I shall not be sorry if I never have another week like last week. The decision of the council to remove its chief executive with a payoff has caused a reaction among the Shetland population of the sort that I have never encountered in my time as Member of Parliament.
I have said before that the council in Shetland occupies an even more dominant position than it would in any other community. There cannot be many homes in the isles which do not have a family member whose livelihood depends on it in some way or another. That means that it has particular responsibilities to act fairly and in accordance with the rules. The consequences of failing to do so can be particularly harsh for anyone on the wrong end of it.
In almost nine years as Member of Parliament I have always sought as far as possible to stay out of council business. You elect councillors to take care of council business. Obviously there can often be an overlap of interests and it is in the best interests of the community that we should be able to work together when the occasion demands. Refraining from commenting on council business usually makes that relationship easier.
Sometimes, however, that is just not possible and that was the situation in which I found myself last week. I do not find it easy to criticise publicly people with whom I have worked closely and for whom I have always held a substantial measure of respect, but I did not agree with the decision that was taken and there was no point in pretending otherwise.
Last week was not an isolated incident but rather the culmination of a series of events. I first became concerned about the way that things were being run in the council last September when the post of assistant chief executive was “deleted” without the necessary procedures being followed. It was suggested at the time that this was a staffing matter and nothing more. I had little difficulty in reaching the view that this was more than a staffing matter and was in fact a failure of council procedures.
I remain of that view today and wonder how different things might be today if my suggestion of outside assistance had been followed at that stage.
There is a need now for the council to draw a line under this sorry episode and to move on. That is not the same thing as sweeping it all under the carpet and pretending that it never happened. There will, I hope, be some external scrutiny of how the council’s procedures were allowed to fail in this way, most likely by the Scottish government body charged with auditing local authority expenditure. Bringing a measure of stability back to the council, however, cannot wait for that to happen. The immediate priority should be to get an interim chief executive in post as soon as possible – someone who can restore the council’s reputation and who by ensuring that rules are obeyed in the future will start the work of ensuring that we never end up in this position again.
Alistair Carmichael MP