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At what point does ‘giving the benefit of the doubt’ become a failure to act?

Peter Roffey | Published:

How many separate reports from whistle-blowers on bullying behaviour within Home Affairs are required before their evidence is no longer dismissed as ‘mere anecdote’? wonders Deputy Peter Roffey...

Under fire: Home Affairs members deputies Rob Prow (second from left) and Richard Graham (far right) resigned from the committee ahead of the publication of a damning governance review. Deputies Marc Leadbeater (far left), Mary Lowe (centre) and Victoria Oliver remain in their posts. (Picture by Peter Frankland, 25060760)

CIVIL servants have no right whatsoever never to be upset by decisions of the political committees which they serve. Such is life. It is the politicians who are responsible to the public and who therefore ultimately set strategic policy.

If that sometimes leaves officers fuming at the foolishness of the elected amateurs who have failed to take their professional advice then so be it – the buck stop with the deputies. But there are certain things that civil servants definitely do have a right to expect.

Firstly, that in an area where professional expertise is essential for good outcomes they should be listened to very carefully and only ever overruled on the basis of some other sound and objective evidence. When this happens the reasons for the political decision should be carefully explained and justified in a rational and coherent way.

Secondly, that they should be treated with respect even when their advice does not happen to convince their political committees. Deputies are in a position of power over those employed within their departments and must never abuse that power to denigrate or belittle.

Thirdly, to be kept informed on matters relevant to their professional roles. Being kept in the dark is a form of subtle abuse.

It is clear that Home Affairs, under the leadership of Deputy Mary Lowe, has singularly failed to treat its staff appropriately. It was obvious to anyone with an iota of sensitivity that many of its senior staff had opened their hearts to Her Majesty’s Inspector of Constabulary when he compiled his report on law enforcement in Guernsey. That report was pretty strong stuff and it must have been hugely depressing when virtually nothing came of it. To put it bluntly, the wider States badly let down some key personal.

Cue the second report on governance at Home Affairs released last week. The professional staff there would have been well justified in saying, ‘why bother to engage? No one will act no matter what the report says’. To their credit they did not. They redoubled their comments and it is laudable that they took such a bold stand.

Far from being wimpish, as some have suggested, it takes courage for seasoned professionals in their field to admit publicly that they feel badly bullied. They will be worried about being perceived as delicate flowers. They should not be. No matter how resilient you are it is tough to cope with abuse from those in a position of power over you. The key staff in our frontline emergency and law enforcement services deserve support from the wider States for having put their necks on the line.

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Again, I am not suggesting that staff have a right not to have their feathers ruffled. I have known a number of departments over the years where a culture of cosy mediocracy had developed in the central office and which badly needed a wake-up call from a motivated and reforming political committee.

In a few extreme cases a core of senior civil servants had even decided that there was only one way of doing things – their way – and resented being questioned or held to account by their political committee.

In those instances (and they are very much a small minority) relying on the civil servants’ perception of whether or not they have been treated poorly is probably far too subjective to put too much weight on. Challenge is healthy but can be perceived as bullying by those stuck in a comfortable rut.

It is the old dilemma of where the dividing line lies between ‘active management’ and bullying.

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Nor is it always a one-way street. I have certainly known questioning or independently minded politicians to be bullied by civil servants. In one case, an instruction even went out from the Chief Officer to send a certain deputy to Coventry because she had diverged from the committee line during a States debate.

Bullying is never acceptable but what constitutes bullying can be tricky to determine. I don’t hold with the modern line that if anybody feels as if they have been bullied then they have been. The trouble is that there is no precise definition of what ‘real bullying’ is, but in some cases it is as plain as a pikestaff. In those cases a failure to tackle the bad behaviour isn’t ‘giving the benefit of the doubt’ but rather flunking the task of standing up to the bully.

In the current situation the allegation from a number of present and past staff is that the source of the bullying is the president of Home Affairs. It is not the first time that such suggestions have been made about Deputy Lowe.

A number of former staff and colleagues have pointed to a similar pattern of behaviour over the years.

So have some charities.

For example, when Deputy Lowe was Social Security minister, several long-established charities reported that she had threatened to remove their States grants if they didn’t agree to move into shared premises. Officers of the NCH (National Children’s Homes) reported receiving a humiliating dressing down from Deputy Lowe when she was the Social Security minister simply because they had informed their clients of their right to claim benefits.

I don’t know how many separate reports from whistle-blowers are required before their evidence is no longer dismissed as ‘mere anecdote’. I would have thought we were getting close but if the Committe for Home Affairs wants more objective evidence then so be it.

Maybe we need a formal investigation into these allegations, although that would be a rather destructive way to bring this matter to a head. It would leave a toxic legacy, set a poor precedent and distract from more important priorities.

That said, the weight of evidence contained in both the HMIC report and this latest probe into good governance at the very least demand that we get to the bottom of the situation. To simply allow the current regime to plough on when we are told by top professionals that it is both dysfunctional and oppressive would be a dereliction of duty by the States.

Will this really be necessary or will the president of Home Affairs choose to resign? Who knows? She says that she is ‘going nowhere’ but then that is exactly what she said at the time of ‘Fallagate’.

Another big question is what P&R, having commissioned this bombshell of a report and then called on Deputy Lowe to step down, are going to do next? Isn’t it their job to provide leadership and if so they surely can’t just leave the matter hanging?

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