15 December 2005

S2M-3628 Family Law (Scotland) Bill

Scottish Parliament

Thursday 15 December 2005

[THE PRESIDING OFFICER opened the meeting at 09:15]

… … …

Family Law (Scotland) Bill

The Deputy Presiding Officer (Trish Godman): The next item of business is a debate on motion S2M-3628, in the name of Cathy Jamieson, that the Parliament agrees that the Family Law (Scotland) Bill be passed.


… … …


Stewart Stevenson (Banff and Buchan) (SNP): At this stage in the progress of a bill, it is always interesting to look around the chamber to see who are the few hardy chiels who have managed to survive, awake and engaged.

I conclude from today's debate and from debates in committee and elsewhere that no one in the Parliament wishes to do anything that would damage relationships of whatever nature or adversely affect the children of Scotland. At our core, each and every one of us shares a common set of values. We continue to differ on the detail and on whether the bill supports or degrades progress in that respect. However, we are likely to pass a bill tonight, and I will vote for it. We have heard that not all my colleagues will necessarily do so, and we may hear from them later.

I will start with matters outside the bill, to which the minister made reference, by paying tribute to the work that former sheriff Alan Finlayson did on the parenting agreement. It is a most impressive document that was produced by a very impressive process. Alan Finlayson's engagement with the committee and his willingness to interact, respond and adapt as a result of that interaction is an interesting model for extra-legislative ways of dealing with some of the complex issues that arise when one deals with matters such as those that the Family Law (Scotland) Bill encompasses.

I welcome the abolition of marriage by cohabitation with habit and repute and its replacement with something that I hope will be rather clearer and which provides a range of objective tests, although there remains some disagreement about their nature.

We have reformed the waiting times for no-fault divorces. Everyone in the Parliament accepted that we had to reduce by some degree some of the waiting periods under that heading. Anyone outside the Parliament who suggests that members were holding a line and seeking to abolish divorce or to restrict access to it by obstructionism is entirely mistaken. We have differed in degree and in detail, but not, by and large, in principle.

We have addressed an historic wrong in relation to the power of some Jewish men—a very small number—over Jewish wives, and that is welcome.

We have addressed the issue of contact orders to some degree. The minister must continue to work with members to convince us that contact orders will be complied with, given that there are cases in which severe hurt is inflicted through what appears to be wilful disregard of the judgment that the court hands down. By the same token, the minister made some useful moves on support services, but she should not take her hand out of her wallet yet. There is more to do and we will be watching her carefully.

I continue to regret that the Parliament did not respond to my invitation to ensure that information is made available to people about the effects of the various choices—and, indeed, about the effects of their not making certain choices, particularly when children are involved.

We have changed the law of succession in Scotland, but I am worried that we have done so in a relatively non-systematic way that might have unintended consequences. For many years, under a number of Administrations, there has been a desire to reform the law of succession more generally. That is one of the most difficult and technically complex projects that we could consider, but that must not be a reason for further delay. I am worried about the matter and I know that others are too.

We have been told that children are at the core of the bill, but I have to say that it mentions children relatively infrequently and its effects on children are rather imprecise. Nonetheless, I have been persuaded that there will be benefits to children and to vulnerable people who leave a relationship or whose relationship ends due to a death, so I will support the bill.


14 December 2005

S2M-3633 Interests of Members of the Scottish Parliament Bill: Stage 1

Scottish Parliament

Wednesday 14 December 2005

[THE PRESIDING OFFICER opened the meeting at 14:30]

… … …

Interests of Members of the Scottish Parliament Bill: Stage 1

The Presiding Officer (Mr George Reid): The next item of business is a debate on motion S2M-3633, in the name of Brian Adam, on the general principles of the Interests of Members of the Scottish Parliament Bill.


… … …


Stewart Stevenson (Banff and Buchan) (SNP): I speak in this debate in a personal rather than a party capacity. There are a few points in particular that I welcome. I welcome the introduction of the prejudice test, including the appearance of prejudice, which, ultimately, is as important as the fact of prejudice.

It is worth reminding ourselves that the bill, if passed, will apply after the next election. Therefore, new members will come to the Parliament with an understanding of the rules that cover their being here. I am slightly surprised by the faint suggestion that spouses do not make a joint choice when one of them decides to stand for the Parliament. In the interests of marital, cohabitive and civil partnership harmony, I encourage spouses to make joint decisions on that matter. That will help.

I worked for 30 years in the financial services industry and my wife worked as a stockbroker for another company in the industry. My brother, who, like me, is a computery person, worked for a third financial services company. For 20 years, we were required under legislation to declare to each other our shareholdings and when we bought and sold them. Thousands of people across the country—I mean Scotland when I say that—have to operate under those rules. It is not draconian for MSPs to have to consider something similar for ourselves.

Robin Harper (Lothians) (Green): Surely those declarations are for one specific purpose—to prevent insider trading. Can that possibly apply to us?

Stewart Stevenson: The issue is about the ability to use information in a way that advantages one party without that information being available to others for scrutiny. That, in a sense, is at the core of what we are talking about today. I recognise that I am probably in a minority on that provision in the bill and I suspect that we will not proceed with it, but I merely make the point.

There is a strange discrepancy in the bill in relation to declarable interests. We have to declare registrable interests, but we do not have to declare interests that we have registered voluntarily. We should look at that. Tommy Sheridan, who has participated in the debate, declares in the register of interests that he writes for the Scottish Daily Mirror and that he receives no funds for that—it has done the Scottish Daily Mirror a lot of good, I notice. That is a voluntary registration. Quite properly, therefore, in his motion referring to the closure of the Scottish Daily Mirror, Tommy Sheridan has not had to indicate that as a registered interest. I think that he should have done so and that the rules should require him to do so. However, he has not had to do so at this stage. That is an example of where there is a slightly unfortunate crossover.

On the market value of shares, I have registered my shareholdings for some time—

Tommy Sheridan: Will Stewart Stevenson take an intervention on that point?

Stewart Stevenson: I have run out of time.

Tommy Sheridan: It will just be a short one.

Stewart Stevenson: Well, quickly.

Tommy Sheridan: I ask Stewart Stevenson, who mentioned the Scottish Daily Mirror, to join me in condemning Trinity Mirror's decision to close down that newspaper. As a Scottish nationalist, I am sure that he will join me in that.

Stewart Stevenson: Tommy Sheridan will see that I have signed one of the motions on the subject.

The market value of shares is the important thing, rather than their nominal value. I welcome the fact that the rule on that has changed. I have registered the market value of the significant shareholdings that I have—it was about 40 per cent of what I needed to declare in terms of nominal value. It is not clear, however, whether the bill relates to members' total shareholdings—I have shareholdings in probably more than a dozen companies—or to each individual shareholding. We need further clarity on that point, but I am sure that we will hear about it when Brian Adam sums up. The bill refers to outside activity. I welcome the recognition that, when we MSPs are speaking or writing outside the Parliament, we should, properly, make reference to our interests.

Given our roles as politicians, I wonder whether the bill should require us to say whether we are in default of the Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Act 2000. I mention that in relation to the fact that Tommy Sheridan resigned as the leader of the Scottish Socialist Party on 11 November last year. If he had left it three hours later, it would have been the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month, but that would have meant peace breaking out—which it obviously has not. The socialists are now five and a half months in default of section 42 of the 2000 act and they will surely be subjected to fines under section 147, as they have yet to submit their accounts for two years ago. The SSP gets Short money—in the party's 2003 accounts, its Short money came to around £25,500. Where is the accounting, the transparency and the declaration of what the socialists have spent that on? I say to Tommy Sheridan that it is rich of him to come here and accuse us of hypocrisy and a lack of transparency when he and his party are incapable of obeying the legislation and rules of this country.


08 December 2005

Subject Debate: Criminal Justice Plan

Scottish Parliament

Thursday 8 December 2005

[THE DEPUTY PRESIDING OFFICER opened the meeting at 09:15]

Criminal Justice Plan

The Deputy Presiding Officer (Trish Godman): Good morning. The first item of business is a debate on the first anniversary of the criminal justice plan.


... ... ...


Stewart Stevenson (Banff and Buchan) (SNP): In my remarks, I will focus on Scotland's drug abuse problem. At the outset, I emphasise the obvious fact that I do not bring an eight-minute solution. My speech cannot deliver that, just as the minister said in her speech that the plan is very much a work in progress and that, after 12 months, it is far from complete. The most complex problems—which are precisely what we have in the criminal justice system—cannot be solved by quick fixes, simplistic solutions or political knee-jerk actions.

I welcome the fact that the Solicitor General has done us the courtesy of being with us throughout the debate and listening to what we have said. I know that members who addressed issues about the court system will welcome the fact that the Solicitor General was in the chamber to hear their remarks.

I see that Miss Goldie has, at last, returned and I welcome her back to justice debates and engagement with justice policy. I note that since the beginning of the summer recess she has asked only two questions on criminal justice, compared with 25 questions from her justice spokesperson. My colleague Kenny MacAskill has asked 26 and I have asked 67, so we know where the real action on criminal justice is taking place. Indeed, the minister has answered more than 360 questions on criminal justice during that period. The issue of criminal justice engages people throughout the Parliament—even Tommy Sheridan has asked two questions on it during that period, and his colleague Rosemary Byrne has asked six.

There is much with which we agree in chapter 2 of the criminal justice plan, which was published more than a year ago. There are little chinks of light here and there. Paragraph 2.2 of the plan reported that there were 56,000 injecting heroin users. After a year, that appears to have reduced to 51,000. However, that is perhaps one area in which we seem to have some understanding in a near-vacuum of knowledge in the field. The minister said that the plan was not a 12-month plan and that we should judge the Executive by its actions.

On rebuilding respect and confidence, 84 drugs networks were smashed, which is excellent because it strengthens the Scottish Drug Enforcement Agency. The minister deserves two gold stars; it is exactly the right thing to be doing.

On the Proceeds of Crime Act 2002, it is always welcome to get a penny out of a drug baron's pocket, but I have compared the amount that is being recovered and found that it is less than the fines that have been levied by Aberdeen sheriff court alone, which puts our modest achievements in context. Recovering that money is difficult and more effort is required. More resources for the SDEA will be very welcome and we in the SNP will support that.

In my questions during the past few months, I have asked about a number of issues about which we have a disturbing knowledge vacuum. I will compare and contrast what the Executive says with—it is unusual for me to commend this source—what is coming out of the strategy unit at 10 Downing Street. The strategy unit publishes an annual report of more than 100 pages that explains the situation south of the border and makes some tangential reference to what happens in Scotland.

There is some good news in the answers to my questions. The Executive is, through the Home Office drugs strategy delivery group, working to involve foreign Governments and other organisations to identify ways in which we can reduce the supply of illegal drugs. That is very welcome, difficult, long-term action that illustrates perfectly that drug problems in Scotland do not stand apart from those in the wider world.

Jeremy Purvis: I am sure that the member has seen the HMIC report. Table 12 on page 96 of that report shows the positive effect. In 1996-97, the police recorded 39 offences of illegal importation. In 2004-05, there was one offence.

Stewart Stevenson: Of course that is what the table shows. However, the strategy unit's 2003 estimates show that the annual profits of an importer are, on average, £2.5 million. A distributor will earn £1 million and so it goes on. We can therefore see that there is a very significant problem.

It is also estimated that 34 tonnes of heroin and about 30 tonnes of cocaine are brought into the UK annually. According to the strategy unit, seizures in the UK are at around 10 per cent.

Let us consider the profit margins in the drugs sector. Gucci, a hugely high-margin retailer, has a profit margin of 30 per cent. The strategy unit estimates the profit margin of the drugs industry to be at around 58 per cent.

When compared to the strategy unit's information, the information that we have in Scotland is extremely modest. I asked the Scottish Executive whether it had been contacted by people who are willing to conduct research on the drugs trade. When it came down to it, the answer was "Mebbe aye, but we're nae doin' it."

I asked what contacts we had had with the Home Office to determine the size of the UK drug trade. The answer was, "Yes, it has been in touch," but that was about it.

I asked for an estimate of the size of the illegal drugs trade in Scotland, but there are no current plans to compile one. However, the strategy unit south of the border provides precisely such an estimate: it is approximately £16 billion—the range is £12 billion to £20 billion. In such an information vacuum, we are unlikely to raise the issue up the agenda in the way in which that is required. It must rise up the agenda.

We recognise that about 1,200 youngsters in Scotland are at the root of the antisocial behaviour on which this Parliament has spent so much time. Sceptical as we in the SNP were, we supported the bill on that subject. However, the reality is that there are 50,000 drug users across Scotland, and they are responsible for three quarters of crime. Let us put the drug problem into context. It is much bigger than the problem of antisocial behaviour and touches every community. The size of the industry makes it comparable to, if slightly smaller than, the size of the tourism industry in Scotland. I hope that, over the coming year, we will see someone really engage with that. I say that in an entirely non-partisan way. We will work with the minister. She knows that I can work with her on subjects in which we have a common interest. Everyone in the chamber and everyone in Scotland has a common interest in this subject and we must work together to remove the problem.


01 December 2005

S2M-3657 Fisheries

Scottish Parliament

Thursday 1 December 2005

[THE PRESIDING OFFICER opened the meeting at 09:15]

... ... ...


The Deputy Presiding Officer (Murray Tosh): The next item of business is a debate on motion S2M-3657, in the name of Ross Finnie, on sea fisheries.


... ... ...


Stewart Stevenson (Banff and Buchan) (SNP): I will begin by delineating a number of areas where there is fairly clear agreement. I can find something to agree with in each of the propositions that have been put forward by the various political parties. In particular, I highlight Ross Finnie's commendation of the FRS scientists. That illustrates something very important: that we have the skills, the talent and the ability to deploy research scientists for the benefit of the industry and of the natural environment. I will come back to that later.

Phil Gallie, unexpectedly, showed me that we have something very important in common. If I understood him correctly, our maiden speeches were both on fishing. I made my maiden speech 1,645 days ago on 14 June 2001. I worked that out during those parts of the debate that have been a little tedious. However, I have risen to the challenge and I intend to change the tone.

Ted Brocklebank's amendment is largely sensible, but he spoils it at the end by moving on to matters beyond the Parliament's remit—I am surprised that, as a unionist, he does that. The amendment talks about local control of UK waters, over which we have no influence whatever and over which SNP members do not particularly wish to have influence. That is a shame about the amendment, but there we are.

Now freed from the burdens of office, Jim Wallace made a particularly interesting contribution when he spoke of the crucial role of the Norway-EU negotiations, which significantly determine our fishermen's access to the haddocks in the North sea. He may of course wish to consider that that perfectly illustrates the point that another model is available for how countries with significant fishing interests interact with the European Union in ensuring that their national interest is progressed.

On balance, we cannot support the Greens' amendment, but it nonetheless addresses a vital issue—discards. Frankly, that the European Union and countries in the common fisheries policy have failed meaningfully to engage on that issue over the years is a shame with which we are all tainted, because that involves a key distinction between how the European Union seeks to manage fish stocks through the common fisheries policy and the approach of the small nations to our north—Iceland and the Faroes. The Greens make a valid point by bringing discards to the debate, albeit in a context with which we disagree.

There is heartening news on something that I have, since I first spoke on fishing, banged on about, as have others—the industrial fisheries, which are prosecuted largely by the Danes. We are seeing some retrenchment from the predations of the more than 1 million tonnes that they had as a quota in the not too distant past to a situation in which the effect of their industrial fishery is felt so strongly that, at last, the food that cod and haddocks eat—sprats, sand eels and pouts—are protected because they are scarce. That is because the ecology of the North sea—like that of all seas—interacts at every point of action with other points. The relative withdrawal of the Danish industrials is a welcome development that I think will be commended throughout the chamber.

At the core of the debate is a difficult and fundamental clash, to which Tommy Sheridan referred, between science, the interests of science, the objectivity of scientists and communities' needs. Until we find a way to join communities' interests to scientists' discussions, we will probably have a more sterile debate than that which we must have if we are to act responsibly and create a sustainable future for our communities.

Robin Harper: The member mentioned the interests of scientists. What does he mean by that?

Stewart Stevenson: If I said that, I meant the objectivity of scientists—I am obliged if I used the wrong word—because objectivity is the point. Communities have an economic and emotional response to the problems—that is a proper interest—whereas scientists respond objectively. However, the science has a difficulty. We are like somebody prospecting for oil: we drill a few oil wells in the hope of discovering something about what is at the bottom of the hole, but we never understand the whole system. We see only a very small amount of what is going on. Scientists are challengeable.

Phil Gallie: Would the member say that the evidence of fishermen in the Clyde over the past 10 years, and more recent evidence from fishermen in the North sea about haddock, has been much more reliable than the scientific evidence?

Stewart Stevenson: The voice of practitioners who are engaging with the ecology and the stock must be heard. That is precisely why we made the point that fishermen, with their experience and understanding, should be much closer to the decision-making process. We welcome the minister's response to a point that we have made repeatedly, as have others. We are grateful that we have had a response.

I turn to costs more generally. I have a note that shows that in December 2003 a litre of fuel was 15.7p, currently it is 28p and last month it was 32.1p. The Spaniards are over-subsidising by more than six pence a litre. They will be slapped down by the European Union and the Spanish Government will be fined, but the fishermen have had and will retain the economic advantage that has come from something that their Government should probably not be doing.

I will end with a quote from a fisherman, who said:

"This year will be remembered as the year when most white-fish boats improved their top line gross, but finished with less profit, no profit, or with the feeling that it's time to get out—and not because of lack of fish on the grounds. The ever-increasing price of fuel, and poor TACs that have been cut continually over the past year, have created the situation of buying quota, leasing quota and, unbelievably, buying days to work."

We need change now and we hope that the minister can move the game up the park.


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