30 August 2016

Scottish Fishing

In 1973 when the UK joined the EEC, Ted Heath decided that the fishing sector was expendable. Mr Heath’s decision is important to understanding the UK’s perspective on Scottish fishing.

As recently as last month the UK Government had a ban on the international trading of skates and rays quotas. Eventually, after the Scottish Government pressed the issue, the UK Government lifted the ban. This has now allowed monkfish quota to be imported into Scotland- a trade which will be worth up to £600,000.

It is this kind of behaviour that leads me to the conclusion that Scottish fishing is an afterthought to the UK Government. So long as it is an afterthought, there will be a continuing danger of the UK ignoring what is best for the sector.

Currently, there continues to be much discussion of what opportunities might emerge from Brexit. While this is one perspective, it is also important to consider the impact of funding withdrawal and trade alterations that may emerge post-Brexit. Indeed, there is no guarantee on how the fishing industry will be dealt with in the context of negotiations. The UK Government has not made any commitment on how it will negotiate and historically Westminster has left something to be desired.

In Scotland we take a different view. The Scottish Government recognises the immense value of the industry, which amounts to hundreds of millions of pounds. What’s more is that it is a massive chunk of our food exports. In rural areas like the North-east fishing has an even closer relationship to our people. The industry provides an economic boon for both those who work directly in the sector and to those with businesses that indirectly rely on the success of the sector.

The Scottish Government has made sure to support the development of the fishing and processing sector, delivering £77m in grant assistance through the European Fisheries Fund between 2007 and 2015. In doing so, up to 2000 jobs have been safeguarded along with the delivery of £180m total investment in the sector. The Scottish Government is still due to receive 107 million Euros from the European and Maritime and Fisheries Fund. At the moment, there is no commitment from the PM Theresa May to protect that funding.

Alternatively in Scotland, the Cabinet Secretary for Fisheries, Fergus Ewing has committed to championing the industry. He has expressed that we need to protect these interests and explore all possibilities in how that can be best achieved. It is about more than jobs-it is about the quality of life for people who live in some of our most remote communities.

Based on a long experience with an uninterested Westminster establishment, I consider it unwise to assume that the UK Government put the interest of Scottish fishing first. They have faced the choice before and I do not doubt they will choose political gain over the livelihood over those living in our fishing communities.

16 August 2016

Necessary Certainty

Last week I attended the Turriff Show. It was a great opportunity to see some of my constituents at their best. Whether you were looking for a little competition, entertainment, or some of our fine Scottish cuisine- they had it all. The show is just one example of the vibrant agricultural community in the North-east and how many depend on a thriving farming sector.

Food production is perhaps the most important industry any country can have. Our ability to feed ourselves and indeed export to other nations is a substantial source of wealth. Last year alone Scottish food and drink exports reached £1.9 billion.

With Brexit looming, there are more unknowns on the horizon now than ever. The UK has yet to offer solid commitments on EU farming subsidies and current signals fail to inspire confidence.

Here in Scotland we realise that supporting the sector is vital to ensuring a prosperous economy. The Cabinet Secretary for Rural Economy and Connectivity, Fergus Ewing, continues to exert himself to support the rural economy. The Scottish Government’s commitment is exemplified in the Cabinet Secretary’s work, most recently, the July release of another £10.3 million in CAP funding.

It is time for the Conservative UK Government take action to create stability for those working in our rural economy. There must be certainty on funding and support. In a post Brexit UK there must be a definitive answer on how the UK will replace support that currently comes from the EU.

In the meantime, the Conservatives have decided to give certainty and stability to a few of their own number. As he left number 10, the former PM David Cameron decided to further bloat the already bulging House of Lords. He has granted a peerage to the likes of Laura Wyld, 1 of 13 newly appointed peers.

Ms Wyld is a shining example of a conflict of interest- she was the very person that recommended to Mr Cameron who should be given appointments, including peerages. She represents the cronyism that exudes from Westminster politics and is yet another obvious reason why many have become disillusioned with Westminster.

While there is an argument for a reviewing chamber, it is time that there is one that is accountable to the people. Is it acceptable that a person be given a political job for life and at the discretion of their friend? No. Politicians should be elected by the people they serve- the public. It is time for change. In the 21st century, it is time the UK had an elected reviewing chamber.

Finally, let me end on something encouraging- the Olympics, a vast opportunity for celebration. What’s more is there is a record number of Scottish Olympians. I wish them and the rest of Team GB good luck. A few medals so far, but hopefully more to come! We are lucky to have such fantastic sports ambassadors and I’m sure they will show the world our strong spirit and our warm, welcoming attitude towards other cultures.

2 August 2016

A Different Kind of Deficit

Today the UK has a new Prime Minister-Theresa May. Congratulations to her. Admittedly, I find it surprising that in a post Brexit UK, the new Conservative leader supported Remain. Are we to believe the Brexit leadership couldn’t muster a committed candidate or had some agreement already been reached? One look at the Cabinet might offer some clues.

It is strange that the leave campaign didn’t offer any real candidate. Sure there was Johnston, Gove and Leadsom-but none stayed in the race long enough to contest May’s leadership. The entire contest had the feel of theatre. The real competition never began; they all just fell into line.

On the other side, the Labour Party is in disarray. The Parliamentary Labour Party is trying to exert its power over the wider membership and out Corbyn. Corbyn for his part will not go. There’s much frustration as the fissures between the voting membership and the PLP grow.

Amid this theatrical political chaos, George Osborne sought to make Britain a “free trade beacon” post Brexit. On the face of it, the term seems quite benign. The question is- what does it mean? Osborne may be gone, but the neoliberal economics is not.

Prime Minister May has appointed Conservative MP George Freeman as her new head of policy. This is the same MP that suggested exempting corporations from tax, abolishing green energy subsidies, and exempting corporations from following employment rights for their first three years.

Meanwhile, the new Chancellor begins his quest for free trade. Agreements that would have previously met rigorous protections of EU regulation will now only face the protections upheld by the Conservative Government.

One can glean Mr Hammond is considering new plans for state assets. It is very likely he will pursue privatisation as part of his economic model. This will mean assets which Scottish and UK tax payers have invested in for the past 70 years may be repositioned into private hands.

Even more telling is the UK Government’s decision to renew Trident, with an estimated to cost up to £200 billion. In the Trident renewal vote, 58 of 59 Scottish MPs voted against renewal.

This comes amid repeated criticism of the NHS and BBC- two major state assets. In fact, one major Brexit claim was that money would be available from the EU to fund the NHS. That was not true. The Conservative Government has instead committed to investing in Trident rather than public services.

What we learn at last is there is an immense democratic deficit in this country. In Scotland, we have opposed the destructive and short-sighted decisions of the UK Government. This divergence seems to become more pronounced as time passes.

I hope that the new UK Prime Minister recognises that Scotland has its own voice. The UK Government must listen. There will need to be significant work on recognising and operating from the Scottish perspective on the EU, social justice and public services.

Those who have paid into the NHS, those who have asked for peace, fair work, and those who demand a positive internationalist country cannot be ignored.

Stewart Stevenson
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