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27 December 2011

A Momentous Year

As another year draws to a close, it is only fitting to look back on what has been quite an extraordinary year and once again look forward to what the next year might have in store.

There can be little doubt that for almost everybody one of the biggest issues over the last year has been the state of the economy and the impact it is having on people’s day to day lives. Already low levels of economic growth in the UK economy are falling and there is a significant danger of a plummet back into recession. That will have a real and damaging impact on jobs and livelihoods and will undoubtedly be the biggest issue facing us in the year to come.

Measures that will encourage economic growth are desperately needed, yet it is against this background that Scotland is facing sharp reductions in our budget as a result of spending decisions made by Westminster. The budget for capital spending has been reduced by 20% in this financial year compared to the last and by 2014/15, will be 32% lower than it was in 2010/11. It is capital spending that provides the greatest stimulus to an economy, which is why the Scottish Government is using every lever at its disposal to increase spending on infrastructure despite the handicap imposed on us by the UK Government. With greater powers over our own finances, we would be able to do substantially more and the case for doing so is one we will continue to press despite the intransigence of the UK Government.

No look back over the past year in Scotland could fail to mention the Scottish Parliament elections and the incredible faith that the people of Scotland placed in the SNP. To win a majority in an electoral system designed to make such an outcome highly unlikely was in incredible feat in anybody’s book. It has taken Scotland into new political territory and with a pro-independence majority in Holyrood for the first time, it will continue to have a huge impact on the shape of our country in the years to come.

In the run up to the election, we promised to hold a referendum on independence in the second half of the parliamentary term and that is a timetable we fully intend to keep to. Yet there will undoubtedly be extensive discussion and debate on the constitutional future in the coming year and that is something I am sure people across Banffshire & Buchan Coast will want to play a full and active part in.

The fishing industry in recent weeks faced a huge threat of a reduction in its days at sea as a result of an utterly wrong-headed interpretation of EU fishing rules. Frenzied negotiations successfully staved off this threat in the end, but it is once again a clear demonstration that the rules governing the Common Fisheries Policy are simply not fit for purpose and their reform cannot come soon enough. The annual danger that the industry is put in is simply no way to manage fish stocks. What will be welcome though is that quota increases for some key stocks were successfully secured, in clear recognition that the conservation efforts of the Scottish fishing fleet are paying off.

I hope that everyone in Banffshire & Buchan Coast has a merry Christmas and a very happy new year when it comes.

23 December 2011

Stewart's Christmas Poem

the "message‬"
‪‬
In the sense of a year’s work over,
Defined by honest weariness, not by pain,
Promising us rest from our endeavour,
Entering now into emotional gain,
Denying us nothing we ever wished for,
Certain Christmas will bring us all succour.‬

‪In the dark midwinter’s gloom,
Depression seems round every turn,
Pending spring’s hints, none too soon,
Delivering us from winter’s icy burn,
Not for aught do we wait all that while,
Certain the New Year is to bring a smile.‬

‪Instead of idleness and excess,
Delivered from all gluttony and drink,
Perhaps now even more success,
Now working, now read, now think,
Denying ourselves no efforts to win,
Certain two-twelve, a great year to be in.‬


stewart stevenson
Christmas 2011‬



(copyleft 2011, fair re-use permitted)

13 December 2011

An opportunity slipping away

In my column a few weeks ago I wrote about the hope that was growing that Peterhead power station could once again be in line to benefit from the development of carbon capture and storage (CCS) technology. Previous efforts to bring this world leading technology to Peterhead collapsed in 2007 as a result of UK Government dithering and the project was transferred to Abu Dhabi. Meanwhile the hopes of a separate project at Longannet in Fife were brought to an end a few months ago, again by a lack of sufficient support from the UK Government.

It was this most recent failure to support Longannet which many believe has put Peterhead back at the head of the race for support from a £1 billion fund to develop the technology. Such a project could create an estimated 937 jobs over the construction and lifetime of the project, providing a real boost to the economy of Banffshire & Buchan Coast.

I wrote in that column that Westminster had twice failed Carbon Capture projects in Scotland and it simply must do better with the opportunity Peterhead represented. How infuriating then, that just a few short weeks later the Treasury has delivered a hammer blow to the future of this project.

At the time the plans to fund a CCS plant at Longannet collapsed, UK Ministers promised that the £1 billion fund would be ring-fenced for a new carbon capture competition and it was widely expected that the funds from this would be disbursed within this Westminster parliamentary term. However, all that was undermined by a recent radio interview in which Danny Alexander revealed that the Treasury had raided that funding to reallocate to different sorts of projects.

This means that the UK Government intends to spend little to nothing on developing CCS technology before 2015, pulling the rug out from underneath investment plans that were gathering pace following a recent deal between Scottish & Southern Energy and Shell. With financial and political uncertainty obscuring what money will be available following 2015, the certainty that businesses need to invest in this technology has been shattered at a stroke.

History seems once again to be repeating itself and the UK Government has for the third time undermined the future of CCS technology and severely let down a local community in Scotland. I am appalled by the ineptitude that has again been displayed and I have no doubt that there will be real anger in Banffshire & Buchan Coast, especially from the many people who would be hoping for jobs as a result of this project.

Progress on emissions

Developing new technologies such as CCS has a huge part to play if Scotland is to meet our world leading carbon emission reduction targets of 42% by 2020 and 80% by 2050. Significant progress is already being made, however, with an audit Scotland report showing that Scotland has successfully reduced its greenhouse gas emissions by 28% in the period to 2009.

There is still a long way to go and we cannot afford to be complacent or let up in our continuing efforts if we are to reach those targets. Even in these difficult financial times, we should not accept anything other than further progress towards meeting these targets and seizing the economic opportunities that they also represent.

Developing technologies to harness the vast wind, wave and tidal energy resources that Scotland enjoys will play a key part of our economic future and the level of investment that is already taking place demonstrates how confident businesses are in our energy future.

29 November 2011

Safety off our shores

The close relationship that people in Banffshire & Buchan Coast have with the sea, whether through recreational sailing, working in our fishing industry or our proximity to the offshore oil and gas sector means that we all have a healthy respect for the need to stay safe at sea.

When things go wrong, lives depend on a well co-ordinated response reaching them as swiftly as possible. That is what makes the UK Government’s decision to cut the provision of Coastguard Marine Rescue Coordination Centres (MRCC) in Scotland extremely damaging and disappointing.

Scotland is home to 60% of the UK length of coastline yet as a result of decisions to close coastguard stations on the Forth and the Clyde, will be home to only 33% of Coastguard stations.

On top of this, and of particular concern to the North East, the level of staffing in Aberdeen will drop by 25%. Coastguard staff in Aberdeen have built up an invaluable expertise in working with the oil and gas industry during emergencies and that experience will be severely disrupted by the decision to reduce staff. That expertise can simply not be replicated by additional staff working remotely from other coastguard stations or from their headquarters near Portsmouth in the event of a major oil industry incident.

Aberdeen MRCC is now expected to cover a far larger area with significantly fewer members of staff. It is a move that will cause a great deal of concern to many people in Banffshire & Buchan Coast and has come at the end of a process that has been characterised by poor handling and short-sightedness.

The original proposals would also have seen either Stornoway or Shetland MRCC close in addition to the closures that are taking place, and it is welcome news – not least to the fishing industry – that they will remain open. Yet just because the closures are not quite as severe as originally intended does not by any means make these moves anything other than severely damaging.

These moves have come soon after the scrapping of the fleet of fixed-wing long-range search and rescue aircraft and at a time when the future of the air rescue coordination centre at Kinloss is in doubt. There can be little doubt that safety at sea is being reduced in the name of the UK Government’s cost-cutting.

When lives are at stake, it is simply not acceptable and the UK Government’s approach is completely unjustifiable. If they are not prepared to ensure that such a vital service is provided as fully as possible, then they should be prepared to see it devolved so that the Scottish Government is able to in their place.

Confidence in Scotland

Recent weeks have seen a lot of hot air and scaremongering from the UK Government regarding the confidence that businesses have when it comes to investing in Scotland, in light of the coming independence referendum.

What is notable from these assertions is that not a single individual or company has been identified as previously considering investing in Scotland and now refusing to do so. This is in stark contrast to the long and growing list of major companies which clearly have no concerns over what Scotland’s future will be, given that they have made major investments and brought important jobs to Scotland.

The fact of the matter is that Scotland is the most supportive business environment in the UK and continues to work hard to support businesses of all sizes. Perhaps the many companies that have recently invested are simply convinced we can do even more with the powers of independence.

15 November 2011

Capturing An Opportunity

When it comes to benefitting from the development of new technology, it is often the case that there is a limited window of opportunity to fully reap the opportunities that are on offer. A few months or years can make all the difference when it comes to either being a leader on a technology or playing catch up.

In 2007 it seemed that the then UK Government had completely failed to grasp this fact when its dithering and delay led to plans to develop a world-leading carbon capture facility at Peterhead power station being dropped. The proposed development instead transferred to Abu Dhabi and Peterhead had lost an incredible opportunity to be at the cutting edge of a hugely important technology.

Recently it seemed as if history had repeated itself, when a revived effort to create a Scottish carbon capture facility in Scotland – this time at Longannet in Fife – collapsed. Once again a UK Government had failed to stand behind a hugely important project which would have brought jobs to Scotland, brought opportunities to export technology and expertise in the future, and significantly reduced our carbon emissions.

It was a hugely disappointing development and a bitter blow to everyone who had been working to bring the technology to Longannet. However, the collapse of that proposal may have once again opened the door for carbon capture at Peterhead.

Such a prospect, if it does prove possible, has been made more likely by the fact that Scottish & Southern Energy have signed an agreement with Shell to store carbon dioxide from Peterhead power station under Shell’s Goldeneye gas field in the North Sea.

A report earlier this year concluded that developing this technology in Peterhead could lead to up to 937 jobs over the construction and lifetime of the project, generating £590 million GVA and £130 million per annum during its lifetime. Quite clearly it would be hugely significant to the town and to the whole of Banffshire & Buchan Coast.

Westminster has twice failed Carbon Capture projects in Scotland and it simply must do better with this opportunity. Significant amounts of time have been lost in which Scotland could have been leading the world on this technology because of their previous failure. People in Peterhead deserve better and the UK Government must commit its backing to this essential project for the area.

Supporting people with autism

Recent days saw the publication of the Scottish Government’s much anticipated Autism Strategy, aiming to significantly improve on the services offered to people with an Autistic Spectrum Disorder and their families. People with autism needs a wide range of services that cut across different aspects of the public sector, and this strategy will help to ensure better coordination to deliver higher quality support.

Local Autism coordinators will be appointed to help ensure this change in approach takes place and support is offered in a way that promotes the independence, dignity and emotional wellbeing of people with Autism. Funding will be provided to the Scottish Autism Services network to provide training and expertise to public sector workers to assist them in providing post-diagnostic support. One stop drop-in shops for people with autism to access services will also be created, to make it easier to benefit from all the support on offer.

Publishing a strategy is of course only a first step rather than a final outcome, but it is an important building block for the future and once which should significantly improve the quality of support available to people with an Autistic Spectrum Disorder in Banffshire & Buchan Coast.

14 November 2011

Address to Lowland Deer Network Conference

Chairman, ladies and gentlemen, thank you for your kind invitation to speak at your conference – I must acknowledge the high level of knowledge and breadth of expertise represented here today.

The management of lowland deer is of course a major emerging issue and one that was central to the thinking behind the changes to the Deer Act which were introduced via the Wildlife and Natural Environment Act – or WANE Act – earlier this year. In recent years we have seen deer populations spring up in new and unexpected places, and sometimes in greatly increased numbers.

This can have an impact on people and the environment, often in new ways. The WANE Act is intended to deliver the public interest in deer management and clarify who needs to take action in relation to the management of deer. It should also help in the resolution of disputes.

It is nearly a year and a half since the Public Services Reform (Scotland) Act brought about the merger of DCS and SNH and, although a final evaluation will take place in 2012, SNH reported in February that greater savings than anticipated were being achieved and that staff and stakeholders were supportive of the merger.

Before the merger took place it was acknowledged that there was a clear overlap between the roles of DCS and SNH and that the skills of DCS staff would be a huge asset to SNH. However, ensuring a successful transfer of functions into one organisation did not just happen over night.

This merger has involved considerable consultation and preparation before, during and after parliamentary scrutiny of the Act. All those involved in the merger have worked hard for what has been achieved so far and this includes ADMG role as members of the reference group to the merger programme board.

Integrating the functions of DCS with those of SNH have given the merged body a stronger focus on the benefits to Scotland's economy from the management of wildlife and improved the overall service delivery to customers while also helping to make the most of the natural assets that Scotland has to offer.

We should also recall the thinking that our approach to deer policy is based on. The strategy document – Scotland’s Wild Deer - a National Approach sets out how deer management can contribute to:
  • a high quality and robust environment; 
  • sustainable economic environment; and 
  • social well being.
During the debate on the WANE Bill it was clear that certain NGOs wished to see a statutory requirement for deer management planning, with each and every management plan approved by a Government agency.

This Government did not opt for that approach. The cost in time and resources to SNH would have been serious enough – and would have been much more significant for individuals and businesses managing deer.

So the legislation retained the voluntary principle, with suitable enforcement powers, backed up with a code of practice on deer management – of which more later. The important thing is that deer managers and deer management groups deliver what they have been entrusted to do – that is the public interest in deer management.

That may be protection of the natural environment; ensuring public safety by reducing deer vehicle collisions; or promoting deer welfare. It may also be found in securing employment in rural areas or promoting quality, sustainable local venison.

Alex Hogg (l) and Christian Nissen (r)
with Stewart Stevenson MSP
Of course I recognise the good work that is being carried out by individuals and deer management groups in Scotland. These Groups can be very effective in delivering collaborative deer management, particularly where members have the same land use objectives.

But at least they provide a forum and an opportunity for discussion and hopefully agreement. The question is how to extend and adapt those practices to other areas in the lowlands. For Government the important thing is that deer management delivers the public interest.

As I mentioned, in developing the WANE Act, Ministers retained the voluntary principle in deer management. But the intervention powers available to SNH were refined to make them more usable and more timely.

WANE also provided for the development of a code of practice on deer management, intended to support deer managers and provide practical guidance on what they need to do to deliver good practice. The code was developed in close co-operation with stakeholders and I was pleased to approve it without modification. The next stage is for it to be considered, and hopefully approved, by the Scottish Parliament. SNH is also developing further related guidance under the existing Wild

The Code is intended to support deer managers by providing guidance and setting out how to comply with relevant legislation. But failure to comply with the Code will not in itself constitute an offence. Rather SNH will have a duty to monitor compliance with the code and take this into account when considering enforcement action.

A higher standard is required of public bodies – they will be required to have regard to guidance from SNH.

The intervention powers retain the use of voluntary control agreements, as well as control schemes and powers to take emergency measures.

However, the grounds for intervention have been widened to include damage to the welfare of deer and damage to the public interest of a social, economic or environmental nature. Furthermore, the onus is put on SNH to set out the steps that must be taken to remedy damage and to review progress at least once a year so that everyone is clear where they stand and what they need to do.

I think we are all aware of an increase in the deer population, in certain parts of the lowlands and on the fringes of urban areas. This has resulted in new and unexpected impacts and we need to consider how to manage our reaction to that.

As most of you here will know, the increased population of deer, particularly roe deer, have a wide range of impacts such as damage to agriculture, forestry, and even parks and gardens. They can also cause a public safety risk through deer vehicle collisions. Motorists in the affected parts of the north of Scotland generally know at what time of year and on what stretch of road to watch out for deer – although regrettably accidents do still occur. But the presence of deer alongside busy major roads and even motorways is relatively new.

I commend the work that the Deer Commission, and now SNH, has done in relation to the Deer Vehicle Collisions project, to monitor incidents, provide suitable warning signs and raise awareness of the dangers in motorists. However, this remains an area of where we must remain vigilant.

At my own home in Banff I frequently see deer. There are roe deer in the area and the occasional red deer. Although there is no local deer management group there is local collaboration between SNH and local authorities to address public safety concerns on Aberdeenshire roads.

Other problems can arise with deer in urban areas, leading to wildlife crime such as poaching and deer welfare problems with deer being hunted with dogs or the use of unauthorised weapons.

Of course there are benefits too. Most people are delighted to see deer and they bring economic benefits through tourism and sport as well as providing a source of income from the sale of venison.

But deer need to be managed. And there are areas where there is no tradition of this being done, with no structures to support deer management. We have already seen good work from DCS and SNH in supporting the Forest Research work on the “Management of Deer in Peri-Urban Scotland”.

The WANE Act and the Deer Code will help with advice, the resolution of disputes and refined intervention powers. But we also need to raise awareness of the responsibilities of deer managers.

That is why I am pleased that your Association, together with support from SNH and the Forestry Commission, have taken the initiative to look at these issues and start working towards the development of management structures. This will help to develop a framework for those with responsibilities for deer management to draw up plans for the management of deer and to collaborate in their implementation.

And so, in conclusion, we have wonderful benefits in Scotland, in the enjoyment of our natural heritage. Deer play a large part in that – but there are responsibilities too. The legislation and guidance from SNH can assist up to a point. But we need people on the ground to address their responsibilities. Therefore, I welcome this initiative to develop structures to help people do just that.

I must thank you for the opportunity to speak here today and I trust that you will enjoy a useful conference.

1 November 2011

It’s Starting

While the party conference season south of the border may have concluded some time ago, the same is far from the case in Scotland. Recent days saw the SNP hold its biggest ever conference in Inverness, where around 2,000 delegates, members and visitors flocked to Eden Court for the four day event.

It was always inevitable that the first party conference since winning an outright majority in the Scottish Parliament earlier this year was always going to attract a lot of people, but I don’t think anyone could have anticipated just quite how well attended the event would be.

During the rousing address from our First Minister Alex Salmond, there was such a demand for seats that as well as packing out the main auditorium, five additional theatres were pressed into action as overspill rooms to watch the speech via video and still more people were only able to listen in over speakers in the foyer area.

While the leader’s speech is undoubtedly the highlight of conference though, there were a huge number of impressive speeches throughout the four days and many significant decisions on party policy were debated and voted upon. Perhaps most significant of all events at this year’s conference, however, were the events of the final day in Inverness.

The late Scots Makar, our national poet, Edwin Morgan left the SNP the staggering sum of £918,000 to take forward our efforts to build the independent Scotland he wished to live in. In Inverness it was announced that this transformational sum would be ring-fenced for the referendum campaign and even more significantly the starting gun on that campaign was fired.

During the election we promised to hold a referendum on independence in the second half of our parliamentary term and this is precisely what we will do. Yet beginning now we will embark upon an unprecedented campaign to talk to and enthuse people of all party political persuasions and none, on how our nation will benefit from the power to take our own decisions.

With the publication of our vision for an independent Scotland at scotlandforward.net, the campaign has begun in earnest and will reach out to every street and household to shape the future of our country.

The words “Scotland – It’s starting” may have been an understated launch to the campaign for Scottish independence, but their impact on improving our country may be felt throughout history.

No place for bullying

You would hope that elected parliamentarians would at all times set a good example of acceptable behaviour, particularly when it comes to something as serious as intimidating and threatening behaviour. Yet it seems this is sadly not the case, with a Labour MP, the chair of the Scottish Affairs Committee Ian Davidson, having threatened my colleague at Westminster Dr Eilidh Whiteford MP with “getting a doing” during a private meeting.

This kind of behaviour is utterly unacceptable in any walk of life and there is absolutely no place for bullying and intimidation in any workplace. Such disgusting attitudes belong in the dark days of the past and it is extraordinary that anyone would seek to defend such behaviour as some are trying to do.

Mr Davidson has shamed Scotland, shamed his constituents and most of all shamed himself with his actions and should step down from his position as a matter of urgency. Eilidh has had the courage to speak out and condemn his behaviour and refuse to be threatened or intimidated by Mr Davidson. That is something she should be commended for and I know she will have the backing of people throughout this area.

22 October 2011

A Minister writes – Stewart Stevenson on SNP Conference Saturday

A great day at the SNP Conference in Inverness

Every day at conference is precious and as that great Scot Andrew Carnegie said, “The early bird gets the oyster, the second gets the shell”. So it's online at 0715 to read the media comment from yesterday and orient myself for today.

And today is FM's speech, the Donaldson Lecture and, for me, Ministers' Moments at 1030. I’m also on the agenda committee that selects topical motions so lots to do.

Like the first SNP Conference I attended in the Usher Hall in Edinburgh in the mid 1970s, this is the highlight of the activist's year. Every time a familiar face appears in the conference environs, people sidle up to talk, to listen, to persuade. And to check that the Minister's feet are firmly on the ground. That's the activist's right.

And even though the formal sessions are an hour away, the buzz, that palpable sense of excitement is abroad at Eden Court when I arrive.

1000 Bruce Crawford briefs Ministers before our hour's report to Conference. I follow Alasdair Allan and have a strict 4 minutes.

1030 A full house in the auditorium again. And halfway through Alasdair's speech a frantic signal from Bruce to me – please take 6 minutes – OK boss.

Always worth a laugh reminding colleagues that it's Sno joke being Minister for snow but now I' m environment. Appropriate laughter a good start.

All went well.

Spending time at conference means everyone has the chance to meet with you, so the break is a photo with a Council candidate, agreeing to do Atholl Branch Burns Supper, discussing the impact of sea lice on salmon. Variety is the spice of conference.

By lunchtime I’m on my second box of throat lozenges, but no lunch and then collared by one of the staff – Do I know any funny stories Nicola can use to introduce the First Minister for his speech at 3 pm? On tenterhooks to see if any are used.

1330 Mark MacDonald tells me the joke he intends to use at 2 pm when he makes the financial appeal to conference. Mixture of pleasure and fear. It's about me. It's about me.

1345 Am sitting near our support team in the hope that this a quiet corner to work on this blog. Failed.

1355 Head off for seat in auditorium, Just spotted tweet from Brewdog “Great speech Stewart”. Can my cheerfulness rise even higher?

1400 Mark Macdonald makes superb financial appeal speech. Not sure about the reference to me.

1455 Announcement of International climate change award for First Minister.

FM with activists at the North-East reception
1500 The man himself, Alex Salmond, wows an audience so large that we need five overflow halls.

And well – you can read the speech here for yourself

http://www.snp.org/blog/post/2011/oct/alex-salmond-delivers-keynote-speech

18 October 2011

Critical decisions

When it comes to Europe, the next year or so can only be regarded as critical to many people in Banffshire & Buchan Coast and across the whole of Scotland. There is the ongoing crisis with the Euro and the risk of financial collapse in several European countries that must be resolved. How this happens will have a profound effect on the shape of the EU for decades to come and its impact here should not be underestimated.

Negotiations to reform the Common Fisheries Policy will take place, providing Scotland a critical opportunity to replace the discredited and damaging current system with one that sees decisions taken on a regional basis rather than centrally in Brussels. The CFP has destroyed communities and careers and has utterly failed as a means of protecting fish stocks.

There is opportunity for a better future for the fishing industry as a result of these negotiations, but there are also dangers if they are mishandled and Scotland's voice is ignored. The Scottish Government will be working hard to ensure the best possible outcome from these discussions and there is simply too much at stake for us not to succeed.

At the same time as this, the Common Agricultural Policy will also be facing reform with the recent publication of the Commission's proposals signalling the opening of negotiations. A lot of work has already been done in Scotland to prepare for this, not least with the publication of the hugely important Brian Pack report into our farming sector.

The current CAP which prevents new entrants into farming from benefiting from payments while enabling some farmers to receive subsidies for what they produced a decade ago, while no longer working their land, is clearly something which needs to change. There will be immense challenges in moving from historical payments to area based payments, but changes to address the problems that currently exist are necessary.

The Scottish Government's priority is of course to secure the best possible deal for Scotland, but we believe the key to this is to ensure that the new CAP is fairer, more flexible and simpler. It should encourage new entrants and reward genuine activity.

In all these areas there are enormous challenges and tough negotiations ahead which will substantially affect the economic prospects of people in Banffshire & Buchan Coast. The Scottish Government will put its case in Europe as ably as possible, but as we remain part of the UK in these negotiations, surely these discussions clearly demonstrate that Scotland needs a greater role when it comes to the UK taking part in European negotiations?

The farming sectors north and south of the border are substantially different and as such will have differing priorities. Meanwhile the vast majority of the UK's fishing fleet is in Scotland so it is inevitable that the outcome of CFP reform will be of greater importance north of the border than in the rest of the UK. This was an industry that was once described by a Tory UK Government as “expendable” after all.

A formal role in negotiations for the Scottish Government that reflects our distinctive needs in Europe is one of the entirely reasonable changes to the Scotland Bill at Westminster which we are currently seeking. The intransigence we are facing even on this issue is extremely frustrating to say the least and does Scotland a grave disservice.

Of course better still for Scotland would be to speak with our own voice in Europe as an independent country and the chance to choose that will be coming for Scotland in a few short years.

7 October 2011

Taking The High Road on GM

The Scottish Government continues to be fundamentally opposed to the cultivation of GM crops. Scotland’s Minister for Environment and Climate Change, Stewart Stevenson, explains why

[from the Food Standards Agency's 'Bite' magazine - edition 06 11
www.food.gov.uk/multimedia/pdfs/publication/bitesummer11.pdf]

Some have asked whether the Scottish Government has softened its position on genetically modified (GM) crops since it was first elected in 2007.

The answer to that is no – we remain fundamentally opposed to growing GM crops. That is why we support in principle the European Commission’s attempts to bring in changes that would allow countries and regions freedom to choose whether or not to grow GM crops on their territory.

The reasons for our position are multi-faceted. First, scientists cannot give categorical assurances that there is no risk to the environment from growing GM crops. The EU risk assessment of GM crops cannot take into account all Europe’s regional variations in landscape, climate and agricultural practice. Scotland has many unique features and a rich biodiversity, which we will not put at risk by growing GM crops.

There is also Scotland’s reputation for quality food and drink – a reputation we believe could be jeopardised if Scotland became known for growing GM crops.

We know that European consumers have little confidence that GM food is safe to eat. Some will argue that robust coexistence measures can counter the problems of cross-pollination or encroachment of GM crops. But, even if that was the case, there are costs involved in keeping GM and non-GM crops and products separate along the supply chain, which nobody will want to pay.

We accept there are a number of approved and labelled GMOs in use in Scotland, as there are elsewhere. Imported GM soya for animal feed, various therapeutics (for example insulin) for human and animal use, and some food technology aids may have been derived from GM sources. We supported the EU’s 0.1% threshold for unapproved GMO material in imports of non-GM animal feed in order to ease the supply problems and escalating feed prices experienced by our livestock farmers. We will, however, argue strenuously against extending the threshold to food imports – something we’re confident UK and European consumers will support us in.

There are a number of countries and many regions within the EU that take a similar stance to Scotland. Within the UK, agriculture is devolved and all four countries have their own views; but that is no reason why we can’t all coexist. If, for example, England decided to grow GM crops, we should be able to manage any cross-border issues just as they are managed in the rest of Europe.

Some claim our position could adversely affect Scottish biological research institutes that wish to carry out GM research. Whilst we do not fund any research that leads directly to the production of GM crops, we do support modern plant breeding techniques.

Research and innovation, and conventional plant breeding, offer many possible solutions for the challenges for food production. Crop breeding is an important income earner for Scotland – our crop scientists and breeders generate around £160 million of business for the Scottish and UK economies every year.

In summary, we remain fundamentally opposed to the cultivation of GM crops, a position which we strongly believe will protect Scotland’s precious environment.

4 October 2011

Connecting With Our Neighbours

Recent days have seen the future for renewable energy in Scotland take centre stage in no small part due to the Scottish Low Carbon Investment Conference being held for just the second time. Despite the relative youth of the event, it is a clear sign of Scotland’s renewable energy potential that it has already become internationally significant, with former Vice-President of the United States Al Gore jetting in to address delegates.

Mr Gore’s praise for Scotland’s leadership when it comes to tackling climate change and setting ambitious targets for reducing carbon emissions and increasing renewable energy was extremely welcome, but of more lasting significance are two other developments which coincided with the event.

The first of these was the publication of a report by Scottish Enterprise which identifies the important role that skills and expertise which people in Scotland have developed in the Oil and Gas industry can bring to bear on offshore renewables. The report identifies that if these skills are properly harnessed, cost savings of at least 20% can be made to offshore wind projects.

Those savings add up to hundreds of millions of pounds which can go a long way towards improving the viability of projects and giving developments in the waters off Scotland’s coast a tangible competitive advantage. There is no room for complacency and we must do more to ensure that this kind of collaboration takes place, but the early signs that the Oil & Gas is becoming involved in offshore renewables are positive.

Perhaps even more significant, however, was the announcement that a consortium of companies has made an application to build an underwater electricity connection between Scotland and Norway, coming ashore near Peterhead. This type of connection is absolutely fundamental to achieving the full economic benefits of renewable energy as it will allow Scotland to export its surplus energy to our European neighbours.

The fact that the Peterhead area has been chosen as the landing point is a welcome sign of the significance that renewable energy will play to the economy of Banffshire & Buchan Coast in the years and decades to come. This kind of project has been identified by the EU as a project of “European Significance” and is one of the most important developments that Scotland needs to see happen to secure our economic future.

A worrying proposal

Less promising for people in Banffshire & Buchan Coast, although no less significant, are the latest round of proposed fishing quotas. Despite the scientific advice recommending a 410% increase in West Coast Haddock following the recovery of that fish stock to sustainable levels, the European Commission has proposed an increase of just 25%.

People in the fishing industry will know that there would be no hesitation on the Commission’s part in proposing to follow the scientific advice to the letter if it called for a reduction in quotas, so the lack of consistency that has been displayed is extremely frustrating to say the least.

When the enormous sacrifices that have been made by the fishing industry in the name of improving conservation and sustainability pay off with improved fish stocks, it is simply wrong to punish the fishing industry by not rewarding them for their efforts.

The quota proposed will only increase discards in the area, something that surely nobody would wish to see. The Scottish Government will be making strong representations to Europe to secure a fair deal for our fishermen and ensure that the industry’s willingness to take part in conservation efforts is not undermined by the Commission’s approach.

20 September 2011

A programme for Government

With the Scottish Parliament’s summer recess over, Holyrood has wasted no time in getting back to the business of legislating. The Scottish Government has set out a wide ranging Programme for Government which will see 15 pieces of legislation brought to parliament over the coming year, an ambitious level of activity for the coming twelve months.

These bills cover a wide range of topics affecting a variety of different aspects of Scottish life. They include an Agricultural Holdings bill which will implement the recommendations of the Tenant Farming Forum to encourage more landlords to let land to tenant farmers and make it easier for a new generation of farmers to inherit tenancies by including grandchildren in the definition of a near relative.

There will be a Rights of Children and Young People Bill, enshrining the principles of the UN Convention of the Rights of the Child into Scots law and spelling out the basic human rights that people under the age of 18 are entitled to. Additionally, a Freedom of Information (Amendment) Bill will improve current FoI legislation and add strength and clarity to efforts to ensure open, democratic government and responsive public services.

There will be an Alcohol Minimum Pricing Bill to revisit the important health measure which was wrongly stripped out of last session’s Alcohol Bill by opposition parties. It will ensure that it is no longer possible to purchase cheap alcohol for less than the cost of a bottle of water and have its main impact on the dirt cheap ciders and own-brand vodkas which are favoured by problem drinkers.

As with every year there will be a Scottish Budget Bill which will have to cope with the continuing cuts to Scotland’s budget being passed on as a result of the UK Treasury’s obstinate determination to slash budgets when the OECD and IMF say it should be stimulating growth in the stagnating economy.

And amongst other things, there will also be legislation to move Scotland towards single, national police and fire services. This will bring an end to the unnecessary duplication of back office functions such as payroll, IT and human resources departments and will make the police more locally accountable by giving every local councillor a role in overseeing police activity in their area where it is currently restricted to the limited numbers who sit on one of Scotland’s eight police or eight fire boards.

However, legislation is only one part of the activity that any government undertakes and the Scottish Government’s plans for the coming year are no different. We will launch a programme called “Opportunities for All”, guaranteeing every 16-19 year old in Scotland an education or training position. The economic problems we have faced have affected young people particularly severely and it is only right that they are given the opportunities they need to ensure they have the skills to face the job market with confidence.

We will also continue to push for improvements to the Scotland Bill which is currently progressing through Westminster. People in Scotland voted for a stronger bill than the current damaging proposals and Westminster cannot continue to bury its head in the sand and refuse to recognise the ambitions of people in Scotland. We have outlined six key areas where we believe progress is essential to making the Scotland Bill workable and the Scottish Government will continue to make the case for their inclusion in the Scotland Bill.

With such high levels of activity ahead, it is sure to be a busy parliamentary year ahead for the Scottish Government and Scottish Parliament.

6 September 2011

One hundred days on

When the SNP took office in 2007, we were determined to hit the ground running and start work on an impressive array of tasks within our first 100 days in Government. Work was begun on abolishing the Graduate Endowment, recruiting 1,000 additional police officers and saving A&E departments from closure amongst many other things. With the first 100 days now having come and gone since we were re-elected as a majority Government in May this year, our intentions have been no different and we have again sought to use these early days of the new parliament to build momentum for the months and years ahead.

We have launched a Renewables Routemap outlining the steps Scotland needs to take to capitalise on the vast potential renewable energy offers us and meet the ambitious target we have set of generating an equivalent of 100% of Scotland’s electricity demand from renewable sources by 2020.

We have published a plan to increase the number of Scots diagnosed in the earliest stages of cancer by 25% to improve cancer survival rates and spare more people the agony of losing a loved one to the illness. And we have started a fresh approach to involving the fishing industry more in the decisions that affect it through the launch of the Fisheries Management and Conservation Group and the Scottish Seafood Partnership.

We have done these things and numerous others in our first 100 days and we will do many, many more in the days still to come. No Government can even come close to achieving all it sets out to do in its first 100 days and nor should it. But those early days do set the tone for what is to follow. In both this new term and the 100 days that marked the start of our previous term in Government, I firmly believe that we have begun our term with energy and direction and established a solid base for our work in the months and years ahead.

Minimum pricing

Scotland’s damaging relationship with alcohol is not new to anyone or something that can be solved overnight. The impact of excessive alcohol consumption costs people in Scotland £3.56 billion every single year and places an incredible strain on our health and justice systems in these difficult economic times. Yet what is new is just how much the scale of the problem is increasing.

New figures show that people in Scotland buy 23% more alcohol than people in England and Wales, the biggest difference ever recorded in the 17 years since the figures were first measured. This works out as an additional 2.2 litres of pure alcohol per adult in Scotland sold than in England last year, at 11.8 litres compared to 9.6. It can be little coincidence that last year also saw a 3% increase in alcohol related deaths. In the last session of parliament, we sought to bring in a range of measures to address this growing problem and the costs that come with it through the Alcohol (Scotland) Act.

While this Act was passed by parliament, important measures such as a minimum price per unit for alcohol were stripped out by opposition parties. Minimum pricing is by no means a silver bullet, but studies have shown it can help to reduce alcohol consumption and that is something that is urgently needed in Scotland.

That is why the Scottish Government intends to introduce a Minimum Pricing Bill as a matter of priority this Autumn and correct the mistake that was made when opposition parties stripped it from last session’s Bill.

23 August 2011

Driving the North East forward

Anyone who lives in Banffshire & Buchan Coast will be only too aware of the lengthy delays to people’s journeys that are often faced when travelling to other parts of Scotland. A journey to anywhere south of Aberdeen can often involve spending an inordinate amount of time negotiating your way through the city’s streets, especially during rush hour.

This is inconvenient for motorists, but it is a particular problem for businesses which need to get goods to and from Banffshire & Buchan Coast as swiftly as possible. The longer they are delayed in slow moving traffic, the more the financial costs stack up.

That is why the SNP, and indeed almost everyone in the North East, is so steadfastly in favour of the Aberdeen Western Peripheral Route. It is a long-needed piece of infrastructure that will ease congestion within Aberdeen and significantly improve journey times for those travelling to the north or south of the city. After many long years of dither and delay under the previous administration, significant progress was made towards building the road during the SNP’s first term in office only for a handful of objectors to hold the project up in the courts.

However, recent days have finally seen the Court of Session pass its judgement on the legal objections that were raised to the project and the protests against the road have been roundly rejected. Work can now proceed to dramatically improve the infrastructure of the region; something I know will be welcomed by people across the North East. Funding the construction of the AWPR was an important part of the SNP’s manifesto and nobody is happier than I am that we have taken a step forward towards delivering the road.

The North East of Scotland has huge potential to be at the heart of Scotland’s growing renewable energy industry and is of course already at the centre of Scotland’s fishing and oil & gas industries. Yet all of these businesses need good infrastructure links to the rest of the country to operate successfully and the AWPR has been a long missing development in the area.

In difficult economic times like those we are currently going through, good infrastructure can be more important than ever to the profitability and successful operation of businesses. The AWPR can be a prime example of that and I am looking forward to more progress being made on the road.

Scotland’s drugs strategy

The scourge of drug abuse is something that still affects far too many communities across Scotland, devastating the lives of both drug users and those around them. Yet in some regards at least, Scotland is making welcome progress with the announcement that the number of drug related deaths has again dropped.

In 2010 there were 485 drug related deaths in Scotland, an 11% fall from 2009 and 16% less than 2008.

Tackling drug problems is by no means an easy or straightforward issue, but the welcome reduction in fatalities does show that the Scottish Government’s drug strategy is delivering tangible improvements. Clearly any drug related death is one too many, but progress is at least consistently being made.

There can be no room for complacency as there are still serious problems to be addressed, but every life that is saved through successful treatment programmes is a small step towards reducing the monstrous toll that drug abuse has inflicted on Scottish society for far too long. With record investment going into front line services, I am confident that we will continue to see improvements in years to come.

9 August 2011

Learning the results

Recent days saw school pupils in Banffshire & Buchan Coast and across the whole of Scotland receive their exam results and find out how their hard work in preparing for them had paid off. This year saw record high pass rates in almost all exam categories, which is something that Scottish pupils and the teachers who have prepared them for the exams should rightly be immensely proud of.

Of course it is also the case that not everyone receives the results that they were hoping for and this can throw plans into disarray and be an extremely stressful time for pupils and parents. Skills Development Scotland run a hugely useful exam results advice line which can be contacted on 0808 100 8000 and is a source of advice and information I would thoroughly recommend. There are always options out there and good advice can be immensely helpful in weighing up what they are.

Whatever the results received by pupils, the coming days and weeks are a time when important decisions must be made which have the potential to shape the course of a young person’s life. Those still at school will use the results to choose which areas to specialise in, which will in turn determine their next steps further down the line. Those coming to the end of the school career, however, will be using their exam results to choose the best option for them, whether it is entering the working world, attending college or going to university.

Whether university is the option a young person chooses to take or not, it is essential that the ability to attend higher education institutions is maintained regardless of the personal means of a family. Access to education should be solely based on the ability to learn, not the ability to pay which is why the SNP is firmly committed to preventing the introduction of any kind of tuition fee.

In the last parliamentary term, one of our earliest actions was the abolition of the Graduate Endowment, the backdoor tuition fee that had been brought in by the previous administration. Our record of restoring Scotland’s proud tradition of free education stood in stark contrast to the tuition fees that were introduced south of the border and even more starkly when compared to the current moves which will see universities in England charge £9,000 a year to their students.

At the same time, the Coalition Government is also removing public funding for universities, effectively privatising them and shifting their costs onto the shoulders of students. A generation of young people will graduate with a crippling mountain of debt to pay off which will hinder their opportunities later in life. It is inevitably the case that these costs will deter young people south of the border from gaining a university education, particularly those from poorer backgrounds, and will make universities there the preserve of the select few. If student numbers go down as a result, surely the financial strength and quality of education will swiftly follow. It is scarcely any wonder that young people south of the border feel particularly betrayed by the actions of the Coalition Government.

It is an approach which is utterly wrong and misguided and is something that the SNP will never support for Scotland. School pupils in England will receive their exam results later this month. How many of them will then view the prospect of university with dread of the financial impact rather than as the incredible opportunity to learn that it should be?

26 July 2011

Moving towards reform

When it comes to changing long standing policy across the EU, the pace of change is inevitably slow and the competing concerns and interests that must be juggled is a complicated task to say the least. Yet change does come and with the recent publication of the European Commission’s proposals for changes to the Common Fisheries Policy, we are finally getting closer to seeing fundamental changes to the system of fisheries management take place.

The CFP as it currently stands is rightly regarded universally as an unmitigated failure which has failed both to conserve fish stocks and protect the livelihoods of fishing communities. That fundamental change to it is needed has been accepted for some time and that is something we are now moving closer towards.

However, the European Commission’s proposals contain measures which are both positive and negative for the industry in Scotland and as such we must continue to push for a better deal to be reached.

The Scottish Government and the fishing industry in this country have long been calling for a more regional basis to fisheries management to replace the annual negotiations in Brussels which sees land-locked Luxembourg hold more sway than Scotland. The Commission’s plans seem to accept the need for this decentralisation and that is something which is to be warmly welcomed providing it is properly implemented.

The Scottish fishing fleet has been leading the way in Europe when it comes to conservation measures such as using selective fishing gears, real time closures of breeding grounds and perhaps most significantly with the introduction of the catch quota scheme which sees vessels receive a larger quota allocation in return for landing all the fish they catch without any discards. It sees skippers catch less, but land more.

Nobody wants to see the abhorrent practice of discarding perfectly good fish to comply with EU regulations brought to an end more than the fishing industry itself. However, simply proposing a blanket ban on the practice as the current European Commission proposals do takes no account of the challenges of fishing in a mixed fishery, where several types of fish are caught in a single catch. A more radical change to current practice is needed if we are to avoid the CFP simply repeating the same old mistakes in introducing ill-fitting, top-down decisions to the fishing industry. The only real way to solve the problem of discards is to work the fishing industry to find solutions that are practical and can work in a mixed fishery, not to issue central diktats which could prove counter-productive in the long run.

Also of great concern is the threat posed by the proposal that international trading of fishing quotas should be expanded. In time this would almost undoubtedly see a handful of large multi-nationals end up controlling the bulk of all fishing quotas and ruin businesses and fishing communities in Scotland and further afield. It is a measure which must be vigorously resisted or areas like Banffshire & Buchan Coast could see the heart torn out of our fishing communities.

In all there are both good and bad elements to the proposals that have been put on the table, but the fact that reform will take place at all is perhaps the biggest positive. There are two years of negotiation ahead to improve upon what has been proposed and ensure that the mistakes of the past are not repeated. The Scottish Government has already made our views clear and in the coming months and years it is more essential than ever that Scotland’s voice is heard in Europe.

12 July 2011

An opening for the people

After a hectic few weeks following the election in May, the Scottish Parliament began its summer recess at the start of this month. Over the coming weeks I will be taking part in events and meetings across the country in my capacity as Minister for the Environment and Climate Change and also be taking my annual surgery tour of the constituency in August to give people who might otherwise not have the chance an opportunity to raise their concerns with me.

However, before the recess officially got under way there was one final piece of business in Holyrood; the official opening. While it might initially seem odd that the opening is the final thing that happens before Parliament goes into recess, it is the entire five year term of the Scottish Parliament that is being opened and officially gotten under way.

As on previous occasions, the Queen addressed the chamber and gave us all food for thought with her reflections on how the Scottish Parliament has developed since it reconvened in 1999. There were also outstanding speeches from Presiding Officer Tricia Marwick and the First Minister Alex Salmond as well as a host of musical performances throughout the day for MSPs and members of the public.

The highlight of the day though, as in previous years, was the riding. An updated interpretation of the ceremony which used to take place before the Treaty of Union in the old Scottish Parliament, the riding sees groups from all over Scotland take part in a highly colourful and musical procession down the Royal Mile to Holyrood. Each MSP was asked to invite a “local hero”, an unsung member of the community who has worked to improve the lives of people in their area.

It was my privilege to invite Stephen Bruce to take part in the procession in recognition of the outstanding work he has done for JogScotland Peterhead. He has done fantastic work over the last four years in encouraging people in the area to take up jogging and become more active, successfully recruiting over 300 people in that time and last year raised over £17,000 for charity with a series of fun runs. Peterhead JogScotland also set a Scottish record for the highest attendance at a JogScotland event last year when 276 people took part in a night time jog on the streets of Peterhead. He is also currently arranging Peterhead Running Festival which takes place this September and I’m sure will be another fantastically well attended event.

Encouraging people to have a healthier lifestyle is more important than ever given the strains on NHS budgets and I am sure that under Stephen Bruce’s leadership more and more people in Peterhead and the wider area will take part in JogScotland’s events in years to come.

Portsoy Boat Festival

Recent days have also given me the opportunity to take part in another fantastically successful and well attended event; the Portsoy Traditional Boat Festival. With fantastic weather for this year’s event, an estimated 16,000 visitors came to Portsoy to take part in the activities taking place.

The festival is going from strength to strength and the large numbers and sheer enthusiasm from those who took part is a testament to the work that goes in to organising it each year. I was delighted to once again attend and alongside my colleague Eilidh Whiteford MP held constituent surgeries during the event.

Anyone who attended this year will know that next year’s Boat Festival will have to go a long way if it is to beat this year’s event!

28 June 2011

Measuring our worth

The election of a pro-independence majority in Holyrood and the certainty that there will be a referendum on Scottish independence has understandably excited much comment in the media over recent weeks. Clearly political discourse in Scotland is moving into new territory and although the referendum will not be held until the latter part of our term in office, as we promised in our manifesto, there will be much debate and discussion to come between now and then.

One of the perennial topics that are inevitably raised in any discussion on independence is Scotland’s finances and our ability to afford independence. If you were to read some of the claims in newspaper columns published south of the border which seem to have only a passing familiarity, let alone interest in Scotland, you might think that people north of the border did not pay any taxation and Scotland existed only on the generosity of taxpayers elsewhere in the UK.

The truth is of course somewhat different. The Government Expenditure and Revenue Scotland figures or GERS are the most comprehensive set of statistics that exists on how much Scotland generates in taxation and spends on public services in both devolved areas and on things still reserved to Westminster’s control. While it is not perfect, given that there areas where it has no choice but to rely on estimates because the UK Treasury simply doesn’t separate out the level of some taxes contributed from Scotland when gathering statistics, it is the most useful starting point in any discussion on how much Scotland generates and spends on the public sector.

The most recent of these GERS statistics covering the 2009/10 financial year was published in recent days and paint an interesting picture of Scotland’s finances. During that year Scotland generated £48.1 billion in taxation, or 9.4% of the entire tax take for the whole of the UK. This compares to having a population that makes up 8.4% of the UK total and public spending levels which represented 9.3% of UK expenditure. Those figures show that Scotland generated a greater share of tax revenues than its population share of the UK and saw a slightly lower proportion of money spent in Scotland than the share of tax revenue that went to the UK Treasury from Scotland.

The 2009/10 financial year was of course when the recession was biting hard and it is therefore no surprise that the figures for that year show a current spending deficit of £9 billion or 6.8% of GDP in Scotland, as reduced tax income had not been matched by reduced expenditure. When capital spending is included, this deficit increased to £14 billion or 10.6% of GDP.

Although it is normal for countries around the world to run deficits, ones on that scale are not healthy in the long term. However, the size of Scotland’s deficit for that year was entirely a result of the recession and does not measure poorly when compared with the rest of the UK. The same financial year saw the UK run up a deficit of £107.3 billion or 7.6% of GDP on current spending which rises to £156.5 billion or 11.1% of GDP when capital spending is also included. In both cases, Scotland’s deficit as a percentage of GDP remained lower than the figure for the UK as a whole.

What this shows is that Scotland had a stronger budget position than the UK as a whole, just as it has in each of the last five years. Scaremongering over Scotland’s financial strength is clearly just that, given that even in tough economic times we outperformed the UK as a whole.

23 June 2011

Food on the timetable

The Royal Highland Show is an absolute ‘must-do’ for anyone connected to rural Scotland, farming and food.
 
This year’s event was my first in my new role as Environment Minister and an excellent opportunity to see for myself what our rural communities have to offer.

Food is always high on the agenda and I think it’s vital that we all learn a little bit more about where our food comes from.

So I was delighted to have the chance at the Show, to launch groundbreaking guidelines to help schools and food and drink organisations to help teach young people exactly that.
This is a fantastic initiative for school pupils to learn about their food’s journey from plough to plate, as well as making the connection between the food they eat and its environmental, health and social impact.
I hope that such knowledge will help our young people make healthier, sustainable food choices in the future, a notion which is very much in line with one of the key aims of Curriculum for Excellence – helping foster a sense of responsibility and environmental awareness in our young people

Scotland has a well-deserved reputation as a land of food and drink and it is vital that we continue to enhance this by engaging the next generation to make sure every child in Scotland has the chance to learn about the food they eat by 2015.

I would encourage food and drink organisations to embrace this opportunity to work in partnership with our schools to deliver a more personalised learning experience for every child.

14 June 2011

Measuring our progress

During the election just passed, we in the SNP made standing by our record of achievement during the last four years of minority Government a big part of our successful campaign. It is a record that I believe we can be proud of, despite the challenges we faced, and while much of the recent focus and analysis in Scotland has been on our plans for the next five years as a majority Government, it is important that the signs of how far we have come so far should not be overlooked.

Recent weeks saw the publication of quarterly registration figures for NHS dentists. Across Scotland, an additional 1.2 million people are now registered with an NHS dentist compared to when the SNP took power in 2007. For a country the size of Scotland, that is progress on an impressive scale although there is of course still much to do, not least in the Grampian area.

Dentist registrations are well behind the national average in this area and we can all well remember how bad the situation was allowed to become under the previous administration. When the SNP came to power, just 35% of people in Grampian were registered with an NHS dentist.

That figure was a scandal and as a Government we took action to address it. A major part of that was the opening of a £20 million dental school in Aberdeen, training dentists in the region so that there are more dentists in the area for people to access. The latest figures show the progress that has been made, with over 51% of people in the area now registered with an NHS dentist.

Clearly there is much more progress still to be made, but that things are moving in the right direction is undeniable. As more and more newly qualified dentists graduate in Aberdeen, I believe that progress will continue and the disparity in dentist provision can finally be brought to an end.

Recent days also saw statistics demonstrating the progress that has been made in policing under the past four years of SNP Government. We were elected to office in 2007 with a promise that we would recruit an additional 1,000 police officers to protect our communities. The recently published statistics show that having met that promise well ahead of schedule, we finished our first term in office having maintained that increase.

There is now a more visible police presence in our communities, with 142 additional officers in the Grampian area, and crime has been reduced to a 32 year low. It has been one of the most significant achievements of our first term in office and we are determined to maintain that achievement throughout our second term.

The parliamentary term just passed saw progress in many aspects of Scottish life of which we can be proud. Yet I know that we will not rest on our laurels, but will instead work tirelessly to ensure that at the end of our second term in office people can again look back and see that we have come even further.

Carers Week

It would be remiss of me not to mention that Carers Week takes place from the 13th to the 19th of June. The many unpaid carers across Scotland are without doubt unsung heroes without whom the NHS and local Government would be overwhelmed. It is extremely challenging work that carers do and I warmly welcome the recognition of their efforts that Carers Week provides. As a society we all owe a debt of thanks to Scotland’s army of carers.

31 May 2011

The Scottish Government’s new team

Recent days have seen the shape of the new SNP Government become clear as the First Minister appointed his team of Cabinet Secretaries and Ministers. I am immensely proud to have been asked to be part of that team and return to the Scottish Government as Minister for the Environment and Climate Change.

Having campaigned on the strength of the SNP’s team in Government, it is probably not surprising that the changes in personnel have been kept to a minimum. There are welcome and well deserved promotions for Bruce Crawford, Alex Neil and Fiona Hyslop from Minister to Cabinet Secretary and along with my own return, Michael Matheson, Alasdair Allan, Aileen Campbell, and Brian Adam enter the Scottish Government for the first time and will all bring immense talent to the pool that already exists.

Jim Mather, who stood down at the election, and Adam Ingram, who is moving to the backbenches, will both leave the Government after four years of service and I know that the many individuals and organisations they have worked with over those years will undoubtedly miss the energy and enthusiasm with which they both filled their roles.

I am looking forward immensely to the challenges and opportunities of my new position. Having held responsibility for Scotland’ world leading climate change legislation in my previous Ministerial position, it is welcome to again be working on that portfolio and the on-going action that needs to take place.

Taking Scotland Forward

Following the initial procedural steps of the Scottish Parliament electing Presiding Officers, the First Minister and approving the new Ministerial team, the first full debate of the new session in Holyrood was entitled Taking Scotland Forward. On the back of a positive campaign that focused on our vision for Scotland and how we can make our country better, there could scarcely be a more appropriate title on which to start the work of the fourth session of the Scottish Parliament in earnest.

In his excellent opening speech to the debate, the First Minister set out the work that lies ahead of us. To build the better Scotland which we surely all want to see, we need the tools to achieve it. It is not acceptable for a lack of Scottish control over policy or finance to continue to be a barrier to improvement and the historic election result has clearly demonstrated that people in Scotland want to see things change in this respect.

If it is acceptable to devolve control over corporation tax to Northern Ireland then surely it is indefensible for Scotland not to gain similar power. We need to have the ability to attract more businesses to Scotland and to reap the economic benefits when Scotland’s economy is successfully grown.

With some control over broadcasting, we can finally see a Scottish digital tv network established encouraging creative talent in Scotland and redressing the pitifully low levels of Scottish broadcasting that currently appears on our screens.

By gaining control over excise duty, we can ensure that it is the Scottish taxpayer rather than the supermarket chains that benefit from the introduction of a minimum price per unit for alcohol.

The purpose of all this is not to gain these powers merely for their own sake, but to enable us to grow our economy, protect and create jobs and to improve many other aspects of Scottish life. If this debate set the direction of travel, the next five years of the parliamentary term will see us walk that path and make Scotland a better nation.

17 May 2011

An Incredible Result

In many ways, the past seven weeks from the dissolution of the last term of the Scottish Parliament to the swearing in of MSPs for the new term following the election feels like it has both lasted an eternity and passed in the blink of an eye. The last few weeks have seen huge amounts of activity across the country as SNP activists worked tirelessly to campaign for the team, the record and the vision of the SNP.

That hard work clearly paid off with the unprecedented SNP election victory. For the first time ever, the people of Scotland have entrusted a single party with a majority of seats in the Scottish Parliament.

For my own part I am extremely humbled to have been re-elected with the highest share of the vote of any seat in Scotland. I am immensely proud to have won that backing from people in Banffshire & Buchan Coast and can only express my sincerest thanks for the trust that has been placed in me.

I have now represented people in this part of Scotland for almost 10 years, however this election also saw changes to constituency boundaries which means that some of the areas I have previously worked for are no longer within the constituency, while new communities have been added to the redrawn seat in the west. While I am saddened to see those areas go, I am looking forward to working as hard for the new parts of Banffshire & Buchan Coast as I previously have for the rest of the constituency.

The new balance of the chamber in Holyrood, with 69 out of 129 MSPs coming from the Scottish National Party, will undoubtedly give this parliamentary term a very different feel to the one which preceded it. Where the Scottish Government operated as a minority before, it will this time hold a majority and be able to pass the legislation it wishes without opposition parties blocking their efforts.

Perhaps most significantly this means that we can now say with certainty that a referendum on Scotland becoming and independent country will take place during the course of this five year term. People in Scotland will be given a voice on their constitutional future where before the other parties were determined to deny them one.

Having spent my entire time in politics working towards achieving the powers of a normal independent country for Scotland, it is a contest I am looking forward to immensely. Nowhere more than Banffshire & Buchan Coast do people understand the need for Scotland to be able to make our own decisions and speak with our own voice on the world stage.

In Europe we need a Scottish voice articulating the needs of Scotland on issues such as fishing and farming, where we have suffered from our lack of representation in the past. With reform of both the Common Fisheries Policy and Common Agricultural Policy coming up, this is more essential than ever if we are to ensure Scotland’s interests are protected.

We need control over our own finances to ensure that economic policy is set in the interest of people in Scotland rather than as a cash cow for the UK Treasury, as we recently witnessed with the North Sea oil industry tax raid which threatens jobs and investment in the area.

Although there are undoubtedly many challenges ahead, the next five years promise to be an exciting time for Scotland and I am looking forward to getting down to business and continuing to work for people in Banffshire & Buchan Coast.

5 April 2011

Looking back on the Parliamentary term

The memories of the 2007 election that saw the historic result of a first ever SNP Government elected are likely to always remain fresh for many people. Yet four years have passed and once again elections to the Scottish Parliament are underway.

The Scottish Parliament has gone into dissolution and politicians the length and breadth of the country have hit the campaign trail. It has been an honour to serve as an MSP over the course of the last parliament and there are a number of important achievements over that time which I believe we can be proud of.

The Scottish Government brought an end to the constant rises in council tax which we saw under the previous administration, with a freeze that has lasted for four years now. It has made a real difference to households that lived in fear of the annual rise in council tax they used to see, and has put money back into the pockets of people across the country at a time it was needed most.

We introduced the Small Business Bonus, which abolished or substantially reduced local business rates for 80,000 businesses across Scotland and allowed them to employ 40,000 members of staff. In these difficult times, that support worth thousands of pounds to businesses made the difference between survival and going under. It has been a key part of the Scottish Government’s economic recovery strategy and I strongly believe that the scheme must continue in the next parliament.

In the North East, we approved the Aberdeen Western Peripheral Route and an upgrade to the A90 between Balmedie and Tipperty. It is a disappointment that only the selfish legal action of a few protesters has stood in the way of work commencing on the project, but funding for the project was approved in the recently passed budget and I am confident that people in the North East will soon be seeing the benefit of improved journey times in the region.

Funding is also in place to deliver a replacement prison in Peterhead, with planning for the project having been approved. The prison is an important employer in the region and securing its future has been a vital step forward for Banff & Buchan.

The Scottish Government has also renovated or rebuilt 330 schools across Scotland, reducing the number of pupils being taught in schools classified as ‘poor’ or ‘bad’ by 130,000. There is still more to do to reduce that figure further, but there can be no doubt that substantial progress has been made.

The last four years have also seen the delivery of an additional 1,036 police officers across Scotland compared to the time of the last election. They have made a real difference in local communities, helping to drive crime in Scotland to a 32 year low.

Perhaps one of the most significant achievements of all, however, was the abolition of the Graduate Endowment, the back door tuition fee that was introduced by the previous administration. That move re-established the principle of free education in Scotland and the recognition that we all benefit from having a well educated population. Access to education should be based on the ability to learn not the ability to pay and despite these difficult economic times, that is a principle I will always support.

I have been privileged to represent Banff & Buchan for the past four years and I hope that I will again be able to represent people in the redrawn Banffshire & Buchan Coast constituency during the next parliamentary term.

24 March 2011

Fishing Review 2011

An Escalating Crisis

If there has been one major benefit to the increased coverage that the practice of discards has gained in the last year, it is perhaps the greater public awareness of sustainably caught fish. In particular, there is now a more widespread knowledge of Marine Stewardship Council certification and hopefully more consumers looking for fish products that have achieved that standard.

MSC certification is an important indicator that the fish consumers buy in the shops has been sustainably caught. It provides added value to the product and the Scottish industry has been leading the way in achieving certification for several fisheries. Nowhere is that more the case than with the pelagic fleet, which earlier this year entered its fourth fishery for MSC assessment. If that it is successful, 98% of pelagic quota by volume and value will have achieved Marine Stewardship Council certification for being caught sustainably.

However, the sustainability of the fish stocks that the pelagic fleet relies on has been put under severe pressure by the reckless actions of Iceland and the Faroe Islands, in unilaterally setting their own Mackerel quotas. Mackerel represents the most valuable fishing stock of all to the Scottish economy, and was worth £135 million in 2009 as well as supporting around 2,500 jobs. It is absolutely integral to the local economy of Banff & Buchan and the threat that the pelagic fleet is currently facing is a crisis that we should all be concerned about.

Just a few years ago Iceland’s agreed Mackerel quota was 2,000 tonnes, yet it has set itself a unilateral quota of 147,000 tonnes for 2011. The Faroe Islands’ quota for the year should be 29,700 tonnes if it was abiding by the Coastal States management plan it signed up to, but instead it too has set itself a massively inflated quota of 150,000 tonnes.

These increases have no basis in scientific advice and represent a beggar-thy-neighbour approach of the most grossly irresponsible kind. If they were allowed to pass unchallenged, then the only options for existing mackerel fishing fleets would either be to catch less or allow the stock to be overfished, causing long term ruin. It is scarcely any wonder then that the Faroe Islands were rightly rejected in their attempt to apply for MSC certification of their Mackerel fisheries.

The sad fact is that the fishing industry has been here before, when a lack of international agreement on blue whiting led to a free for all and the decimation of that stock. A situation where there is no international agreement on how much each country is entitled to fish is quite simply a disaster for everyone.

It is not just the pelagic fleet which will be affected by the ongoing reckless behaviour of Iceland and the Faroes. As long as there is no agreement in place, parts of the whitefish fleet that fish in Faroese waters will be denied access to those fishing grounds. It is another obstacle which the fishing industry can ill afford.

What makes the behaviour of Iceland in particular all the more extraordinary is that it is a country which is currently seeking to join the European Union. How it expects to operate in an organisation which is based on reaching international agreements, when it is not even prepared to negotiate seriously on this issue is simply baffling.

The EU has responded robustly so far by banning the landing of Mackerel by Icelandic vessels in EU ports. However, that can by no means be the end of the pressure that the EU should be prepared to bring to bear and more meaningful sanctions against Iceland and the Faroes should follow. A successful resolution to the dispute should also be an absolute prerequisite before any discussion on accession to the EU for Iceland can take place.

The ongoing crisis in Mackerel fishing will not be resolved in any way other than through around the negotiating table. However, until Iceland and the Faroes are prepared to seriously negotiate, the SNP will continue to press for tough and sustained action from Europe in order to protect what is arguably our most successful, sustainable fishing fleet from these unacceptable smash and grab tactics.

22 March 2011

A vision for Scotland

Ask any SNP activist and they will tell you that one of the highlights of their calendar are the two points in the year when the party gets together at our party conference. They are opportunities to catch up with old friends from across Scotland, to discuss and debate party policy, and to hear speakers set out their vision for the future of Scotland.

However, particularly in a run up to an election, they are a time when the party makes key policy announcements that are of importance to people across Scotland. These are developments that are not just of interest to party members, but which set the direction of government for people all across Scotland. Our recently completed campaign conference in Glasgow was no exception to this. The last time the SNP met in that city was in 2007 in the run up to the last Scottish election, where we set out our positive vision for Scotland and we have aimed to repeat that in 2011 ahead of the coming Holyrood elections in May.

Over the last four years the SNP has seen 330 schools across Scotland built or refurbished, reducing the number of pupils in schools in ‘poor’ or ‘bad’ condition from 256,794 in 2007 to 119,188 this year. That is a substantial reduction of 53% but clearly there is still a lot more to do which is why we have made the pledge that a returned SNP Government will halve that number again over our next term in office. New buildings alone do not guarantee good educational results, but they do create an environment that helps pupils want to learn.

That commitment to education is a significant one, but just as important to many people is how the SNP will continue to fund higher education, particularly given how spectacularly students south of the border have been sold out since the Westminster election. One of the proudest achievements of the SNP Government was the abolition of the graduate endowment; the backdoor tuition fee which undermined the principle that education should be based on ability to learn not the ability to pay. That principle still guides our intentions and despite the funding cuts that are being handed down by Westminster, the SNP Government will not permit the introduction of tuition fees in Scotland either up front or by the back door.

In areas like Banff & Buchan, the provision of college places and apprenticeships are critical. They help young people enter the industries that are such an important part of the area, such as the oil & gas sector or the fishing industry. That is why our commitments to provide a record 25,000 modern apprenticeship places, 1,200 additional college places and increased funding for college bursaries were all reiterated and will all form an important part of our priorities for a second term of government.

On these and so many other issues I am proud of our record over the last four years, but equally excited about the vision we still have for improving Scotland further. These are extraordinarily tough times, given the massive cuts that are being imposed on Scotland by the priorities of the Westminster government. Yet despite that we are providing a positive message of what the SNP can still deliver. As the parliament dissolves and the election campaigning steps up into top gear, I am looking forward to meeting as many people as possible across the length and breadth of the constituency and explaining how the SNP wants to build on what we have already achieved.

8 March 2011

Abolishing prescription charges

There can be few people anywhere in the country who have not had experienced the National Health Service in operation, whether receiving treatment personally or knowing a loved one who has been helped. The NHS holds a special place in the hearts of many people, and in no small part this is down to the incredible work that the many nurses, doctors, health professionals and everyone else in the NHS do on our behalf.

However, that special significance of the NHS also comes from the principle that it represents. That everybody should be able to access medical treatment free at the point of access, because nobody chooses to require medical assistance and it is therefore wrong for personal wealth to determine whether or not you can access that help. It is a principle that we can all be proud of and it is one that is as relevant today as it was when it was first introduced.

The SNP are firm believers in the importance of the NHS and the principles underlying it, which is why we have take then decision to increase the health budget for next year despite the massive cuts that are being handed down to Scotland’s budget from Westminster. It is also why we moved ahead to complete our fulfilment of the promise we made at the last election to abolish prescription charges.

When prescription charges were introduced, they were a backwards step that moved away from the fundamental principle underlying the NHS. They were a tax on ill health which charged people for receiving medical treatment. Thousands of people on modest incomes have been hit financially and have had to face the choice of whether to pay for their treatment and have less money for other things or to forego that medical treatment to make sure they can pay their household bills. Prescription charges were wrong when they were introduced and they remain wrong today.

In the 2007 election, the SNP promised to lower prescription charges year on year before their total abolition. Those reductions have taken place and it is a promise which we have now completely fulfilled. A successful vote in the Scottish Parliament’s health committee recently was the final step that needed to be taken, and prescription charges will now be totally abolished from April 1st.

It is another manifesto commitment that the SNP is proud to have been able to deliver. That these are difficult times financially is not in question, but the principle that we as a society should provide healthcare to everyone who needs it is an important one. Without prescription charges, many people will now have more money in their pocket and I am delighted that their abolition is imminent.

Our own voice

It is a source of constant frustration that Scotland is denied the opportunity to stand up for our own interests in Europe on a regular basis. That is never more the case than when it comes to fishing.

Recent days saw a critical negotiation take place in Brussels on finding a solution to the problem of discards, yet as each member state was only allowed one representative Scotland was excluded from the discussion. Land locked states with no coastline, let alone any interest in fishing, were able to take part, while Scotland had to rely on the UK to hopefully make our case.

It is a situation which time and time again damages Scotland’s interests but which will only end when Scotland is independent. We need our own voice in international discussions as a matter of urgency.

22 February 2011

Boosting Scotland’s recovery

Anyone in politics who is able to remember Norman Lamont’s ill judged claims that he could see the green shoots of economic recovery has a natural wariness of making similar claims. When times are hard economically, the last thing that struggling households want to hear is that their government does not understand how difficult their situation is.

It is an unfortunate certainty that for many people times will remain tough, with interest rates having reached 4%, double the 2% target. This means the price of everything we buy will rise and as incomes will not, almost every household’s purchasing power will be reduced as a result.

However, despite the enormous challenges that remain ahead of us, there is some comfort that can be drawn from recently released employment figures in Scotland. In the last quarter, unemployment in Scotland fell by 13,000 while employment rose by 23,000 – the seventh consecutive reported rise. Contrast this to the figures for the UK as a whole which are moving in the opposite direction with unemployment rising by 44,000 and employment falling by 68,000.

The employment rate in Scotland is now 71.1% compared to 70.5% for the UK as a whole. The figures show that Scotland was the only UK nation with rising employment and falling unemployment over the quarter, and this trend in the statistics is no accident.

The Scottish Government has been working hard since the start of the economic crisis to secure the recovery in Scotland, by putting in place a robust and comprehensive Economic Recovery Plan to support jobs and training. The employment figures show that this action is paying off and the budget which was just passed in Holyrood will go ever further with this approach.

The SNP Government has committed to creating a record 25,000 modern apprenticeships in the next financial year, which will provide real help for young people - who are amongst those currently struggling the most - to increase their skills and make it into work. The budget also contains more support for Scotland’s small business community, with funds to help them take on a member of staff and create valuable employment opportunities.

There is still a long and difficult road ahead of us as Scotland’s economic recovery continues, but the Scottish Government is demonstrating its effectiveness in tackling the problems it has power to address. Even as budgets are squeezed as never before, I know that the SNP Government will not let up in its determination to further improve Scotland’s economy and help support hard pressed families across the country.

Progress on discards

I have written many times about the efforts of Banff & Buchan’s fishing industry to lead innovation across Scotland in fishing both sustainably and profitably. One such measure which was successfully trialled last year was the catch quota scheme, which allowed the 17 vessels taking part to catch less, but land everything they catch. The amount of cod skippers can land increases, while discards are reduced.

This scheme has now been expanded to 26 vessels following negotiations in Europe by the Scottish Government. This is a welcome step forward, although given that 58 skippers or around half the whitefish fleet applied to take part, it is disappointing that other countries blocked greater expansion in the scheme.

Although it will undoubtedly be disappointing for those vessels not able to take part, the expanded scheme does present a real opportunity for Scotland to demonstrate once again it can lead the way and strengthen the case for responsibility for fisheries to be managed on a regional basis.

Stewart Stevenson
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