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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