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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.

Stewart Stevenson
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