Don't feel cheated

15th September 2000 at 01:00
Denise Bates on why it is fair to pay NHS trust volunteers, but not governors

A SALARY would seem an exercise in largesse to many governors, already notoriously reluctant to claim their expenses.

But they might like to ask why the non-executive directors of NHS trusts are being paid pound;5,140 a year when their job descriptions appear identical.

For eight years I have been a governor of two schools, including a period as chair. Six years ago I was appointed a non-executive director of an NHS trust.

In my experience, several factors justify the non-executive director's fee. I spend seven days each month on NHS business, often attending a series of meetings on the same day. Even when I chaired a governing body which was engaged in some complex negotiations, my NHS work required more commitment.

In normal circumstances a governing body with an effective sub-committee structure can discharge its duties with a termly evening meeting plus focused sub-committees arranged to suit members. NHS trusts have a wider variety of sub-committees, often with detailed rules about the frequency of meetings and the number of non-executives needed for the quorum. The main board needs to meet monthly along with some sub-committees to keep abreast of

everything required.

While it still remains possible for a school governor to fulfil their duties outside work hours there is no possibility of a non-executive offering only evening commitment. I have to be available by arrangement any day of the week and be flexible about the timing of meetings. This precludes most non-executives from a conventional full-time job. Many are self-employed so can determine their own priorities. The fee received by a non-executive is arguably not remuneration but compensation for other earnings potentially forgone.

School governing bodies generally have a dozen members who can take a share of the work.

NHS trusts usually have five non-executives plus the chair. Some non executives undertake statutory duties in relation to patients detained under the Mental Health Act or act as trustees of charitable funds. A non-executive director is required to review all complaints which cnnot be resolved by the organisation. Several such complaints usually arise even in well-run organisations. In schools, complaints which go beyond the head to the chair of governors remain relatively rare.

Commitment, enthusiasm and the ability to work as part of a team are usually cited as the main attributes of successful school governors. Non-executive directors need additional skills. Although my work as a governor undoubtedly added strength to my NHS application, I am also a chartered accountant. I could be relied upon from the outset to engage in informed discussions about finance and activity and chair the audit committee. This involves leading high-level meetings with auditors about the trust's compliance with its statutory duties.

Many people appointed to non-executive posts have proven knowledge in finance, personnel, estates, engineering, information technology, or deep knowledge of local health needs and services. This permits informed questioning of executive colleagues across a range of disciplines. Non-executives also have a track record of community involvement.

The non-executive role will only suit a governor who is more than comfortable with being chair of governors. This is because all non-executives are required to chair important sub-committees or panels. On occasions you may be the only board member in the meeting. In these situations you have to be absolutely confident about following procedures, focusing discussions and taking decisions, as well as being conversant with the issues being considered.

Board meetings are held in public, often with press representation. Individual contact with the outside world as the board's representative is more frequent than for school governors and may involve speaking in public.

My trust's revenue budget is more than a hundred times larger than the school's and there is also a large capital programme. Paying school governors pound;5,140 a year would be excessive and serve only to attract into governance those whose prime interest was their wallet, not the children.

Denise Bates is a non-executive director of an NHS Trust in the North-west. The opinions expressed are her own.

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