16 January 2020

Woke and morally broke: it’s time for public institutions to be held to account


Three women have held the camera’s gaze over the last 24 hours and provided powerful reminders of the deep problems we have in our public institutions, where a ‘culture of accountability’ seemingly exists in name only.

The BBC Documentary ‘Exposed – the Church’s Darkest Secret’, told the story of Fiona Gardner and Kate Wood, both safeguarding specialists brought in to improve the Church of England’s reputation on clerical sexual abuse.

They found a culture of impunity and denial that enabled a monster in the cloth, Bishop Peter Ball, to abuse and destroy the lives of dozens of young victims. When they sought to bring it to the attention of senior church administrators, they were ignored, sidelined and bullied at every turn.

Directly after this on the 10 O’clock news, former Greater Manchester Police Detective Maggie Oliver sat with the bereaved grandmother of a victim of rampant child abuse perpetrated in that city by predominantly Asian men. She explained how her career and health had been destroyed after repeatedly being ignored, belittled and patronised by senior officers when she raised the plight of apparently ‘disposable’ young women, who were repeatedly victimised by gangs of men from an inconvenient ethnicity.

See a pattern here? Determined women standing up against an establishment, bringing them indigestible truths and suffering for it. In Oliver’s case her increasingly strident warnings about the lack of investigative rigor in GMP were dismissed as ‘emotional’, a great misogyny codeword if ever there was one.

In the case of Bishop Ball, the closer Fiona Gardner got to the hideous truth of his industrial paedophilia, the more VIPs lined up to give her a ‘rollocking’ over the phone for daring to impugn his character. Ball, who died in June last year, was eventually imprisoned for 32 months on charges that included indecent assault over an 18 year span.  A review of the handling of clerical sexual abuse allegations ordered by the current Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby, made for harrowing reading. As Welby said, ‘the Church colluded and concealed rather than seeking to help those who were brave enough to come forward. This is inexcusable and shocking behaviour.’ These are sentiments shared by Maggie Oliver in the case of the Manchester abuse: “the question that keeps coming back into my head is: what is the cost? What about all the children who’ve been left, sacrificed to save money and to protect the organisation?”

And what about the senior managers and prelates in GMP, Social Services, the Church, who turned a blind eye to victims desperate for help? Who swapped justice for the path of least resistance? Where is the accountability? Whistleblowers inside organisations are often lonely and unloved characters. They are often driven by a sense of personal mission that sets them apart from those who want the advancement in public life that is a shameful by-product of obedience to the narrative. Whistleblowers don’t fit well into our contemporary institutions, which are comfortably woke but morally broke. That’s what makes their sharp edges and instincts so invaluable.

Maggie Oliver has the solution. She wants the law changed so that there is retrospective accountability for people whose duty is to protect the vulnerable. We should look seriously at this because in so many cases of failure in prisons, schools, hospitals, churches and local authorities, accountability is inversely proportional to seniority. Top public sector bosses seem to be immune to performance management, and get away with the most egregious behaviour without consequence. A public sector management culture which almost fetishises diversity of every other sort but smashes down on the slightest whiff of dissent is the perfect place to breed the sort of groupthink that stood in the way of Oliver, Wood and Gardner and all the victims they were trying to speak for.

We mustn’t allow these and other similar catastrophes to go unmarked, and institutions simply to slump back into their weary default. As well as legal means to hold past public sector managers formally accountable for serious failures we need non-executive directors, ethics committees and all the rest of the paraphernalia of independent oversight not just to tolerate canaries in the mine but to celebrate their persistence and insist they are actively fostered and enabled. For this to happen the recruitment and selection of senior staff running some of our biggest public institutions needs an urgent overhaul. Perhaps the refreshingly unbiddable Chief Constable of Northamptonshire can knock up a person specification that’s bigger on leadership in adversity than marketing ability.  We want fewer quangocrats overseeing them too, thanks. Less performative piety and more moral competence to do the brave thing and not what’s easiest presentationally. Thank goodness for these three women, waking up the woke.

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Ian Acheson is a former Chief Operating Officer of the Equality and Human Rights Commission, and led the independent review of Islamist extremism in prisons and probation ordered by then Justice Secretary, Michael Gove, in 2016.