Leaders: Prestwick involvement was flight of fancy

Prestwick will receive a funding loan from the government. Picture: John Devlin

Prestwick will receive a funding loan from the government. Picture: John Devlin

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ONE of the most frequent criticism of modern governments is that they just don’t know when to stop. The long-term model over decades has been for our elected representatives to involve themselves in more areas of our lives.

It is called big government and we should be used to it, but still those we elect have the capacity to surprise. And this they did when the Scottish Government went in to the airport business.

It was back in November 2013 that the public became the proud owners of a failing airport. Prestwick had been on the market for 18 months when ministers bought it for just £1 from owners Infratil. Falling passenger numbers and a decline in freight business meant it had been operating at a loss for a number of years. What was not clear at the time is why ministers thought they would be more effective operators of the airport than the experienced professionals who had failed to make a go of it. That would still seem to be unclear. But what they had, that presumably the banks had been unwilling to extend to its previous owner or anyone else operating in the financial real world, was access to a great deal of cash with which to support the airport.

Today it emerges that the government has so far committed to provide £25.2 million in loan funding to Prestwick Airport, with £9m of that already having been handed over. In its report Audit Scotland has said that the airport was expected to start making its first profits in the financial year 2022-23. Then it could start repaying the Scottish Government loans and interest.

But that position is no certainty. Audit Scotland have today recommended that ministers “ensure that there is a clear vision and strategy for Glasgow Prestwick Airport, which takes into account the airport’s future development potential” including “robust business and financial plans”, a full evaluation of all potential risks, including the airport’s ability to repay its loan funding, and a well-defined and regularly reviewed exit strategy.

Some might think that these sorts of plans would be in place before the public was exposed to promising to lend £25.2m.

The Scottish Government has said it acted to safeguard 3,200 jobs. That is great for those 3,200 people and it is certain they are grateful for it. But there are many more people who lost their jobs and livelihoods in the past few years who did not have the benefit of government intervention. There are many businesses which have gone to the wall because economic circumstances changed and they became not viable and not attractive to any business people when loan funding from banks was quite rightly being tightened up.

It is still not quite clear why the Scottish Government decided airport management was where it could step in, when there were so many areas of the economy it obviously decided it could not. Unexplained, and, on the face of it, unfair.

Politics should be a full-time job

Conservative Sir Malcolm Rifkind and Labour’s Jack Straw both say they have broken no rules, but that of course will be decided by a probe into the allegations of cash-for-influence. But what the new sorry affair in how MPs go about our business has raised is the issue of whether or not MPs should have second jobs.

Needless to say this has split along predictable party lines, with Labour leader Ed Miliband writing to the Prime Minister calling for a ban, and Mr Cameron denying there is any such need. Of course it is probably the Conservatives who have most to lose from such a ban. It is sad that even on something as fundamental as this they cannot put doing the right thing ahead of doing what is their own narrow interest.

But is being paid £67,000 a year enough for an MP? Well actually its not all they get, given that they can claim expenses for staying overnight away from their main home, the costs of running an office and an allowance for communication with constituents (which would appear to include paying for courses for learning how to write more effectively).

So is that a reasonable wage or would it act as a disincentive to people of good calibre? Firstly, politics is not something that should attract people for how much money there is to be made out of it. Politics should be entered in to by people seeking to do something good for society. That may limit the applicants, but it probably limits them in a good way. It needs to be able to offer enough so it is a full-time job, but £67,000, plus expenses, still allows for a very comfortable lifestyle thank you very much. We cannot allow politics to be motivated by riches, or the country and democracy will be the losers.

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