27 June 2002

S1M-3225 Budget Process 2003-04

The Deputy Presiding Officer (Mr Murray Tosh): The next item of business is a debate on motion S1M-3225, in the name of Des McNulty, on the Finance Committee's third report in 2002. ...

... ... ...

Stewart Stevenson (Banff and Buchan) (SNP): I thank my many colleagues in the chamber for giving me room for a speech of about half an hour. I note the enthusiasm of some members for that prospect.

The Deputy Presiding Officer (Mr George Reid): It is not essential, Mr Stevenson.

Stewart Stevenson: Thank you, Presiding Officer.

We have heard that the underspend is £643 million, which follows the more than £700 million underspend of last year. It is interesting that over the past four years—I move straightaway to one of my obsessions, and one of the obsessions of members of the SNP—there has been an increase of £250 million in private finance initiative payments. We do not need to worry about underspend, because in a few years' time we will be heading rapidly towards overspend. There will be no end-year flexibility if we continue to adopt the high-cost finance policies that are associated with a PFI approach to funding public projects.

There is another way. I note from today's edition of Business a.m. that a not-for-profit company is taking over the rail network. The SNP has been advocating that policy in relation to capital projects for some time. If we are to keep our finances in good order and if we are to remain within our budget, one of the things that should be high on the list of the Executive's priorities is to reconsider how we fund our capital projects. I commend to the minister and the Executive the approach of having not-for-profit trusts that we have been advocating for some years. I would welcome the minister's response as to whether that is under consideration.

I mention that in the light of the fact that Grant Thornton—an accountancy company that gave evidence on the prison estates review to the Justice 1 Committee—indicated that that was a practical way forward that would undoubtedly save money. However, we have to be slightly cautious when we are taking about accountants. Once again, they are not getting a good press. There is a great debate in business as to whether accountants or computer people are the more boring. As a computer person I have my views on that and I need not pursue them further. I will talk more about accountants later.

Business a.m. is the only paper that I read in the morning. We see today that WorldCom is being charged with fraud after that well-known and once highly respected company, Andersen, moved WorldCom's accounts in a way that concealed £2.6 billion of costs.

Mr Davidson: I watched the minister thumbing through the budget documents anxiously, but he cannot find a listing for WorldCom in the Scottish budget.

Stewart Stevenson: If the minister were to examine parliamentary answer S1W-22582—I provide the reference number merely to use up a little more time—he might find that Arthur Andersen was a happy recipient of £381,000 from the 2001 budget. My question is whether the fingerprints of accountants on our accounts have led to such successfully inflated outcomes as the outcome that the shareholders of WorldCom have been subjected to.

No less a luminary than Sir David Tweedie, who was lately the chair of the Institute of Chartered Accountants in England, posed a question about whether there is a difference between an accountant and a supermarket trolley, to which he gave the answer, "Yes, the trolley has a mind of its own." Accountants have demonstrated considerable imagination in recent times. I am glad to note that the minister enjoyed the joke. The partners in Arthur Andersen are probably not enjoying it.

Are our figures contaminated? Let us look at some of the possible sources of contamination. The Justice 2 Committee discovered that impairment costs were associated with the Scottish Prison Service's costs. What are impairment costs? In business, we would otherwise describe them as depreciation. Business companies properly include such items in their accounts to offset the taxation that they pay. The existence of such items in the Scottish Executive's accounts does not mean that the Executive is spending the money in question or that it is offsetting taxation. The presence of such items is simply confusing.

The problem does not affect only the justice area. Table 8.1 in the annual expenditure report contains a footnote to the entry on motorways and trunk roads:

"Includes capital and depreciation charges for the existing trunk road and motorway network".

We have spent the money already and we will not spend it again. Has that been done just to inflate the numbers so that they look a little better, or have we used accountants such as Arthur Andersen who are as numerically illiterate as the tribe in Papua New Guinea that has only three numbers—one, two and more? As a mathematician, I have the googolplex, which is the world's largest number.

That is what happens when one is given half an hour and one has written a three-minute speech.

The Deputy Presiding Officer
: It is absolutely not essential to take half an hour.

Stewart Stevenson
: On a serious note, I turn to an issue that emerged from the justice budget and which reveals a lack of joined-up thinking. We welcome the introduction of drug treatment orders and the priority that is being given to people in the criminal justice system who need treatment for their drug habit. The difficulty is that that is happening at the expense of people outside the criminal justice system. An increase in expenditure for drug treatment for people within the criminal justice system should be matched by corresponding increases of expenditure elsewhere.

There is a degree of confusion in the budget, particularly in relation to the handling of depreciation. I look forward to hearing how the minister plans to handle that in future years.

The Deputy Presiding Officer: Before we move to wind-up speeches, I should say to the whips that we are running about 20 minutes ahead of time, in spite of the efforts of Mr Stevenson. I expect that we will reach the Police Reform Bill shortly after 12 o'clock.


20 June 2002

S1M-3228 Public Infrastructure Investment

Scottish Parliament

Thursday 20 June 2002

[THE DEPUTY PRESIDING OFFICER opened the meeting at 09:30]

... ... ...

Public Infrastructure Investment

The Presiding Officer (Sir David Steel): We move to consider the second debate of the morning, motion S1M-3228, in the name of Alasdair Morgan, on investment in public infrastructure, and two amendments.


... ... ...


Stewart Stevenson (Banff and Buchan) (SNP): I note that Mr McCabe has been moved from the front benches to the back benches, but he would not wish me to comment unduly on that. On behalf of Mr Russell, I thank Mr McCabe. Mr Russell will be happy to pass on the cheque shortly.

Did I hear an echo of 1979 in Tom McCabe's speech? Should we rejoice, rejoice, rejoice? Darrin Grimsey is a partner in PWC—it is strange how often that company comes up in this context—and is based in Australia. He speaks about Scottish conditions with some liberality. He said that the Tories promoted PFI as

"a preferred procurement method—a position which did not change with the incoming Labour administration".

Not much changes.

We do not condemn new schools—we condemn the waste of the £8 million that my colleague Alasdair Morgan mentioned. That money could build more new schools and SNP members would welcome that. We might even use the word "rejoice".

Des McNulty made some interesting comments about trusts. [Interruption.] I know that I have exaggerated there, but I will deal with his comments for the sake of debate. He said that trusts may be marginally cheaper, but they have no effect on the running of operation. That is good news. If trusts have no effect on operation, we can use them to reduce costs.

I want to turn to costs. Some figures are beginning to leak into the public domain—for example, in the prisons, the figures are 7.05 per cent for Pucklechurch Custodial, 7.05 per cent for Medomsley, 8.04 per cent for Moreton, 7.05 per cent for Lowdham Grange and 7.05 per cent for Kilmarnock. Alternatively, if the company that runs Kilmarnock prison rather than the holding company is considered, the figure is over 8.5 per cent. Those differences are interesting.

There is another interesting issue relating to Kilmarnock prison that is at the heart of PFI projects. We are not even sure where the risk that is associated with the projects—which often justifies the high interest rates—lies. The annual accounts of Kilmarnock Prison Services state that the PFI asset is being transferred to the Home Office. We have been told that that is wrong, but apparently it is. The Scottish Prison Service is involved. That seemed mysterious, so I spoke to the financial director of Premier Custodial Group Ltd in the past couple of days. He said that the company no longer carries substantial rewards or responsibility to have that fixed asset on its accounts. In many ways, that method of cloaking finance in a mystery inside a PFI leaves us in the dark over what is happening.

We could get money for much less. We should separate off the finance from the delivery of the services and from the building of the buildings and not confuse people about costs.


13 June 2002

S1M-3151 Epilepsy

The Deputy Presiding Officer (Mr Murray Tosh): The final item of business today is a members' business debate on motion S1M-3151, in the name of Gordon Jackson, on epilepsy. ...

Motion debated,

That the Parliament notes with concern the 25% rate of misdiagnosis of epilepsy, as identified in The Misdiagnosis of Epilepsy: Findings of a Population Study (Scheepers, Clough and Pickles) and The Misdiagnosis of Epilepsy (Smith, Defalla and Chadwick); recognises and agrees that there is a need for a national framework for epilepsy, as already exists for diabetes, to improve standards of health care, and further notes that England and Wales are working towards such a framework for 2005.

... ... ...

Stewart Stevenson (Banff and Buchan) (SNP): Some of the statistics on epilepsy are rather confusing. In one place we are told that one in 130 people is affected by epilepsy, in another that the figure is one in 200 and in another that it is one in 300. The figure of one in 130 neatly illustrates the problem: there are 129 members in the Parliament, which means that, statistically speaking, one of us has or will develop epilepsy. That brings the issue closer to home.

We all know people or have met people who suffer from epilepsy. They have particular problems. There are many lifelong conditions with which we are all familiar, such as blindness, which is a very visible condition and one that most people can recognise. The broader community supports blind people through tax breaks and the widespread recognition ensures sympathy, understanding and support. Deafness can develop in later life or be present from birth. Again, there is widespread help, sympathy and understanding for deaf people. Type A diabetes is a lifelong condition and type B diabetes appears in later life. For people who suffer from those conditions there is increasing recognition, sympathy and understanding. However, epilepsy is a genuine hidden illness. It is misunderstood, and, as Gordon Jackson's motion points out, often unrecognised and misdiagnosed. It is important that we dwell on the subject today.

During my time at university, I spent three years in digs with someone who has remained a lifelong pal and who has subsequently been diagnosed with epilepsy. He cannot drive and has had to give up his job because he lives in the south of England, which involves substantial commuting. However, even before he was treated, he was experiencing seizures only every six months or thereabouts. That shows that relatively mild epileptic conditions can have dramatic social and economic effects on people.

Fergus Ewing referred to Murray Earle's research, which the Scottish Parliament information centre has helpfully provided. There is great diversity in provision across Scotland.

Indeed, as Murray Earle points out, Highland NHS Board is in category D when it comes to provision, which means very basic or limited services. On the other hand, my party leader and his constituents are obviously much better off, because Tayside NHS Board comes top of the tree with category A provision. However, such distinctions are arbitrary, and reflect the lack of a national framework.

Gordon Jackson is right to call for a national framework. I am sure that the minister will respond positively to the debate and other representations that she has received. I urge her not to make any framework that might be developed a rigid set of walls that encloses the problem. To continue the analogy, I believe that she should consider that framework to be scaffolding, up which one might navigate ad lib to the upper parts of the support network and which will provide appropriate support for individuals.

Finally, I congratulate Gordon Jackson on securing this debate.


Subject Debate: Common Fisheries Policy

The Presiding Officer (Sir David Steel): We come to the peace and calm of the debate on the common fisheries policy. I will rely on Mr Finnie to restore peace and calm by starting the debate.

... ... ...

Stewart Stevenson (Banff and Buchan) (SNP): George Lyon certainly spoke to us in interesting terms. I note the effect of our contribution to the UK paper so far—it is nil.

George Lyon: Will the member take an intervention?

Stewart Stevenson: No.

Is George Lyon aware that a majority of the votes are held by countries that are outside the CFP? Is he also aware that qualified majority voting will apply only if the Commission recommends the proposals? After Tuesday, there is considerable doubt as to whether that will happen. That is the scale of the change of position by Franz Fischler. Far from the SNP and members of other parties in the chamber misunderstanding the situation as regards voting, the problem and the misunderstanding lie with the Executive.

Iain Smith (North-East Fife) (LD): Are SNP members seriously saying that they would rather go to the table not with the 10 votes that Ross Finnie can go to the table with, but in a situation in which they would start with minus four votes?

They would have to persuade the rest of the United Kingdom to support the position before they even started, so they would start with minus four votes.

The Deputy Presiding Officer (Mr George Reid): We are tight for time.

Stewart Stevenson: I have been very generous with Iain Smith. He will be aware that small countries that are led effectively can achieve results for their stakeholders. A Scottish delegation, led by an effective minister, would do exactly that.

I think that Alasdair Morrison sought irony in castigating SNP members for their attitude to the fishing industry. It must be an annual event in the Parliament that we debate fishing at 3.30 on the second Thursday in June. I made my maiden speech exactly one year ago, the day after I came into the Parliament and took my oath. It remains a vital issue for my constituents and I remain committed to supporting fishermen, as is every SNP member. Others members are equally committed to supporting fishermen and I am prepared to acknowledge that.

What research has been undertaken on quality? Elaine Thomson said that quality is a big issue. Fishermen in my constituency have asked me whether there are ways in which we can get money to fund research into fish quality. I ask the minister to consider whether Europe will allow him to do that.

We welcome the research on industrial fishing that is in the papers that we have before us. Industrial fishing is a matter of grave concern.

Elaine Thomson: Will the member give way?

Stewart Stevenson: I do not have time.

We do not know the ecological effects of many industrial fishing practices. Perhaps a more serious gap in our research is that we do not know the ecological effects of the discards of deep-water fish in the north Atlantic.

It is interesting that some 20 per cent of the value of the landings of our fishing industry equates to the cost of administrating it. If we were to shift to a position whereby 20 per cent of that value was spent on research, we would be substantially better off.

The real issue, however, is whether we are going to have effective leadership for Scotland's fishermen in the forthcoming negotiations. Are we going to persuade Franz Fischler to recommend proposals, or is the Scottish minister going to lead our UK delegation in the negotiations? Only the latter will guarantee the position of our fishing industry.


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