MSPs are still waiting for answers from the Scottish government over fears that a new nationwide board to co-ordinate Highlands and Islands Enterprise and Scottish Enterprise could amount to centralisation “through the back door”.
Labour member for the Highlands and Islands, Rhoda Grant, says she is deeply concerned to have heard “no answer” on how the proposals by the SNP administration could impact on HIE. The issue has also been highlighted by Shetland MSP Tavish Scott.
SNP ministers recently announced their intention to establish a single national board to direct the work of the Scottish Funding Council (SFC), Skills Development Scotland, Scottish Enterprise and Highlands and Islands Enterprise. But fears have since been raised that this could involve each of their boards being abolished.
Mrs Grant, who is Scottish Labour’s rural economy spokeswoman, last month tabled a parliamentary question asking the Scottish government when it planned to re-advertise the post of HIE chief executive, what the period of appointment would be and whether an HIE board would be constituted.
Today she said she was merely told that Scottish economy secretary Keith Brown would reply as soon as possible.
Mrs Grant said: “This tells me one of two things; that it’s either such a half-baked plan that they don’t know what they are doing or that they are not being upfront and open and are trying to hide the enormity of what lies ahead for HIE.
“Given the outrage expressed from throughout the Highlands and Islands, it is deeply concerning that the government waits until the deadline for answer before admitting they don’t have the answer.
“Either they really do not have a clue what they are doing or they are trying to hide what they are doing – neither is clear.
“This issue, however, cannot simply be swept under the carpet in the hope that it will go away. It is far too important for our communities in the Highlands and Islands, and for the staff of HIE who deserve to know what the plans are going forward.
“This shows a clear lack of strategy from this government, or an unwillingness to publish that strategy. Either way it is not good enough and I will be holding both Keith Brown and his SNP colleagues to account on this.”
Mr Scott, meanwhile, called on the Scottish government to come clean on its proposals to scrap the HIE board.
“These proposals show that the SNP governments is hell bent on centralisation, centralisation, centralisation,” he said.
“The First Minister has previously said to the Scottish Parliament that HIE was safe and wouldn’t be scrapped. But now we learn that HIE is set to be usurped and hollowed out.
“She should come clean, end the uncertainty and tell us what is planned.
“The SNP will not get away with absorbing HIE into Scottish Enterprise by the back door. I will continue to make the case against a super-quango takeover that would end economic decision-making in the Highlands and Islands.”
Responding to concerns that academic freedom would also be threatened by centralisation of the SFC, Mr Scott added: “Scottish Liberal Democrats are instinctively wary of any reforms which could give ministers greater control over what are, and must remain, independent sectors.
“It is inconceivable that a new super quango taking control of the distribution of university and college funds. Ministerial direction means ever more power concentrated in the centre.
“What’s more, with little information on what this will mean and no timetable for the change, the entire process leaves universities and colleges guessing.”