Wednesday, 22 October 2014

The only way is ethics

I reported in July in the Sunday Herald that Roseanna Cunningham had failed to declare a shareholding in a small publishing company in her parliamentary register of interests.

As the shares represented more than 1% of the firm concerned, that suggested a breach of not only MSP rules, but the law, as it is technically an offence to participate in parliamentary business while failing to declare a registrable financial interest.

Not too clever looking for the minister for legal affairs.

To her credit, Ms Cunningham promptly held up her hand, and admitted she should have registered the shares, and got rid of them sharpish.

However the matter is not yet at an end, I can reveal.

Following a complaint from a member of the public, the Commissioner for Ethical Standards in Public Life in Scotland has become involved.

Here's the story:

Tom Gordon

ROSEANNA Cunningham, the SNP minister for legal affairs, is being investigated by the country’s ethics watchdog over an undisclosed shareholding exposed by the Sunday Herald.

Bill Thomson, the Commissioner for Ethical Standards in Public Life in Scotland, recently confirmed he had started inquiries in response to a complaint from a member of the public.

It is understood Mr Thomson ruled the complaint into the secret shares was “admissible” and said he would “continue consideration of the matter”.

He also informed Ms Cunningham of his decision.

The Sunday Herald first revealed in July that Ms Cunningham, who is also minister for community safety, failed to declare shares she had held since 2000 in a left-wing publishing company.
The holding was 50 of the 750 issued shares in Left Review Scotland Ltd, which publishes the Scottish Left Review magazine six times a year.
Since 2006, MSPs have been obliged to declare any shareholding greater than 1% in a company.
However Ms Cunningham failed to declare her 6.7% stake in Holyrood’s register of interests.
Roseanna Cunningham
Although nominally worth £1 each, Scottish Left Review’s 2013 accounts valued the shareholders’ funds at more than £13,000, suggesting Ms Cunningham’s stake was worth almost £900.
Under Section 39 of the 1998 Scotland Act failure to register such a financial interest and then take part in parliamentary proceedings is a criminal offence, punishable on summary conviction to a fine of up to £5000.
The new probe is a blow to the Perthshire MSP as a minister with a legal portfolio, especially given she was an advocate in her past career.
When the Sunday Herald first revealed the share holding, Ms Cunningham, 64, said she had “no recollection” of the shares, but has since admitted she should have registered them.
She has now recorded them in her register of interests saying she bought them for £1 each in 2000 but was “not been actively involved in the company for over 12 years”.
However “on realising these shares constituted a registrable interest I provided the necessary information to the [parliamentary] Clerk”. 
Paul Martin, Labour’s business manager at Holyrood, said: “It is clear that this is viewed as a serious matter. Government ministers need to be held to the highest possible standard and it is correct that this is properly investigated and acted on if there is wrongdoing.
“It would not be good for this government if the minister in charge of legal affairs had failed on basic compliance.”
Ms Cunningham founded Left Review Scotland Ltd with a group of fellow left-wingers including ex-Labour treasurer Bob Thomson and Clydeside trade unionist Jimmy Reid.
Its aim was “to promote and reflect the principles and values of democratic socialism within the Scottish nation through the publishing of a magazine and organisation of discussion groups”.
A spokesman for Ms Cunningham said she had replied to the Commissioner and her letter “set out the circumstances of the situation and the fact that as she did not recall she owned these shares, they went unregistered with Parliament.
“Once they were brought to her attention and she realised they should have been registered, she immediately notified the relevant bodies.
“She has since divested herself of the £50 in shares for nil consideration.”
The office of the Commissioner for Ethical Standards said: “We have received a complaint against Roseanna Cunningham.
“We cannot comment further on this matter as the Commissioner is legally obliged (Section 16 of the Scottish Parliamentary Standards Commissioner Act 2002) not to disclose information about the terms of the complaint.”

Tuesday, 26 August 2014

Confident no more?

First Minister's economic advisers continued to discuss currency Plan Bs months after Salmond declared Unionist veto on pound was "bluff", new minutes show

Unnoticed amid the recent rows over a potential currency "Plan B" was the publication last week of the latest minutes from Alex Salmond's Fiscal Commission Working Group (FCWG).

These date from 26 May 2014, but are nevertheless intriguing.

They show that, long after the First Minister had dismissed the Unionist threat to veto a currency union as mere bluff and bluster, his advisers remained busy discussing alternatives.

The minutes state (my emphasis in bold):

The Working Group discussed and reviewed the evidence underpinning their recommendations for a formal monetary union in their First Report.
Following on from their last meeting, there was a continued discussion of currency options in the context of the stated position of UK Ministers and the advice of HMT.

The Working Group also considered the economic assessment of currency unions set out by the Governor of the Bank of  England.

Members discussed the options available to Scotland post-independence and the importance of a stable transition.
The opinion of the Working Group remains that retaining Sterling as part of a formal monetary union is the best option for both the UK and Scotland.

The reference to "transition" was pounced on by Better Together when Salmond used the same phrase last week. Transition to what? they asked.

May's meeting seems to differ from the one which preceeded it on 6 March. 

Back in March, three weeks after George Osborne came to Edinburgh to announce his veto plan, the minutes recorded a confidence that it simply wouldn't happen.

They said: 

Members discussed the currency options outlined in the first report given recent developments and concluded that their economic assessment and central recommendation still held. 
They also discussed the other viable currency and monetary models available for Scotland post-independence.
Members emphasised how they believe that it would be in the interests of the rest of the UK for Scotland to retain stability as part of a formal monetary union. 
In the event of a vote for independence, agreements will be reached which are in the best interests of both Scotland and the rest of the UK. 
Other currency options would be less advantageous for the rest of the UK but viable for Scotland and Members concluded that they are confident that this will ensure an agreement on a shared currency.
As part of their discussions the Working Group covered the potential role of a Scottish Monetary Institute in a formal monetary union. 

But there was no reference to continued confidence in May's minutes, just a repeat of the FCWG's position that a formal currency union would be the best option.

("The opinion of the Working Group remains that retaining Sterling as part of a formal monetary union is the best option for both the UK and Scotland.")

Then again, if they were just as confident, why would they still be discussing Plan Bs?

Monday, 21 July 2014

A few rivets short of a flagship

It may be the recess at Holyrood, but questions about the SNP government's promise to "transform" childcare policy under independence rumble on.

A few months ago ministers refused a freedom of information request I had lodged about the basic arithmetic behind their headline-grabbing plan.

You might remember that back in January, ministers published an economic analysis of the impact of a theoretical 6% rise in the female workforce, which they said could eventually raise £700m in extra taxes to help pay for childcare.

Strikingly, the analysis failed to spell out how many years it would take before a 6% rise would yield £700m extra in tax (assuming it ever happened), and hence how much the policy would cost to deliver.

Some top vagueness from the SG analysis (my emphasis)

Instead, there were vague descriptions of output and tax revenue rising "in the long run" and "over a number of years".

Holyrood's impartial information centre later pointed out that when the SNP government talks about "the long-term", it can mean 20 years or more.

So under FoI, I asked to see the full, unedited results of the modelling exercise, in the hope of seeing the short- and medium-term numbers.

Ministers refused, saying it would be "premature" to disclose it, and so I appealed to the Scottish Information Commissioner, Rosemary Agnew.

Ministers made their submissions to the Commissioner on June 16.

Agnew has now ruled on the matter.

Sadly from my perspective, she has sided with the government, and said that ministers were entitled to withhold the modelling work I was after.

The main thrust of it is that, although the SNP's White Paper set out the "high level" direction on childcare, the nuts and bolts of the policy remain "in development", and so material which "relates" to it can be withheld.

However, the Commissioner's decision also contains some fascinating insights.

For a start, it confirms that ministers have modelled far more on childcare than they have been willing to share with voters, and that the policy is still only part-cooked.

"The Ministers stated that the withheld information comprised the modelled impact of changes in economic output and tax revenues under different scenarios of increased female participation in the labour market," the Commissioner's decision says (my emphasis in bold).

"The Ministers argued that the withheld information comprised part of the evidence base provided to assist them in developing their policy on childcare in the event of independence.

"They argued that although the strategic policy direction had been set out in Scotland’s Future, detailed policy design work continued and the details of the policy were yet to be set out.

"The Ministers submitted that the information was created as part of an ongoing process of developing their position on childcare and that the formulation of the policy remains in development."

And here's where it gets really interesting.

Ministers admit they have modelled but have also withheld the short- and medium-term numbers.

In other words, they have withheld modelling on the crucial period covering the introduction of the policy, perhaps the first 10 or 15 years, when it would not yet be self-financing, and when the net burden on taxpayers could be hundreds of millions of pounds a year.

Informative material, surely? I'd say so. But ministers say it would only confuse the poor punters.

"The Ministers stated that the modelling results presented in the published report Childcare and Labour Market Participation – Economic Analysis provide a high-level summary of the impact of increases in labour market participation on economic output and tax revenues in the long-term.

"The results for individual years which detail the short and medium-term impacts have been withheld. 

"The Ministers considered that disclosure of the annual short- and medium-term results could be misleading. 

"They stated that the short- and medium-term results reflect a very specific labour market response, from which the long-term results are independent."

And my favourite phrase...

"The Ministers considered that disclosure of the information would give an unjustifiable impression that there is a level of certainty in the information.

A few rivets short of a flagship: ministers on withholding childcare information

The long and the short of it is that my FoI pursuit of this information has now hit a dead end.

Others may yet be more successful.

In the meantime, I leave you with this recent press release from the SNP demanding full disclosure and clarity from the UK government on another aspect of the referendum debate.

SNP MSP Bruce Crawford said: "People in Scotland paid for these polls and they have a right to see the results in full.”