Serious issues at first minister's questions

Brian Taylor
Political editor, Scotland

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There were one or two sklenting references to the election. Iain Gray opened by noting that he was only too glad to be there - rather than watching the exchanges on the telly.

Actually, he had opened by plunging straight into his supplementary - without asking the warm-up question on the order paper. With a dry grin, he blamed his lack of practice in the role of questioning the first minister.

Alex Salmond responded in kind with a sympathetic smile.

But the exchanges themselves were deeply serious - on the subject of care of the elderly.

Mr Gray proved that there remains a significant role for the opposition, even in these majoritarian days. His questions were persistent and to the point.

He summoned a series of issues: the closure of the Elsie Inglis home in Edinburgh; the financial problems besetting Southern Cross, the largest private sector provider of care; the spending cuts at the care inspectorate.

Rose to challenge

Then he drew these together neatly to challenge the first minister to produce a coherent, governmental response.

Mr Salmond, as you would expect, rose to the challenge.

The situation at Elsie Inglis had been dealt with speedily; the authorities stood ready to assist residents if the Southern Cross problems increased; the inspectorate was providing wide cover across Scotland, with unannounced investigations now the norm.

It was a substantive series of exchanges - delivering real information on a highly relevant topic. What's more, it ensures that Mr Salmond and his ministers will keep right on top of the problem.

Job done.

Others pursued the question of the UK Supreme Court. Again, a serious subject - although perhaps this produced rather less of immediate interest.

Bigger role

Both Annabel Goldie and Willie Rennie felt that Justice Secretary Kenny Macaskill might care to mind his tongue when criticising the noble judges on the UK bench.

Mr Salmond demurred. Verdict and sentence later, pending further evidence. With, of course, room for subsequent appeal.

A final thought. This was the first FMQs since reforms were introduced by the new Presiding Officer Tricia Marwick, designed to give a bigger role to backbenchers.

Early days, I know, but I cannot say I noticed the difference.

Yes, John Scott was called on a constituency issue before Willie Rennie got his shottie.

Other than that, the session still seemed dominated by sustained questions from the opposition leaders.