Monday, 12 December 2011

Bills, bills, bills

The SNP's 'anti-sectarianism bill' returns to Holyrood for its third and final stage on Wednesday. 
It has been heavily and widely criticised, leading to some re-writes from the government, such as the addition of a freedom of speech section. 
Now the minister in charge is putting down some eleventh-hour amendments suggesting there are still serious problems to fix. 
Here's a longer version of my story in the Sunday Herald.

Tom Gordon
Scottish Political Editor

THE SNP are set to water down their controverisal bill aimed at tackling sectarianism in football.

Community Safety minister Roseanna Cunningham, who is taking the legislation through the Scottish Parliament, has tabled a last-minute amendment which would let her scrap a key section which had previously been likened to “thought crime”.

She has also tabled an amendment narrowing the scope of those outside Scotland who could be punished by the bill, a tacit admission that the original version strayed beyond devolved powers.

MSPs vote on the third and final stage of the Offensive Behaviour at Football and Threatening Communications (Scotland) Bill on Wednesday.
Labour, the Tories, LibDems and Greens say it is muddled and unnecessary, but it is set to become law regardless thanks to the SNP’s majority.
Prompted by the violence centred on the Old Firm last season, the bill criminalises religious, racial or homophobic bigotry at football games, as well as sectarian threats on the internet.
As it stands, the bill could see football fans jailed for up to five years for behaviour “likely to incite public disorder” even if no one else was offended and no disorder occurred.
For instance, Section 1(5)(b) would criminalise abusive chanting in supporters’ clubs where only one set of fans was watching a televised match, or at a stadium where one team’s fans had already left. 
Holyrood’s justice committee queried the concept, but Cunningham said it was “essential” the bill emphasised such behaviour was always unacceptable.
As recently at November 22, Cunningham told the Justice Committee that without it. bigots would have “the freedom to take their poisionous singing and chanting into pubs and clubs across the country when there are football broadcasts. That cannot be tolerated.
However, her new amendment would give ministers the power to “disapply” this part of the law using minor legislation, clearing the way for a quick U-turn if the law proves unworkable.
Section 4A 
Roseanna Cunningham 

3 In section 4A, page 4, line 18, at end insert— 
<(  ) disapply paragraph (b) of subsection (5) of that section in relation to a 
description of behaviour for the time being listed in subsection (2) of that 
Cunningham has also tabled an amendment narrowing the scope of those punishable under the bill.
Currently, it applies to any British citizen or Scottish resident who incites disorder at a match outside Scotland involving a Scottish side.
Cunningham now wants to drop all reference to British citizens, meaning only Scottish residents guilty of behaviour outside Scotland are covered.

Section 7 
Roseanna Cunningham 

4 In section 7, page 7, line 8 leave out <, sections 1(1) and 5(1) also apply> and insert <by any 
person, section 1(1) also applies> 
Roseanna Cunningham 

5 In section 7, page 7, leave out lines 10 to 13 
This effectively exempts ex-pats and Rangers and Celtic fans in Northern Ireland who misbehave in relation to Scottish matches outside Scotland.
Anyone committing an offence while they are in Scotland would still be liable to punishment.

Alison McInnes, the LibDem justice spokeswoman, said: “These amendments show the government knows they’ve got it badly wrong - they just aren’t willing to own up. Instead, we have desperate attempts to find a way out, to surreptitiously ‘disapply’ parts of the bill at a later stage.
“The other amendment is an embarrasing admission that the attempt to apply the crime to other British citizens is far outwith their powers.
“The only sensible way out of this mess is to put this bill through the paper shredder.”
A Government spokesman said: “Supporters clubs would be fully covered by the legislation. It [the amendment] simply gives the power to add to or amend the offence in the future. However, we have absolutely no plans to invoke this power.”
Labour will today launch an anti-sectarian action plan aimed at tackling religious hatred in sport and across society as an alternative to the bill.

Sunday, 11 December 2011

In the red corner

There's more trouble at the City Chambers, as Glasgow Labour continue to fight among themselves instead of focusing on the SNP threat ahead of May.
Here's a longer version of the story in today's Sunday Herald.

Tom Gordon and Paul Hutcheon

THE most high-profile Labour politician in next year’s council elections has been accused of threatening one of his party colleagues, the Sunday Herald can reveal.

Gordon Matheson, the leader of Glasgow City Council, is the subject of a complaint to the country’s independent watchdog for councillors.

He has been reported by fellow Glasgow Labour councillor Tommy Morrison, who claims he was threatened with the loss of a £11,000-a-year post at Strathclyde Fire & Rescue unless he helped an ally of Matheson get re-selected as a Labour candidate.

The complaint is a blow to Matheson, who has faced continued Labour infighting at the City Chambers since he replaced boss Steven Purcell last year.
After their landslide win at Holyrood, the SNP made May’s local elections their next priority, with Glasgow the main prize.
Matheson’s high-pressure job is to defend the city, where Labour has 47 of the 79 councillors.
The SNP last night said the Morrison complaint had exposed panic and indiscipline within Glasgow Labour as the election approached.
Central to Labour’s election strategy has been a recent clear-out of so-called ‘deadwood’ councillors, and the selection of new candidates.
The purge led to almost half the party’s sitting councillors in Glasgow failing candidate vetting, effectively ending their political careers.
The result has been an angry backlash against Matheson and his chief whip Alex Glass.
Morrison, a councillor in the Greater Pollok ward since 2007, was among those who failed vetting.
His complaint concerns the lead up to a meeting of Greater Pollok Labour branch on November 24, which was due to select two candidates for May.
The ward currently has three Labour councillors - Morrison, Willie O’Rourke and Alex Glass.
With Morrison deselected and O’Rourke suspended, only Glass was eligible to stand for re-selection.
Morrison claims he was warned before the meeting that if he interfered with Glass’s bid, or failed to support him, he would lose his council-related place on Strathclyde Fire Board, which last year carried an allowance of £10,978.
It is understood Morrison discussed the issue face to face with an “agitated” Matheson, in the latter’s office at the City Chambers.
Morrison complained to the party hierarchy, and he and Matheson allegedly reached a brief truce.
However Morrison has now complained to the Public Standards Commissioner about the episode, and copied Labour HQ into the correspondence.
A friend of Morrison told the Sunday Herald: “Tommy made a complaint to the Standards Commission against Councillor Matheson. Cllr Matheson told Tommy that if he interfered with the selection of Alex Glass, he would be removed from the Fire Board. Tommy could not accept a threat to democracy in any shape or form.”
In the end, Glass lost the Pollok selection, as local members, including many of Morrison’s supporters, voted for former Anniesland MSP Bill Butler and newcomer Rashid Hussain instead.
Glass is understood to have been gutted at his defeat, which was also interpreted as a slap in the face for Matheson.
Glass is now trying to get selected in a new ward, with rumours circulating within Labour that party bosses will try to parachute him into Springburn.
Graeme Hendry, the SNP’s chief whip on the council, said: “This latest bout of infighting is yet another indictment of the lack of leadership, vision and discipline within Glasgow Labour.
“Any party which tried to control colleagues through intimidation and bullying would not be fit to lead a great city.”
A spokesman for Cllr Matheson said: “Allegations that Gordon Matheson threatened any member of the Labour group are completely untrue.”
Cllr Morrison declined to comment.

Monday, 5 December 2011

Questions on Qatar

By Paul Hutcheon and Tom Gordon

ALEX Salmond is at the centre of a “favouritism” row after the brother of a Cabinet colleague joined him at high-profile meetings in the Middle East while acting as an adviser to two foreign energy firms.

Consultant Allan MacAskill, whose brother Kenny is the Justice Secretary, was present as Salmond tried to the persuade the region’s political and industry leaders of the benefits of investing in Scotland.

Labour is now demanding that Salmond provides “full disclosure” on why MacAskill was one of a handful of business representatives in attendance.

Salmond recently visited Qatar, Abu Dhabi and Dubai as part of a five-day trip to promote Scotland in one of the world’s most lucrative areas.
In a statement released during the overseas mission, Salmond said Scotland offered “many attractive business opportunities” for capital investment, adding: “Now is the time to invest, which is why I am visiting both Qatar and the UAE this week.”
Scotland has dozens of capital projects in need of funds and could benefit if the Abu Dhabi Investment Authority (ADIA), which is estimated to have up to $875billion of assets, looked favourably on the Scottish Government.
Salmond has long complained about Westminister’s squeeze on capital funding and is looking for alternatives to raise cash for vital projects, particularly in the areas of renewables and infrastructure.
However, the First Minister’s business trip is being questioned over MacAskill’s presence at key meetings.
A picture of a “low carbon” round table discussion in Qatar, put on the internet by the Scottish Government, showed the Justice Secretary’s brother sitting across from the First Minister.

Allan MacAskill (left) with Alex Salmond in Qatar

A Government press release then stated that MacAskill, as well as Scottish and Southern Energy CEO Ian Marchant and Inverleith Capital’s Ben Thomson, would be attending the ADIA meeting with Salmond.
According to the release, MacAskill attended the ADIA meeting on behalf of clients EDP and Repsol, which are Portugese and Spanish energy firms respectively.
The two companies are part of a joint venture to develop up to 2.4 gigawatts of renewable projects.
Repsol is part of the team behind the Beatrice Offshore Wind Farm in the Outer Moray Firth, while EDP Renewables has offshore interests in the same waters.
MacAskill, an engineer by profession, has a long association with Beatrice.
He was the founder of SeaEnergy Renewables, a firm which did much of the running on a project that will cover approximately 131.5km.
SeaEnergy Renewables was acquired earlier this year by Repsol.
According to his Linkedin profile, MacAskill now advises Repsol and EDPR since setting up his own consultancy in March.
The Middle East meetings are not the only examples of MacAskill’s links to the Nationalist Government.
Salmond personally opened SeaEnergy Renewables’ office in 2009.
The firm was also part of a Scottish Development International trade mission to China.
One outcome of the trip, according to Scottish Enterprise, was the signing of a co-operation agreement between SeaEnergy Renewables and Chinese ship builder Nantong COSCO Ship Steel Structure Company.
The Scottish Government issued a statement announcing the deal in July 2010.
Salmond attended the signing ceremony in Shanghai alongside MacAskill.

Allan MacAskill (left) with Alex Salmond in Shanghai

And in June this year, when Repsol bought SeaEnergy Renewables Ltd for £40m, the Scottish Government issued yet another statement, in which the First Minister praised SeaEnergy as “reaping the rewards of decisive and early leadership”.
The markets, who had expected a higher sale price, were less kind however.
Shares in parent company SeaEnergy plc fell 44% the same day, their biggest slump in seven years.
MSP Paul Martin, Labour’s business manager at Holyrood, has asked the First Minister 11 questions about MacAskill’s role on the Middle East trip.
He wants to know who invited the Justice Secretary’s brother to the meetings, whether his consultancy has received any public money, and whether the First Minister will publish a full list of meetings with MacAskill.
In his letter, Martin wrote:

“It is unclear whether Mr MacAskill would have been able to secure such access [to the meetings] without the decision for him to accompany you. 
There are many, many such consultants in Scotland who would have given anything to accompany the First Minister when meeting potential investors...
“Given the close family relationship between Allan and Kenny MacAskill, I believe full disclosure is required in explaining exactly why Allan MacAskill was at these meetings, in order to clear up any perception of favouritism.”

A spokesman for the First Minister said: “All business participants on this visit were part of ‘Team Scotland’ – they were included because they are all specialists in their field and able to offer expert knowledge and advice in support of the visit’s aim of promoting exports and attracting inward investment to Scotland.
“They attended industry round table meetings and similar events, but were not part of the ministerial delegation and were not part of formal Government to Government meetings.
“All business participants met their own flight, hotel and other expenses.”

Allan MacAskill said: “I’ve got no comment to make.”