04 September 2013

Programme for Government 2013-14

The Presiding Officer (Tricia Marwick): The next item of business is the continuation of the debate on the Scottish Government’s programme for government for 2013-14.

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

Members may recall that, just before recess, the Subordinate Legislation Committee, of which I was the deputy convener, was translated to a higher purpose, and it is now the Delegated Powers and Law Reform Committee. Therefore I am particularly pleased that among the bills that the Government is bringing forward is a bill that has come from the Scottish Law Commission report “Review Of Contract Law: Report On Formation Of Contract: Execution In Counterpart”, because that appears to be precisely the sort of bill that it is thought might now come to the DPLR committee.

It is a little, modest bill, one might imagine, but it steps right back into some of the history of Scotland, and I will come to that later in my jamming session about this exciting piece of legislation. Essentially, the bill is about providing three things to businesses: security, privacy and certainty when they are conducting contract completion by other than the traditional means of bits of paper and everybody having to get to the same place. Essentially, it creates a legal framework for us to send documents across the ether with security, privacy and certainty, and thereby complete contracts. That will save effort and speed things up in business, which I am sure will be very welcome.

The bill is part of a larger agenda to use the electronic world to speed up processes in business and in government. Much more of our life is now online, and businesses want the legal certainty to be able to use the online world to a greater extent.

To make this work, we must rely on a piece of software called RSA, which was developed by and named after three eminent gentlemen called Rivest, Shamir and Adleman—incidentally, a Hindu, a Muslim and a Jew working together, which is quite interesting. That is due entirely to the UK Government. A brilliant scientist called Clifford Cocks, working for Government Communications Headquarters, developed that technology in 1973, but the UK Government decided that it was so powerful and so secret that it was bound by the Official Secrets Act until 1997. As a result, the United States, which had no such material inhibitions on the technology, grasped the commercial opportunity. The US now owns the rights to the encryption software that protects our financial and other transactions on the internet. It did not do us much of a good turn in that regard.

In the past week, President Obama described his country as

“the world’s oldest constitutional democracy.”

We have seen some abuses of power in this area by the US National Security Agency, but at least there are constitutional remedies. I would like to see, in an independent Scotland, a constitution that enables us to provide in law safeguards for the citizen and for businesses that guarantee the protection of data. At present, of course, the Scotland Act 1998 prevents us from doing so, in particular at section B8 of part 2 of schedule 5, which designates the interception of communications as a reserved matter.

There is a limit to what we can do. However, we have the intellectual horsepower in Scotland to build on the bill that I have mentioned, which creates a framework for one small part of the electronic communications world and gives us an opportunity to move into other areas. We can genuinely be a world leader if we can look further at what we are doing through the bill, and if we can get the powers that are currently reserved to Westminster.

The technology is new, but it is not new. Mary, Queen of Scots used exactly the same technology as we now use through RSA to communicate with her lovers. She did not use a mathematical origin, but she had a special box with two locks on it. The trick in protecting communications is not to share your key with anyone. She had the key to one lock and her lover had the key to the other lock, and there were no duplicates. The message was put in the box, and she locked her lock. The box was sent to her lover and he locked his lock, and it was sent back to her, and so on. In an insecure world, that box could travel around and nobody could open it. That is the technology that will be at the heart of a particular piece of our legislation. Well done, Mary, Queen of Scots. The First Minister, who comes from Linlithgow, where Mary was born, will be particularly pleased.

That story illustrates perfectly a fundamental truth about where we are. I can speak of many of the things that we have to do only in the following terms. We are limiting ourselves, when we use devolved powers, to using a teaspoon to bail us out of the consequences of the substantial problems that we face, such as the financial tsunami and the cuts from Westminster. Let us get to where we can use the bulldozer of full powers, so that we can do so much more.


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