Thursday, 17 January 2019

Sound of Silence

The Alex Salmond affair looks set to run and run now that the Scottish Parliament has agreed to establish its own committee of inquiry.

Given the circumstances this seems like an eminently  sensible decision, but isn't it interesting how quickly MSPs have moved to devote time and resources aimed at getting to the bottom of an important issue. 

Yet on another issue of enormous important: a 'decade long failure by central and local government over equal pay' - all we hear is the sound of silence. 

By the way, the following Tom Gordon's piece in The Herald provides an excellent summary on the background to the Alex Salmond affair which looks likely to dominate the news headlines in Scotland for some time to come.

Nicola Sturgeon facing second inquiry over Alex Salmond as feud worsens

By Tom Gordon - The Herald

Nicola Sturgeon and Alex Salmond.

Nicola Sturgeon and her closest aides are facing months of gruelling scrutiny over the botched Alex Salmond sexual misconduct probe after a second inquiry was confirmed into the affair.

Amid venomous fighting between Ms Sturgeon and Mr Salmond’s camps, Holyroodconfirmed a special committee of MSPs would examine the case.

The role of Ms Sturgeon and her chief of staff, Liz Lloyd, is to be pored over after revelations about their behaviour while Mr Salmond was under investigation.

The latest inquiry threatens to hamstring Ms Sturgeon and her inner circle just when they had hoped to be talking about the chaos over Brexit and the merits of independence.

Mr Salmond and Ms Sturgeon said they would be happy to cooperate with it.

Illustrating the bitterness of the SNP feuding, Ms Sturgeon’s official spokesman said Ms Lloyd was the subject of a “vendetta” by Mr Salmond’s allies, who he described as “the other side”.

Mr Sturgeon said on Monday that she was the victim of a “smear” campaign.

The Holyrood inquiry is in addition to Ms Sturgeon’s asking ethics watchdogs to check if she broke the ministerial code by having secret minutes and phone calls with Mr Salmond last spring and summer.

Interim Scottish Tory leader Jackson Carlaw compared Ms Sturgeon to the former US President Richard Nixon, who resigned amid a political scandal.

The comment led to jokes at Holyrood about the White House’s ‘Tricky Dicky’ and Bute House’s ‘Tricky Nicky’.

Mr Salmond won a judicial review against the Scottish Government last week, forcing it to admit that it had bungled its investigation of two sexual misconduct complaints against him.

The complaints, lodged in January 2018 but referring to 2013, were checked by an official who had already been in contact with his accusers, tainting the process.

After the probe collapsed and left taxpayers with a £500,000 bill, Ms Sturgeon admitted she had three meeting and two calls with the former First Minister during the investigation, but insisted she did not interfere in it.

She said she first learned of the probe when Mr Salmond told her himself on April 2 at a meeting at her Glasgow home, and that she met him in her capacity as SNP leader, not as First Minister, despite the subject being a “government process”.

The meeting was not minuted and Ms Sturgeon only reported it to the government’s top official, Permanent Secretary Leslie Evans, two months later.

It emerged yesterday that Mr Salmond took a lawyer with him to Ms Sturgeon’s home, undermining Ms Sturgeon’s claim that it was a simple SNP matter.

Mr Salmond was accompanied by Duncan Hamilton, the advocate who later acted as junior counsel in his judicial review case.

Ms Sturgeon last week withheld Mr Hamilton’s name, merely telling MSPs that “Mr Salmond was represented” - her office then repeatedly refused to name who was involved.

Mr Hamilton’s presence was revealed by Mr Salmond’s former chief of staff, Geoff Aberdein, who said Ms Lloyd told him before the meeting, in late March, that she suspected that a misconduct complaint had been levelled against Mr Salmond, but she did not know any specifics, and had not told Ms Sturgeon.

When the conversation was relayed to Mr Salmond it was interpreted as an attempt by Ms Lloyd to put him off trying to return to frontline politics, adding to his tensions with Ms Sturgeon.

Ms Aberdein said he was also at Ms Sturgeon’s home on April 2, but that Ms Sturgeon and Mr Salmond talked alone.

Mr Carlaw said it stretched credulity that Ms Lloyd had discussed a complaint against Mr Salmond with Mr Aberdein, then arranged a meeting between Mr Salmond and the First Minister without telling her what was coming.

He said: “If it’s true, the chief of staff was failing in her duty, and if it’s not true, the First Minister was even more reckless in proceeding with the discussion.”

Ms Sturgeon’s spokesman declined to elaborate on Mr Aberdein’s statement or Ms Lloyd’s role, maintained April 2 was a “party” meeting, and said Ms Sturgeon continued to have full confidence in Ms Lloyd and Ms Evans.

A spokesperson for Mr Salmond said: “Alex will be happy to co-operate, in principle and if asked, with a parliamentary inquiry which seeks to examine how the administration of the Scottish government could get itself into a position where the Court of Session had to rule that it had acted unlawfully, unfairly and tainted by apparent bias.

Welcoming the Holyrood inquiry, Scottish Labour leader Richard Leonard said: “This is the right decision and a positive step forward. Full transparency in this matter is essential in order for the public to have confidence in the First Minister and the Scottish government.”

A Failure of Leadership (15/01/19)

Here's an interesting opinion article by Kevin McKenna in The Herald which reports that an inquiry is underway in the Scottish Parliament over the circumstances surrounding the terrible fire which earlier this year destroyed the Glasgow School of Art.

Apparently Holyrood's Culture, Tourism, Europe and External relations Committee is asking awkward questions about 'What Went Wrong and Why? - which is a good thing if you ask me, because this is the second fire in a short space of time and the cost of repairing the damage will run to more than £100 million.  

Yet this is small beer compared to the scandal surrounding equal pay in Glasgow where the cost of putting things right will run to hundreds of millions of pounds - and that's after the Council said it had sorted its problems with the introduction of a new, improved  WPBR pay scheme back in 2007.

Unfortunately the Court of Session, Scotland's highest civil court, disagreed with the Council's assessment (of its own homework) by condemning Glasgow's pay arrangements as 'unfit for purpose' in August 2017 - and went on in December 2017 to deny Glasgow's request to challenge and potentially overturn this decision at a further hearing before the UK Supreme Court in London.

So it's an awfully big deal you might say, though not big enough seemingly to merit the interest of one of the Scottish Parliament's many committees, for example:

  • Local Government and Communities Committee
  • Equalities and Human Rights Committee 
  • Public Audit and Post-Legislative Scrutiny
I find this quite astonishing, I have to say, especially as the Accounts Commission, Scotland's public spending watchdog, published a major report in September 2017 which concluded that a 'decade long failure of leadership by local and central government' is responsible for the continuing debacle over equal pay. 

By the way, James Dornan, SNP MSP for the Glasgow Cathcart constituency, is the current Convener (Chair) of the Scottish Parliament's Local Government and Communities Committee.

Too many worrying questions remain about art school fire
The second Glasgow School of Art fire, in June last year. There was no sprinkler system in operation when the blaze broke out. Picture: Kirsty Anderson

By Kevin McKenna - The Herald

ONLY rarely does the painstaking work of Holyrood’s assortment of committees receive due public acknowledgement. Yet, their role within the apparatus of Scottish politics has elevated this country’s model of democracy above that of many other parliamentary systems and certainly well beyond the pantomime version of it that unfolds on a daily basis at Westminster

Holyrood’s committees ensure that Scotland’s political decision-makers are held to a high level of public accountability. Certainly, a majority government can attempt to suborn their integrity by top loading them with party placemen but MSPS from all parties I’ve spoken to in recent years all agree that they work as well as can be expected within a political structure that remains essentially gladiatorial.

Some of the recent work of Holyrood’s Culture and Tourism Committee has provided a snapshot of how these panels help reduce the democratic deficit in Scotland. The Culture, Tourism, Europe and External Relations Committee (to accord it its full Sunday title) has spent the last four months seeking answers to persistent questions about the causes and effects of the second major fire to have destroyed the revered Mackintosh building at Glasgow School of Art on June 15 last year. It will resume its GSA inquiries later this month.

These fires and their aftermath have engaged the Scottish public to an astonishing degree and on many levels. Those of us with connections to the GSA and who have spent time in our lovely Mackintosh building had always sensed that this place held a curiously anointed place in the heart of Glasgow’s citizens, including many who have never visited it. You don’t need to have been on an African safari to appreciate the big beasties who romp across its savannahs and to want to protect them. The hearings conducted by the Culture and Tourism committee into the Mackintosh fire have given the public and several interested parties and expert bodies the opportunity to call the board of the GSA to account for its management of this prized Scottish asset before the first fire in 2014, the subsequent re-building and how this may have contributed to the cause of the second fire.

The contributions, both oral and written, have been characterised by a need to ensure that there will be no third fire. They have been largely respectful and free of recrimination. There has been no sense of any personal vendettas being played out here. Unfortunately, Muriel Gray, chair of Glasgow School of Art chose a different tone when she was called to provide submissions in November. Instead she could barely conceal her contempt at even being asked questions about the competence of the board she leads. Asked by the committee chair, Joan Mcalpine, if she had any regrets after the two fires, Ms Gray said: “I don’t have any regrets about the process, I have massive regrets that these things have happened – but no, I can’t in all conscience say that I would have done anything differently.” More than one person present during her submission has since spoken of a tone characterised by “breathtaking arrogance”.

In his submission Alexander Kidd, the international fire expert who has advised Historic Scotland, refuted claims made by the GSA board that a sprinkler system was not suitable for the Mack because of the presence of historic papers and that, in any case, there are no sprinklers in historic buildings and libraries. Indeed a sprinkler system could have been installed quickly and easily. Mr Kidd had also told members of the Tourism and Culture committee that on a tour of the Mack with Historic Scotland in 1997 he described it as a fire trap. Yet, nothing was done.

Instead, a consultancy ruled out a sprinkler system on the grounds that it would be “unacceptable to the client”. They recommended a mist suppression system which was not commonly used in large buildings. It’s worth pointing out here that not even a mist suppression system (which uses less water) was in operation before either of the fires.

In light of this, why did Ms Gray insist that the GSA did not need a sprinkler system?

Interestingly, the GSA has now applied to install a sprinkler system in the former Stow College building it bought and restored after fundraising for the 2014 fire.

And why was it claimed that sprinklers were originally ruled out for the Stow building when GSA board minutes (heavily redacted) show that the board, having indeed ruled them out, then subsequently reversed this decision after Grenfell? Professor Irene Mcaramcwilliam is now GSA director, having succeeded professor Tom Inns who resigned for unknown reasons late last year. Of course there was no selection process. Perhaps she may be asked to explain why, when she was part of the GSA senior management team, the decisions over sprinklers were taken.

Joan Mcalpine and her colleagues on the Culture and Tourism Committee must continue to strive to secure plausible answers to these and other lingering questions such as those surrounding recent senior management departures, including Peter Trowes, the much-respected Mackintosh Curator. Without these answers it becomes clearer with every passing week that the GSA did not prioritise fire safety or the preservation of its collection.

The Committee might also want to consider comments this week by the Glasgow Labour councillor, Paul Carey. The councillor was responding to eye-watering information supplied under Freedom of Information that

GSA staff had spent more than £500k in expenses in the last two years alone including foreign trips and multiple stays in luxury hotels.

Cllr Carey said: “Given that the GSA has spent over half a million on expenses from 2016 to 2018 and it has one of the lowest student attendances from working backgrounds within the UK, this seems to be an elite place for elite people. We cannot justify in this day and age that any public funding should go to this elite school when we still have food banks in this city.”

In a dismissive and high-handed response, borrowing from the style of its chair, the GSA claimed that these trips were important in raising awareness of Glasgow and that the bill to rebuild the Mack, expected to run into hundreds of millions, would not require public money. Aye right.