Thursday, June 10, 2010

Tavish catches Salmond fiddling while education burns

FMQs is usually a display of brimstone, bluff and bluster from our imitiable showman of a First Minister. Occasionally he surprises and behaves like a grown up, just to remind us (or maybe himself) that he still can. Increasingly, though, he's been all over the place in recent months. He knows that the SNP's star is most definitely waning. Their election was pretty much a disaster - they didn't increase their seats at all despite boasts of a target of 20 seats. Maybe if nothing else the experience has taught them about expectation management. Next May looms closer and the Government normally has to fight on its record - but it's hard to see exactly what the SNP has actually been doing since May 2007.

Today when he was replying to Iain Gray's questions about business rates, he seemed distracted and subdued. Mind you, it's an issue his Government has been found well and truly wanting on. Basically, there's been a business rates revaluation which has resulted in some businesses see their rates bills go up by 200%. There's a particular issue with pre-school nurseries in Fife which have seen huge rises. The revaluation is carried out by an independent assessor so Salmond tried to do what he always does - find someone else to blame. Not so fast, though. In England the rises have been brought in gradually, whereas here it's come as a huge shock. Mr S might want to think about that when he delivers two years' cuts for the price of one next year, by the way.

Anyway, it's good to see that our Leader of the Opposition has finally caught up with an issue that Tavish Scott and the Scottish Liberal Democrats have been campaigning on for months. Maybe he wanted to make a good impression on one David Miliband who was watching from the public gallery.

The best question came from Tavish Scott, though. Listing, at some length, the various crises in education at the moment - the debacle of the curriculum for excellence in secondary schools, teacher numbers falling, class sizes rising, manifesto pledges broken (although of course that's the Councils' fault, not the SNP Government's according to, er, Mr Salmond), he asked the First Minister to say what he'd written to Education Conveners about recently.

For a fraction of a second, I thought Salmond looked a trifle shamefaced as he realised that he looked like Nero fiddling as Rome burned before he admitted that his letter was encouraging the Councils to make St Andrew's Day a school holiday. Now, I have no problem with that in principle, but when my Council is thinking of cutting £198 from the amount of money they spend on my daughter, I would hope that my local education convener, SNP member or not, would have more important things to think about.

Salmond, though, did try to pin the blame on Denis Canavan who had apparently been encouraging him to ensure that the holiday was adopted. Why can he never just take responsibility for things? Honestly. Tavish's follow up question was brilliant, though. He basically pointed out that the Government had had precious few responses from Councils, even SNP ones, to its efforts on this issue. This seemed to spark Salmond into life and he launched into a bizarre tirade accusing Tavish of being unpatriotic for not supporting the idea of a holiday on our national day. I have to say that really annoyed me. To me it's an abuse of the word patriotism to bandy it about in political debate like that - utterly poisonous. I said so when Jim Murphy used it on the SNP and I do so again now.

Tavish was on very, very good form, though and he certainly landed a significant blow today, showing up the First Minister's lack of sense of priorities. I doubt the electorate of Scotland will be very impresseed next year if his key achievement is a new bank holiday as they're coping with job losses and spending cuts.


James Mackenzie said...

Honestly, I try to score FMQs in a non-partisan way (not least because there's rarely a Green invited to ask one), but today Iain Gray was about as good as I've seen him and ran away with it, followed by Annabel, and simply to give the FM a question about St Andrews Day was a tactical mistake of the highest order. It let Salmond get his gander up for the first time, when any harder question would have kept him on the ropes.

You'll have seen plenty of times on Twitter when I've praised some incisive Tavish question, but today, today was not it.

tajweed quran said...

I like the way you explained its a nice article

Caron said...

I agree that Gray had an easy win, but the Goverment has been rubbish on business rates and this has been a live issue for months and Labour are waking up very late to it.

I thought Tavish's question highlighted the SNP Government's ridiculous priorities - the St Andrew's Day Holiday is the height of triviality compared to what else is going on in education.

Surely you can't agree that Tav was unpatriotic as Salmond bizarrely alleged?

Jeff said...

"they didn't increase their seats at all despite boasts of a target of 20 seats. Maybe if nothing else the experience has taught them about expectation management."

Not just Salmond with the bluster then. How did the Lib Dem target of a quarter of Scottish seats and being Scotland's 2nd party pan out?

I didn't see fmq so I can't really comment on your post but I would like to think that just because someone is doing x (pushing for St Andrews Day holiday) then that doesn't necessarily mean that they are not doing y (looking after schools).

I see you're going down the regrettable 'SNP cuts' road too. Shame. Indeed, you're lamenting the drop in £200 for your daughter while seeming to suggest that the SNP should've brought the cuts in sooner looks rather contradictory. No?

Keith Legg said...

Jeff, it does show where his focus lies though - St Andrews Day is clearly much more important to the FM than sorting out Curriculum for Excellence, otherwise he'd have gor Mike Russell to do something about it!

Caron's right, though. As a member of a Council's Education committee, if I've got to spend time reading, analysing and discussing papers, I want to spend it on things which will directly affect children's - including my daughter's - learning. I don't want to waste time faffing around with pet projects just now - there are too many other, bigger things to sort out.

In any case, Salmond's effort was futile. Most local authorities have set holidays for the next two or three academic years, and won't revise these without good reason.

Jeff said...


Salmond's hardly going to micromanage Curriculum of Excellence from his FM role and the meticulous Mike Russell, I can only imagine, is well and truly on top of his brief irrespective of whatever inevitable bedding in issues CoE may have on the horizon.

Indeed, if Tavish, and indeed Caron, considers St Andrews Day such a distraction then why are they choosing to spend fmqs and blog posts on it respectively rather than delve into whatever detail in the actual policy itself is causing them concern?

I say it again, just because someone is doing x, it doesn't mean they aren't doing y and if y is your concern then talk about that rather than trying to score some cheap points with trivialities.

Despite this being a post on education 'burning', I can't see one specific issue on what is wrong with the current Scottish education system. Time to stop dabbling around the edges and talk about the meaty issues?

Caron said...

Jeff, I really don't think you can accuse Tavish or the Lib Dem team at Holyrood of not highlighting the Government's failures on the education front - they are always talking about the mess of the Curriculum for Excellence in secondary schools, falling teacher numbers, rising class sizes. It's all very worrying.

That was pretty much the point of his question yesterday.

It does worry me that the Government is doing nothing on the spending cuts this year - I'm sure they could find some way to save money. We are now in a situation where cuts are being made and we can choose whether to spread the pain or take it in a oner. I'm not sure that the SNP's bury its head in the sand until after the Holyrood elections strategy is a wise one either for the party or the country.

Richard Thomson said...

The revaluation is carried out by an independent assessor so Salmond tried to do what he always does - find someone else to blame.

Caron, I think you'll find the clue is in the word 'independent'...

Business rate valuations are set independently by local assessors, regardless as to which party is in power. As such, the result of the recent revaluation would have been the same whether Tavish or Iain Gray were FM.

In any revaluation, there's winners and losers. The fact is that 60% of businesses will either be paying the same or less as a result of the latest revaluation. Period.

Now, some history. Labour and the Lib Dems increased the business rate poundage above levels found in the rest of the UK when they shared power. It was the SNP which restored parity, and introduced the small business bonus scheme - both measures which your party and Labour opposed.

The effect of this? If the Lib Dems and Labour had had their way, not only would the revaluation have gone ahead in the same manner as it did, the resulting higher rateable values would be leading to even higher bills, since you opposed cutting the poundage rate and introducing the small business bonus scheme.

In England the rises have been brought in gradually, whereas here it's come as a huge shock.

All 'transitional relief' means is that the businesses which benefit the most end up losing that benefit in the early years by having to help subsidise those facing the highest increases.

If it's now Lib Dem policy to have the local shop subsidising Tesco, maybe you should just come out and say it...

Jeff said...

I don't know Caron, John Swinney has made significant efficiency savings, over and above his own expectations but of course more is required soon.

You have to be careful though. You are, presumably purposefully, confusing the Scottish Goverment 'doing nothing' with the policy of delaying cuts to avoid a double dip and to ensure the economy is on a stable footing before the worst of the cuts come in. This is a policy your party was in favour of before the election and now, as is clear from this blog post and subsequent comment, are backtracking away from as a result of the coalition with the Tories.

It's a difficult needle for your party to thread when Labour/SNP are clearly in favour of cutting later, Tories are in favour of cutting sooner and Lib Dems have moved from the former to the latter in the space of a month.

And that probably explains why I'm genuinely confused what message Tavish is trying to get out there.

Keith Legg said...

Jeff, set aside the point for a minute about the national situation re cuts, and take a look instead at the practicalities of it. Indeed, assume that the Conservative party got an overall majority and are pursuing the same policy now.

We know that we're going to have to make cuts in expenditure at some point. We could take a bit now to gradually lessen the pain, or take a big lump later and have it all hit at once. I tend to think that Tavish would be making the same argument now about taking some cuts now were there a Tory-only govt.

I'm not even sure that it is necessarily even the SNP trying to protect themselves electorally, as they'll have to pass the budget in February of next year, unless they're planning some kind of "blame it on the English" approach to the 2011 campaign. It just looks to me like a silly decision.

Keith Legg said...

Actually, just had another thought. Given that the SNP will have to rely on other parties' support for the budget, won't this actually make it more difficult for them? Labour will vote against, the Lib Dems will probably abstain again, so it's going to be up to the Tories to decide.

Could we be facing an election before May 2011?


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