Wednesday, 25 February 2009

The Seven Principles of Public Life

In 1995 the UK Government published the report of the Nolan Committee on standards in British public life. The seven principles commended in this report speak for themsel


Holders of public office should take decisions solely in terms of the public interest. They should not do so in order to gain financial or other material benefits for themselves, their family, or their friends.

Holders of public office should not place themselves under any financial or other obligation to outside individuals or organisations that might influence them in the performance of their official duties.

In carrying out public business, including making public appointments, awarding contracts, or recommending individuals for rewards and benefits, holders of public office should make choices on merit.

Holders of public office are accountable for their decisions and actions to the public and must submit themselves to whatever scrutiny is appropriate to their office.

Holders of public office should be as open as possible about all the decisions and actions that they take. They should give reasons for their decisions and restrict information only when the wider public interest clearly demands.

Holders of public office have a duty to declare any private interests relating to their public duties and to take steps to resolve any conflicts arising in a way that protects the public interest.

Holders of public office should promote and support these principles by leadership and example.

These principles apply to all aspects of public life. The Committee has set them out here for the benefit of all who serve the public in any way.

Did they miss anything? Well, possibly. If these principles seem worthy, but perhaps a little dry, the concise inscription on the mace in the Scottish Parliament offers more in the way of humanity: Compassion, Wisdom, Justice, Integrity. Here I take `integrity' to be a kind of meta-principle that encapsulates all of the first six Nolan principles.

It is just possible that `principles' could be followed perfectly adequately but in a formulaic fashion, i.e. lacking the underlying values that would tend to make the practice of the principles spontaneous and natural. A key value surely has to be trust. A very clear description of trust is found in Mike Bottery's "Education, Policy and Ethics". He starts by outlining how trust can be a merely pragmatic value. Then he continues:

"Yet it is also something much deeper. It implies an attitude towards people and the world in general: a belief that things in the end turn out for good, that people are at bottom basically good as well. Some might see this as simple optimism, but however one views it, it has effects because of its spontaneity. It has the ability to create a similar trust in others, to foster friendship and love, simply to make life worth living. It cannot be artificially produced."

Friday, 13 February 2009

Nobody Came by Robbie Garner and Toni Maguire, a review

Nobody Came
- the appalling true story of brothers cruelly abused in a Jersey care home -
by Robbie Garner with Toni Maguire.

Robbie Garner was taken into care in Jersey at the age of five following the catastrophic breakdown of his mother's dysfunctional relationship with her partner, his short life already blighted by callous maternal neglect. This would have been around 1960. Dates, like some other details, are not spelled out - the book is concerned with the emotional landscape its author endured, rather than attempting a documentary account.

With him to the Sacre Coeur orphanage went his three year old brother, Davie, while older brother John was dispatched to the Haut de la Garenne children's home, where Robbie was later to follow.

`Nobody Came' is the story of the horrific emotional, physical and sexual abuse Robbie experienced and witnessed in these two `care' establishments. He finally decided to tell the story he had kept buried for so many years when Haut de la Garenne hit the headlines in 2007 with allegations of decades of abuse. A disclaimer states that "in order to protect privacy, some names, identifying characteristics, dialogue and details have been changed . . . and the staff mentioned in this book are composite characters, drawn from the experiences of those whom the author remembers." No doubt this has also been necessary because of the ongoing investigation of historical abuse claims surrounding Haut de la Garenne, and the hope that perpetrators will eventually be brought to court.

Toni Maguire is herself an abuse victim whose bestselling works draw on her own tragic childhood. She is now helping other people to tell their stories and the chemistry here has worked to very good effect. The writing is a model of clarity. The story told in a direct and straightforward way is highly readable, moving - and deeply shocking.

Were the nuns of Sacre Coeur misguided religious zealots or manipulative abusers hiding behind the cloak of religion? The book simply tells the story of their barbaric cruelty and leaves the reader to wonder. But the sense of authenticity is enhanced by the young Robbie's sensitivity, even at such a tender age, to the occasional nun who appears troubled by the nature of the regime in which she too is trapped. One such is`Sister Claire', who to her eternal credit (composite character or not) finds ways to practise subversive acts of kindness.

On graduating to Haut de la Garenne, Robbie finds himself in a nightmarish world of casual brutality, where physical and sexual bullying is commonplace and where the depraved lusts of certain members of staff are given free rein in ritualistic orgies of abuse. Whether this extends to murder it is not possible to say, but there are unexplained disappearances, and one of Robbie's friends is driven to suicide. Robbie is acutely aware of the suffering of other boys (and in due course girls) and counts himself lucky that he is not pretty enough to become a `favourite'.

If Haut de la Garenne has a saving grace it is the quality of the food, so someone at least is doing the job they are paid for.

The sense of authenticity that pervades `Nobody Came', notwithstanding the disclaimer, is in stark contrast to the increasingly convoluted efforts of the Jersey establishment to sweep the whole Haut de la Garenne tragedy conveniently under the carpet. Their confident assertion that `there were no murders at Haut de la Garenne' would be laughable if it wasn't so serious. There may not be compelling evidence of such crimes, but that is very far from proof that no murder happened, especially when complete records of the children taken into care appear not to have been kept.

Happily, Robbie Garner has proved to be a survivor. His book too will survive. And it will continue to have a powerful and compelling voice for as long as justice for the victims of the Jersey care system remains elusive.