If you're returning with a tan, Sir Philip Dilley, best be honest about your holiday

The Environment Agency got its PR all wrong over its chair's Christmas in the Caribbean

Simon Kelner
Thursday 31 December 2015 18:37
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Sir Philip Dilley, chair of the Environment Agency.
Sir Philip Dilley, chair of the Environment Agency.

In my day job, I give what might sportingly be called advice to business leaders and public figures about how they should conduct relations with the public. If I’m honest, it is not that complicated a task, because the advice is invariably governed by one simple, and fairly obvious, principle: just tell the truth. I know. It’s not exactly a blinding shaft of wisdom, but I am perpetually surprised by how many people in high office think it’s still possible to get away with presenting a very selective version of the truth.

Which brings me to the pantomime villain of the season: step forward Sir Philip Dilley, chair of the Environment Agency. You may have noticed that it has been a rather busy time for this arm of the government, what with half of Yorkshire under water, and more floods on the way. Its chairman, however, who is paid £100,000 for a three-day-a-week job, has been experiencing a rather more pleasant environment, at a beach house in Barbados.

Now it must be said that Sir Philip (pictured) has the same right as any of us to go away to relax, and as he said himself this week, he is “lucky enough to have two homes”. One of these happens to be in Barbados – lucky chap indeed – where his wife comes from. We can’t blame him for wanting to spend Christmas in the Caribbean, and how was he to know that his break would coincide with the weather causing havoc back home (actually, as head of the Environment Agency, maybe he should). So while the residents of Hebden Bridge were putting out the sandbags, Sir Philip was slapping on the sun lotion.

He has now cut short his break (his aides were at pains to point out it wasn’t “a holiday”) and flew back to visit some of the worst-hit areas of the North. There’s nothing in a practical sense that his presence can achieve, but for a man who took the job on a mandate of being visible in a crisis, it was the least we could expect.

His unfortunately timed sojourn was not the reason why we should denounce him and his agency, however – it was the way his absence was explained in several utterly misleading official statements. First, when asked about Sir Philip’slocation, the agency said that he was “at home with his family over Christmas”. Later, when pressed by journalists, they issued another statement saying “Sir Philip Dilley is at home with his family, who are from Barbados”. And then – finally – they were forced to admit that “he has been in Barbados”. When questioned, on his return, about the economy of truth in the releases from his agency, he said: “I honestly don’t know what our officials said directly.” You will note the careful use of the word “directly”. What does he mean by that? In any case, it rather stretches public credulity that he wouldn’t have sanctioned the statements.

“Everybody can’t be everywhere,” was Sir Philip’s lame response. No, but someone can be somewhere. And if you can’t be where you should be, it’s best to be totally honest about where you actually are.

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