Monday, 21 February 2011

Bye Bye Baillie

So, farewell then Bill Aitken.
Quitting the convenorship of his beloved justice committee just four weeks before stepping down as an MSP will be a real wrench for the Glasgow Tory.
But as the statements from the other parties show today, he had little option.
If he hadn't gone voluntarily (albeit in a mighty strop), he would quite possibly have been forced out by the censure motion tabled by Green MSP Patrick Harvie.
Aitken's comments to the Sunday Herald speculating on whether a gang rape victim was a prostitute were unacceptable, and everyone else knew it, even if Baillie Bill was slow to catch on.

For the record, I've always liked Bill Aitken.
He's a convivial soul, extremely well briefed on his subject - being on first name terms with many a judge and sheriff no doubt helps - and a Godsend to journalists needing a punchy quote on deadline.
The latter point probably explains why some other outlets were slow to follow the story.
It was a messy end to a long career, but, quite frankly, it was self-inflicted, and that's that.

His resignation statement, which I posted here, is interesting for more than one reason.
Yes, there's what some have called the 'graceless' tone.
But far more illuminating is what's missing.
When Wendy Alexander quit as an MSP last week we had a full exchange of letters with Iain Gray.
When Frank McAveety quit as head of the public petitions committee last year we had his letter to Gray.
But when Aitken goes we have a "to whom it may concern" statement.
It doesn't mention Annabel Goldie at all.
Because he wanted to keep her out of it in a last selfless act of loyalty?
Or because she insisted he resign and he can't bear to mention her name?
Or because she tried to run away from the whole affair, neither condemned nor defended him, showed a profound lack of leadership, underscored her irrelevance, and that's why he can't bear to mention her?
I know which theory I prefer.
Regardless, this was another Tory mess on which Annabel was posted AWOL.
Her rivals, inside and outside the Scottish Conservatives, will take note.

Sunday, 13 February 2011

Blind Date

THE SNP has been forced to reschedule its pre-election conference after a mix-up over dates, raising questions about its preparedness for May.
The Nationalists had planned to hold their crucial spring rally over the last weekend of March, after the Scottish parliament dissolves for the election on the 22nd.
However this would have stopped broadcasters giving the event its usual extended coverage, as all parties must receive equal airtime during the official campaign period.
It is understood the SNP hierarchy was repeatedly warned about the issue, which flows from Electoral Commission rules, but was slow to act.
Last month, Susan Ruddick, the SNP’s corporate development manager, insisted the conference date was "most definitely the 26th and 27th" of March.
Then, two weeks ago, without any explanation, Ms Ruddick issued a statement saying it would be in Glasgow on March 12 and 13 instead.
The new date means broadcasters will be able to give the conference far more coverage, and do not need to balance it with comments from the other main parties at Holyrood.
An SNP insider said the elementary mistake reflected a lack of focus among the leadership, who were increasingly jittery about feedback from private polling on how voters viewed Labour Iain Gray and First Minister Alex Salmond.
"Iain Gray is a blank canvas to most people, but that also means there are no negatives to pin on him," said the source. "People aren’t hostile towards him, they’re neutral. Whereas Alex Salmond is divisive. He’s not going down well." 

I emailed Peter Murrell, the SNP chief executive, the following:

Subject: Conference dates
Date: Fri, 11 Feb 2011 16:43:15 -0000
Hi Peter
Can you tell me why the SNP conference was moved from the last weekend in March to the 12th and 13th?
I understand it was because you failed to appreciate that the last weekend fell within the restricted period for broadcasting, when all parties are due equal airtime, despite this being laid down by the Electoral Commission.
That being so, do you think this shows the SNP is poorly prepared for the coming campaign?
He didn't reply. 
The query was apparently devolved to head of press Liz Lloyd.
She didn't answer the questions, but she did provide a comment:
"Our spring conference is shaping up to be our biggest yet. It will be an exciting launchpad for the final phase of our drive to protect Scotland's progress and to build Scotland's future.
"We obviously scheduled our event to maximise the coverage.

"By contrast, Labour have managed to secure no pre-election TV conference coverage at all because of having their spring 2011 conference last autumn - and have even scheduled their one-day event in March to clash with the Tory conference."
So two wrongs make a right? You decide.

Keep the Cash

BRIAN Souter, the millionaire founder of Stagecoach, has pledged to give the SNP up to £500,000 for their Holyrood election campaign.
Good news for the SNP, right? Well, not entirely.
True, the party needs the money.
In the last couple of years it spent almost £250,000 on three Westminster by-election campaigns (Glasgow East, Glenrothes, and Glasgow North East) and now has nothing to show for it but the distant memory of John Mason's win in the first of them.
According to its most recent set of accounts, it had debts of more than £500,000.
So there's no doubt that in terms of cash flow, the donation is welcome.
But there are, of course, other dimensions.
Souter's pledge comes with strings - and baggage.
The donations underlines that, no matter the claims made about reaching out to broader Scotland, the party remains hugely reliant on one man with a controversial past.
The negative reaction on Twitter shows Souter's infamous bankrolling of the Keep the Clause campaign remains unforgiven.
As Green MSP Patrick Harvie put it today: "The campaign against Souter's bigoted agenda inspired me to get into politics, and any principled party would have told him where to stuff his money."
Labour, meanwhile, have resurrected the SNP's sudden decision to drop a commitment to bus re-regulation (which Souter hated) ahead of the 2007 poll.
What's Souter looking for this time? Charlie Gordon asks.

Intriguingly, Souter is also being less generous than he was last time around.
Then, he gave a total of £625,000 between 22 March and 18 May 2007.
Now he's talking about giving "up to" £500,000, and all of it conditional on match-funding.
In other words, he'll only give a pound is someone else gives one first.
Taking inflation into account, that means he'll give a maximum of £450,000 at 2007 prices, meaning his overall contribution will be down by at least a quarter in real terms.
Is he less convinced of an SNP win this time given Labour's lead in the opinion polls?
That, and many other questions, will dog the SNP all the way to May 5.

Thursday, 3 February 2011

Success has many fathers... including Ron Culley

THE former head of Scotland’s biggest transport quango has claimed credit for helping introduce the smoking ban, saying he pushed Jack McConnell towards Holyrood's landmark legislation.
Ron Culley, who retired on health grounds as chief executive of Strathclyde Passenger Transport (SPT) last spring amid an expenses scandal, makes the eye-catching boast in a new autobiography, I Belong to Glasgow.
In it, Culley says that in 2004 he harangued Labour’s Andy Kerr about the example Ireland had set by banning smoking in public places, and told him Scotland should copy it.
When Kerr fobbed off a query about a Scottish ban at a conference, Culley says he publicly rounded on him and told him of the positive impact he had seen for himself in Dublin.
“Jesus, Andy! How about some leadership here?” Culley says he told the then Finance Minister.
“Scotland has perhaps the most serious health indicators in Western Europe... The Irish take a pretty bold stance on the matter.”
Culley says he followed up his outburst in private, stressing “the medical, social and indeed the political advantages of emulating the irish. A couple of days later, Andy had spoken to the First Minister who subsequently announced that he intended visiting Dublin on a ‘fact-finding’ trip in May and surprised journalists on his return that he intended banishing smoky pubs to the history books.
“I like to think my intervention at least accelerated a popular and efficacious improvement in the health of my fellow Scots,” he writes modestly.
However Culley, 60, is less keen on taking responsibility for the expenses scandal which brought SPT to its knees in early 2010.
Blaming a “perfect storm” created by the furore over MPs’ expenses, he says a cynical and sensationalist media magnified and distorted the £100,000 he and other managers at SPT had spent on foreign trips over three years, including visits to America, India, and China.
“I was entirely confident [watchdogs Audit Scotland] would have no grounds to criticise me as all of the trips abroad which had caused so much controversy had been predicated upon a business need, reflecting the ambitious goals we sought to achieve for the travelling public of the West of Scotland,” he writes.
Late last year the Accounts Commission delivered a damning verdict on “serious deficiencies” at SPT in respect of expenses during Culley’s tenure.
“There appears to have been a culture and behaviour by some of SPT’s most senior elected members and officers at the time that fell well short of what is expected of those holding public office and overseeing public funds,” said Commission chair John Baillie.
One finding was that a trip to Manchester in 2008, ostensibly to talk about transport, was probably timed to coincide with Rangers playing Zenit St Petersburgh in the UEFA Cup final.
An earlier report had found credit card receipts were shredded and £32,000 of spending on SPT’s corporate credit card was unaccounted for.
Culley also sticks up in the book for Steven Purcell, the former Labour leader of Glasgow City Council, who quit in the spring of 2010 after admitting to taking cocaine and a drink problem. 
Culley says he would “forgive an enormously talented politician who might yet defy his critics and return to serve at some point in the future once he has tholed his assize”.
Senior Labour sources privately scoffed at Culley's claim to have inspired the smoking ban.
A party spokesman also queried Culley’s recollection of the conference with Kerr.
“The policy was driven by the First Minister and no one else,” he said.

Wednesday, 2 February 2011

Holyrood results not delayed after all

Contrary to some excited reports last weekend, the count for the Scottish election will not be held up by the AV referendum after all. So expect a result late on Friday May 6, not unlike 2007.

Here is the full statement from the body in charge:

Statement regarding the timing of the count for the Scottish Parliamentary Elections
Statement from the Convener of the Electoral Management Board for Scotland / Regional Counting Officer regarding the Timing of the Count for the Scottish Parliamentary Elections on 5 May 2011
In the past few days there has been some discussion of the potential timing of the counts of the Scottish Parliamentary elections to be held on 5 May 2011. In particular, concerns have been raised that the counting of the papers for the UK Referendum on a new voting system for Westminster might delay the results of the Scottish elections. Contrary to what was reported in the media there has never been any suggestion that results would be delayed until the Saturday. Even Returning Officers considering next day counts would intend to have all results available by around lunchtime or early afternoon on the Friday.
The priority in any election count is not speed but accuracy. It is not about doing things as quickly as possible but delivering a secure, accurate count putting the interests of the voter first at all times. The timing of the count is a matter for each individual Returning Officer and in their decisions they will plan arrangements to ensure that the count is conducted accurately, securely, within the specified legislative framework and in a way that enhances voters' confidence in the democratic process. Circumstances faced by Returning Officers vary across the country - with different geography, capacity of count venues and size of electorates - and their plans for the count need to reflect those varying conditions.
The combination of these forthcoming elections with the UK Referendum does add to the complexity and scale of the processes that Returning Officers will have to manage on 5 May. However, in my discussions with colleagues it is clear that even for those who are considering counts which might commence on the Friday morning the expectation is that all Scottish Parliamentary results would be available by lunchtime on Friday 6 May or early that afternoon at the latest. There is no expectation that any results would be delayed into the weekend. There should be ample time to complete the Scottish Parliamentary Counts before we turn to the Referendum.
Arguments that some Returning Officers are making in favour of commencing the count on the day following the poll are not solely contingent on the Referendum. The volume and complexity of tasks to be undertaken on the day of poll has increased greatly in recent years, particularly due to the need to check the identity of postal voters. This has the potential of delaying the count significantly. Overnight counts see staff and observers called on to make and scrutinise key decisions after working long hours. The Electoral Management Board has previously stated its support for any Returning Officer who chooses to count on the day following the poll if they were to decide that this would be in the best interest of delivering an accurate, secure result in which the voter has full confidence. Indeed, the Gould report following the elections of May 2007 recommended that there should be a move away from overnight counts.
Even with overnight counts, due to the complexity of the Scottish Parliamentary elections system, the results would probably not be known until late in the morning of the Friday in any case. In 2003 with an overnight count the national result was not clear until lunchtime on the Friday following the poll. Under current planning, even counts commencing on the Friday would be able to deliver to a very similar timescale.
Mary Pitcaithly
Convener of the Interim Electoral Management Board for Scotland and Regional Counting Officer for Scotland

Islamic group linked to SNP fails to pay its auditors

Tom Gordon

A Controversial Islamic lobbying group given £400,000 of public money has been deserted by its auditors after failing to pay them.
The Scottish Islamic Foundation (SIF), which has close ties to the SNP leadership, failed to pay its accountants late last year.
Wylie & Bisset, whose report on the SIF’s 2009 annual accounts exposed numerous financial shortcomings, resigned in November.
In a letter to the foundation board, the company said it was severing its links as “fees owed to Wylie & Bisset in respect of the 2009 audit and other professional services supplied to the company remain unpaid”.
The development raises questions about the future of the foundation, which ended its last financial year £4800 in the red – a position the auditors said cast “significant doubt” on its ability to continue as a going concern.

Read on at