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Home truths: when a committee turns toxic

Richard Digard | Published:

BUCKLE UP, ladies and gents. This promises to be an uncomfortable read, exposing very real failures at the heart of government – failures that no one appears willing or able to tackle.

The report noted that instead of developing policy or setting a strategic plan, deputies filled their time complaining about cyclists riding with flashing rear lights, parking tickets and broken wing mirrors. (23038854)

We’re all used to successive, independent reports demonstrating how the system of government is flawed: the lack of joined-up thinking, the inability to act in a corporate or strategic manner.

Now, however, we have a further expert analysis, but one that looks – in effect – at how good deputies really are and how well they discharge duties for which they are paid.

Under the microscope is Home Affairs, and credit to deputies Mary Lowe, Rob Prow, Marc Leadbeater, Victoria Oliver and Richard Graham for being inspected by Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Constabulary and Fire and Rescue Services.

Unfortunately, the report lays bare the extent to which the committee bungled the tasks they had and the extent of how hopeless they were in discharging those duties. It is difficult to explain how grave this is, especially since the basic task of Home Affairs is to ensure the enforcement services remain answerable to us.

Equally, the politicians have to act beyond reproach to ensure policing remains truly impartial, so deputies do not meddle in operational matters or tell police who to prosecute.

As the States’ own rules of procedure put it: ‘They should focus on developing policy, advising… on policy, reviewing performance and budgets, and delivering, or overseeing the delivery of, services with a view to securing improved outcomes for the community.’

Home Affairs, collectively paid around £3,800 a week, did none of this. Read HMIC’s report carefully and it sets out the extent to which the committee left its senior staff hanging – no strategic plan, no operational priorities and no clarity on budgets.

This policy void was so serious that the service chiefs themselves had to put a plan in place. But the committee couldn’t be bothered to endorse it, approve it or substitute it with one of their own devising.

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Instead, the deputies filled their time complaining about cyclists riding with flashing rear lights, about parking tickets and broken wing mirrors.

As HMIC dryly noted: ‘While to the individual these are important matters, we were surprised at how much time such matters take up in committee meetings, and how frequently they do so.’

To an extent this is amusing. Deputies, eh? What are they like?

The reality, however, is much more serious. This is a committee that thought it acceptable to ambush its own chief officer of police by inviting a member of the public to one of its regular meetings to confront him rather than follow complaints procedures.

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Taken in the context of the report, that was a hostile action. But the committee appears to have had issues with all its senior service chiefs.

A clue to this is in the HMIC terms of reference: ‘In particular, it asked us to examine how the head of law enforcement was held to account.’

Since, obviously, it is by the committee, why even ask – unless it was an attempt to get a third party to confirm what I think lies behind this: that Home Affairs was irritated by the chief’s refusal to do exactly what they wanted.

No policy-led core business objectives, remember, just crack down on cyclists with flashing lights.

Again, as HMIC found: ‘...too much time is taken up in what appears to be tactical and day-to-day operational policing. This is properly the preserve of the head of law enforcement.’

However, it’s worse than that. Home Affairs effectively accused its own service heads of thwarting them and handed ‘evidence’ of that to the inspectors.

In turn, the professionals we rely on to protect this island from crime, terrorism and illegal immigration felt the deputies were interfering. As the report puts it, ‘attempted to direct operational activity’.

Reflect on this for a moment. Deputy Lowe and her colleagues were telling police and customs to potentially prosecute individuals on the basis of hearsay and their own whims. Not a request to investigate, but to do something about it.

Disturbingly, the committee actually discussed operational matters in the absence of anyone from police or customs and took decisions despite no professional input.

Unhappily, this is where things get particularly sinister.

Home Affairs, having invited HMIC in to review its performance, seems to have got cold feet. It told the reviewers that they couldn’t have access to committee minutes, the official record of meetings, decisions and the supporting reasons in reaching those conclusions.

Not only is claiming minutes have to be withheld counter-intuitive in a review process, it’s also untrue. So was that statement made out of incompetence or in an attempt to cover things up?

Later, it emerged that ‘redacted’ minutes were released. These showed the complaints by the committee that enforcement chiefs had withheld information or ignored the politicians were not supported by the facts.

In other words, serious – and potentially career-threatening – accusations made by Home Affairs against senior law enforcement chiefs were untrue.

So, misguided or malicious? And what was being hidden by the committee in redacting the minutes? Something, incidentally, that indicates service chiefs were kept in the dark about Home Affairs deliberations.

At best, there has been a complete breakdown in the relationship between the committee and its professional enforcement staff – and responsibility for that toxic environment rests with the politicians.

So what happens next (or doesn’t) will be a defining moment for government. Clearly the other committee members should resign, since neither president Lowe nor vice-president Prow seem willing to accept responsibility for these systemic failures.

There should be a further inquiry into how a slow-motion train wreck was allowed to happen, what notice Policy & Resources had of enforcement officers operating in a policy vacuum and what members and officers did about it.

Answers are needed about when a first draft of the report was submitted, why publication was apparently so delayed, the circumstances in which minutes were withheld and then released, and who edited them and for what purposes.

Don’t, however, hold your breath that any of this will happen. The benefit of committee silos is that politicians remain a law unto themselves, irrespective of the damage they cause.

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