Webchat with Alex Salmond
First minister of Scotland Alex Salmond joined us for a webchat on 15 February 2011 to discuss the Scottish election, education, transport, foreign policy, energy, voting systems and more, plus racing tips and changing nappies.
Mr Salmond, who is MSP for Gordon, was first elected as MP for Banff and Buchan in 1987, and went on to become leader of the SNP in 2004 and an MSP in May 2007. He stood down as a Westminster MP in the last general election to concentrate on his role as first minister.
When he visited MNHQ, Mr Salmond's minority government had just got its final budget before the Scottish elections through the Scottish parliament, after striking a deal with the Lib Dems to boost student funding.
Q. FromGirders: What is Scotland's financial contribution towards the Westminster government and what do we receive back in various funding? Where could I find documentary evidence to back that up, please? So that I can start arguing back more effectively when dear friends and acquaintances tell me "England pays for all you Jocks with loads of big subsidies". I'm sure your biscuit will be a Tunnock's?
A. Alex Salmond: You're right about the Tunnock's! Plain chocolate caramel wafers, although caramel logs are pretty good as well. Unfortunately, MNHQ are offering me neither. On your question, the Scottish government publishes a full account of expenditure and revenue each year. The last three years have shown Scotland in surplus relative to the UK. You'll find it on the Scottish government website under GERS.
On being proud to be in Scotland because of free personal care, and free education, then so am I, and the rocks will melt the sun before I'll allow any change to these progressive policies from the Scots parliament.
Q. Singinginmychains: Please can you tell us how you intend to prevent the private sector from taking over our hospitals, schools, universities and forests as it is doing in England? In other words, how are you going to protect us from David Cameron's Big Society, which will lead to the privatisation or closure of local services and less democratic accountability? We have so many things to be proud of in Scotland, especially free care for the elderly and no university tuition fees. We need to protect them at all costs. Scotland should lead by example, and show the Westminster government how things can be managed better - in spite of the financial crisis. Do you agree?
A. Alex Salmond: I agree totally that it's important that we in Scotland protect the things you mentioned. But in order to do that most effectively, Scotland needs the financial powers of a normal parliament, raising the money we spend rather than relying on dwindling Westminster handouts. We say give us the tools to do the job, with full financial responsibility for Holyrood, and we can grow the economy and be better placed to protect the key services and policies you mention.
Q. Aitch: So basically, Mr S, what we are looking for is the whizz-bang answer to 'You wouldn't last five minutes without us'. Hi-concept it for us, please. Gies sumhing tae blaw thaim oot the watter (and by thaim I mean much-loved English sisters and brothers of MN). A verbal bazooka, if you please.
A. Alex Salmond: I think England is a great nation, with a fantastic literary heritage and is well capable of self-government, and don't let anybody tell English people otherwise. I also think the same about Scotland. When I was a boy, my next door neighbour, Mrs Nan Borthwick, used to say that when Scotland becomes independent, then England would lose a surly lodger and gain a good neighbour. They were wise words then, and I still believe them now.
Q. JollySergeantJackrum: Your party's main policy is independence for Scotland. Can you please explain why you believe Scotland should be independent? Wouldn't we all be worse off?
A. Alex Salmond: Let me just say that you couldn't be more wrong - Scotland would be much better off as an independent nation. Independence is the natural state of being for most countries around the globe. But on top of that Scotland has some fantastic advantages that we could only fully capitalise on as an independent nation.
We have known about our North Sea oil wealth for many years, but on top of that Scotland is poised to become the green energy powerhouse of Europe, with a huge share of the continent's wind, wave and tidal power. That is set to create many thousands of jobs in the coming years, but we need the full financial powers of an independent country to really make the most of that. In any case, the most recent figures prove that Scotland more than pays its own way at the moment as part of the UK.
Q. Mumtolittlemonkey: I think it's really great to see a Scots politician on here. First, how much would my council tax have to go up by to keep all these classroom assistants and milk that the papers are talking about? It's pretty high already. Second, what would the benefits of being an independent country be to someone like me? Third, we've had to get rid of one car because of the high fuel prices, which means having to take the bus, meaning I get home even later and spend even less time with my son. What can you do to lower fuel prices and when will it happen?
A. Alex Salmond: It's clear we need more Scots politicians on Mumsnet and I am happy to start the ball rolling. As to independence and fuel prices - well, let's take them together. It is nothing short of a scandal that Scotland is one of Europe's major oil producers and yet our motorists pay some of the very highest prices at the pumps in the whole of the Continent. Independence would certainly allow us to address that anomaly.
But in the meantime we will continue to press the UK Government to introduce a fuel duty regulator to keep pump prices under control, because for many of Scotland's remote and rural communities these fuel price rises are rapidly becoming unsustainable. And it's not as if the Treasury isn't in a position to help - rising world oil prices mean they are set to rake in an extra £2 billion or so over the next year, on top of what they had expected to earn from North Sea oil.
Q. Rhadegunde: Have you thought further about moving Scotland out of council tax and into personal income tax which is a much fairer tax altogether. Council tax disproportionately affects people on lower incomes whilst allowing higher earners what is effectively a tax rebate (especially if they own more than one property). I also understand your political motivations for freezing council tax for the last few years, but your political decision has had negative consequences for local authorities. Many of your decisions seemed to be based on political considerations rather than realistic, practical understandings of their consequences, tuition fees being a case in point.
A. Alex Salmond: Yes, it was our proposal to have a local income tax to replace the council tax. It would be much fairer as it's based on the ability to pay. Council tax is very regressive, particularly for elderly folk on fixed incomes. We have frozen the council tax for the last four years, which has saved an average family some £350.
I think particularly now, when the price of just about everything is rising quickly, we must do everything we can to protect budgets. It is a part of our social contract, where the government does its best with things like the council tax freeze - which we pay for, not local authorities - and removing prescription charges.
In turn, we have to ask public sector workers on over £21,000 to accept a freeze in their salaries to help protect services and employment, but it is important there are two sides to that social contract.
Q. PeggyGuggenheim: I for one have always been delighted to get the letter telling me the council tax is frozen, but I would happily pay a few quid more if it was going to protect services! And don't the poorest get help with council tax? So who would lose out, really, if you allowed local authorities to raise council tax?
A. Alex Salmond: As you know, council tax has been frozen since 2007 providing much-needed financial relief to families vulnerable groups, including pensioners, at a challenging financial time for households, while council tax has kept on rising in other parts of the UK. Since 2007, the SNP's council tax freeze has been worth more than £300 per household across Scotland - and I believe that is a really important boost to people at a time when they are being squeezed by rising bills, fuel costs and Westminster's VAT hike.
Despite the Westminster cuts to Scotland's budget, we have maintained local councils' share of the cash, allowing them to protect key services. It's also worth pointing out that the English average band D council tax is £1,439. Band D households in Scotland therefore pay £290 less on average than in England. Sorry, English Mumsnetters!
Q. Louii: I wonder if you can tell me what the SNP government has done to protect hardworking families in Scotland?
A. Alex Salmond: I am delighted and proud that we as a Government are helping families by freezing council tax for the fourth successive year and by abolishing prescription charges. These are SNP policies that are making a real difference to family budgets in challenging times and in the face of the most extraordinary Westminster cuts. And those cuts mean that we in Scotland are faced with a choice. We know what the future holds if we stay in our present circumstances with the big economic decisions dictated by London. We would face a generation and more of continued cutbacks in our public services.
But there is an alternative, there is another option, and that's why there is a decision to be made. That option is to gain economic independence and control which will enable us to mobilise the great resources of Scotland, apply them to the human resources of the people of Scotland, and generate growth and wealth in our own economy. That's the decision we will have in 2011. We can either have a better future for our country, or we can have a generation of fighting against London control and years of cuts.
Q. pointydog: You should increase council tax. Many people can't bear to see all these cuts to public services.
A. Alex Salmond: We have placed at the heart of the budget a social contract with the people of Scotland which protects jobs by bearing down on public sector pay, with a pay freeze for those earning over £21,000. In return, the Government will protect household budgets by providing the resources to end prescription charges and for a freeze in the council tax for a fourth year in succession - that's a huge help to family budgets, especially at a time when others bills are rising, partly due to the Westminster VAT hike.
Q. abdnhiker: Can I just add my voice that we'd be willing to see inflationary raises in our council tax too if needed. Maybe just in bands D and above, or E and above, to protect those on lower incomes. Also free prescriptions aren't a priority for us if it could mean money for classroom assistants or services for the disabled etc. Guess basically I'm saying we'd manage to pay a bit more if others need it more (my husband had a 10% pay cut due to the recession but we managed - I know we're relatively fortunate). But I'm not in favour of spending more than we have, so I support the budget cuts in principle and hope that Scotland will do the right thing in protecting the most vulnerable rather than playing politics like what seems to be happening in England.
A. Alex Salmond: These are certainly challenging times for all of us, but I know you appreciate that it may be tougher for others than for ourselves. That is why in Scotland we are doing everything in our means to protect frontline services. And when it comes to protecting the most vulnerable, the SNP government is absolutely committed to doing the right thing - that's why we have pledged to protect key policies like free personal care for the elderly.
Q. soupmaker: I'd like to know what your views are about the future of the National Centre for Excellence in Traditional Music, up at Plockton. I think Highland Council is a disgrace. Sorry this is a bit parochial, but I'm raging about possibility that the centre may be forced to close.
A. Alex Salmond: I don't think the situation at Plockton, the specialist school for music covering the Highlands and Islands, is at all parochial. I regard it as a vital national resource, which must be maintained and what I can say is that Michael Russell, minister for education, is meeting with the local MSP John Farquhar Munro and I hope we will soon be able to make an announcement that will protect this wonderful facility.
Q. twinky: Can you tell me why my local council, Argyll & Bute, seem to find it acceptable to close most of our smaller, rural libraries because Holyrood has slashed their funding? I voted SNP at the last election but am told that my village's fabulous tiny library with its incredibly hardworking librarian is not viewed as a priority. Having attended several community meetings on the subject, I am not at all impressed with my local councillors and would like to give you the opportunity to answer their assertions that it's all down to central funding.
A. Alex Salmond: Local library services are the responsibility of local councils, and I agree it's important that these and other services are protected as much as possible. That's why we are delivering such a good deal for all 32 local authorities across Scotland by maintaining their share of the Scottish budget, despite the massive cuts being handed to us by Westminster. That means Scottish councils are better protected from the cuts than other parts of the Scottish budget, and certainly better protected than local government in England.
Q. Beveridge: How will the SNP support the implementation of the new Curriculum for Excellence with one of the most vital elements it needs (ie cold, hard cash) in the current financial climate? And will teaching pay and conditions, as per the McCrone agreement, be protected to ensure there is no disruption to the education of Scottish children in the coming years?
A. Alex Salmond: All the work being undertaken by government at this time has to be done against a backdrop of tight budgets. Education Secretary Michael Russell recently asked Professor Gerry McCormac to conduct a review 10 years on from the McCrone inquiry. The McCormac Review will examine a range of issues related to teacher employment, including whether the agreement is delivering all benefits that were intended for both teachers and pupils, and is tied to the delivery of Curriculum for Excellence.
Q. midnightexpress: In view of North Ayrshire's discussion of a four-day school week (which I assume is currently both unworkable and illegal), I'd like to know your views on the idea of P1 entry starting at six rather than four or five as at present. If savings need to be made, this seems to me like a potentially more beneficial and workable solution, given that it clearly works fine in many other European countries, and that there is research suggesting that starting school later may be of benefit to children, particularly boys.
A. Alex Salmond: While I agree there is a lot we can learn from other countries' educational experiences - as indeed they can learn from Scotland - we have no plans to change the age at which a child in Scotland starts school. The law defines those who must attend school as children who have reached the age of five and have not attained the age of 16 years - that set-up has served us well for many years now and we see no reason to change it.
Q. Euphemia: Can you explain to me how reducing my daughter's contact with a teacher by 10% per week is going to "enhance" her education? (I am referring to the current proposal by Renfrewshire Council.)
A. Alex Salmond: Renfrewshire Council's proposed pilot would see an enhanced range of experiences for the non-teaching element of the day through a range of sporting, cultural and citizenship activities, which the council proposes would be through the community services division utilising culture, leisure and sports development active school staff.
I expect Renfrewshire council to provide the full range of experiences that are set out in Curriculum for Excellence, and the independent evaluation will tell us whether the council has succeeded. I also welcome the council's commitment to involve parents at every stage of the pilot. HMIE will be actively involved in ensuring the pilot scheme is evaluated against Curriculum for Excellence principles. If HMIE's report is not satisfactory, then it will not go ahead. I would also like to reassure parents that the curriculum will continue to be delivered by fully qualified teachers.
Q. sammac: As a teacher, I am interested to know why the SNP have failed to keep their promises regarding class sizes? There is currently a high level of unemployment amongst post-probationer teachers, yet they continue to be churned out of universities to swell these numbers. Surely there is some method of harnessing these skills to redress the class-size issue and improve the Scottish education system by allowing CfE to be fully implemented in the most professional manner?
A. Alex Salmond: This Government is working hard to tackle the issue of teacher employment and there are signs we're now turning the corner. For example, the number of Scottish teachers claiming Job Seekers Allowance is falling and Scotland has the lowest claimant number in the UK. However, we know more needs to be done and that's why the budget agreement with Scotland's councils includes a commitment to a real reduction in teacher unemployment as well guaranteeing a probationer place for every newly qualified teacher in August 2011, and sufficient posts for all those finishing their probation in summer 2011 to apply for.
Class sizes in primary education in Scotland are now at a record low, with almost 22% of P1 to P3 pupils now in classes of 18 or fewer.
Q. RRocks: Can you please explain the effect on Scottish universities of the UK government's changes to the funding of universities in England, and how the Scottish Government intends to deal with that?
A. Alex Salmond: It's no secret there are big challenges facing higher education. The solutions, however, are complex, further complicated by the fact that Scotland does not have full power of its own finances and the £1.3bn cut to next year's budget. To find a 'uniquely Scottish' solution, we have published a Green Paper to encourage a debate involving government, universities and students about how higher education will be paid for in future.
No decisions will be made until all those who have an interest have offered their views. But be sure, there will be one measure ruled out – tuition fees. One of the decisions we have taken as a Government these last four years which I am most proud of is the restoration of the historic Scottish principle of free education, when we scrapped the so-called "graduate endowment" brought in by the previous Labour-Lib Dem administration.
Q. Habbibu: Following the cuts to higher education (HE) funding in England and Wales, can I ask if you subscribe to President Obama's view that "cutting the deficit by gutting our investments in innovation and education is like lightening an overloaded airplane by removing its engine. It may feel like you're flying high at first, but it won't take long before you'll feel the impact", and will this affect the Scottish Government's decisions on HE funding?
A. Alex Salmond: Yes it will. We've protected the university and college sector in Scotland and will continue to do so. In particular, we've protected research funding and college and university places. The changes in England because of the financial consequences for Scotland pose great challenges. However, we are determined to find a Scottish solution that does not inhibit entry into higher education from all sections of society by the imposition of punitive tuition fees.
Q. Timeformeplease: I would like to know what the SNP are going to do to create jobs, specifically in the Borders, if you win the next election. We need something other than tourism to rely on; so many businesses have closed in the past few months and there weren't that many here in the first place.
A. Alex Salmond: I agree that it can be disheartening to see traditional industries disappear from our towns and villages. However, it is also important to remember that Scotland is the only nation in the UK where employment has been rising and unemployment falling in the last quarter, and that reflects the action we've taken in our Economic Recovery Plan to protect recovery and support jobs, stimulating investment by bringing forward capital projects.
Our budget for next year - approved last week by Parliament - will now support 25,000 modern apprenticeships, the highest ever number in Scotland, giving young people new skills to enter the workforce. And the need to support small local businesses the length and breadth of Scotland - the lifeblood of the Scottish economy - was why we introduced the small business bonus, which has slashed or totally scrapped business rates for thousands of smaller and medium sized firms.
Q. Mumtolittlemonkey: By the way, what's happening with free prescriptions? My local chemist was telling me it's not happening anymore?
A. Alex Salmond: Your local chemist is misinformed! It most certainly is happening, the reductions are already in place. The removal of the charge comes in in April. It is part of the social contract that we propose, with the government doing what we can to help with family bills in return for the wage restraint which is necessary to protect jobs and services. I also believe the original Nye Bevin concept of the health service as free at the point of need was, and is, the correct policy for health and that is what we shall pursue in Scotland.
Q. LisMcA: I would like to know your opinions on the Westminster proposal for the NHS budgets, for England and Wales, being managed by GPs? Is this a route you can see the Scottish Government taking? Also, with the consideration of moving to a national police force for the whole of Scotland, what do you see happening to the individual forces administration centres (non-emergency contact centres being one)? Will these be consolidated and relocated to a central location or should local knowledge remain local?
A. Alex Salmond: Let me reassure you that frontline services are of the utmost importance to this administration. We have no plans to mirror the plans being proposed in England. In Scotland, our emphasis is on building a health service which is publicly run and publicly accountable and which has quality at its heart.
It is important to note that no decisions have been taken on the future structure of Scotland's police forces. But the main thing, as I have said already, is that we are committed to bobbies, not boundaries. The SNP has already delivered more than 1,000 extra police on the streets of Scotland - an all-time record number - and that has helped crime fall to a 32-year low. We are totally committed to maintaining current police officer numbers.
And at the same time we have now launched a consultation that has put forward three options for reform: greater collaboration between the existing forces; a regional model with fewer forces; and a single national force. We believe this process offers real opportunities for Scottish communities, because we want to give power of policing to the very people who know their neighbourhoods.
Q. SusieKyoo: Can you tell us why you've so far given Labour such an easy ride for abandoning the electorate to a Tory government when you offered them an alternative? A lot of people seem to be falling for the idea of Labour as a defence against the Tories, when in fact they're just a bunch of cowards hiding in opposition.
A. Alex Salmond: I think that Labour have let down the people in two ways. Firstly, they're responsible for much of the economic mess the country is now in. Secondly, in very many policy areas they paved the way for another Tory government. In their attitude, for example, to war in Iraq, to wasting £100,000 million on a new generation of nuclear submarines, they prepared the ground for the Cameron cuts. You can be sure that we will not be letting them off any hook in the coming Scottish elections.
Q. crapbarry: I was horrified to read the comments made by Bill Aitken, shadow minister for community safety, with regards to the rape cases currently under investigation in Glasgow. Will he suffer any repercussions from the Scottish Parliament for his inexcusable statements?
A. Alex Salmond: I deprecate Bill Aitkens' reported comments, which were rightly greeted with outrage from both general public and across the political spectrum. I don't think they really represented his views, and in fairness, he did apologise later.
However, it does illustrate two dangers: firstly, the implicit assumptions betrayed a dreadful attitude to the serious crime of rape, which is abhorrent for any person, and secondly, the temptation for politicians to occasionally shoot first and think later. It can cause deep hurt and upset. As for the repercussions, it seems to be the best thing is don't vote Tory.
Q. KeepCalmAndCarryOnMNing: Mr Salmond, how would you vote in the proposed AV referendum? Will the SNP be campaigning for or against AV for Westminster?
A. Alex Salmond: The SNP believe in proportional representation, but the AV voting system won't actually deliver that. But the people of Scotland will have the chance to cast their votes in a much more important poll - the Scottish Parliament election - on the same day as the AV referendum. It's just unfortunate that the UK Government decided to foist the AV poll on Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland on the same day as our devolved elections.
Q. KeepCalmAndCarryOnMNing: From your answer then I presume you yourself will be voting no? Will the SNP actively campaign against AV?
A. Alex Salmond: No we won't campaign against. I don't think much of first past the post as an electoral system. However, we, and by that I mean most of the Scottish parties, are really annoyed at this referendum being piggybacked on our own general election. It would never have even been considered for a Westminster election. Why should it be foisted on Scotland?
Q. prettybird: What have you found to be the greatest challenge in working in a minority government and what have you most regretted not being able to get through the Scottish Parliament? My Dad, previously a lifelong Labour supporter (unusually for a medical doctor), has been extremely impressed by you (he loves the way that you demolish ill-prepared interviewers like Jon Snow) and has turned his back on Labour (he's never forgiven them for Iraq).
A. Alex Salmond: The greatest challenge is persuading the parliament to adopt radical policies, albeit ones which are lobbied against by vested interest, for example, I passionately believe that a minimum price for alcohol must be part of tackling Scotland's problem with the bottle, which causes huge amounts of human misery and great cost for our national health service. However, the other parties, who, if they combine, have a majority, combined to defeat what would have been a ground-breaking proposal, not just for Scotland, but across these islands.
Another regret is when all the other parties combined to force through the £500m Edinburgh tram project, which was ill-thought through and a gigantic waste of public money. More recently, I felt that in the current difficult climate it was right to ask supermarkets and other large out-of-town retailers to pay a tiny bit more in rates to help fund other vital proposals. The lobby against that was intense from the supermarkets and their success in stopping it does them little credit.
However, on the whole, we've managed to get 90% of our manifesto commitments through - some 84 out of 94. I suppose in politics as in life, you can't have everything your own way. Thank your dad, and tell him I've never forgiven Blair for Iraq, and never will.
Q. DragonsCould: Why do the SNP continue to accept high-profile donations from a known homophobe? Should the electorate take this as a signal that the SNP are supportive of his stance?
A. Alex Salmond: I don't accept the premise of your question. The SNP's position on equality before the law on sexual preference, gender, race, religion is well-known, and has been demonstrated over many many years.
Q. Louii: I also thought it was somewhat petty that the Labour party in Scotland would not vote for the SNP policy for the introduction of a minimum pricing for alcohol, yet what are they agreeing with at Westminster? Hmmmm!
A. Alex Salmond: That was certainly a black day for Scotland. Labour, Tory and Liberal MSPs in the Scottish Parliament should be hanging their heads in shame. The voting down of the minimum pricing bill was based on petty political advantage and was at the expense of the physical and mental health of thousands of Scots. Scotland has a major public health problem when it comes to alcohol, and doing nothing is simply not an option - and you are right to point out the total hypocrisy of Scottish Labour on this issue, as with so many others recently.
Q. mamadiva: I moved to Morayshire from nearby Glasgow in 2006 and have found that, even though the area itself is not secluded in any way, many businesses seem to exclude this from mainland UK, so do not deliver or charge ridiculous prices for slow delivery. Can you explain why this is? Could you explain to someone who knows nothing about politics (ie me) what exactly the Scottish government takes control of rather than the British Government, as I have always been slightly unclear about this? And any news about RAF Lossiemouth?
A. Alex Salmond: I'm very concerned that charges for delivery of parcels to Highlands and Islands are higher that elsewhere. It seems to me to go against the whole concept of universal delivery and equal cost, which is one of the key features of a national post office, which we all must fight hard to retain at the present moment.
In terms of division of powers, the Scottish government runs health, education, social work, local government, industrial development, renewable energy, our contribution against climate change, and a range of other services. The UK government runs social security, foreign affairs and defence, as well as most budgetary matters.
On the subject of RAF Lossie and RAF Leuchars, I met with the prime minister yesterday in London and was able to gain an assurance that the impression given by the junior defence minister that Scotland had to choose between losing one or other of these bases - having already lost RAF Kinloss - was incorrect. That will be welcomed by the campaigners at both Leuchars and Lossie who will continue their battle.
Q. DanJARMouse: Can you please advise why anything north of Inverness gets forgotten about? Transport links especially are beyond atrocious, and now there are reviews left, right and centre for taking away classroom assistants and merging schools. The state of our roads are appalling, the priority of gritting and ploughing in bad weather is all to pot and to be honest, its all going a bit Pete Tong here! Come on Mr Salmond, why exactly should I vote for you on 5th May?
A. Alex Salmond: I can assure you the SNP government is one for all the airts and pairts of Scotland, and that very much includes the North of Scotland. As someone who has represented Northeast Scotland for many years, I totally understand the need to ensure communities in more remote parts of the country get their fair share.
The North of Scotland has benefited, like the rest of the country, from the policies like the council tax freeze and scrapping prescription charges. But, in addition, we have pursued policies like the road equivalent tariff scheme, which has radically slashed fares on many island ferry schemes, helping some of our most remote and vulnerable communities. In addition, we have just seen the establishment of the University of the Highlands and Islands as a fully-fledged university - something which has been an ambition for many years but has been brought to fruition under this SNP government.
Q. GentleOtter: Given that the Edinburgh tram project is an expensive disaster and entirely Edinburghcentric, would it not make more sense to divert funding towards making the A9 dual carriageway all the way to Wick? Also, when will Scottish tenant farmers be given the absolute right to buy and thus liberated from the feudal system which is still alive and active in 21st century Scotland?
A. Alex Salmond: I'm very glad you asked this question. The SNP Government was against going ahead with the Edinburgh trams project, but we were outvoted by Labour, the Tories, the Lib Dems and the Greens, and I think the people of Edinburgh and beyond can now see the consequences.
On the A9, we do believe we have the right investment strategy to meet the needs of motorists. The A9 is the longest trunk road in Scotland and serves many different users, from many remote communities to key strategic traffic between some of our major towns and cities. We are striking the right balance between investment in safety, local connections for the many communities and businesses served by the route as well as forging ahead with plans for phased dualling of the remaining single carriageway sections between Perth and Inverness.
Q. oricella: I fully agree with GentleOtter that dualling the A9 (at least as far as Inverness) is a life-saving priority and would dearly like to know when we can see some real action on this. It is very disheartening to see money wasted on the Edinburgh tram or completely pointless overtaking lanes. My question concerns the railways: an hourly railway link between Inverness and the central belt would go a long way to providing a realistic alternative to travel by road. A compulsory stop of all trains at Inverkeithing will greatly improve access from the Highlands to Edinburgh airport. What does the SNP intend to do to improve public transport links between the Highlands and the rest of Scotland?
A. Alex Salmond: Suggestions such as an extra stop are well worth making and discussions are still ongoing between Transport Scotland, Network Rail and ScotRail regarding the delivery of two additional services that are expected to be introduced between Inverness and the Central Belt from the end of this year.
Q. doricpatter: With regards to the trams, I realise that the SNP were always against it. But I wonder (probably quite naively) why we can't pull the plug on the whole thing? I'm fairly sure that general public feeling would be in favour of walking away from what's turning into a grotesque waste of public funds, not to mention the disruption caused thus far.
Also on transport, is Mr Salmond aware of the current shenanigans at Moy? £2.6m wasted on creating a breathtakingly dangerous section of road. It has to be seen to be believed - the overtaking lane is so short it's pointless, and I firmly believe that the "design improvements" we've been promised (read: more paint on the road) will do nothing to improve safety. How Transport Scotland can be allowed to create yet another black spot on an already frighteningly dangerous route is beyond belief: any lay person can identify the inherent problems with the layout yet presumably some highly paid road planner came up with this? Surely someone should be held to account for wasting vital funds like this - spending money on overtaking lanes is wasteful anyway, given we've been repeatedly promised full dualling in the future.
A. Alex Salmond: I would have to say that safety on Scotland's roads is of paramount importance. The A9 Moy scheme met all the requirements of the relevant design standard and was subject to a full Road Safety Audit. The A9 is the longest trunk road in Scotland, and the SNP government is committed to pressing ahead with many of the key improvements that have been long overdue.
Q. geordieminx: Due to the bad weather that we have suffered over the past few months the road are now in a terrible state, with huge potholes on major roads. The council doesn't appear to have made any effort to start and repair them, I presume due to a lack of funds. Is there going to be more money made available or is there an action plan in place to start and repair the roads before they get even worse?
A. Alex Salmond: After the winter we have had – or are still having – it's no wonder our roads have taken a pounding. However, the Scottish Government has made an additional £15m available to deal with urgent repairs on local roads and cover the extra costs of winter roads maintenance from this recent severe weather. This is in addition to the extra £5m made available last year for councils - on top of the almost £12bn in funding for local authorities.
The settlement also matched the commitment to maintain local government share of the Scottish budget to help councils to meet priorities such as maintaining roads. And it's worth remembering that operating companies are contractually obliged to repair potholes and other defects within defined timescales.
Q. Whyriskit: I would like to ask if the redevelopment of the Waverley Line from Edinburgh to the Borders is definitely going to go ahead?
A. Alex Salmond: The Waverley Line development is certainly going ahead. The Borders Railway is on track to open in 2014 and will re-establish passenger railway services from Edinburgh through Midlothian to the Scottish Borders for the first time in over 40 years. The railway will deliver major economic and social development opportunities, connecting people to jobs, housing (including affordable housing) and leisure opportunities and facilities. The project is a key part of the Scottish Government's wider programme of investment in transport infrastructure working towards the sustainable economic growth of Scotland.
Q. poppyknot: There was a programme yesterday about the targets for alternative energy, which said they were 80% by 2020. Are these feasible?
A. Alex Salmond: Yes they are. Indeed, I think within the next couple of generations Scotland will be able to produce up to 10 times our own electricity requirements largely from marine renewable sources. Incidentally, we've already surpassed this year's target of 31% of our electricity demand coming from renewables.
Interestingly, when recently the vice-premier of China visited the UK he decided to visit Scotland first to learn more about our renewable industry. This shows recognition that in many technologies (wave, tidal, offshore wind, carbon capture, hydrogen fuel cell), Scotland is a world leader. I believe that our country can engineer the marine developments of the future in the same way as, in the 19th century, Scotland engineered marine transportation. It is a big vision for Scotland and will be hugely helpful to the planetary imperative of reducing greenhouse gas emissions.
Q. IHeartLeith: I'd like to ask how you intend to vote on the SNP MSP Shirley-Anne Somerville's motion for a ban on large-scale biomass plants in residential areas? As a resident of Leith, I am very concerned about the proposal for a biomass plant in our area; in particular about the effect on the already poor air quality and the inevitable traffic increase.
A. Alex Salmond: IHeartLeith – a great name but could be even better if it was IHeartHearts! There are currently three applications for biomass plants with ministers for decision and we will be considering them in the normal manner, following full consultation and consideration of all representations. We intend to review future support for biomass, including consultation on future support for biomass electricity under the Renewables Obligation, this year.
I recognise that there are pockets of poor air quality in Edinburgh, as in a number of other Scottish cities and towns, and the Scottish Government is working closely with the City of Edinburgh Council, Transport Scotland, SEPA and others to ensure that we do everything possible to improve air quality in these areas.
Q. MajorPettigrew: About al-Megrahi - in the Sunday Times it was reported that the UK government supplied advice to the Libyan government on how to get Megrahi released and that there was a 50% chance of him surviving for another two years. Was the Scottish government involved in these discussions? Are we really to believe that you all thought you were sending a dying man home for no more than a couple of months?
A. Alex Salmond: The Scottish government and our justice secretary took a decision to release Mr Megrahi on compassionate grounds in line with Scots law and practice. It was a very difficult decision and we don't expect everyone to agree with it, but just to accept that we took the decision with due process and in good faith.
The recent revelations indicate that the previous UK government were playing a double game, attempting to facilitate Megrahi's release in private on commercial and political grounds, and then attacking the decision in Scotland in public when it was made on judicial grounds. That is one of the clearest cases of an organised hypocrisy that I can remember in my time in politics.
Q. FannyFifer: I absolutely love visiting the Scottish Parliament, the views from the upper floors are fab - it's just a great building. The staff are all fantastic as well. What's your favourite area or room in the parliament, and do you ever contemplate in your pod?
A. Alex Salmond: I've got to confess that I was a big opponent of the parliament building - not the parliament itself, but the building. I wanted it up on Calton Hill in Edinburgh. However, I have to say that particularly since I've become first minister, the building is growing on me and I like the chamber in particular, which looks good on telly but more importantly, is a fine debating arena. As first minister, I don't get a pod, which doesn't mean I don't do any thinking. Maybe I should ask for one!
Q. hismajesty: What's your tip for the 3.30pm at Folkestone?
A. Alex Salmond: I'm doing a Gordon Brown answer and dodging the question! I gave up my racing column in the Scotsman when I became first minister, on the basis that you can survive just about anything in politics, but not if your race tips go down.
Q. hismajesty: Since you won't give me a tip for the 3.30pm at Folkestone, could you tell me which Englishwoman you most admire and why?
A. Alex Salmond: Germaine Greer, as an adopted Englishwoman, because, although I don't agree and never have, with all of her views, there would seldom have been any doubt about what they were. Shami Chakrabarti from Liberty, for much the same reasons. I also think she is one of the best and clearest television presenters of any major campaigner. I also agree with lots of her views. And finally, I like the lady from RAF Leuchars who took four children along to the campaign meeting last Friday, and, as a RAF technician, made an emotional but powerful case in defence of her entitlement to work in an area to which she had become so committed.
Q. MajorPettigrew: Mr Salmond, your umbrella whacked me in the face as you walked past me at Turriff Show last summer. My four year old thinks you were rude and should have said sorry. (I'm inclined to agree with him, although maybe there was a particularly good pipe band to go and judge at the time.) Anyway, please show my son that even the first minister can admit when he has done something wrong and say sorry. I know it's not exactly a pressing political question, but lead by example and all that...
A. Alex Salmond: Sorry about the umbrella, tell your four year old if I had realised I would have said sorry at the time. They don't trust me with anything as important as pipe band judging at the Turra show - running the country is much less controversial in comparison.
Q. Mumtolittlemonkey: The burning question... has Mr S ever changed a nappy?!
A. Alex Salmond: Yes, and very badly!