SNP ministers have refused to put a timetable on finalising their flagship £600m rural broadband scheme, claiming speculation about dates is “unhelpful”.

They have also refused to say whether they admitted liability or paid out damages in the legal case which had been delaying the scheme.

The attitude was described as “absolutely unacceptable” by political opponents.

The row erupted after the Scottish Government confirmed the legal action which had been holding up the last leg of its R100 programme had finally been settled.

It means the biggest part of the programme, the £384m North Lot covering 100,000 premises in the Highlands and Islands, Angus, Aberdeen and Dundee, can now go ahead.

However the Government has refused to say when people and businesses will finally get a permanent connection, with broadband vouchers being offered as a stop-gap measure.  

Nicola Sturgeon promised in the SNP’s 2016 manifesto to “deliver 100 per cent superfast broadband coverage for Scotland" by the end of the Parliament in 2021. 

However the resulting R100 programme, which is supposed to install 30Mbps+ connections to the most remote rural areas, was beset by delays letting the contracts.

It was only in December 2019 that ministers signed deals with BT for the £83m Central Scotland and £133m South of Scotland elements, now due in 2023 and 2024 respectively.

The Government also made BT its preferred bidder for the lucrative North Lot, but a rival bidder, Oxford-based Gigaclear Ltd, mounted a legal challenge.

It accused ministers of “manifest error” in the award of the North Lot contract, and asked the Court of Session to set it aside, with financial damages as a “secondary remedy”.

The case was settled shortly before it was due to go to a full hearing.

However the Government has refused to disclose the terms of the settlement, and whether it paid any of the financial damages Gigaclear had raised as a potential solution.

Ministers admitted in a preliminary court hearing that they were anxious that the North Lot could collapse because of a looming state aid deadline.

Unless the matter was resolved by the end of this year, it was possible the deal would would no longer “enjoy the protection” of the key state aid agreement underpinning it. 

Jamie Stone, the Liberal Democrat MP for Caithness, Sutherland and Easter Ross, said: “The Scottish Government’s airy worded dismissal of any need to stick to a timetable for any of my constituents who have been missing out on broadband coverage for far too long is absolutely unacceptable.

“They are simply being clever with words in order to wriggle out of yet another non-delivery, if and when that ever happens. It’s a fundamental injustice that people and businesses in some parts of the UK should be disadvantaged compared to other parts.

“I shall be watching this like a hawk.”

A Scottish Government spokesperson said: “We are pleased to confirm that an agreement has been reached on this matter and the case has now been dismissed. 

“The terms of the settlement are confidential to the parties.

“We are now focused on finalising the R100 North Lot contract award with BT as soon as possible to enable us to progress delivery of access to superfast broadband to people, businesses and communities in some of the most remote parts of Scotland.

“The legal challenge having been withdrawn, we are now focused on finalising the R100 North Lot contract award with BT at the earliest possible juncture to enable us to progress delivery of access to superfast broadband to people, businesses and communities in some of the most remote parts of Scotland. 

“Speculation regarding the timescales for doing so is unhelpful – Ministers will keep Parliament informed on progress and the Minister for Energy, Connectivity and the Islands has written to the Rural Economy and Connectivity Committee to update MSPs on progress, highlighting our expectation that contract signature will be achieved before the end of the calendar year.

“Our uncapped, demand-led Scottish Broadband Voucher Scheme (SBVS), which – with our higher support for businesses and SMEs - will overall be the most generously funded voucher programme in any of the four nations of the UK,will ensure that everyone who requires a superfast broadband connection by the end of 2021 can have one - including those in the R100 North Lot area.”