Page last updated at 11:03 GMT, Friday, 6 March 2009

Human tale cuts through crisis talk

By John Knox
Political reporter, BBC Scotland

Gordon Brown addressing a joint session of the US Congress
Gordon Brown addressed a joint session of the US Congress

Labour has launched an early spring offensive.

Gordon Brown, fresh from his New Deal speech in Washington, was on the warpath again against protectionism and nationalism at Labour's Scottish conference in Dundee on Friday.

And at Holyrood this week, Labour joined with the other opposition parties to try to kill off the SNP's attempt to stage a referendum on independence.

They didn't quite succeed, for despite having his head cut off in a 72-47 vote, Alex Salmond was back singing the independence referendum song at the Adam Smith lecture at Glasgow University a few hours later.

He says he'll be pressing ahead with the SNP's referendum bill in parliament next year in the hope that Labour will change their minds.

After all, it's only a year since they were saying "bring it on".

It was the Liberal Democrats who brought it on this week.

They moved an amendment to a rather predictable Labour motion on SNP broken promises.

More powers

They said now, in the middle of the worst economic downturn for decades, was not the time to be talking of referendums.

The Conservatives threw their weight behind the wheel and the SNP were duly flattened by the bandwagon ... at least for the moment.

"Scotland needs a referendum on independence like a hole in the head," said Labour's Iain Gray at question time.

And he wondered why the SNP had listened to parliament when it dropped its plans for a local income tax, but wasn't prepared to listen to parliament over a referendum.

Alex Salmond accused Labour of "trying to deny the people of Scotland the right to express their will."

And he predicted that, as the recession got worse, people would begin to demand more powers for the Scottish Parliament to meet the economic challenge.

Forth Road bridge
Scottish and UK ministers held talks about funding a new Forth Road bridge

Labour piled on the pressure by bailing out struggling PFI school and hospital projects in England but not in Scotland because the SNP don't believe in PFI and thus don't have any new PFI projects on the books.

The Treasury also suggested a way of paying for the new Forth Bridge, by accumulating efficiency savings over the next few years.

The SNP have batted back by accusing Labour in London of planning 500m worth of cuts to the Scottish budget next year.

Cutting through all this high talk of referendums and economic crises was the dreadful human tale of little Brandon Muir.

At question time, the Conservative leader Annabel Goldie said the case was more evidence of "the broken society".

The High Court decided this week that the two-year-old boy was battered to death by his mother's boyfriend in a flat in Dundee.

Mr Salmond said Brandon was just one of the 10,000 to 20,000 children who are living in drug-affected households.

But he warned against jumping to the conclusion that the social work department in Dundee was at fault.

The boyfriend, 23-year-old Robert Cunningham, had only lived in the flat for three weeks and social workers were actively considering whether to intervene.

Brandon Muir
Brandon Muir's injuries included broken ribs and a ruptured intestine

"We should all remember that in the overwhelming majority of cases, people dealing with agonising and difficult decisions are doing their best for society and the children in their care."

There was a similarly humane mood on Wednesday when MSPs debated the latest changes being made to the system of additional learning support in schools.

Some 5% of pupils, about 30,000, are assessed as needing extra support.

Some 6,000 are in special schools but the others are in mainstream schools.

Under the new law, parents of such pupils will be given the same right as other parents to make a "placing request" outside their area i.e to move their child to another school, either in the same local authority or in another.

There's also to be a change to the tribunal system to make cases in dispute less court-like and confrontational.

Divided as usual

On Thursday afternoon, MSPs debated the national planning framework - which projects are to be designated "national priorities" - and decided by ministers directly.

Everyone was agreed on the Forth Bridge and a number of rail improvements in the west of Scotland.

There was less certainty about a new coal-fired power station because of doubts over the viability of carbon capture technology.

The house was divided as usual over a new nuclear power station. But there was considerable support for adding a new high-speed rail link to England.

There were two committee reports published this week.

The finance committee said it wasn't clear at all how Scotland was going to achieve its target of cutting carbon emissions by 80% by 2050 and whether the estimated cost, 1-2bn a year, was realistic.

'Dear Fifa'

And the justice committee came out in support of Patrick Harvie's bill to make attacks on gay and disabled people a so-called "hate crime" to be dealt with more severely by the courts.

Finally, the petitions committee is to write an important letter.

"Dear Fifa," it will begin.

And it's to ask the world footballing body if an all-Britain team at the London Olympics in 2012 would jeopardise the status of Scotland, England, Northern Ireland and Wales as independent footballing nations.

No-one is expecting a reply anytime soon and no-one is expecting it to be a guarantee of what Fifa will think next time it's asked.

But please, let's not put it to a world referendum.

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