Sunday, 27 April 2008

A government built on sand

Easily the most cringe-worthy event of last week was the utterly disastrous appearance of SNP MSP Christina McKelvie on Newsnight Scotland on Wednesday night, in which she fell at the first hurdle in trying to defend the SNP government's Scottish Futures Non-Trust, the smoke and mirrors the SNP claims will replace PPP capital funding and provide Scotland with hundreds of new schools in the next few years.

Christina's frankly hilarious "performance" is neatly summed up by Atticus in the Sunday Times today:

"Car crash of the week was the toe-curling appearance by nationalist MSP Christina McKelvie on Newsnight Scotland on Wednesday.

"Never has a big, gallus lassie from Glasgow looked so hopelessly out of her depth as she blustered and flustered and parroted the same gibberish to every question that was put to her.

"Despite appearing to read from a crib sheet as she debated the SNP's Scottish Futures Trust, she nevertheless managed to claim PFI/PPP cost Scotland £500 billion a year. As this is 17 times the entire Scottish budget, and 1000 times the true figure, Atticus suspects she may have gone slightly awry."

The substantive point is not that an unknown SNP MSP looked hopeless on Newsnight. It is that, despite populist moves in its first year, the SNP government is built on sand, and nowhere is this most apparent than over capital projects funding.

The SNP consultation paper on the so-called Scottish Futures Trust was (to put it politely) "thin" on content. A few quotes :

Iain McMillan in The Scotsman, ‘New quango to run public-private projects’ : 21 December 2007:

"We welcome the apparent change of heart in funding model from the SNP, and the acceptance that the private sector will remain involved in developing infrastructure and providing services throughout the whole lifetime of projects.

"However, it remains to be seen whether the proposed non-profit distributing model, and creation of a new quango, will actually add value, let alone provide real incentives for delivering higher-quality services and better value for money."

STUC response to SFT consultation document:

"STUC is disappointed with the consultation document which lacks detail in a number of areas.

"It is not prudent to pursue the SFT as currently proposed.

"STUC is not convinced of the arguments for that a ‘super-sized’ private ‘not for profit’ company would be able to maintain a genuine public interest ethos.

"STUC does not see the centralisation of expertise in an SFT as an irrefutably good thing."

Douglas Fraser, The Herald: "The SNP's big picture remains a bit of a sketch' : 22 April 2008

"At its conference this weekend, the SNP was delighted to highlight one Labour-run council, East Renfrewshire, offering to pilot the plan, but neglected to say that Eastwood's financiers seem to think they can do better than St Andrew's House.

"The Institute of Public Finance Accountants could merely point out "significant gaps" and that "further, fundamental questions remain to be asked or addressed".

"Audit Scotland, the public sector watchdog, observed the SFT "faces competing challenges and constraints and these create a number of risks". The plan is "at a very early stage and there is much further work to be done", including the question of public accountability.

"Other parts of public Scotland are holding off new projects while uncertainty reigns over the administration's funding plans.

"So if there is one challenge for the SNP in its second year, it is to start getting the big items right. It does the politics well, but government is tougher than it looked from the outside, and the big picture requires attention to detail."

Hamish McDonnell, The Scotman, ‘Halfway plans for alternative to PFI satisfy no-one’ : 22 April 2008:

"Ministers could not have shown more embarrassment over a set of proposals if they tried.

"The problem for the Scottish Government in this case is that it has made such a blatant attempt at hiding these plans that it has actually started to generate interest in them.

"What the results of the consultation did show was how the SNP fudge has enraged almost everyone. But, more importantly, it has led to claims of delays in the school and hospital building programme started by the last Scottish Executive.

"Ministers are slowly starting to find out the difference between the superficial and the easy - the populist issues - and the deeper, detailed and complicated policies which make a long term difference - the weighty issues.

"Mr Salmond has done very well with style. He is having a little more trouble with substance. Some time soon, he will need to show he can master both."