25 November 2014

S4M-11664 Legal Writings (Counterparts and Delivery) (Scotland) Bill

The Presiding Officer (Tricia Marwick): The next item of business is a debate on motion S4M-11664, in the name of Fergus Ewing, on the Legal Writings (Counterparts and Delivery) (Scotland) Bill.

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

Mike MacKenzie is being grossly unfair to the committee. Only this morning, we had a piece of secondary legislation on food, and the table in the schedule to that instrument told me that corned beef must have 120 per cent meat in it. I will let members go and read for themselves the instrument, which will go to the policy committee shortly. The figure was correct, as it turned out. I would never have known that had I not been on the Delegated Powers and Law Reform Committee.

John Mason: How can it be 120 per cent?

Stewart Stevenson: No, no—this is not the place. John Mason needs to go and read the relevant instrument. I can tell him that the figure is on page 7 and the explanation is in small print—six-point print—on page 10, if he can understand it when he gets there. He should believe me that it is interesting.

The point is that we deal with the minutiae, and the minutiae on contracts often have profound effects for business and life in Scotland and beyond.

Over the years, I have dealt with a number of contracts. I quickly jotted down the jurisdictions in which I have signed contracts and found 10, ranging from Delaware to Norway. I have been in San Francisco only once in my life and that was simply to sign a contract. I was in the United States for a grand total of 14 hours and slept for 10 of them because that was overnight.

A friend of mine got up in the morning, got the plane down to Heathrow, got on Concorde, met somebody airside at Kennedy airport, signed a contract, got back on the same Concorde, flew back to Heathrow, got the plane back to Edinburgh and was home an hour earlier than usual, but what a waste of time and effort it was to go all that way to sign a contract. This modest little bill will have profound and useful effects.

Jenny Marra mentioned Estonia. I am surprised that she did not namecheck Skype, which was written by software engineers there. That country has considerable things to offer in the electronic world.

The bill will move us a little bit towards electronic signatures and electronic repositories. The Law Society is producing its electronic card, which will go out to everybody in about a year. It remains the case that the card will be shared among people in a firm, so there will not be individual certainty about who might have used it to sign something electronically. The bill takes the issue forward with its emphasis on electronic signatures but does not take it all the way.

Mike MacKenzie: Does Stewart Stevenson agree that the Scottish Government is due praise for implementing across the Highlands and Islands the backbone for a fibre optic broadband system that will allow such technological improvement to our law to take place? Does he also agree that the United Kingdom Government requires to do more work to roll out 2G, 3G and 4G across the Highlands and Islands and the rural parts of Scotland?

The Deputy Presiding Officer: I can give Stewart Stevenson an extra minute or two to his seven minutes, to make up for the interventions.

Stewart Stevenson: That would be helpful, Presiding Officer, although I might need about an hour to deal with the scope of that intervention. I note that the Irish Government has this very day committed itself to delivering 30 megabit broadband to every location in Ireland, so perhaps we have a little bit to travel. I would welcome 2G, 3G, 4G or any G at home; I currently have none. It is very important.

I will return to the subject of the bill—I am sure that you would wish me to do that, Presiding Officer—and electronic signatures. Electronic signatures are useful in a variety of ways, as they enable people to sign a document and if anything in the document is changed—even if a dot or comma is missing or a single letter is changed—the signature becomes invalid. That kind of technological approach will give us certainty in the future.

Lawyers are quite reasonably conservative—with a small “c”—about adopting technology. It is very straightforward to describe public-key cryptography, with the appellation of Rivest, Shamir and Adleman—the three American mathematicians who developed the system that we generally use today. In fact, it was developed by Government Communications Headquarters some years earlier but kept secret. It is a system of cryptography that can be described on a single page, but it takes a lifetime of study to understand. It involves the multiplication of two very large prime numbers together and then a matrix formation, so that we can have one key for locking—for signing—and a different, secret key for unlocking. Keys do not have to be shared with anyone. That is the essence of a secure system.

The system is not new. Mary, Queen of Scots used the system; she had a little casket with which she corresponded with her lovers. After putting a message in, she used a key to lock the lock and then sent the casket to her lover. He locked another lock with his private key and sent the casket back to her. She then unlocked her lock and sent the casket back to him. He unlocked his lock and at last he could access the message. The key was never shared with anyone. That is exactly how electronic signatures work, except that instead of physical keys that the owners keep secret we use electronic keys.

As a mathematician, I find prime numbers particularly interesting. They come up time and again. Some of this technology has been described in “The Simpsons”. Most of the team that writes “The Simpsons” are mathematicians, which might surprise members. Eighteen years ago, Homer Simpson referred to Belphegor’s prime. Belphegor is one of the seven princes of hell in John Milton’s “Paradise Lost” and was charged with helping people to make ingenious inventions and discoveries. Belphegor’s prime number is 31 digits long: it is 1 followed by 13 zeroes, followed by 666—which is why it is Belphegor’s prime—followed by 13 zeroes, followed by 1. Of course, it is also symmetric: it is the same read either way around. Prime numbers are exciting and interesting, as well as being useful for electronic signatures.

There is an opportunity for Scotland beyond what we are doing today, such as encouraging Registers of Scotland to develop a secure repository based on such technology, with contracts held there during their development and people able to access them securely to sign, annotate or amend. That gives us security against the failure of companies, so that contracts do not get lost over the years to come; it gives us security of control and access, with everyone working off the same document; and it could give us significant commercial advantage.

Scots law has been around for a long time. It has stood the test of time. The Scottish Law Commission has usefully helped us to make progress and to bring us up to the mark of other jurisdictions. The debates and the discussions, as well as the information from witnesses that we have had in the committee, show us that we can do more. I hope that we take the opportunity to do that and that we pick up the challenge of secure signatures and encryption because, in mathematical terms—members can look this up—this is an NP, or non-deterministic polynomial time, problem. No one knows how to solve it, no one has yet broken such a key and no one shows any sign of doing so.


20 November 2014

S4M-11598 Food and Drink

The Deputy Presiding Officer (Elaine Smith): Good afternoon. The first item of business this afternoon is a debate on motion S4M-11598, in the name of Richard Lochhead, on food and drink.

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Stewart Stevenson (Banffshire and Buchan Coast) (SNP): I apologise to colleagues, as I have an engagement in Glasgow that means I shall be leaving before the end of the debate.

I congratulate Mike MacKenzie in particular for setting what may turn out to be a new record in that book that is compiled by a well-known Irish stout manufacturer—the contribution to Parliament that achieves the greatest number of press releases. He is not alone in that particular endeavour, but I think that he trumps everyone else.

I advise Parliament that I am ready to fly colleagues all over Scotland in pursuit of good food and drink—it is never a hardship to do that. I will tell colleagues—as Napoleon asked for lucky generals—that they would be flying with a lucky pilot. I have come off a plane in an emergency on three occasions so far, and on 4 November 1975, I experienced parachute failure. I can experience all those things, but my colleagues will be perfectly safe with me.

However, to the matter of food and drink—the important matter that is before us. There are a couple of interesting points to make. Scotland is innovating in food and drink; it is not simply that we are picking up things that we find lying around and finding a way to export them. Do members know that we are now exporting garlic from Moray to France? We are also exporting snails from Scotland to France, and we are beginning to make serious inroads into the olive oil industry with our extra virgin cold-pressed oilseed rape oil, which was first produced for commercial purposes very close to Peterhead and is now produced in a couple of different places. It is a much better oil for cooking than olive oil; it can be heated to a higher temperature before it starts to break down and it is at least equal in flavour to that long-standing Mediterranean material. We are doing things that people are not necessarily aware of.

A Bank of Scotland survey tells us that 58 per cent of Scottish producers are planning to expand overseas in the next five years, which is pretty good news. Almost two thirds said that they would welcome assistance in marketing and developing brand awareness. The business of the brand is important: around the world there is very good recognition of the “Scotch” brand for our wonderful whisky. As I have said in the chamber before, in India there is a huge trade in second-hand Johnnie Walker bottles, which are not always refilled with Johnnie Walker whisky before being resold. That pattern is repeated around the world.

Brands are precious things that need to be managed carefully. An industry expert said that a brand is

“the evidence of a claim or distinction you make to your customers ... Brands are promises. When they are kept, customers keep them”—

they stay loyal—but “when they are broken”, one loses those customers for a very long period indeed. International recognition for many of our products is important, but it is also important that we live up to those international brands. Our food exports depend on them.

There are good examples in my constituency, as there are in others’. One is Gourmet’s Choice, which is a family-run business in Portsoy that exports smoked salmon and which won the exporter of the year award in 2009. The company smokes the salmon in barrels from the whisky industry—one can actually taste which whisky was in the barrel when one tastes the smoked salmon. I think that that is an ideal combination of the best of Scotland and I love having it on my plate. Commenting on the company’s success, the sales manager, Henry Angus, said:

“We have the right skills and resource in place to succeed in a global marketplace and we have worked hard to develop relationships”.

That is what we all have to do. Of course, salmon and other fish generally are among the healthiest things that we could possibly eat.

The Budding Rose has been mentioned. I was at a Seafish event last night in Edinburgh at which the Budding Rose was mentioned three times. Well done, Peter Bruce. The Peter Bruce brand is doing well. I look forward to the day when our fish products have the skipper’s photograph and signature on the packaging—increasingly, fish products are sold in packaging—which would create an even stronger link from the person who is responsible for the first part of the quality right through the supply chain to the consumer. We want people to say that there is extra value in buying the Peter Bruce brand or in buying from many of the other skippers, from Liam McArthur’s constituency as well as mine: I am generous in these matters.

There are a couple of things that we need to be aware of in relation to health, one being trans fats, which recent research has shown can damage the memory. Clearly I have avoided any of that thus far—or I just cannot remember having had them. It is one or the other; I am not quite sure which.

There are expectations that the industry will create lots of new jobs over the next few years. I, like a couple of other members here, come from the age of rationing, immediately post-war. Thank goodness we are now in a position in which the quality of our food enhances the stature and health of our people and creates a powerful economic driver.


18 November 2014

First Minister’s Statement (Response)


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

Alexander Elliott Anderson Salmond was born to privilege—not the privilege of rank, not the privilege of money, not the privilege of connections, but the overwhelming privilege of being a black bitch. For those who do not understand the term, that is the appellation for people who are born in Linlithgow. The black bitch that is on the town’s crest carries beneath it the motto, “Fidelis”, which means “faithfulness”, and Alex has been a faithful servant of this Parliament and of this country.

Alex was born with the privilege of caring and nurturing parents and the privilege of a free education, to liberate his potential—the foundations of his ambitions for all our people. From day 1, he was a disruptive influence—being born on hogmanay, he could hardly be otherwise. The parties were somewhat subdued on that particular day. He has been a potent agent for change. His life has been and will remain in the public gaze, but not everything is known, so—

Alex, as sons will do, left the family home, and his mother Mary breathed a great sigh of relief as a certain calm fell over 101 Preston Road, Linlithgow. However, it would be a few years before Alex finally departed. His mother, fed up with his still occupying an entire room in the house, moved all the political impedimenta that he had accumulated, in its many boxes and disorder, into the front garden, and phoned him to remind him that she lived a mere 300m from Linlithgow’s recycling centre. Strangely, the garden was soon restored to its natural order, and Mary and Robert had the room in their house back. So, when we read his autobiography—I have the money to buy it waiting here now—we should remember its genesis in that front garden.

Alex’s grandfather was a wonderful storyteller, who equipped him with the ability to construct a story, tell a story and seize the imagination.

In May 1961, John F Kennedy committed his country to landing a man on the moon before the decade was out and to returning him safely to earth. It was not known that that could be done and it was not known how it would be done, but Kennedy knew that it had to be done. Alex comes from that mould. He is a formidable leader and a formidable challenger of the status quo. He is a man who sets the rest of us formidable challenges. He is the toughest boss I have ever worked for or with, and the fairest, and he is a team builder. But, however tough he might have been on me or on the rest of us, he has always been tougher on himself. A driven man building on the achievements of our previous three First Ministers, he has raised the bar still further for our next First Minister, Nicola Sturgeon.

Alex has always been conscious that we are all here—Parliament, office, life—for but a short passage of time and, hence, that everything is about people. For me, two events illustrate that: one from the referendum campaign and one an echo from a previous campaign. Some 15 years earlier, when I was driving him round Scotland—yes, I used to be Alex Salmond’s driver—we came up an incline and found someone lying in the middle of the road with a beating heart but a tortured mind. Alex was first out of the car to help that person in their distress. Our plans for the day were put on hold until we had returned that person to their family, he had listened to their story and offered help. He gave not a thought for his personal safety on that busy road or for the day’s political objectives.

During the referendum campaign that has so recently passed, the most telling moment for me—if, perhaps, not for others—was when Alex met a young man who came up to him and explained politely that he was voting no. Alex did not seek to belittle that young man; he softly regretted the decision that he had made but shook his hand, held his hand and listened to him. If we learn anything from Alex, it is that we must listen, perhaps especially to those with views that differ from our own, however much we do not want to hear them.

Of course, whatever we say to Alex this afternoon, we speak of transition, not of an ending. First Minister’s questions will be different and Nicola Sturgeon will put her own stamp on them as Scotland’s new leader. We will miss Alex’s irritated flick behind the right ear when he judges that the question from the benches to his left is more inadequate than usual. We shall miss his careful checking of the wallet in the hip pocket when he has had a question from the benches to his right. We shall miss his checking that his jacket pocket flaps are out as he remembers his spouse’s commands for the day.

I say to Alex, our First Minister—perhaps the last time that I shall address him thus—whatever the future may hold, take from all of us our good wishes, our thanks and our love.


06 November 2014

Inquiry into Lobbying: Standards, Procedures and Public Appointments Committee

Video of entire debate
The Presiding Officer (Tricia Marwick): The next item of business is a Standards, Procedures and Public Appointments Committee debate on its inquiry into lobbying. We have a little time in hand, so if members wish to take interventions, the Presiding Officers will ensure that they are compensated for that in their speech.


Stewart Stevenson (Banffshire and Buchan Coast) (SNP): Thank you very much indeed, Presiding Officer.

I am very much obliged to the Parliamentary Bureau and the Conveners Group for making time available for this committee debate. Presiding Officer, I might indulge your indication of a little bit of slack in the debate by occasionally stopping to restart my voice, and I have a glass of water beside me should that prove to be necessary. I apologise to anyone who feels inconvenienced by the tone of my voice—it is entirely to do with something that is not under my control.

The word “lobbying” can have negative connotations of deals being done behind closed doors. However, the starting point for the Standards, Procedures and Public Appointments Committee’s inquiry was that lobbying is a legitimate, valuable and necessary part of informing a healthy democracy. The more voices that feed into the Parliament, the more informed we will be in scrutinising, legislating and developing new policy. On that basis, lobbying should be actively encouraged. We are founded on principles that include openness and accessibility, and the committee is clear that nothing that the Parliament does in response to proposals for change should inhibit our engagement with civic Scotland. However, it needs to be clear what and who has influenced decision making; what matters in lobbying is the who, the what, the who knows and the who is affected.

The committee’s work was initiated in the context of the introduction of a bill at Westminster and of Neil Findlay’s proposal to establish a statutory register of lobbyists. At that time, Helen Eadie was the committee’s acting convener and, as ever, we are grateful for her contribution as a parliamentarian to our committees and to the subject before us today.

The committee has taken a great deal of evidence, and we are extremely grateful to all our witnesses and those who have submitted written views. I see that many of the people who have been involved in that process are in the public gallery this afternoon, and I am delighted that they are continuing to engage with the committee’s activities. They are not for the committee or for Parliament alone—

Neil Findlay (Lothian) (Lab): Will the convener take an intervention?

Stewart Stevenson: The convener will do so.

Neil Findlay: Why did the committee undertake its investigation? Who prompted it?

Stewart Stevenson: As I have said, at that point, Helen Eadie was the committee’s acting convener because Dave Thompson was unwell. The decision was made by the committee; the investigation was requested by a range of people, but the committee is master of its work and under Helen Eadie’s leadership it decided to undertake the inquiry. It might be a weakness of mine to think the best of people but I have always thought that as MSPs we must defend ourselves against the worst, and I hope that today’s debate contributes to our getting to that point.

Neil Findlay: Was either Mr Stevenson as convener or the previous convener of the committee asked by the Government to have an inquiry into the issue?

Stewart Stevenson: The Government was very keen for us to do the inquiry, but it was not the only one taking an interest in the subject. The important thing to be aware of is that the committee itself could decide what it would do and that the inquiry was what the committee, on a cross-party basis, agreed to do.

I want to make some progress now, but I will welcome further interventions on the substance of what I am going to say.

The matter is of huge relevance to us all, and we have come to Parliament today because we think it important to take the temperature of members and those beyond the Parliament before we reach and publish our conclusions.

Our inquiry set out to investigate whether there was an issue with undue influence or access to politicians in Scotland. The good news for MSPs is that we received no evidence of a scandal on the horizon with regard to lobbying in Scotland; the evidence that we heard from a diverse range of people painted a broadly positive picture. But—and it is an important “but”—even if everything is fine, are we providing enough information to others to enable them to decide whether that is the case? With additional powers coming to the Parliament, additional safeguards might be needed. In any event, we have to revisit our rules and ensure that they are prepared for any future challenges.

Many witnesses were critical of recent Westminster changes in particular. I am sure that that issue will feature in the debate. The UK legislation on lobbying was not held in high regard by a good number of our witnesses. It was described as a “sham” by one, and another said that they hoped that it would be repealed.

We have an opportunity to think calmly and collectively about whether, and how, to change the lobbying regime in Scotland, and also about what the pros and cons of tightening the rules on lobbying would be.

We found that a good question to get the debate started in committee was: who should the onus be on in making details of lobbying activity public? Should the onus be on the lobbyist, the person being lobbied—which would include most or all of us—or both?

Plenty of people considered that politicians and senior officials should make their diaries public, which, in practice, would mean publishing details of contact with lobbyists.

John Mason (Glasgow Shettleston) (SNP): I have not been involved in the inquiry but, although I would be happy to publish my diaries, I think that some individuals and groups who come to me confidentially would be quite nervous about their details being in the public domain.

Stewart Stevenson: The member makes a perfectly proper point, which I will develop later in my speech.

Others who came to the committee suggested that publishing diaries was no substitute for a register of lobbyists, which could simply be a complementary measure to the publishing of diaries.

However one captures lobbying activity, the first question has to be: what counts as lobbying? That sounds like a simple question, but the answer is one of the most contested in political science. The temptation is to go for a very simple wording—something like “lobbying is contact with a person in public office in an attempt to influence”. That sounds straightforward enough, but we have to ask what form of contact should be included. Does that definition not make just about everyone we come across in our working lives as politicians a lobbyist? If, on my train journey home tonight, I end up talking about public policy to someone sitting in an adjacent seat, would I, under that definition, have to register that conversation? Politicians come into contact with people in many ways. We are emailed briefings for chamber debates; we are phoned, tweeted and Facebook messaged; we meet people in cross-party groups and at events inside this building and in our constituencies; and we meet people by absolute happenstance. To get more complicated, we read in the media about research and grass-roots campaigns, some of which are begun by third parties whose names, sometimes deliberately, receive no coverage at all.

Which elements of all those types of contact could be captured on a lobbying register, and who should be required to register? In some other countries, only consultant lobbyists are required to register, but the evidence that we received suggested that a lot of modern lobbying activity is done in-house, which means that registering only consultant lobbyists would not capture enough. I think that there is agreement about that.

Other witnesses suggested that in-house lobbying was hard to capture, as lobbying is incorporated into communications strategies and into the day jobs of people with multifaceted roles.

It should be noted that, among our witnesses and those who responded to our consultation, there was not a lack of willingness to make activities public. Lots of organisations made clear that they already publicise information, not least to demonstrate to the outside world, their customers and stakeholders the value of their work. Charities and others are under regulatory requirements to publish information. Unions want to highlight the fruits of their labours to their members and others. A number of public affairs organisations publish voluntary registers and have relevant codes of conduct.

Some concern focused on the logistics of how a registration system would work. Some suggested that systems that exempt groups based on size, purpose, amount of lobbying activity or income, or which placed thresholds on when to register lobbying activity, could be problematic as exemptions can create unforeseen loopholes and unintended consequences.

Another approach would be a sliding scale of information required, proportionate to the size of the organisation. For example, it could require some organisations such as full-time consultant lobbyists to register in full regularly and small charities with more limited resources to register activity less regularly and in less detail. However, the proportionate approach would require us to give a lot of careful consideration to how we would set the rules for such a sliding scale. For instance, should a large charity that lobbies for big Government contracts—as many do—register as much as consultant lobbyists or should it register as much as smaller charities?

The idea of charging a fee to register was almost entirely rejected in evidence on the basis that it would create a barrier or, at worst, a deterrent to people seeking to engage with the Parliament and with Government. Any additional costs of creating a modern register, such as the costs of a registrar or of software, would need to be met from the public purse. As ever, when there are financial considerations members will need to consider whether the funds required are justified and will achieve the objectives of increased transparency, accountability and—the intention of some witnesses—an improvement in trust in the political process and politicians.

We also looked at sanctions. Some argued that naming and shaming lobbyists who act inappropriately would, in and of itself, have a powerful effect, curbing their ability to engage in the future. Others suggested that, for the bigger lobbying firms, nothing short of big financial penalties could curb their behaviour. That raises the question: in what circumstances should sanctions be imposed and by whom?

We heard from some witnesses that there are issues with the existing voluntary register being too weak because it lacks the ability to oblige the provision of information or to sanction effectively. Others suggested that a full statutory register in Scotland would be a disproportionate approach to cracking the nut. In response to the suggestion that a register would never provide the full picture of lobbying activity, those who are pushing for increased transparency suggested that a fuller, if still incomplete, picture would nonetheless be beneficial. Interesting developments elsewhere also informed us. The National Assembly for Wales inquiry decided that Wales should stop short of a register and look at other measures.

I turn to the point that Mr Mason raised. I have tested the water and have reviewed my diary and established a published copy of those diary entries that I consider to be lobbying. It proved simple to do that and to publish those parts of my diary. Members can see the results—if they are interested—at I tweeted about that this morning and we have already had more than 200 views of the information that I provided. People are interested in me—I do not know whether they would be interested in anybody else in the chamber, but at least they are interested in me. I ask members to have a look at what I have done—it is just a personal venture and nothing to do with the Parliament or the committee—and give me feedback. That will inform the committee and help it to see what effort is needed from the generality of members rather than from one of the more technologically literate members—I perhaps refer to myself. If any members want to do the same for themselves in the short term, I am happy to sit down with them and talk about how it is done.

I warn members that, if they do that, quite a lot of judgment calls will need to be made about what is or is not lobbying. I presume that, if a member meets a group with a small campaign in their constituency, that can be considered to be constituency casework and need not feature in a published record of lobbying contact. However, if the member meets them again and they have a local business representative or even a professional lobbyist with them, that will tip the balance towards the meeting having to be published. That is the view that I would take.

Members will note that committee members’ speeches will consist largely of snippets of the views of stakeholders, as they will read out 100-word statements from them. Those are not necessarily the views of the committee members; we are trying to bring the outside into the debate on the floor of the chamber.

This matters to folk out there; it is not just internal navel-gazing. While we debate—I know this because I have looked—live interchanges and debates are already happening on Facebook and Twitter. The committee will look at those after the debate to see whether they help our understanding.

That almost completes the whistle-stop tour of the issues that we have been tussling with. It is a complex area, where passions can run high. We had one very spirited debate between panelists—fortunately, there was a neutral person sitting between them. Members can look at the video of that if they want to see it.

Now it is over to our colleagues in the Parliament and people watching to help us understand the correct balance between regulation and ensuring that the Parliament remains open and accessible, as it currently is. The committee is not set on its findings; we have not yet attempted to reach consensus on most, or many, of the issues, so today’s debate is a genuine chance to influence what we will put in the report and the recommendations that we will make in due course.

Thank you very much indeed for the extra time, Presiding Officer. I found it useful; I hope that everyone else did, too.


04 November 2014

S4M-11008 The Importance of School Bus Safety around Scotland

The Presiding Officer (Tricia Marwick): The final item of business is a members’ business debate on motion S4M-11008, in the name of Stewart Stevenson, on the importance of school bus safety around Scotland. The debate will be concluded without any question being put.

Motion debated,

That the Parliament notes the importance of school bus safety around Scotland and what it considers the important work of Ron Beaty of Gardenstown, whom it congratulates for his efforts on this issue, specifically in relation to bus safety signs and bus visibility; considers that there is a very real danger of school pupils being injured if the situation at present is allowed to continue as it understands that recommendations from Transport Scotland are not being carried out across the country, and hopes that the need to ensure the safety of children across Scotland is urgently recognised, acknowledging that Mr Beaty first petitioned the Parliament on this matter in 2005.


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

Tonight, we are joined by my constituent Ron Beaty of Gamrie. He is far from unique in believing that we have a duty to protect our vulnerable and inexperienced young folk, but following the permanent disablement of his granddaughter in an accident in the vicinity of a school bus, he has been a ferocious champion of improving safety in our school transport system.

I have not been alone in supporting Ron. Members of the Public Petitions Committee, of all political parties and of none, have supported his efforts to improve public policy and practice. Today’s debate is an opportunity to revisit the issue, look at what has been achieved thus far and discuss what we now expect, which is important.

The issue is one not just for the Beaty family, with the pain that it has suffered, nor just for the north-east of Scotland, where we have seen too many accidents involving school students mounting or leaving school buses; it is an issue for all Scotland—both rural and urban Scotland.

Let us be clear: around two thirds of a million pupils make their way to around 2,700 schools each day, and a goodly number of those pupils use a bus. Youngsters are not naturally born with adequate appreciation of all the risks that they will meet in life. Motorised transport in particular presents challenges. Assessing the speed of approaching traffic and deciding whether it is safe to step on to a road are not skills that we are born with.

Buses add a further complication. They are big and are likely to obstruct one’s view of the road. Education authorities and bus operators that work with them to transport school students are acutely aware of the need to protect passengers, and other road users also have a role to play. This debate and, I hope, the commentary around it will help to remind us all of the need to exercise care near school buses, especially when they are stationary.

What can be done to help to alert drivers? There can be good, clear signage that the bus is a school bus. Crucially, that signage should be removed when the bus is not operating as a school bus. Our brains are alerted by changes in the environment. There is the psychological phenomenon of ennui—we no longer notice what we see all the time—so buses must look different when they are carrying school students, and only then.

There can be flashing lights on the bus to break into drivers’ attention, speed limits that can vary throughout the day, and lights to alert drivers to the need for reduced speed. Those exist already outside many schools throughout the country.

In Aberdeenshire, Aberdeen and Moray, a number of steps have been taken to improve safety, and Transport Scotland—Mr Beaty is not its greatest fan—has produced guidance for our 32 local authorities on how they can help to improve road transport safety. SeeMe technology has been trialled in Aberdeenshire. It causes flashing lights to switch on at bus stops as they detect people approaching the stop who are carrying a transponder. After it was established that there was no legal impediment to doing so, much larger school bus signage has been used. Aberdeenshire Council has made it a condition of school bus contracts that the signage must come off when the bus ain’t carrying school students.

Progress has therefore been made and lots of good things have been done by people of good heart.

Liam McArthur (Orkney Islands) (LD): I am grateful to Stewart Stevenson for bringing this important issue to the chamber. He is right to point to its being an issue across the country. Councillor Andrew Drever, who is one of the most tenacious campaigners on the issue in my constituency, has put forward the suggestion of banning the overtaking of stationary school buses. Has Stewart Stevenson been aware of that as a campaign strategy? What are his views on the efficacy of that?

Stewart Stevenson: I was not aware of Councillor Andrew Drever’s initiative specifically, although I have heard that suggestion in other places, and it is certainly worth considering. It is not, of course, within our gift in the Parliament to legislate to do that, but I will return to that subject a little later in my remarks with another suggestion that might have that effect.

With a greater focus on school transport safety in the north-east in particular, we have not seen a repeat of the string of very serious injuries that occurred a few years ago. Policy and practice changes may have contributed to that; or the very bad winters that closed down schools and, therefore, school transport and the comparatively mild winters, which reduced weather risks, may have been significant factors.

Either way, the questions are: is there more that we can reasonably do and do we know what to do? The answer to both questions really ought to be yes.

Perhaps the most important thing that the north-east experience tells the rest of Scotland is that the costs of addressing the issue are between nil and trivial. It just takes an increased focus on the issue. Therefore, we can and must do more, but what should we do?

We can put requirements into school bus contracts. I do not necessarily mean the existing contracts—it always costs a lot to change a contract—but certainly the new ones, which tend to be on a three-year cycle. We can make contractors provide better signage—not behind the bus window but outside the bus—and use it responsibly. We can also get drivers to use constant headlights when running and flashers when stopped.

We can do risk assessments and introduce 20mph speed limits where it will help. We can reconsider school travel plans and work with parents on bus routing, perhaps to arrange for pick-up and drop-off points to be at safer locations. They might need to be at different places in the morning and evening for individual kids because the bus might be coming from a different direction.

When I spoke in Alex Neil’s debate on school bus safety in November 2006—whatever else we can say about it, the issue is not new—I suggested that we could use bus signage that looked as if it were making a legal statement to other road users. We could have a big sign on the back of a bus saying “Don’t break the law” on line 1, “Don’t overtake this school bus” on line 3 and, on line 2, the word “please” in incredibly small print. That might give the effect of a legal request without the necessity of legislation. We never know.

Let us try to think of a few tricks that grab attention and make things happen. Let us innovate.

I congratulate Ron Beaty on his tenaciousness in keeping the issue alive. However, let us make sure that the actions of our Government and our councils mean that we keep youngsters alive so that Ron’s campaigning does not need to.


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