20 March 2012

A Critical Year

One year ago when I was given the opportunity to write an article for the Fishing Review, I wrote about the frustration that I, and a huge part of the fishing industry, held about the behaviour of Iceland and the Faroe Islands in relation to Mackerel quotas. Both countries have been unilaterally giving themselves massive quota hikes since 2008 and with the latest attempts to negotiate an agreement having ended without movement, this dangerous approach will continue in 2012.

The fact that a full twelve months have passed and we are now facing a third consecutive year without an agreement in place is extremely disappointing to say the least. The scale of the quota hikes can be seen from the fact that the Faroes don’t even have the capacity to catch all the Mackerel they have awarded themselves and are instead inviting foreign vessels into their waters to catch the stock on their behalf.

This is selfish short-termism at its worst and is a fast-track to Mackerel stocks, which was Scotland’s most valuable fishing stock in 2010, falling below safe limits thanks to overfishing. The EU needs to fast-track its plans for sanctions and ensure that a tough stand is taken before the damage that is being done becomes irreparable.

One area where the fishing industry could have benefited from the EU taking less speed was with the nonsensical proposals late last year that would have seen days at sea reduced across the industry while several fishing quotas were rising. Thankfully this threat was seen off and those vessels that are subject to the annual days at sea reduction as part of the Cod Recovery Plan will be able to see them reinstated through adopting Cod avoidance measures after the Commission accepted Scotland’s interpretation of the rules.

The annual negotiations eventually saw quotas for several key fish stocks rise, but once again the key lesson that can be drawn from the fraught negotiations over the failed and discredited CFP is that the reforms this year cannot come soon enough. We urgently need to replace the CFP with a system of regional management that sees those with the greatest knowledge and stake in the success of the fishing industry given responsibility for managing it.

Some good news for the year ahead though was the Scottish Government’s announcement that Fraserburgh Harbour is to receive £7.5 million to deepen part of the harbour, improving access, and to upgrade facilities at the site. Work is expected to start in the near future and these improvements will represent a real boost for the town and the fishing industry in the area.

Despite the many trials that it has faced over the years and continues to have ahead of it, the fishing industry is integral to the fabric of Banffshire & Buchan Coast. The Scottish Government is firmly committed to supporting our fishing industry and allocating funding such as this to critical projects such as the improvements to Fraserburgh Harbour demonstrates that clearly.

Unfinished Business

During the last session of parliament when the SNP was in a minority administration, we brought forward a series of measures aimed at making progress on tackling Scotland’s hugely damaging relationship with alcohol. Every year, excessive alcohol consumption costs Scotland £3.56 billion or about £900 for every adult in Scotland. The scale of this cost, which forms a huge part of health and policing budgets, is immense and does not even take into account the severe human cost of seeing loved ones lives ruined by alcohol abuse.

The most publicised measure that we brought to parliament during the last session was our plans to introduce a minimum price per unit for alcohol. The weight of evidence makes clear that the cost of alcohol is a key factor in how much of it is consumed and this would have had the effect of raising the price of the dirt cheap ciders and spirits favoured by problem drinkers.

The price we proposed was for 45p per unit which to put in some kind of context would have made the minimum price for an average bottle of wine £4.05 while a normal strength can of lager would be 90p. Clearly this is little change from what a supermarket already charges for these items, but what would change markedly is how much is charged for own label spirits or bottles of high strength cider which can in some cases be bought just now for less than a bottle of water.

The evidence underpinning the plans shows that within 10 years there will be around 200 fewer alcohol related deaths, thousands fewer hospital admissions, more than 300 fewer cases of violent crime and 19,600 fewer days missed from work. It will reduce the costs to health, crime and employment by £606 million over 10 years.

In the event, the opposition parties which outnumbered the SNP in the last parliament stripped minimum pricing out of the legislation that was passed. While we have never claimed it was a silver bullet, it was and remains an important tool that will help us to tackle the problem of alcohol abuse. It is telling that it is supported by a host of health professionals, the police, the licenced trade and indeed several well-known drinks producers including Tennents and Molson Coors.

That is why we regarded this as unfinished business and promised to bring back this measure now that we are in a majority situation at Holyrood. Recent days saw us do just that with the legislation necessary to introduce the measure passing its first hurdle in Parliament. This time around, opposition parties dropped their previous resistance with Lib Dems and Tories voting for the plans while most Labour MSPs abstained.

The change in attitude at Holyrood reflects the direction of travel across these islands, with the UK Government signalling its support for its own version of the measure while the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland have entered into talks over introducing a similar plan.

By its very nature, a minimum price has the biggest effect on those who buy and consume the most alcohol. With alcohol sales in Scotland 23% higher than in England and Wales and staggering financial and human costs accompanying our troubling relationship with alcohol, this policy is a tool we desperately need to get our hands on.

I welcome the progress that has been made in parliament on this issue and look forward to the positive impact that I am sure it will have once it completes its passage into law

6 March 2012

Protecting A Reputation

With the close links to the fishing industry that so many people in Banffshire & Buchan Coast have, there can scarcely be anyone who does not know someone who has been affected by the difficulties the fishing industry has faced over the years.

There have been enormous challenges that have had to be overcome and sacrifices that have been made to meet the requirements of the failed Common Fisheries Policy.

However, the fact that the CFP has manifestly failed to conserve fish stocks or deliver a profitable, sustainable fishing industry is not a justification for ignoring the rules that are currently in place. The innovations that the Scottish industry have been allowed to bring in such as the Catch Quota System has only been possible on the back of the reputation for following the rules that the Scottish fishing industry has built up.

That is why the recent sentencing of fishermen who illegally landed black fish worth millions of pounds several years ago brought to an end an incredibly disappointing episode.

Their actions put at risk the hard worn reputation that the rest of the industry had managed to build up through extreme sacrifices and put the livelihoods of others at risk. Yet what happened was clearly not representative of the vast majority of the industry. If we are to successfully make the case for fisheries reform, it will be on the back of the incredibly positive reputation that the Scottish fishing industry has built up.

What is important is that those who have done wrong have been punished and the reputation of the industry as a whole is maintained going forward. This is a critical time for the fishing industry’s future and we cannot afford the previous misdeeds of a few to tarnish the outstanding reputation of the industry today.

Healthcare in the local community

When it comes to healthcare, the service that the National Health Service provides is something that we often take for granted. Yet anyone who has received treatment or has a loved one who has needed it will know only too well the incredible efforts that NHS staff make to make us healthy. They face enormous challenges, but regularly overcome them to deliver the best quality care possible.

Yet one of the challenges that NHS staff should not need to face is inappropriate facilities in which to treat patients. Whether it is a GP check-up or a longer hospital stay, we all want to have access to clean and modern healthcare facilities as close to home as possible.

That is why the official re-opening of Chalmers Hospital in Banff following its £15 million redevelopment is fantastic news for the local community and indeed the wider Banffshire & Buchan Coast area. The re-developed hospital will provide a range of services including casualty, minor procedures, x-ray, renal dialysis, an outpatients’ clinic, a telemedicine facility and a GP ward.

There are also upgraded facilities for physiotherapy, occupational therapy, speech & language therapy and podiatry. It has taken some time for these improvements to be made, but now that they are in place people in and around Banff have access to fantastic health facilities right on their own doorsteps, making some of the long journeys that patients have faced a thing of the past.

I know that both patients and the staff working there will be delighted that the work to upgrade the hospital is complete and I am positive that it will let the incredibly dedicated NHS staff in the area deliver an even higher standard of care than ever before.

Stewart Stevenson
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