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Influencing Justice reforms in Scotland worth ‘price of a mortgage allowance’ as MacAskill’s ministerial aide gets £688 a month to fund capital flat

26 Jan

nigel_donNigel Don MSP, who is a Ministerial aide to Justice Secretary Kenny MacAskill, and also sits on Holyrood’s Justice Committee as well as the Petitions Committee, has been revealed to be receiving some £688 a month from the taxpayer to pay for a mortgage on a flat in Edinburgh, after being reportedly involved in “coordinating” £765,000 in property deals to claim a controversial mortgage allowance”, according to an investigation in the Sunday Herald newspaper.

From the Sunday Herald story : “Nationalist MSP Nigel Don was unable to claim mortgage interest on a flat in Edinburgh as he lived in Dundee – which was too close to Holyrood for the subsidy.

But the SNP politician sold his family home of 19 years, bought a house in Aberdeen and then used his new found eligibility for the taxpayer-funded perk to buy a property in the capital”

The deals were completed a month before an independent review of MSP allowances backed the abolition of the mortgage scheme last year.”

Mr Don recently appeared in video footage released from the Parliament, involving an important ‘access to justice’ petition, seeking to widen rights of audience in Scotland’s courts, and widen public choice of legal services.

However, Mr Don’s rebuttal to the Committee on the aims of Petition 1197, drew sharp breaths of curiosity as his comments went on to seemingly undermine and misinform members of the Petitions Committee as to the actual aims of the access to justice Petition, which you can listen to in the following video:

Nigel Don MSP gets it very wrong on Bill Alexander’s ‘access to justice’ Petition

In view of Mr Don’s remarks, it seems an unusual Ministerial ‘correction’ was in order, as Justice Secretary Kenny MacAskill was forced to slap down Mr Don’s lengthy comments in the above video, the required Ministerial ‘correction’ apparently coming after my earlier report on the matter which you can read here : Scottish Parliament calls for ‘access to justice’ moves as solicitors struggle to maintain monopoly on legal business

MacAskill tight lippedJustice Secretary Kenny MacAskill. Mr MacAskill, in his own submission to Holyrood’s Petitions Committee, which is available on the Scottish Parliament’s website HERE ended his letter to the Parliament with a surprising rebuke to Mr Don, claiming his own Parliamentary aide had got it wrong on the subject matter of the access to justice Petition which was under discussion.

MacAskill to Petitions Committee 311208 Page 3Justice Secretary Kenny MacAskill was forced to correct Nigel Don’s 2½minute speech to Petitions Committee : “During the discussion, Nigel Don MSP suggested that the petitioner was looking “for individuals to represent themselves in the higher courts”. “However, the Government’s understanding is that Mr Alexander is petitioning for wider rights of audience so that suitable people can represent third parties in the courts with fewer restrictions than those appertaining at present.”

The overall tone of Mr MacAskill’s letter however, was still against the terms of the access to justice petition raised by Bill Alexander, Chairman of the Association of Commercial Attorneys, indicating at the very least, rather than Mr Don’s comments being a simple ‘misunderstanding’ of the Petition, Mr Don as Mr MacAskill’s Parliamentary aide would have been well aware of the Scottish Government’s policy against Petition 1197 going forward, and the Justice Secretary’s continuing attempts to block wider public access to justice in Scotland, in favour of supporting a continued Law Society monopoly on legal services.

I have reported on the Scottish Government & Mr MacAskill’s attitude towards reform to legal services & access to justice in Scotland, here : Non-lawyer rights of audience approved ‘with restrictions’ as Scottish Government continues to waver on access to justice reforms

Hands up anyone who could do with £688 a month to pay their mortgage ? Perhaps you should put in a nice letter to the Scottish Parliament, or someone in the SNP Government .. just don’t go writing letters to Kenny MacAskill asking for Justice on your case, because he’s too busy dodging his responsibilities to the rest of us if we aren’t colleagues in the legal profession …

Here follows the Sunday Herald report on Nigel Don’s £688 a month mortgage allowance paid for by you, the taxpayer.

Ministerial aide moves house … and bills taxpayers £688 a month for capital flat

A Ministerial aide has admitted “coordinating” £765,000 in property deals to claim a controversial mortgage allowance that was about to be scrapped, reveal Paul Hutcheon and Tom Gordon.

A MINISTERIAL aide has admitted “coordinating” £765,000 in property deals to claim a controversial mortgage allowance that was about to be scrapped. Nationalist MSP Nigel Don was unable to claim mortgage interest on a flat in Edinburgh as he lived in Dundee – which was too close to Holyrood for the subsidy.

But the SNP politician sold his family home of 19 years, bought a house in Aberdeen and then used his new found eligibility for the taxpayer-funded perk to buy a property in the capital.

The deals were completed a month before an independent review of MSP allowances backed the abolition of the mortgage scheme last year.

Don told the Sunday Herald that his property move were a necessary part of a plan to boost the SNP’s profile in marginal seats – with Dundee already represented by the SNP, the Nationalists wanted him to cover Aberdeen.

The MSP, who earns £55,381 a year, also described his publicly-funded mortage perk as “one of the compensations” of the job.

The revelations further discredit the Edinburgh Accommodation Allowance (EAA), which allows MSPs outwith commuting distance of the capital to charge the public for mortgage interest on a property in Edinburgh. The scheme is to be abolished in 2011.

The Sunday Herald can reveal that Don, elected to serve the North East in 2007, only became eligible for mortgage interest after a flurry of property deals.

He and his wife lived in Dundee’s west end between 1989 and 2008.

Documents from Registers of Scotland show that Don, an aide to Justice Secretary Kenny Macaskill, made himself eligible for the allowance after selling his family home for £290,000 in January 2008.

Within the space of three weeks, he bought a £310,000 property in Aberdeen – which is within the radius of support for mortgage interest – and purchased a £165,000 flat in Edinburgh.

He then started to bill the public for the mortgage costs on his capital flat on St Clair Road.

The Justice Committee member’s transactions were completed a month before an an independent review backed abolition of the mortage scheme.

MSPs have since voted to scrap the system in 2011 and no new entrants will be allowed to enter the scheme.

Don, who claimed £3281.85 in hotel costs before he became eligible for mortgage costs, can now draw on an £11,900 allowance to cover interest payments.

The Parliament’s expenses database shows that in February last year, the month before the scheme was flagged up for abolition, Don started to claim £688 a month in mortgage costs.

In the same month, the former Dundee councillor billed the taxpayer £5089 in other costs associated with his move to Edinburgh.

He claimed £1057 for conveyancing, £1499 in legal fees, £329 in removables, as well as £223 in surveyors’ costs.

As an MSP for the North East, Don is elected to represent nine constituencies in a region that runs from Dundee to Fraserburgh.

However, in an interview with the Sunday Herald, Don said he moved to Aberdeen to focus on the three constituencies that do not have an SNP base.

He said: “There are nine constituencies in the north east region, and the SNP has constituency members in six of them. The three which we don’t are West Aberdeenshire, Aberdeen Central and Aberdeen South. At a practical level, my job is to cover those kinds of areas.

“Those are the areas where the party is expecting me to do the work, because the party already has cover in the other constituencies.”

Asked whether he was aware that his move to Aberdeen would make him eligible for the mortgage perk, he said: “There’s no doubt at all that, having established that if we were moving to Aberdeen, we would be eligible for some kind of accommodation allowance in Edinburgh, yes. Plainly we were aware of that. And as you say, the two were coordinated.”

On whether he thought claiming mortgage interest was a sweetener for moving to Aberdeen, he said: “I would describe it as one of the compensations.”

His property shake-up follows LibDem MSP Jamie Stone also signing up to the mortgage interest scheme at the 11th hour.

Stone stayed in a bed-and-breakfast in Edinburgh until early 2008, when he bought a £180,000 New Town flat weeks before the independent report was published.

Don’s use of the allowances scheme emerged last week after the publication of Holyrood expenses, which the Sunday Herald can reveal also laid bare the practice of MSPs doling out public money to friends and colleagues.

A spokesman for the Taxpayers’ Alliance said: “It is shocking to that any MSP could think it was acceptable to take advantage of taxpayers’ generosity in this way. It also seems a remarkable coincidence that this gentleman should move so close to the publication of the review.”

PAUL HUTCHEON’S FULL INTERVIEW WITH NIGEL DON

PAUL HUTCHEON (PH): “Some cynincs might say your property dealings were made to make yourself eligible for mortgage interest.”

NIGEL DON (ND): “If you wanted to take that line, it would be very difficult for me to tell me you were wrong, but you are wrong. What you will realise, Paul, is that the North-East region stretches from Dundee to Fraserburgh. I was elected, much to my surprise, from my Dundee home in the very western tip of that area. It is an area far too big to cover from where I lived. What my wife and I did was to move up to Aberdeen, quite simply, to be able to do the job.

“I think you will also recognise the practical politics of that. There are nine constituencies in the north east region, and the SNP has constituency members in six of them. The three which we don’t are West Aberdeenshire, Aberdeen Central and Aberdeen South. At a practical level, my job is to cover those kinds of areas.”

PH: “So by moving to Aberdeen you were setting up a political base?”

ND: “Those are the areas where the party is expecting me to do the work, because the party already has cover in the other constituencies.”

PH: “Were you aware that by moving to Aberdeen you were making yourself eligible for mortgage interest support?”

ND: “There’s no doubt at all that, having established that if we were moving to Aberdeen, we would would be eligible for some kind of accommodation allowance in Edinburgh, yes. Plainly we were aware of that. And as you say, the two were coordinated.”

PH: “Was claiming mortgage interest a sweetener for moving to Aberdeen?”

ND: “I would describe it as one of the compensations, Paul…There was no way I could operate from Dundee.”

PH: “What would have prevented you from moving from Dundee to Aberdeen, but continuing to claim hotel expenses in Edinburgh, rather than mortgage interest?”

ND: “There would have been nothing physically to prevent me from doing so. Working out of a hotel for long is desperately difficult…it’s not a very good way of doing a job. Secondly, by the time you have been there for a while, it quickly adds up to same sort of bills.”

PH: “Your property dealings were completed weeks before the Langlands report backed the abolition of the mortgage interest scheme. Is this just a coincidence?”

ND: “I was just getting on with what had to be done. I was working within the rules of the time.”

PH: “What did you mean when you said claiming mortgage interest was a ‘compensation’?”

ND: “You suggested it was a benefit, and I downgraded it to a compensation.”

PH: “Is it not fair to say that, if Labour had held Dundee West, then you would have continued to live where you were, as there would not have been an SNP base there?”

ND: “I think that’s a perfectly fair view of what might have been. It’s a perfectly rational view.”

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