Friday, 27 November 2009

Celebration of musical talent

AS St Andrew's Day approaches, the SNP's National Conversation has kept its pledge to produce exciting proposals for an independent Scotland in all policy areas.

There's a gulf between the SNP's trust in the Scottish people through a referendum and the hypocrisy of Unionists who refuse to allow the people a vote. Talk of future referendums is a fudge with LibDems the deepest puzzle, pledging, as they do, a UK-wide poll on EU membership but none on full powers for Scots.

Of course we need to feel confident to grasp the opportunities. Two sides of that coin inspire us here.

First the young musical spirit of our nation is on display in the Ceol nam Fèis concert in Eden Court today (Friday). Our young talented traditional musicians exemplify that national spirit in its best cultural light. Well done Rita Hunter for producing this magic showcase for Fèisean nan Gaidheal.

Many of these youngsters, having found out more of their roots through our Fèisean, want to get trained and educated then come and live in their native area in future. That's a key reason for me to champion the Scottish Green Energy Revolution that can create many lifelong jobs and income for communities across the north.

St Andrew's Day could herald an early liberation of Nigg for renewable equipment production if Highland Council sticks to its policy of compulsory purchase for the yard.

Additionally the Crown Estate Commission CEC is poised to announce which leases will be granted for Pentland Firth marine energy projects. Ross-shire businesses like Isleburn can be in the hunt for the fabrication work and counter redundancies in the area. Also the CEC should do us the courtesy of making their announcement of the winners here in the north, not in London.


MSP'S Gut Feelings is a collection of recipes from members of the Scottish Parliament in aid of Marie Curie.

It was launched earlier this month at £9.99 with support from the Bank of Scotland - for copies contact me. Many of us contributed to support this key cancer charity. My original idea is called Penne and Puddings. It features slices of haggis and black pudding - naturally I recommend Cockburn's of Dingwall - on a bed of penne pasta and sautéed leeks. Very "Scot Nat", quipped one Labour colleague. Support excellent local produce I say. I'm glad to add that the Scottish Parliament Burns Supper has chosen Cockburn's haggis for the third successive year for next January's event by popular request.


DOOR to door calls and questionnaires by the Energy Saving Trust in Alness have asked all householders needing advice to contact 0800 512 012. The lines have been red hot. In the last few months Caithness has had similar treatment from this Scottish Government backed schemes. Houses are being treated and advice as to grants made available.

I caught up with Alan Grant the EST outreach engagement officer for Highlands and Islands at the Taste of Tain event which I had the pleasure of opening. He was delighted by the public response so far. It shows what every household can do to cut fuel bills, stop drafts and cease to "heat the sky". Let's make St Andrew's Day a modern celebration of our emerging national self-confidence. Although climate change knows no national boundaries each nation must take responsibility.

Let's take our place among the nations as responsible citizens.

The Copenhagen Conference needs to replicate the pioneering Scottish Climate Change Act.

Coming to terms with the consequences if our planet is allowed to overheat also can usefully cut our fuel bills.

Friday, 20 November 2009

Paying the price of cheap drink

SERIOUS alcohol abuse was highlighted at the regular face-to-face MSP briefing by NHS Highland last Friday.

At a minimum price of 40p per unit of alcohol, "own brand" whiskies and vodkas, gins and cheap ciders, excluding the likes of Bulmers Original and Magners Irish Cider, would be considerably dearer. Moderate drinkers of well-known brands would not have to pay more.

Other experts have backed the Scottish Government in seeking a minimum price for popular low-cost drinks. We know that wines, beer, cider and spirits are 30 per cent cheaper now than 10 years ago. Also that liver disease and ill-health statistics due to excess consumption are rocketing here in Scotland. So what is to be done?

Dr Emilia Crighton, convener of the Faculty of Public Health in Scotland, insisted that there was an "overwhelming case" that cheap drink was damaging Scotland's health.

As the evidence stacks up week after week, those politicians who oppose minimum pricing look increasingly irresponsible. The issue here is ending a situation where three-litre bottles of chemical cider are sold for £3, or 700ml bottles of industrial vodka for less than £7. These are the products favoured by problem drinkers and are exactly the ones that will be targeted by minimum pricing.

Minimum pricing of alcohol has a broad support base among medical experts, the police and the pub trade. Even the National Institute for Clinical Excellence (NICE) in England, the UK Government's expert advisory body on medical treatment, strongly backed minimum pricing as a way of reducing consumption among harmful and hazardous drinkers.

I very much welcome the intervention by a senior Liberal Democrat MP and front bencher at Westminster, in which he fully supports minimum pricing of alcohol. Speaking at a "business in sport and leisure" conference in London (reported in The Publican on November 12) Don Foster, the Lib Dems' shadow culture spokesperson, said: "I truly believe the time has now come to be looking at a scheme for minimum pricing." This directly contradicts the stance of the Liberal Democrat leadership in the Scottish Parliament.

Mr Foster's comments echo remarks by the Liberal Westminster business spokesperson, Lorely Burt, who branded cheap supermarket booze the biggest problem and reiterated her party's support for minimum pricing.

In October last year, the UK Lib Dems produced a report on the UK's relationship with alcohol, which called for minimum pricing to be introduced. I hope that Mr Foster can come to meet with MSPs, including his own Lib Dem colleagues, in order to explain the importance of minimum pricing in tackling alcohol misuse. What do our Highland Lib Dem MSPs believe?

The coalition in support of minimum pricing is broad and growing, involving the police, health professionals, the licensed trade, the British Liver Trust and the four chief medical officers across the UK. Regrettably, the Lib Dems in Scotland are on the outside of this process.

Yet the scale of Scotland's alcohol misuse problem is shocking: 42,500 alcohol-related hospital discharges; 1500 deaths per year; soaring rates of liver cirrhosis; the eighth highest consumption in the world; and a 2.25 billion annual cost in public services and lost productivity.

Those MSPs in the Scottish Parliament who are not yet persuaded of the case for minimum pricing would benefit from hearing Don Foster's advice.


A RECENT debate on the built heritage was mentioned in the local papers. In the debate I made a plea to preserve and interpret numerous pre-Clearances villages scattered across the North. Then Tory grandee Sir Jamie McGrigor waxed lyrical about the French-renaissance-meets-Scots-baronial splendour of Dunrobin Castle.

I remarked that Dunrobin Castle is well preserved by the family that owns it. Did he think that the Clearances villages that were created by the policies of such people's ancestors should be preserved?

He replied: "My colleague Jamie Stone mentioned Tain museum, which I believe is a museum to the Clearances." Although not entirely true the chamber was thoroughly amused to hear Jamie McGrigor continue, "of course, that (the Clearances) was one of the Lib Dems' original social engineering experiments." He was referring to the Dukes of Sutherland being Whigs, not Tories, the ancestors of today's Lib Dems.


LET me update you on a very positive social engineering experiment welcomed wholeheartedly by people in this area today. A couple of weeks ago, door-to-door calls by the Energy Saving Trust in Thurso asked all householders needing advice to contact 0800 512 012. The lines have been red hot.

Back in August, Lybster and its surrounding area had similar treatment from Powerdown Scotland, organised by the local co-ordinator Anne Sutherland. Both are Scottish Government-backed schemes. Already 20 houses in Lybster are being treated and advice as to grants made available.

I caught up with Alan Grant, the EST outreach engagement officer for Highlands and Islands, at the Taste of Tain event last Saturday, which I had the pleasure of opening. He was delighted with the public response. It shows what every household can do to cut fuel bills, stop draughts and cease to "heat the sky".

Alness is now getting the chance to have help assessing the best way to climate-proof each home, as Thurso did.

As our national day, November 30, draws near, let's make St Andrew's Day a modern celebration of our emerging national self-confidence. Although climate change knows no national boundaries, each nation must take responsibility.

Let's take our place among the nations as responsible citizens who have come to terms with the consequences if our planet is allowed to overheat, and do some useful work to cut our fuel bills.

Tuesday, 17 November 2009

TICC Visit to Glencorse

See photos below of myself and fellow MSP Patrick Harvey at the site of the Glencorse Water Treatment Centre in Midlothian. We visited as members of the Transport, Infrastructure and Climate Change Committee to view the construction, due to be completed in 2011, and here about the centre's plans and capacity.

Scottish Water is building the new water treatment works , as part of the Edinburgh Drinking Water Project - a strategic programme of capital investment to build a new water treatment works and replace ageing mains and storage tanks providing water to Edinburgh and surrounding areas.

Friday, 6 November 2009

It's the Constitution Stupid

While most MSPs return to their constituencies on a Thursday night, I had three reasons to remain in Edinburgh last Friday. The first involved a seminar in the Chamber and Committee Room breakout sessions of Parliament. The subject was a report on mainstreaming equalities issues in our Holyrood work.

Keynote speaker Prof Ailsa McKay of Glasgow Caledonian University argued that the recession is no time to ditch fair treatment. Indeed women suffer low pay and more chances of redundancy in hard times yet they tend to spend money on family needs - not selfish wants - when they have it.

In the group chaired by Malcolm Chisholm on the work of the Economy, Energy and Tourism Committee I had the task to report back to the full chamber. Very trenchant debate took place in our group and uncovered big question marks about drop-out rates in the modern apprenticeship scheme which is a big Scottish Government investment in the economic recovery package.

A tourism executive explained how the disabled are being better catered for. The loss of the ‘walk away’ pound is not due to difficult access. It rests on attitudes among providers of services.

Also we need to recognise that paid and unpaid work adds to well-being. I suggested that the time is ripe to measure more than Gross Domestic Product. The SNP Government has introduced one of the first carbon audits in any nation, as previously reported. So we need measures of progress in equality, carbon reduction, happiness as well as income. There is never a better time to start.

Privately, at lunchtime that day, I told my stories about the drovers and their links to the cattle trade of America at the Storytelling Festival just up the Royal Mile. That evening I had great pleasure in joining the fund raiser in the Queens Hall for the Traditional Music and Song Association of Scotland TMSA. Their patrons Archie Fisher, Barbara Dixon and Sheen Wellington all sang, but the young trad musicians of the past few years are so skilled and sensitive. Great to hear their mixture of tunes, Scots and Gaelic songs sung and played in new forms.

Our young people embrace a confident blend of many strands of our national culture. I hope and believe that Caithness folk do the same despite the trench warfare over bilingual road signs in the columns of the Groat...


Critical fire power directed at the SNP Government this week by the CBI and other parts of the ‘bosses unions’ have been alleged that the SNP recovery plans and our Budget proposals are against business interests. The devolved government can’t borrow so its first duty is to protect education and health services and local government from the blizzard of cuts caused by Labour’s recession.

If sustainable growth is to be kick started then London has to give a hand. Our block grant is cut for the first time since 1999. The Unionist parties have at least realised that, as we have to pay back this coming year the accelerated capital spending that the SNP Government speedily adopted last autumn, we need more of the same next year to make modest investments in apprenticeships, home insulation, affordable house building, etc. But above all the kind of borrowing powers that even councils have is denied to Holyrood.
I say to those who call on the SNP to forget independence during a recession, it is even more important to get full powers to equal and better the woeful performance of the UK as the last country coming out of recession. Indeed I would say the economy will only improve when we get full powers of a normal nation. In short, it’s the constitution, stupid!


Meanwhile with limited powers we are helping small and medium sized businesses with a new scheme. ScotAction and is the Scottish Government's skills support package for providing real financial support to businesses and individuals through the recession.

Many small firms have had to balance the need to keep their heads above water with the desire to continue to develop staff skills for the future. So those in the construction, engineering and manufacturing sectors, including renewables, who think that they may have to let their apprentices go should contact Skills Development Scotland for more information. The Scottish Government, with European Social Fund support, want to provide employers with £75 a week to help towards the wage costs of these apprentices so that they can continue in their training.

'Safeguard an Apprentice' demonstrates that the Scottish Government can deliver practical help to support businesses and individuals through the recession.


The Banking Enquiry in Holyrood’s Economy, Energy and Tourism Committee resumed this week. We took evidence from the Office of Fair Trading whose evidence was damning as far as personal current accounts in British banks are concerned. The market has not been working well for customers as they pay high bank fees and receive poor service. The feeling is that beleaguered banks are charging way above previous rates to recoup losses caused by their speculative old ways. Rebuilding consumer confidence is our aim but when you see the way Messrs Brown and Darling overrode the OFT report against the Lloyds HBOS merger last autumn you have to ask key questions once again.

If Labour saved the banks from total collapse, why did they let them get into that state in the first place? When you see Government ignoring advice on drugs from its scientists, is there a culture in London Government that needs to change?

In its way the EU single market begins to offer some relief. In return for huge bail outs to Lloyds and RBS Commissioner Neelie Kroes has ordered them to break up sections of these ‘too big to fail’ conglomerates. Thanks to EC competition rules Mr Darling must comply to give more choices for customers in High Streets from Thurso to Truro. And about time too.

Migdale Confirmed

The Scottish Government has given the go-ahead for a new hospital in Migdale.

The SNP Government is delivering as opposed to scaremongering, the tactic of choice by the opposition parties unable to find any other way of operating. Indeed, I was bemused by recent reports suggesting the hospital would not be replaced and this unfounded scaremongering has of course caused subsequent concern in the local community. It's time for more circumspect opposition in the future.

The SNP Government has delivered for the people of Sutherland whilst our opponents can only spread scare stories. There was no danger to the hospital whatsoever.

I am glad that I can end this nonsense over claims surrounding Migdale hospital. Elderly people have been genuinely concerned regarding what they have been reading and hearing in recent weeks. In the end it was for nothing and I look forward to a new hospital which will deliver for the people of Central Sutherland.

Direct action from the SNP Government will deliver this hospital for the people. Years of prevarication and delay which marked the Liberal Democrat and Labour years of Government in Scotland delivered nothing..

I can reassure the people who have intimated their concerns regarding the future of the hospital that it will be built. I thank the Cabinet Secretary for Health, Nicola Sturgeon for her longstanding and consistent support for this project.

Wednesday, 4 November 2009

Tyres' dual function

It's time to seriously consider using recycled tyres in engineering projects. On Monday I had the chance to meet with Dennis Scott at the Northern Tyre recycling centre, an Evanton-based outfit that takes tyres from across the region and compresses them (around a hundred forty at a time) into bales which can then be used in flood defences as well as foundations for roads, buildings, embankments and dams.

The recent flooding was a portent of things to come and Councils are going to have to become more adept and innovative at dealing with the problem. Using tyre bales which are produced at Evanton would be a way to help shore up flood defences and stabalise embankments which could slip in heavy rain.

What we have seen over the weekend and in recent months is unfortunately the future. Increased rains will lead to increases in flooding coupled with destabilasttion of cliffs and embankments. Erosion is going to be a real problem as the climate change era intensifies. That is why councils and other organisations need to heed this sustainable low tech solution.

From what I have seen in Evanton there is no doubt that this is a simple device which works. It also has the benefit of making use of old tyres, lessing the need for landfill and also reducing the amount of fly tipping.

Indeed this is already proven technology - as the road from Syre to Kinbrace proves. The tyres act as a foundation for the road making sure that it doesn't sink into the peat. There must be many miles of roads in the Highlands, Islands and Scotland which have that problem. So a simple solution such as recycled tyres is welcome.

I would encourage Highlands and Islands Councils, and others across Scotland, to seriously consider using recycled tyres in engineering projects.

"I was greatly encouraged by my meeting with Dennis, his enthusiasm and drive is making sure that the technology and ideas are spread far and wide. The enterprise has a dual function of making use of waste whilst providing good quality and long lasting materials to make a real difference to engineering projects that save cash and recycle unwanted tyres.