Wednesday, 31 July 2013

Scotman Editorial

I almost missed this hard-hitting editorial in The Scotsman newspaper until a kind reader drew the piece to my attention.

I will have lots more to say about South Lanarkshire Council soon, but I think The Scotsman makes a very powerful point about the role of local politicians and senior council officials - and whether some of them have lost sight of democracy.


Salary secrecy is not serving the public                                        
The Supreme Court, Parliament Square, London. Picture: PA
The Supreme Court, Parliament Square, London. Picture: PA
The Scotsman - Published on the 30 July 2013 

What councils are not for is to serve the interests of politicians and officials who lose sight of democracy and come to the view that what they believe is what is best for their local authority.

Sadly, the political leadership and the senior officials who work for them in South Lanarkshire Council have lost sight of these principles. How else can we explain the authority’s decision to fight a request for information on its salary scales for men and women, which has cost council taxpayers some £200,000 after the legal battle went to the highest court in the land?

Yesterday, the UK Supreme Court ruled that campaigner Mark Irvine’s freedom of information request to know how much the council paid male and female staff for similar graded work was legitimate and that South Lanarkshire’s claims that disclosure of such information would break data protection laws was spurious.

Responding to the ruling Mr Irvine said justice and common sense had finally prevailed leaving the council “looking rather silly and … with egg all over its face”.

The council and its political leadership had questions to answer over “this debacle and the terrible waste of public money involved”. Given the circumstances, it is impossible not to agree with Mr Irvine.

The council had at initially resisted his request to Scotland’s Information Commissioner as “vexatious,” a legal term meaning unreasonable or disproportionate, but changed its stance to cite data protection legislation, hardly a convincing about face.

Given this and the continued court fight against giving out the information, which the court confirmed would not involve disclosure details of individuals’ pay, if anyone has been vexatious it has been the council.

What legitimate reason did it have to act like this? Even if, as the council appeared to fear, Mr Irvine were to pass on the details to lawyers who might make money from equality claims from women, the council still had no right to refuse to publish the information. The suspicion must be that the data contains something that would embarrass the council. Perhaps it had refused to take seriously the deserved claims of women workers denied equal pay? Or perhaps the leadership just did not like transparency?

This stubborn refusal to adhere to the principles of openness and accountability has cost the taxpayer at least £168,000, if the commissioner’s costs are taken into account. As Mr Irvine says, the council leadership should hang their heads in shame. But they should also take to heart the principle of being public servants and governing for the people and the importance of doing the right thing.

Tuesday, 30 July 2013

Herald Editorial

Council budget concerns should not trump justice

SO South Lanarkshire Council has lost its Supreme Court bid to allow it to continue withholding information relating to pay scales.
Does the council leadership truly believe this legal battle amounted to £100,0000 of public money well spent?

It is very difficult to see how. The local authority, which is currently fighting a £10m back- pay claim from 1500 female staff, must have known there was a high probability of losing. After its arguments had been rejected first by the Scottish Information Commissioner and then by the Court of Session, there was clearly a substantial risk that the Supreme Court too would rule against it, but the council ploughed on regardless. Now it faces a huge legal bill at a time when money is tight.

South Lanarkshire council tax payers could be forgiven for being angry. Such a sum of money would make a significant difference to any number of cash-strapped services funded by the council. This is the council, after all, that has warned 120 jobs are at risk as part of a £12m cuts package. Its legal costs are hefty and South Lanarkshire should not have risked incurring them; instead, it should have agreed to hand over the information when the Scottish Information Commissioner ordered it to do so.

It is not only the council's unwise decision to risk wasting money pursuing the case to the Supreme Court that is at issue. It is also the fact of having proved itself so unwilling to be open about the information in question in the first place.

South Lanarkshire is not the only council to have faced equal pay claims. Many others have had to face up to their obligations. Whichever council it may be, it is not hard to understand the dismay councillors and officials must feel at the thought of potentially having to fund costly pay-outs to some workers at a time of fiscal retrenchment, but budgetary concerns cannot be allowed to trump the interests of justice. Where there is the suspicion that women have been discriminated against by being paid less than men for doing similarly skilled jobs, every council has a duty to investigate and right any wrongs that emerge, promptly.

Where South Lanarkshire is concerned, its vehement attempts to block publication of pay banding information that might reveal whether women have been discriminated against, leave it open to the suspicion that it is less interested in rooting out examples of sex discrimination than in keeping its bills down. That is what will infuriate workers and rightly so. The current spate of sex discrimination claims being brought against councils are about trying to put right a long-standing wrong. Councils perceived as resisting what is right, will be judged, by employees and by voters, as acting dishonourably.

The equal rights campaigner Mark Irvine has called on South Lanarkshire council leader Eddie McAvoy to resign, as being "ultimately responsible" for this waste of public money. The council certainly has questions to answer about the decision to push this serially unsuccessful case so far.

What The Papers Say (4)

South Lanarkshire Council loses pay scale disclosure challenge

A council had no right to withhold information on its salary scales from an equal pay campaigner, the UK's highest court ruled following a £100,000 legal battle.
Action 4 Equality Scotland campaigner Mark Irvine wanted to know if South Lanarkshire Council had paid more money for jobs traditionally done by men, and had asked the council for details about its pay scales in May last year.

The council refused claiming disclosure would breach the Data Protection Act, and ultimately took the Scottish Information Commissioner to the Supreme Court in London after the Commissioner said Mr Irvine had a right to the information.
 
The council also accused the Commissioner of "a breach of natural justice" because he did not copy its officials into all of his correspondence with Mr Irvine and two MSPs who were following the case during the course of his investigations.

Supreme Court deputy president Lady Hale today dismissed the council's arguments, and ruled that the Commissioner was right to back Mr Irvine's request for information.
The ruling states: "The Supreme Court unanimously dismisses the council's appeal.
"It holds that the Commissioner was entitled to reach his conclusion that disclosure of the information should be given by the council to Mr Irvine, and that there had been no breach of the rules of natural justice when the Commissioner did not copy the correspondence to the council."

The cost of the entire legal action is approximately £100,000, according to South Lanarkshire Council.

The Commissioner has spent £67,836 defending its ruling to date, although its costs have still to be finalised, bringing the total cost to the public purse so far to around £168,000.
The council said it is "disappointed" by the Supreme Court's decision but will now release the information "as soon as is practical".

The council had originally dismissed Mr Irvine's request as "vexatious", a legal term meaning burdensome, frivolous, annoying, disruptive, harassing, unreasonable or disproportionate, according to Commissioner guidance.

This was "principally because of Mr Irvine's blog for Action4Equality Scotland and his connections with the solicitor representing equal pay claimants against the council", the Supreme Court said.

The council later withdrew this claim and substituted it with a refusal on the grounds that it would breach the Data Protection Act (DPA), which protects the confidentiality of personal data.

It argued that "Mr Irvine had no legitimate interest in disclosure of the information and that disclosure was not necessary for the purpose of his legitimate interests".
However, the Commissioner ruled Mr Irvine did have a legitimate interest "given the considerable sums of public money involved and the fundamental issues of fair and equal treatment".

Furthermore, he could find no grounds to support the refusal on the grounds of DPA and subsequently asked for the information to be released.

The Supreme Court backed this decision today, stating: "As the processing requested would not enable Mr Irvine or anyone else to discover the identity of the data subjects, it is quite difficult to see why there is any interference with their right to respect for their private lives."
Current Information Commissioner Rosemary Agnew, who took over the post from Kevin Dunion last year, said: "I am pleased that the ruling by the Supreme Court supports our own carefully considered conclusions on this case.

"While the relationship between FOI and data protection law can be complex, the Supreme Court's ruling confirms the robustness of our approach and is a clear guide to how similar cases should be handled by Scottish public authorities.

"Importantly, the ruling also means that the requester can, at long last, receive the information to which he is entitled."

In a statement on the Action4Equality website, Mr Irvine said: "After three long years, justice and common sense have finally prevailed - although no thanks to South Lanarkshire Council which has wasted over £200,000 of public money fighting this case.

"The council originally dismissed my request as 'vexatious' but now it is one of Scotland's largest council's which is left looking rather silly and, after this decision, with egg all over its face.

"The council and its political leadership have lots of questions to answer over this debacle and the terrible waste of public money involved.

"The wheels of justice turn very slowly at times, alas, but today they finally caught up with South Lanarkshire Council which should hang its head in shame."

Council leader Eddie McAvoy said: "I am very disappointed at this outcome, and all the more so because we were told repeatedly by our legal advisers that our case was sound and that there were good grounds for the council's arguments.

"Given the judges' ruling, I have instructed officers to release this information as soon as is practical."

A council spokeswoman said: "This judgment is disappointing. We have never denied this information to people with a legitimate interest in it, where it is necessary and warranted, and that's why it has been provided to those representing employees and ex-employees in tribunals.

"However, we have been acting on legal advice that, if we released it to a third party, we could be in breach of the Data Protection Act by disclosing information which could be used to identify specific people and their salaries.

"Given that concern and our legal advice, it was clear that these arguments had to be heard in the highest court in the land. Indeed, the judges make it clear that they took our arguments seriously and believed our case was worth putting before them."

What The Papers Say (3)

Council’s £200,000 secrecy battle on equal pay

South Lanarkshire Council HQ
Legal battle ... South Lanarkshire Council HQ
Town hall chief Eddie McAvoy faced calls to quit last night after the cash-strapped authority was slapped down by the UK’s highest court.

His South Lanarkshire council wrongly spent three years withholding staff salary scales from activist Mark Irvine, five judges ruled.

Last night Mr Irvine, who campaigns for Action 4 Equality Scotland, said: “If Eddie McAvoy has any dignity, he should resign — he’s presided over the total mess the council has made of equal pay and is responsible for this terrible waste of public money.”

The Labour-led council tried to bury data amid a legal battle by 3,000 women to find out if they were paid less than men doing similar jobs. The authority refused to reveal details of salaries in response to a freedom of information request by Mr Irvine in 2010.

The Scottish Information Commissioner and the Court of Session ordered the figures to be released — but the council snubbed the rulings.

Stubborn Mr McAvoy, 72, who has led the council since 1999, was urged to give up the battle as it was racking up a huge legal bill.

But he dug his heels in, and South Lanarkshire became the first public body in Scotland to appeal an FoI ruling all the way to the UK Supreme Court.

However, the council’s arguments that releasing the stats would breach Data Protection laws were booted out in a written judgement released yesterday.

Judge Lady Hale — who delivered the ruling on behalf of the panel of beaks — said revealing the pay scales would NOT enable anyone to discover workers’ identities.

She said: “It is difficult to see why there’s interference with their right to respect for their private lives.”

Mr Irvine last night hailed a victory for “justice and common sense” and slammed the waste of around £200,000 on the legal action.

Full costs to taxpayers haven’t yet been finalised but will include bumper paydays for both sides’ QCs. Mr McAvoy and the council said they were “disappointed” at the outcome.
 

What The Papers Say (2)

Council loses pay disclosure case

The Scotsman - 30 July 2013

A council had no right to withhold information on its salary scales from an equal pay campaigner, the UK's highest court ruled following a £100,000 legal battle.

Action 4 Equality Scotland campaigner Mark Irvine wanted to know if South Lanarkshire Council had paid more money for jobs traditionally done by men, and had asked the council for details about its pay scales in May 2010.

The council refused claiming disclosure would breach the Data Protection Act, and ultimately took the Scottish Information Commissioner to the Supreme Court in London after the Commissioner said Mr Irvine had a right to the information.

The council also accused the Commissioner of "a breach of natural justice" because he did not copy its officials into all of his correspondence with Mr Irvine and two MSPs who were following the case during the course of his investigations.

Supreme Court deputy president Lady Hale dismissed the council's arguments, and ruled that the Commissioner was right to back Mr Irvine's request for information.
The ruling states: "The Supreme Court unanimously dismisses the council's appeal. It holds that the Commissioner was entitled to reach his conclusion that disclosure of the information should be given by the council to Mr Irvine, and that there had been no breach of the rules of natural justice when the Commissioner did not copy the correspondence to the council."

The cost of the entire legal action is approximately £100,000, according to South Lanarkshire Council. The Commissioner has spent £67,836 defending its ruling to date, although its costs have still to be finalised, bringing the total cost to the public purse so far to around £168,000.

The council said it is "disappointed" by the Supreme Court's decision but will now release the information "as soon as is practical".

Current Information Commissioner Rosemary Agnew, who took over the post from Kevin Dunion last year, said: "I am pleased that the ruling by the Supreme Court supports our own carefully considered conclusions on this case. While the relationship between FOI and data protection law can be complex, the Supreme Court's ruling confirms the robustness of our approach and is a clear guide to how similar cases should be handled by Scottish public authorities. Importantly, the ruling also means that the requester can, at long last, receive the information to which he is entitled."

In a statement on the Action4Equality website, Mr Irvine said: "After three long years, justice and common sense have finally prevailed - although no thanks to South Lanarkshire Council which has wasted over £200,000 of public money fighting this case."

What The Papers Say (1)

Council loses £200k pay secrecy battle

A CASH-STRAPPED council has lost a legal bid to block information being released about its pay scales – at a cost to taxpayers of up to £200,000.


   

South-Lanarkshire-Council-spent-100-000-trying-to-keep-the-pay-scales-secret South Lanarkshire Council spent £100,000 trying to keep the pay scales secret

South Lanarkshire Council rejected requests for the information from equal pay campaigner Mark Irvine.

When the Scottish Information Commissioner backed his case, the council appealed unsuccessfully to the Court of Session. And yesterday judges at the UK Supreme Court ruled against the Labour-controlled authority’s second appeal.

It is currently embroiled in a legal dispute over claims it awarded extra bonuses for male workers while women on the same pay grade received nothing. If it loses it could cost the authority millions of pounds.

South Lanarkshire, which recently warned 120 jobs were at risk in a £12million cuts package, spent £100,000 trying to keep the pay scales secret. Information Commissioner Rosemary Agnew spent £67,836 defending the ruling to date.

But the Information Commissioner’s costs have still to be finalised, which could push the taxpayers’ bill to £200,000.
The council said it was “disappointed” by the ruling but will release information “as soon as is practical”
In May 2010, Mr Irvine made a number of requests under the Freedom of Information Act to see if pay gradings favoured work traditionally done by men. The council refused.

Mr Irvine then complained to the Scottish Information Commissioner, who ruled the details should be disclosed. Supreme Court deputy president Lady Hale dismissed the council’s arguments. Mr Irvine said: “The council and its political leadership have lots of questions to answer over this debacle.”

The council said it was “disappointed” by the ruling but will release information “as soon as is practical”.

Ms Agnew said: “I am pleased that the ruling by the Supreme Court supports our own carefully considered conclusions.”

“Importantly, the ruling also means that the requester can, at long last, receive the information to which he is entitled.”

Encouraging Words


Here are just some of the encouraging messages I've received following yesterday's  UK Supreme Court decision - to unanimously dismiss the ludicrous FOI appeal by South Lanarkshire Council.

"Congratulations, Mark on the Supreme Court result. Read it on BBC website and of course on your blog site."

"Great news!"

"Well done, Mark, this is now a really important case for future equal pay claimants."

"Congratulations on supreme court outcome thank you on behalf of all my colleagues for your hard work  and support."

"Congratulations on today's verdict, you must be feeling well chuffed with yourself today."

"Mark, I never doubted you would get the decision. Well done."

"Excellent, will tweet!"

"Brilliant!!!"

"Excellent news. A celebration to be had."

"Well done on South Lanarkshire."

"Hi Mark, a big congratulations to you and your team on the great news."

"Well done  with the result from the Supreme Court  on your FOI case! Have been watching this with interest and am disgusted by SLC's behaviour - it is obvious they are in the wrong and should apologise and pay up."

Eddie McAvoy (the Labour leader of South Lanarkshire Council) is a disgrace and should go." 

"Hi Mark, fantastic news on the FOI appeal. So glad you have never given up on our equal pay claim."
 
"You won! Congratulations on your court victory." 

"Mark, I was sure you would win - there was never any doubt in my mind. Keep up the good work"

I've also said to various newspapers that Councillor Eddie McAvoy, if he has any dignity, should resign as Labour Leader of South Lanarkshire Council because he has presided over the mess the Council has made of equal pay - and is ultimately responsible for the terrible waste of public money in fighting this case all the way to the UK Supreme Court.

Monday, 29 July 2013

South Lanarkshire Loses


I take my hat off to the UK Supreme Court which just a few minutes ago announced its decision on the big Freedom of Information case involving South Lanarkshire Council.

The Court decided, unanimously, that South Lanarkshire's appeal should be rejected and that Mr Irvine (i.e. me) is 'entitled to the information he seeks'. 

Yipeee!

After three long years, justice and common sense have finally prevailed - although no thanks to South Lanarkshire Council which has wasted over £200,000 of public money fighting this case.

The information I am seeking relates to the pay of traditional male council jobs - which will expose whether male council workers have been more favourably treated in recent years - than their women colleagues.

As regular readers know, South Lanarkshire originally dismissed my request as 'vexatious' - but now it is one of Scotland's largest council's which is left looking rather silly and, after this decision, with egg all over its face.    

The UK Supreme Court ruling comes on top of a previous judgement, also unanimous, from the Court of Session, Scotland's highest civil court - and an earlier adjudication in my favour from the Scottish Information Commissioner.

South Lanarkshire Council and its political leadership have lots of questions to answer over this debacle - and the terrible waste of public money involved.

In the meantime, I would like to thank the Scottish Information Commissioner (SIC) and the SIC legal team - including Richard Keen QC - for their good judgement and unstinting support over the past three years.

The wheels of justice turn very slowly at times, alas, but today they finally caught up with South Lanarkshire Council - which should hang its head in shame.

NEWSFLASH!

I heard late last night via the Scottish Information Commissioner (SIC) that the UK Supreme Court is due to deliver its ruling on the South Lanarkshire FOI case this morning - at around 9.45 am.

 

Apparently, the decision will be issued by Lady Hale who acted as the Chair of the panel of five judges and the announcement can be viewed live on the Court's web site at - www.uksupremecourt.gov.uk

 

South Lanarkshire (6 July 2013)


Here's a little reminder about the UK Supreme Court hearing next Monday 8 July 2013 which can apparently be watched live on 'Court TV' - via the internet - according to the following article from the Hamilton Advertiser.

I haven't tried it out myself and won't be doing so personally as I plan to be in London on Monday for the hearing - but here's a link to the UK Supreme Court for any readers who might be able to tune in - www.uksupremecourt.gov.uk

I am told that the hearing is being held in Court No. 2 and that it is due to start at  11am - so fingers crossed!  

Court TV (28 January 2013)

Here's an interesting article from the Hamilton Advertiser newspaper - and what a great idea - streaming the court hearing live on the Internet.

The date of the broadcast is scheduled to be 8 July 2013, if I remember correctly - but I'll double check and remind people nearer the time.

Equality case to be broadcast live from Supreme Court

By Julie Gilbert

A Supreme Court hearing regarding South Lanarkshire Council’s equal pay row is to be streamed live on the internet.

The hearing is an appeal from the council against a Court of Session decision, which ruled the council must release details on its pay scales.

The information had been requested by Mark Irvine from Action 4 Equality to establish whether traditional low-skilled male jobs in land services - such as gardeners, bin men and gravediggers - were paid more than traditional female jobs which had an equal or higher level of skill involved.

However, the council refused to comply, and have appealed to the Supreme Court of the United Kingdom to try and get the decision overturned.

The link to watch the hearing live can be accessed from www.supremecourt.gov.uk.

Mark Irvine wanted the information on pay scales to help with the case he is building for around 2500 council workers in the area with equal pay claims.

He says anyone interested in the issue should tune in and watch the Supreme Court hearing.

Mark said: “The more people who understand how ridiculous South Lanarkshire’s position is the better, if you ask me.

“Because the council has already lost the argument with the independent Scottish Information Commissioner (SIC) and three senior judges in the Court of Session (Lords Marnoch, Mackay and Brailsford) - who upheld the SIC ruling and unanimously dismissed South Lanarkshire Council’s subsequent appeal.

“So I hope lots of people will tune in and watch the UK Supreme Court in action - as it could be a big day for equal pay and freedom of information.”

The council claim releasing the information would identify individual employees.

This Freedom of Information case is separate from the employment tribunal looking at the equal pay claims themselves.

An employment tribunal considering some of the claims last year ruled that the authority’s job evaluation scheme did not comply with national equal pay legislation.

The council’s appeal against that decision will be heard by an employment appeal tribunal in Edinburgh between October 8 and October 10, and there will be a preliminary hearing on March 19.

Carol Fox, of lawyers Fox and Partners, who are representing the claimants, is also planning to go back to the tribunal between April 22 and April 30 to see if progress could be made on claims which pre-date the council’s job evaluation scheme in 2004.

Publish Or Be Damned

The news that Police Scotland will not be conducting a criminal investigation into the Falkirk vote rigging scandal removes the last lame excuse the Labour Party has been hiding behind - for not publishing its internal report on the matter.

Publish Or Be Damned (4 July 2013)

David Blunkett, the veteran MP and former government minister, got it right the other day when he urged the Labour Party to publish its internal report - on alleged vote rigging in the Falkirk constituency.

What possible reason could there be for keeping the details secret - especially when Labour says it is keen for the business of politics to be conducted in an open and transparent manner?

 None that I can see and neither can David Blunkett who sensibly pointed out that:
 
"We cannot have a go at the vested interests of the Tory party if we don't clear our own house."
 
And you can't say fairer than that of course - otherwise the party will be accused of terrible double standards - of saying one thing then doing another.
 
Also, as a matter of fairness and natural justice, the Unite trade union deserves to know the evidence on which Labour's selection contest in Falkirk has been halted - because I imagine that the decision has not been taken lightly.

If there has been a double stitch-up, then the conspiracy theorists will have been proved right - though I very much doubt they are because Ed Miliband himself would have had to have been in on the act.
 
So, if there is a suggestion of serious wrongdoing in Falkirk then the obvious thing to do is to spill the beans, as they say - Labour Party members, trade union members and the wider public deserve nothing less. 

Friday, 26 July 2013

Positive v Negative

Kevin McKenna writes regularly for the Observer newspaper and he's not always my cup of tea - I have to admit.

But in a comment piece last week - to give credit where it's due - Kevin took a stick to the ridiculous scare tactics favoured by the Better Together campaign in the long run in to next year's referendum on Scottish independence.

Whether Scotland votes Yes or No in September 2014 remains to be seen - but once thing seems certain to me even this far out - and that is that the SNP will continue to dominate Scottish politics once the referendum is over.
Because labour and the other opposition parties have almost nothing positive to offer - and that's where Kevin McKenna hits the nail squarely on the head.   

Scottish Nationalists can rest easy, given the opposition

The Better Together campaign uses the sort of propaganda you normally only see when a country is gearing up to invade
By Kevin McKenna
Alistair Darling
Alistair Darling, leader of the Better Together campaign. Photograph: Murdo Macleod
Wearied frustration usually follows when another civic panjandrum takes on a company directorship paying a six-figure sum for two days a month. Then you remember that Willie Rennie MSP is paid £75,000 a year, plus expenses, to lead the Scottish Liberal Democrats, a party of hidden shallows. There can be fewer more irrelevant jobs in Scotland. This is why, presumably, the referendum on Scottish independence has been embraced by Mr Rennie. It has given him a release from his otherwise pointless political existence. Only rarely does he fail to return a call when the pro-union press are seeking to give the independence campaign another kicking.

One of these opportunities presented itself last week with the Observer's revelation that the SNP was considering asking a towering Scottish literary figure, such as Willie McIlvanney, to provide a bit of literary finery to its white paper on Scottish independence, due to be published in November. As political tales go, it wasn't what some might call a "game-changer", nor was it even overtly political in itself. It was simply an imaginative attempt to inject a bit of colour and drama into a document that would otherwise be laden with economic theory and legal ephemera and framed in the dismal argot of the Scottish civil service. Predictably, Rennie and a couple of Labour backwoodsmen talked of fiction.

Such a word, though, might more accurately be deemed to be more characteristic of the unionists, whose recent efforts have grown increasingly more shrill and unhinged. The following day, Paul Sinclair, the chief spin doctor of Labour leader, Johann Lamont, described the first minister of Scotland an "arse" in response to him being photographed with Phil Mickelson, the winner of the Scottish Open golf championship.

Perhaps Mr Sinclair, an otherwise honest chap, was simply bored twiddling his thumbs as his boss was told to take a wee rest by London Labour as it sought to ensure no wretched socialist would represent the party of the people in Falkirk.

A few days later, Mr Salmond was being ridiculed in the Daily Record for his serious error of judgment in writing to several Scottish sporting figures, including Andy Murray, congratulating them on their recent successes. Apparently, the fact that replies from said superstars came there none made the first minister look like a fool. A real issue would have arisen, though, if Mr Salmond hadn't written to them.

And such was the cry over his saltire incident at Wimbledon that anyone else might think Scotland had been placed under martial law that banned the waving of the national flag in public places. For centuries, though, England has existed in a constant of febrile jingoism conducted through endless royal celebrations and displays of military strength as a means of achieving the almost universal deference that is required to underpin the most elitist society in Europe.

Over the last two weeks, the narrative of the Better Together campaign suggests that Scotland will revert to the days when we were painting our faces and living in forests if we opt for independence. Roaming mobile phone charges will be greater, despite the European Union signalling its intention to scrap them. The cost of decommissioning Trident will cost so many billions that Scotland's economy will be reduced to the size of Haiti's. (An independent report a few days later revealed that the true cost of decommissioning will be a fraction of this.) Anyway, if that were to happen, the MoD suggested it would get together over brandies at White's and simply annex Faslane. I very much doubt that, though, for by then Britain's armed forces will be stretched to the limit fighting in Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, Egypt, the Falkland Islands and possibly Rockall.

Another favourite phantom from the Better Together camp is that there will be border controls between Scotland and England, secured, presumably, by mustachioed men with peaked caps wearing mirrored shades and smoking Henri Wintermans. That was somewhat undermined last week when it emerged that the UK and Irish governments plan to strengthen the common travel area, which enables Irish and UK citizens to travel freely between both jurisdictions.

We were also told that the SNP's predictions of an oil-rich future for Scotland were a cruel confidence trick. Such is the downward spiral of projected North Sea oil revenues over the next 50 years that an independent Scotland could be left looking into an economic black hole of gigantic proportions – anywhere between £11bn and £20bn if the Office for Budget Responsibility is to be believed.

We'll leave aside the fact that anyone who feels they can predict the price or even the pricing patterns of oil at any time over the next 30-odd years probably also can predict when the Martians are coming back to reclaim Atlantis. Presumably, also, the Office for Budget Responsibility is still having a right good word with itself for failing to predict the global credit crisis and the consequences of our biggest banks playing Russian roulette with the country's money.

My socialist tendencies are still deep-rooted and the humane imperative of each of us to fight for a justice and peace for those who are denied them all over the world still sits uncomfortably with the concept of going it alone to achieve these things in an independent Scotland. But the endless narrative of Scots in the unionist camp that Scotland without England is a barely functioning economic husk is driving me and many others into the Scottish Nationalist camp.

It's the sort of propaganda that you would normally expect to see when one country is gearing up to declare war on another or perhaps invade them. Yet is it being mouthed by Scots who purport to love their own country.

We are still 14 months away from the referendum on Scottish independence. At this rate, the No campaigners will be claiming that the deaths of our first born will occur in an independent Scotland. Not long after the plagues of frogs, boils and locusts.

Reckless Killings

A still from footage from a trackside camera apparently shows the moment the train derailed
The completely unnecessary deaths of at least 70 people in Galicia the other day  throws a deadly spotlight on the crime of manslaughter - and the fact that those responsible for committing this offence often escape justice, in my opinion at least.

Now I know that the investigation into this terrible train crash are at an early stage, but even now it seems clear that the drivers of this huge vehicle were behaving terribly recklessly - by speeding along at 190 kilometres an hour when the speed limit was only 80 kilometres an hour.

The drivers escaped uninjured, presumably because they saw what was about to happen just before the train jumped the tracks - and were able to brace and save themselves.

But the poor passengers had no warning, no time to react, as they sat back reading a book, phoning a friend or perhaps enjoyed the simple pleasure of a cup of coffee - before their lives were cruelly snatched away - for many survival seemed completely impossible.

I'm sure that the drivers did not set out to kill anyone through their idiotic behaviour, but you know what - I don't really think that matters terribly much.

Because they knew, or at least they ought to have known the carnage and misery that could have been caused by behaving in such a reckless manner - and for that they deserve to spend the rest of their lives in jail.

Maybe that will happen and if it does, I'll take my hat off to Spanish justice - but although manslaughter does provide for a life sentence, depending on the facts and circumstances - more often than not the manslaughter results in a lesser punishment than the crime of murder.

But try telling that to the families of the 80 dead passengers and the 140 plus passengers whose lives have been devastated by terrible injuries - the result of completely lunatic behaviour by the drivers of a high speed train.

Lookalike Competition


Here's a great reader's letter from a recent edition of Private Eye - the UK's best and only fortnightly satirical magazine.

Lookalike
Cunningham

Sir,

Does anyone know if Lord (Jack) Cunnungham is by any chance related to his, er, father Andrew Cunningham, the trade union and Labour party fixer, who served the communityin the North-east so ably and unselfishly that in 1974 he was jailed for corruption for four years following his dealings with John Poulson, the dodgy architect? 

Has one family ever given so much to the community without consideration of self?

ENA B. FOOT

Via email.


Cunningham


Thursday, 25 July 2013

Arse Wars


No wonder the standard of public debate in Scotland is at its lowest level for years.

Just the other day the chief adviser to Scottish Labour leader - Johann Lamont - questioned whether the First Minister of Scotland - Alex Salmond - was 'an arse'.

The chap concerned - Paul Sinclair - used to be a journalist of some sort with the Daily Record if I remember correctly and I'm pretty sure he also stood to become a Labour candidate somewhere.

But if so his political ambitions seem to have exceeded his political talent - since he remains an appointed Labour spokesperson rather than an elected one.

As a special adviser to the Labour leader I imagine Paul must be getting paid out of the public purse - though I'm sure he'd be the first to admit that his schoolboy insults were made up in his own free time - and not at the taxpayers' expense.

In any event it's all too ridiculous for words and reflects the kind of personal attacks that Johann Lamont comes up with on a regular basis at First Minister's Questions (FMQs) these days - to little avail it has to be said.

By and large, the public are turned off by this kind of nonsense - personal attacks  and silly name calling tend to rebound on the people who grasp at such straws - not least because it makes their side look as if they've got nothing more intelligent to say.

At this rate the next FMQs at Holyrood should be a classic - with the Labour front bench throwing everything it's got at Alex Salmond & Co including top insults dreamed up over the summer break - such as 'fatty', 'specky' and 'baldy'.

I imagine the SNP Government must be rubbing its hands in glee.    

Oops, I Did It Again


Two years ago I wrote a post about the ridiculous Mr Anthony Weiner - an American congressman who found himself in hot water after sending lewd text messages to a young woman half his age.
 
Incredibly, the irrepressible Mr Weiner has gone and done it again - but even more depressingly Mr Weiner's wife - Huma Obedin - is standing by him as he campaigns to stand as the Democratic candidate for New York Mayor. 
 
Politics drives people mad, you know, which can be the only reason for Mr Weiner staying in the race - because he must know, deep down, that he's toast.
 
The BBC reported that an unnamed woman told website The Dirty she had an online relationship with the 48-year-old last year and in response Mr Weiner - who has been leading polls of Democratic mayoral candidates, said he was "very sorry".
 
If I were Huma, I would pay attention to the old saying: 'Fool me once, shame on you - fool me twice, shame on me'.
 
In other words it's time to show Mr Weiner the door - and I only hope that New York's Democrat voters follow suit.   

What a Knob (9 June 2011)

The biggest story in America at the moment seems to be 'Weinergate'.

The not so wholesome tale of a once respected Democratic Congressman from New York - Anthony Weiner - whose name is almost a synonym for a penis or 'wiener' as the Amercians say.

Now Mr Weiner - for reasons best known to himself - sent a text messages via Twitter to a young woman almost half his age - and attached a picture of his underpants.

The problem was that Mr Weiner (and Mr Weiner's wiener) was still in his underpants at the time.

And the offending picture fell into the hands of a blogger who spilled the beans to the world's press.

So Mr Weiner is now in the doghouse - as you can imagine - as his online exploits continued to be exposed by other women to whom he sent lewd texts or tweets.

Unsurprisingly, the Congressman is now fighting for his political life.

In a curious twist, Mr Weiner is married to Huma Abedin - deputy chief of staff to Hilary Clinton.

But I think I will have to throw up somewhere if we witness yet another example of a betrayed wife 'standing by her man' - a la Anne Sinclair in the Dominique Strauss-Khan affair.

I only hope there's not a picture of John Prescott's underpants about to emerge from cyberspace - linked to his bonking on the job with a junior, female civil servant - while 'serving' the country as Deputy Prime Minister.

Now that would be too much to bear.

King Ralph


I have deliberately avoided the TV and newspapers for the past 24 hours - in the hope of escaping the dreadful wall-to-wall news coverage about the Royal baby - Prince Wotsisname.

But as the weekend approaches, I realise that I am fighting a losing battle - just like that old episode of The Likely Lads in which the character played by James Bolam goes out of his way to avoid hearing an important football score - though ultimately to no avail.

So let me throw my tuppence worth before reality comes crashing in - I think the new Royal sprog should be called Ralph - or Prince Ralph to give him his full title

Because one day he will become King Ralph and that will inevitably lead to a remake of the 1991 film 'King Ralph' - starring the American actor John Goodman.

Not a great film as I recall, so it could do with a completely new cast - and better production values. 

John Goodman has been in some good movies by the way - but none better than the deranged character he played in the famous Coen brothers film 'The Big Lebowski' - starring Jeff Bridges as the Dude. 

Wednesday, 24 July 2013

Lagging Behind

According to a recent opinion poll only 22% of the voting public expects the Labour leader - Ed Miliband - to become Prime Minister.

 

Which means that Ed is lagging well behind his own party in the popularity stakes since Labour regularly hits around 35% in the opinion polls.

 

Which must also mean - strange as it seems - that lots of Labour voters can't really imagine their man picking up the keys to No. 10 Downing Street either.

 

And that really is worrying, as Labour needs another leadership election - about as much as it needs another hole in its head at the moment.

 

Because it would lay bare the completely undemocratic role of the trade unions in these contests - and turn Labour into a laughing stock.

 

So while the reforms that Ed Miliband has announced to Labour's relations with the trade unions are long overdue - the promised 'opting in' changes will apparently be put to a special Labour Party conference in the spring of 2014.

 

But if Ed Miliband loses the vote at this special conference, he will have to resign as leader of the Labour Party - which is unthinkable of course because it would force another leadership contest under the crazy electoral college system.

 
My money's on Ed to win at the special Labour conference - quite simply because if Ed had to resign as Leader, Labour would look completely mad - and the party would be plunged into a terrible and, probably, fatal crisis.
  

6% = 70% = 90% (26 September 2010)

 
 
The Labour party's electoral college makes about as much sense - as one of the Mad Hatter's tea parties. 

But to be fair it has done what it was designed to do - which is to give union leaders undue influence over key party decisions - by
galvanising a small handful of union activists to vote in a particular way or, as in this case, for a particular candidate.

Democracy it ain't - instead it's all about machine-like, Tammany Hall politics - also known as vested interests and raw power.

Consider for a moment the voting figures which decided who would be the next Labour leader - and potentially, at least, the country's next Prime Minister.

199,671 trade unions votes were cast in the trade union section of the electoral college - 80,266 for David Miliband and 119,405 for Ed Miliband.
 
Before the ballot took place the unions were boasting that around 3,500,000 trade unions members would be invited to vote - in a veritable orgy of union democracy.

Yet the turnout of around 6% means that ordinary union members voted with their feet - apart from a tiny number of union activists - who have no claim to represent the views of the wider membership.

The voting figures also confirm that Labour's electoral college is to democracy - what Alice in Wonderland is to quantum mechanics.

Because the Miliband of brothers received the votes of 122,806 individual Labour party members - 66,814 for David Miliband and 55,992 votes for Ed Miliband.

Before the ballot - Labour claimed 170,000 members would be entitled to vote - so the turnout of party members is respectable - at just over 70%.

MPs voted in even greater numbers, as you would expect, and cast 262 votes in total - David Miliband receiving 140 and his brother Ed receiving 122 - so the turnout amongst MPs was well over 90%.

Yet all three sections of the electoral college get the same weighted vote - i.e. 1/3rd, 1/3rd and 1/3rd.

So the end result is that some votes are much more equal than others.

In Labour's electoral college reality is turned on its head - much like Alice in Wonderland - with the incredible effect that somehow or other - 6% = 70% = 90%.

Whatever this is it's not democracy - more trade union members voted (199,671) than the entire Labour party membership (122,806) - which just about says it all.

Maybe these people were Tory, Lib Dem or SNP supporters - seeking to influence the outcome - who knows?

But what we do know is that the new Labour leader was not elected by his own party members - which is a sad day and a bad day - for anyone with a passing interest in democracy.