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Scottish Parliament Speech: Autism (Scotland) Bill: Stage 1: "Report on Low Carbon Scotland: The Draft Report on Proposals and Policies" (January 2011)

See this speech in context on They Work For You

I will deal with two themes: first, where we live; and, secondly, how we move. Housing construction has propelled our economy, keeping our bankers happy, but the United Kingdom's average new house struggles to reach grade C on the EU's thermal efficiency level and consumes twice as much fuel as the average German or Austrian new build.

Today, our buildings consume five times more electricity than they did in the 1970s. That is because of the march of the computers and the supermarkets that must be heated and cooled simultaneously and which generate more road traffic. I support the plans for insulation, but I also support pragmatically improving what we have. Many of our old houses still have wooden shutters or can get them back. It has been the fashion recently to have bare wooden floors, thus putting the people who wove carpets out of business, but a carpet is a form of insulation on the floor. We could have bathrooms with linoleum, which has the great advantage of keeping the bugs away as well - that is a deliberate plug for Kirkcaldy. In fact, we must live more collectively in Burns' sense - in the kirk, the howff and the village hall and in that society of sympathy of Burns and Adam Smith.

My second theme is how we move. The $100 barrel of oil is nearly with us, but it was supposed to turn up in the 2030s. This winter, we have had snow-buried cars and jack-knifed lorries. The wise realise that the age of Henry Ford is over, but apparently they do not include the staff of Stirling Council, 82 per cent of whom go to work by car, or so the energy efficiency action plan tells us. Two per cent cycle, 5 per cent go by bus or train and 11 per cent walk or run, the plan suggests helpfully. Compared with Copenhagen, where 39 per cent walk or cycle, central Scotland looks like Europe's greater Springfield. However, the old rival, London, from the city to the docklands, can now run almost totally on sophisticated non-oil transport, with public transport such as the Eurostar and private transport such as the Boris bike. Mind you, London gets £170 for every £113 in subsidy that finds its way to Scotland.

Targets are everywhere. Schemes with even the most ambitious targets can be sent haywire as climate disruption hits home. An example is flooding. Without even touching on inland flooding such as that in Queensland, we find that 10 per cent of the world's population live 60 miles from a coast and within the surge-flood danger area. By 2050, the figure will be 50 per cent. It is a high-carbon business to restore the setbacks of flooding. I have had dehumidifiers working in my house in Wales after a burst water main. Such costs could well smash the most optimistic of our targets. If the Arctic melts, we will have a sea level of 5m more to contend with around our coasts. If the Antarctic melts, we will have 65m more to contend with.

What is going for us? We have Europe's greatest single reserve of natural energy at a time of radical improvement, perhaps six fold, in generation and turbine technology. Marine turbines are where the steam engine was when Watt and Trevithick got their hands on it after 1760. However, we know relatively little about the way forward, as I found out myself when I wrote Fool's Gold, which is on North Sea oil. We have lost our industrial advantage and the heavy industries that existed here in the 1970s. Moreover, politically, our management of the issue is diffused over several Cabinet portfolios. It would be a useful step to unify those powers in an energy, infrastructure and efficiency powerhouse ministry to tackle the changes collectively and as soon as possible.

Am I optimistic in the long term? I am afraid that I am not. Like Rupert Soames, I believe that ‘holding hands singing Kumbaya’ feels nice, but that is it. I do not follow Mr Soames on the issue of nuclear power - which Germany, for example, is running down without losing its industrial lead - but I appreciate that Churchills can be both dead wrong and on the ball, and sometimes simultaneously. We need that full-scale entrepreneurial flair if we are to turn renewables into the sort of marketable proposition that has a real chance of getting through.

We face a challenge here. To dramatise it, I must go back to someone from a family of engineers, Robert Louis Stevenson, and Alan Breck's great challenge to David Balfour in Kidnapped: "ye shall taigle many a weary foot, or we get clear!...But if ye ask what other choice ye have, I answer: Nane. Either take to the heather with me, or else hang!"

See this speech in context on They Work For You

I greatly appreciate the concerns that inspired Hugh O'Donnell's Autism (Scotland) Bill. However, I am also aware of the concerns that the Education, Lifelong Learning and Culture Committee raised in its stage 1 report, including the question whether, if legislation has so far not managed to improve the situation of people with ASDs, the bill will necessarily improve that situation. I want to highlight two aspects. The first is the need to establish proper census data instead of using the numbers that we have at present, which are overall projections that are modified on a population percentage basis and may therefore bear no real relation to the actual figures.

The second aspect is the need to distinguish those who are affected by high-level autism, or Asperger's syndrome, which the Germans call Gelehrtenkrankheit - the disease of the wise. I must make a personal statement at this point, because my wife Virginia, who died of cancer in 2005, suffered from a mild element of that. She could be socially impossible at times; on the other hand, she took a first in logic, and she could read an entire Tolstoy novel in a day and answer the most detailed questions on it, which is one aspect of the intensified and almost intuitive ability that comes from that particular condition. I have her in mind when I talk about it.

As a historian, I also have in mind the importance of the lad o pairts - the gifted - in Scottish economic development. I am thinking of people such as Hugh Miller, who had the Bible and Shakespeare off by heart; Walter Scott, who could write without realising that he was writing; and Charles Rennie Mackintosh, who obsessively designed his houses right down to the knives and forks. That is part of a particular mental structure, but it can, if it is conserved and protected, bring enormous value to our society, as it has done in the past. The French social anthropologist Emmanuel Todd has studied Scottish 18th century society and the protection that it gave to the gifted within its extended families.

I would like to look in much greater detail at the ways in which we can provide pulling and shoving assistance to people who have an autistic condition that means that they must receive lifetime support. I see the matter in the context of a younger generation in Scotland who are not themselves fully confident about their own futures. A recent report drew attention to the fact that a quarter of our teenage children have depressive conditions when they see the society in which they are placed. I would like to see strong encouragement of people to volunteer to do such work. In Germany, many of my students benefited greatly from the experience of doing such social work before they came up to university. It contributed to their articulacy and to their social commitment.

What I would like to see coming from the debate - I appreciate the caveats that can be made about the bill itself - is a commitment to establishing real statistics about the incidence of autistic conditions, to collecting biographical evidence of the experience of people and, of course, to finding out whether, in particular contexts and once we establish the numbers on a local basis, the prevalence of conditions is increasing or decreasing. Regardless of whether we go ahead with legislation, those factors are terribly important. I would like to see promises that such research will be undertaken.

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