CROYDON IN CRISIS: Claims that the council might be more ‘open and transparent’ ring hollow, as questions are raised at the bankrupt borough over other serious allegations. By STEVEN DOWNES
Councillors from both political parties at Croydon Town Hall have expressed concern that the borough’s most senior lawyer has delayed releasing an important report on bullying at the council.
Labour and Conservative members of the council’s ethics committee raised the delay at a meeting of the ethics committee last week.
That meeting was only the second held by the ethics committee in the last 12 months. But on the previous occasion that they met, in November, the borough’s monitoring officer, Jacqueline Harris-Baker, “committed to circulating the report to members”.
Borough solicitor Harris-Baker, one of former council CEO Jo Negrini’s closest colleagues, was not present last week – apparently off work, sick. So when the committee’s vice-chair, Thornton Heath councillor Pat Clouder, mentioned that she had never been sent the report as promised, Harris-Baker was not available to offer any explanation. Indeed, none of the other council officials attending were able to explain the delay.
Joy Prince, another Labour member of the committee, expressed her concern to the meeting that she, too, had never been sent the report on bullying. Neither of the two Conservative councillors on the committee, Simon Hoar and Mario Creatura, had yet seen the report, Inside Croydon has learned.
According to the ethics committee minutes of its November meeting, “Further questions were raised in relation to staff bullying and the review by Joe Montgomery on equality within the workplace.
“The Monitoring Officer…”, meaning Harris-Baker, “… confirmed that there were recommendations within the report by Joe Montgomery and committed to circulating the report to members.
“In response to concerns regarding staff bullying, the Monitoring Officer stated there were procedures, such as conduct and disciplinary procedures in place alongside a Whistleblowing Policy which staff could access if there were issues of harassment and bullying in the workplace.” So that’s all right, then…
Well, actually, no it isn’t according to the councillors, some of whom suspect that the delay in circulating the report is an attempt at a cover-up.
“Of course, these are difficult times at the council, with covid-19 and the financial crisis,” a Katharine Street source said. “But senior officials have had the Montgomery report for months now. Why would they feel the need to withhold it? Who are they trying to protect?
“This episode raises a serious question: who is monitoring the Monitoring Officer?”
Senior council figures, going back to the days when Nathan Elvery was a figure of influence in Fisher’s Folly, have often been subject to accusations of fostering a bullying culture. Whistleblowers who have come forward with information critical of aspects of the way the council has been run have sometimes found themselves hounded out of their jobs.
Sources suggest that more recent developments have brought forward stern criticisms of the leadership of the council.
One long-standing member of staff who was forced out of their job a year ago is understood to have filed a formal complaint making serious allegations, including bullying, against the council’s political leadership.
And the Penn Report, commissioned by the interim chief executive Katherine Kerswell to look into “possible wrong-doing” at the council, is understood to be fiercely critical of Negrini.
The Penn Report has not been published, and so far has been seen by only a handful of the most senior figures at the council. Last week, shortly after Kerswell received the report from Richard Penn, four of the council’s most senior staff were suspended from their jobs, reported today by Private Eye magazine as Croydon’s “night of the long knives”.
Also last week, two councillors were suspended by the Labour Party, pending an investigation – former council leader Tony Newman and Simon Hall, the former finance chief. Both are understood to have been mentioned critically in the Penn Report.
None of the staff or councillor suspensions were allowed to be discussed at last Thursday’s ethics committee, ostensibly because the Penn Report was not yet available to councillors.
Penn’s strongest criticism, according to sources, has been reserved for Negrini. This may have included mention of allegations of bullying.
The recommendations of the Penn Report are behind meetings of the appointments committee today and on Friday, and another ethics committee this week, too.
Friday’s appointments committee has been summoned to consider “Statutory Chief Officer Disciplinary Procedure”. The ethics committee on Friday morning will be asked to consider that same topic, but also has “Complaint under the Councillor Code of Conduct”on its agenda.
The reports to both these meetings have yet to be published.
If they are anything like the entirely opaque report for today’s meeting, they will offer little detail to the public who are ultimately footing the bill for the serial incompetence at the council and subsequent investigations.
Today’s appointments committee meeting lasted less time than it took Roger Bannister to run a mile, before all discussions were taken into the Part B, secret section of the agenda.
The meeting, chaired by Newman’s replacement as council leader, Hamida Ali, and attended by Kerswell, only really had one substantive item to discuss: “the council’s management arrangements”.
According to one Town Hall source, “It would be nice if they had some.”
Read more: ‘Autocratic’ CEO took ‘bizarre decisions that make you weep’
Read more: Council in attempt to cover-up £440,000 pay-off to Negrini
Read more: The Kerswell cull begins: five senior council execs go ‘off-grid’
Read more: Newman presided over ‘shocking bullying’, claims councillor
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