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31 August 2010

Standing together against irresponsible actions

When it comes to fishing, you will be hard pressed to find anyone with a positive thing to say about the approach of the European Union. The Common Fisheries Policy has been an abject failure, driving people out of business and doing little to conserve fish stocks. Yet the fishing industry now finds itself in a situation which requires a strong and concerted EU wide response.

The decision by Iceland and the Faroe Islands to unilaterally award themselves a massive increase in Mackerel quotas is as irresponsible as it is utterly unacceptable. As other fisheries have declined, Mackerel landings have risen to become a vital fish stock in Scotland, worth an estimated £135 million in 2009. Just as important as the value, however, is that great efforts have been made to achieve Scotland’s status as the first large-scale Mackerel fishery in Europe to be accredited by the Marine Stewardship Council.

Both of these things are threatened by the actions of Iceland and the Faroe Islands. By taking the decision to massively increase their quotas, they have engaged in beggar-thy-neighbour practices which are understandably causing fury amongst skippers in Banff & Buchan.

The sustainable fishing techniques required to achieve Marine Stewardship Council accreditation are not something that has fallen into the Scottish industry’s lap, but are the result of strenuous and deliberate effort on their part. Yet their good work is now threatened by the decision to ignore international agreements.

Such an approach could scarcely be in greater contrast to that of Norway, which agreed a ten-year deal on Mackerel management and shares with the EU in January this year. They are understandably just as angered by the actions of Iceland and the Faroe Islands as the industry in Scotland, and have already taken the decision to ban fish processors there from receiving Mackerel from Icelandic or Faroese vessels.

Clearly the current situation cannot continue and all parties need to get round the negotiating table to agree a sustainable level of quotas as quickly as possible. However, in the meantime the EU must make it clear that this kind of behaviour is utterly unacceptable and take a strong and unified approach.

So far the EU is treating this issue with the seriousness it deserves, and the Scottish Government will keep pushing to ensure this continues. It may not come close to redeeming itself for the failings of the CFP, but at least the EU can take a step in the right direction by standing up for the Scottish fishing industry in the face of this challenge.

Remembering fallen rescuers

I recently had the privilege of attending the unveiling of the new RNLI memorial statue in Fraserburgh, which commemorates the lifeboatmen over the years who lost their lives as they attempted to rescue others.

Since the organisation’s inception in 1824, the RNLI has time and time again seen brave volunteers risk life and limb to rescue countless numbers of people who have found themselves in trouble off our coasts. Given the maritime heritage of many part of Banff & Buchan, you would be hard pressed to find a part of the country that is more familiar with the risks that the RNLI have taken on peoples’ behalf or more appreciative of their continuing efforts.

It is perhaps therefore unsurprising that the fundraising appeal for the memorial statue found itself over-subscribed to the tune of £18,000, such was peoples’ determination to remember those who have given up their lives to rescue others and applaud those who continue to put themselves in harm's way.

17 August 2010

Empowering rural communities

The summer months have particular significance for rural communities across Scotland, bringing as they do the annual agricultural shows. In the North East there are the hugely successful Turriff and Keith shows, both of which I was fortunate enough to be able to attend, which bring together people from across the region. I know that many people from Banff & Buchan will have taken the chance to enjoy themselves at these events and they are firm fixtures on the local calendar.

These are important events not just for farmers, but for the many people who travel to these shows. They are certainly significant in economic terms, but just as significantly they help to foster a greater understanding of farming and rural life. Agriculture continues to play a key role in Scottish life and the Scottish economy, but the rural economy clearly has its own unique challenges to face.

It is because of these challenges that the Scottish Government runs a variety of schemes aimed at supporting rural communities, such as the Scotland Rural Development Programme (SRDP). Under the Rural Priorities strand of the SRDP alone, over 4,000 projects across Scotland have been supported to the tune of £338 million since it was established in 2008. This has seen the improvement and creation of recreation facilities in rural communities, vital jobs created through supporting rural businesses and work to protect and maintain Scotland’s natural environment.

Even relatively small investments can make a critical difference to the quality of life in rural areas, which is why this funding has been so important and widely welcomed. Yet it is local communities that are best place to decide what community facilities are most needed in their area and as such the Scottish Government recently announced its decision that funding for such projects would be allocated by Local Action Groups under the LEADER programme.

This move will help empower communities to make the best use of the funds available and ensure that the projects most desired by the people living there are the ones which receive funding. The SRDP still has several years left to run and will support many more schemes in that time, but this move towards greater local involvement is an encouraging one that I am sure will be welcomed by many people.

An alarming echo of the bad old days

One of the most enduring memories people have of the last time we were faced with a Tory Government in Westminster is the decision to axe free milk for school children and the storm of controversy that justifiably followed it. It is striking, therefore, that one of the first proposals from the coalition Government was to repeat the move for under fives.

Although the scheme north of the border is funded by the Scottish Government, it is a policy which is still controlled by Westminster underlining the absurdity of some of the dividing lines between devolved and reserved matters.

While the proposal may now have been stopped in its tracks, at great embarrassment to a number of UK Government ministers, it is a worrying indication of where the coalition Government’s instincts lie. It should also serve as further proof that decisions over such aspects of every day Scottish life should be made in Scotland and underlines the need for Scotland to gain power over its own affairs. On this and so many other issues, large and small, the decisions affecting people in Scotland should be made here and not by a party in Westminster that voters north of the border overwhelmingly rejected.

3 August 2010

Transparency and accountability

The hallmark of any open and accountable democracy is the way in which information is made accessible to ordinary members of the public. Without knowledge of what public bodies such as the Government, the parliament or local councils are doing on people’s behalf, it is extremely difficult to build the kind of civic engagement amongst ordinary members of the public that should be present in any democracy.

That is why when the institutions of devolution in Scotland were being set up there was a conscious effort made to ensure that they should be as open and transparent as possible. Debates in the parliament and committee sessions are all available to watch online at holyrood.tv and in comparison to Westminster it is very easy for members of the public to turn up to Holyrood and see most of the debates that take place.

Even more significant is the Scottish Parliament’s Public Petitions Committee which has enabled thousands of groups and individuals in Scotland to have issues that concern them considered by the Parliament and has attracted interest from legislatures around the world. It is a way in which the Scottish Parliament has been at the cutting edge of empowering people to bring their concerns to Parliament and the sheer range of topics it has considered since 1999 is truly extraordinary.

However, perhaps the most important way in which Scotland has become more open and transparent was with the Freedom of Information Act which enshrined the right to access information held by public bodies into law. With a few exceptions, when members of the public want to know a piece of information held by a public body in Scotland, they can simply write a letter and expect to receive the information.

The Scottish Government is committed to this principle of openness and is now consulting on extending the terms of the Freedom of Information Act further, to bring in some of the bodies that are not covered by it. This could include things like trusts established by local authorities to provide cultural or sporting activities, the Association of Chief Police Officers in Scotland, and contractors who provide public services under private contracts.

The principles of openness and accountability are important ones, and it is perhaps not only in the form of Freedom of Information that they should be extended. The Crown Estate is responsible for, amongst other things, managing the seabed up to 12 miles from the UK’s shore. Currently it is overseen from Westminster, despite the fact that the majority of issues that take place within that 12 mile limit from Scotland’s shores are devolved to Holyrood or are likely to become so in the near future.

With Scotland’s vast offshore energy potential and the increasing importance that such developments will have, it is surely right that the Crown Estate in Scotland becomes accountable to the Scottish Parliament so that future developments are fully compatible with other marine activities such as the fishing industry.

It is an anomaly that should be brought to an end and is something that the Scottish Government is currently pressing the Westminster coalition to change.

Coast Festival

I was delighted to hear that the popular Coast Festival in Banff and Macduff will be continuing next year despite its previous funding having finished. The dedication of everyone responsible for organising it over the last three years has been tremendous and I sincerely hope that everyone who has enjoyed attending it will take part in the planned fundraising throughout the year to ensure it has a long and successful future.

Stewart Stevenson
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