Page last updated at 11:13 GMT, Friday, 13 February 2009

MSPs play a game of two halves

By John Knox
Political reporter, BBC Scotland

Tearing up the SNP's election manifesto was Labour's way of marking half time in the great match with Alex Salmond.

MSPs now have a week's break to eat their orange slices and contemplate the second half.

Football half-time talk
MSPs are heading for a half-time break, sliced oranges at the ready
The SNP now head for their constituencies with a second budget in place, a council tax freeze and a reshuffled pack of ministers.

Labour head back to their heartlands to show off the SNP's "broken promises" and to worry who will be blamed for the recession.

At question time, the Labour captain Iain Gray listed those alleged broken promises: "Paying off student debt - that's gone.

"A replacement for PPP - that's gone.

"Replacing the council tax - that's gone as well now.

"As the first minister retreats in the snow from his local income tax, like Napoleon from Moscow, he is still shaking his fist and declaring local income tax will be back. But we all know that it's just a bad policy."

On Wednesday, the Finance Secretary John Swinney surprised everyone by admitting that the replacement of the council tax would have to wait till after the next election.

'Don't worry'

There just wasn't the parliamentary majority for it.

Besides, he explained, this was not a good time to be changing the tax system with 500m of cuts coming from Westminster in next year's Scottish block grant.

Instead he announced that his 70m fund to freeze the council tax would continue for the next two years.

John Swinney
Finance Secretary John Swinney spoke on budget matters
And don't worry, Alex Salmond declared at question time, the SNP would be fighting the next election on a policy of replacing "the unfair council tax", unlike the Labour and Tory "cabal" which had blocked the move in parliament.

Out of the 94 commitments in the SNP manifesto, 46 had been achieved, he said, "and we are not yet half way through our term".

Annabel Goldie asked if Alex Salmond would now adopt the Conservative's policy of cutting the rate of council tax, now that the tax was staying.

But the first minister would not go beyond his freeze.

Tavish Scott, the Liberal Democrat leader, suggested that if "the Salmond rule of government" meant you could drop any troublesome policy, then why not drop independence?

Instead, he'd brought in a new "super-minister for independence".

Which brings us to the reshuffle and the appointment of Mike Russell as the new culture minister, with added responsibility for the "National Conversation" on independence and the plan for a referendum in 2010.

Mr Russell's place as environment minister is being taken by "Republican Rose," Roseanna Cunningham.

Council tax freeze

There's a new schools minister, Keith Brown described as "a battle-hardened former Marine".

And Alex Neil, the SNP's media mastiff, becomes the new communities minister.

There were the usual witty speeches as the new ministers were approved by parliament late on Thursday afternoon.

And condolences for those who had to make way for them, Stewart Maxwell, Maureen Watt and Linda Fabiani.

Reshuffles are always rough affairs for politicians. But Alex Salmond made the point that compared with the 21 ministerial changes in the eight years of Labour/Lib Dem rule, the SNP's term in office had so far been "a sea of tranquillity".

Bashir Ahmad
Bashir Ahmad was the first Asian MSP
As to real business on the floor of the chamber this week, on Wednesday we had the formal approval of the local government settlement.

John Swinney announced a total 11.8bn for Scotland's 32 councils for the next year, an increase of 658m or 5.9%.

This he said should allow them to freeze the council tax, which they duly did on Thursday.

MSPs also approved the health secretary's programme for tackling hospital acquired infections.

Nicola Sturgeon was able to report that the incidence of the two most prominent infections, MRSA and C.difficile, were both coming down.

She again refused to set up a public inquiry into the outbreak of C.difficile at the Vale of Leven hospital while the police investigation continues. And this divided the house, 63 votes to 63.

MSPs unanimously approved the first stage of the sexual offences bill which reforms the law of rape and equalises the age of consent at 16, for boys and girls.

There was a member's debate on dementia led by Irene Oldfather.

And another on the idea of a Scottish coastal path led by hill-walker Alasdair Morgan.

A new MSP was sworn in first thing on Thursday morning. Anne McLaughlin replaces the Scottish Parliament's first and only Asian MSP, Bashir Ahmad.

Oath in Urdu

He died suddenly last week at the age of 68. He came to Scotland at the age of 21 from Pakistan and worked his way up from bus driver to shop and hotel owner, to councillor and eventually MSP.

"He was probably the most patriotic Scot I ever knew", said Alex Salmond, who led the tributes to him on Wednesday afternoon.

A series of moving speeches from the party leaders praised the warmth of his smile, his kindness, his gentle voice taking the oath of allegiance in Urdu.

It was the end of the first half.

From now on, the parliament does not look back at the astonishing SNP victory, but rather faces forward...towards the delivery phase of promises and the dark clouds recession.

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