31 March 2004

S2M-1117 Fraser Inquiry (BBC Tapes)

Scottish Parliament
Wednesday 31 March 2004
[THE DEPUTY PRESIDING OFFICER opened the meeting at 14:30]
... ... ...
Fraser Inquiry (BBC Tapes)
The Deputy Presiding Officer (Murray Tosh): The next item of business is a debate on motion S2M-1117, in the name of David McLetchie, on the failure of the BBC to hand over tapes to the Fraser inquiry, together with two amendments to the motion.
... ... ...
Stewart Stevenson (Banff and Buchan) (SNP): There are many occasions on which I would wish to direct the media in their activities, but it is not the job of the Parliament or politicians to operate the BBC or any broadcasting—other than that which directly provides the feed of our own activities from this chamber and the committee rooms. On that basis, the Tory motion is entirely misplaced. However, there may be more to this issue than there appears. Mr Michael Howard's desire to sook up to Murdoch by disconnecting the BBC from its core public service obligation and by supporting the efforts of News International to become the most significant provider of news is well understood. The Tories hate anything that serves public good at the expense of private profit.
Note the words that David McLetchie used about the BBC: he said that it should be "required to comply". Required by politicians, that is. David McLetchie fails to make the very important distinction between a command from politicians and a command from a legal institution.
That is why the SNP amendment focuses on the Tribunals of Inquiry (Evidence) Act 1921, to give the Fraser inquiry—that legal institution—the power to require the BBC to act. There is a world of difference between politicians directing the BBC and lawyers doing so.
However, none of that is to say that the BBC comes out of this with its reputation enhanced—far from it. A dignified recognition that a public good would derive from its releasing the interviews with those who cannot now speak for themselves would have done the BBC much good. In the absence of a response from the BBC to the Fraser inquiry's requests, we are left with two possible conclusions, neither of which is especially palatable.
The key point is that the tapes may contain dynamite; if they do, withholding them from the inquiry so that the real meat cannot be seen is concealment, which is not acceptable. The alternative is that the tapes are banal. In a sense, that also tells us a story about the lack of attention of those people who were involved.
The apparent absence of fair dealing on the part of some members of the Executive is what gives some weight to the conspiracy theorists and traps our democracy in a backward-looking time warp.
The First Minister could set to one side many of the criticisms by a brief appearance in front of the inquiry. I regret that he has not done that, but he could exercise real leadership now by joining the other leaders and adding the weight of his office to the weight of their offices to persuade the BBC to do the decent thing. He could do even better by giving the tribunal the powers and persuading Westminster in that regard.

25 March 2004

S2M-1090 Summary Justice

Scottish Parliament
Thursday 25 March 2004
[THE DEPUTY PRESIDING OFFICER opened the meeting at 09:30]
... ... ...
Summary Justice
The Deputy Presiding Officer (Trish Godman): The next item of business is a debate on motion S2M-1090, in the name of Cathy Jamieson, on reforming the role of non-jury courts, and one amendment to that motion.
... ... ...
Stewart Stevenson (Banff and Buchan) (SNP): It is difficult to do justice to a 280-page report that contains 140 recommendations and a significant note of dissent. I am sure that some good will come from the four-month consultation, even if it is only a resolution of some of the conflict between that note of dissent and the substance of the report. Nonetheless, it is disappointing that the Executive has not felt able to "open the dirty raincoat" and let us see its preliminary thoughts on those parts of the report that it should find relatively easy to accept.
I turn to one or two points that touch on the note of dissent and the core report and ask how the committee could have been misled in certain respects by some of the evidence that it appears to have used. I refer particularly to the English report to Lord Irvine's office "The judiciary in the magistrates' courts", which was published in 2000. Pages 75 and 76 of the McInnes report refer to that report, which came up with several financial suggestions that are, upon examination, incredible. It suggests:
"A lay magistrate costs on average £495 per annum compared to the £90,000 per annum total employment costs of a stipendiary."
I do not find that to be particularly astonishing. Those figures translate into £3.59 per appearance before lay magistrates and £21 per appearance before stipendiary magistrates. It goes on to say:
"When indirect costs ... are brought into the equation, however, the gap between the 2 groups narrows, to £52.10 and £61.78."
A bit of basic arithmetic reveals that that only works if the professional magistrates are paid at the rate of £18,000 per year, which I suspect not to be true. I wonder whether, in that particular instance, the committee is founding some of its arguments on some rather dubious numbers that might have been unwisely selected from a larger report.
Miss Goldie: Will the member give way?
Stewart Stevenson: I wish to develop the point that I am making. I am reading from page 76 of the report, if that is helpful.
The authors of the report go on to include opportunity costs—in other words, the cost to the lay person of giving up the benefit of doing what they might have been doing if they were not in court—and say that, in essence, a lay magistrate costs £9 more per appearance than a stipendiary. Of course, that is not a cost to the criminal justice system. It is a genuine and partial measure of the benefit that the lay magistrate is contributing voluntarily to the system. The committee may have misled itself a little on such issues.
In section 5.20, on page 50, there is a discussion of the management savings that are to be made by centralisation. However, according to standard management theory, increasing centralisation increases management as a proportion of effort. Reasonable criticisms may be made of the savings that might be made there. It is perfectly reasonable to integrate vertically the various parts of the criminal justice system, but to integrate the system across the geography of Scotland and to take away local decision making is not necessarily a good idea.
I say seriously to Colin Fox that he ought to ponder carefully whether when he focuses on a few instances of problems with individuals in the criminal justice system he really represents the views of the people whom I meet on constituency business. Those problems must be set against the considerable need of the victims of crime. In the report there is discussion of diversity among lay magistrates and the system is criticised for not being sufficiently diverse. Magistrates are too old and are not socially mixed. However, lay magistrates are more diverse than sheriffs, which is something.
On the issue of volunteers, I note that Assistant Chief Constable Pat Shearer is trying to have more special constables, who are volunteers, employed across Scotland. That illustrates the fact that there is a place for such people in the legal system.
John McInnes has produced an excellent report, but I hope that it does not make the same contribution to the legal system that a copy of "Huckleberry Finn" from Slade prison library made. Fletcher took it to the prison governor and said, "This is the book you wanted, prison governor."
The prison governor asked, "Why?" Fletcher replied, "You wanted a book to prop up your bookcase, and this is the right size." The McInnes report is about the same size as that book—it deserves a better fate than "Huckleberry Finn" in Slade prison.

18 March 2004

S2M-1050 Council Tax

Scottish Parliament
Thursday 18 March 2004
[THE DEPUTY PRESIDING OFFICER opened the meeting at 09:31]
... ... ...
Council Tax
The Deputy Presiding Officer (Trish Godman): The next item of business is a debate on motion S2M-1050, in the name of Fergus Ewing, on the abolition of the council tax, and three amendments to the motion.
... ... ...
Stewart Stevenson (Banff and Buchan) (SNP): This has been an interesting debate, with more heat than light. Tavish Scott made an interesting point about the way in which council tax benefit works in relation to the current system. However, one of the key issues to bear in mind is the under-claiming of council tax benefits to which people are entitled compared with the claiming of benefits that are provided by the income tax system, which ensures that everyone can get what they are entitled to. The claim that the council tax system works fairly and properly because people may claim benefit is therefore not an adequate argument in favour of it.
Tavish Scott: I take Mr Stevenson's point, but that is exactly why we support so strongly the work of the department in London—the one whose name I could not pronounce earlier—that is specifically taking forward the take-up campaign in relation to council tax benefit.
Stewart Stevenson: I support any campaign that will ensure that we increase the level of take-up of benefits of all kinds. The difficulty is that the Government will not achieve the take-up that would be achieved via an income tax system, no matter how hard it tries. That is the fundamental problem.
The minister is not alone in being confused. Brian Monteith showed that he moves in rather different circles from those in which I move when he suggested that the self-employed are on a 40 per cent marginal rate of income tax. I invite him to visit my constituency, where there are many very poor self-employed people, some of whom pay no tax at all and of whom only a small minority pay 40 per cent. The whole point of an income tax system is that what someone pays is based on what they can afford.
Mr Monteith: Will Stewart Stevenson take an intervention?
Stewart Stevenson: Look at the clock—I do not have time. I am sorry.
Mark Ballard promotes the land value tax—as usual and as is proper, given his party's commitment to it—but fails to explain how one may trade a capital asset into a revenue stream to pay tax. It is the same problem whether people have locked-in value in a capital asset in land or in houses: they simply cannot use it in that way.
Iain Smith suggests that it is unfair that people pay different levels of tax depending on where they live in a council area. That is the present position under council tax. That was a valuable contribution for Iain Smith to make to the debate, as it highlights the fact that local decision making—
Mr Monteith: Will the member give way?
Stewart Stevenson: I am in my last minute and am running out of time.
Des McNulty suggested, with a cavalier disregard for the interests of the people of Scotland, that we could hardly expect London to change the rules because we want to change the way in which our local councils gather income. Is not that precisely why the Scottish Parliament needs the full powers of a normal Parliament? That was an aberration on his part. He also said that low-income pensioners would start to pay tax, which shows a basic misunderstanding of the income tax system. Was that an aberration on his part, or an adumbration that we will shortly see a change in that regard?
I have had only a limited amount of time to speak, but that is as nothing to the limited time that the Government will have if it fails to respond to this problem. The minister must listen up or lose out.

10 March 2004

S2M-532 Antisocial Behaviour etc (Scotland) Bill: Stage 1

Scottish Parliament
Wednesday 10 March 2004
[THE DEPUTY PRESIDING OFFICER opened the meeting at 14:30]
... ... ...
Antisocial Behaviour etc (Scotland) Bill: Stage 1
The Deputy Presiding Officer (Murray Tosh): The next item of business is a debate on motion S2M-532, in the name of Margaret Curran, on the general principles of the Antisocial Behaviour etc (Scotland) Bill, and two amendments to the motion. As we are now behind the clock, I ask members to stick to their speaking times.
... ... ...
Stewart Stevenson (Banff and Buchan) (SNP): Time is running out not only for the debate but—more crucially—for the many communities throughout Scotland that suffer from the effects of antisocial behaviour and, ultimately, for the Executive if its nostrums fail to fix the problems that we have all heard about and recognise. However, we all know that and we are in suspense only about whether what is proposed will deliver the remedies that are sought.
It is my belief and my personal experience that no member of the Communities Committee, of which I am a member, has remained unchanged by the experience of visiting communities in eight regions, hearing evidence of people's concerns and tapping into their experience. For me in particular, as someone from the north-east and a traditional east coaster, visiting west coast communities with particular problems, especially in Glasgow, left me in no doubt that the comments that Johann Lamont has long expressed on the subject of antisocial behaviour draw on a deep and legitimate well of concern. I entirely accept that.
The divergence that there may be between my colleagues and me and the Executive parties is not in the analysis but in the prescriptions that follow from that. We are briefly discussing today what is a large bill, consisting of 13 parts and 112 sections. There are parts of the bill about which we have said nothing. Part 1 of the bill is about having a strategy, which is an excellent idea and I am happy to support it. Part 2, which relates to ASBOs, is fine as far as it goes. I will return to that point. Part 3 has been exercised considerably.
At this point it is appropriate to refer to the experience that reporters to the Communities Committee had when they visited Gilmerton and the Inch in Edinburgh. We found that there were significant problems there, including physical intimidation and assault; attacks on pensioners at bus stops; alcohol and drugs; public sex; under-age drinking—which was a major problem; and ball games to the early hours in an open area adjacent to housing. When people complained, the situation escalated into verbal and physical threats. Those are precisely the problems that the bill seeks to address.
However, the interesting thing there is not the description of the problem but the response of that community and its leaders to the problem. Before I describe the attempts to fix the problem, I should say that they were led by a Labour councillor—so I make no partisan points on behalf of anyone in my party. The councillor had the initiative and the guts—as councillors and members of the Parliament should have—to bring community groups together, to hold public meetings and to ensure that interim ASBOs were sought and obtained. The community is also working on a ban on alcohol and nicotine products. Through multiagency meetings, the community has shared information and put in place acceptable behaviour contracts. It has received some money from City of Edinburgh Council—£90,000—which has helped. It has also changed the physical appearance of the area and painted shops with anti-vandal paint. It has found somewhere for the kids to congregate—unlike Karen Whitefield, I think that hanging out is perfectly acceptable and indeed appropriate behaviour for youngsters.
Mike Rumbles observes that there is nothing in the partnership agreement that requires him to support the proposal to give the police powers to disperse groups. I imagine—although I did not read this—that the partnership agreement must contain something about blank cheques and require him to support measures that the Government comes along with at a later date. Perhaps he will explain that, although there is not enough time for him to do so just now.
Part 4 is on the closure of premises. There is a danger that areas will be stigmatised in the long term, so an attempt to deal with the few will be to the disbenefit of the many. Part 5, on noise, is fine. Part 6, is on the environment. I think that litter problems in rural areas will be addressed at stage 2.
Part 7 is on housing and antisocial behaviour. Karen Whitefield and others had considerable concerns about linking antisocial behaviour orders to tenure. The extended powers in the bill will exacerbate problems and will, of course, leave private owners entirely outside the sanctions that will be applied to tenants. That is intrinsically unfair and unreasonable and is likely to lead to problems in due course.
I will skip ahead to part 10. Landlords, too, want reform and support registration, because they want to get rid of the cowboys in their business, as we all do. We must make rapid progress on that. On part 13, the minister should consider who is a "relevant authority".
I conclude by saying that I think that the Executive's policy is based on weedkiller—the attitude is, "Let's spray it on the problems." Perhaps we also need a little Baby Bio to support the parts that will benefit us in the future.

04 March 2004

S2M-699 Vulnerable Witnesses (Scotland) Bill

Scottish Parliament
Thursday 4 March 2004
[THE PRESIDING OFFICER opened the meeting at 09:30]
... ... ...
Vulnerable Witnesses (Scotland) Bill
The Deputy Presiding Officer (Trish Godman): The next item of business is a debate on motion S2M-699, in the name of Cathy Jamieson, that the Vulnerable Witnesses (Scotland) Bill be passed.
... ... ...
Stewart Stevenson (Banff and Buchan) (SNP): The fact that we are making more rapid progress than the timetabling motion suggested is no reflection on the serious way in which the Justice 2 Committee and the Parliament have considered the bill. I congratulate all those who were involved in developing the bill, as it is a worthwhile addition to the improvements that are being made for victims and witnesses in the criminal justice system. Victims and witnesses have long been a neglected and largely forgotten part of the criminal justice system.
I recall being a witness when I was seven. Fortunately, I did not have to go to court. I witnessed a minor matter that involved a bus reversing into a car. Just being interviewed by a policewoman in quite a relaxed way was daunting for a seven-year-old. It would have been much more so if I had been older and had had to go to court, although those were circumstances of no particular pressure. The bill is a welcome development.
Excellent developments have been made to protect victims of sexual offences, on which I have commented. Mike Pringle properly focused on the need to give training a priority and the deputy minister gave us assurances about that. The amount of change in the criminal justice system and in the operation of courts presents the formidable challenge of bringing sheriffs and all who are involved in courts up to an appropriate level of behaviour and experience and of understanding of the legislation. We will watch that with considerable care.
The introduction of victim statements after verdicts and before sentencing was a useful change that was made in the previous parliamentary session, as was the requirement to notify victims when serious offenders are to be released and when they are to be considered by the Parole Board for Scotland. That is all good and adds to the list of worthwhile improvements that have been made.
Annabel Goldie referred to witnesses' concerns and fears in some circumstances. While considering the Antisocial Behaviour etc (Scotland) Bill, the Communities Committee has deliberated a range of issues that are associated with antisocial behaviour and crime in our communities. We will debate the bill next week. I will not tread on the toes of that too much, but one element that has emerged from those discussions and which is worth thinking about is the role of professional witnesses when repeated and serious intimidation occurs. The Executive might wish to consider developing further the role of professional witnesses in some circumstances and the Communities Committee will no doubt return to that subject next week.
As a layman rather than a lawyer, I have always found it slightly bizarre that in our criminal justice system, the Crown Office acts as a neutral arbiter of the balance between the victim and the accused. The situation is different in other countries, where the prosecutor represents the victim. That has further scope for consideration. Such a move would be part of supporting witnesses and victims.
The bill is welcome. I will take great pleasure in supporting it come decision time.

03 March 2004

S2M-215 National Health Service Reform (Scotland) Bill: Stage 1

Scottish Parliament
Wednesday 3 March 2004
[THE PRESIDING OFFICER opened the meeting at 14:30]
... ... ...
National Health Service Reform (Scotland) Bill: Stage 1
The Presiding Officer (Mr George Reid): The next item of business is a debate on motion S2M-215, in the name of Malcolm Chisholm, on the general principles of the National Health Service Reform (Scotland) Bill, and on one amendment to that motion.
... ... ...
Stewart Stevenson (Banff and Buchan) (SNP): We welcome the ending of the NHS trusts and the burden that they have placed on the organisation of the NHS over a period of time. We welcome the move towards integrated working and the assurance that goes with it that a single system does not imply a centralised system. Of course, those assurances will go for nought if the implementation drops short of that and we will remain alert and watch carefully as the implementation of the proposals evolves.
The minister, in his response to the various committees' investigations of the bill to date, has made encouraging signs of flexibility. For example, he has shown that he is prepared to amend the bill at stage 2 on local staff governance. I will return shortly to the apparent lack of flexibility on finance.
The Executive has turned its mind with great energy to consultation across many of its policy areas. There are clear signs—in the consultation on this bill, as in many others—that although the process allows the public and special interest groups to make their points, the Executive's specific responses are not always so clear. Not all points that are made in response to a consultation can be accepted, because consultations bring out points that conflict with each other; that is a fact of life. However, there is considerable scope for improving the feedback to consultees.
Bill Butler made a point about direct elections to health boards. I have enormous sympathy with that idea and I know that my colleagues feel the same.
I give the minister early warning that if he is not able to indicate, in his summing-up, a preparedness to take away and re-present the financial memorandum in the light of the comments that have been made today, it is likely that we will be unable to support the motion on the financial resolution come decision time. Nonetheless, we will support the substantive motion on the bill and I look forward to doing that.
Like Kate Maclean, I was extremely reassured to hear the Tories' concerns about the bill and similarly felt that we must be on the right track. Of course, the Tories have mentioned the money that will be required for the bill. However, I recall John Scott telling me in a previous debate that he did not care how much it would cost to decommission nuclear power stations, so the Tories' interest in money is somewhat selective. I will return to that issue. Kate Maclean also broke with tradition by putting Mike Rumbles in his place over some of his remarks.
Eleanor Scott made an excellent contribution to the debate by making the point about health improvement that the British Medical Association raised in its evidence to the Health Committee. The BMA wants the health improvement strategy to be taken further, so that all policy decisions take account of health. Rural areas in particular cannot be developed if they do not have health provision. Without health provision, the development policies simply will not work.
My colleague John Swinney made an important point about consultation. Tayside's three public partnership groups count for nought if local services are cut in the face of considered and considerable input from local communities. The minister might care to ponder whether there is any value in consultation that leads to no change.
Carolyn Leckie, quite rightly, echoed Unison's point about the need to ensure that the trade unions and staff are fully involved in the process. Indeed, Unison's written submission incorporated the Munich declaration, which highlighted the need for authorities across Europe to strengthen nursing and midwifery by
"Ensuring a nursing and midwifery contribution to decision-making at all levels of policy development and implementation".
Let us hope that there is considerable scope for that in the way forward that the Executive has chosen.
If we do not get the staff on board, we will not be able to deliver for patients or for the public purse. Staff must end up in a position in which they are given individual freedom to make decisions that are in the interests of the service and in the interests of patients. Health service staff want to help patients. That is the fuel in their tank. That is the engine that drives them.
Let me turn to finance—I see that the Tories nearly woke up at the mention of that word. Paragraph 33 of the stage 1 report states:
"The Health Committee shares the concerns of the Finance Committee insofar as we believe the cost of intervention has been considerably underestimated".
We should hear more about that. Paragraph 62 states:
"The Committee would not wish to see the initial phase of change compromised in any way due to a lack of funding ... The Committee seeks further reassurance from the Minister".
I hope that the minister will be able to give us that reassurance.
I also highlight paragraph 65. Mr Rumbles signed up to that paragraph in its entirety, so I note his comments about the Tory member of the committee. Paragraph 65 states:
"The Health Committee endorses the view of the Finance Committee. We are not convinced that no additional funding will be required to increase public involvement."
The financial memorandum, which was considered by the Finance Committee, sums up the many changes that the bill will make to the NHS. The Finance Committee's report on the financial memorandum stated that
"it was regrettable that further information could not be provided"
about the costs of the bill, so there is clearly an issue about costs. On the costs of using the powers of intervention, Argyll and Clyde NHS Board thought that the cost per intervention would be £200,000, whereas the Executive says that it would be £85,000. Quite a lot of work is obviously needed on the costs associated with the bill. That is why the Finance Committee said that the work that the Executive had done did not provide adequate information about costs.
Even the Subordinate Legislation Committee, from which we seldom hear very much, had quite a lot to say about the powers that the Scottish ministers will retain for themselves. That committee expressed some concern and unease about the four significant powers that ministers will retain.
I must respond to Brian Monteith, who referred to Eric Blair. Brian Monteith is certainly not a Winston Smith, but far less is he a Winston Churchill. He has neither the gravitas, the dedication or the insight.
It is 40 years since I worked in the health service. I do not want a health service that is driven by an economic model in which the purchase of health care by money, however obtained, delivers dividends to people who provide it. All of us, apart from the Tories, want a health service that is driven by people's health needs and which delivers a dividend of good health and protection from illness to all people in our society, whatever their condition.

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