Damning report lists failures, “bullying,” “allegations without evidence,” and use of disciplinary action against staff raising grievances at Thanet council

Council leader Ash Ashbee welcomed the recommendations

Thanet council’s “inadequate” governance arrangements around whistleblowing, grievances and disciplinary procedures have resulted in External Auditors Grant Thornton branding relationships between the authority’s top four officers as in “serious breakdown” and listing a number of failures within the council including using disciplinary action against staff raising complaints.

The report has been issued by Grant Thornton under Section 24 of the Local Audit and Accountability Act 2014.

In the opening to the report Grant Thornton LLP says: “As well as our responsibilities to give an opinion on the financial statements and assess the arrangements for securing economy, efficiency, and effectiveness in Thanet District Council’s use of resources, we have additional powers and duties under the Local Audit and Accountability Act 2014.

“These include powers to issue a public interest report, make written recommendations, apply to the Court for a declaration that an item of account is contrary to law, and to give electors the opportunity to raise questions about the Council’s accounts and to raise objections received in relation to the accounts.

“We have concluded that it is appropriate for us to use our powers to make written recommendations under section 24 of the Act, due to inadequate arrangements in governance in responding to whistleblowing, grievances and disciplinary procedures with the direct financial costs adding further pressure to a fragile financial position.”

The damning public report says there have been “a number of interlinked instances of whistleblowing, lodging of formal grievances and disciplinary action including examples of serious allegations made by senior officers without adequate, or in some cases any, supporting evidence.”

The report also says previous independent reviews showed “clear evidence of bullying” but the council only taking action on appeal after a third – of eight – reviews; that people raising grievances and whistleblowing complaints with merit have been “subject to disciplinary action prior to the substance of their complaints being formally considered,” and that “Senior officers’ behaviour was found to fall below the standard expected on a number of occasions.”

Grant Thornton LLP says opportunities to mediate were missed, that there are key deficiencies in Thanet council governance processes, failure to manage whistleblowing and grievance cases and outcomes promptly, failure to follow through with agreed outcomes, failure to mitigate conflicts of interest in the choice of investigating officer, failure to involve councillors at an appropriate stage and a failure to recognise statutory responsibilities in whistleblowing cases.

The report says despite numerous reviews and expert advice Thanet council “ignored, discredited or restricted” its distribution or it was “interpreted selectively.”

Thanet council has been accused of discrediting independent review findings to “justify inaction.”

The report adds: “Where the council had appropriate policies and procedures for dealing with grievances and staff performance issues, to protect staff from inappropriate behaviours, these were not adhered to by senior officers in a number of instances.”

Calling in central government

The issues have already led to Thanet council leader Ash Ashbee calling in central government to step in to deal with the culture at the council amid on-going disciplinary and grievance proceedings at the authority which have racked up a legal bill of more than £733,000.

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

There have been 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.

Recommendations and an extraordinary council meeting

The report from Grant Thornton also highlights that: “The council’s management culture has allowed the perception that attempts to raise legitimate concerns will be met by disciplinary action” and has previously been described in an independent review as “a culture of overt bullying, intimidation, victimisation or humiliation within Thanet council.”

Grant Thornton says officers have had to suffer “significant reputation damage without resolution.”

A meeting to resolve outstanding matters had been deferred until next month, two years after initial allegations were raised, Grant Thornton says further whistleblowing and grievances have now been lodged and a further employment tribunal claim submitted.

The report says failures include council members not taking effective action earlier; serious concerns over the ability of senior officers to work together and the council responding to challenge  by using procedural matters to cause delays.

A number of recommendations have been made including calling in an independent monitoring officer to report on current tribunal claims and complaints; bringing outstanding complaints to a conclusion; finding savings for further grievance ad whistleblowing costs and creating clear agreement on officer and member responsibilities.

The recommendations and subsequent actions will be discussed at an extraordinary Council meeting which must be held in public within the next month.

Leader of Thanet District Council, Cllr Ash Ashbee said: “I have been clear that a key ambition of my leadership and administration is to improve governance, so I welcome the recommendations shared with the council today.

“Good governance is the cornerstone of good local government and it is essential that we do everything we can to improve the way we work. It is absolutely right that members will have the chance to discuss the recommendations, to participate in the process and ensure we commit to a robust plan of action.”

Thanet Labour group leader Cllr Rick Everitt added: “I welcome and support the external auditors’ recommendations. The matters covered in it have been ongoing since the 2019 elections and senior members of both main parties on the council and others have worked together throughout that period to try to resolve them.

“Unfortunately, the council’s lack of adopted formal processes in 2019 for dealing with issues involving its most senior officers, as well as restrictions on elected members’ role in staffing matters below that level, created a complex set of problems that required extensive external legal advice to address.
“We all share the commitment to getting governance right, but that has also meant resisting calls from inside and outside the council for arbitrary and potentially unlawful action that could have made matters even worse.
“Nevertheless, the Labour administration brought forward the missing processes and ensured that the members acted lawfully in respect of the multiple issues that already existed when it took over in October 2019. There will be lessons for all of us to learn from this and I am confident that we will, but this has never been about a dispute between elected members.”
Cllr Stuart Piper

A statement from The Leader of Thanet Independents Party Cllr Stuart Piper says: “The External Auditor’s report, which has just been published concerning several issues at Thanet District Council, makes disturbing reading.

“Like most ‘official’ reports there is a lot of detail to be digested. Some of the information has been in the public domain for quite a time so people may not be surprised to read sections of the content and will no doubt be looking for swift and decisive action.

“Members and officers need to read the report in detail and work together with any external advisors who may become involved, to put the situation right. It cannot be acceptable for any council to take little or no action in response to such a damning report, so TDC will have to address the matters firmly and take the proper courses of action.

“There will likely be some strong views expressed at the forthcoming meeting of the council and it behoves us all not to make the situation any worse than it is but to work positively to bring about change to the organisation, notably in the way it operates and is seen to treat its own employees.”

Thanet Green Party leader Mike Garner said: “I welcome the publication of this report from the external auditor. It outlines behaviours that have no place in any workplace, let alone the offices of a public authority.

“Councillors need to make sure that the findings are urgently addressed and action is taken to bring about the changes necessary as soon as possible.”

Independent councillor Ruth Bailey said: “All I can say, because I am not privy to the full information being a backbench independent, is that I will be glad when things are brought to a head, one way or another, so that we can all get on with what we were elected to do.

“This whole situation is distasteful, reputationally detrimental and distracts from proper council business. Financially, the debacle just exacerbates an already dire situation and detracts from the frontline services we should be providing to the public.”

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