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Council and councillor failings highlighted over £936 a day education boss row

Lochaber councillor Andrew Baxter
Lochaber councillor Andrew Baxter

A row last summer over Highland Council’s fees for an interim education boss has reignited in an internal report which reveals damning details of the episode.

London-based consultant Paul Senior was hired through an agency to take on the role, with the fees approaching £250,000 per annum, or £936 per day, before agency costs and other deductions.

A number of councillors objected both to the agreed fee, and the way in which the appointment was made.

Mr Senior abruptly left his role after three months in post, shortly before the schools were due to reopen in August.

In the report, councillors are effectively blamed for driving Mr Senior away, by citing his name and fee in information leaked to the press and on social media.

The report says: “Whilst scrutiny of decision making is an important part of members’ duties, there were comments made in the press, during committee meetings and through social media directed at the post holder by name and his daily rate which could be considered as breaches of the code of conduct for members.

“It was established from the interviews that member behaviour was one of the factors in the departure of the consultant.”

The report adds that due to this and further issues associated with lockdown restrictions, the situation had become “untenable” and the appointment was ceased by mutual agreement.

Lack of prescribed process within the council for the recruitment of interim staff is described as a cause of confusion for councillors regarding their role in it.

A contract award notice was also not published as would be normal for an appointment over £50,000.

The report says minutes from recruitment panel meetings did not reveal councillor disagreements with what was going on, nor officers’ views that less costly internal options were available to the council but not pursued.

It concludes no breaches of council policy occurred, but highlights the need to improve minute taking in decision-making meetings.

The report concludes that councillors need to be reminded to comply fully with the members’ code of conduct, with any breaches of the code addressed as appropriate.

Lochaber councillor Andrew Baxter first raised the issue in a public meeting.

He called the report “disappointing”.

“It’s a smokescreen to the fundamental question which was were councillors given the clear picture as to the circumstances which led up to the appointment of that particular individual and the payments made to them.

“There  was no direct attack on Mr Senior himself, he was only named because he happened to be the individual in that job.

“I think discussion and comment on the renumeration of that particular post was fair comment considering that all  other senior executives’ pay is a matter of record.”

Tory opposition leader councillor Andrew Jarvie said: “This report is an attempt to blame councillors for this not working.

“People were angry at the council’s secrecy, not at Mr Senior himself.

“For this council to fail even to meet the basic requirements to publish the contract award notice is utterly inexcusable.

“The record of events is significantly different to what the chief executive told councillors.”

To date neither councillor has been directly approached about breaches of conduct, but Mr Baxter said at meetings the threat was strongly implied, especially with regard to speaking to the press.

A Highland Council  spokeswoman said: “The findings, which were verified by the external auditors, made a number of recommendations relating to protocols and policy which will be considered further by members of the committee.”