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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