Monday, 2 February 2015

Yes & Friends

FROM the 'Where are they now?' file comes news of Susan Stewart.
The former Director of Communications at Yes Scotland, founder of Women for Indy, and prominent all-round Yes campaigner has just been hired as a consultant to the SNP government.
The government denies any suggestion of cronyism, but opposition eyebrows remain raised.
Here's a longer version of the story in today's Herald.

Tom Gordon

A LEADING member of the Yes campaign has been hired as a consultant to the SNP Government, prompting opposition questions about cronyism.

Susan Stewart, who was director of communications at Yes Scotland during the referendum and a founder member of the Women for Independence group, has become the government's new £330-a-day International Engagement Manager.
She will work in the External Affairs Directorate in Edinburgh on a temporary contract of up to 12 months, the government confirmed last night.
Her job specification includes reviewing and improving "diaspora management" to help promote Scotland overseas through networks of ex-pats.

She will also examine how best to deploy "cultural diplomacy and soft power" for Scotland, and make "practical recommendations to Ministers".

Her bosses in the department are Fiona Hyslop, the Cabinet Secretary for Culture, Europe & External Affairs, and Humza Yousaf, the Minister for Europe and International Development, who last year helped launch a "Scottish Diaspora Tapestry".

Yousaf's wife, Gail Lythgoe, was one of Stewart's colleagues at Yes Scotland in 2012 and 2013.

Back in the day at Yes Scotland: Susan Stewart front row, second from R

Opposition parties expressed surprise that people were given just four days to apply when the new job was briefly advertised online in October, and noted the Scottish Government published a Diaspora Engagement Plan more than four years ago.

Scottish LibDem leader Willie Rennie said: "This may raise questions about the SNP's sway over recruitment in the Scottish Government.
"They should provide assurances that every step has been taken to hold a fair recruitment process in order to avoid accusations of cronyism."
Out on the indyref stump

Tory MSP Alex Johnstone added: "The Scottish Government needs to be entirely open about the process of appointing or else face inevitable accusations of cronyism."

Stewart, 49, was Scotland's first dedicated diplomat in the USA, promoting the country in Washington DC from 2001 to 2005, before heading press operations at Glasgow University.
She was employed at Yes Scotland from September 2012 until June 2013 before being axed in a "streamlining" operation.

She was hired for her new post via an outside agency, as a contractor rather than staff.

The position was advertised as having a “maximum pay rate [of] up to £330 a day”.
Bizarrely, Stewart’s partner, Jeane Freeman, was at the centre of a similar cronyism row under Labour.
A former special adviser to Labour First Minister Jack McConnell, Freeman quit in 2005 after Stewart was recalled from her plum job in Washington.
Freeman then set up a consultancy which was later handed a £5000 Scottish Executive education contract without it going out to tender.
Stewart denied any impropriety in her new appointment.
"I was at Yes for eight months. Does that cancel out a 20-plus year career?" she said. 
“This is a temporary post for up to 12 months. “The contract was awarded based on an open and competitive procurement route under the Interim Manager Framework.
The Scottish Government said: “The International Engagement Manager role is focused on reviewing how the government engages with the Scottish diaspora community, as part of our work to refresh the Government’s International Framework.

“Individuals procured through the interim frameworks are employees of the relevant supplier – they are not employed by the government.
“The rate of pay is a matter for the supplier.
“Ministers had no involvement in interviewing or approving this appointment.
“Any such suggestion [of cronyism] is unfounded – people are deployed in such posts on the basis of proven ability and experience.”

Wednesday, 28 January 2015

Frack that

There's been quite a build-up to this afternoon's Scottish Government statement on fracking.

Both the SNP and Labour have been trying to sound tough, with talk of a moratorium, while quietly leaving the door open to fracking in the future - there's money in them thar shale beds after all.

And let's not forget riveting row between SNP MSP Joan McAlpine and energy minister Fergus Ewing on the subject, as lovingly reported by Rob Edwards in the Sunday Herald.

It reminded me of an interview I had with Alex Salmond just before the referendum.

Despite being typically gung-ho about extracting oil and gas from the North Sea, the then First Minister opposed onshore fracking on health grounds, in case it contaminated the water table.

When even a life-long hydrocarbon junkie like Salmond is against fracking, the SNP would be wise to walk away sharpish.

Here's the exchange from 11 September 2014:

Q: Is there a place for fracking in the energy mix of an independent Scotland?

Salmond: “Not onshore, I don’t think. 

"The basic problem with fracking onshore is this: although the seismic stuff [earth tremor risk] doesn’t look to be substantial in its impact, the water table stuff has a lot of questions to be answered.

"I don’t think that’s a good idea in a relatively unpopulated area. 

"But in a densely populated area you’ve got to be able to answer the water table situation. 

"The central North Sea is a different matter. 

"The central North Sea is a great possibility, but at this stage it’s no more than a possibility, but there’s substantial work up the clay basins of the central North Sea." 

Wednesday, 7 January 2015

Stash in the attic

The unofficial launch of the general election campaign this week brought a flurry of Labour and Tory stats with it.

But one intriguing figure which hasn't had much publicity yet belongs to the SNP.
This is the annual underspend on the Scottish Government accounts.
Naturally, overspends are a bad thing, but big underspends can be viewed that way too.
They suggest inefficiency and public services unnecessarily going short.

Here's the funny thing - after moaning all through the referendum about Westminster austerity, it turns out the SNP recorded its largest ever underspend last year, almost £450m.
If that comes as a surprise, perhaps it's because ministers only issued the final total in an obscure report laid at parliament just after it rose for the Christmas recess.
The government press office then refused to send me a copy, saying their lawyers had ruled it had to be cleared by parliament first, which sounds like complete cobblers.
However, I got hold of it in the end. 
Readers can judge whether it was genuine inefficiency behind the underspend, or perhaps ministers squirreling cash for bumpy times after a Yes vote, or largesse before the election?
Here's the story


Tom Gordon

THE SNP Goverment ended last year with a record underspend, despite repeated complaints about Westminster austerity cuts squeezing its budget.

Ministers underspent by almost half a billion pounds in 2013-14, according to a final outturn report lodged at Holyrood the day after MSPs left for the Christmas recess.

The government had £444m left over from its  £34.5bn budget last year, or 1.3% of the total, the first time an underspend has exceeded £350m since the SNP came to power in 2007.

The underspend is usually less than 1%.

The Scottish Government has not published the report on its own website.

Although the £444m will still be available for use this year, a large underspend is often seen as undesirable, as it means public services missed out unnecessarily on better funding.

The biggest factors in the last financial year were a £165m underspend in the £3bn education and lifelong learning portfolio, or 5.5% of the budget, and a £102m, or 4%, underspend in the £2.6bn infrastructure portfolio, then being overseen by Nicola Sturgeon.

At a time when sheriff courts were being close to save money, the justice portfolio was underspent by £92m, or 3.6% of its £2.5bn budget.

From the Scottish Government's final outturn report - note that £444m total in the bottom right corner

The underspend in the government’s own accounts came to £413m, but additional underspends in NHS and teacher pensions, over which ministers have less control, made the grand total £444m.

In a statement to parliament in June, Finance Secretary John Swinney gave a provisional estimate for the underspend of less than £300m.

Tory finance spokesman Gavin Brown MSP said it was rich for the SNP to complain about cuts while sitting on funds of nearly half a billion.

Och, it's only half a billion quid
“Last year, they moaned in every speech about not having enough money and how austerity was holding them back, yet they didn’t spend what they had.

“No wonder this report was released at the quietest time of the year.”

Although elements of the underspend were previously reported in assorted government accounts, it was not until they were brought together in December's report that the full total was made explicit.

A Government spokesperson said: “This report contains no new information. 
"It simply brings together budget and outturn information already laid before the Scottish Parliament and published in the audited accounts of the bodies that make-up the Scottish Administration.
“The report records an overall underspend of less than 1.3 per cent.”