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.
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 had potentially committed multiple potential breaches of the Council’s Code of Conduct and 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.
This was a complex and difficult investigation. We thank all those involved for 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.