22 December 2015

Computing Commuters' Needs

The re-opening of rail stations throughout Scotland has proved the popularity of good rail transport to commuters. The usage of the Laurencekirk Station has gone up by 40% since I reopened it in 2009 as Transport Minister, the Dyce station has increased by 239% since 2002 and Inverurie by 450% since 2002.

At the moment the area north of Aberdeen faces various transport issues for both rail and road, making travel increasingly difficult for commuters. It currently takes almost an hour and 40 miles by road for 15,000 Fraserburgh residents to reach their nearest railhead in Dyce.

Rail services in Peterhead and Fraserburgh were suspended in the 60s and with the opening of the Borders Railway, Peterhead and Fraserburgh are now the towns of over 10,000 residents which are furthest from a rail station.

There is no doubt that improved transport links North of Aberdeen would encourage business, home buyers and vacationers.

Responding to the environmental implications that come with road use is a priority for Scotland. Better availability of public transport would be a great development for this. More people would be able to reach the city centre without increasing road traffic, congestion and car parking requirements.

The campaign to bring a rail link to Buchan has received a boost this week with the Scottish Association for Passenger Transport (SAPT) publicly backing a rail link to Ellon as a first step towards future expansion. A rail link to the city would be congestion free unlike the current use of dual carriageway at Bridge of Don and King Street.

The SAPT have been involved with this issue for over 50 years. And have said that the proposed transport links and reduced journey time between to Aberdeen and could ‘revolutionise’ public transport in the area. Speaking from my own experiences living very rurally I definitely welcome these moves forward.

As Honorary President of SAPT I have been co-operating with people of all political persuasions and of none to help this initiative go forward and have received cross party support.

Reintroducing a rail service would mean faster journey times with a much higher level of comfort. A line to a station at Ellon with a park and ride would be great and could hopefully be matched with better bus connections from Peterhead and Fraserburgh to Ellon. Hopefully these rail links could later be extended to these towns.

The report by SAPT will hopefully drive the initiative forward. The numbers show that where rail travel is faster than by road it is popular.

8 December 2015

Banking on Approval

In the world of public approval, politicians basically don't get a look in. Only bankers rank more lowly. And yet in both cases, the overwhelming majority of both are contaminated in public eyes by the actions of a very few.

When people despise bankers, it certainly ain't the teller helping you when you visit a bank. Witness the community outcry whenever a bank considers closing a local branch. It becomes “apocalypse now” time for the local area, businesses will close, the integrity of a town or village will be damaged.

Ironically, the proper contempt that the public feel for those who took down institutions that had contributed to our country and its economic success over centuries was not down to bankers. Because what had happened to our banks lay in no small measure to our banks no longer being run by bankers.

Both RBS and Bank of Scotland had ended up with virtually no trained bankers – actually a mere one in each – in their top management teams. Major institutions all but fell precisely because their leaders did not understand the businesses they “led”, did not possess the skills and experience necessary.

It will be a long road for our banks to restore themselves in the public mind as necessary, valued, respected parts of our country. And even longer before bankers move off the bottom of the “respect table”.

And politicians?

Some university archives have pamphlets from 350 years ago fulminating against politicians. Contempt for leaders in Rome existed 2,000 years ago. So clearly nothing new.

Winston Churchill said, “Democracy is the worst form of government” but continued “except for all the others.” And there's the rub.

253 people have served as MSPs since 1999. And all but a couple have come to our Parliament because they wanted to do good for their communities. So when I disagree with colleagues in other political parties, it ain't personal.

The most serious of decisions come when they affect the life expectancy of individuals. The Scottish Parliament's Welfare Reform Committee has commissioned research into the impact of the UK Government's welfare changes on people in Scotland. Frighteningly that has shown, in the words of the Committee's Convenor that, “the most deprived areas of the country are contributing the most savings to the welfare budget.” Bearing down hardest and reducing the life chances of those most in need.

That's our Parliament at its analytical best. Probing and testing public policy.

My Westminster colleagues in the SNP have been unambiguously opposed to another life-changing decision to bomb the evil forces of ISIS, more properly known as Daesh. This is not an opponent, because opponent it certainly is, based around the structures of a state as we have known it for generations. It is a more complex alliance of individuals for whom a significant motivation for their “joining up” has been the use of military force against ISIS.

The real danger is that while it might, just might, be possible to remove the ISIS presence in Syria and Iraq by military action – the evidence of thousands of bombing raids is not encouraging – experience tells us that will merely increase recruitment of new, even more numerous fighters, based within other states.

New types of enemy need new solutions. Money and arms keep ISIS going. We need to focus on cutting access to both. That's a subtle and difficult problem. And one we need to make a priority now.

24 November 2015

Communites work

Local communities can achieve what seems insurmountable when they work together and unite behind a common purpose.

In recent weeks I experienced the return of the mobile cinema – Film Mobile Scotland – to Buckie after many years.

This came about after three Modern Studies pupils at Buckie Community High School wrote to me requesting that Buckie have its cinema returned. I took up the matter with Film Mobile Scotland and their director Ian Brown was very positive, but he did make it clear that there would need to be obvious support from the local community before they could return to the town.

After some talks with the Buckie Regeneration Group, local councillors, and Buckie Community High School Rector Neil Johnston - we’ve now just had a Sunday with two films shown for kids and adults, with Hollywood’s latest offerings coming out on a regular basis in the town from now on.

This is an excellent example of real community effort in action and I would like to thank all of those who were involved in making it happen – especially the Buckie High pupils who sparked off the campaign. I hope that the whole town will continue to give their support to this new enterprise and the enjoyment it gives to others.

This consideration for others was further emphasised for me when I read about Fraserburgh man Gordon Cruden who has raised over £200,000 by sleeping rough in cities across the UK and Ireland for 30 nights from October 21.

The 48-year-old experienced the harsh reality of what it is like to sleep rough so that he could raise funds for the Teen Challenge project in Mintlaw, and for a female addiction recovery base in Aberdeenshire – the Benaiah Centre. He was humiliated by people taking pictures of him trying to sleep and even had one of his only meagre possessions – his sleeping bag – stolen from him.

It is the efforts of people like Mr Cruden that makes sure that things can be changed, and services can be given to those that need them most. At a time when tax credits are being cut and benefits slashed, this is the kind of spirit we need in our communities to fight back.

As I write, the situation in Paris following the horrendous attacks that killed 129 people in the French capital - is still ongoing, with operations to find the perpetrators still dominating the headlines.

Communities within Paris are joining together to mourn their tragic loss and share their shock together. What is clear is that in the face of such horror - people should not turn on each other, and groups should not be scapegoated while explanations are sought. From one community to another, we want to extend our love, friendship and solidarity to the people of France.

It is also this community spirit that has led us to the point where Scotland recently accepted its first group of refugees from Syria – giving homes to the homeless and caring for some of the most helpless in our world.

Our local community is essential when it comes to caring for others close to us, and looking out for their needs. But as we approach the festive season, the spirit of community also forces us to look further afield and challenge us to extend kindness to those beyond our everyday lives.

10 November 2015

Time to discard a 1950s defence strategy

Trident has been making the headlines over the past few weeks – dividing opinions and polarising views.

The SNP have been consistent in securing their colours to the mast on the subject of nuclear weapons and we recently discussed the subject in the Scottish Parliament – ending in overwhelming support across the chamber against the renewal of the Trident nuclear missile system.

The debate is relevant for moral and economic reasons, and although it is a reserved issue – ultimately decided by Westminster - we are the country hosting the nuclear weapons in our waters at Faslane.

The other good reason for the debate is that further scrutiny of the renewal of the Trident weapons system suggests that the estimated potential cost has significantly risen. This comes at the same time that the UK Government imposes scathing welfare cuts, affecting some of the most vulnerable in our society.

But the moral argument remains – whether Trident renewal costs £1 or £1 billion, we would not support it. Not only are nuclear weapons created for mass destruction – they would be responsible for indiscriminate destruction.

from wikipedia
According to Crispin Blunt MP, chair of the House of Commons Foreign Affairs Select committee, the total estimated cost of the Trident renewal programme will be £167 billion over its lifetime. Previous estimates stood at around £100 billion – this is quite a significant jump. The successor Trident programme will consume more than double the proportion of the defence budget of its predecessor – and even some Conservative MPs and retired senior military personnel have claimed the cost is now too high to be rational.

To give the total spend some context – Scotland’s 8.3 per cent population share of £167 billion comes to around £13.9 billion. This is the equivalent of 10 Forth replacement crossing projects. And that does not cover the annual running costs to the taxpayer – estimated at £125 million for Scots alone.

Strategic support for nuclear weapons in past decades by previous governments was fuelled by the cold war – but this is not the world that we live in today. This is not a blasé statement based on resting on one’s laurels. Germany and Japan do not have nuclear weapons, and in 2012, former Secretary of State for Defence Michael Portillo described Trident as “completely past its sell-by date” and no deterrent to the Taliban.

We simply cannot discount the fact that, when we choose to spend vast amounts of money on a particular item of defence, we choose to take money away from those in our society with the greatest need.

The UK Government has announced welfare cuts of £12 billion per annum by 2019-20, and about £1 billion of those cuts will impact directly on Scotland.

Winston Churchill spoke of the tragedy of poverty and the tyranny of war. In Liverpool in 1951, he said:

“Evils can be created much quicker than they can be cured.”

Have our missiles—or, more properly, the United States’ missiles, which are carried on our submarines, been directed away from the former Soviet Union and towards new targets? Have the missiles deterred the Taliban, in their Afghan mountain fortresses, from taking action? Were they a deterrent to Saddam Hussein in his bunker in Iraq? Are they a deterrent to Daesh in Syria and Iraq?

The missiles are no deterrent of any kind to the threats that exist in today’s world. They are merely a defence front, which in reality contributes nothing to defence.

Our nuclear weapons are not targeted at our enemies and never will be. They do not attack the military capabilities of those who would attack us. They are by design focused on civilian populations over the horizon. They are focused, often, on people in totalitarian regimes, who have made no contribution whatever to decisions about peace or war.

When we choose to spend our money on weapons of mass destruction we address neither the tyranny of war nor the tragedy of poverty.

27 October 2015

Scotland has it in the bag

This month has brought the very welcome news that the carrier bag fee in Scotland has been a resounding success since it was introduced a year ago.

Retailer research has shown that the use of the single use carrier bag in Scotland has dropped by 650 million since the 5p charge began. This relatively swift move in behaviour goes to show that changes in government policy really can make a difference to public attitudes.

Data from all the major grocery retailers indicate a reduction in bag use of around 80 per cent since 20 October 2014 – which is the equivalent to at least 650 million fewer bags being handed out annually - with funds of around £6.7 million being donated to good causes directly from the charge.

In previous years, statistics showed that people in Scotland used more than 800 million new single-use carrier bags every single year – more per head than anywhere else in the UK.

To see a turnaround in this behaviour by the introduction of this simple policy is something to be marvelled at. It shows that people in Scotland are serious about tackling litter, reducing waste, and creating a cleaner, greener environment that everyone can enjoy.

It is now becoming second nature for shoppers to reuse their carrier bags and to purchase bags made of stronger materials, for the purpose of multi usage over their lifetime. It is vital that we think about our impact on the environment, and this can be as simple as re-using a plastic bag.

Zero Waste Scotland is an organisation funded by the Scottish Government to support the delivery of its Zero Waste Plan and pursue low carbon and resource efficiency policies – such as reducing waste, increasing energy efficiency and promoting responsible water use.

Iain Gulland, chief executive at Zero Waste Scotland, also noted that the change in behaviour has signalled a positive change in consumer habits across Scotland.

He added:

“Many organisations have already agreed to donate money raised by the 5p charge to good causes, by signing up to Scotland’s Carrier Bag Commitment. Other retailers across the country are now being urged to follow suit.”

Many nationwide retailers have also used the money generated for good causes - which is another fantastic result of the scheme.

Those that signed up to Scotland’s Carrier Bag Commitment – an agreement to disclose information on the charge and donations made – have reported that various charities up and down the country have benefited from funds raised by the charge, amounting to at least £6.7 million being donated to good causes.

Morrisons in Scotland have reported that the charge has generated around £700,000 across their stores, which has gone to the Morrisons Foundation to donate to charities across Scotland.

Asda in Scotland have invested over £700,000 in good causes, and The Co-operative in Scotland has pledged more than £750,000 to be redistributed across 1000 community groups, projects and good causes benefitting from grants of £200-£2500.

Boots in Scotland have stated that the funds generated have gone to Macmillan Cancer Support, and from 5 October their proceeds are going to the BBC Children in Need appeal.

The single use carrier bag fee has made a significant impact in Scotland by reducing waste and generating money for good causes. It is just one example of how a small change can make a big difference and should inspire us all.

13 October 2015

Teaching Clever

Teachers are one of the greatest assets of a nation.

Without them our education system would collapse and our youngsters would be deprived of the schooling that gives them increased choice and opportunity in life. It is a profession that should never be undervalued.

It is with this sentiment that I address the ongoing teacher shortage in the North East, and why I brought it up recently with Education Secretary Angela Constance. I asked her specifically about what is being done to address the fact that there are schools across Banffshire and Buchan Coast that are in desperate need of teachers that can either not be found, or fail to be retained in the area.

Ordiquhill School
I also wanted to know if there were ways to encourage local people to teach in the area that they grew up after they graduate. I was delighted when Ms Constance agreed that young people and new trainees should be given good reasons to stay within their communities in the North East – and that the Scottish Government supports this.

She said that the government is working with local authorities and universities to develop routes into teaching that help people stay within their local areas. The numbers of student places for initial teacher education have been increased at the universities of Aberdeen, Dundee and the West of Scotland to help facilitate this. The University of the Highlands and Islands has also been brought on board as an initial teacher education provider.

A summit was recently held in Aberdeen to look at the problems surrounding teacher recruitment in the North East, with representatives from six local authorities along with the Education Secretary there to discuss strategies.

The Government has been working on the problem – student teacher intake targets have been increased in each of the last four years, £51 million has been invested in safeguarding teacher posts, and a teacher recruitment campaign has been launched.

Funding has also been injected into Aberdeenshire via the University of Aberdeen for their part time distance learning PGDE course. This has been developed so that people can train as primary teachers while continuing in their jobs. The positive response that this has received from local authorities means that it is now being looked into for the secondary teaching sector.

But while all these irons are in the fire, no one is resting on their laurels - and I am very well aware that teachers are needed and we must do all that we can to encourage them to come north.

At the summit in Aberdeen, officials from the Granite City, Aberdeenshire, Moray, the Highlands, the Western Isles, the Orkney Islands and the Shetland Islands joined forces to explore what can be done in the face of unprecedented low numbers of applicants and increased pupil numbers.

The councils involved have already tried to attract larger numbers of applicants by offering "Golden Hello" payments and free accommodation to new teachers, but vacancies remain across primary and secondary schools.

Ms Constance said at the summit that the ongoing national marketing campaign was specifically targeting subjects that have proved hard to fill, such as science, technology, engineering and maths.

She commended the work already being done across North East communities to ensure that high quality teachers are recruited and reiterated that these efforts were very much supported by the Government. The quest for realistic long-term solutions will be pursued so that schools and pupils in the North East are resourced to deal with the teacher shortage.

The six local authorities at the summit have spent about £1million altogether on advertising, and have launched a number of initiatives including innovative financial incentive packages and housing support.

I may be biased but I can personally recommend the North East as a fantastic place to live and work. I hope that teachers will be attracted to all that we have to offer, and to a way of life that is second to none. We will work to ensure that the generation growing up in our rural communities are not let down by a lack of resources and are inspired by the teachers who will start them on their educational journey.

29 September 2015

Maths - a Formula for Success

Inspiring young people has been a challenge for teachers and educators for generations.

In a speech that I gave this month on Scotland’s educational success, I chose to speak about a teacher that had such an impact on my own education – he still makes it into my political speeches 55 years on!

When I was in school, our deputy head teacher was Doc Inglis – a Lancastrian and a mathematician. He saw it as his duty to inspire – and the first thing he did with each class was to send it round the school on a quest for infinity. We looked in the dustbins, we took the blackboards down, and we even went out to the sports field to contemplate where this could be found. This is still imprinted in my memory. In the sixth year, Mr Inglis brought his tax return into the class and went over it with us - either to tell us how little he got paid for imparting his mathematical knowledge, or to demonstrate the value of keeping an eye on your tax bill.

Doc Inglis is my example of an inspirational teacher. On the anniversary of our headteacher’s appointment, he would always come in wearing a black tie. He had gone for the job and been unsuccessful, and this was his way of marking the occasion. This quirk serves to instil Mr Inglis in my memory, but the quality of his teaching, teamed with his interesting character, also made me want to learn.

Maths was a subject that I felt drawn to as a youngster, and when I went to Aberdeen University I graduated with an MA in Mathematics, and a more advanced love of numbers. I am delighted that the Education Secretary Angela Constance has stated that there needs to be a greater public enthusiasm for maths – I couldn’t agree more.

Maths can be a subject that creates more fear than inspiration in both young and old - but this does not need to be the case. History can also be a good teacher.

The Indiana pi bill – or more specifically – the Indiana House Bill 246 of 1897 sought to define in law a value for pi. It wanted to fix that value at 3.2 rather than 3.1416 et cetera, that most will remember from their school days as a transcendental number which cannot be defined in the real number system. That bill was passed on 6 February 1897. Fortunately, the Indiana Senate had another look at it after it went to the temperance committee, and the matter never went any further.

Back in the present day, the Scottish Government has launched the Making Maths Count programme to ensure that pupils can see the stories behind the numbers, and the many uses that Maths has in everyday life – with the aim of improving attainment in primary and secondary schools in Scotland.

If we can make mathematics relevant to real life, we can make it a matter of enthusiasm for our kids.

Also with the emphasis in Scotland’s Curriculum for Excellence on cross curricular learning – Maths features, and adds to, many other subjects.

In literature for example, Dante’s ‘Inferno’ refers to one of the keepers of the gates of Hell as Belphegor. This character has his own special prime number which is named after him, is symmetrical, and is 31 digits in total.

Mathematics also takes a place within religion. In one example, Hindus are guided by the Vedic texts, which discuss what Hindus believe are the five types of infinity - the infinity of point, of line, of area, of volume and of time, and the concepts of 1 and 0 are introduced.

There are many areas in our culture and in our lives where mathematics is relevant and where it matters. To deter our young people in any way from discovering this world of knowledge would be detrimental to them and to society as a whole. Let us inspire the mathematicians, shop owners, librarians and religious leaders of the future and give them an education that truly adds up.

15 September 2015

We Welcome Refugees

I would like to take the opportunity in this column to reiterate the importance of responding to the refugee crisis across Europe, and one in which we are all a part.

It has now been a few weeks since the picture of young Alan Kurdi washed up on a Turkish beach was used across most media outlets in the UK. It provoked a nationwide response as it highlighted the plight of the thousands of refugees making perilous journeys across Europe, for the promise of a better and more fulfilled life.

Following the outrage and sadness expressed by the public and vocalised by Scotland’s First Minister, a taskforce was formed to coordinate Scotland’s practical response to the humanitarian refugee crisis.

The group of Scottish Ministers, the Scottish Refugee Council, the UK Government, local government and key stakeholders are now engaging with organisations across Scotland to look at capacity over a range of areas including housing, language support, social services and health services to meet the need.

Since it was set up, the majority of Scotland’s 32 councils have said they are willing to accommodate refugees affected by the crisis, and an online hub has been created to give the public the information they need on how they can donate, register available accommodation, assist with lessons in English as a second language, and befriend.

First Minister Nicola Sturgeon has already said that Scotland stands ready to take at least 1000 new refugees as an immediate priority.

It is very encouraging that the majority of councils want to accommodate refugees, and I hope that we can build on this response and keep the momentum going while services are put in place.
Scotland is ready to play its part and take its fair share of the most vulnerable people in need.

This case has been taken to Westminster also by my colleague – Moray’s MP Angus Robertson who was greatly encouraged by the backing of seven political parties – all of whom spoke together in a House of Commons debate to call on the UK Government to do more in helping refugees from the Middle East.

The motion being debated on the SNP Opposition Day was led by Moray MP and SNP Westminster Leader Angus Robertson, and backed by Labour, Plaid Cymru, the Liberal Democrats, SDLP, the Greens and Ulster Unionists.

Local MP Mr Robertson has been inundated with messages of support for the refugees from people across Moray including a significant number offering rooms in their own homes and others asking how they can donate money and essential items to help.

The SNP used the first Opposition Day debate in the House of Commons to challenge the response from the UK Government to the humanitarian crisis which they called woefully inadequate.

He said that while the announcement of the Prime Minister to accommodate 20,000 refugees over the next five years was welcomed, it is simply not enough – and only equates to six refugees per constituency, per year.

The overwhelming majority of the parties have responded to the plight of the refugees with a welcome message of support and goodwill. And we can all play our part in this.

Ways in which we can help include signing a petition to demand action from the UK Government; attending a vigil that may be organised near you – Glasgow and Edinburgh have held their own in recent days; and getting involved in local initiatives.

Scotland Supporting Refugees are a group of volunteers raising awareness and campaigning for action, and many cities, towns and villages have set up local groups.

Financial donations can be made to a non-governmental organisation (NGO) that is involved in related humanitarian work overseas. These include Save the Children, Red Cross Europe, Migrant Offshore Aid Station, International Rescue Committee, UNHCR, Refugee Action and World Vision.

In a world looking for a simple display of common humanity, all of us can play our part, and we can offer sanctuary.

1 September 2015

Everybody needs an education

Almost 60,000 children started their full time education this month in Scotland – four and five year olds starting out in primary one on a journey of at least 11 years of learning. And all the very best to all the youngsters across Banffshire and Buchan Coast who excitedly wore their new uniforms and made their first trip to the school gates this month.

To reflect what the First Minister recently stated in a speech – we have a sacred duty to each one of these children to make sure that they are being well equipped in the skills that will determine much of the rest of their lives.

Scotland has long been at the forefront of education and in the 17th and 18th centuries was indeed the envy of the world for creating a universal system that catered for all – regardless of economic means and circumstance.When my grandfather starting his teaching career in 1881, things were very different from today.

Now it is taken as a given that a good education sets a young person up for life – with benefits not only for the individual but also for the country in creating prosperity, competitiveness and success.

But one of the areas where improvement is most certainly needed is in the less advantaged areas - closing the gap in educational outcomes between pupils from the most and the least deprived parts of Scotland. The 200,000 children currently living in poverty in Scotland need to be given the same opportunities to succeed as all others.

This gap is not a reflection of young people’s talent but rather that too many children have their life chances influenced more by where they live, than by how talented they are, or how hard they work. The Scottish Government is determined to address this.

Over the last eight years there have been significant challenges facing the education system such as the recession and deep spending cuts, but in spite of this progress has been made.

The Curriculum for Excellence has marked a major step forward in Scottish education – and one which has attracted international attention. It provides a broader education for young people and raises the standard overall.

In 2007, just 45 per cent of students stayed on at school until sixth year – now, the proportion is 62 per cent. Unlike in England, Scotland retained the educational maintenance allowance benefitting 35,000 school pupils and college students every year – which has contributed to this.

School leaver destinations are also the best on record. Of the students who left school last year, more than nine out of 10 were in employment, education or training nine months later.

At the beginning of August, young people in Scotland gained a record number of passes at Higher and Advanced Higher, and there were more people gaining National Certificates and National Progression Awards than before.

Preparing young people for work will be an even bigger focus in the future – and getting employers involved in the education of youngsters.

In every part of this country, Scotland has good schools, good teachers, good parents, and our young people are good learners. Standards have risen and are continuing to rise. That’s testament to the work of local authorities, and many others such as the third sector, youth workers and community learning and development staff.

A recent local example of innovative education funding is the Inspiring Learning Spaces fund. Across Scotland there are 20 projects over 19 local authorities that have been given a cash boost to create spaces for flexible learning, allowing closer partnerships between schools and further education.

In Aberdeenshire, £260,000 has been invested into remodelling four classrooms into innovative teaching environments that are modern, flexible and motivating for both teachers and pupils.

The space in which children learn can help in the transition from school to further education, training or employment. The fund complements the £1.8 billion Scotland’s Schools for the Future programme, all of which aims to ensure Scotland becomes a world leader in education.

When children first enter schools, they are full of ambition and dreams which can wane as they get older as the information, support and inspirational role models can be lacking in their lives. This is the drive behind an aspirations package for schools currently being put together – working with the Children’s University, local employers and entrepreneurs.

The education of young people in Scotland is a huge area with much of the work being done that will bear fruit in years to come. But you can be assured that the education of our young people is at the heart of the Scottish Government. Building on the success of the past and striving to achieve more, we have a bright future ahead.

18 August 2015

Fighting for the Living Wage

As the latest statistics on unemployment in Scotland demonstrate a welcome drop - Banffshire and Buchan Coast remain among the lowest for unemployment rates across Scotland.

However although this is good news, it is equally important to ensure that those employed are earning wages that they can truly live on.

The SNP has proved that it is committed to the Living Wage – the hourly rate of pay set independently by the Living Wage Foundation – which currently stands at £7.85 in Scotland.

As part of a Scottish Government drive, employers are being encouraged to provide the living wage to employees – with a target to get 500 businesses to sign up by March 2016.

Recently, the Beatson Cancer Charity became the 300th business in Scotland to be accredited as a Living Wage employer. The well-known charity delivers patient and family support, including patient wellbeing and complementary therapy services, as well as providing specialist care. These are delivered through their award-winning Wellbeing Centre, the Beatson West of Scotland Cancer Centre, and related facilities across the West of Scotland.

By promoting the living wage scheme across Scotland, the government is demonstrating its commitment to fairness and supporting those on the lowest of incomes. Earlier in the year, the Scottish Government made sure they led by example by becoming the first accredited government within the UK to sign up.

As part of this, they have been working with the Poverty Alliance to encourage employers from the public, private and third sectors to seek this accreditation.

Research has shown that the Living Wage can enhance productivity, reduce absenteeism and improve staff morale – but companies need to sign up so that these benefits can be passed on to workers.

Last December, I welcomed a report highlighting that the introduction of the Living Wage and the council tax freeze could be improving health across Scotland.

The study by researchers at the Scottish Public Health Observatory (PHO) at NHS Health Scotland found that certain regulatory and tax policies could help tackle health inequalities. Dr Gerry McCartney, head of the PHO, said that in some cases “they will save lives”.

Significantly, the report stated that the policy of a Living Wage had a positive impact on health. The SNP government introduced the Living Wage in 2011 which benefitted thousands of workers covered by Scottish Government pay policy, and since then, the SNP has campaigned for more businesses to sign up.

At a summit earlier this year to promote the policy, First Minister Nicola Sturgeon emphasised to business leaders the benefits that would be accrued from adopting the Living Wage, and how a better paid staff can improve business productivity and ultimately drive forward the economy.

Running alongside this is the ‘Scottish Business Pledge’. The Pledge was launched in May and is a partnership between Government and business - working to boost productivity, ensure fairness and generate growth across the private sector and beyond.

In recent weeks, STV became the 70th company – and first broadcaster - to make the Scottish Business Pledge. What makes this relevant is that Pledge companies commit to paying their staff the Living Wage.

Independent research commissioned by KPMG – also a Pledge company – further illustrates the business benefits that flow from paying the Living Wage, including recruitment and retention of staff.

The Living Wage can make a real difference to people in Scotland. The Scottish Government may be committed to having 500 Scots-based Living Wage accredited employers by March 2016, but it is up to local businesses, organisations and charities to now carry this forward.

I would urge local groups and enterprises around my constituency to take a look at these proposals and choose to truly invest in the people that make up your workforce – invest in the future.

4 August 2015

A Future for Fishing

Fishing is one of the flagship industries of the North East and is responsible for some of most abundant and wonderful produce exported all across the world.

Since becoming an MSP for Banffshire and Buchan Coast in 2001, the challenges of the fishing industry and those that work in it have never been far off my radar.

On my travels over the constituency this summer, I have been listening to a lot of fishermen and people working in fish processing, and it is obvious that there are still many concerns surrounding the support for and governance of one of our most important industries. From my chats with individuals, there are some serious reservations about how the introduction of Marine Protected Areas is proceeding.

As an industry with a turnover of around a half billion pounds each year, it is surprising that politicians have so little collective engagement with representatives and workers in this important industry.

It is because of this that I have asked my colleagues at the Scottish Parliament if they would like to start a Cross-Party Group on the fishing industry. I envisage that the focus would be on those who catch sea fish, nephrops and shellfish and on those who process them, and I would like to see a group established early in the next Parliament if possible.

The good news is that members of SNP, Labour, Conservative and LibDem parties have responded positively so it's clear we can move ahead with a group.

Up till now many fishermen's organisations have yet to brief MSPs on how they would like to go forward, while environmental interests are actively seeking to lobby parliamentarians. It may now be time to have a more effective forum for ensuring that Scottish Parliamentarians are better informed about issues that matter to the fishing industry, and it's clear that a Cross Party Group would be a step in the right direction to address this.

Fishing needs strong links to Parliament and we have been missing out on hearing the industry's voice. It is not only about current issues, but also about ensuring that the fishing industry and communities who depend on fishing, have a forum where they can voice their concerns at the highest level.

The fishing industry is never far from the headlines. This July, fisheries minister Richard Lochhead announced that following consultation, new conservation measures to help ensure a sustainable future for scallop fishing will be put in place.

The minimum landing size of scallops will be increased from 100 mm to 105 mm for most of the Scottish coast. This is expected to help protect the breeding stock of scallops and lead to an increase in yield and egg production.

As well as an increase in the minimum landing size in most areas, restrictions will be placed on the number of dredges that scallop vessels are allowed to tow in inshore waters. The standard restriction will restrict vessels to eight dredges per side in inshore waters, helping to limit the effort of scallop vessels in this zone. There will be no change to the current restrictions outside 12 nautical miles.

The scallop sector is very important to our local communities, and it is hoped that the new measures coming into force in spring 2016 will help secure their long-term sustainability in Scottish waters.

There have been concerns about the long-term health of the fishery, and stock assessments show that in some areas around the coast, management needs to be enhanced to preserve the stock.

A few weeks ago at the end of June, the latest assessments showed that North Sea cod, haddock and plaice numbers were on the rise, which should lead to much higher quotas for next year. Encouraging figures were also identified for a number of west coast stocks including megrim and Rockall Haddock.

However, other stocks have decreased including North Sea nephrops and whiting which will present more of a challenge in the coming year.

So, it’s a mixed picture as ever from the industry, but there are encouraging increases in some of our most valuable stocks such as haddock – up by 30 per cent. Our fishermen deserve immense credit for their part in the emerging recovery of the cod stock and they should be thanked for their continued commitment to sustainable fishing.

The Scottish Government is committed to working closely with all parts of the fishing industry over the summer to understand what these new assessments mean for them, and I will continue to talk to workers on the shore as to what they think should be done long term.

Dialogue is paramount, and we need to make sure we are hearing the voices of those who work within our prized fishing industry.

21 July 2015

Stevenson on Tour

It’s that time of year again when I get into my caravan for the annual surgery tour around Banffshire and the Buchan Coast – knocking on doors in the farthest of constituency corners, so that I can answer your questions, queries, and let you know what I’ve been doing in the past weeks and months for the area.

Starting on Tuesday 14th July, my 15th tour will cover 37 communities from Rothiemay in the far west to Boddam at the south-eastern end, and inland to Aberchirder, New Byth and Memsie. It’s a great chance for me to meet all those who can’t make it to the traditional surgeries in towns and villages throughout the year, and I find the whole experience enjoyable and engaging.

Even though a lot of our communication these days is done electronically, there is no substitute for meeting face-to-face and I still think this is vitally important. And for the very small communities, this may be the only chance I’ve had all year to come and visit.

One of the issues that will always have people talking is how much money they have in their pockets after the Chancellor’s latest budget for 2015/16.

The recent offering from George Osbourne looks set to hit working families, the poor and young people the hardest. The harsh austerity agenda continues to hit people where it hurts – particularly given the savage cuts in tax credits.

We do welcome the increase in the minimum wage of course, but the cuts to the incomes of those that can least afford it cannot be ignored. The living wage in Scotland is currently £7.85 and the proposals are that this figure would be effectively lowered to £7.20.

Cuts to the living standards of young people are also severe – including the scrapping of student grants for those that need them the most. The SNP Government will continue to deliver grants for the poorest students in Scotland, demonstrating the benefits in having these powers closer to home.

Although there were welcome measures such as the freeze in fuel duty, there was nothing in the budget to encourage innovation or exports. People need to be inspired in order to develop ideas and business plans, and they need help along the way.

The austerity agenda is being imposed on Scotland, despite the election of 56 SNP MSPs who wholeheartedly rejected austerity, and an electorate who only returned one Tory MP north of the border to Westminster. It’s worth remembering that the Tories secured their lowest share of the vote in Scotland since 1865 in the recent election.

The latest budget just furthers the SNP case to have economic and welfare powers in Scotland so that are more dynamic economy can be created – boosting tax revenues and resulting in a fairer society – where policies benefit the many.

This is just one of the hot topics I would really like to chat to you about if this is something that interests you.

For more details on where I am having surgeries year around, please go to No appointment is necessary for my caravan tour, although constituents with ongoing cases will probably find it useful to advise their attendance on 01779 470444.

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7 July 2015

Our graduates are well equipped for life

School’s out for summer and for those finishing their university courses – quite possibly forever.

And the latest statistics show that graduates from all across Scotland are leaving with excellent prospects for the future.

Figures from 2013/14 published by the Higher Education Statistics Agency show that a degree from a Scottish university stands our young people in good stead as they look forward to the world of work.

For leavers from Scottish institutions – 90 per cent went into employment, further study or both, and 73 per cent of full-time first degree leavers entering UK employment were employed in professional occupations. This is up from last year’s figure of 69 per cent and is the highest figure for all UK administrations.

Graduates leaving university with their first degree in Scotland are typically able to earn up to £22,000 – up £1000 over the past year, and again the highest figure for all UK administrations. And only five per cent were unemployed in the year since leaving further education – down from six per cent last year.

After a long and expensive journey through university, it’s heartening to note that Scottish graduates have excellent prospects on leaving. And Scotland is not losing out as the full time first degree graduates are finding the majority of their professional jobs north of the border.

The Scottish Government’s investment in higher education is paying off for all those involved. Scottish universities are already viewed as world leading around the globe with four institutions in the world’s top 200, more than any other country per head of population apart from Switzerland.

To give an example - for those who are still in further education and want to strengthen their job prospects - they will also now have the chance to benefit from travel as part of their studies in this year’s round of the Outward Mobility Fund.

Over 270 students from Scottish universities will be able to travel to India, China the US and Europe as part of their studies thanks to £143,000 in grants to be shared between nine universities and one students’ association.
The benefits of studying abroad are well documented - language skills, intercultural understanding, new ways of working and greater employment prospects are just a few - this year more Outward Mobility Fund money is being provided than ever before.

Importantly, the fund will support students who might otherwise find it difficult to take up these opportunities, and benefit from travelling.

As part of the grant allocation, Edinburgh Napier University secured match-funding to take a group of college and university computing students to meet their counterparts in collaborative project with University of Pittsburgh, and Glasgow Caledonian University biomedical students will go on a four-month study exchange to Hong Kong Polytechnic University.

Closer to home, Robert Gordon University has been granted £19,197 for a multi-disciplinary health and wellbeing project in Manipal in India.

So whether you are still in further education or you are one of the fortunate ones this summer donning a gown and picking up their graduation scroll, studying in Scotland will give you good prospects for the future – all the best!

23 June 2015

Empowering People

A further step on the path to self-determination was recently taken in the Scottish Parliament with a debate on giving greater powers to local communities, and to put decision making in the hands of local people.

The Community Empowerment Bill aims to give locals the tools they need to shape the future of the areas in which they live – from local job creation, to ownership of land and buildings, to renewable energy generation.

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 means to cultivate what we have here in the north east of Scotland.

One of the things that the bill proposes is to extend the Community Right to Buy to add urban areas and larger rural towns. This would include the compulsory right to buy land and buildings that are abandoned or neglected – so that they can deliver greater public benefit. This also fits in to the Government target of having 1 million acres of land in community ownership by 2020.

So far, there is a total of 127 community bodies that have been created since May 2007, and all applications where a right to buy has been triggered have been approved.

A key part of the thought process behind this new legislation is a desire to firm up the process that ordinary people can get involved in the development of their community.

Community Planning Aberdeen recognised it as “an opportunity to ensure genuine community engagement, consultation and active participation by citizens in identifying local needs and involvement in setting priority outcomes and how they should be addressed.”

As with so many things – efficient and pertinent communication can go a long way when it comes to making good ideas a reality.

But this is not just a set of good ideas - a new Empowering Communities Fund of £10 million will make sure that people get more involved in the planning process – removing barriers and making it necessary for the public sector to engage well with communities.

Also, the bill will give local authorities the power to create business rates relief schemes to support the local economy.

For the Scottish islands, ‘Our Islands Our Future’ was launched in June 2013 committed to devolving powers to our most northerly outposts, and a consultation is due this summer.

Much evidence has shown that involving people more regularly and more effectively in decisions that affect them leads to a better use of the talent that already exists within the community, and increases confidence and more positive relationships between local movers and shakers.

Back in November 2013, I welcomed consultation for the new Community Empowerment Bill – at that time in the very early stages in its development.

I would like to reiterate what I said at that time – the people who know best what needs to be done to improve life in a local community are the people who live and work there – in this case, Banff and Buchan Coast.

The launch of this bill is a significant step towards greater local self-determination – this is a major opportunity to build upon Scotland’s world leading community right to buy legislation and empower communities across Scotland.

I maintain this opinion and although the bill is far and wide reaching, it is worth communities across the north east taking the time to discover how they can benefit from the truly empowering reforms that this bill proposes.

9 June 2015

Our friends abroad

At the beginning of this month First Minister Nicola Sturgeon spoke for the first time in Brussels to set out the case for Scotland to remain in the European Union. It was the same week that 40 years ago, the United Kingdom voted in a referendum to stay in the European Economic Community.

The Scottish Government did not want a referendum to address this subject again – this time on the UK’s membership of the EU - but now that it has been decided, we are determined to explain the positive reasons why we should be a working part of Europe, and what this great union of nations contributes to our society.

The fundamental vision of the EU is that independent nations work together for the common good, and I believe that this appeals to the hard working people of this country also.

Stewart Stevenson MSP's maiden speech on Fisheries, 14 June 2001

But there is room for us to reform some of the workings of the EU. My maiden speech in the Scottish Parliament in June 2001 was on the Common Fisheries Policy. In recent times, Scotland has contributed to the reforms which were agreed by the EU to the Common Fisheries Policy. They involve changes to allow more decisions to be made at regional rather than at EU level. This will make regulations more proportionate and less burdensome for the industry, and reflects an approach that we would like to see adopted more widely. Not enough yet, but progress made.

It’s worth taking the time to look at what the EU does for us. There are more than around 300,000 jobs in Scotland associated with exports to the EU, and the combination of nations provides the market for 46 per cent of our international exports – worth £12.9 million in 2013.

Ernst and Young recently published a survey which confirmed that Scotland has become the most successful part of the UK outside of London for attracting inward investment projects. For many investors, our EU membership is a vital selling point. 

We also cannot take for granted the freedom to travel, study and work across Europe, and the benefits that are brought to Scotland. There are currently 171,000 people from elsewhere in the European Union who live and work in this country. It goes without saying that these people contribute in a hugely significant way to our culture, economy and our society.

There are also the practical benefits that being an EU member brings. From climate change to energy security and international trade - decisions taken by the European Union are more effective than those made by 28 individual nations. One example is air quality.  European decisions helped us to reduce sulphur dioxide emissions by almost 9/10 in the last four decades. 

Research collaborations in areas such as renewable energy, life sciences and sustainable planning are also vital - where Scottish universities and research institutions can be part of a larger conversation in these areas.

The EU is not perfect, but I believe that by working with our neighbours across the continent, the achievements are far more significant than the shortcomings. Rather than leave, we want to work to improve what we have.

Each of the individual regions of Scotland, including of course the North East, have so much to offer the EU, and we have a lot to learn. But the benefits of trade, jobs and the ability to study and travel across 28 countries cannot be diminished. Scotland can be a positive force within the EU for many decades to come – contributing and benefiting in equal measure, and this is why we should vote to remain within this community of nations.

26 May 2015

Lording it over us

Following the dramatic results of this month’s General Election, I recently took the opportunity in the Scottish Parliament to highlight the absurd reality that MPs who failed to be elected at the public ballot could indeed make it back into the Palace of Westminster via the House of Lords.

The House of Lords is nothing other than a chamber of entitlement – unelected and accountable to no one. With different priorities and a tax free income for members – it is an anathema that a country which prides itself on democracy keeps this tier of government in place.

LibDem Lord Purvis defeated in 2011
then appointed to the Lords
To illustrate the deeply undemocratic nature of the second chamber, there are currently 101 Liberal Democrats in the House of Lords. In contrast there are now only eight Liberal Democrat MPs, following the recent cull. This means that there are now more Lib Dem Lords than the entire membership of the US Senate.

Since the election, Scotland’s First Minister has asked for a commitment from the Conservatives, Labour and the Liberal Democrats across the chamber to ensure that MPs who lost their seats or retired from the Commons are not given a free pass to the House of Lords. Altogether, there are over 800 members of the second chamber, with running costs that go into the millions of pounds.

To add insult to injury, peers currently do not pay tax or National Insurance Contributions on their expenses. This should be changed. The main parties have failed to bring about any kind of significant reform to the House of Lords in recent years - but the SNP remain committed to its replacement. Only a fully elected second chamber will do - a completely reformed body that can truly reflect the priorities of the people that it represents.

It is unacceptable in the modern age when the electorate have proven to be fully engaged and willing to execute significant change when given the opportunity - that a chamber exists which is in essence a well-equipped club, from which too many of its members can pursue their private interests at public expense.

I was heartened to hear that Labour MP John Mann supported the SNP’s lead on the call to refrain from appointing any Lords for the duration of this Westminster Parliament. But it will be interesting to see if he has the support of his whole party.

As for the SNP, we now have 56 of our own MPs down in Westminster pressing the case for change – and we will hold fast to our principles that the time is up for this outdated and institution

To reiterate the words of the First Minister – “People with no democratic mandate should not be writing the laws of our land.”

12 May 2015

Welcome to Flora Rose

I am writing this column as we enter a new dawn for Scottish politics – and on the same day that a new Great Niece, Flora Rose, arrives to join our family. That makes it a doubly emotional time for me.

The political tide has changed overnight in this country, with General Election results that no one in the history of the SNP has ever experienced.

As the multi-coloured map of Scotland’s political allegiances turned from a mixture of red, gold and yellow to a predominantly yellow landscape, the SNP took an outrageous and unprecedented 56 out of 59 seats. In Banff and Buchan, congratulations went to the SNP’s Eilidh Whiteford who increased on her 2010 election majority by 19 per cent – topping the result with 27,487 votes – over 14,000 more than her closest Tory rival and bigger than the previous highest vote achieved by an SNP candidate at a Parliamentary election.

These are unchartered waters for the SNP, but more importantly a fundamental shift for our country. It is clear that the party that said it would fight fairly for Scotland down in Westminster have now been given the clout and the mandate to do just that.

There is now a majority Tory government in Westminster – something that many did not envisage at the beginning of this 2015 election campaign. But it is for this reason that such a strong voice for Scotland is needed, so that the leading party is in no doubt as to where we stand and what we need. The SNP is committed to fighting against austerity and for an increase in powers to be given to Scotland.

But the story of this election is about the people, and what their will to change can do. Over the course of the results, we saw the youngest MP since 1667 elected for the SNP – Mhairi Black - knocking out a Labour stalwart in Paisley which has been Labour red for the past three decades, and Liberal Democrat seats such as Ross, Skye and Lochaber held for up to 32 years switching to the SNP. The electorate – the people, readers and constituents - have made it very clear which party they want to represent them in London.

For me personally it was a particular pleasure to spend a day with Stephen Gethins, our candidate in North-East Fife, and to meet former patients of my father who retired 40 years ago. And to find them voting SNP.

Today, First Minister Nicola Sturgeon summed up what we all felt when she said that never in her wildest dreams did she imagine that we would pick up 56 out of the 59 seats in Scotland. This is a truly historic day and Scotland’s voice in Westminster will be louder than ever before.

28 April 2015

Time Flies

Anniversaries can be full of joy – births, weddings, and happy times, but they can also mark terrible atrocities, accidents and days that forever remain in the memory as a sobering reminder of what can go wrong. Over the past few weeks, a number of significant anniversaries have come to my attention.

When my grandfather was born, the US President of the day was Abraham Lincoln.

After only four years since he took office in March 1861, the 16th President of the United States was assassinated on April 15, 1865 at the theatre. This month marks the 150th anniversary of his death.

His presidency reigned over a vital period in US history – the Civil War – where he became famous for abolishing slavery, strengthening the federal government and modernising the economy through banks, tariffs and railroads.

As an astute political operator, Lincoln demonstrated his oratory skill to unite the feuding states. The now famous Gettysburg Address of 1863 – a mere 273 words - outlined the principles of nationalism, republicanism, equal rights, liberty and democracy which remain part of the political rhetoric in the US today. Lincoln is now considered among the greatest of US Presidents.

As with Lincoln, anniversaries can have their ties to political change. Fifty years ago this month in 1960, students in South Korea held a nationwide pro-democracy protest against President Syngman Rhee, which eventually forced him to resign. The ‘April Revolution’ was led by labour and student groups and succeeded in overthrowing the autocratic First Republic of South Korea.

Fast forward to even more recently, and the end of this month marks the 29th anniversary of the explosion at the Chernobyl nuclear power plant in Ukraine – the world’s worst nuclear accident.

from Wikipedia
In April 1986, one of the four nuclear reactors at the Chernobyl power station exploded killing two plant workers on the night of the accident, and 28 within a few weeks, following acute radiation poisoning.

It was decided that the incident was caused by a flawed Soviet reactor design, coupled with serious mistakes made by the plant operators. It was considered to be a direct consequence of Cold War isolation and the resulting lack of any safety culture.

Since the disaster, the safety of all Soviet-designed reactors has improved considerably, largely due to increased working between East and West since 1989 which has improved safety standards.

Safety was also the lesson learned 103 years ago in April when the passenger liner RMS Titanic sank around two hours and 40 minutes after colliding with an iceberg, killing more than 1500 people. Public inquiries in Britain and the US that followed the disaster led to major improvements in maritime safety and in 1914, the start of the International Convention for the Safety of Life at Sea (SOLAS) which still governs maritime safety today.

History can be made at any time, and with the General Election of 2015 just around the corner we’ll have to wait to see how it is remembered.

14 April 2015

Peterhead leads the way in prison reform

Just before Easter, I took part in a debate on the Prisoner (Scotland) Bill – something that is very relevant to Banffshire and Buchan Coast one year on from the addition of HMP Grampian to the criminal justice system.

To give a bit of background – the proposed Bill seeks to end the automatic release of long-term prisoners after two thirds of their sentences. Automatic early release for prisoners including sex offenders initially those sentenced to four years or more, and those that have a sentence of 10 years or more would end, and a period of supervision would be put in place for long-term prisoners leaving custody.

Prison is only effective as a means of punishment due to the enforced loss of liberty, but it is the inclusion of rehabilitation that will reduce the chances of a prisoner re-offending. For rehabilitation to be effective, it is important that those who return to ordinary life receive the help that they need and the opportunity to turn their lives around.

The Bill would allow the Scottish Prison Service to release sentenced prisoners up to two days early where required if this will help with reintegration into everyday life.

Every year, thousands of prisoners in Scotland are released into the community with nowhere to live, some suffering from serious psychological issues and others lacking the social skills to move them forward. These are the problems that the Scottish Government wants to address and one in which I feel is key to the work of the justice system.

The new prisoner release arrangements would allow more targeted access to health, housing and services to help with rehabilitation, and back into the workplace.

HMP and YOI Grampian are leading by example. In January I was delighted when the local prison became the base for a ground breaking project that will go a long way to helping prisoners once they are released back into the community. Significant investment is being made in rehabilitation within the Peterhead prison. In particular prisoners will come out with improved literacy and verbal skills which will equip them for employment in any one of a range of jobs.

Guaranteed period of supervision would be put in place for prisoners guilty of serious offences coming out of custody into the community.

Every prisoner serving a sentence of four years or more will remain in jail for much longer than is currently the case if that is deemed necessary by the Parole Board.

Rehabilitation of prisoners in this country needs better organisation and better resourcing. Almost three-quarters of those in prison have mental health problems and almost two-thirds have drug problems. These do not go away when they are released.

What this Bill provides is better opportunity for those that have served their time, giving them the chance to redeem themselves and fully contribute to society. State of the art prisons are one thing but the care that follows a custodial sentence is just as important, and can be crucial in producing long term life changing results.

Across Scotland, there are 1,000 police officers on our streets and recorded crime is at its lowest level in 40 years. While this should be welcomed, we must make sure that we have not given up on those already in our prisons.

31 March 2015

Getting the job done

Migrants to Scotland enrich our cultural heritage and provide a vital contribution to our local economy.

These are the latest findings from Scotland’s Chief Statistician published last week showing that half of all migrants aged 16 and above in Scotland are qualified to at least degree level.

The data based on the 2011 Census also shows that migrants (anyone not born in the UK) aged between 16 and 74 were as likely to be working as the rest of Scotland’s population as a whole. It shows that the migrant population which at seven per cent of the population (369,000) is well educated, works hard, is in good health and benefits our society.

Misconceptions around what migrants travel to Scotland to do fall in the face of the evidence that shows that most of our migrants are here to study, work and contribute. The statistics highlight that migrants who have come to Scotland from other European countries within the last 10 years are most likely to be benefitting the economy, and of those that have come from outside Europe who are less likely to be economically active, almost a third are here to study.

Recruitment is a big issue in my constituency. The Aberdeen and Grampian Chamber of Commerce (AGCC) in their 2015 manifesto state that the North East has among the lowest levels of unemployment in the UK, but workers are required to grow the businesses there. They identify that over 54 per cent of local businesses have recruited foreign staff in the last year due to the lack of suitable UK candidates.

Research conducted by PwC has found that with the region remaining an oil and gas hub for the future, an additional 120,000 workers will be needed in the region by 2022. It is unlikely that all of these workers will come from the UK.

Scotland has skills needs that are distinct from the rest of the UK, and a large, internationally recognised higher education sector that is competing to attract high quality staff and students worldwide. As the country continues to recover from recession, skills shortages have been identified in the digital, construction and hospitality sectors which need to be addressed.

Last week the Scottish Government voiced its support for the reintroduction of post study work visas to allow overseas students to stay in Scotland for a defined period of time on completing their studies. Since the UK Government announced the closure of the post-study work visa route there has been a significant fall in the number of students from countries which traditionally send high numbers of students to Scotland.

It is clear that current UK immigration policy is too heavily influenced by the desire to reduce the number of incoming migrants, with a strategy that fails to recognise the needs of Scotland. Leaders in education and business have spoken out on this point.

Professor Pete Downes, Convener of Universities Scotland has said: “As it stands, the UK’s immigration policy is anti-competitive, it is a deterrent to highly-skilled students and staff and it is hurting our universities.” The Post-Study Work Working Group have also said there is “overwhelming” support for its reintroduction in Scotland.

Migration is part of the modern world and is a response to our economic needs, and to those of the migrant. Thousands have come to my constituency in recent years, living and working for the local community, because we need people to fill the vacancies in many of our important industries.

Scotland has a large, established migrant community which is essential for the vitality of areas such as the North East – long may it continue.

17 March 2015

Oiling our future

The North Sea oil and gas sector in Scotland has been hitting the headlines over the past few months as the global oil price fluctuates and thousands of jobs hang in the balance. The issue is one of much concern to people across Banffshire and Buchan Coast.

Last week I spoke in a debate addressing the challenges facing the sector and what the Scottish Government is doing to support it. But this work is being done despite a clear lack of intention from Westminster to improve the situation and invest in our future with meaningful action.

In January, the First Minister set up the Energy Jobs Taskforce to maintain jobs where possible, and to mitigate the potential impact of any losses. But the Oil and Gas UK Activity Survey published on 24 February has highlighted the problems with investment and exploration that have been created by a lack of movement on the part of the UK government, including a refusal to review high tax rates.

Sources within the industry have been scathing in their view of the situation.

Malcolm Webb, Chief Executive at Oil and Gas UK, writing in Energy Voice on January 5th said:

“There have been times when I have been truly bewildered by the way in which successive governments have treated the UK offshore oil and gas sector.

“We have experienced repeated and increasingly aggressive tax hits, pushing taxation rates on production up to a maximum of 81 per cent, while at the same time an under-resourced, overstretched regulator failed to deliver the expert and engaged stewardship which this mature and complex basin so badly needs.”

He also commented on the UK Government’s ‘revolving door’ of ministers responsible for oil and gas – with 35 different Energy and Treasury ministers taking responsibility for the industry in the last 14 years.

It is for this reason that the Scottish Government has supported calls for the UK’s key oil and gas industry figures to be moved to Aberdeen to tackle the issues. Ministers have backed a letter to George Osborne from the independent N-56 business organisation, ahead of the UK Government Budget, setting out a “five-point plan” for the industry.

This includes short-term tax breaks, a ­hydrocarbon investment bank, a Norwegian-style long-term approach and more support for offshore fracking, and the Aberdeen city base for oil industry policy and decision makers – where development of the industry is properly understood.

Alex Russell, Chair of the Oil Industry Finance Association, writing in the National last month called the UK Government “very slow”, adding:

“They are trying to time it just prior to the General Election. They are playing politics with the future of the North Sea oil industry… the pace of change from Westminster has been just dire, absolutely dire.”

It is important to emphasise that the Scottish Government has used every means within its power to support the oil and gas industry in Scotland. Last November, the Oil and Gas Innovation Centre (OGIC) was launched, providing funding of £10 million over five years. In 2013/14, Scottish Enterprise provided £15.1 million in funding to the oil and gas sector, and the economic agency now has 344 Oil and Gas companies on its portfolio.

Now the UK Government needs to act.

George Osborne announced in his Autumn Statement a reduction in the supplementary charge by two per cent and stated the UK Government would “aim to reduce the rate further in an affordable way”. However no details have been given about the scale of future cuts or when they will occur.

North Sea Oil still represents huge opportunity for Scotland but we need to make sure that everything is being done to ensure the industry is fully supported in Scotland for now and for years to come.

4 March 2015

Stewart Stevenson writes to Jack Straw and Sir Malcolm Rifkind

Dear Jack and Malcolm,

As a fellow 68 year old politician I am shaking my head in wonder. The people who voted for me, and even more those who are my constituents but did not, expect my priorities to be their priorities.

But they also ask, “Where do you find the time for a personal life?” Because while they expect me to be available whenever they need me, they recognise that I will be more effective if I have some “me time” too.

What I do with my “me time” matters to them too. If I were a dullard with no outside interests, and with no interest in the outside world, with no interest in those outside my world, it would be difficult for me to listen to their interests and respond with any semblance of interest.

Because there is a fundamental difference between interest and interests.

Choose the right interests – in my case genealogy, social history, photography, news – and you then are able to take an interest – in others interests.

But if your interests are self-interest, then politics is something where you should be in the audience not on the stage.

If you choose self-interests that are self-serving, you are no longer serving those whom we are elected to serve.

In our Scottish Parliament our Code of Conduct talks of our need to be “selfless”. That's not a rule; it's an overriding principle which trumps merely reading the rules and ticking the boxes. Its language is clear:

“Members should take decisions solely in terms of the public interest. They should not act in order to gain financial or other material benefit for themselves, their family or friends.”

and the code also says:

“These principles set the tone for the relationship between members and those they represent and between the Parliament and the people of Scotland.”

We've given up the right to compartmentalise our life, the right to override our role as a Parliamentarian in favour of our private interest.

So why have you as long-serving politicians fallen into the trap of putting yourself before others, or at the very least – appearing to do so?

It can't be because you are hewn from different stone than the rest of us.

I see no argument to suggest that those who stand for election to Westminster are less driven by a desire to work for a better world than those who stand for other offices.

But we are all changed by our experience. Any job we take on gives us new skills, new friends, new interests. Being elected to public office is no different.

The minority who show that they are tempted by self-interest is too large to ignore.

There is talk of the “Westminster culture”. It's certainly very different from any other legislature in the world. Only China has a larger one. The United States gets by with 450 Congressmen and women and 100 Senators. Westminster has grown by salami slices to approaching 1,500.

They are many arguments for abolishing a chamber of any legislature which lacks the citizens' mandate.

And oppositions frequently suggest they will.

But perhaps your present difficulties are formed in part by adjacency to that chamber of entitlement - The Lords - who represent no one and are accountable to none. And which provides a well equipped club in a very expensive city from which too many of its members can pursue their private interests at public expense.

Perhaps you can now show again that you are still capable of the leadership which you have both demonstrated in senior office in the past, by foreswearing any offer to join Westminster's second chamber, a chamber with very, very different priorities from those that we serve as elected politicians.

Take the opportunity to return to “selflessness” as a guiding principle by telling us you will not go to an unelected Lords.

By example, lift up humility and lend your substitutional weight for moves to achieve its abolition – my preference – or replacement by a small democratic revising chamber.

Kind regards,

Stewart Stevenson,
Member of the Scottish Parliament

3 March 2015

Trusting our Youngsters

The referendum taught the Scottish electorate a lot of things, but significantly it demonstrated that the inclusion of 16 and 17 year olds in the political process enriched it greatly.

It is with this knowledge that the recent move by the House of Lords to make it more difficult for young people to vote at 16 and above is so misguided.

A new report by the House of Lords Constitution Committee has argued that they should have a role in scrutinising the decision to devolve powers over the franchise to Scotland – and expressed concern that lowering the voting age in Scotland will “lead to pressure to allow 16 and 17 year olds to vote in other elections across the UK.”

I fail to see why this would be a problem. The Scottish Government decision to extend the right to vote to 16 and 17 year olds during the referendum was very successful with around 90 per cent of the age group registering to put their X in the box.

There is something rather hypocritical about a group of unelected peers deciding that young adults in Scotland cannot take part in the democratic process, and if the trend was spread across the UK, then surely we would all be the better for it.

I would like Westminster to transfer the powers needed for younger people to vote in next year’s Scottish Parliament election, regardless of the report from the House of Lords. I would like to see 16 and 17 year olds in Scotland voting in Holyrood in 2016, and indeed the 2017 local authority elections, and I believe that the test case of the referendum has proved that not only can it be done, but it can be done well.

In a recent speech that I made on Young Voters and School Debates, I welcomed the upward trend in youngsters becoming engaged in politics. This continues to rise and challenges all notions that young people are not interested in the issues that define their lives.

Getting youngsters engaged is certainly not a new phenomenon, but the trend is on the up at the moment and we want to make the most of this. The young people that engaged on either side of the debate in the referendum should not be allowed to disappear. They should continue to be part of the process and the long term vision for change, with the initial enthusiasm spurring on a long term relationship with politics.

In an online survey launched by the Scottish Parliament’s Devolution committee in which 1,252 took part, young people voted overwhelmingly in favour of votes for 16 and 17 year olds. School debates engaged pupils across the country, and locally in Banffshire and the Buchan Coast. It was in schools that around 50 per cent of young voters were informed about the debate.

Around 80 per cent of these young people watched at least one of the major TV debates, 63 per cent discussed the referendum online, and 61 per cent wore campaign merchandise. Following the referendum, 63 per cent of those polled found out more about politics, 26 per cent joined a political party and 26 per cent took part in campaigning or in political activities.

Throughout the campaign, neither side of the debate fully realised the extent to which people were being empowered from the grass roots, and I believe we would be doing our young people a disservice by failing to pursue the younger voting age as a new part of our democratic process.

17 February 2015

Where the Money Goes

This month has seen the passing of the 2015/16 budget for the Scottish Government – a financial master plan which will improve the economy, reduce inequality and reform public services.

Scotland’s position as being a global leader in renewables and low carbon development will be further cemented with increased investment of £20m to provide a total budget of £114 million in energy efficiency, and £3.9 million will be ploughed into supporting cycling and walking infrastructure.

Around £20 million of additional funding will tackle educational inequality and raise attainment for school children across the Banffshire and Buchan Coast, and an extra £10 million has been added to the £41 million allocated for local authorities who commit to maintain teacher numbers.

Frontline healthcare gets the money it needs to continue providing excellent care across the country with an additional £127 million on the budget from last year taking it to £383 million for 2015/16. NHS Grampian has had its frontline investment increased more than any other in Scotland since 2007 and this can only be welcomed by people in my constituency area.

Aberdeenshire will receive a share of the £10.8 billion local government allocation, with investment in the Aberdeen Western Peripheral Route, Aberdeen to Inverness Rail improvements on top of the significant investment such as in the building of HMP Grampian.

The future’s looking brighter with Finance Secretary John Swinney calculating that our economy is back above pre-recession levels and there are a record number of Scottish people in employment. Employment levels rose by 50,000 over the year to reach 2,612,000 which is the highest level since records began.

It is for this reason that £9.4 million has been allocated for housing across Aberdeenshire so that more people can get on the housing ladder and settle down in the area. Lives have been made harder by harsh Westminster cuts on spending and increased challenges for many a hard working family, and the budget is doing its best to soften the blow. Around £81 million has been provided specifically to mitigate against Westminster’s welfare reform, including the ‘Bedroom Tax’.

Levels of local government funding have been maintained and extra money has been put in for new responsibilities including pre-school nursery care for children. This will help parents get back into work and give children a better start in life – giving working families a fair deal.

This is a budget for a new year and one that builds on the Government’s track record since 2007, taking steps to meet the aspirations set out in last year’s referendum campaign. The SNP desire to work for the people of Scotland has not waned, and we will continually to strive for the very best.

3 February 2015

A Healthy Nation?

The issue of the NHS can be a make or break decision for many when choosing who is best equipped to rule the country.

Our national health service is something that we can be immensely proud of, and I am happy to support a government that is deeply committed to continue investing heavily in a service that is so vital to the people of Scotland.

This month, the vision for the NHS was discussed on the floor of the Scottish Parliament highlighting the fact that the SNP has increased the NHS budget over time, with an additional £65 million recently announced for 2015/16.

Across the Banffshire and Buchan Coast, they will benefit from an extra £15.2 million allocated to NHS Grampian from this additional funding pot. This brings the total extra money that NHS Grampian will pick up for next year to £49.1 million, which represents a six per cent increase in funding from last year, the biggest percentage uplift of any mainland NHS board in Scotland.

When looking at the NHS in Scotland, it is telling to note that for 2014/15 all NHS Scotland boards are projected to break-even, but in Labour-run Wales NHS Wales bodies are projecting a deficit totalling £192 million. 

But although extra funding and encouraging statistics are to be welcomed, there is never any time to sit on one’s laurels when looking after the nation’s health.

For example, the NHS in Scotland already offers round the clock care and there is work ongoing to further improve the services available. Patients across Scotland already have access at any time of day to see a GP or another member of the Primary Services Medical Team. And there is ongoing work to ensure the NHS offers a genuinely seven day service where necessary, with a Task Force set up last year to look at improving services available out of hours. 

Delayed discharges are significantly lower than they were in 2006 but the most recent figures show that they are on the rise again. Therefore a further £100 million has been ploughed in to tackle this issue over the next three years.

When it comes down to it, the SNP is committed to the NHS remaining a publically-funded universal health service, free at the point of need. During the SNP’s stewardship of the NHS, prescription charges have been abolished and free eye tests protected – saving people with long-term conditions £104 per year compared with those in England.
It is to the credit of the SNP that public confidence lies with the ruling party in government.

How important do you think protecting
and improving the NHS is to …?
0 = not important at all; 10 = extremely important
Lord Ashcroft Polls
A recent poll commissioned by Lord Ashcroft asked respondents to rate on a scale of one to ten how important they consider protecting and improving the NHS to be to each political party.  The SNP achieved a rating of 7.04 – the highest in the UK – compared to Labour who are on 6.69 and the Tories who are on just 5.30.

Patient satisfaction with Scotland’s NHS has increased by over 20 per cent since 2005 according to the Scottish Social Attitudes Survey 2013. The survey found that 61 per cent of people in Scotland were either very or quite satisfied with the NHS in 2013. So the Scottish Government must be doing something right. But there is never any chance that the SNP have stopped striving for the very best in our health service.

But it is not all down to government investment – individuals also have to take responsibility for their wellbeing. Lifestyle choices have an unmistakeable impact on individual health. A health warning in The Herald recently stated that lack of exercise may be twice as deadly as obesity. A report from Public Health Wales indicates cot death risk is greater among families with smokers in them – so there is an element of personal responsibility that we cannot ignore.

One of the greatest achievements of the Labour Party was bringing into being the National Health Service in 1948. But before this, the Highlands and Islands (Medical Services) Grant Act 1913 was in place, which for 35 years was in essence a national health service, centrally funded and managed, for the Highlands and Islands. It put the first resident nurse on St Kilda in 1914, for example.

Scotland has traditionally led the way in how we deliver health services, free to people who need them today. Let us hope this continues for generations to come.

Stewart Stevenson
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