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Train time

After one hundred and seventy-four days, I resumed sitting in our Parliament's debating chamber. It was the first time I have seen how members dialling in by video-link look and sound at the "business end".

I found that I was a bit rusty. My only oral contribution this week was to ask a question. As I approached the end of it, a sound from a mobile phone totally distracted me. Worried that it was my own phone, I paused and for about a second, lost the thread of what I was saying. I wasn't that pleased with my neighbour when they returned to their seat. Their phone, not mine.

It just shows that one can travel backwards in one's abilities. Like an athlete who has had an extended layoff and loses muscle tone, my brain had retreated from its previous peak of perfection.

Next week will be our first proper three day week. I think I will ease myself in by participating in the two Member's debates scheduled for Tuesday and Wednesday. That will be about eleven hundred words and I can make sure that I am reading from my script.

We shall also see the return of a debate brought forward from the opposition benches. It will be on the general subject of Justice albeit that we shan't see the motion until Tuesday. As someone who has attended two hundred and seventy-seven Justice Committee meetings in my time, I may yet be persuaded to speak in the debate too. But a volunteer I shall not be.

As a Minister, I also carried a Justice Bill through Parliament to the statute book. It was the Long Leases Bill. That changed leases of over one hundred and seventy-five years duration into outright ownership and was the piece of law that eliminated the final part of the feudal system from Scots law.

It was curious that as Environment and Climate Change Minister I should find myself doing a Justice Bill. I was assured that it was a simple Bill. In the previous session of Parliament it had progressed almost, but not quite, all the way through a journey to the Statute Book. But it was beaten at the final gasp by the dissolution of Parliament for the 2011 General Election. Most of the, from memory it was nine, leases were in rural areas, hence the "offer" to me to take this Bill on.

Some bits of leased land were huge. One was a few square feet up a close a few hundred metres from Holyrood.

But last time, no one out there had a concern that the ground upon which Waverley Market in Edinburgh was built was subject to a lease that this Bill would affect. The claim was made that this land was Common Good and thus that it had not been proper for the lease have been granted in the first place. Especially as we were now looking at handing it over to a commercial operation.

For those who don't know, the legal origins of Common Good derive from the 1491 Common Good Act. In total this is all that's left of it;

"Item it is statut and ordinit that the commoune gud of all our souerane lordis burrowis within the realme be obseruit and kepit to the commoune gude of the toune and to be spendit in commoune And necessare thingis of the burght be the avise of the consale of the toune for the tyme and dekkynnis of craftis quhare thai are"

In essence, it means that anything held by a Royal Burgh for the Common Good must be held as such forever.

The argument, therefore, ran that transferring land held as Common Good in Edinburgh could not properly pass into another's ownership.

Record keeping in our Councils about what may be Common Good or what might just be held ordinarily in the ownership of that body is variable in quality. What was the status of Waverley Market land owned by the Council? Who knows?

In a perfect illustration of the compromises Ministers may have to make as they legislate, we brought forward an amendment to our Bill. Instead of its applying to leases over one hundred and fifty years, we made it 175. The Waverley Market lease was no longer in scope and the issue went away; for now at least.

Ironically, it emerged later that the Scots Law Commission had originally recommended the higher figure. At some point, whether it was at the hand of a civil servant or by Ministerial diktat I shall never know, the Bill had started life with a lower figure.

The biggest, and most difficult Justice issue, I was engaged in was an enquiry into how our criminal justice system dealt with fingerprints. That lasted a long time and plunged us into highly technical areas where, I think it fair to say, all the MSPs involved found it difficult to come to sensible conclusions. Peoples jobs were at risk so the option of saying that it was all too hard, simply didn't exist.

All of which is to say that I have probably done my turn on Justice. Volunteering for more might be an act of pure masochism. But should I be asked; well, so be it.

The past week was a four Committee meeting week. And for the fourth time, I found myself dialling into two meetings happening at the same time. And escaped without injury or visible personal confusion.

The week to come will once again see me double-dipping on Wednesday, albeit that the week has a mere three Committees requiring my attendance.

The one thing I definitely am not looking forward to is the drive south. After years of using the train with only an occasional car ride, I had forgotten the back twinges that come to me with my sitting fairly still for hours.

My little car is just fine but, as I wrote some weeks ago, it's cheaper, safer and less stressful on the train.

I might be looking forward to our Parliament being full-time.

But even more, I look forward to train time.


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