Holyrood News

This week in Holyrood, MSPs have been discussing …

Referendum Consultation launch

On Wednesday the First Minister and Deputy First Minister launched the consultation on the independence referendum – Your Scotland, Your Referendum – at a press conference in Edinburgh Castle, attended by over 70 members of the international media.

The consultation paper:

* sets out a proposed ballot paper with the question:

Do you agree that Scotland should be an independent country?

* seeks views on the inclusion of a second question. The Scottish Government is willing to include a question about further, substantial devolution on the lines of “devolution max” if there is sufficient support for such a move.

* proposes that the referendum should be run in exactly the same way as an election. Local returning officers will have operational responsibility for the poll and the count, under the direction of a Chief Counting Officer. The Electoral Commission will be responsible for regulation of the campaign and for oversight and reporting the referendum process and in this role will be accountable to the Scottish Parliament. Restrictions on Government publicity will apply in the run-up to polling day as they would for elections.

* sets out who will be able to vote. Eligibility will be the same as for Scottish Parliament and local government elections and for the 1997 referendum on devolution, with the exception that the vote will be extended to 16 and 17 year-olds who are on the electoral register. The choice of the Scottish Parliament franchise reflects the internationally accepted principle that the franchise for constitutional referendums should be determined by residency and the Scottish Government’s view that sovereignty lies with the people of Scotland.

* seeks views on proposed spending limits of £750,000 for the lead campaign organisations designated by the Electoral Commission, £250,000 for each political party represented in the Scottish Parliament and £50,000 for others who want to spend more than £5,000 on campaigning. This approach is based on the legislation which applies to UK-wide referendums with the limits tailored to reflect that the referendum will be held in Scotland only.

The total cost of the referendum is likely to be around £10 million, the bulk of which will be spent on running the poll and the count. This cost is broadly in line with the cost (per voter) of the Welsh Assembly and AV Referendums in 2011. There will be no public funding for campaign organisations

The Scottish Government is ready to work with the UK Government to agree a clarification of the Scotland Act 1998 that would put the referendum effectively beyond legal challenge. This would be achieved through an order under section 30 of the 1998 Act and subject to the agreement of both parliaments. The Scottish Government does not accept that conditions should be placed upon the order. The Scottish Government’s mandate to hold a referendum is clear. As a matter of democratic principle it is for the Scottish Parliament to decide on the timing and terms of the referendum and the rules under which it is to be conducted

Claim of Right

On Thursday Nicola Sturgeon led the Scottish Government debate on the Claim of Right. The motion was ‘That the Parliament acknowledges the sovereign right of the Scottish people to determine the form of government best suited to their needs and declares and pledges that in all its actions and deliberations their interests shall be paramount.’ Nicola Sturgeon began her speech discussing the principle that the people are sovereign, tracing this from the Declaration of Arbroath. We have published a consultation paper and will hear the views of people throughout Scotland. The importance of bringing the historical nature of the contents of the motion to a contemporary relevance was highlighted.

Michael Russell concluded the debate for the Scottish Government. He pointed out that the Tories spent the debate focusing on a background to constitutional theory and Labour also looked back to history. Michael Russell pointed out that “The question today is not about individual politicians and parties…The question is simple: it is whether power rests with the people.”

Key points for the debate:

* The SNP were initially heavily involved in the process in the 1980s, while Labour initially weren‘t. 3 prominent nationalists – Paul Scott, Neil McCormick and Isobel Lindsay – sat on the Constitutional Steering Group.

* Labour, meanwhile, did not take part in the process until after our success in the Govan by-election, and until they were assured by the Campaign for a Scottish Assembly that they would effectively control it, given their 50 MPs.

* Why didn’t the SNP sign the 1989 Claim of Right Declaration? We could never sign to something that, on the one hand, asserted the sovereign right of the people of Scotland to determine the best of Government, while on the other hand specifically a fully independent Government as an option.

Background:

* Campaign for a Scottish Assembly – formed after the 1979 referendum to keep alive the case for Scottish self-government

* Constitutional Steering Group – established by the CSA. Produced A Claim of Right for Scotland on 13th July 1988 which called for a Scottish constitutional convention. SNP Members participated in this.

* Scottish Constitutional Convention – brought together a broad spectrum of civic Scotland to discuss the contents of a proposed claim of right. At its first meeting on 30th March 1989, it adopted the A Claim of Right for Scotland declaration. SNP no longer involved. Published 24-page document Towards Scotland’s Parliament: A report to the Scottish People on 30th Nov 1990, and Scotland’s Parliament. Scotland’s Right on 30th Nov 1995.

GDP figures

Figures published by the ONS on Wednesday show that the UK economy shrank by 0.2% in Q4 2011 – worse than the 0.1% predicted. Comparable Scottish figures for Q4 2011 will be published on 18th April.

On an annual basis (4Q-on-4Q), Scottish GDP grew by 0.9% to Q3 2011; UK grew by 1.3%.

Another quarter of negative growth will mean that the UK has technically returned to recession.

The last recession (2008-2009) was shorter and shallower in Scotland than in the rest of the UK.

Budget – Stage 1

On Wednesday Parliament passed the Budget Bill at Stage 1. Labour, the Lib Dems and the Greens voted against the budget, with the Tories abstaining.

Stage 2 will now take place in the Finance Committee next week, with Stage 3 taking place in the full Parliament the following week.

Buses debate

A Labour debate on bus travel was held on Thursday. Transport Minister Keith Brown argued that the Scottish Government supports the bus industry to the tune of £0.25bn, adding: “which is a generous settlement when one bears in mind—as I have mentioned already—the swinging cuts to our capital budget.”

The Minister said that Labour’s fuel duty escalator had added to the burden to bus companies, as the largest part of their fare was comprised of labour and fuel costs. He added that the reduction in BSOG justified a one per cent maximum increase in fares, not the seven or eight per cent increases happening elsewhere, but that was “a decision for the bus operators”.

He also stated: A planned meeting of a new bus stakeholder group would be brought forward to March. This would look at improving connectivity, quality of service, maintaining the bus service and encouraging modal shift; Service changes were regulated, and advice would be sought from the Traffic Commissioner on changing the notice period for changes; The Green Bus Fund has delivered 48 new low carbon vehicles and would deliver more to the value of £2m this year; From April, demand responsive services would be able to register as local bus services and qualify for BSOG and concessionary travel; It was worth looking at proposals to change the National Concessionary Travel Scheme, but keeping in mind that those who benefit were often low paid employees.

On changes to BSOG, he said that these were happening in order to remove fuel from the calculation of subsidy and change it instead to route length. While the grant was reducing, a £3m investment fund for bus infrastructure was proposed. In 2012/13, this fund would be used to help operators most affected by the BSOG change.

Kinship care

Minister for Children and Young People Aileen Campbell said that the Scottish Government had done more than any previous administration for kinship carers. The SNP had moved quickly, introducing ‘Getting it right for every child in kinship and foster care’ in 2007 and legislation in 2009 recognising kinship carers for the first time, while the introduction of permanence orders in 2007 had enhanced the chance of finding a child a permanent home with the wider family. The National Parenting Strategy was also being developed for anyone involved in bringing up children, and at the heart of this will be recognition that all parents may need support at one time or another.

The Minister also said that concerns raised by kinship care organisations at a recent Education Committee meeting were taken very seriously. She added that during two terms in office, Labour had done nothing to recognise kinship carers. “It took the election of the SNP Government and our legislation for that to happen. However, we are not complacent and we understand that more needs to be done,” she said.

She stressed that the fact Parliament had no competence over welfare and social security was not helping progress on support for kinship carers. She stressed that the SNP believe kinship carers should be able to claim benefits, as any parent would, such as child benefit and child tax credit.

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