Wednesday 28 November 2012

Jersey Historic Abuse Inquiry- Possible Amendments?

Three weeks ago the Chief Minister lodged P118/2012 relating to establishing a Committee of Inquiry (COI) into Jersey’s Historical Child Abuse. States Members and the public will have had time to read and study the proposition. Hopefully States Members will have compared Verita’s recommended Terms of Reference (TOR) with those published in the proposition. It is also hoped that interested parties will have considered whether the proposed TOR are sufficient.

Deputy Monty Tadier has correctly asked two Oral questions of the Chief Minister seeking clarification as to whether the proposed TOR will enable the COI to address the suspension of the former Police Chief. The answers received have been “woolly” in that the Chief Minister has stated that it will be down to the COI to determine whether the matter needs to be addressed.

In P118/2012, the Council of Ministers (COM) state that Verita’s recommendations had been used as the foundation for its TOR, however it does not explain why for instance it has omitted two of Verita’s recommendations which can be found on page 29 in P118/2012.

They are:

•Determine whether the concerns in 2007 were sufficient to justify the States of Jersey Police setting in train Operation Rectangle.


•Review what actions the government took when concerns came to light in 2008 and what, if any, lessons there are to be learned.

It is apparent that the COM is not willing to address concerns relating to the Police investigation. Given the cost of the investigation, along with the criticism of the Deputy Police Chief and his Chief who was subsequently suspended and in all reality dismissed by stealth one can understand why Verita included the matter in its recommendations.

It is also apparent that Verita considered that political oversight should extend beyond that of the Education and Health Departments’ oversight before 2008. Once the investigation got underway the COM’s political oversight had been likened to a “headless chicken” approach with no one knowing who politically was in charge. Also whilst the Police PR was the subject of much criticism, one could hardly say that the COM's approach was a shining example of good practice.

Quite rightly the COI will be looking at how Children’s Homes were run, what procedures were in place to address concerns, the recruitment and monitoring of staff and Health and Education’s officer and political oversight. However if the Inquiry is to be of any value it must extend to the investigation, the suspension and political oversight.

Those who have followed the investigation since 2008 will know that the decision to set in train Operation Rectangle with the subsequent “dig” at Haut de la Garenne was not taken lightly or in isolation. Establishing the truth is often costly and should always be justified. Can the expenditure of near £1m in suspending an officer who was due to retire be justified? Cheap snipes at the cost of a meal in London’s West End have overshadowed the dedication and hard work of resolute officers who would not be sidetracked because of what may be revealed or was causing embarrassment.

Did the investigation warrant the criticism and did it justify the suspension of the police chief? Even though questions can rightly be asked about the credibility of the Napier Report, it never the less did expose Ministers' shortcomings and those allegedly advising them. However questions remain as to why the Police Chief was suspended. Was it because he upset certain Ministers and the Chief Executive, was it because he and his former Deputy were getting too close to exposing certain people in high ranking positions or was it to safeguard alleged prosecutions in train?

As for political oversight, who was really in charge, if the Home Affairs Minister was conflicted why was she not replaced? Where was the chain of command, what was the Chief Minister’s role? Are proper procedures now in place to ensure that matters are handled more professionally in the future?

These questions deserve answers and the place to ask them is at the Inquiry, however it will be down to States Members to ensure that the necessary amendments to P118/2012 are lodged in good time.

Thursday 15 November 2012

St Martin's School Playing Field-- Final Chapter

It was last March that I published what was to become the first of seven further Blogs relating to the application to build a new St Martin’s School on its playing field. I had described the proposed plan “as one of the poorest ever drafted” My main reason for the comment was because it did not make sense to build on the playing field when there was ample room to either redevelop the existing school or as it was deemed to be no longer “fit for use” then it could be demolished and rebuilt from scratch.

Other parish schools had been redeveloped on their existing sites, this is evident by the fact that in page 19 of the feasibility Study it states “The object of incorporating schemes 1B and 1C is to illustrate how the existing school could be remodelled to provide accommodation of a similar size and standard as the recently newly built primary schools such as St Clements’s and St Peter's schools. Not withstanding the comment neither scheme was advanced, the school was promptly placed on the Sites of Local Interest” and plans were then advanced to build on the field because as it was revealed at the Planning Meeting last Friday, it happened to be in public ownership.

For the past 6 months I have written letters to the local newspaper and kept the media and public informed via the publication of further Blogs. I had nominated the field in relation to the Diamond Jubilee Field’s Trust and held a public meeting. I am grateful for the support I received and thank those who attended the public meeting and submitted comments in line with the Planning Policy; however it is now evident that the Planning Minister had decided way back in March to approve the application and in the words submitted by one objector “the public consultation exercise was ‘a charade’ and the process seemed to be a ‘fait accompli’;

I am not aware of any disagreement regarding the need to upgrade or replace the existing school, that had been taken as a given way back. The only issue was whether the replacement should be on the existing site or on the school field. That should have been the only issue the Minister had to consider last Friday but he was simply not interested in that valid argument and clearly his mind was made up before last Friday and the meeting was indeed a farce.

Having for the first time, sat through the application process I can honestly say that it was a bizarre experience. Whilst there was much to be said about the flexibility given to the time allowed to speak, there are genuine concerns over the way the application process was conducted and the acceptance of over 200 submissions of support lodged some 9 weeks after the closing date. Normally 3 weeks is given for submissions, however because of the public meeting, additional time was given which in the end totalled 8 weeks. Most of the late submissions, which were in the form of a pro-forma given to parents by the school, were undated and the contact details removed by the Planning Department so there was no way any one could check the author’s validity. Notwithstanding the late submission their existence was used as support by the Planning Officer.

In his report the Planning Officer listed a number the points made by those in support or opposition, however the parish football club’s representative strongly refuted the claim that his club was happy with the current arrangement. He also stated that as his club is now homeless it is in grave danger of folding. Although temporary consent had now been given to train on the existing playing field that arrangement would end once construction began. He asked that if the application was approved, it should include a condition whereby the Education Department should re-house the club in the parish in line with UK policies.

The case for opposing the application was well made by the 4 objectors which included me. Simply, why build on the field when a school could be built on the existing site? Those in support were repetitive with their claim that the school should be replaced, which has never been disputed, however the Minister never asked any of them why the school should be built on the field rather than on the existing site and what affect if any, it would have on the children should they be temporarily re-housed in port-a-cabins during the new school’s construction.

The States Architect was asked to comment on the plans for the new school, but the Minister never asked him whether a fit for purpose school could be built on the site if the existing buildings were demolished? His failure to ask such an obvious question lends support to the belief that he had made his mind up before last Friday and he was merely going through the motions. Interestingly as the Minister failed to ask the question, I asked it and astonishingly the Officer said it was not possible and not even if the new build extended on to the hard standing area on the playing field.

The school is on a 3 vergee site and the hard standing area on the field provides a near additional half vergee, yet the States are employing architects who cannot draw up plans to build a school which has a near £8m budget on such a generous envelope.

Once the last person in support had spoken, the Minister in almost indecent haste delivered his verdict which he had obviously reached some months ago. Not withstanding the fact that he is also the Minister for the Environment and has stated that he wants to be champion of the environment he gave approval to the application which sees the demise of the Playing field along with its cricket pitch and adult football pitch, the loss of a much valued open space and a public amenity. At no time did he attempt to justify the decision or why the rebuild could not be on the existing site.

The Minister did not as requested, include a condition on the Education Department to find an alternative playing field in St Martin, but he placed a condition that the club could continue using the junior playing field to train on. The Minister obviously missed the point that if the Club does not have a pitch to play on and folds, it will certainly not need an area to train on.

As one can see by reading any of the 8 Blogs below, much effort has been made to argue for the retention of the playing field, yet there has been little support to build on it. I intentionally delayed publishing this Blog because I was conscious that the Minister was giving consideration to the application to demolish the existing holiday camp site on the Plemont headland, build 28 houses on the existing site and return a larger part to nature.

The Chief Minister, Senator Gorst is supporting the view that the whole area should be purchased by the public and returned to nature. If one reads my Blogs one will see that Chief Minister Gorst was responsible for the Diamond Jubilee Field’s Trust which was intended to save 2012 playing fields throughout the UK. He was aware that in early May I had nominated the St Martin’s Playing Field before planning consent was sought, but did nothing to process the nomination. Since September he has transferred responsibility for the Field Trust to the Connetables who to the best of my knowledge have not taken steps to involve their parishioners or advance the scheme which ends next month.

Given the Chief Minister’s support for the environment and spending tax payer’s money in support of returning Plemont which is privately owned and already built on to headland, one would have thought he would have been supportive of retaining a publically owned playing field. However the good Chief Minister along with his Environment Minister and Sports Minister kept their heads way below the parapet and were found wanting at the Playing field’s hour of need.

The same could be said of the Jersey Sport’s Council who could not even be bothered to submit a report. It should have been fighting to protect playing fields, but was also found wanting, so what is the point of that body if it is not willing to fight its corner for clubs and associations?

The Planning Minister has now made his decision known and he is giving consent to build on the Plemont site. Given that it is a brown field site the decision should not come as a surprise but will disappoint some people. Interestingly unlike the Playing field application, the Minister commissioned a consultant to review the application, this gave both sides the opportunity to submit their views and allow for the feed back to be independently scrutinised.

Given the concerns raised about the devious change of use and lack of public consultation before and after the Island Plan debate, one wonders why the Minister did not follow suit with the Playing field application. I submit that had such a review been conducted the recommendation would have been to save the field.

Unfortunately approval has now been given with little chance of any appeal. There are calls to find sites to relocate the Police Headquarters and the Hospital, may I suggest that the FB Playing Fields or any of St Martin’s green fields be considered. The green light has been given and a precedent set by the current Planning Minister who appears to have little enthusiasm for protecting playing or green fields.

St Martin's School

You don't what you have lost till its gone

Queen Elizabeth II Fields Challenge

Save our Field----Is anyone listening???

Public Meeting (Report)

Wanted--Your Help to Save Your Field

St Martin's Playing Field--- Thank you

Moving the goal posts-- Literally

Tuesday 6 November 2012

Jersey Historic Abuse Inquiry-- One small step

Some 20 months after the States approved the amended proposition to establish a Committee of Inquiry the Council of Ministers (COM) has today finally lodged its Proposition; P118/2012 COMMITTEE OF INQUIRY: HISTORICAL CHILD ABUSE.

As mentioned in my last Blog and in the many Comments that followed, the (COM) could not run nor hide forever, nor could it run the risk of cutting corners by having an in house Napier style review.

The COM has stated that before a public Inquiry can be considered it must pass the first test of being a’ definite matter of public interest’. I believe that test was passed in 2008 and it is a pity that it has taken the COM 4 years to recognise the obvious.

The COM has also stated that in general there are 6 main objectives of a public inquiry –

(1) Establishing the facts – providing a full and fair account of what happened.

(2) Learning from events – distilling lessons and preventing their recurrence through changing practice.

(3) Therapeutic exposure – providing an opportunity for reconciliation and resolution between different parties.

(4) Reassurance – rebuilding public confidence in whatever service or issue has been the subject of the inquiry.

(5) Accountability – holding people and organisations to account, sometimes indirectly contributing to the assignment of blame and mechanisms for retribution.

(6) Transparency – demonstrating that ‘something has been done’ or transparency in government.

There can be very few people who will disagree with those objectives and they form the basis of any Committee of Inquiry. However to ensure those objectives are achieved the COM has accepted that it is important that the members of the Committee of Inquiry come from outside the Island, have a legal/judicial background and have the stature and experience to act impartially to safeguard the interests of everyone involved.

Who those people are and how they are appointed is as crucial as the terms of reference therefore it is important that the appointment process is conducted in a transparent way. It is proposed that a small panel should be formed under the Chairmanship of the Greffier of the States to recommend a chairman and two Committee Members. The selection process will be overseen by the Jersey Appointments Commission.

Whatever way and whoever is involved with the selection process is always on a hiding to nothing and it is not an easy task. It is also evident that much time has already been lost therefore the sooner the COI is appointed the better as the COM wishes the Inquiry to be completed within a year of its commencment, so the appointment process must be prompt and transparent. I can recall that when the States approved my proposition to review the role of the Bailiff and Crown Officers the appointment process took months and it took another proposition from me to speed it up. This must not happen again.

Having worked with the Greffier of the States for some years, I know him to be a man of integrity, efficient, widely respected and he has my full support. I am confident that he, along with his colleagues will submit names of people for appointment that will be acceptable to States Members, the victims and the general public. Should States Members be concerned about the nominees or the Terms of Reference (TOR) it will be open to them to lodge amendments.

The TOR is in line with Verita and I believe allows the Committee to look at issues such the suspension of the police chief and was he suspended to end the abuse investigation. However that is a matter that needs clarification before the proposition is debated.

Today is one small step but one in the right direction taken by Senator Gorst and the COM. There are some who will rightly say that it has taken a long time and the COI has not come about following a display of leadership from the COM or rigorous calls from the media. It has come about because of the lead taken by a small number of States Members ably supported by the Bloggers who have published the truth and repeated it and whose Blogs are reaching a far wider readership than is given credit.

Hopefully the Proposition will also be a small step in addressing the concerns of the most important people of all, that being the victims who have been the forgotten people in the whole sorry saga of concealment.

Unfortunately due to procedure P118/2012 cannot be debated until Tuesday 15th January, however that should give sufficient time to properly digest its contents and any ambiguities clarified. It will also, if deemed necessary, allow for amendments to be drafted and lodged.

Your comments will be welcomed.