Monday, 29 December 2008

Scottish MPs - A Waste of Time and Money?

As I said in a recent post, Livingston MP Jim Devine's recent posturing not only says a lot about his priorities but it also raises a very big question which has implications for representation across the UK and possibly for the current devolution settlement.

The question can be simply put:- "What do Scottish MPs actually do?"

Without going to the bother of reading the Scotland Act (and ignoring the grey areas and stuff on the margins), Holyrood is pretty much responsible for all aspects of Scottish life except Welfare and Benefits, Defence and Foreign Affairs, Macro-economic policy and Immigration. With the exception of Welfare and Benefits, these are not typically the kind of issues that constituents tend to burden their representatives with.

The buck stops with Holyrood and MSPs for just about everything which is of day to day concern to the people of Scotland; Health, Law & Order, Education, Housing, Transport etc etc. So in terms of sorting out our day to day concerns, the answer to the above question is 'not very much'.

Sure, these MPs will act as Westminster lobby fodder too, but just how often are the views of the 59 Scottish MPs influencial in the outcome of any vote? Not very often.

Which brings up two interesting follow on questions;
1) Why do Scottish MPs get paid more than MSPs and why do they get staffing expenses which dwarf those available to MSPs?
2) Why do Scottish MPs get paid the same as English MPs and why do they get the same staffing expenses?

Question 1 reflects what is actually an outrageous situation. MSPs who have to do the majority of the work get scarce resources while MPs can afford to pay people to sit around and make work up. (I've heard it said that some MPs actually employ people just to follow them around and take photos.) This is not good for the democratic process and, in my view at least, this is a far bigger problem than any of the Holyrood expenses 'scandals' which have emerged since 1999.

Question 2 is interesting. We often hear how the introduction of an English votes for English laws system at Westminster to balance the devolution settlement would be a bad thing because it would result in two classes of MPs. Strikes me that we already have that; the English MPs who have to run around covering all the matters that Scottish MPs and MSPs deal with and the Scottish MPs who can sit in the bar until they have to follow someone into the lobbies.

Conclusion? If you live in Scotland, even of you have an excellent MP, he or she will be a complete waste of money - at least in comparison to your local MSP. And if you live in England, why the hell do you put up with this?

Sunday, 28 December 2008


I notice that this blog has blipped on the Iain Dale new blog radar. Being naive in the black arts of all things Internetty I guess this must mean that somebody somewhere who isn't so naive is reading my outpourings.

Unfortunately, my work was described as an SNP blog, which it most certainly is not.

I did vote SNP last time but do not always do so. I believe in Independence for Scotland (and England for that matter) and I currently can't see any reason not to vote SNP next time.

But that does not make this an SNP blog. It is my blog and mine alone.

Maybe I'm just getting over-sensitive in my old age and I have certainly had to deal with worse accusations in my time.

Anyhow, if you are visiting via Mr Dale's site, you are very welcome.

Saturday, 27 December 2008

End of Year Report

As 2008 comes to an end, let's take a very high level view of the state of the parties through my own strangely tinted spectacles...

2008 has been a modestly good year for the Tories in Scotland. Overtaking the LibDems in both Glasgow East and Glenrothes was probably as good as they could possibly have hoped for and Annabel Goldie continues to be the best of the opposition leaders at Holyrood.

Elsewhere, Derek Brownlee continues to impress both in the chamber and as a TV performer and Annabel is given strong support by Murdo Fraser, Bill Aitken and David McLetchie.

It is unfortunate for them that their predecessors had such an impact on the Scottish psyche as their poll ratings do not do their capabilities and general performance justice. That being said, the last Westminster poll showed that they have crept above the 20% threshold.

Maybe, with a little more patience and continued improvement, the Scottish Conservatives could be a real force again.

Just where do you start in assessing Labour's year?

Compared to this time last year, we could say that things are pretty much as they were except there is a different leadership team in place. That would be to completely ignore what has been the rollercoster that has been the last 12 months.

Compared to August, post-Glasgow East and pre-Credit Crunch, Labour has to feel good about its current position. Almost everyone had written them off, Brown was described as a dead man walking and no seat looked safe after the outrageous swing against them in Glasgow East.

Since then, we've had Brown the SuperHero circling the globe giving the impression that he is single handedly saving the world, we've had the reinstatement of a full time Scottish Secretary and we've had Glenrothes. Labour looked to have arrested the decline, the SNP challenge was brushed aside in Fife and there was even brief talk of a spring election.

Another couple of months on and things don't look quite so rosy. The poll ratings look to have peaked and the economy is going down the toilet despite all the impressive looking action of Brown and Darling. By all accounts things are going to be much, much worse than anyone previously imagined.

In my view, the LibDems are the big losers of 2008.

If the result in Glasgow East was bad, Glenrothes, after weeks of presenting themselves as credible challengers, must have hurt even more.

Despite a few brief flurries from new leader, Tavish Scott, notably on the HBOS / LTSB merger, these electroal defeats have been reflected in increasingly sterile contributions in the chamber.

The good news, I suppose, is that things can't get any worse, can they?

Like Labour, the assesment of the SNP's position very much depends on your point of reference.
Despite trailing Labour by a few points in the latest Westminster poll, the SNP is pretty much where they were this time last year only a little more seasoned and mature.

Viewed from the immediate aftermath of Glasgow East, this will seem like a huge let down. However, in the context of Glenrothes, it demonstrates that its failure to wrest that seat from Labour's grasp was by no means the disaster it might have been.

It may be a consequence of having got used to him as FM, but Alex Salmond has undoubtedly lost some of his sparkle since the summer. On the other hand, his ministerial team continue to impress particularly Nicola Sturgeon, John Swinney and, like him or loathe him, Kenny McAskill.

My judgement is that the political momentum, briefly seized by Labour in the Autumn, is now back with the SNP and the Tories and my guess is that this will become more pronounced as the economy worsens.

The LibDems appear moribund and seem to have nowhere to go either in a Scottish or a UK context. Labour are now suffering from the expectations that were necessarily raised by Brown and his team in order to save his job. I fear it is unlikely the public will be fooled a second time.

I'll come back to the LibDems in a future post because I think their position (and future) deserves further analysis.

Looking back, I believe that Glenrothes will prove to be a watershed for Scottish politics. In the long term, it is probably the best thing that could have happened to the SNP - a small advance in terms of its vote but a massive brake on the momentum that was beginning to get out of control.

To his and its credit, Alex Salmond and the wider party, displayed a great deal of humility in the aftermath of their defeat. Indeed, I have even heard it said by some who voted Labour that this humility was enough to persaude them that they had voted the wrong way that day.

And, as I suggested in October they might, Labour seem to have mistaken the result in Glenrothes as an endorsement of its economic policies and a sign that the Scottish electorate had decided that it had been a mistake to flirt with the Nats.

The real lesson from 2008 is that the famous phrase 'Events, dear boy, events.' is as applicable today as it was when McMillan first coined it all those years ago. For the SNP and the Tories, this translates as, 'As long as Labour remain in power, there is a real prospect that they can retain power.' Both would do well to remember that.

Monday, 22 December 2008

At Last Labour has a Plan

Only it's not theirs!!!

The Sunday Herald broke the news of an alleged planning scandal at West Lothian Council and, although I'm not sure his comparison to the Trump fiasco is relevant, Stephen reports further today.

On the face of it, it seems that the Action to Save St John's Councillor, Gordon Beurskens, is sailing pretty close to the wind. My reading of the situation is that he is probably OK by the letter of the law but there are serious moral questions to be asked about his actions.

GB - funny how these initials keep cropping up when there are allegations of skullduggery around - is therefore a legitimate target. He should be fully investigated and Labour are quite right to pursue him.

As usual, of course, Labour's real motivation is nothing to do with morality and righteousness but everything to do with trying to discredit the SNP and this is betrayed by their hysterical pursuit of the SNP Leader of the Council, Peter Johnston, on this matter.

They claim that Johnston is complicit because he did nothing to stop GB after he was copied on some emails sent by GB, in his capacity as a consultant to the planning applicant, to planning officials.

There are several problems with that. Firstly, Johnston would have no locus to formally do anything to prevent a priviate individual from making representations to planning officials. Secondly, who is to say that Johnston did not informally take GB aside and point out that his action was not appropriate? And, thirdly, it seems that the Chief Executive of the council has reported GB to the police. Do we really believe that this would have been done without the agreement of the Council Leader? I seriously doubt it.

West Lothian Council is fascinating. It has long been a Labour / SNP battleground and it is currently a microcosm of Scotland. Like Holyrood, the SNP are in minority control. Like Holyrood, Labour is united only by their passionate hatred of the SNP leader.

Unlike Holyrood, Labour is the biggest party in West Lothian. But it couldn't retain control of the council because the previous Holyrood adminstration's compliance in the gradual donwgrading of St John's Hospital resulted in 3 single issue councillors being elected. That hurt them then and it still hurts now.

With a Hat Tip to Holyrood Patter, where I first read there was a whiff of a scandal on Saturday night, my moles have been out and about trying to find out what is going on.

It seems that ever since the new council administration was formed, Labour have been continuously dangling carrots in front of the Hospital councillors to induce them to switch their allegiance. Now, as many in West Lothian will know, these Hospital councillors are 'unique' in their approach to politics. However, I'm sure even they realise that they could not credibly be seen to be doing anything to help Labour after slagging them off over St John's for the last few years.

Labour has now given up on this approach and is now trying to force resignations in the hope they can win the resultant by-elections and force a change in administration. There has been a succession of local press articles on one of GB's colleagues, Ellen Glass, but in the meantime a whole pile of FOI requests have been made in a bid to dredge up stuff to concoct scandals from.

This story might turn out to be the first of many allegations but Labour's previous record in West Lothian on the corruption front is not good. And those who live by the sword tend to die by the sword...

Interesting times ahead.

The Devine Comedy Continues

I read with interest the indefatigable Jim Devine's blundering attempts to dig himself out of the hole he has dug himself into regarding the troubled Livingston firm, Gemfire.

Regular readers will recall my previous posts highlighting Jolly Jim's will he/won't he plans to organise a protest at the gates of the US owned firm after they had told their employees to go home because they didn't have enough money to pay them.

Amidst severe pressure from some of the affected workers, who were rightly concerned that such action would deter any alternative investors, the PR stunt was called off. The company has since re-commenced partial operations while further funds are sought.

Now it seems Mr Devine wants to pretend that all along he has been trying to 'broker' a deal on behalf of Gemfire. But, says West Lothian Labour's 'Mr Consensus', Gemfire won't return his calls.

Although Mr Devine gives no detail on who he might be trying to broker such a deal with, let's just say for the sake of argument there is some substance to what he is saying for once. Why, then, would he continue to say that Gemfire has 'treated their workforce like a 19th-century coal mine owner' ?

Strikes me that perhaps Mr Devine doesn't want Gemfire to get back in touch. That way the bluff over his potential deal won't get called and he'll be able to continue in the pretence that he is somehow representing the interests of his constituents in the full glare of the media spotlight.

I think this speaks volumes for this particular individual's style and approach to politics and representation. Everything this man does seems to be motiviated by the need to generate publicity.

However, it raises wider questions which need answered. I hate to be a tease but that will have to wait for a later post.

Wednesday, 17 December 2008

Take a Mulligan, Mulligan

A motion worthy of Crap Holyrood Chat has been crafted by Mary Mulligan, who has managed to be Labour's MSP for Linlithgow for nearly 10 years without anyone noticing. For the anoraks, the motion number is S3M-03122.

Disappointingly, Sun Microsystems are relocating 100 or so jobs from Scotland to the USA. Mrs Mulligan's motion suggests that this is the doing of a certain Crawford Beveridge. Further, Mrs Mulligan claims that Mr Beveridge is a high profile donor to the SNP. She also points out that Mr Beveridge is a member of Alex Salmond's Council of Economic Advisers. Her contention is that this is very embarrasing for the Scottish Government and Alex Salmond. Oh, and by the way, she concludes her motion by suggesting that this is bad news for her constituency.

I'll leave Mrs Mulligan to explain why she focusses her attention on trying to embarass the SNP rather than make positive suggestions as to how this regrettable decision can be reversed. (Maybe she is taking her lead from her West Lothian Westminster colleague and grandstander extrordinaire, Jim Devine?)

On the substance (did I really dignify this tosh with that word?) of the motion, it would be incredible if Crawford Beveridge, effectively the worldwide Chairman of Sun, had any part in making this operational decision and even if he did, why is Mrs Mulligan getting so worked up about Gordon Brown's much loved global economy in action?

Isn't it funny how the global financial meltdown can't possibly be anything to do with a Labour Chancellor/Prime Minister but the relocation of 100 jobs can be laid squarely at the door of an SNP supporter?

I recall that Mr Beveridge suggested he was going to support the SNP at the last election and is a supporter of Independence but I haven't seen anything to suggest he funds the SNP in any way. I could be wrong on that one but it is perhaps revealing that Labour politicians assume that any businessman that has a good relationship with a government must somehow be involved in funding the party of that government!!!

Rather than waste our time and taxes with this drivel, perhaps Mrs Mulligan would like to spend some time explaining why a Labour Minister is driving a coach and horses through competition regulation and putting hundreds of local banking jobs in jeopardy just so his boss's mate can finally fulfil his dream of merging LTSB with HBOS.

Monday, 15 December 2008

The Public Has Spoke

It's enough to restore your faith in the British public.

Congratulations to Chris Hoy for peddling off with the Beeb's Sports Personality of the Year Award. The smart money had been on Rebecca Adlington and Lewis Hamilton but it seems that Hoy's achievements were sufficiently impressive to overcome the 'campaigning' advantages that his competitors for the title had.

Through the years, many Scottish sports stars have not had a look in when it comes to this award. This is even more galling when you consider that, unlike this year, there have been so many mediocre years for British sport in the last 30 years. When you look at some of the names that have won this trophy it is difficult not to believe that one of the major reasons why the likes of Allan Wells, Jim Watt, Stephen Hendry, Robert Millar, Gavin Hastings or Kenny Dalglish were never in the running is because they are Scottish and therefore not held in the same affection by the majority of those voting or involved in the selection process as English sports stars.

Hoy had to overcome this in-built disadvantage, the massive lobbying power of the F1 brigade and a concerted campaign on behalf of Adlington. The fact he did so, and by a margin of over 100,000 votes, underlines just how impressive a performer he is.

While I have huge admiration for Adlington's Olympic achievements, whose two events were both freestyle endurance events, I'm not sure that they compare to Hoy who won three very different disciplines and wasn't even allowed to defend his title from 2004. It should also be remembered that Beijing was the crowning of several years of Hoy's utter dominance of the velodrome.

I'm not an F1 fan and as far as I am concerned it shouldn't even qualify as a sport. And nice bloke though he seems to be, I'm not sure Lewis Hamilton qualifies on the personality front either.

So congratulations also to the British public who, for once, got it absolutely right.

Friday, 12 December 2008

A Fate That Could Await Any Of Us

Business has been a bit hectic over the last week so apologies to my limited readership for the the lack of my even more limited writing recently.

Big Margo's documentary on assisted suicide got a UK-wide airing through the week and for a couple of days, the subject was high on the news agenda.

My personal view is that there is a lot to be said for allowing those who wish to end their life to do so in a controlled, humane and dignified fashion. I can see where the Catholic Church are coming from in terms of abortion or genetic engineering but I'm struggling with their view on this one because, as I see it, this is about an individual making an informed choice about their own life rather than some 3rd party making a decision about the life of a helpless unborn child or embryo.

But there is one area that troubles me and I don't think it is getting much attention. It concerns those who might wish to die but who have been assessed as lacking the cognitive ability to make that decision or communicate that wish. I think this is going to be a huge problem in the future as we continue to get better and better at treating physical illness and trauma, resulting in an ageing population with increasing rates of mental degeneration.

Most of us can now expect to live until we are 80 and a large number of us will hit 90 or even 100. Sadly the signs are that our physical well being will not be matched by mental well being at these ages. And, if you are like me, you will fear the prospect of being physically healthy but mentally incapable every but as much as being mentally healthy but physically incapable.

So we might be able to make progress for people who are mentally well enough to take responsibility for making the final decision to end ther lives but how can we ensure that those who are suffering just as intolerable an existence through mental degeneration have access to the same remedy? Even where clear instructions are left before the person in question loses their capacity to decide, someone else is going to have to take responsibility for that final decision and/or act. That is going to be tough to support in a legal framework, I suspect.

It may be a long time away for many of us, but any one of us could end up in this situation through dementia or a similar condition and I would like to think that there would be some way I can ensure that I don't have to live out a meaningless, lonely existence if it comes to that.

I don't have a clue how such a right can be enshrined in law therefore I fully support Margo in calling for a full, open and honest debate about assisted suicide.

Tuesday, 2 December 2008

Going Round in Family Circles

For the umpteenth time, the press have published details of which MSPs are employing members of their family. And for the umpteenth time, I'm still not sure there is any substance behind the implied cries of nepotism.

Having mulled this over each time the story 'breaks' I think there is a strong case to be made that this practice is actually a very efficient use of taxpayers' money. There are plenty of MSPs who are more articulate than me (though some clearly aren't) that could make this case but it seems they would rather just ignore the issue and hope it goes away.

That appears to be wishful thinking. So why don't these guys confront the issue head on and justify their actions. It's not as if it is a partisan issue after all - Labour and SNP MSPs appear to be equally 'culpable' at first sight - and as long as they leave this issue at the mercy of the press, it is all too easy for it to be manipulated to bring our Parliament and Democracy into disrepute.

I'm going to have a bash on their behalf anyway in the hope that it will encourage them to pick up the theme.

1. It seems to me that the most important qualification one needs to work for an MSP is to have the absolute trust of that MSP. This goes for both representative and political issues. It takes years to build up such a level of trust, therefore isn't it obvious that close family members (even spouses in some cases ;-) ) would be far better qualified on this score than anyone else?
2. Even if you don't accept that trust is the most important factor, it must be conceded that it is an important factor. If an MSP had to recruit from outwith their immediate circle of family and friends what would be the cost to the public purse and, more importantly, the cost to the MSPs constituents of a lengthy recruitment process to identify a complete stranger that might be trustworthy? What would be the cost to everyone involved of having to replace staff who turn out not to be trustworthy?
3. Why is there such a focus on family members in any case? Why is there no focus on pals or on apparatchiks who are clearly being groomed for political advancement at the taxpayers' expense?
4. With the prize of doing a decent job, especially for constituency members, being re-election the involvement of family members provides a natural incentive to go the extra mile on behalf of their boss (although see comment re spouses above ;-) ). It is certain that family members employed by an MSP would deliver better value for the taxpayer.

There is one caveat however. What I do think is wrong is for a family member (or anyone else for that matter) to be employed who is not qualified to do the job in question. Therefore, rather than stigmatise the relationship that may exist between MSP and staff why not focus on the capabilities and experience of the staff?

Why not, for instance, use whatever HR function that exists in the Scottish Parliament to have a veto over MSP staff appointments on the basis of the prospective staff member not having relevant qualifications or experience?

Maybe that would just be too sensible.

Monday, 1 December 2008

Great Balls of Fire

I congratulate Ed Balls for his swift action in ensuring that Sharon Shoesmith, Director of Children's Services in Haringey has been fired following the report into the Baby P case.

However shocking, it is always possible to forgive a mistake if it has been made in good faith. Sadly, this report appears to confirm all our suspicions that a litany of failures led to Baby P's death and all the more shocking since this was the council that was meant to have learned the lessons of previous failures.

It's good to see that the leader of the Council and the Cabinet member for children and young people have also resigned. Maybe they should have gone before now but they have now accepted their responsibility.

I don't usually go along with the general clamour for political resignations in the wake of operational failings. But in some cases political leaders have to do the decent thing and fall on their sword even if they are not directly culpable personally. This is such a case.

It is to be hoped that everyone involved in this dreadful case follow the lead of these councillors and resign their posts immediately.