30 October 2018

S5M-14509 Digital Inclusion

The Presiding Officer (Ken Macintosh):
Our next item of business is a debate on motion S5M-14509, in the name of Kate Forbes, on a digital society for all: working together to maximise the benefits of digital inclusion.

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

I declare that I am a member of the Association for Computing Machinery, a member at the Institution of Engineering and Technology and a fellow of the Royal Society for the Encouragement of Arts, Manufactures and Commerce, all of which have interests in digital inclusion.

The history of the subject goes back a very long way. The Romans communicated digitally across their empire nearly 2,000 years ago, via a system of hilltop signalling. We are now in the electronic world, but some of the things that we are interested in today go back a lot further than we might think. I go back beyond the birth dates of two of the participants in the debate so far, to 1964, and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology artificial intelligence laboratory. People think that artificial intelligence is modern, but 54 years ago Joseph Weizenbaum produced a programme called Eliza that was designed to answer questions in such a way that the user could not tell whether it was a human or a computer that was answering them, and very successfully he did that, too.

From that point onwards, we have always said that it will be five years before artificial intelligence takes over from us, and it is still five years away today. In computing, things can take a good deal longer than we would sometimes imagine or like.

Picking up on what Donald Cameron said, I have gone to the Audit Scotland report and the exact words are not as he suggested. Audit Scotland says:

“The Scottish Government achieved its initial target to provide fibre ... access to 95 per cent of premises. Its more recent ‘Reaching 100 per cent’ ambition will be more difficult to realise.”

I acknowledge that that is certainly going to be true.

Audit Scotland also says that it might cost more than £600 million, but of course we will see how it turns out.

Mike Rumbles is not wholly wrong when he talks about some of the difficulties in Aberdeenshire. There and in Dumfriesshire, we have a huge number of exchange-only lines, which, with the current programme of technology, means that they cannot readily be attached to fibre.

Nearly 40 years ago, I said that the triumph of computers will be achieved when we no longer realise that we are using them—in other words, when we speak to them and they just do what we ask them. We will reach that point probably in my lifetime, and at that point digital exclusion will become a different animal. Many people cannot work keyboards and many people find the complexities of particular interactions with computers difficult to achieve. Right across Scotland, we absolutely need people to help them to achieve the access to the internet that matters to them, particularly those who are over 75, as 70 per cent of them do not use the internet, which is triple the Scottish average.

It matters economically, because it is estimated that when people use modern systems for their daily lives they save nearly £600 a year. Communication with friends and relatives in other villages, other parts of the island that we live on and other places around the world is now very electronic, too, and if people are denied that opportunity it is a huge loss in their lives.

For people with particular disadvantages, be they physical, mental or whatever, the computer can be a way out of those difficulties. I and two pals, Alasdair Macpherson and Robert Davidson, built the first home computer in Scotland in 1975, and a couple of years later we were able to adapt an Apple II computer for a quadriplegic ex-soldier who had had an accident in the tank that he commanded and was left totally crippled. All that he could move was his head. We were able to rig up a bit of kit, change the way the keyboard worked and develop something that he could hold in his mouth to tap at the keyboard. Within two months, he was writing programs that he was selling. I felt terrific about that. Unfortunately, his health problems eventually overwhelmed him.

Today, we have much more powerful computers that can do so much more for us, so the exclusion can become wider than it was when there were only little computers. Those who master the new technology can stride off over the horizon and are much further away from those who have not been able to do so. We should recognise that the phones and computers that we use are vital to our world.

A couple of years ago, the computer firm Unisys said that it takes people an average of 26 hours to report a lost wallet, but only 68 minutes to report a lost cellphone. That tells us something about how important technology now is in our lives.

I think that Jamie Greene referred to 20 per cent of adults; it is 20 per cent of adults in the most disadvantaged 20 per cent of areas in Scotland who do not use the internet. For a host of reasons, those people are deprived of many things that the rest of us take for granted. We need to have people in libraries and other public spaces who can help others to access publicly available computers. I hope that, when the Government looks at the comments in the debate and at the opportunities from digital roll-out, it will consider such an approach for the future.


24 October 2018

S5M-13681 Deaths Abroad (Support for Families)

The Deputy Presiding Officer (Linda Fabiani): The final item of business is a members’ business debate on motion S5M-13681, in the name of Angela Constance, on support for families of loved ones killed abroad. The debate will be concluded without any question being put.

Motion debated,

That the Parliament acknowledges the BBC documentary, Killed Abroad, which was recently aired in Scotland and highlighted the tragic death of Kirsty Maxwell, who was from Livingston; believes that this demonstrated what it sees as the unacceptable obstacles that families face in seeking information and support in such tragic circumstances; recognises the profound impact that this has on those who have lost loved ones abroad; notes the calls for the Scottish Government to urge the UK Government to take meaningful action to address what it considers to be the failings and gaps in support and procedures provided by the Foreign and Commonwealth Office to families of those affected; commends the work of the UK All-party Parliamentary Group on Deaths Abroad and Consular Services in highlighting these issues, and notes its call for an urgent review into the support provided for bereaved families and for a closer look into devolved services so that grieving families having to deal with multiple agencies are not faced with insurmountable barriers in their fight for information on the most basic facts about the circumstances of their loved ones’ deaths.

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

When we go into another country, we present our passport. The inside cover of the passport says:

“Her Britannic Majesty’s Principal Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs Requests and requires in the Name of Her Majesty all those whom it may concern to allow the bearer to pass freely without let or hindrance, and”

this is the important part for this debate—

“to afford the bearer such assistance and protection as may be necessary.”

When that country accepts the holder of that passport across its border, it is, in essence, entering into a contract with us that it will honour that request from Her Majesty. Of course, the debate is about whether the support that we get from our institutions in working with foreign jurisdictions meets the requirements, and whether people are getting the assistance that they need.

Before I move into the substance of my speech, I want to give a vote of thanks to Chloe Henderson, who is a pupil at Fraserburgh academy. She has been on placement with me this week and has done the research and written the notes for this speech. She has done very well.

Like constituents of other members, people in my constituency have experienced difficulties with people dying abroad. However, I want to speak about a case that has a slightly happier outcome but which nonetheless demonstrates the need for appropriate support.

I acknowledge that people need access to information and support at times of bereavement abroad and that they encounter endless obstacles and unanswered questions from the Foreign and Commonwealth Office and the foreign jurisdiction. There are many logistical challenges that are made harder by potential language barriers, including contacting local authorities, funeral directors and caseworkers. I want to talk for a minute or two about my constituent, Alan Wright, who is from Portsoy and whom my MP colleague, Eilidh Whiteford, supported. His family, in the north-east of Scotland, needed consular assistance after he was taken hostage while working in an Algerian oil field in 2013.

What he thought was a power cut turned out to be a terrorist attack by militants on the In Amenas oil field. Mr Wright and a colleague were forced to hide in a room with only a satellite phone to connect them to the outside world. In a television interview, Mr Wright, aged 37—half my age—recounted the nine terrifying hours that he and colleagues spent trying to remain hidden. Others who were subject to the attack were not as fortunate as he was and were killed.

Mr Wright had to make an emotional call to his family at home, not knowing whether it would be his last. He chose not to speak to his two daughters as he did not want them to remember their last phone call over a crackly line. He said:

“You fear the worst, you can’t put into words how bad you feel.”

That is the environment in which we expect the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, the Scottish Government and local jurisdictions to respond to the needs of those such as Mr Wright, as well as to the needs of those like his colleagues who were killed. Although there was a happy ending for my constituent, his case illustrates a general point.

Relatives who are looking for help often simply do not know what questions they should be asking, far less what answers they need. That is not a matter simply for a couple of people in my constituency or the scattered constituencies represented by members in this evening’s debate. A 2015 survey sent to 150 families found that they did not feel supported in their experience of trying to bring a loved one home after their death abroad, and more than half said that the FCO was not at all helpful.

In times of grief, there are many unpredictable factors. The people who are grieving are vulnerable and need a special kind of help and support, which must be tailored to their individual needs.

I hope that this debate will play its role in alerting the Scottish Administration, the Foreign and Commonwealth Office and jurisdictions abroad to the need to provide enhanced and more relevant support to those who lose people abroad.


03 October 2018

Justice Committee: Remand

The Deputy Presiding Officer (Christine Grahame): The next item of business is a Justice Committee debate on remand.

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

I was previously the SNP shadow deputy justice minister, between September 2004 and May 2007, and as such I was responsible in particular for prisons. I am fortunate to have visited prisons in four countries, and I found that they work to very different patterns.

My parliamentary constituency, from the point at which I was elected, included Peterhead prison, which originally opened in 1888. It was a classic Victorian prison that was long overdue for replacement. Now, we have the modern HMP Grampian, which serves very different purposes and is much more of a local prison for a mixed prison population, including remand prisoners.

It is worth making the point that the committee’s report, which is wide in scope, makes many interesting and useful recommendations that have led us to today’s useful debate. I want to start with a few observations on statistics, on which almost every contributor this afternoon has made comment.

In the course of the 270-plus justice committee meetings that I have attended since being elected—it feels like even more at times, Presiding Officer—we have made visits to many different places, and one that I remember in particular was a Monday visit to Glasgow sheriff court. There were eight courts running in parallel, and the court that we were visiting was dealing with the weekend incarcerations. There were 59 appearances in the hour for which we were in that court, and a fair number of them ended up as remands. We have to ask ourselves how much consideration was given to the remand process when the time that was being spent per case was about one minute. That is a good and valid question that we should properly ask ourselves.

It is also worth making the point—this is my judgment, and that is all, although it was shared by other members who were present at the time—that there was not a newcomer among the 59 people. They all knew the system, so I could see where the judge was coming from.

However, I would like to focus on the proportion of people who are subsequently convicted, having been remanded, but are not imprisoned thereafter. That is the part of the issue that might be most susceptible, if it were to be studied in depth, of giving us information. If we were to look at a case in which a judge decided, for whatever reason, that remand was the proper thing to do—part of that reason would, I presume, be the consideration that imprisonment might be the ultimate end—we should be able to see why there appears to be a mismatch between the judgment that was made at remand and the ultimate outcome. That might particularly inform us, and perhaps the judicial system, about remand decisions. The Government might consider getting an academic to look at an appropriate number of cases that fit those criteria.

The committee report, at paragraph 154, discusses what informs a remand decision, and a series of things is listed, but it makes the comment that

“decisions are usually made under significant time pressures”.

I have seen that and I think that the report is spot on. Similarly, the report mentions the fact that there is some data and that some courts have a tick list to record it. As the committee recommends, that could be more widely done.

In evidence, the Sheriffs Association said that

“written reasons for refusal of bail are provided if an appeal is taken”,

but only then. Most of the reasons are given orally.

I have been in court and watched witnesses and accused persons hear a rapid oral delivery of various information about bail conditions and so forth, and it is perfectly clear that people do not absorb all that information. There is a danger that justice is not being served if we do not write information down and ensure that the prisoner and their lawyer get it and know exactly what is happening.

In the short time that I have remaining, I will make a comment or two about health. The committee noted in paragraph 84 that even when remand is someone’s only experience of prison, the mark of prison is left on the person, which carries considerable risk.

In paragraph 98, the committee said:

“The Committee considers that procedures should be in place to ensure that, where appropriate, remand prisoners retain access to prescribed medication”.

I am picking at the committee’s choice of words: I do not know what “where appropriate” means in that context. I would have thought that there would be almost no occasion when a prisoner should be denied access to medication that had been prescribed by a qualified practitioner from elsewhere.

Jenny Marra (North East Scotland) (Lab): A few years ago, the Government decided that the NHS would take over health services in prisons. Does the member share my concern that there appears not to be more seamless provision between health services outside prison and services inside prison as a result of the change?

Stewart Stevenson: With the NHS supporting people in the community and in prison, one might imagine that sharing data would be easier than it would be if other arrangements were in place. That is certainly something that we should look at. I think that there are general issues to do with medical data, which sometimes get in the way of what health professionals do.

On the immediate needs referral, which is being piloted, the Government said in its response to the committee’s report:

“Whilst there is no statutory obligation, where local resources permit, establishments may extend this model to include those on remand.”

I encourage the Government to act on that worthy thought.

The whole issue of the NHS, on which I have just taken an intervention, is covered in the Government’s response.

The report is useful. The Government is listening—I see the minister has been making extensive notes during the debate, and I am sure that she will read the Official Report. I hope that the finance secretary will also read it.


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