Diary of MSP Alex Fergusson

Crayfish, Cockles and Civil Servants

The Solway provides a natural home for cockles. Loch Ken now provides a natural home for American signal crayfish (according to civil servants who agree that they cannot be exterminated). Both are delicious to eat and there are ready markets for them at home and abroad. Furthermore, there are people ready and waiting to invest significant sums of money into the creation of local industries to process and market these food resources. Sadly, every approach to inquire about licences to do so is rebuffed and rejected by the civil servants in Edinburgh who, to be fair, have strict rules under which they have to operate.

But when we are told that the civil servants are reluctant to issue licences because it would encourage illegal trapping (crayfish) or that there is no sound scientific evidence of a robust population (cockles), then I start to see red.

The poaching of cockles is now so widespread that there is no chance of the beds recovering by the normal harvesting time in the autumn. It has become an illegal industry all on its own that will prevent any scientist proving that there is a sustainable stock. Any crayfish are there for the taking in Loch Ken and, as every local will tell you, they are being taken.

The real problem is the lack of effective policing, and I can think of no better way of policing these two potential job-creating industries than allowing them to operate under licences. They would be self-policing within days. Since when did one and one stop being equal to two?

New Lottery Youth Fund

My attention was recently caught by the announcement of a new lottery fund, aimed at young people, called Young Start. It is aimed at 8-24-year-olds, and will provide grants of between £10,000 and £50,000 over two years for approved projects in Scotland. In total, almost £9 million is available over the next year to boost projects aimed at helping young people to be “healthy, confident, ready for work and more connected to the older people in their communities.” Exactly how that will translate into projects “at the coalface” remains to be seen, but I have no doubt that the young people of Dumfries and Galloway will not be found wanting in coming forward with innovative and imaginative proposals to make use of this very considerable funding stream.

Support as it should be

I recently visited a fantastic new housing project in Dumfries, one made possible by a partnership between DGHP, the housing provider, and the council. As part of the housing regeneration project, 10 houses have been built on three sides of an attractive courtyard, which will become the first homes for 10 young people who have previously been accommodated in specially supported institutions – young people with difficult backgrounds, who might have been destined for an equally difficult future had they not been included in this initiative.

For in these delightful homes, they will be fully supported as they go about the difficult task of learning to be responsible householders; learning how to budget, how to pay bills, how to cook, clean and do what most of us take for granted. What we have to understand is how impossible all of those things must appear if you have never been engaged in them.

My visit happened to be on the very same day that the first new tenants were signing their tenancy agreements and receiving the keys to their properties – the homes that will be theirs for the next two years. It is a long time since I saw such excitement and hope in young faces and I wish them all the very best as they take their first tentative steps in a transition from an institutional life to a perfectly normal one. Here’s hoping.

Conference fever

I have never been a great fan of the annual party conference and, frankly, one of the joys of political neutrality that accompanied the role of Presiding Officer was that I didn’t have to attend it! No longer do I have that excuse, and so it was with some trepidation that I made my way to Troon recently to attend my first conference in five years. Actually, I quite enjoyed it; partly because I was able to create a minor amount of controversy by talking about my belief that our Scottish Parliament lacks accountability and that the only way to change that is for it to have the ability to raise most of the tax that it spends; but I enjoyed it mostly because it was within travelling distance of home and I could get back to my own bed at a reasonable time of night.

It clearly took its toll on me, however. Coming out of church on the Sunday after the conference, a fellow worshipper commented on what a lovely day it was for “the marathon”. “Isn’t it,” I replied, only seconds before I was hit with the ghastly realisation that I was supposed to have officially started “the marathon” exactly one hour previously!

I have apologised profusely, and I feel utterly wretched about it. But I am also clear that, however much I protest that this was entirely due to conference fever and exhaustion, no-one is going to believe anything other that it was because I had forgotten to put my clock forward the night before!

Annie’s back!

I was absolutely delighted to meet up again with the remarkable Annie Lennox with whom, regular readers will recall, I travelled to Malawi just over a year ago. I went as President of the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association (Scotland Branch) and she came as the Branch’s special envoy. Nowadays she is almost as well known for her campaigning on HIV/AIDS as for her singing and song writing, and she is utterly selfless in her campaigning role, which is presumably why the United Nations asked her to be an ambassador on HIV/AIDS. It was great to see her and catch up with her activities. She had come to Holyrood to help us mark Commonwealth Day, and there was a reception in the evening at which Annie spoke and answered questions from the floor in her own inimicable fashion.

At the reception I bumped into former TV presenter, Abeer MacIntyre, who is now with the amazing Scottish Charity, Mary’s Meals, which started life in a tin shed in Dalmally, Argyll, and now operates all over the world, providing a nourishing cup of ‘porridge’ to children who would otherwise get nothing – the catch being that they have to come to school to get it! And they do so in droves.

Abeer told me that the Charity now feeds over 510,000 children every school day in Malawi alone. That is over half a million children who receive nourishing food and an education that would not do so without the intervention of this extraordinary Scottish Charity. We should be very proud of that.

Romance is in the air!

It is always nice to hear of a happy ending to some of the many issues that come my way. Not long ago, an anxious bridegroom-to-be asked me if I could look into why Historic Scotland was not going to allow him to hold his wedding at Glenluce Abbey – a gorgeous setting, next to which he had grown up, and where he had always dreamed of holding his wedding. What made it worse was that, when he had originally approached Historic Scotland some months previously, the agency had been full of enthusiastic encouragement. It turned out that, in the intervening months, Historic Scotland had changed its policy and drastically reduced the number of locations that it would allow to be used as wedding venues.

Several frustrating phone calls and letters later, as well as a helpful intervention by the relevant Scottish government minister, common sense prevailed. The wedding will go ahead, in the Abbey, as planned. Keep your fingers crossed for a perfect sunny day!