04 May 2008

The Sunday Whip

There was a rather surreal air to motions and votes this week: amendments to the Commonwealth Games Bill were either not moved or moved then withdrawn, Parliament voted to take no position whatsoever on housing - with a little help from the Deputy Presiding Officer - and the bizarre sight of an amendment passing with the lowest level of support of any successful motion or amendment that has gone to a vote in Session 3 of the Scottish Parliament. And then Labour failed to oppose a motion slagging off the UK Government!

Anyway. Wednesday saw absolutely no votes taking place, mainly as the nine amendments to the Commonwealth Games Bill that had been put forward seem to disappear down a great big holeover the course of the afternoon, and everyone was happy with the Bill as it stood by the end of the day, so it passed without dissent. As did the Business Motion (as usual). And the Mental Health (Cross-border Visits) (Scotland) Regulations 2008. And the motion detailing when the Clerk's Office would be open over the next year. And the motion detailing the recess dates, which no MSP in his or her right mind would oppose.

Thursday was a strange mixture of consensus and anti-consensus. It was missed by Community Safety Minister Fergus Ewing (Inverness East, Nairn and Lochaber), Rural Affairs Secretary Richard Lochhead (Moray), the First Minister (who was suffering from a stomach bug), his predecessor Jack McConnell (Motherwell & Wishaw), Labour's Shadow Enterprise Minister Elaine Murray (Dumfries), LibDem Health Spokesman Ross Finnie (West of Scotland), LibDem Justice Spokeswoman Margaret Smith (Edinburgh West), her Tory counterpart Bill Aitken (Glasgow), his party colleague Margaret Mitchell (Central Scotland), and Margo MacDonald, who opted to give her abstain button a rest. Oh, and Alasdair Morgan (SNP, South of Scotland) was there, but had his Deputy Presiding Officer's hat on, so couldn't vote. Or could he?

Anyway, first came the Tory motion on housing. A Government amendment fell by 72 (Labour/Tory/LibDem) votes to 42 - the SNP alone, minus Transport Minister Stewart Stevenson (Banff & Buchan) - and two Green abstentions.

The Labour amendment fell by 56 (the still Stevenson-less SNP and the Tories) votes to 44 (Labour), with 15 abstentions - the LibDems minus Jamie Stone (Caithness, Sutherland & Easter Ross) and the Greens.

The LibDem amendment was a tie at with 58 votes on each side: Labour and the LibDems, who had Stone back, voted in favour; the SNP, Tories and Greens voted against. So the DPO had to break the tie, and as convention dictates that the Chair votes for the status quo, he voted against the amendment, so that was that.

The motion itself then came up for a vote, and it too fell, by 102 votes to 14 with one abstention - Elaine Smith (Lab, Coatbridge & Chryston). The Tories were the motion's only supporters, and everyone else (apart from Smith, but including Stewart Stevenson, who had by then showed up) voted against. As such, Parliament took no position on housing. The last time Parliament failed to vote for any motion or accompanying amendments was a series of votes on firearms, which took place in January.

However, MSPs re-discovered the spirit of consensus with a Tory motion on food security. A Labour amendment itself faced a Green amendment, which went through on the nod, along with the amended amendment. So did a LibDem amendment. And the amended motion:

That the Parliament expresses its concern at the potential for global food shortages; notes the recent cost increases in many basic food products here in Scotland, with food price inflation now exceeding 6%; further notes that many developing countries are experiencing growing social unrest as a result of food pressures; calls on the Scottish Government, Her Majesty's Government, the European Union and other relevant bodies to work closely, and with the appropriate urgency, to seek solutions that take account of the growing pressures on agriculture from both climate change and the rush to biofuels, as well as the peak in oil production; recognises the role of Scotland's primary producers in ensuring the long-term capacity and capability of our food supply, and further calls on the Scottish Government to encourage the development of local supply chains through public procurement, address the imbalance in power between the big supermarkets and our food producers, reduce the regulatory burden on farmers, and ensure that our primary producers operate on a level playing field with foreign competitors.

Then came the Government motion on the UK Budget. A Tory amendment fell by 16 (LD/Green) votes to 14 (Tories) with 87 (SNP/Labour) abstentions. A LibDem amendment, on the other hand, passed by 16 (LD/Green) to 14 (Tories) with 87 abstentions. Given that the two largest parties opted to sit this one out, it's fair to say that the LibDems won this "Clash of the Gerbils". The amended motion finally stirred the SNP into action: it passed by 57 (SNP/LibDem) votes to 16 (Tories/Greens) with 44 abstentions (Labour):

That the Parliament is disappointed with some of the decisions taken in the 2008 UK Budget and their damaging impact on the Scottish economy and households; in particular regrets that action was not taken to reverse the 2007 decision to abolish the 10p tax rate; deplores the continued failure of the UK Government to provide an adequate package of measures to help families affected by the falling housing market and the absence of sufficient budget provision for the alleviation of child poverty; notes with concern the increase in the small companies' rate of corporation tax; believes that the blanket approach taken in setting alcohol duty is too simplistic and does not address the wider social and health issues around alcohol; regrets that the measures aimed at tackling fuel poverty are insufficient, and further regrets the lack of appropriate measures to moderate the impact of rising fuel prices.

Now, in the interests of fairness, it would be very easy to crow that the Labour abstention shows that even they can't bring themselves to oppose a motion criticising the Labour budget. However, Shadow Finance Secretary Iain Gray claims that Labour are boycotting any motion which debates reserved matters. I'll come back to that in a separate post, but if Labour stick to that policy, Alex Johnstone (Con, Angus) is right to flag up that it gives the SNP a working majority on debates concerning reserved matters.

Anyway. The last two motions were waved through, and concerned changes to the Labour membership and substitutes on various committees. So it was, all in all, a mixed bag. Isn't politics fun?

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