The Scottish Government has been accused of control freakery after it emerged senior civil servants attempted to water down a critical report on the NHS produced by Scotland’s public spending watchdog.
Nicola Sturgeon’s administration came under fire after correspondence between the government and Audit Scotland revealed the lengths to which officials went in an attempt to change the wording of the report.
The correspondence, which has come to light under Freedom of Information legislation, discloses that civil servants described drafts of the report as “alarmist” and unbalanced.
Officials, including Paul Gray, chief executive of NHS Scotland, and Christine McLaughlin, the director for health and finance, objected to the tone of the independent analysis conducted by Audit Scotland.
They attempted to make changes to the report before it was published. Their attempts to replace extracts with their own text painting the Scottish Government in a more positive light were largely rejected by Audit Scotland.
Their complaints have come to light just two weeks after Nicola Sturgeon was criticised for questioning Audit Scotland at First Minister’s Questions.
Ms Sturgeon said she disagreed with the watchdog’s “methodology” when tackled over Audit Scotland figures suggesting the number of people studying at colleges had fallen to its lowest level for a decade.
Audit Scotland’s report “NHS in Scotland 2016” was published in October last year and said increasing costs, staffing pressures and cuts were putting pressure on the health service.
Shortly before its publication, Ms McLaughlin met Audit Scotland to discuss a draft of the report.
A Government note of the meeting said: “Report includes a lot of subjective, alarmist and sometimes clumsy language e.g. NHS are resorting to, struggling...”
In the final version of the document the term “resort to” was dropped. The word “struggling” was retained.
In all, there were 35 requests for changes for accuracy and a further 51 “points of clarification”.
The Government objected to paragraphs referring to funding not keeping pace with demand and the needs of an ageing population.
An extract syaing NHS boards were strugling to achieve a financial balance was described as setting out an “unduly negative picture”.
Requests by officials for those paragraphs to be removed were rejected.
Mr Gray wrote to Audit Scotland to objected to the way the report’s authors referred to the passing on of £250 million from health boards to community health and social care services.
The auditors said that once this money was removed health boards had a 0.3 per cent real-terms budget cut.
Mr Gray said that description was “incorrect” and asked the report to give equal emphasis to the achievements and good practice which exists across the NHS in Scotland.
Shadow Health Secretary Miles Briggs said: “This is the behaviour of a control freak SNP government rattled by its own shortcomings. “If the SNP was as proud of its performance on the NHS as it claims, it would have let this report tell its own story. “Instead, in dozens of instances, ministers tried to meddle and have things changed. “That is utterly unacceptable, and shows the Scottish Government is uninterested in being accountable and transparent.” Labour health spokesperson Anas Sarwar said: “This is incredibly serious. A few weeks ago at First Minister’s Questions Nicola Sturgeon openly attacked Audit Scotland over its report on Scotland’s colleges.
“Now we know that wasn’t an outburst from an under-pressure politician but symptomatic of a culture in the SNP government of attacking Scotland’s independent financial watchdog.”
A Scottish Government spokeswoman said: “Audit Scotland is responsible for the content of its reports. As they have confirmed, it is normal practice for Audit Scotland to share draft reports in advance to allow the Scottish Government to provide comments or clarification on points of accuracy.”
An Audit Scotland spokeswoman said: “This report was subject to factual accuracy checking with the Scottish Government and NHS Scotland, in line with our usual processes. As with all our reports, any revisions are as a result of factual inaccuracies or evidence-based decisions by the audit team. These changes did not alter our independent conclusion that the NHS in Scotland faces major challenges as a result of rising demand and cost pressures.”