Craig Paton Does FMQs: Education, education, separation?


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

IT’S that time of the week again, and we have arrived at yet another First Minister’s Questions, and the thought on everyone’s mind is how much, if any, of Nicola Sturgeon’s legs we’ll see this week. 

Well, none. They were blocked by the podium, so you can go home, Daily Mail. 

Unfortunately due to the volume of chatter that took place, there will have to be some omissions, but if you have a spare 50 minutes and fancy seeing some politicians have a go at each other, then have a watch. 

Ruth Davidson on separation, separation, separation

Ruth Davidson arose first to ask the first minister if she believed there were enough teachers in Scottish schools. Sturgeon promptly launched into an answer that discussed the challenges to recruiting new teachers, saying that they have worked hard to fund local authorities, to “maintain the numbers of teachers in our schools”.

Davidson rose in response, saying: “The simple and correct answer there was ‘no there aren’t’.” Her withering retort was met with guffaws of appreciation from the Tory benches, some of whom hadn’t laughed that hard since the au pair said she wanted a pay rise.

As Davidson gave statistics that showed that the number of teachers had fallen by 4,000 in the SNP term, it was clear to see that the education secretary, John Swinney, was not happy, murmuring in the ears of the first minister as Davidson spoke. One can only imagine the kind of expletives he was using.

In response, Sturgeon hit back: “Who is focusing on these matters and who, at every opportunity, tries to shoehorn in references to the constitution?”

When Sturgeon pointed to rising levels of exam passes and the amount of school leavers in positive destinations, the Tory benches again erupted in contemptuous laughter – it even awoke Alexander Stewart from his slumber, a man who is the human equivalent of white toast covered sparingly in low fat margarine. 

Davidson was not satisfied with this answer. She quoted Sir Tom Hunter, who – after complimenting the measures being taken – asked if independence should be the government’s priority. She ended by saying: “Separation or education, which is it, first minister?”

In response, Sturgeon hit back: “Who is focusing on these matters and who, at every opportunity, tries to shoehorn in references to the constitution?

“The Conservatives debate, and we deliver,” said the first minister. By now, the whole chamber was very close to descending into a West Side Story style gang fight.

Dugdale asks about survivors of Mesh

The questions quickly moved on, and Kezia Dugdale rose to speak about the survivors of mesh, a medical procedure designed to treat those with organ prolapse or stress urinary incontinence, but which has had many complications, including constant pain and in some cases, organ perforation.

Sturgeon began by offering her apologies to the women that Dugdale discussed, and to the many other who have been impacted by mesh. She also said that Health Secretary Shona Robison will make a statement later in the day to the chamber about the review, which had returned eight conclusions for local health boards to take forward.

Dugdale was not satisfied, calling the report a “cover up”, and adding that it was a “national scandal”. She pointed to the resounding approval given by the review group to the first draft, and then taken away when the final report was written.

Sturgeon stated that the eight recommendations now must be carried out in a way that restores the faith of the women involved, asking members to be patient and listen to the statement made by Robison. 

Patrick Harvie and the Great Repeal Bill

Green leader Patrick Harvie rose to ask about the UK Government’s repeal bill, which he described as “absurd”. He asked if the first minister agreed that the bill should not be allowed to “change legislation that is not specifically reserved under the Scotland Act”.

To the shock of all in the chamber, Sturgeon agreed, saying that the biggest risk to recruitment for public services is Brexit, while Christine Grahame attempted to get some sort of stain out of her top – drop some Cillit Bang on that Christine, saliva isn’t strong enough.

She continued, saying that under the Scotland Act, any devolved powers that come back from Brussels, such as fishing, should be devolved to Holyrood. She added her suspicions that the bill may end in a “power grab on this parliament”.

“I don’t expect the Tories to back us up,” the first minister jibed, “but at that point I’ll be looking very carefully at the Labour benches. Not even Labour, under those circumstances, could stay subservient to the Tories.”

Anas Sarwar’s battle of the letters

Labour MSP for the Glasgow region, Anas Sarwar, asked the first minister about the government’s progress on cutting the amount of hours worked by junior doctors. 

Sturgeon stated that since the campaign by Brian Connelly, whose daughter died driving home from her shift as a junior doctor, there had been “real improvements in the hours that junior doctors work”. She also pointed out that the practice of junior doctors working seven nights in a row is now at an end. 

Sarwar retorted, in what looked to be a bit of a setup on his part, by reading from a letter sent by Mr Connelly to the health secretary, which stated: “You have broken your commitment to implement an actual working week of 48 hours.” Brian Connelly there, ripping apart an argument in 14 words via paper.

Sturgeon again paid tribute to the work of Brian Connelly, saying that due to his efforts there had been an end to the scheduling of junior doctors working seven nights straight. 

In what will henceforth be known in political circles as the Battle of the Letters, Sturgeon produced her own correspondence, this time from Robison to Connelly in 2015, in which she stated: “I believe that we can commit to [a 48-hour working week], as the longer term aim but as I said, I wish to be in a position to meet this commitment with a firm and achievable timescale.” Letter vs. Letter. Who wins? You decide.

Sturgeon again paid tribute to the work of Connelly, saying that due to his efforts there had been an end to the scheduling of junior doctors working seven nights straight. 

Sarwar took issue with the first minister’s assertion that this was over – he says that it has not – and attempted to raise a point of order, which was rejected by Presiding Officer Ken Macintosh. 

FMQs ended on a bit of a sour note this week, but please come back next week for the best of what our democracy has to offer. 

Picture courtesy of The Scottish Parliament

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