Tuesday, 24 February 2015

Take Me to the Cooler; It's a Fair Cop

 Al Capone being arrested for tax evasion

It seems I may be in trouble with the Inland Revenue. I received a letter warning me that if I made a mistake like I did again I may be fined. Most of us live in fear of upsetting the taxman, and like a good citizen, I went into a cold sweat and let a wee bum squeaker fly  as I am programmed to do on occasions such as these. But I had activated the fear gland too quickly. As I read further I discovered it turns out that I am not a Gary Barlow-esque tax evader, I am a tax over payer. Yes. I did my sums a wee bit wrong (state education, y'see) and I over paid my income tax by around £500 last year. And they are most displeased. I'll say that again- I may be fined if I overpay again.

 Nice wee pic of Gary Barlow

Where to even start with this? My fairly measly overpayment not only got noticed, but warranted action to warn me. The HMRC are ON it. Don't believe what the papers say. We just thought that it was the DWP that were looking for every transgression, no matter how small and activating fear glands all over the place. But no- there is no case too small for these Hawkeyes. The place is teeming with Elliot Nesses

Yet I read in the papers that quite a lot of folk seem to get away with not paying their tax. Part of the problem, we are told,  is that the amount of people employed to tracking down benefit cheats is much more than those employed to tackle tax avoidance. This is due to the targets that Ian Duncan Smith has set the DWP on tackling those pernicious benefits scroungers who cost us A MASSIVE ECONOMY BUSTING £1.2 billion a year. The man has built his reputation on tackling the housing benefit hording residents of Benefits Street etc. After all, aren't they the scourge of our society sitting around in their beer stained tracksuit bottoms filling out applications to have their family DNA tested on Jeremy Kyle and posting it off with a stamp PAID FOR BY US? The tax avoiders have nicer clothes, don't have fights on daytime telly and seems to be an all round nicer bunch who wouldn't embarrass you at a nice polite family wedding.

But hang on a wee minute, it's possible we're forgetting the statistics of tax evasion versus benefit fraud the UK, so I'll remind you by looking at the 2013/4 numbers.  Just 0.7 per cent - or £1.2bn - of total benefit expenditure in 2013/14 was overpaid due to fraud. At the same time £1.5 billion is estimated to not have been paid out to people who are actually entitled to it. Now compare that with tax evasion. HMRC’s most recent estimate of the annual “tax gap” – the money lost to the state through people not paying as much as they should – was £34bn.

I'm not keen on writing about financial things, as like a good citizen who pays her tax, or in this case, overpays her tax, I don't like to upset our imperial masters by being too critical of their agents as they have the right to knock on my door at any point and make my life a bit rubbish if they wanted to.  So I ask you not to be too hard on the HMRC and their clearly hugely efficient  system of contacting those not declaring their tax properly. One can only assume that if they have the resources and time to contact those OVERPAYING their tax, then they have clearly already finished chasing all those tax cheats and have little else to do but move onto the heinous criminals who have paid too much.
Rest easy, citizens. I expect, given my letter from them that the 20/1015 figures on tax evasion will read somewhat differently than before. You wait and see.

(You may want to read an excellent article on DWP and HMRC facts and figures that Channel 4 news did on the subject HERE after their recent interview with Ian Duncan Smith )

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Monday, 16 February 2015

Bon According to Whom?

 Exhibit A for the prosecution

It's been nearly a week since the hearing of the Standards Committee of seven Aberdeen City Councillors who put a political statement in the council tax letters. It's taken me a week to close my jaw, hence the tardiness with the written reaction. I expected though that others would cover it but it seems to have gone largely un-remarked upon. Is it possible that people are just becoming immune to the willful cockamamie stunts of Willie Young, Barney Crockett and co, so we just shrug our shoulders and say "Oh what are they like?"

 Exhibit B for the prosecution

Let's recap. Six months before last year's referendum council tax letters went out with a statement claiming that Aberdeen would be stronger in a United Kingdom. The statement was signed by then council leader Barney Crockett (Labour)  but was agreed upon by six other councillors on the Urgent Business Committee – the current council leader Jenny Laing (independent), Willie Young (Labour), Neil Cooney (Labour), Ross Grant (Labour), Fraser Forsyth (independent) and Ross Thomson (Conservative). At the time the council’s senior legal officer Jane MacEachran said she had warned the letter could “cause problems”. Ms MacEachran said she was concerned the letter might be seen as trying to “affect support” for a political position and risked breaching the Local Government Act. She also claims that she warned “there was an additional risk that this may be referred to the Standards Commission”. The councillors went ahead and sent the letter anyway.

 Exhibit C for the prosecution 

After 86 complaints  from city residents (other correspondence from outraged democrats from the shire and beyond was discounted... as were angry tweets, fabulous cartoons showing the councillors up, barely restrained blogposts, folk kicking street furniture in apoplectic rage and furious letters to the press, and believe me, those were numerous). Like all the jiggerypokery of so called impartial public bodies interfering in the democratic process (hello UK Treasury, Bank of England and Scottish Office!) us tired and jaded democrats expected that this issue too would be consigned to the big yellow skip of justice dodging.

 Exhibit D for the prosecution 

So how delighted were we when we heard that lawyer Ms MacEachran (who has since tendered her resignation leaving the council after 26 years service "by mutual consent")
was indeed sentient in her warnings and that the seven councillors indeed would have to face a hearing by the Standards Commission? Us weary democrats wiped the encrusted dried salty residue of disappointed tears from our eyes and grabbed the popcorn to watch as our city's own less lovable version of Mayor Adam West and his cabal sat down to face judgement, which to most onlookers seemed to be a fairly cut and dried affair. 

Exhibit E for the prosecution

The defence of Willie Young and Barney Crockett seemed to be a kind of big-boy-did-it-and-ran-away affair, using the ol' "but I didnae ken and naebdy told me" chestnut that other rogues seem to find fashionable these days (hello HSBC! ). They claimed that their legal counsel didn't tell them they were doing anything wrong. The rest of the world did a "chinny-reckon" and looked at what actually occurred: 

  • According to the Local Government Act you cannae put political statements in council letters; 
  • But these councillors wanted to all the same; 
  • The lawyers said maybe you shouldnae;
  • They did it anyway; 
  • Folk went daft went they got their council tax letters

Exhibit F for the prosecution

However as we now know the hearing which bizarrely was set to last three days (they need to get my mum to run these things- she can make a solid and usually correct judgment on guilt in seconds!) was adjourned after just one when the second witness was unable to testify. This witness was the former Chief Executive, Valerie Watts, who is now working as chief executive of Health and Social Care Northern Ireland. At the last minute Ms Watts' office called to say she couldn't testify by video link as she was called away to an urgent meeting. And she would be available the day after. Or the day after that. As a result of this the hearing was adjourned and no decision made. I was in my studio in a basement encased in a metre's width of concrete but I swear I heard the collected scream of Aberdeen shouting "What the blue blazes!" or something I can't write as my mother in law sometimes reads my blog.

 Exhibit G for the prosecution

The hearing has been adjourned until later this year. Personally I read that as "the hearing has been adjourned until after May the 7th, the day of the General Election" because us browbeaten democrats are starting to see a pattern emerging:  Chilcott delayed until after the general election; child sex abuse in Westminster hearing delayed until after the general election; fracking contract details announced after the referendum; BP to announce redundancies after the No vote; air strikes against ISIS happening minutes after the referendum, oh we've found evidence on a peer of the realm/public servant being a pederast but he's died so well, that's that then.... etc etc ...I could go on but I'm, a weary democrat and I must go and run headlong at a rough cast wall to distract myself from the painful reality of life in the UK.

 Exhibit H for the prosecution

And no, don't get me started on the Marischal Square Project. That's for another time. there's only so much weary democrats can take in one sitting.

Many thanks to Greg Moodie who lets me use his stuff to make my stuff look better.

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Friday, 13 February 2015

Keep On Moving

Some #sexysocialists at Bogbain Farm
Before I start can I urge you to share this post. And then like it, and possibly tweet, tumblr and Facebook  it. I'm not joking, I want the word to spread. I want the word to spread that slacktivism, clictivism, archchair activism - call it what you will-has changed the way we campaign but on its own it's not enough. But it is a start.

Last year we saw folk getting politically involved like never before. I was one of them- I still am. But I feel a large degree of guilt that I didn't do more quicker and better. I spoke to my friend last weekend who was telling me that last January he organised a Yes social event at great expense and only eight folk bought tickets and it had to be cancelled. I was not one of the eight because up until February last year I was a bit of a slacktivist. Happy to write the odd blogpost, give the odd tenner to a cause, tweet my thoughts, sign the odd petition and share articles on social media. All from the comfort and safety of my own home. Hundreds of thousands of folk do this, and I'm not really knocking it as it does have an impact. Research shows that public pressure in the form of online discussion and petitions can lead to a change in the policy or decisions that people find worthy of protesting.

However  the power of slacktivism (or clicktivism if you are being slightly kinder) lies in the small percentage of people who take the initial discontent they felt into actual activism. Mere days after the referendum, when really we all struggled to get out of bed to face the day, the Aberdeen Women for Independence organised a meeting for those people who felt they needed to continue their campaigning and action. I asked two friends to help me host it; the leader of the SNP in Aberdeen City Council (and now superstar SNP candidate for the Aberdeen South parliamentary seat) Callum McCaig, and leader of Aberdeen Yes campaign, Ciaran McRae. We were over-subscribed, and we had to hold two back to back meetings in our 120 person capacity venue.  After the first jam packed session my sister Lindsay popped out and saw a snaking queue of people all down the stairs waiting to get into the next session. Many people at those meetings wanted to immediately go back out on the streets and the doors. All just wanted to DO something.

Things have changed since then. Now we have a general election on our hands and not everyone who was involved with the Yes movement is comfortable with party politics and I can understand why. Party politics is just...well, different. It involves candidates and manifestos and party lines and some, if I'm honest, quite dull stuff to do with organisation, admin and discipline. It's not exactly the #sexysocialism we've found ourselves in love with. And, if I am to continue to be honest, the positivity and exuberance of the Yes campaign is something that political parties are having a wee bit of a problem harnessing at best, and at worst (and admit it, you know a couple of folk like this) is rolling their eyes in disdain at. People who know me will laugh at me using a football analogy but it's the difference between going to all the games against the wee clubs and fighting over tickets to get to see the final when everybody and their dog wants a piece of the action. The time for big exciting rallies has passed, it's the small stuff we have to engage with.

I recently went unsuccessfully for selection as an SNP candidate in Aberdeen. No STOP-I'm fine about not being selected, you don't have to pussyfoot around me, I AM OK with not having to live in London away from my family and friends and be in the same room as George Osborne. Believe me, I'll live. I mention it because during my own wee campaign where I phoned loads of local members I concentrated on speaking to the new members. Almost all wanted to help and be involved somehow with our campaign but most didn't know what to do. Some had been to one constituency meeting and come away less than enthusiastic for a number of reasons. Perhaps it wasn't what they were expecting, or perhaps it was some did not want to knock doors and were looking for an alternative way to help. Perhaps they didn't get the party jargon (to the new person, a lot of what is talked about can seem impenetrable and older members can forget that). Perhaps their expectations were not met in a variety of ways. However, we ignore their reaction at our peril. We have a potential wealth of new activists.

But we are where we are. Independence is not imminent, it is not even on the near horizon anymore. But don't  let this fact make you feel powerless. Other things are achievable, both from within and out with political parties. Last month a small group of women in Women for Indy Edinburgh started a campaign which prompted the Scottish government to change how they approach the rehabilitation of female prisoners. Our WFI group in Aberdeen took the lead on drawing attention to our local councils pursuing historic Poll Tax debt. Our local Aberdeen Common Weal group are heavily involved in overturning a horrendous decision to build a horrific building obscuring two of Aberdeen's most important pieces of architecture. We've also got the most important general election in a generation for our little country in which we could be looking at shaping UK politics and the political system as a whole. 

And not just because I'm trying to sell tickets to our Indy ceilidh (but if you're asking- get them here) do I mention the importance of social events keeping us indy minded all in touch with one another. The best ideas and the best plans start life over a chat, often a drink and a good night out with friends and likeminded people. In my experience they rarely start life in a formal meeting with an agenda and minutes being taken. For example my sister and I came up with the idea of our indy art exhibition which ended up touring Scotland during the opening credits of "The Wolf of Wall Street" at our local cinema. By the time Leonardo di Caprio's character made his first dollar we had a name for it. I bet the idea for the Common Weal or the National Collective or Women for Indy had a similar genesis.

The referendum was one battle. OK it was a big one, but there are lots of little skirmishes to be won by us indy minded before the next big event. To win the big battles we need to keep in touch, keep active, and stay together so we are ready. And we need to meet new like-minded people and grow our movement. I want new potential activists to know this: on the outside it might look like the Women for Indy or the active Yessers have all known each other for donkey's years, but last February I called our first Women for Indy meeting and a group of strangers met. The indy minded people I meet at events and fling my arms around now, we're strangers to me this time last year. 

And as for that door knocking your party keeps on banging on about. You might actually like it once you try. If you are local to my area of Aberdeen I'd like to explain what it's all about, why we do it, why it's really effective and why it's actually not the big deal you probably think it is. I'm hosting training on Sunday 15th February at Rosemount Community Centre with some of my quines at 1pm. We're too new for jargon, we're rubbish at taking minutes and we'll probably go for a drink afterwards....where we'll probably emerge with some cracking ideas and you will definitely feel that you are doing something worthwhile, because this could be your transition from slacktivism to activism.

  • The Indy Ceilidh is at The Northern Hotel in Aberdeen on 27 Feb. Tickets available here
  • Canvassing Training for Women run by the Indy Quines is at Rosemount Community Centre on Sunday 15th February at 1pm. No ticket needed- just wear a warm jacket and comfy shoes (and take a pen) for the practical element.
  • Aberdeen Women for Independence are meeting in the Snug at Ma Camerons at 6.30 on Wednesday 18th February
  • The national Women for Indy AGM is on the 14 March in Perth from 11am to 4pm . Tickets available here

This post was first published on the Indy Quines blog  http://indyquines.blogspot.co.uk

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Thursday, 29 January 2015

The Pinky Promise

 A Twix, earlier today

Remember when you were at school. A few things seemed really important that to be honest as an adult you couldn't give too much of a stuff about now. 

They were:

Having an exclusive best friend: Having a best friend was like a marriage. I'm seeing it happen on a daily basis with my daughter. Last week's best friend "ditched" her because she spoke to another friend at playtime. Divorce proceedings are underway but they are messy and complicated. But be assured,though, they will only last a couple of days and a replacement best friend is being lined up, like a Liz Taylor beau. 

Having a decent play piece: If you arrive in the playground with a piece of fruit, you are an outcast. Yes, even if it's a mango. We want sweets, biscuits, cakes, anything but something that has actual nutritional value. You could lose a best friend over the wrong type of play-piece, you know. And you don't want to go through another "my divorce hell" situation like Tuesday's.

And finally, but very importantly...

Promises: Not so much the keeping of promises but the use of language to make sure that when you make a promise that people will absolutely believe that they can trust that you will keep that promise. A range of hyperbole is used in this thrice daily situation, often invoking other solemn vows and the fates of highly regarded popular icons. Examples could be:

"I swear on the life of Taylor Swift AND Olly Murs that I will not speak to wee Sadie in the playground again, unless it's to remind her that we are best friends and she should bog off and get her own."

"Scout's honour, I will share my Twix with you and only you tomorrow if you gie's a bite o' that Creme Egg"

" I will only walk home with wee Sadie because she lives at ma bit and my mum is friends with her mum and she says I've to chum her at hometime, especially across the main road as she's just wee. I swear if you see me playing with her at any other time you can rip up my cycling proficiency and my signed Bruno Mars poster right in front of me"

And then there's absolute Daddy of them all; the one you pull out when you absolutely must be believed; THE PINKY PROMISE. Example:

"Pinky promise, you will be my best friend forever. Not wee Sadie."

Of course, none of those promises are ever kept. Wee Sadie gets invited over for sleepovers at the weekend,  they have a rare time and she end up being the kid's chief bridesmaid twenty years later. The greedy wee lad eats the whole Twix himself in the toilets before breaktime and claims his mum forgot to put it in his bag that morning. Course he does. You'd think he'd end up a big old overweight loser but he runs an investment bank, plays squash with Jim Murphy and has an ex-model for a wife.

Why am I writing about such nonsense? What made me remember such a carry on? Ed Miliband, that's who. Today the news is full of him making a "pledge" to the people of Scotland to deliver a bill on Home Rule (link here if you don't believe me, on my cat's life). The Labour Party clearly have a sticky note in the Thesaurus on the page where the word Promise resides. You'll be familiar with its synonyms; they include the word VOW and PLEDGE. There are many more synonyms and we've got just under 100 days for the Labour Party to work through the lot of them in their press releases. How long do we give Miliband's advisors before they wheel out the Daddy of all promises, the Pinky Promise? Remember, they have form in this area of language use. Remember the phrase "sexed up"? We'd find out the truth behind the Iraq War Pinky Promise in time for the election if we got the Chilcott report published in time, but alas, it isn't to be.

The trouble for Ed Miliband is, we in Scotland are not a nation of gullible 8 year olds who can be bribed with the promise of a bite of a Twix or even the delivery of a mawkish bag of foodstuff stereotypes to our local foodbank (remember that wee nugget?). We don't believe in the power of the Pinky Promise anymore, not least because some of us fell for one about 4 months ago which was even printed on something that looked as official as the stiff textured card of a cycling proficiency certificate in the Daily Record.

As the desperation of the Labour party increases, as it surely will, don't be surprised if this press statement from Ed Miliband hits the news-desks around April time:

"I swear on the life of Billy Connolly and Miss Hoolie of Balamory, and give my solemn Scout's honour, that Labour, if elected, will have a chat about Home Rule* for Scotland, and that for every vote we get from Scottish people we will give a box of Tunnocks teacakes and a bottle of Irn Bru to your local community. Cross my heart and hope to die. On the grave of my first dog, Skippy. No back backers. Pinky promise.

( All promises will be null and void if we see you hanging about with that SNP.)

*our definition "

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Monday, 29 December 2014

The Other Side of the Story

I really didn't want to write about the vetting process for the SNP. Although no one ever told me it was confidential, I kind of think it's a good idea that those attending are discreet about it. For one thing, everyone there is put under pressure and it's a nerve wracking experience where folk are being scrutinised often in front of others. So I kept quiet about my day of vetting at the SNP Women's Conference. However, after Craig Murray's blog and the ensuing nonsense on the internet, not just from our opposition of the Labour Party but from many independence supporters, I feel as someone who went through the vetting process, I have a responsibility to give some context.

In addition to writing about the vetting process, I also spoke on a panel with Mr Murray during indyref and like many of you, found him immensely interesting and an entertaining and avuncular (with a sharp edge, I grant you) character. I liked him very much, but I was surprised to hear that he wanted to be an MP. To me, being an MP requires someone who is willing to represent their constituents no matter what their political views are. It also seems to me that as an MP you are going to be spending most of your time dealing with the folk who live in that constituency. Some of those folks will have genuine problems, some will not, but you are going to be the sort of person who gives them your equal empathy and your time. One thing that jarred very much with me as we took questions from our very mixed audience of Yesses Nos and Undecideds on that night of the panel we shared, was the way Craig responded to a genuine question from an undecided person in the audience. He effectively called her and her question ignorant. She left straight afterwards. I know this because she is a friend of mine I hadn't seen in ages and had wanted to say hello after. But she was gone. She had been rubbished and presumably left angry and humiliated. Given a kinder response she may have stayed and may even have been persuaded to vote yes. I don't know if she did, but no matter.

Many folk on the internet loved Craig Murray's now well known blunt turn of phrase and his experience and thoughts on the British establishment are breathtaking. However, he is on record as calling no voters thick, and he has referred to female politicians as "bitches" and "old bags". I read his blog regularly myself and I'll love what he's saying up until a point and then when this kind of language is used I'll think "Ach, you had to go and spoil it, didn't you?" Politics needs characters, and I get that, but do we really need folk who don't know how to win an argument without personal offence being made? Isn't one of our main jobs during a campaign to persuade those against us to think again and join us?

At vetting, yes there was a panel interview, and yes, some challenging questions were asked but there was five odd hours of other components to that process. You had to work in groups with your colleagues to present ideas, debate issues and to talk about how you would deal with tricky constituency issues. This being a selection process, you were being continually watched and assessed presumably on your teamwork and abilities and personal character as well as your knowledge of policy. Also, don't forget, even before you got to vetting you will have been researched. Presumably your online presence will have been looked at. What you've written online will have been scrutinised. Because if the party you want to work for don't, you can bet the parties you don't want to work for will. How might Craig Murray's thoughts and pronouncements on the women alleging being victims of Julian Assange be used against him as a party representative? How might past declarations of 55% of the electorate being described by him as "thick" play out if we ever get another referendum during which we would hope to encourage those people to vote with us?

I like Craig very much, and I wish him well, but surely even he can see that he isn't the kind of guy who could try a softly softly approach when required. Surely, if he took to the internet to air his feelings on not being selected in a way which is being criticised by many as less than dignified, he perhaps couldn't exercise restraint when bigger hurdles were fallen at as an MP. Craig is not the first person to have failed vetting but he's the only one to my knowledge who has publicly complained about it and given an impression on events that opposition parties will now blow out of all proportion to damage us.

As for the Bedroom tax. I am weary of having to explain in 140 characters on Twitter how this question worked. It's one of the reasons I've written this post. At the vetting interview there were a few questions which were designed to elicit discussion, test your ability to face personal dilemma and prove an understanding of the challenges an SNP cohort in Westminster might face. I got a similiar question but answered it in a way which allowed me to suppose that the situation was one in which the mitigating measures and extra powers we had secured for the Scottish Parliament would mean that our core ideologies were intact and the people of Scotland would be helped. The panel allowed me the space to pontificate on this at length. I know others who gave an answer which said that the question was moot as the SNP would never support the Bedroom Tax and proceeded to give a full answer as to why this was the case. They and I passed vetting. None of us came out of the interview shouting "Holy crap! the SNP want us to support the Bedroom Tax!"

One other thing has bothered me very much this weekend. Tom Gordon of the The Herald, whose writing I greatly admire, wrote a response to Mr Murray's blog which catalogued selected names of vetted people who thought proved the point that the SNP, despite pronouncements about wanting to embrace the new grassroots into the party, were only interested in selecting established party people. Well, here's me! I joined the SNP on the morning of 19th September 2014. I am now an SNP nominee in Aberdeen. There's quite a few like me all over the country. The SNP membership will be the folk who decide if I'm good enough to represent them as it's one member, one vote. At vetting I was with 12 other women and the majority of them were like me; new members who had got right stuck in during indyref via Business for Scotland, RIC or Women for Indy, and felt they wanted to now work for and had something different to offer the SNP. A couple of women like this who I've kept in touch with from my vetting group have passed and are now nominated in their areas. Whether the SNP candidates are full of the so-called grassroots folks is not up to the party "machine" it's up to the members.

Rejection is always disappointing. Two years ago I got rejected for a job I felt was in the bag for me and one which I desperately wanted. I was furious and upset. Only close friends and family knew my feelings. Sometimes that's the way you have to do things. Telling the internet is only a short term salve, and probably one you'll regret as time goes on.

As Margaret Curran, Blair McDougall and the like make political hay out of Craig Murray's statements I hope you'll all agree, sometimes it's best just to take rejection quietly and reflect privately. I find going outside with a stick and hitting a wall is good for that.

UPDATE: This blog is quoted in Libby Brooks's piece in the Guardian on new candidates HERE

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