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27 December 2006

A Hectic Year Of Activity In Parliament

As 2006 draws to a close, we have seen that the Parliament has been a flurry of activity, with more than 15 Bills becoming law, along with the many debates and question-times that have taken place since the turn of the year.

One of the more recent Bills that passed has been to establish a bank holiday for St Andrew's Day, although the Labour-led Executive diluted the original proposals.

Instead of creating an additional public holiday, Labour decided to offer to replace an existing holiday.

This is disappointing, given the fact that Scotland has fewer public holidays than any other EU country. Labour once again have shown their lack of ambition by refusing to back the proposal of making St Andrew's Day an extra holiday.

The benefits are obvious for everyone to see: the holi-day would be a welcome break, as well as bringing a boost to our tourism, retail and hospitality sectors over the winter period.

2006 saw local politics take off when our communities rallied round to campaign in a bid to save their maternity units.

Given that the Executive's own report into the NHS stressed the importance of keeping health services local, the policy that NHS Grampian adopted with relation to maternity units was entirely at odds with the stated Government policy.

However, thanks to the hard work and dogged determination of those who campaigned to keep our services, we now have a very good chance of getting birth units in Fraserburgh and Banff similar to those which have been working very well for some time in the NHS Highland area.

The meeting I had with the Health Minister recently highlighted that local people can bring about change, and I would like to congratulate all of those that made their voices heard. Hopefully in the new year, we will have something to cheer about!

Icy chill

NOW that winter has finally descended, there is a further chill in the air with the recently released figures that tell us that 328,000 households in Scotland suffer from fuel poverty.

The Executive should hang their heads in shame that we have fuel poverty; after all, we are an oil-rich nation just like Norway.

The difference between Scotland and Norway, however, is that Norway is independent.

This independence has given Norway the ability and confidence to create a petroleum fund, which is now worth £90 billion and will secure the future of the Norwegian economy and people not just for 20, 30 or 40 years – but probably for hundreds of years to come.

It has been so successful that the Norwegians are using not only the interest on the capital but the interest on the interest on the capital to invest in their economy.

Scottish Gas and Scottish Power have increased their prices by 22% and 17% respectively: I fear that people will be left with the choice of whether to eat or heat.

What my party and I would argue for as a long-term solution is the citizens' pension, which would offer a decent standard of living for all. At this time of year I would especially ask those with elderly neighbours to take the time to check that they are okay.

Finally...I would like to take this opportunity to wish everyone a happy and safe Christmas and New Year.

13 December 2006

Post Office at heart of communities

GIVEN that many of us have sent – or are about to send – our Christmas cards, it was highly relevant that in Parliament we have held a debate about the threat of closures faced by rural post offices.

If any more closures were to take place it would be a further body blow to local communities across Scotland. Given that almost a fifth of Scots living in the countryside are more than three miles from a post office – nearly four times as many as the Royal Mail's national target – it would be a national shame if this figure were to rise.

During the debate I highlighted that, in common with other parts of Scotland, the number of key facilities (shops, post offices, primary schools, petrol stations and doctors' surgeries) in rural areas has fallen by 35% since 1981. So we must do all that we can to ensure that our communities' post offices are safeguarded.

Rural post offices are a vital backbone of our local communities, and they are often the last shop that is open in many small villages throughout Scotland.

The proposed removal in 18 months' time of the rural subsidy that is paid to our post offices by the United Kingdom Department of Trade and Industry might be one of the most significant issues that currently affects rural Scotland. That is why it was important that MSPs through the debate made their views known so that we could bring pressure to bear on Westminster.

We all know that in Banff and Buchan we have vibrant local communities.

In fact, we have 32 community council areas in the constituency, and as I pointed out in my last column, our communities won the Calor Scottish community of the year award twice in the past five years. There is a huge sense of community spirit in the area, and I believe that post offices can further foster these strong ties.

During my annual summer surgery tour, I dropped in on the local post office at Whitehills to talk to Annette Addison, who is the postmistress there. In a community of 1,000, she gathered 900 signatures in an attempt to save the Post Office card account, which graphically indicates the value that the community of Whitehills places on the post office and the services that it delivers.

Drink-drivers beware

AT THIS time of year we all like to celebrate the festive period, and many people will no doubt partake in a drink or two.

However, when anyone drinks, they also have a responsibility to ensure that their actions do not have shattering consequences.

Let us not forget road deaths in the Grampian area have already tragically surpassed the 50 mark. We should remember that each statistic equals a lost life, which has turned upside down the lives of 50 families and placed them in turmoil.

Drink impairs people's reaction times and their judgment on the road.

I am pleased to hear that Grampian Police will be actively watching for the tell-tell signs of drunk drivers. The fact that the police will be out in force during the festive period should both put fear into those people that would risk drink driving; and reassure the rest of society that these people will get caught.

In fact, there have been 770 allegations of drink-driving reported in Grampian between January and November already.

When driving, if you add alcohol into the mix, you are not only gambling with your own life but with the lives of others. The message which the police are sending out is one which I firmly endorse, and that message is a simple one – don't drink and drive.

When going out to enjoy the festivities, please think ahead and have a plan for how to get home. There are various options available to people, such as using public transport, a taxi, or be in the company of a non-drinking driver.

Please remember to be safe and sensible when enjoying the festivities.

28 November 2006

Battling Villagers Rewarded For Efforts

THIS week I had the pleasure of congratulating community activists in New Deer as they won the Calor Scottish Community of the Year Award, when I attended the ceremony which was held in Edinburgh.

I am absolutely delighted for the village and for the people who helped bring this honour to Buchan.

I believe one of the main reasons it was won has been the positive and battling spirit displayed by the village when it was faced with losing its only bank.

It is quite unprecedented for a community faced with this situation to take the campaign to other financial institutions and manage to attract a new bank to set up in the village.

There are many other facets of village life which make New Deer such a great place, but this campaign was absolutely key and I am thrilled for the campaigners that their hard work has been recognised in this way.

I hope that other villages and communities from Banff and Buchan will be following in New Deer's footsteps by challenging for next year's award.

These awards highlight the benefits of village life and shows that there is such as thing as society.

I am never surprised when the Banff and Buchan character is recognised, because having encountered and sampled the hospitality and friendship of the people of the area I know that others too would appreciate it. This is another selling point that some people might say is unique to the North-east.

And, I must say, I am proud and honoured to be representing the people of Banff and Buchan.

Smoking change in the air

AN EXPERT group on smoking prevention has published its recommendations, and, as a result, the Health Minister agreed to change the law by raising the legal age for buying cigarettes.

This step may be introduced by the first anniversary of the smoking ban, which so far has proved a success, as the vast majority of Scotland's citizens have observed the ban.

The response from those people who have worked in places where smoking was rife have stated that they feel the health benefits, so I welcome the fact that there will be legislation to raise the age of buying cigarettes from 16 to 18.

We must remind ourselves of the stark facts associated with smoking. About 12 times more people in the UK have died from smoking than were killed during World War II.

And the population of Scotland – 5 million people – died from smoking-related diseases across the world in 2000.

In Scotland, tobacco use kills 13,000 people in every year, and this makes it one of Scotland's greatest public health challenges.

When it comes to the youth of Scotland, the more barriers we can put up to stop them entering a lifelong habit of smoking must be acted upon.

Five per cent of boys and 7% of girls are regular smokers at the age of 13. This rose to 14% and 24% by the age of 15.

This highlights the need for a change of thought and, if the new law is passed, I hope that it is just as successful as the smoking ban.

It's time that Scotland kicked its sick-man of Europe tag into touch.

1 November 2006

Scotland missing out on trained physiotherapists

IN THE Scottish Parliament this week, we saw the ethos of the people's Parliament being met as hundreds of physiotherapy students and graduates made the trek to Edinburgh to lobby their MSPs.

I had the opportunity to meet with students from outwith Banff and Buchan, as well as those from the constituency.

The reason they came to Parliament was to highlight the depressing fact that, four months after graduating, 81% were still looking for their first job. This seems at odds with the bizarre situation we currently have, as there are 28,000 patients in Scotland waiting to see a physiotherapist.

If a patient has to wait, they run the risk that their condition becomes chronic due to lack of early physiotherapy intervention. The fact is that there is a pool of talent that is not being drawn from, and this is wasteful and damaging. If these graduates are not employed and trained, we will not have the senior or specialist physiotherapists in the future on whom the NHS heavily relies.

In order to maintain their skills, many graduates are seeking work abroad, and this will be a drain on our skilled workforce. And with the latest estimates suggesting that it takes £28,580 to train a physiotherapy graduate, the job shortage would represent a potential wasted investment of £2.5 million. The Scottish Executive must and should be doing more to protect taxpayers' investment. We have the opportunity to act to prevent a crisis, and this must be acted upon.

Scotland can ill afford to lose our well-trained graduates, who are desperately needed to treat patients more quickly, as many patients can be seen by a physiotherapist rather than having to wait to see a consultant.

I must say that I was very impressed with they way the students from Banff and Buchan made their case. It shows that the public can and should become involved in politics.

Speaking both as a local politician and as someone who has had the need of physiotherapy treatment in the past, I hope that once those students graduate, a job will be waiting for them.

There was welcome news with the release that a record number of overseas visitors came to Scotland last year. There were nearly 2.4 million tourists in 2005, a 50% increase on 2001 – which happened to be the year of a double blow for the industry with the foot-and-mouth outbreak and the World Trade Centre attacks. The reason that this is significant is that the tourism industry is worth an estimated £4.2 billion to the Scottish economy, with £1.2 billion spent by overseas visitors alone. More could be done, however, to promote Scotland as a tourist destination, and in particular the North-east.

Tourism can part fill the financial gap of communities whose main industries have dwindled. I know for a fact that the North-east has a great deal to offer that would greatly interest many of those visitors from abroad who seek Scotland as a place to visit. After all, we have breathtaking scenery, warm and friendly people, local food and other produce, which has a distinctive flavour that encapsulates the Scottish larder. And our coastal and historical sites add to the unique selling point that the North-east offers.

But as we know, the car remains the primary means of travel for tourists. Travel by car in industrial countries accounts for more than 70% of all tourists' journeys. That is why my party, the SNP, have called for more transport investment. Scotland needs world-class transport connections to attract greater numbers of tourists in the future. The roads that service the North of Scotland have been deeply under-funded, which has led to great driver frustration. At times this has caused grave accidents. If we are really serious about making Scotland a premier holiday tourist destination, we have to invest in our transport infrastructure for the benefit of tourists and locals alike. It's time that Scotland achieved its tourism potential.

18 October 2006

Party takes heart from power surge

LAST week, once I had finished with my surgeries I headed down to Perth to take part in my party's annual conference, and I must say I was heartened to observe that the national Press was full of articles stating that the SNP were on the brink of Government.

This gave everyone an extra bounce in their step. Conference is more than just a debating shop, it is a remarkable beehive where we are all together working and thinking with the goal of a common purpose, and to build on the positive press coverage of the conference gives my party the chance to stock the cupboard with new and fresh ideas to take into Government.

It also allows people the opportunity to see what alterative ideas and policies are on offer for Scotland's future.

Climate for change

ONE of the main areas of debate is that of our environment and climate change. Indeed, Scotland has a once-in-a-generation opportunity to develop our exceptional and extensive green energy resources. The political debate in our country must now focus on what is possible for Scotland as we enter a new and pressing period for energy production and use. I have no doubt that the decisions we take now will decide whether we are world-leaders.

As you may be aware, the SNP and I oppose the building of any new nuclear power stations. We believe that Scotland is well placed to be a leader in renewable energy, and as such it is our aim that Scotland by 2020 should produce 50% of its energy by means of renewables.

The fact is, Scotland has 25% of Europe's wind power, 10% of Europe's wave power and 10% of Europe's tidal power. These are Scotland's natural resources and we should be harnessing them to benefit Scotland's people.

Investment in these other forms of energy must be a high priority in Scotland's energy programme. As we all know, fossil fuels will not last forever, and nuclear power produces harmful waste that will last for generations to come. Energy is Scotland's opportunity and Scotland's challenge. It's time for Scotland to be energy wise and make decisions that will benefit us today and for the long-term; decisions that our children and their children can be proud of.

One of our new ideas is that nearly half of Scottish homes should be producing some of their own energy needs within 10 years. We set this vision out last week, stating that it is our aim of having wind turbines on roofs and in gardens, with solar panels and bio-fuel burners in more than a million of the 2.5 million homes in the country.

The impact of one million small turbines would be the equivalent of having half of a nuclear power station generating at capacity.

Wrong role models

WE need to tackle the real root cause of drugs in society; namely the supply of the deadly cargo, and the social factors that lead people into the arms of these pedlars of destruction.

We should be going after the Mr Bigs of the drugs world, not those people that are ensnared in their iron grip. For too long, drug dealers have thought of themselves as above the law. We need to change that impression; we need to aim to dismantle the profit from drugs.

It sends out the wrong message to children in estates who often see drug dealers as role models.

19 September 2006

Local Food- Miles better

Last week in Parliament I was able to take part in a debate which highlighted that buying and producing food locally is a win-win situation for all involved.

Especially when we consider that some 75% of Scotland’s land mass is under agricultural production, making the industry the single biggest determinant of the landscape we see around us. Scotland’s farmers, crofters and growers produce output worth around £2 billion a year. If we were to make more use of Scotland’s produce we could even reduce our carbon footprint on the world according to a report published in the journal Food Policy local food is usually more "green" than organic food. The authors calculated that if all foods were sourced from within 20km of where they were consumed, environmental and congestion costs would fall from more than £2.3bn to under £230m - an "environmental saving" of £2.1bn annually.

However recent statistics show that a traditional Sunday lunch could easily have travelled 25,000 miles to get to our plates ranging from lamb from New Zealand and vegetables from Africa, so, why is this the case and what can we do in Scotland to end the food miles.

Well the call for local food to be labelled as such, perhaps with information on the food miles travelled shown on the label is a good idea that should be given some credence. Indeed given that the Arbroath Smokie gained the same rights as Camembert, Parma ham and champagne under the place of origin individual regional trademark scheme I fully believe that Scotland has a wide range of products that could also be protected under this scheme to worldwide acclaim. This would attract new visitors to the area and it would not just be the scenery that took people’s breath away but also the local produce and as we all know the North-east is renowned for the quality of its meat, seafood and other produce and that our farmers, fishermen and producers deserve our (and the Executives) support. And the prize to gain is worthwhile given that currently food tourism is already worth more than £900 million to Scotland's tourism industry, this figure could and should increase significantly given the right level of encouragement. The benefits are there for all to see, the local food sector has the potential to alleviate social and economic disadvantage. There is significant scope to increase the uptake of local food. With a co-ordinated approach, locally produced foods could be sold locally at affordable prices and still be profitable for the supplier.

We in Scotland should be proud of our National larder we should not be hiding it under a bush. Scotland’s food producers must adhere to the strictest and toughest food regulations in the world. As such our hygiene, health and safety standards of or food stuff is of the highest quality. However quality does not mean that you have to pay over the odds for produce many people may be shocked to realise that their local food producer may be cheaper that the big supermarkets, in fact when I go to my local butcher, who sells organic beef which is locally grown, I pay a lower price than I would pay at Tesco down the road. If more people where to consider the matter, they would discover that option for themselves.

But we all need to change our shopping habits to release the potential of our local food, and the Government and big business must change also as there are strange working practices for example, white fish is landed at Peterhead, the biggest white-fish port in Europe, and pelagic fish is landed at Fraserburgh. It costs £700 for a lorry to take the fish down to the supermarkets' distribution centres in the north of England, only for that fish to be returned to Tesco's store in Fraserburgh. Yes, the fish is transported all the way down to the north of England and back again. That is quite absurd. That money could be invested in supporting quality local producers without in any sense putting a penny on the price of food on the plate. It’s time that we all realised that with a little thought and care we can end the food miles, eat healthier and invest in the local economy and you don’t have to sell that idea to me.

Fishing Industry let down by Labour

I raised the point earlier about our regions fishing supply and heritage which reminds me that the Executive by answering one of my Parliamentary questions showed the true extent of the damage that Labour has created to our Scottish Fishing Fleet. There figures about decommissioned fishing vessels hit home to us that under a Labour Government Scotland has lost an integral part of our history and economic prosperity. The sad fact is that 1092 vessels have been decommissioned is not just a lamentable statistic but we should remember that each one of those vessels decommissioned represents a human story of lost livelihood and to a certain extent a skill that could be lost to Scotland forever. My party has continually called for more to be done to support our fishing fleet and an SNP government would see those thoughts are put into action, instead of having a cow-toeing, weak willed Labour Government. Under an SNP Government Scotland’s fishing communities would have a loud and clear supportive voice.

5 September 2006

Back to Holyrood

Parliamentarians were back to work in Edinburgh this week after spending the summer recess (hopefully like myself) getting out and about seeing constituents in their own towns and villages. So we should all have come back with a sack load of concerns and problems from constituents that need addressing, the term ahead should be a busy one as we are now leading up to next May’s election. However before the elections there is a lot of work that needs to be finalised and health is always a major area that takes up a lot of parliamentary time, and with the recent stories circulating in the media about hospital cleanliness (or lack thereof), nurses' time pressure and hospital services closing the nation’s health will be paramount to future debates.

Drink and Drugs

On the subject of Scotland’s health the sad fact of our nations' chronic problem with drugs and alcohol was hit home recently with the release of figures which highlighted the deaths from these two vices has increased significantly since 1999. There has been a 20% rise in alcohol-related deaths since 1999. There has also been a rise in drug-related deaths - with fatalities involving heroin up by 25%. Unfortunately this means that there were 1,513 alcohol-related deaths across Scotland in 2005, we should remember that this figure is not just a statistic as each preventative death represents a lost human life, a father, a mother, a sister a bother lost due to drink.

The Lib-Lab government in Scotland must get a hold of the situation and find ways to tackle the root cause of alcohol and drugs abuse.

The fact that more people are dying from drink as well as drug related deaths should come as a stark warning that we have a lot of work still to do to combat Scotland's drink and drugs problems. The effects of both drugs and alcohol on our communities are plain to see up and down the country, not just on individuals who choose to take drugs or drink.

Next year an SNP Government will prioritise rehabilitation and counselling services for those with addictions and start to address the root cause of this growing problem, social deprivation, instead of sticking to a failed plan.

Christmas lights

I know that summer has just ended and that Christmas seems like a long way off, but for those that organise the preparations for the festivities that we all enjoy their planning has gotten underway in earnest for this years event. However I must admit that I am worried that there appears to be a lack of volunteers and businesses willing to help with the Christmas lights display for Banff. Too many people think that it is the Council that sorts the lights out, however this is not the case and it would seem that the same people are being relied upon year on year to manage the light display. I would like to appeal for local business to come forward and pledge their financial support to this years Christmas light fund, and I would also ask those of you that think you can help to offer your assistance to those you are volunteering this year. The Christmas lights may seem trivial to some but they not only brighten up dark winter days and nights for both children and adults but it is also a major selling point for the town This cause is deserving of our support and I intend to get behind the project.

Travel for young people

The Scottish Executive has gone back on it’s promise to give all students subsidised travel. The fact that a similar scheme which afforded free travel for all pensioners proved to be such a success this should encourage not dissuade the Executive in offering students with the chance to enjoy cheaper public transport.

The Executive’s own partnership accord committed Ministers to ensuring that all young people in full time education would gain a level of subsidised travel, however yet again ministers seem to be back-peddling over this promise.

They have done this by stating that subsidised travel will cover only those aged 16-18 and those, up to the age of 25, who are full-time volunteers. All other students over 18 will not get access to the scheme.

If this scheme is not given to every student it will be another blow to rural communities, our constituency will soon be the only one to have no rail or air link in Scotland. So to attract and retain young people the subsidised travel scheme would of course have helped in this regard.

Especially if we take into account the rising price of fuel, giving young and senior citizens the chance to use public transport more could stop many forms of exclusion, from Economic: if no alternative transport is available people have to pay for taxis which is expensive, it can also harm peoples chances of keeping a part-time job, which relies on flexi-time shifts. Social exclusion is also rife as a lack of transport will hamper people attending facilities such as swimming pools, banks, cinemas, libraries and doctor surgeries. This means people have a lack of choice; the stark reality is either stay at home, or pay large sums of money to enjoy some form of simple activity and/or attend an essential service/ appointment.

It is time for politicians and minister’s to stand by the decisions and promises that they make, no wonder people despair that you can’t trust a politician, I hope that my conduct as an MSP will have changed people’s view on this subject.

8 August 2006

Reaping a hairst o' community spirit

THE summer break gives me the opportunity to meet many people in their environment, instead of the usual office surroundings. Indeed, I have already seen a number of folk, most notably at the Turriff show.

This event always highlights the wealth of quality local produce on offer. This year marked the 142nd show and, I must say, it was the best yet.

I am always pleasantly surprised at the continuing popularity of the event and it seems to be going from strength to strength. We all know that biggest fixture in the Turriff calendar, and it attracts more than 40,000 visitors from a wide geographical area, including overseas.

With this number of visitors attending, it has a positive knock-on effect for the commercial success for the whole of the North-east area.

I must say the Turriff Show is a great family day out and it also harvests a real community spirit which I hope continues for a long time.

Fight continues

I was deeply concerned, and distressed, over NHS Grampian’s recent decision to recommend the closure of maternity units at Huntly, Banff, Aboyne and Fraserburgh.

As we know, Fraserburgh is the only town in Scotland, with a population exceeding 10,000, which is more than one hour’s travel away from an acute services hospital, and this is yet another blow by the NHS in Aberdeen against the community here.

It is time that they started to listen to the community in providing services they require

This is, of course, a decision that, ultimately, has to be taken by the Health Minister in Edinburgh. The community has time to make their views known to the Minister and I will be supporting them.

The policy of the Scottish Executive is based on Professor Kerr’s recent report which requires that health services are delivered as close as possible to the local communities that need them. That should mean that maternity services in principal will continue to be delivered in that community, and I call upon everyone involved with this matter to make sure that their views are known when the Minister makes his decision.

One silver lining is the news that Peterhead’s maternity unit is safe. However, I will not be satisfied until the communities in Banff and Fraserburgh also have their maternity units safeguarded; so as far as I’m concerned, the campaign continues and the fight goes on.

Trawlermen

I WAS glad to see the BBC broadcasting a programme which portrayed the difficulties and general work life of fishermen. The 'stars’ of 'Trawlermen’ were from Peterhead-registered vessels.

It meant that between 4 to 5 million people got to witness the real dangers these men face at sea and the camaraderie that exists between them; this was an excellent piece of television.

However, my one slight gripe was that the BBC subtitled parts of the show, as I personally think there’s a huge value in diversity and linguistics and culture, and one of the things we should do is make the effort to listen carefully when we meet something new.

I believe that the show has not only highlighted the fishing industry but also Doric, and, hopefully, the people that watched the show will have engaged in the language. After all the Scottish programme 'Still Game’ which also airs in England did not need the use of subtitles.

But like I say, I do welcome and congratulate all those involved in 'Trawlermen’, as it is one of the best made about this subject matter.

25 July 2006

Heat-wave

Heat-wave hits as energy debate hots up

THIS week has seen a real heat-wave hit Scotland – I hope everyone will treat the sun with the respect it deserves by using sun-block – and this can be seen as further evidence that global warming is taking place.

With that in mind, I was pleased when my party produced its own energy review of Scotland.

The review chairman was the widely respected Professor Stephen Salter, and the findings and recommendations that it formed are highly significant and eye-opening for Scotland. For example, Scotland produces six times more energy than we use – and we export more than ten times the oil.

Given the recent glorious weather we have been experiencing, it’s no wonder that research concludes that Scotland has one of the best climates in Europe for using solar heat in buildings.

Energy demand in Scottish buildings could be reduced by at least 30% if we adhere to the suggestions put forward by Professor Salter. While with a combination of techniques we could lead to a reduction in heat and electricity demand in industry in Scotland of at least 25%.

The SNP’s energy review points to an energy-rich Scotland powered by the sea, the sun, the wind, our land, and using fossil fuels cleanly. Renewables and clean fuel technologies can power our homes, cars and buildings. We already know that Scotland has 25% of Europe’s wind power, 10% of Europe’s wave power and 10% of Europe’s tidal power; these are Scotland’s natural resources, and we should be harnessing them to benefit Scotland’s people.

The vision set out in the review will allow Scotland to have a secure energy future, tackle climate change and create thousands of new jobs.

This is in direct opposition to Labour’s new-found love affair with nuclear power. Let’s be quite clear; every pound spent on new nuclear power stations in Scotland is a pound wasted on a dirty and dangerous fuel of the past.

Any new investment in energy in Scotland must be focused 100% on delivering community-based projects, on making the most of our carbon capture potential and maximising the huge generation capacity around our shores.

Even England wants Independence

An ICM poll has revealed the interesting fact that the English people feel that constitutional change is needed. The poll highlighted that some 31% of people in England have shown their support for an independent England, and this strikes me that there is now a real desire for a new relationship of equals between Scotland and England to be made.

We now not only have a situation where a majority in Scotland would vote for Scotland becoming independent, but a new poll showing growing and substantial support for English independence.

Given that in main Westminster and Holyrood political discussions, the 'West Lothian Question’ has raised its head again, Gordon Brown is increasingly trying to shed his Scottish identity and soul. It’s time both countries were self- governing, each having responsibility for their own resources and passing their own laws while working together in a new partnership of equals.

Clearly, this is the future. This growing support shows that the Union is past its sell-by date and independence is increasingly at the top of most people’s agenda.

11 July 2006

250 Not Out

250 and still not out at Holyrood

JUST before my parliamentary colleagues and I bid farewell to the chamber to herald the start of the summer recess, I was able to fulfil a personal milestone: during the last debate of the session I made my 250th speech.

Now, as most people will know, the mathematician in me sometimes gets the better of me, and when it comes to keeping a tally of speeches made by me and other MSPs I do like to keep a record.

As it transpired, since my maiden speech back on June 14, 2001, when I spoke on the Common Fisheries Policy, I realised a few weeks ago that a landmark number of speeches was fast approaching.

I was glad that my first speech concentrated on the real and core interest to our community and nothing more typified this than the debate we had on the Common Fisheries Policy.

However my 250th speech, which was on International development and in particular Scotland’s relationship with Malawi, also highlighted the great strides that the Scottish Parliament has taken into maturing into an outward-looking Parliament.

I am glad to report that the Scottish Parliament is indeed reaching out to new levels of activity and entering the international stage.

The debate ended with all politicians agreeing that Scotland has an international duty to assist those countries that are less fortunate than us.

The debate also gave glimpses of many Scots’ dedication into helping not just people in Malawi, but people from all over the world.

It shows that Scotland is striving for its place so that our voices can be heard. However for our voice and actions to be truly heard in the world stage we need an independent seat at the table so that we can offer our own Scottish flavour of opinion.

This will only happen once we are free from Westminster and can remove their gag from Scotland’s mouth.

Summer recess

WELL it’s summer recess again and, given all the Press, one would think that MSPs now enjoy a relaxing time until Parliament resumes. However this couldn’t be further from the truth as I truly believe that at least 99% of MSPs will be hard at work in their constituencies over this period.

For me, summer recess gives me the opportunity to take time out to meet and talk to constituents at length over the issues of the day without the constant pull of Holyrood calling me back.

It is my belief that it is important for constituents to be able to meet their MSP in their own locality. Many constituents also appreciate the gesture and have indicated this to me in more than one occasion.

I believe this is where the real work takes place; this is where people get the chance to talk at length about the issues and problems that they face, and it also gives me a lot of work to take back to Parliament.

For those of you that are going on holidays may I wish you a safe and happy trip and for those of you that are visiting may I offer my most sincere welcome and I hope your stay is a pleasant one, which I’m sure it will be.

17 May 2006

Home Again

It's good to be back home

FINALLY, after two months, MSPs were allowed back into the debating chamber.

As you will remember, we had to evacuate the chamber in early March after a roof beam swung loose during a debate.

I must say that it was good to be back on the floor, as I feel that the chamber surroundings add something special to debates.

Also it meant that visitors could take their place in the public gallery and view proceedings from close quarters. After all, that is what our Parliament was meant to be - a People's Parliament.

Most of my colleagues agreed that gaining access to the chamber again was a real boost. Thanks to the public, the atmosphere was charged.

This week my party had the choice of debates, and we started on a subject that many people have raised with me: that of Council Tax and pensioner poverty.

The SNP believes, along with a majority of people, that the current council tax is unfair because it is based on neither income or ability to pay.

We believe that local taxation will be made fair only when Parliament introduces a local income tax.

We believe that the local income tax scheme should be based on the ability to pay.

A local income tax would have a number of clear attractions. As a new system for collecting local taxation, it would have the advantage of being local foremost.

This would enable local communities to be in control of how much they wish to contribute to pay for local services.

The income tax system already identifies those who are liable to pay income tax, and a local income tax would be a bolt-on to that system.

A local income tax would be clear and simple and would not involve the bureaucracy of council tax and the council tax benefit system.

At present, Scots pensioners aren't claiming what is rightfully theirs. Recent figures highlight that more than 200,000 pensioners in Scotland who are entitled to claim council tax benefit do not claim it - and therefore pay more council tax than they should.

That means that more than one in five Scottish pensioners pay an extra £540 every year. Scottish pensioners pay a staggering £118 million more than they should in council tax.

This fact shows that Scots have been over-paying into the system for years, and it should be seen as a great cause for concern, especially when we think that since Labour came to power in 1997, council tax has increased by some 50 per cent.

The council tax was introduced in 1993 under the last Conservative government as a result of the backlash from the dreaded poll tax.

But the Council Tax is now just as unfair and unjust. It hits working families and pensioners hardest.

The Executive should remember the echoes of the past: people who feel hard done by will take action.

The action that we have called for is for the adoption of a fair and balanced local income tax.

7 February 2006

Fishing 2006

Comparisons

Just occasionally you realise that someone in government actually 'gets it' about fishing. The nearest we got in this year's fishing debate in the Scottish Parliament came when former minister, Jim Wallace, discussed the role of Norway in determining the access Scottish fishermen have to key fishing grounds and some of the history of the industry.

Jim harked back to his days in Westminster and to his saying in 1988, “I welcome the opportunity of this debate in advance of the meeting of the Council of Ministers ... It will help the Minister to understand how anxious hon. Members on both sides of the House are about the drastic cuts in the total allowable catch, particularly those for cod and haddock“.

Sixteen years later, the continuing failure of the EU's Common Fisheries Policy to address our needs, or the needs of conservation, leaves us still anxious about total allowable catches for cod and haddocks. More interesting, and a more significant revelation, was his understanding of the strength that Norway, a country with a smaller population than Scotland, has in its negotiations with the EU.

Jim Wallace described the talks between Norway and the Community as “fundamentally important” to the haddock quotas our industry ends up with. And of course he is correct.

But is very revealing of the nature of the Liberal – Labour coalition government that we have in Scotland that such a Liberal feels he can only speak when he has left office, the self-evident truth that independent Norway, outside the CFP, holds the whip hand. Such is the price that the Liberals pay for their ministerial Mondeos.

Such is the price that our industry pays because of it.

Our Northern Competitors

The end of February saw a further visit to the North-East by former Icelandic fisherman, now advisor to the Faroes, Jón Kristjánsson. I first met Jón at a fisheries meeting held at the Ban-Car hotel in March 2003 when he described the very different approach being taken by the very small, but important, administration in the Faroes.

Focusing on effort and not on quotas, they eliminate the hated discards and have seen their stocks rise. Sigurjón Thórdarson, an Icelandic MP, came with Jón to Peterhead and brought a sense of despair about Iceland's quota system all too familiar to our fishermen.

Even with a more hands on approach than in Scotland – and not many of our fishermen are asking for tighter controls – the diminution in stocks could be seen in the graphs that Sigi ran through with me.

The diagrams on the Faroes' fishing effort and stock were startling. A clear cyclical variation in stock levels could be seen over the greater part of a century.

Particularly interesting in support of his case that stopping fishing was not the answer, was the stock graph during the Second World War. With virtually no fishing between 1939 and 1945, we nonetheless saw no difference in the shape of the stock graph over, or immediately after, that period. It gave dramatic strength to the argument that the EU's policy of removing our fishing boats from the sea would not help stocks.

Sigi's concerns about Iceland's fishing industry mirror ours. He clearly hopes that new alliances across national boundaries can persuade governments to look to the Faroes for a new approach.

On Shore

The tensions that exist from time to time between different parts of the fishing industry are not surprising given the interdependencies between them and need for each to make a living.

A vibrant processing sector which produces 'ready meals' and 'added-value' products generally is vital to provide a market for the catchers' landings. The traditional 'wet fish' trade is no longer the staple that it once was and the fish-and-chip shops don't buy much of the new species being landed.

So if our processors hurt, catchers suffer. The resignation of Professor Alexander as boss of Scottish Water illustrates the conflict between government and that industry. And early signs of spill-over into fish processing are there. The key problem has been chronic under-investment in sewers and supply.

And the Liberal – Labour government's insistence on recovery of capital expenditure in just a few years. For processors it has meant that the increasingly high standards governing waste discharge from sewage plants, coming largely - as with the CFP - from Europe, simply cannot be met by Scottish Water with their existing systems.

And the necessary investment to build plant which can accept fish-processors' sewage and convert it to sufficiently pure output, cannot be afforded under government rules. The result? We may see boats having to be paid to take processors' waste 12 miles out to dump it!

Processors being compelled to solve a problem more properly Scottish Water's. This is one issue we deal with ourselves in Scotland. The Liberal – Labour government simply has to come up with a sensible program of support for our water industry that helps our vital shore-based fish processors.

Stewart Stevenson
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