If you have opened a paper this week you’d have seen that the UK government published its Treasury paper looking at Scotland’s economy. This was promptly followed on Tuesday by the Scottish government’s own take on the matter. Not surprisingly there were a few irregularities between the two. What was surprising was that it took the chamber a whole 15 minutes in today’s debate to turn the discussion around to the Scottish economy. Scottish Conservative’s Ruth Davidson led the questioning, asking Salmond if he meant to confuse the Scottish people with his ‘wee booklet.’ The Conservative leader argued SNP’s plans for the economy would ‘turn Scotland into a Central American basket case’- a phrase protested loudly by the chamber. Salmond defended the Scottish Government’s plans- saying that it was taking the responsible route, and an independent Scotland would be taking on a responsible amount of the UK’s assets and liabilities. This week’s Denis Healey interview with Holyrood magazine was brought up twice by a delighted Salmond, who quoted the former Labour minister admitting the Westminster government had previously underestimated Scottish oil reserves in order to scare off support for independence. Healey himself seems to have had a change in opinion since the 1970s, now saying, ‘if the scots want independence then they should have it.’ Healey has in recent weeks caused problems for the his Labour party, joining the growing number of retired Westminster grandees questioning the UK’s continuing membership of the EU, and predicting that an Independent Scotland would be economically stable with their North sea oil assets. Healey’s comments adds fuel to the debate between the two sides of the campaign, with the Scottish Government predicting £57 billion in tax revenue from oil and gas, and Westminster dismissing any predictions of this boom as unsupported.
Scottish Labour avoided weighing in on the economic debate, opting instead to revisit last week’s topic of access to cancer drugs. Last week’s FMQs and huge amount of press attention centred on the case of cancer sufferer Maureen Flemming, who was forced to consider moving to England for treatment, resulted in both the First Minister and Alex Neil meeting with her this week and a treatment plan being agreed. Johann Lamont highlighted Flemming’s case once again, and others, who had only received the treatment needed once their plight had gained media and political attention. She said that assurance was now needed that decisions on cancer drug prescriptions were made on clinical grounds, not on the governments. ‘The NHS should be free at the point of need’ said the Labour leader ‘for most patients isn’t it true that it only becomes available at the point when it embarrasses the First Minister.’ Salmond said it was clear that Scotland should not be in a position where politicians are involved in deciding over which drugs should be used for patients. Both of the opposing leaders agreed the Scottish drugs system could be considered for improvements. The drug causing this controversy is the cancer drug cetuxima, one which original guidelines said was not appropriate for all patients.
Despite an optimistic start, with the chamber celebrating today’s release of improving Scottish economic statistics, the rest of the FMQs session was not a particularly enjoyable one for Salmond. Labour leader Johann Lamont was on fine form this afternoon demanding answers on the growing objections to the lack of access to life saving treatment in Scotland. Asking why it was that those in Scotland with a headache can get a free prescription of paracetamol, whereas cancer sufferers are paying £3,000 a month for treatment, Lamont drew attention to constituents suffering. The presence of Maureen Flemming observing the chamber today, who has now had to plan to leave Scotland for a rented apartment in Newcastle in order to access the free treatment provided in England, was particularly prominent. The Labour leader’s warning that the country was in danger of ‘exporting health refugees’ was met with loud calls from the chamber, with Salmond objecting to Labour’s fierce criticism of the Scottish prescriptions and the current Scottish Medicine’s Consortium system- both originally supported by Labour and the cancer charities. ‘Everything in this chamber is not an argument between the First Minster and I is not about manifesto- there are some things which matter more’ said Lamont.
The criticism from Lamont on this issue was hard to argue against, but Salmond said it would be unwise to change the Scottish Medicine Consortium’s current system. He highlighted that the cancer drug fund money is running out in England and the original aims the Scottish Government had in establishing free prescriptions in the first place.
Given her Westminster colleagues are currently dodging questions on party division over European membership, Ruth Davidson strangely raised the issue herself. Reminding the chamber of last year’s failure by the Scottish Government to consult legal advice on EU membership as an independent Scotland, the Conservative leader reiterated her challenge to the Yes Campaign’s assertion that independence can be ironed out in 18 months. Salmond in return listed the amount of ‘eminent experts’ consulted by his side on the matter. The Independence debate rages on, as both sides continue to out statistic- ize each other with experts.
Welcome back to FMQs after a quiet couple of Easter weeks off. The death of Baroness Thatcher from a stroke last week has dominated the news, as the late Prime Minister’s life and work has been fiercely reviewed and debated. The First Minister was amongst the many politicians and dignitaries who attended the funeral yesterday. It is not surprising therefore, that Scottish Labour leader Johann Lamont opened with a question for Salmond about Margaret Thatcher’s legacy, and whether all young adults are in this day and age, guaranteed and motivated into education, training or work. Salmond demonstrated he hasn’t lost his talent for avoiding answering questions, and rebuked the Lamont’s line of questioning with what has been achieved by the Scottish Government for the good of Scottish young people. Unemployment figures recently announced clarify Salmond’s point- for the first time in three years, Scottish unemployment has dipped below 200, 000, and the unemployment rate is 0.6% lower than the UK average. Lamont today voiced her doubts over the official figures, citing evidence that 17,000 school leavers without work or training seem to be have been left off. She also argued that 10,000 of those who had already found work had been labelled as apprentices to make the figures more appealing.
Salmond warned that his opposition parties should take heed of the ‘lesson learnt’ from the Thatcher years- that parties which share power with the Conservatives will share the same electoral fate. The First Minister said the same will happen for the parties supporting the Better Together campaign.
The Scottish Conservative’s Ruth Davidson highlighted the unfulfilled promises of the Government to end the policy of automatic early release in its 2007 and 2011 manifestos. Davidson argued that the recent death of Robert Brown in Motherwell could have been avoided if the SNP had scrapped this scheme. In May last year Brown was stabbed to death by Sean McLaughlin, who had more than 50 convictions and been released as part of the controversial early release scheme. Salmond answered that he still intended to scrap the scheme, but also criticised Davidson for her ‘factually wrong question.’
Ken Clarke MP addressed a small number of business leaders today in Edinburgh. As former Chancellor of the Exchequer, most people were interested in his take on the Budget, however, he remained on-message and supportive of Osborne throughout. He said that Osborne had to tackle some of the most difficult economic conditions the UK had ever faced and was right to remain focused on debt reduction. He said the Chancellor was steering a good and steady course and there was a continued need to modernise the public sector.
All the measures, he claimed, were pro-growth. Clarke cited the lowering of corporation tax to one of the lowest in the G20; reductions to employers’ NI reductions; and help to secure mortgages to help house builders as particularly positive measures.
Clarke also used the opportunity to highlight his trade role and said that he was visiting Aberdeen to see what expertise there was in the oil and gas industry, which would be of interest to the Brazilian market. He also cited his activity in supporting the EU in its trade negotiations with Japan, USA and India.
He made a number of comments about banking – funding for lending was important though not enough had been done for businesses by the banks. Small business lending was still a great problem. When questioned about the European Parliament vote on restricting bankers’ bonuses, he said that the MEPs were just reacting to public opinion and bonuses should be linked to long term performance of the banks. He added that bankers’ bonuses should be comparable to other industry sectors.
Clarke was questioned as to why beer duty had been reduced, but not whisky. He said that the beer drop was due to concerns about the licensed trade. Brewing had a more compelling argument than whisky. He had lowered duty on whisky when he was Chancellor to help the whisky export market – that was no longer a problem.
It has been another week of debate between the opposing sides of the Independence Question. The bill to lower the voting age to 16 in the 2014 referendum was announced in Holyrood this week and, minutes before the MSPs filed in to the chamber today, Westminster’s Defence Secretary Philip Hammond said that independence would leave Scotland ‘militarily weaker.’ A member of the First Minister’s council of economic advisers recently said that Scotland should be ready to adopt an independent currency if it wanted to gain the ‘fiscal freedom’ promised as a major advantage of independence. Professor Kay also warned that the chance of an independent Scotland inheriting any of the UK’s annual £2.6 billion annual EU rebate would be unlikely. Scottish Labour leader Johann Lamont raised concerns that the First Minister was concealing his ‘Plan B’ of a new currency from the Scottish public. When asked whether he had had any conversations about the fate of Scottish currency, Salmond responded that many had taken place on the issue, adding that financially Scotland would do a great deal better then ‘the disaster emanating from Westminster’. Lamont’s further attempts to question the First Minister on whether it would be possible to sever the ‘strings imposed from London’ and keep the pound were shouted down by SNP backbenchers- provoking SNP’s Finance Secretary to double up with laughter.
It also appeared that controversy over last week’s leaked cabinet paper is refusing to die down- Salmond fielding questions from both Lamont and Davidson over discrepancies with oil predictions. Lamont asked why a paper meant only for cabinet members questioned the future of north sea oil and gas, whilst the government press release boasted of an “oil boom”. Salmond argued that the SNP’s oil and gas bulletin was the most up-to- date. Davidson wanted to know why the First Minister has chosen to ignore the ‘more independence, more cautious estimate.’ Davidson dismissed the government’s report as a ‘fantasy’; using the ‘average of a few cherry picked case studies and ignoring the unchallenged independent figures’. Two weeks into this Scottish oil and gas prediction stalemate, it is unlikely either side will admit to the accuracy of the other’s figures. Whilst the OBR’s prediction track- record is not particularly strong, it could also prove shameful if the First Minister, and former energy economist, was proved wrong.
Economic figures dominated proceedings at this week’s FMQs. The Scottish Government’s Expenditure and Revenue Scotland (Gers) 2011-2012 figures were published this week, showing tax and spending levels. Scottish Finance Secretary John Swinney said that Scotland was in a much stronger financial position than the rest of the UK- £824 per person better off. The Government’s report highlighted the 9.9% of UK revenues generated in Scotland with 8.4% of the population, while only receiving 9.3% of public spending back from Westminster. In a press statement Swinney said that these figures confirmed Scotland was contributing proportionally more to the UK Treasury than the country receives in public spending allocation.
In conjunction with this, a draft of a Scottish government paper was also leaked, prompting John Swinney to acknowledge that although there would be economic challenges in an independent Scotland, the country would be in a far better position to deal with them. Consensus on which side of the debate the figures benefitted the most was never going to be reached, with both Lamont and Salmond using them to cement their argument.
Lamont said that the leaked report showed the inconsistency which exists between what is said by the SNP in private and in public, and accused Salmond of denying ‘the truth we all know.’ The Labour leader asked when the public were going to be informed of the cabinet discussions over the necessity for cuts to services. Not surprisingly, Salmond saw the document in a more positive light, highlighting the economic growth and arguing that it is Labour making the cuts. The First Minister argued that the leaked paper indicated that an independent Scotland can ‘thrive.’
Scottish Liberal Democrat Willie Rennie continued in the same vein, stating that the celebrations over the healthy looking oil revenues and strong Scottish finances were fake- ‘it’s only his cabinet colleagues that get to know the real truth of the cost of independence.’ Finance Minister John Swinney is said to have requested a private investigation into affordability of pensions and concerns over defence, but has in public been confident about the finances of an independent Scotland.
The document was waved about by leaders on all sides of the floor, each quoting figures and claiming they strengthened their side of the argument. Whereas Ruth Davidson argued that the numbers showed a bleak future with shrinking oil reserves and a doubling deficit, Salmond argued that an independent Scotland would reap the income of a healthy oil industry. Despite the chambers excitement over the figures today, it remains to be seen what impact the release of these figures will have on the Scottish public opinion.
This week’s session featured a remarkably subdued Alex Salmond. The First Minister faced a barrage of criticism that came from Labour and Conservative camps at the NHS waiting list scandal. The Scottish Government had announced this week that they would put £50 million into NHS improvements amid concerns of a crisis in accident and emergency departments. Furthermore the news of patients being left waiting to be treated on trollies for over 4 hours was met by promises by the Government to recruit another 200 accident and emergency staff across Scottish hospitals. However, for Johann Lamont, these promises have come too late, with the Scottish Labour leader asking why this £50 million has not been given sooner if it was available. Lamont accused the First Minister of being ‘completely in denial with what’s wrong with the NHS’ and said that he had been denying the truth of the scale of the problem, ‘denying the sick and vulnerable the treatment they need.’
Quotes from the recently published report on the issue were banded about the chamber by both sides, with Ruth Davidson quoting the Auditor General on the waiting list ‘warning bells’ that should have rung for the Scottish Government. Davidson also noted the “astonishing” change in the FM’s tone on waiting lists, compared to last week’s question time.
Westminster’s announcement that Britain had dropped a scale in the credit rating also came up, with Salmond asking the Better Together campaign to reprint their leaflets boasting of the union’s AAA status. The First Minister said this confirmed the failure of the UK government’s economic policy.
A report this week from Watchdog Audit Scotland declared that the NHS waiting list system ‘had not been good enough.’ It found that patients had been removed from the waiting lists and declared to be ‘unavailable for social reasons.’
Scottish Labour accused the Government of misleading the public with their NHS figures and valuing their press releases above the health of Scottish patients. Salmond attempted to defend a thoroughly criticised Health Minister Nicola Sturgeon, who was accused of knowingly hiding the waiting lists and denying anything was wrong. Salmond argued that Labour’s questions were about ‘getting Nicola Sturgeon’ rather than concern over the NHS.
The First Minister argued that the waiting list figure was down 10% since he had inherited it from Labour, and highlighted the 88% satisfaction rating of NHS Scotland. Scottish Lib Dem’s Willie Rennie continued to grill Salmond on the same issue, asking the First Minister whether he regrets the 50 or so ‘bragging’ press releases issued by his Government about the NHS. Rennie highlighted a previous Government release stating that the Government had rid NHS Scotland of ‘smoke and mirrors’ arguing that in reality patients were waiting in ‘the equivalent of Siberia.’
The Conservative’s Ruth Davidson highlighted the on-going horse meat scandal and asked why the Government had chosen to secretly slash the Food Standards Agency budget by 10% at a time of crisis. Salmond replied that the Scottish meat industry was a lot better off than its counterparts over the border, and that this crisis had demonstrated the value of a separate Scottish Food Standards Agency.
The Scottish Government this week published one of what can be expected to be a series of papers laying out the proposals for an independent Scotland. This week’s revolved around the process of transition following a successful “Yes” in the 2014 referendum. Under the proposals by Ministers, it is anticipated that Scotland could be fully independent by March 2016, some eighteen months following the referendum.
The Better Together attacked the announcement as being presumptuous; pointing out that there was still no confirmed date for the referendum. Some academics questioned whether the timeframes were realistic given the complex historical treaties that would have to be renegotiated.
Elsewhere John Swinney celebrated the passage of his sixth Scottish Budget through the Parliament. While he was constrained by the financial settlement, there were still some last minute additions to the housing and college budgets (although both continue to face an overall cut). Opposition parties voted against the Bill, but the inbuilt SNP majority ensure that it was always going to pass. Now local authorities are beginning the process of pulling together their budgets for the coming year.
Parliament is now in recess until Monday 18th February.
This week Labour repeatedly questioned Salmond on his alleged failure to address the most pressing needs of the Scottish people. Lamont highlighted the delay in many of the promised ‘shovel ready’ projects, and money which had been previously reserved for direct capital investment in school buildings. Salmond responded that Labour had an ‘inability’ to understand state finance, and that the replacement MPS program was cheaper and more efficient then PFI.
When the debate moved onto concerns over the NHS in the wake of the Mid Staffordshire Hospital report, Salmond argued that Scotland, similar to governments worldwide, were in a process of trying to find the best possible system. The Mid Staffs scandal, Salmond argued, happened under Labour and occurred because the management become preoccupied with financial targets and achieving Trust status.
The Conservatives brought up the timetable to independence, this week announced by the SNP. Davidson questioned how the First Minister was going to deliver on his promise to establish an independent Scotland in as little as 18 months when he has ‘yet to deliver’ on so many other programs. Davidson listed the lack of progress made on the Rural Parliament for Scotland, the Scottish Sentencing Council and the College reforms which have all failed to meet their deadlines.