Monday, 8 December 2008

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.

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