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Last Updated: Friday, 27 January 2006, 22:00 GMT
Bridge charge row takes its toll
By John Knox
BBC Scotland political reporter

It's Labour's bridge over troubled water.

The row over tolls on the Forth Road Bridge just won't go away.

Again it has dominated the by-election campaign in Dunfermline and West Fife and it has dominated events at Holyrood.

Lexmark factory
Seven hundred workers at the Lexmark factory will lose thier jobs

And this despite news this week that the Lexmark factory in Dunfermline is to close with the loss of 700 jobs.

It's cheaper to produce its computer printers in Mexico and the Philippines.

At question time, the SNP's Nicola Sturgeon accused Chancellor Gordon Brown of "lying" over the bridge tolls.

At the launch of Labour's by-election campaign on Monday, he said plans for increased tolls had been "dropped".

"Gordon Brown has misled the public," said Ms Sturgeon.

"Does the first minister condemn that or condone it?"

Jack McConnell said no decision on tolls had been made. But again he hinted that the proposed 4 peak time charge was not going to be accepted.

"I don't believe it has support in Fife or anywhere else," he said.

'Public spat'

Conservative leader Annabel Goldie said the executive was as "a stranger to clarity".

She said: "This degrading public spat must stop," adding that the electors of Fife had a right to know where the executive stood on tolls.

In a full debate on the bridge on Thursday morning the Conservatives put forward the idea of a second bridge over the Forth, a privately built bridge, charging tolls.

The 1 toll on the present bridge would then be removed and drivers would have the choice of either a congested free bridge or a pay-as-you-go private bridge.

Forth Road Bridge
The issue of charging on the Forth Road Bridge is taking its toll

Transport Secretary Alistair Darling has also backed the idea of a second bridge, though he has not said exactly how he wants it funded.

It all leaves the executive in an awkward position.

The Scottish transport minister, the Liberal Democrat Tavish Scott, told the debate that "Scottish ministers will make the decisions and no-one else".

A technical report on the state of the present bridge, in particular the corrosion of its main cables, will be on his desk next week.

Thereafter, it seems, ministers will decide a whole list of issues: whether to refurbish the present bridge, whether to increase the tolls, whether to commission a replacement bridge and whether to have two bridges.

A lot depends on the state of those cables, a lot more than we ever imagined a week ago. Funny how elections focus the mind.

Prescription charges

The other big issue of the week here has been NHS prescription charges.

A bill proposed by the Socialist leader Colin Fox to abolish the 6.50 charge was defeated by 77 votes to 40.

It was the end of a long road for the bill which has been grinding through its various stages for two-and-a-half years.

On the way it's collected endorsements from the SNP, the Greens and the parliament's health committee.

The executive parties and the Conservatives argued that targeting exemptions on the poor, the old and the chronically ill was a better use of NHS resources.

They said it would cost 45m to abolish the charges altogether.

However, just before the debate on Wednesday afternoon, the health minister Andy Kerr announced plans to extend the exemptions.

Students will no longer have to pay for their prescriptions and more of those on low incomes will be exempt. The list of chronic conditions is also to be revised.

How much these concessions will cost, we don't know. But, from April this year, it's clear only the very healthy, the very middle aged and the very rich will have to pay their 6.50s.

Late on Thursday afternoon we all went down to the woods to hear about Scotland's biomass energy programme.

Allan Wilson
Allan Wilson said his comments were not mean literally

The woodlands minister Rhona Brankin promised to fix proper biomass targets in the spring so that Scotland can fulfil its climate change obligations.

In the meantime she announced 1.5m for commercial forests around Highland communities and 2m for 30 recreational forest schemes across the rest of Scotland.

Just before the close of business on Thursday we heard an apology from Deputy Enterprise Minister Allan Wilson.

Like many Labour MSPs he was keen to mock the SNP's Christmas holiday talks with the Greens.

During a debate on energy policy, he found himself saying it's not a love affair or even a flirtation, "it is nothing less than attempted rape by the nationalists".

The phase appalled many of his colleagues. He withdrew the remark, said he was sorry to have caused any offence and that he had meant it only figuratively.

Before we leave energy, the Green Party has been pointing out this week that a draft report from the Committee on Radioactive Waste Management, at paragraph 64, has been saying "if ministers accept our recommendations, the UK's nuclear waste problem is not solved".

Budget considerations

Having a strategy is a start. The real challenge follows.

That left the first minister struggling a little at question time but he did manage to tell the Greens' Shiona Baird that he would look forward "with some interest" to the full report later in the year.

And he stuck to his line that there would be no new nuclear powers stations in Scotland until the issue of waste was resolved.

This week the parliament performed its most important function.

It approved the executive's budget for the coming year. It involves some 29bn of taxpayers' money.

The main talking point during the debate was whether Scotland's 32 local councils had been given enough to maintain their services.

Earlier in the week, Pat Watters, the leader of the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities, had told the finance committee: "Last year's settlement was manageable, this year's is nearly possible, next year's is virtually impossible."

Mozart's music

He was giving evidence on what is turning out to be a major financial embarrassment for the local councils... equal pay for women.

It's estimated that compensation packages - to avoid court proceedings - will total between 310m and 560m.

In addition, the councils are asking for another 200m to meet the transition costs of moving to their new "single status" pay deal which will bring all workers, office and manual, into line.

Finally, to mark Mozart's anniversary this weekend, it was only right and proper that parliament heard from the Austrian ambassador Gabriele Matzner-Holzer.

Alas she was not here to sing an aria from the Magic Flute, but to tell us about Austria's plans for its six month presidency of the European Union.

Oh well, it's back to Simon and Garfunkel and that bridge over troubled water.

List of by-election candidates
27 Jan 06 |  Scotland
Work begins on bio power station
27 Jan 06 |  Scotland
MSP 'attempted rape' comment row
26 Jan 06 |  Scotland
Job cuts firm got 12m in grants
25 Jan 06 |  Scotland
Minister defiant on bridge issues
26 Jan 06 |  Scotland
MSPs retain prescription charges
25 Jan 06 |  Scotland


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