Only a few days to go: We’re raising £25,000 to keep TheyWorkForYou running and make sure people across the UK can hold their elected representatives to account.

Donate to our crowdfunder

Department for International Development (Mr. Howard Horsley)

Part of the debate – in Westminster Hall at 3:59 pm on 20th July 2005.

Alert me about debates like this

Photo of Austin Mitchell Austin Mitchell Labour, Great Grimsby 3:59 pm, 20th July 2005

I secured this debate on Howard Horsley, whom the Department for International Development has treated badly, because he is a friend and for many years was the head teacher of a tough school in Grimsby, at which he gave distinguished service. He is also an idealist who is passionately concerned about international development. Indeed, he has done aid work in Africa and the West Indies.

When the incoming Labour Government expanded the aid programme, Howard gave up his teaching career to become the head of the largest British educational aid programme ever initiated in Ghana. His reward has been to be treated abominably by DFID. The problem was that he blew the whistle by drawing the attention of the Department in London to the programme's lax budgetary and other financial controls, which Ghanaian and foreign aid agencies in Ghana had drawn to his attention and which could give rise to corruption in purchasing, for instance, Land Rovers and computers.

Howard expressed his concerns in London to the then head of the Ghana desk, who told him that she shared many of them and that they would be addressed. The issue should have been treated as whistleblowing on malpractices under the Public Interest Disclosure Act 1998; instead, however, Howard was fired after he had just recovered from typhoid at home and was about to return to Ghana. No dissatisfaction with Howard had been expressed before, and none of DFID's disciplinary procedures, as set out in its 1999 documents on safeguards—hearings, the right to produce evidence, the right of appeal and the need for advance warnings—was applied.

Howard asked to return to Ghana to prepare his defence. He was told that he could, and should, do so and that his files would be protected. He arrived back in Ghana to find that his computer files had been expertly wiped and all his physical files had vanished on the instruction of a senior DFID official. He was told to return home immediately, and that he must not talk about the events to people such as me, his former MP, because the Official Secrets Act applied and sanctions would be exercised if he did.

On his return, Howard took up the issue with Sir John Vereker, the then permanent head of DFID, who said that an internal inquiry would be initiated. Only when those internal procedures had yielded nothing and he had exhausted internal remedies, of which there were few enough, did he refer the matter to a tribunal. At the tribunal, he was given no access to papers or to the accusations. The tribunal gave directions on disclosure that were not fully fulfilled, and the Treasury solicitor made inaccurate claims that Howard had been warned that the Official Secrets Act would apply and that all relevant documents had been disclosed.

Lord Goldsmith is an honourable man, but the claims were wrong. When Howard and I met him, he agreed that the claims were wrong, but said that they had been made in good faith on behalf of DFID, and that there was no obligation on the Treasury solicitor to check the accuracy of claims made by the client. However, the court was in effect misled, and it refused jurisdiction on the issue.

Only when the National Audit Office began to inquire were the disclosures required by the tribunal given to Howard, by which time the tribunal hearing had finished. Again, they were honourable men, and it was said that there had been a misunderstanding.

At this point, I became involved to try to help Howard, whom I regard as a man of idealism and good faith. I found that other means of redress had started to fail. First, Sir John Vereker, the permanent secretary, who is an honourable man, had said that a full internal inquiry had been initiated and carried out, but he seems to have been wrong. We learned from later correspondence that no inquiry had been initiated or requested. The ombudsman, with whom I took up the matter, has no jurisdiction on matters of employment. The data protection people's writ does not operate outside the UK; the events took place in Ghana.

I took the matter to Baroness Prashar, the senior civil service commissioner, who was receptive, responsive and helpful, but she told me that there had been confusion over the capacity in which Howard Horsley had been employed. He was not a civil servant, although the post was advertised as a civil service job and he was interviewed as such. Had it been a civil service job, he could not have been dismissed in such a fashion. Neither was he a technical co-operation officer, because that covers British officials seconded to foreign Governments to handle British aid programmes. He was working not in that capacity but directly for DFID. Had he been a technical co-operation officer, he would have been better protected and would have had more rights against dismissal.

Baroness Prashar said that he was employed under the royal prerogative, which is a rather mysterious category of employment. She explained that it was rather like the secret service. That had me baffled, because it meant that he had no protection. However, Baroness Prashar wrote to the Cabinet Secretary saying that such people should have their position recognised and regularised. I am grateful to her for doing that. Provisions for regularisation of such posts were put into force in DFID when the posts were all transferred to civil service staff in 2002.

I wrote to the Cabinet Secretary as head of the civil service and therefore, presumably, the protector of somebody treated in such a fashion, asking for an inquiry and asking him to meet Howard and me after we had trailed around all those other bodies trying to get them to intervene. He declined to initiate an inquiry and declined to meet us. He told us that there had already been a full inquiry; that was not true, but, of course, the Cabinet Secretary is an honourable man.

I also went to Sir John Bourn at the National Audit Office; he was very helpful. He considered the issue, and officers were sent out to Ghana to look at what had happened there. He found that the financial controls in DFID in this country were lax and that similar laxities applied in Ghana. He said that that should be put right. He agreed that, in view of the laxity of the controls, corruption was possible, but he did not find any. He did not, it is fair to say, speak to any of the other foreign aid agencies operating in Ghana, which might have told him a different story.

At first, Sir John found that Mr. Horsley's predecessor had not complained. He later corrected that when we demonstrated that Mr. Horsley's predecessor had complained about the same issues and that at the end of his period of service his contract was not renewed and he was out of a job. That was corrected in the NAO report.

Sir John also found no reference to, or record of, the payment of £18 million that Mr. Horsley complained about. I want to digress at this point. Apparently, when the Chancellor sold part of the gold stocks, the gold price fell, producing severe difficulties for Ghana and its agricultural exports. That was discussed in a meeting in London with the then Secretary of State for International Development, at which the Ghanaian deputy Education Minister was present, and the Department considered making a payment to help the Ghanaians. The Ghanaian Education Minister was in London at the time but was not called to the meeting. Howard Horsley and the overseas aid community in Ghana knew that there would be a payment to help them in that situation.

On 23 September 1999, Mr. Horsley was called to a meeting with the Ghanaian equivalent of the Comptroller and Auditor General. He went with a representative of the British high commission, a Mr. Stuart, and was told that £18 million had arrived and it would shortly release money for educational purposes in Ghana, where he was working at the time. Many people knew of this but the NAO went through the ledgers of payments overseas by the Treasury, the Overseas Development Administration and other agencies and could find no trace of the payment.

Sir John Bourn, the Comptroller and Auditor General, wrote to me to say that the British embassy official, Ian Stuart,

"has confirmed to my staff that he was present at the talks, and that the then Secretary of State (Ms Clare Short) lent a sympathetic ear to the Ghanaians regarding the fall in the gold price, and the price of agricultural commodities such as cocoa and coffee. He added, however, that he was 'absolutely sure' that there was no rapid disbursement of funds to Ghana following the talks."

That is a very equivocal statement. The NAO was not able to enlarge on it for us. What does it mean? No rapid disbursement of funds does not mean that there was no disbursement of funds. It presumably means that there was no immediate disbursement of funds. That was the statement. This issue of why the £18 million was paid and what happened to it is very mysterious. I put it no stronger than this, but it may account for the way that Howard Horsley was being treated by the British Government and why there was so little response to his points.

Indeed, as a result of the NAO report, a document entitled "A Review of Safeguards Against Misappropriation and Diversion of Aid" was issued. It states:

"Appropriate channels for reporting corruption should be established".

That is what Howard Horsley tried to do. The document continues:

"Internal procedures for reporting suspicions should be clear and made known to staff".

There is a direct endorsement of what Howard Horsley was saying, which had been ignored by DFID. At least something resulted from our interviews and the work of Sir John Bourn and the NAO.

This has been for me a sad and deeply frustrating experience because we have gone round from one body that is there to help redress grievances and to see that the rules are observed to another. We have received a little help from all—substantial help from the NAO—but no resolution of the basic issue of why Howard Horsley was treated in this disgraceful fashion and fired from a job to which he had committed himself through idealistic motives.

We have been batted around like two shuttlecocks, almost going round to all these bodies holding hands. Everyone knew that it was an issue of concern. Everyone had some information to offer and a little help, but nobody could resolve the major issue. In the end they have all put up the shutters, which is why I am here today raising this issue. If nothing can be done, details of the abominable situation that has been allowed by DFID to arise in the face of a manifest injustice should at least be put on the record.

I should add that as a final piece of vindictiveness Howard Horsley was refused a reference by DFID. He was offered a senior, well-paid administration job in education. But a reference is needed before that can be finalised. DFID at that point, despite my pleas, refused him a reference. He has not worked since. He is now 60 and he has not worked because of this disgraceful treatment over all these years.

First, there is a need to strengthen the whistleblowing protections under the Public Interest Disclosure Act and to stop using the Official Secrets Act to avoid embarrassment to Departments. Most of all, DFID needs to do justice to this man over this case. There should either be an independent inquiry into the matter, or—I would prefer this—Howard Horsley should be reinstated in the job in which he was doing such good work, and to which he was so committed. Had he been a technical co-operation officer employed by a foreign Government to attend to the disbursement of British aid, the good governance requirements that DFID imposes on foreign Governments who work in that capacity would have prevented his being treated in this way. A foreign Government would not have been allowed to treat him as DFID has. Had they done so, there would have been a cut-off of aid. DFID should observe the standards that it preaches to other Governments. Instead of rewarding Mr. Horsley's manifest commitment and idealism, it treated him in a disgraceful fashion, and that should not have been allowed. It is never too late to do justice.