Page last updated at 11:49 GMT, Friday, 20 March 2009

The human cost of the recession

By John Knox
Political reporter, BBC Scotland

An apprentice carpenter was thrust into the limelight at Holyrood this week.
Generic picture of a carpenter at work
An apprentice carpenter's redundancy was raised at question time

His role was to highlight the human cost of the recession and at the same time point to a way out of it.

Lewis Doig from Tranent is being laid off, just three months short of completing a four-year apprenticeship.

The 19-year-old is a constituent of the Labour leader Iain Gray, so at first minister's question time, Mr Gray asked a simple question: "Where should he turn for help?"

"To Skills Development Scotland," said Alex Salmond.

"It's the organisation responsible for the Scottish Government's guarantee - the best in the UK - that every apprentice made redundant will be able to complete their training."

Mr Gray said Lewis, and thousands like him, don't need a call sheet of places to go, they need someone whose job it is to set them up with a new training place.

Otherwise, said Mr Gray, Lewis will turn into another statistic, like the 135,000 Scots who this week were counted as unemployed.

That's 5.1% of the working population.

Job Centre in Glasgow
Just over 5% of the Scottish working population is out of work

This compares with 6.5% for the UK as a whole, where unemployment has this week passed the dreaded two million mark, the worse level for 12 years.

Mr Salmond said although the situation was "grievous" in Scotland and there were "tough, difficult times to come", the Scottish Government was able to act quickly to put put new spending projects in place, such as the 100m brought forward for low-cost housing.

Earlier in week he'd called these "shovel ready" projects, a term he picked up in the United States on his recent visit.

He's since been making the comparison with the American economic rescue package, worth 5.5% of GDP, with Britain's 1.5% stimulus.

And at question time he came back to the claim that the chancellor was planning a 500m cut in the Scottish budget.

"Labour is going to have to live with the political consequences," he said.

Conservative leader Annabel Goldie said if cuts were to come in the Scottish budget, then now was not the time to be phasing out NHS prescription charges, as the SNP is planning.

We're not going to let go of this - underfunding of care services has to be one of the priorities of the next stage of devolution
Frank McAveety
Petitions committee convenor

"What NHS services are going to suffer as a result of this SNP cut?" she asked.

The 40m a year it was going to cost could be better spent, she said, on 2,000 more nurses or 200,000 MRI scans or new cancer drugs.

Mr Salmond said prescription charges were a tax on ill health and the SNP believed in the principle that healthcare should be free at the point of delivery.

Thus the health committee this week voted in favour of the latest reduction, from 5 to 4, on the way to total abolition in 2011.

With all the pressures on the Scottish budget, there was welcome relief this week that, after 14 months of delay, the Holyrood and Westminster administrations have finally agreed to close the loophole in the Devolution Act which allows prisoners to claim compensation for slopping out.

A total of 11m has been paid out so far to 3,700 prisoners and further claims are coming in at the rate of 200 a month.

The prison service has put aside 67m to meet the claims.

Sloppy affair

It's now hoped that emergency legislation will be passed at Westminster and Holyrood before the summer recess to time bar the rest of the claims.

A line will then be drawn under the whole sloppy affair.

Mr Salmond pointed out that last week's statement to the Scottish Parliament had obviously prompted the Scottish Secretary Jim Murphy to intervene and end the delay.

But things often take a long time in politics.

The Green MSP Patrick Harvie has been campaigning for seven years to have his hate crimes bill considered by parliament.

This week it was given unanimous approval by MSPs.

Patrick Harvie
Patrick Harvie has waited seven years to see his bill considered by MSPs

The bill will make crimes motivated by hatred of gay or disabled people "aggravated offences" and they will thus be dealt with more severely, like crimes committed for racial or religious reasons.

The bill still has to go through its final stages but it's likely to become law by the end of this year.

We've had debates this week on forestry, police numbers and science.

The forestry debate was rather pre-empted by the government's own announcement that it's not going ahead with its plan to lease out a quarter of the Forestry Commission's estate.

The police numbers debate served to confirm the justice secretary's pledge to increase overall police numbers by 1,000 by 2011.

And the science debate led to worries over science teaching in primary schools.

We also had a statement on broadcasting from Culture Minister Mike Russell.

He accepted the key recommendation of the Broadcasting Commission that there should be a new Scottish digital television channel.

"We are engaging constructively with the UK Government on this matter," he told MSPs.

Mock funeral staged at Scottish Parliament
Union members were accompanied by a horse-drawn hearse

Finally, the trade unions Unison and Unite staged a mock funeral procession outside the parliament on Tuesday morning.

They marched solemnly behind a Victorian-style hearse, pulled by two black horses.

Why? To mourn the "death by a thousand cuts of the voluntary care services across Scotland".

They said 80% were being run at a loss and the staff of 130,000 carers were subsidising the services through their low wages, often less than 8 an hour - at least a pound less than in the public sector.

Their plea to the petitions committee was heard with more than the usual courtesy.

The convener, Frank McAveety, said: "We're not going to let go of this. The underfunding of care services has to be one of the priorities of the next stage of devolution."

Ten years down the line, and still so much to do.

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