Budget: Jean calls for a better deal for Highland charities

Jean Urquhart has welcomed cross-party support for the principles of the Scottish Budget, after it passed the first stage of the parliamentary process this evening. MSPs from the SNP, Labour, Greens and Liberal Democrats, as well as Jean and her fellow Highlands and Islands independent MSP John Finnie, voted to pass the Budget (Scotland) (No.3) Bill at Stage 1.

Jean highlighted the Budget’s focus on preventative sending to reduce health and social problems in the future, but warned the voluntary organisations that are key to that effort need the security of longer funding agreements.

Jean said:

“The Scottish Government is to be congratulated for producing a positive and ambitious budget despite the tough economic environment and Westminster’s disastrous austerity agenda. Once again, vital components of Scotland’s social wage have been protected – free prescriptions, free personal care and public transport for the elderly, and free university tuition.

“Unusually, four out of the five parties at Holyrood voted for the principles of the Budget. That’s a testament to John Swinney’s ability and his determination to get the best deal he can for Scots of all walks of life. Only the Tories, insisting upon yet more cuts, opposed it.

“As a Finance Committee member I am particularly pleased that the Scottish Government has strengthened its commitment to prevention – spending to stop social and health problems before they start rather than relying on expensive cures once it’s too late. This philosophy is increasingly being included in government strategy, and the Budget includes £30m over two years to support the voluntary sector’s vital work in this area.

“However, far too many charities are still being given funding settlements for just one year at a time. This makes it hard for charities to plan, and to invest in future services. For example, the Badenoch and Strathspey Community Transport Scheme faces an uncertain future, despite being an essential and well-used service. We need to move to an expectation that funding for community projects will be for several years at a time, creating the security these brilliant voluntary-sector services need and deserve.”

You can read the full draft Budget document on the Scottish Government website.

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Speech on the Landfill Tax Bill

Sadly we ran out of time in the Chamber this afternoon and I wasn’t able to speak in the debate on the third and final stage of the Landfill Tax (Scotland) Bill. I’ve been part of scrutinising this Bill all the way through, as a member of the Scottish Parliament Finance Committee.

Landfill Tax may not seem like the most exciting topic, but it is exciting that from 2015, for the first time, Scotland will set and collect two of its own national taxes (the other being the Land and Buildings Transaction Tax) instead of relying on London. Ideally we would have responsibility for all taxation in Scotland, so we can have taxes that fit Scotland’s economy and our progressive values – that’s one of the reasons I’m campaigning for a Yes vote in the referendum.

Here is the speech I would have given, if we’d had time:

Thank you, Presiding Officer.

It gives me great pleasure to speak at this stage 3 debate. I am extremely proud to have the opportunity to be a part of this important Bill, and have enjoyed scrutinising it as a member of the Finance Committee. I’d like to add my thanks to the Bill team and the Finance committee.

Presiding Officer, members will be aware that the Landfill Tax Bill will directly replace the UK Landfill Tax regime. In terms of what constitutes a taxable disposal according to the UK Landfill Tax arrangements, the Scottish Bill will start with an identical set of exemptions. This is a useful starting point, as it will give Revenue Scotland and SEPA the opportunity to get their bearings so to speak. However, the Bill gives the Scottish Government the opportunity to add or remove exempted material through subordinate legislation, which I think is important. That gives the Scottish Parliament and the Scottish people the chance to influence taxation and I believe that is something that most, if not all across the chamber would welcome.

As the Law Society of Scotland has said, a Scottish Landfill Tax makes sense. It enables the Scottish Government to deliver a more joined-up approach in relation to its zero waste aims. It allows the Scottish Government to deliver a tax system that is tailor-made to Scotland’s environmental landscape, the scale of production and consumption, and the businesses that operate within the environmental landscape. The Scottish Landfill Tax will play an important role in maintaining the economic stimulus required to harness waste management opportunities and direct the Scottish economy toward a prosperous future with secure access to resources. Additionally, there will be new opportunities for the Scottish Government to directly raise local revenues from Scottish businesses for local use. I believe that all members would be interested to see the Scottish Landfill Tax be successful in its aims, and will work together in order to adjust critical aspects of the tax to bring it into line with shifts in policy and external circumstances, for example.

Presiding Officer, I believe that the Landfill Tax Bill, alongside the Land and Buildings Transaction Tax and the Revenue Scotland and Tax Powers Bill – introduced to Parliament by Finance Secretary John Swinney last Thursday – represents a critical juncture in tax collection and management in Scotland. Like the Cabinet Secretary and the Scottish Government, I believe that the Scottish Parliament should have legislative responsibility for the full range of taxes levied in Scotland.

I believe that would be the best and only way for the Scottish economy to flourish and reach its potential. I believe that Scottish control over all taxation in Scotland is the only route to a fairer, redistributive tax system. I believe that a fully independent Scottish tax system will be a key means to maintain our public services. A Yes vote in September next year would allow the Scottish Government to design a simpler, yet fairer tax system for Scotland with those goals in mind.

Of course the Scottish Landfill Tax won’t be perfect initially. There may be skills gaps to be addressed moving forward. For example, SEPA is an environmental regulator rather than a tax assessor, and we should allow SEPA time to adjust. The Finance Committee has a key role to play here, as Revenue Scotland and SEPA will report to the Committee on a 6 monthly basis in order to ensure an affective monitoring process. However, the salient point is that the Scottish Government has been presented with the opportunity to show that it can be relied upon to effectively design and manage important areas of taxation. I have the utmost confidence that the Scottish Government has the experience, the knowhow and the ability to carry out the provisions of the Landfill Tax Bill effectively, and thus make a success of the new devolved Scottish Landfill Tax. That goes for the Land and Buildings Transaction Tax and any other devolved taxes in the future.

Presiding Officer, I see the Landfill Tax Bill as a worthy and valuable piece of legislation. It does what it is supposed to do. It provides legislative provisions for a Scottish Landfill Tax to replace the UK Landfill Tax regime. However, it also does much more. It provides the Scottish Government with real power to take important decisions on a crucial area of taxation, makes use of the experience and expertise of the Scottish Environment Protection Agency, and is conducive to the Scottish Government’s Zero Waste Agenda as we look to Greener energy alternatives. I hope to see everyone involved in implementing and monitoring the Scottish Landfill Tax coming together to grasp this fantastic opportunity with both hands. Together, we can display the benefits of devolved taxation to the public and to business, and make a real difference to both the environment and to business in Scotland.

The Week Ahead (18th-24th November)

This week began at Parliament on Monday with the Scottish Futures forum on Workforce Development work-streams, which took up a large part of my day.  I spent the remainder of the day at Parliament engaged in email correspondence with constituents, as well as various administrative tasks.

On Tuesday, I began with some of my fixed engagements, including my team meeting in the morning.  Due to the sad passing of my colleague Helen Eadie MSP, there is no parliamentary business in the afternoon, and my thoughts will be with Helen’s family and friends.

Wednesday morning will be occupied by the Finance Committee, followed by a seminar for teachers on teaching about the Scottish Parliament.  Afterwards, I have an interview with the Fostering Network, followed by a meeting with the Polish Ambassador.  My final engagement is in the evening, at the Scottish IMPACT Award winner’s celebration.

On Thursday morning, I have a meeting with Energy North.  At 12PM, I’ll attend First Minister’s Questions, and straight after I’ll go to an event organised by Scottish Families Affected by Alcohol and Drugs.  I have some more meetings during the rest of the afternoon and then I’ll attend an evening session of the Business in the Parliament Conference.

Friday will see me in Glasgow at a Scottish Refugee Council arts event entitled ‘A View from Here’, of which I will take a great interest in as Convener of the Parliamentary Cross Party Group on Culture.

Speech: Stage 1 Landfill Tax Bill (29th October)

I am delighted to have the opportunity to speak on the Landfill Tax (Scotland) Bill and I welcome its stage 1 completion. I thank fellow members of the Finance Committee for their commitment, interest and dedication in scrutinising the general principles of this important bill. I also thank the Government for its feedback on the committee’s report, which has made the Government’s position clear on a number of the committee’s concerns.

As a result of the bill, the Scottish ministers will become the tax authority for the purposes of the Scottish landfill tax. That is a great step forward. I have confidence in the ability of the Scottish ministers and their staff to take responsibility for the Scottish landfill tax as well as for other important taxes such as the Scottish rate of income tax. The bill enables ministers to make an order to designate another tax authority, and I welcome the move by the Cabinet Secretary for Finance, Employment and Sustainable Growth to set up a new body, revenue Scotland, as Scotland’s tax authority for devolved taxation. Revenue Scotland already exists as an administrative function within the Government, and the Government has been consulting on provisions to establish it on a statutory footing.

The Government has indicated that it intends that the administration and collection of the Scottish landfill tax should be undertaken by the Scottish Environment Protection Agency on behalf of revenue Scotland. Landfill tax administration and collection would become a new function for SEPA, which already visits and inspects landfill sites as part of its environmental regulation duties. That would offer significant advantages for the Government. The existing knowledge and considerable expertise in SEPA will create opportunities for significant efficiencies and other operational benefits in relation to the administration and collection of the Scottish landfill tax. I therefore support the Scottish Government’s intention to have SEPA in charge of the administration and collection of the tax.

Although I give full support to the general principles of the bill, I draw the Parliament’s attention to two areas of concern. First, I believe that one further waste exemption could be considered. Part IIA of the Environmental Protection Act 1990 states:

“If no person has, after reasonable inquiry, been found who is by virtue of subsection (2) above an appropriate person to bear responsibility for the things which are to be done by way of remediation, the owner or occupier for the time being of the contaminated land in question is an appropriate person.”

That means—I think—that individual property owners might end up footing the bill for contaminated land remediation through no fault of their own. There are live examples of individual householders who have been charged vast sums for the remediation of contaminated land.

In the Cabinet Secretary for Finance, Employment and Sustainable Growth’s statement to Parliament on 7 June 2012, he described four principles that underlie the Government’s approach to taxation and he reiterated them today. They are certainty, convenience, efficiency and that the tax is proportionate to the ability to pay. It is that final principle that I believe is relevant here. My suggestion is that consideration should be given to including in the bill a measure to allow for the costs of contaminated land remediation to be waived if an individual property owner is found to be on contaminated land, has in no way caused the contamination but yet has been unfortunately designated the status of appropriate person because of the lack of someone being found who actually caused the contamination. By putting such a measure in place, the Scottish Government would ensure that its principle of taxation being proportionate to the ability to pay is adhered to.

The second concern relates to the committee’s suggestion that there should be a lower rate of tax on island waste, for materials for which there are never likely to be viable recycling or recovery routes. Although the Government has made its position clear on that, I still believe that a review of the issue could be carried out. In Shetland, Enviroglass provides a local solution for Shetland’s waste glass by recycling all the glass that is collected by the local authority through its bottle banks. That has been essential in minimising the financial and environmental costs that shipping glass to mainland UK for recycling would incur. However, not all island communities are fortunate enough to benefit from such a scheme and a review could help to find alternatives for the islands that lack the means to cheaply recycle waste materials.

A final aspect of the bill that I will speak about relates to the Scottish Government’s zero waste agenda, which is an ambitious programme of change that aims to create an environment in which we make the most of resources and minimise Scotland’s demand on primary resources. That is to be achieved by maximising the reuse, recycling and recovery of resources rather than treating them as waste. The Scottish landfill tax will play an important role in maintaining the economic stimulus that is required to harness those waste management opportunities and in directing the Scottish economy towards a prosperous future with secure access to resources. By doing so, Scotland could follow the great example of its Nordic neighbour Sweden and make productive use of waste that would otherwise build up at landfill sites.

We must ensure that environmental organisations continue to be supported by the landfill communities fund. The Scottish Wildlife Trust, for example, has received £3.6 million to date, which has helped it to develop and manage essential environmental and community projects.

The Landfill Tax (Scotland) Bill is a good and valuable piece of legislation. It does what it is supposed to do: it provides legislative provisions for a Scottish landfill tax to replace the UK landfill tax regime. It provides the Scottish Government with real power to take important decisions on a crucial area of taxation and makes use of the experience and expertise of the Scottish Environment Protection Agency. It is conducive to the Scottish Government’s zero waste agenda as we look to greener energy alternatives. Therefore, I support the general principles of the bill.

SPEECH: Land and Buildings Transaction Tax Bill, Stage 1

Jean’s speech for this afternoon’s debate at Stage 1 of the Land and Buildings Transaction Tax Bill. Check against delivery.

Thank you, Presiding Officer.

As a Member of the Finance Committee, I have had the opportunity to take part in the evidence sessions on the Land and Buildings Transaction Tax (LBTT) Bill. Two things have struck me in those sessions; one, how broken Stamp Duty Land Tax (SDLT) is as a method of taxation, and two, the fantastic opportunity open to Scotland to begin to recalibrate its system of taxation for the public good.

The description of SDLT as “a strong contender for the UK’s worst-designed tax” by the Institute for Fiscal Studies is very appropriate. The slab structure of taxation under the current Stamp Duty system discourages sales of residential properties at prices immediately above its thresholds, creating distortions within the market and adding to the angst already suffered by those attempting to buy or sell a home.

It is madness that a house worth £125,000 will result in no tax burden, but a home worth £1 more results in a £1250 bill. It would be a matter of public scandal if personal income was taxed in such ways; why, then, has it been deemed appropriate for house sales to be carried out this way?

The proposed move from Stamp Duty’s slab structure to a progressive structure under the auspices of the LBTT is therefore to be welcomed, particularly in the current housing climate. There are already enough challenges posed by the unsustainable housing bubble to men, women and families across Scotland in finding affordable housing; I am glad to see us removing some of these challenges by making common sense reforms where and when we can.

One of the other major problems with the current SDLT regime is the amount of money lost through tax avoidance schemes. The removal of sub-sale relief, which has been frequently identified as a facilitator of tax avoidance, from the LBTT will hopefully work in tandem with the Government’s other anti-avoidance measures to help increase the tax take and ensure that everyone pays their fair share.

One of the other measures that will greatly benefit my constituents is the proposal to exempt Rural Housing bodies from paying LBTT. As I have said before in this Chamber, any steps that we can take to promote the building of affordable housing should be considered, and hopefully this will encourage more to be built.

Although there are many elements of the Bill that are to be considered further at Stage 2, and indeed others such as the taxation bands, collection arrangements and block grant adjustments that will require further scrutiny in the months and years to come, I think I speak for the whole Committee when I say that we are encouraged by the considered, deliberative and open approach being taken by the Government on this Bill. Although I am aware that the Cabinet Secretary is not inclined to support relief for zero-carbon homes, I am aware of a proposal for a fiscally neutral energy efficiency modifier that has emerged since oral evidence was given by energy organisations in February. I would ask the Cabinet Secretary and the Government to consider their proposal as the Bill progresses.

I must confess that, in considering this Bill, I was mindful of the suggestions raised in Professor Mirrlees’ review, and echoed by Andy Wightman in his submission to the consultation, on what sort of taxation regime we should have for property. I certainly have sympathy with Mr Wightman’s suggestion for a radical overhaul of the way in which we think about land and property, but I am also aware that the Scotland Act 2012 only allowed for any replacement for SDLT to be a tax on transactions.

Therefore, although I would be inclined to support some sort of land value tax, I appreciate that we cannot allow the perfect to be the enemy of the good on this occasion and that the LBTT provides a solid move towards a more equitable system.

Finally, Presiding Officer, I note that this is the first of three pieces of legislation emanating from the Scotland Act 2012 that will begin to increase this Parliament’s powers. I look forward to the day that this Parliament has the full, normal powers of any other nation and is able to bring about the substantive changes in our economy and society we do desperately need.

I support the Bill.

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.

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.

BLOG: The Finance Committee Budget Votes

A number of press outlets have carried a story regarding a vote that took place at the Finance Committee last Wednesday. As reported, I did vote against an SNP amendment to our Committee’s budget report that would have explicitly supported the budget; however, I also voted against an opposition amendment that would have explicitly condemned the budget, a fact that seems to have somehow been missed out by the media.

The Committee system, in common with the Parliament’s original ethos, was designed to engender consensus and to encourage co-operation among MSPs regardless of their party affiliation. Holyrood’s Committees are also intended (perhaps optimistically) to be the yin to the Chamber’s yang, allowing thoughtful debate free from the partisan point-scoring that can, on occasion, take place in the Chamber.

The Budget Report, so ably distilled into a concise document by the Committee’s staff from the hours of expert evidence taken by the Committee on the impact of the Government’s proposed Budget, is a fair and balanced analysis of the Budget. It recognises that there are a range of opinions on the strength of the Budget, praising it where it deserves to be praised and offering constructive suggestions for change or further thought where the Committee considered that would be useful.

It’s a report that I am proud to put my name to, and that I was determined to keep clear from any amendments which would seek to change the spirit of the Report for pointless political point-scoring without any empirical evidence to back them. Michael McMahon, whose scrutiny has been an asset to the Committee, unfortunately put forward an amendment seeking outright criticism, an amendment that could not be backed by any interpretation of the evidence. To counter this, John Mason, who has been an able and thorough Deputy Convener of the Committee, put forward an amendment offering outright praise, which would also not have been fair given the evidence taken by the Committee.

In both instances, I voted to retain the original Report. Had the Report been altered by either amendment, it would have been difficult for the whole Committee to agree to support the Report, which would have been incredibly damaging and only added to the partisan cloud hanging over Holyrood these days. I’m delighted that the original report was wholeheartedly endorsed by the Committee, and hope that this consensus can be built on in the New Year.

Statement

As many of you will know, I have resigned from the Scottish National Party due to its change of policy in relation to NATO membership post-independence. I will continue to sit in the Scottish Parliament as an independent MSP for the Highlands and Islands.

I would like to make it clear that I remain fully committed to securing a Yes vote in the independence referendum in 2014, and that I will continue to support the Scottish Government on most issues.

For the time being, I will continue to be a member of both the Finance Committee and the Equal Opportunities Committee, and will maintain my involvement in a number of cross-party working groups within the Parliament, including the Crofting Cross-Party Group of which I am Deputy Convener.

I would like to thank those who have been in touch to offer their support and advice, particularly those from the Highlands and Islands who I have been so proud to represent since May 2011 and anticipate serving as one of their MSPs for the rest of this parliamentary term.

I look forward to hearing from many more people across the region in the months and years to come and to working with them to make Scotland a fairer, more prosperous and more peaceful nation.

Jean Urquhart