CROYDON IN CRISIS: In an online poll conducted over the weekend, the overwhelming majority of iC readers – 92.5% – said that wanted to read more from the Penn Report into ‘possible wrong-doing’ at their local council.
So, because Mayor Perry refuses to publish it, here we bring you the latest instalment of the sometimes shocking accounts, from staff members, directors, external experts and councillors, of what it was like to work at Fisher’s Folly under former chief exec Jo Negrini. EXCLUSIVE by STEVEN DOWNES
What’s perhaps most striking, as you wade through page after page of Richard Penn’s summary of evidence and interviews conducted as he investigated how Croydon Council managed to tailspin into one of the biggest collapses in the history of British local authorities, is the unanimity and similarities of many of the accounts of working at Fisher’s Folly in the months and years that led to that doomsday of the Section 114 notice, issued in November 2020, conceding that those in charge of the borough had lost control of its finances.
And so many of the pages in Section 6 of the Penn Report, “The Executive Leadership Team”, focus on one member of that ELT: Jo Negrini, the council’s chief executive until September 2020.
The findings of the Penn Report are often shocking, and in these extracts today we lay out some of the allegations of bullying, of weak appointees, inexperienced and unsuited yet installed into top jobs where they could be relied upon not to challenge, and the “good days and bad days” of ill-temper that so dominated the 7th floor at Fisher’s Folly.
One executive director even had their office moved to another floor just to get away from the constant shouting and ill-will.
The Penn Report was commissioned from the Local Government Association in November 2020, just after the S114 notice, by the then-new interim CEO, Katherine Kerswell. It was among her first acts in the hot seat.
Penn duly delivered his 160-page report in February 2021, but Kerswell has since withheld it, turning down appeals from Labour and more recently Conservative politicians to publish the document in full.
Inside Croydon began to reveal parts of the report last week, in spite threats of legal action and an appeal from the council’s current Monitoring Officer for us to return our copy.
What we have published so far has been taken from Penn’s own “Conclusions and recommendations” – which included the firm recommendation that the council’s elected members should decide whether to call-in the police to investigate possible instances of the serious offence of misconduct in public office, and whether Negrini had acted in breach of her contract and therefore never had any right to the very generous £437,000 pay-off that was handed to “Negreedy” in August 2020 by a secret meeting chaired by the now discredited former leader of the council, Labour’s Tony Newman.
But Penn’s conclusions of themselves barely begin to scratch the surface of the shocking revelations about working life inside the council’s offices – sometimes referred to as “Bernard Wetherill House”, or “BWH” – that are laid bare in the previous 146 pages of first-hand versions of events.
Take, as an example, the account of “Interviewee 35 (a member of staff)” (Penn has tried to protect his sources), of a meeting of the ELT – the Executive Leadership Team – in the final days of Negrini’s reign over Croydon.
The bunker mentality is there for all to recognise.
Para 6.26.1 of Penn’s report says, “Interviewee 35 described what happened at the ELT meeting… just before the (former) Chief Executive [meaning Negrini] left the authority.
“Interviewee 35 attended the ELT meeting along with the (current) head of Internal Audit [Simon Maddocks, who was “retired” in July last year], to present reports on the Annual Governance Statement and the Internal Audit Report respectively that would be on the General Purposes and Audit Committee agenda at its meeting on 7 October 2020.
“Interviewee 35 said that it was an awful occasion, the worst ever experienced.”
Negrini “was angry”, the interviewee said, “and in particular said that this was the first time that she had been made aware of the issues raised in [Maddocks’] report and the failures of governance and internal control highlighted.
“In Interviewee 35’s view, this was factually not the case.”
The council staffer told Penn that Negrini must have known about the increasing number of “limited” or “no assurance” internal audit reports over a number of years from previous annual reviews conducted by Maddocks and his team, as well as reports from external auditors Grant Thornton. Negrini will have also known about them had she read Inside Croydon.
Penn reports that Interviewee 35 told him that Negrini “did not allow [Maddocks] to make a proper response to her claim that she had never been advised about any of this. In relation to the Annual Governance Statement, she had asked ‘Where are the areas of risk that need to be prioritised?’, to which Interviewee 35 had responded that, ‘They are there for you in Tables 1 and 2 in the Statement’.
According to Interviewee 35, “The rest of [the Executive Leadership Team] made no challenge to [Negrini’s] claims or to the way that she was talking to the staff presenting these reports – indeed, the rest of ELT appeared to be supporting her position.”
In para 6.26.2, Penn reports, “For Interviewee 35 this meeting had brought into question why ELT members feit that they could not challenge [Negrini] or Cabinet members when it would be appropriate to do so.”
The evident fear of their bosses among some of Penn’s 64 interviewees is made very clear in some of the LGA investigator’s early remarks. “Some of those whom I interviewed were very reluctant to have their personal and professional views and opinions directly attributed to them and I have attempted as far as is possible to protect their identities,” Penn explained.
“Some individuals have further expressly requested not to be identified and this has also been honoured.”
Such reluctance, perhaps even a fear of speaking up, is demonstrated throughout Penn’s report.
One interviewee, No34, told Penn that they believed that Negrini and Simon Hall, the Labour councillor who was cabinet member for finance, “were very similar and it was ‘career suicide’ to raise issues or challenge them”.
Interviewee 31 (a member of staff), Penn writes, “told me that the consensus view is of a dominant (former) Chief Executive and compliant executive directors who were reluctant to speak up and challenge even though that was the right thing to have done.”
Interviewee 31 described Negrini as “a strong and dominant individual”.
They added, “Some of the Executive Directors, who could and should have spoken up and challenged members to guide their decision-making and when appropriate to say no, failed to do so. In Interviewee 31’s view, it appears that nobody seemed able or willing to provide that challenge.
“… The council ended up as an organisation that did not say no to anything, no matter what the cost and whether or not it could be afforded.”
Interviewee 31 made the point of telling Penn that they “did not recall witnessing any bullying behaviour” by Negrini, but they had heard about this from others.
Penn reports, “Interviewee 31 explained that the understanding amongst staff was that when [Negrini] was in a bad mood, everyone would soon know about it by her behaviour in the office. Interviewee 31 does not understand why ELT members either individually or as a group did not apparently challenge her about her behaviour, particularly towards more junior staff.
“What has been said to Interviewee 31 is that ELT members always waited to see which way the wind was blowing and conformed to that direction… In retrospect, Interviewee 31 sees this as scandalous behaviour by all concerned.”
The Penn Report does contain several accounts of bullying, many of which reflect accounts from members of staff also received by Inside Croydon at the time of the council’s financial collapse.
Interviewee 33 (a member of staff), in para 6.24.1 of Penn’s report, said that “it became clear that two of those involved in the focus groups had witnessed or been told by one of their colleagues that bullying was occurring at meetings between the highest level senior executives, that this was occurring regularly on the office floor in close proximity to where those individuals were located, and that it appeared to these members of staff as if this behaviour was being both trivialised and normalised”.
Penn writes, “It is clear to Interviewee 33 that the bullying talked about was not a one-off but was a prevalent form of behaviour, particularly at ELT meetings. It is not clear why no one spoke up about either witnessing or experiencing this bullying behaviour at the time it happened.”
This interviewee had been at the council long enough to remember working under the previous CEO, Nathan Elvery, who they said acted in a similarly controlling manner. When Negrini was promoted to the top job, Interviewee 33 told Penn, she “seemed to want to break away from this pattern of behaviour and promote shared leadership, but it did not turn out that way.
“Interviewee 33 expressed the view that unless tackled, someone who has a powerful position like a Chief Executive can develop and maintain total dominance of a group of subordinates by isolating non-compliant individuals and by dividing and ruling.”
In para 6.20, staff member Interviewee 30 “said that no one had been brave enough to do anything about [Negrini’s] widely perceived bullying style”.
They went on to state that council lawyer Jacqueline Harris-Baker, who had been promoted by Negrini from Borough Solicitor to executive director of resources, “worked very closely with her and was never seen to have to challenge her”.
Penn reports Interviewee 30 as expressing the view that Harris-Baker “may well have been a very good lawyer and director of law, but it was apparent to many that she could not or would not stand up to [Negrini] and was seen to be out of her depth as an executive director…
“In Interviewee 30’s view, [Negrini] appointed executive directors who appeared to be compliant and who would keep quiet about any concerns.”
Outsiders interviewed by Penn (such as Interviewee 8, in para 6.22) also “expressed the view that some of the senior officers in Croydon appear to just not be in the right job”.
In para 6.25.1, a member of staff, Interviewee 34, said that many of the Executive Leadership Team “were appointed to their roles because [Negrini] knew that they would be compliant and not challenge her, and most of them had close personal relationships with her…”.
Interviewee 34 told Penn that they “worked on the 7th Floor and… there was always a lot of shouting by the (former) Chief Executive, including shouting at Interviewee 34 about the Corporate Plan because she did not like what she was being told.
“Any executive director who disagreed with her did not last long…”, Penn was told by Interviewee 34, who recounted how one exec director had then “chosen to move away from the rest of ELT and work from a different floor in BWH as part of their ‘survival’.”
Penn writes, “Interviewee 30 considers that [Negrini] was really only interested in doing ‘sexy’ things to get herself and Croydon noticed, but she never did things properly and did not get initiatives embedded. Many of these initiatives were on the face of it laudable and sound in principle, but poorly executed.”
Some of the council’s politicians, with the benefit of hindsight, admitted in their interviews with Penn to concerns over Negrini’s management style.
“Interviewee 18 (a former and/or current member of the Cabinet or Committee Chair),” Penn writes, “said that in their view [Negrini] was an interesting character but did not seem to provide much positive leadership to members of the Executive Leadership Team and had relied instead on dominating them.
“Interviewee 18 said that it was not clear if [Negrini] had deliberately appointed a team that would be compliant and that would not challenge her, but it has been suggested to Interviewee 18 that the ELT had become weakened after the council lost some very good senior officers over recent years.”
And here comes the buck-passing: “Whilst members [meaning councillors, and cabinet members] were involved in those appointment processes, they would have relied on internal and external advice about who were the best candidates for these top jobs.”
In para 6.23.1, Penn reports “Interviewee 32 (a member of staff) had witnessed [Negrini] bully a member of a team but did not raise this direct with her but instead raised it with [Shifa Mustafa, Negrini’s appointee as executive director for place] a couple of times…
“But overall the behaviour did not change.”
Interviewee 32 told Penn that the bullying had also been witnessed by some of the council’s most senior staff, members of the ELT, but they “did not step in to support Interviewee 32 or the staff member in the meeting”.
Penn reports, “This led Interviewee 32 to the conclusion that there would not be any support if this was raised or if attempts were made to do something about it.”
Another incident is recalled at which the subject of Brick by Brick, Negrini’s pet project, the council’s failing house-building company, was raised as a matter of concern by more junior staff, and Mustafa warned them: “Don’t raise that with the Chief Executive”.
Penn writes, “Interviewee 32 feels that everyone was complicit and compliant in not raising issues and keeping quiet for fear of reprisal.”
The interview given by No32 is interesting because they say that once they “had become aware of just how serious the financial issues were at Croydon, advice was sought… from the Labour Group at the [Local Government Association] about how to raise concerns…
“But no intervention resulted.”
Penn says, “The reality that Interviewee 32 witnessed was that the (current) ELT members did not demonstrate the skills, knowledge and capabilities necessary to solve the problems that Croydon had to deal with…
“But it appears to Interviewee 32 that nobody did anything – they all kept their heads down and let it happen.”
Read more: #PennReport wanted police probe into possible misconduct
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Read more: Mayor breaks silence to say he won’t publish #PennReport
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