THE college chairman who quit his job after Mike Russell accused him of secretly recording a meeting tonight claimed that senior figures in the education sector fear losing their livelihoods if they speak out against the Scottish Government minister.
• Kirk Ramsay resigned as chairman of Stow College on Tuesday
• Education Secretary criticised Mr Ramsay over his recording of a private meeting
• Opposition parties angry at committee convener for not recalling Mike Russell
Kirk Ramsay, the former Stow College chairman, made his claims as opposition parties called for Holyrood’s education committee to mount an investigation into claims that Mr Russell, the education secretary, has presided over a culture of bullying and intimidation in further
Mr Ramsay quit his post on Tuesday night, just days after Mr Russell demanded that he stand down and accused him of
secretly taping a “confidential” meeting that they had both attended.
But earlier today, it emerged that the minutes of the meeting of college chiefs to discuss budget cuts are publicly accessible on the website of Scotland’s Colleges, the umbrella organisation that represents institutions in the sector.
Earlier tonight, Mr Ramsay asked: “How can it be confidential when the notes of the meeting are in the public
domain? It’s absurd to suggest that you can have confidentiality when the notes are available.”
The clamour for an investigation came after the SNP education committee convener Stewart Maxwell decided against recalling the education secretary to the committee to give evidence about his conduct.
Mr Maxwell was accused of acting “in a partisan way” by
fellow committee members, who were angered that he was not prepared to take action to get to the bottom of the damaging row that resulted in the
departure of Mr Ramsay.
The SNP said holding an inquiry into the row would be a “waste of time”.
But speaking to The Scotsman, Mr Ramsay claimed that people were afraid to criticise the education secretary in public.
Asked why others had not spoken out against Mr Russell, Mr Ramsay said: “Does that not tell its own story? There’s no question people are scared and fear for their livelihoods.”
When the claims were put to a Scottish Government spokesman, he responded by saying: “There is a clear distinction between producing notes of a meeting and secret recording of discussions without anyone’s knowledge. Mr Russell’s views on this have been clear, and he considers the matter closed.”
Mr Ramsay’s allegation was backed up by a source working within the college sector, who did not want to be named.
The source said that the Scottish Government had regarded Stow College as a “thorn in the side” after the institution walked away from a series of merger talks.
“Morale is low in the sector for a number of reasons – cuts, reorganisation,” he said. “There are issues with the way the government is trying to drive through change. There seems to be an unwillingness by people to go on the record about Mike Russell – you won’t find any college principals willing to go on the record.
“To say that the way he [Mr Russell] deals with things is
direct is an understatement.
“This is an episode he has won – that’s not going to encourage people to go on the record and say Mike Russell is a bully.”
First Minister Alex Salmond has publicly backed his education secretary. Mr Salmond said: “It wasn’t Mike Russell that put the recording device into the meeting, it was the former chairman of Stow College, and I think he’s done the right thing in resigning.
“Mike Russell made it very clear he had no power to remove the chairman, the chairman made his own decision. I think a lot of people would find it curious behaviour to secretly record meetings.”
When he quit, Mr Ramsay said he had suffered “an unwarranted personal attack” on his reputation.
At Holyrood, there was anger when Mr Maxwell decided against calling Mr Russell back to the education committee.
A letter, signed by Labour, Conservative and Liberal Democrat members of the committee, called for an immediate inquiry into Mr Russell’s conduct.
The letter said: “We are concerned at what appears to be a culture of secrecy, bullying and intimidation characterising the Cabinet secretary’s relationship with parts of the college sector in Scotland.”
The issue surfaced again during a Conservative-led debate on college funding cuts yesterday.
Opening the debate, Tory education spokeswoman Liz Smith said: “None of us in this chamber, except the Cabinet secretary himself, is in a position to know what the full facts about the management of this meeting were, and perhaps even more importantly, about what communications have taken place.
“Given the claims and counter-claims within the sector, that there are allegations of cultural bullying from the Cabinet secretary, I would suggest there is now a case to answer and that the Cabinet secretary is called before the education committee.”
Ms Smith was also critical of the role played by Mr Maxwell, saying: “I do not consider it appropriate for the convener of any parliamentary committee, who may, after all, have to act as the arbiter on this matter, to be judge and jury at the same time.”
“Any convener’s first responsibility is to his or her committee, and this is even more important when there is majority government.”
The Labour education spokesman Hugh Henry said: “What we have seen from this Cabinet secretary and this government is dictation and dictatorship and imposition and a failure to discuss and take people with them.”
The Stow College row “paints the Cabinet secretary in a bad light”, he told parliament.
“He has used unacceptable tactics to get his way,” he said. “He has tried to intimidate when discussion would have been far, far better.”
Liberal Democrat MSP Liam McArthur said the “astonishing events” had undermined confidence and morale.
“By summoning the chair of Stow College to a meeting last week and demanding his resignation, Mr Russell effectively assumed a power of direction by proxy,” he said.
Despite the accusations, Mr Russell did not respond in parliament to the call to appear before the committee. The education secretary said Labour and the Tories were displaying “extraordinary negativity”.
Another Nationalist member of the SNP-dominated education committee dismissed her opponents’ call for an
Clare Adamson, SNP MSP for Central Scotland, said: “At a time when the education committee is conducting an inquiry into the circumstances of vulnerable children being taken into care, it is very sad that opposition members want to waste the committee’s time with political point-scoring – particularly when none of the facts in this case are in dispute and all the facts are already in the public domain.
“Colleges have played a valuable – and often critical – role in the committee’s recent inquiry into the reform of the college sector, where they shared their views openly and colleges have also been clearly heard in our scrutiny of the budget.”