Some questions that can now be asked about the Scottish-Chinese investment deal

My blog post on The curious case of the trade deal in the night  – China and Scotland attracted some unfavourable comment from SNP supporters. When I invited comparison in a jokey late night Twitter poll between it and Kezia Dugdale’s purported ‘SNP job’, James Dornan SNP MSP said

both stories are non events. No ‘dodgy dealing’ [the Chinese deal] and a ‘who cares’ [Dugdale].

He may come to regret both judgements.

Good Morning Scotland on BBC Radio Scotland today suggested that the Chinese deal may indeed turn out to be an ‘event.’ Their political correspondent Glenn Campbell had secured an interview with Sir Richard Heygate, adviser to the Chinese companies involved. For the next month you can see the full interview here, beginning at 01:36:00.

These are the key words from Glenn Campbell’s piece for my current purpose.

GC: He’s [Sir Richard] talking about affordable housing projects in Falkirk, Edinburgh and in East Ayrshire … 5,000 homes. He says they’re also interested in building a biomass plant [and] an unspecified large railway project … He stressed that construction could actually begin within a one year timeframe …  Sir Richard says they are (sic) talking with the Scottish Government for a year. They signed the memorandum of understanding last month … Sir Richard regards the first minister as an enthusiastic partner …

RH: She was just absolutely positive right from the start and we presented a number of particular projects. She just went straight for the ones that are the most important

and when taxed about allegations from the ethics committee of Norway’s pension fund of bribery and corruption involving a subsidiary of one of the companies:

RH: No idea … I don’t know anything about it.

So to start with, the first step I previously assumed in the events leading to the signing of the memorandum of understanding (MOU) can be amended. My:

  • Prior to 21 March – (presumably) contact and negotiation, amount and nature unknown, between the parties concerned

can now become

  • March 2015-March 2016 – talks between Scottish government and Chinese companies, amount and nature [still] unknown.

This additional titbit of information, once again like news of the MOU itself, comes from the Chinese side. Neither the government nor first minister nor SNP at the time of the signing or since have said anything about those discussions.

Both sides, since news of the MOU emerged, have stressed that it is only a memorandum, not a legally binding agreement. So now we can begin to ask some questions that need answers.

  • Who initiated contact about the possibility of a deal and how?
  • Prior to the MOU being signed, who was involved in discussion and negotiation from the Scottish side, and when? In particular, which politicians and civil servants?
  • When did the first minister, so ‘absolutely positive right from the start’ (Heygate) know of and become involved in the discussions?
  • Who identified the specific projects that have been mentioned?
  • Who would be involved in those projects and on what basis?
  • If a mere MOU, which everyone stresses is not legally binding or much more than a general statement of aspiration, took a whole year to agree and sign, how is it possible for ‘construction [to] actually begin within a one year timeframe’ from now?
  • Since responsibilities for planning and much else besides rests with local authorities what involvement, if any, have Falkirk, Edinburgh and East Ayrshire councils had in those projects where construction could begin within a year?
  • What due diligence has been carried out on the Chinese partners by the Scottish government? Did it reveal the concerns about bribery and corruption? How was any risk assessed before the MOU was signed?

I’ve no doubt many other questions could be asked, especially about the fine detail of what Sir Richard Heygate (6th baronet, Repton School and Balliol College Oxford, aged 76) did and didn’t say about Chinese companies and the Chinese government. But that’s not for me, although I have to say he did sound a bit of an old smoothie, and a salesman to boot. Just the sort for the SNP to get on with.

Finally, I referred to James Dornan’s comment of ‘who cares?’ on the Kezia Dugdale story (she’s said to have applied for a job/work experience with the SNP 13/14 years ago when she was a student). We now know his colleague Richard Lochhead MSP cares because, according to the Daily Record, he leaked the information about Dugdale to them.

I mention it only because these, and many more stories, seem to be part of a pattern.

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