I would like to take this opportunity to wish a very happy New Year to all in the north-east of Scotland. The beginning of the year is a wonderful time to reflect and take stock of what has passed and also to focus on the coming weeks and months.
For Scotland, 2014 was a momentous year: the referendum campaign of 2014 was energising and empowering.
But because it was a debate within Scotland, it inevitably put us into Yes and No camps. The general election of 2015 is different. It provides an opportunity for us to unite as a country.
There are 17 weeks to go to until the general election in May and many of you will have seen the SNP’s image of the Westminster benches, reimagined with a much-needed Scottish update.
The tartan tinge to the green benches should act as a reminder to the Westminster parties that the people of Scotland will continue to expect what they were promised in the last days of the referendum campaign.
Westminster will not be able to ignore Scotland and the promise of a powerhouse parliament that can create more jobs and protect our public service will have to be delivered.
This is a difficult time for the oil industry and there is great concern about the fall in the price of oil.
The Scottish Government is working very hard to support the industry however; it is the UK Government, which holds the powers over tax on the industry, which must deliver incentives to bring forward action that they have promised so that we’re giving maximum support to the industry at a time when they need it most.
The UK Government moves like lightning to tax the industry when oil prices are high but moves at a snail’s pace when oil prices are low.
In a glaring example of oil tax hypocrisy, George Osborne announced a shale oil fund for the north of England in his Autumn Statement. This is before a single barrel of oil has been produced, yet, Scotland, with more than 40 billion barrels of oil is still waiting.
Over the last 40 years more than £330,000 million has poured into the Westminster Exchequer, around £60,000 per head for every Scot, yet there is no gratitude whatsoever.
Scotland’s resources have bankrolled successive Tory and Labour Chancellors with any crumb of a concession being presented as if it were a gift.
But the focus should be on what needs to be done instead of sly politicking.
The current SNP government has done a vast amount in support of innovation – for example, through the £10million funding for the Oil and Gas Innovation Centre and an additional £6.5million investment to support skills in the industry.
The Scottish Government also published the Energy Skills Investment Plan and more than 500 apprenticeships for the energy sector have been provided in each year of the current Parliament.
The oil and gas industry is crying out for more action from the UK Government through bolder action on reducing the supplementary charge, urgent action on the proposed new investment allowance and support for exploration.
This call to action from the industry must be answered and I hope that politicians on all sides of the debating chamber can support the Scottish Government in achieving this.
I am delighted that all children in primary 1, 2 and 3 are now eligible for free school meals.
This will ensure our youngest pupils access to healthy and nutritious meals which will help to improve attainment and allow children to achieve their best. The Scottish Government has made more than £95million available through revenue and additional capital funding in order to deliver the policy.
The provision of free school meals will ensure our youngest pupils access to healthy and nutritious meals which will help to improve attainment and allow children to achieve their best.
This will also be welcome news for family budgets in these tough financial times with families able to make savings of around £330 per year for every eligible child.
The SNP are committed to making Scotland a better place and the introduction of free school meals – which will benefit around 135,000 children – shows that the Scottish Government is taking real action to achieve this.