31 July 2006

Re-arranging the deckchairs

The SNP makes a song and dance about smaller government. The Scotsman reports:
"A RADICAL plan to curb the size of government in Scotland - including cutting the number of Executive departments, appointing fewer ministers and reducing civil service numbers - will be at the heart of the Scottish National Party's Holyrood election manifesto...
Under the plan, which will be implemented as part of the "first 100 days" of an SNP-led Executive, the departments of development; education; enterprise, transport and lifelong learning; environment and rural affairs; finance and central services; health; justice; legal and parliamentary services and the office of the permanent secretary will be abolished.
They will be replaced by a department of the first minister and departments for finance and sustainable growth; health and well-being; education and skills; rural affairs; and justice.
A cabinet-level minister will be in charge of each of the six, reducing the number of senior ministers who are MSPs from 11 to six."

Well, bully for the SNP: the Scottish cabinet would be smaller, a benefit which is certainly not to be sniffed at. (Though we wait to see if this aspiration survives a coalition deal where cabinet seats become bargaining chips.) But where is there any sign of the Executive doing less? What functions are to be dropped? Or is it simply the case that fewer ministers are expected to do more? Is this all the SNP has to say about the structure of government?

This blog is not irreversibly opposed to the SNP. Indeed, it seems to us quite likely that they may have to form a government next May. But they really need to show signs that they are doing some serious thinking about what to do if it happens. The kind of nonsense discussed above may earn them a headline but it will not cut it in terms of serious preparation.

30 July 2006

The rewards of public service

At the risk of contributing to the all-consuming passion for knowing who earns what, Scotland on Sunday has carried out a survey:
"A survey of the highest- earning leaders in the Scottish government, civil service, university sector and hospitals shows bumper salary rises well in excess of the average 3% increase that are common-place among lower-grade staff.
The nation's highest earning executive in the public sector is Jon Hargreaves, chief executive of Scottish Water, whose basic salary of £215,000 has increased by 23% in three years.
Next is Professor Duncan Rice, principal of Aberdeen University, who took home £202,000. In third place is Dr Brian Lang, the principal of St Andrews University, who took home £197,000...
By contrast, First Minister Jack McConnell, who earns £126,610, is the only Scottish politician on the list in 28th place, below the chief executive of Fife Council and no less than three civil servants at the Scottish Executive over whom he has control."

Somewhat bizarre that the First Minister earns less than the chief executive of Fife Council. But the figures do explain the attraction of the university sector for senior civil servants nearing retirement.

Hope springs eternal...

OK, the lads lost in the final. But they did us proud. Even Ian Bell in The Sunday Herald gets a wee bit carried away:
"Not so long ago a consensus was reached by coaches, the media, former players and fans alike. Football in Scotland, we all agreed, was no longer producing talent. The well was dry. Decline was permanent, humiliation inevitable.
Not true. Youth is never a slave to yesterday. Tomorrow is the only thing that matters. Today, though, we can share the emotions for which we have long envied other countries: pride, actually, and a bit of hope. That’s more than enough for now."

29 July 2006

A question of priorities

Yeah, I agree it's tough for NHS staff. The BBC website reports:
"Staff at Edinburgh Royal Infirmary are fainting on the wards because of the heat, according to unions.
Unison said temporary measures like fans and portable air conditioning units were not enough.
The health workers' union said the problem had existed for four years at ERI and was not just a result of this summer's high temperatures.
NHS Lothian said the hospital was not built with air conditioning, but it was now being installed."
But... is anybody concerned about the patients?

Not in my name

Being an essentially pacificist kind of bloke, I am not really happy about this development, reported by the BBC website:
"Two more American flights carrying "hazardous cargoes" bound for Israel are to refuel at Prestwick Airport this weekend, it has emerged.
It is unclear exactly what will be on board the planes.
However, campaigners fear they will be carrying more high-tech bombs to be used in the conflict in Lebanon.
US President George Bush has apologised to Tony Blair over the previous use of Prestwick Airport to refuel planes carrying bombs to Israel. The prime minister's spokesman said Mr Bush gave a "one-line" apology for the fact proper procedures had not been followed."

Whether or not the proper procedures have been followed, I would prefer the Americans not to use my country to facilitate the supply of arms to a war in the Middle East.

The two little letters before your name that mean so much

Does it really matter? Mr (sorry, Dr) McKenna obviously thinks so. The Guardian reports:
"After more than nine years of dispute, months of legal wrangling and huge costs on both sides, the entertainer and hypnotist Paul McKenna yesterday won his libel trial against the publishers of the Daily Mirror for suggesting he had knowingly obtained a "bogus" PhD from an American university.
"Much energy has been expended to very little purpose," was Mr Justice Eady's judgment on the case yesterday. "No doubt there would have been various windows of opportunity for sensible compromise and setting the record straight. Yet the parties seem to have been determined to fight to a standstill ... Costs are no doubt massive on both sides [yet] what all this has achieved is open to question."
PhDs always seemed kind of pointless to me, unless one was an academic; but then I don't have one...

Why do people die?

Like crime statistics, statistics on the causes of death need to be considered carefully. No such careful consideration for The Scotsman, whose lead story today offers drama and moral opprobrium together:
"A RECORD number of women died from alcohol abuse in Scotland last year, new figures have revealed.
Experts said the increasing death toll was being fuelled by a generation of women whose attitude towards drinking was formed by the liberal values of the 1960s and 70s.
Statistics from the Registrar General for Scotland, published yesterday, showed 492 women died of alcohol-related diseases last year, compared with 441 in 2004. The increase was highest among women aged 30 to 60."

The full report is available here.

Gee, those liberal values of the 1960s and 70s have a lot to answer for (although I do not recall anything in those values that actually encouraged young women to get legless every saturday night). Nevertheless, it is perhaps worth noting that 492 female deaths in Scotland in 2005 amounted to less than 2 per cent of the total female deaths in Scotland in that year. Secondly, how much of the increase between 2004 and 2005 was due to the relative willingness of doctors to assign the cause of death to alcohol-related diseases? Doctors are human, after all, and perhaps it is becoming more acceptable to grieving relatives to be more honest on the death certificate. Thirdly, we all have to die of something: if the death of women in childbirth or of tuberculosis becomes less frequent, other causes inevitably become more prominent.

So can we trust the statistics? Sure, this is the GRO after all. Just don't be too quick to draw conclusions from them.

As an example, I offer you this from the same Scotsman article:
"By contrast, the number of alcohol- and smoking-related deaths among men dropped over the same period."

Nobody would suggest that this means we can go back to smoking in pubs. So let us not get too excited about the reverse trend for women. And, please, let us not assign blame to liberal values without good reason.

27 July 2006

Great newspapers think alike

This is from The Times (here):
"Things got worse for Fletcher moments later when Herve Piccirillo, the referee, decided to book him for diving, when he seemed to stumble through a challenge from Jan Simunek. The Hibernian player looked to the heavens after seeing the yellow card as, with 85 minutes of the semi-final to go, he knew he wouldn’t play in the final due to suspension."

This is from The Herald (here):
"Fletcher was then booked by referee Herve Piccirillo for diving, when he appeared to stumble through a challenge from stopper Jan Simunek."

This is from The Scotsman (here):
"Things got worse for Fletcher moments later when referee Herve Piccirillo decided to book him for diving, when he simply seemed to stumble through a challenge from defender Jan Simunek.
The player looked disconsolately to the heavens after seeing the yellow card as, with 85 minutes of the contest still to go, he knew he wouldn't be playing in Saturday's final regardless of the outcome due to suspension."

As you might have guessed, the reporter in each case was a Mr Craig Swan. I trust that he was paid three fees.

BTW, great result for the Scotland Under 19 team.

26 July 2006

The spongers

You can see why they would want to keep it quiet, but The Telegraph gives the game away (here):
"Early next month, Tony Blair and his family will be heading to a millionaire friend's villa on Barbados...
Although Downing Street refused to comment on Mr Blair's holiday plans, there are reports that he will be staying with Russell Chambers, a City banker, who entertained the Blairs last year when they stayed at Sir Cliff Richard's Barbados villa. There is speculation that the Blairs - whose recent holiday destinations have included friends' villas in Italy and the south of France, and the Red Sea resort of Sharm el Sheikh - have been looking for a holiday property on Barbados."

I don't see why the Blairs' holiday plans should be kept secret. By their summer vacations, shall ye know them. By contrast, the McConnells are reputed to be in Arran.

Auntie Annabel on the warpath?

It's no fun being a Scottish Tory when the London leadership is dragging the party into the soggy political centre. Douglas Fraser in The Herald highlights the growing disparities and concludes:
"As his own parliamentary secretary inadvertently told us in a leaked e-mail, Cameron's cavalier approach to reinventing Conservatism is causing trouble in the ranks. Could it be that Annabel Goldie's manifesto could become a rallying point for the Thatcherite right, with English Tory foot soldiers demanding more of what the Scots are being offered? The doughty Scottish spinster could be on course to become a conference heroine to the formidable English matrons watching enviously from the south."
It's a nice thought but I suspect that the English Tories neither know nor care what is happening north of the border. The redoubtable Ms Goldie is most unlikely to be offered a platform at the Tory Party Conference other than in the most marginal of sideshows. Do the Notting Hill set or the English party as a whole care about the Scottish election result? Other than feeling mildly benevolent to their caledonian counterparts, probably not.

Fat fish

Why do the photos of giant sunfish (here, for example, in The Guardian) remind me - irresistibly - of the Rt Hon John Prescott MP?

Dressing up

Marcel Berlins in The Guardian exposes the fatuity of Dr Reid's plan to put the immigration service into uniform:
"On the uniforming of the guardians of our frontiers, I can imagine the conversation. Two potentially illegal entrants (Pies) are talking. Pie 1: "OK, so it's settled, We leave for Britain tomorrow." Pie 2: "No, we can't now. I've just heard the news. Their passport control officers are to wear uniforms in future." Pie 1: "A pox on Dr Reid. All our carefully laid plans have been dashed. We'll have to look for another country to enter illegally."

I should stress that I have nothing personal against Dr Reid. Indeed, back in the good old days, I briefly met the man during a fag break on some official occasion and he was both pleasant and witty. But, as a minister, he does seem to act with an eye to the next day's headlines, even where it would conflict with the principles of good governance.

25 July 2006


So the old bruiser is going to re-introduce embarcation controls. The BBC reports:
"Home Secretary John Reid has outlined plans to toughen border controls as part of changes he says will make the UK immigration system work properly.
There will be uniformed immigration officers at ports and airports - and by 2014 passport checks to ensure there is a record of who has left the UK.
Mr Reid said he was putting forward long term solutions "not quick fixes".

Why bother, if it's not going to happen before 2014? Furthermore, embarcation controls would in theory record the identities of those leaving the UK - but the people in whom the Home Office should be interested are those who haven't left. It would be a major task to tick off on the register of incomers those who have left, thus identifying those who haven't. Especially as there are some 90 million visitors per year to the UK. Nor does the Home Office have such a terrific record with computer systems (see the CSA, passport agency, identity cards and so on) as to inspire confidence that they will be able to get this one right, even after 8 years.

As Dr Reid says, it's not a quick fix - but some of us doubt if it's much of a long-term solution, either...

Playing with words

For someone who is supposed to be an intellectual, Dr Rice does not always seem to make sense. The BBC reports:
"US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice is holding talks in Jerusalem with Israeli PM Ehud Olmert as she seeks to ease Israel's conflict with Lebanon.
They are expected to discuss plans for a long-term ceasefire, which she says must be "based on enduring principles and not on temporary solutions".

A short-term ceasefire would look attractive at the moment, even if it were based on temporary arrangements. After all, most ceasefires are short-term arrangements, designed to give the parties time to think about the longer term.

On the other hand, to rule out of hand any ceasefire which is not based on 'enduring principles' is setting the bar rather high, appearing to condemn the populations of both Lebanon and Israel to continued strife over the next few days or weeks.

Tommy - scrabble addict?

Whatever Mr Sheridan's faults, you can only admire his knack in producing the well-honed phrase that will make the following day's headlines. The Independent reports:
"Immaculately dressed, the permanently tanned Mr Sheridan claimed his political commitment to his class and socialist beliefs were the cornerstone of his life. "You will hear of my addiction to Scrabble and sunbeds, not champagne, cocaine and swingers' clubs," he told the jury."

The public sector in Scotland

Gerry Hassan in The Herald chooses to rubbish the Bell-MacKay report:
"The Scottish public sector is too big. This has become the equivalent of the dawn chorus of the early years of Scottish devolution. Two senior researchers, David Bell and Donald MacKay, have added their names to the debate, producing a report for a Sunday newspaper looking at the waste in the Scottish Executive. Their report should be taken seriously on a number of levels, however, their findings seem a little threadbare and open to question.
To arrive at their headline £4.6bn savings – £3.1bn identified by them on top of £1.5bn already ear-marked by the executive – they engage in all kinds of back-of-envelope calculations. For a start, across the public sector – health boards, education, local government – they make savings by simply calculating what would happen if the best performances were spread across the whole country. Secondly, their savings are based on significant cuts. While it might make sense to cut the number of Scottish government ministers, cutting the number of list MSPs makes the Parliament less proportional and more Labour dominated. More seriously, Bell and MacKay's savings programme involves the closure of primary and secondary schools, hospitals, water privatisation, the selling off of the Forestry Commission and extending prison privatisation. This comes across like some schoolboy exercise in producing savings or some Downing Street junior John Birt's blueprint fantasy for Scotland!"

Yes, well, maybe. But if one health board (or education authority) is spending significantly more than another, then it is at least somewhere to start looking. In many cases, there may be good reasons for disparities in spending levels but, at the very least, there should be explanations. Perhaps water privatisation may not be on the cards for the foreseeable future but the industry needs to be monitored and compared with its private sector counterparts south of the border. Furthermore, given the decline in Scotland's birth rate, school closures would appear to be inevitable, a fact of life that too few local authorities seem willing to face. So while Bell-MacKay may have over-egged the pudding a little, perhaps we should not be so swift to dismiss at least some of their findings.

24 July 2006

Heading for partition

The fighting in the Lebanon has tended to push Iraq off the front pages, even although the death toll in the latter is far worse. The Independent has the figures here:
"At least 381 people have been killed in Lebanon, including 20 soldiers and 11 Hezbollah fighters, according to security officials. At least 600,000 Lebanese have fled their homes, according to the WHO - with one estimate by Lebanon's finance minister putting the number at 750,000, nearly 20% of the population.
Israel's death toll stands at 36, with 17 people killed by Hezbollah rockets and 19 soldiers killed in the fighting."
And here:
"In the past two weeks, at a time when Lebanon has dominated the international news, the sectarian civil war in central Iraq has taken a decisive turn for the worse. There have been regular tit-for-tat massacres and the death toll for July is likely to far exceed the 3,149 civilians killed in June."
Iraq is therefore undergoing the equivalent of a 9/11 experience every month. It would also appear that the end-game is in sight:
"Iraq as a political project is finished," a senior [Iraqi] government official was quoted as saying, adding: "The parties have moved to plan B." He said that the Shia, Sunni and Kurdish parties were now looking at ways to divide Iraq between them and to decide the future of Baghdad, where there is a mixed population. "There is serious talk of Baghdad being divided into [Shia] east and [Sunni] west," he said.

Jings! Crivvens! Help ma boab!

Three examples of how Scotland is changing.

"OOR WULLIE, Scotland's most famous cartoon character, is abandoning his native Scots and turning "posh", according to new research.
For more than 70 years, Scotland's favourite cartoon character has helped keep his native dialect alive.
But a German researcher, who has spent two years poring over the tousled hero's language, says he is slowly ditching his usual patter for something more English."

And here:
"ARMY pipers are to be forced to wear ear plugs and go on "noise rations" after health experts reported the instrument's rousing skirl can damage hearing.
New guidelines compiled by the Army Medical Directorate Environmental Health Team say the instrument which has traditionally led Scots regiments into battle can cause hearing damage if played outside for more than 24 minutes a day.
The document also insists that musicians playing inside should only do so for 15 minutes, and just six minutes in echo-prone toilets with tiled walls - an area commonly used by pipers for practising."

And here:
"Classic dishes which stiffened the backbone and upper lip of Britain in days gone by are set to vanish from the nation's larder, according to a survey of changing food tastes. Jugged hare, brawn and junket are unknown to the overwhelming majority of under-25s, who also shudder when confronted with many of the recipes' down-to-earth ingredients.
Increasing prosperity is tending to drive offal from young people's kitchens, the poll suggests, along with ingredients such as haddocks' heads and scrag end of neck. The runaway success of international cuisine, from pizza to Thai curries, has also eroded the appeal of pigs' cheeks in brine and boiled calf's foot which date from periods of austerity...
The regional factor was emphasised by survey results in Scotland and Wales. Scots are close to forgetting crappit heids (boiled haddock heads stuffed with suet) and whim wham, a fruit and bread trifle which meant nothing to 94% of under-25s."

There is a moral here: not all changes are for the worst.

21 July 2006

Where's Jack?

The First Minister cannot win. I criticise him when he flirts with celebrities and I criticise him when he is posted missing. Yesterday, for example. The Herald has the story:
"Nicol Stephen, enterprise minister, supported the UK government's relatively liberal stance on stem-cell research after sharing a platform with the brother of US President George W Bush, who on Wednesday said using embryo cells was murder...
Stephen was commenting after addressing a conference to promote links between the biomedical sectors in Scotland and the US state of Florida. The state's governor Jeb Bush, the president's younger brother, was also a speaker. Governor Bush said officials in Florida shared the executive's belief in the potential for success in the field of biomedical development to provide an important driver of economic growth in the future."

If I were a labour party supporter, I might be slightly miffed at Mr McConnell's willingness to allow Mr Stephen (who, as well as being Deputy First Minister, is a competitor in next year's elections) to indulge himself in the high-tech glamour of one of Scotland's sunrise industries in the company of the brother of the world's most powerful man. But I suppose being on holiday in Mull or Arran (or wherever) is more important for the First Minister.

20 July 2006

Ten shillings

Something wrong here surely? The Scotsman reports:
"Mr Sheridan is conducting his own case in court and, in cross-examination, he put it to Mr Green that the minutes did not accurately record what had been said at the meeting, and were "as dodgy as a ten-bob note"."

There is nothing dodgy about a ten shilling note - they were perfectly normal. The phrase Mr Sheridan must have been seeking is 'dodgy as a nine bob note'.

19 July 2006

Simple arithmetic

Is it not surprising how politicians, civil servants and journalists struggle to deal with sums? Here is the BBC website:
"Home Secretary John Reid has told MPs he will clear the backlog of failed asylum seekers within five years.
It follows claims ministers greatly underestimated the number of failed asylum seekers living in Britain.
Last year the National Audit Office estimated that the figure could be as much as 283,000 - but at the time the Home Office insisted that was too high.
Now a trawl of files in the Immigration and Nationality department has produced between 400,000 and 450,000 case files."
Let us assume that there is a backlog of 400,000 failed asylum seekers out there. (I appreciate that the following calculations ignore the fact that this sum will inevitably be added to in future, as more asylum seekers go missing - but let us keep it simple.) In order to remove this backlog, the Immigration and Nationality Department (IND) will need to dispose of (either by deporting or by legitimising) an average of 80,000 cases per year or more than 219 per day (assuming that IND works 365 days a year). Is this feasible?

Again, leave aside the fact that IND has never in the past achieved anything like this throughput. The answer to the basic question depends upon a number of factors. The IND first has to find the individuals concerned, and it then has to secure a formal decision from the Home Office on whether to deport, given of course that the individual has a right of appeal. Assuming deportation is approved, and keeping hold of the asylum seeker in the meantime, it then has to arrange for the physical deportation of the individual, bearing in mind that certain states will not accept those who have fled, that it is not always clear which state asylum seekers are from, and that deportation may not take place if the individual faces execution or torture. All of this will require substantial amounts of paperwork in each of the 200+ cases to be processed and completed every day.

But if Dr Reid says it can be done, who am I to say that he has not even begun to consider the practicalities?


At the same time there will be some administrative changes, according to the BBC (here):

- 15 Home Office directors to be changed and new "top team" set up
- Size of Home Office HQ to be cut by 2,700 staff by 2008, with another 600 posts going by 2010
- Immigration and Nationality Directorate to become "arms length" agency

Yo Linklater!

Magnus of that ilk, in The Times (here), is unhappy with the leaders of the Free World:
"And yet the picture that emerges of the Bush-Blair relationship, revealed by that brief snatch of overheard conversation, is a depressing one. Even allowing for the verbal shorthand in which they talk, there is something shallow and simplistic about their world view. Neither gives any indication that they are pursuing a dynamic or creative approach to solving the current crisis, and policy seems to consist of a few half-formed ideas spun out at random. An approach to the hellish bombardment of Beirut that reduces negotiations to a quick image-building trip to the Middle East, and refers laughingly to a key player in Syria, does nothing to suggest a firm grasp of the situation. “I felt like telling Kofi (Annan) to get on the phone to Assad and make something happen,” says Mr Bush. Well yes, we all would. But is this the limit of what the President of the United States feels able to suggest?
Broken syntax and stumbling sentences are revealing, because they give the impression of half-formed policies and poorly worked-out ideas. That is the very opposite of the language of diplomacy, with its well-crafted phrases and its carefully weighted emphases. No one is suggesting that our leaders should suddenly start talking to each other like a Metternich or a Talleyrand. It would, on the other hand, be nice if they made some sense."

I fear that looking for sense is past praying for. What the overheard conversation reveals is that Blair and Bush are stumbling around in the same fog as everyone else.

Pie in the sky

Nice idea but it will never happen. The Guardian reports:
"A radical plan to curb greenhouse gas emissions by rationing the carbon use of individuals is being drawn up by government officials. The scheme could force consumers to carry a swipe card that records their personal carbon allocation, with points knocked off each time they buy petrol or tickets for a flight.
Under the scheme, all UK citizens from the Queen down would be allocated an identical annual carbon allowance, stored as points on an electronic card similar to Air Miles or supermarket loyalty cards. Points would be deducted at point of sale for every purchase of non-renewable energy. People who did not use their full allocation, such as families who do not own a car, would be able to sell their surplus carbon points into a central bank.
High energy users could then buy them - motorists who had used their allocation would still be able to buy petrol, with the carbon points drawn from the bank and the cost added to their fuel bills. To reduce total UK emissions, the overall number of points would shrink each year.
David Miliband, the environment secretary, is keen to set up a pilot scheme to test the idea, and has asked officials from four government departments to report on how it could be done."

Consider the practicalities: the need for some kind of central authority or bank to supervise the mammoth task of issuing (and keeping records of) 30 million cards, the vast computer system required with links to every petrol station and air ticket agency, the scope for fraud, the question of what to do for people with children or who live in rural areas and who therefore have greater fuel needs, how (or whether) to exclude business travel from the arrangements, what to do about tourists from abroad and so on and on and on.

Does anyone in government think nowadays?

Open hostilities

The football world cup revealed - to no-one's surprise - that footballers are not renowned for the maturity of their behaviour. The Guardian indicates that golfers can be no less petty:
"The starter on the first tee at Royal Liverpool might be well advised to have two pairs of boxing gloves ready for 2.09pm tomorrow after Tiger Woods yesterday abandoned his lifelong habit of staying above the fray to take a swipe at Nick Faldo, with whom he will play the first two rounds of the 135th Open at the Royal Liverpool club.
With the bookies last night offering 6-4 against the two men not shaking hands on the first tee, and odds of a fight starting during their first 18 holes together being cut from 100-1 to 25-1, Woods did nothing to dampen the enmity started when the Englishman criticised the world No1's swing while commentating on American TV.
Asked about his relationship, Woods was brief. "We don't talk." Asked if they would be conversing much during their scheduled 36 holes together, he was more expansive but not by much. "I have only played with him two times since I turned pro and there wasn't a lot of talking then either." Asked what would be his response if Faldo tried to start up a conversation, he shrugged. "Surprised."

Grow up, lads! Life's too short.

18 July 2006

Scottish Executive Ministers are wimps

Ministers are at it again. This time they are ducking out of legislating on corporate homicide. The Herald reports:
"Plans for separate Scottish legislation on corporate manslaughter have been shelved after government lawyers on both sides of the border decided in the last few days that it was a reserved issue, and was therefore a matter for Westminster's MPs.
Although ministers are battling behind the scenes over the detail of the bill, the government intends to publish the legislation before the House of Commons rises next week for the summer recess. It is understood that John Reid, the Home Secretary, has written to the legislative and domestic affairs committees, requesting that the legislation be allocated time in the parliamentary timetable. Cathy Jamieson, Scotland's Justice Minister, expected to take the lead on Scottish legislation, although it was not included in the Holyrood timetable. Now lawyers in the Scottish Executive and Whitehall have decreed corporate killing is a health and safety issue rather than one of criminal justice."

This is despite the fact that the Executive had set up its own expert working group to make recommendations on the matter. The report of the group is here. Even a brief skim of the report indicates that lawyers cannot simply 'decree' corporate killing to be a health and safety issue. Among other things, the group clearly recommends that Scotland should not simply tag along behind England in this matter. But the Executive is clearly not prepared to back the judgement of the group which it appointed. Worse, it sneaks out its decisions during the parliamentary recess without even a press release.

By a bitter irony, the BBC Scotland website today has this as its lead story:
"Oil giant Shell has been criticised for defects and failings after the deaths of two men on the Brent Bravo platform.
Keith Moncrieff, 45, from Invergowrie, and Sean McCue, 22, from Kennoway in Fife, died in an accident in a leg of the platform in September 2003.
A sheriff said the deaths may have been prevented if a temporary repair had been managed and the risk of working in the leg had been properly assessed.
Shell said that safety was a top priority.
Mr Moncrieff and Mr McCue had been making an inspection of a temporary repair patch in the platform leg when they were overcome by gas.
Shell was later fined £900,000 after admitting health and safety breaches, including failing to carry out a risk assessment on the platform.
A fatal accident inquiry, which was conducted by Sheriff Colin Harris, lasted 38 days and took evidence from 61 witnesses."

15 July 2006

Soppy stuff

Every evening they scream past my kitchen window, circling the small park which it overlooks. As I write, at 9.40 am on a Saturday morning, they are still flashing around. Simon Barnes in The Times explains:
"THIS is the time of year when the sky screams. Swifts: the dark sickle-winged birds are reaching their peak numbers right now. They came here in spring to breed: they have succeeded, and now the sky is full of young swifts revelling in the might of their new wings, and celebrating life in what are charmingly known as screaming parties: hooliganing about in low-level runs and celebrating the swiftness of swifts with wild yells.
It is all part of the process of learning to be a swift. They are learning how to use their wings, learning how to feed on the wing, learning about the ways of the sky. As regular readers of this space well know, once a young swift sets off for Africa, it will be at least two, and possibly three years before they next perch on anything again: eating and even sleeping on the wing. There are miracles taking place above our heads.
Swifts are the most committed aeronauts in the world: and as they prepare for the epic journey to southern Africa, they cut, curvet, wheel and then join in a screaming party for the sheer hell of it. Early evening, round about drinks time: take an outdoor glass of something good and watch the skies. Raise your glass to the screamers."

There is something heart-warming in the fact that, even in the centre of Edinburgh, nature can still present a magic spectacle.

Cui bono?

I am not usually a rabid supporter of environmentalism but the dice seem particularly loaded against the public good in this case. The Scotsman reports:
"A CONTROVERSIAL plan to transfer oil between tankers in the Firth of Forth is to get the go-ahead, despite objections from environmentalists, who fear a catastrophe.
The decision by the Maritime and Coastguard Agency (MCA) means millions of tonnes of crude oil could be pumped from Russian ships to supertankers for onward shipment. Last night campaigners, MEPs and local authorities pledged to fight the plans, either by taking legal action or by launching a major European Union investigation to block the transfers...
The Sunderland-based company Melbourne Marine Services (MMS) is proposing to pump about 7.8 million tonnes of Russian crude every year between tankers lying four miles off the Fife coast. Forth Ports, the harbour authority, is in favour of the idea to transfer crude at rates of up to 3,000 tonnes per hour. It stands to earn more than £6 million a year from the transfers."

The crude oil is to be transferred from Russian tankers to bigger tankers destined for America. It has absolutely nothing to do with Scottish energy needs. The only benefit to anyone in Scotland consists of an annual £6 million in harbour dues which will accrue to a private sector company, Forth Ports. But all the risks, in the form of possible oil spills, lie with the wider Scottish environment. In the circumstances, I find it difficult to understand why public authorities should agree to an arrangement which offers them no benefit and only possible disadvantage.

Wake up Jack!

Mr Salmond rarely misses a trick. The Scotsman reports:
"ALEX Salmond has written to Scotland's top civil servant, requesting formal pre-election contact between the civil service and the SNP, it emerged yesterday.
The SNP leader has contacted Sir John Elvidge, the permanent secretary at the Scottish Executive, to ask for a meeting to smooth a possible transition to an SNP administration.
Mr Salmond plans to publish detailed proposals for the SNP's first 100 days in power in the near future. He insisted that it was important civil servants were fully prepared to take these initiatives forward.
He said: "I want to see a smooth transition next year from the Labour-Liberal Democrat Executive to an SNP-led Scottish government. As First Minister, I want to be in a position to hit the ground running so we can begin to make the changes Scotland needs."
If Mr Salmond secures a meeting with the permanent secretary, he enhances his credibility as a potential First Minister and drives a wedge between Mr McConnell and the senior officials of the Executive. If Sir John turns him down, Mr Salmond has a legitimate complaint about the partiality of the Scottish civil service in favour of the current administration. Either way, he can't lose.

Meanwhile, our current First Minister seems to meander along, sniffing the flowers, without making any impression upon the electorate...

14 July 2006

Cordon bleu (well maybe not...)

This blog does not usually go in for recipes but, following my recent post (here), certain of my interlocutors have enquired about how I cook mince. So here goes. This serves three or four (but you can freeze portions).


500g steak mince ( I recommend the stuff with at least 10% fat but, hey, maybe you're on a diet or something.)
1 big or medium onion
1 or 2 carrots (depending upon how big they are)
1 oxo cube
tomato paste
Note: you don't need salt - there's more than enough in the oxo cube.


1. Simultaneously (more or less):
1a. Brown the mince (ie stick in a saucepan, heat on the hob and beat it with a wooden spoon so that it breaks up and continue until it changes from red to brown).
1b. Chop the onion into as small pieces as you can (preferably without cutting off any fingers)
1c. Dissolve the oxo cube in about half a pint of boiling water.
2. Add the onion to the mince and heat gently on the hob for a minute or two, then add the dissolved oxo and water and leave on a gentle heat on the hob.
3. Chop up the carrot(s) (I prefer slices but if you prefer chunks then that's also ok) and add to mince.
4. Add a squeeze of tomato paste - not too much; then add liberal (well...) amount of pepper.
5. Give the mixture a good stir, bring slowly to the boil and then let simmer for about an hour.
And that's more or less it. Some people argue that you need to thicken the mince gravy but that requires flour and it can get complicated, so usually I don't bother. Serve with boiled potatoes and (if you're really slumming) processed peas.

Acknowledgements to my ex-wife and my mother, neither of whom succeeded in conveying to me more than the most basic rudiments of cookery but who at least tried. Needless to say, they will both be appalled by the above.

Looking beyond the surface...

I have hitherto resisted offering any comment on the affair of the NatWest Three, even although the media and the house of commons have been full of sound and fury. At one stage, ludicrously, even the Scottish Executive saw fit to involve itself (here).

But very little has been said about what the Three are alleged to have done. Today this is remedied by The Guardian which reports:
"The charges facing David Bermingham, Giles Darby and Gary Mulgrew go to the heart of the fall of Enron, in which a small number of senior executives were able to hang on to fortunes despite 21,000 people losing their jobs. When it began facing financial difficulties, Enron established a series of off-balance sheet ventures to raise investment and hide losses. NatWest invested in one of these, LJM Cayman. The NatWest three, who worked in the bank's structured finance division, are accused of recommending NatWest sell its stake for $1m - allegedly for far less than it was worth. The buyer was a partnership, Southampton LP, which made a huge gain shortly afterwards by selling the stake on. The British trio, according to the FBI's indictment, were investors in Southampton LP along with Enron's global finance manager, Michael Kopper, who has since pleaded guilty to multiple money laundering and awaits sentence.
When Southampton made its profit, Kopper wired $7.3m from Houston to an account established by Mr Bermingham at a Cayman Islands branch of the Bank of Bermuda. Mr Bermingham divided the money up, wiring $2.38m each into the personal accounts of Mr Darby and Mr Mulgrew and kept the rest himself. They allegedly received the money a week after resigning from NatWest. The trio argue that, although highly unusual, the transaction was entirely legal. They believed NatWest was selling for a fair price and their interest in Southampton LP was disclosed to their employer. The Royal Bank of Scotland, which owns NatWest, has declined to comment. Insiders say the bank is reserving its rights over legal action.
The FBI has seized a series of alleged emails between the trio discussing how they were, in Mr Darby's words, "going to get rich". Mr Bermingham emailed his colleagues apparently discussing the need to keep the deal under wraps: "This is an attempt to head the obvious off at the pass and keep the lid on the thing. Large numbers of people are asking what we are up to. I hate lies." A further alleged email, a month before NatWest sold its stake, predicts a return for "Cayco" of "$7m minimum profit". Mr Mulgrew observes: "It's so much easier to focus when it's your own dough."

A case to answer, perhaps?

And, as a footnote, would RBS (or the Financial Services Authority) have done anything if the Americans had not pursued the matter?

13 July 2006

A cri de coeur

I support the UK's membership of the EU. I spent some time labouring in the Brussels salt mines for the greater glory of the European ideal. I enjoyed working with colleagues from other member states. I think that, on balance, EU membership has brought us more benefit than disadvantage.

But now they have gone too far. The Evening News reports:
"BUTCHERS in the Capital have hit out at a new European ruling which puts Scotland's traditional meal of mince and tatties under threat.
Scots butchers have made mince from beef hung for up to three weeks for generations.
But now the European Commission has ruled that the product can only be made from beef within six days of an animal being slaughtered, for hygiene reasons...
Andy McGowan, industry development manager for Quality Meat Scotland, said: "Unfortunately, Scotland has been caught up in this and it will have a major impact on mince, one of the nation's favourite meals."

I expect a full inquiry from the Scottish Parliament's European and External Relations Committee. Save Scotland's mince!

What's he talking about?

Our esteemed First Minister has suddenly become an expert in international economics. The Herald records his support for the euro:
"In the question-and-answer session, Ross McRae, from Williamwood High School in Glasgow, asked Mr McConnell if he thought Scotland could ever go it alone and join the euro. The First Minister said he thought that was impossible under the current constitutional arrangements, as Scotland would naturally keep the pound, but an independent Scotland might one day opt for to join the single currency.
However, he thought more likely the future was one in which Britain as a whole joined the euro. He said: "I personally don't have a problem with the euro as a currency for Scotland and the UK. I can remember the days when there were lots of different European currencies and that was not necessarily healthy." He said the massive trading blocks of India, China, Russia and South America made it necessary to Europe to have a single currency and a single economic market in order to compete. "A small place like Scotland or Britain or Sweden is not going to be able to do that. In the long term I don't have a problem with Britain being part of the euro."
Mr McConnell may wish to note that the economies of three of the four "massive trading blocks" he cites are much smaller than that of the UK. According to the World Bank (here), the UK's gdp in 2005 amounted to $2,192 billion, whereas that of Russia was $764 billion, that of India was $785 billion and that of South America as a whole was short of $1 billion. But even although the UK is the fifth biggest economy in the world, the First Minister thinks that on the grounds of size it won't be able to compete.

We don't know (probably just as well) what Mr McConnell thinks about the inflation problems faced by the Italian and Spanish economies which desperately need increases in interest rates which they can't have because of sluggish economic growth in Germany and France. Nor do we know what the First Minister thinks about the Chancellor's five tests and the likelihood of them being met in the foreseeable future. But never mind the usual labour party line to take on such matters, Mr McConnell thinks it likely that the UK will opt for the euro in the future.

Given his suggestion that an independent Scotland might one day adopt the euro, together with his earlier statements about the path to independence (here), I am tempted to wonder if Mr McConnell is about to defect to the SNP.


It is many years since I engaged in the quickstep of competing for the favours of a paramour, but I can still understand how Mr Blair must feel. The Telegraph reports:
"Mr Bush has been keen to visit Mrs Merkel's constituency since her trip to Washington in May, when over dinner he expressed a keen interest in her experience of living under Communism.
Mrs Merkel responded by inviting him to see her native Mecklenburg-Western Pomerania on his way to meet Vladimir Putin, the Russian president, in St Petersburg tomorrow ahead of the weekend summit of the Group of Eight leaders.
Mr Bush has expressed admiration for Mrs Merkel's straight-talking style, particularly her recent comparison of the Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmedinejad with Adolf Hitler. He has said that Mrs Merkel, having lived for 35 years under Communism, has a deep understanding of freedom and democracy.
"Bush needed a place where he could get rid of his jet lag prior to G8," said Julianne Smith, the Germany analyst at the Washington Centre for Strategic and International Studies. "Where else should he have stopped off than with his favourite politician in Europe right now?"

That last statement must hurt. After allowing Mr Bush to take all sorts of liberties in their courtship, the Prime Minister finds himself jilted in favour of a Jeannie-come-lately who opted out of Iraq and whose contribution to "the war on turr" has been limited, to say the least.

It's just not fair. To cast aside Mr Blair in favour of a new and younger friend shows no constancy. And now Tony has to face Vlad and Jacques at the weekend, in the knowledge that everyone will see how he is no longer number one in George's affections.

More low finance

Does the City have any morals? The Guardian thinks not (here):
"A Russian monster called Rosneft arrives in London tomorrow - and its arrival is not to be applauded. Conditional dealings in the oil giant will get under way on the London Stock Exchange - despite the fact that Rosneft's main assets were seized from a rival by Vladimir Putin's government and it may not therefore legally own its assets, that it faces years of litigation in many countries and that the Sarbanes-Oxley corporate governance rules in the US mean it would not have been allowed anywhere near Wall Street.
But, it is now clear, the City of London and the FSA, through its listing authority, has lower standards. The FTSE 100 may once have been reserved for blue-chip companies worthy of inclusion in our pension funds, but with Rosneft among the biggest UK-listed companies, that is obviously no longer the case.
It is a vast business: it is raising some £6bn and will have a market capitalisation of more than £40bn - making it substantially bigger than Tesco, Sainsbury and Wm Morrison added together.
The corporate governance teams working for UK fund managers have made their distaste clear. They like to engage with the companies they invest in - and the big tracker funds will have no option but to buy in - but there is little chance of that here. Will they follow the combined code? About as likely as Russia banning vodka. Instead Rosneft's biggest customers have been coerced into buying shares, and investment banks won over by wads of cash shared out for advisory work."

Is this really the way in which UK Finance plc should be going about its business? Do any politicians express concern? Is money the only thing that matters?

12 July 2006

Has the sky fallen in?

I don't imagine that the police would arrest the Prime Minister's tennis partner without being very sure of what they were doing. The BBC reports:
"Tony Blair's chief fundraiser Lord Levy has been arrested.
His arrest is in connection with the "cash-for-honours" inquiry by the Metropolitan Police.
Lord Levy, 61, made his money in the music industry in the 1960s and 1970s, managing singers including Alvin Stardust and Chris Rea.
He has been a high profile fundraiser for Labour since Tony Blair's election. Lord Levy is understood to be being held at a North London police station."

Could you mince it and put it in a pie?

Look, just because you've never tasted it before is no reason not to try. The New York Times suggests that you try llama when you are next in Buenos Aires:
"Guillaume Bianchi, head chef at the Buenos Aires Hilton restaurant, cooks native foodstuffs using French techniques. In 2003, he was among the first local chefs to put llama on the menu. His braised nandu started as an hors d’oeuvre, he said. “It was excellent, so I dedicated to put it in the menu.”
Mr. Bianchi’s ingredients — like a spicy nandu prosciutto — pleasantly surprised conservative business patrons. “First they were a little bit shocked,” he said, “but I think it’s very well accepted now.”
Getting clients used to the products is not the only issue, however. “Meat from llama can be very tough,” said Inés Villamil, the hotel’s food and beverage manager. Grains can be problematic, too. “Since the products are natural they are therefore of an inconsistent quality, or limited in quantity,’’ she said. “It can be hard to set a menu with the items.”
I don't think so... But I don't suppose Argentinians would fancy deep-fried mars bar.

It's no ma fault, honest

The Scottish Executive does not deal directly with youth crime. That is essentially a matter for the police, for local authorities, for the courts system and for various agencies. The role of the Executive is to set the framework within which these various actors operate, to ensure that their actions and policies are complementary and, by a combination of sticks and carrots, to influence the actors towards the delivery of certain objectives.

In these circumstances, it is somewhat bizarre to find the Justice Minister blaming everyone else for the failure to meet targets. The Scotsman reports:
"THE justice minister, Cathy Jamieson, was embroiled in a row with police chiefs yesterday over targets she has set for cutting youth crime statistics.
The dispute comes after it emerged there had been a rise in the number of persistent young offenders being referred to the children's hearing system. Police say the increase is an inevitable result of them clamping down on youth crime and claim Ms Jamieson's stated target of cutting the number of such cases is pointless.
But the minister appeared to blame the figures on police and other authorities, who she said were not doing enough to tackle young offenders. She insisted she still expected future targets for cutting the number of persistent young offenders to be met."

If the police and other authorities 'are not doing enough to tackle young offenders', then it is Ms Jamieson's fault in that either the framework for which she is responsible is inadequate or she is failing to exert appropriate influence on those authorities. I might further suggest that to reduce the success or failure of policy in an enormously complex area such as youth crime to a simple single numerical target is a rather daft proposition to start with.

Ms Jamieson deserves criticism, not just for failing to meet her target and for blaming others but for the poverty of thought she brings to her role as justice minister.

A world of smoke and mirrors

So, yesterday's announcement on energy policy cleared the air. Or did it? The Guardian reports here:
"The nuclear power industry dealt a blow to the government's hopes of seeing a new generation of plants when leaders warned that the energy review published yesterday did not go far enough or offer suitable incentives.
Politicians must get away from the "froth" of words and come up with something more concrete before winning support for new stations, said the Association of Electricity Producers (AEP)."

And what would that 'something more concrete' have to be? The Guardian supplies a clue here:
"In fact, the energy document is light on detail but clearly welcoming to nuclear. A similar review in 2003 left the door slightly ajar but insisted the economics looked unpromising. Yesterday the door was quietly but surely yanked open to atomic power with the government promising to come up with a framework for action to be contained in a white paper around the year's end.
It will be up to the private sector to fully finance any new stations. There would be no subsidies, direct or indirect, Mr Darling insisted repeatedly to a barrage of sceptical questions from his own backbenchers and the other side of the Commons."

This means that, if Mr Darling will not supply subsidies, either up front or more likely through rigging the electricity market to ensure a decent rate of return, the private sector will not invest in new nuclear power stations. In the circumstances - and despite Mr Darling's assurances about the absence of subsidies - I leave you to guess what the future white paper's 'framework for action' will contain.

11 July 2006

Wot no horse?

Steve Bell at his best

The art of swearing in foreign languages

This is disappointingly vague and over-simplistic. The Guardian reports:
"An Italian lip-reader last night claimed to have deciphered the words Marco Materazzi said to Zinédine Zidane that provoked the French captain into butting him in the chest during Sunday's World Cup final, the great midfielder's final act before a red card ended his career in top-level football.
According to the BBC, Materazzi said, "I wish an ugly death to you and all your family," and then told Zidane to "go fuck yourself".
A Paris-based anti-racism group, SOS-Racism, earlier said that "several very well informed sources" had suggested Zidane was called a "dirty terrorist".
We need first to decide if Mr Materazzi swore at Mr Zidane in Italian or French. I do not know if Mr Zidane understands Italian nor if Mr Materazzi has sufficient French to curse him in the manner suggested.

Even if they had established a "lingua franca", as it were, the translation of insults, particularly insults involving swearing, offers all sorts of difficulties. For example, the verbs in French which are the nearest equivalent to the English 'fuck' are 'baiser' and 'se foutre' but neither could be regarded as a direct translation; nor do they necessarily carry the same shock quotient. Thus 'fous-moi la paix' is not quite the same as 'fuck off'. I am not an expert in Italian but the same considerations apply.

Perhaps we will learn more in due course.


The Independent has a rather more believable story:
"An insult about Zinedine Zidane's sister from Marco Materazzi is understood to have provoked the Frenchman's extraordinary headbutt for which he was sent off in Sunday's World Cup final. The Italian was also forced yesterday to deny he called Zidane, whose parents are Algerian immigrants, a " dirty terrorist".
While Zidane is expected to clear up the debate within the next week by revealing what was said to him at the Olympiastadion in Berlin on Sunday the clues are now pointing towards a remark about the Frenchman's sister, Lila.
It was a confrontation that began with Materazzi grabbing Zidane's shirt. It is alleged that Zidane responded by sarcastically telling Materazzi that he could have his shirt as a souvenir at the end of the match. The Italian is alleged to have responded by saying that Zidane could keep it for his sister and then made an extremely derogatory comment about her ­ that version is backed up by lip-readers from the Brazilian TV channel Globo. They claim Materazzi called her a "prostitute"."

The supposed insult with reference to a sister is of some antiquity in Romance languages. Indeed, it is no longer necessary to call the sister a prostitute. A simple 'et ta soeur...' is sufficiently insulting to offend deeply most Latin men, whether they actually have a sister or not.

10 July 2006

Soft on crime, soft on the causes of crime

It is easy to mock Mr Cameron's new "Hug a hoodie" approach to youth crime. The Guardian reports:
"Tory leader David Cameron today defended his "bold" new approach to tackling antisocial behaviour with a call to show Britain's youth more "love".
Speaking ahead of a widely trailed speech to the Centre for Social Justice, Mr Cameron told BBC Breakfast that he was not urging people to "hug a hoodie", as the Labour party claimed.
But it was time policymakers looked beyond a "sticking plaster" approach to tackling social problems.
Mr Cameron, who will use his speech this afternoon to argue that sanctions such as antisocial behaviour orders should be used "less and less", said he was "being bold" in his approach.
He will say that young people need a "lot more love" if they are not to be drawn into offending.
While some people feel threatened by youngsters wearing hooded tops, those people may often be scared themselves. "Let's try and understand what's gone wrong with these young people, " he
But is Mr Cameron's approach likely to be less productive than Jack McConnell's 'war on neds'? According to The Herald (here), the latter does not appear to be making much impact. If Mr Cameron errs too much towards understanding and not enough towards condemnation, at least he has avoided the knee-jerk reaction of Mr McConnell whose only answer seems to be increasing repression.

Having said that, I rather doubt if Ms Goldie will be entirely happy with her leader's new position.

Social engineering

It is worrying that Scottish Ministers seem inclined to entertain an increasing level of social authoritarianism. The Scotsman reports:
"LABOUR leaders prompted an angry reaction from drug workers yesterday after it emerged that they were considering plans to prevent drug addicts from having children until they kicked the habit.
The plans, which will be considered by the Scottish Labour Party for its Holyrood manifesto next year, were dismissed as "cynical expediency" and derided for showing "a depressing lack of vision" by drug experts.
The proposals, drawn up by Labour MSP Duncan McNeil, would require addicts to sign a "social contract", under which they would only get benefits and methadone if they agreed not to have children while addicted to drugs.
If addicts agree, but then breach the contract, they face having their children taken into care, as well as the withdrawal of treatment and benefits."

There seems to be at least one practical difficulty with these proposals. Junkies are not the most reliable people. If, having agreed a contract, an addict nevertheless becomes pregnant, are we really going to take the ensuing child into care and turn that addict on to the streets to fend for herself without treatment or benefits? Will that resolve the problem? And do we really want to go back to a system which abandons those who do not "deserve" help?

There is also an issue of principle. It may be incontrovertible that the chidren of junkies face - in the jargon - reduced life chances. But there are other potential categories of parents whose children may not reasonably expect to have as good a start in life as others. The children of smokers, alcoholics, single mothers and those suffering from certain genetic health conditions may also suffer a certain amount of disadvantage because of their parents. It is distasteful, to say the least, to single out junkies for harsh treatment.

Let us hope that Scottish Labour leaders think carefully before adopting the proposals.

09 July 2006

Wyatt Twerp

Roy Rogers is re-born. The Mail on Sunday reports:
"John Prescott faced damaging new allegations last night that he accepted expensive hand-crafted gifts - a lavish Wild West outfit - from the American billionaire who wants to open a super-casino in the Millennium Dome.
According to an informed source, the Deputy Prime Minister was presented with a pair of tooled leather boots, a Stetson hat and a belt bearing his initials 'JP' on its silver buckle.
Such items - made by local craftsmen - can sell for up to $20,000. The gifts were allegedly made while Mr Prescott spent two days on the 32,000-acre Colorado ranch owned by property and media tycoon Philip Anschutz in July last year.
The Mail on Sunday has learned that the Deputy Prime Minister galloped around the ranch on a thoroughbred stallion and attempted to lasso livestock."

I find it extremely difficult to picture Mr Prescott riding a horse, never mind working his lariat on some cows. But it is an entrancing thought which will add greatly to the gaiety of the nation.

08 July 2006

Crying wolf

Terrorist plots are everywhere. Eternal vigilance is the price of liberty. But the FBI is protecting the free world. The Times reports:
"A PLOT by foreign terrorists to bomb underground train and road tunnels in New York with the aim of flooding the Wall Street financial district has been thwarted, the FBI said yesterday.
The main target of the Islamic extremists, one of whom is an al-Qaeda member and under arrest in Beirut, was the Holland Tunnel, the main road link between Manhattan and New Jersey that runs under the Hudson River. It carried almost 35 million vehicles in 2005.
The alleged plot was discovered during monitoring of internet chat rooms used by extremists. It also involved bombing the New York subway.
Mark J. Mershon, the assistant director in charge of the FBI’s New York field office, said that there were eight principal players in the plot. Three were in custody abroad and six nations had been involved in the investigation, he added."

But there's a big but:
"None of the plotters had ever been in the US or obtained materials to stage an attack.
The FBI added that the plotters had discussed driving vehicles laden with explosives into several tunnels around Manhattan and then blowing them up.
Mr Mershon said that the plot would have involved “martyrdom, explosives” in some of the tunnels that connected New Jersey and Manhattan. Earlier, FBI officials said that information gleaned from the internet suggested that Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the former leader of al-Qaeda in Iraq who was killed by a US bomb last month, had agreed to back the plot financially. But there was no evidence that any money was sent or explosives bought."

So the plotters had never been to the USA; they did not have the explosives nor the funds to buy them. Did the plot amount to anything more than a bunch of Arab kids sitting around and speculating - in the way of young men everywhere - about what they would like to do to their perceived enemies?

OK, better safe than sorry - but did the FBI need to make a grand announcement about it?

Me, me, me...

Scottish Enterprise is apparently wedded to the notion of metropolitan regions. (Don't ask me why they could not be called city regions but let that one stick to the wall for now.) But, as the Executive refused to allow them to restructure the local enterprise companies (LECs), the whole implementation of the concept depends on co-operation with adjoining LECs. The Scotsman shows that the Chairman of Scottish Enterprise Edinburgh and Lothian is somewhat lacking in diplomacy:
"WELCOME to Metro Region East, formerly known as Edinburgh. In the brave new world of the re-organised Scottish Enterprise network, the capital is being refashioned as the hub, whose spokes stretch far beyond the Lothian backyards, up the Forth Valley, and through Fife to link up with the linked mini-metros of Aberdeen and Dundee.
Will we notice the difference from this cartographic rethink?
Charles Hammond, the chairman of Scottish Enterprise Edinburgh and Lothian, believes that the plan will take time to settle, but that the implications for increased efficiency will soon make themselves felt.
"The metropolitan region strategy is still at the inception stage but SEEL [Scottish Enterprise Edinburgh and Lothian] will have a central role. From our work in the Lothians we are used to balancing different regional concerns and priorities, and it will be relatively easy to extend that up to Fife and Grampian."

Given this arrogance about the dominant role to be played by SEEL, I wonder if Mr Hammond has given any thought to how the chairman, members and staff of Fife Enterprise, Forth Valley Enterprise and Grampian Enterprise will feel about the peripheral role that he has assigned them to play in this brave new world?

I appreciate that, to some, it may seem tiresome and petty. But, if public sector authorities are to work successfully together, you have to pay due regard to the feelings and aspirations of others. Scottish Enterprise has been criticised for not doing so on many occasions in the past. It seems that lessons have yet to be learnt.

"Aberdeen man drowned; Titanic sinks"

The Scotsman seeks - rather desperately - to put some Scottish spin on Wimbledon:
"AFTER a fortnight's 'diet' of strawberries and cream, the world's number one tennis player could be forgiven for craving a more substantial dish. For Roger Federer this could mean only one thing: rack of Scottish lamb.
Federer has requested that the main course at the prestigious Champion's Dinner, to be held after Sunday's final, be his favourite meal.
Chefs at the Savoy Hotel have ordered 200 succulent eight-bone racks from the Duke of Buccleuch's estate in order not to disappoint the Swiss player."

All very well if Mr Federer wins. But what if Mr Nadal carries off the trophy?

A world turned upside-down

There is something wrong with our society when a senior policeman pleads a classic liberal line in social tolerance while labour politicians demand thoughtless social repression. The Scotsman reports:
"ONE of Scotland's most senior police officers has hit back at ministers over the use of new powers to tackle antisocial behaviour, insisting they are not a panacea in fighting youth crime.
Dumfries and Galloway chief constable and ACPOS youth justice spokesman David Strang also says there is a "disproportionate fear" of young people...
Mr McConnell and the Justice Minister Cathy Jamieson have been consistently critical of councils and police for not using measures such as ASBOs and dispersal orders.
Last month Mr McConnell accused authorities of an "inexcusable" failure to make full use of powers for tacking anti-social behaviour. He expressed "absolute dismay" that many were not using powers such as dispersal orders - which he said they had been pleading for - when "far too many" young people were still showing incorrigible behaviour.
Mr McConnell spoke out after it emerged that only half of Scotland's eight police forces have imposed dispersal orders for breaking up unruly crowds. Only four ASBOs were served on children in the year since the power was introduced in April 2005. But in an interview with The Scotsman, Mr Strang defended police and local authority efforts to tackle youth crime.
He insisted the "real answer" was not to deliver more ASBOs but to tackle a loss of trust between young people and the wider community by reaching out to youngsters."
While I may applaud the sentiments of the Chief Constable and deplore the authoritarianism of Ministers, I might also ask why chief constables feel free to indulge in public political controversy of this nature. After all, it is not the job of the policeman to determine policy with regard to youth crime. They will inevitably have their own views and they have channels to deliver those views to the Executive. But however enlightened and informed those views are, chief constables are surely not entitled to engage in public debate with elected politicians.

07 July 2006

Whee - Zebedee is back!

Just the man to stimulate jaded Scottish Labour appetites. An exciting, fresh face whose youthful approach will almost certainly re-invigorate next year's election campaign. The Herald reports:
"Labour peer George Foulkes will return to front-line politics after coming top of one of the party's regional lists for next year's Holyrood election.
He could expect to become an MSP if Labour loses directly elected seats in Lothian, where at least two members are regarded as vulnerable. A backlash against Labour has been suggested by some recent polls. He will also play an active role by leading the party's campaign in Lothian."
Lord Foulkes (64 but much younger in outlook) is believed to be a Hearts supporter...


Those mystified by the reference to Zebedee will find it explained here.

06 July 2006

Dirty tricks?

Are bloggers setting the political agenda? The Independent reports that Mr Prescott's allies think so:
"Friends of the Deputy Prime Minister claim he has been the target of a "dirty tricks" campaign by "bloggers" with Tory right-wing links.
They are furious at the use of two Westminster internet sites to name a third woman with whom the bloggers allege John Prescott has had an affair, and a woman civil servant in Beijing who is said to have rebuffed his advances.
Mr Prescott's allies have privately urged him to take action to remove the smears or close the sites down. His advisers said he was unlikely to do so, to avoid giving them more prominence.
"It is the black arts," said a Prescott ally. "They are running a dirty tricks campaign and they are being used as a conduit by journalists."
The Labour MP was named by a "gunpowder plot" website called Guido Fawkes. Friends of the blogger said it was run by a libertarian conservative, Paul Staines, a former Tory activist. The website yesterday challenged Mr Prescott to sue.
The Prescott camp also accused Iain Dale, a past Tory parliamentary candidate, of using his own personal blogsite to recycle the smears."

I hold no brief for either of the websites mentioned, but the beauty of blogging is that readers can make up their own mind. You will find Guido here and Iain Dale here.

There are also a couple of points worth making. The mainstream media, particularly the BBC, were rather slow off the mark in reporting the latest Prescott imbroglio, witness the self-interested pleading here - so why complain when bloggers pick up the ball and start to run with it? The second point is that the traditional conspiracy whereby everyone at Westminster knows who is sleeping with whom but refuses to disclose the (alleged) facts outside the magic circle is thankfully breaking down.

Finally, a labour deputy prime minister who spends a weekend at a billionaire's Colorado ranch when that billionaire has business dealings with the government is not behaving sensibly.

05 July 2006


The newspapers are salivating - not a pleasant sight. The Scotsman sticks mainly to straight reporting, at least for now:
"TOMMY Sheridan was fired as leader of the Scottish Socialist Party after admitting that he attended a swingers' club, a court was told yesterday.
As the MSP's £200,000 battle against a Sunday tabloid newspaper got under way, a jury also heard that Mr Sheridan had had a series of extramarital affairs. He has launched a defamation action against the News of the World, denying allegations that he had affairs with a number of women, visited a swingers' club and enjoyed a sex "party" in a Glasgow hotel.
But lawyers for the newspaper insist claims that Mr Sheridan participated in orgies, that he was a hypocrite and that he abused his position of power are "substantially true".

If The News of the World story is true - or even 'substantially true', then Mr Sheridan is finished. Even if it is not true, then enough mud will probably stick to achieve the same result.

A further thought: Mrs Sheridan does not deserve any of this.

04 July 2006

A rather pointless comparison?

Gratuitous coincidence. The Scotsman reports:
"THE Earth had a near miss early yesterday when a giant asteroid hurtled past almost as close as the Moon.
The space rock, named 2004 XP14, was travelling at 11 miles per second as it made its nearest approach to the planet at about 5:30am UK time. At that moment it was about 268,000 miles away."

Well, bless my soul! That's a lot less than the distance travelled by Scottish Ministers in their official cars (here):
"The Scottish Executive's fleet of 24 ministerial vehicles travelled 428,000 miles in 2005-6, far enough to cover the 238,000 miles to the Moon and most of the way back."

03 July 2006


Dr Elaine Murray MSP (who she?) goes off-message. The BBC website reports:
"Labour will promise not to block new nuclear power stations when it fights the Scottish election next May, one of the party's MSPs has said.
Dr Elaine Murray is campaigning for a new plant to be built on the site of the old one at Chapelcross, near Annan...
Scottish Labour has not formally said whether it will campaign for or against nuclear power in Scotland.
But Dr Murray told BBC Radio Scotland programme The Investigation that the party had no objection in principle.
Dr Murray said: "The position of the Labour Party going into the Scottish Parliament elections will be that we would not, on principle, block an application for a new nuclear power station in Scotland.
"We would consider any planning application on its merits."

After months spent trying to hold the line, the First Minister will be spitting blood...

Hung out to dry

When the civil service of the Scottish Executive decides to put the boot in, it does not believe in half measures. The Herald reports:
"THE head of human resources for the Scottish Executive who is currently suspended over allegations of misconduct, was hired despite having been sacked for bullying from a previous post.
Susan Beevers lost her job with a private firm in Nottingham after allegations of staff harassment and intimidation in late 2002, and failed with a claim of unfair dismissal at an employment tribunal.
However, senior officials at the executive were not aware of that when she was appointed to her job in Edinburgh, with ultimate responsibility for personnel matters for the executive's 4500 civil servants.
Since then, she has been in charge of a multi-million-pound computer project which is in deep trouble – behind time, over budget and subject to a review which could result in it being scrapped.

The Scotsman has the same story here.

It seems clear that the Executive intends to make the unfortunate Ms Beevers a scapegoat and, to this end, is selectively leaking to the press. One is bound to ask, however, who appointed her? Who failed to check out her references? Who thought that her experience of running a seven-strong HR team in the private sector was sufficient to qualify her for running the Executive's HR team?

01 July 2006

A small mystery

We don't get Scottish opinion polls very often, so we must enjoy them when they appear. The Scotsman reports:
"LABOUR'S ambition of retaining power at Holyrood suffered a severe setback last night after the Scottish National Party took the lead in an opinion poll for the first time since the 2003 elections.
A survey of voting intentions by the Ipsos MORI organisation revealed a massive swing to the SNP in both the constituency and list sections of the Holyrood voting system. In just three months, Labour has slipped from a 14-point lead over the SNP to being two points behind them. Just 28 per cent of voters said they would back Labour in a Holyrood election compared with 30 per cent who opted for the SNP.
In the second, list vote, Labour's support is now 26 per cent, down from 33 per cent, while the SNP commands the support of 28 per cent of voters, up from 23 per cent, giving them a two-point lead.
The poll, which surveys voters across Scotland every three months, found a similar pattern for Westminster voting intentions. Labour dropped from 44 per cent in the January to March period to 36 per cent in the April to June survey. "

The disparity between voting intentions for Holyrood and those for Westminster is intriguing. Labour's support is at 28% for Holyrood and 36% for Westminster. Who are these 8% of voters who will support a Blair/Brown administration at Westminster but will turn away from a McConnell administration at Holyrood? And why is the Labour administration at Holyrood less popular than that at Westminster? If this poll is correct, Mr McConnell will find it difficult to blame UK Labour for his electoral difficulties.

That apart, Labour would appear to be in deep doodoo for next May.