Posts Tagged Scottish Parliament

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.



Tags: , , , , , , , , ,

Salmond’s Santa will bear legislative gifts

So they’re back.  The Holyrood faithful are returning from the recess, fighting fit and raring to go.  All the newbies have had the summer to practise writing MSP after their name, some of them might even have managed to work out why there are different lifts for different floors in the Parliament and the Cabinet has discovered parts of Scotland it never knew existed during its summer tour.

First up, the business and legislative programme and expect a very different approach from the last SNP Government.  No longer cowed by the lack of a parliamentary majority and having learned that you can ask the public sector nicely to do stuff but without the weight of law behind it, they can stick two fingers up at you, this second SNP Government will be embarrassing us with legislative riches.  What might we expect to see in the First Minister’s announcement on Wednesday?

Top billing goes to the minimum alcohol pricing bill.  No messing this time, the bill will be short and to the point and the Government will hope to create a landmark with its first piece of legislation of its second term in office.  The Lib Dems will support it this time round, the Tories will still oppose and who knows what Labour will do.  Hopefully they will.  And soon.

Children are going straight to the top of the agenda.  Music to the burdz ears.  The SNP manifesto promised an early years bill and the Scottish Government has already said that it will be published in the New Year.  But this week, it also announced intentions to embed children’s rights in legislation as part of a wider children’s services bill.  This latter one is due later in the parliament.  Work has already begun to shape a national parenting strategy and the needs of children should – I hope – feature in new frameworks to support victims and witnesses.  Indeed, we will also get a Victim Rights’ bill this year… I promise never to complain again about no one bothering about children’s needs.  Well, not for a while anyway.

There will also have to be some kind of public services reform bill (though it might not be called that) to give effect to the proposals to do away with multiple police forces and fire services.  There will be a budget bill of course, and that too will progress at breakneck speed, though not until after the Spending Review is announced later this month.  And while it is unlikely to be legislated for, there will be a souped-up Concordat (flagged up before the election) between local and national government, that gives rewards for compliance and fiscal consequences for failure to deliver.  Expect too, for preventative spending to furrow members’ brows at regular intervals during the year, and indeed every year, until they reach another election and can leave a legacy for the next lot that urges them to work out how to implement this most common sense approach to public expenditure without having got around to doing it themselves.

Same-sex marriage may feature but is more likely to proceed at a leisurely consultative pace, with a draft bill appearing perhaps at the end of this parliamentary term, unless of course an MSP loses patience and slaps down a member’s bill.  A review of the law on damages will commence this autumn – how knotty, complex and controversial the proposals are will determine if we get a bill this year or next.  Measures tightening up procedure and process in rape cases has also been promised – if it does not require further consultation, this might well feature in Wednesday’s announcement.  Of course, a bill promising to amend the existing Freedom of Information Act “to add clarity and strength to the legislation” instantly makes us all suspicious that the aim is to dilute and to weaken it.

Anyone looking for a big education bill is likely to be disappointed:  there will be amending legislation covering rural schools’ closures but everything else will be delivered through guidelines, frameworks, toolkits and strategies.  Expect the outcome of the McCormac review to dominate parliamentary proceedings and media headlines for a considerable period.  There will, however, be legislation on higher education to increase access from poorer communities and a review of college provision which may result in legislation at some point in the future.

The Scottish Government promised to introduce a living wage for government employees, which may or may not require legislation – if it does, Ministers might settle for allowing John Park MSP to do all the hard work and preparation, then assume his bill as their own.  It worked for Jack McConnell and the smoking ban…. It may be too early in the parliamentary term for the proposed Community Empowerment and Renewal bill which will enable communities to assume ownership of under-used assets.  It sounds simple but working out how to give it legislative effect might prove more complex.

Finally, the piece de resistance, the icing on the Scottish Government’s dense legislative cake – a bill to tackle high hedges‘ disputes.  I seem to recall this issue pre-occupying then Justice Minister, Jim Wallace MSP, without a legislative solution ever being put forward.  Roseanna Cunningham MSP may succeed where mere men have tried and failed.

And if this little lot doesn’t keep our MSPs out of mischief this parliamentary year and next, I’m not sure what will.  Oh yes, some local government elections next May and of course, constituents, surgeries, local issues and events….


Tags: , , ,

Ruth Davidson will be the next Scottish Tory leader

At the risk of giving the Scottish Conservatives far more ether-coverage than they are used to, or they deserve, another blogpost from me on their leadership contest.

So far there isn’t actually a contest, what with Jackson Carlaw MSP, the only one to show his hand. But you read it here first. Ruth Davidson will win.

Reliable sources, as they say, advise that she will stand and that she is garnering support from some of the party’s big guns. Apparently, the constituency party with the most members, Ettrick, Roxburgh and Berwickshire (John Lamont MSP’s seat), will vote for her. So too will David Mundell MP’s seat, Dumfriesshire, Clydesdale and Tweeddale. Ditto John Scott MSP’s Ayr.

And these three constituencies count for big swathes of the party’s membership. It also indicates that not only does Ms Davidson carry the outgoing leader, Annabel Goldie’s, patronage but support from some of the party’s biggest hitters. In a party of 15 MSPs and 1 MP, she has effectively sewn up a quarter of that high level support. No doubt there are others in the wings too. Struan Stevenson MEP touted her leadership qualities when Malc and I caught up with him in Strasbourg in June (as you do) so there’s another of the party’s elected representatives in her court. And Struan’s a popular figure whose opinion will also count.

Anyone with a geography O/standard grade will have worked out that so far Ms Davidson’s support is from the South of Scotland. Murdo Fraser MSP is also likely to stand and no doubt he will pick up most of his support from his North East – ahem – heartlands. Like Jackson Carlaw, though, he’s tainted. While he has bestrode (bestridden?) this part of Scotland like a colossus, traditionally Tory territory has fallen to the Nats. Like snaw off a dyke, as the FM might, and probably did, say.

During his tenure as Depute Tory leader, his patch has been put through the wringer and turned totally yellow. They don’t count SNP votes anymore in these constituencies, they weigh them. Moreover, there appears to be a bit of a move on in the party to keep Murdo out. And anyone who has ever stood for political election, either internally or externally, knows you care little about why people vote for you, you just want them to vote for you. Ms Davidson therefore will accept such anti-Murdo votes with a gracious smile.

Moreover, Ruth Davidson represents the future face of Scottish Conservatism. Too young to be tainted by Thatcher, she might finally make the break with the past and allow the Tories to turn their fortunes around. Or at least that’s the thinking. Whether or not she will manage it remains to be seen – bigger political Tory beasts than her have tried and failed.

If she becomes leader – and she will, or I’ll eat someone’s hat – the Scottish Conservatives will have the youngest party leader, be the only party in Scotland not only to have a woman at the helm but to do it twice and moreover, elect a lesbian to the position. There are so many ironies in this I don’t know where to start. Progressive Torydom. Even in the Shires. Who knew?

For these and many more reasons, hers will be a remarkable election. She’s only been an MSP for a few months. Her rise may have been stratospheric, but she has undoubted qualities. Articulate and media savvy, she will inject something different into our political discourse. Cybernats will no doubt scoff at her prospects against the First Minister every week but I wouldn’t write her off. Going toe to toe with him is bound to end in disaster, but as Annabel has shown many times in recent years, there are other ways to get attention, get your point across and importantly, get under Alex Salmond’s skin.

Ruth Davidson is probably more centred politically than many on the right would like. That will make for an interesting conversation. While the rest of Europe lurches rightwards, including our ain dear UK Parliament, Scotland will have proven definitively that it is on a quite different political course. Her election will undoubtedly make it easier for the Scottish Tories to establish clear blue water from their UK counterparts – and hopefully detoxify their brand from the government’s activities that are not finding favour with Scots voters – but we await clues to see how this might pan out in policy terms.

But the most urgent task at hand is the implementation of the Sanderson review. The party needs overhaul at every level and in every sphere, to bring it out of the 1970s and into the 21st Century. Only when it has achieved this, can it seriously begin to think about political renewal. No doubt Ruth Davidson supports the review’s recommendations but does she have the mettle to push them through?

Such activity requires an attention to detail and a knowledge of what to do and when – qualities that John Swinney demonstrated in abundance during his ill-fated SNP leadership, during which he managed to push through a centralised membership scheme and also one member, one vote in all internal elections. This was no accident: his longterm membership and service in key party roles, particularly as National Secretary, served as a useful apprenticeship to achieving such fundamental structural changes. Does Ruth Davidson have the same organisational skills to bring to the fore?

The Scottish Conservatives have no doubt spent their summer chattering amongst themselves and one hopes garnering an inkling on what the three likely candidates think about stuff. And while these are the only votes that count for now, Ruth Davidson might like to share some of her thoughts on stuff with the rest of us. It would be bizarre indeed to greet a new Tory leader without knowing her views on well, anything.

And while the prospect of such a vibrant, youthful unknown leading one of Scotland’s main parties provides a frisson of excitement, I wonder if Ruth Davidson might just be peaking too soon? The Tories are in transition and such leadership stipends rarely last long enough to reap gains from any reforms enacted or attempted. Ask the afore-mentioned John Swinney. And Wendy Alexander.

Which makes John Lamont’s decision to sit out this round of musical chairs, and instead, throw his hat (and constituency votes) behind the most likely contender to defeat his shot at the next leadership election seem very shrewd indeed.

Tags: , , , ,

Interest in the Holyrood Register

Scottish Parliament at night

Holyrood at its most breathtaking

If I was being sceptical, I would comment on the timing of the release of the Register of Interests for MSPs.  Every year, it is published on 9 July 2011 and this year, it wasn’t even press-released.  But I am not, so I won’t. After all, some things speak for themselves.

The Register is a fascinating document for many reasons.  Because memberships are listed, you can glean a better understanding of what floats some MSPs’ boats.  There are few eyebrow-raising entries – they are a dull lot really, just like the rest of us, which is reassuring in lots of respects.

What is of interest is the number of dual mandate MSPs we now have – 25 I reckon are also elected members of councils until 2012 at least.  This means not only do they receive their MSP salary of £56k but also councillor’s salary/remuneration of between £15 and £20k.

Nice work if you can get it?  Well, no actually.  There are many things I might wish to be when I grow up, but an MSP AND a councillor at the same time ain’t it.  Apparently the full time position is that of MSP, while being a councillor is supposed to be a part time role.  Register entries declare earnestly that time spent on being an elected member is approximately 20 hours a week.  I suspect they know that is an optimistic estimate – councillors especially in small towns and rural areas are literally on call all the time and some will end up spending more time than that on council business.  In a like for like of value for money in terms of time spent versus salary, councillors would beat MSPs hands down every time.

What is interesting is how many dual mandate MSPs are at pains to reassure us that they will not be taking this additional salary.

Six are waiving it altogether – Colin Beattie, Neil Findlay, John Finnie, Mark Griffin, Alison Johnstone and John Pentland.  Two are honest enough to state that while foregoing the salary, they will still claim expenses for costs incurred – Clare Adamson and Richard Lyle.

Nine though are keeping their councillors’ salary on top of their MSPs, meaning they will be earning an eye-popping £70k plus.  Or at least they are silent on what they will do with their councillor salary.  I suspect this might change shortly…. but step forward Willie Coffey, Jim Hume (both of whom are in their second Holyrood term of carrying a dual mandate and presumably, dual salaries), Mary Fee, Hanzala Malik, Margaret McCulloch, Anne McTaggart, David Torrance, Jean Urquhart and Bill Walker.

Eight remaining dual mandate MSPs intend to donate their councillor salary to good causes and charity in their constituencies and/or wards.  George Adam, Neil Bibby, James Dornan, Colin Keir, Angus Macdonald, Derek MacKay, Mark McDonald and Kevin Stewart all intend to do this and at first sight, it seems a very good move indeed.  What small community group or charity could not do with some extra funding right now?

But given that all but one of the generous MSPs are SNP ones I wonder if they have totally thought this through?  Given that this will be their second salary, it will be subject to the highest tax rate and most of it will end up back in HM Treasury’s coffers.  That’s right, SNP MSPs voluntarily giving money back to Westminster. Who’d a thunk it?  The dreaded London masters will benefit from their largesse just as much as good causes.

It’s an understandable gesture that on one level makes perfect sense.  But any dual mandate MSP wishing to benefit local activity would be better served foregoing the salary entirely and haggling with their local council to ensure their salary does not disappear into central expenditure but is divvied up in grants to local good causes.  Another potential solution for councils with a number of dual mandate MSPs might be to establish a trust or make a grant to existing Common Good funds – not the greatest guarantee of community focused expenditure but better than nothing.  This would mean that the taxable benefit could be maximised rather than minimised.

I’m sure SNP MSPs might feel more comfortable with a solution that keeps as much of their councillor salary in Scotland than sending it back to Westminster.



Tags: , , , ,

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


Tags: , , , ,