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Lest We Remember…

…because we have forgotten, so let’s stop kidding ourselves.

…lest we forget, lest you forget, lest I forget, lest who forgets? I am so tired of hearing this exhortation from people who aren’t fit to wipe the shoes of the millions who made the ultimate sacrifice. As the centenary of the end of WW1 starts to shrink in the rear-view mirror of our recent history, what does the phrase really mean?! Lest we forget, seems to have become no more than the most feeble of fig leaves for those who would generally prefer us not to remember, or who want to shape our collective memory about what they think we should remember. Were we honouring the elderly earlier this year when we discharged those suffering from Corona Virus from our hospitals to spread the deadly infection through entire care homes that were ill-equipped to deal with it? Our actions always speak louder than our words and the measure of any truly civilized society is how it treats its most vulnerable.

Some of you may recall the contentious line from Alan Bennett’s film The History Boys that “there’s no better way of forgetting something than by commemorating it.”…recently I’ve been reading about the forms of commemoration that we collectively participate in at this time of year. There seems to be a focus on the symbols, icons, and processes of remembrance. However, there does not seem to be a great deal of thought given to the behaviours befitting of remembrance or on learning from the mistakes of our past. It has always seemed slightly hypocritical to me that we let our politicians lead the commemorations whilst we simultaneously entertain their latest stupidities, malfeasance or ill-informed attempt to take our country to war and sacrifice the lives of more young men and women…perhaps we feel whatever they do is okay as long as they commemorate other’s losses once a year?

Of course, the BBCs Royal Correspondent warmly, patronisingly, smoothly, and with no evidence whatsoever, once again assures the nation that we have proved our ability to remember those who died. At least in this year’s scaled-down socially distanced ceremonies, the press didn’t get the chance to criticise someone for wearing the “wrong type of coat” at the Cenotaph. I wonder if they and the attention-seeking whores of social media might actually take the opportunity to now turn their attention to those in office and start judging them by their deeds; now that would be a novelty.

But what is it we are being reminded to remember and how are we being encouraged to commemorate? And what should we be remembering — what really are the things we should never forget? Because remembering the fallen, honouring those who died in defence of freedom and democracy is a daily activity, not an annual event. Respecting their sacrifice should not be like the Mafia’s use of the Catholic faith, doing what you want as long as you are prepared to confess how many people you have maimed this week to your priest each Sunday…I’m a devout atheist but friends assure me that that’s the deal. I don’t mean daily remembrance in the self-flagellating sense of a painful masochistic ritual; I mean that remembering the fallen should be something we reflect in our daily behaviours.

Talk is cheap and wearing a poppy for some appears to be nothing other than a publicly visible and lazily stated symbol of integrity and worth. “Oh, look at them wearing a poppy, they must be ok mustn’t they”. They may be the black-hearted child of Satan himself, intent on widening the increasingly obvious and divisive gaps in our society, whilst dishing out a daily diet of lies and half-truths to manipulate us all and maintain their grip on power, but at least they respect the dead; which is of course, exactly what they are not doing. Lest we forget has been captured by practitioners of the dark arts, public relations and spin druids who shamelessly milk it for all it is worth. Once again, acts speak louder, or for the more scriptural amongst you, by their fruit’s ye shall know them (Gospel of Luke). I said I was an atheist; I didn’t say I haven’t read the bible. We are what we do, not what we say we are or what we say we do.

By focusing on the fallen, are we allowing others to set the agenda and forgetting to think for ourselves? We should remember that the fallen only died so we might live in a better world. They did not give their lives simply to be remembered once a year; I can’t see that rallying cry from the Captain causing anyone to rush over the top of a trench. Surely the greatest lesson of any war is that there was nothing great about it, that the senseless wastes of human life entailed are largely avoidable and that decisions are most often made by people without thought of the consequences. Perhaps we should have an annual day of mourning for the truth on which we lay wreaths of remembrance for honesty and integrity. When Blair sent young men and women to die in the heat of an oil-laden desert, based on lies, was he remembering the fallen?

Unless we remember, the willingness of despots and idiots to lead us to hell and unless we remember, the willingness of the working classes to follow them at the drop of a well-worded hat, then wearing a poppy is just a copout. Ask the families of the victims of Hillsborough if the behaviour of South Yorkshires Police was a fitting tribute to the fallen? You can wear a poppy once a year for the rest of your life, you can dust them off at Easter and Christmas if you like, but just wearing a poppy means nothing in itself. The greatest tribute any of us can pay to those who gave their lives to defend democracy is to treat it as the precious treasure it is and recognise that it is not the finished article. Democracy, like many other things in life, is very much a work in progress and its survival depends on our continued and thoughtful participation in it.

I won’t quote the various scandals, old and new that have plagued parliament and our public sector over the years, the levels of cronyism, nepotism, corruption, and outright duplicity are too many and way too depressing to highlight, and they show no signs of abating. In fact, they appear to be increasing in number as the elite and those in positions of privilege, become more brazen and courageous in the post honesty environment we have allowed our hard-earned freedom to foster.

While we are at it, can we debunk the notion that selling poppies to prop up the coffers of charities is a fitting tribute to anyone? Is it not the very definition of irony that on a day of remembrance we endorse the supporting of veterans in the absence of adequate help from the nation, the same nation our veterans fought to protect? Charity makes beggars of us all. Way too many veterans are struggling with mental health, sleeping homeless and taking their own lives in record numbers for their treatment to be seen as anything other than a national disgrace. I give to charity because I am a pragmatist.

If we want to honour the dead, then we, you, I, must behave in ways befitting the sacrifice they made, and this should not be confused with compliance. There will be times in our life when we need to make trouble, good trouble. When people in positions of public trust lie, conceal and collaborate to mislead, hiding harm and wrongdoing to retain their status, we should call them out. They are dishonouring the virtue of public service and spitting on the graves of the war dead…we can moan and twine but we are not stuck in traffic, we are the traffic, and if we say and do nothing then we become part of a problem we may be tempted to think has nothing to do with us. Our continued toleration enables the perpetuation of the things we see around us that have no place in a civilized democratic and free society.

The real tribute we can all make is in our actions and behaviours and in our judgement of the actions and behaviours of those who lead our institutions. We need to constantly be answering the challenge Lloyd George gave and answer it honestly, have we made Britain a country fit for heroes?

Whistleblowing

Or is it Market Research and Truth-Telling?

Men occasionally stumble over the truth, but most of them pick themselves up and hurry off as if nothing ever happened — Churchill (the person, not the insurance dog)

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Over the years I have become more reticent to be honest when I am asked about my qualifications. The reason for this is that my first major qualification was in Marketing, you know the one, getting people to buy things they don’t need with money they don’t have to impress people they don’t like — and I have been a Chartered Marketer for about twenty years. After being politely asked to leave school by my headmaster following an exchange of “friendly banter” about his bald patch when he insisted I cut off my Mohican, and subsequently exiting the education system without any meaningful qualifications, a job in sales seemed my only route to financial freedom in Britain in the Eighties. By default, marketing then became my topic of choice when I finally started to study again in my late twenties. The fear of being an unqualified fifty-something desperately trying to survive in a competitive commercial world surrounded by bright young enthusiastic things armed with degrees scared the life out of me, so I enrolled in the Open University to secure my place in the “I’m as clever as the next one” rat race. With hindsight, it’s clear I worried way too much about the expected influx of smart young people armed with degrees who would be competing with me for work. Sorry Generation Y, but the promise of your arrival on the scene was seriously overhyped.

I started to learn about marketing, real marketing and market research when I was a young salesman. I have always liked the concept in what I call its purest form. Life as a salesman can be tough and rejection on a daily basis is part of the gig, so I naturally warmed to the idea that whatever I was selling should be shaped by, and designed around the needs of the end-users. Which salesman doesn’t want to knock on an open door selling products that customers really want? I think seeking to understand the wants, needs and experiences of customers, is a universally applicable principle whether you work in the Private or Public Sector. According to Clayton Christensen, he of coveted Harvard innovation guru status, eighty per-cent of new products launched each year, fail. Have you noticed no service the Public Sector launches is ever officially acknowledged as failing, though I would hazard a guess the true failure rate is higher than the Private Sector; it’s just that there is as yet no meaningful way of measuring service failures in the Public Sector. Market-share is not an issue when customers have no choice.

As a young salesman at the sharp end, having been sucked into having to try to sell what was available, rather than what was needed, by both small and large blue-chip employers on more than one occasion, I came to despise the waste-of-money, balloons-and-t-shirt’s approach to attracting business which often represents the common view of marketing. WOMBAT marketing relies heavily on fluff and Public Relations to peddle myths and sell polished turds. We can all think of something we were enticed to buy with a slick or novel promotional campaign that we have never used or which promised the earth and then broke or malfunctioned on its first outing. Our cupboards are bursting, our shelves are straining under the weight, and our landfill sites are filling to the brim with WOMBAT inspired purchases. Scented sticks in a jar, picnic pants, spider catcher or fondue set anyone?

But if you’ve ever worked at the sharp end of sales, selling commission-only products as I used to, you quickly realise that if what you are selling does not meet the needs of the people you want to buy it, you are effectively screwed. I remain eternally grateful that during this period in my early adult life, the link between a delighted customer and the health of my bank balance became quickly and blindingly obvious to me. I still recall the dissatisfied customer who politely but firmly reminded me that it was ultimately his money that was paying my wages, not my bosses (public sector take note). This exposure to real life, as I like to call it, teaches a person the value of seeking and making time for feedback. As you might imagine, I had quite the difficulty describing my time in the private sector to my new, well-meaning, but highly cosseted colleagues when I joined the Public Sector in my late thirties. Most of whom had never worked in any other setting. “He’s saying we could improve our services, and save money if we listen to the service-users, whatever is he on about”; you get the gist.

Listening to what customers are saying, really listening, committing time and effort into giving them opportunities to be heard, and treating the emerging insights like the precious gold dust they are is simply not the done thing in the Public Sector. If good marketing is constantly looking under the stones to find what your customers don’t like, looking for their pain points and trying to find ways of alleviating them, then I think good marketers who enter the public sector are naturally predisposed, I would say almost hopelessly destined, doomed even, to become questioning employees. The assured destruction of their careers lies in the seeds of their curiosity and any innate desire they may possess to improve things. People who seek to make meaningful improvements and identify areas where services can be developed to be more effective and efficient for all involved, are generally viewed with great suspicion and quickly ostracised in Public Sector circles. Then, when all the avenues for improvement they thought were open to them are exhausted and patience with the prevailing attitude of the status quo runs out, they finally decide to call-out the complacency and poor practice they can see all around them for what it is, the Public Sector applies one of its most pejorative, dehumanising and toxic labels to the curious passionate empathising truth-tellers that find themselves in its ranks; it marks them out as whistleblowers. The King may be in the altogether, but you are not supposed to say it out loud.

Every Private Sector organization I have ever worked for has wanted to learn from the people who purchased, used and consumed its products and services, but those I have worked for in the Public Sector have not. Though the truism of an unresponsive disengaged Public Sector is never challenged, we all know its the case, I still find it incredible and ironic that the organisations we collectively fund to provide services for the common good are less interested in the views of the people who use their services than most companies in the Private Sector. Just watch the Senior Directors of any public body — NHS Trusts being prime candidates — when they are forced, generally kicking and screaming, to meet with members of the communities they serve at public meetings to discuss proposals or planned changes to services. The first and most obvious thing you will notice from their body language is that they simply do not want to be there. In fact, they would rather be anywhere else. From the look of terror on some of their faces, being chased by a wild and hungry bear would be a preferable option to facing the public who are paying their wages. At the risk of mixing my metaphors, they are like fish out of water.

The reason is quite simple. Most people in senior positions in our Public Sector do not see that any of the decisions they make should be influenced in any way by the public they serve, and whose money they rely on to pay for the essentials each month; stabling, horse feed, villa in Provence etc. The temerity of those pesky taxpayers who dare to ask questions and want meaningful explanations about why the public sector is thinking of changing something they have come to rely on, is an anathema to the rigid hierarchical cultures they preside over and that dominate our Public Sector Services. The hierarchies in many public sector institutions survive in echo chambers. That is to say, they do not, whether by design or simply the result of being cosily enmeshed in self-serving sycophancy, knowingly ever expose themselves to views, opinions or even empirical data that might collide with their view of the world, splintering the carefully protected and fragile paradigm through which they make sense of the universe. It’s life Jim, but not as we know it.

Only the most obstinate could deny that we need people in our Public Sector Services who want to identify areas for improvement and make positive changes for both service users and employees. Intrapreneurs who constantly push organisations towards better models of what good might look like. Perhaps we need to rethink the term whistleblower? I have the badge myself and wear it now with great pride, it was after all the most expensive of the numerous qualifications I have amassed, costing a career with generous pension contributions and benefits most private sector companies can only dream of providing their employees. But I have to confess, I’m still slightly uncomfortable with the term.

So what happened I hear you ask? How does someone enthusiastic, driven with a wealth of experience, more qualifications than you could poke a stick at, a small smattering of intelligence, a track record of focusing on the needs of service-users, and a strong moral compass to boot, get hounded out of a career with the nations best-loved institution? The answer lies in the question. Unfortunately and unknown to me, these are precisely the qualities and attributes that are not wanted in the Public Sector. The two worlds of public and private, though sometimes overlapping, operate in extremely different climates, and the NHS is at the far end of the public sector climate continuum. It is effectively its own planet. I was always doomed to fail, I just didn’t know it and I learned the hard way. I was used to contributing and bringing value to my role, showing up, bringing my whole self to work, engaging, asking questions, seeking to find and solve problems. And this is where it all went sideways, so to speak. Asking questions to which the answers may be unfavourable is a big no-no in the public sector. And looking for problems to solve is akin to devil worshipping in the cafe at lunchtime.

The monthly and annual reports containing information on the good, the not so good and the downright alarming, that I and my team conscientiously produced and then distributed to the Chief Executive, Director’s, Chairman and Board of Governors, made me Mr Unpopular and Public Sector Enemy Number One in the NHS Trust I worked for. I genuinely thought that people in positions of responsibility would want to know what the problems were in the business they were paid handsomely to oversee. After all, you can’t fix what you don’t know is broken. By now you can probably see where this is going. I was approaching my role as if I were still in the Private Sector, feeding intelligence from the marketplace into the corporate centre. I had completely failed to understand that the Public Sector does not want to know what customers think of its services. Acquiring knowledge from the marketplace in the Private Sector is seen as an opportunity, being made aware of problems in the Public Sector is viewed as a liability. I finally spat my dummy out when a director asked me to undertake a survey using only the questions we knew would get favourable answers-he needed a positive story to tell to the board. My response was the nail in the coffin of my career in the NHS. If we had been selling cheap widgets I might have acquiesced, but we were dealing in life and death and I couldn’t be a party to such wasteful and meaningless activity.

Personally, I think we should create an honorary taxpayer-funded members club for anyone labelled a whistleblower, and everyone in this club should be inducted into some sort of hall of fame for services to the nation. However, I am conscious for many the “W” term still has a derogatory, almost secretive, feel to it. It’s as if whistleblowers are naturally nefarious untrustworthy people who have done something wrong, broken ranks with colleagues, disrespecting unwritten codes. They should therefore expect retribution and estrangement from their employer, their former workmates and the wider world of work. To me, whistleblowers are merely truth-tellers, passionate service improvers of whom the vast majority care about their chosen fields of work and the often vulnerable people they are paid to serve. You have to be passionate to care enough to make the significant sacrifices many whistleblowers have. Now, where did I put that Universal Credit claim form…

Justice in the UK; a work in progress…

 

My name is Tom Bell, I am the author of Lions, Liars, Donkeys and Penguins — The Killing of Alison. These past few months, I have had the opportunity to contribute my thoughts to a review of the justice system in relation to what happens when things go wrong in our Public Services, and systemic failures result in deaths or injury. The review, which led to the production of an imaginatively titled document called, “When Things Go Wrong — The response of the justice system”, contained over fifty recommendations. It was coordinated and produced by an independent organization called Justice (www.justice.org.uk). Justice is an all-party law reform and human rights organization that works to strengthen the justice system in the UK. I must confess that until I was forced to acknowledge the shortcomings (yes there are some) of the UK’s justice system, I was blissfully unaware of their existence.

I think my ignorance was in part fuelled by a blind belief in our hallowed British justice system. We, in the UK, have been led to believe that our courts and justice processes are the envy of the world; the finished product, a leading light, an exemplar all others aspire to emulate. It might be one of the better systems of justice, who knows?! But based on my experience I think any country looking to ours as an example of what good might look like has fallen victim to the great Public Relations effort the UK has become so good at.

Having now been on the wrong end of so much systemic injustice and poor practice from our healthcare system and Public Sector Services these last few years, I think I have now finally realised what the UK is really, really exceptionally good at. Our USP, the area we lead others and excel on the world stage in, appears to be telling the rest of the world what we are exceptional at. This, of course, doesn’t translate to meaning, we are actually good at it. But we are absolutely brilliant at saying we are good at it.

Personally, I think we, that’s the “royal we”, the entire UK, needs to take a good hard long look in the mirror when it comes to the parlous position of democracy and justice in our country. A few years ago, a Mafia expert, an Italian journalist called Robert Saviano — and no, I don’t really know what expert in this sense means or how you study to become one, but let’s run with it — said the UK is one of the most corrupt countries in the world. Saviano has clearly never been to Nigeria, but his claim is alarming, nonetheless.

I genuinely welcomed the chance to have my say and input into the important work Justice were doing. After what I and my family have been through I find it incredibly cathartic to be listened to, to be acknowledged and have my voice heard. I am an optimist by nature. Worryingly us optimists die earlier than our pessimistic counterparts because the strain of all the disappointments we encounter has an impact on our life expectancy. I can vouch for that! They say it’s the hope that kills you and now the scientists have the evidence to prove it. If you want to live a long life, then the secret it would seem is to expect little from it, therefore avoiding the disappointment resulting from the dashing of your rosy expectations. Regardless of the facts, I think it would certainly feel like you had lived longer if you chose to live in such a despondent way.

It was extremely heartening to be involved in the review Justice undertook, an important piece of work, one which I sincerely, if not overly-optimistically, hope will make a real difference to many. It may seem a slightly superficial observation to make, but the simple fact that the knowledge of the things I have experienced was welcomed by those undertaking the review meant a great deal to me.

Someone wiser, and sickenly also younger than me, most of the great quotes I draw on are from the dead, suggests that the greatest respect you can offer a person is to listen to them. Bryant H McGills’ superficially simplistic words are far more significant than at first glance they look; just ask anyone who has rung the Samaritans about the true value of being listened to as they have teetered on the edge of the mental abyss. I have that T-Shirt in my collection as well and I now try to listen to others more than I ever have. Listening, really listening, isn’t as easy as you might think. But the more I do it the better I get at it.

Too often in our Public Sector Services, the voices of those who have experienced harm and wrongs done to them and their loved ones, are written off as the extreme views of people with an axe to grind and an agenda. People in my position are viewed as unfortunate exceptions to the rule and hence unreasonably demanding, overly bitter, irrationally angry, and undeserving of meaningful engagement. And sometimes we are angry, intensely, and passionately angry, and that’s ok. Of course, the irony of my anger, like the anger of many whose loved ones have been harmed, is that it increases the more we are not listened to. Though it was utterly shocking and heartbreaking to find out my sister had been abused in the care of an NHS mental health hospital, it has been infinitely more devastating and emotionally destructive to watch as the Public Sector has attempted to hide the evidence of its wrongdoing. The cover-up has now become the real source of outrage.

Public Sector bureaucracies create a self-fulfilling and highly convenient prophecy by distancing the people they have wronged, then writing them off as they become increasingly angry. I was once warned about being overly forthright in an email I sent to the Crown Prosecution Service. It might be un-English, but telling them that, “I was very jolly well upset by their decision not to prosecute the mental health nurse who had sex with my sister on hospital premises when she was a patient”, just didn’t feel as appropriate as telling them I was “absolutely fucking gobsmacked”.

Anger in the face of injustice has become energy for me and many like me, and I have to admit that sometimes it’s the only one sustaining me. People get angry about the things they care about, I care deeply about justice. Anyone who expects us, and believe me, there are a seemingly ever-increasing number of “us”, not to be angry and upset when the systems we believe in and pay for, fail and then mislead us, has never experienced what we have experienced.

Being listened to gave me a lift and helped restore a tiny bit of faith in the justice system. Just seeing my name listed as one of those who had contributed by sharing my time and expertise with the reviewing panel felt like a positive part of salvaging something useful from the tragic wreckage of Alison’s death. It also helped me acknowledge something to myself I have taken some time to admit — it wasn’t one of the life choices I ever envisaged, but I have now become an expert by experience in the field of injustice.

As the true method of knowledge is experiment, the true faculty of knowing must be the faculty which experiences. This faculty I treat of. William Blake

To look at a copy of the report produced by Justice, click HERE or go to www.justice.org.uk

Public Services in Rural areas; is it realistic to expect them to be excellent?

I live in Penrith, Cumbria, the home of the UK’s Lake District and the most sparsely populated rural district in England. Cumbria would be the undisputed first choice for a British remake of the Dukes of Hazzard. Apart from being overly cold for the frequent wearing of hot pants, we have most of the ingredients required. Some rough and ready drinking holes, I should know, wide expanses of lawless rurality, a hapless police force, a jolly if decidedly dim police commissioner, no shortage of incompetent public servants, and the obligatory gaggle of entitled landowners and favour pulling businessmen.  

When it comes to the running of our public services, we have a bad habit of celebrating ineptitude and welcoming the detritus discarded from elsewhere that is unable to find refuge in any other place. Behind Cumbria’s picture-postcard scenery is a patchwork quilt of poorly performing public services who owe our continued tolerance of them on a mix of stoic rural self-reliance, community spirit and an army of committed volunteers. I think this typifies how communities in many rural areas survive. 

We make such a wonderful hiding place for dross, that recently an unqualified psychiatrist, which I guess means she wasn’t really a psychiatrist, was discovered in the employment of Cumbria’s NHS providing counselling to some of the county’s most vulnerable people. Even pre-Corona, Cumbria’s NHS was so stretched it would have welcomed Harold Shipman if he could be resurrected with a pulse. Mind you, this could help reduce our ageing population and if his services were publicised adequately, deter further retirees from coming here to see out their days in rural tranquillity. 

If our police force are a laughingstock, our NHS hospitals are an undisputed basket case. The NHS in Cumbria has been in crisis for as long as anyone cares to remember.  The county’s healthcare system is regularly highlighted by NHS England itself as one of the most challenged and dysfunctional in Britain. North Cumbria NHS has had fourteen different chief executives in the last twenty years, a national record.

As inept management, consistent failings and a culture of collusion and wilful blindness have inevitably led to serious harm and even death, the NHS in Cumbria has been forced to pay out tens and tens of millions of pounds in compensation to patients and their families. The cost to UK taxpayers of continually baling Cumbria NHS out of the crap it appears unable to climb out of, is only exceeded by the tragic personal cost and often irreversible damage done to those it has failed and their loved ones. 

As for the county’s council services, I’ve yet to meet anyone who expresses delight in them, then again is anyone ever delighted with their local authority. Cumbria’s six small district authorities and its countywide council are widely regarded by citizens as unfit for purpose, particularly children’s services which are regularly lambasted in the local and national press. We will leave the state of Cumbria’s education for another day. Suffice to say neither competence nor courage are obvious qualities in the upper echelons of Cumbria’s public services. 

Cumbria has never been and is unlikely to become a beacon of brilliance attracting the brightest and best of the public sector. On the rare occasions leading-edge thinkers might seek employment in public services, it’s an unfortunate reality that isolated rural areas like Cumbria lack the critical mass needed to attract them. Unable to tempt the good and providing sanctuary for the inept, places like Cumbria deliver a double whammy to rural populations who need their public services to be innovative if they are to be effective. 

Tom’s book, Lions, Liars, Donkeys and Penguins – The Killing of Alison is available in paperback and Kindle on the Amazon website https://amzn.to/2yAwa0j

Tom is currently developing a website to highlight the need for increased honesty & integrity in Public Sector services at www.hipss.org.uk  

He can be contacted at tom@hipss.org.uk  

Failure has many faces…too many

This last month or so I have been posting relentlessly on LinkedIn to generate awareness of the book I wrote about the events leading up to and following the suicide of Alison. Today I was contacted by a contact asking me to refrain from using LinkedIn to share this story. Apparently, it isn’t the right platform to share such things. Perhaps it would be useful if I were to explain why I feel it is precisely the right platform.

I have been on LinkedIn for over a decade now. Back in the early days, I was listed as being in the top one per cent of globally viewed profiles, that was before everyone else got on it and employers finally realised employees weren’t using it to look for another job, at least not all the time, and were in fact, using it to connect with people, prospects, ideas and expertise. Much of what I see on LinkedIn and a great deal of what I have shared over the years fall’s unashamedly into the category of “boring but potentially important to someone”. I get that a business networking platform isn’t the right place for me to post clips of my excursions to Glastonbury and family barbecues. In my mind, Facebook is my front room, Twitter is the Pub, even more so now they are all shut, and LinkedIn is the workplace. This simple guidance has shaped what I post on each of the SM channels I frequent.

The need for good leadership and management is always a hotly debated and frequently posted topic on LinkedIn. Type the search term Books on Leadership and Management into Google (other browsers are apparently available?) and you will get a staggering number of results, an amount which will doubtless have increased by tomorrow and which I imagine will continue to grow exponentially as every author issues a new version of their work with the words, “in a post-pandemic world” or “to deal with the new normal” added as a subtitle. In my opinion, you don’t have to know that much about leadership and management to publish a series of top-selling books on the subject, but you have to be great at promoting yourself and maintaining your relevance. I myself have read and own a great many books on business and management, but I could count the ones I would take to a desert island on one hand. In fact, my wife Debbie only bought me a Kindle for my birthday some years ago because we were running out of shelf space.

If we think leadership and management are appropriate topics for discussion, then we must think that failures of leadership and management, especially when they occur in sensitive settings, are more than hollow concepts to toss around loosely over canapes and bubbly. The failures of leadership and management in our public services have names and faces. An increasing and worryingly significant amount of names and faces. If leadership matters, why are so many of us afraid to acknowledge or talk about the human cost of poor leadership? Heartache, harm, mental health breakdowns, premature deaths, and in my families case, the suicide of a young woman; these are what failures of leadership and management look like. We will not find people like Alison mentioned in the pages of Johnson & Scholes MBA textbooks; I think we should.

Lions, Liars, Donkeys and Penguins – The Killing of Alison, may not look or seem at first glance to be a traditional management textbook, and why should it; does the world really need another of these? As well as being a very personal and honest story, it is essentially a tale about the consequences of poor leadership and management. I know I am biased, but I can’t think of any more relevant topic to post on LinkedIn.

The person who suggested I was publicising my book in the wrong place belongs to a national company that works closely with the NHS, interpreting data. And that is precisely the problem. Data is nothing on its own, but too many managers are blinded by it. Data is not messy, it is simple to deal with and it doesn’t answer back. It is the lazy thinker’s route to leadership Valhalla. But data is little without context and I believe stories are simply data with soul, we forget this simple fact at our peril and at the expense of our better nature. When the NHS itself admits that its inward-looking collusive cultures may be contributing to the unnecessary or premature deaths of over 15,000 people a year, isn’t that the most incredibly telling indicator of the impact leadership and management can have. Is there a bigger story in the world of leadership and management right now than this very one?

I have read countless dry texts written by counsellors and consultants without wisdom. They rarely if ever come from a place of such intimate if unwanted experience as I do. And they fail to tell the very real story of the heavy human cost of poor leadership, weak management and collusive cultures. The faces of the dead can tell us more, move us more to action, than data ever will, but we have to remain open to acknowledging their stories and hearing their voices…

Lions Liars Donkeys and Penguins – The Killing of Alison

Lions, Liars, Donkeys and Penguins – The Killing of Alison

Two weeks ago I published a book, Lions, Liars, Donkeys and Penguins – The Killing of Alison. The book is an unconventional, honest and deeply personal attempt to bring what has been hidden, into the light for all to see. As imperfect as it is, I am pleased I wrote it; it was such a cathartic experience. But I remain confused about the fact I had to write it. It’s a book nobody should need to write in a first world country like Britain.

Alison was a vulnerable mentally ill patient of the NHS when she was taken advantage of by an older male nurse. She became pregnant and a crisis abortion was arranged by the mental health hospital. Alison took her life on what would have been her child’s third birthday. Though the names are known, no one has ever been held accountable for the crimes committed against her. Alison and we her family, have been spectacularly and repeatedly failed by the NHS, Police and Crown Prosecution Service. I hope with all my heart you never find out what the denial of justice feels like.

As I wrote, the book turned into something other than I had imagined. It became a summary of a mix of experiences that had common cores running through them all. Honesty, integrity and authenticity. As I researched I read thousands of pages from a growing list of public sector post-tragedy reports; Gosforth, Mid-Staffs, Hillsborough, to name but three of what I labelled in my folders, a dossier of disaster. What struck me about the reports was their avoidance of humanity, as if each issue could be addressed by lengthy if ultimately doomed programmes of culture change. None of the reports highlighted the propensity of certain individuals to be amoral when it suited them. In fact, far from being chastised, the facilitators and perpetrators of wrongdoing were themselves somehow cast in the role of fellow victims, prey to target driven or collusive cultures. The harmful behaviours of individuals simply dressed-up as the logical result of broken organisations, not the result of people incapable of displaying personal agency or choice. It was as if the conclusion of each report was to highlight that nobody should be held accountable.

Why have too many of our public sector institutions become synonymous with spin, duplicity and evasiveness? We seem to have reached a point where we are shocked when someone is open and honest, how did the baseline of our expectations become so low? My family and I have never wanted punitive retribution against the perpetrator, those who accommodated his acts or those who ultimately concealed them. But wouldn’t it be great if they could just put their hands in the air and say, we fucked up and we are sorry.

Leadership matters, it makes a difference, for better or worse. But individual agency must also be acknowledged. While the book pays tribute to the many leaderless heroes on the frontline of our NHS and public services, it is scathing about the lack of honesty and integrity in the hierarchy and management of these services. It is a story of the abuse of power, the hiding of wrongdoing in culturally dysfunctional organisations and a quest for truth, accountability and justice that is not yet over…

We who believe in justice cannot rest until it comes. Martin Luther King Jr.

A Proper Inquest for Alison

This July we have launched a crowd-funding campaign to obtain a fresh inquest into our sister Alison’s death. We buried Alison on Christmas Eve 1991. She had stepped in front of a train at Rotherham Station. Alison was a mental health inpatient in the care of the NHS at the time of her death. We did not know it then, but an older trainee nurse had developed an interest in Alison and had sexual intercourse on hospital premises with her.

Alison was vulnerable to exploitation and the sex acts committed on hospital premises were illegal. Alison became pregnant and was coerced, we believe by hospital staff into a crisis abortion. Alison took her life on what would have been the third birthday of her aborted baby. The facts were covered-up and the tragic circumstances leading to her suicide were withheld from the original inquest into Alison’s death in 1992.

In 2017 the trainee nurse in question finally admitted having sex with Alison on multiple occasions on the hospital premises. However, the Crown Prosecution Service decided not to prosecute him as they said it was not in the Public Interest. We strongly disagree.

A new inquest is now the only way the truth about what happened can be brought into the public domain. The application to obtain a new inquest will cost around £8,000 and though the signs are very positive, there is no guarantee of success. There is no legal aid available for people seeking to reopen inquests so we really need your help to raise this amount. Please pledge a small amount and share the link with your friends and contacts.

This campaign is supported by INQUEST, the only charity providing expertise on state-related deaths and their investigations to bereaved people, lawyers, advice and support agencies, the media and parliamentarians.

Thanks to many people’s generosity the money needed to try and obtain a proper inquest for Alison has been successfully raised CLICK THIS LINK to go to the Crowd-Justice website.

The Inglorious 12th…

…this Sunday it will be the 12th of August, the start of the red grouse shooting season, known to many in the UK as the glorious 12th. Needless to say, if you are a red grouse the date is probably not listed as “glorious” on the calendar and for animal rights advocates the date is known as the inglorious 12th, a day on which those with the inclination and means, shoot small animals; it’s a funny old world. For me, the 12th of August is inglorious, very, very inglorious for altogether different reasons, it is the day my sister Alison had an abortion when she was a Mental Health Patient under “the care” of the NHS in Carlisle, the abortion was the result of the illegal sex acts of a 35yr old trainee Mental Health Nurse called Robert Scott-Buccleuch. Alison was just 21 when she was first admitted to a Mental Hospital in Carlisle. Scott-Buccleuch got close to Alison when she was ill and highly vulnerable, he abused a position of trust and exploited her strong religious beliefs. He told her he shared her faith which in his mind included engaging in unprotected premarital sex on hospital premises, a new and highly novel take on the traditional teachings of the bible.

Alison needed professional help, he wanted sex. According to records, some colleagues tried to tell him he was breaking professional boundaries, a member of staff wrote to managers and Scott-Buccleuchs tutor from the training college, but they were ignored and managers turned a blind eye to what was happening. Despite warnings, Scott-Buccleuch decided to have sex on hospital premises with a mentally ill vulnerable young woman, a decision that could not end well, and it didn’t. Because of his actions and the poor supervision that allowed the events to occur, Alison had a secretive crisis abortion and left “the care” of the NHS in Carlisle. Three years later on the anniversary of what would have been the birth of her baby, Alison stepped in front of a train and ended her life. Robert Scott-Buccleuch and the people who let him take advantage of Alison, they might as well have pushed her onto the railway track themselves that day. Their actions had real consequences and this Sunday the 12th will be thirty years since Alison had the crisis abortion in Carlisle in 1988. No one has ever been held accountable for what was done to Alison in Carlisle.

As if the suicidal death of a sister is not enough to learn to live with, salt has been poured on the wound of our loss by the failings of every one of the institutions we have engaged with in our quest for justice. We have been let down at each stage of our journey as one by one the institutions we put our trust in, that we fund to protect and help us, have failed to do their jobs. The gallery of faces around Alison above reflects the wide range of people and institutions, most of them publicly funded, who have broken the law, been incompetent, lied, turned a blind eye, lost evidence, withheld evidence, protected the guilty, misled us, and placed their reputational needs above our need for justice. They all seem blissfully unaware that Robert Scott-Buccleuchs actions and those who condoned them left a trail of misery and victims in their wake. Our message to you is that we will not let you remain invisible, you have faces and names and we will not let you hide on the fringes, concealing your crimes and incompetence…

 

Hope sapping, mind-numbing and soul destroying…

…and that was just watching the CPS lawyers try to set-up their recording machine before the meeting even started. On Friday the 04th May 2018, my older sister Sarah and I finally got a chance to meet two of the senior prosecutors from the CPS team who made the decision not to prosecute a Mental Health Nurse who had sex with our sister Alison on hospital premises when she was a mental health patient. The sex led to a pregnancy, a hastily arranged crisis abortion which was concealed and excluded from her mental health medical records, and ultimately, a deterioration in Alison’s mental health which led to her suicide. I’m not sure Sarah and I knew where to start when we planned the agenda for this long-awaited and eagerly anticipated meeting, there were (and here comes a spoiler alert folks, there still are) so very many unanswered questions.

As I write this it is nearly ten days since we met the CPS and this is the first time I have felt able to express any thoughts on the meeting. This last week I have felt more empty, hopeless and at times just plain old desperate, forlorn and detached than I can remember. I can’t relate to the people around me and I can’t begin to try to explain to anyone, perhaps other than those who have also suffered intolerable injustice, the heavy almost unbearable weight of abject emptiness I have felt. It’s as if we have travelled the yellow brick road (still one of the best stories of how a team of imperfect differences can reach a destination) and having reached the Wonderful Wizard of Oz we have discovered he really is nothing of the sort. Small, intellectually and emotionally, moribund and inept, desperately peddling to keep the wobbly corporate bike upright, utterly unable to empathize and defensive of the indefensible to the very last. There is now a huge tear in the fabric of my understanding of the universe. Everything I have been brought up to believe about the way the world should work in the country that I live in is in tatters around me. I feel like I have been stripped back to the very core of my being. I have gone down the rabbit-hole, I have seen the Matrix behind the illusion and now I feel hopeless, small and insignificant, very, very insignificant. Seeing my hope relentlessly and mercilessly taken from me by bureaucrats detached from the consequences of their decisions has, without doubt, shaped and created a different Tom Bell to the one I used to know and offer to the world.

We were greeted cordially enough into the soulless office building in the middle of Carlisle. The two CPS lawyers introduced themselves pleasantly and then the meeting descended into predictable farce as they attempted to start recording the meeting. They prodded, pressed buttons and stared in a puzzled kind of non-IT literate hopeful fashion at a bit of equipment that looked like a prop from an eighties TV cop show that still used old-fashioned analogue cassettes, a la Life on Mars style. We should have known at this point how unproductive the meeting was going to be. Their attempts to goad and cajole the obviously recalcitrant and probably seldom used recording beast into life did not go well. We sat patiently as the increasingly ill-tempered machine uttered a series of illegible pre-programmed instructions in a weird psycho-robot voice and then emitted a continuous burst of lengthy high pitched squeals. This went on for a good ten minutes before the meeting finally started. At the time I had thought it was just a classic if somewhat crude distraction technique, designed to put us off our stride. But perhaps on reflection, the machine was simply setting the tone, reminding all those present of the rules of the CPS, its behaviour accurately reflecting our experience of dealing with them thus far; 1) make the interface complex and difficult to understand and use so as to discourage further contact, 2) respond with a standard set of instructions and suggested processes regardless of the question being asked and 3) when things get complex, launch a stream of unintelligible nonsense through which no logic can be allowed to enter. CPS processes, like many public sector bodies, seem designed to ensure that only the persistent, those with time, motivation, a modicum of intelligence and a shitload of patience ever make it to the start line.

As we left the building, emotionally drained and no further forward, one of the CPS lawyers emerged with her mobile phone close to her face, smiling and explaining to the caller that she was sorry she had not answered her earlier calls as she had been in a meeting. And there was the contrast. It’s not that I mind anyone smiling, I have actually developed an increased liking for the smiles I see on other people as it reminds me I used to do it a lot more myself. But in that moment, the gap between our need for justice and the remit of their roles became clear; to us the meeting had been so much more than a meeting, it was a glimmer of hope, a hugely important staging post on a long long journey seeking justice for a dead sister who is no longer here to speak for herself because she was mistreated in the care of the NHS, to them, well to them, it was just another meeting and attending such meetings is just part of their job.

And if you’re wondering whether the CPS lawyers ever did get their antique tape-recording machine working, the answer is no, or “null point” as we should say in this week of Eurovision. But I did offer them a copy of the excellent quality recording I made on my fifty quid digital dictafone…we really are in the hands of clowns folks, the justice system we pay for seems well and truly fucked to me.

The long slow journey to justice…

…as John Lennon famously observed, “nobody told me there’d be days like these”. With hindsight, it’s probably a really good thing they didn’t, if they had I would have crawled under the nearest duvet and would still be waiting for someone to tell me it was safe to come out. This is the first blog post I’ve put on this website and it’s been difficult to know where to begin. School and all the parenting in the world didn’t prepare me, couldn’t prepare anyone, for dealing with the bitter cocktail of malice and insouciant incompetence the Public Sector offers to those who want answers, perhaps even openness, honesty and transparency when things go wrong. Like watching a herd of elephants trying to ballet dance, witnessing the inability of Public Sector bodies to demonstrate empathy, understanding and subtlety at the points where it is needed most, is truly a unique and disheartening sight to behold. And the further down the rabbit hole I go, I realise it shouldn’t be this way, and it needn’t be this way.

It is now almost thirty years since the 12th of August 1988, the day my sister Alison had a crisis abortion due to the illegal sex acts of a trainee Mental Health Nurse. He, and his colleagues, many of whom turned a blind eye to what was going on, were supposed to be looking after Alison in an NHS Hospital in Carlisle called the Garlands. Instead, despite records showing he was advised and warned that what he was doing was inappropriate, unethical and illegal, a 35yr old trainee Mental Health Nurse called Robert Scott-Buccleuch, decided Alison was there for his gratification. He thought it would be a good idea to engage in sex on hospital premises with a vulnerable mentally ill 21yr old young woman. As a result of his actions, Alison became pregnant and had a crisis abortion. Scott-Buccleuch, the Nurse who got Alison into this predicament, then kept the truth from people who should have been told and could have helped. It seems he kept quiet to save himself. Following the failings in her care and the breach of trust she was subjected to, in December 1991, around the anniversary of the anticipated birth date of her aborted baby, Alison took her own life. It is the sort of thing you think only happens to other people or the families of other people, a far-fetched fiction or nightmare. But what is most amazing in all this tragedy, is that even though the facts are in the public domain, no one has ever been held accountable for the atrocious and ultimately tragic actions that happened in an NHS Hospital.

When I added a blog page to this website I wasn’t sure about calling it the “slog blog”, I thought people might think it was inappropriate for me to suggest that seeking justice for a sister I loved should be a slog. But it is. I may have the benefit of a deep and increasing reserve of anger and no shortage of passion, but it is still a slog, an exhausting mentally frustrating energy sapping process with more steps back than forward, and up to press many more disappointments than victories. Seeking justice for Alison has been made a slog by the intransigence, duplicity and sometimes just good old fashioned Public Sector incompetence that has been ever-present each and every step of the journey so far. If like me you were brought up to think the best of people then thinking the worst of those who manage the delivery of our public services doesn’t come naturally, though I must admit, it is getting easier. Our experience so far has been that each and every time we extended our trust and placed our faith and our fate in the hands of the system, we have been bitten. It seems decency is construed as weakness by people who have needed to become so cynical to survive in their respective shark tanks, we can only hope they would be unrecognisable, perhaps even the subject of revulsion, to their younger selves.

But we persevere, my older sister Sarah, my mum and I, we headed out on this journey with three objectives in mind; “straightforward” objectives so we thought. We set ourselves three goals of truth, accountability and justice…timeless simple concepts that we felt still mean something. We have a smattering of our first objective, truth, and we have taken some comfort from knowing that after nearly thirty years the perpetrator was finally forced to admit what he had done to the Police. As for accountability and justice, we still have a mountain to climb before we achieve these things. But we will keep on keeping on, we will continue to wade through the seemingly endless ocean of bureaucratic treacle, we are driven on by something bigger than ourselves, we will keep going until we get justice for Alison…