BBC BLOGS - Blether with Brian

Archives for January 2008

Waiting game

Brian Taylor | 14:58 UK time, Thursday, 31 January 2008


Waiting, waiting, waiting. It’s been a day for patience at Holyrood.

We await the publication this afternoon of amendments to the Budget Bill which could secure its passage.

We wait - and wait and wait - for the Electoral Commission to issue its verdict upon Wendy Alexander’s campaign funding.

We await an explanation from NHS Tayside or the Scottish Government regarding a patient who was, allegedly, removed from a surgical waiting list.

The issue was raised at questions to the first minister by Nicol Stephen, the Scottish Liberal Democrat leader. He read out a letter sent to a patient advising that he had been instructed to remove her from the waiting list for treatment.

On Nicol Stephen’s interpretation, the “hidden” waiting lists of the inglorious past have now been replaced by a simpler approach: kick patients off the main list so that the 18 week target for treatment is preserved.

Three possible scenarios. This individual case has been misinterpreted by the surgeon in question whose letter indicates that he is decidedly unhappy. That seems unlikely.

Alternatively, this is a highly exceptional case. The woman patient requires liposuction for a medical condition. It appears that this consultant, Alex Munnoch, is the only one in Scotland offering this particular expertise.

The third scenario? That this sort of thing is more widespread. Indeed, Mr Munnoch himself suggests in his letter that he has more than one patient affected by such decisions.

Either way, we await answers. A tedious task - but nothing like as bad as waiting for surgical treatment.


Health Secretary Nicola Sturgeon is contacting NHS Tayside - and the health board where the woman lives.
She says that the case dates from the 21st of December - that is, before strict new rules abolishing “hidden waiting lists” were introduced.

In other words, Tayside would not be able to take such a decision now.

Further update

As billed, Nicola Sturgeon contacted NHS Tayside. She says the problem wasn’t waiting lists - but failure to agree a funding deal over the case between Tayside and the woman’s home health board, Lothian.

The good news is that the woman has now been promised treatment for her condition.

Indeed, Tayside go further. They say that those patients (plural) dropped from Mr Munnoch’s list will be treated, in Tayside. He is the only surgeon in the UK conducting the particular procedure involved.

As for the consultant, he has now “apologised unreservedly” for any suggestion that patients were removed from the list to meet targets.

It now appears that, contrary to the previous impression, he was “under no pressure from managers in Tayside”.

So that’s OK then.

Final update

Interviewed Nicola Sturgeon about her direct intervention in the Tayside case. Her voice was notably hoarse.

Suppose that’s what happens when you spend the afternoon shouting at health boards.

Here comes the Latin

Brian Taylor | 12:08 UK time, Wednesday, 30 January 2008


I received a mild rebuke recently from a regular reader who was disquieted by my use of a Latin phrase, without translation. (Nearly wrote “sans” translation there but that would undoubtedly have prompted a further rebuke.)

In defence, I would say that the only truly useful subjects I ever studied were Latin and philosophy. One for the fundamentals of speech and the other for the fundamentals of thought. Soon, I hope to master both.

Anyway, more Latin today - but this time with a helpful translation. My return to the Imperial tongue was prompted by an announcement concerning house purchase.

The previous executive advocated what’s known as a seller’s survey. This means that the person flogging a house commissions a survey - and makes that available to all potential purchasers.

The new team at St Andrews House is minded to implement this notion. Housing Minister Stewart Maxwell says the system could be in place by the end of this year.

The stated advantage is that it will simplify the property market, saving umpteen potential purchasers the hassle and expense of commissioning their own surveys.

Here comes the Latin. "Caveat emptor". (That means: buyer, beware.) And my own personal favourite tag: “Cui bono?” (That means, roughly: in whose interest? To whose good? Who gains? Who benefits?)

Buyer beware is fairly obvious. Buyers should ca’canny when they’re signing up for something costing vast wads of cash. They need to be sure of their ground: in this case, literally.

Can they really, really trust a survey and price valuation which has been drawn up at the behest of the party of the first part: that is, the guy flogging the house?

Will they not be inclined, for security, to get their own valuation and survey in any case? I think I would.

And cui bono? In politics and life, you should always ask whose interest is served by a particular statement or initiative. The answer to such a question may well disclose more than is apparent at first reading/hearing.

Say a surveyor has been commissioned by an eager seller - as opposed to a sceptical and anxious buyer. Will that surveyor really, really take care to point out all the flaws?

The damp patch in the attic? The vacant plot opposite with extensive planning permission? The proposed new airline flight path?

Now, you will me they are dispassionate professionals, determined to give an honest picture. I accept that.

But should they be placed in such a dilemma serving two masters (or many more if there are, as happens, several potential buyers?)

Staying put

Brian Taylor | 12:28 UK time, Monday, 28 January 2008


Quietly, without fuss, Scottish Ministers have dropped a key aspect of their predecessors’ programme in government. Relocation is, effectively, no more.

Yes, yes, I know. The Finance Secretary John Swinney stresses that relocation remains “an option”. (See below) But it is an option he is unlikely to exercise all that frequently.

The policy of shifting public sector jobs out of Edinburgh and around Scotland was championed by the former First Minister, Jack McConnell.

Snag is the strategy didn’t deliver – or, at least, not sufficiently to convince Audit Scotland, the spending watchdog.

Reporting in 2006, they said there was insufficient evidence to indicate that relocation had been good value for money.

Mr Swinney goes further today, arguing that a “great deal of money, time and effort” has been spent for relatively little return.

Relocation there will be in future – but only when it tallies with the strategy to make better use of existing properties. And there must be no compulsory redundancies.

Further, small units may still be dispersed to rural and remote areas – where the gain is disproportionate.

But big-scale relocations – as per Scottish Natural Heritage, despatched from Edinburgh to Inverness against a background of wailing staff? Those are over.

There is, of course, one exception already in process. The reprieved Sportscotland will shift its HQ from Edinburgh to Glasgow – although a substantial hub will remain in the capital.

Sceptics might suggest that decision owed much to the need to depict the future sporting set-up as a brave new world – rather than merely a U-turn from a manifesto pledge which ministers had come to regret.

Domino effect

Brian Taylor | 15:09 UK time, Thursday, 24 January 2008


Dominoes, anyone? Wendy Alexander’s rivals say that she should also tumble out of office in the wake of Peter Hain’s resignation from the UK Cabinet.

Ms Alexander, the Scottish Labour leader, is adamant that Mr Hain’s resignation is a matter for him. She says she expects to be exculpated when the Electoral Commission, finally, completes its investigation into her case.

The two cases are rather different in scale. Peter Hain has quit “to clear his name” over undeclared donations of some £100,000 to his deputy leadership campaign.

The police have now been asked to investigate by the Electoral Commission.

Wendy Alexander is under investigation by the commission because she received a donation of £950 from a Jersey-based businessman - who was not entitled to participate in UK party political funding.

Politically, though, rival parties are, understandably, seeking to compare and contrast. Both the SNP and the Tories say it is difficult to see how she can stay in office now that Mr Hain has quit. Lib Dems say the “storm clouds” are gathering.

Does it add to the pressure upon Labour and Wendy Alexander? Yes, palpably yes. Is there a straight read-through from Hain to Alexander?

Rivals say yes. She says no. She says let the commission complete their work.

Ms Alexander is keen to draw a distinction between illegal and impermissible actions. She knows - and regrets - that her campaign manager Tom McCabe acknowledged, in response to a question from me, that Team Alexander broke the law.

Rather, she says, they failed to isolate, sufficiently, an impermissible donation: an error comparable, she argues, to that committed by others.

Even if one accepts that, it leaves unresolved the question of Charlie Gordon MSP who solicited the donation. Were his actions impermissible - or illegal?

The Electoral Commission is tonight insisting that it will take “as long as is necessary” to conduct its investigation into Wendy Alexander.

Despite that statement - which perhaps reflects some slight exasperation at political and media impatience - I would expect the ruling to emerge next week.

The decision in the Peter Hain case was taken by the commission at their meeting in Edinburgh yesterday. Here at Holyrood, their responsive statement on Ms Alexander caused a flutter because of this sentence: “Where necessary, the commission takes advice from other authorities, including prosecuting authorities.”

On inquiry, it was stressed that this was a general position - and did not refer explicitly to the Scottish Labour case. The commission were simply keen to stress the thorough nature of their task, overall.

So, to clarify, where are we? Rivals say the Hain fate will overtake Ms Alexander. She is adamant that she will be cleared.

To clarify further (if such a task is possible), Team Alexander admit that they accepted an impermissible donation.

They admit that is a breach of the electoral law: just one, they say, among hundreds of technical breaches of the rules regularly logged by the Electoral Commission across all the parties.

What they deny is knowingly breaking the law.

Heroes of the hour

Brian Taylor | 19:17 UK time, Wednesday, 23 January 2008


It was tight. Very tight. And it could have been tighter still had the Campbell’s soup crisis turned out differently.

Let me explain. Nationalist MSP Aileen Campbell, the youngest member at Holyrood, spilled hot soup over her hand in the Parliamentary canteen at lunchtime.

Seriously scalded, she was whisked off to hospital where she was treated and given a tetanus jag. Duly bandaged, she returned to hospital where she - carefully - pressed the "yes" button on her desk when the vote was called.

With the Tories in favour, with Margo MacDonald also onside, with the Greens abstaining, it was enough - just. The budget was approved in principle by 64 votes to 62.

The government hero of the hour (Aileen Campbell apart)? Well, John Swinney of course for finding the words that enabled the Tories and Margo to vote with him while the Greens abstained.

But a lot of the hard work behind the scenes, as ever, was done by the business manager Bruce Crawford. He looked mightily relieved when the vote was announced.

So what’s next? Committee scrutiny (stage two) - then a Stage Three final vote. Tory support is only conditional for those.

As billed here earlier, they want more bobbies on the beat and swifter cuts in business rates. If they get, they vote yes. If they don’t get…..?

Other issues. Labour insists the budget falls short on key issues like skills training and, significantly, warned that they would blame the Tories as much as the SNP if, for example, the wished-for extra police fail to materialise.

Cue intriguing political battle ahead.

The Liberal Democrats say the budget is too opaque to support: for example, on the efficiency savings which are required to make the sums work. My guess is they abstain at stage three - but they sounded pretty unhappy during the debate and could vote "no".

What do the Greens get? A pledge that the air route development fund won’t be revived in another guise - and a guarantee that there will be a formal mechanism for testing the carbon impact of future spending measures.

And Margo? Her smile was as broad as can be when John Swinney confirmed that Edinburgh is to get extra cash under a move to recognise its unique status as Scotland’s capital.

So that’s that. The soup, you’ll want to know, was lentil and tomato.

Spending pennies

Brian Taylor | 11:31 UK time, Wednesday, 23 January 2008


All around Holyrood this morning, there are eager little huddles as MSPs and the wicked media strive to discern what might happen in the budget vote tonight.

Nothing much hinges upon it. Just the odd £30bn of spending upon schools, hospitals, the police.

I exaggerate, of course. If the budget falls, then the Scottish Government reverts to the status quo ante. They can spend up to the (lower) level and pattern previously voted by MSPs.

But this is big stuff. And I’m sure you’ll be pleased to know that your tribunes are approaching the decision with due seriousness, knowing that in a parliament of minorities their votes really will count.

So who’s saying what? Well, firstly, all the opposition parties are saying they want to hear what John Swinney, the finance secretary, has to say when he opens the debate.

So what? So plenty. They want to hear whether he is prepared to make concessions in their sundry directions that might encourage them to vote for the budget or abstain to allow it to survive another day, for further scrutiny in committee.

Labour and the Liberal Democrats seem the most hostile, at this stage. Labour tabled a series of proposed amendments, for example restoring ring fencing in some areas of local government spending.

They won no support for these in committee but will, understandably, try again in order to advance their own “alternative” perspective.

The Liberal Democrats favour enhanced university spending - but are also complaining that the budget is too opaque, lacking sufficient detail.

My verdict on that? They’re preparing the ground for an ultimate abstention - although they may vote against the budget today, at stage one.

The Greens want to hear encouraging words on key issues for them: carbon-proofing future spending plans; no return to air route development in another guise; less emphasis on road schemes. Warm words on these could - could - win their abstention.

The independent MSP Margo MacDonald may - may - vote for the budget. She likes the Swinney plan to recognise, financially, the pivotal role of Edinburgh as capital city. If she gets that pinned down, she may be content.

Which leaves the Tories. I think they’ll vote for the budget today. At the very least, they say that allows scrutiny to proceed. For later stages, they’re after two key concessions.

They want more bobbies on the beat and they want cuts in business rates to be accelerated. If they get those, or substantial moves in those directions, they could vote for the budget at later stages too.

But they want precise, firm guarantees.

PS: This morning, both Alex Salmond and John Swinney gave evidence – again – to Holyrood’s local government committee on the Trump application. Did the committee land an effective punch upon them? What do you think?

Dutch courage

Brian Taylor | 15:03 UK time, Tuesday, 22 January 2008


Time was it took a certain degree of political courage - possibly fortified by the Dutch variety - to tax the workers' beer.

But tempora mutantur, nos et mutamur in illis. Today MSPs, some of them lodging caveats, agreed to big increases in the cost of alcohol licences.

Defending the change, Justice Secretary Kenny MacAskill was in notably combative form. He told one Labour MSP that her particular complaint was “total baloney”.

So what’s happening? In future, instead of the present fixed, limited fee for all pubs and shops, licensed premises will pay a variable rate for obtaining a licence.

Smaller premises would pay £800, the big places up to £2,000. In addition, there are annual renewal fees.

And why the fuss? The licensed trade complains that the fees are much higher than anticipated - and warns that some pubs with marginal income levels could go out of business.

The nature of the minister’s response is intriguing. Far from offering sympathy - or even pretending to sound emollient - he placed his decision firmly in the context of wider efforts to tackle the negative consequences of alcohol.

He said, bluntly: “Those who profit from the sale of alcohol have a responsibility to help pay for the costs.”

The new fee structure will now cover the full cost of the licensing system. Selling booze, he argued, was a privilege, not a right. That privilege comes with a cost. Today at Holyrood that cost increased.

Rock on

Brian Taylor | 12:02 UK time, Monday, 21 January 2008


Didn’t make it to Tannadice on Saturday. (I was chairing a debate in Edinburgh on EU policy. There’s dedication, eh?)

But congrats to the lads on a great victory - and here’s hoping the two-goal hero Barry Robson stays at United, among his many friends and admirers.

On the sporting front, I toddled out to Braehead on Sunday to watch the Scottish Rocks basketball team take on the might of Newcastle Eagles. (Rocks won - but not by a big enough margin to progress in the Trophy.)

My eye was drawn to the Eagles sponsor, Northern Rock. Today, of course, we learned that the Rock is to get a significant sponsor of its own: HM Treasury.

Not exactly a shirt sponsor, perhaps, except in the sense that every one of us is putting our shirt on the rescue working.

On his blog, my colleague Robert Peston says the deal to guarantee bonds to be issued by Northern Rock adds up to public financial support to a private enterprise that is “breathtakingly large and without precedent.” Quite.

The Rock, of course, made its name as a mortgage lender. The current jitters in financial markets can largely be traced to problems which emerged in sub-prime mortgage lending.

Translation of sub-prime? It means lending to people who can’t really afford the loan.

So it must have taken a certain courage for Scotland’s Communities Minister Stewart Maxwell to choose today to announce his latest housing inititiative. (NB: Doesn’t mean it’s wrong. Just courageous.)

Mr Maxwell is promoting LIFT: that’s the low-cost initiative for first-time buyers. It’s a shared equity scheme whereby those who can’t afford the full cost of house purchase get support from a housing association.

Say there’s a house on the market in a property hot-spot for £100,000. A young couple, for example, might stump up £60k, with the rest invested by the association. When the house is sold on, the association would recoup its money.

Today’s move extends the scheme to Aberdeen, Aberdeenshire, Moray, Highland, Stirling and Perth and Kinross.

Arguments for and against. Isn’t this just attracting folk into the market who can’t afford it? No, say ministers, great care will be taken. This is not exploitation, sub-prime style.

It’s aimed at hot-spots. Won’t this just help keep prices in those areas artificially high? Isn’t there a case for letting them reduce, under market forces. No, say ministers. This will only help a few hundred at most. It shouldn’t distort the market.

What about the homeless? Shouldn’t they be the priority, instead of putative home-owners? Look, say ministers, at the many other elements of housing policy, including expanding the housing sector, boosting the role of local authorities and ending the right to buy on new social housing.

As ever, friends, over to you.

You say, they do

Brian Taylor | 14:57 UK time, Thursday, 17 January 2008


Today’s session of questions to the first minister provided a wide range of topics. Not all of them in Wendy Alexander’s opening attack.

It isn’t easy, opposition. Your ministerial adversary has the last word, often carefully scripted by one of their army of advisers. You say things, they do things. They have the power.

Cast your mind back to the first two devolved parliaments. Neither Alex Salmond nor John Swinney were, as I recall, consistently successful in destabilising successive first ministers (or their occasional LibDem stand-in, Jim Wallace.)

I remember Jack McConnell conceding, with delightful frankness, that he was “havering” and so would resume his seat.

I remember Mr McLeish suggesting that his opponents should pay heed to a word beginning with "H" and ending in "Y". To general glee, the late, great Margaret Ewing shouted “Henry!”.

I remember, of course, the said Henry being brought down by the dogged pursuit of David McLetchie - or, rather, by the failure of the FM to close down the issue of his Westminster constituency allowances.

Perhaps my memory is failing. Perhaps my senses are still jangling from the sheer euphoria of United’s cup triumph against the might that is Clyde.

But I confess I don’t recall many moments when the SNP leader, in opposition, utterly discomfited the FM.

So it’s tough. It’s hard. Still and all, that was not a good showing by Labour’s Wendy Alexander in the chamber today.

For one thing, she lacked focus. She opened with an appetiser: the fate of sportscotland. She moved without pausing onto the topic of youth courts.

Then she segued into the subject of police numbers and pensions.

Any one of those topics, rigorously pursued, might have provided a challenge to the first minister. (Although, see caveats above.) Raising all three prompted the conclusion that the Labour leader was unsure in her attack strategy.

Secondly, she was outshone by Annabel Goldie and Nicol Stephen, each of whom has now developed a familiar formula.

Ms Goldie opens with a droll funny - then builds to a staged conclusion. Today it was that the “block-headed parochial dogma” of the SNP over nuclear power could jeopardise Scotland’s energy supply.

Nicol Stephen is Mr Angry. Each week, he is outraged and indignant over something or other.

This week, he was furious at the sacking of Dougie Donnelly and Julia Bracewell from Scotland’s national sports agencies.

Who, he roared, would the public trust? Dougie Donnelly or Stewart Maxwell?

One, I need hardly add, is a national broadcasting treasure. The other is the sports minister who was obliged to apologise to MSPs for mishandling his announcement re the future of sportscotland.

It was, of course, all contrived. But, on the day, it was curiously effective. It was, at the very minimum, a sustained and memorable attack.

Now, Labour MSPs constantly grumble that the first minister dodges questions. Some have even begun to mutter that the presiding officer should intervene, neglecting the doctrine that the chair is responsible for order, not content.

Yes, Alex Salmond deploys rhetorical devices. Wit, satire, lengthy lists, awkward quotes thrown back in the face. It’s called politics.

Labour needs to contrive to counter the first minister, not complain about him. Although, I say again, it’s tough.

The boy 'done well'

Brian Taylor | 17:45 UK time, Wednesday, 16 January 2008


So what’s the verdict on Alex Salmond’s appearance before a parliamentary committee to answer questions re the Donald Trump golf resort plan?

Depends to whom you talk, of course. But the prevailing view here at Holyrood is that the First Minister had a relatively untroubled outing.

Now there’s more to come. It’s eminently conceivable that the local government committee might opt to recall Mr Salmond. Their time to question him was cut short because they ran over with earlier witnesses.

Might there even, ultimately, be legal appeals against the Aberdeenshire application: perhaps based, to some extent, on the evidence of the process given to Holyrood?

But, on the day, Mr Salmond did well. He insisted that he had never intervened in the episode as first minister - because he was acting at all times purely as a constituency MSP.

He stressed he had set out that position in the prelude to every conversation and meeting about the Trump application.

His talks with Team Trump - just before the application was called in by the Scottish Government - had been on that basis.

Also giving evidence to the committee, the chief planner Jim Mackinnon offered a robust defence of the Government’s position.

Mr Mackinnon is plainly not a man with whom one would trifle, even if one were a member of the trifling tendency.

I say again: more, perhaps, another day. But on this day, the first minister seemed more contented with the outcome than his avid (opposition) interrogators.

The deal is on

Brian Taylor | 16:31 UK time, Wednesday, 16 January 2008


As of this evening, we have at Holyrood the clear outline of a deal to allow the SNP to get their very first budget through the Scottish Parliament.

To reach that next level of financial stability, John Swinney has a range of options.

He can ask the audience: mustering public opinion behind his plans. He can go 50/50: compromising on aspects of his package in recognition of the Scottish Government’s minority status.

But, above all, he can phone a friend. He can win support from another party in order to ensure Holyrood backing for his plans.

And the emerging friend? The Scottish Conservative and Unionist Party. Isn’t politics wonderful?

The evidence for this? The finance committee report which provides valuable advice aplenty to ministers and parliament - but, in the final analysis, only suggests two firm changes to the budget.

MSPs want to enhance police recruitment - and they want to accelerate cuts in business rates. Those are key Tory demands. Advanced in the committee by Tories and backed by SNP members. Suggested Labour changes were all blocked.

John Swinney now says he will look closely at the committee’s recommendations. But, if he can find a way of giving ground on those key issues, he could be close to securing Tory votes when parliament as a whole delivers its verdict on the Budget Bill.

The Tory rationale? It’s in line with their standing strategy that they will seek to gain support for as many of their objectives as possible, that they are prepared to collaborate in order to secure their policies.

Labour says, scornfully, that the Tories have sold out cheaply, that they’re doing a deal without firm promises of action from ministers.

Sour grapes, say the Tories. There will be no agreement without precise pledges.

My estimation? The deal’s on.

Unfinished business

Brian Taylor | 12:40 UK time, Tuesday, 15 January 2008


For Patrick Harvie MSP, it is an exercise in tidying the law. Nevertheless, it is an issue that still has potential to cause political division.

What am I talking about? The proposal that there should be heavier sentences imposed upon those who commit offences motivated by discrimination on the grounds of sexual orientation.

Mr Harvie, one of only two Green MSPs, is a serious political player. His Holyrood contributions always repay inspection. He is more inclined to make progress than to make gestures.

So, when he tried in the previous parliament to extend enhanced protection to gay and lesbian people, among others, he attracted attention.

But, according to Mr Harvie, sundry indications of executive sympathy didn’t translate into practical legislative action. He suspects there was an outbreak of chilled pedal extremities, caused by the approach of an election.

Now, the Justice Secretary Kenny MacAskill has said he will support Mr Harvie’s proposed change to the law.

This will “extend statutory aggravations to cover crimes motivated by malice or ill will towards victims based on their sexual orientation, transgender identity or disability”.

Broadly, this extends the “hate crime” provision which already covers offences motivated by racial or religious prejudice.

Unfinished business, says Patrick Harvie. Bringing Scotland into line with provisions in England.

Others, however, are not so sure. The Tories, for example, says the new law makes some “more equal than others”.

They argue that attacks on gay people should be prosecuted with vigour - as should all criminal behaviour. Distinctive provision is not required.

Indidivual members of other parties may harbour the same uncertainty. I suspect, however, that the measure will succeed, particularly with Scottish Government backing.

Talking shop

Brian Taylor | 17:00 UK time, Monday, 14 January 2008


Confession time.

I have been just a mite sceptical about the Commission on the constitution due to be set up by Scotland’s opposition parties.

However, with said parties due to meet again tomorrow, I thought I’d invite you to join me in taking another glance.

I am not entirely alone in scepticism, it would seem.

Some Labour backbench MPs have been rather inclined to doubt the value of the Commission.

To what burning question, they mutter, does it provide the answer?

Which is in itself a good question.

Those who set up the Constitutional Convention knew their purpose. They wanted Scottish self-government, within the Union.

What – other than the election of an SNP administration – is driving the present proposals?

Perhaps you answer: what else do you need? Well, nothing – if all you want is to form the basis of an inchoate resistance movement, dedicated to opposing independence.

But such a body would meet, growl mutually, agree it was against independence, sign a suitable pledge – then disperse.

This, I am assured, is about substance. Real substance. To be fair, the Conservatives have long floated the notion of reviewing Holyrood’s powers.

The Liberal Democrats have gone further – and organised their own review of devolved finance in an inquiry conducted by Sir David Steel.

But what’s in it for Labour? Certainly, they achieve the same objective as some sought from the Convention.

They attempt to isolate the SNP – and enhance the impression that, collectively, Scotland is turning from independence.

But times have changed. Scotland has an entrenched Parliament – with the SNP in power.

Nationalists – including those who fretted over the party’s attitude towards the Convention – can afford to be more relaxed with regard to the Commission.

Again, though, let’s look longer-term.

The London meeting (the last one was in Edinburgh) will bring together the Holyrood and Scottish Westminster leaders of Labour, the Tories and the LibDems.

Don’t expect instant action. No names yet for the expert members of the Commission.

Perhaps more re the framework. Next stage might be to return to Holyrood’s corporate body with a plan for setting up – and staffing – the review body.

And the end game? The objective? To reform the Scotland Act, of course.

To bring about changes in the existing balance of powers between Scotland and Westminster.

The purpose? To review a 10 year old structure – and forestall further moves towards independence.

All of this, remember, within the context of the United Kingdom. As one participant told me, this “mustn’t be seen as a Scottish land grab”.

Changes to financial systems, for example, would have to take account of English concerns about Scottish funding – and disquiet over the Barnett formula in Wales.

But cautiously, cannily. We’re back with the old gag. Devolution is like evolution. Just takes longer.

Philosophical caterwauling

Brian Taylor | 14:48 UK time, Thursday, 10 January 2008


You would have been hard pushed to spot it amid the caterwauling, but there was a fair dose of philosophical debate underpinning today’s session of questions to the first minister.

Wendy Alexander posed the latest in a weekly series of questions designed to claim that the Scottish Government’s budget will deprive funds from a vulnerable section of the community.

Alex Salmond pointed out that he hadn’t removed the cash. He had removed the central ring-fencing which obliged local authorities to spend money in particular ways. He invited Ms Alexander to trust local authorities, including Labour ones.

Now there will, eventually, be a mundane, pragmatic answer to these queries. That will surface when, by the passage of time, it is proved whether or not the vulnerable in society have been assisted.

For now, it is a philosophical dispute. Central government provides the bulk of local funding.

Should central government therefore direct, in detail, the disbursement of that money? Or should central government withdraw from ring-fencing, striking a deal - as SNP Ministers have done - which commits to achieving certain specified outcomes, without specifying the precise means?

Who has the mandate? Central government which dispenses the funds? Or local government which runs the services? Who takes responsibility? Who takes charge? Who takes the blame if things go wrong?

In essence, the same argument underpins the block grant which funds Holyrood. And the same complaints are levied.

The Treasury provides an overall sum derived from a calculation based upon English spending patterns. But Scotland does not have to follow those precise spending patterns.

It can spend as it chooses, free even from the constraint of outcome agreements with the exception of statutory duties, for example to educate the young. However, today’s philosophical debate also has a rough, contemporaneous element.

That is the issue of whether opposition parties will back the SNP Government’s budget.

This sequence of complaints from Labour is designed, as they would see it, to expose substantive gaps in that budget. Labour this afternoon said they were being invited to sign “a blank cheque”.

The SNP version is that Labour is gearing itself to vote against the budget, regardless. Of the others, both the Tories and the Liberal Democrats are raising principled objections.

It remains possible at this stage that the budget might be rejected by Parliament, obliging Ministers to make concessions before returning to the chamber for a further vote.

Alternatively, they might strike one or two deals in advance in order to win sufficient support.

Sense prevails

Brian Taylor | 14:57 UK time, Wednesday, 9 January 2008


It was, I believe, John Maynard Keynes who opined: "When the facts change, I change my mind. What do you do, Sir?”

The Sports Minister, Stewart Maxwell, presented himself as a true Keynesnian at Holyrood when he announced that Scotland’s national sports agency, sportscotland, will be preserved, contrary to the SNP manifesto.

Mr Maxwell contrived to sound less than abashed as he over-turned his party’s pledge to scrap the agency. Things, he said, had changed.

For one, the Commonwealth Games had now been won for Glasgow. This was no time, he argued, to be undermining the national agency - whose HQ will now be shifted from Edinburgh to Scotland’s largest city.

Opposition MSPs, while welcoming the switch, felt instead that the only change which had occurred lay in the minister’s mind. By their version, the previous policy had been daft - and sense had prevailed.

Technically, an agency goes as part of the package. The Institute of Sport’s board will be scrapped and merged with that of sportscotland. That allows a box to be ticked in the cull of quangos.

However, the institute is already to a large degree a subset of sportscotland. So it is scarcely a bonfire. More a minor glow on the horizon.

The SNP MSP Michael Matheson, who drafted the original policy, bravely suggested that sportscotland was being abolished “as we know it.”

The chamber, I have to report, was less than impressed by that version.

Still, I incline towards the Keynesian approach. It is better, generally, to be flexibly correct than consistently wrong.

Healthy debate

Brian Taylor | 15:25 UK time, Tuesday, 8 January 2008


It is hard, in all honesty, to be against virtue. It can be tough to harbour doubts about democracy. Nevertheless . . .

The Scottish Government has published proposals for direct elections to Scotland’s 14 territorial health boards.

Scenes of rejoicing all round? Not quite. The document itself is notably tentative: consulting on “whether” such a development should take place, rather than merely how.

And early political reaction from opposition parties is sceptical, particularly with regard to the detail of implementation.

This is a serious and substantive proposal from ministers. They want responses from the public. Where better to start than on this site?

Perhaps I might prompt discussion by listing a few of the caveats and potential problems outlined by the discussion paper itself.

Here’s one. Health boards aren’t just consultative forums. They take real decisions about hospital services. Doesn’t that argue for expertise rather than enthusiastic amateurism?

Against that, one might say that such an argument could be used to abandon elected local government.

Here's another point. Who will stand for health boards? Won't it just be people with a particular case to pursue?

Either against a development or, more likely, defending a particular hospital or service in the face of clinical advice.

And another. If direct elections are an unalloyed good thing, why not go for 100% elected boards?

Why does the document examine options ranging from a few elected members to totality? Why isn’t direct election extended to the seven special health boards which provide all-Scotland services like ambulances?

And another. Would you allow party politics in local health decisions? Or would you bar partisan candidates from standing?

Then the question of competing mandate. The object is to “encourage greater public and patient involvement in the planning and delivery of local NHS services in Scotland".

Yet, the consultation paper stresses that the boards will still be “expected to operate within national policies set by the government”.

Ministers have powers to remove appointed board members. The document asks whether ministers should also be able to sack elected members.

And other matters. The cost of elections - some £5m. What voting system should be used? Should elections be piloted? Should elected board members be paid the same as councillors (roughly double what current board members get)?

Good questions all. Over to you.

Back to reality

Brian Taylor | 16:29 UK time, Monday, 7 January 2008


So did you miss me? I took the opportunity of the festive season to re-engage with real life in readiness for Holyrood ahead.

To be precise, I spent Hogmanay in Disneyland Paris. Perfect preparation for parliamentary debate, in my view. Fantasy, fireworks and ebullient noise.

So what lies ahead? Government initiatives aplenty, starting with John Swinney on planning reform and Nicola Sturgeon on direct elections to health boards.

Turmoil and travail. The Electoral Commission will - eventually - rule on the issue of donations to Wendy Alexander's leadership campaign.

MSPs will open committee hearings on the First Minister's role in the Donald Trump planning application.

More on the constitution.

Expect SNP Ministers to offer greater detail on what they believe could be achieved under independence.

Expect supporters of the Union to counter with their plan to review devolution (occasional Westminster grumbles notwithstanding.)

But perhaps the most germane immediate issue will, again, be finance.

The Scottish Government's budget - council tax freeze and all - requires parliamentary endorsement.

The finance committee is presently studying reports from individual subject committees and will issue a report, expected next week.

Opposition MSPs may/will propose changes to the budget but it's up to ministers to table amendments, if they feel they need to make concessions in order to win support.

Right now, opposition parties are declaring the budget unsupportable.

Well, they would, wouldn't they? It's their job - and, to be fair, they harbour a range of authentic concerns.

But I would expect one or more to come round to voting for the budget or, at least, abstaining to enable it to go forward.

Before that, though, substantive debate. It's what Parliament is for.

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