An email written by Mr Russell in his capacity as candidate for the Argyll and Bute constituency at the forthcoming Holyrood election shows he intervened personally with the area’s SNP councillors over their proposed support for a package of school closures.
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The email was followed by a U-turn by the council group.
Marked “School Closures – Urgent and in Confidence”, the correspondence was sent by Mr Russell from his parliamentary account on November 18.
It was a reply to an email from SNP Councillor Donald Macdonald saying that Luing Primary had been dropped from the list of threatened closures. Mr Russell welcomed the news but said: “The fact that the group seems still be supporting [sic] consultation over a wide range of other unnecessary and very damaging proposals is much worse news.”
He talks of speaking to SNP group leader Robert MacIntyre “as a matter of urgency to stress my view (as your PPC) that if the group supports the proposal next week we will have very severe problems which could be very destructive to our reputation and prospects”.
He also said he was “not arguing against all closures” and had suggested to SNP education spokeswoman Councillor Isobel Strong “a list of eight or nine that could be taken through with minimum difficulty”.
Mr Russell says he had suggested “a way to look at the issue in the round that would have allowed the council some necessary breathing space,” adding: “I am somewhat surprised that my advice appears to have been totally ignored and that council officials have remained obdurate and have driven the policy. Indeed, I now know that at least one of those officials has been briefing against me in the local press and instructing local head teachers not to co-operate with me.”
All of this clearly indicates a high level of interference by Mr Russell in the internal workings of a council education department. His wife works as a teacher in Argyll and Bute and Mr Russell has spoken in the past about staying well away from these issues.
He lives in the constituency but represents the South of Scotland until the end of this parliamentary term. When questioned at Holyrood in November he insisted: “Argyll and Bute Council is responsible for decisions on school closures in its area, in accordance with legal requirements, and the democratically elected local councillors will be accountable for the decisions that they take.”
He also made the point that if the consultation was not carried out properly “Scottish ministers will call in and could refuse consent to any closure decisions”. His personal involvement could now make it appear that he has pre-judged the issue.
The sending of an email from his parliamentary account – in his capacity as a prospective parliamentary candidate – to SNP councillors and activists could also be deemed to be a breach of the Ministerial Code which states that official facilities “may not be used for the dissemination of material which is essentially party political”.
George Lyon, the Liberal Democrat MP and the party’s election director for May, said: “This looks like the Education Secretary is using his influence to meddle in Argyll and Bute to try to save the SNP. He said he wouldn’t get involved, but has. He has a lot of explaining to do.”
Highlands Labour MSP Rhoda Grant said “The only reason Mr Russell sent this email is because he is worried about what this will do for his election prospects.”
An aide to Mr Russell said last night: “Mr Russell makes it clear he is not acting in a ministerial capacity and was simply replying to an email sent to him, setting out his opinion on an important local issue, which he is perfectly entitled to do. There is absolutely nothing wrong with this email exchange.
“Mr Russell has already made it clear he will have no role in decisions regarding Argyll school closures. Should any such case come before the Scottish Government, Mr Russell would be excluded because of his interest.”