My Lords, I also thank the noble Baroness, Lady Hayter, for giving your Lordships’ House the opportunity to debate such an important issue. I join with her and the noble Baroness, Lady Jowell, in paying grateful tribute to the noble Lord, Lord Rix.
I spent almost 20 years in public affairs and campaigning in the charity sector, so I will confine my remarks to charities. I count myself privileged to have seen first-hand the vital role that they play in our democracy. Throughout my time in the charity sector I have seen that being able to demonstrate a clear connection between donor support and the tangible benefits of the campaigns that their time and support helped fund was crucial to building trust. It is that trust that underpins the success and sustainability not just of charity campaigning but of the sector itself. Trust is our charity sector’s life-blood, and right now it is in urgent need of a transfusion.
Sadly, I witnessed a serious breach of trust, which underlines that urgency. I bring it to your Lordships’ attention out of the same sense of public-interest duty that first drove me to stand up and be counted on what I still regard as a matter of honour. The duty to speak truth to power without fear or favour is surely all the greater because of the privilege and responsibility that go with being a Member of your Lordships’ House.
The situation I found myself in as head of public affairs at the Royal British Legion underlines the compelling need for far greater protection for whistleblowers brave enough to raise legitimate concerns about ethical issues or mismanagement in the charity sector. Whistleblowers are often dismissed as disgruntled former employees, but I know I will only ever be a proud former employee of the wonderful organisation that is the legion. Happily, the charity is now under new management. Moreover, the excellent new director-general, Charles Byrne, was not there when this situation arose.
If helping to win the campaign to save the chief coroner, with the essential support of your Lordships’ House, was my proudest moment at the legion, being bullied by a then senior director at the charity in an attempt to get me to sign off payment of an invoice that I had advised was of dubious legality—and moreover, to learn subsequently that the then director-general had nonetheless approved payment—has to count as the saddest moment of my career. The fact is that I was unable to prevent his approval of payment of donors’ money to an individual who should never have received one penny of legion charitable funds that were donated in trust. It still haunts me that this happened on my watch as the legion’s head of public affairs and could happen again today at any charity.
I can never forget my disbelief at what happened: the invoice from a parliamentary researcher, on paper giving his Westminster email and phone number, and his personal bank account details; a parliamentary researcher, who, unbeknown to his boss, demanded payment for meetings arranged, briefings drafted and Parliamentary Questions prepared; my written advice that no payment should be made, given that any parliamentary researcher who demanded payment for such services should not be trusted, notwithstanding that a second version of the invoice was submitted by email omitting reference to preparing Parliamentary Questions, but for good measure attaching a list of Parliamentary Questions tabled; the bullying emails sent to me by the then director of welfare at the legion, who is now the chief executive of Combat Stress, asking me to process payment of the invoice now; and the email from the then director-general of the legion belatedly informing me that he had approved payment of the invoice.
I have no reason to believe that the email from the then director-general, confirming that he had approved payment, was a lie. I must take his word at face value and assume that he wrote the truth. But even if he did not tell the truth and payment was not made, it would surely be missing the point entirely if we accepted that somehow that makes such behaviour all right. Either way, if he did not tell the truth, lying to one’s colleagues, quite apart from permitting an environment in which a senior director thought it okay to bully a junior colleague on an ethical issue, is no way to lead a charity. How could such behaviour be in any way deserving of the trust that millions of donors rightly place in the legion year after year? If there is no wrongdoing, why did the then director-general, as I discovered only subsequently, neither consult nor even inform the charity’s then national chairman about such a sensitive issue? Would the trustees of Combat Stress have appointed their new chief executive had they known of her bullying behaviour and involvement in this serious matter? I assume that she did not tell them. Had anyone told me that such behaviour was possible at the legion, I would never have believed them—but for the fact that I experienced it myself.
In closing, surely the main lesson to be learned from situations such as this—to which the noble Lord, Lord Hodgson of Astley Abbotts, has already alluded—is that just because charities do good things does not mean that bad things do not happen in them, that some people in power do not abuse that power, or that some people in positions of trust do not betray that trust. If such behaviour is to be prevented, the integrity of our fantastic charity sector needs to be defended by far greater protection for whistleblowers. Only then will a strengthened charity sector once again enjoy the trust that is so essential to the success of its vital campaigning and policy-influencing work.