The Scottish Government minister behind the plan to centralise the Highlands and Islands Enterprise (HIE) board has “refused to name anyone” that supports the move.
Keith Brown faced a grilling from MSPs over the controversial decision, amid accusations that it was based on “no evidence”.
Last night, the govt came back more than eight hours after the committee with the names of four supporters – all based in the Central Belt themselves.
Deputy First Minister John Swinney recently sparked anger by confirming that the HIE board would be subsumed into a national body – a decision Mr Brown reiterated.
Yesterday, MSPs challenged the Cabinet Secretary for Economy, Jobs and Fair Work Mr Brown over the changes.
The minister refused Shetland MSP Tavish Scott’s request to provide a list of organisations that supported the centralisation plans – and refused to rule out that the new board would be chaired by a government minister.
Mr Scott also challenged Mr Brown over the role of Professor Lorne Crerar – the current chairman of the HIE board. The Shetland member said Mr Crerar had told a gathering of MSPs he could not speak out on the changes to the HIE board.
Mr Brown said he would not comment on “third party” discussions.
Speaking after the meeting, Mr Scott said: “The cat is out of the bag.
“The cabinet secretary refused to name anyone who wants to abolish the board of HIE. It is now clear that this centralisation is driven by SNP ministers and no one else.”
Mr Scott said Mr Brown’s evidence before the Education and Skills Committee showed the HIE decision was “the worst kind of government centralisation”.
He added: “A rushed consultation over the summer holidays. No evidence.
“Then a political decision to abolish these strategic boards – an end to HIE focusing with single minded determination on the Highlands and Islands area.”
Mr Scott had earlier challenged Mr Brown on whether Mr Crerar could “speak out” on the changes to the HIE Board, referencing comments he said Mr Crerar had made to Highlands and Islands MSPs.
Mr Brown said: “Tavish Scott will know as well as I the code of conduct for people appointed to government bodies – but there has been no injunction on Lorne Crerar not to speak out.
“I can’t really comment on third party conversations.”
In November, Mr Crerar released a statement saying he had been given an “absolute reassurance” from the Scottish Government that HIE would continue in its current form.
A spokesman for HIE said: “The majority of board members of public bodies in Scotland are ministerial appointees, and the government’s guidance makes it clear that people appointed to these roles agree to implement ministerial priorities.
“That is why, although HIE is fully engaged in the review process, it is not appropriate for the HIE Chairman or other board members to participate in public debate on specific policy matters.”
A Scottish Government spokesman said: “It is not true to say that there is no evidence to support a new board. We received over 300 responses to our consultation, with a range of organisations showing support for a single overarching board including Skills Development Scotland, Scottish Enterprise, Colleges Scotland and University of Strathclyde.
“Many others, including FSB, SCVO, SLAED, Universities Scotland and HIE suggested that the current system is overly complex and there is a need for much better co-ordination and improved strategic alignment. As the Cabinet Secretary said at the Committee hearing, the establishment of the new Board will not affect the autonomy of Scotland’s universities or how they are governed.
“All of the responses were published online in September. Information has also been published about consideration by the Ministerial Review Group. The Cabinet Secretary will respond promptly and fully to any letter from the committee.”