31 October 2017

S5M-08226 VAT Charges (Police Scotland and Scottish Fire and Rescue Service)

The Deputy Presiding Officer (Linda Fabiani): The final item of business is a members’ business debate on motion S5M-08226, in the name of Ben Macpherson, on unfair Police Scotland and Scottish Fire and Rescue Service VAT charges. The debate will be concluded without any question being put.

Motion debated,

That the Parliament understands that Police Scotland and Scottish Fire and Rescue continue to be the only territorial forces in the UK unable to reclaim VAT; believes that this costs £35 million annually, and has totalled £140 million since 2013; notes what it sees as the detrimental impact that paying this VAT has on frontline services in communities in Edinburgh Northern and Leith and across Scotland; acknowledges the view that the UK Government should change its rules to allow this VAT to be reclaimed, similar to the action that it took to enable Highways England and academy schools to reclaim VAT, and further notes the argument that the UK Government should fully reimburse the reported £140 million taken away from Scotland's frontline emergency services since 2013.

... ... ...

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

My speech will draw on a number of sources, one of which is the House of Commons paper on police funding that was published in February 2016 and discusses all the police forces. However, I will start with a letter of 26 February 2016 from David Gauke, the UK minister at HM Treasury, to the convener of the Justice Committee. It specifically says:

“As you may be aware eligibility for VAT refunds for public bodies is subject to strict criteria, as set out in UK legislation, for the two main VAT refund schemes.”

This is the bit that cuts to the heart of the matter:

“The first, under Section 33 of the VAT Act 1994”

referred to by Murdo Fraser and others—

“allows local authorities and bodies whose funding is reliant on local taxation to reclaim irrecoverable VAT.”

That is the relevant scheme; the second one does not apply in this instance.

The first and obvious exemption is the Police Service of Northern Ireland, which was established in 2001 as the successor to the Royal Ulster Constabulary. It is almost wholly funded by the UK Treasury, with a top-up of £22 million a year at the current rate from the Northern Ireland Assembly, and it is permitted to reclaim its VAT.

If we look at page 12 of the Justice Committee’s report on the draft budget 2015-16, we see that 329 Police Scotland officers are funded by subventions from local authorities. Therefore, local authority funding is involved in the provision of Police Scotland services.

Let us go on a bit further. We have heard a little bit about section 33 of the 1994 act. Let us have a look at it. It is maybe just as well to point out that the original act—including section 33, which is the one that matters—was amended in 2012 by paragraph 217 of part 3 of schedule 16 to the Police Reform and Social Responsibility Act 2011. There are some very interesting and odd things in section 33 of the 1994 act. It has two lists: one for England and Wales and one for Northern Ireland and Scotland. I will give members a flavour of some of the things that are on the Northern Ireland and Scotland list. It includes

“a police and crime commissioner, the Mayor’s Office for Policing and Crime and a police authority and the Receiver for the Metropolitan Police District”.

They are on the Scottish list, yet Police Scotland is not. The British Broadcasting Corporation, which is based in London, is also on the Scottish list.

I do not need to go on. The whole thing is a legal and practical guddle that is unsustainable politically and, in the light of David Gauke’s letter, almost certainly unsustainable in legal terms.

In bringing this debate to the chamber, Ben Macpherson has given us the opportunity to visit some of the detail that is before us. The Police Service of Northern Ireland is the clear example that shows us why we should get our VAT back.

In four minutes, one can touch on a few things, Presiding Officer, but there are a few things that need to be looked at again.


S5M-08497 Promoting Active Travel

The Deputy Presiding Officer (Linda Fabiani): The next item of business is a debate on motion S5M-08497, in the name of Humza Yousaf, on the promotion of active travel in Scotland. We are a bit pushed for time. I call on Humza Yousaf to speak to and move the motion.

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

I will focus on walking, just as I did the last time I spoke in a debate on active travel. The motion and the amendments make only two references to walking, while there are nine references to cycling, although walking is substantially more accessible than cycling. I suggest to colleagues in Parliament that the best way of improving active travel is to encourage people to walk.

Let us have a wee think about some numbers. The “Prescribing & Medicines: Prescription Cost Analysis” report for 2015-16, which is the last year for which I have been able to find numbers, shows that of the top five drugs, by number of items dispensed, the combined total of prescriptions for numbers 1, 3 and 5 totals 8.78 million. Those drugs are all for use by people who have respiratory conditions, who would benefit greatly from taking quite gentle exercise—or more serious exercise, if they are capable of it.

How much do those prescriptions cost? I do not quite know, but the average cost of a prescription is £10, and those drugs are at the top end; they are among the more expensive drugs. We are therefore considering a figure for annual prescriptions of those three drugs alone that exceeds the active travel budget.

What is the cost of a pair of trainers? One can get a decent pair of trainers—although not a classy pair—for about 30 quid. Add a pair of thick socks and a pair of thin socks, and you are ready to go. Let us put our doctors in a position in which they can prescribe walking and the equipment to do it, in order that we can improve the health of the nation and promote active travel.

I also have a few words to say to colleagues in the Scottish Parliamentary Corporate Body, because it is not only the Government that can do things. Paragraph 11.18 of the Scottish Parliament members’ expenses scheme guidance states that members are required to provide a letter of justification if they take a taxi journey that costs more than £20. I suggest that we add to that a requirement for members to provide a letter of justification if their taxi journey does not exceed 1 mile, because it is the short taxi journeys that we should be replacing.

From the outset, we have been paying members of the Scottish Parliament 45p a mile if they use a car, but only 20p a mile if they use a cycle. How about turning that around so that we pay them 45p if they use a cycle and 20p if they use a car? I know that that sounds a little bit whimsical, but the reality is—

John Finnie: Will the member give way?

Stewart Stevenson: I will give way if the member is brief.

John Finnie: Thank you. I will be brief. Would Stewart Stevenson like to explain to me how—much as I would like to do so—I can cover on a push bike the area between the north of Shetland and the Mull of Kintyre, where there is a dearth of public transport?

Stewart Stevenson: The bottom line is that we have to challenge the existing norms and have a debate on the subject. I have a similar problem, albeit that it is on a smaller scale.

I am glad that I now have as my greatest fan in Parliament Mike Rumbles, who mentioned me three times in the first minute of his speech. In 2009, I said that it would be challenging to reach a 20 per cent target for cycling—I think that it is fair to say that I got that one right. However, we can, in general, be ambitious on walking. I have done 4km today, which is 5,650 steps—I prefer counting distances in kilometres, because they sound bigger than they do in miles—and others should be doing something at least as big as that.

Liam Kerr told us that he cycles, which is good. My last bicycle cost me a fiver, and I am not going to pay more than £25 for my next one, because I will get it when I next go to a rural roup.

I conclude, Presiding Officer, in my very few remaining seconds, by saying that we all have, in our own feet, the tools to promote the agenda. We, as MSPs, should be seen walking and should encourage others to walk. It delivers health, wealth and community benefit.


27 October 2017

S5M-08378 Hydro Nation

The Deputy Presiding Officer (Christine Grahame): The next item of business is a debate on motion S5M-08378, in the name of Roseanna Cunningham, on the hydro nation: maximising the abundant benefits of our water resources.

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

In our living room at home, a large paraffin lamp sits to the right of the fireplace. The lamp is relevant to the debate because it is the lamp by which my wife used to do her school homework until the hydro delivered electricity to 14 Lochend, just outside Inverness. The history of Scotland is interwoven with the history of our use of water.

We in Scotland are fortunate. When we go out of this building at night and the rain is coming down, we curse gently and reach for our brollies or waterproof caps; in the Sahara, people would be dashing around to collect and preserve the precious resource. For many people in the world, access to water, and in particular to potable water, is increasingly difficult. It is undoubtedly the case that water is so precious that it has been the cause of wars and battles—and it might be again in the future.

Water is a naturally occurring chemical; H2O is probably the most highly recognised chemical formula in the world. It is known universally, even to people with no particular knowledge of chemistry.

Those of us who are fortunate owe a duty to those who are less fortunate. The distribution is maladroit; where there are huge communities of people around the world, there is often little water. We have the potential to show the way on technologies to do with water. We can show leadership.

Bruce Crawford talked about how our Victorian predecessors created the infrastructure on which we continue to depend. In those days there were great debates—particularly in Glasgow when waste water infrastructure was being put in—about whether it was economically or socially desirable to do that. I do not imagine there being any interest in having such a debate today.

Water delivers a public good in Scotland and around the world; it must also be delivered for the public good. Scottish Water is an exemplar of how Scottish Governments of all hues can use our resources in a way that benefits our communities. We can use our natural resources to generate power, and the excess of resource enables us to support others around the world.

Redundant assets in our infrastructure, such as disused sewage treatment works, could become modern recycling plants. There is the hint of a desire to recycle phosphorus—I am waiting to hear from Maurice Golden on that. Phosphorus was first discovered in human waste water in 1669. I do not know whether Maurice Golden will encourage us in that regard.

Climate change is causing an even bigger skew in the availability of water to people around the world. The Mary Robinson Foundation—Climate Justice, which I am always happy to support, has made that a central plank of its campaign.

In Scotland, one of our most important exports is whisky, or uisge-beatha—the minister will no doubt criticise my pronunciation. “Uisge” means water; it is the essential ingredient of our national drink.


25 October 2017

S5M-08352 Withdrawal from the European Union (Negotiations)

The Deputy Presiding Officer (Christine Grahame): Time is tight. The next item of business is a debate on motion S5M-08352, in the name of Michael Russell, on Scotland and the negotiations between the European Union and the United Kingdom on EU exit.



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

I want to pick up on Mairi Gougeon’s speech and look at the issues from the perspective of UK citizens who are living in the EU. They are not relying on specious promises coming from the Prime Minister or other members of the Westminster Administration. They are applying in considerable numbers for passports from other countries in the EU where they are available. Indeed, we have seen the rather unexpected sight of Ian Paisley Jr of the Democratic Unionist Party in Northern Ireland handing out Irish passport application forms to his constituents and others. That tells us precisely how difficult the situation is perceived to be for many.

Members of my family and close friends fall into this category. I have a niece in Sweden. She is now a Swedish citizen and the holder of a Swedish passport because she cannot plan her life on vague promises that cannot be banked. She has to assure her future. Incidentally, it is interesting to compare and contrast her experience of becoming a Swedish citizen with the boorach that we heard Mairi Gougeon describe. It took my niece five days to get her Swedish citizenship. I accept that she has been resident there for more than a decade, but I thought that five days was a pretty impressive administrative deal.

My nephew, who lives in Denmark, has yet to submit his Danish passport application but is actively contemplating doing so, and four close friends who have the necessary Irish grandparents are looking to apply for Irish passports.

All across Europe, we have uncertainty for UK citizens, who are not reassured in any way, shape or form by what is coming from Westminster. It is an important matter for EU citizens who live here, but it is equally a significant problem for UK citizens who live elsewhere.

I came to this Parliament and was sworn in on 13 June 2001, and the following day I spoke in my first debate, which was on the European Committee’s report on the common fisheries policy. I was pitched right into debating on behalf of my constituents some of the substantial shortcomings of many of the things that come from Europe. Indeed, the European Committee, as its first headline conclusion from its deliberations, said:

“We believe that the current situation is untenable.”

It was talking about the common fisheries policy.

Given that it comes from an environment in which the EU was funding the building of new Spanish boats while simultaneously ensuring that the Scottish fleet was substantially reduced, the bitterness that people in the north-east of Scotland and other fishing communities have towards the EU is perfectly understandable. However, even there things are changing, because the expectations of fishing communities look increasingly less likely to be delivered.

Yesterday, the Scottish Fishermen’s Federation was advocating in the strongest possible terms that decision making on fishing policy and practice must remain in Scotland. That takes us directly to clause 11(1) of what might be termed the great repeal bill, although Mr Tomkins has given us another title for it that we might adopt if we wish.

The bottom line is that even the most Eurosceptic people are realising the limitations in what is happening. Michael Gove appears to have promised continuing “relative stability” to the Danes and the Dutch, which is absolutely at odds with what fishing communities expected. The negotiations, thus far, are nothing short of a muddle. The EU, with 27 countries that had to agree a common line, was able to do that pretty rapidly. After a substantially longer period, the UK cabinet, with 23 members, has not been able to come to any meaningful agreement as to where we are going.

Let me give a few hints as to how negotiation might be done. One of the leading training companies in negotiation is based in Glasgow and its services are used all over the place. It is a company called Scotwork UK and it has a simple system called LIM-IT. It involves making three lists: things that we would like to get, things that we intend to get and things that we must get. The way you use it is to sit down and work out what is on your lists.

You do not disclose your lists publicly, but bit by bit through the negotiation process. There is not the slightest sign that anything professional is happening in the negotiating of withdrawal. I will end by welcoming the fact that, of the seven clauses of their amendment, the Tories have included four that I can agree with. That is a welcome move forward. It is in everybody’s interest that the negotiations succeed; we all want “progress ... to be accelerated”; we all welcome “the reconvening of the Joint Ministerial Committee”; and, fundamentally, we are all looking to see the great repeal bill amended, because until it is, no meaningful progress will be possible.


03 October 2017

S5M-06241 Garbh Allt Community Initiative

The Presiding Officer (Ken Macintosh): The next item of business is a members’ business debate on motion S5M-06241, in the name of Maree Todd, on Garbh Allt Community Initiative reaching its funding target. The debate will be concluded without any question being put.

Motion debated,

That the Parliament celebrates the Garbh Allt Community Initiative achieving its funding target for a community buy-out of the Sutherland Estate land at Portgower, Gartymore, West Helmsdale and Marrel, as well as the hill land; believes that this is of historic significance as these townships only came into existence following people being cleared from the Strath of Kildonan; congratulates the Countess of Sutherland and the members of the community initiative on getting funding from both the Scottish Land Fund and the Beatrice Partnership Fund for the buy-out, and looks forward to a bright future in Scotland in which all communities can harness their assets and flourish.

... ... ...

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

I thank Maree Todd for giving voice to this very important issue. Members may have noted that I have been relatively silent for the past three weeks, as I have been suffering from laryngitis. Maree Todd has arranged for me to be temporarily given back my voice to allow me to speak in the debate this evening. Let us hope—as I do—that it lasts for four minutes.

The history of the area of which we speak continues to be writ. Those of us who have been there will have seen, on the hill and in the distance, the statue of the Duke of Sutherland. There are those who would wish to take down that statue, and there have been many unofficial attempts to do so. I would leave it there, as a constant reminder of the iniquities of the past.

“The Emigrants”, which Dennis MacLeod was one of the moving spirits behind and which now stands adjacent to the A9 at Helmsdale, is one of the most moving, poignant and relevant memorials that there are in Scotland. It depicts a mother and father walking out of the glen, with their child, holding his parent’s hand; the child is looking back, never to see the glen again. It speaks to what has happened in such areas around Helmsdale.

For my personal part, as a family, we spent more than a decade holidaying at Achmelvich, just north of Lochinver, on the west coast of Sutherland. There, of course, we had the blight of ownership by the Vestey family. Not only did they own and control vast swathes of Sutherland and bits of Caithness and, I think, Ross-shire, but they paid not a penny in tax to the UK Exchequer, retaining their Argentinian domicile as a way of avoiding making proper contributions fiscally, just as they were inhibiting the operation of the community in the area that they owned and controlled.

The time for that model of land ownership is past. The Labour-Liberal Administration that we previously had in this place took the first excellent, widely welcomed step to ensure that land ownership was placed on a more formal basis and available to people. Previously, buyouts had been much more difficult to achieve, and we know much of the history of that.

I am delighted that the motion refers to the Countess of Sutherland and I am delighted that the family has taken a different attitude to working with the community from that which was taken in previous centuries.

The buyout is a very important move for the people of Helmsdale and it is a very important example of the benefits that can accrue and start to undo the injustices of a pattern of land ownership that came about not because landowners put out money to buy land, but because they seized it and used it as private fiefdom. We should no longer accept that pattern of land ownership in the 21st century. I very much congratulate the people in the Helmsdale area on their effort in raising the money and I wish them every success in their future management. The challenge of raising the money was substantial; the long-term challenge of sustaining the area may be even greater. I wish them well.


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