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Last Updated: Saturday, 6 September, 2003, 10:10 GMT 11:10 UK
Economy and crime on menu
By John Knox
BBC Scotland political correspondent

Jack McConnell
Economy is the first minister's top priority
It seems from the opening few days of the new parliamentary session that the great themes of the winter will be the economy and crime and punishment.

And well they might be, because the Scottish economy is shrinking - GDP fell by 0.3% in the first quarter of the year - and crime is up by 1%.

First Minister Jack McConnell made much of both issues during his beginning-of-term press conference in Bute House.

"Our top priority is the economy," he told journalists while they sipped coffee from fine china cups in the first minister's official residence.

And the economy was the first issue to be debated in parliament on Wednesday.

Enterprise Minister Jim Wallace made what will become his half-yearly report on "the state of the economy".

He said he was sticking to the policy of "smart, successful Scotland", emphasising science and training.

But he added one more necessary condition to get the economy growing again - an enterprise culture, starting in the schools.

Crime and punishment wove its way like black thread through first minister's question time.

David McLetchie
David McLetchie raised questions over crime and punishment
The Conservative leader David McLetchie described as "very lenient" the five year sentence handed down to James Taylor at the High Court in Dunfermline for raping a 13-month-old baby girl.

"The public's anger and incomprehension at this sentence will be compounded by the fact that, with automatic remission, this offender will be back on the streets just two and half years from now."

Mr McConnell said he couldn't comment on this individual case, but generally there was a "crisis of confidence" in the courts so long as sentences like this were handed down.

"For crimes which are evil and despicable, people want to see the punishment fit the crime."

He said the new sentencing commission - chaired by a judge but having others represented on it - would bring consistency and rigour to sentencing, remand and bail.

The Scottish National Party (SNP) leader John Swinney used his question to the first minister to raise the issue of Dungavel, Scotland's only immigration detention centre, in Lanarkshire.

"Why does the executive's 'one Scotland, many cultures' campaign not extend to the children in Dungavel?"

Mr McConnell said he would not be drawn into a cross-border wrangle with the Home Office, which is responsible for immigration.

The SNP would, he was sure, be outraged if the Home Secretary in London were to call for the closure of Peterhead Prison.

John Swinney
Dungavel was high on Mr Swinney's agenda
But the issue of Dungavel would not go away.

On Friday, the Labour backbenchers Cathy Peattie and Elaine Smith broke the Labour silence on the issue at the Scottish Parliament and called for the centre to be closed.

Also on Friday, Rosie Kane, the Socialist MSP, brought her latest house-guest to Holyrood.

Mercy Ikolo, from Cameroon, had just been released from Dungavel, with her daughter Percie, because Ms Kane had acted as her guarantor and offered her a home.

"Dungavel is a prison, not a detention centre," Mercy told journalists.

"The children are terrified. They cannot eat the food. They are all getting diarrhoea."

The other debates at Holyrood this week have been on cancer services and "closing the opportunity gap".

The committees have begun work again, figuring out how to scrutinise the five main bills that will come before parliament this term: court reform, special educational needs, nature conservation, PR for local government and the anti-social behaviour bill.

The petitions committee also held its first public session.

It heard from campaigners wanting to re-open Launrencekirk railway station.

It also heard from James Mackie and the Overload Network worried about the effects neuroleptic drugs are having on children.

Chamber
MSPs voted to change first minister's question time
And the committee celebrated its sixth change in the law.

As a result of a petition from Neil Henriksen from Edinburgh, housing developers will no longer be able to submit repeat planning applications.

Last but not least, MSPs this week decided to reform what seems like an ancient ritual, first minister's question time.

It will be extended by 10 minutes to 30 minutes and it will be moved forward from 1510 BST on a Thursday afternoon to 1200 BST.

The BBC warned that the television audience may well drop from 60,000 to 30,000 but most MSPs were convinced the audience would follow the politicians and soon get used to tuning in at noon.

It would suit school parties better they said. The change went through by 90 votes to 20.

"The proof of the pudding will be in the eating," said the SNP's Bruce Crawford.

It seemed he had already made the transition from afternoon tea to lunch.


SEE ALSO:
Call for business bravehearts
03 Sep 03  |  Scotland
Labour MSPs speak out on Dungavel
05 Sep 03  |  Scotland
Mother and child leave Dungavel
04 Sep 03  |  Scotland


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