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Last Updated: Saturday, 23 April, 2005, 11:11 GMT 12:11 UK
Minister pained over dentist row
By John Knox
BBC Scotland political reporter

Rhona Brankin really got her teeth into the election campaign this week.

She's the deputy health minister who launched an astonishing attack on a dentist in Stranraer.

Deputy Health Minister Rhona Brankin
Rhona Brankin accused the dentist of staging "a political stunt"

She didn't actually bite Kenneth Barr but she stood up in parliament and said his behaviour was "appalling".

His decision to go private - and leave 3,000 patients without an NHS dentist - was "a political stunt", she said.

Mr Barr says he has been defamed and is consulting his lawyer.

All he's doing, he said, is giving patients the time necessary for quality treatment.

"There's been a steady erosion of funding in NHS dental services over the years," he told BBC Scotland.

We've become used to the SNP using question time to drop yet another embarrassing statistic on the first minister's head

"We are no longer able to maintain and indeed advance our high quality of service."

He is taking on 1,000 private patients and will continue only to treat children and special needs cases on the NHS.

Ms Brankin was furious and said: "It's not good enough for dentists to be able to train at the expense of the public purse, to build up an NHS list, to build up the trust and confidence of patients in Stranraer and then walk away."

The Scottish National Party's Roseanna Cunningham - convener of the health committee - was able to make the point that Mr Barr was doing what many dentists have been doing all over Scotland, because the fees paid by the NHS are too low.

Only 3% of Scotland's 3,700 dentists are expecting to increase their NHS work.

Ms Brankin told MSPs that dentists should stay loyal to the NHS. The executive is investing an extra 150m over the next three years in dental services.

There will be 200 more dentists trained, grants of up to 20,000 to help dentists set up in rural areas and "the biggest tooth brushing education programme in Europe".

The dentists' tale is just another chapter in the story of the NHS during the election campaign.

We've become used to the SNP using question time to drop yet another embarrassing statistic on the first minister's head. But this week, there was none.

Health row

Nicola Sturgeon said that was because the Scottish Executive's information and statistics division was no longer releasing the figures.

She added: "Rules that have lasted 31 years have suddenly changed to make it well nigh impossible to get information from ISD. I'd say it's a blatant attempt to cover up the executive's failure on health."

Mr McConnell said he knew of no change in the rules. And he denied another SNP suggestion that Health Minister Andy Kerr was sitting on figures giving a detailed breakdown of waiting times for each medical specialism.

"That is an absolutely untrue allegation," said Mr McConnell.

"The health minister will publish the figures as soon as they are ready."

What we did learn from question time was that the executive is "moving towards" ending automatic early release from prison.

No smoking sign in a pub
A public smoking ban is due to be introduced in Scotland in 2006

This has been a constant demand from the Conservatives and given added weight this week by the report into James Campbell, the 19-year-old Lanarkshire man who was convicted of attempting to rape a two-year-old girl while he was on early release from prison for another attempted rape.

"This man got out of jail early because of your policy," David McLetchie told the first minister.

Mr McConnell replied that "as we move towards ending automatic early release, it's important we do that in the most effective way so that those that are released are monitored and are less likely to offend again".

He said he would await the expert advice of the Sentencing Commission.

Two bills were given their final approval by parliament this week. The Gaelic Language Bill was agreed unanimously. It gives Gaelic official status for the first time since 1616.

Top-up fees

It gives statutory powers to the Bord na Gaidhlig to develop the language and requires all public bodies to draw up a Gaelic language plan.

The higher education bill ran into trouble when it opened the back door to English style top-up fees.

Ministers accepted an amendment from the Liberal Democrat Mike Pringle requiring parliamentary approval for any particular top-up fee.

And the minister Jim Wallace promised that top-up fees charged by universities in Scotland would only be used to prevent the medical schools being swamped by students from England.

A delegation of students from the National Union of Students went away disgruntled, saying the principle of top-up fees should never have been conceded in Scotland.

The way to solve the shortage of doctors, they said, was not to restrict English students but to give graduates more incentives to join the NHS in Scotland when they qualify.

Gaelic road sign
Gaelic is being given official status for the first time since 1616

The NUS will have been happier, though, at a decision by the communities committee to tighten the rules on private schools gaining charity status.

An amendment to the charities bill moved by John Home Robertson and accepted by the minister Johann Lamont will add another hurdle for independent schools to jump before they can prove to be "of public benefit".

They will have to show that their fees are not "unduly restrictive". Fettes and Gordonstoun need not apply.

Elsewhere in committee land, the health committee, unsurprisingly, came out in favour of the executive's ban on smoking in public places.

The communities committee had a marathon session on Tuesday on the proposed house-sellers' survey.

And the petitions committee showed its anger with two election candidates who tried to use petitions to make a point during their local campaigns.

It dismissed both petitions.

Parliament seems to have been unusually crowded this week with groups of pensioners touring the new building.

Pantomime stuff

Perhaps it's election fever which has brought them here. Perhaps it's just the spring sunshine. Holyrood has now attracted 250,000 visitors since it opened last September.

The SNP's Michael Matheson brought a group of "Revolutionaries" to the Garden Lobby on Wednesday.

They turned out to be a well behaved Young Enterprise class from Graeme High School in Falkirk who have produced 25,000 red wrist bands to sell at football matches to raise money for the campaign Show Racism the Red Card.

The revolution may be far away but the election is now very near. At question time there was plenty of electioneering going on.

There was high pitched talk of secret cuts, black holes in spending plans, people running Scotland down.

For the independent Margo MacDonald, it was all too much. "If I'd wanted to see a pantomime, I would have bought a ticket to the King's Theatre."


SEE ALSO:
MSPs rule against Gaelic equality
21 Apr 05 |  Scotland
Minister angry at dentist 'stunt'
21 Apr 05 |  Scotland
NUS criticises student fee move
21 Apr 05 |  Scotland
Committee support for smoking ban
21 Apr 05 |  Scotland


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