31 January 2010

The Sunday Whip

This has been a busy week for the Parliament – it always is when legislation gets to Stage 3. What next Wednesday will be like, I dread to think.

Anyway. The Wednesday just gone saw the usual waving through of the many Business Motions, and besides that, saw the passage of the Tobacco and Primary Medical Services (Scotland) Bill and its amendments (both links PDFs), so this was a busy one.

We'll start with the absentees. Missing the entire day's proceedings were Jamie McGrigor (Con, Highlands & Islands), John Farquhar Munro (LD, Ross, Skye & Inverness West), LibDem Leader Tavish Scott (Shetland) and his predecessor Nicol Stephen (Aberdeen South). Tory Leader Annabel Goldie (West of Scotland) missed the amendments but was around at Decision Time.

So let's start with the various amendments that went to a vote. The first one was Amendment 4, and came from the Tories. As well as the four all-dayers, this vote was missed by Parliament Minister Bruce Crawford (Stirling), George Foulkes (Lab, Lothians), Margo MacDonald (Ind, Lothians), Shadow Schools Minister Ken Macintosh (Eastwood), LibDem Environment Spokesman Liam McArhur (Orkney) and Shadow Public Health Minister Richard Simpson (Mid Scotland & Fife). The amendment fell by 103 to 14, with only the Tories in favour.

Then came Labour's Amendment 29 (which had already been amended by 29A). Bruce Crawford, Ken Macintosh, Liam McArthur and Richard Simpson were back in the Chamber for this one (which is a good thing as it was Richard Simpson moving the amendment), but George Foulkes and Margo MacDonald were still elsewhere and Christopher Harvie (SNP, Mid Scotland & Fife) missed this vote. It was a tie at 60-60, with the Labour, LibDem and Green MSPs in favour, and the SNP and Tories against. This forced the Presiding Officer to step in and use his casting vote against the amendment (remember, as the PO is obliged by convention to vote with the status quo, that means, in practice, voting everything down).

By the time Labour's Amendment 30 came up, Christopher Harvie was present and voting, so it fell by 61 votes (SNP/Tories) to 60 (Labour/LD/Greens). With the return of Margo, Labour's Amendment 31 fell by 61 votes to 60 with one abstention (it was a bit of a waste fo her time showing up for that one, really).

With Bruce Crawford moseying off again, and with Trish Godman (Lab, West Renfrewshire) and Alasdair Morgan (SNP, South of Scotland) withdrawing from voting to deputise for the Presiding Officer, Labour's Amendment 1 (4, 29, 30, 31, 1 – are these actually amendments or just Alex Fergusson's lottery ticket?) fared even worse, though in fairness, Labour wanted to withdraw it, but the Tories objected. It fell by 105 (everyone but the Tories) to 14. Before Tory Amendment 11, George Foulkes arrived and Margo MacDonald left again. The amendment fell by 104 votes to 15, with Rhona Brankin (Lab, Midlothian) joining the Tories momentarily. And, incidentally, if the Presiding Officer had put those numbers on a Lotto line for Wednesday night, he'd have won a tenner.

But I digress. At this point, Bruce Crawford and Margo MacDonald came back, in time for Labour Amendment 36, which fell by 76 votes (everyone but Labour) to 45, while Amendment 25, emanating from the SNP benches, fell by 61 (Lab/LD/Green) votes to 59, with one abstention. And surprisingly, the abstention wasn't Margo (she voted in favour), but the aforementioned Bruce Crawford. Now if he's getting confused by it all, then what hope do the rest of us have?

And for Labour's Amendment 46, Bruce Crawford and Margo MacDonald had left the Chamber again (oh, aye?). This time, Labour themselves weren't overly enthusiastic about it and tried to withdraw it, but again, the Tories dug their heels in and demanded a vote. Needless to say, it fell, by 105 votes to 14.

And those were the amendments. At Decision Time, Bruce Crawford was back and Annabel Goldie had deigned to show up (Margo, on the other hand, was still at large). The Bill passed, officially by 108 votes (everyone but the Tories) to 15, but LibDem Justice Spokesman Robert Brown (Glasgow) wasn't counted, as his voting console had started playing up, so it should, by rights, have been 109-15 instead) Good thing the vote wasn't close...

Anyway. With that, the Chamber was happy to wave through the Crofting (Designation of Areas) (Scotland) Order 2010, the Scottish Government Code of Practice for the Welfare of Dogs (SG 2009/279), the Scottish Government Code of Practice for the Welfare of Cats (SG 2009/280) and the establishment of the Forth Crossing Bill Committee, with a Tory (Jackson Carlaw) acting as Convener, and a LibDem (Hugh O'Donnell) deputising. The SNP's Joe FitzPatrick and Labour's David Stewart will also be there join in the fun.

And we still haven't got to Thursday yet! That saw a slightly less comfortable day for the Government, due in the main to a Labour motion on the Scottish newspaper industry. Missing for that were Ted Brocklebank (Con, Mid Scotland & Fife), who wasn't there to vote on his own amendment, Tory Deputy Leader Murdo Fraser (also Mid Scotland & Fife), John Farquhar Munro and Tory Health Spokesperson Mary Scanlon (Highlands & Islands). Incidentally, I find it interesting, and more than a little distasteful, that a handful of MSPs, specifically Jamie McGrigor, Tavish Scott and Nicol Stephen, were perfectly capable of turning up for a chance to lob an egg at the Government but had something more pressing than public health legislation to deal with the day before. Given that there were occasions were their presence could have changed the make-up of that Bill, and that their absences wouldn't have led to any major change of result on the Thursday, I'm tempted to suggest that those three got their priorities dead wrong this week.

Rant over - what happened was as follows. Throughout the newspaper industry votes, the SNP found themselves joined by Tom McCabe (Lab, Hamilton South) but by no one else, so the SNP amendment to the motion fell by 75 votes to 48 as Mike Pringle (LD, Edinburgh South) missed the first vote of the afternoon, while the Tory and LibDem amendments, and the amended motion passed by 76 to 48:

That the Parliament notes the important role played by local newspapers in Scotland; believes that, in the current economic climate, it is more important than ever to recognise the importance and value of community newspapers; notes that local newspapers provide a forum for expression that enables local people to deliberate on issues affecting their community; regrets that almost a year after the Glasgow Caledonian University seminar on 4 February 2009 on the newspaper industry, organised by the Minister for Enterprise, Energy and Tourism and involving newspaper proprietors, journalists, trade unionists and other stakeholders, there appears to have been little further dialogue between the Scottish Government and the sector; notes with concern the Scottish Government proposals to remove the legal requirement for local authorities to advertise public information notices in newspapers; believes that, if this proposal succeeds, it will deny the 38% of Scots who do not have internet access vital information currently available to them in newspapers, will create a democratic deficit and damage the local and national newspaper industry at a critical time; fears that a smaller newspaper industry will dilute quality journalism and training opportunities for young journalists, and calls on the Scottish Government to withdraw the draft Local Authority Public Information Notices (Electronic Publication) (Scotland) Order 2010.

Then came the Government motion on the Skills Strategy: Labour and Tory amendments were waved through, but it was the LibDems' turn to feel isolated as their amendment fell by 109 votes to 15, Tom McCabe either remembering what party he was in or being quite certain that whichever one it was, it wasn't the Liberal Democrats. Still, the LibDems didn't begrudge the defeat and were still happy, along with everyone else, to see the motion pass without further dissent:

That the Parliament agrees that flexibility and responsiveness to the needs of businesses and employees are critical elements of a successful skills strategy in helping tackle the challenges of the recession and the recovery and believes that the Scottish Government must maintain its focus on developing practical initiatives that help people and businesses with training for work, training in work and training from work to work and, to that end, calls on the Scottish Government to bring forward early publication of a refreshed Skills Strategy that takes account of the current economic climate and is backed by the resources necessary to provide appropriate places on Training for Work and Get Ready for Work programmes and the wide range of modern apprentice schemes; believes that pupils in secondary schools who wish to do so should have the opportunity to pursue formal vocational training, and calls on the Scottish Government to ensure that the system is more demand-led and that publicly funded training matches far more closely the needs of employers.

Finally, a number of LCMs went through on the nod, relating to the Equality Bill, the Constitutional Reform and Governance Bill and the Energy Bill.

And so came the end of a busy week. Next week, it's the biggie. Yes, it's Budget Time. Will John Swinney be celebrating, or could we find ourselves with not one but two impending elections? Time, as they say, will tell...

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