Water regulator boss quits over 'unacceptable' gift card and course purchases

The Water Industry Commission for Scotland failed to seek Government approval for two purchases over 2022-23.

Water regulator boss quits over ‘unacceptable’ spending on £100 gift cards and £77,000 Harvard course WICS

The head of Scotland’s water industry regulator has quit after a watchdog disclosed “unacceptable” spending which included a £77,000 Harvard course for a senior manager.

The Water Industry Commission for Scotland (Wics) bore the brunt of a report from Audit Scotland on Wednesday, which said it failed to seek Government approval for two purchases over 2022-23.

One of these was the provision of £100 gift vouchers for staff as a Christmas present, which exceeded the £75 limit for gifts.

The other was the funding of a training course at Harvard Business School in the US to the tune of £77,350, including flights, for its chief operating officer Michelle Ashford.

Ms Ashford advertises the advanced management programme from Harvard on her LinkedIn profile, and says it was undertaken between January and May this year.

It was only when Audit Scotland reported the issues that approval was sought, and received, by the Scottish Government.

The Scottish Government announced just hours after the report was released that Wics chief executive Alan Sutherland would be standing down with immediate effect.

“The Scottish Government is clear that the failings identified in the auditor general’s report are completely unacceptable,” a spokeswoman said.

“Wics’ chief executive is stepping down with immediate effect and has tendered his resignation.

“Wics will now submit an action plan outlining how they will deliver on the auditor general’s recommendations and we will play our part in ensuring that all of the recommendations are implemented without exception.”

Mr Sutherland caused controversy earlier this year when Wics’ accounts showed he had been repaid more than £14,000 for leave he did not take in 2021-22, despite being among one of the highest-paid public sector workers on a salary of £183,240.

In its report, Audit Scotland said: “I am concerned that this amount of public money was spent without due process being followed or a clear assessment being undertaken to demonstrate that this expenditure represented value for money.

“All expenditure should be incurred in accordance with the requirements of the commission’s finance policies and guidelines, and the rules and guidance set out in the Scottish public finance manual.

“If there is any dubiety as to whether planned expenditure is permissible, approval should be sought from the sponsor division prior to the expenditure being incurred.”

Elsewhere, auditor general Stephen Boyle criticised the body’s expenses process, which showed “widespread issues”, including “claims not supported by itemised receipts, exceeding the approved subsistence rates and, on occasion, the reimbursement of the purchase of alcohol”.

On one occasion a meal amounted to as much as £200 per head, including the purchase of alcohol.

In a statement Mr Boyle said: “Value for money should always be central to public bodies’ spending decisions.

“But these findings highlight unacceptable behaviour by senior commission officials in the use of public funds.

“I expect appropriate action to be taken to address the issues reported by the auditor.”

Wics has been contacted for comment.

Scottish Tory net zero spokesman Douglas Lumsden said the actions in the report were “indefensible”, adding: “The sense of entitlement demonstrated by these lavish dinners, gift cards and trips to Harvard is an insult to taxpayers who are being clobbered ever harder by the SNP Government.

Scottish Lib Dem leader Alex Cole-Hamilton described the spending as “jaw-dropping”, adding that it “stinks to high heaven”.

Scottish Labour deputy leader Jackie Baillie said the “astounding” report “lays bare a shocking culture of financial mismanagement and waste in the Water Industry Commission for Scotland”.

She added: “It beggars belief that this body has been frittering away public money with abandon as it hits Scots with one recommended water rate hike after another.”

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