Thursday, 27 September 2012

Pot and Kettle


I found myself speculating the other day about Labour's Scottish leader - Johann Lamont - and why she has such a 'pot and kettle' approach to Freedom of Information (FOI).    

By way of background here's an interesting report from the BBC on recent exchanges in the Scottish Parliament - where the Labour leader lambasts First Minister - Alex Salmond - for failing to come clean over FOI.

Now what I find remarkable is that the Labour leader - Johann Lamont - is getting her knickers in a right old twist over the Scottish Government's refusal to accept a decision by the independent Scottish Information Commissioner.

The Scottish Information Commissioner having previously ruled against the Scottish Government - in favour of disclosure. 

The BBC reports Johann Lamont as asking why the First Minister was spending hundreds of thousands of pounds of Scottish people's money - to stop the people of Scotland finding out what he was doing.

Which begs the question:

"Why is Johann so worked up about the Scottish Government and FOI - when  Labour-led South Lanarkshire Council is doing exactly the same thing? 

In fact South Lanarkshire Council's behaviour is much worse - it has to be said.

Because South Lanarkshire is not only refusing to abide by a rulling of the Scottish Information Commissioner - SLC is also refusing to abide by the outcome of its subsequent appeal to the Court of Session - Scotland's highest civil court.

An appeal in which three senior Scottish judges unanimously threw out South Lanarkshire's case - and upheld the original decision of the Scottish Information Commissioner. 

But Labour-led South Lanarkshire have appealed the case again to the UK Supreme Court - wasting huge amounts of public money in the process - even more than the appeal to the Court of Session.  

Yet the People's Party remains silent on the subject - as quiet as a wee church mouse - or some other such timorous beastie.

So I say 'knickers' to Johann Lamont - because she is simply making this up as she goes along.

Because you can't have principles that apply only to other people - that the Labour Party in Scotland can just ignore when it proves politically convenient.

Not if you want to have any credibility with the Scottish people who will see this behaviour for what it is - shameless hypocrisy.

And if you want to tell Johann Lamont that the Labour Party cannot afford to be turning a blind eye to the scandalous goings on in its own backyard - then here is Johann's e-mail address at the Scottish Parliament: johann.lamont.msp@scottish.parliament.uk

BBC - Democracy Live

Alex Salmond defended his government's record on Freedom of Information (FOI) requests, as the row over the existence and release of legal advice on an independent Scotland's EU status continued in first minister's questions on 20 September 2012.

A judge approved the fast tracking of a case which will decide whether the Scottish government must reveal if it has any such advice.

At the Court of Session, Lord Menzies approved a motion from the information commissioner, Rosemary Agnew.

The case will be heard on 18 and 19 December.

Mr Salmond had refused to answer a freedom of information request on the subject, saying to do so would break ministerial code rules.

The first minister had said a detailed assessment of an independent Scotland in Europe would be made in a white paper ahead of the independence referendum, which he wants to hold in autumn 2014.

Scottish Labour leader Johann Lamont called on Mr Salmond to explain why the information commissioner had said the position over freedom of information was worse now than when the Freedom of Information Act had been passed.

Ms Lamont said the first minister "can't be straight with or have respect for the Scottish people" as he refused to reveal what legal advice he had.

She asked why he was spending hundreds of thousands of pounds of Scottish people's money to stop the people of Scotland finding out what he was doing.

Mr Salmond hit back, saying the commissioner had been worried about the detrimental propensity of local authorities to use arm length bodies to avoid FOI questions and he suggested Glasgow as a prime example of that.

The first minister said the Scottish government had, "on all criteria", performed better under FOI than under the preceding Labour-Liberal Democrat coalition, the government Johan Lamont had been proud to serve under.

Scottish Conservative leader Ruth Davidson also attacked the first minister over his record under the FOI legislation asking how much tax payers' hard earned money had gone to "shore up his secret society and deny information to the people of Scotland they were perfectly entitled to".

Mr Salmond said he welcomed the Conservative party's "new found conversion" to the freedom of information legislation as they had been the party least in favour of it and again listed statistics he claimed showed the Scottish government outperforming the previous Labour-Liberal Democrat coalition on all criteria.

Policing Politics

The Times managed to link two topical news stories with the following Brookes cartoon - which appeared in the paper the other day.

The strop at Downing Street involving the Government's chief whip - which appears to have preoccupied the police trade union (Police Federation) ever since - and the public behaviour of the fundamentalist Islamic cleric, Abu Hamza.

Hamza's well-heeled London lawyers have filed yet another last-minute, last ditch appeal to the High Court - in an effort to prevent his deportation to America where he is due to face charges as a terror suspect. 

Wednesday, 26 September 2012

Bonkers Labour


The following post comes with a serious health warning because it contains a very strange speech made yesterday by the Scottish Labour leader - Johann Lamont.

First we had Old Labour, then we had New Labour - but if Johann's 'volte face' is anything to go by, then the People's Party in Scotland has finally turned into - 'Bonkers Labour'.

To my mind the speech is full of ridiculous thoughts and spurious claims - too many to deal with in a single post on the blog site - but here are one or two issues that jump out.

First of all, councils in Scotland had their budgets doubled in the 10 year period from 1997 to 2007 - the last one in which Labour helped form a coalition Scottish Government.

But the big question is what did Scottish councils (which were mainly Labour-led up until 2007) - actually do with all that extra money - how was all the new dosh spent? 

Because it certainly wasn't spent on doubling the quantity and quality of local government services - in my experience anyway - and it certainly wasn't spent on tackling widespread pay discrimination or achieving equal pay in Scotland.

So the prospect of Scottish councils having to tighten their belts a little doesn't keep me awake at night - because over more than ten years they got their basic priorities all wrong - and it seems pretty obvious that there was no underlying problem over finance and resources.

The other point I would make is that throughout this period - I would certainly not describe  the Scottish Labour leader - Johann Lamont - as a champion of change.

Quite the opposite in fact - in my view Johann is very conservative politician - completely 'thirled' or wedded to the vested interests of the big public sector trade unions - who secured Johann the Scottish Labour  leadership, of course.

In other words a very traditional politician - one very much of the old school - one who says she is a champion of equal opportunities, but who has been virtually silent on the issue of equal pay in Scottish councils. 

So the contents of Johann's speech are all the more baffling - especially as Johann failed to raise such fundamental questions or champion these issues - i.e. student fees, prescription charges, concessionary travel and increasing the council tax - during her campaign to become Labour's Scottish leader.  

In any event - read the speech and make your own mind up - but given the background and track record, I suspect this is the longest suicide note in political history - and that includes the 1983 Labour Party manifesto.

Johann Lamont - Leader of the Scottish Labour Party

I want to talk today about things that matter to every day people.

The referendum might mean the biggest change in our constitution for 300 years but instead I want to talk about the big decisions which really occupy the minds of Scots every day.

Decisions like how to put food on the table. Decisions like what we cut from household budgets, when wage rises don’t meet price rises. Decisions like how you look after the kids when you are working and you can’t afford, or find adequate childcare.

What to do when your care support is cut. What to do when you can’t find a place at college. What to do when you lose your job and can’t find another.

We have a parallel world in Scotland.

As the nationalists try to find the question to which independence is the answer, fundamental questions go unaddressed.

We saw that in the budget last week. Nothing for jobs.Nothing to boost the economy. No tough decisions made.

If Alex Salmond is like George Osborne when he gets booed at Olympic events, John Swinney is, as the unions have said, ‘Osborne in a kilt.’

There are three fundamental problems for any finance minister.

One is the Tories agenda of cutting too far and too fast. But we know from the late Campbell Christie’s Commission that public spending is not expected to return to 2010 levels in real terms for 16 years. But there are two other major problems. We, like every other country in Europe certainly, perhaps the world, will have to deal with the consequences of the collapse of the west’s banking system.

The other is the fundamental shift of economic power from west to east, with the rise of China and India.

There is, and there is going to be, less money around.

Add to that the fact that we can see a ticking demographic time-bomb that is about to explode, where fewer workers will have to provide the income to support more people and the job of an honest finance minister is a tough one.

The Scottish population aged 65 years old and over is will be a staggering 63% bigger by 2031. For those aged 85 and over, the population will rise 144%.

As a consequence, Scotland’s public services face unprecedented challenges.

When the nationalists commissioned the Beveridge Report, and the Christie Commission, I thought they were getting serious about government.

They tried to flag up the difficult decisions governments of any stripe, in any constitutional arrangement, will have to face.

I may only have been leader of my party for nine months but I have learned something about leadership. You cannot put problems off.

But what we saw last week was emblematic of this government.

When the going gets tough, they kick tough problems into the long grass.

In a budget badged as one wholly focused on economic growth, they ducked the tough decisions that may have enabled this.

And they have done at budget time every year.

For example, spending on concessionary fares increased by 19% over the last four years, while spending on enterprise and tourism has fallen dramatically by 33%.

The Christie Commission told us: “Times of fiscal austerity inevitably require the Scottish Government to take difficult spending decisions between competing demands.”

But John Swinney doesn’t want to address the big questions because he has a big by-election to win in two years time. That is how the nationalists are treating the referendum. Like an election to be got through rather than an argument to be won.

So what’s their policy?

Don’t scare the horses. Don’t deal with the difficult stuff, the painful stuff that might make you unpopular. Leave it until later. Leave it until it is too late.

Some might even argue that John Swinney thinks it is in his political interests not to protect Scotland from the Tory cuts, but to let them run free in the hope that the pain that causes ordinary Scots will help him in the referendum.

I am not going to get into an auction with the SNP. They might cry freedom but the idea that Scotland is a land where everything is free is a lie.

Someone always pays for it in the end. A council tax freeze, for example, costs. It’s cheap to say, but expensive to fund. And if you don’t fund it properly, and John Swinney isn’t funding this one, I’ll tell you what it costs.

In North Lanarkshire alone, another 1400 jobs at risk. And if you don’t care about the families that involves, the lost services people rely on, the individuals facing idleness, crushed hopes and losing control of their lives, let me put it to you in cold economic terms.

That is potentially 1400 incomes taken out of the economy. When the Scottish economy desperately needs a stimulus, that is 1400 people spending less, supporting fewer jobs, buying fewer goods and services. And that, thanks to Salmond and Swinney refusing to fund the council tax freeze means that while individuals may pay less, the communities they live in are worse off and so ultimately are they.

Less support, fewer services for the poor and vulnerable and for the young and aspiring. Less cash in the economy.A downward spiral.

And let’s be clear when we repeat that John Swinney is George Osborne in a kilt.

When Osborne cut the Scottish government’s budget, Swinney cut local government deeper. Even when his budget was increased, John Swinney still cut the local government budget.

And all the while, the Scottish government passed a bigger and bigger burdenon to an already stretched local government.

Class size pledges, kinship care allowances, free school meals, all promised by Alex Salmond, but without the money to pay for it. That is not leadership, that is passing the buck.

A vision for Scotland, all on the never never.

Alex Salmond says he’ll make Scotland a progressive beacon.

Well, I have to ask what is progressive about a banker on more than 100,000 a year benefitting more than a customer on average incomes from the council tax freeze?

What is progressive about a chief executive on more than 100,000 a year not paying for his prescriptions, while a pensioner needing care has their care help cut?

What is progressive about judges and lawyers earning more than 100,000 a year, not paying tuition fees for their child to follow in their footsteps at university, while one in four unemployed young people in Scotland can’t get a job or a place at college?

I believe our resources must go to those in greatest need. But if the devil’s greatest trick was to convince the world he didn’t exist, Salmond’s most cynical trick was to make people believe that more was free, when the poorest are paying for the tax breaks for the rich.

Alex Salmond is quick to point to the high levels of welfare in Scandinavia but those universal benefits are paid for by high levels of taxation. Scotland cannot be the only something for nothing country in the world.

And I will not tolerate a country where the poorest pay for the tax breaks for the rich.

Is it any wonder, that the biggest supporters of independence seem to be taxexiles who live abroad?

We need to ask different questions and face up to the honest answers.

For the last decade Scotland’s budgets have grown rapidly but we are in a new age with less money and more demands.

We need to say what we want Scotland to be, what we can realistically afford, and how can we, in reality, make Scotland better.

Lord Sutherland, the architect of free personal care, tells us:

“Unless there is a marked increase in the share of taxation in the Scottish economy, quite significant cuts will have to be found in other programmes to continue to fund the present structure of care.”

This is the stark choice that Scotland has to face up to: if we wish to continue some policies as they are then they come with a cost which has to be paid for either through increased taxation, direct charges or cuts elsewhere. If we do not confront these hard decisions soon, then the choice will be taken from us when we will be left with little options.

That is why I will be taking a fresh and serious approach to developing policy.

First, we have set up a joint economic group between MSPs and MPs, chaired by Cathy Jamieson and Ken Macintosh, which will seek evidence and advice from a wide variety of leading experts and authorities, as well as ordinary people.

We will also work with Arthur Midwinter, associate professor at the University of Edinburgh, and former budget adviser to the Scottish Parliament for five years, to develop an across-the-board, costed analysis of available policy options at this time of financial austerity.

Working with Arthur, we hope to address the fundamental question of how we deliver social justice at a time of scarce resources.

And this week, my shadow cabinet will have a joint meeting with the Scottish Trade Union Congress to discuss how we get Scotland working again.

I am not saying today, that we have all the answers. But let me assure you from today we will ask the right questions while the SNP seek to duck them.

Let me tell you two differences between me and Alex Salmond. I didn’t come in to politics to break up Britain. And I didn’t come in to politics to dodge the difficult questions. I will answer them.

I pledge this to the people of Scotland. What I say will not always please you. But what I say will always be honest and true and how I genuinely see it.

I will not promise what I cannot deliver. And I will never hide the cost of what I propose.

I believe my job is to tell Scotland the truth about itself, and explain how we make our country better.

It is not patriotic to say you are curing poverty when it still remains the same.

You cannot hide a dole queue behind a saltire.

The lion rampant is not an alternative to an opportunity to have an education or a job.

Anyone who tells you anything different lacks credibility.

So I want to start a debate about what Scotland’s priorities are.

I want to identify our real needs and our real resources and discuss how we match them up.

I want Labour to lead the debate about how we intend to look after our rising number of older people, how we accommodate people’s desire to have their own home, how to ensure that we can afford to pay for people’s pensions.

How do we address the current unjust imbalance that exists between the funding of higher and further education; we need to be honest about the sustainability of “free” higher education, and the impact it will have on academic standards.

How do we improve standards in schools while remaining true to our comprehensive ideal, where equality does not compromise achievement.

How do we devise housing policy that ensures first class social provision while helping those who want to get a foot on the property ladder.

How do we move beyond the “numbers game” on targets. We need to be honest that the target of 1,000 additional “bobbies on the beat” is not the best use of police resources when a number of them are filling back office jobs which have been cut.

If the SNP’s promise of 25,000 modern apprenticeships was achieved it was only by sleight of hand.

People in jobs for years being badged apprentices to meet the political targets.Press release headlines mattering more than peoples’ lives.

We need to be honest about apprenticeships – apprenticeships should be as highly regarded university education. If this means fewer, but better quality apprenticeships, we need to be honest about this.

We need to be honest that the funding of local government finance is in need of reform; we need to move beyond the “sticking-plaster” policy of a council tax freeze; our aim is to think about this seriously, not as the SNP did with local income tax, in order to put local government finance on a long-term sustainable footing.

Nurses become nurses to care for those in need. Teachers become teachers to help children learn and develop. Police officers enter policing to protect communities and local neighbourhoods. They do not enter their professions to meet centrally imposed targets.

We need a “new accountability” in public service delivery – an accountability that is devolved to the front-line.

Politicians must remain ultimately accountable. I am not calling for a shirking of responsibility, politicians must be responsible for long-term strategic planning and major budget decisions. They must be responsible for leading improved performance and ensuring value from each pound spent, establishing clear guarantees about expected standards.

It’s time for us to enter a new stage in public service delivery. My priority is to empower both the users of public services and those who deliver them to improve standards for all.

Once we have decided as a country what kind of public services we aspire to, then we must have an honest debate about affordability.

What I am calling time on today is the dishonest auction on what we can do. I am withdrawing from the game, where politicians look not at needs but at slogans and ask not how to improve the lot of the Scottish people but what we can bribe them with by claiming it is free.

The fair and just Scotland we all want to build will cost. That is my honest opinion.

And that’s what I will give you for free.

I know that there are families, working hard, on above average incomes who feel they pay enough and are attracted by policies likefree prescriptions, free tuition fees and the council tax freeze.

I know where they are coming from.

But I ask them to look at how they are paying for those free things. What price your free prescription when an elderly relative spends five hours on a trolley in A&E, or the life-saving drug they need isn’t available at all?

What price free tuition fees when your neighbour can’t get a place at college, or when university standards are now lower than when they went to uni?

What price the council tax freeze, when your parents care is cut, and your child’s teachers cannot give them the materials they need because there is a ban on something as simple as photocopying.

There is a great reward for taking these hard decisions. In Government, we faced down huge opposition to housing stock transfer, including from the SNP, to deliver one billion pounds worth of investment in housing in Glasgow.

Rather than put off tricky areas like land reform, we got into the detail and delivered the means to transform rural communities, socially and economically.

And I believe we as a country will be rewarded again for taking hard decisions. Not taking hard decisions for the sake of it, but testing policies against the evidence to ensure we deliver for the people of Scotland.

The SNP say to criticise them is to talk Scotland down. Instead it is they who insult Scotland by refusing to talk straight to Scotland.

In a time of scarce resources, we, as a society, must make sure that those resources we have go where there is need and where there is opportunity.

The SNP fail to make the distinction between an election strategy and a strategy to address the problems facing the nation. A strategy for government.

They allow media tactics to over-ride policy direction.

Recently, my colleague Richard Baker was interviewed on the BBC. It was put to him that if we did not offer not constitutional change, we would just be ‘managing decline.’

Now we will offer a fresh vision of where devolution should be renewed.

But this thing struck me. The constitutional debate which we have had now for more than half a century – be it about devolution or independence – has meant that when we say change in this country, the only thing we mean is constitutional change.

But we can change Scotland now. We have the powers in the Scottish Parliament now, to change radically education, health, public services. What we lack is the will.

What we lack – and what is crowded out by the referendum debate – is a real debate of radical ideas about how we change Scotland now.

We need to break out of the straight jacket of saying that more powers to politicians alone is the way we change the country.

We need people’s attitudes to change. We need individuals and communities to feel empowered to change their lives.

Yes we will change devolution but we need more profound change than even that.

If it is going to get tougher to deliver the services we want, let alone expand them, I want to hear from the people who use them and the people who provide them on how we can change.

While we wait for the referendum. While we wait for Alex Salmond to tell us his vision of independence – while we watch him squandering taxpayers cash in the courts to try to prevent the people for getting a sniff of that vision – we need the space for a different debate about how we change Scotland now.

Too many people are losing their jobs, or the services they rely on, or the opportunities to better themselves, for us to hold back.

We can debate the constitution. But there is no debate about the crisis we face in the public finances and the public sector.

It is lived. It is real for families now.

Let’s face up to the real questions. Let’s grasp them. And let’s have the courage to come up with honest answers.

25 September 2012

All Bark and No Bite


What's the point of a public spending watchdog which is all bark and no bite?

None in my opinion - and that's proved to be my experience of the regulatory authorities in Scotland (the Accounts Commission and Audit Scotland) whom I wrote to many months ago - about the cost of early retirement arrangements for senior officials in South Lanarkshire Council.

After many months of looking into the issue - Audit Scotland finally apologised to me about the length of time taken to complete their investigations - matters having first been raised with the Accounts Commission - which is responsible for overseeing the financial affairs of Scottish local government.

Confused?

I was too - but my bafflement only increased as I read the spending watchdog's criticisms - followed by their failure to take any meaningful action, other than ringing their hands.

Audit Scotland's final letter to me said:

"We would expect that retirement on efficiency grounds should be supported by a clear business case, however as you know from your FOI request to the (South Lanarkshire) council, personnel services do not hold any recorded information in respect of this decision."

Which seems like a pretty amazing state of affairs to me - because in all my experience of Scottish local government such matters are the subject of very detailed reports to council committees - and proper records are kept given the obvious sensitivities and important financial issues involved.

All of which came flooding back to me when I read the Accounts Commission's report into Strathclyde Fire and Rescue Joint Board (SFRJB) - which has been heavily criticised over the retirement and re-employment of its chief fire officer.

The Accounts Commission records that in June 2009 the SFRJB approved the controversial retirement and re-employment of chief fire officer Brian Sweeney on a fixed term contract.

Later that year pension arrangements were clarified which could see the Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs (HMRC) seek an “unauthorised payment charge” of £29,000 on the board.

In April 2011 the board also agreed to set aside a further maximum of £206,000 to pay Mr Sweeney’s potential personal liability for that charge. The Accounts Commission says that this sum of money remains a provision – and that nothing has been paid out to date.

But what is likely to happen in future? - is the obvious question to ask. 

The Accounts Commission goes on to say that the processes followed by the SFRJB fell short - way short I would say - of acceptable standards and governance - because there was no business case fully setting out alternative options for the choices made in 2009 or 2011.

Specifically, the Accounts Commission states that SFRJB processes were  'inadequate' to allow the public to have confidence in the Board's decisions and that:

"In order to allay understandable concerns of the public, if such exceptional action were to be considered, the  board should have compelling reasons to spend public money in this way and to have considered fully all of the alternatives and implications. In the Accounts Commission’s view there was no such proper consideration."

But apart from that - everything was just tickety boo, presumably!

Finally the Accounts Commission report notes that:

"It was inappropriate that Mr Sweeney was a co-author of the June 2009 report which proposed his retirement and re-engagement. It was also inappropriate that he was present during discussion at the board meeting, given that he had a direct interest, and the clerk should have advised the board of this."

The Chair of Accounts Commission (John Baillie) went on to say: 

“The problem was that the board made decisions without considering other options, with incomplete information and a lack of transparency. There are reminders here for local authorities and perhaps all public bodies in Scotland on governance and transparency and on how they conduct their business.”

Now what I would say is this - never mind the reminders, what are the consequences for elected councillors and senior officials - involved in making these crazy decisions?

How are the interests of the public to be defended - if our spending watchdogs are all bark and no bite?

Beats me.

Tuesday, 25 September 2012

Justice Delayed


I heard the news earlier today that Abu Hamza and a group of fellow terrorist suspects - are finally to be extradited to America.

Which prompted the following thought to jump into my mind.

How can the legal process have been allowed to drag on for all these years - more than 8 in total - while various appeals were held, all of which turned out to be spurious?

Now this time frame is longer than either the American Civil War (1861 to 1865) or World War II (1939 to 1945) for that matter - which puts the whole sordid business into perspective. 

Justice delayed is justice denied, as they say - yet the legal process has been cynically used in this case - to prevent serious criminal suspects from having to face their accusers.

Maybe it will give Julian Assange pause for thought as he sits in the Ecuadorian Embassy in London - in a desperate attempt to prevent his extradition to Sweden where he faces charges of sexual assault.

Julian of course used the UK's legal system to delay and frustrate his extradition - but was released on bail which allowed him to jump ship to the Ecuadorian Embassy - when his legal options finally ran out.

Now the wealthy backers who put up Julian's bail money - £250,000 reportedly - will lose the funds they put down to secure his release.

Serves them right, in my view - they must all have more money than sense.

Because the Wikileaks founder clearly cannot be trusted as a man of his word - which is what his release on bail was all about - a solemn promise to abide by his bail conditions and play by the rules.

Yet as soon as he lost his legal fight - Julian was off playing the martyr again.

Monday, 24 September 2012

Robin Hood in Reverse




South Lanarkshire Council may be playing fast and loose with public money - with its spectacularly generous early retirement arrangements for some of the highest paid council officials in the land.

But the council has also exposed - inadvertently perhaps - the true nature of 'final salary' pension schemes which require low paid council workers to subsidise their much better paid colleagues - who almost always turn out to be senior officials, of course.

Take the latest example of South Lanarkshire's generosity towards its education director - who has been in post for only 5 years according to the Hamilton Advertiser.

Nonetheless the contract drawn up by South Lanarkshire Council and the rules of the pension scheme - mean that a 'final salary' of £120,000 a year will still be used to calculate the  official's pension benefits.

Quite why the trade unions are fighting to retain 'final salary' schemes is beyond me - because it is self-evidently fairer to move to a 'career average' arrangement - which requires that what people take out by way of a pension is directly linked to what they actually pay in over the years. 

I'm sure if Robin Hood were still around today - he would definitely be a 'career average' man.       

Gravy Train (20 September 2012)
Here's another interesting article from The Hamilton Advertiser - about the crazy goings on within South Lanarkshire Council.

I had to laugh at the comment from the council's Labour leader - Eddie McAvoy - who told the newspaper he had no regrets about the decision to introduce fixed-term contracts for the council's highest paid officials - before going on to add:

“Contracts such as those gave the council the power to get rid of senior officials if they didn’t measure up. The weakness was that they could leave whether they were a success or failure and still get the same package.”

So that's just fine then - unless of course you're interested in the efficient and good use of public money.

All I can say is that the concept of irony - is clearly lost on some people!

South Lanarkshire Council official in £325,000 severance row

Taxpayers will have to fork out an initial £338,000 so that a senior South Lanarkshire Council official can take early retirement – at age 52.

Larry Forde, the authority’s £120,000-a-year education director, is due to step down on December 31.

Mr Forde was on a controversial five-year fixed term contract that included entitlement for early retirement or voluntary severance payments if a contract was not renewed.

At a private meeting of the council’s executive committee yesterday (Wednesday), officials outlined the costs to the council of Mr Forde’s decision to retire early.

And the Advertiser understands that the authority will be legally obliged to pay a one-off payment of £325,508 into Mr Forde’s pension pot. And there’s also a recurring cost to the council of £13,508 a year.

Exact details of Mr Forde’s lump sum and annual pension arrangements were not revealed but should be outlined in the council’s accounts for the current financial year.

Mr Forde has been South Lanarkshire’s director of education since April, 2007, and has been in charge of a department with a budget of £280m and 6000 staff.

He was formerly head of quality within the education department and before that worked for Glasgow Council’s community education department.

Details of Mr Forde’s severance costs come five weeks after the Advertiser exclusively revealed that the council’s former finance director Linda Hardie retired aged 50 with a severance package of more than £½m.

She received £106,570 compensation for loss of office and £427,000 towards her pension pot.

Ms Hardie had been on paid ‘gardening leave’ from October 18, 2010, until she left the council on April 18 last year after a £38m “arithmetical error” was found in a key budget calculation.

Like Mr Forde, she was one of the directors to benefit from the severance benefits arising from five-year fixed term contracts.

They were introduced in 2002 to encourage “succession planning” but they have led to the council having to pay thousands of pounds into the pension pots of senior officials who have opted to retire early.

Appointments on the basis of fixed-term contracts ended in May last year following a restructure of the council’s management team.

Mr Forde will be the last official to benefit from what Central Scotland Tory MSP Margaret Mitchell termed the “gravy train of severance deals” open to senior officials in South Lanarkshire.

Mrs Mitchell, who has asked Local Government Minister Derek Mackay to probe the contract arrangements for top staff at South Lanarkshire, said this week: “This is a staggering amount of money and I can hope that lessons are learned for the future.

“There has to be transparency and accountability for all these types of arrangements.”

Council leader Eddie McAvoy said after the executive meeting: “We have changed the standing orders of the council to ensure that in future all directors’ retirement packages will go before the executive committee for approval.

“Before the change, approval of packages was delegated to the director of personnel and chief executive.”

Councillor McAvoy said he did not regret the council’s decision to introduce the fixed-term contracts.

“Contracts such as those gave the council the power to get rid of senior officials if they didn’t measure up,” he added. The weakness was that they could leave whether they were a success or failure and still get the same package.”

Inspector Clouseau


I laughed out loud earlier today as I read on the BBC's news ticker - that the Police are now conducting an urgent investigation into the deliberate leaking of confidential statements (made to the Police) - as a result of the Downing Street 'spat' involving the Government's chief whip, Andrew Mitchell .

Now since the only people who could possibly have shown these documents to The Sun newspaper are the Police themselves - we should surely get the result of the Police investigation very soon.

I imagine some of their best officers have been put on the job - and been told to leave no stone unturned in their search for the culprits.

Seems to me that the Police are only too happy leak confidential information when it suits their purpose - and that News International stable is still a very reliable route for the Police to use in their efforts to manipulate the news agenda.

I thought that Private Eye put the whole issue in proper perspective - with this article which appears in the latest edition of the satirical magazine.

Hillsborough
KNACKER: 'IT COULD NEVER HAPPEN AGAIN'

By Our Crime Editor Harry Fibbs

Chief Inspector "Knacker of the Yard" Knacker told reporters last night:

"This sort of organised cover-up would never happen today. The modern police are not nearly organised enough to coordinate such a sophisticated operation. After all, it only took a couple of years for our involvement with News International to come to light, as opposed to the twenty three years it took everyone to rumble what we were up to at Hillsborough."

"That is why there is no need for any police officer to face prosecution and certainly no need for me to resign."      

Friday, 21 September 2012

Men in Kilts


Political insults ain't what they used to be, I would say - if the trade union response to the latest Scottish Government budget is anything to go by.

Apparently, the public sector trade unions are trying to portray John Swinney - Scotland's  finance secretary - as 'George Osborne in a kilt' over his proposal that public sector pay should increase by only a modest 1% in 2013.

Presumably the trade unions believe that the Scottish Government should increase pay by much more than 1% - but if so, they remain conspicuously silent on how this should actually be achieved.

'How much more of Scotland's £28 billion budget should go towards public sector pay?' - is the obvious question - if the trade unions were in charge of the nation's biscuit tin.

And if pay were to be given a much greater priority - then who or what should lose out in order to balance the books?

It's not rocket science, you know.

Should taxes or charges rise - including the council tax - in order to generate more cash to spend on public sector pay?

Because if that's what the trade unions believe then they should say so - if they are to have any credibility with their own members - or the wider public. 

To my mind the problem with Scotland's trade unions these days is that they are not so much 'Bravehearts' as 'wee timorous beasties' - only to willing to throw childish insults at their opponents - yet too timid to call a spade a spade.

Thursday, 20 September 2012

Gravy Train


Here's another interesting article from The Hamilton Advertiser - about the crazy goings on within South Lanarkshire Council.

I had to laugh at the comment from the council's Labour leader - Eddie McAvoy - who told the newspaper he had no regrets about the decision to introduce fixed-term contracts for the council's highest paid officials - before going on to add:

“Contracts such as those gave the council the power to get rid of senior officials if they didn’t measure up. The weakness was that they could leave whether they were a success or failure and still get the same package.”

So that's just fine then - unless of course you're interested in the efficient and good use of public money.

All I can say is that the concept of irony - is clearly lost on some people!


South Lanarkshire Council official in £325,000 severance row

Taxpayers will have to fork out an initial £338,000 so that a senior South Lanarkshire Council official can take early retirement – at age 52.

Larry Forde, the authority’s £120,000-a-year education director, is due to step down on December 31.

Mr Forde was on a controversial five-year fixed term contract that included entitlement for early retirement or voluntary severance payments if a contract was not renewed.

At a private meeting of the council’s executive committee yesterday (Wednesday), officials outlined the costs to the council of Mr Forde’s decision to retire early.

And the Advertiser understands that the authority will be legally obliged to pay a one-off payment of £325,508 into Mr Forde’s pension pot. And there’s also a recurring cost to the council of £13,508 a year.

Exact details of Mr Forde’s lump sum and annual pension arrangements were not revealed but should be outlined in the council’s accounts for the current financial year.

Mr Forde has been South Lanarkshire’s director of education since April, 2007, and has been in charge of a department with a budget of £280m and 6000 staff.

He was formerly head of quality within the education department and before that worked for Glasgow Council’s community education department.

Details of Mr Forde’s severance costs come five weeks after the Advertiser exclusively revealed that the council’s former finance director Linda Hardie retired aged 50 with a severance package of more than £½m.

She received £106,570 compensation for loss of office and £427,000 towards her pension pot.

Ms Hardie had been on paid ‘gardening leave’ from October 18, 2010, until she left the council on April 18 last year after a £38m “arithmetical error” was found in a key budget calculation.

Like Mr Forde, she was one of the directors to benefit from the severance benefits arising from five-year fixed term contracts.

They were introduced in 2002 to encourage “succession planning” but they have led to the council having to pay thousands of pounds into the pension pots of senior officials who have opted to retire early.

Appointments on the basis of fixed-term contracts ended in May last year following a restructure of the council’s management team.

Mr Forde will be the last official to benefit from what Central Scotland Tory MSP Margaret Mitchell termed the “gravy train of severance deals” open to senior officials in South Lanarkshire.

Mrs Mitchell, who has asked Local Government Minister Derek Mackay to probe the contract arrangements for top staff at South Lanarkshire, said this week: “This is a staggering amount of money and I can hope that lessons are learned for the future.

“There has to be transparency and accountability for all these types of arrangements.”

Council leader Eddie McAvoy said after the executive meeting: “We have changed the standing orders of the council to ensure that in future all directors’ retirement packages will go before the executive committee for approval.

“Before the change, approval of packages was delegated to the director of personnel and chief executive.”

Councillor McAvoy said he did not regret the council’s decision to introduce the fixed-term contracts.

“Contracts such as those gave the council the power to get rid of senior officials if they didn’t measure up,” he added. The weakness was that they could leave whether they were a success or failure and still get the same package.”

Angry Mobs



‘Never underestimate the stupidity of an angry mob' - is a sentiment that has echoed down the ages - but it's as true today as it ever was.

American Embassies have borne the brunt of such attacks in the past week - but in the past European newspapers have met with the same response for daring to use even mild humour - to challenge the way that some Muslims practice their religion.

Now once the righteous mob is in full cry they might decide to take the lives of perfectly innocent 'infidels' - for the perceived wrongdoings of their fellow countrymen.

Or even fellow Muslims in the murderous feud between Shiites and Sunnis - which continues in large parts of the Middle East - in Iraq and Syria, for example.

Salman Rushdie was faced with a similar threat for publishing a serious book (not a humorous one) on the Islamic religion - The Satanic Verses – some years ago.

Yet the Ayatollah of Iran issued a 'fatwa' which called on all Muslims fulfil their religious duty by murdering the author in cold blood - an act that would be rewarded in heaven, of course, rather than punished on earth.

Now I don't know about anyone else, but this seems madness to me – the opposite of what religion is supposed to be about.

In fact it reminds me of the way that Catholic Popes used to behave in medieval times - branding people as heretics at will and declaring their lives forfeit - via a personal hotline to God.