Monday 2 November 2015

University challenge

In his final hours as First Minister in November last year, Alex Salmond famously unveiled a commemorative stone at Heriot Watt University inscribed with his own words.

The gesture was aimed at marking the outgoing FM’s proudest achievement in politics - restoring free higher education – and the stone carried his quote from 2011:
“The rocks will melt with the sun before I allow tuition fees to be imposed on Scottish students.”
One of the policies he was chuffed about was the abolition of the Graduate Endowment fee – a £2k charge levied on folk with degrees.

Political journalists queried the cost of the Clashach sandstone structure - carved and designed by Historic Scotland apprentices - only to be told it cost a paltry £80.

A better line of enquiry might have been to ask why Heriot Watt was chosen to house the Salmond stone.

Emails released under FOI reveal how this Uni was the Scottish Government’s third choice, with officials scrambling around for a venue.

The first option was St Andrews, which is Salmond’s alma mater.
“Our idea is that on November 18, the FM will do a photo opp at a university, possibly St Andrews as it is the FM’s former uni, to mark no tuition fees,” a spin doctor wrote on October 16th.
Five days later, the same press officer revealed that a Plan B was required.
“Our plans to do this at St Andrews have changed a little in that they may not be able to accommodate us....”
The reason, according to the email, was that St Andrews had “a separate campaign at present involving carved paving stones which they are looking to be sponsored”.

In other words, please look elsewhere.

Those with long memories will recall there had been tension between St Andrews University and the Government over claims pressure was put on the institution on independence and higher education policy.

Was this row fresh in the University’s memory when the request to locate the Salmond stone at St Andrews was made? Who knows...

After the St Andrews hiccup, the same batch of emails reveals that the Government was “looking to another university, most probably Strathclyde if they are amenable".

This never materialised either and Heriot Watt was approached.

“I have left a rambling message for you and I apologise for its vagueness!” wrote the Government spinner to a colleague at HW."
The University obliged and the rest is history, or at least a hastily arranged photo-opp. 

Another Government email explained that Heriot Watt was chosen "because the FM has been involved in events in the Middle East in support of their campus there".

Monday 26 October 2015

Plugging the leaks

In two and a half years, Police Scotland has endured more controversy than the legacy forces attracted in a decade.
Stop and search and the use of firearms were the big policy rows, while the M9 tragedy and the murky death in custody of Sheku Bayoh continue to dog the force.

These important issues should be enough to keep any police chief awake at night, but I understand some of our senior officers have been nursing another obsession.

I’m told the police chiefs are paranoid about “insider threats” – namely, coppers speaking to journalists and MSPs.

Police Scotland would much prefer whistleblowers come forward internally, rather than amplifying their concerns with political or media exposure.

To this end, a new “standard operating procedure” (SOP) was published earlier this year on the rules for officers and staff accepting gifts, gratuities and hospitality. It was crafted by the Counter Corruption Unit, which has unlawfully used surveillance legislation in an attempt to flush out journalists' sources.

Much of the document is common sense: for instance, cash gifts are quite rightly banned.

However, the new Post-Leveson rules go further.

According to the SOP, hospitality may not be accepted if the provider is “directly or indirectly associated with a media organisation or a journalist”.

To spell this out, if a cop accepts a coffee from a journalist he or she could face a misconduct hearing. 

An exception is made where pre-authorisation is granted by the Head of Corporate Communications as “part of an approved media relationship strategy”.
Call me cynical, but it seems unlikely the Head of Comms will “approve” a police officer raising a public interest matter about the force to the media.

MSPs, some of whom are trusted contacts for police officers, are also part of the new SOP.

Officers must now think carefully before taking hospitality from a “representative of a political party”, where the acceptance would compromise the “impartiality and integrity” of Police Scotland.
Imagine a serving officer raising concerns about the force to an MSP, in the course of which he accepts a cup of tea or a beer. Would this be an example of compromising the “integrity” of the force?

Police Scotland has been subject to unprecedented scrutiny and leaks since April 2013 – and the chiefs don’t like it one bit.

Monday 12 October 2015

A question of independence

I wrote a piece recently on the internal wrangling last year in the pro-independence Business for Scotland, based on a tranche of leaked board-level emails.

Much of the content centred on the role of BfS “managing director” Michelle Thomson - yes, her - who was allowed to keep the title after having her consultancy payments axed.

The row played into a wider split between, on the one side, board members Thomson and Ivan McKee (who is now an SNP Holyrood candidate), and BfS chief executive Gordon Macintyre-Kemp.

The emails also appeared to confirm widely held suspicions about "close" links between BfS and the SNP.

In an email to senior BfS figures on March 30th last year, ex-chair Tony Banks threw SNP chief executive Peter Murrell’s name (PM) into the mix:

“There have been remarks made by PM regarding having the both of you [Kemp and Thomson] and the fact both of you should have been fund raising over the last few months! He does not think that we need both of you.”

This is interesting because the Electoral Commission had strict rules in place about separate campaign groups “working together” during the referendum. The email has now triggered a complaint to the Commission.

However, other emails reveal there was a board split about the closeness of BfS to Yes Scotland, which was the official pro-independence campaign group.

McKee was of the view that, to comply with Commission rules, Yes Scotland Head of Development Colin Pyle had to be excluded from BfS board meetings.

In an email to board members on May 13th, he wrote: “Frankly struggling to see how someone in the payroll of Yes Scotland coming to a BfS meeting can be classed as anything other than ‘working together’.”

Others disagreed, but McKee persisted: “The biggest risk to the organisation is for us to realise that there are serious non-compliance risks and to ignore those. There is no bigger gift to the No campaign than that.”

It is unclear how the Pyle issue was resolved. Perhaps it is something for further enquiry.

Sunday 6 September 2015

Alphabet soup

THE Scottish Green Party is not known for its big internal rows, but one continues to brew.
Rather oddly, it hinges on the third letter of the alphabet and involves the party's co-convenor Maggie Chapman.
Here is the story.

A Scottish Greens disputes body is investigating claims of ballot irregularities in the contest that selected the party’s joint leader as a Holyrood candidate.

The Appeals, Conciliation and Arbitration Tribunal (ACAT) is considering allegations that the internal procedures governing the regional List contests unfairly benefited Maggie Chapman.

However, the probe has been delayed after the ACAT co-conveners left their positions on on the Tribunal.

Patrick Harvie and Alison Johnstone are the only two Green MSPs, but opinion polls have predicted the party could get into double figures after next year’s Holyrood election.

The party’s post-referendum surge in membership resulted in fierce competition in the internal rankings system to determine who topped each regional List for the party.

The number one ranked Green candidate on each of the eight Lists has a good chance of getting elected.

In the North East, party joint leader Chapman saw off a range of local candidates to become her party’s top nominee.

However, the process has since become tainted by allegations of ballot manipulation and favouritism.

A key issue in the internal selection was the order of the candidates on the ballot papers sent to local members.

Being the first name on the ballot – as was the case in the Holyrood election in 2007 when the SNP ran as Alex Salmond for First Minister – is said to provide an in-built advantage.

As previously revealed by the Sunday Herald, a Scottish Green party committee ordered the names by a formula, rather than random selection.

On every List, the order of the names on the ballot was alphabetised by the third letter of each candidate’s surname.

In the North East, this meant Chapman was the first of twelve names, while her main rivals were positioned down the ballot paper.

The only exception to this rule was for surnames beginning with “Mc” or Mac”, where the formula applied after these letters were excluded.

A complaint was made and ACAT is now investigating.

According to the party’s constitution, two non-voting co-conveners administer the Tribunal, which is made up of five randomly selected members of the party.

Party sources say Chapman is part of a socialist grouping inside the Scottish Greens that includes ex MSP Mark Ballard and former Edinburgh University rector Peter McColl.

These leftists are believed to be keen to co-operate with RISE, a new socialist party launched earlier this month.

However, many Greens believe RISE is a potential electoral rival and should be kept at a distance.

ACAT’s role is to adjudicate on internal disputes relating to expulsions, dismissals and other rows referred to it by party members.

Scottish Tory MSP Murdo Fraser said: “The Scottish Greens seems to be getting their organic alphabet soup in a mess with this candidate selection row. They like to present themselves as a different sort of party, offering a fresh approach to politics, but it seems they are just as capable of back room manoeuvres as the so-called established parties.”

A spokesperson for the Scottish Greens said: "This is an internal matter and we are very confident it will reach a clear and constructive conclusion soon. We are focused on delivering the best ever Green result in the election in May."

Thursday 27 August 2015

Kez, not Jez

THE UK Labour leadership contest has been dogged by claims that the rules have allowed Tories and non-Labour supporting lefties an opportunity to skew the result.

Over 112,00 people have paid the £3 to get a vote as registered supporters, 148,182 have signed up through affiliated unions, and 105,973 have become full-blown members.

Most of these new recruits, it is claimed, are supporting left-winger Jeremy Corbyn for the leadership.

Scottish Labour has not been immune from this phenomenon.

In its own leadership contest, 6,000 registered and affiliated supporters took the franchise to around 21,000, which included a mini-surge in new members.

The question some party figures are asking is: what effect will these new folk have on the internal List ranking system for the Holyrood election.

As has already been reported, Labour expects to lose all its constituency seats next year, so any MSPs will be regional members.

Kez Dugdale, Scottish Labour’s moderate new leader, wants fresh talent (code for a cull) and a rejuvenated group. 

The prospect of thousands of Corbyn-loving left-wingers voting in the internal contest is deemed in some quarters to be a threat to these ambitions.

However, such fears look to be unfounded.

For one thing, the franchise will be restricted to members and exclude registered or affiliated supporters.

Labour’s governing Scottish Executive Committee (SEC) also decided in June that the freeze date for members voting in the List rankings process will be June 13th.

At this point, Corbyn was not on the ballot and the surge in members sympathetic to him had not taken hold.

In other words, Corbyn’s bedrock support – the new tiers of party supporters, plus newly recruited members – won’t get a say in who will be Scottish Labour's A-list candidates next year.

The SEC meets again on Saturday and, if the June 13th freeze date is revisited, I am told it will be pushed back even further.

The end result is that Corbyn-mania is unlikely to have an effect on the selection of Labour candidates for next year.