Speech: The Scottish Budget 2014

Jean spoke in the final debate on the Scottish Budget, emphasising again the importanmce of preventative spending, and secure funding for the charities that provide so many preventative services.

She also addressed the Bedroom Tax, which the Scottish Government has successfully mitigated but which remains effectively a tax paid by Scotland to the UK Treasury.

You can watch her speech below (start at 1:45:48), and read the transcript of the whole debate at TheyWorkForYou.com.

Jean Urquhart (Highlands and Islands) (Ind): As always, I pay tribute not only to the hard work of the cabinet secretary in putting together the budget but to the efforts of the Finance Committee clerking team in helping those of us who are on the committee to scrutinise the budget and shed some light on the issues at hand. I am pleased to have the opportunity to go over some of those issues in this stage 3 debate.

The Scottish Government is to be congratulated on 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—free prescriptions, free personal care and public transport for the elderly, and free university education—have been protected. When household budgets are being squeezed by rising food prices and energy costs, those measures are not only welcome but necessary.

As a member of the Finance Committee, I am particularly pleased that the Scottish Government has strengthened its commitment to prevention, spending to stop social and health problems before they start instead of relying on expensive cures once it is too late. That philosophy is increasingly being followed in Government strategy, and the budget includes £30 million over two years to support the voluntary sector’s vital work in that area.

However, far too many charities are still being given funding settlements for just one year at a time, which makes it hard for them to plan and invest in future services. For example, the Badenoch & Strathspey Community Transport Company, which is extraordinarily good, faces an uncertain future despite providing an essential service that is well used by hundreds of people every week. We need to move to an expectation that funding for community projects will be for several years at a time, which will create the security that these brilliant voluntary sector services need and deserve.

On a more general note, I was pleased to see so many parties voting for the principles of the budget at stage 1. That is a testament to the cabinet secretary’s ability and his determination to get the best deal that he can for Scots from all walks of life. It also demonstrates that, despite differences of opinion on Scotland’s constitutional future, a solid majority in this Parliament believe that there is such a thing as society, that we cannot slash and burn our way to a better economy and that a healthy economy is based not on how those at the very top weather the storm but on how those at the bottom are protected from the harsh winds of an economic storm that continues to wreak havoc on communities up and down Scotland.

I am still angry that the bedroom tax was imposed on Scotland in the first place. I am angry that other welfare cuts, which are driven by ideology and lack compassion, are causing tens of thousands of Scots to turn to food banks. I am angry that a party that has been consistently and overwhelmingly rejected by the Scottish people for years continues to hold the purse strings. No matter what sterling work the cabinet secretary is able to do within the confines of our financial settlement and no matter how much we may agree with the second-largest party in this Parliament, the fact remains that, until Scotland has the full economic powers of any other nation, there is only so much that can be done to counteract the me-first attitude of Westminster’s right-wing orthodoxy.

At the end of her speech, Jackie Baillie declared with great aplomb—I hope that I am quoting her correctly—

“Today we can vote in effect to end the bedroom tax”.

Well, we cannot. We cannot simply vote to end the bedroom tax—that is the point of wanting Scotland to have independence.

Jackie Baillie (Dumbarton) (Lab): Does the member accept that, because of the Scottish Government’s actions in putting the £50 million on the table, we have effectively ended the bedroom tax in Scotland?

Jean Urquhart: No, I do not accept that at all. We have mitigated some of the worst outcomes of the bedroom tax, but we have not ended it. In fact, Scotland is going to pay dearly, to the tune of possibly £50 million from other services, to mitigate the bedroom tax. Let nobody be under any illusion that we have ended the bedroom tax.

The Conservative members who have spoken so far have pointed out that the cabinet secretary has not mentioned business or the economy, and they have said that this is not a budget for business. However, it seems to me from all the reports—those in what I might choose to call the English papers as well as those in the Scottish papers—that the big issue today is not the business community. The biggest issue—the one that is hitting everyone’s mailbox—is the bedroom tax and its effects on housing associations and local authorities.

I highly recommend the budget. I can only repeat what many other members have said: the only way to mitigate the bedroom tax is to abolish it, and the only way to guarantee that it will be abolished is to vote yes on 18 September. The budget lays the groundwork for a fairer and more prosperous Scotland. I support the Budget (Scotland) (No 3) Bill and the Government in its efforts to ensure that all future budgets can freely set Scotland’s priorities.

Speech: Members’ Business Debate- Scottish Woodlot Association (October 30th)

I, too, congratulate Aileen McLeod on bringing the debate to the chamber. I am pleased to speak about woodlot licences and family forestry in Scotland, both of which I support because of their potential value to Scotland’s rural economy through job creation and forest management. As a member with a keen interest in woodland crofting, I understand the need for woodlot licensing and support it fully. Like Alex Fergusson, I wish that I had thought of the idea myself. I believe that a diverse forestry sector could come as a result of the licences and family forestry, and we should recognise the merits of both.

I will speak generally about the potential benefits of the licences but, before I do so, I express my delight at the awarding of Scotland’s first woodlot licence in August for land on the Corsewall estate, near Stranraer. I am delighted by all that I have read about Mark Rowe and Angus Carrick-Buchanan and their agreement to have a fantastic management plan for 37 hectares on that estate. The plan allows Mr Rowe to engage in the felling and abstraction of timber, which he will then be allowed to process and sell as firewood and sawn timber. In return, Mr Rowe will pay an annual rental for the woodlot to Mr Carrick-Buchanan.

That is a good method of managing land and, as Mr Carrick-Buchanan said,

“This pilot project with the Scottish Woodlot Association sets out to prove that the woodlot licence holder, the woodland owner, the environment and the local economy can all win.”

Woodlot licences will be important because they will potentially link local people, land management professionals, forest owners, timber processors and buyers in a co-operative working arrangement, which will provide benefits to existing forest owners and rural communities alike. Woodlot licences could provide the means to create many new jobs in the rural economy and could encourage people to live and work in rural areas.

In British Columbia, where woodlot licensing was pioneered, 12,000 people make all or part of their living from woodlot licences. I am sure that members will agree that that is an impressive statistic. It is rightly acknowledged that woodlot licences will bring undermanaged woodland into production, which will lead to more forest management activity than at present. That will involve the input of new machinery and existing and new contractors and will open up new supply chains. Woodlot licences also have the potential to produce thousands of tonnes of wood that could be used locally as firewood or for small-scale log processing or fed into supply chains for large-scale timber processors and renewable energy generators.

Family forestry is another aspect of any debate about woodlot licences. Woodlot licences can connect many more young families to the resourceful land that we have. Families have been squeezed out of land leasing because most land use is dominated by large-scale industrial agriculture and industrial forestry and because the price of land and forest has been rising. For example, it can cost more than £10,000 for the purchase of just one hectare of forest. Until now, forestry has not had any prospect of a mechanism for leasing land through farm rental as is the case in agriculture but, with woodlot licences, that can change. They will allow small-scale, decentralised forestry to thrive, and will act as an important stepping stone in the creation of a new woodland culture for Scotland in the 21st century.