Diary of an MSP: Alex Fergusson

Local Elections

It took a while, but the shape of our council administration is now known.

Many column inches have been taken up in both local and national newspapers on the subject of the elections and, it seems to me, one or two myths have been aired that should not be allowed to take root without challenge.

Much has been said about the turnout and, although the Scottish Government isn’t going to reveal the true figure until September (why on earth is that?), it is generally accepted to have been around 40%. While I would like to see a higher turnout than that, it is a lot better than some of the doom-managers predicted, and I do not believe that it is affected by the system of voting.

We should not forget that the last standalone council elections were in 1995 – every one since has been in conjunction with a Scottish Parliament election – and in 1995, despite a huge desire for change, the turnout was only 45%. Now, with multi-member wards and a single transferrable vote system, it is much harder to bring about change and it is clear that the era of coalition or minority council administrations are here for the foreseeable future. I am far more convinced that that encourages voter turnout.

I can entirely understand Labour’s desire to form the administration in Dumfries and Galloway having been returned as the biggest party. What I cannot understand is Labour’s apparent fury that it has been unable to do so. Coalitions, whether in national government or councils, are about negotiated agreements, and it would appear that Labour and the SNP were unable to negotiate an agreement that was acceptable to both sides. So I can understand disappointment – but it was the Labour Party that agreed to this system of election for councils in 2003 in order to bring the Liberal Democrats into a coalition agreement in Holyrood.

Disappointment? Yes. Fury? Get real.

Prostate cancer lottery

We often read about postcode lotteries for various drugs but scarcely can one be as blatant as that concerning a drug called Abiraterone – a drug that can prolong the lives of men with incurable prostate cancer for an average of four months while greatly improving their quality of life at the same time. It is an expensive drug, and there is a desperately difficult debate to be had on expense as related to life expectancy. That is for another occasion.

The issue over Abiraterone is that it has been approved by NICE (National Institute for Clinical Excellence) for UK in England and Wales, but refused by the Scottish equivalent, the SMC (Scottish Medicines Consortium). Given that all the alternatives are purely palliative, I sincerely hope that the SMC will look at its decision again now that the manufacturer has resubmitted its application. I would hate to think that dying of prostate cancer might be treated differently in Carlisle than in Dumfries.

New lifeboat

I felt enormously privileged to attend the naming of Portpatrick’s new lifeboat on a blisteringly hot Saturday afternoon in front of a massive crowd. The new boat had been bequeathed to Portpatrick by the late Kathy Barr, in memory of her husband John, a former GP and medical researcher with a passion for the work of the RNLI and a love of Portpatrick. I can think of no greater gift to combine those two characteristics than the gift of a lifeboat that will certainly save lives over the next 30 years or so of its life.

It is impossible not to have the highest regard for those who crew these extraordinary vessels, but I was impressed that Sir Andrew Cubie, who spoke on behalf of the RNLI, paid credit to the wives and partners of the crewmen who wait anxiously at home when their loved ones are out at sea in every condition imaginable. It is a truly fantastic organisation, and I feel very fortunate to have been present at this naming ceremony.

Big changes in Malawi

Those of us with a passion for Malawi, and I know there are many in this part of Scotland, will have been anxiously watching the recent political developments in that wonderful country. The late President Mutharika had shown signs of becoming ever more despotic as his second term of office was drawing to a close – positioning his brother to take over and doing his best to isolate any opposition. I will never forget talking to a taxi driver in Lilongwe in March 2011 about the impossibility of finding any fuel for his car, when the president drove by at the head of his 22-car cavalcade!

Internationally, things were no better, with the British High Commissioner being withdrawn and many countries reducing or even stopping their aid programmes.

Then nature intervened dramatically. The president died from a stroke. The constitution demanded that the politically isolated but estimable vice-president, Joyce Banda, take over which, despite efforts to prevent it, she did. I cannot begin to describe the spirit of hope and optimism that filled the room at the cross-party group on Malawi meeting last week – things are changing, rapidly and for the better, Malawians deserve nothing less, and we should all wish President Banda every success as she takes on what was, surely, a heaven sent role.

Saving children

Various members of my family have been involved with the charity Save the Children, none more so than two aunts, now both sadly no longer with us, who founded the still flourishing Ayr branch. So I was greatly honoured to be asked to speak to the branch’s annual lunch, all the more so when I learned of some of the great names who have spoken at this event in the past. More than 200 supporters attended and I can only say that I hope they enjoyed the event as much as I did.

What took the wind out of my sails completely was the remarkably generous decision of the Dalai Lama, which was announced on the BBC that very morning, to donate almost £1 million to Save the Children. He had been awarded the money as the winner of the Templeton Prize for encouraging work on “The Power of Compassion” – as an illustration of leading by example, I can think of none better.

School visits

I always enjoy showing schools from my constituency round Holyrood, and I have hosted three such visits in the past month, with visits from pupils at Belmont, Minnigaff and Gatehouse of Fleet. The last-named brought with them a group of German teachers and pupils and I learned of the longstanding link between the school and an equivalent school in Gifhorn in Lower Saxony, Germany. The link, greatly strengthened by annual exchanges, has been continued for around 20 years, and it is greatly to the credit of pupils, teachers and parents alike that it seems to be going from strength to strength.

One very interesting fact that I learned was that not only does the German school receive some financial assistance when Gifhorn comes to Galloway, it also receives some help when Gatehouse goes to Germany. What does Gatehouse receive from our end? You’ve guessed it … not a penny.

The end of the exchange ceilidh that Mrs F and I attended the week after the visit to Holyrood suggested that this is an initiative well worth supporting. Ah well, one can but dream.