Friday, 31 May 2013

Council leader explains 'interest' omission

Following enquiries by the3towns, North Ayrshire Council leader, Cllr Willie Gibson, has confirmed that he overlooked his role as a Trustee of the War Memorial Field – home to Ardrossan Academicals Rugby Club – when he lodged his Register of Interests with the local authority’s Monitoring Officer.

All councillors are legally required to register any outside interest that could impact on their ability to carry out their Council duties and represent constituents.

The issue of Cllr Gibson’s involvement as a Memorial Field Trustee came to the fore after the3towns broke the news that the Council had entered into discussions with the Trust regarding possibly using the rugby pitches as the location of a merged Three Towns school, bringing together pupils from Auchenharvie Academy in Stevenston and Ardrossan Academy.

Willie Gibson has since amended his Register of Interests, which now records the councillor declaring his position as a Trustee of the Memorial Field and also his resignation from the role.  Both entries are dated May 14 2013.

Speaking to the3towns, Cllr Gibson explained what happened, “Following the [public consultation] meeting at Ardrossan Academy ,which I attended, when the matter of possibly building on the Memorial Field was first raised, I realised that my position as a Trustee was completely untenable.”

Mr Gibson then contacted the Trust to tender his resignation, adding, “At the same time I realised that I had, genuinely, not intimated this interest on my Register of Interests.  I did then add this.  I clearly should have done this earlier but as the Trust never really meets, and as my membership of it was not something that I ever considered as important, other than to members of the rugby club, I simply missed it.”

The SNP councillor for Saltcoats & Stevenston told the3towns he believed it was not necessary for him to have declared an interest when minutes of a Cabinet meeting were moved for approval at the May 8 meeting of the full Council.  The minute included reference to a report that stated the Council had “positive early discussions with the War Memorial Trust Committee” in relation to exploring the possibility of “locating the sport and leisure element of the campus on the War Memorial Field.”

Cllr Gibson said, “Minutes are not for ratification and therefore I clearly did not have to declare an interest.”  the3towns reported last week that there was no suggestion Cllr Gibson had taken part in any discussions, nor did he attend the Cabinet meeting which received the report referring to discussions with the Memorial Field Trust.

The Council leader noted, “Early discussions with the rugby club, which I also had absolutely no part in, was, as far as I understand, only about the use of the playing fields for sporting activities and possibly the use of the car park.  This situation has always existed and the Academy has always used both the fields and the car park despite them not being owned by NAC.”

Cllr Gibson continued, “I have made enquiries and can say also that any earlier meetings with NAC were about a possible plan that the Rugby Club had to build a new clubhouse nearer the traffic lights on Sorbie Road and had absolutely no connection with the proposed campus, which had not gone out to consultation, nor had any proposed sites been identified.

“The Memorial Field is not a proposed site under the consultation and I can say categorically that I have played absolutely no part in it becoming so in the future.”

The SNP Group Leader said, “I am determined to ensure the best possible outcome for the parents and children of the Three Towns in this matter, and I am also determined that improved educational opportunities for all of the young people is the one and only priority.

“No final decision on a site has been taken and I can assure you that all of the concerns raised at the consultation meetings will be taken into account before any final decision is made.”

the3towns also last week revealed that in February, at a Workshop for councillors - held to discuss the school merger proposals and options – members were asked if any of them had met with representatives of Ardrossan Academicals. In response, Cllr Peter McNamara, Leader of North Ayrshire Council’s Labour Group, stated he’d had such a meeting. However, Cllr McNamara went on to say that he attended the meeting in a private capacity and declined to reveal what had been discussed.

Last week’s report also recorded that Memorial Field Trustees had earlier attempted to amend the area’s Local Development Plan to change the designation of the field from ‘open space’ to allow a housing development. At the time, the application by the Trust indicated such a development on part of the Memorial Field would generate funding to allow the construction of a new pavilion and improved sports facilities.

The application was rejected after North Ayrshire Council, as the Planning Authority, responded that, “the representee’s justification is insufficient” and that “reallocation from ‘Open Space’ to ‘Housing’...would set undesirable precedent for further unjustified loss of open space elsewhere.”

On February 7 this year, the Ardrossan Memorial Field Fund received a grant of £7,372 from the Big Lottery Fund to “undertake a Feasibility Study into the future use of the Ardrossan Memorial Field Fund sports grounds and clubhouse”.

Serious concerns over schools merger question

An investigation by the3towns has revealed fresh doubts over the wording of the question being asked by North Ayrshire Council in a public consultation document regarding proposals for a new Three Towns school.

Plans would see a new merged campus to accommodate pupils from Ardrossan Academy and Stevenston’s Auchenharvie Academy, with two schools for children with additional needs – James McFarlane School in Ardrossan and Irvine’s Haysholm School – also housed at the new facility.

Against the background of the local authority’s SNP administration already having backed the new school proposal and identifying the current Ardrossan Academy location as the preferred site, the Council is presently carrying out a statutory public consultation in which interested parties are asked just one question: “Do you agree with the proposal to create a new educational campus in Ardrossan amalgamating Auchenharvie and Ardrossan Academies and Haysholm and James McFarlane schools?”

However, the3towns has previously pointed out that the Electoral Commission for Scotland had voiced concerns about a question beginning with the words “Do you agree”.  Originally, the proposed question to be asked in next year’s Independence referendum was to have been “Do you agree that Scotland should be an independent country?”  But, following an extensive enquiry by the Electoral Commission, it was deemed such wording could lead respondents to the answer favoured by the side asking the question.  The SNP Government accepted the Commission’s findings and changed the question to the more neutral “Should Scotland be an independent country.”

the3towns has now looked further at the report published by the Electoral Commission and can reveal conclusions that call into question the validity of any result reached by North Ayrshire Council in its consultation using a question that begins “Do you agree...”

The report - Advice of the Electoral Commission on the Proposed Referendum Question – states, “The formulation ‘Do you agree…’ was commonly felt by research participants to be biased towards a ‘yes’ outcome and potentially leading people towards a ‘yes’ vote .”

Continuing, the Commission found, “There were several reasons people gave for why they felt that ‘Do you agree…’ was potentially leading or biased,” noting that people felt what was being proposed must be a ‘good thing’ because voters were “being invited to agree with this view”.  The same passage in the report concluded, “It can sound like it is seeking agreement by effectively asking ‘Do you agree with me?’ rather than allowing voters to form and express their own view.”

The Commission also found that “asking ‘Do you agree…’ suggests that the decision has in fact already been made,” or that what is being proposed “represents popular opinion and that the referendum is simply about rubber-stamping that decision.”

In addition, findings detailed how people who took part in the Commission’s own consultation on the proposed wording felt that ‘Do you agree’ was biased “because it is easier to agree with something than to disagree,” and that others felt there was “an expectation that if you disagree, you need to justify or explain why you have done so.”  

The report concluded, “Some participants, who were undecided about how they would vote, felt that this formulation could give the impression that ‘yes’ is the ‘correct’ answer. One person said: ‘You’re free to say no, but it goes against the grain with that word [agree], you don’t feel comfortable putting no’.”

Of a question that begins ‘Do you agree...’ Dr Nicola McEwen, Director of Public Policy at the University of Edinburgh’s Academy of Government, said, “By inviting agreement, the question as currently drafted may not entirely satisfy the criterion of neutrality. There is no evidence to suggest that it has been framed so as to deliberately lead voters to provide a positive answer, but that it may be construed as such can cast doubt on the legitimacy of the process.”

North Ayrshire Council’s schools merger consultation, with the document containing the controversial ‘Do you agree...’ question, runs until June 14.

Poverty is affecting exam results

North Ayrshire’s high levels of deprivation and poverty appear to be impacting on the educational attainment of local children.

New figures published by the Improvement Service, a partnership between the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities and the Society of Local Authority Chief Executives, show North Ayrshire bumping around the bottom in terms of national exam passes achieved, despite the local Council recording one of the highest average spends on secondary pupils. 

However, it isn’t all bad news: when viewed across the years 2008-2012, North Ayrshire pupils show improving exam pass-rates at Level 3, Level 4, Level 5 and Higher.

It is when seen against national figures and those attained by pupils in more prosperous areas that North Ayrshire’s levels of academic attainment give cause for concern.

In the category of 5+ awards at Level 5, North Ayrshire and a similarly impoverished area, Clackmannanshire, are rooted near the bottom with 30% of pupils achieving that standard.  Only two councils – Glasgow (27%) and Dundee (26%) – had poorer results.  The best-performing local authorities in all categories were the affluent East Renfrewshire and East Dunbartonshire, coming in at 67% and 56% respectively in the Level 5 category.

North Ayrshire was the poorest-performing Council in the category of 5+ awards at Level 6, with just 18% achieving this standard: East Renfrewshire was top with 53%.  Other local authorities bracketed with North Ayrshire as suffering high levels of deprivation and poverty performed at similar levels: Clackmannanshire – 20%; Inverclyde – 24%; North Lanarkshire – 22%; West Dunbartonshire – 21%; West Lothian – 23%.

However, even within this grouping, when the numbers of pupils from deprived areas achieving 5+ awards at Level 5 were compared, North Ayrshire came third-from-bottom with 18.5%.  Clackmannanshire on 16% and West Lothian at 13.8% performed worse.

Of the same group, bracketed together because of similar social problems, North Ayrshire spent the highest amount per secondary pupil - £6,427, with Clackmannanshire lowest on £5,505.

North Ayrshire Council has the third-highest level of deprivation of any Scottish local authority.

Donohoe told to repay expenses

Brian Donohoe, Labour MP for Central Ayrshire, has been told by parliamentary authorities that he must repay almost £10,000 claimed for mortgage interest on his second home in London.

Following the MPs expenses scandal in 2009, the Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority (IPSA) took action to ban the use of House of Commons expenses to pay mortgage interest on London properties bought by MPs.  However, transitional arrangements were put in place permitting those elected before 2010 to keep claiming the money up until August of last year, with the proviso that any potential capital gain on the second homes would have to be repaid.

A total of 71 MPs, including Brian Donohoe, continued to charge the public purse for payment of interest on the mortgages for their London homes.  IPSA has now calculated that Mr Donohoe’s property has increased in value, representing a potential capital gain of £9,469, which he has been asked to repay.

In September last year the3towns revealed Brian Donohoe had submitted one of the highest expenses claims of all MPs in Britain.

In addition to his salary of £65,738, the Labour MP charged the public purse a further £147,217 in the financial year 2010/2011, putting him in the top five claimers.

Included in the claims submitted by Irvine-based Mr Donohoe was a total of £16,041 for ‘Accommodation’ and £21,539 for ‘Travel & Subsistence’.  His Labour colleague Katy Clark, who represents the neighbouring constituency of North Ayrshire & Arran, claimed much less - £2,978 for ‘Accommodation’ and £9,866 for ‘Travel & Subsistence’.

Mr Donohoe, who was first elected in 1992, also made a claim to cover ‘secretarial work’, which cost the taxpayer between £10,000 and £14,999.  The name of the ‘secretary’ was recorded as ‘Christine Donohoe’.

Latest figures produced by the Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority showed MPs increased their expenses claims by £18m between 2010/2011 and 2011/2012, taking the total to £71m, which works out at almost £250,000 per day.

Brian Donohoe is a very low-profile backbench MP.  He has been secretary of the House of Commons Rangers Supporters Club and helped establish the All Party Parliamentary Group on Coronation Street.  Mr Donohoe is a special constable with the British Transport Police in London.

Prior to entering parliament Brian Donohoe was a full-time official with NALGO, the National Association of Local Government Officers.