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Part of the debate – in the Scottish Parliament on 9th February 2016.

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Photo of James Kelly James Kelly Labour

I thank the Public Audit Committee for the in-depth work that it carried out on the reports on Coatbridge College and North Glasgow College. I think that the Public Audit Committee is one of the top committees in Parliament in terms of how it drills down to the detail of issues and flags up areas of real concern for public policy and use of public money.

A total of £52 million was made available to support the college merger process, so it is right that serious questions are asked about not only whether the process has delivered the political outcomes that the Government wanted but whether it has delivered value for money. When we look at some of the detail in the two reports, we can see that there are areas of real concern.

Questions have to be asked of the Scottish funding council because it is absolutely clear that it did not provide proper guidance and oversight. The guidance on severance payments was issued in 2000—it was 12 years old at the time of the merger process, but was not reviewed, reissued or reinforced, which I find absolutely shocking in audit terms.

There are also real concerns around governance in the two colleges and the lack of audit trails. The fact is that the chair of the remuneration committee at North Glasgow College and the chair of the college board could be the same person, which is unacceptable, given that such big decisions were being taken at the time about large sums of public money. We really have to wonder how that situation could happen.

People in my constituency who work in colleges or who are students struggling to make ends meet would be shocked by some of the sums of money that have been involved in the colleges’ severance processes. The top three severance payments for North Glasgow College totalled £700,000, and the payment to John Doyle at Coatbridge College, which has been under a lot of scrutiny because it was reckoned to be overpaid, was £304,000. That is £1 million of public money in those examples alone. It is absolutely correct that the Public Audit Committee has asked Mr Doyle to pay back that money, because it is clear that there was collusion in order to get a good deal. However, it has clearly not been a good deal as far as the public are concerned.

It is very important that the SNP Government takes some responsibility for that situation. A theme that has run through the way in which the Government operates is that when something goes wrong, it is “an operational matter” and somebody else’s fault. It was a Government decision to go through the college merger process and the Government backed it up to the tune of £52 million, but there were serious errors in how it was implemented and there was a lack of proper follow-through.

There are clear audit and financial points that have to be followed through in terms of there being a lack of proper guidance and good governance. However, in terms of how the college sector is operated, there are 152,000 fewer college places than there were in 2007 and when they see how the severance payments operated, it demoralises staff and students.

That situation is an example of why the SNP needs to wake up to what is going on in the college sector. The Government not only needs to take the lessons from the two audit reports, but needs to examine the overall process to see why we have fewer college places than we had in 2007 and why we are not getting students out to fill the skills gaps that our employers are asking to be filled. Those issues have to be addressed by the Government.