If you have read my post on the-state-of-the-nation-part-one and the-state-of-the-nation-part-two then you will be up to speed with the idea that ‘democracy’ is the greatest con-trick of our time. The promise is that we, the people, hand over our right to make decisions to elected representatives and in return we get protection from the state from both external enemies and the abuse of government power. It is called a democracy because we can choose our representatives and in theory at least, can vote them out every five years if they don’t represent the wishes of the people. The reality is that the representatives chosen have a first loyalty to their party and will vote in accordance with the dictates of the party whip (if they want to keep their job). If you vote them out of office the party simply put up another clone to take their place and the show goes on. The party whip is a key player who’s task it is to keep very tight control over the other team members and those who don’t follow the rules soon feel the backlash of negative media attention and worse. (Jeremy Corbyn)
The object of the game is to have total control and no accountability. Now some would say that was a dictatorship, not a democracy, so the rules require a public display of lip service to democratic principles whilst active players attempt to take one more step towards absolute power.
An important element is to select players who understand the rules; principally the rule that protecting the established order is paramount. Boat rockers are not welcome in our ‘democratic’ power circles. Finding a safe pair of hands means identifying those who can keep a secret, deliver unpopular policy and most importantly maintain the confidence of the public that this is all done for the very best of reasons. If you prove yourself to be a convincing player you are given a gong in recognition of your ‘service to the public’. How ironic.
With the selection process for top jobs being of paramount importance, it is interesting to note that the Grimstone Review of Public Appointments has slipped quietly through the house whilst the protagonists take everyone’s eye off the ball with a bit of public jibbing at Prime Minister’s question time. Non-Departmental Public Bodies (NDPB) have a key role to play in delivering policy to the public and in holding those in authority to account. They include inspectorates, regulators, advisory committees etc. They are arms length from government ministers which gives them an air of independence (democratic brownie point) but arms length doesn’t prevent Ministers from pulling the strings and the most important is that of choosing the CEO who sets the agenda for the whole organisation. If you want absolute power and no accountability then it is important that those who hold the democratically required role of ‘regulator’ share your understanding of what is required of them.
In 1995 Lord Nolan established a Commissioner for Public Appointments and a Code of Practice to regulate the system which had at the heart the Nolan Principles. This was as a result of concerns that political appointments were being made without ‘due process’. Due process is the euphemism used to describe a power grab which needs to pass the democratic lip-service rule. It has to be seen to be fair even though it is blatantly unfair to anyone who scratches the surface. So to protect Ministers from negative fall-out, a system of due process is put in place to ensure that when things go wrong no-one is held to account. Was due process carried out? – tick, then all was done correctly.
Due process can become a bit tiresome though and when re-labelled ‘bureaucracy’ it is open to attack from those who feel complacent enough to lay down their democratic shield. And so it was in 2015 that the government asked Sir Gerry Grimstone to review the appointment process and no doubt gave him a bit of a lead on what they were looking for.
To start with a positive and quite possibly a headline grabber, Sir Gerry recommended that there should be a renewed focus on ethnic, gender and social diversity. He also recommended changes to the role of the Commissioner, removing many of his or her formal powers within the public appointments process (for example removing the power to appoint independent assessors to an interview panel). Sir Gerry recommended that these checks and balances be replaced by the appointments process being made more transparent, with the Commissioner being transformed into a commentator on the Government’s probity in following this process. PACAC Report
A commentator indeed. A bearer of bad news is not welcome in the corridors of power. Who would take on that task with any intention of doing the role honest service? There can only be one motive behind the removal of ‘independent assessors’ on an interview panel. Why waste time with awkward questions when the matter has been previously settled in the Members Bar?
The fact that the Government so willingly accepted the proposals of Sir Gerry greatly concerned Bernard Jenkin, Chair of PACAC who warned;
We have received evidence of widespread disquiet about Sir Gerry’s proposals. Although the Government has adopted them, it should think again. The Commissioner’s powers should be restored in order to safeguard public trust and confidence in the system. Furthermore the Government should clarify the role of pre-appointment hearings, including implementing the recommendations made by the Liaison Committee in 2011, and considering how scrutiny could be further improved in the future. Effective scrutiny both within the Government (through the Commissioner for Public Appointments) and in Parliament is vital to ensure that public trust and confidence in public appointments remains high and also that appointments are truly being made on merit. PACAC report
Bernard is trying to warn the government that removal of ‘due process’ leaves them all in the firing line should an appointment become controversial. It is not clear whether Mr Jenkin believes that ‘public trust and confidence in public appointments are high’ but it is clear that he knows enough about the democracy game to warn others that you must have such window dressing if you are to maintain the illusion of democracy.
You must never let the veil slip.
There is evidence to the effect that the Commissioner for Public Appointments was merely a ceremonial role in any event, in the statement given to the Grimstone Review by Sir David Normington, the Commissioner since 2011.
Whilst Sir David’s reforms have had an impact, in his evidence to the Grimstone review, he said that they had had less impact than he had initially hoped. Sir David said:
It has, however, been a slow process getting Departments to use their new discretions. Few put real effort into attracting a more diverse field preferring to depend on conventional advertising or headhunters. The selection process is often left in the hands of sponsor teams, which have no experience of recruitment and/or with junior officials whose responsibility for appointments is one of many. Some Departments have found it convenient to stick to the prescription of the previous Code as a comfort blanket; some have continued to use their previous list of assessors as independent members, rather than using the requirement to engage an independent member to bring wider perspective and challenge to the Department. This has also coincided with a period of retrenchment in the resources available in Departments for public appointments. A number of central units in Departments, which had real expertise in public appointments and which I had hoped would drive the change, have been abolished.
Note the fact that those who had ‘real expertise in public appointments’ were abolished and you can see the game in action. Where Sir David went wrong was in taking his role seriously and inadvertently rocking the boat.
Sir David said that he was preparing a new code for public appointments, when the Grimstone review was announced, which would have helped deal with some of these issues.
So that was the end of him.
One reason why Bernard Jenkin is so anxious over the move away from the Commissioner is because without this buffer issues concerning inappropriate selection could come back to parliamentarians, who are, after all, the ones responsible. That would never do as he could find his head on the block. As Chair of PACAC it is Mr Jenkin’s role to choose the Parliamentary and Health Service Ombudsman. In 2011 he and the committee chose Dame Julie Mellor to run the Orwellian Ministry of Truth where all the evidence against public bodies is distorted, denied and destroyed leaving all parties unaccountable. This position requires a key player as the whole system could be exposed by a ‘do-gooder’. Unfortunately, although Dame Julie could keep a secret and no doubt has many which would lift the lid off government, and she can deliver unpopular decisions with the sweetest of smiles and not a hint of remorse, she failed to maintain public confidence that it was all done for the best of reasons. Service users in the form of the PHSO the facts Pressure Group, James Titcombe who lost his baby son at Morecambe Bay and the Patients Association have all had a hand in removing the mask of ‘independent, impartial and robust’ from anything connected with the Ombudsman’s work.
So time for her to go.
It’s not easy getting rid of an Ombudsman mid-term. They can hardly abolish the post, which is a favourite ploy and it would cause a stink to get both Houses to debate a vote of no confidence in a key figure. Far too many awkward questions. Fortunately, Dame Julie Mellor chose to resign over a mistake made by her in omitting to take action following correspondence from Mrs Helen Marks concerning the judgement of an Employment Tribunal which confirmed that the Deputy Ombudsman, Mick Martin was complicit in a cover-up concerning sexual harassment. deputy-ombudsman-complicit-in-cover-up According to the Health Service Journal
A reply to Ms Mark’s letter from Dame Julie said she “noted” the comments made but gave no indication of any further action and Mr Martin continued to make decisions on casework about NHS complaints.
The reason she made such a ‘mistake’ is obvious to any complainant who has had their own evidence duly ignored in the same fashion. The reality is that Mrs Helen Marks could do nothing but complain again. The Ombudsman is protected from accountability by a ‘special cloak’ of parliamentary privilege and in return, she protects all of them.
The letters between the two parties show something of the game in action. Both written on the 4th July it is clear that they formalise what has been a previous agreement. Dame Julie Mellor admits to one error of judgement and in return, Bernard Jenkin expresses regret at her noble decision to hold herself to account. The reality is that Dame Julie has lurched from one crisis to another since her appointment as Ombudsman in 2012 with high staff turnover and a union vote of no confidence in March 2016, it was not just the service users who were making their dissatisfaction known. hsj-calls-for-resignation-of-phso-leadership
Thousands of citizens have approached Dame Julie Mellor for independent review of the hardship and injustice suffered at the hands of public bodies. Thousands have been let down by the Ombudsman’s office ignoring the most blatant evidence of wrong-doing and she will not be held to account. No doubt after some gardening leave she will be duly rewarded for her loyalty to the establishment with another post away from the limelight. A new broom, same as the old broom, will take office and the mounting pressure for reform will dissipate in the hiatus of change. Mr Jenkin talks of new legislation to deliver Ombudsman reform, but this legislation was not included in the last Queen’s speech and is unlikely to see the light of day since the Brexit vote threw parliament into a spin.
Simply changing the Ombudsman without improving the processes, investigation methods and most importantly accountability will deliver nothing to those who suffer injustice.
When you understand that the democracy game is one of absolute power with no accountability you realise why none of the regulatory bodies can deliver to the public.