Expenses row is another reminder of Nationalist contempt for transparency in government, writes Brian Wilson
I can understand why Alex Salmond considers it a “ridiculous frippery” to be asked how an unexplained £54,000 of taxpayers’ money was spent. But he should be careful about assuming that the court of public opinion shares his contempt for the question.
Politicians get used to thinking in terms of other people’s millions. Some new initiative is hardly worth announcing without a seven-figure price tag to validate its significance, whatever the ultimate worth. The Scottish Government has more than £30 billion to dispense, even in what is supposed to be a lean year.
Within that mindset, £54,000 is small change. But both the law and the voters have an irritating habit of not seeing it that way. Many find it difficult to relate to the big numbers, but a figure that is twice the average national wage is well within the bounds of comprehension – and few can afford to dismiss it as “a ridiculous frippery”. A former first minister, Henry McLeish, was defrocked over a £36,000 “muddle not a fiddle”. Denis McShane, reared in the louche school of journalistic expense claims, is doing six months in the slammer over £15,000, even though the judge acknowledged that no personal gain was involved.
The smaller the sum, it seems, the higher the expectation of honest accounting. Should a lower level of accountability apply to the excursions of ministers, with an army of civil servants employed to keep them right, than to the foibles of individual parliamentarians? That is a question that might usefully be put to the test if this nonsense continues.
I do not belong to the hairshirt brigade and I believe that politicians who are representing their country abroad should do so with some style. Indeed, I recall sympathising with the irritation of Scottish Development International officials in San Francisco when Donald Dewar spent much of his time complaining about the expense of the hotel into which he had been booked. But the belief that Salmond decamped from his appointed billet in order to bask in a more luxurious one goes to the other extreme.
The fact that Justin Bieber has lodged in a particular hotel should not of itself deter the First Minister of Scotland from doing so, though neither would I regard his patronage as an incentive to share the experience. The sole test is whether the costs incurred are defensible and the only way to judge that is with knowledge of the costs and reasons. As simple as that.
Underlying this “frippery” is a more fundamental problem – the Scottish Government’s total and utter contempt for Freedom of Information, either as a principle or in its legislative form. It repeatedly obstructs perfectly reasonable requests for information on the solitary grounds that it would prefer not to give it. This is an expression of arrogance that should be called to account.
The £500,000 costs involved in the Chicago trip do appear to border on a folie de grandeur. But this might be long forgotten if it were not for the ruthless determination of someone within the Scottish Government to prevent disclosure of what the money was spent on. Eventually, VisitScotland coughed up the information about its share, which amounted to £415,000, leaving £54,000 unaccounted for.
Last Friday, following the exchanges at First Minister’s Question Time, the Scottish Government released some of the elusive information at 6:40pm. This was 15 months after the expenses were incurred and three months after the specific FoI request was lodged by the Daily Telegraph. There is only one reason for releasing information at such a time and that is to minimise the reporting of it.
Even now, the breakdown of costs is deliberately vague and the hotel details are completely missing.
For good measure, the total has been “revised down” by £3,000, which, after 15 months, suggests that this amount has been repaid following a long and reluctant interval. The sum of £37,500 is attributed to “travel” which, when added to the VisitScotland figures, suggests that it cost over £90,000 in fares alone to fly the whole circus to Chicago. If true, that really is excessive.
The Freedom of Information Commissioner, Rosemary Agnew, has repeatedly made her displeasure known about the Scottish Government’s treatment of FoI requests. These have covered everything from the infamous attempt to conceal the absence of legal advice on European Union membership right down to the cost of furnishing Mr Salmond with tartan trews in China – a tit-bit that took seven months to elicit through the FoI process.
Invariably, the reason for refusing information is to avoid political inconvenience. Apart from the EU fiasco, one of the best examples was the government’s protracted effort to keep secret the advice of its own Fiscal Commission, which had advised that an oil fund could only have been paid from “reduced public spending, increased taxation or increased public sector borrowing”.
It is not difficult to see why the Nationalists would want to keep this kind of advice secret, but defying the letter and spirt of Freedom of Information legislation in order to do so should not be an option at their disposal. Their objective now will be to kick everything they don’t want to come out into touch until after the referendum – and the Information Commissioner has a duty to stop that happening.
The Chicago trip would be a good place to start cracking the whip. Nobody who knows the civil service believes for one moment that the information about how the money was spent is not available, down to the last dime – unless, of course, that information has been disposed of in the interim, which would be a offence after an FoI request has been lodged. So, let’s have a forensic review of how that money can be accounted for – and if it can’t, the law should take its course.
The information should have been provided when it was first asked for. There may well be no whiff of scandal in how the money was spent in this or other outstanding instances. But there is undoubtedly a scandal in the habitual efforts of the Scottish Government to conceal from taxpayers the information to which the law entitles them and which clearly involves matter of legitimate public interest.
This is no “ridiculous frippery” and if Salmond really thinks it is, he and his entourage need a sharp reminder that if they can’t defend it, they shouldn’t spend it. That is a rule of political integrity and transparency, which applies to £54,000 as much as to £54 million.