The Pope’s visit to Scotland again shaped First Minister's Questions (FMQs) with Deputy First Minister (DFM) Nicola Sturgeon standing-in for First Minister Alex Salmond who was over in Holyrood Palace with the rest of the Scottish (and some from beyond) establishment to meet Pope Benedict.
It was clear that senior opposition leaders had also all gone to meet the Pontiff and the stand-ins had the opportunity to blossom in the temporary limelight. Sturgeon demonstrated her qualifications to replace Alex Salmond at the “despatch box” with a strong performance and an easy grasp of the issues.
Responsibility for the recession. The “Salmond slump”
The rise in unemployment announced on Wednesday (Scotland’s unemployment rate is now 8.9 per cent compared to 7.8 per cent across Britain as a whole) provided the background to Labour leader stand-in Johann Lamont’s questions.
Lamont opened questions as a constituency MSP, welcomed the Pope, and invited everyone to her constituency, Bellahouston Park, to see the Pontiff.
As Labour spokesperson, with an eye for the headline writers, she then claimed that the increased unemployment was the Government’s responsibility, saying “The Salmond slump is hurting families across the country” to a chorus of groans.
She also claimed that the gap between Scots and UK rates was a “ clear sign of SNP failure” before challenging the DFM to accept responsibility.
Sturgeon claimed the moral high ground by reminding the chamber that the lives of real people “were behind the statistics and our political sparring” before then hailing other economic indicators as proving that “Scotland was doing marginally better”.
She then delivered her rehearsed rejoinder that the main risk to economic recovery was “the massive cuts in capital spending planned by Labour “… “to be continued by the new coalition” and the ”reason why this parliament needs full economic powers”.
Lamont continued her attack on the Government economic record backed by desk banging from the Labour seats ( yes, bad behaviour is back), claiming money had been squandered and jobs lost.
We then had an exchange of statistics with each blaming/claiming the other for teachers/NHS job losses/rises and/or class sizes.
Lamont “different Minister, same approach, it wisnae me”. Sturgeon then asked Labour “to take any responsibility for the economic downturn”.
Finishing up with parochial matters, Lamont blamed Sturgeon for Glasgow job losses.
Sturgeon closed by repeating the SNP desire for full economic powers.
Bonfire of the quangos. Cutting the cost of the quango state.
Conservative leader stand-in Murdo Fraser decided to follow the example of his leader by opening with a joke at the expense of the First Minister. Referring to the flag waving crowds outside welcoming the Pope he said “ I hope the First Minister won’t be too disappointed to find out that there not there for him”
Fraser, quoting the First Minister’s definition of a bonfire of the quangos as a smaller, fitter and better government, asked“When is the First Minister going to cut the cost of the quango state?”
He claimed that there were 3,000 fewer teachers but 1,400 more administrators over the course of the SNP Government and that quangos now cost £600 million more.
Sturgeon, disagreeing with Fraser’s statistics, responded with alternative figures claiming to show the Government was 25% more efficient, that most of the apparent increased posts were merely transfers from other agencies and that there were now fewer Minister whose salaries were now frozen.
North East being let down. Rating your leader.
Lib Dem leader stand-in Mike Rumbles listed five North East transport issues that Alex Salmond had promised to address if elected to power and then asked Sturgeon to rate the FM on that list.
The DFM avoided “the pitfall” of replying to the challenge to rate her leader and instead listed Government achievements.
Rumbles couched his second question with “now that the SNP is coming to the end of its term of office” , claimed the North East hasn’t been taken seriously when there was more money available in earlier years and again entreated Sturgeon to rate her leader.
Sturgeon replied “Mike Rumbles has come to this chamber today with the clear objective of making his leader look good”, to loud laughter, rated her leader highly and corrected Rumbles with “The SNP is coming to the end of its first term in office”
Upcoming spending review…the “too far and too fast policy”
The UK coalition government is to publish its spending plans on October 20th. Severe cuts are anticipated.
In response to a clearly planted question from Brian Adam (SNP) seeking information on any trade union consultation as the SNP Government prepared for the 2010 spending review Sturgeon confirmed active consultation with the unions and agreed with Adam that the cuts were “too far, too fast and too deep”. Rehearsed, Sturgeon took the opportunity to attack Labour as responsible for two thirds of the cuts and causing the economic recession.
David McLetchie (Con) asked what cuts would not be too far and too fast and also blamed Labour for the recession.
Sturgeon, again sounding rehearsed, claimed International Monetary Fund support for the “too far and too fast” statement.
Jeremy Purves (LibDem) claimed he could see a policy difference between the FM and John Swinney, Finance Minister. Sturgeon denied this and pointed out that the Lib Dems also supported the too far and too fast policy.
Public sector redundancies
Again referencing anticipated spending cuts John Park (Lab) sought assurance that the Government would maintain its policy of no compulsory redundancies. Sturgeon, polite and complimentary about the tone adopted by Park, confirmed no change of policy.
Alcohol Minimum Pricing. The Starbucks question.
Last report I said to expect alcohol pricing to return and only a week later its back. It appears that due to restricted powers, the parties fight proxy battles over relatively minor issues. All agree that alcohol is a serious issue but argue like cats about solutions, and from no obvious standpoint. If the SNP propose then the opposition oppose. On Wednesday the health committee had taken evidence from experts.
Richard Simpson (Lab) added caffeine into the mix seeking Government policy and demanding legislation on alcohol plus caffeine pre-mixed drinks. (Code for Buckfast Tonic Wine). The experts evidence to the health committee was hotly disputed and Sturgeon (also Health Minister) quoted a police experts evidence “We don’t attend many violent incidents outside coffee shops” and pointed to European Law demanding evidence before legislating.
Nanette Milne (Con) was assured that the Government remained committed to the policy of free personal care for the elderly in the face of cuts and the DFM agreed with Ross Finnie (LibDem) that combining health and social care services appeared to be a good plan.
Only about 70 of the 129 MSPs were present. Johann Lamont and Mike Rumbles both failed to take the opportunity to demonstrate leadership qualities and instead focussed on constituency matters. Murdo Fraser held to the safe Tory concerns of reducing the cost of government.
Immediately prior to FMQs, during general questions to ministers, John Swinney had squirmed and evaded giving clear answers about any responsibility for the Edinburgh trams fiasco when questioned by Malcolm Chisholm and Margo McDonald.
The Deputy First Minister had a good day.
- Johann Lamont 4* (delivered the Labour headlines but barely laid a glove on the DFM)
- Murdo Fraser 6* (witty and safely avoided censure as a ConDem member)
- Mike Rumbles 4* (would have been 5 but was cautioned)
- Nicola Sturgeon 8* (safely delivered the rehearsed lines)