Steve and I are sitting in a BIS meeting room waiting for my new boss, John Pride, to turn up.
[John Pride is not his real name, by the way. I have changed the names of the civil servants who appear in this blog, unless they have told me I can use their actual names. For example, Richard Hawkins of the Environment Agency is mentioned below because he was happy to be named. You might be wondering why no one at BIS (now BEIS) is willing to be named. After all, according to their findings on my whistle-blowing case, BIS officials were not guilty of misleading Ministers or anything else come to that. You might conclude therefore that they would be only too willing to stand by their actions. Not so: I was very heavily informed that I could not name them without breaching the Data Protection Act and possibly also the Official Secrets Act. While the Civil Service is outwardly supportive of the benefits of whistle-blowing, it very much does not like its officials to be held personally responsible for any problems they create for the public.]
We're concerned. In half an hour, we're due to meet our stakeholders for the first time in person about the new match test. John decided he would chair the meeting and give the introductory talk. I said that was fine but he therefore needed to meet Steve and I for 90 minutes beforehand so he would be up to speed on the complex issues behind our proposals and on the various mixed interests that would be present in the room. He agreed but hasn't shown yet.
Pride is in his thirties and has just joined BIS on promotion from Defra. He has inherited a large team of around 20 civil servants, dealing mostly with consumer product safety legislation. Most of this is covered by EU law and as such does not require much active input. People attend meetings in Brussels and keep up to speed on any changes in the pipeline but the UK is just one of many member states in this respect.
Steve says, "Does he realise what he could be facing today?"
I shrug. "He's probably used to taking meetings with other civil servants and they don't tend to act up much."
Steve raises an eyebrow. "FIRA alone are likely to act up enough to have him spinning in his chair."
This proves to be a prophetic remark. For now, I just feel unsettled. The Furniture Regs are UK legislation. This means the UK, and not the rest of Europe, is responsible for them. This Department is responsible for them. Me and John are responsible for them. This means we cannot simply tell our stakeholders that Brussels is introducing a change to the laws that govern their businesses; tough luck, chaps, nothing we can do, just have to make the best of it. Our stakeholders know that we are responsible and will not hesitate to challenge us if they don't like our plans.
Prior to this meeting, Steve with my input, produced a very technical, detailed, paper outlining possible options for a new match test. We circulated it to a couple of dozen stakeholders with expertise in testing and related subjects. The majority of those circulated were positive about the proposal. However, there is the very real issue that while the furniture industry could save around £50m a year from the new match test, the chemical industry will lose the same amount.
"Heard any more about 'Fake Britain'?" says Steve.
"Only that Trading Standards still think it'll focus on labelling issues. I'm going to tell everyone all about it today."
A short while ago, Trading Standards was contacted by the Fake Britain production company who make the programme for the BBC. They were told Fake Britain wanted to look at problems with the Furniture Regs. Apparently, Roger White of Clarkson Textiles is one of the advisors on the programme. This bothers us.
Recently, Andrew Stephenson MP, wrote to our Minister, Jo Swinson, on behalf of Clarkson Textiles. Clarkson is the biggest chemical treatment company in the EU, possibly the world. For decades, they have been applying a flame retardant chemical mix to the backs of sofa fabrics towards complying with the Furniture Regs. According to Stephenson, Clarkson is losing business to dodgy Chinese imports. Stephenson is concerned therefore that BIS does not do anything to weaken the effectiveness of the Regs, for example by tinkering with the match test. He says this will only make worse the situation where non-compliant furniture is getting into UK homes via Chinese imports and in the process put honest British workers out of business.
However, Mr Stephenson is either not aware of the full story or is ignoring it. Namely that Trading Standards has been regularly finding that cover fabrics are failing the match test, not because they are dodgy Chinese imports but because they're being undertreated by UK companies like Clarkson. In short, the UK treatment companies find test houses that will give the fabrics a pass but every time Trading Standards tests the same fabrics in their test house, they fail. Undertreatment is, of course, big money. Proper treatment costs around £1.50 per metre and there can be 20 metres in a sofa. If say 30p can be undertreated off the cost, then you're looking maybe at savings of £7 per sofa, and there are around 30 million sofas in the UK. The fact that this very likely means many sofas are ignitable doesn't seem to bother anyone in the industry too much.
Jo Swinson replied to Stephenson to inform him that the real problem is the treatment process but so far we haven't heard back. No doubt, Roger White will continue to advise Fake Britain that Chinese imports are the villain of the piece.
Ten minutes before the meeting starts and John still has not shown. Steve and I decide to go to the conference room. There, we chat with various people then, a minute before the start, John finally turns up. He sweeps us in to the meeting room and, no doubt noting our concerned expressions, says, "Don't worry: I'll wing it."
Steve and I exchange a look then take our seats. Up to this point, I've felt that a difficult subject and a pretty radical change to a complex safety issue has been handled very well. Much of that is down to the excellent working relationship Steve and I have developed based around his expertise in chemicals and testing with my passionate desire to use policy to improve the regulations.
But here is our first meeting with the people who will be most affected by these changes. And John is going to wing it. At the time, I am putting this down mostly to newly-promoted arrogance.
John indeed introduces the event like a man reading notes off his shirt cuff. He seems completely oblivious to the gaffs he's coming out with and, more importantly, the concessions he's making. Phil Reynolds of FIRA manages in record time, for instance, to get John to agree that FIRA should undertake completely unnecessary further testing work on the new proposals. We are already on a tight schedule to get the new match test in by April 2015. If I know FIRA, this extra work will put us back a good few months. While agreeing in principle with the aims of the new test, FIRA has been resistant to it in many ways, probably because as well as being a trade association they are also a rival test house. When we originally tendered for the work on the new test, Steve's company, Intertek, won out over the other test houses that applied. This additional work will help FIRA, of course, to appear central to all things important to the furniture industry.
Whatever, Phil Reynolds is soon grinning at me like a cat from Cheshire. I am normally fairly poker-faced but I can feel everything rapidly unravelling in light of John's uneducated need to please our guests. Even he notices my expression and actually says, "I can see Terry is uncomfortable with this, but . . . "
But indeed. Steve whispers to me at one point, "Is he being paid by FIRA?"
When John finally finishes, Steve and I give a talk on the new test. Before we get into it, however, I tell them that they may be concerned to learn that Fake Britain is making a programme that could be critical of the furniture industry.
Their response surprises us: "We know!" they all shout. And indeed they do. We'll find out later that FIRA is also an advisor on the programme. Later still, we'll discover that one of FIRA's new directors - Jessica Alexander, Chair of the National Bed Federation - also owns a PR company that works closely with TV. What a happy coincidence.
Richard Hawkins of the Environment Agency gives a very good talk on POPs and PBDEs that really gets our guests' attention. He tells them that there are EU rules on the way, probably under the Stockholm Agreement, that will mean products containing certain flame retardants will need to be disposed of safely at the end of their life. He mentions a specific FR, DecaBDE, which has been a major ingredient in UK sofas for many years now. Richard tells us that there are only two incinerators in the UK that can dispose of such a chemical safely.
Many lean forward in their chairs, no doubt making mental calculations. For the fact is that at present UK sofas just get dumped into landfill for the most part. The chemicals in them then leach out and get into the water supply, then the food chain, ending up in us. But while that's bad, so far fingers haven't been able to point too accurately to where exactly the chemicals come from. This is different. Sofas will be fingered good and proper. Mattresses too. Someone will have to pay for that expensive disposal process, and it's not likely to be consumers.
John leads the general discussion that follows and I still feel uncomfortable, although I'm not entirely sure why. Partly, it's John's tendency to stick flip chart sheets on the wall and use terms like 'brainstorming'. While this kind of approach works fine with passive civil servants, here we have a bunch of people who are all very knowledgeable in their field. People you should just be talking with, not trying to manage. Mostly, however, it's because I know all the people round the table; have worked with them for many years now. I don't really know John and don't believe he should be handling the situation as if he knows better than everyone present.
After the meeting, Steve and I go outside, by the BIS bike shed where the smokers now have to go, just as if they're back at school. Steve lights up and says, "Well, what do you think?"
"I think we mostly recovered it."
He laughs. "Not really the sort of people you want to wing it with."
"I had a meeting with him a couple of months ago, just after he joined BIS. It was to discuss my job and the Regs and the new match test. He seemed pretty positive but things he said were coming back to me in that meeting. Like, when I told him I was conflicted about whether to go for promotion because that would mean leaving this job, and I want to see this project through."
"And he said you were missing the point?"
"Yes, he said it's your career in the civil service that's important, not the actual job you're doing. He also said that in the civil service, the best way to get rid of someone in your team who isn't much good is you promote them."
"Or someone who might cause you too much work."
In the following six months or so, Steve and I will lead or attend over 40 workshops, events, meetings and discussions about the new match test, with a wide range of stakeholders. John will attend only one, which he's obliged to since it's with FIRA to talk about the work he gave to them at the meeting today.
At the time, I assumed this strange absence was because he trusted me to do the job without supervision, and save himself some work, as Steve had implied. Later, I'll suspect darker reasons.