Salmond defends Health Secretary in row on mental health provision

Scots First Minister Alex Salmond has come to the defence of Health Secretary, Alex Neil, claiming calls for his resignation were “ridiculous”.

Labour leader Johann Lamont had called for Mr Neil to resign or be sacked over his involvement in controversial changes to mental health services in his own constituency.

Yesterday, Mr Neil came under fire during First Minister’s Questions at Holyrood when Ms Lamont accused him of misleading Parliament over plans to remove acute mental health beds at Monklands Hospital in Airdrie and Shotts in 2012.

She said new information obtained by Labour under Freedom of Information legislation shows Mr Neil intervened in the decision-making process upon becoming Health Secretary, before stepping back and handing responsibility for the matter to his deputy the Public Health Minister, citing concerns over a “conflict of interests”.

She asked Alex Salmond on four occasions to state whether Mr Neil would resign, or be sacked from his post.

“In 2012 the then Health Secretary Nicola Sturgeon proposed changes to mental health services in Lanarkshire,” Mr Lamont said.

“They were opposed by her Cabinet colleague and local MSP Alex Neil.

“She addressed his concerns and the professional medical advice was that the changes should go ahead.

“When Alex Neil became Health Secretary in September 2012, he ordered that the changes be reversed against medical and patient opinion.

“He then deceived this Parliament and deceived the people of Scotland by saying he would take no part in the decision he had already made.

“If Alex Neil won’t resign for deceiving Parliament, will the First Minister sack him?”

Mr Salmond said Ms Lamont had made herself and her party look “ridiculous” with her repeated calls for Mr Neil’s resignation or dismissal.

“Labour’s interest in mental health in Lanarkshire isn’t anything to do with the patients, it is just an argument to try and get at an SNP minister,” he said.

Ms Lamont recounted a timeline of events from 2012.

She said that on September 26, following Mr Neil’s appointment as Health Secretary a few weeks earlier on September 5, his office sent an email stating: “Mr Neil is clear in his view that acute mental health services should be retained in both Wishaw and Monklands.

“The Cabinet Secretary has asked that you seek agreement with NHS Lanarkshire to reconfigure their plans accordingly,” she said.

“With that order he reversed Nicola Sturgeon’s policy, made on the advice of medical professionals and backed by patients.

“He then told this chamber, the head of the NHS, and the civil service that he would absent himself from a decision on these services, even although Alex Neil had already made a decision.”

Mr Salmond said: “I looked at this issue on February 14, 2013. I gave a substantial reply to (Labour MSP Siobhan McMahon) the MSP who raised it with me, in terms of her request as to whether Alex Neil was in breach of the ministerial code.”

He said Mr Neil had agreed on September 26 with the director general of health and social care Derek Feeley that all matters related to mental health services at Monklands Hospital should be dealt with by the Public Health Minister. Mr Feeley informed the Permanent Secretary Sir Peter Housden the following day.

“That is exactly how ministers should behave under these circumstances,” Mr Salmond said.

“I looked at the issue carefully last year. I came to the conclusion Mr Neil had acted perfectly properly. I replied in these terms to the member concerned.

“If Johann Lamont wants to look at that reply and acknowledge the sequence of events, she will see that reply is validated by the evidence.”

A Scottish Government spokesman said: “The First Minister formally considered Mr Neil’s involvement in the changes to mental health services in Lanarkshire in February 2013 and concluded that Mr Neil had acted properly.

“After his appointment to Health Secretary, Mr Neil wished to review a number of key decisions, including these proposals. This is entirely legitimate for a new Cabinet Secretary when he or she comes into post.

“To avoid any conflict of interest, Mr Neil arranged for any decisions on the reform of mental health services in NHS Lanarkshire to be taken by Minister for Public Health, Michael Matheson.”

A spokesman for the First Minister said the email sent from Mr Neil’s office related to three hospitals serving the whole of Lanarkshire.

“We are talking about things that go well beyond (Mr Neil’s constituency). You have got to, as Health Secretary, be able to make decisions about health boards as whole,” he said.

Mr Neil later told ITV Border that the claims against him are “absolutely nonsense”.

“I won’t be resigning, absolutely not,” he said.