Chairman quizzed

‘No disagreements’ ahead of SNIB CEO’s resignation

Willie Watt: resignation was a surprise

Willie Watt, chair of the Scottish National Investment Bank, told MSPs that there had been no disagreements over the policy or direction of the state-funded institution or with any other agency before the abrupt departure of its chief executive.

Giving evidence to Holyrood’s economy committee, Mr Watt said Eilidih Mactaggart had resigned from her £235,000 a year job on 27 January and various stakeholders and ministers were informed on 31 January. Her decision was announced three weeks later on 25 February.

Mr Watt was asked if he was surprised by her resignation and replied: “Yes, it would be true to say that was the case.”

He said the board made no any effort to make Mactaggart change her mind. Her resignation had not been related to her work and was a personal matter as she stated in her statement which she issued voluntarily on 4 March.

SNIB board member Carolyn Jameson, also giving evidence, said there was no severance package nor gagging order.

Asked why it took so long for a statement to emerge, Ms Jameson said: “Eilidh got in touch and said she would make the statement as she was feeling uncomfortable about the scrutiny she was seeing and made the decision independently.”

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Mr Watt said the bank had a “duty of care to employees” and that they all had a right to privacy.

Asked by Tory MSP Liz Smith if there had been any disagreements within the bank, he replied: “There have been no disagreements about policy or the direction of the bank that I am aware of.”

He said the chief executive had worked alongside Scottish Enterprise as part of her role.

“We are the new kid on the block so we have had lots of discussions to make sure we are aligned with them,” he said, dismissing any suggestion of disagreements with other agencies.

Mr Watt said recruitment consultants would be hired to search for a successor and it could take until the end of the year before someone is in place.

Addressing the performance of the bank, Mr Watt said that since it was launched in November 2020 it had invested £191m in 13 projects and that it was currently considering 50 opportunities.

The bank has a team of 62, led by interim CEO Sarah Roughead and it was this strength in depth that gave him confidence in its ability to continue delivering following Ms Mactaggart’s departure.

He said the bank would play a role in the important area of “scaling up” and had been approached with a number of opportunities, but going forward would be seeking more “outbound origination”.

It does not distribute grants but provides a mix of loans and equity investment, often filling a gap where the private sector had chosen not to invest. He admitted that this required an element of risk that could see the bank make losses.

“We feel confident about all the investments we have made but we will not be doing our job if every investment performs. The private sector has losses and we will have losses.”

He added: “I will be coming back to this committee to talk about investments that do not work. But I am comfortable with the portfolio.”

He said it was important to avoid breaching state aid rules and necessary not to “crowd out” the private sector. The bank will step back where appropriate.

Under questions from Labour MSP Colin Smyth he defended the bank’s investment in forestry which Mr Smyth argued had no shortage of private investors.

“There was demand for a fund, but there was no cornerstone investor to get it up and running,” said Mr Watt. “So the bank provided that cornerstone and most of the fund’s capital has come from public sector organisations.”

He admitted that the bank was still learning and that it could be “better at explaining some of the investments we have made” and that that in future more detail will be provided about the thinking behind those decisions.

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