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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.

Stewart Stevenson
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