Disclosed: a public body’s battle of strategy against


SR and the health board: Part I

Kenneth Roy 

Early this year, we wrote to the chairman of NHS Greater Glasgow and Clyde, and his fellow ministerial appointees on the board, with seven questions detailing our concerns about the ‘land transaction’ for the redevelopment of Blawarthill Hospital in the west of Glasgow and its impact on the viability of St Margaret of Scotland Hospice nearby. There was no immediate reply: not so much as the courtesy of an acknowledgement. But it is now clear that, behind the scenes, the management was furiously at work protecting its own interests. At one stage, there was even a suggestion that Steven Purcell, the then leader of Glasgow City Council, should be involved in the campaign to deal with SR’s investigation.     
     Documents released as a result of a freedom of information request provide an intriguing insight into how public Scotland operates when confronted with a potentially damaging media inquiry. In particular, they show the enormous influence of press offices, inflated in this case to the status of a ‘corporate communications directorate’.
     When our bombshell arrived, emailed to each of the board members, the executive moved swiftly. John Hamilton, the head of administration, contacted all the non-execs to assure them that ‘there is no obligation on individual NHS board members to reply to the letter’, adding that ‘if any member wishes to do so it would be helpful if you could let the chairman (or myself) know. hank you [sic]’.

It was time for another memo from Ally McLaws. This one was marked ‘High Importance’ but was circulated only to Andrew Robertson, the chairman of the board, and senior executives; the board as a whole did not see it.

     But the real damage limitation was being conducted personally by the ‘director of corporate communications’, Ally McLaws. On 28 January, he emailed the entire board:

     Following on from my email to you re The Scottish Review article. The Scottish Review has now written to Board members with a list of seven questions and these letters may arrive in the post tomorrow. In the meantime the Daily record [sic] has forwarded the same seven questions to the Board and I attach our response to the Record. For information – I have it confirmed that the Record are not running with the story tomorrow but may well do so on Saturday or Monday. The statement and answers below have been issued in response to inquiries from the Clydebank Post and the Daily Record. Then [sic] statement has been sent to Radio Clyde but they did not ask the seven questions.

     Here is a salient fact not included in Mr McLaws’s email to the board. Although the Daily Record and others had been given answers to the seven questions published and distributed by the Scottish Review, SR itself had not received any answers. We were being ignored. We continued to be ignored.
     By 4 February, the political fallout was becoming serious. One of the board’s non-execs, John Bannon, had broken ranks with his own colleagues, while Labour’s health spokesperson in the Scottish Parliament, Jackie Baillie, had issued a strongly worded statement in support of the hospice. It was time for another memo from Ally McLaws. This one was marked ‘High Importance’ but was circulated only to Andrew Robertson, the chairman of the board, and senior executives; the board as a whole did not see it.

This document is so fascinating as a clue to the mindset of the people running public bodies in Scotland that we republish it in full, unedited.

     Re St Margaret’s:
     Scottish Labour (shadow health: Jackie Baillie) issued news release last night stating Labour would save continuing care beds at St Margaret’s if they got back in power. Radio Clyde reporting this with interview with Jackie Baillie this morning and reflecting back to their reports of yesterday which said Board member John Bannon claiming Board not if [sic] full possession of facts when making decisions. B demanding Cab Sec intervene.
     Daily Record has printed Labour angle in today’s paper.
     I have spoken this morning with Cab Sec’s press team and they have not had any further media contact since the call of two days ago re Bannon’s letter.
     I suspect the politics of this will spark new calls from Gov for more details on the business case for Blawarthill dasting [sic] back to 2000 (addressing John Bannon’s issues).
     I understand that Catriona and Anne met yesterday to discuss the report and background history of Blawarthill deal … what was the outcome?
     I think we need to consider how we deal with this proactively or not? The Scottish review [sic] will take heart by [sic] the Labour reaction and Record reaction and Clyde reaction and will stoke up their coverage accordingly either today or when the next edition comes out on Tuesday of next week.
     That will in turn spark more coverage and more Labour inoput [sic].
     It would be good for Labour controll [sic] Glasgow City to state on the record that they support the Blawarthill campus plans and that they are right for the people of Glasgow and for the local community in providing the right mix of social housing and NHS elderly care beds. Liz Cameron? Steven Purcell? I have dug out the quiote [sic] we got from council for a previosu [sic] release some months ago and have shared wthis [sic] with press office coleagues [sic] at Council to get them cleared for re-use.

I have no way of knowing whether Steven Purcell was indeed prevailed upon to come to the health board’s aid against the pesky Scottish Review.

     Liz Cameron? Many years ago I had lunch with her. She seemed interested in helping us to set up the Institute of Contemporary Scotland, the publisher of this magazine. I expect that, all things considered, her interest in helping us evaporated some time ago. Steven Purcell? I have no way of knowing whether he was indeed prevailed upon to come to the health board’s aid against the pesky Scottish Review or whether, by then, he was too distracted by the police’s suggestion that he had made himself vulnerable to blackmail for Blawarthill or the pesky Scottish Review to mean much to him.
     The reference to a board member by his surname – Bannon – is worthy of incidental note. Is this the way that directors of corporate communications normally refer to members of the governing body in official memos? Also of interest, although possibly only to aficionados of this saga, is the statement that ‘social housing’ is to be built at Blawarthill, for until now it had been my firm understanding, based on successive health board reports, that the housing at Blawarthill would be private.
     More telling, however, is the revelation of the battle of strategy that Mr McLaws thought he was waging (while SR was still being ignored), the inter-connectedness of the various PR functionaries at the Scottish government, the health board and the city council, and the ability of these functionaries to know what a national newspaper is or is not about to print. How very cosy it all sounds.
     Beyond even that, there is the political nature of Mr McLaws’s memo: the hint that it is not only the Scottish Review which must be dealt with, but the Labour opposition at Holyrood – coupled with the suggestion that the leaders of the Labour administration in Glasgow might take a very different line if asked to do so.
     All this is bad enough. But, from the point of view of accountability, both internally and externally, the story gets worse.

Part II on Tuesday

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

Read Kenneth Roy in the Scottish Review.