30 October 2003

S2M-477 Integrated Rural Development

The Presiding Officer (Mr George Reid): Good morning. The first item of business is a committee debate on motion S2M-477, in the name of Sarah Boyack, on the Rural Development Committee's report on integrated rural development.

... ... ...

Stewart Stevenson (Banff and Buchan) (SNP): I was deeply envious of the fact that the clock stopped two minutes and nine seconds into David Mundell's speech. If he tips me off about how that is done, there will be £5 waiting for him.

Alex Johnstone: If anyone has that information, I would pay them £10 for giving it to me and keeping it from Mr Stevenson.

Stewart Stevenson: As usual, the Tories turn to the subjects of money and bribery.

It has been about a year since the Rural Development Committee did the bulk of its work for the report on integrated rural development. That brings to mind the old saying, "What a difference a day makes", which is of particular importance to the Tories today. Although an awful lot has changed in that time, my support for the report's recommendations has not changed. I congratulate the new Environment and Rural Development Committee for securing this debate on the report.

I want to challenge, firmly and substantially, a number of issues that relate to rurality and our countryside. Many members have referred to housing. Alex Johnstone's face lit up when he commended the move in the countryside away from tied housing towards ownership of housing. That is fair enough, but the trouble is that we now have a monoculture of owner-occupation, which is no more desirable in the countryside than was the monoculture of poorly managed council estates that used to exist in many Scottish cities.

Our economy is tied up in housing to an extent that inhibits our ability to invest in other activities, industries and enterprises. Developed countries throughout Europe do not have the same patterns of housing ownership. We must try to move towards greater diversity and greater availability in our housing patterns in towns and, especially, in the countryside. The fact that current patterns are a disincentive to the effective use of capital is not good for the countryside.

On education, one of the great difficulties with the increase in the number of young folks who are going on to take university and college degrees—more than 50 per cent of young people are now taking degrees, which is great—is that, to a large extent, people have to leave the countryside to do those courses. In due course, the university of the Highlands and Islands will make a contribution to offsetting that. However, that covers only one part of rural Scotland.

We have to find ways of ensuring that there are jobs in the countryside for those people, whom we train in urban settings and with urban skills, because so few of them return to the countryside. There are people with get up and go in the countryside, but the problem is that they are getting up and going. However, people with get up and go are also coming into many parts of the countryside.

I live in the parish of Ord in Banffshire, which is part of the administrative area of Aberdeenshire. Approximately half the children in our local school come from outwith the area. They bring energy and new ideas, and a welcome commitment to the community. We have to try to replicate that throughout Scotland.

Let me say a little bit about CAP reform. It is a good thing. Farmers are going to be rewarded for stewardship of the countryside. We are moving away from unreasonable reliance on production in farming. However, we have not yet addressed the wider issues for businesses in the countryside. What are the agricultural engineers going to do if the farmers produce less? The farmers are okay, but agricultural engineers are not protected. Other industries and businesses in the countryside will be radically affected by CAP reform, but we have not yet debated that.

My colleague Margaret Ewing referred to fishing, and members have heard me talk about it on previous occasions. We have not taken full account of the effects of the decline in the fishing industry in rural areas. The economists call them third-level effects, but I refer to them as the two-butchers-in-Strichen problem. Strichen, a town of 1,000 people, is 10 miles from the sea and has two butchers. Rather unusually, those butchers supply the fishing trawlers. Decline in the fishing industry means decline in some of our rural communities. By the same token, changes in CAP will have the same effect.

Tommy Sheridan referred to the need for the labelling of Scottish food. I support that but I would go much further. We have got to stop obeying the spirit of European regulations and start obeying the letter. That means that in public procurement, for example, we could say that crops have to be gathered no more than 48 hours prior to delivery to public services. That is a permitted way of ensuring that public services buy locally. We cannot say that we must buy Scottish produce, but we can work the system. Let us start to do that.

I end by saying something fundamental that will show where I differ from many of those who are not in the chamber or are not members for rural areas and who might have a different attitude to some of us. Scotland's countryside, not Scotland's cities, is the future of Scotland. In Scotland's cities there are diseconomies of scale. Mass transportation is necessary to offset those diseconomies of scale—the time taken to travel to work causes loss of productivity. We have to subsidise our cities to make them work at all.

Our countryside is the lungs of Scotland, converting the carbon dioxide that is a result of human endeavour in our cities. It is also where people will look to discharge the stress of city living. If we do not support our rural areas, we will lose our cities as well.


29 October 2003

S2M-192 Primary Medical Services (Scotland) Bill: Stage 1

The Presiding Officer (Mr George Reid): The next item of business is a debate on motion S2M-192, in the name of Malcolm Chisholm, on the general principles of the Primary Medical Services (Scotland) Bill, and one amendment to the motion.
... ... ...
Stewart Stevenson (Banff and Buchan) (SNP): This is an interesting and important debate, which has raised a number of issues.
Donald Gorrie suggested that we should be cautious about a 48-hour target for a patient first being seen. If my memory serves me right, target 6 in the draft health and community care budget for 2004-05 commits the Executive to providing 48-hour access to a GP, nurse or other health care professional. I say that from memory; the Deputy Minister for Health and Community Care can correct me if I have got the data wrong.
One of the things that that commitment does not appear to do is provide access to dentists; however that is an issue not for today but for another occasion. The Minister for Health and Community Care may be sure that it is one to which I and other members in the chamber will return—will we not, Mr Rumbles?
John Farquhar Munro spoke eloquently about the issues in rural areas. The opt-outs cover from 6.30 in the evening until 8.00 in the morning, weekends, bank holidays and public holidays. However, what are bank holidays? By and large, the banks do not observe the legally defined Scottish bank holidays any more, so which dates are we talking about? Only two public holidays are nationally recognised in Scotland—does the opt-out also apply to local public holidays? There are lots of little ambiguities.
Perhaps the real issue is that in rural areas throughout Scotland there are more than 100 incentivised GP practices that have particular problems and for whom the opt-out may not be available. Another issue is that if we are allowing practices that have access to the opt-out to stabilise their work load and take some of the distress out of the job for GPs—stress is good, but distress is bad—do we not leave rural GPs still having difficulties in arranging holidays, for example, because it is difficult to find and pay for locums?
The worthy proposals that are before us today may exacerbate the differentiation between the quality of life of rural GPs and that of urban GPs, but the answer is not just to provide more money for rural GPs and their practices. I am given to understand that around 300 people now practise as locums in Edinburgh, because they can make more money doing so and can be more in control of their work load. Is the NHS to follow the path that has afflicted nursing? The NHS is in the precarious situation of relying increasingly on expensive bank nurses. Will we see bank GPs?
On the basis that we should welcome any measure that will shrink the differentials between GPs in England and Scotland, we welcome the bill. I am not quite sure what David Davidson was saying when, seven minutes and 15 seconds into his speech he said that he did not like to be in the culture of making anything work. That simply confirms what we knew about the Tories' attitude to the NHS. We will have to read the Official Report of the meeting, but I think that David Davidson will find that that is what he said.
We have had some discussion and further illumination of the distinction between essential, additional and enhanced services, which is welcome. Paragraph 2.9(vi) of the NHS Confederation's document "Investing in General Practice: The New General Medical Services Contract" mentions the "cryocautery of warts"—which means burning them off—as an additional service. If that service is additional, not all GPs will necessarily provide it, so perhaps we should reconsider those definitions. My GP father used just to hand me the necessary instrument and I burned my warts off, although I am scarred as a result. The world has changed a little since then. Amusingly, under the heading "Influenza immunisations", that document also says that "Informed dissent will apply." I look forward to finding out what that means.
Carolyn Leckie's intervention was rather ill judged. There is no question but that all members of the Parliament extend our sympathy to her in her personal circumstances, but we cannot excuse the disengagement of her party from the process of the bill. I say to her: engage or be ignored and marginalised.
I have counted 39 instances of the word "may" in the bill, but only 13 instances of the word "must"—the debate has been tedious at times. An important point about secondary legislation underlies that comment. Normally, when a committee considers at stage 2 a bill that is of importance to people in Scotland, we would expect all members of that committee, and people beyond the committee, to lodge amendments that seek to improve and enhance the bill. The Executive has a good record of responding to sensible amendments from all parties. To move the essence of the bill into secondary legislation denies parties the opportunity to lodge such amendments—we can say only yes or no. That point is not only for the Health Committee and this bill; it is a general one for Parliament.
The SNP is happy to support the bill's general principles and we wish it good speed.

08 October 2003

S2M-291 Auxiliary Fire Units (Highlands)

The Deputy Presiding Officer (Murray Tosh): The final item of business today is a members' business debate on motion S2M-291, in the name of Fergus Ewing, on auxiliary fire units in the Highlands. The debate will be concluded without any questions being put.
Motion debated,
That the Parliament notes that auxiliary fire units play a vital role in many rural communities in fighting fires and do so in conjunction with the retained fire brigades; notes with concern that, following a report from Her Majesty's Inspectorate of Fire Services (HMI), 32 auxiliary units face possible closure; further notes that the new approach of integrated risk assessment should permit the preservation of as many as possible of these auxiliary units; considers that the Scottish Executive should explicitly endorse the need for such units and acknowledge the essential role that they play in protecting human life and property; believes that, if the recommendations of the HMI report are not carefully considered and auxiliary units are forced to close because of the proposed introduction of compulsory access to breathing apparatus within a short timescale, then human life and property may be placed at risk; believes that all involved, including Highland Council, the Firemaster, HMI and the Health and Safety Executive, should continue to discuss the implications of the HMI report in the context of integrated risk assessment and find an outcome that prevents the closure of so many of the auxiliary units.
... ... ...
Stewart Stevenson (Banff and Buchan) (SNP): In the main, my remarks will address the conclusions of the "Report of the Principal Inspection of Highland and Islands Fire Brigade 2002". Paragraph 4 states:
"Overall, it is assessed that the service provided is, with the exception of fire cover in some areas, satisfactory".
That is a pretty good start, but some things in the report need to be examined slightly more deeply.
Page 5 shows that the number of incidents per firefighter in the Highlands and Islands seems to be about four, whereas for the busiest Scottish brigade, the number is running at more than 20 per firefighter. However, as the majority of firemen in the Highlands and Islands are part-time auxiliaries, the number that should be considered is the number of fire incidents per hour of duty. I suspect that if the issue was examined in that way and on a comparable basis, the answer would be very different.
If we turn to page 12 of the report, we see that
"Overall performance by part-time staff remains high, with the availability being indicated at 99.1%."
If we translate that into what it would mean for a full-time person, we find that it is equivalent to their having no more than two days off per year. What is the Scottish Executive's performance in that regard? I can tell the minister that the average amount of sickness per employee in the Scottish Executive is at least twice that figure. Part-time firemen in the Highlands and Islands are in fact doing better than the people who service the Executive directly here in Edinburgh. That bespeaks the commitment and determination of part-time firemen in the Highlands and Islands.
On page 15, the inspectorate talks about "small garden sheds". Those sheds often offer good strategic locations within the board's operational area. When the inspector comes up with the list of locations that should be retained, he points out that cover in the Highlands and Islands is 10 times as great as that for the UK as a whole and just under five times as great as that for Scotland. Of course, population density in the Highlands and Islands is substantially less than the figure for Scotland. More to the point, the Highlands and Islands fire brigade area has a fluctuating population. The area rightly continues to be popular with visitors from across the world and across Scotland. In summer, the population rises dramatically, thus shrinking the comparator that is used by the inspector.
Page 35 of the Executive's document on proposals for legislation states:
"The primary objective ... is to create a fire service more responsive to locally identified needs".
Fergus Ewing said in his opening remarks that Highlands and Islands is the size of Belgium. If the minister closes 32 stations, we might have to send for Tintin to help the communities thus deprived of their fire service.

02 October 2003

Subject Debate: Antisocial Behaviour

The Presiding Officer (Mr George Reid): The first item of business is a debate on antisocial behaviour, which will be concluded without any question being put.
... ... ...
Stewart Stevenson (Banff and Buchan) (SNP): The minister asked why we think that the Executive is trying to stigmatise children. There are 72 pages in "Putting Our communities first: A Strategy for tackling Anti-Social Behaviour", but we need to read only the 21 bullet points on the first three pages to find 12 direct or indirect references to children's being the source of the problem. No other issue approaches that level of comment and that is why we think that the Executive is picking on our youngsters and why we will attack it for doing so. The problem ain't that simple.
Rhona Brankin: Is the member aware of statistics that show who the main victims of crime are?
Stewart Stevenson: The main victims of crime are young people.
Rhona Brankin: And who are the perpetrators of that crime?
Stewart Stevenson: I thank the member for making clear the fact that the problem is not just to do with children. Children are victims; they are also a cause of crime, but not the extent that we should pick on them as "Putting Our Communities First" does.
I pose the question, "What is antisocial behaviour?" because that theme has run through the debate. In response to Paul Martin, I accept that the minister's evidence was correct when she outlined many examples of antisocial behaviour and I accept unreservedly that the experiences that she described are valid, that the behaviour to which she and Paul Martin referred is antisocial and that we need to fix the problem. Section 19(1)(a) of the Crime and Disorder Act 1998 defines antisocial conduct as that which
"caused or is likely to cause alarm or distress ... to one or more persons not of the same household".
We face difficulties if we begin to compile lists of what we think are examples of antisocial behaviour. When we try to define the phrase, we find that different age groups have different views. We find that circumstances have to be coupled with behaviour before it becomes antisocial behaviour. I visited Lossiemouth on Tuesday with other members of the Communities Committee. We found that almost universally the people of Lossiemouth think that the major cause of antisocial behaviour is drink. However, agreement broke down over what form of post-drinking behaviour was antisocial.
Last night I was in Fiona Hyslop's home town, having a social drink in the Four Marys in Linlithgow. Incidentally, the verb social drink declines thus: I have a social drink; you have had enough; they're guttered oot their skulls. When we drink is not it always someone else's problem? Four young lads, who had their arms round each other's shoulders, passed noisily by in the other direction. There were snatches of songs and loud conversation, but they made no attempt to engage or harm anyone outside their group. Was I alarmed or disturbed? I was certainly not alarmed, but I was perhaps mildly disturbed. On the other hand, if I lived on Linlithgow High Street and such a noise occurred every night just after I had fallen into a well-deserved sleep, I would probably think that that was antisocial behaviour. There is a grey zone, where the context as well as the behaviour is important.
However, an assault—verbal or physical—on a private citizen or public servant is clearly the dark side of society and alcohol is a key factor in that. When that is established as a regular pattern of behaviour it becomes a clear case of antisocial behaviour. Could antisocial behaviour really be fully defined in law, as is perhaps being considered by the Executive, or is that a surrogate for creating criminals when there is not criminal evidence? If so, it would drive a coach and horses through civil liberties.
I gained insight in Lossiemouth this week into one part of the problem. Youngsters told me that although a decade ago there were five places that they could go to sit in, today there is one, despite the population's having grown in the period. To move on youngsters who do not have somewhere to go from one street corner so that they congregate in another will not make a difference. I agree with Donald Gorrie that more facilities must be provided for youths.
We also need to give the police the facility to deal with the problem. A couple of years ago in Lossiemouth there was a serious problem with a group of youngsters, nicknamed the "Lossie Posse". The problem was not solved by changing the law; it was solved by directing resources, under the existing laws that were available to the police and others, into that community. The perpetrators were tried and found guilty; if they were youngsters they were put into the appropriate accommodation.
The Minister for Communities will have to work hard to justify her belief that changing the law rather than upping the resources is the way to solve the problem. Get off the backs of our young people—they are our future and they deserve and demand our support. I say to the minister that we put our communities first when we provide resources that support them. Persecution of one category of our society—youth—is no substitute for prosecution of offenders. It is necessary to give society and society's defenders the tools that will enable them to do the job.

01 October 2003

S2M-411 Mainstreaming Equality

The Presiding Officer (Mr George Reid): The next item of business is a debate on motion S2M-411, in the name of Cathy Peattie, on behalf of the Equal Opportunities Committee, on its report, "Mainstreaming Equal Opportunities in the Work of Committees of the Scottish Parliament".
... ... ...
Stewart Stevenson (Banff and Buchan) (SNP): I, too, congratulate Kate Maclean and all members of the Equal Opportunities Committee during the first session on their work, as expressed in the report. The successor convener of the committee, Cathy Peattie, has given us a strong signal that she is equally determined that the Parliament should move forward on this subject and that everything that we learned in the first session should be worked on and delivered in the new one.
It will come as no surprise that my Scottish National Party colleagues and I are happy to support the nine recommendations in the report. However, like today's motion, I simply note the content of the report. In part that has to be our approach, because some of the recommendations are directed to the new Equal Opportunities Committee, which is sovereign and entirely responsible for deciding whether to accept them. However, if committee members dinnae accept them, I may be around with a grip to persuade some individuals—certainly my political colleagues—that they should.
Over the past week, I have acted in an entirely non-discriminatory manner and have sought to share with as many colleagues and friends as possible the cold that still afflicts my throat. That explains the absence of Campbell Martin, who was originally scheduled to open for the SNP. He has seized the opportunity offered by my cold a little more enthusiastically—and more equally—than have others.
We know that we will have succeeded on this subject when there is no Equal Opportunities Committee in the Parliament and no reports on the matter. However, although progress has been made and continues to be made, the absence of such a committee seems a rather distant prospect. That is partly because as we develop as individuals we become more aware of the lack of equality exhibited in our personal behaviour. Parliament operates in a much wider context. We are not just a little introverted body of people. We are here to set an example and to get things right as far as we can by our own processes. We are also here to encourage and to hold to account the Executive's activities in that regard.
In the wider world, 1 January 1975—some time ago—was a key equality date, because it was on that day that discrimination against women in employment became illegal. On 31 December 1974, my then employers were offering discounted mortgages only to men, not to women. Until very recently, my mortgage continued on the same pre-equality terms. The post-1974 terms were equal for men and women, but they were not equal to those for the men such as me who were lucky enough to have borrowed money before the legislation came into force. The point of that little story is that when the committee's research states that
"mainstreaming requires tenacity ... to sustain commitment to equality over a significant time period",
it is 100 per cent spot on. Given that the effects of the 1975 change in the legal framework have yet to work their way through the system and through society, we can see the reality of that statement. Two generations have passed and we still do not have the equality promised in that legislation. Women who were not yet born in 1975 are today in employment and, as likely as not, remain underpaid, under-rewarded and undervalued in comparison with their male colleagues.
My wife had the grave misfortune to work for a while for the merchant bank Hill Samuel. She worked at a senior level and on her various trips to the head office in London had to attend meetings in the boardroom. There was not even a ladies' toilet on the same floor as the boardroom—and that was in the late 1980s, not 1975—so she used just to go to the male toilet.
Equal opportunities is not just a male-female issue. As Cathy Peattie said, it is not even wholly within the Parliament's power. Last week, my political colleagues and I met in Inverness and we agreed that
"The SNP will positively pursue an equal opportunities agenda to ensure that pension rights, property rights and inheritance rights are brought into the 21st century."
The context was that we were revisiting and trying to bring up to date legislation on partnerships, on which the Executive is consulting.
We must do what we can. We must encourage others by example and by persuasion to play their part. We have made progress on male-female equal opportunities. The men are outnumbered in the chamber today, but I do not think that that is a good thing, given that we are talking about equal opportunities. We have to reduce discrimination.
In the Communities Committee meeting this morning, Elaine Smith said that disability issues come up a wee bit less frequently and with considerably less passion. Is that because we do not have any members with a disability?
Mrs Margaret Smith (Edinburgh West) (LD): The member will find that my colleague Mike Pringle is registered as disabled.
Stewart Stevenson: I thank the member for that information, which I accept entirely. I did not want to assume that he has a disability and that he views himself in that way.
Let us ask ourselves some questions. Have we in the Parliament done well? In the new Parliament building, we would have failed in our duty if we had not ensured that whoever was First Minister could, if in a wheelchair, go from their office, through the members' lounge and into the chamber, thus not losing out on the banter and chat in the corridors that is an essential part of fixing the wee problems that we often have. I understand that there will be markings on the floors that blind members will be able to feel through their feet, thus enabling them to navigate safely round the Parliament. That is good. However, do people with disabilities know that we aspire to having a new Parliament building—one that we think we will see—that will be world class in its ability to support people who are disabled and are discriminated against in too many places?
Are we doing better on ethnicity? Last August, I asked a question on that. It transpired that the Scottish Parliamentary Corporate Body employed 402 people. Two were Asian and one was black. Three were non-white. Eight employees had a disability. In each of those categories, the numbers were well under what would have been a representative share of the population. We have much to do and I think that all of us in the chamber want to do it.
In all that we say and do, are we doing well enough? Are we guilty of inflicting our prejudices—residual as I hope they now are and even when we are trying very hard to be inclusive—on people whom we continue to think of as "others". Paragraph 58 of the committee's report states that responding organisations suggest that the phrase "mainstreaming equality" should be replaced with the word "integration". I could not disagree more fundamentally. I absolutely agree with the idea that people should have the opportunity to integrate, free from discrimination. However, I believe in the absolute right of an individual to remain separate, if that is their free and informed choice. It is not up to us to make decisions for people; they have to make their own decisions.
Being part of the community, in its widest sense, must not require rejection of any other community. It must not preclude people from having allegiance to multiple identities. As Stonewall Scotland says, people cannot be categorised by the group of which some of us might say that they are a member. Being black, being gay, being female or having a disability is not necessarily the most important thing for an individual. That is why I probably had not been aware of Margaret Smith's colleague's disability: it was not the most important thing in my relationship with him. We must put people before labels and individuals before groups.
The Equal Opportunities Committee has made much of the need for training parliamentary staff and, indeed, parliamentarians. The Parliament has started a course of training. I do not think that all that many of us have been on it yet, but there is still time. I hope that we will take part. If we do not get trained and improve our sensitivity—and paragraph 72 of the committee's report warns against the use of tick boxes—we may not have the deep understanding of how we fail to create equal opportunities; all that we will have is a non-comprehending list-based approach that will deliver very little.
We cannot list all the discriminations that we, as individuals or as a Parliament, may be party to. Let me choose one that members have almost certainly never encountered or thought of. More than 20 years ago, I was at a wedding. That, in itself, is not an unusual event, but one of the couple getting married was photograph-phobic. I do not know the word for that; I do not think that there is one. The person could not bear to be photographed; they had an absolute loathing of it. In all the wedding photographs, there is only one of the bride and groom. The person could not get a passport because they could not be photographed, so there was no foreign honeymoon. If they were elected to the Parliament, would the cameras around the chamber be able to exclude them so that they did not have to have their picture taken? Would they be able to have a parliamentary pass without a picture? Would we tease them because we thought that their phobia was a wee bit funny? It is not the slightest bit funny for that individual. I choose that case to illustrate the extra miles that we will always have to travel.
As the report notes, the equality guidelines will enable committees to stop and think. Let us hope that we have all received the wake-up call about equal opportunities in the chamber, in the committees and in every aspect of our public and private lives. I congratulate the committee.

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