23 February 2021

S5M-24139 Investing in Scotland’s Railways

The Deputy Presiding Officer (Lewis Macdonald): The final item of business is a members’ business debate on motion S5M-24139, in the name of John Finnie, on investing in Scotland’s railways. The debate will be concluded without any question being put.

Motion debated,

That the Parliament believes that investing in expanding, upgrading and decarbonising the rail network could play an important role in Scotland’s economic recovery from the COVID-19 pandemic, creating jobs and reducing emissions from other forms of transport; welcomes the growing debate around future investment plans for rail, including the proposals set out in the Rail for All report; notes the view that upgrading and electrifying the Highland Main Line in particular could be of strategic importance, given its importance to Highland communities; understands that transport freight by rail to the Highlands could make a significant contribution to reducing emissions and relieving congestion on roads, and notes calls for the rapid decarbonisation of Scotland’s rail network in line with the country’s climate targets.

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

I draw members’ attention to my entry in the register of members’ interests in relation to my being honorary president of the Scottish Association for Public Transport and honorary vice-president of Railfuture UK. I thank John Finnie for the opportunity to discuss railways—in particular, how they might be part of the post-Covid world.

John Finnie mentioned Mr Spaven, and I have his wonderful book “The Railway Atlas of Scotland”, which presents a historical view of the railways of Scotland. My wife gave it to me as a Christmas present some years ago. It is an excellent book, and I commend it to all members.

The railway is, without question, the most comfortable way to travel. When I compare my driving from home to Parliament with, alternatively, making the journey using a train for all but my 15 miles to the station, I see that it costs half as much to use the train. More to the point, it is substantially more environmentally friendly, and under Government plans it will become even more so. The steam trains on which I travelled in the 1950s—I remember, in particular, a trip from Benderloch to Oban in 1956 to attend hospital after getting sunstroke—were fascinating. They were noisy and aromatic, with all the mechanical gubbins reciprocating in full view, as well as engaging to the eye, but environmentally friendly they most certainly were not, through burning coal and emitting vast amounts of smoke and particulates.

Today’s trains are faster, smoother and quieter, and they are increasingly powered by renewable energy. The refreshments from the on-board trolley, on a longer journey, are tastier and use more locally sourced ingredients. The overnight sleeper is the only way to travel south, if travel to the south is something that you must do.

I am old enough to remember when the Highland main line was dualled—at least, I am fairly certain that it used to be dualled all the way down to the central belt. We live with many of the short-sighted decisions that were made in the 1960s. We all remember the Beeching report, but focusing on that element alone would represent an unfair description of what actually happened. Beeching was paid a considerable amount to implement a policy decision that emanated from the desk of the then UK Minister of Transport, Ernest Marples. He was the managing director of Marples Ridgway—a road construction firm with substantial interests in building motorways. It might tell us all that we need to know about his motivations and actions to remember that he ended up fleeing the House of Lords to Monaco to escape prosecution for tax fraud. We should perhaps remember that inglorious period in our railway history as the “Marples Catastrophe”.

We now have the opportunity to improve the railways that we have and to extend their reach. In my part of the country, it is time to look at taking the railway back to Ellon and then to the biggest non-railway towns—Peterhead, with a population of 19,000, and Fraserburgh, with a population of 15,000, both of which are in my constituency.

My favourite mode of transport is the railway. It makes economic, environmental and energy sense, and I have happy memories of travelling on bits of the network that no longer exist. Brought up in Cupar, I used to choose to go the long way round to Dundee to the swimming baths, via Tentsmuir, Tayport, Newport and Wormit. That line is no longer there, but perhaps it might return in the future.

I once again thank Mr Finnie, and I thank the Government for its support of our railways. I also thank you, Presiding Officer, for calling me to speak this evening.


18 February 2021

S5M-23483 Highlands and Islands Medical Service

The Deputy Presiding Officer (Linda Fabiani): The final item of business is a members’ business debate on motion S5M-23483, in the name of David Stewart, on the Highlands and Islands medical service. The debate will be concluded without any question being put.

Motion debated,

That the Parliament celebrates the Highlands and Islands Medical Service, which was set up in August 1913; notes that it was established following the National Health Insurance Act 1911, which provided workers with health insurance but did not cover crofters and great swathes of the Highlands and Islands; recognises the exemplary research that was carried out by the Dewar Committee, which was chaired by Sir John Dewar and comprised of men, women, doctors, teachers and others who travelled the length and breadth of the region and whose recommendations included standardising the cost of doctors’ visits regardless of distance, creating a minimum wage for doctors, funding more district nursing associations and increasing communication channels for doctors, and recognises that it was the first state-provided health service in the world and is generally considered to be the model for the NHS, which was established 35 years later.

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

I have bypassed my domestic broadband failure by being out in my car and using my phone to connect. That will work perfectly well, but more fundamentally, I sit looking out at the very last of the sun over the Moray Firth to the Highlands and the area from which my father came. He was born and brought up in the Black Isle.

My main hobby these days is genealogy. Therefore, I look at many certificates, particularly death certificates, of my ancestors and the ancestors of friends. What is remarkable from looking at the cause of death for many people in the Highlands into quite modern times, is that the certificate will simply say: “General debility—no medical attendant.” In other words, there were no medical people to tend to people at the end of their life and—as I know perfectly well—at other points in their life.

The Highlands and Islands medical service was a remarkable and visionary attempt to right the wrongs of poor access to proper healthcare, which had been wholly absent all across rural areas of Scotland. One of the early appointments was a community nurse being sent to Hirta—St Kilda—just in time for the first world war to break out.

The world into which my father was born in 1904 in the Highlands was a fundamentally different environment from that of today. Every decade has seen the health service and health provision in the Highlands, and across Scotland and beyond, change. My first dentist, for example, had no medical qualifications whatsoever, so he could not prescribe or give anaesthesia when he was working on the teeth in people’s mouths.

The Highlands and Islands medical service was a remarkable and visionary step that came from the Liberal Government of the time, which also introduced the national insurance system that provided people with pensions for the first time. In one of the imaginary tales that were written more than 100 years ago, Para Handy talks about pension farming and about medical provision in the Highlands and Islands, from the point of view of the coastal trade in which he and his crew sailed around our coasts.

I particularly congratulate David Stewart on bringing the debate to Parliament. He, as I and others are, is coming to the end of his parliamentary career, so this will probably be the last debate that he leads. If that is so, there is no finer way for a parliamentarian of his considerable distinction to go out—albeit that I have not agreed with him on every subject—than on a high, by bringing an important topic to Parliament for debate.

Today, we have a health service that is modelled on the experience of the service. Without it, we would probably not have had what we now take for granted in the NHS in Scotland today.

The Deputy Presiding Officer: Thank you, Mr Stevenson, for showing your commitment by going out to sit in your car.


09 February 2021

S5M-24078 Green Recovery Inquiry

The Deputy Presiding Officer (Lewis Macdonald): The next item of business is a debate on motion S5M-24078, in the name of Gillian Martin, on behalf of the Environment, Climate Change and Land Reform Committee, on its green recovery inquiry.

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

That was a brave speech for Peter Chapman from the Tory party to make on fishing, when many fishing companies around our rural communities are going out of business as a result of Tory actions. However, I will focus on other matters.

I thank the Environment, Climate Change and Land Reform Committee’s clerks and advisers for their considerable input into the report that is before Parliament.

There are a number of things in the report that it is important to focus on. The committee discussed conditionality. As the Government and our enterprise agencies support companies, we must tie into that support more conditionality that relates to our green agenda and creating a green economy for the long term.

There are investment opportunities. The Scottish National Investment Bank is a new vehicle that will help and will have such matters as part of its important priorities. We also need wider state investment and private capital. Much of the private capital that will support the green economy will come in because of the economic returns. That is one thing that we must tell people about.

Today, we have heavy snow in the north of Banffshire. We were able to get out for our Covid jabs—thank you very much to the Cabinet Secretary for Health and Sport—but two deliveries turned away because the vehicles could not reach us.

I can see that we have snow on our roof. Why do we have snow on our roof? Because we took our insulation in the loft up from 200mm to 600mm—I thank the Government for paying for that—which means that there is no heat going up to melt the snow on our roof. Not all the houses that we passed on the way down to Macduff were similarly insulated.

Some of the actions that we need to take are very local actions—very simple, straightforward and not high-tech—but they give huge benefits. Of course, the benefit to us of taking that action was a halving of the cost of heating our house. Many of the good things that individuals can do have benefits. If we drive fewer miles, we spend less money. If we walk, we are healthier and we spend less money on being unhealthy. If we cycle, that is a good way to travel and, again, it promotes a healthy agenda for each and every one of us.

The Covid crisis has illustrated how flexible, responsive and effective Government and the civil servants who work in the Government can be when faced with a challenge. Relieved of some of the perhaps narrow constraints and told to just get on with it, there has been a magnificent response right across the public sector—not simply in the Scottish Government but in parts of the UK Government and, more fundamentally, in local government, which is important because many of the decisions that will make a difference in this agenda will have to be made locally, with regard to local needs and requirements. The needs in the centre of Glasgow are fundamentally different from the needs of rural communities such as those in my constituency and others across Scotland and those in more remote areas that have only a few houses and limited roads.

We are making the kind of progress that we need to make. The agenda is now a shared one across Parliament, and I commend this report from our committee to Parliament.


04 February 2021

S5M-23963 European Charter of Local Self-Government (Incorporation) (Scotland) Bill: Stage 1

The Deputy Presiding Officer (Christine Grahame): The next item of business is a debate on motion S5M-23963, in the name of Andy Wightman, on the European Charter of Local Self-Government (Incorporation) (Scotland) Bill at stage 1. I ask those members who wish to speak to type R in the chat function.

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

I congratulate our number 1 pain in the whatever, Andy Wightman, who is so to great and good effect in this particular case, as in so many others.

As a member for 59 meetings of the Local Government and Regeneration Committee in session 4, I fully appreciate the importance of the bill. Its introduction is an important step for both the charter and Scotland, and will ensure maximum impact. The bill takes us towards clarifying and improving the relationship between local and national Government; it provides clarity on how local and national Government should interact and on their mutual responsibilities to each other in terms of engagement, underpinned by law as a firm foundation for that interaction.

The bill removes ambiguity and formalises the Scottish Government’s commitment to local government, whatever the complexion of any future Government, and starts to equalise the relationship between the two, providing for balance through a mediated legal process. The bill enhances understanding of the relationship and respective responsibilities and I believe that it will encourage even greater operational efficiency in both local and national Government.

For both parts of our government system in Scotland, the crisis over the past year has shown what we are capable of and I hope that the bill supports that and that local government is further strengthened. The quality of our democracy will improve with the bill, encouraging action to be taken locally and giving greater access to decision making because there will be more of it that is local. More people outside the directly elected group of people who run things, or think that they run things, will be involved. Decision makers who are accessible make better decisions—that is democracy.

Scottish councillors probably represent more people on average than almost any local politicians in Europe. Indeed, if all the council seats in Scotland were of the same area as one seat that I know of, there would be a mere 12 councillors in the whole of Scotland. Some of the big council seats are simply untenable, but the bill does not address that issue, which we will need to address another day.

A benefit of the bill is adaptability. It places clear parameters on the roles of local and national government and puts responsibility in the hands of communities, with empowerment to take action and the confidence to do so. That means that local government will be even more prepared to apply distinctive solutions to challenges, using local strengths.

Other members have referred to the bill’s technical aspects and the Law Society has said that the implementation period of six months is rather short, which I agree with. There will be considerable changes, so that timescale is not suitable. The second issue is whether a reporting cycle of five years is too long, which I suspect that it is. We need to look at those issues, but that is what stages 2 and 3 are all about. However, the bill fits with what we envisage for local government.

I want to deconstruct here a canard that has run through too many members’ speeches, which is that the SNP Government is a centralising one. In 2007, when we came into power, we found that we had inherited from the Liberal-Labour Administration a situation that saw nearly a quarter of councils’ spending ring fenced. Within months we had reduced that to under 2 per cent. Better research is required by colleagues on other benches. The robust interchanges of political debate are fine, but we should base it on facts. I am happy to support the bill.


02 February 2021

S5M-24025 Construction and Procurement of Ferry Vessels

The Deputy Presiding Officer (Christine Grahame): The next item of business is a Rural Economy and Connectivity Committee debate on motion S5M-24025, in the name of Edward Mountain, on an inquiry into the construction and procurement of ferry vessels in Scotland.

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

We would not be here today if the project manager and their office had conducted their activities in relation to the construction of vessels 801 and 802 at Ferguson Marine to anything approaching normal professional standards. That was not a mere contributory factor. I make that observation as someone who has run projects of similar financial scale and collections of projects multiple times the scale of this project.

The contract and processes around procurement were industry standard, had worked previously and are used not just in Scotland but widely. However, the response of those in charge of procurement to the project manager’s failure was inadequate and substantially contributed to our being where we are today.

Did CMAL know about the project manager’s failures early enough to have intervened to minimise the damage? My conclusion is that it almost certainly did. Did the complexity of the procurement structure, which involved CMAL, Transport Scotland and the Government, contribute to the problem? I am pretty clear that it was more complicated than it needed to be. However, the legal requirement to have such a structure ceased only at 23:00 on 31 December 2020. I have never said that leaving the European Union would not have some advantages, and that might just be one of them. I see that Graham Simpson is nodding his head in response to that.

Another question is whether, in providing financial assistance to Ferguson Marine, the enterprise agency should have informed CMAL and others that it was doing so. Here, I differ from the quite strongly held views of Edward Mountain—I hope that I am not misrepresenting him—in saying that it should not have told them. However, although it was not told by the funder, through proper oversight of the project, CMAL should have known by other means. Why? In providing support to a commercial company, the enterprise agencies must not discriminate by favouring state companies over private sector ones. I heard Graham Simpson say that we should not be ploughing vast sums of money into private companies. That is unusual for a member who sits on the Tory benches, but there we are.

The whole point is that we have to be blind as to whether such a transaction involves a state company or a private sector one. There is nothing new about such a situation, which involves what are termed Chinese walls. I will tell members a little story from my own experience. In the 1980s, my spouse was part of a team of advisers to The Distillers Company Ltd when it was bidding to purchase the company that produced Bell’s whisky. One of the teams working for me was part of the Bell’s team on the other side of that takeover battle. Therefore, in our household, there was clearly a conflict between our respective professional interests. We applied the old saw,

“He that would keep a secret must keep it secret that he hath a secret to keep.”

My spouse and I discussed nothing about the matter and we knew nothing of each other’s involvement in it until, six months after the event, we were having lunch with someone who had been involved in the transaction and who raised the subject. That was the first time that either of us knew that we had been on opposite sides of a takeover battle on the stock exchange. That is how Chinese walls have to work, and so it must be for our enterprise companies when they work in that context.

Of course, examination of the accounts receivables and knowledge of what the business was getting its contracts for would have been important for CMAL.

I will conclude by saying that the primary failure definitely lay with the then management of the yard, but I think that CMAL could have done more. I say to the minister that I hope we will look at that aspect very carefully.


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