Monday, 20 October 2014

English MPs for a Scottish Issue?

A few hours after the majority of voters in the Scottish Borders rejected the chance to vote for an independent Scotland we witnessed the first divisions among Better Together campaigners with David Cameron's Downing Street dawn declaration promising English MPs for English laws. The slanging match surrounding the unsolved West Lothian question was well and truly under way.

The unholy alliance of Labour and Conservative politicians, and the eleventh hour intervention by a forgotten Fife MP by the name of Brown, may have salvaged the shaky Union. But it didn't take long for the uneasy bedfellows to switch to a "ferrets in a sack" posture after the No vote was delivered.

Cameron's pledge to ban Scottish MPs from voting on English matters in return for greater powers at Holyrood certainly received a warm reception south of the Tweed. But does it mean that under tit-for-tat reasoning three of his own MPs - Messrs Menzies, Paice and Reevell - will be precluded from further involvement in an important issue affecting the Borders and Dumfries & Galloway?

Earlier this year we brought you news of yet another Government backed 'probe' into the economic ills of the South of Scotland, a topic already done to death by an endless series of previous inquiries and investigations. Having already endured the 1968 Johnson-Marshall report which recommended a major injection of population to make the Sheep Country economy more stable, and a 1998 effort chaired by Scottish business and industry minister Gus Macdonald, there seemed little mileage left in such a tired old chestnut.

However, the current membership of Westminster's Scottish Affairs Committee (SAC) certainly didn't accept they were flogging a dead horse when they embarked on their own voyage of discovery earlier this year. Apparently they've already found out that the people of the Borderlands - their word not mine - are not getting as good a deal as they should. You don't say!

But surely if any of those previous investigations stretching back 45 years had been worth a candle then the Borders and its neighbour to the west should have been competing on the proverbial level playing field by now. These costly projects appear to have achieved the square root of absolutely nothing, and there must be a fair chance the current round of visits and consultations by the SAC will also fail to deliver a remedy for our complicated set of issues and problems even though a more generous allocation of resources would probably do the trick.

Which leads me back to the dilemma soon to face Menzies, Paice and Reevell, all of them Tory members of the SAC but representing English constituencies. Mark Menzies, who represents Fylde (Lancashire), Sir James Paice, the MP for South-east Cambridgeshire, and Simon Reevell, (Dewsbury, Yorkshire) sit on the committee because their Party doesn't have more than one elected MP in Scotland, and he's a junior minister in the Scotland Office.

If you haven't already sent in your written submission to the SAC with evidence of how they might improve the lot of us Borderers then you'd better get your skates on as the deadline for the consultation is Friday November 28.

But if Mr Cameron succeeds in his bid to banish Scottish MPs from debates featuring English subjects then should the three English Conservatives from his Party who serve on the SAC be allowed to read your submissions then discuss and vote on an exclusively Scottish subject? Not that it is likely to make much difference unless the Committee breaks the mould and produces something positive and useful.

Wednesday, 1 October 2014

Quest for truth closed down by MSPs

Every public body in Scotland will have taken time out for a huge sigh of combined relief today after members of the Scottish Parliament's Public Petitions Committee snuffed out attempts aimed at forcing councils, health boards and government departments to tell the truth.

It may come as a surprise to many, but there is no obligation under the present Freedom of Information Scotland Act (FOISA) for your local authority to furnish you with an honest and accurate response when you submit a Freedom of Information request.

It has been claimed that up to 25 per cent of the 60,000 answers supplied by FOI compliant bodies in Scotland may be inaccurate as they attempt to conceal the truth or distort the facts. The ability to mislead the people they are supposed to serve renders the entire Freedom of Information system virtually worthless. And the Scottish Information Commissioner (SIC) - the so-called guardian of FOISA - has shown a consistent reluctance to prosecute authorities which flout the law by withholding information or by issuing false responses to FOI requests.

In a bid to have an "honesty" clause inserted into the legislation, a petition was lodged at the Parliament earlier this year. It attracted support from ordinary citizens, some of them telling the petitions committee that they had been misled after submitting FOI requests.

But unfortunately the petition also attracted a totally hostile reaction from the Scottish Government and the SIC. Both of these organisations dismissed the proposed change in the law as both unnecessary and unworkable. The committee was even invited by its own clerk to close the petition down in April before the members had heard a shred of evidence. Hardly an example of democracy at work.

Those authorities whose wrongdoings might be exposed by a more robust version of FOISA had too much to lose. They were never going to allow a sensible amendment or addition to the Act to eliminate the wriggle room which allows dishonest public officials to avoid disclosing accurate, and potentially embarrassing information.

The completely gutless performance of the SIC, who has failed to promote a single prosecution since Freedom of Information legislation was introduced a decade ago, was highlighted by one supporter of the petition, a Mr M.

In a written submission to the petitions committee Mr M described how he provided evidence to the SIC after being misled by his local authority in their handling of his FOI requests.

He added: "The SIC investigating officer left me with a clear impression that pursuing a case under
Section 65 of FOISA was virtually impossible, had never been done, and would require me
to have already provided him with firm supporting evidence of 'criminal intent to withhold'
on the part of one or more individuals."

But the saga did not end there. In a bizarre twist, Mr M was invited to meet the chief executive of the council concerned who "acknowledged the Council's responses to my requests for information could have been handled better and offered the Council's apology.

"I presented the Chief Executive with correspondence and records which made a sufficiently compelling case - of Council Officers' inescapable awareness of apparent non-compliance with statutory obligations (for which they were also responsible) and of them having misled me whilst failing to provide records (which they could hardly be unaware of) I'd requested under FOISA - that the Chief Executive undertook to commission an independent investigation into the matters arising from my freedom of information requests.I did not request that meeting nor did I suggest that she commission an independent investigation."

But even strong testimony like that failed to convince MSPs on the committee that there were serious issues surrounding Freedom of Information which needed to be addressed. They preferred the evidence of the SIC and of other civil servants who maintained the present flawed FOISA should be left alone.

At their meeting earlier this week the elected members closed ranks with the Establishment in deciding: "The Committee agreed to close the petition, under Rule 15.7, on the basis that the Scottish Government has stated it shares the view of the Scottish Information Commissioner that the changes being proposed are not needed and would be unworkable."

As the petitioner told the Committee: " At the moment any requester who has evidence of dishonesty or inaccuracy by a responding authority stands no chance of achieving redress given the complete failure or unwillingness by the Commissioner and the police to even submit reports with a view to prosecution. Regrettably, that sad state of affairs is set to continue."