First minister's questions

From Democracy Live: Alex Salmond faced questions on benefits, pensions and mining

The first minister, it appears, has been writing to the prime minister. Not, to be clear, a fan letter. Nor yet a begging letter, urging more money for Scotland.

No, this missive was demanding a moratorium on the privatisation of the Royal Mail, pending the referendum on independence. Unaccountably, the FM has yet to receive a reply. Lost in the post, perhaps?

Or maybe the prime minister's squad are crafting a particularly polite way of saying: No.

Either way, Alex Salmond reckoned that the message on this issue had emerged fairly clearly from the Labour conference in Brighton: an overwhelming or even unanimous vote from those in the hall to renationalise Royal Mail, should it be sold.

Mr Salmond could not resist a note of satire. Indeed, resistance never occurred to him.

He surrendered willingly to drollery's embrace. Where now was the Labour ridicule which had come his way for his promise last week to take Royal Mail back into public ownership in Scotland?

As he was answering a question from one of his own chums at that juncture, there was no immediate comment from Labour.

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Johann Lamont said the logic of Mr Salmond's dilemma was that he should now be urging people throughout the UK to vote Labour in order to implement the reforms to social security”

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The party's line, however, has been that Mr Salmond's promise was unscheduled and uncosted - and that Labour regarded such interventions as infantile.

But it capped a session of sharp exchanges: at least, with Labour. Johann Lamont was plainly intent upon developing her own conference theme in which she described Nationalism as a virus.

Her contention is that the motivation of SNP ministers is miscued.

She argues that, instead of being driven by endeavours to ameliorate the immediate concerns of the deprived, they prefer to highlight those problems in order to underline their case for constitutional change.

A contemporary Scottish version of impossibilism, perhaps.

In particular, Ms Lamont suggested that Scottish Ministers were seeking to exploit the so-called "bedroom tax."

She said the finance secretary, John Swinney, had offered less than was required this year to mitigate the impact of the withdrawal of the spare room subsidy - and nothing was scheduled for next year.

The reason for this, she argued, was "they see injustice as an opportunity not to help people but an opportunity to be exploited ahead of the referendum".

This is a substantial challenge - and it drew a substantive response from Mr Salmond.

He said that Mr Swinney had found £20m from elsewhere in his budget - and that, crucially, this was the legal limit imposed by the Department for Work and Pensions upon enhancements to discretionary housing payments.

Tax questions

Mr Salmond said further that precisely this sum had been demanded by the housing charity Shelter - who recognised this legal limit.

Shelter have confirmed this to me while indicating that they believe ministers might now seek other unspecified avenues and extend the assistance beyond this year.

The FM went further. A devolved government, he said, could not cope with all the welfare changes being introduced by the UK government.

Ministers had done what they could with the "bedroom tax" and with council tax benefit and in other ways in co-operation with councils and charities.

Then we reached the nub.

Johann Lamont said the logic of Mr Salmond's dilemma was that he should now be urging people throughout the UK to vote Labour in order to implement the reforms to social security, including the repeal of the "bedroom tax", now on offer from her party.

(Ms Lamont has previously argued that the wider tax base of the UK enables more efficient sharing of resources to help the poor.)

In response, Mr Salmond said the more effective and lasting solution was for Scotland to take control of social security, tailoring requirements to Scottish needs.

Ruth Davidson Ruth Davidson tackled the first minister on the issue of Scotland's ageing population

We had a further debate on this topic.

Ms Lamont advocated a Labour member's bill which would preclude evictions on the grounds of "bedroom tax" arrears.

Mr Salmond said that individual councils could act on that now, following an SNP example. These were significant exchanges, driven by both ideology and pragmatism.

Then to the contribution from Ruth Davidson who heads the Scots Tories.

She had a point to make - which was that ministers were using distorted data on the percentage of pensioners in Scotland in order to underpin their offer to rethink the increase in the state pension age.

She accused them, indeed, of "pochling the figures".

However, on the day, her case was perhaps a little too subsumed in statistics to make an immediate impact.

Mr Salmond contrived to trump her by brandishing a letter from the pensions service to one of his constituents which apparently indicated that pension provision would be unaffected by independence.

Despite this, I feel certain Ms Davidson will return to her theme.

And, finally, the exchanges with Willie Rennie of the Liberal Democrats.

He was concerned at the issue of opencast mining - and the potential lack of funds for environmental restoration in the event of the companies experiencing problems.

Mr Rennie's attack was pointed and precise.

However, Mr Salmond suggested that he was neglecting two factors: existing efforts by the minister, Fergus Ewing, to broker a deal, involving local councils and the companies; plus the economic advantage that such mining carried in the shape of much-needed jobs.

Brian Taylor Article written by Brian Taylor Brian Taylor Political editor, Scotland

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