Page last updated at 11:04 GMT, Saturday, 14 March 2009

Differing schools of thought

By John Knox
Political reporter, BBC Scotland

Are they the schools that Jack built or the schools that Alex built?

We're talking about the 150 schools across Scotland that have been built or refurbished over the last two years.

"The first minister has not commissioned a single school."

That was Labour's Iain Gray's version of events at question time.

Alex Salmond's account was a little different: "I am proud indeed that over 150 schools have already been completed or refurbished in this term of office."

Individual schools were called into the argument, Ellon Academy in Mr Salmond's own constituency of Moray, Dunning Primary School in Perthshire.

The argument revolved around what was meant by "commissioned".

Man holding bottle of whisky
Mr Salmond said minimum pricing would not affect the cost of whisky

Could the SNP claim a school was commissioned and built by them when it was planned by Labour under the former first minister Jack McConnell?

Mr Salmond said Labour may claim the credit for 300 schools "but they didn't pay for a single one of them."

They were built under the PFI or PPP system, using private finance.

This year alone, he said, Scotland's councils were making payments of 613m to private companies - in effect rent - and the bill would soon climb to 1bn a year.

The SNP are developing an alternative method of finance, the Scottish Futures Trust, and meanwhile going ahead with school projects by traditional funding methods

"We'll build 250 schools during our term of office," said Mr Salmond, repeating the SNP's promise of matching Labour's building programme "brick by brick".

Both Labour and the SNP have been building prisons over the last few years but not fast enough to cope with the rising prison population and not fast enough to replace the Victorian prisons where "slopping out" toilet facilities were commonplace.

The courts have recently ruled that prisoners were denied their human right to dignity of treatment and many of them, 200 a month, have been lodging claims for compensation.

On Wednesday the Justice Secretary Kenny MacAskill reported to parliament that 11m has so far been paid out and the prison service has set aside 50m a year to meet future claims.

Emergency legislation

He also revealed that he'd been pressing the Westminster government to overturn a House of Lords ruling that human rights claims against the Scottish government do not have to be lodged within one year of the alleged offence. There is no time-bar. It's apparently an anomaly in the Devolution Act.

The Conservative leader Annabel Goldie wondered why it had taken 14 months so far to have the Act altered.

"This disgraceful and expensive episode is further evidence of the broken relationship between the SNP government at Holyrood and the Labour government at Westminster," she said.

The first minister said there had been movement in recent days and he hoped that emergency legislation could be passed at Westminster and at Holyrood to close the loophole by the summer.

"Let's unite," said Mr Salmond, "to make sure this anomaly can be removed and valuable tax payers' money can be devoted to fighting the recession rather than to give grotesque payments to some of the most undesirable elements in our society."

Meanwhile, the Liberal Democrats were concerned about the whisky industry.

Mike Rumbles demanded that the SNP submit their plan for a minimum price for alcohol to full parliamentary scrutiny in the new licensing bill and not sneak it through by ministerial order.

Mr Salmond said setting a minimum price would put up the cost of cheap alcopop drinks and tackle binge drinking but would not affect the already high price of whisky.

He noted that Nick Clegg the leader of the Liberal Democrats at Westminster was in favour of minimum pricing.

generic penguin
The campaigners said climate change did not just harm penguins

Perhaps that's why he was not attending the party's Scottish conference this weekend in Perth, Mr Salmond teased. "Last year it was, who's Clegg? This year, it's where's Clegg? And next year, it'll be why Clegg?"

The parliament gave final approval to two bills this week. The pleural plaques bill gives workers affected by this asbestos related condition the right to claim damages.

Only the Conservatives voted against, on the grounds that pleural plaques on the lining of the lung do not themselves cause any ill health.

The health board elections bill provides for two pilot schemes for direct elections to local health boards. The bill was unanimously approved.

Health Secretary Nicola Sturgeon said it was a "progressive reform, a necessary rebalance of power to ensure the public's voice is heard at the heart of the health service."

Elected members - if you include councillors - will now form the majority on local health boards. And 16-year-olds will have a vote for the first time.

At the local government committee MSPs were asked to intervene to resolve the 12-year long dispute over equal pay for women.

The union Unison warned that the cost of settling the 35,000 claims currently at industrial tribunals would be between 300m and 500m and the on-going cost of equal pay would be around 1bn a year.

Perhaps that's why the dispute has been so hard to settle. But cost is not the only reason. Mark Irvine from Action 4 Equality said the vested interest of male workers and the lack of political will were also to blame.

Tougher target

Finally, to the penguin parade.

On Tuesday, a group of six penguins came waddling down to the parliament to the accompaniment of a pipe band.

They turned out to be heavily costumed Friends of the Earth campaigners. "We're here to save the humans," they said. "Global warming is not just about penguins and polar bears, it's about people too."

They want the Scottish Government to set a target of 3% carbon emission reductions every year from now on, not from the promised date of 2020 onwards.

The minister Stewart Stevenson later told the climate change committee that targets had to be realistic but he would be announcing a tougher target for 2020 in the next few months.

The penguins are hoping it doesn't turn out to be "bollocks", a word used by Mr Stevenson himself this week in the chamber and for which he immediately apologised.

It's old English for recycled rubbish and of course we've none of that Holyrood.



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