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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.

Stewart Stevenson
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