An NHS Highland director has been criticised for attempting to hide his salary of more than £155,000 a year.

The board’s public health director, Hugo van Woerden, repeatedly refused to disclose his salary in annual reports.

A Labour MSP said the lack of transparency was “unfortunate” while a Conservative MSP said the large salary calls into question NHS Highland’s financial management.

After a five month freedom of information battle with NHS Highland The Ferret can reveal that Woerden’s salary was between £155,000 and £160,000 in 2018-19.

This made him the second best paid of NHS Highland’s directors. Only medical director, Rod Harvey – who has now stepped down – earned more.

Woerden’s salary has increased by about 35 per cent since he took up his role in 2014-15, when he earned between £115,000 and £120,000.

The following year he earned £120,000-£125,000 and then his salary jumped to £150,000-£155,000 in 2016-17 – an increase of at least 20 per cent in a single year.

We examined the annual reports of ten other Scottish NHS boards and found that every other NHS director openly declares their salary.

The Ferret reported in March 2019 that payments to the chief executive of NHS Highland rose by seven per cent in four years to £135,000 or over in 2018. Payments to senior medical, nursing, financial and human resources directors also increased while they made severe cuts to services.

NHS Highland reduced spending by £35 million in 2017-18 and planned a cut of £51 million in 2018-19. It is now enacting cuts to care for the elderly, hospital provision in Caithness and Skye and an Inverness-based autism service.

Pay rises for NHS bosses while Highlands faces ‘unprecedented’ health cuts

Senior employees’ pay is governed by Scottish Government rules which are implemented by a remuneration committee of NHS Highland board members.

Woerden’s counterpart at NHS Grampian and NHS Shetland, Susan Webb, currently earns significantly less than Woerden – between £95,000 and £100,000.

When The Ferret requested details of Woerden’s salary in early March, NHS Highland responded by sending a copy of their accounts, which did not include the salary.

When asked again, it said Woerden was “paid on the normal consultant terms and conditions that apply to all doctors in Scotland”.

When asked a third time, the public body claimed that it could not reveal Woerden’s salary as it was personal data.

The Ferret then asked for his salary within a £5,000 range and it provided the information. Extracting the information took 74 working days – 54 more than permitted under freedom of information law.

Carole Ewart, convener of the Campaign for Freedom of Information in Scotland, described the delay as “disappointing”.

She said: “There is a duty under freedom of information law to pro-actively publish information and we would like to see that power used more often as it avoids the need for freedom of information requests to be submitted in the first place.”

It is unfortunate that this information was withheld for so long. David Stewart, Labour MSP

Scottish Labour’s shadow health minister and Highlands and Islands MSP, David Stewart, said: “It’s important that health authorities operate in a transparent and open way and it is unfortunate that this information was withheld for so long.”

Stewart added that he would be raising this issue when NHS Highland’s chief executive is due to appear before Holyrood’s health and sport committee on 3 September.

Conservative Highlands and Islands MSP, Edward Mountain, said: “Obtaining this information appears to have been very difficult and that is disappointing. Freedom of information requests must be treated with more openness and transparency.”

The salary was “incredibly large”, he added. “This further questions the financial management of the health board, which overspent its budget by £17 million in the last financial year”.

The executive director of the High Pay Centre, Luke Hildyard, also expressed concern about the lack of transparency.

Hildyard pointed out that Woerden was in the top one per cent of earners even before his 35 per cent pay increase. “Would the NHS really fall apart if it were less willing to cave in to the pay demands of its top executives?” he asked.

Under its previous chief executive, NHS Highland was widely criticised for alleged weak financial management, a “dysfunctional” executive culture and bullying.

Following these scandals chief executive, Elaine Mead, stepped down and was replaced by Iain Stewart in January 2019.

Safety fears over threat to Highland autism service

A spokesperson for NHS Highland said: “The NHS operates to nationally agreed pay scales and professor van Woerden is paid within these Scottish Government guidelines.”

“Before a public sector organisation can divulge personal information about an individual’s salary, it legally has to obtain their approval. Professor van Woerden wanted to protect his family and keep this information private for personal reasons.”

The spokesperson added: “Regarding the reported criticisms of NHS Highland, it is well documented that the health board has made a number of changes and is working closely with our partners and the Scottish Government to deal with these issues effectively.”

A Scottish Government spokesperson said: “The Scottish Government is committed to supporting transparency in published information however this is a matter for individual health boards and their employees. Where information includes personal details, such as salary, individuals can object to its disclosure under the European Union General Data Protection Regulation.”

Freedom of information response from NHS Highland

Cover photo thanks to NHS Highland.

Leave a Reply