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Conflicted Agency Retains Responsibility for Health Ministry Firings Review

Officials involved in debacle to handle release of report after all.

By Andrew MacLeod 17 Dec 2014 | TheTyee.ca

Andrew MacLeod is The Tyee's Legislative Bureau Chief in Victoria. Find him on Twitter or reach him here.

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Independent lawyer Marcia McNeil's review into the 2012 BC health ministry firings is due for delivery to government in two days.

Amid allegations that the Public Service Agency was in a conflict of interest reviewing the 2012 B.C. health ministry firings, the government announced in October that the report would instead be received by the ministry of the attorney general.

But now, two days before the deadline for independent employment lawyer Marcia McNeil to submit her report, the review appears to remain under the control of the PSA.**

Part of the finance ministry, the PSA is the government's human resources body and was itself heavily involved in the firings. The agency's new head is a former health senior executive who oversaw the officials whose investigation led to the firing of seven health ministry employees. The health ministry has since said it overreacted in at least some of the terminations.

"We fought to have a review that was more independent, that was not run by the Public Service Agency," said Judy Darcy, the health critic for the NDP opposition. It never made any sense to have the PSA involved if the review was supposed to be independent, she said.

For a while, the government appeared to agree the PSA's involvement in the review would be inappropriate. In an Oct. 24, 2014 letter to McNeil, then-head of the PSA Lynda Tarras wrote, "The Public Service Agency and the Government of B.C. wants to ensure your review is thorough and independent. Upon completion, please deliver your report to Richard Fyfe, Deputy Attorney General."

The letter marked a significant change from the earlier terms of reference, which would have had McNeil reporting to Tarras and the PSA. At the same time, the deadline for the review was extended from Oct. 31 to Dec. 19.

Involving the deputy attorney general was a change Health Minister Terry Lake cited when questioned in the legislature about the review's independence. On Nov. 25, according to the Hansard, he said, "Ms. McNeil is doing her work. In three weeks she will present a report that will be delivered to the assistant Attorney General and made public."

Review not arm's length: NDP

However, when The Tyee asked a spokesperson for the attorney general on Dec. 17 for an update on the release, she responded by email, "You'll want to touch base with the Finance Communications shop."

A spokesperson in the Finance Ministry confirmed that they would be handling the release of McNeil's report. Asked why, she said by email, "The BC Public Service Agency falls under Finance."

She did not respond to a further message asking when it was decided to revert to having the PSA involved.

The government said one thing in the legislature when it thought people were paying attention, but appears to have backtracked now that they think nobody is paying attention, said the NDP's Darcy. "To me, it says it's not going to be arm's length from the politicians and their political staff, and that's wrong."

Darcy added, "If the report is going back to the minister of finance and the Public Service Agency, I don't think British Columbians can rest easy that we're getting at the truth."

Jamie Edwardson, a spokesperson for the finance ministry, said that the intention has always been for the PSA to develop a formal response to the report and to release that and the report together.*

Conflicts and more conflicts

Returning responsibility for the review to the PSA reverses on a change the government made in October while under pressure both inside and outside the legislature regarding the agency's alleged conflict of interest.

The original terms of reference for the review would have had the report submitted to the PSA, but that was changed after former deputy health minister Graham Whitmarsh raised concerns.

Whitmarsh pointed out that the PSA and Tarras were in conflicts of interest, since they had been heavily involved in the 2012 firings. In its responses to Whitmarsh, the government said Tarras was not conflicted, because it was appropriate for the PSA to make recommendations about firings procedures. Nonetheless, the government instructed McNeil to submit her review to the deputy attorney general instead.

A letter sent by Whitmarsh's lawyer John Adams to the government also said that the PSA would be in a worse conflict after Nov. 3, when Elaine McKnight was to replace Tarras.

McKnight had been an associate deputy minister in the health ministry at the time of the firings and was the direct supervisor of people who conducted the early stages of the investigation that led to the firings. Whitmarsh's lawyer wrote that "McKnight ... was also involved in 2012 in the processes and procedures that will be examined as part of the review."

The NDP also raised concerns in the legislature, with health critic Judy Darcy asking questions on Oct. 20 about McKnight's involvement.

Asked about McKnight's role making recommendations about firings she had a role overseeing while an assistant deputy minister in health, finance spokesperson Edwardson said: "The expectation is we learn from these incidents and the review will help us do that." *

Darcy said in an interview that while the government handled the firings badly, they also set back important research on several drugs. "That research has effectively been halted and that's damaging to the safety and well-being of British Columbians," she said.

*Paragraphs added Dec. 17 at 6:15 p.m.

**Paragraph changed for clarity Dec. 18 at 10:15 a.m.  [Tyee]

Read more: Health, BC Politics

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