03 May 2009

The Sunday Whip

Despite the ongoing swine flu situation, politics as usual seemed to be the order of the week for Holyrood, barring the solemnity at FMQs, that is. It was, however, week the Government can be broadly happy with.

Wednesday saw the usual waving through of the Business Motions, and things were relatively quiet, but only four MSPs were absent, all of whom were from Labour: Shadow Environment Secretary Sarah Boyack (Edinburgh Central), Margaret Curran (Glasgow Baillieston), Irene Oldfather (Cunninghame South) and Elaine Smith (Coatbridge & Chryston).

Despite the relatively packed Chamber, the only substantive business was the SNP motion on Housing. Now, this can more often than not be something a bear trap for the Government, but not this time: a Labour amendment fell by 81 votes - everyone but Labour, though Nicol Stephen (LD, Aberdeen South) was elesewhere at this point - to 42, while a Tory amendment fell by 107 - everyone but the Tories, and Nicol Stephen still hadn't shown - to 16. Then a strange thing happened: a vote took place for the LibDem amendment despite the fact that it was supported unanimously. Clearly someone had blurted something out, though it must have given the LibDems a warm, cosy feeling to get that level of validation. Nicol Stephen had even rocked up by that point. Anyway, the amended motion then passed by 108 (everyone but the Tories) to 16:

That the Parliament notes the steps being taken by the Scottish Government to accelerate and increase the supply of affordable housing in response to the current economic downturn; recognises the record investment being made this year; further notes that housing associations still have to secure through borrowing a significant proportion of the money required to build new housing and are facing challenges from the financial sector; further recognises the particular need for more high quality affordable housing in the rental sector and the economic imperative of action to support Scotland's beleaguered building industry; also notes the Scottish Government's initiative to kick-start a new generation of council house building and the increasing contribution that this is enabling local authorities to make in meeting housing need, which complements the high level of social housing built by housing associations over the last 10 years, and supports proposals in the consultation on the draft Housing (Scotland) Bill to reform the right to buy to encourage council house building and to safeguard Scotland's stock of social housing for the benefit of future generations of tenants.

Anyway. Thursday was busier for the Government, but no less successful. Public Health Minister Shona Robison (Dundee East) was busy fighting swine flu, Margaret Curran and Irene Oldfather were still away, and the other absences were Jackson Carlaw (Con, West of Scotland), Marilyn Livingstone (Lab, Kirkcaldy) and Labour's Shadow Public Health Minister Richard Simpson (Mid Scotland & Fife).

The first votes were on a LibDem motion on Education. The Tory amendment to the SNP amendment came first, and was passed by 80 votes (everyone but Labour) to 41 - Wendy Alexander (Paisley North) hadn't come in at that point. The amended amendment then passed (superceding a Labour amendment in doing so) by 62 (SNP/Tory/Margo) votes to 57 (Labour and the LibDems - still no Wendy) with two Green abstentions, as did the amended motion:

That the Parliament notes that, on the second anniversary of the election of the Scottish Government, spending on education has risen by more than 40% since the advent of devolution; further notes that, despite a decade of investment, standards of attainment and achievement have only been maintained while key international competitors have improved; welcomes the recent report by HM Inspectorate of Education, Improving Scottish Education 2005-2008, highlighting the need for further and faster improvement in our education system; believes that the focus on inputs under previous administrations masked the lack of significant improvement on standards of attainment and achievement; further believes that the reform of the curriculum is a critical step in improving standards of attainment, and calls on the Scottish Government to maintain progress towards implementation of the Curriculum for Excellence, and calls on the Scottish Government to bring forward detailed proposals by the start of the 2009-10 academic year as to how it will implement amendment S3M-3164.1, which recognised the need for the Scottish Government to ensure that pupils in Scotland are properly tested in the basic skills of literacy and numeracy by the end of primary 7 and which was given unanimous support by the Parliament on 7 January 2009.

This was followed by a LibDem motion on the Economy. A Tory amendment - missed by Shadow Schools Minister Ken Mcintosh (Eastwood) fell by 63 - the SNP, LibDems and Shadow Community Safety Minister Paul Martin (Glasgow Springburn) to 18 (the Tories, Greens and Margo) with 40 abstentions coming from the remaining Labour MSPs. The motion itself was missed by Shadow Children's Minister Karen Whitefield (Airdrie & Shotts) and passed by 63 (SNP/LibDems/Margo) to 1 - Patricia Ferguson (Lab, Glasgow Maryhill) with 57 (Labour and Tory) abstentions:

That the Parliament notes the UK Budget and the plans to increase fuel duty; recognises the high premium over the national average paid for fuel at filling stations in remote rural and particularly island areas and the financial and social impact that this has on individuals and businesses; believes that increased fuel duty will have a damaging effect on the economy and competitiveness in these areas, not least due to the limited public transport alternatives; notes that current EU law allows fuel duty to be cut by up to 2.4p per litre and that this power is already used in France, Portugal and Greece, and calls on the Scottish Government to work with the UK Government and the European Commission before the final passage of the Finance Bill to construct a derogation under the EU energy products directive, or otherwise, to permit variable rates of duty for specified remote rural areas to bring down the price of fuel at the pump to that available in other parts of the United Kingdom.

Following that came the Government motion on Budget Implications for Scotland: a Labour amendment fell by 80 (everyone but Labour) votes to 42; a Tory amendment passed by 63 (SNP/Tory/Green) votes to 43 (Labour/Margo) with 16 LibDem abstentions; a LibDem amendment fell by 103 (SNP/Lab/Con) votes to 19 (LD/Green/Margo) - which generated an 'Aww!' from MSPs - while the amended motion passed by 64 (SNP/Tories/Greens/Margo) to 43 - Labour plus Jim Tolson (Dunfermline West) with 15 LibDem abstentions.

Finally, a minor Labour Committee reshuffle was nodded through.

And here's something to bear in mind, before we finish: we're two weeks in to this Holyrood term, MSPs have held 19 votes, and Margo MacDonald hasn't abstained yet. In fact, it's actually 23 votes since her last abstention - something of a record, surely! Has she finally kicked the habit?


subrosa said...

Margo was singing John Swinney's praises in the Sunday Post. Perhaps she has had a change of heart.

Will said...

She compared him to Brad Pitt in the Chamber on Thursday (and any Brad Pitt/Chamber jokes have already been thought, thank you!). Maybe the pork bar- emm, Capital City funding is making her sympathetic to JS again.

Or maybe this is her way of telling us that she won't be seeking re-election in 2011: we saw an element of détente creeping into Dennis Canavan's relations with Labour in the year or so leading up to the 2007 Elections. Obviously, sad personal circumstances forced his hand, but the possibility of him standing down was considered... perhaps it's the same for Margo as well?

Anonymous said...

Out of interest, who gets the seat if Margot stands down before the parliamentary term is over?

Will said...

AFAIK, Anon, no one gets the seat: if a list ends up being exhausted at an election, they simply disregard any extra seats for that list and move to the next; but my reading of the Scotland Act is that if a list is exhausted mid-way through a Parliamentary term, the seat simply lies empty...

Ted Harvey said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Ted Harvey said...

Sorry, but after a couple of problems with trying to get my previous post posted I ended up with a bit of a messy one.(The blog seemed to go and off line?) Apologies and it should have read:

On an incidental point I felt that Margo MacDonald was sidelined to an almost discourteous extent on the panel yesterday mornings BBC politics programme - just why was that old-style male Labour MP given an almost adulatory treatment?

On the parliamentary business;

“also notes the Scottish Government's initiative to kick-start a new generation of council house building”

Brrr… for many of us in the business that includes affordable housing that very statement sends shivers up and down the spine. Already we have had the head of South Lanarkshire Council Housing chuntering on at a conference about how they have been lobbying John Swinney on how they could manufacture (sorry, ‘develop’) blocks of 1.000 units of social rented housing at a cost of £4 something per week.

I almost felt physically bad at hearing that – have councillors and council housing officials learned nothing from their disastrous history; and are they intent on sidelining and marginalising the successful and hugely popular housing associations?

The SNP Govt seems to have a massive and naive blind spot on the governance motivations and capabilities of local authorities - affordable housing, community planning and community empowerment all being handed over to the local authorities; and to still call the latter 'community empowerment' after handing it over to local authorities is little more than an insult to the communities concerned.

(Will, you might want to delete my previous attempt?)

Will said...

Ted, the SFHA visited the SNP Conference and the relationship they were developing with Alex Neil seemed fairly cordial, so hopefully HA's will have a part to play.

Having said that, I think the GHA experience hasn't helped the standing of Housing Associations, particularly in ex-municipal stock, in the eyes of the SNP. The existing HA's do their job very well indeed, it's the stock transfer issue that seems to have engendered suspicion so on that basis, extra Council Housing is a bonus in areas where it's possible. Though, to be frank, as you say, we mustn't overlook Housing Associations, especially not the long standing ones.

Ted Harvey said...

Will, re SFHA and Alex Neil - I have to agree that both sides are trying to recreate some sort of constructive relationship.

I found myself fairly impressed when I managed to have a good chat with Alex as he arrived at the recent Barrhead launch of the community empowerment ‘Action Plan’ (ironic it was at that event when you read my earlier remarks).

I wholly agree that GHA is a now a great problem and one that I cannot profess to offer solutions on. I can, however, plead that at the very earliest start of the stock transfer proposals emerging, I was among those assertively cautioning on the dangers if the community empowerment elements of the proposal were not carried through in good faith.

A few other complexities are winding on in all of this: One is that the SFHA itself has a challenging range of constituent membership interests. That includes some powerful ones that are genuinely apprehensive of local authorities returning to dominate the affordable housing scene – because of the authorities’ past track record.

Another is that Alex Neil finds himself in a place where he needs anyone who can produce the houses (hence the immediate danger of falling for the local authorities’ line of, we-can-go-back-to-big-and-cheap-housing-production-so-we-can).

By the way, COSLA man Watters’s well-intended remarks at the Barrhead launch event were a bit of a giveaway on the municipal mindset, and faintly embarrassing at times – like when he would nod in the general direction of the audience and refer to “you people” and I thought “does him mean us?”.

The SFHA needs more encouragement and support at this time so that it and the broadly supportive membership can better engage with the SNP government – equally the Government needs its agents for delivery. But if you want quality and sustainability as part of the equation, then the associations are the agents.

I’d be willing to bet that Alex Neil and his…err… more robust… approach is what is needed at this time. I, of course, wasn’t privy to the Government workings but my impression was that preceding Minister Maxwell was perceived as a good sort and all that, but just not the tough-love type that is needed in the role right now.

On another incidental, I felt that with Linda Fabioni (the other junior Minster to go at the same time as Maxwell) it was a case of the players out there at large in the culture sector badly letting her down, i.e. with leaks to the media and direct approaches to John Swinney on funding.

That sector has now got what it may not have bargained for in the shape the present Culture Minister … by the way, is he back from Canada yet?