Board of Trustees, Governance

Sins of omission – more rhetoric of justification from the BPS Board of Trustees

From the Editors of BPSWatch…

The crisis of governance in the BPS has been rumbling on for the past year. Slowly journalistic interest appeared, with articles in Third Sector and the Daily Telegraph leaking to the public what the BPS Board or The Psychologist had failed to disclose to the membership. This invites us to reflect on what is not said as well as what is said, when considering organisational rhetoric to justify the status quo (philosophers interested in absence dub this an ‘omissive critique’.).  

For those of us who think a better future must start with an honest reflection on the present, then we cannot rely on the preferred account of reality declared by the BPS Board of Trustees (BoT). They are not the whole problem (that is systemic and cultural as we have noted in several of our postings) but they are the current living proof of that deeper and longer problematic picture.  In that context, we now turn to a brief omissive critique of an important Board statement.

The Board response to the recent article in the Daily Telegraph

On April 26th 2021, Hayley Dixon in the Daily Telegraph provided us with a rough but accurate sketch of the governance crisis and its consequences (see here). Here we provide in full the ‘official’ response offered from ’the BPS’ then next day (see here).

Responding to an article in the Daily Telegraph, Interim Chair of the Board of Trustees, Professor Carol McGuinness said:

For more than a century, the British Psychological Society has promoted the practice of psychology and advanced professional thinking on often complex and contentious issues. With more than 60,000 diverse members, debates on professional issues are often vigorous and there is sometimes heated disagreement between our members.

The past 18 months have been turbulent for the BPS as we go through a process of significant and much needed organisational transformation. During this period several working groups have considered very sensitive topics which have gone through an expert and democratic process.

Our guidelines for psychologists working with gender, sexuality and relationship diversity are not, in our view, at all contentious. They require our members not to discriminate against individuals and to treat them with respect. This includes the use of appropriate, inclusive language, which all patients and clients should be able to expect.

The guidelines relate to adults and young people and not to the treatment of children, and professionals understand the difference. Our guidance does not contain any reference to the prescribing of puberty blockers for children under the age of 16.

There is general debate across the health sector on the extension of limited prescribing rights for different professions, something that has brought benefits to patients through, for example, the work of nurse prescribers. There are strong views among our members about whether some psychologists should be granted prescribing rights, with vigorous positions presented by those both for and against this potential change.

However, our research to date on prescribing rights, following a two-year consultation process – that it could be useful in certain settings – is simply a contribution to the debate.

The debate on prescribing has no connection whatsoever to our guidance on gender, sexuality and relationship diversity. We have always been clear that the issue of prescribing rights will require further debate and indeed the BPS does not currently have a fixed position on this issue. We have repeatedly stated that we will continue to listen to and engage with our members on this important issue.

Ultimately, the BPS does not have the power to decide on this issue, as it is a process governed by Parliament following extensive public consultation. We are disappointed that the Daily Telegraph has chosen to repeat the views of a small minority of BPS members who are unwilling to accept the outcome of our consultations and policy positions.

As a board of trustees we have been open about the need for improvements across the society which is why we committed a significant amount of money to our ongoing three-year transformation programme. The BPS is not perfect, and there is always room for improvement in any organisation.

It is clear to us that stronger governance processes will be required in the future, and this work is well underway. We have kept the Charity Commission fully informed of developments throughout and continue to engage with them.”

An ommisive critique of the statement

The reader can draw their own immediate conclusions about the adequacy of this response. Here we only want to list what was not said in this statement.

1.  Professor McGuinness was voted into the interim Chair role of the BoT in the wake of the resignations of both the President and Vice President (see here and here – you may need to register (free) to access these articles). This reflected a wilful refusal of the Board to comply with Statute 20 of the Society: the chairing role should have been handed over immediately to the Chair Elect. Her authority in the Chair is at best dubious and at worst totally illegitimate. The naïve reader would be unaware of this legitimation challenge for the Board still today. 

2. The allusion to diverse views and heated debate does not mention that debate has been actively blocked, with articles censored (see here), review groups closed down and lobbying about policies ignored.

3.   The statement does not mention the routine use of threats of legal action against Society members and others such as accusing dissatisfied complainants of harassment in pursuit of their case.

4.   Many objections have been raised about the very lack of the democracy and full expertise drawn upon in policy formation in the Society. These have been ignored in relation to the prescribing debacle, the contentious gender document and the peremptory closure of the memory and law group.

5.   Describing the gender document as ‘not at all contentious’ fails to mention those objecting, on legitimate grounds, to it both before and after the legal change on December 1st 2020. However, the prefix ‘in our view’ is relevant because this reveals the self-interest in depicting reality in a particular manner. 

6.  The claim that there is no connection between the prescribing and the gender polices fails to mention the overlap of decision-makers in the two groups and the fact that a consideration of hormone prescription was part of the first of them.

7.   The BoT are ‘disappointed’ in the article from Hayley Dixon, but the statement does not mention that the BPS was unhelpful  and, we believe, invoked legal threats about its publication. We understand that other approaches from Third Sector encountered the same aggressive non-cooperation. Journalists encountering such resistance tend to suspect that a story is worth telling.

8.   The commitment proffered about the change programme in the BPS as an organisational solution assumes that it will work in the absence of honest reflection about the current crisis of both legitimacy and governance: the very point we keep repeating and illustrating on this blog.

9.   The claim that the BoT continues ‘to engage’ with the Charity Commission is the most important rhetorical query for us. To what degree has that engagement been necessary and why? Will they now make all the changes necessary to bring the Society into regulatory compliance? Does the BoT even admit that any changes need to be made? If so will the Trustees need to resign and a fresh start made under completely new governance arrangements?

These questions are all important, the response from Professor McGuinness offers us no clues at all. Surely the membership deserves a full and frank statement about all of these matters, if the alleged principle of openness and transparency is to be put into practice. 

The Editors, BPSWatch.

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