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Jim Devine

Jim Devine

By James Browne

And so Jim “my face is my fortune” Devine has been found guilty of ripping off the taxpayer two counts of fiddling his parliamentary expenses.

The jury at Southwark crown court found that the former Labour MP for Livingston made false claims for stationery and cleaning services totalling £8,385 of our money.

But the former psychiatric nurse, union convener and campaign manager for Robin Cook will no doubt walk with his head held high after being cleared on a third charge of false accounting relating to £360 for yet more cleaning. (How much cleaning do you need? Could his lawyers not have come up with an insanity defence based around obsessive compulsive disorder.)

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The inappropriately-surnamed Devine was granted bail and will be sentenced in four weeks.

In an intriguing indication of the state of affairs at Westminster, Devine’s lawyer asked that his client should not be held to a higher standard of honesty just because he was an MP.

The depressing thing here is not that an ex-MP has been convicted of such venal dishonesty but rather that so many other denizens of the Houses of Westminster have not. I do hope Devine’s lawyers will not pursue me through the courts for saying this, but he’s no the sharpest sgian-dubh in the sock. That’s why he was caught. His fiddling was outside the rules of the game, while so many other honourable members trousered so much more legitimately.

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Julian Assange. <em>Picture: Jose Mesa</em>

Julian Assange. Picture: Jose Mesa

For those of us who have marvelled (and sometimes quivered) at the truly revolutionary power of the internet, the current Wikileaks phenomenon is the point where all the hype and idealism hits the hard reality of global politics.

The stream of US diplomatic cables, managed into the public realm by respectable news organisations like the Guardian and the New York Times, has freaked the US establishment so much that it’s shaken the network society like a rag-doll. They’ve not just brought cyber-brandnames like Amazon and Paypal to heel, but they’ve even put the squeeze on Visa and Mastercard, in their attempt to choke Julian Assange’s organisational windpipe.

Now the Wikileaks founder is under arrest, we’ll see whether American power extends even further into the extradition procedures of another sovereign state (er, I think we know the answer to that one). But as the circus proceeds, and the adversaries line up on either side - defenders of diplomatic statecraft on one hand, anarchistic unravellers of state power on another – perhaps we can look at all this from another angle.

It’s not just national governments who’ve had to respond to the Net’s x-rays of transparency. Since the heydays of Naomi Klein’s No Logo in 1999, brand-led corporate capitalism has been grappling with motivated activists who want to rub countervailing facts in the face of glowing public rhetoric.

And a decade later, it’s clearly had an effect. Recent consumer surveys have found that only 9% of people trusted companies to act in their best interests (60% said “sometimes”, and 31% said “never”). In the current context, three reasons are often cited. First, the financial crisis was the final act that confirmed consumer cynicism about the worth of corporate governance and the business sector in general.

Secondly, our mobile media allows us to filter our own information, untouched by the gatekeepers of traditional media. And lastly, the social web allows us to prioritise the opinions of our friends, family and peers over the thudding messages of top-down branding.

In this environment, where information about the sharp-dealing or shady practices of a company are easily and speedily circulated, a new philosophy of marketing is emerging. Instead of pushing people into a preferred way of engaging with a product, companies are now beginning to share their problems (and solutions) with consumers.

Instead of promoting a product’s worth, they try to propagate it, encouraging creative use (and even mis-use) of an “adaptive” brand. Instead of business being all about getting straight to the purchase, it should be about participation. In the words of the UK marketing company New Tradition, you “cement a connection with the consumer” through an open platform (like Facebook) “who may or may not purchase a product at a later date”.

Thirdly, branding shouldn’t be about generating loyalty, but about associating your product with like-minded people, or intrinsically interesting ideas, that already have an existing and vibrant following.

It’s easy to get a sense of the old days of business by watching any episode of Mad Men. Here you have a patriarchy of secretive, arrogant image-builders, unremittingly cynical about how they manage the gap between the aspirational images of advertising they pump out, and the sordid reality of poor products and corrupt business practice.

Now, what does that sound like? And how does that map over to our current clash between the world of nation-state diplomacy and statecraft, and the anarchistic information-idealism of Wikileaks and their allies? Pretty well, in many ways. The political classes of the developed West have been largely mistrusted for at least a decade now – and let’s not forget our own local data-driven crisis, the Telegraph‘s drip-feed of information about MP’s expenses.

The street-level disrespect of social media is never-ending, all-pervasive, democratically exhilarating. On a tiny level, I’ve particuarly enjoyed the website featuring four YouTube videos of Nick Clegg implacably opposing tuition fees before the UK General Election – “on a loop for ever and ever and ever”, as the cheeky website owner says.

But as marketer Ian Thomas says, Wikileaks really raises the game here – expanding the ambition of this informational scrutiny from a national to a global level of governance, appropriate to where the real decisions take place.

Yet what does this scrutiny reveal? There’s been a real storm of interpretation of what impact the cables so far released will have. Writers like John NaughtonGlenn Greenwald and Assange himself claim that out of the blizzard of material, we can now see that our leaders have always known that Afghanistan is a hopeless, corrupt, Vietnam-like quagmire – but that they cannot fully face their tax-paying, soldier-expending electorates with that fact.

Added to the Iraq disclosures of a few months ago, this is Wikileaks attempting to lay bare the infernal mechanisms of the “War on Terror”. They regard themselves as a “fifth estate” practising what Assange calls “scientific journalism” – a data dump so comprehensive that it will spur the fourth estate to rise out of its investigative torpor and establishment collusion.

But beyond the bloodthirsty ravings of some members of the American establishment, there is another consistent take on Cablegate – which is that they show an American diplomatic service trying to do their best, as their post-Cold-War empire slowly declines. For them, as Neal Ascherson puts it,”preventing [nuclear] apocalypse has become more important than striving for world leadership… this is a diplomacy clearer about what it doesn’t want than what it does”.

In the aftermath of all this, let’s return to our brand discussion. If we think of Western statecraft and diplomacy as a brand now damaged and tarnished by the demystifications of info-activism – as the Nikes, Gaps and Shell Oils had been in the past – how should they respond?

For one thing, that intriguing netherworld – where politicians and diplomats conduct gentlemanly double-bluffs between the members of unaccountable power elites – will now never be the same. And if they think that any amount of new regulation, individual imprisonment, or coercion of networks will return them to the status quo ante, they are deluded.

So perhaps they should listen to these clever brand marketers. Instead of pushing hard for their right to conduct international double-speak in order to promote the nation’s interests, maybe they should share out those same global problems with all those citizens who may want a voice in the process.

What’s the geopolitical equivalent of the vibrant users’ online forum, where all can go to explore, inquire and test out solutions? How can statecraft tap into the kinds of participative enthusiasm for peace-making, community-building and conflict-resolving that so many netizens already display? Gordon and Sarah Brown‘s new website lauds the activist network Avaaz as exactly this kind of endeavour.

And as large brands now look towards associating the values of their product or service with authentic movements and social groups, perhaps there is a future concordat to be struck between Wikileaks-style organisations and their currently enraged American pursuers?

As Evgeny Morozov wrote in the Financial Times earlier this week, Assange’s movement could become “either a new Red Brigades, or a new Transparency International … But handled correctly, the state that will benefit most from a nerdy network of 21st-century Che Guevaras, is America itself”.

At the very least, we have an immediate branding glitch: Hillary Clinton was making speeches about the power of free information to create healthy societies only a few months ago, but is now squeezing the fibre-optics of the internet like the most enthusiastic Chinese firewall manager.

As Morozov says, better to harness the power of these hackers “as useful allies of the West as it seeks to husband democracy and support human rights” – that is, make them a complement of Western soft power or public diplomacy – than to martyr their main representative and thus radicalise his followers.

The leaked US embassy cables themselves hardly show a steely American empire bent on world domination – more a faltering hegemon, resigned to world mitigation. There’s surely some grounds there for mutual understanding. A YouTube video of John F. Kennedy has been flying around the wiki-sphere. In it, JFK reminds his fellow citizens that the very First Amendment the Founders struck was to guarantee a free press, empowered to investigate and criticise the state

When the current idiocies die down, perhaps the cerebral Obama can channel his great Democratic forbear, and think his way through to a better accomodation with the Wikileakers – whose aim, as Assange has often said, is to make themselves unnecessary. Barack was, after all, Brand No. 1 for a while.

- For more, go to Pat Kane’s ideas-blog, Thoughtland.

By Betty Kirkpatrick

<em>Picture: j-cornelius</em>

Picture: j-cornelius

A lot of us are moaning about the election and we really should not. We should be glad that we are not, as far as we know, one of those countries where there is so much pauchling that the results are deeply suspect. In Scots to pauchle, in this context, means to rig or fix votes.

Pauchle is pronounced in the same way as its common alternative spelling pochle. For the sake of non-Scots, the ch is pronounced as in loch.

Pauchle is by no means restricted to elections. It is more usually found meaning to do something dishonest, often involving money, ranging from something quite minor, such as nicking some typing paper from work, to major money crimes such as embezzling. If they had known the word, a great many people might have used it in relation to the MPs’ expenses scandal.

In fact pauchle was the perfect word to be involved in that issue because pauchling often involves rather a grey area. As well as referring to outright dishonesty, it can refer to manipulating to your advantage something that you are actually entitled to.

Pauchling, in fact, can be regarded as an over-generous interpretation of the perks that legitimately go with your job — fiddling your expenses, for example. When you are found out you can always say: “I’ve done nothing wrong”, an expression which has now almost reached the status of cliché in Westminster circles.

Pauchle originally meant a small load or a bundle of something. The word is derived from Old Scots pakkald, a bundle or packet, which is related to the English word pack.

Then pauchle came to mean a package of something that someone was allowed to take home from a job as an allowed perk. This might include a fisherman taking home a small amount of the fish caught by the crew of a fishing boat or a workman taking home for his own use some of the materials used in his work. The word then went on to be used of a gratuity or tip, as paid, for example, to a porter.

You can see how easily pauchle moved from legitimacy to crime. It just took some people taking a bit more, and then another bit more, than they were actually entitled to for pauchle to become involved in dishonesty.

The word still does have an honest side. In card-playing the expression pauchle the cairds does not mean to cheat in any way. It simply means to shuffle the pack of cards. I wonder if you could say repauchle the Cabinet. I recommend the phrase to the new government, whatever its colour.

Betty Kirkpatrick is the former editor of several classic reference books, including Chambers Twentieth Century Dictionary and Roget’s Thesaurus. She is also the author of several smaller language reference books, including The Usual Suspects and Other Clichés published by Bloomsbury, and a series of Scots titles, including Scottish Words and Phrases, Scottish Quotations, and Great Scots, published by Crombie Jardine.

Iain Gray

Iain Gray

East Lothian Labour MP Anne Moffat has lost her long-running battle against de-selection, it emerged last night.

The formal de-selection process was concluded when Ms Moffat last her appeal against the decision of her local party to reject her as its candidate for the year’s General Election.

The Labour Party now faces a race to select a new candidate in time for the start of the campaign, which is expected to begin in just over two weeks time.

However, in keeping with the spirit of enmity and bitterness which has characterised this long-running saga, Ms Moffat delivered a broadside against both the Labour Party and Scottish party leader Iain Gray when she was told of the decision.

She accused the Labour Party of “systemic bullying” and claimed Mr Gray was “cowardly” and had no chance of uniting the party.

Ms Moffat said she had been the victim of a “bullying culture” within Labour and that Mr Gray had been “cowardly” because he had not stood up to it.

She said: “He’s done it in a very cowardly way. He feels that his support is with the people that are against me, so he’s only looking to his own future.”

And Ms Moffat added: “Sadly there are no politics left within East Lothian Labour Party, only personal spites and divisions.

“I wish Iain Gray had the strength to unite the party, but I doubt it. My sympathy lies with the voters of East Lothian, who now have only two choices: a bitter and divided Labour Party or the Tories.”

A Labour Party spokesman said: “The NEC discussed the issue of East Lothian Constituency Labour Party’s prospective parliamentary candidate, and after considering all the issues, including representations from Anne Moffat, the NEC resolved that local Labour Party members’ decision to select a new candidate should stand.”

The spokesman added: “We will now move quickly to selecting a new candidate. As with all seats, consideration will be given to whether it will be an all-woman shortlist. We anticipate that the process will start imminently.”

Last Friday Labour Party members in the area voted to deselect Ms Moffat – the MP for the constituency since 2001.

At the time, Willie Innes, chairman of the East Lothian Constituency Labour Party (CLP), said the MP had not attended a constituency meeting for two years and had been attracting “bad press”.

Ms Moffat later lodged an appeal against the decision, which was considered at a meeting of the NEC yesterday. It has now backed the decision by local activists to deselect Ms Moffat.

Ms Moffat had previously attracted criticism after claiming £40,000 in travel expenses between 2003 and 2004 – more than any other MP.

The SNP moved immediately to try to take advantage of Labour’s problems.

SNP MP and Westminster Leader Angus Robertson said: “Ms Moffat’s condemnation of Iain Gray is a damning indictment of his leadership and his local role in the East Lothian Labour party.

“He cannot escape the responsibility for what has happened in East Lothian and is clearly incapable of putting a stop to Labour’s country wide chaos.

“Anne Moffat is certainly not the only Labour politician regretting their support for his leadership.

“At this election people in East Lothian have a real choice not to elect another Labour or Tory politician but to elect a strong SNP champion for their local community.”

Iain Gray

Iain Gray

East Lothian Labour MP Anne Moffat has lost her long-running battle against de-selection, it emerged last night.

The formal de-selection process was concluded when Ms Moffat last her appeal against the decision of her local party to reject her as its candidate for the year’s General Election.

The Labour Party now faces a race to select a new candidate in time for the start of the campaign, which is expected to begin in just over two weeks time.

However, in keeping with the spirit of enmity and bitterness which has characterised this long-running saga, Ms Moffat delivered a broadside against both the Labour Party and Scottish party leader Iain Gray when she was told of the decision.

She accused the Labour Party of “systemic bullying” and claimed Mr Gray was “cowardly” and had no chance of uniting the party.

Ms Moffat said she had been the victim of a “bullying culture” within Labour and that Mr Gray had been “cowardly” because he had not stood up to it.

She said: “He’s done it in a very cowardly way. He feels that his support is with the people that are against me, so he’s only looking to his own future.”

And Ms Moffat added: “Sadly there are no politics left within East Lothian Labour Party, only personal spites and divisions.

“I wish Iain Gray had the strength to unite the party, but I doubt it. My sympathy lies with the voters of East Lothian, who now have only two choices: a bitter and divided Labour Party or the Tories.”

A Labour Party spokesman said: “The NEC discussed the issue of East Lothian Constituency Labour Party’s prospective parliamentary candidate, and after considering all the issues, including representations from Anne Moffat, the NEC resolved that local Labour Party members’ decision to select a new candidate should stand.”

The spokesman added: “We will now move quickly to selecting a new candidate. As with all seats, consideration will be given to whether it will be an all-woman shortlist. We anticipate that the process will start imminently.”

Last Friday Labour Party members in the area voted to deselect Ms Moffat – the MP for the constituency since 2001.

At the time, Willie Innes, chairman of the East Lothian Constituency Labour Party (CLP), said the MP had not attended a constituency meeting for two years and had been attracting “bad press”.

Ms Moffat later lodged an appeal against the decision, which was considered at a meeting of the NEC yesterday. It has now backed the decision by local activists to deselect Ms Moffat.

Ms Moffat had previously attracted criticism after claiming £40,000 in travel expenses between 2003 and 2004 – more than any other MP.

The SNP moved immediately to try to take advantage of Labour’s problems.

SNP MP and Westminster Leader Angus Robertson said: “Ms Moffat’s condemnation of Iain Gray is a damning indictment of his leadership and his local role in the East Lothian Labour party.

“He cannot escape the responsibility for what has happened in East Lothian and is clearly incapable of putting a stop to Labour’s country wide chaos.

“Anne Moffat is certainly not the only Labour politician regretting their support for his leadership.

“At this election people in East Lothian have a real choice not to elect another Labour or Tory politician but to elect a strong SNP champion for their local community.”

SPT logoLabour is facng a serious problem in its west of Scotland heartland as the crisis over expenses at Strathclyde Partnership for Transport continues to deepen.

One unconfirmed report today claimed that critics have notified the police, asking officers to investigate expenses claims at the transport quango. Another newspaper claimed to have details of fresh allegations about the activities of key personnel at SPT while yet another stated that the quango was being given a year to sort itself out, with the threat of disbandment hanging over it.

So what has happened and why is it so bad for Labour?

Last week the Glasgow-based regional transit agency lost its chairman and deputy chairman , Labour councillors Alistair Watson and Davie McLachlan and Chief Executive Ron Culley after it emerged the quango had spent more than £117,000 on expenses, £49,000 of it on fact-finding trips around the world.

The SPT is not the transport leviathan it once was. As the Strathclyde Passenger Transport Executive, it was responsible for every form of public transport in one of Europe’s biggest administrative regions. But the current SPT only has responsibility for the Glasgow Underground as well as some bus transport, school transport and bus shelters.

However, the scale of the expenses claimed by those at the top has given the impression that some of those running the organisation believed they were in charge of something far grander.

According to documents obtained under Freedom of Information legislation and reported in The Sunday Times, Mr Culley, the former chief executive, who was thought to be on a salary of more than £100,000, flew to New York in 2008 with two colleagues at a cost of almost £8,000. His trip was reported to include a six-night stay at the famous Algonguin Hotel at a cost of £1,700.

There have also been reports that, in 2007, Mr Culley and several colleagues flew to India to inspect Delhi’s underground on a trip that cost £10,000.

Bob Wyllie, the former BBC Scotland investigations editor and SPT’s communications director, has also become embroiled in the controversy after The Sunday Times reported yesterday that he had claimed £773 for a trip to Manchester which coincided with Rangers’ appearance in the 2008 Uefa Cup Final.

It was reported that, included in that claim was a bill for £138 for lunch and drinks at San Carlo, an upmarket Manchester restaurant.

If this was just another non-political quango, Labour might be able to distance itself from SPT and this controversy but Labour has traditionally had a very strong presence on the SPT board. It is also expected to elect another Labour man, John Findlay, as its new chairman next week.

Derek MacKay, the SNP leader of SNP/Lib Dem-run Renfrewshire Council, was reported as saying yesterday: “Labour have already anointed a chairman … that is the same old-style Strathclyde politics that got SPT into this mess.

“It is time for real reform, a clearout of SPT and some cross-party balance.”

Labour leaders in the Strathclyde area would be wise to bring in the other parties as a way of sharing the pain which SPT will go through over the next few months as this saga drags on and also to prevent this from being seen as a “Labour-run quango”.

That may happen in the near future but, with an election to fight in the next few weeks, the last thing that Labour managers in the west of Scotland need is this sort of story, the one that drips out allegations of extravagance at the taxpayers’ expense over weeks and months without being resolved.

SPT logoLabour is facng a serious problem in its west of Scotland heartland as the crisis over expenses at Strathclyde Partnership for Transport continues to deepen.

One unconfirmed report today claimed that critics have notified the police, asking officers to investigate expenses claims at the transport quango. Another newspaper claimed to have details of fresh allegations about the activities of key personnel at SPT while yet another stated that the quango was being given a year to sort itself out, with the threat of disbandment hanging over it.

So what has happened and why is it so bad for Labour?

Last week the Glasgow-based regional transit agency lost its chairman and deputy chairman , Labour councillors Alistair Watson and Davie McLachlan and Chief Executive Ron Culley after it emerged the quango had spent more than £117,000 on expenses, £49,000 of it on fact-finding trips around the world.

The SPT is not the transport leviathan it once was. As the Strathclyde Passenger Transport Executive, it was responsible for every form of public transport in one of Europe’s biggest administrative regions. But the current SPT only has responsibility for the Glasgow Underground as well as some bus transport, school transport and bus shelters.

However, the scale of the expenses claimed by those at the top has given the impression that some of those running the organisation believed they were in charge of something far grander.

According to documents obtained under Freedom of Information legislation and reported in The Sunday Times, Mr Culley, the former chief executive, who was thought to be on a salary of more than £100,000, flew to New York in 2008 with two colleagues at a cost of almost £8,000. His trip was reported to include a six-night stay at the famous Algonguin Hotel at a cost of £1,700.

There have also been reports that, in 2007, Mr Culley and several colleagues flew to India to inspect Delhi’s underground on a trip that cost £10,000.

Bob Wyllie, the former BBC Scotland investigations editor and SPT’s communications director, has also become embroiled in the controversy after The Sunday Times reported yesterday that he had claimed £773 for a trip to Manchester which coincided with Rangers’ appearance in the 2008 Uefa Cup Final.

It was reported that, included in that claim was a bill for £138 for lunch and drinks at San Carlo, an upmarket Manchester restaurant.

If this was just another non-political quango, Labour might be able to distance itself from SPT and this controversy but Labour has traditionally had a very strong presence on the SPT board. It is also expected to elect another Labour man, John Findlay, as its new chairman next week.

Derek MacKay, the SNP leader of SNP/Lib Dem-run Renfrewshire Council, was reported as saying yesterday: “Labour have already anointed a chairman … that is the same old-style Strathclyde politics that got SPT into this mess.

“It is time for real reform, a clearout of SPT and some cross-party balance.”

Labour leaders in the Strathclyde area would be wise to bring in the other parties as a way of sharing the pain which SPT will go through over the next few months as this saga drags on and also to prevent this from being seen as a “Labour-run quango”.

That may happen in the near future but, with an election to fight in the next few weeks, the last thing that Labour managers in the west of Scotland need is this sort of story, the one that drips out allegations of extravagance at the taxpayers’ expense over weeks and months without being resolved.

Jim Devine

Jim Devine

Livingston Labour MP Jim Devine is one of three Members of Parliament to face charges under the Theft Act as a result of their Commons’ expenses claims, it emerged today.

Mr Devine, as well as fellow Labour MPs Elliot Morley and David Chaytor and Tory Peer Lord Hanningfield were told today they would be charged.

In a joint statement the MPs said they refuted any charges and would “defend our position robustly”.

Mr Devine has been under scrutiny over his expenses claims for several months and he has already been de-selected as the Labour candidate for Livingston for the forthcoming General Election.

He is accused of “dishonestly claiming” money for cleaning services and for stationery using false invoices.

The announcement of the charges against the MPs – the latest episode in what has become an extraordinary saga for the Houses of Parliament – was made outside the headquarters of the Crown Prosecution Service by Director of Public Prosecutions Keir Starmer.

Mr Starmer said: “In four cases, we have concluded that there is sufficient evidence to bring criminal charges and that it is in the public interest to charge the individuals concerned.

“Accordingly, summonses in these cases have been obtained from the City of Westminster Magistrates’ Court and will now be served on the individuals in question.”

Former minister Elliot Morley, MP for Scunthorpe, will be charged in relation to more than £16,000 of mortgage interest claims on a property in Winterton, Lincolnshire between 2004 to 2007.

The charges alleges he made claims “in excess of that to which he was entitled” and – for part of the period when “there was no longer a mortgage on that property”.

David Chaytor, MP for Bury North, is accused of “dishonestly claiming” £1,950 for IT services and further sums of £12,925 and £5,425 relating to rent on properties in London and Lancashire.

Paul White – the Conservative peer Lord Hanningfield – is accused of “dishonestly” submitting claims “for expenses to which he knew he was not entitled” – including overnight stays in London.

Kevin Dunion: Scotland's Information Commissioner

Kevin Dunion: Scotland's Information Commissioner

Health board bosses and other highly paid public servants should come under pressure to publish all their expenses as a matter of course according to Scotland’s Information Commissioner.

Kevin Dunion said that such a move would make senior managers think twice about how they could justify the public money they spend and the hospitality they accept.

Mr Dunion, who was talking to the Caledonian Mercury shortly after the fifth anniversary of the Freedom of Information Act coming into force, also called for the legislation to be updated to take account of changing circumstances.

For example, many local authorities have hived off their leisure activities into arms length bodies, which may not be subject to FOIA, meaning a loss of rights for the public, he said.

Mr Dunion said that the climate around the availability of information had changed over the last five years – and that withholding information was “running against public expectation”. “I think the public deserves and expects to know how public money is being spent,” said Mr Dunion. “The public wants more transparency and I think the whole debate over MPs’ expenses has shown that.

“Given the amount of money spent in the health sector, the value of salaries and expenses ought to be proactively published.

“The knowledge that the information would be published would act as a strong reminder when someone is deciding whether to accept hospitality, for example. They would have to think about whether they could justify it, and what the perception, as much as the reality, of their decision would be. It might help people to exercise self-discipline.”

Last year Mr Dunion welcomed the agreement by Scotland’s police forces to publish the expenses of chief constables and other senior officers. But he said that while most were complying – with some going over and above the requirements of the model publication scheme – others had been slower to do so. “Some police forces are doing it, but not all have the information on their websites,” he said, adding that it was something his office was following up.

Mr Dunion welcomed the decision by the Scottish government, announced last month (December) to consult on extending FOIA to private companies which have won PPP or PFI contracts to build schools, hospitals and roads, as well as to local authority leisure and recreation trusts and private prisons.

“Freedom of Information legislation was drawn up over a long period of time, and things change,” he said. “There’s been a move of provision [of services] from public bodies to arms length organisations, such as local authority leisure and recreation trusts.

“I’m not saying this has been done to frustrate Freedom of Information – it’s been done for financial reasons. But the consequence is a loss of rights – people no longer have a remedy in the legislation where they would have before.”

He gives the example of a parent wanting to find out how a child had contracted a serious infection at a public swimming pool. “It’s the same pool and the same staff, but whereas before, the parent would have rights under Freedom of Information, now they wouldn’t.”

He said that the laws had to be nimble so that they continued to follow the public pound – including where it is being spent by private companies under PFI/PPP agreements. “The argument has been made that it’s too bureaucratic, but I think that if it can be done by individual GPs [who are subject to FOIA] then it’s not too bureaucratic for multi-million pound PFI contracts. It should be part of the price of doing business with the public sector.”

Scottish Labour logoIf there is one group of people more inconvenient for politicians than the voters, it is the party activists.

Whether they like it or not, these people have to be listened to. These are the people who knock on the doors, deliver leaflets, drive elderly voters to the polling stations and actually get the candidates elected.

So when a large group of Labour activists in East Lothian decided more than a year ago that they wanted to get rid of their candidate, the local MP, Anne Moffat, the party really should have listened.

The rebellion against Ms Moffat has been growing in the quiet villages and towns of East Lothian for some time. There have been many complaints about her behaviour: she faced accusations – dismissed by the Commons authorities – that she abused her Commons expenses.

In 2007 it was revealed that her travelling expenses were the equivalent of driving round the world in a year. She billed the taxpayer for the 24,000-mile claim despite also claiming an air fare a week between London and Edinburgh and 82 train fares.

Ms Moffat also provoked anger in the constituency when she sacked three staff. Then, when the complaints against her became public, she accused her critics of “bullying” her because she was a woman.

So when activists first called for her to be replaced, the party hierarchy would have been wise to listen. They didn’t have to de-select Ms Moffat, but they should have done their utmost to persuade the discontented activists that they were listening to their concerns and would do something about them.

Instead, bolstered by union support, Ms Moffat rode out the local opposition. That all came to an end last Friday (22 January) when the local party effectively de-selected Ms Moffat. It is understood that branch representatives voted by 25 to five for her de-selection.

That decision will now go to labour’s National Executive Committee where it is expected to be ratified sometime in the next month or so.

The result of all this is a mess of quite bewildering proportions for the Scottish Labour Party. It could have sorted this out some time ago, either by effectively placating the local activists or by having a new candidate in place well before the General Election. Now, the party will be lucky to get somebody in before March, leaving only a few weeks for that new candidate to get into the campaign before polling day.

It also leaves Labour’s opponents delighted, seeing Labour in meltdown so close to the election will give all the other parties heart for the battle ahead.

It is understood that the main reason behind the party’s decision to stick by Ms Moffat for so long was her solid union support. There was a simple judgement to be made here: what was more important, the support of the unions or the backing of local activists?

In all these case, it is the local activists who are the most important. No candidate can win without the support of local party activists but they can win without the unions.

The Labour leadership didn’t appear to realise this and, as a result, the party is in the mire in East Lothian, facing a damaging de-selection, the selection of a new candidate and a split and bitter local party: all weeks ahead of a General Election.

It is difficult to see how they could have handled it any worse…