Posts Tagged holyrood

Holyrood’s finest hour?

It’s time for the Scottish Parliament to show its mettle.

Tomorrow, Holyrood will debate welfare reform.  Hopefully, the Scottish Government will lay its delayed Legislative Consent Motion (LCM) before the Parliament and everyone will agree to the highly unusual step of appointing three scrutiny committees for the process, one lead and two secondary ones.  This will enable evidence to be laid and heard from the widest possible range of contributors and allow Holyrood to determine whether and how it allows Westminster to legislate on devolved matters contained in the legislation.

Such is the potential impact to Scotland and her people from the measures in the UK government’s welfare reform bill that nothing less will do.  If ever the SNP wanted to pick a fight with Westminster, if ever Labour wanted to return to the hallowed ground of class politics, if ever the Liberal Democrats wanted to point up differences with their English brethren, if ever the Scottish Greens wanted to champion the cause of inequality, if ever the Scottish Conservatives wanted to show that leopards can change their spots, then this issue is it.

I blogged at the ither place that “the scale of change heading down the tracks from the ConDems’ systematic dismantling of the welfare state is almost overwhelming”.  I don’t think I was over-stating the case.  For if the ConDems get their way, nary a household nor family in Scotland will be unaffected by some aspect of the bill.  And not for the good.

Everything is up for grabs and for months, voluntary organisations have been trying and largely failing to influence the process at Westminster.  The old labyrinth of benefits will go, to be replaced by a universal credit.  No bad thing in itself, for everyone has been crying out for fairness, transparency and simplicity in the benefits systems for years.  But it is the application of conditionality, time limits and sanctions for not taking up work or work-related activity – with no exception allowed – and the cutting of income and raising of threshholds making benefits harder to access that will cause increased complexity and real problems for claimants.  Though these measures will, of course, slake the thirst of the right wing media which has helped pave the way for public acceptance of these changes with its damaging, inaccurate and misleading denunciations of people on benefits as workshy fraudsters.  But anyone losing their job – and over two hundred thousand people in Scotland have in recent months – will be affected.

Families with disabled children will be particularly hard hit from changes, as will cancer sufferers and those with complex and longterm mental health problems.  Housing benefit changes appear to benefit no-one.  Lone parents, kinship carers, unemployed young people, people unemployed for more than a year, people seriously injured in an accident, young carers, children, women reaching retirement age, people with multiple and complex disabilities, people with mild and moderate learning disabilities, homeless people, war veterans with health problems, large families, separated parents, families with a young baby and low income families in work – all might find themselves worse off.

This matters because if tens (hundreds?) of thousands of Scots are made poorer and more vulnerable as a result of benefit changes, the pressure on services like health, social work, education, housing – and on charities that work with vulnerable people – will rise, at a time when funding for such services is being stretched and cut.  Real hardship could result.

Moreover, the bill cuts across whole swathes of devolved issues and even interferes with the independence of Scots family law, through the child maintenance reforms.  The devolution of certain parts of the welfare state, including council tax benefit, parts of the social fund and the new benefit Personal Independence Payments for disabled people, will create additional work for the Scottish Government and potentially add new burdens to the public and voluntary sector, without, of course, Westminster providing appropriate funding to help smooth the way.

And everything that involves a concession or a benefit-related discount or access, such as fuel poverty measures, or is in fact, a devolved benefit, as free school meals and clothing grant vouchers are, will require to be reformed, again creating additional work for the Scottish Government and where new regulations are required, for the Scottish Parliament too.

To date, the Conservatives have not been listening:  concerns about the impact of measures and attempts to amend provisions have been ignored.  The shape of the bill has changed little since its introduction in the Spring, with the Conservatives aided and abetted in their selective deafness by the Liberal Democrats.  At committee stage in the House of Commons, scarcely a murmur never mind a protest could be heard from Lib Dem members:  that will be the civilising influence at work again, then.

And the political point is this:  Scotland did not vote for this UK Government.  These changes are being imposed with missionary zeal on a population which did not ask for them, and would not want them if it had a choice.

Changing the shape and impact of the bill’s measures is proving impossible through the front door, so it’s time to try the back.  Holyrood can do something here.  It can do its best to change the worst aspects of the bill in which it has a devolved interest.  If it was feeling particularly brave, it could try to stop the bill in its tracks and refuse to consent to allow Westminster to legislate on the matters that properly belong to its jurisdiction.

Wednesday signals the start of the process that might end in an unprecedented denouement and a constitutional crisis:  already many voluntary sector organisations are calling on MSPs to refuse the LCM.  No one knows what might happen if Holyrood said no thank you, not this time.  But that is for the end of the process.  In the meantime, the Scottish Parliament must devote all its available energes and resources to poring over every aspect of this bill, so it can make an informed decision.  Time is short – the bill is now at its Lords stages, which the UK Government has also gerrymandered by creating a grand committee which makes it harder to amend the bill, and will be done and dusted by Christmas – and minds must focus.

It’s time for Holyrood to show the Scottish people what it is made of.  It’s time for the parties to lay aside childish things and act in concert, in the public good.  It’s time to abandon tribal loyalties and politics.  Work together, create a consensus, speak up and speak out.  Then stand together and stand up for Scotland.

Holyrood, your country needs you:  this could be your finest hour.



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100 Days have come and gone

Belated congratulations are in order as the SNP marked another significant milestone in reaching 100 days, not of its first term in office, but its second running the government of Scotland.  Self-congratulation appears to be off the agenda though – nothing on the SNP website, nowt from the Scottish Government either.

Right on cue, though, a trio of disparaging and dispiriting articles in the Scotsman – a political one, an almost identical analysis, and in case we hadn’t got the message, a down in the mouth leader that ponders these last 100 days and concludes, clunkily, that the SNP Government hadn’t hit the ground running but jogging.

No we haven’t witnessed 100 days of dynamic action, as we did in 2007.  But then there are fewer quick fixes to be found.  And this time, where’s the hurry?  The SNP has a whole extra year to work with – pace is going to be everything this time round.

Moreover, with three opposition parties in disarray, floundering and leaderless, there has been no one snapping at their heels;  indeed, some of the Scottish Government’s poor headlines have been of their own making (or rather the media’s, seeing it as their collective national and noble duty to offer some kind of scrutiny).  This administration will last the course – the previous minority one did not know when its number might be called – and indeed, unless Labour gets its act together might even enjoy a third term.  Who needs a hundred days when there are thousands in which to make your mark?

In any event, many of the SNP’s manifesto commitments either involve no change at all – continued council tax freeze, free personal care, free tuition fees etc – or ambitious, sweeping change – new capital investment programmes, innovative legislation, a living wage, a real shift to localism.  Such measures are hard to fashion into immediate actions and ready soundbites.

These kind of reforms take time.  As the First Minister found out, in a rare lesson in humility, with the harried anti-sectarianism bill, sometimes the old proverbs really are the best:  less haste, more speed.  Our patience is likely to be rewarded with a number of “big bills” to be announced when the Scottish Parliament returns the week after next.

The only show in town, as far as the SNP is concerned, has been the opportunity presented by the Scotland bill to maximise devolution.  Its parliamentary timetable at Westminster demanded that the Scottish Government focused its attention on securing as many additional powers as possible;  indeed, one of the most vibrant and busy committees of the next 100 days is likely to be that set up to explore, scrutinise and make the case for all the powers the First Minister has put on his shopping list.  The prospect of items being crossed off that list is highly unlikely given the dominance of the SNP on the committee and in the chamber.

But it was not just the Government which eased itself gently into this session;  the Parliament too did not exactly spring into action.  Weeks went by with minimal parliamentary activity;  committees took an age to appoint convenors;  in the seven weeks before shutting up shop for the summer, the Parliament did not even open officially.  But with a very different shape and size to parliamentary groups, as well as a whole host of new parliamentarians, the logistics of getting the show on the road this time round were harder to achieve.  And crucially, everyone seemed exhausted from the efforts expended in the election – no one had much appetite for bounding Tigger-like into this session.

Now they’ve all had the summer to recover and recuperate, to rejoin and renew, there can be no excuses.  Yet, while the press appears to have rolled its eyes and declared the summer to have been “boring”, it has largely ignored the fact that the Scottish Government has been very busy indeed.  In fact, most of the Cabinet Secretaries and Ministers have had little more than a week off.  Not only has the Scottish Cabinet been on tour around Scotland, visiting far flung places like Stranraer, Fort William and even Kirkcaldy,  its members have been on other tours and trips, immersing themselves in their portfolios in different parts of the country.  Inbetween times, some of them have even managed to find time for some constituency work and pop home for tea with the family.  There are no five holiday Cameronians in this bunch.

And yes, it might make for few headlines.  It might seem – to some – to amount to aimless wandering, but it actually purports to serve a much needed purpose.  To make clear that Holyrood is not Edinburgh’s Parliament but Scotland’s, that this SNP Government belongs to and governs for all of the country, reminding everyone that it takes its new-found responsibility as the National Party of Scotland seriously.

Taken together, it might not amount to an action-packed, thrill a minute hundred days of glory.  But if it ensures thousands more days in government, and thousands more yes votes in the independence referendum, the SNP will consider it time well spent indeed.

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Timing is everything

Knowing when to pick a fight is one of the first rules in politics and you’d think Scotland’s esteemed political press pack might have learned that by now.

Since First Minister Questions on Thursday – the first of the new Parliament – commentators, have been lining up to lambast the performance *of Holyrood’s new and first female Presiding Officer and lament the possibility of a supposed elected dictatorship, caused by the First Minister apparently grandstanding, speechifying and generally, failing to answer questions put to him.

Well, haud the front page.  Tell me, when did we ever have a Question Time here or in that other place down there that actually involved a proper discourse of issues and questions and answers?

In particular, the Scotsman has ramped up the volume with a lengthy piece liberally sprinkled with comment from Hugh Henry and michty me, a leader column!

Is there nothing happening slightly more portentous and deserving of such weighty treatment?  Actually no, at least not in the Holyrood bubble.  And if the vacuum created by easing itself back into parliamentary politics is enabling mischief-making political correspondents to go away and puff up stories, thereby creating bad press for the SNP Government, then it only has itself to blame.

But to start questioning the ability or appropriateness of Tricia Marwick for the role of Presiding Officer after only one performance is precipitate and indicative of one of the pack’s less fragrant inclinations.

A good manager doesn’t roll into her first meeting and park her tanks on people’s lawns.  No, she watches behaviours unfold and takes notes.  If necessary, she has a quiet, informal word behind the scenes and suggests helpful ways of improving performance.  If that doesn’t work, then she picks her moment to stamp her authority on the miscreants.  The best way of doing this of course is to deflate the behaviour with humour – something Betty Boothroyd was particularly good at as Speaker of the House of Commons.

But if necessary, she does it by clamping down hard.  The point is though she does it when it’s important to do so.

Was there anything at the first First Minister’s Question Time of any real import?  No.  Was there any point in her picking a fight with the First Minister?  No.

A point sadly missing from certain correspondents’ demolition job on her abilities, though at least Hugh Henry MSP has the good grace to acknowledge that there is a settling-in period for people in new positions.

Scotland’s political press pack has form here when it comes to its treatment of women politicians.  I don’t recall David Steele, George Reid or Alex Fergusson getting a doing after their initial performances convening Holyrood setpieces. Rightly, they were taken to task further down the line when, with a bit of experience under their belt, they were seen to be messing up.

But then they were blokes and entitled to a honeymoon period.  Not something ever readily afforded to women politicians.

The first female Ministers during devolution got similar rough treatment.  Sarah Boyack, in particular, was pilloried for being the bicycling Transport Minister with a nasty undercurrent suggesting she was not up to the job.  Wendy Alexander contended throughout her career with a focus on her personality traits rather than her abilities.  But worst of all, was the doing Susan Deacon got on the front page of the Daily Record at the height of the section 2a furore when she was “outed” as an unmarried mother and questions were raised – seriously – about her fitness then to be in charge of the welfare of the nation’s children.

In chamber sketches, other women MSPs found themselves caricatured: Karen Gillon’s Tizer habit, Karen Whitefield – and others’ – weight and voice, Nicola Sturgeon’s being a nippy sweetie (until she effectively lanced this pejorative handle by giving journalists sweeties at a press conference).

Did male Ministers or MSPs come in for such attention? Dinnae be daft.  Except perhaps for Jack McConnell’s fashion kilt faux pas at Tartan Week, few men in our Parliament have come under such scrutiny or had their performance linked subtly or otherwise to their gender or personality.

It would be nice to think that like everyone else, the political press pack has matured since the early, heady days of devolution. On the evidence of some of Friday’s sketches and weekend follow up *in-depth* analysis, it seems not.

But while they might not yet have learned the wisdom of knowing when to pick a fight, I’m quietly confident that Holyrood’s Presiding Officer will know exactly when to do so.  Not just with the First Minister but with the serried ranks of political correspondents.

*the link is only to a search list for the Times Scotland – for those of you who wish to go behind the paywall


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Progress, but at a snail’s pace

There is much to celebrate about the make up of our new Parliament.  Yes, we can lament the loss of experience but some of the gushing eulogies written about some of the departed stalwarts, particularly from the Labour ranks, need a reality check.  Such a sweeping clearout, whether the parties wanted it or not, brings in fresh blood which is, by itself, a very good thing.  Whether or not they will deserve the epithet *talent* remains to be seen…

But in certain key areas, the Parliament is making very slow progress indeed.

Dennis Robertson has found himself wheeled out at the forefront of the SNP group and the subject of much media interest because he is blind.  And even better, has a telegenic dog to guide him.  Dennis is canny so he knows what he’s doing and he deserves his election, not because of his visual impairment, but because he has a lot to offer.  He is clever and a great campaigner on issues that are often ignored or worse, patronised at Holyrood.  He has a careful decision to make – does he become a champion of disabled people simply because he is disabled or does he eschew such issues, as Anne Begg did in her early career, to avoid being defined simply as the blind MSP?  It’s a tough one.  And the bottom line is that it simply should not be remarkable that someone with a visual impairment can be elected:  it should be the norm.

But with Siobhan McMahon becoming the first woman born with a disability, joining Margo MacDonald whose disability has been caused by her long term condition, our Parliament is now more visibly, differently abled.  And hurrah for that.  They will bring a very different perspective and life experience to their work and that is what a more representative legislature is all about.

Readers will be pleased to note that progress was also made on the ethnic status and gender balance of Holyrood.  Women’s representation increased by a whole one, yes one MSP, taking us to nearly 35%. It’s nowhere near the nadir of 1999 but it is progress, if at a snail’s pace.

The Labour group by electoral accident rather than design has achieved almost complete balance with 17 out of 35 MSPs women.  The Conservatives have added to their tally too, with 40% of their group now women.  Margo, of course, achieves 100% while the Scottish Greens are perfectly poised with a woman and man MSP.  But it is the Lib Dems and the SNP who let the side down.

Reduced to a group of five, only one Lib Dem MSP is a woman, 20%.  And despite having a record number of MSPs – 69!  some of us still can’t quite believe it! – a shockingly low number are women.  Nineteen, but Tricia Marwick now doesn’t count as belonging to any group, so the figure is down to 18.  Would I have traded an extra woman MSP for the SNP Group instead of having a female Presiding Officer?  Of course not.  But even at 19, this equates to only 27%, slightly over one in four, SNP MSPs being women.  Disappointing doesn’t cover it.

Already the cry is that something must be done.  Shame no one made that cry before the election when candidates were being selected.  Severin Carrell of the Guardian deserves special mention for championing this issue and he is right:  we need “somebody” to sort this out.  And not just on gender balance but also on ethnic representation.  We have made some progress, going from 0 after the tragic, early death of Bashir Ahmad in the last Parliamentary session, to 2. But at 1.5%, the number of MSPs from the BEM community does not equate with the ethnic diversity of our population which is approaching 4%.

The issue of ethnic diversity is a controversial one – for everyone who comments that there are folk of Italian descent (Linda Fabiani and Marco Biagi being two) and many, many more of Irish descent, they are missing the point somewhat.  This is about melting pots, multi-culturalism and assimilation and ethnic and cultural diversity – far too complex for this post but perhaps worthy of a future one.  There is no one of Chinese or Polish descent, despite both being statistically significant commnities in our society.  Scots Asians yes, but no blacks either from African or Caribbean communities.  Our Parliament should be representative of all our people.  That should be a given.

So what to do, other than moan about it on blog spaces or in newspapers?  I agree with Sev.  Something has to be done and the parties seem incapable of doing it without support and guidance.  We don’t need a new body, there are a plethora of them, particularly on women’s issues:  Engender, the Fawcett Society, the Scottish Women’s Convention.  And now the Hansard Society has got involved.

It needs an all-encompassing organisation with a remit to promote democracy more generally, to address all the issues of under-representation of key groups and communities.  It needs to engage positively with the parties and the work has to start now, before candidate selections begin again.  There is a window open now in which to examine and explore possible solutions but the starting point has to be an acknowledgement by all the parties that there is a problem to be addressed.  And an agreement to work on a cross-party basis to achieve real progress.



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A Nationalist Government?

I understand the SNP’s decision not to look at revenue options and simply to hand on Westminster’s cuts, though I disagree with it. But today UK Ministers have told us that someone in the Scottish Government let the powers lapse in 2007 when the SNP took office. Even the Labour/Lib Dem 1999-2007 coalition had the good sense to retain the power itself, though they didn’t use it (and during those budgetary boom years I think that was the right decision).

Michael Moore’s letter says it will now take two years to get the relevant HMRC systems up and running again, and then another ten months to bring any change in. It’s extraordinary. If some ultra-Unionist party had handed back a Scottish tax power the Scottish people explicitly and overwhelmingly endorsed in 1997, the SNP would be calling for Ministerial heads to roll. You simply cannot bang on about hypothetical future powers as an excuse for not using the existing ones, let alone when you’re returning them to Westminster.

Through SNP incompetence or deliberate intention, the voters now have their choice limited, and it will be much harder to find ways to raise revenue and step away from these Tory cuts. Someone should consider their position.

Does it remind anyone else of this epic speech? A nationalist Government, a nationalist Government, scurrying about in limos handing powers back to London.

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