Thursday, November 15, 2012

Tavish Scott on SNP "scandal" over Stow

How convenient for the SNP that they managed to get themselves embroiled in another scandal the week that Willie Rennie has no First Minister's Question. I am fairly sure that if he did, he would have asked about the furore surrounding Kirk Ramsay, who was effectively forced out of his position as Chairman of Stow College by Education Secretary Mike Russell.

To give some context, the SNP has been inflicting cuts and mergers on Scotland's FE sector. Kirk Ramsay had opposed them and had kept Stow as a single entity. It's fair to say he had been a robust critic of Mike Russell.

Last week, Russell sent an outraged missive to attendees at a meeting saying that Ramsay had recorded the proceedings and that he no longer had confidence in him, as the Herald reported on Saturday. The way that sounds, it's like a private conversation had been distributed. In fact, Ramsay had recorded Russell's remarks about future college funding made in an on the record briefing to a room full of about 80 people. Ramsay suffers from Tinnitus and so recorded the proceedings to make sure he had an accurate record, something which was completely understandable. And the people he distributed it to were people who were entirely entitled to have that information. It's not like he went running to the press with it.

Now, there's an argument that he should have let people know that he was recording the event. I get that. But an appropriate response, surely, rather than send out an angry, hyperbolic letter would have been a quiet phone call, through an intermediary if necessary to establish the facts and to work out what, if any, action would be desirable. Resignations shouldn't have come anywhere near it.

Mike Russell should not have thrown his weight around demanding resignations. It's none of his business who holds these positions in colleges. He's not in charge of them. But his letter effectively said, publicly, that he could not work with Ramsay and by implication with Stow College while he was there. No wonder Ramsay felt his only option was to fall on his sword. The whole thing has been an atrocious abuse of power by Russell. It's not the first time he has been accused of bullying behaviour, either as last year he was accused of bullying councils into agreeing to a moratorium on school closures. So much for local government.

It's hardly surprising that the opposition parties at Holyrood wanted there to be an investigation. But, with an inbuilt SNP majority, that's not going to happen. In fact, Education Committee Convener Stewart Maxwell said that the facts were not in dispute so no investigation was necessary.  Actually, Mike Russell's reaction and whether it was proportionate or not, and the signal it sends out to everyone else working in the college sector is actually worthy of investigation, I'd say. Holyrood's greatest strength used to be its robust committee system, but if the conveners act as servants of the government, well that's not great, is it?

Tavish Scott, who's recently returned to the front line as Liberal Democrat spokesman for transport, rural affairs and sport, was asked about this on Politics Scotland yesterday afternoon. He said that it was a scandal that Maxwell had refused to hold an enquiry. A Parliamentary disgrace, he called it. Tavish has always been good at going through the SNP like a dose of salts and cutting through their bovine scatology. It's good to have him back in a high profile role.

He's written a column for today's Scotsman on the row:
When a minister gets to the point where he starts to throw his weight around and forces a resignation then he and his government look out of touch and arrogant. The Ramsay saga is that moment – for the SNP and Mike Russell.
Parliament, he said, had effectively been neutered by the SNP Government:
 Parliament is neutered by the SNP’s absolute majority. The government stopped the European committee investigating the EU and an independent Scotland. Opposition MSPs cite numerous cases of the Nationalist majority on committees being used to mitigate any criticism of the government. In the 2007-11 parliament, when the SNP was in a minority government, thefinance secretary paid considerable heed to committee recommendations on spending. Now the government uses its committee majority to block any opposition proposal.
What's that phrase about power corrupting? Sadly, the Scottish Government seems to be living proof of that statement. While the Coalition at Westminster has ensured that Parliament has more power, the SNP treats the Parliament like a minor inconvenience.

Going back to FMQs, today, I have little confidence that Johann Lamont or Ruth Davidson will be any more effective than they usually are. The EU legal advice scandal had just erupted the last time Willie didn't have a question and the Herald said his absence was noticed.
His absence was keenly felt after Labour's Johann Lamont failed to land a serious blow, and Tory Ruth Davidson shot herself in the foot.
The shine is coming off the SNP Government in fairly spectacular fashion as they get way too big for their boots.

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