Why, with the public sector facing calamity, has this man been given a £50,000 a year pay hike?


SPEAKERS CORNER…Kenneth Roy on a scandalous salary increase

The code of conduct which, as we observed yesterday in the case of NHS Greater Glasgow and Clyde, makes whistleblowing in Scottish public life all but impossible, is being slavishly obeyed by members of NHS Education for Scotland (NES), the quango responsible for staff training of health workers at an annual cost of £400 million. I repeat, £400 million. There can be no explanation, other than strict adherence to the code, for some of the extraordinary goings-on at this organisation.

     Here is a short extract from the document which all board members of NES are given on appointment:
     Wearing the ‘Board Member’ Hat
     As a board member, they must be aware that, when writing or speaking on any matter that is within the remit of the body, they may be perceived as representing the Board or the Board’s position even when they are writing or speaking as a citizen, academic, professional etc. Any (mis)perception that they are speaking with their Board member ‘hat’ on, can lead to embarrassment and distress for you and your organisation.
     The mixing of singular and plural, the abrupt switch from ‘they’ to ‘you’, the insecurity over the use of the word perception, the general ugliness of the prose – all this is offensive to the cause of English usage. But let’s ignore the execrable style and concentrate on the substance:
     Clear your articles or speeches in advance;
     Don’t speak to the media until you have spoken first to the PR people;
     ‘Be loyal to the organisation’;
     ‘Never publicly criticise the organisation nor attempt to undermine board decisions’;
     ‘Either accept the collective decision of the board or resign’.
     The message really could not be clearer: don’t make trouble for us.     
     In exchange for this co-operation, a member of NES will pick up £8,008 a year for reading the board papers and attending the meetings: nice work if you can get it.

The real power does not reside with these people. Nor does it reside with our elected politicians. It resides with the executive.

     A Scottish Review reader who wishes to remain anonymous, for the usual reasons of self-protection, was so disturbed by NES’s code of conduct that she sent us a copy. She asks: ‘Does this effectively stifle any attempts at whistleblowing if the primary responsibility of board members is to each other and the organisation rather than the people they serve?’
     There is a fairly straightforward answer to this ethical question. When the civil service makes these appointments – we can disregard the formality of their endorsement by the Scottish ministers – the last thing it wants or expects is the exercise of independent thought. The non-execs in our public life are there not to rock the boat but to keep it steady. The real power does not reside with these people. Nor does it reside with our elected politicians. It resides with the executive.
     There is, however, an obvious danger in having boards stuffed with compliant individuals, most of whom are flattered out of their trousers to be on a national committee. The danger is that the executive will do pretty much as it likes, untroubled by close scrutiny or awkward challenge. We have created a public culture in which the executive, supported by its vast PR machine, only has to cry ‘Corporate Responsibility’ for the foot soldiers on the board to fall meekly into line or risk being fired.
     Inevitably, in such a culture, things will go badly wrong. They have gone badly wrong at NHS Education for Scotland. Earlier this year, the organisation was heavily criticised for its extravagant spending on foreign trips for members of staff, including a deputation of eight to Miami, billeted at the Hyatt Regency Hotel, to pick up video conferencing tips; and an 11-member, four-day jaunt to Malaga to attend such workshops as ‘Twitter for medical education – what is it and why should I care?’. Why indeed? There have been similar trips at the public expense to such destinations as Sydney, Istanbul and Durban.
     All this was too much for the cabinet secretary for health, Nicola Sturgeon, who warned NES that it ‘needs to recognise the tight financial restraints on the NHS’ and said that she had asked the chair, Dr Lindsay Burley, to ‘give a full account and explanation of these trips and provide evidence of greater scrutiny in future’.
     Dr Burley (annual fee: £24,960), who was recently crowned by SR as one of the queens of the quangos, cannot be wholly blamed for this fiasco since she is the third chair of this organisation in less than two years. But it would be interesting to know if the overseas jaunts were ever approved by the board. Did anyone have the bottle to stand up to the executive and question the value of these trips? Somehow I doubt it. Yet it ill becomes Nicola Sturgeon or any minister to complain of a lack of scrutiny when the non-execs are bound by a code of conduct so restrictive that it might have been designed to instil complacency.

Why did this happen? Why was it allowed to happen? There is no explanation in the accounts: none whatever.

     The annual accounts of NES for 2009-10 make disturbing reading. There is no mention of foreign trips: one supposes that, within a budget of £400 million a year, they belong in the petty cash column. The real scandal in these accounts has escaped attention – until today.
     No reminder is necessary of the nurses and other public sector workers who are about to lose their jobs; or of the obligation being placed upon the unemployed to do manual work in return for their benefits; or of the assurance of the former press officer of the Cairngorms National Park Authority, now lording it as chief secretary to the Treasury, that it is all in the interests of giving job seekers some useful work experience. It is within this context – the context of a looming national tragedy – that the recent pay increase granted to Dr Mike Watson, the medical director of NHS Education for Scotland, should be considered.
     In 2009, Dr Watson was being paid £185,000 a year. In 2009, he had accrued a right to a pension of £70,000 a year plus a lump sum of £210,000 on retirement.
     A year later, Dr Watson was being paid, not £185,000 a year, but £235,000 a year, an increase of £50,000 (27%) in 12 short months. Better still (from Dr Watson’s point of view), he will retire with a pension of £95,000 a year plus a lump sum of £275,000 on retirement.
     Why did this happen? Why was it allowed to happen? There is no explanation in the accounts: none whatever. The chief executive (who, bizarrely, is now paid £100,000 a year less than his medical director) has nothing to say in his report. The auditor has nothing to say in his. It is as if a £50,000 a year salary hike for Dr Watson, while the public sector faces calamity, is the most normal thing in the world. And here is the shocking irony: the same Scottish government which had so much to say about NES’s overseas jaunts, demanding greater scrutiny in the face of ‘tight financial restraints’ on the NHS, actually approved Dr Watson’s pay increase. It is responsible for this act of gross irresponsibility.
     As for the board of NHS Education – well, it had the code of conduct hanging over it.

This article has been reproduced with the kind permission of Kenneth Roy.

Read Kenneth Roy in the Scottish Review.