An "active piece of litigation" is preventing Planning from releasing a report about improvements to its services made in light of a £40k probe into alleged corruption, the Environment Minister has said.
After being recruited in 2018 to independently investigate allegations dating back more than a decade, the Norfolk Constabulary concluded last month that there was “insufficient evidence” for a criminal prosecution, but that evidence gathered suggested a “dysfunctional” system which was "not fit for purpose."
Detective Chief Superintendent Andy Smith, who led the “lengthy, detailed and complex” probe, said many individuals had been interviewed and “nigh on 1,000 documents” had been examined in the process.
On Tuesday, Deputy Mike Higgins asked the Environment Minister, Deputy John Young, what he had learned from the investigation and whether he thought it was necessary to take any action “to ensure the public has faith and confidence in the department going forward”.
“The three-and-a-half years investigation, as the Deputy knows, was in respect of historic cases and in the intervening 14 years, the Planning system has had many substantive changes and improvements,” the Minister replied.
Pictured: Detective Chief Superintendent Andy Smith presented the outcome of the investigation at a press conference in December.
“The department has an ongoing improvement program with recommendations which come from the regular reviews. It is my intention to publish a report on this implementation programme, the changes made I’ve mentioned and those in the pipeline, because there’s certainly needs to be a process of continuous improvement.”
Deputy Young added that he wouldn’t be able to publish the report until the conclusion of a civil claim, which was put on hold until the end of the investigation and resumed earlier this week.
“There is an active piece of live litigation, which means I am restricted in what I say about the matter but it is my intention to publish the report,” he said.
Deputy Higgins pressed the Minister to say what actions he would take against one officer, whom he said the investigation had concluded had “wilfully lied to the court as a prosecution witness”.
“Surely, any lies told in Court taint the evidence of all officers giving evidence and the case as a whole, and reflect badly on the public service,” he argued.
Pictured: Deputy Mike Higgins asked questions about what actions the Environment Minister would take following the conclusion of the investigation.
The Minister suggested the question seemed “to re-run the entire inquiry, repeating many allegations that were made”.
“There were allegations of perjury and misconduct in public office which the investigation has concluded there’s no foundation sufficient for prosecution, so they are not upheld, I think that’s very, very important,” he said.
He then went on to say the Planning system was naturally imperfect due to individuals having to make judgments.
“Of course, it’s absolutely right that the Planning system, the integrity of everybody, is above question and there’s no question that those standards are the ones that we aspire for,” he said.
“Of course, the Planning system is imperfect, it involves judgment as the Deputy knows and there’s always subjectivity in that and individuals are going to differ.”
Pictured: Deputy Young cast doubt over the quality of the investigation.
He then went on to cast doubt over the quality of the investigation, suggesting the police officers involved didn’t know enough about the planning system to comment on it.
“Personally, frankly sir, I think the police officers did of course a bit, they are not experts in the planning system so at the moment I rely upon judgment of those that are in this matter,” he said.
When Deputy Montfort Tadier what actions he would take to address the “number of issues over the implementation of planning legislation, including questionable processes, procedure and conduct of individuals” identified during the investigation, he said he had “reservations” about them because the investigation was a criminal one.
“It wasn’t run by those with understanding of the planning system,” he continued.
The Minister said he had written to the States Employment Board (SEB) - a panel of politicians responsible for overseeing Government HR matters - to invite them to discuss the report but noted he didn’t believe any action should be taken, adding that his “reluctance to concede” anything that would require further investigation was because it would be repeating what had already been done.
“My opinion is that I don’t think that since those matters are historic and a number of the staff who are named are no longer employed that I don’t consider there is a case for further investigation of any disciplinary matter,” he said.
He later added: “I think any planning system relies on public confidence in it. If I felt that I had let that confidence go I would say so sir. I have confidence in the officers that are currently in place and also the system changes that have been introduced to improve matters, but it isn’t perfect.”
Pictured: The Environment Minister said a lack of resources in his department could lead to mistakes being made.
Whilst he acknowledged there had been “historic” complaints about the enforcement officers, he said it was due to “very heavy-handed processes” from officers who were no longer working for the Government. He said he was “content” that new rules and standards as well as different training had been introduced for enforcement officers.
The Minister however said that a lack of resources could lead to mistakes being made.
“I think there has been a shortage of resource, we could do with more,” he said. “We could do with more planning officers because when people are put under pressure and they are carrying twice the workload they should normally be required to, it’s inevitable mistakes will be made. I’m very hopeful now the Government Plan has given us decent resources that can be put right in the improvement plan and that will be in the report I have undertaken to produce.”
Deputy Higgins pressed for answers on who would be held accountable for the “failures” in the Planning department, suggesting the Minister had “direct knowledge” of back in 2014, which Deputy Young “strongly, strongly rejected”.
“Frankly, I feel pretty speechless about the way the Deputy has approached that but nonetheless, what am I going to do? There are improvements and the SEB have them, it’s on their agenda, I’ve asked them to look at it to discuss it and if the SEB feels there’s a case for further disciplinary investigation into these matters that have already been looked at, then I think the board obviously would trigger that.”
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