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Worse than Watergate?

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Was the Butterstone scandal worse than one of the biggest political conspiracies of all time?

On one level, no. Clearly not. Watergate involved a superpower and geopolitical ramifications that extended across the globe. Scotland is not a superpower and in political or military terms can hardly be considered to be a ‘power’ at all. We wield little influence, and what happens here is of little concern to the vast majority of the world’s population.

So, in terms of scale and impact, the answer is an emphatic no.

But the level and complexity of the alleged corruption that brought down TNS transcends what may appear to be merely parochial concerns.

The charge is that a small independent special school was forced to close as a result of an unstated, and thus undeclared government policy to remove from parents the opportunity for their children to attend school rather than sitting at home or lying in some hospital bed. The right to choose a specialist provision may be enshrined in legislation but that is troublesome in times of austerity when council coffers have been bled dry and pupil needs are rising. Something needed to change even if it meant that children were just to be regarded as ‘collateral damage’ and robbed of their education and care.

It would take a strong political leader to repeal that clause in the 2004 Education Act and as we have found over recent months, strong political leaders in these times simply do not exist. Weaker professionals exploit their power and influence to achieve their own ends, but at the expense of others, and via the channels that are open to them as a result of their positions. It happens in government, and it happens within local authorities.

So, to remove the financial ‘inconvenience’ of TNS, and the hope that if offered to those who had no future, all that is required is for some proxy excuse to be identified and then for measures to be enforced to ensure that the doors are closed and fee payments terminated.

The default option where children’s services are concerned is ‘safeguarding’. Use that and everyone just nods and accepts that whatever harm may be done by closing a service can be more than justified by the harm that has been prevented in doing so. There is no need for ‘evidence’ or facts. A bit of fake news will do just the job.

This would would be nigh on impossible if the regulators were independent of local and national government and were genuinely enslaved by the requirement that decision-making should be based on empiricism rather than innuendo. But this is Scotland, a small country, where senior positions are inter-changeable and thus organisations susceptible to cultural contamination. Look at the boards of the Care and Education inspectorates and you will find individuals indoctrinated in local authority practice, where less attention is paid to delivering services than generating the propaganda that might suggest to the naïve that good is actually being done.

It is sad to reflect that on the 20th anniversary of the first Scottish Parliament, our public institutions appear to be so contaminated that they are unable to service the public ahead of their own ‘political masters’. This is not what Donald Dewar envisaged in 1999.

In terms of the TNS scandal, no money has changed hands but finance is at the root of everything that has taken place. Deep Throat would be advising investigators not to follow the money but to follow the budget deficit.

Perth & Kinross Council was unable to stem the flow to TNS of young people failed by their own system and it did not have the personnel in place who had sufficient stature and expertise to convince anxious parents that mainstream provision could do just the job required to meet those needs. Their successive defeats at tribunal over recent years are evidence of that, as is their abject failure to establish an alternative service once TNS did close its doors. There are plenty of managers in PKC, but there is not a single leader amongst them.

Parents were lied to and told tales of wondrous new provisions that simply did not materialise. They stood back and judged PKC officers in the same way that they did the emails received from Nigerian widows begging that their bank accounts be used to ‘rest’ money or receive multi-million pound donations. TNS parents are not naïve.

TNS clearly paid the price for PKC failings, but none of this could have happened without the support and endorsement of the national regulators and people at very high levels in government and it is a very happy coincidence for PKC that they sit so closely with both the Care Inspectorate and Education Scotland and that their leaderships appear to be so fluid and complementary.

It was John Swinney who imposed conditions on the school, and it was his actions which led to the withdrawal of the Witherslack Group from a takeover agreement that had appeared to guarantee its future. He stated on several occasions that there had been, “serious child protection concerns”, which caused him to act as he did but now that the dust has settled is unable to name a single one. He now claims that it was finance rather than political pressure that forced closure, but no-one seems convinced. Not even members of his own party.

The Board of Governors slammed the school doors shut in 5 days explaining that they did so because of, “intolerable pressure from the regulators”, but both the Care Inspectorate and Education Scotland now deny that they had any part to play in that decision and in the immense harm caused to vulnerable children and their families that resulted. Someone is being ‘economical with the truth’.

The motive for Watergate was political gain and involved the theft of information from political opponents. The outcry that resulted was caused by genuine anger that America’s democratic system was under threat and that certain boundaries in what has always been a dirty contest, should never be crossed.

Those who forced Butterstone to close pose the same level of threat to this country. If we and our political representatives cannot trust the regulators, then we cannot trust the information they provide about how well, or how badly, our country is doing. They did not ‘steal information’ but took instead the aspiration that we had that Scotland might be a progressive country and a leading light amongst smaller nations as we move towards independence.

They stole the hopes and dreams of vulnerable children who had formed powerful and long-lasting relationships with dedicated staff and peers that would have set them up for life.

And in carrying-out this raid on the goodwill and humanity of the school community, they vandalised the professional reputations of those decent people who stood in their way, and who had done no harm to others.

Butterstone was not Watergate. The harm done in America was to national pride and the confidence that American people could have in their leaders. The cost of the TNS scandal was in many ways so much worse.

Scotland has not only lost a unique and very special school community, but it has lost any justification for being comfortable with itself and for believing that our current political leaders and institutions can deliver an independence that is worth fighting for.

Independence, yes. If that is what the Scottish public wants. But not at any price.


Bill Colley