Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Underpinning Scotland's Future with Liberal Democrat values - Moore publishes new Bill

 I set the scene this morning for Liberal Democrat Secretary of State Mike Moore's St Andrew's Day pressie to Scotland - the publication of the Scotland Bill which will give what he called  "the greatest transfer of fiscal power from London since the creation of the UK" where Scotland's tax rate will drop by 10% and the Scottish Parliament will then have control on how Scotland raises its own money and will be directly accountable to the people for the decisions it makes with that. It's combining power with responsibility and will be delivered over the next 5 years.

It's the tax powers that have got the most publicity, but I'm also pleased to see that air gun law is going to be devolved to Scotland. It's also good that there are going to be better mechanisms for all the Governments in the UK to communicate with each other. There are literally stacks of information in the Bill here. When the snow dies down enough for Anna to go back to school, I dare say I'll have time to read it. I like the positive tone of it all probably more than anything. As I said before, it's not as far as Liberal Democrats would like to go. Devolution isn't all about money and the Steel Commission recommended not just a new financial and fiscal settlement but extensive devolution on things like equalities and human rights, broadcasting and energy. However, it's a good step forward and much better than we'd be getting if the Tories were governing alone.

Anyway, this is what Mike Moore had to say to Liberal Democrat members:
Dear Caron
Today the Government published its Scotland Bill.  When this becomes law, a second and exciting phase in Scottish devolution will begin.  We are strengthening Scotland’s future based on three principles: empowerment, accountability and stability.
This Bill starts its parliamentary process with the support of the Conservatives, Labour and the Liberal Democrats.  Each of our parties - plus business and civil society - contributed to the Calman Commission, which drew up the blueprint for it. It is right that change of this sort should be built on a broad consensus.  But now it is this government that is turning those principles into practice.
And let's be clear: this plan is steeped in Liberal Democrat values.
We believe in devolution.  By nature, we are mistrustful of centralised government and welcoming of the flow of power from Westminster to our nation states, our communities and to individuals too.  When the Scottish Constitutional Convention drafted the plan for a Scottish Parliament, we were at the table.  When the referendum campaign was raging, we were on the streets campaigning.  And in 1999, when the first democratically elected Scottish Parliament was elected, we joined the coalition government that heralded a new era of Scottish politics.
The Bill is diverse in content, and gives the Scottish Parliament a range of new powers: regulating air weapons; setting drink-drive limits; establishing a Scottish national speed limit.
But its centrepiece is the devolution of tax and borrowing powers.  This is the greatest transfer of fiscal power from London since the creation of the UK.  Today, the Scottish Parliament only has revenue powers over council tax and business rates and raises only 15% of its own revenue.  The Scotland Bill transforms that.  The most significant change we will make is to create a Scottish Income Tax.  We'll do this by cutting 10 pence off every band of income tax. We will proportionately adjust the block grant that Scotland receives, and then allow the Scottish Parliament to reset the tax rates.  We will also give the Parliament nearly £3 billion in borrowing powers.
This will empower the Scottish Parliament and Scottish Government to make tax and spend choices that will determine future revenues and help shape Scotland's future economy.
It will also make both more accountable to the Scottish people.  It is an incomplete construct to have a Parliament that spends money but is responsible for raising little of it.  By giving these tax powers to Holyrood, MSPs will have to answer to voters for the money that they spend.  And by moving those spending decisions closer to Scottish society and to Scottish business, both will be better placed to influence the decisions that impact on their lives and livelihoods.
By empowering Holyrood, we are also ensuring its stability.  Our plans will be phased to ensure no sudden shock or windfall to the Scottish budget.  By giving the Parliament – which has been a success over the past decade – room to innovate safely, we will strengthen Scotland within the UK.
And for all their bluster, the SNP has no alternative.  Their plans for full fiscal autonomy are a non-starter: light on detail, high on cost and fraught with risk.  No industrialised country has ever gone down that road.  This is independence masquerading as reform.  It won’t wash.
But for our party, the victory here is not a tactical one.  It is principled one.  We are working with others to devolve power from the centre to the communities that need it and know how to use it.  
This is good for Scotland, and we should be proud of it.
Best wishes,
Michael Moore

Vince Cable should vote for the University Tuition proposals

I am extremely perturbed by reports that Lib Dem Business Secretary Vince Cable may abstain in the Commons vote on tuition fees. Not because he doesn't believe in the scheme, but in some misguided attempt to preserve party unity.

Apparently, them higher ups in the party are a bit concerned that our MPs might split 3 different ways.  I actually despair if they think that's the greatest thing we have to worry about at the moment.

Frankly, whatever we do in this vote, we are going to take some serious pelters for it. I actually think all of us abstaining would be the least satisfactory outcome. I mean, we argue that we deserve power and when it comes to a crucial vote, we don't bother taking part? And it would be completely disingenuous, corralling people into a synthetic unity in a way that just stores up trouble for the future.

To me, credibility and common sense are much more important than unity. As a Scot, I don't have much right to stick my beak into matters affecting England, but that hasn't stopped Stephen either blogging about it or being one of the 104 candidates from the  General Election who wrote to Vince Cable yesterday.

I agree with all of those people that tuition is free for the student at the point of learning is where we should be and it's what a Government should introduce. But, let's face it, we are just 57 in a Parliament of 650. If people had been given the Parliament they voted for in May, we'd have maybe 140 MPs and consequently would be a much bigger force within the resulting Government. The cold hard facts are that within that House of Commons, Conservative and Labour together make an overwhelming majority for the principle of tuition fees existing. In that climate, there is no way we could ever have hoped to pass our policy.

We've known this would happen from May. We had our Special Conference where the Coalition Agreement was debated. I know that some people feel that they would like to have seen a more strongly worded statement on tuition fees, but in the end of the day, Conference voted for it, overwhelmingly. All the Coalition Agreement ever allowed us to do was abstain.

I might not agree with the position on the Browne Review taken by Vince and Nick - but as I wrote when this issue first exploded, I think they've come up with the fairest possible scheme in the circumstances.

The Lovely Elephant has pointed out better than I ever could,exactly how our system is very similar to the one proposed by the National Union of Students - but fairer because those on the lowest incomes actually pay less. Nick Clegg, at Deputy PM's Questions today actually put some flesh on the bones of it all. He pointed out that someone on £21000 would pay around £7 a month under the new scheme where someone on the same income paying Labour's fees right now would be paying £81. That's £74 extra that new graduate has to spend  a month. That's round half a month's Council Tax where I come from. These figures are the sort of thing we should have had when this scheme was first mooted.

Vince Cable has had a lot to do with the way the Government's proposals have been put together, lobbying Lord Browne before he reported and tweaking afterwards to ensure maximum fairness. I think he needs to own these proposals by voting for them. The same for Nick Clegg, who supports them too. I suspect that there will be others in the Parliamentary Party who, given the choice, would vote for them too. Equally, there will be others, like new President Elect Tim Farron, who feel it is more important to honour the pledge they signed, who want to vote against. Forced abstention will make neither of these groups happy, even if it could be accomplished. I suspect the outcome will be pretty much the same as us abstaining anyway as those voting for will cancel out those voting against.

The media likes it when parties are disunited - they get all in a frenzy and try to poke the wounds between people, so I guess that's why people want us to all vote the same way. But, really, if we do that, we sacrifice any attempt to remain credible. We've put together a system that's fairer because of our influence. Unless at least some of us vote for it, we're going to look incredibly silly. I think the best chance we have of recovery from this as a party, as well, is not to be too control freaky. If Government Deputy Chief Whip Alistair Carmichael needs to threaten a few unfortunate souls with his wand use some extra special powers of persuasion to get his numbers right, then that's up to him, but let's not try to manufacture a unity that's not there and that nobody would believe. There's a lot that binds the Parliamentary Party together. This is but one issue where there's disagreement. Anyone in any sort of relationship knows that you disagree sometimes, and that it's much better to accept the disagreement and deal with it like grown ups.

Moore launches new Scotland Bill on St Andrew's Day.

Scottish Secretary Michael Moore has appropriately enough chosen St Andrew's Day to launch the Government's Bill which will implement the recommendations of the Report of the Calman Commission.

To truly appreciate how big a Liberal Democrat win this is, you have to go back just over a year, to 25th November 2009, when the then Labour Government published it response to Calman.  They could have decided to bring in the legislation then - it would certainly have been a better use of Parliamentary time than trying to get dreadful measures like the Digital Economy Act through, and they certainly had the numbers to support them. I wrote at the time that the failure to legislate was an opportunity missed.

If you look at the full Debate as recorded in Hansard, you'll see that the Tories, who had participated willingly in the Calman process, were trying to wriggle out of it as fast as their wee legs could carry them. David Mundell their then shadow Scottish Secretary said:
Does he acknowledge that his Government's White Paper should not bind any incoming Conservative Government? Conservatives accept that the Scottish Parliament needs to be more financially accountable, that the devolution settlement needs to be tidied up and that Westminster and Holyrood need to start working constructively together for the good of Scotland and Britain, but we will ensure those things through our own White Paper, not this Government's proposals launched in the dying days of this Parliament. 
His Liberal Democrat opposite number Alistair Carmichael said of the Tories' position:
I listened to the hon. Member for Dumfriesshire, Clydesdale and Tweeddale (David Mundell) speaking about producing another White Paper the other side of a general election, and I could almost hear the ghost of Sir Alec Douglas-Home speaking prior to the 1979 referendum. He promised that we would get something better from the Conservatives, but they betrayed us after the 1979 election, and they would betray us again tomorrow given half a chance which, fortunately, they are unlikely to get.
At the time the papers were full of the Tories wanting to sit on any further reforms and devolution of power until 2015.

The reason the Tories have not been allowed to betray Scotland again is because the Liberal Democrats made sure that full implementation of Calman made its way into the Coalition Agreement.

The other good thing is that we won't hear from Michael Moore's lips the sort of disgusting rhetoric that we heard from Jim Murphy. I really hate it when people's loyalty to their country is questioned and brought into the political arena:
The problem for the hon. Gentleman and the SNP is that he always behaves like a nationalist and never behaves like a patriot. A nationalist puts the SNP first, but a patriot puts Scotland first. That is the difference between my party and his, and why Scotland is increasingly turning its back on the SNP.
That sort of talk is just not on and shows up the person who uses it.

Sure, Calman doesn't deliver the greater measure of fiscal autonomy that we want, but it's a sizable step in the right direction. I'm pleased that it's a Liberal Democrat secretary of state who's introducing measures we would never have seen from the Tories governing alone. 

Snow Snippets and Snapshots

The eerie snowy scene above is not in some remote rural spot. It's literally just down the road from our house.

Very few cars went anywhere yesterday - in fact the street was even featured on the STV news last night - more because of its proximity to the railway station than for being uniquely badly affected, I suspect.

However, those who take the train to work have been, so far, lucky:

Whether they will get back, of course, is anyone's guess, as Twitter tells me that the usual Winter problem of frozen points has come to pass.

The schools here are shut for a second day - which is fantastic for the likes of me who doesn't have to go anywhere else to work, but must cause child care headaches for those with inflexible and unsympathetic employers. Anyway, Anna took to the streets for hours yesterday. There are various sets of clothing drying on every radiator in the house.

While yesterday was bright and sunny and cheerful, today the skies are dark and threatening even more snow. Please no! We have already been embarrassed by your generosity. Go somewhere else.....

Twitter, though, has been replete with observations about the Wintry weather. Here are three of my favourites:

Former PM's wife and the sort of national treasure who doesn't need to go into the jungle to show us how valuable she is, Sarah Brown, made us all laugh with this:
was out *driving very slowly* on icy roads and spotted digital road sign with typo that read 'DRIVE WITH CAKE'?
My fellow Michael Schumacher obsessive, Sarah Green, in typically optimistic, get-on-with-it manner, gives a tip  for commuters interested in fashion:
Fleece lined tights are fab btw; just over half an hour out in the cold and legs still warm despite wearing a short skirt!
I just wish I knew a Sarah White or Black to continue the symmetry, but the last word has to go to Inverclyde Labour MP, David Cairns. Honestly, there is always one who'll try to turn any situation to their political advantage:
Terrible weather highlights the cynical stupidity of SNP plan to hold a referendum on Independence on last day of November.

Now I really don't get the idea of independence for all sorts of positive reasons. I want to see a properly federal UK which has the best of all worlds on autonomy and working together. Even so, I get the symbolism of Scotland deciding its destiny on its special day. I know there's snow everywhere today, but generally round this time of year, folk usually manage to get out, in huge numbers, to the shops. I'm sure they could find the time to stop off at their local polling station on the way home.

Having said that, one area where David is incredibly smart is on issues relating to HIV and AIDS. Tomorrow is World AIDS day and as I write, in a blizzard, he is watching a team of MPs take on a team from the UN at football to raise awareness. The MPs are getting absolutely slaughtered at the moment but in a good cause. Don't forget to do something to mark the day tomorrow.

Sunday, November 28, 2010

Daily Fail gets it wrong again - this time on breastfeeding breaks

The Daily Fail hasn't wasted much time in predicting industrial armageddon, including job losses and costs of thousands of pounds, if businesses are forced to give mothers "breastfeeding breaks."

Let's try and give this all a bit of perspective.

The Mail suggests that breastfeeding mums need to express their milk several times a day and it can take up to 40 minutes. Before everyone gets exercised that every workplace will be full of screaming babies and women with their boobs out round every corner, let's just think a bit.

All that's being asked for is that mothers are given the opportunity to express their milk so that their babies can continue to receive the proven benefits of human milk after they return to employment. A simple private area, or a cool box or fridge to store the milk is all that's required. The younger the baby, the more often the mum will need to express, but with a half decent pump, the whole process shouldn't take longer than 20 minutes tops and in an eight hour working day would mean a couple of sessions.

Most women who breastfeed will choose to express their milk with a pump at work. The Fail doesn't seem to understand the difference between doing that and actually feeding their baby - although is it actually that big a deal if the baby is brought to the mum at lunchtime, say, to feed directly? Why does this need to be such a drama?

At the moment, what tends to happen is that women are forced to express in the toilet in their lunch hour with pump in one hand and sandwich in the other. In my experience, managers are more likely to tolerate employees nipping out for smoke breaks several times a day than a request for a break to express milk.

So, employers might have to take a relatively small hit on that, but surely for a good employee, that sort of flexibility is worth paying. And as for the cost of a fridge, you can get little ones for next to nothing from Tesco. All the coverage tends to look at the costs to employers with absolutely no focus on the benefits, which are considerable:

  • Women may return to work earlier if they know they are going to be able to combine breastfeeding and working without hassle, thus saving the employer the cost of hiring someone else to do their job.
  • Their babies are likely to be healthier. Part of the reason human milk is so good is that if the mother and baby are exposed to the same germs, then antibodies appear in the milk which either completely stop the baby from getting it or ensure that they get it less severely. This is all good because it means that a woman who's breastfeeding is less likely to have to take time off to look after a sick baby, or if they do it will be for less time. Another win for the employer. In fact, the more kids who are breastfed, the better it will be for all employers who have parents in their workforce as fathers will take less time off to look after sick babies too.
  • I've seen far too many occasions when talented women have been lost to the workforce because their employers will not make a few small adjustments to make it possible for them to combine their working and family responsibilities. Surely that hurts businesses, to lose that experience?
While I may love Ann Widdecombe on Strictly Come Dancing, she rminded me why I'd loathed her so much as a Conservative MP on Andrew Marr this morning. She was expressing (see what I did there) the opinion that she was seeing too much state intervention in what the Coalition was doing. I think it's perfectly fine to set out parameters of what is acceptable behaviour - and it is fundamentally unfair for employers to set so many barriers for their female employees. 

I can't understand why employers think it's ok to spend more money than they need to on expensive, prestigious cars for their sales forces but baulk at spending a little bit to make the work life balance easier to manage for those with family responsibilities. Skewed priorities or what?

Saturday, November 27, 2010

A(nother) wee grumble about First Scotrail

Before I start, please don't get the idea that I think any of this is actually important, because some really awful things have happened to people I care about in the last few weeks. Frankly a delayed train journey doesn't really count for much in comparison, but I have half an hour free before Strictly so I might as well tell you about it.

You know what I'm like about snow and ice - or if you don't, utterly petrified just about covers it. Waking up to see a couple of inches of white stuff this morning did not make me happy, particularly as I had plans to go into Edinburgh to see a friend who was paying a flying visit to the city.

However, with Bob and Anna's help, I managed to get on the train, and arranged to meet him literally across the road from the station in the City Arts Centre, a favourite with me since we used to hold our La Leche League leaders meetings in there. I can definitely recommend the banana and pecan cake, by the way, despite the fact that it looked like it had an artistic ribbon of tomato ketchup next to it, although I was also tempted to try the chocolate and beetroot.

Anyway, emboldened by the fact that the pavements seemed very not slippy, I suggested we go for a little walk after we'd had our coffee so we also had a look round Waterstone's in Princes Street. I managed to be disciplined enough not to spend any money, which is something of a miracle. The raised husbandly eyebrow when Rob Wilson's "5 Days to Power" arrived this morning made me think better of it. Just as an aside, I had ordered both that and David Laws' version - but Amazon ran out of Laws' "22 Days in May" and can't get it to me until 17th December.

So, after I saw Ed onto his train, I thought I had plenty time to wander round to mine. When I got there, a full 10 minutes before departure, I realised it was Sardine Class already. I managed to squeeze on, but I really feared for the person next to me's ribs if I fell on her. So, we had a very full train that went precisely nowhere. Then the conductor announced that this train was cancelled and we should all go to a platform at the other end of the station to find a train to Bathgate. So, a tidal wave of people marches forth. Just as we'd got there, a station announcement said that anyone wanting to go to Bathgate had to go to the platform next to the one we'd just left.

I did wonder if this was a bizarre sort of survival of the fittest trial by First Scotrail to make the train less busy, but it seems it was just plain old cock up. There was actually a train at platform 13, but unfortunately, because the display board said it was going to Glasgow, not Bathgate. Not unreasonably, it was full of people who wanted to go to Glasgow while we Bathgate travellers were pressing our noses at the windows wondering if we were ever going to get home.

Eventually, the train started to empty, but a fair proportion of the people waiting to get on were confused about whether the train was going to Glasgow or Bathgate and there was nobody from First Scotrail to tell them. The conductor became very grumpy when a passenger explained to him that people were confused.

When we thought that everyone was off, we started to get on the train, only to be shouted at by the conductor as though we were naughty children because we hadn't realised there were others to still get off.

You would think, then, that there would be some sort of apology when we finally got moving, some acknowledgement that First Scotrail had mucked it up. I'd have been happy with something like "I'm sorry for the confusion and delay. We mucked up and we'll try and do better in the future." Is that really too much to ask for?

When I read this back it seems like I'm turning into Victor Meldrew - but it does frustrate me when situations like this are handled badly time and time again. I may not get the train very often, but my husband is always full of horror stories about his daily commute. First Scotrail really need to look at how they can change their systems and improve their communication so they deliver a service that meets the customer's, not their own, needs.

Friday, November 26, 2010

Happy Golden Wedding to "the nicest people ever"

Way back in the Summer, we took our daughter and nephew to see a lovely aunt and uncle of mine who we hadn't seen for ages. Anna had been to see them as a baby but my nephew never had.

Anyway, after a really enjoyable evening, we took the kids back to our holiday cottage and they literally didn't shut up, barely pausing to draw breath, about how much they'd enjoyed themselves, and how my aunt and uncle were the "nicest people ever."

That's kind of how I felt whenever I visited their house when I was little.

Anyway, today is their Golden Wedding. My uncle had me in tears before I'd even got out of bed this morning because he'd written something very sweet and romantic on my aunt's Facebook wall. I know I'm incredibly soft - how I survive the brutal world of politics is anyone's guess - but it was very touching to read.

Spending half a century together and raising a loving family is quite some achievement so I hope they'll have a fantastic time celebrating reaching that milestone.

Thursday, November 25, 2010

Reasons I want to go to London number 703 - Cafe Vintage

A few months ago, I had a conversation on Twitter with Meral Hussein Ece where she talked about her daughters' new project - opening a cafe in North London which would feature coffee and tea, home baking and vintage clothes. A combination of things made in Heaven for many people.

Well Cafe Vintage finally opened the other day

It's not quite as olde worlde as it sounds because it has wi-fi, which has to be a good thing.

 It's the sort of place I'd frequent all the time if I lived nearby. I'd much rather support a local business than yet another samey franchise of a large company.

If you have a wee look on their Facebook page, you'll see their sparkly window display for Christmas and you can follow Cafe Vintage on Twitter too.

I love the idea of what Nadia and Aysha are trying to do and I wish them all the best with their new venture. I hope I get the chance to visit one day.

Anyone fancy going along and telling me what it's like? It's at 88 Mountgrove Road, London, N5 2LT. Looking at it on the map, it seems near to Finsbury Park and the Emirates stadium.

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Tavish demolishes SNP on "Tartan Tax" - speech in full

I can't really remember that many really spectacular speeches  that are so good, that capture the mood of the moment so perfectly that they give you goosebumps coming from the Holyrood Chamber. Patrick Harvie and Malcolm Chisholm on Megrahi come to mind. Malcolm Chisholm on Trident was another good one. And Patrick Harvie's speech on the 2009 budget may not have helped him in the long run but it was utterly brilliant to listen to. Today Tavish Scott showed why he deserves to be in that elite group.

He gave what was to me the speech of the day, if not the session during the debate on the SNP's failure to maintain the Parliament's power to vary the rate of income tax. Delivered with real passion, anger and forensic clarity, he completely demolished John Swinney's argument and the SNP's position that it wasn't really their fault and it didn't really matter that much anyway.  Several times he asked whether the situation had arisen because of SNP deceit or incompetence and questioned the SNP's very credibility and trustworthiness on constitutional matters. Audacious, definitely - but entirely justified.

It's clear that Swinney's biggest mistake was not to tell Parliament what was going on in the three and a half years between them taking office and Michael Moore's letter to Party leaders last week - but Tavish asked how that could simply be a benign error when they'd talked about using the power to implement a local income tax when they must have known that was impossible.

The speech was so good that I've decided to publish the whole thing below. The words themselves are good, but nothing can really compare to actually seeing them come to life.

      When this Nationalist Government is in a hole two things happen. We’ve seen it before.
      The SNP dissemble, shout, scream, throw mud, make it up and blame anyone else they can.
      Then they wheel out Alex Neil.
       I thought Ministers had to behave. Not after last night.
      There’s only one further step they can take – Mike Russell.
      The facts of this disgraceful episode are simple  - and what they show is either SNP deceit or incompetence.
      The first fact is this.
      That this Parliament was given the power to vary income tax by the people of Scotland in a vote. Not a party, not  minority government, not a First Minister, not a Finance Secretary but the Parliament.
      Fact – There is a cost to retain the mechanism to allow that power to be exercised.
      Fact – how much that was is now a political slanging match.
      But the point that matters on this constitutional power is that the SNP have stopped that power being used not only now, but for the new Government elected next year.
      Fact – Mr Swinney, nor any of his Ministerial colleagues, and most certainly not Mr Salmond, at any stage since 2007 informed, debated or discussed with parliament this decision. Was that deceit or incompetence?
      Fact - Yesterday Mr Swinney said MSPs were “too busy” to be told about this 2007 decision.
      Since 2007, the Finance Secretary has had the opportunity to present his position on 110 separate opportunities:
·       Presented 4 budgets
·       Published 8 budget revisions
·       Participated in 15 budget debates
·       Made 24 appearances in front of Finance committee
·       Delivered 29 ministerial statements to Parliament
      There has also been:
·       A debate on ‘strategic budget scrutiny’
·       2 debates on the strategic spending review and
·       6 debates on the Scottish Government’s programme
      Presiding Officer, there’s also been one debate on ‘Improving Accountability’,
      John Swinney chose not to speak in that one.
      Too busy?!
      Too busy to find ways to explain the Government’s decision to Parliament.
      Deceit or incompetence?
      Fact  -  when proposing the Local Income Tax, the SNP Government said they would use the tax varying powers to make that happen.
      The Government statements on how LIT would be implemented, misled Parliament, and misled any voter who supported LIT on the basis of that change. At no time in explaining why the SNP had dropped LIT, did Mr Salmond or Mr Swinney explain that they couldn’t implement LIT because the tax power could not be used.
      Mr Salmond, on the day of the ditch, looked me in the eye in the back of this Parliamentary chamber and explained why LIT was being dropped.
      As always Mr Salmond didn’t give the truth that day.
      So Presiding Officer, was all that deceit or incompetence?
      Fact – in the Budget debate exactly a week ago, the Finance Secretary’s Budget document said this, from the Budget 2011-12 document:
      “Our opportunities to vary taxes are limited to the Scottish Variable Rate, which no Scottish administration has chosen to use since Devolution, and some discretion over non-domestic rates. We confirm that we will not use the Scottish Variable Rate power.”
      In addressing Parliament last Wednesday, the Finance Secretary implied that he had considered using the tax varying power and dismissed it. If that’s not misleading Parliament I don’t know what is.
      Was that deceit or incompetence?
·       So, are using the tax powers of this Parliament available? No.
·       Was Parliament told in 2007, 2008, 2009 or 2010? No.
·       Can LIT be implemented? No.
·       Has Parliament been misled? Yes
·       Has the Finance Secretary had 110 separate Parliamentary occasions to say what’s going on? Yes
·       Has a minority nationalist Government misled Parliament? Yes
·       Has the SNP treated the people of Scotland who gave this power to this Parliament with contempt? Yes.
      While Mr Swinney is put up today, the blame for this is not his alone. It sits next to him.
      We’ve had one sanctimonious lecture after another from Alex Salmond on the respect agenda.
      Today defines Mr Salmond’s respect for the Scottish people and for this Parliament.
      Mr Salmond, respect is something you earn. And no one will respect you again on the constitution, on Scotland’s future and on the Government of our country.
      Mr Salmond expects to pass a Budget. To negotiate with other parties. After this. After the way he handled Local Income Tax. After his Finance Secretary’s speech a week ago. There’s no one else to blame. This is the Salmond government. And today its shown its real colours.
      What Mr Salmond and his Government have utterly failed to do today is explain whether all this mess is deceit or incompetence. Deceit and incompetence are the two words his government will be known for.
      Respect?  – Not  a chance.
      And amid all this just imagine for a moment what would have happened if the Nationalists were in Opposition.
      What would they have said about a Government giving up powers the people had given Parliament?
·       Many would have howled – full moon or not.
·       Some would have shed real tears.
·       A few ambitious backbenchers might have gone on hunger strike until the powers were returned.
      These are people who make a constitutional crisis out of which museum has the Lewis chessmen.
      Yet they, the SNP sign off and sign away the choices and powers of Scotland’s own Parliament – the wish of one and a half million Scots discarded without a murmur.
      I care about this place. I am deeply proud of it.  I am honoured to be a Member – to represent Shetland. Most of us here share that.
      So I do utterly condemn the cavalier and arrogance with which Salmond’s SNP Government treat Scotland’s Parliament.
      The Scottish Parliament was designed to be a clean break with some of the worst practices of Westminster. Today is the worst of Westminster forced on Holyrood by nationalists.
      Today is absolutely not a day to be proud of:
      Today this Nationalist Government is betraying the word inscribed on Parliament’s mace – ‘integrity’.
      Respect?  – Not  a chance.
      The Liberal Democrats support the amendment tabled in the names of Mr Gray, Ms Goldie, Mr Harvie and mine. Any Government worth its salt would get it when all the Opposition parties get it together – do you get it Mr Salmond?

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Caron's Corkers 23 November

It's been ages since I've done a roundup of good things to read - and there's plenty of it around at the moment.

The first thing I read when I woke up on Sunday morning was a tweet from Evan Harris, former Lib Dem MP and all round hero, linking to this Observer debate on whether religion is a force for good in the world. I felt that Evan and AC Grayling  made a good case for the no side. Evan made the point that
"a liberal, secular democracy is the best protector of religious freedom, because it says that we need to guarantee the absolute freedom of belief. There is no theocracy that has ever provided for religious freedom, let alone emancipation of women and equal rights for gay people."
The Divine Ms Duffett interviews David Laws as his book, 22 Days in May, is published. This has whetted my appetite to read the book, so if Amazon could just get off their backsides and send me the copy I pre-ordered, I'd be really happy, thank you. Anyway, her chat with David is much better than the company she was keeping last week.

Cicero rarely cheers and warns us of further economic uncertainty. I would love to think he was wrong, but the evidence of a quarter of a century of knowing him is that he is right.

I can't possibly ignore a post entitled Where Lib Dem Bloggers Trump the Nats - especially when I think the Trump is there for a particular reason. I'm one of Menie, are you?

Andrew tells us about how George Lyon MEP has helped overturn a barking mad European directive.

James Taylor is worried at the prospect of a demo outside Scottish Liberal Democrat HQ in Edinburgh tomorrow after reading the Facebook page. Maybe those protesting should remember that the Scottish Liberal Democrats ensured that there have been no upfront tuition fees in Scotland and we recently reaffirmed our commitment to that policy. Let's hope the demo is more like the one Iain Roberts faced the other day where both sides are prepared to listen. I also hope that those protesting tomorrow remember that the people who work in that building are not responsible for government policy, and they work long hours for very little pay. None of what they are angry about is the fault of those workers.

And finally, on a very sad note, this week both Clair of Kids, Craft and Chaos and I are remembering friends' babies who passed away at this time last year. This is the letter she wrote to little Catriona. It's heartbreakingly beautiful.

Alex Cole-Hamilton opposes Botanic Gardens entrance charge

Liberal Democrat candidate for Edinburgh Central, Alex Cole-Hamilton, has spoken out against the proposed £5 entry fee for visitors to Edinburgh's beautiful Botanic Gardens. I used to take Anna there a lot when she was little and it's there she first learned to appreciate different plants and flowers, not to mention develop a fascination for squirrels. It's a favourite meeting spot for mums and children.

There's no way we'd be able to go if we had to pay £15 for the three of us to get in. It seems such an excessive charge and it would be a real shame if the gardens lay empty and unappreciated outside the tourist season.

Alex feels so strongly partly because he has a long standing love for Gardens and he and his wife Gillian were married there. Listen to him talk about it in the video below, which is also available here on You Tube.

William and Kate's wedding gift to political activists

So, the Royal Wedding is going to take place on Friday 29th April, just six days before local council elections in England and elections to the devolved parliaments in Scotland and Wales.

David Cameron has already announced that this will be a public holiday south of the border. The Scottish Government has yet to announce whether they will grant a public holiday up here but if you were the SNP, would you really want to upset workers by refusing to give them the day off the week before you are up for re-election?  I really don't think they are that stupid.

What this means, though, for we political geeks, is an extra day when  activists don't have to go to their day jobs and so can be out on the street knocking on doors or delivering leaflets without having to use up precious annual leave. And, for those who are already bored with the wedding coverage, getting involved in the election campaign is a good way to make sure that you don't drown in the inevitable sea of media hysteria in the months leading up to the happy day.

This is an example of a win win for everybody!

Monday, November 22, 2010

Get X Factor's Gamu to Christmas Number One with Aberlour Trust

Remember how gutted we all felt when Cheryl didn't take Gamu through to the final live shows on X Factor? Well, we have a chance to get her to the Christmas number 1 by buying this charity single she's made with the Aberlour choir. It's available to download from 13th December and all funds raised will go the Aberlour Child Care Trust. Their website showcases some of the fantastic work they do with our most vulnerable children. This isn't the last time I'll remind you about this, but for the moment, just sit and think about what this song means.

Robert Brown and Anne McLaughlin stand up for Glasgow's asylum seekers

One of the things that has made me absolutely furious this past week is the disgraceful disregard and lack of understanding that Glasgow City Council and the UK Border Agency seem to have for the vulnerable asylum seekers who are housed in Glasgow. These two organisations are arguing about money and over 1300 vulnerable people in almost 600 households are caught in the crossfire. The Council has had a contract until now to provide temporary accommodation to  asylum seekers. This expires in February. It hasn't been renewed because the Council wants more money.

Last week, the affected families received letters from the UK Border Agency saying that they could be asked to move, at 3-5 days notice, with one or two bags each to anywhere in the Scotland region. Scotland is a big place, stretching all the way from Dumfries and Galloway to Caithness and Sutherland on the mainland 400 miles away.  That's not counting the northern or western isles, which are also part of this fabulous country.

Neither the Council nor the UK Border Agency seem to be looking at what an enforced move will mean for those families. Children who are settled at school and have been so for some years could be uprooted at a critical stage in the school year. That is just completely unacceptable. The UK Border Agency and Glasgow City Council should hang their heads in shame at the distress and upset they have jointly caused.

This issue brought a touch of seriousness to an otherwise pathetic First Minister's Questions the other day. Anne McLaughlin, who of course had done so much work on behalf of asylum seekers, including Florence and Precious Mhango, first asked about it and Robert Brown, Liberal Democrat MSP for Glasgow followed with this?

 Does the First Minister share my view that the priority now must be to retain asylum seekers in their current homes and to keep their children in their current schools? Regardless of the management arrangements that are contracted for by the UKBA, stability and security are vital for such people, many of whom, as the First Minister touched on, have gone through horrendous experiences at the hands of oppressive regimes abroad.
Do the protocols regarding the treatment of asylum seekers that were arrived at with such great difficulty between successive Scottish Governments and the most recent UK Government give the Scottish Government the opportunity to discuss practical solutions to the issues at hand with the Border Agency and, indeed, the UK Government?
The FM's helpful reply was
I  must confess that I have never found the UK Border Agency to be among the foremost advocates of the respect agenda between Westminster and Scotland. Nonetheless, given that the important matter here is the treatment of people who are in a vulnerable situation, we will take up Robert Brown's suggestion and will seek to use the protocols to defend their position.
In my experience the UK Border Agency takes no notice of anyone, so it's not just the Scottish Government it disrespects. I have no time for them at all and it's high time some Government ministers shook the place up completely and made it take a more compassionate, civilised tone with people.

I feel, though that there's a bit of a wider issue here, though, generally, about how we treat homeless households. If a family is made homeless, their local  Council has to give them accommodation, but it could be anywhere within that Council area and they can be moved on at very short notice to other accommodation which similarly can be anywhere in their area. Now that's fine if it's fairly compact Council area, but look at Fife. I've seen people in desperate housing need from Dunfermline be put in Cupar, Glenrothes and Kirkcaldy. In some circumstances it's meant that the adults in the household can't continue to work because they're away from their support network, or they work shifts and there's no public transport available outside peak times. Although generally the kids get to stay at their school, they often face a long journey to get there.

This is a function of there simply not being enough affordable social housing and so far nobody seems to be coming up with suggestions to alleviate that. When Governments and Councils draw up procedures and work out how to deliver services they really need to think about what it actually means for people to go through them and try to draw up the service round the needs of the people and not themselves. The way homeless people are treated is just one example of how services fail to do that. And what the UK Border Agency seeks to do to those asylum seekers in Glasgow  is even worse.

And finally I get around to writing about #picamp - the Political Innovation Edinburgh event

A week ago on Saturday, I attended a fantastic event in Edinburgh at which political bloggers, campaigners, activists, elected representatives and people who work in public affairs got together to discuss, basically, better ways of doing politics. The Political Innovation event was the brainchild of Paul Evans and Slugger O'Toole's Mick Fealty. It was great to meet people in the flesh who I'd only known online. It's just a pity Andrew Marr wasn't there to see that bloggers actually are very pleasant, friendly, real and genuine people, so he could then stop spouting nonsense about us.

We all had to wear badges, sticking labels on ourselves as to whether we were politicos, wonks, geeks, campaigners or bloggers. I only had a bloggers badge as they'd run out of campaigners, so I felt a bit grim reaperish as they were edged in black while the others had nice bright colours.

So this is my magical mystery tour through a useful and fun day at which arguments were had and friendships made.  Part of the reason it's taken me so long to write it up is that almost immediately on going home that evening I ended up with a vile cold which laid me up for a lot of last week. I can't really blame James from Better Nation who was sipping some remedial potion from a flask all day, because I don't think germs multiply that fast, even in my pathetic excuse for an immune system. Anyway, enough distractions:

The Venue

I almost forgive the University of Edinburgh for taking up some of the car park I used to use to build this marvellous Informatics Forum to house all their various computery sciency departments. The building is beautiful, although I'm not sure the view from the glass wall is particularly spectacular. As you'd expect, it's all very modern and lovely and we all had access to free wifi. Not that I really used it much. Sometimes I think there's a conflict between live reporting on something and actually enjoying it. I actually spent too much time blethering to really have the time to tweet much and there was no question of there being time to blog. It was useful, though, especially to keep up with the F1 qualifying session from Abu Dhabi.

The Food

This deserves a section on its own as there was a seemingly limitless supply of cake and fruit along with water and juice throughout the day. I actually missed out on that because again I was too busy chatting. Lunch, though, was sublime. I was expecting the traditional buffet - some chicken legs, sausages on sticks and egg mayo sandwiches, that sort of thing. Maybe if we were lucky we might get a samosa. Err, no. Little tiny bowls filled with various bits of hot food. Sausages and mash with a little bit of onion gravy, or haggis, neeps and tatties, or a vegetarian option which I never got anywhere near. For pudding, the most delicious almondy, apply, fruity crumble with custard, or white chocolate mousse with little cookies. I say or, but you could have had as many as you wanted in whatever combination you liked. It was utterly delicious. So, this is the place to go if you are having an event in Edinburgh as far as I'm concerned.

The Unconference nature of it all

There was no structured agenda although people had been asked to submit ideas for sessions throughout the week. Given the free-spirited nature of assorted geeks, this could have resulted in chaos. It didn't. It was actually very well organised, with quite a firm hand,  but without anyone feeling like they were being ordered around. Very clever. At the opening plenary session, each suggestion for a session was put on that most cutting edge of technologies, a yellow post-it and the sessions were allocated on the timetable. There were 5 rooms available so there was plenty of room for all the suggested events. I attended 5 in total so I'll try to give you a flavour of each.

The politician's surgery - and how social media can help

This session was the brainchild of Gill, who writes the lol scum blog, based on her experience of working for the Scottish Government. She felt that many of the queries she had in her government role from elected representatives could have been much more effectively and quickly dealt with had they come to her direct. She'd also talked about the difficulties she'd had in contacting her MP, finding out how to do so, and then waiting a week for a reply giving details about a surgery she couldn't attend.

The session covered people's expectations when they contacted their elected. Sometimes it could be more effective to just refer them to where they could get the information themselves. but people often want their MP, for example to be seen to do something for them.

Mark Lazarowicz, MP for Edinburgh North and Leith, made the point that you did have to be careful about not giving priority to online casework, even though people who e-mail expect an immediate response. You have to be careful not to penalise someone who doesn't have access to the internet. From my experience as an MP's caseworker, we certainly didn't do that. It was the urgency of the issue which dictated the priority. If someone needed immediate help with benefit/housing or any other issue, they got it regardless of how they contacted him.  He took casework from all sorts of places - from going out knocking on doors, surgeries (which we preferred to hold where people were, like supermarkets and shopping centres), e-mail, phone, visits to the office, and latterly a fair chunk from Facebook and Twitter.

The main themes which came out of the discussion is that it would be better if people had more information about who the best person to contact was for their issue, that debate shouldn't be dominated by people who had online access and that there was a use for social media in political engagement because people weren't so intimidated by the idea of contacting someone on Facebook as they were by maybe going to a surgery.

Can we win elections online?

This was a much bigger session which basically reached the conclusion that there was no substitute for knocking on doors, nor for having a message which resonated with people. However, online and social media campaigning had a role in reinforcing the message and in organising activists. Obama and the SNP had used phone apps, for example, to organise contacts to get activists phone canvassing.

Someone mentioned that impact of the Leaders' Debates during our General Election. On places like Facebook and Twitter, people could get immediate social proof of how people were reacting to what was going on.

I made the point that online engagement could make the difference in a close election, although on the ground campaigning was most important. I also mentioned how the SNP weren't that great with either their online or on the ground campaigns in 2007 and their success had been based primarily on the air war in the media. I live in Livingston which was closely fought in 2007 and was won by the SNP's Angela Constance. They certainly didn't run anything like the sort of campaign on the ground  that I would have thought you'd need to win - and nor are they doing this time, to be honest. It was all about the message for change, their "it's time" campaign which permeated the country's consciousness and resonated with the voter.

Edinburgh campaigner Lily Greenan, (who doesn't blog but should because we could do with some more Scottish based blogosphere feminism) talked about it being easier to disseminate and analyse information online. She mentioned an infographic produced by the Democrats to illustrate that under Obama more jobs were being created than under Bush. I did a bit of digging and found this interesting article showing what I think she's talking about and how Fox News distorted the same figures.  Lily also made the point that people were protesting again on a level not seen since the 1980s and the internet was a key tool in doing that more effectively than in the past.

Can Scotland harness the power of its own blogosphere?

This was the first session after lunch and was the only session of the day which was based around a panel discussion. Mick Fealty had asked me earlier in the week to take part in this. He also mentioned that the panel would include journalists, something which scared the life out of me. I said that I'd only do it if he could find some other bloggers to take part. I'm also not quite so confident in my ability to talk and think at the same time, which is why I write.  I heard nothing more so I made the mistake of assuming that I was off the hook. Ten minutes before the event was due to start, Mick asked me again to take part and said all sorts of reassuring things about how it would be fine. So, I took my place out front with Shuggy, James Mackenzie from Better Nation, Irish journalist  Peter Geoghegan and Pat Kane.

Bearing in mind that I'd done zero prep for this, I was just ever so slightly freaked out when Mick said that each panellist would talk for 3-4 minutes and then handed me the microphone. What followed sounded pretty dire to me at the time, so I was pleasantly surprised when Moridura got the gist of what I was trying to say about wanting my blog to encourage people who might not normally be interested in politics to take part in all sorts of discussion about politics and ideas. I was very happy about  his description of me as gentle, consensual, effective and truly liberal. Definitely one of the best compliments I've had online. He did call me a bit for saying that I tried not to be too tribal and then mentioned that I was a Liberal Democrat. Well, you know, I am a Lib Dem, and proud of it, but I've said time and time again that I generally assume that people get involved in politics, in all parties, for good reasons, wanting to improve people's lives and that we should work together wherever we can.

I wasn't taking notes from this session because I was so closely involved in it but it is online somewhere. I haven't watched it and I'm not linking to it because I really don't want you to see how rubbish I was, but I'm sure you'll find it if you really want to.

I did, however, feel a great deal more comfortable with the questions we were asked, first about how the blogosphere could help shape debate in the run up to the campaign next year. I felt, and James agreed, that there wasn't enough proper debate and discussion about how we were going to cope with the cuts. They're coming whether we like it or not, and it would be very useful if there was a proper debate on how we wanted our public services to look like, what we needed, what we could get rid of. Joan McAlpine disagreed, saying that the best use of the blogosphere was to advance ideas for the future governance, independence or otherwise, of Scotland.

Other topics covered included the Twitter Joke Trial  - coming the day after the #iamspartacus campaign where thousands of people on Twitter repeated Paul Chambers' original joke and how the blogosphere could work on and research stories that wouldn't otherwise have broken because newspaper editors wouldn't give the time and resources to them.

I have to say that I'm quite grateful to Mick for inviting me to do this and putting me on the spot like he did. I'd never have done it otherwise and I would feel better about doing something similar again - although I'd be better prepared.

Can the Blogosphere have the proper debate around independence that the mainstream media avoids?

This was a session run by Joan McAlpine where she talked about how the mainstream media tended to casually dismiss the idea of independence if it discussed it at all. Peter Curran who writes Moridura, who's an SNP member after years of Labour activism, made the point that it would most likely be Labour who would run an independent Scotland - although I would hope that if it did ever happen, we'd choose a proportional electoral system which would encourage consensual politics. I chimed in that I understood Joan's frustration in a way because I really don't like the Liberal Democrats being bracketed in as a unionist party - we're a federalist party, which is quite a different thing.

Women blog too - who knew? Making women visible online

Guess whose idea this one was? I had been a bit worried that nobody would want to come, but we had a super discussion. The main idea that came out of this session, and Joan's before, was that a Scottish blog aggregator might be a good idea. I certainly think that Lib Dem Blogs was a tremendous help for me and I would love to see some sort of Scottish equivalent that works along the same principles - ie that it's open to anyone to join and every post is fed in.

Lily Greenan said it would be good to have online learning tools for bloggers in a safe supportive space. She was covering the session via Twitter and we were able to chat with The Burd who suggested that the lack of childcare at our event meant she had to miss it.

Another suggestion from someone else who wasn't there, but was elsewhere in the building, speech and language technology scientist Maria Wolters was this blogpost, called "Be the Visible Bitch" from a blog called Young Female Scientist. It's not about visibility online but things it suggests, like making yourself known to key figures, arguing, and making sure you aren't ignored could be transferred to the internet. There was some feeling in the room that we didn't want to be bitches - but that can be a term used by others to describe any sort of assertive behaviour. All the things the author mentions are things that men do easily with no fear of reproach or recrimination and that women can sometimes shy away from.

And finally.....

I don't think that the world is going to change as a result of either this event, or the blogosphere's collective or individual action, but it was useful in terms of meeting people, listening to different ideas and discussing different ways of doing things. You can't knock something that tries to encourage us to do things better - although there's an argument that the people to ask about doing politics better aren't just the people who are doing it and writing about it at the moment. I had a really enjoyable day and found it all very positive and illuminating. Others did too - notably Joan McAlpine, Moridura, Shuggy and Scot Goes Pop.

A tale of two letters on tax, an apology - and some questions on the SNP's missing three years

I wrote last Friday of my anger that the SNP had allowed the Scottish Parliament's power to vary the rate of Income Tax, voted for by almost two thirds of the Scottish People in the 1997 referendum, to be rendered useless for the next 4 years. I made a mistake in that article by saying that the Scottish Liberal Democrats were the only party to seriously suggest using it. I hadn't realised that the Greens had suggested it earlier this month, The fact that they will now have to re-write their manifesto goes some way to explain why they are, understandably, so livid about this. Apologies for not including it earlier.

Nothing I've heard this weekend changes my view that both the Westminster and Scottish Parliaments need to investigate exactly what went on here. I've printed the correspondence between Michael Moore and Alex Salmond in full below but there's a huge gap that it just doesn't cover, the period from July 2007, when the original agreement lapsed, to July this year when Alex Salmond said the Scottish Government received a demand from HMRC for £7 million to pay for the ability to vary tax in Scotland to be written in their new IT system.

The SNP has in my view many questions to answer on this. Here are just a few:

Alex Salmomd's letter seeks to make this an issue about the forthcoming Calman reforms. He seems to have got the idea that the tax powers under Calman are going to come with a bill of tens of millions of pounds every year. I have absolutely no idea where he gets that from at all. It rather suggests that there has been more communication between Westminster and Scotland on this than the almost 3 year silence he suggests. Maybe he should enlighten us. While we're at it, though, I don't have a problem with the Scottish Parliament paying reasonable costs to HMRC on this one. As long as it's actual costs and not HMRC having a laugh. Part of being a grown up Parliament means that we pay our own bills. Why should we expect HMRC to pick up the tab for something we want?

What happened in July 2007 when the contract with HMRC expired? Can we see all the correspondence between the Scottish Government and HMRC on this issue. How hard did they try to reach a resolution?

We all know it's the SNP's usual way to try to resolve disputes with Westminster privately, with dignity. They aren't known for their willingness to pick a fight with the Westminster Government at the first sign of trouble, of course they aren't. Surely, though,  on an issue like this they could have made an exception and at the very least told the Scottish Parliament what was going on, that there was not a current contract with HMRC on the tax raising power. Why did they not do this?

Why, as Scottish Liberal Democrat finance spokesman Jeremy Purvis pointed out on the Politics Show yesterday, did the SNP Government not mention anything about this in 2008 when they were still saying that they would use the HMRC system to introduce a Local Income Tax?

On 12th November 2008, there was a debate in Holyrood about the state of the Scottish economy. Have a look at the following exchange between Mike Rumbles and John Swinney. Would that not have been a perfect opportunity for Mr Swinney to tell Parliament that in fact there was no existing facility to vary that power as no agreement had been reached with HMRC. I suspect if he had, that the combined political pressure from Holyrood and Westminster members would have been helpful in effecting a resolution.

  • Mike Rumbles: My point is on that issue. The measures that the cabinet secretary has mentioned were taken before the credit crunch and the downturn. I think all members agree that decisive action to cut taxes is important and that the cabinet secretary could use the powers that are available to him to cut income tax.

  • John Swinney: I look forward to Liberal Democrat members' speeches on their amendment. Mr Rumbles and his colleagues must explain to Parliament where the consequential reductions in the budget would come from to pay for their proposed tax cuts. We cannot advance propositions in Parliament unless we understand fully where the costs will be.

And I still don't think that the Labour Party is yet off the hook. Mike Moore's letter makes it clear that he's not privy to the discussions that went on between the previous Labour Westminster Government and the SNP. I want to see that Labour, whose PM and Chancellor were both Scottish MPs, did what it could to
 resolve the situation. It certainly wasn't in the interests of the Scottish people for them to let the issue drift.

There are many dimensions to this and I think we deserve a full analysis on what went wrong and why nothing was done to preserve the ability of the Scottish Parliament to set its own rate of tax in accordance with the overwhelming wishes of the Scottish people. To have to go for four years without this ability is not on.

The two letters in full:

From Michael Moore MP to Alex Salmond

Dear Alex

I noted that John Swinney MSP made the following remarks in the Scottish Parliament yesterday:

'Within the Parliament's existing revenue powers, we have explored options for maximising our income. We have been mindful of the need to consider the effect ofthe significant tax rises that the UK Government has announced before we act. Itherefore confirm that we will not raise the Scottish variable rate of income tax.'
I was about to write to you and others on the Scottish variable rate (SVR) to make it absolutely clear that this is a power which cannot, at this time, be exercised by the Scottish Parliament. Indeed, for the reasons I explain below, it could not now be used until 2013-14 at the earliest. You will be aware that the arrangements between HM Revenue and Customs (HMRC) and the then Scottish Executive, put in place at the commencement of devolution and intended to ensure the SVR of income tax could be invoked within
10 months, lapsed in 2007.

Section 80 of the Scotland Act 1998 allows for any administrative costs incurred by HMRC in relation to the Scottish Parliament's tax varying power to be met by Scottish Ministers. It is an established principle that the costs of devolution should be met from the Scottish Budget.

I am not privy to the dialogue which took place between your Administration and the previous UK Government in the past three years. However I do know that the Scottish Government confirmed in August this year that it was not able to commit the necessary resources to enable HMRC to proceed with work on PAYE systems to allow the SVR to be available in the first tax year after the 2011 election.

As the system has not been funded and maintained to allow for delivery within the ten month time frame under the original arrangements, HMRC would, in fact, now need two years' notice in order to invoke the SVR. This would mean that a new Scottish Parliament, elected at the May 2011 elections, would not be able invoke
the SVR until at least the 2013-14 tax year.

It is not yet publicly known whether the Scottish political parties will propose using the SVR in their programmes for the 2011-15 Parliament. I do believe that they must be advised well in advance of next year's elections that the SVR, in practical terms, cannot be invoked until the penultimate year of the next Parliament.

For that reason, I am copying this letter to Annabel Goldie MSP, lain Gray MSP, Margo MacDonald MSP, Tavish Scott MSP and Patrick Harvie MSP as well as to David Gauke MP, the Exchequer Secretary to the Treasury.

Yours sincerely


Reply from Alex Salmond to Michael Moore

Your letter of 18 November about the Scottish variable rate of income tax (SVR) is a travesty of the position.  The reality is as follows. 
The then Scottish Executive paid the UK Government £12 million in 2000 to add SVR functionality to Her Majesty's Revenue and Customs (HMRC) tax collection systems.  Thereafter, an annual fee of £50,000 was paid.  
HMRC said in 2007 that additional work was needed to maintain the readiness of the IT system, and in summer 2008 made clear that they would be installing a new IT platform.  Scottish Government officials attempted to elicit information on what this meant for Scotland and the functionality of the 3p tax power.  
We were finally asked on 28 July this year to pay over the sum of £7 million to HMRC for this purpose.  Why nowhere in your letter did you mention this.demand?  
Anyone proposing paying this £7 million to HMRC would need to explain where the equivalent cuts would be made in Scottish public spending.  
And even if we had paid it - at a time when Scotland is on the receiving end of massive cuts to our budget from your government - the SVR under the new system could not have been implemented until 2012/13: another key point which you failed to mention.  
In any case, at that stage it seemed an academic debate because the SVR itelf is set to be replaced under any version of the legislation which you intend to introduce in the next few weeks. 
On 20 August, Scottish Government officials offered talks with HMRC on the issue of the SVR - an offer which has not been responded to.  The first we have heard from the UK government on the matter since 20 August is your letter of yesterday. 
It is clearly unacceptable that Scotland should be asked to pay, again, for something which millions of pounds have previously been paid for.  If HMRC choose to replace their IT systems, that is clearly a matter for them.  However, anyone would expect them in specifying their new systems to replicate the functionality of the old.  
No Scottish administration has used the 3p tax power, none of the main parties in Scotland advocate using it now, and it is intended to be overtaken by the Tory/Lib Dem Calman financial proposals - flawed measures which, had they been established for the start of the current spending review, would have resulted in the Scottish Budget being £900 million lower in 2009/10. 
The real issue, therefore, would appear to be about the future. 
You stated - as did Danny Alexander in his letter to me of 20 October this year about the Spending Review settlement - that: "it is an established principle that the costs of devolution should be met from the Scottish Budget." 
This is not the case - in fact, the opposite is true.  
HM Treasury's recently-updated Statement of Funding Policy states at paragraph 3.2.8 that: 
"Where decisions of United Kingdom departments or agencies lead to additional costs for any of the devolved administrations, where other arrangements do not exist automatically to adjust for such extra costs, the body whose decision leads to the additional cost will meet that cost." 
The clear impression can only be that your letter was not about the cost of financial powers that are going to be superseded, but rather about establishing a precedent for the Scottish Government paying to instal and administer the Calman tax proposals - which unlike the SVR will require to be used every year. 
Given the huge pressures on the Scottish public purse because of your government's spending cuts - and the further threat to our budget from the Calman proposals themselves - we need answers to these key questions as a matter of urgency: 
How much is the UK Government intending to ask the Scottish Government to pay for the Calman tax powers - measures which could reduce Scotland's budget, as indicated above? 
When do you propose asking the Scottish Government, and therefore the Scottish people, to pay? 
Exactly when would these financial powers be capable of being implemented? 
A copy of this letter goes like yours to Annabel Goldie MSP, Iain Gray MSP, Margo MacDonald MSP, Tavish Scott MSP and Patrick Harvie MSP, and David Gauke MP, and also to the leaders of the Scottish parties at Westminster: Angus Robertson MP, Ann McKechin MP, and David Mundell MP.  I am also sending copies to John Swinney and Fiona Hyslop. 
Given that you released your letter to the media, I am also releasing this.

Scottish Bloggers and Blog Readers - help compile report on Scottish Blogosphere

Those nice people at Weber Shandwick, who run the Scotland Votes site are doing a survey both of blog readers and blog writers so that they can compile a report on the state of the Scottish Blogosphere early next year.

The Blog Readers' Survey is here.

The Blog Writers' Survey is here.

They really don't take long, and the more people who complete it the more accurate it will be.  And if you felt moved to mention this humble blog in dispatches, you would make me very happy. And if you are a woman blogger,  please most especially fill this in so that people get the idea that the blogosphere is not just a bunch of boys.


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