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.”

Sunday, 28 December 2014

Oh, you're embarrassing us, Mister Ambassador!

Those who believe the hogwash about Scottish politics changing "utterly" and a warm and fuzzy Yes alliance being born after the referendum should follow today's news about Craig Murray.
A high-profile Yes campaigner, the former British diplomat hoped to become an SNP candidate in either Falkirk or Airdrie & Shotts.
But with a seismic general election around the corner and the whiff or real power at Westminster, the party machine froze him out, while letting through a crowd of the usual suspects - former SpAds, party officers, friends of Alex Salmond and the SNP President's son.
It was, Murray claimed, a classic case of Labour-style political management.
It certainly looks that way.

Here's a longer version of the story in today's Sunday Herald.

Tom Gordon
Scottish Political Editor

A FORMER British ambassador famous for whistle-blowing on human rights abuses in Uzbekistan has accused the SNP hierarchy of “bullying” and a Labour-style “stitch-up” after he was blocked from becoming a general election candidate. 

Craig Murray, who was a high-profile independence campaigner, had been asked by SNP activists in Airdrie & Shotts and Falkirk to stand next May.

However, despite his prominence in the Yes campaign, he unexpectedly failed the SNP’s internal vetting process just before Christmas.

He said he was failed for lacking “commitment on group discipline” after being asked if he would vote for the bedroom tax if told to by the SNP leadership as part of a Westminster deal with another party - he said No.

Craig Murray: blocked
Murray, 56, said the question was bizarre given it is firm SNP policy to oppose the tax, and seemed designed to eliminate him as a possible candidate.

Murray, who unsuccessfully appealed the decision, called it “classic Labour.. political management”.

The SNP has yet to select candidates in Airdrie & Shotts or Falkirk, but in both seats the SNP hierarchy already has favourite applicants. 

In Airdrie & Shotts it is Neil Gray, who has been the office manager for the local MSP, Social Justice Secretary Alex Neil, since 2008.

While in Falkirk, party bosses are behind SNP Women’s Officer Tasmina Ahmed-Sheikh, a former Tory and Glasgow lawyer who failed to became an MEP last May.
Tasmina Ahmed Sheikh and supporter

In a blog post yesterday, Murray said he had been “astonished by the hostility of the appeals board”, which was chaired by Ian Hudghton MEP, the SNP President, and two MSPs.

He wrote: “They could not have been more personally unfriendly towards me if I were Jim Murphy: their demeanour was bullying.

“I found it a truly unpleasant experience.”

Murray, an SNP member for three years, is now barred from standing anywhere as an SNP candidate.

He told the Sunday Herald: “I’m absolutely shocked. I’m very, very depressed. I think in both Airdrie & Shotts and in Falkirk it’s evident who the party hierarchy wants to be the candidate.

“My own view is the [bedroom tax] question was asked to eliminate me. I’m really gutted.”

The list of would-be SNP candidates who passed vetting includes two former special advisers to Alex Salmond - Jennifer Dempsie and Stephen Gethins - and Ian Hudghton’s son Fraser.

Others include Salmond’s ex-office manager Hannah Bardell, former BBC journalist John Nicolson, who introduced First Minister Nicola Sturgeon at the Glasgow Hydro last month, former Yes Scotland manager Sarah Jane Walls, and Business for Scotland boss Gordon MacIntyre-Kemp.

Burdz Eye View blogger Kate Higgins and comedy club owner Tommy Sheppard also made the cut. 

Murray, who was the UK’s ambassador to Uzbekistan between 2002 and 2004, said that by choosing party darlings as candidates, the SNP hierarchy was guilty of Labour-style control-freakery.

“There’s a conflict between the existing party hierarchy and the energy of the Yes campaign.

“I’m really sad, because like many people from the Yes movement I believed we were building a new kind of politics in Scotland.

“Instead, the SNP just seems to be trying to replicate classic Labour Party Tammany Hall political management.”

He also wrote in his blog: “My analysis is that those in the SNP who make a fat living out of it are terrified the energy of the Yes campaign may come to threaten their comfy position.”

Murray was sacked as ambassador to Uzbekistan after questioning US and UK support for the ruling dictatorship, the resigned from the Foreign Office shortly afterwards in protest at that policy.

He once described No supporters as “either evil or quite extraordinarily thick”.

Falkirk is a top target seat for the SNP.

It was won by Labour’s Eric Joyce in 2010 with a majority of 7,843, but he resigned from Labour i in 2012 after a drunken Commons brawl.

Labour’s new Falkirk candidate is former MSP Karen Whitefield, who lost her seat to the SNP in 2011.

In Airdrie & Shotts, Labour MP Pamela Nash is defending a 12,408-vote majority.

The SNP refused to discuss Murray’s criticisms.

A spokeswoman said: “This is an internal party matter. The SNP is and remains completely opposed to the Tories’ hated Bedroom Tax and it is a matter of record that our MPs voted against it at Westminster - most recently on 17 December.”