29 December 2009

Looking back and looking forwards

As we draw to the end of 2009, it seems an appropriate time to look back over the year that is drawing to a close and take stock of what it has meant for people in Banff & Buchan. For many, it has been a difficult twelve months as the recession has taken hold and hit hard working families in the pocket.

Yet the year has not been one characterised by nothing but economic gloom. There have been real successes and achievements in Banff & Buchan and across Scotland. The year of Homecoming helped provide a vital boost to the tourism industry around the country at a time when it was globally suffering. There were over 1.5 million visits to tourist attractions in Aberdeen and Aberdeenshire, and with highlights such as the Portsoy traditional boat festival, a significant number will have come to Banff & Buchan. The year of Homecoming can only be considered a success and has sheltered the tourist industry from the worst effects of the downturn hitting the sector in other countries.

Beyond the tourist sector, the Scottish Government has continued to take action to support local residents and businesses through these difficult times. Council tax was again frozen, putting money back into people’s pockets at this difficult time, while the small business bonus has seen rates abolished or greatly reduced for many companies in Banff & Buchan. For many people, these measures have made all the difference to their ability to survive financially and have been warmly welcomed by those who have benefited. The year has also seen a significant investment in council housing, ending the disgraceful lack of construction that was the hallmark of the previous administration, and helping to support the building industry, one of the hardest hit sectors of the downturn.

There have been other notable achievements too, such as with policing. There are now more police officers in the Grampian force than there has ever been before, a direct result of the SNP’s election commitment to put an extra 1,000 bobbies on the beat, while recorded crime in Scotland has fallen to its lowest level in almost 30 years. Making our communities safer is of enormous importance to people and the Scottish Government’s record in this area is something to be proud of.

There has also been significant progress to healthcare in the region, with NHS Grampian recently publishing figures showing that 96.4% of cancer patients were treated within the 62 day target, compared to 87.2% at the time of the election. Improvements to accessing dentists have also continued, with the construction of the new Aberdeen Dental School certain to have a significant impact throughout the North East.

Yet as well as looking back at some of the year’s achievements, it is important that we recognise the challenges that are to come. The Scottish Government’s budget will be slashed by £814 million next year under Treasury plans, something that will make the coming year an extremely difficult one. At a time when other countries have continued their stimulus packages to drive their economies towards recovery, Gordon Brown’s decision to do the opposite is deeply disappointing.

Despite this, however, I am confident that the Scottish Government will continue to do all that is in our power to speed our economic recovery and to help people in Banff & Buchan and across Scotland.

With that it is only left to me to hope that everyone in Banff & Buchan had an enjoyable Christmas and to wish them a very happy new year.

15 December 2009

Keeping our roads safe this Christmas

With the festive period fast approaching there will no doubt be extensive coverage in the press of the annual campaign warning motorists against drinking and driving at this time of year. It is a message that is repeated all year round, but is one whose importance does not diminish. Getting behind the wheel of a car after drinking puts your life and the lives of others at serious risk.

Road fatalities in Scotland are at their lowest in 60 years, but the fact is that even a single death on our roads is one too many. This year’s campaign is taking a tougher approach than ever before, and motorists who drink and drive will face losing their car as well as the severe consequences that are already in place.

This tough approach is an important deterrent and is vital if we are to stop the irresponsible minority of motorists who continue to gamble with their lives and the lives of others. One in nine deaths on Scotland’s roads are caused by drivers who were over the legal limit and although progress is being made, more needs to be done to tackle this problem.

The Scottish Government wants to go further in our efforts to make Scotland’s roads safer for everyone by reducing the current drink drive limit to 50mg per 100ml of blood with random roadside tests. When the limit was cut to this level in Switzerland, alcohol related deaths on their roads fell by 44% in the first two years. However the power to do this, and consequently save more lives, is currently reserved to Westminster.

The Calman Commission’s report, the unionist parties’ proposals for increasing the powers of the Scottish Parliament, recommended that power over this should be devolved to Holyrood and the Scottish Government moved quickly to draft the necessary orders to make transfer of this and other recommended powers possible. Yet the UK Government has failed to play its part and has instead refused to consider the transfer of any powers before the coming general election.

This is unacceptable and in the case of powers over drink driving limits and airguns, where tougher measures could be implemented in Scotland, lives are being put at risk by this inaction. Although the Scottish Government will continue to press Westminster to make the changes we want to see, the refusal to see the early transfer of powers over powers which all parties agree Holyrood should be responsible for is deeply disappointing.

With Labour having refused to consider increasing the Scottish Parliament’s powers this side of the general election and the Tories ruling it out during the lifetime of the next Westminster parliament, their promises have been revealed to be empty words. There is a consensus in Scotland that Holyrood needs more powers over decisions that affect Scotland and the failure of the London parties on this issue is inexcusable.

Giving carers the support they need

I was delighted to recently attend an event in Turriff marking carers support day, the annual event where the enormous contributions that carers make to our society is recognised. The selfless work that they do is essential to providing the quality of life that many of society’s most vulnerable people deserve.

Many hard-pressed carers are unaware of the benefits that what they do entitles them to, with an estimated £740 million going unclaimed each year. Carers support day is an important opportunity to raise awareness of that support and I hope that more will now claim the help they so clearly deserve.

1 December 2009

Celebrating our past and deciding our future

St Andrew’s Day is a day that has for centuries held national importance for people in Scotland. Yet this year it took on a special significance, marking as it did the end of one national event and the start of another.

The diverse and hugely successful Homecoming Scotland 2009 celebrations culminated in a series of festivities around the country to cap off an outstanding year of events. Across the country people from Scotland and the rest of the world have joined in events celebrating the core themes of homecoming throughout the year.

Early figures show that for an initial outlay of £5.5 million, the year’s Homecoming celebrations have benefited the Scottish economy to the tune of at least £19.4 million and are on course to exceed the £44 million target set when the project was first devised. In the difficult economic circumstances we find ourselves in, the Homecoming celebrations have provided a real boost to Scotland’s tourism industry.

The celebrations were timed to coincide with the 250th anniversary of the birth of Robert Burns, a date of historic importance. Yet while those celebrations came to an end on St Andrew’s Day, a new piece of Scotland’s history was written.

The SNP Government was elected on a promise to give people in Scotland the choice on their future that they have never had before with a referendum on independence. Thousands of people across Scotland have taken part in a National Conversation on the shape of Scotland’s future and this work culminated on St Andrew’s Day with the publication of a white paper on a bill for a referendum on independence.

The Scottish Government was elected on a promise to deliver this choice to people in Scotland and we are determined to do all that we can to see that referendum take place with the necessary bill coming before the Scottish Parliament next year.

Scotland needs the powers of a normal independent country if we are to successfully create the conditions we need to recover from the economic situation. The artificial limits of devolution mean that too many decisions that could be made to help Scotland recover either do not happen or are made in ways that actively cause damage through their unsuitability for Scotland. From taxation to immigration; transmission charges to having our own voice in Europe, the powers of independence are essential to creating the future for Scotland which we would all want to see.

Whatever side of the independence debate they are on, however, people in Scotland have consistently shown a desire to make their views on the shape of Scotland’s future known through a referendum on the issue. If the opposition politicians in Holyrood are determined to deny people the voice on the issue to which they are entitled, they will have no choice but to face the public’s anger.

Restraint and reconciliation

I was recently delighted to attend a sermon from Reverend Stephen Brown of Fraserburgh United Reformed Church in the Scottish Parliament. The Parliament opens its weekly sessions with a Time for Reflection conducted by representatives of the many diverse faiths practiced in Scotland and it was particularly welcome that a speaker from Banff & Buchan was invited to deliver such an address.

Reverend Brown highlighted the need for restraint and reconciliation during the often robust debates surrounding the shape of Scotland’s future. It is a principle that members of all of Scotland’s political parties can at times lose sight of and which we could certainly do well to remember in our discussions.

17 November 2009

Getting the best deal for Scotland

As all within the fishing industry will know only too well, we are once again approaching the annual fishing negotiations that will determine the fishing restrictions that skippers will face in the coming year. The SNP is in no doubt that the common fisheries policy under which this is decided has utterly failed to either conserve fish stocks or protect the economic livelihoods of those in the fishing industry. Clearly it must be replaced with a system that returns responsibility for managing fishing grounds to regional control, so that fisheries are managed by those who know and have a stake in those waters.

However, reforming the way business is done in Europe is never a quick process and we must deal with the short term situation first. It has been a difficult year for the industry as the recession and European restrictions have combined to damaging effect and it seems likely that next year will also be tough.

Yet despite this Scotland’s fishing fleet has once again been at the forefront of implementing new conservation measures, something that deserves to be recognised in the negotiations that will take place. Just recently, the Scottish Government announced funding for the trial of new fishing gear in the whitefish and prawn fleets that will help skippers be more selective about what they catch. This will let fishermen land more of what ends up in their nets rather than being forced to discard healthy fish. If it proves successful during its trials, vessels that adopt the gear will be able to buy back more days at sea under the conservation credit scheme.

Over half of Scottish fisheries by value have been accredited as sustainable by the Marine Stewardship Council, with more set to follow suit. This is an important selling point as people become more conscious about where their food comes from, but also reflects the efforts Scottish fishermen have gone to build a sustainable, profitable industry.

The Scottish fleet has time after time been leading the way across Europe when it comes to finding innovative ways to fish sustainably and I know my colleague Richard Lochhead will push hard to see them rewarded with the best deal possible for Scotland in coming negotiations. Whatever the outcome of negotiations, the Scottish Government and the fishing industry is developing an action plan to set out a shared vision of the industry’s future and to help Scotland’s fishing communities deal with circumstances that are beyond their control.

The SNP Government knows just how important fishing is to Scotland’s economy and to the coastal communities that rely upon it. While other parties may have shamefully described the industry as “expendable” in the past, everyone in Scotland’s fishing communities know that that is something the SNP will never do.

One of agricultural journalism’s leading lights

I was deeply saddened to learn of the death of Dan Buglass, one of Scotland’s leading agricultural journalists recently who wrote for a variety of press titles during his career. Agricultural journalists play a vital role in providing the kind of specialised news which farmers, and those in linked businesses, need and Dan was one of the field’s most respected journalists throughout his thirty year career.

Dan will be sorely missed be everyone who used to enjoy his insightful articles and my thoughts are with the family and friends he leaves behind during this difficult time.

3 November 2009

Addressing Scotland’s housing problems

The SNP recently held its 75th Annual conference in Inverness, marking a welcome return to the capital of the Highlands five years after the last time we held a conference there. It was an excellent chance to meet party members from across Scotland, discuss policy and take part in debates, but it also saw an announcement that will be particularly welcome to many people who currently struggle to access council housing.

During Nicola Sturgeon’s excellent keynote speech on the final day of the conference, she announced proposals for the right to buy council homes to be dropped for new tenants. Since its introduction 30 years ago, almost half a million homes in Scotland have been sold at a discount under the policy.

With so many homes being taken out of the social rented sector, waiting lists for council accommodation have risen inexorably to the point where today there is a real and pressing shortage of affordable rented housing. Under the previous administration we found ourselves in the ludicrous situation where just six council houses were built in the whole of Scotland during the four years prior to the SNP taking office.

The Scottish Government is reversing this decline and saw nearly 5,000 new affordable homes built last year, the highest number in 15 years. However, there is little point in building new local authority housing if it is swiftly sold and thereby removed from the reach of people who are unable to afford home ownership. The Scottish Government has a responsibility to help those who cannot afford to buy homes and ending the right to buy for new tenants will do just that. The rights of existing council tenants would not be affected.

Housing problems are one of the most common issues that constituents in Banff & Buchan and indeed across Scotland face, and there is clearly a pressing need to kick start construction of a new generation of council accommodation across Scotland. The Scottish Government has been taking meaningful action since it was elected, and the planned end to the right to buy will help ensure that action continues. Over the next decade, it would safeguard 18,000 houses that would otherwise be sold off for future generations and ensure that their availability for affordable rent is not lost.

The housing situation that so many people face is simply unacceptable and I am glad that the Scottish Government is determined to take real action where previous administrations have failed.

Protecting Attendance Allowance

The UK Government has recently been making worrying noises about the future of Attendance Allowances, the benefit that helps severely disabled pensioners pay for the additional costs of disability. If their proposals were to go ahead some of the most vulnerable people in society would lose over £70 per week, money that they fundamentally rely upon.

There are currently 145,000 people in Scotland that receive Attendance Allowance and would be affected by the UK Government’s proposals. The UK Government is looking to fill a growing financial black hole in the care system south of the border through cutting a benefit that is also received in Scotland. It is extremely short sighted and will push a large number of vulnerable people into poverty.

The Treasury may be desperately seeking ways to cut costs and pay for the Downing Street downturn, but it cannot be right that it is disabled pensioners that they want to pay for it. These proposals are clearly not the answer and the UK Government must abandon them before they cause irreparable harm to thousands of pensioners in Scotland.

20 October 2009

Providing more support to students

I was recently delighted by a Scottish Government announcement that will be of significant help to students from Banff & Buchan and across Scotland. The level of support provided to students across Scotland is set to increase in order to help more students through the current economic downturn, with an estimated 75,900 students - 68% of Scotland’s eligible students – set to see their incomes increase in the next economic year.

This funding will include an additional £2 million to help those students that have additional childcare costs to meet, something that is entirely appropriate given the increased level of financial pressure that they face while at university compared to other students.

The maximum level of the income assessed student loan will increase by £442, something that will provide a significant boost to many of the poorest students in Scotland. Many of the students that will benefit from this are forced to take out commercial loans to fund their studies, with interest repayments causing a significant strain on their budgets. This increase in the amount available through student loans will help to reduce their reliance on such a costly way of financing their studies.

The amount available in grants under the Young Students Bursary is also set to increase, benefiting 40,700 students between 16 and 25. This will directly help the poorest students in Scotland that are part of this scheme.

The economic downturn has had a significant impact on Scotland’s students and I believe it is right that the Scottish Government takes action to help them cope with their circumstances. Many students now struggle to find part-time work to help fund their studies and many parents are unable to contribute financially to their children’s higher education as a result of the pressures they themselves face.

Having an extensive pool of skilled graduates from our universities and colleges is vital to making Scotland an attractive location for businesses and other organisations to invest in, so ensuring that as many people as possible are able to continue their education is particularly vital to our economic recovery.

The SNP Government remains committed to doing what it can for students and has already abolished the previous administration’s graduate endowment of more than £2,000 which acted as a back-door tuition fee. Additionally, £38 million has been allocated to replace loans with grants for 20,000 part time students. This latest announcement is a welcome next step and I know it will come as good news to many students and their families.

Better facilities for school children

The Scottish Government reached a significant milestone recently with the confirmation that 236 schools across Scotland had been rebuilt or refurbished since May 2007. This figure contrasts with the 205 schools delivered over the entire four years of the last parliamentary session under the previous administration.

The subject of school building has been subject to some particularly disingenuous claims by opposition parties, despite the fact that communities across Scotland can see the developments being delivered with their own eyes. Where 260,000 pupils were being taught in schools with a poor or bad rating for their condition before the SNP came to power, in the two and a half years since the election that number has dropped by 100,000.

Clearly there has been substantial progress, but this cannot be allowed to slow. Pupils in Banff & Buchan and across Scotland deserve to be taught in good quality school facilities, and continued efforts will help lift more and more pupils out of the crumbling buildings that are the legacy of previous administrations.

6 October 2009

Supporting our rural communities

A recently published report highlighted many of the benefits of life in Scotland’s rural communities, praising the high quality of life enjoyed by many residents. People have longer life expectancy, higher employment and feel safer in their communities. Yet it remains important that work is done to recognise the distinct needs of rural areas and ensure that the necessary support for them is in place. Whether it is in housing, infrastructure, or transport, rural areas face very different challenges than urban ones and in many ways they are far more fragile.

That is why I was delighted by the Scottish Government’s recent announcement that the highly successful LEADER programme will accept applications for up to 90% of the funding for projects, where before it would meet up to 50% of the costs. This will mean far more proposals have a chance of receiving funding, given that a far lower amount of money must be found from other sources.

The LEADER programme is supporting projects in rural communities across Scotland to the tune of £58 million over the six years it will run, and is already making a significant difference in many areas. The fifth and most recent round of funding saw money awarded to Banff, Strichen, Maud and Portsoy for projects that should make a significant difference to residents in those areas.

However, although the Scottish Government is working hard to support rural communities, there is understandable concern about the impact that the UK Government’s approach to reforming the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) will have on rural life.

The Scottish Government has expressed its concern that the UK Government’s proposals would hit farmers in Scotland far harder than south of the border, leaving farmers facing lower prices, fewer animals and reduced income. As with so many things, there are unique characteristics to farming in Scotland that the UK Government’s proposals fail to take into account.

It would result in significant unwelcome knock on effects to all aspects of rural communities across Scotland, given the structural changes to farming that it would cause. There are a huge variety of challenges that farmers face already, and increasing those challenges as a result of UK Government proposals would be an extremely unwelcome development.

This kind of situation simply underlines the pressing need for Scotland to have its own voice in CAP reform negotiations, something that would come with independence. When Scotland and the rest of the UK have different needs and objectives, the lack of our own voice in Europe causes real problems for many people.

Making our communities safer

Whether people live in urban or rural communities, we all want to feel safe from crime in our local area. That is why the SNP promised 1,000 extra police officers on our streets during the election and successfully delivered them ahead of schedule as revealed in recent weeks.

New statistics show that these officers are having an effect, with reported crimes and offences across Scotland having fallen to their lowest level since 1980. In the Grampian area, crimes and offences have fallen by 5%, the third consecutive year the figure has decreased thanks to the outstanding efforts of local police officers.

Although there is certainly no room for complacency in the fight against crime, these figures are hugely encouraging and underline the Scottish Government’s determination to deliver a safer Scotland. There can be no place for crime in local communities and I know that the work that Grampian Police does to tackle this is greatly valued and appreciated by people across Banff & Buchan.

23 September 2009

Independence on the agenda

With the Scottish Parliament well and truly back from its summer recess, the Scottish Government recently published its legislative programme for the coming twelve months. The thirteen planned new bills include changes to patients’ rights, debtor protection and new measures to tackle alcohol misuse.

Yet most significant of all is the Referendum Bill that seeks to pave the way for a vote on Scotland’s constitutional future. The SNP Government is determined to give people in Scotland a say on whether they wish to be independent for the first time.

With their characteristic negativity, opposition politicians have sought to play down Scotland’s prospects as an independent country. Yet the facts remain that Scotland has everything to gain from such a move.

With independence would come our own representation in Europe, where currently we have less of a voice than Malta or Luxembourg. Each EU country has a seat at the top-table of Europe, the European Council, but without independence Scotland is denied this. Where the rest of the UK’s needs differ to those of Scotland, we are forced to take a back seat and are not allowed to make our voice heard in negotiations.

On fishing, energy and many other policy areas, Scotland has distinct needs at a European level which we will only be able to pursue effectively with independence.

Economically, we would be able to use the financial levers that independence would make available to drive our recovery and ensure that we are well placed to encourage sustainable growth in Scotland. The current financial mechanisms are wholly inadequate, forcing the Scottish Government to rely upon an inflexible hand-out from the Treasury rather than accessing the taxes raised in Scotland directly.

With the powers of a normal country, Scotland would have the flexibility to make those decisions that are necessary to stimulate our economy and help protect jobs and services from the downturn. Independence is a starting point that can give Scotland the legislative power it needs to be a more successful, vibrant place. Scotland needs to be able to take the decisions that affect how we are governed in Scotland, and in the best interests of Scots. This is how every other country in the world operates and there is no reason why Scotland should be prevented from doing the same.

Whatever your view on the merits of independence, however, it is an inescapable fact that the majority of Scots insist upon being consulted on their future. People in Scotland know that it is their fundamental democratic right to decide our own future and they will have little tolerance for any party that seeks to block that right in coming months.

Flooding misery for local residents

Like many people in Banff & Buchan I was affected by the extremely heavy rain that caused so much disruption recently. It was an extremely worrying time for those across Scotland who were affected by flooding as a result of the extreme weather conditions, and my thoughts are of course with those whose property has been damaged in the floods.

There could scarcely be a clearer demonstration of the importance of fighting climate change, given the promise of extreme weather becoming more frequent that comes with it. Scotland is leading the world in this area having passed the exceptionally ambitious Climate Change Bill recently. It is now up to other countries to take up this challenge and adopt their own tough measures at the Copenhagen conference in December and the Scottish Government will be working hard to get this message across.

8 September 2009

Making our communities safer

We all want to live in safe communities where nobody has to fear that they may become a victim of crime. It is a sad fact that almost everybody knows somebody that has been the victim of a crime at some point. However, while completely eradicating crime may be all but impossible, there is real progress being made in efforts to tackle criminality and make our streets safer for ordinary people.

Before the 2007 election, the SNP promised that we would put 1,000 additional police officers on the streets over the course of the parliamentary term. Just past the half-way point of that term, this promise has now been met. There are now 17,278 police officers serving in Scotland, 1,044 more than at the end of the previous administration and a record high.

Although simply recruiting more police officers is not a silver bullet, the truth is that there is really no substitute for putting more Bobbies on the beat when it comes to protecting local communities. In the Grampian police area, there are now an additional 158 officers serving compared to March 2007. These officers are having a real effect, creating a more visible police presence and demonstrably driving down levels of crime.

Opposition politicians have made many statements predicting that the Scottish Government would fail to meet this target and many will feel that they owe the Justice Secretary Kenny MacAskill an apology. Not only has the SNP Government fulfilled another of our manifesto commitments, we have done so well ahead of schedule.

Yet just as important as preventing or catching criminals is what action our justice system takes after somebody is found guilty. Recently published figures revealed that a staggering 74% of people, three out of every four who receive short-term custodial sentences go on to re-offend within two years of their release. For three quarters of short term prisoners to commit further crimes after their sentence is clearly unsustainable and indicates a clear problem with the status quo.

Given that the same set of statistics reveal that reconviction rates amongst those who receive sentences of four years or more is 27%, it is clear that short-term sentences do very little to change a pattern of repeat offending. The same set of statistics also reveals that of those given a community service order, the majority do not go on to re-offend.

There is little to be gained from the constant cycle of giving repeat offenders short-term sentences that do not give prison authorities time to change their behaviour, one of the key purposes of custodial sentences. Tough community sentences demonstrably have a greater chance of preventing offenders, who would otherwise receive a sentence of less than 6 months, from committing more crimes.

It is not a question of being hard or soft on criminals, but rather of being effective in changing their behaviour.

The Scottish Government intends to introduce Community Payback Orders to replace some existing community sentences. Prisons need to be able to focus their resources on the serious criminals for whom prison is the only option. Those guilty of less serious crimes should be made to repay the communities that they have offended against.

This is the only way that the cycle of re-offending amongst those currently receiving short-term sentences can be broken and the only way to improve rehabilitation rates. This kind of change is vital for the future of our prison estate and the proposals are being monitored with interest outside Scotland’s borders. It is imperative that we make the right choices.

25 August 2009

Labour’s planned tax rises

With two years having passed since the start of the SNP’s first ever term in Government, it has become increasingly notable how bereft of alternative policy ideas the Labour party has been. With the mid-point to the next Holyrood election having passed, Scotland’s main opposition has thus far chosen to snipe from the sidelines rather than engage in suggesting any kind of policy alternatives.

Therefore, it was with no small amount of surprise that I learned of their recent decision to resurrect a policy they had previously rejected before the election, and call for a local property tax. A policy announcement from Labour is in itself a rare occasion, but their choice of proposal could only be described as bizarre and ill-judged.

It was with good reason that Jack McConnell promptly abandoned the policy while he was still First Minister when it was recommended in Sir Peter Burt’s report. The discredited proposals that Labour have resurrected call for council tax to be replaced by a local property tax of 1% of the capital value of people’s homes. This would mean significantly larger bills for households across Scotland.

Thanks to council tax having remained frozen since the SNP came to power in 2007, the average council tax bill across Scotland is £987. Contrast this with the average house price of £145,533 which would lead to people paying £1455.30 in local taxes, an increase of £468 per year under Labour’s plans. At a time when many people are experiencing financial difficulties, the return of this proposal could scarcely be less welcome or more misguided.

In the Aberdeenshire Council area, the effects would be even more keenly felt by local residents. Average house prices here are £184,567 and would see an average local property tax of £1,846 compared to the current average council tax bill of £1,111. With a massive increase of £734 per year on average bills for people to deal with, only Edinburgh would see a bigger increase in the whole of Scotland.

Local residents would be further penalised for carrying out any kind of improvement that adds value to their properties. Installing double glazing might make homes more energy efficient, lower heating costs and help combat climate change but if carrying out that kind of improvement means paying more tax, then people will be understandably put off.

As if all these problems weren’t big enough reasons for this policy never to see the light of day, the original report that accompanied it also pointed out that introducing a local property tax could be expected to lead to house prices falling by 15%. On the average house in Aberdeenshire, that would wipe a staggering £27,685 off the value of people’s homes.

Even after seeing the value of their property erode so significantly, the average local property tax would still be higher than the average council tax bill both across Scotland and in the Aberdeenshire Council area currently is. Given the well documented troubles that the housing market has experienced, the impact of this would be simply disastrous to Scotland’s economy.

Clearly a local property tax is a complete non-starter, given the devastating impact that it would have, and any kind of positive benefit from it is extremely difficult to see to say the least. Why Labour has now chosen to try to resurrect this ill thought out and damaging policy after their rejection of the proposal three years ago is beyond me. Perhaps we should be glad that such policy announcements from Labour remain few and far between.

11 August 2009

Technology welcome

The fishing fleet in Banff and Buchan has never been slow to innovate in terms of technology and the way it operates.

Faced with the enormous challenges involved in securing a sustainable, profitable fishing industry, we have seen significant developments made that have been adopted by other fleets across Europe.

Practices such as Real-Time Closures in areas where large concentrations of young cod are found, have been widely credited for their effectiveness and have been taken on board as standard practice across the European Union.

This measure was driven by the fishing community in Scotland itself and is only successful because skippers accept the need for it to enable continued recovery of fish stocks.

Similarly, advances in fishing technology have been welcomed by the fishing industry when they can help to increase profitability or the sustainability of fish stocks. With this in mind, it is no surprise to find that many in the fishing industry have welcomed a recently announced trial to mount CCTV monitoring equipment on fishing vessels.

While it may seem counter-intuitive that people would welcome the opportunity for others to monitor their activities remotely, many skippers have recognised that the measures being trialled represent an important opportunity to demonstrate the improvements in cod stocks to everyone with an input on setting fishing quotas.

No skipper goes to sea wanting to discard perfectly healthy, marketable fish. If monitoring equipment is able to demonstrate that improvements in the abundance of fish are clearly taking place, then that is something that everybody in the industry would surely approve of.

There is little doubt that the Common Fisheries Policy has been an abject failure and has hugely damaged the fishing industry in Banff and Buchan and across Scotland. This has at last been accepted by the European Commission, and a debate on what is to replace it is beginning; a debate that must see a return to national control of historic fishing sites where the local fishing community that knows what is happening in its own waters is able to influence the policies affecting them.

But until we reach that point, we continue to operate under the system as it stands and the industry needs the means to prove that greater leeway with quotas are needed as fish stocks recover, in order to reduce the practice of discarding marketable fish.

Turriff show

I had the chance to welcome the success of a number of Homecoming related events in this part of Scotland since the start of the year, and I am delighted to be able to do so.

Early estimates of visitor numbers at this year's Turriff Show indicate that they have seen a jump on previous figures.

I am sure that the Homecoming theme will have played a large part in attracting visitors from around the world and closer to home to attend what is truly one of Scotland's premier agricultural shows, but the real credit for this increase belongs to the organisers of the event who once again pulled out all the stops to make it a success.

I was delighted to be able to attend the show and once again hold surgeries with constituents of Banff and Buchan, as other SNP parliamentarians also did over the course of the event.

28 July 2009

Removing the obstacles to our energy future

Shortly before the Scottish Parliament entered its summer recess at the end of June, Scotland’s Climate Change Bill completed its passage through Parliament and passed into law. Given that climate change falls within my portfolio, this was an enormously pleasing event for me.

Scotland now has the most ambitious climate change legislation in the world, with a legal commitment to reduce carbon emissions by 42% by 2020 and 80% by 2050. These are extremely challenging targets, but they are targets that Scotland can achieve and in doing so lay down a challenge for the rest of the world to play its part in fighting climate change.

Key to success will be the enormous potential that Scotland has to be a renewable energy powerhouse. With 25% of Europe’s offshore wind and wave energy potential and 10% of Europe’s tidal energy potential located off our shores, the environmental and economic opportunities that Scotland has are massive.

However, if we are to be successful in this area we need the UK Government to do its bit by removing the barriers that currently stand in the way of Scotland’s developing renewables industry. As things stand, transmission charges for the national grid penalise energy companies north of the border - particularly those in remote areas – for sending their electricity to consumers.

If the UK Government is serious about tackling climate change, there is a clear need for the transmission charging regime to be overhauled to create a level playing field. It cannot be right that it is the companies producing clean, renewable energy that are paying the most for transmitting their electricity.

There is enormous economic potential in producing green, renewable energy in Scotland in coming years but we cannot afford for the UK Government to threaten this with unfair charges. The SNP group in Westminster is pushing strongly for the necessary changes to be made and I hope that they will succeed in their efforts.

Coordinating our food and drink sector

Recent weeks also saw the launch of Scotland’s first ever national food and drink policy, something that could have profound implications for the future of Banff & Buchan’s fishing and farming sectors. Scotland has an international reputation for producing top quality food and drink and the food and drink manufacturing sector already generates £7.3 billion for our economy every year through sales.

Yet there is enormous potential for growth in the sector, something that this new policy aims to encourage. With the right targets and programmes in place, the sector can increase to the point of generating £10 billion a year by 2017. Through marketing Scotland as a ‘Land of Food and Drink’, the Scottish Government aims to build upon our already excellent reputation for quality produce and maximise the opportunities available to sell Scottish food and drink around the world. By helping people to learn new skills related to the industry, we can help ensure that there are more new entrants into a wide range of food and drink related jobs and enable successful businesses to recruit more people as they expand. With carefully targeted funding, the Scottish Government can help many food and drink businesses flourish.

By developing a holistic, joined up approach, the national food and drink policy has real potential to increase the profits of everyone involved in the manufacture or sale of food and drink. Given the high number of people involved in the sector in some way in Banff & Buchan, there are few places that stand to gain more from the new policy.

14 July 2009

Celebrating the Homecoming

As school pupils across Banff & Buchan start their summer holidays and many families head off for well earned breaks, it seems an appropriate time to consider the success that Homecoming Scotland 2009 is having in attracting visitors from all over the world to Scotland.

Thousands of people have already taken part in large numbers of events so far this year, with many more yet to come. Many annual attractions with a Homecoming theme all over Scotland have reported record attendances as visitors from across the globe flock to the wide variety of events taking place. The indications are that the Homecoming celebrations are proving to be highly successful, both with visitors and people from Scotland.

As well as being an extremely fitting way to celebrate the 250th anniversary of the birth of Robert Burns, the success of the Homecoming is also a timely economic boost to many businesses across Scotland. There is still much more to come this year, something confirmed when the First Minister Alex Salmond was able to announce that an additional 44 attractions were being added to the Homecoming programme while he attended one of Banff & Buchan’s key Homecoming events, the Portsoy Traditional Boat Festival.

The four day celebration of the traditional skills and boats that were historically common in the coastal villages of Banff & Buchan was an enormous success this year, having been expanded from its usual two days especially for Homecoming Scotland 2009, and has proved a wonderful part of the Homecoming calendar. Many residents of Banff & Buchan will have attended and I am sure that they will have found the experience thoroughly enjoyable.

I extend my warmest congratulations to the organisers of the festival and everyone involved in making this year’s event such an enormous success. Clearly the other Homecoming celebrations taking place in Banff & Buchan over the course of the year, such as the Peterhead Scottish Week or the Fraserburgh Heritage Fair, will have to work hard to meet the standard that the events so far this year have set.

Scotland’s dangerous relationship with the drink

While we may be celebrating many aspects of Scottish culture as part of the Homecoming festivities, statistics released recently reveal a disturbing picture of one side of our culture that nobody will be proud of. New research has shown that alcohol could be responsible for the death of up to one in twenty people in Scotland, a truly shocking statistic.

This number is twice as high as had previously been thought and could mean that one person in Scotland is dying from alcohol related causes every three hours.

This has massive cost implications for the NHS, the police and other relevant professions in financial terms, but an absolutely incalculable one in terms of the suffering endured by those who lose loved ones through circumstances relating to alcohol. Clearly something fundamentally has to change in our society.

The Scottish Government is determined not to shy away from this difficult issue and recently held an Alcohol Summit so that people from all political parties, retailers, health professionals, the alcohol industry and others could come together and discuss the problem and some of the ways to improve the situation that have been suggested.

While some of the solutions that are being discussed are not universally popular, it is clear that in order to confront the damage being caused by Scotland’s relationship with alcohol we must be prepared to go further than has previously been attempted. With so many lives at stake, inaction is simply not an option.

1 July 2009

Our £3.6bn blueprint for Scotland's railways

(from Rail News "Guest Opinion")

As a minister who has used the train over 600 times since coming into Government, I have a real passion and enthusiasm for rail. Commuting to and from work on the train each day has given me a chance to experience the rail network at first-hand and those experiences have given me a clear vision about what I, and this Government, want to achieve in Scotland.

And we are seeing some real movement in the industry north of the border.

Having set some of the most ambitious targets for reducing carbon emissions in the world, we've placed a strong focus on investing directly in transport initiatives which address the threats posed by climate change.

To achieve this, we are building new rail lines - re-opening many stations closed during the Beeching cuts. We are more than half-way through our current rail infrastructure enhancement programme and already well on our way to delivering £3 billion worth of investment on infrastructure projects by 2012.

Achievements to date include the recently completed Edinburgh Waverley upgrade - our doorway to Scotland for many visitors from across the UK - and, of course, the Stirling-Alloa-Kincardine route where passenger numbers in the first year were treble original forecasts.

Further commitments will deliver a fleet of Class 380 electric trains, which will add more than 9,000 passenger seats to the Scottish rail network from September 2010.These 38 new trains have 23-metre coaches, as opposed to 20 metre, bringing an improved passenger environment.

To house these, we are expanding Shields Road train depot in Glasgow through a £24 million refurbishment, turning it into a purpose-built maintenance and overhaul facility.

But not all projects cost tens of £millions; smaller investments are making a real difference, too.

Our £3.5 million renovation of Laurencekirk station in Aberdeenshire has allowed the return of passenger trains for the first time in over 40 years. The station, which was left derelict following the Beeching cuts, re-opened in May 2009 and is already providing the local community with access to education and employment opportunities.

The Airdrie-Bathgate route is on course for opening in December 2010, and will be electrified throughout from the start; work has started to enhance the capacity of the important Paisley corridor, and we have recently announced our plans for taking forward the re-opening of the Borders railway.

We also made a firm commitment for the electrification of the main Edinburgh - Glasgow line and associated routes, including a new west Edinburgh station to link with the city's airport.

This is an ambitious, exciting programme of works that aims to reduce journey times between these two important cities by around 15 minutes. It is estimated that every minute we save in journey times has the potential to generate £60 million for the Scottish economy.

The Scottish High Level Output Specification (HLOS) sets out our £3.6 billion blueprint for railways in Scotland from 2009 to 2014: it focuses on reducing journey times, increasing capacity and meeting rising passenger and freight demand. Our planning assumption is for 23 per cent passenger growth by 2014 and our strategy for meeting this includes rolling stock improvements and incremental enhancements such as capacity improvements on the Highland main line and the Glasgow to Kilmarnock via Barrhead route.

We also expect to address emerging capacity issues at Glasgow's two main terminal stations over the next decade.

Rail plays a vital role across the country, but particularly so in the west of Scotland which has the largest suburban rail network outside London. It is therefore vital we work now with the rest of the industry to cater for a growing passenger market.

We have always recognised the potential of electrification in our strategy, partly because key routes - most of the Glasgow network and both of the main cross-border lines - are already wired, creating major opportunities for optimising use of fleet. We are confident that the electrification of the Edinburgh-Glasgow route will be just a starting point, and that it will provide the basis for a rolling programme for wider electrification of the Scottish network over the coming decade.

Our ultimate aim is for the majority of rail passenger journeys in Scotland to be made in electric rolling stock.

Looking to the future, we recently announced the outcome of the Strategic Transport Projects Review. This future programme of nationally significant measures and initiatives supports the Government's aim of achieving sustainable economic growth. The STPR identifies transport interventions that best contribute to achieving this from the current programme and beyond, with rail featuring heavily in our vision. The majority of interventions are based on rail improvements, ticketing, safety and modal shift. Seventeen of the 29 packages are public-transport based.

Taken together, our high-level modelling suggests that the overall package of schemes could cut between 100,000 and 150,000 tonnes of carbon dioxide equivalent per year against business as usual.

We firmly believe that high-speed rail links between Scotland and England present fantastic economic and environmental opportunities for Scotland. That is why we support the development of a Scottish team to bring forward the case for extending high-speed rail links between Scotland and England.

There is much work to be done to keep Scotland moving. This is an exciting time for Scottish transport and it is a privilege to be part of the team helping meet the challenge of delivering a world class transport network for Scotland.

30 June 2009

Deciding Scotland’s future

Ten years on from devolution and the reconvening of the Scottish Parliament, it is entirely fitting that discussion of the arrangements by which Scotland is governed should again be high on the agenda.

The Scottish Government’s National Conversation continues to engage with thousands of people across Scotland in discussing the future of our nation. A white paper on its findings and the case for independence will be published on St Andrew’s Day with a referendum planned for 2010. Meanwhile, the Calman Commission has reported ahead of schedule with a number of recommendations for changes to the devolution framework.

The Calman Commission’s report contains some proposals that people of all political persuasions can surely get behind. Devolving air gun legislation to Holyrood will allow the Scottish Government to address a problem that the UK Government has thus far failed to tackle. Similarly, devolving control of drink-driving limits would allow legislation to be tightened in Scotland in order to make our roads safer and save numerous lives every year.

Yet the most prominent recommendation that the Calman Commission has made is for a new system of financing the Scottish Government and sadly it is one that can only be regarded as a missed opportunity.

The report recommends a system of devolving the control of certain taxes generated in Scotland to the Scottish budget, lowering the income tax collected by the UK Government by 10 pence in the pound and then setting a Scottish income tax that would go directly into the Scottish budget. The block grant that makes up the Scottish budget would be lowered by £6 billion to reflect these changes.

Unfortunately, the recommendations expose the Scottish budget to the uncertainty of fluctuations in how much tax is generated without the financial levers to fully affect economic policy. The income tax being proposed would be a flat rate across all the tax bands with no opportunity to make it progressive or alter the banding thresholds. The proposals have been branded as ‘seriously flawed (if not illiterate)’ by one of the financial experts involved in the Commission, Professor Andrew Hughes Hallet, demonstrating the level of disquiet they have caused amongst experts. With the Scottish Government only gaining the power to borrow for capital projects rather than short term revenue shortfalls under Calman’s recommendations, the inevitable result of income tax takes falling – as they currently are – would be for schools and hospitals to close.

Scotland certainly needs more responsibility for generating the money that is spent here, but the proposals the Calman Commission have made are the worst of both worlds. What is needed for Scotland is full fiscal autonomy, something that only the SNP will deliver through independence.

Ultimately the decision on whether to adopt the Calman Commission’s recommendations or not, or indeed to move towards the status of a normal independent country, must be ones taken by ordinary people not politicians. The referendums on whether the Scottish Parliament should be reconvened and whether it should have limited tax varying powers firmly established the principle that it is for the people of Scotland to decide their constitutional arrangements.

There can be no question of making the kind of changes that Calman recommends without giving people in Scotland their chance to have a say in another referendum. The SNP Government is determined to put the decision on our preferred option of independence in the hands of ordinary people through a referendum. If the unionist parties believe in the strength of the recommendations made by the Calman Commission, they must be prepared to do the same.

14 May 2009

Building for Scotland’s future

For many years Scotland’s housing situation grew steadily worse as more and more people found themselves unable to get access to council housing or move onto the property ladder. Shortages in council housing got worse year after year as more homes were purchased and taken out of the system without replacements being built. In the last four years of the previous administration, just 6 council houses were built – none of them on mainland Scotland.

Significant numbers of Banff & Buchan residents and people across Scotland have faced problems with the waiting lists for council housing; problems exacerbated by the previous administration’s unwillingness to address the shortages in housing availability. Now with the SNP Government, that situation is beginning to change for the better. In our first year in Government, work on more public sector homes was started than at any time since the early 1990s and we have done even more since then.

In order to kick-start construction of a new generation of council housing, the Scottish Government is investing £50 million in the sector, the most spent in 30 years. As well as enabling the construction of new council housing across Scotland, this money will also help to support around 3,000 jobs in the construction industry at a time when such investment is needed most.

This money for new council housing comes as part of a record £1.5 billion over three years invested in Scotland’s affordable housing sector by the SNP Government. Of that, £644 million has been provided for housing association investment this year alone, a record high that will play an important part in our economic recovery during the current downturn. Thanks to this investment, an unprecedented 8,100 affordable homes will be approved for construction across Scotland this year.

As well as investing such significant amounts of money, it is also imperative that needed reforms to right to buy legislation are carried out. Local authorities will not be motivated to build new homes if they fear that they will be taken out of the market at a loss to them. The Scottish Government is currently consulting on much needed reforms that could potentially retain between 10,000 and 18,000 homes for low cost rent that would otherwise be lost through right to buy legislation. With the right changes to the current framework, we can see the improvements to council house provision that Scotland so desperately needs.

Brown must back down on Royal Mail privatisation

It will not be news to anybody that Gordon Brown is continuing to have a disastrous few weeks as he lurches from one crisis to the next. Yet he has it in his power to avoid the next damaging blow by dropping his poorly thought out plans to privatise part of the Royal Mail.

The universal service obligation that ensures daily postal deliveries across the country is vital to people in rural communities, like parts of Banff & Buchan, and it is intolerable that it should potentially be put at threat for the sake of the Prime Minister’s pride. It is no surprise that the Conservatives are intent on doing further damage to Scotland’s communities in their fanaticism for privatisation, but the fact that Gordon Brown seems likely to be reliant on their support to get his changes through should tell him how ill-judged they truly are.

The service the Royal Mail provides is too important to be taken out of public hands and it is essential that Gordon Brown realises this and backs down before he causes irreparable damage.

28 April 2009

An opportunity for a new beginning

Banff & Buchan’s fishing communities have endured many difficult years since the introduction of the EU’s common fisheries policy. It is certainly true to say that fish stocks off our coasts have been in decline for a significant period and that there is clearly a need for them to be managed to ensure a sustainable future for the industry. Yet far too often the CFP has delivered a centrally set policy that has destroyed livelihoods and failed to create the sustainable, profitable fishing industry that we need.

With a host of landlocked countries able to have more of a say on what happens to the Scottish fleet than Scotland does, it is scarcely surprising that what has resulted over the years has not been what the fishing communities know to be the best way forward.

However, there is a now a chance that all this could change. The European Commission has accepted that there is a fundamental need to replace the common fisheries policy with a completely new system to manage fish stocks. The Scottish Government has already launched an inquiry into future fisheries management and is determined to push hard to bring about a distinctly Scottish approach. It is only common sense that those nations with a stake in the future of the fishing industry should be the ones taking the decisions on how best to achieve sustainability.

Responsibility for managing the Scottish fishing industry and the fish stocks it relies upon should lie as close to the communities involved as possible. The fishing industry in Banff & Buchan, and in Scotland generally, has been at the forefront of developing new methods of increasing the sustainability of the fish stocks it relies upon. This move to find a new system for managing these stocks represents a key opportunity to replace a failed policy of centralised decision-making with one that can deliver. A new future for our fishing industry is possible, but it is incumbent on the European Union to accept that the necessary decisions must be taken by those most affected by their consequences. Greater power over our fishing industry simply must be returned to Scotland.

Learning new skills to overcome the downturn

In these difficult economic times it is important that ordinary people in Scotland are given as much support as possible to increase their skills and employability. Although nobody wants to see people out of work, it would be negligence if we failed to anticipate it and provide support for training to make finding alternative employment easier.

That is why I was delighted by the announcement that access to the Individual Learning Account is to be widened to cover up to 250,000 people. This scheme provides financial support for people with an income under £22,000 to learn new skills or improve existing ones, and is a vital measure for economic recovery. By having a highly skilled population we are more readily able to attract new business opportunities to Scotland and consequently help increase people’s opportunities for employment.

The SNP Government recognises the importance of this and is working hard to help people learn new skills. That is why £24.7 million of European Social Fund money is being directed towards supporting 75,000 people gain or sustain employment opportunities by increasing their skills and training. The importance of this support cannot be underestimated and is a key part of the work being taken by the Scottish Government to help ordinary people in Scotland through the current economic difficulties.

9 April 2009

75 years fighting for Scotland

North Sea Tragedy

It was with great sadness that we learned of the appalling tragedy which unfolded off the Buchan coast last week, with a helicopter going down and taking the lives of the sixteen people on board. The nation has been united in expressing its condolences to those families and communities which are suffering as a result. The personal impact of the accident will fall heaviest on families in the north-east of Scotland, but it will fall also on other parts of Scotland and the United Kingdom, as well as further afield. The north-east, and indeed the whole nation has been united in expressing its deepest sympathy and condolences to the families, friends, colleagues and loved ones of those who have been killed in this tragic accident.

75 years fighting for Scotland

On April 7 the Scottish National Party celebrated its 75th anniversary. The last 75 years have seen Scotland and the SNP journey together. Throughout, we have always stood with and for the people of Scotland in achieving our nation’s ambitions.

The SNP has seen the election of our first MP, Robert McIntyre, in 1945 and Winnie Ewing’s historic by-election victory in 1967 that led to a steady increase in SNP MPs in following years. It has endured the low times following the 1979 devolution referendum and celebrated the highs of Scotland’s parliament reconvening ten years ago. The last two years have seen fresh landmarks in the SNP story, with the triumph at the last Holyrood election, including the election of the late and much missed Bashir Ahmad as the first Scots Asian MSP, and then last year’s epic by-election victory in Glasgow East.

When the party was founded few could have imagined the distance we have travelled in the years since, with an SNP Government now in place and an independence referendum planned for next year.

The sad loss of Neil MacCormick reminds those of us who have the privilege of serving in the first SNP Government, that without the support of the people, and the efforts of so many members over the decades, we would not be in the position we are today. It is that support and the strength and determination of the people of Scotland that will take us forward together.
Now it is time for the SNP and the people of Scotland to move into a new era, to look to the future, and to build the smarter, wealthier, and healthier Scotland that will take us forward to our rightful place as an equal and independent nation on the European and world stage.

An anniversary that won’t be celebrated

Recent days have also seen a very different anniversary, but one that was certainly not celebrated in Scotland. The twentieth anniversary of the hated Poll Tax’s introduction north of the border served as a timely reminder of the problems of Westminster governing Scottish affairs.

Scotland was used as a guinea pig for the Conservative Party’s failed experiment, with devastating effect. The democratic outrage of a party that had been rejected by Scottish voters imposing such an unpopular policy on Scotland, before the rest of the UK, is something which 20 years on has neither been forgotten nor forgiven by the Scottish electorate.

Whether it is unacceptable taxes or illegal wars the need for Scotland to be able to make our own decisions has not changed. The whims of a remote Government in Westminster have damaged Scotland time after time and only the full powers of independence will change that.

26 March 2009

UK Government cutbacks

26/03In these difficult economic times people across Scotland are inevitably making adjustments to their budgets and are trying to maximise their value for money. It is entirely right that they should in turn demand that the same search for efficiency is conducted by elected representatives in their use of tax-payer money.

Yet there is a clear difference between genuine efficiency savings that release money to be reinvested in public services and wholesale funding cuts that threaten Scotland’s prospects of economic recovery. The Scottish Government is committed to managing public resources more effectively to generate savings of 2% every year. By being more efficient, there is then more money available to be put back into frontline services.

However, this approach is in stark contrast to the planned budget cuts proposed by the Westminster Government, who are calling for the Scottish budget to be cut by £500 million in each of the next two years. This will take vital money away from schools, hospitals and other public services at a time when our economy is demanding that investment. Where the Scottish Government is responsibly seeking greater efficiency to increase the resources available to help our economy, Westminster is intent on taking that money away from Scotland completely.

The UK Government’s ill-judged plans are causing immense levels of concern across the political spectrum. Even the Labour party in Wales and former mayor of London, Ken Livingstone, have recognised the damage that Gordon Brown and Alistair Darling’s plans would do to devolved administrations, yet the response of Labour in Scotland has been a deafening silence. At a time when countries around the world are increasing the money being spent on public services and infrastructure to combat the recession, the UK Government’s planned cuts are simply the wrong decision at the wrong time.

At a time when all sectors of Scottish society should be coming together to oppose the damage that the UK Government’s plans would do, people will not be quick to forgive any Scottish politician who fails to stand up for Scotland’s needs.

An enduring friendship

I was delighted to recently welcome a group of pupils from Peterhead Academy and Spjelkavik Videregaende School to the Scottish Parliament. Their visit formed part of the 40th anniversary celebrations of the twinning link between Peterhead and Aalesund in Norway. This link has seen many pupils from both sides of the North Sea visit their counterparts over the years, and four decades on the bond remains just as strong.

Yet for all there is a strong link between Peterhead and Aalesund, there are some striking differences between the economic challenges that Scotland and Norway currently face. Norway has a similar size of population to Scotland, has shared in the discovery of North Sea oil and has many historic links with our country. Yet just over 100 years ago, Norway declared its independence and began to make its own decisions.

By being able to run their own affairs, Norway is enduring the economic downturn in a far stronger position than either Scotland or the UK. In no small part, this is thanks to their ability to use their oil wealth as an economic ‘shock absorber’.

While Scotland’s oil wealth has been squandered by successive Governments in London, Norway’s independence meant that theirs could be invested in a fund for future generations. Given that this fund was only established in 1995, there is still time for Scotland to follow suit. With the power to make our own decisions, Scotland can ensure it is far better protected against future economic downturns.

12 March 2009

Two very different governments

Devolution was always intended to bring about different policies between Scotland and the rest of the UK, reflecting the different needs and goals of people in Scotland. With almost ten years of devolution having passed, differing approaches are to be expected. Yet what is striking is the effect that the SNP Government has had on Scotland compared to the continuation of Labour governance south of the border.

In Scotland, the SNP Government has put significant levels of funding into increasing police numbers and driving down crime in our communities. There are now more police officers on Scotland’s streets than ever before, with significant numbers still to come. Contrast this to the situation in England and Wales where plans are being made to cut police numbers by thousands. The SNP Government is committed to delivering a safer and stronger Scotland than the previous administration did.

In these difficult economic times, Governments need to do all they can to help ordinary people. That is why the SNP Government has delivered a freeze in council tax for the last two years and intends to continue this freeze for another two. This will put money back in people’s pockets at a time when they need it most. Contrast this to England and Wales where this year alone council tax bills will rise by an average of 3%. The SNP Government is committed to delivering a wealthier and fairer Scotland than the previous administration did.

When people are ill the last thing they need is the additional stress of having to fund expensive, sometimes long-term medication that can cost patients significant amounts of money. Prescription charging is a tax on ill-health and it is something that the SNP Government is moving to bring an end to through reducing charges year on year ahead of their final abolition. From April prescription charges in Scotland will fall to £4, compared to south of the border where they will rise to £7.10. The SNP Government is committed to delivering a healthier Scotland than the previous administration did.

The SNP Government has made great strides forward in the almost two years we have been in office. We will unashamedly continue to put Scotland first at every opportunity and deliver the kinds of policy that Scotland needs in order to prosper. The people of Scotland demand nothing less.

Ten years of devolution

We are now just weeks away from the tenth anniversary of devolution and the reconvening of the Scottish Parliament. To commemorate this event, a search has been launched to find a new quotation to be carved in stone and set into the Canongate wall of the building alongside the twenty-four existing quotations that many visitors to the Parliament will have seen.

This is an excellent opportunity to reaffirm the link between Scotland’s parliament and her people, so if you can think of a quote that you feel is relevant to Scotland and should form part of the structure of the parliament, I would encourage you to enter through the parliament’s website. It is a unique chance to create something that will last through the ages and it would be wonderful if the winning entry came from a resident of Banff & Buchan.

2 March 2009

Fishing Review 2009

A difficult year, but one with positives for the future

It has sadly become all too familiar to take an annual look back at what the past year had in store for Banff & Buchan’s fishing industry and conclude that it has been a difficult period. The last twelve months have proven no exception.

Soaring oil prices for much of the year led to skyrocketing costs for skippers, which the nature of the fishing industry left them unable to pass on to their customers. Banff & Buchan’s fishing industry has seen many challenges over recent years, but the ruinous cost of fuel for much of the year has been one of the toughest. Westminster’s failure to act in this area it has retained responsibility for only made matters far worse than they need have been.

At no point in the year was this clearer than when it was suggested by the House of Lords that high fuel prices could be used to drive Scottish fishermen out of business and thereby bring the number of European fishing vessels down to a sustainable level; effectively punishing Scottish skippers for over-fishing by other European countries.

Yet despite these problems, there are also a number of positives that everyone concerned with the industry in Banff & Buchan can take away from the past year.

Although skippers faced a difficult time coping with spiralling bills, the SNP Government moved decisively to help overcome these difficulties through putting in place £29 million to help Scotland’s fishing fleet become more efficient and thereby reduce running costs. This money was put in place to support a three year plan aimed at further modernising the fishing fleet.

Equally important has been some much needed success in European negotiations, something which has been all too rare in recent years.

The practice of discarding perfectly good fish in order to meet quota obligations has been a heartbreaking one for skippers and one that the Scottish fleet has been determined to make unnecessary by developing innovative solutions.

By successfully pioneering methods such as real time closure schemes, the Scottish fleet has made a real difference to conservation efforts in the North Sea. These efforts were rewarded in European negotiations with a 30% increase in North Sea Cod quotas, but perhaps more significantly the decision was taken to roll the scheme out across Europe.

There could scarcely be a clearer indication that this Scottish practice is bearing fruit and will help safeguard a profitable and sustainable fishing industry in Banff & Buchan.

As well as in European negotiations, the efforts of the SNP Government to negotiate on behalf of the fishing industry were also successful in lifting the import ban on Scottish fish in Russia. Although the fishing industry south of the border is still banned, the Scottish Government successfully convinced Russia to bring an end to its restriction on Scottish companies and open up a vital market worth over £40 million to the industry.

These successful negotiations demonstrate what is possible with a government that unashamedly puts Scotland’s key interests, like fishing, first. Whether by providing a strong Scottish voice in Europe, or through putting in place the necessary funding to help the industry cope with the challenges it faces, the SNP Government has consistently fought for Scotland’s fishing industry. Although there will undoubtedly be further challenges ahead of the fishing industry in the future, I know that those in the industry can rest assured that this Scottish Government will stand up for it and offer every possible support, come what may.

26 February 2009

Council tax frozen for another year

People up and down Scotland will have welcomed the recent news that their Council Tax bills have been frozen for another year. At the time of writing, 31 out of Scotland’s 32 local authorities have set their budgets for the coming year and have pledged to keep Council Tax at current levels.

The SNP Government has now delivered two consecutive years of Council Tax bills remaining at their current levels. This is some contrast from the situation over the decade before the SNP came to power, where bills rose by 93% in Aberdeenshire. With families in the current financial climate struggling to pay the bills, the last thing they would have needed is the increase in Council Tax bills which they would have seen if the previous administration’s constant tax hikes had continued.

By delivering a freeze in Council Tax, the SNP Government is putting real money back into people’s pockets and helping them cope with the current economic situation.

And helping hard working people in Scotland in this way is something we are determined to continue.

Council Tax remains a fundamentally flawed system of local government taxation, punishing as it does those on low incomes. Parliamentary opposition and obstruction from Westminster have meant that we will be unable to abolish the Council Tax during this parliamentary term. However, this set back only makes my colleagues and I more determined to take this issue on to the streets and doorsteps of Scotland and secure an increased number of seats at the next election. In this way we will be able to secure the parliamentary support necessary to replace Council Tax with a fair system of local taxation, based on the ability to pay.

While the fact we have been forced into this delay is enormously disappointing, people in Scotland can at least take some solace from the announcement that Finance Secretary John Swinney will put in place funding to continue the Council Tax freeze for a further two years. This means that after four years of SNP Government, Council Tax will not have increased by a single penny.

The SNP Government is working with our partners in local councils to take real action to help people in Scotland during these current difficulties. The Council Tax freeze is making a significant difference to people’s finances, and the SNP Government will continue to do all that it can to help ordinary people in Scotland.

No show this year

I was saddened to learn that the organisers behind the very successful Banffshire Show have been unable to find enough volunteers to help put on the event this year. The Banffshire Show may still be quite new but it has been highly popular since its inception, drawing in around 1,500 people last year.

While it may have started as a replacement event after the Turriff show was cancelled over a Foot and Mouth scare in 2001, it has quickly become an established part of the rural calendar in Banff & Buchan and its absence this year will be keenly felt.

It would be a terrible shame for the region if the show could not continue in future years, so if you have the time and energy to commit to making sure the Banffshire Show returns in 2010 please get in touch with the organising committee. I am sure they would love to have your help and many people will be dearly hoping the show can stage a successful return.

12 February 2009

What a difference a week makes

The most important topic exercising minds in Holyrood over the last few weeks has without any shadow of doubt been Scotland’s budget for the coming financial year. In the current fiscal climate, the need for accelerated investment to support our economy and protect jobs could scarcely be more critical.

That is why the decision by the Liberal Democrats and Labour to put party point scoring ahead of Scotland’s financial wellbeing and vote against the budget was completely indefensible. Their opposition, along with that of the Greens, led to a tied vote and the budget falling at the first time of asking. The predictable consequence of this was massive uncertainty for local authorities, health boards and every organisation that receives public money to operate. Thousands of jobs and £1.8 billion of increased spending were put at risk at a time when they were needed most.

Yet perhaps even more disturbing was the seeming indifference to the damage being caused by Labour’s leader Iain Gray, who suggested in First Minister’s Questions that continuing without a budget until June would be acceptable. A year ago the opposition looked foolish as they were outmanoeuvred in the budget process. This year they came to look callous and divorced from reality.

Thankfully, the enormous levels of public anger at the opposition’s tactics eventually registered and brought the Lib Dems and Labour back to the negotiating table. There could scarcely be a clearer demonstration that their earlier rejection had been a political calculation rather than any principled opposition to Scotland’s budget.

It may have taken a week longer than anticipated, but we now have in place the budget that Scotland needs to help cope with the current economic situation. A budget that will see £230 million of capital spending brought forward to support 5, 000 jobs across the country; that will see money being put in place to fund another year’s freeze in council tax; and will see an extra £1.8 billion invested in our infrastructure and public services.

This is a budget that will do much to put money back into the pockets of hard working people in Scotland, but will also provide vital assistance to our economy. It will provide further help to our high streets, with 150, 000 small businesses due to see their rates cut or abolished completely. Investment will be put into improving skills in Scotland by creating 18, 500 apprenticeship places this year.

This is a serious budget for serious economic circumstances and I am glad that despite unfortunate delays, we have successfully put it in place to help our country through these difficult times.

A huge loss for Scotland

While there was much joy at passing the second budget of the SNP’s first ever Government, just two days later there was also much sadness in the SNP with the sudden passing of Bashir Ahmad, Scotland’s first Muslim MSP. Bashir was a kind and honourable man who will be sorely missed by all who knew him.

The enormous respect in which he was held was clearly shown when over a thousand people attended his funeral the day after his death. His loss diminishes us all, but he leaves behind a legacy of multiculturalism and tolerance in Scotland that we all have a responsibility to protect and nurture. These are values that should always be at the core of our lives in Scotland.

28 January 2009

Bringing the world home

The 25th of January was a day of exceptional significance for Scotland. Not only did it mark the 250th anniversary of Robert Burns’ birth, but it also signalled the much anticipated start of Homecoming Scotland 2009. Over the next year we will be welcoming Scots abroad, people of Scottish descent and people who simply feel an affinity with our nation to over 300 events across Scotland.

Celebrating Scottish culture, golf, whisky, the enlightenment and of course the life and works of Burns himself, the Homecoming festivities are already shaping up to be a fantastic success and a timely boost to our tourism industry. Demand for events has been incredible, with many on course to sell out months in advance.

The success of the Homecoming will rest on the unique esteem that Scotland is held in around the world. One need only look at the thousands of Burns suppers that have been held in many diverse locations to see the reach of Scottish influence. From Canada to Kazakhstan, from Alloway to Malawi, people have hailed the great chieftain o the puddin’ race, toasted the immortal memory of Robert Burns and embraced Scottish culture.

The 250th anniversary of the birth of a man as internationally revered as Burns remains today gives us a unique opportunity to cement the fond regard in which Scotland is held around the world. By embracing the many visitors we can expect to see over the coming year, we can ensure that their positive experiences are translated into lasting goodwill towards Scotland and many return trips in the future to see more of what our country has to offer.

Homecoming Scotland 2009 aims to bring 100, 000 visitors to our country over the course of the year and generate an extra £40 million of revenue. Yet perhaps of equal importance to these economic goals is the fact that this milestone anniversary gives us a unique opportunity to celebrate some of the best aspects of our country. The optimism and revelry that will accompany these events is perhaps more timely than ever amid the economic gloom, bringing as it does a much needed opportunity to lift people’s spirits.

What better way to commemorate the person who penned his hope “that man to man, the world o'er, shall brothers be for a’ that” could there be than by inviting the world to come ‘home’ to Scotland and share our celebrations?

Celebrating the Scots language

The Scots language has seen many decades of discrimination and lack of support from successive Governments. Yet in the 250th anniversary year of Robert Burns, can there be any doubt about the important role it plays in our culture?

The SNP Government has recently conducted the first ever audit of Scots language provision throughout the country, and is determined to do all we can to support the language. Just over a year ago Scots was made part of the coming Curriculum for Excellence, the new way in which our children will be taught in schools. This will give the language the same status in Scottish classrooms as Gaelic, French or German.

Scots is a vital part of our heritage and day to day life that should never again be neglected in the way it was before 2007. Despite being spoken by an estimated 1.5 million Scots, the language is a fragile one and we will work tirelessly to give it all the support possible and ensure it has a bright future. Keeping the language alive is a legacy of Burns that the Scottish Government will gladly continue.

14 January 2009

An end to a tax on ill health

The New Year was welcomed up and down Scotland in spectacular fashion. But the start of 2009 will have been particularly welcomed by hospital workers, patients and their relatives in most of Scotland’s hospitals, with the abolition of hospital car parking charges.

The SNP has made clear that it regards hospital parking charges as a tax on ill-health, something that is unacceptable in an NHS that runs on the principle of delivering healthcare free at the point of delivery. That is why we moved quickly to put money in place to cap hospital car parking charges at £3 per day last year ahead of their abolition this year.

Staff, patients and their visitors will no longer face a heavy financial burden if they need to park their car regularly in a hospital car park. In these difficult economic times, the abolition of this charge is helping to put more money back into ordinary people’s pockets.

Sadly, however, it has not been possible to extend this to every hospital in Scotland. Car parking facilities at Edinburgh Royal Infirmary, Glasgow Royal Infirmary and Ninewells Hospital in Dundee are run privately as part of PFI schemes, and abolishing parking charges there would have meant diverting tens of millions of pounds from frontline healthcare to buy out these long term private contracts. People attending these hospitals are paying the unfortunate price of Labour’s ruinous obsession with PFI.

PFI has lumbered hard working Scots with incredible levels of long term debt that will eat into the Scottish budget year after year. The UK’s PFI debt has reached a staggering total of £216 billion, which the Treasury tries to bury in an online appendix of their reports in a way no private company would be allowed to.

It is ordinary taxpayers who have lost out as a result of this discredited way of doing business, with private companies making vast profits out of the public sector. Working with the private sector to complete public projects is in itself no bad thing, but the credit-card financing arrangements used by Labour to pay for these projects has been a shocking misjudgement that we are now only beginning to pay the price for.

People in Banff & Buchan and across Scotland can rest assured that the SNP Government will not repeat the mistakes of our predecessors that mean we will be paying back PFI debts at high rates of interest for a generation. Value for taxpayer money must be the overriding concern for Government projects, and the Scottish Government will not cease to pursue this.

Action on personal debt

Sadly it is not only governments that must face problems caused by debt. Ordinary people up and down the country are struggling to cope with their personal debts, a problem that has only been exacerbated by worsening economic conditions.

The Scottish Government is determined to do what it can to help families who are suffering as a result of debt. We have established the Debt Action Forum to draw up a package of legislative and non-legislative action to help people cope with debt, and to examine safeguards to protect homes from the threat of repossession.

Community Safety Minister Fergus Ewing has also announced improvements to the Debt Arrangement Scheme, whereby people who are able to pay back their debts but require some breathing room will be able to do so over a longer period without the threat of legal action. I am sure that people struggling with debt will welcome this action as warmly as I do.

1 January 2009

Doing more to support the NHS

It can scarcely be said often enough that the hard working men and women in the NHS make Herculean efforts to keep Scotland healthy on a daily basis. Everybody in Scotland has either received care from the professionals in our health service, or have relatives who have been cared for.

Because of this, the NHS enjoys a special place in everybody’s hearts. It is a service staffed by people that are truly dedicated to this nation’s health, which is why I am so pleased by the level of investment that the SNP Government has been able to put into improving the NHS.

Figures released in December show that the levels of frontline staff working in the health service have reached unprecedented highs. There are now more GPs, medical consultants, nurses, dentists and midwives working in Scottish hospitals than there have ever been before. This will be welcome news to people across Banff & Buchan, as improving upon the high level of care that the NHS provides is only possible with higher staffing levels.

There are now 15, 348 people working in NHS Grampian, looking after our health and the health of our loved ones compared with 14, 741 under the previous administration.

And we can already see the tangible results that the increased staff are having if we look at the improvements to waiting times being delivered across Scotland.

Thanks to the £50 million investment the Scottish Government has put into the NHS, people are waiting less time for treatment in A & E than under the previous administration, more people are registered with an NHS dentist, and 99.9% of patients are waiting less than the targeted eighteen weeks for outpatient consultations and for inpatient or day case treatment.

Since the SNP came to power, the number of people across Scotland waiting more than nine weeks for key tests has fallen from over 10, 000 to just 7. Because of this, the Scottish Government has targeted even more improvements to waiting times in coming years. The SNP is determined to support the magnificent work that the NHS does in looking after Scotland’s health, and we are investing more than ever before to achieve this.

Folly of privatising the Royal Mail

The UK Government has indicated that it is prepared to do what Margaret Thatcher dared not and partially privatise the Royal Mail. Why the Westminster Government seems incapable of understanding the vital nature of the lifeline services that the Royal Mail and the Post Office provide is simply beyond me.

If this comes to pass, the partial privatisation can only result in job losses and will pose a threat to the universal service that means even remote parts of the country have a right to receive postal deliveries on every working day. Many of the arguments being used to try and justify this proposed move are based on comparisons with other European postal services, but ignore the fact that the Royal Mail offers a far more extensive service than is available in other countries.

The postal service offered by the Royal Mail is not just another business, but has a unique social role that the Westminster Government has completely failed to recognise. I desperately hope that this move can be prevented, and know that the SNP group in Westminster will do everything it can to highlight the folly of these proposals. The last thing that residents of Banff & Buchan want is to see the Royal Mail damaged further by another half-baked attempt at privatisation.

Stewart Stevenson
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