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18 December 2008

A Scottish voice in Europe

The fishing industry in Banff & Buchan and Scotland more widely, has had to make many sacrifices in its pursuit of a sustainable, profitable fishing industry. While nobody wants to see over-fishing take place to the point where a species is wiped out, some of the conservation measures that the industry has had to adopt have caused real difficulties to many people.

Because of the rigid nature of fishing quotas, fishermen across Europe have been forced into discarding perfectly good fish instead of landing and selling them. This practice has been a tragedy that no skipper has wanted to endure.

Rather than simply accept this as inevitable, the fishing industry in Scotland has led the way in adopting ever more innovative practices to avoid catching certain types of fish, which they would then be forced to throw away because of EU rules. These innovations, such as Real-Time Closures that temporarily shut areas of the sea where endangered fish stocks have been detected, have been a credit to the Scottish industry, demonstrating their willingness to adapt.

That is why I am delighted that this practice has been recognised and rewarded in recent EU-Norway fishing negotiations. The increase in cod quotas by 30% can only be considered to be recognition by the rest of Europe that Scottish practices are having a real effect on conservation.

Perhaps more significant, however, is the fact that the Scottish Real-Time Closures system of conservation will be rolled out across European fisheries, along with a ban on dumping marketable fish. What makes this so important is that it shows what can be achieved in Europe when Scotland’s voice is heard.

With 60% of the UK’s fishing industry based in Scotland, fishing represents a far more important industry to Scotland than it does to the UK as a whole. Yet despite this, it is a UK Government minister who represents the UK in European negotiations, despite not holding any responsibility for the bulk of the industry. EU rules fully allow ministers from devolved governments to take the lead and represent their member state in European negotiations such as this. It is only intransigence on the part of the UK government that stands in the way of Scotland taking the lead.

Given that Scotland’s example has been adopted by the rest of Europe, I can only wonder what could be achieved for our fishing industry if Scotland’s voice could be heard leading EU negotiations. Instead, we are supposed to be satisfied with a situation where Richard Lochhead, the Fisheries Secretary with responsibility for most of the UK’s industry, is forced to give way to his Westminster counterpart.

There could scarcely be a clearer example of the UK Government’s unwillingness to see Scotland standing up for our own interests than this situation. Their willingness to sacrifice the best interests of the fishing industry in order to do Scotland down is completely indefensible, and is something the industry in Banff & Buchan will not forgive.

Christmas wishes

With Christmas almost upon us, I would like to take this opportunity to wish everybody in Banff & Buchan a wonderful festive period and a happy new year.

Although the world economy has taken a turn for the worse, people know that in Scotland they have a government that will stand up for them at every opportunity. The SNP have worked tirelessly in 2008 for the people of Scotland, and I know that we will not slacken our efforts to help people through these difficult times in the New Year.

3 December 2008

Achieving our energy potential

Scotland and the North East in particular, have for decades benefited from the economic benefits of a thriving energy sector. The oil in Scotland’s waters has brought lucrative businesses to Aberdeen, creating highly-skilled jobs for many people across North East Scotland and beyond.

But although individuals have benefited through working in the oil sector, it has been the London treasury rather than Scotland that has benefited from the tax income on North Sea oil and gas. This year alone, the Treasury has been propped up to the tune of a record £13.2 billion, with another £55 billion expected over the next six years.

Today we stand on the brink of a new energy boom in Scotland’s waters. Scotland has the potential to generate 25% of Europe’s offshore wind power, 25% of Europe’s tidal power and 10% of Europe’s wave power. The massive economic potential of being able to generate so much clean, renewable energy should not be underestimated and can have a huge impact on the Scottish economy for generations to come.

That is why I was delighted by two separate events in recent weeks that bring us closer to achieving our energy potential.

Firstly, the European Commission published their Strategic Energy Review which has identified the construction of a North Sea supergrid as one of the six priority infrastructure projects that are needed to secure Europe’s future energy supplies. This project will allow Scotland to sell excess energy to the rest of Europe and is a critical incentive to commercial companies to develop renewable energy projects off Scotland’s shores. That is why the Scottish Government has been pushing hard in Europe for it to be adopted, and I sincerely hope that we will see further progress towards it.

The second major event was the announcement of the criteria for winning the Saltire Prize. This £10 million prize will spark a race to develop commercially viable wave or tidal power project that can generate a minimum of 100GWh over a continuous two year period. Most importantly, however, these innovations will take place in Scottish waters. It is Scotland that will be leading the world in the field of marine renewable energy thanks to the Scottish Government putting this incentive to innovate in place.

Scotland may have lost out for decades as Scottish oil revenues have been pumped south to keep the UK solvent, but we must not lose out again. There is huge potential for another energy boom in our waters, and this time it must be Scotland that reaps the benefits.

Engineers of the future

Key to harnessing the potential energy off our shores will be the considerable experience and skills held by Scottish engineers who have worked offshore in the oil and gas industry. Yet more important still may be the role to be played by young engineers who are only beginning their careers.

That is why I was delighted to hear that members of Banff Academy’s Young Engineers club have won the SCDI’s award for best young engineer’s club in Scotland. The members of the club can all be justifiably proud of their accomplishments, lifting their twelfth award in three years thanks to their innovative engineering projects.

I extend my heartfelt congratulations on their success and wish them the best of luck when they go on to compete in London for the UK title. Scotland has a long tradition of engineering excellence and it is extremely pleasing that young residents of Banff & Buchan will be at the forefront of our next generation of engineers.

19 November 2008

Helping Scottish businesses

Businesses in Banff & Buchan, and Scotland as a whole, are coming under increasing pressure as a result of the current economic problems afflicting the Country.

In Scotland, the SNP Government is making a real difference to small businesses through the Small Business Bonus scheme. Since April this year, businesses with a combined rateable value of up to £8, 000 have seen their projected rate bill slashed by 80%, and from next year they will pay nothing. In Aberdeenshire alone, 6, 839 businesses will soon no longer face the burden of paying rates, increasing their profitability and viability in these difficult times. Businesses with a combined rateable value between £8, 000 and £15, 000 have already seen reductions in their rates bills and from next year will have seen them cut by between 25-50% helping a further 1, 141 businesses in Aberdeenshire.

Through the business rate bonus and freeze in council tax across Scotland the SNP Government has taken decisive action to help Scottish families during these unprecedented economic times.

However, more must be done and Westminster must live up to its responsibility to help hard working families. Soaring fuel bills remain the responsibility of Gordon Brown’s Government and action is needed to help hard pressed families cope with the threat of fuel poverty. That is why the SNP has called for VAT on fuel to be suspended over the colder months, an extra £100 for pensioners to cope with winter fuel bills, and a cut in VAT on energy efficiency products. This would make a tangible difference to those being hit hardest by current economic problems.

Tourism growing on the Banffshire Coast

Despite the difficult economic times we are facing, one business sector that has continued to grow on the Banffshire Coast in the last year is the tourism industry. According to research undertaken by the Banffshire Coast Tourism Partnership, for the second year running there was an increase in the levels of trade enjoyed by the 70 businesses involved in the partnership
With Homecoming Scotland 2009 fast approaching, I sincerely hope that the sector will enjoy even greater success next year. The Homecoming celebrations will mark the 250th anniversary of Robert Burns’ birth with a celebration of Scotland’s contributions to the world: Burns himself, Whisky, Golf, Great Scottish Minds and our rich culture and heritage.

In the Banffshire area, events such as the traditional boat festival at Portsoy, the Turriff show and the Coast visual arts festival at Banff and Macduff will all incorporate a Homecoming theme.
With people from around the world who are of Scottish descent, Scots living abroad, or who simply feel an affinity with our country invited to ‘come home’ to Scotland, 2009 will be an exceptional year for tourism in Banff & Buchan.

5 November 2008

Delivering on our dentistry promises

Access to an NHS dentist is something that should be available to all who need it. It is a principle that is important to the SNP, but one that for too long before last May’s election was neglected. In Banff & Buchan, and indeed across the North East, the level of access residents enjoyed to an NHS dentist was woefully poor.

Good dental hygiene, particularly for children, is something that is vital to everyone’s health and wellbeing. That is why I am delighted that the period since the SNP government came to power has seen a marked increase in the level of access to an NHS dentist that people across Scotland enjoy. In Banff & Buchan alone, the level of access has risen 6.4% with 4976 more people now registered with an NHS dentist.

Public Health Minister Shona Robison recently joined the first students to enrol at the new £21 million dental school in Aberdeen. This school will see 20 extra dentists qualify in Scotland every year. Incentives will be put in place to ensure that they enter the NHS when they graduate and I am confident this will have a positive impact on the various challenges that have faced dentistry in the North East in recent years.

The Scottish Government are delivering on our election commitments and tackling the problems in dentistry in the North East after many years of neglect. I am proud that we are living up to our promises and I am sure that this will be welcomed by people across the region.

A triumph of hope over fear

Congratulations to Barack Obama on being elected to serve as the 44th President of the United States of America. I agree with the First Minister who described the victory as a "a victory for optimism over pessimism, for hope over fear". I think for the first time in the lifetimes of most of us, there is a real sense of expectation that the leadership of the free world is in the hands of someone who wants to set a direct action of change.

Mr Obama was kind enough to send a message of support to the Scottish Government in April for the Tartan Day and Scotland Week celebrations in the US earlier this year pointing out his own Scottish ancestry. Mr Obama joins at least eleven previous US Presidents in having Scottish descent. So it seems there's another Scot in the White House and that must be a good thing!

22 October 2008

On your side

The economic turbulence of recent weeks is doubtless causing concern in households here in Banff & Buchan and across Scotland. But amidst these tough times there is reason to be optimistic. As we face a global economic downturn, an effective government that will stand up for Scotland's interests has never been more important – and with the SNP this is exactly what we have.

Far from shying away from the crisis, the SNP is working on all fronts to tackle it. While we cannot halt the global downturn what we can do is minimise its impact on Scotland through a dual strategy of supporting hard pressed households and boosting economic development.

At a special economic Cabinet meeting recently the SNP Government set out a six-point action plan to address the current economic situation. On the business side of the plan we have pledged to re-profile capital spending with a view to bringing forward government projects and to boost tourism through the Homecoming celebrations of 2009.

On the domestic side, with fuel bills soaring in recent months we are taking concrete action to tackle fuel poverty. We have pledged to look at improving energy efficiency measures and providing better advice to households. But moreover, our Health Secretary Nicola Sturgeon recently announced that we are investing an extra £10m in the Central Heating Programme this year. From April next year the programme will also be extended to families on income support and those with children under five or with disabled children under 16. This injection of funds will reach some of the most vulnerable in our society at a time when they need it most - not least in the colder North East.

This targeted plan comes on top of consistent action by the SNP over the last year to stimulate the economy and put money back in people's pockets. We have already frozen council tax across the country, cut business rates for 150,000 small businesses and brought forward £100 million of investment in affordable housing from 2010-11 to be spent this year and next.

This is not a time to panic or indulge in doom and gloom. It is a time for a government to be positive, pragmatic and realistic – to do all we can do in the present and to look ahead strategically to when the economy recovers. We are acting now to ensure that Scotland can weather the storm, to ensure that our economy is resilient and in the best position to bounce back when the downturn draws to a close.

It is at times like this when the need for Scotland to control its own affairs becomes clearer than ever. The Prime Minister has lately been congratulating himself for rescuing the economy from disaster. He has even taken the opportunity to run Scotland down and claim that we could not have got ourselves out of such a crisis. However perhaps Gordon Brown should remember that it was within the union - and under his watch - that this financial crisis was born. If Scotland had full control of its finances we could have taken action specifically designed for the Scottish economy. Like our near neighbours, the Irish, we could have acted swiftly to guarantee bank deposits. Or like our northerly neighbours, Norway, we could have invested in an oil fund for Scotland's future generations. But as long as Westminster controls the purse strings the SNP will do all in our power to make sure Scotland's voice is heard. And for my part, in these trying times, I will continue to champion the interests of the people of Banff & Buchan.

8 October 2008

Smarter solutions for our fishing industry

At a time when the Scottish fishing industry faces a number of pressures such as high fuel prices and conservation obligations, it is vital that it receives as much support as possible. We must think about smarter ways we can work to maximise the profitability of the trade.

With this goal in mind the SNP Government is tackling an important issue for the industry - waste. Each year, due to nonsensical European regulations, Scotland's trawlermen are forced to throw away up to £40 million worth of fish.

This disgraceful waste of perfectly marketable produce is a major frustration for fishermen. I have heard from local trawlermen of the soul destroying experience of having to throw away top quality fish. It is of course also bad news for the environment and for the consumer.

These excessive discards point to a clear mismatch between EU policies and local needs. The SNP has responded by taking the issue directly to Brussels and launching a campaign to change some of the rules which result in this shameful waste . Through constructive engagement with Brussels the SNP Government is putting Scotland's case forward.

This is another example of Scotland taking the lead in Europe with innovative measures for the sector. This year we have already introduced a conservation scheme whereby fishermen can avoid areas where there is a high aggregation of cod. We also secured a historic agreement at last year's Fisheries Council to gain more days at sea for boats in return for taking part in conservation measures. The SNP Government has demonstrated that when it comes to EU fisheries policy Scotland does not always have to blindly follow but with smart initiatives like this we can lead the way.

The SNP is working at all levels, at home and abroad to ensure a viable future for the fishing trade. Indeed I recently had a constructive meeting with SeaFish, the seafood industry's authority, to discuss plans to boost the value and reputation of Scottish seafood. Fishing is vital to Banff & Buchan and I can assure my constituents that I will do all in my power to secure a healthy, sustainable future for our local industry.

Gone are the days of our fishing industry waiting in vain for Westminster or the Labour-Lib Dem Executive to stand up for Scotland's interests in Europe. The SNP is listening to stakeholders' concerns and working with them to find smarter solutions to the issues before us and putting those solutions firmly on the table in EU negotiations. We have so far received a positive response to our campaign from Brussels and in the months ahead we will continue to press our case and fight for a better deal for Scotland's fishing industry.

Congratulations in order

I was delighted to hear that our local council has seen off competition from all over the UK to win the award for best large council to work in. Aberdeenshire Council scooped the award, coming in ahead of 94 others, after employees completed a survey on various aspects of working for the local authority. This is great news for Banff & Buchan where many are employed in the council. It is heartening to know that one of the big employers in our area is providing a top standard working environment and conditions for workers. It is also a credit to the departing Chief Executive Alan Campbell and his excellent leadership. I would like to take this opportunity to congratulate everyone working or involved with the council on this great achievement.

25 September 2008

Protecting patients' rights

Scotland has a health system to be proud of. And in the year of its 60th anniversary we can all appreciate the strengths of the NHS and take pride in its founding principle – that healthcare is free at the point of delivery.

While realising the value of our health system and vowing to reinforce this fundamental principle, the SNP has also maintained that there are ways in which we can improve it to make it fully fit for purpose for the twentieth century. And one of our core beliefs is that at the heart of healthcare should be the patient.

Patients should not be the passive recipients of a service; they are the primary stakeholders in the healthcare sector and therefore the first consideration when we think about developing the system. We in the SNP believe that those who use the service must be the focus of any modern, fair and democratic health system. This is why the Scottish Government has taken a vital step towards a patient-centred health system with patients' rights enshrined at its core.

Under the proposals launched by the Government last week Scottish patients will have a maximum waiting time guarantee for surgery. This means that after being referred to hospital patients should not have to wait more than 12 weeks for an operation.

We are all aware of the stress and anxiety that comes with awaiting an operation – either for oneself or a family member. Mental wellbeing is fundamental to a good recovery and at times like this a feeling of security is vital. This move will help to minimise uncertainty for people and their families at a time when they are vulnerable. Safe in the knowledge of the timescale they are facing patients will be in a better position to make a strong recovery.

These proposals are just one part of the Patients Rights Bill we are taking forward. The Bill is designed to make the health system fairer and fully equipped to meet the needs of everyone in Scotland. Under the plans Independent Patient Rights Officers will be appointed to every health board to ensure that patients' rights are being respected across the country. With clearer rights will of course come clearer responsibilities such as attending appointments. We want a health system in Scotland that treats its patients with respect and dignity. We want to see the people of Scotland together with healthcare staff become partners in our health system.

I know that many people in Banff & Buchan will be reassured by these proposals and take comfort that the Scottish Government is striving to make our health service better and fairer with people at its centre. With other practical measures to ease the burden on ordinary people like phasing out prescription charges, the SNP is working hard on all fronts to deliver a healthier, fairer nation.

Empowering fishing communities

Fishing communities are being granted a stronger role in managing inshore fisheries in Scotland thanks to a new initiative by the SNP Government. As part of a pilot Inshore Fisheries Groups made up of fishermen's representatives will be formed in several areas across the country with more planned over the next 18 months to cover the whole coast. The groups will be responsible for producing fisheries management plans for their areas and empowered to drive policy forward. This puts the stakeholders in the driving seat of the process. Before forming government the SNP said that rather than imposing policy from above we would listen to the views of fishing communities, fishermen and all of those involved in the sector and respond to that. And now that we are in government we are making good on that commitment.

16 September 2008

Building on success

With the summer recess drawing to a close MSPs have returned to Holyrood for yet another parliamentary year. And on the very first day back an idea of the activity in store was revealed with an ambitious programme for government.

In our second annual programme, the SNP Government outlined plans designed to build on the successes of the last year. The agenda combined long-term measures to strengthen the economy, protect our environment and create fairer means of delivering public services to the people of Scotland, with more short term initiatives to provide relief to hard pressed Scottish households and businesses in the here and now.

The SNP is committed to making Scotland a wealthier and fairer country. This is why we have consistently fought to abolish the unfair council tax. We believe that this regressive tax is wholly unjust and out of place in a progressive Scotland. And we have moved to put these convictions fully into action with a proposed bill to scrap the council tax.

The only way to secure a genuinely fair system is through a local income tax based on the ability to pay. This would not only be more equitable across the board but would lift 85,000 people in Scotland from poverty and see the average Scottish family save between £350 and £535 a year.

As well as commonsense initiatives like this, there was much in the programme for rural constituencies like Banff & Buchan. The SNP Government is acutely aware of the distinctive issues which face remote communities in Scotland and the need to treat these issues differently.

Schools are one such matter which is why we are planning a bill to protect rural schools from closure. Since 1999 more than 50 rural schools in Scotland have been closed. In that time three have been kept open by Ministers and I am proud to say that all three decisions were taken under the SNP's tenure. As the most rural constituency in mainland Scotland this will come as reassuring news to parents and families in Banff & Buchan.

Also amongst the raft of measures were the a bill which will fully implement the rates relief scheme for small business, a bill to make Scotland a world leader in the fight against climate change and a bill to make our public services more efficient and ultimately reap savings for the taxpayer.

This was a programme with a clear vision – to make Scotland healthier, wealthier and fairer. By putting in place measures to boost the economy, to conserve our environment and to improve our fundamental education, health and justice services we are making progress year on year to deliver on that goal. The SNP is looking ahead with confidence and ambition for Scotland.

Ending a tax on the sick

But it is not only through legislation that the SNP is making a difference to the lives of the people of Scotland. In the current climate as the cost of living rises we are taking action on all fronts to ease the burden on ordinary people.

We recently moved to scrap car parking charges at NHS hospitals across Scotland. This put an end to what was essentially an indirect tax on ill health and strengthened the fundamental principle of the NHS – that healthcare should be free at the point of delivery.

Car parking charges put an unfair financial burden on hospital patients, staff and their relatives at a time when they are at their most vulnerable. I was also pleased to note that this included two hospitals in Grampian health board, Aberdeen Royal Infirmary and Dr Gray's Hospital in Elgin. In these tough economic times every saving matters and this move will help ease the strain on family budgets when it is most needed.

28 August 2008

Positive action on the economy

Talk of rising oil prices, inflation and 'the credit crunch' have been impossible to avoid in recent weeks, not only in Scotland but throughout the Western world. The news has all too often been dominated by gloomy economic reports while at Westminster the response has been underwhelming and utterly disappointing.

While the UK Government appears paralysed and powerless in the face of global economic troubles however the SNP Government recognises the need to take action. Instead of being negative and claiming nothing can be done the SNP is acting positively to protect the people of Scotland against the impacts of inflation and rising living costs in the short-term and to secure the health of our economy in the long-term. While we cannot control the economy or insulate ourselves completely from global events there is still much that we can do – and must do.

In a decisive move, we have introduced a package of common-sense measures to strengthen the Scottish economy. The package includes a practical plan to bring forward £100 million of investment in affordable housing from 2010-11. I know this will come as welcome news to many first-time buyers in Banff & Buchan who are finding it difficult to get on the property ladder. The initiative will also do a great deal to boost the Scottish construction industry at a time when it needs it and to tackle the long-term shortage of housing in Scotland.

Housing is a basic human need and as such is accorded a place high on the SNP agenda. Safe, adequate housing at an affordable cost is essential to a person's security, health and wellbeing. This is why, since entering power we have been striving to address the dearth of affordable homes in Scotland and to match housing supply with the need that exists. We must provide the right type of homes in the right quantity and in the right places – and that is another priority that this initiative will deliver. Through pragmatic measures like ending the Right to Buy which seriously damaged the supply of social housing in Scotland for many years, we wasted no time in tackling Scotland's housing shortage head-on.

Added to our action on housing the SNP Government has undertaken a number of other initiatives to make efficiency savings and to grow our economy. At a time of increasing oil prices we have introduced a plan to bulk-buy electricity across the public sector – a move which will reap millions of pounds worth of savings for the public purse. We have also taken further steps to ensure Scottish tourism gains maximum benefits from Homecoming 2009, a year to mark 250th anniversary of Robert Burns's birth through a series of fantastic events and celebrations.

Though we do not yet have full control over Scotland's finances under the devolved settlement we in the SNP are using the powers that we do have to the absolute maximum effect for the benefit of the people of Scotland.

Our vision for Scotland is a positive one. Despite a global economic downturn Scotland is showing positive resilience and we are confident that with the helping hand of a supportive government at Holyrood it will not only remain strong but grow and flourish. We have high ambitions for Scotland and we are thinking big for our country's future. With a dynamic economy backed up by an effective government we believe there are no barriers to what Scotland can achieve.

Valuable time in the constituency

With the summer now drawing to a close it is back to Holyrood for the start of another parliamentary year. The summer recess has afforded me extra time in Banff & Buchan which I have greatly appreciated. It has given me the opportunity to do a great deal of travelling around the constituency and to meet with my constituents, not to mention to attend some of our many festivals and shows like the Turriff show, the New Deer show and Peterhead's Scottish Week festival, all of which I thoroughly enjoyed. I return to Parliament refreshed and eager to serve all of my constituents to the best of my ability in what promises to be another parliamentary year full of activity.

13 August 2008

A helping hand for our fishing industry

It is the responsibility of any good government to promote and protect a country's national industries. In times of difficulty when they are in need of support the Government must act. This is why the SNP Government has taken firm action to sustain the Scottish fishing industry for the present and the future.

Crippling rises in fuel costs in recent months have been felt by everybody in Scotland – individuals, families and business. Amongst industries however fishing has been hit particularly hard. While most businesses can pass on rising prices to the consumer, as fish is sold for the most part at auction the fishing trade has no such option. With fuel costs now accounting for as much as half the earnings of boats, the profitability and sustainability of many businesses has been put under severe strain. Indeed in my time in the constituency this summer I have heard the concerns of a number of local people involved in the sector.

The SNP Government has taken the issues facing the fishing industry seriously and responded decisively, without delay. We have delivered a multi-million pound funding package to support the industry plus a three-year plan to ensure fishing's long term sustainability.

Through Scottish Government and EU funding the Government has made £29 million available over the next three years to help the industry adapt to the current reality of higher fuel costs.

The use of these funds will be two-fold. Firstly it will be used to fund a range of fuel efficiency measures such as grants for fishermen to buy equipment like fuel flow meters or fuel-efficient engines. This will cut down significantly on fishermen's fuel expenses and also boost the environmental sustainability of the industry.

Secondly, the funding will be used to finance marketing initiatives for the sector. Scottish fish is of the finest quality and one of our premium national products. It is vital therefore that we fully promote the product and maximise its market potential at home and abroad. With the support of Seafood Scotland and the Seafish Industry Authority resources will be channelled into boosting the brand, reputation and value of Scotland's fish.

This initiative will come as a considerable help to the industry at a time when it needs it most. But it could only be achieved with the close and solid cooperation of the fishing industry itself. The three year plan was developed through the Fuel Taskforce, made up of industry representatives. Indeed from the SNP's first day in power, our Fisheries Secretary Richard Lochhead has been consulting and working in partnership with fishing stakeholders to secure a better future for the industry. Relations between the Scottish Government and the industry have been fundamentally changed under the SNP. We have granted stakeholders a central role in the decision making process.

In contrast to these proactive measures the UK Government's actions so far have been vastly inadequate. The SNP Government will continue to press for their financial support and action to bring energy costs under control as this remains the responsibility of UK Ministers. However, it is clear that the days of Scotland simply waiting for Westminster to deliver for our fishing industry are well and truly over. For the first time in history Scotland has a Government that will stand up for its fishing interests and give it the support it needs to have a vibrant, healthy future.

31 July 2008

A Seismic Change For Scottish Politics

Scotland's traditional political structures have been shaken to the core by a recent event in Glasgow East. In a result which many would have believed impossible the SNP won a Westminster by-election for what was once one of the strongest Labour seats in Scotland. This victory has resonance not only for Glasgow but for Scotland as a whole. It has changed the political landscape in Scotland fundamentally and marks a sea change currently sweeping the country, as the people of Scotland continue to call a halt to years of stagnant Labour rule and turn towards the SNP.

After securing a 23 per cent swing to the SNP in this by-election, no Labour seat in Scotland can now be said to be 'safe' as we approach the next Westminster General Election. But this was no ordinary by-election. It was unique in Scottish politics for many reasons and not least because it represented a battle not just between two parties but between two governments - the London Labour Government and the SNP Scottish Government. When presented with these two options, the voters of Glasgow East chose the SNP Government and the Labour party was found wanting.

This election was not fought over Holyrood or Westminster however. The key points over which the contest was fought and won were the basic bread and butter issues that really matter to the Scottish people - the escalating cost of living as food and fuel prices rise. With food costs climbing by 7 per cent and petrol prices by over 20 per cent in the last 12 months, people's primary concern was for the UK Government to take positive action to ease the financial strain on their households and businesses.

However, so far the response from Brown's government to the current economic situation has been weak and inadequate. Whilst the Prime Minister is raking in an offshore oil windfall of some £6 billion he has failed to take the measures needed to deliver some relief to hard pressed families and businesses. This fact was not lost on voters who sent a clear message to Downing Street that action is required.

By contrast, in the face of tough economic times the SNP Government has acted positively and decisively to improve circumstances for people in Scotland. With common sense practical measures like freezing council tax, initiating a staged abolition of prescription charges, slashing business rates and scrapping the graduate endowment fee for students, the SNP has been striving to improve the quality of life for everyone in Scotland. This is in addition to longer terms strategic measures to grow our economy, invest in our public services and promote our country internationally. People are feeling the benefits as the SNP Government work successfully to make Scotland wealthier, fairer, healthier, greener and safer.

On the side of our fishing industry at home and abroad

In my travels around the constituency in recent weeks I have spoken to fishermen and others involved in the trade and heard with concern their difficulties as rising fuel prices place a strain on their businesses and livelihoods. The fishing industry is one of the staples of the North East economy and central to life in Banff & Buchan. That is why we in the SNP have been working hard at all levels to improve conditions for the trade. In Brussels SNP Fisheries Secretary Richard Lochhead recently put forward the case of Scottish fishermen and achieved greater flexibility in how we spend the European Fisheries Fund, worth £44 million between now and 2013. Together with the Fuel Taskforce and the three year plan for a more sustainable, profitable industry, established by the Scottish Government, this will come as some welcome news for the sector. The SNP has always fought for the rights of the Scottish industry – a fact that is now more important than ever. And in the months and years ahead we will continue to press for the interest of Scotland's fishing trade both at home and abroad.

16 July 2008

Standing up for Scotland's interests

When the SNP was given the backing of the people of Scotland last year, its overriding pledge was to promote and, if necessary, defend Scotland's interests. We guaranteed the people an effective government that would stand up for Scotland whatever the issue. And in the current times of rising oil prices this pledge has never been more crucial.

Recent months have seen fuel costs soar as the price of oil hit over $140 a barrel. This global problem has been experienced by each and every one of us on a local level – families, individuals, industry, big business, small business –in rising utility bills and transport expenses. It is placing severe pressure on sectors such as haulage and fishing and threatening the viability of some vulnerable businesses. Meanwhile in the last year the cost of filling up a family car has gone up £30 a month and food prices have risen by 7 per cent. The impact has been clearly felt here in Banff & Buchan, the most rural constituency in mainland Scotland, where for most travelling by car is a daily necessity.

The SNP is acutely aware of these issues and has been working doggedly to tackle them. While control over energy and hence fuel duty currently remains in the hands of the UK Government we have been doing all in our power to press Brown's administration to act to ease the strain on hard pressed families, workers and businesses in Scotland.

One common sense measure being pushed by the SNP is a Fuel Duty Regulator. This system would provide double protection for drivers and the road haulage industry. It would work so that higher oil prices would trigger an automatic freeze in fuel duty rates. At the same time any extra money raised from VAT on petrol or diesel as a result of higher pump prices would go back into an equivalent cut in fuel duty. This would control rising fuel prices and ensure they do not hit the consumer the hardest. Unsurprisingly our proposal commands support across the sectors from bodies like the Scottish Fishermen's Federation, the National Farmer's Union Scotland and the Road Haulage Association.

Whilst each of the Scottish parties claims to be standing up for their constituents on rising oil prices, at Westminster the Tories, Labour and the Lib Dems recently voted against the SNP/Plaid Cymru amendment to introduce this scheme. What's more the Tories have now shown blatant hypocrisy by introducing virtually identical proposals to the fuel duty regulator while inexplicably refusing to support our plans.

The SNP is pressing the Westminster Government, now with more justification than ever, to put oil money to work for Scotland – to give Scotland a 10 per cent share of the revenues to establish an oil fund for future generations. While the UK Government continues to ignore this vital opportunity Norway, having invested in such a fund 12 years ago, is now reaping the benefits with a fund worth £186.

At a time when we are all aware of the importance of oil and gas to our everyday lives, it is more obvious than ever that Scotland must gain more control over its oil wealth. I look forward to the day when the concrete benefits of North Sea oil can be felt by everyone in Banff & Buchan. In the meantime the SNP will tirelessly continue to put pressure on Westminster to make our national resource deliver for the people of Scotland.

2 July 2008

Another hectic Holyrood term

With the summer finally upon us MSPs have now departed Holyrood for their constituencies after a parliamentary term that has seen no shortage of activity or excitement.

It is true that a week is a long time in politics and by this logic, six months a stretch that can witness enormous progress, change, and indeed its fair share of drama. And this term has been no exception. With a raft of legislation put into action, numerous manifesto claims honoured by the SNP Government and several unexpected turns by our opponents, events have all made for interesting times in Scottish politics.

One of the defining moments of the term came early in the year as the first ever SNP budget was delivered. The historic budget heralded a number of success stories for Scotland, the material benefits of which are already being felt by people in Banff & Buchan and across the country. Not least of these achievements was enabling local authorities to freeze council tax and allowing a further 1000 police officers to be recruited over the next three years. A key focus of the budget was on stimulating the economy to grow, both locally and nationally. This was achieved through the common sense measure of scrapping and slashing business rates for small companies – a move that came as a major relief to businesses in Banff & Buchan, particularly in the current tough circumstances of rising oil and food prices.

It has been a period of little rest for the SNP Government, as we work relentlessly on all fronts to fulfil our manifesto promises. In a short six months we have abolished bridge tolls on the Tay and Forth Road Bridges, eased the financial pressures on students by scrapping the graduate endowment fee and lowered prescription charges from £6.85 to £5 as the first phase of eradicating the costs completely in 2011. We have taken our democratic engagement with the people of Scotland to the next level by engaging civic groups and organisations in the National Conversation, the nation-wide forum on Scotland's constitutional future.

Over a year since the 2007 Scottish elections however our steady progress has not been matched by our opponents across the chamber. The last six months has seen the Labour party in utter disarray, still struggling to come to terms with their new role in opposition. After abstaining from voting on our national budget, including their own amendment, the party have undergone their Scottish leader's continued dodgy donations fiasco, a series of confusing u-turns on her position on an independence referendum, and now, unsurprisingly they face another leadership contest less than a year since the last. As the SNP get on with advancing its agenda to make Scotland wealthier, healthier, fairer, safer, smarter and greener, Labour has no clear leadership, no clear vision for our country and no clear position on Scotland's future. With a number of key manifesto pledges delivered it seems fair to say that the 'honeymoon period' is far from over for the SNP and that our success has had little to do with novelty. The SNP is proving its substance in Government and proving that it will govern consistently with Scotland's best interests at heart. But we are far from complacent and realise there is much more to be done over the next three years. For my part, as the recess period commences I look forward to continuing the good work here in Banff & Buchan and serving the needs of all of my constituents over the summer months.

A fairer tax for a fairer Scotland

Tax is never a popular issue but it is up to any good government to make tax as reasonable and as fair as possible. This is why the SNP Government is proposing to replace the unfair and regressive Council Tax with a fairer, means-based Local Income Tax. We believe, as do the majority of the Scottish public, that the property based tax is unfair as it takes no account of people's ability to pay and can result in some of the most well off paying the least and some of the least well off, including pensioners, paying the most. This is a fact that is not lost on Scotland's councils as we recently saw the body which represents them, the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities (COSLA) give their backing to the tax. It is not surprising that local authorities would support this progressive tax when the vast majority of people will be better off while those earning the very least will see an average 5.7 per cent weekly increase in their income as a result. The SNP want to ease the burden on taxpayers and put money back in people's pockets as part of a wealthier, fairer nation.

22 June 2008

Homecoming glory

We are all aware of Scotland's unique culture and significant contribution to the world. Whilst people the world over marvel at Scotland's rich heritage however, here at home it is all too easy to take it for granted and overlook the value of our cultural legacy. This is why the SNP Government is taking the initiative and bringing our national celebrations home in a year to appreciate Scotland all things Scottish.

To mark the 250th anniversary of our national bard Robert Burns, Homecoming 2009, a sensational series of festivities, will run from Burns Night up until St Andrews Day. With over 100 events taking place throughout the country, Homecoming will showcase Scotland's and indeed the North East's best assets from poetry to world class whisky to golf, traditional music, Scottish innovation and far beyond.

Here in the North East Homecoming offers an immense opportunity to celebrate our distinctive identity and traditions and to show this off to the world. Amongst the events happening here in Banff & Buchan will be our annual Portsoy Boat Festival - but with a difference. Following the Homecoming theme it will be opened up to the world with contributors from Scandinavia, Canada and the USA joining an international symposium on traditional boat building. The Museum of Scottish Lighthouses in Fraserburgh will put on an exhibition to highlight Scotland's world renowned innovations in lighthouse design - another show demonstration of our influence across the world. To honour our lineage a North East Clan Fortnight is also planned, running from the end of July with an enhanced Aberdeen Tartan Day.

This not about celebrating Scotland amongst ourselves however, but inviting the thousands of Scottish Diaspora around the world and indeed all of those with an affinity to Scotland to come and join in these celebrations. This represents not only an opportunity to promote our country and boost its standing in the international arena, but also a huge economic opportunity to be seized. With an estimated £40m in tourism to be generated from the events, Homecoming will reap rewards for the North East culturally and economically. And with the vast potential for tourism we harbour here in Banff & Buchan, locally this is excellent news for all of us. With our area's beautiful beaches, stunning seascapes, our fantastic golf course in Cruden Bay and much more we can only benefit from promoting our area and displaying its attributes to the world.

Harnessing the value of Scotland's oil

Oil has scarcely been far from the headlines in recent weeks. As prices hit almost $140 a barrel, from businesses to public services to families and individuals, every one is feeling the squeeze of rising fuel costs. At the same time, as a result the UK Treasury is experiencing a windfall, set to make an extra £4-5b in oil revenues on top of the £10b forecast in the last Budget.

In these times of booming oil prices, it has never been clearer that Scotland's oil must be harnessed and used constructively - we must seize the opportunity and plough this burgeoning wealth into a fund for future generations. We only need look across the waters to Norway to witness the benefits of their £186b oil fund wisely established by their government wisely 12 years ago. Without full power over its oil resources currently however Scotland must wait on the UK Government to act. The SNP has for years been pressing Scotland's case for greater control of its oil. And now, in government in Holyrood we are doing all in our power to urge Gordon Brown to give Scotland access to the expanding North Sea oil revenues to invest for our future generations. The SNP will continue to fight for everyone in Scotland to feel the benefits of our nation's oil.

4 June 2008

Standing up for Scotland's fishing industry

The fishing industry is vital to the North East of Scotland and an integral part of life here in Banff & Buchan. It underlies not only our local economy but also many of our customs and traditions, both past and present. It is also an industry which has undergone immense reform in recent years, some of which has been painful and difficult for those engaged in the sector.

The fishing trade and the many communities it supports must therefore be protected if we want to see it continue to thrive and remain at the centre of Scottish life and heritage. This is why the SNP Government is implementing proactive measures to support fishermen through the good times and the bad.

With world oil prices escalating, fuel costs have hit the fishing industry hard and threatened the profitability of many fishing-dependent businesses. Indeed the rising price of fuel is an issue affecting everyone in Scotland today, and the impact is sharply felt by the already vulnerable fishing trade. The SNP Government has recognised this strain and responded with a positive action plan to tackle the challenges facing the industry.

This five point plan is a pragmatic, common sense initiative by the Scottish Government. For a start, it has seen £700,000 given to the industry to help offset the impact of fuel costs. This money will go a long way to alleviating pressures on the industry in the short term. Looking further down the road, the plan also sets out the Scottish Government's intention to continue to press the EU on subsidies and to meet with the UK Government to discuss the serious issue of rising fuel prices- the Government that currently retains responsibility for fuel taxes and with it the ability to reduce fuel costs. As part of the plan the Scottish Government will work also with the industry to come up with a fuel efficiency scheme.

The Scottish Government has already established a Task Force to immediately start the ball rolling in implementing these positive measures. The group is made up of key figures across fishing and related sectors in Scotland. But I was particularly pleased to see the Banff & Buchan fishing industry so well represented on the Task Force with Euan Beaton of MacDuff Shellfish and John Wallace of Peterhead Port Authority on the panel. We can rest assured that the voices of the North East sector will be heard loud and clear at the table.

The importance of fishing to our local economy needs little emphasis. The industry is worth almost £2 billion to the Scottish economy and accounts for 1.4 per cent of the country's employment, with the fish catching sector employing over 1,300 people in the North East. Fishing represents 60 per cent of all jobs in Fraserburgh and 28 per cent in Peterhead plus the surrounding travel to work areas. This value is not lost on the SNP Government which is why it is fighting hard to protect the industry and see it flourish into the future.

What's more, the SNP Fisheries Secretary, Richard Lochhead has also established a major review of the management of Scotland's fishing quota to ensure that Scotland's fishing rights are protected and that fresh blood continues to flow into the industry into the future.
But at the heart of these initiatives is not the Government but the industry itself. In seeking the way forward for fishing in Scotland, the SNP is working in partnership with the fishing industry every step of the way and listening to what they have to say. After all, there are few who will know the situation better than those directly involved.

For far too long Scotland's fishing industry was treated as peripheral to the Scottish economy by Westminster governments in EU negotiations and indeed by the former Scottish Executive, following in their lead. The SNP now has the opportunity to put this to right; to put the industry at the centre of decision making and stand up for Scotland's fishing interests at home and abroad. And now that we are in government we are making sure we do just that.

8 May 2008

Speech to Business in the Community conference

Edinburgh

_______________________

I want to emphasise two points in this speech. The first is to remind you that climate change is a real and present danger, and secondly, perhaps more fundamentally, that we need to take action now.

Business with its supply chains, and large customer and employee base, as well as an eye for economic opportunities, has a big role to play.

In my experience, the importance of an issue is often directly related to the number of weighty and learned documents which have been published on the subject.

I can tell you that a lot of weighty documents have been published on climate change.

However, they often contain crucial information.

Climate trends

The Handbook of Climate Trends for Scotland tells us that climate change is with us already.

Since 1961:
  • Heavy rainfall events have increased significantly in winter, particularly in the north and west where winter rainfall has increased by almost 60 per cent
  • The snow season has shortened and
  • The growing season length has increased significantly
Publications on climate scenarios suggest that in Scotland by the 2080s
  • Annual temperature will rise by up to 3.5 oC in the summer and 2.5 oC in the winter
  • summers will be drier particularly in the south and east and
  • the chance of extreme storm events and the risk of flooding will increase
We also know that the developing world will experience the effects of climate change more severely, and at an earlier stage.

Stern Review

The Stern Review tells us of the benefits of early action on climate change. If we act now the cost of climate change will only be around 1 per cent of global GDP by 2050. Lord Adair Turner, chair designate of the newly established Committee on Climate Change (I'll tell you more about their important role shortly) gave the following analogy to explain what that really means.

"what that means is that the UK would then have to wait until some time between June and December 2050 to reach the standard of living it would otherwise have reached in January 2050, a standard of living which is likely to be about two to two and a half times the present level."

But doing nothing could cost the world the equivalent of 5 - 20 per cent of global GDP.

Government purpose and targets, Leadership and economic opportunities

We know that Scotland taking action on its own will not make a significant difference to global climate change (we produce only around 0.15 per cent of global emissions). But we need to demonstrate leadership to the rest of the world to encourage other countries to tackle climate change, partly for our self preservation and partly through the moral imperative. It is, after all, the developed world that has put most of the CO2 into the atmosphere.

All Government action is based around the single purpose of sustainable economic growth. One of our key targets for sustainable economic growth is to reduce our emissions by 80 per cent by 2050 and to reduce our emissions in the period to 2011.

But the need to adapt to the unavoidable consequences of climate change and to drive down emissions also creates new opportunities for business. Scotland has benefited hugely from the Scottish inventors and entrepreneurs that came out of the industrial revolution and we can gain advantage again by leading the world in the new low carbon economy.

I'd now like to set out what the Government is doing and touch on what business can do.

Scottish Climate Change Bill

One of this Government's key actions is to bring forward a Scottish Climate Change Bill. The consultation on our proposals for a Bill has just closed. It attracted over 20 000 responses from 145 countries. This emphasises the global nature of climate change. I hope you took the chance to comment, I know that over 100 business people attended consultation events including two specifically for business.

We propose to set a statutory target of reducing emissions by 80 per cent by 2050 but the Bill includes other important aspects such as five year carbon budgets. You might think these are a little technical and not of great interest. But the key point to take home is - that it is the purpose of the Scottish Climate Change Bill to provide a framework for delivery of the 80 per cent so that businesses and others, know exactly what they are being asked to do over the short, medium and long terms.

We will introduce a bill into Parliament before the end of the year.

UK Climate Change Bill

We are also working in partnership with the Westminster Government and Devolved Administrations on a UK Climate Change Bill to provide a shared framework for the UK. The Bill sets a target for the UK to reduce carbon dioxide emissions by at least 60 per cent by 2050.

Committee on Climate Change

The UK Bill has one particularly important measure. This has been the recent establishment of an independent Committee on Climate Change chaired by Lord Adair Turner. He will be a familiar name to you as a former Director General of the CBI.

The Committee brings together experts from climate science and policy, economics, business and finance to provide expert advice to all the governments of the UK on setting carbon budgets and reducing emissions.

Five members of the Committee have already been appointed and we are now recruiting for further members, looking for expertise in a number of areas, including business. Applications close on Tuesday, May 6 and the details are on the Scottish Government's website.

Strategic Overview

The Bill is not meant to deliver all the policies we need to reduce emissions - it is a framework to ensure this and future governments make continued and sustained progress on climate change and to give business the certainty it requires to invest in new technologies.

We are working to put in place a set of policies across all sectors that will take Scotland along the pathway to 80 per cent.

An initial assessment of policy options is being conducted by AEA Technology and we expect to publish their report fairly soon.

The next step will be to consider the policy options more closely, to consider, for example, their cost effectiveness, and to take further expert advice. This will include advice from the Committee on Climate Change.

EU Emissions Trading Scheme and Carbon Reduction Commitment

The Stern Review highlighted that the development of carbon pricing is a key policy for emissions reduction.

We already have in place one carbon pricing mechanism - the EU Emissions Trading Scheme. This covers the emissions of our major combustors - power stations and large industrial installations and regulates almost 50 per cent of Scottish CO2 emissions. Its purpose is to deliver cost-effective and ambitious carbon emissions reductions through the buying and selling of carbon credits.

And we are also working in partnership with the UK Government to introduce the Carbon Reduction Commitment in 2010. This will be a scheme to reduce emissions by large commercial and public sector organisations and will deliver significant savings.

Technological innovation and renewables

Stern also emphasises the importance of the development and deployment of low-carbon technologies to achieve deep cuts in emissions.

To this end, the First Minister launched the £10 million Saltire Prize on April 2nd. This is the world's largest ever single prize for innovation in marine renewables.

The Scottish Government is also:
  • supporting the delivery of 10 megawatts of marine energy from our waters by 2010, helping to make Scotland the world leader in wave and tidal power
  • tripling the funding for community renewables and microgeneration to reach £13.5 million
Adaptation

I've set out our plans for emissions reduction but adapting to the unavoidable impacts of climate change is equally important. The climate will change over the next 30 to 40 years because of past and present emissions. We cannot prevent this but we can adapt to it.

We are seeking effective options to reduce our vulnerability to these consequences which will safeguard communities, minimise disruption to services and infrastructure, and help business take advantage of opportunities that these changes may bring.

To this end, we are developing Scotland's first adaptation strategy to identify action required in Scotland.

Business

Business has an important role to play in all this work. Businesses are responsible for half of all CO2 emissions, with SMEs responsible for almost half of those emissions. The CBI's Climate Change Task Force report, published at the end of last year highlighted that:
  • Firms will fundamentally have to change their business models
  • Business and Government must work together to encourage the take-up of greener products and to promote new ways of doing things and
  • With early action the cost for each household can be limited to around £100 a year by 2030
The Scottish Government is already working with business to cut emissions by:
  • providing interest free loans of up to £100k to help SMEs invest in energy efficiency
  • funding the Carbon Trust in Scotland to deliver consultancy advice through carbon management for large energy users. Last year the Trust helped Scottish businesses implement measures that will save around 200,000 tonnes of carbon and £15m during their lifetime
  • funding the provision of advice to small businesses through the Energy Savings Trust
Providing leadership and taking action are key. I've been impressed by the example shown by the Business Delivery Group over the last year in raising the profile of business in tackling climate change, for instance in the Business in Parliament event in January. And also Scottish Business in the Community by getting everyone in this room today to share their experiences.

And there are business opportunities. New markets for lower carbon energy products are likely to be worth $500 billion dollars by 2050. Scotland can be a leader in the development of clean energy and low carbon technologies.

One business which is benefitting from climate change through green innovation is Falkirk-based bus builder Alexander Dennis. The company has developed a new generation of low carbon environmentally friendly buses which have helped boost company profits by £120 million and secured 750 Scottish jobs. It now supplies 70 per cent of London's bus fleet and is selling double deck buses to the US.

I have set out the action the Scottish Government is taking to tackle climate change, through developing a statutory framework for action to give business certainty, assessing policy options, encouraging innovation and ensuring that we plan for the unavoidable consequences for climate change.

Business has an important role to play through collaborative action, developing new technology and mobilising your customers, employees and supply chain to tackle climate change. I look forward to hearing from you this morning of your experiences:
  • of what has worked and
  • your ideas for what will work

7 May 2008

Looking Back on a Year of Achievement

As we enter the month of May, we are afforded the chance to reflect on what can only be described as a momentous year for Scotland. We mark the symbolic anniversary of the Scottish elections which saw Scottish history made before our eyes as the SNP formed government for the first time. And looking back it has been a truly sensational year of success for the SNP and indeed for Scotland.

Before entering power the SNP pledged to make Scotland healthier, wealthier, safer, smarter, stronger and greener. And after being granted the backing of the Scottish people to form Government we have wasted no time in getting on with the job. In a short twelve months we have delivered substantially on our manifesto pledges and moved Scotland closer to realising these goals.

Amongst other achievements we have removed tolls on the Forth and Tay Road Bridges, scrapped the graduate endowment for students and secured the 2014 Commonwealth Games for Scotland. We have reduced prescription charges to £5.00 with plans to phase them out completely by 2011. We have taken measures to deliver more visible police presence and an additional 1,000 police officers, helping to make our local communities safer and stronger. The SNP has taken significant strides to tackle Scotland''s housing shortage with a raft of plans including the establishment of an expert panel led housing supply task force and £5 million pounds of investment into rural homes for rent.

Locally in Banff & Buchan the impact of SNP governance is plain to see. In the last year we have seen Peterhead Prison saved from closure, council tax frozen, business rates for small businesses cut and a third dental school planned for our regional city of Aberdeen.

As I travel around the constituency, I meet farmers who feel the Government is addressing their concerns, fishermen who feel they are finally being listened to, business people who believe the Government is giving them a chance to grow their business and families who are better off as a result of the council tax freeze. With a record number of new businesses starting up across the area and more money in people's pockets, Banff & Buchan is an area that is flourishing and moving forward.

On a more subtle level, there has been a sea change in the way politics is done in Scotland and in the way people relate to it. As the SNP demonstrate our competence to the people of Scotland there is renewed confidence in Scotland as a nation, in our political institutions and our ability to govern ourselves. As we prove our calibre through successful, effective policies in the best interest of Scotland's people there is a growing sense that Scotland can hold its own and prosper as a country in its own right. And through the National Conversation, the SNP Government has breathed new life into democracy by bringing the debate over independence, devolution and everything in between, beyond the Parliament and directly to the people. It is time for the people of Scotland to democratically have their say on the issues that affect them.

But all of this is only the beginning. The SNP has ambitious visions for Scotland and we intend to continue relentlessly pushing for Scotland's best interests at home and abroad. And for my part as I look back on a year of SNP successes I also look forward to the many achievements to follow and to serving all of my constituents to the best of my ability in the years ahead. As both Member of Scottish Parliament for Banff & Buchan and Government Minister it has been the most exciting year I could ever imagine spending in politics and a true honour. I would like to take this opportunity to thank the people of Banff & Buchan for giving me this privilege.

1 May 2008

Speech to Business in the Community conference (Dynamic Earth, Edinburgh)

I want to emphasise two points in this speech. The first is to remind you that climate change is a real and present danger, and secondly, perhaps more fundamentally, that we need to take action now.

Business with its supply chains, and large customer and employee base, as well as an eye for economic opportunities, has a big role to play.

In my experience, the importance of an issue is often directly related to the number of weighty and learned documents which have been published on the subject.

I can tell you that a lot of weighty documents have been published on climate change.

However, they often contain crucial information.

Climate trends

The Handbook of Climate Trends for Scotland tells us that climate change is with us already.

Since 1961:
  • Heavy rainfall events have increased significantly in winter, particularly in the north and west where winter rainfall has increased by almost 60 per cent
  • The snow season has shortened and
  • The growing season length has increased significantly
Publications on climate scenarios suggest that in Scotland by the 2080s
  • Annual temperature will rise by up to 3.5 oC in the summer and 2.5 oC in the winter
  • summers will be drier particularly in the south and east and
  • the chance of extreme storm events and the risk of flooding will increase
We also know that the developing world will experience the effects of climate change more severely, and at an earlier stage.

Stern Review

The Stern Review tells us of the benefits of early action on climate change. If we act now the cost of climate change will only be around 1 per cent of global GDP by 2050. Lord Adair Turner, chair designate of the newly established Committee on Climate Change (I'll tell you more about their important role shortly) gave the following analogy to explain what that really means.

"what that means is that the UK would then have to wait until some time between June and December 2050 to reach the standard of living it would otherwise have reached in January 2050, a standard of living which is likely to be about two to two and a half times the present level."

But doing nothing could cost the world the equivalent of 5 - 20 per cent of global GDP.

Government purpose and targets, Leadership and economic opportunities

We know that Scotland taking action on its own will not make a significant difference to global climate change (we produce only around 0.15 per cent of global emissions). But we need to demonstrate leadership to the rest of the world to encourage other countries to tackle climate change, partly for our self preservation and partly through the moral imperative. It is, after all, the developed world that has put most of the CO2 into the atmosphere.

All Government action is based around the single purpose of sustainable economic growth. One of our key targets for sustainable economic growth is to reduce our emissions by 80 per cent by 2050 and to reduce our emissions in the period to 2011.

But the need to adapt to the unavoidable consequences of climate change and to drive down emissions also creates new opportunities for business. Scotland has benefited hugely from the Scottish inventors and entrepreneurs that came out of the industrial revolution and we can gain advantage again by leading the world in the new low carbon economy.

I'd now like to set out what the Government is doing and touch on what business can do.

Scottish Climate Change Bill

One of this Government's key actions is to bring forward a Scottish Climate Change Bill. The consultation on our proposals for a Bill has just closed. It attracted over 20 000 responses from 145 countries. This emphasises the global nature of climate change. I hope you took the chance to comment, I know that over 100 business people attended consultation events including two specifically for business.

We propose to set a statutory target of reducing emissions by 80 per cent by 2050 but the Bill includes other important aspects such as five year carbon budgets. You might think these are a little technical and not of great interest. But the key point to take home is - that it is the purpose of the Scottish Climate Change Bill to provide a framework for delivery of the 80 per cent so that businesses and others, know exactly what they are being asked to do over the short, medium and long terms.

We will introduce a bill into Parliament before the end of the year.

UK Climate Change Bill

We are also working in partnership with the Westminster Government and Devolved Administrations on a UK Climate Change Bill to provide a shared framework for the UK. The Bill sets a target for the UK to reduce carbon dioxide emissions by at least 60 per cent by 2050.

Committee on Climate Change

The UK Bill has one particularly important measure. This has been the recent establishment of an independent Committee on Climate Change chaired by Lord Adair Turner. He will be a familiar name to you as a former Director General of the CBI.

The Committee brings together experts from climate science and policy, economics, business and finance to provide expert advice to all the governments of the UK on setting carbon budgets and reducing emissions.

Five members of the Committee have already been appointed and we are now recruiting for further members, looking for expertise in a number of areas, including business. Applications close on Tuesday, May 6 and the details are on the Scottish Government's website.

Strategic Overview

The Bill is not meant to deliver all the policies we need to reduce emissions - it is a framework to ensure this and future governments make continued and sustained progress on climate change and to give business the certainty it requires to invest in new technologies.

We are working to put in place a set of policies across all sectors that will take Scotland along the pathway to 80 per cent.

An initial assessment of policy options is being conducted by AEA Technology and we expect to publish their report fairly soon.

The next step will be to consider the policy options more closely, to consider, for example, their cost effectiveness, and to take further expert advice. This will include advice from the Committee on Climate Change.

EU Emissions Trading Scheme and Carbon Reduction Commitment

The Stern Review highlighted that the development of carbon pricing is a key policy for emissions reduction.

We already have in place one carbon pricing mechanism - the EU Emissions Trading Scheme. This covers the emissions of our major combustors - power stations and large industrial installations and regulates almost 50 per cent of Scottish CO2 emissions. Its purpose is to deliver cost-effective and ambitious carbon emissions reductions through the buying and selling of carbon credits.

And we are also working in partnership with the UK Government to introduce the Carbon Reduction Commitment in 2010. This will be a scheme to reduce emissions by large commercial and public sector organisations and will deliver significant savings.

Technological innovation and renewables

Stern also emphasises the importance of the development and deployment of low-carbon technologies to achieve deep cuts in emissions.

To this end, the First Minister launched the £10 million Saltire Prize on April 2nd. This is the world's largest ever single prize for innovation in marine renewables.

The Scottish Government is also:
  • supporting the delivery of 10 megawatts of marine energy from our waters by 2010, helping to make Scotland the world leader in wave and tidal power
  • Tripling the funding for community renewables and microgeneration to reach £13.5 million
Adaptation

I've set out our plans for emissions reduction but adapting to the unavoidable impacts of climate change is equally important. The climate will change over the next 30 to 40 years because of past and present emissions. We cannot prevent this but we can adapt to it.

We are seeking effective options to reduce our vulnerability to these consequences which will safeguard communities, minimise disruption to services and infrastructure, and help business take advantage of opportunities that these changes may bring.

To this end, we are developing Scotland's first adaptation strategy to identify action required in Scotland.

Business

Business has an important role to play in all this work. Businesses are responsible for half of all CO2 emissions, with SMEs responsible for almost half of those emissions. The CBI's Climate Change Task Force report, published at the end of last year highlighted that
  • Firms will fundamentally have to change their business models
  • Business and Government must work together to encourage the take-up of greener products and to promote new ways of doing things and
  • With early action the cost for each household can be limited to around £100 a year by 2030
The Scottish Government is already working with business to cut emissions by:
  • providing interest free loans of up to £100k to help SMEs invest in energy efficiency
  • funding the Carbon Trust in Scotland to deliver consultancy advice through carbon management for large energy users. Last year the Trust helped Scottish businesses implement measures that will save around 200,000 tonnes of carbon and £15m during their lifetime
  • funding the provision of advice to small businesses through the Energy Savings Trust
Providing leadership and taking action are key. I've been impressed by the example shown by the Business Delivery Group over the last year in raising the profile of business in tackling climate change, for instance in the Business in Parliament event in January. And also Scottish Business in the Community by getting everyone in this room today to share their experiences.

And there are business opportunities. New markets for lower carbon energy products are likely to be worth $500 billion dollars by 2050. Scotland can be a leader in the development of clean energy and low carbon technologies.

One business which is benefiting from climate change through green innovation is Falkirk-based bus builder Alexander Dennis. The company has developed a new generation of low carbon environmentally friendly buses which have helped boost company profits by £120 million and secured 750 Scottish jobs. It now supplies 70 per cent of London's bus fleet and is selling double deck buses to the US.

I have set out the action the Scottish Government is taking to tackle climate change, through developing a statutory framework for action to give business certainty, assessing policy options, encouraging innovation and ensuring that we plan for the unavoidable consequences for climate change.

Business has an important role to play through collaborative action, developing new technology and mobilising your customers, employees and supply chain to tackle climate change. I look forward to hearing from you this morning of your experiences:
  • of what has worked and
  • your ideas for what will work

29 April 2008

Errors make it a taxing time for Prime Minister

Since taking over the reins of power at Number 10 almost a year ago, it is fair to say that Gordon Brown's tenure has been characterised by a series of errors and ill-judged moves.
A last-minute u-turn on the General Election; loss of the personal data of millions of citizens; a hike on whisky duty – a track record that does not make for pleasant reading, and all in less than a year.

The latest of these blunders was the Prime Minister's controversial scrapping of the 10p Income Tax rate. This regressive move has seen some of the lowest paid and most vulnerable people in Scotland lose a larger proportion of their earnings to tax.

As of this month, taxes have increased for over 324,000 people in Scotland – 12% of all Scottish taxpayers – who have seen their tax double from 10% basic rate to 20%. Those earning less than £18,500 a year and those aged between 60 and 65 – about 680,000 Scottish households – will be hit the hardest by this catastrophic decision.

Even a last minute u-turn has not prevented the Labour Party from once again finding themselves tangled in a web of in-fighting as Brown cannot convince his own party of the benefits of penalising some of the poorest paid and hardest working in our society.
What's more, whilst the pay packets of low paid workers like cleaners and care assistants will be lighter at the end of the month, MPs are set to benefit by almost £300 a year from the scrapping of the 10p tax rate.

Amidst rising food and energy prices, this comes at a particularly difficult time for vulnerable households in Scotland. However, we can rest assured that the SNP Government is working hard to lighten the financial burden for the people of Scotland. The SNP understand the everyday financial demands facing Scottish people, and that is why, wherever possible, rather than penalising ordinary taxpayers, we are putting money back in people's pockets.

After less than a year in government, we have slashed prescription charges, increased payments for free personal and nursing care, scrapped the students' graduate endowment fee, and frozen Council Tax. This has been an impressive start in the SNP's long-term goal of making Scotland wealthier and fairer.

A legacy to be proud of

Sports are an integral part of the Scottish nation, at every level. Locally, sport is the essence of our community and gives our children and young people a positive outlet for fitness and recreation.

Here in Banff and Buchan we can all be proud of the vibrant sports tradition we boast in football, rugby, golf and many other games.

Nationally, sport gives our nation's top contestants the opportunity to compete against the world's best, and puts Scotland on the world stage. This is why last November the SNP Government pulled out all the stops to secure the 2014 Commonwealth Games for Scotland.
Hosting the games will bring untold benefits for all of Scotland in terms of the confidence of our nation, the investment in regeneration, the number of jobs created and indeed the sporting legacy, as our sports facilities receive a boost and our youngsters get involved in one of the most important global sporting events.

We are now beginning to see the fruits of this legacy in the North-east as Aberdeen recently received £5 million of Commonwealth Games funds towards a 50 metre swimming pool.
This Olympic sized pool will reap enormous advantages for swimming competitors and all children and young people in Banff and Buchan. I have long campaigned for a 50 metre pool in the North-east to allow our youngsters to realise their swimming potential and go on to compete professionally.

We may now some day see a Banff and Buchan swimmer win a Commonwealth gold medal on our own doorstep.

12 March 2008

Cutting Bills for Banff & Buchan Households

The key priority areas for any good government are always those issues closest to home. Health, education, welfare, household finances – these are some of the issues that really matter to people. And these are the issues that have been at the forefront of the SNP’s agenda since entering Government.

The SNP understands the fundamental importance of these bread and butter issues and that is why before forming Government we made a simple promise to the people of Scotland – to make our nation wealthier and fairer. And now only ten months into our first term in power we are making momentous strides towards realising that goal.

One vital achievement by the SNP Government has been to make possible the historic council tax freeze. As part of an entirely new relationship formed with local authorities, the Government has made funding of £11.2 billion available for local government in 2008-09 to enable them, amongst other things, to fund a council tax freeze. Despite avid scaremongering and negative sound bites from the opposition parties, every single one of Scotland’s thirty two local authorities has now either frozen or cut council tax - a patent success story for taxpayers across the country.

This is incredible news for people in Banff & Buchan who have seen their council tax rise by 85 per cent in the last ten years, as year after year they were subjected to hikes under Labour and the previous Labour/Liberal coalition. Added to the recent news that water bill increases will be below the cost of living in 2008/2009, families and householders in Banff & Buchan will feel the benefits of the SNP’s forward thinking in the most clear and basic way – through more money in their pockets.

This is a particularly positive development for the most vulnerable groups in Scottish society such as the elderly. At a time of increasing fuel and food prices, it will come as welcome relief to hard pressed tax-payers in Banff & Buchan.

But this considerable saving for all council tax payers is what the SNP has accomplished merely in the short term. In the longer term we have plans to go much further. We have, this week, published on our proposals to scrap council tax altogether. We believe that this property levy is an unfair and unreasonable tax which does not take into account a person’s means. Why should an individual or family on a low income be penalised to the same degree as those on a much higher income simply based on where they live? The majority of the Scottish public obviously feel the same way, 88% of whom want to see council tax abolished.

We are proposing a much fairer system based on the ability to pay which would see more than four out of five households better or no worse off. Those on low and middle incomes would be better off by an average of £350 to £535 a year. This would amount to a revolution in Scottish taxation and the biggest tax cut Scotland has seen in a generation.

By focusing on the bread and butter issues and radically reforming the Scottish political agenda this Government is not only delivering on its manifesto commitments but delivering real, material benefits to the people of Scotland.

Lightening the Load for Students
We all know what a stifling restriction debt can be on our lives and our potentials. This is particularly true for young people, starting out in life with an array of possibilities open to them. This is why the SNP has been working hard to minimise the burden of debt on Scottish young people. We recently secured a major triumph for students by scrapping the graduate endowment fee. This was a one-off payment of £2,289 for Scottish third level students on completion of a higher education course, which thanks to the SNP, current and future students will no longer be forced to pay.

This comes as another manifesto commitment which the SNP has successfully delivered in our first year in Government. It will open access to further education and increase opportunities for young people in Banff & Buchan who will no longer have to worry about incurring a substantial debt from the fee if they go to university. It is vital that our youth go as far in education or training as they possibly can and fulfil their potential in whatever area of work or study they choose. The abolition of this fee will give them that opportunity regardless of their ability to pay. Once again, this demonstrates that the SNP is building progressively towards a wealthier, fairer society, in Banff & Buchan and across Scotland.

5 March 2008

A National Conversation or a McChattering Mess

More than a few people in Scotland were left aghast lately when Scotland Office Minister David Cairns aired his true views on more powers for the Scottish Parliament. Despite the clear and growing popular support for more devolved powers in Scotland since the SNP came to power, the Labour UK Minister wholly dismissed calls for more powers for Holyrood as one for the “McChattering Classes”.

Cairns’s outburst came amidst mixed signals from his Labour party colleagues. Labour Leader, Wendy Alexander has recently proposed a Constitutional Commission to consider increasing Holyrood’s powers. And to make matters worse for the Minister, less than a week after his derogatory remarks, in a remarkable U-turn, Prime Minister Gordon Brown came out in favour of a constitutional ‘review’. Brown has seized the plans for a Commission out of Wendy’s hands and marked it with his Westminster stamp of authority. The Labour party is evidently in disarray with no clear leadership and no clear policy on the future of Scotland.

But the Labour Minister’s remarks were not only completely out of touch with the popular sentiment amongst the Scottish public. They were also deeply offensive and patronising to the people of Scotland. As a Scot himself I found it shameful that Mr. Cairns could show so little confidence in his own country’s politicians and so little pride in his own country’s people. For a Member of Parliament to use such a belittling term to refer to Scottish constitutional affairs was disgraceful and an insult to the entire nation.

Since the SNP launched the historic ‘National Conversation’ last August which was so well received by the Scottish public, other parties have been continually on the back foot, struggling to criticise such an innovative and democratic initiative. This positive forum opened up space in Scotland for public debate on devolution, independence and every option in between. It brought the question of Scotland’s constitutional future beyond the Parliament and directly to the people. The SNP believe that it is the people of Scotland that make this wonderful country what it is and so it is only right that it should be the people who decide on and shape the country’s future.

Labour now realise which way the wind is blowing in Scotland and know that by opposing greater devolution they are fighting a losing battle. We only need look to the recent polls to confirm this. In December support for independence reached 40%, up 5% from the summer, while opposition to independence fell by 6%. In reaction to the success of the National Conversation other parties have changed tack on Scotland’s constitutional future, but their position remains unclear. While Labour is infighting and in denial over the issue, the SNP is dealing with Scotland’s constitutional future in a democratic, fair and practical way.

Keeping Health Services Close to Home
Healthcare in Banff & Buchan received a major boost this week as it was announced that neurosurgery will continue to be available at Aberdeen Royal Infirmary. This draws to a close a considerable period of uncertainty and apprehension for local people, patients, family and staff that the service may be centralised. Management of neurosurgical emergencies in the North East if the service was to be centralised was a particular source of concern. Thankfully, the decision by the SNP Government to maintain the service in Aberdeen has relieved these fears and comes as very welcome news.

I have always argued that healthcare should be kept as local as possible and as specialised as necessary. Indeed, this was the principle on which we successfully campaigned to retain birthing units at Banff and Fraserburgh last year. This is especially important to us in Banff & Buchan, the most rural constituency in mainland Scotland. To achieve best care and recovery, patients should be as close to their homes and their families as possible – a simple but vital rule. This is another way in which the SNP is delivering on their manifesto commitments to the people of Banff & Buchan.

13 February 2008

A Week is a Long Time in Politics

They say a week is long time in politics and in Holyrood last week that cliché rang true. Amongst the dramatic events were Scottish Labour Leader, Wendy Alexander being reported to the Procurator Fiscal by the Scottish Parliament’s Standards Commissioner for failing to declare donations, and later receiving a controversial ‘not proven’ type decision from the Electoral Commission on her illegal donations. But without a shadow of a doubt, the single event which defined this as an unforgettable week in Scottish politics was the passing of Scotland’s first ever SNP Budget.

This Budget was a true triumph for the SNP but moreover for the people of Scotland. First and foremost it will give local authorities their spending budgets from Holyrood, allowing them to freeze council tax. It will also see a further 1,000 new police officers recruited by March 2011 plus an extra £4.3 million pumped into the Climate Change Fund and £4 million in 2008-09 to protect bus services and keep fares down.

But one of the biggest Budget success stories is one for small businesses that will see their business rates slashed. To add to the earlier good news, Cabinet Secretary for Finance, John Swinney announced last week that from April next year up to 120,000 small businesses will pay no business rates at all and a further 30,000 will see their rates cut by between 25% and 50%. This will reduce overheads considerably for small businesses in Banff & Buchan, enabling them to compete with the multinationals and chains that threaten the future viability of our high streets. This boost will go a long way to encouraging small business start-up and growth and to revitalising our town and village centres across Banff & Buchan.

This budget did not pass without a little suspense and one or two surprises. Not least of these surprises was Labour’s baffling behaviour when it came to decision time. In a completely incoherent move by the Labour Party, after criticising the Budget and then having their amendment accepted by Parliament, they chose to abstain from actually voting on the whole budget package, including their own amendment.

When it came to the crunch, rather than vote in the best interests of the Scottish people to pass the Budget, Labour well and truly bottled it. It is clear that the Labour Party in Scotland now stand in utter disarray with a Leader whose credibility has been seriously undermined and with no clear position on the issues that matter most to the Scottish public – our country’s finances and how they are best managed for the good of the people.

The mood around Parliament was palpable. On the SNP floors, it was one of anticipation in the beginning of the week followed by joyous celebration when the Budget had been delivered. Amongst Labour and Lib Dem Members the atmosphere was one of disarray prior to the vote followed by sheer embarrassment afterwards. In the face of such a comprehensive and successful Budget they were left with little to say to justify their dysfunctional behaviour. The SNP has delivered a budget for the best interests of Scotland’s people to make Scotland safer, greener, fairer, healthier and more prosperous.

A Farewell to Bridge Tolls
Indeed the SNP Government were fulfilling their commitments to the Scottish public on many fronts this week. One more example was the scrapping of bridge tolls on the Forth and Tay bridges. After more than forty years of tolls, drivers using these bridge can now travel free of charge. This will considerably reduce costs for those travelling over the bridge every day and indeed for those travelling to Edinburgh from the North East. Abolishing bridge tolls was a significant SNP manifesto commitment and when elected to Government it was the first primary legislation to be passed by the new SNP administration. It is yet another example of the SNP wasting no time in delivering on their promises for the people of Scotland.

5 February 2008

Lottery Looting

Local community initiatives and good causes in Scotland were dealt a severe blow last week by Scottish Labour and Liberal Democrat MPs. Casting their constituents’ interests to one side, these MPs voted to effectively raid a further £675 million from National Lottery Funds in order to meet the spiralling costs of the 2012 London Olympics.

What this boils down to for Scotland is a loss of lottery money which will now be diverted to finance the London Olympics. Good causes such as community projects, community halls, sports groups and charities, of which I am pleased to say there are many in Banff & Buchan, rely heavily upon regular lottery funding. This loss will be acutely felt by these organisations. In total, communities across the UK are set to lose over £2 billion to the games – around £35 per person. Locally, Aberdeenshire will lose out on about £8.5 million in key lottery funding.

While I have no doubt of the positive impact of the Olympics itself, and indeed I would even hope to see local athletes competing in the games, good causes in Scotland cannot be jeopardised to cover its rising costs. Labour and the Lib Dems must learn that we cannot rob Peter to pay Paul.

Though this move by Labour and the Lib Dems is inexcusable it is not surprising. Time and again these parties exhibit a major lack of ambition for Scotland and a failure to focus on and prioritise Scottish interests in the UK context. This is just another example. Does the regeneration of east London matter more to these MPs than good causes in their own constituencies in Scotland? The SNP will not compromise Scotland’s best interests, not in Westminster nor in Holyrood.

Celebrating our National Bard
On a lighter note, I had the pleasure over the past fortnight of attending three Burns suppers – in Strichen, in Peterhead and, slightly farther a field, in Paris.

I thoroughly enjoyed the festivities both at home and abroad. Amongst the guests at the high-profile Paris event were Scottish singer Eddi Reader and the head honcho from Louis Vuitton, a friend of the French President. I was very proud to represent Scotland at this international celebration of our country and our culture. And it was clear from the evening that the worldwide curiosity and interest in Scotland now that the SNP are in Government is immense.

Indeed, I always enjoy this time of year which affords us the chance to come together in our communities and in our homes to celebrate our much loved national Bard; to celebrate Scotland's rich culture and history. And this year the festivities were all the more memorable as we had the opportunity to reflect upon what has been a truly momentous year for Scotland.
In the SNP’s short time in power we have seen enormous progress, nationally and locally. In Banff & Buchan we have secured the future of Peterhead Prison, cut business rates for small businesses, secured a landmark deal for fishermen in Brussels and opened the way for a historic council tax freeze, to mention but a few achievements.
And we've seen things not happen. Westminster has conceded our strength, and the strength of wider Scottish opinion, when its plans for new nuclear power stations included precisely none on our soil.
Burns was a true visionary before his time, and now more than two hundred years on, the SNP are realising his vision for a fair, just and free society for Scotland.

Stewart Stevenson
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