Saturday, 10 October 2009

Murphy is a political tourist with warm words

CAITHNESS Transport Forum (CTF) met last Friday, as ever purposefully, with updates on how to make the county more connected in the coming years.

However, part of the rail report hit raw nerves concerning the tragic deaths of three elderly car users at the Bridge Street level crossing at Halkirk.

On my way to the meeting, relatives of one of the deceased raised hopes that solutions to rail crossings can be found. Another less temperate e-mail demanded to know whether I support the erection of barriers at every ungated crossing in the North.

The general mood of the CTF was one of restraint. Let's wait and see what the rail accident investigators report. But there has been no shortage of comments in the press and TV.

I have taken a long-term interest in the safety of our railways and level crossings. There are a small number of trains per day on the Far North line but there are issues about low sun in drivers' eyes and questions arise as to whether rail crossing equipment always works. In the current Halkirk case, klaxons were heard as the warning lights engaged.

We owe it to those who perished to get it right. However, fully-gated crossings come at a price of £1 million plus. So investment of that scale would deflect from improvements to rail timetables, tracks and signalling.

Lives lost are beyond price, but I do hope that both road and rail users can be spared future trauma. Particularly the train driver and the families of those killed.


WITH no parliamentary pairing system as at Westminster, unless members of all four big parties are on business, we in the SNP are unable to attend constituency events such as the Caithness Regeneration Conference last Thursday.

John Thurso MP invited the Secretary of State for Scotland, Jim Murphy MP, to address the gathering. As I predicted, the latter was merely a political tourist with nothing but warm words to offer those present.

The previous afternoon I made the closing speech on behalf of the Economy, Energy and Tourism Committee in the parliamentary debate following the Scottish Government's response to our year-long energy enquiry.

That had included a visit to Orkney and Caithness involving members of four parties and was followed by the publication in July of the Scottish Government's Renewables Action Plan, which addresses costs and timings of projects and harbour developments to deliver the renewables bonanza.

In a personal capacity, I noted that the opportunity for the Highlands requires the Beauly to Denny power line.

Once it has been installed, the North of Scotland, which in the past has received social support, can be a huge contributor instead. We are now at the cutting edge of Scottish society and can take forward work that is of national and international importance. The committee saw that if developments in the Pentland Firth are to proceed, we need harbours and other transport infrastructure in place because that will determine what equipment we put in the sea.

A shared determination to ensure the delivery of the sustainable energy made the debate on Wednesday, September 30, a major benchmark, giving a united voice.


WE had our first star witness at the economy, energy and tourism committee's banking enquiry on Wednesday, September 30. Love him or hate him, Robert Peston, the BBC's business editor, is big news.

I asked him if root-and-branch reform was proposed by Gordon Brown's Government to make it clear where discussions take place between the Financial Services Authority (FSA), the Bank of England and the treasury, and would we be able to see a lot more transparency of regulation?

Mr Peston replied that it is not simply a question of tweaking the rules, but that since the crisis there has already been one quite big regulatory change: the Bank of England has been given the power to take over a failed bank, which it has done.

This allows the deposits to be hived off and kept whole and is an important step in the right direction. Many would say that it was long overdue.

He continued: "When it comes to the systemic issues, it is not 100 per cent clear to me who is in charge, or rather, who will be in charge when the bill becomes law.

It is unsatisfactory that, at the moment, the systemic issue falls between the Bank of England and the FSA. There must be oversight of the system as a whole.

"When excessive risks are being taken, it is hugely important that they are monitored and that judgements are made and acted on. However, it is unclear to me whether, after the legislation has been passed, we will be clear enough about precisely where the buck stops," said Mr Peston.

A Holyrood sketch in The Times the following day suggested that I tried to lead Mr Peston into political point-scoring by inviting him to criticise Mr Brown for not putting in place sufficient regulation of the banks. I believe I succeeded.

Read at your pleasure further details of the committee meeting with the full transcript found here:


I AM delighted that Cabinet Secretary for Education Fiona Hyslop has announced that every pupil in Scotland will be taught the key personal finance skills they need to be successful in the future.

While many schools have excellent practices in place, provision for pupils is variable.

So Learning and Teaching Scotland (LTS) is to produce a delivery plan which will ensure good-quality financial education is delivered to every pupil in every school in Scotland through the new numeracy curriculum.

Meanwhile, in my column, published on August 14, I said that the digital TV switchover would be free for those over 75, the disabled and blind or partially sighted.

In order to clarify this point, while some groups of people mentioned qualify for a free switchover, it is possible not all will. This can be confirmed through the "Am I eligible?" section in the switchover literature. The standard charge for the scheme is £40.

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