The silent minority whose culture of compliance serves Scotland ill

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by Kenneth Roy

It was as long ago as February last year when the Scottish Review first set alarm bells ringing about the financial condition of one of the main partners in the Blawarthill development.  We produced hard, specific evidence about the underlying problems of Southern Cross Healthcare, and revealed that the company was seeking the help of a crisis management consultancy.  It should have been enough to make NHS Greater Glasgow and Clyde pause and reflect before plunging headlong into a project whose chances of coming to fruition were diminishing as sharply as Southern Cross’s share price.  It should have been enough.  But it wasn’t.  We put all the information we had gathered in the hands of the then head of the NHS in Scotland in the hope that, even at such an advanced stage, with the missives for the land transaction about to be signed, the deal would be postponed pending a full review of its viability.

Presumably if Dr Kevin Woods had thought any of our information relevant, he would have passed on his concerns to the board of NHS Greater Glasgow and Clyde.  Whether he did or not we have no way of knowing.  It made no difference anyway: in the face of compelling evidence about the crisis at Southern Cross Healthcare, the outfit selected to provide end-of-life care to elderly people in the new build at Blawarthill, nothing – absolutely nothing – was done.

1. The culture of compliance

Later the same month – February 2010 – the full board of NHS Greater Glasgow and Clyde met for the first time since one of its own members, John Bannon, had blown the whistle on Blawarthill by delivering to the cabinet secretary for health, Nicola Sturgeon, and to the Scottish Review, a devastating indictment of the handling of the project.

This was the last opportunity for the board members, guardians of the public interest appointed by the Scottish ministers, to question the wisdom of going ahead.  Astonishingly, given the imminence of the point of no return, there was no discussion.

The board sat mutely as the chairman, Andrew Robertson, referred obliquely to ‘various issues surrounding the Scottish Review’.

Issues there were a few:

 

  • Our detailed report on the rocky state of one of the partners
  • Our disclosure that, when the scheme was sent out for public consultation, there was no suggestion that it would mean the withdrawal of funding from St Margaret of Scotland Hospice
  • The extraordinarily short care contract being proposed and the acknowledgement of a senior board official that he was in not in full possession of the facts
  • John Bannon’s claim that, when he asked for financial costings and tender documentation, he was obstructed in his search for the truth

None of these issues was raised at the meeting.  The culture of compliance within the board remained unchallenged.  NHS Greater Glasgow and Clyde proceeded to dispose of a valuable public asset – the estate at Blawarthill – in pursuit of a project which was destined to collapse within 10 months.

2. The position of Ronnie Cleland

When we published the first of our many reports on Blawarthill (January 2010), we said there was a strong case for an Audit Scotland investigation.

Now that the Scottish Review’s doubts about the project have been proved to be well-founded, and John Bannon has been completely vindicated, the case for such an investigation is immeasurably stronger.  Many questions of public interest remain unanswered, partly because members of the board of NHS Greater Glasgow and Clyde failed to ask them in the first place.

Will such an investigation ever take place?  A potentially awkward situation arises here.  One of the board members, Ronnie Cleland, who was present at the February 2010 meeting and who, along with the other ministerial appointees, was a party to the Blawarthill decision, was also until recently one of Audit Scotland’s two independent directors.

This was not the happiest state of affairs.  We asked in February last year:  “Would it not be possible to find someone in Scotland [to be an independent director of Audit Scotland] who is not already on the board of one of the organisations audited by Audit Scotland?”  It seemed a reasonable enough question.  We were not, however, surprised when it was met with a deafening silence all round.

Mr Cleland’s term of office at NHS Greater Glasgow and Clyde comes to an end on 31 March and he is no longer merely one of the two independent directors at Audit Scotland.  Last month he was appointed to an important public office.  He is to be the new chairman of Audit Scotland.

Will our watchdog-in-chief, as he surveys the wreckage of the Blawarthill development, suggest to the auditor-general, Robert Black, that there should be an Audit Scotland investigation into the conduct of a public body of which he was himself so prominent a member for the last seven years?

We shall see.

3. The absurdity of the code of conduct

When the Scottish Review put its seven questions about Blawarthill to the ministerial appointees, including Ronnie Cleland, it was implictly a reminder to all of them that they had an obligation under the code of conduct for members.

The code states that members ‘have a duty to be as open as possible about [their] decisions and actions, giving reasons for [their] decisions and restricting information only when the wider public interest clearly demands’.  Yet none of the ministerial appointees, apart from the chairman very belatedly, replied to the Scottish Review’s personally addressed emails.

What was the ‘wider public interest’ which prevented them from being ‘as open as possible’ with the Scottish Review?  No doubt they would respond that the chairman spoke for all.  But that does not fully meet the issue of individual responsibility – in this case for a project so misconceived that it literally never got off the ground.

From the experience of John Bannon, it seems that the call to openness is the lowest form of guff.  The doctrine of ‘collective responsibility’ over-rides any ethical consideration of the wider public interest.  When Mr Bannon went public, he was warned that he had breached the code of conduct and ‘threatened’ – his word – with unspecified sanctions.  A second member of the board, a local authority nominee, was also ‘advised’ of the doctrine of collective responsibility when it looked as if she too might break ranks over Blawarthill.  Nothing further was heard from her on the subject.

4. What next?

We have three recommendations:

(1) Audit Scotland should announce an investigation into the full circumstances of the Blawarthill project.

 

(2) In future, anyone sitting on the board of a public body which is audited by Audit Scotland should not be permitted also to sit on the board of Audit Scotland.

(3) The Scottish Government should issue new guidelines about the role and responsibilities of non-executive members of public bodies, making it clear that their first duty is to the public and that they are permitted, on matters of conscience, to be released from the doctrine of collective responsibility.

Click here for Kenneth Roy’s article on Blawarthill yesterday

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

Read Kenneth Roy in the Scottish Review.