26 February 2004

S2M-943 Young People

Scottish Parliament
Thursday 26 February 2004
[THE PRESIDING OFFICER opened the meeting at 09:30]
Young People
The Presiding Officer (Mr George Reid): The first item of business this morning is a debate on motion S2M-943, in the name of Peter Peacock, on a better deal for young people, and on two amendments to that motion.
... ... ...
Stewart Stevenson (Banff and Buchan) (SNP): It would be fair to say that there is a genuine sense of anticipation about the minister's summing-up speech. Of course, there always is.
I have said before that, in debate, our critics are our greatest friends. Those who consider what we are doing and make constructive suggestions for modifying our behaviour, policies and practices are the ones to whom we should listen most closely. We should test the challenges that they give us.
Members should note that the SNP amendment deletes nothing from the Executive's motion. If we wanted to, we could play petty, party-political games and fiddle around with it, because the Executive congratulates itself on certain things. I am happy to subscribe to what the Executive has said, but the request to reconsider the Airborne Initiative seems to be gaining widespread support.
In his contribution, Robert Brown said that the partnership agreement contains a commitment to help children who are at risk. In many ways, the Airborne Initiative picks up those who remain at risk through late childhood into early adulthood, and that is why we support it. Robert Brown's proposal to refer the issue to a committee for consideration is one that I find attractive, although I have not yet had the opportunity to discuss it with my colleagues. Were it to be the Communities Committee, of which I am a member, I know that Johann Lamont, the convener of that committee, has been ruthless—I think that that is the correct word—in her pursuit of protecting communities throughout Scotland from that small minority of children who cause problems. I am sure that, because of its deliberations on the Antisocial Behaviour etc (Scotland) Bill, the committee has the background to equip it to consider the issue in a fair and unbiased way. I cannot speak on behalf of the committee, but I judge that it has accepted that there are problems. As yet, the committee has to flesh out its agreement on the solutions to those problems, but that is politics and that will be dealt with in due course.
The plea for interim funding to allow the Airborne Initiative to continue is well made and I hope that the minister will be able to give an appropriate response.
During the Communities Committee's deliberations on the Antisocial Behaviour etc (Scotland) Bill, members have been to places throughout Scotland and have listened to children who behave well and who make a substantial contribution to our communities and to children who have got into trouble. The former grotesquely outnumber the latter; we should be absolutely clear about that. We have been to Polmont young offenders institution and we have seen the effect of the programmes that take place inside that institution, which appear to be beneficial. For those who have not quite graduated to Polmont, there is a need for programmes outside such institutions.
A remark was made earlier that reminded me of the first law of epigenetics, which is that the more highly optimised an organism is for one environment, the less able it is to adapt to another. The key is for the courts and the children's panels to have a diverse range of solutions and disposals for offenders. That is based in reality and in science.
A lot has happened since I was young. A lot has happened since most of us were young. I am a graduate in mathematics—not a terribly good one—and so is my wife. Occasionally we are asked to help youngsters with their school homework. A few weeks ago, a 13-year-old came to ask for help with homework and we found that the boy was studying mathematics that we had studied in our inter honours year at university. Nevertheless, he needed a calculator to do basic arithmetic. I make no censorious remark in saying that—Bell Baxter High School is a fine school, as Scott Barrie said, and I was happy to go there. However, we did things in a different order and at a different pace, and things have undoubtedly changed.
Rosemary Byrne hoped that the idea of tagging young people with problems would go away; however, many of the problems in our society simply will not go away.
In their manifesto, the Liberals made it clear that they supported the Airborne project, and I was delighted to hear that repeated today.
On 10 October 2002, Richard Simpson said:
"we must have processes by which it is accepted that the Executive's decisions are not always totally right or totally wrong, but are balanced decisions that are made on the evidence that is presented to us."—[Official Report, 10 October 2002; c 14589.]
Today is an opportunity for the Parliament to put party politics to one side and to accept that the Executive will get it right sometimes, although not all the time. It is an opportunity for us to grow as a Parliament and to look beyond the tiny cost of buying some time for the Airborne Initiative to give us time to consider the issue in committee. I urge the minister to take that opportunity.

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