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Wednesday, 30 May, 2001, 16:46 GMT 17:46 UK
Scotland's politicians quizzed

BBC News Online put your questions to four representatives of the main parties on 25 May as part of a series of special election webcasts.

Issues discussed included constitutional change, defence and Scotland's share of Treasury money.

Europe, welfare benefits, education and crime were also among the areas for discussion.

To watch coverage of the forum, select the link below:


A selection of the forum covering their answers to questions on education and tuition fees and health.

Brian Taylor: We have a question from Louise in Arbroath on the subject of education, she says, she's only 13, but in a couple of years she'll be sitting standard grades and she's wondering what the panel, the members of the panel, what the parties will do to prevent the exam results problems of last year. Now just to remind, of course, it was when the Scottish qualifications authority was very late with the results and perhaps some of the results were wrong. Could I perhaps go to Robert Brown, first on that. Your party is in coalition in Scotland, can you assist in sorting this out?

Robert Brown (Liberal Democrat): I think it's ultimately an issue of administration, getting the whole thing right. One of the problems were that we were left in the Scottish parliament with the settlement brought in originally by the Tories, without the proper preparation. The thing was clearly a shambles. We had to pick up the pieces in that regard. Last year undoubtedly had many, many difficulties which weren't dealt with adequately at that time. I think in fairness to Jack McConnell, who's a Labour minister in our coalition, not one of my people, I think he's doing a good job in sorting the thing out. But the proof of the pudding is going to be in the eating. When it comes to the results in a few weeks' time. I think a lot rides on getting this right this time round.

News Online Host: Ross Harper, it's all your party's fault?

Ross Harper (Conservative): This is amazing, for those who don't know the Scottish fiasco, it was a matter of having examinations, having them marked properly

Brian Taylor: it was the Conservatives who created the Scottish qualifications authority, who blended two quite distinct organisations

Ross Harper: The executive was in charge of the running and the administration and the government of Scotland, for right or for wrong. We have an executive controlled by Labour and Lib. They can't even mark examining papers. As the result of which many suffered. And in fact the recent results have only come out a year late and I suspect, although one is enjoying not to be doom-mongering it will be the same again.

Brian Taylor: You think a repetition is on the cards?

Ross Harper: I hope not.

Brian Taylor: It will be your party, your party, your own first minister in Scotland, Harry McLeish, has put his reputation on the line by saying if there is a repetition he will not tolerate a repetition. He says it won't happen again.

Adam Ingram (Labour): Well he said his neck's on the line and

Ross Harper: He's taken responsibility.

Adam Ingram: Well, I would like to think, I know the qualities and sense of Harry McLeish and I know that he would have to take that responsibility and he would want to do so. But Jack McConnell has approached this whole issue with tremendous vigour

Brian Taylor: He's the education minister.

Adam Ingram: Something did go wrong the last time. I think we could spend a long time examining that, and I think that has been done internally and lessons have been learned. What we've got to ensure is it doesn't happen again. I was speaking to a young constituent who still hasn't got a proper qualification from last year. Now there are clearly administration issues that have to be cleaned up. We cannot have it repeated next time and I am sure with the energy that has been put in to it, it won't happen.

Brian Taylor: Nicola, your comments on this, and I gather we've got some e-mails coming in on the subject even as we speak.

Nicola Sturgeon (SNP): I mean that this 13-year-old, to answer his question, might be a bit dismayed to hear the party political squabbling about this issue because the absolute important thing here is doing everything that all of us can do to make sure that this doesn't happen again. Last year was a fiasco and a tragedy for the young people involved. I was a member of the education unlike you, Adam, I was a member of the education committee that spent many long weeks and months looking into this and making a number of important recommendations to ensure it can't happen again. What I would say finally, Brian, Jack McConnell has my and the SNP's full support in trying to make sure this doesn't happen again and the important thing this time is as problems arise, and they are still arising, the education committee of the parliament is there to monitor and to scrutinise what's happening. The important thing, Adam, is the future of young people

Brian Taylor: One email here from Chris Edmonds from Edinburgh, I suspect he may be in the teaching profession. He says that one answer being suggested of course is new teachers, further teachers. But, he points out, where will all these promised teachers come from? There's not a pool of unemployed teachers. And he says, rather cynically, who would want to be blamed for failing pupils when half of them can't be bothered to turn up with even a pencil never mind up doing their homework?

Adam Ingram: Look, I would never claim to be a specialist and an expert in education but one thing I can say with certainty, the morale in teaching dipped quite substantially over recent years. It's easy to blame it on previous administration, whatever, but the realities of that is, that is the case and therefore we have to address that. I'm encouraged by the fact that the Scottish executive has looked as this through the implementation of the recommendations. Now they've got to take that further. You cannot, the person who has raised that of course is right, you cannot just lift teachers off the shelf and stick them into school. You've got to train them, you've got to put resources in place and that's why the Labour and the Labour Scottish executive has put so much money

Brian Taylor: Very briefly from each of you, we've got another question her from Tammy Kirk in Leeds. A Scot, she says, studying in England, she says she feels betrayed by the Scottish parliament on the idea of tuition fees being free north of the border and the system being, in England, different.

Nicola Sturgeon: Tuition fees have not been abolished north or the border they've simply been removed from the start of somebody's education and implemented at the end of their education. The SNP, the only party here advocating total abolition ...

Brian Taylor: Robert Brown, your party promised the abolition of tuition fees

Robert Brown: The position is quite clear. As of last year nobody in Scotland, Scottish students studying at Scottish universities pays tuition

Brian Taylor: Tammy Kirk, she's studying in England, she's got to pay, and she says, she couldn't study in Scotland, the course wasn't available.

Robert Brown: That's why of course we're campaigning also for the extension of the abolition of tuition fees right across the United Kingdom.

Brian Taylor: Ross Harper, very briefly on this, we have to draw this to a close.

Ross Harper: This is what devolution is all about. There's always going to be differences. We have a poorer health service in Scotland than we have in England, but that's what devolution is all about.

Brian Taylor: Adam Ingram, will your party, will the Labour party repeat the abolition of tuition fees? The qualified abolition of tuition fees in England?

Adam Ingram: There's no point in having devolution and saying that everyone should march in tune in every aspect of policy

Nicola Sturgeon: Why should Scottish students studying in England be discriminated against? That's the question.

Adam Ingram: There are detailed arguments here In terms of how this is to play out, clear priorities have to be taken in each of those spending departments. And then we are to decide where the allocation of resources is best made. And I can say having been a minister, a government minister, for four years, it ain't easy, splitting that very big cake a times. I mean, you've got to do it. And therefore you've got to learn from eachother where the benefits lie and where the disadvantages lie.

Ross Harper: The lesson is that you shouldn't make promises it the beginning of an election, get elected, and then say we need another

Brian Taylor: OK, let's draw the education one to a close, but a comparable one in terms of public spending. Health, a question from Malcolm, no second name, in Dundee. Ross Harper, he asks, will the NHS end up being fully privatised in the next ten years?

Ross Harper: The answer is no, there are no plans to privatise, no thought of privatisation. It's not even for discussion. The important point of the Tory manifesto is that we will keep the spending plans of the current government over the next three years. We are guaranteed to that. We will make sure, he laughs, but that's true, it's a pledge We will keep to these spending plans and then we will increase them by inflation. And that's a matter which has been misrepresented in the course of this election. I've got no worries about health and we will make sure that we have this partnership with private health as well, as the Labour government are doing in England but they're not doing in Scotland.

Brian Taylor: Thank you very much Mr Harper. Robert Brown do you accept these assurances from the Conservatives on the involvement of the private sector in the NHS?

Robert Brown: After the situation when the Tories left office with 50,000 fewer nurses than they went into office with, I don't really, I have considerable difficulty accepting assurances from the Tories on this. But in Scotland

Brian Taylor: Surely the number of nurses is a different question from the ideological question of using the private sector or returning the NHS to free at the point of use?

Robert Brown: We begin to touch really in a sense on the devolution issues, vis a viz the Westminster issues. In Scotland, understanding the balance of the parties, I think there's little likelihood that there will be any threat to the NHS in Scotland, largely because the Tories

Brian Taylor: Adam Ingram, turning to the Labour perspective, the prime minister, Tony Blair, when launching the manifesto, south of the border, at the Birmingham launch, was talking about no ideological objection to using the private sector, for using private sector provision when that might help.

Adam Ingram: Well, why should there be? And why should there be if I don't think there's an ideological objection in terms, of let's say that, the nursing care side of it, the nursing homes. There's many of them within the private sector and indeed there's an issue relating to that in terms of the funding of that, so the provision of care in terms right across the health board, right across the whole health sector, is such that if there is a surplus there, why not use it

Brian Taylor: Your own first minister in Scotland, Henry McLeish, seems very reluctant to use, to go down this road

Adam Ingram: That's a matter for the Scottish parliament

Ross Harper: Adam, Adam, he said there is not the mood in Scotland, these were his words, there is not the mood

Brian Taylor: Nicola Sturgeon, back to Malcolm's question, will the NHS ever

Nicola Sturgeon: It's interesting to hear Adam and Ross squabble about this because the fact of the matter is that both parties would push for what leading health academics described yesterday in the Times as galloping privatisation. Galloping privatisation. The health and social care act that's just gone through the House of Commons opens the door for privatisation of clinical services within the NHS. Now my position, and my party's position is absolutely clear. We believe in the National Health Service and we don't want privatisation of the health service. Now you see Henry McLeish, a very important point, you see Henry McLeish has set his face against it in Scotland and he has. But there is a very important point here. As the balance of funding south of the border changes from public to private then that has a knock-on effect through the Barnet formula in Scotland and that will squeeze our public spending even further.


Analysis: Scotland


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