24 November 2011

S4M-01406 United Nations Climate Summit [Closing Speech]

The Deputy Presiding Officer (John Scott): The next item of business is a debate on motion S4M-01406, in the name of Stewart Stevenson, on Scotland’s contribution to the United Nations climate summit.

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Stewart Stevenson:

The debate perfectly illustrates the old saying that something starts off as a heresy, then becomes an argument and eventually an orthodoxy. Actually, I suspect that we have a heterodoxy—in other words, we all agree, but we have different opinions about certain aspects. The agreement that we struck across the political divide in Scotland in 2009 took a lot of hard work on everybody’s part and was an excellent foundation for future action.

Elaine Murray, Aileen McLeod and other members raised the issue of a second commitment period under Kyoto. We should be careful in one respect. A second commitment period for the existing treaty is clearly second best to having an up-to-date treaty that is legally binding across the world and which reflects today’s needs. It is certainly something that should be kept in the locker, but the UK Government is clear that the focus has to be on negotiating a new treaty that is suitable for a new era in which we understand more about the issues. The second commitment period is very much a fall-back position and we agree with that approach.

Elaine Murray mentioned CFCs and so on. Those are, like peat, outside the accounting system. We would like the accounting system to take more account of things that have an impact—positively or negatively—on greenhouse gas emissions and, hence, on climate change.

Let us remind ourselves of something that I have said on many occasions, including in 2008-09, which is that the targets are long term, although the impacts are immediate and with us now. The target of an 80 per cent reduction in emissions by 2050 is one that we share with the UK Government. According to the registrar general’s report a month ago, he predicts that, in Scotland, my life expectancy is another 16.7 years. I hope that he is wrong. I would be 104 years old in 2050 if I am so spared—I would rather like to see what is happening.

Elaine Murray asked a very specific question about whether the fossil fuel levy can be used to restore peatlands. I do not know the answer to that question, but I will ensure that she gets an answer. There are technical issues about what that money may be spent on but I, too, would like to see some of it being spent on that.

I think that we are in agreement on the value of small-scale biomass in local communities. I thank Elaine Murray for the good wishes—I have also received them from other members, notably Malcolm Chisholm—that I take with me to Durban.

I say to Alex Johnstone that the temperature in Durban today is 19ºC and it is raining heavily. Of course, as I will be inside throughout the entire visit, I will not see any of the place. Alex Johnstone talked, as many Conservatives increasingly do, about wind. It is worth reminding ourselves that we have a diverse range of renewable energies. Thanks to the work that was largely led by Tom Johnston, the famous and very effective Labour Secretary of State for Scotland, we have a significant hydro industry, which has been with us for a long time.

We are moving towards tidal energy, which is a much more predictable and reliable source of energy. It has a diurnal cycle, which is not a large cycle, and it also has an annual cycle, but it is predictable. Alex Johnstone says that a pragmatic, sustainable approach is needed, and moving to tidal delivers on that.

Rob Gibson referred, as he would normally be expected to, to peatland. We need to measure and account for our land use, land use change and forests. We hope to see progress on that.

I very much welcome Claudia Beamish to the debate. I recognise that in her previous life, before she became an MSP, she was engaged in the issue. She has an insight and a range of experience that is well worth listening to. She made a point about a report on energy efficiency in which the Scottish Government comes well down the field. If I am thinking of the correct report, it related in essence to whether we had put in smart meters and whether we had got our buildings accredited. We are going for the accreditation standard but we have not gone for accreditation. We are, because of our policy, taking the actions that smart meters might force us to take. We are doing rather better than that report perhaps suggested.

We share Claudia Beamish’s disappointment about the sudden change of financial support for solar panels, which follows the disastrous change in the regime for oil. Those changes affect industries that require long-term certainty. Fergus Ewing wrote to the UK Government on that, but I do not believe that we have yet had a response.

I am delighted to say that I have visited the woodland allotment in Peebles, which is an excellent initiative. The climate challenge fund has supported 1,000 allotments so far. I wrote down what Claudia Beamish said in essence as, “Don’t be too restrictive”, and I do not believe that we are. Claims submitted by projects to the climate challenge fund showed a reduction at one point of 700,000 tonnes, and that figure is now rising because we are continuing the funding.

I said in committee just over a year ago that not every project will succeed because we are not drawing the regulations so tightly that we are excluding innovation, which may or may not succeed. It is important to recognise that that is the case.

Graeme Dey gave us some fairly alarming figures from an IPCC report that showed that violent storms, CO2 emissions and so on will increase. That is absolutely true, and we will continue to exercise leadership. Annabel Ewing made an important contribution in which she referred to the Comrie Development Trust, which—if I recall correctly—has three projects supported by the climate challenge fund. I visited the projects, including the allotments, around 18 months ago.

I welcome Jenny Marra to the debate. On transport, she should remember that we continue to make substantial investments in the rail network—for example, we have invested around £1 billion in the Edinburgh to Glasgow improvement programme. On the subject of eco driving, that can be funded by the companies and drivers themselves; I recently heard of an example in which the entire cost of an eco driving course for a team of white van men was recovered in six weeks in reduced fuel consumption. We can see that that is happening around Scotland.

Malcolm Chisholm mentioned the freight facilities grant. Alas, we never got enough good projects, although I must say that I constantly banged the drum in my previous ministerial position. Patrick Harvie seemed to talk down our achievement of a 27.6 per cent reduction in emissions, en route to 42 per cent by 2020, but it is an excellent achievement. Various people have said that it is important that we now lock in that achievement, and we will seek to do so.

Patrick Harvie: Will the minister give way?

Stewart Stevenson: I am sorry, but I do not have time now.

It is important that we recognise the economic value of the activity that we are doing. When we create jobs, we create wider commitment to the agenda. We expect that the number of jobs in the low-carbon economy will rise from 70,000 to 130,000 by 2020, which will amount to approximately 5 per cent of the workforce in total.

I turn to a couple of things to which Sarah Boyack referred. She mentioned carbon capture, but I am afraid that we cannot forget—or forgive—the fact that the Labour Party in government at Westminster failed the test of government when it sabotaged the Peterhead carbon capture system, and it therefore ill behoves Labour members to speak on that subject. Sarah Boyack said today that she had resisted the temptation to provide a list of budget amendments to address various issues, but she fails the challenge of opposition.

I hope that we have a good conference in Durban, and I thank everyone who has contributed to the debate.

S4M-01406 United Nations Climate Summit [Opening Speech]

The Deputy Presiding Officer (John Scott): The next item of business is a debate on motion S4M-01406, in the name of Stewart Stevenson, on Scotland’s contribution to the United Nations climate summit.


The Minister for Environment and Climate Change (Stewart Stevenson):

Against a background of continuing global economic difficulties, over the next two weeks around 200 nations, parties to the UN framework convention on climate change, will meet again in Durban, South Africa, to continue negotiations on international action to tackle global climate change.

Climate change is certainly a huge environmental threat to the international community, with the poor and vulnerable, particularly in developing countries, being worst affected. It is also a huge threat to the global economy. Unchecked, it is reckoned that it could cost between 5 and 20 per cent of global gross domestic product.

At the Copenhagen climate talks two years ago, Scotland presented its strategy of acting as a model of best practice on climate change. In unanimously agreeing a world-leading target to cut emissions by 42 per cent by 2020 in the Climate Change (Scotland) Act 2009, the Parliament had strong support from business and civic society. Despite the strong commitment of Scotland and others to tackling the issue, there was no breakthrough at Copenhagen. Our hopes for a single, global, legally binding climate change treaty now rest on making steady progress, year by year, in constructing the building blocks for a treaty to be agreed at some, hopefully not-too-distant, future date.

Scottish ministers were determined not to let the disappointment of Copenhagen dilute our commitment. We had already moved on from seeking high ambition to putting in place the framework for delivery: annual targets that would allow us to say, year on year, how we proposed to meet our 2020 goal; proposals and policies to drive down emissions; plans for public engagement; and research on consumer behaviours.

International interest in Scotland’s climate change commitments and programmes continued to grow. At last year’s UNFCCC summit in Cancún, Scottish ministers had a place on the United Kingdom delegation for the first time. As well as working with the Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change on the UK team, we began work to strengthen our support for developing countries, progressing our partnership with the Maldives with the funding of a study by Robert Gordon University into the marine energy potential of the islands. That study has now been finalised and will help the Maldives Government’s development of its renewable energy strategy.

We have also launched international partnerships with the Inter-American Development Bank and the Global Carbon Capture and Storage Institute, and we have begun discussions with Malawi on how we could build on the renewable energy pilots by the University of Strathclyde that have been funded under our international development fund.

In these hard economic times, while people throughout the world understand the environmental and moral messages on the need to act on climate change as a matter of climate justice for developing countries, they are naturally concerned about jobs. The Scottish Government believes that the evidence from Scotland demonstrates the powerful jobs, investment, trade and economic growth potential of the low-carbon economy.

In Scotland, we have a GDP of around £100 billion, with a low-carbon market of around £8.8 billion that is forecast to rise to some £12 billion by 2015-16, thus representing more than 10 per cent of the Scottish economy and around 5 per cent of the workforce. Globally, the market is already worth £3 trillion—£3 million million—and is forecast to increase in value to £4.3 trillion by 2014-15.

With 25 per cent of Europe’s offshore wind and tidal energy resource, 10 per cent of Europe’s wave potential and its largest offshore storage capacity for carbon dioxide, Scotland has a unique competitive advantage in the low-carbon economy. The market offers a broad range of opportunities across the economy for Scotland, and it includes sub-markets of renewable energy and low-carbon, environmental and clean technologies.

Our strategy is to encourage investment in jobs by remaining at the forefront of the development of regulatory frameworks for clean energy technology. We believe that the competitive advantage lies in being at the forefront of technological innovation.

Patrick Harvie (Glasgow) (Green): Does the minister accept that such a clear and unremitting focus on the economic benefits that he seeks to gain from low-carbon technologies will be seen as coming at the expense of the moral responsibility that we talked about when we passed the 2009 act if he decides that Scotland should use carbon credits to meet what were intended to be domestic targets for reducing emissions?

Stewart Stevenson: I hope that the member was listening when I appeared at the Rural Affairs, Climate Change and Environment Committee earlier this week. It is not a plan of ours to use carbon credits, but any country that does use them has a choice in the nature of the credits. If a country used credits, it would certainly be important for it to consider how the credits can deliver a benefit to the developing world as a way of managing issues in its own country. Credits can be used to deliver a moral and social purpose if a country believes that it needs them, but we are not in that position at this stage.

Our strategic approach has attracted major international investors, such as Mitsubishi, Iberdrola and Gamesa, to set up global research and development centres in Scotland. Over the past year, there has been further growth in international interest in Scotland’s progress on low carbon.

David Cameron has thanked the Scottish ministers for their support for greater ambition in the European Union on climate change and to drive green investment, and he has acknowledged that Scotland has good examples to share of progressive climate policies delivering jobs and investment. At the invitation of the UK Government, we have provided low-carbon case studies to assist it in its international influencing efforts. Indeed, we use them ourselves.

Members should not just take David Cameron’s word that Scotland is setting the pace on international action—there are some here who might be reluctant to do so. The First Minister was recently given the international climate leadership award by the Government of South Australia—a part of Australia that, under the previous premiership of Mike Rann, has been taking the lead on the climate change agenda in the southern hemisphere.

With co-operation from the UK Government, I have been taking Scotland’s messages on low-carbon economics to colleagues in Europe. I have met ministers from Denmark, Poland, Hungary, Romania, Bulgaria, Slovenia, Latvia, Estonia and Malta to share the Scottish experience of low-carbon jobs, investment and economic growth. Those messages about the jobs potential of the low-carbon economy have been warmly received and there are clearly opportunities for co-operation.

The Scottish ministers have an unprecedented level of international engagement on climate change. That will continue in Durban, where I will be part of the UK ministerial team. There, we will continue to demonstrate how we are making the low-carbon economy a reality. We will demonstrate how our leadership in low carbon is resulting in jobs and growth even in these stretched financial times. We will demonstrate that investment now will lead to energy security and lower costs for consumers in the long term.

A Scottish Government official will also work with the UK team on the UN’s capacity building work stream. That, as Mr Harvie may care to note, is of key importance to developing countries. We plan to strengthen further our support for developing countries in line with our new profile in the world.

There are significant positives on which to build. There is now an agreed aim of limiting the global temperature rise to no more than 2°C, although current emissions reduction pledges are not nearly enough to achieve that. A lot more work is needed to break out of the current low-ambition stand-off of major international players.

Scotland is not alone among countries in setting high ambition. The UK, Germany and Denmark have also committed to high targets for 2020 and the Australian Government is introducing carbon legislation. There are also good examples of helpful actions in China, India and the United States.

It must also be said that, despite the slow progress towards a global treaty, the other countries that are not yet adopting the formal targets are, nonetheless, making investment in the low-carbon economy where they see economic benefit. We can expect countries such as China and India to continue to do that to an increasing degree in the years to come.

Scotland has been an active member of the Climate Group’s states and regions alliance for many years. That highlights the fact that many progressive policies and actions are being delivered at sub-national and local levels of government, including in US states such as California and Texas.

The leadership of the EU and the UK is another invaluable asset. The EU has said that it is open to a second commitment period for the Kyoto protocol after 2012, which keeps the way open for other parties to make similar commitments.

However, time is short. We do not expect to break through at Durban and, with global emissions at an all-time high, we have only a short time span to get them on a downward track, allowing for the time that it would take for countries to ratify a new treaty.

Therefore, my message when I attend the UNFCCC in Durban as part of the UK delegation will be that it is imperative that we do not miss the massive opportunities that the fundamental shift in the global economy will provide. We believe that action is needed now to grasp the opportunities that higher ambition on emissions reduction presents to drive and incentivise investment in new low-carbon markets, to achieve energy security and to achieve environmental and climate justice objectives.

The evidence already shows that investment is happening in Scotland and that the country is already securing competitive advantage through new technologies and markets. Other countries should follow suit.

In addition, it is imperative that Scotland continues to articulate to the international community that, as an industrialised country, we have a moral obligation to act on climate change and to influence others worldwide to do the same.

Many countries are, of course, far less fortunate than Scotland is. They do not share our wealth of natural resources and renewable energy potential. By sharing our knowledge and information, creating partnerships between academic institutions and working with countries that are likely to be disproportionately affected by climate change, we not only support our overall approach to international development but assist developing countries in their transition to a lower-carbon economy appropriate to their circumstances.

The Scottish Government is giving clear direction and support to the development of the low-carbon economy. Similar action should take place in Europe and around the globe and we must work together to ensure that we grasp the low-carbon economic opportunity.

I move,

That the Parliament notes that Scotland will be participating in the 17th Conference of the Parties on the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change as a member of the UK delegation; encourages active engagement with other delegations to deliver the message that action on climate change is both necessary and urgent, and recognises that Scotland’s experience demonstrates that action on climate change can create jobs, investment, trade and economic growth opportunities.


22 September 2011

S4M-00902 Low-carbon Economy

The Presiding Officer (Tricia Marwick): The next item of business is a debate on motion S4M-00902, in the name of Fergus Ewing, on the low-carbon economy.

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The Minister for Environment and Climate Change (Stewart Stevenson):

We often say that climate change is one of the most important challenges facing our country, and many contributors to today’s debate have made that very point. The other side of the matter is how we respond to making the transition to a low-carbon economy, which is clearly one of the greatest opportunities that is currently before us. We are fortunate in Scotland to have the natural resources and expertise to enable us to be at the forefront of a new global economic condition. We have tremendous potential in our renewable resource, our capacity to develop carbon capture and storage, our high-tech research and our business acumen. As the Minister for Energy, Enterprise and Tourism said, we aim to meet the equivalent of 100 per cent of our electricity demand from renewable sources. I note that some commented that that seems overambitious. In response, I would say that many of the conversations that have been had with the power industry suggest that it is eminently achievable.

What we do not need, and what the Government will absolutely not promote, is new nuclear facilities. Therefore, when we come to decision time, the Tories should not look for support for their amendment, because of its inclusion of that subject. Nuclear power is a hugely expensive technology of the last century and it need play no part in Scotland’s long-term energy future.

Alex Johnstone: Will the minister accept that the statistics on which he bases his ambition to achieve 100 per cent of our electricity requirement from renewable sources involve the transfer of power back and forward across the border, which means that he has conceded that Scotland needs and will have a new nuclear power station, but it will be built in England and we will buy its electricity across the grid?

Stewart Stevenson: I do not accept that. I accept that there will be transfers of energy across the border—going south, because we are already a significant exporter of electricity and will become even more so. I note that over the extended period—I think that it was two years—when Hunterston was not delivering to the network, we did not miss that nuclear capacity.

I will deal with comments that were made during the debate. Lewis Macdonald made an effective contribution, much of which I agreed with. He said that transition is possible but not certain. That is, of course, correct. It will not happen without our driving it forward; it will not happen through passivity. He talked about the need to join up different levels of government. That is a perfectly proper point to make. With Alison Hay of the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities, I jointly chair a group that is working with local authorities to take steps to improve the contributions at that level by engaging officials rather than just politicians and related decision makers. Our relationship with the UK Government—previous and present—on this agenda has been effective. I have been at the environment council with Chris Huhne, Caroline Spelman and Ed Milliband. Although we disagree on matters of detail, we are completely aligned in our central purpose, and we have worked well together.

The challenge is to take many of the countries of Europe along with us. At the most recent environment council meeting, we moved to a substantially better position than existed before, as 26 of 27 countries were able to sign up to a motion that recognised the need for higher targets. We must now translate that into higher targets throughout Europe, as that is important. We will continue to work with other administrations—at local government, UK and European level—to seek to deliver on that.

Members have expressed support for carbon capture, and I introduced some of the relevant issues when I intervened on Lewis Macdonald. In many ways, there has been some timidity on the part of officials in various jurisdictions—that is perhaps a greater issue than ministers’ enthusiasm, or not. We are now behind the curve, but we do not have to be there.

Alex Johnstone mentioned Tory overenthusiasm, which is a novel concept that I look forward to hearing more of. I will give members a little sense of some of the opportunities. The Scottish Wildlife Trust yesterday gave me a report that suggested that restoration of our peatlands alone could contribute 2.4 million tonnes of abatement per annum. As Scotland’s emissions as a whole currently amount to 50 million tonnes, one could almost persuade oneself that peatland restoration could do the job on its own. Of course, it is a bit more complex than that, but we certainly want to continue to make progress in that area.

Kevin Stewart mentioned the success of combined heat and power in Aberdeen—indeed, Lewis Macdonald has made similar contributions on previous occasions in the chamber—which is an important demonstration of what can be done. Malcolm Chisholm understands that I will not comment on specific proposals on which the Government may need to make decisions, but I highlight that we have supported more than 50 small-scale biomass projects in small and medium-sized enterprises, which represents around 12MW of energy. There is certainly a place for biomass.

I hope that Malcolm Chisholm recognises the value of the objective analyses that SEPA—which is, of course, a Government agency—brings to bear on applications. He—like other members—stressed the importance of good heat distribution. In my previous ministerial role, I visited the Michelin plant in Dundee and noted the difficulties that it was experiencing in obtaining an appropriate heritable right of way—known in England as a wayleave—for getting heat to adjacent houses and businesses. There are some issues in that regard that we must revisit.

John Wilson mentioned the climate challenge fund, which has supported more than 400 projects in communities throughout Scotland. That is a substantial contribution to empowering people in Scotland and ensuring that we are all moving together on this agenda.

Jackson Carlaw wished us to genuflect before the Government’s achievements. We will certainly consider that, although some of our knees are getting a little creaky, which may make genuflection a bit more difficult than it might have been in the past. However, when it is at the altar of SNP achievement, I am prepared to sacrifice my knees.

There are significant difficulties with nuclear as much as with anything else. We in Scotland cannot make as much of it in terms of new jobs and new opportunities as we can by putting our efforts into renewable technologies. That is where we must be in Scotland.

The Labour amendment is fine as far as it goes, but it is flawed in the sense that it asks for more money—this is the wrong time and the wrong place. We look forward to engaging with the Labour Party and others on a number of issues.

I will reflect the position at the end of my speech as I did at the beginning. We have a challenge and an opportunity. The global economy has experienced much uncertainty in the past four years. Our important way forward is through low-carbon growth, which gives us energy security and new jobs. We as a Government wish to encourage demand for low-carbon goods and services. I hope that the Parliament will support those aims at decision time and vote for the Government’s motion.

30 June 2011

S4M-00448 Rural Connectivity

The Presiding Officer (Tricia Marwick): The next item of business is a debate on motion S4M-00448, in the name of Richard Lochhead, on rural connectivity. I will give members a few moments to swap places. As the debate is undersubscribed, the Presiding Officers will be slightly more generous in allocating time. If members want to take interventions, we will do our best to ensure that they are not disadvantaged by that.

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The Minister for Environment and Climate Change (Stewart Stevenson):

It is a delight to speak on a subject that kept me in gainful employment for many years and finally deposited me here. Despite a powerful and impressive speech from Alex Fergusson, I intend to support the motion in the cabinet secretary’s name. I assure colleagues that, having looked carefully at the amendments, we are prepared to support them. We have slight reservations about some of the wording in the Labour one, but let us not get diverted into a discussion about bits of the debate. Incidentally, in my intervention on Elaine Murray, I made the distinction between bytes and bits, so, before I move to more substantive matters, I will expand members’ knowledge by saying that, in the trade, half a byte—which is four bits clustered together—is referred to as a nibble. There we are.

The debate has been useful. The cabinet secretary and I and our colleagues will be tramping many distant corners of Scotland, hoping for good weather and for adequate mobile phone signals and the ability to communicate with our officials using broadband, whether wireless or fixed. I am sure that members of other parties and members of our party who are not in the Government will be doing something similar.

Like the cabinet secretary, I welcome John McClelland’s review of public sector ICT. The debate is about delivering a wide range of benefits to rural Scotland by having the right communications in place. It is clear from the debate that those benefits are not simply economic. We need to equip our communities and the people and businesses in them with the appropriate technologies, if only to level the playing field. That will create an opportunity to avoid further disadvantage, and it will create advantage. Improving rural communications is very much central to our purpose.

I want to say a few words about history generally and the role of communications in it. Eight thousand years ago, the human race was in essence a herdsman culture. At that time, in Sumeria—there are debates about where and when it happened, but I adhere to the view that it was in Sumeria—the settled culture that is the basis of our culture today first appeared. From that point, communication became important because, as people did not travel around, they needed to send messages to other communities to communicate with them.

The world started to change. We had the invention of money, which involved the tying of knots on string when people put grain into grain stores. Many things that we have today started then. In the city of Jerash in the middle east, one can find the cart tracks that are still there in the main street from 2,000 years ago. Transport, which was one of the first instruments of connectivity, became important. As I mentioned last week, the Romans created an empire that endured for between 400 and 500 years, partly because they created a system of hilltop signalling that enabled messages to go from a corner of the European empire back to headquarters in Rome in about six hours. Communication was important, too, for Scotland. The reformation and the introduction of the Bible printed in English drove communication and education in Scotland.

An awful lot has happened in a relatively short space of time. When I was involved, at 11 am on 25 January 1985, in the launch of the first universal access home banking system to allow people to look at their bank accounts, the speed at which that system worked, delivering huge value to people, was 1,200 bits per second down to the customer and 75 bits per second from the customer up to the bank.

Alex Johnstone: The minister has raised a subject that I believe continues to be a problem with broadband provision to this day. The upload speeds that are generally provided are as little as 5 per cent of the available download speeds—can he tell me why? He obviously has greater knowledge of that. Is it simply a historical anomaly, or is there a technical reason? We are finding that there are many more reasons why higher upload speeds would be of value as we develop the broadband system.

Stewart Stevenson: The member is absolutely correct, although I will try not to be overly tempted by the question. A range of technologies could have been chosen when we developed broadband, but the technology that is used is called asymmetric digital subscriber line—ADSL. It was felt that the pressing need was to get data out to people. However, the reality is that, in rural areas in particular, we need good speeds back to the centre because businesses are serving other customers through that relatively slow connection. As we move to fibre, there will be opportunities to work with different technologies—essentially, symmetric technologies—that will provide an answer to the problem for those who use ADSL on copper. I do not know whether anybody else in the chamber understands that, but I hope that Alex Johnstone does.

Even with regard to telephones, the world has changed enormously. In 1958, when my father made the first transatlantic call from our house—it was on business: one of his patients was very ill and he had to communicate with her husband, who was in the United States—it had to be booked a day in advance. It was to last precisely three minutes—he could not get any longer—and it cost three guineas, which was approximately one third of the average weekly wage. Now, people can use a mobile phone and for 6p can call the States on demand. A lot has happened in a short space of time and a lot more will happen.

Many interesting technologies have been developed in local situations. In the Swiss Alps, yodelling was a way of communicating using the human voice. Alexander Graham Bell demonstrated the telephone in 1876. The Bank of Scotland installed its first telephone only five years later, in 1881, when there were already 300 subscribers in the Edinburgh telephone directory. Mind you, when the bank installed its telephone, the board required that the telephone not be used to conduct business.

The Deputy Presiding Officer: Minister, I must stop you for a moment. I ask that members who are coming into the chamber do so quietly, please. If you want to have conversations, I would be grateful if you would have them outside the chamber. Thank you.

Stewart Stevenson: The first electronic digital communication between Edinburgh and London was installed in 1868. It was a telegraph, and the telegraph is what opened up the west of the United States and made it the prosperous area that it now is. Those are just some of the many historical examples of how communications have helped.

Elaine Murray said that 3G coverage in Scotland is patchy, especially in rural areas. Where I live, I pray for 2G coverage—3G coverage is a distant hope. The map of my constituency has two tiny blue dots on it, which indicate where 3G touches. Frankly, for most of Scotland we could hold up a blank sheet of paper with a few wee blue bits on it representing 3G coverage. That is why it is important that, when we go to 4G coverage, we take a different approach. Whatever Government does it, we will be creating huge commercial opportunities for the operators of 4G networks, just as we did for the operators of 2G and 3G networks. In exchange for giving access to those huge commercial opportunities, we should place different conditions on the operators. One that might suit Scotland well is the condition that 4G phones should, at no additional cost, roam between different companies’ masts. Why should they not? It would not cost the companies much to ensure that and it would reduce the number of masts that there would need to be—reducing the costs to the companies responsible for the 4G networks—as well as delivering a better solution for Scotland. That would probably not be of great interest in densely populated areas, though. Those are some examples of what we can do.

We have moved on from the election that I fought in 1987, when I had to carry tuppences in my pocket and know where every telephone box in the constituency was. In 1992, we had the first generation of analogue mobile phones, and in 1997, we had the first digital phones. Every time there is an election, things have moved on, and things move on very fast.

Sarah Boyack: Where does the minister think we will get to by 2015?

Stewart Stevenson: The answer depends partly on how our relationship with the UK Government develops. We will work with it closely and proactively—we will not be passive—and consider the achievements of countries such as Finland, which Rhoda Grant mentioned. We have ambition, but we will work with other people to ensure that things happen.

Rhoda Grant noted that Highland Council had put in a fibre network but that it was difficult to access it for other purposes. We need to ensure that standards are in place for the exploitation of private networks—even when they are licensed—to create the technological solutions to allow other people to access the available services.

Paul Wheelhouse discussed the difficulties in the Borders, which a number of members have described. The Government’s major investment in the development of the Borders railway will help one aspect of communication in that rural area, but electronic communications make a real difference.

For small businesses that deliver goods to market via carriers, we must look at getting the carriers to pick up in rural areas, as we have had significant difficulty in getting them to drop down. Paul Wheelhouse referred to business parks as a potential source of connectivity for many businesses and for people who work in rural areas, and I am sure that that is the case.

George Adam spoke about Sandra Webster’s two autistic sons and about social integration, and there is something very important in that. It is a fact that people in rural areas are more isolated but, increasingly, the existence of communication technologies can shrink that distance. As families have moved all over the world, communication has become an important part of keeping them together, and it is the same as families move throughout Scotland, so George Adam is right to highlight that.

Jim Hume and other members talked about telehealth. It is difficult on a snowy night to get a doctor, a nurse or a midwife to a particular location, but if a video camera can be used via Skype or other services to help or provide advice to someone, that is a real life saver. It is important that we focus on that as one of the many benefits that we can deliver.

Rob Gibson mentioned that, although there are more than 1,000 BT exchanges in Scotland, some people are paying for 8 megabits per second and getting only half a megabit per second.

The Presiding Officer (Tricia Marwick): I ask the minister to begin to wind up now.

Stewart Stevenson: Rob Gibson is correct to say that there is huge variability in speed, and that we need transparency in what is paid for and what is delivered. That is very important indeed.

Joan McAlpine reminded us that it was only in 1985 that Vodafone permitted the first mobile call. Things are going to move fast, and we must ensure that we support the potential of the outward-looking and dynamic communities that exist in rural Scotland. Our farmers, our fishermen and all the people who live in the country contribute to world-famous industries such as our food and drink industry, and the potential of our wave and wind power is vast.

However, there is more potential in rural Scotland that can be realised through the delivery of effective digital communications. It is this Government’s ambition and determination that we will do that, by working with the UK Government and private companies, but most of all by working with those who live and work in our rural areas.

22 June 2011

Subject Debate: Taking Scotland Forward: Rural Affairs and the Environment

The Presiding Officer (Tricia Marwick): The next item of business is a debate on taking Scotland forward: rural affairs and the environment.

... ... ...

The Minister for Environment and Climate Change (Stewart Stevenson): Let me start by both congratulating those who made their maiden speeches today, excellent as they were, and thanking members for the few kind words that have been sent in my direction. I dare say that there are few enough such opportunities for me to hear kind words, so I will bask in the reflected glory for at least five minutes.

The Scottish Government has as its central purpose supporting sustainable economic growth, and we have a strong mandate to pursue that over five years. We wish to see rural areas empowered to support their communities and to contribute to a better Scotland, and I think that that captures the sense of the debate that we have had today. We will continue to work with the Parliament, listening to ideas from wherever they come and seeking to build consensus for all that we do. The early meetings that both the Cabinet Secretary for Rural Affairs and the Environment and I have had with our opposite numbers in other political parties speak to the reality of what we are doing.

Mike MacKenzie, in a particularly powerful contribution, invited us all round to his place for a wee refreshment. We will be round at the weekend, Mike, don’t you worry. In his short speech he referred to the economic powerhouse that rural areas can be. That captured an important point.

We spent a fair bit of time talking about the Climate Change (Scotland) Act 2009, which was par excellence an example of the Parliament working together to common purpose to deliver something that is truly world leading. We will listen to all the voices in the Parliament, as we did as we worked through the 457 amendments, which were in some cases amendments to amendments, to the Climate Change (Scotland) Bill.

The legacy paper that the previous Rural Affairs and Environment Committee left for the new committee makes an important point. It states at paragraph 52 that we should avoid

“focussing too narrowly on the ‘three Fs’ of farming, food, and fishing.”

Those are all important, of course, but at the core of the matter is what life in a rural setting is like and what contributes to enhancing that. It is not simply food, farming and fishing. It is a much wider agenda altogether.

I am afraid that I will be unable in the available time to deal with every point that came up in the debate. Clearly, we will return to many of them in committee. However, I will try to deal with some of them.

Sarah Boyack talked about public food procurement, which is worth about £130 million in the public sector. We have supported small and medium-sized enterprises in particular to make it easier for them to bid for contracts. We absolutely agree that local businesses should work with the local public sector. It is important that that happens. In particular, through the climate challenge fund, we have provided £2.5 million to 39 organisations to support local food and grow-your-own projects. Indeed, I visited one such project at Letham in Fife, where I received a basket of the most wonderful vegetables—my wife almost wanted me to drive back to the south of Scotland to bring some more home. I therefore declare an interest in good-quality local food and its consumption, not just personally but across the board.

We certainly want to connect rural Scotland to everywhere. One reason why, 2000 years ago, the Roman empire was more successful than the Greek one was that the Romans had good communications. In fact, they could send messages from Londinium to Roma in six hours by a system of hilltop signalling. That underpinned 400 years of success for the Romans. Today, high-speed broadband will be equally important in the success of Scottish rural businesses.

Sarah Boyack referred to flooding. We have spent some six times what the previous Administration did on flooding interventions, so I think that our record is worth looking at. The member also referred to allotments. I am delighted that I was able in my previous ministerial role to visit at least two allotment sites that we supported—in Huntly and Crieff. Electric vehicles were mentioned, too. We have been part of a successful Scottish consortium to secure £30 million for the plugged-in places initiative sponsored by the UK Government. A great deal is happening indeed.

I welcome back Alex Fergusson. In the committee this morning, I nearly referred to him as Presiding Officer, so familiar a face has he been in that position of authority. We will now treat him as an equal and, when he speaks on farming, we will listen carefully to what he has to say. There is considerable sympathy for his view that form filling is an area in which we should continue to revise and improve—it is important that that happens.

As Alex Fergusson heard in the committee this morning, the long-run picture on the area of Scotland that is afforested is unlikely to be changing much. We wish to increase the size of the area, but we see year-on-year fluctuations because some years are more intensive for harvesting than planting while others are the other way round.

While I remember, it is worth reminding members that it is our target to have broadband all over Scotland by 2020.

David Torrance, in his maiden speech, talked about local food. With great pleasure, I visited the Food Train in Dumfries in my previous role. That is very important indeed.

Helen Eadie touched on the supergrid and the smart grid technologies. They are very important, particularly the smart grid. I was talking at the environment council yesterday to several other European environment ministers about work that is happening on smart grid. We need standards, because the smart grid can deliver right down to individual consumer devices. For example, it could protect heart and lung machines or dialysis machines installed in domestic houses, so that, if there is a power shortage, the deep freeze would be switched off for a few hours but the dialysis machine would not. A lot of work is going on, and we are pleased that the European Union made its first visit on the subsea grid to Scotland, recognising the importance of Scotland in the provision of renewable energy.

Mark McDonald focused on services in rural areas and talked about the Udny community wind turbines. It is important that anyone, including any community, wishing to establish developments such as wind turbines engages with the communities that will be affected by their presence, gets consent and momentum in favour and does not take consent for granted. I am afraid to say that there have been one or two examples when that has not been done.

Food and drink are vital, as is a fair deal for producers. Mark McDonald talked about exports and mentioned Dean’s of Huntly. If I was looking at my constituency, I would of course prefer to talk about BrewDog, which now has a successful export industry.

Many members touched on the report on proposals and policies. We will report on progress on implementing that in the not-too-distant future.

There were a few comments on housing. In 2009, the median house price was £160,000 in remote and rural areas, £173,000 in accessible rural areas and £128,000 in the rest of Scotland. That shows the attractiveness of rural areas for housing—people want to move there.

I have barely scratched the surface of what was covered in the debate. Rural affairs and the environment are a wide-ranging Government portfolio, and the speeches from across the chamber, all of which were worth listening to, reflected that. I will deal quickly with three issues.

The Presiding Officer (Tricia Marwick): Minister, you must wind up.

Stewart Stevenson: We will support communities that want to control their future, we will promote food and drink and we will drive down emissions. That is how we will take Scotland forward, leaving a greener Scotland than the one that we have borrowed from our children and grandchildren.

09 June 2011

S4M-00102 Wild Animals in Circuses (Ban)

The Deputy Presiding Officer (Elaine Smith): The final item of business is a members’ business debate on motion S4M-00102, in the name of Elaine Murray, on a ban on the use of wild animals in circuses. The debate will be concluded without any question being put.

Motion debated,

That the Parliament notes the decision by the UK Government not to introduce a ban on the use of wild animals in travelling circuses; notes that in the recent past a travelling circus visiting locations including Dumfries included an elephant as one of its attractions; believes that there is sufficient evidence to support the view that life in a travelling circus does not allow for acceptable standards of welfare and quality of life for wild animals; notes the work done by animal rights activists and third sector organisations to argue for such a ban, and considers that action in this area is needed to prevent suffering to animals.

... ... ...

The Minister for Environment and Climate Change (Stewart Stevenson):

I join other members in congratulating Elaine Murray on securing this debate.

It is clear that the views that have been expressed almost unanimously across the chamber are passionate and driven by a clear desire to improve the welfare of circus animals. I have no difficulty at the outset in accepting the basic proposition that is delineated in the motion.

There is a long history of animals in circuses. By coincidence, it appears that the practice started almost exactly at the point when children were no longer sent up chimneys to clean them and when slavery was abolished. Perhaps one form of slavery was replaced by another.

Kevin Stewart referred to the long-standing ban on circus animals in Aberdeen. The continuing ability of circuses to visit Aberdeen in the face of that ban demonstrates that the practical effect of a wider ban would not necessarily be too great. He also referred to objective evidence of stress in travelled animals. My briefing pack did not draw my attention to that point, which will inform us all in considering the issue, as it is objective evidence. With only 39 animals remaining in circuses in the UK, one issue is that there is a limited evidence base to drive the argument.

Hugh Henry and others made the point that the issue is not simply about objective evidence. The evidence, such as it is, has been considered for a long time, but the issue is also our duty to animals that are in our care and, beyond that, to those that remain in the wild. It is correct that Richard Lochhead has supported efforts on the issue.

I turn to Alex Fergusson’s speech. I can never quite remember whether it was St Thomas Aquinas or someone else who said, “Oh Lord, give me chastity, but not yet.” I think that we might have had Alex Fergusson’s second maiden speech, which is probably relatively unique, although would that he had waited for another occasion, if I may say so. Claudia Beamish made a good point in her intervention that many animals might be “performing”—I use that word in quotes—through fear. Mr Fergusson’s support for the eventual elimination of animals from circuses, qualified as it was by his suggestion that we wait until the natural lifespan of existing animals has expired, is at least a recognition that the practice should end, so I welcome that. However, it is inconsistent to be against something in principle but to allow it to continue in practice, which is what was said.

Alison Johnstone said that we should press the UK Government for a ban. I am going to make a rod for my own back by saying that we have the powers to do it ourselves. The proposal that is currently before the UK Government is in fact an England-only provision—the devolved Administrations can make their own arrangements. Yesterday, there was a debate on the subject in Westminster Hall. Unexpectedly, a Conservative member, Penny Mordaunt, topped any of my contributions by revealing that one of her previous jobs was as a magician’s assistant. Perhaps Mr Fergusson should consult her to find the magic way out of what is a rather awkward place to be.

The general public and animal welfare organisations are unambiguously clear and have been since 2004 in Scotland. Last year, 95 per cent of respondents to a DEFRA consultation were against the practice. We have heard the numbers quoted, and I do not debate any of them.

Elaine Murray highlighted the case of Anne the elephant. Virtually nobody could fail to be moved by the plight of that poor animal, and we wish her a long and happy retirement at Longleat, but there is not huge evidence that that was anything other than an isolated example of systematic abuse. However, the debate is not about systematic abuse, although it occurs; instead, it is about the restriction of liberty and normal behaviours. Many organisations, including the Scottish Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals and the British Veterinary Association, have made that point.

The UK coalition Government is seeking to regulate animals in circuses through licensing and inspection. Some people believe that that could lead to an increase in the number of wild animals in circuses. It is worth referring to the definition of wild animal that the Radford report used:

“a species whose collective behaviour, life cycle or physiology remains unaltered from the wild type despite their breeding and living conditions being under human control for multiple generations.”

It does not simply cover animals caught from the wild and put in circuses; it includes wild species that have been domestically bred.

In 2007, the circus working group stated:

“our present state of knowledge about the welfare of non-domesticated animals used in circuses is such that we cannot look to scientific evidence”.

That is why Elaine Murray and others are correct to look at the issue from a different perspective. The Radford report also stated:

“The status quo is not a tenable option”

and concluded that a ban should be proceeded with.

The question is an ethical and legal one. The dilemma for ministers is how a ban could be introduced. There have been legal challenges, in Austria in particular, on human rights grounds, although they appear now to have been disposed of. We will certainly continue to look at the issue. As a result of this debate and other inputs that we have had, and the information that continues to come from Westminster, we have been watching the matter with considerable interest and engagement.

Elaine Murray asks me to state that it is unacceptable for animals to be used for entertainment, and I am absolutely happy to do so. I will continue to work with the member to bring the matter to a satisfactory conclusion.

Meeting closed at 17:36.

17 March 2011

S3M-8177 Bus Services Regulation

The Presiding Officer (Alex Fergusson): Good morning. The first item of business this morning is a Labour Party debate on motion S3M-8177, in the name of Charlie Gordon, on transport.

... ... ...

Stewart Stevenson (Banff and Buchan) (SNP):

Let me declare a personal interest in the debate: I am a bus card holder. I note that the only bus card holders who are likely to participate in the debate appear to be on the SNP benches.

Mr Gordon is clearly destined for great things in the Labour Party. He is almost unique as a front-bench spokesperson, as he is the only one who has not been kicked in a tender part of his anatomy by a forced U-turn in policy.

Of course, questions arise over the issue of re-regulating the bus industry. Sarah Boyack was the transport minister when the previous legislation went through, but she is absent today so we cannot ask her about the decisions made and about why some of the constraints are what they are. However, let us explore them. Statutory bus partnerships are likely to be at the very edge of what is legally possible under the Scotland Act 1998. The renationalisation of the bus network, via the imposition of regulation, is unlikely to come within the legal powers of this Parliament.

The Labour Party has a track record on such issues. It wishes to reduce the VAT on fuel from 20 to 17.5 per cent—entirely and blissfully unaware of European law that means that only three VAT rates may be operated within a state. The three VAT rates that already exist are 0, 5 and 20 per cent. It is simply not legal to reduce a single element of the 20 per cent VAT to 17.5 per cent. There is not the legal power to do it. However, there is the legal power to overturn the fuel duty increases that are hitting the bus industry—increases that were introduced by Labour. But of course, Labour has not joined the consensus that wants to do something about that. The Labour Party should do its research properly. It has manifestly and demonstrably failed to do that.

Let us consider the position of the bus companies. We have some regulated bus services in the United Kingdom, most notably those that are operated by Transport for London. Let me pose a question that has a rather awkward answer. We are talking about a convenient policy hitting an inconvenient fact. In a regime in which there is regulation, are the returns for bus companies higher or lower than in an unregulated regime? Curiously enough, they are higher. The bus companies would probably be quite happy with such a policy.

Furthermore, because it would in effect remove a private right from commercial interests, we would have to pay the bus companies for loss of right to operate services. What figure should be put on that? The normal rule of thumb in such circumstances is one year’s turnover. To renationalise bus services in Scotland would cost—admittedly only once—£750 million. Even for the Labour Party, that is a breathtaking financial commitment, of which it has said nothing in the debate thus far. If the Transport for London model is anything to go by, Labour would find itself paying more for bus services. I am sure that Brian Souter would be giving his money to the Labour Party if it were to implement such a policy.

Let us consider the amendments. I say in all candour that they all have some merit. Alison McInnes conceded that the abolition of the bus route development scheme has perhaps not yet happened. It is a matter for local authorities, which makes that issue a problem.

In the current environment, local bus services’ mileage has gone up by 3.8 per cent, in part because the BSOG has been increased. The BSOG has also been environmentalised. In addition, the average fare has dropped by 2.5 per cent. “If you want to get on Labour’s bus, we’re going your way”—I do not think so, any time soon.

If we nationalise bus services, we can forget local decision making. Someone will be sitting in Edinburgh, deciding which local bus services we want. That is how it will work. At the moment, the decision making is close to the point of application.

There is support for bus services. I have used them hundreds of times. I highlight the 308 from Aberchirder to Inverurie. On the most recent occasion I used the service, on the whole route I was the only passenger. I admit that it was a Sunday afternoon. Services such as the 308 are essential services that are surviving with the support of the council in Aberdeenshire—a Liberal-led council—and of course through the Government’s support for the BSOG. Yes, there is a challenge to do more in buses, but the Labour Party should not deceive the people of Scotland by imagining that what it is saying today is anything other than a £750 million commitment, no defined outcomes, 100 per cent focus on process and nothing for passengers.


16 March 2011

S3M-8126 Certification of Death (Scotland) Bill

The Deputy Presiding Officer (Alasdair Morgan): The next item of business is a debate on motion S3M-8126, in the name of Shona Robison, on the Certification of Death (Scotland) Bill.

... ... ...

Stewart Stevenson (Banff and Buchan) (SNP): I have a few observations to make, some of which pick up points that others have made and some of which are new. Dr Ian McKee talked about the importance of death certification feeding into health care planning. That is correct, but we must not fail to take account of the need for death certification to feed into immediate response to possible epidemics. Professor Stewart Fleming did not make reference to that in his definition of the three aims of the certification process.

Ian McKee also talked—absolutely correctly—about folie à deux. It is worth saying that in aviation some 20 years ago we had precisely that situation in the cockpit, when a very senior captain would often not be told by a very junior but recently trained and high-quality first officer that they were getting it wrong. In designing the relationship between different players in the system, we must be aware of the influence that respect for experience and seniority has and must ensure that a junior person can point out freely and frankly to a more senior person that they are not up to the standard that is required. Folie à deux was killing people in aviation 20 years ago, but training has changed and it is not killing people now.

Last week, I had the very great pleasure to be in Giffnock synagogue to launch a Jewish education project on the internet. On that occasion, I received representations on the particular issues surrounding Jewish burial practice, which are equally applicable to people of the Muslim faith. It is important that we take account of the fact that those faiths use burial rather than cremation and make sure that we acknowledge that and preserve those traditions.

Rhoda Grant talked about testing. It is worth observing that testing has more limitations than one might imagine. About 30 years ago, IBM produced a computer that turned out to incorrectly multiply 10 by 10,000,008. Every other calculation appeared to be correct, but it was established that to use testing to see whether they were correct would require every model of that computer that had ever been produced to run through exhaustive tests for more than 1,000 years. It is important to get the design of the system correct.

We have heard some discussions about computers and I want to make some observations, of which members might or might not be aware, that indicate the need for some caution. For the registration of births, Registers of Scotland provides 200 characters for forenames and 50 characters for surnames. Approximately 19 per cent of current registrations are for people who have three or more forenames, so that issue is not insignificant because people have more complex names than they once had. Until a few months ago, I was refusing to take my parliamentary payslip—I was still taking the pay, of course—because my name was not right on the payslip. I am James Alexander Stewart Stevenson and the system provided for only two initials, thus omitting the initial that I use.

Joining computer systems together is often complex when we look at the metadata, to use the technical term, that are associated with information. I say that in the context of my genealogical researches on my great-grandfather who was a coal miner in Bannockburn. He first appears in the record in the 1841 census. The difficulty is that he is one of 328 Stevensons who were working in coal mining in Bannockburn in that year. Having the ability to distinguish names is very important indeed.

Equally, even if we impose rigorous standards for data collection and entry, there might be difficulties. When I worked in the Bank of Scotland, financial services legislation was introduced that required that we collect people’s dates of birth. Our tellers found themselves inhibited in asking ladies of a certain age what their date of birth was, but they had to put in a date so they just chose a random date. We ended up with something like 9 per cent of dates being 1 January. A further 2 per cent turned out to be the teller’s own birthday and, for a further small proportion, the teller simply entered that day’s date and discounted the number of years. Computer systems are not just mechanical systems; they have to interact with the human effects that often surround the collection of data.

If time permits, Presiding Officer—no; I see that you are signalling to me to wind up.

The Deputy Presiding Officer: That would be a sensible idea.

Stewart Stevenson: In that case, I will close. Clive James’s autobiography contains the wonderful phrase,

“Don’t take life seriously; you won’t get out of it alive anyway.”

Today, we take death seriously and we are entirely correct to do so.


S3M-8127 Local Electoral Administration (Scotland) Bill

The Presiding Officer (Alex Fergusson): The next item of business is the stage 3 debate on the Local Electoral Administration (Scotland) Bill.

... ... ...

Stewart Stevenson (Banff and Buchan) (SNP): The debate is perhaps an opportunity to look at the changing nature of how we run elections. If we go back to the UK election that took place in 1832, which is the earliest one for which I have been able to find records, 658 members of the House of Commons were elected and 827,776 people cast votes, so the number of votes per member of Parliament was just a wee bit over 1,000. That was a very different environment from the one in which we live now. Indeed, fewer votes were cast for each MP than we would now expect to be cast for each member of a local authority.

If we fast-forward to the Westminster election of 1945, we had multimember seats and seats for which the alternative vote or the STV system was used. We are looking at changing the electoral system for Westminster elections, but the Conservatives, in particular, will not be in favour of the multimember first-past-the-post system that Brian Donohoe proposed yesterday in a House of Commons debate as a replacement for the list system for Scottish Parliament elections because, of course, in 1922, when Churchill stood for re-election in Dundee, he came third in a two-member seat. He was defeated by a Scottish prohibitionist, Edwin Scrymgeour and by the Labour candidate. The results are not always what we expect.

In 1945, when three members were elected to the Combined Scottish Universities seat by STV, a form of alternative voting, the third person who was elected on the second ballot obtained only 4.15 per cent of the first preference votes and was elected despite losing their deposit. Therefore, the systems that we have had over the years can lead to various differences.

Moving forward to the general election of October 1974, the turnout in Scotland was 74.81 per cent. That was a highly memorable election. After it, Westminster had more nationalist members than it had Liberal members.

Jamie Stone (Caithness, Sutherland and Easter Ross) (LD): Shame!

Stewart Stevenson: There were 13 Liberal members and 14 nationalist members, including three Plaid Cymru members and others. It is clear that, over the piece, there were changes in the way things were done. In 1945, it was a fortnight after the election before the results were known because, in days before the advent of the internet, the service vote took some logistical organisation.

I add to the commendation that there will be for Duncan McNeil’s contribution on the subject in October 2008, when he reported to Parliament on his committee’s deliberations. The committee’s work was vital in underpinning what we are discussing. Its report highlighted a general point that I and my colleagues and, I think, some others would make, which is that having different bodies and different parliamentarians responsible for the rules for different elections is a potential source of difficulty. It is certainly the case that in 2007 the Scotland Office did not cover itself in glory.

Even though a vote on the use of AV for Westminster elections is coming up shortly, it has not led to a single question from an elector to me so far. The SNP has just completed two days in Glasgow at our party conference. In my hearing, the subject never arose, although it may have arisen in other people’s hearing.

We have heard about some of the difficulties in 2007. It is certainly important that the Electoral Commission should report on how elections have gone. An illustration of when a report by the Electoral Commission might have been useful is the referendum that was held on 1 March 1979. I was at the count in Lothian. Members who are old enough to remember the campaign may remember that the “no” campaign bought lots of poster space. The posters had a picture of the ballot paper with the words “yes” and “no” on it. Opposite the word “no”, instead of an X, the word “no” was written. More than 2,000 electors in Lothian chose to write the word “no” opposite the “no” option.

We might think that that was fair enough. Most of us here might think that the electors’ intentions were relatively clear, and that is the normal test. However, on that occasion, the returning officer decided that, because the electors had written “no” opposite the word “no”, those votes should count as a “yes”. Being a campaigner for the “yes” campaign, I was not greatly upset by that decision, although I was astonished by it. On appeal, the returning officer of that count agreed that those votes would be counted as spoilt papers. That is an example to show that it was not just in 2007 that we have had difficulties; there have been previous occasions on which it would have been right and proper to examine what went on.

When we have complex elections, it is important that the electors know what is going on. One of the rules in the forthcoming election, as in all previous elections, prohibits election communications from referring to other elections, which might help people to understand the nature of other, simultaneous elections. That prohibition might be thought to be unhelpful and the Electoral Commission might have to look at that.

As someone who spent 30 years in computers, I will make a wee reference to the nature of some of the difficulties that might arise with computer systems. We computery people always used to apply a rule of thumb when we were given numbers relating to the throughput of a computer system. The rule of thumb was that marketing people always get estimates wrong by a factor of 10. It was the computer people’s job to work out whether to divide or multiply. In some ways, that is exactly what part of the problem was in 2007. We did not anticipate that more than 20 people would be standing on some of the lists, and there was a limitation in the software. In Lothian, the number standing on the list exceeded that limit so there was a last-minute ad hoc redesign of the ballot form that caused the computer systems great difficulties. I hope that the stress testing that will take place in the autumn will focus on some of the more unlikely boundary conditions that might occur, because that is where computer systems almost invariably fail.

I am pleased to see the legislation coming through Parliament. I sniff not a whiff of dissent and I hope that the motion will be carried unanimously at decision time.


10 March 2011

S3M-8114 Scotland Bill

The Presiding Officer (Alex Fergusson): The next item of business is a debate on motion S3M-8114, in the name of Iain Gray, on the Scotland Bill, which is United Kingdom legislation.

... ... ...

Stewart Stevenson (Banff and Buchan) (SNP):

Bad news: we have had Wendy Alexander’s last speech in the Parliament, although I do not expect that this will be mine, which is the second part of the bad news. I, too, congratulate Wendy Alexander on what has been a distinguished and often interesting—sometimes for the wrong reasons—career. I also extend my congratulations to Cathy Jamieson on leaving this place. They are two of the six female members who will voluntarily stand down at the end of the session.

It is worth saying that the committee has turned out better than I feared but has achieved less than I had hoped. Murdo Fraser and Linda Fabiani have discussed the committee’s approach. In that regard, the 2,000-year-old Latin phrase, “Quis custodiet ipsos custodes?”—who will guard the guards?—shows that that is not a new issue for politicians.

Robert Brown suggested that this is the last major debate of the session—I note that we are not packed to the rafters—and said that we strengthen a federal structure for the UK. On Tuesday night, I was at a dinner in Newcastle, sitting with many of the Liberal Democrat politicians who run that city. I will not name names, as what they told me was unattributable, but it was clear from that discussion that the asymmetric federal structure that we have, if we have one at all, leaves those Liberal Democrats much less excited than their colleagues in this chamber.

Wendy Alexander said that the committee was the first specialist committee to study a bill—I think that she meant that it was the first specialist committee to study a UK bill—and reminded us that the UK Government has announced that EYF will be clawed back. Does that not precisely illustrate the difficulties that arise from being in continual thrall to the Treasury?

Peter Peacock talked about states. States across the world have many ranges of power. In the United States of America, they have power over sales tax, corporation tax and so on. There have been talks about income tax, but I do not think that we have seen much in the way of proposals about how the UK Government might implement what is in the bill.

I am always wary of geeks bearing gifts, when they are Labour Party geeks. However, Guido Fawkes, one of the most prominent bloggers, has today reported that the Labour Party itself is £36 million in debt.

The committee’s substantial report contains 225 paragraphs of conclusions and recommendations. Three of them are on Antarctica—I will say little more about that. However, insolvency and health regulation receive only four paragraphs each. I think that they are more important than those eight paragraphs suggest. Scotland has a different approach to bankruptcy and a different set of terminology for the various stages of financial difficulties that individuals and companies can experience. We have absolutely no guarantee that the UK insolvency service will be able to adapt its processes and resource itself to take over what is done by the Accountant in Bankruptcy in Scotland. There is little doubt that the case for that has not been made.

Robert Brown: Has Mr Stevenson read the letter from the Law Society of Scotland, who should know a little bit about this matter? It takes the opposite view, because of the technical difficulties of the current situation.

Stewart Stevenson: There are many technical difficulties that cross boundaries. The question is, is it possible to work within them and are there distinct advantages to having our own system, which is capable of being adapted more rapidly than it would be if the powers were returned to Westminster? We can work rapidly when we require to do so; it is more difficult otherwise.

With regard to the regulation of health professions, the General Pharmaceutical Council believes that having displaced powers in that regard creates no problem. It does not believe that there is any need to centralise the powers in London.

Jeremy Purvis talked of Gladstone’s Midlothian campaign. When I heard Gladstone speak in Midlothian—well, not quite. However, my Liberal family discussed the Midlothian campaign at lunch once. I recall that the issue of Irish home rule split the Liberal party and that most of its members joined the Tories. Plus ça change? Perhaps.

In relation to the parliamentary question that Jeremy Purvis referred to, he should of course have informed the chamber that there will be no effect on projects that are being funded by the Scottish Government and that the issue is simply one of getting the money out of Europe and into Scottish hands.

This has been a debate about principle, on which there is, fundamentally, broad agreement. On the issue of tactics, however, there is much less agreement.

Today’s debate is not the end of the matter; we all wish to debate the issues further at a later date. We certainly hope that that debate will lead to something that suits Scotland’s needs even better.


09 March 2011

S3M-8110 Reservoirs (Scotland) Bill

The Deputy Presiding Officer (Trish Godman): The next item of business is a debate on motion S3M-8110, in the name of Richard Lochhead, on the Reservoirs (Scotland) Bill.

... ... ...

Stewart Stevenson (Banff and Buchan) (SNP): It is a great pleasure to have returned to the Rural Affairs and Environment Committee. I previously served on the Rural Development Committee under your benevolent dictatorship, Presiding Officer. Your performance in that role was so impressive that I was delighted that you expanded your convenership by taking control of the Parliament.

As a late joiner in relation to the bill, I missed the early discussions and the clearly significant engineering contributions that John Scott and others made.

Those members who were in Malawi and missed some of the proceedings should not feel in the slightest bit guilty about it because there the issue of water has a much different character. It is about getting clean, wholesome water in adequate volume to many of the communities in that country. In Scotland, we are fortunate to have sufficient water and simply to have to apply the technical solutions to ensure that we deliver that water to our communities and, through our dams and reservoirs, provide a significant contribution to the amenity of Scotland and the recreation of its inhabitants.

It is worth observing that the extension of the regulation on dams will slightly less than double the number of dams that are covered but, simultaneously, just under one third of those that are currently affected will experience reduced regulation. The bill strikes a proper balance on that.

Deciding that the amount of water that is held in a reservoir that comes under the bill should be 10,000m3 rather than 25,000m3 is quite difficult for the layperson to grasp. To do a little thinking about it, a single cubic metre—1m long by 1m wide by 1m high—is approximately 1 ton in weight because 1 gallon of water weighs 10lb. If 1m3 of water were to be flung over the top of a dam and fall something like 120ft, it would be travelling at 60mph or 70mph by the time it got to the bottom. Members should imagine 1m3 of water hitting an individual: it would be like stepping on to a motorway and being hit by a car.

John Scott rose—

Stewart Stevenson: I suspect that we will get the exact figures from John Scott.

John Scott: Would Stewart Stevenson expect that water to have reached its terminal velocity over that distance, given the gravitational effect on it?

Stewart Stevenson: Let us have a really technical discussion. If it were ice, its terminal velocity in that shape would be approximately 120mph. On the other hand, it is travelling as a liquid, so it will of course disperse and to some extent become aerated. It is a complex issue. Does that not touch upon the very complexities of water? I speak, by the way, as someone who has undertaken parachuting, so I know about terminal velocity and all that sort of thing—it is quite exciting, I have to say.

At 10,000m3, we are looking at holding back something of the order of 10,000 tonnes of water.

Climate change is an important part of the future of not just Scotland but countries around the world. We will see dams that are overfilled because of increased rainfall; as atmospheric temperature rises, that will be one of the consequences. Equally, there will be periods of drought, when there is less water behind the dam.

Concrete is a very old material; the Romans used it 2,000 years ago. Many of our dams are constructed of concrete. As Barnes Wallis discovered when he designed the bouncing bomb, concrete is very strong in pressure but very weak in tension. If you take away the water from behind an elderly dam, there is a risk—although not a huge risk—that the dam might collapse backwards towards the water that previously held it in place. There are a range of risks to which some of our older dams can be exposed. The explosive effect of the bouncing bomb—taking the water suddenly away from behind the dam—is of course what caused the concrete to fall backwards and the water to come forward.

Water is essential for human life. It is worth saying that the well-nourished member of this Parliament could probably survive without food for a couple of months but would survive without water for something less than a week. In paying attention to Scotland’s natural resource that is water, we do something very important indeed.

This is a bill of considerable technical complexity that is simple in its purpose. It is fit for purpose and we should all support it at decision time.


03 March 2011

S3M-8058 Scottish Parliament Elections

The Presiding Officer (Alex Fergusson): The next item of business is a debate on motion S3M-8058, in the name of Alex Salmond, on the 2015 election. Time for speeches is tight.

... ... ...
The Presiding Officer: I call Stewart Stevenson. You may make speech number 401, but you have only three minutes, Mr Stevenson.


Stewart Stevenson (Banff and Buchan) (SNP):

Thank you, Presiding Officer.

When I consider the signatories to the motion and what I have heard in the debate thus far, I suspect that there will be a degree of unanimity at decision time.

When we look at the processes of democracy it is always useful to consider history and experience elsewhere. The President of Iceland, for example, is elected for a single year and he or she may not stand again for a further 10 years after one term of office, because the presidency is a symbolic role. In Australia, at Prime Minister’s question time, each question is timed out after seven minutes, whether or not the participants have finished.

Perhaps the example that touches most vividly on the issue that is before us comes from the United States, where people are faced with a vast array of propositions, which might be associated with presidential or state elections. It is worth considering the effect of such an approach. As is the case here, in the US there is space in the media for debate about only one essential election, which is generally the presidential election, the gubernatorial election or the elections to the Senate. The propositions—we would call them referenda—receive scant attention.

There is a real danger when a series of unrelated decisions that an elector has to make are drawn together to be dealt with in a single visit to the polling booth. I apply that not only to the co-incidence of a UK Parliament election and a Scottish Parliament election but, of course, to the forthcoming referendum on the alternative vote, about which there has been no public hubbub and little comment. Not a single constituent has raised it with me.

Let us not imagine that we are introducing something new with AV. We used to have multimember, single transferable vote seats in the Westminster Parliament. The last general election in which that was the case was 1945. We saw the ludicrous situation of Graham Kerr, a Conservative who received 1,361 votes in the first ballot in an overall vote of 32,786—4.15 per cent of the first-preference votes—nonetheless getting elected on the second ballot.

Perhaps the Conservatives will support the AV referendum after all, because it certainly can lead to results for them. However, we need to have the debate, and we can do that only if there is time for it.

It is a great pleasure to speak on the motion. I, of course, will support the unanimity that I expect to see at 5 o’clock and I hope that everyone else will do so as well.


02 March 2011

S3M-8032 Fuel Duty

The Deputy Presiding Officer (Trish Godman): The next item of business is a debate on motion S3M-8032, in the name of Keith Brown, on fuel duty.

... ... ...

Stewart Stevenson (Banff and Buchan) (SNP):

It is a great pleasure to speak on the subject of fuel duty. In my first contribution in the Parliament in 2001, I spoke about fishing, which is a vital interest for my constituents. Therefore, it is a great pleasure as I make my 400th speech today to speak about something of equal importance. [Applause.] I thank members for that kind applause. It is richly deserved—for those who have had to listen to my 400 speeches.
Jackson Carlaw (Conservative): I will start with the most outstanding speech in the debate, which was from the former minister Stewart Stevenson
I will be serious. The fair fuel price campaign featured in the middle of the newsletter that I distributed in 2001 for my first election to the Parliament. Fair fuel prices were an issue then, and they remain an issue today for rural constituencies such as mine. In 1997, the price of a litre of petrol was 61p. Alison McInnes referred to the price of diesel in Banff. I understand that the price of petrol in Banff today is 134.9p a litre. When I had my first car, I could fill up its tank, take the four people in the car for a fish supper, go to the cinema, and get change from a pound.

The world has changed, but the Labour Party’s inability to engage on the subject has not. When it debated it in April last year, parties were able to coalesce around a shared belief that we had to take action, but the Labour Party—the 36 members of it who turned up to vote, that is; 10 were missing—was on the wrong side of the argument, and the indications are that it will be on the wrong side of the argument today.

Charlie Gordon: Will the member take an intervention?

Stewart Stevenson: I will do so later.

Charlie Gordon said in that debate that he remembered lager being half a crown a pint, so I know that he is of a similar age to me.

Those staggering increases in the cost of fuel affect everyone, not simply motorists. If businesses face higher fuel costs, those costs are in turn passed on to consumers and we all pay more for the things that we buy. The case for a fuel duty regulator to halt the constant fuel price increases that people face has never been more urgent.

I do not have an intrinsic difficulty with the idea of reversing the recent VAT increase on fuel that the Labour Party proposes in its amendment; my fundamental difficulty is that although that would give some relief, it would be a one-time hit, whereas what the Labour Party seeks to delete from the motion is a proposal that would provide a long-term, permanent solution to smooth out the price of fuel. The one thing that really affects business and individuals is erratic changes in prices. A study of the graph that the House of Commons has provided in its research shows that pricing has become much more erratic in nature.

Patrick Harvie (Glasgow) (Green): The member describes a fuel duty regulator as a permanent solution to the problem of volatility. Surely he accepts that it is not a permanent solution to fuel price rises, which, at present, are not being driven by taxation.

Stewart Stevenson: I absolutely accept that if the intrinsic price of the underlying raw material is to change over a long period of time—I think we all accept that it is—we cannot beat the system, but we must give business the certainty of understanding what its costs will be.

Charlie Gordon rose—

Stewart Stevenson: I am coming to Charlie Gordon in a minute.

We must also give rural constituents such as mine the opportunity to do their budgeting, as well as giving them some relief in the meantime.

Charlie Gordon: As an aside, can I say that I yearn for the days when I was younger and better looking than the former transport minister?

I have explained that the Government’s own advisory body says that a regulator would not work. I have made it clear that we are being practical: cutting back the VAT on fuel is a practical measure that can be taken this month. If the member checks the Official Report of the debate that we had a year ago, he will see that I left the door open, as I did earlier this evening, on the concept of some limited derogation for very remote rural parts of Scotland.
Liam McArthur (Liberal Democrat): I had the privilege of being invited to bear witness to Stewart Stevenson’s 400th oration
Stewart Stevenson: If the door is capable of being opened, the three parties who are on the other side of the argument in the debate are handing the Labour Party the key. It should take it, turn the key and go through the door. A fuel duty regulator is a process by which we can give certainty and use the huge sums that the Treasury has—it has £1 billion in tax more than it anticipated having—to fund relief for people in rural areas who simply do not have alternative means of transport and who have to use their cars to go to work or to the shops, and to undertake social, educational or medical journeys. It is extremely important that we focus on that.
Charlie Gordon (Labour): It was good to debate with Stewart Stevenson again. Once again, I found him to be a conscientious adversary
I welcome the fact that it appears that our island communities are to receive some relief, but many mainland communities are equally remote and equally affected by fuel prices. A fuel duty regulator would be a way of controlling price, and I hope that members will coalesce behind the Government’s motion and unite in sending a message to the Government at Westminster.


24 February 2011

S3M-7992 Regeneration

The Presiding Officer (Alex Fergusson): The next item of business is a debate on motion S3M-7992, in the name of Johann Lamont, on regeneration.

... ... ...

Stewart Stevenson (Banff and Buchan) (SNP): ...

I wish John Park every success in the recovery of his lip. Indeed, I wish him every success in the coming election. I hope that Labour sets new records—for second places. The contest to come will be interesting.

Regeneration is a subject that is timely and important to communities not only in central Scotland but right across Scotland. In my remarks, I will make some comments about areas outwith central Scotland.

John Park highlighted an important issue when he said that it is not correct to focus only on people. When we look at regeneration, I agree that we also have to consider the physical, social and economic environments. In fact, a complex set of interlocking issues make up the single issue that is regeneration. The need for regeneration has run through the generations in far too many of our communities.

That is precisely why the Conservatives absolutely miss the point when they focus on the idea of workers relocating to find new work. Indeed, Norman Tebbit has been on the campaign trail in Wales this week. He gave an interview in which he suggested, once again, that the “get on your bike” phrase that he used years ago still has a resonance. That focus is simplistic, inadequate and inappropriate.

It is good to hear members on Labour’s front bench—if not members on Labour’s back benches—reinforcing the importance of the Forth replacement crossing, which is not only a transport investment but one that creates significant jobs. I hope that Lord Foulkes remains a sole voice.

Regeneration is a key part of our economy. It is needed just as much in rural villages and towns as it is in urban city centres. Just as we have seen significant change in the industrial structure of Scotland in many communities in the central belt, so we have seen the structure of our traditional industries of fishing and farming change significantly. Those industries have reduced the number of people who are employed within them and that has caused suffering for a number of associated engineering industries, too.

The Coalfields Regeneration Trust does excellent work for the communities that it supports. I do not think that during today’s debate we will hear criticism of its efforts, although we may focus on differences.

However, there is a Scotland beyond the central belt. Just yesterday, on 23 February, Portsoy in my constituency was granted £500,000 from Historic Scotland’s conservation area regeneration scheme to repair historic buildings in the harbour and to give people training in traditional skills. That is the kind of initiative that the Government is taking. It will make the area more attractive to visitors, but it will also boost the local economy. Building on traditional skills and renovation work will create for young people, in particular, key opportunities to engage in new activities.

Elsewhere in my constituency, there have been successful regeneration schemes in Peterhead, and £3 million has been spent on a townscape heritage project in Banff. In August, Aberdeenshire Council allocated slightly more than a third of £1 million from Scottish Enterprise to regeneration projects in Banff and Buchan.

Regeneration is important throughout Scotland. That is why I welcome the document that the Government has just published on the subject, which recognises that many of the traditional models are less viable. For too many companies, reliance on debt finance simply is not possible. Together with difficulties in accessing land and property in the current climate, that is making it more difficult overall to attract investment. We need community-led regeneration, rather than a top-down approach. We need to empower our communities so that, through the Scottish Government’s concordat with local authorities in particular, we can find ways of doing the things that are required in our local communities. Regeneration works when each community has a stake in it.

I think in particular of Maud, a small village in my constituency, where over a long period—regeneration is not a quick fix—the community has engaged in redeveloping an area that 50 years ago was the biggest, most active cattle market in the whole of Scotland. Today, the area is thriving, with many different activities in a new centre that has been developed in close co-operation with the community, through a planning for real project that engaged the very young and the very old.

Like others, I welcomed the 2007 debate on coalfield regeneration. After waiting for four years for another debate, we find that two have come along on the same day—not, I must say, miraculous scheduling on the part of the Labour business manager.

In comparison with the minister, I must go back one more generation to reach my mining ancestors. My great-grandfather and great-great-grandfather were miners in Bannockburn. They were among more than 300 Stevensons who were miners in that community 150 years ago. Business changes, and we must respond. Regeneration will be important. I will support the Government tonight.


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