Thursday, 28 August 2008

Collapse of the European Parliament's ceiling in Strasbourg

Of course the best news today was the realisation that next week's Strasbourg session is in Brussels.

At the beginning of the month we were all notified by the Parliament's Secretary-General the grave news that part of the ceiling in the chamber in Strasbourg had collapsed. Despite best efforts to repair the damage the Strasbourg chamber will not be ready in time for next's first session back and while everyone is glad that no one was hurt when the ceiling collapsed there has been much rejoicing at the prospect at not having to head down the road for a trip that costs taxpayers millions of euros. I also now don't need to remember to pack Alyn's canteen and put it outside the office.

Wednesday, 27 August 2008

Ensuring Scotland's voice heard on reforming the EU's CAP

I’m now back in Brussels this week after our summer recess for what is likely to be an extremely busy time in the European Parliament as we head for the European elections next June. Already the first thing on my desk is to sort out our amendments to the report drafted by the Portuguese Socialist MEP Luis Capoulas Santos on the Common Agricultural Policy Health Check.

Before the summer we worked closely with the Scottish Government, Scotland’s NFU and other Scottish farming organisations to ensure Scotland’s farming and rural interests are central to the EP’s deliberations on this important issue. We submitted over 20 amendments which sought to strengthen Santos report not least by calling for example for all livestock payments to be decoupled as a way in which to simplify the single payment system for farmers and at the same time eliminate any distortions of competition which could prevent a level playing field for Scotland's farmers.

On the issue of modulation we sought the deletion of the Commission's proposals on progressive modulation which would seek to punish farms just because of their size. Modulation refers to the transfer of CAP funds from direct payments to farmers (pillar 1 of the CAP) to rural development measures (pillar 2 of the CAP)

While we want Member States to reduce voluntary modulation as compulsory modulation is raised to ensure Scotland's farmers are not placed at a major competitive disadvantage compared to their European counterparts, rural development money must not be lowered as a result. All modulated money should stay within the country that generated it so as to ensure there is maximum compensation for farmers whose income was reduced by modulation.

On cross compliance issues we want to see less administrative burdens being placed on farmers with greater emphasis on local decision-making via devolved governments and regional bodies. Our other amendments focused on issues such as abolishing payments for tobacco aid. Back in May the EP took the crazy decision to vote in favour of maintaining more than £200 million in EU subsidies for tobacco production. Given the amount of money the EU ploughs into public awareness campaigns about the dangers to public health from smoking this for me was a bad day for the Parliament and a bitter irony.

We'll be looking for as much support as possible for our amendments when the Agriculture Committee comes to vote on the draft Santos report on 7 October after which it will go to plenary for further debate and vote on 18 November.

Saturday, 23 August 2008

Glenrothes by-election

I returned to Markinch this afternoon to help out doing whatever was asked of me. I spent a lot of time in the Glenrothes constituency during the Holyrood campaign last year working alongside Tricia Marwick MSP and her team. I have to say I had a fantastic experience in Tricia's campaign and enjoyed every minute of it. The sheer hard work that was put into that campaign to get Tricia elected as the constituency MSP for Central Fife and to get as many Councillors elected as we did to enable the SNP to take control of Fife Council was astounding and greatly impressed me. I learnt a great deal and was certainly made to feel extremely welcome.

During this time I also had the opportunity to campaign alongside our candidate (who was selected last night), Cllr Peter Grant who has worked diligently across his ward and as the leader of Fife Council.

It was great to be back campaigning in Markinch as I spent most of the afternoon with David from Edinburgh leafleting. Out on the streets this afternoon there was a good feeling with people coming over to say hello and asking about the campaign. The Central Fife team have certainly worked extremely hard since last year's election delivering for the people of Central Fife and continuing to build our credibility in the constituency.

With the start of the autumn session in the EP looming I have to go back to Brussels on Monday. Our in-tray is full right now with a wealth of issues that we will be working on over the coming weeks and months - pesticides, CAP health check, animal by-products, food security, renewable energy targets and energy security, biofuels and climate change, etc. This is going to be an extremely hectic time as we approach the European elections and the end of the EP's current mandate. However, that won't stop me from coming back to Markinch and I'll certainly be there just as much as I can.

Friday, 15 August 2008

Seeing Scotland's offshore wind potential

When we return to Brussels at the end of this month one of the key issues we will have to deal with in the Parliament’s Energy Committee is the Commission’s proposed energy and climate change package. The Parliament’s Energy Committee is set to vote on the Commission’s proposals for promoting and increasing the use of renewable energy across the EU and we have been working closely with Scotland’s energy industry back home to ensure that Scotland’s distinctive approaches to energy challenges and opportunities are recognised in European policy.

Back in July 2006 we brought Europe’s Energy Commissioner, Andris Piebalgs to Scotland to see for himself how we are pioneering green energy technology. The Commissioner went offshore to the Beatrice oil platform and then to Nigg to see the offshore wind turbines that were being built as part of the Downvind Beatrice wind farm demonstration project part funded by the EU and the UK and Scottish Governments. This project saw the development of Europe’s largest-scale offshore wind farm development. The two demonstrator wind turbines are adjacent to the Beatrice oil field.

I also had the opportunity to see the turbines when I was at Nigg with the Commissioner and when I was up North last week I managed to see the two Beatrice offshore wind turbines sitting out in the Moray Firth, 25km from shore.

Beatrice showed what was possible to achieve by taking the technologies and various methods and practices developed already for offshore oil and gas and applying them to deep water offshore wind farm development. The old and the new, the dirty and the clean industries working together.

Since then the team that worked to develop the Downvind project have gone on to become “Seaenergy renewables”, one of the newest companies in Scotland to focus specifically on offshore wind developments and to be at the forefront of the offshore wind industry not just in Europe but across the world.

I travelled up to Aberdeen yesterday to meet the team, whom I had first met back in 2006, and after being briefed we headed up and across to Buckie for me to be given a chance to go out in one of the boats that Sea energy is looking to use when it comes to doing any repairs on the wind turbines.

Below is the wind cat work boat I went out into the Moray Firth on (its the yellow one in the middle)– this is a series 7 wind cat, which can do a top speed of 28 knots and a cruising speed of 25 knots.

Aileen, Kay (Seaenergy renewables), Florian and Chris in our survival gear

The opportunity for Scotland to lead the way in offshore wind is immense. Many lessons have been learnt from the Beatrice Downvind project in terms of developing the technology and while many skills have been transferred from the oil and gas industry, the one thing that struck me was the need for skills from the fishing industry. If you have a deep water offshore wind farm development out in the middle of the sea they will need to be repaired and that requires people who have an understanding of the sea to be able to cope with difficult weather conditions out at sea along with people who have a head for heights to climb inside the turbine to do the necessary repairs. When we were out in the Moray Firth, the waters were fairly calm though the swell was fairly strong and the boat which can do a top speed of 25 knots was certainly bouncing along at 22 knots. In the distance I could see the Beatrice wind turbines but the strong swell was certainly doing nothing for my stomach and we returned to the harbour.

This is an industry waiting to take off and I was glad to have the opportunity to meet with the team who are working extremely hard to make this a reality and to experience for myself some of the issues that such an industry will have to address. Gaining a better insight in to the development of the offshore wind industry is something I greatly appreciate and look forward to taking this back with me to Brussels the week after next.

Friday, 8 August 2008

The Assynt Higland Games at Lochinver

I spent today across in Lochinver for the Assynt Highland Games. The Sutherland Branch had a stall there right next to the Strawberries and cream van, which was ideal and the weather was perfect.

This is me with the Chieftain of the Assynt Highland Games, Alex Dickson.

After watching some of the Highland Games, we headed to Culkein via Clachtoll where Rob went to visit one of his constituents before heading back to Evanton via Ullapool and dinner at the Ceilidh Place.

Thursday, 7 August 2008

The Black Isle Show

This is me at the Black Isle show helping out at the SNP stall. This was a great location en route to the food market, so it was going like a fayre most of the time and was glad to give them a hand.

At the show I also had the opportunity to chat with the Scottish Crofting Foundation about many of the issues facing Scotland’s crofters not least the Schucksmith report, which is the result of an inquiry into the future of crafting by a committee led by Professor Mark Schucksmith. At the NFUS stall there was much discussion about the Commission’s proposals for reforming the current EU pesticides legislation as well as the future shape of Europe’s agricultural policy beyond 2013 – all of which I will be taking back with me to Brussels.

The Highland food market was a good opportunity to stock up with some local produce like Connage cheese and to chat with the Highlands and Islands Local Food Network to find out more about what they do and how they do it.

Tuesday, 5 August 2008

Seeing the North of Scotland's energy potential

This morning Rob’s assistant Niall drove us up from Evanton to Wick. Rob was holding one of his surgeries in his office in Pultney, Wick so having never yet made this far up the East coast of Scotland I decided to join them.

Here’s me outside Rob’s office with Rob and one of his members of staff Gail:

The journey up took two hours driving across the Dornoch Firth towards Golspie, Brora and Helmsdale. While the hills and the greenery of the woods were stunning, the one bit of the landscape that struck me the most was the looming statute of the Duke of Sutherland, which towers over Golspie. You can’t actually miss this guy – 30ft statute sitting on top of a 70ft plinth, 1300ft up at the summit of Ben Bhraggie. It was erected in 1834 in honour of the laird who owned the lands of Sutherland and who played a major part in clearing the families who lived on these lands to make way for giant sheep farms. In 1994 a plan to have this 30ft statute removed from the top of Ben Bhraggie led to an intense and long overdue debate about the Sutherland clearances.

While many books have been written about the Highland clearances over the years I can certainly recommend Rob Gibson’s book “Toppling the Duke – Outrage on Ben Bhraggie?” for anyone who is interested in reading a historical overview and insight into the campaign, which he had also been a part of, in trying to obtain permission to knock down the Duke of Sutherland statute.

This is me at Lybster, which is just off the Caithness coast.

Behind us is Scotland’s first onshore oil drilling rig. Drilling started here at the beginning of July and as I understand it is expected to produce between 500 and 1000 barrels of oil a day. The rig itself is 170ft and the opportunity for the North of Scotland’s energy potential is immense. When it comes to transferring the oil there is certainly a case for the main railway line up to Wick to be upgraded

Rob's second surgery was back down in Helmsdale which gave me the opportunity to visit the memorial to the Highland clearances, which was unveiled last July by our First Minister, Alex Salmond.

The statue was created by the sculptor Gerald Laign, who is based in the Black Isle.

The plaque on the statue's plinth reads:

"The Emigrants

Commemorates the people of the Highlands and Islands of Scotland who, in the face of great adversity, sought freedom, hope and jusice beyond these shores. They and their descendants went forth and explored continents, built great countries and cities and gave their enterprise and culture to the world. This is their legacy.

Their voices will echo forever through the empty straths and glens of their homeland".

Monday, 4 August 2008

A Highland jaunt...

With Brussels now in summer recess I’ve headed North to spend a couple of days with Rob Gibson MSP and his partner Eleanor Scott at their home in Evanton, Rosshire. I was up there a few months ago for the Andrew de Moray walk in Avoch. While the landscape and the countryside round that part of Scotland is pretty spectacular, that’s not the only reason why I decided to spend some of my summer holidays here.

Essentially my Highland jaunt in sunny Sutherland is about my learning and understanding more about Scotland in the sense of finding out who we are as a people and how we got to where we are today, economically, socially and culturally. Any Scottish history I was taught at school comprised solely of Robert the Bruce, Mary Queen of Scots and William Wallace and that was it. History at school was about the Romans, the Egyptians, 1066 and English Kings and Queens, Shakespeare and the wars. The extent to which the history of our nation was ignored at school was and remains scandalous and is something which I am glad to see the SNP Government is striving to correct by way of working towards the teaching of Scotland’s history and our culture is part and parcel of the school curriculum

Understanding who we are and where we came from is central to our identity and to the future of our nation. And for me this week there is no better way to understand Scotland’s place in the world than going out and about and experiencing our culture, our landscape, and being able to feel it.