Director’s report to AGM

Internal governance

2013 was, objectively speaking, quite a good year for the Association. Membership numbers continued to grow.  Our online presence developed.  Our relationship with the Labour health team and with the main health unions was friendly and constructive.  Despite the difficult financial situation we managed to make a small financial surplus.  Our subscription continues at the rate we set in 2001.  The Labour Party’s health policy continues to develop in the direction we want to see.

But for me the year was difficult.  It was plain that for some members of Central Council I was seen to be an obstruction which needed to be dealt with. Meetings of the Council became absorbed by acrimonious discussion about internal processes.   I found myself and the officers repeatedly attacked in social media.  One of the officers refused to talk to me for six months. Another tells me I have “been dabbling in areas that a paid employee should not be dealing with”. Working groups were set up which excluded me from their discussions.

I am deeply grateful to the officers, most of the members of Central Council and particularly to Richard Bourne and Brian Fisher for their unstinting support during this difficult period, and I hope, as a result of their tireless and exhausting efforts, that we are beginning to see a way forward.  I hope that the Annual General Meeting, and the contested elections, the first we have had for some years, will provide a new and firmer foundation.

It does not appear to me that our disagreements have been fundamentally about politics.  We have, without too much difficulty, agreed a series of policy statements which most members are happy with.  The difficulties are more about how we behave to each other, about how people see the Association, and, given that I am often the public face of the Association, about how I behave.  I am no longer confident that I understand what Central Council wants me to do and I have therefore deliberately taken a lower profile.

In November a Governance group was established.  It has just produced a report which recommends a long list of amendments to our constitution and procedures.  I’m afraid to me it feels like a gigantic vote of no confidence in me and the existing officers.  What is proposed is a system of detailed and unrealistic supervision of everything I do by the elected officers and a profusion of bureaucracy which would make the Association unviable.  The report contains a Risk Assessment and Assurance Framework produced without any input from anyone who actually is concerned with the running of the organisation.   The most pressing risk identified is the fact that the SHA is an unincorporated association.  They do not consider the fact that we have been in this state for the last 84 years without any of the risks they envisage ever having been threatened.  Nor do they produce any estimate of the costs of incorporation, which would be considerable. Their proposals are so cumbersome they would simply stifle the operational effectiveness of the SHA.

This is a very small unincorporated association with very limited resources.  Most of our money is spent on my salary.  I am employed for 28 hours a week.  I am very happy, indeed anxious, for more guidance about what I should be doing from the members, but I don’t think it is appropriate for me to spend most of my time demonstrating compliance with the constitution.  There must be a clear understanding of the differences between governance and management. The Governance Report blurs that distinction. At best it is a governance framework for an organisation with a much larger resource base.  It would demand commitments of time and energy from the elected officers which are completely unreasonable.

The relentless focus on internal matters is inhibiting the work and progress of the SHA, and preventing me doing my job in the way that it needs to be done. It is driving away good people whose talents we should be harnessing.  Our strength is that we are small, light and quick on our feet.  We punch above our weight precisely because we are not burdened with regulatory systems which slow down other bigger and more powerful organisations. Whilst we squabble with each other the NHS and Social Care are burning around us, and in that we are in danger of failing the people who rely most upon those services.  This is not what our members want us to be doing.

There will be a General Election in 15 months. I’d like an agreement about how will we spend that time. Picking at our open wounds? Or getting out there and campaigning for a better future?  I think we have opportunities opening up to make health into an important political issue.

I cannot end this report without thanking Gavin Ross and Huw Davies, both of whom have been quietly pillars of stability for a long time.  I am deeply grateful to both of them for their support.