Thursday, 3 February 2011

Success has many fathers... including Ron Culley

THE former head of Scotland’s biggest transport quango has claimed credit for helping introduce the smoking ban, saying he pushed Jack McConnell towards Holyrood's landmark legislation.
Ron Culley, who retired on health grounds as chief executive of Strathclyde Passenger Transport (SPT) last spring amid an expenses scandal, makes the eye-catching boast in a new autobiography, I Belong to Glasgow.
In it, Culley says that in 2004 he harangued Labour’s Andy Kerr about the example Ireland had set by banning smoking in public places, and told him Scotland should copy it.
When Kerr fobbed off a query about a Scottish ban at a conference, Culley says he publicly rounded on him and told him of the positive impact he had seen for himself in Dublin.
“Jesus, Andy! How about some leadership here?” Culley says he told the then Finance Minister.
“Scotland has perhaps the most serious health indicators in Western Europe... The Irish take a pretty bold stance on the matter.”
Culley says he followed up his outburst in private, stressing “the medical, social and indeed the political advantages of emulating the irish. A couple of days later, Andy had spoken to the First Minister who subsequently announced that he intended visiting Dublin on a ‘fact-finding’ trip in May and surprised journalists on his return that he intended banishing smoky pubs to the history books.
“I like to think my intervention at least accelerated a popular and efficacious improvement in the health of my fellow Scots,” he writes modestly.
However Culley, 60, is less keen on taking responsibility for the expenses scandal which brought SPT to its knees in early 2010.
Blaming a “perfect storm” created by the furore over MPs’ expenses, he says a cynical and sensationalist media magnified and distorted the £100,000 he and other managers at SPT had spent on foreign trips over three years, including visits to America, India, and China.
“I was entirely confident [watchdogs Audit Scotland] would have no grounds to criticise me as all of the trips abroad which had caused so much controversy had been predicated upon a business need, reflecting the ambitious goals we sought to achieve for the travelling public of the West of Scotland,” he writes.
Late last year the Accounts Commission delivered a damning verdict on “serious deficiencies” at SPT in respect of expenses during Culley’s tenure.
“There appears to have been a culture and behaviour by some of SPT’s most senior elected members and officers at the time that fell well short of what is expected of those holding public office and overseeing public funds,” said Commission chair John Baillie.
One finding was that a trip to Manchester in 2008, ostensibly to talk about transport, was probably timed to coincide with Rangers playing Zenit St Petersburgh in the UEFA Cup final.
An earlier report had found credit card receipts were shredded and £32,000 of spending on SPT’s corporate credit card was unaccounted for.
Culley also sticks up in the book for Steven Purcell, the former Labour leader of Glasgow City Council, who quit in the spring of 2010 after admitting to taking cocaine and a drink problem. 
Culley says he would “forgive an enormously talented politician who might yet defy his critics and return to serve at some point in the future once he has tholed his assize”.
Senior Labour sources privately scoffed at Culley's claim to have inspired the smoking ban.
A party spokesman also queried Culley’s recollection of the conference with Kerr.
“The policy was driven by the First Minister and no one else,” he said.

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