Page last updated at 15:20 GMT, Friday, 21 November 2008

Nicola 'of Arc' wipes them clean

By John Knox
Political reporter, BBC Scotland

Feisty, articulate, thorough ... how else would you describe Nicola Sturgeon, deputy first minister and Joan of Arc of the SNP.

She had to stand in for Alex Salmond at first minister's question time this week because he was suffering from a throat infection.

Alex Salmond takes on the Reverend I M Jolly persona
Alex Salmond takes on the Reverend IM Jolly persona

I suspect it was a punishment from on high for his impersonation of the Rev IM Jolly on the BBC's Children in Need programme last week. But all we know is that it developed after he'd spent a windy hour opening the new bridge over the Forth in Clackmannanshire.

Anyway, Nicola Sturgeon immediately found herself in difficulty, C-difficulty.

Labour's Iain Gray took the opportunity of question time to ask Ms Sturgeon, as health secretary, why she had not set up a full public inquiry into the outbreak of C.difficile at the Vale of Leven Hospital in Dunbartonshire.

"What are you afraid of?" he asked. "What are you trying to hide?" Eighteen patients had died, he said. A very quick and inadequate inquiry had been held.

And the BBC had uncovered alarmingly poor hygiene standards at other hospitals across Scotland. Cleaning and maintenance budgets, he claimed, were being cut in real terms.

'Due process'

Ms Sturgeon gave him one of her wipe-the-floor replies. "I have not ruled out a public inquiry," she told him.

The police have still to complete their investigation into the question of negligence and it would be wrong to depart from the "due process" of the law. Ms Sturgeon is, of course, a trained lawyer.

"We are pursuing all 40 recommendations of the initial inquiry," she went on.

"Budgets are not being cut. In fact the infection control budget has been trebled. We've set targets, we're reviewing the use of antibiotics, we're appointing charge nurses and an independent inspectorate. We're no longer putting cleaning contracts out to tender, and all new hospitals will have 100% individual rooms."

"But we're still behind the game in England," the Conservative leader Annabel Goldie reminded her. Ms Sturgeon admitted that C.difficile was still on the increase.

C.diff bacteria
Tough questions were asked about the levels of C.difficile in hospitals

"That's why hospital acquired infections remain my top priority," she said, adding an unusual personal note that her grandmother had suffered such an infection.

We don't often get a flash of Ms Sturgeon's private life. But for the record, she's 38, comes from Irvine, went to school there and then to Glasgow University to train as a lawyer. She joined the SNP at 16 and has been virtually married to the party ever since. Her partner is Peter Murrell, the SNP's chief executive.

She was chosen as the Politician of the Year at the Herald newspaper's award ceremony earlier this month. She also won the debater of the year prize.

Unfortunately she'd no sooner collected her trophies than the cancer waiting time figures took a slight dip. And she found herself under attack over C.difficile.

On the issue of organ donation, she's had to maintain a difficult middle ground of being "in favour personally" of presumed consent but instead she's announcing a publicity campaign to try to double the number of voluntary donors.

Fuel poverty

This week Ms Sturgeon was also in action as the secretary for "wellbeing". On Wednesday she made a statement to parliament on fuel poverty. She announced that the free central heating and insulation programmes are being replaced in April next year by a new scheme, an energy efficiency package.

Everyone will be eligible for free advice on insulation, heating bills and benefits. Free central heating systems will continue to be offered to all those over 60. And householders in rural areas will be eligible for solid wall insulation and renewable energy systems. Funding will go up 20% to £56m a year.

She admitted though that fuel poverty was increasing, with the rising fuel bills, and the government was going backwards towards its target of eliminating fuel poverty by 2016, i.e. that no one should be paying more than 20% of their income heating their home.

There was another admission this week, from the children's minister Adam Ingram. He told MSPs that the treatment of Scotland's 14,000 looked-after children was "a national disgrace".

ID card
ID cards will be introduced over the next four years

Half of them leave school without qualifications, they are more likely to be unemployed, homeless, to end up in prison. He was working hard, he said, to make Scotland a better "corporate parent".

The most lively debate of the week was on ID cards. All the parties are against them, except Labour. But when it came to the vote Labour MSPs abstained, on the grounds that the issue is reserved to Westminster.

But stir the passions it did. Labour's George Foulkes could hardly contain himself, pointing out SNP "misrepresentations". The cards would not be compulsory, he said.

There would be no central data base, 70% of the cost will be incurred anyway with the introduction of service user cards, the cards will not contain medical or criminal records or addresses, there will be no obligation to carry one at all times.

Against that, the public safety minister Fergus Ewing insisted there would be a cost, £5bn. The cards he said were an invasion of privacy and would do nothing to fight crime or prevent identity fraud. The parliament agreed with him by 69 to 0, with 38 abstentions. It was the only vote of the week.

Pàrlamaid na h-Alba

We could not avoid mentioning the banking crisis of course, not in the week which saw the big chiefs at the Royal Bank having to apologise for its ruin and the shareholders of Lloyds/TSB closing in on Halifax/Bank of Scotland.

The Liberal Democrat leader Tavish Scott used question time to attack Gordon Brown and Alistair Darling's support for the take-over. "They have ripped up the level playing field and thrown 20,000 jobs to the wind," he said.

Ms Sturgeon agreed. "The Westminster government has not treated Scotland's financial sector with the fairness we should have expected."

The week ended with a debate on the parliament's new Gaelic Plan. Only three MSPs can speak Gaelic properly but the others struggled manfully to utter a few sentences in a tongue now spoken by just 58,652 people - according to the last census in 2001.

But while only 1% of the population speak the language, nearly 2% understand it, 92,000, and the number of learners is growing.

The parliament's grand plan for Gaelic, like the language itself, is modest. There will be more bilingual signs around the building, even some Gaelic tours.

The website and Gaelic outreach programmes are to be expanded. The BBC now has two reporters based in the parliament for its new Gaelic television channel. And fine fellows they are too. They sit across the desk from me and put us monoglots to shame.

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