Archive for November, 2010

Snow 1 Scotland 0

Snow in Scotland at this time of year isn’t exactly a shock, is it? It happens pretty much every year. But why does bad weather always seem to bring the country to a halt?

It’s not as if we have the kind of winters that some countries further north do. Perhaps they are simply better prepared than us for snow, or are more used to it? I remember working with a Canadian woman a few years ago who just could not understand how a few centimetres of snow could bring an entire country to a halt.

Around 850 schools were closed yesterday, from the Shetland Isles to the Borders. Roads were closed in the North East and the Highlands. Cars were left abandoned as motorists gave up and walked. Air and train travel was disrupted. And for 3,000 homes in Tayside things got even worse when they lost power.

There was some help available though. A Scottish government spokesperson told us that, “Prisoners from Castle Huntly, Noranside, Shotts and Greenock Prisons are currently being used to clear snow.”

And the government also reminded local authorities that offenders on community service could also be used to help with winter emergency work. Is that what the Big Society means?

We were also told that a cargo of more than 26,000 tonnes of salt from Peru had arrived at the port of Leith. We now have to import salt? Don’t we have any of our own – you know, living on an island that’s surrounded by salt water?

My favourite headline of the day was: “Leak brings down Highland Council’s website”

I wondered exactly what gem of information had been released to cause such trouble. But it turns out it was a leaky pipe that caused a total failure of the Council’s web services. Many people looking for information on school closures or other local services were reportedly stuck, unable to access the information they needed. I’m sure a few did think to pick up the telephone and actually call them though.

And there is more bad news. It’s going to get worse. Forecasters have warned that the temperatures could fall as low as -18C.

How will we cope? Badly, I expect.

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Caroline Lucas became Britain’s first Green Party MP when she won the Brighton Pavilion seat at the general election. And after just six months at Westminster she has produced a damning report on how the House of Commons operates.

“The Case for Parliamentary Reform”, which has been sent to the Speaker and to all major party leaders, makes interesting reading. It calls for improvements to be made that would both modernise procedures and save money. While most of the recommendations are not new, it is interesting to see how a recently elected MP finds the centuries old procedures of parliament.

Lucas calls for the introduction of electronic voting, as happens in many modern bodies, including the Scottish Parliament. It does seem absurd that MPs have to walk through a lobby to cast their vote, which can take a considerable time with over 600 members lined up to vote.

“In the last Parliament there were over 1,200 votes. Since it takes about 15 minutes per vote, that means an MP with an 85% voting record would have spent over 250 hours queuing to vote – a huge waste of time and money,” argues Lucas.

The Green MP also wants parliamentary language to be brought into the 21st century. She states that this would demystify parliamentary processes, and therefore increase transparency and accountability. Why can’t MPs refer to each other by name, rather than “the Honourable member for…”? Why not use votes rather than divisions, for example?

Lucas also wants a list of those who will contribute to be published before a debate, ending the traditional practice of MPs jumping up and down in an effort to “catch the Speaker’s eye”.

And she is also calling for an end to late-night sittings to help MPs with families. It does seem absurd that the Commons sits from lunch time until late at night – a practice that dates from the days when MPs were not paid and had to make their living of a morning.

Caroline Lucas makes a strong case for reform of the “Old Boys Club” at Westminster. Lucas said: “Since being elected to Parliament six months ago, I have been deeply shocked by the inefficiency of the outdated systems at Westminster,” something I’m sure many will agree with.

The measures she proposes are all eminently sensible and would help to make parliament more relevant to voters. Whether these changes will actually be made is another question.

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What Did the Refs Achieve?

Scotland’s top referees refused to officiate at any of yesterday’s games.

On the day when it became clear that Head of Refereeing Development Hugh Dallas had been sacked by the SFA, despite misleading talk of family issues, four Premier League games went ahead with foreign referees. The lower league cards were wiped out, but given the winter weather there is a fair chance that few, if any, games would have been played in any case.

At Celtic Park, I watched Luxemburg’s top official, Alain Hamer, take charge of the game with Inverness after being applauded onto the park, something that I’m sure he had not experienced too many times before.

Perhaps the ultimate compliment that can be paid a referee is to say that he wasn’t noticed, and anonymous is exactly how I would describe Hamer’s performance. Unlike many Scottish refs, he had no desire to make himself the centre of attention. He controlled the game with authority, but without issuing needless yellow cards. And there was not even a hint of a controversial decision to talk about.

Perhaps the Scottish referees, who presumably spent their Saturday catching up on the DIY or out Christmas shopping, should watch his performance and learn from it.

But what did they actually achieve by withdrawing their services for the day?

Put very simply, the missing refs were not missed. They certainly received a great deal of publicity, but no one seemed to be quite clear what the point was. Death threats were mentioned, but no proof has ever been supplied to back this up, or indeed even asked for by a compliant media.

And there was no set of demands, no negotiating position as would normally be expected in a trade dispute. Just some vague talk of wanting to be respected.

Referees do get a hard time when they get it wrong. But that’s part and parcel of being involved in sport. Players get criticism if their performance is below scratch and every decision managers make is analysed and debated routinely. Why should referees escape scrutiny?

Everyone involved in Scottish football hopes that things will get back to normal on the pitch, but there is still a great deal to happen in an administrative sense.

Talk of referees’ reports being returned to them for amendment won’t go away. If true, the shock wave that hits the game will make everything that has come before look like a minor disturbance.

There is still a need to reform the whole refereeing and disciplinary system, a murky business at present which sees a committee of former refs wielding a great deal of power in private. SFA Chief Executive Stuart Regan will look to introduce principles of openness, transparency and accountability, but he will face opposition.

And the future of Dougie McDonald is still an issue, despite the Referees’ Committee’s decision not to dismiss him.  McDonald has admitted to lying to both his supervisor and to Celtic manager Neil Lennon about his change of decision at Tannadice – offences that would surely have led to the sack after any objective investigation.

But McDonald remains as a category one referee – and in theory he could be appointed to take charge of a Celtic or Rangers game in the future. Look out for the explosion if that ever happens.

Back on the field of play, there are no games today because of the weather. Come next weekend it will be very interesting to see what kind of reception Scotland’s referees get when they return to the heart of the action.

I have a feeling that it won’t be a warm one.

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Making The Punishment Fit The Crime

When someone is found guilty of a crime we usually expect the judge to come up with a spell in prison or a fine as suitable punishment, or perhaps a term of community service for the less serious offences.

But sometimes judges use a bit of imagination and come up with novel sentences to ensure that the punishment really does fit the crime.

A report by the centre-right think tank Policy Exchange listed some of these, such as working in charity shops, working with animals on farms or serving lunch at old people’s clubs. But there have been better.

Take the recent case of the student who racked up thousands of pounds in unpaid restaurant bills in a series of eat-and-run thefts at some very expensive eateries. Janis Nords was given a banning order preventing him from entering six of London’s most expensive postcodes, with the judge telling him, “They are the places that have all the expensive restaurants.”

Then there was the group of teenagers from Hull who duped their neighbours into giving them “sponsorship” money for a non-existent charity run who were given a fitting punishment. Rather than prosecuting the 17 year olds, police forced them to complete the full 10-mile course of their made-up race.

But my favourite story is the case of Natalie Gentle, 28, from Plymouth. Ms Gentle caused considerable disturbance to her neighbours due to her noisy and frequent lovemaking. It was alleged that she had turned to prostitution to feed a drug habit.

A judge decided to tackle the problem by giving her Asbo preventing her from inviting any men to her home in the evenings, except her brothers and the emergency services. She was also banned from pole dancing, lap dancing and being drunk in public.

Yes, that really is a case of thinking outside the box.

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Mr Regan’s Busy Day

It’s never dull in the world of Scottish football, is it?

We’ve had a referee lying about a changed decision, a whistleblowing linesman (if that’s not an oxymoron) telling of a cover up and the Referees’ Supervisor, Hugh Dallas, and other SFA staff allegedly forwarding an e-mail with sectarian content from work accounts.

And then Scotland’s top referees decided not to officiate at this weekend’s games. As they are self-employed contractors this is not technically a strike, which would have required a ballot and proper notice. Instead they simply informed the Scottish Football Association that they would be unavailable this weekend.

What isn’t clear is exactly what the referees actually hoped to achieve.

Did they expect the footballing authorities to beg them to reconsider? Did they think that all of Scotland’s football clubs would agree never to criticise a referee again? Or did they simply hope that by forcing games to be cancelled they could somehow make some sort of point?

Enter Stuart Regan, the recently appointed Chief Executive of the SFA. He tried to negotiate with the refs but they insisted that the walkout would go ahead regardless.

So all the SPL games are off this weekend, right?

Wrong. Because Mr Regan has been busy contacting other footballing associations across Europe and has lined up replacement officials from abroad to ensure that the fixtures can go ahead, although unfortunately many lower league games couldn’t be saved.

This will be a relief to fans of SPL clubs who have already made travel arrangements and to cash strapped clubs who depend on home games for a large proportion of their income. And it also allows televised matches to go ahead, removing the possibility of legal action by broadcasters.

Well done Mr Regan

And if his day wasn’t busy enough, our heroic CEO still had a disciplinary matter to attend to. Yes, the matter of the sectarian e-mail was to be addressed.

Full details of yesterday’s meeting have not reached the public domain as yet, but it is understood that Mr Dallas is “considering his position”, which is normally code for about to resign rather than be sacked.

Stuart Regan has taken over as CEO of an organisation that is not fit for purpose. But the committee structure within the organisation makes the key decisions, and that is part of the problem. He will have a very difficult job to steer through the reforms that are required to take the game forward.

But it is clear that Regan is up for the fight. And it is illuminating that it takes a man from outside the world of Scottish football to begin a process that his predecessors would never have considered.

I offer Stuart Regan all best wishes in his endeavours. He deserves the support of all football fans.

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John Swinney faced an uncomfortable session of an angry Scottish Parliament yesterday after it emerged that his actions had led to the Parliament losing its tax varying power.

The row erupted after it became known that Swinney had failed to pay annual fees of £55,000 to HM Revenue and Customs to maintain a list of all Scottish income tax payers, and had also refused to meet a new £7m demand from HMRC to pay for an upgraded IT system that would allow the tax to be implemented with 10 months’ notice.

Swinney, the Finance Secretary in Alex Salmond’s minority SNP government, made a statement on the matter to Parliament, seeking to damp down what has fast become a major political issue.

It now appears that the Parliament’s ability to vary the rate of income tax by up to 3% (the so called Tartan Tax) has not been available for over three years. And Swinney stood accused of hiding this fact from the parliament that he is supposedly accountable to.

Scottish Secretary Michael Moore has explained that any new administration elected next year would now not be able to use the power again until 2013/14.

Swinney has been specifically asked in Parliament several times whether he would raise tax through this specific power. He has always given the impression that he had considered the idea and rejected it, but at no time did he indicate that it would actually have been impossible for him to do so.

John Swinney claimed that HMRC is to blame for the situation and that the money was better spent on services than IT systems – but it simply was not his decision to make. He did admit that he may have made errors of judgement in not informing Parliament sooner, but for many MSPs this was simply too little too late.

Iain Gray, the Labour leader, called for Swinney to make a full apology or to consider his position. He described Swnney’s actions as, “a deliberate and systematic attempt over years” to cover up the situation and to mislead both the Parliament and the Scottish people.

Annabel Goldie for the Tories wondered what the SNP reaction would have been if Westminster had denied the Scottish Parliament the right to exercise its powers.

The matter was concluded with Swinney being condemned for his actions by 77 votes to 46 in a damning amendment signed by Labour, the Conservatives, the Liberal Democrats and the Greens, which called it “an abuse of power for the Scottish Government to abandon the Scottish variable rate of tax without the approval of the Parliament.” And opposition leaders also called for the Finance Committee to carry out a full investigation.

Whether the tax varying powers would actually have been used or not is a moot point. The Parliament was given the ability to do so because the people of Scotland voted for the power to be put in place. Back in the historic 1997 referendum that established the Scottish Parliament, the tax varying power was supported by 63.5% of Scottish voters.

The SNP government clearly feels that it can overrule the will of the Scottish people. But with an election just five months away, Alex Salmond and co may come to regret that decision.

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Another Facebook Casualty

I would guess that few people outside his own church would have even known who the Right Reverend Pete Broadbent was a week ago. But the Bishop of Willesden is in the headlines following his remarks on a certain engagement that was announced recently.

And he has now been “asked to withdraw from public ministry”, which is presumably church talk for suspended, by his boss, the Bishop of London, the Right Reverend Richard Chartres. I don’t quite understand how one Bishop can be in charge of another when they are the same rank, but that’s beside the point.

Broadbent used his Facebook page to share his opposition to the Windsor – Middleton wedding, stating that, “We need a party in Calais for all good republicans who can’t stand the nauseating tosh that surrounds this event.”

He also said that, “Marriages should be about family, not some piece of national flim-flam paid for out of our taxes, for a couple whose lives are going to be persecuted and spoilt by an ignorant media”.

The marriage is likely to last no more than seven years according to Broadbent, as the royal family is full of “broken marriages and philanderers” and he expressed disappointment that the wedding would cost the public “an arm and a leg”.

And Broadbent also attacked the “corrupt and sexist” hereditary principle that governs the royal family, although he omitted to add sectarian to his description.

Broadbent later apologised for the tone of his language and for any offence caused. Perhaps he should have been more careful over who he attacked: Willie Windsor’s gran is apparently the Supreme Governor of the Church of England.

It seems strange for a clergyman in a church that was set up by a King to be attacking the monarchy. But surely he was writing as a private citizen on his Facebook page, rather than a representative of his employer? And should he not have the same right to free speech as anyone else?

Much of what he had to say was factually correct. There clearly have been both broken marriages and philanderers amongst the royals, and you only need to pick up a newspaper to read the kind of “nauseating tosh” that Broadbent refers to.

Still, he should be grateful that there are some curbs on the powers of the monarch these days. In times past the Bishop would have found himself on a one way trip to the Tower of London.

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The Promise: Bruce Springsteen

‘The Promise’, a two CD collection of remastered Bruce Springsteen outtakes and unreleased work from 1978, was released last week.

The album is of tremendous importance to Springsteen fanatics everywhere, providing both a window into the past and an essential addition to his tremendous body of work. But for music fans more generally it is a fine collection boasting some very familiar work as well as many great new songs amongst its 22 tracks.

In 1975 Bruce Springsteen had the musical world at his feet after releasing his third album, Born To Run, to tremendous critical acclaim. But he then spent a frustrating three year period tied up with a legal battle that prevented him from recording.

He continued to write prolifically, and by the time he was finally able to take the E Street Band into the studio once more he had amassed over 70 new songs. Just ten of these made the final cut of 1978’s Darkness On The Edge of Town, a masterpiece that is very simply one of the greatest rock records ever made.

Some of the many unused tracks later turned up on subsequent Springsteen albums, in whole or in part, and several were given to other artists to record. Still more have emerged over the years, traded amongst fans as bootlegs. But some have remained hidden deep in the Springsteen vaults – until now.

Because The Night is perhaps best known as a Patti Smith song, but Springsteen actually wrote it and his own version is well worth listening to. Similarly, Fire has been recorded many times, with the Pointer Sisters achieving the greatest chart success, but it too is a Springsteen composition. The original version, which was written with Elvis in mind, is more rock that pop and features a great sax solo from Clarence Clemons.

Racing In The Streets is the only version of a track that was actually on the Darkness release to be included.  This take is slightly harder and more intense that the tender version that closes side one of the record.

Springsteen fans will find the lyrics in some of the other tracks familiar. Candy’s Boy is an early, and more poppy, version of Candy’s Room, which turned up two years later on The River double album. Spanish Eyes, a keyboard driven masterpiece, is one that got away, although sections of the lyrics were recycled for later use in I’m On Fire.

And the superb Come On (Let’s Go Tonight) marks the death of Elvis. Some of the lyrics form the core of Factory while others will later find themselves reworked into Bye Bye Johnny.

Several love songs are included here; their style and content deemed not appropriate for the stark and atmospheric Darkness On The Edge Of Town. Save My Love, The Brokenhearted and Someday (We’ll Be Together) are all fine songs that would clearly have merited inclusion on a different album.

The Promise itself is an epic track of betrayal, and this remastered version features the addition of strings to the bootleg version that is beloved of many hard care fans.

And there is even a hidden track. The Way is another bootleg favourite now made official. It is a dark and brooding love song that moves from desire to longing before verging into dangerous obsession.

‘The Promise’ is not simply a collection of leftover songs that failed to make the grade. Rather it is living proof of the immense songwriting talent of Bruce Springsteen. That the tracks he ultimately decided not to use are so polished and well rounded shows the musical strengths that have made him such a success over a career that spans forty years.

There is also a deluxe box set on offer that includes this double album, as well as a digitally remastered Darkness On The Edge of Town and three DVDs – two concert films and a documentary on the recording of the album.

One final thought: all of these tracks come from one recording session for one album. Just think what other yet to be discovered gems there could be hidden amongst the Springsteen archives.

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Jury System Under Threat

The jury system is under threat according to a leading legal figure – because of some jurors’ use of social networking sites.

Anyone who has been called for jury duty will know that jurors are warned not to discuss the case they sit on with anyone outside the jury room, and to use only facts they hear in evidence when it comes time to deliberate.

But there have been cases where these warnings have not been heeded. Earlier this year a judge in Manchester had to dismiss a jury and restart a trial after a juror posted details of the case on Facebook and asked friends, “Did he do it?”

There have been other occasions where jurors have apparently used on line materials to research issues they may not be familiar with, rather than relying on the testimony they hear. A friend of mine heard a fellow juror question expert testimony on the basis that she had read something different on Wikipedia.

And it is also possible for jurors to be influenced by on line campaigns for a defendant’s innocence.

The Lord Chief Justice, Lord Judge (yes, that’s his name), raised major concerns about the use of the internet by jurors, stating that, “If the jury system is to survive as the system for a fair trial, the misuse of the internet by jurors must stop.”

He also said that judges need to warn jurors in the strongest terms not to use the internet to research cases or to give details of cases to friends. And Lord Judge wants the notice in jury rooms to be amended to include a warning that any online research could amount to a contempt of court.

The right to trial by a jury of our peers is a fundamental one, and anything that threatens this right is a serious issue. So if jurors are taking into account information they have obtained from somewhere other than the courtroom, judges have to act.

If they don’t we will see defence lawyers seeking retrials if misuse of online information can be proven. This would be expensive and also cause distress to everyone involved in the case.

It was also reported that Lord Judge has warned that schools were failing to train children to “sit still and listen for prolonged periods”, an essential skill for jurors!

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The US Air Force has warned its troops that using Facebook or other social networking sites could mean they accidently reveal their location to the enemy. The US has about 95,000 troops in Afghanistan and 50,000 in Iraq.

At one time the cautionary phrase was that “loose lips sink ships”, but in today’s technological society dangers now extend beyond the danger of a conversation being overhead.

The warning, posted on an internal website and sent to commanders, concerns new GPS based technology that allows users of some sites to pinpoint their location on the map. It said that careless use could have “devastating operations security and privacy implications”.

Air Force officials have advised their staff that on most sites users can adjust privacy settings to enable or disable the geo-location features. I would hope that the warnings aren’t really necessary, but I suppose you can’t take too many chances.

Presumably American troops have also been advised not to accept friend requests from anyone they don’t know, and not to publish status updates like “going out on patrol now”.

Perhaps Osama bin Laden is poised in his cave with his Blackberry, scanning for location changes amongst large numbers of American troops.

Ironically, the USAF has its own Facebook page.

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