Friday, 20 June 2008

Who really gets the last word in debate?

Holyrood Diary in the John O'Groat Journal
20 June 2008

All politicians and competitors like to have the last word. Three examples in my parliamentary week come to mind. First in the Education Lifelong Learning and Culture (ELLC) Committee about how the BBC has failed to report the increasingly diverse governments of the devolved UK. Secondly in the Parliament Chamber Labour debating time focused on so-called “education cuts”. Thirdly in the political panel at the annual STUC Highlands and Islands conference held in Inverness last Saturday one of my colleagues came away with the biggest whopper as the last word.

The ELLC committee is far famed for its lengthy weekly sessions. We get endless supplementary questions as certain members seek ‘just a short extra point’. Two panels in front of us last Wednesday were from OFCOM the media regulator, then Blair Jenkins the chair of the Scottish Broadcasting Commission appointed by Alex Salmond last summer.

You can read the proceedings on the Official Report in the ELLC committee section. Also you could have watched the proceedings live, but there is no dedicated Scottish Parliament Channel to catch up later. Why not?

Coincidentally Prof. Anthony King published his own report on the BBC’s proven lack of coverage of Scottish, Welsh and Northern Irish issues on the same day. OFCOM’s answers show they too have to get used to the idea that transmitters should reach every corner of Scotland as of right. We get a very second rate service that needs sorted by spending some of the income due to London Government when it sells spectrum - that’s the bands used by broadcasters. But will they spend it on better reception in the Far North and islands?

Blair Jenkins’ evidence was corroborated by the King Report. When his final report is produced this autumn it will probably suggest that Scots must be offered not just BBC and ITV terrestrial channels but also access to a twenty more without paying through the nose to Rupert Murdoch for a satellite dish. Mr Jenkins has shown that public opinion seems to favour a change to the structure of early evening television news to provide one integrated programme from Scotland covering international, UK and Scottish news. 53% prefer this option while 36% favour the status quo.

I hope to hear Caithness voices call, not just for more local TV news, but a national service for Scotland worthy of a confident diverse nation. We deserve broadcasters that make programmes to reflect a new confidence and from the perspective of our particular view on the world that television centre has failed to reflect. The last word can’t be left to the BBC in London.

MELTDOWN was the charge levelled by the Labour party on Scottish Government conduct of education policy. Well, really? Most local councils are happy with the greater freedom to meet their education needs through the historic concordat set out by John Swinney. Indeed the recent summit between our Finance Minister and the COSLA team showed cooperation and progress. Yet Labour echoes the activists at the Educational Institute of Scotland AGM which threatened a strike ballot for the third time in six years, i.e. twice when they were at the helm before this!

In debate I mentioned the demonstration at Brora where local Labour councillors and Highland MSPs whipped up a fury at the loss of a teacher as the primary school roll dropped below the agreed pupil/teacher ratio. Did the Labour and LibDem do anything to build up the population of Brora during the past eight years? What jobs were created, what houses built, what support did they give to campaigners who wished to see a rail bridge across the Dornoch Firth that would have allowed Brora commuters by rail to work in Inverness?

Why has the school lost pupils? We were not told. Just as school rolls go down, they also go up, when numbers expand again. And the SNP Government has tasked HIE to target an increased population in East Sutherland.

In debate I also mentioned that Wick High School had been deteriorating for many years. So I believe that the SNP Future Trust will fund its replacement but without excess profits going to developers. I understand ministers are determined that schools in the poorest condition, the D band, will be top priorities.

Wick High School does not need the First Minister to visit just now. It needs the First Minister’s economic policy to succeed. We cannot allow more oil profits to pile up in Chancellor Darling’s coffers whilst denying Scotland access to funds that build our schools, our transport and our future. That’s definitely not the last word.

DONALD DEWAR the first Scottish First Minister presided over a budget of around £15 billion in 1999. In 2007 Alex Salmond Scotland’s first SNP First Minister has around £30 billion from block grant. According to David Stewart MSP speaking at the STUC gathering, Donald Dewar would have been very happy to have had the current budget. Mr Stewart implied the settlement for Scotland from Westminster is generous and by implication that the SNP is profligate. I beg to differ, for the uncosted extravagances of those past eight years are surfacing monthly.

Let’s recap, Mr Dewar did not have to fund the costs of free personal care for the elderly, nor meet the excessive costs of PFI/PPP his mentor Tony Blair so eagerly embraced. Nor did Mr Dewar have to pay for the free bus passes for the over 60s or fund the laws passed in profusion in the past seven years since his untimely death. As the current hikes in fuel and food prices also show it’s a different time we live in. Let’s not forget the 60% increase in Council Tax in the Labour LibDem years, a stealth tax if ever there was one and the costs of micromanaging nearly every sum they allocated across the land. In a word voters always have the last word so politicians beware.

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