Russell calls on Scottish Government to take action to restore “democratic norms” in Argyll & Bute 

Audit Scotland issues damning report about Council Budget Process

The MSP for Argyll & Bute Michael Russell has called on the Scottish Government to take action after a report from Audit Scotland found severe flaws in the setting of the budget by Argyll & Bute Council in February – a budget that slashed expenditure on education and other vital services despite public opposition – and claimed that the process the Council adopted “limited the ability of elected members and the public to raise informed questions”  failed to be transparent and “promote and demonstrate scrutiny of the options” and did not give local council tax payers any “evidence of the …endorsement of the budget by the Chief Financial Officer” of the Council.

Commenting on the report Mr Russell said: “I made a complaint to Audit Scotland after the budget process and others did so too.  Now their damning report indicates that the budget that was passed was neither transparent nor able to be properly scrutinised. It also failed to demonstrate whether or not it was legitimate in terms of approval by the Council’s Chief Financial Officer.

These are very serious shortcomings particularly as the budget was very controversial and included redundancies and reductions in some very important areas including school staffing and libraries. Given all the other issues surrounding the Council external intervention – if a means can be found – is certainly required. I have tabled a motion to that effect in the Scottish Parliament and I will press the issue with Scottish Ministers. Public confidence in the Council is at an all time low and the present situation cannot be allowed to continue any longer.

The motion lodged in the Scottish Parliament is given below.

Motion Number: S5M-00133
Lodged By: Michael Russell
Date Lodged: 23/05/2016

Title: Audit Scotland Report on the Argyll and Bute Council Budget Setting Process 2016-17

Motion Text:

That the Parliament notes Audit Scotland’s report on the budget setting process of Argyll and Bute Council for 2016-17; expresses great concern that the report concludes that aspects of the process “limited the ability of elected members and the public to raise informed questions”; recommends that the council “consider the transparency of the final stages of the budget setting process and how effective it is in promoting and demonstrating scrutiny of the options” and notes that “members of the public have no evidence of the discussions and endorsement of the budget by the Chief Financial Officer”; considers these to be very serious defects, particularly in the light of what it sees as the poor performance of Argyll and Bute Council in a range of other areas and the strong local disquiet about many of its actions, particularly its continuing refusal to transfer assets to communities and others despite economic and social need, and calls on the Scottish Government to find a way to intervene with urgency in order to restore public confidence in the democratic , transparent and accountable norms that should be observed by any council and, by so doing, restore Argyll and Bute Council to organisational, managerial and political health.

Russell “delighted” with award of Cal Mac contract

“Congratulations – but lots of hard work lies ahead !”

The MSP for Argyll & Bute Michael Russell – whose constituency contains more ferry routes than any other in Scotland – has expressed his delight at the award of the Hebridean and West Coast tender to Cal Mac but has also predicted that much hard work will lie ahead in order for the company to continue to improve what it provides for the island and west coast communities.

Reacting to the announcement of the award Mr Russell said:

“I am absolutely delighted that Cal Mac has won the tender and I congratulate the whole company, but particularly the CEO Martin Dorchester who ran the bid team. They have presented a compelling and comprehensive case for continuation of the company as the key ferry provider in Scotland.  I am  sure the vast majority of my constituents will be as pleased as I am, as will the staff who work so hard, in all weathers, to provide life line services.

However years of under investment by previous governments have led to a situation where there are regular difficulties on all routes because of shortage of vessels and lack of flexible options so much hard work still lies ahead. Two new ships are now being built but there needs to be further investment in the fleet including re-conditioning of older boats to keep them in service.   The current difficulties with the Isle of Arran, which has not been able to operate the Campbeltown run for a fortnight, is a case in point. New ships also have to be fit for purpose and the current  failure of the mezzanine deck on the Finlaggan means that capacity will be reduced to Islay for the Feis this weekend – the seventh year in a row there have been problems at this vital time of year. In addition the existence of CMal, the asset company, needs to be reviewed as it performs no useful purpose.   A move to a standardised set of vessels using standardised infrastructure is long overdue and CMAL is now an obstacle to that happening.

Finally eyes in Cowal will now turn to the  Dunoon/Gourock tender which will be the next crucial ferry decision in Scotland. There needs to be detailed discussion of what that route actually needs and, as a minimum, further investment in a higher standard of passenger service.

I look forward to working with the company, as an MSP with a huge reliance on ferries, to ensure a constant improvement and today’s award is therefore the start of a process, not the end of one.

RUSSELL ASKS NEW SCOTTISH GOVERNMENT FOR ANSWERS ON BROADBAND ROLLOUT

“Dissatisfaction” rife amongst local communities says MSP.

ARGYLL & BUTE MSP Michael Russell has tabled four Parliamentary Questions to the new Scottish Government regarding broadband rollout and criticised BT’s performance in his constituency.

The questions – which are amongst the first posed to the new Scottish Government – arise out of a succession of complaints from across Argyll & Bute about lack of information and lack of connection.

Commenting on the questions, Mr Russell said:

“The very poor communication of information on broadband rollout is causing real anger across this constituency and indeed more widely in the Highlands and Islands.  There has also been a real deterioration in the performance of BT over the last year on other matters such as restoring service when phones are down.

I have tried very hard to get progress on this matter within the organisation and with Highlands & Islands Enterprise and whilst there has been some progress on individual cases there is still real confusion about what is happening and when service will be provided.

I have asked for a definitive list of communities set against proposed connection dates but so far nothing of that nature has appeared.  A case last week on Bute in which there were three different explanations given for delay has brought all this to a head and I have now tabled some Parliamentary Questions in the hope that the Scottish Government – which is meeting much of the cost of the roll out – will get more closely involved and ensure that BT and HIE start to provide accurate and reliable information and get a move on with the programme.

There are of course places which are not due to get service and more action is needed to ensure that they do not miss out.  BT has delayed help for some of those areas, including the one in which I live, by refusing to give information on its own plans.   That must also be sorted as a matter of urgency.

Finally many of us would be very reluctant to see additional work for BT on the next stages of this programme – the 100% roll out – unless BT management hugely ups its game.   That point needs to be considered by the Scottish Government before it makes any new commitments to the company.”

The questions tabled by Mr Russell today are as follows:

S5W-00118:

To ask the Scottish Government whether it plans to give BT a role in delivering its commitment to provide 100% superfast broadband coverage across the country and, if so, what consideration it has given to the reported criticism of the company’s performance in the rollout in Argyll and Bute and the service it provides to phone and broadband customers..

S5W-00119:

To ask the Scottish Government what action it will take to ensure that a definitive timescale is published by Highlands and Islands Enterprise and BT for the rollout of superfast broadband across each community in the Highlands and Islands.

S5W-00120:

To ask the Scottish Government what action it will take in light of reports that communities in Argyll and Bute have not been fully advised by Highlands and Islands Enterprise and BT regarding the timescale for the rollout of superfast broadband.

S5W-00121:

To ask the Scottish Government what discussions it has had with Highlands and Islands Enterprise and BT regarding the reported dissatisfaction among communities in Argyll and Bute regarding the availability of superfast broadband and the provision of information about this to the public.