Sunday, 28 December 2014

Oh, you're embarrassing us, Mister Ambassador!

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

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

Tom Gordon
Scottish Political Editor

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I found it a truly unpleasant experience.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Falkirk is a top target seat for the SNP.

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

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

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

The SNP refused to discuss Murray’s criticisms.

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

Thursday, 11 December 2014

Let it go, let it go..

Tom Gordon

THE council tax freeze will deprive public services of an eyewatering £2.5billion by the end of the current parliament, according to new official figures. 

The scale of the cost, revealed in a briefing published by Holyrood’s financial scrutiny unit, has brought renewed calls for the freeze to end.

The freeze works by ministers giving councils around £70m to offset each year's inflation - with tough penalties threatened against any council which refuses. 

The result is that the average bill for a Band D home has remained £1149 since 2007-08, but hundreds of millions of pounds have been diverted from public services to pay for it.  
The cost to the public purse in year one was £70m, then £140m in year two, £210m in year three and so on, resulting in a rapidly spiralling bill.

The Scottish Parliament paper looks ahead to next year's budget for 2015-16, and the amount of money being allocated to Scotland’s 32 councils.

It states: “The total cost of the council tax freeze in 2015-16 is £560m, and the total cumulative cost from 2008-08 is 2015-16 is £2,520m.” 

A senior local government source said:  “This is both a huge and more importantly a legitimate figure from the Parliament which shows that we in local government have not been fully funded for a number of years in relation to the exorbitant cost of the council tax freeze.  

“The freeze puts a massive hole in our ability to deliver services and is a prime example of the gradual erosion of local democratic accountability and responsibility.”

From the Scottish Parliament's Financial Scrutiny Unit Briefing
The Holyrood research paper also shows revenue funding for every council falling this year, with an average drop of 1.3% across Scotland.

Critics say that by subsidizing councils to keep the tax frozen, the Scottish Government removes cash from other public services and denies councils the chance to raise even more money by setting tax rates themselves. 

The freeze is also attacked for saving those in the largest houses the most money, with the very poorest seeing no gain at all, as their council tax is met through benefit. 

According to the Scottish Government’s own figures, between 2008-09 and 2013-14, the freeze saved the average Band A household paying the tax a total of £258.

But the average Band D household saved £678 and the average Band H house £1,535.

Unfrozen: even Princess Anna was thawed in a day
Supporters say the freeze is backed by voters, has eased the burden on households since the 2008 crash, and sees the poor receive the most help as a percentage of household income. 

One of the SNP’s most popular policies since it was introduced in 2008, the freeze is an accidental byproduct of a failed attempt to abolish council tax.

The Nationalists only planned to freeze the levy short-term before replacing it with a local income tax (LIT) of 3p in the pound.

However in early 2009, the SNP government scrapped the plan, ostensibly on the grounds that it did not command enough support in parliament.

It later emerged that LIT would not have raised enough cash in the recession, a fact ministers tried to stop coming out with a legal challenge to a freedom of information request. 

Last month, First Minister Nicola Sturgeon announced a cross-party commission to come up with a "fairer" alternative to the current council tax system.

Council tax freeze: it was only meant to go on this long
STUC deputy general secretary Dave Moxham said the freeze should end immediately, with council tax rebanded to make it fairer pending a full review of local government funding.

“Enough is enough," he said.

"This year alone the freeze is worth as much as free person care. It’s a massive amount as we debate whether we can afford universal benefits.

“The Scottish Government says it’s fully funded, but there must be other areas of public sector not getting funded as a consequence, and councils are raising charges for services.” 

Council umbrella group Cosla, which wants council tax made more progressive by adding to the current eight bands, said: “We welcome this figure being outed. We have always said that the cost of this policy was enormous.  

“However the truth is that in all reality there is not a great deal councils can do in relation to the council tax freeze as the penalties for breaking it are so severe.” 

A Scottish Government spokesman said: “As the council tax freeze has been fully funded, it has not had an impact on the funding of essential services. This freeze is helping taxpayers and providing much needed financial relief to vulnerable groups, including pensioners.” 

Tuesday, 9 December 2014

Save Our Swinson

The LibDems are putting a brave face on Alex Salmond's tilt at the Gordon seat in the general election. 
The former FM is a shoo-in and all concerned know it.
LibDem candidate Christine Jardine will undoubtedly put up a spirited fight, but the truth is the party is not about to divert cash and manpower to a long-shot like Gordon next May.
If you follow the money, it's clear the LibDems are focusing elsewhere.
As you might expect, Danny Alexander's Inverness, Nairn, Badenoch and Strathspey seat is attracting a lot of big donations (mostly from Ministry of Sound founder James Palumbo).
But the sleeper story is how much cash is being poured into Jo Swinson's East Dunbartonshire constituency by friends of Nick Clegg who've never shown much interest in Scotland until now.
Swinson's seat is the most marginal of the 11 held by the LibDems in Scotland.
Swinson is also the party's only female MP north of the border.
This week, the Scottish LibDems announced seven of their eight regional list rankings for Holyrood in 2016
In terms of gender balance, they're appalling.
Not only are men ranked first in six of the seven, but in the North East, the party's only female MSP, the admirable Alison McInnes, is ranked second behind deserving 2011 loser Mike Rumbles.
Saving Swinson now looks more important than ever to the party of fairness and equality. 

Tom Gordon

THOUSANDS of pounds from English donors and Nick Clegg’s inner circle are being used to rescue a Scottish LibDem MP at the general election, according to official records.

Electoral Commission files show that in recent months unprecedented sums of cash have been pumped into the LibDem branch in East Dunbartonshire, near Glasgow, the seat of employment and equalities minister Jo Swinson.

Swinson, 34, a Clegg ally and MP since 2005, narrowly held the constituency in 2010 with a majority of 2,184 over Labour.
Swinson: holds most marginal LibDem seat in Scotland

The seat is the most marginal of the 11 held by LibDems in Scotland, and would fall next May on a swing to Labour of just 2.3%.

The SNP, who came fourth in the seat in 2010, would need a swing of 14.1% to win it.

To help avert defeat, the party has hired a full-time campaign manager for the seat, which is now being flooded with out-of-town cash.

Over the last decade, cash donations to the East Dunbartonshire branch recorded by the Electoral Commission averaged around £2000 a year.

However between April and August, donations hit £46,365, with three-quarters of the money coming from donors based in England.

Local businessman and previous donor Jacob Aagard, a Danish-born Scottish chess grand master and chess publisher, gave £10,000.

But the rest came from two high-power fundraising dinners for Swinson’s re-election.

The first, which raised £24,500 in June, was arranged by London-based Brompton Capital Ltd.

The company, which has no other declared donations in Scotland, is the largest corporate donor to the LibDems, giving £1.4m since 2010.

Its boss, Rumi Verjee, the founder of Domino’s Pizza in the UK, was made a LibDem peer in 
2013. Brompton, which put £3,350 into arranging the dinner, also chipped in £5000 cash.

Giving £3,750 at the dinner was Neil Sherlock, a former KPMG partner married to a LibDem peer, who was made Clegg’s special adviser in 2011 after giving the LibDems £88,000.

His donation to Swinson’s branch is a sure sign the highest eschelons of the party are mobilising to save her career.

Sherlock had never previously given a recorded donation to a Scottish LibDem branch.
Neil Sherlock: gave £3,750 at fundraising dinner for Swinson

Another £3,750 came from Alistair Barr, chair of the Cities of London and Westminster LibDems Executive, whose previous £12,000 to the party went mostly to Westminster and Haringey.

He also gave £2000 to Swinson’s branch in April.

Long-term LibDem donor Duncan Greenland, who has given the party more than £200,000 since 2004, gave £5000 at the dinner.

A former French vineyeard owner and ex-LibDem councillor in Camden in London, Greenland appears never to have donated previously to a Scottish branch. 

Michelle Quest, a donor to the Yeovil branch, also gave £2000 at the shindig.

And another £2000 came from ex-LibDem councillor Jane MacTaggart, another rookie time Scottish donor, who usually donates to her local Oxford West and Abingdon branch.

A second dinner hosted by former party leader Paddy Ashdown at the LibDems’ UK conference in Glasgow in October raised a further £11,865.

The £45-a-head affair “in support of Jo Swinson’s re-election campaign” included a £2111 wedge from LibDem peer Baroness Brinton

A Scottish Labour spokesman said: “No amount of money can help Jo Swinson escape from the fact that she is part of a government which has left families in her constituency £1600 a year worse off, seen energy prices soar and inequality widen. In May  the people of East Dunbartonshire face a a clear choice, a vote for Scottish Labour’s Amandjit Jhund or Jo Swinson and the coalition government.” 

A LibDem spokeswoman said: “If Labour are complaining that people are donating money to us to beat them then that’s Labour’s problem. Labour are obviously in a state of blind panic as they’re about to lose grip of their heartlands because they ruined the economy, destroyed jobs and slashed incomes.” 

Monday, 8 December 2014

Self Assessment

There's a lot of cynicism about politics and government. 
So how refreshing to hear a senior official being brutally honest recently. 
Eleanor Emberson, head of Revenue Scotland, admitted her estimates for the cost of the new tax collection service had proved inaccurate and she needed lots more staff than planned.
Hence the bill jumping twice in recent months.
Not a great sign for a service where money and maths are supposed to be central.
But certainly refreshing - if not reassuring.
Here's the story

Tom Gordon

THE bill for Scotland’s fledgling tax collection system has risen yet again - with managers forced to recruit a third more staff than planned.

Originally priced at £16.7m, the cost of Revenue Scotland is now more than £21m.

The running cost of the quango, which will initially collect two devolved taxes from April, was included in the SNP’s independence White Paper in November last year.

However within a month it had to be revised upwards by £3.5m, or 21%, to £20.2m in order to take account of extra activity and investment.

According to evidence presented to Holyrood’s finance committee recently, that figure was later adjusted to remove the cost of a new tax tribunal system, taking it down to £19.5m.

But in her six-monthly update to MSPs, Eleanor Emberson, the head of Revenue Scotland, said the cost had risen again by 9%, to £21.2m.

The bill covers the running costs from April next year to March 2020, and is on top of one-off start-up costs of £4.5m.

Kenneth Gibson, the SNP convener of the Finance Committee, described the latest price hike as “quite significant”, while grilling Emberson.

She said the extra was “almost exclusively staff costs”, as Revenue Scotland had raised its staffing from 30 to 41 in order to ensure the new system runs smoothly.
Eleanor Emberson: told Finance Committee her estimates had proved wrong

“My estimates have not turned out to be completely accurate,” Emberson admitted. 

“I am being honest about that. We have had to put in additional resource to deliver. 

“However, the bulk of the difference between £16.7m and £21.2m is to do with ensuring that the design of the systems matches the aspiration for Scotland.”

Emberson also stressed the running cost was less than the £22.3m Her Majesty’s Revenue & Customs (HMRC) would have charged to collect the new devolved taxes, the Land and Buildings Transaction Tax and the Scottish Landfill Tax.

Tory MSP Gavin Brown, who sits on the Finance Committee, said: “I’m concerned we have had cost increases several times and would like a guarantee from the government that it’s not going to increase further as we get closer to the launch date. The bill is now roughly similar to what HMRC would have charged. 

“Given one of the reasons for creating Revenue Scotland was that it would be cheaper than 
HMRC, it raises questions about the Scottish Government’s initial decision.”

A Government spokesman said: “Costs for setting up and running Revenue Scotland demonstrate good value for money and remain below the original estimate provided by HMRC.” 

“These costs include additional plans to enhance Revenue Scotland’s tax collection capacity, 
over and above that currently provided by HMRC. These include an IT system to support additional work on tax compliance, and new measures to address illegal landfill dumping.”

Wednesday, 26 November 2014

50p or not 50p? That is the question

Murphy: I'll have half of that thanks
Tax is in the air.

George Osborne's autumn statement is just around the corner, and born-again devolutionist Jim Murphy is suddenly in favour of Holyrood controlling income tax.

Murphy is equally enthusiastic about restoring the 50p top rate of income tax for those earning £150,000 and above, thereby reversing the cut to 45p made by Osborne in April last year.

The chatter about the 50p rate reminded me of a protracted exchange I had with Nicola Sturgeon on the subject during the referendum campaign.

It was probably the stickiest moment in an interview for the Sunday Herald, with the future First Minister repeatedly ducking questions on whether to bring back the 50p rate.

Here's the transcript from the first week of September

Sunday Herald: Do you not want a more progressive tax system?

Nicola Sturgeon: Parties will take decisions in budgets about taxation. What I want to do is see a situation where we are lifting people at the bottom, being able to determine what the minimum wage is, being able to determine what I hope and lift the minimum wage to the level of the minimum wage, childcare. Being in charge of both sides of your balance sheet so that socially progressive policies -

SH: You’re not talking about both sides, just spending-

NS: -socially progressive policies that you invest in have a positive impact on the other side of your balance sheet. We have a debate in this country about taxation that assumes the only way you can increase a government’s tax take is to raise the rates of tax that people pay. That’s not the only way. You increase a government’s tax take if you get more folk in work paying tax, if you get more folk in work earning more and paying more tax. It doesn’t happen instantaneously, but that’s what you’ve got the ability to do if you are in control.

SH: But there’s an argument about fairness, that says those who earn most should pay more

NS: If we’d have been in control we wouldn’t have reduced the 50p top rate of tax

SH: Would you reintroduce it as Labour would?

NS: I know why people want answers but...

SH: If you can give a commitment on [a 3p cut in] corporation tax why can’t you make one on income tax?

NS: We’ve set out our position on income tax. That decision will be taken on prevailing circumstances

SH: And the corporation tax decision?

NS: Corporation tax is a deliberately targeted policy to try to create more jobs through having more companies based in Scotland. On income tax, if there was an SNP government in an independent Scotland setting that first budget, if the circumstances were the same as they are now, we wouldn’t have reduced the 50p top rate of tax

SH: But would you have a 50p top rate of tax?

NS: I’m not going to set income tax rates for 2016 sitting in September 2014

SH: Do you think it’s a good idea for fairness?

NS: Right now we wouldn’t have voted, we didn’t vote, to reduce it. So, then, right now, we think there should still be a 50p top rate of tax

SH: There will still be people earning over 150 grand in 2016. Do you think they ought to pay 50p on their income tax?

NS: You set income tax rates based on the judgments you take about your budget when you set those budgets. I’m not going to sit here..

SH: You also take a judgment on whether those people ought to pay more. Would they deserve to pay more?

NS: I’m not going to.. You can spend the rest of the interview..

SH: You talk about social justice but you won’t..
Sturgeon: I'll tell you when I'm ready

NS: You can spend the rest of this interview if you want asking me to tell you what an SNP government’s budget would be in an independent Scotland in 2016

SH: No, I’m asking you about one rate of one tax

NS: I’m giving you an answer. If I was making that decision right now there would be a 50p top rate of tax. I’m not going to tell you what the decision will be two years from now because that decision will be taken based on the prevailing circumstances. If we were in that position right now of making that decision then there would still be a 50p top rate of tax, because we think that would be correction the circumstances that we’re in just now.

SH: But the same basic question still exists in 2016 - should the rich pay more?

NS: There will be a whole variety of circumstances by the time we’re setting that first budget

SH: That’s a fundamental question for taxation. Should the rich people pay more money?

NS: I believe in progressive taxation. I believe that people should pay according to their means. But the specific rates of tax will be decided in budgets. I’m telling you now that if that decision was ours to make right now what that decision would be.

Sunday, 2 November 2014

Blair Transplant

The Sunday Herald carries a piece today about the extraordinary number of Better Together personnel now working for Jim Murphy in the Scottish Labour leadership contest.

Murphy's campaign launch in Edinburgh yesterday felt like a Blythswood Square re-union, with Alistair Darling leading the applause in the audience, and a throng of former Better Together press officers running errands and liaising with the media.

Blair McDougall's new Twitter picture
Blair McDougall, Better Together's former campaign director and Murphy's old friend, pictured left, even booked the venue.

McDougall, whose employment contract with Better Together ran to the end of the year, has also left the organisation early to help run Murphy's campaign.

One of those concerned says it's simple enough - lots of BT staffers admire Murphy because of the shift he put in during the referendum with his 100 towns in 100 days tour (which was a Better Together rather than a Labour event), and now want to return the favour and help.

But others in the party smell a rat.

Some of those close to fallen leader Johann Lamont reckon Better Together morphed into a leadership vehicle for Murphy a long time ago, and that McDougall and others blatantly promoted the East Renfrewshire MP with an eye to replacing Lamont.

If that's true, it would be the kind of classic New Labour stitch-up that Murphy has been acused of ever since he helped run the notorious Network that picked 'acceptable' Labour candidates in the 1990s.

An associated rumour is that McDougall's reward is to be the post of Scottish Labour general secretary, the party's most powerful official, and a real power behind the throne.

Jim Murphy launches his leadership campaign
So in the press huddle after his launch speech, I asked Murphy who he wanted as general secretary.

A simple enough question, you'd think, given Murphy has stressed that under him there would be no repeat of the sacking of the Scottish general secretary by London, the event which precipitated Lamont's stormy resignation.

Murphy has also emphasised that he'll be doing the hiring and firing.

Yet for a simple question, it yielded a very odd and evasive answer, the kind of answer that usually means a raw nerve has been touched.

You'd almost think McDougall's job had already been neatly stitched up alongside Jim's.

But, then, that would be a very New Labour thing to do, and Jim says those misleading labels are all in the past, so I must be mistaken.

Here's the transcript of the exchange so you can judge for yourself (spot the Freudian slip):

Sunday Herald: Who’s your pick for gen sec?

Jim Murphy: You make it sound like a football team. [Turning to other reporters] Who’s next? I don’t know who the candidates are, mate.

SH: Well Blair McDougall is at a loose end...

JM: Is he? Mmm. Ok. You’re quite fixated by him. It’s quite unnatural. Have you got pictures of him all over your room?

SH: Blair McDougall for general secretary, is that credible?

JM: I’m not getting involved in all that, mate. Now you’re going to write...

SH: You told everybody that you were going to be doing the hiring and firing. So is he going to be a hire for general secretary?

JM: I’m not the Scottish Labour Party leader yet. If I win... if I’m fortunate enough to win this contest, I’ll make those decisions, ok?

SH: Would you like him to be general secretary?

JM: Oh my gosh. I mean, is this my first day in politics that I fall for that sort of question, Tom? It’s not your first day in journalism, so you ought to come up with a better question than that.

Wednesday, 22 October 2014

The only way is ethics

I reported in July in the Sunday Herald that Roseanna Cunningham had failed to declare a shareholding in a small publishing company in her parliamentary register of interests.

As the shares represented more than 1% of the firm concerned, that suggested a breach of not only MSP rules, but the law, as it is technically an offence to participate in parliamentary business while failing to declare a registrable financial interest.

Not too clever looking for the minister for legal affairs.

To her credit, Ms Cunningham promptly held up her hand, and admitted she should have registered the shares, and got rid of them sharpish.

However the matter is not yet at an end, I can reveal.

Following a complaint from a member of the public, the Commissioner for Ethical Standards in Public Life in Scotland has become involved.

Here's the story:

Tom Gordon

ROSEANNA Cunningham, the SNP minister for legal affairs, is being investigated by the country’s ethics watchdog over an undisclosed shareholding exposed by the Sunday Herald.

Bill Thomson, the Commissioner for Ethical Standards in Public Life in Scotland, recently confirmed he had started inquiries in response to a complaint from a member of the public.

It is understood Mr Thomson ruled the complaint into the secret shares was “admissible” and said he would “continue consideration of the matter”.

He also informed Ms Cunningham of his decision.

The Sunday Herald first revealed in July that Ms Cunningham, who is also minister for community safety, failed to declare shares she had held since 2000 in a left-wing publishing company.
The holding was 50 of the 750 issued shares in Left Review Scotland Ltd, which publishes the Scottish Left Review magazine six times a year.
Since 2006, MSPs have been obliged to declare any shareholding greater than 1% in a company.
However Ms Cunningham failed to declare her 6.7% stake in Holyrood’s register of interests.
Roseanna Cunningham
Although nominally worth £1 each, Scottish Left Review’s 2013 accounts valued the shareholders’ funds at more than £13,000, suggesting Ms Cunningham’s stake was worth almost £900.
Under Section 39 of the 1998 Scotland Act failure to register such a financial interest and then take part in parliamentary proceedings is a criminal offence, punishable on summary conviction to a fine of up to £5000.
The new probe is a blow to the Perthshire MSP as a minister with a legal portfolio, especially given she was an advocate in her past career.
When the Sunday Herald first revealed the share holding, Ms Cunningham, 64, said she had “no recollection” of the shares, but has since admitted she should have registered them.
She has now recorded them in her register of interests saying she bought them for £1 each in 2000 but was “not been actively involved in the company for over 12 years”.
However “on realising these shares constituted a registrable interest I provided the necessary information to the [parliamentary] Clerk”. 
Paul Martin, Labour’s business manager at Holyrood, said: “It is clear that this is viewed as a serious matter. Government ministers need to be held to the highest possible standard and it is correct that this is properly investigated and acted on if there is wrongdoing.
“It would not be good for this government if the minister in charge of legal affairs had failed on basic compliance.”
Ms Cunningham founded Left Review Scotland Ltd with a group of fellow left-wingers including ex-Labour treasurer Bob Thomson and Clydeside trade unionist Jimmy Reid.
Its aim was “to promote and reflect the principles and values of democratic socialism within the Scottish nation through the publishing of a magazine and organisation of discussion groups”.
A spokesman for Ms Cunningham said she had replied to the Commissioner and her letter “set out the circumstances of the situation and the fact that as she did not recall she owned these shares, they went unregistered with Parliament.
“Once they were brought to her attention and she realised they should have been registered, she immediately notified the relevant bodies.
“She has since divested herself of the £50 in shares for nil consideration.”
The office of the Commissioner for Ethical Standards said: “We have received a complaint against Roseanna Cunningham.
“We cannot comment further on this matter as the Commissioner is legally obliged (Section 16 of the Scottish Parliamentary Standards Commissioner Act 2002) not to disclose information about the terms of the complaint.”

Tuesday, 26 August 2014

Confident no more?

First Minister's economic advisers continued to discuss currency Plan Bs months after Salmond declared Unionist veto on pound was "bluff", new minutes show

Unnoticed amid the recent rows over a potential currency "Plan B" was the publication last week of the latest minutes from Alex Salmond's Fiscal Commission Working Group (FCWG).

These date from 26 May 2014, but are nevertheless intriguing.

They show that, long after the First Minister had dismissed the Unionist threat to veto a currency union as mere bluff and bluster, his advisers remained busy discussing alternatives.

The minutes state (my emphasis in bold):

The Working Group discussed and reviewed the evidence underpinning their recommendations for a formal monetary union in their First Report.
Following on from their last meeting, there was a continued discussion of currency options in the context of the stated position of UK Ministers and the advice of HMT.

The Working Group also considered the economic assessment of currency unions set out by the Governor of the Bank of  England.

Members discussed the options available to Scotland post-independence and the importance of a stable transition.
The opinion of the Working Group remains that retaining Sterling as part of a formal monetary union is the best option for both the UK and Scotland.

The reference to "transition" was pounced on by Better Together when Salmond used the same phrase last week. Transition to what? they asked.

May's meeting seems to differ from the one which preceeded it on 6 March. 

Back in March, three weeks after George Osborne came to Edinburgh to announce his veto plan, the minutes recorded a confidence that it simply wouldn't happen.

They said: 

Members discussed the currency options outlined in the first report given recent developments and concluded that their economic assessment and central recommendation still held. 
They also discussed the other viable currency and monetary models available for Scotland post-independence.
Members emphasised how they believe that it would be in the interests of the rest of the UK for Scotland to retain stability as part of a formal monetary union. 
In the event of a vote for independence, agreements will be reached which are in the best interests of both Scotland and the rest of the UK. 
Other currency options would be less advantageous for the rest of the UK but viable for Scotland and Members concluded that they are confident that this will ensure an agreement on a shared currency.
As part of their discussions the Working Group covered the potential role of a Scottish Monetary Institute in a formal monetary union. 

But there was no reference to continued confidence in May's minutes, just a repeat of the FCWG's position that a formal currency union would be the best option.

("The opinion of the Working Group remains that retaining Sterling as part of a formal monetary union is the best option for both the UK and Scotland.")

Then again, if they were just as confident, why would they still be discussing Plan Bs?

Monday, 21 July 2014

A few rivets short of a flagship

It may be the recess at Holyrood, but questions about the SNP government's promise to "transform" childcare policy under independence rumble on.

A few months ago ministers refused a freedom of information request I had lodged about the basic arithmetic behind their headline-grabbing plan.

You might remember that back in January, ministers published an economic analysis of the impact of a theoretical 6% rise in the female workforce, which they said could eventually raise £700m in extra taxes to help pay for childcare.

Strikingly, the analysis failed to spell out how many years it would take before a 6% rise would yield £700m extra in tax (assuming it ever happened), and hence how much the policy would cost to deliver.

Some top vagueness from the SG analysis (my emphasis)

Instead, there were vague descriptions of output and tax revenue rising "in the long run" and "over a number of years".

Holyrood's impartial information centre later pointed out that when the SNP government talks about "the long-term", it can mean 20 years or more.

So under FoI, I asked to see the full, unedited results of the modelling exercise, in the hope of seeing the short- and medium-term numbers.

Ministers refused, saying it would be "premature" to disclose it, and so I appealed to the Scottish Information Commissioner, Rosemary Agnew.

Ministers made their submissions to the Commissioner on June 16.

Agnew has now ruled on the matter.

Sadly from my perspective, she has sided with the government, and said that ministers were entitled to withhold the modelling work I was after.

The main thrust of it is that, although the SNP's White Paper set out the "high level" direction on childcare, the nuts and bolts of the policy remain "in development", and so material which "relates" to it can be withheld.

However, the Commissioner's decision also contains some fascinating insights.

For a start, it confirms that ministers have modelled far more on childcare than they have been willing to share with voters, and that the policy is still only part-cooked.

"The Ministers stated that the withheld information comprised the modelled impact of changes in economic output and tax revenues under different scenarios of increased female participation in the labour market," the Commissioner's decision says (my emphasis in bold).

"The Ministers argued that the withheld information comprised part of the evidence base provided to assist them in developing their policy on childcare in the event of independence.

"They argued that although the strategic policy direction had been set out in Scotland’s Future, detailed policy design work continued and the details of the policy were yet to be set out.

"The Ministers submitted that the information was created as part of an ongoing process of developing their position on childcare and that the formulation of the policy remains in development."

And here's where it gets really interesting.

Ministers admit they have modelled but have also withheld the short- and medium-term numbers.

In other words, they have withheld modelling on the crucial period covering the introduction of the policy, perhaps the first 10 or 15 years, when it would not yet be self-financing, and when the net burden on taxpayers could be hundreds of millions of pounds a year.

Informative material, surely? I'd say so. But ministers say it would only confuse the poor punters.

"The Ministers stated that the modelling results presented in the published report Childcare and Labour Market Participation – Economic Analysis provide a high-level summary of the impact of increases in labour market participation on economic output and tax revenues in the long-term.

"The results for individual years which detail the short and medium-term impacts have been withheld. 

"The Ministers considered that disclosure of the annual short- and medium-term results could be misleading. 

"They stated that the short- and medium-term results reflect a very specific labour market response, from which the long-term results are independent."

And my favourite phrase...

"The Ministers considered that disclosure of the information would give an unjustifiable impression that there is a level of certainty in the information.

A few rivets short of a flagship: ministers on withholding childcare information

The long and the short of it is that my FoI pursuit of this information has now hit a dead end.

Others may yet be more successful.

In the meantime, I leave you with this recent press release from the SNP demanding full disclosure and clarity from the UK government on another aspect of the referendum debate.

SNP MSP Bruce Crawford said: "People in Scotland paid for these polls and they have a right to see the results in full.”

Thursday, 5 June 2014

Bonus balls?

THE £1000-a-scalp “independence bonus” touted by the Yes camp is under fresh scrutiny today.
It was calculated on the basis that by year 15 of independence, Scottish tax revenue would have risen by £5bn, or roughly £1000 per person.
Leaving aside the fact that that’s your money going to the government not the other way round, the bonus is predicated on a steady rise in workplace productivity.
A 0.3% annual rise for 15 years should yield £2.4bn, or almost half the bonus pot, according to the Scottish Government.
But the First Minister’s Council of Economic Advisers has just reported that productivity trends are “an area of uncertainty”.
So should Alex Salmond be so confident of a productivity rise?
The Scottish Government says only short-term productivity is uncertain and that independence would produce permanent long-term change.
But if it’s not possible to forecast short-term productivity change with certainty, how much reliance can you put on 15-year forecast, especially as long-term forecasts are notoriously harder to get right than short-term ones?
The opposition parties say something's amiss.
Here’s a longer version of the story in today’s Herald

Tom Gordon

THE workplace productivity behind Alex Salmond’s promise of a £1000 independence bonus for every Scot remains “an area of uncertainty”, his own economic experts have warned.

The assessment is contained in the latest annual report by the chair of the First Minister’s Council of Economic Advisers (CEA).

The Government last night said only short-term productivity was uncertain, whereas independence could produce permanent change, but opposition parties said Mr Salmond had been caught peddling “fantasy”. 

The First Minister said last week that higher productivity, higher employment and higher immigration after a Yes vote would result in an extra £5billion in tax revenues after 15 years, an “independence bonus” worth £1000 per person.
Almost half the £5bn increase was attributed to a 0.3% rise in annual productivity growth.
The SNP government stated: “A 0.3 percentage point increase in our long run productivity growth rate, which will narrow some of the gap with our competitors, could see tax revenues increase by £2.4bn a year by 2029-30.”
The government suggested productivity could be raised using “an industrial strategy to rebalance the economy and diversify Scotland’s industrial base”, better infrastructure, and a more efficient tax regime which helped Scottish businesses invest and innovate.
However the CEA chair’s report indicated productivity trends could not be taken for granted.
It said: “Looking ahead, in the short term, even as the recovery develops at an aggregate
level, specific or localised issues may still appear. Moreover, the outlook for the labour market and earnings, both in Scotland and the UK, depends on future productivity trends, which remain an area of uncertainty.”
From p43 of the CEA chair's second annual report
However it added the economic outlook was stronger than in early 2013, and the Scottish economy was expected to move beyond 2008 pre-recession levels of output during 2014.
The prospect of greater productivity was also cited defensively by SNP ministers this week when the Institute for Fiscal Studies said costly policies on childcare and pensions would require tax hikes or cuts under independence.
Labour finance spokesman Iain Gray said: “The SNP’s prospectus for a separate Scotland depends on a sudden, magical, and inexplicable increase in productivity following a yes vote.
“Every day we see independent analysts telling us these figures do not add up. Now even the First Minister’s own advisers are telling him a sudden leap in productivity is just fantasy.
“This report shows the scale of the challenge a separate Scotland would face in helping to bridge the gulf between SNP spending promises and revenue.
“There is no plan, no strategy, no vision and no idea about how to close the productivity gap.”
Conservative finance spokesman Gavin Brown added: “This is yet more evidence that the Scottish Government’s fiscal paper last week was based on extremely optimistic assumptions, vain hope and the crossing of fingers.
“What is particularly damaging about this conclusion is that it comes from the Scottish Government’s own trusted advisers.
“There can be no claims of a conspiracy here - when even they are telling the SNP to be more cautious, it’s time for the Yes camp to listen.”
A Scottish Government spokeswoman said: “The two references to productivity are different. The text quoted from the Chair’s Report relates to short-term changes in the Scottish and UK labour markets and its links to how productivity is adjusting in the light of the recession and recovery. The First Minister was referring to permanent improvements in Scotland’s productivity growth rate, which can be supported by access to the economic levers available under independence.
“With independence we will be able to take control of economic levers and have the powers to grow our own economy, including supporting increases in productivity rates. With the powers of independence we could generate over £5 billion a year of extra revenues within 15 years, without increasing taxes.”

Sunday, 1 June 2014

Trust me, I'm a perjurer

Disgraced former MSP Tommy Sheridan is back on the road again, advocating a Yes to independence.
He's still got the power to whip up a crowd, but the official Yes camp is far from happy at being linked to a convicted perjury.
Here's the story.

Tom Gordon
Paul Hutcheon

TENSIONS have erupted inside the pro-independence campaign over Tommy Sheridan, after it emerged the convicted perjurer spoke at a meeting under the offical Yes banner.

The former jailbird shared a stage last week with SNP MSP Christina McKelvie at an event organised by Yes Hamilton, a semi-autonomous offshoot of the Yes Scotland movement.

Yes Scotland board member Colin Fox, whose testimony helped send Sheridan to prison for lying on oath, reacted furiously to the news.

He said: “The guy is a convicted perjurer. He’s a liability to Yes. We don’t want him.

Sheridan, who was jailed for three years in 2011 for perjury during his 2006 defamation action against the News of the World, recently embarked on a one-man speaking tour to promote a Yes vote called “Hope over Fear”, but has been shunned by the official Yes camp.

In 2012, SNP Finance Secretary John Swinney said the disgraced former Glasgow MSP was “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.”

Organisers of the Yes Scotland group in Glasgow later cold-shouldered Sheridan when he tried to become part of the organisation.

Despite the clear signal from Swinney, McKelvie, convener of Holyrood’s European and External Affairs committee, spoke along with the former leader of the Scottish Socialist Party (SSP) at a miner’s welfare club in Hamilton on Tuesday before an audience of around 200.

Despite repeated calls and emails to her publicly-funded media adviser, McKelvie, the MSP for Hamilton, Larkhall and Stonehouse, did not respond to requests for comment.
Christina McKelvie MSP and Tommy Sheridan last Tuesday
Sheridan, 50, was a list MSP from 1999 to 2007 and a one-time convener of the SSP before forming the breakaway Solidarity Party in 2006. 
He launched Solidarity a few weeks after winning a £200,000 defamation action against the now-defunct News of the World, which had claimed he was an adulterer and a swinger who had visited Cupid’s sex club in Manchester.
During the civil case, Sheridan accused some of his old colleagues in the Scottish Socialists of conspiring against him and said they had engineered “the mother of all stitch-ups”.
Conflicting testimony during the case prompted a police investigation into possible perjury.
In 2010, Sheridan was found guilty of lying under oath and sentenced to three years.
The flyer for Tuesday's event
He was released after a year in prison.
Colin Fox, a Yes Scotland board member, a current SSP co-convener and one of those who testified against Sheridan at his trial, said: “I don’t want anything to do with him.
“I think he helps the No campaign.
“Last time last year he was leader of the anti-bedroom tax campaign. This year he wants to be part of the yes campaign. He’s got an addiction to limelight.”

The pro-Union Better Together campaign seized on Sheridan’s appearance under the Yes banner.
A spokesman said: “With Tommy Sheridan now joining the official Yes campaign, we can expect to see a swing to us.”

Yes Scotland stressed Sheridan was not part of its operation, and said local groups were free to arrange their own speakers.
A spokesman said: “Any individual’s involvement in Yes Scotland community activities is entirely a matter for the local groups.”
Sheridan could not be contacted for comment.

Sunday, 18 May 2014

Ambulance for Neil?

THE controversy over Health Secretary Alex Neil intervening in the shake-up of mental health services at his local health board has been a slow-burn one.
The Sunday Herald broke the story as far back as November 2012.
Since then, the First Minister and the Permament Secretary have said Neil did nothing wrong in upending his predecessor's decision to remove acute beds from Monklands Hospital in his Airdrie & Shotts seat.
But last week the story came back to bite Neil after new FoI material obtained by Labour proved he ordered the U-turn before stepping back from the issue to avoid a conflict of interest.
Compounding Neil's offence in Labour eyes is the way he later said he'd delegated the matter to a junior minister because Monklands was in his constituency, when he had already taken the crucial decision himself.
That, Johann Lamont claimed, was deceiving parliament.
The FM has refused to sack Neil, but Labour smell blood and won't let go.
The Sunday Herald has now obtained a new email suggesting Neil's primary motivation was his own political backyard, rather the wider health board concerns cited by Alex Salmond at FMQs.
Here's a longer version of today's story.

Tom Gordon
Scottish Political Editor
ALEX Neil was last night under growing pressure to resign after an email emerged showing his ferocious opposition to a health shake-up in his constituency that he controverisally reversed within days of becoming Health Secretary.  
The email, obtained by the Sunday Herald despite an attempt to censor its contents, shows Neil was vehemently against removing acute mental health services from Monklands Hospital because of the impact on his Airdrie & Shotts seat.
He later ordered NHS Lanarkshire to rewrite its plans and retain beds at Monklands, despite official warnings it would mean a “less than optimal service” in “inferior accommodation” at the hospital, where asbestos is officially described as “ubiquitous”.
Despite his critical intervention, Neil subsequently told the Scottish Parliament he had delegated decisions on Monklands to a deputy minister “because it lies in my constituency”.
The Ministerial Code says ministers must avoid conflicts of interests when taking decisions affecting their constituencies.
From NHS Lanarkshire Property Strategy April 2009 to March 2013
Labour claim Neil “deceived” the parliament and have urged Alex Salmond to sack him.
The First Minister, who previously cleared Neil of breaching the Ministerial Code over the affair, last week refused to dismiss him, and said the Monklands decision was part of wider changes affecting the whole health board.
“To define it purely as a constitutency issue ignores the fact that the health service affects and serves all of the population,” he said.
However an email written by Neil to NHS Lanarkshire on 9 August 2012 suggests that constituency issues were paramount to the future Health Secretary.
At the time, the then Health Secretary Nicola Sturgeon had just agreed to concentrate mental health beds at Wishaw and Hairmyres, outside Neil’s seat, and remove them from Monklands.
With NHS Lanarkshire due to finalise the plan on 23 August, Neil was asked if he would endorse the board’s decision in a press release.
Neil's unredacted email of 9-8-12
 Although NHS Lanarkshire blacked out Neil’s reply, the Sunday Herald has seen the contents.  After asking the board to delay a decision until after his holiday, Neil declined to contribute.
“While I support the overall strategic approach, I don’t agree with your recommendations in relation to not locating one of the new units in Monklands, which covers a much more deprived catchment area than East Kilbride,” he said.
“The proposals are not consistent with an anti-poverty strategy.
“My reading of the analysis of why Monkalnds shouldn’t retain a mental health unit is that it is essentially prejudiced on the economics of the PFIs [private finance initiatives] at both Wishaw and Hairmyres.”
He said it would be “extremely rash” to announce the change without laying on free hospital transport for patients’ friends and families.
“Given the level of poverty and deprivation in Airdrie this will just not be possible if people on low incomes have to pay to get to Wishaw or Hairmyres. I strongly suggest that this release includes the details of planned investment at Monklands Hospital, otherwise local people will be even further incensed yet again by the actions of NHS Lanarkshire.”
Neil's email after NHS Lanarkshire's redactions
To allow Neil to stay involved, the board agreed to delay its decision until 26 September.
However on 5 September, a reshuffle saw Neil promoted to the position of Health Secretary.
Within days he undertook a “review” of the mental health plans, and on 26 September his private secretary told fellow government officials Neil’s “clear view” was to keep beds at Monklands and NHS Lanarkshire was to be asked to “reconfigure their plans accordingly”.
It was not until later that day that Neil stepped aside because of “a perception of a conflict of interest” and passed responsibility for mental health services at Monklands to public health minister Michael Matheson.
Labour argue that by then Neil had already taken the key decision on Monklands, leaving Matheson to merely rubberstamp the board’s revised plan.
Labour health spokesman Neil Findlay said: “This is another deeply damaging revelation. It makes clear that Alex Neil was going to oppose the decision, approved by Nicola Sturgeon, to close mental health beds at Monklands, because of the impact it would have on his constituency. 
“Alex Neil said he wouldn’t handle the decision because it was a constituency matter.
“Alex Salmond this week said it wasn’t a constituency matter. The SNP’s defence is all over the place as they scrabble to defend a minister interfering in NHS decisions. Alex Neil’s position is untenable. He must resign.”
Neil campaigning about Monklands services before the 2011 election, when he took Airdrie & Shotts from Labour
A Scottish Government spokeswoman said: “On his appointment as Health Secretary, Mr Neil wished to review a number of key decisions, including the proposals about to be put forward by the board of NHS Lanarkshire on mental health services. With over 500,000 people resident in NHS Lanarkshire’s area, Mr Neil addressed his concerns on the service change to the region as a whole. He was clear in his view that acute mental health facilities would be best retained at Wishaw General Hospital, Monklands Hospital, and with a unit at Hairmyres Hospital.”
Regarding asbestos at Monklands, the government added: “Asbestos is only dangerous when disturbed. NHS boards have a responsibility to ensure asbestos is safely managed and contained. It should not be removed unnecessarily.”