‘Nothing’s affordable’: buying a home now just a dream on Arran | The Guardian


FOI Watchdog Censors Herself | Daily Record

First published on 29 March, 2016 by the Daily Record: http://www.dailyrecord.co.uk/news/politics/scottish-information-commissioner-censor-herself-7645203 

IN JUST 37 days Scotland goes to the polls to choose its new government.

Of course, the whole electoral process depends on one, utterly vital commodity – information.

We need to know who is standing and what they stand for to select our next batch of representatives but we also need to be able to hold the existing government to account.

If we don’t know how our government conduct themselves, then no amount of campaign slogans or glossy manifesto pledges will fill the democratic void we’re left with.

Fortunately, we have laws which exist to facilitate this process – Freedom of Information (FOI).

FOI allows us to ask official bodies – including the Government – to release information we consider to be in the public interest.

Often such organisations attempt to block the publication of material and, if an initial appeal fails, it falls to the Scottish information commissioner (SIC) to decide if the information should published.

In recent years, FOI disclosures have shone a light on the £7million of bonuses paid by public sector bodies in Scotland, the extent of corporate interest in fracking, serious concerns over safety at the Faslane nuclear base, and the fact the Fife police division being investigated over the death of Sheku Bayoh faced assault allegations almost every fortnight.

SIC interventions have also ensured that a number of extremely serious stories – such as government “feedback” leading to changes in a Scottish Police Authority report on officers carrying firearms – could not remain hidden from the people.

The SIC is, then, a hugely important feature of Scottish public life, charged with protecting the interests of the people and ensuring that government cannot prevent us from accessing information to which we are entitled.

But what if the opposite happened? What if the SIC hindered rather than helped accountability, openness and, ultimately, democracy?

In an extraordinary turn of events, that seems to be precisely what has happened.

In November, the website CommonSpace revealed that the SNP’s plan to impose standardised testing on schools was based on just four emails from two individuals.

This information was given to me after an FOI request to the Scottish Government.
Unfortunately, the emails were censored as the Scottish Government attempted to keep the contents secret.

The case was therefore taken to the SIC, who accepted the legitimacy of my appeal and a final decision was expected within weeks.

But then everything changed.

Last Tuesday morning, I received an email informing me that the SIC had “decided not to issue any decisions that might put forward a critical view of the ministers” prior to the Holyrood election.

The email continued: “In discussion with the head of enforcement, it has been decided to delay the issue of the decision on your case until after May 5, 2016.”

Put simply, the information I have requested may be uncomfortable for the Scottish Government so, even if the SIC agrees that it should be released, she intends to withhold it until after the votes are counted.

It doesn’t matter which political party you support – this is serious.

The people of Scotland need more information during an election campaign, not less, and it is clearly unacceptable for the SIC to initiate a policy that could lead to important information being withheld until it’s too late for voters to consider it.

FOI is vital to the functioning of our democracy, as is the absolute impartiality of the SIC.

In this case, however, it at least appears that the SIC has made a political decision and, in doing so, potentially protected the Scottish Government from criticism during an election period.

This is made all the more serious by the knowledge that purdah rules, which impose impartiality on civil servants during an election, do not apply to the SIC and have never before been invoked to delay the publication of material, critical or otherwise.

We must, therefore, ask: why now? What is it about this request that provoked such an unusual reaction?

We must also guard against any attempts to normalise this sort of situation or dismiss it as “typical politics”.

FOI is supposed to protect citizens from secretive governments and unaccountable public bodies, not shield politicians from difficult questions in the weeks before an election.

It is a right we must defend, even if that means scrutinising the very people who should be on our side.

Australia’s dark history and why it matters today

First published Jan 26, 2016 by Commonspace – https://www.commonspace.scot/articles/3332/james-mcenaney-australias-dark-history-and-why-it-matters-today

JUST 12 miles off the coast from Perth, the largest city on Australia’s western coast, lies beautiful Rottnest Island. With up to half a million visitors a year it is one of the country’s most popular holiday resorts; a quick search on Google reveals images of a beautiful island paradise, all white sands and turquoise seas nestling under perfect azure skies.

It is, without doubt, idyllic, but behind the glowing smiles and glossy photographs of the tourist brochures lies a dark past: for nearly 100 years Rottnest was an Aboriginal prison, Australia’s equivalent of Robin Island. Between 1838 and 1931 around 3,700 indigenous men and boys (some as young as seven) were incarcerated on Rottnest – 10 per cent of them died there, the victims of disease, malnutrition and torture meted out by a brutal, racist regime.

Some of the buildings within which these people were held still stand, but now they serve as luxury accommodation for tourists, with Australia’s largest mass grave just a few metres away. In so many ways, Rottnest is a crushingly effective symbol for Australia – the ‘lucky country’ whose dark history hides in plain sight.

Back in 2002 I was lucky enough to spend a month in Australia as part of a ‘world challenge expedition’ organised by my high school. Over four weeks we travelled from Adelaide to Darwin (via the mesmerising ‘red centre’ of this continent-sized country) and then on to Sydney.

We were even able to spend several days in the Mutitjulu Aboriginal community at Uluru, an experience which remains one of the greatest privileges of my life.

It was, in a word, extraordinary, but even among all the teenage excitement there was something else – a pervasive, persistent sadness which at 15 years old I did not understand, and at 29 am unable, and unwilling, to shake.

It took years to even begin to properly process the way I felt about Mutitjulu. For a long time I believed that I was responding to the obvious injustice of the historical loss and ongoing suffering of a community, and a people, whose warmth, generosity and dignity touched us all.

But the truth is worse. The truth is that my feelings at that time were, more than anything else, a pained and utterly uncomprehending response to something which I am only now, as an adult, able to name: dehumanisation. I may not have understood what I was seeing, but I knew that I hated it.

Nearly 14 years have passed since those days, yet that feeling has never really left me. It simmers away under the surface and boils over, magnified by age and the burden of understanding, whenever I read articles , watch documentaries or see speeches about the treatment of the first Australians.

And on this day each year, a day which, depending on your background and perspective, is known either as Australia Day, Invasion Day or Survival Day, it all comes flooding back.

All of this might seem far removed from the politics of this smaller, colder island, but the truth is that the dehumanisation behind Australia’s shameful treatment of its indigenous population – both historically and in the present day – is really a reflection of the British imperialist world view, the echoes of which still reverberate into the 21st century.

The reduction of those who are ‘not like us’ to beings of lesser value continues to this day, and though the means by which this is achieved are necessarily more subtle, the motivations are largely the same.

The brutal reality, whether we wish to face it or not, is that the ghosts of the Terra Nullius philosophy – which legitimised the theft of a quarter of the world because those living there were at best uncivilised and at worst sub-human – have never been exorcised, and we are all haunted by them.

In Australia this is manifested not just in the treatment of the Aboriginal people (who still die far younger than non-indigenous Australians and whose children are more likely to go to prison than to finish high school), but also in the plight of asylum seekers and refugees herded into internment camps on the islands of Nauru and Papua New Guinea.

Here, 9,000 miles away from Australia’s beautiful yet blood-soaked lands, that same inhuman ideology – forged in the fires of imperial expansion, exploitation and extermination – persists in our response to a refugee crisis which bears all the hallmarks of being the great challenge of our age. We may not have a ‘Great War’ to define us, but we are not short of suffering.

Faced with more than 50 million displaced people worldwide – many of them fleeing conflicts in which we are directly complicit – the UK Government (led by a man who saw nothing wrong with describing desperate human beings as a “swarm”) grudgingly agreed to accept 20,000 people over a five year period.

Now, when it is rumoured that Britain might move to help 3,000 of the unaccompanied child refugees in Europe (26,000 of whom arrived last year alone) the international development secretary is only willing to say that they will consider whether Britain, one of the richest nations on earth, “can do more”.

Nobody wants to see the bodies of drowned children washing up on European beaches, but so long as they are not ‘our’ children they are dehumanised, their suffering delegitimised. Just like Australia’s indigenous people they are condemned – first, foremost and forever – by their ‘otherness’.

Terra Nullius is the ideological thread which runs through so much of our interaction with the world. We – the civilised people – occupy the highest, most privileged position in a grotesque human hierarchy which has justified, and continues to justify, acts and attitudes of such inhumanity that they are as close to real evil as you are ever likely to experience.

So long as we refuse to face up to this we will be unable to learn from history, and we know what happens then: man’s continued inhumanity to man makes countless thousands mourn.

Faith, Education & the Curse of ‘Aye Been’

First published 8 Dec, 2015 by Humanitie – https://www.humanism.scot/what-we-do/humanitie/faith-education-and-the-curse-of-aye-been-by-james-mcenaney/

Spend five minutes listening to the grasping, ill-informed assertions of Scotland’s politicians and you could be forgiven for thinking that our whole education system is on the verge of collapse, the victim of ill-conceived and dangerously radical ideas.

The reality is, unsurprisingly, quite different; in truth, Scottish education is an area where genuine radicalism has been sadly lacking for far too long.

Despite our proud and progressive educational history, too many of our assumptions are now bound up in a fundamental stubbornness, an insidious conservatism which resists change for all the wrong reasons and can be summed up in just two words: ‘Aye Been’.

This attitude is the enemy of progress, encouraging us to cling to what we know even when it falls demonstrably short of our expectations and potential. It is a self-imposed ideological straightjacket masquerading as a safety net and ensuring that we continue to fail the next generation.

Despite our proud and progressive educational history, too many of our assumptions are now bound up in a fundamental stubbornness, an insidious conservatism which resists change for all the wrong reasons and can be summed up in just two words: ‘Aye Been’.

You can see this problem all over the education system, from the reluctance to properly embrace the sort of technology which has already changed the world to the ongoing obsession with ring-fenced individual subjects. Right now, government plans to introduce (or, more accurately, reintroduce) national standardised tests are casting a harsh light on our apparent inability to move beyond old, failed approaches to assessment. Plus ça change.

Another area where this mentality stifles vital debate is the question of religious faith in our schools. Viewed entirely objectively, the status quo is simply indefensible: were we building a public schooling system from scratch in the 21st Century, would anyone seriously be arguing that we should segregate four year old children based on their parents’ religion; that local authority education committees might be forced to appoint three unelected religious representatives; that children should have to be opted out of, rather than in to, religious observance; or that around a fifth of publically-maintained schools be permitted to operate openly discriminatory employment practices?

Even if such arguments were made, can we imagine a modern, democratic state with an increasingly irreligious population acquiescing to these demands if they did not have the weight of historical expectation behind them? Of course not, yet a collective blind-eye is repeatedly turned to blatant injustices because confronting them is seen as controversial, risky, difficult and – as far as politicians, policy-makers and various vested-interests are concerned – unnecessary.

It’s ‘aye been’ that way – just accept it.

A collective blind-eye is repeatedly turned to blatant injustices because confronting them is seen as controversial, risky, difficult and – as far as politicians, policy-makers and various vested-interests are concerned – unnecessary.

But sometimes change, however small, becomes possible; sometimes events have consequences which we don’t initially foresee; sometimes cracks appear in the hulking edifice of fearful stasis and through them creeps just a little light. This could – and certainly should – become one of those times.

Last year, Scotland’s 16 and 17 year olds took part in the largest democratic event in the history of this country as they were enfranchised for the 2014 referendum on Scottish independence. Across the length and breadth of our nation, young people listened, researched, debated and finally decided whether or not they thought that Scotland should be an independent country. Despite the well-worn assertions of those opposed to the move – who would have you believe that young people are a disengaged, uninformed underclass whose opinions are of no interest or value – Scotland’s youth did all of us proud by engaging with and participating in a decision which would affect their entire future.

As a consequence, 16-and-17-year-olds will now have the right to vote in all future Scottish elections. This long overdue shift is a victory in its own right, but it also opens up new and important questions about the rights and responsibilities of young people.

One of the specific areas where we should now be challenging the status quo is the issue of religious observance in schools. At present, only a parent can legally withdraw a pupil from acts of religious observance or instruction (and most parents are not fully aware of their right to do so) but this arrangement is no longer tenable – if young people are to be trusted to make decisions about the future of our whole country then surely they should have the right to decide whether or not they wish to participate in activities which may not reflect their own beliefs.

If young people are to be trusted to make decisions about the future of our whole country then surely they should have the right to decide whether or not they wish to participate in activities which may not reflect their own beliefs.

In the case of 16-18 year olds, the right to withdraw should be transferred to the students themselves, and must apply regardless of the type of school in which they are studying. If we really want young people to become Successful Learners, Confident Individuals, Responsible Citizens and Effective Contributors then they must be trusted to form their own opinions and make their own decisions.

Religious groups would likely line up with various voices from the education establishment to tell us that it can’t be done, that chaos would ensue if and when large numbers of students exercised their rights to have their beliefs respected; in doing so they would – ironically – prove that reform is urgently needed.

Such a change would be resisted precisely because it would represent a small but vital blow against the ingrained – even deliberate – complacency which shackles Scottish education. It could also prove to be a first tentative step towards challenging the normalisation of religious privilege throughout the education system by making one thing absolutely clear: ‘Aye Been’ is no longer good enough.