28 June 2011

Measuring our worth

The election of a pro-independence majority in Holyrood and the certainty that there will be a referendum on Scottish independence has understandably excited much comment in the media over recent weeks. Clearly political discourse in Scotland is moving into new territory and although the referendum will not be held until the latter part of our term in office, as we promised in our manifesto, there will be much debate and discussion to come between now and then.

One of the perennial topics that are inevitably raised in any discussion on independence is Scotland’s finances and our ability to afford independence. If you were to read some of the claims in newspaper columns published south of the border which seem to have only a passing familiarity, let alone interest in Scotland, you might think that people north of the border did not pay any taxation and Scotland existed only on the generosity of taxpayers elsewhere in the UK.

The truth is of course somewhat different. The Government Expenditure and Revenue Scotland figures or GERS are the most comprehensive set of statistics that exists on how much Scotland generates in taxation and spends on public services in both devolved areas and on things still reserved to Westminster’s control. While it is not perfect, given that there areas where it has no choice but to rely on estimates because the UK Treasury simply doesn’t separate out the level of some taxes contributed from Scotland when gathering statistics, it is the most useful starting point in any discussion on how much Scotland generates and spends on the public sector.

The most recent of these GERS statistics covering the 2009/10 financial year was published in recent days and paint an interesting picture of Scotland’s finances. During that year Scotland generated £48.1 billion in taxation, or 9.4% of the entire tax take for the whole of the UK. This compares to having a population that makes up 8.4% of the UK total and public spending levels which represented 9.3% of UK expenditure. Those figures show that Scotland generated a greater share of tax revenues than its population share of the UK and saw a slightly lower proportion of money spent in Scotland than the share of tax revenue that went to the UK Treasury from Scotland.

The 2009/10 financial year was of course when the recession was biting hard and it is therefore no surprise that the figures for that year show a current spending deficit of £9 billion or 6.8% of GDP in Scotland, as reduced tax income had not been matched by reduced expenditure. When capital spending is included, this deficit increased to £14 billion or 10.6% of GDP.

Although it is normal for countries around the world to run deficits, ones on that scale are not healthy in the long term. However, the size of Scotland’s deficit for that year was entirely a result of the recession and does not measure poorly when compared with the rest of the UK. The same financial year saw the UK run up a deficit of £107.3 billion or 7.6% of GDP on current spending which rises to £156.5 billion or 11.1% of GDP when capital spending is also included. In both cases, Scotland’s deficit as a percentage of GDP remained lower than the figure for the UK as a whole.

What this shows is that Scotland had a stronger budget position than the UK as a whole, just as it has in each of the last five years. Scaremongering over Scotland’s financial strength is clearly just that, given that even in tough economic times we outperformed the UK as a whole.

23 June 2011

Food on the timetable

The Royal Highland Show is an absolute ‘must-do’ for anyone connected to rural Scotland, farming and food.
This year’s event was my first in my new role as Environment Minister and an excellent opportunity to see for myself what our rural communities have to offer.

Food is always high on the agenda and I think it’s vital that we all learn a little bit more about where our food comes from.

So I was delighted to have the chance at the Show, to launch groundbreaking guidelines to help schools and food and drink organisations to help teach young people exactly that.
This is a fantastic initiative for school pupils to learn about their food’s journey from plough to plate, as well as making the connection between the food they eat and its environmental, health and social impact.
I hope that such knowledge will help our young people make healthier, sustainable food choices in the future, a notion which is very much in line with one of the key aims of Curriculum for Excellence – helping foster a sense of responsibility and environmental awareness in our young people

Scotland has a well-deserved reputation as a land of food and drink and it is vital that we continue to enhance this by engaging the next generation to make sure every child in Scotland has the chance to learn about the food they eat by 2015.

I would encourage food and drink organisations to embrace this opportunity to work in partnership with our schools to deliver a more personalised learning experience for every child.

14 June 2011

Measuring our progress

During the election just passed, we in the SNP made standing by our record of achievement during the last four years of minority Government a big part of our successful campaign. It is a record that I believe we can be proud of, despite the challenges we faced, and while much of the recent focus and analysis in Scotland has been on our plans for the next five years as a majority Government, it is important that the signs of how far we have come so far should not be overlooked.

Recent weeks saw the publication of quarterly registration figures for NHS dentists. Across Scotland, an additional 1.2 million people are now registered with an NHS dentist compared to when the SNP took power in 2007. For a country the size of Scotland, that is progress on an impressive scale although there is of course still much to do, not least in the Grampian area.

Dentist registrations are well behind the national average in this area and we can all well remember how bad the situation was allowed to become under the previous administration. When the SNP came to power, just 35% of people in Grampian were registered with an NHS dentist.

That figure was a scandal and as a Government we took action to address it. A major part of that was the opening of a £20 million dental school in Aberdeen, training dentists in the region so that there are more dentists in the area for people to access. The latest figures show the progress that has been made, with over 51% of people in the area now registered with an NHS dentist.

Clearly there is much more progress still to be made, but that things are moving in the right direction is undeniable. As more and more newly qualified dentists graduate in Aberdeen, I believe that progress will continue and the disparity in dentist provision can finally be brought to an end.

Recent days also saw statistics demonstrating the progress that has been made in policing under the past four years of SNP Government. We were elected to office in 2007 with a promise that we would recruit an additional 1,000 police officers to protect our communities. The recently published statistics show that having met that promise well ahead of schedule, we finished our first term in office having maintained that increase.

There is now a more visible police presence in our communities, with 142 additional officers in the Grampian area, and crime has been reduced to a 32 year low. It has been one of the most significant achievements of our first term in office and we are determined to maintain that achievement throughout our second term.

The parliamentary term just passed saw progress in many aspects of Scottish life of which we can be proud. Yet I know that we will not rest on our laurels, but will instead work tirelessly to ensure that at the end of our second term in office people can again look back and see that we have come even further.

Carers Week

It would be remiss of me not to mention that Carers Week takes place from the 13th to the 19th of June. The many unpaid carers across Scotland are without doubt unsung heroes without whom the NHS and local Government would be overwhelmed. It is extremely challenging work that carers do and I warmly welcome the recognition of their efforts that Carers Week provides. As a society we all owe a debt of thanks to Scotland’s army of carers.

Stewart Stevenson
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