Page last updated at 12:23 GMT, Friday, 5 December 2008

MSPs never tire of the Saltire

By John Knox
Political reporter, BBC Scotland

A rather battered Saltire flew over the Holyrood battlements this week.

The SNP's local tax plans were shot to pieces, suffering a 65 to 60 vote defeat. The Queen's Speech, the Calman Report and the new money from Westminster all came whizzing in without much return fire. And then we learned that the oft-announced Saltire Prize, 10m for marine energy innovation, would not be awarded till 2015.

But at least, Alex Salmond teased, the police had not been allowed to ransack an MSP's office.

Sir Kenneth Calman
The Calman Commission's report was dismissed as a "squeak of a mouse"
That defeat came at the dark end of Thursday afternoon, after a long debate on the SNP's plans for a local income tax.

The Conservatives managed to muster enough support to drive through a meaningless motion which talked of a local taxation bill which allowed debate on all the options, a local income tax, a land value tax, and reform of the existing council tax.

Afterwards the government said it would press ahead with a local income tax.

By early next year it hopes to have persuaded the Liberal Democrats and the Greens to support an income tax that can be varied from council to council, will exclude students and will include a tax on dividend income.

Question time proved a little more productive. Labour's Iain Gray challenged the first minister over the decision to award the ScotRail franchise for another three years to the First Group.

"This 2.5bn contract was extended with no consultation, no assessment criteria and, most damning of all, no business case," said Mr Gray.

It was an example of the "nod and wink" government which we'd seen over the Trump golf resort and the Aviemore development.

Mr Salmond said it was Labour who'd allowed for a three year extension. And the deal negotiated with the First Group would mean an extra 73m of investment in the Scottish rail network and fares rising by much less than in many parts of England and Wales, 6% next year as opposed to 11% down south.

Leftover money

The Conservatives asked about hospital acquired infections and wondered whether the electronic bed management system at Aberdeen Royal Infirmary could be adapted for monitoring infections and rolled out across the country.

Health Secretary Nicola Sturgeon, we were told, will consider that very matter when she visits Aberdeen next week.

Tavish Scott returned to a favourite Liberal Democrat theme, the takeover of HBOS by Lloyds/TSB. He asked if the Scottish Government would help fund the legal appeal to the competition tribunal.

No, said Alex Salmond, but the tribunal must answer the question: "Did the prime minister, the chancellor and the trade secretary deliver the level playing field we were promised? I think they did not."

What the Westminster government did deliver this week though was a Queen's Speech and 270m of extra money to fight the recession. Finance Secretary John Swinney said he would be using the money to build schools and new social housing.

People arrive at the Herald building
MSPs debated problems in the Scottish media
And there would be some money left over for an upgrade to three sections of the A9, development of the exhibition centre in Glasgow and preparatory works on the Borders Railway.

The Queen's Speech contained a number of bills which require the Scottish Parliament's approval.

They include the plan to extend Scottish planning powers out to the 200 mile international sea limit and the application of football banning orders, issued in England, to people living in Scotland.

It was no surprise when Bruce Crawford, the minister for parliament, said he would "work constructively" with Westminster.

There was a similarly calm response to the Calman Commission's interim report. True Mr Crawford dismissed it as "the squeak of a mouse" compared to the "lion's roar" of the SNP's national conversation on independence.

But he also saw signs of some more powers being devolved to Scotland, over issues such as firearms and broadcasting.

There was a collective sigh from the mob of journalists who packed into committee room five to hear Sir Kenneth Calman and his team launch their report. "Is that it?" they all said.

Saltire raised

Only three solid conclusions emerged: devolution is working well, fiscal autonomy (raising and spending all the parliament's money itself) is incompatible with the United Kingdom, and there is no need for a Scottish second chamber - or hoose o'lairds.

However, the Calman Commission may surprise us yet. Because it has still not made up its mind on devolving some further tax raising powers and on whether to end Scotland's veto on new nuclear power stations.

Finally, MSPs simply love debating the media, just as we love debating politics. So on Thursday morning the Conservative Ted Brocklebank - and former STV executive - led a debate on the fate of his old channel.

He called on Ofcom, the broadcasting regulator, to ensure that STV, or a similar company, remains independent and remains a viable competitor to the BBC. MSPs of all parties backed the idea of a new independent digital channel for Scotland and for news and public service broadcasting to remain part of the licensing arrangement.

And so the Saltire was raised again. And like the stars and stripes, "the rocket's red flare and shrapnel bursting in air was proof, through the night, that our flag was still there".

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