Labour demands SNP minister Jeane Freeman face PFI inquiry

A collapsed wall at Oxgangs Primary School in Edinburgh, one of the schools involved in the PFI controversy. Photograph: PA
A collapsed wall at Oxgangs Primary School in Edinburgh, one of the schools involved in the PFI controversy. Photograph: PA
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Labour has called for an SNP minister to give evidence to an inquiry into the multi-million pound private finance initiative (PFI) school building programme after documents emerged detailing her role in its development.

Jeane Freeman, who was elected to the Scottish Parliament in May and is now minister for social security, was previously in charge of a civil service division that helped drive the construction and renovation of dozens of schools through PFI.

The deals, which have seen private contractors reap large guaranteed annual payments including interest, came under the spotlight when 17 Edinburgh schools built under PFI were shut after potentially dangerous building faults were discovered. An inquiry by Edinburgh Council is about to begin, and Nicola Sturgeon has said “questions must be asked” about privately financed infrastructure.

Ahead of the Holyrood election, Freeman wrote articles critical of Labour’s record on PFI – without acknowledging her own involvement. An SNP spokesman said she could not have done so without breaching the Civil Service Code preventing disclosures of official information.

A Labour source said: “Jeane Freeman showed an incredible level of brass neck on this. Pretending to be holier than though when she was driving the project takes an exceptional level of double-think.”

Since its election in 2007, the SNP has been fiercely critical of the Labour-led administrations that championed PFI schemes. However, documents show that in 2000-2001, as head of the Scottish Executive’s schools division, she wrote to councils encouraging them to submit “bundled” proposals for multiple PFI schools, and inviting bids for government money to support them.

While the Edinburgh contract was launched before her time as a civil servant, the Scottish Government is currently trying to recoup public investment in a wider range of private finance deals.

On 15 April, Freeman wrote that politicians were afraid to admit their responsibility for PFI because it “might make too many people in Scotland realise just how incapable they are of running a ménage, never mind a government.” She also attacked PFI as “a ‘get rich quick’ scheme for the private sector”. In another article, after calls for a public inquiry, she asked: “Will those very inquiries call to account the politicians who embraced PFI so enthusiastically?”

A Labour spokesman said that given Freeman’s previous role, “it is to be expected that she would give evidence to any government or parliamentary committee inquiry”.

An SNP spokesman said: “Jeane Freeman’s work in this area was as a departmental civil servant – not a special adviser – implementing the policy ordered by ministers in the government at the time.”

Freeman did not make any further comment when contacted by Scotland on Sunday.