23 December 2014

Engaging our voters

The regeneration of voters was one of the overwhelming results of this year’s referendum, and a factor which lifted the spirits of the Yes campaign following the results.

Engaging the voters and tearing through voter apathy has been the subject of much debate over the past few years, but trends were reversed last September when turnout averaged 84.5 per cent across Scotland.

Keeping the momentum going beyond this mass surge in political engagement is now the challenge.

Following talks with First Minister Nicola Sturgeon, Prime Minister David Cameron has decided to give the Scottish Parliament the power to lower the voting age in Scotland to 16, in time for the 2016 election. This is a welcome result as the younger generation have proved they are more than capable of making political decisions for themselves.

But so far, on a local level – in the world of local councils and small town democracy - the voting public have yet to taste the same surge of energy for change.

Earlier this month I spoke in a Scottish Parliament debate on the importance of regeneration in local government.

Historically there was very little connection between voters and the wider community. In 1831, there were fewer than 3000 electors in Scotland for parliamentary elections, which meant that the connection with the wider community was negligible.

Until the Pontefract by-election, which took place on 15 August 1872, people voted by going up to the front, to the returning officer, and saying what candidate they were going to vote for. Indeed, before 1872, the way in which people voted was published.

Democracy worked in a substantially different way once the 1872 Ballot Act came into operation.

Looking at international comparisons from 1960 to 1995, top of the league is Malta, which during that time, without compulsory voting, had an average turnout of 94 per cent. In the same period, Denmark had 87 per cent turnout, Sweden had 86 per cent turnout and the UK had 76 per cent turnout.

In the United States, turnout in that period was lower at 48 per cent. That is interesting because the US has a very different model of democracy. Basically, all power is held at the bottom of the heap and the states choose what powers to give back up to the top. However, this does not seem to make any difference to engagement.

We talk about turnout going down, but the turnout among those who could vote in the 1945 general election was 70.05 per cent, and the turnout in the 1997 general election was almost identical, at 69.39 per cent. So, what motivates people to vote is perhaps something quite subtle. The high turnout that we had in the referendum might be because people felt that they could change the system, rather than simply change the faces.

There are some ideas that could be considered in local elections to see if it makes any difference. Randomising the order of people on the ballot paper could work, or alternatively circular ballot papers could be used, so that no one is at the top and no one is at the bottom.

Although I have been a member of a political party for 53 years I wonder if would also be helpful to eliminate the party designation from the ballot paper so that people voted for who they actually knew, rather than the party.

Ultimately if there is one lesson we can take from the referendum and try to replicate it at a grass roots level it is that we need strong messages that are reinforced across local areas if we want people to be engaged.

9 December 2014

Helping Tourism?

Within the past month the Smith Commission, set up in the aftermath of the referendum, has delivered its proposals for a more devolved Scotland.

One of the recommendations which supports years of campaigning is the potential devolution of Air Passenger Duty (APD). The present Scottish Government is committing to abolishing APD if it is devolved.

This tax has long put Scotland at a disadvantage, and hindered the country’s tourism industry, which would be boosted by the devolution of the tax and its subsequent eradication.

The tax which began its life as something relatively small in 1994 (when first introduced, passengers paid £5 for a short haul flight and double that for long haul) has sky rocketed, with up to £194 APD being paid on long haul flights.

Other European countries have already abolished APD which means that those flying in the UK are paying one of the highest departure taxes in the world, and it is not proving beneficial.

Research published by PricewaterhouseCoopers (PwC) found that significantly reducing or abolishing APD would result in a significant increase in the UK’s Gross Domestic Product, and would lead to the creation of tens of thousands of new jobs across a broad range of sectors.

Abolishing APD would pay for itself through the tourist and business industries, and would stimulate growth in the Scottish economy.

In support of this move was a joint submission to the Smith Commission by Scotland’s three main airports – Glasgow, Edinburgh and Aberdeen - who all see APD as a significant barrier to growth and damaging to tourism. They also stated that there were around 2 million less passengers travelling to Scotland every year due to the tax.

So this proposal is good news. But it’s also not the end of the story. These proposals must be agreed by Westminster before they filter down to the Scottish Parliament and are voted on.

And we must not be complacent about the powers that we are given so that we lose sight of those that are still held by Westminster’s iron fist. The recommendations that have been drafted by Lord Smith fall well short of the commitments made over the referendum campaign, and well below the proposals made by the Scottish Government. This is not the home rule that was pledged to the people of Scotland.

But it is important to note that the Scottish Government has pledged to use any new powers that are delivered to the Scottish Parliament to create a fairer society for everyone living in Scotland. So it is now vital that Westminster delivers on the full package of powers recommended by the Smith Commission so that we can do just that.

In next year’s General Election, the population will again have their say on how well they feel Scotland has fared with regards to the Smith Commission and its outcomes. Hopefully the devolution of Airport Passenger Duty will be one of the recommendations that will be followed through so that Scotland can benefit for years to come. If not, make your vote count.

25 November 2014

Books, Books, Books - Love 'Em

The cultural fanfare that is Book Week Scotland 2014 opens its annual chapter on November 24–30 in a celebration of what literature has done and continues to do to enrich society.

In a speech I made to the former First Minister Alex Salmond as he left the Scottish Parliament for the last time in office, I noted that he was a man of privilege. I made the point that this was not due to money or connections, but was rather due to his experiences in his home town of Linlithgow, his caring parents, and the free education that started him off on his political career.

Many schools across Scotland provide an excellent standard of education and this is something that as a country we should be proud of. But in some areas we fall short and need to improve – for the sake of future generations.

The ‘Read On Get On’ campaign has revealed that in Scotland, one in five children from poor families leaves primary school unable to read well. This inability can cut children’s chances in life short, and will in turn make Scotland less of a fair society.

I believe that an event such as Book Week Scotland is an excellent opportunity to highlight the importance of reading from a young age, and the impact it can have on a person’s life.

Book Week Scotland is a week-long celebration of all things in book form that takes place every November with old and young alike taking part. Events are held in libraries, schools, community venues and workplaces to enjoy books and the art of reading. Also taking part will be some of the finest Scottish authors, poets, playwrights, storytellers and illustrators.

And what better way to experience the joy of a good book than to make use of the local library service. The public library is a resource that cannot be underestimated – providing free access to all ages and abilities, and expanding the mind on a wide range of subjects.

In November 2013, I was delighted when Moray Council decided against closing down a few local libraries - one of which was in Cullen. Libraries provide a vital service to rural communities, but in both rural and urban settings, the community who uses the facility will benefit.

I second what the deputy director of Scottish Book Trust, Sophie Moxon, when she said that “libraries are an integral part of communities across the country, providing a hugely important service that can often change the direction of a library user’s life.”

The Trust has launched its own ‘Love Letter to Your Library’ campaign to highlight how important a library is to everyone who lives in Scotland, and how they would be lost without it.

The Chief Executive of the Scottish Library and Information Council (SLIC) Amina Shah further added that libraries mean different things to different people.

She said:

“For some, they are a quiet space to get lost in a good book, while for others they are a social space to attend events, meet people and learn something new. Our Love Letters to Libraries campaign will give people a chance to show the full extent of their appreciation for these quiet guardians of the written word.”

I would encourage everyone across my Banffshire and Buchan constituency to look out for events associated with Scottish Book Week, and any others regularly held at local libraries.

There are many ways that we can strive to improve education across Scotland and I am proud to be a member of a party that is committed to this. But we should also make the most of what we have available to us, and not neglect the fantastic resources that could be just around the corner.

11 November 2014

Winning Locally and Beyond

Over the last month I have been delighted to witness the importance of people standing up for what they believe in.

Following a public march and much protest, proposals in Moray Council’s Sustainable Education Review to close schools across the region were dropped.

In my constituency, in the Moray Council area of my constituency, the future of schools in Findochty, Portknockie, Portessie, Cullen and Rothiemay, and Crossroads and Cluny schools and of schools nearby at Portgordon and Newmill was under review.

I met with campaigners in the coastal schools around Buckie and they were eloquent in their arguments refuting the findings of the council’s consultants. These arguments had been heard, and with unanimous support from SNP councillors, there will be no rural school closures anywhere in Moray for the foreseeable future.

Schools remain at the heart of our communities and with no clear educational grounds for their closure, the local community was right to fight for the opportunities provided on their door step.

In a recent speech I made about addressing the attainment gap in Scottish schools I criticised the proposals from Caledonian Economics for school closures. These Moray schools all hold a good record – they are not failing, and for school children to lose out due to economic circumstances was not a situation that local parents and campaigners were going to take lying down. Minimum choice and a lack of diversity was not a good enough option for locals in Moray.

We want the best for our children and a good education is crucial to ensure that they have the choices they need to make the most out of their lives.

More recently I led debate on School Bus Safety across Scotland – an issue that has been spearheaded by Gardenstown resident Ron Beaty who has campaigned for safety improvements in this area over the past 10 years.

After his granddaughter was left permanently disabled due to an accident in the vicinity of a school bus, he has been a ferocious champion of the cause. He is an example of what can be done when one person takes it upon themselves to fight for a cause that they believe in, with potential benefits for so many others.

Around two thirds of a million pupils make their way to around 2700 schools each day and many of these do so by bus. Therefore this issue is important and affects anyone who has children and grandchildren, as well as the wider community.

Education authorities and bus operators working for them to transport school students are acutely aware of the need to protect their passengers. What is needed is good clear signage that the bus is a school bus and its removal when it is not in this use. Flashing lights can be used on the bus to get a driver’s attention, risk assessments can be done and 20 mph speed limits can be introduced where this would help. We can and must do more, and Ron Beaty continues to challenge the current situation.

In Aberdeenshire and Moray a number of steps have been taken to improve safety, and Transport Scotland has produced guidance for our 32 local authorities on how they can help improve school transport safety.

With a greater focus on school transport safety in the north east in particular, we've not seen a repeat of the string of very serious injuries that we had a few years ago. Policy and practice changes may have contributed. Or the very bad winters which closed down schools and the comparatively mild ones that reduced weather risks, may have been a significant factor.

So the final word on this, I will give to Ghandi – “Be the change you want to see in the world” – it’s the only way to make it a better place for all.

28 October 2014

We need to be part of the 155

In a world where there are increasing threats of terrorism that pervade all borders, the defence of our country is a subject that has never been more relevant.

But in determining what is best for Scotland, I believe that our country need not lose its focus on leading the vision for a world that one day could be without nuclear weapons.

This week the SNP welcomed the agreement of 155 UN countries in their opposition to nuclear weapons.

A statement read by Dell Higgie, Counter-Terrorism Ambassador for New Zealand's Foreign Affairs and Trade Ministry, and a Permanent Representative to the UN, revealed that 155 countries from around the world, including many in Europe such as Norway, Switzerland and Ireland, had agreed to unreservedly condemn the use of nuclear weapons under any circumstances, and called for their abolition.

This stance however is not consistent with the Trident nuclear missile system residing in our waters – an unwelcome weapon of mass destruction that should be removed as quickly and as safely as possible.

As the MSP for the Banffshire and Buchan Coast, I am very conscious of my duty to promote the safety and well-being of the people that I represent, and the existence of thousands of nuclear weapons across the world does not convince me that they are any safer because of this.

The catastrophic effects on the planet as a result of any of these nuclear weapons being deployed should be enough for a global agreement that they should never be used again, that they should be outlawed and eliminated from our conversation about defence. This is an opinion I have long held as someone who became a member of the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament in the 1960s.

But the argument is not yet won in the UK. All our political parties, not just the SNP and Greens who oppose Trident, need to join with trade unions, churches and the majority of people in Scotland to make it clear that a new generation of nuclear weapons is not welcome here. Westminster must also realise that this is not just the opinion of the Scots, but one that is shared by countries internationally.

Over the past few years, Westminster has slashed the budget for conventional defence forces across Scotland, while instead choosing to channel the money into unwanted and unusable nuclear weapons.

The nuclear deterrent is not what it says on the tin. The modern day threats to Scotland are not from other nuclear nations but rather from organisations that need to be tackled by a good intelligence system and well equipped troops.

When money is spent on nuclear weapons, it is taken away from these vital frontline services that see soldiers targeting perceived threats head on, leaving them less well equipped and supported. The price of Trident therefore equates to bodies as soldiers need all the help that they can get in order to survive conflict situations, and defend our interests.

It is a sad reality that over the last decade, the UK government has a massive defence underspend of over £7 billion in Scotland, and has cut the defence footprint in Scotland relentlessly over the years. An example of this is where our troops have lacked kit in Iraq. Past reports have stated that due to the extreme heat, the rubber in the soles of the soldier’s boots was melting on the hot ground. Many soldiers had to order leather-soled boots online so that they would be able to march across the deserts of the Gulf, as the MOD would not provide them.

In the 21st century we need a defence system that is truly effective for our country. It needs to be one that supports the people that live in Scotland, and one that will go on defending our rights to live as we do, in a world that is safer for everyone.

14 October 2014

Scotland on Track for Climate Change

As a former Minister for Environment and Climate Change, I have been pleased to see the increase of global awareness for climate action stem from the UN Climate Summit meeting. World leaders recently met in New York to debate specific needs and raise awareness on the need for political action. While no specific laws are in place, the first draft for a universal agreement is set to be written at a conference in Lima this December.

While Scotland’s current devolved powers have somewhat limited our international influence on climate change, we have set a strong example of progress and international engagement.

From 1990 to 2012 we achieved a 29.9% reduction in unadjusted emissions, higher than the UK as a whole and the averages for both the EU-15 and EU-28. At this percentage we are on track to reach our target of a 42% reduction of greenhouse gas emissions by 2020.

As the UN continues to meet in December and in Paris the following year we will likely see new invitations and legislations to change the world environment. It is important when considering these changes to rely on a definition of the environment that is not limited to the natural world but which includes the surroundings and conditions in which a person lives.

While we stay focused on our global output, the ethics of climate effects on individuals must be considered.

Former Irish president Mary Robinson has been actively instructing on the issue, for what she calls, climate justice. She has said that there is substantial agreement among Governments that climate change is undermining human rights.

I look in particular at what happens in Africa in that regard, particularly the gender effect of climate change. In Africa, 70 to 80 per cent of the farmers are females. Mary Robinson has said:

“Women on the whole don’t get agriculture training. And they’re having to learn now to diversify their crops, to have seeds that can survive in drought or survive in waterlogged [conditions], and so there’s a disconnect between even the donor community for this agricultural training, mainly focusing on men, and who’s [actually doing the farming].”

That is the price that is being paid by people in poverty in many countries in Africa. I hope that in our international engagement, whatever its character and whatever opportunities exist for it, we will be able to pursue that gender inequality in particular, because the effects of that gap between men and women are very substantial.

Scotland has exerted extensive efforts to help improve the environments of these individuals. In support of closing the gap of gender and resource inequality the Scottish Government is working directly with Mary Robinson’s organization in Malawi, Zambia, Tanzania and Rwanda. The group is improving access to clean water and empowering women to overcome the current challenges they face.

As new climate initiatives are released in the coming months I hope that we can keep in mind the individual rights of those most affected in developing countries—as their lives are directly impacted by our climate choices.

30 September 2014

Involved, Energised and Excited

For over two years our country has spent extensive amounts of time on both sides of the Referendum trying to create a better Scotland. I congratulate both sides on their efforts in what has been achieved. With the votes now counted, our best course of action is to keep the momentum and move forward.

Last Thursday was a historic event as we saw one of the biggest turnouts in history. For democracy, it was indeed a day to be celebrated. Eighty-five per cent of voters in the Aberdeenshire Council area turned up to vote. Both sides gained many, many more votes than any party.

We also saw the younger generation given the chance to participate, as thousands of 16 and 17 year-olds put in their vote for the first time. With the successful turnout there is already talk of extending this right in further elections. They have proved that they are willing to vote and shape their future, and should have the opportunity to do so again.

This involvement is in large part why this marks such an important time for Scotland. The real opportunity and challenge we have now is to maintain the momentum. It is no longer a division of yes and no, but a pursuit to enable our country to reach its potential.

For either winning campaign, there was always going to be a lot of work to deliver on promises. All Scotland will now be watching and testing the delivery against the campaign rhetoric.

Despite a no vote, the Referendum brought an awareness of the disadvantages we currently have under the UK. There is still a strong need of EU representation for our fishing industry. We have a successful economy but there is still more we can achieve.

With a difficult road ahead the real test now will be what happens next. I hope that the immense involvement we have seen in the past two years continues. We have seen a huge increase political activism as more people are recognising the need for change.

Combining our efforts in the agreement of progress is essential to our future.

The significant turnout at the referendum reminded us that democracy is the property of the people not of politicians. This will have a great effect on the outcome in the upcoming elections.

I suspect this is only the tip of the iceberg of Scotland’s political activism. For two years now we have seen people get involved, energised and excited about their role in democracy. And it is not going to stop.

23 September 2014

Well Done Scotland

Well that's the votes counted. I found, as I expected, that my opposite numbers standing at the polling places were, like me heartened by the engagement of Scotland's citizens in the great debate. I remain on good terms with them and, I believe, they with me.

Scotland can stand proud about the manner in which we spent our moments in the world's eye. A few eggs thrown, in both directions, could not detract from the absolute civility with which we all conducted ourselves.

The School of Athens by Raphael
from Wikipedia
But fundamentally, we have all been reminded that democracy is the property of the people not of politicians. Correctly as the word's origin is from dēmos 'the people' and kratia 'power'.

Where does it leave us all? Highest ever turnout – good. An absolute vote for change – “No” ultimately won on the back of a promise of radical new powers for Scotland. And both sides obtaining a bigger share of the vote than any political party at any recent general election. And both sides gained many, many more votes than any party.

The test for democracy is how we treat our minorities. And as a Yes campaigner I am part of a very big minority -1.6 million. More than all the voters in the European elections earlier this year.

Whoever had won the vote, there was always going to be hard work for the winners in delivering on their promises. All Scotland will be watching and testing delivery against campaign rhetoric.

I noticed a note of envy from commentators south of the border about the positive energy walking our streets and glens. For it has raised questions about the disconnect between Westminster and communities across England as well as in Scotland.

The UK has become both highly centralised and at best faux democratic as its parliamentary institutions have stumbled into a kind of self-centred, self-seeking oligarchy.

Successive generations of UK governments have appointed increasing numbers of lords to rebalance the second chamber in their favour. It must be time to look, at the very least, at fixed term rather than life-time memberships of the House of Lords.

And with about 1,470 members in the UK's Parliament, the centralising tendencies of that place have grown. I sense stirrings of a desire to debate democracy for England after our great debate.

For my part, campaigning is always invigorating. It's now back to delivery and like any true democrat, I shall be working with others to benefit our folk, our communities.

Well done Scotland.

16 September 2014

Thinking about Fishing

This is it. The decision that has been awaiting the Scottish people for the last three years, and indeed the last 300 years will be made, and we are about to discover the result of the only poll that will matter.

And this is what it is all about – the people of Scotland. Political parties may fight their battles on the streets and on television screens across the country, but it is the individual with their white card who will go along to the polling booths, grip a pencil, and make their mark on history.

But whatever the decision this September, some issues will remain of vital interest, and I would like to focus on something that is close to the hearts of many across the Banff and Buchan Coast, and one that was highlighted recently by the First Minister.

Fishing is an industry that is in the life blood of our community and one that should be given national priority across Scotland.

Because fishing is so important, the Scottish Government has made five promises to Scotland if it becomes an independent country. The fishing industry would be recognised as a national priority, it would benefit from clear representation in the EU, which would mean there would be the ability to negotiate our priorities without compromise, and Scotland’s fishing quotas would be protected. There would be the assurance that the country’s fishing levies would promote Scottish seafood and we would benefit from a fairer share of the EU Fisheries budget.

I say ‘we’ because although those working in the fishing industry may be the first to experience the benefits, improvements would soon filter down to locals in my constituency and the wider country.

Scotland’s fishing industry contributes £550 million to the Scottish economy every year, and is a key player in the country’s booming food and drink industry, which has an almost £14 billion annual turnover.

In an internal document circulated by the UK’s Conservative Government on 9 November 1970, Scotland’s fishing industry was infamously described as “expendable”, in relation to EU accession.

This couldn’t be further from how the fishing industry should be viewed and valued.

The economic success story of Scotland owes much to the fishing and seafood sectors, and they need to be given the recognition they deserve with a greater voice around the European table. This is an area of the Scottish economy that, with a fairer deal in funding and quota protection, could successfully thrive beyond expectation.

In the EU, Scotland is one of the leading fishing nations as the waters surrounding it account for at least 20 per cent of the EU’s catch. It is also the fourth largest of the EU’s core sea areas, demonstrating the wealth that we have all around us.

Our significance in Europe cannot be underestimated and with independence more potential could be unleashed. Currently the situation is that there are landlocked countries within Europe, such as Slovakia, Austria and Luxembourg that can speak on EU fisheries policy, while Scotland does not have this ability.

The way it stands at the moment, Scotland is third bottom of the European fisheries funding league tables. This is hardly a fair deal for such an important Scottish industry.

2 September 2014

Boosting our Beef

In previous columns over the course of the year I have spoken a great deal about farming, agriculture and the bounteous produce of the North-east.

The reason for this is that the potential in our region – in the Banffshire and Buchan Coast and beyond – is huge, and although being realised to some extent, the agricultural industry could benefit from an even greater future in the coming years.

Compared to the rest of the UK, food and farming is a far bigger priority north of the border, and there are a number of things that demonstrate that Scotland is distinct, particularly in these industries.

Currently 85 per cent of Scotland’s farming land is classed as ‘Less Favoured Area’. In other words it is considered to be poorer quality ground, in comparison to England that has 15 per cent of land in this category.

Scotland’s agricultural industry is also far more reliant on the livestock sector than England’s is. Scotland has more than 25 per cent of the UK’s beef herd, and its livestock sector accounts for 42 per cent of agricultural output, compared to 34 per cent in England.

In addition, the Food and Drink sector is six times more important to the Scottish economy than in England. Exports of food and drink from Scotland account for 30 per cent of the country’s total exports. By contrast, these exports only make up six per cent of total overseas exports from the UK.

The Scottish Government recognises the unique nature of what the land of Scotland brings to the economy.

Beef production is the single biggest farming sector in Scotland. This month, industry experts released a 23 point action plan to reinvigorate Scotland’s beef production over the next few years, and further build it up as an even stronger player in a global market.

The Beef 2020 report is aimed at creating sustainability and long term growth in beef production while improving the industry’s environmental credentials by reducing greenhouse gas emissions per kilogram of beef produced.

This is an example of how Scotland’s rural economy could benefit from taking the future into its own hands, to realise its potential for the good of the sector and the country as a whole.

Although the decision on the referendum is with each individual voter on September 18, there are specific ways that farming and crofting could benefit if the answer of the Scottish people is yes to independence.

The opportunity would be created to increase direct farm payments, and to increase rural development funding. There would be a guarantee of direct representation in the EU to negotiate the priorities of Scotland, as distinct from those of the UK, and there would be opportunity to use the full range of fiscal powers to encourage farm tenancies and new entrants.

Scotland would also finally be able to ensure that Scotland’s agricultural levies would support Scottish produce, with obvious knock on benefits.

As much of the Banffshire and Buchan Coast is rural with a thriving agricultural industry, I believe it is vital that this and the many entrepreneurs, who have started and continue to produce a vast array of food and drink all over the country, are given all the opportunities possible to exceed in their chosen field.

The rural economy of Scotland is incredibly strong - with food and drink exports worth £14bn - but we have a fantastic opportunity in our hands to grow this key industry even further.

19 August 2014

Showing our best

I am always pleasantly surprised at the collective effort and sheer extent of community spirit across my constituency that results in spectacular events such as the recent Turriff Show.

Even royalty couldn’t keep away as HM the Queen visited the 150th anniversary two-day extravaganza to present a prize and take a look at the best of what the north-east has to offer. In case you’ve never been, the show is the largest two-day show in Scotland and the largest annual event in Aberdeenshire, showcasing the wide wealth of agriculture and food produce to be found in the north east.

Another exemplary feature of the show is its long established ability to attract visitors from overseas, and this year to mark the Homecoming Scotland 2014 celebrations; they were given special attention and hospitality.

If nothing else, the national media that the show courted demonstrates that the expertise of those in the north-eastwhen it comes to agriculture and food and drink production, and indeed across Scotland, is something that is worth being shared.

It was in part with this sentiment that I took part in a recent debate in the Scottish Parliament on the special relationship between Scotland and Malawi. It is a friendship that has existed for many years with many lessons to be learned on both sides of the intercontinental kinship.

At one time, tobacco was a commodity in great demand across Scotland and the UK, and although the demand is still there, it has been greatly reduced due to advancements in science that no longer see it as a health benefit or innocent pastime, and the recognition that the substance causes serious health risks.

However in Malawi, two thirds of the country’s exports are tobacco. With the demand for the weed lessening in the west, we have a duty to help countries such as Malawi evolve to develop a more beneficial type of agriculture. Recent reports stating that tobacco farmers are moving to grow cannabis in order to rake in more profits should also be discouraged, due to the effect it would have on the wider population, many of whom are in desperate need.

We need to take our responsibilities seriously. As a country that once created a demand for the tobacco already mentioned, that is now proving less profitable, we should be helping Malawians find alternative money making crops, and to look at other ways of cultivating the land for their benefit.

Friends are there for each other, and we should also take our part of the blame when it comes to climate change, and the effect that this has on our African neighbours. This makes agriculture a more formidable challenge for many countries in Africa and the developed world is largely responsible. This is why we must support Malawi, and this is already underway with a number of programmes designed to tackle these challenges.

As I said in my speech: “Malawi is an important friend of ours; let us be an ever-important friend of Malawi.”

Our nation has benefitted from great wealth and experience that has taught us many lessons – the least we can do is pass some of that on.

5 August 2014

Games ON!

The success of the Glasgow 2014 Commonwealth Games has ensured that Scotland has taken centre stage globally over the last few weeks.

I’m delighted that Scotland is doing so well - on writing, Team Scotland has made history with its 34th medal - giving the home nation its highest ever medal tally, and overtaking the record number of golds taken home from the Games.

But the Commonwealth Games are just a mere fraction of what Scotland can and will do. And that is what excites me more than anything. It shows that our country can not only stand on its own two feet, but currently at number three in the medals table, this demonstrates that it can thrive among some of the most successful and prominent countries in the world.

This summer, we are seeing first-hand the talent that Scotland is capable of, and the potential it holds. Scotland ranks among the best of the best in the sporting world, as has been seen in these Games.

However there has been a fear expressed that in 2018 Scotland may not have the chance to compete, as independence could spell a departure from the Commonwealth, and therefore from the Games. This of course is nonsense and the argument holds even less water following the superb success of Team Scotland in Glasgow.

Given that the vast majority of the 71 countries and territories represented at the Games have already gone through the process of becoming independent, I don’t think this should be a great worry for Scotland.

The confidence and pride that the people of Scotland are feeling right now, due to our substantial medal haul and the hundreds of thousands attracted to Glasgow, is a mere glimpse of what we could experience as an independent country, in control of what we can offer the world.

More and more people are paying attention to Scotland as our athletes step onto the podium to collect their medals, and come September it will be our turn. Each one of us will be given the chance to vote for our country’s independence.

I believe that the Commonwealth Games is merely bringing out what the people of Scotland already know to be true but have maybe been afraid to admit to in the past - Scotland can be proud in its achievements and will not always be the underdog.

Unlike the Olympics which is a huge, vast and world-wide competitive field, the Commonwealth Games offer a smaller, closer to home atmosphere that get people more involved directly with what’s happening, more invested in their hometowns and communities. I have felt it too - the Scottish pride as our athletes compete and win. And that feeling is something that I carry with me every day when I travel around the Banff and Buchan Coast, noting the achievements of locals.

I have enjoyed seeing how the Commonwealth Games have brought people together and joined us, regardless of opinion or background. And just round the corner, the Ryder Cup will receive the baton to display the sporting prowess of Scotland in another international event.

Right now people are gathering for the joy of the sport, but let us not forget the country our feet stand on, and the home we call our own, which has the potential to be among the most successful in the world.

22 July 2014

Connecting the Country

We are all living in the 21st century and everyone, not just those in cities and urban areas, should be able to enjoy the advances in technology that come along with that. I want those living in the rural areas of my constituency of Banffshire and Buchan Coast, to be able to enjoy better services that only an independent Scotland can offer.

Following a vote for independence, a Rural Connectivity Commission will be established focusing on areas such as improving mobile and broadband coverage, postal services, and transport links. With the spotlight clearly on rural communities and businesses, the people in my constituency will benefit greatly.

A new Scottish regulatory landscape will be established and make certain that Scotland’s vital utilities remain sustainable and that markets work in the long-term interests of all customers, the North-east included.

I have heard people’s frustrations with digital connections, mail services, and transportation and the Scottish Government are striving to address these. Our rural communities contribute so much and have great potential for further development.

With a yes vote, the Scottish Government will have the powers to regulate and remove barriers that are standing in the way of rural communities and businesses pushing forward and reaching this great potential.

There are five areas of rural connectivity that will be addressed in this commission, and I see all as having a great impact on Banffshire and Buchan Coast.

The first is improving digital connectivity, which includes mobile telecoms and broadband. This will allow businesses to carry out work online in rural Banffshire and Buchan Coast and help people stay in touch with friends and family via email and other online services.

The second area is fairer post and parcel delivery charges. An independent Scotland will return Royal Mail to public ownership, making prices fairer for all areas, rural included. The Universal Service Obligation will be maintained and as a minimum, a six days a week mail service.

Fuel prices and energy bills will also be impacted. Independence will allow the Scottish Government to examine the benefits of introducing a Fuel Duty Regulator to stabilise prices for all consumers and evaluate how this would work along with our Scottish Energy Fund. The Scottish Government plans an on-going and permanent cut in energy bills, which includes cutting the Warm Homes Discount and Energy Company Obligation from household energy bills. This proposal will be funded by general taxation allowing those who can afford it to contribute to these schemes.

The fourth area, one I find especially important to my constituency, which is further removed from the urban and city areas, is having better transport links. The Scottish Government has made it a priority to improve transport and that goal is still on going. This includes upgrading the A9, A96, and creating the Aberdeen West Peripheral Route and the Balmedie to Tipperty Dualling (A90). The Scottish Government still maintains its commitment to reduce Air Passenger Duty by 50 per cent, with the intent to eventually abolish it.

There have been repeated requests for APD to be devolved to the Scottish Parliament, as recommended by the Calman Commission, to give our aviation industry the economic boost it needs. Most recently this subject has been brought up in relation to the cancelled BA Aberdeen to London City flight route, with BA’s executive chairman citing APD as a factor in the closure of the service.

The last area to be tackled by the commission is making sure that rural communities benefit more from renewables. The Scottish Government has made the commitment that, with a yes vote in September, island and coastal communities would receive 100 per cent of all leasing revenues from activities in adjacent water, which includes renewables deployment. As of right now, this income is taken by the Crown Estate Commissioners, but we have the ability to change this.

I am anxious and excited for all these changes that could occur with an independent Scotland, and all the benefits that will potentially come to my constituents in Banffshire and Buchan Coast. It’s time that we have more control and powers that will not only affect the now, but will undoubtedly shape our futures.

8 July 2014

Counting the Lost Pennies

Change is not always seen as a good thing. It can be hard, time consuming and inconvenient. But when life for you or those around you is made difficult, campaigning for change can be the only way forward.

The great documented rise in food banks across Scotland have been seen as one of the results of wide scale welfare reforms from the UK government that have been implemented over the last few years since 2010.

The impact of these reforms has been most keenly felt by those in society who need the most help – whether it be those receiving incapacity benefits, tax credits, child benefit or disability living allowance.

The Scottish Parliament's Welfare Reform committee have calculated figures which explain how much the average working age adult will lose out each year once the reforms come into full effect.

Across my constituency of Banffshire and Buchan Coast, the loss per working age adult averages out at around £400 per year. In Banff and district, the figure hits £400, but in Fraserburgh it goes up to £420, with Peterhead North and Rattray coming in at £410.

Across Scotland as a whole, more than £1.6bn a year will be taken out of the Scottish economy – averaging to around £460 a year for every adult of working age.

The committee’s report on the local impact also found a clear correlation between the extent of deprivation and the scale of financial loss. The most deprived areas are hit the hardest.

The reforms to incapacity benefits are resulting in the biggest financial losses, particularly in the most disadvantaged communities. Some people are also feeling the hit from several elements of the reforms. For example, incapacity claimants can lose out because of the reforms to disability living allowance and may lose from reforms to Housing benefit if they live in the private rented sector or if they have grown up children still living at home.

Due to their not being a big surge into employment, a key effect of the welfare reforms will be to widen the gaps in income between communities.

This comes at a time when the majority of Scottish households are already feeling the pinch with the recession not long behind them, debts still looming, and low interest rates discouraging savers.

A recent Which? survey examined how people in Scotland are coping financially. It also highlighted the most economically distressed areas in the country.

Among the top 10 most distressed constituencies was the Banffshire and Buchan Coast.

The Which? report found that 36 per cent of households, amounting to 800,000 across the country, were feeling financially squeezed. Just a quarter (24 per cent) said they were living comfortably on their incomes.

Head of Which? public affairs for Scotland, Gordon MacRae, pointed out some of the reasons - that the cost of essentials remains high and levels of worry about household debt and savings are prevalent, with businesses, especially in banking and energy, needing to do a lot more to win back customer’s trust.

But the same study found that around three in 10 people who are not yet retired are not contributing to a pension and have no plans to do so. Nearly two thirds say they don’t know how much they will need to save to live comfortably in retirement.

So while there are responsibilities on everyone to make the best of what they have, certain sections of society are facing tough times every day.

And what should be noted is that the financial burden of these welfare reforms is being borne by public sector budgets in Scotland, so even if there were good intentions behind the want for reform, we will all suffer as other public services may need to be cut or slimmed down. And that’s a change we could do without.

24 June 2014

Round and About

With around 90 days to go until the referendum on what the people of Scotland want their future to look like, I’m embarking on my annual tour of the Banffshire and Buchan Coast constituency, eager to hear how you feel things are going.

This week and next, I’ll be taking my mobile office around the constituency in what will be the 14th time – covering 37 communities from Rothiemay in the far west to Boddam in the south east, and inland to Aberchirder, New Byth and Memsie.

I believe that people appreciate seeing their MSP come to them, rather than waiting for locals to come to one of my more traditional surgeries in a nearby town or village. Communications may now largely be dominated by advancements in technology, but there is still nothing more influential than face to face contact, and it gives me a good excuse to re-visit some of the smaller communities in the area.

It is vital to me that I am in touch with what the issues are in the constituency, and it is why I started this tour 14 years ago. However this is a landmark year for Scotland, and even more crucial that everyone has all the information they feel they need to make one of the most important decisions of their lives.

When I do make my way round, I find the constituency truly a Scotland in miniature – a country of extraordinary resources and talent, and more than capable of standing on its own two feet.

Over the last few weeks, the Scottish Government published the Community Empowerment (Scotland) bill, designed to nurture enterprising development and participation. There are plans to have one million acres of land in community ownership by 2020, with provisions for communities to take over public sector land and buildings where they can deliver greater public benefit. Rules on Scotland’s local authority allotment sites would be simplified with a stronger emphasis on councils to provide sites triggered by demand, and protect allotment sites from closure. Funding to go alongside the bill would be increased by £1.5 million to £9.4 million per year in 2015/16.

These are the kinds of measures that can transform a community and galvanise an area to make the best with what they have. We need to be given the tools to cultivate what we have here in the north east of Scotland.

We want to protect the public services that we have, such as the NHS from the encroachment of privatisation down south, and we want to make the most of the vast economic opportunities offered in Scotland. Our small country generates more wealth per head than Japan, France or the UK. We have more top universities per head than any other country in the world, and we have huge strengths in creative industries, renewables, tourism, and the life sciences, some of which are exemplified locally.

Rather than London being a brain drain of the country, Scotland has the opportunity to take advantage of our economic strengths with independence. There would be challenges ahead but we could create an economic policy that was fit for purpose for the people that actually live here. By having control of our wealth, we would be in a better position to face these challenges head on. This would mean we would have the ability to create more and better jobs. Our tax system could be designed to give Scottish firms a more competitive edge, encouraging those training up that they could create their own success in Scotland rather than having to go anywhere else.

We can make lives easier for young families by investing in childcare, and give households more financial security through cost of living increases in pensions, tax credits and tax free allowances.

We are a country of extraordinary resources, and we should be able to use them to our advantage.

Within the last month, many prominent figures from across the world have been talklng about Scotland and all agree it's a decision for us whether our country should become independent – it’s time the voice of the people of Scotland, especially those in the Banffshire and Buchan Coast, was heard.

10 June 2014


What is regeneration? It came up as the subject of a debate that I took part in recently as an issue that is recognised as key to building up our local communities.

Regeneration has been defined as a vision of reduced poverty and disadvantages of all kinds, a way to improve the lives of people and heightening what they can achieve.

Currently, Banff, Macduff, Fraserburgh and Peterhead are all in the middle of regeneration studies and councillors are looking at the best way to improve their local communities.

In the past this has taken the form of town centre improvement including maps and signs, clearing gutters and upgrading street lights in Buchan last year, and the Peterhead Property Enhancement Scheme in Peterhead town centre to renovate commercial premises to improve the area and make it more attractive for businesses, as well as those who live there.

Typically regeneration of an area would mean reducing areas of poverty and helping to increase enterprising activity, boosting prosperity through education, skills and tackling inequalities. Local people should have a community where they can be healthy, safe and where they can have an interesting and active community life, which will not only attract residents, but tourists also.

But the essential component to all this positive change is people. Regeneration cannot happen without people taking an active role. If communities continue to depend on outside support, regeneration will never be what it could be, and won’t be able to self-sustain. There are inspiring people in every community and they should be encouraged.

In some cases we want a joined-up approach, but in others, we want the very opposite. If we take on the task ourselves, then we succeed or fail in small steps, and then these little movements can join together and build their successes from the community upwards. The joined-up approach is the enemy of effective community regeneration.

I want space to be left for happenstance—for accidental success. I want things to be done on a small scale, so that no failure cripples the person who failed but, instead, encourages them to go and find a new solution.

In his wonderful book on project management, “The Mythical Man-Month”, Fred P Brooks talks about the non-commutability of time and effort. What it boils down to is that, if there is a hole that it would take six hours for a man to dig and you put six men on the job, it will not get done in one hour, because they will have to collaborate and co-operate, which is an overhead. One person will often do a job far more effectively than a team.

Fred P Brooks poses a second question: how do you make a late project later? His answer is that you add staff. When staff are added, the staff on the project have to train the new staff and stop doing the job that they are supposed to be doing. The corollary is to take away the people who are causing the problem and slowing things down and let the remaining bare handful get on with it. That is the recipe for community action.

We politicians are often guilty of saying, “Think big”, but I would like to say, “Think small” – and in this case, very small. There is enormous capacity out there, and we have must allow it the space for it to grow. There is one word that the people in our communities must never hear—it is, of course, particularly relevant this year—and that word is no.

27 May 2014

Scotland “welcomes the world”

2014 has been marked out as the year that Scotland “welcomes the world” – when the very best of Scottish culture, food and sport will be highlighted on the world stage for the festival that is ‘Homecoming’.

In a recent Government debate on this very subject I felt the discussion would not have satisfactorily represented the great draw of tourists to Scotland if it did not include the spectacular that is the Scottish Traditional Boat Festival in Portsoy.

Move over the Ryder Cup, the Commonwealth Games and the MTV Europe Music Awards – Portsoy has a special something that attracts visitors the world over – an abundance of community spirit.

It is this wealth of tenacity and determination that saw volunteers start this annual feature from nothing more than a few hundred visitors 21 years ago, to the roaring success that it is today – pulling in around 20,000 sightseers from every corner of the globe, including Australia, South Africa and the USA, and raising the profile of Scotland, and indeed the North East.

Lonely Planet’s Best in Travel 2014 guide has named Scotland as the third best country to visit in 2014 behind Brazil and Antarctica, and no wonder with features such as the Traditional Boat Festival. Taking place from 27-29 June, it includes a huge variety of cultural events, including music from Celtic Connections award winners RURA who are just one group from an ever eclectic mix of talent that also includes Danish duo Rasmus and Alexander Nielsen of ‘Almost Iris’ and lively Norwegian choir Slogmaakane, also known as the Greedy Seagulls. Uniquely the festival also holds a variety of sailing events and craft workshops.

For a rural community such as Portsoy, this festival is a fantastic event for the area, driving a huge economic boom for local business, and boosting the population which only just makes it into four figures for the rest of the year. For the remaining 11 months of the year, the festival is the subject of enraptured conversation highlighting the enthusiasm of the volunteers that bring their ideas together and make the magic happen.

This year, the town is like a Scotland in miniature – attracting visitors from all over the world to experience what it has to offer. The food and drink sector accounts for 18 per cent of Scotland’s overseas exports and is worth £4.8 billion to the Scottish economy, with an annual turnover of £11.9 billion. Whisky Month, as part of the Homecoming celebrations is just one example of how this industry has become an inherent part of Scottish culture.

One of the local success stories in the Portsoy area is Glenglassaugh distillery. Founded in 1875, the distillery to the east of Sandend Bay soon developed a reputation for a making quality whisky. After closing in 1907, it was brought back to life 100 years later in 2008, now producing malts that can be found in over 20 countries in Africa, Australasia, Asia, Europe and North America.

It is hoped that Homecoming 2014 will follow the success of Homecoming 2009, which delivered more than £53.7m to the economy, and with events like Portsoy’s Traditional Boat Festival and the success of the industries round about, it’s easy to see why.

13 May 2014

Scotland - A Forward Thinking Nation

Scotland is now recognised as a world leader on climate change and renewable energy – a very welcome assertion recently made by the World Wildlife Fund.

When the 2009 Climate Change (Scotland) Act was passed, I was the Minister for Transport, Infrastructure and Climate Change – and it is legislation that I am immensely proud of. We believed that Scotland could take a serious role in the world, as an ambassador in the green revolution, and this was a vision that is fast becoming reality.

The World Wildlife Fund’s European office has recently paid tribute to our nation, describing it as an example for others to follow, as a “forward thinking nation” which is “in the vanguard of the renewables revolution”.

The renewable energy sector in Scotland employs more than 11,000 people, producing record levels of electricity output, and playing a key role in reducing carbon emissions. In 2013, Scotland met almost 47 per cent of its electricity needs from renewables, and it can only get better.

On a local level, the Royal Tarlair Golf Club in Macduff received £165,000 from the Scottish Government’s Climate Challenge Fund at the end of last year. The money was given for a carbon reduction project that will see the installation of replacement windows, insulation, draught proofing, LED lighting and water reduction measures to reduce energy use and carbon emissions at the clubhouse.

Not only will the scheme cut costs, but will also be an example to other community groups, giving them the know-how on tackling their carbon footprint.

Another local project to hit the headlines is a potential success story that could have far reaching consequences for the renewables industry.

The Peterhead Carbon Capture and Storage (CCS) Project is to investigate containing more than 85 per cent of CO2 emissions that would otherwise be lost when emitted into the air. It would then be transported by pipeline to the Goldeneye platform in the North Sea for storage in a depleted gas reservoir, about 2.5km below the sea bed. Waste not, want not has been updated for the 21st century with this innovative model.

Jason Anderson, who heads up EU Climate and Energy Policy at the WWF’s European office did also point out what we already know – Scotland has a long way to go in developing its wind, solar and hydro power capabilities, but the difference between us and other parts of the world is that we are committed to change. Scotland can lead as an innovator on renewable energy.

In 2012, the Scottish Government set itself the target of meeting 100 per cent of the country’s electricity demand from renewables, and this commitment has attracted the key players in the industry who can see the country is firm on investing in alternative schemes to mining fossil fuels.

Rather than the UK government’s approach of directing finances towards new nuclear power, I believe that renewables are the way to keep the lights on for future generations.

Scotland has high ambitions and high ideals but these are what we can aspire to. We can be better, and already Scotland is being recognised on a global scale for what it’s doing in the renewables field. If we can give these new kinds of energy production the environment they need to grow and develop, Scotland can again be at the forefront of a newer, greener industrial revolution.

29 April 2014

Winning Ways

Sporting excellence topped the leader’s board when Peterhead Football Club took the League Two title earlier this month.

Under the able leadership of Jim McInally, the players at Peterhead FC did themselves proud and showed what can be done with skill and determination when they won this – their first trophy since coming into the national league– and in style, with three games of the season left to play. The team then went on to follow up their title with another fantastic victory over Albion Rovers.

The fantastic title win has also just come off the back of the team’s super striker Rory McAllister becoming the first player from outside the Premiership to win the SPFL Player of the Month Award.

Everyone involved at the club has a lot to be proud of – making sporting history and inspiring youngsters who may yet be the top players of the future. They will be presented with their trophy after their final home game against Stirling Albion in front of their incredibly proud fans.

2014 is set to be a year of sporting legacy for Scotland when Glasgow welcomes the 20th Commonwealth Games to our shores, demonstrating what our country can do as hosts of sporting achievement.

Youngsters from across the Commonwealth, including those from the Banffshire and Buchan Coast, are watching the Baton Relay make its way round the world before it arrives in our largest city, making memories that will last a lifetime. On 29 June it will be touring Banff, Macduff, Fraserburgh and Peterhead, and on 3 July, the baton will be seen by locals in Buckie and Cullen.

The enormous sense of pride that these events create will be replicated on a local level in our towns and villages, and just as the London Olympics of 2012 had lasting ripple effects in sports participation across communities, so too do we hope that the Commonwealth Games in Glasgow will inspire our youngsters in the Banffshire and Buchan Coast.

Scotland is the home of many sporting interests, and 2014 also marks the arrival of the Ryder Cup at Gleneagles. The world’s golfing stars and media will be focused on Scotland as it hosts for only the second time in the tournament’s history the greatest tournament in match play golf.

Inspiration from these events and the lasting memories they create last for generations. As much as we remember the sporting heroes of our childhood, so our children and teenagers will reminisce for years to come on the Peterhead FC team of 2014, the golfing stars at this year’s Ryder Cup and the sporting spectacles that emerge from the Commonwealth Games.

The lasting legacy of these events is also created in the healthy lives of our young people. A healthier Scotland is something that we all dream of for the future, where life expectancy goes up as diets and habits improve, with better education and a zest for life that comes from regular exercise. And what better way to educate our children than to show them positive role models who excel in what they do. Sporting achievements are one key way that we can realise the ambition to make Scots more active, improving their quality of life, and making our country a healthier place to live.

As Peterhead FC celebrate their fantastic achievement, they should know that their trophies will be remembered for many years to come, and will spur many others on to take to the football field, or work hard at whatever they are doing, in order to achieve their ultimate goal.

15 April 2014

Eat, Drink and be Healthy

The Banffshire and Buchan Coast is full of unspoiled farmland, beautiful coastlines, and classic fishing villages. But beyond this wonderful canvas, the area also boasts hidden treasure in producing some of the best food in Scotland.

The Grampian Food Forum Innovation Awards are held every year to showcase the food and drink of the region from companies based across the North-east. This year’s winners were announced on Thursday, March 20. There were over 33 entries of innovative food and drink ranging from beer to seafood to baked goods from all over the region.
Berry Scrumptious, a local company that has grown out of the local village of Rosehearty, won two of the prestigious awards, one for their Summertime drinks and one for their fudge.

But Berry Scrumptious is only one example of food excellence in the Banffshire and Buchan Coast area. With all the fishing communities around, sampling a wide variety of fresh fish is a must for tourists. The area also has several white fish ports and many large seafood companies. One of the largest is Macrae Foods in Fraserburgh which employs 750 people and supplies a wide range of products.

The area doesn’t do so badly if looking for the perfect tipple either. There are four whisky distilleries across the Banffshire and Buchan Coast, and several companies boast exceptional craft beer. The success of Brew Dog beer began its life in Fraserburgh. The company started with just two young men making craft beer in April 2007, and now it has expanded to 13 bars across the UK with over 200 employees, and is branching out overseas.

Events such as the Grampian Food Forum Innovation Awards ensure that the food in North-east Scotland isn’t overlooked. The Turriff Show is a popular agricultural show held during the first week in August. The show attracts 30,000 people every year and won the Farmers Guardian Show Business competition last year. It will be celebrating its 150th anniversary this year on 3 and 4 August.

Other examples are the Keith Agricultural Show that will be held this year from 10 to 11 August. And the New Deer Show, another popular farming festival, will be held from 19 to 20 July.

It is not just the culinary delights of Banffshire and Buchan Coast that should be enjoyed and celebrated. When tourists visit Scotland they want to see highlights such as the Royal Mile in Edinburgh. If they are going to venture up North it’s often to see the mountainous Highlands, Loch Ness, or the Inner or Outer Hebrides. Banffshire and the Buchan Coast need to be on that radar.

The North-east is a lot more than just mountains and lochs. Farmland and beautiful countryside offer an unspoiled landscape to be admired by any visitor to the region.

Over the last few decades, festivals have helped bring people up to this part of the country. The Scottish Traditional Boat Festival will be on 27-29 June and is an example of what this part of the world has to offer. As well as excellent food and drink, visitors are treated to a wealth of history and fun activities.

Scotland is famous for its agricultural festivals – the biggest being the Royal Highland Show. Since holding its first show at Queensberry House in Edinburgh’s Canongate in 1822, it has become a must in any serious food lover’s calendar.

On a smaller but no less important scale, the Turriff Show boasts the rich variety of innovative food and drink from closer to home, demonstrating that being on a smaller scale does not deter from quality. Let’s eat and drink and toast to the fantastic produce of the North-east!

1 April 2014

Fine Faroes Fishing?

After four long years, North East fishermen have finally gained access to the Faroese waters to try their luck at a big catch.

Earlier this month, a £3m deal between the Faroes and the EU was finalised with the Scottish fleet, in the first fishing agreement of its kind since 2010. The welcome agreement means that fishing boats will now be able to access Faroese waters from April 1.

The deal will also lessen pressure on North Sea and West Coast fisheries, which can only be welcomed.

It was the recent Mackerel International Agreement that got the tide flowing again on the deal after four years in the shallows after Iceland and the Faroe Islands upped their quotas in 2010, and it cannot be underestimated how beneficial this will be for the North East.

Mackerel quotos for EU, Faroese and Norwegian fishermen have been thrashed out, and although Scottish fishermen have made their own sacrifices along the way in order to broker a deal, stocks are going up.

The Faroe Islands will receive 12.6 per cent of the total allowable catch, with the EU and Norway sharing 71.8 per cent. A further 15.6 per cent has been set aside for Icelandic and Russian catches. So far, no deal has been reached with Iceland, but the hope is that further talks will take place.

While some fishermen may not agree with the size of the Faroese quota, the deal will undoubtedly add more security to the industry in these uncertain times.

The agreement also adds extra quota for the Scottish fleet available in Faroese waters. In tonnes for the UK fleet, the biggest catch in the stock stakes are the vitally important whitefish stocks such as Blue Whiting at 880 tonnes, followed by cod and haddock at 817 tonnes and Saithe at 696 tonnes.

Flexibility in where to fish will also be increased, as the focus will not solely be on the North Sea and West Coast as the main waterways to fish.

Traditional stocks of haddock and whiting now have the chance to be replenished as the catching opportunity offered to the Faroes includes 15,000 tonnes of blue whiting, with the Scottish fleet benefiting from 2,000 tonnes of whitefish, including cod, haddock and saithe.

The fact that an important part of the long-standing mackerel wars has finally been resolved will also be key to regulation of the fishery, and ensuring that it is carefully managed again, for the benefit of all.

Scottish boats will now have access into Norwegian waters with immediate effect which will hopefully make 2014 a more rewarding one for Scotland’s fishing industry and those particularly in the North East.

It’s true to say that the Scottish fishing industry will still have its fair share of challenges in the years to come, but this is an end of hostility that we can welcome, and a good catch in turbulent waters.

18 March 2014

Raw deal for our pensioners if we vote NO

Alarming news has emerged this week that the North East may be getting a raw deal on their pensions if Scotland decides to stay with the UK.

The facts show that although the Scottish Government is doing everything it can to improve the welfare of the country, people in Scotland have a lower life expectancy than people living in the rest of the UK, and a one size fits all pension policy will not work in our interests.

Older people in Scotland, and indeed the North East, spend a lower portion of their lives in retirement than those in other parts of the UK, and this is a fact that Westminster governments fail to take into account.

The state pension age (SPA) for women across the UK will increase from 60 to 65 between 2010 and 2018. An increase to 66 for both men and women will be fully implemented by October 2020. A further phased increase in the SPA to 67 is planned between 2026 and 2028.

Although the Scottish government accepts that the SPA should rise to 66 in line with the UK’s existing timetable, the rapid move to 67 is a genuine concern. The lower life expectancy in Scotland compared to the UK means that Scots currently enjoy fewer years in receipt of state pensions, and this could be increased.

To address this, in a Scotland that has voted Yes, an independent commission would report to parliament within the first two years of independence on whether or not Scotland should increase the SPA to 67 between 2026 and 2028.

A recent National Institute of Economic Research publication shows that Scotland is disadvantaged by having the same state pension age as the rest of the UK.

It is not surprising then that surveys consistently show that Scots want to make decisions on pensions and welfare closer to home, in Scotland. The latest Social Attitudes Survey found that 57 per cent want the Scottish Government to have control over these areas.

There could be a fairer pension system for Scotland, and indeed the North East where hard work is rewarded, people are given the incentive to save, and pensioner poverty is tackled as a priority.

It is only a Yes vote in September’s referendum that will ensure that our pensions policy accurately reflects the lives of people in Scotland. It is only then that a pension age can be set that is appropriate for where we live.

As well as an independent commission, the SNP have promised that the single-tier pension would be set at a rate of £160 a week in 2016, which is £1.10 a week higher than the rate currently expected for the UK. Savings Credit would also be retained – which at the moment stands at £18 a week for a single person – benefiting around 9000 low income pensioners.

And we can afford a better pensions system. The amount of money spent in Scotland on social protection, which includes pensions and other welfare spending, is lower as a share of GDP than in the UK. This means that pensions are more affordable for Scotland. The Scottish Government also have a good track record on caring for the elderly. Despite extreme spending pressures over the last few years, free personal and nursing care, and concessionary travel, have been retained.

Recent research from Professor David Bell has shown that pensions in Scotland are six to eight per cent less expensive than the rest of the UK. He also demonstrated that under current UK schemes, there will be a transfer from Scotland to the rest of the UK of almost £50 million per year by 2020.

The Westminster Government has mismanaged the pensions system over many years, to the extent that an estimated 140,000 Scottish pensioners are now living in relative poverty.

Scots should be able to look forward to a full and active retirement where they are rewarded for all they have contributed during their working lives. We can do this for generations to come in an independent Scotland.

4 March 2014

Shell and SSE Move Ahead with Carbon Capture

Peterhead is another step closer to becoming the carbon-capture capital of the world after the welcome announcement this week that they will receive millions of pounds from the UK Government progressing it to the engineering design phase.

In fact, the Peterhead Carbon Capture Storage (CCS) project, creating the very first plant of its kind, is one of the EU’s largest commercially sized projects, and represents the very first gas CCS project.

The home-grown engineering expertise and industrial knowledge of the North-east has been recognised by the Scottish Government with their support over the last 10 years for the carbon capture project. It promises a brighter and greener future for the area for years to come with unrivalled storage capacity in the North Sea – enough to store at least 50 years of annual CO2 emissions from the European Union.

The UK Government is finally recognising the carbon capture potential in the North-east, as they are now supporting it with their £1 billion Carbon Capture Storage programme. Around £100m of this budget will go towards the detailed planning and engineering of the project, which could provide over 2000 jobs during construction, and clean electricity for over a million homes when it is built.

The project in Peterhead would create the world's first commercial-scale full chain CO2 capture, transportation and storage development. It would collect up to 10 million tonnes of CO2 emitted from Peterhead Power station over 10 years, and store it in the Shell-operated Goldeneye gas reservoir, 100km offshore.

This is a visionary opportunity for Scotland, harnessing the great resource that is the North Sea, and opening up the waterway as a global centre for the carbon storage industry, which in turn will bring investment and long-term growth to the region.

The move has been supported by WWF Scotland, whose director Lang Banks this week reportedly said that the project would enable those involved to test the technology and cut emissions from the energy sector, while the country is in the transition to an increasingly renewable future.

Testing CCS in Scotland is key, as the technology could be transported globally, making Peterhead the blueprint for other countries to follow. For the good of future generations, we want to make the most of the rich renewable energy sources present in Scotland, and make sure our fossil fuels are dealt with expertly and cleanly.

This has also been recognised by Shell which has praised the latest development as a hugely important step to making gas even cleaner than it already is.

CCS is also a welcome addition to reducing carbon emissions, while the global demand for energy continues to rise, and calls for action on climate change fill column inches. This project would help Scotland meet the target to reduce carbon emissions by at least 80 per cent by 2050.

And it can only boost the North Sea oil and gas industry and help to secure its commercial viability for the future.

The project in Peterhead will be a world first, as there are currently no gas-based carbon capture and storage projects in existence. As nuclear remains an unknown quantity in terms of commercial success, cost and safety concerns, carbon capture could illuminate the future, and create sustainable economic growth for decades to come.

This is especially welcome as the UK government have taken their time to recognise the vast potential for carbon capture in the North-east, something which the Scottish Government has done for the past decade, and is keen to harness for the good of all those in Scotland.

18 February 2014


If ever there was a sign that Scotland is in need of a change, it is the ever-growing reliance on foodbanks across the country.

The most recent figures for Scotland estimate that more than 55,000 people are relying on emergency food aid – a shocking statistic for the 21st century.

Significantly, it is not only the unemployed that are relying on these handouts. A growing number of people who use foodbanks are in work, which only goes to demonstrate the problems caused by underemployment and low pay.

This ever increasing need has created inspiring efforts across Banffshire and the Buchan Coast, where groups of volunteers ensure foodbanks have been set up for those most in need.

The Harvest Centre in Banff, organised by the Riverside Christian Church has been bundling up food parcels for locals since 2004, and over the last few months have been appealing for more volunteers to keep up with demand.

The Joseph Store in Peterhead, run by the Apex Church, provide an invaluable service from their café on Broad Street, and the Shield Project also in Peterhead, led by the Salvation Army, offers support to those who are homeless or at risk of losing their homes.

The national Christian charity, The Trussell Trust, one of the biggest providers of foodbanks nationwide, with 43 in Scotland, have seen the biggest rise in numbers of people given emergency food since it began in 2000. It has provided food to almost 50,000 people in Scotland since April 2013, almost four times the number in the entire previous financial year.

And after a foodbank is set up, community commitment doesn’t stop there. Schools, churches, businesses and individuals donate non-perishable food items. In some areas, there are supermarket collections where shoppers are given a ‘foodbank shopping list’, asking them to buy extra items for local people in crisis. Volunteers then sort out the contributions, packing them into boxes, ready for those who need it.

Care professionals such as doctors, health visitors and social workers identify those in crisis, and issue them with a foodbank voucher that they can redeem for three days of emergency food. Volunteers meet those who come in, suggesting solutions to help solve the longer-term problem.

The other main organisation providing food locally is FareShare. Community Food Initiatives North East, under the umbrella of FareShare was set up in 1997, and has helped thousands of individuals in Aberdeenshire, with food not only going to foodbanks, but to a range of organisations working with disadvantaged people.

The rising cost of living, energy costs, static incomes and welfare system changes have all contributed to the very real problem of food poverty in modern day Scotland. Although the work of these local organisations is to be commended and supported, the ever growing reliance on foodbanks is not indicative of a healthy, thriving Scotland.
We cannot ignore the hunger on our doorstep and pretend that it will sort itself out – we need to meet it head on.

The Trussell Trust has found that only four per cent of people go to foodbanks due to homelessness. 30 per cent were referred due to benefit delay, for 18 per cent it was low income, and 15 per cent cited benefit changes. The majority of people using foodbanks are working age families.

There is an alternative solution. If Scotland becomes independent, a Fair Work Commission would be set up by the government to ensure that the minimum wage rises at least in line with inflation every year. The people of Scotland would then have the powers to create a welfare system to ensure that the most vulnerable in society are not penalised.

The government would abolish the bedroom tax within the first year of an independent Scottish Parliament, stop further roll out of Universal Credit and Personal Independence Payments in Scotland, and ensure that benefits and tax credits increase at least in line with inflation to avoid further poverty.

4 February 2014

Bedroom Tax

There was further evidence of the devastating effect of the Bedroom Tax in Scotland this month with the announcement that emergency housing payments claimed by people in Scotland have ballooned four times over the past few years.

These alarming figures show that Scotland is far removed from the decisions made in Westminster, which have little bearing on the needs of those living north of the border. It is clear that many on the lowest wages are having an increasingly hard time.

Almost £15.4m in emergency help payments was claimed by 45,722 households between April and November last year. This is a huge increase from the £4m that was claimed in 2012/13, with the finger firmly pointed at Westminster benefit cuts and the now infamous Bedroom Tax for why this is the case.

Food banks are becoming more of a common sight in towns and are increasingly in demand, as families find their money does not stretch to cover all of their bills, and they find themselves unable to afford the daily essentials.

The breakdown of figures for Aberdeenshire Council shows that between April and November 2013, £613,157 was claimed in Discretionary Housing Payments, compared to the substantially lower sum of £45,276 for 2012/13.

Again in the Moray Council area, the trend continues to be reflected with £260,277 paid out in emergency housing payments from April to November last year, compared to £18,543 in 2012/13, and £9042 in 2011/12.

The figures show that many people in Scotland need genuine help. The Scottish Government is doing what it can by funding an additional £20m over the next two years for those hit hardest by the Bedroom Tax. Overall, £35m has been provided for this year, which is the maximum amount of funding that the Scottish Government is allowed to give under UK legislation.

But it’s not enough. Despite over 90 per cent of Scottish MPs voting against it, the Bedroom Tax has contributed to poverty in Scotland. Only last month, the latest estimate from COSLA found that the annual costs of implementing the penalty exceeded any savings by £10 million. So it does not even make social sense, or economic sense, for the people of Scotland. Local authorities, Citizens Advice Bureaus and Housing Associations have all reported an increase in calls from those who have had benefits reduced or withdrawn. The most vulnerable in Scottish society have not been fully considered when these measures have been implemented.

Last November, at a House of Commons vote that could have banished the tax into the long grass, 10 of Labour’s Scottish MPs failed to turn up to vote against it. As an alternative, the Scottish Government has the vision of a different life for local people.

In Scotland’s Future – the blueprint for what independence would look like north of the border – the message is clear. Following a Yes vote on 18 September, reversing the most damaging of the UK welfare changes is a top priority. This would include abolishing the bedroom tax within the first year of the independent Scottish Parliament.

In addition to this, the Scottish Government would ask Westminster to stop the roll-out in Scotland of Universal Credit and Personal Independence Payments immediately. This will mean that the Scottish Government elected in 2016 will have the flexibility it needs to reform the welfare system in line with what is best for the people of Scotland.

What has been shown by this tax is that it is only an independent Scotland, with full powers over welfare, that will allow the creation of a system that will meet Scotland’s needs – one that supports the least well off, rather than kicking them when they’re down.

21 January 2014

Our Children, Our Future.

Last week I was proud to support the Scottish Government’s proposals pledged its commitment to the youth of Scotland, by taking a landmark decision to provide free school meals for all P1-P3s from January 2015.

It’s a bold move that shows the Scottish Government is in touch with people who live in Scotland, and who have ambitions for a brighter future.

Based on the latest available figures, around 8148 pupils in the Aberdeenshire Council area, and 2787 in the Moray Council area will be eligible to benefit from these free school meals.

The new measures will save families at least £330 per child, a lunchtime special not to be sniffed at, as families seek to make savings wherever they can to stymie the economic downturn.

And this measure reaches far beyond putting food on the table. A well balanced diet has been shown to boost concentration levels in children as they grow and develop, which in turn leads to them successfully fulfilling their potential, for the good of themselves, and those around them.

And it’s not only the SNP saying this. The investment was welcomed across the board by the Scottish Free School Meals campaign, supported by a variety of charities such as Save the Children, Shelter Scotland and the Church of Scotland.

Extending free school meals for all children in early primary school years also takes away any stigma of means testing existing in the present system. It means that all children, whatever their home circumstances, will now benefit.

This universal approach will bring a huge boost to families all across Scotland as they deal with tax credit and benefit cuts, as well as soaring food and energy prices.

Looking after Scotland’s children will further be boosted over the next few years by the government’s £114m care package announced this week. As well as school meals, free childcare will be provided for every two-year-old from unemployed households in Scotland – around 8,400 children – by August 2014.

Parents in Scotland spend around 27 per cent of their household income on childcare, compared to the OECD average of 12 per cent, and the government is committed to doing what it can to shoulder some of this burden.

Extensive provision of early learning and childcare for all families is a hallmark of some of the most advanced and successful countries today. There is a wide range of evidence indicating the potential benefits of funded early learning and childcare, with all social groups benefitting.

I want Scotland to be the best country to grow up in, and the Scottish Government want to create opportunities that will make this a reality. We want to invest in the early years of childhood so that we can hold our heads high with the best childcare systems in Europe.

This means that we need to address child poverty in Scotland, not as an inevitable blight on our nation, but something that can be overcome, and this is the impetus behind these measures.

But as a devolved country controlled by Westminster, we can only go so far. With independence, a welfare system aligned with our education system would be able to tackle child poverty and educational under achievement in Scotland more effectively.

Currently Westminster controls tax, benefits and labour market policy, and Scotland controls education policy. One can undermine the other, such as when changes to welfare increase child poverty.

We know that investment in the early years can bring huge rewards in later life. If we want to make the most of Scotland’s people - our greatest asset - and help them flourish in a vibrant society and economy, it is essential to focus on their development at the earliest stages.

Stewart Stevenson
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