Thursday, 4 September 2008


Speech from Rob Gibson SNP MSP on the Scottish Government's Programme

3 September 2008

I am delighted to welcome the Government's programme. I will first concentrate on the wealthier and fairer aspect. There has been talk about helping disadvantaged communities and the need for social justice. I cannot think of a more immediate way to achieve those goals than by abolishing the council tax.

Johann Lamont: Will the member give way?

Rob Gibson: Not at the moment, thank you. I will develop my argument first.

The people in my part of Scotland who have higher fuel bills, transport costs and food costs and lower incomes will welcome the abolition of the council tax even more than those in many other parts of the country. On the doorsteps during the election a year ago, that issue was first on their minds. In all the opinion polling since then, a majority of those who say that they will support each of the parties in Scotland support a local income tax and want an end to the council tax. That will be achieved in this year by the Government, which I welcome very much.

Johann Lamont: Will the member give way?

Rob Gibson: No, thank you—not just now. We must get away from the kindergarten attacks about property versus income. Eventually, we will have a chance to discuss the issue in more detail, but I cannot think of a better way of dealing with the unfair council tax and its increases than the freeze that started this year and its abolition in due course. We may have to revisit the issue in future if we give local government more powers.

I move on to two issues with which I am particularly involved in the Parliament and which are to do with the greener aspect as well as the wealthier and fairer one. I am delighted that we will have a climate change bill and a marine bill. The linkage between the two is important in the area in which I live. The First Minister, in describing the conflicts on the sea, said that the "demands on Scotland's marine and coastal environment" affect "the energy sector, shipping, fisheries, tourism and conservation."

We must find ways in which to accommodate each of those issues. I echo the points that have been made that the forthcoming climate change bill must be as effective as possible, but I believe that the Parliament will find a means to achieve that. In the committee system, we will reach a consensus and find practical ways to measure and make progress.

I will give a little example to show how we will resolve problems through the proposed marine bill. At present, in trying to give effect to the EU birds directive, the Government has asked Scottish Natural Heritage to consider extensions to some of the special protection areas. It is proposed that one such area in the Pentland Firth, covering Duncansby, Dunnet Head and Stroma, should include the coastal waters 2km offshore into the inner sound. The proposal has been criticised locally because of its potential to interfere with the development of tidal power schemes. The proposed marine bill has the capacity to deal with those conflicts. Indeed the Government will consider the extension of such special protection areas to make sure that the environment, birds—in the case of the Pentland Firth—and tidal power development can be accommodated. That is entirely possible given our geography.

As we become more capable in the Parliament and the country of being at ease with the environment and development—economic development is at the centre of the Government's programme—we see in the proposed climate change bill the ability to take a front-facing role on global action. We and our neighbours have a great opportunity to contribute to the wider European picture. I suggest to the chamber that through non-legislative measures, such as the extension of renewable energy production in our country, we can contribute to meeting not only our own electricity needs but those of our neighbours in the south—England, Wales and Ireland—and in Europe.

The energy resources of the far north, which I represent, could deliver cheaper electricity for us in the long term if investment in renewables is seen as a national priority. Guess which Government values the energy potential of the Pentland Firth? It is certainly not the UK Government. A fortnight ago, it stamped down hard yet again on allowing favourable grid-connection charges so that electricity generated here can be sent to market. Someone has to tackle the Office of Gas and Electricity Markets; clearly, the British Government is not doing so.

Last year, Malcolm Wicks, the UK energy minister, and David Cairns, assured the Caithness renewables conference that they were right behind them in developing renewable energy. People have seen right through that. Significantly, Gordon Brown's Government warned off the Scottish Government from talking to Norway about a super grid. Surely that is an inhibitor of the development of clean energy in Scotland to enhance our opportunities to reduce climate change. It is a good, practical example of where Scotland needs to be in control, where we need to work with our neighbours and partners and why the Scottish Government has to be in charge of our energy development. That is possible through the Government's programme and I commend it to Parliament.


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