John McLellan: Time to prune gardening leave

Mandy Exley continues to pick up her full �140,000 salary for doing nothing. Picture: Julie Bull
Mandy Exley continues to pick up her full �140,000 salary for doing nothing. Picture: Julie Bull
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It’s a great time to be a senior member of staff at one of Edinburgh’s big public institutions. If you fancy a change, it seems all you have to do is stay off work and we the dumb taxpayers will eventually pick up the tab.

Cushtie.

Take Edinburgh College, where departing principal Mandy Exley announced her resignation last month to pursue other interests but is now on so-called “gardening leave”, which means she continues to pick up her full £140,000 salary for doing nothing.

As most of us understand it, when someone resigns they work their notice, in Ms Exley’s case six months, unless both sides agree it can be waived. And as most of us know, the idea of notice is to ensure an organisation can’t just kick out an employee and leave them immediately without an income, but also to ensure an employee doesn’t walk out and create an instant problem for the organisation.

Gardening leave is usually only applicable when the departee is going to a commercial rival or when there is a dispute about the terms of a forced departure, as is likely happen to the three Lothian Buses directors.

In the case of a publicly-owned further education college commercial rivalry is not a factor, so when Ms Exley is the one who has apparently resigned of her own volition “to pursue business interests” why is she being allowed to leave but still be paid while someone else steps in and also picks up the same salary?

If Ms Exley is being paid and there is no reason for her being kept off the premises, she should still be doing the job. But if she wants to go early then her pay should stop too.

But if there is more to this than meets the eye – like Ms Exley has actually been forced to step down because of problems about which everyone in the know is keeping schtum – then we have a right to know what’s really going on.

A spokesman claimed it was “normal practice at this level” for senior staff to go on gardening leave so an interim principal could “drive forward the strategic vision”. What a load of public sector hokum.

It’s hokum to suggest it is acceptable for public organisations to pay two people £140,000 a year to do one job. If it is normal practice it shouldn’t be, so there’s something for the in-tray of new Education Minister Angela Constance.

And it’s hokum because the interim, Dr Elaine McMahon, looks very much like a stop-gap who happened to be available. An experienced head who led large colleges in Salford and Hull, she officially retired last year but was until recently the interim head at the multi-campus West London College.

What guarantee is there that an interim will do a better job than the principal who, according to the PR spin, “led the college through a complex and challenging merger to achieve the highest rating possible”?

Take another large educational institution whose leadership has changed recently: at George Watson’s College, principal Gareth Edwards announced his retirement in June 2013 but stayed in post until June this year while a successor was found. The new principal, Melvyn Roffe, was named in the spring but only started once Edwards had gone.

Like the outrageous pay-offs at the BBC, the Edinburgh College decision looks like another example of public bodies playing fast and loose with public money.

Then there is the ongoing saga at Lothian Buses and, as they say, you read it here first. Last week I had this to say about the three directors who lost their grievance claim against the chief executive, Ian Craig: “If the relationships have irretrievably broken down . . . then getting on with the job will not be an option but they will not want to simply resign and walk away with nothing. Under these 
circumstances, I would not be at all surprised if one or all three . . . go on long-term leave of absence until a compensation agreement can be agreed for their departure.”

Lo and behold, all three have yet to return following the conclusion of their case and as long as the council continues to support chief executive Ian Craig I’d be very surprised if they ever do.

Instead, the responsibilities of operations director Bill Campbell, engineering director Bill Devlin and finance director Norman Strachan are being shouldered by the next tier of management and unless I’m mistaken I’ve not noticed any deterioration in the service in their absence. Come to think of it, things ticked over while Ian Craig was on leave of absence too.

It’s not that such absentees don’t make a contribution or are not capable, but it won’t be the first time an organisation has adapted to meet difficult circumstances with fewer resources and emerged relatively unscathed. While conducting some tricky negotiations with a union representative, a former managing director with whom I once worked pointedly said: “Please don’t give me an excuse to show you how few people I need to get these papers out.” Needless to say, an agreement was quickly reached.

Similarly, Lothian Buses now has the opportunity to show how smoothly the service can be run without the benefit of three six-figure salaries.

If all three go they will be due a pay-off which will total well over £500,000 and failure to settle will result in a very public washing of already badly soiled linen. A smart HR director will make sure settlement is reached as quickly as possible because until a deal is struck they remain on full pay and the longer the dispute goes on the heftier the legal bill becomes.

And all of this must be funded either by a profit reduction or the company covering the cost and the easiest way to do that is not to replace them. Sure, the people beneath should receive some reward for stepping up to the plate, but for the sake of bus users, and council taxpayers who benefit from a healthy profit being returned to the city council, the company should resist the temptation to fill up all roles when this is resolved.

But unlike at Edinburgh College, the basic circumstances are known and the situation is being managed, so far at little cost to the public purse.

How private companies handle situations with senior staff is up to them – it’s apparently going to cost Thomas Cook £10 million to say cheerio to outgoing chief exec Harriet Green – but when it comes to public money and public appointments, we have the right to know.