Page last updated at 16:03 GMT, Friday, 28 November 2008

Of loaves, fishes and St Andrew

By John Knox
Political reporter, BBC Scotland

It all began with St Andrew making the apparently improbable suggestion that 5,000 people could be fed with just five loaves and two small fishes.

And the miracle is that we are still celebrating St Andrew's Day, and that five million people are still being fed improbable suggestions.

Head of St. Andrew, study for 'The Transfiguration', by  Raphael
St Andrew's Day will be a warm-up for the Year of Homecoming

We got a few at First Minister's Question Time.

Iain Gray, the Labour leader, suggested First Minister Alex Salmond abandon the SNP's plan for a local income tax. As if he could.

"Will he fix this mistake and drop this policy now?" asked Mr Gray hopefully.

The chancellor, he said, had admitted a mistake over whisky tax but he fixed it within 48 hours.

Mr Salmond, on the other hand, was taking 1.5bn out of people's pockets with his local income tax while the chancellor was pumping 2bn into the Scottish economy to help it weather the stormy winter ahead.

Mr Salmond replied that the chancellor's mini budget on Monday may have put money into people's pockets now, but we will pay for it later.

By 2010, he claimed, 500m a year will be cut from the Scottish budget.

"It's Keynes to Friedman, with no intervening period. New Labour to hard labour," said Mr Salmond. "And it's going to hole Mr Gray's Labour Party below the water line. In a phrase, you're sunk!"

Another improbable suggestion came from the Conservative leader Annabel Goldie. She said she had seen a black hole in the local income tax plan, that it was all an SNP delusion, it would lead to national insolvency.

"Will he drop this tax on work and cut council tax instead?" she asked.

Solid new step

But the next improbable suggestion came from Mr Salmond himself.

At one point he found himself arguing that he had anticipated that Labour would "mess up" the economy and that was why the SNP had frozen the council tax and brought forward government spending in Scotland.

But the Liberal Democrat leader Tavish Scott was not impressed with "Prophet" Salmond.

"What the country is looking for is action now not re-announcements of what was done several months ago," he said.

But one solid new step was taken this week. We moved towards introducing free school meals for all children in primary 1-3.

A legal order was passed to allow councils not to charge for school meals, by 87 votes to 28.

The Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats voted against, saying now is not the time to be providing free school meals to middle class children whose families can afford to pay.

Disabled parking bay
A bid to make it illegal to park in any disabled bay is likely to become law next year

Labour supported the order but said councils should be given the extra 30m a year it will cost.

Children's Minister Adam Ingram said the cost was covered in the concordat with local authorities, and free school meals for all would help children to form good habits on diet and eating together.

The Labour MSP Jackie Baillie won unanimous support for her bill to make disabled people's car parking bays legally enforceable.

Apparently only those painted with yellow line are compulsory, some 15% of the total.

There is still some argument over the cost of repainting all those white lines, put at 1.7m, but Ms Baillie's bill now enters its second stage and is almost certain to become law next year.

It has been a four year long campaign by Ms Baillie, sparked off by a constituent's complaint that the disabled parking bay in front of his house was constantly and purposely taken by his able-bodied neighbour.

Just an extreme example of the way disabled people are often treated, said Ms Baillie.

Transport Minister Stewart Stevenson backed her bill but said it was also true that the blue badge issued to some 230,000 people in Scotland was often abused by able bodied drivers and there is now a UK review of the blue badge system.

This week also saw the powers of the Scottish Parliament extended to the high seas.

Battle plan

Responsibility for conservation and planning of all marine matters is to be extended from 12 miles to the 200-mile international limit. It's a deal reached at the joint ministerial council set up with the UK Government and the devolved administrations in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.

It means Scottish ministers are now in charge of all planning issues for off-shore oil and gas, and wind and wave industries.

Fishing however remains the responsibility of the European Union and on Thursday morning, MSPs debated progress at the latest fishing negotiations in Brussels.

Environment Minister Richard Lochhead outlined his battle plan to reduce the amount of fish discarded at sea and to save the west coast fishing grounds from complete closure.

"Action has to be taken to conserve fish stocks along the west coast but the closure of the fishing grounds - originally proposed by the EU Commission - would devastate fishing communities from Campbeltown to Kinlochbervie," he said.

Finally, we came back to St Andrew with a debate on Thursday afternoon over St Andrew's Day.

Culture Minister Linda Fabiani reported that some 90 official events were being organised across the Scottish empire.

The government was giving its employees a holiday, and 20 other public bodies were joining the fashion to move one of the other public holidays to the end of November.

This year's St Andrew's Day is also a warm-up for the Year of Homecoming next year, when it is hoped to attract an extra 100,000 visitors to Scotland to join the celebrations for the 250th anniversary of the birth of Robert Burns.

As Burns may have written in an Epistle to St Andrew:

That wee bit fish, an' rolls o' breed,

Has inspired us a' te mony a deed

And planted the seed

O independence.

And ever since, dear brother Andrew,

We've sought repentance.

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