Scotland politics

Ministers could be removed from Scottish school closure decisions

Scottish ministers could be removed from making controversial decisions about rural school closures, the government has announced.

Currently, ministers can "call in" council decisions to close schools if there are concerns they are flawed.

But Education Secretary Mike Russell said the use of this power had risen "far higher than expected".

Mr Russell said he was considering setting up an independent body to deal with such cases.

He argued the process would help deal with accusations of political bias.

But Labour branded the move an act of "political cowardice".

The education secretary's comments came as he responded to the findings of a special commission on rural school closures, which called for a more transparent decision-making system.

Amid on-going controversy over the issue, MSPs passed legislation meaning local authorities had to meet a series of requirements before making closures.

The legislation, which came into force in 2010, also introduced the ministerial call-in power, which intended to be used as a "last resort".

Mr Russell told the Scottish Parliament: "When parliament passed the legislation, most people envisaged no more than a handful of cases would be called in - however it soon became clear that, despite the parliament's good work, local government, communities and national government interpreted the 2010 act in widely differing ways.

"The number of call-ins has risen far higher than expected, and that is undesirable. The differing interpretations of the act have hindered the clear policy intention behind it."

Mr Russell said he would look at cutting the number of call-ins, adding: "Where a proposal does need to be called in, I also feel that the decision on whether to give consent or not to the closure needs to be taken independently of ministers."

The education secretary said he would take the idea forward with council body Cosla.

He stressed that responsibility for considering whether a school closure proposal was called in should remain with the government.

Hitting out at the plan, Labour's learning spokesman Neil Findlay, said: "This is a scandal and is political cowardice.

"The cabinet secretary proposes to remove the responsibility from democratically elected councillors.

"He is now refusing to take responsibility himself. Instead he proposes to hide behind a quango, presumably appointed by ministers but accountable to no one for its decisions."

Tory education spokeswoman Liz Smith, added: "We welcome the move towards an independent adjudicator model since it will help to restore public trust in the process."

Lib Dem Liam McArthur, MSP for Orkney - whose child's school was recently identified for closure - said the proposal would need looked at closely.

"If ministers retain the power to call in council decisions but are spared the uncomfortable task of making a final determination, it seems inevitable that the number of call-ins will increase dramatically," he said.

Elsewhere, Mr Russell said he supported the "vast majority" of the 38 recommendations made by the rural school commission, which was chaired by Sheriff David Sutherland.

But he rejected a suggestion by the commission to change current requirements, so that local authorities would only need to show how a child's education would not be harmed.

That means councils would have to continue to demonstrate how proposals to close rural schools could actually benefit a child's education.

Image caption MSPs previously passed a bill to deal with concerns over rural school closures

Mr Russell's statement followed a decision by Western Isles Council to close schools, after a legal challenge by the Scottish government failed.

The authority made moves to shut Carloway Primary and end S1 and 2 provision at Shawbost two years ago.

Ministers opposed the closures and the authority sought a judicial review, which found in its favour.

Mr Russell said any legislative changes which were needed would be brought forward through the government's Children and Young People's Bill.

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