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Eilidh Whiteford, MP for Banff & Buchan

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Constitution and Home Affairs - Dr Eilidh Whiteford [Maiden Speech]

Monday, 7 June 2010

House of Commons
Monday 7 June 2010
The House met at half-past Two o’clock
PRAYERS
[Mr Speaker in the Chair]
... ... ...
Constitution and Home Affairs

Mr Speaker: I inform the House that I have selected the amendment in the name of Ms Harriet Harman. Once moved, that amendment will limit the scope of debate to the issues mentioned in it. Older hands can expect to be called to order by the occupant of the Chair if they go beyond the scope of the amendment. New Members making maiden speeches can expect some customary latitude.
... ... ...
8.47 pm

Dr Eilidh Whiteford (Banff and Buchan) (SNP): I am grateful for the opportunity this evening to address the House for the first time, and it is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Eastbourne (Stephen Lloyd), whom I congratulate on making such an engaging contribution to this evening’s proceedings.

It is perhaps appropriate that I contribute to this part of the debate on the Gracious Speech, because I am the first Member for Banff and Buchan to make a maiden speech in the Chamber since the significant constitutional changes that brought about devolution and the establishment of the Scottish Parliament in 1999. Part of my duty this evening is to pay tribute to my predecessor, the right hon. Alex Salmond, the First Minister of Scotland. My right hon. Friend made an inimitable mark on this House. He continues to serve the people of north-east Scotland as MSP for Gordon, and he continues to make his mark on what remains a live and dynamic debate about the constitutional future of these islands. I have no doubt that Alex Salmond will play an instrumental role in shaping the emerging debate, which is now gathering momentum, on new powers for the devolved Administrations. I have no doubt also that, when future generations reflect on the history of Scotland, Alex Salmond’s central place in the story of our own times will be assured.

However, some of Alex Salmond’s greatest strengths as a Member lay in the diligent service that he gave his constituents in Banff and Buchan. He worked hard to win the respect of his constituents across the political spectrum, and I aim to do likewise. I grew up in the Banffshire port of Macduff, I am now immensely honoured to represent my home area, and I shall seek to emulate the high quality of representation to which the people of Banff and Buchan have grown accustomed over the past 23 years.

Turning to this evening’s debate, I am the first to concede that constitutional change can be a dry subject. However, for my constituents, a very great deal is at stake in our constitutional arrangements. Banff and Buchan’s local economy depends heavily on agriculture, fisheries and energy and the manufacturing industries associated with them. People do hard physical work to produce tangible goods and services, and, although the oil and gas industry has brought a degree of prosperity to the area over the past 30 years, many people—especially women—still work in low-paid jobs in the processing and manufacturing sectors. Many of our older residents therefore face very frugal retirements, despite having worked hard all their days, and keeping warm in winter is a challenge for many. The constituency has been badly affected by the recession; in fact, we have experienced among the sharpest increases in unemployment anywhere in the UK.

The constitution matters to Banff and Buchan because our key industries are directly affected by decisions made at European level negotiated on our behalf by UK Ministers—too often, I am sad to say, not very effectively. In my view, further constitutional change is a necessary precursor to improving the lives and prospects of the people I represent.

The fishing industry is at the heart of our local economy, and it is the lifeblood of our coastal towns and villages. About two thirds of the UK’s fishing industry is based in Scotland, and much of it is centred around Banff and Buchan, where Peterhead remains Europe’s premier white fish port and Fraserburgh is Europe’s largest shellfish port. The fishing industry also supports thousands of onshore jobs in fish processing, retail and supply. These continue to be exceptionally difficult times for the fishing and processing industries. In the past 10 years, the white fish fleet has halved and many of the current fleet are struggling to stay in business. The underlying problem is the European Union’s common fisheries policy, which has been an unmitigated disaster at every level. The CFP is not fit for purpose. It threatens the economic viability of the industry and the social fabric of our communities, and it is causing untold environmental damage. Our fishing industry needs urgent action now to create a sustainable future.

As hon. Members will be aware, management of fisheries is a devolved issue, but the key decisions that set the policy framework are made by EU member states. Scottish fishermen have been repeatedly let down by UK Governments in EU negotiations. Just a few weeks ago, at a time of crisis for the industry, we saw the Scottish Fisheries Minister prevented from attending international talks on the CFP, while an unelected peer attended on behalf of the previous UK Government. Perhaps no issue highlights more acutely the limitations of our current constitutional arrangements. Fishing is far more important to the communities I represent than it will ever be to the UK as a whole. Although I regret that there is no mention of fisheries in the new Government’s coalition agreement, I hope that they will take steps to redress the exclusion of the devolved Administrations from fisheries talks and will, in doing so, put some flesh on the bones of their much publicised, and today rather emaciated-looking, respect agenda.

Banff and Buchan’s agricultural producers face similar representational challenges in ensuring that decisions made in Brussels reflect their interests and needs. Turriff is the most sizeable of Banff and Buchan’s rural towns and is home to one of the UK’s largest agricultural shows and a range of industries, including a large meat processing plant that supplies premium produce to supermarkets across the country. Turriff is of course more well known for the famous “Turra Coo”, which formed part of a celebrated protest by local farmers against the taxation policies of the Liberal Government back in 1913. Perhaps there is a warning there for the present Government to mind how they treat Scottish farmers.

The realities of physical geography mean that there are distinct issues for farmers in different parts of the UK. Agriculture is also largely a devolved issue, but the practice of recent years has often been for UK Ministers to conduct negotiations with the EU Commission, the presidency and other member states without the presence of devolved Ministers. Once again, I would urge the new Government to bring the democratically elected representatives of the devolved Administrations around the table. As the EU reforms its common agricultural policy, the UK needs to move away from the “one size fits nobody” approach of recent years, which does a grave disservice to those among my constituents who earn their livelihoods from the land.

The other major source of employment in Banff and Buchan is the oil and gas sector, onshore and offshore, most notably at the St Fergus terminal. However, as we look ahead, we have to acknowledge that our future prosperity lies in renewable energy. Banff and Buchan is exceptionally well positioned to take advantage of emerging opportunities in the development of offshore wind, wave and tidal power. We have the location and a skilled workforce experienced in offshore technology. However, to make the most of these opportunities for green jobs, we need to challenge the current discriminatory transmission charges regime, which disincentivises the production of renewable energy in the very areas of the UK most equipped to produce it. We also need the UK Government to release the fossil fuel levy to enable the investment in the infrastructure that is necessary to realise our potential and to build a prosperous future.

I have no doubt that I will return to these issues in the weeks ahead, and I look forward to bringing the concerns of Banff and Buchan’s constituents before the House in future.

8.54 pm

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