Bullying councillors raise legal fears in East Devon

East Devon HQ, Honiton

Council concerned about its reputation

A Devon council which has traditionally had high levels of staff morale has seen the situation reverse considerably in the past 18 months as employees have coped with the covid pandemic and a perceived increase in bullying behaviour by some councillors.

East Devon District Council, which has also undergone a move of its headquarters from Sidmouth to Honiton in the past few years, and a change in political control from decades of Conservative leadership to a complex mix of alliances of smaller groups and independents. Effectively there is no overall control of the current council.

Now an employee survey has revealed concerns about bullying and inappropriate behaviour. Whilst the results contained many positive attributes, including the ability of people to manage the council’s many challenges, employees who say working from home generally well works for them, and most rating their mental health as ‘good’, CEO Mark Williams highlights serious concerns.

He’s written to all councillors following “a change of political culture” that he says has led to a “concern about an oppressive and menacing online work environment” that some council officers receive from certain councillors.  

He writes of: “a growing recognition of an inappropriate work environment; a sense of a ‘blame culture’ with officers increasingly fearful of doing their jobs and…..a perception that some members consider that the expectations of the member code of conduct and the member/officer protocol are there to be ignored either because there is a lack of appreciation of the corrosive impact of that behaviour or that there is no effective enforcement.

“It is important to balance out the positive and the negative comments but it is clear that the survey results have raised serious issues for the [scrutiny] committee to consider.

“Of particular concern in terms of the council’s future reputation as a good employer and possible legal liabilities in terms of employment based claims is the question whether these changes are to be experienced by officers as temporary or permanent.”

That could be interpreted as a reference to local elections on Thursday 8 May that could shake up what’s been a fractious leadership team that’s found it hard to make meaningful headway on many issues.  

For their part, the Tories are hoping to ride the wave of the current bounce being enjoyed by their party nationally and grab sufficient seats to take back control. But they have a long way to go before they can capture former glories of being the dominant party in East Devon. For more than a century, virtually anyone who could string a sentence together and stand more or less upright whilst wearing a blue rosette could get elected as a Conservative to East Devon District Council or its predecessors.

The council’s Conservative members have put out a statement highlighting many of the negative aspects of the survey, but none of the positives. East Devon’s staff survey revealed only a small minority of respondents felt bullied: 94 per cent saying they were never or were seldom bullied. But 17 per cent, nearly one in five, people reported being “sometimes, often or always” subject to personal harassment in the form of unkind words or behaviour.

The Conservatives report that at the committee meeting on 4 March, CEO Mark Williams said: “Is bullying on-going, I would say yes it is, have I been personally bullied, I would say yes I have and in terms of can members steady the ship, I think fundamentally, the core issue for yourselves is understanding what it is you all individually signed up to when you signed the code of conduct for councillors.”

He continued: “It doesn’t take a lot of time for a council to appear on the secretary of state’s watch list as a council of interest, traditionally it’s been councils that have got themselves into financial trouble but actually, if you look at the criteria the Secretary of State applies, financial trouble is one of them, dysfunctional relationships, poor corporate governance, and those types of matters particularly affecting the three statutory officers, is an area where the Secretary of State does show an interest.”

Councillor Ben Ingham (Conservative) called for the political leadership to consider their positions. He said: “Bullying in the workplace is against the law, the cabinet and leadership of this council have a lot to answer for and should consider their positions.”

Andrew Moulding, Leader of the Conservative Group on East Devon District Council, said “We agree with staff when they say the negative behaviour of the current political leadership needs to be sorted, not just left. The scrutiny report makes grim reading and the Conservative group urges the Democratic Alliance to urgently address the concerns in the report which shine a light on unacceptable bullying and harassment by their members towards council staff. They need to work with staff for the community and the future, not against staff as highlighted in the survey. The current administration must change their ways or potentially face an escalation of cross-party councillors concerns to government.”


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