21 December 2010

Difficult conditions

I don’t think many people will have failed to notice that the weather has been rather inclement. Or as a senior police officer at Strathclyde said; “unprecedented”. There is a ready debate as to whether it has been the worst weather since 1993 or since 1963, but no debate that it has been bad.

That has meant that my investment in a 4x4 in spring this year has definitely paid off. With the help of a neighbouring farmer my wife was able to open up our track down to the house and communication with the outside world restored – albeit with care.

For those of us who live in a rural setting a degree of self-sufficiency and mutual aid is a normal way of life. As yet, the snow fall at home – about 2 feet – is well short of last winter. But many of our old folk have needed a helping hand and I’ve been heartened to see many people doing just that – keeping an eye out, clearing the path, doing the messages.

As a Minister – or as you will now all know, former Minister – in the Government, the weather has been a pretty full-time pre-occupation. I have attended 15 meetings of the Cabinet Sub-Committee on Resilience to discuss the bad weather in the last few weeks and many other meetings forbye. I have also worked with three UK Ministers to co-ordinate action – in particular to get relaxation of drivers’ hours restrictions.

But back to that word “unprecedented”.

On Sunday when we received the forecast at 4 p.m., it said there would be snow in the central belt of Scotland – 2 to 5 centimetres generally, up to 10 cm on the hills.

We sent out the gritters to prepare. And indeed they went out many times overnight.

Later in the evening the forecast was updated but the necessary preparations indicated by that forecast remained the same – and continued.

At 8 a.m. on Monday morning there was still no suggestion that the depth of snow fall would be of the 20 cm depth that areas in the central belt – definitely not “on hills” – actually received.

But at 10:41 a.m. the first confirmation that the snowfall was much greater than expected came in. Too late to pre-emptively close our main roads and prevent an almighty snarl up. Indeed so unexpected, so unforecast, was the snowfall that BBC reporters were going out on routine assignments with no expectation of such a fall. The same BBC that later complained that the Government had not been listening to their forecasts.

But don’t let’s kick the forecasters too hard. It is not an exact science and cannot be. It is a statistically, a mathematically, derived prediction with inbuilt margins of error. Too often by the time it reaches your TV it assumed an entirely false sense of absolute certainty that cannot be true.

Now there are many lessons we can all learn, particularly regarding communication. People who have been caught up in such conditions want to know what is being done to help them and just as importantly, what will be done to improve future responses to extreme weather. It is an area where I believe I could have done better and that is why I offered the First Minister my resignation on Thursday evening.

While I am saddened to have left the Scottish Government, I am immensely proud to have had the opportunity to serve as a minister in the first ever SNP Government. I am now looking forward to a bit more time in the North East and bit less time with the BBC.

7 December 2010

Parliament at its best

This week saw the Scottish Parliament discuss one of the most contentious pieces of legislation to have come before it since devolution began. Margo MacDonald’s End of Life Assistance Bill, which proposed the legalisation of assisted suicide, has seen widespread activity amongst both supporters and opponents of the measures over the course of this parliamentary term. The passionate arguments over the issue culminated in the Stage 1 debate on the bill last week, an example of parliament working at its best.

That this a difficult issue should go without saying and every single MSP in the parliament has received a huge volume of correspondence from constituents arguing both for and against the legislation. With every member having been given a free vote on the issue, each MSP was left to examine their own conscience in reaching their conclusions.

Absent from the debate was any form of partisan or personal attacks and instead we saw speaker after speaker from all parties make impassioned but well reasoned arguments in favour of the conclusions they had reached. Each member was forced to study their conscience and consider the moral and philosophical implications of the way they would cast their vote. It was perhaps politicians acting in the way that members of the public so often hope they will but which political differences often make difficult.

For my own part, I did not feel able to support the legalisation of assisted suicide. The Hippocratic Oath which has governed the behaviour of doctors for centuries explicitly states that: ‘I will prescribe regimens for the good of my patients according to my ability and my judgment and never do harm to anyone. I will not give a lethal drug to anyone if I am asked, nor will I advise such a plan; … But I will preserve the purity of my life and my arts.’

I do not believe it would be right to fundamentally change the relationship between doctors and their patients by asking them to administer death, even for the best of intentions. To do so would undermine a healthcare relationship that has been fundamental to society since the ancient Greeks and would represent an extremely worrying change in the role of the medical profession.

Other MSPs reached their own conclusions by varying paths and at the end of the debate the legislation was voted down. This will come as welcome news to some and a great disappointment to others. Yet regardless of what position one holds on the issue, I believe people should be able to take pride in the way the debate was conducted in such a mature and responsible manner.

Negotiating priorities

The same day in Parliament also saw the annual debate on fisheries negotiations take place, where the negotiating priorities of the Scottish Government are discussed. Scotland is of course hindered in achieving such priorities by the fact that despite being home to 70% of the UK’s fishing fleet, it cannot speak with its own voice but must first convince the UK Government of our position and hope they will argue effectively on our behalf.

That said, a key priority in these negotiations is to secure EU support for the wider roll out of catch-quotas, where instead of limiting what can be landed fishing vessels are allowed to catch less but land more. This rewards skippers for greater conservation and also helps to end the heartbreaking sight of perfectly good fish being discarded. Scotland has shown the way in developing this practice and now it is time for full EU backing.

23 November 2010

Budgeting for difficult times

In these difficult economic times, many families have faced the challenge of restructuring their household budgets to cope with a reduction in finances. Difficult choices must be faced up to and sacrifices made to make sure that money is available for essential things.

In many ways, the process of setting the Scottish Budget for next year has been similar in nature. Faced with a budget that will fall by £1.3 billion in cash terms next year - or £1.8 billion in real terms - as a result of Westminster’s spending decisions, hard decisions have had to be made.

Without the full fiscal powers of a normal independent country, the Scottish Government has no choice but to accept the reduced finances handed to it and budget accordingly. Where other Governments can borrow, alter the full range of taxes used in their territory and balance their economy to meet their needs, Scotland is forced to confront these spending cuts with one hand tied behind its back.

Yet despite this, the SNP Government has faced up to the difficult choices it has had to make and produced a budget that puts the priorities of people across Scotland first. The Scottish Government recognises there is a social contract with people in Scotland who are enduring difficult financial times, and we are determined to do what we can to assist them.

Funding has been put in place for local authorities to continue to deliver a freeze in the council tax, ensuring that family incomes are not put under further pressure as a result of increased taxation. The abolition of prescription charges will go ahead in April as planned, ending the unfair tax on ill health and reaffirming the principle that the NHS should be free at the point of delivery. Additionally, the Scottish Government will work with local councils to ensure the provision of free personal care for the elderly continues.

These decisions are positive and I believe are the right ones, despite these difficult times. However, we have no choice but to cut Government expenditure and as a result the decision has also been taken that public sector pay should be frozen at current levels for everyone earning over £21,000 in order to protect jobs and try to ensure that no compulsory redundancies are necessary. Furthermore Scottish Government departments and agencies will be asked to find significant savings in order to balance the budget.

Yet what is key from this budget is the need to ensure that economic growth in Scotland continues. With the limited financial powers the Scottish Government has, infrastructure spending is perhaps the key way in which the Scottish Government can boost the economy and encourage that growth. That is why the decision was taken to transfer £100 million from revenue to capital expenditure and ensure that key projects go ahead.

This will be particularly welcome for people in Banff & Buchan given that both the AWPR and a replacement prison in Peterhead will proceed as a result of decisions made in this budget. This is good news for people in the area and acts as a further demonstration that the SNP Government understands the needs of the North East.

These are difficult times and as a result this budget has forced difficult choices on the Scottish Government. Yet within the scope available to us, I believe the right decisions have been taken to encourage economic growth and maintain the social contract that exists between this Government and hard pressed households across Scotland. This is a sensible budget for the circumstances we face.

9 November 2010

Investing in our future

The economic potential that exists off Scotland’s shores thanks to the renewables industry is something that I have written about in several previous columns. The scale of the resources that can be harnessed make it a compelling topic and one with real opportunities for people in Banff & Buchan.

The offshore renewables industry will require significant infrastructure to support it and it is ports like Peterhead which are set to benefit from the manufacturing and maintenance businesses that will be created. Some months ago, the National Renewables Infrastructure Plan identified Peterhead as one of 11 key sites for Scotland’s offshore renewables future and highlighted both the investment needed and the potential economic returns for Scotland.

That investment came closer recently with an announcement from the First Minister that a £70 million fund would be opened for applications from ports seeking to develop infrastructure necessary for the renewables industry. This fund compares with a similar scheme in England and Wales which totals just £60 million. That extra investment for Scotland is intended to give us a competitive advantage and underlines our commitment to the future of this industry.

There are still significant barriers that must be overcome before we can achieve our potential in this area, not least of which is the UK’s transmission charging system which unfairly penalises electricity generators in Scotland. The case for change is overwhelming if the UK Government is serious about meeting its climate change obligations and further obstruction would be inexcusable.

The UK Government should also end its obstruction on Scotland accessing the £191 million Fossil Fuel Levy which is currently idling in a Treasury bank account. This is money which by law can only be spent on renewables projects in Scotland, but which Treasury rules block the Scottish Government from accessing without penalty. Rather than attempting to con Scotland out of this cash as they recently tried, the UK Government should accept that it should be put to work investing in our future and release the money to help grow Scotland’s renewables sector.

Ending the wait for new homes

Recent days have seen the completion of the final stages of the Housing (Scotland) Bill in the Scottish Parliament, a measure which will be of enormous significance to many people across Scotland. The new legislation brings an end to the right-to-buy council homes for new tenants and will help to increase the availability of social housing.

One of the most common issues that constituents bring to all MSPs is the problems they face with the waiting lists for council homes. With the right-to-buy meaning that people are able to snap up new council homes, there is little incentive for local authorities to construct new properties.

This has led to poor conditions and massive waiting lists, a situation that was certainly not helped by the fact that the previous administration only oversaw the construction of 6 council homes across the whole of Scotland during its last four year term. The SNP Government has invested a significant amount of money in sparking a new generation of council house construction, but the end of the right-to-buy for new tenants will be the real catalyst for change.

Although the rights of existing tenants to purchase their property will be unaffected by the measure, it will untie the hands of local authorities and let them address the chronic availability problems that have been allowed to build up. In time it will make a real difference to people who are stuck on interminable waiting lists, and is a positive step for Scotland.

26 October 2010

Westminster’s axe hits home

The months leading up to now have been filled with nervous anticipation for people who work in the public sector, or rely upon public services. Everybody has known that cuts have been coming as the chancellor wields his axe with abandon, but until the publication of the Comprehensive Spending Review, nobody has been sure quite how severe they would be.

Unfortunately, it seems our worst fears have come true and Scotland is set to see its budget slashed even more severely than was anticipated. Although initial Treasury soundbites claimed that Scotland had gotten off lightly from the cuts, the devil –as always- is in the detail. Those details revealed that far from the £900m total that the Treasury suggested, Scotland’s budget from this year to the next will reduce by £1.8bn in real terms, a fall of 6.3% in a single year.

As part of that Scotland’s capital budget will reduce by £800m, a reduction of 25% in a single year. Yet capital spending is possibly the biggest driver of economic growth that the Scottish Government can control. Recent figures show that in the last quarter Scotland’s GDP increased by 1.3%, the biggest rise in four years, as a direct result of the SNP Government’s decision to accelerate capital expenditure to support the construction industry. The scale of these cuts to the capital budget alone puts 12,000 jobs at risk and is a deeply worrying development.

Scotland’s revenue budget, meanwhile, will fall by £1bn from this year to the next. This is the money that goes on day to day services and its reduction will be keenly felt across Scotland. These cuts go too far, too fast and smack more of ideological opportunism than sensible policy. Scotland’s future growth will be put in danger by the speed and scale of Westminster’s cuts and we face challenging times ahead as a result.

In the next few weeks, the Scottish Government will publish its budget for next year now that we finally know the level of resources that will be available. There will inevitably be extremely difficult decisions ahead in order to balance the books and we will again be hampered by trying to deal with the effects of the downturn with one hand effectively tied behind our backs.

If Scotland had the full economic powers of a normal independent country, we would not have been left in a position waiting to see how much less of our own money would be returned from Westminster to us. We would have been able to find the correct balance of cuts and investment that is appropriate for the Scottish economy, in order to drive growth and protect services while managing the deficit. Until Scotland has those powers, however, the Scottish Government has no choice but to administer the level of cuts being imposed on us.

There are enormous savings that must be found across departments, but the SNP Government is committed to protecting the front line services which we rely on as much as possible.

Indefensible cuts

Recent days have also seen the publication of another UK Government review which will have a disproportionate impact on Scotland. The Strategic Defence and Security Review has put the future of RAF Kinloss and RAF Lossiemouth in Moray in extreme jeopardy. Having myself made a submission to this review calling for those bases to be retained, this development is extremely disappointing.

The local economy heavily relies on these bases and will be hit hard should they close. Scotland already sees a geographic underspend of defence funding, and this review will only make this disparity worse.

12 October 2010

Internal democracy

As sure as night follows day, in the political world conference season follows on from the summer months. For each party, their conference is an opportunity for several days of activity and publicity, as party members gather together to discuss the issues facing the country and the solutions they would like to see.

However, while they might seem superficially similar, different parties use their conferences in different ways. Labour used its conference this year to reveal that thanks to their convoluted voting system, Ed Miliband had emerged as leader despite the greater proportion of party members and MPs wanting his brother.

For the SNP, our party conference is an important chance for ordinary members to shape the policies of the party. When delegates of what is now the largest party in Scotland meet in Perth from the 14th of October onwards, we will see four days of debate and discussion. Each decision is made on a democratic basis and has a real impact on the direction of the SNP. For other parties, the idea of such internal democracy in policy making is completely alien.

That is not to say that policy has no place at their conferences, but it is top-down in nature and not nearly as open to debate. The recent announcement that the Tories plan to build high speed railways from London to Manchester and Leeds, but no further north, is one such policy announcement which could have benefitted from greater debate.

All the studies that have been conducted into the benefits of high speed rail have conclusively stated that the maximum return on investment can only come when high speed rail links Scotland to London. To leave Scotland unconnected in its plans for the new network is a betrayal of Scots and a clear sign of where the party’s priorities lie. For residents of Banff & Buchan, who face massive journey times should they wish to travel to London, a high speed rail network which only goes as far as Leeds is next to useless, given that savings in journey times will inevitably be largely negated by the need to change train repeatedly.

For Scotland to be treated as some backward branch line is unacceptable, and is a real snub for people in Scotland. It is also the Tories in Scotland which have provided that other occasional feature of the publicity which accompanies party conferences: the embarrassing gaffe.

This year has seen two in quick succession from Conservative candidates for 2011’s Scottish Parliament election, with one apparently branding Scots as “thick” and another describing carers as “the great unwashed”. Quite what possessed them to make either of these comments is beyond me, but it is perhaps a worrying insight into the minds of people the Conservatives are deeming suitable to be MSPs.

For the SNP when it comes to selecting our MSPs, democracy rules the day again. Both for constituencies and regional lists, candidates are democratically elected by a ballot of all party members in the relevant areas. This commitment to a clear and transparent system of internal democracy is a constitutional hallmark of the SNP. I believe it is something that all members can be proud of and it stands us in good stead when tough decisions have to be made.

The SNP has selected what I believe are a strong team of candidates to fight next year’s important Scottish Parliament election across the length and breadth of Scotland. These are vital elections, but I know that I and my party colleagues are looking forward to the campaign ahead.

28 September 2010

A step backwards

For as long as the UK has been in existence, Scotland has maintained its own systems of law and education, and in more modern times its own health service, amongst other aspects of Scottish life. Much of this stems from the Church of Scotland having remained fully separate from the Church of England in the days when it provided much of what the state now does. Yet it has also historically maintained its own control of another area which is often overlooked, and that is the charity sector.

As a result of the distinct nature of Scots Law and the different historic religious landscape north of the border, charity regulation in Scotland has been different in nature from that south of the border. This was formalised by an Act of the Scottish Parliament in 2005 and there is a stronger line on the required public benefits that an organisation must perform to be considered a charity in Scotland.

Yet that historic situation has been put under threat by a bizarre part of the proposed changes to Scotland’s devolved powers contained within the Calman Commission’s report. One of its measures calls for charity regulation to be taken out of Scottish hands and given to Westminster. When the majority of opinion in Scotland favours greater powers for the Scottish Parliament, such a retrograde step is difficult to understand.

This has caused significant disquiet in Scotland’s charity sector, which rightly recognises the need for different regulation in Scotland as a result of the distinctiveness of Scots Law. The Scottish Council of Voluntary Organisations, which represents the majority of Scotland’s 45,000 charities, has called the proposals a muddle and rightly questions why the submissions of the Institute of Chartered Accountants Scotland and a single independent academic appear to have carried more weight than that of the SCVO and the Office of the Scottish Charity Regulator.

These are not just abstract legal concepts, but have real potential to hinder the activities of charities in Scotland. Housing Co-operatives have been held back in the rest of the UK by a lack of a clear framework and lack of UK Government support, but in Scotland they have been allowed to register as charities. They are delivering affordable housing across the country and have the potential to do even more in coming years. Yet all that would be severely put at risk if UK was to take control of charity regulation.

There is no support for these proposals amongst the people who will be affected the most and sending some of the powers that Scotland already has to London flies in the face of public opinion. The London based parties that are currently working on implementing the Calman Commission’s recommendations should distance themselves from these proposals and accept that what the Scottish Parliament needs is more powers, not fewer.

With more powers, the Scottish Government can do more to encourage growth in the Scottish economy. With our hands on the economic levers, Scotland would have a flexibility when it comes to tackling budget cuts that we simply do not have at present. While we must currently wait to find out exactly how much less money will be returned to the Scottish Government to spend, with real economic powers we would be able to make the balance of investment and cuts that will best secure recovery in Scotland.

The incredible work that is done by so many dedicated voluntary staff across Scotland should not be jeopardised by short sighted Calman Commission recommendations and responsibility for charity regulation must remain in Scotland.

14 September 2010

Safety in numbers

It is often said that you can prove anything with statistics and indeed it is certainly prudent for people to look more closely when they are presented with claims about what figures show. Yet there are times when statistics do tell a clear and unambiguous story about the state of the country, be it positive or negative.

The recent publication of two sets of figures is one such example, which paints a striking picture of how our communities have become safer places to live in recent years. In the run up to the 2007 election, the SNP promised to put an additional 1,000 police officers on the beat, providing a more visible police presence and deterring crime in neighbourhoods across Scotland. The latest figures show that since we took office there are now 1,190 additional officers across Scotland, 183 of whom are operating in the Grampian area.

It is a manifesto commitment that I am proud the Scottish Government has successfully delivered and the tangible effects of it can be seen by another set of statistics, published on the same day, which show crime in Scotland has fallen to its lowest level in 32 years. In Aberdeenshire reported crime has fallen by 23% since the SNP took office, falling from 10,527 cases in 2006/07 to 8,088 in 2009/10.

This is testament to the incredible work that Grampian Police does to make our streets safer for everybody and the scale of the reduction in crime is exceptional. While it would be simplistic to make a simple correlation between police numbers going up and crime rates falling, it seems fair to say that giving the police the resources and manpower they need to tackle crime has played an important part in this success.

The challenge we face now is what will happen as Westminster imposed cuts continue to bite with ever increasing severity in Scotland. As a result of Holyrood’s lack of financial powers, the Scottish Government will not know its budget until the Treasury’s Spending Review in October, but the fact that cuts on a scale we have not seen before are coming is undeniable.

There will be unprecedented challenges ahead as all parts of the public sector try to find ways of balancing the books while continuing to deliver the services we rely on. Ensuring that the progress that has been made in recent years in areas such as policing is not undone by budget cuts will not be an easy task, but it is something that must be faced up to. The Scottish Government will be making every effort to protect frontline services as these difficult cuts hit home.

Claiming what is entitled

It is sadly often the case that when times are tough, it is older people who find coping financially the biggest struggle. It is vital that when people are entitled to financial support, they are made aware of it and are helped to claim it. Some people can believe there is a stigma attached to such support and not claim it as a result, but this is money that they deserve and helps nobody by remaining unclaimed.

It is estimated that every year as much as £5.4 billion of benefits goes unclaimed by older people in the UK, which is why the Scottish Government has been working to ensure this situation changes. So far more than £4 million has been added to the incomes of Scottish pensioners as a result and I would encourage people in Banff & Buchan to check and claim what they are entitled to.

31 August 2010

Standing together against irresponsible actions

When it comes to fishing, you will be hard pressed to find anyone with a positive thing to say about the approach of the European Union. The Common Fisheries Policy has been an abject failure, driving people out of business and doing little to conserve fish stocks. Yet the fishing industry now finds itself in a situation which requires a strong and concerted EU wide response.

The decision by Iceland and the Faroe Islands to unilaterally award themselves a massive increase in Mackerel quotas is as irresponsible as it is utterly unacceptable. As other fisheries have declined, Mackerel landings have risen to become a vital fish stock in Scotland, worth an estimated £135 million in 2009. Just as important as the value, however, is that great efforts have been made to achieve Scotland’s status as the first large-scale Mackerel fishery in Europe to be accredited by the Marine Stewardship Council.

Both of these things are threatened by the actions of Iceland and the Faroe Islands. By taking the decision to massively increase their quotas, they have engaged in beggar-thy-neighbour practices which are understandably causing fury amongst skippers in Banff & Buchan.

The sustainable fishing techniques required to achieve Marine Stewardship Council accreditation are not something that has fallen into the Scottish industry’s lap, but are the result of strenuous and deliberate effort on their part. Yet their good work is now threatened by the decision to ignore international agreements.

Such an approach could scarcely be in greater contrast to that of Norway, which agreed a ten-year deal on Mackerel management and shares with the EU in January this year. They are understandably just as angered by the actions of Iceland and the Faroe Islands as the industry in Scotland, and have already taken the decision to ban fish processors there from receiving Mackerel from Icelandic or Faroese vessels.

Clearly the current situation cannot continue and all parties need to get round the negotiating table to agree a sustainable level of quotas as quickly as possible. However, in the meantime the EU must make it clear that this kind of behaviour is utterly unacceptable and take a strong and unified approach.

So far the EU is treating this issue with the seriousness it deserves, and the Scottish Government will keep pushing to ensure this continues. It may not come close to redeeming itself for the failings of the CFP, but at least the EU can take a step in the right direction by standing up for the Scottish fishing industry in the face of this challenge.

Remembering fallen rescuers

I recently had the privilege of attending the unveiling of the new RNLI memorial statue in Fraserburgh, which commemorates the lifeboatmen over the years who lost their lives as they attempted to rescue others.

Since the organisation’s inception in 1824, the RNLI has time and time again seen brave volunteers risk life and limb to rescue countless numbers of people who have found themselves in trouble off our coasts. Given the maritime heritage of many part of Banff & Buchan, you would be hard pressed to find a part of the country that is more familiar with the risks that the RNLI have taken on peoples’ behalf or more appreciative of their continuing efforts.

It is perhaps therefore unsurprising that the fundraising appeal for the memorial statue found itself over-subscribed to the tune of £18,000, such was peoples’ determination to remember those who have given up their lives to rescue others and applaud those who continue to put themselves in harm's way.

17 August 2010

Empowering rural communities

The summer months have particular significance for rural communities across Scotland, bringing as they do the annual agricultural shows. In the North East there are the hugely successful Turriff and Keith shows, both of which I was fortunate enough to be able to attend, which bring together people from across the region. I know that many people from Banff & Buchan will have taken the chance to enjoy themselves at these events and they are firm fixtures on the local calendar.

These are important events not just for farmers, but for the many people who travel to these shows. They are certainly significant in economic terms, but just as significantly they help to foster a greater understanding of farming and rural life. Agriculture continues to play a key role in Scottish life and the Scottish economy, but the rural economy clearly has its own unique challenges to face.

It is because of these challenges that the Scottish Government runs a variety of schemes aimed at supporting rural communities, such as the Scotland Rural Development Programme (SRDP). Under the Rural Priorities strand of the SRDP alone, over 4,000 projects across Scotland have been supported to the tune of £338 million since it was established in 2008. This has seen the improvement and creation of recreation facilities in rural communities, vital jobs created through supporting rural businesses and work to protect and maintain Scotland’s natural environment.

Even relatively small investments can make a critical difference to the quality of life in rural areas, which is why this funding has been so important and widely welcomed. Yet it is local communities that are best place to decide what community facilities are most needed in their area and as such the Scottish Government recently announced its decision that funding for such projects would be allocated by Local Action Groups under the LEADER programme.

This move will help empower communities to make the best use of the funds available and ensure that the projects most desired by the people living there are the ones which receive funding. The SRDP still has several years left to run and will support many more schemes in that time, but this move towards greater local involvement is an encouraging one that I am sure will be welcomed by many people.

An alarming echo of the bad old days

One of the most enduring memories people have of the last time we were faced with a Tory Government in Westminster is the decision to axe free milk for school children and the storm of controversy that justifiably followed it. It is striking, therefore, that one of the first proposals from the coalition Government was to repeat the move for under fives.

Although the scheme north of the border is funded by the Scottish Government, it is a policy which is still controlled by Westminster underlining the absurdity of some of the dividing lines between devolved and reserved matters.

While the proposal may now have been stopped in its tracks, at great embarrassment to a number of UK Government ministers, it is a worrying indication of where the coalition Government’s instincts lie. It should also serve as further proof that decisions over such aspects of every day Scottish life should be made in Scotland and underlines the need for Scotland to gain power over its own affairs. On this and so many other issues, large and small, the decisions affecting people in Scotland should be made here and not by a party in Westminster that voters north of the border overwhelmingly rejected.

3 August 2010

Transparency and accountability

The hallmark of any open and accountable democracy is the way in which information is made accessible to ordinary members of the public. Without knowledge of what public bodies such as the Government, the parliament or local councils are doing on people’s behalf, it is extremely difficult to build the kind of civic engagement amongst ordinary members of the public that should be present in any democracy.

That is why when the institutions of devolution in Scotland were being set up there was a conscious effort made to ensure that they should be as open and transparent as possible. Debates in the parliament and committee sessions are all available to watch online at and in comparison to Westminster it is very easy for members of the public to turn up to Holyrood and see most of the debates that take place.

Even more significant is the Scottish Parliament’s Public Petitions Committee which has enabled thousands of groups and individuals in Scotland to have issues that concern them considered by the Parliament and has attracted interest from legislatures around the world. It is a way in which the Scottish Parliament has been at the cutting edge of empowering people to bring their concerns to Parliament and the sheer range of topics it has considered since 1999 is truly extraordinary.

However, perhaps the most important way in which Scotland has become more open and transparent was with the Freedom of Information Act which enshrined the right to access information held by public bodies into law. With a few exceptions, when members of the public want to know a piece of information held by a public body in Scotland, they can simply write a letter and expect to receive the information.

The Scottish Government is committed to this principle of openness and is now consulting on extending the terms of the Freedom of Information Act further, to bring in some of the bodies that are not covered by it. This could include things like trusts established by local authorities to provide cultural or sporting activities, the Association of Chief Police Officers in Scotland, and contractors who provide public services under private contracts.

The principles of openness and accountability are important ones, and it is perhaps not only in the form of Freedom of Information that they should be extended. The Crown Estate is responsible for, amongst other things, managing the seabed up to 12 miles from the UK’s shore. Currently it is overseen from Westminster, despite the fact that the majority of issues that take place within that 12 mile limit from Scotland’s shores are devolved to Holyrood or are likely to become so in the near future.

With Scotland’s vast offshore energy potential and the increasing importance that such developments will have, it is surely right that the Crown Estate in Scotland becomes accountable to the Scottish Parliament so that future developments are fully compatible with other marine activities such as the fishing industry.

It is an anomaly that should be brought to an end and is something that the Scottish Government is currently pressing the Westminster coalition to change.

Coast Festival

I was delighted to hear that the popular Coast Festival in Banff and Macduff will be continuing next year despite its previous funding having finished. The dedication of everyone responsible for organising it over the last three years has been tremendous and I sincerely hope that everyone who has enjoyed attending it will take part in the planned fundraising throughout the year to ensure it has a long and successful future.

20 July 2010

A delayed but welcome development

When it comes to the fight against climate change, the development of new technologies for generating the electricity we rely upon is essential. That is why I was delighted to hear recently that Peterhead power station is set to develop a demonstration Carbon Capture and Storage project which will take carbon dioxide emissions generated by the station and store them instead of releasing them into the atmosphere.

This is not the first time that such a development has been proposed for Peterhead. A previous project had to be abandoned in 2007 as a result of the previous UK Government’s refusal to provide financial support or certainty over the policy framework surrounding the technology. This was a massive opportunity to pioneer the technology in Banff & Buchan and to export the expertise that would be built up in developing it to other projects around the world. Yet thanks to incompetence in Westminster, it was an opportunity that seemed lost.

Second chances to lead the world in a particular field do not come along often, particularly during such difficult economic times, which is what makes the announcement by Scottish and Southern Energy particularly welcome. Three years of development at Peterhead may have been needlessly lost and projects in other locations around the world may have stolen a march as a result, but developing this technology still has the potential to provide an important economic and environmental boost to the area. Westminster must not let down Banff & Buchan with their lack of support again.

Of course in this area, the track record of successive UK Governments has been less than stellar. UK policy on transmission charges for electricity generators remains massively discriminatory and penalises suppliers in Scotland. Indeed, Peterhead power station was forced to announce a few months ago that it had no choice but to consider closing unit two of the power station as a result of transmission charges. A system which sees Peterhead forced to pay £29 million a year to sell its energy while an identical power station in the south east of England would receive a £3 million subsidy is manifestly unfair.

Yet while this is clearly a serious problem for existing energy providers, it is the potential it has to hold back the development of Scotland’s renewables industry that should be making alarm bells ring.

Scotland’s renewable potential, particularly offshore through wave, tidal and wind power, is staggering and can create an economic boom to rival the impact of North Sea oil. However, that industry will not simply fall into our hands, it needs to be nurtured and grown through these critical early days. By its very nature, the renewables industry tends to be located in more remote locations and is therefore on the receiving end of the current transmission charge policy.

It is a situation which is untenable and which people across Scotland must continue to push for change in. If the UK Government is serious about reaching its climate change targets then it cannot continue to operate a transmission charging regime that penalises renewable energy developments. There are clear economic and environmental imperatives that transmission charge policy should recognise and reflect.

Scotland, and places like Banff & Buchan in particular, is losing out as a result of UK Government policy and unnecessary obstacles are being put in the way of future economic developments. Putting in place a fairer system would be a real example of the new UK Governments self-proclaimed respect agenda towards Scotland and is something the Scottish Government will continue to press for.

6 July 2010

The need for reliable evidence

As summer rolls around again, the preliminary discussions that come before annual fishing negotiations once again begin to take place on the continent. Many previous years have seen the industry asked to give up much in order to protect fish stocks and have had a significant economic impact for many involved in Banff & Buchan’s fishing industry.

Yet for all the sacrifices that the Scottish fishing fleet has made to improve the sustainability of fish stocks, there is a real concern that more is to be asked of them on the back of uncertain scientific advice. This year’s recommendations from the International Council for the Exploration of the Sea (ICES), which play a key part in setting annual fishing quotas, admitted that ICES has incomplete scientific information, despite their position that Cod stocks may not have risen quite as high as they hope. The ICES recommendations have an automatic effect on the number of days fishing vessels are allowed to spend at sea.

With skippers reporting improvements to Cod stocks that far surpass what ICES has assessed, the fishing industry in Banff & Buchan is understandably concerned that they may be asked to make unwarranted sacrifices. With people in the industry facing further financial hardship as a direct consequence of the recommendations that ICES makes, the need for the evidence it provides to be as robust and accurate as possible is critical.

The fishing industry in Scotland has already done much to increase its efforts to make the industry both sustainable and profitable. It has pioneered measures such as the Conservation Credits Scheme and catch quota trials, which the rest of Europe is slowly adopting. The great efforts that the Scottish fishing industry has made should be rewarded with a deal that is fair to them and recognises the leading role they have played on conservation. What is needed more fundamentally, however, is a change to the way European fish stocks are managed.

The EU’s Common Fisheries Policy has been damaging and thoroughly discredited, and there is a real need for fisheries management decisions to be taken on a regional basis, so that those who have the biggest stake in effectively managing the fish stocks off our coasts are able to make decisions based upon what can be seen first hand.

The SNP Government understands this and will continue to press both the UK Government and the EU to accept the need for such changes in discussions on the future of the CFP. Although Scotland is undeniably hampered in this by not having our own voice as an independent member-state of the EU, the issue is too important for such challenges not to be overcome.

Portsoy traditional boat festival

One of the highlights of the year in Banff & Buchan comes at the start of summer, in the shape of the Portsoy Traditional Boat Festival. Now in its 17th year, it has become a hugely successful and entertaining fixture on the calendar that draws in people from far and wide to Portsoy.

Once again this year’s event did not disappoint, and I was delighted to be able to attend the festivities. Banff & Buchan’s coastal heritage and traditions are a core part of the area’s identity, and people of all ages value the chance to experience the traditional fishing and sailing skills which the festival offers.

I know that the dedicated team of volunteers behind the festival work hard throughout the year and I can only applaud them for delivering an event which seems to get better and better every single year.

22 June 2010

Facing up to Scotland’s problems

Discussing somebody’s troubling relationship with alcohol is never an easy thing, but how much harder do things become when it is a nation rather than an individual that has a problem with dangerous drinking? In fairness it has long been the case that Scotland’s relationship with alcohol has been widely recognised as damaging and spoken about in those terms, however it seems reasoned discussion is still far from easy when it comes to trying to find a solution.

The societal and economic cost of alcohol to Scotland is staggering. Alcohol misuse annually costs the Scottish economy in the region of £3.56 billion, an eye-watering sum in these difficult financial times which works out as the equivalent of £900 for every adult in Scotland. The human cost, however, is simply incalculable.

One in twenty deaths in Scotland are attributable to alcohol, the devastating consequence of Scots having the eighth highest alcohol consumption rate in the world. In our prisons, half of all offenders were drunk at the time of their arrest. We need radical action if we are to address this problem, which is why the Scottish Government has brought forward a bold range of measures aimed at improving the situation.

The Alcohol Bill, which recently passed its first parliamentary hurdle, contains a variety of elements that will provide new tools to fix the damage caused by damaging levels of drinking. It will introduce restrictions on discounting and drinks promotions which will bring the off-licence trade into line with licensed premises and make it harder for alcohol to be sold as a loss leader to attract people into shops to purchase other items. It will introduce a Social Responsibility Levy which will help raise money for local authorities to deal with the costs of alcohol misuse while rewarding good practice amongst retailers.

The most talked about measure, however, is the plan to introduce a minimum price per unit for alcohol sales. As alcohol prices have dropped over the years, consumption levels of alcohol in Scotland have risen along with the associated health and justice problems. The best academic information available shows that minimum pricing would reduce alcohol consumption rates, which is at the absolute heart of tackling the problem which sees enough alcohol sold in Scotland to allow every adult to exceed their weekly recommended limit every single week of the year.

Studies show that harmful drinkers spend far less per unit then moderate drinkers do, so a minimum price would have its greatest effect on those it is intended to reach. A moderate drinker would expect to see an increase of around £10 per year as opposed to £126 for a harmful drinker, while the anticipated reduction in hospital admissions would be most marked amongst harmful drinkers too.

Minimum pricing is of course not a silver bullet for all of Scotland’s problems with alcohol, but it is an important tool that should be utilised. This is why health professionals, chief police officers, the licensed trade, the Church of Scotland and even Tennents and Tesco have all made their support for the proposals clear. It is a radical measure for a serious problem, but what is disappointing is the refusal to engage in serious discussion by other parties. With no credible alternatives to offer, flatly opposing the measure seems at best like a failure to take Scotland’s alcohol problems seriously and at worst like partisan game playing with the health of the nation. It is unacceptable and Scotland needs better if we are to make a dent in our alcohol epidemic.

8 June 2010

Making criminals pay

The damage that those who make their living from criminal activity do to their communities is far reaching and insidious. Whether it is through the supply of drugs or other activities, those affected can spread far beyond the area where criminals live.

There is little more galling to honest, hard-working people than others accumulating money and power at the expense of the law abiding majority. That is why I welcome recently announced figures which show that in the last year more than £5.5 million has been seized from criminals and used to fund worthwhile activities in communities across Scotland.

The Cashback for Communities scheme has seen projects the length and breadth of Scotland receive funds that have been seized from criminals and put to work to benefit the communities that have been blighted by crime. It is an approach that I am sure people support across Scotland, and particularly in those areas that have seen that money used to try and repair some of the damage that criminals have done.

Yet combating organised crime is far from an easy task, which is why Justice Secretary Kenny MacAskill recently launched a new public campaign to encourage ordinary people to help make criminals pay for their illegal activities. Where people have suspicions that something just doesn’t add up about a person’s lifestyle and wealth, they will be able to provide information anonymously which could be the vital bit of intelligence that lets the police disrupt a criminal empire.

By sharing information in this way, ordinary members of the public can help make Scotland a harder place for criminals to operate and protect our communities from their illicit activities. The police have made significant strides in the fight against organised crime recently, but with the help of individuals and organisations across Scottish society more can be done to make Scotland a safer, stronger place for everyone to live in.

Record low NHS waiting times

My last column dealt with the importance that the Scottish Government places on protecting the funding that the NHS receives during these difficult economic times. The incredible efforts that NHS staff go to in order to help people across Scotland is something that we have all experienced, but recent statistics show that people are receiving treatment faster than ever before.

They show that 99.5% of patients referred for inpatient and day case treatment are now waiting less than the target of nine weeks; that 99.9% of all patients were waiting less than the targeted twelve weeks for new outpatient appointments; that 99.8% of patients were waiting less than four weeks for key diagnostic tests, compared to the target of 6 weeks and that 96.6% of those attending Accident and Emergency are seen within four hours.

These figures are the best ever performance by the NHS in Scotland and show that waiting times have reached an all time low. When people need medical treatment, it is in nobody’s interest to face the stress and anxiety of unnecessary delays so these latest improvements are welcome news and demonstrate what the resources going to the Health Service are delivering.

The Scottish Government is determined to build upon this progress and has set even more challenging targets for coming years. However, even in these financially difficult times I am confident that the dedication and professionalism of NHS staff will be able to deliver further improvements to the service that patients in Banff & Buchan and across Scotland receive from the NHS.

25 May 2010

Protecting the NHS

There are few people who are valued more in our society than the hardworking doctors, nurses and other staff members in the NHS who strive constantly to care for us in times of ill health. People in Scotland have a special place in their heart for the NHS, so it is scarcely any wonder that claims of cutbacks and job losses are deeply alarming to people.

South of the border, the previous Labour government cut back spending on the NHS by more than £3 billion which inevitably had a knock on effect to the amount of money that Scotland receives under the Barnett formula. Yet, in contrast to that decision, the SNP Government committed to protecting the NHS and as a result it saw its budget in Scotland rise above inflation despite Scotland’s funding being cut.

In response to some of the irresponsible claims that other parties have put about, the Health Secretary has made a guarantee to NHS workers that there will be no compulsory redundancies. Times are certainly tight, and like all public services the NHS must seek to operate as efficiently as possible, but I know that this commitment will be enormously comforting to NHS staff and to members of the public.

With record funding levels and record low waiting times, the NHS in Scotland faces the challenges ahead from a position of strength and the SNP Government will continue to protect it during the difficult times ahead.

Scotland’s offshore potential

I have written before about the enormous economic potential that Scotland’s developing offshore renewables industry has for Banff & Buchan yet that potential was recently put into figures that would surely make anyone sit up and take notice. The Offshore Valuation Study which was published to coincide with the All Energy conference in Aberdeen found that the practical offshore resource in Scotland’s seas is a staggering 206 Gigawatts.

To put that figure into some kind of context, if just one third of that resource was successfully harnessed then the value in electricity sales would be an estimated £14 billion by 2050. Scotland has the advantage of having 25% of Europe’s offshore wind and tidal energy potential and 10% of Europe’s wave potential in the waters off our shores.

Across the UK it is estimated that up to 145,000 jobs could be created as a result of the emerging green industry and a significant number are likely to be in Peterhead, with the town having recently taken another step towards becoming a hub for the industry thanks to progress on Scottish Enterprise’s plans to develop an industrial park for the offshore renewables industry.

Yet to fully take advantage of the potential that exists, as the Offshore Valuation Study rightly points out, will require the development of a European super-grid. With such a grid, which has been identified by the European Union as a key infrastructure project, Scotland will gain access to a continental marketplace where we can sell the excess renewable energy we produce. The importance of developing that infrastructure to Scotland’s economy can scarcely be underestimated.

The SNP has long been calling for support for such a measure, and we will continue to do so, but as long as Scotland does not have its own voice in Europe, we need the new UK Government to live up to its responsibilities and take a leading role in pushing for the construction of such a super-grid. Its commitment to doing so will be an early test it can expect to face and for the sake of Scotland’s future it must not be found wanting.

11 May 2010

Scotland’s funding

With the sound and fury of the election now behind us, the next big issue on the horizon is the referendum bill which will shortly be introduced into the Scottish Parliament, proposing to give people in Scotland the choice of what our constitutional future should be. I, and my colleagues in the SNP, strongly believe that the full powers of independence are what Scotland needs if we are to grow our economy, fundamentally address some of the social problems prevalent across the country and stand up for Scottish interests in Europe and the wider world.

As a firm believer in democracy it is of course right that the people of Scotland should be given the right to decide for themselves what future they want. However, the London parties have signalled their intention to conspire to block such a referendum taking place. As well as being fundamentally undemocratic, this raises serious questions about what alternative Scotland is likely to see.

Scotland’s tax revenues currently travel south to the Treasury before a certain amount, determined by the Barnett Formula, is returned to the Scottish Government to spend on devolved matters as it sees fit. This amount rises and falls based on spending decisions in England on those services that are devolved to Scotland north of the border. While I would certainly not describe this situation as satisfactory, especially as projects are often classified as being of “national” importance in order to avoid Scotland receiving its share of spending that takes place south of the border, it does at least have the virtue of stability.

In the Calman Report, the union parties’ alternative to the National Conversation that the Scottish Government held, a proposed replacement to the Barnett formula was made that would see up to 10p of income tax and certain other taxes devolved to Scottish control with a reduction in the Barnett Formula’s block grant to compensate for this. However, while this may seem at first glance like a sensible way of making the Scottish Government more accountable for its spending, in reality it is the worst of all words and would be a disaster for Scotland.

Any fluctuation in income tax revenues would have to be met with immediate cuts in Scotland in advance of the final revenues being known. That would send Scotland into a vicious cycle of having to make cuts or raise taxes which would in turn lead to a further fall in income tax receipts and necessitate another round of cuts or tax increases. Scarcely any wonder that the proposals have been described by some members of the expert panel that drew them up as “seriously flawed, if not illiterate”!

The only sensible alternative to the Barnett Formula that has been proposed is for the introduction of fiscal autonomy, whereby Scotland keeps control of all tax revenues generated north of the border and, as long as Scotland remains in the Union, the Scottish Government pays a certain amount to the UK Treasury for shared services such as the armed forces. This is manifestly a far fairer solution. It would give the Scottish Government the control over the financial levers it needs in order to drive Scotland’s economic recovery and to build for the future.

Economists and leading business people have reached the conclusion that this is the best option when any consideration of a replacement to the Barnett Formula is being made. If our proposed referendum on independence is blocked by the other parties, then fiscal autonomy is the only acceptable alternative to the Barnett Formula for Scotland.

20 April 2010

Making fuel prices fairer

The cost of filling up the car with fuel is again frequently at the forefront of people’s minds as the average price of a litre of petrol across Scotland has risen to £1.20 and is over £1.30 in some areas. At a time when budgets are already tight, this is an extremely unwelcome additional cost for families to bear.

For many in rural areas, the relative remoteness and weather conditions such as those we saw earlier in the year make regularly using a car an absolute necessity rather than a personal choice. This inevitably means that when we see a spike in fuel prices, those who have to use their car most often are the ones that pay the biggest price.

In Banff & Buchan, fuel prices have a significant impact on many aspects of the fishing industry and the profitability of their businesses. The road haulage industry too, relying as it clearly does upon fuel, is particularly vulnerable to fluctuations in what they pay at the pumps. Any business needs to be able to predict what its operating costs will be with some degree of certainty if it is to be successful, but this is obviously extremely difficult when a business relies so heavily upon variable fuel prices.

This is why the SNP has long been pressing for the introduction of a fuel duty regulator which would see the substantial tax duties placed upon road fuel go down when the price of oil goes up. When the price of oil goes past a certain point, a freeze in fuel duty would kick in while any extra cash raised from increased VAT receipts on higher fuel prices would be used to fund a corresponding reduction in fuel duty. This would give much needed stability to fuel prices at the pump and even out the spikes in forecourt prices that we see when the price of oil rockets.

This measure has the backing of numerous industry groups that rely upon petrol or diesel to operate, including the Road Haulage Association, the Scottish Fishermen’s Federation and the National Farmers Union Scotland. However, each time that the SNP group in Westminster has tried to introduce it in recent years, the London parties have joined forces to block the measure. This makes some of the fuel related promises trotted out recently in other parties’ election manifestos hypocritical at best and downright disingenuous at worst.

Motorists, the haulage industry and other businesses like the fishing and farming sectors don’t need empty promises trotted out during election campaigns when it comes to fuel prices, they need the kind of action that only the SNP group in Westminster has been consistently pressing for over the years.

Leading the way

I have written frequently about the way in which Banff & Buchan’s fishing industry is leading the rest of Europe when it comes to introducing pioneering new techniques aimed at securing a sustainable, profitable future for everyone in the sector. This was recently underlined by a recent visit from a Dutch delegation to Scotland, examining the way in which the Conservation Credits Scheme operates.

The Dutch delegation looked at a range of conservation measures that are in use across the Scottish fishing fleet, such as real time closures and selective fishing gears, and how they feed in to the Conservation Credits Scheme. With other European Union countries adopting the measures pioneered in Scotland, I have a feeling that the Dutch will not be the last visitors who come to learn from the example our fishing industry continues to set.

6 April 2010

The importance of coastal traditions

The rich and extensive nature of Scotland’s museums and historic collections is something that many people often take for granted, but knowledge of the past is essential to understanding where we have come from as a people and to considering where our nation is going in the future. That is why I was delighted by the recent announcement which saw Museums Galleries Scotland invest in historic collections across the country and in particular by the news that the Museum of Scottish Lighthouses in Fraserburgh is to receive £63,063.

Coastal communities across Banff & Buchan know just how important the fascinating industrial and social history of Scotland’s lighthouses is, and the museum in Fraserburgh is rightly considered home to a Recognised Collection of National Significance. It is an important educational resource to children and adults across the region, but is also a key attraction for visitors to the region.

I recently had the chance to speak about the prospects for tourism in Banff & Buchan as a guest of the Portsoy Boat Festival Dinner and while the economic downturn has clearly proved difficult for the tourism industry, fantastic facilities like the Museum of Scottish Lighthouses create real opportunities for growth in Banff & Buchan.

The area’s coastal heritage and traditions draw in visitors to a variety of events across Banff & Buchan. Last year’s Portsoy Traditional Boat Festival saw well over 20,000 visitors to the town over the four days it ran and has exciting plans for the future as it aims to bring in more overseas visitors. The aquarium in Macduff draws in visitors all year round and wildlife tourism in the waters off Banff & Buchan’s coast is an increasingly important lure for tourists.

However, it is perhaps food and drink tourism that has the most potential to make Banff & Buchan a more obvious tourist destination. Scotland was recently acknowledged as one of the world’s most attractive destinations for this sector and with so much quality produce available, there is a real opportunity for businesses in Banff & Buchan. Whether it is the fantastic fresh fish, the high quality of our farms or the reopened distillery at Glenglassaugh, there is real potential for increasing visitor numbers.

As more and more people choose not to holiday abroad, we can all hope that Banff & Buchan may become a tourist destination for greater numbers of people.

Banff & Buchan paying the price

In my last column I wrote about the damaging effect that transmission charges were having on energy producers across Scotland as a result of the manifestly unfair way in which they are set. My point could not have been more clearly demonstrated when just days later Peterhead power station announced that the high cost of transmission charges were forcing it to consider closing unit two of the power station.

This closure would cost numerous people their jobs in Peterhead and is the direct result of the UK Government’s continued failure to address this issue and bring about a fairer system for transmission charges, as the SNP continues to call for. It is not only affecting the potential for creating future jobs in the energy industry, but jeopardising exiting jobs in Banff & Buchan.

As an issue it is gaining in urgency and I have no doubt that it will be an important part of the coming election campaign in Banff & Buchan. A system of transmission charges that does not penalise Scotland is essential to our future, and the case for changing the system has never been stronger.

23 March 2010

The energy off our shores

Scotland has long had reason to associate the waters off our coast with the production of energy and wealth in the shape of the North Sea oil industry. Over the decades it has provided jobs to many in the North East, seen innovations made that have been exported around the world and of course provided billions of pounds to the Treasury in London.

Latest Treasury estimates anticipate that the North Sea oil and gas sector will provide £50 billion in tax revenues over the next six years, a particularly substantial sum given the dire state of the UK’s current finances. Yet as significant as the oil industry has been, and clearly continues to be, Scotland has an incredible opportunity to harness a new energy boom in the waters off our coasts.

Scotland has a quarter of Europe’s offshore wind and tidal energy potential and 10% of its wave energy potential. The scale of the green, renewable energy that can be produced in these waters is immense and has granted Scotland an incredible economic opportunity which we must do our best to take.

It is an opportunity that Banff & Buchan can play a key part in grasping, securing important investment in the area and providing a range of skilled jobs for local residents. Peterhead was recently identified as one of Scotland’s 11 strategic hubs for the future of offshore renewables, a designation that could prove critical to the economic future of the region. A report to be published later in the year will identify the public and private investment needed to create the infrastructure and facilities needed to make Peterhead a centre for the manufacture and maintenance of offshore renewable technology.

As with the oil industry, a key benefit from successfully harnessing the renewable potential off our shores will be the ability to export technology and expertise to other countries. Our aspirations of achieving this took a step forward recently with the announcement of the most ambitious plans in the world for the leasing of sites to generate 1.2 G/W of wave and tidal power, the equivalent of either of Scotland’s nuclear power stations. With such ambition we have stolen a march on our competitor countries, but there can be no room for complacency.

There are still obstacles that must be overcome, and chief amongst them is the discriminatory nature of transmission charges in the UK. When electricity producers in Aberdeenshire face a charge of almost £20 per k/W that they send to homes and businesses through the National Grid while companies in the south of England receive a subsidy of over £6 per k/W, there is clearly something very wrong with the system.

By penalising the development of renewable energy projects, which are inevitably located in more remote areas where the local weather conditions are more powerful, the current system is acting as a deterrent to future developments. As it is these penalties are completely unacceptable, but the situation would have been even worse if Ofgem had not finally been persuaded recently to drop plans to further penalise Scottish generators.

A National Grid that sees Scottish generators currently produce 12% of UK electricity but pay 40% of transmission charges is not acceptable and as more and more renewable developments are created, the situation will become even more unfair. My SNP colleagues and I have long been calling for a wholesale review of UK transmission charges and the introduction of a fairer system. The economic future of Scotland is at stake and we will not let up on our calls.

9 March 2010

Scotland’s future

Scotland recently took another step towards being able to decide its own future recently, with the publication of a draft independence referendum bill by the Scottish Government. It follows the National Conversation which engaged thousands of people across the length and breadth of Scotland, seeking their views on the shape Scotland’s constitutional future should take.

I and my SNP colleagues are in no doubt that Scotland fundamentally needs the normal powers of an independent country if we are to successfully meet the challenges and opportunities that face us as a nation. With independence we would gain our own voice in European and international affairs, giving us the ability to stand up for Scottish interests such as fishing more effectively. We would gain control of the economic levers needed to grow Scotland’s economy and speed our recovery from the current downturn. We would gain the ability to make the decisions that affect Scotland, in Scotland. Independence is not an end in itself, but a starting point from which we can use the powers we need to build a more successful future for our country.

However, it is perfectly valid that others hold different views on the future they would like to see for Scotland. There is a widespread consensus that the Scottish Parliament should have more powers, but the extent of those powers is open for debate. That is why the proposed referendum will ask two questions, one on whether Scotland should gain further powers and a second on whether Scotland should become an independent country. The consultation that was launched accompanying the bill seeks to establish which of the options for further devolved powers should also appear on the ballot paper.

More than a decade on from the referendum that saw the Scottish Parliament reconvened, the SNP will once again be going to voters and asking them to vote yes-yes in a referendum. If they believe in their position, other parties should be willing to go to the people of Scotland and campaign for the constitutional position that they support.

Regardless of how they would vote in it, opinion polling has shown time and time again that the overwhelming majority of people in Scotland want the right to decide upon Scotland’s constitutional future for themselves. It is not for politicians of any political stripe to dictate a position on such an important issue to people, but rather for the public to decide for themselves in a referendum. For other parties to seek to block such a vote, as they are currently threatening to do, is simply unacceptable and is something that they will have to explain to the people who voted for them.

At a time when the UK Government is preparing to hold a referendum on changing the voting system for Westminster elections and the National Assembly for Wales is planning one over increasing their devolved powers, it is clearly the right time for Scotland to make our own decision on our constitutional future too.

Being vigilant for scams

Aberdeenshire Council recently issued a warning over reports of telephone scams from people pretending to be conducting a survey on behalf of the council. Although there are times when organisations like Aberdeenshire Council may undertake telephone surveys or residents may wish to pay bills over the phone, I would encourage everyone in Banff & Buchan to remain vigilant when it comes to giving out their personal or financial details.

Taking the time to be cautious is a small price to pay if it stops identities from being stolen or bank accounts being emptied.

A focus on the future for fishing

That the last twelve months have been tough for Banff & Buchan’s fishing industry is something that will not come as news to anyone. The economic problems that have affected so many businesses have not spared the already hard pressed fishing industry, with many skippers and processors feeling the squeeze. However, despite the immediate challenges the industry faces, the past year has also been a time when discussions on the future of fishing have been at the forefront of many people’s minds.

The EU’s Common Fisheries Policy has been an abject failure since its inception, neither preventing a decline in fish stocks nor supporting fishing as a viable industry. Annual gladiatorial battles between member states over quotas have seen rigid and inappropriate measures introduced to mixed fisheries and have left skippers unable to plan their livelihoods with any degree of certainty.

Yet at last there is the possibility of change, with the EU having accepted that the CFP must be reformed. Although it will not happen overnight, discussions are currently in full swing in Brussels and in fishing communities across Europe about what kind of model should replace the CFP.

An over-centralised approach has been at the heart of the CFP’s failure to secure a sustainable, profitable fishing industry in Scotland, and I am in no doubt that what replaces it must see responsibility for managing fisheries returned to Europe’s nations, working together on a regional basis. Fundamental to this is the protection of historical fishing rights, to ensure that decisions are taken as close to where it matters as possible.

Ending these historical rights could see a free-for-all in Scotland’s waters and threaten the livelihoods of many people in Banff & Buchan’s fishing industry, yet that is exactly what the UK Government has recently sought to do by recommending that MEPs back the abolition of historical fishing rights. It is the action of a Government that does not understand the fishing industry and does not care for its future, yet it is what we have come to expect from administrations of varying political hues in London over the years.

Banff & Buchan’s fishing industry and the hard working men and woman in it need their voices to be heard in Europe, particularly as high stakes discussions on the future of the CFP are being held. However, as long as the UK is responsible for discussions with Europe, that voice will never be heard as effectively as it should be. Banff & Buchan’s fishing industry needs a distinctive Scottish voice in Europe to fight its corner, a voice that will only come with Scottish independence.

The Scottish Government and my SNP colleagues in the European Parliament are clear about the need for a return to regional management of fisheries, based on historical fishing rights and will continue to do all that they can to see that brought about. Working together, the Scottish Government and Scotland’s fishing industry are better placed to find solutions to the challenge of managing fish stocks than centralised decision making in Brussels ever could be.

The Scottish fishing fleet has been at the forefront of introducing innovative conservation measures to try and increase the sustainability of the industry while maintaining its future as a profitable venture, demonstrating just how effectively Scotland could manage its own fisheries. The challenge is now to ensure that we are given the opportunity to do so.

23 February 2010

Helping households make ends meet

In these difficult economic times, many people in Banff & Buchan are facing enormous strains on their budgets as they struggle to pay the bills. As a result of this, the fact that Aberdeenshire Council has joined local authorities across Scotland to deliver another year’s freeze to the council tax is welcome news to local residents who will not have to stretch their finances even further to meet rising costs.

In the decade before the SNP Government came to power in 2007, average band D council tax payers in Aberdeenshire saw their bills increase by an incredible 93%. Since 2007 those taxes have not risen by a single penny. Had it not been for the Scottish Government’s determination to put an end to the inexorable increases in council tax that was the policy of previous administrations, local residents could now on average expect to be paying an extra £142 a year.

This freeze is important because as well as putting money they would not otherwise have had back into people’s pockets at a time of economic difficulty, it does not increase the financial pressures on those who already struggle most to pay council tax. Pensioners in particular are often hard pressed by the nature of the council tax, which can penalise them for the value of the home they have lived in for many years whilst taking no account of their current income. By having delivered a freeze in council tax for three consecutive years, the Scottish Government is helping to ensure that the pressures faced by many of the most vulnerable in Scottish society do not increase.

Although some other parties in the Scottish Parliament may have refused to back the council tax freeze, it is a policy which the Scottish Government is rightly proud of and one I was glad to vote for and once again see delivered.

Exceeding our targets

Recently published NHS statistics must have made welcome reading for all those involved in caring for cancer patients in the Grampian area. The national target is for 95% of patients who are urgently referred and subsequently diagnosed with cancer to be treated within a maximum of 62 days. Across Scotland this target has been met in each quarter since October-December 2008, with 96.8% of patients in the Grampian area having been treated within the target time in July-September 2009.

While the fact that the target of treating patients within 62 days is being met is encouraging, the figures also show that the average waiting time is just 35 days. This is excellent progress and puts the NHS across Scotland in a good position to meet its new, more challenging target of seeing patients treated within 31 days of a decision to treat them being made, however they are referred, by the end of 2011.

This success at reducing waiting times is a testament to the hard work and dedication of health professionals working in NHS Grampian and across Scotland. Given that only 84.5% of patients were being treated within the target time prior to the Holyrood elections in 2007, it is clear that significant strides have been made to improve the service offered to cancer patients.

Being diagnosed with cancer is obviously an enormously worrying time without the added stress of having to wait an undue length of time before treatment can begin. I believe that the progress that has been made to see national waiting time targets being exceeded is fantastic and reflects the invaluable work being done by Health Secretary Nicola Sturgeon to improve our NHS.

9 February 2010

A budget for difficult times

The Scottish Parliament recently debated and passed the annual budget for the coming financial year, the first that sees spending fall in real terms since the start of devolved government.

In these difficult economic times, people have little patience for political games when it comes to funding the kind of measures that make a real difference to people’s lives. It is unfortunate that not all parties were able to resist the temptation to indulge in such antics, but people in Banff & Buchan will welcome the fact that this year’s budget was passed without the chaos that some parties created last year.

It is a budget that protects frontline services from the cuts in Scottish funds being created by the UK Government. There is funding for council tax to be frozen for a third successive year under the SNP Government, putting money back into people’s pockets at a time when they need it most, while the thresholds for the small business bonus are being increased to further help the businesses that form the lifeblood of Scotland’s economy.

There is also increased funding for training places to meet the rising demand created by those who have lost their jobs and are seeking to learn new skills, and more money for the NHS to continue its efforts to improve the health of people in Scotland.

It is a budget that is about choosing the right priorities for people in Scotland and it is one that I believe delivers for people in Banff & Buchan. It will protect jobs and livelihoods in these difficult times and I welcome its passage.

An unacceptable distortion

As a publicly financed organisation that receives generous funding from our TV licences, the BBC has a responsibility to provide impartial and balanced coverage of the issues in our society. Because of that unique responsibility it is an organisation that commands a great deal of trust, so when it fails to provide balanced coverage there is quite understandably a great deal of anger.

It is hardly surprising then that many people in Banff & Buchan will have been outraged by the recent programme, Britain’s Really Disgusting Food, shown by the BBC which claimed that the fishing industry was committing a slow suicide by over-fishing stocks to the brink of extinction.

Not only is this viewpoint entirely misleading, given that it fails to recognise the enormous strides that have been made by the Scottish fleet when it comes to conservation measures as witnessed by the signs of recovery amongst Cod stocks, but it also is one that could cause serious financial damage to a struggling industry.

Recent years have been difficult for Banff & Buchan’s fishing industry, but its viability will not be helped if it is falsely portrayed to consumers as being reckless and failing to fish sustainably. Scotland’s fishing industry has been at the forefront of efforts to make the industry more sustainable and over 50% of Scottish fisheries by value have received Marine Stewardship Council accreditation, the international Gold standard for sustainably caught fish, with more on the way. For the BBC to have failed to acknowledge the success of these efforts is completely unacceptable.

Nobody wants to secure a sustainable, profitable future for the fishing industry more than the people who work within it and I believe that the BBC owes the industry an apology for broadcasting such a ridiculously misleading programme. It has betrayed the trust that licence fee payers in Banff & Buchan have placed in it and it is time for it now to make amends.

7 February 2010

On Patrol with the Fraserburgh Police

There are times when one simply yearns for a slow boring evening; which failing - a slow interesting evening. But I didn't expect Saturday's patrol with Inspector John Esson's team until 4 a.m. in Fraserburgh to fit either description.

When I last did the night shift with the Broch police on St Andrew's Day 2002 a rough old time was had by all. Then, like in towns across Scotland, the main issue for the forces of law and order was mopping up the after effects of excess alcohol. The inebriated needing protection from their own folly; the public needing defence from the misdirected spleen of the drunks; businesses needing protection from random drink-fuelled violence.

From the team briefing in the police station to what was for me the night's end when the night clubs closed, the atmosphere was markedly different from last time.

Yes, there was still the substantial focus on known “faces”, mainly involved in the supply of dangerous and illegal drugs, but it was clear from the moment we left Dennyduff Road that the streets were going to be several notches calmer than last time.

So why? In 2002, there was no CCTV in the Broch. Street drinking had not yet been banned. And there were no fixed penalty notices for low level offending.

Almost as soon as we were off in the police minibus, it was a stop to deal with a young lass drinking from a bottle outside one of the town's hostelries. With assistance from a steward on the door, like others playing their part in Fraserburgh's effective pub-watch scheme, we saw the cheap supermarket booze rapidly disappearing down a drain. A wry smile on the owner's face. And a first indication of why the Scottish Government is right to pursue minimum pricing for alcohol. Better to have supervised imbibing inside licenced premises than a free-for-all driven by unsupervised consumption from supermarket shelves.

With a break in the weather seeing the ice and snow of recent weeks deserting our streets, and a temperature with a “+” in front of it, I expected the town to be milling with revellers enjoying their Saturday.

In fact it was quietish. The advent of CCTV has clearly had precisely the effect I always knew it would have. People behave better knowing that their actions are recorded. And the street drinking ban that I advocated has clearly made a difference.

As the clubs started to empty from about 3 a.m., the crowds seemed good-natured and with a ready banter for the bobbies. As last time, the occasional half-hearted attempt to persuade our mentors for the evening that “a lift hame widnae go amiss”. A joking, but clear no received with good humour.

But human nature being what it is, two cases of “nature's call”. A night swilling beer has inevitable consequences. The new response to public urination is, by comparison with my last tour with the police, swift and effective. Ten minutes to issue a fixed penalty notice instead of a trip to the police station. Keeping the police on the street. And by having an effective remedy for public nuisance, a way to allow the 1,000 extra police delivered by Justice Secretary Kenny MacAskill, to calm the streets and direct our police to more serious matters.

By 4.00am I was pretty tired. If the police were, it didn't show. John Esson and his team, I'm sure like colleagues across Scotland, showed what intelligent policing can deliver. And in Fraserburgh this Saturday night, deliver they did. Boring it wasn't.

26 January 2010

A positive development for farmers

I was happy to hear that the UK Government has at long last accepted the calls of farmers and agreed to establish a supermarket ombudsman to oversee the relationship between food producers, sellers and consumers. The farming sector has long been calling for the establishment of this kind of body, calls supported by the Scottish Government, but it has taken a considerable length of time for the UK Government to accept the need for it.

Although many food supply chains work well, benefiting producers, consumers and retailers, many farmers have felt that they are the ones to suffer when these relationships break down. The Competition Commission has recommended the creation of an independent body to police these situations, and it is welcome news that the UK Government has now accepted this.

A supermarket ombudsman will go a long way towards ensuring that food producers are able to gain a fair deal for the food they put on our tables. The economic situation has not passed farmers by and many are struggling during these difficult times. If they are then faced with being squeezed by the supermarkets many can face going out of business, something that is in nobody’s interest. Dairy farmers in particular have struggled in the last year as the price they receive for the milk they produce has fallen rapidly.

The scope and powers of the ombudsman are currently being consulted on, but I believe that the body needs to be as strong as possible if it is to be successful in ensuring a fair deal for everyone. The UK Government has made progress in accepting the need for this ombudsman, but it must ensure that it completes this process by giving the body real power. For the sake of Scotland’s farmers, their consultation much reach a swift conclusion and give the ombudsman the powers it so clearly needs.

Improving access to NHS Dentists

The recent official opening of the new dental school in Aberdeen is an important step forward in the Scottish Government’s continued efforts to improve access to NHS dentistry across the Grampian region. For all too many years under the previous administration, the number of people registered with an NHS dentist was allowed to collapse and create the very real problems that many people in Banff & Buchan and across the North East have experienced.

The SNP went into the 2007 election promising to improve access to dentistry and there are clear signs of progress being made. Between March 2007 and June 2009, there were an additional 10,681 residents of Banff & Buchan registered with an NHS dentist, taking the total up to 47,619.

There is still a significant amount of work to be done if access to dentistry is to reach the levels we would like to see in Banff & Buchan and across the NHS Grampian area, but the purpose built facility for the Aberdeen Dental School will play an important role in those continuing efforts. Built on time and significantly under budget, this facility will train 20 postgraduate students every year and help provide ever greater numbers of dentists in the North East.

People in Banff & Buchan know that dentistry is an issue that should not be neglected and there is real and justified anger about how bad the situation was allowed to become under the previous administration. It is a situation that cannot be allowed to happen again and I am confident that this Scottish Government will do its utmost to ensure that improvements continue to be made.

12 January 2010

Ending a tax on ill-health

The Scottish Government has taken great strides since 2007 towards bringing an end to policies that seek to tax ill-health. Hospital car parking charges have been abolished at all NHS hospitals, except at the three hospitals that were built under PFI schemes and have contracts for car parking services that would be hugely expensive to buy out. The cost of visiting hospital, whether for patients or relatives, could be prohibitively expensive before this step was taken and ran counter to the principle of having an NHS that is free at the point of delivery.

In addition to abolishing these parking charges, we have also seen year on year reductions of prescription charges with the latest reduction recently having been placed before the Scottish Parliament for approval. This move will reduce prescription charges from £4 to £3, reduce four month pre-payment certificates from £13 to £10 and reduce twelve month certificates from £38 to £28.

This reduction is the final step before the planned abolition of prescription charges is delivered next year, as was promised in our election manifesto. The cost for many patients, particularly those with chronic conditions that require medication throughout a patient’s lifetime, is one that can be extremely challenging for them to meet and one that does not sit well with the principles behind the National Health Service.

Ill-health or injury is something that is not a choice, but rather a circumstance that is beyond an individual’s control. It cannot be right to then financially penalise people who find themselves in these circumstances if we wish to remain true to the values of the NHS.

There is no fundamental difference between believing that hospital treatment should be free at the point of need and believing that prescription drugs also should be. This is a core part of the universal health care which the NHS provides and I am proud to be part of a Government that is reaffirming those principles.

Communities pulling together

There are few people in Banff & Buchan that have not been affected by the current winter conditions, the worst we have seen in thirty years. With schools having closed, houses snowed in and further bad weather forecast, it is a difficult time for many people. Yet conditions like these are also a time when communities pull together and look out for their more vulnerable members.

For elderly people in particular, the cold weather and ice underfoot makes this time of year extremely difficult and it is a time when they value the help and assistance of their neighbours more than ever. Whether it is clearing an elderly neighbour’s path or something as simple as making sure that their heating is on or that pre-payment cards are topped up, it is actions like these that make our communities places we can be proud to live in.

Keeping warm in these low temperatures is vital and there is help available for elderly and vulnerable people in particular to save money on their heating and to make their homes warmer. A local advisor from the Energy Savings Trust can be contacted on 0800 512 012 who will be able to advise you on what assistance is available to you through the Energy Assistance Package, from advice on keeping your bills low to making funds available for installing a new boiler or insulation depending on your circumstances.

It is a free service which anyone can contact to receive advice from and I thoroughly encourage people to use it if they have not done so already.

Stewart Stevenson
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