Employment rights, and protections at work are at the very heart of the Labour movement. And I know how important they are from personal experience.
If you were sacked from your job, as I once was when working in professional football, you’d expect it to be as a result of a lawful process and to have the right of appeal to an employment tribunal if you felt you had been treated unfairly. That’s what I did and my employers decided – understandably, given the facts – that they could not defend their actions in public, so they paid me significant compensation instead.
Perhaps those events, some time ago now, informed my approach while leader of Thanet District Council, from October 2019 until earlier this year. But no employee, in any position, deserves to be hounded by bullies on social media, and no one other than those directly involved can ever have a true understanding of what is happening in disciplinary processes, or of the realities of running a council.
Let’s not pretend that TDC doesn’t have an enormously difficult job, delivering its services in one of the most economically depressed areas of the South East, with significant areas of unusually high deprivation, and against a background of its own sharply declining resources.
Since 2011, this council has had to cope with a 36% real terms cut in the money it has available to spend on its everyday services (excluding housing). It’s hardly surprising that it struggles. And, let’s be honest, things weren’t perfect before the cuts began anyway.
Residents are paying more in council tax but TDC still has less to spend, because successive Conservative governments have progressively withdrawn external financial support from the district. We’ve lost more than other Kent councils. And Thanet receives only about 13% of the council tax residents pay, with most of the rest going to Kent County Council.
Even so, I can tell you from personal experience that there are some brilliant people who work for TDC at all levels, totally committed to serving residents and proud to deliver for this district, where many of them live as well as work. Too often that gets overlooked.
Given the lack of resources, residents are entitled to ask why so much money has been spent on legal process over the last couple of years and the truth is I can’t give them a complete explanation, because to do so would infringe individual employment rights and expose the council to the risk of even more costs.
However, you can take it from me that it has only been spent as a last resort to try to resolve a problem which affects the most senior officer level of the council, where staff are protected by law because it is recognised that their role is likely to make them unpopular.
That means, for example, that a statutory officer – the chief executive, the chief financial officer and the monitoring officer (who is there to ensure the council follows the law) – can only be dismissed by a vote at full council, although of course that would be informed by a recommendation from a committee of senior councillors and independent advice.
The reason that I became leader of the council in October 2019 was that Cllr Stuart Piper, leader of the Thanet Independent Group, put forward a motion to remove Cllr Bob Bayford, leader of the Conservative group.
The Tories declined to put another leader up, so Cllr Piper voted for a minority Labour administration led by me.
There was no deal between Labour and Cllr Piper, and no promises made.
I inherited an already massively complicated dispute involving the statutory officers and others, which I had to try to understand and untangle. I had individual councillors and others repeatedly urging me to suspend the chief executive, but no one could explain to me on what grounds that would be or how that was a lasting solution, even if it was justified.
Suspension is a neutral act and usually on full pay. Disciplinary action requires evidence and process, in this case complicated by the fact that the senior officers who you rely on every day as leader for advice were all themselves conflicted.
I told the other political group leaders early in 2020 that if they did not want to run a formal process then they would need to put a big bag of public money on the table and invite the senior officers to fill their boots on the way out. Nobody wanted that, me included, and in any case any payment of more than £100,000 has to be agreed by full council, which would not have been forthcoming.
I sought advice from the Local Government Association, which is the body which advises councils and keeps any eye on their operation, and they were of some help. Ultimately, lawyers were appointed to commission specialist advice from a QC that would enable the council to investigate and decide on the allegations being made in a lawful way, because we had no suitable adopted process. I involved the Conservative leader at the time in all the discussions, and there was no disagreement between us.
Then the pandemic struck. The advice to me from the LGA at that point was that it would completely reckless to suspend a senior officer in this emergency short of evidence of ongoing criminal wrongdoing, which wasn’t any part of the allegations being made. Any plausible claim of criminality would, in any case, have been referred by me to the police.
As I said at the June council meeting this year, the performance of the most senior officers of the council during the pandemic was outstanding, even if there were still internal issues. This was recognised by the LGA and central government, because they knew what was going on, looked at what we were doing, and they saw no need to intervene. They could see that Thanet was politically stable and functioning appropriately in all the circumstances.
Although it was delayed by the difficulty of holding in-person meetings during the pandemic, and members involved decided these were required to discuss extremely complex and detailed matters, the process that I had set up to look into the staffing issues got under way, albeit frustratingly slowly because the issues had become so complex.
Conscious that I could be accused of having preconceived views, I had stood aside from the work of the new investigative and disciplinary sub-committee of six councillors.
Cllrs Ashbee, now the Conservative council leader, and Cllr Piper, of the Thanet Independents, became decision makers in the process and about the process. They commissioned independent investigators to report back to them.
That sub-committee is now ready to finalise some matters and it has reached a conclusion on others. So, it is categorically not true that I did nothing to address these issues over the last two years. It is just not in the public domain, because it could not be.
Cllrs Ashbee and Piper have been at the heart of the process I commissioned. They share responsibility for its outcomes with two Labour members and two other Tories.
No Green councillor has been involved because their group of three was too small to be included on the sub-committee under legally binding political proportionality rules. So, they quite literally cannot know what they are talking about as far as these very detailed matters are concerned. It’s not their fault; they are just not in the loop, and confidentiality requirements in relation to the processes do not permit them to be.
Why then is this process seemingly being trumped with another one? Why has Cllr Ashbee decided to call in the relevant government department (MHCLG) without even the courtesy of a heads-up to the largest opposition party or the chief executive?
A year ago, I proposed an external review of the culture of the organisation to address some of the concerns being expressed. The other group leaders did not want to proceed with that and here is an extract from a statement we made after listening to the views about that from across the council at an online meeting attended by the LGA.
“As leaders of the four political groups we have now met to consider that feedback, including the risk of fuelling a wider perception that there is a general problem within the council, which we do not believe to be the case.
“It is our united view, supported by data, that the council is currently performing well at all levels in very difficult circumstances and in particular that its response to the Covid-19 emergency and the issues that arose from it has been very good.
“There is little doubt that an external review would provide insights which would be useful to the council. However, proceeding with any such review would have to be balanced against placing an additional burden on staff at a time when the problem of Covid-19 is again growing nationally, and the risk of a misunderstanding among the staff about members’ current confidence in employees.”
Back then the Conservatives had a different leader. But the Thanet Independents and Greens had the same leaders as they do now. They agreed that statement.
One concern we all share is the inordinate cost of the ongoing legal work, but you cannot just sack people outside proper process without there being consequences, especially as a public body, and no matter how loud the noise, or what others think and say about the individuals concerned. That is not justice and it will inevitably end up in more expense for the council, via backroom deals or the tribunal system, if you try.
I was shocked and disappointed when Cllr Ashbee sent me her email on Friday evening telling me that she had already asked MHCLG to “regularise governance”. So far, she still hasn’t told me what she means by that, but it seems to me that she wasn’t prepared to face down those around her – most not part of the process, and not party to the evidence – even though she is a decision-maker.
I don’t doubt that one of those urging her on was Sir Roger Gale MP and he has confirmed his support for her actions. But he cannot have seen the evidence and he is not in charge of the council.
It is no coincidence, either, that Cllr Piper and his Thanet Independents lined up to vote for Cllr Ashbee as new council leader in June. I am certain he would have voted for her in October 2019, because he believed she would take a particular action on the staffing issue, but he too has been part of the decision-making group.
As for what MHCLG is going to do, that remains to be seen. But I do not believe they are going to overturn a robust and lawful process that has gone on for many months, except at further huge cost to residents in payoffs to officers. In the meantime, the damage to staff morale, the council’s already battered reputation and the risk to the Ramsgate levelling-up bid is real.
Whatever happens, I believe the Conservative leader has admitted by calling them in that she does not want to face the responsibilities of leadership, which do sometimes require you to be the most unpopular person in the room.
While I realise that my position will be caricatured as supporting one individual or another, the truth is that I am interested in a fair process – fair to officers and fair to the people of Thanet. I would never have brought a behind-closed-doors pay-off to senior officers to council for approval in private session to avoid a proper process, because it is wrong and only fuels the conspiracy theorists. But it is where we may end up now.
Whatever happens next, it is hopelessly naïve to imagine that Thanet’s many problems will go away because of any change in personnel at the top of the council. They are structural and deep-seated. They are determined in part by inadequate resourcing, but they have not been caused by any one individual, however senior in the organisation.
The issues at the top of the council consumed far too much of my time as leader. They are a costly diversion from what matters to residents and for that reason they do need to be resolved, but on the basis of evidence, facts and process, not in response to the demands of internet bullies and others pursuing personal or political agendas.
Before I stopped being leader, I asked the external auditor to look at how all these matters have been handled and she is due to report soon. I will take on the chin my share of any criticism from her for what I did and when, but it is entirely false to claim that I did nothing, or to imagine that Cllr Ashbee and Cllr Piper have not been fully involved for the last year or more and active participants in all choices and processes.
Action should only follow process and details will soon emerge as a result of the work I put in train, but in my view much you may have read or heard in relation to certain senior officers is simply axe-grinding. And that is no basis on which to run a council.
Statement from council leader Cllr Ash Ashbee
“Since I took over the Leadership of Thanet District Council on 3rd June 2021 it has become apparent to me that the governance of this local authority is not acceptable in its present form.
Following a meeting with the then Secretary of State for Local Government in Margate at the beginning of the month, I have now written to the new Secretary of State Michael Gove to formally invite MHCLG to provide the intervention necessary to rectify the situation.
I have done so in what I believe to be in the public interest and in the interest of the residents and businesses of Thanet.”
Cllr Ashbee will issue a further statement after she has received a response from government.
Statement from Cllr Stuart Piper
“The request for a review of Governance to which Cllr Everitt refers was not as clear cut as he implies. We were offered a full Peer Review of the whole organisation instead.
“It was that which the other leaders felt would place an unnecessary burden on the staff so when we agreed the statement it was set against that background.
“He correctly argues that the Green Party have not been involved in the processes but then as he admits, neither has he so unless he has been briefed by his members who are on the sub committee, something I very much doubt, he seems to be flailing around blindly and heaven only knows why he is doing that.”
Statement from Cllr Karen Constantine
County councillor Karen Constantine, who formerly held a district seat, says calling in government is a ‘dire last resort’ due to a toxic culture at the authority.
She said: “I speak with decades of experience as a national trade union official specialising in dealing with bullying, harassment and equalities and as someone who has had dealings with Madeline Homer since 2016.
“A claim was made that I was reported to TDC standards. This followed an occasion where Ms Homer telephoned me to insist that I withdraw a public statement on how governance of TDCs top team was ‘lacking‘, and how the senior officers at TDC were not following national agreed standards. “Under the guidance of Madeline Homer, TDC avoided agreeing to the GMB advice to introduce a well understood and nationally agreed process where complaints against the top team would dealt with properly, and independently.
“Instead we had a situation where the senior officers were essentially ‘marking their own homework’. This was manifestly unfair. No one could make a complaint believing that such a complaint would be treated fairly, impartially or legally. I was right to point that out.
“For clarity I never received a letter from TDC. I was never referred to standards. I later undertook an FOI which also proves this. What actually happened was that Madeline Homer tried to ‘throw her executive weight’ around by attempting to intimidate me by phoning me and threatening to report me to standards.
“I have been approached by others, current and ex employees who have experienced bullying. We know the lasting damage that bullying does and how much it costs.
“We now have an even more difficult situation to deal with. Clearly Thanet District Council has become so toxic, badly managed and mired in avoidable difficulties that it can no longer function effectively. Calling in the Government is a dire last resort. We are now in uncharted territory and I do fear that we may not get a listening or sympathetic ear from the Government.
“It would be preferable, if possible, to pursue a unitary authority type arrangement with another council or councils. That would assist Thanet to get its house in order and maintain democracy.
“Like many others I see local standards slipping despite all our best efforts as a community, I fear that settling this situation will cost us a great deal of taxpayer money, that it will take several years to resolve and that, frankly more wrongdoing and rancour will be revealed.
“Thanet truly deserves better as do the employers of the council.