Fife Council education officials have defended a decision to call in an external legal adviser to ensure the local authority’s proposed school closure consultation programme is being followed in a “correct, fair and transparent” manner.
It came as Fife Council’s opposition leader, SNP Group leader councillor Peter Grant, asked for an urgent investigation into claims an external QC was brought in during a disagreement about where and when councillors should be allowed to discuss the threatened closure of seven primary schools across Fife.
Mr Grant, whose Glenrothes ward includes closure-marked Tanshall Primary, said the affair only became public when the chairman of the council’s education, social and communities scrutiny committee, Susan Leslie, made a statement at the end of last Tuesday’s meeting.
Mr Grant said: “The crux of the matter seems to be that councillors want to have the chance to properly examine the final reports on proposed school closures before the executive committee comes to a decision.
“This is a perfectly reasonable request and, as far as I can see, the committee chair has been trying to honour it.
“It appears, however, that, unknown to councillors, the council went and got legal advice and then used that advice to argue that the scrutiny committee couldn’t scrutinise the proposals in the way they wanted to.
“It then seems to have been left to the committee chair to explain to the committee what had happened.
“Of course, there will be times when a local authority needs to get specialist legal advice if it’s involved in a dispute with a third party.
“If there was any serious dispute here, it was entirely between different groups within the council.
“I find it extraordinary that we should need to bring in a QC to advise on an internal disagreement and I’m at a loss to understand why it was done without telling councillors.”
Mr Grant has written to the council’s chief executive, Steve Grimmond, asking for an urgent report into the affair.
He has also called for an immediate halt to any further committee decisions on the school closure programme until councillors have had a chance to consider any report by Mr Grimmond.
Mr Grant said he has submitted a Freedom of Information request to ask the council to publish the legal advice it received, as well as all other related correspondence.
Ms Leslie said she fought for the scrutiny committee to be allowed to do its job, adding: “Until I intervened, the information that was given to the QC was incomplete and actually, initially did not offer the best advice to the council.
“After my intervention to ensure the QC did have all the advice, then the advice certainly did support scrutiny committee looking at this on February 3.
“I would add there was only one other councillor who was fully aware of the matters I was trying to clear up with education and that was councillor Alex Rowley, who was 100% supportive of me.”
Shelagh McLean, Fife Council directorate resources manager, said: “The school estate review is a tremendously important exercise and we want to ensure everything is done correctly and in accordance with the legislation.
“In light of that, council officers have consulted and taken advice from an external legal adviser throughout the consultation programme, to ensure the process which is being followed is correct, fair and transparent. External legal advice was also sought about the timing of committee reports to scrutiny committee.”