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COME CLEAN ON WATER COMPANY SELL-OFF, ECK; Parties round on Salmond over talks with Oz bankers.

Byline: Torcuil Crichton

THE SNP were under fire last night after it was revealed they held secret talks with foreign investors over the sale of Scotland's publicly owned water company.

Opposition parties have called for the First Minister to come clean about whether he is considering selling Scottish Water.

The row erupted when it emerged that finance secretary John Swinney had held talks with Australian banking group Macquarie, who own London utility company Thames Water.

A spokesman for the First Minister yesterday admitted that the sale of Scottish Water had been discussed. But he insisted nothing has come of the talks.

Labour remain st rongly opposed to privatising Scottish Water, describing it as a "made in heaven, sold on earth" rip-off.

Surprise

Finance spokesman David Whitton said: "I am astonished to hear that the First Minister has been engaged in talks about the future of Scottish Water and yet he and his cabinet colleagues have been maintaining publicly all along that it's not for sale.

"Serious questions now have to be asked." The SNP say they are against water privatisation but are struggling to balance the Holyrood books as they prepare to face the electorate next year.

The Scottish Tories have advocated a sell-off as a way to bolster public finances. But even they were taken aback by claims that the SNP were secretly involved in talks.

Their finance spokesman Derek Brownlee said: "It will come as a bit of a surprise that senior ministers have been having all these discussions, particularly given that they tried to rubbish the stories earlier.

"But it's perfectly sensible. It's an obvious way to save money and it's a disgrace that the government has wasted so much time saying it's not going to do something. We all know it's going to do something eventually."

The Tories and Lib Dems have called on the government to consider at least mutualising the utility, which would save more than pounds 140million a year in public subsidy.

Water companies in English regions were privatised under Tory PM Margaret Thatcher. But a huge public campaign in Scotland, built on the back of the anti-poll tax movement, stopped a Scottish sell-off.

Welsh water services have been mutualised for 10 years, while each of the English regional providers are in private hands.

A spokesman for the SNP government said Swinney met representatives of Macquarie last July, at their request, to discuss the financing of Scottish Water and there were no actions arising from the meeting.

He added: "Ministers have consistently said that there are no plans to change the public ownership of Scottish Water. That is the position and there is simply no basis to any claim to the contrary."

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WATER PRESSURE: Salmond had talks with banking group Macquarie
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Publication:Daily Record (Glasgow, Scotland)
Geographic Code:4EUUK
Date:Mar 1, 2010
Words:460
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