EDUCATION secretary Michael Russell was accused of "meddling" in matters outside his remit last night after leaked e-mails revealed he had intervened personally with SNP councillors in the area where he hopes to win a seat later this year over a controversial plan to close schools.
• Michael Russell: Warned SNP councillor of 'political damage'
In the e-mail, sent to an SNP councillor in Argyll and Bute Council, Mr Russell calls for the Nationalist group there urgently to re-think its position on a series of school closures, warning that the plans "could be very destructive to our reputation and prospects".
He then makes it clear to the councillor, Donald Macdonald, that the SNP group should consider leaving the local government coalition in Argyll rather than face the "political damage" of being associated with a series of unpopular closures.
The intervention is controversial, as the MSPs' code of conduct stipulates that they should not intervene in matters outside their own constituency or region unless by prior agreement.
Opposition parties also said Mr Russell had now compromised his position as education secretary, as the closures programme could be "called in" by the Scottish Government. His aides pointed out last night that Mr Russell had already said he would not be taking part in such a decision if it comes.
Mr Russell, an MSP for the South of Scotland, is standing as the SNP's candidate in the Argyll and Bute seat this May. He already lives in the area, and the e-mail reveals that he has taken a considerable interest in the local school closure programme.
He notes how he has been "trying to speak" to Robert MacIntyre, the party's leader on the council, "as a matter of urgency" over the matter. Mr Russell's call for the SNP group to change its position was reflected by a U-turn not long after.
Mr Russell also writes that he had raised an alternative closure plan with another SNP councillor to close "eight or nine" schools which, he argues, could have been done "with minimal difficulty".
He claims that at least one council official at Argyll and Bute "has been briefing against me… and instructing local headteachers not to co-operate with me." He concludes: "They have no idea of the firestorm they are going to create."
Mr Russell was also criticised last night as the e-mail came from his Scottish parliamentary account. Labour MSP for the Highlands and Islands Rhoda Grant said: "The only reason Mr Russell sent this e-mail is because he is worried about what the closures will do for his personal election prospects.
"He has been caught using Scottish Parliament resources to boost his election campaign in a constituency he does not represent in parliament," she said.
She added: "Most worryingly, he has compromised himself in a similar way to Vince Cable. As education minister, his department may have to rule impartially on whether the closures go ahead."An SNP spokesman said: "Mr Russell was simply replying to an e-mail, no more and no less, and as he himself said, was not acting in a ministerial capacity."