Maureen Macmillan (Highlands and Islands) (Lab): Is the First Minister aware of an information note from the European Commission that has been received by some people in the Highlands and Islands? The note asserts that the Commission auditors propose a financial clawback of about £20 million from the 1994 to 1999 European regional development fund because of what they consider to be management weaknesses and ineligible expenditure. Will the First Minister assure me that he will contest the proposals at the highest level in Europe so that we are not faced with picking up the tab for something that pre-dates this Parliament?
The First Minister: I have seen the correspondence from Mr Meadows; I received it last night. I make it clear to the Parliament that we contest the findings of the audit report on the 1994 to 1999 European programme in the Highlands. The investment in structural projects in the Highlands, then and now, has underpinned the growth of the economy and the strength of the Highland communities that we see today.
We see no justification for the conclusion that Scotland should be fined today for actions that the auditors claim took place in the 1990s; our devolved Government needs money to invest in schools and hospitals, in tackling crime and in growing our economy. We will contest the European Commission's finding. We will ask for the United Kingdom Government's support in doing so, and we will do so vigorously, starting next Thursday, when the commissioner visits the Parliament and I meet her in my office.
Now, as the First Minister should know very well, you may contest the proposals of the European Commission to recover Structural Funds payments on various grounds. You can argue about whether certain expenditures are eligible or not, you can argue that the auditors have not fully understood the circumstances, you can argue that the Commission's guidance was misleading, you can even argue that the Commission was complicit in the decision to allocate funds to a particular project. But you will get absolutely nowhere arguing that the Commission should not recover funds because it was a long time ago.
And, although we do not yet know whether it is the case, does Mr McConnell really want to argue that someone who has received a grant and misused it should not be asked to return it?
The sensible response would have been for the First Minister to state that he would carefully examine the communication from the Commission in consultation with the agencies involved, adding if necessary that he would as far as possible seek to minimise the impact of any possible recovery on the economy of the Highlands and Islands.