31 October 2013

S4M-07713 Folic Acid Awareness Campaign

The Deputy Presiding Officer (John Scott): The next item of business is a members’ business debate on motion S4M-07713, in the name of Malcolm Chisholm, on the folic acid awareness campaign. The debate will be concluded without any question being put.

Motion debated,

That the Parliament congratulates the Scottish Spina Bifida Association on its work in providing advice, advocacy and support for people who were born with spina bifida and/or hydrocephalus and for their families and carers; understands with concern that, in Scotland, 52% of women are not aware of how they could help prevent spina bifida; welcomes the National Folic Acid Awareness campaign, Are You Getting Enough?, which will be launched by the association on World Spina Bifida Day on 25 October 2013; hopes that, in order to help prevent spina bifida and other neural tube defects, the campaign will encourage a greater number of women in Edinburgh Northern and Leith and throughout Scotland to learn about the importance of taking folic acid prior to pregnancy, and supports the association in its aim of ensuring that folic acid awareness should be part of family planning education throughout Scotland.

... ... ...

Stewart Stevenson (Banffshire and Buchan Coast) (SNP): I offer hearty congratulations to Malcolm Chisholm for giving us the opportunity to discuss this important topic. He suggested—I cannot rebut this—that this is the first time that the subject of spina bifida has been debated in the Scottish Parliament.

Malcolm Chisholm’s motion focuses—as did his speech—on the need to ensure that women are better informed. I suggest that there may be a marginal benefit in ensuring also that men are better informed, despite their comparatively modest role in bringing children into the world. Partnerships are the best environment in which children come into the world, and I hope that the presence of men in the public gallery and in the debate shows that we, too, are interested.

In bringing the debate to the chamber, Malcolm Chisholm has forced me to consider the matter in a material way for the first time, and to look at the Scottish Spina Bifida Association’s website. I found the website to be engaging, interesting and informative, because of its focus on the “Are you getting enough?” campaign to raise women’s awareness, which is absolutely excellent.

The website mentions the role that diet can play in increasing the amount of folic acid that we all—women in particular—take. Looking at the list of foods that help us in that way, I found nothing but things that I am rather keen to eat. The list includes broccoli, brussels sprouts, liver—not everyone’s favourite, but I love it—spinach, asparagus, peas, chickpeas, brown rice and fortified breakfast cereals. Indeed, I went away and got a wee recipe for chickpea curry from Nigella Lawson’s website; I am now feeling hungry just thinking about it. Furthermore, a quick calculation has shown me that it costs about £1.20 per serving to make a chickpea curry, so it is not only good for you but economically effective too, which is important in these straitened times.

Even more important is that the list mentions fortified breakfast cereals. One cereal that delivers a wide range of benefits is, of course, porridge. If porridge is made from oats that are not overprocessed, it contains a decent amount of folic acid. For pregnant women, porridge is an excellent way to start the day, because it apparently reduces the risk of constipation, which is one of the side-effects of pregnancy. It will always top up the body’s folic acids, and it is a natural weight loss agent because it fills you up and makes you less hungry. I commend porridge as one of the ways forward.

Food helps, but it is not in and of itself the complete answer; we also need supplements to ensure that we have appropriate folic acid input. I have seen a complex range of figures for people with different pre-existing conditions, and there is some indication that overconsumption of folic acid could cause problems in relation to the suppression of vitamin B12 deficiency.

Advice from professionals is important, and the motion focuses on how advice can be given as part of contraceptive and birth control advice. That is an excellent basis on which to deal with the problem.


29 October 2013

S4M-08040 Landfill Tax (Scotland) Bill: Stage 1

The Presiding Officer (Tricia Marwick): The next item of business is a debate on motion S4M-08040, in the name of John Swinney, on the Landfill Tax (Scotland) Bill.

... ... ...

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

I will certainly not be the only member in the chamber who is grateful to the landfill tax for paying for some community facilities. In particular, within the boundaries of my previous constituency, the proceeds of the tax built a new hall at Longhaven. The boundaries have changed and a certain Mr Salmond now has that hall within his constituency; I no longer do.

It is also interesting to hear that we are talking about something like 600,000 tonnes of CO2 being emitted. That is a substantial figure indeed.

There has been quite a lot of discussion about whether we might have waste tourism. I thought about that before coming to the chamber and looked at a paper that was produced in 2012 for the European Environment Agency by the European topic centre on sustainable consumption and production. It is a big paper—96 pages—and, in essence, considers how the landfill tax in all its multifarious forms works in the countries of the European economic area. There is a wide variation, but the one thing in the paper that is interesting is that there is little suggestion that small differences could promote big tourism, notwithstanding the fact that, as Gavin Brown reminded us, the committee was told that they might. Therefore, we must avoid coming to an early conclusion on that.

In the UK, landfill has gone down to less than half of what it was over the 12 years from 1998 and we expect it to go down further.

Hanzala Malik: Will Stewart Stevenson give way?

Stewart Stevenson: Briefly, please.

Hanzala Malik: My interventions are usually brief. Stewart Stevenson has talked a lot about the past, which is helpful, but I will take him to the future, in which landfill will be used less and less. I draw his attention to the landfill communities fund. Where will such funding for community groups come from as the proceeds of the landfill tax reduce?

Stewart Stevenson: That is a perfectly fair and good question. Arguing from the constitutional position that I do, I find it unfortunate that we are being given a tax that is declining—which we want to decline—without having the full range of taxation powers to do something about that within the overall tax system. I hope that even those who do not travel as far as I do constitutionally might support the idea that the Parliament should be responsible for all the taxes that are applied in Scotland, whatever the future constitutional arrangements might be. Therein lies some of the answer.

I will touch on a few disconnected things. I will go again to the European Council directive 1999/31/EC and, in particular, consider what we charge for landfill. Article 10 of that directive is about the requirement to ensure that landfill site operators charge enough to ensure that they are able to look after the site for 30 years after they have taken waste material. We have recent experience of difficulties in remediation in coal fields, where there have been business failures. I wonder whether, looking to the longer term, it might not be appropriate for Governments to take in that money from operators so that it is certainly around. There appears to be less and less opportunity to get insurance cover. I do not think that we should be looking at that now; it is for the future.

The bottom line is that this is, above all, about recycling. Recycling is not new. During the second world war there was a huge amount of recycling and the world into which I was born immediately after the war was recycling focused: paper, aluminium, jam jars and lots of other things were recycled. The focus on recycling that there was in the 1940s, 50s and perhaps early 60s vanished and I am delighted that we are getting back to it. I hope that we do more of it. In that world, we also used our resources more effectively and our eating habits were much better.

Jenny Marra: Will the member give way?

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

One of the interesting things is that under rationing in the war infant mortality declined and life expectancy increased, even after taking account of war casualties.

I will talk briefly about a couple of wee things. I commend the use of provisional negative instruments so that ministers can act rapidly—immediately, in fact—but, nonetheless, the Parliament can review what is going on, which is good.

I have a genuine question about taxable disposals. We are going to tax disposals of taxable disposals that are made illegally, but if it is not a taxable disposal, can we tax it? There are things disposed of that are not taxable disposals.

I have a tiny point about pet cemeteries, for which Jim Murphy legislated in 2005. The bill currently says that the disposal material has to be entirely of the remains of dead domestic pets. I hope that we might slacken that slightly to allow a container in which the dead domestic pet can be disposed of.

A week ago today Christiana Figueres, who is the executive secretary of the United Nations framework convention on climate change, was moved to tears when she came out to speak to the BBC after a Chatham House event that she attended. She said, in respect of climate change, that we are condemning future generations before they are even born. Landfill is part of an extremely important agenda. If I agree with anybody in the recent past, it is Christiana Figueres.


10 October 2013

S4M-07974 Carbon Capture and Storage

The Presiding Officer (Tricia Marwick): Good afternoon. The first item of business is a debate on motion S4M-07974, in the name of Fergus Ewing, on carbon capture and storage.

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

As the constituency member for the area in which Peterhead power station is based, I have a particular and long-term interest in the Peterhead project. It is disappointing that previous attempts to move ahead with carbon capture at Peterhead have come to naught, but we look forward with optimism to where we are now going.

A number of people, including the minister, have referred to Professor Stuart Haszeldine and it is worth quoting what he says:

“The Peterhead carbon capture and storage project is a visionary opportunity for Scotland and the UK—it is the first step towards opening up the North Sea as a global hub for the carbon storage industry, and will bring investment and long-term growth to the region.”

I cannot disagree with a single word.

We should not imagine, of course, that there are no carbon capture and storage projects around the world. There is one in Inner Mongolia and several others in China, and there are some in Canada and the United States. There is a lignite-based one in Poland.

What makes Peterhead unique is that there is as yet no gas-based carbon capture and storage project in operation. For Peterhead, that is a key opportunity. In the context—whatever we may feel about it—of an increased focus on gas extraction by unconventional means in many other countries—possibly in Scotland but probably not—there will be a bigger market for the technologies related to carbon capture and storage from gas plants.

We have particular advantages in Scotland and at Peterhead. At Peterhead, you are within spitting distance, near enough—approximately 4 or 5km—of the St Fergus terminal, where the carbon dioxide from Peterhead will be transported, liquefied, purified and pumped out over existing pipelines to now unused oilfields in the North Sea. The infrastructure is in place. With a pipeline from St Fergus all the way down to Mossmorran in Fife, the connection between Longannet and that pipeline, or that route, is not a huge technical challenge. It is of a different character and I will not say a great deal about that.

Pumping the CO2 into subsea reservoirs addresses several issues. First, it gives us a new way to exploit an asset that we have. Yes, it enables us to get more oil out of the oilfields, and in North America there exists a carbon capture and storage system that is designed to repressurise a field and extract more oil. We know that that works. However, oil is not simply something to put into our cars and buses for transport. It will in the long term be of continuing importance as a feedstock for our chemical industries, long after we have found the technologies to move totally away from it in the transport network. It is important that we get more oil out of our fields.

The £1 billion of Government money that we believe is required to start this industry on its road to success is much less than the tax take that there will be from repressurising oilfields to get more oil out. With the tax on that you will get your money back. Of course you have to pay now and get the benefit later and there are challenges in that. In China, there are six carbon capture projects already working. Interestingly, they are in a range of areas; there are projects either already running or being planned in the thermal, coal, chemical, cement and steel sectors, but not in gas. The opportunity is there for us.

We have a network of pipes throughout the North Sea, which means that we will be able to take CO2, and carbonic acid from a range of countries. Public opinion in Poland, for example, is not very keen on the idea of storing the CO2 under a place where people stay. I happen to think that the evidence for that is not particularly material, but we can solve that problem for the Poles by taking the CO2 away and storing it under the sea.

We have unique advantages in that we have a well-understood geology, and we know where all the holes that have been drilled into that geology are because we have good records from the exploitation of the oilfields. We have a good network of pipes. They are the biggest risk to releasing CO2, but we understand the pipes and we understand the valve technology. We have lots of companies that have worked in this industry.

By the way, in China, CO2 from carbon capture is even being used in the food industry, in baking and the making of fizzy drinks.

One of the most exciting things that might come and that plays to Scotland’s strength in the bio sector is that, in Australia, there are algal synthesis facilities in which CO2 from carbon capture is used to feed algae to produce fuel. There is therefore a series of opportunities. We are taking just the first steps, and there is a huge opportunity that will extend to many different areas.

Many jobs in my constituency and across Scotland are in the bio sector. There is more oil than we can afford to burn, but we need it for other purposes. I have stood on the top of the pile at Torness, and nuclear has no fear for me but, on the other hand, nobody will commercially pick up the whole-life risk for nuclear. In carbon capture, we have a good prospect of commercial success whereas, after decades, nuclear remains entirely unproven.


08 October 2013

S4M-07036 Energy Action Scotland

The Deputy Presiding Officer (Elaine Smith): The final item of business is a members’ business debate on motion S4M-07036, in the name of Nigel Don, on Energy Action Scotland marks its 30th anniversary. The debate will be concluded without any question being put.

Motion debated,

That the Parliament acknowledges that the national fuel poverty charity, Energy Action Scotland, marks its 30th anniversary in 2013; understands that the charity campaigns for warm, dry homes that are affordable to heat; believes that, during its 30 years of campaigning in Angus North and Mearns and across the country, much progress has been made in tackling the major causes of fuel poverty; understands that Energy Action Scotland estimates that there are 900,000 fuel poor households in Scotland, and, while it considers that much has still to be done if the statutory duty of eradicating fuel poverty by 2016 is to be achieved, welcomes what it sees as the positive moves by successive Scottish administrations to tackle fuel poverty.

... ... ...

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

I thank Nigel Don for the opportunity to debate this important subject.

It is not often that the chamber comes together in unanimity with the objective of increasing unemployment in Scotland, but we all want Norrie Kerr and the rest of his group to be entirely superfluous, unrequired and out of work. However, we should weep no tears if we succeed in that because there are plenty of other opportunities for which a formidable campaigner such as Norrie and a team like his would deploy their skills.

For rural dwellers such as those whom I represent, Energy Action Scotland, which was created 30 years ago, focuses on key rural issues. It looks for effective solutions, hounds Government and searches for private investment. We should all hold that national charity dear to our hearts in the present environment because, when we address fuel poverty, we also address employment and climate change.

In my constituency, as elsewhere, about 31 per cent of rural dwellers spend more than 10 per cent of their income on fuel alone. Largely, they, like me, live in off-grid circumstances. In a country as wealthy as ours, that really is an unacceptable situation.

The Government is clear in the financial commitments that it is making to deal with that. Some £250 million has been allocated to fuel poverty and energy efficiency in the current spending period. That is a good step in the right direction.

I am not so sure that colleagues south of the border—who are faced with a less pressing problem from geography, of course—are as keen on supporting low-income families in particular. The minister, from whom we will hear at the end of the debate, has previously assured me that, in an independent Scotland, an expert committee would consider energy regulation. I will continue to work to allow her that opportunity.

Energy efficiency is really a rather simple measure. A number of members referred to home insulation. We have been lucky enough to get our loft insulation from 200mm up to 600mm. We are just going into the first winter in which we will get the full benefit, but it has already been so effective that my wife thought that the outside meter on our oil tank had stopped working. She sent me to get the ladder to go and look in the top of the tank to see what the actual level of fuel was because she felt that it should be much lower than the meter said it was. The meter was correct.

That simple intervention has made a dramatic difference for us, as it will do for others, so I hope that the installation programme continues to offer people in rural areas in particular the opportunity to save on their energy.

One of the issues of living in a rural setting is that people pay more for their fuel. I hope that Mike Weir, my MP colleague in Westminster, is successful in persuading the members there that we should advance winter fuel payments so that the less-well-off in rural settings can buy fuel earlier in the year when it is cheaper and easier to deliver because there is no snow on the ground to prevent the lorries from getting to their fuel tanks.

I gently chide my colleague Murdo Fraser, because I am not sure that green energy is more expensive than other forms. The above-the-line costs that appear in budgets are certainly reflected but the tax breaks that other forms of energy—in particular, nuclear energy—are given are below the line and it is generally accepted that green energy is cheaper than, for example, nuclear.

It has been an excellent debate.


01 October 2013

S4M-07867 Rehabilitation of Offenders

The Deputy Presiding Officer (John Scott): The next item of business is a debate on motion S4M-07867, in the name of Kenny MacAskill, on the rehabilitation of offenders.

... ... ...

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

What we once thought of as criminal, we no longer see in that way; Rod Campbell talked about that change over time. One of my interests is genealogy, and if I go back some 250 years to a parish record that I have read, a poor wean is burdened to this day by a description in the record that says:

“The wean was conceived in antenuptual fornication.”

That was thought to be a high criminal offence. She was never rehabilitated because no mechanism existed for that to happen.

Thankfully, we have a different environment today. Let me start by rather didactically laying out what is a good scheme for rehabilitation. It is one that can be understood by the offender in the long term, that can be understood and operated by employers and which can command general public understanding and broad—if not necessarily universal—support. Good decisions are objective and proportionate and encourage offenders’ positive re-engagement with society. Good penalties protect society, are cost effective and minimise damage to the innocent—as Mary Fee mentioned—in that they protect families from unduly bearing the cost of offending relatives.

Peterhead prison in my constituency opened in 1888—which is the same year as Celtic Football Club was founded; I do not think that that is necessarily a coincidence—and many of my constituents have worked in the criminal justice system to very good effect. As a result of a collaboration between the then justice minister James Douglas-Home and Alex Salmond, who was then the local MP, we ended up with Peterhead moving from being the hard-man’s prison to being Scotland’s serious sex offenders prison. It is worth my while to quote what was said to the Justice 1 Committee in 2001—when closure of Peterhead prison was being contemplated—about the achievements of my constituents in that prison through the programme of rehabilitation.

“Since the programme commenced in 1993, it has had a total of 244 participants. One hundred and sixty-two of those prisoners have been liberated, 69 are still in custody, 173 prisoners completed the programme and 71 failed to finish it. Six have been reconvicted of a sexual offence and four have been recalled because of a breach of licence conditions.”—[Official Report, Justice 1 Committee, 13 November 2001; c 2752.]

That is a pretty impressive record for what is a specialist form of rehabilitation—I absolutely accept that—and for a crime in which it is much more difficult to detect reoffending. Nonetheless, it gives us some insight into the value of rehabilitation.

How do the staff who work in Peterhead prison and who deal with those difficult prisoners—serious sex offenders who have been sentenced to four years and more—feel about working in that establishment? At the time when there was a threat to close it, an officer who had been there for 12 years said:

“I have been through its troubled times with hostage taking and prisoner unrest. I survived these and carried on my duties ... Although the above was not the ideal day to day employment, we persevered and eventually the prison, after some readjustment, became the Centre of Excellence for the treatment of sex offenders ... we are now regarded as one of the top three prisons in the world in this field.

The prisoners here are classified as long term vulnerable ... if returned to the mainstream prison system, they will revert back in their shells and all the excellent work done ... will have been for nothing.”

In my constituency, I have something that has an economic value of maybe £15 million a year to the local economy, but it is something that has also delivered added value, as prisons across Scotland and elsewhere do when they tackle the difficult people in our society and offer rehabilitation.

Mary Fee mentioned families. In the serious sex offenders prison, very few offenders received visits, because in many cases the offences were committed against their families. There are serious difficulties with which we need to engage.

Many really gifted people have engaged with the subject of sex offenders. When the late Clive Fairweather was Her Majesty’s chief inspector of prisons, he was very much a reformer—notwithstanding the fact that he came from the Special Air Service, which one would not think was the natural breeding ground for prison reformers, but which I think gave him terrific insight. He engaged particularly with Peterhead prison to huge benefit.

I want to highlight another minister. This time, it is Richard Simpson, who at the time when there was a threat to close Peterhead prison was a junior justice minister in the then Scottish Executive. He made absolutely common cause with me, as the constituency member, to try to address the issues that were faced by the crumbling Victorian institution, which was still slopping out and did not meet modern standards. The physical environment made it difficult to run the kind of programmes that would successfully rehabilitate prisoners.

Christine Grahame: It is a long time ago, but I think I convened the Justice 1 Committee during that period, which also supported and recognised the value of the specialist facilities at Peterhead.

Stewart Stevenson: Indeed. I recall that the committee conducted evidence sessions across the wires to Canada and played a very significant and non-partisan role in saving the prison.

I spent 977 days working for Kenny MacAskill as the shadow deputy justice minister with responsibility for prisons and drug policy. [Interruption.] I always know the number. I am sorry about that—I just count things. I had the great privilege to get involved in lots of interesting things. When I was running workshops in the Caucasus I talked to the Georgian justice minister about prison policy there. His proud achievement was that since coming into office he had halved the waiting time for the queue for visiting one’s relatives in prison—it was down to only three days. If we think that we are not doing as well as we might, we should remember that the challenges are somewhat greater elsewhere.

I visited Bapaume prison, which is north of Paris, to see how it treated sex offenders, which was interesting. This comes back to a point that Maureen Watt made; the prison had a manufacturing facility that made switches for Peugeot cars, so people all over the world are driving Peugeots with parts that have been produced by prisoners in Bapaume. In the women’s part of the prison was a call centre. It was not a dummy call centre, but a call centre that was actually making outwards calls to people. In that prison, they were very effectively training women for real life after prison. There was also a mother-and-baby unit, so in the women’s wing, which housed about 120 prisoners, they had youngsters no older than 2 in with their mothers. That did not half transform the atmosphere in the women’s wing, because every woman in it was a mother to the four bairns there.

There are many opportunities for doing things differently to help to rehabilitate prisoners. Bapaume prison also had a prison kayaking team, which was going to participate in the national championships shortly after I was there.

When I visited Saughton prison, I was in a cell with six murderers. The prison staff were out of earshot and one of the men complained to me that he had been out on licence but had been recalled entirely unfairly, he thought, simply because he had been present when another murder had taken place. Not every prisoner will be successfully rehabilitated and not every prisoner will understand the requirements on them.

I will conclude with an observation. When John Vine was chief constable of Tayside Police, he told me that offending behaviour in one part of someone’s life is likely to indicate that they will offend in another part and that it is always worth inquiring of people who park in disabled parking spaces illegally, because they are four times as likely as other people to commit other crimes.

John Finnie and Graeme Pearson touched on the issue on which I want to close: whether judges could take over some of this responsibility. Three headings apply to that. A judge can suggest for how long somebody should be in rehabilitation before their conviction is spent. He should also suggest the tests that must be satisfied before a conviction is spent and, perhaps, the tasks that must successfully be completed, because we cannae see all the way into the future to know whether rehabilitation will be successful. Judges have a key role to play; perhaps that means that we should legislate less prescriptively, but empower them to play that key role.


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