Ministers to appeal EU FOI order

Ministers to appeal EU FOI order

European Commission headquarters
The Scottish government has until 21 August to reveal its advice on the EU

The Scottish government has said it will appeal after being ordered to reveal whether it holds legal advice on the status of an independent Scotland within the EU.

Labour MEP Catherine Stihler made an FoI request last May, asking the Holyrood administration for any legal advice it had received on the issue.

Ministers refused to reveal whether the information was held.

But Scotland’s FoI Commissioner ruled its release was in the public interest.

Rosemary Agnew, the country’s Freedom of Information Commissioner, said: “In the commissioner’s view, the role of [the FoI Act] is important not only in ensuring transparency in information held by public authorities, but also in enabling transparency in information about process.”

Ms Agnew said an independent Scotland’s position in the EU “could have a bearing on how people vote in the referendum”.

She ruled: “In this case, the commissioner considers that it is in the public interest to know the type of information that the ministers were taking into account in developing policy in relation to such a significant issue as independence.

Catherine Stihler Catherine Stihler described it as “a landmark judgement”

The Scottish government cited Section 18 when it refused to reveal whether the information was held. This can mean the information would be exempt from release or the authority considers its release would not be in the public interest.

The Labour Party said that in October 2011, Culture Secretary Fiona Hyslop wrote to Ms Stihler saying that “we consider that to reveal whether or not the information you have requested exists, or is held by the Scottish government, would be contrary to the public interest”.

However, following Ms Agnew’s ruling, ministers have until 21 August to reveal the information.

A spokesman for the Scottish government said it had been “surprised” by the commissioner’s decision.

He added: “It is the longstanding and usual practice of the Scottish government to neither confirm or deny the existence or the content of legal advice.

“The approach we have taken on this issue is consistent with the UK government position in a similar case they dealt with under equivalent legislation. We therefore intend to appeal and contest the decision.”

Ms Stihler described it as “a landmark judgement”.

‘Own up’

She added: “People have a right to know whether an independent Scotland would be part of the EU and on what terms, but the SNP want to keep it secret.

“By refusing to confirm or deny, Alex Salmond effectively took out a superinjunction against the people of Scotland.

“Now the Information Commissioner has ordered him to own up. She has ruled that approach is in breach of the law, which is a groundbreaking and welcome decision.”

A Scottish government spokesman said: “We have received the decision and are considering its terms.”

Labour Parties View on Scottish Independence

What does Labour think?

Scottish Labour leader Johann Lamont – who is in favour of a single question – wants the referendum to be held as quickly as possible.

The party is also hoping calls for cross-party talks on the issue may hurry things along.

Henry McLeish, a former Labour Scottish first minister, says he’s “concerned” at Mr Cameron’s intervention and accused the PM of failing to understand the real issues involved.

He says the choice for Scotland should not be between full independence and the status quo, but a debate about increasing devolved powers for Scotland within the UK.

Can First Minister Alex Salmond refuse to co-operate with a Westminster timetable?

He could. The Scottish government insists it doesn’t need any extra powers to hold a proper referendum, so there is a chance it could just go ahead regardless of what the Westminster coalition says.

Essentially the two sides are, for now, locked in a stalemate on the question of legality.

Professor Robert Hazell, professor of British Politics and Government and a director of the Constitutional Unit at University College London, said Mr Salmond had no direct say in what the UK government does because Westminster was “sovereign”.

He added: “But he [Mr Salmond] can certainly sit on his hands if the UK government appears to have seized his ball. And the UK government is within very reasonable territory in insisting that a referendum was fair and legal.

“I’m less sure about their [Westminster] right to insist on the timing of the referendum and whether they are right to insist that the referendum is decisive.”

How might a referendum work?

MSPs would need to pass a Referendum Bill in the Scottish Parliament.

There would then be a for-and-against campaign, like the one we saw for the AV referendum, before Scots voters went to the polls.

Who would oversee the campaign?

The Electoral Commission watchdog is set to make sure everything is conducted properly.

It’s an independent body with recognised expertise in such issues, and whose values are “fairness, impartiality and “transparency”.

The SNP previously expressed concern that the commission was accountable to Westminster and not Holyrood, and its board were appointed politically.

But it now seems certain that the Scottish government will not insist on a new and similar Scottish body being set up to keep an eye on proceedings.

Would voters simply be asked whether they wanted independence?

It’s nowhere near as simple as that.

Because the Scottish Parliament does, in itself, not have the authority to declare Scotland an independent country, a “Yes” vote in the referendum would mark the start of talks with the UK government.

Of course, if the Scottish people speak up for independence, it makes it all but impossible for Westminster ministers to say: “No, you can’t have it.”

The SNP had previously indicated the question on the ballot paper would go something like: “The Scottish Parliament should negotiate a new settlement with the British government, based on the proposals set out in the white paper, so that Scotland becomes a sovereign and independent state.”

The responses would be “Yes I agree” or “No I disagree”.

However, Alex Slamond has now attempted to cut through that discussion, by asking a simple question: “Do you agree that Scotland should be an independent country?”.

What about the “second question” and what is devo-max?

In the last parliament, when the SNP was a minority government, it tried to get enough support for a referendum with Lib Dem votes, offering the olive branch of a second question on the ballot paper on increased powers for the Scottish Parliament.

Ultimately, they didn’t go for it, describing the offer as a red herring.

The terms “devolution max” and “devolution plus” have reared their heads more recently – nobody is entirely sure what it means, but broadly refers to significant new powers for Holyrood, short of independence.

That might include full fiscal powers.

Westminster is thought to favour a straight yes/no vote on independence.

The SNP is of a similar view, but says there is also “a significant body of opinion” in Scotland which wants more powers.

Backing for such a move may also save the SNP from oblivion, should Scots voters say no to independence.

There is also a fear at Westminster that devo-max will be harder to defeat, because it splits the unionist vote and wins over those who otherwise would have said no to full independence.

What happens in the event of a ‘Yes’ Vote?

Talks would begin with the UK government on a constitutional settlement, based on the SNP’s declaration of a popular mandate from the Scottish people.

It’s hard to say exactly how things would happen, given this would be new territory, but it’s likely the timescale from a “Yes” vote to full independence would be lengthy, given the huge number of issues which would need to be resolved.

Defence would be the main one – especially since Britain’s nuclear weapons are based at the Faslane naval base on the Clyde.

It’s also clear that, as things currently stand, an independent Scotland would continue to use the pound, at least initially, as its currency.

Mr Salmond would like to join the Euro, subject to a referendum and the right economic conditions – but that’s not exactly an attractive prospect at the moment.

It has been suggested that full independence, in the event of a ‘yes’ vote, could be delivered in 2016.

What happens if there is a ‘No’ Vote? Would there be another referendum?

Alex Salmond has described the independence referendum as a once-in-a-generation event.

All the parties – unionist and pro-independence – are keen to avoid the situation which has unfolded in the Canadian province of Quebec, where debate over multiple independence referenda over the years has been dubbed the “neverendum”.

At worst, a “No” result in the referendum could spell the end for the SNP as a mainstream political force.

It’s also likely that focus would shift back to the debate over more powers for Holyrood – with full fiscal autonomy, as opposed to relying on the Treasury block grant, probably becoming a more serious option.

What does the Scottish government do now?

The Scottish cabinet is currently holding a public consultation on the issue, due to finish in May.

This is the vehicle by which the SNP hopes to demonstrate that there is enough public support for a second question.

But don’t expect it to contain a list of possible referendum dates.

What about the alternative debate on more powers for the Scottish Parliament, short of independence?

Westminster is currently considering the previously mentioned Scotland Bill, which will deliver new financial powers worth £12bn, allowing Scotland to control a third of its budget under a new Scottish-set income tax and borrowing regime.

It came about as a result of the Calman Commission to review devolution 10 years on, backed by a vote of the pro-union parties at Holyrood.

The SNP was never keen to engage with the Scotland Bill debate, saying a “pocket money parliament” under Westminster control was not the way forward.

Source: By Andrew Black Political reporter, BBC Scotland 25 January 2012

When will the referendum be held

When will the referendum be held?

Previously, SNP leader Alex Salmond was only prepared to say the referendum would be held at some point in the second half of the Scottish Parliament’s five-year term.

However, now says he wants it staged in the autumn of 2014.

Mr Salmond’s opponents have long said the delay is creating great uncertainty to Scotland and its economy, although the first minister says loads of companies have been happy to invest in Scotland during recent months, including Dell, Amazon and Michelin.

Mr Salmond also said he was sticking to a manifesto pledge on his rough timescale – his opponents say this is because he knows he’d lose if the referendum was held now.

Prime Minister David Cameron has to tread a fine line. He may well think an earlier referendum increases the chances of Scotland staying in the Union.

But if the party, which has just one MP on Scotland, pushes too hard, it risks increasing support for independence, through accusations of a “London/Tory fix”.

The SNP now has an overall majority in Scotland – why does it not simply declare independence?

The Nationalists have always taken the view that, on an issue of such significance, it would first need the backing of the Scottish people in a referendum.

It also needs this mandate to negotiate an independence settlement with the UK government.

So what is the UK government’s role in the referendum?

Because constitutional matters are not devolved, Scottish Secretary Michael Moore says that any referendum held without Westminster backing would not be legally binding and, therefore, open to legal challenge.

Mr Moore says he recognises the SNP’s right to hold the referendum, and wants to work with the Scottish government to ensure the correct powers are in place.

But the SNP has complained that Westminster is only making the offer “with strings attached” and argues it is trying to dictate the terms of a referendum – like the exact date or the content of the ballot paper – which is essentially none of its business.

One string which looks certain not to be attached is the notion of a so-called clarity clause in Westminster’s Scotland Bill, to boost Holyrood powers.

The term takes its name from the Clarity Act, a law passed by the Canadian government which laid down detailed provisions for holding a referendum by Quebec, to help ensure the clear will of the people had been expressed.

Source: By Andrew Black Political reporter, BBC Scotland 25 January 2012

Independence Referendum

Scotland’s first minister, Alex Salmond, has announced plans to hold an independence referendum in the autumn of 2014.

It came as the UK government insisted it needed to grant additional powers to Scottish ministers to ensure any vote is legally watertight.

So what are the main issues facing Holyrood and Westminster as the issue goes forward?

Where are the origins of the independence movement in Scotland?

The campaign for Scottish home rule began in earnest almost as soon as the unification with England took place, in 1707.

At the time, the view was that Scotland was in desperate need of financial support, but opponents of the move were outraged by claims that the Scots who put their names to the Act of Union were bribed.

Scotland’s Bard, Robert Burns, famously wrote: “We are bought and sold for English gold. Such a parcel of rogues in a nation.”

Fast forward many years to 1934, and the establishment of the Scottish National Party, created through the amalgamation of the Scottish Party and the National Party of Scotland.

After decades of ups-and downs, the party won its first election in 2007 and, again, in 2011.

How has the independence debate moved on – or not – in recent years?

Scottish devolution in 1999 presented a significant opportunity for the SNP, which, despite having a few MPs, was struggling to make the case for independence at Westminster.

The prime minister at the time of devolution, Tony Blair, was aware of the potential opportunity a Scottish Parliament could give the SNP.

So Holyrood’s part first-past-the-post, part PR voting system was intended to prevent any one party (ie the SNP) gaining an overall majority.

This was the case initially – up to the 2011 election there had been two terms of a Labour/Lib Dem coalition and one of an SNP minority government.

The 2011 result blew out of the water the claim once made by Labour veteran Lord Robertson that devolution would “kill nationalism stone dead”.

Could the situation now be more akin to comments by another Labour stalwart, Tam Dalyell, who described devolution as “a motorway to independence with no U-turns and no exits?”

Does Scotland want independence?

Hard to say with any great certainty at the moment – while it’s probably true to say support has grown, given the election result, a vote for the SNP does not necessarily mean a vote for independence.

Polling expert John Curtice says support for independence is somewhere between 32% and 38% – actually down from where it was at the start of the SNP’s last term in office as a minority government.

A YouGov poll conducted in April 2011 put support lower than that – at 28% – with 57% opposed.

One of the reasons voters turned so decisively to the SNP last May was because they wanted an alternative to Labour and to punish the Liberal Democrats at the polls.

There are those who do not support independence, but recognised Alex Salmond was the best candidate for first minister – knowing they had the safety-cushion of voting “No” in the referendum.

In the Scottish Parliament elections of 1999 and 2003, Labour’s plan to essentially scare people out of support for independence worked.

Now it seems the public are much less afraid, and, whether or not it’s the case that majority support for independence exists, people seem much more willing to put it to the test in a referendum.

There are also many other factors which could affect support for independence – coalition spending cuts and the ability of Scotland to thrive as a small nation during the current global uncertainty, to name but two.

In terms of political backing at Holyrood, the SNP supports independence, as do the Greens and independent MSP Margo MacDonald, a former nationalist politician.

Labour, the Tories and the Liberal Democrats are opposed.

Source: By Andrew Black Political reporter, BBC Scotland 25 January 2012

Dundee City Council’s Dalai Lama ‘snub’

Politicians respond to Dundee City Council’s Dalai Lama ‘snub’

Dalai Lama's visit to Dundee
Dalai Lama’s visit to Dundee

 

Politicians have called on Dundee City Council to show support for the Dalai Lama’s visit to Scotland.

A row escalated on Wednesday after it was reported that Dundee’s new Lord Provost Bob Duncan had cancelled a speech due to be given during the appearance of the Tibetan spiritual leader at the Caird Hall.

The Dalai Lama will deliver a lecture to a sold-out crowd at the venue on Friday as part of his visit to Scotland which also takes in Edinburgh and Inverness.

The SNP councillor for Lochee has said the move is not “political” but due to a family bereavement meaning he will not be able to attend the event. He denied he is “snubbing” the Dalai Lama but declined to comment further.

The co-ordinator of the Scottish visit, Victor Spence, said there is unhappiness among those close to the Dalai Lama at the way the situation has been handled.

He said: “I have always admired the respect Dundee University has shown His Holiness. On Dundee Council, they are only answerable to the community that they say they serve.”

First minister Alex Salmond, the SNP leader, has been fiercely criticised for not arranging to meet the Dalai Lama during his visit, and faced claims he is failing to confront human rights issues to protect his relationship with China.

Now politicians have called on a senior representative from the council to speak in Cllr Duncan’s place.

Willie Rennie, leader of the Scottish Liberal Democrats, said: “For an event of such significance Dundee City Council need to provide a speaker. I can understand why the Provost is not available but it would be a mistake for a senior representative of the council to be absent from the speakers.

“The Council were once full partners in the event but, following a visit from the Chinese consul, they are distancing themselves.The Council need to speak at and fully support the event or we will conclude they have been nobbled by the Chinese government. The SNP have put their interests above human rights.”

Scottish Labour’s shadow cabinet secretary for external affairs Patricia Ferguson said: “This is a very sad development. I can’t think of similar situation ever having occurred in Scotland. Scotland is a welcoming, open and tolerant country and to withdraw support for a visit from an important religious figure like this is very confusing.

“The Dalai Lama, as an important religious figure, is widely recognised as an international ambassador for peace. I am sure he will be as confused by this snub as everyone else in Scotland. It looks like the SNP administration at Dundee City Council has been nobbled by the SNP government.”

Labour MSP for North East Scotland, Jenny Marra, said: “It is unfortunate that the Lord Provost cannot make the speech to welcome the Dalai Lama because of a bereavement. The SNP should get their most senior Dundee politician, like government Minister Shona Robison, to step in and make the welcoming speech in the Caird Hall.

“This would be an appropriate welcome to the Dalai Lama in the absence of the Lord Provost. The SNP Council and Government must make it clear to the Dali Lama that he is welcome in Dundee and Scotland. It is their civic and political duty to do so.”

Human rights charity Amnesty International have also been critical of the city council’s move.

Shabnum Mustapha, programme director for Amnesty International in Scotland, said: “It is appalling and very worrying if Dundee City Council has ‘withdrawn’ its support for the Dalai Lama’s visit to its city due to pressure from the Chinese Government.

“Amnesty has again and again highlighted China’s questionable human rights record, including its continued restriction on freedom of expression – and it seems that this censorship has now reached our shores. To think that our own publicly-elected officials would bow to pressure of this kind is unthinkable, and we would urge Dundee City Council to reconsider their decision.

“It is also very disappointing that it appears no one from the Scottish Government, including the First Minister, is able to welcome the Dalai Lama as he embarks on his visit to Scotland. His visit to our country should serve as yet another opportunity for our government to put the spotlight on human rights abuses in China. Instead it seems that economics trump human rights when it comes to Scotland’s growing relationship with the world’s second largest economy.

“The Scottish Government should be welcoming this opportunity to support the Dalai Lama, an important spiritual figure who symbolises the movement for non-violent self-determination for an oppressed people. Throughout China, freedom of expression continues to be restricted by the authorities and re-education through labour camps continue to operate. And the Chinese government has displayed increasingly repressive behaviour in ethnic minority areas such as Tibet.”

Alex Salmond’s loaded question

Alex Salmond’s loaded question

Alex Salmond’s ‘loaded’ question for Scots on breaking away: ‘Do you agree your country should be independent?’

Mr Salmond wants the referendum question: ‘Do you agree Scotland should be an independent country?’
‘We want 16 and 17-year-olds to vote on Scotland’s future’, SNP leader says

Alex Salmond has unveiled his plans for a referendum on Scottish independence – publishing a question which most people would agree was ‘loaded’ and designed to destroy a United Kingdom.

Scotland’s First Minister sketched out a calendar which could see an end to the 300-year Union of England and Scotland by 2016.

But his plans have caused a heated debate since they appeared designed to destroy the usual democratic safeguards over referendums – or to trigger a row with the British Parliament which would also boost the Scottish National Party’s chances of a Yes vote.

Mr Salmond said Scottish voters would go to the polls in 2014 – the 700th anniversary of the Scottish victory over the English at the Battle of Bannockburn. They would be asked: ‘Do you agree that Scotland should be an independent country?’

He said he would allow 16 and 17 year olds to vote, a proposal that contravenes UK election law and is designed to boost support from pro-independence teenagers.

The SNP leader also said that if the Scottish public demands it, he is prepared to sanction a second question on the ballot paper on whether Scotland wants beefed up devolution, known as ‘devo max’.

Most controversially, Mr Salmond attempted to bypass the usual procedure for holding a referendum in which the Electoral Commission, which helps to run the vote, has to sanction the question as fair.

Mr Salmond made clear that he only regards the watchdog’s role as consultative rather than binding, allowing him alone to decide how the question is ultimately phrased.

Wind Turbines

Turbines at Garve, Wester Ross

Planning officers have recommended that councillors do not object to an extension to a wind farm to be built in Wester Ross.

Developers Erica Wind Farm Ltd and Infinergy have consent for 22 turbines at Lochluichart Estate, near Garve.

The original plan was for 43, but the scheme was reduced in size following concerns about impact on wild land.

Highland Council has now been consulted by the Scottish government on an application to add six turbines.

The local authority’s north planning applications committee will consider a recommendation that it make no objection to the bid when it meets on Wednesday.

Councillors will also be asked to grant planning permission for three turbines at Rumster Forest, near Lybster, in Caithness.

Latheron, Lybster and Clyth Community Development Company has proposed the community wind farm.

Trump and Mackie tell National Trust for Scotland their view on turbines

US tycoon Donald Trump and Scots farmer Maitland Mackie have set out opposing views on wind turbines in the National Trust for Scotland’s magazine.

Mr Trump is strongly against plans for an offshore development near his £1bn golf resort in Aberdeenshire.

Wind Turbines
Wind Turbines

Writing in Scotland in Trust, he said wind farms threatened tourism.

Dr Mackie has written in support of the renewable energy and said people will become as used to them as they were to electricity towers and telephone poles.

He also said it was wrong to suggest that turbines killed wildlife, adding that traffic and cats were a greater risk and caused the deaths of “hundreds of thousands” of birds.

The businessmen have set out their views on wind turbines as part of a wider piece on Scotland’s landscape in the new edition of the trust’s magazine.

Its publication comes just days after the Scottish government rejected plans for an onshore wind farm for the first time in four years.

Spittal Hill Wind Farm Ltd’s proposal to construct up to 30 turbines in Caithness received 1,546 letters of objection and 1,268 letters of support.

Energy Minister Fergus Ewing said if it had gone ahead it would have had a negative impact on nearby properties and views of the landscape.

In the NTS magazine article, entitled The land we love, Aberdeenshire dairy farmer Dr Mackie said his family business had five years of experience in harnessing wind power.

He said his parents complained about increasing numbers of electricity pylons, but later got them into perspective and people would do the same with turbines.

Dr Mackie wrote: “We are at the beginning of the end of the fossil fuel era.

“Dramatically rising energy costs will only stabilise when there is enough renewable energy coming on stream.”

Giving views against turbines, Mr Trump said Scottish tourism relied heavily on the landscape.

He said: “Does anyone honestly believe that a wind farm landscape will stimulate tourism? It will completely end tourism in Scotland.”

Mr Trump said Scotland was “committing financial suicide”.

Donald Trump
Donald Trump

The Mountaineering Council of Scotland (MCofS) has also launched a manifesto which calls for the country’s highest hills and mountains to be protected from wind developments.

The MCofS has called for greater protection of Corbetts, 220 hills of 2,500ft (762m) to 3,000ft (914.4m), and 283 Munros, mountains of more than 3,000ft.

It believes Scotland can achieve its aims for renewable energy without “industrialising our most important mountains”.

The council wants an immediate moratorium on commercial wind farms which it said would encroach on the country’s highest hills and mountains

Salmonds Simple Idea

Salmonds Simple Idea

 

Mr Salmond said: ‘Independence, in essence, is based on a simple idea: the people who care most about Scotland, that is the people who live, work and bring up their families in Scotland, should be the ones taking the decisions about our nation’s future.’

Alex Salmonds simple idea
Alex Salmond’s simple idea

But former Labour Chancellor Alistair Darling said: ‘The question is loaded. He is inviting people to endorse the separation of a successful independent nation. He is not asking if you want to remain part of the United Kingdom, which I would prefer.

‘It is asking for trouble and if he tries to push through unfair wording someone will go to court. It’s typical of Salmond who wants to call the shots on the rules, the conduct, the wording and ultimately what the result means.’

Ministers viewed the wording of the question as unfair and liable to encourage a Yes vote – speculating that Mr Salmond wants to pick a fight.

One Westminster source said: ‘This is all about Salmond turning around and saying: “Look at all those dreadful people in London trying to tell us what to do.”’

A Downing Street official added: ‘Alex Salmond doesn’t have the power to set out the question. These are his proposals and they will feed into our consultation. But he doesn’t have the power to legally set up a referendum.

‘The Electoral Commission should play their usual role in the referendum and that means scrutinising the question. They are officially part of the process. That is mentioned in our own consultation document.’ Scottish Secretary Michael Moore said the Government would block any bid to introduce a devo max question.