Quangos £113m bill for advisers, PR and travel

Geoff Mawdsley: 'We have revealed significant sums of public money being spent without sufficient public accountability'
Geoff Mawdsley: 'We have revealed significant sums of public money being spent without sufficient public accountability'
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SCOTLAND’s quangos spent £113 million of taxpayers’ cash on public relations, consultancy fees, overseas travel and hospitality in one year, newly released figures show.

Think-tank Reform Scotland today published the expenditure of nearly 100 organisations and claimed that the quangos were spending taxpayers’ money “without sufficient public accountability” and should either be “brought back into government” or “set apart entirely”.

The figures, released under freedom of information law, reveal tourism body VisitScotland was one of the biggest spenders on marketing and PR, with more than £33m of its £44m government funding going towards that budget.

Publicly owned Scottish Water handed out more than £6m to consultants, while the Scottish Qualifications Authority (SQA) used £1.5m of its £17.3m budget to pay for its PR operation. The £113m was part of £14 billion of overall expenditure over a year by Scottish Government bodies, including NHS spending.

Creative Scotland spent £250,000 pounds on consultancy fees, more than £200,000 on PR and £42,000 on hospitality, as well as nearly £50,000 on overseas travel. A spokeswoman for the quango insisted foreign travel was needed to “promote Scottish arts and culture at events” and that its other spending, such as that on consultants, was “closely ­monitored”.

VisitScotland also defended its £33m expenditure on PR and claimed that the bulk of the cash had gone on “marketing activity” to promote Scotland as a tourist destination.

Scottish Natural Heritage, the agency responsible for the nation’s land, spent more than £4.7m on PR, as well as nearly £2.8m on external consultants as part of work to “encourage people in Scotland to get out into Scotland’s ­outdoors”.

There were also large spends by learning and training quango Skills Development Scotland, which shelled out nearly £1.5m on PR and more than £1m to hire consultants, which it said was done in the “most cost-effective way”. Meanwhile, Scottish Enterprise took £12m from the public purse to pay for its PR bill, as well as handing out £4m in consultancy fees.

Reform Scotland director Geoff Mawdsley said: “We have revealed significant sums of public money being spent without sufficient public accountability.

“Ministers who spend public money are accountable to the people at elections and to the parliament between them. Similarly, independent organisations performing work for public money must enter into an open and transparent contract.

“Spending by quangos sits in an accountability gap in ­between.”

“In some cases, the best option would be to devolve their functions to local government delivering the double benefit of accountability and real ­devolution.”

Some of the £14bn overall spend by Scotland’s quangos were from budgets for 2011-12, while others released to Reform Scotland were for 2010-11.

Scotland’s health boards were also included in the overall £14bn figure.

The amounts spent were criticised by MSPs who said that the publicity and hospitality budgets would provoke anger at a time when frontline services were being “starved of cash”.

Holyrood economy committee convener Murdo Fraser, a Tory MSP, called on the quangos to curb their spending.

He said: “The SNP government is forever complaining that it is not getting enough money.

“But here we see over £100m spent on areas which can hardly be classed as core services. There is ample scope for savings to be made.”

Labour MSP Neil Findlay said: “At a time when public services are being starved of essential funds, the use of such large sums of taxpayers’ money for public relations, trips and hospitality will be hard for people to ­understand.”

However, the Scottish government and quango bosses ­accused Reform Scotland of a “fundamental misunderstanding” of the public sector.

A Scottish Government spokeswoman said: “It is wrong to suggest that public bodies are not accountable. All public bodies have a responsibility to deliver on their objectives and are answerable to ministers and the parliament, the Scottish public, and are also subject to audit by Audit Scotland.

“We expect all parts of the public sector to ensure their activities deliver maximum value for money.”