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Oadby and Wigston Borough Council

Volume 614: debated on Tuesday 6 September 2016

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—(Chris Heaton-Harris.)

May I begin by thanking you for granting this Adjournment debate, Mr Speaker, and the Under-Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, my hon. Friend the Member for Nuneaton (Mr Jones), for being here to respond? I want to address the appalling state of affairs at one of the two local authorities within my constituency, the management of which leaves much to be desired at both political and administrative levels, is costing the local taxpayers vast sums they should not have to spend, and is a blot on the wider local government landscape. On any view, the Government need to get a grip of this council and ensure that it is turned from its present dysfunctional state into something that my constituents within the borough of Oadby and Wigston are entitled to expect and deserve.

Nothing that I am about to say will take the Minister by surprise because I have written to him and our right hon. Friend the Member for Tunbridge Wells (Greg Clark), the former Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, and had informal discussions with them both about this council on several occasions over the past year or so.

In local government terms, apart from Leicestershire County Council, which has a county-wide remit outside the city of Leicester, I am concerned within my Harborough parliamentary constituency with Harborough District Council, which has a large Conservative majority, and Oadby and Wigston Borough Council, which has a large Liberal Democrat majority. Harborough District Council is well run and is not the subject of this debate, save in so far as it provides a marked contrast to the shambles that is Oadby and Wigston Borough Council. Walking into the offices of Harborough District Council allows one to experience a well-motivated, well-led and dedicated group of officers and staff at all levels of seniority. From the people at the reception desk to its most senior officers, despite the financial constraints that all local authorities now have to cope with, nothing is too much trouble. There is a can-do, will-do atmosphere, despite the small revenue budget of, I believe, under £10 million, its geographical size and the problems associated with rural sparsity.

In contrast, the atmosphere in the offices of Oadby and Wigston Borough Council is poisonous. It, too, has a small annual revenue budget, of about £8 million. It has an adult population of about 40,000. On Leicester’s south-eastern border, although a largely white British community, the borough has within its boundaries a growing black and minority ethnic population, mostly people of south Asian descent who came here directly from India and Pakistan or via east Africa. Many Leicester children attend its excellent schools, not least Beauchamp academy, the best school of its type in the east midlands. Several of Leicester University’s halls of residence are in Oadby, as are Leicester racecourse and the famous botanical gardens. Unemployment in my constituency is at or under 1%, and plenty of small to medium-sized businesses in the borough are doing well. It is, in short, a great place to live, to bring up children and to work, and there is much that its residents, my constituents, can be proud of and justifiably are. What spoils this happy picture is the borough council itself.

In 2015, nine senior members of the council’s staff initiated a grievance procedure against the senior management team—the SMT. I will not tonight identify these officers by name, be they the complainants or the respondents to the grievance, because their names are not important to the points I make, but their identities, particularly those of two of the three members of the SMT, the chief executive and the director of services, are well known locally, and there is no bar that I know of on others publishing their names, subject to the ordinary laws of defamation. Of the complainants, some have resigned fearing they would not face a fair hearing under the council’s internal disciplinary system, while others remain on full pay but are suspended, their work being carried out by agency or temporary staff. Some of the complainants are constituents of the hon. Member for Leicester South (Jonathan Ashworth), who is in his place.

The right hon. and learned Gentleman is making his case with typical force. Let me say to him and to the Minister that my constituents over the border in the city of Leicester are affected by this, and I entirely support the right hon. and learned Gentleman’s efforts and look forward to the Minister’s response.

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman, my parliamentary neighbour, for his intervention. I hope that between us we can persuade the Government to do something to improve the state of affairs in this borough council, he on behalf of his constituents and I on behalf of mine.

The grievance consisted of 214 separate allegations against the SMT. They were considered individually and collectively by Richard Penn, a former senior local government officer from elsewhere who was known to the SMT, but I do not suggest collusion or bias against him. He conducted two exercises: one investigated the complaints from the staff against the SMT, and the other made recommendations about the future management and leadership of the council. Although Mr Penn did not uphold any of the individual complaints, he did conclude—this must have been inevitable given the scale of the grievances laid at the door of the SMT—that they painted a picture of an organisation

“riven and very adversely affected by a deep division between the SMT and a majority of the second and third tier managers”.

Mr Penn concluded that the division between the SMT and the others exposed the need for the council

“to take urgent action not only to heal the wounds of and behind the grievances but also to organise itself in such a way that it has the capacity and stability to face the future with confidence”.

He stated that the council did not have the resource and capacity in-house to do this on its own, and that external support and assistance to both the political and officer leadership would, in his view, be necessary as part of the recovery process. Mr Penn’s rejection of the 214 allegations is, I understand, to be appealed, and the complainants who have not already left the council’s employment and remain suspended are to be subjected to disciplinary proceedings by the council. These personnel problems are not helped by the council’s chief executive being on extended sick leave for a good many weeks this year. I hope he is now restored to good health.

It is my view that Mr Penn, because he is cautious and wanted to find or promote solutions, used language and a tone in both of his reports that, to someone not familiar with the council, masked the serious nature of his findings about the quality of the managerial and political leadership of the council. My duty is to protect the interests of my constituents, all of whom deserve a functioning, effective, efficiently run and focused council that can organise itself, manage its finances and provide the requisite public services, rather than the internal squabbling and incompetence they have had to put up with over the last few years.

I had become used to getting slow and indifferent service from the council as regards replies to constituency correspondence. To be fair to the chief executive, he asked that all correspondence from me should be addressed to him so that it could be more efficiently dealt with, but I did not realise quite how appalling the state of the council was until the night of the May 2015 general election.

The election count is held in the borough. Apart from my first general election for Harborough in 1992, when the count took place on the Friday morning after the election of Thursday 9 April, all subsequent counts have been done overnight. As a rule, the result is declared between 3 am and 4.30 am. In May 2015, it was not declared until nearly 9 o’clock on the Friday morning. It became clear during the early hours of the morning to all the candidates, the press, and the high sheriff, who was the returning officer—indeed, to most of us in the hall—that the chief executive had failed to organise the counting staff and set in place systems to get the count dealt with expeditiously. One senior staff member at the count walked out as dawn approached and resigned, and others were trying to sort out what can only be described as a total farce. There was an air of sullen rebelliousness in the room among the counting staff.

The chief executive failed to demonstrate the leadership required on that occasion, but, as I later discovered, the state of personnel relations within the council was already bad and getting worse. The staff were having trouble getting the paper records of the ballot boxes and the votes counted uploaded on to the computers. In the end, the high sheriff, a man of almost limitless patience, and I, someone of less Christian forbearance, told the chief executive to give us the result on paper and forget his computers so we could all go home.

I cite this not because of any inconvenience I suffered, but because it starkly and publicly illustrated the shambolic nature of the internal workings and poisonous personal relations in the council. I have subsequently learnt that the SMT had a mole in the complainants’ group who was making secret recordings of their private conversations and handing them to the SMT. Quite apart from being underhand and possibly criminal, it can reasonably be inferred that the SMT or a member of it was aware of this person’s activities and, indeed, authorised them.

I have also seen documents that indicate that Mr Penn knew of these secret recordings, although so far as I can tell he was the passive recipient of the information and I cannot form a judgment about how they affected his conclusions, if at all.  He did not, though, from memory, disclose in his reports that he had seen evidence of those secret recordings or received emails from the mole. If I am wrong about that, I will correct it.

Just some of the complaints made and then considered by Mr Penn, albeit rejected as matters of detail, can be briefly summarised as follows: there was no clear direction or leadership from the SMT, and there was little or no communication between the SMT and the rest of the council, particularly about what was or was not possible during the coalition Government’s comprehensive spending review. I am not concerned this evening about the truth or the falsity of the allegations and am in no position to judge that one way or another, even if I do have criticisms of the somewhat cursory approach that Mr Penn appears to have adopted, judging from the terms of his first report. But that 214 allegations were made and required Mr Penn to consider them is evidence of a council in poor health and, as the saying goes, a fish rots from the head.

On 16 January 2016, in response to Mr Penn’s reports, the borough council’s newly created change management committee agreed a 15-point plan for immediate action to rectify the problems, most of which can only be described as a précis of the blindingly obvious and things that should be second nature to any half-competent councillor or council officer. This House is entitled to ask why on earth they were not being done already. The committee also decided on a plan for further review of the implementation of the cultural changes and lessons required, consisting of planning the way forward, staff involvement, the role of leadership, employee buy-in, infrastructure, capabilities and measuring success. This House is entitled to ask why such obvious management tools were not in place already and why it took 214 complaints, two reports from Mr Penn and the suspension of the nine complainants to achieve so little at vast public expense.

To take just four suspended complainants, their absence, in one case from June 2015 and in three cases from November 2015, has cost over £215,000 in salaries alone, and their agency replacements will add to that figure. One temporary staff member has cost nearly £55,000 in financial years 2015-16 and 2016-17 for a two to three-day week. By December 2015 the council had spent £107,000 on the investigation and approved a further £100,000, money presumably spent and to be spent on Mr Penn’s services via the Local Government Association, on the fees of outside solicitors, on monitoring services provided by Leicestershire and Cambridgeshire county councils and by Mr Quentin Baker of LGSS, a firm linked to Cambridgeshire and Northamptonshire county councils, and on a former employee of the Crown Prosecution Service instructed to consider the evidence necessary to support the disciplinary proceedings, as well as on other temporary staff.

As this farce continues, it is surely reasonable to hazard a guess that the total sums expended and to be expended could be as much as £500,000 which, when compared with the small size of the council’s revenue budget, is nothing short of a scandal. There is plenty more that could and should be said about the conduct of certain councillors from the majority group towards members of staff and opposition councillors,  but time alone prevents me from dealing with that.  Suffice it to say that the evidence I have seen does not make for pretty reading.

In the light of the facts as I know them to be, I now ask the Government urgently to appoint commissioners or other competent officials to go into the council and get it sorted out, or to discuss with the county council in Leicestershire or the borough’s neighbouring district councils how they can take over the management of this borough council. I make no party political complaint about the council’s majority or its leader. If the residents of Oadby and Wigston want to elect Liberal  Democrat  councillors, they are free, if unwise, to do so, and if a Conservative council behaved like this I would say the same, but the council leader and his councillors have either been wilful participants or asleep at the wheel and must take responsibility for the shambolic state of the council and its administrative leadership.

I am sorry to say it, but failure, mismanagement and incompetence on this scale within the council now requires decisive action from the Minister’s Department, as well as the resignations of the council’s leader and certain senior members of its staff. It is time to give back to the residents of the borough a council that works for them. Doing nothing is not an option and I earnestly invite my hon. Friend to take action without delay.

First, I congratulate my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Harborough (Sir Edward Garnier) on securing this important debate. We have, as he said, spoken and corresponded about Oadby and Wigston Borough Council on a number of occasions, and it is clear from our discussions and correspondence that he has a great passion for his constituency and the interests of the people he represents. I am certainly grateful to him for giving me the opportunity to discuss such an important issue. Local government delivers essential services to some of society’s most vulnerable people, and it is therefore vital that it operates effectively.

I wish to begin by setting out the context and emphasising that local government normally functions well. There are many examples of excellent and innovative practice to be found across all types of councils. Councils are held to account through an effective system of local accountability, and where they do require help or advice, sector-led support is available.

As my right hon. and learned Friend will be aware, local government is independent of central Government. Through elected councillors—and, where applicable, mayors—councils are accountable to the communities that they serve through the ultimate sanction of the ballot box. On hearing what he has had to say today, I am sure that many of his constituents will be thinking about how their council has been run, and is currently run, and will look at that accordingly when they make their choice next time at the ballot box.

Since 2010, town hall transparency has been improved by new rules requiring councils to make public a written record of all major decisions. The public also have the right to film, audio-record, take photographs and use social media to report the proceedings of public council meetings. The introduction of the local government transparency code in 2015 requires all authorities to publish certain data about their resources and expenditure. That makes it easier for local people to act as armchair auditors and hold their councils to account. In addition, councillors hold regular surgeries with local residents, councils conduct consultations on their policies and budgets, and the activities councils undertake are subject to external scrutiny in the form of an annual external audit.

The Local Government Association provides external challenge and targeted sector-led support where it is needed. For 2016-17, my Department has given the LGA £21.4 million so that it can provide training and support for members and officers. The LGA provides policy briefings and arranges peer support from other local authorities. Options include one-to-one mentoring for elected leaders, corporate peer challenges and additional targeted support where it is required. The LGA also has an overview of performance in the sector. That enables it to offer support on a proactive basis to councils that appear to be facing challenges.

Only as a last resort would the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government use his powers of intervention, and only where there is comprehensive evidence of extremely serious and widespread systemic failings in a council would that be the case. Statutory interventions are rare: the powers have been used only twice in the last five years, and only six times in the last 15 years.

As my right hon. and learned Friend will be aware, the Communities and Local Government Committee recently reported on our interventions in Tower Hamlets and Rotherham, and it agreed that our interventions in both those authorities had been justified. It also emphasised that removing control from democratically elected representatives is an extremely serious decision.

I will now turn to Oadby and Wigston Council itself. The authority has certainly had its challenges. In particular, there have been serious divisions between the senior management team and other officers. It is, however, currently benefiting from sector-led support, and I expect to see significant improvements with the council.

As my right hon. and learned Friend correctly said, a collective grievance was submitted by nine members of staff in May 2015. The council worked with the LGA and appointed an independent investigator, Richard Penn. Mr Penn is a former local authority chief executive with many years of experience as an independent investigator. He concluded that the 214 allegations that made up the collective grievance were unfounded. He found that

“Oadby and Wigston Borough Council is in many respects a well-performing organisation that punches above its weight”.

He provided evidence to support this, including that the council has met all its statutory targets and indicators; completed several major regeneration schemes, including in the town and parks; improved its leisure offer; and redesigned its customer service experience.

Mr Penn did not, however, give the council a clean bill of health. In a supplementary report on the organisational issues arising from his initial investigation, he found that there were

“deep divisions between the Senior Management Team and the officers who took out the collective grievance”.

It was his view that the council needed to take

“urgent action in order to tackle the major challenges of not only ‘healing the wounds’ but also of ensuring that the Council has the organisational capacity and stability to face the future with confidence.”

I consider it essential that the council take immediate action to address these issues, as it is imperative that management issues should not be allowed to impact on local service delivery and the services that are provided to my right hon. and learned Friend’s constituents. In March this year, I wrote to the leader, Councillor Boyce, highlighting my concerns and emphasising the importance of working with the LGA to take effective remedial action.

I am pleased to see that since Mr Penn’s report Oadby and Wigston has worked closely with the LGA. The LGA has met the section 151 officer, the chief executive and the change management committee on multiple occasions. The council has been supported to understand the issues faced, and an action plan has now been agreed.

Am I not right in thinking that the section 151 officer is one of the temporary staff—the agency staff—brought in? This exemplifies the problem that I am facing. I really do think we need to be quite serious about requiring the borough council not to allow this just to drift on and drift on, and to fob us off with mealy-mouthed responses. We have to focus laser-like on this council, because otherwise it will just go on and on misconducting itself.

I thank my right hon. and learned Friend for his intervention. The Department takes this situation absolutely seriously. I hope that he will be assured from the comments that I am about to make that we will continue to take the situation extremely seriously and to monitor how the work that Oadby and Wigston is undertaking with the LGA pans out and how it improves governance of the council.

The action plan includes the following: achieving cultural change in the council, ensuring effective prioritisation, improving ways of working, and improving understanding of officer and member roles and relationships. There are clearly areas where the council must improve, and this plan sets out the improvement journey that the council now absolutely needs to make. I expect the council to implement it fully and effectively. I understand that the LGA is running a programme of sessions with members and officers, separately and together, this autumn. These will cover all elements of the plan, although they will, in particular, ensure that members and officers understand their roles and how to work effectively.

The LGA now considers that Oadby and Wigston has a thorough understanding of what happened and what it needs to do to put it right. The council’s external auditor, KPMG, has also been kept informed, and it does not feel that there are currently any matters that warrant further scrutiny from an audit perspective. It is important that the council continues to keep its auditors informed as it works to implement its improvement plan.

The LGA will also work with Oadby and Wigston to conduct a peer review, whereby officers and members of another authority will provide challenge and share learning. That is something that I have strongly encouraged. The peer review should consider whether the council has made sufficient progress against its improvement plan. I will take a keen interest in the findings of the peer review, and I encourage the council to make those findings publicly available.

Indeed, I expect the council not only to take steps to address the challenges that it has faced, but to reassure the public that its problems are in the past. The council must act in an open and transparent way, if it is to be properly accountable to the community that it serves. Wherever possible, the council should make available details of the problems it has faced, the action it has taken to address those challenges and the progress made. Oadby and Wigston has certainly had its challenges.

My hon. Friend is being extremely generous in giving way; there is nothing more tiresome than busy little Back Benchers who jump up and down all the time. What is the timetable that he has set himself and the council so that he will be able to measure whether there has been any change in the conduct of its administration? Saying, “We hope that the following things will happen,” is good, but unless that is done by a given date and it is required to report to my hon. Friend and the Department, things will drift and I cannot afford to see that happen.

My right hon. and learned Friend should not think that being a busy little Back Bencher is a bad thing. In fact, in this case it is extremely important, because he has raised an extremely important issue. He makes a very important point that this is about not just warm words, but making sure that the issues that the council has faced and the remedial action taken to deal with them are followed through. In that context, I need only to refer to the action that the Department took in relation to Rotherham Council. The Audit Commission produced several reports on the council and the local authority responded with warm words, but the actions suggested by the reports were not followed through properly. Subsequently, Rotherham Council found itself in an untenable position whereby the Department—this is very rare—decided that intervention was necessary. I say to my right hon. and learned Friend that I will be watching the situation extremely closely.

On timescales, at this point I am content to see the work with the LGA undertaken, but I will not be content if significant progress is not made. I think that this debate will make the council fully aware of that. As I said at the outset, local government must maintain its independence from central Government, and it must answer to its electorate. In very rare circumstances we directly intervene in local authorities, but in this case I expect significant improvement.

I ask one thing of my right hon. and learned Friend, and I am sure that he will deliver on this. If he is made aware of any additional information or additional issues that arise at Oadby and Wigston council, I would be more than glad to hear from him to make sure that those issues are being addressed. I thank him for bringing this important issue to the House, and I look forward to keeping this dialogue going with him over the coming months so that his constituents can feel confident that they are getting the service that they deserve from Oadby and Wigston council.

I wanted to intervene finally for two reasons: first, to welcome the wonderful Deputy Speaker to the Chair, and, secondly, to thank my hon. Friend again for the care and attention he has given to this matter. He has got lots to deal with in his portfolio, and I have every confidence, having heard what he has had to say, that he and his officials will keep a very close eye on this borough council. Of course, he and I will be in close contact with each other as the need arises, and I am grateful to him for helping out this evening.

I thank my right hon. and learned Friend for his kind comments, and I am sure we will continue that dialogue.

Question put and agreed to.

House adjourned.