Diary of an MSP with Alex Fergusson

The MSP gives us his monthly round-up of life in the parliamentary world.Rural Affairs

All of a sudden, there is an extra focus on rural matters in the Scottish Parliament. As a member of the Rural Affairs, Climate Change and Environment Committee I welcome some of that focus – it is quite clear that we are not going to be idle over the next year or so. In that time we are going to have to deal with the Community Empowerment Bill, a Land Reform Bill, Agricultural Holdings legislation and legislation to restructure the management of our Wild Fisheries (rivers, to you and me!). You might think, and I might well agree with you, that that is giving undue attention to rural matters but, whatever the reason for that focus, these are hugely important issues and I hope – perhaps somewhat naively – that a desire to create new structures that will benefit everyone will take precedence over party political dogma. If we can do that, then we can genuinely achieve progress in these areas. If we can’t, then we will simply create work for ECHR lawyers and further tensions between stakeholders. I would infinitely prefer the former!

Milk

It surely cannot be right that you can buy milk cheaper than you can buy water in our supermarkets. Something is clearly not right in the dairy supply chain between the producer (farmer), the processor and the retailer, and, as most readers will be aware, the price of milk to the farmer has plummeted seriously over the last few months.

The RACCE Committee therefore decided to hold a short sharp inquiry into the situation and try and identify what might be done to help – having said that, if there was an easy answer, it would have been applied a long time ago.

Our inquiry heard from farmers, processors, the major supermarkets and, intriguingly, from the Grocery Code Adjudicator, Christine Tacon. We knew we wouldn’t find any ‘quick fix’ and we didn’t , but we were of the unanimous opinion that the sooner Ms Tacon’s powers were extended the better – along with the penalties that she can apply.

There are some things that Governments can do to help, and we have urged them to take those necessary steps. But the long term answer needs buy-in from across the supply chain – it needs the three links in the chain to be working openly together for the good of the sector. What better year to begin that process than this – the year of Food and Drink.

Year of Food and Drink

During our milk price inquiry, the importance of the dairy sector to our Region was highlighted many times as retailers spoke of products on their shelves from Lockerbie, Stranraer and Newton Stewart – Arla, Lactalis-McLellan and Rowan Glen to be precise. I also took advantage of our short February recess to visit ‘Galloway Preserves’ at Gatehouse and I attended the opening of the £5 million extension at the Castle MacLellan pate factory in Kirkcudbright. Both these superb local food producers – and they really are superb – serve to underline how good we are at adding value to food products here in our Region.

It is vitally important that we do so – it is what makes a local economy click – and every time I think of it I rue the demise of Savour the Flavours – the arms length organisation that became a national benchmark for local food and drink promotion.

Sadly, Dumfries and Galloway’s participation in the designated Year of Food and Drink will be much the poorer for the absence of Savour the Flavours. It is greatly missed.

‘Til next year Rabbie

While I am more than aware that the ‘Burns Season’ now extends well into March, my own participation came to an end in mid February at Ecclefechan – a superb community Burns Supper held in the community centre and just the sort of celebration that I enjoy the most. I had the greatest pleasure in attending similar suppers in Dumfries, Portpatrick and Kirkcudbright this year as well. At the other end of the scale, however, is the annual Befrienders Burns’ Supper which, as well as being probably the largest supper in the Region, doubles as a fundraiser for this wonderful local charity. Balancing the Burns supper traditions with the need to raise a considerable amount of money is not an easy thing to do, and yet the organisers do a fantastic job of getting that balance just right, making my task as Chairman a relative piece of cake. It is therefore with great pleasure that I can say that yet again the Befrienders Burns Supper raised in excess of £4,000 – great speakers, great audience, great cause and great result. What more could you want!

Parliament Day

When I served as the Parliament’s Presiding Officer, I instigated what we called the Community Empowerment Programme. The idea was to identify ‘hard to reach’ organisations and individuals, bring them into the Parliament and mentor them through a process of teaching them how using the Parliament in a variety of ways could help them with their specific issues. The idea was that they would then become ‘ambassadors’ for the Parliament within their communities, and I think it worked quite well.

My successor has taken a great step by turning the process on its head and, instead of bringing people to the Parliament, she now takes the Parliament to the people. Hence the recent ‘Parliament Day’ in Dumfries, even if the word ‘day’ should really be plural! On the Saturday, I found myself leading workshops on ‘Help me to Help you’ – one of 7 different workshops that participants could choose to attend. I am not a natural leader of workshops, but I thoroughly enjoyed the exchange of views and opinions that took place, and the feedback was good.

The Sunday evening involved a reception, given by the Presiding Officer, at which members of the Petitions Committee which was to meet in Dumfries on the Monday were also present – again, a ‘networking’ opportunity that many local organisations took advantage of. Then, while the Petitions Committee met on the Monday, I escorted the Presiding Officer on a visit to BSW Sawmill in Dalbeattie, designed to highlight the importance of forestry to the Region – a fact that was highlighted when we met 6 youngsters who were doing a modern apprenticeship based at the Mill. It was very impressive all round. I thought it was a great exercise, and I hope that local participants – who came from Stranraer to Annan and many places in-between got something positive out of it. My only comment would be that bringing people to the Parliament was much less exhausting than the other way round!