Friday, 23 November 2007

Ormlie group can be proud of its energetic efforts

Photo: Rob Gibson MSP with Louise Smith of Ormlie Renewables at the Caithness Heritage Fair in Wick.

Published: 23 November, 2007
John O'Groat Journal and Caithness Courier

THERE'S been a positive change of public mood in recent months. All across Scotland you meet people at events who feel that the pace of Scottish life has gone up tempo.

It was just great to win the 2014 bid to host the Commonwealth Games, but we must ensure that athletics and sport in Caithness can benefit out of it. People are glad to support Scottish success and they believe lots of good will flow from it.

Locally, I much enjoyed the Caithness Heritage Fair in Wick on November 10. So much effort is put in by a wide variety of groups to spice up and enjoy the life of Caithness, of yesteryear and today. For instance, the huge interest in family history is shown by the depth of knowledge of members of the Caithness Family History Society, while Wick Youth Club has had great success in promoting the playing of rock music by a cohort of youngsters; they gain positive feelings from their achievements in the Music-Link-Media workshop.

Talking of achievements, Ormlie Community Association can be rightly proud of its award gained from Energy Action Scotland for the Caithness Energy Advice Project (Energy SOS – "Shout Out Savings!"). Louise Smith and her team are starting the practical work to engage every householder in the area on ways they can take part in climate-change mitigation and adaptation. Put simply: warmer, cosier homes that don't use excess electricity.

I also visited Dunbeath Heritage Centre on the same day. We had a fascinating discussion about the possibilities of rolling out a lot more information to schoolchildren and others about the linguistic mix of place-names in this area. In some cases, three different language roots are involved. Nan Bethune hopes to see a lot more engagement by schools in understanding how Caithness has been a cultural crossroads for many centuries. Indeed, Neil M. Gunn shows that interface in many of his stories and novels. With the coming of the Royal National Mod to the county in 2010, it should trigger a far better local understanding of our complex roots.


THERE has been a widespread welcome from many parts of the country for the decision by the Scottish Qualifications Authority to make questions on Scottish history an essential part of the Higher history exam from school year 2010/11. The exam will contain a mandatory Scottish section, so I would join in the congratulations to those teachers, academics and politicians who campaigned successfully for this decision and believe that, after years of Scottish history being overlooked in secondary schools, pupils at Higher level will finally have a chance to learn about and understand their own heritage and the part that it played in the creation of the modern world.

In the context of the Curriculum for Excellence, this should require the SQA to equip every teacher involved with materials that relate to the local involvement in national events and the national significance of events locally that have been overlooked at qualification levels. It's another example of a quango resolving to apply an aspect of the SNP election manifesto without the need for any law to be passed. I'm so glad they have, because under the Labour/Lib Dem regime of the past eight years there was even a suggestion that history wasn't a necessary discrete subject in secondary schools. We gain in confidence when we know of our own national and local story.

Rob Gibson MSP with Louise Smith of Ormlie Renewables at the Caithness Heritage Fair in Wick.


THE Government economic strategy was debated on Wednesday afternoon in Holyrood and the SNP won the day by accepting an amendment from the Tories in the name of Derek Brownlee which added, at the end of our motion, "and, recognising the importance of small businesses to the Scottish economy, calls on the Scottish Government, if additional resources become available, to prioritise the acceleration of the full implementation of the reductions in business rates for small businesses announced in the budget on 14 November 2007".

Surprisingly, this did not find favour with Labour and the Lib Dems. They ignore the realities of life in the Far North and across Scotland. Not only will the SNP's commitment to the small business bonus be delivered, as promised in our manifesto, it will have a major part to play in the new targets of increasing the wealth of every family by £10,000 in the next few years. Of course the tight budget settlement makes it difficult to deliver by April 2008, but it will be fully implemented by 2011. So let's praise John Swinney for his ability to stick to these sustainable growth measures.

However, there has been a huge orchestrated campaign by Labour and the Lib Dems to talk up broken promises. If the debate was about starting to improve the numbers of police on our streets, about reducing class sizes in P1 to P3 to 18 in the next four years, things would look differently. But I have to say that every extra teacher trained and deployed, every extra police constable in place, and every new dentist trained in the new Aberdeen dental school sounds like good common sense to me. Of course, though, opposition wants to see things happen instantly, even if this bunch in opposition had the last eight years to deliver.

And in that I hope the mood of optimism among people who will benefit from the council tax freeze and all the other SNP budget measures will agree that we can do so much better by having all the economic levers that normal nations have. Devolution can be made to work better, but there's no substitute for the logic of full powers.

Friday, 9 November 2007

Scaremongers' same old song

Published: 09 November, 2007
John O'Groat Journal and Caithness Courier

HOLYROOD in recent weeks has been peppered by repeated attempts of the opposition to claim the SNP Government has broken its manifesto promises – that is, five months into a four-year parliament the Labour, Tory and Lib Dem front benches are charging around to pour scorn on the sound start made by Alex Salmond's team.

They question our promises to reduce class sizes in P1 to P3 and get another 1000 police on the beat, and the rescue package for farmers and crofters following the Pirbright foot-and-mouth outbreak. Curiously there is little response to facts that show Scotland pays its way.

Unsurprisingly the scandal of Ofgem is its claim to be aiding renewable energy development in the face of the grid charges it placed on Scottish producers. It looks all the more ludicrous when government statistics shatter the myth that Scotland is subsidised by London and south-east English taxpayers, and we could pay our way even better with cheap access to the grid.

The SNP Government is already delivering for Scotland's children on our pledge to make Scotland smarter. We have begun to drive down class sizes in deprived areas, provided funding for 300 additional teachers, increased pre-school education and provided £40 million additional capital funding for school buildings.

This Government is doing what Labour failed to do: delivering on our commitments and taking positive steps to ensure children born under an SNP Government get the best possible start in life. Over the last eight years Labour and the Lib Dems failed to produce any strategy for Scotland's children to support them in their early years and failed to meet their own class-size pledges.

In 2003, Jack McConnell promised to cut class sizes in primary one to a maximum of 25 pupils. In 2006, 41 per cent of children in primary one – children born under a Labour Government – were still in classes of over 25. In 2007, Wendy Alexander says class sizes don't matter any more. It's time for Labour to make up its mind.

Labour won't be forgiven for its dereliction of duty and denials in the face of a national farming crisis. When foot-and-mouth compensation was delivered after the 2001 crisis, it was underwritten by Westminster. In 2007, the Treasury would not allow Defra, its London-based agriculture department, to pay up after the threat of an early election had passed.

At Holyrood, Lib Dems gave initial support for Labour's defence of Gordon Brown, Alistair Darling and Hilary Benn by voting for the Labour amendment which was defeated by the combined SNP, Tory and Green votes. Then the Lib Dems flip-flopped and backed the compensation package as offered in Scotland.

As was noted by Richard Lochhead, Cabinet Secretary for Rural Affairs and the Environment, most of the country knows that the Westminster Government is responsible and should pay up, like they did in 2001. Although our package amounts to more than three times the amount of cash that Labour had been due to commit before Brown bottled out of his election plans, the Scottish Government's £25 million emergency package is certainly not the end of the problem.

If Westminster wants to retain control over issues like animal welfare then it needs to take responsibility for them.


ENTERPRISE Minister Jim Mather on the floor of the Parliament stated that the Scottish Government would seek to emulate and exceed the powers of Canadian provinces which have responsibility for the revenues accruing from oil reserves on their territory.

On a visit to Canada during the recess, Jim saw for himself the benefits that a Canadian province such as Alberta can gain from husbanding its own oil reserves whereas in Scotland we find our oil revenues flowing south into the London Exchequer. Chancellor Darling has already projected that the coming six years of North Sea revenues will be £55bn – a substantial increase over the £38bn from the previous six-year period.

In particular, Alberta's oil fund ensures lower personal and business taxes for Albertans. The responsibilities that the Canadian provinces hold are in sharp contrast to the power London Government has over our own resources. Now our Energy Minister in Scotland seeks to emulate the success of Alberta. Coming after Labour Minister Malcolm Wicks's comment that building up an oil fund like Norway was an attractive idea, this shows that the debate on a Scottish oil fund is going in the SNP's favour.


JUST when the true wealth to Scotland of our full tax contribution to the UK Treasury was revealed, Ofgem published a Sustainable Development Report which stated that it was making a substantial contribution to renewable energy targets. This is the same regulator that introduced a transmission charge regime and proposes zonal transmission charges that undermine the economic viability of renewable generation in the north and west of Scotland.

It is utterly ludicrous for them to claim these moves are positive for producing a sustainable energy system. We know Scotland has huge renewables potential – indeed it has been described as the Saudi Arabia of renewable energy – but much of this is being put at risk by the insane system that Ofgem insists on pursuing.

On top of that, a speech by Scotland Office Minister David Cairns accepted the economic viability of an independent Scotland. He's the man who came to Caithness for the Beyond Dounreay conference and insisted renewable energy investment was good for the Far North. It's not just the Tories in London and the London tabloid papers that run down Scotland.

Labour and the Lib Dems in Scotland have played the same scaremongering game for years, flying in the face of the facts about Scotland's ability to prosper as an independent country – such evidence would put Scotland as third wealthiest nation in the EU.

The opposition's unrelenting negativity is one of the key reasons why they lost the election in May, and I suspect it will take them some time yet to sing a new song with any degree of conviction. We need that positive song, for this St Andrew's Day gives us cause for a small national celebration.