Bound and gagged: the people who should be guardians of the public interest


SR and the health board: Part II

Kenneth Roy

Land of the whistleblower? Not.

Last weekend, we showed how the management of NHS Greater Glasgow and Clyde, as it fought to minimise the damaging fallout from a Scottish Review investigation, was prepared to contemplate setting senior Labour Party figures in Scotland against each other.     
     This overtly political approach to the board crisis over plans for the redevelopment of a Glasgow hospital, and the consequent withdrawal of funding from St Margaret of Scotland Hospice, has been revealed by an internal memo obtained as a result of a freedom of information request.
     In the immediate aftermath of SR’s investigation earlier this year, Labour’s Holyrood leadership pledged to restore funding to the hospice. The health board promptly went into PR overdrive. The memo from the director of communications, Ally McLaws, to the chairman, Andrew Robertson, discussed how the official ‘Labour angle’ espoused by the party’s health spokesperson, Jackie Baillie, was being picked up by the national press and went on to speculate that the Scottish Review could be expected to ‘stoke up’ its coverage. Mr McLaws suggested that senior Labour figures in Glasgow should be asked to come out publicly in support of the board, naming the then council leader, Steven Purcell, as someone who might be prepared to help.
     Had this strategy been adopted, it would have exposed a deeply embarrassing division at the top of the party in Scotland. As it happened, however, Steven Purcell was about to be overwhelmed by a personal scandal: a few weeks later he was toppled as council leader after rumours that he had made himself vulnerable to blackmail because of his occasional use of drugs.
With Mr Purcell in retreat, and the city council in disarray, NHS Greater Glasgow and Clyde was left to fight its own battles.

It is essentially a pledge of loyalty to the organisation rather than to the people the organisation serves.

     Today, in Part II of SR and the health board, we disclose how the management then attempted to quash dissent within its ranks by invoking a code of conduct which severely restricts the freedom of expression of members of public bodies in Scotland. The code can be used – and in this case was used – by any public body which wishes to bind and gag the very people who ought to be the guardians of the public’s interests: the non-executive board members, most directly appointed by the Scottish ministers, whose duty it is to scrutinise and, where necessary, challenge the actions of management. It is essentially a pledge of loyalty to the organisation rather than to the people the organisation serves.
     The first and most obvious target was the one whistleblower on the board, John Bannon, who went public with his claim that he had been frustrated in his search for the truth about the Blawarthill land deal, which will transfer care of terminally ill old people to a private operator for profit.
     Andrew Robertson warned Mr Bannon that, by speaking out, he had breached the code of conduct. Mr Bannon responded angrily. He said he did not care to be threatened by the chairman. The possibility of sanctions against him was not pursued, perhaps because his term of office was coming to an end. But a point had been made about the limits of non-executive independence. Whether John Bannon ever receives another public office in Scotland remains to be seen.
     Keen to have Mr Bannon isolated, the management issued repeated denials that the board was disunited. The media were assured that ‘Bannon’ (as Mr McLaws referred to him in his email to the chairman) was on his own. SR seemed, however, to have found evidence to the contrary. We spotted a piece in a local paper, the Milngavie and Bearsden Herald, from which it was clear that a second member of the board, Amanda Stewart, was unhappy about the Blawarthill scheme.
     We thought we might have a breakthrough. We didn’t. The subsequent reticence of Amanda Stewart to say any more on the subject was curious. We were disappointed and more than a little surprised.
     It now emerges, from the mass of documents released under FoI, that on 8 February, the board’s head of administration, John Hamilton, sent an email to the chairman and the director of communications about how her opposition should be dealt with:
     Would my best advice to Cllr Stewart on whether to distance herself from the decision taken – to say that she had her dissent to the NHS Board’s recommendation discussed and noted in the Minutes at the NHS Board meeting in February 2009 and as a Board member she is bound by collective responsibility for the decision taken.
     There is no record of any written response to this communication. We are left to assume that Amanda Stewart was indeed reminded of the doctrine of ‘collective responsibility’.
     Gratifyingly, from the management’s point of view, there were no problems whatever from another member of the board, Rani Dhir, the director of Drumchapel Housing Co-operative. Ms Dhir was effusive in her praise for the management. ‘…I would like to thank Ally McLaws for so eloquently responding to the Scottish Review’s enquiries. The contents of that response reflected and concurred with my own,’ she ended an email to the chairman on 3 February. Scrawled across this encouraging missive, there is an instruction from someone – the chairman himself, perhaps – to convey to Ms Dhir thanks for her ‘full and welcome support’.

It seems unlikely that the non-execs knew of this strange oversight. A small matter, no doubt, yet in its way revealing of a general attitude.

     Full and welcome, indeed. But there remains an unresolved issue. At the heart of John Bannon’s complaint against his own board was his strong conviction that the non-execs were not fully informed about Blawarthill before they took the decision to approve the land deal and effectively dish the hospice. Were they being kept fully informed even now?
     None of the non-execs on the board was aware of the email from Ally McLaws to Andrew Robertson suggesting the involvement of Steven Purcell as a way of dealing with Jackie Baillie’s intervention. Nor, it seems, were they fully informed over the response to the Scottish Review’s awkward questions about Blawarthill, submitted to the chairman in late January. It would have been reasonable for Rani Dhir and her colleagues to assume that SR had had a reply to these questions. This is the understanding implicit in her email commending Mr McLaws for his eloquence.
     But here is a simple fact. The Scottish Review had heard nothing. We had not received any response to our questions. (Several more weeks elapsed before we got a reply). Other media organisations, having cheerfully appropriated the questions from SR and put them to the board themselves, had had a detailed response, but not SR itself. Not a squeak.
     It seems unlikely that the non-execs knew of this strange oversight. A small matter, no doubt, yet in its way revealing of a general attitude. We are happy to bring it belatedly to the notice of Ms Dhir and her colleagues – if only to ensure that they are fully informed. If, in the unlikely event that any wish to comment on the strange case of the Scottish Review and the Greater Glasgow and Clyde Health Board, they had best clear what they wish to say with the chief executive – or, better still, the eloquent Ally McLaws. They are bound by the code of conduct, after all.

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

Read Kenneth Roy in the Scottish Review.