Letter from Westminster

The job of the Secretary of State for Scotland is not what it used to be. Since devolution the job has largely withered on the vine as the executive functions that it previously had – control of Scot­land’s education, health service, policing etc – have all passed to the Scottish Parliament.

Nevertheless it remains as a job that has a seat at the cabinet table and for as long as it does we should make the most of it. I was pleased, therefore, that the current Secretary of State, Jim Murphy, visited the isles last week and was able to get a very brief taste of island life.

I was less impressed that his programme did not initially include engaging with the local community on some of the issues we have concerning our use of non-renewable fuels or, to put it another way, the cost of petrol and diesel. A few calls to his office, however, managed to sort that and he duly appeared at my Kirkwall office to hear for himself from a handful of hastily gathered representatives of the business and faming com­munities about the problems caused to them by the extra cost of fuel in the isles.

It was not a meeting that I expected to provide “a solution” to this knotty problem but I felt I would have been remiss to let the opportunity pass without him hearing for himself about it from those at the sharp end. In the event he was given a master class by local petrol retailer and Orkney councillor David Tullock on the structure of the local fuel market and how it led to increased prices.

We finished the meeting by making some suggestions as to how he could use his position as a cabinet minister to try to make some progress on this. It remains to be seen whether he will act on the suggestions that I gave him but at least, if he does not, then he can no longer claim ignorance of the problem.

I was able to catch up with Mr Murphy the next day when he arrived in Shetland and was with him when he visited Sandwick and, in particular, Sandsayre Pier. The pier has long stuck in my mind as the prime working example of the madness of government. It is a classic catch 22.

The pier needs major work done on it. I am no structural engineer but even I can see that much. It is something that as a listed building you would expect the government to want to encourage and indeed a VAT refund can be made available in these instances.

Because, however, of the particular definitions dreamed up by people sitting at desks in the Treasury the pier does not qualify, even though everyone agrees that this is exactly the sort of project that should. Rosemary Inkster and her team spelled it out in terms that no-one, even a cabinet minister could fail to understand. It remains to be seen if the Sir Humphries can be persuaded by a cabinet minister.

Alistair Carmichael MP


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