Sunday, 8 April 2012

House of Secrets

Politicians, access, secrecy - it's never a good combination.
Here's a longer version of today's story in the Sunday Herald

Tom Gordon
Scottish Political Editor

RECORDS of overnight guests at Alex Salmond’s official residence are being systematically destroyed despite public concerns about lobbying and access to politicians, it has emerged.

Details of all those enjoying the First Minister’s private hospitality are deleted within 72 hours, once security personnel no longer require them, the Sunday Herald has learned.

The destruction of records means the names of Salmond’s most favoured guests remain a secret.

Labour last night claimed the system was open to abuse, and urged Salmond to start publishing full records of his guests to ensure transparency.

The call comes just days after the First Minister insitigated an external inquiry into his own conduct after he treated a series of SNP donors, including Ayrshire’s £161m lottery winners Colin and Christine Weir, to tea at Bute House.

The Weirs gave the SNP a record £1m donation just four days after meeting Salmond at the A-listed Georgian mansion on September 9 last year.

Do the leaves predict a fortune?
However because Salmond gave them tea rather than lunch, dinner or drinks, their names were not recorded on any official hospitality register.

It also emerged last week that Salmond hosted two other SNP donors and their wives at Bute House.

Businessman Ian Watson, who donated £138,750 to the party between 2005 and 2009, and his wife Victoria, who contributed £12,500 in 2005, were guests at a lunch in July last year to mark the official opening of the Scottish Parliament.

Former Unliver executive David McCarthy and his wife were also dinner guests at Bute House after a royal garden party in July 2010.

McCarthy, a past president of the SNP’s Ochil branch, donated £5,045 to the party in 2007.

In the wake of a flurry of negative headlines about donors and sleaze, Salmond referred himself to his independent adviser, the former Lord Advocate Dame Elish Angiolini, who will now judge whether he broke the ministerial code.

Prime Minister David Cameron is also under fire after claims he entertained big Tory donors to private - rather than official - dinners at his Downing Street flat and Chequers residence.

The latest row involving Salmond also involves a  distinction between his official use of Bute House for work and his private use of it as a home.

The former is officially documented while the latter isn’t - a convenient loophole, say critics, could let a First Minister entertain guests and potential donors away from scrutiny.
Bute House: The First Minister's official residence
When the Sunday Herald first requested the names of overnight guests at Bute House last June, officials said they did not hold the information.

They said there had been no “official” overnight guests at the residence since Salmond became First Minister in 2007, but confirmed there had occassionally been “private” overnight guests.

The Scottish Information Commissioner’s office last week issued a ruling on the case accepting that the government had no records to divulge, but only because the information was “retained for two to three days and then disposed of”.

Willie Rennie, the Scottish LibDem leader, said: “It can’t be that difficult for the First Minister to recall which guests he had staying at his official residence. 

“He’s always keen to be open and up-front,  so this would be an excellent way of following through on that commitment.

“There also needs to be a review of record keeping at Bute House so concerns about access are addressed.”

Labour MSP Paul Martin added: “Alex Salmond's standards are even lower than David Cameron's.

“We demand the First Minister starts being and transparent and this loophole must be closed.

“If no official records are kept, then it falls to the First Minister himself to let us know who has invited to stay over in official government residences.

“Alex Salmond needs to set out who he has invited to stay and clarify whether any, like his dinner guests, are donors to the SNP.”

The First Minister's office declined to say if any SNP donors were among Salmond's overnight guests.

His spokesman said: “We are pleased that the Information Commissioner inds that we complied in full with our Freedom of Information requirements, which concludes the matter.

“Of course, this is entirely consistent with the practice of previous administrations, whether it be the Labour/Lib Dem coalition or Tory Scottish Secretaries.

“However, in the case of the SNP administration, no donor events and nothing associated with party fundraising take place in Bute House – never has and never will.

“Everyone receiving hospitality at government events at Bute House is recorded, and the information is proactively published by this administration, unlike our predecessors.”

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