By Martin Kelly
A Scottish Government sponsored trip to this year’s Ryder Cup event in Chicago to promote Scotland has been criticised by Unionist politicians.
Political opponents of First Minister Alex Salmond have seized on figures which show the cost of sending the 36 strong delegation to the USA was £468,580.
The trip saw Mr Salmond accompanied by 12 government officials, representatives from VisitScotland and Scottish Enterprise as well as Sports Minister Shona Robison as they attended the Ryder Cup event in order to promote Scottish businesses, culture, tourism and golf.
The delegation also included Julie Fowlis, the singer who features on the film soundtrack of hit animation movie Brave, and violin virtuoso Nicola Benedetti. Both artists performed at the closing ceremony in Medinah.
The centrepiece of the promotional visit was the Gleneagles 2014 stand on the Medinah course which offered visitors the opportunity to learn more about Scotland, Scottish golf and the Gleneagles event.
The stand, costing £83,165, was located just yards from the first tee of the tournament course, offering an unprecedented opportunity to showcase Scotland to the international golfing public – and attracted thousands of visitors.
Other costs included £80,263.71 for accommodation, £8,125.25 for logistics, £202,600.14 for programme delivery, £20,056 for marketing and branding, £20,178.36 for office costs and £54,192.36 for flights.
One of the largest sporting events on the planet, the Ryder Cup is expected to inject £100m into the local and wider Scottish economy when it comes to Scotland. In all, more than 250,000 spectators from all over the globe are expected to visit Gleneagles to watch the event, with 600 million more expected to watch the action on television in more than 180 countries.
Mr Salmond represented Scotland at the event and was present at the opening and closing ceremony and accepted the ceremonial silver putter marking the handover from Chicago to Gleneagles in 2014. The First Minister also undertook a series of key business and promotional engagements during his visit as did other members of the party.
However, opposition MSPs have attacked the cost, with Labour MSP Patricia Ferguson accusing the First Minister of spending £500,000 “to watch the golf”.
Criticising the Chicago visit and another trip to the premier of hit animation movie ‘Brave’ which was linked with Scottish tourism in promotional videos, the Labour MSP added: “Alex Salmond has no shame. At a time of such severe cuts to public spending, and as thousands continue to lose their jobs, for Alex Salmond to be spending such sums is outrageous. Scots will rightly ask what world the First Minister inhabits.”
The Labour MSP was joined by Scottish Liberal Democrat leader, Willie Rennie, who said: “When money is tight, spending half a million pounds on a trip to the USA has to be questioned for value for money. It’s right that Scotland was represented at the Ryder Cup but it can’t be right to spend this amount on that representation.”
However a spokesman for the First Minister hit back by accusing Labour MSP, Ms Ferguson of “breathtaking hypocrisy”.
He added: “They spent more than this on Tartan Day trips to the United States during each one of their last three years in office.” The spokesman accused former Labour First Minister Jack McConnell of being “happy to splash out on treating himself and other ministers to taxpayer-funded trips”.
It emerged that in November 2004, when a Labour Minister, Patricia Ferguson travelled to Australia with two officials to attend the Commonwealth Youth Games and to support the London Olympic 2012 bid.
In March 2006, Ms Ferguson and three officials took a 19 day trip to Australia to attend the Commonwealth Games in Melbourne where she also met with officials in respect of the Glasgow 2014 Commonwealth Games bid.
In March 2005, the Labour MSP and three officials took a 10 day trip to the USA to attend Tartan Day celebrations in New York. The event saw a VisitScotland ‘village’ erected in Grand Central Station.
In all, Ms Ferguson, who once joked that she was called “queen of the junkets” because of her tartan day trips, attended tartan day in America on four occasions, twice as Deputy Presiding Officer and twice as a minister in Jack McConnell’s Scottish Executive.
In 2002, Mr McConnell was criticised after a delegation of 20 people spent over £100,000 on a trip to the Tartan Day celebrations in New York.
In 2006 when Labour were still in power, it emerged the cost to send MSPs to the celebrations in New York had rocketed to £700,000.
The cost was up over £200,000 from the previous year after Tom McCabe, Labour’s finance minister, said £480,000 was spent on the celebrations.