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29 January 2003

Hard of Heeding

Standing outside Arbuthnot House in Peterhead with a Cod Crusader, fishermen, a small group of children and various members of the public, we were very conscious that it was an unusual Sunday evening.

It was a day of records. A record high January temperature – in nearby Aboyne it was 18 degrees. And a first, a First Minister in Peterhead to listen to our concerns.

But within a short time we knew better. A redundancy package not a recovery package was coming our way.

I have been visiting various fishing-related people, telephoning others, exchanging emails, receiving letters. The overwhelming majority know, like me, that what is proposed isn’t what we need.

One telephone call was to Jack McConnell, Labour’s First Minister, the head of the Scottish Government. Until the 1st May election that is.

As he drove north, I spoke to him on his car phone. Now since the introduction of digital phones a few years ago, I had thought the distortion that one could get with the original mobile phones had gone. Apparently not.

Despite his acknowledging very clearly the point I put to him about how vital it was to protect our investment in fishing so that when we could have a realistic opportunity to catch fish in future, he now delivers a package to slash and burn our industry.

Fewer boats means fewer fishermen, means fewer on-shore jobs, means fewer weans growing up with an assured future.

And the irony is that by failing to buy back licences and quota, these will end up in foreign hands. We could watch others catch our fish in years to come.

Forty Million pounds to buy back boats will secure a ‘pension’ for the lucky skippers, make the banks happy to get their loans paid off, but leave fishermen and community to carry the burden.

So what did I ask for?

I thought about all those shore-based industries that can’t diversify. If you make ice for the boats and there are no boats, who will buy your ice? If you make fish boxes and there are no fish, who will use your boxes? If you supply the food for a crew, who will eat it now?

A business rates holiday would help. But the Council would need more money to fund that. Jack says that’s an interesting idea.

A rent holiday for companies using Council or Enterprise company factories or offices. I have seen some of the business books of companies. Cash flow might, just might, balance with this help. Jack says that’s an interesting idea.

And a cheeky request for half a million to bring broadband to our area is not rejected either.

But as my mother used to say when I seem not to hear her as a bairn, “I used to think you were hard of hearing but now I know it’s hard of heeding.”

Listen up Jack, it’s now you that seem hard of heeding.

Cattle Numbers

As if our communities were not being hit hard enough by an EU-imposed fishing crisis, there are also indications that revision of the Common Agricultural Policy may also hit us hard.

Now it has long been accepted that the CAP is a mess. It produces food – and astonishingly in this day and age, subsidised tobacco – a deal of which finds no buyer.

The farmer of the future needs to be a steward of the countryside, and to be paid as one. But the move from production to protecting our rural environment needs to be managed to allow farmers to make the change.

But there is some good news. Average farm incomes across Scotland have risen from £6,000 in 2000-01 to a projected £10,500 in 2001-02. But adverts on the back of Edinburgh buses tell MSPs that their drivers can make £18,500 a year. That puts into perspective the limited reward for farmers’ long hours and financial risk.

And as if things are not bad enough cattle farmers are having trouble getting their money too.

The British Cattle Movement service is, if you will forgive me, making a right ‘cod’ of it. Data are lost, or not entered into their computer system, or allocated to the wrong farmer.

Then when farmers apply for cattle slaughter premiums and the like – a refusal to pay.

That is why I spoke in Parliament last week in an attempt to get it sorted.

Amendment 92C

The Land Reform Act it now is. After enormous effort we finally got there.

And only one minor procedural glitch. A Labour member seemed to be missing from the chamber when their amendment to the Bill came up for debate.

So the Presiding Officer asked the SNP to move it. We were happy to do so.

Then the Labour MSP voted against it! Parliamentary democracy at work.

15 January 2003

New Year Resolutions?

It is 2003 and fishing continues to dominate. In fact I share with colleagues a commitment to make it a key issue in the Scottish Election that is only a couple of months away.

But if turnout at the election is not high enough, the credibility of any fishing campaign would be damaged.

So that is why throughout my nearly two years in Parliament, I have sought to establish groups and work with people in the community who are not identified with any political party. And that has been the source of our success on major campaigns such as to save Peterhead Prison and for new investment in a hospital in Banff.

The Cod Crusaders are the latest manifestation of that attempt to link community to politics to deliver results.

So my first resolution is to keep working with community interests.

Windy Places

My Parliamentary questioning this week flushed out that survey data about neighbours’ attitudes to wind farms is flawed. It seems that the Scottish Executive, the government, are now having to re-do the survey.

Meantime it may be appropriate to review decisions already made about wind farms. And for the local proposals near Hatton it should mean that added weight is given to concerns that members of that community have expressed.

We want more renewable energy. Scotland has long been strong in hydro power. Flooding glens and relocating inhabitants was, and some extent remains, controversial. But a benefit was delivered to us all.

Building and operating wind farms will be an important part of reducing our dependence on nuclear power. But we need to find the right locations, offshore must be a strong contender, and be sure that the economics stack up.

A second resolution is to support rational progress towards renewables.

Making Law

With 22 Bills and very little time before dissolution, I am very busy making law.

This week we shall be debating Land Reform over two days. In Committee I previously participated in 12 meetings lasting about 35 hours in total. And we considered over 500 amendments to the Bill.

Now at the final stage we are looking at a three figure number of amendments as well.

Bills to reform Agricultural Holdings and the Criminal Justice system are also keeping me very busy.

So what? Will this investment of time deliver value?

For farmers the new Bill provides new tenancy agreements that should create more opportunities for young farmers to start their careers. Only a lucky few have money to buy their own farm and the opportunies to purchase are few and far between as well.

Changes to the Criminal Justice system being introduced are quite wide-ranging. I have written previously about my initiative to head off Liberal Democrat plans to make criminals of parents who administer a light smack to a child. More importantly we have brought new rules to protect children from beating and injury to their head.

But it is changes for victims of crime that will probably deliver more for the many.

When passed, the Bill will ensure that victims can contribute to parole board reviews which take place before serious offenders are released. And the requirement that victims of serious crime are notified before offenders are released will be widely welcomed. The lack of this has long been an issue.

But the Land Reform Bill has taken most time.

At last it formalises the right of communities to buy land. Contrary to some reports it does not provide any money for communities to do that. They must, as at present, find the funds for themselves.

But for many a community looking for a plot for a village hall or some other community facility it will be a valuable new power.

Most interest, and time, has focussed on what has been called a “Right to Roam”.

Interestingly it seems that I have become the first MSP to be quoted in the Scots Laws Times. I had a vigorous interchange with a legal witness about whether trespass was a crime in Scotland. I said no. He claimed otherwise.

The text of our exchange seems to now be being used as part of Edinburgh University’s law courses.

Broadband

And more progress may be looming on getting our area on to the Broadband train. It seems that experiments in Crieff and Campbelltown are going well. They use the power company’s cables to deliver communications services as well.

And both Peterhead and Fraserburgh, perhaps Banff and Macduff, could justify the investment to get “Power Line Broadband”. I have met with the company working on this and I have added a resolution to step up my activity of this.

But Finally

But above all we must have a workable plan to save fishing commmunities. And it must be agreed no later than June.

1 January 2003

New Year, Old Problems

For the Scottish Parliament the next 12 weeks will be particularly busy. And for the North-East, they could determine our community’s future.

The New Year revelations that a Tory Prime Minister cynically sold out the Scottish fishing fleet when he took us into the EEC and into the Common Fisheries Policy have come as no surprise. But the opening up of documents in the Public Records Office to scrutiny in the annual release under the “30-year rule” is particularly timely this year.

For we can now read that, whatever else he did, he was not acting irrationally. He believed that although the Scottish fleet would suffer, there would be greater benefits for fishermen south of the border. And as Prime Minister for the whole of the UK that may have seemed to make sense for him.

But it illustrates why Scotland needs to be sitting at the top table in Europe, and elsewhere. Our interests need to be at the top of the agenda for our negotiators.


Every other country directly represented at the EU fisheries talks got what they needed. Even when, as in the case of Denmark’s industrial fisheries, it means their continuing to hoover up with their small-mesh nets, cod, haddocks and the food they eat. Science had nothing to do with the outcome, politics, straightforward power politics, determined the outcome.

And it will be no use Scottish Fisheries Minister, Ross Finnie, telling Parliament on the 8th of January that we were outvoted. Because he didn’t have a vote. And the person who was supposed to be acting in our interests, UK Minister Eliot Morley, chose to accept the deal and thus may have closed off some of the ways of taking further action in Europe.

Nonetheless the deal is clearly discriminatory, fishermen with wide net mesh sizes banned from waters in which those with small meshes can still fish and catch the same species. The Danes can fish and the Scots cannot.

So the fishermen’s organisations may still have a legal way forward. And the proper response of the legal system should be to suspend the arrangements agreed by the UK government and return to something which meets Scotland’s needs.

I anticipate a rowdy time when Ross Finnie gives us his statement on Wednesday.

Report Card

The last year in politics in the area have been busy. And jobs have been top of the agenda throughout.

A long and tortuous path eventually led to transfer of the ‘Simmers of Hatton’ factory from the ownership of a multi-national into local hands. And new boss Paul Allan has already expanded his interests with the takeover of the Chalmers Bakery shops in the area. So it looks like a long term future for a business started in the late 1800s.

Fisher Foods eventually became Macrae’s when difficulties with finance pulled down the previous owners of large factories in Fraserburgh and Peterhead. With hundreds of jobs at stake, negotiations between the receiver and prospective new owners broke down on several occasions. Elegant footwork by Alex Salmond saved the day.

Unlike the situation with employment disputes where the ‘qango’ ACAS can be brought in to broker a deal when relationships between employer and employee have broken down, there is no equivalent body there to help with failing companies.

So it is just as well that both Alex and I have experience of business and can play a conciliating and brokering role from time to time.

The danger for politicians is that success cannot be guaranteed. But in these cases businesses returned to local control meant good news for us all.

For me the Peterhead Prison Campaign dominated. When two partners of prison officers first approached me, it set in motion a chain of events that motivated a community and defeated the Scottish Executive’s plans to close our prison.

And it illustrated for me once again the potential of Scotland’s women. The average wage of men still exceeds that of women despite the first of the equal opportunities laws coming into force as long ago as 1st of January 1975.

The Partners’ Committee showed that women are certainly no less articulate than men and they already been the inspiration for the Cod Crusaders whose tea-shirt “Fishing SoS” I am wearing as I write.

May they be just as successful in 2003 as the prison campaigners were in 2002.

And Finally …

We do occasionally have a humerous moment or two in Parliament. Consider these Ministerial responses to questions from me during debate on the Land Reform Bill;

Deputy Rural Affairs Minister, Allan Wilson: In response to Stewart Stevenson's final point, I confirm that drowning is included in access rights.

and

Allan Wilson: It is not possible to translate paths on to water, because people cannot walk on water.

Stewart Stevenson
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