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Political editor Brian Taylor reports
"The immediate popular concern in Scotland is about the exams chaos"
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UK Prime Minister, Tony Blair
"It's got nothing to do with Devolution"
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Murray Ritchie, Lorraine Davidson, discuss the visit
"This is all against a background of a general election"
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Friday, 1 September, 2000, 21:02 GMT 22:02 UK
Blair backs education minister
Tony Blair, Susan Deacon, Jim Wallace
Mr Blair with members of the Scottish Executive
The prime minister has dismissed calls for the resignation of Scottish Education Minister Sam Galbraith over the exams fiasco.

On a visit to Scotland, Tony Blair described Mr Galbraith as "an outstanding minister".

He told BBC Scotland: "Of course people will be very worried and very irritated by what has happened.

"I think it's entirely right that a full and proper apology has been given to people, but I do also say that this authority is at arm's length from the executive.

Sam Galbraith
Sam Galbraith: Backing from the top
"It's got nothing to do with devolution, it was there before devolution and I think the important thing is to sort the position out and move on."

Asked if Mr Galbraith should resign, Mr Blair said: "I think it would be wrong for him to do so. He has no executive or administrative control over the authority, it's an arm's length body.

"I think his job is obviously to sort it out, but as an education minister, he's done - if you look at the broad swathe of Scottish education in particular the extra investment going in there now - I think he's got many things of which he can be very pleased.

"Sam worked under me for a time as a minister, he's an outstanding minister."

Drugs briefing

The prime minister is in Scotland for a series of engagements which included visits to Strathclyde Police in Glasgow, chairing a joint ministerial meeting and culminating with a weekend as the guest of the Queen at Balmoral.

Mr Blair attended the first meeting of the reconstituted Drugs Enforcement Forum and was briefed on the work of Scotland's Drug Enforcement Agency by its director Jim Orr.

Moves to make more treatment available for drug offenders are to be extended nationwide in England and Scotland next month.

DEA director Jim Orr
Jim Orr: Briefed Mr Blair
The schemes involve courts imposing treatment orders as an alternative to jail for repeated drugs offenders who are then tested.

The scheme is intended to help them break the habit and cut drug-related crime.

Studies suggest this could reduce the number of crimes in England by up to 700,000 with a proportional reduction in Scotland.

Before the orders, some offenders were committing 100 offences a month each.

Research suggests that the orders have helped offenders cut their spending on drugs from 400 a week to 30 a week.

'No soft option'

But Mr Blair stressed: "They are not a soft option and anyone breaching the terms of the order is taken back to court and can be sent to prison instead.

"We are determined to cut crime, help victims, and make our streets and homes safer.

"We need to cut the flow of drugs into Britain and we will continue to pursue those who profit from the human misery caused by drug addiction."

Heroin bags
Drugs were a major theme of his visit
He inspected 80 police recruits, a record intake for the Strathclyde force, and visited a drugs project for women offenders.

Scotland's First Minister Donald Dewar is hoping that the prime minister's presence will calm the troubles that have beset his administration.

However, opposition parties rounded on Mr Blair after his vote of confidence in Mr Galbraith.

Scottish National Party education spokeswoman, Nicola Sturgeon MSP, said Mr Blair had "completely underestimated" the degree of anger over the exams chaos in Scotland.

She said: "Tony Blair has come up from London to try and ease the pressure on the accident prone education minister.

"The prime minister insists that Sam Galbraith is one of New Labour's finest talents.

"Well the Labour Party must be in dire straits if they are trying to trumpet Galbraith as one of their main assets."

The Tories said Mr Blair sounded like a football chairman praising his manager - just before sacking him.

Devolved government

Education spokesman, Brian Monteith MSP, said: "Surely now the writing is on the wall for Sam Galbraith whose days as education minister are clearly numbered.

"If Sam Galbraith is an 'outstanding minister', then I daren't think what a bad minister would be like."

Later, Mr Blair chaired a meeting in Edinburgh of a joint committee of senior ministers from England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland to review the progress of devolved government in Britain.

Deputy Prime Minister John Prescott, Northern Ireland First Minister David Trimble, and Wales First Secretary Rhodri Morgan attended.

After the summit, Mr Blair said parliaments in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland and regional and local changes in England had strengthened the ability of different parts of the UK to find solutions to their particular needs.

"The achievements of the devolved administrations over the past year is proof of the success of these changes," he said.

The serious business of politics over, Mr Blair and his wife Cherie were due to have a weekend-stay at Balmoral with the Queen.

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