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Saturday, 3 November, 2001, 10:29 GMT
Holyrood's 'blackest hour'?
Henry McLeish
Henry McLeish clashed with the Tories in parliament
By BBC Scotland's parliamentary reporter John Knox

This was not an edifying week in the Scottish Parliament. We were treated to sleaze, racism and filibuster.

The "Officegate Affair" dominated the week. It came to a head during Question Time on Thursday with First Minister Henry McLeish and Conservative leader David McLetchie accusing each other of reaching their "blackest hour".

The office referred to is the constituency office of Henry McLeish in Glenrothes.

It emerged two weeks ago that Mr McLeish had repaid the House of Commons 9,000 after he had failed to declare income from sub-letting part of the office to the law firm Digby Brown.

Henry McLeish's office sign
The row centres on Henry McLeish's office
The issue relates to the time Mr McLeish was an MP at Westminster and the Presiding Officer at Holyrood, Sir David Steel, was determined not to allow questions about the affair here.

But the opposition leaders soon found a way round that and the carefully-framed questions came thick and fast.

Mr McLeish tried to shrug them off with repeated statements that he had not benefited personally from the "error" and that the Westminster authorities had been through the books and were satisfied that the matter could now be closed.

He accused the Scottish National Party and the Tories of "grubbing around in the gutter" and he challenged them to mount a full debate - in their own time - to settle the whole affair.

The Tories quickly took up the challenge and there is to be such a debate next Thursday morning.

On Wednesday, the executive held a debate on the treatment of the 5,000 asylum seekers in Scotland.

Racist attacks

Social Justice Minister Jackie Baillie welcomed the announcement from the UK Home Secretary that the voucher system of maintenance payments is to be abolished and that "accommodation centres" are to be set up.

She condemned racist attacks such as the fire bombing of an Edinburgh mosque in the aftermath of 11 September and told MSPs: "We need to create an environment where this just doesn't happen."

She is setting up an Asylum Seekers Integration Forum and will be launching an anti-racism campaign in the near future.

The Conservatives and the SNP welcomed the moves - although the SNP's Kenny Gibson caused outrage when he likened the new smart card for asylum seekers, which will replace the vouchers, to the yellow star handed out by the Nazis to the Jews.

Anti-racism poster
An anti-racism campaign is to be launched
A rather more tolerant side of the Scottish Parliament was on display on Friday when the equal opportunities committee invited representatives of Scotland's Gypsy Travelling People to come to the chamber to argue their case for ethnic minority status.

The travellers want equal access to health services and schools and proper standards for their official camp sites.

"We don't request these things," said Mark Kennedy, "we demand them, because they are our rights."

The deputy presiding officer, Patricia Ferguson, said it was the first time any legislature had held an event of this kind for travelling people. A report by the equal opportunities committee will be debated in parliament later this month.

Finally, on Tuesday the rural development committee held its first meeting on stage two of the anti-foxhunting Bill.

'Wrecking amendments'

MSPs voted back in September to approve the Bill in principle by 83 votes to 34.

But as MSPs began detailed work on the 50 or so amendments, it became clear that sponsor Mike Watson is going to have to use his majority to force the Bill through the committee.

He faced what he termed "wrecking amendments" from Conservative, Liberal Democrat and SNP members.

But he comfortably won votes against them and confirmed that he was dropping some of the most controversial sections of the Bill.

Dogs
Pro-hunt protesters lobbied MSPs
It will, after all, allow gamekeepers and others to continue using dogs to flush foxes to guns and will instead concentrate on outlawing mounted hunts, hare coursing and fox-baiting.

Mr Watson still hopes the Bill can become law by Christmas.

But the SNP's Fergus Ewing did succeed in forcing a week's postponement of the consideration of amendments while further evidence is taken from the Gamekeepers Association.

As the committee sat, about 50 Countryside Alliance demonstrators - and a collection of fox-hounds, deer-hounds and various other breeds - occupied the pavement outside in the rain.

They held up banners saying "Mike Watson is wrong" and "It's the death of the countryside".

See also:

02 Nov 01 | Scotland
Swinney urges first minister to act
02 Nov 01 | Scotland
McLeish fails to quell expenses row
31 Oct 01 | Scotland
'Nazi' jibe at asylum seekers plan
26 Oct 01 | Scotland
Legal hurdle to hunting ban bill
27 Jun 01 | Scotland
Gypsy travellers win status move
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