Politicians often ask their opponents to give them some “grown up answers” to the questions they ask in the Scottish Parliament.
This frequent question is not surprising given that MSPs – and councillors too in their ‘chambers’ – often speak like children.
And some of these questions would be more appropriate to a nursery school than the Holyrood chamber.
This happened again this week during a debate on the extremely important matter of Reinforced Autoclaved Aerated Concrete (Public Buildings).
It doesn’t sound very exciting, but it soon would be were a school roof to collapse injuring or perhaps even causing the death of a child.
A ripple of concern went through the John Logie Baird PS and the Fire Station in Helensburgh when it was revealed that RAAC had been found in them.
Comparisons with the Aberfan Disaster would flood the airwaves.
The first I knew of this RAAC crisis was last Friday evening after I had read a news release from Alex Cole-Hamilton, leader of the Scottish LibDems.
Big story. Important story, I thought, before writing a piece about it.
There was predictably widespread coverage over the weekend on television and the Sunday newspapers.
This story has legs. It will run and run. It might even be a matter of life and death.
It deserves to run and run, of course, and the people in power, the Tories in England and the SNP in Scotland, deserve all the criticism coming their way for having slept at the wheel on it.

Political point scoring Shirley-Anne Somerville and LibDem leader Alex Cole-Hamilton, Education Secretary Jenny Gilruth, Labour’s Colin Smyth and Martin Whitfield.

How dismayed was I then to hear the Cabinet Secretary for Social Justice Shirley-Anne Somerville’s contribution to this debate.

When Martin Whitfield (South Scotland) (Lab) asked the perfectly reasonable question about how many public buildings are currently at risk due to the exposure of reinforced autoclaved aerated concrete,   Ms Somerville snapped: “Survey work is under way across the public sector. Where the presence of RAAC is confirmed in a public building, we expect the owner to take appropriate measures to manage any risk that is identified.

“We expect risk assessment of buildings with a confirmed RAAC presence and recommendations for mitigation to follow the current guidance published by the Institution of Structural Engineers.
“Returns from councils confirm some presence in 37 schools. Councils have reassured ministers that, in the small number of schools where RAAC is present, appropriate mitigation plans are in place.”
No surprises there then. It wisnae us.
If it’s an important matter involving money then it has to be kept secret, which is the legacy of Nicola Sturgeon to her colleagues in Secret Scotland.
Whatever you say, say nothing.
Martin Whitfield said: “I must thank Scottish Liberal Democrats for freedom of information requests that raised the issue as early as May this year.
“However, the matter is, apparently, something that the Governments north and south of the border have been aware of for a number of years.
“Can the Scottish Government confirm that, when it is aware of the list of public buildings that are at risk, it will publish that list, keep it updated and ensure that steps are taken to ensure that buildings are still safe to open?”
You mean you want me to be open, honest and transparent, Shirley-Anne Somerville didn’t say, but she should have done.
She blustered in her own hen-peckish way: “Of course, this is an issue that the Government has been aware of for some time, which is why action is being taken—and has been being taken for some time.
“For example, way back in July 2022, Scottish Government officials made contact with the Scottish heads of property services network and the Association of Directors of Education in Scotland to share information on RAAC. That work has been on-going for some time.
“I completely appreciate why there is public concern on the issue—in particular, given the way that announcements have been handled down in England [bad PR].
“However, I reassure Martin Whitfield that we appreciate  that public concern means that we need to be as open as we can possibly be on the matter.
“Parents and staff are concerned about it. It is for councils to publish information on schools alongside having communication with parents and staff, because it is important that we reassure them, at both national and local levels, about the mitigations that are already taking place. I confirm that we intend to be as open as possible.”
It was for the councils to have kept parents informed, not the government. That tactic is commonly known as passing the buck.
It was plain as the nose on your face that Ms Somerville’s tone reflected her fizz  and that she was not the least bit pleased to have the Liberal Democrats receive the credit for bringing the matter into the public domain.
What she really wanted to say was: “I’m on it, on it like a car bonnet.”
But they’re not you know. The SNP are like an electric car without a charging point. Going nowhere.
It seems to be the first rule of politics up here to give no credit whatsoever to your opponent.
She could have said to Labour’s Martin Whitfield and the LibDems’ Alex Cole-Hamilton: “Thanks for reminding us about this and then given them the answers they were looking for.”
The questions were straightforward and boiled down to “how bad is this” and “how much money is it going to cost to fix it?”
But Shirley-Anne waffled on and on: “As I mentioned, it is for local authorities to publish that information on schools. They should do so to ensure that parents and staff are reassured.
“I again reassure Martin Whitfield that Jenny Gilruth, the Cabinet Secretary for Education and Skills, and I are in regular contact with the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities to ensure that we offer support where it is needed, that we share good practice and information, and that we reaffirm the importance of looking at the professional advice that has come from the Institution of Structural Engineers. We will, of course, keep up that close contact with local authorities as the situation develops.”
Shirley-Anne Somerville appeared to be not so much concerned about the dangers associated with this dodgy concrete which without question has been used in [some] schools, hospitals and public buildings.
At least not so much as she was about political point scoring: “In her letter of 3 September, the Cabinet Secretary for Education and Skills asked the United Kingdom Secretary of State for Education to clarify the public commitment by the Chancellor of the Exchequer to “spend what it takes” to make schools safe.
“That statement was welcomed, and early details are sought about the financial support package that would follow to devolved Governments.
“That follows an earlier letter, on 16 August, from the Deputy First Minister and Cabinet Secretary for Finance, to His Majesty’s Treasury regarding further financial support to help to deal with the consequences of RAAC, to which we have yet to receive a reply. It is essential that we receive early clarity on the matter.”
And then she got to what seemed to her to be the most important point of the debate, which was to let the public know it was the SNP and not the LibDems who raised the alarm on this. Good old them!
Alex Cole-Hamilton said: “It has now been months since I first brought the issue to the attention of the very top of the Scottish Government, but there is still no central register of affected buildings, no strategy for swift wholesale replacement of this potentially deadly concrete, and no national fund for cash-strapped schools, health boards and others that have been landed with it.
“Mitigation and monitoring offer little reassurance, given the collapse of a concrete beam that was marked as being safe, which prompted the closure of schools across England. Can the cabinet secretary say with confidence today that pupils, patients and staff do not have RAAC in the ceilings above them? Is it possible that that problem concrete is still in use in classrooms and wards right now?”
Shirley-Anne Somerville couldn’t of course. She was determined to win on the least important point of the day – her claim that it was the SNP who set off the alarm.
She said: “With the greatest respect to Alex Cole-Hamilton, I note that it was not he who brought the issue before the eyes of the Scottish Government. We had been well aware of it for some time and already had plans in place, which is why discovery methods are in place right across Government and the public sector.
“I urge Mr Cole-Hamilton to have some caution about what he is advising. I urge him to respect the advice of the Institution of Structural Engineers, which has not changed over the past week, despite what has been happening in England. Let us listen to that professional advice. Let us, of course, also pay close attention if the advice changes. However, it has not changed. Let us ensure that we listen to the professionals and the experts, and that we take action where it is needed. That is exactly why mitigation measures are already in place where RAAC has been identified and measures have been required.
Finally, we got the truth of where we are with this.”
Colin Smyth (South Scotland) (Lab) said: “In December 2021, the Government told the Parliament that it would publish in 2022 the schools that would form phase 3 of the learning estate investment programme. It failed to do so. In May, then in June, the Cabinet Secretary for Education and Skills said that there would be an announcement by the summer recess, but she failed to deliver that announcement. How many schools are at risk due to RAAC, and how many schools’ refurbishment or rebuild is being held up because of the failure of the Government to announce the funding that it promised to announce months ago?”
In a nutshell, a nursery school answer from Ms Somerville would have done: “That wisnae us!”
But it was the SNP that had done it. A big girl did it and ran away. They have been in power for 16 years. Children in schools and patients in hospitals have had this hanging over their heads for far too long and the Scottish Government did little or nothing about it.
What’s the score in West Dunbartonshire? Silence is not any form of communication practiced in democratic countries or by democratic councils.
Transparency, honesty, openness. Keeping the public informed. It doesn’t happen here in anti-democratic Scotland and one of these days we will pay the price for that.
Top picture: John Logie Baird primary school in Helensburgh where the collapsing roof is being held up by metal poles.

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