The Scottish government has signed an agreement with Chinese firms that could see £10bn invested in transport, energy and affordable housing, but the deal has been clouded by accusations of a cover up.
The memorandum of understanding (MOU) was signed on 21 March by Scotland’s First Minister Nicola Sturgeon, but was not officially announced by the Scottish government.
The SNP signed this deal before that but kept it quiet – people deserve to know why– Jackie Baillie, Scottish Labour Party
The government initially said it could not release details of the MOU because of the "purdah" period preceding Scottish elections on 5 May – a period when the government is meant to be politically neutral.
But the purdah period began on 24 March, leading political opponents of Sturgeon’s ruling Scottish National Party (SNP) to accuse it of hiding the MOU from Scottish people.
Amid mounting criticism the Scottish government yesterday quietly published the MOU on its website.
"This stinks. Voters deserve the facts on deals the SNP government have signed on their behalf and it is unacceptable to refuse to tell people what is in this deal," said the public services spokeswoman for the opposition Scottish Labour Party, Jackie Baillie, to newspaper The Scotsman before the government published the document.
"It simply isn’t good enough to blame the purdah election period. The SNP signed this deal before that but kept it quiet – people deserve to know why," she added.
The MOU was signed by Sturgeon and representatives of the Chinese developer SinoFortone and state-owned construction giant, China Railway No. 3 Engineering Group (CR3), at the First Minister’s official Bute House residence in Edinburgh on 21 March.
Parties to the MOU would "seek to develop a relationship that could lead to a program of investment into Scottish priority projects and infrastructure to the value of £10Bn", the MOU said.
Areas discussed included affordable housing, communities, clean energy, industry and business parks and transportation infrastructure.
Also signing the MOU, which involves no firm commitment of funds, were Dr Peter Zhang, managing director of SinoFortone, and Sir Richard Heygate, named as senior advisor to CR3.
Awkwardly for the SNP, SinoFortone announced the MOU on the same day as the signing.
In that press statement Nicola Sturgeon said the MOU would "strengthen our economic links with China in a number of areas".
She added: "New innovation collaborations between Scotland and China can deliver a boost in business growth for both countries and deliver benefits to Scotland as a whole."
SinoFortone is already involved with projects including the new London Paramount theme park development, the proposed Crossrail 2 rail line running through London.
Opposition figures jumped on what they called the government’s attempt to keep the MOU quiet.
Speaking before the document was published, Scottish Liberal Democrat leader Willie Rennie said it was "extraordinary that a deal of such magnitude has been kept private by the SNP", reported BBC News.
And John Lamont of the Scottish Conservatives claimed SNP ministers had "simply tried to hide this away until after the election".
However, the BBC reported a spokeswoman for Nicola Sturgeon as stating: "The first minister is more than happy for this information to be in the public domain which shows that once again opposition parties are ignoring reality to make up their own version of events – a move which has backfired badly.
"As the memorandum of understanding which the Scottish government has published clearly shows, it is an agreement to have preliminary talks about potential opportunities for investment to support jobs and economic growth in Scotland.
"It does not relate to any specific projects or specific amount of investment, is not a binding legal agreement and does not commit any public funds."
Photograph: Signing the MOU on 21 March: Scotland’s First Minister Nicola Sturgeon, centre, with SinoFortone managing director Peter Zhang, left, and Sir Richard Heygate, senior advisor for China Railway No. 3 Engineering Group (Sinofortone)