Tuesday, 19 December 2017

All at Sea

Fire crew and lifeboat crew are two vocations only suitable for genuine heroes and heroines, and fully deserve immense respect from everybody. However, the ability to bravely rise to life-or-death occasions carries no immunity to other human frailties in day-to-day life. For example, while nobody could reasonably begrudge them some pride in the status their heroism earns them, too much of it could lead some individuals to unheroic acts of vanity.

Jersey has seen some rather unheroic goings-on with its local lifeboat service in recent months. The RNLI operate three boats out of two stations, so, when all is well, there is quite a lot of help available for maritime emergencies in local waters. However, all has not been well. The crew of the biggest boat quit en bloc in the Spring of 2017, then retracted their resignations, but then announced that they were only coming back to the RNLI until they got their own boat. When the RNLI management had had a couple of days to consider the implications of that, they then took control of the situation by "standing down" the rebel crew.

Of course, such drastic actions were no casual whim. Not all of the events driving the decisions are in the public domain, and some of what has been made public can at best be rated as plausible allegations, rather than certain knowledge. The erstwhile Coxswain, Andy Hibbs, although clearly having the passionate loyalty of his own crew and the high regard of those local mariners fit to judge his seamanship, seems to be a divisive figure also prone to making bitter enemies among those who have to deal with him. I don't personally know any of the parties involved, and have no opinion on whose fault the bad feelings are, but his dysfunctional relationships with the port and coastal authorities, and the RNLI's own hierarchy seem to be undisputed facts. I have read a claim that the former parties bear or bore a grudge over being deprived of a fine salvage fee by a successful rescue, which would be disgracefully corrupt if true, and as disgraceful corruption happens, that is plausible, and none of the blame for it lies wth Mr Hibbs. There is another anecdote in circulation, claiming that Mr Hibbs refused an order from his onshore superiors on safety grounds, causing a falling out there. Once again, if that story be true, and it too is believable,  then Mr Hibbs was firmly in the right.

In the Spring of 2017, allegations of gross misconduct were made against Andy Hibbs, and the RNLI took them seriously enough to suspend him while investigations were made. And this is where our heroes stepped off their pedestals. The whole crew walked out "in support" of Mr Hibbs. This could only make sense as an attempt to influence the disciplinary process. It may simply have been an ill-considered emotional reaction with no sense to it, but if they were thinking through what they were doing, then it was a profoundly corrupt act. Not that it did influence the process, which initially found against Mr Hibbs, before an appeal stage dismissed the allegations and exonerated him with an apology. With both Mr Hibbs's reputation and the RNLI's disciplinary system vindicated, the stage was set to pick up the pieces and carry on.

Indeed, there certainly have been some carryings-on since, which is why it has moved on from being a private matter for a few RNLI volunteers and managers to a public and political issue worth writing blogs on. As soon as the initial walk out happened, there were numerous demands for a political solution to the diminished lifeboat cover. The island's politicians had a cannier sense of what is and is not in their domain and let the RNLI sort themselves out, however.

The crew seem to have remained disgruntled and unsettled though, while the leaders of the calls for political action coalesced with a sense of purpose around their objections to the RNLI's actions. Ever since they have been heading in directions that do not seem to me to be indisputably right.

The most unpleasant aspect of the affair is that the people around the rebel crew have been vigorously promoting a hate campaign against the RNLI, trying with some success to discourage islanders from continuing to donate, as well as some of them floating the suggestion that past donations received and held in Jersey should be seized as "ours". Apart from financially harming a very valuable public service, they have been whipping up ill feeling against it with sufficient skill to swing a significant minority. On the other hand, there are countless people with various personal reasons to hold the RNLI dear, myself included, who are being antagonised by this tactic, which is no help to them with the bigger part of their project.

The former crew and their leading supporters are trying to found a local independent lifeboat service, funded by such donations as they can divert from the RNLI and government money. Unfortunately, they have not laid a clearly thought out business case for it before the public, and evade questions about the obvious issues when challenged.

As the answers are not forthcoming, it seems fair to assume they don't have them, so I shall take a look at some of the reasons why I do not think the proposed independent lifeboat service is a good idea, beyond being somewhat prejudiced against it by the hate campaign.

The biggest weakness of the project is that instead of building an institution and recruiting for it, they are taking Andy Hibbs as the starting point and trying to build their new institution around him. There are grounds for thinking he may well be a suitable candidate to be the first Coxswain for a new service, but for him to actually be the service is putting too much onto him. Besides, he is already middle-aged and grey, and if it is to be all about him, then where will we be five or ten years down the line, when he is no longer physically up to it? The would-be founders of the JILS claim that nobody else is capable, which, if it were true, would mean that not only could the RNLI no longer operate their AWB, but that the JILS would be unable to carry on in the event of Mr Hibbs's absence or retirement.  A further doubt about making Mr Hibbs the centrepiece is that there is the suggestion that he does not have satisfactory personal relationships with the port authorities, which would hamper his effectiveness.

In the last quarter of a century, the concept of due diligence has been brought to the front of all corporate and institutional managers' minds, by changes in the law to facilitate civil litigation for damages, pithily summarised the compensation lawyers' marketing slogan "where there's blame, there's a claim". Meanwhile a generation of MBAs were rolling out managerialist systems of corporate governance compatible with the new emphasis. Consequently, the days when working to rule was the penultimate sanction of a workforce on its employer in a dispute have gone, and it is now expected to be normal practice. It is no good hankering for the days when corners could be cut left, right and centre, times have changed and the stakes become too high. So a lifeboat service has to be as fussy about setting rules and collecting evidence that they have been followed as anything else. One of the complaints that has been repeatedly aired about the RNLI by the hate campaign is that they are too bureaucratic and restrictive, and do not give enough scope to the exercise of local expertise. Yet, an independent service would either have to copy the RNLI's rules, or run an anachronistically slack regime that would be wide open to being sued to bankruptcy by the lawyers of the first crew member to come to harm in service. What is so heroic about lifeboat crew is that they do put themselves in harm's way, so there is nothing fanciful about considering the What If scenario. But the promoters of the independent lifeboat just rail against the RNLI for having professional management, without offering the least hint of how they will operate a successful service without organising the administrative aspects.

Money has featured prominently in the ongoing campaign, in several ways. The initial idea that the Jersey restricted funds of the RNLI could just be taken as "ours" and given to the independents could not be implemented without opening a massive legal can of worms, and although some of the noisiest supporters have called for it, the smarter minds at the very centre of the scheme have not been pushing it themselves to any extent that I have become aware of. However the promoters of the putative Jersey Independent Lifeboat Service have certainly been hustling to divert present and future donations from the RNLI to the JIVS. Someone who does not seem to be a main member of the committee, but is certainly a friend of Andy Hibbs heavily engaged in the social media campaign, made the astounding claim quite early on that many people had already changed their wills to disinherit the RNLI in favour of Mr Hibbs. It strikes me as improbable that this is true on two levels, both the unlikelihood of RNLI supporters spending hundreds of pounds on legal fees to redirect their bequests to someone who has no lifeboat right now, and is likely to have retired by the time they die, and the unlikelihood that the campaigner has any access to such confidential information. However, it at least shows the level the JNLI camp are stooping to.

Future bequests are a long-term source of funding, but in the meantime the JILS are looking for a seven figure startup cost and six figure annual running costs from the Jersey public, whether as donors or taxpayers. But are they proposing to give value for all this money? The latest generation of all-weather lifeboats are substantially cheaper than the older "Tamar" class boats such as Jersey's RNLI boat, but when the RNLI still have that in service, the expenditure is otiose. The RNLI has a significant pot of existing covenanted donations to be spent on their Jersey services, and the interest on it must go a good way towards covering the expenses, together with the general collections received from year to year. The JILS would not have any pot in its early years, and would be dependent on what it could capture from former RNLI supporters, plus government subsidy. But once again, this expenditure would be surplus to the island's needs while the RNLI have an AWB in local service. So the public of Jersey would gain very little from the investment.

So who would benefit? Andy Hibbs and his crew have sacrificed some personal prestige in losing their places as the RNLI crew, and being the JILS inaugural crew would restore it. The promoters of the JILS would also gain prestige, and an enhanced political profile with elections coming shortly, and might be able to get themselves on a few junkets, if their secretive plan does not involve the urgent recruitment of a management committee of the great and good to hand it over to. But, can we justify such huge sums being spent on a vanity project for a few has-beens and their ambitious friends? The RNLI still has their all weather boat in Jersey, and no difficulty in finding further volunteers proud to serve as its crew, so the extra lifeboat would not meet a  genuine need.

And who would lose? The JILS may not have acquired a lifeboat yet, and possibly never will, but the one thing they have achieved is to damage the funding support given by local donors. The RNLI has significant capital reserves reserved for their Jersey operations, but the annual running costs are rather more than the interest the reserves generate, and they could not ride out a long-term fall in donations without cuts in services. It is quite easy to imagine a situation where the JILS fails to successfully establish a viable independent lifeboat station, but the RNLI has to reduce the cover they provide us with, because the harm the JILS has done to their income means they cannot afford to carry on with the present cover. An intangible loss being faced by the least deserving is that the JILS's hate-mongers are trying to brand the new crew as scabs and traitors. To maintain their loyal service to the RNLI (most have been the inshore lifeboat crew at Jersey's other lifeboat station) and their island, with quiet dignity and without politicking or tantrums is a fine thing that we should all be praising them for, not a pretext to hurl insults at them. This attitude by some of the JILS camp reflects very badly on them.

If there is truth to the anecdotes about attempts to force Andy Hibbs out for malicious and corrupt personal reasons, then he has undeniably been seriously wronged. However, his role as a figurehead of attempts to damage the RNLI's Jersey services, and to set up a multi-million pound boondoggle has ended his career of previously distinguished public service with a massive blemish. The gang of troublemakers and chancers surrounding him can't even offset their own disgrace with a narrative of being wronged heroes. None of them deserve our millions for such a pointless project, anyway. We should just be thankful that the RNLI is still with us, doing what it was founded to do.

1 comment:

TonyTheProf said...

Thinking along similar lines on due diligence and finance

In particular the business setup, as I can see in the Southport Rescue Trust is missing. No company registration, no discussions with the Jersey Charity Commissioner, so where do they think they are going to place funds? You can't just put them in a private individuals bank account "pending" a structure!

All I've seen is hot air. No one has even said - we are forming this company (like Southport did) and have applied for this company name.

Incidentally, as far as I know, the Cox is the one member of the crew who is paid.