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The Scottish Executive can’t be blamed for prisoner release, but that doesn’t mean it won’t be.

Last week, Jack McConnell finally gave up any pretence that he’s collectively responsible for what takes place in UK government departments. Charles Clarke may be a minister in the same administration, but McConnell made no attempt to apologise or minimise the prisoner release scandal.

He told MSPs at Question Time that he was ?angry and disappointed? about the danger to public safety in Scotland from dangerous criminals, who should have been deported, walking the streets. Let loose, er, by a Labour ministerial colleague.

But there’s no love lost between the Scottish Executive and the Home Office. Charles Clarke’s rebuff to McConnell’s Fresh Talent initiative and the practice of dawn raids on Scottish asylum seekers like the Vucaj family had created tensions between the two departments of state. But there’s been nothing like this before. Prisoner release is the most serious breach of trust between Edinburgh and Westminster since devolution, and it will not be forgotten.

The fact that the Home Office hadn?t informed the Scottish Prison Service about the cock up when it came to light last Summer has infuriated ministers. Their inability, still, to get any coherent answers from the Home Office about what is going on now has left aides to the FM fuming. ?There?s no way this could happen here?, said one senior source. ?Scottish ministers are too hands on?.

There?s feeling in the Scottish Executive that UK ministers spend too much of their time lunching with journalists and getting involved in PR exercises and presentational politics, like anti-terrorism initiatives. They lose touch with the practical business of ensuring that their departments do the job they are supposed to do.

I?m not entirely sure that?s fair – the FM is no stranger to media driven politics – and the Scottish Executive is quite capable of losing prisoners – just think of the prisoner transfer scheme and Reliance. But they may have a point about being closer to the action, as it were, in Scotland and more able to keep in closer touch with what’s going on in their departments. Certainly, bureaucratic behemoths like the Home Office seem to be suffering from more than a “systemic crisis” as Charles Clarke put it. More like a loss of the will to live.

Scottish MSPs and officials seemed genuinely amazed at how the Immigration and Nationality Directorate (IND ) managed to ?lose? over a thousand dangerous foreign prisoners, many of whom should have been deported on their release from jail. You would have thought, given the rows over asylum seekers and illegal immigration, that the HOme Office would have gone to any lengths to prevent it appearing as if dangerous foreign criminals, even those who had served their time, were walking the streets when they should have been sent to their countries of origin. What better propaganda for the BNP?

At least the IND knew where these particular foreigners were when they were released from prison. The courts make a point of identifying them and recommending their deportation when they are sentenced. How could they mislay them? It seems that the IND was informed by the prison authorities, but simply failed to meet its obligation to assess these murderers, rapists and drug dealers for deportation. Moreover, even after this failure came to light nearly a year ago, the IND continued to lose track of them and 288 were released into the community.

Immigration is, of course, a Westminster responsibility and the Scottish Executive is not under criticism here. The Scottish prison service was able to confirm that all of the 188 such prisoners released last year were processed and 26 deported. But they could give no assurances that some of those released in England hadn?t made their way north. And the trouble for the Executive is that this creates an impression in Scotland of incompetence which is not their fault.

And it’s not the only area of government activity in which there has been spillover to Scotland. Any Schadenfreude among Scottish ministers at the discomfort of the UK Health Secretary, Patricia Hewitt last week, is tempered by worry that the voters will fail to differentiate between the Scottish and English NHS reforms.

Scottish ministers believe they have been vindicated in not importing the new internal market. The upheaval in England should have given the Scottish NHS a breathing space to push ahead with its own reforms and try to show that the ?collaborative approach? is indeed preferable to a market free-for-all. But over the next couple of years, the English media will be dominated by NHS job losses and hospital closures and the voters may not understand the difference. Anyway, as we’ve seen in Glasgow and now Lanarkshire, problems over hospital closures continue north of the border.

Then there is sleaze. The cash for peerages scandal, like cash for access and the loans scandal has caused huge damage to Labour and politics in general. Yet, the Scottish Parliament is the lease sleazy executive in the democratic world. Holyrood scandals – like Henry McLeish?s constituency allowance muddle and David McLetchie’s taxi expenses – are trivial compared with millions of secret loans to Tony Blair?s election fund, or the award of honours for services to city academies. But the Labour Party in Scotland can?t help being damaged by the scandals that fill the papers and BBC news bulletins which are read and seen in Scotland.

Jack McConnell tried to seize the initiative last week by calling time on the regime which allows MSPs to profit from the capital gain on houses bought with their living allowances. It won him few friends in any party, but he was right to make a principled stand on the issue. In London, MPs have made fortunes out of house price inflation, and some of them have practically become virtual property developers with strings of flats financed by the public purse.

At a time when young families cannot afford to buy houses it is simply unacceptable for elected politicians to be making windfall profits out of this. But Labour may derive little political benefit from this. Politics is a rough old game, and public opinion doesn’t deal in fairness.

The fact is that Labour in Scotland is becoming associated in the public mind with scandal and incompetence. The collapse of the Labour vote in Dunfermline, and now in the Moray by-election, shows the real danger that Jack McConnell faces next May when Holyrood goes up for election. The voting public is becoming phobic about Labour, and isn?t seemingly in any mind to give the Scottish Labour Party credit, even where it is due.

A year ago a biography of McConnell was published calling him @lucky Jack@”. It seems to have run out.

About @iainmacwhirter

I'm a columnist for the Herald. Author of "Road to Referendum" and "Disunited Kingdom". Was a BBC TV and radio presenter for 25 years - "Westminster Live" and "Holyrood Live" mainly. Spent time as columnist for The Observer, Guardian, New Statesman. Former Rector of Edinburgh University. Live in Edinburgh and spend a lot of time in the French Pyrenees. Will that do?


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