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28 September 2010

A step backwards

For as long as the UK has been in existence, Scotland has maintained its own systems of law and education, and in more modern times its own health service, amongst other aspects of Scottish life. Much of this stems from the Church of Scotland having remained fully separate from the Church of England in the days when it provided much of what the state now does. Yet it has also historically maintained its own control of another area which is often overlooked, and that is the charity sector.

As a result of the distinct nature of Scots Law and the different historic religious landscape north of the border, charity regulation in Scotland has been different in nature from that south of the border. This was formalised by an Act of the Scottish Parliament in 2005 and there is a stronger line on the required public benefits that an organisation must perform to be considered a charity in Scotland.

Yet that historic situation has been put under threat by a bizarre part of the proposed changes to Scotland’s devolved powers contained within the Calman Commission’s report. One of its measures calls for charity regulation to be taken out of Scottish hands and given to Westminster. When the majority of opinion in Scotland favours greater powers for the Scottish Parliament, such a retrograde step is difficult to understand.

This has caused significant disquiet in Scotland’s charity sector, which rightly recognises the need for different regulation in Scotland as a result of the distinctiveness of Scots Law. The Scottish Council of Voluntary Organisations, which represents the majority of Scotland’s 45,000 charities, has called the proposals a muddle and rightly questions why the submissions of the Institute of Chartered Accountants Scotland and a single independent academic appear to have carried more weight than that of the SCVO and the Office of the Scottish Charity Regulator.

These are not just abstract legal concepts, but have real potential to hinder the activities of charities in Scotland. Housing Co-operatives have been held back in the rest of the UK by a lack of a clear framework and lack of UK Government support, but in Scotland they have been allowed to register as charities. They are delivering affordable housing across the country and have the potential to do even more in coming years. Yet all that would be severely put at risk if UK was to take control of charity regulation.

There is no support for these proposals amongst the people who will be affected the most and sending some of the powers that Scotland already has to London flies in the face of public opinion. The London based parties that are currently working on implementing the Calman Commission’s recommendations should distance themselves from these proposals and accept that what the Scottish Parliament needs is more powers, not fewer.

With more powers, the Scottish Government can do more to encourage growth in the Scottish economy. With our hands on the economic levers, Scotland would have a flexibility when it comes to tackling budget cuts that we simply do not have at present. While we must currently wait to find out exactly how much less money will be returned to the Scottish Government to spend, with real economic powers we would be able to make the balance of investment and cuts that will best secure recovery in Scotland.

The incredible work that is done by so many dedicated voluntary staff across Scotland should not be jeopardised by short sighted Calman Commission recommendations and responsibility for charity regulation must remain in Scotland.

14 September 2010

Safety in numbers

It is often said that you can prove anything with statistics and indeed it is certainly prudent for people to look more closely when they are presented with claims about what figures show. Yet there are times when statistics do tell a clear and unambiguous story about the state of the country, be it positive or negative.

The recent publication of two sets of figures is one such example, which paints a striking picture of how our communities have become safer places to live in recent years. In the run up to the 2007 election, the SNP promised to put an additional 1,000 police officers on the beat, providing a more visible police presence and deterring crime in neighbourhoods across Scotland. The latest figures show that since we took office there are now 1,190 additional officers across Scotland, 183 of whom are operating in the Grampian area.

It is a manifesto commitment that I am proud the Scottish Government has successfully delivered and the tangible effects of it can be seen by another set of statistics, published on the same day, which show crime in Scotland has fallen to its lowest level in 32 years. In Aberdeenshire reported crime has fallen by 23% since the SNP took office, falling from 10,527 cases in 2006/07 to 8,088 in 2009/10.

This is testament to the incredible work that Grampian Police does to make our streets safer for everybody and the scale of the reduction in crime is exceptional. While it would be simplistic to make a simple correlation between police numbers going up and crime rates falling, it seems fair to say that giving the police the resources and manpower they need to tackle crime has played an important part in this success.

The challenge we face now is what will happen as Westminster imposed cuts continue to bite with ever increasing severity in Scotland. As a result of Holyrood’s lack of financial powers, the Scottish Government will not know its budget until the Treasury’s Spending Review in October, but the fact that cuts on a scale we have not seen before are coming is undeniable.

There will be unprecedented challenges ahead as all parts of the public sector try to find ways of balancing the books while continuing to deliver the services we rely on. Ensuring that the progress that has been made in recent years in areas such as policing is not undone by budget cuts will not be an easy task, but it is something that must be faced up to. The Scottish Government will be making every effort to protect frontline services as these difficult cuts hit home.

Claiming what is entitled

It is sadly often the case that when times are tough, it is older people who find coping financially the biggest struggle. It is vital that when people are entitled to financial support, they are made aware of it and are helped to claim it. Some people can believe there is a stigma attached to such support and not claim it as a result, but this is money that they deserve and helps nobody by remaining unclaimed.

It is estimated that every year as much as £5.4 billion of benefits goes unclaimed by older people in the UK, which is why the Scottish Government has been working to ensure this situation changes. So far more than £4 million has been added to the incomes of Scottish pensioners as a result and I would encourage people in Banff & Buchan to check and claim what they are entitled to.

Stewart Stevenson
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