27 February 2003

S1M-03647 Ambulance Service (Wick)

The Deputy Presiding Officer (Mr Murray Tosh): The final item of business is a members' business debate on the Wick ambulance service.
Motion debated,
That the Parliament recognises the vital work of the Wick ambulance service; is concerned at the lack of additional funding that was made available to the Highlands from the £22 million the Scottish Ambulance Service (SAS) received for modernisation; notes the long on-call working regime that means ambulance crews are often on duty for as much as 20 hours at a time and are routinely required to make long journeys of over 200 miles; is further concerned that crews suffer from sleep deprivation, possibly endangering themselves, their passengers and other road users, and asks the Scottish Executive and the SAS to urgently review the on-call working arrangements at Wick Ambulance Station, where staff are paid less than 90p per hour for being on-call, with a view to upgrading it from part-time on-call to full-time.
... ... ...
Stewart Stevenson (Banff and Buchan) (SNP): I congratulate Jamie Stone on securing the debate on this important issue for his constituency.
As Jamie Stone said, there was when I was elected a similar situation in Fraserburgh. Until recently, Fraserburgh and Peterhead were the two busiest part-time ambulance stations in Scotland. I am delighted that after a long campaign—started by Alex Salmond and supported by local councillors—Fraserburgh became 24-hour station in December. Peterhead will be upgraded in the coming year. I look forward to visiting Fraserburgh station shortly.
There is absolutely no doubt about the commitment of staff in the Scottish Ambulance Service to doing a quality job. The throughput of work that the Fraserburgh service handles has doubled in 10 years and its staff must be given huge credit for handling that work load professionally and in an exemplary manner, even though Fraserburgh was a part-time station. While I have the minister's attention, I hope that she will tell me when Peterhead will become a 24-hour station. The commitment has been made, but the timetable has not yet been set.
Jamie Stone made an important point about the remoteness of Wick and the distances involved for the ambulance staff who work there. I have to drive only 171 miles to get home tonight; I am afraid that I cannot beat Jamie Stone on that. I drive 40,000 miles a year, so we might trade numbers on the subject later.
Although Peterhead and Fraserburgh were undoubtedly the busiest part-time stations in Scotland, it is probably important that the metrics dealt with the number of calls. The minister might care to consider that if Wick does not necessarily get as far up the list as Fraserburgh and Peterhead, the quality of calls that are attended to there might give Jamie Stone the right to make a special pleading for the staff. The distances that are involved for Wick staff are quite ferocious; I am sure that Jamie Stone has many cases from his files to which he can refer.
We must consider public service and the health and safety of ambulance staff. It is vital that we do not place staff in the position of working an arduous shift, then being on standby to work, in effect, another shift in areas such as those that are served by Wick, only for them to have to go to work again the following day. That makes Jamie Stone's point particularly relevant and important.
We cannot allow such situations to continue, either for the staff or for the people who live in the areas that part-time ambulance stations serve. Accidents can happen at any time of the day or night. In the far north, the nights in winter are especially long.
I wish Jamie Stone well in his campaign on behalf of his constituents in the far north. I take great pleasure in looking out over the 65 miles to Wick across the Moray firth. I hope that he has as much success with his campaign in Wick as I have been able to achieve in Fraserburgh. Well done, Jamie.

19 February 2003

S1M-3914 Fisheries

The Presiding Officer (Sir David Steel): We move to the debate on motion S1M-3914, in the name of Ross Finnie.
... ... ...
Stewart Stevenson (Banff and Buchan) (SNP): When I first came to Parliament, on 13 June 2001, it was to stage 3 of the Housing (Scotland) Bill. I made my first speech the following day, in a debate on the subject of fishing, and said:
"Taking too many boats out of the industry now will benefit only other countries' fishing industries."—[Official Report, 14 June 2001; c 1670.]
Today, our money is building Spanish boats and destroying our boats. Yesterday, Elliot Morley claimed as a victory the fact that the money being spent by the Spaniards must be spent by 2004 whereas, previously, they had to spend it by 2006. There is no reduction in the money, however, which means that Elliot Morley claimed as a victory the fact that the Spaniards must build their fishing fleet up even faster. The extremity of the situation in which our industry is in is perfectly illustrated by that difficulty.
There might be many ports around Scotland in which fishermen are happy with the EU result—I know of some—but the disastrous operation of the CFP will ensure only that their turn for misery has been postponed. We must not indulge in triumphalism because some local interests have a temporary victory. Ministers claim success in the renegotiation of the CFP and it is true that relative stability has been preserved, the Shetland box has been maintained and the Hague preference is continuing, but that is the case only for the time being. There are no guarantees and there is no permanence. The CFP remains absolutely and fundamentally flawed.
In 1975, I campaigned against our entry into Europe on the terms that condemned us to policies such as the CFP and, today, I believe that the CFP must be ended and that we must be out of it.
We must not allow ourselves to be blinded by science. As I said to Elliot Morley yesterday in the Rural Development Committee, there are many sources of science. The International Council for the Exploration of the Sea is the paramount source, and Scotland contributes to it. National fishing reports provide evidence to the EU but, in many cases, that evidence is flawed—as we know, the Danes' industrial fisheries bycatches report grossly under-reported the white-fish bycatch as it was based only on the evidence of arrests in the last three months of the year. We must bear in mind the fact that the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs released a report that showed that stocks of cod and haddock are separated to an adequate degree in the North sea.
We have to acknowledge that our view of the sea's ecology is akin to the knowledge of a room's contents that would be gained by looking through the keyhole. We have an incomplete understanding of what is going on. Our data are incomplete. To question the science is to question whether it can predict what will be, not to quarrel with what is seen. We must open the debate about the nature of extrapolation from the data that are known and about an environment with imperfect data and hidden variables. The Icelanders and Faeroese have used science differently and with huge success.
On 14 June 2001, I said:
"fishing is not just another industry. It is a way of life and a staple for many communities".—[Official Report, 14 June 2001; c 1670.]
Responsibility for fishery management must be delivered to those communities, which will then succeed or fail on their own efforts. The CFP has failed and must be ended in its present form.

13 February 2003

S1M-3886 Budget (Scotland) (No 4) Bill: Stage 3

The Deputy Presiding Officer (Mr Murray Tosh): The next item of business is stage 3 consideration of the Budget (Scotland) (No 4) Bill.
... ... ...
Stewart Stevenson (Banff and Buchan) (SNP): After the humour of McCabe comes the harsh reality of the numbers in the bill. In fact, I find numbers desperately exciting. The discovery in recent times of the 39th Mersenne prime—which is 213,466,917 -1, a number of 4 million digits—is exciting beyond belief. I am sure that members share that excitement.
I am afraid that, as members would expect, I will refer to fisheries. I note that in the coming year we will see a reduction in expenditure from £67.8 million to £48.2 million, according to the budget documents. Perhaps that explains why, in the answer to my colleague Richard Lochhead's question S1W-33536 on where the £50 million for the fishing industry was coming from, the Executive had to say—and I paraphrase—that it is not possible to tell at this stage what will deliver the resources required. The Executive has to examine how it is funding its spending commitments. We will have no more talk about uncosted spending commitments from the SNP.
I will make a brief comment about the small business rates relief. One of my constituents has a retail outlet that is in two premises on opposite sides of the street. It is a small business but, because there are two premises, it does not qualify as such.
I refer to page 16 of the budget documents. I ask the minister whether, in calculating the percentage payments that are being made in the agriculture budget, the Executive is excluding claims that are being made and rejected because of the inefficiencies of the British Cattle Movement Service. It is easy to achieve objectives in completing the making of payments if we reject large numbers of claims through administrative inefficiencies.
I have a little question about pensions—the minister had better have several pens. One of the first things that Gordon Brown did when Labour came to power in 1997 was to change the tax position of pension funds. That has taken some £31 billion out of pension funds, which is roughly equivalent to the current shortfall in the funds. On page 23 of the budget documents, we see a sudden uplift in pension outgoings, which more than double under a heading on that page. I ask the minister what is going on there.
Rural transport is a matter of considerable interest in my constituency. The budget for rural transport measures in the coming year will rise from £5.9 million to £6.3 million. That is good, but it does not sound like an awful lot of money. I see that reflected in my area. When I get the bus from Aberdeen to Peterhead, the journey of 34 miles costs me £4. The village of Whitehills, where I have stayed since being elected, is but 3 miles from Banff and the return bus fare is roughly the same. Therefore, a journey of 6 miles in a very rural part of my constituency costs much the same as a journey of 34 miles elsewhere.
We have heard today that Gaelic is on the downturn. On page 110 of the budget documents, we see a standstill budget for Gaelic education of £2.8 million. On page 121, we see a standstill in grants. On page 112, we see a 5 per cent uplift in the number of users of Gaelic education, despite a standstill budget. It would be interesting to hear the minister explain that.
Maureen Macmillan (Highlands and Islands) (Lab): Is the member aware that Gaelic education has not taken a downturn? The downturn seems to have come about because of older people no longer being with us. In the younger generation, there is a big increase in the use of Gaelic.
Stewart Stevenson: I thank Maureen Macmillan for making my point for me. Given that the census shows that the overall number of Gaelic speakers is dropping—a matter that I very much regret—it seems perverse that the budget to help to develop the next generation of Gaelic speakers is at a standstill, although even within that there seem to be conflicts.
In my intervention on the minister about broadband in the Highlands and Islands, I was making the point that availability of access will, according to the budget documents, remain at 30 per cent next year. Of course advertising will increase the uptake, which is good news. However, given that the Welsh Executive has found £115 million to create a level playing field for business use of broadband—it is subsidising the use of satellite broadband in areas of Wales where cable broadband cannot be provided, so that the cost of satellite broadband is the same as the cost of ADSL connections, which cable provides—it is disappointing that we are far short of that.
Rhoda Grant (Highlands and Islands) (Lab): I have a point of information for Stewart Stevenson. Highlands and Islands Enterprise provides funding to allow businesses to access broadband on satellite. That has been a successful programme in the Highlands.
Stewart Stevenson: Indeed it has been. The rest of Scotland—in particular, my part of Scotland—has no access whatever to broadband. It is interesting that even parts of Edinburgh do not have such access. The point is that, in spite of "A Smart, Successful Scotland", there has been no uplift in the Highlands and Islands.
The Deputy Presiding Officer: You are over time now.
Stewart Stevenson: So I am. I must put my glasses on. I was using Tom McCabe's time.
To close, I will latch on to a point that is mentioned on page 180 of the budget documents. Earlier today, some observations were made on dental practice. I note that the income from charges that are collected by dental practitioners is expected to fall in the coming year. Does that mean that national health service dentistry will be less prevalent in the coming year?

S1M-3893 Crown Office and Procurator Fiscal Service

The Deputy Presiding Officer (Mr George Reid): ... ... ...
The first item of business is a debate on motion S1M-3893, in the name of Pauline McNeill, on the Justice 2 Committee's report on the Crown Office and Procurator Fiscal Service inquiry.
... ... ...
Stewart Stevenson (Banff and Buchan) (SNP): When the convener of the Justice 2 Committee said that she had been doing extra time, I was somewhat alarmed, but I think that I know what she meant. Members of the committee did indeed do extra time.
The Crown Office and Procurator Fiscal Service is truly at the heart of the Scottish criminal justice system. If that system is to reach its full potential—as all members and people throughout the country want—that heart must be healthy. Our communities need faith that those who commit crime will be brought to book soon and in an appropriate way.
The Lord Advocate described the Procurator Fiscal Service as a "cinderalla organisation" that had been
"chronically underfunded for a long time."—[Official Report, Justice 2 Committee, 6 March 2002; c 1114.]
That is lamentably true. However, we must and should praise the dedication of Crown Office and Procurator Fiscal Service staff, who are chronically overloaded with work and use weekends and evenings to keep up with cases. That is not good enough for staff, the public or the police.
The committee heard distressing evidence from victims of crimes and their families, who felt let down by the system and revictimised. However, I recognise the progress that has been made in that area.
A number of unfortunate cases have been brought to my attention and I would like to speak about one of them. A former constituent of mine, who now lives near Inverness, was the victim of a brutal assault. The initial investigation went well and the perpetrator was caught and charged. However, when the case went to court, the accused received a minimal fine rather than the imprisonment that had been expected, as vital evidence was not produced on the day. Why? An inadequately supervised junior policeman and a fiscal who had never met the victim and therefore knew nothing of the severity of the victim's injuries were involved. In that case, a lapse in detail impacted on an individual.
Another constituent had a much better experience, but, unfortunately, that was in the Netherlands. Her son was involved in a car accident. He had pulled over, as his car had broken down, and another car had barrelled up the outside lane and run him over. He spent a year in hospital. The Dutch took the victim's mother across to the Netherlands and she stayed in hospital with her son at the expense of the Dutch for six months. When the case came to court, the mother sat with the prosecutors in the well of the court. She was paid to fly over to the Netherlands and the presiding officer invited her to give her view of the impact of the accident on her family. She could not praise the prosecution service in the Netherlands more highly. That is the standard to which we aspire and towards which we are beginning to move.
On another serious note, the committee had only anecdotal evidence about departmental performance. Statistics are in short supply. A key management theory nowadays is that what cannot be measured cannot be managed. It is not right for members to interfere with the administration of justice, but the Lord Advocate must realise that we will take a close and continuing interest in the administration of the justice system—in other words, in the processes of justice.
New people have been added to the system, but we must not expect too much too soon. In his book "The Mythical Man-Month", Fred P Brookes poses the question:
"How do you make a late project later?"
The answer is by adding staff, as existing staff must train the new staff. All the failings in our system need to be put right to ensure credibility. Only a system that treats victims humanely and with compassion can truly dispense justice. We must deliver.
10:29 Categories [Solicitor General for Scotland]

06 February 2003

S1M-3807 Local Government Finance (Scotland) Order 2003 (SSI 2003/42)

The Deputy Presiding Officer (Mr Murray Tosh): We move to the debate on motion S1M-3807, in the name of Andy Kerr, on the Local Government Finance (Scotland) Order 2003.
... ... ...
Stewart Stevenson (Banff and Buchan) (SNP): The order before us today is a very mean document indeed. It is ill-prepared and covered with hand annotations, but there is a more fundamental problem with it than that. The tables use 6 point print, and my old eyes no longer find it easy to read.
Dr Simpson: He should get some glasses.
Stewart Stevenson: With my presbyopia, myopia and hypermetropia—I have got them all—it is difficult to read.
In paragraph 3.1 of the Scottish ministers' report—the Local Government Finance (Scotland) Order 2003: Report by the Scottish Ministers under paragraph 2(3) of Schedule 12 to the Local Government Finance Act 1992 (SE 2003/16)—I began the hunt for the £14.077 million.
Paragraph 4.1 of the Scottish ministers' report purports to explain the non-domestic rate income—this print is too small for me to read—and the revenue support grant for the coming year. We have the explanation of taking £14.077 million out here and putting it back there, and unfortunately the figures balance: I congratulate you, minister.
Distributing an order that is hand annotated and in 6 point print invites the sort of scepticism with which I began to read the document, and that is unnecessary. I must say that the minister does rather better in the report, which is, at least, in 10 point print—thank you for that. I shall move on to some more serious points.
The one thing that comes across in the report is how little flexibility local government has these days. So much of the money that is allocated to local government is hypothecated for particular issues, and indeed some of it is also being used for competition.
It is time that we had another look at the business rates system, which is penalising town centres at the expense of retail parks. The reason for that is not just that there are small businesses at the centre and large ones at the periphery.
Although there has been an above average—and very welcome—rise in funding for Aberdeenshire Council, it still leaves the council very near the bottom of the table in per capita funding. Indeed, the funding that has been provided shows little recognition of the rurality of the area. People too often associate it with Aberdeen, which is unwarranted as far as funding is concerned.
That said, I should point out that the Executive is doing some good things. For example, three-year funding is much better than one-year funding, and we welcome that approach.
However, I have spent much of my life looking at numbers, and I return to those numbers, particularly the missing ones, which always give me cause for concern as far as local government and the Scottish Executive are concerned. For example, interest charges are dealt with in a rather arcane way in local government, and it is not at all clear against which assets the charges are being calculated. Indeed, we do not have a statement of the assets or liabilities of local government or of the Scottish Executive. One would have such statements for a commercial company or a business. The lack of such a statement makes it very hard to judge whether our assets are being used effectively—and I say so entirely objectively. In particular, the fact that the liabilities associated with the private finance initiative have not been included means that we are in danger of missing any potential problems when we come to supervise budgets.
As for some of the allocations—for example, those to the quality-of-life initiatives—it appears arbitrarily that half of the money has been given to education and half to other issues. Furthermore, staff are being diverted into pretty meaningless competitions at the expense of doing the job in hand and getting money for their departments.
There are still unfunded obligations such as the national road strategy, the climate change levy, the education bill and the McCrone agreement, which is a big issue, particularly in rural areas. Councillors go to councils with great enthusiasm, although some resign—such as a Tory in Aberdeenshire recently—because they feel that they cannot make a difference. However, that is the Tories for you.
At 35 per 100,000 people, Scotland has the fewest elected politicians of any country in Europe. In England, that figure is more than 40, while in Greece it is 650. Our councillors need the best possible support and the funding to enable them to do the job. I am far from certain that we have given them either.

S1M-3856 Organic Farming Targets (Scotland) Bill: Stage 1

The Deputy Presiding Officer (Mr Murray Tosh): The next item of business is a debate on motion S1M-3856, in the name of Robin Harper, on the general principles of the Organic Farming Targets (Scotland) Bill. I invite those members who wish to speak in the debate to press their request-to-speak buttons now. I call Robin Harper to speak to and move the motion. Mr Harper, you have 10 minutes. We will have to be tight on timings in the debate.
... ... ...
Stewart Stevenson (Banff and Buchan) (SNP): I am minded to look at the bill's policy memorandum, which states:
"The long-term aim of the Bill is that there should be more organic food produced and consumed in Scotland".
I am happy to represent a party with clear green credentials. My colleagues in the European Parliament are allied with the Greens there.
We find ourselves in a rather interesting position today, because we shall be supporting Robin Harper's bill despite, in many respects, his best efforts in committee. We support organic farming, and we want to see the expansion of organic food production. We shall therefore support the bill on its general principles because, as Alex Fergusson said, the debate should continue.
We believe that growth of organic production is sustainable only when there is growth in demand. We must see a growth in demand if we are to succeed.
George Lyon rose—
Stewart Stevenson: I do not have time to give way.
Robin Harper is making things difficult for those who want to support him. He said that supporting the general principles of the bill would not commit the Executive to a 20 per cent target for organic farming and that targets are merely advisory. Does Robin Harper mean to say that next time I pass a 30 miles per hour speed limit, I should merely take the advice to drive at no more than 30 miles per hour?
We have to see targets, and we expect that the Executive will introduce them in due course.
Without the target, the bill in many ways would be reduced to a wish list, but at least at stage 2 we would have the opportunity to introduce something to it that would be of value. The organic action plan, produced by the Executive, is welcome after such a long period. I welcome the fact that we will see a fair reflection of the costs of organic conversion and a reasonable incentive provided. It is disappointing that that will happen only after further consultation.
We need smart targets to develop organic expansion in areas where production is particularly low at the moment. Scotland consumes twice as much organics as it produces, so there is a key opportunity. However, we need a level playing field in the UK and Europe.
Some Labour members, in particular Alasdair Morrison, have been telling people in e-mails that they will be backing the bill—I have just received a note about that. I call on him and others to back the bill and allow the debate to continue. We shall be doing so at 5 o'clock.

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