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Russell defends himself over involvement in school closures

Education Secretary Michael Russell sought to defend himself in Parliament this week against attacks from opposition parties that he tried to influence school closure plans in Argyll and Bute for his own political ends.

Labour had called on Mr Russell, who is standing in Argyll and Bute as a prospective parliamentary candidate and whose headteacher wife Cathleen works for the council, to apologise for "meddling" in the council's closure plans.

It was revealed earlier this month that Mr Russell had used his parliamentary email in correspondence with SNP councillors over the closure plan in early November. The nationalists subsequently withdrew from the coalition group running the council, ceding power to the Lib Dems.

Mr Russell had given an assurance that he would stay well clear of involvement in the Argyll proposals as Education Secretary, to avoid any conflict of interest. He passed the baton to his new junior minister, Angela Constance.

In a parliamentary statement on Wednesday, to pre-empt a censure debate planned by Labour for the following day, Mr Russell mounted his case for the defence.

He said that, in any discussions on the Argyll and Bute school closure plans, he was acting not as a minister or MSP, but as a prospective parliamentary candidate. He had not taken a position on individual schools, because of his ministerial role. Mr Russell added that he had simply pointed people in the direction of the Schools Consultation Act when they sought information.

Labour's education spokesman, Des McNulty, said that as Education Secretary, Mr Russell should not be meddling with matters that were the responsibility of a local authority and, as a regional list MSP for the south of Scotland, he should not be involving himself in matters outside his constituency.

The issue has now become politically heated. The Argyll and Bute constituency is held by the SNP at Holyrood, the Liberal Democrats represent the seat at Westminster and Mr Russell has been reported to the Scottish Parliament Standards Commissioner by the local Labour candidate in the 2010 UK general election.

elizabeth.buie@tes.co.uk.

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