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17 November 2009

Getting the best deal for Scotland

As all within the fishing industry will know only too well, we are once again approaching the annual fishing negotiations that will determine the fishing restrictions that skippers will face in the coming year. The SNP is in no doubt that the common fisheries policy under which this is decided has utterly failed to either conserve fish stocks or protect the economic livelihoods of those in the fishing industry. Clearly it must be replaced with a system that returns responsibility for managing fishing grounds to regional control, so that fisheries are managed by those who know and have a stake in those waters.

However, reforming the way business is done in Europe is never a quick process and we must deal with the short term situation first. It has been a difficult year for the industry as the recession and European restrictions have combined to damaging effect and it seems likely that next year will also be tough.

Yet despite this Scotland’s fishing fleet has once again been at the forefront of implementing new conservation measures, something that deserves to be recognised in the negotiations that will take place. Just recently, the Scottish Government announced funding for the trial of new fishing gear in the whitefish and prawn fleets that will help skippers be more selective about what they catch. This will let fishermen land more of what ends up in their nets rather than being forced to discard healthy fish. If it proves successful during its trials, vessels that adopt the gear will be able to buy back more days at sea under the conservation credit scheme.

Over half of Scottish fisheries by value have been accredited as sustainable by the Marine Stewardship Council, with more set to follow suit. This is an important selling point as people become more conscious about where their food comes from, but also reflects the efforts Scottish fishermen have gone to build a sustainable, profitable industry.

The Scottish fleet has time after time been leading the way across Europe when it comes to finding innovative ways to fish sustainably and I know my colleague Richard Lochhead will push hard to see them rewarded with the best deal possible for Scotland in coming negotiations. Whatever the outcome of negotiations, the Scottish Government and the fishing industry is developing an action plan to set out a shared vision of the industry’s future and to help Scotland’s fishing communities deal with circumstances that are beyond their control.

The SNP Government knows just how important fishing is to Scotland’s economy and to the coastal communities that rely upon it. While other parties may have shamefully described the industry as “expendable” in the past, everyone in Scotland’s fishing communities know that that is something the SNP will never do.

One of agricultural journalism’s leading lights

I was deeply saddened to learn of the death of Dan Buglass, one of Scotland’s leading agricultural journalists recently who wrote for a variety of press titles during his career. Agricultural journalists play a vital role in providing the kind of specialised news which farmers, and those in linked businesses, need and Dan was one of the field’s most respected journalists throughout his thirty year career.

Dan will be sorely missed be everyone who used to enjoy his insightful articles and my thoughts are with the family and friends he leaves behind during this difficult time.

3 November 2009

Addressing Scotland’s housing problems

The SNP recently held its 75th Annual conference in Inverness, marking a welcome return to the capital of the Highlands five years after the last time we held a conference there. It was an excellent chance to meet party members from across Scotland, discuss policy and take part in debates, but it also saw an announcement that will be particularly welcome to many people who currently struggle to access council housing.

During Nicola Sturgeon’s excellent keynote speech on the final day of the conference, she announced proposals for the right to buy council homes to be dropped for new tenants. Since its introduction 30 years ago, almost half a million homes in Scotland have been sold at a discount under the policy.

With so many homes being taken out of the social rented sector, waiting lists for council accommodation have risen inexorably to the point where today there is a real and pressing shortage of affordable rented housing. Under the previous administration we found ourselves in the ludicrous situation where just six council houses were built in the whole of Scotland during the four years prior to the SNP taking office.

The Scottish Government is reversing this decline and saw nearly 5,000 new affordable homes built last year, the highest number in 15 years. However, there is little point in building new local authority housing if it is swiftly sold and thereby removed from the reach of people who are unable to afford home ownership. The Scottish Government has a responsibility to help those who cannot afford to buy homes and ending the right to buy for new tenants will do just that. The rights of existing council tenants would not be affected.

Housing problems are one of the most common issues that constituents in Banff & Buchan and indeed across Scotland face, and there is clearly a pressing need to kick start construction of a new generation of council accommodation across Scotland. The Scottish Government has been taking meaningful action since it was elected, and the planned end to the right to buy will help ensure that action continues. Over the next decade, it would safeguard 18,000 houses that would otherwise be sold off for future generations and ensure that their availability for affordable rent is not lost.

The housing situation that so many people face is simply unacceptable and I am glad that the Scottish Government is determined to take real action where previous administrations have failed.

Protecting Attendance Allowance

The UK Government has recently been making worrying noises about the future of Attendance Allowances, the benefit that helps severely disabled pensioners pay for the additional costs of disability. If their proposals were to go ahead some of the most vulnerable people in society would lose over £70 per week, money that they fundamentally rely upon.

There are currently 145,000 people in Scotland that receive Attendance Allowance and would be affected by the UK Government’s proposals. The UK Government is looking to fill a growing financial black hole in the care system south of the border through cutting a benefit that is also received in Scotland. It is extremely short sighted and will push a large number of vulnerable people into poverty.

The Treasury may be desperately seeking ways to cut costs and pay for the Downing Street downturn, but it cannot be right that it is disabled pensioners that they want to pay for it. These proposals are clearly not the answer and the UK Government must abandon them before they cause irreparable harm to thousands of pensioners in Scotland.

Stewart Stevenson
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