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Highland councillors 'horrified' at cost of £936-a-day education chief

By Scott Maclennan

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SNP co-leaders Cllr Maxine Smith and Cllr Ian Cockburn.
SNP co-leaders Cllr Maxine Smith and Cllr Ian Cockburn.

The SNP group at Highland Council has hit back after the local authority claimed that the appointment process for the £936-a-day interim education chief was approved in advance.

Revelations that Paul Senior is to be paid £244,296 for the year sparked fury from MSPs, councillors and members of the public both for the size of the pay cheque and for the manner in which it was agreed.

The recruitment process, concluded during lockdown, led to a reduced appointments panel that was agreed to by the so-called Member Gold Group – involving senior administration officials and the SNP opposition.

A council spokeswoman said: “An alternative approach was agreed by the council’s member recruitment panel in February this year to attract a high-calibre candidate with a track record in education leadership and improvement.

“This was noted at the council meeting in March 2020. Recruitment was concluded during lockdown, with an appointments panel on a reduced scale agreed by the Member Gold Group for this purpose on April 13. This was reported to council in June 2020.”

However, the SNP co-leaders Maxine Smith and Ian Cockburn said there was more to it than that and maintained they were unaware of the huge sums involved.

Councillor Smith said: “The member gold team that met during the pandemic, of which we were part, agreed that they should keep looking for an education officer.

“After that we heard nothing until we were advised, after the fact, that someone had been appointed at such high cost. We were in shock, along with the rest of the councillors and the public.

“The administration in Highland Council will have a tough time persuading the public and government that the council is short of money when they are about to spend £250,000 on a wage for a new education consultant.”

Those claims were echoed by Conservative group leader Councillor Andrew Jarvie, who said: “I have a formal place on the recruitment panel and was originally invited.

“However, after I raised a number of concerns about it, I received no further invite or information about the interviews.

“The secrecy and feeling of being cut out for questioning a process must be one large reason why this council cannot attract people.

“I was utterly horrified to learn of this cost, especially after I seem to have been cut out of the recruitment process after I raised concerns.

“The cost is completely unjustifiable. The Prime Minister earns £415 per day which only further highlights the obscene fee of £936 per day.

“This is the only post which the council has struggled to fill so the chief executive has serious questions to answer on how, given her education background, this council can’t attract senior education staff.”

In light of Mr Senior’s contract, the SNP has also questioned the council’s projections of its financial black hole – revising the original estimates that ranged from £47 million to £98 million down to around £32 million.

Councillor Cockburn said: “The administration have been announcing with great verbosity that it will be in debt this year from somewhere in the region of £47 million to £98 million million due to Covid-19, some 4.5 times more than any other local authority in Scotland.

“We now have been advised of a new figure of £32 million. There is no doubt that due to the pandemic there will be added costs to try to recover but we need to see the calculations.

“It is therefore prudent that in a bad economic situation you do not compound it with what can only be described as very poor judgement by the council administration leaders at this time by paying over the odds by a factor of 100 per cent for a temporary executive chief officer for education, even though that position needed filling.”

A Highland Council spokeswoman said: “The minutes of the recruitment panel held in council headquarters, Inverness, on February 14 show the cross-party councillors’ decision to agree to procure the services of a head-hunting agency in order to assist with the recruitment process for an executive chief officer – education and learning.”

It was agreed by councillors Alasdair Christie, Margaret Davidson, John Finlayson, Jimmy Gray, Andrew Jarvie, Bill Lobban and Graham Mackenzie.

But during the lockdown the recruitment panel was reduced in size on April 13 due to the pandemic and then just over a week later “in place of the shortened appointments panel” it was agreed that chief executive Donna Manson and Councillor Finlayson would make the appointment on a fixed-term basis only.

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