Nicol’s decision to stand down

As announced by the Scottish Liberal Democrats yesterday, Nicol Stephen MSP is standing down next May, 28 years after first being elected a councillor, then an MP and latterly an MSP.

 

Nicol has served the people of Aberdeen with great distinction over three decades and he has done much to build up the Scottish Liberal Democrats, particularly during his period as party leader between 2005 and 2008.

Nicol has always been very supportive of our local party in Dundee, visiting the city often and campaigning with us.  See photo (above) of some of the Dundee LibDem team with Nicol when he visited Lochee in 2007.

Scottish party leader Tavish Scott said yesterday, “Nicol has made an enormous contribution to both the north-east and to Scotland. I will miss his presence, strategic approach and sense of humour as a colleague and above all a friend in Holyrood.”

I wish Nicol, Caris and the family all the best for the future.

Nicol’s shock decision

As the greatest fan of Nicol Stephen, I’m really sad at his decision to stand down as Scottish LibDem leader, but I have sent him a message wishing him, Caris & the family every good wish.


Here’s Nicol’s message to party members :

Last week I informed the Convener of the Scottish Liberal Democrats that I intended to stand down as Party Leader.

Today I am formally announcing that decision, with immediate effect. Everyone involved in politics knows that there are stresses and strains on family life.

But when it goes beyond that, when it crosses a line, something has to be done.
And at that stage – when you have to make a choice between family and politics – there can only be one answer. The health and wellbeing of your family has got to come first.

With four children between the ages of 4 and 12, my family has got to be my priority.

As an MSP representing a constituency well away from Edinburgh, I have been away from home at least four working days each week for more than nine years.
As a party leader the responsibilities have been even more demanding. You have to be available every day, every week. There is rarely a weekend, a birthday or a family holiday when the demands of the job do not intrude.
That is not to complain – long hours and long absences from home go with the job.
But it can all have an impact.

And when that impact becomes too great, it is time to put my family first. I will continue to represent Aberdeen South in the Scottish Parliament. I intend to remain a strong campaigner on behalf of my city and my constituents.
It has been an honour and a great privilege to lead the party over the last three years and to be part of the first generation of Liberal Democrats to be in government in Britain since the Second World War.In that time the Scottish Liberal Democrats have achieved much for the people of Scotland. We succeeded in scrapping student tuition fees, in setting bold targets for renewable energy and in delivering a fair voting system for local government.

As a Minister, I welcomed the chance to deliver the Parliament’s first cut in business rates, to introduce enterprise education for every child and to kick start new wave and tidal projects to release Scotland’s potential to be the renewable energy powerhouse of Europe.

And, during my time as leader, the Party shook the foundations of Scottish politics when Willie Rennie gained the Dunfermline and West Fife by-election from Labour. We also gained Dunfermline West at the Scottish election, and across Scotland saw our number of votes and our share of the vote increase – a notable achievement for a party which had been in power for eight years.Our party is united and our shadow cabinet team has been taking the fight to the SNP in Parliament with a strong and consistently effective performance.And I have enjoyed challenging the new First Minister at question time each week. I will miss that.

I will miss it all, a great deal.

My hunger for change in Scotland – tackling global warming, building the role of young people in our country and stopping the slide of civil liberties – is no less now than when I started in politics 25 years ago.
However that drive and that passion comes at a price. And it is a sacrifice that that my family should no longer have to make. Their happiness is more important than any political office and that is the reason for me standing down as leader of the Scottish Liberal Democrats.

Our new leader can be assured of my total support and my constant encouragement. It has been a fascinating few days in Scottish politics and today’s announcement will be for most another unexpected twist.But the fundamentals are clear.

The Liberal Democrats are united, strong and growing.

Labour are coming to the end of their time at Westminster. The SNP are starting to find government tougher than they expected. Broken promises catch up with you. And the Conservative strategy of continually propping up the SNP in Holyrood remains to me simply staggering.

I believe that there is a huge opportunity for our party at this time. It is going to be an exciting few years.

And I wish my successor great success.

Finally, I want to thank friends and colleagues for their support, advice and encouragement. They know who they are – at Westminster, at Holyrood and across Scotland. I will not get into that cliché of mentioning a long list of those who have meant so much to me over the years, but they know who they are!

Above all, however, I want to thank my wife Caris and my four kids for all their help – and all they put up with – in supporting my life in politics!

That other cliché is for a politician to say he is looking forward to spending more time with his family.

In my case it happens to be true.

Perhaps my announcement today should alert people to the demands which are placed on politicians and their families.

For me, it is simpler than that. Recognising those demands, it reflects what I must do – as a personal, not a political, priority.

Thank you,

Nicol Stephen MSP

SNP shambles on PE targets

During last week’s FMQs, leader of the Liberal Democrats in Scotland, Nicol Stephen MSP challenged the First Minister to provide clarity on the SNP’s mixed message for physical education targets in schools.

“In March, a Government spin doctor said that the guarantee of two hours of physical education had been dropped, but the First Minister issued a clarification and said that that was not true.


“This week, the Minister for Schools and Skills said that the two-hours target included walking to school, but yesterday the First Minister issued a clarification and said that that was not true. The Scottish National Party manifesto said:

“‘We will ensure that every pupil has 2 hours of quality PE each week delivered by specialist PE teachers.’

“Was any of that true?

“The First Minister seems relaxed about all this. I wonder whether all the radios in Bute House have been confiscated. Has the First Minister not heard what has been going on?

“His promise was made in two parts: not only would two hours of PE be delivered for every child, but those hours would be delivered by specialist PE teachers. The Minister for Schools and Skills, Maureen Watt, was asked on the radio:

‘Good quality. Does that mean specialist teaching?’

“She replied: ‘Well, it needn’t mean specialist teaching.’

“The Cabinet Secretary for Education and Lifelong Learning, Fiona Hyslop, was asked on the radio:

“‘You promised that, didn’t you? You said that you will ensure that every pupil has two hours.’

“She replied: ‘I can’t be in every single school detailing the timetabling.’

“That is two ministers over two days each walking away from half of the promise.


“We are fed up with the evasions and contortions, so will the First Minister tell us simply when all children in Scotland will have two hours of PE every week with a qualified PE teacher? That was the SNP promise; when will it be delivered?”

You can read the full exchange by clicking on the headline above.

Perhaps the most telling aspects of Nicol’s intervention at FMQs last week were two fold :

  • Maureen Watt, SNP Schools Minister, despite having obviously been given the “smile at all costs” remit (sitting beside Salmond at FMQs), looked extremely uncomfortable throughout. A Minister totally out of her depth – actually makes Fiona Hyslop look good.
  • When Nicol said “We are fed up with the evasions and contortions” the noises of support for that comment were audible right across the chamber. Salmond’s government never gives a straight answer to a straight question and that point is no longer lost on anyone.
Liberal Democrat Shadow Health Secretary, Ross Finnie MSP, added :

“The SNP is all over the place on physical exercise targets for children …. we discover that the Schools Minister is utterly incapable of expanding on the target. She was unable to give any details about how the two hour target would be delivered during the school day, preferring instead to remind the interviewer that physical education could be delivered before and after the school day.”

Maureen Watt? A pretty hopeless Minister, really.

Liberal Democrats – the effective opposition

Following the astonishing meltdown of the Labour Party this week, Nicol Stephen, Leader of the Liberal Democrats in Scotland, said that the Liberal Democrats are offering the only effective opposition to the SNP Government.

“The past week has proved beyond any doubt that the Liberal Democrats are the only party providing effective opposition to the SNP.

“Annabel Goldie’s Tories have made life more than easy for the SNP over the last year. The Tories have consistently cosied up to the SNP, even supporting the nationalist’s budget. They must share the blame for the ensuing cuts to frontline services that almost every council in Scotland has had to make.

“Labour has disintegrated. Wendy Alexander’s flip-flop on the independence vote and the subsequent failure of the Prime Minister to support her position has plunged the party into chaos. Nobody knows what Labour stand for anymore and they’re shown themselves as totally incapable of holding the SNP Government to account.

“Week in, week out at First Minister’s Questions and at the key debates in the Scottish Parliament, only the Liberal Democrats are providing the real alternative to the SNP Government.”

Bring on the clowns

The “Sunday Times” today -‘Bring on the clowns – Wendy Alexander’s referendum U-turn’ (click on headline above to view) – along with the other Sunday papers, sums up the depth of the disaster of Wendy Alexander’s week.

Nicol Stephen MSP, speaking at First Minister’s Questions on Thursday, said Alex Salmond could not believe his luck over Alexander’s ridiculous u-turn on the referendum issue.

Nicol said, “First he had the Tories cosying up to him on the budget, now we have the farcical floor show of the Labour Party offering him his lifetime’s ambition on a silver tray.”

Now it appears Wendy is under pressure to make a u-turn over the u-turn.
Scottish Labour has totally lost the plot.

You’d suggest they ditch Wendy, err … but exactly which towering giant from the Scottish Labour contingent in the Scottish Parliament would replace her? Ooops, sorry – there isn’t one!

Burma

As raised by Nicol Stephen in the Scottish Parliament today, the Cyclone Nargis disaster is a tragedy for the people of Burma.
Already suffering from the lowest living standards in Asia and years of misrule and mismanagement, the people of Burma have now been struck by this terrible natural catastrophe.
Our differences with the Burmese regime are well known, but our most urgent task now is humanitarian. The latest figures report more than 22 000 dead, probably many more.
As of today Aung San Suu Kyi has been detained for a total of 12 years and 197 days. Please click on the headline and help the people of Burma.

Nicol Stephen, FMQs Hero …

OK, it is becoming a weekly success for Nicol Stephen – star of First Minister’s questions – but he was particularly brilliant on Thursday.
In challenging the Deputy First Minister Nicola Cheerful over false claims by Alex Salmond that the Government has launched a consultation on the SNP’s election promise to scrap student debt, Nicol said,

“The First Minister gave a BBC interview last week. He was asked why the Government had dropped its promise to write off student debt. In reply, the First Minister said:

“’We’ve published a consultation document on student debt, which is out for consultation at the present moment. I am sure that’s available to read.’

“Is anything that he said in those two sentences true?

“The First Minister was very clear last week that he had published a consultation and that it was available to read. However, we made a request for the document under the freedom of information legislation and we got the following back from the Government:

‘We believe that releasing information on the policy proposals would not be in the public interest at this time.’

“What is it with the Government and this policy?

“Four weeks ago, Fiona Hyslop appeared on STV to deny that she had ever promised to write off student debt in the first place. The First Minister has now been on the BBC to fabricate an entire Government consultation. In the interview, James Watson from Glasgow, the father of a student, asked him, ‘Why do you have to lie to the people to get voted into power?’

“Can the Deputy First Minister give Mr Watson an honest answer?”

I am going to be generous here and say that Nicola Sturgeon did well too – she’s actually a rather good performer and less abrasive than Salmond. Labour Leader Wendy Alexander was utterly terrible, but nothing new there then.

Nicol continues to receive praise for his sharp questioning at FMQs from political pundits across the board:

· Alan Cochrane, Scottish Political Editor, Daily Telegraph: “By God, he’s done it again! Regular readers may well be growing tired of this column’s paeans of praise directed at Nicol Stephen, the leader of the Scottish Liberal Democrats, but the fact remains that he is, by a long Scots mile, easily the best opposition that we have to Alex Salmond.” (Telegraph 02.05.08)

Eddie Barnes, Political Editor, Scotland on Sunday: “It was another surgical strike for Nicol Stephen.” (Holyrood Live 01.05.08)

SNP on the fuel crisis – shades of Labour on the 10p tax rate

Today’s Daily Telegraph sums up the concerns about the SNP Government’s handling of the fuel crisis – to quote :
“Alex Salmond was accused of being out of touch with the fuel crisis facing Scotland yesterday after he claimed that the country could cope with a strike at its only refinery.”
Click on the headline above to view the full article.
At this week’s First Minister’s Questions, leader of the Liberal Democrats in Scotland, Nicol Stephen MSP, sought to seek assurances from the First Minister that the Government was taking all appropriate steps to counter panic buying and profiteering on the part of individuals and petrol stations in the run up to the Grangemouth oil refinery strike.

Nicol Stephen said, “People throughout Scotland are dismayed and angry at the crisis and the profiteering. The First Minister has just said that there is ample fuel and has called for normal purchasing.

“Does he not know that that stopped several days ago?

“There are now long queues, empty fuel tanks and high prices. The situation is anything but normal. Will ministers stop saying that they have it all under control? Has the First Minister driven home the case to get prices capped, as I asked him to do on Monday? Will he stop ministers pretending that they have secured ample supplies?

“People want real action from the Government, not empty promises that everything is normal. People are genuinely worried. What is the First Minister doing to stop the rip-off and to keep Scotland moving?”

Thereafter – and commenting after a ministerial statement about the Grangemouth fuel dispute, Liberal Democrat Shadow Finance Secretary Tavish Scott MSP said, “The First Minister has promised that there was an ‘ample and substantial’ stock of fuel. The Cabinet Secretary in his statement said that the government needed to ‘mitigate any possible impact’ and if ‘any shortages arise’ then they would act.

“Despite the First Minister assuring the Parliament that fuel would last, ‘well into May’, Lothian Buses, just an hour later, announced that there would be no buses from Sunday onwards. Petrol stations on the A9 are without fuel.

“In the Borders, the local National Farmers Union has warned that there is no red diesel available due to the Grangemouth dispute and the Shell petrol station closest to the Scottish Parliament has run out of diesel and this afternoon increased its petrol prices by 1p a litre.

“Are Scottish Ministers the only people in Scotland not to recognise that there is a fuel shortage?

“It took a personal phone call from the Transport Secretary to reassure Lothian Buses that fuel would be guaranteed. The Transport Minister’s going to have a busy evening tonight if he has to call every bus operator in Scotland to guarantee them sufficient fuel to keep their fleets running.

“SNP Ministers simply don’t know what’s going on.”

Salmond’s handling of this thus far has all the shades of Gordon Brown and Alistair Darling’s “head in the sand” approach over the 10p tax rate fiasco. As my party colleague Iain Dale said on his blog (http://anything-caron-can-do.blogspot.com/) yesterday :

“They say Ross Finnie has more than a passing resemblance to Captain Mainwaring from Dad’s Army. Today we saw Eck Salmond taking on the Corporal Jones role of running around in turmoil shouting “Don’t panic!” to the people of Scotland.”

“My solution: well there’s the nub. People won’t stop panicking until there is settlement of the dispute. My suggestion is that both sides go back to ACAS and accept their decision as legally binding. It seems the only feasible way out.”

Last week’s FMQs …

Another excellent performance by Nicol Stephen at FMQs last week, where he took the opportunity to challenge the First Minister over the SNP’s proposed £3bn of “efficiency” savings and expose the complete lack of detail in their published figures.

Annabel Goldie is also a consistently good performer at FMQs and Alex Salmond’s response to her question on Thursday about whether or not students are liable for Council Tax (“As Annabel Goldie well knows, it depends where they are staying”) sort of sums up Salmond’s oft-repeated lack of grasp of the actuality (students are exempt Council Tax no matter where they stay). Alex Salmond is great at the one-liners and can produce hot air for Scotland, but when it comes to the detail of policy, waffle-mode tends to set in. Have you seen how often he flicks through his briefing papers during questions but rarely actually refers to them?

Wendy Alexander’s performance at FMQs this week was again, frankly, poor. Her decision to fail to ask her final question was ill-conceived (although it was hilarious to see Salmond’s face when the Presiding Officer told him to sit down as there was no question to answer) but looking beyond the actual performances in the Punch and Judy atmosphere of FMQs, Alexander’s questions did result in the SNP backtracking over their backtracking of their manifesto pledge on physical education in schools (follow that if you will). Never before has any government been dragged kicking and screaming to get it to implement its own manifesto promises.

Anyway, back to Nicol’s questions on the SNP’s so-called ‘efficiency savings’ (“cuts” to you and me) – the lack of detail in the SNP proposals is staggering – they simply won’t be delivered, but I dare say Salmond will blame Westminster …

Here’s what Nicol had to say – you can read the full exchange by clicking on the headline above :

“How does the First Minister know that his list of efficiency savings of £3 billion over the next three years will not lead to cuts in public services?

“The truth is that most of the First Minister’s efficiency savings document is simply blank space. Has he seen what is missing? For the £1 billion of savings in health boards, his document says that decisions on efficiencies and cuts are best taken locally; that is it. Another £1 billion is unexplained in local government and universities and colleges; there is no information. The Scottish Prison Service said that it was too busy even to fill in the form. It said that it was “unable to specify a description of the planned efficiency savings” because “The immediate priority for SPS is dealing with the record prisoner population.

“So £2 billion of the £3 billion in cuts and efficiencies is completely unexplained.Does the First Minister think that it is right that we have to rely on the shallow reassurance of his back bencher Alex Neil? Mr Neil told Radio Scotland yesterday morning that we should not be worried because the efficiencies are not cuts in the Thatcherite tradition. Are cuts in the Salmondite tradition okay?”

This week’s FMQs

Again, it was Nicol Stephen who made all the running at First Minister’s Questions yesterday – this time pointing out the SNP’s hypocrisy on their policy for the prison transport system.
“This week, the SNP Government privatised the prison transport service for young people for the first time. It gave a major new contract to Reliance. Does the First Minister think that Reliance is the right organisation to carry out that public service?
“I wonder why the First Minister does not listen to his Cabinet members on the issue. Look at what they said when they were in Opposition.
“Nicola Sturgeon said: “Reliance assurances have been shown not to be worth the paper they are written on”.
“She also said that: “Running public services for private profit is a recipe for disaster.”
“Kenny MacAskill said that it was wrong to hand prison escorts to Reliance; the SNP said that that was “gambling with public safety”.
“So why have the First Minister and Kenny MacAskill just given Reliance brand-new services to run? What kind of backtracking, breathtaking, promise-breaking U-turn is that?
“It is like Margaret Thatcher waking up one morning and saying that Arthur Scargill was the right person to run our coal mines after all. The headline on one SNP press release was “Reliance: Time to dump the Keystone Cops”.
“Why have Salmond and MacAskill, Scotland’s Laurel and Hardy, just given a new contract for more services to the keystone cops? Why has the First Minister privatised that service?”
You can read the full exchange by clicking the headline above.
The major media commentators are again recognising Nicol’s real impact as LibDem leader in the Scottish Parliament :
· Magnus Linklater; Scotland Editor, The Times: “The only one who is having some kind of effect is Nicol Stephen, the Liberal Democrat Leader, who consistently brings up embarrassing revelations. He had great fun yesterday, pointing out that the Executive had just given a new contract to Reliance, the transportation company… It is fair to say that Mr Salmond had no great answer to this. It is equally fair to say that no one seemed particularly surprised. And so the braying grows…” (Times, 28.03.08)
· Ian Bell; Political Commentator, The Herald: “Nicol Stephen had fun with changed SNP attitudes towards the Reliance “Lags’R’Us” service.” (Herald 28.03.08)

Nicol Stephen challenges SNP government on failure to deliver promise to first time house buyers

During their weekly clash at FMQs yesterday, Leader of the Scottish Liberal Democrats, Nicol Stephen MSP, demanded that the First Minister clarify his government’s position on its manifesto commitment to provide a £2000 grant for every first-time buyer in Scotland.

“It is clear that the Chancellor of the Exchequer’s budget fails to deliver for Scotland. The new whisky tax, for example, smacks more of smash and grab than sound government and it is bad for Scotland’s industry, but this is not the first time the First Minister and I have criticised Labour budgets. In fact, this very week three years ago, the First Minister, who was then in opposition, set five tests for the United Kingdom budget, which he described as ‘simple … tests to determine whether the budget is … designed for Scottish success’.

“Now that the First Minister is in government, which of those tests does he still think is important and which of them is met in his own Scottish budget?

“At the moment, I want to focus on the First Minister’s own tests, particularly the second. The SNP made a very specific promise to give a £2,000 grant to every first-time buyer in Scotland. In 2005, the First Minister said that the matter was urgent; in 2006, his deputy said that it was time to help first-time buyers; in 2007, his manifesto said that it was a promise. It is now 2008. Where is it? The newspapers tell us that it has been cancelled.

“Now that the First Minister can deliver in government, his own budget fails his own simple test. Does he still support the £2,000 grant? Does he think that it will ever be put in place? Or does he intend, every year, to break his promise to the 30,000 first-time buyers who enter the market each year?”

You can read further (from FMQs) by clicking the headline above.

Nicol Stephen challenges SNP on dumping promises on student debt

Another superb performance by Nicol Stephen at FMQs last week, challenging the First Minister to explain the SNP’s broken promise to dump student debt.

“ Last week, the Cabinet Secretary for Education and Lifelong Learning, Fiona Hyslop, was asked on television’s ’Politics Now’ programme: ’Are you going to remove student debt? Are you going to write it off?’ “Her reply was: ’We never promised to write it off.’

“Does the First Minister think that she was absolutely and completely accurate in saying that?

“The SNP seems to have a new tactic, does it not? It used to deny breaking its promises. Now it denies making them in the first place. Does the First Minister expect us to forget that “dump the debt” was on every leaflet, on every badge and on postcards to students? There was a cartoon logo and there was even a podcast by the First Minister, yet Fiona Hyslop said last week: ’We never promised to write it off’”

“I wonder whether the First Minister has seen the SNP website that says: ‘We will write off the accumulated debt’. Who should people believe, I wonder—Fiona Hyslop or fionahyslop.com?” Official Report

Leading commentators have widely praised Nicol’s performance at FMQs:

Angus MacLeod; Scottish Political Editor, Times: “Salmond wasn’t just caught off guard, it was the final riposte from Stephen, and it was an absolute bullet bullseye when he asked who had been speaking, Fiona Hyslop or fionahyslop.com? It was an absolutely brilliant one. It showed again that Nicol Stephen is developing a rare, rare talent for First Minister’s Questions.” (STV’s Politics Now show 06.03.08)

Eddie Barnes; Political Editor, Scotland on Sunday: “He absolutely got him. He creamed him. Salmond answered the question by not answering. Alex Salmond knew he had been absolutely got on this one.” (BBC’s Holyrood Live show, 06.03.08)

Alan Cochrane; Scottish Political Editor, Telegraph: “For a sheer knock-em-down, unmitigated parliamentary victory we had to look no further yesterday than Mr Stephen. Again…chalk up another victory for Mr Stephen.” (Telegraph 07.03.08)

Brian Taylor; Scottish Political Editor, BBC Scotland: “Do you remember the “debt monster”, a hideous carton beast besetting students? Only the SNP could slay it, apparently. Nicol Stephen certainly remembers all this and he cited this evidence with vigour in challenging the First Minister. The wry smile on Alex Salmond’s face told the story… He had been, temporarily, tackled. And the Chamber knew it.”
(BBC Online blog 06.03.08)

Local Employment Partnership Launch

At lunchtime today, I represented the City Council at the Local Employment Partnership Launch at Dens Park, and signed up to the partnership on behalf of the Council, along with a number of other local employers.

Local Employment Partnerships are an excellent, innovative way of helping more people on welfare benefits into work and the City Council is pleased to be involved with the Partnership, to help improve employment opportunities in the City.
After an afternoon on “day job” activity, I’ve just watched the highlights of Nicol Stephen’s excellent speech at the Scottish LibDem Conference – summed up by the BBC Scotland Political Editor, Brian Taylor, thus:

“Good showing by Nicol Stephen, I thought – the Scottish LibDems conference liked what they heard”

Click on the headline above to read more on Brian Taylor’s blog.

Scottish Liberal Democrat Conference – Aviemore

I’ve not made it to Conference this weekend (I’m deputising for the City Council Leader at an event at Dundee FC tomorrow and haven’t yet mastered the ability to be in two places at once!) but the BBC has good coverage on-line (including a Q&A with Nicol Stephen MSP – click on headline to view) and Conference highlights at :


Nicol Stephen MSP

Here’s Nicol’s letter to Scottish LibDem party members, issued yesterday :
As you will no doubt be aware a busy week in the Scottish Parliament saw the Scottish Government’s budget for 2008-09 approved. The budget was passed with the full support of the Conservatives.
Our biggest problem with the budget is that the SNP’s sums did not add up before the election in May and they don’t add up now. They over-promised and have had to backtrack and drop many manifesto promises such as writing off student debt.
Every party in the parliament is a minority and therefore there is a need to build consensus on the spending priorities of the parliament. The SNP government made a great deal out of being consensual and working together with other parties, but in reality this turned out to be nothing more than a series of back room deals with the Tories.
This budget is the most opaque since devolution, lacking detail and putting public services across Scotland at risk. The Liberal Democrats led the scrutiny in the Scottish Parliament while the Conservatives blocked debate and backed the nationalists.
The Government have continually failed to explain how they will make the
£1.6 billion of efficiency savings that they need to pay for public services. There is no plan in place if these savings cannot be met.
Liberal Democrats have raised substantive, significant issues in parliament and highlighted serious concerns on a number of topics – police numbers, student debt, university funding, class sizes, health expenditure, the enterprise networks, public transport investment, waste management and flood measures.
It is the choices made by the SNP government that threaten public services.
And it remains to be seen whether the populist policies that the SNP have chosen to direct resources to can be delivered without cuts to other public services.
The Scottish Conservatives have attempted to portray themselves as the winners from the budget. However, the Finance Secretary John Swinney summed up the Tory contribution as follows:
“If you look at the budget changes I have made, the entire changes that I’ve put through in the course of the amendments today and the other announcements I have made, I have changed the budget by about £30 million maximum. That’s the equivalent of what the government spends in one morning of one day. So it’s really marginal the difference to the budget changes that have been put forward.” (John Swinney MSP, Newsnight Scotland 6th February 2008)
In the Times today, Magnus Linklater writes:
“Since the Tories voted with the SNP and supported their budget, they have now become the Nationalists’ principal allies.” (Magnus Linklater, The Times, 8th February 2008)
The budget has now passed. Liberal Democrats will continue to hold the SNP Government to account for the choices they have made.
I look forward to seeing you at our conference in Aviemore on 29th February where we will be consulting on health and broadcasting policy and debating substantive motions on higher education, affordable housing and the Right to Buy to mention just a few.

Non-bonfire of the quangos

Last year, Alex Salmond rashly gave a conference speech commitment to cut the number of Scotland’s 199 quangos by 25%.

It’s fairly obvious that the recent announcements by the SNP “government” on the subject are another example of spin, not substance. Nicol Stephen summed it up in last Wednesday’s debate on the subject in the Scottish Parliament :

“Will the First Minister confirm that the budgeted set-up costs of his new skills quango will be £16 million?

“Does the First Minister agree that the problem with his list is that he counts only what he cuts and not what he creates? When he promised to cut 21 local enterprise companies, he replaced them with 48 new national, regional and sub-regional organisations. John Swinney has admitted that he has created another 24, including the new Scottish fisheries council—created, but not counted—four national health service scrutiny bodies, the seasonal flu review steering group, the housing supply statistics group, and the housing supply task force. All were created by the Government but not counted. Last week, the Government announced a crackdown on waste. That created a working group, a review, a consultation and a think-tank. Was any of that added to the list?

“Is this not like that episode of “Porridge” in which a prison escape tunnel is discovered? In the final scene, Mackay asks Fletcher, “What did you do with the dirt?” Fletcher replies, “That’s simple. We dug another tunnel and hid it in there.” Is not the First Minister doing exactly that? Seventy-six new bodies have been created by the Government, and the total is rising. All are supported by a total of 58 reviews and 91 new consultations. Why does the First Minister not admit that he is adding to the clutter and that the truth is that, for every thing that he has dropped, he has brought in something new?”

You can read the full exchange by clicking the headline above.

NHS concerns

As anyone viewing First Minister’s Questions last week would see, Nicol Stephen, Leader of the Liberal Democrats in Scotland, confronted the First Minister about the devastating impact his waiting times targets have had on NHS patients. Nicol demanded that ministers come clean about how many patients have been dumped from NHS waiting lists in order to meet the Scottish Government’s waiting times targets.

Nicol said, “The government needs to come clean about how many other doctors and surgeons have been told to delete patients in order to meet targets.

“We need to know how many health boards have been sending patients away without being treated. People expect the NHS to be available for them wherever they live in Scotland.

“Liberal Democrats are tabling questions to the Scottish Government this afternoon to get to the bottom of this sickening situation.

“I want to know what action the government is taking to get all the patients who received such devastating letters back into the NHS.”

Following a statement by NHS Tayside in response to the waiting times issues raised at First Minister’s Questions, Nicol said, “Clearly, if this issue had not been raised by me today these patients would have been left languishing in a ‘no-treatment no-man’s-land.

“There is no dispute that patients were forcibly removed from waiting lists. This was as a direct result of the current government’s policy.

“We now need a guarantee from the government that no other patients in Scotland have been treated in this disgraceful way.”


All the usual spin from the SNP “government” doesn’t hide the fact that Nicol raising this serious issue has resulted in the particular issue at NHS Tayside being “hurriedly resolved” – but, as Nicol points out, the SNP administration must clarify the position regarding all patients across Scotland and provide proper reassurances.

Nicol Stephen

Nicol Stephen MSP, Leader of the Scottish Liberal Democrats, last night issued an e-mail to party members across Scotland. I replicate part of this below :
Dear members,
At the end of a busy week, I thought I would e mail to record my congratulations to the LibDem team in Dundee for achieving a big growth in our share of the vote in Dundee Council’s Lochee by-election yesterday. It showed, once again that, where we work, we gain new votes for our party.
Well done to our great, young candidate Chris Hall and to Cllr Fraser Macpherson and the Dundee team who have worked so hard to add so much to our vote share.
There have now been three by-elections in Scotland since May. They have been in Aberdeen, Argyll and Dundee. The combined results show that the Liberal Democrat vote share has gone up by more than any other party. We have been the biggest winners in votes and – remember – we made that important seat gain in Helensburgh just last month.
I am determined to continue to take our positive campaigns to every part of Scotland and for us to win new votes wherever we can.
Best wishes
Nicol Stephen

Sunday in Lochee … and great West End photos!

Our Lochee campaign team has returned home, damp, sore legs, but a great day in Lochee Ward! I have just worked out how much extra custom the Tesco cafe at the Stack is getting from the by-election… The SNP did make an appearance today in Menzieshill, but the LibDem team was in Menzieshill, Charleston, Beechwood, Dryburgh … you get the picture!
Anyway, away from damp clothes and worn-out legs – click on the headline above to see some great West End photographs (South Tay Street; Nethergate) and also some of St Andrews.
Nicol Stephen MSP back in Lochee Ward tomorrow afternoon – busy day ahead!

Direct Debits … and Lochee!

This morning I attended the launch event of the City Council Finance Department’s “Pick up a prize” promotion – aimed at encouraging more Dundonians to pay their Council Tax by Direct Debit.
A prize draw campaign will run for 3 months until 31st January 2008, with the prizes being drawn on 29th February 2008. The draw gives the chance for Direct Debit payers to win a number of prizes (donated by local businesses) and, in case any of you are wondering – in response to a point made by the Council Leader that he’d be deeply embarrassed if he won a main prize, it was confirmed that City Councillors and Council Chief Officers will not be included in the draw!
For more details of the prize draw offer, click on the headline above.
I asked a question about encouraging the banks to offer basic bank accounts to citizens who do not presently have a bank account and was pleased to be informed that the Council is in discussions with the banks about promoting basic bank accounts – this will be particularly important given the move to Local Housing Allowance within the Housing Benefit Scheme next April, which will see many private tenants get their benefit paid to themselves rather than direct to their landlord in future.
This afternoon, Nicol Stephen MSP paid a second visit to the Lochee Ward by-election and spent time speaking to residents in both Charleston and central Lochee – see photo below of Nicol, candidate Chris Hall and some supporters pictured earlier at the Stack (I’m not in the photo – guess who took it!)

Nicol Stephen MSP in Dundee

Earlier today, Leader of the Scottish Liberal Democrats, Nicol Stephen MSP, visited Dundee to meet with Chris Hall, our Lochee Ward by-election candidate and with myself and the City Council about the future of the Cities Growth Fund (see also the story in tonight’s Evening Telegraph by clicking the headline above).
Despite the rain (and there was plenty of that!) we had a good walkabout in the Lochee shopping centre meeting many local residents.

Scottish parliament, fly-posting … and daft idea of the week

Had a read of the Scottish Sunday papers late last night on return from London. A very different read to the English editions I had read on the flight up to Edinburgh!

I wryly smile at the comments of commentators who are criticising the Liberal Democrats for not cosying up to Alex Salmond and the nationalists at Holyrood. Eddie Barnes in ‘Scotland on Sunday’ quotes Salmond’s view before the election that Nicol Stephen and the LibDem MSP were “Barclaycard politicians – my flexible friends.” Sorry Alex, got that one wrong. I am afraid the LibDems will simply not sign up to expensive referenda aimed at separation.


Of course, Nicol and his colleagues can’t win with the newspaper columnists. If they had signed up to Mr Salmond, they’d have been criticised for signing up to anything to keep the ‘Ministerial Mondeos’. If they do the right thing and reject the SNP separation referendum costing millions and an uncosted programme that is undeliverable, they get equally criticised! Tom (who he?) Brown in the same newspaper says – “Petulant LibDems betray their principles and the people.” Wrong Tom, the Liberal Democrats are right to reject the SNP programme at Holyrood. Actually, judging by the article elsewhere in the same paper saying the SNP has admitted it will tear up its manifesto, it would appear the SNP has rejected the SNP programme at Holyrood.

On an entirely different matter, was pleased to see in Friday night’s Evening Telegraph that the City Council is undertaking a crackdown on fly-posting in the City. Readers of this blog and of the FOCUS in the West End will know that I have campaigned on this issue and it is good to see the City Council being proactive.

Lastly, daft idea of the week comes from our local Labour MP, Jim McGovern, whose “solution” to the problems with the recent elections is a return to the first-past-the-post electoral system. Click on the headline above to view the article about this in the Press & Journal.

I think we all accept that there were many problems with the 3rd May elections. A return to the stone-age first-past-the-post electoral system is absolutely not the solution. FPTP is a crude system that delivers results that can bear no relation to how the majority actually voted.

Whilst accepting that having different electoral systems on the same day is not a clever idea, on the whole the STV council elections worked – most of the problems surrounded the “twin” constituency/regional parliamentary ballot paper. There is no need for separate days for council and Scottish Parliament elections. The answer is a proportional and fair STV election for both. And think of the other advantage … no second class “regional” MSPs – all MSPs would have a constituency, but elected by a fair system.

Nicol Stephen MSP

It is rare that I make any political comment on the blog but thought I should include this quote from our Scottish Party Leader’s weekly e-mail to party members in the run-up to 3rd May. The photo is me with Nicol in the West End :
“And increasingly across Scotland, this message is getting through. I was pleased to hear this week from Fraser Macpherson in Dundee, who says that the Liberal Democrats are mounting our strongest ever campaign in the city and have the other parties seriously rattled. Advances like these are being made all over the country.”