The cost of gathering winter fuel

christma Image copyright AFP

Christmas, eh? The Festive Season. Time for jollity. Time for turkey, pudding and presents. Time for mistletoe and wine - and sundry other Yuletide hits.

Time, for too many of our fellow citizens, to choose between heating and eating.

Labour's Jackie Baillie chose to divert our attention from the warm, contented glow surrounding Wenceslas - and to invite us to consider the poor guy outside gathering winter fuel.

From Ms Baillie - standing in once more, pending Labour's leadership declaration on Saturday - this was a powerful, effective contribution.

She began by inviting Nicola Sturgeon to disclose the direction of travel with regard to fuel poverty in Scotland - knowing full well, of course, that the results are not encouraging.

From that point, Ms Baillie constructed a case of neglect by those responsible - including, she said, the Scottish government.

In response, Ms Sturgeon was also in good form. Her tone was of persuasion, rather than tirade. Yes, the figures on fuel poverty were "appalling" - especially in an energy-rich country like Scotland.

A clue in that added point to her position: that Scotland currently lacked the full panoply of powers to tackle each element of fuel poverty. Notably, that Scotland lacked the powers to regulate the market and prices.

Image copyright PA
Image caption Ms Sturgeon said it was appalling that people were living in fuel poverty in Scotland

Each accused the other of lacking ambition. Ms Sturgeon said the Scottish government's efforts on issues like energy efficiency were streets ahead of what was happening in England. Insufficient, said Ms Baillie.

In return, the first minister said that Labour's pledge to freeze fuel prices fell short: a cut in household bills was needed.

It was a substantive, well-argued and sustained exchange. Did it take us anywhere - in terms, that is, of helping the poor guy to gather fuel? Perhaps not, at least not immediately.

But it will certainly have added to the pressure upon Scottish Ministers to act - which is, after all, the function of Parliamentary scrutiny. And perhaps it will have encouraged the Wenceslas tendency in society - to proffer a helping hand, not a blind eye.

Something wicked

Substance too in the issues raised by Ruth Davidson of the Tories and Willie Rennie of the Liberal Democrats. Ms Davidson pursued the topic of falling teacher numbers - and argued the wider case for educational reform.

Ms Sturgeon talked of investment in education, including school buildings. On the topic of reform, she cited the Curriculum for Excellence.

Forgive me but every time I hear mention of that particular initiative, something wicked stirs. I cannot help but recall the expert academic who mused: "It is not a curriculum, it is not about excellence. The only word that rings true is 'for'".

Glib, I know. But perhaps a salient reminder to those in charge that the public will tend to judge by results they can see for themselves - rather than the ambition of the forecasts or the glossiness of the accompanying brochure.

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Image caption Auditors have warned that Revenue Scotland may not be fully ready in time for the introduction of new tax raising powers

Willie Rennie picked up on reports from Audit Scotland that new tax plans for Scotland may not be fully ready. (Who shouted "Good"?)

A new body, Revenue Scotland, is being set up to cope with tax powers on the way - including the replacement for Stamp Duty - plus others which may yet arrive.

Mr Rennie was far from assuaged by talk of contingency plans. What, he inquired, were they? In response, Ms Sturgeon offered a degree of detail.

She had been in touch with Revenue Scotland. Key staff were already in place, others were being recruited. The IT system was in preparation. It was all fine. Yes, there were contingency plans - but they would not be needed.

Mr Rennie remained sceptical. Mr Sturgeon offered further reassurance. She invited Mr Rennie to scrutinise the outcome. I think you may take it that he will.