Right of reply

Last month we ran a 7 page exclusive about corruption at South Somerset District Council (SSDC). In a wide-ranging series of articles we looked at the corruption, the cover up and unanswered questions. We offered SSDC a right to reply to our articles. We are pleased to say they accepted our offer and their response is included in the February Leveller. However it was received just before we went to press so we did not have space to reproduce the article SSDC were responding to.

To help readers of the February Leveller® with the context, what follows is our piece from January. This is the piece that SSDC responded to and it relates to what we believe to have been a cover up. The full response from SSDC is in the February Leveller® on page 34. The story relates to the attempted appointment of Clare Pestel as CEO.

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The Cover-Up

Less than a month after Ms Pestell’s appointment, on 4 June, outgoing CEO Alex Parmley announced that she would not be taking up her appointment after all. Council staff were told this was for “personal reasons”. They were told nothing more. Nor were elected councillors. Or the taxpayers of South Somerset.

The cover-up continued over the summer. We knew about the appointment of the investigator (on 29 June) and approached SSDC’s comms team on 3 July. In fact, we asked them some very specific questions based on our knowledge of events. We wanted to know the status of Ms Pestell and if the Council was undertaking an investigation.

The response from the communications team was to dismiss our questions as speculation and rumour. Never let it be said that we are not being fair-minded people. We gave SSDC another chance and asked them again on 18 August. To be precise we asked:

  • Has Ms Pestell left her existing role at SSDC, aside from not taking up the CEO appointment?
  • Did SSDC identify any reasons subsequent to Ms Pestell accepting the role, that meant it was unwilling to take the application process forward?
  • Had SSDC issued any disciplinary proceedings against Ms Pestell, informally or formally?

We added that a simple yes or no response to each would suffice.

Once again the communications team colluded in the cover-up. They told us they had nothing to add to their previous reply. Presumably, in other words, reiterating that our questions were rumour and speculation. They were not. More to the point the comms team knew that they were not.

On Friday 10 December we asked the comms team if there were any live investigations going on into staff at SSDC. They asked for a deadline and we suggested close of play Monday 13 December would be fine. As this edition went to press we were still waiting for an answer.

Kept in the dark

But if The Leveller® was kept in the dark, so were elected members. That is the councillors you voted for to run the Council on your behalf. No information on proceedings behind the scenes was released to councillors. Then at a full council meeting on 8 July, press and public were cleared from the room so that a confidential matter could be discussed. Members were told that it was:

  • A staffing matter
  • A decision had been made
  • It was an urgent decision.

And nothing more. That reference was almost certainly to the Clare Pestell affair. But elected members were given no information of substance whatsoever, even though the matter related to a senior director who could have been Interim CEO of the organisation. In fact, given that nothing was said, there was actually no obvious legal justification for holding the item in camera.

The minutes of the item record only that: “Council noted the verbal update provided by the Monitoring

Officer on the urgent decisions taken by the Chief Executive, in consultation with the Chairman of Council and relevant officers since 7th May 2021.”

Nor was any attempt made to take the issues to the Council’s Standards Committee. Given the alleged breaches of the code of conduct, this would have been appropriate. But not at SSDC. The last Standards Committee Meeting was held on 23 July 2020 and the meeting scheduled for 7 December 2021 was cancelled. The next meeting is due to be held on 1 March 2022.

The most councillors were told was that Ms Pestell was on long-term sick leave and whom to contact in her absence.

On 21 October Clare Pestell resigned from all the directorships she held in companies owned or part-owned by SSDC. There was no press release. Elected councillors were once again told nothing about this. Most heard about it for the first time by reading our article on Leveller.Live.

Members were eventually told that Clare Pestell had left the council on 26 November. No reason was given. No reference was made to the SWAP fact-finding report, the report of the investigator, the fact Clare Pestell had been dismissed for gross misconduct or that she had appealed and lost that appeal. These are things that, given the seniority of the person concerned, you might have expected them to be told.

The investigator’s report was presented in September. The final appeal by Ms Pestell against dismissal was heard in November. On 26 November remember, councillors were told Ms Pestell had left the authority.

3 weeks of deafening silence

From 26 November to 13 December, SSDC made no moves of any sort to inform either councillors or members of the public of the allegations, the investigation or who was involved.

So, late evening on 13 December we published an article online explaining exactly what had happened. Well, some of it. Embarrassed into action, the next day SSDC put out a press release. In it, they claimed, “It was always the Council’s intention to inform elected members, staff and the public appropriately at the right time.”

Really? We leave it up to our readers to judge the credibility of that statement.

The full SSDC statement

This is the full SSDC statement released the day after our revelations about the corruption and cover-up at the Council. It leaves out a lot of relevant information. You can judge from reading it and comparing with our articles in this edition of The Leveller®, whether this is an open and transparent account, or an attempt to cover up as much as possible:

Earlier this year, South Somerset District Council was made aware of allegations that two senior members of our team hadpotentially committedmultiple potential breaches of the Council’s Code of Conductand other SSDC policies.

These allegations were investigated fully and independently, and we can confirm that the two officers involved are no longer part of the organisation.

Thiswasa complex and difficult investigation.Wethank all thoseinvolvedfor their diligence, and also express our thanks to all colleagues who have participated in the process.

This has been kept confidential to date to ensure that the appropriate evidence was gathered and any disciplinary proceedings resulting from the investigations were fair and legal. It was always the Council’s intention to inform elected members, staff and the public appropriately at the right time. It would not have been appropriate to comment on this matter publicly during the investigation to respect all of those concerned.

Our Council has a proud reputation for going above and beyond to support our communities, and it is vital that we follow our Code of Conduct in all the work we do which sets standards of behaviour and conduct that South Somerset District Council expects from all of its employees.

The investigation has also highlighted a number of actions that we need to undertake to ensure lessons are learned. This will include but will not be limited to reviewing our training offering and the implementation of our financial policies, and these will be implemented as a matter of urgency.

Please be reassured, as this has demonstrated, we take all allegations of misconduct and gross misconduct very seriously, so that we protect our residents, partners and our staff.

For our part, we will be handing over the information that we do have to HMRC and allowing them to decide if they feel there is any need to investigate further.

But action was taken that reveals much about SSDC’s priorities. In a confidential item at the Full Council meeting of 16 December, it was made clear that SSDC would be undertaking further investigations after all.

Investigations into the further allegations? Not as far as we know. No. the investigation was into who had leaked information to The Leveller®!

In our view, this demonstrates that the key concern of the council was not giving a full and honest account to taxpayers. But trying to stop the truth getting out and punish anyone who could be found who had contributed to the truth getting out.

Politics or principles

What happens next? The integrity of SSDC now hangs in the balance. We can pretty much take it as read that Conservative councillors will call for action. It is the right thing to do. Nobody could read about what has happened and not take that view. But of course it suits their political purposes too. LibDem councillors have a much more difficult few weeks ahead. Now is their time to stand up and be counted. There are many good LibDem councillors on SSDC. If having read this, they fall back on taking a party political line that will be a shame. It will be shameful. Now is the time for new leadership, a new approach and a cleaning pout of the stables.

That can only happen if decent LibDems take a grip of the situation and fight for change and transparency.

2 comments

  • I think that you are being optimistic about good LibDem councilors. Things would not be such a mess and matters would never have got to this stage had other LibDem councillors spoken out. Alas people have elected them and we are stuck. However, it is not just the scandals of the ex-leader’s convictions and the shocking revelations above. Nothing works in my experience, whether it be planning and enforcement, provision of information, environmental protection, the investment programme or regeneration. They are all a complete disaster. You can complain until you are blue in the face and it makes not one iota of difference.

  • Communications at South Somerset District Council

    Please find the full response from South Somerset District Council Leader Val Keitch below:

    Dear Andrew,
    Thank you for the opportunity to reply to your article in the latest edition of The Leveller regarding the recent investigation into unacceptable behaviour by a senior officer at South Somerset District Council and the decisive actions we have taken.
    Let me make one thing clear. You have alleged on multiple occasions that there has been “a cover up”. There has not. There has been a thorough investigation, conducted properly and fairly, that resulted in the dismissal of a senior council officer. We have nothing to hide and nor would we want to.
    I also want to make it clear that the actions of those involved in the investigation should not cast a shadow over the excellent ongoing work of the South Somerset District Council staff who continue to serve our communities with integrity and absolute dedication.
    Last year, an anonymous allegation was made. As soon as our initial fact-finding into the complaint determined that there might be a case to answer, we promptly launched an independent investigation. It was comprehensive and its recommendations were considered very seriously by our Appointments committee, resulting in the immediate dismissal of the officer concerned. This decision was the subject of an appeal and our Appeals committee came to the same conclusion.
    This was a staffing matter. There is a proper process to be followed. Your readers will appreciate that there are serious restraints on what can be said and when it can be said in such circumstances, and people’s right to be treated as innocent until wrongdoing is proven.
    Confidentiality and the privacy of everyone involved had to be respected during the investigation to ensure a fair process and this is consistently the approach that is taken by any other council or business in the country.
    As soon as it became possible to provide details to our members, staff and the public, we did so. And this was not because a confidential document was leaked to the media. It was part of a pre-agreed timeline of communications that had nothing to do with the deadlines of local publications. The investigation and subsequent processes were conducted in line with our HR policies and the constitution. At every stage, we took the correct and appropriate action. Most importantly, it was taken as seriously as our residents would expect. We do not and will not tolerate behaviour which falls below our high expectations.
    I wish to place on record my thanks all those who have been involved in the investigation to date for their diligence, and I further thank all those who have participated in the process, and those who helped bring the matter to light.
    It is important to note, however, that this matter has not yet concluded and, as such, there remain limitations on what can be said.
    We never want to let our communities down and, as such, it is vital that our Code of Conduct, which sets the standards of behaviour and conduct that South Somerset District Council expects from all of its employees, is followed to the letter.
    We hope that your readers will recognise that, as we have clearly demonstrated, this is a Council which will not tolerate breaches of this Code.
    There are, of course, several lessons to be learned and, as you have noted, we accepted the recommendations of the independent investigator in full. We will be providing a report, in public, updating our residents on all the measures we have already taken and will continue to take to ensure this does not happen again.
    It is hugely disappointing that this has occurred and I am angry, as I am sure your readers are angry. However, I have nothing but praise for the way this council has acted in very difficult circumstances to ensure the correct and appropriate actions have been taken. Your article claimed that there is a “corrupted culture” at my council. This is wholly wrong. It is an honourable council that I am proud to lead. Every day, I work alongside officers who have nothing but our residents’ best interests at heart and serve with passion and dignity.
    Your readers can be fully reassured that we will continue to be a council that is open, transparent and that continues to do everything in its power to deliver the best outcomes for its communities.

    Cllr Val Keitch
    Leader, South Somerset District Council

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