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Chamber and committees

Plenary, 28 Jun 2007

Meeting date: Thursday, June 28, 2007


First Minister's Question Time


1. Jack McConnell (Motherwell and Wishaw) (Lab):

Before I ask my question, I congratulate Gordon Brown on his appointment as Prime Minister of our country. He will be a great British Prime Minister. It is a special pleasure to have a Prime Minister from Scotland, and I am sure that Alex Salmond will want to join me in wishing him well. I hope that Alex Salmond will also set aside differences and join me in wishing Tony Blair and his family well in his retirement from the position of Prime Minister and in wishing him success in any job that he might do in the middle east.

The First Minister (Alex Salmond):

I think that I am meant to say that I have a number of engagements, including making a statement on the council of economic advisers.

Of course I congratulate Gordon Brown on becoming Prime Minister; indeed, I did so yesterday. Last night, he told me on the phone that my message of congratulations had reached him before he became Prime Minister. We had a good, friendly conversation. I look forward to co-operating with the new Prime Minister in the Scottish interest, and I gladly wish the former Prime Minister well in his retirement.

There is a serious matter that we should acknowledge. Three British soldiers have been killed by a roadside bomb in the city of Basra and a fourth soldier has been seriously injured. The next of kin have been informed. Two of the soldiers were from the third battalion of the Royal Regiment of Scotland and one was from the second battalion of the Royal Welsh. I am sure that all members will want to send condolences to the families involved.

Jack McConnell:

I associate all Labour members with what the First Minister has said and send our condolences to the families involved.

Last week, in response to a question that Annabel Goldie asked, the First Minister said:

"you turn if you want to; this Administration is not for turning."—[Official Report, 21 June 2007; c 1007.]

Does the First Minister regard John Swinney's statement in the chamber yesterday afternoon as a U-turn on transport policy or as recognition that the Government should respect the will of Parliament?

The First Minister:

Jack McConnell will have to make up his mind. At successive First Minister's question times, he has demanded that the Administration accede to the will of Parliament, but when we do so, he seems to complain that we have done so. Which is it? As Mr Swinney said yesterday, a Government cannot always—for obvious reasons—accept parliamentary resolutions. Donald Dewar put that eloquently. However, we decided on the occasion in question that the proper democratic thing to do was to accept the Parliament's wishes to the letter and to the figure.

Jack McConnell:

I warmly welcome that statement, which reinforces John Swinney's statement yesterday afternoon, just as yesterday I warmly welcomed John Swinney's response to the parliamentary vote on Edinburgh trams and the rail link from Edinburgh airport to the Scottish network. Ministers should respect the will of Parliament.

Yesterday, Mr Swinney said:

"on this occasion … it is appropriate to accede to the will of Parliament."

He said:

"the Government will pursue the terms of the resolution in relation to the Edinburgh airport rail link."—[Official Report, 27 June 2007; c 1192.]

However, he then left the chamber and told the waiting media that the Edinburgh airport rail link project was "dead"—that it had "had it". He increasingly sounded like John Cleese in a "Monty Python" sketch. Will the First Minister tell him that if he continues to mislead Parliament in such a way, his credibility will cease to be? It will expire. It will be no more. It will pass on, and John Swinney will be an ex-minister. Was John Swinney's statement to the Parliament true, or was his statement to the media true?

The First Minister:

There is only one dead parrot in this chamber.

I warmly welcome Jack McConnell's warm welcome for our decision, although it struck me that there wisnae much of a warm welcome in the point of order that Cathy Jamieson raised following John Swinney's statement. However, overnight reflection can sometimes be mature reflection. We shall follow the terms of the resolution on both the Edinburgh trams and the EARL project. That said, I say to Jack McConnell that there must be some reason why the EARL project arrived in such a state of disrepair for this Administration. It would not be fair to place all the blame on Tavish Scott; the then First Minister should take some responsibility as well.

Jack McConnell:

I am pleased to hear that clarification from the First Minister. I remind him that the motion called on the Government to deliver the Edinburgh airport rail link—to succeed in delivering it, not to succeed in killing it off.

In recent weeks, we have seen U-turns from the new Government on the council tax, on student debt, on helping students from Northern Ireland and, today, even on changing the name of VisitScotland. However, there is one specific U-turn from the First Minister that we would welcome. As the former Prime Minister resigned yesterday, he said that he believed his constituents should have a full-time member of Parliament in the House of Commons. Will the First Minister similarly respect Parliament and become a full-time MSP by resigning his Banff and Buchan seat so that there will be a by-election?

The First Minister:

I shall follow exactly the practice of the late Donald Dewar, who was in exactly the same situation as I am in.

I remind Jack McConnell of the terms of the resolution on EARL that he so enthusiastically supports: they are that EARL is to be brought back to Parliament, and that is exactly what we will do. We will bring it back to Parliament in September.

Given that this is the last question time before the recess—a sort of end-of-term occasion—perhaps I should ask Jack McConnell whether he will be joining Lord George Foulkes in the House of Lords.

Jack McConnell:

I do not want to keep two jobs; it is the First Minister who wants to do that. Although I might not have had as close a friendship with Donald Dewar as my colleague Wendy Alexander had, I can say that the First Minister is no Donald Dewar, and he should remember that.

I accept that today is the end of this stage of the new parliamentary session, as the First Minister said. In the spirit of the rhetoric—if not the actuality, on occasion—of the past month, I tell him that we would welcome immediately after the summer recess a proper legislative programme and programme for government being put to Parliament. If he is willing to be serious in such an intent and ensure that we have a legislative programme to debate, we will work with him over the summer months to ensure that appropriate measures are put in place to improve the Scottish education service; to help the poorest pensioners—through, for example, a reduction in water rates; to reduce unemployment and the number of those who are not in education, employment or training; to tackle crime; and to improve our health service. We will work with him if he will work with all of us.

Will the First Minister commit first to putting a legislative programme in front of Parliament in September? Will he also commit to making real efforts to work with all the Opposition parties so that that legislative programme can have some success?

The First Minister:

Yes—to the last bit.

I accept fully that I am no Donald Dewar; the problem for Jack McConnell is that he is no Henry McLeish.

I remind Jack McConnell that he does not have to wait until September to see the achievements of this Administration. All our achievements do not, of course, require legislation, although they were beyond the achievement of the previous Government. I remind him that we have saved the two accident and emergency units at Ayr and Monklands; we have put Scotland at the forefront of the global fight against climate change by proposing a target of reducing emissions by 80 per cent; we have announced how and when the Forth and Tay bridge tolls are to be removed; we have set out a timetable for removing the burden of business rates from tens of thousands of Scottish businesses; we will abolish the graduate endowment fee and reintroduce the principle of free education in Scotland; we have increased nursery entitlement and provided extra funding for another 300 teachers; and we have finally confirmed that there will be no new nuclear power stations in Scotland.

Prime Minister (Meetings)

To ask the First Minister when he will next meet the new Prime Minister. (S3F-98)

I spoke to the new Prime Minister last evening. We had a cordial conversation. We said that we would make plans for an early meeting, and I look forward to that meeting.

Annabel Goldie:

I think we all agree that the First Minister's relationship with the new Prime Minister could not be any worse than his relationship with the previous one, but the omens are not encouraging. Mr Brown has in the past described Mr Salmond as someone who had

"lost the power of communication, but not the power of speech."

That prompted Mr Salmond to respond by saying:

"He's out to get the big job but has forgotten the people back home."

In the interests of ensuring that there is no question of Mr Brown, now that he has got the "big job", forgetting "the people back home", and in the interests of proving that the First Minister has not

"lost the power of communication",

what will the First Minister do to create a more interactive engagement between his Administration in this Parliament and the Prime Minister's Government at Westminster?

The First Minister:

I thank Annabel Goldie for her faith in my restored powers of communication.

The important thing is to restore the joint ministerial committee structure to the structure that was originally envisaged when this Parliament was set up, because it has fallen into disuse since 2002. Outwith preparation for European Council meetings, none of the joint ministerial committees has met. Indeed, the plenary session that the Prime Minister chairs and which involves the First Ministers of Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland has not met either.

It is not just my opinion or that of, I hope, people in this Parliament, but the opinion of the leadership of the Northern Ireland Assembly and the National Assembly for Wales, which is about to become a Labour-Plaid Cymru leadership, that those channels should be restored forthwith to give a formal structure so that issues can be progressed properly to the benefit of the Scottish people.

Annabel Goldie:

After he congratulated the new Prime Minister, the First Minister said yesterday:

"I'm very confident that both us can put aside our long-term ambitions for the country in constitutional terms and direct our sights to what we need here and now for Scotland and that's to work in the best interests of the Scottish people."

Will the First Minister therefore pledge today that he will put aside his personal preference for constitutional change and prioritise our domestic bread-and-butter issues? Those issues are: more police officers on our streets; a new agenda for drugs abuse in Scotland; an urgent expansion of affordable housing; restoring governance and discipline in our schools; and providing help with the council tax for our older citizens. On all those issues, people are crying out for political leadership here and now in Scotland. Will he make that pledge, and will he put delivery before divorce?

The First Minister:

Pursuing, in our case, a policy of independence or, in the case of others in the chamber, a policy of federalism or enhanced powers for this Parliament is quite honourable and a perfectly legitimate stance to take in politics. I assure Annabel Goldie that I shall always pursue the aim of independence. Indeed, this Government will publish within its first 100 days its white paper on independence.

Having different constitutional objectives should not prevent people from co-operating on other issues. Indeed, only yesterday, Annabel Goldie, Bill Aitken, Kenny MacAskill, Nicola Sturgeon and I had what I thought was an extremely productive meeting in which we addressed one of the great scourges in Scottish and other societies—the scourge of drug addiction. None of the different views that Annabel Goldie and I have on Scotland's future prevented us from having that meeting and taking joint action on that crucial issue.

Cabinet (Meetings)

3. Nicol Stephen (Aberdeen South) (LD):

I associate the Liberal Democrats with the congratulations to Gordon Brown, the good wishes to Tony Blair and, of course, the condolences to the families of the soldiers who were tragically killed in Basra.

To ask the First Minister what issues will be discussed at the next meeting of the Cabinet. (S3F-99)

The Cabinet will discuss a wide range of issues of importance to the Scottish people.

How many civil servants are currently working on the First Minister's white paper on independence?

The small group of civil servants who are working on the white paper are making excellent progress.

Nicol Stephen:

I am glad to hear that the First Minister is downplaying the numbers involved and not pandering to the fundamentalists on his back benches, but to have any is to have too many. Does he not agree that those public servants are wasting their time? It is a waste of money and a waste of space in Government offices.

The Scottish National Party does not even know how many teachers it needs to meet its class-size promises because the work has not yet been done. It has dumped the policy to write off £2 billion of student debt because the work has not yet been done. Is it not strange that so many of the First Minister's 100-day promises have been torn up but the white paper remains intact? Has he not learned the lesson of his defeat in the Parliament yesterday? There is no point in wasting time on independence when there is no majority for it in Scotland's Parliament.

The First Minister:

I remind Nicol Stephen that there are about to be 300 extra teachers and 250 more training places than there were under the previous Administration six weeks ago.

Nicol Stephen will be delighted to know that much of the work on the independence white paper was already at an advanced stage. However, one issue that we will have to struggle with as we launch that white paper is whether to include some of the ideas that the Liberal Democrats put forward during the election campaign.

Don't bother.

I heard "Don't bother" from the Conservative benches, but I must say—[Interruption.]

I am sorry—I will make the correction. I heard "Don't bother" from the Liberal benches—about their own proposals. Despite that thumbs-down from Mr Rumbles, I think that we should carefully consider the Liberal Democrats' election programme.

We have an important constituency question from Dr Elaine Murray. Before she asks her question, I ask any member who is going to contribute to this part of question time to bear in mind the Parliament's rules on sub judice.

Elaine Murray (Dumfries) (Lab):

In view of the decision of the Scottish Criminal Cases Review Commission to refer the conviction of Abdelbaset Ali Mohmed Al Megrahi to the High Court for a second appeal, will the First Minister assure the Parliament that all will be done to uphold the reputation of the Scottish judicial system?

Is the First Minister also aware that the Pan Am flight 103 crash is a curse under which my constituents in Lockerbie have lived for almost 19 years and which shows no signs of being lifted? Is he aware that Lockerbie is a pretty Borders town set in the southern uplands, only an hour by train from Glasgow and Edinburgh and linked by the west coast main line and motorway not only to the central belt of Scotland but to London, Birmingham, Bristol and Wales? Will he use his position in this country and overseas to promote the town and community of Lockerbie as more—much more—than just the site of the worst terrorist atrocity on British soil?

The First Minister:

I am very aware of the trauma and difficulty for the people of Lockerbie, and I respect and acknowledge Elaine Murray's concerns. I will do my best to accede to her wishes.

With your indulgence, Presiding Officer, I would like to say the following. The international agreement that led to the trial and conviction of Mr Al Megrahi made it clear that it would be a process under the systems, procedures and institutions of the Scottish legal system. Prosecution, review and appeal are all important parts of that system. Today's decision by the Scottish Criminal Cases Review Commission is further evidence of the system in action.

The ability to deal with alleged miscarriages of justice is a vital part of our criminal justice system. The commission has an important role to play in examining cases independently and allowing the courts an opportunity to reconsider cases when otherwise there would be no scope for a further appeal.

I have made clear in letters to the former Prime Minister and in my statement to the Scottish Parliament my Government's concerns that talks between the United Kingdom Government and the Libyan authorities could be seen to cloud issues around this high-profile case, in part because due process was not followed in terms of consultation with the Scottish justice system. Today's decision by the commission is part of the due process of law. The business of politics and international relations has no part to play in that.

The commission has reached the view that a miscarriage of justice may have occurred. It is in the interests of justice that the case should be referred to the High Court. It will now be for Mr Al Megrahi to present his appeal to the court and for the court to determine whether a miscarriage of justice has occurred. We must allow the independent legal process to take its course.

Let us never forget that 270 men, women and children lost their lives in December 1988. Whatever the eventual outcome of the process, their loss can never be recovered. Our thoughts remain with the families left behind. We owe it to those people to allow the process of justice to reach a just, natural conclusion, free from pressure or interference. As First Minister, that has been and remains my primary consideration.

Michael McMahon (Hamilton North and Bellshill) (Lab):

In light of the appeal court decision to uphold the original ruling to drop criminal charges in relation to the Rosepark nursing home in my constituency, what legal steps does the First Minister intend to take to prevent such a decision from being possible in future and, for the sake of the families who have been affected, to find out as soon as possible why their loved ones perished in that terrible tragedy?

Michael McMahon will understand that those matters are under consideration. I will ensure that the Cabinet Secretary for Justice writes to him as soon as any further decision has been made.

Her Majesty's Government (Exchequer)

To ask the First Minister what communication the Executive has had with Her Majesty's Government about recovering money saved by the Exchequer as a result of policy decisions in Scotland. (S3F-105)

We have made initial contact with the Department for Work and Pensions and will pursue the matter further over the summer.

Christine Grahame:

The First Minister will agree that the Parliament's priority in relation to free personal care is to ensure that it operates and is supported in the way that was intended. I welcome the review that has been initiated.

I advise the First Minister that this morning, at a conference on free personal care, local authorities identified a £19 million funding gap—a gap that was also identified by the previous Health Committee. Given that the retained attendance allowance now amounts to around £30 million, does the First Minister share my view that savings that result from good governance in Scotland should be returned to Scotland? Incidentally, those savings would more than plug the funding gap that has been identified.

The First Minister:

I share the member's view and confirm that the figure for the withdrawn attendance allowance is now £30 million a year.

Earlier this week, the new Prime Minister made the perfectly legitimate comment that Scotland had to live within its means and that no more money would be provided as a result of decisions that we make in the Parliament. However, in the case of attendance allowance, a change of policy that was pursued by the entire Parliament resulted in less money coming to Scotland. If we accept that our policy decisions on matters that have been legitimately devolved to the Parliament are constrained by decisions elsewhere, we will find that we do not have the freedom to pursue as we should a range of issues such as free personal care, because of factors such as withdrawal of attendance allowance. That is my view; it was also the view of the former First Minister, Henry McLeish.

He was wrong.

I do not think that he was wrong; he was right on this issue. I hope that that is now the view of the entire Parliament.

Jeremy Purvis (Tweeddale, Ettrick and Lauderdale) (LD):

As the First Minister knows, often policy decisions are taken in England for which the Scottish Government receives consequential funding from the Exchequer, under the Barnett formula. Have his officials been in discussion with the UK Government about the unclaimed asset fund, which now stands at more than £2 billion, and the consequential funding that may accrue to Scotland from it? The UK Government plans to spend that money on voluntary youth services in England. There is no constraint on the devolved Administration spending a consequential amount to guarantee the same level of voluntary youth services provision in Scotland. Will the First Minister confirm to the Parliament that he will do that?

The First Minister:

I will pursue the issue with the United Kingdom Government. I thank the member for pointing it out to me; he makes a very useful point.

Regardless of what people think about the Barnett formula, it gives a clearly expressed entitlement when decisions are made over what is apportioned to Scotland. The difficulty is that the withdrawal of attendance allowance is not factored into the Barnett formula, and a route to solving the difficulty illustrated by the situation with free personal care is to ensure that such issues are dealt with on a formula basis.

Scottish Elections

5. Iain Smith (North East Fife) (LD):

To ask the First Minister what discussions the Executive intends to have with the United Kingdom Government on the future conduct of Scottish elections following the University of Strathclyde's investigation into the causes of the rejected ballots. (S3F-112)

The First Minister (Alex Salmond):

The Scottish Government is committed to holding an inquiry into the 3 May elections. We have an interest in common with the United Kingdom Government in ensuring that public confidence is maintained in the integrity of the electoral process. However, we are still considering the options for such an inquiry. As a result, although I do not wish to anticipate the conclusions of the Gould inquiry, I confirm that, at the appropriate time, we will wish to discuss the issue with the UK Government to try to progress towards an independent inquiry.

Iain Smith:

On 4 May, immediately after the election, the leader of the Scottish National Party, Alex Salmond, said that he would mount an independent judicial inquiry into the "debacle"; that it would

"have the fullest powers and the most searching remit";

and that it would

"be charged with laying bare the outrage of why over 100,000 Scots were denied their democratic"


Will the First Minister update us in more detail on the progress that has been made in establishing such an inquiry? What discussions has he had with the Secretary of State for Scotland on the issue? Will he press the case for this Parliament to be elected by the fairer and more easily understood single transferable vote system, which was so successfully introduced for the Scottish council elections?

The First Minister:

Although I have some sympathy for the member's final point, we should try to separate the confusion and the totally unacceptable number of spoiled ballot papers in the election from our preferences for new electoral systems.

I hope to make progress on the issue. The new Secretary of State for Scotland and I will discuss the matter in order to have, as I would hope, a joint inquiry. I do not see much utility in having two separate inquiries because, as Iain Smith must know, although we have province over the local elections, the Secretary of State for Scotland has province over the Scottish Parliament's election systems. The situation strikes me as very curious, but nonetheless that is how it is.

I do not think that we should prejudge or jump to any conclusions on the matter. I read an article on the Sunday Herald's front page entitled "Labour MSPs blame Alexander for poll fiasco". I would never have jumped to such a conclusion in case I was accused of upsetting the former Secretary of State for Scotland.

Patrick Harvie (Glasgow) (Green):

The First Minister described as "curious" the situation in which we have control of neither the legislation for nor the administration of elections to this Parliament. Regardless of the outcome of any inquiry into what happened at the most recent election, is there not a principled reason for changing the situation? Will the First Minister use his new lines of communication with the other devolved UK Administrations to make a joint case to the UK Government that every democratic institution in this country should be in control of its own elections?

Not for the first time I agree with Patrick Harvie. Any self-respecting Parliament should, in principle, be in control of its own electoral system.

Social Care Services (Voluntary Sector)

To ask the First Minister whether the Executive believes that voluntary sector organisations play a valuable role in the provision of social care services. (S3F-109)

The First Minister (Alex Salmond):

I am pleased to acknowledge with thanks the important contribution that voluntary sector organisations make to care and support services in our communities. They bring commitment and innovation and help to create a vibrant mixed economy in the provision of social care.

Lewis Macdonald:

Does the First Minister acknowledge the experience of many of my constituents in Aberdeen, where council funding decisions made earlier this year resulted in the voluntary sector's withdrawal from the provision of a number of services to vulnerable people? Many vulnerable people faced a change in their care provider at very short notice and the terms and conditions of care workers were driven down to national minimum levels. Will the First Minister join me in urging Aberdeen City Council not to repeat the exercise with other services that the voluntary sector provides to vulnerable people, and will he commend long-term funding arrangements as the way forward, as John Swinney did this morning?

The First Minister:

There is a great deal to be said for long-term funding arrangements. I understand that the attitude of both the previous and the present Aberdeen City Council administrations is that they have been affected by the substantial cuts in the supporting people budget that were made when it was redistributed from the Treasury to the Scottish Parliament in 2004. They think that that has been a significant factor. In addition, they claim that the redistribution of various formulas relevant to those matters has had a significant impact on the decisions that they have had to make. I point out gently to the member that he was a minister in the Government that made decisions on such matters.

Meeting suspended until 14:15.

On resuming—