Kieran Cowan reviews the final First Minister’s Questions before summer recess.
FMQs opened with the stunning development that Gillian Martin had been dropped by the Government from her appointment as Minister for Further and Higher Education. She was to have taken over from Shirley Anne Somerville.
Side-stepping this, Ruth Davidson marked the last FMQs before summer by again discussing justice and the prison service. Nicola Sturgeon avoided political heat by entering into discussions of the technocratic details. Davidson, listing a series of other ‘specific’ examples, attempted to illustrate a wider point about the poor treatment and consideration afforded to victims of crime, whilst really lambasting the principles of rehabilitation.
From a progressive perspective, on this issue I’m sure Labour benches would be supportive of Nicola Sturgeon’s defence of rehabilitation. However, as Richard Leonard focused on health and social care, the removal of Michael Matheson from the Justice brief will be seen as a victory for the Scottish Conservatives, and they are clearly seeking to build their political muscle in shifting government policy as they head into recess.
For Labour, Richard Leonard raised concerns over pay settlements for teachers, moving on to education after the significant scalp of Shona Robison’s resignation as Health Secretary. His question delivered a significantly stinging attack on John Swinney’s education bill being “fast tracked” (read: shelved). With Leonard, Sturgeon was significantly more combative, with the education brief being her self proclaimed ‘top priority’.
Leonard neatly linked this issue with the concerns over the First Minster’s judgement based on selecting Gillian Martin MSP for promotion despite such horrific comments on the very area of policy for which she would have been responsible. On this Sturgeon was more subdued, indicating that this will be discussed after FMQs (perhaps for a smaller viewing audience). Members wearing ties and badges from the TIE campaign reinforce the First Minister’s problem better than any verbal criticism can.
Labour had the clear edge over the SNP this week (the metric: subdued SNP benches as Labour attacks on policy), with Sturgeon rattled and combative in her response, accusing Labour of wishing to play politics with education, as she has claimed in previous weeks as they raise questions on leadership and policy over health and social care.
Patrick Harvie joined in more positive tones, praising the government for listening to concerns about the education bill. He went on to suggest changes in terms of resourcing, rather than structure, with a less aggressive line of questioning. Sturgeon argued for the continued direction of SNP policy in terms of education. He concludes his slot by marking the TIE campaign’s anniversary and asking for the fourth anniversary of the campaign to deliver a truly LGBTI-inclusive education system.
Willie Rennie went on a whirlwind tour of all the key issues of the term, hitting the First Minister with reports of cancer waiting times being the worst in years, largely unheard yesterday as it was buried by news of a cabinet secretary. In his second question, he linked this to the issues surrounding education, largely echoing concerns of Labour and Green members, before suggesting all these issues indicate that a second independence referendum is an outright silly idea. Nicola Sturgeon aggressively attacked Rennie for hyperbole and inconsistency. True or not, these matters won’t disappear over the summer recess.
Overall, this week Sturgeon has been on the back foot after the coverage of Gillian Martin’s comments, and the opposition parties have been buoyed by both Swinney’s withdrawal of the education bill and yesterday’s cabinet reshuffle. Issues over education and health were the dominant matters in this session, and will only continue to weigh on the Scottish Government after summer