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Rules Are Rules February 28, 2010

Posted by Audit Monkey in The Joy & Pain of Internal Audit, Working Life in Britain.
Tags: , ,

I have been trying to write this post for a couple of weeks now. Hopefully tonight’s attempt will prove fruitful.

The Times (11 Feb 2010) carried an article by Melanie Reid regarding the suicide of a medical records supervisor by the name of Brian Gilfillan in the NHS. The circumstances are quite tragic and his death was possbily avoidable.

A brief synopsis. Mr.Gilfillan was responsible for ensuring that there was sufficient stationery and patient information leaflets available in his department in NHS Fife. Orders were authorised (signed off) by a supervisor, in this case by one Anne Starkie. In Mrs.Starkie’s absence, Mr.Gilfillan authorised the orders but he signed Mrs.Starkie’s signature in order to facilitate the process.

Mrs.Starkie subsequently discovered that her signature had been ‘forged’ in her absence and this had occurred on another 11 occasions. The disciplinary process was instigated and it was concluded that Mr.Gilfillan’s actions had been fraudulent, even though there had been no personal gain. Mr Gilfillan was asked to attend a hearing on 28 October 2008 and there was the possibility he would be sacked for gross misconduct. The hearing never happened as Mr.Gilfillan took his own life before the meeting could be convened.

My question is, what would an Internal Auditor made of this if he had discovered that Mr.Gilfillan had forged his supervisor’s signature? I think an Auditor would argue that in the absence of written policy and procedures, an improvised or informal system to order stationery had emerged. You would trot out the audit recommendation that procedures should be drafted and fingers crossed, these cover every eventuality.

Anyway Mr.Gilfillan’s actions were hardly grand-theft auto. In my humble experience, the stationery budget of NHS Trust and Health Authorities is simply immaterial in the grander scheme of things. I remember being performing an audit at a Health Authority and found some stationery invoices had been misfiled and not recorded in the purchase ledger. From memory, the total was approximately £4,000 but the Health Authority budget was over £1billion. In short, I was wasting my time completing working papers even recording this matter (which I had done – I was a newbie looking to impress!) and I simply mentioned the matter to the Purchase Ledger Supervisor to follow up as it was a one off clerical oversight.

However, it is possible to become so blinded by the procedures and pedantic, you can lose sight reality and practicalities. This probably explains my laissez faire attitude to documented procedures as they serve as a guide and should not be a substitute for the application of common sense. Or as Melanie Reid the author of The Times article notes, initiative.

An inquest has been held into Mr.Gilfillan’s death and the judgement is available online. What makes this episode so tragic is the fact that if Mr.Gilfillan had placed ‘pp’ before Mrs.Starkie’s name, he would not have broken any rules and there have been no case to answer.


1. ITaudit - March 1, 2010

The question I had was why kill yourself over this? His death makes it sound as if it was a deeper fraud (which perhaps was covered up)? Or simply that he didn’t want to face the prospect of job loss and shame?

That doesn’t sound like gross misconduct. It’s not like he was stealing cases of toilet paper that he took home.

2. Audit Monkey - March 1, 2010

Difficult to say. I doubt there was another fraud. My own interpretation is that Mr.Gilfillan was an honourable man and the repeated disciplinary hearing and bullying was detrimental to his well-being.

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