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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.

Stewart Stevenson
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