BBC BLOGS - Blether with Brian

Archives for December 2009

A blog about blogs

Brian Taylor | 14:49 UK time, Thursday, 17 December 2009

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This blog is about blogs. Or, rather, a particular blogger.

One Mark MacLachlan who used to work in the South of Scotland office of Mike Russell MSP.

Not content with that role, Mr MacLachlan apparently sought to advance his party's cause by writing a blog. Under a pseudonym. With an enigmatic title.

Seemingly, this blog contained alleged smears against political rivals, both in the South of Scotland and in Holyrood.

In the customary fashion, the author was disclosed. Mr Russell deplored the content of the blog.

Mr MacLachlan resigned from his post.

Mr Russell told BBC Scotland that he had known nothing of the blog's content and had, indeed, been "shocked".

Political integrity

This morning The Herald published email correspondence between the MSP and his former staffer in which Mr MacLachlan is shown asserting that Mr Russell had known of the blog - and had suggested content for it.

To date, I have not troubled you with this story on this site - or, indeed, anywhere else. An error, no doubt, on my part but I felt that minor matters like the state of the economy might command more public interest.

I only raise it now because Iain Gray chose to major on this topic in questioning the first minister.

Mr Gray suggested it was a question of the minister's integrity.

Further, he quoted a suggestion from Mr MacLachlan to the effect that he had been obliged to stand down and that his resignation note had been written by the FM's special adviser.

Labour's Holyrood leader demanded a parliamentary statement from the minister on the matter.

In response, Mr Salmond cited Mr Russell's previous denials - and suggested that Mr Gray might have usefully chosen another topic, such as the collapse of the airline Globespan or the climate talks in Copenhagen.

'False' alegations

And there's more. Mr Russell has now reiterated his insistence that he knew nothing of the blog's contents.

He has asked his lawyers to advise his former employee that his allegations are "totally false".

He says, further, that any repetition of these allegations by Mr MacLachlan will result in legal action.

Further, Mr Russell has, in effect, referred himself to Holyrood's Standards Commissioner for investigation.

He does this, he says, confident that he has acted properly in every way.

Purely in the interests of balance - and before you all rush to your keyboards - I will also note that Mr Salmond raised with Mr Gray the issue of a donation from Prestonpans Labour Party to the Holyrood Labour leader.

I have not, to date, troubled you with this story either. However, it is to the effect that East Lothian council previously provided a marquee to Labour in Prestonpans over a number of years for use at a fund-raising barbecue.

The suggestion is that this was, improperly, a donation in kind to a political organisation.

It is further noted that the branch provided a donation to Mr Gray's campaign to be Labour leader at Holyrood.

PS: Have any of you read Wilfred Owen's wonderful poem, Futility. It ends:

Was it for this the clay grew tall?
O what made fatuous sunbeams toil
To break earth's sleep at all?

PPS: If you think I am grumpy because the SFA are after United's manager, you are right.

PPPS: Have a Good Yule

Job figures

Brian Taylor | 13:42 UK time, Wednesday, 16 December 2009

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An intriguing variety of responses to the news today that unemployment in Scotland has fallen by 2,000 over the past quarter.

Firstly, the Scottish TUC rightly points out that the improvement registered is in ILO unemployment (down) - and in the number of those employed (up).

The claimant count has still risen which the STUC says is a "concern".

For the political parties, it instantly translates into a further fight over the Holyrood issue of the moment: public spending.

That is because negotiations are under way right now with regard to the draft Scottish budget for 2010-11.

Further, it is because the implications of the PBR are still being absorbed in Scotland - and indeed debated at Holyrood this pm.

The SNP says that budget cuts would be a "cruel blow" at a time when there is cause to derive cautious optimism from the jobless figures.

Job creation

They argue that the dole queue has been shortened by Scottish government action.

By contrast, Labour says that the Scottish budget needs reshaping to make a bigger impact on the economy.

As an instance, they suggest reinstating the Glasgow Airport Rail Link (GARL).
To some extent, that mirrors one conclusion of Holyrood's finance committee which was that the draft budget was insufficiently focused upon job creation.

The Tories, like the other opposition parties, are in talks with John Swinney.

Unlike the others, the Lib Dems have shown their hand a little, suggesting that one of their aims is to cut top pay packets in the public sector, most notably in the health service.

But, behind it all, there is the prospect of substantial budgetary constraint in the period following 2011 when the next Comprehensive Spending Review is due to be implemented. That is true whichever party wins the UK general election.

Mr Swinney, the Finance Sector, has been setting out, in detail, his department's estimate of the PBR impact and future plans.

Increasing impact

That latter section is based upon a projection, derived from the Institute of Fiscal Studies, that there will be a 3.2% annual retrenchment in UK public spending from 2011-12 to 2013-14.

Scotland will experience a proportionate share of that which might vary depending on where, precisely, any cuts fall. Remember that is cumulative. The impact increases, progressively, year on year.

The haggling over the 2010-11 budget seems rather insufficient to meet that longer term challenge.

Naturally, there must be detailed negotiation, not least because the SNP does not have a majority at Holyrood.

But should that negotation not be founded upon the perception that, in future, spending is going to be tighter still?

Should Scotland not be preparing the ground, now, for the economies which are going to be required?

If we don't, is it not likely that the cuts will fall in the "wrong" places, that the ripest, lowest-hanging fruit will be plucked - perhaps regardless of the longer-term impact?

Or, being realistic, is that type of debate electorally impossible when the political parties are trying to present competing visions of the current state of the economy for the verdict of the voters at the coming UK general election?

Family affairs

Brian Taylor | 15:12 UK time, Tuesday, 15 December 2009

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As so often, it is the appendix which provides the innocent merriment for the citizenry.

Sir Neil McIntosh, a distinguished public servant, has conducted a reappraisal of the system of allowances for MSPs.

Not a full review by any means. Rather, as he calls it, an MoT.

In pursuit of this objective, he commissioned consultants to carry out four focus group sessions designed to test public opinion.

Their conclusion? "In general, a high degree of mistrust of politicians as a body was expressed."

You astonish me, Holmes.

The focus group members, it seems, felt that anyone going into politics was likely to be "egotistical". Given the chance, they would fiddle their expenses.

Mother of parliaments

Snag is that this opinion was, literally, ill-informed. It was based on virtually zero knowledge of the Scottish scheme.

With one exception, none of the participants had any idea that the Holyrood system is considerably tighter than the one which has prevailed to date at Westminster.

Understandably, the focus groups reviled what has been going on among some members of the mother of parliaments.

They tended to extend that revulsion to MSPs.

Intriguingly, however, when the system at Holyrood (described by Sir Neil as "robust") was explained to focus group members, they were notably happier - although there was residual cynicism as to whether the system could be adequately enforced.

Sir Neil says MSPs should no longer be able to employ members of their own family.

Currently, 26 do just that, either in their parliamentary or constituency offices.

Public concern

The McIntosh report stresses that there is absolutely no evidence of abuse.

He proposes the switch in order to assuage public concern.

There is, it would appear, "an unacceptable risk of undermining public confidence and fuelling public cynicism."

It would seem from Sir Neil's own focus groups that the present public conflagration requires little in the way of refuelling.

One question repeatedly posed to Sir Neil at the media launch was: why take so long to make the switch?

He wants to prevent any new appointments right away - but those MSPs who presently employ family members have until July 2015 to make new arrangements.

Seems a bit prolonged, perhaps. Sir Neil's explanation is that this is the duration of the next parliamentary term - plus a three month handover period.

Binding agreements

It is apparently in line with the reform timescale proposed for Westminster.

Plus it lessens the prospect of any legal challenge by disgruntled staff.

Among other recommendations, he wants "binding agreements" whereby those MSPs who have bought Edinburgh homes with public support for their mortgage will pay Capital Gains Tax if and when they flog these properties.

The mortgage scheme itself is already due to end in 2011. Sir Neil said this a way of recouping some cash for the public purse.

It won't placate everyone. For one thing, it isn't full surrender of all profit. Not practical, says Sir Neil.

For another, how will it be possible to pursue former MSPs when they sell their Edinburgh homes perhaps decades later?

One for the lawyers and accountants, suggested Sir Neil.

In practice, though, while not addressing historical anomalies, today's report may well plug the remaining gaps in the Holyrood system, at least in terms of public perception.

Given parliament's corporate body tonight accepted the recommendations in full, it would seem that further reform is now guaranteed.

Over to the focus group . . .

Deal or no deal

Brian Taylor | 11:47 UK time, Friday, 11 December 2009

Comments

Who knows what's best when it comes to children's education? Central or local government? Whose writ runs? Who takes the decisions?

Those are the questions which underpin the intriguing developments in the controversy over class sizes.

In essence, the new Education Secretary Mike Russell has offered a deal.

In return for councils shifting more rapidly towards the government's objective on class sizes, he'll cut them slack on other policies: free school meals and kinship carers.

Let's remind ourselves of the basics. Herewith the SNP manifesto promise on class sizes: "We will reduce class sizes in Primary 1, 2 and 3 to 18 pupils or less to give children more time with their teacher at this vital stage of their development."

Progress has been relatively slow in delivering this.

Some councils say they haven't got the cash.

More fundamentally, others say the policy is misplaced.

So, according to the councils, it's can't play, won't play.

For smaller class sizes, you need more teachers.

The issue was brought to a head when the previous Education Secretary Fiona Hyslop condemned council performance on teacher recruitment and retention as "unacceptable".

As is customary, her speech was canvassed and discussed in advance.

Apparently, councils let it be known that the word "unacceptable" was.....unacceptable.

They indicated they would regard it as a declaration of hostilities, by contrast with the comradeship of the concordat between central and local government.

Exasperated at the lack of progress, Ms Hyslop delivered her speech intact, indicating further that she might have to consider removing education from council control.

The councils duly responded with cold anger.

Enter Mike Russell. He wants to "reset" the relationship with the local authorities.

But he makes clear - apparently, very clear - that the councils simply must move much more rapidly towards the SNP manifesto commitment on class sizes.

In return, he'll allow them to prioritise the provision of free school meals to deprived areas - instead of moving towards universal coverage.

Further, the meal can be breakfast or brunch instead of lunch.

Then there's the issue of "kinship carers": where a member of the child's extended family provides support.

Councils are being enjoined to extend payments for that care.

In essence, the government is saying that the local authorities can regard their progress on this issue thus far as sufficient.

In practice, they won't need to do more - although, formally, further progress is regarded as a worthwhile aim.

So where are we? At Holyrood, opposition leaders say it's a succession of humiliating departures from the SNP manifesto.

Ministers insist they are driving forward their policy and ensuring clear progress, given the tight new constraints on spending.

It looks as if the Scottish government will fall short on class sizes.

Even if councils deliver the new deal - which is 11,000 more pupils in small classes by August 2010 - that will mean coverage for only 20% of the relevant school population.

To be fair, the pledge on school meals is rather different. The manifesto only promised pilots in P1-3 plus an extension of the policy to other children in circumstances of deprivation, defined by the receipt of benefits.

Ministers can argue that has been achieved.

Again, on kinship care, the manifesto promise was limited. It was to expand kinship care, where that is possible.

But that still leaves the class sizes pledge. Councils are now enjoined to make further progress, deploying the cash saved by the other concessions.

Will it work? Not everywhere, it seems. The largest authority, Glasgow, is still opposed in principle and practice to the policy.

Glasgow says it already offers free breakfasts.

Ironically, Glasgow plans to go in the other direction, levyng 50p on breakfast clubs - although those entitled to free meals will, of course, pay no charge.

So Glasgow says the new flexibility makes no difference to them. Further, the city believes the policy is wrong in principle.

It conducted a survey into education provision which argued that the evidence on lower class sizes was shaky, concluding that any benefit in early years was wiped out unless it was maintained throughout school life.

Glasgow, in short, says it will not budge unless it is compelled by statute or by financial sanction of the type that enforced the council tax freeze.

Ministers insist there is robust evidence that small class sizes in early years give children the best possible foundation for their education.

Which brings us back to the opening question. Whose writ runs?

The government will say it is entitled to pursue the manifesto upon which it fought a national election.

Councils like Glasgow may say they are elected to run local services in their area.

'Not quite' D-Day

Brian Taylor | 15:02 UK time, Thursday, 10 December 2009

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Alex Salmond was at his combative best at first minister's questions.

Offered a target by Labour's Iain Gray, he didn't miss.

Iain Gray had taken the courageous decision to pursue the topic of accelerated capital expenditure. (NB: that is "courageous" in the "Yes Minister" sense.)

The Labour leader spoke well, deploying a range of familiar rhetorical techniques.

However, like A.C. Bradley's analysis of Shakespearean heroes, the venture had a fatal flaw.

Which was that Mr Gray had requested accelerated capital spending from the Treasury - and it had not been forthcoming.

This allowed Mr Salmond to pillory both the Chancellor and the Holyrood Labour leader in a single attack.

'Squandering cash'

He took the opportunity.

According to the FM, the Chancellor had sabotaged the Scottish economy, leaving Mr Gray humiliated in the process.

Broadly, there are two explanations from Team Gray as to why the accelerated capital spending wasn't forthcoming.

Version One is that the PBR wasn't the occasion for accelerated spend.

It was never going to be. D-Day, it was not.

Version Two, which Mr Gray pursued in the chamber today, is that Alex Salmond had ruined the prospect of bringing forward further spending by squandering the cash supplied in an earlier tranche.

Mr Salmond denied this charge and proceeded to list a series of projects which, he said, stood ready for implementation had capital spending been brought forward.

Raising issues

The two points raised by Team Gray are not entirely incompatible: for example, they say now that Mr Salmond must mend his ways in order to allow a subsequent appeal to be made.

But, frankly, they don't sit together all that well.

If, as we are now told, there was no prospect of accelerated spending being considered before the next Comprehensive Spending Review (CSR) in time for 2011, then why raise the issue with the Treasury in October this year, without making any mention of that time delay?

If time delay is the issue, then why not say so in the chamber? Why major instead on Version Two, the attack on the Scottish government?

Is it conceivable that, when Mr Gray supported capital acceleration on October 29, it was still feasible that the Treasury might entertain such a request?

Apparently, the Treasury subsequently issued an explanatory memorandum in which they made clear that the December statement would concern itself purely with PBR matters - and would not touch at all on the CSR.

It would not, consequently, address capital acceleration.

To be fully fair to Mr Gray, his original statement had stressed that he was arguing for capital acceleration contingent on the Scottish government demonstrating that it would make productive use of such spending, creating jobs.

Seeking blame

His precise phrase was that he would back such a move "if and only if the SNP gets its budget sorted." His line today was that such sorting was absent.

This argument is at least cogent and consistent - although, to emphasise, strenuously countered by Mr Salmond.

But it strikes me that you can't really seek to blame the Scottish government - if there is not and never was any prospect of the Treasury considering the issue at this stage.

One or t'other. Not both.

Which leaves us where? Mr Gray will presumably pursue his claim that the Scottish government has misallocated resources.

He will claim further that the Scottish Futures Trust is an unproductive waste of money.

Mr Salmond will undoubtedly pursue his claim that Scotland has been robbed of resources by the Treasury.

Draft budget

Some figures for you - which might help explain why one side claims Scotland's money has gone up and the other side says it has slumped.

The UK Government points to the Departmental Expenditure Limit (DEL) for Scotland. That is the cash and capital, calculated via Barnett, which the Scottish government has discretion to spend on services.

At 2009-10 prices and in real terms, DEL for Scotland was £27,425m in 2008/09, £28,375m in 2009/10 and will be £28,738m in 2010/11.

Hence, Iain Gray's statement today that the Scottish government has more to spend next year than this.

However, in the chamber today, Alex Salmond highlighted analysis produced by the Scottish Parliament Information Centre (SPICE).

That spotlights the changes to the Scottish budget from UK and Scottish government decisions since the draft budget for 2009/10 was disclosed.

It incorporates the Treasury figure that the consequence of the PBR is to increase the Scottish budget for 10-11 by £23m.

Previous plans

However, it features other consequentials.

The impact of the April Budget, it says, removed £391m from the plans as the Chancellor ordered efficiencies.

The reprofiling pursued by the Scottish government (that previous tranche of accelerated capital which now has to be accounted for) removes £347m from the pot available in 2010-11.

Including other consequentials, they conclude that the change from previous plans is a net reduction of £814.4m.

Hence Mr Salmond's remarks.

Stand by for a row

Brian Taylor | 13:19 UK time, Wednesday, 9 December 2009

Comments

UPDATE AT 1538:

More in Scotland re the PBR. Unions unhappy with the pay restraint move, arguing that it is forcing workers to pay for the "greed" of the banks.

Employers - CBI, Chambers, FSB - reasonably happy with the support for enterprise.

But bitterly discontented with the further rise in National Insurance for employers and employees, billing it as "a tax on jobs".

Then to public spending. The Treasury says the Barnett consequentials for Scotland add up to £23m for next year.

Nobody is attempting to pretend that is anything other than modest - although UK Ministers insist it is an increase on top of huge rises in public spending over the past decade.

Instead, the Treasury is pointing to other, wider elements in the PBR: the support for enterprise, the new initiatives on skills, the backing for the energy sector, the continuing support for the banks, including Scotland's big two.

Together, they say this adds up to a growth agenda which will benefit Scotland.

Industry crisis

The Scottish Government is less than impressed.

They say that they have "shovel-ready" projects which could have benefited from a further tranche of accelerated capital spending.

They draw attention to this previous comment by Iain Gray.

"It was Scottish Labour who called for the Treasury to allow the Scottish Government to accelerate capital last year and I am calling on the Chancellor to do so again".

He added: "We want to see accelerated funding used to address the crisis in the construction industry and support a major expansion of the housing programme that will generate jobs and training opportunities for young people."

The SNP argues that, despite being a former special adviser to Alistair Darling at the Scotland Office, the Holyrood Labour leader appears to have little sway with the Chancellor.

In response, Mr Gray says that the Nationalists are simply intent on picking a fight.

Future budgets

He says that today is not - and never was - D-day for the decision on capital.

That can only come, he argues, when there is a further Comprehensive Spending Review (CSR) package.

In other words, you can only accelerate capital spending from future budgets when that future budget exists and has been defined by the Treasury.

Well, yes. But you can scarcely blame the Scottish Government for "picking a fight" when they thought they had Mr Gray onside on this issue.

He issued no caveats about timing when he made his previous statement in October.

And it is not just the SNP. The Tories say it is a "slap in the face" for the Labour leader.

Job creation

However, Mr Gray goes further, nuancing his argument.

He says the "best way" the Scottish government could make a case for acceleration would be to prove they can find savings within their existing budget.

They should, he says, "sort out their budget" and reinstate GARL. He repeats his assertion that any additional capital should be demonstrably tied to job creation.

All points to bear in mind in the mix.

Snag is that - with the exception of the jobs point - he issued no such caveats and made no declaration about timing when he made his previous statement in October.

- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -

Consequences for Scotland from the pre-Budget report

Aside, of course, from the overall impact of varied changes such as the increase in National Insurance and the cut in bingo tax.

At a first glance, the Chancellor is signalling that there will be modest increases in public spending in Scotland next year and, should he be returned, for the year after.

That is because he says he will spend on front line services such as schools, hospitals and police with Barnett consequentials for Scotland.

No information, though, on where there will be cuts.

Further, there was nothing to be said on the request for the further acceleration of capital expenditure.

Spending cuts

That request was tabled by the Scottish government and drew support from Labour's Iain Gray.

Partly, that is because the Chancellor argued this was not the occasion for information regarding longer-term plans or, indeed, for indications with regard to capital as opposed to revenue.

The Tories said that meant this was less a pre-Budget report - and more a pre-election report with the Chancellor disinclined to own up in any detail about the spending cuts to come.

But, mostly, it is because the Treasury is inclined to say no to the request.

UK ministers will argue that it remains open to the Scottish government to adopt PFI projects to enhance capital spending.

Ministers in Scotland, of course, say PFI wastes money to a profligate degree.

Stand by for a substantial cross-border row on this.

Spending money

Brian Taylor | 13:05 UK time, Tuesday, 8 December 2009

Comments

Intriguing take in The Scotsman on public spending.

Professor David Bell reckons that a needs review, alone, would deprive Scotland of £4.5bn per year.

Bear in mind that this would be in addition to or in consort with any cuts which are coming down the line from straightforward stringencies imposed by the Treasury.

Early signals of that may come tomorrow in the chancellor's Pre-Budget Report.

It works like this. Under the Barnett formula, Scotland gains a percentage of any annual increase in spending by comparable Whitehall departments such as education and health.

Under that same formula, Scotland suffers a percentage of any annual cut in those Whitehall budgets.

Stand by, consequently, for cuts: perhaps 7-13% in real terms in the four year review period, starting in 2011, according to Audit Scotland.

New method

Prof Bell is not talking about that exercise, which seems inevitable.

He is envisaging a scenario in which Barnett has been replaced. It is no more, it is an ex-formula.

Instead, the guiding structure of Scottish spending - as opposed to the annual or four-yearly basic figures - is determined by a new method of calculation based upon assessed need rather than historical patterns, varied annually by per centage.

According to the worthy prof, a calculation done for Wales, if extended to Scotland, would produce that loss of £4.5bn: that is round about one seventh of the entire annual Scottish block.

The new system would work like this. You take a series of parameters which reflect "need" - such as the number of dependent children and elderly people, the health profile, low incomes, population sparsity, the ethnic mix.

You tally these up with regard to the various nations/regions of the UK - and allocate cash according to the outcome.

According to the Welsh study, as interpreted by Prof Bell, Scotland's take would shrink from a 20% lead over England to one as low as 5%.

Added weight

In short, using those criteria, we are not as poor as Barnett says we are. Hence the £4.5bn cut.

Now, it is possible to challenge the figure. It is possible to argue that added weight should be given to different criteria.

The Scottish government would undoubtedly mount such a defence - in the face of a needs review.

Indeed, they are already preparing the ground.

It is also possible to factor in the political element. Is a UK government really going to implement such a dramatic change if it is serious about maintaining the Union?

David Cameron, for example, is quite pointedly cooling the ardour of his Conservative colleagues towards the concept of plundering Scottish cash.

His verdict remains: "Better an imperfect Union than a perfect divorce."

Formula distrust

Labour is attempting to argue that Prof Bell's figures display the Union dividend, the value of the current set-up to Scotland.

That strikes me as somewhat specious, given that the challenge to Scotland's spending levels arises precisely within the current set-up, partly as a result of distrust of the Barnett Formula in Wales.

The SNP response is to argue one again for financial autonomy, for Scotland to raise her own revenues and control her own expenditure.

Folk, therefore, will have to calculate where Scotland's interests best lie under a range of scenarios.

Will the present set-up be retained? Will there be a needs review? Would that affect Scotland as badly as Prof Bell suggests? Would Scotland thrive or struggle under fiscal autonomy?

Remember, again, this element is in addition to the cuts which are coming anyway.

Seasons Greetings.

Climate change

Brian Taylor | 12:36 UK time, Monday, 7 December 2009

Comments

It would seem you are not, mostly, climate change deniers.

Our BBC Scotland poll suggests that 63% think there is real and present danger in the atmosphere - which merits urgent action.

According to the poll, some 20% reckon it is an issue for the future.

11% it would seem, are unconvinced by assertions that our climate is being adversely affected by emissions.

Around 4% think it isn't a problem.

The poll, of course, coincides with the opening of the Climate Change summit in Copenhagen.

The Scottish Government will be in the Danish capital - but participating on the Fringe, as it were, rather than at the official festival. Stewart Stevenson will stage a low carbon mission event in Copenhagen next Monday.

Holyrood Ministers had hoped to participate as part of the UK delegation, explaining Scotland's carbon reduction targets. The UK Government argued that it was up to UN member states to take part in the main event.

There will be continuing controversy over that - as an added spice to the fundamental issue at Copenhagen.

Can a new agreement be reached on greenhouse gas emissions? Will it cover more countries than those who endorsed the Kyoto protocol of 1997?

In particular, will the United States join in fully - when there are already powerful voices in the US arguing that carbon action could remove billions from the industrial economy and jeopardise recovery?

President Obama has said: "We understand the gravity of the climate threat. We are determined to act. And we will meet our responsibility to future generations."

Will that be sustained?

Will China agree to curbs when those could, arguably, bite into its rapid growth rate? Is its offer of restraint substantial - or is it only promising to limit emissions within the ambit of still greater economic development?

To what extent can limits be applied to developing nations who argue that they were not responsible for the problem in the first place? African nations and others say rich countries must bear the brunt of the restraints and must help those whose economies are still struggling to grow.

To recap, around two thirds of you will be hoping for an immediate, productive and binding deal in Copenhagen.

Just over a sixth of you, combined, suspect or believe they're wasting their time.

The battle over class sizes

Brian Taylor | 14:02 UK time, Thursday, 3 December 2009

Comments

Is it a sensible policy to reduce class sizes in the earliest stages of primary schooling to 18 or fewer?

Did Alex Salmond promise to deliver such a policy in the first Parliament of his administration?

Do not attempt to answer both questions at once. Candidates have until the next Holyrood election to complete this paper. Marks will be given by the voters.

As expected, opposition leaders all pursued the First Minister today on the replacement of his Education Secretary.

Of the three, Labour's Iain Gray was the most effective. He had substantive research upon which to base his attack.

Mr Gray disclosed a leaked minute from 2 July 2007 of a meeting in which civil servants from the Scottish Executive (as it was then billed) discussed the implications of the class size policy for primary teacher recruitment.

Donald Henderson of the Schools Directorate is minuted as noting that the commitment would require more than 4000 extra student teachers.

He is further minuted as saying: "The scale of the commitment does not allow it to be delivered in the life time of a parliament."

According to Labour, this means that the First Minister was being advised by his officials that the policy was undeliverable in practice - by contrast with a Parliamentary answer given by the FM to Hugh Henry MSP on 5 September 2007 in which Mr Salmond confirmed that the class sizes promise would be delivered within a single Parliamentary session of four years.

Also according to Labour, that means the FM misled the chamber. Mr Henry now plans to pursue this alleged deceit.

The FM's answer? Progress is being made year on year on class sizes, not helped by obstruction from Labour councils. He said they make up one third of Scotland's local authorities - while they are responsible for two thirds of the drop in teacher numbers: the issue which despatched Fiona Hyslop from the education brief.

Further inquries of the government elicit the response that any advice given by officials was superseded by the concordat with local authorities in 14 November 2007 - which featured a pledge to take action on class sizes, with implications for teacher numbers.

At questions today, Annabel Goldie broadly took the same tack: that Ms Hyslop was a victim of an impossible pledge delivered by her boss.

Tavish Scott noted that the ministerial changes only followed the prospect of a no confidence motion, prepared by himself.

Will Alex Salmond be found to have misled Parliament? I very much doubt it. There is the defence re the concordat, there is the more general point that officials advise and Ministers decide.

Had there been a private quotation from Mr Salmond to the effect that the policy was futile, then different story.

However, these exchanges, deftly pursued by Mr Gray, add to the impression of difficulty with this portfolio: an impression given rather noted substance, of course, by the removal of the incumbent.

Already, one is hearing defensive postures from Ministers: class sizes are now at a record low, we only promised to make progress year on year, we are being blocked by Labour councils, the real focus should perhaps be on cutting class sizes in the most deprived areas.

There is justice in some or all of these arguments. Snag is the manifesto pledge was to cut class sizes to 18 or fewer in Primaries 1 to 3.

Is there a "crisis" in education, as Mr Salmond's opponents aver? No more than usual.

Certainly, difficulties with a class size policy covering the very earliest years do not amount to a crisis for education as a whole. For Ministers, however, not good.

Earlier, Opposition leader teased the new Education Secretary Mike Russell over his previous views on the topic. MSPs were voting on whether to endorse his appointment. (They did.) Murdo Fraser of the Tories made a notably witty speech.

Mr Russell was reminded that he had, in the past, suggested that councils were "arrogant" and that their collective organisation, Cosla, was inclined to offer "self-serving, mealy-mouthed advice".

The Minister grinned politely, well aware that these comments were delivered during his wilderness years outside Holyrood. (He had been shunted way down the regional list by his ungrateful party.)

In those days, he was thinking grand thoughts. He was publishing pamphlets. He was challenging for the party leadership. He was thinking six impossible things before breakfast - and, rashly, committing some of them to print.

Now that his penance is paid and he has achieved Cabinet rank, perhaps his noted diplomatic skills will take precedence over his propensity for blue-sky thinking. However, let us hope that he has not entirely lost his sense of iconoclasm.

Scotland could use a Minister who challenges "the way things have aye been".

Soft landing

Brian Taylor | 13:13 UK time, Tuesday, 1 December 2009

Comments

She had to go. Multiple factors.

On Fiona Hyslop's watch, teacher numbers had dropped substantially: a development she herself described as "unacceptable" - although that epithet was aimed at local authorities, whom she blamed.

It was becoming difficult for Alex Salmond to defend her in the face of such statistics. In such circumstances, the first minister has to bolster his own reputation - and sacrifice that of a colleague.

Another factor is the Scottish government has now embarked upon a review of educational provision which will explicitly question whether local authorities are the right delivery vehicle.

Ms Hyslop announced the review on Friday, buried within a substantial attack upon councils for their record in spending resources supposedly provided for teaching.

But Alex Salmond believes that thinking is needed to pursue that review. Hence, well-merited promotion to cabinet for Mike Russell.

And one more motivation. The Liberal Democrats were about to pursue a motion of no confidence in Ms Hyslop.

Team refresh

They were planning to take that to Holyrood's business bureau this afternoon, with a debate scheduled for Thursday.

Government aides insist that wasn't the prime factor in this demotion for Ms Hyslop.

They say Alex Salmond was considering refreshing his team anyway in the light of the disappointing teacher stats.

However, at the very least, it will have concentrated minds.

On previous occasions, when opposition parties have talked of confidence motions, Mr Salmond has let it be known that an attack on one of his team would be interpreted as an attack on the whole government.

This time, he decided against such an approach. He has concluded Ms Hyslop should be moved, rather than defended at all costs.

She is consequently demoted - and faces a cut in salary.

Talent admiration

However, it is a notably soft landing. She remains a minister, taking Mr Russell's portfolios of culture and external affairs.

She will continue to attend cabinet regularly - although no longer a full member.

That reflects three elements: Mr Salmond's admiration for her talents; his belief that she did a good job in elements of her previous brief, such as further and higher education; and his understandable reluctance to concede complete victory to those opposition critics who were demanding her sacking.

This is, self-evidently, bad news for the Scottish government. It speaks of vulnerability and poor performance in an area which is important to many voters.

Looking ahead, three challenges.

Can Team Salmond restabilise after this: a demotion enforced by ministerial failure?

What happens to that review of education provision? Councils will complain, fearing a loss of their power.

Limited resources

But, starting from first principles, are they the best to deliver education?

Could that be done by central government? Or trusts? Or by giving more power to individual head teachers, under central supervision?

Local authorities should not presume that Scots will automatically endorse their role.

They will have to defend it, explain it, justify it and, above all, prove that they are spending limited resources in the most efficient manner.

In truth, that may be the outcome: that councils feel obliged to review and upgrade their own performance in the light of an explicit threat from central government, albeit one that may be elegantly expressed by the new cabinet secretary.

And, thirdly, what happens to Mr Russell's constitution brief, now assumed personally by the first minister?

Independence cause

I think change derives partly from necessity. Mike Russell will have enough on his hands with education.

However, it also reflects where we are on the constitutional issue.

Mr Russell has published the white paper.

It appears the referendum will not happen next year.

The next stage, then, is political, rather than governmental. It is about strategic positioning to advance the SNP cause of independence.

One for the FM.

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