Alyn Smith's Work Experience Diary

29 July 2005
"I'm an MEP" - cue laughter and jokes about gravy trains and expenses . "Being an MEP can be hard work" - laughter increases. So I said I'd get out there and try their jobs. They just laughed and laughed...

So, a fortnight of work experience in a range of industries. MEPs deal with issues affecting many of our Scottish industries and we're often accused of not really understanding what life's like at the sharp end, what impact farming or fisheries regulations really have on people's livelihoods and businesses, for example. Two weeks of working in these industries should help the focus.

Day 1, 18 July, "Blood Transfusion Centre - Glasgow"

Up at 6am - meeting at Ferguson's shipyard in Port Glasgow first thing, even before my work experience. The shipyard management and staff are working hard to try to save the yard, the least I can do is try to help them a bit.

Grab some food en route from Ferguson's to Blood Transfusion Centre. Was told to eat before giving blood - they don't want me fainting. The donor staff are great, plenty of patience and lots of care. I didn't get to touch the needles - probably a sensible precaution.

A bit of "bagging up": Taking the filled blood bag, sealing it, tagging it, and getting it ready for uplift to the hospital.

Turns out I can't donate as I've lived in a few malaria countries and there's a small risk that I might be carrying malaria, so I've had some blood sent away for testing (by the donor centre) and they can get me when the results come in.. It's non-stop in the centre - the staff put in a hard shift, and I have come away with a sense of admiration and a determination to become a regular donor, only 6% are regular donors, apparently, and I want to do a wee bit to help if I can.

Day 2, 19 July, "Whisky Galore"

Chivas Brothers Strathisla distillery in Keith. A nice day in Speyside and a wee dram, or so I thought.

Brian Watt, operations manager, hands me safety gear to don. Everyone else looks fine, but I'm sure I look like a reject from the village people.

Barrels are rolling about quick smart for blending and filtering. I'm a bit concerned I might damage the whisky, but they assure me the whisky is tougher than I am. Into the lab for the mystical art of "nosing". This is a sorcerer's job, and I'm not even an apprentice, the toffee notes and grass overtones pretty well pass me by. I think I was better at rolling barrels.

Over to the distillery and fill some bourbon barrels with new whisky to age for 21 years - I'll be back in 2026 for the next stage - if they'll let me. A wee dram at the end of the day, but I'm still struggling to catch those grassy overtones.

There's time for chat too - Pernod Ricard is consolidating its drinks empire, and this will have an impact on the whisky industry. Whisky makes a huge taxation contribution to the economy and employs people across Scotland. We have to protect the industry.

Day 3, 20 July, Filmset

I have to report to the police building in Govan. No, I'm not on probation, I'm spending a day with Willy Wands producer of the new Rebus, starring Ken Stott.

I'm just arriving and still need a coffee, but lots of people are already running about with huge amounts of energy. Willy takes me through the day's call sheet - the main actors have been here since 6 and will be on the go until about 8 tonight.

Why a film set? Well, I'm trying to get a better handle on the industry and how European funding and support might boost it. There's plenty ideas for me to take back and work on. The industry in Scotland is high profile and genuinely creative, we have world beating scenery and talent, but the support just isn't there to help make the most of it.

The spin-offs from film and television production are massive. One of the things that comes through loud and clear is that Scotland lacks studio facilities.

I come away enthusiastic at the prospects for the industry in Scotland, but I suspect it will need some harder edged government support. I'll be looking into what sort of resources we can find in Europe.

Day 4, 21 July, "Farmer Alyn"

Up while the lark still snoozes, but Jim Hume, who farms at Sundhope outside Selkirk, will already have been up for hours. Straight to work herding sheep into pens for spraying against fly strike. I'm not allowed near the chemicals so I help Jim's sons, Calum and Roddy get the sheep into manageable groups.

After lunch, we beat up hedges. Nothing to do with Neds or ASBOs, this is a scheme where farmers can access funding for conservation measures. We have 300 saplings to plant to fill the hedgerow. This gives Jim and I a chance to chat about farming in Scotland. Farmers don't have their troubles to seek, prices are low and the big supermarkets which have so much market power that farmers are relegated to "price takers", taking any price they are offered for their produce.

After dinner a few of Jim's neighbours come round to quiz me about what their MEPs have been doing for them and how we can help further. The biggest area of concern is the call by Tony Blair to reform the Common Agricultural Policy (already being reformed!) Farmers are undergoing massive changes already to comply with the new rules. The last thing they need is to be used as a political football in a grubby English dispute with the French.

I have to leave earlier than planned - Newsnight Scotland want me about CalMac ferries. Apparently the Minister went to Brussels and had a meeting with the Transport Commissioner, though the Executive won't tell us what was discussed, just that the Commissioner ordered them to put Calmac out to tender. This is arrant nonsense, and I'm afraid this will cause a lot of unease in the Western Isles and other areas dependent on Calmac.

Day 5, 22 July, "On the beat"

5pm, and I'm away to Corstorphine Police Station. Still not in trouble, though, I'm shadowing the night shift with the Critical Incident Manager for Edinburgh, and the first call is a stabbing not far from the station. Incidents include a fire at the Meadowbank Retail Park and a report of a known drug user having holed himself with a stock of petrol bombs.

A suspected house fire in Wester Hailes. We arrive as it's declared a false alarm, but are surrounded by dozens of wee kids who speculate whether I'm special branch or MI5. I tell them I'm neither, but I'm rebuffed, "aye, you would say that".

The police are full of praise for the organisers of the Make Poverty History
march, but have nothing but disgust for the very small number of people who
came to Edinburgh looking for trouble.  It’s pretty clear that many of the violent
protestors had no interest in global justice.  I’m surprised at how much police
time is still tied up in prosecuting them.

Day 6 and 7, 24, 25 July, “Sea legs”

Up to Mallaig, a journey I always enjoy.  I’m going out on the Ocean’s Trust
with skipper Robert Summers, a prawn boat which fishes the West coast.  The
docks at 2am to meet the crew, Alan, Michael, Ali and David. I’m a bit nervous
about my sea legs as are the crew so I mention that I’m feeling OK with the
motion of the boat, but Robert points out we’ve not cleared the harbour yet. 
I’m still doing better than my colleagues in Brussels thought I would.  

I wait up and watch the sun come up over the Minch, it’s fantastic to see.  The
first nets go overboard at about 6am, and I turn in – good work experience for
an MEP. 

I’m in a flotation suit in case I get swept overboard, but it’s so calm I suspect it
the comedy value of me falling about trying to get into it was as much a
reason as safety.  Looking a bit like a telly tubby, I head up to help as the nets
are brought in.  

Shovelling and sorting the prawns and hosing down the decks is my task,
along with dodging the jellyfish and other by-catch.  There are scarcely any
actual fish in the catch, by-catch for the prawn fishery is not much of an issue
but by the time the scientific advice gets to European fisheries ministers it has
been tainted by factors not quite related to the reality of life on board.

The point of this work experience was to learn about the industry so I spend
time in the wheelhouse talking to Robert.  His biggest worry is the cost of fuel
- doubled over the past year.  He also has the annual misery of the Common
Fisheries Policy talks limiting his time at sea and his total catch.  Prawn stocks
off the West coast are in a good state, and he wants to see a decent increase
agreed in December.

We chat in the galley about life at sea and how the boats in Mallaig are
struggling to stay afloat financially.  The crew have an arrangement where time is still tied up in prosecuting them. 
they buy their time at sea, looking for a share in the landings.  So if the catch is poor, as it has been this trip, they can end up owing the boat money as they
chip in to the costs of the trip.

Dinner in Mallaig.  Scottish seafood of course!  Talking to people in the town
about the fishing industry, it’s clear that it’s hard graft, and I had an easy trip
although it was hard enough work, especially for a softy MEP like me.  This
industry has been at the sharp end of EU politics for a long time, and I hope
I’ve taken back enough experience to give me a better understanding to help
the SNP continue fighting for this industry.

Day 8, 27 July, “Gas Plant Alyn”

Last day of the programme - Peterhead for a day at the St Fergus gas plant
with Shell.  I’m not too hot on the workings of the St Fergus plant, aside from it
being a landfall for a number of North Sea gas pipes, but they talk me through
it. 

Once again, security and safety are paramount, so I’m kitted out in my
umpteenth boiler suit, bright orange.  I’ve gone from looking like one of the
village people, to a Telly tubby and now the Tango man from the adverts.

The site takes in 40% of the North Sea gas output, so it’s of huge strategic
importance.  I’m worried to hear that Shell calculates we’ll need to import 70%
of our gas within ten years.  The need to import such a high amount of fuel
strengthens my desire to see biofuels and renewable technologies take off.

We talk about how Shell is investing in renewables, and how the government
could help this technology to flourish.  Scotland has a massive potential in
renewable energy, but unless we grasp this opportunity with both hands it will
pass us by, and transmission charges that penalise the islands and north of
Scotland certainly aren’t helping.  

This isn’t the kind of workplace that lends itself to much in the way of hands-
on experience for the enthusiastic amateur, and my loyal staff have warned
the plant staff to keep me away from buttons, but I’ve learned a bit.

The end of a fortnight’s learning.  I didn’t make as much of a fool of myself as I
thought I might and my colleagues might be disappointed I didn’t end up
overboard in the Minch. I hope my hosts were all as pleased with the
experience as I was, and I hope to be able to invite some of them to Europe in
the future.

You can’t really know what’s happening in an industry and how you’re
affecting it without getting on the shop floor, so to speak.  By the end of each
day I’d learnt something from eachl of the people I worked with and I’ve got a
huge list of follow-up work.  This was the most informative two weeks of my
first year as an MEP.  I found it very worthwhile, and I’ll be doing it again, so –
any suggestions?

Alyn Smith MEP
29 July 2005