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I, too, thank the Auditor General for illuminating the entire saga, and I thank the Parliament’s Public Audit Committee for the thorough and analytical report that it has produced on a very sorry chapter in further education in Scotland.
My colleague Jackie Baillie was quite right to discuss at the beginning of her contribution the various ways in which colleges matter. They matter to our communities, to employability and to Scotland’s economy. I was slightly surprised that the minister mentioned on various occasions their importance to young people. If I am correct, it was said three times that they are important to young people. Surely their importance is not just to young people, but to women returners or those who need to be reskilled, for example. I am disappointed that the minister has not recognised that. A suspicion that many people in and out of the sector have had for a long time is that the 152,000 college places have been lost to the detriment of such groups.
My particular concern about the reports before us is about North Glasgow College, which was located in my constituency and, in its new merged form, still is. I was surprised when I read about the scale of the payments made to some outgoing staff members. I was even more surprised to read of the many opportunities to intervene and to question whether the payments were appropriate. Unfortunately, those opportunities were not taken.
The Public Audit Committee drew our attention to the fact that, in 2000, the Scottish funding council provided guidance to colleges about how to deal with severance for senior staff. In 2004, it updated that guidance, as my colleague James Kelly said. Crucially, the Scottish funding council did not remind colleges of the guidance at the point at which the mergers were being discussed and taking place.
This is not the first time that Scotland has witnessed the merger of public bodies. The Auditor General has provided good practice guidance for such occasions. Therefore, we must also question why the guidance was not followed in this case.
The college merger programme was one of the largest public sector reorganisations that we have ever seen. In those circumstances, we could—indeed, perhaps we should—have expected the funding council to be more proactive in that regard. However, it is also clear that North Glasgow College failed in a number of important ways. As the committee said, it fell short of the required level of governance. That is just unacceptable.
The merger was a Scottish Government initiative and it conformed to the Government’s requirements. I do not understand how it did not foresee the possibility of the scenario that arose. Where people want to do something that is perhaps not up to the standard that most people would expect, they will always find a way to get around the rules. The measures were controversial and senior staff of long standing found themselves in a situation in which there was no longer a job for them. How those staff members would depart should surely have been of concern to ministers, as well as to the funding council.
The committee’s report exposed that, on 11 October 2013, the funding council received a funding request from North Glasgow College that included payment for two senior staff members. On 24 October 2013, the funding council apparently advised the college that funding would be restricted—that it would not get the full amount that it had asked for. However, by that time, just over two weeks after the college had made the initial request, the payments to those senior staff members had been authorised and, on 28 October 2013, they were made. There was a three-week period between the application and the money being disbursed. That seems to be what can be described only as a deliberate attempt to pay money that perhaps should not have been paid in the first place.
It should also be noted that North Glasgow College’s remuneration committee’s decisions about severance were not reported to the college board, because the chair of the board was advised—wrongly—that there was no need for that to happen.
The cost of restructuring and severance at North Glasgow College was £1.29 million. In the end, the Scottish funding council provided £866,000 of that amount, resulting in a shortfall of £424,000. Of that amount, £240,000 arose from the severance payments. That might not be a huge sum of money in the overall scheme of things, but that sum might have been better spent on supporting students, widening access or perhaps even in restoring staff morale. We must learn the lessons.