It has been a hot week for Scotland’s education minister, Mike Russell. And it got notably hotter yesterday for First Minister Alex Salmond as he faced a fearsome interrogation from Labour opposition leader Johann Lamont on conflicting figures given to the Scottish Parliament on college funding.
Just a storm over statistics? While it is critically important that figures are robust and that the Scottish Parliament is given the correct ones in debate, this row does have much wider resonance, and for two reasons.
The first is the context: after a highly charged row resulting in the resignation of the chairman of Stow College, Glasgow, following allegations from the education secretary that he had “secretly” recorded a meeting with the use of a “spy pen”, Mr Russell has come under fire for a bullying and intimidating style that is not at all well-received in the education sector. The concern is that his manner may be doing damage to the functioning of the education system and relations between those at the top of the sector and the government.
The second reason this row has resonance is that it feeds a charge of cavalier insouciance by ministers towards the parliament.
It was a day of embarrassment for the First Minister. He told parliament four times that he was increasing funding for Scotland’s college sector this year, only to have to eat his words. Of course, it is absolutely true that he relies on the figures given to him and if there are errors, they are not his fault. And he is a combative politician. But the manner in which he continually repeated his assertion, without the shadow of room for doubt even when he was quoted his own education minister’s words, shows his considerable belief in his own infallibility. He didn’t even acknowledge the possibility that he might be in a hole and kept on digging.
A pertinent question would be whether it is reasonable to expect the First Minster to know the general direction college funding is going in even if he does not have the figures embedded in his mind. But at least when his error was proved in an undeniable way he turned up in the chamber and apologised.
But the real criticism can be saved for Mr Russell. In June, he told MSPs in the chamber that college funding was rising this year. He then, in a letter in October, admitted that college funding was being cut. Are we to believe that Mr Russell had forgotten he told MSPs the opposite only months earlier?
But once the discrepancy had been finally proved, Mr Russell did not even have the respect for parliament or the common decency to do the right thing and apologise in the chamber. Or even put out a statement. This is a man who is under fire for operating in a high-handed way after a very public row which saw the resignation of a college principal. His behaviour here shows no acknowledgment of the errors of his actions. Is he really the sort of minister Scotland wants?
Banks’ £66bn insurance policy
How can £66 billion disappear? Quite easily, apparently, if you stand as rescuer of last resort to a broken banking system.
Four years ago, when experts thought they knew the full extent of the banking crisis, the hope was that, in the fullness of economic recovery, RBS and Lloyds Banking Group would have been in a position to pay back most of the government rescue money made available to them.
Unfortunately, no such recovery has unfolded, and, according to a new assessment, the £66bn taxpayers put in may never be seen again. Much of this support took the form of immediate working capital and guarantees to give confidence to the rest of the banking system that loans to and deposits with the banks would be honoured. In fact, some of these guarantees are no longer necessary and some progress has been made by way of repayment and guarantee release. In addition to this, new regulations require banks to hold much more capital in reserve as a cushion against further crises.
The alternative to this support would have been a wholesale collapse of the banking system at a cataclysmic cost to borrowers, depositors, the government and the wider economy. The £66bn could be seen as the biggest insurance premium ever written in banking history. While further reimbursement will come in time, the Bank of England left no-one in any doubt this week that the recovery is going to be a long and winding one. At least we have the basics of two functioning banks. But at the cost of £66bn, that is a very expensive fix, and still the taxpayers are left with the feeling that they are the only ones footing the bill for many people’s misdeeds.