Euan McColm: sack health minister Alex Neil

THE Scottish Government has proclaimed that improving mental health is a priority. With one in three Scots – almost two million people – estimated to be affected by mental illness in any single year, ministers are wise to take the issue seriously.

The evidence against the health secretary Alex Neil is damning. Picture: Contributed
The evidence against the health secretary Alex Neil is damning. Picture: Contributed

In the government’s own words, mental illness is one of the major public health challenges in Scotland.

What then, could be more outrageous than a cabinet secretary for health who acted in a way that betrayed this principle? Not much, as far as I can see. And yet Alex Neil remains in a job this weekend, defended by First Minister Alex Salmond.

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Neil stands accused of using his position to reverse a decision which stood to harm him politically. The evidence against the health secretary is damning.

Back in November 2011, Neil’s predecessor as health secretary, Nicola Sturgeon, was advised by civil servants to remove 48 acute mental health beds from Monklands Hospital. Sturgeon asked about the possibility of a smaller number of beds being retained and was informed that this would mean a “less than optimal service”. That is, it was not in the best interests of improving mental health.

Satisfied that the improvement of mental health in Lanarkshire was best supported by a proposal to focus its work on sites at two other hospitals, Sturgeon then agreed that the beds should be removed from Monk- lands, a hospital which sits in Neil’s Airdrie and Shotts constituency.

Three weeks after replacing Sturgeon as health secretary in September 2012, Neil was asked by a fellow SNP MSP in the Holyrood debating chamber about plans for mental health services in Lanarkshire. Neil responded that he “believed” NHS Lanarkshire was reviewing his proposals.

So far, so straightforward. Later the same day, Neil announced that he was removing himself from the formal decision-making process. There could be no suggestion of a conflict of interest over Monklands, support for which had formed a central part of Neil’s 2011 election campaign, so Neil’s deputy, Michael Matheson, was given the authority for this issue.

This would appear to have been an example of good ministerial judgement, of openness and transparency and all those things which politicians are very keen to give the impression that they support. Neil’s honour was upheld by Salmond who later said he had examined the health secretary’s actions and found them to be entirely appropriate.

But we did not, until this week, know the full story.

We did not know that on the morning of 26 September, 2012 – the day on which he was questioned in the chamber about the issue – Neil’s private secretary emailed a civil servant in the health department to pass on the cabinet secretary’s instruction that mental health facilities at Monk- lands should be retained.

Neil removed himself from the decision making process on Monklands only after he had made the decision. His was not an honourable act but one that stinks of cynicism and cheap electioneering. The health secretary got himself into the mess because of a politically expedient decision taken by the SNP in 2006 to get behind campaigns against the closures of accident and emergency units at Monk- lands and Ayr hospitals. The argument in favour of these moves came not only from managers but from doctors who argued that the facilities were out of date.

The campaigners’ argument against the closure of these departments put sentiment before good sense. The reason for demanding their retention was little more than “my Gran died waiting on a trolley in that place and I’m going to damn well die on a trolley there, too”.

But the SNP got right behind the protests, and won a series of headlines that painted them as the champions of the NHS. Its position made perfect political sense even if the evidence of medical experts said the units should close.

Just as the SNP put political gain before a sensible analysis of the medical benefits of relocating A&E departments in Monklands and Ayr, Neil has put his own interests before those of patients on the issue of mental health services.

Make no mistake, the email in which Neil’s decision to retain the beds at Monklands is communicated to the health department is a smoking gun. It proves the health secretary painted himself as impartial after passing on his precise instructions.

We can see what damage the removal of these beds might do to Neil. Having campaigned to win Airdrie and Shotts on the basis that he would defend the local hospital, then any paring back of services would leave him open to charges that he failed to live up to his promises.

But as health secretary, Neil’s first duty is not to himself and his glittering career. Rather, it is to the people who depend upon the services of an already under-pressure NHS.

At First Minister’s Question Time on Thursday, Scottish Labour leader Johann Lamont asked four times whether Salmond would sack Neil.

He would not, of course. In fact, Salmond said, he had looked into this matter and found that his health secretary had acted “perfectly properly”.

Far be it for me to disrespect the First Minister but that is arrant nonsense.

Lamont accused Neil of misleading parliament and voters over Monk- lands. I am not certain how anyone could deny that was the case. The proof is there, in that e-mail. What was Neil’s announcement that he was removing himself from the decision when he had already made it, if it wasn’t deceitful? He did not, by any reasonable measure, behave “perfectly properly”.

Neil has been caught doing something for which there is no defence, yet because of the times in which we live he has many defenders. Opposition calls for him to go are easily dismissed as referendum campaign dirty tricks.

This simply compounds the outrage, because regardless of his views on the constitution, the health secretary should be sacked.

Alex Neil has been exposed, putting his own political interests before the interests of the NHS and its patients. That is unforgivable and we should be very angry about it indeed. «

Twitter: @euanmccolm