Monday, 18 May 2009

Parly expenses

When Scots receive legal aid to prevent the repossession of their homes, the legal aid board expect them to pay all of that money back if they have made a notional capital gain in saving their home.

When I met Housing Minister Alex Neil recently, I argued that this was unfair as financially poor households were being told to pay back hundreds of pounds in legal aid when they were living on breadline benefits.

Mr Neil disagreed. He told me that it was morally right that those who had made a notional profit with the help of public funds should pay that money back.

Accordingly, will he and the other 27 MSPs who have made a notional profit from the Scottish Parliament's second homes allowance repay the public money they have received? The Herald (18 May) reports they have made an overall profit of £1.7m, with Mr Neil personally benefiting from a potential £95,505 profit.

I welcome Patrick Harvie's call for MSPs to relinquish any capital gains for the sake of the reputation of the Parliament, but would argue that the Scottish Parliament needs to change the rules to make it a legal requirement for MSPs to repay all second home allowance payments from capital gains.

A simple solution would be for the Scottish Parliament to secure an all sums due standard security on MSPs properties, so that when the property was sold the taxpayer would receive a full refund of mortgage interest relief payments. This would prevent capital gains being hidden, for example, by equity being taken out of the property by way of an increased first or second mortgage.

It is ridiculous for the First Minister to dismiss Scotland's expenses scandal as a 'legacy issue'. Firstly, there is nothing historic about 28 MSPs standing to trouser £1.7m thanks to the taxpayer, and secondly these MSPs will continue to get free mortgage payments until 2011.

Until this issue is resolved, the Scottish Parliament's nose is in the same trough as Westminster.

Wednesday, 6 May 2009

Named & shamed?

From the descriptions given, none of the 16 people named, shamed and banned from the UK are folk you would want to meet.

While denying someone entry to the UK on opinion alone would be manifestly unjust, the Home Secretary has relied on evidence from intelligence agencies. Assuming that evidence is robust, the UK public interest has been well served.

But we need to exercise caution. We all remember the flawed evidence that "justified" a pre-emptive strike on Iraq. Whenever we conflate intelligence with high-profile media coverage and politics, people get killed or hurt.

The exercise of power requires due process of law, not YouTube or dossiers. How many of those excluded were actually going to visit the UK?

Some of those named are in foreign prisons, so are we being told of imminent threats or possible ones that might or might not happen sometime in the future?

Legally, there is a logic in revealing some of the evidence that exclusions are based upon, but announcing who has been banned does appear to represent a further extension of our vacuous, voyeuristic, celebrity-culture obsession.

The business of government and the exercise of legal power must always be based on cold, hard facts, and not how things might look in the media.

Thankfully our legal system provides checks and balances on political power. It would be possible to judicially review a decision to exclude someone banned from entry to the UK if that decision was irrational or unreasonable.

Today there are reports that the vile US shock-jock Michael Savage – who is on the 16 least wanted list – is planning to sue the UK Home Secretary for defamation. He objects to being named on a list along with neo-Nazi convicted murderers.

I believe naming and shaming is a slippery slope. Do we start to name and shame those accused of things that we don't like within the UK? And if so, whose interest does that serve?