Published: 22 June, 2007
John O'Groat Journal and Caithness Courier
IN the new session I have been given many more committee responsibilities.
The ambitions of the new Scottish government will either be constructively analysed or else the changes many Scots want will be slowed down. So my appointment as deputy convener of Education, Lifelong Learning and Culture is a big job, but with a limited number of backbench MSPs available I will also sit on the Transport, Infrastructure and Climate Change Committee.
Both wide areas of policy have a strong bearing on life in Caithness, Sutherland and Easter Ross, as elsewhere, but being able to articulate our particular issues will be a most apt use for my skills and political experience.
I have already spoken in three parliamentary debates since the restart. The first was on the rural development programme for which Cabinet Secretary Richard Lochhead stemmed the tide of increased costs to farmers and crofters of the far from "voluntary" modulation.
This EU-inspired wheeze cuts farm subsidies by top-slicing support payments to spread cash for specific schemes of environmental improvements that create and maintain jobs in the countryside. The crunch in Scotland was not to increase expenses ahead of other parts of Britain.
The second debate concerned a greener Scotland. With cross-party agreement that climate change is the number one issue before us, there will be a variety of opinions as to what target we need to set for every citizen, every community and every business. Reducing CO2 emissions to achieve a low-carbon economy in a decade is crucial to the planet's future. That's why I discussed the work of GREAN, the Golspie-based recycling group which has set the pace in kerbside collection, community composting and reuse of discarded items that spurs the council to do the same.
Last Thursday I had the privilege of debating climate change and the prospects for tidal-power developments in the Pentland Firth through an international business collaboration. ScottishPower and Strom ASA, a subsidiary of Norway's national oil corporation Statoil, hope to build commercial tidal machinery in the firth within two years if their scaled-up design proves a success.
Also another Scottish Norwegian commercial pact should flow from the creation of a supergrid that can pipe electricity from Scotland's marine resource, Norway's and perhaps even Iceland's to serve an energy-hungry European mainland. Alex Salmond held talks in Norway with the authorities before the SNP government was elected. He is in a strong position to proceed.
The debate in the presence of the Norwegian consul general Oystein Hovdkinn struck a very positive mood among SNP MSPs and North Lib Dem members, with token Tory and Labour contributions. Anyone can read the official report online.
These first weeks of the new SNP government have seen fresh ideas emerge and, with no overall majority for the government, some nifty footwork by business managers. The Greens' debate on Trident created a historic precedent. The final motion amended by a Lib Dem phrase allowed a handful of Labour MSPs to join SNP, Greens and Lib Dems to thrash the Tories while most Labour members abstained. What a change from the previous session when any hint of rebellion against London Labour policy would not have been contemplated by Jack McConnell's troops.
CARE of the elderly is to be radically altered by the incoming independent/SNP administration of the Highland Council. The scrapping of proposals for a private tender to replace some homes has been widely welcomed.
Building more sheltered homes is part of the SNP commitment to find more affordable housing across the Highlands where pensioners and those on low pay are hit most by steeply rising house prices. If they are fit to stay in their own homes then care homes can cater for the less able where they live.
When I read the Social Work Inspection Agency report on Highland social work services for children and the elderly it jumps off the page that social work leaders need to set an example of close co-operation with NHS Highland staff both locally and at HQ level to plan comprehensive elderly care. This has to be tailored to the needs of small, scattered communities. It's an exciting challenge.
SAVE the Children reported in Living Below the Radar that up to 10 per cent of Scotland's one million children live in the worst poverty bracket. Though Scotland has the fourth-lowest severely poor children in the UK, with London worst, it beggars belief that joblessness and unclaimed rightful benefits lie at the heart of these statistics.
It's up to the Scottish government to see that every community which has hidden pockets of poverty gets help. For us in the North it is low pay, poor public transport and a shrinking population that add to child poverty figures. Absolute poverty in African terms is much worse but, in the 10th wealthiest small nation in Europe, Scotland needs to expand our population, to create sustainable new jobs and offer schooling and health care we can collectively afford.
Ironically, this week we are told dads in better-off families are spending more time helping bring up the family.
They are forgoing possible promotion in their jobs, they say. The focus should turn to offering routes out of poverty so that we can approach Scandinavian levels of social inclusion.
That would be exhibited by a narrowing gap between the lowest and highest paid.
Be warned – under Thatcher and Blair, Britain has gone the opposite way.
So Scotland's new government has to harness business to build compassion as well as enterprise if we are to eradicate child poverty.