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.

http://www.snp.org/media-centre/news/2014/jul/snp-write-information-commissioners-polls

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


Thursday, 5 June 2014

Bonus balls?


THE £1000-a-scalp “independence bonus” touted by the Yes camp is under fresh scrutiny today.
It was calculated on the basis that by year 15 of independence, Scottish tax revenue would have risen by £5bn, or roughly £1000 per person.
Leaving aside the fact that that’s your money going to the government not the other way round, the bonus is predicated on a steady rise in workplace productivity.
A 0.3% annual rise for 15 years should yield £2.4bn, or almost half the bonus pot, according to the Scottish Government.
But the First Minister’s Council of Economic Advisers has just reported that productivity trends are “an area of uncertainty”.
So should Alex Salmond be so confident of a productivity rise?
The Scottish Government says only short-term productivity is uncertain and that independence would produce permanent long-term change.
But if it’s not possible to forecast short-term productivity change with certainty, how much reliance can you put on 15-year forecast, especially as long-term forecasts are notoriously harder to get right than short-term ones?
The opposition parties say something's amiss.
Here’s a longer version of the story in today’s Herald

EXCLUSIVE
Tom Gordon

THE workplace productivity behind Alex Salmond’s promise of a £1000 independence bonus for every Scot remains “an area of uncertainty”, his own economic experts have warned.

The assessment is contained in the latest annual report by the chair of the First Minister’s Council of Economic Advisers (CEA).

The Government last night said only short-term productivity was uncertain, whereas independence could produce permanent change, but opposition parties said Mr Salmond had been caught peddling “fantasy”. 

The First Minister said last week that higher productivity, higher employment and higher immigration after a Yes vote would result in an extra £5billion in tax revenues after 15 years, an “independence bonus” worth £1000 per person.
Almost half the £5bn increase was attributed to a 0.3% rise in annual productivity growth.
The SNP government stated: “A 0.3 percentage point increase in our long run productivity growth rate, which will narrow some of the gap with our competitors, could see tax revenues increase by £2.4bn a year by 2029-30.”
The government suggested productivity could be raised using “an industrial strategy to rebalance the economy and diversify Scotland’s industrial base”, better infrastructure, and a more efficient tax regime which helped Scottish businesses invest and innovate.
However the CEA chair’s report indicated productivity trends could not be taken for granted.
It said: “Looking ahead, in the short term, even as the recovery develops at an aggregate
level, specific or localised issues may still appear. Moreover, the outlook for the labour market and earnings, both in Scotland and the UK, depends on future productivity trends, which remain an area of uncertainty.”
From p43 of the CEA chair's second annual report
However it added the economic outlook was stronger than in early 2013, and the Scottish economy was expected to move beyond 2008 pre-recession levels of output during 2014.
The prospect of greater productivity was also cited defensively by SNP ministers this week when the Institute for Fiscal Studies said costly policies on childcare and pensions would require tax hikes or cuts under independence.
Labour finance spokesman Iain Gray said: “The SNP’s prospectus for a separate Scotland depends on a sudden, magical, and inexplicable increase in productivity following a yes vote.
“Every day we see independent analysts telling us these figures do not add up. Now even the First Minister’s own advisers are telling him a sudden leap in productivity is just fantasy.
“This report shows the scale of the challenge a separate Scotland would face in helping to bridge the gulf between SNP spending promises and revenue.
“There is no plan, no strategy, no vision and no idea about how to close the productivity gap.”
Conservative finance spokesman Gavin Brown added: “This is yet more evidence that the Scottish Government’s fiscal paper last week was based on extremely optimistic assumptions, vain hope and the crossing of fingers.
“What is particularly damaging about this conclusion is that it comes from the Scottish Government’s own trusted advisers.
“There can be no claims of a conspiracy here - when even they are telling the SNP to be more cautious, it’s time for the Yes camp to listen.”
A Scottish Government spokeswoman said: “The two references to productivity are different. The text quoted from the Chair’s Report relates to short-term changes in the Scottish and UK labour markets and its links to how productivity is adjusting in the light of the recession and recovery. The First Minister was referring to permanent improvements in Scotland’s productivity growth rate, which can be supported by access to the economic levers available under independence.
“With independence we will be able to take control of economic levers and have the powers to grow our own economy, including supporting increases in productivity rates. With the powers of independence we could generate over £5 billion a year of extra revenues within 15 years, without increasing taxes.”

Sunday, 1 June 2014

Trust me, I'm a perjurer

Disgraced former MSP Tommy Sheridan is back on the road again, advocating a Yes to independence.
He's still got the power to whip up a crowd, but the official Yes camp is far from happy at being linked to a convicted perjury.
Here's the story.


EXCLUSIVE
Tom Gordon
Paul Hutcheon

TENSIONS have erupted inside the pro-independence campaign over Tommy Sheridan, after it emerged the convicted perjurer spoke at a meeting under the offical Yes banner.

The former jailbird shared a stage last week with SNP MSP Christina McKelvie at an event organised by Yes Hamilton, a semi-autonomous offshoot of the Yes Scotland movement.

Yes Scotland board member Colin Fox, whose testimony helped send Sheridan to prison for lying on oath, reacted furiously to the news.

He said: “The guy is a convicted perjurer. He’s a liability to Yes. We don’t want him.

Sheridan, who was jailed for three years in 2011 for perjury during his 2006 defamation action against the News of the World, recently embarked on a one-man speaking tour to promote a Yes vote called “Hope over Fear”, but has been shunned by the official Yes camp.

In 2012, SNP Finance Secretary John Swinney said the disgraced former Glasgow MSP was “a man who has no political credibility whatsoever – none whatsoever. Not even political credibility, no credibility in terms of the judgments made by the courts of the land.”

Organisers of the Yes Scotland group in Glasgow later cold-shouldered Sheridan when he tried to become part of the organisation.

Despite the clear signal from Swinney, McKelvie, convener of Holyrood’s European and External Affairs committee, spoke along with the former leader of the Scottish Socialist Party (SSP) at a miner’s welfare club in Hamilton on Tuesday before an audience of around 200.

Despite repeated calls and emails to her publicly-funded media adviser, McKelvie, the MSP for Hamilton, Larkhall and Stonehouse, did not respond to requests for comment.
Christina McKelvie MSP and Tommy Sheridan last Tuesday
Sheridan, 50, was a list MSP from 1999 to 2007 and a one-time convener of the SSP before forming the breakaway Solidarity Party in 2006. 
He launched Solidarity a few weeks after winning a £200,000 defamation action against the now-defunct News of the World, which had claimed he was an adulterer and a swinger who had visited Cupid’s sex club in Manchester.
During the civil case, Sheridan accused some of his old colleagues in the Scottish Socialists of conspiring against him and said they had engineered “the mother of all stitch-ups”.
Conflicting testimony during the case prompted a police investigation into possible perjury.
In 2010, Sheridan was found guilty of lying under oath and sentenced to three years.
The flyer for Tuesday's event
He was released after a year in prison.
Colin Fox, a Yes Scotland board member, a current SSP co-convener and one of those who testified against Sheridan at his trial, said: “I don’t want anything to do with him.
“I think he helps the No campaign.
“Last time last year he was leader of the anti-bedroom tax campaign. This year he wants to be part of the yes campaign. He’s got an addiction to limelight.”

The pro-Union Better Together campaign seized on Sheridan’s appearance under the Yes banner.
A spokesman said: “With Tommy Sheridan now joining the official Yes campaign, we can expect to see a swing to us.”

Yes Scotland stressed Sheridan was not part of its operation, and said local groups were free to arrange their own speakers.
A spokesman said: “Any individual’s involvement in Yes Scotland community activities is entirely a matter for the local groups.”
Sheridan could not be contacted for comment.