31 December 2013

Giving Their All

At this festive time, it is worthwhile to pause and consider the work done by those in our local communities that demonstrate the Christmas spirit of giving all through the year.

Over the past few months I have been impressed by initiatives set up by a number of local Development Trusts in the North-east. Many are the catalyst that will kick start the regeneration of a rural community, and improve the quality of lives for all who live there.

One example of this is the Boyndie Trust, which provides training opportunities for around 70 people with learning disabilities and paid employment for 30 others. Trainees do not only learn new skills, but they increase in confidence and gain a sense of pride as they take a positive role in their community. The Trust also uses local suppliers wherever possible, so it also boosts the local economy.

Peterhead Projects is another example of what a team of community spirited individuals can do to revitalise a local area. Their efforts have resulted in the creation of an area of community woodland at Buchan Meadows. This means that people, young and old, can enjoy the outdoor space for their health and wellbeing, and it has created an education resource for school children, youth clubs, and a work experience opportunity for the long term unemployed and those with mental health issues.

These trusts contribute to all aspects of daily life. From culture to fitness, environmental sustainability to boating, the work that ordinary people have put into regenerating their towns and villages is a testament to Scotland’s spirit. Volunteers are what make our communities great.

Through the Scottish Traditional Boat Festival, the Salmon Bothy and the PORT Boatshed, anyone can discover, enjoy, and participate in the maritime and cultural heritage of the North-east. This includes sailing, boat building and restoration, fishing, history, crafts, theatre, literature and language, music, dance and dancing and food and drink.

The Princess Royal Sports and Community Trust in Banff promotes physical fitness for people of all ages and capabilities. Over 1000 participants have learned from the Trust’s full time coaches delivering sessions at 12 rural primary schools, Banff Academy and four sheltered housing schemes locally.

The Scottish Government is also playing a vital role in sustaining local communities, so that individuals who keenly feel the challenges of the current economic climate are given the help they need. Families in the North-east faced massive Council Tax rises before 2007 and in government; the SNP continues to provide financial support for local councils to maintain the council tax freeze.

In a recent announcement by the Cabinet Secretary for Finance, Employment and Sustainable Growth, John Swinney, he highlighted the fact that small local businesses are reaping the benefits of the government’s Small Business Bonus Scheme, giving rates relief to those just starting out, wanting to draw investment and interest into more rural areas. This cash injection is also significant for local voluntary organisations and Trusts, such as those already mentioned, who need a sense of optimism and giving of time and resources in order to survive and thrive.

A further £190 million will also be pumped into local communities over 2014/15 and 2015/16 to fund an increase in nursery care for pre-school children. This will be of real benefit for thousands of families across the North-east, giving their youngsters the best start in life.

The Christmas spirit of giving and caring is alive and well in the North-east and in the pledges of the Scottish Government. A very happy Christmas to you all and best wishes for the New Year.

Herald's "Inside Track"

Contributed by
Stewart Stevenson

A Parliament is a place of words. In the week before Christmas the unsung heroes of Holyrood, our Official Report, recorded 160,000 or so of them - “Christmas” came up 60 times - from our debates and committees. And we created 74 pages of new law.

The clashes in debates, the questions to ministers and the answers given may amuse, irritate and inform in equal measure.

But when we put words into law it matters. Peoples lives can be changed.

Over the centuries our law has become more wordy, more complex.

When the Scottish Parliament passed the 1705 Fisheries Act it contained about 250 words. This year our Aquaculture and Fisheries Act was 70 pages. And, like all law, it ain't an easy read.

How Parliaments around the world make law has evolved over a long period. From our Royal Mines Act of 1424 to this month's Landfill Tax Act, we politicians are still learning how to do it.

When the Scottish Parliament was reconvened in 1999, we made some changes. We vote electronically, sometimes more than once a minute. Westminster MPs walk out through the Ayes and Noes lobbies to be counted. That takes 20 minutes.

But we kept the essence of how we make law. Debate the principle, refine with amendments in committee and then allow the whole parliament to make final amendments, debate and then agree or reject the final text.

The processes and the engagement in them by MSPs, the understanding of the policy decisions being made, attention to detail, advice from officials, lobbying from external interests all contribute to the final results.

The final test is – is it good law?

We know it can get challenged in the courts, occasionally successfully. We know we have to re-visit laws to fine tune them. Not all laws tabled make it to the statute book – Parliament does exercise its right to say no.

Our Standards, Procedures and Public Appointments Committee, of which I am Convenor, looks at our processes. And always wants to hear good ideas for improvement from as wide a cross-section of Scotland as possible.

Next year the Committee will discuss our approach to legislation in detail. Let me pose a couple of entirely personal questions we may consider.

Big laws often attract hundreds of amendments which we need to discuss. Our clerks number them as they come in. But we debate them grouped by subject matter not in number order. And then vote on them in the sequence they affect the text. Three different orders.

It's not just a technical issue. Ten years ago I put forward in Committee a couple of related amendments. We discussed them in late June and decided on one of them. The second decision came 16 meetings later in late October. Could we remember that earlier debate? Is it time to vote in the order we debate?

We vote electronically – good. But does the speed give us time to grasp what's going on? Should there be time-outs when the whole Parliament's making amendments?

It's been said that the making of law is like the making of sausages; not a pretty sight.

Is it time for a makeover?

17 December 2013

Fishing Matters

Last week I had the opportunity to meet with representatives of the Scottish Fishermen's Federation (SFF). The organisation seeks to preserve and promote the collective interests of Scotland’s fishermen's associations. It plays a huge part in advancing the interests of Scottish fishermen at national and international levels by actively lobbying government officials in Edinburgh, London and Brussels. Just to impart how influential they are in our fishing industry, let me point out that the federation covers nine geographical and sectoral associations including the Scottish Pelagic Fishermen's Association Limited and the Scottish White Fish Producers’ Association Limited.

As it turns out, our fishing sector is in danger of seeing further cuts in the number of days that vessels can put to sea next year. The SFF, a leader in its field, warns that such actions would jeopardise the economic viability of our fleet and that it is of absolute imperative that there are no further cuts in days at sea. Another threat we face, are the unintended consequences of pursuing a principle of ‘Maximum Sustainable Yield’. Without proper management measures, the principle could become self-defeating in that it ends up actually increasing the number of fish discarded after capture in our mixed fisheries. We must be wary of the impact we have on our oceans and the populations living within them. It is vital not just to the environment, but to our economy that we allow fish the time to repopulate. However, additional annual reductions may go well beyond the point of beneficial effect and are the inheritance of past failed plans issued by the European Commission. The Cod Recovery Plan, for example, put considerable strain on the economic growth of communities that rely on cod for their livelihood. What the European Commission could be doing instead is funding research to identify alternative conservation initiatives such as closed areas and the development of selective fishing gears as a more effective way of conserving stocks. This makes most sense; especially when one considers that recent assessments cannot establish a clear correlation between cutting days at sea and reduced cod mortality. Again, I must reiterate: I am all for the conservation of such an integral part of our livelihood in the northeast – but only to the point that it benefits us.

Unfortunately, this year’s Fish Council will only be able to make firm decisions on those stocks exclusively belonging to the EU. International negotiations this year have stalled due to the failure to reach an agreement between the EU, Norway, Iceland and the Faroe Islands with regard to the matter of north east Atlantic mackerel. The disagreement prohibits all other forms of decision-making until the early part of 2014. Usually, these negotiations take place over the autumn period and confirmed at the December Council of Ministers. As you can imagine, this presents severe consequences. Namely, the fishing stocks shared in the North Sea by the EU and Norway will continue to be fished without a proper quota until after negotiations have come to a conclusion.

The Scottish Fishing Federation has brought to my attention the issues that pervade international negotiations. They are fighting for an equitable outcome for those quotas which can be set at December Council; an equitable solution to NE Atlantic mackerel; and an earliest completion of the negotiations for fishing opportunities. This is not a call for appeasement, but agreement. Now, it is up to the UK government to listen to the needs of the Scottish fishing industry to ensure that come 2014, our fleets will be out on the waters, ready to catch the ever-growing abundance of fish.

Stewart Stevenson
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