Craig Paton Does FMQs: Ruth Davidson’s education game; Kezia vs Wings; Harvie on foxhunting

Columnist Craig Paton offers his weekly sketch of First Minister's Questions

THE General Election is fast approaching, giving politics nerds like me the feeling of Christmas morning. However, instead of the wonderful family time and nice presents under the tree, we’ll have David Dimbleby and Andrew Neil giving us facts and figures while we try to stay awake after the eighth cup of coffee and the 31st cigarette. 

There’s also still the small issue of running Scotland, so politicians here don’t have a lot of time to spend out on the campaign trail, though you wouldn’t know it to look at them.

Ruth Davidson’s education game

Most people who don’t actually watch FMQs every week don’t know the leaders initially ask a really rubbish question of the first minister before they move to what they really want to ask, and they usually get an equally awful answer.

Ruth Davidson usually asks what the first minister has planned for the rest of the day, and the stock answer is "engagements to take forward the government’s programme for Scotland". This week, however, Sturgeon tacked on: "I will take part in the ITV leaders’ debate, which, of course, Theresa May is ducking."

Starting the sass early. I like it.

Davidson ignored the quip, probably irritated that she wasn’t going to be taking the place of the prime minister, and moved to her question. She asked the first minister if everything should be done to keep teachers in the profession.

Sturgeon didn’t really answer, as you’d expect. She went on a diatribe about the global challenge of teacher recruitment, the increased intake of trainees and the General Teaching Council’s efforts to encourage more people into teaching.

She then pre-empted Davidson’s next step, like a chess virtuoso but with more friends and a better suit: "I suspect that Ruth Davidson is going to ask me about Teach First," said the first minister, either predicting or using a Jedi mind trick to make Davidson ask the question. 

As if by magic, or by Jedi sorcery, the Tory leader did ask about Teach First, saying that 400 graduate teachers had left for other parts of the UK due to the programme. Despite the programme now operating in 40 countries, it has not landed in Scotland quite yet, and Davidson wanted to know why.

Sturgeon said that she had been in talks with Teach First, before going on to speak about a conversation she had with a London headteacher whose school was part of the programme, and believed it was a short term option, and that there is trouble with teacher retention. 

The First Minister went on to chastise Davidson for not mentioning the "fantastic" graduates who do go into teaching. I’m about to graduate from university, so unless "fantastic" means being able to drink three Jagerbombs in 10 seconds, that may be the wrong word to use.

What the Tory leader heard in that answer was: "I spoke to a woman in London, but I am not entirely closing my mind to it," something that she said was the answer the first minister gave in January of last year. 

I’m about to graduate from university, so unless "fantastic" means being able to drink three Jagerbombs in 10 seconds, that may be the wrong word to use.

Davidson went on to repeat that there are 4,000 less teachers now than in 2007, before asking the Sturgeon, in what seemed like a bit of a trap, what percentage of schools say that a lack of teachers is constraining the number of subjects they can offer.

Sturgeon couldn’t answer, so instead of saying the dreaded "I don’t know", she opted for the political version of "look over there!" before running in the opposite direction, as she rambled a bit about general education-related things. 

"What a lot of waffle," said Davidson, before giving the answer to her original question as 70 per cent. She then asked if it was time to have a first minister that not only admits their mistakes, but fixes them.

Sturgeon then went on to point out the positive points of education that we hear every week during this question, before saying that Davidson should be ashamed to say that we have a failing education system.

Kezia Dugdale vs Wings Over Scotland

Kezia Dugdale spoke of her and the first minister’s meeting with Brendan Cox, the widower of MP Jo Cox, who was murdered on a British street street in June last year. Dugdale said that the first minister had agreed with Mr Cox, who had said that abuse has no place in political discourse. 

She then went on to recount a comment made on Twitter by pro-independence blogger Stuart Campbell. 

Campbell’s tweet was targeted at Oliver Mundell, whose father is the first openly gay member of a Tory cabinet. It said: "Oliver Mundell is the sort of public speaker that makes you wish his dad had embraced his homosexuality sooner." 

This may be the first time that a display of Twitter-based twattery has been brought up in the chamber, so I guess it’s Twitter 1 - 0 Scottish Parliament.

When asked if she agreed that there is no place for homophobia, the first minister forcefully did so, before going on to state that abuse of any minority is unacceptable. 

This may be the first time that a display of Twitter-based twattery has been brought up in the chamber, so I guess it’s Twitter 1 - 0 Scottish Parliament.

Dugdale welcomed the response, before stating that due to a Daily Record column she wrote condemning Campbell, he has demanded a £10,000 payment for damages to his reputation. Smell that? That’s the smell of hypocrisy.

Dugdale then asked if the first minister would condemn Campbell, to which she said that she had already condemned those who abuse others. Before too long, Sturgeon had sussed what Dugdale was trying to do, deflect from the failed deal with the Tories and the subsequent suspension of nine of her councillors in Aberdeen. Call me a cynic, but I reckon she was right. 

"When my colleagues do something that I disagree with, I take action," Dugdale said, before getting back to her duck and weave routine. She said that 44 per cent of SNP MSPs have positively interacted with Campbell, and asked the first minister if she would order members of her party to denounce Campbell "once and for all". Apparently Kez never got the memo on "RTs are not endorsements".

A puzzled Sturgeon, with some degree of finality, unequivocally condemned abuse of any kind, before saying that the Labour party was in "civil war" over the Aberdeen coalition deal and Dugdale was putting up a smokescreen. 

Patrick Harvie and the foxhunting fiasco

Patrick Harvie started his question with an almost alarming degree of sarcasm. If it was possible to overdose on sarcasm, our Green friend would be coming mighty close. 

He spoke of the prime minister's commitment to reintroducing foxhunting to the UK, which he said "showed how hugely in touch she is with the country’s priorities". 

Saying that 800 foxes are killed every year in Scotland, of which 20 per cent are killed by dogs, Harvie then asked if the law in Scotland will "totally oppose foxhunting". 

Sturgeon said that Lord Bonomy has been looking into foxhunting. Calm down - he’s not a Lordy Lord, he’s a nice Motherwell boy who made good. Sturgeon said that the government would consult on his recommendations and consider a change to the law, before stating that she is, and always has been an opponent of foxhunting. 

Sturgeon responded that Harvie had mischaracterised the position of the government, something that has never ever happened before at Holyrood, and drew great shock from the chamber.

Harvie, not at all satisfied with that answer, welcomed the review by Lord Bonomy, but also said that it worked under the remit of not instituting a full ban. 

Harvie quoted Bonomy, who said he "always had in [his] mind the notion that there must be a way of preserving" foxhunting and that he would rather "find a way of maintaining it". 

Harvie then asked for the government to consider a complete ban, or to at least ban the use of dogs to flush foxes to guns, as it is used as a decoy for traditional hunting with dogs.

Sturgeon responded that Harvie had mischaracterised the position of the government, something that has never ever happened before at Holyrood, and drew great shock from the chamber. Sturgeon said that the consultation is ongoing and should be allowed to run its course, and invited Harvie to make a submission to the consultation if he wishes.

The first minister ended by saying that there should be no doubt that the government opposes foxhunting.

Willie Rennie and the mental health waiting times

Mr Wonderful himself, Willie Rennie, took to the stage this week to again ask about something that appears to be a project for him: mental health. 

Rennie spoke of the waiting times for children with mental health issues, saying that in Lothian, it takes 666 days for treatment, adding that it must feel like a lifetime for most, but an eternity for people so young.

He then asked why the waiting times were so long if the first minister believes mental health to be a priority. 

"It is a priority," Sturgeon said, saying that some waiting times are going down - while at the same time conceding that there are waits that are unacceptable - and that investment in mental health services is rising along with the number of mental health staff. 

Sturgeon stated that the demand for mental health services is a good thing, because it means there is less stigma, but she did concede that there has to be more of an investment now that the demand has increased.

Sturgeon accused the Scottish Lib Dem leader of mischaracterising the government’s position - the second time that happened in this session. Someone alert the church elders. 

In what was becoming a bit of a theme this week, Rennie used a quote - from the first minister herself - to accentuate his discontent with her answer. She said in September last year that "this is one of the most serious issues we face as a society". Rennie said that, during the budget process, they realised the government was further behind than had previously been feared. 

He also stated that independence legislation was published in weeks, but it took 15 months for the mental health strategy, asking if children will still be waiting as long next year, or if something will be done.

Sturgeon accused the Scottish Lib Dem leader of mischaracterising the government’s position - the second time that happened in this session. Someone alert the church elders. 

The facts speak for themselves," said the first minister. A spending increase of 42 per cent, with mental health funding reaching £1bn for the first time, 82.5 per cent of patients being seen within 18 weeks and a mental health strategy with a range of actions focusing on prevention and early intervention, were all laid out by Sturgeon. 

She also accepted that Rennie was right to point out issues that need addressing, but wrong to say that no action is being taken. 

That wraps it up for us this week folks, but have a watch of this week’s session for questions from Anas Sarwar about the visit of the Israeli ambassador, several questions about the homeless from Sandra White, Annie Wells and Pauline McNeill and an extremely passionate Alexander Stewart about shop vacancies, believe it or not. 

Also be on the lookout for Joan McAlpine, who was supposed to ask a supplementary but was nowhere to be seen, not for the first time.

Picture courtesy of the Scottish Parliament

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