The Government’s handling of an ex-firefighter’s pension complaint was “unfair, unlawful, unjust”, and a “prime example of ‘it’s not what you know but who you know’”, according to an explosive report published today.
After taking the “unusual” step of holding a second hearing following officials’ failure to accept criticism, the States Complaints Board said they were so exasperated with Government’s lack of engagement that all three members considered resigning.
Accusing the Government of denying “to the citizens of Jersey an effective independent oversight” of their processes, panel members Stuart Catchpole QC, Geoffrey Crill and Chris Beirne put forward a series of recommendations they felt should be urgently implemented to remedy the situation.
The case that sparked the damning comments was that of firefighter Stuart Newman, who had claimed Government failings had knocked 20% off his pension.
The States Complaints Board upheld Mr Newman’s complaint in December 2020 but the then-Treasury Minister, Deputy Pinel, said the following year her department would not be re-evaluating his pension.
Mr. Newman, who worked for the States for 28 years, had told the Complaints Board in September 2020 he had been unfairly denied a revaluation on his pension and had not been clearly informed of changes to rates.
He had sought pension advice in February 2018 with the help of his line manager, a “very senior officer”, but was turned down from getting a valuation figure due to the freezing of requests until May that year, and not given any further explanation.
On receipt of his pension, Mr Newman found it significantly lower than colleagues who had got theirs earlier in the year due to Market Value Adjustment. He estimated that, because of the re-evaluation rate, he had lost between 10 and 20% of his retirement money.
Pictured: The former Treasury Minister, Deputy Susie Pinel, refused to implement the Board's recommendations.
Though the Treasury Department later allowed for revaluations for anyone who had applied before 1 May 2018, Mr Newman’s request for revaluation was rejected, with the Department claiming they had no record of any phone calls before 29 May and assessing him at the post-evaluation rate.
The States Complaint Board upheld the complaint and recommended Mr Newman’s pension should be reviewed but the Minister for Treasury and Resources concluded in June 2021 there was not enough “material evidence” to support doing so, following assessment from the governing body behind the pension scheme. She also said she was “unable to make payment of a higher transfer value” as it would constitute a “Special Payment under the Public Finances Manual” which she believed there was no “proper legal basis” for.
The Complaints Board contacted the Minister over her response which they deemed “deeply unsatisfactory” but her position didn’t change, prompting the Board to take the “unusual step” of convening a second hearing in the light of the “seriousness” of Mr Newman’s case. Mr. Catchpole, one of the Board members, noted the Board had rarely come across a case where “it had felt compelled to take such a firm stance”.
The report that resulted from this second hearing is highly critical of the Government and its approach, which was described as “fundamentally flawed” as well as “unfair”.
Here are the main issues raised by the Board...
The approach of the Government and the committee tasked with administering Mr Newman’s pension was “symptomatic” of a failure to engage with the Board that has grown over the last few years, they said.
Pictured: The Board said Mr Newman's case was “symptomatic” of a failure to engage with the Board that has grown over the last few years.
“Elected and appointed officials, public servants and public bodies have failed properly to co-operate with the Board when it has made adverse findings and simply ignored the findings and recommendations,” they wrote. “This makes the process before the Board otiose. It denies to the citizens of Jersey an effective independent oversight of the administrative process.”
The matter was so serious for all three Board members they even considered resigning, but eventually decided not to, so that islanders would not be left “without some form of redress”.
In their report, they made several recommendations on how the process could be improved, including a general direction that all departments, civil servants and appointees to public offices work under the assumption they are subject to the jurisdiction to the Board and that challenges to this jurisdiction should be made as soon as the complaint is received. “It should never be appropriate to delay raising the challenge until late in the process as occurred in the present case,” the Board noted.
They also recommended their previous findings be implemented and Mr Newman receives “appropriate financial redress” by “whatever means is lawful”, as well as members of pension schemes to be given a statutory right to appeal any decisions relating their pension.
The Board said the case relied on a very simple question, “on any objective view of the evidence, has Mr. Newman been fairly and justly treated?”, to which the answer was no.
“In our considered judgement, and that of the first Complaints Board (of which two of us were members), Mr. Newman has been treated shabbily,” they wrote.
The Board said that four years after “manifest and numerous errors” in the handling of Mr Newman’s case, he still had not been paid the full amount he was entitled to, whilst the Treasury Department and the Committee of Management “contend that they are, in effect, above the law”.
“Having had his complaint investigated and upheld, exposing multiple failures in the process as a result, the Respondent and Committee of Management continue to maintain that he is only subject to their arbitrary and erroneous processes. And they are not going to pay him a penny,” the Board wrote.
Pictured: The Board said Mr Newman had been treated "shabbily".
They also noted that the Committee’s policy had not been applied consistently. The Board indeed found out that oral confirmation by an employee to a line manager – which is exactly what Mr. Newman had done – had been accepted because the line manager in that case happened to be a member of the Committee of Management.
“That is a prime example of ‘It’s not what you know but who you know’,” the Board wrote. “It is inappropriate in modern administration or policy-making. It is (obviously) unfair and unlawful. It only serves to underline the arbitrary manner in which Mr. Newman’s case has been handled.”
The Board took issue with the Government’s approach in the case.
The Committee’s decision to only accept “direct documentary evidence” as proof a valuation request had been made was described as “irrational” and “a basic misunderstanding about how matters may be ‘proved’”.
“Indeed, it was such a basic misunderstanding that whoever had given that advice or formulated that policy would not appear to have been competent,” the Panel wrote.
This approach, the Board added, also implied the Committee had speculated the “senior public officer” Mr Newman had spoken to in February 2018 “may not have been telling the truth in his written evidence”, which they said was “wholly inappropriate” as they had not cross-examined him despite the opportunity to do so.
Pictured: The Board said the Government's approach had been "fundamentally flawed".
The Board also criticised the Government’s challenge to its jurisdiction, the suggestion Mr Newman was seeking a “special payment” and the “misconceived” rejection of its findings.
They wrote: “It is also a matter of regret that we have to report that at every stage in this case, including in the run up to the second hearing, at the hearing itself and in its response to the Board’s invitation to reconsider their position, the approach of the Respondent and the Committee of Management has been fundamentally flawed.
“Indeed, some of the arguments advanced and positions adopted by the Respondent and the Committee of Management are so obviously misconceived that the Board is, frankly, incredulous that they have been pursued at all: either the relevant officials and advisers and/or Committee of Management simply do not understand some fairly simple concepts about public administration or they must be deliberately pretending not to understand the points that have been made.”
In a statement issued after the publication of the Complaints Board’s report, the Minister for Treasury and Resources, Deputy Ian Gorst, said: “I would like to thank the Panel for their report and will consider the more detailed findings as a matter of urgency.
“My officers in the Treasury and Committee of management work hard and in good faith to administer the pensions schemes in accordance governing legislation agreed by the States Assembly.
Pictured: The new Treasury Minister, Deputy Ian Gorst, said he would "accelerate" proposals for the creation of a Financial Service Ombudsman.
“I take these matters, and our responsibilities, seriously and this Council of Ministers will deliver a public services ombudsman by statute and with powers to direct.
“I have also asked for the acceleration of proposals already being developed for the Financial Service Ombudsman to become the final level of appeal for matters reflecting to the administration of the public employees pension schemes.
“This should replace the current, unsatisfactory system with which no-one is happy.”
Comments on this story express the views of the commentator only, not Bailiwick Publishing. We are unable to guarantee the accuracy of any of those comments.
Once your comment has been submitted, it won’t appear immediately. There is no need to submit it more than once. Comments are published at the discretion of Bailiwick Publishing, and will include your username.