Frog Minister's Questions

a frog Image copyright PA

Other than family, friends and fellow Arabs, my favourite creatures on the planet are frogs. Followed, in elegant, ambulatory fashion, by toads.

Graceful, gentle and amicable, with a laudable capacity for consuming insects. What's not to like? So you can imagine my horror on learning that their numbers are down in Scotland's gardens.

Surely, I reasoned, this calamity must be raised at Holyrood, perhaps in questions to the first minister. But, no, our elected tribunes unaccountably chose to focus on such relatively minor matters as education and the health service.

Blatantly amphibianist.

For the Conservatives, Ruth Davidson argued that the first minister was rigging the statistics on literacy and numeracy. Ms Davidson said it was possible for pupils to be declared both literate and numerate while, simultaneously, failing English and maths.

She noted further that the previous system, the Scottish Survey of Literacy and Numeracy (SSLN), had been scrapped, suggesting this was because it was generating embarrassing stats for the Scottish government.

Nicola Sturgeon said this was tosh. OK, she used more and bigger words, demonstrating her own literacy, but one got the drift. The SSLN had been dropped because it was only a limited survey. It had been replaced by a comprehensive study.

Ms Davidson persisted in her complaint that basic standards were, in practice, declining - contrary to the official stats which she said resulted in mutual ministerial back-slapping. Ms Sturgeon resolutely denied these assertions.

Image copyright PA

Later, Willie Rennie of the Liberal Democrats pursued the topic which Labour had raised the previous week, that of tests for five year olds. Perhaps wisely, he sidestepped the subject of hummingbirds, their beaks or bills. (Not up to speed on that? See my blog from Thursday - or ask your chums).

Rather effectively, Mr Rennie pursued an iterative theme. Raising an issue - then reminding us repeatedly that the pupils in question are aged five. He said the tests were feared by pupils, loathed by teachers and a notable waste of time.

As she had done last week, Ms Sturgeon defended the concept of testing, noting that the exams were not designed to rank pupils but to discern strengths and, one presumes, weaknesses to be addressed.

But was there perhaps a slight nod towards Mr Rennie's demand that these tests be scrapped? Ms Sturgeon promised that there would be a user review in due course. And the government would listen to the outcome.

Personal stories

As billed, this topic was raised last week by Labour's Richard Leonard. This week, he displayed a tactic he has made his own; that of pursuing an individual narrative.

Today he told the tragic story of an 87-year-old woman obliged to move from her "very sheltered" accommodation into a care home. That was because Bield, the providers of her previous home, had opted to close the premises.

Mr Leonard told of subsequent events affecting the elderly woman. Lack of appetite, ill health, decline - and eventual death. He demanded a review into the circumstances.

Now, this was a particularly tricky one for the first minister. The blunt response would have been to state that she could not be held responsible for the actions of a third party.

But this would have sounded callous and unfeeling. So she simply inserted this point delicately into a later answer while focusing on voicing sympathy - and offering a ministerial meeting with the family.

She said further that social care and housing provision had high priority in her government's programme and were constantly reviewed and monitored.

Image copyright Reuters
Image caption Nicola Sturgeon said Donald Trump didn't deserve red-carpet treatment

Then more. The FM was asked by Ruth Maguire to condemn President Donald Trump and all his works. Intriguingly, earlier this week, the prime minister was invited to excoriate the treatment by the USA of Mexican migrant children. The challenge came from the SNP's Ian Blackford.

In the event, Theresa May criticised the Mexican border policy sharply without personally attacking President Trump. Nicola Sturgeon went rather further in her condemnation, while noting the apparent policy U-turn announced by Mr Trump.

But she also remained cautious and slightly nuanced. Red carpet treatment for the president's pending visit to the UK was, she argued, unwarranted in the circumstances but meetings were perhaps OK. Again, not an easy one.

NHS funds

Finally, to the topic of health spending allied with taxation. The PM has recently signalled her intent to divert a further £20bn of cash to the NHS, with Barnett consequentials for Scotland.

Ms Sturgeon was invited by the Tories to rejoice, rejoice. The FM declined, indicating that she wanted to be certain exactly how much financial largesse would head north of the border. Previous experience, she said, counselled caution.

But she did take the concomitant opportunity to satirise Mrs May's apparent readiness to sanction a higher income tax burden, contrasting it with the complaints from Scots Tories which attended Ms Sturgeon's own changes in Scottish taxation.

Miles Briggs responded by arguing that the NHS south of the border had attracted more cash of late than in Scotland. Ms Sturgeon countered, noting that the per capita figure was higher in Scotland. The numerate - and indeed literate - will have noted that they are talking about two different sums.

But back to the animal world. As I write this, an email arrives bearing a plea for more wild land in Britain. Including, perhaps, the reintroduction of wolves.

You can see the snag, can't you? How do you persuade said wolves to remain in the wilderness rather than flitting to, say, Cumbernauld? Would you like to argue with a wolf?

I say, abandon such thoughts. Consign Akela to the Jungle Book. Instead, dig a pond - and save a frog. Or, of course, toad.

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