Thursday, March 26, 2009

Transport row : Civil servants accused of talking bull by MSPs

Most of us already know that civil servants tend to play with words & information to distort the issues being discussed which may not play well in the hands of their masters.

During debates in the Scottish Parliament this week, politicians grew so tired of the meanderings of civil servants, MSP Hugh Henry ended up accusing civil servants of talking a "huge element of bullshit" over their reluctance to disclose information to the Public Audit Committee.

The Scotsman reports :

MSP accuses senior civil servants of talking bull

Published Date: 26 March 2009

THE convener of a Holyrood watchdog committee has accused senior government officials of a "huge element of bullshit" over their apparent reluctance to disclose information in a shareholding row.

Hugh Henry's outburst came as MSPs questioned civil servants over the resignation of Transport Scotland's finance director.

Guy Houston, who owned shares in FirstGroup, quit after it emerged he had been at meetings over its ScotRail subsidiary being given a franchise extension by the agency last year.

Mr Henry's frustration boiled over as the public audit committee quizzed Paul Gray, the Scottish Government's director of change and corporate services, who appeared with Sir John Elvidge, its permanent secretary and most senior official.

Mr Gray, who was asked for the dates and times of meetings over Mr Houston's resignation, first responded from memory but then referred to notes in front of him to outline the timescales.

Mr Henry, a Labour MSP, said: "Drip by drip, we have got to prise from you collectively information that is in front of you. Frankly, I regard that as unacceptable.

"You could have, and should have, answered that when you were asked, instead of having to wait until the argument developed."

Mr Henry took issue with the dates when key figures, including Stewart Stevenson, the transport minister, knew Mr Houston was about to resign.

He said: "Somewhere along the line, there is a huge element, excuse the phrase, of bullshit. At some point, it would be easier for all of us if the facts were simply put in front of us instead of having to come back to you on umpteen occasions.

"Now we're going to have to go back to the minister – it's a complete waste of our time that we can't get this information."

Mr Gray replied: "I do apologise. It was not my intention to withhold information."

The row centred on dates last November when a phone call was first made revealing Mr Houston's future employment and the date when his resignation was then confirmed in writing. The committee said conflicting accounts had been given.

Mr Henry added: "The irony of all of this is the issues are relatively trivial and incidental to the bigger picture.

"But what does come out – and it's not the first time – is a consistent pattern of obfuscation, of trying to avoid saying things.

"I don't know how as a committee we can actually conclude anything in relation to this or anything else when there's such a pattern of behaviour."

Earlier, Mr Houston denied wrongdoing. He increased his shareholding in FirstGroup while working for Transport Scotland – which went on to extend a £2.5 billion franchise deal with First ScotRail.

He resigned after an auditor's report showed he had attended meetings at which the franchise extension was discussed.

But he told MSPs there was a "crucial difference" between receiving knowledge and using that knowledge.

"It's quite clear from the FirstGroup share register that I did not use that knowledge for personal gain," he said.

"I couldn't influence any decision. I wasn't involved in any decision-making meetings."

He insisted he was "not pushed". He said: "I took the decision entirely on my own and decided I would exit quickly because this was likely to cause embarrassment to ministers."

Tavish Scott, the Scottish Liberal Democrat leader and a member of the committee, said: "The Scottish Government should always be open and transparent. Instead, it has provided inaccurate and misleading information on this issue."

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