The SNP’s deputy Westminster leader is under renewed pressure to say what she knew about goings-on at a scandal-hit college after documents revealed major procurement problems were not properly addressed over several years, despite being flagged to management.
Kirsten Oswald previously refused to offer a detailed statement on allegations of theft, malfeasance and intimidation at South Lanarkshire College (SLC), where she was head of human resources between May 2002 and May 2015. A spokesman for the East Renfrewshire MP stressed today that she left the institution more than seven years ago and had “nothing to add”.
However, she is facing fresh calls to disclose her knowledge after a leaked management report highlighted how serious failures identified as far back as 2013 had not been fully tackled when misconduct claims were probed last year. The Herald has also seen a college internal audit extract from 2013 that lists Ms Oswald as the relevant staff contact.
SLC has been mired in crisis following whistleblowing complaints, received in September 2020, that alleged construction faculty staff had “personally benefited” from the use of its materials and lecturing time to “build, model and repair” their homes and other properties. Another complaint involved claims that key suppliers provided “kickbacks and freebies” to select staff in a bid to obtain business.
SLC has also been dealing with a collapse in governance relations. College principal Aileen McKechnie and Brian Keegan, interim clerk to the board of management, remain suspended pending the completion of investigations into complaints against them and board chair Andy Kerr. Mr Kerr, a former Labour minister, has voluntarily stepped aside from his role for the duration of the inquiries.
READ MORE: Education Secretary accused of failing to act over college crisis claims
Political opponents have today ramped up demands for a statement from Ms Oswald. Kenny MacAskill, Alba Party MP for East Lothian, said: “This whole affair requires openness and transparency. The needs of students, staff and the community demand it. There requires to be an inquiry and there can be no cover-up.”
The newly obtained documents set out recommendations after an investigation into the September 2020 complaints was completed last year. Ms McKechnie commissioned the probe, which was carried out by staff from Azets, an international accountancy, tax, audit and business services group.
Although investigators did not identify “substantive evidence” to support most of the allegations, they did uncover weaknesses in college systems and offered proposals aimed at securing improvement.
The leaked management response to the Azets findings also lists relevant recommendations in a separate report that was produced following a 2013 internal audit by Wylie & Bisset LLP. The response includes detail on any implementation action taken.
Among the 2013 proposals outlined is a requirement that three quotes be obtained for orders with a value above £5,000. The recommendation text also states that a review of invoices for amounts over £10,000 had identified some cases where there was a lack of evidence to confirm a tender exercise had happened prior to an order being placed. Significantly, the note on implementation states that recommendations raised previously in these areas had not been “enforced rigorously” in all instances.
Recommendations from 2013 also urged rapid rollout of requirements for all employees to sign an annual registers of interest declaration and a declaration confirming they had read updated financial regulations. However, the implementation text says that proposals in relation to annual staff development and the requirement for a signed declaration had not been “rigorously progressed”.
In addition, the response document suggests SLC’s head of finance had initiated a review of financial regulations by the time the 2013 report was completed. According to the note on implementation, that review did not take place. The text adds: “It must be noted that incorrect practices did not disappear as quickly as they should have and work remains ongoing to ensure compliance.”
READ MORE: Staff accused of cheating South Lanarkshire College ‘to build and repair’ own homes
Conservative MSP Graham Simpson said: “A report into serious concerns at the college was done as long ago as 2013. The claims of people doing homers in college time and using college materials go back that far so we are entitled to demand that Kirsten Oswald tells us what she knows.
“It is clear from these documents that issues highlighted nearly 10 years ago have not been rectified.”
A spokesman for Ms Oswald said: “Kirsten Oswald left South Lanarkshire College more than seven years ago, in 2015. She cannot possibly comment on audit recommendations dated 2021, and has nothing to add to your story.”
An SLC spokesman said: “The substantive principal instructed an investigation to be conducted which concluded that there was no evidence of bullying or harassment at the college as raised by whistleblowers. Following receipt of an internal audit report conducted by Wylie & Bisset LLP in 2013 the college took steps to address the recommendations which it contained.
“The 2013/14 annual accounts produced by KPMG, the external auditors, appointed by the Auditor General for Scotland, concluded that: ‘Our testing, combined with that of the internal audit, of the design and operation of financial controls over significant risk points confirms that controls are designed appropriately and operating effectively over the following financial processes: income and expenditure; staff costs; and cash and bank. During the course of our work in relation to the financial statements, we have not identified any control improvement opportunities.’”
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