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.

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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.

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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.

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