Sunday, 18 May 2014

Ambulance for Neil?

THE controversy over Health Secretary Alex Neil intervening in the shake-up of mental health services at his local health board has been a slow-burn one.
The Sunday Herald broke the story as far back as November 2012.
Since then, the First Minister and the Permament Secretary have said Neil did nothing wrong in upending his predecessor's decision to remove acute beds from Monklands Hospital in his Airdrie & Shotts seat.
But last week the story came back to bite Neil after new FoI material obtained by Labour proved he ordered the U-turn before stepping back from the issue to avoid a conflict of interest.
Compounding Neil's offence in Labour eyes is the way he later said he'd delegated the matter to a junior minister because Monklands was in his constituency, when he had already taken the crucial decision himself.
That, Johann Lamont claimed, was deceiving parliament.
The FM has refused to sack Neil, but Labour smell blood and won't let go.
The Sunday Herald has now obtained a new email suggesting Neil's primary motivation was his own political backyard, rather the wider health board concerns cited by Alex Salmond at FMQs.
Here's a longer version of today's story.

Tom Gordon
Scottish Political Editor
ALEX Neil was last night under growing pressure to resign after an email emerged showing his ferocious opposition to a health shake-up in his constituency that he controverisally reversed within days of becoming Health Secretary.  
The email, obtained by the Sunday Herald despite an attempt to censor its contents, shows Neil was vehemently against removing acute mental health services from Monklands Hospital because of the impact on his Airdrie & Shotts seat.
He later ordered NHS Lanarkshire to rewrite its plans and retain beds at Monklands, despite official warnings it would mean a “less than optimal service” in “inferior accommodation” at the hospital, where asbestos is officially described as “ubiquitous”.
Despite his critical intervention, Neil subsequently told the Scottish Parliament he had delegated decisions on Monklands to a deputy minister “because it lies in my constituency”.
The Ministerial Code says ministers must avoid conflicts of interests when taking decisions affecting their constituencies.
From NHS Lanarkshire Property Strategy April 2009 to March 2013
Labour claim Neil “deceived” the parliament and have urged Alex Salmond to sack him.
The First Minister, who previously cleared Neil of breaching the Ministerial Code over the affair, last week refused to dismiss him, and said the Monklands decision was part of wider changes affecting the whole health board.
“To define it purely as a constitutency issue ignores the fact that the health service affects and serves all of the population,” he said.
However an email written by Neil to NHS Lanarkshire on 9 August 2012 suggests that constituency issues were paramount to the future Health Secretary.
At the time, the then Health Secretary Nicola Sturgeon had just agreed to concentrate mental health beds at Wishaw and Hairmyres, outside Neil’s seat, and remove them from Monklands.
With NHS Lanarkshire due to finalise the plan on 23 August, Neil was asked if he would endorse the board’s decision in a press release.
Neil's unredacted email of 9-8-12
 Although NHS Lanarkshire blacked out Neil’s reply, the Sunday Herald has seen the contents.  After asking the board to delay a decision until after his holiday, Neil declined to contribute.
“While I support the overall strategic approach, I don’t agree with your recommendations in relation to not locating one of the new units in Monklands, which covers a much more deprived catchment area than East Kilbride,” he said.
“The proposals are not consistent with an anti-poverty strategy.
“My reading of the analysis of why Monkalnds shouldn’t retain a mental health unit is that it is essentially prejudiced on the economics of the PFIs [private finance initiatives] at both Wishaw and Hairmyres.”
He said it would be “extremely rash” to announce the change without laying on free hospital transport for patients’ friends and families.
“Given the level of poverty and deprivation in Airdrie this will just not be possible if people on low incomes have to pay to get to Wishaw or Hairmyres. I strongly suggest that this release includes the details of planned investment at Monklands Hospital, otherwise local people will be even further incensed yet again by the actions of NHS Lanarkshire.”
Neil's email after NHS Lanarkshire's redactions
To allow Neil to stay involved, the board agreed to delay its decision until 26 September.
However on 5 September, a reshuffle saw Neil promoted to the position of Health Secretary.
Within days he undertook a “review” of the mental health plans, and on 26 September his private secretary told fellow government officials Neil’s “clear view” was to keep beds at Monklands and NHS Lanarkshire was to be asked to “reconfigure their plans accordingly”.
It was not until later that day that Neil stepped aside because of “a perception of a conflict of interest” and passed responsibility for mental health services at Monklands to public health minister Michael Matheson.
Labour argue that by then Neil had already taken the key decision on Monklands, leaving Matheson to merely rubberstamp the board’s revised plan.
Labour health spokesman Neil Findlay said: “This is another deeply damaging revelation. It makes clear that Alex Neil was going to oppose the decision, approved by Nicola Sturgeon, to close mental health beds at Monklands, because of the impact it would have on his constituency. 
“Alex Neil said he wouldn’t handle the decision because it was a constituency matter.
“Alex Salmond this week said it wasn’t a constituency matter. The SNP’s defence is all over the place as they scrabble to defend a minister interfering in NHS decisions. Alex Neil’s position is untenable. He must resign.”
Neil campaigning about Monklands services before the 2011 election, when he took Airdrie & Shotts from Labour
A Scottish Government spokeswoman said: “On his appointment as Health Secretary, Mr Neil wished to review a number of key decisions, including the proposals about to be put forward by the board of NHS Lanarkshire on mental health services. With over 500,000 people resident in NHS Lanarkshire’s area, Mr Neil addressed his concerns on the service change to the region as a whole. He was clear in his view that acute mental health facilities would be best retained at Wishaw General Hospital, Monklands Hospital, and with a unit at Hairmyres Hospital.”
Regarding asbestos at Monklands, the government added: “Asbestos is only dangerous when disturbed. NHS boards have a responsibility to ensure asbestos is safely managed and contained. It should not be removed unnecessarily.”

Sunday, 11 May 2014

McCrone 2

Today's Sunday Herald carries a story about a newly unearthed government file on North Sea Oil.
Written by former chief economist Professor Gavin McCrone in 1976, it sets out the case for an oil fund.
The plan had a clear political dimension - to suppress support for independence - but there was also a genuine desire to invest in depressed areas of the country such as West Central Scotland.
The then Labour Scottish Secretary Bruce Millan and Energy Secretary Tony Benn argued for it in cabinet, but the economic crisis in the late 1970s was so acute, the government rejected it, spending the oil revenues and saving nothing.
McCrone now reckons Callaghan's government had little choice given the circumstances.
But the Tory goverments of the 1980s... well, they had a golden opportunity to set up an oil fund when the revenues were "colossal", but they didn't take it.
Regular readers will now how much I moan about government secrecy.
So here, after 38 years, and for the first time, is the McCrone 2 report of July 1976 in full.
Page 1

Page 2
Page 3

Page 4
Page 5
Page 6
Page 7
Page 8
Page 9 - final page

Wednesday, 7 May 2014

Secrecy is Good for You 2

Another day, another post about the Scottish Government's "transformational" childcare policy to double free nursery hours after independence.

On Monday, I revealed the government's admission that - despite previous denials - it does indeed hold direct modelling of this policy, which is a cornerstone of the referendum White Paper.

So will the policy work? I'm afraid I can't say, as the government has refused to publish the modelling work, arguing disclosure would be "premature" and against "the public interest".

Now, following another freedom of information request, I can share a further example of the government's secrecy mindset on this issue.

Back in January, ministers published an economic analysis of the impact of a theoretical 6% rise in the female workforce, which said this would raise £700m in extra taxes to help pay for more childcare.

But as I've blogged before, the fine print contained a disclaimer - the analysis didn't actually model the SNP's childcare policy, just an "illustrative" rise in women in work. There was no proof the policy would ever yield a 6% rise.

Nevertheless, Alex Salmond appeared on BBC Sunday Politics Scotland to hail it as a "very important paper", saying the government had published it "so that everybody can read and understand these things".

But even on its own terms, the analysis left a lot to be desired.

In particular, it failed to say how many years it would take before a 6% rise (assuming it happened) would yield £700m extra in tax, and hence how much the policy would cost to deliver.
Some top vagueness from the SG analysis (my emphasis)

Instead, there were vague descriptions of output and tax revenue rising "in the long run" and "over a number of years".

Considering this work was supposed to be result of the government's all singing, all dancing "Computable Equilibrium Model", that didn't seem very satisfactory.

A great recent paper from the Scottish Parliament's impartial information centre on childcare also reported that when the SNP govenment talks about "the long-term", it can mean 20 years or more. "This may have implications for the funding of the [childcare] policy, particularly over the short-term," it noted drily.

So under freedom of information, I asked to see the full, unedited results of the "really important" modelling exercise the First Minister had discussed on TV.

The Scottish Government refused to release them. I asked them to reconsider.

They have now refused again, arguing it would be "premature" and against "the public interest", because the "design work" on the childcare policy is still not finished.

Colin MacBean, of the Chief Economist Directorate, said there was a need to "protect the public interest in ensuring ministers and officials have the ability to consider relevant data and evidence, debate findings, and explore all available options before reaching settled policy".

The "premature release of long-term strategic modelling results could be to the detriment of full consideration of the entirety of the evidence and the options which underpin development of childcare policy," he added.

Disclosure could lead to an unhelpful "narrowly focused debate".

Remember: the First Minister himself went on television to talk about the same piece of work, and said ministers had published data "so that everybody can read and understand these things".

So publishing some results from the modelling exercise was timely and a good thing, but publishing all the results would be premature and a bad thing. Publishing partial data widens the debate, but publishing full data narrows it. Work that out if you can.

Look familiar?  Highlighted text also appeared in another FoI review response

As a footnote, regular readers may have experienced a sense of deja vu while reading Mr MacBean's reasoning.

That's because his letter used the same justifications used by Dr Louise Scott of the Education Analytical Services Directorate to withhold the other childcare modelling work I mentioned at the start of this blog.

Mr MacBean works in the Energy and Climate Change Analytical Unit, while Dr Scott works in a completely different directorate, in the Children and Families Analytical Unit.

Yet somehow they ended up using the same words - often long verbatim sentences - to justify withholding different sets of data, after conducting FoI reviews of different FoI requests, each of which was to be assessed on its particular merits. Uncanny.

Monday, 5 May 2014

Secrecy is Good for You

It's back to one of my regular bugbears today - the sketchy background to the Scottish Government's flagship policy on expanding childcare under independence.
New readers can get the background in my last post.
Today's post is about something new that's come out through FoI.
Although official spokespeople - including the education secretary's special adviser - said on the record that it didn't exist, it turns out ministers do have specific modelling of how the policy would work (or not) after all.
But guess what? You and me can't see it.
Apparently it's in the public interest for the public to remain ignorant of the detail.
Here's the story

Tom Gordon

SNP ministers have finally admitted carrying out research into their flagship childcare policy - but say it would be against “the public interest” to publish it.

The confirmation, after months of official denials, was secured through a freedom of information (FoI) enquiry.

The policy, which would see free nursery hours for three- and four-year-olds rise from 600 to 1140 a year after a Yes, is a cornerstone of the government’s White Paper on Independence and a key part of the Yes campaign’s offer to voters on September 18.

Besides improving the lives of children, the plan is intended to allow more women to enter the workforce, generating more taxes to help pay for a “transformation” in childcare.
But in spite of the policy’s importance, the government claimed it had not conducted any computer modelling to see how it would work - an omission strongly criticised by other parties.
Instead, ministers published limited results from a computer modelling exercise about a theoretical rise in female employment, which suggested a 6% uplift could yield £700m a year in extra taxes - the same cost as the policy.
However this work never looked at whether the specific childcare policy in the White Paper would actually produce such a 6% rise.
The government has never said how many years it believes achieving a 6% rise might take, and hence the net cost of the policy is unclear.
The government also refuses to put a price on the second phase of the childcare policy - extending free hours to one- and two-year-olds - although the Scottish Parliament has estimated this could cost around £1.2bn a year.
Ministers were asked in January if they held any unpublished modelling on the White Paper’s specific childcare plans.
The initial response was to cite more research about female employment.
Pressed to clarify whether it held any research or not, the Government made a “modification” of its original response by admitting it did hold information after all.
Yes, we've got it. No, you can't see it
Dr Louise Scott of the Children and Families Analytical Unit said: “The Scottish Government does hold other information on the specific childcare proposals which falls within the scope of your request.”

However she refused to release it, arguing “the public interest” was best served by keeping it a secret, as the policy was still being designed and disclosure would be “premature”.

She said: “I recognise that there is some public interest in release as part of open, transparent government and to inform public debate.

“However, this is outweighed by the public interest in ensuring ministers and officials have the ability to consider relevant data and evidence, debate findings, and explore all available options before reaching a complete settled policy.

“While the strategic policy direction has been set out in the White Paper, detailed policy design work is continuing.
“The premature release of this detailed modelling-type work could be to the detriment of full consideration of the entirety of the evidence and the options which underpin development of childcare policy.”

Labour said it was scandalous that the SNP government was refusing to share what it knew about the efficacy of the childcare policy with voters before the referendum.

Education spokeswoman Kezia Dugdale said: “How can it not be in the public interest to know whether a key aspect of the government’s plan for independence is credible or not?
“We’ve believed for a long time that the numbers don’t stack up. It’s really disappointing that the government are trying to appeal for women’s votes but hiding the details.”

The government blamed “confusion” for the contradictory initial and final positions.
He said: “Some analytical work on the policy was identified... as it could be considered to be modelling, albeit of a different nature to that macro-economic modelling undertaken around female participation rates.
“We apologise for any confusion.”