Colleges (Reclassification as Public Bodies)

– in the Scottish Parliament at on 26 June 2013.

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Photo of Liam McArthur Liam McArthur Liberal Democrat

6. To ask the Scottish Government what steps it is taking to avoid colleges being reclassified as public bodies. (S4O-02297)

Photo of Michael Russell Michael Russell Scottish National Party

The reclassification of incorporated Scottish colleges as public bodies is a result of a decision by the Office for National Statistics based on existing levels of ministerial controls.

In Scotland, our relationship with colleges is founded on strong partnerships, with associated governance arrangements. Through the Post-16 Education (Scotland) Bill, we are strengthening the existing arrangements to improve democratic accountability.

Since the ONS’s decision in 2010, we have negotiated with HM Treasury on the need to implement the decision in Scotland. It remains our belief that HM Treasury has the power to mitigate the impact of the ONS’s decision on Scotland, and yet it has refused to do so.

Photo of Liam McArthur Liam McArthur Liberal Democrat

I have listened closely to what the cabinet secretary had to say, but I am still unsure why, when he has known about the potential threat since 2010, he has not taken steps before now to address or at least mitigate the serious impact on our colleges.

The cabinet secretary has insisted that his approach to college reform will not be “sacrificed to ONS classifications.” He blames the Treasury for not simply making an exception for him, and he even blames Opposition members for not raising the issue with him before now. Is the truth not that the potential threat to our colleges, their reserves and their ability to raise revenue has largely been brought about by his own dither and delay and his unwillingness to engage properly with the issue in the past three years?

Photo of Michael Russell Michael Russell Scottish National Party

The education minister really cannot win: if I actually have a policy, I am accused of being dictatorial; if I try to work with colleagues of Mr McArthur’s in the Westminster Government, I am accused of dithering and dillying—I think that that was the word he used.

The reality is that the reclassification is unwelcome and unnecessary. If Mr McArthur exerted himself to speak to his colleague the Chief Secretary to the Treasury, we would not have to deal with the issue. The blame lies entirely with the coalition Government. Its action is anti-college and will not help colleges, but the good news is that we are working closely and positively with the colleges to put in place arrangements that will take them forward and work round the difficulties that are being placed in front of them.

The difficulties are coming from the United Kingdom coalition Government, the Treasury and the Liberal Democrats. We will make that clear everywhere in Scotland.

Photo of George Adam George Adam Scottish National Party

Will the cabinet secretary outline the action that has been taken to introduce national pay bargaining in colleges?

Photo of Michael Russell Michael Russell Scottish National Party

Later this afternoon, we will have the opportunity to vote on the framework for national pay bargaining, which is very welcome indeed. Of course, comprehensive negotiations are taking place. We are delivering on our commitment to ensure that we stop the balkanisation of Scotland’s colleges and of terms and conditions in Scotland, which was introduced by Michael Forsyth and continued under Labour Administrations. We are the ones who are changing it.

Photo of Neil Findlay Neil Findlay Labour

Why was there no mention of national pay bargaining in the Post-16 Education (Scotland) Bill when it was first published?

Photo of Michael Russell Michael Russell Scottish National Party

Ah, Mr Findlay thinks that he has me but, of course, we have been trying to listen to and work with the sector.

I made a commitment on national pay bargaining before Mr Findlay was even a member of the Parliament. I have gone on with that commitment and I have gone through with negotiation. We set up the framework but, to have belt and braces, I decided that we would also put a commitment in the bill and honour that commitment. [Interruption.]

Mr Findlay finds that funny—astonishingly, he finds the prospect of national pay and conditions in the college sector to be entertaining and amusing. That really tells us all that we need to know. Mr Findlay has no serious intent on further education. His intent is only to laugh at it. My intent as the minister is to deliver, which is precisely what we will do this afternoon.