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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.

Stewart Stevenson
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