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23 June 2004

Uncivil Servants

At long last one has the feeling that the building of the new Parliament is sticking to an agreed schedule.

I actually have a time and date – 10. a.m. on Monday, 30th August – when I move into my room in the MSP block at the “real” Holyrood – G.19 it is. The ersatz version at the top of the Royal Mile in Edinburgh has lasted five years when about 18 months was the plan. And the new building has cost about £430 million when the original figure was £40.

But the real issue has been the obfuscation – that is a fancy word some people use instead of saying “lying” – about the true cost.

I arrived at the Parliament in 2001 after two years in which Alex Salmond had represented us there.

For both of us the frustration of a “done deal” for our new building – stitched up even before any MSPs were elected – has overhung anything that could be achieved within the walls of our new institution.

I had worked within a brick shed, of no architectural distinction, on the industrial outskirts of Edinburgh for some 20 years. About 110,000 square feet in size and housing nearly 1,000 staff, it had cost approaching £100 million long before Parliament was in prospect. So I had always thought £40 million was fantasy.

Civil servants with no project management skills and, it seems, even less common sense, were put in charge of the building works. Being 8 weeks behind schedule after only 20 weeks into the project meant nothing to then manager, Barbara Doig.

For me a slippage of that size that early would have been a firm red light signalling “STOP” until we understood what was wrong. But to the civil servant in charge, the conclusion was very different – there was plenty time to make up the slip.

A distinguished American author on computer project management, Professor Fred P. Brookes, poses a key question in his book “The Mythical Man Month” – “How do projects get late?” and gives the answer – “One day at a time”.

This was clearly not a book read by our civil servants.

There are many excellent and professional civil servants around. I meet loads of them in my day to day business.

But the Holyrood incompetence virus seems to be spreading. And to our disadvantage in the North-East.

It has been two years since we won the battle to save Peterhead prison. Looking at the behaviour of the Scottish Prison Service senior management, it seems that they are determined to thwart government minister’s policies. And damage our local interests.

As long ago as 2000, the local staff put forward a proposal that, at modest cost, would avoid the legal mess now surrounding “slopping out”.

The suggestion has been “safety proofed” but not acted upon. And the recent court case on the issue brought by a Barlinnie remand prisoner has shown the SPS senior managers as incompetent.

These were also the people who could not recall how much their private prison cost when asked in parliament in 2001. Who could not answer provide the information necessary for Reliance to take over prisoner transport. And who blame everyone but themselves for the many problems throughout their service.

So far, Justice Minister Cathy Jamieson, has carried the can but we can expect to see her patience snap shortly. I have invited her to visit Peterhead in August, and she has agreed to come.

The only question is whether the necessary changes at the top of the SPS will have taken place before or after that visit. But there seems little doubt that changes there will be and that they will benefit us.

Change

The North-East has much more to offer people than our friends in the South seem to realise.

It was a real coup for Turriff when they persuaded the British Pipe Band championships to come north. On a warm day it was a magnificent sight and sound.

And later the same day I was at a Deveron Music Festival event in Banff Academy.

A new work based on the mathematics of the shape of the bay between Banff and Macduff and the rhythms of oil exploration did not strike me as an appealing theme. Wrong! A magnificent piece of music performed to a high standard.

But underpinning important events in Banffshire is Duff House. An outstation of the Royal Scottish Academy it depends very largely on support from our local council.

Like at Scottish Opera, a meanness of spirit – and wallet – is threatening this valuable local asset. With visitor numbers on the up after last year’s excellent Vetriano exhibition, it seems an act of philistine folly to be planning winter closure for Duff House. Just like the Scottish government’s apparent determination to end full-scale opera in our country.

New Votes for Old

When the Scottish Parliament was first elected in 1999, Scotland was first introduced to a proportional voting system But as it simply required two votes on two separate papers, it did not require much new thinking by voters.

This week we finally passed a Bill that will change forever the face of local government elections – and local government councillors.

At the next election, we shall elect councillors in “multi-member” wards and by a system of single transferable voting. What it will undoubtedly achieve is a break of the electoral stranglehold that Labour has over councils across Scotland. No longer will they win 9 out of ten seats with only half the vote. So it will undoubtedly be a fairer reflection of public opinion.

So how does it work?

For electors in Fraserburgh, for example, we shall probably see a single ballot paper to elect four councillors for the town. People will rank their choices. Instead of an single “X” against one choice on the ballot paper, they will put “1” against their favourite, “2” against their second choice and so on until they have put a number against each of the perhaps 12 to 20 candidates there might be for the four places.

Now if someone is particularly unpopular with an individual elector, then one won’t be forced to put any number against their name. That will mean, “I will never support this person”.

My political party, the SNP, has supported this voting system for many years. For our internal decision-making we have used it for many of our elections. The whole membership of the SNP will use it to elect our new leader shortly.

If the EU election results indicate the outcome for the next Council election, the SNP will gain somewhat and will be the biggest party on Aberdeenshire Council. In Angus, we might lose a bit.

But it whether we gain or lose is secondary to the importance of having a “fair votes” system.

Local Fraserburgh Councillors will have to represent the whole town. And our current crop will be judged in about three years time by how they have supported the entire community in the meantime.

Good luck colleagues!

9 June 2004

Unreliable Words

From time to time one hears someone make the general comment about politicians, “you can’t trust a word they say”. Curiously the people who say that rarely mean a specific politician or have a particular comment made by one in their mind.

But this past week in Parliament we perhaps got some insight into why such attitudes exist. The Parliament’s Justice Committee heard from Labour’s Justice Minister, from the head of the Scottish Prison Service and from a Reliance boss. You will have guessed by now that the subject was – prisoner transport – and the manifest deficiencies in the new privatised arrangements which have seen unauthorised releases of dangerous people.

The rich colour of the English language contains just the phrase to describe what the committee heard - pusillanimous persiflage. What the Oxford English Dictionary (www.oed.com) defines as “a frivolous manner of treating any subject” which is “lacking in courage and strength of mind”.

Because according to the Reliance loon, the prison service had not provided proper information about the workload they were expected to take over. So it was not their fault it all “fell about” on the very first Monday at Hamilton Sheriff Court then.

Next up to the witness box, the Justice Minister pleads alibi – the prison service is a government agency, not a department, and is therefore not a direct responsibility of hers. That’s OK then?

Pusillanimity reached a new level when “old lag”, and prisons boss, Tony Cameron took the stand. Now in the Scottish legal system, the jurors do not normally hear of the accused’s previous convictions. There are exceptions, for example, in the case of previous rape accusations and a track record for perjury.

So it is as well to note that Cameron has relevant “previous”.

During the campaign to save Peterhead prison, he also had to appear before the same committee. On that occasion he seemed not to know, among other things, how much it had cost to build Scotland’s only private prison. This despite his service having published proposals to privatise more of the prison service.

His latest pleadings included the astonishing information that he had not been party to a contract being signed by the service he is paid (quite substantially) to manage – a contract worth more than £100 million. Once again, the boss is nowhere to be seen when a complex and expensive contract is agreed.

He did accept that the information given to Reliance was poor but suggested that the people taking over from his service were in a better position to know what was needed than he was!

So with the three parties to the prisoner transport debacle all pointing fingers at each other, and denying that “they” were responsible, it may not be surprising that some members of the public say; “you can’t trust a word they say”.

Let’s restore a little public confidence and make sure someone pays, and is seen to pay, the price for incompetence. Prison boss Cameron is number one in the frame for me and with previous form, a long sentence is appropriate.

But maybe a short one would do. How about; “You are fired”?

Unreliable Words - 2

A deluge of secondary legislation comes MSPs’ way. This week I had the pleasure of having to study the draft “Town and Country Planning (Electronic Communications) (Scotland) Order 2004. Don’t you just love these snappy titles?

A perfectly well intentioned Order which will allow certain communications to be made by email. If that speeds things up and lets people make faster, cheaper progress with their planning applications, well and good.

But, and it is a big but, the implementation does not suggest that the civil servants understand this “new” way of passing messages.

For one thing there is no service standard that requires that email be delivered within any particular timescale. And in any event what does “delivered” actually mean – available to be retrieved by your computer for you to read? – actually read by you? – perhaps even it means “sent”.

Because in planning as in many other areas of government, time is important to the processes.

More fundamentally, as anyone who receives unsolicted emails – spam – knows, one cannot be certain that the apparent sender is really who sent it.

Imagine acting on a “false” and malicious message – for which there no specific legal remedy.

But even if it came from the right person it might have been deliberately altered during transit. Emails are like postcards. Anyone handling them once they are “in the system” can read them and could change them.

So for a piece of legislation to ignore the technology that would mean secure messages can be sent and received is simply not good enough.

The Order has already been withdrawn, amended and re-tabled once. Hopefully they’ll make further changes.

Dentists

The excellent news that Banff is to get half a million pounds for a new dental centre is very welcome.

With the government announcement of £2.5 million more across Scotland for dentistry came the news that twelve more salaried dentists would be recruited by the NHS. But given the very real difficulties that local dentists have already experienced in recruiting new assistants, where are they to come from?

Such an investment ought to give heart to dentists considering Banff as their base as it indicates, at very long last, a serious commitment to tackling our long term shortage.

But where should it go? With the Chalmers hospital development committed but distantly timetabled, the planning for that may have some awkward interactions with our new dental facility.

I hope that townsfolk with an interest in the subject will join me in writing to NHS Grampian and express their view. The alternative might a decision in a vacuum and we would be unlikely to approve.

Charity Begins at Home

The government has just issued a consultation on their proposed new charity law. My initial view is that we have between three and four hundred voluntary bodies or trusts in the Banff and Buchan constituency who might be affected by proposed changes.

As I will be on the Committee which will consider this Bill, I will be taking a close interest in this.

Although I shall try to contact as many charities as I can, there is no complete central list. I hope they will put their view to me – soon.

6 June 2004

Sloppy Management

The Justice portfolio in the Scottish Executive has not been a comfortable one for Minister Cathy Jamieson.

The “missing prisoners” fiasco brought to her desk courtesy of Reliance. And the “slopping out” case brought by remand prisoner Robert Napier.

With tabloid headlines inches high, recent events have not been the foundations upon which ministerial careers are built.

But perhaps there is a deeper and wider malaise than even recent events have shown.
A problem touching not just ministerial incompetence but illuminating a failure of management within the civil service. A failure of some to adapt to the existence of the Scottish Parliament and an unwillingness to accept political decision-making.

And a long-term failure of certain civil service managers which has been allowed to continue for the five years since this government came to power is also a failure for that Executive team. Because just as Parliament must hold the government to account, the government must hold our civil servants to account.

We can explore civil service performance through the justice portfolio because of recent manifest failures but also because of other less publicised incompetencies in the last five years.

The activities of the Scottish Prison Service in particular provide a fruitful area to study. As an agency rather than a government department, its activities are a little, just a little, more visible. And the civil service personalities more visible.

It is no surprise to observers that the SPS has been at the heart of recent embarrassments for the Justice Minister.

In 1999, the SPS was already working on plans for replacing outdated prison buildings. With large numbers incarcerated in Victorian buildings and without access to overnight sanitation it was already clear that something had to be done if the government was to avoid legal challenge.

Previous Chief Inspector of Prisons, Clive Fairweather had already commented adversely and recent weeks have seen a fierce critique from his successor, Andrew McLennan of the long-term failure to tackle slopping out.

We now hear some briefing that the £13 claw-back from Prison Service spending in 2000 undermined the SPS's ability to deal with the problem.

But senior insiders suggest that Chief Executive, Tony Cameron, may have volunteered the return of these funds soon after his appointment. He wanted to “look good” with his newly-elected masters and mistresses and hang the future. So it may not have been a claw-back but a gift.

However, Ministers share some of the blame in not looking too closely at the implications of the cash windfall delivered to their budget. Jack McConnell, the then Finance Minister, may be a mathematician but his credibility as an effective manager is less clear. Perhaps this was an early sign of his inability to think strategically.

The Scottish Parliament is a comparatively small body, one where I was able to personally speak to four fifths of the members within 6 working days of my becoming a member in 2001. It is therefore not surprising that opposition members can build useful and direct relationships with government ministers.

Within a short period of my taking my seat in Edinburgh it was evident that the potential closure of Peterhead prison had to be top of my in-tray.

Having cancelled a significant investment in gatehouse facilities at the prison within weeks of taking office, prison chief Cameron was already determined to close an inconveniently successful institution. Peterhead was planned as one of the sacrifices to promote his career.

But when the SPS Prison Estates Review was published, with the plan for closure, the fear took concrete form and the Peterhead community started mobilisation to save a valued and valuable local employer.

In Parliament both SNP and Tories took early positions in support of Peterhead. With Liberal Democrat Jim Wallace as Prisons Minister taking a publicly neutral position and his political colleagues initially unwilling to retain a old prison without modern toilet facilities in the cell, their support was harder to earn.

But the local Prisoner Officers Association committee had told me of a proposal to solve the slopping out issue at Peterhead. In 2000 they had put forward a plan to change the deployment of the existing staff complement to enable higher supervision levels at night. This would enable the safe opening of cells on request to allow prisoners toilet access.

Their proposal met with a brick wall and they were told that this was not acceptable to ministers.

So it came as a surprise when I probed Labour attitudes to Peterhead with the then Deputy Justice Minister, Richard Simpson. Ministers had heard nothing of the proposal.

Now one could dismiss the SPS response to the local POA as their expressing an opinion as to what ministers' attitude to their suggestion would be rather than reporting ministers' actual views were it not for a further incident.

The SPS proposals for the prison estate were complex. In particular the SPS wanted to build two private prisons. This would have ruled out a re-build at Peterhead for sex offenders as no one in government, or opposition, wanted to hand over this category of prisoners to the private sector.

So I sought other options which might be acceptable to the Scottish government. The French approach to involving private finance in the public sector had been established since Napoleonic times - “La Concession” - and looked of possible interest.

Adoption of their approach would avoid having to force the government into accepting the SNP's policy of using a financial trust to get public investment “off balance sheet” while delivering that same benefit with public sector staff providing the service.

My Parliamentary assistant quickly established that getting permission to visit a prison, provided through this hybrid model, would not be easy.

So I approached Richard Simpson again. He was relatively keen on any idea that would remove the government from the SPS cul-de-sac. He promised that he would have his staff approach the French authorities and offered me a place on the resulting visit. I would have to pay my own way but I thought that worthwhile.

I jokingly said that we would continue to pursue our own attempts to set up a trip and that he could come with me if I was successful.

A week later I had the agreement of Madame Martine Birling of the Minstère de la Justice to visit La Bapaume prison north of Paris. A request to extend my group to include a government minister clearly amused them but was agreed.

I was therefore surprised to be told by the Deputy Justice Minister a few days later that his officials had found it impossible to obtain permission to visit a French prison.

To his very great credit Richard Simpson accepted my offer to accompany me. But it was little surprise to me that he was told that his diary was full for the agreed date.

My visit to La Bapaume was useful and I filed my report with SPICe, the Parliament's Information Centre.

I think the obvious tactics to prevent ministers having meaningful access to sources of information other than the SPS were sufficiently blatant to contribute to Labour's support for Peterhead prison at senior levels.

For the Liberal Democrats I had to bypass the SPS and ensure that the Peterhead POA's offer was seen by ministers. That proposed way of dealing with quite creditable Liberal concerns about slopping out was sufficient to gain their support.
But as we now know, the slopping out story had much further to go.

Despite the ticking time-bomb that the Robert Napier case represented, the SPS have continued to stonewall any implementation of the plan to address slopping out for 300 or so prisoners at Peterhead.

The local staff proposals, first tabled about four years ago, have been rigorously, and successfully, risk assessed. Indeed in Cornton Vale, a system similar to that proposed for Peterhead is already in operation.

But an SPS paper of 11th March this year, shows a determination to reject staff proposals. This despite the risk profile of almost all sex offenders at Peterhead being compliant and low-risk while in prison.

In advance of the results of the Napier case being known, the paper shows prescience when it says, “Its findings could have enormous implications”. And yet by 19th May, after the case result is known, the SPS Chief Executive is still writing to me to say, “No final decision has been reached”.

The ultimate culmination of four years consideration is drift, delay and indecision.
With the blunder over processing the government's appeal of the Napier decision and a history of, at the very least, incompetence in the SPS, patience must surely be at an end.

Those with an operational response for the many failures of the prison service must be dealt with. But the Minister is there to take political accountability. Failure to spot the operational weaknesses and dissembling are her problems.
It is time the price for failure was paid.

Stewart Stevenson
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