Commonwealth Day 2010

– in the Scottish Parliament at 5:01 pm on 10th March 2010.

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Photo of Alasdair Morgan Alasdair Morgan Scottish National Party 5:01 pm, 10th March 2010

The final item of business is a members' business debate on motion S3M-5832, in the name of Sandra White, on Commonwealth day 2010, science, technology and society. The debate will be concluded without any question being put.

Motion debated,

That the Parliament considers that the Commonwealth has a valuable role in strengthening relationships between nations across the world; welcomes the continued contribution of Scotland and its people to those relationships; reaffirms its support for the work of the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association (CPA); notes that, this year, the CPA Scotland Branch and the Scottish Government have, as a key focus, continued to develop relationships with Australia, Canada, Malawi and New Zealand; considers that Scotland has contributed throughout the Commonwealth to promoting technological innovation as a powerful tool for fighting poverty and climate change; commends the CPA Secretariat for facilitating an online discussion via web and teleconferencing during the UN Climate Change Conference in Copenhagen in December 2009; believes that it would be helpful if international organisations and donors focussed on science and technology to strengthen expertise in this area, particularly among developing countries, and commends the theme of Commonwealth Day this year, Science, Technology and Society.

Photo of Sandra White Sandra White Scottish National Party 5:07 pm, 10th March 2010

I begin by sending the warmest of welcomes to our distinguished guests from around the Commonwealth who are in the Parliament for today's debate. They would have been in the public gallery, but I believe that they are meeting the Presiding Officer.

In this debate, we will celebrate Commonwealth day 2010 and the invaluable work that Commonwealth associations throughout the world undertake in fostering better relations and understanding between our nations.

As we all know, last year, the Commonwealth celebrated its 60th anniversary. Karen Gillon led the debate that we had on that occasion and stressed the enduring importance and relevance of the Commonwealth 60 years after its inception. This year, the world faces new challenges and opportunities, and it is therefore entirely fitting that, as we move forward into the next 60 years, we focus on the huge potential for positive change that science and technology can bring to the Commonwealth nations.

As we know, the success of the Commonwealth is also marked by its huge diversity. It includes some of the world's richest nations and some of the poorest, which presents us with a unique opportunity to share disparate experience and expertise in many areas.

Those sentiments were echoed in "An Uncommon Association—A Wealth of Potential", the final report on the Commonwealth's conversation, which was published last Monday to coincide with the annual Commonwealth day. I recommend that members get hold of a copy of that document as it makes excellent reading. It is very truthful and to the point.

It is entirely appropriate that the Commonwealth should focus on the benefits that can be brought about through greater shared use of science and technology. As we go away from today's debate, let us reflect on the fact that one of the major findings of the report was that, although people are inspired by the values and principles of the Commonwealth, they are frustrated that we do not always uphold them. I believe that upholding the moral and ethical considerations that have brought us together and shaped us and which bind us will be the greatest challenge of the 21st century. If the Commonwealth is to take its place as an important international organisation, it must hold to its core values and beliefs, have the courage of its convictions and speak out on behalf of the many nations within it that feel increasingly disfranchised in a world that is increasingly bereft of ethical and moral guidance.

I hope that many other members share my view that it is time to define and carry forward those moral and ethical considerations for the 21st century. Although the report recognised that the Commonwealth has all the necessary ingredients to be a leading, effective and influential association in the 21st century, it pointed to the fact that the Commonwealth family must adapt and make more strategic use of its many assets in the 21st century. Through a greater recognition of science and technology, more can indeed be done with less, for those two disciplines have been fundamental driving forces throughout the past century in redefining how society operates by making knowledge and innovation tangible to all societies, wherever they may be. That, in turn, has helped society to develop in myriad ways, be it through better health care and a better understanding of how to live sustainably or, indeed, through greater knowledge of an individual's human rights.

Although we recognise the genius of Scots such as Alexander Graham Bell, John Logie Baird and Alexander Fleming, it is incumbent on the many organisations that are involved in science and technology to work with developing countries to strengthen their expertise in this area. I believe that that is what the Commonwealth is all about and that that is what the many countries that are part of the Commonwealth—developed and developing—wish. I wish the debate well and I wish the future of the Commonwealth well.

Photo of Karen Gillon Karen Gillon Labour 5:11 pm, 10th March 2010

I congratulate Sandra White on securing a debate on this important issue.

The theme for this year's Commonwealth day is science and development; it could come at no better time. Scientific advances are a central feature of all aspects of society—from communication to health, technology and education—and they offer an important means of tackling the serious underdevelopment that threatens the lives of some of the world's poorest communities. For those in less economically developed countries, access to scientific knowledge and understanding is fundamental to challenging two great threats to development: poor health care provision and the debilitating effects of climate change.

In many sub-Saharan African Commonwealth countries, including Malawi, the prevalence of HIV continues to grow, maternal and infant mortality remains very high, malaria continues to take lives and containable and curable diseases ravage communities due to lack of access to vaccines. Compounded by a lack of access to basic water supplies, poor levels of sanitation and turbulent food security, good health care provision is a luxury of a few, despite being a right for all.

In a number of areas, science can offer a means of reducing, and in some cases eliminating, the scourge of such diseases. In the case of both malaria and HIV/AIDS, drug science and innovative technology play an important role in seeking to reduce their damage and, in turn, promote health provision as an essential component of development.

Despite the fact that malaria is a relatively easy disease to treat, the lack of access to basic but hugely effective preventive methods, such as treated anti-malarial nets, guarantees that many—particularly in the tropical regions of Africa—are at risk of contracting the disease. Ninety per cent of malarial deaths take place in Africa. Furthermore, the long distances that individuals often have to travel to reach medical assistance allows the malarial parasite to replicate and decreases their chance of survival. For children under the age of five, it is one of the leading causes of death. Science can play an increasingly important role in tackling the disease, particularly in the light of growing resistance to currently available drugs, as well as investigating new vaccines.

Despite a growing awareness among health professionals and in civil society of the causes of the spread of HIV, the disease is still one of the world's most prevalent killers. It robs children of their parents, teenagers of their adolescence and communities and countries of skilled workers and it further entrenches poverty in countries with relatively low economic productivity. Particularly in sub-Saharan Africa, the pandemic has left a generation gap as millions of men and women have contracted the virus, with many dying of AIDS.

Tackling HIV/AIDS does not require only one particular solution. Due to the multidimensional character of HIV/AIDS, a strategy of engagement is required that addresses a wide range of growing technological challenges. Combinations of poverty issues including food insecurity, gender bias, population movements and a lack of education and health facilities contribute to increasing the vulnerability of communities to the spread of HIV and AIDS.

However, there are many potential uses of science and technology to be explored in seeking to improve health provision, particularly in the developing world. A growing global body of doctors and medical professionals are seizing the opportunities that are afforded to them by e-health. We are a long way off technological input to some of the most deprived communities, but there are examples of good work here in Scotland, such as the growing strategic links between medical and public health staff at the University of Edinburgh and the College of Medicine in Malawi. That is certainly an area of work that Commonwealth nations can seek to strengthen.

Another important area is climate change, which is a real challenge for people in the developing world. In Malawi, we saw at first hand how a combination of tackling climate change and promoting a model of sustainable energy has been used to good effect in helping to provide access to health care in remote communities. A partnership has grown between the University of the West of Scotland at its Bell College campus and Malawian engineers on the use of energy models that run on solar energy to power rural health clinics. Not only does that signify a commitment to cleaner and lower-cost forms of energy, it is essential in providing electricity to ensure that the clinics are best equipped to meet the health needs of the surrounding communities.

Such bilateral relations, which encourage the sharing of expertise, labour and experience, form a method of tackling issues such as climate change. The Commonwealth nations would be wise to continue to develop such work, further enabling sustainable forms of development in order to improve health care provision and mitigate the potentially debilitating impacts of climate change on some of the world's most vulnerable communities.

I believe that the Commonwealth and the co-operation that it engenders are as relevant today as they were 60 years ago. I look forward to working with parliamentarians throughout the Commonwealth to ensure that we can all share in the benefits of science and technology for the benefit of all our countries.

Photo of Willie Coffey Willie Coffey Scottish National Party 5:17 pm, 10th March 2010

I, too, congratulate Sandra White on securing this important debate. I know that she is deeply committed to developing Scotland's contribution to the international community and I commend the work that has been done by her and her colleagues in the Scottish Parliament branch of the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association.

I want to focus on the theme of the day, which is science, technology and society. Perhaps in a typical Miss Marple style, I want to approach the theme from two angles, both of which are firmly rooted in my experience. The first comes from looking around my constituency, where there are a number of communities that have a place in the history of scientific and technological innovation. I will give just three examples. First, the village of Darvel was the birthplace of Alexander Fleming, whom Sandra White mentioned and whose discovery of penicillin revolutionised medicine around the world. Secondly, Galston was home to the Rev Robert Stirling, who invented the Stirling engine—an early rival to the steam engine that is attracting new interest in this age of green technology. Thirdly, Kilmarnock was home to the world's first commercial bicycle factory in the premises of Thomas McCall.

Those examples and others in the fields of engineering, materials sciences and food production helped to shape the economy and communities of Kilmarnock and Loudon, but today, even an area with such a strong track record struggles to hold its place in those fields. Local industries with strong scientific and technological traditions passed into the ownership of multinationals. Many have since closed, their intellectual capital stripped out by companies that perhaps owe their allegiance not to local communities but to shareholders. I will shortly pull together a science summit to examine how Ayrshire's communities can stay connected to developments in the fields of science, technology and engineering.

The lesson that I draw is that the Commonwealth is right to focus on how we can strengthen science and technology in communities, especially in developing countries. I am sure that communities around the world contain the same human and intellectual capital that Kilmarnock and Loudon have demonstrated over many years, but they need the opportunity to develop and retain that capital. That means providing access to scientific and technological education at every level, and respecting local knowledge and initiative. We have to challenge the practice whereby multinational companies register patents on knowledge that was derived from developing countries with little or no benefit going to the source community.

The pattern of patent filings shows just how divided the world is becoming. In 2009, just three countries—the USA, Japan and Germany—accounted for a staggering 59 per cent of international patent applications. Although developing countries make up more than 78 per cent of the countries that are signed up to the patent co-operation treaty, they accounted for only 14 per cent of total applications, with China and the Republic of Korea accounting for two thirds of that figure.

The concentration of scientific and technological innovation in such few hands is not sustainable and can only fuel a backlash throughout the countries that are left behind by the dash to control the world's intellectual property.

I will touch briefly on the second issue. As convener of the cross-party group on digital participation, I make a plea for special attention to be paid to the role that digital technology can play as a driver of economic growth and as a tool for education and development.

The digital mobile phone is already having an impact in developing countries; Africa is a notable example. As it involves much lower infrastructure costs than cable-based communications, digital mobile phones are achieving unprecedented levels of penetration. Local companies have emerged as major players and there are huge numbers of small-scale and micro businesses. The technology is helping to deliver secure and cheap money transfers, even across national boundaries.

In some areas, specialist services are being developed to allow access to the internet by mobile, which has the potential to allow local companies to achieve global penetration for limited cost. Digital technology and its implications for developing countries may be of interest to the cross-party group on international development.

The Commonwealth provides an opportunity for countries at all stages of development to come together. The selection of the theme of science and technology for Commonwealth day 2010 shows the Commonwealth's continuing relevance, and demonstrates that it can help its members to address the key challenges that face communities around the globe.

Photo of Ted Brocklebank Ted Brocklebank Conservative 5:22 pm, 10th March 2010

I am grateful to my colleague Sandra White for securing this afternoon's debate. We who serve in this place have a variety of committees and cross-party groups through which, on a non-partisan basis, we can develop an interest in the wider political process. For my part, I have long regarded the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association as among the most important of those wider interests.

As my party's representative on the cross-party executive committee of the CPA Scotland branch, I have been impressed by the way in which members of all political hues have worked constructively to develop the CPA's ideals. Specifically, I believe that the Scotland branch has contributed hugely to the Malawi partnership, not least, as the motion mentions, by

"promoting technological innovation as a powerful tool for fighting poverty and climate change".

I look forward to returning to that subject in the full debate on Malawi next week.

This afternoon, I will veer slightly from the motion to discuss last October's cross-party CPA visit to Australia and New Zealand. I was extraordinarily grateful for the opportunity to make the trip, along with Ross Finnie, Rhoda Grant and Sandra White, under the leadership of Presiding Officer Alex Fergusson. I cannot commend too highly the official report of the visit, which is due for publication tomorrow.

Those who are occasionally lucky enough to go on such visits do so in the realisation that they will be accused of junketing at public expense. However, the most peremptory study of the report would suggest that covering a distance of 26,000 miles and holding some 80 meetings in eight major cities, as well as addressing four universities on some of the topics mentioned in the motion, all within a two-week timescale, afforded little opportunity for junketing, even if the inclination had been there.

That brings me to Tommy Sheridan. It may come as a surprise that I consider this place to be the poorer since Mr Sheridan's departure. I never agreed with anything that he said, but the stance that he and his supporters adopted acted as a kind of compass that often allowed the rest of us to steer a less risky political course.

It was no surprise when dispatches arrived in Australia that quoted Mr Sheridan to the effect that if our mission looked like a junket and smelled like a junket, it probably was a junket. It was clearly soundbite time in the Glasgow North East by-election. The Solidarity candidate fumed,

"We used to send criminals in chains to places like Australia".

Actually, we did not—that was the United Kingdom Government. If Tommy had spent more time studying history than his permatan, he would have known that few Scots criminals were ever sent to Australia at all. Rather, educated Scots lads chose to emigrate there—and, of course, ended up running much of the place.

Never one for letting the facts get in the way of a good rant, Tommy branded our group as criminals for daring to go where Lachlan Macquarie, Malcolm Fraser and other great Scots had led. It was time ankle shackles were reintroduced, he declared—or he told the Daily Record. His intimate knowledge of such restraining methods is legendary. I refer to his regularly being escorted from places such as Faslane in handcuffs, usually followed by spells languishing at the pleasure of Her Majesty.

Photo of Alasdair Morgan Alasdair Morgan Scottish National Party

The member is beginning to stray slightly from the topic under discussion.

Photo of Ted Brocklebank Ted Brocklebank Conservative


Anyway, if the state of total exhaustion in which I found myself on returning from Australia and New Zealand did not bear witness to the hard work that we did, I believe that the report of our visit will, and that the 10 key objectives that the delegation set itself were more than attained. All delegates had specific interests. Ross Finnie involved himself with climate change, an issue that is mentioned in the motion. My particular interest was in the way in which the Maori language has been revived and mainstreamed, which I am sure could have major significance for our threatened minority culture of Gaelic. The report makes several recommendations in that regard.

Time does not allow me to deal in detail with the other recommendations, but I urge members to study our report carefully. Ultimately, the public will be the judges of the success or otherwise of the mission. I remain extremely grateful to the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association and the clerks and other parliamentary staff who contributed so much to our trip. I am grateful to the Parliament for allowing me to play a small part in a process that will, I hope, continue to strengthen the bonds between Scotland and the wider Commonwealth of nations.

Photo of Jamie Stone Jamie Stone Liberal Democrat 5:26 pm, 10th March 2010

I, too, congratulate Sandra White on lodging the motion. Through accidents of electoral misfortune, a tragedy—in the case of the death of Margaret Ewing—people retiring and other reasons, I find that I am the longest-serving member of the executive of the Scottish branch of the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association.

I want to dwell on the word "society", which appears in the motion. I believe that the word is about the interrelation of the peoples of the Commonwealth countries and their legislatures. I will take three bites. First, I want to mention the trip that Alasdair Allan, Murdo Fraser, Tom McCabe and I made to Canada last year, with Margaret Neal. We went to Quebec, Nova Scotia and Ontario. The abiding theme of the exchange was the sheer friendliness of the Canadians and the interest that they showed in all matters Scottish. It was truly heart warming and made me believe that there is something that we can build on for the future. It is a great treasure and we should be grateful for it, even if I was bombarded by bread rolls during my speech in Nova Scotia. Apparently, that is a custom of the Nova Scotia House of Assembly and is considered a friendly move.

Secondly, I and other colleagues feel that the way in which the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association has gone about its business in the past has possibly put too much weight on one foot and not enough on the other. By that, I mean that the Commonwealth came to be seen—perhaps for reasons of history—as being very much about Australia, Canada, New Zealand and the United Kingdom. That has sometimes led to a two-tier Commonwealth in which some of our African friends have felt excluded. It is fair to say that, over the years, there have been discussions about that in the executive committee, as is right and proper.

I do not want to go into too much detail, but I think that Scotland can offer something unique in trying to improve how we do things. We do things rather differently from Westminster. The spirit of "A Man's a Man for a' That" or the idea that we are all Jock Tamson's bairns are more suitable for the Commonwealth today than is what we might call the sound of fanfares of dying empire. We can do things differently. It is hugely encouraging that Dr William Shija, the secretary-general of the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association, will join us in Holyrood later this month. I hope that the discussions will be helpful in taking the society and the interrelation and working together of the Commonwealth one step further.

My third and final point is that the news last night from across the Irish Sea was truly momentous. It is enormously important that in Stormont the Northern Irish have made a decision about the future of policing. We can offer a great hand of friendship and we can work together with Northern Ireland—one of our nearest neighbours in the Commonwealth. As others in the CPA do, I hope that we can increase and improve the links across the Irish Sea. However, it is not just about our short-range relations with Northern Ireland; it is about working with our friends and colleagues the world over.

There is no doubt that the Commonwealth can be a great power for good in the future. It provides a unique link, which is to be treasured above anything else. We can work together in partnership and, if we get the balance right and treat each other as equals, there is a great future for the Commonwealth. Because of the way in which we do things here at Holyrood and because of the Scottish attitude, we can contribute to that in a more modern way and be part of the glue that makes the Commonwealth grow and prosper.

Photo of Stewart Stevenson Stewart Stevenson Scottish National Party 5:30 pm, 10th March 2010

This has been an interesting debate that has been brought to the chamber by Sandra White. I, too, add my thanks. I confess that I have not read the report on the Commonwealth conversation, which was published last week; however, I might be inspired to seek it out and see what it says.

Sandra White referred to morals and ethics for the 21st century. It is fair to say that that strand ran through several of the speeches tonight. The CPA is essentially not economic or military, but is an association of people who share values and want to build a world that is fair to everyone. In introducing that in her opening remarks, Sandra White was absolutely on the money.

Karen Gillon focused, as did Willie Coffey, on science and development. She talked about the need for access to knowledge in many parts of the Commonwealth and about the role that Scotland and the Commonwealth as a whole can play in ensuring that countries that have less capability than we have receive the support that we can give. She graphically illustrated some of the health threats in one of our close partners, Malawi, and focused on the academic links that both benefit the academics in Scotland by increasing their knowledge base, and benefit countries around the Commonwealth through the knowledge that we can transfer to them. That is done somewhat outside the parameters of the patents system, to which Willie Coffey referred and which is sometimes a severe inhibitor to the useful transfer of intellectual property for good social and health purposes.

Karen Gillon also raised one of my particular ministerial interests when she talked about climate change and mentioned the role of engineers in generating electricity. When we talk about technology, we tend to think about the advanced computer stuff and high-precision engineering.

However, it is interesting to see how quite simple things make real differences to people's lives. When I was in Barcelona for a pre-meeting for the Copenhagen climate change conference, I saw a solar furnace—a portable umbrella that a person can carry around in a bag and which, when set up with a kettle in the middle of it, will boil the kettle in 20 minutes by the power of the sun alone. There are many innovations that are simple, inexpensive, can be replicated without vast industrial infrastructures and which will be of use to Commonwealth countries around the world.

Willie Coffey referred to the patents system, and highlighted the role that global system for mobile communications phones have played throughout Africa. Occasionally, there is an advantage in not having an existing infrastructure, because that allows a country to leap forward over the old technologies to new technologies. The Commonwealth can be a vehicle for enabling countries to do that.

Ted Brocklebank spent over much of his time talking about Tommy Sheridan. My view of Tommy Sheridan is that he is his own worst enemy, which is—when we consider the competition—a terrific achievement.

As someone who is one and a half generations away from Gaelic and regrets having virtually none of it, I also found it interesting to hear what Ted Brocklebank said about work on the Maori language.

Jamie Stone has been engaged with the Commonwealth through his work in the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association for some considerable time.

Members talked about many people joining the Commonwealth. One of the interesting things that really illustrated the value of the Commonwealth was Rwanda's joining in 2009. Of course, that country has no historical connection to the United Kingdom, but was a colonial outpost of Belgium and Germany. The fact that it has joined shows that the idea of the Commonwealth is much bigger than perhaps anyone imagined when it was first dreamed up. The Commonwealth is a glue that binds many countries together.

Later this year, the Commonwealth games will be held in Delhi, after which we will see the transfer of host status from India to Scotland. The year 2014 will bring the Commonwealth, on the sporting field, directly to Scotland, which will show what we can contribute to the world on the sporting field and that we can organise such an event.

As a country, we have always looked beyond our borders. We might not have sent many convicts to Australia, but because I do family research, I know that one of my distant cousins—a first cousin four times removed, I think—was a member of Parliament in Australia, although I hasten to add that that was 130 years ago.

We are still managing to find the money to fund an international development budget. We are increasing it from £6 million to £9 million in 2010-2011. That is part of Scotland's contribution to the global fight against poverty.

My colleague the Minister for Culture and External Affairs will publish four components of a programme of engagements with south Asia before the summer recess. We are looking to build further links with India, Pakistan and south Asia more generally.

The Copenhagen conference was a great disappointment to many people but it was, nonetheless, an opportunity to make terrific links with various countries, which will serve us well as we progress the climate change agenda. In sub-Saharan Africa, the threat of climate change is real and imminent and is of a different character from the difficulties that we would experience from climate change. Running through the climate change agenda is the moral core that we need to take action on the climate in order to help people around the Commonwealth and around the world.

This has been a first-class debate, although it has barely scratched the surface of an immense subject that we will, I am sure, debate again and again, and always to good purpose.

Meeting closed at 17:38.