Spending watchdog criticises Brian Sweeney's pension deal

Brian Sweeney Strathclyde Fire and Rescue joint board demonstrated "systemic failures", Audit Scotland said

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Scotland's spending watchdog has criticised Strathclyde Fire and Rescue Joint Board for "systemic failures" over the retirement and re-employment of its chief officer, Brian Sweeney.

In a 32-page report Audit Scotland said the board's processes fell short of acceptable standards and governance.

It said the public could not have confidence in the board's decisions.

South Lanarkshire Council - the joint board's lead authority - said it would discuss the findings at a meeting.

The report also criticised Mr Sweeney for co-authoring a report suggesting his retirement and re-engagement.

This was a highly contentious arrangement for the most senior officer of Scotland's largest fire and rescue service.

'Genuine desire'

It meant he was able to take a lump sum from his pension pot and draw further cash from it while effectively retaining his job.

Possible tax liabilities discovered after the deal was made mean a total of £235,000 has been set aside - but to date no money has been paid out.

The Audit Scotland findings were commissioned in response to a report from the Controller of Audit.

In June 2009, Strathclyde Fire and Rescue Board, which has 34 members representing 12 local authorities, approved the retirement and re-employment of Brian Sweeney on a fixed term contract.

Audit Scotland accepted there may have been a "genuine desire" by members of the board to retain Mr Sweeney.

It said this may have led to less than full consideration of the other choices open to them; there was no business case fully setting out alternative options.

Start Quote

The board made decisions without considering other options, with incomplete information and a lack of transparency.”

End Quote John Baillie Chair, Audit Commission

The report said: "It was inappropriate that Mr Sweeney was a co-author of the June 2009 report which proposed his retirement and re-engagement.

"It was also inappropriate that he was present during discussion at the board meeting, given that he had a direct interest, and the clerk should have advised the board of this."

After the arrangement was made, it was discovered Her Majesty's Revenue and Customs (HMRC) could charge the board £29,000 for an "unauthorised payment".

And in April 2011, the board agreed to set aside up to £206,000 to pay Mr Sweeney's potential personal liability for that charge.

'Lack of transparency'

The report said: "Processes in place to support the board in such an important decision in April 2011, to meet the personal tax liabilities of the chief fire officer - and the decision preceding it in 2009 - were inadequate to allow the public to have confidence in these decisions."

John Baillie, who chairs the Accounts Commission, said: "The problem was that the board made decisions without considering other options, with incomplete information and a lack of transparency.

"There are reminders here for local authorities and perhaps all public bodies in Scotland on governance and transparency and on how they conduct their business."

A spokesperson for South Lanarkshire Council said: "The board notes the findings published by the Accounts Commission.

"Arrangements will be made for these findings to be discussed at a future meeting of the board."

A Scottish government spokeswoman said: "This was entirely a matter for Strathclyde Fire and Rescue Joint Board. We welcome this report and expect all boards to follow proper procedures and ensure they are fully informed before making decisions."

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