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Call for full probe into “shocking” reports that NHS Tayside bosses dipped charity funds to plug ailing finances

Former NHS Tayside chief executive Lesley McLay.
Former NHS Tayside chief executive Lesley McLay.

The Health Secretary has been urged to launch an urgent investigation into “truly shocking” reports that NHS Tayside dipped charity funds to plug their ailing finances.

The cash-strapped health board plundered money usually spent on patient comforts such as children’s toys or day rooms to bankroll a new computer system after running out of funds.

Dundee-based MSP Jenny Marra accused health board bosses of presiding over a “culture of fiddles”.

Health chiefs used at least £2.71 million from an endowment fund cash pot, made up of donations from members of the public or bequests in wills.

NHS Tayside is already the subject of scrutiny from the public audit committee after their beleaguered finance director suddenly retired in the wake of a new cash crisis.

Around £5.3 million of eHealth funding was misreported in the health board’s accounts making it appear that the deficit was smaller than it really was.

It has now emerged that £2.3 million of the plundered charity cash was used to replenish eHealth funding they had already raided.

Papers reveal NHS Tayside was “faced with a funding deficit” in 2013/14, and the trustees of the endowment fund “were asked to retrospectively fund projects already approved by the [health board]” by £2.71m.

Although this is banned under the terms of the health board’s own rules, bosses suspended their constitution for one month to push the move through.

Current chief executive Lesley McLay was in charge at the time and is understood to have sat in the meeting where this was signed off.

“Shocking claims”

Opposition politicians have called on Health Secretary Shona Robison, who represents the Dundee City East area at Holyrood, to get involved.

Labour health spokesman Anas Sarwar MSP said: “These are truly shocking claims that will stun the public in Tayside and beyond.”

He added: “That an NHS health board in the 21st century is having to effectively prop itself up with charitable donations given in good faith is simply outrageous.

“SNP Health Secretary Shona Robison has repeatedly ignored the crisis at NHS Tayside, despite it being in her own backyard.

“Her head-in-the-sand incompetence cannot go on any longer. She must launch an urgent investigation into the apparent misuse of these donations. Anything less would be an insult to those who have given money and would undermine public confidence in our health service.”

Dundee-based Labour MSP Jenny Marra said: ” I believe this is a huge breach of trust with the people of Tayside who raise money in good faith for patients’ comfort, not for computer systems. That’s what we pay our taxes for.

“There is now a culture of fiddles at NHS Tayside to try to find a way out of the financial mess.

“We need leadership at Ninewells with a plan to make our local health services fit for years into the future, not management and a board who are prepared to use charitable donations to make the books look better.”

Less than a week ago, NHS chief executive Paul Gray told MSPs he expected NHS Tayside would require further brokerage from the government of between £9 and £12 million.

Meanwhile a review carried out by accountants Grant Thornton found that since 2012 the health board had “misrepresented” its financial performance by “holding” £5.3 million that had been allocated by the Scottish Government for eHealth initiatives.

“Public will be appalled”

Liberal Democrat health spokesman Alex Cole-Hamilton said: “There have been major question marks over financial management in NHS Tayside for some time.

“The Health Secretary must meet with the health board immediately to reassure the public and ensure that a plan is put in place to get NHS Tayside back on track.

“Generous members of the public will be appalled to think that their donations to the endowment fund were being used to plug gaps elsewhere.”

Professor John Connell, chairman of NHS Tayside, said: “These proposals totalling £2.38 million were not for back office IT systems but covered new, patient-facing approaches.

NHS Tayside chief executive Lesley McLay and chairman John Connell.

“These included electronic referral and booking systems allowing GPs, dentists and opticians to directly refer into consultant and specialist colleagues, new telehealth video technology for patients, and the development of a mobile system which allows GPs, clinicians and district nurses to access and update patient records securely from inside people’s own homes.”

He added: “Endowment funds are extremely important to NHS Tayside as they support a range of purposes in our hospitals and communities, such as the purchase of items to improve patient care, the enhancement of healthcare environments, additional staff training, funding to support research and, critically, support for innovation to improve service provision or care.

“We know that many patients and families raise funds and make donations to wards and services and we are very grateful for these additional funds.

“There is a process to ensure that these valued funds are used appropriately, with all funding applications considered by an Endowment Advisory Group and the annual accounts of the Endowment Fund subject to annual external audit.”

A spokeswoman for Scottish charity regulator OSCR said it would “consider” the case.

NHS Tayside statement

In a statement, NHS Tayside said: “All funding applications are considered by an Endowment Advisory Group, to support a range of purposes, such as the purchase of items to improve patient care, additional staff training, funding to support research, to enhance the healthcare environment and, critically, support for innovation to improve service provision or care.

“The annual accounts of the Tayside Health Fund are subject to annual external audit.

“The eHealth application in 2013/14 was for a range of pilot programmes which were leading in the field of eHealth in the NHS in Scotland at that time.

“These programmes and systems were supporting change and innovation in patient care and were endorsed by clinical leads.

“The Board of Trustees, led by former chairman of NHS Tayside, Mr Sandy Watson, approved this application as part of a number of proposals that were recommended by the Endowment Advisory Group for retrospective support.”

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