Work is crazy, coming up to the end of the consultation period. Steve and I had a couple of tough meetings this week with fire sector people. Mainly, this was down to them not having been on the ball and only realising late that an improvement to the Fire Regs was about to appear and they couldn't claim any credit for it. Answer? Stamp your feet and claim it can't possibly work. Also, Steve and I are now certain that the undertreatment scam is rife, bottom line: 50-60% or more sofas in the UK would fail the match test in practice.
I've had a lot of stress this week, mainly by being shot from both sides: industry and my so-called own people. John has been no help at all. I returned to the office on Wednesday (after being out the day before at a meeting) to find a crisis taking place that John was doing nothing about. Essentially, the Better Regulation team had not been listening when I'd told them that the new test, just like most standards, would require an 18-month lead-in period. They thought the new test would take place immediately (although a bit of common sense should have told them that's unlikely) in April 2015. There's an election next year and Ministers want to be able to claim any wins from de-regulation measures (which the new test is) while they're still around, not have them bagged by the next bunch that get in. Anyway, massive pressure on coming up with a solution.
For three days, I worked furiously to find an answer, alongside all the other stuff that needs doing. My head was literally fizzing, and not in a good way. This against a background in our office of:
- People around me chatting comfortably about the best lawnmower to buy, nice meals they'd had on holiday, best hotels to stay at when in Brussels, etc; specifically, John and the others spending an hour discussing pictures of cats on someone's computer
- A branch meeting where Caroline, our leader, was urging us to go to some other meeting where there would be 'baby pictures' of our directors
- Julie sending me an email asking for help in drafting her 'work-life' balance objectives because "it's been noticed" that I'm a writer; and oh yes, can I read the short story she wrote years ago to see if it's any good?
Finally, Steve and I came up with a solution. Steve suspected that once they know the new test is coming in, manufacturers will want to switch as soon as possible, mainly to make savings, and he thought they probably mostly work on quick turnaround times anyway. I gave Henry a ring at XXX (the biggest retailer/manufacturer in the country) and he confirmed that they produce nearly all their furniture less than two weeks from when it's ordered and, yes, they would switch overnight pretty much when the new test came in.
Better Regulation are delighted; project saved, etc. Meanwhile not a peep out of my boss, Mr Lord, not even a "Well done". How strange.
* * *
I've had three years now in which to collate evidence, analyse events and even directly question the subject (specifically in a mediation session) and my conclusion is that John Lord is either excessively incompetent or corrupt. Let's look at some of the key evidence:
1. Warning the Minister that the new match test wasn't likely to go ahead (see earlier blog post)
I had a meditation session with Lord in February 2015, with two mediators present. I challenged him on this point (Barbara either never did or she did but never informed me of the outcome) and he admitted that he had spoken to Swinson's PA just before the submission went up. He couldn't really deny it since he knew she'd spoken to me about it. But he said he hadn't told her the changes probably wouldn't go ahead; just that it was a difficult and complicated issue. But:
a) That is not what the PA told me. I write everything down, as in this case and she specifically said someone in our team told her the changes probably wouldn't be going ahead.
b) Even if he had only told the PA that it was a difficult and complicated issue, it doesn't change the fact that he took it on himself to tell the Minister there was a problem about a submission that had been agreed and finalised by the team (with my name on in). The act of speaking to the PA at all was designed to put doubt into Swinson's mind (which it did), especially doing so outside of the team, i.e. it would appear (ironically) that he was acting on his conscience; was the one who could be trusted (which worked with the PA, and allowed him to make at least two similar warning statements to her prior to further submissions, one of which I actually overheard).
c) The timing, from the chemical industry's point of view, was perfect. Steve and I had thought long and hard about what they would do to scupper the test. The manipulation of consultation returns was to be expected, but we'd wondered why they hadn't been more pro-active in trying to overturn things prior to the consultation going out. It's true that they'd turned up at several workshops, and made one or two vague statements of dissent but the obvious thing for them to do was work on the people responsible for the changes: BIS officials.
I'd attended quite a few meetings with the three big flame retardant producers, and one time they took me out for a meal. However, I'd told them that while I was happy to listen to them, I wouldn't change my mind because of a meal. Steve took the simple view that first, the new test couldn't be denied and second, they weren't bothering to try very hard to corrupt us because they knew it wouldn't work in our case.
Now, let's suppose they'd identified their key man at BIS - mostly likely at the first meeting we had with stakeholders in December 2013, which John chaired. I've already written about how he refused to be briefed by Steve and myself, insisting he would 'wing it', with the result that FIRA and others manipulated him into agreeing to unnecessary extra work that delayed the process. Whether or not this was intentional on his part, they probably decided he was the one to approach.
He gets on board and they plan his strategy. What they wouldn't want him to do is show his hand too early. Given the new test had proved to be bullet-proof, it would only draw suspicion on him if he tried to criticise it. No, better to wait for the right moment and in the meantime don't get too involved.
Hence, between December 2013 and August 2014, Steve and I attended, led, spoke at around 40 events, workshops and meetings about the new test, covering every conceivable sector of industry, fire services, Trading Standards, etc but John Lord attended only two of these - that first stakeholder meeting where he winged it, and the follow-up meeting with FIRA that he'd initiated so could not really get out of.
At the time, I'd thought he was embarrassed at not being technically up to speed and just trusted me and Steve to get on with the job. But in retrospect, that makes little sense. He was my boss on the Department's biggest de-regulatory exercise; one that Ministers were relying on. He'd told me he was ambitious. He'd just come to BIS from Defra on promotion; immediately, he had the chance to bring in a massive project and secure a big win for the Department (public safety improved; massive savings to the furniture industry), which would almost certainly mean instant promotion to the Senior Civil Service. Yet he made sure he stayed in the background throughout the build-up to the consultation. Instead of showing hundreds of stakeholders that he was the man in charge, he made sure he was noticeable by his absence.
He also knew that I would not have minded at all if he'd taken the lead. All I cared about was getting the new test in, and that would be an easier task with him backing it strongly. Okay, he told me a few times that he was right behind it but he never wrote that down or said it when others were around.
At our post-consultation meeting, he'd justified his suggestion that we slow things down by saying he was a 'risk-averse civil servant'. But with the new test there wasn't any risk. We had the backing of our Minister; the support of lots of other teams in the Department, like Better Regulation; and best of all, solid proof and evidence that the current test didn't work and the new one would.
What was needed by the chemical industry was a split in the policy team that in turn would unnerve the Minister, especially when the side of the split pushing the new test was the junior grade official. However, as said, if that split had been introduced too early, it would have failed to be effective, i.e. because there was both time and proof on the side of the new test.
No, the best moment to instigate a split would be after the consultation closed, when there would still be no proof the new test wouldn't work but there would at least be some numbers saying "No" to scare a Minister. Also, the timing was incredibly tight: for Ministers to get the credit for savings via the new test, it had to be implemented by April the following year, and there were many steps to go through before that.
Lord got a lucky break: his new boss, Barbara, had only just arrived from another Department. She knew nothing about the Furniture Regs and was therefore more inclined, as is the case throughout the civil service, to side with the more senior grade official over any split in the team.
His first move, therefore, was to suggest we should go back to Jo Swinson before going forward with the new test, even though we'd been advised by Better Regulation that this was not necessary. He knew the resulting submission would be full of conflicting advice to infuriate the Minister (and it did: see previous blog posts), which he directly contributed to. His second move was to make a clandestine trip to Swinson's office and really open up the split wide by telling them that the test probably wasn't going to go ahead anyway.
And here's the thing: he took a big risk in going to the Minister's office behind everyone's back. He must have known there was a chance word would get back to the team. He'd then have to explain his actions to someone, probably Barbara his boss, and that could seriously damage his career progression. The only 'explanation' he could possibly have given was that he was concerned about the new test; that it wasn't as ready as we thought. Yet he knew that wasn't actually true.
And this from a man who'd said he was 'risk-averse'. Why then would he take such potentially career-threatening risk now?
Well, let's just say that the chemical industry stood to lose £50m a year and counting via the new test. In the USA, the same flame retardant companies who supply the UK, bribed burns surgeons and various officials to lie in favour of their products. Every year they could get the UK's new test delayed would benefit them by £50m. Just a tiny fraction of that would be a small price to pay, but could be a huge sum for an individual, either via a brown envelope or the probably more likely promise of a well-paid job with them somewhere down the line.
Whatever the exact reasons, Lord created a split in the team that ultimately perfectly served the purposes of industry, at the expense of the public's safety.
Well, not quite:
2. Leaking false information to the British Furniture Manufacturers/ Stephen McPartland MP that resulted in a judicial threat to Jo Swinson at the key moment in her decision-making about the new test.
I will cover this in more detail in Part Two. However, the claim made in the title above is verified by documents in my possession, key ones obtained by the case officer in my Civil Service Code case against John Lord and Barbara Middlemiss. This was unusual, in that it was the only time a case officer actually did any investigative work, and then only because he was intellectually curious to learn more about the judicial threat. When I pointed out that the evidence he'd uncovered strongly suggested Lord should be investigated, he quickly told me that was not his job. Of course.