Scottish culture secretary accused over T in the Park subsidy

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The Scottish government’s culture secretary has been accused of treating Holyrood with contempt following a bruising committee hearing about her decision to approve £150,000 in state aid for the T in the Park music festival.

Fiona Hyslop appeared before Holyrood’s education and culture committee on Tuesday to explain why she approved the sum to help the popular festival move to a new site earlier this year.

She was questioned about why the highly profitable enterprise was deemed a worthy recipient of government subsidy. Hyslop also faced questions about the role of Jennifer Dempsie, a former Yes Scotland staffer and aide to Alex Salmond, who set up a meeting between the cabinet secretary and T in the Park promoters DF Concerts while working as a project manager for the events firm.

The Conservative MSP Mary Scanlon suggested the grant was “a done deal” given Dempsie’s close connections with the SNP, and asked if it was in essence a “fraudulent application”.

Hyslop responded by insisting that she did not know Dempsie had made the original request, although she accepted that she had met the former Salmond adviser at the SNP conference before the meeting took place.

She said she only had contact with the chief executive of DF Concerts, Geoff Ellis. Hyslop said he had no party political connections.

Committee members were particularly aggrieved that the Scottish government had chosen to release more than 600 pages of heavily redacted documents relating to the T in the Park funding deal after 8pm the night before the evidence session.

The three-day festival, which featured Sam Smith, Jessie J and Rudimental, was forced to move in July from its original site at the former Balado airfield in Kinross to Strathallan Castle estate in Perthshire, after safety concerns were raised about an oil pipeline that runs directly underneath the former site.

Hyslop suggested that the organisers of the annual event, which is sponsored by Tennants and has been held in Scotland since 1994, had warned that they could be forced to leave the country unless they could address the “severely reduced revenues” associated with the relocation.

This was greeted with derision by the committee, with the SNP MSP Chic Brodie replying: “I disavow the notion that T in the Park, which is conjoined with Scotland ... would move.”

Hyslop insisted that she wanted to ensure the festival remained viable in the long term and said: “I’m standing up for T in the Park. My interest is the economic interest of this country and the cultural offering we have got for generations of young people, and the development of the contemporary music scene in Scotland.”

Following the hearing, committee member and Scottish Liberal Democrat MSP Liam McArthur described Hyslop’s evidence as “flimsy”.

He said: “We are still no closer to understanding why a profitable company received state aid, or whether all other revenue streams were exhausted, including from the event’s key sponsor, before seeking £150,000 of public money from the Scottish government.

“The culture secretary’s go-to argument that festivals are important to the economy misses the point. Of course they are important, but so too is transparency in the way ministers act when handing out significant sums of public money.

“That the Scottish government deemed it appropriate to release more than 600 pages of mostly redacted documents the night before the evidence session will lead many people to judge that ministers are treating parliament with contempt.”

John Pentland MSP, one of the Scottish Labour members on the committee, said Holyrood needed more answers. “Piecing together what we have learned with what we knew already, we now know that this affair started with an approach by Jennifer Dempsie to the cabinet secretary’s private office to set up a meeting. We are asked to believe that these emails, direct to the cabinet secretary from a former special adviser to Alex Salmond, were not seen by the cabinet secretary. Not only does she not read her own emails, but nobody on her staff tells her about them.

“It’s hard not to conclude that this is a cosy deal dreamed up by an SNP minister and a former SNP special adviser. I am sure the suspicion will continue and linger as long as the evidence is hidden.”

Powered by Guardian.co.ukThis article was written by Libby Brooks Scotland correspondent, for theguardian.com on Tuesday 29th September 2015 17.04 Europe/Londonguardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media Limited 2010