NICOLA Sturgeon has came under fire over half-a-billion pounds that was “missing” from Scottish Government figures on the cost of key transport projects.
The Deputy First Minister was accused of financial incompetence in a heated row surrounding underestimated costs of five projects.
During First Minister’s Questions, Scottish Labour leader Johann Lamont told MSPs the money could have funded 14,000 teachers or 16,000 nurses as she accused the Scottish Government of being “out of touch”.
Sir Peter Housden, the head of Scotland’s civil service, has already been questioned by MSPs over a £500 million disparity in the estimated cost of transport schemes.
The Scotsman revealed this week that Sir Peter, in written evidence to MSPs, said the “complexity” of the projects – which include the new Forth Crossing and Aberdeen Bypass – had led to the incorrect figures being given to Holyrood’s public audit committee.
As the spending comes under Ms Sturgeon’s role as infrastructure, investment and cities secretary, Ms Lamont said: “Nicola Sturgeon seems to be running her department with the same competence she is running the Yes campaign: she missed half a billion pounds.”
She asked if Ms Sturgeon was “being deliberately misleading” or if she is “too busy watching the Yes campaign support going down”.
The Labour leader called on Ms Sturgeon to “take responsibility” for the mistake in the reporting of the cost of the projects, which also includes improvements to the Edinburgh to Glasgow rail line, the new Borders railway, and upgrades to the M8, M73 and M74. A report by Sir Peter, permanent secretary to the Scottish Government, put the cost at between £3.28bn and £3.43bn.
However, an Audit Scotland report estimated it to be £3.8bn.
Sir Peter explained to MSPs earlier this week that while his estimate covered the cost of building the projects, the Audit Scotland figures included other costs such as land purchase and preparatory work.
Sir Peter’s evidence to the committee was branded “insulting to this parliament” by Scottish Conservative MSP Mary Scanlon.
Ms Lamont said: “I cannot believe the Scottish Government thought you could build a railway without needing to pay for the land on which it would go.”
Noting that £500m would fund 14,000 teachers or 16,000 nurses, she had a dig at the First Minister, saying it would cover the costs of “nigh-on 1,000 trips to the Ryder Cup”, which Mr Salmond visited in the US last year.
She added: “The First Minister doesn’t understand why people think he is out of touch. Shown this £500m discrepancy, he doesn’t try to explain it, he tries to explain it away. That is simply not good enough.” And she accused Ms Sturgeon of using Sir Peter as a “scapegoat”.
Ms Lamont said: “We live in an era where for too many families every penny is a prisoner, where families are putting back on supermarket shelves the treats and even basic goods they used to be able to afford.
“How in that climate can this government get it wrong by half a billion pounds?
“This is about ministerial accountability and responsibility, not scapegoating civil servants.”
However, the First Minister insisted the transport projects were an “extraordinary success”. And he dismissed Ms Lamont’s claims as “evidence the rest of Scotland would find rather tame and insubstantial”.
He added that the £500m was “one-200th of the estimated lifetime cost of the Trident missile system” which is supported by Labour.
Mr Salmond said: “The half-a-billion pounds has been spent on things like site preparation. If she doesn’t think it should be spent, by definition she doesn’t think these capital projects should have gone ahead.”
The First Minister added that Sir Peter “made quite clear there was no mistake, no misleading” when he gave evidence to the Public Audit Committee.