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.”

Monday, 21 November 2011

SNP confirm £1m donation

For immediate use: Monday 21st November 2011




Alex Salmond today welcomed a donation of one million pounds from Chris and Colin Weir.

The donation from the Euromillions winning couple will support the party as it works towards a referendum on Scotland’s future.

The couple have already set out their financial support for the Waverley Paddle Steamer, a local elderly care home and their intention to set up a charitable trust.

In a statement confirming their donation, the largest single donation to the SNP in the party’s 77 year history, Chris Weir said:

“We have been supporters of the SNP for a long time but this is about more than party politics.

“Every society, every country should have the right and the opportunity to determine its own path.  That’s something I’ve believed in strongly for a long time.

“We want to give the people of Scotland a fair chance in the referendum campaign that’s why we are supporting the SNP now and into the independence referendum.

“The only people with the right to decide Scotland’s future are the people of Scotland themselves and we want to support the SNP and the referendum campaign in helping Scotland make that decision fairly. “

Colin Weir added

“It’s no secret I support the SNP and stood for the party.  I backed the party in the 1978 referendum and the behaviour of the UK parties convinced me that we should support this referendum properly. 

“The party has done a good job in government and is doing a good job for Scotland.  You can already see a difference and an increase in confidence around the country.

“We have things in Scotland like a council tax freeze, free prescriptions and help for ordinary households because we’ve elected an SNP Government.  With independence we can build on what we already do so well. 

“But what matters to us first is that the SNP and the people of Scotland have a fair opportunity to make the case and decide on Scotland’s future.”

First Minister and SNP Leader Alex Salmond welcomed the donation

“The Weirs have experienced great good fortune and they have already shown their generosity with their support for the Waverley Paddle Steamer and causes in their community.

“They have had a long standing commitment to the SNP and their welcome donation will allow the party to continue it’s work and to prepare for the referendum campaign ahead.

“The SNP relies on the donations of our ordinary members and every donation large and small goes to backing the party and making the case for independence.”


Sunday, 20 November 2011

Collective amnesia?

Tom Gordon

ALEX Salmond is no stranger to award ceremonies.
In the last fortnight alone he has twice been named as Politician of the Year in recognition of the SNP’s truly historic win at Holyrood in May.
But now the First Minister is under fire for boasting about yet another award - this time for his work on climate change - without revealing it was engineered by one of his own ministers.
Salmond accepted the third South Australia International Climate Change Award last month.
The gong was announced to great fanfare at the SNP conference in Inverness, with a video message from Michael Rann, South Australia’s then premier.
In a Scottish Government press release, the First Minister declared: “It is a great honour to receive this award which I accept as recognition of the fact that our legislation on climate change is truly world-leading.”
But what Salmond, the SNP and the Government media machine all curiously failed to mention was the identity of the person who proposed the First Minister -  the energy minister Fergus Ewing.
The official nomination form shows Ewing personally proposed his boss in September.
He praised the First Minister’s “ambition and leadership”, and listed a series of government figures on emissions and renewable energy.
Ewing also cited the SNP government’s Climate Challenge Fund as an example of community engagement on green issues.
It recently emerged that despite ministers claiming the £38m fund had cut carbon emissions by 700,000 tonnes, to date its completed projects have saved less than 20% of that figure.
Iain Gray, the Scottish Labour leader, said: “There is something a bit pathetic about a minister nominating his own boss for an international award. One of Fergus Ewing’s colleagues might like to nominate him for Private Eye’s Order of the Brown Nose award.”
Willie Rennie, leader of the Liberal Democrats, added: “Self-praise is no praise. The real challenge is for Alex Salmond to meet these targets, not spend time praising himself.”
The award has had two other winners - then Californian governor Arnold Schwarzenegger in 2009, and Quebec Premier Jean Charest in 2010.
Wayne Barbour, of the Sustainability and Climate Change Division of the Government of South Australia, said Salmond had been chosen from a field of four by an international panel of judges. “First Minister Salmond received the award for his local and international leadership, the impressive greenhouse gas reduction results that have already been achieved, and ambitious future targets, which are an outstanding example of the role that state and regional governments can play in tackling climate change.
“He was nominated by Scotland’s Minister for Energy, Enterprise and Tourism, Fergus Ewing. 
“Independent research undertaken during the assessment process also demonstrated that First Minister Salmond has also been an active leader internationally as well – supporting UN projects and European initiatives.”
One other previous winner was also nominated from within their adminstration, he added.
A Scottish Government spokeswoman said: “As the First Minister said at the time, this was a welcome recognition of Scotland’s world-leading climate change legislation, awarded by a panel of international judges. The Scottish Government recognises the urgency of addressing climate change and supports initiatives which can recognise and encourage governments across the world to respond effectively to the pressing challenges of climate change.”

Sunday, 13 November 2011

Talkin bout Ruth's generation

TORY leader Ruth Davidson cast herself as the face of "generational change" during the party's recent leadership race. But what kind of generation is currently coming through the Scots Tories?
Judging by some of the senior members of the Glasgow University Conservative Association (Hon Pres: R Davidson), it could be rather interesting. 

This fascinating photo shows Ruth with a number of GUCA faces celebrating her election as a Glasgow list MSP in May.
The blonde chap kneeling in front with arms aloft is Ross McFarlane, her election agent and GUCA president. She later sacked him as her Holyrood assistant after mobile phone footage emerged of him drunkenly burning an EU flag in a street at 2am while a companion made sectarian remarks about referee Hugh Dallas and the Pope.
Meanwhile, the poker-faced chap on the right of the photo with the square lapel badge is Stewart Green, the GUCA webmaster. He apologised after posting a number of dodgy Tweets about race, including one comparing an Asian festival to cats being strangled.
And finally (for now), the dark-haired guy with the blue shirt and blue tie immediately above McFarlane is Colin James Taylor, a former GUCA president, who now works for the Tory Press and Research Unit at Holyrood.
He features in a story in today's Sunday Herald after Tweeting lyrics from a song glorifying the UVF.

He has also apologised and been issued with a formal warning.
All in all, quite a crew.

Tom Gordon
Paul Hutcheon

NEW Scottish Tory leader Ruth Davidson has become embroiled in a sectarianism row after one of her party’s Holyrood staff posted song lyrics on Twitter glorifying Northern Irish terrorist group, the Ulster Volunteer Force.
Colin James Taylor, who is employed at the public’s expense in the Tory Press and Research Unit (PRU) at Holyrood, also referred to Celtic Football Club as “tims” on the popular blogging website.
A Rangers fan from Belfast, Taylor used the Twitter name “Ulsterexile” to post offensive remarks while studying at Glasgow University, where he was president of the student Conservative Association from 2009 to 2010.
Although most of his posts were about his studies, video games and football, he also said he had been “called a bigot before”.
On Saturday, February 19, this year he posted lines from a notorious song, Here Lies a Soldier, about a UVF member awaiting execution.
“Don’t bury me, in Erin’s Fenian vallies [sic]. Oh take me home, to Ulster let me rest ...” he wrote.
Although he did not tweet the rest of the verse, it runs: “And on my gravestone carve a simple message, Here lies a soldier of the UVF.”
On that weekend, the UVF was much in the news as Northern Ireland awaited publication of a police ombudsman report into one of the terrorist group’s worst atrocities, the bombing of McGurk’s Bar in Belfast in 1971, which killed 15 people and injured 16.
The report, published 48 hours after Taylor’s tweet, revealed that the Royal Ulster Constabulary wrongly blamed the IRA for the attack. The bombing was the worst during the Troubles until the Omagh bomb killed 29 people in 1998.
Taylor’s tweet also fell on the eve of the anniversary of the 1979 conviction of the notorious Shankhill Butchers, the ultra-Loyalist gang, many in the UVF, who tortured Catholic civilians and murdered at least 30 people.
On April 17, the day that Aberdeen and Celtic met in the Scottish Cup semi-final, Taylor posted on Twitter: “Hope the sheep absolutely hump the tims today.”
Tim is a term of anti-Catholic abuse. The anti-sectarian group Nil By Mouth said: “People have to realise that online bigotry is unacceptable.”
Taylor’s case has highlighted Davidson’s ties to Glasgow University Conservative Association.
According to GUCA’s website, she is the body’s honorary president. She attended its annual dinner on Friday.
 At the start of her campaign to lead the Scottish Tories, Davidson was forced to sack her Holyrood assistant Ross McFarlane after mobile phone footage emerged of him drunkenly setting fire to a European Union flag in a Glasgow street last year while a companion made sectarian remarks.
At the time, he was the GUCA president, as well as Davidson’s Holyrood election agent.
Last week, leading QC Paul McBride quit the Tories over the party’s hostility to an SNP bill aimed at tackling sectarianism in football.
After the Sunday Herald alerted the Tories about the matter, Taylor’s Twitter and Facebook accounts disappeared.
The Conservatives last night issued Taylor with a “formal warning”, but left him in post.
Labour MSP James Kelly said: “This is an insufficient response. In any other workplace a person who be out on their ear for this. There needs to be a proper investigation and disciplinary proceedings.”
A spokesman for the Scottish Tories said: “The comments which appeared on Colin Taylor’s Twitter account predate his employment with the Scottish Conservative MSP Group in the Scottish Parliament. His comments were immature and inappropriate.
“The allegations against Mr Taylor have been fully investigated and he has been issued with a formal warning.
“Mr Taylor deeply regrets the comments and he apologises for any offense he has caused.”

Monday, 7 November 2011

One man's savings are another man's cuts

It's never a good sign when governments withhold information and make themselves less transparent. 
But that's what SNP ministers have done in relation to their huge efficiency savings programme.
Until September, they published an annual report on how these were delivered, but no more.
They are now adopting a "light touch approach" - to themselves - and have quietly shelved the annual Efficiency Outturn statement.
They have so far failed to say why.
And all this just as efficiency savings are becoming increasingly important to the SNP budget working. 
You don't have to be a hard-boiled cynic to smell something fishy going on.

Here's a longer version of the story in today's Herald. 

Tom Gordon

FINANCE Secretary John Swinney has been accused of trying to hide cuts to public services by scrapping the publication of key official data.
As part of a “light touch approach”, the annual Efficiency Outturn statement, which since 2006 has provided a breakdown of how government departments make efficiency savings, is to be abandoned.
The change means departments and public bodies no longer have to show in detail how they are supposed to have saved hundreds of millions of pounds while maintaining frontline services.
Opposition MSPs called the decision “outrageous” and warned that without detailed plans damaging budget cuts could be passed off as efficiencies.
The change comes as SNP ministers are demanding ever greater efficiency savings to cope with a £1.3bn cut imposed this year by the Treasury.
All departments have been ordered to find 3% savings in 2011-12 instead of the 2% annual savings which have applied since 2004.
Efficiency savings are supposed to deliver the same services for less money, or improved services for the same money.
SNP ministers claim to have saved £839m in 2008-09, £1,470m in 2009-10, and £2,276m in 2010-11 without a deterioration in services, and with money reinvested in the frontline.
However the figures have never been independently verified, and there has long been a suspicion that efficiency savings are actually cuts in disguise, leading to fewer and poorer public services.
Audit Scotland, the public spending watchdog, says “significant weaknesses and inconsistencies” in the way efficiencies are recorded mean it is not possible to guarantee their accuracy.
Setting out the 2011-12 budget in parliament last year, Swinney said public bodies would be required to report publicly on their plans for efficiency savings, and made no mention of scrapping the efficiency outturn report.
The reference to plans was repeated just six weeks ago in the 2010-11 efficiency outturn report.
However the government now says there won’t be any detailed plans.
“The Scottish Government is adopting a light touch approach,” its website states.
“We will not require each portfolio or each public body to submit separate efficiency plans and we will not undertake quarterly assessments or publish an Outturn Report for 2011-12.”
Public bodies will still put a figure on savings, but using a “simplified definition of efficiency” and “a standard template” to record them.
A report going to Holyrood’s finance committee today, which was prepared by parliament officials, says: “The reason for the Scottish Government’s decision not to publish an Efficiency Outturn report has not been given.”
John McLaren, economist at the Centre for Public Policy for Regions at Glasgow University, said: “It’s a bizarre thing to do, especially when [ministers] are being asked by other political parties to get Audit Scotland to audit these efficiency savings. It’s going in the wrong way.”
MSP Richard Baker, Labour’s finance spokesman, said: “Instead of more transparency we are getting the exact opposite. The government was challenged by the auditor general over whether efficiencies  were genuine or cuts. This opens them up to the accusation they are trying to cover up cuts.”
Gavin Brown, for the Tories, added: “The government should be going in the opposite direction and getting audit Scotland to verify the figures, particularly as efficiency savings are more important now than a few years ago.
A Scottish Government spokesman refused to say when or why the decision to end the Efficiency Outturn report was made.
He said: “Mr Swinney announced [in 2010] we had changed emphasis from a process-focused, centrally-managed programme to one which allows public bodies themselves to demonstrate how they have used efficiencies to provide quality services and improve outcomes.”

Sunday, 16 October 2011

Two standards better than one?

The gay marriage debate gets a lot of coverage in today's papers.
Here's a longer version of my tale from the Sunday Herald about what looks like double-standards on the part of Scottish LibDem leader Willie Rennie.


Tom Gordon
Scottish Political Editor

LIBERAL Democrat leader Willie Rennie, who has vowed to stand up to the Catholic Church in defence of gay marriage, is receiving personal support from an evangelical Christian group which is equally opposed to the idea, it has emerged.

Rennie’s Holyrood office is being assisted by the charity CARE, despite it describing the Scottish Government’s proposals for gay marriage as “deeply flawed and socially corrosive”.

The help currently includes free staff time from an intern working in Rennie’s office as part of the CARE “leadership programme”, which places Christians in “the world of policy and advocacy”.
Rennie, elected an MSP for Mid-Scotland and Fife in May on a manifesto pledge to “extend legal marriage to gay couples”, was applauded at his party’s conference last week when he attacked the Catholic Church for trying to impose its hostile views on gay marriage “on everyone else”.
It followed Philip Tartaglia, Bishop of Paisley, warning the SNP government was in danger of losing touch with Catholics - and by implication their votes - because it backs same sex marriage.
“To threaten to invoke some sort of block vote is an affront to liberal democracy and one that we must challenge,” Rennie told LibDem activists.
“Challenging an organisation with 800,000 followers may seem difficult but we are prepared to be awkward and stand up for what we believe to be right.”
Rennie’s remarks were some of the most forceful yet in the political row over gay marriage, which has been raging since SNP ministers launched a public consultation on the issue last month. 
This suggested same sex couples, who at present can only formalise a union in a secular civil partnership, should also be able to get married, either in church or a registry office.
The government said it “tends to the view that gay marriage should be introduced” for reasons of equality and support for stable relationships.
Alex Salmond, the first minister, has also said he is personally in favour of gay marriage.
However ministers stress no faith would forced to conduct a same sex service against its wishes.
The same day the consultation emerged, CARE for Scotland issued a joint press release with the Evangelical Alliance condemning the proposal.
“The Scottish Government is making a grave mistake by seeking to redefine marriage,” said Gordon Macdonald, CARE for Scotland’s spokesman.
He said marriage was a relationship between a man and a woman, not two people of the same sex, and provided the best context for raising children and contributed to social cohesion - arguments also advanced by the Catholic Church.
Despite CARE’s unambiguous opposition to gay marriage, Rennie’s spokeswoman claimed there was no inconsistency in him accepting its help.
“This is a positive programme. It reflects that many members of evangelical churches are also members and supporters of the Liberal Democrats. “People on the programme volunteer to help the Liberal Democrats across a wide range of policy areas. They do not seek to impose any personal views. Previous participants have gone on to be Liberal Democrat councillors.”
CARE (Christian Action Research and Education) has run its leadership programme since 1993. 
Billed as an “unrivalled experience in the world of policy and an opportunity to see first-hand how key arenas of influence shape our culture”, it includes voluntary placements in politics, the media or third sector over three 13-week terms.
Although a way to foster useful contacts, CARE’s website states “programme members are at no time asked to lobby on behalf of CARE.”
It has also placed young Christians with LibDem and Tory MPs, and the Labour MSP Dave Stewart.

Footnote: After the Sunday Herald approached Rennie's office, the intern in question altered his profile on Twitter to remove a previous reference to his CARE placement. Presumably because it wasn't embarrassing or contradictory in the least.

Cool, calm, collected

As Paul Hutcheon and I report in today's Sunday Herald, the Scottish Conservative leadership contest has descended into acrimony and chaos, with three of the four candidates calling for an independent inquiry into alleged 'party bias' in favour of Ruth Davidson.

As an aside, here's the response we received from Davidson's camp when we asked for reaction to the inquiry.


Sent: 15 October 2011 16:24
To: Paul Hutcheon
Subject: statement from John Lamont


In response to your queries, here is the statement from John Lamont:

John Lamont MSP, campaign manager for Ruth Davidson, said: ‘The latest attempt to try to smear Ruth Davidson and her campaign with unsubstantiated, false and potentially defamatory accusations is both astonishing and deeply depressing.

No one should be in any doubt that this is a deliberate, vicious and, frankly, desperate attempt to discredit Ruth in the eyes of our members and the general public.

Further, it underlines the hugely disappointing fact that some people are prepared to embarrass the party in a shocking display of naked self-interest.

The accusations that there has been institutional bias by officials within the party towards Ruth and her campaign are utterly false. Those now pressing for an investigation have produced no evidence to support their accusations.

However, not content to let the matter rest, certain journalists have been briefed about private, internal party business in a further, desperate attempt to smear Ruth and her campaign team. 

Certain elements of the media, for their part, appear to be adopting the old tabloid technique of repeating a canard often enough that it eventually takes on the impression of truth.

Despite the growing number and frequency of personal attacks on Ruth, she has been determined not to be brought down to this level and has sought throughout to fight this election on the vitally important issues that currently face the party and our members.

She firmly believes that she is the right person to lead our party through the undoubtedly challenging times ahead as a new face and a new voice that can ensure the generational change we must embrace.

For the sake of the party, we would appeal to all to withdraw these unsubstantiated accusations, to desist from any further attempts to smear Ruth and to get back to engaging with our members on the issues that really matter to them.

Given the clearly unfair and vexatious nature of the campaign being mounted against Ruth by the Sunday Herald and its sister paper The Herald – a campaign driven and fuelled by political opponents – we have decided to bring this matter to the attention of the Press Complaints Commission since we are no longer prepared to put up with this unfair, unjustified and unnecessary distraction.’

Tuesday, 4 October 2011

Labour pains worsen

The saga over Labour's candidate selection for Glasgow City Council takes a new twist today with the intervention of outspoken MP Ian Davidson.
Here's a slightly longer version of the story in The Herald.

Tom Gordon

A SENIOR Labour MP has condemned his party’s clear-out of ‘dead wood’ councillors in Glasgow as a rigged purge which could boost the SNP.
Ian Davidson, the chair of the Scottish Affairs Select Committee at Westminster, said he was “appalled” at the way hard-working councillors had been treated in the city.
He suggested some had been rejected because of internal machinations, rather than merit, saying “other agendas” were at work, with “selective leaking” used to undermine people.
Almost half of Labour’s 47 councillors in Glasgow face deselection after a ruthless vetting process last month designed to weed out poor performers and introduce new talent to the City Chambers.
The party insists the changes are needed to improve the candidates on offer to voters in next May’s elections, when Labour could lose control of Glasgow to the SNP.
However, many of the deselected claim the vetting was unfair, legally unsound and biased.
All those who failed vetting will have appeals heard by senior party members next weekend.
Mr Davidson, MP for Glasgow South West, will appear in support at the appeals of two local councillors, Tommy Morrison and Stephen Dornan.
He told the Herald: “I’m appalled at what has happened with the vetting of sitting councillors. “Labour faces a very difficult election in Glasgow in May given that the SNP was well ahead in the Scottish Government elections, and I don’t believe that the answer should have been to form a circular firing squad.
“I don’t believe that Labour can purge its way into power, and I think there’s obviously other agendas operating when good, hard-working and conscientious local councillors are being dumped from the panel [of would-be candidates].
“There should not be top-down, centrally imposed control in this way, with favourites being allowed through and others being rejected.”

Mr Davidson is considering whether to stand for the deputy leadership of the party in Scotland.
At the moment, the frontrunner is Anas Sarwar, although MSPs Lewis Macdonald and Elaine Murray have also put their hats in the ring.
“I’m told that the deputy leadership is all carved up, but I see that as more of a challenge than anything else,” he said.
“It is simply bad practice to have an important election like this carved up before any ordinary members or trade union members have an opportunity to express an opinion.”
Cllr Graeme Hendry, the SNP whip on the council, said Mr Davidson’s comments showed “a clear breakdown of trust” within Glasgow Labour.
“The chaos reflects the lack of local leadership. “Labour say their recent review will bring the party together, well good luck with that.”
Anas Sarwar said: “The selection process needs to take its course. Whatever happens we need to have a strong group of candidates.”
Asked if the deputy Labour leadership had been “carved up”, he added: “Absolutely not.”
A Scottish Labour spokesman said: “Being a labour councillor is not a job for life, and party members in Glasgow - who select the candidates to field - want change. Those people who do not get selected have the right of appeal but no-one should underestimate our determination to field the best possible set of candidates.”


Saturday, 1 October 2011

Alas Ruth and Jones

There's yet more trouble for Tory establishment candidate Ruth Davidson today.

The rival camps in the leadership contest are angry that party spindoctor Ramsay Jones may have been giving her a hand in defiance of the chairman's orders. 

Here's an extended version of the story in the Sunday Herald.

Paul Hutcheon and Tom Gordon

THE Conservatives’ top spin doctor in Scotland is under intense pressure over claims he has been advising a candidate in the party’s leadership election.
Ramsay Jones, who as head of media has to be neutral in the contest, recently attended a meeting at Ruth Davidson’s home with her campaign strategists.
He appeared at the gathering after the party’s chairman instructed staff not to take sides.
The revelation will confirm suspicions among the other candidates that 32-year-old Davidson, the least experienced of the four contenders, is secretly being aided by the party establishment.
It will also raise questions about Davidson’s judgment in allowing a supposedly neutral member of staff to participate in her campaign.
Early last month, the campaign team of another candidate, Murdo Fraser, raised concerns with party chairman Andrew Fulton about whether Jones was helping Davidson.
Fulton told Fraser’s campaign that the matter would be looked into.
The chairman then informed staff they had to remain “strictly neutral” during the contest.
Fulton also gave Jones the same message face-to-face.
It is further understood that another candidate, Jackson Carlaw, spoke to Jones directly about his concerns.
However, despite Fulton’s order, Jones attended a meeting at Davidson’s home in Glasgow's west end on Sunday September 18.
Jones lives in Dunbar, which would make his Glasgow visit a 150 mile round trip.
The session focused on various strands of the Davidson campaign.
Asked if he attended the September 18 meeting, Jones said: “I’m not going to comment.”

The Jones row is the latest blow to Davidson’s campaign.
Last month, she was forced to sack a parliamentary assistant after mobile footage emerged of him setting fire to an EU flag as a friend made sectarian taunts in a Glasgow street in November 2010.
The Herald also revealed Davidson was under investigation by the UK Information Commissioner’s Office after her team sent unsolicited emails to members’ private accounts.
Davidson was facing more questions last weekend for raising donations to fund campaign activity she was unable to guarantee, including canvassing almost 2000 members by phone for £365.
A source close to Davidson said she and Jones had been friends for ten years.
Carlaw said yesterday: “In all my 30 years in the party, there has never been any misunderstanding amongst the professional staff I’ve encountered that for internal party matters there must be a strict adherence to neutrality. Any divergence from this only undermines confidence.”
Liz Smith, Fraser’s campaign manager, said: “This is an important contest and there is, quite rightly, an expectation amongst the candidates, their campaign teams and the membership that the rules set out by the Returning Officer are adhered to and that party employees remain neutral.”
Jones, 51, has worked for the party since 2000 and is one of Holyrood’s most tenacious political survivors.
He is the Scottish Tory equivalent of former spin doctor like Alastair Campbell.
The former financial adviser worked for David McLetchie before his leadership of the Scottish Tories at Holyrood ended in an expenses scandal in 2005.
Since then, he has worked for Annabel Goldie and been one of her closest confidantes.
Davidson last night said there had been no “campaign team” meeting on September 18.
However, her team did not deny there had been a meeting which focused on campaign issues.
Asked if Jones had attended any meeting at her house on that date, a spokesman for Davidson said: “She’s not going to expand on that one.”
Asked if Davidson was denying that a meeting took place to discuss campaign issues, the spokesman added: “I’m just telling you there was no campaign team meeting.”