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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.

Stewart Stevenson
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