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.

Stewart Stevenson
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