at the top of the table is Baroness Davidson. On average, she speaks 22.22 times per annum on independence.

With five Tories in the top 11, the Tories are 1.7 times more likely than SNP members to be in the top part of the speaking-about-independence group in Parliament. Specifically, the average number of times that a Conservative speaks about independence is 6.24 per annum while for SNP members the average is 5.4 times.

Therefore, the obsession with independence in the Parliament comes from the Conservative members. It is quite proper to ask ourselves why that should be. The answer is straightforward. It is simply a cover for their inattention to the development of policy, not just in education—vital as that undoubtedly is—but right across a wide range of the areas of responsibility that lie with this Parliament.

I see, as will others in Parliament, that the Conservative leaflets that are coming out in advance of next year’s Scottish Parliament election, and the leaflets that have come out over the past 10 years, talk about virtually nothing but independence. That happens not just in the leaflets but on the websites of Conservative MSPs.

The person who comes bottom of the frequency table for talking about independence in this place is Tom Mason. Well done, Tom—you obviously have other concerns. However, when we look at his website we see that it lists only two campaigns: one is about cashpoints—I can probably make common cause with him on that—but the other is about opposing independence. The message that comes across every time the Tories open their mouths is their opposition to independence, which is because they have so little time to think about anything else.

Jamie Greene talked about choice. We have choices about the issues that we bring to the Parliament and education is a perfectly proper choice. However, the debate was not about education. In reality, by putting independence for Scotland front and centre, the Tories showed once again that they are using their obsession with it to cover up their shortcomings elsewhere.

By the way, Jamie Greene could not even get the Government’s plan right. It is to bring a draft bill, so I am not sure why he talked about committee time and so on. Ross Greer clearly agrees with the points that I am making because he talked about Tories bringing up independence every time they speak.

I will close by going back to the fact that Baroness Davidson came top of the table.

The Presiding Officer (Ken Macintosh): Mr Stevenson, can you hear me? I will stop you there and let you finish in a second. I was going to wait til the end. The leader of the Conservative group in the Parliament is called Ruth Davidson. She does not have a title. I am sure that Mr Stevenson will be respectful to all members as he always is, so he can call her either Ruth Davidson or Miss Davidson. Those are the only terms by which she will be called.

Stewart Stevenson: I apologise if I have transgressed the rules. I have obviously not been keeping up with her plans to become Baroness Davidson. I am sure that that is something that she will look forward to in the future. I apologise unreservedly to her, but she has been a wee bit shy on the whole subject.

She does have one novel achievement in this Parliament, which is not about being a baroness. She is the first leader of the Conservatives to announce that she is standing down before she assumed the office. However, she is also the cheerleader for talking about independence in Parliament.


16 September 2020

S5M-22614 Museum for Human Rights

The Deputy Presiding Officer (Christine Grahame): The final item of business is a members’ business debate on motion S5M-22614, in the name of Stuart McMillan, on a museum for human rights. The debate will be concluded without any question being put.

Motion debated,

That the Parliament notes its agreement to motion S5M-22004 (as amended) on 10 June 2020 (Official Report, c.133), which agreed that the Scottish Government would work to create a national museum to highlight Scotland’s role in the slave trade and colonialism; further notes that there are various locations across Scotland whose history in the slave trade would merit consideration for such a facility; highlights the link that Inverclyde has with the triangular trade and the sugar, tobacco and cotton industries and the financial wealth that was generated for merchants; notes that Inverclyde was reported to be the world leader in the sugar trade, which ensured that vast wealth was created both during and following the abolition of the slave trade in 1833; highlights the building of the historic sugar warehouses at the James Watt Dock in Greenock, which were opened in 1886, and notes the view that, with its existing transport and historical links, in addition to the educational and economic opportunities that could be created for future generations, Inverclyde should be the location for such a museum.

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

I thank Stuart McMillan for the opportunity to discuss this important subject. In passing, I will comment on the 1820 martyrs, to whom Mr McMillan referred. Our colleague Gil Paterson had a members’ business debate on that on 5 December 2001, which happened to be the third debate in which I participated after I joined the Parliament. Of course, that subject was important to me, because John Baird was my great-great-great-uncle.

However, to the matter at hand. There are many places across Scotland that we could consider for a museum, but the sugar warehouse in James Watt dock in Greenock is perhaps one of the most significant symbols of Scotland’s relationship with slavery and would, as such, be a perfect site, because it would juxtapose the brutal human costs of slavery with a symbol of Scotland’s economic wealth.

It is hard for a modern person to recognise our connection to that time. However, my grandfather was an infant when Abraham Lincoln managed to abolish slavery in the United States, so the temporal distance might be shorter than some of us care to imagine. The human psyche has a habit of distancing itself from unpleasant things—all the more so when the subject is something as violent and abhorrent as slavery. The brutal legacy of much of colonialism belongs to us as much as anything else does.

There are many places where a museum on the topic could be sited, including in the north-east, which I represent. We need only consider the Powis gates in Aberdeen, which were built by Hugh Fraser Leslie in 1834. The gates feature carvings of slaves, making direct reference to the several coffee plantations that he owned in Jamaica.

The connections do not end there. Former students of Marischal College became involved in the slave trade. There were people who inherited wealth from the trade and even some who were involved in the abduction of slaves from Africa. No matter where a person is from in this nation, they will have at least some connection to that dark part of our history.

A museum will give us the opportunity to take some responsibility, but it will be far from the only and final step in doing so. Rather, it will be a first and very useful step. It represents a new chapter in our maturation as a nation and as human beings.

We have a responsibility to uphold the human rights of all people in the present and to recognise our failings in the past. We should not pretend that the unpleasant past never happened by simply trying to erase it. There have been interesting comments made in that regard. I share the belief that we should not tear down statues, but should instead rewrite the context in which they exist, because they remind us of a dark past that we should not seek to erase.

A museum could represent a signal that we have come to recognise the iniquities of our predecessors, and to recognise that our society should reward honesty, growth and knowledge. However, the benefits of a museum will go much further than that and will force us to look at the truth of our past brutality. If we are anything as human beings, we carry compassion. I hope that, when a museum is established, we will share responsibility for our history through it, and that it inspires us to be compassionate and to be the best that we can be. I hope that such an establishment will be a light to guide us out of darkness and ignorance.

I congratulate Stuart McMillan on his championship of local interests and of the interests of his constituency. That is exactly the exemplar that all members should look to. I am happy to support his efforts.


15 September 2020

S5M-22632 World Suicide Prevention Day 2020

The Deputy Presiding Officer (Linda Fabiani): The final item of business is a members’ business debate on motion S5M-22632, in the name of Ruth Maguire, on world suicide prevention day 2020. The debate will be concluded without any question being put.

Motion debated,

That the Parliament acknowledges that 10 September 2020 is World Suicide Prevention Day; understands that this provides the opportunity for people, across the globe, to raise awareness of suicide and suicide prevention; notes that, every year, it is among the top 20 leading causes of death globally for people of all ages and it is responsible for over 800,000 deaths, which equates to one suicide every 40 seconds; acknowledges that prevention requires integrative strategies that encompass work at the individual, systems and community level, and notes the calls for everyone to play their part to prevent suicide.

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

I thank Ruth Maguire for bringing this important subject to Parliament. Some years ago, I hosted an event in the Parliament for Samaritans, which was congratulating one of its number on his very long service to the cause of suicide prevention. I very much admire the work that is done by Samaritans.

Unfortunately, that was very far from being my first contact with the issue of suicide. In preparation for the debate, I was able to identify six people with whom I had varying degrees of contact who subsequently committed suicide. One was a teenage boy with a colostomy bag. That has a major effect on someone’s psychology, and their hormone balance becomes quite different from normal. He committed suicide from the depression that flowed from that.

Another was one of my female colleagues at the Bank of Scotland, who had a long history of depressive illness. She was, in fact, in hospital when she escaped the close supervision that there was for her and was able to commit suicide. Another was a former colleague who had run a very successful part of our company. He went off to start something similar for his own account elsewhere. That business failed, and he committed suicide. Another was a friend and neighbour who just found life too much; the details are difficult to come by.

Indeed, when my father bought his medical practice in 1947, he did so because the previous general practitioner had committed suicide and the practice had become available. I did not know that for many years.

I want to speak about a close family member who committed suicide. This individual showed no signs whatsoever of mental ill health that the rest of us could detect. He expressed no suicidal thoughts in any of his comments to us, but it was clear that he was determined to take the course that he ultimately took. His practical preparations extended over a considerable period.

What was the effect on the family? For my part, I attended the mortuary to identify the deceased—not something that I wish to do again. Police interviews to confirm that the circumstances were not suspicious were a natural part of what happened and, much more to the point, the family of the individual had to be looked after in their extremity. I am delighted to say that they have all come through it successfully, but that could have gone a different way.

As somebody who worked in a psychiatric hospital at the age of 17, death was not unfamiliar to me, or being with the dying and dead. However, when it is that close and baffling—to this day I do not know why that suicide occurred—it tells you an awful lot about the variety of human thinking and human life. We all may have a little mental ill health from time to time, which may be as trivial as a mental health sniffle, or it may be a major problem that requires medical intervention. However, we will not always see that coming, as we in our family did not see it coming for the individual I have talked about.

As a number of speakers have said, one thing that we can do is to listen. Sometimes the briefest of interventions is the most appropriate. When you see somebody you have not seen for a while and you are perhaps not very close to, just say hi. Do not say more or ask how they are, but see what response you get. That is a good start and, if they hesitate, that is a warning sign to you to listen. That is the main thing that we can do—just listen. Do what they ask, if they ask, but do not try to guide people. That will often put pressure on them that is not helpful.

I thank Ruth Maguire for the opportunity to talk again about this very important subject. I hope that it makes a useful contribution to supporting people who are affected by suicide and, more importantly, to reducing the number of people who use it as the way out.


9 September 2020

S5M-22367 Dirty Camping

The Deputy Presiding Officer (Christine Grahame): The final item of business is a members’ business debate on motion S5M-22367, in the name of Murdo Fraser, on tackling dirty camping. The debate will be concluded without any question being put. I ask members who wish to speak to press their request-to-speak buttons now, and I call Murdo Fraser to open the debate.

Motion debated,

That the Parliament understands that there has been a recent increase in incidents of so-called dirty camping across Mid-Scotland and Fife and the rest of the country; notes that this sees people set up camp near lochs, beaches and forests and carry out carry out irresponsible actions such as cutting down trees, lighting fires and leaving abandoned tents, litter and waste; believes that these abhorrent practices have led to substantial expense to local authorities and landowners, who are left to clean up the mess; acknowledges that it is unrelated to traditional wild camping, which involves leaving no trace of one’s presence; notes that Perth and Kinross Council has established a multi-agency approach to tackle dirty camping, which involves Police Scotland, the Scottish Fire and Rescue Service and communities, and sees action taken where necessary and runs a communication campaign to promote good behaviour; and notes the calls for similar approaches to be adopted across Scotland and for solutions, such as local permit schemes, to be explored.

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

I was 22 years old when I first stayed overnight on holiday in a hotel. Up to that point, all our family holidays were under canvas. The first of them, in the early 1950s, might have been in Finlay Carson’s constituency, although it might have been in Oliver Mundell’s—I am a little uncertain. Picking up on what others have said, I have camped on the shores of Tummel, Tay, Lubnaig and Morlich, although Morlich is not in the Highlands—[Interruption.] Loch Morlich—that is correct. I have also camped on the shores at Rosemarkie, Fortrose, Achmelvich and many other places in the Highlands. Minister, I have also camped at St Cyrus, where I went with the boy scouts. Claire Baker might care to note that my first boy scout camp was inland from Anstruther. Therefore, I have spent a couple of years under canvas.

I was trained and brought up in the boy scouts by people who knew what they were doing, so I hope that, as a Stewart—one of Scotland’s great travelling families—I have sustained the traditions but behaved in a proper manner. That goes to the heart of the issue. Yes, we can do things with legislation and facilities, but we need to change what goes on inside the minds of many of these people, who have little respect for the environment or for the people who live in the environment.

Edward Mountain (Highlands and Islands) (Con): Will the member take an intervention?

Stewart Stevenson: Yes.

The Deputy Presiding Officer: I call Edward Mountain.

Edward Mountain: Thank you, Presiding Officer—I am pleased that you remembered my name.

I ought to declare an interest in land. A lot of people who camp around where I live do so with huge responsibility. Sometimes, they make the mistake of leaving behind things such as the stones that they have had their fire pits in, which damage farm machinery. Some people are well intended, but could education take those well-intended people to the next step, so that we can all get on without any conflict and without damaging each other’s enjoyment of the environment?

The Deputy Presiding Officer: Tread carefully, Mr Mountain.

Stewart Stevenson: Edward Mountain speaks some very good common sense. None of us is perfect in anything that we do, and we can all improve.

It was slightly surprising to hear Finlay Carson say that the Government should be telling councils what to spend money on. Fine—he might be correct.

Incidentally, the first time that I visited what is now my constituency I went to Sandend in, I think, 1963. I was camping, of course. The last time that I went camping—I had the misfortune to marry a spouse who does not like camping—I was in Wadi Rum, in Jordan, so that we could watch the sun rise over the desert, but she did not feel that she wanted to repeat the experience after that.

The bottom line is that camping is enjoyable—people enjoy the natural world—but we have to do it responsibly. I was an MSP when we passed land reform legislation, as others who are sitting here were—I see Murdo Fraser nodding sagely. That certainly created the idea in too many people’s minds that they, in quotes, “owned the country”, which, of course, is not true. We all owe a responsibility to the country, which is the important point that we want to take from the debate.

The role of country rangers has been emphasised. I have met many of them, and I know the valuable contribution that they make, in quite a mannerly way, to help people to understand their responsibilities.

At the end of the day, if people simply have no regard to others’ sense of what is right and proper and others’ peaceful enjoyment of where they stay, we have a problem that will not be solved by laws or trebling the number of rangers. We simply have to address that much earlier in people’s careers. Maybe we should subsidise the Boys Brigade and the Boy Scouts, because that is a good training ground; it is where I learned to cook and camp.


8 September 2020

S5M-21194 Alcohol Foetal Spectrum Disorders

The Deputy Presiding Officer (Lewis Macdonald): The debate is on motion S5M-21194, in the name of Kenneth Gibson, on recognising the impact of alcohol foetal spectrum disorders. The debate will be concluded without any question being put.

Motion debated,

That the Parliament recognises the prevalence and significant impact of Foetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorders (FASD) in Scotland, as discussed at the meeting of the parliamentary Cross Party Group on Improving Scotland’s Health: 2021 and Beyond on 26 February 2020; notes the presentation by Dr Sarah Brown of the Foetal Alcohol Advisory and Support Team at NHS Ayrshire and Arran, which highlighted that FASD results from alcohol exposure in the womb and is preventable, yet is the most common neurodevelopmental condition in Scotland; further notes data from Glasgow Royal Infirmary research, which showed that one-in-seven babies born there were at high risk of FASD, which suggests a much higher prevalence in Scotland than previously thought; understands that FASD affects neurodevelopment, attainment, physical and mental health and that, without adequate support, it reduces life expectancy to around 34 years of age; believes that 94% of people living with FASD experience mental health problems, 79% experience unemployment, and over a third struggle with addictions; acknowledges the vital work that is being carried out by FASD Hub Scotland in providing a national telephone helpline and range of support for parents/carers and those supporting families affected by FASD, as highlighted by the presentation to the group by Aliy Brown, FASD Project Lead at FASD Hub Scotland, which is run by Adoption UK Scotland; supports the “No Alcohol, No Risk” message, which makes clear that any alcohol consumed during pregnancy can be damaging to the unborn child, and acknowledges its calls for implementation of the new SIGN 156 clinical guideline for Prenatal Alcohol Exposure, and welcomes the development of the National Preconception Framework as a key opportunity to reduce risks to parents and children from alcohol and other health-harming products in Cunninghame North and across Scotland.

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

I thank my colleague Kenneth Gibson for the opportunity to discuss this important subject.

Reading the motion, I was moved and saddened—in particular, by some of the statistics. For example, the average life expectancy of a child who is born with foetal alcohol syndrome disorders is a mere 34 years. In recent days, we have seen an outpouring of grief for a young actor who died at the age of 43, which is nearly 10 years older than the average life expectancy of a youngster who is affected by FASD.

Foetal alcohol spectrum disorders lead to quite variable outcomes, with some sufferers being affected more significantly than others. The presenting symptoms are not necessarily consistent among the cohort of people who are subject to the disorder—hence the difficulties that there often are in diagnosing the condition and in getting appropriate support in place.

What is shared, however, is that the syndrome is preventable. No parent—or very few parents—deliberately set out to harm their children. The syndrome is a side effect of an addiction to, or abuse of, one of our most widely available drugs of choice: alcohol. The danger with alcohol is that although it is an addictive drug it is not addictive for everybody, so people think that it is safe. For children in the womb, it is not safe. There is enough knowledge out there; people should know that they should not drink when they are pregnant.

However, not everyone is able to respond to the rational case for their stopping drinking. That is especially the case for an addict. It is our responsibility to support mothers during pregnancy and to support the children who suffer from foetal alcohol spectrum disorders. The championing of campaigns such as #NoAlcoholNoRisk is welcome.

I encountered issues to do with alcohol addiction when I was a nurse, 56 years ago, and one of our patients was an alcoholic who suffered extremely as a result of his addiction. My father was a general practitioner, and I used to provide some social support to addicts who were on his list. The issue is not far from a great many of us.

Children cannot look after themselves; they do not have the knowledge or the power to do anything about their situation. It is important that we identify the help that is required, and that people who suffer from FASD get everything that they require to lead as normal a life as possible.

I listened to Mr Whittle. I think that members can see the range of options that are available to support people, and to ensure that intervention comes early enough in a child’s life to ensure that they can get the maximum out of however long they have in this world. Early diagnosis, a loving and stable home and the absence of violence are rights that we all want for children in our society, and which we all have a duty to uphold. It is necessary to create a world in which people are supported. We will do all that we can to support future generations.

I very much welcome tonight’s debate. I hope that it brings the condition to the attention of a wider audience, and I hope that mothers and potential mothers are aware of the damage that alcohol can do to the precious child in the womb.


12 August 2020

S5M-22396 Economic Recovery Implementation Plan

The Deputy Presiding Officer (Linda Fabiani): The next item of business is a debate on motion S5M-22396, in the name of Fiona Hyslop, on an implementation plan for economic recovery.

... ... ...

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

I will address a couple of points made by Tory members before I come to the meat of what I want to say. Scotland is the part of the UK that has seen by far the biggest uplift in delivery of superfast broadband. The UK Government’s universal service obligation provides a third of the speed that the Scottish Government is working towards.

If I may say so, Dean Lockhart showed exceptional bravery in his contribution to the debate. He suggested that we had lost £500 million. We will have that debate another time. However, I have just checked and, so far, the high speed 2 project, which is controlled by the UK Government, is £30 billion over budget. Per capita, that would be £2.5 billion from Scotland, which is five times more than £500 million.

I turn to the substance of the issue that is before us today. I think that we can all agree that the pandemic has brought to many members of our population very real fear about the situation in which they find themselves, through no fault of their own and through no fault of any Government. It is important that we give them hope for the future, and the work that the Scottish Government has been doing is precisely what we can look to for that hope. The big projects of the past 50 or 60 years have been based on hope and set out by the ambition of leaders. That is what we see before us today. John F Kennedy taking his nation to the moon is an example.

However, many of the things that we can use today are not particularly new. I started using teleconferencing during a joint project with Australia nearly 30 years ago. Willie Coffey talked about the importance of software. Software is vital, but it is not as transient as we often think it is. I know for a fact that a piece of software that I used 45 years ago is in use today and is maintained by my successors.

I very much welcome the fact that in her opening remarks, the cabinet secretary referred to hydrogen. In the north-east of Scotland in particular, with the hydrogen buses in Aberdeen, we have already taken some early steps to show the viability of hydrogen as a fuel for heavy transport of one sort or another—heavy goods vehicles, buses and so on. The bus service operators grant does not focus specifically on supporting the use of hydrogen to power buses, and I think that we might care to revisit that.

In the north-east, we have huge amounts of renewable energy. A lot of it comes from onshore wind turbines, and there is space for some more. There are offshore wind turbines; the Hywind project is one example. Of course, there is also the Moray East project. The cables for that project run across my constituency and into my colleague Gillian Martin’s constituency, and they carry the raw material for producing the hydrogen that we can use.

I make a wee comment about the renewable transport fuel obligation. Hydrogen vehicles cannot access that subsidy, so we might also want to look at that.

Is there an economic opportunity that comes from hydrogen? Yes, there is, because it is in an early stage of development. We have the opportunity and the engineering skills in the north-east from working offshore and producing fuel from the North Sea—initially, it was through oil and gas, and now it is through wind turbines. That is part of what is needed. In my constituency, we have the Acorn project at St Fergus, which takes gas from the North Sea and uses the energy in a zero carbon footprint way to produce hydrogen, which can then be fed into the gas grid. Twenty per cent of what we put in the gas grid can be hydrogen, with the existing equipment that is using that hydrogen at the other end.

There is more that we can do, and I hope that we do it. I hope that we take the opportunity to use some of the significant amount of money that is being spent on retraining people to train more people in the skills that we need in exploiting hydrogen. Just as we have had success in the past from oil and gas, we can build our future on hydrogen. It presents a huge opportunity for Scotland and, in particular, for the area that I represent.


2 June 2020

Subject Debate: Economic Recovery

The Deputy Presiding Officer (Linda Fabiani): The next item of business is a debate on Covid-19 and next steps for the economy.

... ... ...

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

Welcome back, Presiding Officer. I would like to join you soon.

I start with saying a single word on projects to all members on the Conservative Party’s benches: HS2.

The next steps required to rebuild our economy after the shutdown caused by the pandemic cannot all be known. Indeed, some of what will turn out to be the most important steps may only be identifiable some years after they are taken. The Government’s immediate concern is to minimise harm to existing businesses; that is proper, because businesses that are already established will be the source of employment for the overwhelming majority of those who will be in work in six months, a year or a couple of years.

I will concentrate on where the real building of a new economy will take place. It will start with small businesses—just as almost all new businesses start as small businesses. Ten years ago, Brewdog was a small brewery in my constituency with a handful of employees. Today, it is an international company that is worth in excess of £1 billion. New ideas, new money and risk-taking and risk-managing owners, coupled with very good marketing, helped it to get there. Even with all that, the outcome, and certainly the scale of the outcome, was very far from predictable. The new businesses that will be the new Brewdogs in 10 years’ time simply cannot be known today. It is about removing barriers and about those of us in the public realm being prepared to be brave. Adversity creates difficulty, but it also spurs innovation.

On 27 April 2007, a dispute over the moving of a Soviet-era memorial in Tallinn was the trigger for an electronic attack on every public institution in Estonia—a country of about 1.3 million residents. Today, Estonia has a hardened electronic infrastructure that converted the country into one of robust online commerce. One may become an e-resident of Estonia for a modest sum—currently 120 euros. The country has created infrastructure that allows people around the world to establish companies and open and operate bank accounts, and it has created secure and trusted electronic identities for its e-residents. A large cohort of foreign companies are now resident in Estonia, without the country having become a tax haven—its attraction as a place of residence is much more than that.

There are plenty of other opportunities that we might look to. I say to Government: let us crank up our support for our micro-businesses, small businesses and even medium businesses—the next big winner might be in there.

I will give some specifics suggestions for what we might do—they are deliberately a bit off the wall because I like to provoke thinking. Let us direct our help to new ideas, or to reinventions of old ones, with the expectation that, in doing so, 80 per cent of our interventions will fail. If we get it right, the 20 per cent will do far more than pay for the 80 per cent.

We should not analyse projects to death. If I could spot the winning projects, I would be a very rich man. Instead, we should look at the people who are trying to take something forward. There are those who have the knowledge, energy and self-belief that will take them somewhere useful for themselves and for our country. We should ignore their proposals—we should not pretend we can spot winners.

We should back small teams. It is amazing what one man can do leading a team of 12—that team can succeed even if one of them is a duffer or a Judas. Those who are failing are spotted very quickly in a small team. No management structure is needed to make a small team work.

Hundreds of years ago, Europe’s main centre for medical training was in Edinburgh. Why? Because the old town was desperately unsanitary and had a correspondingly high degree of morbidity, so it was an excellent place to study disease. What could we be doing today in the Covid world? Are there genetic differences that drive differences in outcomes? We know that that is the case for many other conditions. Covid is a virus about which we are still learning, but we have no broad-spectrum attacker of viruses in general, equivalent to what antibiotics once were in relation to bacteria.

Scotland has a particular advantage, in that the data in our national birth, marriage and death records is more comprehensive than is the case almost anywhere else. Thus, it is easier to identify connections of paternity, maternity and consanguinity than in many other countries. Could we use that information? It is worth trying.

In 1973, I fell out with my boss over a software development. I spent the weekend in the computer centre pursuing my idea, which I showed him on Monday. I met someone a couple of years ago who was still maintaining that software, which I had developed 45 years earlier. We might need a few more angry youngsters. Let us find them and support them—and I am not volunteering.


19 May 2020

S5M-21778 Civil Partnership (Scotland) Bill: Stage 1

The Deputy Presiding Officer (Lewis Macdonald): The next item of business is a debate on motion S5M-21778, in the name of Shirley-Anne Somerville, on stage 1 of the Civil Partnership (Scotland) Bill.

... ... ...

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

I apologise to the Presiding Officer and to colleagues for joining the debate late. I am a member of the COVID-19 Committee, and our stage 2 debate on the Coronavirus (Scotland) (No 2) Bill ended just after 4 o’clock. Who said that men cannot multitask?

I will make brief remarks, which I hope will support, and will only to a limited extent duplicate previous members’ contributions. I certainly intended no disrespect to colleagues by not being here to hear their words.

I welcome the bill and support its objectives. Extension of the criteria for civil partnerships will take nothing away from me, nor do I see any demerit for wider society. To legislate in the terms that are set out in the bill will extend benefits to people who, for whatever personal reasons, do not wish to marry. That is proper.

Formal endorsement in law of a relationship is of particular benefit to the children of a couple. It simplifies inheritance and, generally, simplifies the transfer of assets within close family. Marriage and civil partnership have significant benefits. I have been doing the marriage bit for more than 50 years, and hope to get the hang of it sometime soon.

I was delighted previously to work with Pauline McNeill on marriage issues—she referred to the civil partnership legislation on which we both worked. At that time, we made common cause, and I believe that we can do that again. I note that the Jewish community has identified some—fixable—issues in the bill. I hope that we do something about that. In the legislation that Pauline McNeill and I worked on, a significant issue was how divorce works in the Jewish faith. We were able to work together and with others to ensure that that important group in our community got the changes that mattered to them. I am sure that we will be able to do that again—especially as the current issue looks to be rather more straightforward.

The Family Law (Scotland) Act 2006 identified new rights for cohabiting couples, but those rights fall far short of what might be fair to couples and their offspring. If the bill moves on to the statute book, as I believe is likely, that should encourage many cohabiting couples to seek formal recognition of their relationship.

The act of entering into marriage or civil partnership is important recognition by a couple of their commitment to each other, by affirming that it is not simply a temporary or transient relationship. That commitment is of particular value to the children of those relationships. Although there are financial aspects, the much more fundamental issue is the emotional benefit of a stable family environment, however it is structured. Families can operate in many different ways: it is not for me to comment on anyone else’s arrangements.

I wish, for the bill, all support as it moves forward, in particular so that it can benefit children, as much as their parents.


12 May 2020

Suppressing Covid: The Next Phase

The Presiding Officer (Ken Macintosh): The next item of business is a debate without motion on suppressing Covid: the next phase. I call on the Deputy First Minister and Cabinet Secretary for Education and Skills, John Swinney, to open the debate.

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

By this stage of a debate, much of what can be said has generally been said, but this subject is so wide—encompassing everything that we do and every person in Scotland and worldwide—that that is unlikely to be the case today.

I speak today as someone who is vulnerable by reason of age, although I am actually fitter than I have been for quite a few years. In the eight weeks that I have been absent from Parliament I have walked about 300 miles, so my body is fitter. I have been able to write a daily diary of about 62,000 words so far, so my mind is fitter. Mens sana in corpore sano.

As a parliamentarian, I am exceptionally privileged—as we all are—compared with most of our fellow citizens. My income is unaffected and I no longer have to spend 12 to 14 hours per week travelling. I am missing most of you, but some of you I barely miss at all—no names, no pack drill. My anxieties will be considerably fewer than those of members of the public.

We have heard much of the immense contribution of those—particularly those in health and care professions—who are especially at risk because of their meeting many people who are unwell. However, it is not just those people who contribute. All those who continue to support us directly—such as posties and those who work in shops—are equally valued.

My age means that it is likely that my immune system is probably less effective than it once was. People of any age with a compromised immune system need to be specially protected. However, we should have no assumptions about anyone else and they should all be treated equally. Reference has been made to people who have a range of conditions that do not create extra risk, and we should treat them with respect.

The R number has come up a number of times, most recently in Liz Smith’s speech, and I want to say one or two things about it. It is a statistically derived number that is informed by data from a range of sources, such as Registers of Scotland. The cause of death that Registers of Scotland receives may be of high certainty, informed by a positive test, or it may come from a clinical judgment, where there has been no test.

The high degree of variability in Covid-19 symptoms means that some cases will be missed. In some cases, the symptoms will falsely point to Covid-19. Many medical practitioners who are providing certification will have had no prior experience of the disease. There is uncertainty there.

The numbers also follow infection, probably by a week but possibly longer. Testing is difficult. The current tests rely on a swab from the throat—a swab from the mouth will not do. Any swab in the throat provokes a choke reflex, so it is difficult for the patient and the medical person who administers the test. The uncertainty following a test will be lower and the data more recent, but it is not zero uncertainty. Self-diagnosis by people with milder symptoms who self-isolate after experiencing them also contributes to the numbers.

Suppose that we make up a few numbers—these are not real numbers. Ninety-six per cent of reports to Registers of Scotland are correct, 95 per cent of medical practitioners get their diagnosis correct—many bits of research say that the figure is as low as 50 per cent, although I suspect that that is too pessimistic—and 80 per cent of people self-diagnosing get it right. With equal weight given to those three factors, we get 72 per cent certainty about the R number. The figures of 96 and 95 per cent sound high, so let us suppose that they are both 80 per cent; that takes the certainty down to 50 per cent.

Statisticians have vigorous debates about how much they should rely on the data that they get and the weight that they should give to each factor, so the R number cannot be the precise number that we would all like it to be. What I have said is a gross oversimplification of how we get to R. However, I hope that it illustrates why, if I hear someone come forward with a single number, I will stop relying on that number.

Business will certainly be very different in the years to come compared with a year ago. Gillian Martin spoke about people who are suffering from the effects in their business lives. However, perhaps one of the most important things that we might think about—I have not heard this spoken about yet—is what we will do about young companies that are at a stage in their development that means that they have negative cash flows. Somewhere in that lot are companies that will be the successes of the future. We need them.

Finally, I want to speak briefly about messaging. The stay at home message has been self-explanatory and widely respected. We as politicians get bored with messages much quicker than the general population does because we are constantly repeating them and hearing ourselves saying them. We get bored, but we have to tolerate that boredom more than we have been, until the public tell us that it is time to refresh the message.


4 March 2020

S5M-21090 Scottish Rate Resolution

The Deputy Presiding Officer (Christine Grahame): The next item of business is a debate on motion S5M-21090, in the name of Ben Macpherson, on the Scottish rate resolution.

... ... ...

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

I want to pick up on a few issues that other members have raised in the debate. I will go through them chronologically.

Let me start with Donald Cameron. He seems not to be here to hear me, but I am sure that he is listening somewhere. It was exceptionally brave of him to raise the issue of council tax, given that the average band D household council tax in England is £429 higher than the average band D council tax in Scotland. Donald Cameron therefore gets full marks for bravery and, perhaps, a few odd bonus marks for effrontery.

Rhoda Grant seemed to suggest that, under the proposals, I will pay less tax than I used to. I will consult the Official Report later, because I cannot really believe that she said that. I have gone into my database, got out my tax returns, and have found—I have various sources of income—that I am now paying £2,051 more per annum than I previously paid. I am happy to do so, as would many people with a social conscience in Scotland.

Rhoda Grant also criticised the relationship between the SNP Government and councils. There is a key thing that we did in 2007. When the SNP Government came in, we found that the Labour Party had left us with a situation in which 25 per cent of the money that councils got was ring fenced. We cut that amount dramatically. It has crept up a wee bit, subsequently, but councils have freedom that they very much welcome.

Willie Rennie—the man who never takes an intervention because he knows that it will hurt too much—criticised capital spending. When the Liberal Democrats came to me, when I was a Government minister, about the replacement Forth crossing, the budget was £3.4 billion to £4.3 billion. When the crossing went into the Official Journal of the European Union for bids, the top was £2.3 billion and the floor was £1.9 billion. We built it for less than £1.4 billion—half a billion pounds below budget. Willie Rennie, as a Fife MSP, should tak tent.

Alexander Burnett said so much that I am not sure that I have time to deal with it. Let us start with one of the crippling things that the Tories have done for local authorities across the UK: they have doubled the Public Works Loan Board interest rate. How will that help councils across the UK? It was done simply to tackle the abuse of borrowing powers by a couple of councils in England, which put money into commercial investments. The Tories could have dealt with that in another way.

Alexander Burnett criticised the position of Aberdeenshire Council. I have looked at Audit Scotland’s 2019 report on Aberdeenshire Council. In the period from 2013-14 to 2018-19, it did extremely well in improving its position—only West Lothian Council and Midlothian Council did better. Moray Council, which covers the other council area that I have the privilege to represent, was next. The Scottish Government is therefore undoing historical wrongs in council funding. Members will get that information on page 19 of the Audit Scotland report.

As I approach the end of the four minutes that I have, it is perhaps worth reminding members that the subject of income tax is fascinating. When did income tax start? The answer to that question is 1798. Who introduced it? It was William Pitt the younger—a Tory.


19 February 2020

S5M-20055 Prehistoric Rock Art

The Deputy Presiding Officer (Christine Grahame): The final item of business is a members’ business debate on motion S5M-20055, in the name of Gil Paterson, on the Cochno stone and the social value of Scotland’s prehistoric rock art. The debate will be concluded without any question being put.

Motion debated,

That the Parliament congratulates Dr Kenny Brophy of the University of Glasgow Archaeology Department on the extensive work on prehistoric rock art throughout a wide expanse of West Dunbartonshire; notes that this includes numerous excavations in the Faifley area of Clydebank, including, in particular, the Cochno Stone; understands that this is one of Europe’s most important examples of rock carvings, and that this was entirely uncovered and intricately documented, including a full digital scan and recording; notes that this important work by Dr Brophy and his university team was assisted over many months by volunteers from far and wide, including local people and school pupils, and considers that this project is a model for collaboration between experts, well-practised helpers and a very supportive, well-informed community that wants to bring to the wider world the iconic art that is there to be exposed, enjoyed and celebrated by all.

... ... ...

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

I, too, thank Gil Paterson for giving us the opportunity to debate this interesting subject. We are talking about something that is very old, so it is entirely appropriate that the four oldest members of this Parliament are all present. I note that I am the fourth oldest of those four, but we are all of an age at which antiquity is of particular interest to us. [Laughter.]

The Cochno stone is of uncertain age. Some of my research says that it is 5,000 years since it was produced and other research says that it dates from the third millennium BC and, thus, is perhaps not quite as old.

Gil Paterson is ahead of me, as he has converted to the metric system. He said that the stone is 100m2, while my notes say that it is 42 feet by 26 feet. I am a mathematician so I had to do the arithmetic, and he is absolutely spot on: 42 feet by 26 feet is 100m2. I am glad that Gil got that right.

Something as old as the Cochno stone is always fascinating. People of all ages can realistically engage with anything that throws us back to a previous age and which has mystery around it. One of the first things that I wondered was where this name came from. It appears that it is from cauchanach, which is the Gaelic for “place of little cups”. When we look at what is on the stone, that is a credible explanation, although it is not a certain one; we will probably never have that. We know that the stone is named after a Cochnol house that was on the site before we found the stone, but that is not to say that the house was there before the stone. The stone was almost certainly there before the house was built by the Hamiltons, some 100 years ago.

Although the stone was buried, the locals continued to remember it over a long period of time and it was a source of stories and inspiration for stories, like many such ancient artefacts. The fact that it has been dug up, reburied and dug up again provides an interesting comparison with China, on which Gil Paterson, with his passion for all things from the east, threw light when he talked about it.

To come up to date, the University of Glasgow, Factum Arte and the local community are now involved in engaging with and protecting the stone, and in cleaning the area in which it stood and removing the ground around it so that we can actually see it. The fact that Gil Paterson could not find the stone, because of overgrowth on the site, tells us everything that we need to know about the previous neglect of the stone.

It is great that the modern technology in a 50 megapixel camera has been used to create 3D images, but in our modern arrogance, we must remember that the electronic world is quite an ephemeral one; the electronic images might vanish quickly and become inaccessible to us. However, the stone will probably outlive any of the technology that is being used—excellent as it is as a way of reaching out across the world to tell the story of this archaeological endeavour and creating a database that allows people across the world to study the carvings from the Cochno stone and see echoes of them in other areas.

It is interesting. I thought that the word “Cochno” came from cochlea, the Greek word for snail, because I had not properly looked at the stone. I then realised that the carvings were not snails and were much more like cups.

We have had an interesting short debate and it is tremendous to see so many of those who have been involved in the project in the public gallery. Just as I, in primary school, was given a little ammonite—a fossil that was billions of years old—that inspired me, I hope that this project will inspire many in the area where the stone is located. For Dr Kenny Brophy and his team, the schoolchildren who have been involved and the community, this is an important part of their history but it will also be part of their future.


6 February 2020

S5M-20184 World Cancer Day 2020

The Deputy Presiding Officer (Christine Grahame): The next item of business is a members’ business debate on motion S5M-20184, in the name of Monica Lennon, on world cancer day 2020. The debate will be concluded without any question being put.

Motion debated,

That the Parliament recognises that 4 February 2020 is World Cancer Day, a global initiative that encourages everyone to put cancer on the global agenda; understands that one in two people will get cancer in their lifetime and that over the last 40 years survival rates have doubled, with half of people in Scotland now surviving cancer thanks to the great progress that research has made, and that Cancer Research UK’s vision is to see three-quarters of people with cancer surviving the disease by 2034; believes that it is crucial to address variations in outcomes between cancer types and patient groups where they exist in Scotland; welcomes world-leading research funded by Cancer Research UK and others into those cancers with the lowest survival rates, including lung, pancreatic and brain cancers; notes what it sees as the persistent gaps in outcomes, especially for those in Scotland’s most deprived communities and recognises calls for urgent action to address cancer health inequalities in any form; understands the need to ensure that cancer services in the Central Scotland region and across the country are planned to ensure the best outcome for every patient wherever they live, while allowing patients to decide what matters most to them on their cancer journey, and notes that Members can show their support for World Cancer Day through the wearing of the Unity Band.

... ... ...

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

I endorse Lewis Macdonald’s remarks about the excellent work that is done by Friends of ANCHOR, CLAN and other charities in the north-east of Scotland. Of course, I thank Monica Lennon for the opportunity to discuss this important subject.

I had a look at my previous speeches on the subject, and I found four: one on breast cancer, one on lung cancer, one on skin cancer and, most recently, one on young people’s cancers. We are all aware that there is a wide variety of cancers.

I turn to the number of cancers that we are diagnosing. By 2027, we will be looking, perhaps, at as many as 40,000 per year, and 110 people will be diagnosed with cancer every day.

Both my parents died of cancer, some considerable time ago: one of breast cancer and one of prostate cancer.

Mortality rates have decreased by 12 per cent in males and 7 per cent in females over the past 10 years, so we are making progress. As we increase our diagnostic capability, we are improving our treatment capability and outcomes.

The lowest survival rates are those for lung cancer and small cell lung cancer, smoking being the cause in many cases. Of course, people being overweight is also a significant cause of cancer. I sit on the very edge of the normal range of body mass index, occasionally dodging out of it and then struggling to come back in. However, too many people in our communities—for all sorts of reasons, and particularly in areas of social and economic disadvantage—are suffering from problems due to being overweight or greater consumption of tobacco. There are a wide range of risk factors that we have to address, as other speakers in the debate have mentioned. Deprived communities are part of the inequalities that we have to tackle.

Cancer Research UK tells us—it is an exact figure—that 41.5 per cent of cancers are potentially preventable. Beyond the prevention work that we have to undertake to get smoking, obesity and our consumption of alcohol under control, one thing that is helpful is early detection. I am in the age group of people who get an annual postal thing that allows them to test for blood in their stool, which is a primary indication of potential bowel cancer. I welcome the fact that the number of samples that one has to take went down from five, as it was when I entered the system, to three, and that it is now just one. The process is not highly engaging or exciting, and the more that we can deconstruct barriers to people doing the test, the better.

That is particularly important for me because I have another condition that tends to give false positives. NHS Grampian has been extremely good in showing in the follow-up that there was a false positive. I have far too intimate knowledge of one of its cameras, which has looked at my innards. I hope that NHS Grampian will continue to give me support as and when it may be necessary. Most recently, it offered me an appointment on a Sunday, which I thought was superb because it did not interfere with other things. That is an example of the innovative approaches that are being taken.

The Scottish Government’s detect cancer early programme, which has been running for a number of years, is a major contributor to detecting early signs of cancer, and I hope that it continues to do so. I hope that we all manage to avoid cancer or, if we get it, that we get the treatment that we need. I am sure that we shall.


5 February 2020

S5M-19941 Cheyne Gang Singing Group

The Deputy Presiding Officer (Christine Grahame): The final item of business is a members’ business debate on motion S5M-19941, in the name of Gordon MacDonald, on the Cheyne Gang singing group.

... ... ...

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

I, too, thank Gordon MacDonald for providing us with the opportunity to recognise the Cheyne Gang singing group.

Let me say that, as other members have said of themselves, I am usually paid to remain silent when singing is taking place. However, I suggest that I could do a bit of whistling and humming as background to the singing, because that is equally good for the lungs. Perhaps a puirt à beul session, with me humming in the background, might be the answer.

As Elaine Smith mentioned, singing is a very inexpensive way of helping people with pulmonary rehabilitation, so I expect the national health service to sign up for it with great enthusiasm. However, there are practical issues around its use. In the 1940s I was diagnosed as suffering from what was then described as “broncho spasm”. I was treated with a horrible little M & B tablet, which was delivered to me, wrapped in tomato jam, on a spoon. To this day, I am a little averse to having tomato jam. It was not clear whether the condition that I was suffering from was bronchitis, asthma or something else. It continued into my adult life, but I no longer suffer from it. My father, who was a GP, taught me a form of hypnotism, which we might now call mindfulness, so that I am able to use my psychological skills to prevent an attack from happening. The doctors at my medical practice think that I should have an inhaler with me at all times. I have not had one for 30 years, so that is too bad.

The bottom line is that singing helps us to avoid the rapid breath-stacking pattern of breathing—a dynamic hyperventilation of the lungs that reduces inspiration of air. When sufferers have an attack they think that they cannot breathe in, whereas the reality is that they cannot breathe out properly. Our lungs can hold 3 litres of air, but our breathing uses about 500 millilitres each time. Because of my lifetime condition I am usually down at the 380ml mark. However, I know that since I have stopped using the lifts to reach the fifth floor of the Parliament my lung capacity has gone up by 15 per cent—I have a device for measuring it.

There are many ways of doing things cheaply, but the bottom line is that asthma, and lung conditions in general, prevent people from being active and cut them off from social occasions. They also have psychological negatives such as anxiety, depression and hospitalisation. Therefore, communities such as the Cheyne Gang have wider effects that are beyond the purely medical: they also have social benefits, which we should encourage.

In the UK, 8 million people have been diagnosed with asthma, which I find slightly puzzling. I went to what was probably the biggest secondary school in Scotland. In my year, which consisted of more than 400 pupils, only three of us—Roger, Teddy and me—had asthma, whereas now the statistic is one person in 17. Therefore, something about the modern world means that asthma is a more pressing concern than it formerly was.

Elaine Smith: Will the member take an intervention?

Stewart Stevenson
: If the Presiding Officer will allow it.

Elaine Smith: On that issue, last week it was discovered that although more boys might have asthma, more women than men die of asthma; that point needs to be looked at, and I have lodged some questions on it.

Stewart Stevenson
: That is a very interesting point, which I was not aware of. I thank Elaine Smith for raising it.

In the previous session of Parliament, one of our colleagues suffered from COPD. I will not name him, because it was not generally known, but the suffering that he experienced was apparent from time to time. Fortunately, he continues to experience good health in life after Parliament.

The reduction in tobacco use has improved things. It has always been a trigger for lung conditions, although one of the ironies of tobacco is that it freezes the cilia in the bronchial tubes, which initially makes one feel better, not worse—a very curious and unhelpful thing.

Pulmonary rehabilitation as an education programme and a part of physical exercise is a good way to go about things. We have moved on terrifically. In the 1940s, when I was first diagnosed with asthma, the treatment was an M & B tablet and going out in the street when there was a tar wagon around, because it was thought that the tar fumes were helpful. It is rather doubtful whether that was actually the case. There were many myths, some of which endure to the present day. The Scottish Government’s plan to improve pulmonary rehabilitation through its respiratory care plan is to be welcomed.

The Cheyne Gang and community groups across Scotland are on the front line and I recognise their value to their communities in leading the way. They are to be utterly commended and, as somebody who I should now describe as a former asthmatic, I am astonished and delighted to hear about their work.


30 January 2020

S5M-19810 Public Works Loan Board Rate

The Deputy Presiding Officer (Linda Fabiani): The next item of business is a members’ business debate on motion S5M-19810, in the name of Keith Brown, on the Public Works Loan Board rate. The debate will be concluded without any question being put.

Motion debated,

That the Parliament condemns the recent UK Treasury announcement of an increase in the rate of borrowing from the Public Works Loan Board (PWLB) by one percentage point; understands that the PWLB lends money to local authorities for community infrastructure projects; is concerned by the implications of this percentage-point hike in interest rates on Scottish councils’ abilities, including Clackmannanshire Council, to carry out crucial infrastructure developments, such as affordable housing, schools, leisure and regeneration projects; agrees with a number of local authorities that this increase is paramount to the UK Government “profiteering at the expense of council tax payers”; recognises the detrimental impact that this move will have on infrastructure projects in Clackmannanshire and Dunblane and other local authority areas across Scotland, and acknowledges calls on the UK Government to reconsider its decision.

... ... ...

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

I thank Keith Brown for giving us the opportunity to debate this important subject.

Before I move to the central thrust of what I want to say, I will respond to a few things that were said by Alexander Stewart. He said that the aim is to put a limit on what councils borrow, so why not change the rules on what they can borrow for rather than put costs up? He also said that councils are struggling to service debt. I am sure that increasing the interest rate by 56 per cent will not help them to do that. Under the prudential borrowing rules that councils work within, they will have to reduce the number of projects that they fund by that mechanism by a third in order to pay the same interest as they are currently paying. Therefore, the effect of this small change in terms of the amount of interest that might be paid each year is fundamental to the way in which councils are able to renew public infrastructure.

Let us remember that it is the Public Works Loan Board: the money is for public works. It is simply unacceptable that, in hard times, the UK Government is making it fundamentally more difficult for councils in Scotland—indeed, across the UK—to do what their local communities require. Many councils, including my own, rely on the PWLB.

Last year, £819 million was borrowed, so the increased rate is going to have an impact—members can work that out for themselves. Fife wanted funding for a new campus for Woodmill high school, St Columba’s high school and Fife College. Clackmannanshire and Dunblane needed funding to increase affordable housing and improve their schools. Aberdeen budgeted for £481 million to be spent on capital projects over the next five years, of which £293 million was to be borrowed. All those plans may now be delayed or halted altogether. That is the real, on-the-ground effect. Alexander Stewart said that councils are suffering—how does the increase help them and the communities that they serve?

The underlying cause of the increase—I recognise that it is a valid issue—is illustrated by Spelthorne Borough Council, in Surrey, which borrowed £1 billion. For what? For a school or a community centre? No, it was used for commercial investments. I do not think that any of us would defend that council’s use of the money for that purpose. However, if councils’ doing things like that is the problem, increasing the interest is hardly the solution. The solution is to change the basis on which councils can borrow.

Woking Borough Council, which is also in Surrey, borrowed £1.2 billion, a large proportion of which was used to buy the town’s main shopping centre. Those are risky commercial investments that are not central to public works, the development of new facilities or the improvement of existing ones. The funds are meant for sustainable community development that will directly improve the lives of residents. If a main road requires to be built, a council has to find the money. Borrowing costs are a significant part of councils’ costs—that is for sure—but increasing the PWLB rate is simply going to increase that significant burden.

The PWLB places all authority to determine the usage of its loans on the councils, and most councils behave responsibly. Let us not allow the majority of our councils to be penalised for irresponsible spending by the likes of Spelthorne Borough Council. Let us make a distinction between that and loans being taken out for proper purposes. It is time for the UK Government to rethink the matter and take a different approach to solving the genuine problem that led to this issue.


23 January 2020

S5M-20544 Consumer Scotland Bill: Stage 1

The Deputy Presiding Officer (Christine Grahame): The next item of business is a debate on motion S5M-20544, in the name of Jamie Hepburn, on the Consumer Scotland Bill at stage 1.

... ... ...

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

The debate reminds me that I asked the whips at the beginning of this parliamentary session whether I could be on the Economy, Energy and Fair Work Committee—unfortunately, they put me elsewhere—because the committee’s work is clearly interesting and of value. The report that the committee produced on the Consumer Scotland Bill is an example of that. I now find myself on the Rural Economy and Connectivity Committee and the Environment, Climate Change and Land Reform Committee marking my own report card by reviewing things that I did as a minister—it is a bit odd, but there we are.

The Scotland Act 2016 devolved responsibility for consumer advocacy and advice to the Scottish Parliament, which is very much to be welcomed and is the foundation of the legislation that we are debating. However, advocacy and advice need not be all that we do, because we can also inform—for example, we can inform manufacturers and small businesses. The important point is to understand through evidence why consumers experience harm, and then to develop solutions that increase fairness to consumers, thereby increasing consumer confidence.

It is important to consider that, in the context of the Consumer Scotland Bill, we are not setting up something in opposition to manufacturers and suppliers; on the contrary, an informed and demanding consumer who raises the game of suppliers and manufacturers is in the interests of those businesses, because that will make them more competitive in their efforts to sell into their local and export markets. In other words, good products command a market, so the legislation is not the enemy of businesses.

I turn to some of the detail. I note from paragraph 29 of the policy memorandum that consumer Scotland will be

“a body corporate”

and that one thing that will be necessary is to have

“an Order in Council”


“the civil service is a reserved matter.”

I simply ask that the minister advise—perhaps now or at a later point—whether he has engaged with the UK Government to get assurance that such consent will be given. I would be surprised if there were any difficulties in getting that, but it would be useful to know that for the sake of completeness.

Paragraph 66 of the policy memorandum—and elsewhere—talks about the impact on highland and island communities and rural communities more generally. As someone who represents a hybrid area that is very rural and has significant large towns, I have particular interest in the application of the legislation to areas that are more distant from city centres. I see no reason to doubt that there will be benefits to those areas, as there will be elsewhere.

A number of members—most notably and recently Jackie Baillie, in relation to white goods—raised the topic of product recall. I have said before in the Parliament that we should seek to get the serial number of our white goods on the front of the goods. The number is always on the back and people have to take the product out of where it is installed in order to find it. I think that that is a big contributory factor to why so many recalls do not have high returns—people find it very difficult to find out whether their Whirlpool, or whatever the brand of the product might be, is subject to a recall. Although we do not have the power to command that, we might, through this legislation, have the power to inform consumers, persuade them about the issue and demand that that change happens.

Richard Leonard spoke about additional delivery charges, as did Gordon Lindhurst, when speaking in his role as convener of the Economy, Energy and Fair Work Committee.

The issue of chlorinated chicken was also mentioned. That leads us to the issue of the labelling of products and their origins, because that informs the consumer whether the product that they might be contemplating buying, particularly in relation to food, is one that they want to engage with and buy. However, we cannot do everything that we might want to do—we cannot cut into competition law or operational matters, but we can certainly assist consumers in making choices.

Another reserved issue that we can, nonetheless, engage in is helping consumers to understand what advertising means. I include in that much of what happens on social media, where the boundary between advertising, comment and information is not always particularly clear.

The bill, and what will be done, is not just about preventing harm; it is about delivering real benefits. Others have talked about Citizens Advice Scotland, which I strongly support; I regularly send my constituents in its direction when they have difficulties. I certainly would not wish to see its role being diminished in the many communities in which it is represented on the ground, with local people as directors and other local people who understand the communities’ needs. A central body elsewhere might be less able to engage directly with local issues.

I will close on the issue of vulnerability and vulnerable consumers, which has also been raised. Andy Wightman mentioned the Donoghue v Stevenson case, which was brought in 1932. One of the interesting things is that May Donoghue, who pursued that case, relied on in forma pauperis. She was a pauper and was able to take her case all the way to the House of Lords because she was relieved under that provision of carrying the costs of her opponent, should she lose the case.

I think that that is an interesting example, going back some distance, that might inform how we see the new consumer body operate. May Donoghue was a pauper to the extent that only one of her four sons survived into adulthood. She has delivered, as the most famous litigant in life, a little bit that contributes to this debate.


22 January 2020

S5M-20401 Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh (350th Anniversary)

The Deputy Presiding Officer (Linda Fabiani): The final item of business is a members’ business debate on motion S5M-20401, in the name of Jeremy Balfour, on the Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh’s 350th anniversary. The debate will be concluded without any question being put.

Motion debated,

That the Parliament acknowledges the 350th anniversary of the Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh and the announcement of a year-long programme of events; understands that many events will focus on the climate crisis and global loss of biodiversity; notes that highlights include an expedition to Papua New Guinea, a Big Botanics Birthday Party, a gala concert, and the opening of a Garden of Tranquillity, which will provide a safe, peaceful and sensory space for visitors with dementia and their carers; further notes that the Botanics will also exhibit in the RHS Chelsea Flower Show Discovery Zone in May 2020, showing how its work will help secure the future of the world’s plants, and understands that, in the last of its events, scientists will discuss the biodiversity crisis from a botanical perspective at a Halting Plant Extinction debate in November.

... ... ...

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

I thank Jeremy Balfour for the opportunity to recognise the Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh’s 350th anniversary and to talk about the work that it has done to protect biodiversity and provide solutions in a changing world.

Jeremy Balfour referred to the founders of the RBGE, Balfour and Sibbald, who wanted to study plants for medicinal purposes. Particularly in earlier centuries, Edinburgh was the centre of medical research in Europe.

Three hundred and fifty years after its foundation, the botanics continue to be a national and international treasure, attracting over 1 million visitors annually. Over the weekend, my intern, Airin Wu, who has helpfully provided my speaking notes, chose to visit the botanics. It was only her second week in Edinburgh, so it was high on her agenda. She told me that she was astonished by the greenery and the diverse plant life that she saw. I imagine that it is very different to the arid climate of California to which she is more accustomed.

The beauty of the gardens is well deserving of appreciation, but more to the point is its mission in relation to science, conservation and education, to which other members have referred. The RBGE should be highly praised for having that as a large part of its work, as well as for its focus on accelerating species discovery. Jeremy Balfour and Alison Johnstone referred to the new plants that are discovered—they gave slightly different numbers and I have a third, but we all acknowledge that a lot of plants are being found.

This year, the botanics are hosting a wide range of events—from an expedition to Papua New Guinea to the big botanics birthday party—which will bring attention to the climate crisis, loss of biodiversity and the role of the RBGE in all that. Who is the culprit in the climate and biodiversity crises? We are—the human race. Our activity has been the biggest driver of climate change. We pressure wildlife to make room for us as we mismanage aspects of agriculture, continue with urbanisation and pollute too many environments that many species call their home. We know that around 1 million species face extinction globally because of us.

In the past 22 years, numbers have decreased in 49 per cent of Scottish species. Numbers have gone down in 54 per cent of vascular plant species, 44 per cent of bird species and 39 per cent of butterfly species. Almost one in 10 Scottish species are at risk of extinction. Species that are at risk include the world-renowned Atlantic salmon, which do not find the warmer oceans to their liking, and the Arctic char, which is a cold-water species that might not survive in our waters.

Our iconic habitats—peatlands, uplands and oak woodlands—are all vulnerable to the hands of climate change. As humans, we need biodiversity, as it sustains the very ecosystems that keep us alive. In Scotland, biodiversity is also an important part of our economy, as it supports our tourism, farming, forestry, aquaculture and fishing industries. It improves our quality of life, too.

The Scottish Government is doing its bit to support the mission of the RBGE through its biodiversity strategy and 2020 challenge, which are in response to the United Nations Convention on Biological Diversity and the European Union’s biodiversity strategy. It is clear that the Scottish Government’s funding is a crucial part of our support of ecosystems and the environment as a whole. They depend on it.

I am confident that the botanics will continue to support our environment and to entertain and engage us all. Like other members, I wish the RBGE another successful 350 years from here onwards.


16 January 2020

S5M-20261 Sustainable Development Goals

The Deputy Presiding Officer (Linda Fabiani): The next item of business is a members’ business debate on motion S5M-20261, in the name of Lewis Macdonald, on sustainable development goals. The debate will be concluded without any question being put.

Motion debated,

That the Parliament welcomes the publication of On target for 2030?, a report from civil society organisations co-ordinated by the UWS-Oxfam Partnership and the SDG Network Scotland; understands that this report aims to offer a snapshot analysis of progress in Scotland against each of the 17 Sustainable Development Goals, which officially came into force on 1 January 2016, from expert organisations operating within each relevant field; considers that the negative effects of slow progress on achieving Sustainable Development Goals are felt disproportionately by low-income households, including in the North East Scotland region, and that this undermines the pledge made by UN Member States to ensure that “no one will be left behind”; acknowledges that the report encourages Scotland to do more to meet its Sustainable Development Goals, and understands that progress in this area is not the responsibility only of government but also of business, the third sector and individuals, if Scotland is to fulfil its commitments by 2030.

... ... ...

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

I thank Lewis Macdonald for the opportunity to discuss a substantial report of 82 pages, including what would probably best be called essays from 17 contributors. A rough count suggests that there are more than 200 references that lead the reader to further reading, so it is not only the report that is in front of us, but what underpins it that help us to have a proper discussion about whether we are on target to meet the United Nations sustainable development goals by 2030.

On our walks to Parliament and elsewhere, we all see the visible evidence of homelessness, and I am sure that many members will have spoken to people whom we see on the streets. Every 18 minutes, which is about the time it takes to get a bus down to Parliament from the centre of town, someone in Scotland becomes homeless.

Under the sustainable development goals, we have a target to get to zero poverty by 2030, which includes achieving zero hunger and achieving good health and wellbeing. In 2015, the First Minister adopted that target to help to reduce inequality across the globe, but inequality continues to exist in Scotland, as it does elsewhere.

Lewis Macdonald referred to people who are food insecure. Twenty-five per cent of our children live in poverty, and figures suggest that that will rise if we do not see amelioration of and response to Westminster’s position of financial constraint and austerity. Too many people rely on food banks, and nutritious food is yet to be accessible to and affordable for all. One of the things that my wife always thinks about at Christmas—it is actually at the top of her shopping list—is what she will buy to take to the food bank. I hope that others do the same, although it is disappointing that we have to do so.

That leads us to the broader question of socioeconomic disadvantage and marginalisation, which exists in the wealthy north-east of Scotland as it does in other parts of our country. That inequality relates to discrimination against women and too much unhealthy eating.

Are we on target to meet our goals? We are making progress on a number of targets, particularly on water and sanitation, energy share from renewables and forest management. It is an all-encompassing agenda. Steps towards the eradication of poverty and the phasing out of food banks have been made, along with the creation of the Scottish welfare fund, which provides cash grants that assist people in need.

There are tools that we can use—the report by the University of the West of Scotland and the Oxfam Partnership and the work of the SDG Network Scotland show that there has been progress. We are some distance from 2030, but the reality is—as one gets older time seems to speed up—that 2030 is almost tomorrow in planning and policy terms.

I am pleased to see businesses, individuals and civil society standing behind the effort. We are making progress on perhaps only a minority of the indicators in the national framework that relate to the issue, but we are making progress. We need a coherent approach; the proposal that Lewis Macdonald made on aligning Parliament’s activities more closely with the issue is not one that I had heard before, but it is interesting.

I close by congratulating all who have been involved with the report and saying that I hope that we hear some interesting things from the minister.


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