Friday, 6 November 2009

It's the Constitution Stupid

While most MSPs return to their constituencies on a Thursday night, I had three reasons to remain in Edinburgh last Friday. The first involved a seminar in the Chamber and Committee Room breakout sessions of Parliament. The subject was a report on mainstreaming equalities issues in our Holyrood work.

Keynote speaker Prof Ailsa McKay of Glasgow Caledonian University argued that the recession is no time to ditch fair treatment. Indeed women suffer low pay and more chances of redundancy in hard times yet they tend to spend money on family needs - not selfish wants - when they have it.

In the group chaired by Malcolm Chisholm on the work of the Economy, Energy and Tourism Committee I had the task to report back to the full chamber. Very trenchant debate took place in our group and uncovered big question marks about drop-out rates in the modern apprenticeship scheme which is a big Scottish Government investment in the economic recovery package.

A tourism executive explained how the disabled are being better catered for. The loss of the ‘walk away’ pound is not due to difficult access. It rests on attitudes among providers of services.

Also we need to recognise that paid and unpaid work adds to well-being. I suggested that the time is ripe to measure more than Gross Domestic Product. The SNP Government has introduced one of the first carbon audits in any nation, as previously reported. So we need measures of progress in equality, carbon reduction, happiness as well as income. There is never a better time to start.

Privately, at lunchtime that day, I told my stories about the drovers and their links to the cattle trade of America at the Storytelling Festival just up the Royal Mile. That evening I had great pleasure in joining the fund raiser in the Queens Hall for the Traditional Music and Song Association of Scotland TMSA. Their patrons Archie Fisher, Barbara Dixon and Sheen Wellington all sang, but the young trad musicians of the past few years are so skilled and sensitive. Great to hear their mixture of tunes, Scots and Gaelic songs sung and played in new forms.

Our young people embrace a confident blend of many strands of our national culture. I hope and believe that Caithness folk do the same despite the trench warfare over bilingual road signs in the columns of the Groat...


Critical fire power directed at the SNP Government this week by the CBI and other parts of the ‘bosses unions’ have been alleged that the SNP recovery plans and our Budget proposals are against business interests. The devolved government can’t borrow so its first duty is to protect education and health services and local government from the blizzard of cuts caused by Labour’s recession.

If sustainable growth is to be kick started then London has to give a hand. Our block grant is cut for the first time since 1999. The Unionist parties have at least realised that, as we have to pay back this coming year the accelerated capital spending that the SNP Government speedily adopted last autumn, we need more of the same next year to make modest investments in apprenticeships, home insulation, affordable house building, etc. But above all the kind of borrowing powers that even councils have is denied to Holyrood.
I say to those who call on the SNP to forget independence during a recession, it is even more important to get full powers to equal and better the woeful performance of the UK as the last country coming out of recession. Indeed I would say the economy will only improve when we get full powers of a normal nation. In short, it’s the constitution, stupid!


Meanwhile with limited powers we are helping small and medium sized businesses with a new scheme. ScotAction and is the Scottish Government's skills support package for providing real financial support to businesses and individuals through the recession.

Many small firms have had to balance the need to keep their heads above water with the desire to continue to develop staff skills for the future. So those in the construction, engineering and manufacturing sectors, including renewables, who think that they may have to let their apprentices go should contact Skills Development Scotland for more information. The Scottish Government, with European Social Fund support, want to provide employers with £75 a week to help towards the wage costs of these apprentices so that they can continue in their training.

'Safeguard an Apprentice' demonstrates that the Scottish Government can deliver practical help to support businesses and individuals through the recession.


The Banking Enquiry in Holyrood’s Economy, Energy and Tourism Committee resumed this week. We took evidence from the Office of Fair Trading whose evidence was damning as far as personal current accounts in British banks are concerned. The market has not been working well for customers as they pay high bank fees and receive poor service. The feeling is that beleaguered banks are charging way above previous rates to recoup losses caused by their speculative old ways. Rebuilding consumer confidence is our aim but when you see the way Messrs Brown and Darling overrode the OFT report against the Lloyds HBOS merger last autumn you have to ask key questions once again.

If Labour saved the banks from total collapse, why did they let them get into that state in the first place? When you see Government ignoring advice on drugs from its scientists, is there a culture in London Government that needs to change?

In its way the EU single market begins to offer some relief. In return for huge bail outs to Lloyds and RBS Commissioner Neelie Kroes has ordered them to break up sections of these ‘too big to fail’ conglomerates. Thanks to EC competition rules Mr Darling must comply to give more choices for customers in High Streets from Thurso to Truro. And about time too.

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