Labour’s Iain Gray has come under fire after appearing to make false claims during his weekly questions to First Minister Alex Salmond.
The leader of the Holyrood group of Labour MSPs had accused a government agency ‘Skills Development Scotland’ of planning to waste upwards of £2 million on what the Labour leader called a name change and marketing “mumbo jumbo”.
However it later emerged that the name change proposal had been rejected by agency directors two months ago and that most of the costs referred to by Mr Gray were in fact for routine advertising and promotion.
Iain Gray had accused the agency of planning to spend over £0.5 million on changing its name to 'Scotland the Works' and £1.68 million on marketing that same change. He had also mocked the First Minister over his apparent lack of knowledge over the plans.
The Labour MSP said:
“The First Minister is as usual in the dark and I do intend to enlighten him
“They’ve come up with this daft scheme to spend £555,000 rebranding themselves. Now their real job is supposed to be getting our young people into work and that could not be more important, so why are they wasting our money on this?”
A spokesman for Skills Development Scotland said:
"Mr Gray has got the wrong end of the stick.
"An internal proposal to use 'Scotland the Works' as a corporate brand was rejected by our directors on 30 March 2010,"
The spokesman added:
"Our marketing budget of £1.68m pays for the information campaigns that inform employers and those looking for work of the opportunities that exist, ranging from literacy campaigns to modern apprenticeships.
"It is as a result of these information campaigns that we have been able to exceed the target for new modern apprentices and deliver more than 20,000 in the last financial year.
"Without campaigns to make people aware of these opportunities, this would have been impossible. It also includes support for an adult literacy campaign - the Big Plus - a project that we believe deserves a high priority."
Iain Gray had also claimed that the agency was planning to ask for a further £500,000 from the Scottish government in order to make up the £1.68 million.
However a government spokesman said: "It's got nothing to do with a brand migration plan."
"The request from Skills Development Scotland to ministers was for additional funding for a programme called The Big Plus, which is an adult literacy and numeracy programme,"
Labour claim to have documents from after 30th March, the date the agency spokesman says the decision not to re-brand was made, that support their claims. Thus far though it is unclear whether Labour has produced these documents for verification.
A failure to do so will fuel suspicions that Gray has simply blundered and may well lead to accusations that he has unwittingly misled parliament.
The BBC’s Brian Taylor, writing on his blog, is claiming that Labour have now “published” documentary evidence to back up their accusations.
Mr Taylor writes that Labour “has published a document dated 27 April this year which appears to be a detailed plan by Skills Development Scotland to phase in the use of The Works in signage, letterheads and the like”.
However Skills Development Scotland have rebutted the latest Labour claim that they have ‘evidence’ of a planned rebranding, at the time of writing the rebuttal does not appear on Mr Taylors blog.
The senior BBC Scotland political editor had already praised Gray’s use of the re-brand claims at FMQ’s. Immediately after the session Mr Taylor said of Mr Gray’s highlighting of the alleged rebranding: “That was a good one”.
Later, in his Thursday night analysis of the events on Radio Scotland, Taylor described the Scottish government as being ‘caught in the middle’ of this row.
Should Labour's evidence prove to be reliable then serious questions will need to be asked of the heads of Skills Development Scotland. However, should the evidence prove to be unreliable and no name change was planned then Brian Taylor’s reputation will not have been enhanced by this episode and serious questions will have to be asked of both him and the Scottish Labour leadership.
Whatever the outcome, it is clear that serious claims of this nature, once raised in the Scottish Parliament, need to have their veracity checked before being published and broadcast by the Scottish media, especially the BBC, as though fact.
One national newspaper is now presenting Iain Gray’s accusation as one of an image change as opposed to a name change. The Scotsman newspaper currently has an article headlined ‘Quango spends £500,000 of taxpayers' cash on new image’ for their Friday edition.
The Scotsman article claims that Skills Development Scotland was attacked for earmarking £555,000 in order to publicise itself through new signs, new letterheads and corporate advertising. The article makes no specific mention of the name change accusation nor the £500,000 top-up accusation.
Quotes attributed to Iain Gray seem to suggest a subtle backtracking by the Labour leader who does not refer to a name change but rather a ‘branding exercise’.
The article quotes Iain Gray as saying: "The one thing that SDS cannot deny is that they are wasting half a million pounds on a 'visual identity transition', which is a branding exercise in anyone's language.”
The article also quotes an SDS spokesman as saying: "The old organisation identities are being phased out – Careers Scotland, Learndirect Scotland and the skills arms of Scottish Enterprise and HIE – and we will ensure all our materials reflect our new name, Skills Development Scotland."
Is it possible that a Labour researcher has mistakenly taken these phasing out plans as proof that the ‘Scotland the Works’ proposal was actually going ahead?
Further update: 10:40
The Herald is claiming that the name change was to apply to the now defunct ‘Careers Scotland’ arm of SDS. It also uses the Paul McKenna old story in its article.
The Daily Record is acknowledging that the name change proposal had been abandoned but confusingly actually uses the £555,000 earmarked for stock replacement and suggests that this was for a name change. It also highlights the old story of Paul McKenna.
If the April 27th documents referred to by the Labour party have been passed to newspaper editors then it seems likely that if a full name change was indeed planned then the newspapers would have reported it. The other interesting fact of this story is that BBC political editor Brian Taylor claims that Labour have actually "published" these documents. However they do not seem to be in the public domain and one can only conclude that only a select few have been allowed to see them.
Given the confusing line now being pushed by the Scottish media, which is altogether different from the very clear allegations from Iain Gray, then it is now looking increasingly likely that Iain Gray’s claim that Skills Development Scotland had plans to change their name to Scotland the Works was untrue. The lesser claim that SDS were planning to request an extra £500,000 from the Scottish government to promote this name change seems to have disappeared.
The contents of these documents will make for interesting reading indeed - if we ever get to see them.