Friday, 30 March 2007

Symbols of hope on cancer care

Published: 30 March, 2007
John O'Groat Journal and Caithness Courier

I WAS delighted to be photographed with Marie Curie Cancer Care workers at the weekend. Their distinctive yellow daffodil badges are sprouting on lapels while their Fields of Hope are blossoming for real in many communities across the land.

Happily it was sunny for the photo, but the task for which the charity raises funds covers some of the most painful and traumatic health events humans can ever suffer. The Marie Curie terminal care service and campaign for the right to die at home have my full support, and that of many others, according to the postcards they receive.

Scots are not the healthiest people in Europe but, like those of other developed countries, expect longer life as a fact and an aspiration. However, the longer you live, the more likely it is that diseases of older age such as heart conditions, Parkinson's disease, cancers and dementia will have to be planned for and coped with. Nevertheless charities carry a huge burden of care.

I fully back a huge effort to improve our health, much of which means self-help, as well as funding a free NHS to cope with the inevitable. My own minor experience in the past few months with a wee skin cancer on my right ear certainly opened my eyes to hospitals, patients and their treatment today. The healing process is ongoing. So I'm glad we spotted my lesion, thankful for skilled NHS treatment, and ready to buy a broad-brimmed hat while taking regular skin care seriously in future.

I begrudge not a penny of my taxes to keep the health service local. The successful Caithness maternity fight was a success. We must take as much medicine to the people as possible, except for the most serious operations. Let's make sure our taxes are well used right here in Caithness.


TALKING of taxes, no sooner had the Chancellor of the Exchequer sat down after his last Budget speech than his spin machine was making false claims. He is showing a new level of desperation to talk down Scotland's economic opportunity. This simply underlines Labour's panic at the success of the SNP's positive campaign and Alex Salmond's correct projection of increased oil revenues from the Scottish North Sea.

The Treasury itself admitted figures in the Budget's Red Book on which Mr Salmond based his forecast that do not support the Chancellor's claim of income offshore falling away. Indeed we should look at Norway, where they have built up an oil fund for future generations that is now worth £190 billion in a short ten years. That's the thinking Scotland needs, and the power to use oil revenues for the post-oil age, not to bankroll illegal wars like Iraq and to pay for son of Trident.

At the weekend the SNP published independent figures confirming that North Sea oil revenues are rising, not falling, and that in the next six years they will be £55 billion compared with £34 billion in the previous six. The figures are provided by the House of Commons library and show that the projected North Sea revenues based on the GDP projections amount to £55 billion for the period 2006/07 to 2011/12.

Scotland's oil wealth is an enormous asset that is growing in value, and no amount of Labour efforts to pull the wool over our eyes can disguise that fact. It is essential that voters understand why this coming election is for high stakes: the sustainable future of Scotland, as proposed by the SNP, or a rake's progress of New Labour in London.


SUCCESSFULLY decommissioning Dounreay is acknowledged widely as the key issue facing the Caithness economy. UKAEA, its partner AMEC, HIE and the local socio-economic study all agree. As I said in the Parliament last year, "We need a commitment from HIE and the Enterprise Minister to back a centre of excellence based in Caithness for both the development and export of nuclear decommissioning skills and also to set up a major collaboration with the EMEC centre in Orkney to promote wave and tidal power in the Pentland Firth."

So May 3, 2007, is about electing a new government for Scotland that we can trust to deliver for the Far North. The biggest policy issue we face locally was addressed by Dennis MacLeod, who learned his trade at Dounreay before majoring in the mining world. He summed up the challenge in his book Grasping the Thistle by saying that UHI must gain full university status so as to back local sustainable jobs creation.

He concluded: "Ironic as it is, the prospect of a new era of Scottish success in the field of power generation is arising directly from the failure of a previous dream – the dream of nuclear generation from a fast reactor. Final success may well come not from what man put into the dome on the shore, but from what was sweeping past it, twenty-four hours a day, and has been since the dawn of time!"

Friday, 16 March 2007

Ending this rip-off would help us build for the future

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

DON'T tell the children, an "experienced and respected government minister for seven years" has been writing to local newspapers telling voters that the SNP intends to cancel the current or future Highland new school building programmes and, if Jack McConnell repeats it at First Minister's Questions, surely it must be true...

Well, it may be portrayed as yet another fact by New Labour, but the truth is so very different.

So far, Caithness has not been part of the first two helpings of Public/Private Partnership (PPP) school building programmes but Dingwall Academy and many other schools are a good example of being built under this New Labour whizz-bang scheme.

You see, dear readers, the capital cost in 2006/07 prices for the new Dingwall Academy was £29.5 million. If the money was borrowed in the ordinary way it would be 2.5 per cent to four per cent cheaper than the system chosen for hospitals, schools and some water infrastructure by Jack McConnell and Peter Peacock and their cabinet colleagues since 1999.

Over the 30 years' payback time, additional costs on top of the normal interest rates would be between £22.2 million and £35.5m. Don't take my word, that's the Audit Scotland calculations.

So the SNP is saying, we won't halt school building programmes, we will put all our cash requirements for such capital projects together and use a Scottish Fund for Future Investment to get the best rates in the market.

So Labour and the Lib Dems (the latter try to keep their heads down when PPP is discussed) have been lining the pockets of building firms with excess profits and delaying the chances of many other worthy school projects being started in the next 10 years. Thinking about the needs of many communities for refurbished schools, hospitals, etc., the SNP will do it far more economically and end the PPP rip-off. That's something your children could benefit from without them paying the excess costs when they in turn come to pay taxes.

Labour's desperate electoral tactics are no example for a former education minister to set any generation of youngsters. The sooner they are out of government, the better.


LONDON-thinking political parties are conjuring up a "Union dividend" for Scots. This was bizarrely manifested by Deputy Enterprise Minister Allan Wilson, who last week countered the SNP case in a debate. He says that Scotland benefits from having an £11 billion "black hole" because we get extra hand-outs from the London Treasury. As any housewife will tell you, having a care for the family budget is much more successful when you balance income and expenditure.

But until Scotland gains the power of independence to raise sensible taxes then we can't decide how much debt to get into. Those who attack the SNP fail to point out that the UK runs on an enormous debt bill. Smaller countries like Scotland with more resources could do much better.

A wee local example of this perverse UK government under which we labour (no pun intended): look at the charges demanded by Parcelforce. I'm indebted to my colleague Fergus Ewing for pursuing this point. The parcel-carrier imposes a separate regime of charges for the Highlands and Islands which it classifies as Zone 2, while England, Wales and other parts of Scotland are in Zone 1. These charges are, of course, considerably higher in Zone 2 than in Zone 1.

Meanwhile, Jim Fitzpatrick MP, Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Employment Relations and Postal Services at the Department of Trade and Industry (DTI) in London, has indicated that he approves of these extra charges. This shows that the UK Government acquiesces in the higher charges imposed for one area of the United Kingdom, so the SNP is calling on the Scottish Executive to make representations to Parcelforce and to the DTI to end this discriminatory treatment. Line up, line up for your Union divi...

I've been asking the Scottish Executive what information it has on whether the draft EU postal services directive will impact on the number of sub-post offices and post offices in Scotland, in particular those providing services in sparsely-populated areas and on the islands. I'd also like to know what information the Lib/Lab Executive has on whether and how Scotland will be represented on the regulatory authority provided for in the draft European postal service directive – and also what assessment it has made of the employment consequences.

These are due for answer before the Parliament is dissolved on April 2. But it will be a hot issue in the coming election season. Post offices are used more by older and poorer citizens, yet the scandal of government in London undermining our sub-post offices cannot be forgotten. Labour ministers have taken mail contracts with private delivery firms.

Royal Mail has to compete with its hands tied. No Scottish government with powers over postal services would try to disadvantage scattered, remoter areas and islands. Our geography doesn't change; these problems have to be accommodated.

Surely a principle of equal access to public services and utilities is not too much to ask for. That's what Norway, Ireland, Finland and other smaller countries do to make life in their country areas such high quality. Why not here too?