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7 November 2017

Chefs for the North East

After two weeks of recess, the Scottish Parliament was in full swing this week with debates on farming and convergence payments, Brexit and the return of First Minister’s Questions.

It is clear the growing concern about our exit from the European Union on industries including farming and fishing are going to continue. I was pleased to take part in the debate about convergence payments and express fears about how Scottish farmers are going to be treated by the UK Government once a deal on Brexit is finally agreed.

During the recess period from the Scottish Parliament it became clear that newly-elected MP Douglas Ross would have to make a decision on his job as a parliamentarian and as a football referee. He failed to appear at a crucial debate on Universal Credit last week and chose instead to help referee a Champions League fixture in Barcelona.

After public pressure, he confirmed he would not be accepting refereeing appointments while parliament is still sitting – but still intends to referee fixtures at the weekend. Mr Ross should honour his commitment and properly fulfil his duties as the constituency member of parliament for Moray. His decision is an overdue but welcome first step but it is still not good enough.

Parliamentary duties, as any politician knows, don’t stop as soon as you leave Westminster or Holyrood. The work that we do in our constituency is as, if not more important. Mr Ross should be concentrating on his first job of representing his constituents not his second job of running the line. Until then, he is short-changing the people who elected him.

Meanwhile, I was delighted to hear of plans by Opportunity North East (ONE) to make the North-East a gastro go-to region recently. The chief executive of the body set up in the wake of the oil price crash, Jennifer Craw, said the organisation hoped to attract celebrity chefs like Heston Blumenthal and Nigella Lawson to come to the area and cook with our produce in events which could run throughout the course of a week.

The message was simply one of trying to find a way to tell the story of the North-East through the food and drink we have to offer. From how we land fish, to how we supply beef. Inspiration for this is being taken from the Australian Margaret River Festival and is all part of the bid to turn the area into a leisure destination. It was clear from Ms Craw’s interview on the matter that the focus is a bid to move from business trade to leisure. Of course we get many visitors from all over the world to see our historic castles and other tourist hotspots.

26 September 2017

Twenty Years of Real Progress under Threat

Last week marked the 20th year mark of Scotland’s devolution referendum.

This week saw the UK Government release a list of the 111 powers being returned from Brussels and denied to Holyrood by them as a result of the EU Withdrawal Bill.

The powers denied range from agriculture to regulation of fracking.

The denial of these powers isn’t a positive sign for devolution or for Scotland’s economy. We continue to see how the UK Government sees Scottish interests – namely that they are unimportant.

These powers affect all aspects of Scotland but critically they heavily influence our economy. Scottish interests should be dictated by people living and working here, by the people elected in this country – who better to represent Scottish interests than the people themselves?

It appears that the UK Government is asking for Scotland to trust them to protect Scotland’s interests despite having a track record of ignoring them.

Simply consider the fact that the UK Government has kept the Scottish Government in the dark since the beginning of the process of exiting the European Union. The Fraser Allander Institute warns that leaving the EU is the “greatest cloud on the immediate horizon”. It continues to be a problem because the UK Government failed to work with the Scottish Government and refuses to keep Scotland in the loop.

But I can be more specific than that. Take agriculture, recently the UK was awarded the sum of £190 million for what is called a convergence uplift for farming.

The UK qualified for the increased funding because the UK-wide average was low.

The reason the UK was below that threshold was because of Scotland’s average particularly was well below the threshold.

However, the UK Government has decided that instead of investing the money in Scotland – they spread the funding to areas that already had a sufficiently high level of funding across the UK. The result is that by 2019 Scotland will have the lowest average rate of per hectare funding compared to any country within the EU. The Scottish Government’s response through Fergus Ewing, was this, “that money is due to Scottish hill farmers. That money was taken by the UK Government. It is Scotland’s money and we want it back.”

One would expect that a situation like this is fairly clear cut. The money was meant for Scottish farmers and it should go to Scottish farmers. The UK Government has yet to receive the message. In fact, Michael Gove has said that, “The money has been baked into the current system”. £160 million pounds taken from Scottish farmers and he thinks he can brush it under the rug with a cooking metaphor – Not good enough.

If this is the kind of behaviour we can expect from Westminster then it is critical that powers returning from Brussels come back to Scotland. If we fail to ensure that outcome, I fear we will be seeing much more of this for Scotland. That’s an outcome that doesn’t favour anyone living here.

12 September 2017

Working on the Day Job

The Scottish Parliament is now back in full swing after summer recess with the announcement of this year’s Programme for Government.

There is much to be proud of what’s contained in the pages of this ambitious document, including pledges to make improvements on the environment, education and health.

I was delighted that an area I am passionate about, that of organ and tissue donation, was also included.

The Organ and Tissue Donation Bill will establish a “soft” opt-out system for the authorisation of organ and tissue donation and is designed to allow more lives to be saved by organ donation.

It is an issue I have written passionately about before in these pages.

Ambitious targets were also set out for the reduction of greenhouse gas emissions while low emissions zones will be placed in Scotland’s four biggest cities by 2020.

There was also an announcement by the First Minister regarding my own constituency of Banffshire and Buchan Coast.

St Fergus will benefit from a new Scottish CCS (Carbon Capture Initiative), the Acorn Project, which has secured €1.9million under a European Union science funding stream for ACT (Accelerate CCS Technologies) to take forward the feasibility phase of a CCS demonstrator project at the site.

Since more than £1billion of funding was suddenly pulled for CCS funding at Peterhead Power Station by the UK Government in 2015, there has not been any indication of when, if ever, the plans might be resumed.

The Minister for Business, Innovation and Energy Paul Wheelhouse told me that the UK Government are now developing a new policy on CCS and are in regular contact with UK counterparts to press for a robust policy framework on the technology.

It is hoped the fresh look will create a deliverable programme for this technology.

As we move towards a low carbon economy, we must look at alternative energy technologies to meet these targets.

The muted plans for Peterhead Power Station would have brought huge investment to the local economy and potentially hundreds of jobs.

At a time when the oil price was continuing to drop, the project would also have gone some of the way to mitigating losses from the industry.

So we must look with excitement at the plans by the Scottish Government at St Fergus for it is a positive step in the right direction towards capitalising on this technology in the North-East.

We must be working with Westminster to deliver a sustainable energy supply for both Scotland and the UK.

And finally, I was delighted to note the Aberdeen City Region has been selected by the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) as one of only six pilot areas within the UK – and the only one in Scotland – to share £10million of funding towards gigabit fibre broadband to business premises.


It is imperative we improve broadband for all, including in Aberdeenshire too, which will go a long way for residents in rural towns in particular.

18 August 2017

Press & Journal Column

"Time for Teamwork"

The art of politics over the past two thousand years seems to have evolved for the most part as a method of making decisions which don’t result in killing one another.

And over time it has become a fundamental way of involving citizens in the making of important changes that affect our future.

Our political system is most tested in times of crisis and because we continue to live in an imperfect world it rarely throws up perfect answers.

It was 70 years ago, when Prime Minister Winston Churchill, said: “Democracy is the worst form of Government except for all those other forms.”

Now, on both sides of the Atlantic, democracy is being tested again.

In the USA Republican Senator Jeff Flake writes about President Trump’s actions; “We degrade our politics enough as it is without turning our democracy over to carnival barkers and reality television.”

Here the test is about making the right decisions about how life outwith the EU will look.

Whatever side of previous debates on the subject you might lie, it’s likely that you would agree that it is the biggest decision for us since the end of the Second World War.

So it is disappointing that rather than extend the debate to include and respond to, where possible, the widest range of the undoubtedly diverse views that exist on the matter, we are seeing decision-making shrinking into a diminishing circle with Number 10 Downing Street at its centre.

Minority Governments – Westminster is one – are exposed to obvious difficulties when seeking to gain acceptance for their policies and proposals. Even more so when they seek to legislate in areas which are the responsibility of other Governments. In this case those of Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales. And where each of those are led by other political parties.

So what to do, to do differently?

First ensure there is a shared purpose. In the Second World War, a Government of national unity was able to coalesce around the unifying need to defeat the Nazis.

With the Government in London still well short of their having a shared view of the appropriate post-EU destination, the prospect of cross-government, cross-party unity until the crisis is over may seem distant.

Thus far it has been Governments that have been at the centre of the debate, the disagreements.

But the direct result of elections, of the exercise of democracy, is a parliament with all its variety of opinion and character.

Governments are an indirect outcome. So perhaps it’s time to search for how the Parliaments may help to arrive at the best available outcome.

If Parliaments become a direct part of framing the debate, of finding the answer, it will be more difficult for them to avoid endorsing the outcome.

Thus we can get beyond the current stasis of decision-making and start the task of adapting to the new world as yet undescribed.

We have legislation on the table at Westminster. Like in Edinburgh the hard graft of detailed examination and amendment will take place in a Parliamentary Committee. With the sponsors of the Bill, the UK Government, at the end of the table having to account for and explain their policy decisions, the final shape of a Parliamentary Act is formed. And all political parties are involved.

So why not take that one stage further. Since the Parliaments in Belfast, Cardiff and Edinburgh will be asked to approve the legislation, why not take steps to ensure we reach the finish post with all views having been heard and dealt with?

It may be time for a Cross-Parliaments Committee – an EU Legislation Grand Committee – to take the Bill, and related Bills, forward.

Novel? The civil servants’ most hated of words according to the TV series Yes Minister. Not totally.

Scottish Parliament Committees I have been previously been a member of have met jointly with Parliaments in Australia, New Zealand and – yes – Westminster. All worked well using video-conferencing.

Joint decision-making would be new but not beyond reach.

If Westminster asks for approval for a complex Act the other Parliaments have played no part in? Difficult.

There are people of good heart in all political parties and all Parliaments.

Faced with the “what type of Brexit?” challenge, democracy has to keep evolving. Or it will fail.



“Spell it out”

My favourite people in Parliament are the Official Report. The genius wordsmiths who work there turn our speeches into something readable. “Umms” and “Arrs” and bad grammar disappear. Whether it’s sensible is for MSPs.

They have every available dictionary on their shelf. My favourite is the Oxford Dictionary. Its 20 volumes have every word ever used in English. But there are gaps in the language where a word is waiting to be coined.

In the modern world with computers storing every piece of information, every word spoken or written – my 701 Parliamentary speeches have 572,575 words in them – it would be easy to be overwhelmed by the sheer volume thrown at us. Until 8th June 2006 there was no word for the condition of being thus burdened.

MSP Bruce Crawford set me the challenge of getting a new word we coined for this – “cumsnuggered” – officially recognised. The opportunity came when Parliament published 15,000 MSP expense receipts and I could suggest that journalists searching them for a story would be cumsnuggered.

With the Official Report accepting it as a new word, not merely slang, it’s now in the National Library of Scotland’s legal copy of our proceedings. The Oxford Dictionary next?



“Moving On”

With the Aberdeen Western Peripheral Route moving to completion before our eyes, it’s time to ask “what next?”. Upgrades for the A90 to Peterhead and Fraserburgh are needed.

And with Buchan being the largest part of Scotland with none of an airport, ferry port nor railway the answer’s obvious – some trains.

With the huge success in both passenger numbers and economic benefit from the Borders Railway we have a model for Buchan Rail. Soundings suggest there are people of all political persuasions who agree.

The former line from Dyce to Newmachar and Ellon would be a sensible first phase before driving a new route north. The old track bed is available and there are few bridges needing attention so it’s probably the cheapest significant new rail development available anywhere.

Join it up to the park and ride east of Ellon and you create something of huge utility.

The AWPR at over £700 million is the biggest public sector investment in the North East for many years – indeed perhaps ever.

Buchan Rail would cost much less and deliver a great deal for residents and the local economy.

15 August 2017

Renewing Our Offshore Success

When we think about the renewable projects the North East has to look forward to finally coming to fruition it’s peculiar to think their impact has had wide enough reach for discussion by not one, but two, very well-known US politicians.

One you will be familiar with for his dogged determination to axe the European Offshore Wind Deployment Centre project led by Vattenfall at Blackdog from marking the shores which lie in front of his golf course.

The other, got pipped to the post by former US Secretary of State Hilary Clinton for the democratic nomination in last year’s election.

I am of course talking about Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders.

In the past few weeks Mr Sanders has heralded Scotland’s success with renewables as well as looking to point out Trump’s opposition.

He said: “Again and again, we see other countries rising to the challenge of climate change. In Scotland, wind turbines have generated 57% of their total energy needs during the first six months of 2017.

“In the month of June alone, Scotland managed to generate over one million megawatt hours of electricity, enough to power 118% of Scottish homes. Their goal is to reach a 100% renewable energy system by the year 2020.

“Just a few years ago, Trump sued Scotland because an offshore windfarm would ruin the view from one of his golf courses.”


It may simply be political point scoring on Sanders part but it is right Vattenfall’s project should produce such discussion because it reminds us the technology which is being used is in fact a world first.

Aberdeenshire is producing a project which will be a world-first in new technology. We have much to offer in this sector and our ability to support and lead on these projects is clear.
Which brings me to my next point of discussion.

And that is to toast the success of Peterhead Port Authority who have been awarded a contract which will see them play a prominent role in the final stages of the project’s development.

Both the turbine foundations and one of the world’s largest floating cranes to be used for the project are to be marshalled at the harbour.

The agreement means the company will harbour the suction bucket jacket foundations for the 11-turbine scheme.

The crane, which is one of the world’s largest, will have a maximum lifting capacity of 5,000 tonnes and up to six barges which will transport the 11 foundations.

This is an exciting venture for Peterhead Port to be involved in and it is terrific to see it, and others, gain key contracts for these renewable projects.

The North East can truly be at the centre of renewable technology and we clearly have the backing of the companies leading the way in this regard.

As Iain Laidlaw, the chief executive of Peterhead Port Authority said, Peterhead has indeed been an integral part of the UK’s energy industry.

But he added that EWODC represents a “new chapter” in the vital role the energy sector plays in supporting the national economy.

He is right of course, we are on the cusp of something new and exciting and we are helping to lead the way.

1 August 2017

Threat to our energy industry

The north-east has had a challenging three years brought on by the impact of the global oil and gas downturn.

Pace is slowly but surely picking up once more and many businesses are hinting that the worst could be over.

But it is this very industry, which has proudly led to the region being dubbed Europe’s oil capital over the past five decades, which could now be hit once more by Brexit.

A new report was published recently by the think tank Centre for Cities which showed the profound effect of our exit from the European Union.

The findings were stark in revealing the north=east will be faced with very real economic challenges from either a hard or soft Brexit.

The analysis echoes warnings which have already come from industry body Oil and Gas UK.

In a report on Brexit only a couple of months ago its chief executive said there could be an additional £500 million every year because of changes to trade agreements.

Sectors including oil and gas, food and drink and the health and social care sector will all have considerably more difficulty in a post-Brexit economy.

And the damaging effect of a hard Brexit on our universities and colleges will further impact on the local economy.

We are currently in a state of limbo where we are unsure of what the future holds for many of our sectors.

The UK’s Brexit department has claimed they have bold and ambitious plans for a free trade deal.

Andrew Carter, the chief executive for the Centre for Cities, said Aberdeen will see the biggest reduction in economic output because of the oil industry’s dominance in the city.

The financial and business services which support the sector will also be hit hard by the tariffs.

As we have learnt in recent years, it is diversification which is needed to improve our economy in the coming years.

It will be this continuing challenge to widen our industrial structure in the years ahead which will help as we try to be less reliant on one sector.

This is going to be crucial in order for the north-east to continue to thrive once we leave the EU.

But the most important thing is that the UK Government does it all it can to minimise the economic shocks by securing the best possible trade deals we can do with the European Union.

North-east businesses must have assurances that any trade deals are also as similar to the current relationship we have with the European Union as possible.

18 July 2017

Berries from the Roadside

Today I undertook a duty and combined it with a little pleasure. Although the final target for my tax return is, like everyone, the last day of January, the last piece of information I needed popped through my letter box last week. So I got it out of the way at the weekend.

The pleasure was the walk on a beautiful summer’s day to my nearest postbox – about 4 Km away – to send it to HMRC. And the wild raspberries ripe by the roadside enroute.

With nephews and nieces living in four other countries with different tax policies I can see some of their effects.

In Sweden and in Denmark my relatives pay much more in income tax but are living in some of the happiest nations in the world. And are experiencing a substantially higher standard of living than here.

In Queensland, Australia the tax/income balance is similar to here but in a country with so much space, it is much cheaper to buy a plot of land to build on. So owning a house is much easier.

While in England my nieces and my cousin should pay on average about £400 more each year in Council Tax than they would in Scotland. And, as average earners, a very little less in income tax than we do.

But were any of them to want to start a business, the picture is very favourable to Scotland. With our small businesses paying no Business Rates at all, it is so much easier to get going here than for our friends – and relatives – south of the border.

And with small businesses – north and south of the border – being in total a large source of employment, it may be no surprise that our employment numbers are so much better here in Scotland. In particular for young folk just starting their working lives – we’re in the top 3 areas of Europe.

Nineteen out of twenty leave education to a positive destination – a job, further study, etc.

Because government having tax income enables positive policies for individuals and communities.

Contrast ourselves – UK, not just Scotland – in our approach to providing health care for our citizens with the USA where I also have many relatives, albeit a bit more distant.

The costs associated with health care in the USA amount to about 15% of the country’s income. No other developed country spends more than 10%. And yet their outcomes are dramatically poorer, particularly around pregnancy outcomes for both mothers and children.

And given that health costs bear heavily on businesses there, it is a real drag on the US economy. And the biggest source of personal bankruptcy.

A wealthy elite in the USA led by an – this is as charitable as I be – eccentric and irrational billionaire President wants to take 20+ million of their citizens out of state supported health care so that their taxes can be cut.

So when I posted my tax return, I remembered that my money’s going to good cause, health care for all.

4 July 2017

Organ Donation - One of the Greatest Gifts a Person Can Give

In the final week of parliament before the Summer recess began legislation which is very close to my heart was passed in the Scottish Parliament.

It means a soft opt-out system will be introduced in the matter of organ and tissue donation.

The subject is a matter which I have spoken passionately about in the Chamber before and has been informed by my own experience.

Not of course, the experience of organ donation, but the experience of donating by a deceased relative.

When my father-in-law, who was a nurse, died suddenly at the early age of 54, his widow and their daughters felt there could be no better tribute to the life he led than by authorising for his organs to be donated to help the lives of others.

His body was donated to medical science so that students could benefit from intimate knowledge of the human body during their training.

A year after his passing, an invitation arrived from the students who had benefited from his donation to join them at the cremation of his remains.

Jim’s granddaughter – now a nurse- is state transplant coordinator in Queensland, Australia.

Like many others, prior to the death of my father-in-law, organ donation had not been something I gave much thought about.

And of course it is something that very often many people do not wish to think about.

But my intentions and instructions to my executors are now both clear and unambiguous.

They are to reuse everything in any way that could benefit others.

All my close relatives know that and my driving licence has the 115 code on the back that can tell others about my registration.

Figures revealed recently show that the move has been backed by 82% of those who contributed towards the consultation.

During the 14-week consultation period, various ways were assessed of how to increase the number of people being referred to the donation services in Scotland.

In Scotland, both organ and/or tissue donation after a person’s death only occurs if they have given advance authorisation or if their nearest relative authorises on their behalf.

But a soft opt-out – or deemed authorisation system – means that a donation can go ahead if the person has not opted out or told their family they do not wish to donate.

I believe the decision to legislate for a soft opt-out system is great news for our health service.

With the incredible help of donors and their families, NHS Scotland has already made great progress, including a 34% increase in donors in the past year alone.

Scotland has the highest donor rate in the UK.

It would of course be remiss of me to not acknowledge this powerful act of selflessness which comes from these often tragic circumstances.

We must forever appreciate the selfless acts of donors and their families that enable others to live because organ and tissue donation saves lives and is one of the greatest gifts a person can give.

20 June 2017

An Upside Down World

One of the things that comes with my being a member of parliament is travel between Banffshire and Edinburgh. About 11 hours each week on trains. And that’s where I am as I write.

There many distractions – the tea trolley has just been round and the beaker of refreshing liquid sits before me. Other passengers are plugged into their music – an irritating percussion, sans all melody, invades my space.

Even in this electronic age, printed newspapers still can be bought. I find myself reading a neighbour’s – upside down. It’s a skill I acquired in another life before politics – and which remains of value.

And in the aftermath of the most depressing election campaign in the 55 years since my first, we have an upside down world which needs to be turned right-side up. Most people haven’t learnt to read upside down yet.

In Scotland, the Tories are celebrating after being left with less than a quarter of the available seats while my SNP colleagues are nearly three times as numerous. While at Westminster the great gamble – to increase Teresa May’s power and authority – has become the great scramble – to hold onto power after having to cede authority. The prospect of a great alliance between Tories and DUP is an unedifying one.

After the election I only know one thing the Tories are against and know nothing of what they are for. My house, and that of others around me, received no communication from the Tory candidate and nothing about their plans.

But that is essentially froth. We are leaving the EU. And as I write, four days before negotiations start, not one of us – and I suspect no Tory MP beyond the Cabinet, perhaps not even all of them – knows what the label on the exit door says. Because there are many possible ways out.

Economists are (almost) universally against our leaving the single market when we leave the EU. Why?

We are a very successful exporting nation. In particular in food and drink. And for us in the North East that is a particularly vital interest.

It will be of no value if our fishermen are able to catch more fish because we have left the Common Fisheries Policy if we compromise any of our ability to sell into our most valuable markets – Spain, France and the rest – through our wonderful products being delayed – and losing quality – as they wait in queues to clear customs and have certificates of origin verified.

And it threatens our processing industries if fisherman land fish in other countries – as many already do and may increasingly do – and deprive us of the employment and profit we need to earn.

It’s been many months since I suggested that Scotland’s fisheries minister leads for the UK on that part of the negotiations. With the Tories loss of their majority it’s time for imagination, collaboration and openness about our EU exit objectives.

And perhaps in an upside-down world, more polishing up of my (upside-down) reading skills in the hope that I might learn more what of the Westminster Tories are up to.

6 June 2017

Manchester

Like many, I have connections with the North of England. A grandmother was born in Northumberland in 1868. And today I have the families of two cousins and of a niece for whom Manchester is their nearest big city. A best friend who grew up in the streets from which the bomber came.

None of us will be without connections to such a real world, and wonder about the criminal actions of people who wish to attack innocent citizens in the name of a perversion of true belief.

Manchester is a very large city but events there have reached into a Scottish island community of about 1,200. Barra has always been one of my favourite islands and I can shut my eyes and hear the sighing of Atlantic waves beating the sand at Tangusdale beach.

Today it is the sighing of two families from there - one experiencing tragic loss of one of their own - one now supporting a child cruelly injured on what should have been an exciting day out to a concert.

Barra has known loss before. The modern war memorial that stands on the hill overlooking Castlebay on the road to Vatersay contains the names of the many who fell in last centuries’ wars. A disproportionate share.

Our then enemies lie here too, with German sailors whose remains had been swept ashore on Barra being memorialised in a local cemetery.

And what now?

A significant contingent of firearms trained police from Scotland have travelled to Manchester to assist. We’ve been the biggest source of outside assistance to our friends down south. Last year the Scottish Government had been criticised for upping the numbers such trained police. But it seems, sadly, that we do need them in a modern world.

After a couple of days “lock-down”, but with business continuing, the Scottish Parliament is, like other parts of Scotland and the UK, back to normal.

But the normal to which we return is one where the security threat is now only considered severe. For a couple of days it was critical.

So it remains important that we continue with normal life while each and every one of us is vigilant.

We must not allow the very tiny number of people who represent a threat to our way of life and to people in our communities to make any headway at all.

Postscript.

Since I wrote on Wednesday about Manchester, we have now seen the people of London suffer over the weekend. I can do no better than quote their Mayor who said that his city “will never be cowed by terrorism". We shall all be with him on that.

23 May 2017

A War on Pensioners?

At the outset it would be as well before I write about pensioners, to remind you all that I am one of the three septuagenarians in Parliament.

I meet lots of pensioners who find life pretty hard. And many more of my age group vote than those under 25. About 30 percentage points more.

So with a general election on, one might imagine that the interests of those who are most likely to vote would receive the most careful attention from all. But perhaps not.

The Conservatives have three proposals that may tip, over time, more pensioners into dire straits.

They want to cut the link that the state pension currently has with inflation. That protects pensioners to fair degree from rises in the cost of living. The SNP certainly has committed to keep the link and I believe both Labour and Liberal Democrats agree.

In England and Wales, the Conservatives want to stop paying every pensioner a winter fuel allowance.

And finally, former Conservative Prime Minister David Cameron’s proposal to cap the cost of care for our older citizens – in Scotland, personal care is free – a proposal that many pensioners favoured, is to be scrapped by Theresa May if she wins her election.

Scotland has taken a different path and we need to protect our right to do so.

Free personal care - introduced by Labour and Liberal Democrats - protected by the SNP, came from our Scottish Parliament.

Prescription charges have been abolished – we don’t tax the sick.

We have business rates scheme that means a huge number of our small businesses no longer pay anything.

And our students do not need to pay fees for their education.

All choices we have made that have broad cross-party support and come from our making decisions that suit our needs.

People will vote – and I hope you do – based on a number of factors.

But I hope no one will vote for candidates that don’t spell out what their party plans to do in their leaflets and election addresses. Some seem empty of their plans.

This time the policies for social support – something each and every one of us will need at some point in our lives – seem to be more divergent between the parties than ever before.

I suspect you don’t need me to dwell on my view that Victorian values are not for me. Nor are the 1950s – I lived through them and still remember rationing among many things from those days to now forget and leave behind – of any attraction to me.

As we leave the EU we need to consider whether a party we might support has any plans that will protect our industries and protect the rights of our citizens.

But whatever decision you come to. Do try to vote. My preference is well known. Yours is yours alone.

9 May 2017

Prediction is difficult, especially about the future

When I sit down to write these words it can be at various times of day in various locations. This Wednesday evening I am on the train from Edinburgh bound for Huntly station where my car is parked.

By the time of publication, quite a lot will have happened. We shall have elected a new Council, and the Westminster election will be a week closer to a conclusion.

One of our famous Scots is the Brahan Seer. And if he had been kind enough to include in his predictions the results of the two elections to come I could write about them confidently and informatively. I can’t.

But I can write about politicians. As someone who worked for a bank for 30 years – as a computer specialist rather than a banker – some suggest that I moved from banking to politics to improve my reputation. Being active in politics does not earn one much esteem. It should.

Last time I looked there were some 300 political parties registered with the Electoral Commission. Most will never achieve electoral success. Most you will never hear of. Just over a dozen, including the Northern Irish parties, are serious players.

And here’s the point. Almost everyone who stands for elected office in their name does so because they want to improve the lot of their fellow citizens. I don’t need to use the fingers of a second hand to count those I have met who stand for their own selfish reasons.

So in that spirit I thank all who stood in the Council elections. Regardless of their political philosophy or policies. I draw the line only against those who discriminate against others for what they are rather than what they do.

And Councillors have the most thankless job in public life. They are paid well under the average wage and the best of them work so many hours that they earn below the minimum wage per hour. And have little staff support to help them do their job.

Hundreds of candidates failed to be elected. But spent 100s of hours without reward on the campaign trail. And friends and party colleagues will have multiplied that.

The recent Presidential election in the United States saw the two main contenders spend over a billion dollars between them. Our election costs are trivial by comparison and for Council you can stand, and the occasional candidate can win, without spending anything but their own time.

To the newly elected I say, you will meet people in distress – listen, empathise and keep any promise you make to them. Enjoy your moment of electoral success and remember the disappointed losers who stand behind you waiting for your first slip, hoping that it tumbles you from office next time.

And to the losers, especially those who previously tasted office, heartfelt thanks for putting yourself forward for the most wearing, sometimes irrational, job interview in your life.

Pick out the good bits from the experience and prepare for next time.

The Brahan Seer was boiled in oil for daring to predict the future.

I won’t try.

25 April 2017

Protecting Local Services

Earlier this month I wrote to the Chief Executive of Aberdeenshire Council to call for a rethink on plans to axe night watchmen from Macduff Harbour.

Thankfully, the decision has been given a reprieve and the possibility of what happens next will be discussed at the beginning of June by councillors.

The decision would have meant rather than have the two night watchmen there would be CCTV instead.

But I believe a move like that would be to undermine the progress which has been made for Macduff Port in recent years.

We cannot allow for investment which assists the future development of the port and then make a step which would be retrograde and detrimental both to the port and to the fishermen.

The issue has already raised concerns from the Scottish White Fish Association (SWFA) which represents more than 1,400 fishermen across Scotland.

It is important to outline why the watchmen are so important when noting some of the progress which has been made recently.

Due to legislation surrounding landings at Macduff, there has been a significant increase to the effect that January and February landings exceeded the landings of the entire previous year.

From all the information I have been given it is clear that removal of the watchmen would have a negative effect on the use of the harbour as boats no longer have the facility to speak out to the watch regarding the available draft or for assistance in tying up.

It would be particularly unhelpful if positive progress made in the last couple of years by the council in developing the harbour were to be undermined by the removal of the watch facility.

Another constituency issue which struck a chord with me in recent weeks was the decision by BT to remove 85 phone boxes from across Aberdeenshire.

It means across Scotland one in five phone boxes will be removed.

We have already seen services such as a number of banks being announced for closure and once again we find out further services are to be cut potentially in rural areas.

I will be working to find out which constituents will be hardest hit by this decision. Many people in rural areas, where phone signal can still be challenging use phone boxes when out and about.

To remove phone boxes in rural areas where they still provide a use, particularly to older people, will yet again make those living in rural areas feel more isolated.

It is imperative we work to make sure a range of services – whether it be the night watchmen at Macduff Port or services such as banking or access to public phone boxes – are protected across the North East.

11 April 2017

Scotland in the World

Earlier this month First Minister Nicola Sturgeon made her way to the United States to meet with politicians, business leaders and students across the Atlantic.

The trip, which coincided with Tartan Day in America, saw a meeting with Apple CEO Tim Cook, Californian Governor Jerry Brown and a speech to college students at Stanford University.

The address by the First Minister to one of the world’s leading research and teaching institutions focused on Scotland’s place in the world.

Ms Sturgeon made an important point in her address in which she said: “The best balance between independence and interdependence is the question that Scotland once again faces.”

Comparisons were made between Scandinavian countries like Norway - which is not a member of the European Union - is not in the Common Fisheries Policy but does have access to the single market.

Access to the single market is not an option which has been pursued in the continued Brexit negotiations controlled by the UK’s Prime Minister Theresa May.

We face, as Ms Sturgeon also says, being taken out of the single market - not what the UK voted for.

Of course this is important on both a political and economic level but also on an emotional one too.

I wonder, for those considering whether they would vote yes or no in a second independence referendum, where they would see both themselves as individuals and as citizens of our country.

How does where we come from play a role in our overall identity? And on a wider scale – do we still identify as Europeans even when we exit the EU?

I ask because regardless of the outcome of the next two years, the lives of people in Scotland will fundamentally change.

Take a place such as Denmark - where my nephew lives and works – it has a population of 5.65million in comparison to Scotland’s 5.3million.

It is smaller in area than Scotland but with a higher GDP (per head of population) with the average salary of £46,000 compared to £28,600 in Scotland.

Both Denmark and Scotland are closely linked in the energy sector and the two regularly co-operate in the oil and gas sector and renewables.

An expert from the University of Edinburgh was asked in the national press how Scandinavian Countries differ to others in their view of nationalism.

Ruairidh Tarvet said there is a distinct difference because for Scandinavians it is not about ethnic nationalism but about a civic nationalism.

He goes on to say it is about a nation which is inclusive and looking to what their country can do to contribute to the world at large.

This was a theme throughout the First Minister’s speech at Stanford – how we can help other countries and how important other countries are to the prosperity of Scotland.

It is important we learn from our small and successful neighbours to see what we can learn from them.

Scotland hasn’t been given a choice on what happens next as we exit the European Union but we have been given a choice on the future on whether we seize the opportunity offered by independence.

If, as I expect, the UK prime Minister delivers a deal that fails to meet our needs - or even worse no deal at all - our First Minister's option is our best and only alternative.

28 March 2017

10,000 New Laws .. and Counting

Whatever side of recent political decisions you may have taken, you are likely to agree that leaving the EU is a very large action which needs to be tackled with the utmost care.

For fishing communities, leaving the Common Fisheries Policy represents a substantial opportunity. Regaining control of own waters and choosing our own catching policy can provide a huge boost. That’s why the SNP Government’s compromise offer to the UK Government suggests a solution that achieves that.

For our fish processing sector, a much bigger employer, it can be a mixed blessing. Access to more fish landed - good. Restrictions on workers from elsewhere in the EU coming to work here - bad.

For our agricultural sector - the Common Agricultural Policy has been a vital part of every farmer’s livelihood. Under the able Convenorship of Edward Mountain MSP (a Tory but nonetheless an able chairman), Parliament’s Rural Committee is working hard to understand the options post-2019.

But these represent only a tiny fraction of the work that needs done. It is suggested, I don’t think anyone actually knows, that at least 10,000 separate pieces of legislation, changes to our laws, will be required. That needs knowledgeable civil servants, lawyers able to draft law, parliamentary time to authorise change.

All are in very short supply.

The strain of that is showing. Under such circumstances there are two types of response. One can hunker down – retreat to one’s bunker to take cover from enemy fire and hope for the best. Or one can reach out to engage all the help one can get.

Bit by bit Prime Minister May seems to have placed her money on closing down debate. The PM is consulting fewer and fewer people, turning away offers of help and shutting down communication ­– especially with the Scottish Government. The Scottish Government is still awaiting any response to their compromise paper which offers a way forward. The paper was published in December, it is now almost April.

But just think. What if the fishing issue was pursued by a Scottish Minister on behalf of the whole of the UK? What if the issue of steel-making were pursued by a Welsh Minister? That would be playing to our strengths; it would draw in more people and knowledge. Taking a collegiate approach to a massive issue is the only way for us to succeed.

I have called for this several times and have found myself looking out at nodding heads.

In times of crisis, please, please let’s look to engage all the help we can. It is always up to the people of our country to choose the way forward. The Scottish Government will make sure to have an offer available.

How much better if the next nodding head I see is Theresa May’s. It’s time to involve all the nations, skills and knowledge in the UK.

14 March 2017

Equality for all equates to fairness for all

Earlier this month at Holyrood, MSPs marked International Women’s Day.

An important celebration because it allows us to take a look back through history to see the trials and triumphs women have overcome.

But I also think it is right that it should be a marker of illustrating all that has been achieved.

Looking at my own family, events which took place more than 40 years ago, still impact today.

My wife rejoiced when the Equal Pay Act came into operation on 1 January 1975.

For the first time in her career she had been able to enter the company’s pension plan.

It meant she was in the firm’s plan right to the point of her retirement. However, entering it later due to the changes, meant it is around 20% lower than it might have been.

While it is not often given much thought, something which took place quite some time ago, still has implications.

Working in the finance industry, my wife was pretty much on her own, because there were not many women at her senior level.

I am incredibly proud of all she achieved in her working life – one of only two women among the 300 or 400 people who would attend the Association of Investment Companies annual dinners.

My wife was also a mentor to Audrey Baxter, the executive chairman of Baxter’s Food Group.

It is fantastic to see there are some women at senior levels in businesses across Scotland.

This of course can only increase.

In the same week to mark International Women’s Day, thousands of women descended on the Houses of Parliament, including those from my own constituency to protest against changes to pensions.

And only last month, Banff and Buchan MP Dr Eilidh Whiteford had a bill voted through at Westminster to help protect women against gender based violence.

Women have influenced politics for a long time.

The Great Reform Bill is currently before the Parliament at Westminster.

It is important to remind ourselves of the last Great Reform Bill, which removed the right of women to vote.

The electorate in those days was very small and there was a property qualification, but women who met that qualification and who were not married or were head of household could vote.

That danger exists with the Great Reform Bill today, as it potentially takes away rights and equalities for a wide range of people.

Fairness for women in no way diminishes men; rather, it rewards all of us in society, because equality for all is a necessary prerequisite of fairness for all.

28 February 2017

Actions speak louder than words

Last week the Scottish Government proved once again that it will protect our local businesses. What’s more is that the efforts of SNP representatives across the North-east have had a positive influence on creating a business rates package that works.

The North-east has been facing unique challenges due to the downturn in the oil and gas sector. That influence has been particularly hard felt by my constituents. Now it’s important to realise that the downturn doesn’t just affect those working in the industry. The challenge is felt right across the North-east. It affects everyone – from those working in the sector to those working in hotels and offices. Businesses across the board have felt the decline many depend on a strong oil and gas sector. That put us in a unique position in the North-east that required serious consideration.

In the face of this serious situation the Tories decided they should focus on making a great noise in the press. But to what end? Political point scoring – certainly. But what have they accomplished for Scottish businesses? 0. That’s right, they have accomplished 0, zilch, nothing for businesses in the North-east.

Take for example the Tory led Council in Moray. They voted down proposals from the SNP to create a fund to help mitigate rises in business rates. They also attempted to do so in Aberdeenshire but failed. Luckily, the SNP led coalition managed to create a £3 million fund that will be used to mitigate some of the costs of business rates. The Tories of course have voted against these constructive measures at every change they got.

If the Tories did genuinely care, they might spend more time working at both council and parliamentary level to ensure local businesses get the best deal possible. But it’s alright; as usual the SNP and now the Scottish Government have already taken action.

Last week SNP Finance Secretary Derek Mackay announced a Scottish Government package that will see 60% of businesses in Aberdeenshire Council Area either getting no change or a decrease in their business rates bill ¬– another huge victory for business in the North-east.

But it doesn’t end there – the Scottish Government has also committed to capping the rates across Scotland for the hospitality sector at 12.5%, meaning that local pubs, hotels and restaurants will be protected from any kind of massive rise in rates. Of course the Scottish Government also made special consideration for the North-east. They announced that offices in Aberdeen and Aberdeenshire will also have the protection of the 12.5% cap. This shows once again the SNP is delivering for the North-east.

Meanwhile, the Tories in England are introducing a fee for appealing business rates – essentially an additional tax on businesses to discourage appeals. The truth is the Tories aren’t concerned with protecting business or the communities and people that rely on them for jobs and services. Their aim is to score political points and to give the appearance that they are doing something. They make plenty of pro-business noise but when it comes down to it – they don't care and they don't do.

14 February 2017

Tackling Climate Change – One Person at a Time

Today I want to talk about personal change.

When someone mentions climate change – they immediately think global change. Sometimes it can be hard to see how something so big can relate to our everyday lives. It might even make us feel helpless.

There is a lot of work to be done but personal change is one of our greatest tools. Ordinary people can be the vanguard on climate change ­– it all starts with personal change.

In my own life I’ve instituted huge personal changes. How I get around has been a huge one. About 15 years ago I used to drive 40,000 miles a year. That’s a vast distance – which comes with vast levels of emissions. I decided I had to do something about that. 15 years later and now I drive maybe 10,000 miles a year in a hybrid car – giving me 60 miles a gallon instead of 30 miles a gallon.

But the change didn’t end with my car. I make use of public transport as much as possible. And if I’m not travelling too far I walk. I tend to walk between 5 and 7 miles a day. Not only do I avoid using emission producing vehicles – but I get to improve my health too!

Personal change - all it took was being a little more conscious of what I was doing. By changing the little things I contribute to changing the big ones; like climate change.

But transportation isn’t the only habit I improved. I now make sure I shop locally. It may sound strange but shopping locally can have a huge impact on climate change. I try and make sure that I get produce that’s been grown and raised in the North-east.

In the North-east, our fish are one of the most sustainable resources we have. That should be a huge selling point for fish lovers and people who want to fight against climate change.

Remember when you shop locally you are buying products that haven’t had to travel several thousand miles of ocean. When products travel those kinds of distances they come with huge levels of emissions.

These kind of personal changes allowed me to combat climate change and help local businesses. This is great for local producers because not only do they save on distribution costs but they get to see their products reinvested in their own communities.

Climate change isn’t something happening somewhere else. Nor is it something that’s happening in the future. It’s something that’s happening now and it’s happening to us.

The thing is – I can’t beat it alone. No one individual can. But if we all make an effort to improve our habits – we can do anything.

All of humanities great achievements started with a single thought, a single action and a single person. Our ability to change and improve ourselves is the most human thing about us. From making those personal changes, one small step at a time, everyone will be able to overcome climate change.

31 January 2017

Fishing Sell-out Looming

Here we are again. A hair’s breadth from a Tory sell-out.

Time and again the Tories speak only for political gain – whether those words are true or utterly false. This trend goes from the top to bottom. Theresa May and all of her backbenchers will exploit whatever means necessary.

Even locally the Tories do this. Just this month they’ve misrepresented information on the Scottish Ambulance Service targets which had to be corrected.

One would hope these are just mistakes but that appears unlikely. The misinformation appears calculated. And if this kind of calculation is standard behaviour, it does not bode well for our fishing industry.

Why? Because they will sell-out fishing as soon as it is no longer politically expedient. The fact that the Tories took us into the Common Fisheries Policy tell us that. Will they protect fishing? The answer is an emphatic NO.

That was a long time ago, I know. So perhaps we should look at something more recent. We need only look back to mid-January to the Prime Minister’s speech on Brexit. On that day we began to see the Tory mask slip.

Among her chief objectives were financial services and the freedom of car exports. Fishing did manage to get a mention but it wasn’t quite what we were looking for.

What the Prime Minister did say was an insult to our fishing industry and hints at an impending sell-out. The only concern she highlighted for fishing was for Spanish fishermen. She said that she didn’t think EU leaders would want to make Spanish fishermen poorer – just to punish Britain.

Bingo – bargaining chip. After all this rhetoric about helping fishing; she decides to completely ignore the concerns of Scotland’s fishing communities. The UK Government is warming up to the idea of selling-out our fishing.

The Tories will say whatever it takes to get their way and if it is a choice between financial services and fishing they will choose financial services. They will do whatever it takes to protect the interests of London. They haven’t any regard for Scotland’s coastal communities least of all the North-east.

But the Scottish Government won’t let that happen and I will do all I can to ensure that doesn't happen.

The Cabinet Secretary for Fisheries, Fergus Ewing, has repeatedly pressed the UK Government give a clear commitment that they will not trade away the right to fish in Scottish waters. Mr Ewing has asked for it face to face from both George Eustice MP and Andrea Leadsom MP. He has yet to receive the commitment.

The Scottish Government has attempted to work with the UK Government and continues to press for the best deal for Scotland post-Brexit. Part of that deal is ensuring that while Scotland continues operate within the European Single Market – we do not remain in the CFP.

This model does have challenges but it ensures that fish catching has the chance to free itself from the constraints of a failed CFP and would allow us to negotiate for tariff-free access for our fish processors.

The mask has begun to slip and only the Scottish Government can ensure that our coastal communities aren't sold out once again.

17 January 2017

Affirming Internationalism

Last week the Scottish Parliament debated two issues that shed light on Scotland’s character.

They allowed us to reflect on important aspects of who we are.

The first debate was on the European Convention of Human Rights (ECHR). It raised important questions about the origins of the Convention and its purpose. When you boiled it down – it really became a question about what we have learned. Lessons from war and violence, and lessons about ourselves.

Some might think it a distant topic – but I find it much closer. It asks us to decide whether all human beings have an equal right to live. To live as they wish, free from fear and violence. How we answer that question is central to who we are. And the answer always remains with us.

The ECHR does that – it protects everyone, regardless of their beliefs or lifestyle from oppression. It states as it first and most important principle, that everyone has “The Right to Life.” Its strength is in that it is a shared commitment. It is a necessity because, as history shows, sovereign laws can sometimes fail to protect. The Second World War is a prime example of why we should remember that.

The theme for last week was to reaffirm our internationalist identity. Internationalism is a proudly Scottish tradition. A tradition further encouraged by another debate last week. Namely, the debate on Global Goals and international development.

The Scottish Government set before us the plan whereby we might assist the world in achieving Global Goals for Sustainable Development. There is a long list of these goals, but they include, eradicating poverty, hunger, promoting good health and wellbeing, among others. These are goals that the Scottish Government is committed to both in Scotland and in developing countries. In taking this position, these become universal goals; committing Scotland to eradicating poverty on our own doorstep and to the most distant reaches of humanity.

Which raises an interesting point, eloquently made by Former South African President, Nelson Mandela, he said,

“Overcoming poverty is not a gesture of charity. It is an act of justice. It is the protection of a fundamental human right, the right to dignity and a decent life. While poverty persists, there is no true freedom.”

The Scottish Government's actions aim to reflect Mandela’s sentiment. In committing to end poverty domestically and internationally, we establish coherence. This coherence, in turn, strengthens our argument to eradicate global poverty and may one day be the reason we overcome it.

The world has taken a strange turn in the last year. Despite that strange turn and the incendiary rhetoric from the hard right, I still have hope. These debates and the place from which they emerge – the people of Scotland, give me hope. I have that hope because Scotland has always been a leader in the world. During the Scottish Enlightenment the world sought out our philosophy and poetry. In the 20th Century the world was awed by our innovation and invention. In this century, I have a great hope that our vision, bound by the deep roots of our traditions, will be sought out by those around the world.

3 January 2017

Vision for a Scots New Year

Happy New Year!

I hope everyone enjoyed the celebrations and I look forward to another year working hard for Banffshire & Buchan Coast.

One of the things I most like about New Year is sentiment of fellowship it creates. During Hogmanay, complete strangers greet one another with hope for the coming year. It is a sign of goodwill and the deep social connections we share.

It shouldn't suprise us. Scotland is partially responsible for imparting that to the world. One of our great traditions on Hogmanay is to sing Rabbie Burns' poem, 'Auld Lang Syne.' The poem calls on us to recall our common humanity and is now a tradition around the world.

In 2017, let us use this to kindle hope. Let us carry those values we sing of on Hogmanay, in 2017 - from start to finish. The world has been riven by the events of 2016. In Scotland, we have a chance to heal these wounds but only if we carry hope.

Over the past year leaders have appealed to fear and anger. Those appeals were powerful and they were dangerous. But New Year is about renewal. It is a chance to begin again. It is a symbol of hope. It tells us to look forward, to remind ourselves of the good in one another.

This year will be better. Our future should be a beacon of light on the horizon. This year we should aim to reach that place together. This year, let us try and carry the sentiment of 'Auld Lang Syne' with us. Let us carry that self reflection and impart the hope it carries to all of our fellows.

That is a vision that is a part of who we are and predates our own generation by several centuries. It is a Scots vision and a vision we can all believe in. It represents a brighter future and our success will be defined by our ability to see that future.

The First Minister, Nicola Sturgeon has set out such a vision. A vision of hope for Scotland and potentially the UK in an uncertain post-Brexit world. It is a vision that keeps Scotland out of the Common Fisheries Policy but still in the single market. The best of both worlds for our fish catching and fish processing industries. A vision that will renew our fishing communities in the North-east and across Scotland.

At the moment, we have no vision from the Prime Minister, Theresa May - only uncertainty and fear. But that is not the case in Scotland - we have a vision.

I wish you all the best for 2017. Let's make it a year of hope, a year of vision and a year of belief. We can always make the world a better place - if we dare to hope, if we dare to believe. Carry the words of Rabbie Burns, "And there's a hand my trusty fiere! and gie's a hand o'thine!" and let's build on that. Happy New Year!

Stewart Stevenson
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