18th February 2018
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Amenity trust chairman may be quizzed on openness

, by , in News, Public Affairs

Shetland Amenity Trust chairman Brian Gregson may be brought before Shetland Charitable Trust to answer claims that his organisation refuses to be open with the public.

Councillor Gary Robinson told attendees at yesterday morning’s charitable trust meeting that the amenity trust was continuing to deny requests for information, despite a recent public assurance from Mr Gregson that it was open and accountable. Mr Robinson said the charitable trust should reiterate to the bodies it funds that they are expected to at least abide by the spirit of the Freedom of Information (Scotland) Act 2002.

He also revealed unrest among amenity trust staff due to what they say is the “feudal” way their organisation is run and said the involvement of unions in the problem should give charitable trust trustees some indication of underlying problems in the amenity trust.

According to a letter from trade unions the GMB and Unison to the organisation’s management, which has been leaked to The Shetland Times, there is “very low” morale among many of the organisation’s workers who feel “demoralised on many fronts”.

It was sent to trust general manager Jimmy Moncrieff, Mr Gregson and vice-chairman George Sutherland on 28th October. It details concerns about the way disciplinary matters are handled and criticises management over a perceived lack of communication, inconsistencies and the placing of new work pressures on staff without consultation.

Mr Gregson said yesterday that he had “absolutely no comment to make” on private correspondence with staff, other than that “the issues raised in the letter have been addressed to mine, and I believe other people’s, satisfaction”.

Meanwhile, Mr Moncrieff has written to this newspaper confirming that the organisation is not able fully to respond to a request for information on trips undertaken by senior staff over the last five years. He has, however, provided some information on the nature of trips carried out by trust staff and launched a robust defence of the need for them to do so.

During yesterday’s meeting, Mr Robinson called for Mr Gregson to be asked to attend a charitable trust meeting to explain the situation with regard to information requests. Chairman Bill Manson said he would have “a chat” with him first rather than subject him to “a public inquisition”.

There was some support among trustees for an idea from Alastair Cooper that the charitable trust adds a new condition to its grant offers requiring the bodies it funds to abide by the FoI principles. But he did not want the rule agreed on the hoof before its implications, legal and practical, have been considered in a report.

Several councillor-trustees were keen to defend the amenity trust against what some perceived as an attack. In particular convener Sandy Cluness commended it for the marvellous projects it had brought to the community. But Mr Robinson said he agreed with the convener and was merely questioning how the trust was being run. He felt there was a need for a mechanism whereby if questions were asked they would be answered.

The Scottish government announced this week that it is to consult on extending the FoI Act to include bodies such as local authority trusts, which Mr Robinson said provided “a glimmer of hope” that the amenity trust might be forced to be more open. It received over two thirds of its £4.7 million funding from this community’s public funds in 2008/9.

Scottish information commissioner Kevin Dunion said this week: “The right to information is not an unreasonable burden. It needs to be accepted that where substantial sums of public money are being expended then the public should have the right to know. Freedom of information should follow the public pound.”

In their letter, members of the two trade unions at Garthspool appealed for talks with management to find a more constructive way forward and Unison representative Val Turner said the trust had now responded to their request.

The letter states: “It is common knowledge that to gain the best from staff, those staff must feel valued and part of the organisation. Neither of these things are felt at present to the detriment of the organisation.”

Over a year ago, union members requested a list of existing policies and new policies being considered relating to personnel issues, but they stated that “no progress has been volunteered by management”. “Staff are confused and uncertain to what policies exist and, in times of conflict, are uncertain what rules apply and what rules do not apply.”

The recent letter is believed to have been prompted in part by disquiet over the manner in which a member of staff – who subsequently decided to resign from the organisation – was treated over an alleged disciplinary matter.

The letter continues: “Without commenting upon the detail of any disciplinary hearings, staff are greatly concerned that the Trust is launching disciplinary actions as a ‘first course of action’ rather than a ‘last resort’. We would like to see a more inclusive and positive approach being taken by management with regard to disciplinary issues – which used to be the case within the trust.”

The unions stressed their desire to work with management to find a productive way forward.

Ms Turner said this week: “We’ve had a letter back from management, therefore it’s being dealt with and it’s a dead issue. It’s between the trustees and the staff and, as I say, it is being dealt with.”

In his reply to The Shetland Times, Mr Moncrieff said: “Compliance with the Freedom of Information Act imposes an onerous burden and that is why smaller organisations like our trust are not subject to its requirements. The trustees have considered [your] request that we voluntarily subject ourselves to Freedom of Information Act and I regret to advise you that we are unable to do this because of resource implications.”

We had requested basic details of every trip abroad undertaken by officers in the past five years. Mr Moncrieff said staff need to undertake such travel in order to attend conferences and meetings, study trips and transnational project meetings.

He said the trust had done a great deal to raise and promote Shetland’s profile and had been very successful in targeting EU funding worth nearly £10 million over the past five years. “Success in achieving this type of funding does involve foreign travel; it is an essential component of transnational working.”

Outlining in some detail the reasons why employees need to travel abroad from time to time, he said senior staff had attended a conference in Sardinia in October which he described as “a great opportunity to discuss heritage issues with like-minded professionals from around the world and view at first hand the stunning Sardinian Nuraghi”, which he said bore more than a passing resemblance to Shetland’s brochs and associated settlements.

He rejected councillor Robinson’s assertion that he had visited an award ceremony in Turkey earlier this year despite knowing the trust had not been successful, saying that the results were not known until the end of the ceremony.

Referring to four trust representatives travelling to Portugal as part of the organisation’s success in winning Geopark status earlier this year, he said: “It has been extremely hard work with a large number of staff involved in making our application a success. We would have liked to send more people to Portugal to hear the result, but restricted it to four. Continued attendance at EGN [European Geopark Network] meetings is obligatory, not optional, but in future representation will be more limited.”

About Neil Riddell

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