Thanet councillors on the Governance and Audit Committee have asked for action ‘sooner rather than later’ to review the culture at the authority.
During a meeting earlier this month, committee chairman Mike Garner said the review, which is pencilled in for 10 days in the 2021-22 financial year, needs to be “prioritised.”
The Thanet Green Party member added: “My suggestion is that it is one of the first things that is done.”
But the review cannot take place until the conclusion of numerous investigations into staff grievances and disciplinary processes being dealt with by the Investigations & Disciplinary Sub-Committee (IDSC). It is understood that this would cause an overlap and mean certain issues could not be discussed openly.
It is also understood the authority currently has ongoing investigations into complaints and counter complaints involving all four of the top management team – CEO Madeline Homer, Gavin Waite, Tim Willis and monitoring officer Tim Howes, who has been suspended from his post since last December.
There is at least one staff grievance that has been dragging on since 2019 and is still to reach a conclusion.
Accusation of theft
Investigations undertaken include an accusation of theft by a Thanet council officer which an audit report says “was alleged and evidenced following a fact-finding investigation undertaken by East Kent Audit Partnership (EKAP).
“The fact-finding investigation identified breaches of FPRs by a senior member of staff. The staff member resigned prior to the commencement of a disciplinary hearing.”
The report also highlights an allegation of breach of Financial Procedure Rules (FPR) made against a senior officer in March 2020. It states: “This matter in part was concluded and the remainder is being dealt in accordance with the Council’s proper internal processes.”
The same report notes: “There is an identified weakness in internal controls relating to the payment of expenses for elections staff. This weakness was identified following an alleged fraud and a review of the processes is currently being undertaken to address the existing shortcomings.”
A separate report to the council’s standards committee shows that a complaint was lodged by a council officer against a councillor, alleging the “member is undermining officers by sharing allegations and instigating investigations.” This resulted in a No Further Action finding.
Additionally there has been a complaint lodged about Thanet council’s use of non disclosure agreements and this is being investigated by external auditors Grant Thornton LLP.
That complaint was made by Broadstairs resident and former councillor Ian Driver who had previously obtained figures for the amount spent on the gagging orders through a Freedom of Information request.
The details released from that request show that £446,503 was spent on orders between April 2015 and the end of August 2019. Payments were made to more than 30 staff during that timeframe.
Mr Driver says a further request shows £268,000 was spent in 2019-20 on securing NDAs.
Concerns over HR shared services
It is also understood that concerns have been raised over staff at East Kent HR services, whose roles include assisting those involved in grievance procedures, receiving letters to say Thanet may withdraw from the shared service and take it back ‘in-house.’
Last September the need for a governance and culture review “from the top down” was highlighted in a report by the head of the East Kent Internal Audit Partnership, saying “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 came from partnership head Christine Parker in a letter to the then chair and vice chair of the authority’s governance committee.
Ms Parker highlighted 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.
She said matters leaked into the public domain included 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.”
Two grievance complaints were filed by TDC staff against top officers during 2019.
Last year Thanet council said the Local Government Association had been asked to undertake a review of the council’s culture as an organisation.
During the governance committee meeting on March 3 it was agreed, with explanatory help from officer Tim Willis, to amend an internal audit plan to show the review as needing to begin in quarter one of the financial year.
Cllr Garner said: “If it has not been started by quarter two then we would want to know why.”
Cllr Garner says although unable to comment on the disciplinary issues he would like to see these resolved in “a timely fashion,” due to the impact on corporate governance.
He added: “I would like to see the terms of reference for an all encompassing review put together now so that it is ready to go when IDSC finishes.
“IDSC needs to get on with this so that we can then begin the top down review.”