‘Academic ambush’ row intensifies as McLetchie claims profs ‘can’t stand the heat’

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The row over the treatment of two independent academics at the hands of Labour and Tory MSPs on a Holyrood parliamentary committee has escalated with the Tory MSP David McLetchie (pictured) defending the line of questioning and taunting the professors saying “If they can’t stand the heat get out of the kitchen”.

The row centres around what professors Drew Scott and Andrew Hughes-Hallett described as an “ambush” by the Unionist dominated committee members as the academics tried to present specially prepared evidence relating to the Scotland Bill.

The Scotland Bill is the result of recommendations put forward by the Calman Commission and contains Tory tax plans that some academics have described as potentially damaging and unworkable.  The committee was set up especially to allow cross-party scrutiny of the bill.

The make-up of the committee caused controversy when it emerged that the convenor was to be disgraced former Labour group leader Wendy Alexander(pictured) who first proposed the Calman Commission.  Further controversy ensued when Ms Alexander appointed Jim Gallagher as a committee advisor. Gallagher was the senior civil servant appointed by Gordon Brown to oversee Calman.

This ‘staffing’ of the committee, and those advising it, with Unionists already closely involved in the Calman process led respected economists Jim and Margaret Cuthbert to refuse to appear, fearing that the outcome of the scrutiny was pre-ordained.

Immediately after the Scott/Hughes-Hallett session another respected academic, Alan Trench of the Constitution Unit at University College London and Edinburgh University, attacked the treatment of his academic colleagues and cancelled his own scheduled appearance.

Commenting on claims that the professors had been badly treated by the committee and that they had been “ambushed” David McLetchie said:

“If they put out into the public domain controversial propositions, which is exactly what professor Hughes-Hallett and Scott have done, then they can expect to be questioned closely.  That is the job of a committee scrutinising evidence.

“If they don’t like that kind of approach then they shouldn’t be part of the debate.  As someone once said; If you can’t stand the heat get out of the kitchen.”

However the row over the treatment of Scott and Hughes-Hallett took a sinister twist when it emerged that research documents belonging to the academics had been passed to the committee and were masquerading as ‘evidence’.  The documents, relating to full fiscal autonomy, had been obtained by the committee without the knowledge or permission of the academics who then found themselves defending their reputations instead of presenting well researched evidence on the Scotland Bill.

Professor Scott at one point threatened to walk out of the session in frustration at Alexander and McLetchie’s refusal to listen to their carefully prepared evidence saying:

“We were requested expressly by this committee to concentrate on particular questions relating to the Scotland Bill and that is why we are here.

“And I think that the longer we delay the discussion of the Scotland Bill the less useful our presence here will be.  It strikes me we should leave if all we’re going to do is discuss fiscal autonomy”

Professor Scott insisted that committees should not be allowed to “horsewhip members of the public” in such a fashion.

The matter has prompted Professor Scott to write a letter of complaint to Holyrood’s Presiding Officer Alex Fergusson; the letter is reproduced in full below:

 

Dear Presiding Officer,

We are writing to you in your capacity as Presiding Officer of the Scottish Parliament to request a meeting at your earliest opportunity in relation to a number of aspects surrounding the work of the Scotland Bill Committee of the Scottish Parliament relating to our appearance before that Committee on Tuesday January 11 as invited academic experts.

In particular we wish to discuss with you, and seek an explanation for, the impolite and discourteous manner in which we were treated by specific members of that Committee for a significant part of the session we attended. Members of the Committee, including the Convenor, conducted their interventions in a manner which seemed to us (and, we now know, to many others not involved) more akin to an interrogation that a civilised conversation. We believe that even a cursory glance at the Official Record will confirm that we are not exaggerating. Indeed at the close of the session the Deputy Convenor, Mr Adams, MSP, was moved to put on record an apology to us for the manner in which we had been treated by the Committee and his sense of shame in being a member of the Committee. We certainly fail to see how the conduct of some Committee members conceivably could be said to conform to Rule 7.3.1 of the Parliament’s Standing Orders which requires that “Members shall at all times conduct themselves in a courteous and respectful manner”.

However there is a second and potentially far more serious matter we wish to draw to your attention and for which we are seeking an explanation. We presented ourselves to the Committee in good faith in response to an invitation by the Committee to assist in its scrutiny of the Scotland Bill. We were specifically directed to the Committee’s “Call for Evidence” and asked to address the particular questions on which the Committee had indicated it sought advice. (We would ask that you note that none of these questions touch upon, or mention, the notion of “fiscal autonomy”.) It was therefore the Committee’s published questions, and only those questions, that informed the content of 15 pages of dedicated evidence we prepared over a 3-week period immediately prior to our appearance at the Committee. We submitted our evidence electronically to the Committee on the morning of Monday 10 January.

However what neither of us knew until after the Tuesday session was that a decision had already been taken – we do not who made this decision and certainly neither of us was informed of it nor sanctioned it – to include in the Committee’s papers (and publish on the Committee’s web site) an earlier research paper we had written in late 2009 on the subject of fiscal autonomy and which (self evidently) could not possibly contain any comment on or analysis of the provisions of the Scotland Bill. The most disturbing aspect of this is that the inescapable inference from the manner in which the paper was presented under the Committee’s agenda was that this 2009 paper was in fact the evidence we – Professors Hughes Hallett and Scott – had ourselves submitted to the Committee to assist with its scrutiny process. When, in point of fact, the evidence we had specifically prepared and submitted for that sole purpose was not publicly recorded or available. As far as I can gather this remains the situation at the time of writing.

In other circumstances this may appear at first sight to be a minor issue, and ordinarily we might agree. However almost immediately when the questioning began it became apparent that particular members of the Committee, in particular the Convenor, had determined that we should be interrogated first and foremost on the content of that 2009 paper and not on the evidence we had been asked to submit – and did submit – on the Scotland Bill. Moreover it quickly became equally apparent that the line of questioning certain members were pursuing with considerable vigour was motivated solely by narrow party political interests and not their interest in the provisions of the Scotland Bill. This was hardly disguised, and we consider that a reading of the Official Record will vouch for this interpretation.

We re-emphasise that we were given absolutely no prior notice that the Committee would be directing its questions to the arguments we set out in the 2009 fiscal autonomy paper. Indeed as these arguments have no relevance to the legislation actually being proposed, there was no reason for us to suspect members would so direct their questions. Accordingly we had made no effort to prepare ourselves for what became highly detailed questions on the substance of that 2009 paper, or remind ourselves of which page or which footnote of the secondary literature in an academic paper on a different subject contained the evidence to support the contentions it contained.

We made repeated efforts to re-direct questioning to the matter at hand (our evidence on the Scotland Bill), but were entirely unsuccessful in doing so. It was a deeply unpleasant and, as we sat there, a completely inexplicable turn of events. However, as we note above, at that time we did not know that our 2009 paper had been presented as “evidence” by the Committee, and therefore very conveniently could be treated by some Committee members in precisely that manner.

We want to make it quite clear that neither of us have any difficulty in justifying the conclusions we reached in that 2009 paper. But that paper is on an entirely different subject. Nonetheless we began by making every reasonable effort to respond to the immediate opening questions by the Convener on the issues raised in the 2009 paper. However this became impossible when the Convenor began quoting (at length) specific extracts from that paper – which was in excess of 70 pages of text – and asked us to explain precisely what we meant on each occasion. Matters took an even more incredulous (if not surreal) turn when Ms Alexander brandished a copy of one of the 40 or so academic papers we had cited (in a footnote) in the 2009 paper, demanding to know the page number in that cited work in which she could find the basis for a statistical inference we had drawn from a proposition cited therein. Since, unsurprisingly, we had no copy of the paper we had cited to hand (although somewhat oddly the Convenor clearly did), neither of us could furnish her with an answer to that question either. Unfortunately Professor Hughes Hallett was simply cut off when he attempted to provide further (new) evidence in support of the basic proposition the Convenor was challenging.

At that point, and for some moments thereafter, Ms Alexander – with the support of
Mr McLetchie it has to be said – repeatedly asserted to the Committee (and wider public) that as we could not give such references or explanations about this 2009 paper as had been demanded by the Committee from us, clearly the only inference that could be drawn was we were unable to defend the conclusions we had reached in our “evidence” (sic) to the Committee.

The upshot of all this was that the following day the press was able to report that Professor Scott had threatened to walk out from the Committee because he had been unable to defend the evidence we had submitted to the Scotland Bill Committee. This clearly is utter nonsense, though neither the press nor the public could possibly know this as both had utterly solid grounds for believing we were being questioned on our “evidence” as it appeared on the Committee’s web site. All the while, of course, the actual evidence we had prepared was being ignored. Indeed neither of us can recall any point in the entire session when any Committee member made any direct reference whatsoever to the actual evidence we had submitted to that Committee, despite the fact that we know that evidence had been tabled. Unsurprisingly when two senior academics are reported as being unable to defend their evidence, it is newsworthy and there is a very real risk of damage to their professional reputations as a consequence. We are in no doubt this has now happened as a direct consequence of what we deem to be the unacceptable behaviour of, and circumstances created by, particular Committee members and, possibly, officials.

We have no doubt that, as Presiding Officer, you will immediately recognise the seriousness of the circumstances in which we found ourselves while attending the Scotland Bill Committee, and the inferences which the wider public and colleagues subsequently felt able to draw as a result of unfavourable press coverage of our performance at the Committee. The extent of the damage to our reputations is unclear, but damage there has been. And this is undoubtedly the direct result of the decision someone took to masquerade our 2009 fiscal autonomy paper as evidence submitted by us to the Scotland Bill Committee. As Alan Trench, a constitutional authority who has decided not to appear at the Committee directly as a result of the manner in which we were treated, put it on his web-log, we were “ambushed” by certain members of that Committee to serve their narrow political ends. We were, as Alan also suggests, “collateral damage” in pursuit of these ends.

Finally we must state for the record that arguably the greatest disservice on Tuesday was not to our reputations, serious as that has been, but to the wider public of Scotland. Academics such as ourselves recognise that we occupy a privileged position in society, and we both feel under an obligation to perform our public service duty whenever called upon to do so. But, by the same token, we expect that the Scottish Parliament and its Committees should demonstrate the same degree of commitment, integrity and disinterested service to the public as we have tried to do (in vain it appears).

Meanwhile our concerns with respect to the impact of the prospective Scotland Act remain virtually unnoticed (and largely unreported), which we deeply regret. In order that we are able to discharge what we see as our public service duty we are prepared to re-appear before this Committee, if invited, to have our concerns with regard to the financial provisions of the Scotland Bill discussed. However I am sure you would understand that before we could accept any such invitation we would wish to have the matters we have raised with you in this letter resolved.

As you will note, we are copying this letter to various senior colleagues within our immediate academic communities. We do so in order that they understand how events unfolded on Tuesday, and in order that they might be able to place in context the damaging press reports which cast aspersions on our professional competence which resulted from the Committee’s behaviour.

We sincerely hope that you will agree to meet with us at your earliest convenience to discuss the matters we have raised in this letter. We can assure you that on the basis of Tuesday’s events a great many of our academic colleagues have privately expressed outrage solely about the manner of the way we were treated by this Committee, far less the more serious issue we have drawn to your attention. Our very real concern is that if the Scottish Parliament condones such behaviour and related activity by its Committees, then the Committees of the Parliament – as has now become clear – will find it increasingly difficult to persuade academic experts to appear before them. And the lack of that expertise not only will damage the quality of the Parliament’s legislation, we submit it will strike at the very heart of the Scottish Parliament’s reputation as a decent and honourable institution.

We look forward to hearing from you at your earliest convenience.

Sincerely,

Professor Drew Scott   
University of Edinburgh

Professor Andrew Hughes Hallett
University of St Andrews
George Mason University, Washington DC

Mr Paul Grice, Scottish Parliament

Copied to:

Professor Douglas Brodie, Dean, School of Law, University of Edinburgh

Professor Sir David Edward, Hon. Chairman, The Europa Institute, University of Edinburgh

Professor Edward Rhodes, Dean, School of Public Policy, George Mason University, Arlington, Virginia

Professor Lee Fritschler, Prof of Public Policy, School of Public Policy, George Mason University, Arlington, Virginia

A letter was also sent to The Herald newspaper and is also reproduced in full:

Sir

It is apparent from Robert Brown’s letter [January 15] that he has been misled.  We regret that but the source of the deception does not lie with us. He is clearly under the impression that the paper on fiscal autonomy which we wrote in late 2009 had been submitted by us as evidence to the Scotland Bill Committee at which we gave evidence on January 11.

Emphatically this is not the case. Instead that paper was placed on the committee website by the Clerks and/or Advisers, Mr Jim Gallagher and Professor David Ulph, and then, it seems, represented to members, including Mr Brown, as our submitted written evidence on which we would expect to be questioned. This was done without our permission or knowledge. Nor were we at any stage advised to expect to be questioned about the propositions we advanced (or indeed references we cited) in that paper which is unrelated to the Scotland Bill and published prior to the proposals now under discussion.

In fact the previous day we had submitted to the committee some 15 pages of evidence providing detailed responses to the questions it requested we address on the financial aspects of the Scotland Bill.  Yet, as far as we can recall, at no time was that carefully prepared submission specifically referred to by committee members, although we do know they had received it.  As far as we can gauge, at the time of writing, that evidence has still not been placed on the committee’s web pages.

In light of this, and remarks made by certain members of the committee, it is very difficult to avoid concluding that we were victims of some type of pre-arranged “ambush” in the Scotland Bill Committee, the purpose of which seemed to be to discredit what have since become politically contentious aspects of our earlier research on fiscal autonomy. It is not only regrettable that Mr Brown, along with ourselves, seems to have been a victim of this, but that the committee was denied the opportunity to discuss with us the very serious concerns we have about the economic consequences on Scotland of the funding arrangements set to be legislated under this Bill.

We have written to the Presiding Officer seeking an explanation for the extraordinary events surrounding our appearance at the Scotland Bill Committee, events which undoubtedly have damaged our professional reputations. More importantly we consider that these events not only undermine both the reputation of the Scottish Parliament and the willingness of others to appear before its committees to offer expert advice, they have prevented Committee members from discussing with us our concerns about the adverse consequences the implementation of this Bill could have for Scotland.

 

Professor Drew Scott
University of Edinburgh

 

Professor Andrew Hughes Hallett
University of St Andrews
George Mason University, Washington

Wendy Alexander has thus far refused to comment.