Wednesday, 31 December 2008

It's time to move the focus of the economy northward

Published in the John O'Groat Journal and Caithness Courier

THE year 2009 has to be the year we take our natural and human resources far more seriously.

I've been a long-term champion of the Far North as an economic dynamo for our nation's future. In the committees of the Scottish Parliament that recognition is rising. That's my job and that of other MSPs but it requires a huge adjustment to many of their outlooks.

In the 1970s the emergence of the Aberdeen-based oil industry led to a major shift in Scottish economic thinking. The old heavy industries of west central Scotland were destroyed in the 1970s and '80s by merciless Thatcherite logic and when clapped-out businesses failed to modernise, so the eastward shift of population, jobs and ideas began in earnest. Aberdeen and Dundee United became the New Firm of Scottish football and the recent census information shows clearly that it's the eastern counties and seaboard that grows their towns and villages while Galloway, Ayrshire and the Clyde Valley decline. We can work for some population reversal in Caithness and north Sutherland as the next phase.

However, the fallout from world financial chaos has to be carefully understood. On the one hand Gordon Brown tries to avoid a terminal run on the pound sterling by urging shoppers to spend their last pennies in the sales; on the other hand wiser heads are saying you have to invest in new, more resilient, types of work than just financial services. The headline spats between Gordon Brown and Angela Merkel don't tell the whole story. On the one hand Brown claims to have saved the world by resorting to Keynesian-based government spending while the German chancellor is mindful of the disastrous decade of inflation and ruin in the 1920s that led to Hitler and the scars in the German psyche against over-borrowing.

In Scotland we have other options. Like the Germans, we still have manufacturing skills to build on. Albeit Germans earn 30 per cent plus of their annual income from making things, while in Britain it's about 14 per cent. Because of the oil industry, of the nuclear decommissioning in our midst and the push to tap the infinite power of waves, tides and winds, we have a different outlook.

That's why 2009 has to be a year for a united effort to get the transport, research and development and production of new clean power up a gear.

*

WHILE commentators laughed at the collapse of Iceland's banking-based economy, and the troubles that beset Ireland with a housing crash as spectacular as their housing boom, the jibes about "arc of insolvency" will not show Iceland and Ireland going under for ever.

Far bigger countries, such as the UK, are able to hide, more successfully for the moment, the dire straits we face due to Mr Brown's deregulation mania and his age of irresponsibility.

Near this year's end, the European Union in its Council of Ministers and Parliament agreed that Scotland's green power should be a key part of Europe's powerhouse. We can provide secure and accessible electricity fit for this climate-change age. My party, in Scottish Government for 18 months now, has been building these ideas and the international contacts to create a new age of climate responsibility and resilience.

Look out for more developments along with our European friends in 2009.

London Labour has so far rubbished Scottish energy links to Norway: witness Jim Murphy traducing the Norwegian foreign minister's words which were speedily rebutted by the Norwegian embassy in London. I predict New Labour will accept that reductions in greenhouse gases via Scots clean-power production must bring targets into reach as set for the UK in the European pitch to lead the world's aim of climate common sense.

*

'WHAT'S on your plate?" was the big question posed by the National Farmers' Union of Scotland.

Was your Christmas dinner locally sourced? Can we sustain week after week a majority of our food and drink coming from Scotland? I believe that producers and consumer deserve a real choice in the matter. That's what most supermarket chains have so far denied. When they fly Scottish saltires near their produce take a close look at the labels. If price is your main criteria then you are unlikely to source local produce. That's because farmers, growers, crofters and distributors find it hard to compete with cheap imported food that has far more questionable ingredients and farming practices than supermarkets let on. That's why high-quality Scots fare costs a little more.

This year I hope many more of us will learn that making our own food from basic ingredients can be fun for all the family. Jamie Oliver showed TV viewers how, while the Scottish Parliament vote agreed on the principle of free nutritious school meals for P1 to P3 pupils. It's also why support for more home-grown produce, such as that from Mey Selections, will be good both for economic recovery as well as individual health and wellbeing.

For our Christmas family meal we had Black Isle-reared turkey and potatoes accompanied by peas, red cabbage, kale, Jerusalem artichokes and parsnips from our garden as well as frozen greengages to make the base for our trifle. The bread was made by A-Bun-Dance in Invergordon, one of the new artisan bakeries setting up locally. The cheese board carried Caithness goat's cheese and blueberries, Orkney cheddar and Connage crowdie. Climate change doesn't yet mean making quality wine here so French Côte du Rhone was just dandy. Finally the Maritime Malt of Wick followed with the Fairtrade coffee and Culloden-made mince pies.

*

OUT of this column come some possible New Year resolutions. It's up to you, attentive readers, to make you choices. Let's all toast the prospects of our northern land as we seek the best for our families and our neighbours as we enter this New Year. A' the best to ane an' a'. Bliadhna Mhath Ur 2009!

Wednesday, 24 December 2008

Bickering into the recess

AS ever the winter solstice is a time for reflection.

The global financial contagion was predictable as the end of the 18-year trade cycle always ends rash speculation with a painful 'corrections'. Woolworths' staff, Lloyds TSB and HBOS employees are the obvious high street victims. However, Scotland's natural resources can create a new economy that is less in hawk to hair-brained money raising schemes and based on manufacture, growing and building resilience in local communities.

The parliamentary session bickered into the recess with the opposition determined to paint it black.
For example the forestry consultation launched by Environment Minister Mike Russell has been sorely misrepresented. Forestry workers, encouraged by their unions and opposition New Labour MSPs have cried fowl. Clearly they believe consultations which were a sham under Labour apply under SNP Government. We must plant more trees to soak up CO2, putting the huge national forest estate to work. Let's all have our say.

*

I WAS delighted to support the Evanton Community Company that seeks to buy the woods on the edge of the village for local uses. Their application, the 100th under land reform legislation, is a second slice of Evanton sought for community uses.

When I was in Kiltearn Community Council before 2003 we set out to buy the old garage site in the centre of the village which took several years from our first steps. Thanks to dogged hard work from local volunteers the site was secured earlier this year. Let's hope the woods can be secured more quickly. But from what I've seen the complex processes are bound in red tape, not tinsel.

Much of the political inheritance from the LibLab Executive is flawed laws that need post-legislative review. Not only does the community land purchase need attention also the landlord and tenant system in farming is not working as Angus McCall and the SFTA continue to show. Meanwhile clearing up the mess after ten years of prevarication and botched crofting reform, the SNP government is getting little thanks for offering solutions.

*

EVERY sector in Scottish life must play its part in the deep cuts we need in greenhouse gas emissions.

Our historic Scottish Climate Change Bill is also out to consultation and it will reach the committee I serve on next month. If the UK government took some early actions they could help us achieve 80 per cent cuts by 2050. I am slightly heartened by news that the energy regulator Ofgem said last week that it would do a U-turn and help SSE and other companies to speed the transmission of electricity generated from our on and offshore wind, wave and tidal power to markets in the south.

Another climate change contribution would be to make modern life viable in scattered Highlands and Islands communities. I have been conducting a widespread consultation on super broadband. However the low power of current broadband or its absence for many people has dominated the returns.

I will lobby BT, Ofcom and Jim Mather our Economy minister in the New Year.

Internationally, vehicle manufacturers demanding government bail-outs should be given binding conditions to double average miles to the gallon within three years.

Brown, Merkel and Obama can give the world the best Christmas present since internal combustion engines accelerated climate change. BMW, Vauxhall, Ford and the rest must sign up or else.

Simple technological changes can end greenhouse gas guzzling and save essential vehicle users a small fortune. Will the leaders of the G20 have the guts?

A merry Yule and a healthy, greener New Year to you all.

Bickering into the recesss

Published in the Ross-shire Journal

AS ever the winter solstice is a time for reflection.

The global financial contagion was predictable as the end of the 18-year trade cycle always ends rash speculation with a painful 'corrections'. Woolworths' staff, Lloyds TSB and HBOS employees are the obvious high street victims. However, Scotland's natural resources can create a new economy that is less in hawk to hair-brained money raising schemes and based on manufacture, growing and building resilience in local communities.

The parliamentary session bickered into the recess with the opposition determined to paint it black.

For example the forestry consultation launched by Environment Minister Mike Russell has been sorely misrepresented. Forestry workers, encouraged by their unions and opposition New Labour MSPs have cried fowl. Clearly they believe consultations which were a sham under Labour apply under SNP Government. We must plant more trees to soak up CO2, putting the huge national forest estate to work. Let's all have our say.

*

I WAS delighted to support the Evanton Community Company that seeks to buy the woods on the edge of the village for local uses. Their application, the 100th under land reform legislation, is a second slice of Evanton sought for community uses.

When I was in Kiltearn Community Council before 2003 we set out to buy the old garage site in the centre of the village which took several years from our first steps. Thanks to dogged hard work from local volunteers the site was secured earlier this year. Let's hope the woods can be secured more quickly. But from what I've seen the complex processes are bound in red tape, not tinsel.

Much of the political inheritance from the LibLab Executive is flawed laws that need post-legislative review. Not only does the community land purchase need attention also the landlord and tenant system in farming is not working as Angus McCall and the SFTA continue to show. Meanwhile clearing up the mess after ten years of prevarication and botched crofting reform, the SNP government is getting little thanks for offering solutions.

*

EVERY sector in Scottish life must play its part in the deep cuts we need in greenhouse gas emissions.

Our historic Scottish Climate Change Bill is also out to consultation and it will reach the committee I serve on next month. If the UK government took some early actions they could help us achieve 80 per cent cuts by 2050. I am slightly heartened by news that the energy regulator Ofgem said last week that it would do a U-turn and help SSE and other companies to speed the transmission of electricity generated from our on and offshore wind, wave and tidal power to markets in the south.

Another climate change contribution would be to make modern life viable in scattered Highlands and Islands communities. I have been conducting a widespread consultation on super broadband. However the low power of current broadband or its absence for many people has dominated the returns.

I will lobby BT, Ofcom and Jim Mather our Economy minister in the New Year.

Internationally, vehicle manufacturers demanding government bail-outs should be given binding conditions to double average miles to the gallon within three years.

Brown, Merkel and Obama can give the world the best Christmas present since internal combustion engines accelerated climate change. BMW, Vauxhall, Ford and the rest must sign up or else.

Simple technological changes can end greenhouse gas guzzling and save essential vehicle users a small fortune. Will the leaders of the G20 have the guts?

A merry Yule and a healthy, greener New Year to you all.

Tuesday, 23 December 2008

Out and About


The Evanton woods, which are the subject of the community buy out, are at the horizon behind the village.

Friday, 19 December 2008

Traditional music to ease pain

Published in the John O'Groat Journal
19 December, 2008

THIS 2008 season of goodwill, gifts and presents, of reflection and resolve for a new year ahead, is deeply affected by the downside of debt, belt-tightening and battered self-esteem.

When ordinary citizens feel the pain, so do their elected politicians.

If we look for a better future we hope to lift the spirits and the prospects to learn how not to repeat another era of boom and bust.

First of all some bright spots: the Sixth Hands Up For Trad Awards were celebrated in the Old Fruit Market, Glasgow, over the first weekend in December.

Although not prizewinners in the friendly rivalry of the contemporary traditional music world, Caithness was prominently represented by Gordon Gunn who plays a mean fiddle in Session A9.

Also Wick's own top pianist James Ross, a contender for composer of the year, received a burst of well deserved screams of approval from younger female members of the audience.

Across the Pentland Firth, Orkney took the northern plume with awards for folk band of the year, The Chair; instrumentalist of the year, Kris Drever; and up-and-coming act, Jeana Leslie and Siobhan Miller.

The Hamish Henderson award for services to traditional music was won by Robin Morton, who is well-known across the land.

He used to play with the original line-up in Boys of the Lough who visited the Far North over the years, as did his main protégés Battlefield Band whom he recorded on his Temple record label.

Robin summed up his remarks by congratulating the gathered company who, he asserted, over the past 40 years have "invented" Scotland.

*

MEMORABLY BBC Alba was first to broadcast Na Trads, as they called the Trad Awards, after several years of campaigning by organiser Simon Thoumire.

I gained two past member's debates in the parliament to help gain cross-party support. And next year's televised awards will come from Dumfries.

It is worth noting that BBC Alba serves a far wider audience than the Gaelic community as such.

Its sports coverage digs beneath the big football leagues but also picks champions such as Craig Brown, the former Scotland football manager, to spearhead a campaign to stop a UK team participating in the London Olympics 2012.

All of us can benefit from a new channel and a bit of Scottish competition on the airwaves.

Now we have to add to my campaign to get full strength broadband coverage in the Far North by getting BBC Alba on Freeview asap.

I raised the latter with the BBC at their well-timed parliamentary reception for MSPs this week.

*

IN the week Scotland's Government lodged the most ambitious Climate Change Bill on the planet readers deserve to know why Gordon Brown declared at the Council of Ministers in Brussels that the European Union "remains the leader" on climate change policy.

We need to discuss what its details mean for Scotland. The Scottish daily press has been very unhelpful.

This EU deal between heads of governments of the 27 members included the UK agreeing that Germany, Poland and others could leave aside tougher emission trading costs due to the recession.

Potentially it allows the polluters to cash in on their dirty profits from cement and steel plants under the threat they could pull these out of the EU and pollute more freely elsewhere.

That's why, this week, we look to the European Parliament to keep the 20-20-20 climate deal on course.

Rob Gibson listens in parliament to points raised by the pupils from the Highland Children's Forum.

They have co-decision, Scotland needs their vision and resolve.

Meanwhile, of particular interest to those of us in the Far North, we also look to the UK to boost the development of Scotland's green renewable energy riches.

Brown's Government must remove the Ofgem obstacle, i.e. the artificial competition penalties on energy production in Scotland and northern England.

Brown could speed up the results of the competition for a carbon capture and storage pilot.

We in Scotland look to Scottish Power's Longannet plant to win the chance to utilise the sympathetic geology of the northern North to pump carbon into old oil wells from their major coal power station.

At European level, the EU plans to tackle climate change look to Scotland's huge renewable potential to reach continental markets via an undersea super grid.

The UK must back this to the hilt as London stands to gain hugely from Scotland's green energy production when the UK's share of carbon-cutting targets is measured.

I would expect that citizens could be told how big an issue this is.

Indeed it is a key issue for Scotland's economic recovery and sustainability in far more detail.

I'll do my part to look at these issues in my reports in the Groat.

*

EARLIER in the week I had the privilege of being grilled by P7 pupils at Mount Pleasant Primary School in Thurso.

They were tenacious and involved in the details of what free school meals could mean for their younger schoolmates and how they saw the food on offer from Highland school meals service.

Once my long list of queries is compiled I'll come back to this as the Scottish Government received Parliamentary approval to go ahead and offer free school meals across the board to P1-P3 pupils.

My next port of call was Pulteneytown Academy to offer my congratulations to Liam Sutherland and his classmates in P7 who helped produce a winning poster in the Scots Language competition run by Itchy Coo Books.

I hope they enjoy the copy of Winnie the Pooh translated into Scots by James Robertson.

As I left the classroom Liam and his pals were poring over the map of the area in the story. Well done class!

Another heartening event was the gathering of 15 Highland school pupils under the wing of the Highland Children's Forum who came to the parliament a week ago.


They have had their views included in a Council-led study called "Are We There Yet? – A Way To Go" to find out just how safe, nurtured, healthy, achieving, active, respected, responsible and included they feel.

They fired questions at a range of Highland MSPs and we all enjoyed the direct questions and growing confidence of these typical Highland secondary school pupils.

I wish them a great Christmas, and a Merry Yule to all of the John O'Groat Journal readers into the bargain.

rob.gibson.msp@scottish.parliament.uk

Wednesday, 17 December 2008

Books of the Year

My selection for BOOKS OF THE YEAR 2008
As printed in the West Highland Free Press on 12th December

I finally read 'The Shock Doctrine' by Naomi Klein [Allen Lane]. A visit to the oil province of Ugra in Siberia in July and the credit crunch this autumn made this a book to remember. Subtitled 'the Rise of Disaster Capitalism', it reveals the seeds of making money from money that leads from oligarchs to the remnants of HBOS and RBS - an essential guide to rotten capitalism.

Early in the year I was riveted by Tim Neat's biography of Hamish Henderson - 'The Making of the Poet - 1919 to 1953. Seamus Mor influenced so many of us by his songs, wisdom and discourses on peace and freedom. Volume two is much anticipated as are detailed criticisms of Neat's generous findings.

Much debate about 'The Stone of Destiny' was fuelled by the republication of Ian Hamilton's account and the recent film of the heist. However Andrew Greig's 'Romanno Bridge' published by Quercus, plots a fictional battle for the true stone between a psychopathic hired killer and his characters from 'The Return of John MacNab' script for a screen thriller?

Rob Gibson MSP

Sunday, 14 December 2008

Letter to the Sunday Herald

Sir, Joanna Blythman falls into the trap of talking down a good pitch for Scotland, our self-esteem and economic potential all in one breath. [More famous men and battles … I’m well over it -SH 7.12.08] OK, escapism is her bag. Alas Scotland can't escape the poverty of investment in home grown TV or tourism and related promotions in our current constitutional condition.

I'm clear that visitors who come for golf, hill walking, distilleries or castles may also eat local, hear stirring contemporary traditional music and ponder the history they see before their eyes. So Homecoming Scotland can open eyes, but not Joanna's, it appears.

Last weekend I was delighted to attend the sixth Hands Up For Trad Awards, the first to be televised, thanks to BBC Alba. The vibrancy of the contemporary tradition was on display. So it riles me as a singer and enthusiast to read lines like Joanna's 'Homecoming, like A History Of Scotland, is cheesy and self-pleased with its TV advert fronted by celebs singing the mawkish Caledonia'.

Strangely enough Iain MacWhirter took a similar line to Homecoming in the Herald, the previous week, namely 'A rather dreary advert with the usual suspects droning Caledonia…'

Might I suggest to both that Dougie MacLean's induction in the Trad Hall of Fame has more validity than their down-the-nose pontificating. Strong sentiments about the place we call home goes with iconic symbols recognised round the globe. Please understand Joanna, folk like to sing and reminisce, and traditional music covers all aspects of life including home sickness.

For those struggling to feed their families or find a decent roof over their heads in various continents there is little time for sentiment. But Scotland's story has often denied our own people 'breid, barley bree and painted room' in the words of Hamish Henderson, or is that just droning on and mawkish too?

Rob Gibson SNP MSP
4 Grant St., Wick

Friday, 12 December 2008

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights

At a reception in the Scottish Parliament commemorating the 60th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

Tuesday, 9 December 2008

The Scottish Renewables Green Energy Awards 2008


Scottish Green Energy Awards 2008, Thursday 4th December, The Assembly Rooms, Edinburgh.

With 59 tables in two rooms and Npower renewables sponsorship this brought together the movers and shakers in a hugely developing industry. Scotland's place as Green Energy capital is an achievable target. I was at the Npower table just below the podium. Good contacts as they have just won approval for the run-of-river scheme on the River glass in my home village Evanton. The Black Rock Gorge which is downstream of the proposed plant is one of the wonders of the world. It appeared in a Harry Potter movie as an underwater scene! The steep sides narrow to a couple of metres from a fifty metre across section. Stunning.

The same cannot be said of the keynote speech at Green Energy Awards by leader of Scots New Labour MSPs Iain Gray. He had comprehensively rubbished the Saltire Prize earlier in the week. Alex Salmond has recognised the complexity of the task set. This is to generate a minimum of 100 gigawatt hours over a two year period. It opens bids for the award for June 2013. New Labour managed to elicit a headline in the P&J 'Renewable energy policy is in shreds, Salmond told'. So Gray rasped on at the Awards speech about himself doubling the prize money if he is FM in 2015. Realism is not Labour's strong suit. So the buzz at the awards was for the winners, not the loser Mr Gray.

http://www.greenenergyawards.co.uk/Default.aspx?DocumentID=c585cda9-a341-4de1-9e71-b8d9da675934

Hands Up for Trad Awards, folkie heaven, The Old Fruit Market, Glasgow Saturday 6th December. My table no 21 was set well in the centre of the hall with guests, Eleanor, Rita Hunter, Aileen McLeod, Drew Scott and his mum, Christina McKelvie MSP and Pete Wishart MP also Aileen Campbell MSP and her fiancé Fraser. You'll see us on the BBC iPlayer this week. My lime green shirt is very visible. At last in its sixth year it was televised by MG Alba. Well done. And a stunning array of music. We met lots of great folk and had the pleasure of a company Rita described as the 'extended family'.







S3M-03059 Rob Gibson (Highlands and Islands) (SNP): That the Parliament congratulates Hands Up For Trad for organising the sixth annual Scots Trad Music Awards, Comharrachadh Duaisean Dual-cheòl na h-Alba 2008, held in the Old Fruit Market in Glasgow on 6 December 2008; congratulates the award winners, runners up and performers on the night who show that Scottish traditional music from Shetland to the Borders is in excellent health, attracting new supporters for Scotland’s contemporary indigenous music and bringing it to wider public notice each year, which acts as a barometer of a confident and innovative musical culture and industry in today’s Scotland; further congratulates BBC Alba for being the first broadcasting station to televise this event and looks forward to future TV coverage every year, and keenly anticipates the seventh annual awards in Dumfries in November 2009, which will conclude the Scottish Homecoming 2009 celebrations.

Lodged on Monday 8 December 2008; current

RG

Monday, 8 December 2008

Trouble down the line

Published in The House Magazine
Policy focus Issue 1282 Monday 24th November 2008

Scotland has abundant renewable energy but is thwarted by transmission charges, says Rob Gibson

Scotland’s natural resources in renewable energy are amongst the most bountiful in Europe. They offer a tantalising economic prize to build and operate marine and onshore renewables that serve the home market and our European neighbours too.


Renewable energy development is driven by climate-change imperatives and underpinned by sound engineering developed here in Scotland. To succeed it requires rail, roads and harbour facilities to service energy hubs which adapt know-how from the oil and gas industry. It is also regenerating communities, some of which are forming clean power companies, in contrast to a mistaken metropolitan view that wrote them off as peripheral or redundant.

Renewable energy sources are, by their very nature, often distant from the markets that they need to serve, yet the transmission-charging regime set by the UK government actively works against the development of those resources. Prime examples are the huge tidal and wave potential of the Pentland Firth as well as deep sea offshore wind schemes at the Beatrice field in the Moray Firth, and huge offshore wind resources along the west coast.

While the Scottish government is doing all in its power to maximise Scotland’s vast renewable potential, the Labour UK government is holding Scotland back. Current transmission charging undermines the most efficient production by electricity generators in the North of Scotland by over £20 per kW to put energy on the grid, while generators in London would get a subsidy of £8 per kW.

The demise of cheap gas and the search for energy security must favour wind, waves and tides, free and inexhaustible, unlike uranium and hydrocarbons. So the additional charges amounting to £100m per annum for the 10,000MW generated in Scotland must be scrapped. Until the UK transmission charges are cut, Scotland will be hindered in its attempts to fulfil her renewable energy potential.

Other inhibitors include limited production capacity for wind turbines as manufacturers struggle to keep up with demand. A problem case is the threatened Vestas factory in Kintyre. The sizes of turbines and wind towers being demanded are far bigger than the facilities originally built there with public funds. Also refusals and delays in the planning process have forced both Scottish and UK law changes where a nine-month turnaround time is the aim. Grid strengthening via the Beauly to Denny power line is a long awaited key determination.

Complementary to overland transmission, first minister Alex Salmond has consistently sought the creation of a North Sea ‘super grid’ that could transmit clean power from as far north as Shetland to energy-hungry markets in northern Europe. He has welcomed the publication of the European Commission’s Strategic Energy Review which identifies a North Sea Offshore Grid as an infrastructure priority, saying: “Never before have we been so well placed to become the green energy capital of Europe. The Commission’s report designates the blueprint for a North Sea Offshore Grid as one of the six proposed infrastructure priorities. I am delighted that our clear strengths in renewable energy, and our massive renewables potential, have been recognised as contributing to European energy security.”

Meanwhile the SNP government budget has tripled funding for community and micro-generation compared to the previous Labour-Lib Dem Executive – which means £13.5m available each year over the next three years. Also budgeted are increased resources of £30.5m over three years promoting a range of sustainable development and climate-change initiatives, including a Climate Challenge Fund.

The SNP government has also published ambitious climate-change legislation to set mandatory long-term targets achieving an 80 per cent reduction in emissions by 2050; this requires emissions reductions of three per cent each year, which the UK government has now followed.

Renewables capacity in Scotland has grown by one fifth in the last year alone and can now power 60 per cent of Scotland’s homes. Scotland can be Europe’s green powerhouse even faster if it gains full fiscal powers like Norway. For now, in the mouth of recession, the £10m Saltire Prize for marine renewables is accelerating the pace. As Scots aspire to lead the renewables revolution, so greater prizes are eminently within our grasp.

MSP — not a lickspittle of lairds

Published in December's Am Bratach Magazine

Permit me to pen a line or two by way of support for Rob Gibson MSP.

Though living just beyond the Highland Line, I am of proud Highland extraction; and the County of Sutherland — where I holiday frequently — is aye dear to the heart of a true Gael.

And it is as a Gael that I can see what a fine man Rob Gibson is. I know he works tirelessly for his constituents — and with his deep knowledge of crofting and Highland culture, it is a mistake for Messrs Mackenzie and Forbes to take gratuitous pot-shots at him in the letters page of Am Bratach.

Instead Forbes and the Mackenzies (several of them!) would do well to haud their wheest and listen to Rob.

Unlike some, Rob’s loyalty is not in doubt. Unlike some, he is not a lickspittle of the lairds — instead he bravely stands up for a new future for crofting. Study what he has said on the Mound — it is all there to be read on the web!

Of course true Gaels might be forgiven for speculating that the fell hand of party politics might have guided certain pens. Rob Gibson is a Scottish Patriot. No more needs to be said!

Airson na h-Alba
LIAM MCCOURT BINNIE
6 Stevenson Street
Gargunnock
Stirling
FK8 3BS

Scotland's Housing Expo/Highland Housing Fair

At the Cross Party Group for Architecture held in CR5 on Thursday 2nd December we heard a presentation on an exciting new housing expo which will be a first in Scotland. My colleague Cllr Jean Urquhart and her team from Highland Council filled in the details of what is now called Scotland's Housing Expo, subtitles the Highland Housing Fair. It is planned for august 2010 on a site on the southern outskirts of Inverness. I gave a social and economic introduction.

The benefits of such a project to the Highlands and Scotland are legion. Namely, this is a first for Scotland and will put us on a par with our European counterparts - with the proven success of housing fairs particularly in Scandinavia.
It has the capacity to influence the nature of future housing in Highland, and across the nation, through it's ethos of high quality design and sustainability.

It recently changed the name to 'Scotland's Housing Expo' in recognition of its national importance, although the team still retain the strap line Highland Housing Fair as they are proud that it is in the Highlands. It is highly significant in the Highlands with it's diversity of housing needs.

The team is now looking to the Scottish Parliament to recognise the importance of the project and invite all MSP's to support Scotland's Housing Expo.

I complimented Highland Council for initiating the project, and the Royal Incorporation of Architects in Scotland (RIAS) who have backed it, and accredited the architectural competition.

More news soon.

Rob

Playing shots out of the economic rough

By Rob Gibson MSP
Published: 05 December, 2008


DESPITE the deepening gloom in the UK and world economies, many Scots bravely joined in the launch of the Year of Homecoming on St Andrew's Day.


In freezing weather people ventured forth to ceilidhs and torchlight processions in many towns.

This display for Scotland's national saint coincides with the BBC TV series A History of Scotland, in which Neil Oliver homes in on key figures and events in our national story.

It also signals the start of the Winter Festival running through to Burns Night on January 25. The TV ad with stars singing "Caledonia" warms the heart.

There is a shared history from Caithness to Coldstream, on the Scottish border. When I was researching the Wars of Independence some years back I noted that collectors from Edward Longshanks were demanding taxes at Wick harbour.

Every part of the land has its stories to tell. And we should still be proud to wave the saltire as a modern people who just as in the Middle Ages come from diverse origins. Then it was Picts, Scots, Vikings, Angles and Britons.

Today the mix contains folk from several continents, Italians and Poles, Bangladeshis, Indians and Kashmiris and Chinese, to name but a few, who now call Scotland home.

These are not normal times but I hope lots of folk of Scots ancestry and affinity will voyage here in the 250th anniversary year of the birth of Robert Burns.

I realise we have to be confident and play our shots out of the economic rough and some are looking very long shots.

Evidence of hazards isn't hard to see. Woolworths and MFI won't be the last high street names to be threatened in the recession. The husks of HBOS and the RBS are being merged and nationalised. A huge cutback in public services is planned by Chancellor Darling.

Efficiency savings of two per cent were part of the Scottish Government budget that could be reinvested in the services making them. Now a £500 million cut on top of that is only a first instalment to the fiscal pain we face to "rebalance" the UK economy.

It is a modicum of comfort for small businesses announced this week that overdraft facilities will be stabilised by the RBS. Home-owners in difficulty will be offered three extra months before action is taken by the RBS on failure to pay instalments. They and we want to know how to avoid ever again the burgeoning debt and house prices that pick out the Brown years as chancellor. They and we want to know how manufacturing, which has reached a low of 14 per cent of the UK's GDP, will be expanded in future, rather than bankers selling money to other bankers without producing a single lasting product.

That is why the Scottish Parliament debate this week on Mr Darling's pre-budget report is an important first instalment. As I've said in previous notes, regulating banks will only be a start.

As for the 45 per cent tax rate promised for those earning over £150,000, that is only a sop. Directing economic development efforts to our huge marine power potential will remain potential unless a stable development regime is created.

I heard in a seminar last week that Ofgem will have to account for sustainability in its charging regime. Not before time, many say.

I have been invited to the Green Energy Awards where I can sample opinion in the industry and I expect the Scottish Government's Saltire Prize to be widely welcomed. But when will London match that ambition?

As the First Minister wrote on St Andrew's Day: "Scotland is a country of vast potential, but is currently held back by its inability to take the crucial economic decisions needed in its own interests."

That's why the Calman Commission, set up by the Unionist parties, made such a feeble squeak in its interim report published last Tuesday.

It is clear that Gordon Brown's departments in London are under orders to give as little more power to the Scottish Parliament as possible. How will the Lib Dems and Tories view New Labour's dog-in-a-manger attitude? Surely the Scottish people are looking for devolution to progress not shrink. For Calman himself has said that his evidence shows devolution is working well. It could of course work far better. But does he even acknowledge the SNP Government position? Not if his political masters continue to censure his enquiry.

Instead the country needs control of all our own resources and the ability to borrow like any normal government. That would give us the chance to compete on a level playing field with the other countries currently able to use these tools to best suit them and see them through the global downturn. Unlike the UK, some small independent European nations such as Finland and Norway are projected to keep on growing, with marginal growth in the Euro area as a whole, while the UK plunges into the economic mire.

Supporting kinship carers is being threatened by the UK Government Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) when it updates rules regarding kinship carers of looked-after children. No kinship carer should lose out on the new allowances agreed in the historic concordat between Scotland's local authorities and the Scottish Government.

While some kinship carers are currently in receipt of state benefits, that may be clawed back by the DWP if the rules are not amended, rendering the kinship care allowance pointless for some families. Potentially this may result in Scotland's local authorities and the Scottish Government effectively subsidising the UK treasury.

The SNP believes that any claw-back would not only be an unacceptable way to treat our kinship carers but would also hamper the clear policy objectives of the democratically-elected Scottish Government and local authorities in Scotland.

I'd be very pleased to hear from anyone affected among your readers or their friends.

rob.gibson.msp@scottish.parliament.uk

Wednesday, 26 November 2008

Letter in Am Bratach Magazine

November Edition

Dear Ed.,

It would be tedious and a waste of space to refute the allegations of ignorance, ignoring voters and which universe I am alleged to live in. So I am delighted that Mike Russell's response to Shucksmith has repelled the burdens issue and reinforced the need for democratic local direction for crofting. Democratically elected area boards for example for the North of Scotland mainland should avoid any more loose talk of commissars or the ABC of Communism which bizarrely arose in certain individual comments in your columns.

Whilst the Scottish Crofting Foundation may not please every crofter, especially the most vocal amongst your readership, it gladly welcomed the Minister's presence and proposals at the Barra AGM. I look forward to scrutinising the proposed crofting legislation and urge interested parties to read the Government Response to Shucksmith delivered to Parliament on 1st October. It blew gales of common sense through a period of, sometimes deliberate, misunderstanding. These October gales blow away many cobwebs from crofting practices and augur an inclusive and sustainable future. I thoroughly endorse Mike Russell's common sense.

Yours,
Rob Gibson MSP
4 Grant St., Wick, Caithness

Saturday, 22 November 2008

Holyrood Diary

High speed railways here in Scotland, just like the TGV in France, still a dream I’m afraid? Thanks to gross underinvestment over past decades, the Scottish Government is bravely trying to turn round that story by constructing more miles of rail development per head of population in Scotland than they are doing in England and Wales.

To help this we have been allowed some more devolved powers over rail matters, hence my comments in this column. Looking at the rail and road needs of the Far North, we can’t let up the demands for a share of that investment. As you know I have been a regular campaigner on Far North transport, so I think an update on some issues bears comment.

Firstly I welcome the idea of seeking concessionary fares on our meandering railway to Inverness as well as on the buses. I asked the Cabinet Secretary John Swinney in the TICC committee a fortnight ago if concessionary fares could be extended from bus to rail - for if you use a train, you aren’t using a bus.

John Swinney replied “As the committee knows, the previous Administration established the concessionary travel scheme by amalgamating the schemes in different local authority areas. In some parts of the country, there was an entitlement to use rail services and in others there was none. The view was taken that the way in which to guarantee the comprehensive access that now exists for those who use the concessionary travel scheme was to use the bus network. The Government still holds that view. The scheme is extremely well utilised around the country and the Government welcomes that participation in the scheme.”

Bearing in mind the squeeze on the Scottish budget I then remarked, “Buses in the Far North take even longer than the train takes, and the train takes more than four hours between Inverness and Wick. Perhaps modernity ought to be extended to all parts of the country.”

On the buses, thankfully, Stagecoach are beginning to respond to complaints about the 25X service but the need for integrated and modern alternatives for travel are equally applicable in Caithness as Coatbridge. That’s why we need rail concessionary fares to boost the use of our railway. When you see the falling rail user numbers in recent years it beggars belief that certain people want no change in the route to take the Dornoch shortcut.

I believe that the benefits of the Strategic Transport Projects Review due in December may help to speed rail upgrades from Inverness south. But we need to see an acknowledgement that exciting Pentland Firth developments need rail and road investments to make them happen - concessionary fares for now, but real multi-million investment on high speed rail from Wick to Inverness must join the queue.

A NORTH SEA supergrid to export surplus renewable electricity from Scotland would benefit the whole of Europe. This was the message from the First Minister Alex Salmond who was speaking at the Scottish Government's publication of a milestone study for a North Sea Offshore which can make a big contribution to Europe and the world in moving to clean, green sources of energy.

This follows up his keynote speech at the Regeneration Conference in Thurso last September. He said,

"I have long argued that a North Sea offshore supergrid will encourage renewable generation and exports from Scotland, and also contribute to future energy security in Europe. We can export power from energy-rich northern Europe, to the energy-poorer areas.

"This pre-scoping study defines the potential for a full study to examine the technical, economic, social and financial feasibility of the development of an offshore transmission supergrid.

"It will allow us to explore the opportunities associated with the development of an offshore transmission network, and help make the case for commercial investment.

"We will continue to work with our North Sea neighbours and the EC with a view to formalising a partnership to make the exciting concept of a supergrid a reality.”

This work shines a beacon of light in a particularly dark November as the world-wide economic recession begins to bite. It was given a real boost when the European Commissioner confirmed the next day that a European super grid was essential to EU energy security. Alex Salmond responded,

"Never before have we been so well placed to become the green energy capital of Europe. The Commission's report designates the Blueprint for a North Sea Offshore Grid one of the six proposed infrastructure priorities.”

This gives the Far North a key role if we get a level playing field and real investment. We must not be fobbed off when we hear news from Gordon Brown’s government that their emphasis is on nuclear power stations built close to big English cites. Scotland’s European ambitions are very well founded.

POST OFFICE Card Account (POCA) contract have been saved for use in Post Offices, thank goodness. The decision had been subject to long delays since the summer, causing huge uncertainty for postmasters and their customers.

Caithness folk can be rightly proud of the part they have played in putting pressure on the London Government to allow Post Offices to continue providing this service. This decision has been long overdue and after the way in which the Post Office network has been treated in recent years by the Government this is at last some much needed relief.

There is still work to be done keeping pressure on the Government to promote vigorously the Card Account service to benefits customers and I will be encouraging those who most need the PO Accounts to sign up.

RG

rob.gibson.msp@scottish.parliament.uk

Friday, 21 November 2008

Aquaculture debate in the Scottish Parliament

Rob Gibson (Highlands and Islands) (SNP): As a member of the previous Environment and Rural Development committee, I was involved in consideration of the Aquaculture and Fisheries (Scotland) Bill in 2007, so this debate is like déjà vu all over again, as they say.

The renewed strategic framework for aquaculture is to be welcomed, because each Government must have a different name for the same thing as it develops. However, the industry is developing and, despite the times in which we live, we have been successful in maintaining jobs in fin fish and shellfish in some of our most remote areas. I will speak about the perpetuation of those jobs in a minute, but I want first to look at one or two of the themes in the consultation on the renewed strategic framework, especially the "planning, consents and sites" theme.

It would be useful if the minister could provide an update on the use of sites, because although fish farm sites can be good neighbours, some people see them as bad neighbours. When we debated these issues in March 2007, we found that 121 out of 252 salmon leases established by the Crown Estate had reported nil production in 2004. In 2005, the figure was 125; in 2006, it was 140. Sixty-seven leases reported nil production in the total period 2004 to 2006. There are good reasons, such as fallowing, for keeping certain sites empty, but often it is done for anti-competitive reasons—to stop smaller companies coming into the market. That must be examined. When we considered the Aquaculture and Fisheries (Scotland) Bill, we were concerned that the Crown Estate did not have an effective way of dealing with the matter.

I hope that changes to our planning processes will enable us to limit the time for which leases are held. If they are not used within five years, planning permission should be withdrawn; there should be a means of regulating that. I hope that the minister will be able to expand on the issue, because local communities are concerned about large companies such as Panfish, which have sites and have applied for more. Those include the site at South Corriegills in Arran, which has been the subject of a public inquiry. Why is the company applying to take up new sites, against the interests of local communities, when many of its sites are unused?

Michael Russell: The member raises an important issue, but it was not possible to address the matter in a comprehensive way until we knew where all the sites were. Incredibly, the work that has been done on sites over the past year has enabled us for the first time to map them and to compare them with designated sites in Scotland. That will allow informed decision making for the first time.

Rob Gibson: I welcome the publication of the map, which shows the progress that is being made in these matters; I referred to that earlier. However, it will also be necessary to tighten up regulations.

The "markets, marketing and image" theme is important. Reference has been made to the image of salmon farming, which is improving considerably. However, we know that the market conditions for shellfish are very difficult at present. Given the fantastic resource of clean waters that we have, it is a great pity for the people who produce shellfish to see prices going down. In this period—the run-up to Christmas—there is a lot of evidence of difficulty. Prices are slow. French and Spanish dealers who would normally have struck deals for lobsters and other shellfish by this stage have not done so—they say that the Christmas season has not yet arrived.

The credit crunch is affecting our European neighbours, as it is us. Orkney fishermen say that they are having difficulty selling cooked partans. We need to find the means to float companies in weeks 49, 50 and 51 of the year. If the price rises are not achieved then, many shellfish merchants will be in serious difficulty. We therefore hope for evidence of a change in the process for marketing shellfish. There is a period of low demand in January, and if people have to keep over their stocks until then, they will not make money out of them.

Perhaps this is the time to stimulate the home market. Perhaps we should not, with all due respect, be eating turkeys at Christmas, but lobsters or shellfish—as people do in countries such as Portugal. That might be a good thing, because there are large stocks of them needing sold. We hope that there will be help with marketing through the Scottish Agricultural Organisation Society, which claims to work with aquaculture and which should be given a chance to do more in that direction.

We have questions about the environment, which I am particularly interested in from the point of view of the proposed climate change bill. If, as RSPB Scotland suggests, the growing aquaculture industry is to be consistent with the Scottish Government's sustainable development strategy, we should perhaps ask the minister whether we could have some means of doing a carbon count of the effect of the aquaculture industry, as we do for other industries. Aquaculture is a good industry to choose for ascertaining whether or not it is environmentally sustainable. That fits well with how the forthcoming marine bill will take into account marine spatial planning and the best use of our extremely clean waters.

I hope that the debate focuses on some of the major factors that will help the aquaculture industry to develop. As we have heard, we now have a greater uptake of salmon. Perhaps that is because of the difficulties of getting other fresh stocks, which have been run down through overfishing in some parts of the world. More processed salmon is being eaten. Nevertheless, that is good for the Scottish industry at the top end.

I doubt that we have had enough global warming to develop the necessary climate for flying fish to reach this part of the world, as the Tories suggested, but who knows, they might be farmed in future. In the meantime, in the serious world, this is an excellent debate on an excellent industry that we must support.

Thursday, 20 November 2008

Social Enterprise in the Parliament



Here I'm at a social enterprise event on 18 November in the Parliament during Social Enterprise week in Scotland. The picture with GREAN explains the Golspie based social enterprise collects kerbside waste, recycles and produces excellent community compost for a community garden and employs 20 people, some of whom find it difficult to find local work. Fergus Morrison pictured with me was my local hero at the Parliamentary opening for the new session. The SNP's councillors back his excellent work in funding issues with Highland Council.

A visit to Longannet Power Station



Here I am at the Longannet Power Station. This coal fired station was producing a quarter of Scotland's electricity when we visited on a sunny November day. It has new scrubbers fitted to reduce green house gases. It will have to take a step change after 2015. I am pictured in the control room and the second pic is of one of the four installed turbines that was doing all the work that day.

Friday, 7 November 2008

National Health Service Dentists - Highlands & Islands

The Scottish Parliament
General Question Time
Thursday 6 November 2008

8. Rob Gibson (Highlands and Islands) (SNP): To ask the Scottish Government what action it is taking to ensure that all adults and children in Caithness and other parts of the Highlands and Islands are able to register with an NHS dentist. (S3O-4739)

The Deputy First Minister and Cabinet Secretary for Health and Wellbeing (Nicola Sturgeon): Responsibility for the overall provision of NHS general dental services rests with NHS boards.

NHS Highland has already expanded its salaried dental services and has a number of other projects planned to expand services further. New dental surgeries have been established in Wick, Fort William and Inverness, and there are plans to establish new premises in Portree, Grantown, Invergordon and Tain. Those developments will result in the creation of an additional 29 dental surgeries and the registration of a minimum additional 29,000 patients under NHS arrangements.

NHS Highland is raising awareness of the grants that are available under the Scottish dental access initiative, and it has been provisionally allocated £4.14 million from the primary and community care modernisation fund.

Rob Gibson: I thank the cabinet secretary for that detailed answer. At present, there is a shortfall of graduates who are able to take up posts. For example, in Orkney, around 2.4 full-time posts are required. The figure in Caithness would probably be double that. Will the cabinet secretary give us an idea of the flow of graduates who will be able to fill the posts in the new dental premises that we are about to build?

Nicola Sturgeon: Rob Gibson raises an important point. As we expand the opportunities and the incentives for dentists to do NHS dentistry, we must ensure that the flow of dentists through education and into those posts is as smooth as possible. That is one of the key reasons why the Government took the decision to open the Aberdeen dental school. It opened on 6 October, and I am pleased to say that it has now accepted its first intake of students. That will increase the number of students training in Scotland, so in time it will increase the number of graduates.

In the 2007-08 academic session, 492 students across Scotland applied for the dental bursary.

That will ensure a future stock of dentists for NHS dentistry.

S3M-02829 Rob Gibson (Highlands and Islands) (Scottish National Party): Scotland's Congratulations to Barack Obama

That the Parliament welcomes the historic election of Barack Hussein Obama as the 44th President of the United States of America; applauds his accomplishment in breaking down lingering racial barriers and becoming the first African American to be elected to the office; congratulates the American public for turning out in record numbers to vote in the 2008 elections, breaking voting turnout records for young people as well as new voters that had never before cast a ballot; welcomes the revitalised partnership that America can offer to Scotland and the rest of the world through this unprecedented and uplifting election, and further offers congratulations from the whole of Scotland to the incoming leader of America.

Supported by: Dr Bill Wilson, Bashir Ahmad, Stuart McMillan, Dr Alasdair Allan, Alex Neil, Joe FitzPatrick, Ken Macintosh, Shirley-Anne Somerville, Jackie Baillie, Keith Brown, Christina McKelvie, Jamie Hepburn

Lodged on Wednesday, November 05, 2008; Current

We should take a leaf from the Scandinavian bank book

By Rob Gibson MSP in the John O'Groat Journal and Caithness Courier
Published: 07 November, 2008



HBOS has a future, but as yet it has to await the decision of its shareholders and those of Lloyds TSB in a 75 per cent approval vote.

We debated the need to give room for another bid to offer an alternative.

The Scottish Parliament voted for such a move on Thursday, October 30.

I spoke of the need to learn from past mistakes and for a European-wide agreement for smart regulation.

Unbelievably Labour speakers claimed that bank boards were best placed to decide. But the virtual nationalisation of HBOS, Lloyds and RBS on top of Northern Rock means the public are major shareholders.

When Norway and Sweden tackled the results of banking deregulation in the 1980s they sacked bank boards, wrote down shares and only sold their national shares taken to refloat many banks after their slimmed-down portfolios were in profit. Gordon Brown learned only half the lesson from Scandinavia as did the Bush Government.

Yet in Highland towns an HBOS branch sits near to a Lloyds one. That stark example of potential job loss, of amalgamation and loss of competition, does not concern Lord Mandelson or his master.

Indeed the glee with which Labour welcomed the difficulties of Iceland's banks and their subsequent political stance to dismiss the right of Scots to decide a future for banking governance is London-knows-best 21st-century style.

In debate I was pleased to quote the remarks of Eamonn Gallagher, a former director general of the European Commission and former EU ambassador to the UN. Commenting in The Herald on October 24 he said: "It is extraordinary that in the midst of an international banking crisis – and even as his own country is slipping into recession – Gordon Brown chose to argue that somehow global banking problems mean that Scotland should dare not consider questions of good governance any further.

Is it not a rather curious assertion from the man who has held the reins of financial power in the UK for the past 11 years?

"The argument seems to be: 'Things have gotten really bad on my watch – best let me keep handling things'."

Some commentators suggest the UK will have the deepest recession of any of our European neighbours.

COMMITTEES in the Parliament are quizzing panels of spending agencies and the builders, engineers and financial experts of our nation. This is the budget scrutiny process that sets every subject committee to report to the Scottish Parliament Finance Committee.

I asked questions on rail transport plans, climate-proofing our energy-challenged housing, on the effects of the credit crunch, on marine renewables and related to that why the Lib Dem and Labour opposition persist in misrepresenting the cash available to HIE for their newly-focused role.

I am always struck by the strengthening communities function of HIE in contrast to the dismal approach of Scottish Enterprise that has no such social remit.

Any tour of lowland towns and villages will show where the Highlands and Islands score on the enterprise encouraged in every small place, not just the big towns.

Anyway the crux is this: if any changes are proposed by subject committees to government spending plans then a reduction of spend in another area has also to be identified and agreed. Then the finance committee has to bring the whole package to the chamber for all MSPs to vote.

Room for manoeuvre is very tight. That's because at present the Scottish Parliament receives the vast bulk of its spend from a block grant.

The London Treasury collects all the national taxes then allocates our Scottish spend.

Hopefully all parties agree that after 10 years of devolution we need to see ways to raise the taxes here in Scotland to make the politicians even more accountable.

*

CAITHNESS came to Carbisdale Castle last Saturday. My parliamentary assistant Gail MacDonald, who staffs our Grant Street office, tied the knot with her beau Stewart Ross amidst much ceilidh, kilts and country music celebration.

Group photo of staff from left to right: Anne-Flore Hervio, my Parliamentary intern from Britany; Haley St. Dennis, my Parliamentary Assistant; Grant Baskerville, my former Parliamentary Assistant now advisor to Aileen Campbell MSP and Alyn Smith MEP; the blushing bride herself; the boss; Niall MacDonald, my Press Officer.

Stewart and his Wick Academy team-mates gained a historic nil-nil draw against Edinburgh City in the second round of the Scottish Cup the previous Saturday and subsequently appeared with his friends on page 61 of the Scottish Sun in stag night gear dressed as world series wrestlers!

Alas he and several of the team members missed the replay in Wick where the 4-1 score line for the Edinburgh team told its own story.

Nevertheless, as they say, the match made by Stewart and Gail was more than compensation for the jarring halt to Wick Academy in their quest for cup glory this season.

*

BARACK OBAMA delivered the votes as promised. This week the USA starts to hold its head higher and tackle its huge problems inherited from the Bush presidency.

For those seeking change in the States, the opportunities for positive wealth redistribution and a kick start for the real economy have resonances around the globe.

I hope Scots, too, are inspired and hold our nerve for the changes being wrought for the better by our own democrats, the Alex Salmond-led SNP Government.

We all congratulate Obama, let's not turn the clock back – we need Scottish solutions to Scottish problems in partnership with our neighbours, not diktat from the London cynicism.

rob.gibson.msp@scottish.parliament.uk

Thursday, 6 November 2008

United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child

Debate in the Scottish Parliament
Thursday 6 November 2008


Rob Gibson (Highlands and Islands) (SNP): Scotland's Commissioner for Children and Young People, Kathleen Marshall, has served us well by giving us the opportunity to conclude that the way in which we apply the suggestions and necessities under the UNCRC requires to be prioritised. Those necessities are fundamental, but some are more fundamental than others and, as Elizabeth Smith said, it is important to think about which are the most important. We as a Parliament believe that many of them can be applied by Government and do not need to be left to individuals to carry out.

Robert Brown: Will the member sign up to the idea of an action plan to be carried forward by the Scottish Government, which various organisations and several members this afternoon have called for?

Rob Gibson: The best way to deal with the issue would be for an appropriate committee of the Parliament to consider the matter and to put a report before Parliament. If that report took the form of an action plan, it might meet all our interests.

Thanks to the incorporation of a children's rights unit in the lifelong learning directorate, progress in Scotland has been positive. However, the children's commissioner has said that we should not be complacent, because—even now, in 2008—many children in Scotland still live in poverty, experience difficulties in accessing essential health services and face a range of other barriers to securing their rights.

The impulse to try to improve children's conditions is centuries old. Karen Whitefield gave the example of the Children and Young Persons Act 1933. The impulse not to return to the poverty and misery of those years was a driver behind a family of UN declarations. With decolonisation came an important impetus to improve the situation throughout the world. However, we forget at our peril that there are still 250,000 children living in poverty in this country, 90,000 of whom are in dire poverty.

We must recognise that Scots have been at the forefront of the debate. Indeed, I shall quote a short poem by Sorley MacLean from the period around 1940, which has been translated into Scots by Douglas Young so that more people can understand it. Sorley MacLean said:

"My een are nae on Calvary
or the Bethlehem they praise,
but on shitten back-lands in Glesca toun
whaur growan life decays,
and a stairheid room in an Embro land,
a chalmer o puirtith and skaith,
whaur monie a shilpit bairnikie
gaes smoorit doun til daith."


The issue of growing life decaying is at the heart of the debate, and it is why the processes of children's rights throughout the globe have to be seriously addressed. If we are to have an action plan, and if we are to decide on priorities, what could come from the debate is the opportunity for the Parliament, in this four-year session, not only to try to deal with the actions that the Government has already taken but to guide some of its actions, for example by raising awareness of the declaration or by ensuring respect for the views of children.

I am a former teacher, and I do not think that our school system is fully geared up yet. There is a kind of dictatorship in which headteachers decide what happens, and the experience of how children's views are taken into account is mixed. Through the cabinet secretary's department, we could take measures to allow those views to be heard.

I was delighted to hear the examples from St Monans that the minister gave. Every school in the country should be adopting such principles. The boundaries of what people can do and what they cannot do have to be discussed.

George Foulkes said that the abolition of physical punishment in schools was important. I was part of the action group that helped to bring about abolition. However, the physical punishment was replaced by sarcasm—by talking children down. In Scotland, that is one of the means whereby far too many children are disadvantaged.

We have to end bullying and violence, as ChildLine suggests—through, for example, the teaching of human rights and peace and tolerance. However, we have to allow children to express their views in their own languages and dialects. If children speak Scots, we should encourage that, because it will build their self-esteem. Such rights for children should be given greater importance. Amnesty International has suggested that the curriculum for excellence is a good place in which to enshrine both the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. They should be part of the teaching in every school.

When I was a modern studies teacher, I was happy to try to deal with some of these issues in relation to Africa. South African democracy was developing at the time when I was teaching.

Lord Foulkes made a point that we should stamp on immediately. I wonder whether he has mentioned Monsanto in the register of members' interests. The latest argument among the multinational seed and pesticide makers is that genetically modified seeds can feed the world. If free seeds were given out, if we ensured that there was transport, and if we ensured that the monopolies of these companies did not send Indian farmers to their deaths through suicide because their crops had failed, we could do much more for families and children in many parts of the world. I suggest that Lord Foulkes withdraw his ridiculous remarks.

The most important things that children can learn about their rights can be learned at school. Children can learn to respect the rights of others, and that will happen as their understanding grows.

Of course,

"Aa thae roses an geans will turn tae blume",

as Hamish Henderson wrote in "The Freedom Come Aa Ye". However, he also wrote:

"And a black boy frae yont Nyanga
Dings the fell gallows o' the burghers doon"

That means that it is about people in every country having opportunities. While we pursue wars in Iraq, Afghanistan and the like, we are denying many children the opportunity to ding doon the fell gallows. The debate reminds us that there is so much further to go both in our own country and abroad.

16:03

Monday, 3 November 2008

Thursday's debate on HBoS

Rob Gibson (Highlands and Islands) (SNP): When Tavish Scott spoke to the motion, he talked about the backdrop of economic chaos in the world. We are talking about one of the worst-ever experiences at the end of a trade cycle, which has developed into a banking crisis of massive proportions.

I am old enough to have been involved in the battles when the TSB tried to stop the Lloyds takeover. I was also active in the SNP when we had to try to save the Royal Bank of Scotland from takeover by various other banks. Lessons can be learned from that process, and they will have to be learned quickly in Scotland, in Britain, in Europe and elsewhere.

In this debate, we can acknowledge the way in which deregulation of banking in the 1980s has led to many of the problems that companies now face. The companies all took the bait in pursuit of the kind of profits that seemed possible from the derivatives markets. Countries now have to sort that out. In the 1980s, Norway and Sweden sorted out their banks after deregulation, which showed what small countries can do when they have the powers.

I want to talk about the European situation. There has been a big silence from Gordon Brown and company, after years of lecturing Europe about deregulation. Internal market commissioner Charles McCreevy of the European Commission said:

"I would like to have by the end of this year concrete proposals as to how the risks from credit derivatives can be mitigated."

This Parliament, our Government and others have to feed into the European debate. Smart regulation will liberate us from the pitfalls of the past.

I was amazed by John Park's suggestion that everything is fine and dandy and that Gordon Brown and Alistair Darling are serving Scotland well. I have to disagree. In The Herald last week, Eamonn Gallagher wrote:

"It was extraordinary that in the midst of an international financial crisis—and even as his own country is slipping into recession—Gordon Brown chose to argue that somehow global banking problems mean that Scotland should dare not consider questions of good governance any further. Is this not a rather curious assertion from the man who has held the reins of financial power in the UK for the past 11 years? The argument seems to be: 'Things have gotten really bad on my watch—best to let me keep handling things.'"

The question now is whether this Parliament can state that there are ways of applying Government controls to enhance the ability of HBOS to survive as HBOS rather than as part of a merged company. What issues arise as a result of European competition rules? No one has discussed those yet.

The scenarios that my colleague Alex Neil laid out have to be considered seriously. We have to give HBOS the space to rebuild. We have to allow liquidity for it to rebuild the real economy in the place where the Bank of Scotland was based for so many centuries and we have to secure the jobs in the bank to support the real economy. The wider economy will benefit from clear-headed thinking. This debate is not just about the immediate prospect of a merger but about learning lessons on the way in which banking has to be regulated. There has to be a European framework for that, and Scotland will have to have a direct say in that framework.

Members should support the motion. It is the only proposal that allows us to consider the options and allows us not to accept the way in which Scotland has been downplayed. Mr Brown has said that he can deal with a recession, but he caused many of the conditions in this country that have led to the problems for HBOS and many others in the real economy. Members should support the motion and reject the amendment from the Tories.

Friday, 31 October 2008

Agreement and steps forward for Scotland's intangible cultural heritage

Excerpt from a supplementary question I asked Linda Fabiani, Minister for Europe, External Affairs and Culture:


Rob Gibson (Highlands and Islands) (SNP): Does the minister agree that, given that the school of Scottish studies at the University of Edinburgh collected many of our traditions in music and story before the folk revival, the scoping and mapping of intangible culture heritage must include the many festivals and storytelling events that have taken place since the folk revival? Will that material be collected and made accessible to people round the country?

Linda Fabiani: That is an interesting point, and I will ensure that it is passed on to Museums Galleries Scotland and Napier University. I have often stated in the chamber that the Government is committed to the traditional arts and to recognition of them. I want very much to take on board those aspects in my discussions about how we preserve and promote our traditional arts. I have arranged cross-party meetings in the Parliament of representatives with an interest in this area. What Rob Gibson has raised will inform part of the discussion, which I look forward to very much.

Thursday, 30 October 2008

Invergordon Nigg yard meeting

I was able to attend a brief meeting on the 13th of October in Invergodon where the future significance of the harbour facilities for oil rig services and the roadblock to using the Nigg yard for new uses were key topics. The Highland Council has to press the Compulsory Purchase Order to free the ransom stripp at Nigg as quickly as possible. RG




AWS Ocean Energy Conference

Myself and Dr. Aileen McLeod at the AWS Ocean Energy Conference after the SNP Conference fringe meeting in Perth. We arranged to visit the Alness-based marine renewable firm with Mr. Bibby pictured below.

Wednesday, 29 October 2008

Medals Plea for Convoy Heroes

Featured in the Ross-Shire Journal

Published: 17 October 2008

Image: The memorial gathering on the shores of Loch Ewe, by Colin Robertson

EASTER Ross-based MSP Rob Gibson has lodged a heartfelt appeal to the new Defence Secretary to honour veterans of the Arctic convoy with a medal.


His letter to John Hutton follows a speech made by the youngest survivor of the convoy, Jock Dempster, during a commemoration on the shores of Loch Ewe in which he expressed his sadness that the UK Government had decided not to mark their services with a medal.


Mr Gibson said, "Winston Churchill described their route as the 'worst journey in the world' with good reason. The convoy was of the utmost importance to the war effort. Those who took part not only had to contend with enemy fire but also vicious weather.


"The survivors deserve a medal which can be worn with pride on their chest. It is disappointing that all that has been given to them is a badge, which is no bigger than a five pence piece, and which can only be worn on the lapel. For me and the bulk of people that does not sum up the supreme efforts that those of the convoy made.

The memorial gathering on the shores of Loch Ewe. Colin Robertson


"The UK Government should take the lead from the Russian Government who has given a medal to all of the survivors of the convoy. Russia recognises the vital impact that the convoy made and the dangerous route it travelled, it is time that the UK does too."


Mr Gibson has also lodged a motion in the Scottish Parliament calling for a medal of recognition which follows:


S3M-02700 Rob Gibson (Highlands and Islands) (Scottish National Party): Award a UK Medal to Arctic Convoy Crews— That the Parliament backs calls for veterans of the World War II Arctic convoys to be given medals by the UK Government; recognises the supreme effort and sacrifice made by those who undertook what Winston Churchill described as "the worst journey in the world"; feels that the Arctic Star badge, which is no bigger than a five pence piece and is allowed to be worn only on the lapel, is not a sufficient award for the vastly important job that the crews of the convoys undertook, and calls on the powers that be in the United Kingdom to follow the lead of the Russian Government, which has awarded the National 40th Anniversary Commemorative Medal for the Patriotic War to all remaining survivors of these convoys.

Supported by: Kenneth Gibson, Shirley-Anne Somerville, Stuart McMillan, Keith Brown, Bob Doris, John Scott, Dr Bill Wilson, Dr Alasdair Allan, Bill Kidd, Brian Adam, Jamie Hepburn, Christina McKelvie, Michael Matheson, Robin Harper, Dave Thompson, Mike Pringle, Gil Paterson

Lodged on Friday, October 10, 2008; Current

Hosting a Parliamentary Event for Highland Hospice

Last night (28/10/08) I was pleased to host an event by Highland Hospice aimed at developing the field and raising awareness of the huge community support the organisation commands. Audit Scotland recently gave impressive reviews of the service and the development of the programme was supported last night by the Minster for Public Health Shona Robison.

Pictured below is me with Maria McGill, Chief Executive of Highland Hospice:

Tradition Arts first and foremost at the SNP Conference

I was grateful for the opportunity to be the principal speaker backing the first motion at the SNP's Conference in Perth on Thursday (16 October) which called for the consideration of a national company or agency for the traditional arts.

The Motion, which focuses on the traditional arts, was submitted by the Cromarty Firth Branch of which I serve as the convener.

The motion advocates that the Cultural Policy of the Scottish Government should guarantee fair treatment for Scotland's unique cultural inheritance. It regrets the decision of Scottish Arts Council to withdraw flexible funding from organistions which are key to promoting linguistic, musical and theatrical heritage. In order to address the problems that the withdrawal of funding has caused, the motion calls on Scottish Government and practitioners of Scottish traditional arts and culture to work together to support this important facet of Scotland's make up. It also welcomes the Scottish Government's audit on the Scots language.

The living and tradional arts in Scotland are part of the country's DNA. The music and language helps define us at home and to the rest of the world. It is important that those who keep them going receive the highest backing from our Government and the agencies which look after the culture in our country.

This is what the motion sets out. There needs to be an investigation into how best to support, preserve and progress the culture. The Removal by the Scottish Arts Council of flexible funding hit many traditional arts bodies hard. The previous Lib/Lab administration allowed traditional Arts to be chipped away. It is critical therefore that the Scottish Government and SAC work together with the people of Scotland to reverse this trend so that trad arts, and therefore the country, don't loose out in the long run.

One way to enshrine the living tradition is to create a new body which will deal specifically with the Traditional Arts. The trad arts needs to be seen in isolation and treated as such. In my opinion it is too important a part of Scotland not be given special attention. The Culture Minister and the rest of the Government are committed to trad arts with me. The audit of Scots will tell you that. But there needs to be more time and attention devoted to it to make sure that it lives on.

This motion can be that catalyst for that I was honoured to present it and speak in favour of it and that it was chosen as the motion to open the 2008 conference.

A copy of the motion follows:


1 TRADITIONAL ARTS

Conference considers that the Scottish Government cultural policy, funding and support arrangements should guarantee fair treatment for Scotland’s unique cultural inheritance.

Conference regrets Scottish Arts Council decisions in 2008 to withdraw flexible funding from key organisations that have successfully promoted Scotland’s linguistic, musical and theatrical heritage.

To address problems that have resulted from these decisions, Conference encourages supporters and practitioners of Scotland’s traditional arts and culture and the Scottish Government to work together to investigate options for future support for this important facet of national life.

Conference considers that such investigations should include, but not be limited to: investigations into the benefits of direct funding of key organisations; the use of challenge funds; introducing statutory responsibilities for, or issuing guidance to local government; and the endowment of a national company or agency.

In particular, Conference welcomes the initiative taken by the Scottish Government to undertake an audit of Scots language provision, a key area very badly affected by SAC decisions and looks forward to the emergence of proposals that will secure the future of the language.

SNP Conference



Topical Resolution 5 - Climate Change:

"This Conference backs the tough action proposed by Scottish, UK and European Governments that sets an example to the rest of the world in tackling climate change.

Conference demands that the European Commission resists any and all pressures placed upon it to compromise the EU Carbon Trading Scheme [ETS], a policy that is absolutely vital if we are successfully to tackle climate change. In particular the EU institutions must stand firm in the face of pressure from industries faced with meeting the compliance costs of this policy and who wish to weaken prospective EU legislation in this crucial area.

Conference calls on our SNP Government and parliamentarians to campaign for an increased pace in the development of renewable energy delivery which is needed to make early progress towards a target of 80% reduction in [all six greenhouse gases*] CO2 by 2050 and introduce energy efficiency measures to climate proof Scottish homes whilst opposing the dilution of climate change plans that must be agreed in full by the European Union to maintain a world lead in tackling global warming."

CROMARTY FIRTH BRANCH

*A wording-change suggested by Rob Gibson

Opening a sale at Seaforth House Care Home

A Sale of Work at Seaforth House Care Home recently raised an excellent £1,447.12. I had the pleasure of opening the event. Pictured here with me is care home manager Roddy MacSween.

Monday, 27 October 2008

Update on the digital switch over

During the party conference I made a point to stop by the Digital UK exhibition stand. Accompanying the coming digital switchover are some concerns concerns, such as the implications for BBC Alba, as well as opportunities. I wanted to voice those concerns to a representative of Digital UK - the company working with the Scottish Government and local authorities through to community councils and local voluntary organisations to make sure the switchover message reaches every household.


Photo: Rob with Digital UK's robot mascot Digit Al.






Friday, 24 October 2008

Young and old alike get the bug

John O'Groat Journal
By Rob Gibson MSP
Published: 24 October, 2008


IN recess weeks, regional and party activity never ceases.


During these "tattie holidays" I have been at engagements in the Far North as well as in Falkirk, Fife and the Fair City of Perth thus far. With all eyes focused on the world financial turmoil, our SNP conference in Perth last week had to address these big issues. And it did so successfully. As if our round of speeches, fringe meetings and socialising were not enough, many activists, including myself, took the bus to Glenrothes to put in a couple of hours' campaigning in the important by-election due on November 6.

A bit of history was played out on that trip. It concerns the man who led the student raiders on Westminster Abbey at Christmas 1950. Ian Hamilton drove the Stone of Destiny back to Scotland from London nearly sixty years ago. Last Thursday, now an octogenarian, he drove four of us from the campaign HQ in Markinch a couple of miles to Coaltown of Balgonie for our canvassing stint. Then he returned to his task of stuffing envelopes.

Yes, there's a Caithness link – he bought his current car in Halkirk and had much pleasure in describing his journey there to make the purchase. Ian appears in a cameo role in the new film about his exploits called Stone of Destiny which is now on general release.

Make no mistake, young and old alike get the bug for Scottish freedom. This was underlined by Professor James Mitchell, of Strathclyde University, who gave the annual Donaldson Lecture at the SNP conference. His research shows that the SNP attracts far more young people into politics than all other parties put together. That was evident at various events from the Young Scottish Nationalist Karaoke to the Conference Review and Ceilidh as well as the conference debates.

We even attracted a cross-party performance from the House of Commons rock band MP4. (Get it?) Our own Pete Wishart MP, the former Runrig keyboard player, has two Labour MPs on lead guitar, bass guitar and vocals and a Tory on drums. The dance floor filled up with all ages. Maybe in another world it could have been Tony Blair on lead guitar.

*

SERIOUS politics in the conference hall was dominated by constructing a Scottish response to banking woes and the sudden end to an all-party truce over the crisis. It had been all too tempting for Gordon Brown to display the gut unionist argument against small nations. Iceland's bank troubles provided the pitch and he tried to score a winning goal against the SNP.

Not only does London Labour continue to rubbish Scotland's ability, were we independent at this time, to manage such a financial crisis, they have taken to besmirching the record of our neighbours Ireland, Iceland and Norway as well.

This is the same Gordon Brown who has lectured other European leaders for the past decade on the need for deregulation. Now his tune has had to change. As my colleague Dr Aileen McLeod highlighted in the Europe debate, a European-wide financial regulatory agreement is much needed. We have to learn from Norway and Sweden, who sorted out their own banking crises a decade ago. How did they do it, and how can Scotland escape from the jaws of the City of London, the most unregulated financial centre of all? The Prime Minister coined the phrase "stronger together, weaker apart". As with many issues, such as agriculture, green energy and environmental concerns, Scots have more friends in France, Ireland, Austria and Denmark than does London Labour. So the European elections next June are a straight choice between co-operation with our neighbours to create a confederal Europe of free partners or continued thralldom to boom-and-bust thanks to bankrupt London.

*

FUEL, food and heating costs are hitting most families. Wherever you live, be it Glenrothes or Caithness, we await Chancellor Darling's undoubted demand for higher taxes to pay for unprecedented Government borrowing. Mr Brown says we need to spend our way out of this crisis. But the cost will hit high streets after the failures in Threadneedle Street where the Bank of England has its HQ.

That's why I seconded the topical resolution at the SNP conference on climate change. It argued that we must press ahead with marine renewables to create jobs and clean power; also home insulation will reduce heating costs and can employ construction workers who are caught in the house-building slump. Meanwhile in Europe, the Emissions Trading Scheme (ETS), the continent's main means to curb the greenhouse-gas emissions of big industry, must not be watered down due to fears that big firms will take jobs elsewhere in this recession to avoid compulsory carbon-emission costs essential to the ETS.

The Scottish Government can use its limited powers to kick-start building affordable homes, helping create a shared equity scheme for first-time buyers – but we also look to Ed Miliband, London's Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change, to fight for a full ETS in Europe. Interconnectedness is inescapable but a seat at the top table is essential for Scots to have our say in such vital matters.

FALKIRK welcomed the Royal National Mod, the annual Gaelic festival, with open arms last week. Meanwhile, the last-ditch bid by Caithness councillors to stop the entry of Gaelic road signs to the county sends mixed messages for Mod 2010. A genuine Caithness welcome would underscore the regenerative powers of culture and languages that accompany the surge of interest in tidal power potential. Well done, Dounreay, for backing the Mod – let's hope our councillors do too.

-Rob Gibson MSP