Page last updated at 15:14 GMT, Friday, 9 January 2009

Troubles at home and abroad

Forth Road Bridge
Ministers were criticised over plans to replace the Forth Road Bridge

By John Knox
Political reporter, BBC Scotland

You might think the first thing on MSPs' minds as they returned to the fray in the New Year would be the Scottish budget, particularly when the economy is in meltdown.

But, to their credit, their first big debate was on the humanitarian crisis in Gaza.

MSPs were unanimous in calling for a ceasefire from both sides, though most of the anger was directed at the Israelis.

Nicola Sturgeon, the deputy first minister, who led the debate, said: "Only a complete cessation of violence will suffice. Three hourly pauses in bombing are simply not sufficient to allow the feeding of 750,000 people."

At first minister's question time, Alex Salmond announced he had written to the Israeli ambassador to appeal for a ceasefire and the Scottish government stood ready to respond to appeals for help from Scottish humanitarian organisations working in Gaza.

He told Labour's Pauline McNeil, who has been in Gaza recently, that the government would "respond imaginatively and constructively" to her suggestion that Scottish health boards should donate emergency medicines to hospitals desperately in need of them in Gaza.

Some MSPs, notably the Conservative Ted Brocklebank, tried to balance the debate by reminding the chamber that it was the Hamas regime in Gaza which broke the previous ceasefire by firing rockets into Israel.

But the SNP's Sandra White said the response had not been proportionate - 11 Isrealis were killed while more than 700 Palestinians had died.

The Liberal Democrat Hugh O'Donnell summed up the predicament in the Middle East: "The Palestinian people are paying a dear price for the guilt of Europe over the holocaust of the Jews."

MSPs passed a motion calling for a ceasefire in the Gaza conflict

When thoughts did finally turn to home affairs, it was to the backroom talks now taking place over the budget.

Finance secretary John Swinney called a news conference at St Andrew's House to brief journalists about his 33bn spending plans for next year.

It includes 230m of capital spending brought forward especially to counter the economic downturn.

Mr Swinney gave a power-point presentation of the various projects that will go ahead early.

They include improvements to parts of the A9 and the A75, a revamp of the SECC in Glasgow, new dental centres in Inverness, Ayr, Cumnock and Campbeltown, and a new health centre in Aberdeen. Nearly 4,700 jobs will be supported, said ministers.

The opposition parties have been arguing that more needs to be done to tackle the coming recession.

The Liberal Democrats have been urging a 2p cut in income tax - a call rejected out of hand on Tuesday by Mr Swinney.

There was unanimous agreement that the Standard Grade and Intermediate exams should be scrapped
Labour has been arguing for more money for apprenticeships and skills training. The Conservatives have not yet revealed their demands. And the Greens want a 100m programme of home insulation.

There will be an initial debate on Wednesday next week and a final crunch vote on 28th January. As one journalist put it this week: "There's not much at stake, only 33bn and the future of the government."

At first minister's question time, Labour leader Iain Gray concentrated on one aspect of the budget - funding for the new Forth Bridge.

"The SNP wasted two years on their Scottish Futures Trust fantasy," he told parliament.

"And when that fell apart, they gave the Treasury in London just two weeks to consider their daft alternative, bringing money back from the future."

The SNP is now in talks with the Treasury to try to spread the 2bn cost of the new bridge over 20 years, instead of just three.

The Conservatives' Annabel Goldie said: "The SNP are more interested in burning bridges with Westminster than in building bridges in Scotland."

Hard labour

Mr Salmond explained that no one would buy a house in three years, they would spread the payments over a much longer period.

New rules on accounting meant "Labour's PPP/PFI dodge has been blown out of the water," he said.

The only way of ensuring the bridge was built on time and on budget was to finance it in the traditional way through the Scottish government's capital budget.

But concentrating the payment over three years, 2013-1016, would mean that other building projects would have to be postponed.

On Wednesday, MSPs debated the future of the exam system. There was unanimous agreement that the Standard Grade and Intermediate exams should be scrapped because they no longer fit in with the new curriculum, the tautologically named "Curriculum for Excellence".

Education Secretary Fiona Hyslop said she was thinking of replacing them with national literacy and numeracy tests, to be taken in either the 3rd or 4th year of secondary school.

But opposition parties said that was too late to help pupils who were struggling with English and maths and assessments should be made much earlier.

1 coin
The Scottish Government came under pressure over its budget plans

"It's absolutely unacceptable," said Labour's Rhona Brankin, adding: "That the Scottish Survey of Achievement shows that less than half of Primary 7 pupils are well established in reading."

Ms Hyslop said some form of assessment would be built into the primary school curriculum.

But final decisions on the whole exam system will not be made until the summer. Already, the Curriculum for Excellence has been postponed by a year, to 2013, and she announced that teachers are being given extra training days to prepare for it.

Finally, to figures and sentences of a different sort - what to do about the 75% of prisoners who re-offend within two years of a short prison sentence.

Justice Secretary Kenny MacAskill wants to move away from sentences of less than six months and towards community sentences.

But in a debate on Thursday afternoon, Labour and the Conservatives said the funding was just not there for real alternatives to prison, and offenders would be let off lightly.

Maybe petty criminals should be made to dress in dull suits and sit through hours of negotiations and debate on the budget.

Then we will see if they come back for another "soft" community sentence of, say, four years hard labour at Holyrood.

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