Independent officer findings following damning report of Thanet council failures to be discussed in private

Thanet council

A report by an independent monitoring officer appointed by Thanet council following a damning report into the “inadequate” governance arrangements around whistleblowing, grievances and disciplinary procedures at the authority will be discussed by councillors this week.

Quentin Baker, Director of Law and Governance for Hertfordshire County Council, was appointed to the position in December after the previous officer who took the role withdrew.

Last October 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.

On November 2  Thanet District Council unanimously agreed to Grant Thornton’s four statutory recommendations – including bringing in the 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.

The independent officer has carried out an assessment of the status of all outstanding grievances, whistleblowing complaints and any continuing suspensions and proposed a plan of action to address them.

The council must re-examine financial plans and identify additional savings to deal with costs created in resolving grievances and whistleblowing complaints.

Since the Grant Thornton report was published two of Thanet council’s top officers have left the authority.

The departure of Tim Willis, who oversaw the Housing and Planning service, Communications and Digital, Finance and Procurement and led digital transformation across the council’s services, came in October.

Mr Willis has been with the authority since 2015. In August 2019 he was subject to a shock suspension from his role. No reason was publicly given for the suspension and it provoked an outcry from many councillors.

Mr Willis was reinstated a month later and cleared of all gross misconduct allegations. A grievance had been lodged by Mr Willis about his treatment at the council. He left with  £280,000 severance pay and a public apology by council leader Ash Ashbee over the suspension, saying: “This should not have happened and on behalf of Thanet District Council, I apologise to him for that. The council’s General Purposes Committee subsequently unanimously dismissed all allegations against Tim Willis. He leaves the employment of the council with a spotless employment record, and I would like to thank him for his service.”

Last month monitoring officer Tim Howes was dismissed from his role with immediate effect following a ‘behind closed doors’ extraordinary council meeting.

Mr Howes had been absent from the authority since the end of 2020 although a reason for his suspension was not made public.

In January 2021 a meeting of the General Purposes Investigations & Disciplinary Sub-Committee was held. The function of this committee is to “ consider allegations/issues regarding disciplinary matters” and “suspensions” that may relate to top tier management. A letter sent to council staff in February 2021 confirmed the suspension.

It is understood the issue was connected to an ‘unsubstantiated’ report made to Kent Police. The MJ publication reported that Mr Howes had made what were considered to be ‘’vexatious and malicious’ allegations about Mr Willis to the police. Police concluded no crime had been committed.

The report by auditors Grant Thornton said there had 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 by Independent Monitoring Officer Quentin Baker will be discussed by councillors on Thursday (May 19), The meeting will, once again, be held in private although Mr Baker’s recommendations are expected to be published.

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

Council leader issues apology over top officer suspension and chief exec says investigation leads to ‘no action’ recommended against her