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24 December 2002

Family and Friends

Reviewing the Christmas card list is not a chore but a reminder of a year past. In some cases, new additions the list, in others the sad deletions.

And for the North-East, the near inevitability that we shall see deletions of a number of the fishing vessels tied up in our harbours for what should have been a season of family and festivity.

But the meeting between the First Minister, Scotland’s Fisheries Minister and representatives of the fishing industry was a sombre affair. One concentrating on compensation rather than recovery.

Yes, we must ensure that crews can ride out this ‘European Union’ inspired storm. But how will we see future generations compensated for the brutal ‘down-sizing’ of our core industry?

And many trades and shops depend on fishing for the business that makes them the profit that keeps them going. Businesses deep into the countryside, and ones at the core of rural villages, will share the pain.

With trawler deckhands self-employed, I have long argued that our unemployment numbers understate the scale of this area’s economic difficulties. And with a numbers driven support system, we have been cut off from the opportunities to diversify, the opportunity to reduce our dependence on fishing.

Nonetheless it has not been a totally bad year. But our victories – saving Peterhead Prison, a new hospital for Banff, a move from two to three-shift working for Fraserburgh’s ambulance station, jobs saved in baking and fish-processing – can be overwhelmed by the magnitude of fishing’s problem.

When Parliament returns on 7th January, I shall be straight back into it.

That day the big issue had been planned as a discussion with Ross Finnie, our Fisheries, and Rural Affairs, Minister on how the new European regulations on moving grain around the country might open the door to cross-contamination by Genetically Modified crops.

But that is bound to overwhelmed by questions on fishing. If the Minister will allow us that is. Because on the following day he will make his statement to Parliament on the outcome of the fishing talks.

That only allows a limited time to ask questions and none for a debate.

With the Presiding Officer, Liberal Sir David Steele, concluding that the fishing crisis was not serious enough for a recall of Parliament – not many in the area will agreed with that judgement – our opportunity for a debate, and a chance to change the government’s mind before the new plan starts on 1st February will be very limited.

The moral campaign for 2003 – and this is the time of year for such thoughts surely – must be on ‘industrial fishing’. The Danes – an independent nation at the European talks – were able to stay fishing for sandeels, pout and immature cod.

The major companies like Unilever who are behind such a trade carry clout. And 2003 is the year to kick back. For if the cod’s food is hoovered up, will we ever see cod in numbers again?

Here is hoping for the best in 2003.

18 December 2002

Candles in the Wind

As I write the outcome of fishing talks hangs in the balance. I contemplate the candlelit vigil scheduled for Saturday.

If air miles measured effort by all who have been campaigning in our communities, then many would be contemplating luxurious holidays when they cash them in.

The reality is frustration. Mine because I am on Parliamentary duty in Edinburgh. But those in Brussells are hardly better placed if the phone calls and emails reaching me tell the story.

Elliot Morley, the Westminster Minister who ‘leads’ the UK delegation, seems disconnected from those who would be affected by any proposal agreed.

Our fishermen are learning more from their French colleagues than from ‘their’ minister. For they are constantly briefed and referred to for information as negotiations continue. The UK Ministers brief when requested, when they can find the time, and seem concerned to manage down expectations rather than manage up what they deliver as a result.

My colleagues Richard Lochhead MSP, our Scottish Parliament Shadow Fisheries Minister, and Ian Hudghton MEP tell me that they have barely slept since Monday.

It puts in perspective my rising at 4.15 am that day to travel to Fraserburgh sorting office. The Cod Crusaders say they have little time to prepare for Christmas. The mail figures suggest that they may not be alone. Figures are down, a bit, and our posties wonder when the rush will come.

And yet fishing is not the only candle flickering uncertainly in the wind.

I convened a meeting on Monday to discuss Broadband communications services. The Scottish Government has announced a £24 million package to enable access for 70% of our population in the next couple of years. But are we still the other 30% denied any realistic opportunity to diversify our business base?

Even with Council, Grampian Enterprise, BT, and representatives of the business community around the table, we still didn’t find the answer. Although we agreed a way forward which will increase demand in the area, it may not enable us to reach the target to get this technology.

And announcements on transport this week were of uncertain value to us.

The first of these was the new web site to enable us to plan integrated travel throughout Scotland.

So I tried it for my journey from Whitehills to Edinburgh – incidently we are in the process of moving a short distance out into the country having sold our house down south at last – and what did it recommend as the fastest route?

Well it sure was integrated! It started with the bus to Elgin. Then the train to Inverness and bus to the airport. Then fly down to Edinburgh and get the bus into the centre. Fastest certainly, and using almost every mode of transport.

But practical? I will leave you to judge.

Of more importance to Scotland was new funding for railways – some £25 million from the government. But of course we have no railways so that is simply us once again paying for others improved transport.

But the 18th also saw the launch of the public consultation on Aberdeen’s Western Peripheral Route. Between 7th January and 14th February your views are being sought.

For a long time Aberdeen has been a major blockage on our road south. So will it be easy for you to contribute to the debate? Not really! The nearest exhibition will be Newmachar between 4 and 8 pm on 21st January.

But roads are not the only area of congestion troubling us.

For a considerable period, the gas-fired power station at Peterhead has only been able to put about two-thirds of its possible output onto the national grid. Because there ain’t the capacity to carry it away to other markets.

So it seems to be a bit of mystery that a major wind farm is being contemplated in the same general area. Its power would be similarly trapped.

And it would be fair to say that not everyone views very large noisy structures as ideal neighbours. Other plans for offshore wind farms could yet be a better bet.

But amid the doom and gloom that comes with the dark nights and the annual battle over fisheries each December, there is always the spectacular decorations mushrooming all over the north-east.

The central belt is dull and dreary by comparison.

And if the fishing negotiations deliver a hammer blow I shall probably be back down here for a recall of Parliament that might be on Tuesday.

If so, and the news is bad, then it will be our Minister’s candle blowing in the wind – and out.

4 December 2002

Cod Squad

I have just returned from 24 hours in Brussels meeting officials on fish.

The road there is now a well-worn path for folk from the North-East and the messages remain fairly mixed. But my colleague Richard Lochhead, our Shadow Fisheries Minister, and I had a new suggestion that seemed to our listeners to offer a new way forward.

With the Danes holding the EU Presidency until the end of the year it was clearly important that we heard their views. They are the biggest industrial fishing nation and have long been envied for their success at getting their way in the EU’s corridors of power. Ironic is it not that they are allowed to keep fishing for the very food eaten by cod, haddock and other white fish only to turn what they catch into pig or chicken food while we cannot catch for human consumption.

Kenn Fogtmann represents Denmark’s fish, food and agriculture interests in Brussels and is currently, along with 139 other Danes, part of the EU President’s team. With five million Danes represented by 140 staff and Scotland’s five million by less than ten, it is easy to understand why Denmark gets its own way and we are left standing at the altar time and again.

But our meeting with Kenn suggested some hope. Our ‘big idea’ is that quotas should be rolled over for 2003. The EU’s Common Fisheries Policy is to change from 1st January 2003 and it seems absurd to set quotas under the old scheme but implement them under the new.

We suggested that the ‘new CFP’ provisions for Regional Advisory Committees should be used early in 2003 to allow the nations adjacent to the North Sea fishing grounds to rapidly draw up plans for agreement by the European Commission.

All this would allow fishing communities to avoid the brutality of total closure. And vitally, it would deliver responsibility to propose a solution to the problem to those most directed affected by the success or failure of any plan – the local states and their fishermen.

While Danes indicated that they have to hold back from the debate because they hold the EU Presidency, they could see our proposal as one they could put forward to break the anticipated deadlock in discussions later this month. And it would avoid having to make two big decisions – the ‘new CFP’ and quotas – at the same Council of Ministers meeting.

So that was one team warm to our thoughts on fishing for 2003 and beyond.

Next stop seemed a harder nut to crack. She was Franz Fischler’s advisor on fishing, Maja Kirchner. I have written previously about the incongruity of a land-locked Austria being the EU state which provides the Fishing Commissioner. Meeting Maja did not initially instil confidence either. Rather than being an expert on fishing, she is a lawyer. And has been involved in fishing for only two years.

With Fischler seeming to be ‘all over the place’ in his responses to the future of North Sea fishing it was important that we understood why this was so.

One thing said by Maja soon re-emphasised the merits of our proposals.

It seems that Fischler’s office only had seven days in which to draw up their 170 page document on the future of fishing. Squeezed by the timetable for the delivery of the scientists’ reports and decision at the December Council of Ministers that was all they got.

For the first time, the real irrationality of some of the EU’s processes was brought into focus for me. And the apparent lack of knowledge on the Fishing Commissioner’s part could, to some extent at least, be put down to simple lack of time to master a complex brief.

So when we put forward our thoughts, involving as they did moving the decision into 2003, they were more warmly received than we had imagined that they would be. For it seems that Franz Fischler’s office is not unaware of the hazards of making decisions based on a rapid read of the evidence and the pressure of a ludicrously tight decision-making timetable.

And of course that timetable reduces both the chance that the recommendation is well thought out or well argued and increases the chance that it will be power politics that governs the decision rather than logic.

But the fly in the ointment was Maja’s observation that for all the good ideas that we were putting forward, they would only really carry weight if tabled by a government – preferably ours.

So that’s why our own ‘Cod Squad’, those feisty female Cod Crusaders from Fraserburgh are the ace in our hand. Pressure from outside the normal political channels alarms ministers. It worked for Peterhead Prison. It must work for our fishermen and all who depend upon them.

Stewart Stevenson
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