A secretive lobbying firm with high level links to the SNP has been hired by Colleges Scotland, it has been alleged, as further education lecturers strike into their fourth week in a dispute over pay and conditions.
Thousands of lecturers at colleges across Scotland have walked out on selected days over the past month, now set to escalate to three days of strike action a week until a settlement is reached. The origins of the dispute lie in a deal between the lecturers’ union, the EIS Further Education Lecturers Association (EIS-FELA), and the employers’ association, Colleges Scotland, last year – itself a bid to avert strike action. The deal was meant to iron out differences in pay and conditions at colleges across the country, but one year later has still not been implemented.
Huge picket lines have been seen outside colleges in recent days and the dispute has been described as the “most serious” in Scottish education since the mass teachers’ strikes of 1985-86. Yet lecturers’ have complained that there has been little press coverage of the strike days, even taking their picket lines to the doors of the BBC and STV last week.
Now it has emerged that an influential lobbying organisation based in Edinburgh, Charlotte Street Partners (CSP), is crisis managing the dispute on behalf of Colleges Scotland. CSP refuse to disclose its client list yet enjoys well publicised and high level links with the SNP and Scottish Government. The claim regarding CSP was first made by Labour MSP Neil Findlay and has been supported by sources within the union. Concerns have been raised that the firm, which had no prior relationship to Colleges Scotland, may have been taken on due to its connections with the Scottish Government.
Key figures within CSP – launched in 2014 – include Andrew Wilson, a former SNP MSP who is now heading up the party’s much vaunted “Growth Commission”, charged with putting in place a strategy for a “strong and stable” economy under independence. Kevin Pringle, formerly head of strategic comms for the SNP, also joined CSP in late 2015. Alongside Wilson, the firm’s other managing partner is Malcolm Robertson, son of a Labour peer and brother in law of Sarah Smith, Scotland editor for BBC News.
CSP have come under fire for their cosy relationship with the Scottish Government, which has included hosting receptions and wining and dining special advisors. The firm has a track record in the education sector, having successfully lobbied on behalf of university principals two years ago to roll back on bits of the Higher Education Bill they didn’t like. Other clients have included First Group, undergound coal gasification firm Cluff Natural Resources, and Abellio. In April, The Ferret revealed CSP have been “lobbying for Rupert Murdoch papers”.
CSP would not be the only PR firm taken on by Colleges Scotland. A recent FOI request revealed nearly £500,000 was spent by the organisation on consultants between October 2012 and July 2016, although they refused to break this down further. CSP do not feature on the list, although over this time there were numerous short term contracts for “public affairs” work with other firms, such as Grayling.
According to Grayling’s register, they represented the Colleges Scotland Employers’ Association as recently as February, just weeks ahead of the EIS issuing a ballot to their members in colleges. A curious time, perhaps, for Colleges Scotland to suddenly decide to hire CSP.