Report covers up council’s role in #WadGate scandal

Croydon Council has overseen a cover-up of the role of senior public officials in the #WadGate scandal, in which over the course of a year the now former council leader, Mike Fisher, was allowed to trouser an extra £13,000 of public money and no one batted an eye-lid.

A five-month inquiry into the scandal saw the investigating panel meet only twice. They never bothered to interview a single witness.

A report, conducted by an “independent” three-person panel, has been published on the council website. It has been submitted among the papers for next Monday’s meeting of the full council.

The then Tory council leader Mike Fisher captured on election night last May: for him, his problems had only just begun...

The then Tory council leader Mike Fisher captured on election night last May: for him, his problems had only just begun…

In its recommendations, the panel, chaired by former headmistress Anne Smith, states, “The Inquiry finds that the situation involving Councillor Fisher demonstrates a lack of openness, transparency and public accountability.” At Croydon Council? No shit, Sherlocks!

While being critical of Fisher for failing to observe the council’s Code of Conduct, the inquiry panel has overlooked that all council employees, from the chief executive down, are also bound by the same Code of Conduct.

The report’s authors state that “it is of the utmost importance that any future action addresses … restoring public confidence; safeguarding public monies and preventing a reoccurrence [sic]”. Yet the inquiry panel itself has failed to take any steps towards those ends.

The report fails to state who, among the council’s highly paid executives, knew about Fisher’s secretive allowances claims and then authorised these payments to be made. The inquiry, it seems, never bothered to ask such an obvious question.

That some council officials knew about the payments, and even checked on their legality, allowing thousands of pounds of public cash to be handed over on the quiet, without making the practice known publicly, suggests a degree of complicity or incompetence, or both, which must be of grave concern to any Croydon residents who want proper management of the council.

And as part of that complicity, we can now add Labour group leader Tony Newman, who called for the establishment of the inquiry panel and has allowed it to deliver a shallow resume of what was already well-known. Just as Inside Croydon predicted it would.

Council leader Tony Newman, left, refuses to investigate how the council offices, where Nathan Elvery, right, works, managed to cost £144 million under the CCURV scheme

Council leader Tony Newman, left, has just been told by £180,000 per year council CEO Nathan Elvery that the inquiry into #WadGate never bothered to interview a single witness

Such a limp report is exactly what those who are actually running the borough – the unelected six-figured salaried executives who inhabit the glass edifice to council incompetence that is Bernard Weatherill House – much prefer.

And don’t expect the Tories, now in opposition, to rock the boat too much when it comes to Monday’s full council meeting. With florid-faced Fisher dumped as their leader, it suits his successor, Tim Pollard, to scapegoat him and move swiftly on.

Somehow (ha!), Newman allowed the #WadGate inquiry to drag on into 2015 election year. Suitably scandalised by the whole shabby affair, Newman now wants to use the report to make political capital at the Tories’ expense by suggesting that Croydon Conservatives should refund £13,000 into the public coffers.

This might affect the Tories’ election campaign budget, though the likes of Lord Cashcroft or even Croydon South candidate and millionaire Tory donor Chris Philp could quiet easily cough up an extra 13 grand towards paying to ensure Gavin Barwell is re-elected as the MP for the Whitgift Foundation. But the call for Croydon Conservatives to make the refund, rather than Fisher himself, is another acknowledgement of what has been an open secret in Town Hall circles for months: Fisher would not be able to make the £13,000 refund. And none of the borough’s elected representatives, whether Tory or Labour, want to establish the precedent of a disgraced councillor being forced to sell his family home to make good misdemeanours in public office.

The story so far

For anyone who missed the #WadGate scandal when the story broke, in 2010 the then Conservative-run council, led by Mike Fisher, announced publicly that councillors would not take an increase in their allowances (or “wages” in plain English) which had been suggested by an independent body. Given the number of council jobs and services Fisher and his merry band of axemen (and women) were cutting, it would not have looked too clever for them to award themselves a pay rise.

But in 2013, with the local elections looming, Fisher went off and arranged to be paid the full whack which he had publicly said he would not claim. Instead of being paid  £53,223 a year as council leader, he managed to bank £66,875 in a period which stretched until after he’d lost the Town Hall elections to Newman’s Labour group.

This was all kept secret by Fisher, some of his senior Tory colleagues, and by council officials, until long after the local elections in May. And then he got caught.

Mike Fisher has been rarely sighted at council meetings since his downfall, and when he has been present, he appears distracted. Here, he's checking the result of the 2.45 at Kempton...

Mike Fisher has been rarely sighted at council meetings since his downfall, and when he has been present, he appears distracted. Here, he’s checking the result of the 2.45 at Kempton…

Eventually, somewhat reluctantly, Fisher was forced to stand down as the leader of the Conservative group on the council. He has rarely dared to show his face since.

The connivance and greed which was Fisher’s downfall (© Arfur Z Towcrate) was also evident among some of his senior lackeys.

But councillors Steve O’Connell (already the nation’s most overpaid councillor), Vidhi Mohan (the Conservative parliamentary candidate in Croydon North), Steve Hollands and the now ex-councllor Simon “I’m Cheap, But I’m Not Free” Hoar, all got away with it by the skin of the political teeth because they enquired about making a secret allowances claim, but they never actually took the money.

The report states that “there was an ambiguity in the approach and presentation of the [councillors’ allowances scheme] in 2010 and in setting new rates”. It was this ambiguity which Fisher was able to exploit, presumably (because the report doesn’t say so one way or another) after taking advice from council officials. You also have to assume that, as the then council leader, Fisher would have been advised not by a minor official, but someone in the higher echelons of the council’s hierarchy.

Not exactly the Chilcot Report

Five months to pull together an “independent” report on an open-and-shut case seems a little on the slow side. In fact, the three-person panel – chaired by Smith, a member of the council’s oxymoronic ethics committee, together with Damian Luke and former Ofsted inspector Joseph Trickey; and with a senior council employee, Jacqueline Harris-Baker, there to hold their hands – did not actually meet until six weeks after the inquiry was announced. Then they only met twice, on November 5 and 23.

Anne Smith: no witnesses at #WadGate inquiry

Anne Smith: no witnesses at #WadGate inquiry

All they did was trawl through paperwork.

“The Panel did not consider it necessary to hold public sessions or to obtain specific responses from Members or Officers,” the report states. “Members” is council-speak for elected councillors, “officers” means council employees. No explanation is offered why the panel thought it was unnecessary to question Fisher, O’Connell or any of the other “near-miss” claimaints.

And nor did Smith’s panel bother to question any of the senior council public servants who will have advised on and authorised the additional payments and never reported this underhand conduct.

It is this aspect of this report which ought to be of greatest concern: Fisher’s #WadGate claims went on for months, with the knowledge and agreement of senior council employees, and yet NO ONE DID ANYTHING ABOUT IT.

Who in the council offices knew about this? The report fails to tell us.

Considering that “Only tell us what we already know” was not explicitly included in the panel’s remit, they appear to have followed that unwritten instruction better than anything else. The report’s authors state that it was only when the 2013-2014 councillors’ allowances were published in the summer that “it became public knowledge that Councillor Mike Fisher had taken the increases”.

Overall, the report has all the hallmarks of a piece of Croydon Council in-house work. That is not meant as a compliment.

The actual report is a mere six pages long, plus a single sheet Appendix listing the documents that the panel members may have read. Someone at the council then bumped up the document to 11 pages by, pretty much, copying the panel’s report and formatting it in council style. That part of the report hasn’t even undergone the most basic of spell checks.

Among its several “Statements of the Bleedin’ Obvious”, the report says:

  • “The Inquiry accepted that taking the higher rate payment was not unlawful. However … it would call into question whether it was proper or in the public interest to take the increase without publically [sic] communicating that decision in advance.”
  • “The Inquiry found, as a matter of fact, that only Cllr Mike Fisher took the higher rate of payment provided for under the scheme and only in the 2013/14 financial year. No other Members or former Members of the former Conservative administration were found to have done so.”
  • “The Inquiry was of the view that the Members’ Code of Conduct covers the conduct that should have been expected in this instance.”

And there you have it.

Of course, Fisher is guilty of venality, greed and abysmal judgement, and he makes a ready scapegoat. But this report does nothing to ensure that such self-serving malpractices, or potentially bigger mishandling of public money, never happen again.

 


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About insidecroydon

News, views and analysis about the people of Croydon, their lives and political times in the diverse and most-populated borough in London. Based in Croydon and edited by Steven Downes. To contact us, please email inside.croydon@btinternet.com
This entry was posted in Bernard Weatherill House, Chris Philp MP, Croydon Council, Gavin Barwell, Julie Belvir, Mike Fisher, Nathan Elvery, Shirley, Steve Hollands, Steve O'Connell, Tim Pollard, Tony Newman, Vidhi Mohan and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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