CROYDON IN CRISIS: A behind-closed-doors meeting this morning discussed the Labour leadership’s controversial £437,000 golden handshake to the ex-CEO, and recommendations over the £67m spent on the Fairfield Halls. EXCLUSIVE by STEVEN DOWNES
Grant Thornton, the council’s official auditors, have raised a formal query over the £437,000 pay-off handed to Jo “Negreedy” Negrini, the former chief exec, in August 2020.
But with local elections just a week away, the council’s current CEO and leadership are trying to keep the matter secret from the public.
At 9 o’clock this morning, in the Town Hall Chamber, there was a meeting of the council’s appointments committee – normally a gathering of a handful of senior councillors and one or two top council staffers to discuss the salary level of the next top job, or who to place in charge of paper clips at Fisher’s Folly.
But Inside Croydon, and the Croydon public, were refused permission to attend, observe or report most of the substantive matters on the meeting’s agenda, because about half of the committee’s time was to be spent in “Part B”: councilspeak for a secret agenda that excludes the press and public from hearing about how often millions of pounds of public money is being spent.
The council even fessed up to its secrecy: “Please note that the great majority of the business to be discussed at this meeting will be confidential and therefore will be conducted in Part B of the agenda” states a foreword on the paperwork. That’s about as forthcoming as Croydon’s supposedly public servants get with these “confidential” matters involving hundreds of thousands of pounds of public money.
There were two very late additions to the agenda, thought to have been added only late yesterday (possibly in the forlorn hope that no one would notice).
Item 15 on the agenda reads: “Consideration of various recommendations placed before the Appointments Committee of 23 June 2021 – Matters pending the publication of the second Report in the Public Interest regarding the refurbishment of Fairfield Halls”.
And item 16 reads: “Response to Formal Query from the External Auditor raised in regard to the settlement agreement with the former Chief Executive”, where the external auditor is, again, Grant Thornton, the authors of both Reports In The Public Interest into the dodgy goings-ons at the council, and where the settlement with the former chief executive is the £437,000, apparently in hush money, paid to Negrini 18 months ago, following a stitch-up at an equally secretive meeting.
As Inside Croydon reported earlier this month, it was at a previous meeting of the appointments committee, also just before a Bank Holiday weekend, where the Negrini deal was pushed through, seeing her receive a total of £613,000 of council cash in 2020, in salary, pensions and the golden handshake, the latter courtesy of council leader Tony Newman and Simon Hall, his finance “wizard” (with magical abilities to make money disappear).
At least today, the attendees at this meeting had the promise of written reports from council officials “to follow”.
The item on the agenda today is the first public hint that Grant Thornton, like the vast majority of readers of this website, reckon that there was something not right or proper about Newman and Hall using hundreds of thousands of pounds of public money to show Negrini the door.
And it could be another reason why the Labour group which has controlled the council since 2014 – including dozens of councillors who are seeking re-election next Thursday – have moved to have Grant Thornton sacked as the council’s auditors.
Those supposed to be attending today included Hamida Ali, Newman’s successor as council leader and chair of the meeting, Stuart King, her deputy, Callton Young and Joy Prince, all Labour councillors, with two token Conservatives to make up the numbers in Lynne Hale and Jason Cummings.
Senior council officials expected were Kerswell, Stephen Rowan, the head of democratic services, and a junior official as clerk.
Once the committee members had ploughed through more than 200 pages of reports from Kerswell about how she has “reorganised” the cash-strapped council she inherited from Negrini by actually increasing the number of officials at executive director level and above on six-figure salaries, while axing 11 less-well-paid “heads of service” roles, they will have reached the nitty-gritty of the Grant Thornton recommendations and query.
Elsewhere in the publicly available papers, there’s hints that some of this will have concerned the findings of the Penn Report, the independent investigation into possible wrong-doing at the council, conducted by a Local Government Association official which Kerswell has suppressed for 14 months, refusing to make its contents public.
Minutes of a meeting held in two sessions in March 2021, now published for the first time, hint at the reasons for that. The appointments committee held on March 17 and March 23 was well lawyered-up, attended by Queen’s Counsel Sally Robertson (“counsel to the committee”, with the meter running at an estimated £350 to £400 per hour…), plus Ros Foster, an “external legal advisor” from solicitors Browne Jackson. And the meeting was also attended by Richard Penn himself, the author of that long-hidden LGA report.
It may be significant, but no one from the council’s own legal team, such as Jacqueline Harris-Baker (by then on long-term sick leave before her resignation), nor her deputy, Sean Murphy, were invited to attend.
The events at this previous committee meeting also remain clouded in secrecy, with much of its discussions also conducted as “Part B” items.
Not for want of lack of trying from the councillors, or “members” as they are known in councilspeak, who the minutes show “expressed a desire to consider as much of the report in Part A as possible”; that is, discussed in public.
But Kerswell prevailed.
The then interim chief executive, the minutes state, “that due to a number of ongoing confidential processes, the report of the independent investigation would not be publicly accessible at this time”. This is, indeed, a council where those who are meant to be accountable are definitely calling the shots.
The minutes do tell us that, “the investigation into senior management actions had been commissioned in response to the Report in the Public Interest (RIPI) issued by the council’s external auditors, Grant Thornton.” That’s the first RIPI, from October 2020, that found “corporate blindness” across the council ahead of its financial collapse.
“That RIPI,” the minutes state, “had detailed significant issues relating to the council’s financial position, its financial governance and its overall effectiveness as an organisation.
“The independent investigation had been commissioned by the interim chief executive to gain an understanding into how the council had reached the situation identified in the RIPI and, if any concerns were identified, then due consideration would be given to whether any action would need to be taken under the relevant processes…
“… Understanding how the council had arrived in the position described in the RIPI was essential to ensure that the improvement plan contained the necessary actions so that the council could avoid finding itself in a similar situation in the future.”
Later, the minutes recorded, “The committee heard that building a clear understanding of how Croydon had got into the situation identified in the RIPI and other external assessments was essential to both understand what needed to be improved and to demonstrate to staff that a new culture of accountability and delivery was in place.” Though evidently, that new “culture of accountability” doesn’t extend as far as the kind of secrecy that keeps significant reports into the council’s management secret for nearly 18 months.
This is despite Kerswell being aware that the secrecy surrounding the Penn Report, and the conduct of Labour council leaders Newman and Hall, and the payment to Negrini would inevitably attract criticism and suspicion.
Work on Penn’s investigation, the minutes state, began “in a context of many [councillors], staff, residents and others holding concerns that the investigation and report could be a ‘cover up’ and that those [councillors] and [council officials] primarily responsible for the council’s failings would not be held to account”.
So far, all of those concerns have proven to be very well-founded.
The minutes show that Kerswell, in her first months in her new job in Croydon, soon discovered “a real anxiety amongst staff around speaking freely and a fear of being subsequently bullied or targeted” for offering evidence to the Penn investigation.
The minutes show that Penn sought interviews with 31 individuals – councillors and employees – while another 34 came forward to provide evidence.
If any did so expecting a “new culture of accountability” to be in place at the council, then like thousands of residents in the borough, they are probably bitterly disappointed.
Read more: Newman and Negrini’s pay-off: no papers, no notes, no reasons
Read more: CEO Negrini’s long campaign to shut down Inside Croydon
Read more: Watchdog suggests Negrini’s pay-off may have been unlawful
Read more: The bottom line on the failure of ex-CEO Negrini: £613,895
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