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Ombudsman’s office slammed in claims of poor working practices

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Victoria Pearman, the Bermuda Ombudsman (Photograph supplied)
Catherine Hay, who was Deputy Ombudsman until December last year (Photograph from 2018 Ombudsman annual report)

Allegations of “negative and aggressive” behaviour and an “unhealthy culture” have been made about the public body which investigates government mismanagement.

A letter that listed concerns about the independent Office of the Ombudsman has been leaked to The Royal Gazette, including claims that it has no “consistent or robust human resources policies and procedures” and nothing in place to maintain a safe working environment for employees.

The letter to Ombudsman Victoria Pearman was written by Deputy Ombudsman Catherine Hay in December last year – just before Ms Hay was fired.

Ms Hay, a lawyer who was appointed Deputy Ombudsman in 2015, was signed off work by doctors in May 2019 for medical reasons and later seconded to the Department of Community and Cultural Affairs.

She wrote the December 12, 2019 letter after Ms Pearman refused her request to extend the secondment.

Ms Hay said working conditions at the Ombudsman’s Office, which has eight employees, were a “source of significant concern”, had “substantially contributed” to her ill health and submitted two letters from different doctors to support her claims.

Ms Hay was fired by Ms Pearman six days later.

The Ombudsman wrote that the doctors’ letters established that Ms Hay was unable to return to her position as Deputy Ombudsman.

“In the circumstances, I have no choice but to recognise that your contract of employment is frustrated by your inability to return to your position,” wrote Ms Pearman, in a letter on December 18, 2019.

The Ombudsman Act 2004 says “there shall be appointed to assist the Ombudsman in the discharge of his functions such number of public officers as may be required”.

Ms Hay’s contract included the collective bargaining agreement between the Government and the Bermuda Public Services Union.

But Ms Hay claimed in her letter to the Ombudsman that it was Ms Pearman’s “stated view that staff are not public officers”.

Ms Hay wrote: “The uncertainty over whether we are afforded the full protections owed to public officers is a source of significant stress and contributes to a working culture in which staff are uncertain and apprehensive to voice concerns.”

She alleged there were no rules in place for recruitment, that posts had been filled without individuals meeting job requirements and that one official was told they would be promoted with no indication of when the decision would be made.

Ms Hay said in the letter: “These inconsistencies have been a source of conflict and uncertainty and have contributed to a culture which is perceived as unfair and arbitrary.

“The aggressive behaviour that has been a source of grave and persistent stress for me can be directly linked back to the lack of consistency in recruitment.”

She added that a lack of procedures designed to maintain a safe working environment or to cover disciplinary action meant “negative and aggressive behaviours have been allowed to escalate and are not adequately addressed”.

Ms Hay filed a formal grievance against her firing but the case has still to be resolved.

She is supported by the BPSU, whose general secretary Ed Ball accused Ms Pearman of misleading the Accountant General to end Ms Hay’s contract.

Mr Ball, in a letter to Accountant General Curtis Stovell, wrote that contract frustration was an “obscure legal concept” which was improperly invoked by the Ombudsman in order to fire Ms Hay.

The union boss said it was not an acceptable reason to terminate a public official and questioned whether Ms Pearman had the power to fire staff.

Mr Ball also alleged that a termination form submitted to the Accountant General’s Office by Ms Pearman contained “contradictory and potentially inaccurate information” as it said Ms Hay was a permanent employee but also gave the reason for termination as “end of contract”.

“As Ms Hay is a permanent employee, she would not have a fixed-term contract with a contractual end date,” wrote Mr Ball.

He claimed the Accountant General had “been misled by the Ombudsman” and that led to the wrongful removal of Ms Hay from an established list of public officials, which stopped her from challenging her firing through the collective bargaining agreement grievance procedure.

Derrick Binns, the Head of the Civil Service, told Mr Ball in October that Ms Hay’s employer was the Office of the Ombudsman and that he could not restore her to the Government employee complement, without a court or tribunal order.

Ms Pearman said last night: “It would be inappropriate and I am unable to respond to any private, confidential employment matters in connection with any existing or previous staff with the Office of the Ombudsman.”

She added: “The important work of the Office requires staff to be accessible to the public and to listen to what is being conveyed or provided.

“The valued staff here perform work which is demanding and can also be very rewarding and fulfilling.

“We diligently seek to maintain a positive workplace environment with a strong, participative, collegial atmosphere while carrying out our duties.

“Our internal operations reflect the nature of the work we perform and reflects the service we provide to the public.”

Ms Hay declined to comment.

John Rankin, the Governor, who appoints the Ombudsman, declined to answer questions.

He said: “Questions on staffing matters should be addressed to the Ombudsman.

Ms Pearman was appointed for a five-year term as Ombudsman in 2014.

Mr Rankin said: “I confirm that I was pleased in March 2019 to reappoint Ms Pearman for a further period of three years.”

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Published November 06, 2020 at 8:00 am (Updated November 05, 2020 at 7:43 pm)

Ombudsman’s office slammed in claims of poor working practices

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