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.

Stewart Stevenson
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