CROYDON IN CRISIS: Questions have been raised over Labour’s decision not to suspend the former deputy leader of the council, while Town Hall chiefs prepare for a flurry of disciplinary meetings next week
Yesterday’s “administrative suspension” of councillors Tony Newman and Simon Hall by the Labour Party prompted some of their erstwhile colleagues to come forward and call for further sanctions, amid allegations of “shocking bullying” within their party’s Town Hall group.
Inside Croydon understands that Newman and Hall have been suspended by the Labour Party, pending a formal review of their part in the financial collapse of the council. The suspensions have come because Newman and Hall are both named in the Penn Report, the investigation conducted into possible wrong-doing at the council, carried out by Richard Penn backed by the Local Government Association.
Last night, a council committee was told by Elaine Jackson, the borough’s recently appointed assistant chief executive, that her boss, Katherine Kerswell, “had very recently received that report”.
That ethics committee is to be reconvened next Friday morning, when the findings of the Penn Report will be high on the agenda. Items for discussion include “Statutory Chief Officer Disciplinary Procedure”, and “Complaint under the Councillor Code of Conduct”. Neither items have their formal reports yet available on the council website, so the public is left to ponder what it might all be about.
That ethics committee comes in a flurry of significant meetings planned for next week.
These begin on Tuesday, when the scrutiny committee will discuss the council’s budget for 2021-2022 (notably, in the likely absence of Lisa Taylor, the council’s finance director, who is one of four execs who were suspended this week).
On Thursday afternoon, there is an appointments committee meeting, when the main business is “Review of Management Arrangements – To consider a report of the Chief Executive”. Again, the report has not yet been made available, although this seems certain to discuss the status of the suspended executive directors.
That evening comes the cabinet meeting which is to discuss the plans to wind down or flog-off Brick by Brick and the council’s strategy for disposing of its other property assets (in a fire sale, in a pandemic… This won’t end well).
As if that wasn’t enough fun and games for one week, Friday sees the ethics committee get together in the morning to consider the Penn Report, and then at 2pm there’s another appointments committee meeting, this time with an agenda that asks them “To consider the report on the Statutory Chief Officer Disciplinary Procedure and establish an Investigating and Disciplinary Sub-Committee”.
Under existing council procedures, this meeting has been called by Jacqueline Harris-Baker, in her role as borough solicitor and monitoring officer. A council monitoring officer’s duties include keeping a check on matters which they believe are, or are likely to be, illegal or amount to maladministration, and to be responsible for the conduct of councillors and officers.
Harris-Baker, who was promoted to executive director of resources by former CEO Jo Negrini, is currently on sick leave. Sources at the council suggest that once she is well enough to return to work, she will join her four exec director colleagues in herself being suspended.
A Katharine Street source said today, “The Penn Report is tied up in a lot of legal red tape.”
Another cource said, “Kerswell and the council’s leadership have to be so very careful, after suspending those four exec directors this week. They could be looking at some very costly constructive dismissal cases if they don’t get everything exactly right.”
And there’s a dearth of options for action over any misconduct by elected councillors, too, it seems. As Inside Croydon has previously reported, the Localism Act from 2011 stripped away local authority powers to suspend councillors. That was confirmed to last night’s ethics committee, with the Tory government said to be “dragging its feet on legislation to implement the LGA recommendations which would effectively reintroduce such powers”, according to another source.
Which is why suspension by the Labour Party of Newman and Hall is so significant.
“Someone in the Croydon Labour group must have had sight of the Penn Report,” a source said.
Others are unable to explain why Alison Butler, as Newman’s statutory deputy leader, has not suffered a siimilar suspension. “Anything that Simon Hall did as a cabinet member, he did because of the powers delegated to him by the strong leader, and by the statutory deputy leader.
“That suggests that Alison ought to have been suspended, too.”
Cynics suggest that Butler, who was also the cabinet member for housing, responsible for the Brick by Brick fiiasco, might have been given a free pass because of her past relationship with David Evans, who is the Keir Starmer-appointed secretary general of the Labour Party, and may have had advance knowledge of suspensions of such high-profile members as Newman and Hall.
Jason Cummings, the deputy leader of Croydon’s Tory oppostion group at the Town Hall, has called for Butler and her husband, Paul Scott, who has been in charge of the borough’s planning system for the past six years, to both be suspended.
Saying that he welcomed the suspensions of Newman and Hall, Cummings said, “Who knows why Butler and Scott have not been suspended, too? We would like to see them suspended, too. It has to be all four of them.”
There is some suggestion that their non-suspended status is because neither Butler nor Scott rate a mention in the Penn Report. If true, a Katharine Street source said, “That would be a woeful omission. It shows how poorly drafted Penn’s terms of reference were, and how perfunctory his investigation might prove to be.”
The removal of Newman and Hall, temporarily, at least, while any complaints against them are investigated, does mean that they are banned from attending meetings of the Labour group, something which some of their erstwhile colleagues say that they found to be intimidating, and prevented open discussion on the council’s financial collapse.
Last week, another report, this time commissioned by the government, identified Newman and “… an inner circle of a small number of cabinet members who have been very controlling in their management of the council and its finances”.
The report, following a rapid review commissioned by local government minister Robert Jenrick, found that “council officials were instructed by members of Newman’s cabinet to rewrite some of their reports, in effect to disguise the council’s mounting financial problems”.
One long-standing Labour councillor, speaking to Inside Croydon on condition of strict anonymity, said, “Why has it taken so long?
“Since the council’s financial crisis went out of control back in September, and following Tony and Simon’s rsignations, they’ve been able to attend group meetings, they’ve been able to vote at council meetings… It still feels like we’re being watched, in case we speak out.
“We’ve certainly not been able to discuss some matters as freely as we might have liked, or needed to.”
And another Labour councillor, quoted by the Local Government Chronicle, said that the culture of Newman’s cabinet was “one of shocking bullying”.
They said, “If you challenged their authority, you were sacked. Every political trick in the book was used to remove people who actually did their job.
“They saw people who were good at asking the right questions as a threat, rather than something to embrace.”
- Click here for the MHCLG’s Rapid Review report
- Click here for the model code of conduct for councillors, considered at last night’s ethics committee
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