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by Jenni Davidson
13 August 2020
Education secretary John Swinney survives vote of no confidence

John Swinney - Image credit: Scottish Parliament TV

Education secretary John Swinney survives vote of no confidence

Education secretary John Swinney has survived a vote of no confidence in the Scottish Parliament by 58 votes to 67 after the Scottish Greens voted with the Scottish Government to save him.

The no confidence vote came in the wake of failed procedures that were put in place this year after exams were cancelled due to coronavirus which saw pupils from poorer backgrounds twice as likely as those from wealthier areas to have their marks downgraded.

The Greens agreed to back Swinney in return for a range of measures being put in place to rectify the problems.

Speaking in opposition to the no confidence vote, the Scottish Greens’ education spokesperson, Ross Greer, said that “every opposition party had the same choice: negotiate a solution with the government or simply gun for the education secretary”.

Greer criticised the “partisan manoeuvres defining this debate”.

He said: “Any one party could have secured a fix for 75,000 young people in exchange for their support, but of course only the Greens were interested in actually fixing the problem; others simply saw a political opportunity”.

The Greens demands, which the Scottish Government has committed to implement, were a restoration of all results that had been downgraded, preservation of upgraded results, an independent review into why the moderation process used by the SQA went ahead despite warnings about it and a second, longer-term review into exams and assessment in Scotland.

The vote of no confidence in John Swinney was put forward by Scottish Labour and was backed by the Tories and Lib Dems.

Scottish Labour leader Richard Leonard said it was not about personalities or about rehabilitation of what happened but about “the democracy and accountability of the Scottish Government to the Scottish Parliament” and that Swinney had “failed”.

Leonard said that the no confidence vote was not something he took lightly, but following thousands of calls, emails and messages from young people, parents and teachers, his party had decided it had no choice.

While the U-turn on results was “a victory for fairness, for common sense and above all it is a victory for all those young people who refused to take this injustice lying down”, Leonard said it was not a victory for the education secretary, who only “jumped into action” when his job was on the line.

He said: “We cannot simply turn the page. We cannot ignore the damage done to those young people, the hurt felt following months of turmoil and anxiety, the distress of dreams disappearing, the mental anguish felt by them and their families.

“John Swinney showed us that he had no confidence in Scotland’s school students and teachers. It is this parliament’s duty to those schools, students and teachers to say that we have no confidence in him to sort out this mess which he has created.”

Ruth Davidson praised Swinney on a personal level, calling him an “excellent servant to his party and a huge contributor to this parliament” and said it should give nobody any pleasure to speak in the debate.

But she said that did not negate the fact that “the education secretary’s failings are so great and the damage to his authority so fatal that he simply has to go”.

The motion was just as much about Nicola Sturgeon, Davidson added.

She said: “Today's motion while ostensibly about the education secretary, is actually as much about the First Minister as it is John Swinney, because the scale of this failure is to such a degree that it prompts the question, if this isn't a resignation matter for one of her ministers, then what is?”

Davidson said that ministerial accountability “doesn't just mean fronting off a U-turn”, but it means “taking the ultimate responsibility for failings in your brief”.

“The sanction must fit the scale of the failure”, she said, and asked how the First Minister could not realise that “this failure is so great it demands a resignation”.

Willie Rennie said that he liked and respected Swinney, but also called for him to go.

Rennie said: “He has been a good public servant over decades for his party and the government. He is respectful of us too, often polite and engaging in debate.

“But I'm afraid to say he is losing the confidence of thousands of teachers, lecturers, pupils, students, staff and parents.

“This is not just about us. This is about the organisation that he leads.”

But First Minister Nicola Sturgeon expressed her confidence in “one of the most decent and dedicated people in Scottish politics”.

She said: “John Swinney is someone who works hard to fulfil his responsibilities each and every single day, but when he gets something wrong, he has the humility to say so and put it right. In my book that is a strength.”

She admitted that the government had “made the wrong judgement” but added: “We listened to those who raised their concerns and we acted. We took responsibility, we owned it and we fixed it.

“We haven’t hidden, we haven’t tried to blame anyone else and we haven’t objected to the criticism made of us.”

She later added: “Acknowledging those mistakes, and fixing them is not a sign of weakness, it is a sign of a system that works and of a minister who when a mistake is made takes the right approach.”

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