ALEX Salmond's apology to the Scottish Parliament yesterday was about more than a £9 million discrepancy in the budget for further education colleges.
It was a tacit admission that, not only had he got his figures wrong, he also refused to countenance he might not be right. Labour leader Johann Lamont correctly said during First Minister's Questions that college funding had been cut. Mr Salmond's combative style in the chamber, however, brooked no argument. Although his figures failed to include additions to the baseline budget, he boasted they were "as exact an answer as anyone has ever given to parliament". Yet the figures did not tally with a previous statement by Education Secretary Michael Russell, triggering a hasty check. Not only was the First Minister wrong but his aides had failed to spot a helpful accompanying note saying "college resource funding has fallen slightly between 2011/12 and 2012/13".
As the second embarrassment within weeks for Mr Salmond, yesterday's apology was all the more damaging. Last month he had to make an emergency statement to the Scottish Parliament to clarify that the Scottish Government had only just sought specific legal advice on an independent Scotland's membership of the EU, despite taking legal action to prevent disclosure.
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Confusion was the order of the day once again over further education funding. It is an important matter. Scotland's colleges are currently undergoing reorganisation on an unprecedented scale that will see more than one-third merged into large regional centres with considerable job losses. This was the subject of a report last month by the Auditor General for Scotland, Caroline Gardner, who found that funding was being cut by 24% over three years. She said the Scottish Government needed to clarify the costs and benefits of regionalisation.
It was because of real concern over the effect of further education cuts that Ms Lamont's original target yesterday was the Education Secretary, Michael Russell. Tension between college principals and Mr Russell over funding plans came to a head this week after Kirk Ramsay, chairman of Stow College, resigned in a dispute with the Education Secretary triggered by his recording Mr Russell's address to colleagues without the politician's knowledge.
This subsequently gave rise to criticism of the minister's behaviour from other college leaders. It is hardly surprising given this unsatisfactory chain of events that MSPs are questioning Mr Russell's conduct.
It would appear that Mr Salmond's use of erroneous figures was a genuine mistake and not an attempt to mislead parliament. Perhaps unwisely, Ms Lamont sought to dismiss the First Minister's apology and claimed it was a deliberate error. Worse, it keeps the focus on party politics instead of the real difficulties facing the colleges. Instead of quibbling about the £9m drop in next year's budget MSPs should be attempting to address the projected fall from £546m to £471m by 2015.