Minister hits back in parliament over school claims

EDUCATION secretary Michael Russell has hit back at accusations that he interfered in the controversial school closures proposal in Argyll and Bute.

Mr Russell gave a statement to the Scottish Parliament on Wednesday afternoon in which he stated repeatedly that his involvement in the issue was only in his capacity as the SNP's Holyrood election candidate for the Argyll and Bute seat, and not as a minister.

Wednesday's statement followed the leaking of a message, sent by Mr Russell from his MSP's email account in November, in which he suggested that eight or nine school closures might be acceptable, and accused unnamed council officials of being "obdurate".

Mr Russell said in his statement in the Holyrood chamber: "Whilst this statement has been requested by the opposition parties and is, therefore, a ministerial statement, any and all actions I took in relation to the proposed school closures in Argyll and Bute were not as a minister.

"Moreover that is a point that was made clear at every stage of the events I shall describe.

"And, secondly, the moment there was the prospect of school closures in Argyll and Bute I took the correct steps to insulate myself as a minister, and in keeping with official advice (which I had sought) put arrangements in place for another minister to take decisions on, and to act in all capacities concerning the matter."

Mr Russell also said he had sought and received the approval of the current Argyll and Bute MSP, his SNP colleague Jim Mather, before campaigning on the issue.

"I received numerous requests to meet with councillors and parents," he continued, "but from the outset I was explicit that I could only do so as the prospective parliamentary candidate for the area and in that role alone."

Mr Russell's talks on the issue saw him meet with parents of children at threatened schools in Bute, Kintyre, Oban, Cowal, Mull and Lorn between early November and mid-December.

"In every one of these meetings and in every conversation I made three things clear," he continued.

"Firstly, I could only speak in my capacity as a prospective parliamentary candidate. Secondly given my governmental office I could not and would not take a position on the issue of closure of any individual school; and finally, the only help I could give was to make sure that everyone was fully familiar with the rights of parents and communities under the Schools Consultation Act.

"As a local candidate, I met local people to discuss local issues of concern to them. What do other local candidates do?"

Mr Russell said he was "glad to be known as a defender of our rural schools", and said he believed he had acted with propriety throughout.