PRESS RELEASE: LOCAL MSP SAYS OFT REPORT SHOWS NEED FOR FUEL DUTY REGULATOR FOR HIGHLANDS AND ISLANDS

Independent Highlands and Islands MSP Jean Urquhart has today highlighted an Office of Fair Trading (OFT) Report into Road Fuels, saying that it has proven the need for a Fuel Duty Regulator in the Highlands and Islands.

The OFT Report found that, in August 2012, rural areas paid on average 1.9pence per litre (ppl) more for petrol and 1.7ppl more for diesel than urban areas due to the presence of fewer retailers and transport costs for getting fuel to rural forecourts. The OFT Report also found that fuel price rises over the last 10 years have been primarily caused by higher crude oil prices and increases in taxes and duties.

Discussing the OFT’s findings, Jean said:

“The UK has some of the cheapest road fuel prices in Europe before taxes are applied, but these prices are drastically increased at the pump.

“24ppl of the 60ppl rise in the last 10 years is directly due to taxes and duties rather than market forces.

“Consumers and businesses across the Highlands and Islands are being relentlessly punished by a tax regime that does not recognise the necessity of affordable fuel for the economic sustainability of the region.

“I urge the Liberal Democrat MPs in the Highlands and Islands to use what influence they have within the Coalition to deliver a better deal for their constituents by introducing the Fuel Duty Regulator the Highlands and Islands so desperately needs.”

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Events: Climate Challenge Fund Information Events in Lerwick and Kirkwall

Next week, the Climate Challenge Fund team will visit both Lerwick and Kirkwall to discuss how CCF grants can help fund community projects looking to reduce their carbon footprint. So far, the CCF has helped to fund projects that provide energy efficiency advice, the promotion of reducing, reusing and recycling and lower carbon transport, with £44.7 million awarded to 399 different community groups.

The Kirkwall event will take place at the St Magnus Centre on February 7th between 11am-3pm and 6pm-8pm, and the Lerwick event will be held at the Museum and Archives Centre on February 5th from 11am-3pm and 6pm-8pm. The event is free, and any group or individual can drop in. For more information, please visit the CCF events page:

http://ccf.keepscotlandbeautiful.org/events.aspx

Motion:Shetland Islands Council’s Community Engagement

Motion S4M-05487: Jean Urquhart, Highlands and Islands, Independent, Date Lodged: 28/01/2013

Shetland Islands Council’s Community Engagement
That the Parliament notes Shetland Islands Council’s invitation to members of the public to address it on relevant issues; understands that, in relation to education provision across Shetland, three parent council chairs from a deputation have presented a document detailing an alternative plan for education provision to the council’s Blueprint for Education; further understands that this document, produced by the parent councils, provides financial details for each of the alternatives; welcomes the active engagement of community groups in lobbying councils on decisions that affect their communities; considers this approach to be a laudable example of how communities can work together with local authorities to determine the best method of service delivery, and encourages local authorities, such as Shetland Islands Council, that it considers are attempting to drastically reduce spending, to consider similar methods of engagement with local communities.

Motion: Faroese Withdrawal from Herring International Management Plan

Motion S4M-05462: Jean Urquhart, Highlands and Islands, Independent, Date Lodged: 24/01/2013

Faroese Withdrawal from Herring International Management Plan
That the Parliament expresses its concern at the Faroe Islands’ withdrawal from international sharing arrangements for the Atlanto-Scandian herring stock; understands that this withdrawal will result in the Faroe Islands setting its own unilateral quota for the species and that the Faroe Islands has previously withdrawn from international stock management plans for mackerel, which has since led to mackerel being removed by the Marine Conservation Society from its list of fish suitable to eat; considers the future of sustainable fisheries to lie in internationally agreed stock management plans and not in unilateral action, and supports the calls of the Scottish fishing industry, which continues to fish sustainably, for sanctions to be imposed unless all concerned parties can reach an agreed management plan.

Speech: Stage 1 of Budget Debate (January 23rd)

Jean Urquhart (Highlands and Islands) (Ind): I will use the time that I have in this stage 1 debate to reflect on the difficult choices that the cabinet secretary and the Government have faced in preparing the budget.

I am mindful of Professor David Bell’s conclusion in his report on the budget back in September:

“The Cabinet secretary is largely constrained by the settlement from the UK government, which in turn reflects its policy towards the UK’s current fiscal deficit.”

In the face of those constraints, and as I said in the Finance Committee debate on the draft budget before Christmas, I fully support the cabinet secretary’s budget for 2013-14 and the choices that he has made. We do not have the flexibility of normal countries as our budget is handed to us from on high. For example, restoring money to our colleges would mean cuts elsewhere—cuts that others have failed to outline or propose. In many instances, the choice that we have is Sophie’s choice, where money that could be used in so many different areas cannot be allocated to them all.

I was pleased to see the cabinet secretary’s thoughtful and considered written response to the Finance Committee’s report, which was debated in the chamber on 20 December, as the response answered many of the points that were raised in our report. I was particularly heartened by the information that the Government outlined on the economic impact of public sector investment in next generation broadband, with almost 14,000 indirect jobs being created between 2013 and 2028. That might seem a long period of time, but the ambition is welcome.

As a Highlands and Islands representative, I very much welcome the cabinet secretary’s recognition of the need to deliver improved connectivity in areas where next generation speeds are not yet possible. A reliable broadband service in the Highlands and Islands is the greatest gift that the budget could deliver to the region, as it would open up opportunities for small and medium-sized enterprises that are currently at a disadvantage due to their geographic location. It is no use having superfast broadband in Kilmarnock if Kiltarlity does not even have a dial-up service. The Government’s commitment to all parts of Scotland is to be lauded.

I was also glad to hear, in response to recommendations that were made by the Economy, Energy and Tourism Committee, more details of the work that the Government is undertaking on public procurement. As Jim and Margaret Cuthbert attested to in their evidence to the committee, Germany’s strategy of breaking down larger contracts into smaller chunks to enable small and medium-sized enterprises to bid for them is eminently sensible. Given the preponderance of SMEs in the Scottish economy, I am keen for the Government to continue to consider the idea as part of its bid to make the most of what we have.

As a member of the Finance Committee, which agreed its report on the budget, I hoped to see the helpful and constructive tone of our evidence-taking sessions extend to the chamber. I think that, in taking evidence from various organisations and other committees, every member of the committee was acutely aware of the difficult decisions that are being faced in these difficult times. I am convinced that the cabinet secretary has produced the best possible deal for Scotland, but I look forward to hearing positive, constructive and costed suggestions from the Opposition parties on how they would propose to improve it.

Motion: Crofting Connections

Motion S4M-05423: Jean Urquhart, Highlands and Islands, Independent, Date Lodged: 21/01/2013

Crofting Connections
That the Parliament notes the launch of Crofting Connections 2013-15 at Plockton High School on 18 January 2013; understands that Crofting Connections is a project designed to educate people aged 5 to 16 in remote, rural communities about crofting; further understands that phase one of Crofting Connections, which ran from 2009 to 2012, educated over 2,500 pupils from 59 schools across the Highlands and Islands; believes that, with the average crofter over the age of 55, it is vital for the sector to encourage young people to consider the crofting lifestyle; considers the continuation of crofting to be pivotal for the economic, cultural and agricultural future of the Highlands and Islands, and wishes all of those who continue to contribute to its success all the best for phase two of the project.

BLOG: Position on College Funding

There’s been a lot of press coverage recently for NUS Scotland’s “Fund Scotland’s Future” campaign on the issue of college funding. As an organisation, the NUS does a lot of excellent advocacy for students the length and breadth of the country, attempting to secure the best possible deal for our young people. Their steadfast advocacy for an education system free of up-front or back-end fees was just one campaign I was privileged enough to support and to continue to support. However, I’m afraid that I cannot support their most recent campaign around college funding, and I wanted to state my reasons for this publicly.

Scotland’s budget is under extreme pressure. As well as the overall budget for Scotland being shrunk by more than 11 per cent between 2010-11 and 2014-15, the UK Government is cutting its own Further Education budget by £1.1bn over the same period, which affects the Barnett consequentials for Scotland.

In the face of these unavoidable cuts, the Scottish Government is doing what it can to invest in, and help, Scotland’s further education sector. The extra £11.4m allocated to student support in last year’s budget, as well as the Scottish Government funding for over 116,000 full time equivalent (FTE) students in 2013/14, will help colleges preserve wide access at a time of significant challenge.

In particular, due to my experiences as part of the University of the Highlands and Islands board, I strongly support the reforms being made in college regionalisation. The process of regionalisation will help to target resources where they are most needed, breaking down institutional silos and improving the learning experience for students. While support for this process is not universal in the sector, it has been welcomed by many principals and will undoubtedly lead to long-term benefits for students and colleges alike.

Although it is disappointing that more money cannot be found for colleges at this time, I fully believe that the money that has been invested in future years will help to shield the further education sector from the cuts being imposed by UK Government decisions. I’m also wary that, due to the restraints on the Scottish Parliament’s financial powers and the severe cuts being made to its budget, extra money for further education would result in cuts elsewhere, reflecting the incredibly difficult decisions that must be made by the Scottish Government in maximising the impact of the money available within these constraints. Reversing a £34.6 million cut in colleges would just mean £34.6 million worth of cuts elsewhere, a Sophie’s Choice that none of the other parties have proposed a solution to. All that we can do with the current powers available to Scotland are re-arrange the deckchairs on the Coalition’s Titanic.

Having said all of that, I’m still very open to meeting with students and student leaders from across the sector to discuss the challenges and opportunities facing our young people. It’s vital that the energy and engagement these issues develop in our young people is harnessed and encouraged, and that no citizen is ever made to feel disconnected or discouraged from taking part in the political process.

Speech: Employability Debate, 8th January 2013

My first opportunity to speak in the Chamber in 2013 was in a Finance Committee debate on employability. I’ve placed the speech below for those interested.

Although I am a member of the Finance
Committee now, I was not a member when it
heard evidence on employability. However, as
other members have attested to, employability ties
in with many other issues across our
constituencies—not the least of which is multiple
deprivation.
Some people may think that areas of multiple
deprivation are located only in urban areas and
that regions such as the Highlands and Islands are
somewhat immune from its worst effects. That
could not be further from the truth. As the
Government’s Scottish index of multiple
deprivation shows, Caithness, Ross-shire,
Inverness, the Western Isles, Argyll and Bute and
Orkney—to name but a few—all contain data
zones that have been identified as being among
the most deprived parts of Scotland. That
becomes more alarming when we consider that
the data zones in rural Scotland often cover very
large areas that perhaps mask even more acute
problems in certain towns and villages. Although
the Government has produced its own SIMD data
map, which is useful for examining the issue,
Holyrood magazine recently highlighted a Google
map that had been overlaid with the SIMD data
and which provides an easier snapshot of
deprivation. I cannot recommend it highly enough
to colleagues.
A key message that came out of the evidence
sessions, and for which I have much sympathy, is
that it is important to place employability in the
wider context. As others have emphasised in
today’s debate, employability is not about getting
people into just any job, but is about finding the
right job for the right person and helping to make it
as easy as possible for long-term benefits to be
accrued by, and confidence to be instilled in,
people who may have been looking for a job for
some time. In my opinion, that must mean a strong
focus on the small and medium-sized enterprise
sector. In my experience—both as an employee of
small businesses and as an employer—the trust,
responsibility and camaraderie that are gained
through working for a small business can be worth
their weight in gold to employees.
I believe that Highlands and Islands Enterprise
was right to point to its work with Nigg Skills
Academy and the Social Enterprise Academy in
helping to establish learning and employment
opportunities in the Highlands and Islands, as well
as to its work on supporting the region’s small
businesses that hope to grow. Employment can
take on many different guises—it is not always the
direct Monday-to-Friday, 9-to-5 route—and it is
vital that we support those from every possible
angle.
However, I acknowledge the issues that have
been raised by the Federation of Small
Businesses, whose evidence pointed out that
small businesses often recruit on an informal or
personal basis rather than as part of any national
scheme. In addition, many employers in my region
employ seasonally, which adds another layer of
complexity to the debate. The FSB has also
recently provided further evidence on the barriers
that small businesses in the Highlands and Islands
face. It is an extraordinarily good read that
highlights some of the problems that we face in
overcoming such barriers.
In conclusion, I thank every organisation that
gave evidence on employability to the committee
last year, and I thank the then members of the
committee for their work. It is vital that Parliament
continue to examine issues that affect
communities across the country where, through
our actions and attention, we can bring about the
necessary change.
I will add a final comment on Hanzala Malik’s
criticism of the Government for challenging the
colleges. We cannot have change without change.
From evidence that I have received, I can say that
young people have been let down by those selfsame colleges, so we have to investigate that and
make change happen. That is part of what we need to achieve here; I hope that we do it.

Shelter Scotland’s Christmas Emergency Pledge

Before Christmas, I signed Shelter Scotland’s Christmas Emergency 2012 “letter to Santa” calling on the Scottish Government to introduce better standards for temporary accommodation. It’s a pledge that I was pleased to sign and will continue to keep a keen interest throughout the year.

http://www.flickr.com/photos/shelterscotland/8287139185/in/set-72157632282866663