On 5 September 2007 Alex Salmond told Holyrood categorically that the SNPs key election pledge of cutting class sizes for all children in Primaries 1,2 and 3 to 18 or less by the end of this Parliament.
However, it appears he may already have been in receipt of information for one of the education department's senior civil servants that stated that this worthy goal could not have been achieved for 8 to 10 years. That meeting had occurred over two months earlier on 2 July 2007 according to the minute that Labour's Iain Gray produced in yesterday's First Minister's Questions. Mr Gray is now saying that the First Minister is breaking the ministerial code which states that ministers must give "accurate and truthful" advise. This is one pledge that has been repeated over and over. But this is one of the most high profile and early examples that it may have occurred while fresh in the face of contrary advice.
Mr Salmond's spokesman said as way of defence:
"The information (from officials] in July 2007 was to the Cabinet secretary for education, not to the First Minister."
With my former civil servant in a Departmental role I want to say that is not a valid defence in this case. There are two perfectly valid reasons that this would not have excluded Mr Salmond from the loop of such information.
The first is that such a high profile minute would undoubtedly have copied in the Private Office of the First Minister: there are times that the bureaucracy and officiousness of the civil service works for the good. Someone there would surely have highlighted this point and brought it to the First Minister's attention. If not, Fiona Hyslop herself on a subsequent memo in the margin against such a statement would have highlighted that one of the key blanks to the manifesto in her area was unachievable. Having worked in a devolved department in Northern Ireland I know just how much and at what level these things would have been copied over to the OFMDFM (Office of the First Minister and Deputy First Minister) this sort of meeting would have been one area that that memo was an automatic copy in, even the Administrative Assistant who delivered it would have noticed that as they were getting the document copied.
The second reason would be in cabinet itself. The cabinet meeting after receiving such advice I'm sure that Fiona Hyslop would have been briefed by her Permanent Secretary to raise that issue at the meeting. It would have been a crunch matter for her pre-cabinet minute briefing document, so when as most cabinets do, there is discussion of every member's policy areas she would have had this as probably one of her first two points, if not the top one.
The second reason is most serious. If Salmond does not run his cabinet, and it is only a small cabinet in such a way that Ministers aren't allowed to share their issues of the day with their colleagues he himself is clearly not capable or fit for the job of First Minister. As the Conservative's Murdo Fraser said:
"If true, this is an astonishing state of affairs and no way to run a country.
"Many will find it inconceivable that Alex Salmond was unaware his own senior education advisers had made it crystal clear the SNP's flagship class size pledge could not be delivered in the lifetime of this parliament."
From my knowledge of how the civil service works I would say as above that is is true. Further from my knowledge of how Ministers are briefed ahead of meetings with the First Minister it is also something that would not have been dropped for 2 months and would have been highlighted from numerous sources within their reading of the original memo with urgency to that level. Indeed I can well imagine they would have been several margin notes suggesting that the FM needs to be alerted to this (that is just the way civil servants are).
There are only three options:
- Either Fiona Hyslop failed to alert others of this advice. But the memo of the meeting exists so that is not true
- Or That advice failed to reach the office of the First Minister. Again there are too many civil servants who would have got hold of that information for someone not to have made sure that he did.
- Or that having received the advice in writing or in cabinet Alex Salmond chose to ignore it. It doesn't take a Sherlock Holmes the reject the improbable of the other two and come to the final conclusion.
However, from the picture above one effect of the demotion of Ms Hyslop is the formation of the West Lothian triangle. The two West Lothian ladies in this party Fiona and Livingston MSP Angela Constance are now seated behind the Linlithgow born First Minister.