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31 December 2013

Giving Their All

At this festive time, it is worthwhile to pause and consider the work done by those in our local communities that demonstrate the Christmas spirit of giving all through the year.

Over the past few months I have been impressed by initiatives set up by a number of local Development Trusts in the North-east. Many are the catalyst that will kick start the regeneration of a rural community, and improve the quality of lives for all who live there.

One example of this is the Boyndie Trust, which provides training opportunities for around 70 people with learning disabilities and paid employment for 30 others. Trainees do not only learn new skills, but they increase in confidence and gain a sense of pride as they take a positive role in their community. The Trust also uses local suppliers wherever possible, so it also boosts the local economy.

Peterhead Projects is another example of what a team of community spirited individuals can do to revitalise a local area. Their efforts have resulted in the creation of an area of community woodland at Buchan Meadows. This means that people, young and old, can enjoy the outdoor space for their health and wellbeing, and it has created an education resource for school children, youth clubs, and a work experience opportunity for the long term unemployed and those with mental health issues.

These trusts contribute to all aspects of daily life. From culture to fitness, environmental sustainability to boating, the work that ordinary people have put into regenerating their towns and villages is a testament to Scotland’s spirit. Volunteers are what make our communities great.

Through the Scottish Traditional Boat Festival, the Salmon Bothy and the PORT Boatshed, anyone can discover, enjoy, and participate in the maritime and cultural heritage of the North-east. This includes sailing, boat building and restoration, fishing, history, crafts, theatre, literature and language, music, dance and dancing and food and drink.

The Princess Royal Sports and Community Trust in Banff promotes physical fitness for people of all ages and capabilities. Over 1000 participants have learned from the Trust’s full time coaches delivering sessions at 12 rural primary schools, Banff Academy and four sheltered housing schemes locally.

The Scottish Government is also playing a vital role in sustaining local communities, so that individuals who keenly feel the challenges of the current economic climate are given the help they need. Families in the North-east faced massive Council Tax rises before 2007 and in government; the SNP continues to provide financial support for local councils to maintain the council tax freeze.

In a recent announcement by the Cabinet Secretary for Finance, Employment and Sustainable Growth, John Swinney, he highlighted the fact that small local businesses are reaping the benefits of the government’s Small Business Bonus Scheme, giving rates relief to those just starting out, wanting to draw investment and interest into more rural areas. This cash injection is also significant for local voluntary organisations and Trusts, such as those already mentioned, who need a sense of optimism and giving of time and resources in order to survive and thrive.

A further £190 million will also be pumped into local communities over 2014/15 and 2015/16 to fund an increase in nursery care for pre-school children. This will be of real benefit for thousands of families across the North-east, giving their youngsters the best start in life.

The Christmas spirit of giving and caring is alive and well in the North-east and in the pledges of the Scottish Government. A very happy Christmas to you all and best wishes for the New Year.

Herald's "Inside Track"

Contributed by
Stewart Stevenson

A Parliament is a place of words. In the week before Christmas the unsung heroes of Holyrood, our Official Report, recorded 160,000 or so of them - “Christmas” came up 60 times - from our debates and committees. And we created 74 pages of new law.

The clashes in debates, the questions to ministers and the answers given may amuse, irritate and inform in equal measure.

But when we put words into law it matters. Peoples lives can be changed.

Over the centuries our law has become more wordy, more complex.

When the Scottish Parliament passed the 1705 Fisheries Act it contained about 250 words. This year our Aquaculture and Fisheries Act was 70 pages. And, like all law, it ain't an easy read.

How Parliaments around the world make law has evolved over a long period. From our Royal Mines Act of 1424 to this month's Landfill Tax Act, we politicians are still learning how to do it.

When the Scottish Parliament was reconvened in 1999, we made some changes. We vote electronically, sometimes more than once a minute. Westminster MPs walk out through the Ayes and Noes lobbies to be counted. That takes 20 minutes.

But we kept the essence of how we make law. Debate the principle, refine with amendments in committee and then allow the whole parliament to make final amendments, debate and then agree or reject the final text.

The processes and the engagement in them by MSPs, the understanding of the policy decisions being made, attention to detail, advice from officials, lobbying from external interests all contribute to the final results.

The final test is – is it good law?

We know it can get challenged in the courts, occasionally successfully. We know we have to re-visit laws to fine tune them. Not all laws tabled make it to the statute book – Parliament does exercise its right to say no.

Our Standards, Procedures and Public Appointments Committee, of which I am Convenor, looks at our processes. And always wants to hear good ideas for improvement from as wide a cross-section of Scotland as possible.

Next year the Committee will discuss our approach to legislation in detail. Let me pose a couple of entirely personal questions we may consider.

Big laws often attract hundreds of amendments which we need to discuss. Our clerks number them as they come in. But we debate them grouped by subject matter not in number order. And then vote on them in the sequence they affect the text. Three different orders.

It's not just a technical issue. Ten years ago I put forward in Committee a couple of related amendments. We discussed them in late June and decided on one of them. The second decision came 16 meetings later in late October. Could we remember that earlier debate? Is it time to vote in the order we debate?

We vote electronically – good. But does the speed give us time to grasp what's going on? Should there be time-outs when the whole Parliament's making amendments?

It's been said that the making of law is like the making of sausages; not a pretty sight.

Is it time for a makeover?

17 December 2013

Fishing Matters

Last week I had the opportunity to meet with representatives of the Scottish Fishermen's Federation (SFF). The organisation seeks to preserve and promote the collective interests of Scotland’s fishermen's associations. It plays a huge part in advancing the interests of Scottish fishermen at national and international levels by actively lobbying government officials in Edinburgh, London and Brussels. Just to impart how influential they are in our fishing industry, let me point out that the federation covers nine geographical and sectoral associations including the Scottish Pelagic Fishermen's Association Limited and the Scottish White Fish Producers’ Association Limited.

As it turns out, our fishing sector is in danger of seeing further cuts in the number of days that vessels can put to sea next year. The SFF, a leader in its field, warns that such actions would jeopardise the economic viability of our fleet and that it is of absolute imperative that there are no further cuts in days at sea. Another threat we face, are the unintended consequences of pursuing a principle of ‘Maximum Sustainable Yield’. Without proper management measures, the principle could become self-defeating in that it ends up actually increasing the number of fish discarded after capture in our mixed fisheries. We must be wary of the impact we have on our oceans and the populations living within them. It is vital not just to the environment, but to our economy that we allow fish the time to repopulate. However, additional annual reductions may go well beyond the point of beneficial effect and are the inheritance of past failed plans issued by the European Commission. The Cod Recovery Plan, for example, put considerable strain on the economic growth of communities that rely on cod for their livelihood. What the European Commission could be doing instead is funding research to identify alternative conservation initiatives such as closed areas and the development of selective fishing gears as a more effective way of conserving stocks. This makes most sense; especially when one considers that recent assessments cannot establish a clear correlation between cutting days at sea and reduced cod mortality. Again, I must reiterate: I am all for the conservation of such an integral part of our livelihood in the northeast – but only to the point that it benefits us.

Unfortunately, this year’s Fish Council will only be able to make firm decisions on those stocks exclusively belonging to the EU. International negotiations this year have stalled due to the failure to reach an agreement between the EU, Norway, Iceland and the Faroe Islands with regard to the matter of north east Atlantic mackerel. The disagreement prohibits all other forms of decision-making until the early part of 2014. Usually, these negotiations take place over the autumn period and confirmed at the December Council of Ministers. As you can imagine, this presents severe consequences. Namely, the fishing stocks shared in the North Sea by the EU and Norway will continue to be fished without a proper quota until after negotiations have come to a conclusion.

The Scottish Fishing Federation has brought to my attention the issues that pervade international negotiations. They are fighting for an equitable outcome for those quotas which can be set at December Council; an equitable solution to NE Atlantic mackerel; and an earliest completion of the negotiations for fishing opportunities. This is not a call for appeasement, but agreement. Now, it is up to the UK government to listen to the needs of the Scottish fishing industry to ensure that come 2014, our fleets will be out on the waters, ready to catch the ever-growing abundance of fish.

15 October 2013

Fuel Poverty

The recent Scottish Parliament debate to mark Energy Action Scotland’s 30th Anniversary gave me another opportunity to discuss fuel poverty – an important issue that impacts us all in one way or another.

With winter approaching it is worth remembering that while many of us have the resources to turn the heating on without it hurting our household budgets too much, others are not so fortunate. For many in Scotland the simple comforts of home come at a steep cost.

In 2011, almost one third of households in Scotland were found to be fuel poor.

Since then, that number has increased. Today, we estimate that more than one in three Scottish homes are in fuel poverty. According to Energy Action Scotland the main cause of fuel poverty is a combination of poor energy efficiency, low disposable household income and high cost of domestic energy.

Some progress has been made to alleviate the impact of soaring energy prices.

Just a few weeks ago the Scottish Government guaranteed the Aberdeenshire Council area £4.4m to combat fuel poverty. This welcome move is one of the largest allocations under the Scottish Government’s Home Efficiency Programme for Scotland (HEEPS). The money will provide much-needed relief to 2,500 homes. It will bring benefit to the local economy too – as people receive financial support to insulate their homes so local businesses and employers will be boosted as they meet demand for warmer and more energy efficient homes.

Indeed Scottish Government funding commitments for 2014-15 and 2015-16 highlight the firm pledge undertaken to tackle fuel poverty in rural areas and the rest of Scotland. This commitment is in stark contrast to the Westminster Government’s decision this year to end its Warm Front scheme- this cut will mean that no funding will be allocated to alleviate fuel poor households in England.

The Scottish Government remains committed to eradicating fuel poverty.

The best way for this to happen is for Holyrood to have responsibility for energy related matters – and the best way for that to happen, is for people of Scotland to vote ‘Yes’ in the 2014 Referendum. In an independent Scotland an expert committee on energy regulation would look to improve Scotland’s stewardship of electricity and gas to provide fairer and more affordable prices

The problem of fuel poverty highlights just how little the Westminster Government understands and cares for the people of Scotland. Indeed, there is no clearer evidence of this truth than Westminster’s decision not to support SNP MP Mike Weir’s Private Members’ Bill last year.

Mike had sponsored the Winter Fuel Allowance Payments Bill. It would have provided people whose main source of fuel is home fuel oil, liquid petroleum gas or propane gas, with an early payment of the winter fuel allowance. This small change would have enabled low-income families to buy fuel at a significantly lower price. Unfortunately now many families will be forced to buy fuel in the middle of winter when prices are likely to be at their highest because Westminster MPs waved off the bill in their typical high-handed fashion.

The plight of people affected by fuel poverty is absolutely unacceptable in an energy-rich country such as ours. The small procedural change proposed by Mike’s Bill would have made all the difference for so many people –including pensioner households, which account for more than half of those living in fuel poverty in Scotland. A Yes-vote in next year’s 2014 Referendum will be a vote towards helping such people as well as reinforcing Scotland's place as leading light in energy efficiency and conscious consuming. Our resolve to eradicate fuel poverty has never been greater. Together we can make a difference now for the future.

1 October 2013

Eating for Scotland

Last week in the Scottish Parliament debate on the economy, I took the opportunity to highlight the amazing contribution of the food and drinks industry to our economy.

This success is in no large part down to Scotland’s international reputation for high quality products. People from all over the world, know and believe that Scotland is a one of the very best places to buy food and drink. Our abundance of natural resources, rich culinary history, ingenuity and hard work have all served to make our produce among the most iconic and most sought after in the world. From whisky to seafood, game meat to highland heather honey – Scotland’s success can be attributed to our land and the hard work of thousands who strive to deliver food and drink of outstanding caliber to tables around the world.

Government policy has also played an important role in helping to maintain these high standards, as well as enhancing the industry’s reputation overseas. This has been achieved through the protection of our natural environment – successive governments have ensured that Scotland’s waters are pristine and unpolluted and its land is uncontaminated. This is something that the SNP Government is absolutely committed to continuing within the existing powers of devolution. However, we also want the industry to continue to grow and for that we need more powers.

Regrettably there are threats to our food and drinks industry. At Westminster, attempts to remove us from the EU would create more barriers with other European Union member states. This would threaten our entire export industry by disconnecting us from more than 400 million consumers in Europe. The importance of this market cannot be overstated: it is the biggest single market in the world and accounts for half of all Scottish exports.

Our inability to engage fully as a nation state within the EU or at a wider international level threatens significant harm on specific parts of our food industry. In Scotland today, we still lack the power to stand by ourselves in crucial talks with EU partners about our farming and fishing industries. This is a very serious issue. Scotland is among one of the largest sea fishing nations in Europe and yet it remains shut-out from EU negotiations.

In recent years continued threats from the Faroe Islands’ and Iceland’s abrogation of pelagic fisheries threaten to seriously impact fish stocks as well as harm the livelihoods of Scottish fishermen. Our lack of power of our own affairs means that we are not internationally represented in a meaningful way – in short, we are not able to engage in a way that would help us to protect our markets in the best possible way.

With the Independence Referendum now less than 12 months away, a Yes vote will give Scotland a seat at the top table and a voice when key decisions are made about Europe’s future – a voice that we currently do not have now. As a member of the EU, Scotland would be part of common fisheries and agriculture policy – that means we would be fully involved in all negotiations.

It is clear that Scotland’s food and drink is one of our most successful and important industries – it continues to exceed our economic expectations, contributing over £13 billion to the UK/Scottish economy in 2011. This success has been built on Scotland’s long-standing reputation as having some of the best products in the world. While the Scottish Government has worked hard with the industry exercising what powers it has to get the best deal for Scotland, clearly a vote for independence would push this success even further to ensure that Scotland’s potential is fully maximised.

17 September 2013

People, Lots of People

Of all my responsibilities as an MSP, the role I most value and enjoy is meeting my constituents.

For me it is a fantastic opportunity to meet new people and rekindle past acquaintances. It gives me the opportunity to find out about the issues affecting people’s daily lives as well as hear what they think about those affecting everyone in Scotland.

In 2001, I undertook my first annual mobile surgery tour. This was intended to give people who live in the constituency that I represent the opportunity to meet and engage with their MSP without having to travel to a static surgery This summer, myself and my staff visited 37 towns, villages and rural communities in the Banffshire and Buchan Costal constituency. This year’s tour was very well-attended and I was delighted with the response from the local community. As well as meeting individuals and groups, I was also able to call into local business throughout the area to learn more about what is going on in the local economy.

Like so many parts of Scotland, the Banffshire and Buchan Coast constituency is a wonderful area with a strong sense of community. On the tour people raised a number of very important local issues and many stopped to tell me about interesting local initiatives and activities going on in their communities.

Of the many topics discussed – everything from wind turbines to housing problems – the recurring issue for many was the state of the local economy and the forthcoming independence referendum. In discussing the latter issue, it was great to hear that people in the Banffshire and Buchan Coast constituency, like many throughout Scotland, are beginning to engage more fully with the referendum debate and what independence could mean for the future of Scotland.

Indeed, these opinions are echoed/even more interesting in the light of a recent poll commissioned by the Scottish National Party and conducted by Panelbase. This poll found the Yes campaign to be one point ahead of No –at 44 per cent compared to 43 per cent. This advantage – while slight – becomes even more substantial when people were asked if they are likely or unlikely to vote for independence under the scenarios of a Conservative-led Conservative/Lib Dem coalition, or a Labour-led government in Westminster.

When speaking to my constituents about the independence referendum, it is pleasing to hear that those who are yet to make up their minds are indicating that they will vote Yes once they are given the full facts and had their concerns answered. While many No voters are now considering voting yes, I have yet to hear of a Yes voter who has turned to the No camp.

It is my belief that the No campaign - based almost entirely on a negative view of the debate and indeed Scotland itself – is turning people off. That said, I do fear that its negativity could dissuade people from voting in the referendum altogether. I cannot stress how important it is for people not to be so discouraged that they fail to exercise their democratic right. The importance of the independence referendum to the future of the people of Scotland should not be underestimated – indeed it is likely to be the most important vote people ever take part in.

In the coming weeks I will be holding more surgeries – those without wheels – in the main towns in the Banffshire and Buchan Coast constituency. If you were not able to come to one of the places on my surgery tour and you have an issue you would like to discuss or a question you would like to raise about the independence referendum, please contact my office or go to my website at stewart.stevenson.net to find out dates and venues for these forthcoming surgeries. Dates will also be advertised in the local press.

3 September 2013

Saving our Fish

I am hugely encouraged by the European Union’s recent decision to ban fishing exports from the Faroe Islands – this action is desperately needed if the unsustainable fishing of herring and mackerel in the North Atlantic is to be successfully tackled.

My friends in the Scottish Fishing Industry have long been concerned by the behaviour of the Faroe Islands and Iceland and their blatant disregard for mackerel and herring quotas.

The unilateral expansion of the Icelandic and Faroese catches have brought condemnation from the fishing industry in Scotland and across the EU. However the EU’s decision to ban imports of herring and mackerel from stocks caught under Faroese control – as well as other measures including the restriction of EU ports by vessels fishing for these two pelagic species – will I sincerely hope, serve as a deterrent against this plundering of fish stocks.

The EU’s decision to ban imports of herring and mackerel from Atlanto-Scandian stocks caught under Faroese control – as well as other measures including the restriction of EU ports by vessels fishing for these two pelagic species – will I sincerely hope, serve as a deterrent against this plundering of fish stocks.

While sanctions received the widespread support of EU member states in July, it is hoped that such measures may be avoided and instead act as a catalyst for negotiation. Indeed, the EU ban appears to have been behind Iceland’s decision to return to the negotiating table with the EU and Norway.

The package agreed by the EU will allow for the imposition of trade sanctions on countries that employ unsustainable fishing practices – where appropriate. These sanctions include restrictions on how many fish can be imported into the EU, restrictions on port access by ships under the flag of an offending country and embargoes on the sale of vessels and equipment.

I wholeheartedly welcome the fact that Europe is finally taking a tough stance on the unsustainable fishing of herring and mackerel by the Faroe Islands. I believe that this ban sends an important message to this country and indeed all connected within the fishing industry.

Such over-fishing cannot and will not be tolerated.

Indeed, it is reassuring to know that Scotland is not powerless to respond to such irresponsible fishing – practices that threaten the entire industry both here and abroad. However, with the full powers of a normal, independent country, Scotland could take the lead on such negotiations and participate fully in the development of fisheries policy and make sure the voice of our fishing industry is heard at every level.

That said, until the Faroe Islands are prepared to come to the negotiation table, the Scottish Government will continue to press the European Union for tough and sustained action so that we can protect our stocks of herring and mackerel - arguably Scotland’s most profitable fish.

23 July 2013

The Smoking Gun

Health outcomes have improved across much of Scotland in recent years, however, illness due to smoking remains prevalent, despite its invariably effective remedy; giving up.

Every 30 minutes, someone in Scotland dies as a consequence of tobacco smoking; indeed, in the time it has taken me to write down these thoughts, it is likely that several in our country will die because of the profiteering of tobacco companies.

I will admit, I am no moderate on the subject, and when others suggest that tobacco companies are murderers, I can summon no counter-argument. Indeed, I would like to reiterate my admiration for the political courage of former First Minister Jack McConnell who built on the work of Stewart Maxwell and brought into force the initial anti-smoking legislation in Scotland. Those were brave political acts that should be congratulated.

Similarly commendable is the work of ASH (Action on Smoking and Health) Scotland who have, since the 1970s, campaigned to inform and educate people across the country of the hazards of smoking, and how they affect not just smokers, but those nearby, especially children. ASH has done a great deal in the 40 years since it was founded to raise the issue in the public consciousness and among politicians.

However, the impact of smoking on health is far from localised. Indeed, in the 20th century, more people in the UK were lost to the consequences of smoking than have been lost in all the wars in which we have been involved—I include civilian and military casualties.

The best way to avoid the dangers of smoking is not to start in the first place, and thus our focus must be on delivering advice and education to young people about the dangers of smoking. Therefore, when we talk about smoking prevention and ASH’s role in it, we talk about a life-saving endeavour for smokers and non-smokers.

To this end, I am proud to support the Scottish Government and various anti-smoking bodies in their plans to implement plain-packaging requirements for the sale of tobacco products, regardless of the UK Government’s abandonment of the policy.

Energy Efficiency Funding

While few of us will be too worried about heating our homes over the summer months, we should not forget the cold winter which we have left behind, and the need to make preparation for future cold spells.

In recognition of this inevitability, the Scottish Government has allocated a budget of at least £79 million for fuel poverty and energy efficiency in 2013-14. The majority of that, £60 million, is being spent on council-led area-based schemes to tackle fuel poverty.

The remaining £19 million will be used to deliver our national affordable warmth and energy assistance schemes and provide funding to the Energy Saving Trust and others to help support the home energy Scotland hotline and advice centres to provide advice and guidance to people about the energy efficiency of their homes and the support for which they might be eligible.

This funding and the support it delivers is particularly vital in rural areas, like much of my constituency of Banffshire and Buchan Coast, where people are more likely to be in fuel poverty than in towns and cities.

The Scottish Government has recognised this by allocating Aberdeenshire £4.4 million of the Home Energy Efficiency Programmes for Scotland (HEEPS) money. It will now be up to Aberdeenshire Council to determine what energy efficiency measures are most required in the area and to use the pleasant summer months to ensure these preparations are in place.

9 July 2013

Crime

Official crime statistics released by the Scottish Government show that Scotland has recently undergone the period with the lowest recorded crime since 1974.

The figures show that recorded crime fell by 13% in the last year, which follows consistent year-on-year drops under the SNP, since 2006/7. Particularly notable among these numbers is the 60% drop in crimes involving the handling of an offensive weapon. The clear-up rate for crimes also increased last year and is now at its highest level since 1976.

The Scottish Government's focus on preventing crime has proven its worth a recorded crime in the Grampian area alone fell by a further 12% - including a drop in non-sexual crimes of violence by 20%. Since the SNP took office in 2007, recorded crime across the Grampian area alone has plummeted by 35%.

The reasons for this success are no surprise, as the number of police officers in the Grampian area has increased by 10% since the SNP took office. This is above the Scottish average and takes the total number of serving officers in our region to 1,512.

This also underlines why recruiting more than 1,000 additional police officers across Scotland has been such an important, and successful, SNP policy. It is thanks to the continuing efforts of these officers and Police staff in the area that this huge fall in crime has been achieved.

Naturally, this drop in crime is great news for everyone in communities across the North-east and Scotland as a whole, and is further evidence that the SNP Scottish Government is moving Scotland forward as a safer country in which to live, work and raise a family.

Not only is crime is at a 39-year low, but fear of crime is down, as the risk of being a victim of crime in Scotland continues to fall, and is considerably lower than in England and Wales.

Community Drugs Summit

Of course, it is not just the police who have a role to play in keeping our communities safe and preventing crime. I recently attended the Buckie Thistle Football Development Community Alert Day. This summit, which took place at Buckie Community High School was aimed at primary 7 pupils who will soon be attending the High School. The event itself comprised information and education sessions from, among others, NHS Grampian, St Andrew’s Ambulance Service, Police Scotland, the Scottish Fire and Rescue Service as well as Quarrier’s Carers Support Service and several local organisations from sports clubs to theatre groups.

The truly impressive event gave pupils the opportunity to participate in a range of activities showing them the dangers of drugs, and the alternatives to associating themselves with them.

The comprehensive and engaging advice that the pupils received will be vital in ensuring that our young people know the potential consequences of drug and alcohol misuse, and that they are informed as to how to choose and maintain healthy lifestyles.

I, myself, thoroughly enjoyed attending the Community Alert Day, as did, I am sure, the pupils and the various groups involved.

I sat in on a number of the presentations and it was clear that we have another year-intake of active and engaged pupils who were not only enjoying making friends from other schools but also asking serious questions of the various agencies involved.

Buckie Thistle Football Development and their partner organisations in particular are due immense credit for this initiative and all the vital work they continue to do to inspire and educate in the community.

25 June 2013

Scotland - a Hydro Nation

The news that Scotland continues to lead EU progress on reducing carbon emissions has underlined our position at the cutting edge of action on climate change.

Official figures recently released by the Scottish Government show a 9.9 per cent year on year reduction on emissions – the largest reduction on record - and good progress being made across a range of climate change sectors.

The figures also show that Scotland retains its position at the top of the EU15 countries for emissions reductions and has met the Scottish Government’s climate change reduction goal in percentage terms – with a 25.7 per cent reduction between 1990 and 2011.

While Scottish Government Minister for Transport, Infrastructure & Climate Change I was responsible for piloting Scotland’s world-leading climate change legislation through Parliament so I am delighted to see such progress being made.

Indeed, under this SNP Government, Scotland is now more than halfway to achieving its 2020 target of reducing emissions by 42 per cent and these figures underline the progress being made.

It is well documented that Scotland has a quarter of Europe’s tidal and offshore wind potential and ten per cent of its wave power, all of which are enviable green energy resources which support over 11,000 jobs and huge investment in communities across the country.

However there is no room for complacency and the Scottish Government continues to support research and development in these areas, as well as developing other energy initiatives such as the often-overlooked potential of hydro-electricity.

The massive potential for hydro electric generation in Scotland began to be realised over 100 years ago, and an internationally significant hydroelectric power sector had been developed by the late 1960s.

Hydro power compliments other sources of renewable energy, primarily by being a low-carbon method of generation itself. However, just as importantly, pump-storage systems are an effective way of storing surplus energy, which can be tapped to supply periods of peak demand, which might otherwise put a strain on energy resources.

The pioneering development of this sector in Scotland results from a combination of our landscape, our climate and the drive of a handful of engineers, architects and politicians whose vision meant Scotland led the world in the development of green energy.

Harnessing the significant potential of hydropower will have an important role in meeting the Scottish Government’s ambitious targets for renewable energy.

Scotland is a hydro nation, with thousands of miles of coastline, lochs and rivers, each supporting vibrant industries. Accordingly, our water resources are among Scotland’s most prized assets and that is why this new legislation will draw together Scottish expertise to build an international profile of Scotland as a leading player in the water sector.

The Scottish Government’s Water Resources Bill (known as the hydro-nation bill) aims to cement Scotland's global reputation as home to a dynamic, world class water industry with knowledge and expertise in water management. The Bill underlines the world-wide contribution Scotland has to make in areas such as water technology and management and includes a range of measures to ensure Scotland’s water resources are protected and used for the benefit of the people of Scotland.

Just as Scotland is demonstrating world leadership in tackling climate change and protecting natural resources, we can demonstrate leadership in meeting the challenges and opportunities that the water industry presents across the world.

That Scotland has been able to take such a world-leading role on these issues under the limited powers of devolution highlights the potential for Scotland’s role as a good global citizen under Scottish independence.

11 June 2013

Scotland's Railways Well Respected

Despite the occasional delay or inconvenience, Scotland’s rail services continue to be in demand, with operators providing a generally high level of service, which is improving every day. As a country we are very reliant on our rail network for commuting and general travel, and for many reasons increased usage is good news for us all. However, it also poses challenges which must be addressed if the level of performance is to be maintained.

Indeed, in a discussion of rail fares in this month’s issue of Rail magazine, the point was made that Scotland is simplifying rail fares via a fair fares service, of which many passengers south of the border would be envious.

Indeed, one of the great benefits of old age—and there are not very many of them—is having access to the senior railcard, which costs just £30 a year and is a great bargain. That, coupled with offers from ScotRail, has meant that this week the cost of my return journey from Huntly to the south is a mere £17—provided that I travel off peak, of course. That is very good, and there are many opportunities for people to get such bargains whether travelling to Aberdeen or Plymouth.

However, the fare structure is not just about overall expense. For example, I have been advised that, when travelling from Keith to Inverness, one should buy a ticket to Muir of Ord, despite the fact it is beyond Inverness, because it is cheaper to do so. That is the sort of anomaly that I hope can be addressed to ensure that fairness, as well as value, is prioritised in the fare structure.

Indeed, on the subject of the Aberdeen to Inverness line, it is worth looking at what has happened at Inverurie. A proportion of the trains that previously stopped at Dyce now continue to Inverurie and, as a result, patronage has been driven up to and from there. To reflect demand, we now see the longest operational train anywhere on the ScotRail network—at seven carriages—running between Aberdeen and Inverness, a very important part of the network, and a vital service for my constituents and many others. This is just one example of Scotland’s railways adapting to demand, and I know that the logistics of journeys and rolling stock are constantly monitored and reviewed to ensure they are fit for purpose.

Quality of service, as well as performance, is also very important and the Scottish Government’s introduction of wi-fi on services throughout Scotland, as well as continuing improvements to rolling stock and station premises are all part of a positive campaign to encourage people to leave the car and use rail services where possible, benefitting the economy and the environment.

As it happens, my constituency of Banffshire and Buchan Coast is one of few on the mainland to have no railways stations whatsoever. However, I am pleased that pressure is growing for a feasibility study into the costs and benefits of re-establishing a rail link into Buchan.

With the expansion of rail services along the existing lines in the North-east including more services to Glasgow and Edinburgh now starting and terminating at Inverurie, more trains at Portlethen, a new station at Laurencekirk and a proposed station at Kintore, it is time to see if we can expand the network into some of the North-east’s largest communities.

28 May 2013

Helping the Young into Employment

The employment market is different for each of us. For example, young people seeking work face a very different market from that which I and others of my age experienced when we were youngsters. The economic environment was very different then.

This is true of different areas in Scotland too. In the North-east we face challenges related more to a lack of appropriately trained staff than a lack of jobs for people to go into. In comparison with other constituencies in Scotland, my constituency, Banffshire and Buchan Coast, has one of the lowest proportions of school leavers who go into tertiary education. The reason for that is, ostensibly, a good one, in that school leavers can go into employment without having to do further training. Nonetheless, it is important that we provide support for people to enter, for example, modern apprenticeships, given that the comparatively easy transition into work that is experienced in the North-east of Scotland does not necessarily equip people for a lifetime of employment.

The North Sea oil industry, for example, will provide many decades of employment, which could mean a lifetime’s employment for those who so choose and renewable energy will provide similar opportunities. In fact, it is estimated that Scotland’s energy industry – across all sectors – will need 95,000 more skilled people between now and 2020. This is a huge opportunity for Scotland - by ensuring our workforce has the right training and experience we can support our energy industry and ensure people can access the jobs that are available.

To fulfil this need, the North-east’s colleges will remain crucial in supporting increased employment for our youngsters.

Therefore, I very much support Banff and Buchan College and Aberdeen College, which have focused their efforts on providing training that is appropriate to local needs. Largely, that means engineering training. We have had excellent support from local employers, such as Macduff Shipyards and Score in Peterhead, which employ huge numbers of apprentices and, indeed, advertise for apprentices. Like all apprenticeships, those are linked to employment. It is particularly good that a huge proportion of those who complete an apprenticeship remain in employment six months later.

Moreover, The Energy Skills Scotland training centre is right at the heart of this plan, and the recent announcement that its funding support is to be doubled by the Scottish Government, is naturally very welcome news as its students look to maintain Scotland’s place at the cutting edge of energy technology.

Similarly, we must encourage not just young men but young women to go into technology and engineering. It is quite interesting how many of the high-performing apprentices in the north-east turn out to be young women who have acquired mathematical skills in school that they have gone on to apply in college and in employment.

Of course, it is more expensive to train someone in engineering skills than it is to train people in certain other disciplines. Historically, until the Scottish Government engaged with the college sector in a different way, it was difficult to get adequate funding for courses that cost significantly more. Therefore, I am very pleased to see the Scottish Government almost invariably finding space to support youngsters in apprenticeships and further skills training through the mechanism of the contracts that it lets. I am always delighted to meet apprentices whose jobs had been created directly as a result of the Scottish Government placing contracts. The Government is doing at its own hand the kinds of things that it should be doing, and it is creating the educational environment for people to acquire the skills that they will need.

In youth employment, as in so many things, the Government is doing a terrific job with the powers that it has. Imagine what we could do with the full powers of an independent country.

14 May 2013

Regulation of the Press

The Scottish Parliament recently debated the potential incorporation into Scots law of the Westminster Royal Charter on the Regulation of the Press prompted by the much-publicised Leveson inquiry on media ethics, carried out in the wake of the hacking scandal and invasion of privacy by various media outlets.

Regulating the press is a balancing act between ensuring the right to fair comment and freedom of speech which never unduly compromises anyone’s right to privacy. It is this evaluation which is of primary importance.

However, it is not just upon individuals that press regulation legislation would have an impact, as it is still to be made clear exactly to whom these laws would apply.

For example, to keep up with news in the constituency, I rely upon several local papers. Where is the boundary between a mainstream paper that is covered by the charter and a periodical carrying news that is published in a parish for a readership of perhaps 150 parishioners?

Where does that leave a community radio station, which broadcasts on the internet or through the airwaves? Are they a broadcaster for the purposes of the law? Some of the time they will be the media and the press and will be covered by the charter, and some of the time they will not.

Even we as politicians could be caught by it if we provide something that is news and which perhaps carries advertising in promoting our electoral campaigns. Is such material included?

The reality is that we need to look at the whole picture, and ensure that we cover all the ways in which people get news and that they are properly controlled, but also free to inform, educate and entertain.

The definitive test of this will be that of what is “in the public interest,” and, of course, who will be the guardians of that interest, because, ultimately, it is the test of public interest that determines what turns information into news.

Year of Natural Scotland

2013 is the Year of Natural Scotland, a nationwide celebration of our breath-taking scenery and diverse, unique natural heritage. An exciting series of events is in place for the coming months, including arts, music and sport, all of which are in a spirit of celebration, as well as conservation, of our great outdoors.

The Year of Natural Scotland is also an opportunity for us all to consider our environment, both in terms of our immediate surroundings and our broader eco-system, and to take action to protect and sustain Scotland’s natural heritage. Indeed, in the North-east, we boast a diverse array of flora, fauna and natural habitat which, while there for us to get out and enjoy, also needs our protection.

To this end I, and several of my parliamentary colleagues, have signed up to the Scottish Environment Link Species Champion programme.

The species being championed range from iconic animals and plants to lesser-known fungi and invertebrates. Each of the species listed is currently affected by a range of human impacts such as development-driven habitat loss, climate change and pollution.

Each of us Species Champions will be learning first-hand from members of Scottish Environment LINK who have a tradition of environmental expertise throughout Scotland. We will then be working together to provide a brighter future for these species, and pass on that knowledge throughout Scotland’s political community to shape policy and promote biodiversity.

I have adopted the, albeit not cuddly, but still beautiful Spiny Lobster, also known as the crayfish, whose numbers have been in decline in recent years. Over the coming 12 months, and beyond, I will be doing what I can to raise awareness of the plight of the spiny lobster, and ensuring that it is being fished responsibly.

30 April 2013

Scotland's Oil

The Norwegian oil fund, it was recently reported, rose in value by 13.4% in 2012, meaning it now totals approximately 3.8 trillion Krone, or about £450 billion. Naturally this is a boon for our Nordic neighbours and the fund, which is 40% larger than Norway’s entire national economy, is used to support national development and provide for the future, as one would expect of any country lucky enough to have such vast reserves of oil and gas.

Any country that is, except the UK, which stands alone as the only country with major oil and gas reserves with no oil fund, which demonstrates just how badly wrong Westminster has got it in not investing for the future.

Globally, there are 35 major Sovereign Wealth Funds based on oil and gas resources – illustrating that it is the norm for countries with major oil and gas resources to create a fund for long-term benefit, which makes it all the more surprising that the same never occurred to successive Westminster governments.

Former Secretary of State for Energy Tony Benn himself has said that the oil wealth was “wasted”, while former Labour chancellor Denis Healey wrote in his memoirs that the UK "would have been bankrupt without North Sea oil", which further underlines the mistakes Westminster made in not setting up an oil fund

Meanwhile, Norway’s prosperity shows what could have been had the opportunity for Scotland not been missed almost four decades ago when Westminster failed to invest in an oil fund.

It is both unfortunate, and ironic, that Scotland is not on the list of countries benefitting from an oil fund. However, there is still more value to come from the North Sea than has been extracted to date, and with a Yes vote in next September's referendum we can make our oil wealth work for Scotland's long-term benefit.

We hear the No campaign’s hypocritical rhetoric on Scotland’s oil and gas – they are relentlessly negative about the worth of Scotland controlling our own resources, but praise the levels of investment and value of the North Sea industry to the Westminster exchequer for decades to come.

Last week the UK government admitted that North Sea oil and gas is a booming industry, with Vince Cable conceding that ‘Oil and Gas UK expect production to expand’.

There is a real sense of déjà vu when we think back to the 1970s when Westminster buried the McCrone report – a report that oil and gas would turn Scotland into one of the wealthiest and most financially secure nations on the planet – at the same time as telling us that revenues would be lower than expected and would soon run out. It is true that oil and gas has brought jobs and prosperity to Scotland, but not nearly as much as would be by Scotland accessing the tax revenues. There is still huge potential to be unlocked in North Sea oil and gas but, as history has taught us, this can only be done when Scotland is in charge. We cannot trust Westminster again.

Scotland's finances are consistently stronger than the UK's, over half of the North Sea tax revenues are still to come, and our oil and gas assets are worth up to £1.5 trillion. The Scottish Government’s estimates of oil revenues are consistent with those of the industry, and there is now no doubt that there is a renewed North Sea oil and gas boom underway.

A Yes vote on September 18, 2014 gives Scotland the opportunity to make the next four decades of oil and gas work for Scotland and for future generations.

16 April 2013

The Real Fish Fight campaign

Recently, I have been very pleased to see the support among coastal communities, politicians and, increasingly, scientists for The Real Fish Fight campaign.

Founded by skippers in the North-east to combat pessimistic and inaccurate reports spread, in part, by TV chef Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall’s Big Fish Fight TV Series, the Real Fish Fight has taken off on social media and is setting the record straight on fishing industry practices

While the intended aim of highlighting the issue of discards is commendable, many of the assertions which have come from, among others, Mr Fearnley-Whittingstall’s programme about the fishing stocks in the North Atlantic are completely at odds with what is being observed by crews around Scotland, and increasingly by scientific study.

Moreover, damaging and unfounded assertions about low stocks and irresponsible fishing practices undermine the very positive campaign being promoted across the country to encourage people to eat more of the top-quality seafood landed in their local area.

Our fishermen have, for some time, been reporting resurgent levels of various species, especially haddock and mackerel catches which contradict many of the claims about their declining numbers. These observations were vindicated recently with the publication of the whitefish trends study by the North Atlantic Fisheries Centre at the University of the Highlands and Islands which shows that many stocks are bouncing back, with some having reached levels of maximum sustainability.

The fallacy that fishermen and conservationists are at loggerheads is thus finally being dispelled, as the vast majority of fisherman, especially in Scotland are more concerned about the sustainability of fish stocks than anyone. In fact, Scottish Fishermen have made real sacrifices, as well as great innovations, to ensure the sustainability of fishing stocks in the North Sea and North Atlantic.

Just one example is the development of pioneering trawls that reduce the catching, and thus discarding, of unwanted white fish, including cod, allowing for more fishing days for those vessels equipped with it. Testament to its effectiveness is the fact that, since 2007, Scottish discards of cod have almost halved.

Working in partnership with the Scottish Government, these new designs of prawn trawl have achieved reductions of over 60% of unwanted cod caught when compared to a standard trawl, with one of the designs having the ability to reduce the cod by-catch by 87%. Trials conducted by the Scottish Fishermen’s Federation have also shown that the new trawls can achieve a 67% reduction in unwanted haddock and 64% fall in whiting, as well as achieving the required reductions in the cod catch.

Industry-driven innovation of this sort is crucial to the future of our nation and this development promises to have a positive effect on both the green efforts of the Scottish people and the Scottish economy.

However, this is not to say that the science of monitoring fish stocks should be dispensed with, as it is vital to keep a close eye on the sustainability of fish stocks. Perhaps the best way to do this is to develop closer cooperation between scientists, conservationists and fisherman and ensuring good channels of communication are open. Be it scientists on trawlers testing their projections against real-world observation, or ensuring feedback from skippers and markets on the size of catches being landed, everyone stands to benefit from a better understanding of some of our most valued food resources.

Indeed, it should not go unmentioned that in response to the public backlash Mr Fearnley-Whittingstall himself showed good form in praising the North-east fishermen, and acknowledging the differences in stock levels and practices from other areas of the British Isles and North Atlantic. He was correct in his assertion that skippers and their crews around the North-east of Scotland can, and do, lead their industry by example.

I will continue to support the fishing industry in their efforts to innovate and develop better ways of plying their trade, and hope that other industries follow their lead in combining conservation and business.

2 April 2013

Trident

The debate over how Scotland defends itself now and in the future has engaged many people and organisations across Scotland. Although they express a variety of views, all face the situation of Westminster slashing the footprint of conventional defence forces from Scotland, while continuing to fund the replacement of unwanted, unusable nuclear weapons in our waters.

I have always been sceptical of the UK Government’s claims that Trident is the “ultimate guarantee” of our national security and became a member of the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament in the 1960s.

Trident is not a weapon that the UK Government is able to control, as the United States decides when, where, how and whether such weapons can be used. More fundamentally, however, as a defence strategy, Trident fails utterly. The real threats to Scotland—and, for that matter, the UK—are not now from nuclear nations, but come from elsewhere entirely and are the kind of threats that need to be dealt with by soldiers and by boots on the ground.

When we spend money on nuclear weapons, we take money away from those who bravely put their boots on the ground. Trident thus ultimately costs the lives of servicemen and women by diverting funds away from properly equipping and supporting those who keep us safe.

Some instances of our troops lacking kit are well documented. One less publicised example is in Iraq where our forces face the fairly obvious issue of extreme heat. However, the MOD still failed to prepare personnel for the conditions as reports emerged that the rubber in the soles of the soldiers’ boots was melting on the hot ground. Many of the soldiers used the internet to order leather-soled boots so that they could march across the deserts of the Gulf. Ultimately, a choice had been made to spend on Trident and to provide inadequate equipment to our military in theatres of battle.

The price of Trident is, therefore, bodies. When we do not equip our soldiers to undertake that most difficult mission that we ask of them, they are all too often never reunited with their friends and families.

I do not deploy any argument about the conflicts themselves, as I utterly support each of the soldiers, airmen, mechanics, cooks, drivers and medics who put themselves in danger. I do, however, demand that we stop pouring money into that weapon which cannot and will not ever be used, and instead properly equip the men and women of our armed services as they defend our interests.

The story at home is, sadly, similar. The UK Government seems intent on removing as far as possible, existing defence personnel and equipment from Scotland, not only compromising their strategic effectiveness but gutting the communities around the country who depend on nearby military installations.

The reality is that the UK government has been part of a massive defence underspend of over £7 billion pounds in Scotland in the last ten years alone, and has cut the defence footprint in Scotland relentlessly over the years.

Phillip Hammond and his MoD cronies continue to break promises to this day, closing bases at RAF Leuchars and Kinloss, refusing to deploy a joint strike fighter squadron to Lossiemouth and most recently privatising the vital search and rescue service, proudly and ably run by the Royal Air Force and Royal Navy for years. All of this, while continuing to insist that Trident nuclear weapons, which are too dangerous to be moved down South, are right at home in our Clyde waters.

Westminster cannot be trusted to make the defence and security decisions for Scotland which is why we need to vote ‘Yes’ in the 2014 independence referendum, so that we can ensure these decisions are made by those with the greatest stake in getting them right – the people of Scotland.

19 March 2013

Our Aging Population - Including Me

In light of the publication of the Scottish Parliament Finance Committee’s report on Scotland’s ageing population, a debate was held in the chamber in which I was proud to participate, and I was generally impressed with the positive tone in which the debate was carried out.

The committee had looked at the many challenges that are presented by the sharp upward trend in average age in our society, which is being driven by the people of Scotland living longer and having fewer children. And it is true that a demographic shift toward an older population requires certain measures, both economic and social, to ensure that people are provided for in their later years.

The Scottish Government and the SNP are committed to moving toward preventative spending in both early years and for the elderly, thereby ensuring that more people living in Scotland can achieve their full potential in life, as well as offering better value for money for the tax payer in the long term. The integration of health and social care is just one example of the preventative approach which is also improving the efficiency and effectiveness of public services.

According to Age UK, it is estimated that it costs £5,000 to provide personal care for someone, ie at home, while it costs £25,000 plus per year for a person to be looked after in a care home or hospital. Therefore, maintaining free personal care in the face of savage cuts from Westminster is both saving the taxpayer money, and mitigating demand on hospital beds.

Moreover, it is increasing the number of older people who can retain their independence and continue to live and receive treatment in their own homes, thus remaining more active and more engaged in their communities.

However, to focus on purely the economic aspects would be to overlook the broader achievement that this demographic shift represents. That is, people in Scotland are living longer, healthier, happier lives, which is hugely encouraging and should be seen, first and foremost, as a success.

In fact, over the last ten years, overall life expectancy across the whole of Scotland has increased. However, there is still a need for progress on health inequalities to help close the gap between the difference in life expectancy between Scotland’s most and least deprived areas.

The committee and many of those speaking in the debate also talked about the positive impact of demographic change and recognised the potential of the older part of our population to make a positive economic and social contribution.

We know that over-65s can bring enormous experience and knowledge to their age peers and to the young alike, especially in the work place. Moreover, it is often this age group which regularly take it upon themselves to volunteer in the community, helping friends and neighbours as well as supporting charity work.

So let us talk about the positives of age and the recycling of experience and knowledge. Let us talk up the contributions that older people can make and create opportunities for those contributions to be made.

The SNP has this week introduced a bill in Parliament to extend the voting franchise to include 16 and 17 year olds. This is a ground-breaking move which shows our commitment in Scotland to fairness and inclusion.

By the same token, we must also ensure that our older people do not become disenfranchised from politics or excluded from society. If old people are isolated from the rest of our community, they will be denied the best quality of life, and other generations denied the opportunity to learn from them.

5 March 2013

Fish Discards

I, like many across the North-east and Scotland as a whole, have been closely following the talks in Brussels between Fisheries Ministers on reducing the wasteful discards which plague the industry.

Happily, talks finally concluded in the early hours of Wednesday morning with an agreement having been reached which promises workable measures to tackle the discarding of fish. The newly agreed upon discard rules - which will now be put before Members of the European Parliament for final negotiation - will be introduced between 2014 and 2019 as part of the reform of the Common Fisheries Policy (CFP) and will improve the sustainable management of our valuable fisheries

The UN says Europe has the world's worst record of throwing away fish. Almost a quarter of all catches go back overboard dead because they are not the fish the crews intended to catch.

Throughout Europe, it is estimated that up to one million tonnes of fish are discarded every year which means if the EU had failed to act then hundreds of millions of pounds of fish would continue to be wasted over the next decade.

The Scottish Government has long been pushing for a ban on discards throughout the Common Fisheries Policy negotiations and Ministers had been calling on Europe to agree a policy which was both free of loopholes, and also workable for fishermen, especially in the North Sea where the complexities of mixed fisheries are very apparent.

No one in Scotland was in any doubt that the existing top-down, one-size-fits-all Common Fisheries Policy has failed for the last 30 years and that what was required was the development of a flexible, workable, and enforceable discards package which supports the shared goal of sustainable fisheries across Europe.

The Scottish Government, and in particular, Fisheries Minister Richard Lochhead MSP, are determined to ensure that the final policies both allow for our fishermen to access their legitimate fishing opportunities as well as support the future viability of the industry.

While significant progress has been made on reducing discards there is still a lot of work to be done in eradicating the practice and the Scottish Fishing Industry is playing its role and is continuing the trend of leading the way in devising technology to reduce the discarding of fish. Indeed, since 2007 Scottish discards of cod have almost halved. I was, therefore, proud to table a parliamentary motion last week commending the Scottish fishing industry for their development of pioneering trawls that reduce discards of white fish, including cod, allowing for more fishing days for those vessels equipped with the new nets.

Working in partnership with the Scottish Government, the new designs of prawn trawl have achieved reductions of over 60% of unwanted cod caught when compared to a standard trawl, with one of the designs having the ability to reduce the cod by-catch by 87%. Trials conducted by the Scottish Fishermen’s Federation have also shown that the new trawls can achieve a 67% reduction in unwanted haddock and 64% fall in whiting, as well as achieving the required reductions in the cod catch.

These advances not only conserve cod and other whitefish, but also had the added advantage of the associated increase in the number of days the vessels using the new trawls can go to sea.

Industry-driven innovation of this sort is crucial to the future of our nation and this development promises to have a positive effect on both the green efforts of the Scottish people and the Scottish economy. I will continue to support the fishing industry in their efforts to innovate and develop better ways of plying their trade, and hope that other industries follow their lead in combining conservation and business.

19 February 2013

Climate Justice

Perspective in all matters is important, and a subtle change in perspective can change one’s understanding of a subject altogether.

A recent Scottish Parliament debate highlighted the work that the Scottish Human Rights Commission is undertaking across various policy areas and the contributions covered everything from community justice to human trafficking.

Climate change, an issue I take very seriously and have worked on in various capacities for a long time is often framed solely as an economic obstacle, or an abstract problem for science. Indeed, all too often, the real-life impact of climate change on human life is overlooked.

I used my speech in this human rights debate to highlight the on-going climate justice campaign; a geographically wide topic, but one that is relatively narrow in policy terms. It is an area in which the global rich impose an inescapable cost on the global poor. The idea of climate justice is, essentially, viewing climate change through a lens of human rights and equality.

In 2009, the United Nations Human Rights Council observed that

“Human rights obligations and commitments have the potential to inform and strengthen international and national policy making in the area of climate change.”

The Scottish Government has made great progress in engaging with the human rights and climate change agenda and developing solutions and policy on the world scale. The establishment of the pioneering Climate Justice Fund is just one example and is complimented by other far-reaching initiatives such as the memorandum of understanding with the Inter-American Development Bank; carbon capture work with the Republic of South Africa; commonwealth saltire professional fellowships and many more. Each of these sees Scotland’s expertise in a variety of fields being recognised, and put to good use in resolving one of the greatest challenges we face on our planet.

Climate justice itself encompasses a wide range of issues and policy areas, several of which have been by laid down by The Mary Robinson Foundation - Climate Justice (MRFCJ), an organisation whose work I follow closely.

For example, the MRFCJ highlights gender equality and the disproportionate impact on the world’s women as being of critical importance.

As temperatures rise across the globe, aridity follows and crop failures are an inevitable consequence. In many of the poorest countries in the world, women are at the front line. They are the primary farmers, who now have less food and have to walk further for fuel and water. It is in this area that the impacts appear to be happening fastest and the effects have the most direct potential to kill adults and, especially, children.

Just as crucial to efforts to improve climate justice is the issue of migration, and the inevitable consequence of poverty, the mass movement of peoples into areas that are, often only a little, less poor. We cannot morally live with a policy and practice of spreading the poverty around more widely and solutions must be developed to support communities where they are.

In all of these respects we have to help countries around the world mitigate the effects of climate change, and we should all take great pride Scotland and the Scottish Government are working in partnership with organisations around the world to do just that. In so doing we are all supporting efforts towards international development and equality, and reinforcing Scotland’s reputation as a progressive, modern country, willing to cooperate with global efforts. However, we need to be just as committed as individuals and citizens to turning down the world’s thermostat, and can do so by acting and consuming responsibly in our own homes and communities, and continue setting the example for others.

5 February 2013

Winter Fuel Woes

As the icy chill of winter has begun to bite recently, a timely debate in the Scottish Parliament on the issue of fuel poverty gave me the opportunity to highlight the reality of heating costs which are hitting many homes extremely hard, especially in the rural North East.

For those who heat their homes by gas or electricity and have the energy conveniently delivered automatically by the national grid, the need to pre-plan and pre-pay for their energy use is largely absent. However, many of my constituents and, indeed, across Scotland are based in a rural location and are dependent on fuel that they have to order and have delivered— fuel that they have to pay for before use. Indeed, for many, domestic heating oil is their main energy source, and it is not one which can be conveniently bought in dribs and drabs.

The most recent fuel poverty figures for Scotland show that it remains a real problem and Energy Action Scotland say that, after taking into account the rises in fuel price since 2011, up to 900,000 Scottish households could be affected. Approximately four million households in the UK are not connected to the mains gas grid and these households are generally restricted in their choices when it comes to heating fuel. Indeed, households with oil-fired central heating, and those using solid fuel or liquid petroleum gas to heat their homes, are much more likely to be in fuel poverty than "on-grid" households.

Measures such as the winter fuel allowance, while welcome, are not in themselves a solution, and more can be done to improve the situation. For example, SNP MP Mike Weir recently sponsored the Winter Fuel Allowance Payments Bill in the Westminster Parliament, which was intended to provide for the early payment of the winter fuel allowance to people whose main source of fuel is home fuel oil, liquid petroleum gas or propane gas.

Currently, winter fuel allowance payments are made in November of December, when home heating oil is in highest demand, and prices are likely to peak. The small procedural shift proposed by Mr Weir’s bill would allow those households who are dependent on fuel oil to receive their payments in July, thereby allowing them to stock up on fuel earlier in the year, when prices are likely to be lower than in the middle of winter.

However, in typical fashion Mr Weir’s bill was shot down at Westminster, and talked out without much consideration being given to its substantive provisions.

Meanwhile, the Scottish Government continues its determination to do all it can to remedy the cruelly ironic situation which sees so many in our energy rich country, suffering fuel poverty. Indeed, the benefits of Scotland’s blossoming energy industries are such that we could soon be able to eradicate fuel poverty, as well as boost employment and tackle climate change

Home insulation, to take one example, is a particularly effective adaptation which not only reduces energy consumption and keeps costs down, but creates insulation manufacture and installation jobs, which are often local, thus keeping money in our own economy and boosting employment. It is a win-win-win agenda.

However, despite Scotland’s best efforts to continue this progress with administrative measures, Westminster retains the legislative powers which would allow us to resolve these problems for good, and that can only be achieved with a Yes vote in 2014.

22 January 2013

Oil & Gas Boom 2013

Forecasts that Scotland’s North Sea oil and gas industry will this year experience a "boom" in offshore jobs is being welcomed by people across Scotland.

Recruitment firm Oilandgaspeople.com has predicted that up to 50,000 new jobs will be created in the sector, which is further evidence that Scotland stands to benefit from vast offshore resources for years to come.

This huge potential for job creation is good news for the oil and gas industry, and Scotland’s economy in general. This supports figures which have also emerged early in the new year that Scotland’s economic growth is outstripping that of the UK as a whole – further underlined Scotland’s potential to become wealthier as an independent country.

North Sea reserves of oil and gas are a tremendous asset which remain largely untapped and could be worth up to £1.5 trillion, which will help an independent Scotland to prosper and become a wealthier and fairer nation.

Sadly, thanks to successive Westminster Governments Scotland has not seen the benefit of these vast resources and we need the powers of independence to ensure that oil and gas resources work for the benefit of the people of Scotland.

The anti-independence parties have been scaremongering about oil and gas running out since the early years of production in the 1970s. However, recent investment has shown that the industry does not share Westminster’s pessimism, and some forecasts suggest that more than half of the revenues are still to come, demonstrating how Scotland stands to be wealthier as an independent country.

Indeed, in the very timely Scottish Government debate on oil and gas in the Scottish Parliament my colleagues and I highlighted the fact that Scotland’s potential to remain at the cutting edge of future fuel and energy technologies is not just based on our natural resources.

With a long tradition of innovation in off-shore technology and engineering, the North Sea is world renowned for having strict safety standards and high levels of expertise. Indeed, I was relieved to see both in action, as the non-essential crew were so quickly and efficiently evacuated from the Cormorant Alpha, and I will be monitoring this situation as it develops.

Moreover, provision is being made for the future with the creation of the national Energy Skills Academy, which encompasses colleges in the Banffshire & Buchan Coast constituency. The graduates of this industry-leading skills academy will be at the heart of the development of future technology such as carbon capture and storage – a pioneering example of which is based at Peterhead Power Station.

With our natural resources and skills pool, Scotland can map an energy and economic future not just for ourselves, but Europe and the world. A huge economic and environmental opportunity comes from the development of carbon capture and storage not simply for us, but as an exportable technology and a technology that we can use our engineers to support.

For example, in Poland, 90 per cent to 95 per cent of the electricity comes from coal or lignite, which is not just CO2 polluting but is hugely sulphurous. We could play a key role in helping countries such as Poland to address their issues. That is not simply a matter of economic imperative; it also has an environmental benefit.

After independence, there is no doubt that the Scottish Government will be just as motivated to continue development and support a long-term future for the energy industry, but, importantly, they would have the necessary levers of power to regulate the market and ensure competition and innovation.

This, combined with pioneering technologies as well as a booming renewables industry, spells huge economic benefits for communities in the North-east, Scotland and beyond.

Stewart Stevenson
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