Thursday, 13 December 2012

Chicago, Chicago..

13 December 2012

One of my old tales was raised at First Minister's Questions today, when Labour MSP Ken Macintosh asked Alex Salmond if he was still in favour of a fiscal stability pact if Scotland becomes independent and keeps the pound.

Macintosh referred to a speech Salmond had given in Chicago in September in which he appeared to U-turn on his previous desire for such a pact.

I reported on the comments in the Sunday Herald, and also blogged on the subject.

Today, Salmond said he said "no such thing in Chicago".

The First Minister: I said no such thing in Chicago. I pointed out that, if we look at the Government expenditure and revenue Scotland figures and have a borrowing limit arrangement with the Bank of England and the Treasury in that year, we would be £2.7 billion relatively better off than the UK fiscal position—the Institute of Fiscal Studies has confirmed that point in recent weeks.

Macintosh then raised a point of order and read out Salmond's quote in full:

Ken Macintosh (Eastwood) (Lab): On a point of order, Presiding Officer. I am sure that none of us wants to drag the First Minister back here at the end of the day to correct himself, so I offer him an opportunity to do so here and now.
In response to my question earlier, the First Minister did not say whether he supported a fiscal 
stability pact or otherwise, but he specifically said that my quote was incorrect, saying that he said no such thing in Chicago. The full quote from Mr Salmond reads:
"I don’t believe that a monetary policy restriction would have to have a fiscal stabilisation pact. I think we can have plenty of room for manoeuvre within a currency union."
Those words are as quoted by Tom Gordon in the
Sunday Herald on 30 September. Through your offices, Presiding Officer, I ask whether the First Minister made such a statement.

The Presiding Officer: Mr Macintosh well knows that that is a matter not for me, but for the First Minister.

After listening to the audio recording, Macintosh returned to the subject at 5pm and said that the Sunday Herald report was accurate.

Salmond said I had missed out a sentence.

The First Minister (Alex Salmond): Perhaps I can help with my weekly affirmation—which is what I am going to do from now on with nonsensical points of order. Tom Gordon’s report missed out a sentence. [Interruption
.]
The Presiding Officer:
Order.
The First Minister:
The point that I made in Chicago was that, in the context of a borrowing arrangement, Scotland would have a £2.7 billion relative surplus compared to the rest of the UK—£500 a head for every man, woman and child in the country. That is exactly the point that I made to Mr Macintosh at First Minister’s question time.

The First Minister is right. I did leave out a sentence in which he referred back to one of his earlier points about £2.7bn. I left it out because it refers to Scotland's relative fiscal strength to the UK, not the monetary union which was the subject of the question and the rest of the answer. It does not alter what was said about a fiscal stabilisation pact (or lack of one) for a sterling zone.

It was striking today that the FM never actually got round to answering Macintosh's question on whether he still wanted a pact or not.

In the interests of completeness, here's the full Chicago quote, with the quotes I used in bold.

Salmond is asked about currency union and whether there could be a repeat of Eurozone woes.

Referring to a putative sterling zone, Salmond asks rhetotically:

Is that the same as the euro? No. The euro’s central difficulty it that it embraces a substantial number of countries with radically different productivity levels, everything from the Ruhr valley to the southern tip of Greece - you know, dramatic difference and divergence in productivity, which is the euro’s central difficulty. Maybe by 40, 50% difference in manufacturing productivity.
"We don’t have that differential between Scotland and England. That’s why it’s an optimal currency and why it’s not the euro.
"Does it inhibit or restrict your ability to pursue an independent economic policy?
"Well obviously in economics, in politics, in life, no country is independent totally, you’re inter-dependent within a context, but it does still give you control of fiscal policy, which has a primacy in my opinion.
"As I was mentioning earlier, the people who said no taxation without representation knew what they were talking about, and control of fiscal policy strikes me at the heart of economic independence.
"We currently control 10%, we will control 15% in the next couple of years.
"That’s not independence. With independence we’d control 100% of the taxation base of Scotland.
"That’s independence in economic terms.
"Restriction in terms.. I don’t believe that a monetary policy restriction would have to have a fiscal stabilisation pact.
"As I’ve just mentioned, if we’d had that last year we’d have been able to deploy 2.7 billion of resources, either to lower borrowing or increase capital spending.
"So I think we can have plenty of room for manouevre within a currency union, and I think using sterling is, on balance, of benefit to both countries.
"Why, incidentally, should England agree?You [the questioner] mentioned it’s our major competitor. We prefer to see it as our friend and neighbour and major market place, but, of course Scotland is a major maket place for England.
"But why should the Westminster government agree to it? Well, it is true when Scotland becomes independent that we’ll have title to our natural resources as any other independent country has - oil and gas revenue - but of course oil and gas impact on the UK economy is not just as direct revenue to government, it’s also the protection that oil and gas provide to sterling, and that amounts to something like thirty thousand million pounds a year protection to the balance of payments. So my view on that would be that any sensible Westminster government would bite our hands off to keep that protection of sterling in the international market place.
"So I think it suits both countries, it’s a positive proposition looking for cooperation and agreement."

Sunday, 25 November 2012

War of the wards

With accusations flying right, left and centre about ministers misleading parliament, it's easy to dismiss yet another one.
But Health Secretary Alex Neil is facing some serious questions after using his office to intervene with his local health board over hospital services in his constituency.
When he was challenged about it at Holyrood 11 days ago, his answer was far from complete.
The Ministerial Code may be relevant here for other reasons too.
Here's a longer version of the story in today's Sunday Herald.
 

 
EXCLUSIVE
Tom Gordon
Scottish Political Editor

HEALTH Secretary Alex Neil has become the latest minister to be accused of misleading parliament after intervening in a row over services at a hospital in his Airdrie & Shotts constituency.

He told MSPs earlier this month that a final decision on proposals to move in-patient mental health services from Monklands Hospital to Wishaw General had been delegated to his deputy Michael Matheson to avoid a conflict of interest.

But NHS Lanarkshire has now revealed that Neil contacted them through his officials just days after becoming health secretary in September, and expressed his reservations about the proposal.

Neil had already objected to the plan, as the local MSP, before becoming health secretary.

According to NHS Lanarkshire, Neil asked to review the proposals before they were submitted to its board members for a final decision.

NHS Lanarkshire has now agreed to review them in light of his feedback.

Labour said Neil’s words in parliament couldn’t be squared with NHS Lanarkshire’s account.

They also accused him of trying to rewrite the proposals before they went to his deputy for a final decision in a fait accompli.

Neil campaigning in 2011
The provision of hospital services within Airdrie & Shotts has long been a key political issue in the area, with the fate of the Monklands A&E unit a hot topic in the 2011 election campaign.

Labour, defending the seat, claimed the SNP government might close the A&E unit.

As the SNP candidate, Neil insisted it wouldn't and won the seat.

After the election, the provision of in-patient mental health services at Monklands came to the fore.


In August 2011, Neil told his local paper he wanted continuity at both Monklands and Wishaw.

“I strongly believe it to be essential that both retain an in-patient mental health unit.”

Barely three weeks later, Neil got the chance to have a far greater say in the matter when he replaced Nicola Sturgeon as health secretary in a reshuffle.

After hearing that Neil had indeed used his new position to intervene, Central Scotland Labour MSP Siobhan McMahon contacted NHS Lanarkshire.

On September 17, twelve days after Neil's move from the infrastructure portfolio to health, the board's head of communications emailed McMahon's office with a confirmation.

"In response to your question regarding the status of the Modernising Mental Health proposals I can advise you that the new Cabinet Secretary has asked for some time to review the proposals prior to it going to our Board.  We expect to hear back from the Cabinet Secretary soon."
 
On October 30, the Lanarkshire mental health website Elament also carried a statement about the issue.

"Prior to the proposals being taken to the NHS Lanarkshire Board for consideration, they were submitted to the Scottish Government Health Department as part of the consultation process.

"The Cabinet Secretary for Health and Wellbeing has expressed some reservations regarding the provision of acute inpatient mental health services at Monklands Hospital.

"In light of the Cabinet Secretary's feedback, NHS Lanarkshire is reviewing the proposals. NHS Lanarkshire will keep stakeholders informed as this work progresses."


Neil outside Monkands Hospital
A fortnight later, on November 14, McMahon challenged Neil about his intervention in parliament.


Siobhan McMahon (Central Scotland) (Lab): While we await the appointment of a new chair, the cabinet secretary has recently intervened in provision of mental health services by NHS Lanarkshire. Does he intend to intervene on reviews of acute services in all areas prior to those reviews being considered by the relevant health boards and, of course, before crucial appointments are made?

Alex Neil: There is an issue about the future of mental health services at Monklands hospital. Because it lies in my constituency, that matter is being dealt with by my ministerial colleague, Michael Matheson.
 
However it now appears that Matheson's decision will only be the final link in a chain which Neil has helped forge.
 
Matheson will decide whether to approve the plan which finally emerges from the board in the New Year, but in the meantime Neil seems to be shaping that same plan to his liking, which would reduce Matheson's role to that of a rubberstamp.
    
Labour also believe Neil may have fallen foul of the Ministerial Code, which says ministers must avoid any conflict of interest when dealing with an issue which directly affects their constituency.
 
Constituency Interests

7.5 Where Ministers have to take decisions within their area of portfolio responsibility which might have an impact on their own constituency or region, they must take particular care to avoid any possible conflict of interest. They should advise the Permanent Secretary and, in the case of junior Scottish Ministers, the relevant Cabinet Secretary of the interest, and responsibilities should be arranged to avoid any conflict of interest.
 
McMahon said: “It appears that Mr Neil has joined the growing number of SNP Ministers who have misled parliament. 

"More importantly, it looks as if he has abused his position as Cabinet Secretary by meddling in NHS operational matters within his own constituency, and derailing a modernisation process which was a crucial part of renovating Monklands Hospital.”

NHS Lanarkshire last night said Neil had not been in touch personally, but said government officials had conveyed Neil’s views to the board.

A spokesman said: “NHS Lanarkshire has been developing plans to continue the modernisation of mental health services in Lanarkshire.

“Prior to the proposals being taken to the NHS Lanarkshire board for consideration they were submitted to the Scottish Government Health Department as part of the consultation process.

“The new Cabinet Secretary for Health and Wellbeing has expressed some reservations regarding the provision of acute inpatient mental health services at Monklands Hospital.

“We are currently reviewing the proposals before submission to the Board early in the new year.“Throughout this process there has been no direct contact between the Health Secretary and NHS Lanarkshire. All communications have come from Scottish Government officials.”

A Scottish Government spokesman said: “NHS Lanarkshire have yet to put forward their revised proposals for reform of mental health services to the Scottish Government.

"When a decision is required, the proposals will be put to Minister for Public Health Michael Matheson due to the issue concerning matters in Mr Neil’s constituency.” 




 

Wednesday, 21 November 2012

Less than appealing

There's yet another twist in the never-ending EU legal advice row today.
This blog has obtained a copy of the FoI appeal (now abandoned) which was lodged by ministers at the Court of Session.
To be fair, it never suggests that the advice exists.
However it does make the extraordinary claim that confirming its non-existence would cause the "exactly" same harm as revealing the content of any advice which did exist.
I think the legal term for that is 'total pants'.

EXCLUSIVE
Tom Gordon 

MINISTERS told Scotland’s highest court it would cause “mischief” to reveal if they had legal advice on the status of an independent Scotland in Europe when none existed.

The claim appears in a confidential submission to the Court of Session which also suggests ministers would be “deprived of space to develop and formulate policy” if the full facts came out.

Alex Salmond’s government is already under fire after admitting last month that it had never had specific legal advice on Scotland in the EU, despite insisting for years that entry would be automatic.


The same day as the admission, the SNP government abandoned a legal challenge on the issue.
The case concerned Labour MEP Catherine Stihler who asked last year to see any legal advice on EU entry under freedom of information (FoI).
The government refused, but in July Scotland’s Information Commissioner, Rosemary Agnew, ordered ministers to say if they held any advice, arguing there was a “strong public interest” in establishing if it existed, even if the contents remained private.
Claiming Agnew had “erred in law”, ministers launched an appeal at the Court of Session, and a full hearing was scheduled for late December.
It was this case which was dropped last month.
Because the case ended early, the background paperwork would ordinarily remain secret.
However this blog has obtained the appeal which ministers lodged against Agnew’s decision.
In her ruling, Agnew drew a clear distinction between the existence of advice and content.
She readily conceded that if there was advice it would be too sensitive to release under FoI, but said it was still in the public interest to know if it existed, given the important subject.
But in its appeal, the government argued there was no distinction in principle, claiming that merely disclosing whether advice existed would be just as damaging as disclosing its content.
It said: “The requirement to disclose the process being followed in policy formulation or the type of information being taken into account would result in exactly the same mischief as disclosure of the information itself.
“Either would cause the appellants [Scottish ministers] to be deprived of space to develop and formulate policy in the manner considered most conducive by them free from external pressure.”
The crux of the Scottish Government appeal: Yes, this is for real
Agnew’s side strongly denied this was the case.
The row over legal advice has dominated the recent independence debate, as the SNP insists Scotland would become an automatic EU member and avoid the euro, while others say membership would have to be negotiated, with adopting the euro a possibility.
Recent sabre-rattling by Spain, which wants to avoid wealthy Catalonia seceding, has also raised the prospect of other EU countries obstructing or delaying Scottish entry to deter separatist movements within their own borders.
Scottish LibDem leader Willie Rennie said: “The SNP has been exploiting the might of government to act in their own, narrow political interest.
“It was a cynical development that has undermined further trust in Alex Salmond’s government. It’s not the court’s responsibility to be concerned with what causes mischief for a political party.”
A Labour source added: “This case was never about avoiding mischief in government, it was about avoiding embarrassment for the First Minister.”
A Scottish Government spokeswoman said: “The case concerned whether decisions about public interest in the release of certain information are for the Scottish Government or the [FoI] Commissioner. By long-standing convention, successive Scottish and UK Governments have not disclosed the fact or content of legal advice except in exceptional circumstances.”

Tuesday, 20 November 2012

Weir Meet Again

With calls for an overhaul of the Ministerial Code in the air, plus a stooshie over the Scottish Government and FoI today, here's a tale that combines the two.


EXCLUSIVE
Tom Gordon


ALEX Salmond has invited two of the SNP’s richest donors to his official residence for a second time despite controversy over their first visit, prompting a fresh round of criticism.


Correspondence obtained by this blog  shows the First Minister has asked Euro lottery winners Colin and Chris Weir to pay a return visit to Bute House in Edinburgh.

The invite went out just a day after Salmond was cleared of breaching the ministerial code by entertaining the couple at the taxypayer-funded mansion last year.

Chris and Colin Weir: Party on
The Weirs, who become Europe’s biggest lottery winners in July 2011 by scooping £161m, were first guests at Bute House in September 2011. 

Four days later, the Largs couple each gave £500,000 to the SNP, the largest single day’s donation in the party’s history.

However their presence was not made public in official hospitality records, as Mr Salmond provided only tea and biscuits at his own expense, not food or alcohol from the public purse.

When the sequence of events finally emerged in March, Labour accused the First Minister of sleaze and of misusing his official residence to help raise funds for his party.

Labour MSP Paul Martin also claimed the First Minister had breached the ministerial code of conduct, leading to an investigation by former Lord Advice Dame Elish Angiolini.

After the First Minister said there was no discussion of money or donations during the visit, and that the tea and biscuits were from his own supply, she concluded there was no breach and no evidence to justify Mr Martin’s complaint.

Dame Elish also noted Mr Salmond knew Mr Weir from his past activity in the SNP - he was a party candidate and publicity convener in the 1980s.

The next day, the First Minister wrote a jokey note to the Weirs to say he was in the clear.

He said: “I am writing to let you know that the circumstances of your visit to Bute House on 9 September have been fully investigated and Dame Elish Angiolini has cleared me of any wrong doing in relation to tea and biscuits!
“Now that the dust has settled I would like to invite you back to Bute House at a mutually convenient time. 
"My office will be in touch to make the arrangements.”
Salmond letter to Weirs
It is not the first time the First Minister has had wealthy SNP donors round to Charlotte Square.
Businessman Ian Watson, who donated £138,750 to the party between 2005 and 2009, and his wife Victoria, who contributed £12,500 in 2005, were guests at a lunch in July last year to mark the official opening of the Scottish Parliament
Former Unliver executive David McCarthy and his wife were also dinner guests at Bute House after a royal garden party in July 2010.
McCarthy, a past president of the SNP’s Ochil branch, donated £5,045 to the party in 2007. 
Martin said: “Not only does Alex Salmond control the code which oversees his conduct, but he is now laughing at its integrity.
Tea at Bute House
“This reinforces our call for the Code to be re-examined - a proper means of ensuring good conduct by Government ministers is now needed.”
The Government said Mr Salmond and the Weirs had not met at Bute House since the June letter, and no meeting had yet been scheduled, however there was an expectation that they would meet soon.
A spokeswoman said: “This is utterly desperate from Labour. An independent investigation confirmed that the First Minister was absolutely entitled to invite the Weirs to meet him at Bute House to congratulate them on their good fortune and there is no reason why he should not meet them again.
"It is time Labour dropped the sour grapes and accepted the findings of the independent investigation instead of making continual complaints under the Ministerial Code and never accepting the findings.”



Sunday, 4 November 2012

My expert's bigger than your expert


Sunday 4-11-12

There's been much debate in recent days over the position of an independent Scotland in the EU.
Would it enter automatically? Or would it have to apply as a newbie?
There are expert opinions on both sides, but nothing definitive.
SNP MSP John Mason probably got it right in the Holyrood chamber the other day when he said "we are going into a negotiation on all of this and the lawyers cannot give us definite positions". However such realism appears rare.

Here's a longer version of the story from today's Sunday Herald on the SNP's favourite experts. 


THEY are the SNP’s holy trinity, the “eminent authorities” who apparently said an independent Scotland would be an automatic member of the EU.
 

In media interviews and in Parliament, Alex Salmond and Nicola Sturgeon have repeatedly relied on quotes from Lord Mackenzie-Stuart, Emile Noel and Eamonn Gallagher to make their case.
 

The first was the only Scottish judge to be president of the European Court of Justice, the second the longest-serving secretary general of the European Commission, and the third a former director-general of the commission.

All three were undoubtedly eminent in their day, but their quotes are not all they seem. Most striking is how old they are.

Noel and Mackenzie-Stuart gave their views in 1989 and 1992 respectively, a decade before the euro even came into circulation, and as they’re both long dead they can’t update their position.
Gallagher’s key contribution was also from 1992. And despite Sturgeon calling them “eminent legal authorities”, only Mackenzie-Stuart was a lawyer; the others were bureaucrats, albeit exalted ones.
Nor are their killer quotes from lengthy, densely argued opinions on Scottish independence.
In fact, their views appeared in newspaper articles, with no sign of any underlying working, and in SNP press releases. For instance, the SNP-cited quote from Noel that “Scottish independence would create two new member states out of one” was from an interview he gave in retirement to Scotland on Sunday in March 1989.
Emile Noel interview 1
The journalist, Derek Bateman, now a BBC Scotland presenter, noted Noel’s opinion was “a purist’s one, taking no account of political realities”.
Another Noel quote that “in my opinion the two new states have the same right to be members” was again from a newspaper interview, this time one given to the Scotsman three months later.
He said: “In my opinion the two new states have the same right to be members. The claim would be decided by the European Community.”
However, he also admitted another member state might try to obstruct the process: “Theoretically it is possible but it is more of an academic problem than one of political will.”
But what was academic in 1989 now looks more credible, as Spain may try to obstruct Scotland’s entry in order to deter secession by Catalonia.
Emile Noel interview 2

Lord Mackenzie-Stuart’s famous view that Scotland and the rest of the UK would “be in the same legal boat” after independence and “If Scotland had to apply, so would rest”, also comes from a Scotland on Sunday interview, this time from 1992.
But unlike Noel, he did not argue Scotland and the rest would automatically be in the EU, only that they would start from the same place and that the rest of the community would work quickly to resolve the “administrative hiatus”.
He said the only answer was “an inter-governmental conference to prepare a substantial amendment to the accession treaty that admitted the United Kingdom in 1973.”
In total, his “opinion” ran to 164 words.
Mackenzie-Stuart's opinion

Salmond likes to tease his foes by recalling Mackenzie-Stuart was a Tory, but he has yet to remind parliament Gallagher was in the SNP.
Indeed, Gallagher’s most famous dictum, that: “In my view, there could be no sustainable legal or political objection to separate Scottish membership of the European Community” was first made in a submission to the SNP in March 1992.
It was then reheated in a December 1995 SNP press release after Salmond met Gallagher in Brussels.
Gallagher’s handy view that “Scotland and the rest of the EU would be equally entitled to continue their full existing membership of the EU” - quoted by Salmond in Parliament - was also rushed out by the SNP during the 2004 Euro election campaign, after Commission president Romano Prodi suggested Scotland would have to reapply for membership.
Small wonder that when Gallagher died in 2009, Salmond said he had been “hugely helpful... in developing the case for an independent Scottish role in Europe”.
The SNP’s online tribute to Gallagher notes he was “an active member of the Brussels branch”.
Eminent? Yes. Relevant and impartial? You decide.
Eamonn Gallagher: an "active member" of the SNP

Couldn't Run a Bath

Sunday 4-11-12

Tommy Sheridan's revival tour keeps coming unstuck.
Here's a longer version of the story in today's Sunday Herald

EXCLUSIVE
Tom Gordon
Scottish Political Editor

TOMMY Sheridan’s dream of a political comeback has suffered a fresh blow after he was kicked off the board of a charity because of his conviction for lying under oath.


The disgraced former Scottish Socialist MSP and Solidarity leader became a director of the Govanhill Baths Community Trust on the southside of Glasgow two months ago, despite being disqualified from helping to run a charity.


After the Sunday Herald asked the Office of the Scottish Charity Regulator (Oscr) on Friday if Sheridan was allowed on the board, it contacted the Trust who immediately threw him out. 


The law governing Scottish charities bans anyone “convicted of an offence involving dishonesty” from acting as a trustee unless they have special permission from the charity watchdog.

Anyone acting as a trustee while disqualified commits a criminal offence punishable by up to two years in prison.

Sheridan's appointment
Sheridan, 48, was convicted of committing perjury during his 2006 defamation case against the News of the World after it accused him of being an adulterer who visited a swingers’ club.
He was sentenced to three years in jail in January 2011 and released a year later.
Tory councillor David Meikle said: “I wouldn’t trust Tommy Sheridan to run a bath either.”
The humiliation comes as Sheridan tries to rebuild his reputation in an attempt to play a bigger role in the campaign for Scottish independence.
The Govanhill Trust would have been an attractive vehicle as it is already home to two of his old cronies: ex-Solidarity spokesman Jim Monaghan is the administrator, while Fatima Uygun, a former Solidarity candidate who vowed to hunt Sheridan’s critics “like wild animals”, is the treasurer.
Fatima Uygun (far left) with Tommy Sheridan
Andrew Johnson, the Trust chairman, said Sheridan had been made a director (the equivalent of a trustee) at the annual general meeting on 5 September through an “oversight”.

He said he could not remember who nominated him.
“We probably should have taken advice,” he said.
“He’s being advised immediately that he’s rapidly being struck off the membership of the board of Govanhill Baths. It’s just one of those unfortunate things where, as a charitable group, we weren’t aware of that legal position.”
He said a delay in holding board meetings meant Sheridan had not yet taken part in one, so the Trust’s decisions had not been compromised.
“In a sense I’m relieved that we have not allowed any illegal person to have any part in decision making at Govanhill Baths,” Johnson said.
The Trust was set up in 2005 to find a new use for the former council-run baths, which were closed to in 2001, leading to a five-month sit-in.
When sheriff officers tried to remove protesters, it triggered a day of skirmishes between local people and police, culminating in what officers called Glasgow’s worst riot in twenty years.
At the time, Sheridan demanded an investigation into allegations of police brutality.
The Trust now plans to restore the baths as a £13m community “Wellbeing Centre”.
How the Govanhill Wellbeing Centre might look
According to its accounts, the Trust receives more than half of its income from the public purse.
In 2009-10 and 2010-11, more than £82,00 of its £159,000 income came from the Scottish Government, with another £8,900 from Glasgow City Council and £1000 from the NHS, while in July this year the Big Lottery gave another £10,000.
Last month, in another rehabilitation bid, Sheridan appeared on the BBC politics show This Week as an advocate for a Yes vote in 2014, saying “We in the independence campaign” and “What Alex [Salmond] and I would agree on...”
He was immediately rebuffed by the SNP, with Finance Secretary John Swinney calling him “a man who has no political credibility whatsoever – none whatsoever. Not even political credibility, no credibility in terms of the judgments made by the courts of the land.”
An Oscr spokesman said: “A person guilty of a crime of dishonesty, such as perjury, is disqualified from being a charity trustee. 
“We have contacted the charity and written to Mr Sheridan, and it would therefore not be appropriate to comment further.”

Wednesday, 24 October 2012

Too much detail?

24-10-12

Tom Gordon



In the wake of the SNP EU row, it's worth going back to the original texts and transcripts.

As every anorak now knows, Alex Salmond was interviewed in March by Andrew Neil about Scotland and EU membership.

Neil asked: Have you sought advice from your own Scottish law officers in this matter?

To which Salmond replied: We have, yes, in terms of the debate...

Bear in mind that law officers in this context has a very specific and limited meaning - it refers only to the Lord Advocate and his deputy, the Solicitor General.

After Nicola Sturgeon revealed there was no legal advice and the law officers hadn't been asked, Mr Salmond came to the chamber to explain what he'd meant in the Neil interview.

He said he had been referring to documents in more general terms, but stressed they were "underpinned" by legal advice from the law officers.

This is from the official report:

"As the full transcript of that interview makes very clear, I was talking about the issue of Scotland’s continued European Union membership in terms of general debate and in terms of many eminent legal opinions that were offered.

I was also—as the interview makes clear—speaking in terms of the various Scottish Government documents that contain reference to an independent Scotland’s membership of the European Union. Those publications are, “Choosing Scotland’s Future”, which was published in August 2007, at page 24; “Your Scotland, Your Voice”, which was published in November 2009, at page 107; and “Your Scotland, Your Referendum”, which was published in January this year, at page 4. All those documents are underpinned by legal advice from our law officers: they have to be. That is the reality." [my emphasis]

But as the 2011 Ministerial Code makes clear, it is actually rather unusual for the law officers to get involved in the fine print of government publications. Usually, it's the Scottish Government's Legal Directorate.
Moreover, the responsibility of the law officers is to advise on the law of Scotland, not EU law.

Here's what the code says:


Maybe the passages Salmond refers to were particularly important?

Here they are:

Choosing Scotland's Future
 Your Scotland, Your Voice

Your Scotland, Your Referendum

Do the law officers, who also have the Crown Office and Procurator Fiscal Service to oversee in their spare time, really get dragged into proofreading such documents?

They must be very diligent.

If not, Mr Salmond's gloss on events doesn't quite add up.


Tuesday, 16 October 2012

Deficit Reduction

16 October 2012

When is a deficit a surplus? When it's a "relative surplus" of course.

In the wake of the Edinburgh Agreement yesterday, there's been much #indyref chatter about Scotland's relative fiscal strength based on the annual GERS figures.
Some say there's a deficit, some say a surplus.
The answer is both, sort of.

Alex Salmond frequently quotes Scotland's 9.6% contribution to the UK tax take (including North Sea revenues), compared to the 9.3% of UK spending that goes to Scotland.
For example, on the BBC last month he said: "We contribute 9.6% of the UK's taxation with 9.3% of the spending and just over 8% of the population - that is a relative surplus of £2.7bn in 2010/11, but £500 a head for every man, woman and child in the country."

Sounds healthy, right?
But look again at the absolute figures.
That 9.6% of taxes raised £53.1 billion in 2010/11, according to GERS.
But the 9.3% of UK public expenditure going to Scotland was a far higher sum, £63.8bn.
In other words, Scotland had a deficit of £10.7bn last year, even accounting for a geographic share of North Sea revenue.

Yes, 9.6% is bigger than 9.3%, but it's 9.6% of a different, and smaller, number than the 9.3% refers to.
The 9.6% refers to UK income and the 9.3% to UK expenditure, and as we all know, the UK's income is smaller than its expenditure and as a result it has a large deficit.
Hence Salmond's careful use of the phrase "relative surplus".

Scotland isn't running an absolute surplus at all - it was £10.7bn in the red last year - it's just that the deficit isn't as bad as the UK's.
According to GERS, the Scottish deficit was 7.4% of GDP in 2010/11 compared to 9.2% of GDP for the UK.
And here it is in black and white on the Scottish Government's own website

Thursday, 4 October 2012

The Sterling Twilight Zone


Something is afoot with Alex Salmond's plans for keeping the pound.
In January, the First Minister couldn't have been clearer:
Talking to the Economist about how an independent Scotland could form a "sterling zone" with the rest of the UK, he said: "I'm in favour of a stability pact".
In other words, an agreed set of rules for Scotland's spending, taxing and borrowing which would ensure fiscal discipline and ease fears of a rogue Scottish national debt undermining the currency. (See Euro for details)
In March, Mr Salmond expanded on his theme in a BBC interview with Andrew Neil.
"There would have to be a stability pact which would have criteria on what you could borrow," he said.
What a difference six months makes.
Last week, the First Minister performed an off-the-cuff U-turn, and told an audience in Chicago there was no need for a "fiscal stabilisation pact" after all.
Fiscal self-discpline and trust would suffice.
In the wake of the Eurozone crisis, it was a jaw-dropping remark.
In one sentence, he dismantled the scaffolding around the SNP's plans for keeping the pound.
Naturally, no government ever sets out to be profligate, incompetent, or irresponsible, yet many are (see Euro again).
So the idea that the rest of the UK would let an independent Scotland - perhaps for generations - use the pound without some kind of underlying pact is quite a claim.
"Not a cat's chance in hell," as Salmond's own former economic adviser, Professor John Kay, put it.

In today's Herald I report on the Treasury's response to the development.
Here's a longer version of the story

EXCLUSIVE
Tom Gordon

THE Treasury last night cast fresh doubt on Alex Salmond’s plans for an independent Scotland keeping the pound, after the First Minister abandoned his idea of an underlying “fiscal stability pact” with the rest of the UK.


Chief Secretary to the Treasury Danny Alexander said the Eurozone crisis showed strict controls on tax and spending had to be a pre-condition of monetary union, contradicting Mr Salmond.


Earlier this year, the First Minister backed a stability pact with the Bank of England and Treasury which would have set limits on how much an independent Scotland could tax, spend and borrow from the international money markets.
Although the arrangement would limit Scotland’s ability to set its own fiscal policy, he said it was necessary for creating a sterling zone, and “no more than the fiscal discipline a sensible country would have in any case”.
Critically, the pact would cap borrowing so a Scots national debt did not undermine the pound.
But in an off-the-cuff remark in Chicago last week, Mr Salmond unexpectedly abandoned the idea, and said a stability pact was no longer needed.
The U-turn prompted former Labour chancellor Alistair Darling, in his role as chair of the pro-Union Better Together campaign, to accuse Mr Salmond of flip-flopping and confusion.
Alexander, Liberal Democrat MP for Inverness, Nairn, Badenoch & Strathspey, last night joined the attack, saying: “Perhaps all these foreign trips have led Alex Salmond to forget about the Eurozone crisis on his own doorstep, though he clearly remembered to pack his flip-flops.
“The very simple lesson that taught us is that you can’t have a shared currency without controls on fiscal policy. I firmly believe that Scotland is stronger within the UK and the UK is stronger with Scotland in it.”
His comments echoed those of Professor John Kay, a former member of the First Minister’s Council of Economic Advisers, who at the weekend said a lesson of the Eurozone was that tight rules were needed for monetary unions, and there was “not a cat’s chance in hell” of an independent Scotland using the pound without a stability pact.
The First Minister’s reversal was revealed by the Herald’s sister paper, the Sunday Herald.
In January, Mr Salmond told the Economist magazine: “I’m in favour of a stability pact.”
In a BBC interview in March he added: “There would have to be a stability pact which would have criteria on what you could borrow.”

But answering a question about the restrictions of monetary union, such as the Bank of England setting Scotland’s interest rates, Mr Salmond told the Chicago Council on Global Affairs on Friday: “I don’t believe that a monetary policy restriction would have to have a fiscal stabilisation pact. I think we can have plenty of room for manoeuvre within a currency union.”
A Scottish Government spokeswoman said: “Scotland is in a stronger financial position than the UK as a whole, and therefore will have no difficulty adhering to fiscal discipline within a sterling zone as an independent country.”

Saturday, 18 August 2012

SEAS of Troubles

From the 'You couldn't make it up' school of bureaucracy, here's a longer verison of the story in today's Herald.


EXCLUSIVE
Tom Gordon

THE computer servers which process almost every pound of Scottish Government spending are at risk of being deluged because they were installed directly under a water tank in a building with a history of leaks, an internal audit has revealed.

The Scottish Executive Accounting System (SEAS) processes more than £32 billion of public expenditure a year, with 2500 people in 40 public bodies using it to handle 1m transactions.

But despite leaks elsewhere in the building where it is housed, and repeated warnings about equipment damage and lost financial data, civil servants have left the SEAS servers at risk for years by postponing their relocation.

Being under a water tank was one of the "main concerns" over the security and management of SEAS raised by an internal audit released to the Herald under Freedom of Information (FoI) law.
SNP ministers initially tried to withhold the document, claiming it was too sensitive for public consumption, but were finally forced to disclose it by the Scottish Information Commissioner.
The report said managers had been aware of the water tank problem for some time, but put off relocating the SEAS computers until an "impending" upgrade made it cost-effective.
Although the report dates from 2010, the computer servers remain in place, and the relocation has now been put back to late 2012.
Back-up servers exist off-site, but the internal audit revealed there was no documented policy on data backup and the reserve computers were only tested once a year.
The audit concluded there was only "reasonable assurance" that the risk, control and governance arrangements for SEAS were adequate, the half-way point on a scale of three levels of assurance.
It said a key factor preventing SEAS earning the highest level of substantial assurance was its base at Victoria Quay (VQ) in Edinburgh.
Victoria Quay: gets the odd leak

It said: "SEAS servers are mainly sited in four secure areas within VQ. The risk posed by the server rooms’ location underneath a water tank on the roof of the building was once again noted. "The risk, although mitigated to some extent by the resilience afforded by off-site back up servers, has been raised in previous reviews (and the impact has been highlighted by recent leaks from water tanks located elsewhere in the building).
Relocating these servers, however, is deemed impracticable and the risk is being borne by SEAS management knowingly."

The report identified a risk that "inadequate physical and environmental controls over hardware and software leads to data corruption or loss".
Although the risk of data loss ought to be low due to resilience arrangements, "primarily real-time copies of the system being made to two stand-by servers (one on-site and one off-site)," the report added the stand-by servers were only tested once a year, and the off-site server, in Saughton House, Edinburgh, was not inspected in the audit.
Labour finance spokesman Ken Macintosh said: "With the summer we’ve had, the Government should count itself lucky it’s still able to function.
"Other governments wrestle with the threat from cyber terrorists and hackers, how Scottish that our problem stems from a leaky loft."
Tory finance spokesman Gavin Brown MSP added: "Almost every small business in Scotland has a more robust approach to risk than the Scottish Government. They should put their hands up, admit they’ve been ignoring a problem for too long, and tell us exactly when they’ll act to resolve it."
A Scottish Government spokeswoman said: "We have separate and robust backup systems off site, and elsewhere in Victoria Quay. We therefore deferred the move until we completed other important system enhancements, and will move the SEAS system into our data centre later this year."

Sunday, 17 June 2012

Don't Mention Independence

SNP MSPs got more than they bargained for at their weekly meeting on Wednesday, when psychologist and party adviser Claire Howell urged them not to use the word 'independence' in the referendum campaign.
Not everyone was impressed, but it seems objections are too late, as the SNP hierarchy has already made the change.

Here's the story from today's Sunday Herald.

by Paul Hutcheon and Tom Gordon


SNP MSPs have been urged to drop the word “independence” because the concept is off-putting to voters, and to talk instead of an “independent” Scotland, the Sunday Herald can reveal.

The dramatic shift has already been adopted by Alex Salmond and others at the top of the SNP, but most of the party’s MSPs were told of the change at a secret meeting at Holyrood on Wednesday.

The theory is that being independent-minded is a positive personal quality voters like, whereas independence as a concept for Scotland is associated in voters’ minds with risk.

The advice was handed down by positive psychology consultant Claire Howell, a long-term adviser to the SNP, who also drilled MSPs in the American marketing techniques which will be used to promote a Yes vote in the 2014 referendum.

SNP bosses have also circulated a campaign training manual based on text cut-and-pasted from US marketing websites, with jargon such as “Independence ambassadors blend the strengths of a connector and a maven”.

It compares the fight for Scottish independence to the Suffragette movement which delivered votes for women in the 1920s.

Although some MSPs reacted enthusiastically to Howell’s talk, others were left angered and amazed, with junior minister Alasdair Allan openly objecting to dropping the word independence.

Former children’s minister Adam Ingram is also understood to have been unimpressed.

One senior SNP source said the political ideas behind independence seemed to be get lost in a deluge of marketing gobbledygook, but many MSPs felt uncomfortable about objecting in case they were accused of being negative.

The source said: “It was about persuading people, and there’s a good reason for doing that. But voters admire you if you believe in something and show a bit of passion. That forum wasn’t really about the cause, it was marketing speak. She [Howell] was basically talking marketing tactics.

“This is becoming a bit of a guddle.”

However Howell’s controversial advice has already been adopted by the SNP hierarchy.

In the SNP government’s January consultation on the mechanics of the referendum, Alex Salmond said his preferred question was “Do you agree that Scotland should be an independent country?”

Whereas in a 2010 consultation on a referendum, Salmond put forward a question asking whether people wanted Holyrood’s powers extended “to enable independence to be achieved”.

Launching the Yes Scotland campaign last month, the First Minister also failed to say the word “independence” at all in his speech, instead referring twice to an “independent Scotland” and saying “I want Scotland to be independent”.

In contrast, Green MSP Patrick Harvie mentioned “independence” three times in his launch speech.

The website of Yes Scotland, the SNP-backed campaign for a Yes vote, also emphasises the word independent, with sections called “Becoming independent” and “Being independent”.

On the page Why Vote Yes, there are six mentions of “independent” in just three paragraphs, but not a single mention of “independence”.

The pro-Union parties said the SNP’s “desperate” contortions showed it was afraid of its own key policy, because it knew voters were hostile.

The Sunday Herald reported in January how Howell, chief executive of REDCo - the Really Effective Development Company based in Nottingham - had helped advise SNP members not to use “freedom” in the referendum, because of its association with the violent Mel Gibson film Braveheart.

Instead of harking back to medieval subjugation and anti-Englishness, Howell and SNP strategists Angus Robertson MP and MSP Derek Mackay advised using upbeat terms such as “transformational”, “exciting” and “historic” when talking to voters about independence.

Another imported idea being using by the SNP is that of “brand advocates”, opinionated gossips who are harnessed by US companies as a low-cost way of promoting their products.

Dubbed “independence ambassadors” by the SNP, they will be urged to sell the case for a Yes vote in their local communities and online.

MSP Patricia Ferguson, Scottish Labour’s constitutional spokesperson, said: “It seems the SNP is finally realising what everyone else knows - most Scots reject their core policy of independence.

“Now they are desperately trying to repackage a bill of goods that people don’t want and this latest attempt will fool no one.

“Instead of spending his time listening to advertising gurus, Alex Salmond should start being honest with the people of Scotland.”

Willie Rennie, the Scottish LibDem leader, added: “Would the SNP advisers call a spade a spade or a soil dividing implement because it sounds less offensive to worms?

“No matter how much the SNP resort to 1984-style Newspeak to make their plans sound more palatable the voters will see right through them.

“Instead of playing with words the SNP should simply answer the voters’ questions.”

Angus Robertson, the SNP campaign director, said: “The SNP has learned the importance of positive and optimistic campaigning, and the language by which we communicate our messages.”

Tuesday, 29 May 2012

MBE aye, MBE naw

A guest post today from @PaulHutcheon


By Paul Hutcheon

A LABOUR councillor in Glasgow is facing calls to be stripped of his MBE after he made “crass and insensitive” claims about Sikhs and Indians.

Hanif Raja, who received his honour for services to “inter-faith relations”, accused both communities of trying to block his election over his support for Kashmir.

The remarks have been condemned by the ‘Sikhs in Scotland’ organisation and have triggered a complaint to the UK Government’s honours committee.
Immediately after his election this month, Raja gave an interview at the count to Pakistan television network Geo TV on his victorious campaign.
The Kashmiri-born politician, comfortably returned on the Labour slate in Pollokshields, told the broadcaster that his success had come in spite of problems from Sikhs and Indians.
Although he spoke in Urdu, four separate translations confirming his incendiary claims.
One translation has Raja saying: “I have been presented with so many obstacles from the Sikh and Indian community. I got a backlash when I went to them for votes.
“They said to me ‘we can’t support you because you support Kashmir’. I said to them ‘if you don’t want to give me the vote because of this then fine, this is my ideology I won’t ever compromise on this’.”
Another translation stated: “I had many obstacles from the Sikh and Indian community. I had a backlash when I approached them in connection with the votes.
“They said that because you support Kashmir we will not give you our votes. I said this is my personal issue and I refuse to compromise on this.”
The comments have enraged Glasgow’s Sikh community, as the future of Kashmir is one of the world’s most toxic disputes.
In 1947, the region was carved up and administered by three countries: India, Pakistan and China.
India and Pakistan have staked claims to the disputed territory, while a self-determination movement also exists.
Raja backs a referendum on Kashmir’s future and has been critical of Indian involvement in the region.
He once raised a Holyrood petition criticising “occupation forces in Indian-held Jammu and Kashmir”.
Anoop Wallia, spokesman for Sikhs in Scotland, said the TV comments were “totally absurd”, adding: “I think it quite ridiculous that he brings this issue up at all. We are actually very lucky here. There is no animosity. We work together on all sort of aspects of things.”
Wallia said that the group had written to the Cabinet Office’s ‘honours and appointments secretariat’, calling for the MBE Raja was awarded last year to be revoked.
David Meikle, a Tory councillor who was elected in the same ward as Raja, said Kashmir had not come up once on the doorsteps:

Councillor Hanif Raja: "crass and insensitve"
“It is extraordinary that a Labour councillor who represents one of the most diverse wards in Glasgow made such crass and insensitive comments about the Sikh and Indian community. “I’m also surprised he said this because I’m not aware of it being an issue in the area.”
After his election, Raja was appointed as one of the council’s bailies - a ceremonial position that allows him to support the Lord Provost at events.
The former bankrupt was also appointed to the council’s regeneration and economic policy development committee.This was in spite of him signing a personal bond in January to repay an £18,000 debt to the council.
After being read one of the translations, Raja denied making the comments.
“It’s a wrong statement, I think you’ve got the wrong translation,” he said.
However, after Scottish Labour was contacted about the row, Raja’s position changed.
“I would like to apologise for any offence caused. What I said was clumsily worded, and I should have phrased it much better,” he said.
An SNP spokesperson said: “Scotland is blessed with diverse communities and a shared Scottish identity, and Mr Raja’s comments about people based on their faith and nationality are insensitive and unhelpful.”

Sunday, 8 April 2012

House of Secrets

Politicians, access, secrecy - it's never a good combination.
Here's a longer version of today's story in the Sunday Herald


EXCLUSIVE
Tom Gordon
Scottish Political Editor


RECORDS of overnight guests at Alex Salmond’s official residence are being systematically destroyed despite public concerns about lobbying and access to politicians, it has emerged.

Details of all those enjoying the First Minister’s private hospitality are deleted within 72 hours, once security personnel no longer require them, the Sunday Herald has learned.

The destruction of records means the names of Salmond’s most favoured guests remain a secret.

Labour last night claimed the system was open to abuse, and urged Salmond to start publishing full records of his guests to ensure transparency.

The call comes just days after the First Minister insitigated an external inquiry into his own conduct after he treated a series of SNP donors, including Ayrshire’s £161m lottery winners Colin and Christine Weir, to tea at Bute House.

The Weirs gave the SNP a record £1m donation just four days after meeting Salmond at the A-listed Georgian mansion on September 9 last year.

Do the leaves predict a fortune?
However because Salmond gave them tea rather than lunch, dinner or drinks, their names were not recorded on any official hospitality register.

It also emerged last week that Salmond hosted two other SNP donors and their wives at Bute House.

Businessman Ian Watson, who donated £138,750 to the party between 2005 and 2009, and his wife Victoria, who contributed £12,500 in 2005, were guests at a lunch in July last year to mark the official opening of the Scottish Parliament.

Former Unliver executive David McCarthy and his wife were also dinner guests at Bute House after a royal garden party in July 2010.

McCarthy, a past president of the SNP’s Ochil branch, donated £5,045 to the party in 2007.

In the wake of a flurry of negative headlines about donors and sleaze, Salmond referred himself to his independent adviser, the former Lord Advocate Dame Elish Angiolini, who will now judge whether he broke the ministerial code.

Prime Minister David Cameron is also under fire after claims he entertained big Tory donors to private - rather than official - dinners at his Downing Street flat and Chequers residence.

The latest row involving Salmond also involves a  distinction between his official use of Bute House for work and his private use of it as a home.

The former is officially documented while the latter isn’t - a convenient loophole, say critics, could let a First Minister entertain guests and potential donors away from scrutiny.
Bute House: The First Minister's official residence
When the Sunday Herald first requested the names of overnight guests at Bute House last June, officials said they did not hold the information.

They said there had been no “official” overnight guests at the residence since Salmond became First Minister in 2007, but confirmed there had occassionally been “private” overnight guests.

The Scottish Information Commissioner’s office last week issued a ruling on the case accepting that the government had no records to divulge, but only because the information was “retained for two to three days and then disposed of”.

Willie Rennie, the Scottish LibDem leader, said: “It can’t be that difficult for the First Minister to recall which guests he had staying at his official residence. 

“He’s always keen to be open and up-front,  so this would be an excellent way of following through on that commitment.

“There also needs to be a review of record keeping at Bute House so concerns about access are addressed.”

Labour MSP Paul Martin added: “Alex Salmond's standards are even lower than David Cameron's.

“We demand the First Minister starts being and transparent and this loophole must be closed.

“If no official records are kept, then it falls to the First Minister himself to let us know who has invited to stay over in official government residences.

“Alex Salmond needs to set out who he has invited to stay and clarify whether any, like his dinner guests, are donors to the SNP.”

The First Minister's office declined to say if any SNP donors were among Salmond's overnight guests.

His spokesman said: “We are pleased that the Information Commissioner inds that we complied in full with our Freedom of Information requirements, which concludes the matter.

“Of course, this is entirely consistent with the practice of previous administrations, whether it be the Labour/Lib Dem coalition or Tory Scottish Secretaries.

“However, in the case of the SNP administration, no donor events and nothing associated with party fundraising take place in Bute House – never has and never will.

“Everyone receiving hospitality at government events at Bute House is recorded, and the information is proactively published by this administration, unlike our predecessors.”
ENDS