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Last Updated: Friday, 25 January 2008, 22:18 GMT
Burns inspires independent minds
By John Knox
Political reporter, BBC Scotland

Alex Salmond brought his winter festival to an end with a public reading, on video, of "A man's a man for a' that". It's his favourite poem from his "top Scot of all time", Robert Burns.

Robert Burns
Robert Burns is Alex Salmond's "top Scot of all time"

The first minister admires the "man of independent mind" and he "looks and laughs" at a great many things.

At decision time on Wednesday, Mr Salmond was smiling broadly as the SNP's first budget cleared its first hurdle, by 64 votes to 62.

The Conservatives decided they'd won two important concessions which allowed them to support the budget.

The finance secretary John Swinney will look again at recruiting more police officers and he'll try to bring forward the rate cut for small businesses.

Labour moved an amendment to increase the number of apprenticeships and provide a nursery place for every vulnerable two-year old.

The Liberal Democrats confined their demand to a budget that was less "opaque". Both were defeated.

Independent assurances

The two Green MSPs abstained after they'd been assured that there would be a "carbon assessment" for every line of the budget next year and there will be no more support for new air routes into Scotland.

And that left the woman of "independent mind", Margo Macdonald.

She wanted "those three little words" and she got them... capital city supplement.

But it will have to wait till next year's budget.

The chamber fell as silent as Burns' mouse when the vote was taken.

"Campbell soup" had made it back from hospital in time to press her yes button.

The South of Scotland MSP Aileen Campbell scalded her left hand while she helped herself to soup in the parliamentary canteen.

Aileen Campbell
Ms Campbell made it back to Parliament after the soup incident

"What though on hamely fare we dine, a vote's a vote for a' that."

So there we have it: a budget of 31bn next year, rising to 35bn in 2010, more or less in the bag.

The Conservatives say they've yet to see the colour of Mr Swinney's money in the finance committee next week, but it's now likely they will support the SNP again in the final vote on the budget on 6 February.

However, the smile fell from Mr Salmond's face on Thursday when he was forced to change tack over prison policy.

It was a notable victory for Wendy Alexander, the Labour leader, still struggling to shake off her donation demons and hoping that she will not have to follow Peter Hain into the corner called "I'm off to clear my name".

System deficiencies

She raised the appalling case of the 28-year-old man Robert Foye, who absconded from Castle Huntly open prison last summer and raped a 16-year-old girl.

Mr Salmond agreed there were "deficiencies in the system" and said the independent commission he had set up, under the former Labour first minister Henry McLeish, would deal with them.

But within an hour of question time, the Justice Secretary Kenny MacAskill had ordered an immediate review of procedures at Castle Huntly and he was writing to the commission specifically adding day-release policy to its remit.

The Conservative leader Annabel Goldie said the Foye case was just the latest in "a spiralling pattern of escapes" which her party had warned about last October.

Last year there were 66 absconders from Castle Huntly, the year before there were 37.

"Those who pose a danger to society never deserve the benefit of the doubt," she said.

Rubbish at landfill site
Scotland is aiming to cut down on waste sent to landfill

On Thursday morning the environment minister Richard Lochhead was standing knee deep in rubbish at a recycling centre.

In the afternoon he was in parliament announcing that he's set a target of 70% recycling of municipal waste by 2025. The current level is around 25%.

He also set a limit of a quarter of any council's waste that could be sent to an incinerator. Large "white elephant" incinerators will not be allowed.

There were debates this week on health, bio-diversity and the teaching of history in schools.

The justice committee brought out a report saying Scotland needed more police officers.

Top Trump

And the local government committee returned to its inquiry into the Trump golf course planning application.

Alex Salmond was back on the stand, at 0830 GMT on Wednesday morning.

The questioning was more hostile than last week's but it failed to find anything new, except that Mr Salmond admitted he handed the phone to Mr Trump's representatives so that they could speak directly to the chief planner the day before their plans were "called in".

"That may not have been against the rules, but it was unwise," said Labour's chief inquisitor, Johann Lamont.

At that I could see the words going through Mr Salmond's mind from his second favourite poem, "Address to the Unco Good":

Gently scan your brother man, Still gentler sister woman: Tho' they may gang a kennin wrang, To step aside is human.

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