THE SNP government was forced into making a humiliating double apology last night after Alex Salmond admitted figures he used to claim funding to Scotland’s colleges was increasing were wrong and had misled parliament.
• Alex Salmond issues apology over ‘incorrect’ college budget funding figures
• Labour leader attacks education secretary during First Minister’s Questions
• Mike Russell under pressure after resignation of Stow College chairman
• Alex Salmond’s funding claims scrutinised
The First Minister apologised to MSPs hours after he had told them four times that he was increasing funding for Scotland’s college sector this year, in what he said was “about as exact an answer as anybody has given to any parliament”.
Within minutes of the initial statement, Labour had produced Scottish Government figures in the name of education secretary Mike Russell which contradicted Mr Salmond’s claims, admitting that revenue funding for colleges was actually falling this year.
Mr Salmond said his education
secretary would also be writing to the Presiding Officer to apologise after telling Labour MSP Hamzala Malik in June that there was “no reduction” in college funding.
Labour last night claimed the First Minister had been caught out over cutbacks to Scotland’s college sector, which is taking the brunt of real-term cuts to the Scottish Government’s budget over the coming years, and asked whether Scots can “ever believe a word Alex
Salmond says again?”.
Opposition parties also stepped up calls for the sacking of Mr Russell, who is already under pressure following “bullying” claims in the wake of the resignation of former Stow College chairman Kirk Ramsay.
The contradiction in Holyrood yesterday prompted chaotic scenes in parliament with aides to the First Minister unable to either substantiate Mr Salmond’s comments or confirm whether or not the college budget was falling or rising.
Mr Salmond then returned to the parliament chamber to concede that his earlier claims had been unfounded.
“I apologise to the chamber for the error,” he said. The education secretary had told MSPs as far back as June that college funding would see “no reduction” this year, but will only apologise now, in the wake of yesterday’s fiasco.
Mr Salmond’s aides also laid the blame for the fiasco squarely on Mr Russell’s department, saying the incorrect figures had been handed to the First Minister by officials in the education department and had then been repeated by him “in good faith”.
The row exploded during the weekly session of First Minister’s Questions (FMQs) after Labour leader Johann Lamont had asked whether Mr Russell had been right or had misled parliament when, in June, he had told Mr Malik that “there is no reduction in funding for colleges in financial year 2012-13”.
Mr Salmond replied: “He was correct. The resource funding position for colleges is £545m in 2011-12 and it is £546m in 2012-13.”
Ms Lamont said Mr Salmond’s answer was incorrect, saying the truth was that “college budgets have been cut this year”. She repeated the same question to Mr Salmond, who hit back: “An increase from £545m to a £546m resource budget is, by definition, an increase in funding. Incidentally, that is about as an exact an answer as anybody has given in any parliament.”
He then added that colleges and universities in Scotland were being “extraordinarily well funded in comparison with the colleges and universities south of the Border”, saying the Labour leader should retract her call for Mr Russell’s head, before quoting from the figures twice more.
However, within minutes of the end of the session, Labour was circulating documents published by Mr Russell which showed Mr Salmond’s figures were incorrect.
Tables published by the education department showed that the First Minister had compared a preliminary estimate for the college budget in 2011-12 with the revised final figure for the college budget in 2012-13.
In both 2011-12 and 2012-13, the final revised figure had gone up, as ministers added more cash to the college budget compared to their initial plans. In 2011-12, the figure rose from £545m to £555.7m.
Consequently, while Mr Salmond had claimed that the budget had risen from £545m in 2011-12 to £546m in 2012-13, the correct comparison between the two revised final figures showed the budget falling from £555.7m to £546.4m, a drop of £9.3m.
The figures had also already been confirmed by a document handed to the Scottish Parliament’s public audit committee by Mr Russell at the end of October. In a letter to the committee, Mr Russell had concluded: “In summary, college resource funding has fallen slightly between 2011-12 and 2012-13.”
With Labour MSPs demanding a statement, Mr Salmond then returned to the chamber at 5pm to acknowledge the figures he had given were wrong.
He said: “Let me make clear I take full responsibility for what I say in this chamber, therefore I have taken this earliest opportunity to correct the figure. The figure should have been £556m, not £545m, and I apologise to the chamber for this error.”
Ms Lamont claimed Mr Salmond’s statement was “astonishing” as she added: “After the European debacle, after this, how can we ever believe a word Alex Salmond says again?”
Labour also raised Mr Russell’s handling the Stow College chief row. Mr Ramsay quit earlier this week following a call by Mr Russell to resign after it emerged the former college chairman had “secretly” recorded a meeting between the education secretary and college heads.
Ms Lamont added: “This week, Mike Russell told a college chair that he should resign because he no longer had any trust in him. No-one can have any trust in Mike Russell after this week.”