Friday, 20 June 2008

Who really gets the last word in debate?

Holyrood Diary in the John O'Groat Journal
20 June 2008

All politicians and competitors like to have the last word. Three examples in my parliamentary week come to mind. First in the Education Lifelong Learning and Culture (ELLC) Committee about how the BBC has failed to report the increasingly diverse governments of the devolved UK. Secondly in the Parliament Chamber Labour debating time focused on so-called “education cuts”. Thirdly in the political panel at the annual STUC Highlands and Islands conference held in Inverness last Saturday one of my colleagues came away with the biggest whopper as the last word.

The ELLC committee is far famed for its lengthy weekly sessions. We get endless supplementary questions as certain members seek ‘just a short extra point’. Two panels in front of us last Wednesday were from OFCOM the media regulator, then Blair Jenkins the chair of the Scottish Broadcasting Commission appointed by Alex Salmond last summer.

You can read the proceedings on the Official Report in the ELLC committee section. Also you could have watched the proceedings live, but there is no dedicated Scottish Parliament Channel to catch up later. Why not?

Coincidentally Prof. Anthony King published his own report on the BBC’s proven lack of coverage of Scottish, Welsh and Northern Irish issues on the same day. OFCOM’s answers show they too have to get used to the idea that transmitters should reach every corner of Scotland as of right. We get a very second rate service that needs sorted by spending some of the income due to London Government when it sells spectrum - that’s the bands used by broadcasters. But will they spend it on better reception in the Far North and islands?

Blair Jenkins’ evidence was corroborated by the King Report. When his final report is produced this autumn it will probably suggest that Scots must be offered not just BBC and ITV terrestrial channels but also access to a twenty more without paying through the nose to Rupert Murdoch for a satellite dish. Mr Jenkins has shown that public opinion seems to favour a change to the structure of early evening television news to provide one integrated programme from Scotland covering international, UK and Scottish news. 53% prefer this option while 36% favour the status quo.

I hope to hear Caithness voices call, not just for more local TV news, but a national service for Scotland worthy of a confident diverse nation. We deserve broadcasters that make programmes to reflect a new confidence and from the perspective of our particular view on the world that television centre has failed to reflect. The last word can’t be left to the BBC in London.

MELTDOWN was the charge levelled by the Labour party on Scottish Government conduct of education policy. Well, really? Most local councils are happy with the greater freedom to meet their education needs through the historic concordat set out by John Swinney. Indeed the recent summit between our Finance Minister and the COSLA team showed cooperation and progress. Yet Labour echoes the activists at the Educational Institute of Scotland AGM which threatened a strike ballot for the third time in six years, i.e. twice when they were at the helm before this!

In debate I mentioned the demonstration at Brora where local Labour councillors and Highland MSPs whipped up a fury at the loss of a teacher as the primary school roll dropped below the agreed pupil/teacher ratio. Did the Labour and LibDem do anything to build up the population of Brora during the past eight years? What jobs were created, what houses built, what support did they give to campaigners who wished to see a rail bridge across the Dornoch Firth that would have allowed Brora commuters by rail to work in Inverness?

Why has the school lost pupils? We were not told. Just as school rolls go down, they also go up, when numbers expand again. And the SNP Government has tasked HIE to target an increased population in East Sutherland.

In debate I also mentioned that Wick High School had been deteriorating for many years. So I believe that the SNP Future Trust will fund its replacement but without excess profits going to developers. I understand ministers are determined that schools in the poorest condition, the D band, will be top priorities.

Wick High School does not need the First Minister to visit just now. It needs the First Minister’s economic policy to succeed. We cannot allow more oil profits to pile up in Chancellor Darling’s coffers whilst denying Scotland access to funds that build our schools, our transport and our future. That’s definitely not the last word.

DONALD DEWAR the first Scottish First Minister presided over a budget of around £15 billion in 1999. In 2007 Alex Salmond Scotland’s first SNP First Minister has around £30 billion from block grant. According to David Stewart MSP speaking at the STUC gathering, Donald Dewar would have been very happy to have had the current budget. Mr Stewart implied the settlement for Scotland from Westminster is generous and by implication that the SNP is profligate. I beg to differ, for the uncosted extravagances of those past eight years are surfacing monthly.

Let’s recap, Mr Dewar did not have to fund the costs of free personal care for the elderly, nor meet the excessive costs of PFI/PPP his mentor Tony Blair so eagerly embraced. Nor did Mr Dewar have to pay for the free bus passes for the over 60s or fund the laws passed in profusion in the past seven years since his untimely death. As the current hikes in fuel and food prices also show it’s a different time we live in. Let’s not forget the 60% increase in Council Tax in the Labour LibDem years, a stealth tax if ever there was one and the costs of micromanaging nearly every sum they allocated across the land. In a word voters always have the last word so politicians beware.

Thursday, 19 June 2008


Speech in the Scottish Parliament:
19 June 2008

Rob Gibson (Highlands and Islands) (SNP): Tartan is one of the priceless symbols of Scotland—money cannot buy such recognition as it gives us. There are other symbols of Scotland, but tartan is the most universally known. The tartan industry is worth an estimated £350 million each year to the Scottish GDP, so it is important. It is entirely possible for us to grow it as part of the Scottish Government's policy of enabling our economy to do better. The ECOTEC survey showed exactly how it can grow, because of tartan's marketability. The register that Jamie McGrigor proposes should not be knocked, as it has the ability to raise tartan's profile and is the key to producing real growth.

It is suggested that people invented the short kilt—the fèileadh-beag—because it was easier for quarry workers and others to work in it. The fèileadh-mòr, or large kilt—the belted plaid that Ted Brocklebank mentioned—is the garment that was banned by the orders issued after Culloden. People have a right to develop the kilt in many different forms—there are some rare sights at American Highland games—and the plaid can be worn in a modern sense. We should encourage the use of the plaid as well as the short kilts that many of us wear on special occasions.

In my view, including an official definition of tartan in the bill is a somewhat limited approach, because it is tied up with the idea that tartans must be woven. At the same time, when people are designing tartans, they will eventually want to make them out of cloth. The issue of whether they will have to produce a piece of cloth in order to register the tartan is fraught with difficulties. Of course, they must accept that Pantone colours and so on must be defined for designs. As was suggested, people must be careful, because a picture is not a tartan in itself. Looking at the tartans of different clans in books of tartans is different from seeing the woven tartans. We must find a way through all that. Perhaps we need to investigate how we can create tartan swatches more cheaply, so that people who want to innovate and create are not disadvantaged. I hope that, at a later stage in the bill, we can find out what can be done.

John Farquhar Munro mentioned copyright. We must try to work with Westminster on that, but it would be good if we could find a way of incorporating tartan copyrighting in the powers of the Scottish Parliament in order to bring that power together with the bill's powers. I say that because of the obvious way in which copyright affects Scottish things. New designs crop up all over the world. It is recorded in my register of interests that I am the president of the Kilt Society de France. People have registered tartans in

Scotland from there. They want to produce tartans and are not trying to compete with the Scottish industry in the way that Lidl tried, and such foreign producers must be encouraged, because their tartans also spread the story of Scotland.

I, too, was at the Royal Highland Show today and saw the Scottish Crofting Foundation's tartan. I said that I would give the foundation a mention in the debate. The tartan is a fine green and brown one, and it is excellent. I do not know whether I got there first with that, or whether Tavish Scott did. However, the SCF is a great example of a body producing its own tartan. I want to see whether the Scottish Rural Property and Business Association designs itself a tartan.

Wednesday, 18 June 2008


Speech in the Scottish Parliament:
18 June 2008

Rob Gibson (Highlands and Islands) (SNP): It is important for us to know where we have come from to reach this point. I sat through the committee debates, listened to the arguments put and questions asked, and felt the strongly negative sense from some that somehow it is impossible to pin down the issues and that the SNP Government is failing. I suppose that that attitude could be summed up by the comment:

"The overwhelming judgement is of a weak document that hasn't been put together with any enthusiasm or determination. It just looks as if it was born to fail."

However, that was James Boyle talking about the Labour-Lib Dem draft culture (Scotland) bill, from which we have escaped—thank goodness.

When Linda Fabiani introduced the Creative Scotland Bill, she said:

"The establishment of Creative Scotland will cultivate and support the best of Scottish arts and culture and maximise the potential of Scotland's creative sector ... Creative Scotland will have a vital role in promoting artistic excellence. It will help our artists, practitioners and creative businesses to rise to new levels of aspiration, ambition and achievement".

When I look at the bill before us, I see enabling legislation that can take us to new heights. I see not only the potential for advocacy and creative Scotland being the lead body but hard evidence that the agencies that will work with it will be happy to do so and are already working in partnership.

Highlands and Islands Enterprise and Scottish Enterprise said clearly that they were happy with the situation, and I am delighted that the minister has accepted all of the statements from the creative industries working group report and will create the creative industries forum, which will include all such agencies and answer the question about who takes which decisions. The route map that the forum will draw up will show how each agency works.

I have already seen local examples of people applying through the gateway. If people in my part of Scotland approached HIE, it would know where they should go. I am sure that, if we were fair, we would agree that that would happen in Scottish Enterprise areas too. That is why we should have confidence that the right framework has been put in place in the bill. The bill is not inadequate but will point the way clearly.

The comment that COSLA should be involved is relevant, although its involvement must be carefully managed. It is all very well saying that COSLA should have a place on the creative Scotland board, as COSLA first argued, but there would be a conflict of interest. Other committee members recognised that too. However, a special place for COSLA in the creative industries forum is important because it also has a part to play in the route map.

Considering how the single outcome agreements are being developed, I hope that the Government will make it clear how an audit trail can be built up to show how local authorities work. If some authorities have been deficient in

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providing for culture, we should know who was in charge and what they were doing for the past eight years. Perhaps we can all work together now and ensure that we can do something to even up the efforts across the country.

It was interesting to see what happened on the question of the relevance of voluntary arts, as well as the professional sector, during our stage 1 discussion of the bill. The Scottish Arts Council, having started a flexible funding exercise in 2006, reached some conclusions about whether certain bodies should receive funding. It invited applicants to demonstrate how its work strove to be new and innovative. The danger is that creative Scotland will prefer innovation over the work that the voluntary sector does all the time to maintain people's access to the arts, which is not necessarily innovative but is continuous.

There must be some means by which creative Scotland can balance up the definition that it uses to ensure that it does not just favour innovation but allows for the work done by bedrock organisations such as Voluntary Arts Scotland and the Scots Language Resource Centre Association. Indeed, Scottish Language Dictionaries, which was mentioned by Malcolm Chisholm, was directly funded.

A debate is taking place about how creative Scotland will work. It will work in partnership and I believe that it will identify other sources of funding, as the minister said. Some language elements that have been funded through the Arts Council might not be funded through creative Scotland. We must ask whether creative Scotland will be able to measure the traditional arts in a fashion that is acceptable to us, but that is a debate for another day.

I welcome the bill. Some issues might need to be ironed out, but the bill is not a failure—it is the route to success for our arts in Scotland.


Tuesday, 17 June 2008

RoWAN and Volunteer Week

I am delighted to support RoWAN, whose volunteers - like so many others - contribute so much to community life. This project involves the pupils and staff of alness Academy to create outdoor picnic seats from waste items in the school court yard. It combines voluntary work with a clear environmental message that inspires young people. I joined school students in applying the first coat of varnish to the waste-incorporated seating under the supervision of sunburst seat designer Jena.

Tuesday, 10 June 2008

Invergordon Academy

Rob attended a fortieth anniversary 1968-2008 celebration for the buildings that house Invergordon Academy. An evening of music, food, chat and reminiscence with colleagues and students made it a night to remember. The tours of school classrooms brought back all the memories of Modern Studies O Grades and much else. The Academy is lucky to occupy a building that's stood the test of time. We'll see how the latest schools fare.

Rob revisited the first classroom where he taught in Invergordon Academy. White boards today, chalk dust banished. But the view out to the hill remains.

Friday, 6 June 2008

Why should we be suffering from high fuel prices? Holyrood diary June 6, 2008

When I first stood for the Scottish Parliament in 2003 I campaigned about the undoubted capacity of the Far North to produce a massive new stream of clean power. When you look out to sea, I argued, from the Caithness and Sutherland coasts towards the Beatrice Oil Field, it had accrued huge benefits to the London Treasury over the past twenty five years from its product. The pipeline from Beatrice to Nigg on the Cromarty Firth drew that oil into the world markets and the tax into London coffers. Future oil and clean power should fund Scotland’s regeneration.

Today the new oil finds off Lybster may be smaller than Beatrice but they are all the more precious given the upward spiral of oil prices in a world still guzzling far more than is left to dig up. Three cheers are due for the hook up of the small tidal machine off the island of Eday produced by Irish company Openhydro onto the national grid. This marks a clear step forward for clean marine power. Each of these examples shows how important secure sources of energy are for the future.

That’s why this week’s exchanges between the Scottish Government and the London Treasury on the price hikes in oil are critical. Farmers, hauliers, fishers and ferry operators are hit hard and shoppers face bigger bills to meet the cost of living. So let’s take a closer look at what should be done.

Last week I spoke in the Member’s debate led by my Western Isles colleague Alasdair Allan MSP. As reported in the ‘Groat I want to see every party in the Scottish Parliament agree to send a united message to Chancellor Darling in Whitehall. The SNP has tried to promote a fuel price regulator and that seems to be gaining ground among some Labour MPs down south.

This week First Minister Alex Salmond hit back at Chancellor Alistair Darling in a row over North Sea oil revenues. Last Sunday Mr Darling rejected Scottish Government claims that the Treasury is in line for a GBP4 billion windfall as the cost of oil continues to rise.

But the First Minister replied: "This was an extraordinary and unfathomable statement for the Chancellor to make. There is no scintilla of doubt that Scotland's black, black oil is pouring billions more into the Treasury's coffers - filling the Chancellor's financial black hole. The only person denying that obvious fact is the Chancellor – leading him to undermine the credibility of his entire budget and all the forecasts announced as recently as March."
Alex Salmond also renewed calls for the fuel duty regulator and for the planned fuel duty rise in October to be ditched. These will be subject to amendments in Westminster in the next few weeks led by SNP MPs. In the Scottish Parliament I will continue to ask each of the parties to agree to a united plan of campaign because the immediate oil hike is not going to ease, starting with my Highlands and Islands colleagues to show willing.

WEEK IN, week out the First Minister has batted aside the bitter barbs of the Labour opposition. To cover their negativity he now faces the claims from Labour leader Wendy Alexander that he is grandstanding on the international fuel crisis to deflect attention away from the SNP's policy failures.

Labour's Scottish leader said it is time for the First Minister to "put up or shut up” and should concentrate on issues he can have a direct impact on. She wilfully ignores the tightest budget settlement issued by her party colleague Alastair Darling and the biggest demands on that block grant ever. So I hope all of you, dear readers, back Mr Salmond who has written to the Prime Minister Gordon Brown, urging agreement between the two administrations for the creation of a Scottish oil fund.

It cannot possibly be right that in this energy rich nation we are experiencing the pain of soaring fuel prices, with no direct gain from our own North Sea revenues. Even under the current constitutional arrangements, we can make a start in Scotland.

As a minimum, it is perfectly reasonable for Scotland to have a pro-rata share of the Treasury's oil windfall. Even an initial 10% share of this year's windfall would be £500 million - a substantial sum, which could form the basis of long-term Scottish oil fund – just like Norway has set up.

GREEN, amber and red are the Scottish Ambulance Service code for low to high level provision, roughly from remote west Sutherland to Wick. The ambulance crews do a great job but are undoubtedly overstretched. This was recognised by the Cabinet Secretary in her statement on Wednesday showing the Scottish Government cares to sort out the difficulties that have built up through the UK health pay and conditions being set without the rural areas in mind. Additionally I have spoken in the Remote and Rural Health debate on Thursday in which I argued for an appropriate funding regime to underpin the health services in sparsely populated communities. That is work in progress and the SNP Government is listening and learning from the past set up. I’ll keep you posted.

ALAN HENDRY’s promotion is a great reward for sterling work in editing the ‘Groat. Transferring his work base to HQ in Inverness inevitably follows. We have a reading public in Caithness who deserve the best in local flavour he ensured that flourished. Congratulations to Karen Steven in taking over the editorial chair.