First Minister, Nicola Sturgeon MSP makes a statement to Parl

Questions raised over £2m spent by ‘quango’ charged with care system reform 

The organisation overseeing the Scottish Government’s flagship children’s care system reform – The Promise – has spent almost a third of its budget on external costs, which include high profile PR firms, consultants and plush central Edinburgh offices, the Ferret has revealed. 

The Independent Care Review, known as the Promise, spearheaded by then first minister Nicola Sturgeon and delivered in February 2020, aimed to revolutionise the care system.

A year later Scottish ministers set up The Promise Scotland and the Promise Oversight Board, non-statutory organisations, or quangos, charged with overseeing the implementation of the review and supporting organisations working in the care sector to make the changes required.

But an investigation by The Ferret has found consultants charged with working to improve the lives of some of Scotland’s most vulnerable children and young people have been hired by The Promise Scotland at day rates of up to £1,000 a day.

The findings follow an admission from Sturgeon earlier this month that the “root and branch” care review may be failing to deliver sufficient change. She told a BBC Radio 4 series that “vested interests” were pushing back against her reforms.

Care funding versus external costs

Freedom of information requests revealed £2,055,500 of the policy’s total £6.2m budget over two and a half years was spent on external contractors.  A £4m annual Promise Partnership Fund is administered separately by the Corra Foundation.

The Promise Scotland noted this included legally required and essential services including staff pension contributions, auditors and office costs.

However, it also included £105,000 on public relations firm Charlotte Street Partners , whose founder – the former SNP MSP and chair of the Sustainable Growth Commission, Andrew Wilson – advised on the Promise Oversight Board’s first report.

A spokesperson for the firm said it responded to a publicly advertised tender process. It takes pride in the work it does and the “good value” provided, they added. It’s contract with the Promise Scotland ended in December 2022.

A further £10,000 was spent on services provided by former Labour spin doctor Alan Roden, both through his PR firm Quantum Communications and his own Ebor political consultancy firm. He also worked on both the first and second Oversight Board reports.  Roden also said he was “immensely proud” of his contribution to the “vital work” of the Promise. 

Questions raised over £2m spent by 'quango' charged with care system reform  1

Fraser McKinley was one of the highest paid contractors, securing £1,000 a day for his “specialist skills, expertise, and knowledge”  on three projects totalling over £150,000. These included development of the Scottish Government’s Whole Family Wellbeing Fund, under which a total of £500m is being provided from 2022-2026, targeted at delivering the objectives of the Promise. 

The former director of best value at Audit Scotland was later hired following a “robust, competitive process” as the chief executive of The Promise in September 2022 where he now earns an annual salary of £100,000.

His recruitment was led by the then two-strong team of Promise Scotland directors, which included Fiona Duncan, independent strategic director and chair of the organisation. She is paid £700 a day for up to 144 days work a year, a total of £100,800.

The Promise said that “careful use” of consultants could help reduce costs for an organisation intending to disband in 2030, when the Promise is due to be fully implemented. It claimed consultants were used most in the set-up phase before staff had been recruited, allowing it to “continue working at pace”. 

More than £11,000 per month was spent on renting central Edinburgh’s Charlotte House, with a further £57,000 used for an “office fit-out”. The Promise said it had unsuccessfully requested the Scottish Government provide office space. 

But critics said questions must be raised about whether “channelling public money into the churn of expensive consultants” and “too-close-to-government advisors” was advancing the lives of those it was set-up to support.

The Scottish Government has pointed to a reduction of almost 2,000 children – 12 per cent – going into care between 2020, when the care review was published and 2022.

But at a recent Scottish Parliamentary evidence session MSPs heard evidence of concerns about the impact of sharp cuts to local authority budgets. Homelessness of those leaving care has risen, MSPs were told, and about a quarter of siblings in care are still being split up despite legislation passed in 2021 to help brothers and sisters stay together.

Scottish Labour MSP Monica Lennon called for greater accountability. She added: “Every public pound allocated to improving the lives and life chances of children and young people who have come through the care system must make a difference.

“While there will often be a legitimate case for using external consultants, this must achieve good value and results. Without proper checks and balances there’s a danger that care experienced kids will be failed and that will be unforgivable.”

Ultimate responsibility sat with the Scottish Government, she claimed, adding: “We must not see care experienced families failed by government complacency or chaos.”

The Promise risks being seen as yet another means of channeling public money into the churn of expensive consultants, too-close-to-government advisors and other nebulous service providers.

Craig Dazell, Common Weal

The Ferret’s investigation also revealed questions over the governance structure of The Promise. Minutes reveal internal concerns about perceptions of conflicts of interest.

The independent care review was announced by then first minister Nicola Sturgeon in 2016 and completed in February 2022. 

It was chaired by Fiona Duncan, the chief executive of funding organisation the Corra Foundation, who was released part-time on sabbatical. She stepped down as chief executive in April 2021 but continued to work for the organisation one day a week until October 2022.

Duncan was appointed as the chair of both the Promise oversight board and the Promise Scotland, where for the first five months she was one of only two directors. 

Minutes from the first Promise Scotland board of directors meeting in April 2022 noted that Duncan chaired both The Promise Scotland and the Oversight Board, as well as advising the Scottish Government on how the Promise should be upheld. 

The board agreed that “compatibility modelling” on Duncan’s three roles should take place, but decided Duncan herself should carry out the first draft of this. 

In September 2022, it was agreed Duncan would step down as chair of the Oversight Board, but a year later she had not done so. The Promise Scotland has since confirmed that Duncan has not only stepped down as co-chair of the Oversight Board but will be leaving it next month along with six other members.

As a startup with a handful of employees, external support and consultants were used to build capacity and to immediately support organisations to make progress. Now, with a staff team in place, use of consultants has significantly reduced.

Fiona Duncan, the Promise Scotland

Craig Dalzell, head of policy and research at Common Weal, told The Ferret the Promise lacked “measurable objectives”.

He added: “We would caution that without strategic governance and principled oversight, The Promise risks being seen as yet another means of channeling public money into the churn of expensive consultants, too-close-to-government advisors and other nebulous service providers without it ever meaningfully improving the lives of the children it was set up to help.”

Who Cares? Scotland declined to comment on the spending by the Promise Scotland but chief executive, Louise Hunter, said: “Whilst there are small pockets of change, there is not enough progress being made on the Promise. We believe that local authorities need more support and funding in order to deliver on the commitments.”

Fiona Duncan, chair of The Promise Scotland, insisted the organisation aimed to be as thoughtful and transparent as possible about both the use of public funding and decisions made. 

But she admitted that had The Promise not been set-up in the midst of pandemic restrictions some different decisions may have been taken “with the benefit of hindsight”.

She added: “As a startup with a handful of employees, external support and consultants were used to build capacity and to immediately support organisations to make progress. Now, with a staff team in place, use of consultants has significantly reduced.” 

She said while scrutiny was welcome The Promise Scotland spending should be considered in the context of care system costs of more than £1bn, while continuing “to facilitate too many poor experiences for children and families”.

‘Reform is still possible’

But despite challenges, she insisted successful reform was still possible and necessary, adding: “With strong, clear leadership across the system, improved investment and disinvestment and ensuring the care experienced community is at its heart, the promise can still be kept. It must.”

A spokesperson for the Corra Foundation said the board had “ensured any potential conflicts of interest are properly recorded and mitigations put in place” and claimed it was “a privilege” to play a part in the work being done to uphold the Promise.

A spokesperson for the Scottish Government said the Promise Scotland was “an independent entity responsible for driving the work of change demanded by the findings of the Independent Care Review” and claimed its own board of directors were responsible for its governance. 

It said the £4m Promise Partnership Fund had “provided support to over 100 organisations across Scotland to take vital steps towards implementing the Promise” including helping brothers and sisters stay together and move on from care. 

Read Fiona Duncan’s response in full.

This story was published in partnership with the Sunday Post. Our partnerships with other media help us reach new audiences and become more sustainable as a media co-op.  Join us to read all our stories and tell us what we should investigate next.

Image: Andrew Cowan/Scottish Parliament

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