Scotland goes on £30m foreign spending spree

THE Scottish Government's bill for "foreign engagements" has soared by 54 per cent in the past five years. The SNP administration spent nearly £30 million on overseas expenditure in 2009-10 – £10.4 million more than in 2004-5 – according to a new Holyrood report.

• First Minister Alex Salmond meets Mohamed Nasheed, the president of the Maldives, at the Copenhagen Climate Summit. Picture: Complimentary

The biggest spender was Scottish Development International (SDI), which used 12,850,000, or 43 per cent of the overall total of 27,730,000. SDI encourages inward investment and helps Scotland-based companies develop international trade.

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The Scottish Government, VisitScotland and the Scottish Qualifications Authority spent 7,626,000, 5,370,000 and 1,884,000 respectively on international activities in 2009-10, according to the report by the Scottish Parliament's European and external relations committee.

The money goes towards areas such as overseas trade missions, marketing, grants and office overheads.

The Scottish Government claims that international engagement is an essential part of its strategy in tackling the economic downturn. But critics last night said the government should be reining in overseas spending at a time of economic austerity.

Jim Hume, the Liberal Democrat on the parliamentary committee, said: "It is essential that we continue to engage with Europe, but in these difficult economic times we must ensure that we do this in the most cost-effective way possible".

CBI Scotland director Iain McMillan questioned whether the expenditure on overseas missions was providing real benefits to the economy.

He said: "If the increase in expenditure was for ministers to go abroad and pretend to be able to be players on the international stage, then that would not be money well spent."

Business leaders called for an investigation to find out if the foreign trips were bringing value for money.

David Watt, executive director of the Institute of Directors in Scotland, said: "I think there's a requirement to produce some hard evidence of the direct benefit of the trips.

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"There has to be a clear motivation and target behind each and every visit, and there needs to be some sort of investigation at the end of it, to see what the actual results are from each bit of expenditure."

Political opponents last night called on the Scottish Government to trim overseas spending. Labour MSP George Foulkes, a former UK international development minister, accused First Minister Alex Salmond of wasting money.

He said: "Given the severe cutbacks which the SNP are making in other areas, there is no justification for this sort of increase on international engagement.

"It should be the first area which is cut, before things like health and education, which are already suffering under the SNP."

Mr Foulkes said that the First Minister should rethink his planned trip to the Maldives and the size of the delegation to Delhi for the Commonwealth Games.

"I am afraid Mr Salmond does like to strut on the international stage, which is not his responsibility, instead of making sure he does his job at home in the areas he has responsibility for."

A Scottish Government spokesman yesterday said that international engagement has never been more important "in order to create a more successful country by promoting Scotland as a great place to buy from, visit, learn and invest in.

He said: "The success of our approach was seen in UK government exports figures published only yesterday, which showed that Scottish exporters outperformed the rest of the UK." The value of Scottish export goods rose by 3.5 per cent to 14.8 billion over the year to March 2010 – "supporting sustained economic growth for Scotland" – while exports for England, Wales, Northern Ireland and the UK as a whole fell during the same period.

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The information on spending was collated by the European and external relations committee ahead of a full inquiry into the Scottish Government's international engagement strategy.

Committee convener Irene Oldfather said: "Along with the rest of the committee, I look forward to the presentation of the report at our meeting on Tuesday, when we will have a chance to explore the figures in more detail."

The First Minister has recently been facing several accusations of international grandstanding, and trying to boost his image and those of his ministers, even though the Scottish Government has no international responsibilities under the devolution settlement.

A trip to the Maldives is planned for later this year, following the signing of an international memorandum of understanding with the government there on climate change.

Mr Salmond made a trip to the climate change summit in Copenhagen last year even though the Scottish government was not part of the UK delegation.

The First Minister also took a trade delegation to China just a week after Scottish Secretary Jim Murphy went there with a separate one.

Questions are also being asked over how many people will be part of the delegation to Delhi for the Commonwealth Games in October.

Mr Salmond has been criticised for sending letters to international leaders, including pariah governments in Burma and Zimbabwe, in an attempt to get support for the Scottish Government's opposition to nuclear weapons.

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Last year former external relations minister Mike Russell caused anger when he went to launch the international relations part of the National Conversation at a lavish reception in Brussels.

There have also been doubts over whether, at a time of reducing budgets, the Scottish Government can afford to maintain offices in Brussels, Beijing and Washington, which were set up by the previous Labour/Liberal Democrat executive.

Scottish climate change secretary Stewart Stevenson was in Luxembourg yesterday with his UK counterpart, Chris Huhne, for an EU Environment Council meeting to discuss carbon emissions.

Mr Stevenson also met Lykke Friis, the Danish energy minister, to discuss joint opportunities in offshore renewable power.