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.

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'.

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.

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

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.”