Monday, 31 August 2009

Meeting Megrahi

I've had some rather interesting exchanges with m'learned friend and his learned friends over the decisions of Kenny MacAskill MSP, Cabinet Secretary for Justice in the run-up to the release of Mr Megrahi on compassionate grounds. Many and varied were the comments made, some jibes pointed at their bewigged colleagues in passing, asides to split your sides, as it were - should you be so inclined. Much was discussed, and greater was the Latin use the more the wine was drunk.

There are many small gems to be polished from these discourses, including the observations (from my memory - any mistakes are mine) that "MacAskill's practice used to do fine with the judicial review work" - Kenny was a court lawyer for a couple of decades and was a partner in Erskine MacAskill when he got elected in 1999, and Erskine MacAskill used to be top-ranked in administrative law - leading to much agreement and the putting forward of the angle that this would have meant that he would have considered the possibility of judicial review before taking the steps he took, especially considering that Tony Kelly, Mr Megrahi's solicitor, is a victor of a number of recent landmark cases.

It was also noted that Kenny is a product of Edinburgh University's law school and taught by Neil MacCormick, carrying forward the fine tradition of thinking about law rather than just making a few bob from it. The law school will, of course, be delighted that one of their own has nudged the law forward once again.

One area which I found most fascinating, though, was the debate over Kenny's meeting with Megrahi. It appears that there are some partisan lawyers arguing that he shouldn't have gone to Greenock because it somehow cut across his responsibility to decide on the case. It was opined that there was a base misunderstanding in many of these cases in that the lawyers did the Bob Beamon towards a conclusion instead of waiting for the facts. Ironically, it was put, these are the ones who are always certain that they are correct and who will sneeringly tell people that they know best 'because I am better qualified than you' and inevitably are found not to know best at all. They assumed that MacAskill made the visit as part of the compassionate release process rather than as part of the prisoner transfer process. They also, it appears, confuse themselves over "quasi-judicial" - a phrase they take to mean that the person acting in such a capacity becomes a judge for the purposes of that decision rather than the actualite which is that it is not a judge who takes the decision but that the decision should be taken judicially.

When that confusion is cleared up you are left with the question about whether he should have met Megrahi over the prisoner transfer agreement, and this is where it gets hot. Audi alteram partem - both sides should be heard - leads into a substantial discussion and references to Clyde and Edwards on Judicial Review. Lord Fraser of Tullybelton is quoted therein as ruling that
"One of the principles of natural justice is that a person is entitled to adequate notice and opportunity to be heard before any judicial order is pronounced against him, so that he, or someone acting on his behalf, may make representations, if any, as he sees fit. That is the rule of audi alteram partem which applies to all judicial proceedings, unless its application to a particular class of proceedings has been excluded by Parliament expressly or by necessary implication."

This leads you into the examination of whether there was a judicial order to be pronounced in a prisoner transfer hearing. Given that the prisoner would be moved across international borders should the PTA be implemented, it is surely incontestable that this is a judicial order being considered?

That moves us onto what Kenny MacAskill said were the reasons for his visit:
Prior to being ratified, the prisoner transfer agreement was scrutinised by the Westminster Joint Committee on Human Rights. It was the first PTA that did not require the consent of the prisoner. As a result, Jack Straw, the United Kingdom Secretary of State for Justice, gave a commitment that in cases in which applications were not submitted personally by the prisoner, the prisoner must be given the opportunity to make representations. Mr al-Megrahi had the opportunity to make representations and he chose to do so in person. That was his decision. It would have been outwith the tenets of natural justice to refuse that request; therefore, I was duty bound to meet him.

He is saying that Megrahi had the right to make his representations in person. Jack Straw's pledge was that prisoners who were subject to a transfer request which was made by a third party would have the opportunity to make representations. His letter indicated that those representations would be in writing. Mr Megrahi had wanted to make his representations in person. What Kenny did, I assume in order to fulfil his duties in his judicial decision, was visit him in order to gather all available information and make a decision in full possession of the available facts.

If we can turn again to Clyde and Edwards on Judicial Review, it says:
It is not fair for one party to be allowed to lead evidence and for the other party to be denied the opportunity of doing so.

Where there is no statutory requirement for any hearing it has to be a matter of circumstances whether any obligation lies on the decision maker to hear the parties, whether orally or in any other form. The guiding principle is that of fairness.

A right to be heard may arise by express statutory provision. ... Alternatively, the right may arise by virtue of a legitimate expectation.

In the interests of natural justice, the Cabinet Secretary for Justice was obliged to meet Mr Megrahi. Jack Straw had indicated that representations were possible so Mr Megrahi had a legitimate expectation of a hearing. Mr Megrahi wanted to make those representations in person, the guiding principle of fairness suggests that that should be allowed. Others had had the chance to make representations, Kenny had consulted relatives by videoconference and governments of three countries and it would not be fair for those parties to have been allowed to make representations when Mr Megrahi was not.

I agree with the general consensus of the legal types with whom I conversed (academics as well as those actually gainfully employed) that MacAskill was right to meet Megrahi.

On a couple of wee side issues, Alan Cochrane's piece is well worth reading, the medical director of CancerPartnersUK examined Megrahi on behalf of the Libyan Government and said he had "only a very short period of time to live", and I've been pointed to a site I'm told is good and seems no bad.

Mind how you go!

Sunday, 30 August 2009

Mandela and MacAskill agree on Megrahi

Nelson Mandela has added his voice to the mounting chorus that says MacAskill was correct to release Megrahi on compassionate grounds. This decision should never have become politicised but it would appear that the unfortunate narrow-mindedness and crass party political opportunism of the opposition is being exposed.

Friday, 28 August 2009


Stuart Dickson pointed out in the comments to my last post that Michael Martin has been "elevated" to the House of Lords as Baron Martin of Springburn. Read it in all its glory for yourself in the London Gazette. I'm glad that's sorted - for a while there I wondered how he'd get by without any expenses.

Mind how you go my Lord!

I'm right again!

When I remarked on John Prescott's support for Kenny MacAskill, I speculated that Charlie Kennedy would soon come out on Kenny's side as well. Charlie did not disappoint, in the Ross-shire Journal, this former Lib Dem leader said:
"Mr Al-Megrahi is dying, and the Justice Secretary was required to find a balance between justice and compassion in these circumstances. It was his judgement as Minister that compassion was appropriate. It is not surprising that some disagree very strongly given the scale of the atrocity committed, but I think the decision was probably the right one even if it was not necessarily taken in the right way.
"This is not a party political matter, and it should not really be an international political matter either. It is a question of justice, rightly taken by the Scottish Justice Secretary, and for which he has rightly been held to account by MSPs with a full range of opinions in the Scottish Parliament."

Have I ever told you that I think Charlie Kennedy is a fine fellow?

Mind how you go!

Thursday, 27 August 2009

Daily Mail - excellent poll

Great news in the Daily Mail, what a great poll for the SNP! When I heard that the Daily Mali had commissioned a Scottish poll in the middle of the brouhaha caused by the opposition haverings over al-Megrahi, I feared we would be staring into the abyss - from halfway down. Instead I had a rather pleasant surprise, as you can see from Yougov:

Westminster figures
SNP on 25% - up 7.34% on our performance in the last UK General Election - and 2 points up on the Scottish sub-sample in August
Labour on 33% - down 5.87% on 2005
Cons on 19% - up 3.17%
Lib Dems on 16% - down 6.63%

Holyrood constituency
SNP tops it on 33% - up .07% on 2007
Labour 31% - down 1.17% on 2007
Cons 16% - down .6%
Lib Dem 16% - down .17%

Holyrood Additional Member
SNP 27% - down 4% on 2007
Lab 28% - down 1.96% on 2007
Con 17% - up 4.09%
Lib Dem 15% - up 3.7%
Greens 6% - up 1.96%

Best First Minister
Salmond 32%
None of them 24%
Don't know 16%
Gray 12%
Goldie 11%
Scott 6%
Harvie 1%

Interesting that Gray is only one point ahead of Goldie, and that both 'None of them' and 'Don't know' beat both of them and Tavish Scott into an assemblage of cocked hats.

Temproarily down to 28% - it'll be back up to 78% soon (go on, you know you want to).

Right/wrong - 43/51, 6% dk. MacAskill should stay - 62% or go - 32%

Pretty good, considering the faux fury at the time.

Wednesday, 26 August 2009

Cheer up!

This made me laugh, and I don't feel guilty about finding it on a Lib Dem website!

John Prescott supports Kenny MacAskill

John Prescott was asked on Sky News if he had any objections to al Megrahi's release and replied:
“No, I don't have any objections. If the man is dying, if compassion is part, as it is, of the Scottish administration and the medical authorities then get proof to that effect, then it's a decision for the legal authority. You know, Scotland has always had a great deal of independence of its legal authority, going back many years, so we have to respect that decision. And I do.”

It would appear that there is a wee strain of integrity left in the Labour party - Malcolm Chisholm and John Prescott trumping Iain Gray and Gordon Brown. Makes me think that there might be a few more lurking in the background who would rather see a sense of decency return to their parties than carry on with this horror.

So let's make a little list - a Peter Snow swingometer if you will, and make a few predictions about who agrees with Kenny MacAskill rather than the espoused view of their own party (or thinks that it was a decision for the Minister who took it after considering the evidence and that's how it should be). Remember though - it's just a bit of fun!

Malcolm Chisholm MSP - made his point clear in the chamber.
Lord George Foulkes - listened attentively, nodded, and didn't make comments; not his usual behaviour towards the Scottish Government (his favourite people, really).
Henry McLeish - already stated his position.
John Prescott - made it clear earlier.
Cathy Jamieson MSP - never came forward to ask a question in spite of having been in the position herself.
Frank Doran MP - one-time lawyer, left wing (in current Labour terms), used to run his legal practice in Whitfield in Dundee (not hunting the big money cases, then).
Gavin Strang MP - his politics point to compassion rather than vengeance.
Bill Butler MSP, Marlyn Glenn MSP, Rhoda Grant MSP, Frank McAveety MSP, Cathy Peattie MSP, adn Elaine Smith MSP - their consciences will be hurting.

Lib Dem
John Farquhar Munro MSP - already declared
Mike Rumbles MSP - I think he said so on Radio Scotland?
Hugh O'Donnell MSP - seems inclined to mercy.
Ming Campbell MP - has already said so.
Lord David Steel - has already said so.
Lord David Owen - has already said so.
Charles Kennedy MP - he's a liberal as well as a Lib Dem (they don't always go together), surely he backs MacAskill?
Iain Smith MSP - I just think so.
Jamie Stone MSP - it may seem cheesy, but I think Jamie Stone is strong and mature enough to not go blue and get smoked ...

Ted Brocklebank MSP - he seems to be to be a compassionate and libertarian kind of guy.
Derek Brownlee MSP - he's sensible enough.
Alex Johnstone MSP - a fair-minded chiel.
Struan Stevenson MEP - surely he would?
Jamie McGrigor MSP - he's a chap who looks on others with a kindly eye.
John Scott MSP - the kind of guy who would agree but wouldn't like to upset his party colleagues either. I think he'd be compassionate.

I think I'm right in saying that the Greens, as a party, support the compassionate release and would like an inquiry, so they really shouldn't be here but it didn't seem fair to mention the other parties and not give the Greens a nod.

I look forward to being proven right over the next few days - I wonder if any journalist is doing a phone-round?

Mind how you go!

A conscience vote

Two of Scotland's churches have called for votes on al-Megrahi to be conscience votes. I think we should check that they all have a conscience first.

I wasn't surprised that an embittered former Labour spin-doctor would be rubbing his hands in anticipation of some slight party political advantage rising from the end of a man's life, but I was shocked to see that a Labour medical doctor (still doing locum work while an MSP, apparently) would. Dr Richard Simpson, Labour MSP, joined in Labour's gruesome sweepie.

The Scotsman article says
In parliament on Monday, Dr Simpson said that his reading of the notes suggested Megrahi may have eight months left, not the three months or less on which Mr MacAskill said he based his decision.

Allow me to help him with the reading of those notes, section 4e:
The clinical assessment, therefore, is that a 3 month prognosis is now a reasonable estimate for this patient.

That was at the beginning of this month. I don't believe that Richard Simpson is incapable of reading this report, so I can only assume that he is being deliberately obtuse in order to mislead. There is further evidence; Dr Simpson is quoted in the Scotsman saying
Kenny MacAskill released him apparently on the advice of just one doctor, whose status is not clear and who is not named.

Well, if you go back to the notes (linked above), you'll see that Section 4 was to be completed by the Medical Officer and that two consultant oncologists and two consultant urologists were engaged. In addition, there was a palliative care team and other specialists who contributed. I wondered who the Medical Officer was - I found it in the Official Report of the Scottish Parliament where Kenny MacAskill was responding to - wait for it - Dr Richard Simpson:

Kenny MacAskill: I followed the three-month rule. That was the medical information given to me. The medical report from the Scottish Prison Service's director of health and social care was dated 10 August and was based on an interview and examination of Mr al-Megrahi on 3 August, when it was made clear that there had been a change for the worse in his circumstances. I do not have the benefit of Dr Simpson's training in medicine or psychiatry, but I follow the rules and guidance that are laid down for cabinet secretaries for justice. I recall that Dr Simpson, too, has served as a justice minister. I followed the same rules and regulations that he would have been required to follow had the issue come before him.

The Director of Health and Social Care at SPS is Dr Andrew Fraser who was Deputy Chief Medical Officer at the then Scottish Executive while Dr Richard Simpson was a Minister. Dr Simpson wasn't finished there, either, he went on:
"At the very least, before agreeing to release a prisoner convicted of such a serious crime on compassionate grounds, the minister should have sought a second opinion confirming the patient's prognosis from a specialist in palliative care."

As I've said already, there was a palliative care team as well as the four consultants and the Director of Health and Social Care - which of these is Dr Simpson seeking to discredit? He should hang his head in shame both as a politician and as a medical professional.

Not that the Scotsman is blameless - the article claims that "The report suggests that only one doctor was willing to support the claim that Megrahi had just weeks to live" - no it doesn't. The article also says that
the summary said: "Whether or not prognosis is more or less than three months, no specialist would be willing to say."

Firstly, there is no summary, this is the section filled in by the Medical Officer as part of the overall report. Secondly, put that quote back into context and its meaning is substantially changed:
In June and July 2009, assessment by a range of specialists reached firm consensus that the disease was, after several different trials of treatment, "hormone resistant" - that is,
resistant to any treatment options of known effectiveness. Consensus on prognosis, therefore, has now moved to the lower end of expectations from 10 months ago. Reviewing the total picture, the concluding specialist view is that, in the absence of a good response to treatment, survival could be in the order of 'months' and, no longer 'many months'. Whether or not prognosis is more or less than 3 months, no specialist "would be willing to say".
In the opinion of his [redacted] who has dealt with him prior to, during and following the diagnosis 0f metastatic prostate cancer, and having seen him during each of these stages, his clinical condition has declined significantly over the last week (period 26 July-3 August). The clinical assessment, therefore, is that a 3 month prognosis is now a
reasonable estimate for this patient.

It's clear that the 3 month prognosis was a development from the previous collective opinion which was quite clearly not a surprise. Metastatic cancer, by the way, is when it has spread to other parts of the body. The Scotsman also said:
There was also a suggestion that Megrahi might not be as ill as had been claimed. The report said: "Clinicians who have assessed Mr Megrahi have commented on his relative lack of symptoms when considering the severity and stage of underlying disease."

The quote's right, but the interpretation put on it by the Scotsman isn't; that quote doesn't suggest that he's less ill than claimed, it suggests that he's more ill than he appears - his symptoms are not matching the condition of his disease.

Then there was the whiff of xenophobia:
And suggestions that the doctor who gave the prognosis may have been employed by the Libyan government emerged in the report's notes. It said that a professor from Libya had been involved in Megrahi's care and the medical officer who wrote the report had been "working with clinicians from Libya over the past ten months"

The quote is slightly wrong, but not enough to change the meaning substantially. There is no suggestion in the report that it was a Libyan who gave the prognosis. The idea that Scottish doctors were excluded is pretty stupid, isn't it? The implied allegation that a Libyan doctor would lie about a patient's condition is disgusting as well. In fact, a wee look up the page and this bit would have been obvious:
Mr Megrahi has undergone specialist consultations with a variety of medical consultants from across the UK and Libya. There has been, throughout the course of his illness, substantial.consensus between both visiting and "home" specialists on matters of diagnosis, treatment and prognosis.

Casting aspersions on dedicated professionals, adding in a bit of casual xenophobia, and topping it off with a sprinkling of misdirection - not a recipe for decency from Labour and the Scotsman. I do hope they'll both reflect on that, this is the last weeks of someone's life, not a topic for a ya-boo kickabout, a bit of common human decency wouldn't go amiss.

how low will they go?

You would have thought that the opposition parties would be rethinking their strategies on Justice after getting their fingers burned this week, wouldn't you? Unfortunately not, no such decorum is on view.

The Conservatives' leader Annabel Goldie has used a newspaper to claim that she was misled by the Justice Secretary. The article says that Strathclyde Police
contradicted the SNP Justice Secretary, who told the Scottish Parliament on Monday that he had ruled out keeping al-Megrahi in Scotland on the advice of senior officers who said that the security implications would be severe.

Actually, the statement from Strathclyde Police is in the story, it reads:
“If a decision had been made to release Mr al-Megrahi in Scotland, we would have provided whatever security was required.
“We were asked how many officers would be required to provide security and we provided that advice. All we are saying is that we were asked about the level of security which would be required for al-Megrahi, members of his family and the local community should he be released.
“We were asked how many [officers] it would take in our opinion. In terms of guidance we were not asked whether we could do this.”

But the story also quotes Kenny MacAskill from the statement on Monday:
“It had been suggested that Mr al-Megrahi could be released from prison to reside elsewhere in Scotland. Clear advice from the deputy chief constable of Strathclyde Police was that the security implications of such a move would be severe. A minimum of 48 officers would be required simply to allow Mr al-Megrahi to live in Scotland. I therefore ruled that out as an option.”

The story also has this paragraph:
Miss Goldie said that the Justice Secretary’s statement was “unfair to the police, misleading to the public and a lame excuse for sending Mr al-Megrahi back to a hero’s welcome in Libya. It is clear that the Scottish government only paid lip service to investigating whether Mr al-Megrahi could be kept here.”

Anyone who can read English and has some basic comprehension skills will notice that there is no conflict between the statement from the police force and the statement made by the Justice Secretary on Monday. The comments of the Conservative leader amount to a clear mistruth.

Opposition tactics, then, range from talking down the Scottish Justice system through synthetic anger, attempts to subvert the process of a quasi-judicial process, and questioning the integrity of medical staff to, now, telling bare-faced lies. How much are they prepared to degrade the political process just to try to score some party political points?

One comfort is that the voting public can, quite clearly, see through them.

Tuesday, 25 August 2009

A wee tidying-up

Eloquence is not found to be wanting in Scotland. On the subject of the Megrahi decision, allow me to point to a couple of things which have caught my attention.

My old friend with an unhealthy interest in bicycles has an exquisite rant, including this finely turned phraseology -
I’m fed up listening to ill-informed pundits and self-righteous gobshites telling us how the Scots judicial system has to be run.
Then there's the chap or chapess (I'm not entirely clear) who has an unhealthy interest in peat giving a more leisurely-paced view, including the admonition -
Don’t just bore the hell out of everyone with your gloating critiques and the flattering supposition that all ills would be corrected, if only the august person of Richard Baker or Bill Aitken had been in the Justice Secretary’s office, or Iain Gray was tucked up in Bute House.

There's a chap with an unhealthy interest in Livingston writing like a liberal (for any of my good friends from across the Atlantic taking an interest, that's a compliment not an insult), including -

"I think most opinion in Scotland is in favour of the decision to release him [Megrahi] on compassionate grounds."

Now that is the sort of considered, public listened to response I would expect from a Liberal Democrat leader. Unfortunately they were the words of Lord David Steel our former leader and not those of Tavish Scott who asked in the chamber:
"Doesn't Kenny MacAskill's comment on the need for Scottish compassion mean that no prisoner - however bad their crime - will ever have a request turned down?"

Do all Livvy fans seek an end to the fitba match, one wonders ...

It's a pity, I think, that there are not more people espousing true liberalism, it's an important point of view. Unfortunately, too many who should be liberals tend to knee-jerk authoritarianism, even in ignorance -
I wasn't going to blog about this today given I did not watch or hear the debate, however I have sat and read many reports from people there and just want to comment on a few things.

Dignity restored, though, by a lady with an unhealthy interest in ... um .... musing (ach, cut me some slack) and another liberal -
Let me tell you what I don't want done in my name:
Slagging Kenny MacAskill and the SNP for the outrageous scenes in Libya which greeted Megrahi's return. It was obvious that it would happen, despite, as MacAskill said, requests to the Libyans for them to behave with a bit of restraint, but you don't base a decision on an application for compassionate release on the expected actions of a foreign government. You would think from what was said in Parliament that he'd sent John Swinney and Nicola Sturgeon to take the saltires to Tripoli themselves. Just stop it, please.

A chap with no unhealthy interests at all pointed us to more reasoned opinion in the US, and he notes that -
While the American relatives and the US government have strongly criticised the decision, it is interesting to note that this is not front page news in the USA. Apparently most of the main newspapers carry the story on inside pages. So perhaps the opposition in America is not as strong or as uniform as we are led to believe.

A chap in the capital opines -
true justice cannot be served by allowing emotions to cloud decision-making.

A chap in Glasgow seems unable to find the answers -
The point of his speech was not actually in what he said but so that he could be questioned by parliament and it was his answers that mattered and on this he was incredibly evasive.

Then there was the fellow with the unhealthy appetite for bitterness hoping to play roulette with the final days of a man's life -
Distasteful though it is to speculate on the life expectancy of a dying man - the reality is that if he exceeds the life expectancy which presumably influenced MacAskill's decision then he is left high and dry.
Given that the Minister's argument centred on the humanity of releasing a man with only months to live, should the said individual live for six months or more if his condition responds to treatment, then its difficult to see how SCotland's Justice Minister can remain in post.That is the harsh reality.

Then the Greens with a considered news release -
Patrick Harvie MSP, co-convenor of the Scottish Green Party, today backed calls for a full public inquiry into the conviction as well as the release of convicted Lockerbie bomber Abdelbaset Ali Mohmed Al Megrahi. While supporting the decision taken by the Justice Secretary to grant release on compassionate grounds, Greens believe there are many questions still to be answered. Patrick Harvie today urged the UK Government to initiate a full public inquiry to examine the case, including the UK Government's negotiations with Libya and others around the decision to release Mr Megrahi, and all aspects concerning the original conviction.
Patrick Harvie MSP said:"Compassionate release is a normal part of the Scottish justice system, and Kenny Macaskill's decision was the right one. The UK Government and the Americans are both normalising relations with Libya, who, we are told, commissioned the attack on Pan Am Flight 103. If Tony Blair can take tea and sign oil deals with Colonel Gaddafi, who paid a settlement for the crime he apparently ordered, justice does not demand a dying man be held until the end for carrying out those orders.
"However, there are still serious and troubling outstanding questions in this case, questions with far longer-term consequences than this release. They still need to be answered through a public inquiry, and it's vital that the UK Government releases all the relevant information it holds so that the truth can finally be known. The families deserve nothing less, and future politicians and diplomats would benefit from knowing what really happened. I was therefore pleased to hear the Justice Secretary commit today to cooperate with any such inquiry."

One of our finest Telegraph political editors (Daily, not Evening) wasn't entirely sure that anyone walked away from yesterday glinting in the sunshine -
There is to be another debate on this issue at Holyrood next week and after their rather limp performances yesterday, the opposition parties might care to concentrate on a number of issues where I think the minister is in trouble.
An interesting take - but I'm sure that Alan is just lining this up so that next week he can write a column explaining the miracle turn-around in Kenny's fortunes as Parliament backs his decision...

Meanwhile, a poll of Scotland's lawyers finds two thirds backing the Justice Secretary.

It seems to me that sensible comment is backing Kenny MacAskill, showing that stature and principle still have their places in Scottish politics.

The United States would have released Megrahi

The US has had a provision for compassionate release in its statutes since the Sentencing Reform Act of 1984. The sentencing guidelines state
Upon motion of the Director of the Bureau of Prisons under 18 U.S.C. § 3582(c)(1)(A), the court may reduce a term of imprisonment (and may impose a term of supervised release with or without conditions that does not exceed the unserved portion of
the original term of imprisonment) if, after considering the factors set forth in 18 U.S.C. § 3553(a), to the extent that they are applicable, the court determines that—
(1) (A) extraordinary and compelling reasons warrant the reduction; . . .
(2) the defendant is not a danger to the safety of any other person or to the community, as provided in 18 U.S.C. § 3142(g); and
(3) the reduction is consistent with this policy statement.

In 2007 the US Sentencing Commission clarified what it viewed as “extraordinary and compelling reasons”:
(A) Extraordinary and Compelling Reasons.—Provided the defendant meets the requirements of subdivision (2), extraordinary and compelling reasons exist under any of the following circumstances:
(i) The defendant is suffering from a terminal illness.
(ii) The defendant is suffering from a permanent physical or medical condition, or is experiencing deteriorating physical or mental health because of the aging process, that
substantially diminishes the ability of the defendant to provide self-care within the environment of a correctional facility and for which conventional treatment promises no substantial improvement.
(iii) The death or incapacitation of the defendant’s only family member capable of caring for the defendant’s minor child or minor children.
(iv) As determined by the Director of the Bureau of Prisons, there exists in the defendant’s case an extraordinary and compelling reason other than, or in combination with, the reasons described in subdivisions (i), (ii), and (iii).

The system for managing Compassionate release is different, but it's there and the USA isn't as barbaric as you might expect from some of the more rabid comments you may have heard.

So, the US would have sent Megrahi home.

Monday, 24 August 2009

A demonstration

I've been sent a photograph of one of the demonstrators outside Parliament today -

Excellent. Must install spell checkers on placards, though

Megrahi - more support for MacAskill

Other SNP campaigners across the country have, apparently, had similar experiences to mine over the weekend - people telling us that releasing Megrahi on compassionate grounds was the right decision, others disagreeing with the decision but acknowledging that it was a difficult decision to take and appreciating Kenny MacAskill's good intent and his thoroughness. I only found one who agreed with the Labour/Conservative/Lib Dem line and the story was similar across the country.

Today the Catholic Church added its support with Archbishop Conti saying
"I personally, and many others in the Catholic community admired the decision to release Abdelbaset al-Megrahi on grounds of compassion which is, after all, one of the principles inscribed on the mace of the Scottish Parliament by which Scotland’s Government should operate.
"The showing of mercy in any situation is not a sign of weakness. Indeed in this situation, with the pressures and circumstances of the case, it seemed to me a sign of manifest strength.
"Despite contrary voices I believe it is a decision which will be a source of satisfaction for many Scots and one which will be respected in the international community.
"I have been impressed by the expressions of understanding and insight from Dr Jim Swire and other relatives who lost loved ones on the Pan Am flight who have acknowledged both the rightness of the gesture of compassion and their doubts as to the safety of the original conviction
“I would welcome any move which would try to find clearer answers as to what happened and why.”

The Church of Scotland had already supported Kenny on the day he made the announcement:
The Church of Scotland today praised the decision that meant Lockerbie bomber Abdelbaset Ali al-Megrahi was released today on compassionate grounds by Justice Minister Kenny MacAskill.
Rev Ian Galloway, Convener of the Church and Society Council of the Church of Scotland said:
“This decision has sent a message to the world about what it is to be Scottish. We are defined as a nation by how we treat those who have chosen to hurt us. Do we choose mercy even when they did not choose mercy?
This was not about whether one man was guilty or innocent. Nor is it about whether he had a right to mercy but whether we as a nation, despite the continuing pain of many, are willing to be merciful. I understand the deep anger and grief that still grips the souls of the victims’ families and I respect their views. But to them I would say justice is not lost in acting in mercy.
Instead our deepest humanity is expressed for the better. To choose mercy is the tough choice and today our nation met that challenge.
We have gained something significant as a Nation by this decision. It is a defining moment for all of us.”

In Parliament today, Labour MSP Malcolm Chisholm said:
“Can I regret the politicisation of what is a quasi-judicial decision, and for my part commend the Justice Secretary for a courageous decision, which is entirely consistent with both the principles of Scots Law and Christian morality, as evidenced by the widespread support of Churches across Scotland.
“Does he share my revulsion, however, by what happened when Al-Megrahi returned to Libya, but does he accept that there is nothing that anyone in this Parliament could have done to stop that? And does he also agree that it [Libya reaction] is entirely irrelevant to the rights and wrongs of the original decision?”

Lib Dem MSP John Farquhar Munro said on Radio nan Gael this morning (translation, obviously):
“I’m sure there are plenty of MSPs with the same thoughts as I have.
“I’m of the opinion that Mr MacAskill had no other choice but the one he made. It was obvious from the doctors that Megrahi is suffering with cancer and that Megrahi’s health was going down every day and with that the correct thing happened and that MacAskill let Megrahi go with the information he had.
“I believe that MacAskill did the thing that was right and the ting that people will be looking on for years to come and that every time they raise the question of how well MacAskill did because of the rules and laws of Scotland.
“The right thing happened and MacAskill made the right and correct decision. With that it doesn’t give me any troubles whatsoever that there are some who are complaining.”

Henry McLeish on Radio Scotland this morning:
"If you look at the issue in the context of the criminal justice system and the independent legal system that we have, this is probably the right decision made for the right reasons."
"The intervention of the director of the FBI was totally out of order.
"It would be the equivalent of the Metropolitan police chief writing to Barack Obama to complain about a decision."
He said Mr Mueller's criticism was "ill-informed" and added: "Quite frankly, it`s none of his business. He has a view - fine. But that was a slur on the Scottish criminal justice system that we did not deserve."

A spokesman for the Prime Minister today, when asked whether the release gave succour to terrorists, said: "I don't think it does. This was a decision taken by the Scottish Justice Secretary in accordance with the laws of Scotland. I don't see that anyone can argue that this gives succour."

David Steel:
“I don’t necessarily think he made the wrong decision, I mean it was quite clearly made on compassionate grounds. It wasn’t made as part of a prisoner deal; it wasn’t made as part of a trade agreement, and I think people should focus on that and I think most opinion in Scotland therefore is in favour of the decision to release him on compassionate grounds.”

Jim Swire:
“Good luck to MacAskill. I think he’s done a grand job in standing up at least this much to obvious American pressure in which it’s clear that Mrs Clinton used the Libyan Government to persuade Megrahi to give up his second appeal which so many people believe that had it been completed, would lead to the overturning of this somewhat ridiculous verdict.”

Tam Dalyell:
"Mr MacAskill, the Scottish Justice Minister, has arrived at the right decision on compassionate grounds."

Ming Campbell:
"Labour is clearly facing two ways on this issue: wanting to enhance relations with Libya but at the same time determined to criticise the SNP for an American audience.”

David Owen:
"I am a humanitarian, wherever you can you come down in the final analysis to looking at the individual. Are they entitled to die at home or die in prison? If it is humanely possible you should allow them to die at home.
"It is very hard to get at the truth and yet Lord Mandelson is seen with the Libyan president's son. It is very clear that the British government are in this up to their neck. I view all this noise as party politics in a rather crude way.”

Martin Cadman:
"I'm very pleased he has been released on compassionate grounds because I don't think he was the right person to be there anyway. It is just righting a wrong.”

Sir Richard Dalton:
"Appalling though the atrocity was that led to the deaths of 270 people, there are not good reasons why anybody convicted of that crime should be excepted from normal rules which apply for considering release on compassionate grounds.
"There is no doubt that Megrahi has been sent home to die. The reasons why he met the criterion for compassionate release was set out clearly by the Justice Secretary in Scotland and I believe it was the right thing to do, albeit I understand the pain that would be felt my many of those personally affected by the atrocity."

When asked what he thought of Conservative leader David Cameron's attack on the decision, he said:
"I believe he is wrong. He conspicuously did not address the question which I raised at the beginning, which is why in the case of Lockerbie should normal criteria be set aside? Maybe he was thinking politically about his relationship with the United States politicians rather than thinking in terms of the judicial process."

In addition, there was a demonstration outside Parliament today - people asking that the MSPs support Kenny MacAskill's decision and showing their support for his decision. A lady from Aberdeen drove down to Edinburgh on Friday after listening to the announcement with a bunch of roses and thistles because she had been so moved by Kenny's statement.

On top of that, Frank McAveety's researcher agrees with the decision.

Of the few who oppose the decision, though, why did Iain Gray think he should try to copy Richard Nixon with the "silent majority" nonsense - if they're silent, how does he know what they think? He must think that he can go back to the bad old days when Labour thought they could tell people how to think. Those days are gone.

There are a few questions, though - why was Cathy Jamieson not shoved front and centre on this issue? She must have authorised some compassionate releases in her time as Justice Minister. Could it be that she disagrees with her party's position? Likewise Lord Foulkes, sitting demurely and silently in the chamber today - most unlike his usual demeanour. Does he disagree with Iain Gray? Or are Cathy and George part of the silent majority?

Kenny MacAskill was right in his decision, I think Scotland backs him, and I think the other parties are wrong to behave in the manner they are behaving. That's their choice, though, their decision and their decision alone and they can stand by it and live with the consequences.

Well done Malcolm Chisholm

I never thought I'd be praising Malcolm Chisholm MSP, but today I do. While senior members of the Labour party mounted an attack on the Justice Secretary in concert with the strident chorus of Conservative and Lib Dem members over the Megrahi decision, Malcolm Chisholm got to his feet and spoke with principled dignity, indicating his agreement with the decision reached by Kenny MacAskill. I hope that his party colleagues were listening carefully; his contribution should remind them of the principles which used to run through the Labour party but which seem sadly lacking now. A courageous contribution from the MSP for North and Leith, he and I disagree on many points in politics and we'll continue to disagree but I admire his determination in this instance to do what he believes to be right rather than buckle under political opportunism.

Thursday, 20 August 2009

Compassion, mercy and justice

Scottish Cabinet Secretary for Justice Kenny MacAskill MSP has announced that he has rejected Libya's application for a prisoner transfer for Abdelbaset Ali Mohmed Al-Megrahi and that he has approved the request from Mr Megrahi for release on compassionate grounds. As usual, there are people of small stature who made wild claims without examining the evidence.

Iain Gray said that Labour in government would show no compassion, no mercy, that if he were First Minister "Megrahi would not be going back to Libya". I hope he takes the time to think again and withdraws this statement, it's as unseemly as David Cameron's comments that "This man was convicted of murdering 270 people, he showed no compassion to them". David Cameron not allowing his Scottish party to respond was noted.

Richard Baker was one of those who foolishly questioned Kenny's decision to visit Megrahi in prison. He would have been better to have consulted his own party colleague, Jack Straw, whose actions meant that Kenny's duty was clear - he had to visit Megrahi. This is from Kenny's statement:
Prior to ratification of the Prisoner Transfer Agreement, it was scrutinised by the Westminster Joint Committee on Human Rights, to which Jack Straw, UK Secretary of State for Justice, gave a commitment that in cases where applications were not submitted personally by the prisoner, the prisoner must be given the opportunity to make representations. Mr Al-Megrahi had the opportunity to make representations, and he chose to do so in person. Therefore I was duty bound to receive his representations. I accordingly met him.

As Brian Taylor pointed out, it was a strong performance from Kenny MacAskill, and one which was directed at multiple audiences. He outlined the compassion he was showing to Megrahi:
Mr Al-Megrahi did not show his victims any comfort or compassion. They were not allowed to return to the bosom of their families to see out their lives, let alone their dying days. No compassion was shown by him to them.
But, that alone is not a reason for us to deny compassion to him and his family in his
final days.
Our justice system demands that judgment be imposed but compassion be available. Our beliefs dictate that justice be served, but mercy be shown. Compassion and mercy are about upholding the beliefs that we seek to live by, remaining true to our values as a people. No matter the severity of the provocation or the atrocity perpetrated.

He also noted the burden of grief carried by the bereaved:
Scotland will forever remember the crime that has been perpetrated against our people and those from many other lands. The pain and suffering will remain forever. Some hurt can never heal. Some scars can never fade. Those who have been bereaved cannot be expected to forget, let alone forgive. Their pain runs deep and the wounds remain.

This was no easy decision to make but the decency and humanity of Kenny MacAskill shone through today when lesser politicians were taking cheap shots in the hope of getting their names in the papers and were talking the Scottish justice system down in the process. Our Justice Secretary raised Scotland today. Judge our society by the way we treat the weakest members of it, by the way we welcome those in need, and by the way we treat those who have wronged us. Judge us by the way we act as a society and, now, know that compassion has a place at the heart of justice in Scotland, that justice here is tempered with mercy. Release on compassionate grounds is not unknown in Scottish justice - it's part of the standard practice - but when the man who has been found guilty of committing such a terrible crime in our land can find mercy at the hands of our justice system we can think the system worthy of the name.

Others agree, as well:
"We are defined as a nation by how we treat those who have chosen to hurt us. Do we choose mercy even when they did not chose mercy?
"This was not about whether one man was guilty or innocent. Nor is it about whether he had a right to mercy but whether we as a nation, despite the continuing pain of many, are willing to be merciful.

Now there is the news that the Presiding Officer will recall Parliament on Monday,a s he had earlier indicated - a chance, perhaps, for MSPs to debate this issue with some degree of gravitas?

Wednesday, 19 August 2009

These economic woes

There's a Scottish Parliament motion from Linda Fabiani MSP:

S3M-04689 Linda Fabiani (Central Scotland) (Scottish National Party): The Arc of Recovery

That the Parliament considers that Scotland is being held back by the mismanagement of the UK economy as evidenced by the forthcoming publication of the OECD Economic Outlook, which, on 17 August 2009, will report that the UK has the worst underlying financial balance as a percentage of GDP of any member of the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development and that the UK’s current account balance will show a $56.3 billion deficit this year and a $56.2 billion deficit next year (-2.6% and -2.4% of GDP); believes that Scotland’s recovery would be faster and stronger as an independent nation and contrasts Scotland’s position as part of the UK with OECD figures for other nations, which show that Ireland will move from a deficit of $1.4 billion to a surplus of $2.1 billion (-0.6% to +0.9% of GDP), Iceland’s deficit equivalent will be $0.4 billion and $0.1 billion (-3% and -1.1% of GDP), Finland will have a surplus of $0.9 billion this year and a $1 billion surplus next year (+0.4% and +0.4% of GDP), while Norway will show a $70.3 billion surplus followed by a $84.9 billion surplus (+18.2% and +20.6% of GDP), and further considers that Scotland has got what it takes to get through this recession and would be better off with the same freedom and flexibility as these independent nations in this arc of recovery.

Excellent motion, I thought, couldn't have written it better myself. The OECD's Economic Outlook is published twice a year and it's full of lovely information, you can use the tools on the stats site to compare countries. That current account balance is interesting - the UK suffering a $56 billion deficit while other countries have cut their deficits - Iceland, so maligned by UK Government Ministers, trimming its deficit to just $0.1bn or 1.1% of its GDP while Ireland (another nation unfairly maligned by the UK Government) will move into surplus and Finland and Norway are already in surplus. In fact, the difference between the UK and Norway next year will be $141 bn - Norway will be stretching even further ahead.

There are other bits to the Economic Outlook report which should give people plenty to think about, things like this from the UK section of the report:
Public finances are set to deteriorate much more, mainly due to automatic stabilisers and the contraction of the revenue-rich finance and housing sectors.

Or the stark warning that
Quantitative easing is on track but its effectiveness is uncertain

Or this bit:
Continued financial sector weakness, further declines in house prices, a weak global economy and sluggish income growth are projected to depress output through 2009, as in most OECD countries. Improving exports combined with an easing in financial conditions should, with support from already implemented policy measures, underpin a recovery during 2010. However, the pickup will be sluggish, as the adjustment of households and firms balance sheets and expected reductions in the size of the financial and housing sectors will take considerable time. Unemployment will therefore rise substantially. The lower exchange rate is likely to hold up prices in the short term, but the huge slack in the economy means that headline CPI inflation will decline through 2009 and remain low in 2010.

There's this bit from the general section:
Measures to support the financial sector, including risk-sharing with the private sector against further price declines of troubled assets as well as central bank purchases of private sector securities and longer-term lending, have increased both the contingent liabilities and credit risk that governments face. In addition, further bank losses may well require substantial further capital injections by governments. As a rough guide, estimated bank losses this year and next may imply further capital injections by governments of around 1 to 3%, 2 to 5% and 3 to 9% of GDP in the United States, the euro area and the United Kingdom respectively

That a bit frightening, is it not? Then you can add the net export figures:

Finland $5.2 bn this year and the same next
Iceland $972 million this year and $1.1 bn next year
Ireland $37.6 bn this year, $43 bn next year
Norway $62.3 bn this year, $73 bn next year
UK -$55.9 bn this year and -$54.3 bn next year.

While these other countries show net exports, the UK is showing net imports. Who's got the healthier economy?

Labour doesn't see it that way, there's an amendment to Linda Fabiani's motion from James Kelly - the sage of Rutherglen:

S3M-04689.1 James Kelly (Glasgow Rutherglen) (Lab): : As an amendment to motion S3M-04689 in the name of Linda Fabiani (The Arc of Recovery), leave out from "is being" to end and insert "has benefited from action taken by the UK Government to avoid the worst effects of the global economic downturn through a fiscal stimulus package including an increase in tax allowances equivalent to £145 less tax over this year, a 2.5% cut in VAT equivalent to a 1% cut in interest rates, accelerated increases in child benefit to £20 per week and child tax credits by 25% above inflation, a one-off payment to support pensioners during the downturn in addition to the annual Winter Fuel Allowance and an increase in Pensions Credits to £130 per week for single pensioners, UK-wide action to avoid home and business repossessions as well as action to avoid the potentially catastrophic consequences of a banking collapse including avoiding potential liquidation of the Royal Bank of Scotland, HBOS and the Dunfermline Building Society; notes that, while the global economic downturn has been painful in Scotland and the UK as a whole, the effects have been considerably less severe than the experiences in Iceland and the Republic of Ireland, two of the three "arc of prosperity" counties cited as appropriate economic comparators for an independent Scotland in the SNP’s Manifesto 2007, in which the global economic downturn has resulted in not just economic recession but official depression, defined as economic contraction of at least 10%; further notes in this regard that that OECD 2009 Economic Outlook cites the collapse of Iceland’s three main banks, the required bail-out by the International Monetary Fund followed by official interest rates of 18%, as well as, what it terms "substantial spending cuts and increases in taxation" in the Republic of Ireland, which has been forced to commission a public cuts study by "An Bord Snip Nua" proposing €5.3 billion of cuts including 17,300 public service job cuts, a 5% drop in social welfare and closure of police stations among other examples, and believes that, although the so-called "arc of prosperity" was always a deeply-flawed, simplistic and contradictory economic prescription for Scotland, having cited the Republic of Ireland and Iceland as appropriate models prior to the downturn, the SNP cannot now credibly claim that a separate Scotland would have escaped a similar economic fate as those countries that have been hit far worse than Scotland within the United Kingdom and that the SNP’s
selective memory of the global downturn serves to underline not just its economic ineptitude but also its insincerity with the people of Scotland."

Looks like he just doesn't get it. The countries of the Arc of Prosperity have taken the right steps to get on the road to recovery, the UK hasn't. The behaviour of the UK Government has meant that future generations are now saddled with debt. Instead of putting us on a road to recovery, we've just got a bigger burden.

Monday, 17 August 2009

Let loose the fog of thought

You can hope for politicians to have clarity of thought but it sometimes seems that it's awfy hard for some of them. Labour's Richard Baker has joined the Conservatives' Paul McBride in calling for Parliament to be recalled to allow his rapier-sharp mind to be used to interrogate the Justice Secretary on the Megrahi case (I wonder how much that would cost). I had thought that someone sensible in Labour had realised how daft Baker's comments on it were becoming and had told him to stay quiet, it seems we are not so lucky as a nation.

Let's see what Ricky's saying: He says the affair has been mishandled but doesn't say how; he says we need answers but he doesn't say what we need answers to; he says there are serious questions to be answered but he doesn't say what the questions are. In short, he's dipped his chubby mitt into the sweetie jar of standard 'shocked and stunned' quotes and sprinkled them liberally across a news release without thinking about the issue. Here's the top notch quote, though:
"Parliament needs to have the opportunity to ask questions about this because it doesn't serve the reputation of the Scottish justice system well, or the families of those who died, to have all this confusion over whether the decision has or has not been taken."
There you have it - Ricky can't understand any of the simple variations of the comments that the Scottish Government has been using since this story was first spun, namely that no decision has been taken and that the Justice Secretary is considering the issue. Because Ricky is struggling with this simple concept he thinks that the rest of the world is looking askance at Scotland and that, therefore, Parliament should be recalled to discuss the case. I just praise be that our Justice Secretary is Kenny MacAskill rather than Richard Baker.

There's a decent wee article about the case on the BBC website written by Alister Bonnington wherein he makes clear his feelings on the conspiracy theories in fairly stark terms like:
I have been observing the Lockerbie trial conspiracy groupies for many years.
Unlike most who provide "expert" comment on the case I attended a good part of the trial at Zeist in Holland - on the old fashioned basis that being possessed of the facts is a prerequisite for an opinion.

You can read some of the self-serving stuff on Robert Black's blog - he has the interesting habit of referring to himself in the third person.

Mind how you go!

Another policy from Labour

Labour announced a policy recently of going back to the old-fashioned rates system to finance local government. Another pop at a regressive tax rather than a system based on the ability to pay - Labour continues to walk away from what it once stood for.

Now there's another Labour policy announced as Frank McAveety calls for newly unemployed footballers to be engaged by the Government to coach children. Here's a point or two:

There are more than 300 players in that category - that would be 300 additional coaches in Scotland (on the Government payroll, of course, which Labour appears to think can continue to grow even as Labour policies bite into Scottish budgets) - that would be on top of the coaching opportunities funded by CashBack (1,700 volunteers and other lovely stuff).

How many of these players have their coaching qualifications? Just having been a player doesn't mean they can coach.

What about disclosure checks? They'd all need a disclosure before working with children.

Won't these players be hoping to get back into playing football?

Another policy without thought from Labour.

Mind how you go.

Saturday, 15 August 2009

Looking at Megrahi

I have the good fortune to know Kenny MacAskill and to count him as a friend; I am one of many in that position. I have not asked Kenny about the Megrahi case and he has not told me anything, I am no more informed than anyone else about it and perhaps less informed than some. What I can be sure of is that Kenny MacAskill will take the decision on how to dispose of the case before him based on the evidence he has about it and will do so by the book with neither fear nor favour.

I don't intend to try to judge the guilt or innocence of Abdelbaset Ali al-Megrahi, that's not within my grasp, nor do I intend to balance whether his case was proven or not proven - that's a matter for the court to decide based upon the evidence presented to it and the performance of the players who perform before the court. Courts don't, after all, get to the truth of the matter nor is justice dispassionate - human beings are involved. I'll wait, too, to hear what Kenny MacAskill has decided rather than seek to second-guess him.

A couple of things have grabbed my attention over the past few days of intense and fruitless speculation about this case, though, and I'd quite like to get them off my chest:

The speculation that the Scottish Government put pressure on Megrahi to abandon his appeal so he could go home: Firstly, if he's being sent home on compassionate grounds it doesn't matter whether there are outstanding legal proceedings. Secondly, Ministers would also have to persuade the Crown to drop its appeal against the leniency of his sentence in order to clear the decks. Thirdly, that course of action would require that his solicitors would be involved - they, after all, have a duty to protect their client's best interests and would have a personal financial interest in seeing the proceedings continue. In order for this tale to be correct there would have to be an awful lot of people not seeing what was in front of them - civil servants, Mr Megrahi's legal team and their staff, Libyan diplomats, Mr Megrahi himself, and, doubtless, his family. That, quite frankly, is taking the suspension of disbelief to ridiculous lengths.

There appears to be some whispers around the edges of this tale that this course of action is being taken to prevent embarrassment to the UK Government. I may be speaking out of left-field here, but I'm fairly sure that protecting the UK Government doesn't feature in the considerations of Kenny MacAskill in the usual course of events - and I'm not even persuaded when the obverse is argued by someone whose judgement I usually trust.

So the claim is that the Scottish Government in 2009 would put pressure on Abdelbaset Ali al-Megrahi to do something it doesn't need him to do, encouraging bizarre speculation and talk of "murky back-channels" by conspiracy theorists hoping for some limelight in order to protect the UK Government of 2001. Simply not credible, is it? Those who think they might have seen some evidence passing in the night should really bring that evidence out rather than just claiming to have seen it. They might otherwise be suspected of being more interested in getting their name mentioned in the media than in pursuing justice.

I have a strong suspicion that Mr Megrahi wants to abandon his appeal because his health is worsening, he wants to see his family before he dies, his government has made an application for prisoner transfer which can't go through while legal proceedings are in train, and his legal team think that this is in his best interests. I think that because his legal team put his worsening health in the public domain, it's fairly common public knowledge about the prisoner transfer request, there's a possibility that a dying man will want to see his family, and I trust most Scottish solicitors will work in their client's best interests - and they'll do so whichever side they're on.

Something disturbing also happened during these past few days, though, and it came from the USA. There's been a horror shouted across the Atlantic at the possibility that Mr Megrahi's case was being considered. There were those asking how it could be compassionate to release him, some were saying even considering it was "vile". It is, perhaps, possible to understand the relatives of victims feeling that he should not be released, but they were joined by the Obama administration, with Hillary Clinton getting on the phone to Kenny MacAskill to press for Megrahi to stay in jail. Prison has three purposes - punishment through deprivation of liberty; rehabilitation to serve society better in the future; and prophylaxis to protect society. Holding a dying prisoner inside during his final weeks cannot satisfy the prophylactic element unless the contention is that the dying man (or woman) intends to go out in a blaze of glory, there seems little point to rehabilitation of a dying person, and so we're left with punishment. The liberty of a dying person is about to be curtailed permanently - just what is the punishment element of keeping them in prison? Our American friends appear to have confused justice with vengeance, compassion is not a sign of weakness, it's a sign of strength, a sign that the system knows how to forgive as well as how to punish. Its use where appropriate shows a maturity and confidence in a justice system which indicates that it serves well in general; judging when its use is appropriate is the difficult task and should be a considered judgement, not a snap judgement. Our justice system should have no place for vengeance, no tit-for-tat, no frenzy of judgement by mob rule (or by what politicians might think the mob wants), it's there to protect and improve society.

Then there's the reaction of some politicians and political advisers. There's Paul McBride, former Labour member, now Conservative adviser, these days being touted as a "top QC", who suggested that Parliament should have been recalled to debate Mr Megrahi's position. If that suggestion had come from Richard Baker I would have understood that it came from a wee lad wanting to be a politician who spoke without knowledge on a subject without finding out anything about it, but this guy is a QC who should know the difference between a parliamentary debate and an issue which falls to be decided by a Minister in a quasi-judicial role. This isn't an issue for political knock-about, it's an issue which Kenny MacAskill has to consider in a fair and impartial manner - or it will, quite rightly, end up in a judicial review.

Likewise, the pomposity of opposition MSPs seeking some media coverage is appalling. The Lib Dems' Robert Brown, for example, also a solicitor, objected to the Justice Secretary meeting Megrahi on the grounds that Kenny MacAskill has to make the decision. Surely anyone having to make that decision should be encouraged to meet all of the interested parties, as he has done, from the families of the victims through representatives of the US and Libyan Governments to the legal teams. He'll be considering medical evidence and the status of Mr Megrahi and he'll be making a decision based on the evidence in front of him.

Some people appear to be hanging onto this case with calls to keep everything going until we know everything about the case, that we can't leave this as the biggest mystery in Scottish legal history. It's no bigger a mystery than the disappearance of, for example, Renee MacRae and her son or the Bible John case or, indeed, the World's End case. The consequences may be larger but the mystery isn't.

This isn't about finding truth - justice isn't - it's about one man having to take a serious decision about the final weeks of another man's life. I think Kenny MacAskill has carried himself throughout this with some dignity and reserve and has refused to allow himself to be dragged into the storm around it. I think that's the right way for the Justice Secretary to be and I applaud him for it. I may have some degree of bias in my judgement here, but he appears to be remaining focused on doing the job properly when other politicians seem intent on cheap headlines.

I'm confident he'll do his job properly and well, and I'd rather have him in post than any of those flinging in their ha'penny worth.

Friday, 14 August 2009

It's a trama and a farce

Trams, eh? £268 million over budget (well, they won't let out with the figure, so my speculation is as good as any), two years behind schedule one month, six weeks ahead the next month, no outstanding disputes then 400 of them, buses in chaos and making a loss but they're supposed to subsidise the trams (which might, in any case, be illegal under section 80 of the Transport Act 1985), and Jenny Dawe thinks it's appropriate to say that it's fine to have people going out of business on Leith Walk because the recession would have done for them anyway; an ill-considered remark at very best. On top of that, David McLetchie on the same radio programme said he voted for the tram project to continue to make sure that the SNP Government didn't spend the money on something else (like something that would work, perhaps), but Sarah Boyack wasn't letting them get away without a Labour comment, she called it a world-scale and serious project. What does she mean by 'world-scale'? That is simply meaningless, but the project is serious, it's a serious mistake.

I wonder when those people who rammed this vanity project through Parliament and through the council will admit that it is a mistake and call a halt to the whole thing. Will it be after the construction cash has run out and there is not another penny to be squeezed out of Government? Will it be after the measures we've been warned about take effect? Lots of us have been pointing out that the money to build the thing just isn't there, but to find that the intention now is to build a fraction of the one line that was intended, that TIE wants to borrow against future profits (good luck finding a lender for that) and rent the tram vehicles instead of buying them. Most worrying of all, though, is that there is a proposal to cut other council spending to pay for the tram. Where will they cut that? Will the money for equalising pay be cut? Will the education budget be cut? Social work? Cleansing? The Festivals?

This project is years late, there are 400 points of dispute between the client and the contractor, diverting the utilities has turned out so far to be 170% of the job expected - and it's not finished, Shandwick Place works have now fallen behind to add to the problems at Haymarket and at Picardy Place. The utility diversion wasn't completed in time to allow the German contractor to start work on laying the track but TIE thinks the adjudication will go against the contractor - delusional behaviour. The Tram project director for TIE was warning that the target date has already slipped into 2013 while his chairman was saying no-one was contemplating that. If they can't even agree between them what they've already agreed in private, what hope is there that they will deliver anything?

On top of that, the dodgy business case is falling apart. The projected losses from the first year of operation have doubled - this on a business case that relies on passengers who don't exist yet but will magically appear to use the tram and on people who will be moving into the houses that haven't been built at Granton. It also relies on tram getting one quarter of its operating revenue from concessionary fares. In order to get that they will have to persuade the Government that rail services (which trams are) should be added to the scheme for concessionary fares for buses - who's paying for that?

Ill-considered and ill-starred, it's time to end this scheme now - it can be scrapped and we can save what's possible to save. It's clear that the money isn't there to build this fraction of a line and that the revenue stream does not and will not exist. Those who forced it on us should step away and let the scheme be dismantled, then I hope we can have apologies from politicians who think it's fine to watch people's shops (businesses and livelihoods) close and from politicians who thought it a great jape to force £500 million of public money into large holes across Edinburgh instead of letting it be spent properly. Then, perhaps, we can have a look at what's been going on inside TIE and how it could collapse from the healthy report it got in 2007 to the mess it's in now.

Above all, scrap the thing now and let us get our city back.

Thursday, 13 August 2009

Same Sex Marriage

I'm in favour of same-sex marriage. It occurs to me that the fair society that I want Scotland to be isn't possible while I have a right that someone else with a different sexual orientation doesn't have.

I've heard it argued that same-sex couples have the option of a civil partnership and therefore don't need to be able to marry. I disagree. I'm not right up to speed on the differences between marriage and civil partnership, but I see one fairly major difference quite easily - they've got different names. If I drift this argument off a bit to something the beachcomber said a while back; after the laws banning inter-racial marriage in South Africa were abolished in 1990 there was no different name for inter-racial marriages because that would have meant that the apartheid was continuing in some degree. Failing to call the two unions by the same name would have left them as different entities - and the same applies to same-sex relationships.

I've also heard the contention that permitting same-sex marriage would devalue marriage. Perhaps there's something I haven't perceived but I cannot for the life of me see how my relationship is affected by another couple having the right to celebrate their relationship in a manner which society accepts as normal, and I can't see how anyone's marriage is affected by the marriage of another couple. If there are people whose dignity and self-respect in their relationship depend upon others not having the right to celebrate the same ceremony as they have then I would venture to suggest that there are, perhaps, some self-reference issues to be addressed. What my neighbours decide is appropriate for their relationship does not affect my relationship - I may not share their tastes, but that doesn't impinge upon my ability to enjoy my life.

That brings me to the oft-repeated argument that the purpose of marriage is procreation and that same-sex couples cannot procreate. I can't agree. Surely the purpose of marriage is to allow two people to make a public declaration about their relationship? Surely the related purposes in the legal field allow rights for spouses? Children are often born to married couples, it is true, but it wasn't the marriage that created the children it was, for want of a better terminology, sex - and that didn't need marriage to make it happen, as evidenced by the number of children born to unmarried parents. Nor does it necessarily follow that a marriage will result in children being born, couples may decide not to have children and there are couples who cannot conceive. Neither of these groups is denied the right to marry, offering evidence that the purpose of marriage might not be procreation.

Permitting same-sex marriage won't affect me directly but it will make my country a fairer and more equal place. There will, of course, be opposition to any moves to allow this equality, but there will also be support. I would expect to hear biblical quotations condemning homosexuality, particularly Romans chapter 1 although I doubt whether anyone would continue into chapter 2:
1Therefore thou art inexcusable, O man, whosoever thou art that judgest: for wherein thou judgest another, thou condemnest thyself; for thou that judgest doest the same things.
2But we are sure that the judgment of God is according to truth against them which commit such things.
3And thinkest thou this, O man, that judgest them which do such things, and doest the same, that thou shalt escape the judgment of God?

I also, however, remember that the Quakers - The Religious Society of Friends - have been celebrating same-sex relationships as marriages for some time and recently agreed to redraft "Quaker faith and practice" and to press for a change in the law to allow same-sex marriage. I also recall that the Unitarian and Free Christian Churches will bless same-sex unions and led the calls to allow religious celebrants to perform civil partnerships, so there may well be support from religious quarters for this equalisation of rights.

I believe in a Scotland free from prejudice and fear, a Scotland that ranks each and every one of its people equally and so I believe that it is not right that I should have a right that is denied to others who walk the same streets as me just because I am heterosexual and she or he is not.

TV and football

Yesterday I mentioned that I thought that there was too much football on TV. Last night's game for instance ....

Wednesday, 12 August 2009

I've been asked

I've been asked, so;

1. I think Mary Queen of Scots bones should stay where they are. I seem to recall that it was her son who chose her burial place, and he certainly had the opportunity to move her if he wished. If her son wanted her buried where she is who has the right to move her remains?

2. I hold no candle for Mary's descendant, the current queen, nor am I particularly exercised by her position continuing. I tend towards being a republican but, since the royal prerogative is exercised by Ministers and the monarch doesn't have any real power, it could be argued we live in a de facto republic in any case.

3. Cricket - I once watched a test match with my grandfather and tend to agree with the suggestion that the English, being an essentially non-religious people, invented cricket to give themselves a sense of eternity (that should get me a thick ear from my mother), but I have no objection to it being on television - you can always switch over. Some of my colleagues have a different opinion - they like cricket! There's a Westminster candidate over in the west of the country who likes nothing better than to settle down and watch England play (he supports England at cricket, I don't know why), there's an SNP Parliamentary researcher who has an appearance on Youtube as a supporter at a cricket match (not supporting England), and there's an SNP councillor in Edinburgh who has been known to cheer on a cricket team playing for the Ashes (you'll never guess which team). I can't see what they get out of it, but there you go. I do like watching football from time to time, though, and I think there's too much of that broadcast on TV and on radio, we should have more elephant polo I say!

Mind how you go!

Monday, 10 August 2009

Quantitative Easing - the old-fashioned way

In May 1275, Marco Polo arrived in Shang-tu and met the Kublai Khan and then went with him to Beijing - the new capital which the Great Khan had built for his Mongol empire, an empire begun by his grandfather Temujin - Genghis Khan.

Among the wonders seen by Polo were asbestos cloth (used as a tablecloth - thank you Stephen Fry and the team on QI), the Summer Palace (the Xanadu immortalised by Coleridge), the postal service, and paper money. Polo was so impressed he became a tax inspector (I know, but I'm winging it here). Salt production was enormous, iron production was five centuries ahead of Europe (Polo didn't know that at the time), canals made for an excellent transport system, and the empire was a single market of enormous size. Paper money and credit facilities were highly developed, and citizens could buy paperback books, fine porcelain and fine silks with the paper money.

The Khan printed more and more money - vast sums - the beginning of the end of the Mongol Empire lay with Kublai Khan, and paper money was to be devalued and vanish from China by 1455 - 161 years after Kublai Khan's death.

The first European paper money was issued by a Swedish bank in 1661 - it ended up needing a Government bail-out. See this printing too much money? Never been a good idea. There have been devaluation crises like the Kipper- und Wipperzeit where the coins were debased (just like quantitative easing, really), the sub-prime lending of Peruzzi and Bardi in the 14th century, Overend, Gurney and Co. taking down a whole load of banks in 1866, the City of Glasgow Bank in 1878 overstretched itself, the 1873 US banking crisis (which might have been caused in Europe), the US had a wee fleg in 1907 as well, the Wall Street crash, BCCI and Barings caused by speculative investment.

Building societies were the very epitome of upright probity, the model that banks should have been following. America's Savings and Loans were just like them until financial deregulation in the US in the 1970s and 1980s led them into the nod-nod, wink-wink, camel-hair coat deals that led to the collapse beginning in the mid 1980s ($132 bn bailout that time). Learning the lessons of this, of course, the UK Government pressed ahead with deregulation of the financial markets.

Even Kublai Khan wasn't that extravagant!

Mind how you go!

Not my problem says Tram boss

My regular email from Leith Business Association left me dumfoonert. LBA, as always, is agitating in the interests of its members and invited Richard Jeffrey, Chief Executive of TIE, to walk the Walk and see the problems being caused by the chaos of the Tram. He washed his hands, saying it wasn't his problem:
When it was pointed out to Mr Jefrrey that the local businesses and residents were being forced to bear the brunt of this impact, for something that was, 'not their problem', Mr Jeffrey responded, "It's not my problem either."

So TIE causes the problem through its contractors but accepts no responsibility for solving it. Holes are dug all over the place but no work goes on in them and the communities alongside the current route are expected to suffer it and look forward to at least another two years.

This project is a disaster, the business case was fantasy when the economy was strong and is doubly so now, the route is the wrong route, the funding is not in place, the works are behind schedule and over budget, the thing still isn't fully designed, the intended revenue stream includes a subsidy from the Scottish Government which has never been promised, it's sent Lothian Buses into the red, and there's no indication that the expected passenger footfall will materialise. Stop it now and let's see if we can save some businesses, thereby saving some jobs, let's see if we can get the city moving again, and let's not start out on any more ill-thought-out half-baked hare-brained vanity schemes.

Edinburgh's transport needs sorted out and it needs proper consideration to make sure we get it right. There are miles of unused and underused rail track in the city and miles more track bed, there are stations still extant which haven't been used in years - and they would serve much more of Edinburgh than the current idea of ramming a bit of street rail down some of our busiest streets. How have they got it so wrong?

Friday, 7 August 2009

Every silver lining has a cloud

Wendy Alexander, who was once the next First Minister, has taken her famed intellect out for another turn around the block. The Paisley Daily Express has reported that Paisley got £1.8 million of town centre regeneration money. The council leader (Derek Mackay) was delighted with the money - but you might have expected that from an SNP councillor. His welcome was echoed, though, by the depute leader of the Labour group on the council, Jackie Green, who said
“We very much supported the application for the money, and we are really pleased we’ve got it.”

Everyone together and working hand in hand to improve Paisley then? Nearly. In comes the Wendibles:
“I am sorry to see Paisley lose out to the likes of Alloa, Ayr, Kirkcaldy, Dumfries, Edinburgh, North Lanarkshire and Glasgow – all of whom got more than Paisley.
“How can the SNP justify Paisley’s need being less than Alloa, Ayr or Edinburgh?
“This half-hearted commitment to the town only convinces me to redouble my efforts for Paisley to receive the full amount bid for in the next bidding round.
“Paisley’s need is greater than many others who have benefited today and I will continue to work tirelessly to make that case.”

What a gymnast, what a scorching wit, what a fine, soaring examination of evidence from Labour's leading light who, when she was Communities Minister, made sure that town centre regeneration schemes got ... oh, hang on ...

We know that Wendy Alexander demonstrated a commitment to Renfrewshire Renaissance - but we didn't know that she resented other areas of the country getting their fair share. If she thought she was stealing a curmudgeon's march on her Labour colleagues, though, she was in for a surprise when Hugh Henry, Labour's answer to Droopy Dog, got stuck right in as well, welcoming the money for Paisley (did they not compare notes first?) but
“I am shocked that Johnstone is being sold down the river with a paltry sum of money.”

Not to be outdone, her favourite brother, Douglas, came right across her bows with
“I welcome this vital investment in Paisley Town Centre, although I would have wanted a higher award for Johnstone Town Centre when compared with awards to other Scottish towns.
“As I said in Wednesday’s Paisley Daily Express, I have been campaigning for many months for the town centre cash. The challenge will now be to spend this cash effectively to the benefit of the Renfrewshire Community.”

Strange how impotent UK Ministers are, I thought, but there you go. How is it, though, that it's Labour's councillors who are showing leadership in that party just now while their parliamentarians are proving themselves to be petty? Here we have Councillor Green looking for the opportunity for the area he serves rather than party political advantage while the parliamentarians just whinge. Councillor Pat Watters has been leading COSLA with grace and some distinction, getting the best possible deal for local government by working with the Scottish Government while Labour's MSPs have sought only some petty points.

There's a lesson that Labour needs to learn - they need to offer some positivity, welcome things which are good, praise things done well and offer an alternative, positive vision for Scotland. We've not seen any Labour policy being developed since Jack McConnell left office and we've heard little from them about what they'd like to see done differently. labour appear to be frightened to engage anyone in debate about what they believe in or any ideas they might have. Labour members are afraid to speak to the public, but it seems that they are also unable to take back control of their own party.

Leaving aside the incidents like Walter Wolfgang's eviction, it's clear that there is a fear in Labour and a bullying culture similar to that disclosed by Dennis Canavan recently still pervades Labour's structures. That is part of the reason that the life is being choked out of what was once a decent party - and all for the sake of a few political careers.

The democratic centralism and central control dominating Labour is clearly stifling debate - but it's what the leadership want and need. It is time for Labour to show that it is a forward-thinking party willing to debate ideas for the future. They are two years into opposition, soon they will have to start their own manifesto process for the next election. There’s a general election just months away and a referendum not long after that. Surely, If they are truly serious about what Labour now stands for and converting the open minded, then they should start debating Labour vision for Scotland's future. It isn't clear what Labour's vision for Scotland's future is, of course, other than the continuation of the UK, so let's start there. Does Labour believe that the Union is an end in itself or is it merely a means to an end?

I'm glad I'm perfect!