Is Dr Robert a Great Scot; Financial Probes and Political Wranglings . . . Industry Reporter Neil Hodgson Profiles the New Mersey Partnership Chief Executive

Article excerpt

Byline: Neil Hodgson

NEW Mersey Partnership chief Dr Robert Crawford is a formidable financial guru - but the former quango king is no stranger to controversy When he resigned as boss of economic development agency Scottish Enterprise (SE) in 2003 he was exhausted from constant battles with Scottish politicians and the media in his Glasgow home town over the quango's policies and performance.

And given his battle-weary demeanour after announcing his resignation in June 2003, admitting 'I just can't go on doing this. I won't miss the hassle. I just need to get on with my life,' perhaps there is more than a touch of irony to his current assignment in the former war-torn Baltic state of Kosovo as an advisor on international development initiatives.

Dr Crawford, 54, takes up his post on the Mersey waterfront in September when he replaces outgoing Partnership chief Thomas O'Brien.

He must hope that his course with the Partnership will run a lot more smoothly than his three years at SE.

Dr Crawford, like Thomas O'Brien, had previously worked at the World Bank in Washington DC and joined SE in January 2000 to spearhead the renaissance of the Scottish economy.

He took a 50% pay cut to join SE from accountants Ernst & Young, where he was partner in charge of foreign investment, but was still crowned the king of the quangos in February 2002 when he was named the highest paid public servant in the UK on a salary of almost pounds 200,000, about pounds 30,000 more than Prime Minister Tony Blair.

His political masters at the Scottish Executive defended his salary saying it was essential to secure his specialist services to run SE, which had an annual budget of pounds 584m.

But politicians of other hues weren't as supportive.

Dr Crawford was public enemy number one for Scotland's two opposition parties, the Scottish Nationalists and the Tories.

In August 2002 the Scottish Conservative leader David McLetchie accused SE of breaching political impartiality laws and waging a vendetta against his party.

The row was the result of a remark two months previously by Tory Scottish Parliament MP Murdo Fraser who criticised SE's performance and said its budget should be given to the private sector instead. A BBC investigation found that SE's response to the attack was to instruct its staff to use all its resources to criticise the Tory position.

However, it could be argued that SE staff themselves were hardly enamoured by Dr Crawford after he had axed 600 jobs there, reducing the head count from 2,000 to fewer than 1,400.

He admitted that some staff were 'disillusioned or disaffected' by the cull. It was necessary, he argued, to have a 'more uniform approach' to the delivery of services. 'I've clearly, in the process, left some members of staff unhappy,' he said.

But perhaps his biggest battle and the one that may have contributed more than any to his decision to walk away from his 'dream job' was an investigation by Scotland's auditor general over allegations of how SE was run and its achievements.

SE was eventually cleared of most charges when the report was published in December 2003, shortly before Dr Crawford's departure.

But politicians and critics of SE seized on sections of the investigation which showed a 'lack of clarity' in the way contracts had been awarded and monitored In 2002 SE spent pounds 43. …