25 February 2016

S4M-15709 Scottish Elections (Dates) Bill: Stage 3

The Presiding Officer (Tricia Marwick): The next item of business is a debate on motion S4M-15709, in the name of Joe FitzPatrick, on the Scottish Elections (Dates) Bill.

... ... ...

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

The bill—all 200 words of it—was looked at intensively by the Standards, Procedures and Public Appointments Committee and we reported, in a mere 1,000 words, our conclusions in its support.

It is part of the continuum of reform, over a long period, of our process of representative democracy, which started perhaps with the great reform act of 1832, which took the vote away from women who, if they had been head of the household and met the property qualification, had had the vote until that point.

The Representation of the People Act 1867, which quadrupled the size of the electorate, caused its own problems. In 1872, we had to introduce secret ballots, the first of which took place at Pontefract on 15 August of that year. The minister should be aware that, at that time, if appointed to office as a minister, one had to resign one’s seat and fight a by-election before being permitted to take up ministerial office. That led, in the 1880s in Scotland, to the situation in which a member had been elected to the Westminster Parliament in a by-election, was appointed a minister, and immediately had to resign and fight another by-election. They were only eight days apart. We think that we have too many elections; perhaps, then, there were even more.

When Winston Churchill lost his seat in Dundee in 1922, there was a first-and-second-past-the-post system, in which we had a single vote but elected two members. In 1945, in the university seats, for which we elected three members using a single transferable vote system, the third member, a Conservative, the third member was successfully elected on the seventh round of redistribution of votes, having also lost their deposit—an outcome that I wish for many of my Conservative friends in the forthcoming election.

It is said that, in political debate, the debate is not always over when everything has been said but merely when everyone has finally said it. I think that everything that can be said about this bill has probably now been said.


11 February 2016

S4M-15608 Burial and Cremation (Scotland) Bill: Stage 1

The Deputy Presiding Officer (Elaine Smith): The next item of business is a debate on motion S4M-15608, in the name of Maureen Watt, on the Burial and Cremation (Scotland) Bill.

... ... ...

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

I congratulate Lesley Brennan on what I thought was a thoughtful and informative speech, to which I listened with interest. I enjoy having her sit with me on the Delegated Powers and Law Reform Committee, where she makes a significant contribution.

There are a number of things in the bill that are extremely interesting. I will start with the issue of the licensing of undertakers. My personal experience of undertakers is that they are people who, on the occasions on which I have had to engage their services, have behaved with absolute sensitivity and have done an absolutely excellent job. In one particular case, the circumstances were particularly delicate and difficult, and I thought that they did well.

Jenny Marra mentioned the Burial Grounds (Scotland) Act 1855. I think that all the provisions of that act are no longer current. I am not a legal eagle who is qualified to say that, but that is certainly what says. However, it is not clear what has happened to many of the duties. It looks as though they have been supplanted and distributed across the legislative canon.

When the civil registration of births, marriages and deaths started in Scotland in 1855, and for quite some time after, the undertaker certified on the death certificate where the burial had taken place. Of course, that predated cremations so perhaps things were a little bit simpler then, but that means that some of the information about burials is available on the “Scotland’s People” website, which is run by the General Register Office for Scotland and provides information on births, marriages and deaths and other subjects that are of interest to genealogists and legal researchers. With that in mind, it strikes me that it might be a good idea for section 10 of the bill, on burial registers, to be constructed in such a way that local authorities would be able to use the General Register Office for Scotland as the publisher and custodian of the information on burial registers that the act will require to be prepared. A lot of the infrastructure is already there, and things could be arranged so that the requirement that people in the local area could still get free access could be met—I will not engage in the details on that.

However, I have a wee concern about publishing the details of where burials are, because the requirement does not appear to be time limited. There are some extremely old graveyards, and we might be creating a duty for some local authorities that it is almost impossible to deliver. Across from the back of the Parliament, we have the New Calton cemetery, which has been on the go for a couple of hundred years. Even the book of monumental inscriptions that the Scottish Genealogical Society has produced—it is a register only of gravestones, not who is buried where—runs to more than 100 pages of quite small print. I do not know what the state of the records on burials is, but I think that there are significant issues associated with that.

Sections 16 to 19 address private burials, which is good, but we must be careful to ensure that local authorities have a duty to act timeously in this area. I have personal experience of a friend who wanted a private burial. He knew that he was dying, but it took a year to arrange his private burial and he was clinging on at the end to ensure that he got it. That was partly down to SEPA rather than the local authority. There are genuine difficulties that I do not offer a solution to.

On section 12, the right to a lair is for someone resident in a council area. We might look at extending that slightly because I think that it is much more important to consider the person who died in that regard. The relatives might all live a long way away but might want to bury the deceased in the community in which they died, for the benefit of friends in that community. I think that there is a wee issue there.


10 February 2016

S4M-15588 Education

The Deputy Presiding Officer (Elaine Smith): The next item of business is a debate on motion S4M-15588, in the name of Iain Gray, on Scotland’s future prosperity.

... ... ...

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

To state the obvious, education matters to us all, and to all the people of Scotland. Education has touched my family, as it has the families of other members. My grandfather started teaching in 1881. When he retired in 1926, he was a fellow of the Educational Institute of Scotland. His father was a coal miner, so he did not come from a highly educated family. My mother was the daughter of a ship’s rigger, and started teaching in 1931—on an annual salary, I may say, of £36. Today, I have a niece who teaches in England and a nephew who teaches in Denmark. Alas, I do not seem to have in my family any current teachers who live in Scotland. My own pedagogic activity was strictly limited to the three years that I spent lecturing postgraduate students at Heriot-Watt University after I retired from my long-term career.

I accept that we all, across Parliament, have a shared ambition for and a belief in the importance of education. I presume that the same goes for training, because the two are often linked. We are really debating the means rather than the ends.

The title of the debate is “Scotland’s Future Prosperity”, and education plays a key part in contributing to that prosperity. There is, of course, the economic activity that is associated with the preparation and delivery of education. We employ teachers and others in, and we attract students from around the globe to, a system that has long been recognised as excellent. Substantial difficulties for that aspect of our education system have been created by the withdrawal of one of Jack McConnell’s achievements: the system of visas for foreign students. I very much regret that that is happening, and I suspect that most members in the chamber feel the same.

We also get economic benefit from education because it equips our citizens for future challenges and opportunities. Of course, future challenges are very interesting because we do not know what they will be. Above all, education is not simply about putting a set of skills into the cerebral cavities of our students; it is about equipping them to make future decisions, the nature of which this generation of politicians and teachers can know nothing.

I am a regular visitor to schools, as other members in the chamber will be. Most recently, I visited the North East Scotland College campus at Fraserburgh in my constituency. It has had significant investment, and there is more building work under way. Inside the building, there are new computers. Given the pressure of increased demand and increased student numbers, the school is stealing some of the public space for new teaching rooms. When the building is complete, we will return to the kind of balance that we want. More fundamentally, substantially more students in that college—the whole attitude and approach of which I like very much—have, on their graduation, certificates and diplomas that are relevant to the employment opportunities in the area, and which will also endure as a contribution to their wellbeing.

Historically, we in Scotland have, of course, placed an emphasis on rational argument and personal responsibility. That came partly from the reformation, which brought Calvinism to Scotland. We might say that that was a mixed blessing, but it put in place a value on education that was delivered by our having an education system that was available to most of our population long before other countries in Europe.

We were also fortunate, where others were unfortunate, in Scotland’s being one of the early medical training centres in Europe. That was because of the bad reason that Edinburgh had substantial morbidity in the old town because the buildings were built upwards for safety, so that people could live near the castle in dangerous times. That created a hotbed of infection transfer, which led to the opportunity to create a medical school of international renown.

I want to be a little didactic about the subject of technical adjustments to numbers, which has emerged, by illustrating something from our ordinary natural lives. If I had a car that I assessed a year ago as being worth £12,000, I might, in looking at my assets and liabilities, consider that it would be worth £10,500 this year on my balance sheet. That would represent depreciation of £1,500. However, if I went along to John Menzies and quickly, while no one was looking, looked in the appropriate books to see what its value was, I could find that it was worth £11,000. In other words, the depreciation that I had put on the balance sheet would be £500 less than the reality. That would be good news. My assets would have grown, but there would not be a penny more in my pocket. Perhaps members might care to think about the fact that some of the numbers that we talk about are exactly the same as that.

I commend the read, write, count campaign, and the making maths count campaign that the Government has been engaged in.

Teachers bring perspiration to their tasks much more than is commonly recognised. They work longer hours than people often realise, bring inspiration to their students and create a supernation.

Finally, on how to deal with raising tax, Gordon Brown said on 30 April 2008:

“We did not cover as well as we should that group of low-paid workers and low-income people who don’t get the working income tax credits”.

In other words, the last time Labour upped the tax for basic rate taxpayers, Gordon Brown acknowledged that it didnae work. The evidence is that Labour hasnae thought it through any more carefully this time.


09 February 2016

S4M-15404 Broadband and Mobile Phone Coverage (Rural and Island Communities)

The Deputy Presiding Officer (John Scott): The final item of business is a debate on motion S4M-15404, in the name of Tavish Scott, on broadband and mobile phone coverage in rural and island communities. The debate will be concluded without any question being put.

Motion debated,

That the Parliament considers that reliable and affordable broadband and mobile phone coverage is essential for businesses and households looking to access a range of services; understands that the current Digital Scotland Superfast Broadband programme has vast regional variations, with only 75% of premises in Orkney and 77% of premises in Shetland being reached by the end of 2016 compared with the 95% target across Scotland as a whole by March 2018; further understands that “not-spots” in mobile phone coverage, including 2G and 3G, are far more common in rural and island communities; considers that the full implementation of superfast broadband and universal mobile phone coverage can counter falling population in outlying areas while bringing significant economic benefits; believes that plugging the remaining gaps in coverage is likely to require a range of different technologies, and notes calls for the Scottish Government to work with partners to find solutions for households and businesses in harder-to-reach communities and prioritise investment in those places that fall below the average or have no access to broadband and mobile phone coverage

... ... ...

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

It is an absolutely immense privilege for each and every one of us to be elected as an MSP. This touches on the issue that we are debating tonight, but in my case, the particular privilege is that when I come to the Scottish Parliament, my broadband speed leaps by a factor of 800. Over the past 10 days, the median broadband speed at home has been 0.2Mbps. On Sunday, it took 40 minutes to book my railway ticket to journey to Parliament. That is not terribly good. My constituents are in a similar position.

The digital Scotland website tells us that exchange-only lines, to which reference has been made, are more prevalent in Aberdeenshire—Mr Johnstone should note that—and Dumfries and Galloway, just because of the history of how the telephone network was installed. However, let us not imagine that only rural areas are affected. Earlier, I was speaking to someone from Comely Bank, which is right in centre of Edinburgh, who is on an exchange-only line, too. Right across Scotland, exchange-only lines are a significant issue that denies people the ability to access services in the way that the majority are able to access them.

There is an economic value in ubiquity. On the day that everyone in Scotland is connected to a high-speed broadband connection, we should shut down all the communication methods that must continue in order to support low bandwidth connections—then we would save money centrally.

I have a solution. It is not a technological solution; it is a straightforward policy solution. The Scottish Government must install devices on its own internet connections that restrict the speed of those connections to the speed that prevails in the rural areas of Aberdeenshire, Shetland, Orkney, the Western Isles and Dumfries and Galloway. [Interruption.] I hear Mr Russell pleading that my list should include rural Argyll, too. If what I propose were to happen, I have a vague feeling that we might get things fixed.

Last year, my family had a pleasant holiday in Plockton, where we rented a cottage. I did not want to come home: the broadband speed was running at 6Mbps—20 times the speed that it was running at when I left home in Banffshire.

My wife and my dentist are the greatest proponents of our getting proper access to high-speed broadband, mainly because my wife does not like the sound of my chewing the edge of my desk in frustration; I am sure that members can work out my dentist’s concerns for my teeth.

The issue is not just broadband. Where I live, there is no mobile phone signal—2G, 1G, 3G or whatever the prevailing G is—and there is no Freeview access. I cannot even get satellite broadband, because the satellites, of which there are two, are not due south, so the angle of attack is 20.5° or 22° and the terrain stops me seeing them. I am not alone; people on that side of the hill cannot get satellite—not that it is as good as proper, fibre broadband.

I have costed the wholesale purchase of the fibre that would be needed to connect my house to the exchange, which is not that far away. It is £300. Well, I have got the 300 quid waiting.


S4M-15128 Transplantation (Authorisation of Removal of Organs etc) (Scotland) Bill: Stage 1

The Presiding Officer (Tricia Marwick): The next item of business is a debate on motion S4M-15128, in the name of Anne McTaggart, on the Transplantation (Authorisation of Removal of Organs etc) (Scotland) Bill.

... ... ...

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

I come to the debate informed by experience—not the experience of receipt of organ donation, but the experience of donating by a deceased relative. When my father-in-law, who was a nurse, died suddenly at the early age of 54, his widow and daughters decided that there could be no finer memorial to his life than that his death should mean life for others. In fact, they drew it wider than simply authorising use of his remains for organ donation, and he became part of the education of medical students. Their dissection of him after death helped to prepare them for their careers.

In due course, we sought the same disposal for his widow, but practical issues prevented it. Jim’s funeral had a different focus: it was less on the coffin at the front of the church—there was none—and more on the man, his contribution to the lives of others and the contribution to the future wellbeing of others that he was now making. The grieving process seemed to be easier for that knowledge. A year later, an invitation arrived from the students who had benefited from his donation to join them at the cremation of his remains. Today, Jim’s granddaughter—a nurse—is state transplant co-ordinator in Queensland, Australia.

Like many others, I had, prior to Jim’s death, given little or no thought to organ donation. My instructions to my executors are now clear and unambiguous. They are to reuse everything in any way that could benefit others. All my close relatives know that. My driving licence has the 115 code on the back that can tell others about my registration; it is one of the least understood indicators of one’s being registered for organ donation.

Our Parliament’s Health and Sport Committee has performed its task in preparing for our consideration a stage 1 report with the diligence that we always expect and almost always get. With the experience of having taken five bills through Parliament, I know how challenging it is to get the detail right, and to convert the policy intention into proper form for legislation. It is difficult with all the support that a wheen of civil servants or committee clerks can provide to a minister or convener, so how much more difficult is it for an individual MSP who is relying on the substantially more limited resources of their own knowledge and experience and the assistance of Parliament’s non-government bills unit?

When the bill was introduced, I indicated to our whips that I could not oppose its general principles because I give paramouncy to helping others and I have not changed my mind, even if the bill’s prospects of doing so have created difficulties because of the detailed expression of its principles. [Applause.]

I have great sympathy with the minister’s position and the fact that she cannot yet see a way of making the bill into something that can be implemented. However, any bill that offers even the most meagre prospect of an increase in organ donation needs us to endorse its general principles. But, and it is a significant “but”, those whose faith means that they have a different view to mine about proper disposal of human remains must not—repeat not—find themselves being forced to go against their wishes or the wishes of a deceased person.

I must say that it remains a mystery to me that I can create a will that directs how all my assets heritable and movable should be used after my death, but I cannot command how the disposal of the most personal of all that is mine—my body—is disposed of. That is for another day, perhaps in the succession bill that I expect will be introduced during the next parliamentary session. I understand the difficulties in respect of legal issues, such as confirmation of wills, which take more than the very short period of time within which decisions on organ donation have to be made.

The Government and the committee have accepted the principle of soft opt-out, and it is tremendous that there is unanimity on that. If we support the general principles of the bill at decision time, it might well be that difficulties with the bill’s detail mean that it will fall later in the parliamentary process. Well—let us test the general principles and their expression in the bill through further parliamentary process, when there will come the proper point at which to derail its progress, if that is the correct outcome.

This evening I must and shall vote in favour of our endorsing the general principles of the bill.


03 February 2016

S4M-14678 Edinburgh South Suburban Railway

The Deputy Presiding Officer (John Scott): The final item of business is a members’ business debate on motion S4M-14678, in the name of Jim Eadie, on the reinstatement of the Edinburgh south suburban railway.

Motion moved,

That the Parliament recognises the ongoing campaign that is being led by the Capital Rail Action Group to reinstate the Edinburgh South Suburban Railway (ESSR) for passenger use; notes that the previous passenger service ran from Waverley station via Haymarket, Gorgie, Craiglockhart, Morningside, Blackford, Newington, Craigmillar and Portobello stations; acknowledges the development of new and innovative methods of transport in other parts of Europe, such as the hybrid tram-train that has been used in parts of Germany since the 1990s, and which, it understands, is soon to be piloted in Sheffield; believes that, given current capacity issues, using existing transport infrastructure through innovative methods of transport might represent the best means of reopening the line; considers ambitious the proposals in the Edinburgh and South East Scotland city deal, which, it understands, outline the need to upgrade existing transport infrastructure to enhance the network of integrated and sustainable transport links across the Lothian region; believes that the reinstatement of the ESSR could bring significant economic and social benefits to the people of Edinburgh, and notes the calls for the City of Edinburgh Council and Transport Scotland to work with all interested stakeholders, including the South East Scotland Transport Partnership, to explore the viability of reopening the line for passenger use to serve the area’s transport needs and enhance journey times in what it sees as Scotland’s increasingly congested capital city.

... ... ...

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

I draw members’ attention to the fact that I am the honorary president of the Scottish Association for Public Transport and honorary vice-president of Railfuture UK. In the light of that, it will be no surprise to members that I would always wish to engage in efforts to increase the availability and use of public transport.

Like other members, I congratulate Jim Eadie on giving us the opportunity to debate this important subject for Edinburgh. When I was Minister for Transport, Infrastructure and Climate Change, I responded to Gavin Brown’s members’ business debate on the subject on 3 December 2008. At that time, I encouraged the City of Edinburgh Council to meet me as minister to discuss the issues around what were—and are—largely freight lines that were used less for passenger traffic. I do not recall that meeting happening, so I very much welcome hearing from Jim Eadie that the council is engaged on the issue.

Jim Eadie referred, properly, to capacity and technical issues at our major stations. In particular, we ought to think about the issues for those stations that would result from our connecting them to a high-speed rail network, which may have different technical standards and will certainly present issues with platform length and capacity. We need to work hand in glove so that, if we do something on the suburban railway, we do not compromise our ability to connect to high-speed rail in the future.

Would the south suburban railway line be of value? Yes, of course it would. Can it be done easily? No, it cannot, for many of the reasons to which Jim Eadie referred. The platforms issue is perhaps not as great as has been suggested; in most cases, it would simply be a question of putting in a low platform at the end of the heavy-rail high platform, which is a solution that has been adopted elsewhere. However, that depends on there being land available at the stations concerned.

The motion states that we should

“explore the viability of reopening the line for passenger use”,

and I absolutely agree. There has always been a need in Edinburgh for an inner—or perhaps a middle—circle round Edinburgh so that, precisely as Alison Johnson mentioned, people do not have to come into the middle of the city and then get on another bus to go back to the outside. That has always been the missing link, and in many ways it is why we were uncomfortable, as a political party, with the trams proposal that was ultimately implemented. It was not because trams are a bad idea. They are a very good idea, but the route was perhaps not the one that was most urgently needed. Perhaps the route of the south suburban railway is the one that we need most urgently.

We know that, when we put rails down and run trains on them, people come and use them. There has not been a single development in the past couple of decades in which passenger usage has not significantly exceeded the estimates. Of course, that is in part because the Great Britain network model for estimating passenger usage is not a good one. We need to deal with that issue.

In my time as minister, I was delighted to be photographed down in the Borders with Madge Elliot, who saw both the last train that ran when the line was previously in operation and the recent reopening of the Borders railway.

I cannot talk about railways in Edinburgh without making the point that none of the communities in my constituency is anything less than a 1.5 hour bus ride from a railhead. My support for the proposal is entirely conditional on our also thinking about the Buchan rail link.

My enthusiasm for railways is substantial. My wife’s Christmas present to me this year was David Spaven’s “The Railway Atlas of Scotland: Two Hundred Years of History in Maps”, which I commend to members. It shows what railways used to be like. Let us try to get some of the way back to where we were. Not all of the old railways are worth restoring, but many of them are, including the Edinburgh south suburban railway and, even more important, the Buchan rail link.


02 February 2016

S4M-15512 and S4M-15513 “Code of Conduct for Members of the Scottish Parliament” (Revisions)

The Presiding Officer (Tricia Marwick): The next item of business is consideration of motions S4M-15512 and S4M-15513, in the name of Stewart Stevenson, on code of conduct revisions and a written statement determination.


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

With the Interests of Members of the Scottish Parliament (Amendment) Act 2016 becoming law, we need to amend the “Code of Conduct for Members of the Scottish Parliament” and the written statement forms that set out the information that members are required to provide when registering interests. The Standards, Procedures and Public Appointments Committee’s report “Code of Conduct Revisions” describes the required changes. We also propose changes to the rules for cross-party groups.

Our 2016 act moves interests that are currently registrable with the Electoral Commission into the Parliament’s regime. The benefits are that MSPs’ financial interests will be in one place, on the Parliament’s website; that MSPs will have to provide information only once; that Parliament officials will be able to advise members on all their interests; and that the complaints process will be all in the hands of one body—the Commissioner for Ethical Standards in Public Life in Scotland.

The Electoral Commission, which will rely on our collecting the data that it needs, is satisfied with the changes that I am asking the Parliament to approve today.

Members new and old can rely on sage advice from our clerks on registration matters. We must talk to them, listen to them and protect our individual and collective reputations.

The 2016 act enhances the sanctions that are available after breaches of the rules, broadens the existing paid advocacy offence and adjusts the threshold for registering certain gifts. All the changes are set out in the revised code of conduct.

On cross-party groups, the committee previously reviewed our rules and the groups’ operation and found that too few groups fully complied with the form and intention of our rules. Therefore, twice a year we now consider a report on groups’ activities and their compliance with the code. With some prompting from standards clerks, groups are operating to standard. When necessary, we have indicated that we can deregister a group.

In that context, we have considered whether the rules are working effectively and whether further change is needed. In part, that was driven by our consideration of recent complaints against groups. The revised code of conduct will provide clarity for the committee and the public on the status of attendees at meetings and certainty for groups on the purpose and timings of their annual general meetings.

We consider that automatic reregistration of a group in a new parliamentary session should not continue. Prior to our agreeing to registration, we now routinely assess whether a group’s proposed remit overlaps with those of others. The start of a session is a good time to test in that way all previous groups that want reregistration. We need a proper balance between the number of groups that we would wish to cover a wide area of interest and the number of MSPs who are available to be members of them.

Finally, we propose changes to the rules that relate to groups that are accorded recognition late in a parliamentary session. Groups should not be able to receive recognition if there is not enough time left in a session for them to demonstrate that they can comply with the requirements of the code. We therefore propose that new groups will not be permitted to be established after March in the year that precedes an election, except in exceptional circumstances.

I move,

That the Parliament agrees to amend the Code of Conduct for Members of the Scottish Parliament by making the alterations set out in Annexes A and B of the Standards, Procedures and Public Appointments Committee’s 2nd Report 2016 (Session 4), Code of Conduct Revisions, and by inserting the written statement forms contained in Annexe A of that report at Annexe 3 of Volume 4 of the Code of Conduct, with effect from the date after the date of the first dissolution of the Parliament following the date on which this resolution is passed.

That the Parliament, in exercise of the powers conferred by sections 4(1) and 4(2) of the Interests of Members of the Scottish Parliament Act 2006 (asp 12)—

  • makes the Interests of Members of the Scottish Parliament Act 2006 (Form and Content of Written Statement) Determination 2016 as set out in the Annexe to this resolution;
  • revokes the Interests of Members of the Scottish Parliament Act 2006 (Form and Content of Written Statement) Determination 2010; and
  • provides that these changes shall have effect from the date after the date of the first dissolution of the Parliament following the date on which this resolution is passed.


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