30 May 2018

S5M-12437 Islands (Scotland) Bill

The Deputy Presiding Officer (Christine Grahame): The next item of business is a debate on motion S5M-12437, in the name of Humza Yousaf, on the Islands (Scotland) Bill at stage 3.

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

It is perhaps no surprise that it was the Scottish National Party that introduced the Islands (Scotland) Bill, because it is the only political party, as far as I am aware, that has previously owned an island, as Eilean Mòr MacCormick was gifted to our then party leader in 1979. It is now on a slightly different footing as it is looked after by a trust that is a registered charity. I look forward to the new arrangements for electing councillors leading to one person living on Eilean Mòr MacCormick, electing himself or herself as councillor and serving as such for that island.

It is worth having a wee look back at the history of how things happened. A hundred years ago, someone living in Tarbert on Harris was part of a council that had its headquarters in Inverness, and someone living in Stornoway on Lewis was part of a council that had its headquarters in Dingwall, because one was in Inverness-shire and the other was in Ross and Cromarty. That was a most idiosyncratic way of looking at things, notwithstanding the intense rivalry between the people of Harris and Lewis.

In more modern times, when postcodes were first introduced after a trial in Norwich in the early 1960s, the postcode for Stornoway was PA. In other words, it was a Paisley postcode, because the second-class mail was sorted there and the aircraft that transported the mail to Stornoway came from the Glasgow aerodrome in Paisley. We now have a postcode that reflects the character and individuality of the area—HS. I have no idea where the HS comes from. [Interruption.]

“Hebrides” has just been whispered in my right ear. See? We learn something every single day.

One thing that the debate has done is that it has written Tavish Scott’s obituary—which I hope will not be required for many years to come. When his obituary is published, at the top of the page will be written, “The man who saved Shetland from obscurity”, because he got through the amendment that has put Shetland in its proper place in the cartographer’s world.

That is not a trivial matter, and it is not just an emotional matter. In the early 70s at the Bank of Scotland, we did a mathematical modelling exercise to work out where our branch network should be—it is amazing how some things come back again—and we looked at how far some people might have to travel to different branches. A company in London did the data preparation, and when we did the first run of the model, the results looked a bit odd because the Lerwick branch should, apparently, have had customers from Elgin and the coast of the Moray Firth. We were able to see that such a gross error had occurred because staff in the London company had not realised that Shetland was not in the Moray Firth, and had mapped it accordingly. Sometimes, there are practical effects of such things.

It has been an interesting debate. My little contribution to the islands is that I had the privilege of being the minister who brought RET to the islands and other places. I gather that RET is not 100 per cent popular, but I have not met people with whom it is unpopular.

We will now move from the purple paper of the bill to the vellum of the act. The parliamentary beehives will be working overtime to provide the beeswax to create the seal on an excellent act. I wish it Godspeed and I wish every success to our island communities.


22 May 2018

S5M-12344 Disability Employment Gap

The Deputy Presiding Officer (Linda Fabiani): The next item of business is a debate on motion S5M-12344, in the name of Jamie Hepburn, on a fairer Scotland for disabled people: tackling the employment gap.

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

My key skill is an ability to conceal gaps in my personal knowledge and skills. For example, I play no musical instrument, I would judge it a great success if I drove a golf ball more than 100m, and my swimming abilities are close to nil. I highlight those examples of my shortcomings to illustrate the fact that many disabled people can exceed my skills in any one of those areas. The same will apply to all of us in the chamber. In other words, someone may be disabled in one part of their life, but that does not mean that they do not have abilities in another area. That is a key point that we should all remember.

It is surprising that we have not talked much about how we need to get inside the minds of many disabled people, who are talked down to, perhaps from quite early on in their lives, and made to think less of themselves than they should do. We need to look for some role models who illustrate the fact that having a disability is not an impediment to a successful life. It is only two months since Stephen Hawking died at the age of 76. His intellect far surpasses—I think that I will not be challenged if I put it this way—the collective intellect of all of us in the chamber. I can read his book, “A Brief History of Time”, and I seem to understand each sentence as I meet it, but when I get to the end of the book I find that very little has penetrated the cerebral cavity on a permanent basis.

Alex Rowley talked about people who are disabled and unable to work, and what he said is certainly true. However, I would like to put a different gloss on it, if I may. People who cannot work are nonetheless able to contribute to society and to give us something that is of value, simply by existing. They may contribute to a small circle of family and friends, and very often to a much wider circle. We should not forget that.

I will highlight some further models of achievement in disabled people. Dennis Robertson, a former member of the Scottish Parliament, is blind, as members know. I will give another example. In 1969, when I joined the Bank of Scotland to work with computers, I was stuck in a room to read some manuals to learn about what computers were and what one did with them. One of my colleagues, Brian, used to come in and walk across the room, get some blank punch cards, put them in the punch machine, punch things out and take them away, and off he went about his way. In the second week, I moved the heater in the room, because it was approaching winter and very cold, and Brian walked straight into it. I got a full mouthful of abuse from him, because he was blind. I had not known that he was blind for the first 10 days that I had known him. He had learned, more or less off by heart, all the technical manuals relating to the IBM computers that we used. We used to go to Brian with all our really difficult questions, and he always had the answer. That is another example of someone turning a disability into an advantage and a success.

Another issue, to which members have made reference, is invisible disability, such as mental ill health or incapacity, or indeed deafness—it is not obvious that someone is deaf. We have to think hard about how we help people with invisible disabilities to see a way forward in their lives and about how we help employers to understand that such people are of value to their companies.

Members have talked about the economic contribution that will come from increasing the number of people who are employed. I have no time—not a single second—for that argument. We are not here to serve an abstract idea of the economy; the economy is here to serve us, and not to enslave us. We should remember that whenever we consider this subject and a wider range of matters.

There are now some wonderful disabled role models. For example, there are quite a lot of disabled comedians—ain’t that great? That engages us and draws us in.

I remind everyone that this debate is on a fairer Scotland for disabled people. We should forget “disabled”: we are all people.


10 May 2018

S5M-12140 Energy Efficient Scotland

The Deputy Presiding Officer (Linda Fabiani): The next item of business is a debate on motion S5M-12140, in the name of Kevin Stewart, on a route map to an energy efficient Scotland. We have quite a bit of time in hand, so I can give time for wonderful speeches or interventions.

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

I am grateful to Ben Macpherson for making me aware that I have tenements in my constituency. I had not previously twigged that a block of four houses on two floors sharing a common stair could qualify as a tenement, so I will go away and have a wee look at the implications of that.

It has been an interesting debate in all sorts of ways. I want to pick up on a few wee things. One thing that we have spent comparatively little time debating is district heating. We recognise that it looks unlikely that the targets that were set previously look will be met.

In the north-east, we have a unique opportunity to use geothermal heating. I had the privilege, as a minister, to visit a Stagecoach bus depot to see its geothermal heating. Two boreholes went down only 100m, but water could be pumped down to the bottom of the hole and brought back up to heat a large garage, inside which, even with snow on the ground and the doors open, it was really too hot. The cost of doing that about 10 years ago was something like £40,000. That is not a huge amount of money for a heating proposition for a bus depot of that kind, but it is considerably more than most people would consider investing in a domestic scheme. On the other hand, if we think about 10 houses sharing such a facility, we start to get into the realms of economic possibility.

However, as I look at the subject, I find that there are some practical difficulties in relation to way leaves—in other words, taking utility supplies across other people’s properties. Statutory undertakers can get way leaves. They include rail, light rail, tram and road transport, water, ports, canals, inland navigation, docks, harbours, piers and lighthouses, airport operators and suppliers of hydraulic power. However, missing from the list of statutory undertakers are suppliers of heat. It seems from my research that no way-leave condition is available for transport of heat from one place to another. I have heard that that has proved to be difficult for Michelin Tyre plc in Dundee when it wanted to transport heat, so there is a legal issue in that regard.

I am unclear, to be candid, as to whether district heating comes under a reserved power. We have powers under section 9 of the Energy Act 1976 that allow us to legislate for liquefaction of offshore natural gas, but none of the other powers that might cover district heating appear to be devolved. There is a lack of clarity, and my research is not necessarily complete, but I think that there are opportunities to consider how we might produce district heating, particularly in the north-east. We have a very good example in Aberdeen, but it is of quite a different character. Geothermal energy is not just a north-east issue, although Mons Grampus, and the granite therein, provides particular opportunities.

I join Gail Ross in outbidding Graeme Dey on travel distances. When my wife was getting the insulation in our roof void taken from 200mm up to 600mm, workers came from Lanarkshire to rural Banffshire to do it. However, I can even outbid Gail Ross on the distance travelled, because they had to come twice. They did not bring enough material the first time and my wife would not let them in the house until they turned up with enough, which meant that they had to make the journey twice. I therefore claim precedence over Gail Ross on that.

There is a serious point in the story of putting in that insulation. In a rural single-storey dwelling that is never going to be EPC C-rated because of the way it is constructed, the simple act of putting in that insulation cut our fuel consumption of kerosene by 40 per cent. In fact, it took us a full week of tweaking the thermostats on the radiators to get the temperature down to an acceptable level, as we were roasting because of the additional insulation. Were that sort of intervention to be installed in all rural houses, that would be great. The Government has done a great deal; that installation was through a Government-funded scheme and did not cost us anything at all.

I will talk finally about tax incentives, about which we have heard a number of comments in the debate. As I mentioned in an earlier intervention, the Climate Change (Scotland) Act 2009, which I had the privilege of taking through Parliament, provided tax incentives for improving houses. However, it relied on councils bringing forward schemes, but by no means all of them did so. In fact, I am not sure that very many did. I suggest that the track record for tax incentives based on houses is, at the moment, showing a “Not proven” verdict, at best.

I am a wee bit disappointed that the Tories are seeking to delete from the Government motion that there is a “‘whole economy’ value” of £10 billion. I would have thought that the Tories would have been quite interested in that sort of number. I certainly am, so I say “Go to it, minister.”


03 May 2018

S5M-12010 Digital Connectivity

The Deputy Presiding Officer (Christine Grahame): Good afternoon. The next item of business is a debate on motion S5M-12010, in the name of Fergus Ewing, on Scotland’s digital connectivity.

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

Communications is a very important part of the world economy and every aspect of the world. The first great step forward in digital communications took place 2,000 years ago, when the Romans introduced wig-wag, which was a hilltop system that carried a signal from Londinium to Roma and back in the course of a single day. That replaced the three months that it would have taken, by sea and by cleft stick, before then.

When the telegraph came in, in the early 1800s, there was another quantum leap. Of course, when Alexander Graham Bell demonstrated the telephone system for the first time, in 1876, that took us to another place—voice. Only five years later, the telephone directory for Edinburgh had 300 connections in it. Scotland has been a leader in communications in many ways in the past.

In his opening remarks, the cabinet secretary spoke about there being broad consensus on the need for broadband. I am delighted that no one has attempted to break that consensus, because we all know and assert its importance.

The first digital communications system on which I worked, when I worked in technology, was in the 1960s. It ran at 110 bits per second—not kilobits or megabits—but we were able to connect all 400 branches of the bank to a real-time data inquiry and collection system at that speed. We have moved on rapidly with mobile technology. The first digital system, GSM—the global system for mobile communications—came in in 1990. I was one of a group of 12 people who piloted it in the UK. When I was the manager of the Bank of Scotland’s data centre 30 years ago, my telecoms bill was £10 million. I could buy that service now for a few hundred pounds. Things progress all the time.

Before I go on too much, I want to rein in Fin Carson slightly. I heard, with delight, that the UK Government will deliver a speed of 10 megabytes per second to everyone. That would be eight times its current promise, because that is for 10 megabits, and not 10 megabytes. I also want to say that smartphones do not rely on the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers 802.11 standard, which is for wi-fi, but on high performance data mining and applications, or HPDMA; enhanced data GSM environment, or EDGE; and general packet radio service, or GPRS. In other words, they use different communications technologies, so wi-fi is really quite irrelevant.

In the time that I have left, I want to pick up a particular point in the Tory amendment, which says that the digital gap is

“widening between urban and rural Scotland”.

Let us look at some numbers. In 2012, for cities, the penetration of fibre-enabled premises ranged from 95 per cent in Dundee to 59 per cent in Stirling. At the other end of the scale, in Aberdeenshire, as Mr Rumbles referred to, we were at 25.1 per cent, which was 33.9 percentage points behind the worst city and 74.9 percentage points behind the best. Argyll and Bute was on 26 per cent, Moray was on 28 per cent, Highland was on 23 per cent and the Western Isles, Orkney and Shetland were on zero. Has the gap widened? Well, clearly not.

Argyll and Bute has advanced by 54.8 points, Moray by 66.2 points, Highland by 62.4 points, Western Isles by 75.9 points, Orkney by 74.7 points, Shetland by 79.6 points and Aberdeenshire—the council area in which Peter Chapman, Mike Rumbles and I live—by 65.6 points. In only one city has it grown by more than 20 points—in Stirling, which was bottom of the pack, it has grown by 34.6 points. I have juggled the numbers left-handed, right-handed, two-handed, off the floor, off the wall and every which way, and rural areas are catching up with cities every single day.

More fundamentally, I expect that, by 2021, people such me, who are in the 5 per cent who are not fibred—and indeed who do not have DAB radio, do not have Freeview, have no mobile phone signal and cannot see either of the data satellites because of terrain issues—will be fibre at the premises. I expect that most of the R100 will end up in that position. That means that rural areas will have 300Mbps megabits capability if they have fibre at the premises. We will actually be ahead of urban areas, if we are lucky.

We need to see what comes from the contracts, but there is a huge difference between getting fibre to the premises, which is a very likely outcome of the tender that is out there—that is what I hear from some of those who might be interested in bidding—and the miserable 10 megabits that the UK Government guaranteeing to everybody. It is well outside the 30Mbps that our Government is promising, but it is substantially ahead of what the UK Government is promising. We are likely to have fibre to the premises as part of R100.

Is there a challenge here? I will not know when I will get my fibre until a little man or woman engineer has come and looked at the path to my very door. They will need to walk from the exchange up to my house and check where they can lay the cable. Every premises will need to be inspected before a date can be given. We can do it by area only in the first instance. Inspection of premises needs to follow after that.

I will be very happy to support the Government’s motion. I may even think about some of the amendments, although the Tories’ amendment is a bit of a challenge.


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