Friday, 30 January 2009

We're paying price for high-flying gambles

HAVE you tried getting a loan from a bank recently? It was always a daunting thought any January after the Christmas splurge.

Of course, the loan sharks are ever obliging, but your friendly High Street bank manager, he should be keen to do business. But he has added new costs and hidden charges.

When banks won't lend to banks what chance a fair deal in Wick?

In recent times, say from 1993 to 2008, getting into debt was the fashion. As a result of light bank regulation under Tories and Labour alike, and multiple credit card offers, our citizens became the most heavily indebted in Europe.

Big government became more and more in love with big banking and a huge new financial services industry built palaces at Canary Wharf or, in the case of RBS, at Gogar near Edinburgh.

It emerged last autumn that the palaces were actually casinos and you and me would have to pay for high-flying gambles that went up like a rocket and came down like a stick into our backyard.

Since we own 70 per cent of RBS, when will we get down to decent terms for local businesses to tick over and families seeking the means to improve their homes?

Trying to get governments and bankers to take responsibility is headline news.

The Chancellor of the Exchequer addressed the International Monetary Fund and World Bank AGM in September 1998 when he advised setting up a worldwide copy of his own model in London.

He said: "In the UK, we published last year a Memorandum of Understanding, setting clear divisions of responsibilities and establishing a regular system of meetings and surveillance to ensure co-operation between our national financial institutions to identify and address systemic risk at an early stage."

Clearly the UK Government has to be asked why it did not work and warn of the economic collapse that befell us last year.

That was made less easy when we were told last week in committee by letter from Mervyn King, the Bank of England governor, that his agent in Scotland would not attend our hearing on the health of the economy.

The whole committee agreed to demand a replay.

Later in the day we heard some astonishing news. Having snubbed the Scottish Parliament in a request to discuss the state of the Scottish economy with the economy, energy and tourism committee, the Bank of England now plans to hold a briefing buffet in Glasgow in February.

If the Bank of England is meant to consult stakeholders assiduously, why won't they meet the Scottish Parliament representatives?

It is after all one of the premier stakeholders in Scotland?

They prefer, it seems, an invitation-only breakfast buffet in Glasgow to talk about the "bank's views on the economy".

Do they even tell their agent in Scotland what relations they have with the Scottish Parliament?

We need to get a full picture of recent economic events and their impact on Scotland – the Parliament must get that full picture for you.

That not only means evidence from bankers but also from the Bank of England, the UK Financial Services Authority and current and previous chancellors of the exchequer.

With the financial services sector playing a significant role in Scotland's economy, it is only right that the Scottish Parliament hears from all those involved in the UK Government, banking, oversight and regulation about how this situation came to pass.

THE Year of Scottish Homecoming has officially extended the haggis supper season to a year-long celebration of Scotland's bard, Robert Burns.

We know he has been translated into many languages, including into Gaelic by the grandfather of my assistant, Niall MacDonald.

Indeed Kofi Annan, the former Secretary General of the United Nations, will speak in Scotland of Burns's global reach.

It is salutary to think that of all the exports from Scotland the most welcome from the South Seas to Russia and China and on to the USA is our national bard.

Incidentally Burns formed the idea himself.

The nation gratefully accepted and the English belatedly called Shakespeare their bard out of envy.

I had the pleasure of addressing the Caithness, Sutherland and Easter Ross SNP members and guests in Tain last Friday.

It was equally a pleasure to contemplate the stellar influence of a well-educated Scot, helped by his father's strict upbringing to devour books and observe life around him.

From his earliest verse to the songs of the dying days in a short life he reflected the values of his rural society.

To these he mixed a dash of biting satire, a love of the lassies and some of the most advanced political views in the land.

These views were very dangerous to hold in a Tory terror time when he asked, "Does haughty Gaul invasion threat?", as a cover for his real views.

This week's publication of the first Scottish Government Audit of Scots Language Provision is very relevant to us.

You can find the details in a 157-page report posted on the Scottish Government's website.

Suffice to say this SNP Government has put in place direct support for using Scots in the Curriculum for Excellence and many other ways untried before.

There are years of neglect to overcome. It is not so difficult for Scots – which is widely spoken from the Northern Isles and Caithness on to the Borders – but there are centuries of neglect for Gaelic which was rooted out not just as slang but as backward and barbarian.

Both of our native languages need their own prescriptions to prosper and boost our self-esteem.

They underpin who we are, and when the Homecoming TV advert uses Dougie MacLean's song "Caledonia", which is getting more and more airings round the globe, it is a welcome to all parts of Scotland.

On Tuesday evening we were delighted to welcome many of the Far North subjects in Mike McCartney's new documentary photographic album. Even singer Sandi Thom, of "Caledonia" fame, attended at the start of this Year of Homecoming.

We have been happy to share Burns's legacy of freedom and justice with the world, what we don't need in return are the birkies on the bank boards taking a loan of us!

Wednesday, 21 January 2009

Homecoming 2009 aiming to be a cultural bonanza

Published in the Inverness Courier, 16 January 2009

The Year of Homecoming is a Scottish Government initiative and SNP Highlands and Islands MSP Rob Gibson believes it will bring positive results to the area.

"I think the benefit for the Highlands is to make the kind of links which could lead to people travelling more often and not just once," he said.

Rob would also like to see more money for the campaign so that the "Caledonia" television advert featuring Sean Connery, Chris Hoy and other well known figures from sport and entertainment, can be shown in even more countries. He dismissed criticisms that the advertisement and initiative as a whole played on an out-dated and romanticised view of Scotland.

"What's false about it?" he asked.

"That we have castles or fine golf courses or that we are celebrating the 250th anniversary of the birth of the Bard? All of these things are attractors to Scotland and I don't think they are not symbols of modern Scotland. Modern Scotland is about more than just the hipness of shopping centres or city restaurants. This is all the more essential given the financial crisis we are going through so that we attract people who have some affinity or interest sparked by a modern Scotland that has not lost touch with its traditions."

Plea for calm in stormy waters of recession

IN the second budget round of this SNP Government we are thrust into the most difficult times Scotland and other developed countries have faced for decades.

Some say we have never faced such economic fallout since the 1930s.

As John Swinney, the finance secretary, argues for calm and steady management there have been far-from-helpful signals from Westminster with the certainty of a £500 million cut to the Scottish purse this year.

Yet the Scottish Government identified ways to secure jobs from the sources of cash available to us months before Gordon Brown's ministers got their act together.

This week the SNP's second budget is having to work with one hand tied behind its back.

Why? Westminster has borrowing powers; even the Northern Ireland Assembly has them.

But devolution as written in 1998 would not allow us the chance.

So the clamour from a cross-section of far-sighted business people to back the SNP demand for more financial powers is growing in strength.

They can see that as we begin to feel the full effects of the downturn, the choices we made 14 months ago in Scotland mean tens of thousands of small business will pay no business rates at all from April this year.

And it is the SNP's foresight that put in place the resources to freeze the hated council tax, providing vital relief for hard-pressed bill payers.

What's on offer in this £30 billion budget is the chance to ensure that almost 5000 jobs will be secured in the next year.

That is set out in the Budget Bill for 2009/10. Spending amounting to £230 million has been brought forward to help weather the economic storm.

This includes the building of safer road junctions, health and dental centres, as well as college and university facilities that are among the projects being accelerated through the additional funds.

These spending decisions have at their heart our plans to help Scotland weather the economic storm and spark a strong recovery.

Across Scotland, local councils are to receive £90 million of the accelerated spending to support schools and housing.

So the arguments made by Lib Dem and Labour councillors that the Highland Council is short of money is to do with the credit crunch and PPP debt, not the historic concordat between Scottish Government and local councils.

The Scottish Government is also providing additional funding to local authorities for a council-tax freeze again next year.

As the budget was debated in parliament this week, Mr Swinney said he remained open to possible changes proposed by opposition parties on the final make-up of these spending plans. He said: "If we're going to improve expenditure in one area, we've got to identify where the money is coming from."

That's why the SNP has already ruled out a two-pence income tax cut proposed by the Liberal Democrats which would cost £800 million to the public purse. So demands by Jamie Stone for dualling the A9 from Tore to Tain looks like a cruel hoax on voters.


ONE of the best ways to underpin sound development of the Highland economy is to see the full university status granted to the UHI Millennium Institute.

Recently I asked the Scottish Government what progress is being made towards granting university title to the University of the Highlands and Islands, given that it now has the ability to award its own taught degrees.

The cabinet secretary for education and lifelong learning, Fiona Hyslop, said that the Scottish Government, the Quality Assurance Agency for Higher Education, Highlands and Islands Enterprise and the Scottish Further and Higher Education Funding Council are actively working with the UHI Millennium Institute to assist with its preparations for an application for university title.

The timing of such an application to the Privy Council is ultimately a matter for the UHI Millennium Institute in the light of its assessment of its ability to reach the quality and standards that university title in Scotland carries with it.

In addition, I asked Fiona Hyslop if she agreed that it would seem appropriate for the UHI to achieve full university status in the Year of Homecoming, given that the collegiate model that it represents has been exported throughout the world, and that the UHI can and will play a huge role in leading the Highlands and Islands towards sustainable development.

She shares my ambition, and perhaps impatience, to proceed to university title.

However, it is important to recognise that university status will be granted not only on the basis of taught-degree awarding powers, but on the basis of research.

That is a differentiation between the Scottish university system and the system in England, where the number of teaching-only institutions is increasing.

The Scottish Government officials and the sponsoring universities for the UHI are working to ensure that provisions are in place and that the concerns that the QAA has raised are dealt with swiftly but properly, to allow university title to be granted.

That could be one of the biggest rays of hope in an economically bleak year.


TWO particular parliamentary events affect us in the Far North.

Firstly, the Scottish Housing Expo was celebrated in the Garden Lobby.

It's a practical competition and display of advanced housing designs that are aimed to go on show in August 2010 on the outskirts of Inverness.

Of course if it succeeds then every two years a brand new set of designs can be displayed and bought. It shows that family homes can be affordable.

It shows also that we can build carbon-neutral homes for average house prices.

The ideas came from Finland and we need to show the way in Britain.

So the Highlands have architects who won places in the competition and were lauded in parliament. That could be the second bright spark for a sustainable and desirable future for young families in Caithness this year.

Finally, the Scottish Homecoming year kicks off with Burns Night.

My office is trying to contact people from places round the globe with Far North place names like Thurso and Halkirk.

Every family has relations abroad, why not encourage them to join us this year and celebrate? Ironically the weak pound sterling can be the biggest opportunity for another bright spot in the Scottish year.

Tuesday, 13 January 2009

Cross Party steps forward on ambulances in the NW

Thanks to a local partnership between Dr Andeas Herfurt, clinical lead for the NW Sutherland Local Health Partnership and Alan Miller area service manager for North District, Scottish Ambulance Service agreed proposals to solve the recruitment and retention of ambulance staff in the NW.

This was made possible by a cross-party agreement at a meeting held in Melvich today (Mon. 12 Jan).
Myself and Jamie Stone MSP, along with local Highland Councillors George Farlow and Robbie Rowantree, agreed a set of practical proposals to ensure that the needs of patients are put first in our sparsely populated area.

The meeting unanimously agreed to submit proposals to the Cabinet Secretary for Health based on the employment of full time ambulance staff in remote stations.

They agreed that the essential difference from the past would be that ambulance personnel should be able to undertake complimentary health duties.

Since Nicola Sturgeon repeated her instruction that each part of the NHS "must work together" at Parliamentary Questions last Thursday, the meeting in Melvich is looking for steady progress to apply their detailed proposals in practice.

Monday, 12 January 2009

Justice, not War

In rainy Inverness, Justice Not War organised a vigil and march. Over a hundred from various parties, and none braved the gales and soaking wet. The Gaza Strip is not much bigger than the Black Isle near Inverness. Respectively they are home to one million three hundred thousand souls. The latter is home to 9,000.

In the picture are SNP Cllrs Craig Fraser and John Finnie accomapnied by John Martin in horror disguise and myself. the Parliament's unanimous call for an immediate cease fire adds Scottish weight to the worldwide calls for a permanent solution to the Palestinian desire for a homeland.

Wednesday, 7 January 2009

Braes of Doune Wind Farm

Today I joined the other members of the Economy, Energy and Tourism Committee in their energy investigation at the Braes of Doune windfarm. Misty, slow motion, but powerful in the fight against climate change.