Sir Ian Diamond’s appointment as Britain’s national statistician has been called into question by a trade union chief amid growing anger over the “scandalous” way he departed Aberdeen University.
Carlo Morelli, the president of the University and College Union Scotland, said the row over Sir Ian’s pay-off proved he is “not at all appropriate” for the prestigious post.
And the academic criticised Aberdeen University’s decision to abandon its bid to reclaim £119,000 from its former principal, asking whether students would also now be allowed to renege on their debts in future.
In August 2019, Sir Ian was appointed by the Queen to be the next chief executive of the UK Statistics Authority (UKSA), permanent secretary of the Office for National Statistics (ONS) and head of the Government Statistical Service, having previously served as principal of the Granite City’s ancient university for seven years.
He was handed the post – which is also known as “national statistician” – despite investigations being under way by the Scottish Funding Council (SFC) and the Office of the Scottish Charity Regulator (OSCR) into the terms of his exit from Aberdeen.
The probes were launched after the university’s accounts for 2017-18 showed Sir Ian was being paid £601,000 – including a salary of £282,000, pension contributions of £30,000, and contractual notice period payment and related expenses of £289,000.
It later emerged a payment of £50,000 plus VAT was also made on his behalf by the university for “outplacement support”, which was not disclosed in the accounts.
Under an agreement between the university and Sir Ian, the former principal only triggered his year-long notice period and payment at the moment he was succeeded by Professor George Boyne in 2018, despite announcing his retirement plans a year earlier.
The SFC concluded in February this year that Aberdeen University effectively “incurred the cost of two principals” over a financial year as a result of an arrangement with Sir Ian, and that there had been “no documented assessment of value for money”.
The university was ordered to repay £119,000 of its grant, and later revealed it had asked its former principal for a reimbursement, although its pursuit has now been controversially abandoned after Sir Ian did not respond to the request.
On what grounds is he appointable to be the head of the ONS? It is not at all appropriate.”
Mr Morelli said the episode had raised serious questions about Sir Ian’s suitability for the job of national statistician, which has included playing a prominent role in advising the UK Government during the coronavirus crisis.
“On what grounds is he appointable to be the head of the ONS? It is not at all appropriate,” the Dundee University academic said.
“I think questions have to be asked about the recruitment process at the ONS.
“Were they aware of the investigation? Were they aware of the complaint or was that not disclosed?
“If he was appointed and it wasn’t disclosed, don’t they think it is a material consideration they should take note of and consider whether or not it should have been disclosed, and whether or not his appointment was appropriate?
“And if it was disclosed, in what way did they think it was appropriate to appoint someone like that to the head of a government body?
“Do they think it is acceptable and is that good practice for a public body to be run by people who think it is okay to do this?”
‘Is that going to be the policy for students?’
The UKSA said it had no comment to make, other than to point out that all national statisticians are appointed by the Queen on the advice of the prime minister, under the provisions of the Statistics and Registration Service Act.
Mr Morelli also questioned Aberdeen University’s decision to stop asking Sir Ian for repayment of the money.
“Is that going to be the policy for students with debts when they graduate now or does that just apply to vice-chancellors and principals?” he asked.
“What about rent rebates for students who are not going be able to take up their accommodation because of the Covid crisis or want to give up their accommodation because of the Covid crisis, are they going to be harassed for debts to the university?
“The whole thing stinks of hypocrisy.”
Earlier this month, we reported that Cecilia Wallbäck, Aberdeen University Students’ Association president, had accused Sir Ian of insulting every student at the institution who has been struggling during the pandemic, and that he should “do the right thing and hand the money back”.
An Aberdeen University spokesman said: “Our request remains with Professor Sir Ian Diamond for consideration; however, we have received no response to date.
“In the circumstances, the university regretfully has little alternative but to consider the matter closed.”