UK
17/07/2013 08:50 BST | Updated 17/07/2013 10:43 BST

Serious Fraud Office Boss Phillippa Williamson Worked In The Lake District, Costing Taxpayers £98,946

PA
SFO Lake District

Imagine having a highly-paid job working for the Serious Fraud Office in London. But you really want to live in the Lake District, 250 miles away.

A tricky dilemma? Not if your employer allows you to work two days a week in the Lakes, footing the bill for your transport and hotels in the capital.

That was the arrangement at the taxpayer-funded SFO, whereby former chief executive officer Phillippa Williamson was offered a package MPs have described as "quite astounding".

The bill for the arrangement came to almost £100,000, the Commons Public Accounts Committee said.

In a new report, the committee also said the former director of the SFO, Richard Alderman, showed "a disregard for the proper use of taxpayers' money" in agreeing severance packages worth a total of around £1 million for three senior staff, including Williamson, without securing necessary approval.

richard alderman

Alderman acknowledged some of the criticism

In a scathing report, the MPs said "a catalogue of errors and poor judgment" had undermined the SFO's reputation and damaged the morale of its staff.

Auditor General Amyas Morse last year refused to sign off the SFO's accounts because of an "irregular redundancy payment" to former Phillippa Williamson, who took voluntary redundancy in April 2012, just four days before Alderman's own departure.

In December last year, Attorney General Dominic Grieve reported that Alderman had agreed further severance payments to senior staff without following due process.

An investigation ordered by Alderman's successor David Green found that the decisions to make Williamson, chief operating officer Christian Bailes and technology head Ian McCall redundant were taken by the former director alone without informing ministers and that he failed to get Cabinet Office approval for the CEO's severance agreement.

There was no evidence that he had explored redeployment within the civil service for the CEO or COO - both of whom had been performing well enough to merit bonuses the previous year.

Total severance packages were £464,905 for Williamson, £437,167 for Bailes and £49,885 for McCall. A payment of more than £400,000 was made to enhance Williamson's pension, despite not having the necessary approval.

McCall's package included £34,45 to which he was "not contractually entitled". And Alderman decided on a £15,000 special payment each to Williamson and Bailes to avoid grievance actions, despite legal advice that there was no suggestion of any such claims.

The committee also condemned the "astounding" working conditions which Alderman agreed for Williamson during her four-year stint at the helm of the SFO, under which her home in the Lake District was designated her place of work. She worked at home two days a week, and travelled to London to work at the SFO three days, with the taxpayer footing the bill for travel and hotel costs totalling £98,946.

Richard Bacon, a senior Conservative member of the Public Accounts Committee, said: "The former director Richard Alderman's decisions showed a disregard for the proper use of taxpayers' money and a woefully inadequate grasp of the importance of Managing Public Money, HM Treasury's guidance document on the role of an accounting officer.

"By deciding the size of severance packages, and not seeking alternative placements for staff, he failed to follow due process."

"This catalogue of errors amounts to a case study in how not to run a public body," said the committee, which urged the Cabinet Office and Treasury to implement safeguards to prevent a repeat of the "debacle".

After appearing before the committee in March this year, Alderman wrote them a letter admitting that his actions "fell short of what the committee are entitled to expect from an accounting officer".