11 May 2008

The Sunday Whip

The actual debates and voting in the Scottish Parliament were something of a sideshow this week, with Wendy Alexander doing her level best to prove that constitutional debate smothers discussion of anything else. She did this by talking repeatedly about the constitution, over and over again.

Anyway, the complete dog's breakfast that was the Labour constitutional position overshadowed what was not the best of weeks for the Government in terms of votes. It wasn't the worst week by any means, but Ministers have had better.

Wednesday began with the usual wavethrough of the Business Motion, followed by the vote on the Government's International Framework. Community Safety Minister Fergus Ewing (Inverness East, Nairn & Lochaber), Rural Affairs Secretary Richard Lochhead (Moray), and Marilyn Livingstone (Lab, Kirkcaldy) missed the shenanigans.

The first vote was on the Labour amendment, which passed by 79 (Labour, Tories, LibDems, Greens) votes to 0 with 46 (SNP and Margo) abstentions. Did I mention how I hate it when parties do this? What's the point in forcing a vote, if you're only going to abstain? Anyway, before I get revved up, the Tory amendment passed by 77 (SNP, Tory and LibDem) votes to 48 (Labour, Greens and Margo), and a LibDem amendment also passed by 77 (Labour, Tories and the LibDems) to 48 (SNP, Greens and Margo). This rendered the motion quite unacceptable to the SNP, but it still passed by 76 votes to 46 with two abstentions. John Farquhar Munro (LibDem, Ross, Skye & Inverness West) must have dozed off, though Labour, the Tories and the rest of the LibDems voted in favour. Alex Neil (SNP, Central Scotland) broke ranks and joined Margo MacDonald in abstention, but the rest of the SNP opposed the amended motion, along with the Greens. So with the Unionist parties prevailing on this occasion, Parliament resolved:

That the Parliament recognises the importance of ensuring that Scotland is competitive in an increasingly globalised society; agrees that creating the conditions for talented people to live, learn, visit, work and remain in Scotland is crucial to helping to deliver the goals of growing Scotland's population and economy in a sustainable way, and welcomes the Scottish Government's International Framework as part of the means to extend, focus and align the actions and policies of the government and public sector partners to these ends while stressing the need to "make full use of the UK resources at our disposal", including "the Foreign and Commonwealth Office network around the world to maximise business, cultural and educational opportunities for Scotland", and "engage more directly with the British Council in our priority markets with a view to maximising the opportunities to showcase Scotland's cultural and educational excellence abroad", as outlined in the International Framework document, but does not consider it in the best interests of Scotland for the Scottish Government to promote policies which do not command the support of the Parliament and, in particular, does not believe that the International Framework or any of the related documents or actions of the Scottish Government should contain any reference to Scottish independence, for which the minority Scottish Government has no mandate nor any authority from the Parliament to promote.

The day then ended with MSPs waving through the Victim Notification Scheme (Scotland) Order 2008

Thursday, however, was a 50:50 day for the Government, though it was not a shining day for the new politics, with every question being put to a vote. Labour's Shadow Education Secretary Rhona Brankin (Midlothian) missed the day's votes, as did Tory Health Spokeswoman Mary Scanlon (Highlands & Islands) and LibDem Justice Spokeswoman Margaret Smith (Edinburgh West).

Things started badly for the Government, with the voted on Labour's Housing Needs motion, all of which were missed by the Parliamentary Business Minister Bruce Crawford (Stirling), whose talismanic presence may or may not have come in handy. The Government amendment fell by 75 (Labour, Tory and LibDem) votes to 48 (SNP and Greens) with one Margo-shaped abstention. Elaine Smith (Lab, Coatbridge & Chryston) missed the Tory amendment, which passed by 74 (Labour, Tories and LibDems) to 46 (SNP) with three (Greens and Margo) abstentions. Smith was back for the LibDem amendment, but it was the turn of Tory Business Manager David McLetchie (Edinburgh Pentlands) to pop out. The amendment still passed by 74 (same parties) to 48 (SNP and the Greens) with one abstention. McLetchie came back in time to vote on the amended motion, but strangely, Elaine Smith managed to miss that as well. But it still passed - thanks to the three main Opposition parties - by 74 to 48, with Margo not resting until her abstain button has worn out completely. So Members resolved:

That the Parliament recognises the broad range of issues that must be tackled in meeting the diverse housing needs of people across Scotland; confirms that the Scottish Government must act to address these issues, including continued work to prevent and reduce homelessness, the further development of housing to meet particular and specialist need, dealing with the blockages to the supply of housing, providing affordable housing to buy and within the socially rented sector, ensuring higher quality and better managed housing for rent in the private sector, seeking solutions to the problems facing local authorities where tenants voted against stock transfer and recognising the distinctive challenges in rural areas, regeneration areas and areas of high demand; notes that the consultation responses to the Firm Foundations document exposed significant flaws in the Scottish Government's approach; urges the Scottish Government to address these flaws and bring forward a coherent strategy for all of Scotland's housing needs and, in particular, agrees that the Cabinet Secretary for Health and Wellbeing should ensure that the Mazars report into second stage transfer issues in Glasgow Housing Association is subject to open, transparent and independent scrutiny; regrets the failure of the Scottish Government to actively promote housing stock transfer by local authorities to community-based housing associations, with the approval of tenants; urges the Scottish Government to co-operate with HM Treasury and councils to achieve the substantial debt write-offs of over £2 billion which are available and thereby facilitate new investment in social housing; regrets that after two parliamentary debates on the subject since the budget was passed, the Scottish Government has still failed to come forward with clear figures on its housing plans across all sector and tenure types including the number of affordable rented houses to be built from 2008 to 2011, and has further failed to produce a clear trajectory for how it intends to meet its commitment to abolish unintentional homelessness by 2012; calls for improved energy efficiency to be a key objective in plans for new housing, and opposes the Scottish Government's proposals for large scale procurement put forward in Firm Foundations.

Following that came the Government motion on Effective Public Services, for which Bruce Crawford was back in the Chamber, which is a good thing, as the motion was in his name. A Labour amendment fell by 64 (SNP/Tory/Green) votes to 45 (Labour) with 16 (LibDem and Margo) abstentions. A Tory amendment fared better, passing by 63 (SNP/Tories/Margo) to 46 with 16 abstentions: Most of the LibDems abstained with the Greens, though Iain Smith (North East Fife) ended up voting with Labour, against the amendment. Smith remembered which party he was in for the LibDem amendment, though it still fell, by 65 (SNP/Tories/Greens/Margo) to 60 (Labour and the LibDems, so Iain Smith still voted with Labour, technically). The motion, which had been amended by the Tories, passed by 63 (SNP/Tories/Margo) to 60 (Labour and the LibDems) with two Green abstentions. So MSPs resolved:

That the Parliament welcomes the opportunity to debate proposals to deliver better public services by reducing duplication, bureaucracy and overlaps in the public sector with the aim of achieving greater focus and alignment with the Purpose of Government and the outcomes set out in the national performance framework; believes that there is scope for continuous improvement in the design and delivery of public services, and rejects the notion that improvements in public services can only be achieved by increased levels of public spending.

But no one cared. Because Wendy Alexander was announcing her fifteenth position on the constitution in the space of a week.

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