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.

Stewart Stevenson
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