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Last Updated: Friday, 3 November 2006, 21:28 GMT
Holyrood flies towards elections
By John Knox
Political reporter, BBC Scotland

We are already seeing the Niagara affect at Holyrood. It's six months to go to the Scottish elections and the politicians are thrashing about in a rushing river to position themselves, toes pointed, for the plunge over the edge.

Niagara Falls in Canada
Watching the run up to elections is "like watching the Niagara Falls"

I remember as a boy standing on the Canadian side of the falls, a little upstream, watching the churning waves. Twigs and leaves and whole branches of trees went hurtling by.

I was mesmerised and terrified, at the same time, as I looked ahead to the cloud of spray into which this whole wide river just disappeared. I have this same hurtling feeling now.

This week the SNP have been flying along. They staged debates at Westminster on Iraq and on financial powers at Holyrood.

They saw an astonishing 51% in favour of independence in the Scotsman's opinion poll. They launched their first video podcast.

They forced the First Minister Jack McConnell onto the back foot at question time with a claim that Scotland was falling behind England on nursery education.

" How can we make Scotland's education system the best in the world," asked Nicola Sturgeon, "when under the first minister's incompetent stewardship , we're not even keeping pace with England."

She was referring to the government's pledge in England to increase the hours of free nursery education from 12 and a half hours per week for 33 weeks to 15 hours for 38 weeks.

Jack McConnell promptly matched that, and more.

"If I am still first minister next summer, our budget will include 38 weeks free nursery education, at 15 hours a week, and, going further than the rest of the UK, we will give flexibility in that 15 hours a week to allow parents to tailor nursery education to their own circumstances," he said.

Prison overcrowding

The Conservative leader Annabel Goldie managed to extract a promise from Mr McConnell that waiting times would not be introduced for Scotland's prisons.

Yes, believe it or not, the Chief Inspector of Prisons, Dr Andrew McLellan, said overcrowding had reached such a state, that either capping prisoner numbers or introducing waiting lists were the only solutions.

"Waiting lists for prisons is a ludicrous proposal," she said.

"Criminals who should be locked up would be let loose on our streets."

Methadone
Research found that only 4% of addicts on methadone became drug free

Labour backbencher Duncan McNeil extracted another promise. The next round of the executive's anti-drugs strategy, to be announced before the end of this year, will shift the emphasis from containment to cure.

Mr McNeil pointed out that an expert report out this week, from Professor Neil McKeganey of Glasgow University, had found that only 4% of addicts on methadone eventually became drug free.

"We believe that everybody on a drugs programme should have an end point in sight," said Mr McConnell.

"We want an agreement that people are moving from a drug dependent lifestyle to one that is drug free."

He suggested the way ahead is for addicts to be sent to residential units to conquer their habit and the number of places had already been doubled to 500 in the last three years.

Late on Thursday afternoon, MSPs finally approved the setting up of a Scottish Human Rights Commission.

This has been a troublesome birth. The Liberal Democrats have been keen on the idea throughout but there have been plenty of Labour and SNP doubts.

The Conservatives think the whole thing is a waste of around 1 million a year.

A panel of five part-time commissioners will promote human rights in Scotland, being careful to avoid duplicating the UK's human rights commissioner and avoiding investigations into individual cases.

EU funding

On Wednesday, we had an announcement of 12m in tide-over funding for Scotland's voluntary organisations working on European Union projects.

Most of these involve re-training programmes in poor communities struggling to recover from industrial collapse.

There have been bureaucratic delays in Brussels which are holding up funding for the 2007-2012 programmes till the autumn.

Eventually, Scotland will get 105m for the Highlands and 384m for the Lowlands, a drop of 50% compared to the last six years, partly because Scotland is getting richer and partly because the European Union has expanded.

Flooding in Dingwall
Rhona Brankin described her visit to flood-hit Dingwall

On Wednesday afternoon we also got a salutary lesson in climate change.

Deputy Environment Minister Rhona Brankin described in graphic detail the havoc wrecked by the rain storms in the Black Isle last week. But she announced no extra money for Highland Council for dealing with it.

These events, she said, would become normal with global warming.

She said councils had already been given flood prevention money - 33m this year, and it was up to individuals to consult the Environment Protection Agency's new website on flood risk areas.

It brought home Sir Nicholas Stern's warning earlier in the week that the world's GDP could drop 20% unless we invest 1% now in measures to combat climate change.

On Wednesday too, we had a visit from Cardinal Keith O'Brien who led the Time for Reflection.

He told MSPs that just because fewer people are going to church these days doesn't mean we are not living in a Christian society.

After all, fewer people are voting but we still live in a democracy.

Cheap alcohol

The petitions committee this week considered its 1000th petition.

MSPs went to All Saints Secondary School in Springburn in Glasgow to hear pupils arguing for an investigation into the effect cheap alcohol is having on the nation's health.

How can it be, they argued, that a can of beer or cider is being sold in some supermarkets for as little as 20p while soft drinks or even bottled water is more than three times the price.

On Friday, the parliament held its third annual gathering for Scotland's business community.

The main message was that Scotland is way behind its European competitors in the amount we invest in research and development, 520m a year or 0.5% of GDP. That compares with 2.45% in Finland and 2.9% in Sweden.

Naturally, the politicians blamed the private sector and the businessmen blamed the politicians.

Curfew calls

Finally, to the story of Helen Eadie. She's the Labour MSP for Cowdenbeath in Fife.

Poor Ms Eadie went to a meeting in the town last Friday night, in pouring rain, to discuss with residents the trouble they were having over vandalism and rowdy behaviour.

When she arrived, her car was surrounded by a gang of some 60 youths who rocked the car, jumped on the bonnet and smashed the front windscreen. She says such youths should be put under curfew.

Helen Eadie is also the MSP who suggested that Scotland's national bird should be the dove of peace.

Golden Eagle
The RSPB wants the Golden Eagle to be Scotland's national bird

However, the culture committee this week was asked to endorse the rather more aggressive golden eagle by our feathered friends from the RSPB.

It carried out a survey of 1600 Scotsman readers who voted by 406 votes to put the majestic golden eagle at the top of their list, well ahead of other native species like the red grouse, the capercaillie, the osprey, the puffin, the gannet, the sea eagle, the falcon, the crested tit, the peewit, the crossbill and the ptarmigan.

I had the privilege on Tuesday of being sent to interview a golden eagle at the Elite Falconry centre outside Kirkcaldy.

It is an intimidating experience to be eyed up by female with a wing span of 6ft and a diving speed of 200mph.

I readily agreed that she should be Scotland's national bird, though in my heart I feel the honour should go to the crested tit.

The committee, needless to say, could not make up its mind. MSPs obvious fancy themselves as Charles Blondin, the Frenchman who in 1859 walked across the Niagra Falls balancing on a tightrope.


SEE ALSO
Row over nuclear waste disposal
25 Oct 06 |  Scotland
Mainstream call from Tory leader
26 Oct 06 |  Scotland
Young people 'top of the agenda'
26 Oct 06 |  Scotland
Social workers warn of funds gap
24 Oct 06 |  Scotland
Physios lobby MSPs over job fears
25 Oct 06 |  Scotland

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