Letter sent to Presiding Officer after Wendy Alexander committee ‘ambush’

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One of the academics who appeared before a committee convened by Labour MSP Wendy Alexander has written a letter to Holyrood’s Presiding Officer Alex Fergusson after claiming the hearing was no more than an ‘ambush’.

The academic, Professor Drew Scott, also claims that research documents prepared by himself and colleague Professor Andrew Hughes-Hallett were obtained by the committee without their permission and presented as evidence during the session despite being unrelated to the remit of the committee.

Professors’ Hallett and Scott had been invited to present evidence to Holyrood’s Scotland Bill committee set up to scrutinise the UK coalition’s Scotland Bill.  The two academics had spent two weeks preparing accordingly. 

However instead of dealing with the Scotland Bill, the convenor of the committee, Labour MSP Wendy Alexander, immediately began attacking research carried out by the respected academics on another matter, the subject of Full Fiscal Autonomy.

Ms Alexander continued the aggressive interrogation despite repeated pleas by the academics to be allowed to discuss the Scotland Bill. The former Labour group leader, who resigned in disgrace in 2008, was joined by Tory David McLetchie who continued in much the same vein.

Immediately after the 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.

Mr Trench said:
“I was due to give evidence to the Scottish Parliament’s Scotland Bill Committee on Tuesday 18 January.  I’ve now had to withdraw from that, and sadly won’t be able to assist the Parliament with its inquiry into one of the most important issues that’s come before it since it was established.
 
“My reasons for this derive largely from what happened when Professors Drew Scott and Andrew Hughes-Hallett gave evidence, on 11 January.  They went expecting to be asked questions specifically about the bill and their evidence on it (highly critical, which isn’t surprising if one’s followed their work over the last couple of years).  What they were pitched into, instead, was an inquisition about their work on fiscal autonomy.”

Following the treatment meted out to both himself and his colleague, Professor Scott revealed that research papers belonging to both men had been acquired by the committee without their knowledge.

Professor Scott said:
“Clearly the 2009 paper was deliberately placed by officials or clerks to the Committee, and clearly it was assumed by the Committee to be the evidence on which we should be questioned – or rather interrogated.”

he added:

“To my mind there is no doubt that we were victims of a pre-meditated and carefully orchestrated “ambush”, to use Alan’s term.  And it is that which has formed the substance of the letter which on Friday we submitted to the Presiding Officer.”

Commenting SNP MSP, Finance Committee member and former External Affairs Minister Linda Fabiani said:

“The attitude of opposition members of this committee towards witnesses, who have given freely of their time and expertise, is a disgrace. This is a highly serious matter, a crisis for the Scotland Bill committee, and a severe embarrassment for Wendy Alexander who has brought Scotland’s parliament into disrepute.

“It is the convener’s job to ensure witnesses are properly treated, instead the convener seems to be at the heart of the witnesses’ concerns.  This committee is being led astray and the job of scrutinising legislation dumped for partisan games.

“This unprecedented response from witnesses is a damning judgement on the committee. The ‘collateral damage’ is not to the witnesses, it is to the committee and the parliament.  It is completely unacceptable.

“Labour, the Tories and LibDems are clearly trying to hide the deeply flawed and damaging Scotland Bill.  At a time when we should be working together to improve the legislation, opposition parties are deliberately avoiding scrutiny of its damaging financial measures.

“Labour and the LibDems are putting Parliament’s reputation on the line in order to defend the flaws of a piece of Tory legislation.  Without proper scrutiny we are in danger of walking blindly into a Bill that could cost Scotland billions.

“The Scotland Bill is full of flaws and these witnesses have valuable contributions to make, yet opposition parties are taking their usual bullying approach and have bullied them off the committee.

“This is a serious problem for the Parliament, for the Scotland Bill and for those whose behaviour has been so out of line.”

Aberdeen North MSP Brian Adam who is one of the SNP MSPs on the Committee added:

“My concerns are for the reputation of the Parliament and its committees. I am afraid that if the conduct of last week’s committee is continued it will be difficult to have open and frank discussions in public with independent experts offering evidence, for no personal benefit, in the future.”

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