Friday, 30 October 2009

All power to the workers at the Free Press

It's official - the West Highland Free Press, my old newspaper, has been bought over by its staff from the shareholders of West Highland Publishing, including the founding editor, Brian Wilson.

When the idea of sale was first mentioned there were obvious concerns about what might become of Am Paipear Beag and its tradition of combining local news and radical journalism with lamb sale prices and first rate shinty coverage. This outcome guarantees an independent editorial and commercial future for the paper.

In the West Highlands the newspaper, and its politics, are taken foregranted as part of the landscape but in the context of British journalism it's important too. The Free Press is the only survivor of the flourishing alternative publishing movement of the 1970s and just about the only weekly periodical I can think of, apart from the New Statesman, that maintains a solidly left of centre editorial line. It also just happens to be a very good local newspaper.

Its values and its journalism are safe in the hands of Ian McCormack, at the helm now for 33 years and possibly the longest-serving newspaper editor in the country. The rest of the staff that I know are completely rooted in Skye and I have no doubt they're capable of carrying on what they have been doing to a large degree anyway, running the company smoothly.

Ian (or "James Shaw Grant" as we're now calling him) is the most modest of media barons. He is one of the unsung heroes of the Free Press who kept the presses turning, week after week, when lesser men would have been defeated by faulty technology, power cuts, winter ferry timetables and my bad spelling.

The changeover marks the end of an era for Brian Wilson, though hopefully not the end of his involvement in the paper. You can read Brian's thoughts in the Free Press itself and he gave a stirring and superbly fluent Gaelic interview to the BBC yesterday.

I gave him a quick call the other day to wish him well after handing over ownership of the paper that he founded in 1972 as a long-haired graduate newly arrived in Kyleakin along with Jim Wilkie, Jim Innes and others. He said he felt quite unsentimental about the whole thing and I didn't believe him for a second.

I feel a great attachment to the paper myself, although I only worked there for five years. Brian and Ian set me on the path to journalism and the paper has been the foundation stone for many lifelong friendships. It also nurtured for me an enduring love affair with the Isle of Skye, which I have still to confess to the Isle of Lewis.

The Free Press, I believe, has had a far more fundamental effect on its readers - mirroring and defending the language and the culture of the modern Highlands, broadening and strengthening a sense of community. It can pretty much claim to have vanquished the influence of Highland landlordism through campaigning, exposure, ridicule and by fostering in its columns the debate that culminated in the community land ownership movement.

If you had to sum it up you'd just say the Free Press has made people feel more confident about their own place and that's no small achievement for any paper. A lot of that is due to Brian Wilson who for most of these years has been the embodiment of the Free Press, just as much as the paper made him a substantial political figure in Scotland long before he became an MP.

He told me the other day he didn't want to carry on with the Free Press for another 20 years, but when he has time for reflection he might find he doesn't have that much choice in the matter. I can't imagine the paper without "Brian Wilson Writes", unlesss he starts "Brian Wilson Blogs", and he's always been a late adopter.

The Highlands will have to cope with the change, I'm sure the West Highland Free Press can. Meala naidheachd oirbh.

Thursday, 29 October 2009

Nimrod lawyer looks for criminal charges

John Cooper, the lawyer representing some of the Nimrod families in their negligence case against the Ministry of Defence, is considering whether there are now grounds to pursue the private companies named in the damning report into the crash.

He was on radio this morning expressing as much astonishment as anyone else at the incredible complacency within the MoD, BAE Systems and Qinetiq, that were laid bare in the report published yesterday.

The inquiry by Charles Hatton-Cave, a leading aviation lawyer, is the most damning indictment of institutional failure that anyone in Westminster can remember reading.

Here' s a summary I did for the Herald of its main findings:

THE 14 men who died on board Nimrod XV230 on September 2, 2006 stood no chance of surviving the fireball that consumed their aircraft over Helmand Province.

Before the first onboard fire warning lit up their fate was sealed not by any mistaken action on their own part – indeed they appear to have acted "with calmness, bravery and professionalism" in the face of certain death.

They were killed aboard an ageing aircraft, that was overdue for replacement, by three decades of design mistakes, by complacency in the private support industry responsible for
their safety and by a culture of cost cutting at the MoD that valued business models over old-fashioned airworthiness.

Charles Haddon-Cave, the leading aviation lawyer who wrote the highly critical report, identified "a failure of leadership, culture and priorities" as contributory factors.

The largest loss in a single day for the MoD since the Falklands represented a "systemic breach" of the military covenant of care for the armed forces and devastating failings on the part of the Ministry of Defence, BAe Systems and QinetiQ, he said.

He named 10 individuals five from the MoD, three from BAe Systems and two from QinetiQ who bore responsibility for the "yawning gap between the appearance and the reality of safety" in a system not fit for purpose.


The earlier RAF Board of Inquiry and the coroner’s inquest found that the explosion was caused by fuel leaking into a dry bay and igniting on contact with a hot air pipe. Fuel couplings should not have been in the same compartment, the inquest was told. Mr Haddon-Cave said that overspillage from mid-air refuelling may also have been a cause.

Once the fire ignited the crew had no means of tackling the initial flames. They issued a Mayday and attempted an emergency descent to Kandahar air base, but at 3000ft the aircraft exploded, broke into four pieces and hit the ground in 12 seconds. The fire, and the bad design that allowed it to happen, could have been avoided if earlier warnings had not been ignored.

The report noted that design flaws introduced at three stages, each 10 years apart, played a "crucial part" in the loss of XV230. A Nimrod Safety Case, drawn up by BAe Systems with help from Qinetiq, between 2001 and 2005 was meant to identify "potentially catastrophic hazards before they could cause an accident"


Mr Haddon-Cave said "failure" or "failings" 24 times in his press briefing.

"Serious design flaws" with the aircraft had "lain dormant for years" his report stated.

"Warnings from as early as 1998 that "the conflict between ever-reducing resources and ... increasing demands, whether they be operational, financial, legislative, or merely those symptomatic of keeping the old ac (aircraft) flying" and that close attention should be paid to safety standards were ignored.

As well as a safety review that was "riddled with errors" the inquiry found there was an assumption by those involved that the Nimrod was safe because it had flown successfully for 30 years.

This contributed to the "general malaise" that fatally undermined safety.


Mr Haddon-Cave accused the MoD of sacrificing safety to cut costs. The department sustained a "deep organisational trauma" during the strategic defence review from 1998 to 2006 that led to a distraction from airworthiness as the priority. .

Senior officers focused on the priority of achieving the "strategic goal " of a 20% reduction in costs in five years against a backdrop of increased operational demands.

"Airworthiness was a casualty of the process of cuts, change, dilution and distraction commenced by the 1998 strategic review. These failures of leadership and the failure to keep safety at the top of the agenda contributed to the loss of XV230." said Mr Haddon-Cave.

One former senior RAF officer told the inquiry: "In the 1990s you had to be on top of airworthiness, by 2004 you had to be on top of your budget if you wanted to get ahead."

Delays in procurement for a replacement for the Nimrod aircraft also contributed.


The 585-page report singles out 10 people for criticism. Five are from the Ministry of Defence – including two very senior military officers of four-star rank – three from BAe Systems and two from QinetiQ.

At the MOD General Sir Sam Cowan, who has since retired, whose task it was to unite the separate logistics support agencies for the Royal Navy, Army and RAF into a single Defence Logistics Organisation, was criticised for the "Stalinistic efficiency" with which targeted cost cutting by 20% by 2005

He did not give enough thought to the impact of imposing his target and should have realised it
could come at the expense of safety and airworthiness, the report said.

Air Chief Marshal Sir Malcolm Pledger, who has since retired, succeeded Gen Cowan as chief of defence logistics in September 2002 despite later admitting to Mr Haddon-Cave’s review he did not believe he was fully qualified for the job. He was "handed a poisoned chalice" and was torn between delivering the 20% cost savings and supporting the conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq. That does not save him from criticism,

The report said he should have questioned whether it was "feasible, realistic and sensible" to achieve the 20% goal at the same pace and within the same timescale. "There should, at least, have been pause for thought," the report said.

Air Commodore George Baber and Wing Commander Michael Eagles were slated for accepting the flawed BAe safety case and delegating much of the task to an MoD civil servant Frank Walsh who was "out of his depth" and since retired.

BAe Systems managers Chris Lowe, Richard Oldfield, and Eric Prince bore "primary responsibility" for the company’s failings in relation to the safety case. Mr Haddon-Cave also said defence firm QinetiQ bore a "share of responsibility" for the failure of the Nimrod safety case in not properly carrying out its role as independent adviser.


Overall, Mr Haddon-Cave said many of the organisational causes for the loss of XV230 echoed other major accidents including the loss of the Space Shuttles Challenger and Columbia, the Zeebrugge ferry disaster, the sinking of the Marchioness and the King’s Cross fire.

He said the MoD was committed to addressing the "numerous weaknesses" in the RAF’s system for ensuring the airworthiness of its aircraft. It has grounded all Nimrods whose engine-bay hot air ducts had not been replaced but the inquiry had found no reason to recommend the grounding of the Nimrod MR2 fleet which is due to come to the end of its service life within months.

The two named RAF officers, who are still in service have been stripped of their responsibilities for safety and the RAF would now consider if any "further action" would be taken against them. A team has been put in place within the MoD to implement the report’s recommendations.

Mr Haddon-Cave concluded: "In my view, XV230 was lost because of a systemic breach of the military covenant brought about by failures on the part of all those involved. This must not be allowed to happen again."

Wednesday, 28 October 2009

The loss of Nimrod XV230 - a devastating report

It was a solemn and abject Bob Ainsworth, the Secretary of State for Defence, that stood to give a statement on the independent inquiry into the Nimrod crash today after a loud and raucous Prime Minister's Questions.

He gave a full and unreserved apology to the families of the bereaved for an entirely avoidable catastrophe that led to the biggest single loss of life for the Ministry of Defence since the Falklands War.

The deaths of 14 servicemen in the fireball aboard Nimrod XV230 in September 2006 was entirely preventable and was the result of cost-cutting, slack management and an emphasis on business efficiency models rather than military airworthiness within the MoD and the defence industry that maintained and serviced the aircraft.

In short it wasn't the Taliban that killed the servicemen it was "the suits" who inhabit Bae, QinetiQ and the Ministry of Defence.

Liam Fox, the Conservative shadow Defence Secretary caught the tone well: "Cutting corners costs lives. You cannot fight wars on a peacetime budget and there is a moral imperative that those who are willing to risk their lives in the armed service of their country, should know at all times that everything is being done to maximise the chance of success of their mission, and to minimise their risk in carrying it out." Mr Ainsworth could do little but agree.

The actual presentation of the report into the crash of Nimrod XV230 by Charles Haddon-Cave afterwards was the most excoriating and damning condemnation of organisational failure that you will ever hear. Read the entire report here. We'll be providing analysis and reaction in the Herald tomorrow.

His report singles out 10 named individuals for criticism, five from the MoD, three from BAe Systems and two from QinetiQ and if there are no resignations or criminal charges before this affair is over then it will be all the more flabbergasting.

Groundbreaking solution from Gers MP

Lots of black humour going around about Rangers but I’m sure Ayrshire Central MP Brian Donohoe, secretary of the Rangers Supporters Club in the Commons, won’t mind me repeating this contribution.
I greeted him last night with commiserations (okay, I was teasing him) on the dire financial situation at Ibrox . Quick as a flash he hit back: "It’s okay, I’ve negotiated a solution. John Reid has offered to groundshare."

Kelly adopts Holyrood system for MPs expenses

Details of the Kelly report on Westminster expenses reforms leaked late last night. The main proposal is an end to mortgage interest payments for second homes in line with the expenses reforms at the Scottish parliament.

Also a ban on employing family members which, I understand, is more draconian than Holyrood where the family relationship just has to be declared in the register (MSPs correct me if I am wrong please?)

The changes are to be phased in over five years to head off a so-called "wives revolt" by 200 MPs who employ their partners or family members.

Fortunately I was still hanging around at a Whitehall reception when the call came through so was able to catch the first edition of the Herald with the story.

I also did a bit for
Newsnight Scotland , which was fine except that they spelled my name incorrectly on the tum-tab. But at least I realised how much I need a haircut.

Actually quite a lot of stories moved late last night. John Reid MP, the former Defence secretary was on his way out of the Milbank studios when I was on the way in. He'd just succeeded in persuading Gordon Brown to reverse the £20m cuts in TA training which is good news for the territorials and good news for David Cameron who has been given a gift for Prime Minister's Questions today.

With the prospect of "El Presidente" Blair having dominated the Westminster day it also emerged late that Gordon Brown will be openly canvassing for Mr Blair at this week's EU leaders summit. More on that today, I suspect, and expenses and the report on the Nimrod crash in Afghanistan.

This from this morning's Herald:

The Scottish parliamentary rules on allowances on accommodation for politicians are to be adopted by Westminster, according to the leaked details of the Kelly report on MPs’ expenses reform.

Like MSPs who have to stay in Edinburgh overnight politicians at Westminster could in future be banned from claiming for the mortgage interest payments for London homes, according to recommendations leaked last night.

Sir Christopher Kelly, the chairman of the Committee on Standards in Public Life, will propose that MPs should in future have to rent if they require a second home. The move is aimed at stemming public anger that MPs might make a profit during their parliamentary career from rising house prices in the capital at the expense of the tax payer.

According to the report, Sir Christopher will also suggest a reduction in the number of MPs who are eligible to claim the second homes allowance.

Currently, only central London MPs are excluded from claiming for a second home, but under the proposals any MP with a constituency in "reasonable commuting distance" of Westminster will have to meet their own accommodation costs.

The recommendations on accommodation will affect all Scottish MPs who spend up to four nights a week at Westminster before travelling back to their constituencies at the weekend.

Following the retrospective judgements of Sir Thomas Legg on MPs expenses going back five years some politicians feared the Kelly report might take a draconian approach and recommend repayment of any capital gains already made on flats bought under the existing system of allowances. If that does not form part of the recommendations it is expected that most MPs will accept the changes as part of the reform package.

Last week Gordon Brown said that whatever the recommendations the reforms should not act as a disincentive to people considering entering parliament.

As has previously been reported, the Kelly report will also recommend a ban on MPs employing members of their families paid for out of public funds. As with accommodation allowances the change is expected to be phased in over five years in an attempt to head of a "wives revolt" by the 200 MPs who currently employ family members as parliamentary staff.

Thursday, 22 October 2009

The chamber twitters into a postal strike

Reprint of yesterday's PMQs sketch almost as it appeared in the Herald ( because don't you love it when the subs cut out your pay off line).

Dr John Pugh, the analogue Lib Dem MP for Southport, has a motion down condemning the growing tendency of hon. members to text, e mail and twitter their way through parliamentary debates. According to his motion "greater interest is shown in e-mails and messages than in the contribution of parliamentary colleagues", although he admits the practice is "at times quite understandable".

Quite a few MPs are getting famous for twittering from the chamber, which for the uninitiated is a 140 character message posted to followers on an internet website. I know, some can’t see the point, but with the price of postage these days...

Jo Swinson, the Dunbartonshire East MP does it - constantly. She’s one of these people who a survey discovered wouldn’t notice a red-nosed, unicycling clown going down the street in front of them because they are too busy tweeting into their phones that they are walking down a street. Tom Harris, the Scottish blogfather, does it but with limited 3G coverage in his Glasgow North-East encampment we are spared his opinions on 1970s tv programmes for another week. Pete Wishart, SNP MP does it, or did , until Labour caught him out slagging off the whole of Prime Minister’s Questions. Not a tweet out of him since, and he was not visible at PMQs yesterday.

That said from a perch high in the press gallery I could hardly see the green benches for all the other journalists twittering into their mobile phones. Alistair Carmichael, Orkney and Shetland, was fiddling with a blackberry, but he could have been playing snake, as twittering is below him.

If all these MPs had glanced up from their phones they would have seen David Cameron and Gordon Brown going ding dong on another form of communication - the postal service. Cameron had accused Gordon Brown of lacking the "courage and leadership" to intervene in the postal dispute. In fact he accused him of "appalling weakness" in not bringing the bill to privatise the Royal Mail to the Commons, but if you were distracted by an incoming text alert you would have missed that.

"This has nothing to do with the dispute," complained the Prime Minister. "Let us urge the negotiation and mediation that is necessary avoid an unproductive strike," said Mr Brown, trying to sound authoritative and reassuring in the face of a winter of discontent.

"What the Prime Minister has just said is complete nonsense," said Cameron. He was talking about the Royal Mail bill which Mr Brown could not get past his backbenchers, not the Royal Mail strike.

Mr Brown, tried posting another letter through the slot and chastised the Tory leader for bringing the Royal Mail strike into "the political arena". There are few things in this world more political than a strike, Mr Cameron reminding him that union militancy was on the increase. At that the Prime Minister ran out of patience, slamming his papers down on the dispatch box (cries of ohh) as he urged Mr Cameron to reflect on whether his remarks were making it any easier to solve the dispute .

"I would have thought they would have agreed with me that this is a counterproductive strike could only be resolved by proper negotiation and arbitration," said Mr Brown sounding sensible.

But, as usual, it was Mr Cameron who came away smelling as fresh as Interflora roses delivered to the doorstep. In the end it’s all about delivery. Mr Cameron speaks the language of the smartphone, and Mr Brown has the communicative power of a second class stamp on a postal strike Thursday

Tuesday, 20 October 2009

Ludovic Kennedy, the Rawalpindi and the Lewis connection

Tributes have been flowing all day to Ludovic Kennedy, the broadcaster and campaigner, who died late on Sunday evening.

None was more fulsome or eloquent than Dr Finlay MacLeod's tribute on Radio nan Gaidheal this morning. It should be available soon on listen again, as they say on the Beeb, a seo.

Doc Finlay quite rightly made mention that one of the driving forces in Kennedy's lifelong fight against injustices was the treatment of his father, Edward Kennedy, by the Royal Navy, and went on, in the limited time allowed, to mention the poignant thread between that event and the Isle of Lewis.

The Daily Telegraph obituary takes up the background story: "Kennedy senior he had been a naval captain during the First World War, and in 1921 had narrowly averted mutiny by Royal Fleet Reservists by negotiating with the men directly. As a result he was court-martialled and forced out of the navy.

"The naval authorities seemed to acknowledge the injustice when in 1938, aged 60, he was recalled for active service and given command of the Rawalpindi, a P&O liner inadequately converted into a battlecruiser. A few months into the war in 1939, the Rawalpindi was sunk by the German battlecruiser Scharnhorst.

"Ludovic Kennedy heard about the sinking on the BBC nine o'clock news bulletin and immediately rang the War Office to find out about his father. "The Captain? No I'm afraid he's gone," he was told.

"Bitter grief mixed with an unutterable sense of pride proved an emotionally shattering combination which only became more intense when, some years later, he learned the truth about his father's court martial. He would later admit that his concern about miscarriages of justice probably stemmed from his feelings at the injustice done to his father."

There was only ever going to be one result when on October 23, 1939, in mountainous seas in the Iceland-Faroes gap, the Rawalpindi engaged the most powerful naval ship in the world, the German battle-cruiser Scharnhorst.

Outgunned Captain Edward Kennedy, perhaps driven by the sting of his court martial refused the German order to heave to, and in the barrage that followed carried on firing guns with the ship ablaze from stem to stern.

Kennedy died in the action along with 237 of his men. Twelve of the gunners on the Rawalpindi were naval reservists from Lewis and eight of them were killed. The four survivors became prisoners of war.

Among the island dead was Murdo MacKenzie, who grew up on the croft next to ours in Swordale. My aunts, who were schoolchildren at the time, still paint a vivid picture of the day the local postmaster took the first wartime telegram to arrive our village informing our neighbours and relatives Donald and Lily MacKenzie that their son had been lost.

Donald John MacLeod, a maritime historian who documents these island losses, recollects how the shockwaves from that buff-coloured envelope spread. "I was a boy in Uig at the time and I remember the anxiety all over the island," he told me, when I wrote about the event for a piece on Armstice Day.

"At first it was thought the 12 Lewis lads had been killed. Then there was information that all the survivors on the German ship, Deutschland, were Scots - this lifted morale but no more was heard and gloom descended again."

And that was an enduring gloom. Within the month the postmaster was back at Donald MacKenzie's blackhouse door in Swordale. A second telegram: his second son, John, another naval reservist, had also been lost at sea. So the bell kept tolling, through all the villages, throughout the war.

No one on Lewis, as far as I know, took issue with Edward Kennedy's bravery or leadeship that day but the result was that his name, and that of the Rawalpindi, became woven into the wartime history of the island.

And where would I rather be today...

Emmanuel Coupe's picture from the top of the Quiraing, looking south to The Old Man of Storr, has been chosen from thousands of entries as Take A View's 2009 Landscape Photography of the Year Award.

The best images from the competition will be displayed at a free exhibition from the 5th December at London's National Theatre.

Friday, 16 October 2009

Scottish MPs respond to Legg demands

My colleagues and I spent a large part of yesterday contacting all the Scottish MPs to determine what Sir Thomas Legg has requested off them and what their response will be. For the most part they are paying up on minor things like duplicate claims and small furniture bills.

Read Mike Settle's Herald piece here and hopefully view the table of Scottish MPs here or click onto the page below and say abracadabra.
The Herald
16 Oct 2009

Thursday, 15 October 2009

Lee McConnell - a sprinkling of sporting stardust

Visited the London Olympics site yesterday with Jim Murphy, the Scottish Secretary, and Stephen Purcell, the leader of Glasgow City Council, the city that will host the 2014 Commonwealth Games.

While the politicians did their political thing, surveying the various half-built Olympic stadia in Stratford, the real star of the show stood quietly to one side, ruminating her chances of appearing on the track here in three years time.

Lee McConnell, Scotland's foremost track and field athlete, will be coming towards the end of the career by 2012 but she still holds every athlete's ambition of an Olympic medal.

She was very modest about her achievements yesterday, she's been in the medals at Commonwealth Games in Manchester and Melbourne, and she ran a season's best of 51.45 secs in the women’s 400m in Shanghai last month .

Injury put paid to her chances in the semi-finals of the Beijing Olympics last year so the 31 year old runner is cautious about making it all the way to London in 2012. But just having an Olympic athlete there, looking out over the lorries, cranes, cables and mounds of earth, on a bleak October day, began to give me a tingle of anticipation for the event. It's going to be some show.

Another friendly face on the visit was Godric Smith, a former Downing St civil servant who was the Prime Minister's Official Spokesman for Tony Blair . He is now director of communications for the Olympic Delivery Authority. There is life outside politics and Godric appears to be enjoying his.

Wednesday, 14 October 2009

Full speed day and Devine update

It's been a full-speed start to the parliamentary session and the pace shows no sign of slacking today. Plenty to do including trying to chase down these rumoured payback figures of up to £30,000 being asked of two Scottish MPs.

There's Scottish Questions, the last before the Glasgow North East by-election, so we expect it to be quite shouty. That's followed by Prime Minister's Questions which will have a sombre beginning with the names of 37 war dead to be read out. After that I escape for a couple of hours to visit the London Olympics site with the Scottish Secretary. He's a good sprinter but I reckon I could take him on anything over 800 metres.

It's been a chaotic couple of days with Sir Thomas Legg, the man hired to give the expenses scandal a quiet burial, opting for a viking funeral pyre instead. There's lots of anger among MPs, some of it directed at him, some at Brown and a lot at Nick Clegg, the Lib Dem leader, for opening up the scar of home flipping all over again.

Not all the anger yesterday was directed at Sir Thomas. Jim Devine, the Livingston MP barred standing for Labour again over his expenses, expressed his bitterness at being cleared by the auditor while being "briefed against" Labour officials.

Mr Devine, who was questioned over claims for £2,326 to install shelving and do repair work at his constituency office, and £2,157 in electrical work at his London home, was cleared in a letter from Sir Thomas.

He claimed the letter vindicated his innocence but Labour officials pointed out that he had been deselected over irregularities in his incidental expenses provision and not the additional costs allowance (ACA) that Sir Thomas was investigating.

Mr Devine hit back that the electrical work was carried out under ACA and insisted that the shelving issue was being investigated by the Metropolitan police at his behest.

"I was delighted with the letter I received and I am very disappointed that party officials in Scotland have been briefing against me. I have police inquiry which I requested and when that comes to a conclusion I will take action," he told me.

"I was hung out to dry on a false agenda and here we are again when I get a clean bill of health, I am briefed against by Scottish Labour."

Scottish MPs - pay back figures so far

Over the course of yesterday we were able to contact about 30 out of the 59 Scottish MPs to find out what Sir Thomas Legg had asked of them and to gauge their response. The list is reproduced below but bear in mind this is only about half of the Scottish cohort and that one or two were not willing to discuss details until they had responded to Sir Thomas.

UPDATE: Some newspapers are reporting that two Scottish MPs are being asked for "possible pay backs" of up to £30,000. We were in contact with one of them yesterday but no details were forthcoming. Without confirmation we can't reasonably publish.

Danny Alexander, LD, Inverness, Nairn, Badenoch and Strathspey - repaying £125 claimed for mortgage advice and responding to queries about household bills.

Gordon Banks, Ochil and South Perthshire - no repayment. Asked for more details on mortgage payments.

Anne Begg, Lab, Aberdeen South - cleared.

Malcolm Bruce, Liberal Democrat, Gordon - challenging demand for repayment of around £300,responding to queries including claim for £3,150 blinds for London home

Des Browne, Labour, Kilmarnock and Loudoun - nothing to repay. Responding to queries on furniture bought in Scotland for London flat and mortgage interest charges.

Gordon Brown, Prime Minister, Lab, Kirkcaldy and Cowdenbeath - repayment of £12,400 including cleaning costs.

Alistair Carmichael, LD, Orkney and Shetland - queries involving inaccuracies in mortgage payment he neither claimed nor made.

Tom Clarke, Labour Coatbridge, Chryston and Bellshill - all clear.

Alistair Darling, Edinbrugh South West - repaying £554 on furniture and clarifying mortgage interest payments.

Jim Devine, Labour, Livingston - all clear, but debarred by Labour over office expenses.

Frank Doran, Lab, Aberdeen North- responding to queries about an amount of around £200.

Brian Donohoe, Labour, Ayrshire Central - no repayments, clarification on mortgage payments.

Tom Harris, Glasgow South - all clear.

Stewart Hosie, SNP, Dundee East - repaying £379 for hotel costs when his flat flooded. Should have claimed from his insurance

Charles Kennedy, Liberal Democrat, Ross, Skye and Lochaber - providing clarification on a number of points.

Angus MacNeil, SNP, Western Isles - repaying partial council tax bill of £133. Challenging demand to repay Glasgow hotel bills to travel to constituency previously agreed with Commons authorities

John Mason, SNP, Glasgow East - no expenses for period.

David Mundell, Conservative, Dumfriesshire, Clydesdale and Tweedale - no repayments. Clarification on mortgage required

Jim McGovern, Labour, Dundee West - no letter received yet.

Anne McGuire, Labour, Stirling - responding to query about year’s rental records which Fees Office lost.

Rosemary McKenna, Labour, Cumbernauld, Kilsyth and Kirkintilloch East - waiting for end of three week process before commenting.

Anne Moffat, Labour, East Lothian - asked for clarification on undetailed expenses.

Alan Reid, Liberal Democrat, Argyll and Bute - cleared

Angus Robertson, SNP, Moray, repaying £1,217 for a sofa-bed and DVD recorder, providing rental and mortgage statements.

Alex Salmond, First Minister, SNP, Banff and Buchan - repaying £710.88 removal costs and replying to queries about hotels costs of £2,610 while rented London flat was unfurnished.

Mohammad Sarwar, Glasgow Central - clarification on a £235 bill and mortgage repayment requested

Sir Robert Smith, Liberal Democrat , West Aberdeenshire and Kincardine - responding to unspecified queries.

Gavin Strang, Lab, Edinburgh East - letter not arrived

Jo Swinson, LD, East Dunbartonshire - asked for clarification on mortgage/rental agreements.

John Thurso, Liberal Democrat, Caithness, Sutherland and Easter Ros - responding to one query on a council tax payment for less than £500.

Mike Weir, SNP, Angus - supplying copy of rental agreement for his London flat.

Pete Wishart, SNP, Perth and North Perthshire - repaying £1,632 for a duplicate claim for flat rental and a utility bill.

Tuesday, 13 October 2009

Jim Devine MP cleared by expenses auditor

Doing the ring a round of MPs last night on the expenses story I thought I'd start at the top with Jim Devine, the only Scottish MP barred from future candidacy by his party over his expenses claims. He was delighted to report that he had been sensationally cleared by Sir Thomas Legg and is now considering legal action after a police investigation he instigated is over. This from today's Herald

A Labour MP who was barred from standing again for his party over his expenses claims has been cleared of any wrongdoing by the independent auditor of parliamentary expenses.

Jim Devine, who was deselected from his Livingston seat after questions were raised about claims of £4500 worth of expenses, is now considering legal action against the party and his media detractors.

Questions were raised over claims for £2326 to install shelving and do repair work at his constituency office, and £2157 for electrical work at his London home. Mr Devine, one of five Labour MPs to be deselected over expenses claims, has always denied any wrongdoing and claimed to be vindicated in an extract of the letter sent to him by Sir Thomas Legg, which he released to The Herald last night.

It read: "In your case having examined the record in light of my interpretation of the rules and standards in force at the time I have not identified any payments made to under the ACA (additional costs allowance) during the review period which I consider call for any repayment or further supporting evidence to be provided by you.

"Accordingly my conclusion is that no further action is required by you in this matter."

Mr Devine said: "I am absolutely delighted. This is a letter from the man who spent several months scrutinising the claims and I have no case to answer. There is a police inquiry, which I want to clear, but when the investigation is concluded I will take the necessary action. "

Mr Devine did not rule out legal action against the Labour Party or the media, which exposed the alleged discrepancies in his claims.

"I have a lawyer foaming at the mouth asking what criteria was used for referring me to a star chamber," said Mr Devine. "I have had to read in local and national newspapers allegations that were a total fabrication and clearly I have to deal with that."

Mr Devine took the seat in a by-election after the death of Robin Cook in August 2005, and holds it with a majority of just 2680.

Thursday, 8 October 2009

Cameron speech - on the runway but no take-off

Just out of the Cameron speech, and my immediate reaction is that it wasn’t a good one. He set the bar high and didn’t sail over it. A flat six out of ten.

On health, we know we can trust him. His family, we know he loves them. On defence, we know he will be strong and determined.

But when it came to resolving these contradictions - how to be compassionate and look after the poor while savaging public services he didn’t have the the language or the rhetoric to pull it off.

And on that deeper contradiction at the heart of “modern Conservatism” - his assertion that he has changed the Conservative party into a defender of the poor - I don’t think he took the hall with him. They weren’t sure about clapping on that one, just as they weren’t sure they were allowed to clap about limiting immigration.

It will be spun that Cameron didn’t want to appear triumphalist (in fact I can see them doing just that in another part of the hall) and was calibrated, but this was a flat speech, a cut and paste of previous announcements in the week and over the years.

Beforehand we were told that Cameron would use biblical allusions to deliver a vision of a promised land beyond the age of austerity. Well, remember Moses looked down on from Mount Nebo but the never made it out of the desert.

And that Bono "hostage video" at the beginning? What was that about - vote Tory or we release him for another world tour.

Tories spells out Scottish "respect" agenda

An extended version of a speech and Herald interview with David Mundell, Shadow Scottish Secretary

Sometime over the next few weeks in an anonymous Whitehall room in London a Conservative vision for Scotland will be mapped out in detail.

Suma Chakrabarti, the Permanent Secretary at the UK Justice Department, will meet with David Mundell, the Shadow Scottish Secretary and Francis Maude the Shadow Cabinet minister charged with implementing the Tory plan for government.

Formal talks between opposition parties and civil servants are part of the normal course of events in the run up to an election but this time around the Conservatives plan a step change in the relationship between Westminster and Scotland.

David Cameron has no intention of being the last Prime Minister of the United Kingdom. He may well gain office as momentum for an independence referendum is gaining traction in Scotland. If he does win next year even the best bookies still guess that the Conservatives will have only have a handful of seats in Scotland.

Mindful that they may be accused of a democratic deficit Cameron’s Tories want to lock down the relationship between Westminster and Holyrood to deny an SNP government the grievance that they are not listened to and that a Westminster majority has no legitimacy in Scotland.

In a constitutional first David Cameron, as a UK Prime Minister, will offer to address the Scottish parliament on annual basis. He has already announced that he would come to Scotland within a week of taking office to meet the First Minister but this is taking Cameron’s “respect agenda” for Scotland to a new level.

“As Prime Minister David Cameron would be happy to address the Scottish parliament annually and he would be pleased to take any questions from the Scottish parliament on any issues in relation to the British government,” said David Mundell, the Shadow Scottish Secretary, yesterday.

Similarly the Conservatives intend that Treasury Ministers and officials will be available to appear before the Scottish parliament’s Finance Committee at the time of the Pre-budget report and the budget itself.

“At the moment at budget time everyone stands up and makes assumptions about the budget and the one group of people we don’t hear from are the Treasury themselves,” says Mr Mundell, who will make a speech to the Manchester conference ahead of the leader’s appearance today (Thursday).

“We want to focus on co-operation in the national interest. This a great challenge for the Scottish government,” said Mr Mundell. “If it is serious about governing in Scotland’s interest it will respond constructively to our suggestions. It will have adult conversations to our faces not issue hysterical and increasingly unrealistic demands through the media.”

One of these “hysterical” rows is already brewing this week over whether the Conservatives would approve borrowing powers for the Scottish parliament, a Calman recommendation that Shadow Treasury Minister Phil Hammond appeared to rule out yesterday.
Part of the task for Mr Mundell and Mr Maude in their meeting with Mr Chakrabarti in the coming weeks is to map out the legislation that a Conservative Scotland Office

“We will bring forward plans to implement the Calman Commission recommendations - but only when those have been fully evaluated,” said Mr Mundell, mindful that he does not fall into the megaphone diplomacy that he condemns the SNP government of indulging in.

“David has also made it clear that we will not bring forward legislation solely for Scotland that does not command widespread report,” added Mr Mundell, in an acknowledgement that there will be no repeat of the poll tax, introduced in Scotland first to avoid an unpopular domestic rates re-evaluation.

Though the Tories intend to tread carefully in Scotland whether Holyrood accepts Mr Cameron’s offer of an annual tet a tet will be up to the Scottish parliamentary bureau. Unlike the Welsh Assembly, where the Welsh Secretary has the right to address AMs each year, no mechanism exists in Holyrood to facilitate a formal engagement between the Westminster leader and the Scottish parliament.

Of course that won’t stop the Conservatives from extending an open hand. The Tories also intend to offer a formal monthly meeting between the Scottish Secretary and the First Minister. In addition Mr Cameron is to call a council of devolved government once a year, inviting the leaders of each of the devolved assemblies and the Scottish parliament together for formal talks.

“We will conduct dialogue through appropriate channels and not just through the media,” said Mr Mundell, who thinks Alex Salmond ought to reciprocate by making his Cabinet ministers available for interview by select committees at Westminster.

“My challenge to Alex Salmond is to put his national interest before party political interest,” said Mr Mundell.

Glasgow N E date -anyone tell the Tories?

Labour confirmed this morning that the writ for the Glasgow North East by election will be moved as soon as parliament returns but did no one bother to tell the Conservative candidate?

Ruth Davidson was one of the candidates selected to ask questions to an august panel of Tories at conference this morning, including shadow Scottish Secretary David Mundell.

Instead of blowing her own trumpet and issuing a rallying call for November 12th, (that’s the by-election date Ruth) she blew her moment in the limelight and asked an anodyne question about the relationship between the “squabbling” between the SNP in Edinburgh and Labour in London.

Worse, no one seemed to have told David Mundell either. So much for joined-up Conservative thinking.

Monday, 5 October 2009

Cameron - my message to Scotland

Not often you see people to queue to get into the Scottish Conservative reception at conference. The place was packed, despite a near diary clash with the Scotch Whisky Association reception.

David Cameron was punctual and precise, echoing Annabel Goldie’s line from this morning that the SNP are an “irrelevance” in a UK election.

For the Conservatives to make gains in Scotland they need to bring back the “Tartan Tories” that for the last three elections have seen the SNP as the best vehicle for opposing Labour. “I do think that after years of trying we are getting our message across in Scotland,” said Mr Cameron.

“The very clear message when it comes to campaigning in Scotland is to say to people: ‘This is a United Kingdom General Election for a UK parliament. You are deciding whether you want Gordon Brown to carry on in Downing Street or whether you want David Cameron in Downing Street.’”

“The SNP, as far as this election is concerned, are irrelevant. Alex Salmond may say he’d like to debate in these television debates. I would love to debate with Alex Salmond one of these days, but he’s not standing for the Westminster parliament. One outcome is absolutely impossible, Alex Salmond cannot be Prime Minister of the United Kingdom.”

They cheered loudly and the leader was whisked off to another five receptions while everyone else worked out directions to the Scotch Whisky Association.

Goldie: Salmond "irrelevant" to TV debate

The huffing and the puffing over the televised leaders debate continues. This morning it was Alex Salmond accusing David Cameron of refusing “to show respect”to the people of Scotland by not engaging in a deabte with, er, Alex Salmond.

Annabel Goldie, the Angela Merkel of Scottish politics, responded in her conference speech here in Manchester this morning.

She used the powerful medium of television to address the First Minister directly, telling him to put up or shut up.

“Alex Salmond I know you have been threatening to ban the People of Scotland from watching a TV debate between David Cameron and Gordon Brown. Well - I say this to you - you are not standing in this election to become the Britsh Prime Minister, you are not even standing to be an MP.”

She said the SNP was irrelevant to Westminster elections in any case and called the First Minister chicken for backing out of previous leader’s debate. She challenged him to a debate “any time you want”.

Poor Alex, it’s a challenge a week. Being the champ (that's champ not the Mandelson c-word) means that everyone in the playground wants to prove themselves against him.

The blustery weather over Mr Salmond's inclusion in a leader's debate will last as long as an Atlantic storm, it could carry onf for weeks or be over in a few days. Watch the key words in the SNP statements on the issue though - “extremely flexible” - which suggest a compromise is on the cards.

Sunday, 4 October 2009

Tories set out their Manchester stall

Just setting up in the Manchester Centre for this week's Conservative conference. You do get a better class of exhibitor at a Tory conference. Crombie, Harvey Nicks and Marks and Sparks are all here selling their wares along with this pie stall, pictured above, which is sure to do roaring trade this week. Tomorrow, when they open, I'll ask if they accept Euros.

Despite Tory High Command trying to steer the debate on to welfare reform today the result of the Irish referendum on the Lisbon Treaty and the innate Conservative antipathy towards the EU just won't go away. Boris Johnson, ex-Bullington clubmate of David Cameron, wants a referendum on the Lisbon Treaty and so do three quarters of Tory members according to Conservative Home.

Just as Gordon Brown's leadership was the elephant in the room at Brighton, the Conservative relationship with the European Union could be the great unspoken on the platform at Birmingham. Plenty speakers on the fringe who'll upset the applecart.

Friday, 2 October 2009

Sumatra and Tsunami memories

It seems like a long time ago but when I open my computer bag I sometimes still catch the deathly stench that clung to our clothes and hair while we wandered through the ruins of Banda Aceh, in Indonesia, reporting on the huge Asian Tsunami.

The same island, Sumatra, was struck by a devastating earthquake on Wednesday and another, less disastrous quake on Thursday, and the international rescue effort is now beginning.

The cameras can't really convey the sense of hell on earth after a disaster like this. The very ground you walk on does not feel safe and it's hard to know where any kind of rescue can begin.

It took me nearly a week after the Christmas 2004 Tsunami struck to reach Banda Aceh, travelling via Sri Lanka which had also been badly affected. Here's an extract of the eyewitness account I filed for the Sunday Herald.

Aftermath at the end of the world.
Sunday Herald Sunday 9th Jan 2005

"THE outlines of empty eerie streets remain, but apart from that there is nothing to see through the shimmering air but rubble. It is an awesome panorama, unfolding over miles of what was Banda Aceh's shoreside district, Lilele.

As the eye adjusts to the sight, mangled shapes are discernible in the piles of brick and wood.There are cars, rolled like beach pebbles into the debris. Then the distorted features of furniture, rooms and everyday items become clear, their odd angles at first disguising their original purpose.

Finally, close in, the cause of the stench, the crooked human arms and legs of the dead make themselves known.Their hands wave out grotesquely from inside fallen buildings, as if still looking for a means of escape from the killer wave that struck 14 days ago.

Dragonflies hover overhead and the occasional lorry rumbles past, but apart from that there is just a horrifying silence. It feels as if you have come to the end of the world.

Small dots of people can be seen moving in and out of this apocalyptic landscape. Trucks ferrying soldiers shuttle along the dusty, cleared paths.Teams of volunteers, visible by their bright yellow gloves, can be seen engaged in the task of pulling the bodies out. Nobody will go back to living here for a long time to come.

A few former residents are salvaging what is left of their belongings.Mahmood Muktaka came to live here 24 years ago. He is leaving today with a pick-up truck filled with two, soaked muddy mattresses and a sideboard. He glances at a sports trophy, a past life, and drops it on the ground.

He is leaving most of his possessions and the memory of his wife and 19-year-old son who perished when the wave came.The house, in what was a police compound, is almost a mile and a half away from the sea. There are thousands of outlines of houses, tons of rubble, between here and the inaccessible shoreline.

The Indonesian government revised its estimate of the numbers killed in this province from 90,000 to 113,000 on Friday. The true figure will never be known.

A disaster like a tsunami or an earthquake does not discriminate and both hit this city in a short space of time on Boxing Day. In a famine the poor and the weak suffer first, and the rich actually get richer as desperate people off-load their assets cheaply to buy food. In life you can get impoverished and starve or go out of business and accept it, but when everything is ripped away from you in 40 seconds, it is almost impossible to cope with.

Muktaka tells me he is a policeman and he feels he must prove it. There is nothing left of the house to indicate his status or anything to show that this was a police compound, apart from a police truck lifted and smashed into the roof of the buildings behind.

He perseveres and succeeds in recovering his pressed but mud-stained police shirts with their printed name badges from a smashed wardrobe when a shout goes up. They have found another body hanging from the roof in one of the houses up the road. His friends try to insist that everyone has a look but Muktaka is not going anywhere until he confirms he has an identity. He sifts through the rubble to find some evidence that he did exist here before the wave came and robbed him of everything.

At regular intervals along the ruined streets are the wrapped packages of bloated human remains.They are bound up in clear or black plastic sheeting and then tied to lengths of salvaged planking for the convenience of their pall bearers. There is a shortage of body bags. Few are given the "dignity" of being loaded into a trailer encased in an orange, liquid retaining, grab-handled body bag.

They are buried, by the vanload, in a huge trench system on the way to the city airport where the stench is indescribable. Dealing with death is an important part of Muslim tradition and everyone here feels they cannot move forward until the dead are buried. From their experience of other disasters, the aid agencies know this too, hence the priority given to the task of bringing out the dead.

Volunteers from the Golongan Karya, Indonesia's largest political party, have flown in from Jakarta to form one of dozens of body-recovery teams operating in the city. "This is our first day of seven days and already this morning we have found seven bodies, " says 34-year-old Al Hafidh, the leader of a 20-strong team of bibbed volunteers, with something approaching pride. He manages to temper this with genuine empathy. "My own mother-in-law is lost, so I feel very sad when I see this, " he says. "When you come here you cannot think anything and you cannot say anything, but it is not just about the bodies. We have come to give them hope and to lift their spirits. We have to show them that life must go on."

Another five misshapen bundles of bodies are taken out and have been set by the edge of the road for collection like weekday rubbish. Then, in the shade of a ruined block, the Indonesian soldiers stop for lunch out of their mess tins. For once their masks are dropped as they smoke and chew.One of them practises his golf swing with a club he has found in the rubble."

Thursday, 1 October 2009

"If I can come can come back"

Just woke up after the strangest dream about Scotland with Lord Mandelson's slogan going around and around in my head. It probably means nothing. Off to the Conservative conference next.

Conference concussion syndrome

Herald sketch of yesterday's Labour conference in Brighton.

It was the morning after the night before but it felt like the night before the morning after.

It gets that way in the closed world of party conferences. If you fell and hit your head and a paramedic asked you a few questions you’d have problems. Your name is on your conference pass, but if they asked you what day it was - “uh, Tuesday I think” - or where you live - “uh, in a room, can’t remember the number, past the pub with the red door.”

Concussion, that would be the medical diagnosis, but really you’ve just been at conference too long. Between days of speeches, fringes and receptions and no reference point to the outside world you get punchdrunk even if you take that “lips that touch liquor...” pledge

The Prime Minister looked as if he was feeling a little like that yesterday. When The Sun rose over Brighton it was a very dark day for Gordon Brown.

“Labour’s Lost It” was the headline - “Brown’s lost it” was the none to subtle subtext. All that feel good, endorphin boosting, post speech atmosphere had been punctured by precision-timed sabotage, courtesy of of friends of Andy Coulson, the former News International editor now handling presentation for David Cameron.

Starting a round of morning interviews Mr Brown displayed that muddled, why aren’t you asking me about policy/the recession/how I save the world look when Adam Boulton wanted to talk about how News International had dumped on him.

His reaction was to grump his way through the interview. Asked to guarantee he would not step down before the election, he said tersely: “I have got a job to do and that's the job I'm going to do.” He said his personality was not the issue and when Boulton persisted, he took it personally: “It does obsess you,” he said to Boulton. The rest of the world too, I’m afraid Mr Brown.

Afterwards Mr Brown was heard to complain to Boulton: “Look, Adam, we are going through a recession — I don't think you asked about that at all.”

Then the ultimate indignity for an angry television interviewee, he stood up to walk away still connected to his microphone. This is particularly embarrassing when there was really no need to go anywhere. The BBC interviewer, Sian Williams, was lined up to come to him.

At the end of that interview, Mr Brown stood up while the Williams was still speaking to the nation and in his haste to leave stepped between her and the camera. Oh dear.

So we knew Mr Brown was furious but there was much debate during the day on what Britain’s darkest spin doctor turned best-loved vaudeville star Peter Mandelson made of the Sun’s decision to abandon the project after 12 years.

Rumour was that he’d used the c-word but at lunchtime yesterday Lord Mandelson, tongue firmly in cheek, clarified his reaction to reporters.

“I said to them last night, when Rebekah told me, that they’d been a bunch of chumps,” said a smiling Mandy. He must have been concussed.