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An Edinburgh conference organised by Unison and the Institute of Healthcare Management was overtaken by events in the Scottish Parliament. Jennifer Trueland reports on a day of disarray - and blame culture It was definitely the wrong place to be. The conference, 'Senior Managers and the Scottish Parliament', was held at The Hub, a converted church at the top of Edinburgh's Royal Mile.

But as the 100 or so delegates listened to MSPs and others speak on moving away from a blame culture, the action was really taking place a few yards down the road.

After Margaret Jamieson, deputy convenor of the health and community care committee, had given a lucid explanation of what giving evidence to such bodies was like, Unison's Jim Devine popped up. On a point of information, he said, first minister Henry McLeish had resigned and that meant the day's programme was in disarray.

The conference was organised by Unison with the Institute of Healthcare Management.

Although it was somewhat overshadowed by other events, it was intended to help managers know what to expect if they were called to give evidence to a parliamentary committee.Many senior managers, including some in the audience, had already had that experience. It had been more bruising for some than others.

Tayside primary care trust chief executive Tony Wells had given evidence to the audit committee, which had been investigating Scotland's biggest NHS deficit.

He told delegates that almost the first question he was asked by committee convenor Andrew Welsh was, 'Right, which of you is to blame?'

'We'd been told about a no blame culture, but it felt threatening, 'Mr Wells told HSJ.

'That question really set the tone.'

Labour MSP for West Lothian Bristow Muldoon explained that managers should not see their local MSP as a threat, but should have regular dialogue, which could even mean that politicians could back proposed controversial developments, rather than giving 'kneejerk reactions'.

Scottish Executive health department head of human resources Mark Butler suggested that managers should give evidence which was 'clear, factual, and as far as possible not political'.

As a former manager turned civil servant, he also suggested that some form of guidance for health service managers might be useful, to set out the parameters of the information they might reasonably be expected to give.

Mrs Jamieson had some advice, too. All the MSPs on the health committee, and audit committee, ofwhich she is also a member, can, she believed, read. So opening evidence by reading a statement which had already been given to MSPs would not get them off on the right foot.

Actually, from what the conference speakers were saying, anyone called to give evidence by a parliamentary committee could do well to heed the case ofMr McLeish. The former UK shadow health minister was caught out, like so many others before him, not so much because of his wrongdoings, but because he was less than frank about them.

'I advise being frank; do not sound evasive, ' said Elizabeth Watson, head of the committee office.

'If you do not know the answer, say you can send the information on later.'