Scottish ministers have been accused of a cynical “stitch-up” after telling researchers one of their most troubled projects was a success.

The SNP-Green Government made the disputed claim in an official tender document for a new £100,000 evaluation of the repeatedly delayed R100 rural broadband programme.

Due to be completed by 2021 but now expected to take until 2028, the £600m flagship scheme has been plagued with problems, and thousands of people are still waiting on connections.

Recent figures suggested more than 80,000 commercial and residential properties are yet to be connected, more than 70% of those originally contracted for delivery of the service. 

Opposition parties say connections are effectively impossible in parts of the country, with one Shetland community recently quoted a connection fee of £48,000 per home.

However ministers are now insisting they met the commitment on time.

The Scottish Government announced last month announced it was commissioning an evaluation of the R100 programme “against investment objectives”.

It said: “It is essential that we are able to assess Value for Money of this programme in terms of understanding the social, economic, environmental and other benefits to households, businesses and communities of improvements in broadband connectivity and speed.”

The procurement was run by the Office of the Chief Economic Adviser within the Government, with an estimated budget of £100,000.

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However an official tendering document seen by the Herald on Sunday is predicated on R100 having been delivered in line with the Government’s original timetable.

It said: “The Scottish Government met the commitment to ensure every home and business could access superfast broadband by the end of 2021.”

Opposition parties said this was a misleading starting position that undermined the entire exercise, as it put pressure on researchers to ignore the full picture.

In its manifesto for the 2016 Holyrood election, the SNP promised to “deliver 100 per cent superfast broadband coverage for Scotland by the end of the next Parliament”. 

The work was divided into three geographical lots - central, north and south - with initial plans for cable connections to around 114,000 premises.

But it was not until December 2019 that ministers signed deals with BT for the £83m Central Scotland and £133m South of Scotland elements.

Problems with the biggest of the three contract areas - the North lot - were even worse.

Delayed by a legal challenge launched by a disgruntled rival bidder, the contract was only signed with BT in December 2020, with the number of premises involved not finalised until August 2021.

With the timetable slipping, in 2019 the Government announced a back-up voucher scheme offering one-off grants of £5000 to help premises not getting R100 fixed links to get broadband via wireless and satellite.  

However take-up of the vouchers has been extremely low, with only around 3,500 issued, and connection costs reportedly exceeding the voucher in some areas.

Tory MSP Murdo Fraser said: “This contract appears to be a case of the SNP patting itself on the back and marking their own homework.

“They must think people living in rural and remote communities are buttoned up the back if they are claiming that this flagship broadband was delivered in full by the end of 2021. 

“If whoever is awarded the contract is merely visiting areas that have been lucky enough to benefit from R100, then they are clearly not going to get the full picture on how many areas are still not fully connected and will not be for several years yet. 

“SNP ministers must urgently explain the process behind this contract and outline whether their broadband scheme will be scrutinised in full.”

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Orkney MSP Liam McArthur said: "If the government is not even prepared to be honest about its achievements, I think people in remote and rural communities may be inclined to wonder whether this is anything more than a stitch up.

"Businesses and households depend on a fast and reliable internet connection to access vital services. Instead the R100 programme has been beset by delays, obstacles and exemptions. At the very least that should trigger a candid accounting of what went wrong."

The Scottish Government has put £579m into R100, with the UK Government adding £33 and BT plc contributing £33m in capital costs, taking the overall bill to £645m.

in 2022, the Auditor General for Scotland said delivering the scheme remained "hugely challenging".

SNP Innovation Minister Richard Lochhead said: “Homes and businesses nationwide, including Orkney and Shetland, could access a superfast broadband service by the end of 2021 through a combination of the R100 contracts, the £5,000 R100 Scottish Broadband Voucher Scheme and continued commercial coverage.

“Since then, new satellite technology has emerged, with regulator Ofcom recently confirming that commercially accessible Low Earth Orbit satellite broadband is available nationwide, including in harder to reach areas. 

“The Reaching 100% (R100) contracts are going beyond this by extending access to gigabit-capable broadband – more than 30 times faster than our original commitment. 

"The UK Government’s broadband Universal Service Obligation is managed by Ofcom and we’ve always been sceptical about the impact of the USO in Scotland, particularly the cost cap of £3,400 per connection. Concerns about high costs for these premises are understandable and that's why we've requested that the UK Government increase the cost cap to ensure those in rural locations can make use of it.

“The Scottish Government has prioritised investment in digital connectivity in the 2024/25 budget, recognising that it is a key building block for a green and growing economy.”