Friday, 16 February 2007

This is no way to treat a loyal workforce

Published: 16 February, 2007
John O'Groat Journal and Caithness Courier

AS most Caithnessians know, decommissioning Dounreay is dogged by financial doubts – not because of the skilled workforce, not because the overall plan to clean up the site is flawed, but because the Department of Trade and Industry in London created an unrealistic funding package when it set up the Nuclear Decommissioning Agency in law.

With a £160 million deficit expected in 2007/08, you would think that a major political row would have erupted.

Meanwhile, the main employer in Caithness is at the mercy of a London Labour Government that introduced a dodgy funding package partly reliant on reprocessing income from Sellafield. As we all know, they have more problems with their waste stream on and around the Cumbria site than any other in the UK.

I believe that the UKAEA has gathered a great team to undertake the clean-up at Dounreay. They have to cope with the bad publicity from poor management when the standards of nuclear safety were far too lax in the '50s and '60s. The shaft and the particles issues are part of that legacy. What they and every other decommissioning project don't need is any threat to disperse the 1000 skilled personnel who work for the UKAEA or its many subcontractors who employ hundreds more. A straw in the wind arrived when D. Gow & Son of Lybster folded with the loss of 23 jobs.

Estimates of between 200 and 500 people being laid off in the short term are no way to treat a loyal workforce. There can be no guarantee of any smooth transition to subsequent non-nuclear employment if sections of the staff feel under threat and contemplate migration to other parts of the country. Thankfully the Government in London will have to pay the full cost of the whole process for as long as it takes, but no-one I know wants that prolonged unnecessarily.

Lobbying our London masters is par for the course for a Unionist politician, but it doesn't have to be so. Under devolution today we have to await London's bidding – but a really concerned Enterprise Minister would be badgering London ministers very visibly. However, if Scotland votes SNP in May, and for independence in a subsequent referendum, then the settlement of the Dounreay decommissioning will be a guaranteed part of the agreement between Scotland and London to complete the job thoroughly and on time. So I don't expect to hear Unionists using scaremongering tactics about divorce or separation affecting Dounreay jobs. I'd say we can't rely on London to do a proper job at Dounreay without that big SNP vote. A leading SNP role in Holyrood next time will stop the stalling on a smooth timetable for decommissioning and create the path to new energy jobs in future based in Caithness.

LAST March Scottish Water lost its way and its chairman was sacked by Ross Finnie, the Lib Dem Environment Minister. In a debate initiated by the SNP at that time, I argued that the Government's stewardship of the public water utility needed a shake-up. Eleven months later, a Green Party water debate last week produced a surprise Lib Dem signal of their conversion to a mutual, not-for-profit water company structure. Ross Finnie confirmed it on TV at the weekend. Why did the longest-serving Lib Dem Environment Minister want to change the model for Scottish Water he has so long defended?

A year ago he argued in debate that the Executive has required Scottish Water to produce a new plan which represents good stewardship of Scottish Water in the public and customer interest.

The SNP's unease about the threat of privatisation was first raised in the Holyrood finance committee in 2004. It foresaw the slide to privatisation built into a model that inflates capital values and customer charges. Since then we have seen the corporate status and efficiency of Scottish Water targeted by the Tories who openly trumpet water privatisation as a mutual.

Economists Jim and Margaret Cuthbert lifted the lid on the water model that forces today's customers to pay over 85 per cent of capital investment expected to last 50 years from current charges. Yet appropriate borrowing sources are available to public companies that private firms can't access. So an SNP-led government would open these up and reduce customer costs, unlike the Lib/Lab Executive.

Scotland's public water asset is a huge resource for the nation. SNP ministers would not allow private shareholders to milk us dry. That's why we are suspicious of mutual models proposed by the Tories, welcomed by the CBI and now adopted by the Lib Dems.

Meanwhile, frustration among Scottish Water customers is completely understandable. After no investment over decades under Westminster rule, Scottish Water is playing catch-up. It has achieved much in a short time but at the cost of huge profits for private contractors engaged by Scottish Water, such as United Utilities. That's what Lib Dem talk of mutual status disguises.

So let's say thanks to the Cuthberts when we hear Scottish Water announce below retail price index increases, note that no Lab/Lib minister has denied their analysis, and give the SNP the power to keep Scottish Water truly as an efficient, public company. For those interested in this argument, check out [] TRAGIC accidents like the one at Delny railway crossing, and many other deaths of young people in cars across Scotland, come at a time when road accidents in total are reducing. Improving the driving skills among young motorists is being seriously addressed. At First Minister's Questions last Thursday I made one suggestion that level-crossing red warning lights should be replaced by the familiar red, amber and green traffic lights. Highland MSPs are set to meet the Transport Minister soon to press for life-saving measures, such as starting with Highway Code education in schools. Also, if cycling proficiency tests were again widely available, both the health of youngsters and their safety could again be part of every school curriculum.

Friday, 2 February 2007

NHS needs a healthy dose of democracy

Published: 02 February, 2007
John O'Groat Journal and Caithness Courier

WHAT'S the good of the buzz words "community planning" without community decision-making to carry out the priorities people decide?

This week various organisations have made their submissions to HITRANS, the regional transport partnership, about the neglect of Caithness in the outline Highland transport plan. Meanwhile in Parliament, the first stage of a Member's Bill has been debated to ensure that health boards are partly elected to reflect local needs. But would they? And will we ever reduce the numbers of quangos that rule over us?

Firstly, on roads, ferries and trains, the Caithness Transport Forum sensibly called for better, quicker links in, to and from the county. Of course, money doesn't grow on trees, but we need to declare our ambitions boldly. I had a glance at the submissions from south-west Scotland, the Galloway and Dumfries area; they include major projects like the reopening a direct rail route from Carlisle to Stranraer that suffered the Beeching axe in the 1960s. Other rail upgrades are also sought there. Yet up north, HITRANS has ignored the growing clamour for a Dornoch rail link alongside road improvements as key needs for Caithness.

Some £350 million has been spent in the last 30 years on modernising roads and bridging the firths for the A9 north of Inverness. Realistically it would cost a fraction of that road budget to modernise and shorten journey times on a carbon-friendly railway. As I've already said, if we aren't bold we'll be ignored. The gain per minute per pound of investment on the railways will surely speed up and modernise the passenger and freight times compared with unlimited spending on road improvements. Of course, road improvements are needed to make certain sections safer, but road journey times are much harder to shorten whatever the amount of cash invested.

Secondly, concerning a public say in running health boards, the Member's Bill proposed by Glasgow MSP Bill Butler has provoked a big debate in Holyrood about how democratic our modern NHS really is or should be.

During the Caithness maternity crisis, the lack of any appointed members from the county impeded our ability to put the case for Far North health needs. However, due to the concentration of population in the Inverness area, any election to the board of NHS Highland (and Argyll) would need a proportional system that recognises geographical spread. I'll be keeping a close eye on this one.

Sad to say, the BMA, the doctors' union, and the RCN, the main nursing union, are opposed to democratic representation of the "customers". However, the present system allows the executive managers to be members of the very health boards that decide their ultimate policy. The need for non-executives to have the majority input is compelling.

I have always believed that health should be treated as part of local government, but now NHS Highland covers two local council areas. I also believe that the elected element is essential to open up decision-taking to public scrutiny.

But perhaps the community health partnerships, the CHPs, ought to be looked at as well. In our case, North Highland CHP should have more than an elected lay convener. So this debate about democracy in local health delivery offers a chance to challenge the health quangos to meet local expectations. Since patients' organisations have been centralised, I think it is time the public had a greater say in the way the most expensive part of Scottish government services is run.


SHOWCASE Scotland was part of the Celtic Connections festival in Glasgow last weekend. I was asked to host the seminar and reception that was promoting the Shetland Folk Festival, a venerable 27 years young, Stornoway's 10-year-old Hebridean Celtic Festival, and Blas, the Highland 2007-backed folk event running for nine days in early September that is now in its third year.

It was great to see old friends from the North at the event and to meet festival organisers from Norway, Quebec, Belgium, Germany and Ireland.

The festival's DVD presented pictures and sounds of fine players like Gordon Gunn from Wick. After the event and a top-notch concert by Orkney's Kris Drever I did an impromptu interview with Robbie Mackay of the folk programme on Caithness FM.

We have a big local audience for the Northern Nashville Caithness Country Music Festival held in Halkirk in early April. I'm sure they would enjoy the crossover music of American and Scottish influences that Celtic Connections displayed so well.

In its closing weekend one star attraction is Rosanne Cash, who sings to a sell-out crowd in Glasgow's Royal Concert Hall on Friday 2nd.

The Cash forebears came from near Falkland in Fife and the breadth of folk music's appeal is captured by her music. As Vanity Fair magazine put it, "Cash's dark muse led her from Nashville to New York City, where she has lived since 1990, and her latest gem, Black Cadillac – about the deaths of her father [Johnny Cash], mother, and stepmother over a two-year period – shows her at her introspective best."

Yes indeed, love and death feature in the folk music of every age. I do hope the Caithness country music audience can dip a toe into the next offering of the Blas festival later this year, as the roots of country music stem from songs and tunes carried by people from every part of Scotland to the New World.