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31 March 2004

Family Life

In Scotland we are faced with a considerable number of challenges in public life. Recent years have seen our population shrink and within the decade we are likely to us cross the 5 million barrier – downwards.

At the same time we have, like other EU countries, an aging population. A challenge for any country wanting to prosper. And a subject now receiving cross-party political attention.

So it came as a great challenge to me personally when a visitor to one of my surgeries brought me an unpleasant letter he had received from “Jobcentre Plus”.

To divert for a moment, I find many of the “brand” names which government adopts quite baffling. Just what would a visitor from Mars make of names like “Jobcentre Plus” or “The Power of Well-Being”? You will be hearing more about the latter in the next year by the way – you have been warned.

Now back to the letter.

My constituent is someone with a range of skills, a pleasant and articulate manner and a wife. Besides sharing a desire to live in our area, they share a pre-school age child.

As a “Jobseeker” he has been actively looking for work – he showed me his letters – while his wife looks after their family. A familiar division of effort and a commitment to the next generation of Scots that we need if our population is to grow.

So he was baffled to receive a threatening letter requiring his wife to attend an employment interview – or else.

She has not been “signing on” and had planned to take five years out from here working career to see their child into school. But it seems that our “big brother” government have decided that it is “abnormal” to make child-rearing a priority for part of one’s life.

If this is not an attack on family values I do not know what it is. And like this gentlemen who sought my help, I wanted to know more.

My research has found that in fact there is no compulsion to work. But there are “sanctions” for those who fail to attend an interview designed to “sell” the benefits of employment. None of this is properly explained in the letter sent.

It is time this Labour government realised that they are there to serve our needs and to support families. Our community is not simply cannon fodder for their political “project”.

Life Challenges

For people who have planned to supplement their state pension with a personal one, life has been desperately hard of late.

The collapse in stock market confidence – and prices – has hit hard many of the funds in which people’s pension nest eggs have been invested – and hit hard.

But the news that Standard Life is paying off people sends out a wider message about our economy and the government’s stewardship of it.

Because the first action of Gordon Brown when Labour came to power in 1997 was to change the tax position of ordinary people’s pension funds.

Since then he has taken nearly £40,000 million – or about £5,000 million each year – out of our pension funds. Some mess you’ve got us into Gordon. And the next payoff is Scottish staff employed by one of major companies.

Like many others I have a personal interest in Standard Life. I have a “with-profits” policy with them. And with Gordon Brown nibbling at it the profits ain’t what they were.

But the real tragedy is the prospect of this nearly 200-year-old company being sold off. And that could mean further loss of control and the loss of yet another head office.

A shrinking economy coupled with policy to shrink our population – a deadly combination.

Olympic Hopes

I have long campaigned for more lottery money to come to the North-East. So the news that Scotland is lose £70 million of our money to pay for London’s bid for the 2012 Olympics is hardly welcome.

With our sporting record in recent years we can hardly afford the £30 million that out sports clubs will lose. And another £40 million lost to “good causes” hardly seems like a good idea.

But we are told that we would all benefit. Even the most imaginative of us would be hard pushed to add up all the benefits that Scotland could get from the London Olympics and come to £70 million.

And for this corner of Scotland, it translates into a near £1 million loss. An average of £14 for every person in the country.

With the concerns raised by the House of Commons select committee about the costs, funding and benefits of the London bid, there no guarantee that it is only £70 million.

But they are pushing ahead regardless of the impact that it could have on Scotland and on Scottish sporting and community activities.

17 March 2004

Taxing Times

We have had Gordon Brown’s election budget and commentators do not seem to think much of it.

Despite passionate pleas the whisky strips are here. These are not a new football outfit for any of our teams but an “excise” strip to be stuck over the top of a whisky bottle when tax has been paid on its contents.

Dubious figures have driven “Broon” to this measure. That National Audit Office was only able to suggest that whisky tax fraud was in the range £10 million to £1,000 million – hardly a convincing case for something that will cost one of Scotland’s leading industries dear.

The changes mean whisky producers paying the tax sooner – they have to buy the strips from the government in advance – and upgrading their equipment to stick them on. A costly business.

In Banff and Buchan we have but one distillery and its product – Glen Deveron malt – is “export only” with the sole exception of Duff House where the gift shop supplies this fine dram. But in neighbouring Moray whisky is not just “uisge beatha” – the water of life – it is life itself. A vital industry.

Meantime back at the Scottish Parliament it is another tax issue that is exercising minds and debating time – Council Tax.

A tax that hits our older friends harder has moved firmly onto the agenda.

In recent years the Council Tax has risen well above inflation. And for those on a fixed income like the retired, it has been taking a larger and larger slice of their monthly money. Because, like the “Poll Tax” before it, the Council Tax takes very little account of ability to pay.

The pressure for change is substantial. Older folk suffer and older folk are more likely to vote and older folk are now speaking up in increasing numbers. I am far from the only MSP to have a queue at my surgeries on the subject.

So will things change?

Labour’s First Minister, Jack McConnell answered a question from SNP Leader, John Swinney earlier this month thus, “my personal view that there is a role for property taxation in any democracy that wants progressive taxation systems”.

The difficulty is that he has announced an “independent” review of council finance and here he is also announcing his view of the outcome. Doubts about the “independence” of the review he will establish are growing.

Every other party in the Parliament seeks reform – a majority favours a move away from buildings related tax. And given that Labour is a minority in Holyrood one would imagine that change would therefore follow. In the world of coalition politics it ain’t necessarily so.

While the junior partners in the coalition – the Liberals – have long campaigned, like the SNP, for a local income tax, there is a strong suspicion that they may once again be brought to heel by Labour on this issue as on so many others.

Liberal Minister Tavish Scott has said in Parliament “all taxation alternatives will have to be compared against agreed tests of fairness, economic impact, ability to pay, collection and cost of implementation”.

Fair enough in an independent review. But with the First Minister nailing his colours firmly to the mast in favour of a property-based tax we may already know the outcome – a Council Tax mark 2 – a tax no fairer to our older citizens than the present one.

Nursing a grudge

The Royal College of Nursing held its conference in Edinburgh this week. And took the opportunity to engage with MSPs.

With some fundamental changes looming up in the health service, more than ever will be expected of our nurses. Because with local GPs being able to opt out of providing “out of hours” cover overnight and at weekends, other health professionals will be likely to play a bigger role.

Not that that is necessarily a bad thing.

If I were to need to provide a sample of blood would I prefer a nurse or a doctor to take it? A nurse every time. They do it more often and are more expert as a result.

If I have to attend an Accident & Emergency department to have a cut stitched up, who does it? A nurse. But it has to be a doctor who decides what antibiotic drug I will take to prevent infection. Even though the nurse will invariably recommend the required drug.

So our nurses are a vital part of our NHS.

The government has an “Agenda for Change” in the health service. And the nurses made very clear what changes they think would enable them to deliver for patients.

With most new nurses completing their training as graduates, their skills and knowledge is much as doctors had only a few years ago.

The future should be bright for the profession.

3 March 2004

Conservation

Scotland’s Parliament has provided a forum we did not have previously for fishing. In previous crises during the ‘Westminster’ years’, it barely hit the headlines because of the lack of interest and lack of understanding down there.

In Scotland, there is the interest. More doubtful is whether there is an adequate understanding.

Debating the rules which keep our fishermen in port most of the time, the Parliament’s Environment and Rural Development Committee saw a most bizarre spectacle – the Greens supporting one of the most anti-conservation measures ever to affect our industry.

With the haddock permit scheme which the EU and the Scottish government want, we have fishermen having to discard dead cod when they are fishing for haddocks and throwing away haddocks caught when they are after cod – in both instances despite having quota which permits them to catch and land these fish.

So the effect of the new rules, supported by Labour, Liberal and the Greens, is to INCREASE the quantity of dead fish thrown back.

But if the lack of understanding of that were not enough – it is complex and buried in the interaction of various regulations but forcibly expressed in briefings to MSPs – what was unacceptable was these same people refusing to allow industry members time to appear before their committee.

To do so would not necessarily have delayed the progress of measures on the table, but would have certainly left MSPs with a better understanding of the anti-conservation effects of the new rules.

Because fishermen have a vital interest in ensuring that there will be fish in the sea for their sons and grandsons.

The good working relationship established between WWF – a leading conservation body – and fishermen shows that our industry has nothing to fear and everything to gain from working with the pro-conservation lobby.

What we now need is some preparedness among Green politicians to listen up.

Making Friends

I am sitting here with a new friend at my elbow. With a rather whimsical smile on his face, he is called Buchan.

While his conversation is rather limited, he has prompted a number of strangers to engage his attention on my journey to Parliament this morning.

Because this small bear, a native of Peterhead, is an appealing sophisticate.
I visited Glendaveny Teddy Bears in Peterhead a few weeks ago and they effected my introduction to Buchan.

But we are hoping that Buchan has a star-filled future ahead of him.

We may just be within sight of the finishing post for the construction of the new Parliament building. Much to my continuing frustration, the final cost will probably not be known for some time afterwards.

And completion means an opening ceremony. Not an expensive one but a high-powered one. The monarch is probably coming sometime in October to cut the ribbon.

A quality product, produced for the opening and on sale to the 600 to 700 thousand visitors should fly off the shelf of our Parliament’s shop. A numbered series of Buchan’s brothers would be much better than ‘tourist tat’ and a useful contribution to Glendaveny’s income.

So we will see if we ‘cut a deal’ with our shop.

Healthy living

It seems a very long time ago that the National Health Service was established. Approaching sixty years in fact.

And some of the original structures and agreements are still in place.

More recently, the previous government – obsessed as ever by market-driven reform – introduced a system of trusts and an ‘internal market’. Predictably that was complicated, expensive and distracting from patient needs.

Much of that has been dismantled. The new NHS Reform Bill going through Parliament takes what are probably the final steps in putting a 21st century structure in place.

Health board boundaries aligned with Council ones – a bigger role for the public – greater involvement of staff. Or so Ministers claim.

There is clearly more work to be done. In particular the Scottish government, the Scottish Executive, seems to believe that all this can be done without any new money.

The Parliament’s Finance Committee begs to differ. And the initial debate which we had this week on the government’s proposals confirmed that start-up costs for many of the changes had not been considered worthy of funding.

For my part, I will be supporting moves from Bill Butler, a government back-bencher, to have Health Boards elected. That would be an excellent way of ensuring that there is a direct path of accountability back to the public whose health service it is.

Challenges

Our Parliamentary team has completed its ordeal on TV’s University Challenge. The Welsh Assembly proved worthy opponents and Jeremy Paxman congratulated both teams on being better than “a totally useless Westminster team last year”.

I cannot tell you who won! You need to watch when it is broadcast.

Stewart Stevenson
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