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19 December 2007

Moving Towards a Healthier Scotland in 2008

Health is one of the most fundamental issues under any Government’s remit. Indeed it is so basic and universal that it is often taken for granted. However far from being complacent, the SNP Government has fully recognised its responsibility to the health of Scotland’s people and positively stepped up to the challenge of making Scotland a healthier, fairer nation.

The SNP’s core health objective on taking over Government was to improve Scotland’s health record as a whole and reduce the significant inequalities that still exist. Our policy is informed by the belief that good health and wellbeing is a universal right and should not depend on a person’s financial status or where they live. The SNP has always maintained that it was utterly unacceptable in the 21st Century that a developed, oil rich country like Scotland should be lagging behind its international counterparts in terms of life expectancy and health inequalities.

However, work is now well under way to shake off the ‘sick man of Europe’ tag which Scotland has been tarred with for far too long. The SNP has taken positive action on Scotland’s long standing health problems, taking a long-term approach to tackle the underlying problems. Chief amongst these are health inequalities and unhealthy lifestyle practices such as poor diet, smoking and alcohol abuse.

This is why in its first six months in Government the SNP has begun a phased abolition of prescription charges to make healthcare more equal, supporting many people in Banff & Buchan particularly those with long term conditions. This will go a long way to narrowing the social gap that still exists in health. Further to this we have raised the age of cigarette sales from 16 to 18, staged Scotland’s first alcohol awareness week and started a free school meals pilot to mention but a few measures. Indeed the recent SNP Budget allocated £85 million over three years to reduce damage done by alcohol and £3 million a year to reduce smoking.

In fact only last week the SNP announced extra funding of £11 million a year to help smokers quit. This includes £597,000 for Grampian Health Board to assist smokers in the North East who are trying to kick the habit. This is good news for Banff & Buchan where I know many people will benefit from support as they face the difficult challenge of giving up smoking.

Indeed the nature of a Government’s health policy is a strong indication of how that Government values and prioritises the welfare of the people it serves. And on this basis it is clear that the health of Scotland’s people is at the top of the SNP’s agenda.

Christmas Tidings
I would like to take this opportunity to wish everyone in Banff & Buchan a safe and happy Christmas and New Year. I can certainly say that this year has been one of the most successful and exciting for myself and the SNP and indeed one of the most historic for the people of Scotland. The single most exhilarating event of 2007 for me personally however was being reelected to serve the people of Banff & Buchan for another four years. This has been a genuine honour for which I owe a huge gratitude to my constituents. I wish all of you the very best over this festive period and look forward to serving you to the best of my ability in 2008.

11 December 2007

A Day of National Celebration

St. Andrew’s Day is a day with one simple purpose - to celebrate Scotland. For one day in the year it gives each of us the opportunity to rejoice in being Scottish and to revel in sheer national pride, not to mention some good old Scottish fun!

And in no other year has our national day been so widely and passionately celebrated as this one. In all six cities and all across the country a variety of diverse cultural activities marked the Scottish Patron Saint’s day. Ceilidhs, festivals and markets were in full swing. Tourist activity was also high on the agenda as over sixty of Scotland’s top visitor attractions were open to the public free of charge. Many people also had the added bonus of a day off work. I myself was not so lucky but nonetheless thoroughly enjoyed the evening festivities here in Banff & Buchan at a St. Andrew’s Day celebration in Peterhead.

St. Andrew’s Day passed with in a noticeably different air in Scotland this year for two reasons. One was the fact that the SNP Government made a special effort this year to promote our national day which has gone somewhat under-recognised and taken for granted in the past. In previous years there has been a distinct sense of reserve surrounding our celebration of St. Andrew’s Day. However, this year the SNP fully embraced the celebrations and inspired thousands of people here in Scotland and indeed across the globe to join them in doing so. After all, almost every country boasts a national day from Independence Day in the US to St. Patrick’s Day in Ireland. Scotland has just as much to be proud of as any other nation so why shouldn’t we indulge in a bit of healthy patriotism once a year?

I would like to see St. Andrew’s Day take on the global significance that St. Patrick’s Day boasts for the Irish people both at home and abroad. And with the enormous Scottish Diaspora, estimated to be 40 million strong, there is no reason why it should not.

Another difference in the tone of the festivities this year was a subtle yet distinct sense of positivity and optimism for Scotland’s future. Scotland is a country currently undergoing change – and change for the better. With a new SNP Government that is promoting Scotland and acting in Scotland’s interests, our country is gaining a greater sense of itself. This is obvious from within, here at home and also for those looking at Scotland from the outside, on the international stage. With the SNP the horizon for Scotland is looking brighter than ever before.

A Triumph for Free Healthcare
Healthcare in Scotland received a massive boost this week as the SNP Government announced that prescription charges are to be substantially cut year on year for the next four years and abolished by 2011. Next April single prescription costs will be reduced by 25%, down from £6.85 to £5, then falling further to £4 in 2009 and £3 in 2010 before being eradicated in 2011. Furthermore, people suffering from long term conditions will benefit enormously from a cut of more than 50 per cent in the cost of pre-payment certificates.

This is the kind of practical step that will help thousands of ordinary people across Scotland, and a huge number here in Banff & Buchan. What prescription charges essentially amount to is a tax on poor health and, for those who cannot afford such costs, an impediment to good health. The SNP believes that everyone in Scotland is equally entitled to health and wellbeing. Why should Scotland, a developed country, have a poorer record on health than some of our counterparts in Europe? We in the SNP have a clear and long-standing goal of making Scotland healthier and fairer. And with common sense measures like this, step by step we are getting ever closer to achieving that goal.

27 November 2007

SNP Budget Heralds Good News for Banff & Buchan

Last week the Scottish Government set out its spending plans for the next three years in the SNP’s first ever Budget. It was a historic day indeed and one which marks the symbolic starting point for the SNP’s successful governance of Scotland.

Sitting in the SNP benches the feeling of achievement and elation was palpable as SNP Cabinet Secretary for Finance, John Swinney announced the Government’s plans to deliver on the party’s commitments to the people of Scotland. Mr. Swinney’s statement met with a subdued response from the opposition side of the Chamber however who were left with little to say in criticism.

And indeed there was much to be proud of as the good news for Scotland was tallied up. Funding for free prescription charges, tax cuts for small businesses, NHS waiting time guarantees and resources to freeze the unfair council tax were but a few reasons to celebrate. These momentous measures will have extremely positive implications for Banff & Buchan where people have seen their Council Tax rise by 85% in the last ten years. There will also be a 50% reduction in business rates for small businesses next year followed by a further 50% the following year and all businesses rated under £8000 having no rates to pay from 2010. This will go a long way to supporting the small businesses which are so vital to our local economy in Banff & Buchan and keeping the high streets and main streets of our towns and villages thriving.

Another welcome development for Banff & Buchan was the Government’s decision to grant more control to local government. By removing ring-fencing on funding for councils which determines where and how those funds are spent, the Government is allowing councils to allocate resources according to local priorities. This essentially means that local government will have greater control over resources and can use them in a way that most benefits the local area. In Aberdeenshire our circumstances and needs are different from those of other regions in Scotland. So this decision will see our local needs being more effectively met and resources channelled into areas where they are required most.

What’s more, this budget was delivered amidst the tightest UK spending settlement Scotland has had since devolution and came in the context of significant inherited spending pressures from the previous administration. Within such difficult circumstances the SNP Government had to prioritise and make some tough choices. However despite these constraints the SNP chose wisely and responsibly with Scotland’s best interests at heart. This Budget demonstrated what the SNP can do in Government and how effectively we can manage the country’s finances. It also goes to illustrate how much further we could go with total control over our own finances in an independent Scotland.

Scotland’s Sporting Future Looking Bright
Disappointment could be felt across the country last week as the Scottish football team lost in the last minute to Italy, knocking them out of the running to qualify for the 2008 European Championships. However, amidst this disappointment was a feeling of immense pride for our national team who performed out of their skins for Scotland throughout the tough qualifying campaign. Having provided the country with moments of intense glory with outstanding triumphs over France and other teams and having finished on 24 points our players can surely hold their heads high.

With such an excellent and young football team there is no doubt that we can look forward to further Scottish sporting glories in the future. Indeed Scotland has now secured the prestigious Commonwealth Games in 2014 and is in with a chance of hosting the European Football Championships in 2016 and the Rugby World Cup in 2015. This will go a long way to inspiring our young people to take up sports at amateur and professional level and to enhancing the fantastic sporting culture we have here in Scotland. These Games will promote Scotland on the international stage as a confident, ambitious country both on and off the sports terrain.

13 November 2007

Dispelling the Myths

A few old familiar myths about Scotland’s financial status in the UK were well and truly scuppered last week as some home truths were revealed. It was uncovered in a report by The Herald newspaper that under devolution Scotland is not a financially dependent nation, as some would have us believe. On the contrary it was found that Scotland pays its own way within the UK and benefits from no such special treatment.

The independent investigation found that Scotland receives an average of £9631 per head in public funds – less than the London’s receipt of £9748 or Northern Ireland’s of £10,271 per head. What’s more, in terms of welfare, the overall public cost at £3086 per head in Scotland is lower than that in much of Northern England.

The report also recognised the massive contribution to the coffers of the UK exchequer made by North Sea oil and gas. 90 per cent of these oil revenues come from Scotland’s sector of the Continental Shelf. With independence Scotland would have full control over its energy policy and could maximize the benefits of its energy resources for the people of Scotland. It could invest a share of the wealth generated from these revenues in a fund for future generations. We only need look across the North Sea to Norway to see an independent oil rich country enjoying the advantages of the natural resources with which it is endowed. Indeed our independent neighbour is now truly reaping the rewards of its oil fund. Established in 1990 Norway’s fund has grown from an initial payment of the equivalent of £174 million to a staggering £174 billion.

These simple facts and figures just go to further prove what the SNP have long been saying about Scotland’s financial position and its potential to be economically independent. While the Labour Party would lead us to believe that Scotland is but a dependent ‘wee’ country, unable to stand on its own two feet financially, the SNP has consistently shown confidence in Scotland and advocated its economic capacity. Far from being reliant on the UK public finances, given greater independence Scotland could flourish and fulfill its enormous economic potential.

Environment High on our Fishermen’s Agenda
Scotland’s fishermen are the most environmentally friendly and conservation-minded in Europe conservationists announced this week. The Scottish fleet has voluntarily undertaken to trial several measures to conserve fish stocks. These include having independent observers onboard to monitor the number of fish being discarded due to quotas and temporary closures of parts of the sea where too many young fish are being caught. We can all be immensely proud of our fishermen who are demonstrating huge cooperation and patience to balance conservation needs with profitability. Indeed they are leading the way in Europe on these stakes.

The Scottish fishing industry has for years suffered major under representation and indeed misrepresentation by the London Government in EU negotiations. However, with an SNP Government Scotland’s fishermen are now being consulted, taken seriously and given a voice and as a result we are witnessing a major shift in attitudes within our fishing industry. More confident in the Scottish Government to stand up for their interests at national and international level, Scottish fishermen have good reason to be positive and constructive about the future of their industry. The SNP Government recognizes the fundamental importance of fishing to Scotland, economically and socially to our fishing communities. That is why it is treating Scottish fishing as a priority and giving it the support it needs to be sustainable at the present and into the future.

30 October 2007

Farmers Suffer as UK Government Shirks Responsibility

Anger and disappointment have been the prevailing sentiments within the Scottish farming industry over the last three weeks as farmers were badly let down by the UK government.

We recently witnessed another dramatic u-turn by the UK Government following their decision not to call a November election - this time by Environment Secretary Hillary Benn. After the snap election had been suddenly cleared from the agenda, Benn likewise reversed his planned statement on compensation for Scottish farmers affected by this summer’s Foot and Mouth outbreak south of the border.

The First Minister Alex Salmond exposed this cover-up by revealing two documents, one a daft statement by Benn pledging £8.1M in aid to Scottish farmers and the other the final statement which guaranteed assistance to the English livestock sector to the tune of £12.5M, but made no mention of the £8.1M previously devoted to Scotland. On the contrary he effectively washed his hands of the problem north of the border, leaving compensation solely to the responsibility of the Scottish Government.

Needless to say, Benn’s rethink came as a severe blow to our farmers and caused ructions across the industry in Scotland which had been seeking a £50M compensation package. At a summit in London last week between farming representatives and the Environment Secretary, Scottish farmers were told that their problems were not serious enough to merit compensation.

Farmers have suffered a severe financial burden due to substantial movement restrictions, further exacerbated by the time of year at which the outbreak occurred. August to October is the period when most cattle and sheep produced on hill and upland farms are marketed.

The UK Government appears to have overlooked the blatant fact that this outbreak came from a state-controlled facility in Surrey. Furthermore, under the devolution agreement they are responsible for funding animal disease control costs. They have a clear moral and legal duty to Scottish farmers.

Drawing New Blood into Our Agricultural Sector

In contrast to such negative and discouraging actions towards our agricultural industry, this side of the border the Scottish Government has been delivering further on its farming manifesto commitments. Indeed only this week the Tenants Farming Forum consultation on the Scottish Government’s proposals to introduce a new entrants’ scheme for farmers had its first meeting here in the North east, on our own doorstep in Oldmeldrum.


Farming is one of our oldest traditional industries and a vital aspect of country life, particularly here in Banff & Buchan. However, it can be difficult to get started in farming, especially for those who were not born into a farm-owning family. That is why the Scottish Government, as promised in its election manifesto, has asked the Tenants Farming Forum to investigate the barriers facing young people who want to embark upon what is a rewarding and fulfilling career in farming.

This proposed scheme is a fantastic initiative which will make farming a more viable and attractive career option for young people and will breathe new life into the Scottish agricultural sector. It is only by continually drawing new blood into the industry that we can preserve it as an integral part of rural life and make it sustainable for future generations. I would therefore encourage anyone in Banff & Buchan with an interest to go along and contribute to this very worthy consultation.

16 October 2007

The Election that Never was

There was cause for more than a little embarrassment at Number 10 this week as Gordon Brown finally announced that his much anticipated general election was, after all, a non-runner. After mounting speculation and hype, which the Prime Minister allowed to accumulate, he has now performed a momentous u-turn and left the public baffled by his inconsistency.

For weeks now the public have been led to believe that a November election was on the cards. It has been commented on that Brown allowed his campaign team to sensationalise speculation through the media, and hype up the odds of an early election. The people of Scotland and indeed the UK had been prepared for a snap election only to be hit with a total contradiction by Brown, turning the whole affair into a pantomime and a pointless build-up of public expectations.

Through this foolish move, Brown has lost an enormous amount of credibility, not only for his own leadership but also for the Labour party. He has plainly revealed the shaky foundations of his party both North and South of the border. This was already clear in Scotland, with a recent survey showing the majority of Scottish Labour MPs to be opposed to an early election. However, with the publication of a new poll last week putting Labour and the Tories neck and neck, Brown turned overnight from a seemingly confident leader to an indecisive waverer running scared from any test of his popularity and performance in Government. Such indecision, poor judgement and lack of confidence does not bode well for Brown’s future as an effective Prime Minister. However, when he stops wavering and finally decides to call an election, the SNP will, as ever, be ready and fit for the contest.

Celebrating our Vital Fishing Industry

On the home front, this week saw Scotland’s fishing industry being celebrated and placed at the forefront of the agenda here in Banff & Buchan and across Scotland. The annual Peterhead Fish Fest brought a host of features and events to the blue toon, from fish related stalls in the town centre to cooking demonstrations and displays.

Aside from the cultural and entertainment value of the festival, the week was also of immense political importance to the Scottish fishing industry. For the first time in history the four UK Fisheries Ministers came together on Scottish soil and right here in Banff & Buchan, for a tour of Peterhead port. And as the largest white fish port in Europe and such a vibrant fishing community, there was no place more appropriate for this historic meeting to take place. The meeting came after the Scottish Government launched its blueprint for the future of North Sea cod stocks. Amongst other initiatives this plan calls for EU measures not to be rushed through without full analysis or consultation and for greater tailoring of fishing restrictions to regional circumstances, which would allow for greater local control and be of major benefit to the industry here in the North East. It also advocates that more responsibility be delegated to the individual Member States and proposes an increase in cod quotas. This is further evidence that the SNP Government has the Scottish fishing industry’s best interests at heart and is committed to representing and defending them to the best of its ability at national, UK and EU level.

2 October 2007

Extra Safety in Our Communities

With the glowing autumn season now upon us, the familiar run-up to the festive period is coming clearly into sight. As we look forward to the seasonal celebrations this year, we have a further reason to be positive and anticipate an enjoyable and sociable Christmas and New Year for everyone here in Banff & Buchan.

This year, as a result of a new anti-violence campaign and extra government funding for various street safety initiatives we will see greater security on our streets and in our communities in Banff & Buchan. An extra £1 million will be made available to Community Safety Partnerships to fund projects designed to reduce violence and tackle the scourge of alcohol-fuelled anti-social behaviour in city and town centres. £10,000 of this sum has been designated to the Aberdeenshire Community Safety Partnership which will go a long way to protecting communities in Banff & Buchan and ensuring a more secure atmosphere on the streets of towns like Fraserburgh, Peterhead and Banff over this festive period.

Initiatives to be created as a result of this funding include late night taxi marshal schemes, Safe Zones, extra enforcement at areas where frequent trouble occurs and a more visible police presence. This is an excellent, proactive response by the new Government to the many social problems associated with alcohol misuse in Scotland – primarily violence. This follows other measures outlined by the Justice Secretary to crack down on alcohol misuse such as banning irresponsible drinks promotions which encourage binge drinking.

Antisocial drinking is a problem which affects the welfare of all of us in society – from the health of those who engage in such behaviour to the safety, peace of mind and general wellbeing of the rest of the public. It is a basic right of every individual to feel secure and unthreatened in their localities. While the government has no wish to restrict the social and responsible enjoyment of alcohol, irresponsible, excessive drinking reaps only negative consequences for individuals, families, communities and our society as a whole. This behaviour must be curtailed to ensure that the actions of the few don’t impinge on the freedom and enjoyment of the many.

Poetic Expressions
While some believe poetry to be a declining art enjoyed only by a minority of people, it is a tradition which is alive and well in Banff & Buchan. Indeed I had the pleasure last week of presenting prizes at this year’s Banffshire Maritime Heritage Association poetry competition. It was a most interesting event which showcased some truly quality pieces of poetry from writers hailing not only from here in Banff & Buchan and but from across the world – an event of both local and international significance.

The subject was the sea and the diversity immense as entries came in different dialects, with the winning poem written in Doric, plus a huge variety of themes and styles. Amongst the prize winners were poets from Portsoy, Banff, Portlethen and somewhat further a field, from the Isle of Wight and even Tasmania, Australia. It was fantastic to see not only the art of poetry, but also our maritime tradition being celebrated in such a creative way. Appreciation of our local arts and culture is clearly important to the people of Banff & Buchan and events like this ensure that that tradition remains strong.



18 September 2007

A Programme for Success

After a summer recess spent in the constituency MSPs returned last week to the political flurry of the Parliament. And indeed there was no time wasted with the Scottish Government launching its legislative programme for the coming year at the foremost available opportunity.

The programme comprised a raft of proposed new legislation ranging from matters of justice, education and public health to the economy. It included bills which have been previously announced such as the abolition of bridge tolls on the Forth and Tay Bridges, which will come as a great relief to commuters and drivers travelling south from the North East. There were other legislative proposals to which we in the SNP had committed in our manifesto such as scrapping the graduate endowment and safeguarding rural schools. The First Minister also outlined plans to make the health system more democratic by giving patients a greater say through direct elections to health boards, thus fulfilling our undertaking to keep Scottish healthcare as local and patient-centred as possible.

In contrast to the inevitable negative and dysfunctional criticism from the opposing side of the chamber, the SNP’s legislative programme was warmly welcomed outside of the parliament. Organisations such as the British Medical Association, the Royal College of Nursing, the Federation of Small Businesses and the Scottish Chambers of Commerce hailed the SNP’s innovative and common-sense policy proposals. This is further illustration of the SNP’s ability to think outside the box and indeed outside the parliament –basing its policy on the real needs of the people of Scotland, not on politically motivated concerns within the parliament.

Since gaining power in May the SNP has shown itself to be a responsible and conscientious government committed to serving Scotland’s best interests. Indeed one of the stark differences between the SNP Government and the previous administration is simply that the SNP is unashamedly defending Scottish interests and governing Scotland without the continuous need to seek reassurance and approval from Westminster. Indeed, even Labour’s former First Minister Henry McLeish recently recognised the SNP’s achievements in power and the plainly obvious basis to their success in contrast to other parties – listening to the people of Scotland and delivering on what they hear.

A Healthier, Happier Nation
Scotland is a nation of enormous potential, economically, socially and culturally. However, that potential cannot be realised by each and every Scottish person unless their basic needs are met – primarily their health and wellbeing. Scotland’s public health is fundamental to a happier, longer living and more successful nation. This is why the recent research attesting to the success of the smoking ban thus far came as great news for the people of Scotland, young and old. The study found a 17% decrease in admissions for heart attacks in the first year of the ban plus a 39% reduction in second hand smoke exposure in 11 year olds and adult non-smokers and an 86% reduction in passive smoking in bars. The SNP will continue to build on this progress by raising the age of cigarette sales from 16 to 18 subject to parliamentary approval next month.

The smoking ban has clearly been one of the major achievements of the Scottish Parliament, and one which I and my party colleagues wholeheartedly supported in 2005. In fact the ban was originally put forward by SNP MSP Stewart Maxwell as a Member’s Bill. Indeed, this serves to clearly illustrate the merits of devolution – that Scotland had the ability to go its own way and implement bold new policies ahead of the rest of the UK. As a result Scotland is now one of the leaders in Europe on this issue – a case we can expect to see more of in the future with the SNP endeavouring to increase the powers and autonomy of the Scottish Parliament. By creating a more smoke-free Scotland the SNP are committed to improving Scotland’s public health to make Scotland the vibrant, successful nation it deserves to be.

4 September 2007

Return to Normality

LOOKING back, this summer has been a turbulent time for our agricultural sector, and particularly for our livestock industry. The confirmed cases of foot and mouth disease in Surrey last month came as a severe blow to the sector.

For many of us, the news stirred up unpleasant memories of the devastating 2001 outbreak which culminated in the slaughter of over 6.5 million animals and a cost of £8.5 billion to the economy.

The news naturally elicited much unease amongst farmers here in Banff and Buchan and throughout the country, who were justifiably concerned for their livelihoods.

Farming is of vital economic importance both locally and nationally, and provides major employment here in Banff and Buchan.

Scottish farmers produce output worth almost £2 million a year to the Scottish economy. Furthermore, 67,000 people – around 8% of the rural workforce in Scotland, are directly employed in agriculture, not to mention the thousands of jobs indirectly dependent on the industry.

For the people of Banff and Buchan the outbreak also put something of a dampener on our usual summer agricultural festivities, unfortunately coinciding with the Turriff Show which I gladly attended.
Though the presence of livestock was prohibited at the show, organisers dealt with the disruption in a highly professional manner and an enjoyable day was still to be had.

Thankfully however, after the cull of 570 animals and vigilant practice of bio-security at all levels, these cases appear to have been managed and the disease contained without travelling north to Scotland.

Indeed it has come as a great relief here in Banff and Buchan that restrictions are now being relaxed and normality is gradually being restored to the farming industry. A phased programme is under way to get Scotland's livestock industry back to normal.

With the export ban which was imposed on British meat and dairy products having been lifted by the EU, the industry is gradually returning to normal business.

I would like to take this opportunity to commend farmers and all of those employed in the agricultural sector in Banff and Buchan for their vigilance, and indeed their patience, throughout this uncertain time, which is now fortunately drawing to a close.


Valuable Time in the Constituency
AFTER a hectic initial period in government for us SNP parliamentarians, the summer recess finally afforded us the time to take a break from parliamentary business and concentrate on those people for whom we are there to serve – our constituents.


While throughout the year I divide my time between constituency and parliamentary duties, summer recess gives me the chance for a few weeks to focus solely on my constituency and get out and about to travel the length and breadth of Banff and Buchan.

Indeed, last month, I embarked on my seventh annual surgery tour around the constituency, clocking up over 450 surgeries since I was first elected in 2001. I visited a total of 44 towns and villages on my mobile surgery tour, spanning the constituency from Inverallochy to Forglen and Sandend to Cruden Bay. The tours are an excellent opportunity to visit the more rural parts of Banff and Buchan and see and hear at first hand the experiences and issues of concern to the locals there.


Everybody should be able to voice their interests and concerns to the MSP that represents them, regardless of where they reside, and this tour gives my constituents the opportunity to do just that.


21 August 2007

A Democratic Conversation

For the United Kingdom times are clearly changing. In the last nine years the face of the UK has been altered considerably with Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland each gaining varying degrees of self-determination through devolution. For Scotland the rebirth of our own national parliament has had a profound affect on our nation. The power to govern ourselves, though not yet complete, has breathed new life into Scottish democracy and indeed our society as a whole.

This week, after 100 days in office the Scottish Government has published a White Paper on Independence for Scotland and launched a ‘National Conversation’ on the future of our constitution. The White Paper, entitled ‘Choosing Scotland’s Future’ will serve as a launch pad for this pubic debate on independence. It outlines the options available to us in terms of Scotland’s constitutional future ranging from an extension of powers for the Scottish Parliament to greatly enhanced devolved powers to full independence. It also sketches out proposals for a referendum on independence.

As we all know, the primary aim of the Scottish National Party has always been to progress Scotland towards independence. We believe that Scotland would do fundamentally better - economically, socially and culturally - as an independent state in Europe. Scotland is a country in its own right with distinctive needs and interests to the other countries in the UK. Independence or extended powers would allow us to implement policies which are specifically in Scotland’s best interests. Economically for example, it would allow Scotland to cut corporate tax, now at 30%, and promote foreign investment in our country which would generate greater employment. Ireland, our independent neighbour, has one of the most beneficial corporate tax environments in the world, at a rate of only 12.5% and is reaping the benefits with its booming Celtic tiger economy and GNP growth of 7% last year. Here in Banff & Buchan we would all feel the benefits of independence or greater powers as policy would be designed to suit our specific local needs, with greater control over issues like fisheries, post offices and oil revenues.

Now that the SNP are in government we have the chance to present the people of Scotland with the opportunity to choose. A core tenet of democracy is the right to choose – the right of the people to have a choice and a say in how they are governed. This document and pubic forum equips the people with the knowledge and the outlet to do just that. This is an extremely innovative initiative by the new government to involve the Scottish people directly in the decision-making process. While opposition parties have consistently tried to stifle any talk of extended powers or independence, this time they are left with little to say as the SNP, in a wholly democratic move, has shifted the debate beyond the realm of the politicians and directly to the people.

Pulling Together
This summer has not been without incident for many in Banff & Buchan after the severe flooding and resultant mudslides at Pennan. It hardly needs underlining that this has been an extremely difficult and distressing time for residents of the village, with many having to evacuate their homes and sustaining significant damage to their properties. On my visit to Pennan last week for the community meeting I was moved by the sense of community spirit, patience and strength amongst villagers in the midst of such trying times. The professionalism with which local people, the police, emergency services, Aberdeenshire Council and Scottish Water among others, coordinated their efforts was also highly commendable. As local MSP I will do all in my power to support residents of Pennan and hope for a swift return to normality for all of those affected by the mudslides.

7 August 2007

Getting Into the Spirit of the Summer

With the summer now in full swing, though the sun has been scarce, the summer feeling has nevertheless been in the air with the many seasonal festivals which brighten up our towns and villages. Banff & Buchan is host to a number of such eclectic events each summer, including shows, galas and carnivals which celebrate the glorious season and highlight the array of assets our area possesses - its magnificent beauty, its traditions and its culture. The Portsoy Boat Festival, the Banffshire Show and the Turriff Agricultural Show, to mention but a few, are examples of such vibrant affairs which add colour to our lives and to our area.

Last week saw the celebration of Scottish Week in Peterhead. Despite the odd inevitable shower the festival was a great success for the Blue Toon. The celebratory week originated forty six years ago as a nationwide phenomenon and primarily a means of promoting Scottish produce. Nowadays Peterhead boasts the last remaining Scottish week which has evolved into an all round celebration of Scottish culture with a wide variety of amusements to cater for every disposition. Activities cover the entire spectrum of entertainment, ranging from food fayres to bingo to dance and theatrical performances.

The festivities create an immensely positive feeling in the town, lifting spirits and awakening in us all a sense of summer fun and pride in our town. Indeed Scottish Week does much to promote the town and businesses of Peterhead and attract visitors to the area. The valuable festival is only made possible by the vast number of volunteers and sponsors involved in its production. Its success and smooth running is a credit to their hard work. Indeed I sponsored one of the week’s events myself this year - The Antiques Road Show. As I say, there was something for everyone in the activities this year - even the antique enthusiasts among us.

Safety on our Roads this Summer
Amongst all the seasonal festivities this summer, we must remain aware of our safety, particularly in one of the places we are most vulnerable – on our roads. This is why I was delighted to recently launch the summer road safety campaign in Scotland in my capacity as Minister for Transport, Infrastructure and Climate Change. The campaign targets those who continue to drink and drive. Though these individuals are thankfully few, there remains a minority of people who take the risk, thereby endangering their and other road users’ safety and indeed their lives. It beggars belief that in this day of elaborate road safety campaigns and harrowing TV adverts that such foolish behaviour persists. However there remains a group of people who believe they are either infallible behind the wheel or invincible to getting caught. This is clearly far from the reality however with one in seven road deaths in Scotland a result of drink driving.

In an age of such heightened awareness of the dangers of drinking and driving there is simply no excuse for risking it. We are all far too familiar with the devastating effects of drink driving not only for the victims, but also for their families and friends and indeed even for the perpetrators. While police forces are always tough on drink driving, this campaign means that this summer there will be an even higher chance of those who get behind the wheel after a few drinks getting stopped, breathalysed and ultimately prosecuted. This signifies greater security and peace of mind for motorists and pedestrians alike on our roads here in Banff & Buchan and across Scotland.

18 July 2007

Acting as a Good Government Should

Since taking our place in government this May the SNP has already made its distinctive mark on Scottish politics. With the summer recess now upon us, as we look back over the last few weeks we can appreciate the many achievements secured thus far by the new SNP government. In our short time in power we have courageously delivered on our manifesto commitments despite the odds sometimes looking unfavourable. Saving the Accident and Emergency Units of the Ayr and Monklands Hospitals is but one example where the SNP remained determined to deliver on its promises in spite of the apparent obstacles.

To mention only a few successes, the SNP has lowered class sizes, abolished bridge tolls on the Forth and Tay Road Bridges and indeed the structures are now in place to replace the current unfair council tax with a more just local income tax. However at every turn the government has acted in a responsible manner and has at no point used its authority to force legislation through parliament. It is therefore living up to its commitment to bring a new style of consensual, cooperative and effective governance to Scotland and fulfilling its duty to serve the interests of the Scottish people.

Strengthening Scotland’s Voice in International Negotiations
The SNP has clearly raised the game of Scottish politics on a local level, working for people in the constituencies across Scotland, on a domestic level, in Parliament and indeed even on an international level. Since being sworn in as First Minister Alex Salmond has been actively engaging with other countries and promoting Scotland on the international stage.

This was illustrated on the First Minister’s recent visit to Brussels where he made the persuasive case for Scotland to lead the UK delegation at future EU fisheries talks. With 68% of the UK catch, one sixth of the EU’s 65,000 kilometres of coastline and the largest fishing zone of any single EU country, it is ludicrous that Scotland takes a backseat role when decisions which directly affect its fishing communities are being made. The SNP will heighten Scotland’s profile on the international arena and ensure that it plays a significant role in EU negotiations, particularly those on fisheries. No longer will Scotland be left standing in the background while its fate is being decided by other member states.

A Boost for Aberdeenshire Schools
Schools in Aberdeenshire received a major boost this week when SNP Government Minister for Children and Early Years, Adam Ingram announced that Aberdeenshire Council will receive an additional £3.5 Million in funding for schools in the area. The extra money will be invested in upgrading school grounds and buildings. This comes as very positive news for schools in Banff & Buchan as it has recently become apparent that a number of school buildings owned by the council are in need of improvement. This will also assist schools in accommodating smaller class sizes in the near future.

It is the children of the area that will to reap the benefits of this funding. Their education and wellbeing will be greatly enhanced by this investment in their school facilities. Schools are the places our children reside every day and where they are educated and prepared for their future. This is why it is vital that schools are kept in optimum condition to provide children with an environment where they can learn, develop and grow to the full of their potential. The SNP government understands this fundamental necessity and recognises that the way to truly invest in Scotland’s future is through early intervention and investment in Scotland’s youth.

4 July 2007

Power Struggles at Holyrood




Power Struggles at Holyrood
Last week saw a great battle waged between the parties at Holyrood. However, this time it was not fought out in the Debating Chamber but on a very different terrain – the tug o’ war field. Each party came out in great sport to take part in a tug o’ war event in Holyrood Park in aid of Barnardo’s Scotland. The event was sponsored by Halifax Bank of Scotland who donated £250 for every team entered to help Barnardo’s continue their vital work with vulnerable children in Scotland. The evening was a huge success, raising over £4,500 for children and young people’s support services.

I had the great honour of officially opening the worthy event which was thoroughly enjoyed by all. All kinds of people, both men and women, pulled together for the event, from MSPs and parliamentary staff to representatives from the Press and the Civil Service – indeed even Jack McConnell turned out in style dressed in sporting shorts to lend his weight to Labour’s resistance. For my part, I left it to some of my more robust colleagues to make up the SNP side. After many amusing struggles, comically commentated on by the BBC’s Brian Taylor, the brawn of the well-built Tories triumphed in the end. The SNP’s two teams put up a strong fight however, and immensely enjoyed the fun and games of the light-hearted evening. After all, it was all in the name of a bit of fun and an excellent cause. And to be fair, after winning the election in May we in the SNP can happily watch the other parties take pleasure in some sporting glory.

Celebrating Our Local Maritime Tradition

I had the pleasure last week of attending the launch of the fourteenth annual Scottish Traditional Boat Festival in our local burgh of Portsoy. The festival has one of the largest collections of traditional boats in Scotland and is always a fantastic family weekend for local people and tourists alike. Each year it pulls in thousands of visitors, greatly contributing to tourism in the area and thus the local economy. The financial impact of the festival on the vicinity was estimated last year at about £2M so it is clearly of enormous value to our region.

This year’s festivities saw a spectacular flotilla of thirty small boats arrive at Portsoy plus more than 100 historic and modern boats on display. There was far more to the festival than just boats however, with a host of amusements available to be enjoyed by all. Amongst other activities these included maritime activities, craft demonstrations, live music, dance and drama, a food fayre and a road run. The Festival works throughout the year to teach people, particularly young people, of the rich traditional culture and skills of the North East and to encourage them to participate in, appreciate and enjoy this wealth of culture that we have at our disposal. The weekend was not without ceremony either with the Earl of Wessex on the scene to launch the festivities. Indeed there was something for everyone at this festival which celebrated not only age old Scottish maritime tradition but also the many cultural attributes, old and new, of our local area of Banff & Buchan.

13 June 2007

Celebrating Scotland's beaches this summer

WITH the summer well and truly under way and the official bathing season kicking-off this week, the spotlight was on Scotland's beaches.

With this summer set to be another magnificent one, we should take full advantage of our many spectacular beaches and use the opportunity to appreciate their distinctive beauty.

We can also afford to take some credit for the excellent condition of our beaches around the country and indeed in Banff and Buchan.

This year seven Scottish beaches and one marina were awarded with the internationally recognised Blue Flag and a total of 51 gained the Seaside Award for more rural beaches.
Here in Banff and Buchan, two of our beaches, at Inverboyndie and Cruden Bay, were credited with this prestigious award.

This recognition is given on the basis of good bathing standards, litter management, information provision and community involvement and is certainly not easily achieved.

It is a major tribute to the efforts of local people who have shown remarkable community spirit in contributing to the upkeep of our beaches and indeed to all of those who use the beaches, for acting so responsibly and respectfully during their visits.

Each of these beaches has its own distinctive assets and amenities which makes it so appealing to visitors and local people, and attracts tourists to Banff and Buchan.

Inverboyndie for example has a four star council-managed caravan park adding to its attraction while Cruden Bay lies close to the historic Slains Castle and boasts superb sandy dunes.

We also have numerous other beaches including Peterhead Lido, Fraserburgh Beach, Rattray and Sandend which host a variety of visitors every year with many diverse interests ranging from families and holiday makers to surfers and water sports enthusiasts.

These awards will ensure that standards remain high and guarantee that visitors continue to come along with all the revenue that that brings to our area.

I was delighted to be asked to present the award at Inverboyndie Beach and, swept away in the spirit of the impending summer, was even persuaded to join Keep Scotland Beautiful's Chief Executive in the worthy exercise of building a sand castle – some welcome light relief from my ministerial duties.

Positive action on post offices

IN THIS, the third session of the Scottish Parliament a sense of freshness and a break from the past can be distinctly felt in the corridors at Holyrood.

Even at this early stage the new SNP government are making their distinct impression on Scottish politics and bravely delivering on their policy commitments.

This dedication was illustrated in one of the first days in the chamber; in Cabinet Secretary for Finance, John Swinney’s statement to the Parliament on Post Offices.

The Cabinet Secretary’s statement reiterated the SNP’s determination to safeguard the Post Office network in Scotland. Following the UK government’s decision to support the closure of 2500 post offices, about 200 in Scotland, he vowed to fight for the maintenance and, indeed, development of Scotland’s postal service.

The SNP are committed to protecting access to post offices in rural areas through pragmatic measures such as co-locating public services.

This move by the UK government only serves to further illustrate the unfair nature of the current devolved settlement, and to highlight how much more could be achieved in Scotland’s interest in an SNP-run independent Scotland.

However, an SNP government at Holyrood is the first vital step in releasing Scotland’s true potential and one from which there is no turning back.

15 May 2007

The people have spoken

THURSDAY, May 3, will be remembered as a truly momentous day in our national history - it was the day the people of Scotland made their voices resoundingly heard.

Faced with two basic choices – to take Scotland forward to a new era of development with the SNP, or to remain stagnant with Labour, the people chose the SNP. It was an emotional moment for many of us, and one which few of us will forget, as the SNP hailed victory in the North-east and across Scotland.

As the party with the most seats nationally, eight out of 16 members regionally in the North-east and locally the largest number of councillors across Scotland, the people opted for SNP representation at every level of government.

This election was fought over many policy areas – council tax, healthcare and class sizes to name but a few. However, underlying the various debates was the issue of confidence. The contest was between a party that displays confidence and ambition in Scotland and Scottish people and other parties that downplay Scotland's qualities, abilities and potential.

While other parties espoused an image of Scotland as a dependent country unable to survive without the support and direction of Britain, the SNP always maintained that Scotland is an enterprising and dynamic country with the ability to manage its own affairs.

Endowed with a wealth of natural resources, a valuable fishing industry and a skilled workforce, Scotland boasts just as many, if not more, advantages than other small independent nations such as Ireland and Norway.

The SNP recognises these attributes and believes that, given the opportunity, Scotland can and will flourish. This is why the party ran a consistently positive campaign about Scotland and our party's distinctive policies and, unlike Labour, did not resort to defensively attacking other parties – a fact which was not lost on the public.

This election was a clear vote of confidence not only for the SNP but for the future of Scotland. It's time for Scotland to make her own decisions and realise her true potential.

For my part, I was carried to a soaring victory with more than 58% of the votes cast, thanks to the people of Banff and Buchan, 16,031 of whom gave me their backing.

I am honoured to have been given such an overwhelming endorsement by my constituents and grateful to have been granted the opportunity to continue to serve their interests for the next four years, both in Parliament and in Banff and Buchan.

I take this opportunity to sincerely thank each and every one of my supporters and everyone who voted, regardless of who they supported.

In my third term as an MSP I want to extend on my progress in Banff and Buchan. In the last term I utilised every opportunity to promote industry and improve public services in the area. Thanks to our diverse industries such as fishing, oil and gas, farming, food processing and engineering, advanced by SNP parliamentary representation, we have a thriving economy with an average wage higher than the national average and the second highest level of self-employment in the country.

However, we must relentlessly build on these assets. Promotion of industry, investment in infrastructure such as the A90, reduction of crime on our streets and in our communities and local control of healthcare will remain my top priorities in this session.

I look forward, over the next four years, to delivering on my assurances and to representing the many and diverse needs of each of my constituents to the best of my ability.

20 March 2007

Thriving local economies behind our communities

THERE is little doubt that lively and sustainable local communities can only exist with successful local economies at their foundations.

This point is clearly illustrated in Banff and Buchan, where we boast a thriving local economy and a vibrant community spirit. Local shops and business outlets not only provide vital services but serve as the hub of community interaction.

Crucially though, local businesses generate employment, keeping our area viable as a place in which our young people can be proud to live, and build prosperous, successful futures.

Successful small businesses have an important part to play in generating wealth and providing more and better jobs in our area. Businesses in Banff and Buchan have continued to grow and grow over the years, creating top quality employment for local people.

For example, we now have 650 people working in the offshore oil industry for Score Ltd where a further 180 apprentices are being trained.

We boast an average wage higher than the national average and the second highest level of self-employment in all of Scotland. Indeed, I recently took the opportunity to relay these successes to the Parliament in a debate on small businesses.

On a national scale, small local businesses are imperative to the Scottish economy, not only as a force of entrepreneurship but also as a source of local jobs.

In Scotland, 98% of businesses are considered small (0-49 employees) and 93% are micro (0-9 employees). These businesses must be bolstered through pro active support from the government to enable them to compete in the market and sustain a viable trade.

This is why an SNP government will implement a small business bonus scheme that will abolish business rates for 120,000 small firms across Scotland and reduce bills for a further 30,000. I for one want to see our High Streets and Main Streets in Fraserburgh, Banff and Peterhead thriving, with local shops and businesses given the backing they're due.

In an independent Scotland, small businesses will be given the support they deserve and the freedom they need to flourish.

We need only look across the water to our friends in Ireland to see how successful a small independent country can be. With 7% GNP growth last year, they could well afford to celebrate this St Patrick's Day.

With Scotland's dynamic entrepreneurial spirit I have no doubt that once we achieve independence we will be joining our Celtic neighbours as one of the leading economies in Europe.

The SNP will make Scotland a beacon for economic growth, and for my part I will continue to represent businesses in Banff and Buchan and keep the financial wellbeing of my constituents at the forefront of my agenda.

Humour?

ON A lighter note, aside from the serious parliamentary business this week, I was also doing my bit for comedy. As part of the run-up to the elections, I was asked to take part in a political comedy stand-up show in Edinburgh to which I obliged, though I must admit, with more than a little reservation.

As my £100 fee was going to charity however, it was all in the name of a good cause and a giggle. Thankfully the experience was not as daunting as I had expected and indeed I quite enjoyed the comic relief.

I am, after all, here to serve the people and if that means providing them with a few chuckles now and again, that's fine by me.

6 March 2007

Size matters in ensuring a brighter future

IN PARLIAMENT last week, pupils were at the forefront of debate. The SNP revealed that the Government is going back on its promise to the people of Scotland to improve the education system by cutting class sizes.

Although they pledged after the last election to cut S1 and S2 class sizes for English and maths to a maximum of 20, the SNP discovered that not a single mainland council is reaching this target.

Indeed, the figures made for some fiery clashes between our deputy leader, Nicola Sturgeon, and the man responsible, Jack McConnell.

This is a poor performance on the part of the Ministers, and very telling about the Government's capacity to deliver public services. To add to this, the Lib-Lab coalition is also failing to deliver on its commitment to keep P1 classes to 25 or below. The latest Pupils in Scotland report showed that 41% of all P1 pupils are in classes of more than 25.

Education is one of the most fundamental and vital policy areas. It is not only a universal right to all, but the key to an advanced and prosperous society.

It is only with a highly skilled and educated workforce that we can achieve a successful economy. Skills and training are critical to developing our area and making the transition to modern industries such as technology and tourism.

There is no doubt that our teachers and education professionals are doing a terrific job educating our children and young people, particularly in our schools in Banff and Buchan. The glowing report on Boddam School published by HMIE was a clear indication of the dedication of teachers. However, many teachers are working under strained conditions, with oversized classes and inadequate resources. Study after study has shown that class size is pivotal to creating the right learning environment and guaranteeing pupils a good education.

An SNP government will continue to bridge this gap by increasing staff and cutting class sizes. We will reduce P1, 2 and 3 classes to 18 pupils or less. It is only in this way that we can ensure the brighter future that our young people deserve.

21 February 2007

Essential to keep health services local

HEALTH care is a matter always close to home, and my SNP colleagues and I are campaigning to ensure it remains so.

Indeed, I spoke in a parliamentary debate this week on the very topic of taking the NHS local. I stressed the basic principle that health care should be kept as local as possible, and as specialised as necessary.

In recent years, we have seen the Scottish Executive continually attempt to centralise our health service and downgrade local hospitals. The closure of eight A and E services across Scotland is testimony to this.

As we are all aware, two of our local maternity units were recently under threat of closure by NHS Grampian. Following active community-based campaigns, however, a welcome announcement by the Health Minister confirmed that birthing units will remain in Banff and Fraserburgh.

I took the opportunity to commend the Minister in parliament on righting what would have been a serious wrong against the people of Banff and Buchan. People have the right to give birth and undergo other medical procedures, as far as is possible, within their local vicinities, without the hassle and stress of having to travel to the nearest city.

The SNP has always maintained the simple belief that patients should be treated as quickly and as close to home as possible and, if elected in May, we will be committed to retaining local health provision.

IN THIS age of mass car use, stories of road fatalities are sadly never far from the headlines. This is especially true in the North-east, where 62 people died on the roads last year, and 209 were seriously injured. Predictably, most of these tragedies involved young men aged 17 to 25.

In the many rural parts of Banff and Buchan, driving is an everyday necessity, increasing the number of cars on our roads and hence the risk of accidents.

Each of these deaths comes as a severe blow to the victim's community and society in general, not to mention the sheer devastation suffered by the bereaved family and friends.

Added to the immense emotional cost of these accidents is the staggering financial cost. Last month police estimated that road carnage cost the local economy more than £80m.

What's more, road incidents have become a huge strain on public resources – on the police force, the NHS and even the fire service. Grampian Fire Service reported that it is now more often called out to car crashes than house fires.

The time has come for some radical thinking to combat this persistent problem and prevent the carnage continuing – one death on the road is one too many.

The root of the problem lies partly in the poor state of our roads. In its time in power, the Lib-Lab Executive has allowed thoroughfares to continually deteriorate, particularly our trunk road network.

However, securing the architecture of our roads is not alone sufficient to reverse this trend – the very mentality of drivers must be addressed. In this case, youth attitudes are clearly the issue. Education of our young people in road safety is the key to tackling the recklessness which lies behind so many of these crashes.

This is why I welcomed the introduction last week of the 'Pass-Plus' scheme, a pilot advanced driving course for young drivers in the North-east.

Though I lament the fact that it is not offered to all young drivers free of charge, it is a definite step in the right direction. To demonstrate my commitment, I pledged to pay, or refund, the £15 Pass-Plus entry fee for the first ten under-25s from the constituency who have passed their driving test in the last twelve months.

Under an SNP government, young people will be introduced to the concept of road safety at a much earlier stage and will be allowed to sit the theory component of their driving test at school. Early intervention will ensure a high standard of road safety awareness in young people across the board at the crucial point – before they get behind the wheel.

7 February 2007

Defending local stores from the giants

FEW can dispute the integral contribution of local groceries and retailers to our rural communities and indeed town centres.

They make up the very essence of our towns and villages, and the principle reason many of us venture to the streets.

However, independent stores have found themselves under increasing strain to maintain lucrative businesses and survive in recent years, due to unfair competition from supermarkets. With supermarket giants selling products at prices lower than independent retailers can buy them from wholesalers, competing with the 'big four' – Tesco, Asda, Sainsbury and Morrisons – is not an option for smaller shops.

Added to this, many major supermarkets are now located in anti-social out-of-town sites, threatening to make our once bustling market-town centres somewhat redundant.

Preservation of town centres, urban and rural, is vital to a healthy community, as I highlighted in my recent visit to Maud village, where the regeneration of the former Aberdeen and Northern Marts site is going a long way to rejuvenating the village.

Two reports published this week by the Federation of Small Businesses (FSB) Scotland and the Competition Commission examined the extent of supermarkets' growing monopoly and its consequences.

The reports found that up to 80% of shoppers are now doing the majority of their food shopping in out-of-town supermarkets, and 78% shop less in the town centre, while the number of stores operated by the 'big four' has doubled since 2000. Not only is this monopoly harmful to our communities and town centres, but also affects each of us as consumers.

If local shops continue to lose business in this way and are increasingly forced out of the market we will ultimately be faced with a situation in which we may have to travel several miles to our nearest grocery outlet. It is the vulnerable groups in society with limited mobility and access to transport, such as the elderly, who will suffer the most from this worrying trend.

Monopoly also spells a lack of choice and variety for the customer, as smaller competitors selling diverse produce are squeezed out of the market. The report also raised concerns over the future of dairy farming, with farmers receiving vastly unfair prices for their milk from supermarkets which, as I've previously highlighted, puts their livelihoods under serious danger.

I welcome these reports as a clear sign that awareness of the threat posed by supermarket dominance.

*

SOME harsh home truths came to light last week when the real story of Scotland's back seat position in Europe was finally exposed.

The reports of Scotland's marginalisation were quite incredible – it is hard to fathom that Ministers could be relegated to a listening room while the fate of Scottish policy was being decided within council meetings.

Indeed, the leaked report clearly states: "This is a blow to a number of policy areas, but especially fisheries policy, where the Scottish position is different to that of the rest of the UK."

24 January 2007

Scotland's farmers deserve our support

REPRESENTATIVES of the National Farmers Union were out in force last week as they carried their ongoing campaign for fair prices for farm produce to the very doorstep of MSPs at the Parliament.

Acting on behalf of Scotland's 70,000 farmers, the NFU were on a mission to highlight to MSPs the gravity of the pressing issue of fair prices from supermarkets, and to gain their support by way of a petition.

I personally was delighted to see the NFU demonstrating the seriousness of this situation, not only for farmers but for the industry as a whole and the Scottish public in general, and the urgent action required to tackle it. As the third largest employer in rural Scotland, agriculture plays a vital role in the country's economy and is of immense importance to all of us in Banff and Buchan.

Despite this, however, farmers are not receiving reasonable prices from supermarkets, and struggle to make ends meet while supermarkets cream off the profits. Scottish farmers currently lose 4p on every litre of milk they produce, yet British supermarkets make 10% profit – a shocking statistic. Considering this unjust trading relationship, it is hardly surprising that one in four Scottish dairy farmers have gone out of business in the past four years.

I met NFU Parliamentary Officer Sarah Anderson to discuss these obstacles facing farmers locally in the North-east and indeed nationwide. I, for one, registered my firm support for the farmers' cause by adding my name to the petition. I sincerely hope that it will force supermarkets to address the problem and ensure the preservation of our vital farming industry and the continued availability of Scottish food, the best food in the world, in our supermarkets.

In the coming months, I intend to maintain my focus on farmers' interests and endeavour to defend them to the best of my ability both locally and at parliamentary level. Indeed I recently launched the fourth edition of 'Farming First', my regular agricultural newsletter, which allows me to gain feedback from farmers and proactively raise significant issues with Ministers. It serves as a useful tool in linking the voices of those actively engaged in the agricultural sector to the policy process.

*

IN MY continued campaign to save local maternity units from closure in Banff and Fraserburgh, I embarked last week on a fact-finding mission to a birthing unit in Broadford Hospital on the Isle of Skye. I found the experience extremely interesting – not least as the circumstances of this birthing unit are so clearly comparable to our own threatened units that it positively illustrates the efficacy of maintaining our local maternity facilities.

In fact, the Broadford unit delivers only about 24 births on average per year, while the figures for Banff and Fraserburgh are in excess of 50. My tour further impressed upon me the obvious benefits of local provision – enabling expectant mothers to give birth in their own community without the need for a long journey to Aberdeen.

These are amongst the key points which I underlined this week in my submission to NHS Grampian on the matter. Following the Health Minister's refusal to endorse their plan to axe our local units last month, I highlighted these clear advantages of retaining local birth services, citing valuable lessons learned from my Skye expedition as evidence.

10 January 2007

This year will be an exciting one for Scotland

AS THE Christmas and New Year festivities draw to a close, the time for New Year's resolutions is finally upon us.

It is a time to look forward to the many new beginnings that await us in 2007. With the May elections fast approaching, I for one welcome the challenge facing myself, my party and indeed the people of Scotland in the months ahead.

This year will be remembered as a vital one in Scottish history in which the people of Scotland are presented with a momentous opportunity for change. Scotland now lies at a juncture and its people face two choices – to grasp the opportunity and embrace a new and independent Scotland or to remain stagnant under the control of an ineffective Lib-Lab Executive answerable to the distant powers of Westminster.

After seven years of devolution, it is now time for Scotland to take control of her own destiny and seize the power to develop her economy, tackle social injustice and ensure a brighter future for her own people.

My own personal New Year wish is to see an SNP-led government carry Scotland into a new era of independence, prosperity and change.

Further blow to our rural communities


In THE run-up to Christmas, many of us used our local post office services to send festive greetings to friends and family all over the world.

However, post offices have recently been dealt a harsh blow by the government. The pending threat of closures was confirmed last month when Royal Mail announced that a staggering 2,500 post offices would be closed within just 18 months, starting as soon as this summer.

This drastic measure comes as a devastating shock to local communities, with the most vulnerable in society bearing the brunt of the blow.

Post offices play a vital social and economic role in rural life. They represent not only an outlet to access public services but also a meeting place and focal point of community life.

Banff and Buchan has 32 community council areas, each exhibiting a vibrant community spirit and there's little doubt that post offices make a strong contribution to that community energy. Once again, the Westminster Government has shown scant regard for the impact of their policies on the people of Scotland at the local level.

This callous move demonstrates yet another reason why an independent Scotland would far better serve our communities, giving them greater control over the provision and delivery of public services.

This action has not gone unchallenged by the SNP however. Indeed, we held a fervent debate on the issue in Parliament before Christmas in which our MSPs slammed the decision and demanded that the government step up to its responsibility and ensure that the remaining post office network is kept viable.

Fishing


As we all know, fishing represents Banff and Buchan's most vital industry, providing countless jobs to the area directly and indirectly. This is why the recent EU decision for further cuts to days at sea and a 14% cut in cod quota limits was strongly condemned by the SNP.

The ruling illustrates how ill-served Scotland is by the London Fisheries Minister, Ben Bradshaw. Although Scotland has over 70% of the UK fishing trade and 25% of EU waters, it has little say in the future of the industry. Indeed, only a few weeks ago I spoke in a Fisheries debate in the Parliament and stressed the value of local control of fishing policy.

Under an SNP government, fishing will be treated as a priority and a national interest and our fisheries policy will not be allowed to be determined largely by representatives of land-locked countries in Brussels. This year I intend to continue to advocate the interests of the fishing industry in Parliament.

Finally, I would like to take this opportunity to wish everyone a prosperous new year and to assure you that I will endeavour to once again represent all of my constituents to the best of my ability in 2007.

Stewart Stevenson
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