Spending watchdog criticises Brian Sweeney's pension deal

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

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.

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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