Michael Russell, SNP MSP for Argyll & Bute, yesterday, 23rd May 2016, called on the Scottish Government to take action after a report from Audit Scotland found severe flaws in the setting of the budget by Argyll & Bute Council in February. This budget cut expenditure on education and other vital services despite public opposition.
Mr Russell describes the Audit Scotland report on the process the Council had adopted as saying that it:
- ‘limited the ability of elected members and the public to raise informed questions’;
- failed to be transparent;
- failed to ‘promote and demonstrate scrutiny of the options’;
- and did not give local council tax payers any ‘evidence of the …endorsement of the budget by the Chief Financial Officer’ of the Council.
Commenting on the report, Mr Russell says: ‘I made a complaint to Audit Scotland after the budget process and others did so too.
‘Now their damning report indicates that the budget that was passed was neither transparent nor able to be properly scrutinised. It also failed to demonstrate whether or not it was legitimate in terms of approval by the Council’s Chief Financial Officer.
‘These are very serious shortcomings, particularly as the budget was very controversial and included redundancies and reductions in some very important areas including school staffing and libraries.
‘Given all the other issues surrounding the Council, external intervention – if a means can be found – is certainly required.
‘I have tabled a motion to that effect in the Scottish Parliament and I will press the issue with Scottish Ministers.
‘Public confidence in the Council is at an all time low and the present situation cannot be allowed to continue any longer.’
The fact is that public – and official – confidence in Argyll and Bute Council was at a genuine all time low over 2012-2013 when the SNP Councillor Group had been entrusted by the electorate to lead a coalition administration – and internally combusted [fuelled it has to be said, by specific interventions by Mr Russell.
The senior SNP MSP was keen to see his rookie colleagues out of local power well before the 2014 independence referendum, lest they lose votes by making enemies in trying to govern responsibly in the interests of the whole of Argyll.
Mr Russell’s view that it would be better for the party and the cause if the local group walked away from power, was echoed by a senior party colleague, Derek Mackay, now Finance Secretary and then with an internal party role amongst his junior ministerial responsibilities. When Councillor Roddy McCuish, then Leader of the third and last short-lived SNP coalition – working frantically to try and stabilise it and finding nothing but obstruction from party central, Mr Mackay said to him: ‘To tell you the truth, Roddy, I’d be happier to see you guys out of power’.
As the SNP group cannibalised itself, sabotaging from within a series of three brief attempts by leaders it elected itself to lead coalition administrations at Argyll and Bute Council – an alarmed Audit Scotland sent its commissioners into Kilmory over a sustained period of time, with the SNP finally collapsing and voluntarily handing office – back – to Councillor Dick Walsh.
The SNP group had been been seen to put party and divisive interests above local interests – and local councillors are elected to serve the area and nothing else.
That was really the lowest point of public and official confidence in Argyll an Bute Council – but the next local government elections are less than a year away, in May next year.
The SNP is determined to try again and to take over Argyll and Bute Council in the 2012 Scottish local government elections, under a year away in May 2017.
Mr Russell’s current excursion at Holyood has to be read in that context.
In fact, the SNP could hardly be worse than the current crew – just as, in his turn, Councillor Walsh, whose group had been clearly dumped by the electorate in 2012, could, eighteen months later in 2013, hardly have been worse than the three SNP administrations that had dizzily and briefly succeeded him.
Mr Russell’s parliamentary notion
Motion Number: S5M-00133. Title: Audit Scotland Report on the Argyll and Bute Council Budget Setting Process 2016-17
‘That the Parliament notes Audit Scotland’s report on the budget setting process of Argyll and Bute Council for 2016-17; expresses great concern that the report concludes that aspects of the process “limited the ability of elected members and the public to raise informed questions”; recommends that the council “consider the transparency of the final stages of the budget setting process and how effective it is in promoting and demonstrating scrutiny of the options” and notes that “members of the public have no evidence of the discussions and endorsement of the budget by the Chief Financial Officer”; considers these to be very serious defects, particularly in the light of what it sees as the poor performance of Argyll and Bute Council in a range of other areas and the strong local disquiet about many of its actions, particularly its continuing refusal to transfer assets to communities and others despite economic and social need, and calls on the Scottish Government to find a way to intervene with urgency in order to restore public confidence in the democratic , transparent and accountable norms that should be observed by any council and, by so doing, restore Argyll and Bute Council to organisational, managerial and political health.’
There are two types of parliamentary motion – those than mean business and are focused and to the point; and those that are effectively grandstanding for a specific audience elsewhere.
A good example of those hat mean business is the one lodged, also on 23rd May, by Kate Forbes, the new SNP MSP fpr Skye, Lochaber and Badenoch and the subject of attention on For Argyll yesterday.
Ms Forbes’ purpose is to seek parliamentary support for a campaign to persuade the UK Government not to deport an Australian family who had come to the HIghlands in good faith under the post-study visa scheme – but who now find themselves facing deportation following a recent change of regulation that has abolished that post-study visa facility.
Her notion reads:
‘That the Parliament calls on the UK Government to reconsider its decision not to grant the Dingwall family, Gregg, Kathryn and Lachlan Brain, a visa to allow them to continue living, working and studying in the Highlands; notes what it sees as the huge contribution that the family, who are originally from Australia, have made to Scotland; believes that deporting them will undermine the substantial efforts that are being made to ensure that the Highlands thrive, and asks that the Home Office reintroduces the post-study work visa so that Scotland is not deprived of people and families, such as the Brains, who it believes are integral to the country’s economy, culture and society.’
This motion has a clear specific intent in its single issue focus.
It does not ask the Scottish Parliament to adopt any hostile or critical stance on Westminster but simply asks for parliamentary support in the request for a reconsideration of the matter in question.
Contrast that with Mr Russell’s motion which swamps the significance of the quoted extracts from the Audit Scotland report in an unbuttoned and wide ranging section asking for the parliamentary adoption of an essentially partisan position and hauling all sorts of other ‘hot’ local issues into the mix – like the failed attempt [arguably thwarted by senior figures at the council] by a local community company to buy the Castle Toward Estate from the Council.
This section of the MSP’s motion asks the parliament to declare that it:
‘…considers these to be very serious defects, particularly in the light of what it sees as the poor performance of Argyll and Bute Council in a range of other areas and the strong local disquiet about many of its actions, particularly its continuing refusal to transfer assets to communities and others despite economic and social need, and calls on the Scottish Government to find a way to intervene with urgency in order to restore public confidence in the democratic , transparent and accountable norms that should be observed by any council and, by so doing, restore Argyll and Bute Council to organisational, managerial and political health.’
It is hard not to read Mr Russell’s motion to parliament as anything other than a flamboyant starting gun for the SNP’s campaign in the 2017 council election in Argyll & Bute – firing in all directions and primarily designed for the purpose to which it has been put: press releases to local media for inflammatory impact on local audiences.
This is actually an abuse of parliamentary procedures – but all politicians do stunts like this; and in Arytll and Bute, the mess is so complex and so parochial that there are no reliable sources of competence and integrity. There is nothing to choose between the equally dreadful warring factions on all sides.
For Argyll was the first to suggest that the Scottish Government put Argyll and Bute Council into Special Measures- which means putting in a specialist team to run the oganisation, both on the elected member side and the officer side.
Several councils in England have been put into Special Measures, so there is plenty of precedent.
Mr Russell took this option up with the Scottish Government. who indicated that they did not have the authority to do so.
This was not the case – since the Scottish Government had put Scottish health trusts into Special Measures. We supplied Mr Russell then with this information but he did not choose to push the matter with the Scottish Government – which appeared keen not to be pursued on it.
Special Measures remains the correct and most effective way to address concerns of the kind raised by Audit Scotland; and is an instrument open to the Scottish Government to use, should it wish to do so.
It does not.
It was not interested to do this when it had a majority. It will not approach it now.