Updated Monday, July 3, 2023
Health chiefs spied on Jackie Baillie and Anas Sarwar after they raised concerns about scandal-hit hospital
Scotland’s Labour Party leaders Jackie Baillie and Anas Sarwar were spied on by Health Board.
SPECIAL REPORT by Bill Heaney
Health Board chiefs spent thousands of pounds spying on Scottish Labour leader Anas Sarwar after he raised concerns about a scandal-hit hospital.
NHS Greater Glasgow and Clyde (NHSGGC) paid £15,000 a year to a company with links to Cambridge Analytica to monitor three opposition MSPs.
The Sunday Mail last month revealed how the health board had spied on widow Louise Slorance and posts about her late husband after she criticised NHSGGC over his care.
Louise, a mum of three, has been fighting for answers since discovering Andrew had contracted an infection while waiting for a stem cell transplant at the Queen Elizabeth University Hospital.
Now a series of Freedom of Information requests – the method so often used by the Health Board and the Holyrood government for cover-ups – has revealed the extent of the health board’s online spying operation.
All three have been heavily critical of NHSGGC in the wake of the scandals which have emerged about the £842 million QEUH and potential links between the building and infections in cancer patients, said to have been caused by a contaminated water supply and pigeon droppings in the wards.
Sarwar said: “This is yet another astonishing revelation from this scandal-ridden health board.
“Our NHS is at breaking point, but NHSGGC is spending taxpayer money spying on their own staff, bereaved families and on politicians raising concerns.
“This health board’s leadership have shown time and time again that they are not willing to take responsibility for the awful tragedies that occurred on their watch.
“They will go to any lengths to try and cover up their catastrophic failures – they need to go.”
The board was also monitoring SNP MSP Stuart McMillan who has commented positively on the NHS’s work in his constituency of Inverclyde and Greenock.
It later extended its spying operation to all West of Scotland MSPs including Humza Yousaf and Nicola Sturgeon.
McMillan has now contacted NHSGGC to ask why they were spying on him and said he was concerned about the board’s communications operation.
He said: “As an elected member, I expect a level of scrutiny on my social media, but it seems strange for a public body to be doing this proactively. I have written to NHSGCC for clarity on why monitoring was taking place.
“For some time, I have raised what I perceive to be deficiencies within NHSGGC engagement and communication strategy.
“Following these latest revelations, I will once again push for answers on these concerns.”
NHSGGC also confirmed it was monitoring three of its own staff with their permission as well as one member of the public – Louise Slorance.
Since the scandal became public the health board said that it had now removed all individual accounts from its social listening activities. It still monitors dozens of phrases and words mentioned online, including “stress”, “Glasgow” and “QEUH” and “menopause”.
NHSGGC said: “We can confirm that when the system was set up there were four accounts included, all of whom were frequent commentators about NHSGGC.
“These were the public social media accounts of Anas Sarwar, Jackie Baillie, [Inverclyde SNP MSP] Stuart McMillan and [Labour’s] Paul O’Kane.
“On further review we have removed all individuals from our automated social media monitoring including politicians.”
The health board confirmed it had been paying private firm Meltwater £15,000 a year since April 20222 to keep track of what is being said about the organisation online.
It said: “It would be very costly and resource-intensive for us to have an overview of all conversations taking place on social media about NHSGGC manually.
“Social listening software enables an organisation to automate monitoring of social media content related to its activities and track these over time to establish public opinion trends.
“It is entirely legal and all social platforms have terms and conditions that social listening services must adhere to.
“Such software only monitors content which is publicly and freely available. It does not access social media accounts that have been marked by the owner/author as private.
“A limited number of the NHSGGC communications team are able to access an online dashboard to review interactions, mentions and posts about our organisation and services, based on a range of defined search terms.
“An automated notification in relation to set search terms is sent to members of the team on a daily basis.”
At NHSGGC’s board meeting last week Labour councillor Martin McCluskey, a board member, said many had been “appalled to find out what we had done and what we are doing”.
Chief executive Jane Grant, pictured right, with retiring chairman John Brown, said the spying against Louise was an “isolated incident” which was “complex and fast-moving” and there had been “legal issues” involving the company conducting the spying which had slowed down their response.
She said: “We have learned a lot of lessons here about pace and the need to be incredibly sensitive towards patients and families who have been bereaved.”
But Louise said: “The person responsible for this spying declared war against a family who were also asking questions. She is still in post.
“Jane Grant can try to explain this sorry episode away but it speaks to the whole toxic culture at NHSGGC.”
Meanwhile, the lead lawyer for the public inquiry, Alastair Duncan KC., pictured left, has left his post as counsel to the Scottish Hospitals Inquiry on Friday along with counsel Victoria Arnott.
They were responsible for interviewing and questioning witnesses during months of public hearings, with their departure coming as a surprise to the legal profession. Both were appointed in September 2020 and inquiry officials confirmed they are now looking for replacements.
One senior lawyer said they did not know why the pair had left but said: “It wasn’t a planned thing and that tells me it’s for a very serious reason.
“Alastair Duncan was the lead counsel and is a thorough and well-respected professional who wouldn’t just leave something so important.
“He wouldn’t have left the inquiry unless absolutely necessary and Victoria Arnott would have been loyal to him and left as well I suspect.”
A statement on the inquiry website reads: “Alastair Duncan KC and Victoria Arnott have stepped down from the Inquiry’s counsel team following the completion of their work on the recent hearing on the Queen Elizabeth University Hospital.
Yesterday Renfrewshire Council deputy leader Jacqueline Cameron branded reporting of the scandals at NHS Greater Glasgow and Clyde “dangerous”.
Cameron, who sits on the health board, made the unprompted intervention at a meeting last week, saying she was “frustrated” to see reports about its communications team, which is led by Sandra Bustillo.
Cameron said: “I wanted to reflect on media stories about the communications team. I have watched these stories unfold with frustration… I wanted to thank [communications director] Sandra [Bustillo], pictured right, and the team for the really important work they do.
“These media stories are mischievous at the least and quite dangerous. I imagine morale is pretty low so I just want to say as a board member that I absolutely value the important work you do.”
Meanwhile, Jackie Baillie MSP is leading a call for public authorities to cut back on spin doctoring.
Scottish Labour has accused the SNP government of the ‘wrong priorities’, as the party can reveal the £8.5 million bill for health spin across the country’s health boards and the Scottish Government – with the figure for health boards alone rising by almost £1 million in only a year.
The cost of spin across all 14 territorial and 8 special health boards have been released to Scottish Labour through Freedom of Information legislation and outline eye-watering figures of almost £7.5 million.
Those employed within the Scottish Government communications department with duties involving the health and social care portfolio also carry a wage bill of over £1 million across almost 37 whole time equivalent staff.
These figures for healthcare spin are also likely to be an underestimate as they are based on the lowest points within pay bands and do not take account of staff who are at higher levels within their pay bandings.
The headline stats include five health boards with bills of over £500,000 and almost £118,000 for three staff members at The State Hospital where there are just 140 beds.
Picture of Sandra Bustillo from her social media account on Facebook.
Legends in their own lunchtime – Working and socialising together, communications officers from West Dunbartonshire Council and Greater Glasgow and Clyde Health Board. Amanda Graham, head of comms for West Dunbartonshire, is seated at the table top left. Picture from Linked In on social media.