Scottish Police Authority chiefs experience the Mary Scanlon treatment during Holyrood appearance

Written by Alan Robertson on 12 February 2016 in Comment

Holyrood's Public Audit Committee give Andrew Flanagan and John Foley a grilling

Getting the Mary Scanlon treatment has been experienced by a handful of people who have had the misfortune to be called before Holyrood’s Public Audit Committee.

The symptoms? A growing sense of inadequacy tinged with regret that you didn’t opt for the private sector instead. The Scottish Conservative MSP retires in just under three months’ time but not soon enough, seemingly, for the two officials at the top of the Scottish Police Authority chain.

Chair of Police Scotland’s civilian oversight body, Andrew Flanagan, and its chief executive, John Foley, were summoned this week to the Scottish Parliament to answer questions on the Auditor General’s latest assessment of their annual accounts. On being received by Audit Scotland last July, the accounts were “incomplete, of poor quality and were subject to substantial changes”. This, Caroline Gardner declared, was “exceptional” in the financial watchdog’s wider experience of auditing public sector accounts.

“I’ve been a chartered accountant for almost 40 years and I have never before received such a serious audit report,” acknowledged Flanagan within minutes of taking his seat in Committee Room 1. A wise move – accept that your organisation has come up short and vow to put it right.

Steps that have since been taken include having internal auditors in place once again, while a long-term financial strategy is pending (almost two-and-a-half years after the Auditor General had first called for one, but never mind that), Flanagan told the committee. An interim chief financial officer, who spent the best part of a decade in senior financial roles at City of Edinburgh Council, has been appointed too.

“I think we already see some benefits – even though she’s only started very recently – in terms of making sure that coordination between the two organisations is in a much better position,” Flanagan told MSPs. Said official started 24 hours earlier so clearly, she’d had an incredibly productive first day.

However, none of this was going to protect him, nor Mr Foley, who’d been asked by Labour MSP Paul Martin to confirm his annual salary of £110,000 within the first 15 minutes, from a grilling that must have even had them longing for no-nonsense justice committee convener, Christine Grahame, to be in the chair instead.

“Despite the comments that you’re making going forward, Mr Flanagan, as one of the older members of the committee, I’ve heard it all before,” Scanlon declared. The Highlands and Islands MSP wasn’t done yet, though. A number of misstatements and presentational adjustments had been identified in the financial statements during the course of the audit. “This is public money and you can’t even put your numbers in the right box and you can’t even get your numbers correct,” said Scanlon matter-of-factly. “That’s pretty damning, isn’t it?”

It’s “not unusual in any organisation” for an auditor to pick up on such misstatements, countered Flanagan, turning the focus on the travails going from a number of legacy arrangements down to one. “You’ve had three years,” Scanlon interjected. “I agree that [in] three years we should have perhaps made more progress,” he conceded.

That, to put it mildly, is the SPA’s problem. Irrespective of the progress it might have made since inception, it has been unable to shake off this caricature of it being a scrutiny body that frequently fails to withstand self-scrutiny. I suppose the silver lining for Flanagan and Foley may well be that Scanlon won’t be sitting opposite them when they have to endure their next check-up.

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