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The Working Life of Christina McKelvie MSP
10th September 2009

Back to Parliament

It’s been quite a busy summer with some local campaigns and, being the year of homecoming, a load of events to attend and support, and I even sneaked a fortnight’s holiday in the middle of it.  Now, though, we’re back to Parliament and I’m back into the groove of heading through to Edinburgh every Wednesday morning and getting back home late on Thursday night (sometimes have to go through on a Tuesday instead and stay the extra day, but not too often), and the first couple of weeks back have been stormers.

We had a recall of Parliament this year, of course, when Justice Secretary Kenny MacAskill made his Ministerial Statement on the release on compassionate grounds of the Lockerbie bomber, Abdelbasit Ali Mohmed Al-Megrahi.  That decision to show compassion to a man who showed no compassion himself, to stand up for the Scottish justice system in the face of enormous pressure, to apply the principles which underpin Scottish views on justice rather than pander to those who would add vindictiveness required a fair bit of strength of character, and I’m pleased that Kenny MacAskill was the politician who had to make that decision, it took the kind of strength of character that I know he has.  It may have been a brave decision or it may have been an easy decision to take because he was following what he knew to be right, I can’t tell and Kenny respects his duty as Cabinet Secretary for Justice and won’t be telling anybody about how he felt about it.  What we can be sure of is that it took a fair degree of moral fibre and a calm nerve to get through that.  I admire the way he handled himself all the way through.

The opposition saddened me over the Megrahi case, though.  It was clear from the outset that the decision was taken because the man is dying, he has a very short time left to go and it was about letting him go home to spend time with his family before he died, it was about human dignity.  Unfortunately, the leaders of the opposition parties thought that there might be a chance to make some political capital out of it and started trying to look for ways to attack the decision, beginning with the decision to use a dying man as a political football and ending up in the ridiculous position of trying to suggest that the decision had been made in the way that it was because Kenny’s brother used to work for an oil company.  A lack of dignity on the part of the opposition parties and a lack of respect for the processes of our legal system (with the honourable exception of the Greens), and I think that the Scottish people will see through their attempts to use this decision for party politics.

The opposition were in similar form on an education matter as well, with the Labour members of the Education Committee, abetted by the Lib Dem member sought to overturn a Statutory Instrument which had been introduced by Children’s Minister Adam Ingram MSP.  Scottish Statutory Instruments or SSIs are how Ministers make rules, give guidance and rights and suchlike things, they’re authorised by Acts of Parliament and Parliament has scrutiny over them – affirmative SSIs don’t come into force until Parliament has approved them, negative SSIs come into force immediately and Parliament has 40 days to overturn them.  The affirmative and negative bits of their names only refer to the process used.  The one that Adam had introduced was under the negative process, so it came into force and Parliament had the right to annul it.

It was introduced in June in response to proceedings in the Court of Session where it was claimed that the rules on legal aid for vulnerable adults involved in the Children’s Hearings system meant that they were in breach of Convention Rights – which is against the Scotland Act.  Eilish Angiolini, the Lord Advocate, accepted that it was a breach, and a very clear breach which should have been spotted and pledged to remedy the breach as soon as possible.  That’s what Adam’s SSI did – it provided the right for the chairs of panels which are dealing with very vulnerable adults (adults who can’t take part in the proceedings without help) could be given legal aid if they can’t afford to pay for a solicitor themselves.  Anyone who could afford a solicitor was already able to take one along – this was just addressing an injustice for those who couldn’t afford it and weren’t capable of handling themselves.

That was the legislation that Labour and the Lib Dems wanted to overturn, and their reasons were pretty poor – that there hadn’t been enough consultation for this emergency legislation; that we shouldn’t introduce lawyers into the Children’s Hearings system (they’re already there); that the Minister didn’t know how many cases there would be (how could he know?); it would ‘erode the ethos of the system’ (with no explanation); or, the cherry on the cake from the Lib Dems’ Margaret Smith, the effect of the SSI was to “breach the Education, Lifelong Learning and Culture Committee's right to proper scrutiny”.  In truth, these people thought that they could get a victory against the Government and their intent was to score party political points – they ignored the effect that their actions would have on people in more vulnerable positions.

Even worse was the behaviour of the Committee Convenor.  Three times over the summer recess the Minister had offered to come and brief the committee and we, as members of the committee weren’t even told that the offers had been made, far less that they had been turned down.  At the committee Labour and Lib Dem members voted to remove that legal aid from those vulnerable members of society.  In the chamber on Wednesday, the Conservatives voted with us and with the Greens to overturn the recommendations of the committee – partly because the issues were raised in 2001 and the previous administration refused to act.  The consequences could have been very, very expensive – like the slopping out cases.  I’m glad that common sense prevailed in the end but sad that opposition politicians looked to use such an issue for party political gain.

I shouldn’t really have been surprised, then, when Iain Gray stood up at First Minister’s Questions and accused Alex Salmond of being incompetent over the Diageo affair, accused him of megaphone diplomacy, and sought some party political point-scoring from the loss of hundreds of jobs.  With grubby intent like that is it any wonder that Labour is losing support all the time?

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