Why is a Scottish civil servant misrepresenting the evidence to his own committee and enabling media exaggeration?

The Holyrood Health and Sport Committee report, published today, featured widely in the Scottish media to suggest that the national system for the supply and demand of medicines was in a state of crisis. The committee is convened by Lewis MacDonald (Labour) and has a Unionist party majority of 5 to 4.

It would be wrong to name the civil servant here.

I have complained to him already about the choice of Professor Hugh Pennington, an anti-independence political activist, to give advice to the committee on the Scottish Government’s handling of the coronavirus epidemic in Scotland. I’ve had no answer.

I wrote to the secretary of the committee today to protest the misrepresentation of the evidence presented in the executive summary and the potential that gave for media to inaccurately characterise it as having serious problems when the evidence is not there for that view.

The Complaint:

 I write to complain about the Executive Summary, point 2, of the Health and Sport Committee report published on 30th June 2020 which misrepresented the evidence presented there and led to distorted media coverage:


2. Instead, the system is burdened by market forces, public sector administrative bureaucracyi and reported under resourcingii, inconsistent leadership and a lack of comprehensive, strategic thinking and imaginationiii, allied to an almost complete absence of useable dataiii.

Source i is a single letter from one Director of Pharmacy. It does not contain the words ‘market’ or ‘bureaucracy.’

Source ii is a single letter from one member of the Royal College of GPs (a trade union) in Scotland. There is no mention of ‘under resourcing’ or for that matter ‘under supply.’

Source iii is the report of a previous meeting of the same committee.

The words ‘inconsistent’, ‘leadership’, ‘comprehensive’ and ‘imagination’ do not appear nor does the phrase ‘strategic thinking.’ ‘Strategic’ does appear three times but anything that might suggest a general lack of thinking or planning comes from a single witness who does not seem to represent any wider body.

The word ‘useable’ does not appear. The word ‘data’ appears 63 times and on the first six occasions talks about how ‘we have good data.’ A few later references suggest improvements that would make things ‘easier’ but there is no suggestion of ‘almost complete absence of useable data.’

The executive summary key point 2 is fiction and the failure of a public servant to do his job.

Professor John Robertson



3 thoughts on “Why is a Scottish civil servant misrepresenting the evidence to his own committee and enabling media exaggeration?”

  1. It is really important that the reports of parliamentary committees retain public trust in their objectivity and evidential robustness. The present report from the committee convened by Lewis MacDonald is throwing up a number of questions on this score.

    When the contents of a report’s Executive Summary, its conclusions and recommendations are not subject to challenge when in draft problems can arise.

    Lack of challenge may be due to time pressures facing members of the group associated with producing the report. It may be due to the absence of an empowered, detached third party to act as an independent reviewer. It also tends to occur when there is NOT a direct ‘client’ commissioning the report.

    In such circumstances there is a danger that the lead authors of a report can get away with ‘cherry picking’ evidence and accord certain things (excessive?) emphasis. Also, certain (pejorative) language can be included, taken from what those consulted during primary research may have said, but then again giving this greater prominence than perhaps it deserves.

    Reports of parliamentary committees don’t have a third party client directly challenging – demanding evidence-based justification – of the key parts of the Executive Summary and conclusions of the draft report prior to publication. These reports may or may not be subject to ‘independent’ challenge prior to publication. And the time resources available, and/or the motivation, for scrutiny of a draft report’s text by ordinary committee members may be limited relative to those of the committee convenor/s.

    Only alert readers will even question what is published: should ‘journalists’ not be doing this on the public’s behalf, at least those journalists that work for the public service broadcaster?

    Liked by 2 people

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