Friday, 22 June 2007

Rising tide of collaboration between Scotland and Norway

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.

Friday, 8 June 2007

Food for thought on our drinking culture

Published: 08 June, 2007
John O'Groat Journal and Caithness Courier

LAST Friday we celebrated the 60th anniversary of the repeal of prohibition in Wick with a charity ball at Pulteney Distillery just as the new Cabinet Secretary for Justice, Kenny MacAskill, who is in charge of alcohol licensing, was warning of imminent action against the promotion of "buy two, get one free" beer offers at cheaper prices than supermarkets sell individual bottles of water.

With all funds raised from the most enjoyable charity ball going to the RNLI, a picture came to my mind of Grace Darling's open boat struggling to reach a distressed ship on a boiling sea of booze. Seriously, the drunkenness involving fishermen and others led the women of the parish to seek prohibition after the First World War. These were the women who at the age of 30 gained the vote in 1918. They were much influenced by the squandering of men's lives in drink and the violence and poverty to families that resulted from that male pub culture.

On the other hand, a fund of stories grew around the ingenious ways of avoiding the ban on liquor. Total abstinence was embraced by some churches and individuals but eventually less strict times returned. The prohibition era in the USA is well known but that in Wick only a local memory. Nevertheless the issue is as alive today as it was then, even if the fishing has long since shrunk to a shadow along with the shoals that were once so plentiful. Today, pubs across the country sell 39 per cent of drink because it's from the supermarkets like Tesco in Wick that 80 per cent of wine, 75 per cent of spirits and 60 per cent of cider is sold as off-sales.

Before you think I'm angling to ban fun or curb people's freedom of enjoyment, let's stop to think about a little-reported Holyrood debate at the end of the last year. It stated: "That the Parliament notes with concern the serious rise in alcohol-related crime figures, released by Northern Constabulary, which show a year-on-year increase in drunkenness, drink-driving, serious assaults and alcohol-related deaths; notes in particular the increase in the number of people being arrested for drunkenness, including the charge of being drunk and incapable..." Former MSP Maureen Macmillan led it and other many Highland members such as Eleanor Scott, Jim Mather and David Petrie took part.

Issues they considered included our Northern European behaviour that emphasises the disruptive effects of drink while Mediterranean folk drink as much but don't behave the same. However, the combination of drinking while you eat is an important moderator of behaviour. Alas, the social habits of eating together around a table, as in Latin countries, are far too infrequently observed in Scotland. Also the consumption of fast food after the booze-up is much more the norm here.

So valuing food for its taste and the congenial company it can bring is part of the answer. Even people playing music in a social scene drink less than the listeners. All the calls for more sports facilities and midnight football and the like are part of a cry for a more balanced lifestyle. Yes, how we enjoy ourselves and what we do with our non-work time is a vital component of our culture, our overall health and how it leads some in the community to anti-social behaviour. If the black picture of police statistics doesn't improve, government action is very likely. I will argue strongly for more carrots than sticks, but it's up to families to change and not blame our young.

LINDA Fabiani, the new SNP Culture Minister, has publicly praised art for art's sake and promised to reduce political interference in publicly supported cultural matters. "There's a balance to be struck, because you cannot censor creativity or you are not really promoting the arts at all," she said in a major interview. This sounds well from the new Culture Minister. Hopefully some of the bright ideas in the SNP manifesto can be delivered fairly soon to offer artists and writers grants equivalent to social security payments to allow them space and time to be creative. I am mindful of the words of my fellow columnist George Gunn, who wrote in the Groat last week, as passionately as ever, that "the history of social success in a place like Caithness shows that it depends on active individuals. Individuals working together for a common purpose are the generators of culture. The arts are the pinnacle of cultural achievement."

That means the government and the council as well as the arts agencies have to ensure the facilities, the show and performance spaces, are available in each area. I believe that Orkney and Shetland residents were able to build better halls and venues due to the oil funds they negotiated from big business. Caithness should also seek such boosts from marine and other renewables for the community good. That's why I disagree with the former Energy Minister, Labour's Brian Wilson, who opined some months ago that there will be no more royalty deals like the oil funds from clean energy production. Promoting the arts on a tight budget, as devolved Scotland has to do under the Blair/Brown regime, will need ambition tempered with ingenuity to cash in on all our local assets.

TALKING of local assets, I've secured a member's debate next week on Scottish/Norwegian commercial co-operation. I do recall during the recent elections that one of my opponents, who wasn't local to the North, was rebuked by a member of the audience at the Thurso hustings for smirking when I mentioned Norway. The price of their beer was derided but the enviable lifestyles and incomes of our Norse neighbours can't be ignored.