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Sturgeon: Questions on old PFI contracts 'must be answered'

An 'urgent review' has been called for by Scotland's largest teaching union.

By STV News

Published 11 Apr 2016.

Questions on previous PFI/PPP contracts 'must be asked' and 'answered', Nicola Sturgeon has said.

The First Minister's comments come in the wake of the closure of 17 Edinburgh schools following serious structural concerns with Oxgang primary school. All of the closed schools were constructed under the same PFI contract.

Sturgeon said that the "priority is to get children back to school ASAP" however "questions must be asked, and in due course answered, about old PFI contracts that many feared put profits before quality".

SNP politician Jim Eadie has called for the Edinburgh city council to "take over" the management of the school buildings.

Eadie said: "These ill-thought out PFI deals have not only been a disaster for public finances but are now putting pupil safety at risk - it is clear that the Council Leader must take decisive action.

"I believe that under the contracts these schools are managed under the city council can and must take over the operation of the buildings, to ensure the safety of our children and guarantee that not a penny more of public money is wasted on these badly managed PFI contracts.

"It is also time we had an apology from Labour for signing us up to such extortionate contracts that have delivered what are now clearly substandard buildings."

Scottish Labour however stated that the problem is in the construction of the schools not the contract.

A party spokesperson said: "This is a construction problem not a contract problem. Of course there's always debate about using private finance for public projects. It's odd the First Minister is talking in these terms given that she promised to end PFI but continues to use it to this very day."

On Saturday, the Scottish Greens called for a "root and branch review" of PFI contracts.

Green politician Andy Wightman said: "The private financing of schools, invented by the Tories, and championed by Labour, is not only a feature of Edinburgh. Nor is it even restricted to schools, with hospitals and other health facilities also built in this way.

"So the Edinburgh schools fiasco opens up a massive can of worms as to what the true legacy is of years of private financing of core public services.

"That is why Green MSPs, in the new parliament, will be demanding a root and branch review of all PPP/PFI contracts - the cost, the condition of buildings and the future funding of them if further failures are uncovered."

The Scottish Conservatives have however accused the SNP of having "ignored" previous calls to inspect the condition of schools.

On June 19, 2014 then Conservative MSP Liz Smith asked the education secretary whether the Scottish Government will "review the remit of Education Scotland school inspections to include the condition of school buildings".

Scottish Conservative leader Ruth Davidson said: "It's unprecedented to have so many schools closed down at once, and at such a critical exam time for students. This demonstrates the seriousness of the situation.

"We made perfectly reasonable and constructive suggestions on how such situations could be prevented, but the SNP did nothing. Now councils are being forced to hastily close the school gates when many pupils are preparing to sit potentially life-changing exams.

"The SNP must explain why it ignored our calls, and say what it plans to do to stop a repeat across other school areas."

The SNP however dismissed the Conservatives' accusation as "cheek".

A party spokesperson said: "This is just bare faced cheek from the Tories who invented PFI schemes in the first place - before Labour and the Lib Dems embraced them with open arms.

"What children and parents need is action - which is why the SNP and the Scottish Government will support the children and parents of Edinburgh by working with the council, and offering our help to either get buildings open safely or to find alternative arrangements."

Scotland's largest teaching union the Educational Institute of Scotland have called for a review of all previous PPP and PFI contracts following the school closures.

EIS general secretary Larry Flanagan said: "The EIS welcomes that the safety of pupils and staff is being treated as a priority, while recognising that these short-notice closures will be highly inconvenient for pupils and parents.

"However, we must also question how such significant defaults could escape normal building control scrutiny and we believe it is now necessary for an urgent review of all PPP/PFI contracts, including the terms of the private maintenance contracts which are often both expensive and extremely restrictive."

The Scottish Liberal Democrats have been approached to comment.