Western Isles Health Board? ‘In name only’

Controversy over the governance of the Western Isles NHS Board mounted this week after the resignation of Comhairle nan Eilean Siar’s representative on it, Councillor Angus McCormack.
MOUNTING CONTROVERSY: Councillor Angus McCormack resigned from the health board in protest at the appointments procedure.MOUNTING CONTROVERSY: Councillor Angus McCormack resigned from the health board in protest at the appointments procedure.
MOUNTING CONTROVERSY: Councillor Angus McCormack resigned from the health board in protest at the appointments procedure.

In a hard-hitting letter to the Health Board chair, Mr McCormack said it was a Western Isles board “in name only” and that the decision to appoint a mainland resident as vice-chair “is not acceptable to me especially since there are suitable locally based Board members”.

As revealed in last week’s Gazette, the only candidates considered for the post of vice-chair were the mainland-based non-executives on the Board.

Mr McCormack wrote: “It is clear to me that residents in these islands wish to have local people on the Western Isles Health Board not people who do not even know where our hospitals are located”.

Mr McCormack told the Gazette that he has had “nothing but public support” for his stance and publication of his resignation letter on the Comhairle’s Facebook page quickly attracted 600 favourable responses.

The Health Board held an emergency meeting on Tuesday with Board members dialling in from around Britain. They claimed afterwards that the board provides “diversity” and “effective scrutiny”.

The long-running issue of non-island residents being appointed by the Scottish Government to key posts on quangos dealing with island issues was again raised through the appointment of an individual named Tim Ingram as vice-chair of the Health Board

Mr Ingram, a health and safety consultant who divides his time between Aberdeen and Newcastle, was also appointed by Ministers as a director of David MacBrayne Limited. He has no connections to the islands other than these public appointments.

Recently, Mr Ingram was confirmed by Ministers as vice-chair of the Health Board following an internal process. The Gazette asked the Health Board to disclose how often Mr Ingram has visited the islands since his initial appointment 19 months ago.

The Health Board refused to answer and said they would treat this straightforward inquiry as a Freedom of Information request. It has now been confirmed in writing that a reply will be provided within 20 working days.

Mr McCormack said this week his decision to resign was sparked by a message from the Health Board to its members saying that the Gazette was intending to report on Mr Ingram’s appointment and that they would not be responding.

He said: “I took this to mean that no individual board member was to respond either, if approached. I decided at that point to resign in order to have the freedom to make my views known.

“My view is that the appointment of people who know absolutely nothing about the islands to these positions is offensive and unacceptable. How can people who have barely been here know anything about the aspirations of people and communities for health provision in the Western Isles?”.

Mr McCormack previously served for ten years on the the board, including a spell as vice-chair until 2015. He became the Comhairle’s representative on the board in May of this year, following the local elections.

He said: “When my previous term ended, I thought we were in a pretty good place. We didn’t get everything right but it was local people making local decisions and listening to what other local people were concerned about. That has all changed.

“The parameters within which Health Boards operate are pretty limited because so much is directed from Edinburgh. I see this idea of appointing non-islanders as another move towards centralising control and it needs to be resisted.

“The same thing is in danger of happening with plans for the National Care Service which has centralisation written all over it. I find that really worrying”.

In addition to being appointed vice-chair, the mysterious Mr Ingram has been re-appointed to the Health Board until 2027. Another of the long-range members, Jocelyn McConnachie, has been re-appointed until 2024.

This week, the Gazette asked the Western Isles NHS Board the same question that we asked about Mr Ingram – how often has she visited the Western Isles on NHS business since her appointment last year. No reply has been received and it will presumably be treated as another Freedom of Information request.

Ms McConnachie lives in the south of England and other appointments listed on her Linked In profile are in Bristol and Eastleigh in Sussex. She worked briefly in 2015-2016 for Caledonian MacBrayne and her Health Board profile says she is “delighted to be again serving the communities of the Western Isles”.

In their statement, the Health Board said: “It is regrettable that Cllr McCormack has taken the decision to resign as the local authority representative on the Health Board, in particular as he was nominated by the Comhairle as their local member on the Board. We await notification of the Comhairle’s new nominee.”

The post of Non Executive Director is advertised openly and involves a well-established and non-discriminatory selection process. The Vice Chair is selected based on an ‘expression of interest’, fair appraisal and interview process. The Vice Chair is then formally appointed by the Cabinet Secretary.

“Whereas local elected members on the Council are elected to specifically represent the interests of a particular ward, Non Executive Directors appointed to the Health Board are expected to take and support decisions that are in the best interests of the whole of the Western Isles.

“The skills, experience and knowledge brought by a wide range of individuals on the Board ensures diversity, innovative approaches and effective scrutiny. We are confident that our Non Executive Directors on Western Isles Health Board provide effective oversight, governance and scrutiny.”

Gazette Editorial: A demand for island voices is not parochial

The resignation of Councillor Angus McCormack further highlights the issue of Scottish Government appointments of non-islanders to roles which are of critical importance to the islands.

We congratulate Mr McCormack for taking this stance while the Health Board’s response adds insult to injury – the implication being that the qualities it claims to embrace are dependent on appointing random quangoteers from around the country.

The Gazette has been challenging the appointments system, not only at the Health Board but also in relation to the ferries situation. Until recently, neither CMAL nor CalMac had a single islander on its board.

Surveying the recent debacle, it is inescapable that many of these problems have sprung from a total absence of island voices in the room.

It is not parochial to believe islanders have much to offer in areas of policy which affect island communities. It is simply common sense which has been abandoned in order to strengthen centralised control.

Angus McCormack is right to raise concerns that a National Care Service could go the same way, with another random board taking decisions of crucial importance to the islands, instead of the maximum amount of decision-making being devolved downwards.

The Gazette will continue to question why Scotland’s public appointments system has been turned into an instrument of patronage and centralised control, close to political hands, rather than to serve the people at a local level.