20 April 2008

The Sunday Whip

Parliament returned this week - what do you mean, you didn't notice? - so the Whip returns, with a very consensual Wednesday and Thursday providing the Government with some ups and downs, including a first that the Government would have hoped to avoid.

Anyway. Wednesday passed with no divisions taking place, as everything was passed without dissent. The Business Motion was waved through, MSPs agreed that the Economy, Energy and Tourism Committee should consider the Scottish Register of Tartans Bill at Stage 1, and Parliament noted the work of the Justice Committee in agreeing:

That the Parliament notes the conclusions and recommendations contained in the Justice Committee's 4th Report, 2008 (Session 3): Report on Inquiry into the Effective Use of Police Resources (SP Paper 50).

Thursday was a different animal, and one for which LibDem Justice Spokesperson Margaret Smith (Edinburgh West) was missing. First came Labour's motion on Local Income Tax. A Green amendment which put something of a potato in Labour's tailpipe passed by 65 - SNP, LibDem, Green and Margo - to 61 - Labour, minus Duncan McNeil (Greenock & Inverclyde), and the Tories. The amended motion then passed 65 to 62: the smae parties voted the same way, though McNeil had showed up by this point. This meant MSPs agreed:

That the Parliament notes the Scottish Government's consultation on the future of local taxation; recognises that this consultation is not due to close until 18 July 2008; notes the wider range of possible options, including local income tax, land value tax, property tax and reform of the council tax; recognises that the existing system of local government taxation is discredited, bureaucratic and unpopular; agrees on the urgent need for substantial changes to the system of local taxation, and agrees that, in developing this future system, due consideration should be given to fairness, local accountability, the need to reduce tax avoidance and the wider social, economic and environmental impact of any proposed system of local tax reform on communities across Scotland.

Following this came the votes on Labour's motion on the Voluntary Sector, which started well enough for the Government, but took an ugly turn. A Tory amendment to the Government's amendment passed by 81 (everyone but Labour) to 46 (Labour), and the amended amendment then passed by 66 (SNP, Tories, Greens, Margo) to 61 (Labour and the LibDems). The problem came with the LibDem amendment which passed by 64 votes to 62 with one abstention (guess who?). Labour and the LibDems were in favour, the Tories and Greens against. All but one of the SNP Group voted against the amendment, but Angela Constance (Livingston) voted in favour. Had she voted with her party, the vote would have been tied at 63 votes each, and the Presiding Officer would have dusted off his casting vote, which has to be cast in favour of the status quo, which in practice means voting against pretty much everything, especially amendments to motions. This is the unhappy first: the first time an SNP MSP has inflicted defeat on the Government since the Election. And with no prior warning - Constance did not speak in the debate - I have to suspect that it was not intended, which must be galling for the Whips, and probably not that great a feeling for Angela Constance either. The amended motion then passed by 80 votes (everyone but the SNP) to 47 (the SNP - including Constance, which makes it even more likely that she hadn't intended to break with the Party on the LibDem amendment) and read:

That the Parliament applauds the vital contribution made to society and the economy by the third sector; believes that co-operation between the third sector, local authorities and the Scottish Government is vital in ensuring a strong role for the third sector; recognises that the Scottish Government is funding Project Scotland and has made clear to Project Scotland that further resources may be available for projects it runs in terms of the Scottish Government's employability agenda; believes that the exemption from payment of water rates extended by the previous administration to 2010 should be further extended; calls on the Scottish Government to work with the third sector to reduce the burden of regulation affecting the sector; recognises the problems facing the voluntary sector caused by short-term funding and re-tendering; believes that there is a pressing need to review the system to provide more stable funding for the sector including longer-term contracts and a national contracts framework; notes the establishment of the voluntary sector compact under the last administration and calls for a revitalised compact between local government and the voluntary sector; believes that this compact must ensure greater dialogue between councils and voluntary groups as to the operation of the local government Concordat and the single outcome agreements, and calls for a review of the operation of the Concordat including its key outcomes and performance indicators following the first year of its implementation.

At least it wasn't anything binding. And the good news for Ministers is that Stage 1 of the Public Health etc. (Scotland) Bill passed without dissent, though the debate suggests that Stages 2 and 3 might be a bit ropey for the Government.

Just when you thought it was safe to get back into the Chamber...

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