Row as overseas trips by amenity trust staff attacked by councillor

A councillor-trustee has criticised Shetland Amenity Trust for a lack of transparency and is seeking assurances that foreign trips made by general manager Jimmy Moncrieff and other senior staff are properly accounted for.

Gary Robinson has written to trust chairman Brian Gregson after several people raised concerns with him regarding trips made by Mr Moncrieff and other officers in recent months. Mr Gregson yesterday angrily denied the suggestion that his organisation lacked openness.

Mr Robinson said he had been made aware of a number of trips this year including two to Iceland in short succession and visits to Portugal, Turkey and most recently the Italian island of Sardinia. While he was prepared to accept that some of the trips could be justifiable and necessary, he called for the trust to be open in telling people where officers are going and making clear the purpose of each trip.

Most of the trips he mentions have not been widely publicised, though the visit to Portugal was connected to the isles securing Geopark status. The trip to an annual conference was made by three members of staff, along with Mr Gregson. “If these trips are justifiable and necessary then there should be no problem in letting people know where and why officers are going,” said Mr Robinson. “Most of the people who have contacted me said they had tried and failed to get sensible answers to reasonable questions in this respect.”

He said the trip to Turkey, understood to have taken place in the first half of this year, was the one which seemed to be causing people most concern because it is “said to have been combined with a holiday”. “The justification for the trip is understood to have been that the museum was nominated for an award, but I am led to believe that it was known well in advance that it had not been successful.”

A furious Mr Gregson responded by saying he wanted to assure the public that all officers’ activities were within the remit of the trust and that “all expenditure is properly authorised and accounted for, to the satisfaction of the trustees (who include four councillors), national and international funding bodies, external auditors, Shetland Charitable Trust management and the office of the Scottish Charities Regulator”.

While he admitted that the trips named by the councillor-trustee were “quite probably correct”, Mr Gregson said that as far as he was concerned trust representation and attendance at meetings outwith Shetland was perfectly legitimate and formed an important part of its work. He said: “As a direct result of this the trust has been, and continues to be, hugely successful in securing external, and particularly EU, funding for its projects.”

He pointed to £10 million of external money which has been levered in towards projects including the Shetland Museum, the Viking Unst project, Old Scatness and Sumburgh Head. “For Shetland to deliver world class projects and promote itself on the world stage, it is vitally important that the trust participates and engages in a range of national and international networks, thus maximising opportunities for funding and project development within Shetland’s heritage and culture sector.”

The West Side councillor also said there had been speculation that delays in submitting the amenity trust’s audited accounts “might be connected to irregularities surrounding expenses for one or more of these overseas trips”. That claim was “totally” refuted by Mr Gregson in a short statement yesterday afternoon, saying the delay was in no way connected to expenses for any trips made by any of the trust’s officers.

The audited accounts for 2008/9 were published last week after a two-month delay, with Mr Moncrieff telling trustees at last Wednesday’s meeting that the hold-up had been no fault of auditors the A9 Partnership. When trustees had been unable to view the audited statements in August, they had expressed disappointment and asked that the firm be made aware of their feelings.

Mr Robinson said he was concerned that the amenity trust, which got 67 per cent of its total £4.7 million income from the SIC and the charitable trust last year, was lacking in transparency. That prompted Mr Gregson to deny any such problem, saying the trust’s activities were reported to trustees at their monthly meetings, which are open to the press.

In addition, Mr Gregson pointed out that the trust regularly issues press releases as projects develop. “The trust and its staff are fully committed to Shetland and its future wellbeing and all the trust’s activities are directed towards this.”

One of the four councillors who sits on the trust, Rick Nickerson, said that as far as he was concerned there was no problem with the organisation’s transparency or finances. He said that if Mr Robinson has “legitimate concerns” to raise, he would prefer to see them being brought up with funding body Shetland Charitable Trust rather than through the media.

“If he wants to conduct this in public, that’s fine,” he said. “But he should raise it in the charitable trust forum. I’m getting a little tired of people conducting these things in this way. If people have legitimate concerns, they should bring it up at the parent funding body.”

Mr Nickerson added: “The trusts are hugely successful and do things the council can’t do. They attract external funding and to do that obviously they have to be proactive in the wider world.”

In 2008/9, the organisation’s accounts show it was given almost £2 million in grants by the SIC. In addition to a £1.2 million block sum as part of a service level agreement with the local authority, councillors approved funding of £280,000 for architectural heritage, £148,340 for the Scatness Broch project and £163,000 for the Sumburgh Head development. It was also given £1.3 million by Shetland Charitable Trust to support the administration and management of its core activity.

The trust, which now employs 102 full and part-time staff with a wage bill of just over £2 million, is likely to increase its roster further after it was awarded the contract to run a new SIC-funded tourist service, Promote Shetland, earlier this summer. It continues the organisation’s expansion in recent years having taken on responsibility for the new Shetland Museum, which has been a huge success since opening in spring 2007.

As well as Mr Nickerson, SIC councillors Florence Grains, Jim Henry and Frank Robertson sit on the trust alongside Mr Gregson, Andrew Blackadder, Eddie Knight, Laurence Robertson, Douglas Sinclair, George Sutherland and Ian Spence.

It is not the first occasion the trust’s management has come under public criticism. Three years ago, Mr Moncrieff came under fire for undertaking “voluntary” work in tsunami-hit Tamil Nadu while collecting his basic salary. At that time, a trio of independent trustees stood down in quick succession amid concerns about the manner in which the trust was being run.


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