12 March 2008

Cutting Bills for Banff & Buchan Households

The key priority areas for any good government are always those issues closest to home. Health, education, welfare, household finances – these are some of the issues that really matter to people. And these are the issues that have been at the forefront of the SNP’s agenda since entering Government.

The SNP understands the fundamental importance of these bread and butter issues and that is why before forming Government we made a simple promise to the people of Scotland – to make our nation wealthier and fairer. And now only ten months into our first term in power we are making momentous strides towards realising that goal.

One vital achievement by the SNP Government has been to make possible the historic council tax freeze. As part of an entirely new relationship formed with local authorities, the Government has made funding of £11.2 billion available for local government in 2008-09 to enable them, amongst other things, to fund a council tax freeze. Despite avid scaremongering and negative sound bites from the opposition parties, every single one of Scotland’s thirty two local authorities has now either frozen or cut council tax - a patent success story for taxpayers across the country.

This is incredible news for people in Banff & Buchan who have seen their council tax rise by 85 per cent in the last ten years, as year after year they were subjected to hikes under Labour and the previous Labour/Liberal coalition. Added to the recent news that water bill increases will be below the cost of living in 2008/2009, families and householders in Banff & Buchan will feel the benefits of the SNP’s forward thinking in the most clear and basic way – through more money in their pockets.

This is a particularly positive development for the most vulnerable groups in Scottish society such as the elderly. At a time of increasing fuel and food prices, it will come as welcome relief to hard pressed tax-payers in Banff & Buchan.

But this considerable saving for all council tax payers is what the SNP has accomplished merely in the short term. In the longer term we have plans to go much further. We have, this week, published on our proposals to scrap council tax altogether. We believe that this property levy is an unfair and unreasonable tax which does not take into account a person’s means. Why should an individual or family on a low income be penalised to the same degree as those on a much higher income simply based on where they live? The majority of the Scottish public obviously feel the same way, 88% of whom want to see council tax abolished.

We are proposing a much fairer system based on the ability to pay which would see more than four out of five households better or no worse off. Those on low and middle incomes would be better off by an average of £350 to £535 a year. This would amount to a revolution in Scottish taxation and the biggest tax cut Scotland has seen in a generation.

By focusing on the bread and butter issues and radically reforming the Scottish political agenda this Government is not only delivering on its manifesto commitments but delivering real, material benefits to the people of Scotland.

Lightening the Load for Students
We all know what a stifling restriction debt can be on our lives and our potentials. This is particularly true for young people, starting out in life with an array of possibilities open to them. This is why the SNP has been working hard to minimise the burden of debt on Scottish young people. We recently secured a major triumph for students by scrapping the graduate endowment fee. This was a one-off payment of £2,289 for Scottish third level students on completion of a higher education course, which thanks to the SNP, current and future students will no longer be forced to pay.

This comes as another manifesto commitment which the SNP has successfully delivered in our first year in Government. It will open access to further education and increase opportunities for young people in Banff & Buchan who will no longer have to worry about incurring a substantial debt from the fee if they go to university. It is vital that our youth go as far in education or training as they possibly can and fulfil their potential in whatever area of work or study they choose. The abolition of this fee will give them that opportunity regardless of their ability to pay. Once again, this demonstrates that the SNP is building progressively towards a wealthier, fairer society, in Banff & Buchan and across Scotland.

5 March 2008

A National Conversation or a McChattering Mess

More than a few people in Scotland were left aghast lately when Scotland Office Minister David Cairns aired his true views on more powers for the Scottish Parliament. Despite the clear and growing popular support for more devolved powers in Scotland since the SNP came to power, the Labour UK Minister wholly dismissed calls for more powers for Holyrood as one for the “McChattering Classes”.

Cairns’s outburst came amidst mixed signals from his Labour party colleagues. Labour Leader, Wendy Alexander has recently proposed a Constitutional Commission to consider increasing Holyrood’s powers. And to make matters worse for the Minister, less than a week after his derogatory remarks, in a remarkable U-turn, Prime Minister Gordon Brown came out in favour of a constitutional ‘review’. Brown has seized the plans for a Commission out of Wendy’s hands and marked it with his Westminster stamp of authority. The Labour party is evidently in disarray with no clear leadership and no clear policy on the future of Scotland.

But the Labour Minister’s remarks were not only completely out of touch with the popular sentiment amongst the Scottish public. They were also deeply offensive and patronising to the people of Scotland. As a Scot himself I found it shameful that Mr. Cairns could show so little confidence in his own country’s politicians and so little pride in his own country’s people. For a Member of Parliament to use such a belittling term to refer to Scottish constitutional affairs was disgraceful and an insult to the entire nation.

Since the SNP launched the historic ‘National Conversation’ last August which was so well received by the Scottish public, other parties have been continually on the back foot, struggling to criticise such an innovative and democratic initiative. This positive forum opened up space in Scotland for public debate on devolution, independence and every option in between. It brought the question of Scotland’s constitutional future beyond the Parliament and directly to the people. The SNP believe that it is the people of Scotland that make this wonderful country what it is and so it is only right that it should be the people who decide on and shape the country’s future.

Labour now realise which way the wind is blowing in Scotland and know that by opposing greater devolution they are fighting a losing battle. We only need look to the recent polls to confirm this. In December support for independence reached 40%, up 5% from the summer, while opposition to independence fell by 6%. In reaction to the success of the National Conversation other parties have changed tack on Scotland’s constitutional future, but their position remains unclear. While Labour is infighting and in denial over the issue, the SNP is dealing with Scotland’s constitutional future in a democratic, fair and practical way.

Keeping Health Services Close to Home
Healthcare in Banff & Buchan received a major boost this week as it was announced that neurosurgery will continue to be available at Aberdeen Royal Infirmary. This draws to a close a considerable period of uncertainty and apprehension for local people, patients, family and staff that the service may be centralised. Management of neurosurgical emergencies in the North East if the service was to be centralised was a particular source of concern. Thankfully, the decision by the SNP Government to maintain the service in Aberdeen has relieved these fears and comes as very welcome news.

I have always argued that healthcare should be kept as local as possible and as specialised as necessary. Indeed, this was the principle on which we successfully campaigned to retain birthing units at Banff and Fraserburgh last year. This is especially important to us in Banff & Buchan, the most rural constituency in mainland Scotland. To achieve best care and recovery, patients should be as close to their homes and their families as possible – a simple but vital rule. This is another way in which the SNP is delivering on their manifesto commitments to the people of Banff & Buchan.

Stewart Stevenson
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