Only a few days to go: We’re raising £25,000 to keep TheyWorkForYou running and make sure people across the UK can hold their elected representatives to account.

Donate to our crowdfunder

Colleges

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

Alert me about debates like this

Photo of Mary Scanlon Mary Scanlon Conservative

This has been an excellent debate. In all the years that I have been on the Public Audit Committee, it is the first debate that that committee has had in the chamber. I hope that there will be more in the next session of Parliament.

I thank every member who contributed to the debate, and I have to say that I detected a bit of additional anger coming from those MSPs who are members of the committee. When Paul Martin spoke about the hours that we spent taking evidence, he did not mention the hours that we spent reading the hundreds and hundreds of pages of evidence that we all received.

I acknowledge a point that was made by Colin Beattie and the cabinet secretary. Because things were so bad at Coatbridge and North Glasgow, at the outset of this speech I point out that it would be wrong to say that all colleges are the same—they are not. There is absolutely excellent best practice in Scotland that should be put on the record.

However, we regularly debate how money should be allocated in Scotland’s public sector. We do that every week and in every debate, but we should perhaps scrutinise a bit more thoroughly how well the money is spent in relation to delivering value for money and high-quality public services. When we meet someone like John Doyle, it is right that they are named and shamed and that we were willing to use the Parliament’s powers to compel him to give evidence. It is only right that that has been done across the chamber today.

The debate highlights the work of the Parliament’s Public Audit Committee. I commend the excellent chairing of the committee by Paul Martin, who ensured that a fair, thorough and measured approach was taken to the volumes of information and figures brought forward. The inquiry showed the Parliament's Public Audit Committee at its best, doing the job that it is tasked to do. This Parliament is at its best when every member on every committee works together and we certainly did that on this occasion.

We also received the Linkston report, which was conducted as a review of the merger process at Coatbridge College. I thank the family of Francis McGeachie, who insisted that the committee should see the report, which highlighted that the arrogant approach pursued by the principal of the college allowed no duty of care to the rest of the staff. Tragically, depute principal Francis McGeachie took his own life during the merger process at Coatbridge College.

Even the college trade unions were described as going ballistic when they heard of the principal's pay-off, which was far in excess of anything they may ever have dreamed of.

The Public Audit Committee has been monitoring the college mergers, but we still do not have an accurate figure for the cost of the process, although £52 million was allocated for the purpose. We cannot monitor the promised improvements in the quality of education, as it seems that there are no baseline figures for comparison. The £50 million of savings that were promised are hard to find, although the Scottish funding council says that it is on track to achieve those savings.

An Audit Scotland report in 2012 on “Learning the lessons of public body mergers” was available to guide organisations through the merger process. However, we have found serious issues relating to police reform; a huge funding gap in the Scottish Fire and Rescue Service; and college reform sometimes following worst rather than best practice.

The Auditor General described the section 22 report on Coatbridge as highlighting

“very serious failures of governance ... among the most serious that I have seen during my time as Auditor General.”—[Official Report, Public Audit Committee, 9 September 2015; c 11.]

At the outset of the merger process, the Scottish Government and the Scottish funding council should have set out the parameters for severance payments. The information and guidance was there, but the Government and the SFC allowed colleges to go their own way. The committee’s report asks that the Government looks again at the operation of the Scottish funding council and the effectiveness of its role. That is quite a stark recommendation, and I hope that we will hear back from Government on what its plans are.

It was that lack of rigour that allowed Mr Gray to present to the remuneration committee a severance package for John Doyle that was well over the level that was specified in the guidance. When the remuneration committee agreed the package, there was no agenda and no formal papers. John Doyle received written confirmation of the deal—and it was a deal—within 24 hours, yet the minutes of the meeting were not written up for nine months. It seems that the board of management at the college was not notified either, despite every member of the remuneration committee sitting on the board.

There is no doubt that information was withheld from the remuneration committee members in order to ensure that John Doyle got the package of more than £300,000, with no business case whatsoever to support it. Even the legal advice that was given was based on a lack of information, given that the lawyer was unaware of John Doyle’s letter confirming his severance pay. While there was a public sector pay freeze, John Doyle gave his personal assistant a pay rise of 19 per cent on the basis of her communication skills. The college was out of control at that time.

The Public Audit Committee has carried out a rigorous piece of work on Coatbridge College and it is now for others to follow the process through. I agree with other members that John Doyle should pay back the additional lump sum that he received.

It is now 11 years since the Parliament set up the Office of the Scottish Charity Regulator. The evidence that the committee received pointed to the need for extended powers in order to deal with the other John Doyles around Scotland, who think that public money can be exploited to benefit themselves rather than being used for the purpose of educating and training people and providing high-quality public services.

One of the most disappointing aspects of the inquiry and the report was the failure of the Scottish funding council to hold further education colleges to account. The funding council’s lack of effectiveness and governance allowed for public money to be exploited at Coatbridge College, and it is the Scottish Government’s responsibility to ensure that it now steps up to the mark and carries out the job that it is tasked to do.

There is a substantial amount of evidence in the committee’s report, in addition to the documentation that we received, to enable Police Scotland to carry out an investigation, and I trust that the committee’s recommendation in that respect will be fulfilled.

Finally, I hope that the investigation in Coatbridge will serve as a warning to all other institutions and other individuals in Scotland that, when scarce public money is wasted, they will receive a polite invitation to the Parliament’s Public Audit Committee to account fully for their actions.