Ex-Coatbridge College boss defends pay off deals
A former college principal at the centre of a row over severance payments has denied doing anything wrong.
Coatbridge College principal John Doyle, chairman John Gray and five other staff shared £850,000 in pay offs when it merged with two other colleges.
The payments are being investigated by MSPs on the Public Audit Committee.
Mr Doyle told the committee that the seven managers had been "absolutely trashed when we have done nothing wrong".
In June, the Auditor General Caroline Gardner issued a highly-critical report of the severance deals paid out by Coatbridge College, which she said were overly-generous.
Ms Gardner told a previous meeting of the Public Audit Committee that she believed Mr Doyle and Mr Gray had colluded in order to "achieve a certain outcome" by withholding important information from the remuneration committee.
Ms Gardner stated that a total of 39 staff left the college at a cost of £1.7m during the merger process.
Of this, £849,842 went on seven senior managers, including Mr Doyle and Mr Gray - payments which Ms Gardner said "exceeded the terms of the college's severance scheme".
But Mr Doyle told the committee that Ms Gardner's report was "incomplete, inaccurate and vexatious".
He added: "There was no collusion in terms of my voluntary severance. It was based on a scheme for all colleges in Lanarkshire."
Mr Doyle said he had enjoyed an "unblemished career and reputation" during almost 40 years of public service up until the publication of the auditor general's report.
This included nine years as principal and chief executive of Coatbridge College, where Mr Doyle said he had been very proud to have been leading and working with a "professional and highly motivated team of managers, lecturers and support staff".
He added: "I take great exception to the conclusions reached and vexatious statements made by the auditor general about myself, John Gray and the senior team".
Mr Doyle said he appointed law firm Biggart Baillie to act on his behalf at board meetings when it emerged there could be a conflict of interest.
In his evidence to the committee, Mr Gray said he too "totally rejects" the auditor general's conclusions, and questioned why she had made such "emphatic and terse conclusions without at least the courtesy of discussing the situation with the two people being criticised".
He added: "The minutes of the board of the remuneration committee on 23 October 2013, which happened to be the day I demitted office, and subsequent correspondence show quite clearly that all involved were fully informed of the situation and which together correctly stated the final position."
Mr Gray denied a suggestion from Conservative MSP Mary Scanlon that he had "withheld and concealed information" from the remuneration committee, adding: "I can say categorically that I never withheld anything from any of the committees that I was involved with."
Ms Scanlon responded: "That's not what the committee members are saying."
Scottish Funding Council (SFC) chief executive Lawrence Howells had earlier denied a suggestion from Ms Scanlon that officials had wanted Mr Doyle out of the way to clear a path for a successful merger and so turned a blind eye to the severance payments.
The SFC is responsible for distributing about £1.5bn in funding each year to Scotland's colleges and universities.
Mr Howells said he had urged Coatbridge College at the time not to commit to the severance deals that were being proposed.
And he said he had been "very concerned" that the payments were not within the guidance that had been provided, and that the college board had not produced evidence that the deals provided value for money.
Mr Howells said the SFC had been given legal advice that the chances of clawing back the money paid to Coatbridge College managers was "very slim".
And he said withholding funds would only have damaged New College Lanarkshire, which was created by the merger between Coatbridge, Cumbernauld and Motherwell colleges.
But Mr Howells acknowledged that he could have emphasised the severance payments guidance "even more strongly" to the college.
Emails have shown that the SFC repeatedly advised Mr Doyle and Mr Gray that any severance package equivalent to more than a year's pay would be unreasonable.
However, Mr Doyle, who earned £116,000 a year by the end of his service, was given a 21-month lump sum, plus three months for completing the merger and a further six months' pay in lieu of notice, totalling 30 months' pay.
When Ms Gardner's report was discussed by the Public Audit Committee last month, MSP Nigel Don said the case was a "particularly bad example of misuse of funds, deliberate withholding of information and of feathering one's own nest".
After the committee meeting, Mr Doyle was asked by journalists whether he would repay the money.
He said: "You have heard the evidence given. Why would I pay money that is not due to anyone? I was only given the amount of money that I was contracted to be paid.
"I haven't done anything wrong, as you have quite rightly heard. I don't think it appropriate to apologise for something I have not done.
"It's not taxpayers' money. The evidence that I gave today, that the committee now has, quite clearly demonstrates that I have done absolutely nothing wrong."