Cheshire East Council admit bullying problem

In December 2015 Labour councillors tabled a formal motion at Cheshire East
Council calling for an external investigation into allegations of bullying
at the council. After 2 years of dithering and obstruction, and some high
profile incidents of bullying being reported in the press, the Conservatives
finally gave into the pressure and commissioned a review by Sarah Messenger
of the Local Government Association.

The recognition that there is a problem with bullying at Cheshire East
Council and that the culture of the organisation has been awry since the
Council was formed in 2009 is welcome. Acknowledging a problem is the first
step in fixing it, but this is only the first step. The Labour Group will be
working across party lines to address the problems at Cheshire East Council,
that have now been acknowledged, and to implement all of the recommendations
in the report.

The evidence of cultural problems at Cheshire East Council has been
overwhelming for several years now;

In 2017 the Council won Private Eye’s Filthy Liars of the Year award for
deliberately and systematically manipulating air quality data.

In 2016 the Head of Communications was allegedly asked to ‘dig the dirt’ on
the Head of Internal Audit.

In 2013 the Council was found by the Local Government Ombudsman to have
knowingly and persistently misled the public over a planning application at
White Moss Quarry near Alsager.

In the past, the Conservative response has been to shoot the messenger. Some
staff trying to highlight problems have been forced out of the Council. The
Head of Internal Audit, who oversaw the whistleblowing process, was forced
out and not replaced. The names of staff in the air quality department were
leaked to Private Eye. This has led to a culture of fear, where staff are
wary of coming forward with evidence of wrongdoing for fear that their jobs
will be at risk.

The terms of reference of the review were highly restrictive, and prevented
key witnesses such as the former head of internal audit from taking an
active part. Indeed the written terms of refence only allowed for ordinary
staff members to speak to Sarah Messenger as part of focus groups. Labour
councillors pointed out that very few staff members would risk their jobs by
expressing their concerns about bullying by senior management in front of
other staff members who might later report their comments to senior
management. Only after pressure from Cllr Sam Corcoran at a public Cabinet
meeting was it then agreed that any staff member could email Sarah Messenger
confidentially.

Conservatives have repeatedly referred to ‘legacy issues’. Now, by
restricting the terms of reference of Sarah Messenger’s review to employees
who left within the last 6 months, the Conservative claims that the bullying
problems are legacy issues have been destroyed. The Conservatives must face
up to the problems at the Council – problems they have tried to deny and
have failed to deal with for many years.

Cheshire East Council staff deserve better!


Now that the report has finally been published, the Conservatives have no
excuse for not taking action. The Labour group will be working across party
lines to address the problems at Cheshire East Council, that have now been
acknowledged, and to implement all of the recommendations in the report. The
aim should be to make Cheshire East Council a place where people enjoy
working and an employer that people are proud to work for. The current
reality is different


There are now FIVE police investigations swirling around Conservative
controlled Cheshire East Council:
1) an independent investigation by Bureau Veritas found evidence of
deliberate and systematic manipulation of air quality data
2) £70,000 granted to a primary school in Wistaston, where (allegedly) a
Conservative Councillor promised the money to the school despite it not
being in accordance with policy
3) reports in the Crewe Chronicle of vile and intimidating hate mail sent to
two dissident Conservative councillors
4) land acquisitions
5) The ORGANISED CRIME UNIT are investigating contracts awarded to the then
Conservative Leader's personal physiotherapist's company - CoreFit.
In addition to the five police investigations, the chief executive, head of
legal and head of finance were all suspended from their roles at an
estimated to cost the Council of £800,000 this year. The head of legal has
recently resigned.

Michael Jones is not an isolated example in the local Conservatives. Cllr
Sam Gardner was forced to step down as Cabinet Member for finance when it
was revealed that he had caused Fomfest Ltd (a company of which he was
director) to misuse donations to a charity. Fomfest Ltd went bust leaving
numerous local businesses and the charity out of pocket.
Although the Conservatives claim that the problems at Cheshire East Council
are 'legacy issues', the Council continues to lurch from crisis to crisis
and regularly features in the Rotten Boroughs section of Private Eye. The
Council recently won Private Eye’s ‘Filthy Liars’ of the year award over
their failings on air quality.

The Conservatives are desperately trying to distance themselves from their
former Leader, but in February 2015 when the Labour group took the highly
unusual step of proposing a motion of no confidence in the Leader, the
Conservatives literally shouted down Labour councillors and formally voted
that they had complete confidence in Michael Jones. The fateful contracts to
Core Fit ltd were awarded within weeks of that vote.

Cllr Sam Corcoran, Labour Group Leader, said, “Labour Councillors have been
calling for an external review of the culture at Cheshire East Council for
over 2 years, so I am pleased that this review has taken place. I welcome
the recognition that there is a problem with bullying at Cheshire East
Council and that the culture of the organisation has been awry since the
Council was formed in 2009. Acknowledging a problem is the first step in
fixing it, but this is only the first step. The Labour Group will be working
across party lines to address the problems at Cheshire East Council that
have now been acknowledged, and to implement all of the recommendations in
the report. The aim should be to make Cheshire East Council a place where
people enjoy working and an employer that people are proud to work for. At
the same time I recognise that the current reality is different for many
Council employees.

“The staff survey reveals a lack of confidence that instances of bullying
will be dealt with fairly and effectively. This is of great concern and is
indicative of a wider lack of trust in the leadership of the Council. I hope
that there will now be extensive cross-party working through scrutiny
committees to openly discuss issues and restore trust in the Council. We
need to move from a perceived culture of ‘shoot the messenger’ to a culture
where a complaint is regarded as a gift because it enables you to improve.”


Janet Jackson, Labour Deputy Group Leader, said, “I was pleased to read the
results of the Independent Cultural Review that had at last been
commissioned by Cheshire East. Labour Councillors were aware of the bullying
culture at CE and had first asked several years ago for an independent
investigation.
While many staff have much to be proud of, enjoy what they do, and are aware
that things are getting better; an amount of bullying still continues,
coming largely from some people with power, including some Councillors.
One of the recommendations is that CE must set a new tone at the Council. To
enable this there will be a Council wide Cultural Programme where staff will
take part in the design and deliver it alongside members. I want to see all
the recommendations acted upon so that in future all employees can be proud
of working for Cheshire East.”

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