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Lanarkshire college fraud and bullying claims 'could be a matter for police'

Claims of “systematic bullying and intimidation” of employees at South Lanarkshire College and allegations of fraud could be a matter for police investigation.

That’s what the Scottish parliamentary public audit committee has heard, at a probe into the Auditor General’s report into governance issues at SLC.

And questions have been raised about a three-month period during which there was no supervision of the millions of pounds of public money for which SLC was responsible.

MSPs have now been urged to take allegations into “a public institution that has been in crisis” extremely seriously.

As the public audit committee quizzed Auditor General Stephen Boyle following the publication of his report into governance issues at SLC, Central Scotland MSP Graham Simpson said: “We should be delving deeper into what has been going on at this college.”

Saying he has been aware of concerns surrounding SLC for some time, Mr Simpson revealed that he has been approached by current and former members of staff at the institution, whose principal, Aileen McKechnie, and interim clerk to the board, Brian Keegan, were dramatically suspended from their posts in November 2021.

Aileen McKechnie was suspended from her post as principal in November last year (East Kilbride News)

Last September, three months prior to her suspension, Lanarkshire Live revealed that Ms McKechnie – who took up the post in April 2020 following the retiral after 18 years’ service of principal Stewart McKillop – had called an investigation into alleged misconduct.

Sources claim these allegations were levelled at the board – and not at the executives who were suspended and remain so, six months subsequently.

Addressing Thursday’s meeting of the public audit committee at Holyrood over his concerns at malaise within the college, Mr Simpson said: “Having been an elected member as a councillor and MSP for some time, I have never come across a situation where people are as scared as they are.

"This is current staff and former staff. I have never seen anything like it.”

South Lanarkshire College , East Kilbride (EAST KILBRIDE NEWS)

Mr Simpson quoted from minutes of a meeting of the college board of management, held on June 8 last year.

At that meeting, the chairperson updated members of “a number of allegations of potential staff misconduct” within a college faculty, relating to “systematic bullying and intimidation of a number of staff over a prolonged period of time,” and “potential financial irregularities (of private businesses operating from college premises, using college materials and lecturing staff time) and potential time-tabling anomalies (fabrication of hours, of students, of classes).”

Central Scotland MSP Graham Simpson has been approached by college staff members past and present (Airdrie & Coatbridge Advertiser)

It is Lanarkshire Live’s understanding that these allegations relate to the faculty of construction.

Mr Simpson questioned whether it was appropriate that a board comprising six new members who had not yet received a formal induction should have been taking decisions of the enormity of the suspension of two senior executives.

“Ongoing investigations, which seem to be stuck for some reason, do not seem to be going anywhere,” he said.

“Two key members of staff have been suspended for six months and that does not seem acceptable to me.”

Auditor General, Stephen Boyle (UGC)

The committee also questioned the Auditor General about 10 events between August 1 2021 and March 24 this year in which SLC failed to comply with the Code of Good Governance, which sets a benchmark for all college boards across the areas of leadership and strategy, quality of the student experience, accountability, effectiveness and relationship, and collaboration.

They include the board and the audit and risk committee failing to meet for up to six months, membership of both falling below the required numbers, lack of transparency of board and committee papers, and the instalment of new board members three months prior to their induction.

The spotlight is on troubled South Lanarkshire College (East Kilbride News)

The report revealed that, for three months, the college had no internal audit capacity – a function which exists to protect public bodies from fraud and corruption and acts as a mechanism though which to air concerns.

When, in 2021, the college breached the Code of Good Governance for Scotland’s colleges, Auditor General Stephen Boyle stated that “millions of pounds of public money that the college was responsible for was not being overseen.”

Should there be foundation in those “serious allegations,” he said: "There is an obligation to report such concerns to Police Scotland."

“It is my view that this could be a police matter,” said Mr Simpson, while committee convenor Richard Leonard told MSPs, “It looks very much like a public institution that has been in crisis.”

Convenor of the public audit committee, Richard Leonard (Getty Images)

Earlier this year, Lanarkshire Live exclusively revealed the contents of a three-page letter sent by an anonymous whistle-blower to SLC and five other public bodies containing stinging allegations and claims of “bullying, intimidation, harassment, theft and fraud over many years” within its ranks.

Since we published the damning claims by the letter’s author – who made his identity known to Lanarkshire Live – four other whistle-blowers have come forward to us with corroborating accounts of “cronyism” and a “culture of fear and bullying” at the East Kilbride college.

Commenting on the latest questions raised at Holyrood, the original whistle-blower told us: “Finally, someone is taking notice of what really went on at South Lanarkshire College prior to the suspended principal, Aileen McKechnie, taking over there.

The Scottish Parliament building (Getty Images)

“Non-governance issues relating to missed meetings during COVID-19 were used to distract the public attention from what staff tried to highlight was going on before she arrived.

“Her mistake was investigating those claims, as the board do not want the truth getting out. I can only praise Graham Simpson MSP for drawing the committee’s attention to this. It’s time others addressed these issues, and uncover the truth.”

A spokeswoman for South Lanarkshire College said: “SLC takes any allegation of staff or board misconduct extremely seriously.

“Following receipt of anonymous allegations in September 2020, SLC conducted an independent externally-led forensic investigation.

“The report, produced by chartered accountants Azets, concluded that there was no evidence of criminality that would have necessitated a further investigation by the police. However, recommendations were identified, all of which were accepted by the college.

"The management response to the Azets report details those recommendations in full and is available publicly on the college website.”

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