Thanet council looking at whopping £733k legal costs for on-going disciplinary and grievance cases – with £247k already paid out

Thanet council

Thanet council Cabinet members are being asked to give approval for a huge £697,000- £733,000 to pay for legal costs due to on-going disciplinary and grievance proceedings at the authority.

A legal firm was hired in March 2020 to provide governance support and costs were estimated to run to £40,000, By July 2020 this estimate was revised to £50,000 but it has now been revealed that the Director of Finance is reporting costs incurred to the end of May 2021 relating to the on-going disciplinary and grievance proceedings already total £247,000. Of this sum, £141,515 relates specifically to 2020-21.

A report to Cabinet members says future potential costs are estimated to range between £450,000 to £486,000, resulting in total legal costs forecast at between £697,000 and £733,000.

Of costs incurred to date £114,000 relates to overall process management, £111,000 to internal processes under the council’s control and £22,000 for external employment tribunals.

Future anticipated/potential costs are split between £78,000 to conclude Thanet council internal processes and £408,000 for external employment tribunals.

However, the costs could exceed even the current forecast, with the report to Cabinet warning: “It should be noted that the forecasts represent the council’s costs only and therefore there is a risk that the council’s financial exposure could exceed this envelope.

“There is also a risk that costs may exceed these current estimates if the proceedings’ durations extend beyond current expectations or if appeals are lodged.”

Grievances and disciplinary processes

There have been numerous investigations into staff grievances and disciplinary processes being dealt with by the Investigations & Disciplinary Sub-Committee (IDSC) at the council.

It is  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.

Mr Willis had also been subject to a suspension in 2019 but was subsequently cleared of all allegations.

There is at least one staff grievance that has been dragging on since 2019 and is still to reach a conclusion.

‘Governance failures’

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.”

Complaints

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.

Last year the process of dealing with employment grievances prompted the GMB union to call on Thanet council to implement a new, independent system for dealing with bullying and harassment complaints against senior officers, saying the current methods are ‘compromised beyond further use.’

Earlier this year, the prolonged grievance procedures were blamed for holding up an “urgent”  review of the culture at the authority.

Governance and Audit Committee chairman at the time, Mike Garner, said the review,needed to be “prioritised.”

But the review cannot take place until the conclusion of investigations into staff grievances and disciplinary processes being dealt with by the Investigations & Disciplinary Sub-Committee (IDSC) as it is said this would cause an overlap and mean certain issues could not be discussed openly.

Further expenses

The legal costs revelation comes on the heels of 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.

Cabinet approval needed

The issue of the large legal costs is being brought to Cabinet members on June 8 because Cabinet approval must be sought for all budgets which are in excess of £50,000.

A report to Cabinet members says: “The legal firm that is overseeing and managing these processes was selected because of their particular expertise in dealing with constitutional and local government employment issues and because the matter could not be managed in-house because of perceived conflicts of interest.”

The report also highlights the difficulty of finding finances due to depleted reserves.

It says: “The council’s finances are in a delicate position, even before the pandemic our reserves were relatively low and we had a history of not delivering savings or income targets.

“The impact of the Covid pandemic is expected to put further strain on the Council’s finances, the full extent of this will not be known until the year-end position is finalised and this will be reported to Cabinet on 29 July 2021. As such, at this time it is not possible to specify what the exact financing source of the £247,000 for costs to date will be, but inevitably will need to be financed from our limited earmarked reserves.

“This will be a challenging task to identify available funding, particularly in light of the requirement to allocate £3m of earmarked reserves within 2020-21 to address the financial impact of Covid.

“To comply with relevant accounting standards it will be necessary to create a provision in the 2020-21 accounts to fully cover anticipated future expenditure. Therefore, anticipated total costs of £733,000 will need to be recognised and again financed from our reserves in 2020-21.”

The report adds that £247,000 “must be approved” retrospectively because the funds have already been paid out.

‘Undemocratic’

County Councillor Karen Constantine, who spent a number of years as a trade union official, said: “I am extremely saddened to hear about what’s happing at TDC. Workplace bullying is abhorrent and illegal. As an ex TDC councillor who has been on the receiving end of direct bullying and as someone to whom staff (and ex staff) often talk to about their similar experiences, it’s astounding that this decision to spend huge amounts of local taxpayers money has been taken. More striking still, is the decision is undemocratic.

“Thanet residents and TDC employees deserves much better than this. The solution to these protracted employment cases is to get parties and their representatives, including in this case the GMB, around a table to reach a negotiated settlement.

“Proceeding to tribunal should be a last resort, especially in the public sector where funds are always tight. The last thing Thanet needs now is a huge lawyers’ bill! These costs are simply eyewatering and do not include the hidden costs of lowered productivity, nor the negative impact on the health and well-being of TDC staff, and the cost of managing the impact of bullying.”

27 Comments

  1. It’s an industry in itself. You take a job as a local government officer, accuse someone of bullying you, they counter claim. It’s a farce.

  2. I appointed a law firm to take on a claim I was making against a well known multi national company. They [ law firm] told me the fees would run at £110 per hour. I wanted a weekly statement of the amount of hours they had used on my behalf each week and what was the result of the time they had spent on my work. I won my claim against the company and I was happy for a settlement that was far greater than I expected. However the legal firm I had Engaged took the opportunity to come up with a bill that was four times per hour what I had agreed with them, they tried infect to cash in on the success I had, received in the settlement figure. However because of the terms I had originally engaged them on the law society ruled they had no justification to charge me a penny more than first agreed. If I can do that as a private individual does TDC have similar terms with their legal bods to safeguard council tax payers money .

    • Ann, the Local Government Ombudsman last November, upheld my complaint against Thanet District Council, and they were ordered to write and apologise to me! Also amongst other things, to “provide training to front line staff dealing with reports from the public to ensure they are referred to the appropriate department to ensure an appropriate response is provided”. I refused to accept the apology, because after several months of dealing with council officers, I did not find any change in their culture of fobbing people off with excuses rather than take action, and who preferred to pass the buck! Of course the Lockdown hasn’t helped, but as someone who used to have 65 staff myself, I believe that this smacks of poor managerial leadership, and low moral!

  3. Can anyone explain why Madeline Homer hasn’t been sacked. No wonder Thanet council cannot afford to fix public toilets on Margate beach, whilst TDC are flushing money down the drain on legal fees and for what we don’t know because, of non-disclosure agreements.

    • Because there hasn’t been a political leader with the backbone to actually remind Homer who runs the council. Let’s hope this changes soon.

    • Because, despite the orchestrated campaign by at least one Thanet blogger, there’s no sufficiently robust case.
      If everyone was dismissed because either a trumped up complaint was made against them or a minor infringement occurred, most of us would be out of a job.

  4. Enough is enough. The “services” Thanet Council run are already shockingly bad. Constantly pleading poverty, can’t afford to repair lifts that are a life line to many, a waste and recycling service which is complete meltdown but can then find the cash to keep fighting each other around the top table. Alleged relationships which completely undermine fair governance. No wonder TDC are a complete laughing stock nationally,

    This is a disgrace and I am hoping enough Councillors read this to sort this out for once and for all. Let’s hope for a change in leadership in the coming period and a commitment to actually have the elected members running the council for a change rather than the incompetent senior leaders.

  5. Thanetian Blind”-are you sure about TDC being “a complete laughing stock nationally”? I can’t remember seeing anything about it in “Private Eye”.

      • When?
        I challenge you to show where Private Eye featured TDC “many, many times”.
        I subscribe to Private Eye. Each fortnight I read, with interest, the “Rotten Boroughs” page. I don’t recall ever reading anything about TDC.
        There has been a little correspondence in the Letters Page, particularly when the Manston debacle was in full flow.
        But nothing (that I can recall) about UKIP and TDC, about the changing fortunes of the various Leaders, nor the various accusations against the CEO and SMT.
        Perhaps you would be good enough to list the dates when items referring to TDC were published?

        • TDC was one of the reasons Rotten Boroughs existed. They are so overwhelmed with Rotten Boroughs now mainly as a result of Tory neo-Liberal policies that Thanet features proportionately less. But rest assured Andrew, we have featured many times in the last 3 decades to my well-informed knowledge.

          • Please show when. I’ve been a subscriber to PI for many, many years. Now that Thanet is my home, I scrutinise both the Rotten Boroughs and Letters pages for stories about TDC in vain.
            It would help put things to rest if you showed, say, a dozen of the “many many” Rotten Borough entries in Private Eye.

        • I found about 5 references when I googled “Thanet District Council Private Eye”. They were scattered over about 15 years.

  6. Local Government Association analysis shows TDC 9th out of 178 local authorties for expenditure on ‘central services’ (ie HQ) – the national avaerage is £126 per head of population per annum, TDC spends £235! I think this article illustrates why.
    The analysis also shows TDC as a poor performer at collecting council tax, providing affordable homes and recycling along with several other key activities.
    Clearly a badly managed outfit.
    Log on to: https://lginform.local.gov.uk/reports/view/lga-research/lga-research-report-headline-report-bar-charts?mod-area=E07000114&mod-group=AllDistrictsInCountry_England&mod-type=namedComparisonGroup for more details.

  7. Our chief executive and her fellow directors are really taking the inhabitants of Thanet for mugs. They treat us as cash cows and think they can get away with anything because they have to pay for nothing and seem to be free to do as they please. THIS TDC EXECUTIVE NEEDS TO BE CLEARED OUT AND PEOPLE EMPLOYED FOR THE BENEFIT OF THE PEOPLE OF THANET.

  8. Spot on Mike!

    Its not good enough surely this is a miss use of public money! 700k could improve so many peoples lives but, as mike says they treat our money like a cash machine. The Cabinet need to put a stop to all this!

  9. Well, no wonder they were struggling to fund repairs on the lifts in Ramsgate and Broadstairs leaving the disabled, etc to manage to gain access to the seafronts in both towns.

  10. There’s no difficulty for less able people gaining access to Ramsgate’s Main Beach unless they *insist* on beginning their journey opposite the Albion Hotel.

  11. Phyllis you are very wrong. Anyone staying, for example, at the Comfort Inn who is a wheelchair user has to expect their carer or companion to push their wheelchair down a long and winding slope, and back up again.

    Technically the same access could be applied to Broadstairs, folks could go down the steep hill to the bottom. But that is unreasonable and inaccessible, and the same applies to Ramsgate.

    It has nothing to do with the Albion Hotel and everything to do with access.

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