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SNP hits back in school closure row after call for Russell to resign

The SNP has reacted furiously to a call by the Liberal Democrats for the resignation of Education Secretary Michael Russell for interfering in school closure plans in Argyll and Bute, accusing the party of trying to “cover their own local embarrassment” on the issue.

Local MP Alan Reid demanded the Education Secretary’s resignation after revelations in The Herald of an email from Mr Russell, as the candidate there for Holyrood in May, putting pressure on his local councillors to fight the closures.

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The LibDem MP claimed that because he currently represents the South of Scotland, under the rules Mr Russell must have been acting in his ministerial capacity. He said: “This is unwarranted interference by the Scottish Government in council business.

“Mr Russell must tell us which schools the Scottish Government thinks should close and which council officials they think are ‘obdurate’.

“The SNP Government has cut Argyll & Bute Council’s grant by more than any other council in Scotland. It’s high time he resigned over the way his Government is treating Argyll and Bute.”

But an SNP spokesman insisted: “The real issue is that there is a special meeting of the council on Wednesday, at which the SNP group will try again to get the school closure programme overturned.

“These antics involving leaking an email are clearly designed to try to derail that process. The LibDems in particular are playing petty politics to cover their own local embarrassment.”

Labour MSP for the Highlands and Islands, Rhoda Grant, said: “He has compromised himself in a similar way to Vince Cable. As Education Minister, his department may have to rule impartially on whether the closures go ahead.

“The idea that he can sit back while his junior ministers make a decision which he himself thinks will engulf him in a political firestorm is daft -- if he is willing to pressurise local councillors, he must surely be willing to pressurise his junior ministerial colleagues too.

“Mr Russell has a lot of explaining and what he has done will clearly need to be investigated carefully.”

Tory education spokeswoman Liz Smith said: “This smacks of Mike Russell misusing his position and parliamentary resources for his personal political ends. He is not an MSP for Argyll and as a minister must avoid any actual or perceived conflict of interests.

“To clear up any confusion he should publish details of all contacts and correspondence he has had on the issue in any capacity as well as the advice which I assume he sought from the Permanent Secretary or other leading civil servants on whether he should get involved in the first place.”

A paper prepared by the SNP group and the Scottish Rural Schools Network (SRSN) for today’s meeting states that the council’s consultation is riddled with “errors and inaccuracies” and should be withdrawn.

The document, which will be presented by Sandy Longmuir of the SRSN, criticises the calculations made by the council to work out how much money would be saved by closing schools. It also disputes occupancy rates, pupil projections and the educational reasons made by the council for closing the schools.

“Members should consider abandoning the current consultation based on the information contained within this report,” said Mr Longmuir. “Because of the errors ... it is impossible to imagine that any closures voted for will not be called in by ministers of whatever political persuasion.”

He welcomed the intervention by Mr Russell into the debate and said it reflected a more pro-active approach by the minister in recent months to rural school closures.

“I would much rather the prospective parliamentary candidate for the area is in touch with the concerns of the communities rather than having no contact at all, which has been the case for other political parties,” he said.

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