22 October 2011

A Minister writes – Stewart Stevenson on SNP Conference Saturday

A great day at the SNP Conference in Inverness

Every day at conference is precious and as that great Scot Andrew Carnegie said, “The early bird gets the oyster, the second gets the shell”. So it's online at 0715 to read the media comment from yesterday and orient myself for today.

And today is FM's speech, the Donaldson Lecture and, for me, Ministers' Moments at 1030. I’m also on the agenda committee that selects topical motions so lots to do.

Like the first SNP Conference I attended in the Usher Hall in Edinburgh in the mid 1970s, this is the highlight of the activist's year. Every time a familiar face appears in the conference environs, people sidle up to talk, to listen, to persuade. And to check that the Minister's feet are firmly on the ground. That's the activist's right.

And even though the formal sessions are an hour away, the buzz, that palpable sense of excitement is abroad at Eden Court when I arrive.

1000 Bruce Crawford briefs Ministers before our hour's report to Conference. I follow Alasdair Allan and have a strict 4 minutes.

1030 A full house in the auditorium again. And halfway through Alasdair's speech a frantic signal from Bruce to me – please take 6 minutes – OK boss.

Always worth a laugh reminding colleagues that it's Sno joke being Minister for snow but now I' m environment. Appropriate laughter a good start.

All went well.

Spending time at conference means everyone has the chance to meet with you, so the break is a photo with a Council candidate, agreeing to do Atholl Branch Burns Supper, discussing the impact of sea lice on salmon. Variety is the spice of conference.

By lunchtime I’m on my second box of throat lozenges, but no lunch and then collared by one of the staff – Do I know any funny stories Nicola can use to introduce the First Minister for his speech at 3 pm? On tenterhooks to see if any are used.

1330 Mark MacDonald tells me the joke he intends to use at 2 pm when he makes the financial appeal to conference. Mixture of pleasure and fear. It's about me. It's about me.

1345 Am sitting near our support team in the hope that this a quiet corner to work on this blog. Failed.

1355 Head off for seat in auditorium, Just spotted tweet from Brewdog “Great speech Stewart”. Can my cheerfulness rise even higher?

1400 Mark Macdonald makes superb financial appeal speech. Not sure about the reference to me.

1455 Announcement of International climate change award for First Minister.

FM with activists at the North-East reception
1500 The man himself, Alex Salmond, wows an audience so large that we need five overflow halls.

And well – you can read the speech here for yourself

18 October 2011

Critical decisions

When it comes to Europe, the next year or so can only be regarded as critical to many people in Banffshire & Buchan Coast and across the whole of Scotland. There is the ongoing crisis with the Euro and the risk of financial collapse in several European countries that must be resolved. How this happens will have a profound effect on the shape of the EU for decades to come and its impact here should not be underestimated.

Negotiations to reform the Common Fisheries Policy will take place, providing Scotland a critical opportunity to replace the discredited and damaging current system with one that sees decisions taken on a regional basis rather than centrally in Brussels. The CFP has destroyed communities and careers and has utterly failed as a means of protecting fish stocks.

There is opportunity for a better future for the fishing industry as a result of these negotiations, but there are also dangers if they are mishandled and Scotland's voice is ignored. The Scottish Government will be working hard to ensure the best possible outcome from these discussions and there is simply too much at stake for us not to succeed.

At the same time as this, the Common Agricultural Policy will also be facing reform with the recent publication of the Commission's proposals signalling the opening of negotiations. A lot of work has already been done in Scotland to prepare for this, not least with the publication of the hugely important Brian Pack report into our farming sector.

The current CAP which prevents new entrants into farming from benefiting from payments while enabling some farmers to receive subsidies for what they produced a decade ago, while no longer working their land, is clearly something which needs to change. There will be immense challenges in moving from historical payments to area based payments, but changes to address the problems that currently exist are necessary.

The Scottish Government's priority is of course to secure the best possible deal for Scotland, but we believe the key to this is to ensure that the new CAP is fairer, more flexible and simpler. It should encourage new entrants and reward genuine activity.

In all these areas there are enormous challenges and tough negotiations ahead which will substantially affect the economic prospects of people in Banffshire & Buchan Coast. The Scottish Government will put its case in Europe as ably as possible, but as we remain part of the UK in these negotiations, surely these discussions clearly demonstrate that Scotland needs a greater role when it comes to the UK taking part in European negotiations?

The farming sectors north and south of the border are substantially different and as such will have differing priorities. Meanwhile the vast majority of the UK's fishing fleet is in Scotland so it is inevitable that the outcome of CFP reform will be of greater importance north of the border than in the rest of the UK. This was an industry that was once described by a Tory UK Government as “expendable” after all.

A formal role in negotiations for the Scottish Government that reflects our distinctive needs in Europe is one of the entirely reasonable changes to the Scotland Bill at Westminster which we are currently seeking. The intransigence we are facing even on this issue is extremely frustrating to say the least and does Scotland a grave disservice.

Of course better still for Scotland would be to speak with our own voice in Europe as an independent country and the chance to choose that will be coming for Scotland in a few short years.

7 October 2011

Taking The High Road on GM

The Scottish Government continues to be fundamentally opposed to the cultivation of GM crops. Scotland’s Minister for Environment and Climate Change, Stewart Stevenson, explains why

[from the Food Standards Agency's 'Bite' magazine - edition 06 11]

Some have asked whether the Scottish Government has softened its position on genetically modified (GM) crops since it was first elected in 2007.

The answer to that is no – we remain fundamentally opposed to growing GM crops. That is why we support in principle the European Commission’s attempts to bring in changes that would allow countries and regions freedom to choose whether or not to grow GM crops on their territory.

The reasons for our position are multi-faceted. First, scientists cannot give categorical assurances that there is no risk to the environment from growing GM crops. The EU risk assessment of GM crops cannot take into account all Europe’s regional variations in landscape, climate and agricultural practice. Scotland has many unique features and a rich biodiversity, which we will not put at risk by growing GM crops.

There is also Scotland’s reputation for quality food and drink – a reputation we believe could be jeopardised if Scotland became known for growing GM crops.

We know that European consumers have little confidence that GM food is safe to eat. Some will argue that robust coexistence measures can counter the problems of cross-pollination or encroachment of GM crops. But, even if that was the case, there are costs involved in keeping GM and non-GM crops and products separate along the supply chain, which nobody will want to pay.

We accept there are a number of approved and labelled GMOs in use in Scotland, as there are elsewhere. Imported GM soya for animal feed, various therapeutics (for example insulin) for human and animal use, and some food technology aids may have been derived from GM sources. We supported the EU’s 0.1% threshold for unapproved GMO material in imports of non-GM animal feed in order to ease the supply problems and escalating feed prices experienced by our livestock farmers. We will, however, argue strenuously against extending the threshold to food imports – something we’re confident UK and European consumers will support us in.

There are a number of countries and many regions within the EU that take a similar stance to Scotland. Within the UK, agriculture is devolved and all four countries have their own views; but that is no reason why we can’t all coexist. If, for example, England decided to grow GM crops, we should be able to manage any cross-border issues just as they are managed in the rest of Europe.

Some claim our position could adversely affect Scottish biological research institutes that wish to carry out GM research. Whilst we do not fund any research that leads directly to the production of GM crops, we do support modern plant breeding techniques.

Research and innovation, and conventional plant breeding, offer many possible solutions for the challenges for food production. Crop breeding is an important income earner for Scotland – our crop scientists and breeders generate around £160 million of business for the Scottish and UK economies every year.

In summary, we remain fundamentally opposed to the cultivation of GM crops, a position which we strongly believe will protect Scotland’s precious environment.

4 October 2011

Connecting With Our Neighbours

Recent days have seen the future for renewable energy in Scotland take centre stage in no small part due to the Scottish Low Carbon Investment Conference being held for just the second time. Despite the relative youth of the event, it is a clear sign of Scotland’s renewable energy potential that it has already become internationally significant, with former Vice-President of the United States Al Gore jetting in to address delegates.

Mr Gore’s praise for Scotland’s leadership when it comes to tackling climate change and setting ambitious targets for reducing carbon emissions and increasing renewable energy was extremely welcome, but of more lasting significance are two other developments which coincided with the event.

The first of these was the publication of a report by Scottish Enterprise which identifies the important role that skills and expertise which people in Scotland have developed in the Oil and Gas industry can bring to bear on offshore renewables. The report identifies that if these skills are properly harnessed, cost savings of at least 20% can be made to offshore wind projects.

Those savings add up to hundreds of millions of pounds which can go a long way towards improving the viability of projects and giving developments in the waters off Scotland’s coast a tangible competitive advantage. There is no room for complacency and we must do more to ensure that this kind of collaboration takes place, but the early signs that the Oil & Gas is becoming involved in offshore renewables are positive.

Perhaps even more significant, however, was the announcement that a consortium of companies has made an application to build an underwater electricity connection between Scotland and Norway, coming ashore near Peterhead. This type of connection is absolutely fundamental to achieving the full economic benefits of renewable energy as it will allow Scotland to export its surplus energy to our European neighbours.

The fact that the Peterhead area has been chosen as the landing point is a welcome sign of the significance that renewable energy will play to the economy of Banffshire & Buchan Coast in the years and decades to come. This kind of project has been identified by the EU as a project of “European Significance” and is one of the most important developments that Scotland needs to see happen to secure our economic future.

A worrying proposal

Less promising for people in Banffshire & Buchan Coast, although no less significant, are the latest round of proposed fishing quotas. Despite the scientific advice recommending a 410% increase in West Coast Haddock following the recovery of that fish stock to sustainable levels, the European Commission has proposed an increase of just 25%.

People in the fishing industry will know that there would be no hesitation on the Commission’s part in proposing to follow the scientific advice to the letter if it called for a reduction in quotas, so the lack of consistency that has been displayed is extremely frustrating to say the least.

When the enormous sacrifices that have been made by the fishing industry in the name of improving conservation and sustainability pay off with improved fish stocks, it is simply wrong to punish the fishing industry by not rewarding them for their efforts.

The quota proposed will only increase discards in the area, something that surely nobody would wish to see. The Scottish Government will be making strong representations to Europe to secure a fair deal for our fishermen and ensure that the industry’s willingness to take part in conservation efforts is not undermined by the Commission’s approach.

Stewart Stevenson
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However Google who publish for us, may do.
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