Government pension response ‘unlawful’, says report

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AN ‘inappropriate institutional culture’ that is ‘resistant’ to transparency and scrutiny has been criticised by the panel which handles complaints made by Islanders against the government, following the case of a retired firefighter left out-of-pocket when his pension entitlement was undervalued.

In a withering report, the States of Jersey Complaints Panel castigated the government for its ‘unfair and unlawful’ response to a complaint by Stuart Newman.

The firefighter requested a valuation of his pension in early 2018 as he planned for early retirement after 28 years’ service. But the request for a re-evaluation of his entitlement under the Public Employees’ Contributory Retirement Scheme was rejected by the committee responsible for managing it, which led to him receiving a pension between 10% and 20% lower than it would have been.

Panel chairman Stuart Catchpole said that the case should have been straightforward, but the committee ‘chose to dig its heels in’ and refused to reassess Mr Newman’s case and pay him the additional amount he was due.

The committee had maintained its stance that there was no documentary proof of Mr Newman’s re-evaluation request being made via his line manager, Mr Catchpole added, although it accepted verbal confirmation in the case of another staff member whose line manager was a member of the committee.

As a result of the failure to acknowledge Mr Newman’s request at the time it was made, his pension was subjected to new assessment methods brought in at a later date.

Mr Catchpole concluded: ‘That is a prime example of “it’s not what you know, but who you know”.

‘It is inappropriate in modern administration or policy-making and is obviously unfair and unlawful. It only serves to underline the arbitrary and unjust manner in which Mr Newman’s case has been handled.’

Treasury Minister Ian Gorst, issued an immediate response, promising to look into the report as a matter of urgency and repeating pledges by the new government to overhaul an ‘unsatisfactory’ system with which, he admitted, ‘no one was happy’.

In its report, the panel said they had been ‘driven to the conclusion that there is an inappropriate institutional culture that pervades much of the (senior) public service in Jersey, which is resistant to transparency, independent scrutiny, challenges, or even to the basic principle that public sector decision-making should be fair and just.

‘We have been driven to the conclusion that much of the (senior) public service in Jersey regards the Complaints Panel at best as an irrelevance and at worst as “the enemy”.’

It added: ‘That must be changed, but it can only be changed if those occupying senior positions (whether elected, employed or appointed) drive that change and modernisation of those attitudes.

‘No person is or should be above the law. The fact that none of the individuals in the present case appear to recognise that fundamental proposition should be a matter of both deep regret and profound concern.’

The panel concluded that there was now a choice for the States Assembly: to abolish the complaints process and accept that administrative decisions should not be transparent nor subject to meaningful independent scrutiny, or to ‘proactively and immediately redress the constitutional imbalance and attitudes evident in the present system’.

The conclusion also included a call on the government to make up Mr Newman’s financial loss for the ‘manifest injustice’ to which he had been subjected.

Deputy Gorst said: ‘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 public employees’ pension schemes.’

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