Home Tags Posts tagged with "NHS"


Housing Association properties in Glasgow

There’s been an outbreak of consensus, or at least solidarity. Folk in Scotland do not like the “bedroom tax”, what the Westminster government calls “the spare room subsidy”, and all parties, except the Tories, have united in parliament to put a £50m line in the budget to abolish it.

The Scottish Parliament unites against  the 'bedroom tax'

The Scottish Parliament unites against
the ‘bedroom tax’

Along with the poll tax, the bedroom tax will go down in history as a serious political mistake, foisted on Scotland by a government in London that was addressing an imagined problem in the south-east of England. It meant that council tenants, and housing association tenants, were losing up to a quarter of their housing benefit, if they were deemed to have a spare room. Up to 77,000 of the poorest households in Scotland were affected, many of them sliding into rent arrears as a result – four times as many as the year before.

The SNP government was gathering its brows like gathering storm over the issue and demanding that London raise the cap on welfare spending to offset the tax. Labour and the Liberal Democrats realised this was doing their Better Together referendum campaign no good at all. The SNP finance secretary John Swinney saw an opportunity to do away with the tax altogether and unite Scotland against Westminster at the same time. So he accepted a Labour suggestion that local councils and housing associations would be reimbursed for any losses in rent due to the bedroom tax.

Same Sex Marriage Bill Passed by a substantial majority

Same Sex Marriage Bill
Passed by a substantial majority

It was a marriage of convenience for both parties rather than a marriage for love. That came earlier in the week when MSPs, by a majority of 105 to 18, approved of the Same Sex Marriage Bill. Scotland has followed England to become the 17th country in the world to recognise gay marriage. The main churches argued fiercely against it, right to the end, and are still fearful it will lead to them being forced by the equality laws to offer gay marriage ceremonies in their chapels, churches, temples and mosques.

But the parliamentary consensus did not last long. By Thurday’s question time, Labour’s Johann Lamont was reading out a list of company chief executives who said an independent Scotland would be a more difficult place to do business. They included the boss of BP and the leaders of the main supermarket chains. Alex Salmond replied that whatever their chief executives might say, there was no sign these major companies were about to cut their investment in Scotland.

Ruth Davidson Concerned about abolition of corroboration

Ruth Davidson
Concerned about abolition of corroboration

He was slightly more consensual over pleas from the Conservative leader Ruth Davidson and the Liberal Democrat leader Willie Rennie for a stay of execution over the abolition of corroboration in criminal prosecutions. Perhaps it was the fact that the parliament’s justice committee had also asked for a rethink. He offered a review by the former judge Lord Bonomy – but only of the additional measures that might be taken to safeguard against the miscarriage of justice, such as increasing the majority required for a guilty verdict from 8 out of 15 jurors to 10 or 12.

The government is still on a collision course with most of the legal profession over what I think is largely a semantic debate. Scotland might be one of the few countries in the world to require “corroboration” before a case can be taken to court, but most countries have some sort of “sufficient evidence” test before a prosecution is mounted.

Two disturbing reports have come out this week about the health service in Scotland. One, from a BBC investigation, found that up to £800m a year was being stolen from the NHS by various frauds carried out by staff and patients. They range from false prescriptions, to theft of equipment, to dentists charging for gold fillings when in fact they were using cheaper materials. Such frauds, identified by health boards over the last five years have risen by 42 per cent. Let’s hope that is a sign that more are being discovered.

Elderly care 'unsustainable'

Elderly care ‘unsustainable’

The other report came from Audit Scotland which warned that the care bill for elderly patients in hospitals and nursing homes was set to double to £8bn over the next 15 years. That’s “unsustainable” it said. Not enough was being done by local health boards and councils to treat elderly people in their own homes. It seems we need to follow through on our pioneering policy of free personal care.

Finally, I see that Scotland is over-represented in the GB team at the Winter Olympics in Sochi. We have 18 sports men and women there, a third of the British contingent. We are, after all, the land of ice and snow. Our best hope is in the game we invented, curling. Eve Muirhead may well lead the women’s team to a gold medal and the men, skippered by David Murdoch will only be a stone’s throw behind. Watch out too for Andrew Musgrave in the cross-country ski-ing. He recently beat the Norwegians at their own game. But, of course, we don’t go there to win but to simply compete.

The death rates are down but are still the highest on Great Britain

Last year, more than a thousand Scots died as a result of alcohol – that’s an average of 20 a week. It’s led NHS Health Scotland in its third annual report on Scotland’s alcohol strategy to call for further action to cut that total. It points out that sales of alcohol are 19% higher than in England and Wales, with more off-sales spirits, especially vodka, being purchased here.

Cheap spirits are a problem

Cheap spirits are a problem

Alcohol-related death rates in Scotland remain higher than those south of the Border and are double the levels 30 years ago. However, both deaths and hospital discharge rates have declined in recent years. But new analysis suggests that this has partly been caused by the economic downturn as alcohol became less affordable. And the improvement has not been across the board – women aged 25-44 years had not seen the same decline, particularly with alcoholic liver disease.

According to Clare Beeston, principal public health adviser at NHS Health Scotland, it was “pleasing that overall alcohol related deaths rates are falling. However, there were still over 1,000 alcohol-related deaths in 2012, with the equivalent of 20 people dying every week as a direct result of alcohol. This is still too many.

“Furthermore, in the 12 months to end of March 2012, nearly 26,000 people were hospitalised at least once due to alcohol. It is also worrying that the rates of hospitalisation for women aged 25-44 years have been increasing recently.”

Alex Neil Something must be done about the price of booze

Alex Neil
Something must be done about the price of booze

Speaking on BBC Radio Scotland, Health Secretary Alex Neil insisted that policies, such as the abolition of multi-buy promotions, had helped. However, he added that until something was done about price “we won’t crack this problem”.

“There’s very clear evidence here that there remains a very strong link between the price of alcohol and the consumption of alcohol, particularly cheap drinks that do so much harm to people,” he said. “It’s about breaking that link, which is why we need minimum unit pricing.”

Meanwhile, the Scotch Whisky Association (SWA) is to launch a £500,000 action fund to tackle alcohol-related harm in Scotland. £100,000 will be available each year over the next five year to charities and other organisations working to reduce alcohol-related harm.

The Scottish Parliament passed legislation with the intention of introducing a minimum price of 50p per unit. However, the plan is facing legal challenges from European wine and spirit producers and the Scotch Whisky Association.

A relatively clean bill of health of NHS Scotland

A report from Audit Scotland warns that the health service in Scotland faces significant challenges and needs to tighten its long-term financial planning if it’s to cope with expected budget cuts in the future. The report made these recommendations despite finding that NHS boards across Scotland had performed well, all of them meeting their financial targets last year. Audit Scotland made the recommendation in a report on NHS finances despite all health boards meeting their targets last year.

Caroline Gardner Auditor General

Caroline Gardner
Auditor General

The Auditor General for Scotland, Caroline Gardner, explained that the organisation’s financial performance “…was good in 2012-13, with all boards meeting their targets to break even and the service finishing the year with a small surplus. However, the health service needs to increase its focus on longer-term financial planning so that it is prepared for the challenges it faces.”

There are 14 territorial, and 9 specialist NHS boards in Scotland which, between them, spent £10.9 billion over the year, almost a third of the total Scottish budget. They ended the year with a surplus of £16.9 million and savings worth about £270 million. However, the auditors pointed out that 22% of the savings had been ‘one-off’ and similar levels would have to be found again next year. The worry is that the boards did not achieve their forecast levels of recurring savings. In Audit Scotland’s view, there will be a challenge in the future as it becomes harder to identity further opportunities to save money.

“While budgets are getting tighter, demand for healthcare is rising due to an ageing population,” it said, “more people with long-term conditions and the impact of factors such as increasing rates of obesity. This presents significant challenges for the NHS boards delivering services both now and in the longer term.”

NHS Health ScotlandSo far, the Scottish Government has resisted the market-orientated reforms which have been introduced south of the Border. Instead, it’s increased the overall health budget in real terms over the past decade. The boards have managed to meet their financial targets for the past five years. But Audit Scotland warned that real-terms cuts of 1.6% are in prospect over the next three years.

The Auditor General praised the financial performance of the NHS, stressing that it had made good progress in improving health outcomes, notably in relation to deaths from heart disease, cancer and stroke, and in respect of patient safety. “However,” she added, “the health service needs to increase its focus on longer-term financial planning so that it is prepared for the challenges it faces. The move to integrated health and social care services from 2015 will also be a significant change for the NHS and its partners. Strong longer-term planning and analysis are central to meeting these challenges.”

Alex Neil MSP Health Secretary

Alex Neil MSP
Health Secretary

Responding to the report, Scottish Labour’s health spokesman Neil Findlay said that it confirmed “everything we’ve been saying for the last few months about the increasing build-up of pressure across health boards because of SNP cuts. Audit Scotland have reinforced the need for an immediate review of the NHS so we can come up with a long-term plan that will support hard-pressed staff and ensure patients are properly cared for.”

However, the Health Secretary, Alex Neil, said that, despite increasing budgets, it was “right that the NHS is as efficient as possible with taxpayers’ money which is why we have asked boards to make savings. I want to be very clear that these savings are not a reduction in budget – all money saved will be reinvested in frontline services. This improves the quality of care patients receive.”

Do Coalitions produce better Government?

This year’s UK party conference season has been concentrating minds on the next general election, even though it is two years away and over the blue horizon of the independence referendum. Each party wants to form the next government in May 2015 but the tormenting question is: what happens if no one party has a majority in the House of Commons?

Nick Clegg

Nick Clegg

Most people, of course, want one party to win outright – 67 per cent, according to the latest opinion poll (ComRes for ITV). But, as we all know, it is not what happened at the last election, and the Liberal Democrats seem to believe it is not what will happen at the next election. They have a Rousseau-like belief that it is the general will of the people to see parties “working together” to form a consensus government.

It is not, however, what the opinion polls are saying. Again according to that ComRes poll, 51 per cent of voters want the largest party to rule. And that makes sense to me. As Alex Salmond demonstrated in the Scottish Parliament from 2007- 2011, a minority government can rule well, last the whole term and be successful, as judged by the people at the following election.

Of course, he had to win a majority in parliament for any new law and for his budget. So he had to accept that the Edinburgh trams went ahead, that there should be a thousand more police on the beat, that there was not enough support for a local income tax. On each of these issues, an open debate took place in parliament. And when there is no overall consensus in the country for one particular philosophy, then this is how political business should be done, issue by issue.

The parties are trying to form a coalition in Germany

The parties are trying to form a coalition in Germany

But there’s a curious fashion among politicians these days for coalition governments. The Germans are putting one together as I write, so too are the Norwegians. The Italians, the Irish, the Belgians and at least 20 other countries are keen on coalitions. Only, however, as a last resort and because no one party can win the support of most of the people.

Coalitions are dangerous things. They can fall apart at any moment. They can push through unpopular measures. They concentrate power in the secrecy of the cabinet room rather than in the directly elected parliament. They lead to incoherent trade-offs of one policy against another (eg free school meals/tax breaks for married couples). They can lead to a small party staying permanently in government as it forms coalitions with first one major party and then another. (This can be dangerous for the small party concerned, as the Free Democrats have found in Germany and the Liberal Democrats may be about to find out in Britain in 2015.)

In fact, the Liberal Democrats are the very party that can ensure that we do not have a coalition next time, by promising in advance that they will not enter a coalition with either the Conservatives or with Labour. And I would argue it would be to their advantage. First, it would be a popular stance, likely to win them more votes. Second, it would allow them to say they are breaking the mould of tribal British politics and instead introducing “issue politics”. And third, it would be underlining the power of parliament over the executive…governments propose but parliaments dispose.

The SNP formed a minority government successfully

The SNP formed a minority government successfully

Some people say minority governments are unstable. So are coalitions, of course. But we now have fixed term parliaments in the UK and Scotland which make multiple general elections less likely. In the event of a no-confidence motion being passed in parliament, it’s more likely now that another leader from the same largest party would be invited by the Queen to form a government. In any case, why should there not be another election if MPs cannot agree on a government?

Some people say a minority government cannot get anything done. What they mean is that it cannot get its own way all the time. And why should it? It doesn’t mean the country descends into chaos. Ministers would run the administration day-to-day, assisted by their civil servants and systems already in place would continue…budgets, laws, quangos, local governments etc. On major issues, a minority government has to go out and win a majority of MPs for what it wants to do.

Some people say minority government and issue-by-issue politics leads to a decline in political parties and the rise of maverick independents. But there is no reason why this should happen. Campaigners would still need to organise into teams and to work on a local level. And they would still gravitate towards a particular political philosophy…building on earlier traditions. And each party would still put forward a general manifesto on which it would hope to win the popular vote outright.

The advantage of staying out of coalitions is that parties would not have to compromise their election pledges. They could vote in parliament along the lines of their manifesto, without bringing down the government and causing a political crisis.

Will Coalition Government survive the next election?

Will Coalition Government survive the next election?

Some people say minority governments cause uncertainty. Not if the system is that the largest party forms the government on the morning after an election. There is no week of coalition haggling to unsettle the financial markets. And people would be able to form a pretty clear view of which way parliament would vote on each issue. Coalitions, in the end, are a conspiracy by the politicians against the voters.

And it’s not that minority government has not been tried. Norway has had three minority governments since the war, Canada has had 11. In Australia, Julia Gillard ruled for three years with a minority government. Harold Wilson and Jim Callaghan both led minority governments for a time. John Major’s government was a minority – if you exclude the Ulster Unionists. Labour in Wales have formed the administration without an overall majority. And, as mentioned, Alex Salmond showed how it could be done in some style.

The Liberal Democrats argue that by being in government they have achieved more of their policies than being outside it. I doubt it. Many of the changes they claim to have won would have happened anyway…raising the income tax threshold, investment in early years education, linking pensions to the “triple lock” of earnings, prices or 2.5 per cent. They claim to have “tamed the Tories”. But we still have austerity in the form of deep cuts in public spending and we have a British veto on a treaty to bring financial stability to Europe.

It would have been easier for the Liberal Democrats to block Tory excesses by linking up with Labour in the Commons on issues such as university fees, NHS reforms, or the spare room subsidy.

The Liberal Democrats will probably live to regret their panic in May 2010 and their leaders’ wish to rush into government. I don’t quite understand politicians’ weakness for ministerial power, when they could have real power as MPs, and a much easier life. They can still see their ambitions fulfilled for a mixed economy, full employment, decent public services, local decision-making, protection for our human rights, care for the environment etc through a parliament with a real say on all executive action.

End the coalition conspiracy now.

The Declaration of Arbroath

The Great Tapestry of Scotland gives us a stunning view of how far we’ve come and leaves you wondering where we’ll go next. It’s like looking down on a well-know landscape from the air. It gives you a strange feeling of perspective, a giddy experience.

Tapestry 006 SmallerFor the past year, a thousand stitchers from all over Scotland have been beavering away embroidering 160 panels, most of them one metre square, which tell the story of our stony country from its formation 420 million years ago to the present day. It’s been one of the most ambitious community arts projects ever undertaken in Scotland and it has produced one of the world’s longest tapestries.

The inspiration has come from master story-teller Alexander McCall Smith who recruited the artist Andrew Crummy, the historian Alistair Moffatt and the lead stitcher Dorie Wilkie to create what will probably turn out to be one of the treasures of our time. It’s just gone on show at the Scottish Parliament (till 21st September).

The 160 snapshots of history have a wonderful simplicity about them and a feeling of timelessness, like ancient Egyptian drawings or the Bayeau Tapestry – or the more recent Prestonpans Tapestry, also the work of Andrew Crummy. And the panels often contain little jokes – like the books emerging from the head of David Hume or a lost priest wandering through the high gallery of his medieval abbey, or Dr Knox’s Gok Wan glasses.

Alistair Moffat has selected his 160 snapshots with real panache. There are the usual suspects – the Picts, the Romans, the Celts, Queen Margaret, Robert the Bruce, Flodden, the Reformation, Prince Charlie, the Union of the Crowns and Parliaments, Robert Burns, the Enlightenment, the industrial revolution, the Highland clearances, the building of the Forth Bridge, the scientific inventions, the sufferings of the first and second world wars, the building of the new towns, the opening of the new Scottish Parliament.

The panel about the Union of the Parliaments

The panel about the
Union of the Parliaments

But there are also a lot of surprising choices – the first house (at Barns Ness), the Lewis weavers, the Darian Scheme, the first golfers and footballers, the tobacco traders, the missionaries, Sir Hugh Munro, the Gaelic renaissance, the foundation of the NHS, the Hilman Imp, the miners strike, the Edinburgh Festival. And this history is not just a male story – we meet St Margaret, the women of Flodden, the burning witches, the herring girls, Queen Victoria, Mary Slessor and Elsie Inglis.

And all of the above are weaved (appropriately enough) into a single storyline, with captions as crisp as (for panel 4) “The ice melts, Scotland emerges, the first pioneers come ” and observations as arresting as “Every Scot is an immigrant, the only interesting question is when waves of ancestors arrive.”

Andrew Crummy has also drawn the whole story together with a repeated circular design – a sweeping longboat here, engineers joining hands there. He plays with the theme of heads – heads beside or within heads, or water running out of Fingal’s cave into the form of a girl’s head. And finally the head of the thistle representing the Scottish Parliament.

It’s all so simple and yet so clever. And as I weaved (again that word) about between the panels, I felt I was in a maze of history and I wondered where I would come out. As Alistair Moffatt says beneath the final panel: “The Great Tapestry of Scotland may never end.”

Lima Airport where Melissa Reid and Michaella McCollum were stopped by police

The case of Melissa Reid has troubled us all. Is she an innocent abroad or a drug smuggler? And in either case, is she being treated fairly and humanely?

Video footage released by police in Peru shows Melissa Reid and Michaella McCollum being questioned about alleged drug trafficking

Video footage released by police in Peru shows Melissa Reid and Michaella McCollum being questioned about alleged drug trafficking

Melissa, aged 20 from Lenzie, near Glasgow, and her friend Michaella McCollum aged 21 from Northern Ireland, were arrested two weeks ago at Lima airport in Peru after cocaine worth £1.5m was found in their luggage. The girls say they were forced by drug gangsters to fly to Peru from their holiday jobs in Ibiza in Spain to act as drug “mules”.

The pictures we have seen of the girls in police interviews make them look like rabbits caught in the headlights. At first they claimed they did not know there were drugs in the food packages they were carrying in their luggage. This seems unlikely. They then said the armed gangsters from Colombia had threatened them and their families with death or injury if they did not go through with their mission. This was the reason they gave for not seeking help from the police in Spain or the airport officials in Peru.

Police in Peru are fighting a war against drug gangs

Police in Peru are fighting a war against drug gangs

This may or may not be true. The alternative suspicion is that they were offered money. But it looks like we will have to wait a long time to find out. They have already spent a fortnight in police cells – on hard, dirty floors with little food, according to their lawyer – before their first court appearance. And apparently they will now spend many months, some say two or three years, in jail awaiting trial.

Guilty or not guilty this is a pretty tough “sentence” for a 20 year old and we have got to feel some sympathy for her. But, on the other hand, the drugs trade is a pretty tough business. Countries like Peru, Colombia and Mexico are plagued by drug gangs terrorising the population and making a mockery of the police. Peru has recently overtaken Colombia as the biggest producer of cocaine and there are currently over 1600 foreigners in jail for drug smuggling, 37 of them British. Jail sentences are severe, the girls face up to 15 years behind bars.

There are those who argue that the drug trade should be decriminalised and brought into the fold, controlled and taxed like alcohol. But heroin and cocaine are much more addictive than the old demon drink. There are some 60,000 drug addicts in Scotland and a serious crime wave is only being held back by the controversial methadone programme. A report out this week from the official commission on our anti-drugs strategy says more effort needs to be made to reduce the time people are “parked” on the methadone programme and more attention should be paid to the link between drug addiction and poverty.

Scots are still drinking too much

Scots are still drinking too much

Having mentioned alcohol in passing, I noticed an NHS report this week which again highlighted how much Scots are drinking – a fifth more than the rest of Britain. Overall sales of alcohol are down 3 per cent on last year, because of the recession, but on average men are still drinking right up to the maximum recommended amount of 21 units per week and women are exceeding their maximum. Two thirds of it is cheap alcohol, less than 50p a unit. Our national spirit is vodka not whisky. It makes it all the more puzzling why the Scotch Whisky Association is fighting a court battle again the government’s plan to bring in a minimum price of 50p.

And while on the subject of national disgraces, the Scottish Parliament has thrown up another one. The MSP Bill Walker has just been convicted on 23 charges of assault against his three former wives and one of his stepdaughters. The Sheriff in the case said the evidence, over a long period, showed him to be “controlling, domineering, demeaning and belittling towards his former wives and also untrustworthy, disloyal and unfaithful.” Walker, aged 71 from Alloa, will be sentenced next month. Meanwhile, questions are being asked how the SNP ever came to select him as a candidate.

Is there any good news from Scotland this week, I hear you ask. Well, North Sea oil investment is up – it passed the £20bn mark last year – even though production levels are still falling. And the sea eagles are back along the east coast, for the first time in 200 years. The reintroduction programme begun four years ago has been celebrating its first chick.

And finally the Festival Fringe has chosen its top joke. It’s come from Rob Auton of York: “I heard a rumour that Cadbury is bringing out an oriental chocolate bar. Could be a Chinese Wispa.” Pathetic eh? Maybe that’s why I find stand-up comedy not funny at all.

The City of Curitiba in Brazil

What do Edi Rama, the Prime Minister of Albania, and Jaime Lerner, the former mayor of Curitiba in Southern Brazil, have in common. Both have a background in the creative industries – Rama as an artist, Lerner as an architect. Both are politicians who think differently from the norm. Both have been willing to go out into the streets and speak to people, to find out what they wanted and to deliver their aspirations. Both are heroes of Mike Stevenson, the maverick Scottish imagination and innovation consultant.

Jaime Lerner

Jaime Lerner

Take Edi Rama, for instance. When mayor of Tirana, he launched something he called the Clean and Green Project. Huge areas of the city were turned parks and some 1,800 trees were planted. He also ordered many old buildings to be painted in what became known as Rama colours (bright yellow, green, violet). His critics claimed that he focused too much attention on cosmetic changes but there is evidence that people started to take more pride in their communities and crime fell as a result

In Brazil, Jaime Lerner entered politics because he wanted to create a city designed for people. He went out and spoke to people, neighbourhoods and even the slum dwellers. The barrios were a serious problem. They were left in a filthy state because the municipal waste removal service claimed they were impossible to deal with. Rather than abandon these people or raze these slums, he began a program that traded bags of groceries and transit passes for bags of trash. The slums got much cleaner.

According to Mike Stevenson, these are the kinds of lateral thinking that need to be taken in Scotland today. He objects to the nay-sayers, the people who insist that something can’t be done because it’s never been attempted. At the re-launch of his ThinkTastic consultancy, he said he was on a mission to change the world – or at best to change Scotland for the better.

He insisted that “There’s a change taking place which is irreversible. It’s a change brought about by the economic meltdown – there’s not enough money around to do now the things we should have done when Britain was at its most prosperous. That’s not surprising. Ten years ago, we never thought we’d be in this position. But I believe we’re more innovative when the chips are down. We can look at the world and realise that there are opportunities out there.”

Mike Stevenson

Mike Stevenson

He argues that the opportunities are not just in business, they’re in the public services as well, adding that they’ll change because they have to on the back of criticism from MSPs. But he wants these public services to see this as an opportunity to become “so customer focused that everything else falls into place. Think about the NHS,” he says. “If everything within the NHS was designed to make people ‘happy’,wouldn’t that make a difference?

“Imagine if the NHS was run on similar lines to (say) Disney. They don’t talk about customers; they talk about guests. They don’t make profits unless they excel at what they do. Their vision is indeed to make people happy. So they don’t have health and safety leaflets or safety briefings for their visitors – yet safety is their number one priority. Contrast that with going to hospitals. There’s safety information everywhere. Somehow, when you mention safety, it immediately conjures up images of danger.”

He argues that we live in a world of opportunity created by the digital revolution. It’s a given that digital communication is changing things faster than ever before; some people have embraced it; others rejects it; yet more use it because they’ve got to use it. But there’s a generation of people out there who have grown up with it. They know all the innovations, the new technology and software and they understand it in a way that older people never will.

Younger people use technology with ease

Younger people use technology with ease

“Their hands and minds,” says Stevenson, “move so much faster as well, ten times faster than we could ever aspire to. Yet they will have wait until they are 40, 50 or even 60 before they’re allowed to take over leadership. How absurd is that? How absurd that those who understand the future and have a grasp of the technologies that make the world a smaller and more innovative place are kept out of leadership roles. That’s something I want to change. I want to move things forward.”

But he believes that nothing will change until we accept the importance of leadership. He says that leadership and management are two completely different things with Scotland – indeed the UK – having a management culture. “You have to think differently,” he said. “You need to set audacious goals. There’s no point in “managing expectations” because you only get as far as those limited expectations will lead you. You need vision – that’s a good work. Story is also a good word. Strategic plan is not such a good word. And we need to remove the word policy from the vocabulary. We need to set people free to make mistakes because no great move forward has ever been achieved with a few errors along the way. Real innovation comes from thinking differently and laterally.”

To prove his point, he drew inspiration from some work being sponsored by the German car manufacturer, Volkswagen. It’s recently been working to change people’s behaviour by making it fun which it insists is the easiest way to making change for the better. The following video is one of a series which inspires Mike Stevenson who, in turn, hopes will inspire you, the reader.

Royal Bank of Scotland HQ

We can now allow ourselves the first “hurrah” since the start of the bankers’ recession in 2008. Unemployment in Scotland has fallen significantly, to 7.1 per cent, and youth unemployment has come down from 25 per cent to 15 per cent. The number of people in work has also risen sharply, almost back to its level before the crash. There are more entrepreneurs than ever before (7 per cent of workers) and we’ve had a good year for foreign investment.

Unemployment has fallen

Unemployment has fallen

But we can’t allow ourselves three cheers, or even two, because wages have taken their biggest fall ever (6 per cent since 2009) and half of all new jobs are part-time. It means that high street spending is weak. Exports and manufacturing are still in decline. The Westminster government is only half way through its job-cutting “austerity” programme and its second-thought investment programme will take years to kick in.

In short, it looks like we are going to have to get used to low growth for years ahead. It seems, though, that people are accepting that sobering thought and are grateful for any part-time work they can get. The young chap in the flat below me has just got a part-time job in a super-market and is delighted. The so-called “participation rate” in the jobs market is at its highest level for 20 years.

Stephen Hester

Stephen Hester

We learnt this week that the man who has helped reach this windy corner, Stephen Hester, is leaving his post as chief executive of the Royal Bank of Scotland. He’s cleaned out the byre at the ruined bank – sold off subsidiaries, got rid of 30,000 staff, paid all those fines for bad practice and cut the losses to a mere £5bn last year. This quiet man is going quietly, forced out it seems by his largest shareholder, the Chancellor of the Exchequer, who wants to see the bank privatised sooner than Hester thinks is wise and certainly before the next election.

But let’s not feel sorry for this top banker. He is leaving with a £5m pay- off which should mean he can keep his horse and his Oxfordshire estate until he finds a new job.

Camilla has a new job already. The Duchess of Rothesay was installed as the Chancellor of my old university Aberdeen, the first female ever to hold that fine office and, to my surprise, the first royal. Not bad for a girl who left school at 16, as she herself remarked. Camilla is also to make an appearance in that other fine educational establishment, The Beaneo, along with Prince Charles. They will be keeping the Bash Street Kids up to date on the joys of reading books and eating healthy food. I expect they will be pelted with Dundee bridies.

SFL LogoAlso enjoying their meat pies this week are Scotland’s 42 top football clubs. After years of impenetrable infighting, they are apparently all agreed on coming together into one football league. The new Scottish Professional Football League will run the whole sport, from the Premier division of 12 clubs to the three other divisions of 10 clubs each. It will mean the end of the 123-year old SFL, the Scottish Football League, the second oldest league in the world.

Clearly something was wrong with the old structure with clubs falling into the financial bog almost every week. Last week, it was Dunfermline, this week it’s Hearts which has just put all its first team players up for sale.

I’m surprised none of these earth-shattering events featured at question time in the Scottish Parliament. But what we got instead was Johann Lamont’s best joke of the year. What has the UK ever done for us, she asked, except give us the NHS, the sterling currency, membership of the EU and NATO, and a welfare and pensions system, all of which Alex Salmond wants to keep ? Then she added, in what looked like an off-the-cuff remark, “I think his own back benchers should form a new campaign called “the SNP for independence.”

Gannet on Bass Rock

Gannet on Bass Rock

The SNP members screamed “like a cliff of seagulls” as Donald Dewar once called them. And that reminds me that just a few days ago I took a most amazing boat trip out to the Bass Rock in the Firth of Forth to see the colony of 150,000 gannets There were all calling out to their mates as they sat with one foot on their eggs – as gannets do, and metaphorically as humans do when in football stadiums or parliaments.

No matter what fun we’ve had, I cannot let this week pass without mentioning the very graceful death of Iain Banks, reckoned to be one of our greatest modern authors. He died quickly and without complaint from gall bladder cancer at the age of 59. To my shame I have not read any of his 29 novels, which include The Crow Road and The Wasp Factory and a string of science fiction stories. I don’t usually read novels unless they are classics. But, from all accounts, these are modern classics and should be read by everyone who loves life, as Iain Banks surely did.

The crofters of Raasay are furious. They have lost the shooting and fishing rights on their island to the highest bidder, a stalking firm from South Ayrshire. The eleven crofters say they have spent the last 18 years carefully building up their business – managing the deer population, investing in refrigeration facilities, establishing a wholesale trade in venison and catering for sporting parties. And now the magic carpet has been pulled from under their feet by the government, all because they came a few quid short in the new-fangled tendering process.

They’ve accused ministers of behaving as badly as the old absentee landlords. And this on the home soil of island champions like Sorely MacLean the Gaelic poet and Calum MacLeod the man who build his own road by hand, because the Council refused to do so. Incidentally, the two mile road, 50 years old, is now falling into disrepair, another sign of absentee landlordism perhaps.

The shooting rights issue broke surface in parliament on Thursday during first minister’s question time. Alex Salmond said he was bound by the legal red tape surrounding the public tendering process. But the argy-bargy quickly moved on to waiting times in the health service. This has been a running sore, so to speak, over the last few months. It was opened again this week by a report from Audit Scotland which found that the accounting system in the NHS was not sufficiently accurate to track whether health boards were massaging their waiting time figures or not.

No patient is supposed to wait more than 18 weeks between their GP’s referral and the start of their treatment. But apparently there was an increasing number of patients being classed as “socially unavailable” for treatment – perhaps on holiday or away on business – and thus not counted against the 18 week target. The increase came to a suspicious end when NHS Lothian was found to be offering patients treatment at hospitals in England and then removing those patients from their lists when they refused to travel south.

The whole argument comes down to one of resources. The SNP government says it has protected the health budget from Westminster’s austerity measures, but it has not increased in line with demand or even rising costs. And there is no sign that the winter of cutbacks and hardship will turn to spring any time soon.

Scotland’s leading children’s charities joined forces this week to publish a study showing that 20 per cent of children in parts of almost every council area in Scotland are living below the poverty line and they predict that government spending cuts are about to make matters much worse. In Glasgow North East for instance, 43 per cent of children are living in poor households. (“Poor” being defined as 60 per cent of average income.)

The unemployment figure this week may have fallen slightly to 7.7 per cent but people seem to be no better off and consumer spending is down. The Scottish Retail Consortium says 10 per cent of shops are now empty and boarded up. The explanations put forward are that more people are in part-time work, more are self-employed on lower earnings, productivity is down, and more and more people are giving up the search for work altogether.

In all this winter gloom, we needed something to cheer us up and it came in the pleasing form of Emeli Sande. The singer and song writer from Alford in Aberdeenshire stomped all over the stage at the Brits, winning two awards – best British solo female artist and best British album of the year. Emeli went to the same school in Alford where her Zambian father was a teacher and wrote her first song at the age of 11 for the end of term show. She left her medical course at Glasgow University when her music career suddenly took off in 2008. The rest is legend.

And so was my Monday night. I was enticed into the vaults under the Royal Mile in Edinburgh by a woman dressed as a witch. Be assured that this was an official tour and I was with a group of 30 witnesses. We were “treated” to some gory tales of torture, hangings and ghosts from long ago and, at one point, the witch lunged at me with a knife.

I thought I was a goner, like Sir John “Red ” Comyn who fell to Robert the Bruce’s knife in 1306. Sir John was a rival for the Scottish throne and old Uncle Bob, who’s victory at Bannockburn we shall be celebrating next year, decided he’d better make sure of his place in history while he could. Somewhat embarrassingly, we have been reminded of this piece of political manoeuvring by the discovery of Sir John’s pendant in a muddy field in Kinross earlier this month.

A metal detector enthusiast from North Berwick John Eldridge at first thought it was a school prefect’s badge from the 1960s or 70s because it was so perfectly preserved. Sir John’s three sheaves are clearly seen on the pendant which is assumed to have fallen from the reigns of his horse while he was on his way to Loch Leven castle. Oh how the past comes back to haunt us.

Driving out of Glasgow on the A81, heading towards Aberfoyle, there is a scattering of dilapidated and austere long white huts that sit back from the road very close to Killearn. Commissioned in 1938 by the Ministry of Works, this facility was built in preparation for Glasgow’s casualties of war.

Killearn Hospital and six other Emergency Services Hospitals were built in Scotland in preparation for WWII: Bridge of Earn, Law , Peel, Raigmore, Stracathro and Ballochmyle.

The former Peel Hospital

As a 600 bed emergency war hospital, the designs of the buildings are as low prefabricated concrete framework ‘dispersal huts’ to minimize any bomb damage as bombs rained over Glasgow and Clydebank. The hospital catered for the air raid casualties, as well as wounded servicemen, injured seamen from convoys arriving in the Clyde, POW’s and for general emergency cases.

During the wars years and beyond, Killearn gained a high profile reputation as a centre of excellence for it neuro-surgical, orthopaedic and nerve injury specialist units, and most surviving victims of post-war road traffic accidents in the north of Glasgow have the unit to thank for their recovery.

Joining the NHS is 1948 (under ‘Glasgow Western hospitals’), much of the general medical and surgical units were transferred the city, with Killearn being seen as a bit of hike or a long bus journey to travel the 15 miles from Glasgow.

Many patients remember the rural setting, with flowers and trees, and one person who was a patient during the war commented to me that going there ‘was a rare treat for a wee laddie from Glasgow’, despite the fact he was receiving hospital care.

Then as now, the long, fast stretch of A81 past the hospital itself attracts many speed-junkies on powerful motorcycles. My father-in-law, a retired orthopaedic surgeon, said that he and the staff were all too familiar with the sound of accelerating motorbikes along that stretch of road followed by the sound of an almighty crash not far from the gates of the hospital.

The neuro and orthopaedic staff would try to patch the victims together, but the lack of motorcycle helmets at that time meant that few could survive the impact at high speeds.

The hospital closed its doors in 1972, with the world-renowned neuro unit relocating to the Southern General Hospital. Since that time, the landowner has reclaimed the grounds of the hospital, and the hospital buildings decay like a set of rotting teeth.

Decaying and overgrown, with a rash of ‘Danger’, ‘Keep Out’, ‘Warning Asbestos’ signs, the site sits curious and menacing below Killearn village. Locals have questioned the future of the site for years. Currently used to shelter cattle and as a general agricultural dumping ground – as is the owner’s right – Killearn Hospital looks set to crumble to toxic asbestos dust.

Should you be tempted to visit the site, do proceed with caution. Aside from the risk from asbestos, it is said that the landowner is less than friendly to visitors and keeps a steely eye on his policies. Allegedly he had a shotgun license revoked for chasing Hydroelectric workers off his land!