Whistleblowing concerns and ‘cultural and governance failures’ at Thanet council raised by senior auditor

Thanet council

The head of the East Kent Internal Audit Partnership says “action is needed at Thanet District Council to address the cultural and governance failures that stem from the very top of the organisation.”

The call comes from partnership head Christine Parker in a letter to the chair and vice chair of the authority’s governance committee.

Ms Parker highlights concerns over senior officer relationships and ‘blurred reporting lines’ as well as raising the issue of grievance procedures that have not been brought to a conclusion.

In the letter, highlighted in the Municipal Journal today (September 3) Ms Parker says she is ‘conflicted’ over her work because although the report is ‘rightly a summary’ for the audit of Thanet council processes the issue remains that she was asked to move forward ‘whistleblowing matters’ but ‘despite a good deal of hard work’ the matters remained “unconcluded.”

She added: “The chief executive said to me all whistleblowing must be investigated, but now the grapevine would have you believe that whistleblowers get disciplined, which breeds fear and is very unhealthy and damaging to governance and culture.

‘In my view this is all about people, their relationships, behaviours and attitudes, and I only experience this culture at Thanet DC, not the other councils that I work for.”

Ms Parker says she believes Thanet council “is being held back by the unwillingness to conclude investigations that have been started.”

She said matters leaked into the public domain include an independent investigator’s findings that “there was evidence of bullying and harassment of staff by some of the most senior members of staff within the organisation.”

She adds: “With these matters unresolved it insidiously affects the culture of the council and is hugely damaging. If good governance is not demonstrated at the top then the rules of good governance do not apply further down the layers of the organisation.”

Two grievance complaints were filed by TDC staff against top officers during 2019.

One of those complainants named both chief executive Madeline Homer and Director of Operational Services Gavin Waite in a list of 10 grievances.

The officer then lodged an appeal over the way his grievance was dealt with, including being unable to see an independent investigator’s report, having the case handled by a current TDC top officer, and no formal action being taken despite one grievance of bullying and harassment being partly upheld, one of a breakdown of working relationship being upheld, and  one of suffering work-related stress due to the situation being upheld.

Thanet council leader Rick Everitt said the authority is aware of concerns and he and council chief executive Madeline Homer have asked the Local Government Association to instigate a peer review to carry out an independent assessment.

Speaking to the Municipal Journal he added: “We hope it will also look at the evident damaging practice of leaking internal correspondence among some individuals within the council and why it is they are doing that.”

A Thanet council spokesperson said: “As part of a commitment to continually improve the organisation, the Leader of Thanet District Council, Cllr Rick Everitt, and the Chief Executive, Madeline Homer, have asked the Local Government Association to undertake a review of the council’s culture as an organisation.

“This follows feedback raised by the East Kent Head of Internal Audit to ensure that the council is providing the highest possible standards of governance at this time.

“The review will be undertaken independently of the council to provide an objective assessment of the culture, to identify and make recommendations for changes where needed and also to highlight aspects of organisational culture that are positive and should be built on.

“The council had hoped to start a review pre-COVID-19 and it welcomes this opportunity to ensure it is working to the highest possible standards”.

Cllr Stuart Piper

Thanet Independent Group leader Stuart Piper said he does not believe a peer review is the correct course to take as the issue being highlighted is with staff not elected members.

He said: “It is my understanding that a Peer Review would include elected members of the council. If that is the intention then no I do not think it is the appropriate response. Any review of the kind being called for must, in my view, not become too wide ranging and cumbersome. It would seem much better to use a laser beam approach and deal with the actual issues, real or imagined rather than taking a blunderbuss to the whole organisation.”

Members from Thanet Green Party

A statement issued by Thanet Green Party says: “We note with concern the serious issues raised in the Municipal Journal today about the culture operating at Thanet District Council referred to in Christine Parker’s recent Internal Audit report. These allegations are not new, and in previous letters Ms Parker has called for the External Auditor, Grant Thornton, to be called in to investigate them. We support this proposal, as it is time that these concerns were properly addressed.

“Regarding the proposed Local Government Association Peer Review, we have been pressing for such a review since the three Green Councillors were elected in May 2019. We fear that it is now too late for an LGA Peer Review alone to ensure that appropriate action is taken.

“We are disappointed with the council leader’s response as quoted in the Municipal Journal, which appears to focus more on the alleged leak than on the problems the report highlights.  We would respectfully point out that if this matter had been dealt with when the auditor first raised it earlier in the summer, there would have been no scope for any sort of leak.

“We believe there is an urgent need for greater transparency at Thanet District Council. We are deeply concerned that our councillors are having difficulty accessing the information they need to fulfil their duties – even to the extent of one of our members having to resort to Freedom of Information requests. We believe that no council that is operating properly should have anything to fear from sharing information and allowing external bodies to scrutinise its work.”

Thanet Green group leader Cllr Mike Garner added: “I am looking forward to hearing a fuller explanation from the leader at next week’s full council meeting about why the auditor’s previous advice has been ignored, and how he proposes to ensure that nothing of this kind can happen again in future.”

Cllr Everitt responded: ““The peer review team will want to hear from officers at all levels as well as members. It is exactly the point that everyone is able to be heard, so that a rounded overview can be obtained, not a partial one shaped by the repeated selective leaking of documents or a conclusion that fits anyone’s pre-existing agenda. It is a cross-party exercise and I am confident the eventual report will highlight plenty of positives about the organisation, as well as issues that need addressing.

“As far as Cllr Garner’s comments are concerned, the head of internal audit has never raised any of these concerns directly with me in any way whatsoever and I am only aware of them now because I received, third hand, a copy of the private letter to the Conservative chair of governance and audit that has now been leaked.”

Thanet Conservative leader Cllr Lesley Game said: “We understand that the LGA have been asked to undertake a review of the culture of the organisation at Thanet District Council. It is the governance at the council which is the major issue, frankly it’s a disgrace.

“We want an external body including external auditors to carry out a full audit and review. Thanet council as it is now is dysfunctional, yes the culture needs reviewing, obviously, but to just ask for this is a face saving exercise. When there is good governance it follows there will be a good and healthy culture.”

Independent councillor Ruth Bailey also backs calls for ‘appropriate action’ to be taken.

She said: “I have followed these rumours of ‘all not being well’ and accusations of systemic problems emanating from the CMT for several years now.

“I also know that there are those who have grievances, either real or perceived, with the council for one reason or another. I have never been in a close enough position to know for sure whether or not these accusations are well founded and I am open-minded enough not to condemn without knowing the full facts.

“However, what I do know is that these continuing and persistent rumours and accusations, and the seeming ongoing reluctance to tackle them head on, is very detrimental to the reputation of the council. We can only know the whole story with an open investigation and, if there is nothing to hide, then there should be no impediment to undergoing a fully independent, external audit.

“My concern is for the stability of the council, without these distractions, so that we can do the job we have been elected to do. We have to be seen to be an open, honest and transparent council.

“I feel this is a necessary process to publicly examine the culture, system and procedures at TDC once and for all in order to either condemn or exonerate any miscreants, whoever they may be, and to put the council back on an even keel.”