Why can’t they all serve their country just for the love of it?

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SPEAKERS CORNER…Kenneth Roy – Treading the Boards: Part III

Ruth Wishart has been in touch, in a friendly way, to say that while she is enjoying SR’s current series, we are mistaken in including her as a queen of the quangos. To be a king or queen of the quangos, you must tread at least two boards and, as of last month, she treads only one. The reason we crowned her queen was that she was still being listed as a trustee of the National Galleries on the Scottish government’s online directory of public appointments when we were researching this week’s pieces.      
     We pointed out yesterday that Ruth Wishart was in the unusual if not unique position among quangocrats of being unremunerated for both her public offices. She confirms these facts and adds that she has never accepted expenses for her public offices or for her chairmanship of the Dewar arts awards.
     Well, that is one admirable approach to public service: do it for nothing. The boards of the National Galleries, the National Museums, the National Library, Learning and Teaching Scotland, the Royal Botanic Garden and several other public bodies do indeed do it for nothing, for membership of these boards carries no remuneration. It should also be pointed out that there are a few public servants who are entitled to remuneration but who decline to accept it. Angus Grossart is perhaps the outstanding example, although Andrew Dixon tells me that Sir Sandy Crombie at Creative Scotland is in the same philanthropic category.


It seems that Garry Coutts is in favour of applying this principle to non-exec, part-time board appointments in public life too: he feels that good, able people like himself should be allowed to make a living out of such appointments.


     The general approach is, however, quite different. It is summed up in a long letter we have received from Garry Coutts, who heads two major quangos. We publish Mr Coutts’s letter in full elsewhere in this edition. He feels wronged and aggrieved by SR’s coverage, describing it as ‘sensationalist’, although he does not deny the essential fact that he receives £54,000 a year for two part-time appointments.
     Aside from a stout defence of his own position, mostly in reply to allegations we didn’t actually make, Mr Coutts’s letter throws up a question of general public interest. It is contained in the following paragraph:
     It is the nature of jobs that are part-time that people will look to undertake a number of them to make a full-time equivalent. Is this wrong for everyone or just those of us in public life?
     Now, there’s a question that merits serious consideration. The boards of private companies are stuffed with non-execs, most of them just there for a bit of window dressing or for their contacts, or both; if they have a Queen’s honour attached to their surname, so much the better. One such person explained to me how the system works: the trick is to collect as many non-exec, part-time board appointments as it takes to establish what he called ‘a portfolio’. It seemed to this innocent a rather odd way to earn a living, not really a proper job, but my informant clearly saw nothing exceptionable about it.
     It seems that Garry Coutts is in favour of applying this principle to non-exec, part-time board appointments in public life too: he feels that good, able people like himself should be allowed to make a living out of such appointments. He could be on to something there, since SR’s research has revealed the existence of a surprisingly large number of people, most unknown to the public, who move seamlessly from one public sector board meeting to another, picking up a fee each time.
     There is a common thread in the names we have published this week and the many more we could have published. Very few if any are young. None is from an ethnic minority. None lives in a deprived community. Many are retired people, enjoying a substantial pension from their former employers, often at the public expense, who have stepped straight from some well-paid job in academia, the civil service or local government into remunerated posts on public bodies, again at the public expense.


At a time of national austerity, with 500,000 public sector workers in Britain preparing to lose their livelihoods, why should any of the people we have named this week be remunerated?


     If the ineffective Office for Public Appointments in Scotland could atttract the young and the poor into Scottish public life, there would be a strong argument for paying them an allowance. But as long as public appointments are as scandalously unrepresentative of the population as a whole, and the positions are filled mostly by the prosperous middle-class, the argument for any remuneration is slender. After yesterday, it is more slender still. At a time of national austerity, with 500,000 public sector workers in Britain preparing to lose their livelihoods, why should any of the people we have named this week be remunerated? If Ruth Wishart and Angus Grossart are prepared to do public work as a service to their country, why shouldn’t everyone else?
     But there is another reason why the idea of people making a full-time living as quangocrats should be resisted. We saw in a dramatic way at RBS what can happen when a non-exec board of pussy cats, pushed around by an overbearing executive, gets its personal priorities right: take the money and don’t ask too many awkward questions. In that spectacular case, all that was at risk was the UK economy. But the same essential danger lurks in the public sector. SR has observed all year the reluctance of all but one member of the board of NHS Greater Glasgow and Clyde to face up to a powerful management on the issue of a private/public partnership that ought to have been more rigorously scrutinised.
     Full-time quangocrats pose a further danger: rightly or wrongly they are bound to be perceived as mere placemen (or women) of the state, doing the civil service’s bidding. If we want accountability in Scottish public life, this is the wrong way to go about it.

For Garry Coutts’s letter, click here

Email your comments on this issue to islay@scottishreview.net

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

Read Kenneth Roy in the Scottish Review.