Wednesday, 11 October 2017

Round and round and round again!

Guest blogger BILL CHISHOLM M.B.E. on the attitude of the "regulators" towards a multi-million pound loss of public funds

It came as no surprise when I received an email from Audit Scotland last week basically telling me to abandon my two year campaign which had been attempting to get the so called public spending watchdog to do its job.

A very detailed investigation into Scottish Borders Council's disastrous mismanagement of its £65 million contract with New Earth Solutions and the resultant loss of £2.4 million of OUR money for absolutely no return had produced reams of hard, factual evidence in support of the case for an investigation into what appeared to be a clear case of maladministration.

Much of that evidence has been laid before the public thanks to space in the columns of Not Just Sheep & Rugby, and I have had praiseworthy comments along with expressions of concern from a host of individuals, including experts in waste management and public procurement after sending them a copy of my findings.

I also owe a great debt of gratitude to our local newspapers - Border Telegraph and Southern Reporter - for the series of news stories they have published into the fiasco. It is extremely telling that the council has maintained a stony silence when asked for comment by both papers. What is there to hide if there hasn't been a massive cock-up?

However, there's been no interest in the affair from Audit Scotland, the country's Ombudsman or from politicians who have so far failed to offer me a comment (good or bad) on the contents of the 40-odd page 'dossier' which was compiled with a great deal of effort and in the face of consistent opposition from SBC.

Throughout the exercise I kept Audit Scotland copied into the correspondence, and asked them to investigate on several occasions.

Unfortunately, by the time my inquiries were completed SBC had paid accountants KPMG well over £200,000 to examine their books on behalf of Audit Scotland in 2015/16 with another audit fee of the same magnitude handed over - this time to the watchdog itself - to cover the 2016/17 audit. On both occasions SBC received pass marks for its handling of the New Earth Solutions disaster.

In one of their letters Audit Scotland actually admitted the abandoned contract represented "a poor outcome" for SBC. But as I pointed out that was not true. The council merely wrote off the losses and moved on. It was, in fact, a poor outcome for council taxpayers.

Undeterred by their negative response, I provided them with a copy of my final report into the Easter Langlee debacle. I had been advised to do so by the Scottish Public Services Ombudsman (SPSO) whose staff made it pretty clear they would not be intervening either.

According to SPSO they are not 'regulators' and it was extremely unlikely that they would look into the Borders case unless Audit Scotland had acted incorrectly. And anyway, the Ombudsman could not become involved until I'd been through the council's own complaints procedure. Yes, dear reader, that is exactly what SPSO told me.

When Audit Scotland's response to the 'dossier' arrived I was told in no uncertain manner that from now on they would not be responding to my messages in future.

Here's how they broke the news: "Due to the detailed correspondence we have had with you on this issue, we feel our assessment of this matter has been concluded. Unless there are significant new areas of concern, we will not respond to any further communication regarding the waste management contract at the council. "

Audit Scotland has maintained throughout that SBC was right to shut down the contract in February 2015. I have never disputed that move. It was the decisions taken by elected members on the advice of leading officials in the five years before that which cost the public purse so much. And my report was stuffed with 'new' information.

Now, despite the intransigence of the totally ineffectual national 'regulators' I have managed to secure an investigation.

Acting on that steer from SPSO I lodged a complaint against SBC with er, SBC in the following terms:

"That Scottish Borders Council was guilty of maladministration and
mismanagement of at least £2.4 million of public money in its decision
making and general conduct while dealing with its £65 million waste
management contract with New Earth Solutions Group between March 2011 and
February 2015, particularly its handling of the proposed £23 million waste
treatment facility planned for Easter Langlee, Galashiels but which was
never even started.

I wish my complaint to be investigated and those responsible for the loss of
millions of pounds of taxpayers' money together with the failure to deliver
the waste treatment plant to be identified and held to account. All
information held by the council to be released for public scrutiny following
Audit Scotland's conclusion that SBC is "open and transparent" in conducting
its business."

The council investigation into my complaint is ongoing.

I conclude that my experience vividly illustrates the shortcomings in Scotland's arrangements for dealing with alleged mismanagement of public funds. Disgruntled members of the public receive no assistance whatsoever and find themselves on a pointless journey of discovery on a merry-go-round powered by perpetual motion.

Audit Scotland is beyond reproach and cannot be challenged. Once the watchdog is satisfied the loss of £2.4 million is acceptable that appears to be that. And apart from ordering public authorities to apologise to dissatisfied service users the SPSO has no sanctions at its disposal.

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