The bullying row and the human factor

There are three aspects to the Gordon Brown bullying row – the political one, the charity one and the one where these two meet. The political aspect attracts most attention, and in it there’s more heat than light – witness the splendid shouting match between journalist Andrew Rawnsley and former deputy prime minister John Prescott on Newsnight last night.

The charity aspect is more serious. By common consent, Christine Pratt of the National Bullying Helpline committed a serious breach of confidentiality by saying people working in 10 Downing Street have called the line. She hasn’t named them, but it’s quite a small group of people.

The Helplines Association and one of the other bullying charities have condemned her actions, three of her four patrons have resigned and the Charity Commission wants to talk to her about the complaints it’s received. It’s hard to see how her organisation can come out of this with much credibility.

Perhaps the most serious allegation is contained in an email produced yesterday by Pratt’s local MP Anne Snelgrove, who is Gordon Brown’s parliamentary private secretary – that callers to the helpline may be referred to other organisations, which includes the HR consultancy run by her husband and fellow trustee David.

The wider issue is the damage this might do to public confidence in charity helplines generally. Most helplines, especially those run by medical and big-name charities, are utterly scrupulous about confidentiality. But anyone can set up a helpline and their standards may not be as high.

The Helplines Association is a self-regulating membership body, set up to ensure high standards with a code of practice and a kitemark.The best outcome for this sector would be for more helplines to sign up to the association and for the public to get the message not to use helplines that don’t carry the seal of approval.

And so to the third aspect, where charity meets politics. Was it a political act, amounting to support for the Conservatives and a breach of Charity Commission guidance? Was she put up to it by a Conservative dirty tricks unit, as implied yesterday by a rather rattled-looking Lord Mandelson? Or was it an impulsive, naive act by an individual, possibly motivated by her own political preferences?

The answer to the first question must be no: she hasn’t specifically supported one party, and could probably put up an argument that the motivation was to help the beneficiaries, even thought the action was misguided. On the second question, the answer must be: unlikely. If the Tories had put her up to this, they would be vulnerable to her turning on them when her predictable come-uppance became complete – and any dirty tricks unit worth the name wouldn’t take that risk.

That leaves the third possibility: the unpredictable human factor, the individual acting impulsively out of an obsure cocktail of motives barely understood even by the individual concerned. And we’ll never really know.