Sir Robert Smith Column 18th March 2011

Friday morning’s news was one of those stories where you sense the outcome will be far more devastating than the initial headlines suggest.   The extent of the destruction caused by the tsunami in Japan is still being revealed.   It is on a scale that is difficult to come to terms with.  I certainly join with others in expressing my deepest sympathy for all the victims of this tragedy.

It is certainly time for the international community to rally round and offer all possible assistance to Japan at this time.  Only recently Japanese experts were helping with the rescue mission in New Zealand.  Japan has great expertise in preparing for earthquakes, but the scale of the task they face will be beyond their domestic resources.   As well as the human suffering it will be a real shock for their fragile economy.

Natural disasters such as this remind us of the potentially devastating power of nature and the importance of global cooperation in our response.   In a different way we were reminded of the importance of global cooperation during the recent Fair Trade fortnight.

One of the ways we can improve the lives of those in some of the poorest countries is ensuring fair trade rules apply to the products they produce.  Developing fair trade can do far more to tackle third world poverty on a long term sustainable basis than just providing development aid.

Mike Rumbles MSP and I were very pleased to be invited to share in Alford Primary’s Fair Trade Assembly last Friday.  Each class gave a presentation on what they had learnt about Fair Trade Cotton.  They had all cleverly adapted their class projects so as to show an aspect of the lessons learnt about cotton farming and trade.  There were some excellent confident performances that impressed us both.

The high price of crude oil is giving mixed blessings to the North East of Scotland. It is boosting investment in jobs dependent on oil and exploration. This is good news for the local economy but we do need to act to ensure that those jobs stay in this area. Many of those jobs are now in the export market and could be based anywhere in the world.

We all have to work hard to ensure those exporting companies remain located locally.  That is why the Scottish Government must respond positively to the Fair Share campaign when it comes to funding of our council and health services.

Currently the North East looses out in the way the Scottish Government distributes funding for vital local services.  These services are important when companies decide where to locate their investment.

When it comes to oil and gas companies if they do not invest in the north east they will not be going elsewhere in the UK, but to other oil and gas provinces abroad.  The UK Energy Department and Treasury currently have a good relationship with those investors.  It is vital that the Scottish Government recognises the important role this investment can play in both Scotland’s and the UK’s recovery and provide fair funding for North East services.

The downside of high oil prices is the relentless rise in the cost of fuel at the pumps.   I have been pressing the Chancellor to recognise the concerns of rural motorists by not implementing the last Government’s proposed increase in fuel duty this April.

For many here the car is a necessity and not a luxury given that public transport is not a sustainable alternative in many rural areas.   In the long run we need a more sophisticated way to tackle the environmental impact of car use that recognises the vital role it plays in rural areas.   For now not implementing the duty rise would be of immediate assistance.

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