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Colleges

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

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Photo of Tavish Scott Tavish Scott Liberal Democrat

This debate would not be happening were it not for Audit Scotland and Caroline Gardner, the Auditor General for Scotland. It is on days like this that a number of us reflect that Audit Scotland is one of the few parts of the public sector that keep the rest of the public sector and the Government honest, which is what happened in this case. The convener of the Public Audit Committee rightly drew attention to Audit Scotland’s forensic analysis of what went on at Coatbridge College. Our committee report, which covers that analysis in some detail, and all the hours of evidence that we took happened only because Audit Scotland did the job that we expect it to do.

Audit Scotland deserves a heck of a lot of credit for that work, not least because, when the former principal of Coatbridge College whom we are discussing today turned up at the Public Audit Committee, the first thing that he did was to attack the Auditor General, cast doubt on the veracity of her findings and impugn her reputation. What we found out afterwards was that the person who needed to apologise for their behaviour was not the Auditor General but John Doyle.

I agree with what other members such as Colin Beattie have said. I do not know how Mr Doyle can look at himself in the shaving mirror in the morning. He should get up, write a cheque for £304,000 and pay it back, not to the Scottish funding council or even to the cabinet secretary, but to the students and staff at the college. That £304,000 would help the institution to move forward. If we achieve anything as a committee—I do not suppose that we will—it would be something on those lines.

A number of members have reflected on why all this happened, and some members, including Jackie Baillie, have drawn some of that out. I completely understand that the then cabinet secretary Mike Russell was determined to deliver a college merger programme across Scotland and he had cross-party support for that. I suspect that what happened was that the funding council was pretty well left to get on with it by the cabinet secretary and the Government of the day. We can understand that, but the fact that there was not a heck of a lot of parliamentary scrutiny of it at that time is an illustration of what is not good about public policy. It points to the need to constantly question why something is happening, even if we agree with it.

As others have said, there was no question but that, because of the merger process, a number of college principals and senior people in different colleges were going to go. That was illustrated by one of the tables that we eventually dragged out of the Scottish funding council. The 14 individuals who left different colleges across Scotland under the merger process received a total of £2.6 million of public money in pensions, on-costs, annual leave and various other things. I do not think that that would be acceptable to any of us, and it is certainly not acceptable to the woman or man who is walking down Market Street this afternoon that people could benefit to that extent from a merger process.

I agree with the comments of the convener of the Public Audit Committee, Paul Martin, and other members who have spoken this afternoon that the lines of financial accountability were just not there in the way that, frankly, we should expect. The cabinet secretary made a good point about a risk assessment at the end of her speech. It is a pity that that did not happen at the start, but she is right.

There is no better illustration of that than in the Public Audit Committee’s “Report on Scotland’s colleges 2015”, which was published on 28 September 2015. On the savings that were claimed for the merger process, the Auditor General told the committee in evidence on 29 April 2015:

“At this stage, the funding council and the Government could not give us the information that we asked for to demonstrate the costs of the merger process.”—[Official Report, Public Audit Committee, 29 April 2015; c 33.]

It is no wonder that all this was going on behind the scenes when the matter was first considered.

I ask the Government to reflect both on the committee report and on what the Auditor General has said about the lines of financial accountability and the governance of what happened, not just for Coatbridge College but for the future of public spending in Scotland.