Thanet councillors tonight (November 2) voted unanimously in favour of accepting four recommendations laid out in a damning report into the “inadequate” governance arrangements around whistleblowing, grievances and disciplinary procedures at the authority.
The actions will include bringing in an external officer to examine all outstanding grievance and whistleblowing complaints.
Last month external Auditors Grant Thornton branded relationships between the authority’s top officers as in “serious breakdown” and listed a catalogue of failures within the council, including using disciplinary action against staff raising complaints; attempting to discredit criticism in independent reports; draining finances due to disciplinary and tribunal actions and causing significant reputational harm to those involved in prolonged grievance processes.
Steps to be taken now
The recommendations set out in their report and agreed tonight means Thanet council will bring in an experienced, independent Monitoring Officer from a large local authority to carry out a risk assessment of the current employment tribunal claims and proposed actions including a detailed financial analysis of the options available to the council.
They will also produce an assessment of the status of all outstanding grievances, alleged whistleblowing complaints and any continuing suspensions and propose a plan of action to address them.
A lessons learnt report will be produced and current Investigations and Disciplinary Sub Committee business will be brought to a conclusion with clear actions that are reported and monitored.
The council must re-examine financial plans and identify additional savings to deal with costs created in resolving grievances and whistleblowing complaints.
An action plan must be produced and will include a clear agreement on where Officer and Member responsibilities lie.
Progress must be made within six months or options such as moving to a public interest report could be carried out, said Paul Dossett from Grant Thornton.
Sarah Ironmonger, auditor from Grant Thornton, said: “It is an unusual set of circumstances, and our report reflects our view of the situation. What’s clear to us is the arrangements (Thanet council) has in place to respond to whistleblowing, grievances and disciplinary action are not adequate. The impact is the length of time matters are taking to resolve and financial costs.”
Ms Ironmonger said there were both perceived and actual cases of conflicts of interest that further heightened tensions and led to situations escalating.
Mr Dossett said in his experience an authority attempting to discredit independent reports criticising the authority’s performance was ‘unusual.’
Concerns were raised about the roles of members and officers with Green councillor Tricia Austin criticising a previous change of constitution and highlighting how fellow councillor Becky Wing had resorted to Freedom of Information requests to try and get details about decisions affecting her ward.
Cllr Stuart Piper said: “We have to admit failures in governance. It should be noted that elected members did not escape criticism,” adding: “We should have taken action in the past and we did not.”
He queried whether councillors would be free to give their views or whether they would be ‘muzzled.” He also questioned when the failings of individuals could be discussed.
Cllr Rob Yates twice pressed a question of whether the external officer would interview councillors. In response council leader Ash Ashbee said she planned for the independent officer to be given “absolute free rein.”
Cllr Wing said she found the report ‘harrowing’ in terms of human suffering and huge financial expenses. She also forced her point of councillors have emails monitored by council officers despite chairman Cllr Jason Savage attempting to silence her.
During the meeting protestors, who had at first gathered outside to hear a speech from former councillor Ian Driver and to demand the resignation of chief executive officer Madeline Homer, voiced their views from the public gallery on numerous occasions and chanted “Homer out” after the vote to agree the auditor’s recommendations.
Also in the public gallery was Frank Macklin, Regional Organiser for the GMB Trade Union, who revealed the union had submitted a complaint about Ms Homer lobbying councillors before the meeting – something one of his members was disciplined for during a grievance complaint.
Leader of Thanet District Council, Cllr Ash Ashbee said: “It is only right and proper that councillors have had the opportunity to ask questions of the external auditor, agree to its recommendations and be a part of the process.
“When I was elected as Leader, I made it clear that good governance is the cornerstone of effective local government. Tonight’s unanimous decision is the first step towards us building a sound future for this council.”
The issues had already led to Thanet council leader Ash Ashbee calling in central government to step in to deal with the culture at the council amid the on-going disciplinary and grievance proceedings 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.
The complaints and counter complaints involved 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.
The council will make public its action plan in due course and continue to provide updates to councillors and the external auditor.