Mass resignations, patient betrayal and bullying – the inside story of a Scottish Government group in crisis

A Scottish Government working group on chronic pain descended into chaos amid infighting, accusations of bullying and abusive behaviour from civil servants and group members, The Scotsman can reveal.

It comes ahead of the publication of a report on Monday from the National Advisory Committee on Chronic Pain (NACCP) into services in Scotland and the launch of a consultation by the government.

However, the group ended in chaotic fashion, with emails showing complaints made against one member and chronic pain members feeling let down and betrayed by civil servants and ministers.

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The Scottish Government's group on chronic pain descended into chaos due to infighting, leaving patients feeling betrayed.

The report, a ‘framework’ for chronic pain service delivery in Scotland, has been disowned by several patient representatives on the group who labelled it “40 pages of absolute waffle” and criticised the government's approach.

Emails disclosed via Freedom of Information also show how safeguarding concerns were raised about one member of the group after he was appointed to the NACCP despite concerns around his abusive behaviour towards women.

The messages, sent to the chair of the group, Dr John Harden, and to health secretary Humza Yousaf in May this year, detail “malicious remarks” made by Chris Bridgeford, a chronic pain patient who runs the support group Affa Sair.

Mr Bridgeford is alleged to have posted "pronouncements [which] are akin to hate mail” and are a “safeguarding concern”, with “abusive behaviour” dating back to December 2020.

All of this was allegedly sent to women patients and campaigners.

The emails allege Mr Bridgeford writes “vicious material once he’s hidden behind a private Facebook page”, forcing patients and campaigners to deal with “unexplained malice”.

It is understood some of the abuse was directed towards Dorothy-Grace Elder, the former SNP MSP and journalist who is the voluntary secretary on the Scottish Parliament’s cross-party group on chronic pain.

Another email highlights “disgraceful” Facebook posts, saying they “completely undermine what we are trying to do” while describing a “spat” between two individuals.

It ends: “It feels so much easier just to walk away from all of it, but that lets down the patients. However, I can’t cope with much more of this nonsense.”

During the election of patient representatives to the group, Mr Bridgeford failed to be elected, but was appointed shortly afterwards as a member via his charity ‘Affa Sair’ as a third-sector representative.

Patient representatives raised eyebrows at the appointment given his history, with many criticising the NACCP and the Scottish Government’s approach to the group, led by the Clinical Priorities section of the health directorate.

In total, seven out of ten elected patient representatives quit the NACCP due to the conditions and the alleged behaviour from civil servants.

Several patient representatives have said they were given no opportunity to add items to the group’s agenda or raise issues within “any other business”, instead being treated like a “tick box exercise”.

One patient representative, Liz Barrie, accused senior civil servants of “intimidation and bullying”.

She also criticised the health charity the Health and Social Care Alliance, which receives the bulk of its funding from the Scottish Government.

Ms Barrie claimed patients were told by Alliance staff what they were supposed to say and how to act during the meetings of the NACCP.

She described the framework document as “40 pages of absolute waffle”, which she claimed would result in little to no changes.

"We did contribute vast amounts of work which was evidence based, because a lot of us have professional and medical backgrounds,” she said.

"They didn’t like anything that we were saying and they’ve obviously ignored it all because the document is 40 pages, this is going out to consultation and it is absolute c**p.

"The mere fact that seven out of the ten ‘lived experienced’ patients resigned from that committee, that was down to bullying, intimidation and civil servants being absolutely atrocious to ill patients, ill people.”

Members also said two patient representatives received a “bullying” email from senior civil servants, accusing them of inappropriate behaviour that was listed as “tutting” and rolling their eyes during meetings.

Ian Semmons, who runs the charity Action on Pain and was part of the group as a patient, said: “I’ve got a lot of experience nationally with patient representation and quickly realised that this was, to put it bluntly, a scam.

“[It felt like] there was no intention at all of taking notes of what genuine patients said.

"The fact that it is pure window dressing is absolutely disgusting.”.

Mr Semmons added: "An ideal opportunity has been totally wasted and folks in chronic pain are going to get no benefit whatsoever as it’s fair to say chronic pain services in Scotland are in the worst state in the whole of the UK at the moment.”

Mr Bridgeford said in a statement he was “unaware” of any allegations against him.

"I and Affa Sair are committed to working with, and not against, the National Advisory Committee for Chronic Pain in a positive manner toward improving chronic pain sufferers' care,” he said.

"The refreshed NACCP met in February 2021 with clear objectives and is an inclusive group of clinicians, charities and representatives with chronic pain working together on how to shape future services.”

A Scottish Government spokesperson said: “Claims of bullying behaviour by civil servants are untrue. All committee members are free to make whatever contribution they wish to discussions.

“All committee members are required to abide by the behaviours set out in the Terms of Reference, including the values of respect and mutual collaboration to agree recommendations to help improve care for people with chronic pain. If these behaviours and values were not met, this would be taken very seriously and addressed.

“We’ve made a range of commitments to improve care and support for people with chronic pain, with the Advisory Committee instrumental in shaping the draft framework now under consultation, and we are grateful to all those who have offered their input and personal experience."

Irene Oldfather, director of strategy and engagement at the Alliance, said: “The Alliance is fully committed to ensuring that the voice of lived experience is heard in pain management policy and delivery. This is an agenda that the Alliance has supported and promoted over the years.

"We’ve recently completed a report on chronic pain based on our chronic pain survey published in partnership with our academic colleagues at the University of the West of Scotland, engaging with over 475 citizens in Scotland and outlining the important agenda ahead in relation to supporting and giving a voice to those people who experience chronic pain across Scotland.”

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