Monday, 24 March 2014

Bedroom Farce

Here's a new twist to the Holyrood expenses saga - MSPs billing taxpayers for empty beds.
It turns out MSPs can claim expenses for "non arrival" charges if they fail to use a hotel room.

The parliament is being very tight-lipped about the issue, refusing to go beyond saying there have been six instances in the current financial year, 2013-14.
Of these, four are logged on the public expenses database, and two are pending.
Officials won't say how many cases there were in 2012-13.

However I've managed to find four instances in 2012-13 and three in 2013-14 so far.
The biggest claimer was SNP MSP Joan McAlpine, with three counts that I know of.
Four other MSPs have claimed single instances, from what I can tell.
Labour say Ms McAlpine should "do the right thing" and repay the money.

Here's the full story:

Tom Gordon
AN MSP at the centre of an expenses row billed taxpayers hundreds of pounds for hotel rooms she never stayed in, it has emerged.
Joan McAlpine, an SNP list MSP for the South of Scotland and a parliamentary aide to the First Minister, claimed almost £300 for rooms she didn’t use in 2012 and 2013.
The expenses are recorded as “non-arrival charge” and “no show” in official files.
Ms McAlpine refused to explain the empty rooms, however the SNP attributed them to personal reasons.
The claims were within Holyrood's rules, but Labour said Ms McAlpine should “do the right thing” and repay the money.

There have been at least nine instances of MSPs reclaiming such charges in 2012-13 and 2013-14, however the parliament refuses to say how many exactly, or name the MSPs involved.

Joan McAlpine
Ms McAlpine, 52, a former journalist elected in 2011, is already facing to calls to resign as Alex Salmond’s aide after using her expenses to pay £1750 to the wife of a former lover.
Ms McAlpine claimed the money in early 2012 for hiring photographer Jane McLachlan.
Before she became an MSP, McAlpine had an affair with the woman’s husband, Mark McLachlan.
Ms McAlpine repaid the £1750 on 18 October 2012.
According to Mrs McLachlan, this was only five days after she discovered the affair and threatened to expose it.
Mrs McLachlan told a newspaper the 10 days of photography work - which was paid in advance - was never completed and accused the MSP of trying to “cover her tracks”.
Ms McAlpine has asked Holyrood’s Presiding Officer to consider whether the £1750 claim breached any rules and a report is being prepared for the Scottish Parliamentary Corporate Body.
The new controversy concerns three missed nights at Edinburgh hotels.
In 2012, Ms McAlpine claimed £101 for a “non arrival charge” for 12 November and a further £101.50 for 10 December.
She also claimed £95 for a hotel “no show” on 25 August last year.
The non-arrival charges recorded in the parliament's database
According to Holyrood records, she incurred no such charges while staying outside Edinburgh.

Although the claims amounted to only £297.50 from a total Edinburgh hotel bill of more than £15,000 since her election, Labour said Ms McAlpine should still repay it.
A spokesman said: “Joan McAlpine needs to explain why she thinks taxpayers should pay for hotel rooms she booked at their expense but did not turn up to.
She should do the right thing and pay the money back.”
An SNP spokesman said: “Illness and last minute family reasons meant Joan had to return home on these occasions at short notice. This only happened on a very small number of occasions, and was done in the full knowledge of the parliament’s allowances office who permitted the payment.”
Ms McAlpine did not respond to a request for comment.
However, speaking on her behalf, lawyer Aamer Anwar said: “It would be impossible for Joan McAlpine or any other MSP to predict what might happen during the course of a working day.
There has been no breach of rules. Last minute cancellations can happen from time to time.”
Four other MSPs are also known to have claimed for non-arrival charges.
In 2012-13, Deputy First Minister Nicola Sturgeon claimed £95 for 30 October 2012 and Local Government Minister Derek Mackay claimed £113 for 28 March 2013.
In 2013-14, Community Safety Minister Roseanna Cunningham claimed £95 for 21 May 2013, and Labour list MSP for Glasgow Anne McTaggart claimed £113 in October 2013.
All four claims related to Edinburgh accommodation.
However the parliament's refusal to disclose further details - without recourse to FoI - means this is an incomplete picture.
Non arrival charges claimed by other MSPs
A Scottish Parliament spokeswoman said it was legitimate for MSPs to claim hotel costs in relation to their parliamentary duties.
She said: “Situations may arise at very short notice where it is not possible for the Member to stay overnight in Edinburgh and as a result a cancellation or non-show fee may be charged.”

Tuesday, 18 March 2014

Money talks

Almost a year since they first published their donation information, Yes Scotland is about to disclose its second set of figures, probably next week.

Back in the old days, Yes Scotland wanted to publish its donations simultaneously with Better Together. Doing it at the same time would be “ideal”, said Yes Scotland chief executive Blair Jenkins. One hundred and eighty degrees later, he now says Yes Scotland won’t be “stampeded” by the Unionists.

Better Together has so far published two lots of donor names and numbers, the most recent being in December. But we’re still waiting on Yes Scotland.

What with Yes Scotland shedding all five of its top directors recently, you could be forgiven for wondering if they were having money troubles.

Earlier this month, I touched on the subject in a Sunday Herald interview with Jenkins. He wasn’t overjoyed. In the interests of openness and transparency, and to mark their new donor info, I thought it might be interesting to post our exchange in full.
Yes Scotland chief executive Blair Jenkins
I broached the subject by reading him a quote in which he said it was “vital to be open and transparent, particularly about funding”.

Sunday Herald: What happened to that commitment to transparency on funding?
Blair Jenkins: It’s still there.

SH: In a technical sense. You haven’t demonstrated it in a practical sense.
BJ: Well, we’ve said we’ll publish details of donations received and that’s our intention.

SH: When?
BJ: Em, we’ve said we’ll publish in due course.

SH: You made a commitment to transparency and as far as I can see you’ve just ratted on it.
BJ: No, that’s not true at all. We published information on donations received at the end of March last year.

SH: Well you published in April last year only after Better Together published their figures first. Better Together had their second tranche of figures out some time ago, but you have yet to publish.
BJ: You know that we approached Better Together in January last year and suggested that we should publish simultaneously, and we said we thought that was the best way to proceed. I didn’t actually get a reply to that.

SH (reading from Yes Scotland press release at the time): According to this you said - this is your letter to Alistair Darling - "We have always taken the view that is important to be open and transparent about any donations received and we intend to publish information on our funding sources in line with this policy... ideally on the same timetable."
BJ: Yep.

SH: So if a simultaneous timetable was ideal then, why have you chosen a divergent timetable now?
BJ: Well, having not got a reply from them to the suggestion that we publish simultaneously, we then took the view that, and we weren’t sure at that stage that they were going to publish at all...

SH: But now you know they’ve published
BJ: Yeah. When they published in the spring of last year we very quickly published our information there after.

SH: True
BJ: But having rejected our suggestion of an agreed process and an agreed framework for disclosing donations, we’re not obliged to now-

SH: Yes, but they hadn’t taken you up on the offer last spring and you went and published immediately afterwards. That was still the position at the end of last year, and when they published you did nothing.
BJ: But it made sense to us, it was the end of the financial year. It was a sensible time to publish. I think it’s a sensible time this year as well.

SH: You’re not as transparent as they are, though, are you? You’re the ones that were crowing about transparency, and yet you have not demonstrated it in practice.
BJ: People will know exactly where Yes Scotland’s funding comes from well ahead of the referendum and that is transparency. What more can you do than declare all donations received?

SH: Well declare more frequently than they’ve done. Better Together say they will also make one of these voluntary disclosures on the eve of the regulated period, so they will have three voluntary declarations before the regulated period begins. You will have, as far as I can tell, two at most.
BJ: We haven’t said that.

SH: So you will have a third?
BJ: We haven’t said that. We’ve still to agree with the board what we do. But we will be disclosing all donations received.

SH: But you can’t give us a date on this, or why you’re foot-dragging compared to Better Together on this?
BJ: It’s not foot-dragging. There’s no reason why we should adjust our plans because Better Together have [published] in December. Why should we adjust our plans?

SH: Because you have an oft-stated commitment to transparency
BJ: Which we’ll satisfy. But that doesn’t mean we have to be on their timetable. Why would we do that?

SH: So transparent, but not as transparent as Better Together?
BJ: Transparent, but not stampeded by Better Together. Not having to adhere to their timetable.

SH: Is it because you’ve received money from Brian Souter?
BJ: I’m not talking about donations. We’ll publish information.

SH: In line with your love of transparency, can you say whether you’ve received money from Brian Souter?
BJ: The information will be published soon. I’m not saying any more than that.

SH: In line with your commitment to transparency, can you-
BJ: At that point everyone who’s given donations above the threshold will be named at the point we publish donations received.

SH: You won’t deny taking money from Souter?
BJ: I’m not talking about individuals at all, Tom.


Kindergarten Logic Part 3

I've blogged recently on the childcare proposals at the heart of the SNP's independence White Paper.

Earlier this year, I drew attention to a disclaimer buried in a Scottish Government companion paper analysing increased female participation in the workforce.

At first glance, the paper seems to suggest that by raising free nursery provision from 600 to 1140 hours a year, there would be a 6% rise in women in work, raising £700m more in taxes - the same cost as the policy.

In fact, the figures are just illustrative. The "analysis" was of a theoretical 6% increase in the workforce. There was no proof that the SNP's specific childcare plans would produce that 6% rise in the first place.

Then, last week, I published a response to a freedom of information request showing the government hadn't done any modelling on the impact of the childcare policy.

They'd worked out the impact of a bigger workforce "rather than directly modelling the impact of improved childcare itself".
Now, it turns out the childcare policy is still "in development".

I'd asked the government under FoI for the full results of that analysis on female workforce participation.

The partial results didn't say how many years it would take for the £700m to start rolling in. One parliament? Ten parliaments? There was no indication.

The government has refused to release the full analysis. No surprise there. But what is interesting are the grounds for refusal - that the policy remains unfinished.

Key quote:  

"Disclosing this advice and evidence while the childcare policy is still under discussion and development may undermine or constrain the Government's ability to develop that policy effectively."

So not only is the cornerstone policy of the White Paper unsupported by specific modelling evidence, it's still a work in progress. Presumably that means it's still liable to revision, possibly major revision. Not that you'd ever know from the White Paper.

Just how many policies will be "in development"  - and the degree of that development - when people vote in September is intriguing but unclear.

A "transformational change" in childcare: details TBC

Tuesday, 11 March 2014

Kindergarten Logic Part 2

Earlier this year, I blogged about the childcare policy at the heart of the SNP's White Paper for independence.

Back then, I drew attention to a revealing disclaimer buried in a Scottish Government analysis of increased female participation in the workforce.

The paper appeared - at first glance  - to suggest that by almost doubling free nursery provision from 600 to 1140 hours a year, there would be a 6% rise in women in work, raising an extra £700m in taxes - very conveniently, the same pricetag put on the policy.

But a footnote revealed these figures weren't based on any economic modelling done by the Scottish Government, they were merely illustrative.

In other words, if there's a 6% rise in women in the workforce, there should be another £700m raised in tax - but there's nothing to prove that the SNP's childcare policy will ever generate that 6% rise in the first place.

Last week, the Institute of Fiscal Studies made a similar point in evidence at Holyrood.

Now, to cap it all, I've received a response to a Freedom of Information request I submitted to the Scottish Government asking for "the full results of any modelling which has been done" on the specific childcare proposals in the White Paper.

It turns out the Scottish Government didn't do ANY modelling of their own flagship policy.

They modelled the impact of more women in the workforce...  "rather than directly modelling the impact of improved childcare itself".

To be fair, better childcare might bring lots more women into the workforce, and might raise lots more tax, but to advance a totemic policy on the basis of crossed fingers rather than rigorous analysis - and to give the impression it would be self-funding - seems pretty extraordinary to me.

If that's the standard for White Paper policies, folk may wonder what else is wishful thinking.

Honey, I forget to model the impact of more childcare for the kids (my underlining in red)