Scotland politics

Alex Salmond says sorry for using wrong college funding figures

First Minister Alex Salmond has apologised to MSPs for using incorrect figures in relation to college funding.

Labour had asked him to return to the chamber to clarify whether he had misled MSPs during his weekly question and answer session at Holyrood.

Earlier Mr Salmond had told parliament funding in the sector was going up.

He said he had not been misleading and had used the figures in good faith. Mr Salmond added that his Education Secretary Mike Russell was also sorry.

Before the afternoon's parliamentary business got under way, Labour lodged a point of order on the matter.

The party's education spokesman Hugh Henry said the first minister had been guilty either of incompetence or of misleading parliament.

Deputy Presiding Officer John Scott said the veracity or otherwise of ministerial statements was not a matter for him.

Shortly before 17:00, Mr Salmond entered the chamber and said there had been no intention to mislead.

He had earlier told MSPs that resource funding for colleges was £545m in 2011-12 and £546m in the current financial year.

However, he explained the figure of £545m for last year did not take into account changes to the budget and should have been £555.7 million.

"Let me make clear I take full responsibility for what I say in this chamber, therefore I have taken this earliest opportunity to correct the figure," he said. "I apologise to the chamber for this error."

The first minister went on to tell MSPs that Mr Russell would write a letter to the presiding officer apologising and making clear his own regret over the matter.

But Labour's Scottish leader Johann Lamont was not happy. She said once again Mr Salmond had shown that the interests of his career came above the interests of the Scottish people.

Ms Lamont said: "After the European debacle, after this, how can we ever believe a word Alex Salmond says again?"

The apology came after Mr Salmond had insisted during FMQs that resource funding for colleges was up.

He was responding to questions from Ms Lamont, who claimed Mr Russell had misled the parliament over college funding figures.

Mr Salmond responded: "He [Mr Russell] was correct, the funding position, resource funding for colleges, is £545m in 2011-12 and in 2012-13 it's £546m."

But Ms Lamont told the first minister both the Auditor General and figures from the Scottish Parliament's independent information centre showed that "the cabinet secretary was, in fact, wrong".

She said: "College budgets have been cut this year. In the light of these independently-sourced facts, was Mike Russell right or was he misleading parliament?"

However, Mr Salmond insisted the public spending watchdog had failed to take account of funding announced after the SNP unveiled its draft budget.

Following the apology, the Conservatives called for an independent audit into college budgets.

Finance spokesman Gavin Brown said: "If you play fast and loose with figures, you are bound to get caught out eventually - too often the first minister puts bombast, bluster and boastfulness before accuracy and clarity.

Liberal Democrat education spokesman Liam McArthur said the stronger the assertions from ministers over figures, the more likely those numbers were to be "wholly wrong".

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