Chapter Ten: Effectiveness of North Lanarkshire Council and NHS Lanarkshire Responses
Review of activity
10.1 North Lanarkshire Council submitted a timeline of events relating to media enquiries, communications with unions, information issued to parents and staff and meetings around the situation at the schools between 14 November 2018 and 5 July 2019. During this time, over 100 events are recorded demonstrating the intense activity the situation was creating for their communications staff, and managers in education and environmental protection services.
10.2 The public meeting on 6 June 2019 was a turning point for relationships with the schools' communities, with public officials unprepared for the level of aggression towards them. Accordingly, being called "a liar", "a disgrace to the medical profession" could not be dealt with appropriately. The majority of media enquiries to North Lanarkshire Council followed this meeting.
10.3 After this same public meeting, Scottish Government communications team were also involved in responding to queries. Between 8 June and 27 June they record six different media enquiries. This reflects the level to which the situation on the ground had become of wider media interest and was posing a considerable burden on local officials to manage.
10.4 In response to the public concerns following the public meeting on 6 June, NHS Lanarkshire provided GPs with a phone number for patients to call if they had further queries about the issues that were causing concern and needed more time with someone to discuss them. As of 25 June 2019, the public health team had received 66 calls from people with links to the schools. Putting this in context, this equates to less than 4% of past and present site users.
10.5 Although issues arose well before 2018, we make a number of observations on the effectiveness of the North Lanarkshire Council response and confidence in North Lanarkshire Council and NHS Lanarkshire.
10.6 The public are entitled to expect that such agencies provide an appropriate response to issues of the safety and health of those working and being taught at the campus. We recognise that communication by public authorities with all concerned is a key part of the necessary response to public concerns of the nature of those arising here. We recognise that there exists a lack of confidence and loss of confidence in North Lanarkshire Council and NHS Lanarkshire.
10.7 Restoring such confidence over the period ahead will be an essential component of a Recovery Plan, requiring those bodies to set out what steps they intend to take to do so.
10.8 We should firstly say that in our view that in some respects this loss of confidence and certain criticisms have been unfair on the public bodies and their officials, in the passion that this issue has caused.
10.9 This is unfair, in a number of ways since:
- as recognised above, this is a virtually unique set of circumstances where there are no guidelines to address understandable fears and concerns in a social media driven world unknown until very recent times.
- the "rules of engagement" do not apply equally to social media commentators and public bodies alike. We give a specific example below to illustrate this but one of the bigger issues is the constraint that properly applies to public bodies on issues such as medical patient confidentiality. That very obviously is a central issue here, but NHS Lanarkshire cannot counter social media speculation about health concerns about individuals without risking breaching such rules. Into the vacuum created, comments on social media will occupy the space. Although, North Lanarkshire Council promoted Facebook posts and use of video.
- it seems clear to us that public officials have behaved professionally throughout and worked tirelessly to seek to address and resolve the issues arising here. They too – beyond question – placed the health and safety of those using the campus at the heart of what they did. As we note in this Report, the health responses have been fully appropriate in light of the information presented to the public health department. We should record the professionalism displayed by those officials, but recognise that these are not textbook circumstances.
- tied with that, we have been struck by the extent to which officials at North Lanarkshire Council and NHS Lanarkshire have been criticised for commenting, not commenting, commenting too soon, commenting too late, saying too much or not saying enough. Any perceived inaccuracy or failing was seized upon by some as evidence of conspiracy, complacency, cover up, incompetence, arrogance, lack of empathy.
- Some have said that they were not trying hard enough to find the cause (having ruled out the presence of unacceptable levels of toxic contaminants) but we question how fair is that, in light of what we say in Chapter 7.
- on the inequality of expectations, the criticism of Mrs Douglas's article in the Sunday Herald felt to us unfair on the basis that everyone else is free to comment on social media but if she comments defending actions taken to support the school, she finds herself criticised and misquoted.
- some parents made the understandable point that – whether because they were new to the area or had children attending following placing requests – the fact that the site was on a former landfill site was unexpected and unpleasant news to them. We see that point and understand that feeling (which we seek to address in our recommendations) but it feels an unreasonable suggestion that North Lanarkshire Council should have highlighted to every prospective parent the history concerned. We think that doing so runs the risk of being the opposite of reassuring.
10.10 That said, we consider that:
- North Lanarkshire Council were both too slow and too defensive in their response, especially on blue water, allowing foreseeable problems of confidence to arise. As we set out in Chapter 6, these should have been recognised and escalated earlier.
- circumstances here give rise to questions or indeed a dilemma for public authorities in their strategic approach to maintaining public confidence, in the communications strategy and in how they work towards a recovery plan.
- North Lanarkshire Council were faced with a set of issues that individually did not breach standards but collectively generated huge public concern. There may be wider lessons from this situation on appropriate inter-agency responses.
- more locally at this site, a degree of disconnect and disengagement from parents, staff and unions has arisen and there is a sense of lack of willingness to engage with fully effective site management.
- NHS Lanarkshire failed to maintain and secure public confidence in the advice to GPs for heavy metal testing. We heard very consistently about perceptions that GPs had been ordered not to test patients. This was not so, based on what was published by them, but such mis-perceptions were not successfully countered. Accordingly, we question whether NHS Lanarkshire could have been more proactive to reassure parents.
Review of Relationship between North Lanarkshire Council and unions
10.11 In addition, we were acutely conscious of the backdrop in our work of the longstanding relationship between North Lanarkshire Council and unions representing teaching and other staff at both schools. We note a particular but important issue at paragraph 6.46 in early 2019 but equally accept that in the period after that a high level of engagement occurred with the EIS, SSTA and NASUWT.
10.12 We met in the course of our Review with representatives both of NASUWT and the EIS.
10.13 We are aware of the decision made by NASUWT to ballot and call strike action at Buchanan High shortly before the end of term and that similar balloting took place amongst NASUWT staff at St Ambrose. We were present on site when the decision was made to close Buchanan High early and saw with our own eyes how difficult and sensitive a matter that was for all involved.
10.14 This is a complex issue and we recognise the importance of relations with a range of unions, not just those we met. We are very clear that we make no comment or judgement of either side involved in that industrial action. We recognise that relationships between employers and unions representing the interests of their staff can sometimes get difficult.
10.15 We were concerned that no members of staff – union members or otherwise – would feel inhibited from contributing to our Review for any concern about the implications for their job.
10.16 For that reason, we wrote to North Lanarkshire Council on 27 June seeking assurances that any such contributions made in good faith would enjoy no detriment protection, as if made under whistleblowing protection (copying that letter to relevant unions).
10.18 We wrote as it had seemed to us that there may have been a reluctance from some to come forward with their concerns. This was encountered by the public health team when they sought to interview members of staff with cancer at Buchanan High School. Only after the public meeting and with the encouragement of their union, did the fifth member of staff contact the public health team at NHS Lanarkshire. We are though assured from North Lanarkshire Council's reply of 5 August on the steps taken by them to ensure no negative implications would arise for any members of staff engaging with the Review
10.19 We note two other matters concerning the relationship between unions and North Lanarkshire Council:
- The difficulties in communications on the blue water concerns (noted at paragraph 6.46)
- An issue regarding the claimed discontinuation of the North Lanarkshire Council Health and Safety Committee following an internal re-organisation where the EIS called for its re-instatement, which North Lanarkshire Council – when put to them – North Lanarkshire Council advised that not to be the case.
Reflections from Review
10.20 In reviewing the escalation in media interest which grew as worries about the site increased and more questions were being asked of North Lanarkshire Council and NHS Lanarkshire, we considered a number of reports on good practice in relation to risk communication with the public around the issues identified at the schools in particular around cancer clusters and contaminated land.
10.21 The SNIFFER guidance is clear with regards to contaminated land issues that public meetings are not helpful. Far better is to provide small groups of people to engage with experts in places of their choosing. The review team took this approach in designing the face-to-face meetings we had with parents, pupils and staff. Our aim was to enable people to air their concerns in ways they felt safe.
10.22 A paper in the American Journal of Public Health submitted to us from HPS describes the importance of acknowledging the human dimension in cancer cluster investigations. The authors encourage public health professionals to embrace a two-way communication with community members and value them as important resources for the investigation.
10.23 The combination of the events clearly created huge alarm for parents, pupils and staff in the two schools affected. There has been wider anxiety throughout the local community and beyond. Quite understandably, these fears generate lots of questions that need answers. This has placed a heavy load on public officials particularly in the light of the uniquely complex and sensitive nature of the situation:
- Two high schools including one for children with additional support needs
- A former landfill site
- Social media
- Mainstream media with a close interest
- Distrust in North Lanarkshire Council
- Historical opposition to the locating of the school at the site in 2012
- Seven years after its opening, fewer parents and staff aware of its history
- Blue water concerns lasting years
- Settlement of the building
10.24 Recognising this situation was getting out of hand could at the very least have generated a call for a Problem Assessment Group for the various parties to come together to assess where they could provide answers quickly and reliably to address concerns. If actions taken by this group were not meeting the demands of the situation, it is possible to step up an Incident Team in relation to a public health risk if "high media interest" is expected. There appears not to have been consideration of stepping up these responses when handling the situation on the ground.
10.25 Using these mechanisms of response would have helped the agencies to consider and communicate contingency arrangements in a timely fashion and begin to plan for recovery sooner than has been the case.
10.26 These reflections cause us to consider how, going forward, confidence can be restored and how in a participative way, the local – and indeed – wider community with a vital interest in the school can be engaged, connected, listened to and can influence future site management. The aim of this would be to give confidence in the next steps by North Lanarkshire Council and minimise the risk of relations deteriorating and risking a repeat of recent experiences.
10.27 We consider that there is a role here both for North Lanarkshire Council and those who have been so vocal thus far in raising concerns. We think they were right to do so but the point has now in our view been reached where those people have been listened to. The opportunity now exists for them to influence.
10.28 We consider therefore, tied with other essential steps in relation the presence of PCBs in pit HP50 and the continued work needed on water quality, that in conjunction and consultation with parent councils, unions, staff based on the campus across Buchanan, St Ambrose and Townhead Community Centre, North Lanarkshire Council establish a fully participative Site Recovery Group chaired by an independent expert designed to further that goal.
This Group should include and create:
- a commitment to publish an annual assessment of relevant site monitoring reports (water, internal and external maintenance and the monitoring of the integrity of the gas methane membrane)
- a commitment to the preparation of annual assessment relevant site monitoring reports
- an open channel for concerns to be raised by any stakeholder regarding the well-being of those on the campus
10.29 We would envisage it comprising a range of members from representatives from parent councils, staff (including community centre), unions, pupils, parent groups, community councillors, local faith leaders, as well as public officials.
10.30 The precise remit, size and method of operation of such a group is not for us, not least because of the key influencing role in its establishment for parent councils, unions and staff and pupils based on the campus.
10.31 Nevertheless, we tentatively suggest that the following could be worthy of consideration-
- We see a potential role not just for parents and staff but respected external experts with credibility participating in central roles in the Group;
- Reflecting the constructive role looking forward, we consider that local MSPs having an interest can play an important role;
- That this Group could consider arrangements to signpost people to where they can find answers to their questions – such as public health phone number for health issues, maintenance team for faults they see at the school, occupational health phone number for staff to make appointments;
- If taken forward (see paragraphs 5.36 to 5.40, and paragraph 8.29), undertake temperature, humidity and carbon dioxide monitoring when the school is re-opened to assess indoor air quality;
- Inclusion of provision of whether and how the Group would be brought to an end, at the appropriate time;
- That the Group should have a direct line into North Lanarkshire Council Health and Safety Committee to raise any issues they feel relevant.