A piece of good news, so we don’t expect anyone to read it

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by Kenneth Roy

Every time I write about this subject, our readership figures dip. If it is not a vote catcher, it is not a page turner either. But sometimes it is necessary to incur more or less universal indifference, and this happens to be one of those days. The decline in readership may be more severe than usual, since what I have to bring you is that most tedious of journalistic commodities: a piece of good news.

It is now two years since we started banging on about the secrecy of public bodies, especially regional NHS boards. We stumbled on it by accident, digging around for the salaries of the top execs, what the newspapers call ‘the fatcats’. The newspapers got quite excited about some of our discoveries in the small print of annual accounts – league tables were published, political outcries facilitated.   

But for us, perversely, the most intriguing part of the story was what this research of ours didn’t tell us – the vast amount of information deliberately withheld by public bodies about the salaries and pension pots of their senior management.

We contacted Audit Scotland, which is responsible for the financial regulation of these bodies, and asked if it was aware of the scale of the omissions. Audit Scotland assured us that it was a problem confined to island health boards where there is greater sensitivity about what people are paid. (Why?) We already knew that this was a mistaken assumption by Audit Scotland.

We had the figures in front of us: we could prove that half of the regional NHS boards were failing to publish a full remuneration report in their annual accounts and that the offenders included such well-known island communities as Falkirk. I was born there and can vouch for the fact that the nearest thing to an island in Falkirk is the debris in the canal running through Dirty Bonnybrig.

We put this point to Audit Scotland (excluding the reference to the canal) and heard no more: the audit trail went cold, so to speak. But then, to our surprise, the head-honcho, auditor-general Bob Black, wrote a letter to the Herald claiming that I had misrepresented him somehow and that, although he would love to see full disclosure, he had no power to enforce it.

Well, where did that leave the poor little Scottish Review?

All of the secretive ones – we are talking dozens of highly-paid officials – claimed that publication of their salaries and/or pensions would breach their data protection rights. This was the only ground for refusing consent, arousing a suspicion that perhaps there had been a committee meeting about it. We were not impressed. If it breached the data protection rights of some, how come it didn’t breach the data protection rights of all the others – the majority – who were happy to disclose exactly the same information?

The lack of consistency destroyed the credibility of what was a pretty tenuous case anyway. What was the point of these remuneration reports if there were so many gaps in them? And where was the accountability for the public money spent by these bodies?


This was game, set and match to SR. The landmark judgement could be used as a precedent in any future case in which we challenged lack of transparency over salaries and pensions in the annual reports of public bodies.


It was true that, although the problem was general, the island boards were particularly shameless in their application of the data protection get-out clause. We had a nasty dust-up with NHS Orkney, putting in a freedom of information request for the missing figures, having our request knocked back, appealing, and having it refused a second time. In the end, we received a graceful letter from the board giving us an undertaking that it would aim for complete transparency. It has been as good as its word.

There was, however, no immediate change of heart by NHS Shetland, whose response to our FoI request was peremptorily dismissive. Shetland accused us of having ‘no legitimate interest’ in the information and of being motivated only by a desire to increase our circulation (if only they knew).

We pressed on with an appeal to the Scottish Information Commissioner, taking Shetland as a test case to challenge a broader failing. The commissioner, having expressed ‘disappointment’ at the board’s handling of our FoI request, delivered the following conclusion:

When considering the balance of the legitimate interests identified by Mr Roy against those of the data subjects, the commissioner considers that the legitimate interests of Mr Roy outweigh those of the data subjects…The commissioner considers that disclosure would be fair…the commissioner can identify no reason why disclosure should be considered unlawful.

This was game, set and match to SR. The landmark judgement could be used as a precedent in any future case in which we challenged lack of transparency over salaries and pensions in the annual reports of public bodies.

Yesterday, we checked the current annual accounts of all 14 regional NHS boards. I will use the word ‘complete’ to describe those accounts where the remuneration report is fully transparent:

 

  • Ayrshire and Arran: complete (23 names)
  • Borders: four senior managers recently transferred from other NHS bodies and their pension information not yet available; otherwise complete (25 names)
  • Dumfries and Galloway: complete (17 names)
  • Fife: complete (22 names)
  • Forth Valley: complete (22 names)
  • Grampian: complete (20 names)
  • Greater Glasgow and Clyde: complete (33 names)
  • Highland: complete (25 names)
  • Lanarkshire: information about the penson of Dr H Kohli, director of public health, ‘not available’. Why? Otherwise complete (25 names)
  • Lothian: complete (34 names)
  • Orkney: complete (20 names)
  • Shetland: complete (17 names). The chief executive who refused to disclose her salary – the only person of such seniority to do so – is no longer with NHS Shetland
  • Tayside: complete (26 names)
  • Western Isles: ‘benefits in kind’ of the director of public health, Dr Sheila Scott, ‘not available’. Why? Otherwise complete (8 names)

This amounts to a transformation in standards of transparency in Scottish public life. For any readers who have stayed the course through the recitation of such boringly good news: thank you for your understanding. I will try to be more interesting tomorrow.

 

Courtesy of Kenneth Roy – read Kenneth Roy in the Scottish Review.