Column: Thanet Labour leader Rick Everitt – The governance issue at Thanet council

Councillor Rick Everitt says it is the first increase in a decade

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more in council tax but TDC still has less to spend, because successive Conservative governments have progressively withdrawn external financial support from the district.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

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.

42 Comments

  1. they are all playing politicians , they know they will never make it to the house of commons , so they just enjoy a bit of publicity and the rake offs that go with it. over to you marva ?

  2. This from a council that has circulated under performing officers ( to the point of useless) between departments for years rather than dismiss them.
    Whilst the explanation above is all well and good, without details of accusations ,actions and defences its little more than alphabet spaghetti from which an outsider will never be able to form a view.
    It would be better if the local council tax payer could have full insight into

    Dreamland ( proposal of cpo – sale – final reckoning)
    Animal exports ( who proposed the action , response by SMT, legal advice)
    Pleasurama ( from fire to eventual transfer to current owners)
    Port and Harbour saga
    EKH

    To name a few. Details of legal advice given and wether councillors followed this. Details of all legal action against TDC over last 20 years and liist of outcomes / overall costs ( including fines, recompense , legal fees etc) list those with NDA’s as xxxx1 etc but still release the figures.

  3. It is very well known within business circles that you always promote the incompetent. Eventually hoping that they get head hunted by your competitors who subsequently wait for the incompetent ones to make a mistake so that thy can be discharged. This is what has continuously happened within Thanet. The trouble is that when you bring in incompetence it is perpetuated and so we enter into a spiral circle. Part of the problem is that the incompetent ones have a loud voice to make up for their incompetence hence they win the argument. This has happened continuously within Thanet for the past 30 years. The policy has been lets belittle the opposition so that they are demoralised and give up. I personally hope that the present leader has the strength to cope with all of the rubbish and accusations thrown at her.

  4. I’ve never read such a long apology for inaction. TDC have blown extremely significant sums of money on what can best be described as vanity projects, living in the past and failing to look to the future, despite innumerable expert opinions. For Cller Everett to try to pass this off as unfair criticism takes the biscuit. The CMT are very highly paid to be competent at their jobs. They aren’t and so should face the consequences. End of story.

  5. Rick Everitt claims he was a journalist – he ought to know better and sub edit his pathetically long epitaph. He does not speak for anyone, including I imagine anyone in the Labour Party as has been mentioned publicly. It is very sad indeed to see a local opposition leader descend into self – aggradisement in the face of a female leader making the right decision. I hope someone in the Party gives him the advice he needs and that is to shut up and stop digging himself further into a hole and taking what’s left of the local Labour Party with him.

  6. I’m pretty certain a leader wouldn’t call in the government because they wanted some help with HR casework and if the Union supports this, they’d typically not do that if they thought employment rights would be breached or due process not delivered.

    Leadership is everything. Get the leadership right and everything else follows suit. Culture and performance in particular. Clearly these are not guarantees just because a person is given a role, we are not naive.

    Effective recruitment, a robust performance management environment and transparency are the routes to staff and public confidence in any leadership team.

    I can’t comment on individuals but something seems awry here doesn’t it, down on Planet Thanet.

  7. A Labour party riven by internal squabbles is simply not in a position to make decisions however some facts
    Rick states the problems with finance are down to lack of a meaningful Central Govt grant which has been steadily reducing since 2010 this is true but ignores other councils who haven’t spent their reserves on stupid things
    Tory and Labour administrations allowed Transeuropa the freedom to get away with £3.5M in unpaid berthing fees 2011/2012
    £2.1M paid to KCC in 2015 by UKIP unpaid since 2004 for the Haine Spine Road (Tory under Ezekiel)
    Over £5M compensation for illegally closing the port to Live exports (paid by UKIP but incurred by Labour, they claimed it was on the basis of legal advice but have never produced any such, then claimed in was an officer acting outside his remit and since left after a payout)
    Then we have the Port losses in excess of £20M incurred under several administration.
    No Council can have reserves if it carries on incurring losses such as these

  8. Well, well – are we finally seeing a transition from the tail wagging the dog? Elected members running the show and officers towing the line – seems to be what most be people want but runs against the grain for the long winded, too much protesting Brother Everitt?

  9. Why has the The Isle of Thanet News given Councillor Everitt free rein to justify and promote himself at such length? The only people with a slight (very slight) chance of fully understanding this are those who are already immersed in Council business. Meanwhile Joe Public may just about glean the fact that large amounts of their money are being spent on employment tribunals.
    Do not tell us to be understanding Council Everitt because a) you are purposefully obfuscating and b) this is a very impoverished area. There can be no justification for using our money for things that do not benefit us one iota. If red tape decrees that tax income be used for other purposes I suggest that you channel your energies into fighting tooth and nail for that to change.

    • It is good to have these things on public record, as an opinion column it is shown to be Cllr Everitt’s view of what has happened, who knows when that might prove useful.

      • Thank you, Kathy.
        Any explanation of how and why local decisions are taken are valuable as they allow others to challenge or support from an informed viewpoint.

  10. What else was happening in 2019 TDC?

    Drinking Water Inspectorate banned Manston aquifer as a public water supply source. Crime complaint of Misconduct in Public Office was made. The Monitoring Officer was under complaint to Solicitor Regulation Authority and leading Labour Cllr Constantine fell under Standards Complaint whilst swooning as a purported victim of bullying culture at TDC.

    Such was the determination of Thanet Labour to investigate at TDC …. that Cllr Constantine ended the Standards inquiry by jumping ship.

    The old and tested Thanet Labour flounce. See also the flounce and jump ship by Labour leader Clive Hart .. actually also at a time breaches of statutory duty (With associated crime complaint) peeped over the parapet as an issue.

    Bullying culture? Distraction anyone?

    What else happened 2019 Ragin Ricky? It is relevant to QEQM maternity tragedies (Corporate Manslaughter Inquiry) It is relevant to Bretts Health and Safety and Ramsgate Port It is relevant to Manston. Yes Ragin Ricky it is United Nations Stockholm Convention.

    And the red hot issue in your funny little mind was shock horror a bullying culture ?

    The trades unionists ? Have they complied with statutory duties by the way? mmmmmm

    Let us not forget that a worthy of South Thanet Labour rushed hotfoot to try to defend Islington Labour at Sarah Morgan Review of Islington Council Labour enabling of Paedophile Information Exchange. The Corbynistas were hard pushed to distract by virtue signal the horrors of Corbyns Islington Labour admin.

    Thanet Greens. Lay with Thanet dogs you catch Thanet fleas.

    And explain the situation in which Cllr Ashbee makes the call in while she and Ragin Rick are still obeying the legal advice dictat of a suspended monitoring officer.

    • Richard, as I have told you many times. You are mistaken. I was a ‘victim’ of Madeline Homers bullying tactics. I was threatened by her with being reported to standards – that never happened as it was a threat designed to intimidate and smear my good reputation. I have never been reported to standards at either TDC or KCC. I stepped down, or jumped ship as you describe it, prior to the Covid crisis, when my husband became very ill with a serious heart condition. Last night I wrote a short comment for the IOTN which I hope Kathy will publish.

  11. Cllr Piper is mistaken in thinking that the intention in 2020 was a peer review of every aspect of the organisation. It was to look specifically at the culture – what it’s like to work for Thanet and in particular whether there is any evidence of a culture of bullying. It would also have highlighted the good relationships and positive aspects of the organisation. I suspect some members didn’t want a more representative picture to emerge, since it may not have suited their narrative. But as people can see, he agreed the review wasn’t necessary.

    As far as my knowledge of the facts is concerned, I commissioned the process, I raised one serious issue myself with the sub-committee, I sit on its parent committee which has considered related maters, I have read all the formal submissions, and spoken at length to the LGA, multiple lawyers, all the interested parties and to the external auditor as leader. So I am hardly in the same position as the Greens.

  12. Rick, a culture review is opinion based, like a staff survey. What were you planning to do with this staff opinion piece?

    I would have thought triggering actions from unsubstantiated opinions would be a more likely risk against employment rights than an external review of governance standards with clear terms of reference.

    Just because people think something it doesn’t mean it is so. The only way to confirm the facts is through a neutral investigation.

    Had the culture survey reported “very high bullying” that in itself is not factual, and anyone alleged of such would be entitled to a neutral investigation. Isn’t this what the leader is calling for?

  13. The LGA review would have been conducted by senior councillors from other authorities who specialise in doing this – one from each major party plus an independent to cover the Thanet Independents and the Greens – and an experienced chief executive. Its outcome would have been published. The LGA is very experienced in doing these reviews on different aspects of local government and I believe it would have enabled us to identify whether there was a culture of bullying in the organisation, which has been alleged. Officers could have volunteered information confidentially as part of that and any cases that emerged gone into a proper process, but they can do that anyway and this was about the big picture.

    It’s quite true that the LGA couldn’t judge individual cases or revisit previous investigations. Importantly, they could not look at individual matters where there were already formal processes – the external auditor can’t either and it’s unclear to me that MHCLG can – but they would have provided some reassurance (or not) about the general position and potentially shut down some of the wider concerns.

    To be clear, no bullying is acceptable and all allegations should be considered on their merits in a proper process. But the issue of whether there is general problem in the culture of the organisation – and how staff feel about working at TDC – is an important one for members to understand.

  14. I am not convinced anyone is anything other than perturbed by your position on this Rick. I am aware bullying is unacceptable people don’t need this making clear. And of course, running a staff survey is one way of giving staff a voice. These are basic good things to do, to a point, although it could be argued that staff surveys, culture surveys are a bit old hat and would benefit from a different and more modern approach given there is also significant survey fatigue amongst most of the public service.

    Just not sure why you’re not supportive of the Leader on this occasion.

    • Emmeline … Rick is dissembling.

      Karen Constantine jumped ship from TDC Feb 2020.

      The question is were NGA etc told this? Or bumbling about thinking there were no public interest and statutory duty compliance issues

      On the question of paying officers on their way out the door> Isn’t that in the cicumstances a criminal offence under 1967 act?

      • Richard, as I have previously stated my husband was very ill, I had to make difficult decisions and that was prior to Covid that does not equate to ‘jumping ship’. No complaint to standards was ever made, you owe me an apology.

        Madeline Homer bullied me, I stood up to her and I called her out.

        “Response to Access Request Dated: 27/08/2020 /Access Request 4057.

        After conducting a diligent search for records relating to your access request within the limits of your request, we have confirmed that we hold the following information:

        Emails between you and members of staff.
        Emails between between members of staff concerning your correspondence.
        Emails between you and Councillors.
        Emails between Councillors and members of staff concerning you.
        Please find the documents attached.”

        There was no letter regarding a referral to standards and no mention of a referral to the standards committee or mention of ‘standards’ in any of the emails produced by TDC for the FOI. I was simply singled out for bullying treatment by Madeline Homer for being a vocal councillor and a powerful GMB supporter.

  15. It’s not the MHCLG anymore. It is the Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities or LUHC, presumably pronounced ‘Luck’, and they will need it if Gove and Badenoch are in charge.
    Local Govt has dropped off completely, so incompetently run nuisance authorities like TDC, will hopefully be consigned to history, along with their hellish, squabbling, useless, SMT directorate.
    It is time to put the wrecking ball into Cecil Street, but the sad thing is amongst the dross at the top are some really good people at the bottom and middle strata of management, and no one is thinking about how they feel, or are they just dispensable Piper, Everitt and Ashbee!

  16. Clearly local government has not “dropped off completely” otherwise basic things such as rubbish collection, street lighting and so on would not be happening.

  17. I understand that Caring Karen Constantine did not mean that she was never subject of standards process at TDC. She meant apart from the Standards Process brought by Richard Card. The process Karen brought to premature end by resigning.

    Karen does not feel she just got caught out LYING. Although she may concede she was caught out not telling the truth.

      • No point trying to argue with Richard. Before too long he’ll start bringing up illegal firing ranges, IRA private armies and other conspiracies.

  18. Have you seen the state of our streets? Thanet is the most litter strewn and least council cleansed place I’ve ever lived.

    Basic weeding, sweeping, cleaning and tidying is needed. Like other councils manage to do. It is a case of resources and priorities, and with TDC leaking money like a sieve from poor decision making then there’s less for actual residents and services.

      • A few years back tdc had the worlds best street cleaner, when he’d finished a road was immaculate. Every speck of rubbish was gone. I can only imagine he was such an embarrassment to his colleagues that he went/ was sent on his way. Or he became so thoroughly dissilusioned with cleaning up after Thanetians he gave up. Those were clean streets.

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