A “toxic culture” where crew members were fearful of challenging their coxswain emerged at the St. Helier lifeboat station due to a “lack of leadership” from the RNLI, an official report has shown.
The findings are contained in an independent report into the breakdown in relations between the charity and former crew by Guernsey Harbour Master Captain Chad Murray, who concluded that the RNLI should remain a local lifesaving partner because no similar issues have been experienced by the beach lifeguards or the St. Catherine’s lifeboat – both of which are also run by the RNLI.
His report revealed that the catalyst for the 2017 fall-out was a complaint that coxswain Andy Hibbs had launched the St. Helier Inshore Lifeboat without permission from the Coastguard. He was stood down for breaches of the volunteer code, sparking a major issue which led to the creation of an alternative lifeboat service, the Jersey Lifeboat Association.
But that was set against a background of more than a decade of tension.
Captain Murray’s report catalogues how the RNLI’s “inability to manage at a local scale” in St. Helier led to a power vacuum into which Mr Hibbs stepped. According to the report, he was left “effectively ‘in charge’ without oversight or opportunity for challenge.”
Pictured: Islanders held a peaceful protest in support of coxswain Andy Hibbs when he was stood down last year.
Over the years, a “succession” of Lifeboat Operations Managers (LOMs) were described as attempting to exert authority, but Mr Hibbs’ apparently strengthening control led to a “well-respected” LOM being “forced out and replaced, allowing the coxswain to further influence the station.”
The review acknowledged that Mr Hibbs was required to show leadership due to the RNLI’s lack of control, but said that his approach may not have aligned with the charity’s policies and procedures.
According to the review, the RNLI’s loosening grip on the station paved the way for what was branded a “toxic culture where members of the RNLI St. Helier Lifeboat Station would not challenge decisions made by the coxswain, in fear of reprisals.” The report even suggested that the 25-strong crew, who walked out apparently in support of their coxswain, had not been unanimous in their decision to do so, but felt obliged to do so.
Captain Murray also described the emergence of a “selective cult” and “prevalent” behaviour that “could be construed by some as ‘cyber bullying’ on social media.”
When the RNLI finally tried to clamp down, the report suggests that their sudden “concentrated” efforts to manage the station may have been too much for the team, who may have seen this as “criticism” of their work.
This coincided with deteriorating relations between the St. Helier crew and the local Coastguard – a relationship that the RNLI had not previously been heavily involved in. It was the former Harbour Master who was revealed to have made the “informal” complaint about Mr Hibbs’ decision to self-launch the St. Helier Inshore Lifeboat.
An investigation by the RNLI followed, finding that Mr Hibbs decision was “mostly appropriate” and acceptable under RNLI regulations, despite the lack of an official request from the Coastguard for the boat. Nonetheless, the decision was still taken to stand Mr Hibbs down due to breaches of the charity’s code of conduct.
Video: Captain Murray said that the RNLI's decision to remove the All Weather Lifeboat did not pose a "risk to life."
Captain Murray, however, found fault with the RNLI’s handling of the complaint – it was “informal”, and therefore should have “quickly determined there to be no case to answer and terminated at that point.”
Mr Hibbs’ appealed the charity’s decision to stand him down in a process “successfully” mediated by the States of Jersey. He was reinstated following the appeal, and all parties were reported to have acknowledged that the saga should be “put in the past.” Nonetheless, some expressed concerns that the St. Helier crew would seek “revenge”.
A complaint was made shortly after about the St. Helier Area Manager, who had been involved in the appeal, but those allegations were not substantiated.
By November, tensions were high once again. The RNLI’s Director of Community Lifesaving and Fundraising visited the island to hear the concerns of the crew, and was informed by Mr Hibbs of the crew’s wish to resign and start an independent service in a meeting attended by only seven or eight members of the crew.
The report suggests that some of them had wished to remain part of the RNLI, but were nervous about speaking out, once again due to fear of reprisals. The Director said that she would report back to the crew following their meeting. In the interim, the crew were found to have made “derogatory” comments about the RNLI on social media.
Addressing the RNLI’s controversial removal of the all-weather lifeboat from the St. Helier station following the crew’s decision to form their own lifeboat service, Captain Murray concluded that the decision had formed no risk to life.
While the saga has played out heavily in the public and political domains, Captain Murray concluded that the ongoing issues – although plentiful – were no more than an “internal staffing matter.”
“At no point were lives put at risk and the issues are now in the past. The key point is that lessons have been learned and increased communication and the establishment of an open environment where issues can be raised in a safe manner is now in place which would prevent a reoccurrence. The SAR community is, by its very nature a collaborative one where no one asset has primacy and the ability to work as a team to established standards and practices is vital,” he said.
He stated that establishing a formal Committee of Inquiry – a suggestion put forward in the States by Senator Sarah Ferguson and due for debate later this month – was therefore unnecessary.
Pictured: Senator Sarah Ferguson has put forward proposals for an independent Committee of Inquiry into the lifeboats saga, branded as "unnecessary" by Captain Murray.
In his closing remarks, he recommended that all search and rescue parties sign a collaborative agreement on asset sharing and cooperation, and that social media policies should be reviewed in an attempt to “prevent misinformation and deformation of organisations or individuals.”
The RNLI have since responded to the report, stating that they recognised that "closer management of the situation should have happened sooner."
They added: "We remain committed to providing an excellent search and rescue service in Jersey. Our volunteer and staff teams have been working hard over the past few months and have already implemented some of the recommendations in the report.
"One of the biggest lessons for the RNLI is the importance of working closely with the local community in order to reach a resolution. We will continue to build on this and work with our volunteers, partners and the local community to focus on the future."
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