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Last Updated: Saturday, 25 September, 2004, 10:05 GMT 11:05 UK
Ambitious message for Scotland
By John Knox
BBC Scotland political reporter

First Minister Jack McConnell
Mr McConnell's role over Holyrood was questioned
The empty chair said it all. First Minister Jack McConnell was signalling that the anguished debate over the Fraser Report had nothing to do with him, it was a matter for parliament not his executive.

And well might he distance himself from the fiasco of the Holyrood building.

The debate into what went wrong and who was to blame for the mighty cost overruns and the delays went on for four and a half angry hours.

The Scottish National Party's Fergus Ewing lectured the empty chair anyway: "The role of Mr McConnell, who is not here in this debate...was absolutely key."

He said Mr McConnell, as finance minister in 1999, had failed to ask civil servants about the risk of rising costs and then had misled parliament into voting to go ahead with the project.

The Conservative leader David McLetchie said Mr McConnell had tried desperately to spread the blame to all politicians.

"Well no, first minister, we are not all to blame. Because some are clearly more responsible than others," he said.

Ambition call

But when it came to the voting at 1900 BST on Wednesday evening, Mr McConnell was back in the chamber and had his troops mustered in defence.

The Conservative amendment against him was voted down by 68 to 42. The SNP amendment fell by an even larger majority 86 to 24.

At the end of the debate the Presiding Officer George Reid told MSPs not to be prisoners of the past, to put the Holyrood disaster behind them and to "be ambitious for Scotland".

So when it came to first minister's questions on Thursday, Mr McConnell was back in his seat and announcing ambitions for Scotland to host the Commonwealth Games, if not in 2014, then in the "near future".

SNP conference
Nicola Sturgeon accused Labour of stealing the SNP's ideas
Nicola Sturgeon, taking time out from the SNP conference in Inverness, confronted him with her own ambitious manifesto.

But this copy had been annotated by one of first minister's advisers who noted, apparently, that some of the SNP's policies were "worth considering".

In particular, there was the citizens pension idea, which the adviser said, should be costed, and the SNP's policy of cutting business rates should be "pre-empted".

Mr McConnell said she would have to wait till the budget statement next week but he could assure her that the executive's policies were not driven by what he called "SNP inconsistencies".

Watching all this from the public gallery were a group of white-teeshirted campaigners from St John's Hospital in Livingston.

David McLetchie welcomed them by pointing out that the Conservatives had built their new hospital and Labour were cutting its services.

Health debate

Mr McConnell said he expected local health boards to consult carefully before making big changes.

He then gave us all a surprise by suggesting out of the blue: "I'm increasingly coming to the view that there are far too many health boards in Scotland."

Officials later had to point out that there were no immediate plans to merge any of the 15 boards but the writing is on the new Holyrood wall.

Thursday was a busy day in other ways too. MSPs approved a bill, sponsored by the Labour backbencher Elaine Smith, to make it a criminal offence to prevent a mother breast feeding her baby in a public place.

Pub landlords for instance could face fines of up to 2,500.

Aileen McGlynn (right) and Ellen Hunter during the final of the women's tandem sprint
The sports minister congratulated Scotland's paralympic athletes
There was widespread support for the bill, seen as a measure to encourage women to breast feed their babies. But the Conservatives branded it unnecessary legislation.

Sports Minister Frank McAveety paid tribute to Scotland's paralympic champions during a debate on the development of Scottish sport.

He congratulated cyclist Aileen McGlynn, pistol shooter Isobel Newstead and swimmers Andrew Lindsay and Jim Anderson.

He said Scotland had much to celebrate in recent weeks - four Olympic medals, Andrew Murray's win in the world junior tennis championships and Colin Montgomerie's performance in the Ryder Cup golf.

The problem was how to use that success to build a wider participation in sport.

MSPs deplored the cutbacks in school sports and the decline in the number of over 18 year olds belonging to sporting clubs.

Then there was an angry debate, led by the Conservative's Murdo Fraser, on the government's plan to abolish one of Scotland's six infantry regiments and amalgamate the rest.

Former Kings Own Scottish Borderers Tony Keegan (left) demonstrating against regiment cutbacks
Former soldier Tony Keegan made his feelings clear at Holyrood
It was watched from the public gallery by supporters of the regiments who had been demonstrating outside.

The highlight of the week at the committees was a bravado performance from a young disabled woman, describing how isolated she and her friends feel from mainstream Scottish life.

Sarah Jane Allan, 21, from Coatbridge, told the equal opportunities committee: "We would like our own disability culture. We want our own places to meet. I want to be with my disabled friends because that's where I'm normal."

Sarah Jane suffers from cerebral palsy and severe dyslexia but, with the help of her laptop computer, she gave the best evidence I have heard at committee for months - clear, concise, passionate, straight from the heart.

It was not what the committee wanted to hear, a failure to make "mainstreaming" work in schools and colleges, the strain for disabled young people even doing simple things like going to football matches or pop concerts.

There are estimated to be 900,000 people in Scotland suffering from some sort of disability, including 48,000 children.

Holyrood verdict

The committee is beginning an inquiry into how they can be helped to overcome the barriers they face to education, employment, sport and the arts.

MSPs intend to tour the country, meeting disabled people in their own surroundings, searching for recommendations for their final report.

In the health committee, Malcolm Chisholm faced sceptical questioning over his decision to hold off making any decisions on local hospital reorganisation until a national review is completed in the spring.

What did his exception of changes on "grounds of medical safety" really mean? Was the plan to close the Queen Mother's maternity hospital in Glasgow going to be approved or not?

Finally, back to the Holyrood building itself. On Wednesday the widow of the Spanish architect Benedetta Tagliabuie came to hear that final debate on her husband's legacy.

She was standing outside the building, presumably admiring its almost finished features, when a good citizen of Scotland approached her. "We're gettin used tae it," he said. And that said it all.


SEE ALSO:
MSPs approve breastfeeding move
23 Sep 04  |  Scotland
Army cuts protesters at Holyrood
23 Sep 04  |  Scotland
Hospital service cuts scrutinised
23 Sep 04  |  Scotland
Fraser report approved by MSPs
22 Sep 04  |  Scotland


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