Saturday, 30 September 2006

Road tax proposals would hit rural-dwellers hardest

Published: 30 September, 2006
John O'Groat Journal and Caithness Courier

THE UK party conference season has been in full swing, though I detect fewer and fewer MSPs attending their UK counterparts’ events. We in the SNP has decided to move our annual conference to an October recess spot from the 11th to the 14th in Perth.

Thus SNP MSPs should not have to take time out of term and have the annual juggle of speaking slots in Parliament for those left to hold the line. But it also interferes with the cherished October holiday breaks in the sun and with events like the National Mod. So you can’t please everyone.

It seems that UK party conferences can badly misjudge policy decisions that affect Scotland and particularly the North. Take the Lib Dems’ proposals for a huge hike in road tax. They may have been targeting 4x4s in the leafy suburbs, but any increase in road tax hits hardest the rural-dwellers with no alternative transport.

Already their Orkney and Shetland MP is pledging to seek a Highlands and Islands opt-out. Hardly a reassuring pledge when you realise that countries like Norway, with full control of their own energy policy, make sure fuel is no cheaper in the north than in their capital city Oslo, and that moves away from the carbon economy are set to account for the needs of small communities as well as urban centres.

Last Thursday the Tories led a debate on the environment. It was a bit like a truth and reconciliation commission. Nonetheless I pointed out that the Environment Minister should not gloat. He had previously told me in the Parliament that we cannot produce more than 40 per cent of our energy from renewables in Scotland but now his party’s policy is a far higher target, which the SNP welcomes.

Ross Finnie retorted, “That is absolute nonsense!”

In January 2005 I pointed out that their target is to produce 40 per cent of our electricity from renewable sources by 2020, so the bulk of our electricity – the other 60 per cent – also has to be produced. If the Government was serious, it would have said that it wanted most of our power to be produced by renewables. That could be the centrepiece of its policy, but it has not made it so.

Ross Finnie confirmed at that time why their target was 40 per cent: “It was set after extensive consultation with all sectors—not just energy producers, but communities, energy groups and environmentalists.”

Maybe Mr Finnie actually agrees with Jack McConnell, who told a fringe meeting at Labour’s UK conference in Manchester that Labour had not done enough to combat climate change. The First Minister said, “I have always had concerns that the Labour Party as a whole does not yet see environmental issues and environmental justice in particular, but also climate change, as a central issue for democratic socialism.”

We should be very concerned too. Climate change is the defining issue that governs our future. It’s up to us to meet the challenge if there’s to be any habitable Scotland a century from now.

* CAN you believe that over 60 per cent of families no longer buy lamb? So MSPs were informed during a presentation by Quality Meat Scotland during the recent Scottish Food Fortnight. Around a third of Scots farms and many more crofts draw some revenue from sheep. But we export 25 per cent of our high-class product to discerning Europeans and another 45 per cent to equally discerning eaters of lamb in England and Wales. So why don’t Scots, especially those under 45 years, eat this delicious home product?

Scots consumed only around one-third as much as their English counterparts during 2004/05.

Old scare stories about it being too fatty have run too long. Perhaps it is the reluctance of families to cook ingredients from scratch that’s at fault. Anyway, it would interesting to know what happens locally.

Meanwhile, breeding sheep numbers have reduced once again, although Scottish abattoirs have handled 8.5 per cent more lambs since the start of the current lamb season, which began in earnest in May. The samples we tasted in Parliament were taken from Shetland to Galloway. Surely such a treat is not beyond the average household food budget today.

* RECRUITING more GPs and hospital doctors to serve our scattered rural and remote communities relies on giving recruits the support they need to build a career. That’s one of the lessons of the Caithness maternity struggle which is now delivering a common-sense support for the full unit in Wick at consultant and midwife team levels. So it was with dismay that I listened to the Health Minister Andy Kerr reiterate that the health service has to be built around patient needs alone.

Mr Kerr doesn’t seem to grasp that you need to woo workers to get out of the big teaching hospital environment. Why did he set up a Remote and Rural Medicine unit based in the Western Isles if not to do that?

He parried another query from Green MSP Eleanor Scott thus: “I find it odd that, according to the argument in the member’s question, somehow our job is to provide speciality training for anybody who wants it in a particular area, which should be in line not with the needs of patients but with people’s career choices. I also find odd the suggestion that we should allow people to work wherever they want. The health service is a national service and our job is to ensure that opportunities are available nationally.”

His bluster shows that this Minister does not get the point. What good are unhappy staff in places they don’t want to work? What about giving recruits a happy apprenticeship and build confidence in the whole health service? We await developments on the NHS recruiting front as a repeat advert for the third consultant post at Wick’s maternity goes out.