17 December 2013

S4M-08484 Moray Library Closures

The Deputy Presiding Officer (Elaine Smith): The final item of business is a members’ business debate on motion S4M-08484, in the name of Stewart Stevenson, on Moray library closures. The debate will be concluded without any questions being put.

Motion debated,

That the Parliament condemns Moray Council’s decision to remove a mobile library from service and close the libraries in Findochty, Hopeman, Portknockie and Rothes; believes that the decision to close four of its 15 libraries could have an adverse impact on families with young children and both older and disabled people; believes that libraries play a valuable role in communities and that the proposed closures would have a detrimental impact on education and learning and restrict access in rural communities to information technology services; further believes that this is particularly concerning as, it understands, the UK Government is increasingly making access to many services online only; notes that the Scottish Library and Information Council has commissioned a review of the Public Library Quality Improvement Matrix, which examines the quality of such services, and recognises the work of the Save our Libraries Moray campaign and others, which aims to bring together the communities affected by the council’s decision.


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

It is thought that the oldest library in the world was that at Ebla in Syria and that it was founded more than 4,500 years ago. It was based in what was then and is again a turbulent area of the world. After its destruction it remained unknown until the discovery of the text of an international treaty, inscribed on a clay tablet, in what people later realised was a library. Today it is a derelict archaeological site.

Today’s changes for libraries in Moray are less dramatic, but the effects of closure can be profound for the communities of Findochty, Hopeman, Portknockie and Rothes. Closure removes a source of knowledge, diminishes opportunities for learning and reduces access to vital infrastructure such as the internet.

The initial proposals, which were passed by the Tory and independent councillors who run Moray Council, were to be even more draconian and were in clear breach of equalities legislation. Thankfully, some sense was restored when the legal consequences became more obvious to administration councillors. A vigorous community-led campaign, represented in the public gallery this evening by members of the save our libraries Moray campaign, showed just how disconnected the council had become from some of the communities that it must serve.

Lord Wellington, a Tory Prime Minister until he lost office over reform in 1830, was strongly opposed to education for all as he feared the consequences of knowledge. I absolutely do not suggest that today’s Tories hold his views, but the effects of their cuts carry the risk of a journey to increased ignorance—just, perhaps, what Wellington might have wished.

For a party of business there are also practical effects to deplore. In rural Scotland, access to broadband can be limited or absent. For businesses big enough to pay VAT, and now required to submit their accounts online, loss of access to the internet via their local library is more than a mere inconvenience. When they have to travel further to access a terminal in a library, it takes time out of running a business, increases costs and risks default on tight HM Revenue & Customs rules.

For the unemployed, access to the internet is vital to get access to the benefits to which they are entitled. Of course, the unemployed are much less likely to have access to the internet in their own home. Moray Council itself relies on the internet: people who want to get a council house use that means of accessing that council service in increasing numbers. Libraries are not simply about books.

In my constituency, the communities of Findochty and Portknockie now have no library. My colleague Richard Lochhead, who is in Brussels tonight, texted me to share his similar concern about the communities of Hopeman and Rothes in the area that he represents.

The closures are driven by the need to manage the council’s costs. When the Opposition in this place demands more money to mitigate the effects of cuts from the Tory-Lib Dem Westminster Government, we on the Government benches always ask from where that money should come. I will avoid the trap of proposing more expenditure without proposing from where it should come.

The council has proposals for a link road in Moray. Not to proceed with that would be an easy cut for the council to make. It would save much more than is needed to keep the libraries open and it would open for the council a wide range of other options that their current spending plans deny it. It would respond to genuine and significant public concern about the proposed route for the new road, and cancellation would protect important parts of the local environment.

Richard Lochhead and I joined road and library campaigners on the march and rally in Elgin on 12 October. It was abundantly clear that the council’s current choices are not popular with a significant part of the Moray community.

For the cabinet secretary who will respond to tonight’s debate, it is easier than it sometimes is, because it is not for her to direct Moray Council’s policy on libraries. I do not expect to hear that she will change her approach to that. However, it might be useful to hear what value and benefits the Scottish Government thinks are delivered by libraries.

Is it not appropriate that we are having this debate on a day when, in our Parliament, we have an exhibition concerning a person who might be the patron saint of libraries, Andrew Carnegie, who, of course, was responsible for many libraries across Scotland?

On independence day, 4 July 1962, John F Kennedy said:

“to govern is to choose.”

The responsibilities and opportunities of Moray Council are, of course, substantially less than those of JFK, but the council’s politicians share with him a duty to serve. Making the right decision can enhance the lustre and reputation of those who make it—even though, in this case, doing the right thing will make it even more difficult for me to challenge my political opponents in future.

In governing, I suggest to Moray Council that it is time to choose libraries rather than roads.


11 December 2013

S4M-08551 Finance

The Presiding Officer (Tricia Marwick): The next item of business is a Conservative debate on motion S4M-08551, in the name of Gavin Brown, on finance.

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

I agree with Gavin Brown’s opening remark that there is a long way to go. One of the difficulties in setting out on a journey is the need for a road on which to travel. If capital spending is cut, that road is not built. That is what the Conservatives have inflicted on us.

I congratulate the Conservatives on exploiting a Scottish invention to a degree that was previously unthought of. Scotland invented the overdraft, and boy are the Tories exploiting it. We have moved from the overdraft to the credit card as the UK’s credit rating has been cut from AAA to AA+. Of course, when credit ratings are cut, interest rates increase, so the outlook is not necessarily good.

The point of a debate such as this is not about the numbers. We can trade them all day long and choose our own numbers, but do people outside here understand what they mean? What does £197 billion of new borrowing physically look like? It works out at something over £5,000 per household in the UK. That sounds like quite a lot of money.

What does £5,000 look like? If we made a pile of 5,000 pound coins, it would reach the ceiling; alternatively, it would go all the way horizontally from me to my colleague Alex Fergusson. That is a big lot of money. People would know what it meant if they saw it sitting somewhere, waiting to be spent. That is only the increase in debt and not the amount of debt.

What does the £5,000 compare with? The increase in debt for every household is more than we pay a pensioner in state pension every year.

One of the jobs that we as politicians must do is turn such abstract arguments into something that Joe Public can relate to—something physical—because £197 billion is just an awfully big number. It happens to have 12 digits or, in binary, 38 digits.

People who deal with big numbers get desensitised to them. Thirty years ago, I was in the Bank of Scotland’s London dealing room, where we settled up with the Bank of England in about 30 minutes at the end of the day by trading excess money to other banks that were short or vice versa. That was done with paper and pencil, and I was there to see whether we could automate the process.

At the end of the day, when the numbers were added up for the various corrections that had been made and the trades that had been done with other banks, it was found that the numbers were £56 million adrift. The interesting thing is that the people there said, “It disnae matter,” and they went to the pub. People who deal with big numbers get desensitised to them. The figure of £197 billion, which is not the debt but the increase in debt, is so vast that none of us here has any conception of what it means.

Sam Goldwyn said that predictions are a risky business, especially when they are about the future. The OBR has given new meaning to that comment with its flaky predictions of growth, which have been halved, and of borrowing, which has more than doubled. When we rely on figures from a source such as the OBR, we rely on a chimera and on something that is provably of little worth.

With the terms of the debate, the Conservatives have given us insight into precisely how we cannot rely on the numbers that we get from such independent people. The OBR does not have a track record that we can rely on. We must be careful to illustrate to people what the numbers look like in bread and butter terms. I hope that my example has given my dear colleagues something on which to engage with their constituents.


10 December 2013

S4M-08016 YouthLink Scotland

The Deputy Presiding Officer (Elaine Smith): The final item of business is a members’ business debate on motion S4M-08016, in the name of George Adam, on YouthLink Scotland. The debate will be concluded without any question being put.

Motion debated,

That the Parliament congratulates YouthLink Scotland on the publication of what it considers the very positive recent inspection report by Education Scotland; notes the recognition in the report of the high quality contribution that YouthLink Scotland and its member organisations make to the achievement of Scottish Government outcomes; recognises the work that it undertakes in local authority areas such as Renfrewshire, where it considers the YMCA, the Scouts and Play the Game make an important difference on a daily basis to the lives of the young people of Paisley, Renfrew and Johnstone by working with particularly vulnerable groups of young people to provide them with opportunities to undertake new challenges and adventures and, as a consequence, help them toward recognising and fulfilling their potential as individuals and as active members of society, and considers that YouthLink Scotland and its member organisations from the voluntary sector, uniformed youth organisations and local authority youth services across Scotland that apply the principles and values of youth work, have been very successful in their engagement with young people through encouraging them to use a range of life skills, assisting them in their journey to adulthood and successful futures and making Scotland the best place in the world in which to grow up as a successful learner, a confident individual, an effective contributor and a responsible citizen.

... ... ...

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

It is not insignificant that the debate follows a debate on sport, because sport is, of course, very important for youngsters in our society.

This debate is led by George Adam, so in homage to him I have my Paisley patterned galluses holding my breeks up. I thank him for the opportunity to participate in this important debate.

YouthLink is an important part of the infrastructure that exists to support our youngsters—not just in Paisley, but across Scotland.

The motion refers to a number of other organisations and, in particular, to the scouts. I spent probably something of the order of a year of my life under boy-scout canvas. If I benefited from that it is to the credit of the scouts; my faults are entirely my own. I acquired important skills in the boy scouts; I learned how to burn baked potatoes, which I did instead of chasing girls, so it probably was not a terribly bad thing to be doing at the appropriate age. Certainly my mother preferred me to be burning potatoes to carrying out other activities in which I might have indulged.

Alex Johnstone and I visited the conclave of the great and the good in the scouting movement in the north-east of Scotland recently, which was quite an illuminating experience. They had in the room a wide range of projects. Some were outdoor projects to do with self-development, such as the Duke of Edinburgh award scheme, for which people were working. Others were community-based projects in which the young people were learning to support people in their communities. I thought that it was a very good mix of projects indeed.

Alex Johnstone and I both left very much enthused by what we had seen but—this is important—there was clearly a lack of people who wanted to step forward and provide the administrative leadership that is necessary to make that infrastructure of grass-roots volunteers work. There is a clear role for organisations such as YouthLink that operate at national level and which can think about how we do that sort of thing.

In the town of Buckie in my constituency we have what is probably Scotland’s biggest Boys Brigade group, with 250 members, so it is not just the boy scouts that are doing well in the north-east.

YouthLink also organises its own interventions, in particular among those who are in areas of significant disadvantage, and—as the inspection report confirms—it does well.

When I was a youngster—I will not be alone in this—I wanted desperately to be an adult, but now that I am an adult I wish that I was a youngster again. There is not much chance of that happening. However, if YouthLink and other organisations can tap into adult experience—good and bad, as it will inevitably be—to aid today’s youngsters to make a successful transition to adulthood, it will absolutely deserve all the plaudits that we can give it.

George Adam talked about engaging young people in community decision making and Kezia Dugdale talked about civic activism. I will give a small example of something that happened in the little village of Maud, which was in my constituency for the best part of 10 years, until the boundary change took it out. A “planning for real” exercise on how the village would be regenerated was structured in order to allow eight-year-olds whom I saw there to go up to stick on a map of the village little Post-it notes with the things that they thought could happen. Old people—people who would not speak at a public meeting in a month of Sundays—were also able to participate. We can often learn ways to do things that we can take to others, especially to help the young. That is very important because, after all, today’s youngsters will decide how I am looked after in my dotage, which some say is coming rather more rapidly than I would wish.


S4M-08540 Fisheries Negotiations

The Deputy Presiding Officer (Elaine Smith): The next item of business is a debate on motion S4M-08540, in the name of Richard Lochhead, on the end-year fisheries negotiations.

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

PG Wodehouse used to have Bertie Wooster insist that Jeeves had some fish when a particularly knotty problem had to be dealt with, so I naturally had fish for my dinner today in the canteen, in preparation for the debate.

This is the most exciting time of the year for me, not because of the fisheries debate but because, in a few short weeks, that most beautiful product of the sea—cod roe—will appear. My wife does not like it—she prefers herring roe—but we share the belief that nothing beats scallop roe, which is often taken off the scallop. We also share the belief that what comes out of the sea is good for us. So obvious are the benefits that people have known that for years, without the assistance of scientists.

Scottish fishermen are the arch conservationists, because they depend on a natural resource. They know that how they treat that resource determines their future success. They are competitive and innovative in everything that they do. Central control via the CFP sits uneasily with our fishermen’s entrepreneurial spirit and generations of detailed experience.

Our fishermen are gifted with significant problems. Having a mixed fishery creates difficulties when we seek to protect one species and catch another. One fisherman’s bycatch is another’s target species, so there is often debate in the industry.

Our fishermen’s efforts in recent years in experimenting with selective gear are very much to be commended. We have not yet developed the perfect selective gear, but we are making the progress that we need to make.

The cabinet secretary referred to a key problem with developing that gear, which is having the quota available to test it. If fishermen have no quota for cod and they know where a lot of the cod are, they will avoid those areas. However, when they need to test a selective-gear net that is designed to go into an area with cod and not catch cod, they must go into a cod area and take the risk that their net—whose selectivity is not yet perfect—might catch cod. Fishermen are burning up their quota quickly by experimenting with selective gear. We need more support and more quota for that valuable work, which is being done voluntarily by many of our fishermen. We must not move to the position that we have seen in the whaling industry, which lives off the back of so-called scientific research, but we need a little more help.

Our fishermen, conservationists that they are, work with other environmentalists such as WWF Scotland. That absolutely shows that they are prepared to be driven by good science and to work with others using their local knowledge and experience. Only 14 months ago, in September 2012, a headline in The Daily Telegraph stated that there were 100 cod left in the North Sea. The author of that absurdity now says that there will be no brown crab left. That wonderful Radio 4 programme about statistics, “More or Less”, described that as

“the worst wrong number that we have ever reported”,

the correct number being 21 million cod.

I know someone who is learning Icelandic and I have a nephew who is fluent in Danish because he lives there. We will have to engage with some difficult people in difficult times through difficult negotiations. I hope that the minister can do his bit for Scotland’s fishermen.


03 December 2013

S4M-07776 Local Development Trusts and Community Initiatives

The Deputy Presiding Officer (John Scott): The final item of business is a members’ business debate on motion S4M-07776, in the name of Christine Grahame, in praise of local development trusts and other community initiatives. The debate will be concluded without any question being put.

Motion debated,

That the Parliament recognises the significance and professionalism of the many local development trusts and community initiatives across Midlothian and the Borders and Scotland at large, the many individuals who give up their time, skill and energy to improving their communities such as Auchendinny, Gorebridge, Lamancha and Newlands, community hubs, Penicuik, Silverburn and Eddleston with projects such as The Lost Garden of Penicuik, Silverburn Community Garden and Hall, The Great Polish Map of Scotland at Eddleston and many more community initiatives; considers that these are solid testimony to their efforts, and notes their encouragement for other communities to dip their toes in trust waters.

... ... ...

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

The motion is some 103 words—it would take nearly a minute to read it out if someone were to do so—but fortunately there are four words in it that are “and Scotland at large”. I am at large, speaking on behalf of some of the people in the north-east of Scotland who, like those in Midlothian and the Borders, are heavily engaged in trust work.

In Peterhead, we have Peterhead Projects Ltd, which is working on community woodland. That is about developing people as much as it is about putting up buildings. In Banff and Macduff, we have the Princess Royal Sports and Community Trust. It of course has buildings—it has gyms and it is making sure that people get fitter—but, more fundamentally, it is going out and engaging with schools and with young people to show the value of physical exercise.

In Portsoy, the Scottish traditional boat festival has grown under the local trust’s aegis from the first year, when it attracted 200 people, to a festival to which a five-figure number of people come. People come from Australia and New Zealand each year to participate in that festival. It has taken on the salmon bothy and the PORT’s boatshed. It is into buildings.

The Boyndie Trust just along the coast from Portsoy runs a cafe and a community bus service. It provides training for 70 people who would otherwise find it very difficult to get into employment and, in the cafe, it procures from local sources, supporting its own community.

On the borders of my constituency on the other side is the Huntly Development Trust. There is also a development trust in Keith. In Buckie, the football club there, through the Highland league and its work, is reaching out, using its facilities to reach others and ensure that their attributes are deployed and that people are getting fitter.

Of course, we have little community harbour trusts in many of the communities round the coast, some of which have been extremely successful in bringing very old facilities back into use.

I want to talk in particular about Fraserburgh Development Trust. Fraserburgh is a town of some 15,000 people where probably more than 20 languages are spoken. People have come to Fraserburgh from all over Europe and the world. The town earns its living the hard way—in the fishing industry, both onshore and offshore. It has seen some pretty tough times, but it is definitely on the way up, and Fraserburgh Development Trust is an important part of that. It has been running community markets, or super Saturdays, to ensure that people know what is good about Fraserburgh. It is not simply the place with the mainland Scotland wind speed record of well over 100 miles an hour; it is a warm and friendly place, even if in the middle of winter it is far from feeling like that.

The trust is involved in the community garden and is trying to set up a renewables project, which will help the town to go green and, fundamentally, will help the trust to have a regular funding stream. The trust is working with Social Firms Scotland to consider taking over a local bakery, which will save jobs and create the opportunity to provide others with locally sourced food of good quality. The trust is working in the town centre and with a community health development officer. Fundamentally, as Christine Grahame said, the trust works through and with volunteers. Unlike Boris Johnson, who says that the top per cent of earners in London should get knighthoods, I think that the volunteers in our community trusts should get knighthoods.


S4M-08461 Scotland’s Census

The Deputy Presiding Officer (John Scott): The next item of business is a debate on motion S4M-08461, in the name of Fiona Hyslop, on Scotland’s census.

... ... ...

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

The Labour amendment states that

“the census demonstrates that Scotland’s population is ageing faster than that of the rest of the UK”.

Numbers are funny things. Table 4 in the registrar general’s report shows that in 2012 we had 59 people per 100 in dependency, that in 2017 the number will drop to 58 and that in 2022 it will drop to 57. Rod Campbell was right to point to the difficulties with the way in which we calculate the figure, because the way in which it is calculated means that I am considered to be in dependency, as is my good friend Gil Paterson. It is done simply by age, not by whether we are still working and in employment. That is equally true for the rest of the UK—I am not saying that Scotland is any different—and it shows that we need to be careful about the numbers.

Two members have claimed that there have been 23 censuses in Scotland, but I think that there have been 21, because there have been 22 periods of 10 years since 1801 and there was no census in 1941. That is, unless we count the Dál Riata census of approximately 670 AD, which was conducted in part of Scotland by the Irish. In England, of course, the first census was the Domesday book of 1086. However, in modern times, there have probably been 21 censuses in Scotland.

I felt so uncomfortable with what Patricia Ferguson said about cars that I popped out to get the up-to-date numbers. I can tell the chamber that the number of cars per household is substantially lower in London than in Glasgow. The reason for that is not economic; it is that London has a first-class public transport system. Someone who lives in London would probably not want to own a car, and I suspect that I would not, either. The figure for Beijing is higher than that for any city in Scotland, and it is higher than the figure for London. We need to be careful with numbers.

The interesting thing for me is that the figures in table 6 in the registrar general’s report show that I am in a cohort of 137,000 people. In 10 years’ time, should I be spared, I will be in a cohort of 104,000, and five years later I will be in a cohort of 82,000.

As part of my preparation for the debate, I went on to the ScotlandsPeople website and ended up very puzzled. According to the website, in 2012 there were 133,322 registrations, which is so far adrift from the numbers in the report that I had to find out why. To my immense bafflement—I have not yet worked out why this should be the case—a number of births appear multiple times in the registrations. I even found someone in the city of Edinburgh—because they are still living, I will not make specific reference to them—who has been registered three times with three different names. There are quite a lot of examples of that, so we need to be careful. One of my wife’s relatives appears twice in the census because they were counted both at home and while they were away somewhere else.

In my constituency, at least 19 languages are used in the local school in Peterhead. My nephews and nieces are in eight countries around the world. Presiding Officer, migration is an essential part of the modern world and censuses help to measure what is going on.


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