28 February 2013

S4M-05712 Aquaculture and Fisheries (Scotland) Bill: Stage 1

The Presiding Officer (Tricia Marwick): The next item of business is a debate on motion S4M-05712, in the name of Paul Wheelhouse, on the Aquaculture and Fisheries (Scotland) Bill.

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Stewart Stevenson (Banffshire and Buchan Coast) (SNP):

I very much welcome the work that has been undertaken by the Rural Affairs, Climate Change and Environment Committee. The committee’s report responded to and incorporated a wide range of views in encouraging an environmentally viable and sustainable future for our fish farmers and freshwater fisheries and for all users of our marine environment.

Scotland is known worldwide for the quality of our environment, and that reputation underpins our successful food and drink export industry, in terms of both land and of the marine and river environments. People do not even need to think about making a choice between food that has been produced in a sustainable way and in pristine conditions and an alternative at the other extreme, in which production methods damage the environment and the consumer.

The general point is made by the Paisley snail case, in which a pauper, May Donoghue, successfully sued a manufacturer who had left a dead snail in a bottle of the ginger beer that she had purchased in the Wellmeadow cafe in Paisley in 1928. I regret to inform Parliament that the manufacturer of the ginger beer was one David Stevenson; as far as I am aware, he was not a relative of mine, and I hope not to find that he was.

Nigel Don (Angus North and Mearns) (SNP): Parliament might wish to be made aware of the fact that the snail may never have existed. The point was never proven, and was taken as read.

Stewart Stevenson: I think that, when the courts decide that the facts of a case are found, we should accept, through the telescope of age, that the snail was the point of application of the case. That is certainly true.

People want to be able to trust their food. If anything is to come out of the horsemeat scandal, it is that it illustrates that point. We want aquaculture, which is a major contributor to our food and is now a bigger industry than the wild-fish sector, to be even more successful in the future. We can help if we get things right. A country that has transparent rules and practices that guarantee that the consumer’s food comes from a pristine environment is ahead of the game at once, and having a good production environment is the first prerequisite to underpinning consumer confidence.

It is no surprise that our farmed salmon carries Scotland’s flag to all the global airts; it is a marker of quality. Our salmon are a health food—there is lots of omega 3 in them, for example—are the basis of much fine dining and are increasingly affordable in every home. Omega 3 reduces strokes and lowers blood pressure. Salmon tastes good and does people good. Therefore, when we legislate on our industry, we must legislate for it. We must provide the certainty that the environment within which the industry produces is good.

We know what people elsewhere think about our fish farming industry. In 1992, Scottish aquaculture received an unprecedented double honour; the French Ministry of Agriculture awarded the renowned Label Rouge mark to Scottish farmed salmon. That was not only the first time that the honour was given to a food that originated outside France, but was the first time that it was awarded to a fish product. That is an early indicator of the trust that our superb Scottish salmon has throughout the world. We are, of course, the European Union’s largest exporter of salmon, and there is room for substantial growth.

Other species have scope for growth, too. Our blue mussel accounts for most of our shellfish production. There were 7,000 tonnes of that, worth £8.6 million, in 2011. The aim is to double that in the next decade.

Our marine environment is, of course, a shared environment, so when we protect our clear blue—but, alas, not very warm—waters, we support sport fishing and a raft of coastal leisure activities. We also play a part in wider conservation measures that are important to a range of species. For example, who would have thought 20 years ago that we would find that we have living coral reefs in our marine waters? We support diversity, and that is part of it.

We also need to manage the production environment. That is in the interests of all coastal activity and benefits local communities. Again, sea lice are a big part of people’s engagement with the undoubted impacts of fish farming. I very much welcome plans by the Scottish Salmon Producers Association to publish data on that in considerable detail. We need enough detail to build public confidence and to support the needs of research, but not so much that extrajudicial action by extremists could result. That is unlikely, but we need to balance that.

Alex Fergusson: Will Stewart Stevenson take a brief intervention?

Stewart Stevenson: I do not think that I have time to do so. Please forgive me.

We have and we need a legal enforcement regime that deals with the small number of breaches of the rules, but above all, we need co-operation between the science, aquaculture and environment communities. Perhaps that has not been wholly evident in the evidence that has been given to the committee.

The committee was right to quote Steve Bracken in its report. He said:

“salmon farming and wild fisheries are both vital industries for the coast and inland parts of Scotland.”—[Official Report, Rural Affairs, Climate Change and Environment Committee, 5 December 2012; c 1466.]

That is undoubtedly true.

I take an interest in wild fishing. My brother and I had a wonderful summer in 1968, when we were employed by the Tay District Salmon Fisheries Board as water bailiffs. I therefore very much welcome the opportunity that the bill creates to modernise a rather Victorian structure for supervising wild fisheries, and I look forward to future developments.


26 February 2013

S4M-05612 Public Services Reform (Developing New Ways of Delivering Services)

The Deputy Presiding Officer (John Scott): The next item of business is a debate on motion S4M-05612, in the name of Kevin Stewart, on the inquiry into public services reform.

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Stewart Stevenson (Banffshire and Buchan Coast) (SNP):

I want to focus on achieving efficiency in local government. For me, efficiency means delivering the best, most wide-reaching outcomes for the least use of available resources of all kinds. It is not simply a financial measure; it is about what the customers—the people in the area concerned—get from their council. Of course, efficiency has to be qualified by circumstance. Each council has a different circumstance. For example, the fact that school transport costs more per pupil in the Highlands than in Glasgow is not a measure of the relative efficiencies of the respective councils; clearly, it is an indication of the very different circumstances in which those councils find themselves.

During the committee’s inquiry—I joined the committee, with others, in September—it has been clear that councils are picking up on the greater freedom that they have been given since the Government, in 2007, removed almost all the ring fencing from the finance that they get. Previously, around 25 per cent of their finance was in nearly 200 separate streams of spending, in relation to which they had almost no discretion. The situation is quite different now, and different councils have responded in different ways. Councils also welcome the fact that their share of the overall budget that we in this Parliament get has risen under this Government. It is not as much money as we would wish to provide—there are ways in which we could provide more by changing the environment in which this Parliament operates, but that is not the core of today’s debate.

One key point is that the committee has engaged with communities across Scotland, which I found interesting and challenging. We have had excellent examples of what councils could be doing and excellent examples of what they are doing. There are plenty of good ideas out there. However, there is perhaps one area—service sharing—in which we have seen less movement than we might like.

I will illustrate that deficit with reference to one of the two councils in my constituency. I represent part of Moray Council’s area. Over a number of years, that Independent and Tory-led council has resisted the demands of SNP councillors to look at service sharing. The result is that the Independents and Tories are closing seven out of eight of the stand alone libraries in Moray, which is quite astonishing; they are removing all the arts funding, which is absolutely flabbergasting; and they are looking to remove principal teachers from a significant number of posts, which really is avoidable. Let us cut overheads by looking at sharing; let us not cut front-line services that are valued by the people in Moray.

I have no particular evidence that there is such an egregious example anywhere else—there may or may not be. However, that leads me neatly to benchmarking, which gives us an opportunity to identify areas for improvement by looking at the achievements of others. I am delighted that COSLA has taken the initiative and established a cross-cutting benchmarking framework for our councils.

The evidence that the committee has received has highlighted to me and to others a degree of confusion and a number of fears about what that benchmarking might mean. Some elected members appear to see benchmarking simply as another way for external commentators and councillors to knock lumps out of councils. That is not an unreasonable fear for people to have. However, if that proves to be the key focus of benchmarking and the use of the data that are made available as a result of its introduction, it will be a failed initiative.

Good benchmarking starts with normalisation—basically, standardising how the data come into the models—so that we can start to make valid comparisons between quite different circumstances. A council that feels that it has an opportunity for improvement in one policy area can then use the benchmarking model to find out which council it should be copying, and it will probably be copied in turn in some other policy area in which it is doing well.

We do not need to have all the data about every council’s every bit of activity. In the benchmarking model, we need information about the best examples and we need to have enough information to be confident that they really are the best so that copying them is relevant and of value.

By the way, benchmarking is not just about comparing the councils in Scotland. We should be comparing ourselves with anywhere in the world—let us benchmark and see if we can copy good examples, because that is one key way to make progress. We can deliver a great deal to the public sector by benchmarking; business can learn from the public sector, but the public sector can also learn from business. We should make the approach as broad as possible.


07 February 2013

S4M-05549 Local Government Finance (Scotland) Order 2013 [Draft]

The Deputy Presiding Officer (Elaine Smith): Good afternoon. The first item of business is a debate on motion S4M-05549, in the name of John Swinney, on approval of the draft Local Government Finance (Scotland) Order 2013.

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Stewart Stevenson (Banffshire and Buchan Coast) (SNP):

I congratulate the Cabinet Secretary for Finance, Employment and Sustainable Growth and local councils on what has, over the years, been an effective collaboration, despite the variety of political views and objectives held by all the councils and members in the chamber.

Scotland has the lowest number of elected politicians per 100,000 of population in any European country: it has 33.5, while south of the border has about 42 and Greece has about 660. I am certainly not advocating any change one way or the other, but that illustrates that we expect a great deal of our councils and councillors. Most councillors serve without thought of self-interest and work hours that would be hardly contemplatable if one were to look at the minimum wage. We are fortunate—in all political parties—in the broad sweep of the councillors that we have.

Willie Rennie—who is no longer in the chamber—talked about Aberdeen. I noted that he did not choose to talk about Aberdeenshire. Aberdeenshire Council, which is Tory led in partnership with the Lib Dems and an assorted group of independents—the word “group” is hardly appropriate; the phrase “ferrets in a sack” comes closer to it—has had a massive underspend of tens of millions of pounds in consecutive years. That fatally undermines any arguments for increases in resources. More fundamentally, because of that underspend the Liberals and Tories in administration are unnecessarily cutting services in relation to the funding that they have. The removal of wardens from many of our sheltered housing schemes is particularly resented by my constituents.

There are individual councillors who do not rise to the challenge, and I am going to take the opportunity of naming one in my constituency because of his long-running failure to earn his keep. Councillor Alan Buchan is a vice-convener in the council administration. He cannot even find it in his heart to stay with the pack when he is leading a delegation to meet people in the energetica corridor—the most important of our economic environments. It is time that that councillor in particular looked at his own performance and that the council leadership looked at it, too.

Interesting things have happened. We have seen councils agree to maintain teacher numbers in line with pupil numbers, which is entirely welcome.

As in the past, Lewis Macdonald has made reference to funding for different councils. I am slightly surprised that we have not had a reminder about that, so let me do so. Labour, in essence, controls COSLA. It can change the formula, and I encourage Labour to look at doing so.

I want to look at the numbers in the letter that the cabinet secretary has produced that relate to private finance initiative and loan charges. In Glasgow City Council, which has long been run by the Labour Party, such charges account for nearly 10 per cent of the updated service provision, which is quite out of line with any other mainland council. The island councils are in a different position because they have different circumstances. The Labour Party, in particular, needs to look a little closer to home in relation to effective administration.

In September 2012, I joined the Local Government and Regeneration Committee, which has responsibility for local authorities. I very much enjoy being there, and I expect that we will see more support for councils. That committee will work on behalf of councils—and with the Government—as we always do.


05 February 2013

S4M-05556 Human Rights

The Deputy Presiding Officer (John Scott): The next item of business is a debate on motion S4M-05556, in the name of Roseanna Cunningham, on promoting and protecting human rights in Scotland, Europe and the wider world.

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Stewart Stevenson (Banffshire and Buchan Coast) (SNP):

I very much welcome this timely debate and the work that the Scottish Human Rights Commission is undertaking in this policy area. It definitely shows the way for many others around the globe.

I respect Jenny Marra’s engagement in the subject of trafficking, which is well established and entirely proper, but I would have preferred to see a broader-based amendment. There are a large number of issues and trafficking is important, but by no means the only one.

In a short contribution, it is proper to focus on a narrow facet of what is inevitably a wide subject. Once again, I will talk about climate justice; it is a geographically wide topic, but relatively narrow in policy terms. It is an area in which the rich impose an inescapable cost on the poor.

In 2009, the United Nations Human Rights Council recognised that

“human rights obligations and commitments have the potential to inform and strengthen international and national policy making in the area of climate change”.

I very much welcome the progress and engagement that our Government has made so far: the establishment of the climate justice fund, which reaches out to many other countries; the memorandum of understanding with the Inter-American Development Bank; carbon capture work with the Republic of South Africa; commonwealth saltire professional fellowships; and so on. A great deal is going on.

I also very much welcome President Obama’s appointment of John Kerry as part of his new Administration, which is a very encouraging sign of potential for movement in one of the world’s wealthiest nations. I had the privilege to hear John speak at a UN conference and if he is able to deliver in government what he referred to in that speech, real progress will be made.

I regularly track the Mary Robinson Foundation—Climate Justice, which has laid out a number of headings, and I immediately want to pick up on gender equality and impact. It is in that area that the impacts appear to be happening fastest and the effects have the most direct potential to kill adults and, more especially, children. As temperatures rise across the globe, aridity follows and crop failures are an inevitable consequence. In many of the poorest countries in the world, women are at the front line. They are the primary farmers, who now have less food and have to walk further for fuel and water. They absolutely live on the margin. Women in poorer countries pay the price for our higher standard of living.

We will see migration, and the inevitable consequence is that much of that migration will be into countries that are only a little less poor. We cannot morally live with a policy and practice of spreading the poverty around more widely. We have to help countries mitigate the effects of climate change. The Government is doing something on that; I hope that all Governments, including our own, will do more.

We need to be committed as citizens and as Governments to turn down the world’s thermostat. I want us to equip others to act on mitigation.

I acknowledge Labour’s long-term record of engagement on human rights, which is worthy of praise. However, the real challenge is to address the constitutional issue, so that we can do much more.


S4M-05535 High Hedges (Scotland) Bill: Stage 1

The Presiding Officer (Tricia Marwick): The next item of business is a debate on motion S4M-05535, in the name of Mark McDonald, on the High Hedges (Scotland) Bill. I call Mark McDonald, who is the member in charge of the bill, to speak to and move the motion.

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Stewart Stevenson (Banffshire and Buchan Coast) (SNP):

My congratulations to Mark McDonald on his progress on this issue so far.

Much of the detail of the bill and of the committee report has already been covered, so I will address one or two wider issues that relate to the subject, in which there may be a need for a change of behaviours consequent on the passage of the bill.

The bill is relatively simple and is informed by legislation elsewhere in these islands of which we are a part. The message from the evidence that the committee received from the Isle of Man is to keep it relatively simple and not to try to solve every possible issue that may arise with shading vegetation, because that is probably impossible. England’s example tells us that behaviours start to change relatively rapidly and that after a short settling-in period people stop creating monster hedges that cause disputes.

Does that mean that naturally—although not necessarily consciously—disputatious people will simply find something else to argue with their neighbours about? The jury does not seem to have much evidence to suggest that. There is certainly little evidence that the creation of a law such as this can make things worse by making new casus belli—new battle fronts on which antagonistic neighbours can engage. The evidence appears to lead in a different direction, towards a general lowering of the temperature of neighbour disputes.

So what more could be done to capitalise on the opportunity for reasonable debate on issues between neighbours? Firstly, perhaps planners and architects—whom Colin Keir referenced—should have in their approach to their job a greater emphasis on design choices that will reduce the potential for tensions. For example, they could include sightlines from windows and conservatories that make little impact on what others see as their privacy. Perhaps we could have fewer straight lines of houses and a little bit of a wiggle so that windows are less likely to look into other people’s properties. Perhaps there could be cleverer use of facing blank walls close to each other so that there is genuine space on the other side of the house plot. I am sure that there could be much more. The real point is that the professionals should be thinking about this.

Very few house purchases happen without a lawyer being party to them. Perhaps lawyers should consider advising their clients—a simple leaflet produced by the Scots Law Society might suffice—on behaviours that will avoid tensions with neighbours and could draw attention to the act. Indeed, in many housing developments, a simple inclusion in the title deeds to restrict some behaviour and define how boundaries may be delineated would be helpful in certain circumstances.

Christine Grahame: In some developments, conditions, called deeds of conditions, already are put in that prohibit certain fencing and barriers.

Stewart Stevenson: I am aware of that from personal experience, which is why I think that there is a case for looking at how we can use experiences here to help with the bill.

When council officials are in an area to deal with this kind of problem they could look for potential issues and then help.

Issues with the power to modify the meaning of “high hedge” through subordinate legislation could perhaps be resolved by picking up what is in the ancillary provision in the bill, which talks about making provisions “in consequence of” and relating to the act. If that was put into the section on the power to modify the meaning of “high hedge”, some of the concerns about the use of subordinate legislation would likely be addressed.

The issue appears to be largely urban and affects areas of greater rainfall, where things grow faster, but the regionality of the impact is not an excuse for inaction. I may be the only member who cannot recall ever having been approached on the issue, but in my constituency people have large plots in rural areas, which is quite different. However, from the evidence that I heard in committee, I absolutely recognise that this is precisely the kind of bill that we should progress, on precisely the kind of issue that a member should pursue.

I welcome Government support for the bill, I look forward to its passage and I am happy to support it.


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