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20 December 2016

Challenge and Opportunity

The theme of 2016 has been both challenge and opportunity. This has perhaps been most starkly displayed by Brexit. I am working hard with fishing interests to protect their interest in exploiting new catching opportunities.

But there is absolute silence about the UK Government's intentions. Will they sell out fishing again? We need to be very wary and watchful. What I do know is that I will not compromise on getting what is best for my constituents nor for Scotland.

However, there have been other equally important things. Perhaps most important is our First Minister’s decision to have inclusion as the unifying force in this Parliament.

Why inclusion? Very simply, because it means putting the most vulnerable in a position to succeed. It means making sure young people get the best start in life. It means the elderly have access to the best possible health care through the NHS.

But inclusion isn’t limited to the narrowness of government policy. Inclusion is about us sharing responsibility and taking care of one another.

It’s already a central aspect of Scottish society. It’s about seeing family and friends. It’s what we do on the holidays – we support one another, we do something nice for one another.
In Banffshire & Buchan Coast there are plenty examples of that inclusive connection. In Peterhead, community organisation Modo – Circus with Purpose seeks to give young people the confidence and skills to thrive. Modo creates connections and assists young people from all backgrounds.

But there’s more. We’ve seen the heroic effects of inclusivity. This year alone we’ve had Corey Tocher, a young Cub Scout Leader go to London to donate stem cells to the Anthony Nolan Trust to save another’s life. Then shortly after that, Banff firefighter Kevin Smith bravely rescued a woman from a sinking car in Macduff Harbour. These heroic acts come from a commitment to our community.

Our inclusive nature extends to the office Christmas party, Hogmanay or even at a Burns Supper – it’s already part of us. Now I realise that we can all disagree – and that’s okay. Sometimes we are going to disagree, that’s life. But we live in a culture where we can disagree and still help one another.

So this holiday season try and remember that. Our experience as human beings is made richer by the people we share it with. Go out and do something positive for your community. Do something positive for your fellow human being.

This year has seen much political rhetoric aimed at dividing us into opposing groups. No! Let Scottish traditions speak for themselves. Ultimately, there is far more that unites us than divides us.

I accept, there is more work to be done and always will be. But for today and during the holidays, let’s focus on being inclusive. Let’s give everyone the chance to enjoy being part of something. I wish you all a very happy holiday and look forward to a positive 2017 for everyone.

6 December 2016

Transport Minister Best for Scotland’s Rail

When there are big issues – it takes someone ‘big’ to take them on. It takes someone solid, with endurance and ambition.

That’s Humza Yousaf. The last few weeks we’ve seen flashes of his stony endurance, determination and ambition for Scotland’s rail. He has stood in front of Parliament and acknowledged the issues ScotRail is facing. But he’s taking them on. He’s taking the issues firmly in hand and transforming them.

Let’s be honest – being a transport minister in the UK is one of the toughest positions in government. Why? One reason and perhaps above all is the weather. Transport stands firmly facing the elements. As a former transport minister, I know about that personally! You can’t predict the weather and you certainly can’t change it. Rewind to 2014. Torrential rain hammered the UK and specifically hammered Devon and Cornwall. The ensuing storm managed to flood and wash away entire sections of rail track. Gone in an instant. So you see, transport is always first to face the storm.

But with a closer look, one realises it doesn’t take a storm to cause chaos to rail down south. As recently as July of this year Southern Rail, who operate services south of London, was dubbed Southern fail by many commuters. Why? The company decided to cut 340 daily journeys. Can you imagine the sheer numbers of people scrambling to find a way to get to work? Thousands. What’s worse is this same company, Southern Rail, had the worst punctuality of all train operators in the UK in September 2015.

But the mess doesn’t end there. We need only look at the Great Western Railway electrification from Cardiff to London for further chaos. The project was set at a cost of £874 million in January 2013 and to be completed by 2018. That same project is now being projected to cost £2.8 billion and will be finished four years late, in 2022. No, being transport minister isn’t an easy job. But I can describe rail for you down south in one word – pandemonium. And it seems they aren’t making much progress.

Meanwhile in Scotland, we’ve got some issues, but we’ve got a minister who can handle them – Humza. He’s already announced an acceleration of £16 million over two years to upgrade key junctions, track and signalling, an extra 200 carriages by 2019. This and his other investment announcements will create a massive uplift in capacity between Inverness and Aberdeen over the coming years. And I’m sure his ambitions won’t end there.

But there’s another way to improve Scotland’s rail services – a new report from Scottish think tank Reform Scotland has suggested that more than 50% of trains in Scotland were delayed due to Network Rail faults rather than ScotRail. Unsurprisingly, Labour’s former Transport Minister, Tom Harris, an author of the ‘Track to the Future’ report now supports the devolution of rail infrastructure. So do I. That makes two former transport ministers – it’s time to devolve Network Rail. Humza is the right man for the job – let’s give him the power to do it right.

22 November 2016

Time for Enthusiasm on Renewables

Banffshire and the Buchan Coast is one of the beautiful places in the world. Many probably take that for granted. It’s a simple reason to love this place – but it’s one of many good reasons.

We shouldn’t take Scotland for granted. The Scottish Government hasn’t. That’s why we’ve had the most ambitious targets on climate change. We’ve even managed to hit our previous targets six years early. And as recently as last week, Cabinet Secretary for Environment and Climate Change, Roseanna Cunninghame, announced £400,000 to improve our peatlands. Funding which will be used to improve biodiversity, water quality, and natural flood management. But our work continues.

Climate change affects everything. It affects our crops, our seas and our homes. Over the last few years we have seen weather events that have caused flooding. Here in the North-east homes have been destroyed by flooding. If we fail to tackle climate change, these things will happen more often.

One of the ways we tackle this is through renewable energy. The Scottish Government has been extremely successful on this front – as former Minister for Environment and Climate Change; I took the Climate Change (Scotland) Act 2009 through the Scottish Parliament. I would consider it one of our greatest achievements as a Parliament.

That is why I find the hypocrisy from the Westminster government particularly galling. Last week, Tory Energy Secretary, Greg Clark, took credit for the success of onshore wind in Scotland. At the same time, Mr Clark’s government is responsible for slashing support for the sector.

Mr Clark even managed to debar our island communities from bidding for millions pounds in contracts for difference – Contracts which would allow them to access funding for onshore wind. These island communities have some of the greatest renewables potential in all of Europe.

But this more than just an annoyance. It’s damaging. The Tories damage not only our climate change policies. But also our economy.

If you remember, last November, the Tories dropped another project. It was a competition to set up a carbon capture storage plant. A project that might have seen £1 billion pounds of investment come to Peterhead – giving us the ability to reduce our carbon emissions while creating jobs in the North-east.

Time and again the Tories have taken jobs out of Scotland. Now when they do it, they also are weakening our ability to tackle climate change. If they care about people having decent jobs here ­– why slash funding to a growing sector that creates high paid, high skilled jobs?

The UK Government have shown little concern for the environment and even less regard for creating jobs in Scotland. They choose to wreak havoc with renewables funding and hinder our ability to tackle climate change.

The Scottish Government has a different approach. We recognise the need to tackle climate change and also realise the potential to create jobs in Scotland. It’s the Scottish Government that has tackled climate change in Scotland – not the UK Government. It’s time the Conservatives found some of their own achievements on climate change, instead of stealing ours. I for one would welcome it.

8 November 2016

Fumbling in Face of Devaluation

At the moment it seems there is much we can disagree on. People have all kinds of opinions in our society about every subject.

But today I may have found something we can all agree on.

We can agree that everyone needs to eat. People want to be able to go out to the cinema, or dinner or perhaps even a holiday. We can agree that people tend to appreciate having a little extra cash. This seems obvious.

Strangely, the UK Government doesn’t understand that – let me explain.

Earlier last month we saw Tesco and Unilever disagree on product prices. Tesco initially refused to accept the price rise from Unilever. Unilever in turn refused to supply products. Unilever argued that the drop in the pound had driven up the cost of imports – which prompted their request for a 10% increase in their price. Their dispute may be resolved, but this is just the beginning.

Typhoo Tea and British Airways have both already warned of a price hike. As more firms warn of raising costs, the quality of life for those in the UK will continue to descend.

Winter is almost upon us. And as the nights get colder, more and more we will need to heat our homes. Many throughout Scotland already have difficulty paying for fuel costs.

But just last week energy experts warned of the effects of the UK’s deteriorating pound and pressure on wholesale prices. They suggested that suppliers may introduce a 5% rise on electricity bills. On a standard tariff, that will cost 18 million families across the UK £465 million a year.

And how did the Tory Government respond? In the Tesco-Unilever dispute, the PM’s spokesman said, “It is a decision for companies how they market and sell their products…It is a commercial decision.” In other words – not her problem.

The PM has yet to speak to energy suppliers over the challenges posed by devaluation in the pound. Again leaving ordinary people to suffer the consequences of Tory inaction. The actions the Tories have taken are laughable.

Andrea Leadsom, Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs has placed Jam, Tea and Biscuits as a one of her key strategic target. I agree we have some of the best food and drink in the world – but tea and biscuits isn’t a comprehensive trade strategy. It will not counter the costs of trade tariffs or a crashing pound.

The result of Tory inaction is clear – costs will rise at a rate that income will not. People will have less money for food, seeing family and friends and even going on holiday.

The Conservatives have offered no solutions to any of this – watching as quality of life for ordinary people continues to fall. Their inaction and hard right tendencies will see families and companies across Scotland poorer. I hope we can safely agree that no one voted for that. It’s time the Conservatives did something about it.

25 October 2016

Champion of Change

Change is the only certainty in life. Change we seek-Change we avoid. Change that is happy and change that is tragic.

The loss of SNP Councillor Ian Gray was a tragic change, tragic for his loved ones, friends, and our community as a whole. His passing leaves a vast space to be filled.

The victor in our upcoming by-election will have to undertake that task. Someone I hope with commitment, experience and positivity. On November 3, I’ll be backing Dr Glen Reynolds. A man who has experience of working with Aberdeenshire Council, a man who has time and again demonstrated his commitment to positive change in Banffshire.

Glen has worked in the Housing and Community Safety Office locally for the past ten years. He’s raised his family locally and his wife is a teacher in the community. These connections are essential. As constituency MSP for Banffshire & Buchan Coast, I know how important it is to have that connection to the place you represent. You have to listen and understand local challenges. Among my colleagues, that is a belief we share.

Over the last few weeks I’ve joined my fellow North-east MSP Gillian Martin to meet with the Scottish Government over GP recruitment. They’ve reaffirmed their commitment to improving recruitment to rural areas- and rural health boards are working together to share successful recruitment strategies. Challenges remain, but we must speak with a single voice.

We have an opportunity now to add another note to that unified voice. We can add another voice to represent and pursue the concerns of the people here. As an elected member I believe positive, capable local councillors play the most important role in making sure all levels of government respond to the needs of local people.

I’m also a firm believer in consistency, the need for continual action toward a goal. The greatest social change can only come with time and effort – simple solutions are simply false. Positive change requires sustained effort, investment and planning.

The SNP realise this – this is how we function. We realise the importance of quality, effort and a goal. When oil and gas workers began facing redundancies we created a programme for them to retrain as teachers in Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics. All subjects where we most need teachers. These problems aren’t solved yet – but this is the kind of innovative action the SNP delivers. We take problems and turn them into solutions.

In recent weeks, the Cabinet Secretary for Finance and Constitution, Derek Mackay, has suggested there may be discussions of giving a share of the national element of income tax to local government through a formula. He has said that he wishes to engage with local government on this. At a time of Westminster austerity – we need representatives to work with the Scottish Government, that will champion the views of those living in the North-east. This may represent an opportunity to increase our council funding while reinvigorating rural communities like ours – it’s vital we put our best foot forward.

11 October 2016

Pizza or Politics?

These days most things are convenient. When you want a pizza– all you need to do is pick up a phone. You want coffee? Push a button – coffee. Instant, convenient, effortless. Today, technology makes so many things easy. Politics, however, doesn’t work in quite the same way.

Democracy, voting, equality, representation – these have all taken centuries to evolve. In ancient Athens, only adult male landowners, who had qualified as citizens could vote. Very few had a direct say in the future of the state and society.

Yet here we are, over two thousand years later with universal suffrage. Everyone gets a vote. Everyone has that essential tool to shape their community. Voting is one of the few measures that can equalise the disparities of wealth and education. It may also be the most direct route for people to steer their society. Indeed, it allows us to affirm our commitment to and a role in creating a better society. Those rights took centuries to secure.

History rarely bends to the will of one person. If it does bend, it is often a question of timing – for the rest of us we have to be persistent. Politics as a shaping force is no different. You can’t just press a button to fix everything. Change and improvement require time, effort and vision. Anyone who says otherwise is probably selling snake oil.

On the other hand, destruction can be initiated in an instant. Destruction need not be precise. If you want to hammer something to pieces, you just need to hit hard enough. No measurement, no timing, just smack ­– bang! Broken.

We just need to look around to see this philosophy in action. People like Donald Trump and Nigel Farage pretend that a single vote can fix everything. An instant fix. It’s the pizza delivery of politics. They offer the hammer – break it and everything will be fine. No vision, nothing.

Not only do they fail to offer any real solution, they jeopardize everything we’ve accomplished for at least the last five decades. These people will leave us picking up the pieces and they won’t bat an eyelid.

This pizza delivery of political philosophy seems to be gaining popularity and many on the right particularly champion it. Next time you hear someone rattling off how simple something is; consider whether they’re a pizza delivery political philosopher. Are they promising an instant fix or over simplifying? This is salesmanship and the salesman has little regard for the quality of their product.

Not only does this behaviour hinder positive social change but it threatens what is already accomplished. This is a world where the ignorance of Trump and Farage dominates. We do not have to let that dominate us. I hope those of us here in Scotland can remember that we reap what we sow. Voting works but social progress doesn’t come instantly – and certainly not without vision and persistence.

27 September 2016

If you Brexit, then we’ll Brexit

In the Scottish Parliament we are having a series of debates on the threats and opportunities of Brexit. This week it is on rural issues. And last week was on the economy.

Curiously, for the Conservatives, the one issue they don’t want to talk about is the result of the EU referendum. Not because the result doesn’t suit them – and to be fair most Tory MSPs campaigned to remain in the EU – but because after several months we are no clearer what the UK’s negotiating position is going to be.

So their MSPs’ contributions to a debate on Brexit are dominated by references to an unplanned future independence referendum – 15 such on 20th September alone.

But light has to be shone into the dark corners on UK government policy planning for Brexit.

When all these years ago I participated in business negotiations we used a method devised by the leaders in the training of people like me. They happened to be a Scottish firm called Scotwork.

It was based on two simple constructs. The first was that nothing was agreed until everything was agreed. That meant that one always said; “If you will agree to my (list of requirements), then I will agree to your list.”

The second, and the more important, was the construction of a list of outcomes being sought. It was called the LIMit list. But it was really three lists.

The “L” list was a long list of things which our side would “Like” to achieve. Things of value to our position but of little cost to our opponents.

The “I” list was what we “Intend” to get from the negotiation. We would need to get a decent proportion of this list if we wanted to claim victory.

The most critical list, the “M” list is the things we “Must” achieve. Without these we walk away from any deal.

The negotiation has to start by our revealing an initial list of “asks” which would contain all of our “Musts” and most of our “Intends”.

Our opponents would counter by rejecting items from our list and making their own demands. Our response would continue to demand all our “Musts” but substitute some of our “Likes” for a smaller number of our “Intends”.

In big business negotiations this could go on for a very long time. And some of the planned demands cannot be disclosed at the outset.

But no negotiation can proceed without the side starting the whole discussion laying out a list of demands.

I can lay out some of my “Musts” - for example getting our fish catching industry out of the EU Common Fisheries Policy and keeping the free movement of people so vital to fish processing – but it is the UK Government who got us here and it is time for us to see their initial list.

In 500 or so words I can describe a process and suggest some outcomes.

It’s surely time we heard some words from the UK Government.

Perhaps they should start by having words with that Scottish firm. http://www.scotwork.com.

13 September 2016

Broadband

I am happy to see this past week the focus that the Scottish Government will take during this session of Parliament. The key continues to be investment. Investment in our young people, in our transportation, investment in whatever it takes to allow Scotland to thrive. It is necessary in the face of uncertain times that we have a robust economic policy. Crucially, the Scottish Government is clear and practical about what that means.

Since 2007 investment has been at the heart of SNP policy and thankfully it continues to be. Rural communities have massive potential to create growth through upgrades in technology and infrastructure, growth that will benefit everyone.

The most obvious place to begin is digital infrastructure. There is a combination of benefits that emerge from this transition in technology. The clearest change would be the enhanced capacity of businesses. Access to high-speed internet changes relationships to communication, marketing, cash flow, knowledge and information. Translation: large gains in efficiency.

But it doesn't stop there. Young people gain access to a formidable learning tool. Many highly paid and highly skilled jobs are intimately linked to computer and internet technology. Access to the internet is access to the world. You can video chat with your family. You can find out what's trending on social media. The possibilities are endless, the opportunities vast. Investment in broadband for rural communities is a win-win.

The Scottish Government is keenly aware of this and has been massively ambitious with fibre broadband - committing to providing 100% of premises in Scotland with access by 2021. At the moment we are already on track to deliver 95% by the end of 2017, after having delivered our target of 85% 6 months ahead of schedule.

That doesn't mean there aren't challenges, especially in rural communities like parts of the North-east where we have an unusually high number of the diffcult to connect “exchange only” lines. I know, mine is one. There is work to be done but much has been accomplished. About 7,500km of cable has been laid down and 2,500 fibre street cabinets have been put in. That is no small achievement.

For the hurdles that remain ahead of us it is critical that we understand them. In order to tackle some of these, the Scottish Government has created an additional £9 million funding through the Scottish Rural Development Programme. This funding is being released to set up community organisations similar to GigaPlus Argyll; an organisation that will operate wirelessly and establish an extensive rural network covering areas that otherwise wouldn’t be covered by commercial services.

We know there is work to be done and know personally how important this issue is to the local community. It is for this reason that I continue to champion the deployment of digital infrastructure in the North-east. I am proud to be part of an ambitious government and a government that sees the huge value in our rural communities. Only by working together that we will be able to overcome whatever difficulties emerge.

30 August 2016

Scottish Fishing

In 1973 when the UK joined the EEC, Ted Heath decided that the fishing sector was expendable. Mr Heath’s decision is important to understanding the UK’s perspective on Scottish fishing.

As recently as last month the UK Government had a ban on the international trading of skates and rays quotas. Eventually, after the Scottish Government pressed the issue, the UK Government lifted the ban. This has now allowed monkfish quota to be imported into Scotland- a trade which will be worth up to £600,000.

It is this kind of behaviour that leads me to the conclusion that Scottish fishing is an afterthought to the UK Government. So long as it is an afterthought, there will be a continuing danger of the UK ignoring what is best for the sector.

Currently, there continues to be much discussion of what opportunities might emerge from Brexit. While this is one perspective, it is also important to consider the impact of funding withdrawal and trade alterations that may emerge post-Brexit. Indeed, there is no guarantee on how the fishing industry will be dealt with in the context of negotiations. The UK Government has not made any commitment on how it will negotiate and historically Westminster has left something to be desired.

In Scotland we take a different view. The Scottish Government recognises the immense value of the industry, which amounts to hundreds of millions of pounds. What’s more is that it is a massive chunk of our food exports. In rural areas like the North-east fishing has an even closer relationship to our people. The industry provides an economic boon for both those who work directly in the sector and to those with businesses that indirectly rely on the success of the sector.

The Scottish Government has made sure to support the development of the fishing and processing sector, delivering £77m in grant assistance through the European Fisheries Fund between 2007 and 2015. In doing so, up to 2000 jobs have been safeguarded along with the delivery of £180m total investment in the sector. The Scottish Government is still due to receive 107 million Euros from the European and Maritime and Fisheries Fund. At the moment, there is no commitment from the PM Theresa May to protect that funding.

Alternatively in Scotland, the Cabinet Secretary for Fisheries, Fergus Ewing has committed to championing the industry. He has expressed that we need to protect these interests and explore all possibilities in how that can be best achieved. It is about more than jobs-it is about the quality of life for people who live in some of our most remote communities.

Based on a long experience with an uninterested Westminster establishment, I consider it unwise to assume that the UK Government put the interest of Scottish fishing first. They have faced the choice before and I do not doubt they will choose political gain over the livelihood over those living in our fishing communities.

16 August 2016

Necessary Certainty

Last week I attended the Turriff Show. It was a great opportunity to see some of my constituents at their best. Whether you were looking for a little competition, entertainment, or some of our fine Scottish cuisine- they had it all. The show is just one example of the vibrant agricultural community in the North-east and how many depend on a thriving farming sector.

Food production is perhaps the most important industry any country can have. Our ability to feed ourselves and indeed export to other nations is a substantial source of wealth. Last year alone Scottish food and drink exports reached £1.9 billion.

With Brexit looming, there are more unknowns on the horizon now than ever. The UK has yet to offer solid commitments on EU farming subsidies and current signals fail to inspire confidence.

Here in Scotland we realise that supporting the sector is vital to ensuring a prosperous economy. The Cabinet Secretary for Rural Economy and Connectivity, Fergus Ewing, continues to exert himself to support the rural economy. The Scottish Government’s commitment is exemplified in the Cabinet Secretary’s work, most recently, the July release of another £10.3 million in CAP funding.

It is time for the Conservative UK Government take action to create stability for those working in our rural economy. There must be certainty on funding and support. In a post Brexit UK there must be a definitive answer on how the UK will replace support that currently comes from the EU.

In the meantime, the Conservatives have decided to give certainty and stability to a few of their own number. As he left number 10, the former PM David Cameron decided to further bloat the already bulging House of Lords. He has granted a peerage to the likes of Laura Wyld, 1 of 13 newly appointed peers.

Ms Wyld is a shining example of a conflict of interest- she was the very person that recommended to Mr Cameron who should be given appointments, including peerages. She represents the cronyism that exudes from Westminster politics and is yet another obvious reason why many have become disillusioned with Westminster.

While there is an argument for a reviewing chamber, it is time that there is one that is accountable to the people. Is it acceptable that a person be given a political job for life and at the discretion of their friend? No. Politicians should be elected by the people they serve- the public. It is time for change. In the 21st century, it is time the UK had an elected reviewing chamber.

Finally, let me end on something encouraging- the Olympics, a vast opportunity for celebration. What’s more is there is a record number of Scottish Olympians. I wish them and the rest of Team GB good luck. A few medals so far, but hopefully more to come! We are lucky to have such fantastic sports ambassadors and I’m sure they will show the world our strong spirit and our warm, welcoming attitude towards other cultures.

2 August 2016

A Different Kind of Deficit

Today the UK has a new Prime Minister-Theresa May. Congratulations to her. Admittedly, I find it surprising that in a post Brexit UK, the new Conservative leader supported Remain. Are we to believe the Brexit leadership couldn’t muster a committed candidate or had some agreement already been reached? One look at the Cabinet might offer some clues.

It is strange that the leave campaign didn’t offer any real candidate. Sure there was Johnston, Gove and Leadsom-but none stayed in the race long enough to contest May’s leadership. The entire contest had the feel of theatre. The real competition never began; they all just fell into line.

On the other side, the Labour Party is in disarray. The Parliamentary Labour Party is trying to exert its power over the wider membership and out Corbyn. Corbyn for his part will not go. There’s much frustration as the fissures between the voting membership and the PLP grow.

Amid this theatrical political chaos, George Osborne sought to make Britain a “free trade beacon” post Brexit. On the face of it, the term seems quite benign. The question is- what does it mean? Osborne may be gone, but the neoliberal economics is not.

Prime Minister May has appointed Conservative MP George Freeman as her new head of policy. This is the same MP that suggested exempting corporations from tax, abolishing green energy subsidies, and exempting corporations from following employment rights for their first three years.

Meanwhile, the new Chancellor begins his quest for free trade. Agreements that would have previously met rigorous protections of EU regulation will now only face the protections upheld by the Conservative Government.

One can glean Mr Hammond is considering new plans for state assets. It is very likely he will pursue privatisation as part of his economic model. This will mean assets which Scottish and UK tax payers have invested in for the past 70 years may be repositioned into private hands.

Even more telling is the UK Government’s decision to renew Trident, with an estimated to cost up to £200 billion. In the Trident renewal vote, 58 of 59 Scottish MPs voted against renewal.

This comes amid repeated criticism of the NHS and BBC- two major state assets. In fact, one major Brexit claim was that money would be available from the EU to fund the NHS. That was not true. The Conservative Government has instead committed to investing in Trident rather than public services.

What we learn at last is there is an immense democratic deficit in this country. In Scotland, we have opposed the destructive and short-sighted decisions of the UK Government. This divergence seems to become more pronounced as time passes.

I hope that the new UK Prime Minister recognises that Scotland has its own voice. The UK Government must listen. There will need to be significant work on recognising and operating from the Scottish perspective on the EU, social justice and public services.

Those who have paid into the NHS, those who have asked for peace, fair work, and those who demand a positive internationalist country cannot be ignored.

20 July 2016

The end of DECC - threats and opportunities


Press and Journal 19/07/2016 10:39 am by Stewart Stevenson

You don’t have to be an expert to recognise that the best time to repair the roof is when it ain’t raining. And that generally means summer rather than winter.

So it is perplexing in one sense, understandable in another, that one of the first major policy actions of the new UK Prime Minister has been to abolish her climate change department.

The practical effects of climate change are well understood but the timings at which they come into play less so. A succession of floods over the last few years is suggestive of greater difficulties to come.

So if the calculation has been that we reduce expenditure designed to delay, remove or diminish the effects of climate change because we have other economic issues to deal with, then there may be such a case. The Treasury commissioned “Stern Review on the economics of climate change” in 2006 suggested otherwise.[1] That the costs of addressing climate change are far less than the costs it would bring. But costs there would be either way.

The real issue for an economy facing significant challenge is quite different. And the abolition of a government department focusing on climate change has the potential to remove, certainly to diminish, a key economic opportunity for future jobs and growth.

Whatever one’s attitude to financial services, an industry whose recent failures have hobbled the economy, it is far from clear that it presents significant opportunities for future growth, innovation and jobs as it has in the past. We must look elsewhere.

In a global economy, manufacturing will flee to the cheapest competent workforce, and that is unlikely to be here. The countries of the far east have all but captured the making of electronic devices. Continental Europe is the byword for quality car manufacture.

We can be reasonably certain that there will be a shift in energy production towards renewable sources. Oil and gas will gradually shift towards being the primary feedstock of chemical industries and away from being a source of power.

For the UK, there is a looming crisis in electricity production. The planned Hinkley Point nuclear station is the “let’s put all our eggs in one basket” solution that locks in high future prices for generations to come at levels uncontemplated for any other energy source.

And the dependence on an increasing reluctant French, and perhaps Chinese, nuclear industry shows how far the UK has surrendered its early technology lead in this business and the dangers that flow from that.

Being a world leader in climate change technology remains an option for this country. And provides long term opportunity if we develop and control the intellectual and engineering resources that come with that leadership.

And we have considerable advantages right now.

The biggest immediate, predictable and long term source of energy lies off our coast. Our seas. The longest coastline in Europe gives us unique access to that energy. And the diurnal pattern of the tides is both predictable and variable around our coasts to the extent that, there can be sufficient available round the clock and round the year.

But being near the sea is far from our only advantage.

Forty or so years of exploiting oil and gas from under our seas leaves us with top to bottom offshore skills in our workforce. Gives us a commercial and support infrastructure able to redeploy its skills and knowledge in this sector. Means that there are educators ready to train future generations. Human capital that it would take competitors decades to acquire.

Critically it is a perfect sales pitch to other countries when we seek export opportunities. Proven experience, technology leadership and delivery capability that can be inspected. Not just paper promises.

Maintaining climate change as a policy priority should remain central to government decision-making, not just for the environment, but for a vibrant future economy.

Before the winter settles in, before the rains start in earnest, let’s repair the roof.

Notes:

[1] 2006. Stern Review on the economics of climate change. ISBN 0-521-70080-9. Cambridge University Press. http://www.hm-treasury.gov.uk/independent_reviews/stern_review_economics_climate_change/stern_review_report.cfm : accessed 16 July 2016.

19 July 2016

Listening's better than talking

One of the things I did when I was a Minister in the Scottish Government, was to continue using public transport. And that had immense benefits that stand me in good stead to this day.

I continued, then as now, to meet with and engage with the people who paid my wages.

A couple of weeks ago, I was sitting on the train from Huntly organising myself for my 4 hour journey to Edinburgh. The conductor casually says to the couple on the other side of the table, “Any complaints, just speak to this man”, pointing at me. 'Cos lots of the rail staff know me from my time in charge of transport.

That was the start of an interesting conversation about the world, Scotland, and trains. And an action on me to find out about a timetabling quirk that was irritating them.

Yesterday it was a conversation with two lads from the North East of England about the EU. I had thought they were both “Geordies” but now know that it's a grave error to describe someone from Sunderland – about 12 miles south east of Newcastle – in that way.

We soon had an animated discussion going and had drawn in a lass from Belfast sitting across the aisle who contributed her bit on the Good Friday agreement that has kept the peace in her area but which now might be threatened by Brexit.

No surprise that we didn't agree about everything. But, and this is the big but, they said if the SNP came down to stand in their area they'd vote for them. And that's simply because they saw me, and my colleagues, as listeners.

If there is one thing that matters to folk, it is being listened to.

And that seems to be at the heart of vacuum which is the two largest parties at Westminster – Tories and Labour.

The Tories created the Brexit mess – not simply by holding the referendum – but by doing so for internal party reasons unconnected to the interests of the people on the train, on the bus, in the supermarket, by simply forgetting to listen.

The Labour party paid the price in Scotland at elections in 2015 and 2016 because they had stopped listening.

And today – we may have seen the death throws of a party that a century ago had shifted politics from merely being the concern of the great and the good to become where everyone's voice mattered.

But which on Wednesday at Westminster saw people elected in their name heckle their own leader, elected with a massive mandate by their members, simply because he spoke to the truth documented by Chilcot. We thought that day might be about Blair and the many deaths that flowed from his decisions. Instead it was about the death of a political party.

I don't support the Labour party. But I support its right to exist.

All politics is diminished by the manner of its death. Personal interest above supporters' interests. Talking down to ordinary people instead of listening.

5 July 2016

A turbulent world

In the recent referendum, Aberdeenshire voted strongly to remain in the EU. Surprisingly for those of us who attended the count and added up the votes, for and against, we found the fishing communities a bit less “Out” than we had imagined. In fact Banff and Buchan had under 1,000 more “Out” votes than our neighbours in Gordon constituency where that issue was of lower priority.

But the test of a democracy is perhaps how we treat our minorities not simply how we chose our majorities.

At the Scottish Parliament election in May all candidates standing in our area, Conservative, Labour, LibDem and myself for the SNP, supported staying in the EU. We now share a duty to the minority who voted to leave.

I have attempted to contact the representatives of all the lead organisations representing fishermen across the UK.

The National Federation of Fishermen’s Organisations, whose membership comes from across England, recognises that in any renegotiation of quota for fishermen, “it is realistic to expect that there will be a price of some sort.”

Scottish associations seem more bullish and I look forward to hearing how we retrieve vessels and associated quota sold by us into foreign ownership.

But with Scotland very substantially voting to stay, our Parliament has voted to empower our First Minister to work with the countries and institutions of the EU to protect our interests. No party opposed this, albeit the Conservatives – authors of the current chaos – abstained.

Since they last represented our area in Parliament – ending in 1987 – we have, under successive SNP Parliamentarians, moved from being in the worst quarter for unemployment into near top of the league. Standing up for people actually delivers. That is what all political parties must now do.

The current power and policy vacuum at Westminster cannot, must not, continue. Although I fear for – I never imagined that I would put it this way – the character of public life after David Cameron. We must rebuild.

More optimistically, I have just left the Parliamentary chamber after an enthralling address by the Irish President. He talked of our shared heritage and the need for an inclusive world.

In our corner of Scotland, we have received new friends into our communities from all over. Just as many of our friends and relatives have relocated to other countries – for example I have a great many relatives in the USA.

My Boy Scout patrol leader, Spigniew Skrodski was the half Scots son of a Free Polish Army soldier who came here to help in our time of need in the 1940s. Spigniew subsequently died as a pilot in our air service.

There is no greater disgrace than if we tolerate current attacks on “new Scots”.

I think Irish Poet W B Yeats got it right 100 years ago when he wrote:

“Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.”

21 June 2016

Democracy

Winston Churchill said – and I paraphrase - that democracy was the worst way to run a country but that there was no better alternative.

For democrats it has been a depressing few weeks. The referendum campaign has been led by campaigns on both sides of the argument that have failed to bring forward any positive vision of what might be delivered by their preferred option. I am glad not to be part of either formal campaign.

While I think politicians have let themselves down, more importantly they have let the electorate down. Most will have less sense of the implications of their vote than at any previous vote that I have been involved in over 50+ years.

But at the end of the day, it was a defeated US Presidential Candidate who summed up this awkward process of democracy when he said, “The people have spoken – the b****rds!”

Daisy and Nicola at the
Scottish Parliament
But there is hope. I have had Daisy Collins – shortly to be late pupil at Banff Academy and thereafter to be a History and Politics student – with me for a week in Parliament. Learning yes, but also doing some real hard work. Like many of her generation she brings fresh insight and new energy to the craft of politics. Privilege to have you on board Daisy, however briefly.

And the 2014 referendum – and this year's Scottish Parliament election – showed that we can trust the young with our future. 16 and 17 year olds engaged in genuine and diverse debate on big decisions that will matter for all our futures.

The very word democracy is far from new. “Demos” is the Greek word for “people” and “kratia” that for “rule”. And its origins date back some 2,000 years.

It came to the English language in the 16th century via French. Demonstrating once again the acquisitive nature of the language we use and which has been gifted to us, and the world, by our generous neighbours south of the border. Probably their greatest and most valuable achievement. And all done without government help.

Across the Atlantic, we are watching one of the most expensive elections in history – the US Presidential election, $300 million and counting? - and for my part wondering if an election where only billionaires can afford to run for office is in any meaningful sense rule by the people – democracy.

On this side of the Atlantic, the very rigid limits on what candidates can spend, and the equally onerous reporting requirements, leave the door open to candidates of much more modest means.

And that means the arguments count for more here than the candidate's wealth does in the USA.

If our friends – and my many relatives – across the Atlantic vote in their first female president, I for one will rejoice. If politics cannot break with the past, there is no future. Good luck Hilary.

7 June 2016

Counting on the next generation

Nicola Sturgeon has put education at the centre of her program for the new Parliament. Barely anyone sees it differently but that doesn't mean that that shared focus means there is a shared view of the way forward.

Since the SNP came into government in 2007 we have seen the gap between the achievements of pupils in our most deprived areas improve from being 36 percentage points behind our best areas to now being around 20 points behind. Still behind, so still a job to do. But progress made. And a big drop achieved in the number of pupils in our most deprived areas leaving school without any qualifications.

International experts are coming to Scotland shortly. That's good because we should always check whether others have good ideas. The introduction of a baby box for every newborn, which we promised during the election is an example. Well done Finland for showing us the way on that.

And our First Minister has also invited people from all the other political parties in Parliament to join in our mapping a way forward to higher achievement for all and a narrowing of the gap between different areas.

My pal, and previously my boss when I was Transport Minister, John Swinney has been appointed to the Education brief. That's an indication of how committed Nicola Sturgeon is to the education agenda. He is very analytical and very focussed in all that he does. His forensic skills in analysing this policy area and bringing forward new proposals that are rooted in evidence will be the mark of his time in office. That's this man. A top performer.

Personally I was not a well youngster and spent a lot of time off school. But fortunately in a house crammed with books. I read well beyond my years – a history of Scotland at about 5, my first political biography at 7, my father's medical books at 8. And always poetry and some literature.

But above all I was pretty obsessed with numbers and cryptology.

I tripped over the work of a Jewish mathetician, Jakow Trachtenberg, at an early age. Born in Odessa in 1888 he was held in a Nazi concentration camp for an astonishing 7 years – and survived. My local library had to order his book – The Trachtenberg Speed System of Basic Mathematics – specially for me.

To keep himself sane, he spent his time solving mental puzzles and developing techniques for mental arithmetic – without having to be a professor – perhaps today we would say “mental arithmetic for dummies”.

Youngsters, even of quite modest ability, can quickly frighten parents and teachers after learning a few of the Trachtenberg techniques. And with even as little as an hour's study.

I shouldn't claim this as a “magic bullet” for maths education. But it is example of what may be lying out there for us.

Thinking out of the box and into the future.

24 May 2016

A word in all your ears

Now that the hubbub of election is over, we have 51 new members of the Scottish Parliament. A larger number than at any time since Parliament resumed in 1999.

The physical heart of our institution lies in the Garden Lobby. You pass through it many times a day as you travel from one place to another. And it contains the one indispensable person in the building – Kirsty – our award-winning dispenser of caffeine.

Presently it is busy with stalls to provide information to new members, show them how our computer systems work, even to teach our monoglots a little Gaelic with which to greet visitors.

But our one universal need is to be able to articulate our constituents' concerns in Parliamentary debate and in committee. During the election, we all stood shoulder to shoulder with our agents, spouses, families and others, receiving a constant stream of advice which sculpted our discourse with electors.

When we stand to speak in Parliament, we stand alone. By our own efforts as we speak shall our colleagues – in all political parties – form a view of our capabilities. And decide how they will work with us, if at all.

The queue to make a maiden speech will not be exhausted any time soon.

So how to how to make an impression? A good impression. A lasting impression.

Humour helps. Former Tory member Bill Aitken got very frustrated with me in a debate and intervened to say, “Mr Stevenson is a very special person; he can trace his ancestry all the way back to his mother”. We all laughed – including me – and his frustration was on the Parliamentary record in memorable form.

In November last, my colleague Kevin Stewart produced a ten word contribution that captured his whole anti-nuclear weapons position, “teachers before Trident, nurses before nukes or bairns before bombs”.

It used all three rhetorical tricks that turn mere words into a speech to remember, to grab attention.

It seems that the human brain likes threes (triples). We can remember in threes. Not two ideas – less engaging. Not four ideas – too much for our short term memory.

We like certain repetitions, like Kevin's repeating the same initial letter, “bairns before bombs”. It seems to help hammer ideas into our brain (alliteration).

And we capture the debate by putting competing options close against each other, “nurses not nukes”, and in an order that advances ones' argument (antithesis).

Our new Presiding Officer, Ken McIntosh – an excellent choice – the first from the Labour benches, will be watching and advising our new brood as they launch themselves on their careers.

Reeling them in if they step beyond acceptable language, controlling the length of their speeches.

Typically they will get 6 minutes – that's 786 words for me – and the “chop” if they are much over that.

So the very old advice is the best – stand up, speak up, shut up.

And if you don't have much to say, don't say it.

10 May 2016

No "business as usual" in Parliament

by Stewart Stevenson for The Herald


Candidates are advised not to expire during the election period. That was the sobering advice offered by the handbook issued to candidates and agents by SNP HQ. Thankfully everyone – in all parties – stuck to the script and unlike the 18 who died during Parliamentary elections in the last 100 years, all candidates remain in life if not in office.

But now it's time to think not just about Government, but also about how Parliament should work. For Governments, of any complexion, should remember that they owe their office to Parliamentary decisions expressed through the views of the members elected by the public.

The first week back is swearing in and electing – in a secret ballot – the Presiding Officer and two Deputies. Week two is choosing a First Minister with week three seeing the Ministerial team in position. And then it's down to “business as usual”. Or is it?

Each new Parliament has the opportunity to look at the experience of their predecessors and move on from that. So it shouldn't simply be exactly the same as last time, it shouldn't simply be that easy option, unless we have reached a pinnacle of perfect practice. Not many, inside Parliament or outwith, will suggest that.

The Parliament's Standards, Procedures and Public Appointments Committee is where most proposals for changing Parliament's rules and practices come from. But the new session will be well under way before anything much can come from that source.

So it's down to the Presiding Officer at their hand to set Parliament on a new road. Tricia Marwick, our outgoing PO, drove change. And her successor has to show from day one that they too, will do so.

Three changes could be considered before the first parliamentary activity after getting the Government fully in post. And all could be done by the Presiding Officer directly and quickly.

From day one in the Welsh Assembly, members had a computer before them to support their activity in the debating chamber. With the technology available 17 years ago, it brought some uncomfortable constraints. At Holyrood we need to consider how technology can support us better in debates and questions. We have allowed speeches to be read from computers, and by implication adapted, during debates. But is that enough?

If it is permissible to bring a report, book, newspaper or periodical into the chamber to refer to during a debate – and it is, why not a computer? But just as reading the Beano would not be appropriate, there are many possible computer activities that would equally bring Parliament into disrepute.

The Presiding Officer can decide an initial code of conduct – operating from day one – for using technology during debates. Our Standards Committee can take a deeper look at this later.

A source of frustration for backbenchers, both opposition and government, is how one gets to ask questions of ministers. Questions to the First Minister and Topical Questions are selected by the Presiding Officer on merit and, broadly, respect the political balance of the Parliament. That's nine or so questions a week.

But the remaining 30 are by lottery. That is fair, but fails the test of providing any member beyond party leaders with any continuity, week by week, to develop a sequence of questions over time on a subject which may be of significant interest to an individual member. They can't be sure when or if, their name will come out of the hat. I once went 13 months without being selected to ask a question.

Until the Standards Committee looks at alternative systems for the Presiding Officer to consider, the PO could permit a member “winning” the chance to ask a question to pass that right on to another MSP.

Finally at the end of the last session, Parliament found itself deeply uncomfortable, or worse, when it could not formally tell Westminster that it did not like what they were doing on Trade Union legislation. Government to Government relations are well developed but Parliament to Parliament rather less so.

We need a formal way for our Presiding Officer to exchange views with Westminster on our behalf. And for MSPs to request the PO to do so.

I didn't expire during the election and I'm leaner and healthier after 400 km walking. On Thursday I shall take the oath in the same suit I wore in 2001. Elections can be good for MSPs.

6 May 2016

And Now the Work Starts


Stewart Stevenson in the Evening Express, Friday, 6th May 2016


A constituency as diverse as Banffshire and Buchan Coast presents challenges for all parties contesting an election. And besides the four of us bidding to be constituency MSPs, there were 12 options for people's regional vote. Although visiting all 59,194 eligible voters is impossible for any candidate, I certainly visited over 40 communities and met electors in each.

Royal Mail delivers an Election Address, at no cost to the candidate, to each elector. So it was very disappointing for the democratic process that six of the 12 regional list parties sent nothing to people in our area. And one of the six that did, UKip, did not tell us the name of any of their candidates.

Any candidate taking their campaigning seriously will end the campaign fitter, leaner and (perhaps!) with a sun tan. I certainly lost about 3 kilos and jogged quite a lot of the 400 or so kms that my pedometer suggests I covered on foot since 23rd March.

So it is with great pleasure when I am sworn into Parliament for the fifth time, that I shall be wearing the same suit that I wore on 13th June 2001 and on each occasion since. A good suit can last a lifetime if you look after it, and look after yourself.

When first elected to Parliament, I set myself the target of speaking to three quarters of the members in my first fortnight – and beat that target. With lots of new members this time I shall do that again. Because even with one party much bigger than others, making common cause with people in other parties on issues of shared concern is the best way to support constituents and achieve results.

And meeting constituents at my surgeries – I will soon hold my 1,000th – and elsewhere is deeply satisfying in particular when you can make a practical difference to their lives.

I thank all who voted for me. And promise those that didn't that I will be there for them when they need me.

The election is over. The hard work of the next five years starts now.

29 March 2016

Next session beckons...

Last week marked the last week of business in the Scottish Parliament before the election in May. It was an important couple of days where we were debating the Burial and Cremations Bill, the Bankruptcy (Scotland) Bill and the Abusive behaviour and Sexual Harm (Scotland) Bill.

The Burial and Cremation (Scotland) Bill is something I have been involved with during this session and this piece of legislation has now been passed. It will modernise and update 100 year old legislation introducing a definition of ashes, standardising forms and record-keeping across Scotland, clarifying the process for instructing the disposal of human remains.

I am pleased to welcome plans set out by the First Minister to freeze Scottish income tax rates, with no increases to the basic, higher or additional rates, blocking the Westminster proposed tax cuts will provide more than £1billion for public services in Scotland.

After the UK Government’s fiasco in the last weeks when Chancellor George Osborne had to back track on his proposed cuts in benefits for some of the most vulnerable people in our communities I look forward to the SNP government if re-elected tackling inequality as going “hand in hand” with boosting economic growth. Protecting the vulnerable and increased economic growth is a win, win combination.

Last week also marked my last week as your MSP for this session, it has been an honour to serve my constituents in the Banffshire & Buchan Coast and I hope to return for another session after the election on May 5th. I am sure I will meet many of you on my campaign trail.

It is with great sadness I now turn to the appalling attack on Brussels last week and my thoughts are with all those who have lost or have injured friends and families. Although the Scottish threat level has not changed we do stand ready with increased police at Scottish rail stations and airports. It is in times like these that we need to stand united against terrorist attacks that try to divide our communities and we must not let this happen.



15 March 2016

Food, Glorious Food - local and healthy

Scotland is an enormously effective producer of good food. In my constituency of Banffshire and Buchan Coast there is a large fishing and agricultural industry and throughout the country we produce meat, dairy, eggs, fruits and vegetables - the list goes on.

So it is with great disappointment to learn that in Scotland today children still go hungry and at the same time we are tackling unprecedented rates of obesity and malnutrition.

The availability of processed and calorie laden foods continues to overload our supermarket shelves and our excessive purchasing of these products is not doing the health of our nation much good. While I urge people to start buying more local fresh seasonal produce I know this is not always affordable or indeed available. This is why the Scottish government will continue to source healthy and sustainable foods for school meals so that our youngest citizens can get the best quality nutrition to support their health and learning.

The Scottish Government will also continue to work to make sure that young people know where their food comes from, how to prepare it and what good food contributes to their minds and their bodies. And we need to educate young people on how their food habits affect their environment so that they can make informed sustainable food choices.

Free school meals work hard to tackle health inequalities for children providing healthy meals five days a week, but this is not good enough when it comes to school holiday times. I am fully behind current moves to make school meals or their equivalent available during school holidays to ensure Scotland’s children do not go hungry.

However, it is not just Scotland’s children that are affected by poor diet and hunger. With the shocking UK Government austerity cuts to benefits, increasingly low paid jobs and short hours many parents don’t have the basic resources such as pots, pans or fuel to cook a healthy meal or the skills to do so. This is why educating both young people and adults is of such great importance to tackle Scotland’s health inequalities.

At the moment poor diet in Scotland costs the NHS £5.8 billion annually, this is not sustainable and we need to do something about it.

1 March 2016

Our Beautiful Coasts and Glens

With only 10 weeks to go until the Scottish General Election election, on May 5th, it is easy – at least for politicians - to get swept up in the excitement of campaigning. However, with another four weeks for this session, parliamentary work still goes on and we are busy with committees and debates and will be up until the end of March.

I am also busy in the constituency with visits and casework and will hold surgeries until the Parliamentary session ends. It's business as usual. Even as our eyes may be elsewhere.

In parliament a couple of weeks ago I spoke on the Burial and Cremation Bill. In some places, children’s ashes after cremation had not been treated with proper respect. This had happened over many decades. And that's why we are changing the law.

This is the most sensitive of subjects as it touches how individuals want to remain connected to their loved ones after they have departed this life.

We are trying to ensure that councils observe national standards for burial grounds and crematoria. We are creating a framework for undertakers – the ones I have met are already consummate, caring professionals.

And we are placing a duty on providers of burial grounds and crematoria to publish their records.

Although not the main reason for this part of the new law, it will help families over the coming centuries find out what happened to their ancestors. Not much of our legislation looks that far forward!

Last week I was delighted to attend a meeting in Macduff with the members of Banffshire Coast Tourism Partnership. They have agreed to become a full member of the Aberdeen and Aberdeenshire Tourism Company (AATC).

Michael Barclay de Tolly - from near Fyvie
That's important because, despite our undoubted natural beauties, strong cultural heritage and excellent food and drink, we're not getting our fair share of visitors. And the economic benefits they bring.

The new company's off to flying start. There will be an additional £1.5 million boost to publicise our area. The businesses that were in the room in Macduff were definitely up for it.

So we need everyone in our area to be singing the praises of what we've got – wonderful golf, miles of beaches, busy harbours, accommodation from caravan sites, boutique hotels and bustling restaurants – and, of course, the internationally renowned Traditional Boat Festival at Portsoy.

We might take all this for granted. But we mustn't assume everyone else knows.

And in Duff House at Banff, we have a venue suitable for tourist visits or for business meetings. They are particularly important because they are often in the dark months when traditional tourists are scarcer.

I trust our new company finds ways to work with new entrepreneurs in our tourism businesses. Perhaps using the achievements of folk who've gone from our area, and their offspring to intrigue and attract.

Elvis Presley's folks from Lonmay. The founder of Mitsubishi, Thomas Blake Glover from the Broch. Michael Barclay de Tolly – the Czar's Field Marshal who defeated Napoleon. And whiskies galore.

16 February 2016

5G first for those without any G please

Last week I took part in a Scottish Government debate on mobile and broadband coverage in the Islands and rural communities. There is no doubt that we are now a society dependent on connectivity. In my constituency it is of the utmost importance that people are able to connect through broadband or a mobile signal, without this it can become near impossible for local people and commerce to go about their business.

For example it took me 40 minutes to book my railway ticket to parliament online last week. This is the type of typical challenge facing many of my constituents.

In parliament the majority of our workload is now online, more so now with a ‘paperless parliament’ where we are trying to limit our paper usage. This is great for me, as when I come to the Scottish Parliament my broadband speed increases by a factor of 800 compared to at home. However, my work as an MSP is in both Holyrood and in my rural constituency and the work has to go on regardless of my broadband speed. If this is a challenge for me, I know it is for my constituents and for businesses in my area.

However, it is with great delight to hear from Digital Scotland that by the end of 2017 they aim to have 95% of homes and businesses across Scotland with access to fibre broadband.

Of course there will still be 5% that don’t have access and work on this remaining 5% is expected to start after 2018. At the moment solutions for those connected to exchange only lines are being found, but there are still those rurally where it doesn’t make economic sense for providers to give solutions. This is why Digital Scotland will support community led solutions to tackle this in more remote areas. For the moment exchange only lines will continue to deny people access to the same service as the majority of Scotland.

The issues are not only for Broadband but also extent to mobile usage in the islands and rural communities, where I live I get no mobile signal and also have slow broadband speeds. We are heading the 5th generation of our mobile signal and at the moment I can’t get 1G, 2G, 3G or 4G ! Perhaps the solution is that in the next roll out of mobile coverage we focus on those communities that currently have no coverage or at least no good coverage. There is no doubt to me that improved connectivity will keep business and people in rural areas.

2 February 2016

Nothing Vicious Please!

One of the key tasks we are sent to Parliament to undertake is to legislate.

Making, amending and reviewing our laws is not a matter simply for lawyers. It may affect the daily lives of each and every one of us.

Our Parliamentary committees are where much of the “heavy lifting” of forming and reforming our law takes place. Presently one of the bills I am involved in is the Succession (Scotland) Bill.

We are seeking to put into law technical amendments recommended by the Scottish Law Commission. They've been looking at this highly complex area of law for some considerable time. Their first report on the subject was in 1990 and the more recent only six years ago.

Succession is about what happens to your property, and your debts, when you die. It is ferociously difficult and we expect a full scale piece of new law to look widely at fundamental reform. But that won't come for a few years yet.

Meantime what we are doing is fine tuning and is limited to matters our political parties agree about.

So it was a bit surprising on hearing a lawyer's evidence to our committee to realise that I was a “vicious intromitter”.

An in-law died some time ago with a small bank balance and no property. They had left a simple will saying her two daughters should inherit. So I divvied up the money and passed it to them. Job done. No lawyers and no “confirmation” via a court. And that's how most very small estates are dealt with.

But in failing to gain a “confirmation” I had become a “vicious intromitter”. I remain liable – forever – if anyone thinks I have done the wrong thing.

The real issue in our work is that we are trying to make things simpler and more easily understandable. But we simply can't avoid complication when people don't make a will.

If your relatives make decisions after you pass on without using lawyers or court, they too will be “vicious intromitters”. But if you've left them a will to give them instructions they shouldn't lose sleep over it. The consequences for them are unlikely to be “vicious” in any sense.

I am also looking to make common cause for sensible debate in the Scottish elections in about 14 weeks time. Nothing “vicious” here please!

After my party's success of the Westminster elections last year, my focus is in encouraging people in our part of the North East and across Scotland to make sure they are registered to vote. And then going to actually vote. During the referendum we had an overall voter turnout of 84.5%. It is vital to the democratic process that everyone’s voice is heard.

This will also be the first Scottish election where 16/17 years olds will be able to vote. I know there is enthusiasm for that.

I am excited to meet as many people as possible over the coming weeks, to encourage voter participation and, of course, to encourage people to vote for taking Scotland forward and continue the work we started in 2007.

19 January 2016

Wet, Wet, Wet

It’s not been the best start to the New Year weather wise. The past seven days have been dreadful and the resulting damage caused by flooding last week will take months to repair.

In the short term the North East has faced huge travel disruptions whether you are travelling by car, train or bus. This has affected me personally and for many thousands of people across my constituency.

In the past few days we have seen images and videos of severe weather showing people stranded in their homes, shots of roads under water and roads washed away and even a video of a static caravan being washed down the river Dee.
First Minister Nicola in Inverurie
(© 2016 Sunday Post)
However, it is in times like these I am proud to see the hard work of the people of Scotland helping others and getting on with the job that has been, albeit unwanted, presented to us. The dedication of the emergency responders who have continued to work tirelessly over past few days to protect our communities has been excellent.

Despite the constant stream of weather warnings from the MET office and SEPA we have also been overwhelmed by stories of community spirit across the North East, with people opening their doors for those who have faced damage to their homes.

There is no doubt that the effects of recent flooding will have been devastating for some. Families have been forced to leave their homes, schools have faced temporary closure and some businesses were forced to close their doors while weather warnings were in place.

The Scottish Government has announced £235 million to protect 10,000 properties affected by flooding and is providing a further £12million to support communities recovering from flooding, which residents in my Banffshire and Buchan Coast constituency can apply for if their properties have been damaged by floods, this will be available from local authorities.

Over the weekend I was able to visit areas in my constituency that have been affected by the weather. While other nearby communities have been affected very severely and been the focus of much effort, individual householders and businesses in Banffshire and Buchan Coast can also apply for financial assistance. Our thoughts should be with our friends elsewhere in the North East and in England. We are immensely grateful to all those who have and continue to give their time to help those in need.

I can't let the passing of Sir Albert McQuarrie go without acknowledging his public service right up to recent times. I used to meet him quite often and make common cause where we could agree. Respect should cross political boundaries and although there were fundamental issues of difference between us, I absolutely recognise his integrity and his efforts for our communities.

5 January 2016

Backwards and Forwards

This is a time of year for looking backwards at achievements. And for looking forward to challenges.

For an SNP politician, 2015 was dominated by our success in the May election for Westminster. While in 2016 we face the challenge of elections to our Parliament in Scotland.

Banffshire and Buchan Coast covers a large and varied area from Buckie to Boddam. It is intensely rural in parts but with major settlements. Employment is varied – farming, oil, fishing, engineering and education adding to the usual mix of professional and social services found in every area.

Today, as for more than a century, many “work away”. On oil production rigs off our own shore and on exploration rigs around the world. On fishing vessels from our own ports and from ports further afield.

We know we are a “get up and go” community with (probably) the highest proportion of self-employed of any constituency in Scotland.

We are a diverse community with all our secondary schools having around 20 or more languages in them. That's not new.

The Peterhead Post Office Directory for 1853 (you can read it via http://www.nls.uk) tells me that the population of Peterhead was then 8,242 of whom only 263 were on the electoral roll – simpler days for political canvassing in the 1852 election!

And we were international then with a Swedish and Norwegian consul, a Danish and Hanoverian consul and a Prussian consul in Peterhead appointed to look after those countries' local interests.

Although we will still have more employed in fish processing than five years ago after the planned and substantial loss of jobs at Youngs in Fraserburgh, the Government task force has a job to do.

We probably depend too much on our factories working for others and not enough on developing our own brands which customers can see on our supermarket shelves. It's a long term project to change that. Few buyers of smoked salmon in Sainsbury's will realise that by the end of 2016 it will have been processed in Fife and in Poland and no longer in Fraserburgh.

In our Parliament, as is common at the end of a session, we are intensely busy with legislation.

I have just taken a new Act through Holyrood that tweaks the way in which MSPs report their finances and tightens up the regime. This means The Scottish Parliament is leading the way in transparency and accountability. The Act will make the financial interests of members easier to find, hopefully to giving more confidence to the public in who they elect.

And we are abolishing “mournings” as a permitted expense in calculating wills after death. Essentially a Victorian creation, the formal dressing for mourning took its lead from the Queen who remained in black for the rest of her life after her husband died.

In 1853 Robert Anderson of Marischall Street in Peterhead were one of the shops advertising "Family Mournings" in the Post Office Directory. Nowadays many funeral invitations insist on bright coloured clothes to celebrate the life of the departed.

In 2016, it will be first time 16 and 17 years olds anywhere in the UK will vote for members of Parliament. They tell me they're looking forward to it.

Have a successful 2016.

Stewart Stevenson
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