The shocking extent of the junket scandal at Scotland’s controversial school exams body is laid bare by the Sunday Mail as police investigate an alleged fraud.

We reveal today that 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.

One official on that trip also took his wife to stay in a taxpayer-funded five-star hotel while on official business.

In a separate development, Police Scotland confirmed they are investigating claims that £100,000 has been stolen internally.

The details only emerged after a six-month battle between this newspaper and the SQA.

The quango claimed information on the accommodation and airlines it used would put the security of its travelling staff at risk from terrorist attacks.

But it has been forced to disclose the information after the Scottish Information Commissioner (ICO) agreed it was in the public interest for it to be revealed.

Former SQA chief Janet Brown

Politicians and campaigners said the revelations about the SQA’s high spending were “extremely serious”, days after it was revealed Scotland’s education standards were plummeting on the global stage.

Liz Smith, Scottish Conservative shadow education secretary, said: “These are extremely serious allegations. It goes without saying that this behaviour falls far short of what anyone would expect.”

The disclosure shows how 11 SQA officials have stayed in some of the world’s best hotels in the last four
years when they were on official business.

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

The SQA argued 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 £4000.

The award-winning five-star hotel – which is sometimes dubbed a seven-star hotel due to its lavishness – usually attracts world leaders, Hollywood stars and royalty.

US President Donald Trump and former president Barack Obama have both stayed there.

It was used as a makeshift prison for Saudi royalty during a corruption scandal in 2017 before re-opening to guests last year.

The hotel also boasts of a “gentlemen’s-only spa offering signature rituals and treatments” as well as a
“majestic indoor heated pool offering garden views from its floor-to-ceiling windows”.

Ross Greer previously met SQA officials and quizzed them about their use of five-star hotels

It also features six restaurants that offer a “collection of dining experiences highlighting international and local cuisine”.

In 2016, Brown, Shaw and McMorris travelled to Sri Lanka, flying business class with Emirates at a cost of
£2000 each and stayed in the Cinnamon Grand hotel in Colombo.

The five-star hotel on the Indian Ocean island claims it has an award-winning spa, two outdoor swimming pools, a fitness centre and 14 dining options.

Shaw – the biggest traveller with the SQA – racked up a bill of more than £1000 during his four-day stay there. McMorris’s bill also came close to £1000.

Brown’s was significantly less at £629 – and included an extra night’s stay.

Other five-star hotel trips by Shaw included a stay at the Hilton in Singapore in 2016, where he spent more than £1000 in three nights. It includes a “rooftop pool, 24-hour gym, six dining options including an award-winning Italian restaurant”.

Shaw also spent £244 a night at the Riyadh Intercontinental in Saudi Arabia in 2016, which comes with its own golf course.

In Dubai, the former James Watt College assistant principal spent nearly £1157 on four nights at the five-star Hilton Jumeriah Resort, which has its own private beach.

In 2017, he and Brown travelled to Mauritius, where they stayed at its five-star Hilton, which also has a private beach and spa. The four-night stay cost more than £1400.

Our original request asked for details of what types of room and suites SQA officials used but the quango refused to provide the information.

Insiders say SQA rules don’t allow staff to buy drinks on expenses but, by booking hotel suites, they can usually get free drinks.

The initial answer provided by the SQA, which we reported in April, also claimed one member of staff spent £800 a night on hotel rooms and £8000 on a flight.

Last week, new claims emerged that Shaw took his wife Morag to a five-star hotel in Greece last year for a five-day trip weeks before their wedding anniversary. They stayed in the Hotel Athenaeum in Athens in July, which cost over £1200.

The journey came just a month after Shaw had travelled to the same hotel for another five-night stay, costing £1300. An SQA insider said: “It was openly discussed his wife was going with him. He didn’t think anyone would consider it wrong to take your wife when you’re meant to be there on business.”

A spokesman for the SQA did not deny Mrs Shaw made the trip but insisted the body would have spent the same amount if he had been alone.

Scottish Greens education spokesperson Ross Greer previously met SQA officials and quizzed them about their use of five-star hotels.

They told the MSP, who sits on the Education and Skills Committee, they needed to use them in dangerous parts of the world for security reasons.

He said: “The SQA justified their extravagant hotel stays on the basis of ‘security concerns’.

“Using five-star hotels in Greece blows that excuse out of the water. Athens is hardly a conflict zone, so this needs explained immediately.”

Frontline SQA workers have said the last decade has seen their allowance for accommodation slashed as
the quango cuts costs.

One worker told how he was ordered to downgrade his hotel booking from £100 a night to £60 as part of an austerity drive.

Carole Ewart, of the Campaign for Freedom of Information in Scotland, said: “I congratulate the Sunday Mail for its tenacity in pursuing this story and I would urge the SQA to quickly get up to speed on its legal responsibilities when it comes to transparency.

“It will be up to the public to decide if the SQA’s use of public funds has been wisely spent.”

An ICO spokeswoman said: “The Commissioner will now proceed with the issuing of a decision finding the SQA was incorrect to withhold this information.”

The SQA said: “International travel and accommodation bookings are pre-approved, 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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