A week at Westminster with Gordon MP Malcolm Bruce

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Governments must tackle skills needs

The recent report by PWC Aberdeen only served to highlight what everyone connected with the offshore oil and gas industry already knows. The industry is going through a period of dynamic development and the work force is ageing. Therefore, we need a huge number of new entrants.

After a misjudged first budget that undermined confidence and investment, changes in the last budget, not least on decommissioning, have led to an upturn in investment which will be further helped by the extra relief for mature fields announced last week.

I know first-hand a number of companies in the north east who are actively seeking new people to train – often tens or hundreds.

I raised this with the Prime Minister at the first question time since the summer. His reply acknowledged the potential and indicated that he wanted to hear what could best be done.

I will be sending him detailed suggestions, copied to key ministers.

The offshore industry is a key sector of the economy that is growing and can grow some more on the back of domestic investment and world-wide export opportunities for North Sea tested skills and services.

Small reshuffle – few hurt

I do not believe that Government reshuffles cause very much excitement among the general public. At least, so far, this Government has not felt the need to shuffle the deck as often as Tony Blair did – and a good thing too.

Of course it matters a lot to the people directly affected. Otherwise, its purpose has to be about improving delivery of policy.

I regret the departure of those who have done a good job in government but have made way for other colleagues to come into government. It will be interesting to see the impact of having Lib Dem ministers in DEFRA, DFID and the Welsh Office – and, more negatively, not having ministers in defence and the foreign office. It will also be interesting to see how effectively David Laws supports Nick Clegg as a strategic thinker.

For my own part, I take satisfaction in being elected as chair of the International Development Committee and therefore outside the reach of the leader’s reshuffle!

Summer tour retains value

My recently completed summer tour proved useful in catching up with a variety of issues around the constituency as well as enabling a significant number of people to raise issues with me individually. These were varied – and both local and national in character - although, of course, confidential.

This was the 30th time I have carried out such a tour – which was a novelty when I started it with only a couple of Liberal colleagues having initiated the idea.

Of course, I live locally with my family and follow the local media as well as making regular visits throughout the year to many parts of the constituency. Nevertheless, the tour makes sure I reach some of the smaller communities I might not otherwise visit every year.

Local post offices are campaigning to retain existing services and offer new ones – something I support. I am glad the Government has eschewed a closure programme and provided extra funding for the network. Nevertheless, there is worry that the car tax contract is out to tender, and losing that would be a loss to many branches and an inconvenience to the public.

This would be on top of the loss of national savings business and threat to premium bonds.

I accept that the world is changing, that online transactions are becoming the norm but the local post office is a vital part of the community and a social service. It is clearly better for post offices to have as many services as possible to attract business and meet the needs of communities in rural areas.

Will ministers save Tarves or just dish out blame?

It was a huge disappointment that the Tarves GP surgery closed last week. The Haddo practice explained that the loss of dispensing income, following the opening of a pharmacy against the wishes of the local community made the operation unviable.

Of course, it is not that Tarves gets no benefit from a pharmacy – it is just that for most, that is outweighed by the loss of a surgery in the village.

The decision to end the dispensing rights in Tarves and Pitmedden of the Haddo medical practice was taken by NHS Grampian. In my discussions with them they have been adamant that they had no choice but to take that decision according to the rules – as they put it there is no “wriggle room”. I raised the suggestion that the restriction on dispensing could have been limited to Tarves but NHS Grampian tell me their legal advice is that it would have been challenged.

So what now? Had advice been given to apply the rules differently or the rules been changed during the last three years the present situation could have been avoided. Ministers, however, knowing the situation, have argued that the development of community pharmacies is part of the way forward and have not sought to put in place any measures to deal with a situatios like this.

Provision of surgeries in different communities is driven by GP practices who are self employed contractors to the NHS. There is growing campaign for new replacement health centres in Ellon and Inverurie and for one to be opened in Balmedie.

It should have been possible to retain Tarves. The practice still owns the premises. Given that the pharmacy is up and running and the practice is redeploying its staff makes it difficult to reverse the decision. It would take a guarantee of income to replace what is lost by dispensing – which did not directly subsidise the surgery but contributed to overheads and staffing. Can Scottish Government ministers deliver this – having taken no steps so far? I am sure the people of Tarves would like to know, even more than I do.