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Kangaroo crossingA Culture of Secrecy :
Getting lost in the fog at the Standards Board for England

A Case In Particular

Councillor I., leader of Hull City Council and chairman of Humberside Police Authority, is currently (October 2004) under investigation by North Yorkshire Police over allegations that when he was a social worker in the 1980s, he sexually abused residents of the Gleneagles Childrens Home in Hull. His alleged victims include a Mr. W.
   Cllr I. denies the claims, he has not been arrested and he has not been suspended from duty. He was the subject of an investigation in 1997 but no charges were brought.

Mr. W. made his accusations of abuse public in national newspapers in September 2004. He has laid the further charge that Hull city council's Monitoring Officer is protecting Cllr. I. He believes that Cllr. I. should resign from all of his public posts immediately as; 'anything less will leave doubt in the minds of the public of the impartiality of any investigation'.
   Mr. W. is relieved that someone else has now approached the police with allegation similar to those which he made in the 1990s and he is surprised to find that there have been (A) other police investigations into complaints similar to his, and (B) investigations by the social services of which he was unaware.
   Keeping people in the dark seems to be routine practice in Hull.

The above is background information. It has nothing to do directly with the Standards Board; but what follows does.

Councillor J., leader of Hull city council's Independents, 'blew the whistle' on the affair of Cllr. I. He immediately became the target of a shower of frivolous complaints about his conduct as a councillor. The complaints were made to the Standards Board for England by allies of Cllr. I. – fellow councillors and the council's officers, e.g. the Monitoring Officer and staff in the legal department.
   Cllr J. attempted to bring to the attention of the Standards Board, the link between his whistle blowing activities and the politically motivated complaints. Mr. M., a Standards Board ethical standards officer, dismissed his evidence as 'irrelevant'.
   Cllr. J. tried to pursue the matter via emails to Patricia Hughes, deputy chair of the Standards Board, and David Prince, its chief executive. Instead of a reply from either Hughes or Prince, he received an email from a minion of some sort.

Mr. B. is the isotype bureaucrat
He does everything with an equal lack of skill, grace and good manners. He cannot reply promptly to correspondence, he is not 'authorized' to perform even the simplest tasks or to divulge the most harmless information about the Standards Board, and he would rather be flayed alive than be helpful or useful. He would appear to be a person without method who takes immodest pride in his state of disorganization.
Patricia Hughes and David Prince clearly feel that they are much too grand to respond to mail from mere councillors. And so they entrust their correspondence to a minion – we shall refer to him only as Mr. B. to avoid compromising his confidentiality.
   The problem with Mr. B. is that he is not very good at his job. He failed to identify himself by job title in his 'reply' to Cllr. J. and he failed to explain why he was replying to emails sent to other people.
   Something else that he failed to do was read Cllr. J.'s email with any degree of care. As a result, his reply was generally irrelevant and unhelpful. It also contained what others among Mr. B.'s correspondents would recognize as a routine frightener in the form of a warning to take legal advice before 'putting information in the public domain'.

The public domain is always a problem for the Standards Board, which would be right at home in 18th Century Venice – a time when the justice system had zero contact with the outside world. Giovanni Casanova, for instance, is famous (among other things) for being tossed into gaol on the basis of the sort of frivolous accusations which are the common currency of the present day Standards Board.
   The Standards Board's sense of insecurity is such that it wishes to shield all of its activities from external scrutiny in case they are held up to the light and exposed as arbitrary and plain silly.

The Standards Board for England
Imposes ethical standards on others but it has none of its own! Its hallmarks are obsessive secrecy and inaccessibility. It is a prime example of failure to think things through by central government.
Something that makes no sense about the Board is that it is staffed by public servants who have been set up as guardians of the moral and ethical standards of public life, but who have not been equipped with any standards of their own.
   Councillors, local councils, government departments, commercial companies – everyone has a code of conduct. Everyone but the Standards Board, that is. Nobody at the Standards Board is required to respond to phone calls 'within 5 rings'; or reply to (or acknowledge) correspondence 'within 24 hours'; or keep proper records; or even treat its customers with anything approaching common courtesy.
   And if the Board can get away with labelling everything as confidential, there can be no failures and no abuses, and the public history of the Standards Board is only that which it puts on its own website.

What is needed desperately and urgently is for people with some clout to demand that the Standards Board's wings be clipped, and that the people who impose standards in public life be obliged to behave according to clearly defined, externally imposed standards of their own.

Kangaroo crossing

p.s. It is a closely guarded secret that complaints about the Standards Board can be made to the Parliamentary Ombudsman. But those who dare to exercise this right are subjected to further routine intimidation by the Board. Hot on the heels of a complaint comes a threat from the Standards Board of prosecution because its victim has divulged confidential information.

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