Tuesday, 17 March 2015

These sleeping watchdogs are expensive pets

Do we really need up to five separate regulatory and investigative bodies to keep an eye on Scotland's less than perfect local and central government set-up when the operating costs exceed £13 million a year and most councillors simply carry on regardless?

The current assortment of watchdogs might just be able to justify their expensive existence if they could demonstrate efficiency and effectiveness. But the sanctions they are able to impose on wayward local authorities, government departments and parliamentarians are practically non-existent and barely add up to a slap on the wrist.

Surely the time has come to scrap them all and invest in a single organisation to take control of financial issues, investigation of complaints, disciplinary procedures for dealing with wayward elected members, and the administration of the country's extremely flawed Freedom of Information system.

It's worth taking a look at the cumbersome and over-staffed collection of separate entities we're lumbered with at present. To be frank they cost a fortune and do not represent value for money.

Top of the pile sits the Accounts Commission supported by Audit Scotland. It has 262 members of staff including an Auditor General who is paid up to £140,000 per annum. Two other senior staffers are on more than £100,000 each. It reported operating costs of £7.326 million in 2013/14, and carried out a number of financial investigations resulting in a number of nicely produced reports.

There were also lucrative fees and expenses totalling £5.193 million handed over by the Commission to appointed audit firms.

Joe Public may be invited to lodge complaints with Audit Scotland, but there's little evidence that individual grievances ever get to the investigation stage.

Next in line comes the Scottish Public Services Ombudsman (SPSO) with a payroll of 46 including the Ombudsman himself on a salary of £80k to £85k. Annual running costs for the SPSO amount to £3.437 million.

This is the body tasked with investigating complaints from members of the public who allege poor service from their council, health board, medical practice, dental practice or even Scottish Water and the Scottish Prison Service.

But even when it finds one of these organisations guilty as libelled the harshest "sentence" SPSO can dish out is to recommend the service provider issues an apology to the disgruntled client. How absolutely inadequate is that?

The Scottish Information Commissioner (SIC) looks into complaints from Freedom of Information requesters, but has no powers to impose penalties on wrongdoers. The SIC has a staff of 22, the Commissioner's yearly pay is between £75k and £80k, and annual expenditure stands at £1.580 million.

The total lack of sanctions within the FOI system means many councils and other public bodies have become serial offenders by failing to respond to requests within the 20 days allowed. They simply ignore the weak written warnings from the SIC.

Towards the bottom of the expenditure league comes the Commissioner for Ethical Standards in Public Life in Scotland which investigates complaints against councillors, members of devolved bodies, and Members of the Scottish Parliament. The Public Standards Commissioner is also paid between £80k and £85k, employs 9.5 full time equivalent (FTE) staff and incurs running costs of £768,000.

Meanwhile the Standards Commission for Scotland costs £207,000 a year, and organises hearings into alleged misdemeanours by councillors and members of 105 public bodies. The secretary to the Commission has a £55k to £60k salary, there is a staff of 3.5 FTEs. A part-time convener and four part-time members who conduct the hearings are also paid between £5,700 and £10,260.

Well, what's the verdict? A significant sum could certainly be saved if these toothless autonomous entities were abolished and their handsomely paid chiefs were replaced by say a Commissioner for the Public Sector with real powers to crack down on miscreants. Unfortunately our councillors, MSPs, civil servants, quango members and local government officials would never allow it to happen.

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