A country of yes-men?

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• Kept in the dark: the man who broke ranks
• How Scotland deals with dissenting voices
• What price conscience?

Kenneth Roy on the case of John Bannon 

Kenneth Roy

John Bannon is a leading health campaigner who was awarded an MBE for his long service to the NHS. As I can testify from personal experience, he is a man of the highest integrity. It was John Bannon who, last January, broke ranks with his non-executive colleagues on NHS Greater Glasgow and Clyde and spoke out against the controversial Blawarthill hospital redevelopment in Glasgow. He accused senior officials of thwarting his attempts to get at the truth behind the decision to remove continuing care beds from the highly valued St Margaret of Scotland Hospice nearby and hand them to a private operator for profit.
     For Mr Bannon, who retired from the board in the spring, that search for the truth is far from over. A freedom of information request has revealed startling new facts about how the last stages of the decision were handled by Europe’s largest health board. He has now taken the unusual step of reporting his former chairman to the standards commissioner for Scotland, claiming that Andrew Robertson breached the code of conduct for members of devolved public bodies by failing to inform him fully.
     The case raises an important question about the ethics of Scottish public life: when must the code of corporate confidentiality be sacrificed to the greater cause of public accountability? To put it more crudely: do we really want Scotland to be run by yes-men – and women?


 He has been ‘utterly aghast’ to discover that not only did the chairman consult other board members, he also sent them a copy of his report.


     John Bannon is certainly not a yes man. The Blawarthill redevelopment concerned him for two reasons. First, when the project became the subject of formal public consultation as long ago as 2000, there was no suggestion that it would have far-reaching implications for the hospice. Second, when the board finally made its decision to go ahead, Mr Bannon considered that the members had been given inadequate financial information on which to base that decision. He concluded that he and his colleagues had not been given all the facts. He wrote to the cabinet secretary for health, Nicola Sturgeon, outlining his concerns and informed SR of these concerns. We looked at the long history of the Blawarthill project and, with Mr Bannon’s help, highlighted the more disturbing features of the board’s commitment to private sector involvement in care of the terminally ill. For this work, both John Bannon and the Scottish Review were praised during a Scottish Parliament debate in March.
     It is now apparent that, right to the end, John Bannon was kept in the dark. After she received his letter, Nicola Sturgeon called for a report on his allegations from Andrew Robertson. In preparing it, Mr Robertson never consulted John Bannon to allow the aggrieved member to challenge any factual inaccuracies. He then submitted the report to Nicola Sturgeon without sending Mr Bannon a copy of it.
     Until a few days ago, John Bannon assumed that there had been no consultation with any of the non-executive members: that the report had gone straight to the health secretary. He has been ‘utterly aghast’ to discover that not only did the chairman consult other board members, he also sent them a copy of his report. Only John Bannon was not accorded this courtesy. ‘So far as I am concerned,’ Mr Bannon says, ‘all board members are equal in status. It is not for Mr Robertson to be selective’. He finally succeeded in obtaining a copy, not from his own board, but from the Scottish government.
     Why was John Bannon discriminated against? There is no doubt of the reason: he had gone public with his concerns, choosing this magazine as his vehicle for doing so. A clue to the board’s subsequent policy in dealing with him lies in an email to board members from the director of communications, Ally McLaws, on 29 January, in the early stages of our campaign; Mr Bannon was omitted from the circulation list. When he asked for a copy as part of his FoI request, he received half a page of a four-page email. So Mr Bannon, even now, remains unaware of the contents of the email; an FoI response appears to have been filtered.
     There is the related issue of transparency. If the board had decided to exclude John Bannon because of his connection with the Scottish Review, should it not have been open about its policy? Should it not have informed this long-serving board member that he was no longer trusted and therefore no longer receiving information to which all others were privy?


It would be difficult to think of a case in which there was a greater legitimacy, a more urgent imperative, in informing the public of the well-founded concerns of a prominent dissenting voice.


     But there is a bigger ethical dilemma at the heart of this case. The code of conduct for NHS Greater Glasgow and Clyde reminds members that ‘there may be times when you will be required to treat discussions, documents or other information relating to the work of the board in a confidential manner. You will often receive information of a private nature which is not yet public, or which perhaps would not be intended to be public’. In the mind of Andrew Robertson, chairman of the board, was this one of those times? Yet, in the same code of conduct, members are also reminded that they have a duty to be as open as possible about their decisions, giving reasons for these decisions and restricting information only when the wider public interest clearly demands it.
     John Bannon’s conscience is clear. The future of the hospice, the subject of one of the largest petitions ever to come before the Scottish parliament, was at risk – indeed, remains at risk; and with it the care of the most vulnerable people in society – the dying. It would be difficult to think of a case in which there was a greater legitimacy, a more urgent imperative, in informing the public of the well-founded concerns of a prominent dissenting voice.
    What are Mr Robertson and his colleagues saying here? That there is no room in Scottish public life for dissent? That all ranks must remain closed above all other considerations? That, when dissent does materialise, it is to be discouraged by the withholding of vital information?
     What price conscience?

This article was reproduced with the kind permission of Kenneth Roy.

Read Kenneth Roy in the Scottish Review.