Thursday, 29 May 2008

Diary in the Ross-shire Journal

29 May 2008

The Crewe and Nantwich Bye Election delivered a timely blow to New Labour south of the Border. One paper put it down to the three Fs…finance, fuel and food. Readers of the Ross-shire Journal know how our pay packets strain to pay for fuel at the pumps, the weekly shopping and the VAT you pay on top of the petroleum taxes for your car or public transport.

The SNP at Holyrood and in London and Brussels care deeply. That’s why the Scottish Government has published new figures which show that the UK Treasury would now get at least £4 billion in extra revenues from oil and gas this year, given the rise in oil price since the Budget.

In Budget 2008, HM Treasury forecast that North Sea revenues would contribute £9.9 billion to the UK Exchequer in 2008/09. These figures were based on an oil price of $83.8 per barrel. The current oil price is over $130 per barrel for North Sea Brent crude. Based on average oil and gas prices in 2008/09 to date, the Scottish Government estimate that North Sea revenue are set to be over £4 billion higher than the Treasury forecast.

Since the start of April 2008, Brent Crude has averaged $114/barrel whilst Natural Gas has averaged 60p/therm. If prices remained at this level for the whole of 2008/09 this is estimated to yield an additional £4.3 billion in revenue for the UK Exchequer compared to the forecasts made at Budget 2008.

The forecast £14 billion - £15 billion in oil revenues this year comes on top of revenues between 1976/77 and 2007/08 of £249 billion in real terms. Thanks to a report by Grant Thornton last week we know that at current oil prices Scotland would have a budget surplus of between £4.4 billion and £6.2 billion.

That’s why the Scottish Government and Parliament must have access to revenues from North Sea oil and gas, including the £4 billion windfall, to enable the Scottish Government to provide much needed relief from high fuel prices for motorists, especially in rural Scotland, hauliers and industries including the fishing and farming sectors.

The SNP has urged the UK government to introduce a road fuel regulator that would use windfall VAT revenues on petrol and diesel to moderate price increases at the pump. This call has been rejected by the UK government, and their failure adds weight to the argument that the Scottish Government should now be given the ability to act in the interests of the people of Scotland.


I have been speaking in Holyrood on issues vital to Ross-shire this week. Firstly on climate change, which plays its part in making food prices dearer and in many parts of the world unusually severe drought is already killing millions while we’ve welcomed a few dry weeks in the Highland. We must consciously use less of the world’s scarce resources. Don’t waste so much food, use the car for more essential journeys, don’t forget that moderating our behaviour now will cost less later.

Secondly, the Common Agriculture Policy has supported farming and crofting here for decades. By 2013 it could be ended. So the future of beef and sheep production which has such fine traditions here needs continued support in this Less Favoured Area. We have to demand Scottish meat in the supermarkets. Labelling Scottish meat is improving, but how many of us go for the cheapest without a thought for home producers and food security? Serious thoughts, but we are elected by you to deal with the big issues.


Orkney Folk Festival

Orkney Folk Festival in its 26th year also came under new management. I can report that the sun split the Stromness sky. Outdoor sessions were a pleasure. Concerts high value. At a time when some traditional arts organisations are in a funding crisis they could well look to OFF. A glance at the the list of corporate patrons and sponsors shows the local support for this popular event. Orkney's various festivals include blues, jazz and St Magnus classical music. However the folk festival penetrates further than the others with venues on Rousay, Hoy and South Ronaldsay as well as Harray, Orphir, Kirkwall and seven venues in Stromness.

My visit coincided with that of our Culture Minister Linda Fabiani. She judged the open stage, always a danger for elected members. But she has had practice at Celtic Connections in January. My stand outs acts were all those I heard. Some are new to me such as Crooked Still and Martin Simpson, others familiar but exciting such as Annie Grace, Karine Polwart and Corrina Hewat. Also Duncan Chisholm and Ivan Drever were sublime and Dochas tight as ever with Julie Fowlis and Jenna Reid seemingly irrepressible forces. A special word is due for the Song Shop Choir, an Orkney women's harmony ensemble led by Aimie Leonard. In islands far famed for their fiddling prowess the singers are doing just fine.

Bob Dylan songs popped up from Crooked Still - very blue grass nouveau - singing Oxford Town, while Martin Simpson's rendition of Boots of Spanish Leather is a classic. Julie Fowlis's North Uist anthem Eilean Uibhist Mo Gradh and Ivan Drever's Walking Beside your Shoes linger long in the memory of a great musical treat. Meeting so many friends is the essence of such occasions. Old lags from the Dingwall Festival days are always in evidence. But when you see how many Bob Gibbon has in his team and how much local sponsorship they achieve it just goes to show the survival of our Dingwall event for 21 years was a wee miracle.

Orkney Folk Festival is a lesson to the Scottish Arts Council that doing their best each year is a big success and a turn on for visitors, high quality acts and local alike. Check it out.


Saturday, 24 May 2008

Mobile PO's

This is the type of van now in Wick serving 8 villages in place of fixed post office locations. This cost £50,000 with essentially all the functions of a traditional post office. The Stirling pilot kept 80% of customers.


Wednesday, 21 May 2008

Holyrood Diary May 20, 2008

When I filled the car with diesel last weekend it was the first time I’ve had to fork out £50 to fill the tank. I’m sure many of you have reached that level long before this because that was at the Skiach Services in Easter Ross - not in the Far North. We all worry about world-wide food price rises and rising fuel poverty here in Scotland. So I am delighted that the SNP Cabinet Secretary for Finance John Swinney MSP has written to the Chancellor in London and pointed out Scotland has a £4.4 billion budget surplus, according to Grant Thornton partners. This is based on Scotland receiving 82.5% of North Sea oil revenues which would mean, with a 95% share, a Scottish surplus of £6.2 billion.

Meanwhile the Chancellor’s Budget oil revenue forecast was based on an oil price of $83.80 a barrel. Yet the price of oil has soared to $120 a barrel. So the SNP believes that Westminster’s sky high fuel duty policy is imposing unacceptable hikes in petrol and diesel prices in Scotland.

Said Mr Swinney,

“With our North Sea resources, an independent Scotland would be the 3rd richest nation in the EU in terms of wealth per head – compared to the UK’s current 7th place – so there can be no doubt that the present flow of resources is north to south, not the other way round.”

“After generations of sending North Sea revenues to Westminster, it is vital that Scotland has access to and benefits from our own resources. It cannot be right that we have fuel poverty and soaring road fuel prices amid this energy plenty. “

We urgently need talks on greater financial independence for Scotland, including a transfer of oil and gas resources to the Scottish Parliament, so that we can invest in Scotland’s long-term economic interests.

All MSPs are flooded with calls for help. The Federation of Small Businesses and the Scottish Chambers of Commerce want the Chancellor to cancel the proposed 2p rise in fuel duty due to be introduced in autumn 2008. Their figures indicate that the UK Government has received an additional £505 million of revenue, due to rising fuel prices, over the last six weeks and agree with the SNP that we need to introduce a fuel price regulator.

In the Ferry Enquiry, ongoing in the Holyrood Transport Committee, we’ve heard that privately owned shipping operators are very negatively affected by strongly rising bunker fuel costs. Prof Alf Baird, the Orkney-based expert from Napier University, gave evidence and also noted that private ferry operators in Scotland already exist in an extremely uneven playing field due to the fact that the Government regularly increases subsidy payments to its own state-owned ferry operating companies (CalMac and Northlink) to enable these businesses to pay their rising fuel bills. This is in addition to rapidly rising subsidies to cover state-owned ferry company operating costs (or rather losses) more generally.

With the price of diesel now over £1.35 in the Western and Northern Isles and across Scotland’s island and remote communities this makes it probably the most expensive diesel in the western world. Many years ago in parts of France cuts in fuel duty in the remotest areas were agreed. Why not here?

My colleague Mike Weir MP has lodged an Early Day Motion (EDM) at Westminster with cross party support to protest against the lack of regulation on the prices of home fuel oil or bottled gas. But unbelievably both Ofgem and Energywatch have confirmed that there is no regulator with the task of looking at the market or interests of consumers who use home fuel oil or bottled gas. They do not even have the limited protection available to gas and electricity consumers.

It is abundantly clear that Westminster’s financial black hole is being filled with Scotland’s black, black oil.


THE All-Energy Conference in Aberdeen this week showcased the huge potential of our renewable energy resources, over 4,000 delegates attended. Scottish Energy Minister Jim Mather and Malcolm Wicks from London Government spoke.

But a worrying tone was noted among the public by Scottish Renewables. People seem reluctant to pay for the effects of peak oil and the dangers of climate change. Somehow folk haven’t caught up with the fact that the world is already paying a huge price for climate change, as we are also.

One symptom of this mismatch was heard from SCDI, the Scottish Council for Development and Industry, meeting recently in Inverness to ponder improvements to our Highland transport, or as it turned out our Highland roads. They want a national commitment in relation to the A96 Aberdeen-Inverness road, A9 Perth-Thurso and A82 Glasgow to Inverness roads, if the Scottish economy is to reap the benefits of growth opportunities in the north in priority industries, such as tourism, food and drink, and energy.

Can you believe that sea and rail are ignored by the SCDI? They don’t seem to grasp that peak oil will require a reduction in road journeys to take freight like the supermarket lorries off the road, and that rail services are far more CO2 friendly. In fact, the Caithness Partnership has a far more balanced transport policy than they do. HIE and HITRANS have echoed the SCDI blind spot hoping to reap the benefits of wave and tidal energy from Pentland Firth but refusing to invest in our real transport needs north of Inverness. It’s time HIE and HITRANS woke up.

Annual European Maritime Day

Here I am with Dr. Eileen Macleod, Policy Advisor to Alyn Smith MEP, at Avoch Harbour.

I am proposing that serious plans are laid to mark this European Maritime Heritage Day annually. In particular the Year of Homecoming 2009 which is a prime time to welcome from abroad all those who want to celebrate Scotland's new vibrancy. Record numbers of yachts are sailing across the North Sea and last year the Moray Firth Flotilla was a cracking success to celebrate sail through the years. A copy of my Parliamentary Motion is included below calling on members of all parties for support.

(Visit my press room to learn more following the link at the top right)

S3M-01657 Rob Gibson (Highlands and Islands) (Scottish National Party): European Maritime Day — That the Parliament welcomes the introduction of an annual European Maritime Day to be instituted on 20 May 2008 to celebrate Europe’s maritime heritage and marine-related issues; further recognises the vital role that the marine environment plays in the past, present and future of Scotland, and calls on the Scottish Government to help mark the day with events to highlights its importance.

Supported by: Michael Matheson, Jamie Hepburn, Sarah Boyack, Joe FitzPatrick, Bob Doris, Stuart McMillan, Helen Eadie, Christina McKelvie, Kenneth Gibson, Patrick Harvie, Dr Alasdair Allan, Shirley-Anne Somerville, Tavish Scott, Bill Kidd, Keith Brown, Gil Paterson, Brian Adam, Elaine Smith, Roseanna Cunningham, Robin Harper, Bashir Ahmad, Dr Bill Wilson, Andrew Welsh, Dave Thompson
Lodged on Thursday, March 27, 2008; Current

Tuesday, 20 May 2008

North Rising - Sun shines on Avoch marchers

The importance of Avoch in Scotland's long fight to be a free country was celebrated on Saturday [17th May] by a hundred marchers from all a' the airts. Following the tradition of the past ten years members of the Society of Willam Wallace present a new saltire flag to replace the one that flew for the previous year from the flagpole at the cairn in the castle ruins on Ormond Hill. This year John Robertson, the Culblean organiser of the Andrew de Moray Project, did the honours. John and his wife Lorraine have just retired to Nairn. In brilliant Avoch sunshine the procession and flag raising ceremony at Ormond Hill was attended by marchers from Aberdeen, Airdrie, Perth, Moray, Cowal, Inverness, Brussels and all over Ross-shire.

I was the Project Convener and made sure to remind the gatherers that Evan Maclead Barron dug up the story of how important the North of Scotland's part was in the national rising of 1297. The alliances that Scotland had with France and Norway helped sustain our nation. Scotland was a European nation then and is today as we regain our pride of place in the family of people whose distinctive place is their bedrock. It is the cause for which Andrew de Moray and William Wallace fought and died.

Friday, 9 May 2008

Holyrood Diary May 9, 2008

What a remarkable year it’s been.

The SNP’s National Conversation was derided by the Unionist parties. They voted for their own constitutional enquiry, now called the Calman Commission, and lo and behold before it has met the Labour partner in the scheme has changed the focus due to er… problems for the boss in London. So now the outright opposition to a referendum on Independence has been replaced by Wendy Alexander demanding an early poll. Whether it should contain a straight yes or no question and many other issues is unclear. Whether London supports her is now clear…

I’m sure that all the premonitions about a minority SNP administration sown in the minds of the voters and in the minds of civil servants by the last administration have been dashed by the popularity of SNP policies and the competent team of Ministers who have rolled their sleeves up and been so much more proactive than their Lab-Lib predecessors. So much so that the opposition are reduced to complaining about the increased car use of Alex Salmond’s team.

What can we gain from this exciting atmosphere in Caithness and North Sutherland? Well, as I have already reported in recent weeks, there have been a steady string of improvements to life and the services we use.

The SNP organised a national 'Day of Action' for 3rd May 2008 across Scotland to mark the first anniversary of the 2007 election. Thurso SNP played their part by campaigning with our Westminster candidate for the Far North Cllr Jean Urquhart. The activists distributed the SNP Vision magazine which reflects on some of the political and personal highlights of the past year.

Last year, people across Scotland put their trust in a new Government led by Alex Salmond and the SNP. I consider it to be a huge privilege to represent the people and communities across the Highlands and Islands. Helping people and families with the range of cases they raise is very rewarding - especially when we make sure people access the benefits and services like central heating for older people who have received 110 new systems this year compared to 66 in the last year of the LabLib Executive across KW postcode areas. I have applauded the reduced business rates for local firms and indeed this has put some much-needed smiles on business faces across the country.

Politically there have been so many memorable moments, especially for me voting to confirm Alex Salmond as First Minister and to pass the Abolition of the Graduate Endowment, which so affects those from poorer families.

Personally it has been a hectic year, but an enjoyable one, as I play a part in moving Scotland forward. The Scottish Government has a vision of an ambitious, confident Scotland and over the last year a series of policies which go toward achieving that vision have been put in place.

FERRIES I have travelled on? The list grew last month to include the overnight sailing from Aberdeen to Lerwick on the Hrossey. So this year I have been to Arran, on the CalMac ferry MV Caledonian Isles, on the Superfast Ferry from Zeebrugge to Rosyth, as previously reported in this column and last week from Stornoway to Ullapool on the MV Isle of Lewis. However, we’ll see the biggest ferry change here in Caithness later this summer. In recent visits to Orkney via Gills Bay I’ve enjoyed fine sails on the aging Claymore, but news of the launch in the Philippines of the spanking new catamaran Pentalina will be a treat in store.

Much of my travel has been in pursuit of Scottish Parliamentary business, in particular the ferry enquiry undertaken by the Transport, Infrastructure and Climate Change Committee. We have uncovered a catalogue of outdated thinking in the big combines, CalMac and Northlink. We are afforded glimpses of how successful ferry companies are in applying new technology across Europe and beyond. So the enquiry about Scottish lifeline services is timely to say the least.

Last week we met EU Transport Commissioner Jacque Barrot who was reported as offering the idea of an independent ferry regulator to tackle complaints about competition and assess to public service obligations [PSOs] as a key to the much-needed subsidies which provide for non-profitable routes. Amazingly the previous Scottish Executive’s successive LibDem transport ministers Nicol Stephen and Tavish Scott turned their backs on PSOs and any suggestion of such an independent regulator. Too costly, too bureaucratic and unnecessary they said.

Well the chickens have come home to roost. Complaints by aggrieved parties have forced the EU to investigate Scottish ferry practices. I believe that the Committee’s enquiry will neatly dovetail with the EU enquiry. It should lead to an EU compliant support system, but also it should set up a debate in the chamber of Parliament that allows the Scottish Government to put ferry policy and practice on a more transparent and innovative basis. That is long overdue and gives due weight at last to the services for local people in far flung mainland and island communities.

In conversation with my colleague MEP Alyn Smith I was reminded of our direct links to Iceland via the Norrona sailing in summer from Scrabster, and yesterday I was entertaining a group of Icelandic health administrators in Parliament. They see lots in common with us and are seeing ways to make Icelanders square up to the debate about entering the European Union. Recently Alyn was discussing, in the Icelandic Parliament, how Iceland can better co-operate with the EU institutions and member states. Cooperation with Scotland on fishing and energy issues could gain us an important ally.

Iceland has to rely on friends and neighbours within the EU to take into account its concerns. Scotland has to rely on London. Probably Scotland and our northern neighbours could be a new force to reckon with as the EU develops and expands. Let’s hope with the installation of their new President we can eventually persuade the Russians it’s a good idea to be more European too.

Tuesday, 6 May 2008

Visit to Lewis:
I met the MacKenzie family at Crossbost on Friday 2nd May to discuss issues about crofting township management and common grazing regulations. Here I am with Sandy and Mairi MacKenzie in their garden.

"So come all ye at hame wi the roses and geans will turn tae bloom" [words from the Freedom Come-All-Ye by Hamish Henderson]. This picture in my garden in Evanton shows the geans in ours and our neighbours gardens bursting into flower. 5th May, just like the first year's achievement of the Scottish Government!

Thursday, 1 May 2008

Food Security Debate, The Scottish Parliament

Thursday 1 May 2008

I welcome the debate. I hope that the idea of food security for this country can be translated on to a global scale - as our food security cannot be premised on insecurity for people across the globe. How we achieve that has to be part of the national food policy conversation. I will dwell on some of these issues in my speech, given that they fit into the subject matter of the Conservatives' motion. I agree that, at the outset, we are looking for action at the Scottish, British and European levels, but we have to go on to challenge the World Trade Organization. We have to ask about the right of people to have a fair deal for their produce rather than free trade in food.

If we are debating national food policy — as the minister said - there has been an enormous response to the paper. We must ask, as NFU Scotland did, "what is on your plate?" The answer to that, above all, will determine whether we are doing as much as possible to feed ourselves in this country, both in terms of quantity and quality. In that respect I am glad that the Government is supporting more local food production and, in particular, the public procurement of more locally sourced food. That lead will encourage more people to grow food locally and to have it bought in a secure market.

The Government has held a supermarket summit that allowed discussion with the large combines on the issue of local food sourcing. We saw an example of that in the Parliament last week. Fundamentally, we have to tackle the issue of labelling and the way in which supermarkets display their goods. Although Scottish meat may be well labelled as such on supermarket shelves, it is laid out next to the Brazilian stuff. If people are poor and on a tight budget they will always go for the cheaper product. That cannot be allowed to be the basis on which a Scottish food policy is built. Our engagement with the supermarkets has to include dealing with the issue of labelling. We have to have the statutory controls to ensure that labelling requirements enjoy the kind of backing that will make the supermarkets come to heel.
The NFU wants a European model of agriculture to continue after 2013.

In the debate on the national food policy, we should define what that model will be. As I have hinted, the kind of food security that we want, with more local production, has to take account of the ways in which we produce our food. I will therefore have to focus on biofuels. We have heard the arguments on this displacement crop. As Oxfam has pointed out in its report "Bio-fuelling Poverty" once people lose their land to the biofuel producers they lose their livelihood. As Oxfam says: "Many end up in slums in search of work, others will fall into migratory labour patterns, while some will be forced to take jobs on the very plantations which displaced them and where labour standards can be horrific."

That is the downside of biofuels. Scotland's biofuel capacity from oil-seed rape could instead produce cattle cake; it could become a local source of animal feed and the like. We have to build that into the policy. I ask members to ensure that, when we come together, we base our efforts on "maintaining the diversity of the animals bred and plants grown." The principle that "for both historic and economic reasons we must preserve the biodiversity of the land" should be at the root of any food policy. It should be applied not only in this country but across the world.