Exams body officials' £17k bill for Saudi stay

Staff from the SQA racked up the bill after flying business class and staying in a £445-a-night hotel in Saudi Arabia

Tes Reporter

The SQA has been criticised after officials racked up a £17k bill for a trip to Saudi Arabia

Scottish Qualifications Authority officials charged a £17,000 bill to taxpayers following a stay at the Ritz-Carlton in Saudi Arabia, one of the most luxurious hotels in the world, It has been revealed.

The Sunday Mail reported the figure yesterday following a six-month battle with the SQA. The exam body claimed that releasing information on the accommodation and airlines it used would put the security of its travelling staff at risk from terrorist attacks. But it was forced to disclose the information after the Scottish Information Commissioner (ICO) agreed that it was in the public interest for it to be revealed.

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Liz Smith, the Scottish Conservatives' education spokeswoman, said the allegations were “extremely serious” and that the behaviour of the SQA officials fell “far short of what anyone would expect”.

SQA travel policy 'reviewed'

In 2015, SQA's then chief executive, Dr Janet Brown, who retired in July this year; its head of international, Alistair Shaw; and its director of business development, John McMorris, travelled to Saudi Arabia, where they stayed in the Ritz-Carlton hotel for three nights. They flew business class with British Airways, costing nearly £13,000.

The SQA argued that the flights, which stopped off in London, were the best fare it could get for the route.

Riyadh’s Ritz-Carlton, billed as an “elegant oasis” that “completely envelops its discerning guests in majestic surroundings”, cost £445 a night, leading to a bill of more than £4,000.

The trip is just one of a number of overseas business visits that have hit the headlines in recent months because of the high cost involved. The SQA has also come under fire for doing business in countries with poor human rights records.

Tes Scotland revealed earlier this year that overall certification of overseas candidates by the SQA has increased by almost 700 per cent from 5,600 in 2010, to 38,159 last year (2017-18).

The SQA said: “International travel and accommodation bookings are preapproved, accounted for against set budgets and subject to external, independent audit.

“All costs are recovered through the delivery of commercial contracts.

“A review of SQA’s domestic and international travel policy has been completed, with revised guidelines and procedures in place.

“Our revised travel policy ensures all hotels booked are subject to FCO guidelines on cost.”

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