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29 December 2009

Looking back and looking forwards

As we draw to the end of 2009, it seems an appropriate time to look back over the year that is drawing to a close and take stock of what it has meant for people in Banff & Buchan. For many, it has been a difficult twelve months as the recession has taken hold and hit hard working families in the pocket.

Yet the year has not been one characterised by nothing but economic gloom. There have been real successes and achievements in Banff & Buchan and across Scotland. The year of Homecoming helped provide a vital boost to the tourism industry around the country at a time when it was globally suffering. There were over 1.5 million visits to tourist attractions in Aberdeen and Aberdeenshire, and with highlights such as the Portsoy traditional boat festival, a significant number will have come to Banff & Buchan. The year of Homecoming can only be considered a success and has sheltered the tourist industry from the worst effects of the downturn hitting the sector in other countries.

Beyond the tourist sector, the Scottish Government has continued to take action to support local residents and businesses through these difficult times. Council tax was again frozen, putting money back into people’s pockets at this difficult time, while the small business bonus has seen rates abolished or greatly reduced for many companies in Banff & Buchan. For many people, these measures have made all the difference to their ability to survive financially and have been warmly welcomed by those who have benefited. The year has also seen a significant investment in council housing, ending the disgraceful lack of construction that was the hallmark of the previous administration, and helping to support the building industry, one of the hardest hit sectors of the downturn.

There have been other notable achievements too, such as with policing. There are now more police officers in the Grampian force than there has ever been before, a direct result of the SNP’s election commitment to put an extra 1,000 bobbies on the beat, while recorded crime in Scotland has fallen to its lowest level in almost 30 years. Making our communities safer is of enormous importance to people and the Scottish Government’s record in this area is something to be proud of.

There has also been significant progress to healthcare in the region, with NHS Grampian recently publishing figures showing that 96.4% of cancer patients were treated within the 62 day target, compared to 87.2% at the time of the election. Improvements to accessing dentists have also continued, with the construction of the new Aberdeen Dental School certain to have a significant impact throughout the North East.

Yet as well as looking back at some of the year’s achievements, it is important that we recognise the challenges that are to come. The Scottish Government’s budget will be slashed by £814 million next year under Treasury plans, something that will make the coming year an extremely difficult one. At a time when other countries have continued their stimulus packages to drive their economies towards recovery, Gordon Brown’s decision to do the opposite is deeply disappointing.

Despite this, however, I am confident that the Scottish Government will continue to do all that is in our power to speed our economic recovery and to help people in Banff & Buchan and across Scotland.

With that it is only left to me to hope that everyone in Banff & Buchan had an enjoyable Christmas and to wish them a very happy new year.

15 December 2009

Keeping our roads safe this Christmas

With the festive period fast approaching there will no doubt be extensive coverage in the press of the annual campaign warning motorists against drinking and driving at this time of year. It is a message that is repeated all year round, but is one whose importance does not diminish. Getting behind the wheel of a car after drinking puts your life and the lives of others at serious risk.

Road fatalities in Scotland are at their lowest in 60 years, but the fact is that even a single death on our roads is one too many. This year’s campaign is taking a tougher approach than ever before, and motorists who drink and drive will face losing their car as well as the severe consequences that are already in place.

This tough approach is an important deterrent and is vital if we are to stop the irresponsible minority of motorists who continue to gamble with their lives and the lives of others. One in nine deaths on Scotland’s roads are caused by drivers who were over the legal limit and although progress is being made, more needs to be done to tackle this problem.

The Scottish Government wants to go further in our efforts to make Scotland’s roads safer for everyone by reducing the current drink drive limit to 50mg per 100ml of blood with random roadside tests. When the limit was cut to this level in Switzerland, alcohol related deaths on their roads fell by 44% in the first two years. However the power to do this, and consequently save more lives, is currently reserved to Westminster.

The Calman Commission’s report, the unionist parties’ proposals for increasing the powers of the Scottish Parliament, recommended that power over this should be devolved to Holyrood and the Scottish Government moved quickly to draft the necessary orders to make transfer of this and other recommended powers possible. Yet the UK Government has failed to play its part and has instead refused to consider the transfer of any powers before the coming general election.

This is unacceptable and in the case of powers over drink driving limits and airguns, where tougher measures could be implemented in Scotland, lives are being put at risk by this inaction. Although the Scottish Government will continue to press Westminster to make the changes we want to see, the refusal to see the early transfer of powers over powers which all parties agree Holyrood should be responsible for is deeply disappointing.

With Labour having refused to consider increasing the Scottish Parliament’s powers this side of the general election and the Tories ruling it out during the lifetime of the next Westminster parliament, their promises have been revealed to be empty words. There is a consensus in Scotland that Holyrood needs more powers over decisions that affect Scotland and the failure of the London parties on this issue is inexcusable.

Giving carers the support they need

I was delighted to recently attend an event in Turriff marking carers support day, the annual event where the enormous contributions that carers make to our society is recognised. The selfless work that they do is essential to providing the quality of life that many of society’s most vulnerable people deserve.

Many hard-pressed carers are unaware of the benefits that what they do entitles them to, with an estimated £740 million going unclaimed each year. Carers support day is an important opportunity to raise awareness of that support and I hope that more will now claim the help they so clearly deserve.

1 December 2009

Celebrating our past and deciding our future

St Andrew’s Day is a day that has for centuries held national importance for people in Scotland. Yet this year it took on a special significance, marking as it did the end of one national event and the start of another.

The diverse and hugely successful Homecoming Scotland 2009 celebrations culminated in a series of festivities around the country to cap off an outstanding year of events. Across the country people from Scotland and the rest of the world have joined in events celebrating the core themes of homecoming throughout the year.

Early figures show that for an initial outlay of £5.5 million, the year’s Homecoming celebrations have benefited the Scottish economy to the tune of at least £19.4 million and are on course to exceed the £44 million target set when the project was first devised. In the difficult economic circumstances we find ourselves in, the Homecoming celebrations have provided a real boost to Scotland’s tourism industry.

The celebrations were timed to coincide with the 250th anniversary of the birth of Robert Burns, a date of historic importance. Yet while those celebrations came to an end on St Andrew’s Day, a new piece of Scotland’s history was written.

The SNP Government was elected on a promise to give people in Scotland the choice on their future that they have never had before with a referendum on independence. Thousands of people across Scotland have taken part in a National Conversation on the shape of Scotland’s future and this work culminated on St Andrew’s Day with the publication of a white paper on a bill for a referendum on independence.

The Scottish Government was elected on a promise to deliver this choice to people in Scotland and we are determined to do all that we can to see that referendum take place with the necessary bill coming before the Scottish Parliament next year.

Scotland needs the powers of a normal independent country if we are to successfully create the conditions we need to recover from the economic situation. The artificial limits of devolution mean that too many decisions that could be made to help Scotland recover either do not happen or are made in ways that actively cause damage through their unsuitability for Scotland. From taxation to immigration; transmission charges to having our own voice in Europe, the powers of independence are essential to creating the future for Scotland which we would all want to see.

Whatever side of the independence debate they are on, however, people in Scotland have consistently shown a desire to make their views on the shape of Scotland’s future known through a referendum on the issue. If the opposition politicians in Holyrood are determined to deny people the voice on the issue to which they are entitled, they will have no choice but to face the public’s anger.

Restraint and reconciliation

I was recently delighted to attend a sermon from Reverend Stephen Brown of Fraserburgh United Reformed Church in the Scottish Parliament. The Parliament opens its weekly sessions with a Time for Reflection conducted by representatives of the many diverse faiths practiced in Scotland and it was particularly welcome that a speaker from Banff & Buchan was invited to deliver such an address.

Reverend Brown highlighted the need for restraint and reconciliation during the often robust debates surrounding the shape of Scotland’s future. It is a principle that members of all of Scotland’s political parties can at times lose sight of and which we could certainly do well to remember in our discussions.

Stewart Stevenson
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