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.

Stewart Stevenson
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