Friday, 24 June 2011

Scotland Office Minister faces court date over election expenses

An extended version of the short in today's Herald:

Tom Gordon

SCOTLAND’S only Conservative MP is facing a court appearance to explain an overspend in his general election expenses, after a judge yesterday [Thursday] said he wanted to hear oral evidence on the matter.

David Mundell, a Scotland Office minister, could now take the witness stand in the autumn.

Mark McInnes, Director of the Scottish Conservatives, and Joe Dawson, Mr Mundell’s election agent, may also give evidence.

Last year, the Sunday Herald revealed Mundell exceded the spending limit on the last leg of his election campaign by almost £500, a potential criminal offence which could have led to a £5000 fine and expulsion from Parliament.

Mundell, 49, Scotland’s sole Tory MP since 2005, spent more than £40,000 defending his 1,738-vote majority in Dumfriesshire, Clydesdale and Tweeddale last year.

He and Dawson later filed elections returns stating they spent £11,599 on the last leg of the campaign, against a legal maximum of £11,814.

However an invoice for a £681 "Re-elect Mundell" advert in a local newspaper was wrongly accounted for, and Mundell had in fact overspent by £466.

The MP later admitted he signed off the returns as "complete and accurate" without checking the paperwork himself, saying he had entrusted the job to Dawson and staff at Conservative HQ.

Dumfries & Galloway police began an investigation and interviewed Mundell last September.

Mundell and Mr Dawson also petitioned the Court of Session under the Representation of the People Act to be granted relief from any legal sanctions of the spending breach, which they said was due to "accidental miscalculation".

The Crown Office subsequently announced there would be no criminal prosecution, but the pair’s civil case continued.

At a hearing at the Court of Session yesterday, Advocate Leonard Wallace, for the petitioners, said it was "odd" the Crown had "pre-empted the decision" of the civil court by announcing no prosecution, but the two men wished to carry on nonetheless.

He said filing the inaccurate returns amounted to an "illegal practice" under the RPA.

"Both petitioners are of the view that this was an innocent mistake, it was an inadvertence. "Really what they’re seeking is an order to that effect - it puts and end to the matter."

Mr Wallace asked the court to grant the order on the basis of documentary evidence, including signed statements - though not affidavits - from Mundell, Dawson and McInnes.

However Temporary Judge John Beckett QC said the signed statements were not enough.

"Given the responsibility of the court in a case of this kind... I do not feel able to grant the relief sought without hearing parole [oral] evidence," he said, adding it was for the men to choose the witnesses, but it would be "helpful" to hear the petitioners and McInnes.

He stressed that should not be taken to imply he thought people had acted in "bad faith".

Earlier, South of Scotland Labour MSP Claudia Beamish, Mr Mundell’s main opponent in the general election, withdrew her objection to the MP’s defence, after previously accusing him of failing to take all reasonable steps to check his returns.

At the start of proceedings, Judge Beckett, a former Solicitor General in a Labour-LibDem Scottish Government and former Labour Party member, said he had considered whether to recuse himself because of the political nature of the case.

However he had decided that was not necessary, and Mr Wallace raised no objection.

No date was fixed for the next hearing, but one is not expected until September or October.

Saturday, 18 June 2011

From socialist hero... to zero

From the Herald Arts Magazine 18 June 2011

Sunday Herald Investigations Editor Paul Hutcheon takes a personal look at a case he covered in depth as he reviews a new book on the downfall of Tommy Sheridan

It could have been so different. At a Scottish Socialist Party executive meeting in November 2004, when Tommy Sheridan should have apologised for attending the Cupids sex club and tendered his resignation as convener, Scotland’s most prominent socialist chose a different path.

Instead of humility, he opted for carnage. Rather than agree to an approach that could have led to an eventual comeback, he embarked on a strategy that led to his incarceration for perjury. His decision to sue the News Of The World over allegations he knew were true was the biggest mistake of his life.

No-one is better qualified than Alan McCombes to write the definitive account of Sheridan’s political demise. While Sheridan was the SSP’s charismatic mouthpiece, McCombes was the fledgling party’s key strategist and brain. Close friends, the pair were instrumental in building one of the most successful European socialist parties of the last 25 years.

Just as crucially, McCombes also had a ringside seat during the SSP’s implosion: he confronted Sheridan about his disastrous plan to sue the News Of The World; he was jailed for defying a court’s instruction to hand over the minutes of the meeting at which Sheridan confessed to being a swinger; and he gave devastating evidence at both the defamation and perjury trials.

Downfall is also brilliantly written. Most tomes on Scottish politics are barely worth reading, but McCombes’s offering deserves to be read far beyond Scotland. Although written by a modest man, the book has a savage turn of phrase and a wonderful repertoire of metaphors.

It contains no dramatic new revelations, but it does not need to. A story that involves sex, lies, two court cases, destroyed reputations, a political civil war and eventual imprisonment is a narrative that needs no commercial embellishment. If the author had submitted the material as a work of fiction, the publisher would have rejected it on the grounds of it being too fanciful. McCombes simply stitches together the facts to reveal the full horror of Sheridan’s actions over the past six years.

The book’s key strength is the way it unpicks the manufactured complexity of the Sheridan saga. The biggest lie McCombes exposes is that the post-2004 events, triggered by Sheridan’s defamation action against the Murdoch red top, were all about “politics”.

Not so. The truth, says McCombes,  is that he, Sheridan, and the rest of the SSP members who testified in the 2006 defamation action had little or no political disagreements. As the author argues, Sheridan’s political opponents prior to November 2004 were the SSP factions that opportunistically supported him throughout his kamikaze court adventures. The “politics” explanation was an invented distraction.

The key factor of the last six years, McCombes points out, was Sheridan’s deranged psychology. It was about one man trying to keep a lid on the secret sexual double life he was hiding from his wife, mother and “adoring” public. The issue at stake, McCombes argues, was “a deeper, more fundamental morality”.

McCombes also demolishes the idea that you are either on the side of Sheridan or the News Of The World. The real choice, the writer makes clear, was between telling the truth in court or committing perjury. Any other suggestion played up to the ridiculous notion that defending Tommy was part of some sort of class struggle.

Once McCombes removes the reader’s blinkers, the remainder of his compelling, fact-based argument is clear: Sheridan is a man who will say anything, or do anything, to protect the false reputation he has built.

The bulk of this superb book confirms the Sheridan roll-call of shame. He pursued a defamation action to contest allegations he knew were true; he tried to get colleagues to lie for him, and trashed their reputations when they refused; he circulated calls to destroy evidence on his parliamentary email account; and shadowy figures linked to him tried to intimidate witnesses. He was, in one of McCombes’s memorable phrases, “Tommy the Terminator”.

Those closest to him were little more than human shields. In court, he used his mother’s cancer, his wife’s late pregnancy and his daughter’s vulnerability as props with which to manipulate two sets of jurors.

McCombes is particularly strong in challenging Sheridan’s insistence that he had never stepped inside Cupids. For this to be true, says McCombes, then the six people who placed him in the club, as well as the two dozen individuals who said on oath that he had confessed to attending the club, were all lying. That’s some conspiracy.

Sheridan’s parallel descent from respected MSP to what McCombes describes as “pathetic court jester” is also expertly chronicled. Where once Sheridan played a heroic role in protesting against the poll tax, losing his Holyrood seat in 2007 propelled him into the world of telling sexist jokes at the Edinburgh Fringe, and degrading himself on Celebrity Big Brother. It was on this Channel 4 goon-fest that McCombes quotes Sheridan saying: “Golf is a game for pussies. Eighteen holes and not a hair on any of them.”

On a personal level, Downfall has not altered my own unshakeable conclusions about the 2004-10 disaster: that while McCombes is a man of unimpeachable integrity, Sheridan is the most despicable politician I have ever encountered.

His biggest sin was the way he betrayed the people he supposedly entered politics to help by destroying his own political party. At a time when the global banking system was close to collapse, Sheridan instead persisted in pursuing a fantasy that led to a prison cell. In this regard, at least Downfall has a happy ending.

Downfall: The Tommy Sheridan Story by Alan mcCombes,
Birlinn, £9.99.

Wednesday, 15 June 2011

Geez it!

TRICIA Marwick, the Scottish Parliament's Presiding Officer, is trying to take the lead on / wrest control of the reforms proposed by Bruce Crawford, the Secretary for Parliamentary Business.

On Saturday, Crawford opened up a debate on possible changes to Holyrood's sitting times, workload, responsiveness and committee investigations.

Calling for cross-party ideas, he said: "I believe that there are options on how to take these and other ideas forward. The Standards, Procedures and Public Appointments Committee could conduct a review or it may be useful to take the review outwith Parliament but I am clear that any review should seek the views and contributions of people across Scotland."

But it looks like Marwick has other ideas.

In a statement issued this afternoon, she said it should be Holyrood's committee conveners' group (which she chairs) driving the reforms, adding: "I am firmly of the view that the process of reform must be Parliament-led".

In other words, everyone else hands off.

Here's her statement:

Please find below the text of the Presiding Officer’s letter issued this afternoon to All Members of the Conveners’ Group at Holyrood.

The letter sets out ways in which the PO believes the committees can be reformed for the benefit of Parliament, if the Conveners’ Group takes the opportunity to drive reform.

The PO also states that she believes the time is right to reflect on how we organise chamber time and will be speaking with Party Leaders and Business Managers to discuss taking forward this agenda.  

The PO concludes by saying she believes the process of reform must be Parliament-led.

Full text is below:



To: All Members of Conveners Group

15 June 2011

Dear Colleagues,

The Conveners Group will meet next week for the first time in Session 4.  I am writing to you in advance of that meeting to let you know that I intend to chair the Group for the foreseeable future.

When I asked for your support in being elected as Presiding Officer, I said I believed the time was right for a fresh look at how our committees can operate to best effect and at how we organise our chamber time.  I know too that suggestions about how the Parliament can reform have come from various quarters over the last few months and it is healthy to have such public debate.  That said, it is now time to start putting words into action where we can and I regard CG as playing a vital role in influencing parliamentary-led change to ensure that committees are at their most effective.

The Group has the opportunity to take the lead in driving through reform that would re-balance committee business to the benefit of the Parliament and I will invite CG at its first meeting to consider what we can do together to progress matters.  There are several issues that, if we achieve consensus, can be moved on apace. 

I believe these include:

·         increasing committees’ agility to hold sharper focused inquiries that deal with topical issues of the day;
·         greater use of Ministerial evidence sessions – for instance inviting Ministers to inform committees of their priorities and to provide oral updates;
·         improved presentation of committee reports to make them more accessible and thus make a greater impact in scrutinising policy; and
·         initiating legislation.

Last month, I asked parliamentary officials to work up papers that would provide more detail on these issues and the first in a possible series of such papers will be presented to the Group next week for us to consider.

Like many Members across the political spectrum, I believe the time is right to also reflect on how we organise chamber time and I will be speaking to Party Leaders and Business Managers over the coming weeks to discuss how this agenda can best be taken forward.  You will be aware that I have already initiated changes to First Minister’s Questions which, while still giving the Party Leaders the opportunity to hold the First Minister to account, have also provided more time for backbenchers to ask questions.  In addition, and with the support of Business Managers, I have ensured speeches of 6 minutes with time added on for interventions becoming the norm and these changes have been welcomed across the chamber.  I am aware that more needs to be done with respect to how we use the time in the chamber but any additional measures could involve changes to Standing Orders and will therefore need to be carefully considered. 

Based on my experience of the first 12 years of devolution - as a backbencher, a Committee Convener, a member of the Bureau and the Corporate Body - I am firmly of the view that the process of reform must be Parliament-led.  I invite all Conveners to start the ball rolling at our first meeting and I very much look forward to working with you all.  

I am copying this letter to Party Leaders and Business Managers.

Yours sincerely