EDUCATION secretary Mike Russell was facing fresh calls to quit last night, as he claimed he only became aware he was misleading MSPs over college funding last week, despite having admitted a cut last month.
In a letter to Presiding Officer Tricia Marwick, sent last Friday and seen by The Scotsman, Mr Russell claims the errors in official figures “only came to light yesterday [Thursday]”, when Alex Salmond was forced to apologise for handing out incorrect information to the chamber.
However, on 18 October, Mr Russell sent a letter to the education committee at the parliament stating “college resource funding has fallen slightly”.
Labour seized on the latest revelations to say the minister “continues to mislead and is misleading the Presiding Officer” about the real level of college funding in his letter of apology to her.
In the letter, Mr Russell claims that any misleading of MSPs was “unintentional”. He says last week’s error was made as a result of a faulty civil service briefing.
Mr Salmond should have used “the correct figure” he himself gave to the education committee a few weeks earlier, he adds.
The letter was published as Mr Russell offered a “full and unreserved” apology to MSPs yesterday for giving the wrong information by mistake.
The education secretary admitted the error “should not have happened”, after he told parliament in June there was no cut in funding in 2012-13, when it actually fell by £9.3 million.
He said: “Let me make clear again, my apology is full and unreserved.”
But Labour last night said that the October letter to the education committee proved Mr Russell knew that funding was falling, but allowed parliament to be misled regardless.
The Ministerial Code of Conduct states any minister who “intentionally” misleads parliament should offer their resignation.
Mr Russell’s letter to Ms Marwick relates to an answer he gave to Labour MSP Hanzala Malik in June, when he claimed that funding was not being cut.
The letter states: “I would wish to apologise for unintentionally misleading the Chamber in that answer.
“There is in fact a fall of 1.7 per cent in resource funding for colleges between 2011-12 and 2012-13. As the First Minister has indicated to the chamber yesterday afternoon, the error arose as a result of wrong information provided to us which showed college funding for 2012-13 and compared it to baseline plans for 2011-12 (that is, without the inclusion of budget additions).
“This error came to light only yesterday and I have taken the earliest opportunity to inform you, whilst in addition the First Minister included the information about my mistake in his own statement yesterday.”
However, Labour last night pointed to comments by junior minister Alasdair Allan in June, who had told parliament that college funding was going down.
They said that Mr Russell’s claim that the error only came about last week was therefore unreliable.
Labour’s education spokesman, Hugh Henry, said: “This is another lie from Mike Russell. This so-called error was first pointed out to him on 28 June as a point of order in parliament when he was present.
“That is if we give him the benefit of the doubt that he didn’t know well before then. If this evidence didn’t come to light, then he must surely have realised in evidence to the education committee on 18 October.
“Mike Russell hasn’t learned one of the basic rules of politics that it’s not the crime that kills you, but the cover-up.
“Even in his apology he continues to mislead and is misleading the Presiding Officer in this letter.”
However, a spokeswoman for Mr Russell last night criticised Labour for pursuing the issue after the minister issued apologies to MSPS and the Presiding Officer.
“Mr Russell wrote to the Presiding Officer offering his apology for the error made in the parliamentary answer given to Hanzala Malik and has repeated this apology in the chamber,” the spokeswoman said. “Labour should accept this apology and focus their attentions on the important role colleges play in supporting our young people, tackling unemployment and boosting our economy.”
Meanwhile, MSPs have also discovered that, in a separate attempt to show college funding was rising over the next few years, Mr Russell counted millions of pounds of private investment cash as part of his overall spending.
He informed a Holyrood committee last month that the “total budget” for FE colleges would rise between 2011-12 and 2014-15 by £65m.
However, Audit Scotland has confirmed that Mr Russell’s figure included more than £150m of private-sector cash, which is being lined up to pay for three new college buildings in Glasgow, Kilmarnock and Inverness.
The total amount of taxpayers’ cash Mr Russell is giving to colleges will actually fall from £590m to £497m, Audit Scotland has confirmed.