Monday, 23 April 2012

MayDay Festival broadens coverage

This year's festive activity around MayDay is showing a increasing coverage and has been gathered/organised by Glasgow Friends of MayDay (GFoMD) into the programme shown here. It is particularly welcome to see that a number of organisations are beginning to target MayDay (and surrounding dates), for their activity. Everything looks interesting and entertaining, but at the risk of offending some, I'd like to draw your attention to four specific events.

Firstly, the MayDay Concert organised by GFoMD, on Friday 4 May 7.30pm in the Community Central Hall, in Maryhill Road. Comedy, Music and Poetry as Bruce Morton, Eleanor Morton, Arthur Johnstone, Dave Anderson, Marc Livingstone and Tom Leonard, help us celebrate the International Workers' Festival. Tickets £8/£6 from here.

Secondly, the first showing in Scotland of a film made by Ken Loach in 1969! This was a film commissioned by Save the Children, but when the charity saw what Ken had produced they refused to release it! Time mellows even injured charitable feelings and the film was shown in London last year to mark Loach's 75 Birthday. By all accounts it is a remarkable film! It is on at the GFT on Saturday 5 May at 4.40pm. Tickets from the GFT.

Thirdly, the Northern Soul night on the evening (8.00pm) of Saturday 5 May at the STUC Centre. Being organised by the Glasgow Trades Union Council, this is a repeat of the hugely successful night of last year.  The DJs are ready, the venue is primed, get your butts along to dance into Mayday! Tickets on the door (£5).

And, of course, the pinnacle of the celebrations is the Glasgow MayDay March and Rally itself. It starts from George Square at 11.00am, but that is the last thing that is similar to previous years! This year the Rally will take place at the prestigious Royal Concert Hall, and the main speaker is author Owen Jones, whose book Chavs, about the way traditional working class communities have been denigrated, abused and 'demonized' by the UK's ruling elites, has made a significant impact.

Many other events also feature in this year's programme. Everyone should be able to find something to mark the festival in an entertaining way!

Copies of the programme, illustrated here, are available digitally from me. If anyone wants artwork for printing from, I can also supply that. Unfortunately we don't have the resources to print multiple copies ourselves.

Thursday, 12 April 2012

Major Misunderstanding takes over at The Herald

The reduction in the level of accuracy and checking that is being done on stories in The Herald is becoming seriously concerning. Recently this broadsheet that was once a paper of record has started to sprout enough typos and inaccuracies to suggest it wants to become a Scottish version of the Guardian (circa 1980's). However today (12 April) there is a far more significant error. It concerns a page lead on (yet another) spat between the Scottish Government and Westminster (see here). This time over public sector pensions.
Danny Alexander MP

While the dual responsibilities for pensions mean that this area is ripe for disputes to occur (devolved public service pensions are devolved to Holyrood; reserved public service pensions and general pension policy are reserved to Westminster), this particular story has to be unbelievable - literally.
Brian Currie, the author of the article, would have us believe that Danny Alexander (Chief Secretary to the Treasury) has written to John Swinney suggesting he is unilaterally going to move the index to which public sector pensions are linked from the current Consumer Price Index(CPI) to the older Retail Price Index (RPI). This is apparently because the CPI goes up faster than the RPI and the switch will save money. John Swinney is reported to be 'angry' and 'astounded'.

Well might he be, but it would seem that this proposal is somewhat unlikely, even for the gaffe-prone ConDem coailition. Why? Well there are at least two good reasons why such a move is unlikely. Firstly, RPI goes up faster than CPI, not the other way round, so Danny Alexander (who wants to cut money from public sector workers' pensions) is most unlikely to move the link to the faster rising index. Secondly, Mr Alexander already changed the link in the other direction taking effect only in April 2011! It follows that neither is he likely to have written wanting to change it back, nor to tell the Scottish Government that it was being changed – as everyone was well aware of it a year ago.
If you check the Scottish Government's release (presumably the source for this story) here it does not say that the index change is the objection. It objects to proposals "to legislate for an automatic link between normal pension age and state pension age, and also set the normal pension age for police officers and firefighters at 60."

John Swinney, 'angry and astonished'
John Swinney's 'anger' and 'astonishment' appears to be about that - not about a switch to RPI for pensions as stated. Incidentally, trade unions (on both sides of the border) would be inclined to welcome any such switch as they have spent some time and resources campaigning and taking out an (unsuccessful) Judicial Review AGAINST the switch from the RPI to CPI instituted in April 2011.
So is this an invention by John Swinney to attack Westminster? A strange change of heart from the Minister? Or a cock up on the reporting/sub-editing front at the Herald? Given the cutbacks in reporting staff at Newsquest Towers I know which my money is on!

But more seriously, if this major piece of misinformation, however generated, can get into a paper such as the Herald (and as a page lead too!), it suggests that levels of scrutiny and accuracy are far below any responsible level of adequacy. The Herald, far from being a paper of record, risks becoming a paper of ridicule.

Sunday, 1 April 2012

Public interest should not be compromised

The news (in today's Sunday Mail) that the Scottish Government has now reverted to their fallback reason for refusing to release details of correspondence between them and Sir Brian Souter - one of their biggest donors - should come as little surprise to dedicated Freedom of Information watchers. The use of the 'total cost' excuse by the Scottish Government is becoming a far too regular hiding place for unwanted information release.

It is concerning that this getout clause is being used increasingly by the Scottish Government (and is being latched on to by other public bodies) and it begins to look like it is used to avoid a) giving a specific exemption and b) appeals to the Information Commissioner invoking the 'public interest' test. As the cost limit is not indexed -linked, it also applies to more and more information requests as time passes.

The clause is a convenient one, as it isn't technically an 'exemption' in terms of the law, and therefore not subject to the public interest test, which the previous refusals to disclose the information (because the requester hadn't clearly identified the information, and because it dealt with correspondence with the Royal Family) both were in this case.

Bad enough then, that a Government that trumpets its commitment to 'open government and Freedom of Information by ensuring as much information as possible is made available without having to be asked' (Scottish Government – 6 Principles) seems to regularly practice bureaucratic moves to stymie legitimate information requests, but could there be something more behind this one?

Recently the Scottish Government issued consultation on an amendment to the FoI(s)A. A small amendment, much of which was unexceptional in tidying up anomalies that impacted on potential prosecutions under the Act, and reducing time limits for the release of restricted information. Freedom of Information campaigners heaved a sigh of relief too, that suggestions for the introduction of charges for FoI requests had been left out.

But included in the proposed legislation was a clause to bring the Scottish Act in line with recent changes to the UK Act, in particular increasing the level of exemption for 'correspondence with the Queen or her heir'; so that this would be an 'absolute' exemption. This caused some surprise. Why would this government wish to emulate the ConDem government especially by reducing the citizen's rights to information? Especially as part of a minor amendment that was largely about fixing anomalies and increasing access.

Many campaigners pointed out that this ran completely contrary to FoI principles (not least the Scottish Government's own!), but the responses were muted – many wondered whether to bother replying to such a minor consultation at all. Indeed the strongest arguments against were advanced by the Scottish Information Commissioner (SIC), himself.

Around the time the consultation closed a couple of interesting Appeal decisions were published by the SIC. Both found that the Scottish Government had unjustifiably rejected (or in one case ignored) requests for information about their involvement (or otherwise) in the process of the conferring of a Knighthood on Sir Brian Souter, by the Crown.

As many who know me will testify, I am one who tends to place 'cock-up' theories before the 'conspiracy' theories, but it is an interesting coincidence (to say the least). Is it merely unfortunate that a government that recently spent £100,000 plus of our money trying to keep their cost estimates of a local income tax secret, consistently refuses to release other information at so much less cost? In particular does an 'absolute exemption' on any contact between the Scottish Government and the Crown, help or hinder the disclosure of the facts on Sir Brian's nomination for a knighthood?

The recent track record of this government suggests that openness and transparency are now far from their aims.