First Ministers Question Time at Holyrood (9 Sept 2010)

The upcoming visit of the Pope to Scotland added colour to First Minister's Question Time yesterday (9 Sept 2010). Cardinal Keith O'Brien and Sir Tom Farmer were in the VIP gallery and all four main party leaders sported a special tartan commissioned for the visit. First Minister Alex Salmond formally welcomed next weeks visit.

It was the first FMQs at the Scottish Parliament after the summer break and a pent-up energy buzzed around the chamber. The main questions were about aircraft carriers, the independence referendum, funding-for-training cuts and minimum pricing for alcohol. The First Minister, well briefed on all the issues, gave one of his bullish performances.

Aircraft Carriers

News today of the possible contract cancellation of the aircraft carriers currently being built on the Clyde and Forth brought a strange bout of unity between Official Labour Opposition Leader Iain Gray and First Minister Alex Salmond.

Gray requested unity on the issue during each of his three questions and eventually Alex Salmond, tired of being asked to agree again, said “lets not get to the point where we disagree”. Gray focussed only on the threat to the carriers contract but Salmond insisted on discussing the broader Strategic Defence Review by the Ministry of Defence that also included possible closures of three air bases in the North East. Salmond also insisted that the Trident base on the Clyde should be included in any defence review.

The loss of the carriers contract could endanger Scottish shipbuilding, engineering and any future renewables industry said Gray and Salmond agreed (again). Total cross party unity on any defence cuts was unlikely, said Salmond, looking across at the Lib Dem and Conservative benches.

Independence Referendum

On Wednesday the Scottish Government had announced the cancellation of a planned independence referendum in the face of certain defeat by the combined votes of the opposition Unionist parties. Salmond had clearly anticipated the question.

Tory Leader Annabel Goldie crowed at the ”humiliating climbdown of the Government”. Goldie focussed on the referendum preparation costs, “paying for SNP propaganda with taxpayers money”. Disagreeing with Goldie on the precise preparation costs of the independence referendum (either £2 million or £400 thousand), Salmond teased her, comparing that cost with the £90 million budget set aside by the UK coalition government for a referendum about a change to an AV voting system; a referendum the “Tories didn't want, about a system they didn't agree with and one they were planning to oppose”.

Goldie had opened with a homily of sympathy to Prime Minister David Cameron on the sudden death of his father. Perhaps she anticipated some reciprocity after that opening. She got none from Salmond.“The independence referendum bill will be published and the issue taken direct to voters in 2011”.

Goldie insisted.“There must be no more spending of taxpayers money on an independence referendum” Salmond retorted that many opposition MSPs secretly supported an independence referendum. The silence following Salmond's revelation said it all.

Training Apprentices

Lib Dem leader Tavish Scott, in a smart dark suit, launched into a rehearsed but convoluted question about the funding-for-training of an anticipated 20,000 new renewables jobs in engineering.

Specifically Scott claimed that re-structuring of training by the Government was putting at risk a course at Carnegie College in Fife and that renewable engineering training “would be lost to Scotland”.

Salmond blamed any future cuts on UK coalition policies and Scott delivered his rehearsed line that “Salmond says it wisnae me”. You could feel the groan across the chamber.

Emergency Issues

Before regular questions from backbenchers are taken, contemporary issues get slotted-in as emergency questions. There were two.

Job losses at bankrupt services company Connaught were raised by Elaine Murray(Lab). Salmond assured Murray that Alex Neil, Minister for Housing and Communities , had the problem in hand.

Alistair Morgan (SNP) was exercised by the removal of funding by the UK Border Agency for officers to police the Irish ferry ports in south west Scotland. “Its now an open border” he declared. Salmond was sympathetic but as the border was an issue reserved to London any policing costs would now be borne by the Dumfries & Galloway Police.

Alcohol Minimum Pricing

Question topics from the main party leaders can only be guessed-at by Salmond's team. However backbencher questions are all submitted in advance.

The Government's plans to tackle problem drinking by setting a minimum price for alcohol of 45p/unit was recently announced and many MSPs were keen to voice their positions.

Essentially, opposition MSPs complained with rehearsed questions; Murdo Fraser(Con) said “the Sheffield University report has no greater currency, authority or standing than a weather forecast”. Salmond outlined the Government position in a prepared statement “its encouraging that the opposition parties have finally accepted that pricing intervention has a part to play in reducing consumption and harm”.

Expect questions about alcohol pricing to return to FMQs.

Mackerel Fish - Iceland and the Faeroes

Iceland and the Faeroes have unilaterally announced hugely extended fish quotas for mackerel in their waters. Scottish fishermen are up-in-arms.

Karen Gillon (Lab) attacked the Iceland government, “once lauded by the SNP government”, for “irresponsible action”. As a political point-scoring question it failed to arouse the chamber.

Salmond responded that he had met with the Foreign Minister of “independent Norway”, and had agreed with him that a strong united response was needed by Norway and the European Commission. He added that in fishing matters the Scottish devolved administration could do little more than act as a lobbying organisation whereas the independent government of Norway was much more effective and a powerful ally of Scotland on the issue.

Ferry Subsidies

Opposition MSP have complained that some Scottish Islands where the SNP is strong have received favourable ferry subsidies.

Liam McArthur(LD) claimed that subsidies for Northern Isles ferries were unfairly being cut.

Salmond took the opportunity to blame future UK coalition Government cuts for likely reductions in support for all transport projects in Scotland, citing published Transport for London spending cuts as evidence.

It was a subdued FMQs with hardly any desk banging or shouting. When the Presiding Officer did intervene it was to hasten the First Minister's responses to Iain Gray's appeals for unity. Was Lord George Foulkes (Lab) at Westminster?