Columnist Craig Paton offers his weekly sketch of First Minister's Questions
AS YOU READ THIS it will be one full year since the UK voted to leave the EU. “One whole year?” you say. Yes, one whole year, 365 days, 8760 hours, 525,600 minutes. A full year of people screaming at each other to “get over it” and to “respect democracy” as a government runs around behind the scenes with their hair on fire, and no single clue what to do. Are we any closer to finding out what Brexit will look like? Nope. And the clock is ticking.
It seems a long way removed from that night that most people, Leave or Remain voters, spent staring shocked at the TV. If you say you weren’t shocked I will have to call you a liar, even Nigel Farage claimed defeat by midnight - before triumphantly reappearing like the friend who got too drunk before vomiting and returning like a conquering hero. I guess, what I’m trying to say is, we don’t yet know if it was a mistake to vote Leave, we simply don’t. But it would be great if, a year later, we had some bloody idea.
Now onto the really important issue of today; FMQs.
Davidson and Sturgeon plough each other on farming
We start, as we always do with Ruth Davidson. Davidson wanted to know if the Government had been in touch with the European Commission about the delays in farm payments.
The First Minister stated that “regular discussions” with the European Commission about agricultural policy, and that Fergus Ewing is leading the charge to ensure that payments are made, or that loans are given to help farmers.
I’m sure that answer will be more than enough for Ruth, and they’ll spend the rest of the exchange commenting on the weather, their choice of blouse and the new ability to cut off the tails of five day old puppies in Scotland.
Shockingly, Davidson wasn’t happy with it. So she specified a little more. Saying that the deadline for the next deadline was June 30th, and missing that will impose millions of pounds of fines and delay payments further. Before asking if the Government expected to meet the deadline, and if not, would there be an application for an extension.
The First Minister then gave a great example of political blagging, she said they would do the same as they have in previous years, as well as talking to the Commission about contingencies, continuing on to say that loan agreements have been put in place for farmers, before saying that the possibility of penalties is “speculative”.
The First Minister ended with a deflection, albeit one with quite a bit of merit, saying “the big risk to the common agricultural policy is Brexit, which is being presided over by the Tories.”
Davidson accused both Sturgeon and Ewing of “waffling” and “dodging the question” respectively, saying that rural Scotland deserves an answer to the question. She then asked again if there had been discussions about an extension. The First Minister was, at last, clear when she answered “We are working to meet the deadline and will continue to do so each and every day until that deadline.”
Davidson didn’t appreciate the candour. She said that everyone in the chamber, the press gallery - for some reason - and in the farming industry could assume that there was going to be a request for an extension.
In her question/speech, Davidson said that there was a £178m IT system that doesn’t work - I bought a laptop for £45 last week, hit me up for advice Nic - the average household income has halved since last year, with farmers still waiting on payment and there are 6,000 applications still to be processed, a third of the total amount. She then accused the First Minister of breaking a promise she made to the NFU that this would not happen again.
Sturgeon again repeated her commitment to processing the applications by the deadline, to making sure there are loans available to farmers, and stating the real threat to agriculture is Brexit.
Kez gives it the old college try
Next up, Kezia Dugdale, who wasted no time having a go. She said “This week, the Scottish National Party unveiled plans to cut taxes for wealthy air travellers and voted to cut off puppy dogs’ tails.” My lord. How very sassy of her.
Moving on to her real query about Further Education she stated that college students are at their lowest since 2007, and that the SNP has “cut courses, slashed student support and botched a pay deal for staff” before asking the First Minister if she should be believed when she says that education is her first priority.
In one of the stranger moments of my tenure writing these, Sturgeon said she was glad the question was asked. No honestly, it’s on video. She was happy because Dugdale brought up an Audit Scotland report, which she believed that Dugdale was misrepresenting. Misrepresentation in politics?! I shudder to think.
According to Sturgeon’s reading of the report, colleges have exceeded learning targets every year, the percentage of full time students completing their course has went up, over 80 percent of students continue onto further education or employment and funding has risen over a two year period, among others.
This entire assertion was made by the First Minister against the background of low droning grumbles from the Labour benches - which sounded like the electric razor John Swinney uses on his head every morning - the noise peaking at the end of every sentence.
The First Minister went on to accuse Dugdale of “talking down Scotland”, one of her usual refrains. But it was the reaction from the Labour benches that prompted the Holyrood Enforcer Ken MacIntosh to step in. He lambasted the Labour members, saying “The election is over. Will members please conduct themselves responsibly?”
That question was answered, when the Labour leader rose again, accusing the Government and the First Minister of being out of touch. The Labour cohort seemed giddy at this, pounding the desk in admiration, bellowing a collection of incoherent vowels at their opposite numbers. I feel bad for some of the Green MSPs caught in the crossfire, especially Ross Greer, he looks like a strong sneeze could put him in hospital.
She went on to tell the chamber that the number of college dropouts has doubled since 2011, becoming the equivalent of 12 people per day.
“I am not sure whether Kezia Dugdale has read the Audit Scotland report” said the First Minister, before going on to effectively repeat what she had just said - with the additional fact that a deal had been struck between unions and colleges to implement a pay rise for lecturers.
Dugdale replied that it was “harder to get into college, and even harder to stay there” under the SNP, before asking if it was true that colleges under the SNP are “simply expendable”.
The Presiding Officer was called into action again after Sturgeon’s answer, which was again just an assertion of something she had already been saying. Labour’s Daniel Johnson and James Kelly had been yowling at the FM throughout her answer, so much so loudly in fact that they were picked up in the official transcript of the session. Upon being asked to shut it by MacIntosh, the two shared a sneering, smug grin that would get you a punny in Primary School, but can apparently also get you elected to Holyrood.
To round off the heated exchange between the two benches, to the delight of the Presiding Officer, Dugdale asked simply if the number of full time students had fallen for the first time this year.
In a case of “I don’t like your stats so I’ll use these other ones” Sturgeon said “Those are the Scottish Further and Higher Education Funding Council statistics. We do not agree with the methodology.” Well I guess that’s that then.
Willie Rennie wants to talk police
Lib Dem leader Willie Rennie used his question to ask about policing, which he says is “still in turmoil” four years after centralisation. He stated that a recent report by the Chief Inspector of Constabulary identifies “‘fundamental weakness’ and ‘dysfunction’” in policing before asking if the turmoil will end.
Sturgeon did first point out some of the positives of the report, citing “ improved financial reporting, investment in change management, governance of police call handling and the implementation of Board and committee workplans”
She also pointed to things that the inspectorate was not so please about, like holding committee meetings in private, given the wave of desperation the public has shown to be able to view these meetings, popcorn in hand.
Rennie seemed irritated that there was no response to whether the turmoil would end, asking that the question be answered. He then said “it is the First Minister’s legislation, her board and her chairman, so she cannot wash her hands of them now.”
Given the issues with Police Scotland, Rennie asked if it was wise to integrated the Transport Police into the same organisation.
The First Minister denied that she was washing her hands of anything, saying “there is a recognition that some aspects have been found to be unsatisfactory”.
On the incorporation of the Transport Police into Police Scotland, Sturgeon said “The reason for integration is to improve the way that our policing operates in a coherent and joined-up fashion”, also saying that the response to recent terrorist attacks means that it would benefit the people of Scotland, as well as the police.
And that concludes the penultimate FMQs before the summer recess, so make sure you have a look to see Clare Adamson ask about the Queen’s Speech and Monica Lennon have a rather heated debate with the First Minister about baby boxes, which I never thought possible.
Picture courtesy of the Scottish Parliament
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