Calls for East Devon leadership to consider positions during heated debate on bullying claims

East Devon District Council
Claims of staff feeling bullied, including chief executive Mark Williams (inset left), have been raised at East Devon District Council, but leader Paul Arnott (inset right) says he is confident his Cabinet is innocent

LEADING members of East Devon District Council were asked to consider their positions this week, during a passionate discussion on claims made by council staff that they were “bullied at work”.

The three-hour debate followed a staff survey carried out in January and February of this year, which raised claims that new councillors and the new political leadership at East Devon was “seriously mistreating officers” and “unnecessarily micro-managing and causing extra workload”.

There were also concerns over increased staff absence due to depression, stress and anxiety during the latter months of the COVID-19 pandemic, and that six per cent of respondents said they were “sometimes bullied at work”.

In a report on the survey results, East Devon’s chief executive Mark Williams said he had already written to councillors highlighting his concern about an “oppressive and menacing” online work environment that some officers had experienced from “certain councillors”.

He said the issues facing the council were “very serious”.

Giving the background to the survey, Mr Williams stated in his report that EDDC had traditionally been an organisation where staff morale had been high.

In January 2020 the council received Platinum Investors In People status, which was the highest level achievable, and a previous staff survey carried out in June 2020 said there was an “optimistic feeling” within the council at the end of the first lockdown.

The latest staff survey in January/February 2021 comes after a new political leadership took over EDDC.

Independents took control of the council following the election in May 2019, after 45 years of Conservative rule.

But the Independent Group, led by Cllr Ben Ingham, were then overthrown by a new Democratic Alliance in May 2020, led by Cllr Paul Arnott and made up of councillors from the East Devon Alliance, Liberal Democrats, Green Party and some independents.

Mr Williams – who himself admitted to feeling bullied at work during this week’s Scrutiny Committee meeting – made several references in his report to “new councillors/new political leadership” and “change in political culture”.

But Cllr Arnott, who represents Colyton, said he was “certain my Cabinet are innocent of any bullying”.

Speaking at this week’s meeting, Independent councillor Geoff Pook (Beer & Branscombe) said “the most upsetting and serious claims” from staff did stem from last year’s change in administration and he posed several questions to Cllr Arnott.

“Does the leader accept the outcome of the report and that 18 of our staff state that the new political leadership are seriously mistreating our officers, which is very stressful? This includes seven members who say they feel bullied, intimidated and are being harassed.

“Does the leader agree that this is totally unacceptable? Does the leader agree that, as leader, he is totally responsible for the deplorable actions of his administration?

“Does the leader agree that those responsible must consider their positions and, as leader, he should address this? And does the leader agree he holds ultimate responsibility for the actions and behaviour of his team and should perhaps consider his own position?”

‘No proof where problems are coming from’

In response, Cllr Arnott said he would offer a “blanket no” to all of Cllr Pook’s questions regarding the political leadership, adding that the phrasing ‘new councillors/new political leadership’ used in the report was “unfortunate”, as new councillors came from all political parties.

“There is no proof or indication from where problems are coming,” he added.

Cllr Arnott continued: “This has been one of the most challenging times for local government in our history and I could not be more proud of our staff and officers, which I have said repeatedly and publicly.”

He added that the leadership had taken concerns over the mental health of staff “extremely seriously”.

Cllr Arnott said that there had been issues within the council prior to the new administration, using his own experiences in Exmouth as an example.

“Exmouth has been toxic beyond belief for many years before my time,” he said.

“I came in and raised it through this very committee and we then set up the Exmouth Queen’s Drive Delivery Group, which I have chaired with patience and courtesy and removed the poison from that.

“I have protected officers and I have I think created a peace there where there was not a peace before, and involved the public. I would be astonished if any officers had any criticism of that whatsoever; it was a model of sorting out what had been previous problem.”

He continued: “There is another side to this coin and we need to understand the members’ perspective as well and I hope Scrutiny comes forward with a set of policies and engagements, and I would be very pleased to present my own evidence and those of my Cabinet.

“I am certain that they are innocent of any of these allegations of bullying, which are not identified in this report as being anything to do with councillors.”

Independent East Devon Alliance councillor John Loudoun (Sidmouth Rural) also raised concerns over the use of the phrase ‘new councillors/new political leadership’ in the report, describing it as a “broad phrase” which conflates two sets of members.

He pointed out that 24 new councillors across all political groups joined the council after the May 2019 elections.

“We should all look at what we’re doing, the implications of what we’re doing and how we need to change. I hope each group leader will be honest, look at their group and say ‘can we do things better?’” he said.

‘Vindictive and poor leadership’

Former council leader Ben Ingham (Woodbury & Lympstone), a former Independent who has joined the Conservative party since losing his position to Cllr Arnott, also called for the new leadership to consider their positions.

He said the feeling of optimism shown in the June 2020 survey had gone and had been replaced with stress and depression, with many staff continuing to work from home despite suffering from mental health issues.

“What an appalling situation for us to be in – six months of vindictive disorientation and poor leadership,” he commented.

“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.”

Conservative councillor Ian Hall (Axminster) asked chief executive Mark Williams whether he felt bullying was still ongoing and whether he had ever felt personally bullied.

Mr Williams replied yes to both questions.

Cllr Hall went on to apologise if he had ever added to an officer’s workload during the pandemic, adding that if he was implicated in any harassment or bullying he would “stand aside because we cannot tolerate that sort of behaviour”.

Fellow Axminster councillor Andrew Moulding, who is leader of the Conservative group at East Devon, added: “The officers of this council have been exemplary over many years and are now being undermined by the current administration. This cannot continue and we must find a way of addressing the issue.”

After three hours of debate, the committee eventually agreed on four proposals put forward by Independent East Devon Alliance councillor Val Ranger (Newton Poppleford & Harpford). These were as follows:

1) To note the report and thank the chief executive.

2) To ask the chief executive to undertake a follow-up staff survey at a suitable future point.

3) Request the chief executive to discuss this survey data with the staff representatives and to feed back to portfolio holder for Council and Corporate Co-ordination the outcome and actions resulting from that engagement to form an action plan.

4) Recommend to the chief executive, members of the SMT and portfolio holder for Council and Co-ordination discuss this survey data and any other relevant information to identify what actions are necessary to address the four key points identified within the report:
– Workload, staff shortages, vacancies and management support for staff
– Home working and staff isolation
– Member conduct with staff
– Staff community cations

5) Ask the chief executive to update this committee in light of completion of the above four recommendations.

Cllr Ranger had initially proposed the phrase ‘member engagement’ be used instead of ‘member conduct’ under her fourth recommendation, but Mr Williams expressed concerns that this would come across as “tone deaf” to staff members who had been “exceptionally brave” in their responses to the survey, so it was agreed to change this.

Earlier in the meeting, Mr Williams warned councillors: “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.”

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