Why do Garry, Willy and Mike, the kings of the quangos, have to do it all?

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Treading the Boards: Part I

Kenneth Roy

A few weeks ago, unreported in the media, the Scottish government re-appointed Garry Coutts as chair of the Scottish Social Services Council, one of 34 quangos with the status of executive non-departmental public bodies. The result of this decision is that Mr Coutts will go on chairing two major public bodies.      
      Last week SR showed in passing, while we were examining the bizarre decisions of the Private Rented Housing Panel, the close links between the legal membership of the panel and that of the Mental Health Tribunal for Scotland. Some readers were shocked that the same people are exercising such power over two distinct groups of the vulnerable – the mostly elderly clients of the housing panel and the mentally incapacitated patients who come before the health tribunal.
     This week we will provide evidence of a much wider inter-connectedness in Scottish public life and demonstrate how the same names crop up in a variety of ministerially-appointed bodies, often with no obvious associations of interest or objective.
     There are three outstanding examples of this phenomenon and the newly re-appointed Garry Coutts is one of them.


Even more remarkably, in addition to looking after the interests of the Scottish Social Services Council and NHS Highland, he runs his own business, the Communication Skills Company.


     The Scottish Social Services Council, based in Dundee, is a relatively new quango with responsibilities for the regulation and professional standards of social workers. It is rated highly enough to be worth a fee of £24,648 a year for its part-time chair. There may be a general assumption that the person occupying such a senior public office is devoting himself single-mindedly to it and not also chairing another major public body in another part of the country.
     Yet we find Garry Coutts being paid a fee of £29,640 a year as part-time chair of Highland NHS, whose headquarters are in Inverness.
     Even more remarkably, in addition to looking after the interests of the Scottish Social Services Council and NHS Highland, he runs his own business, the Communication Skills Company. It is based in Beauly, which he represented as an Independent councillor.
     Mr Coutts’ company offers a range of services. His ‘media training workshops’, which give tuition in such skills as how to handle interviews, take the form of ‘real scenarios’ conducted by ‘hard-nosed news journalists’. The company specialises in ‘working with clients who often have to do media interviews in difficult and controversial circumstances’; Mr Coutts says he has himself handled ‘very high-profile issues’, including travellers’ sites and homeless hostels.
     The clients for these workshops include Audit Scotland (Scotland’s public spending watchdog), NHS Ayrshire and Arran, NHS Tayside, and Highlands and Islands Enterprise. A typical workshop costs between £2,000 and £3,000, exclusive of venue hire and catering. Another of the company’s one-day courses, ‘Writing in Plain English’, for up to 10 delegates at a basic rate of £150 each, has attracted such public sector clients as Edinburgh City Council, Glasgow City Council, Fife Council, Stirling Council, and Audit Scotland (again). The company also organises one-day training sessions on ‘Managing Public Meeetings’, for which it charges such clients as the UHI Millennium Institute £1,200 for up to six delegates.
     Mr Coutts’s combined fee for his two public offices is £54,288 a year. He has been chair of NHS Highland since 2004 and of the Scottish Social Services Council since 2007.


An internal review found no evidence of wrongdoing, Mr Roe tactfully tepped down as chairman of the consultancy firm, and the matter was quickly forgotten.


     Another busy bee of the Scottish public sector, Willy Roe, earns considerably more. His chairmanship of Skills Development Scotland pays £37,856 while he earns £47,905 for chairing Highlands and Islands Enterprise – a total of £85,761 in taxpayer-funded annual fees. Last year he emerged relatively unscathed from the public exposure that he was chairman of a consultancy firm which had received contracts worth £150,000 from the enterprise agency. An internal review found no evidence of wrongdoing, Mr Roe tactfully stepped down as chairman of the consultancy firm, and the matter was quickly forgotten.
     Mr Roe is listed in the Scottish government’s directory of public appointments as a businessman living in Edinburgh. It seems ludicrous that the public body charged with the economic re-generation of the Highlands and Islands should not have been able to find a chair who lives in the Highlands and Islands, but no one seems to find this extraordinary state of affairs in the least strange. Nor is it ever questioned why the same man should be chairing a Glasgow-based quango employing 1,400 staff, which is – to borrow its own excruciating language – ‘tasked with catalysing real and positive change’ – and which commands an annual grant-in-aid of £196 million while he is also chairing an Inverness-based enterprise agency with 300 employees and an annual grant-in-aid of £68 million. Mr Roe, then, is ultimately responsible for £264 million a year of public money and a combined payroll of 1,700.
     But the daddy of them all, the quango king of kings, must surely be Michael (‘Mike’) Cantlay. Mr Cantlay picks up £195.35 a day, 12 days a month, amounting to £28,706 a year, for chairing Loch Lomond and the Trossachs National Park Authority. He is also on the board of Highlands and Islands Airports Ltd (a public body), earning £6,987 a year from that source.
     To top it all, earlier this month Mr Cantlay became chair of Visit Scotland, the national tourism agency, which pays £24,000 a year. A bold new appointment? Hardly. In one guise or another, the king of the quangos, who in his business life is big in kilts, has been a standing fixture of Scottish tourism for many years. He told a business magazine recently that he is ‘comfortably off’. Since he is paid £59,693 a year from the public purse alone, few will be inclined to disagree.


Meanwhile, Skills Development Scotland is attempting to salvage a reputation slightly battered by the revelation that it has been paying a hypnotist £20,000 to talk to unemployed young people.


     Is the talent pool in Scotland so tiny that, between them, Messrs Coutts, Roe and Cantlay should be heading up six high-profile public bodies at a combined cost of £200,000 in annual fees?
     It seems so. Here, indeed, is a further example of just how tiny that pool turns out to be. Last August, the Scottish government announced an urgent review of vocational education and training. According to Neil Munro, the well-informed editor of TESS, the educational journal, its remit has ‘set alarm bells ringing’ that the purpose of the review is to axe. Who was put in charge of this ultra-sensitive operation? Why, none other than the inexhaustible Willy Roe.
     But this new appointment was too much, even for him. While he is away trying to achieve ‘better value for money’ from work-related programmes, the chair at Skills Development Scotland is being temporarily filled by John McClelland.
     It comes as no surprise to learn that Mr McClelland is himself chair of a major public body, the Scottish Funding Council, for which he is paid £45,760 a year. So who will be keeping Mr McClelland’s seat warm while he is billeted at Skills Development Scotland? That has not been divulged.
     Meanwhile, Skills Development Scotland is attempting to salvage a reputation slightly battered by the revelation that it has been paying a hypnotist £20,000 to talk to unemployed young people. One of Mr Coutts’s media training days might be in order.

Part II of Treading the Boards tomorrow

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

Read Kenneth Roy in the Scottish Review.