FORMAL complaints of bullying at Coventry City Council have shot up alarmingly – and nearly £350,000 of taxpayers’ money was spent last year amid cuts on so-called ‘gagging clauses’ for staff.
There were 12 formal complaints and grievances relating to bullying and harassment last year at the authority.
It compares with six the previous year, and none in 2016, reveals the council’s own data released in response to a request under the Freedom of Information Act (FoI), seen by the Coventry Observer.
Yet Coventry council has mysteriously, unlike many other organisations, stopped publishing FoI responses to the public’s FoI requests.
This non-disclosure to the public on its website over the last year has prompted accusations that the council is covering up, and at least acting against the spirit of the legislation.
Throughout 2018, the council spent £344,352 on so-called Non-Disclosure Agreements (NDAs).
There were 15 NDAs last year, compared to four in 2017 (costing taxpayers £40,208) and seven (costing £86,922) in 2016.
NDAs involve an employee and employer agreeing to keep confidential matters relating to a dispute, usually alongside a pay-off for a departing member of staff.
Critics say they are a mechanism to effectively buy the silence of an ex-employee, and avoid their formal dismissal, as part of a ‘compromise agreement’. It is often an alternative to an organisation being taken to a employment tribunal, heard in public.
The number of claims against the council filed at an employment tribunal also rose to five “plus two multi-claimant cases” in 2018 – from three in 2016, the council’s FoI response adds.
The revelations follow claims raised by opposition councillors last month concerning what opposition leader, councillor Gary Ridley, termed ‘endemic bullying at the top of Coventry City Council’.
He called for a number of allegations and all evidence to be be examined by a full and open independent inquiry.
That call was rejected by Labour leader councillor George Duggins, who denied there was a bullying problem at the authority.
It had followed unsubstantiated other complaints about a former Labour cabinet member.
Labour councillor Rois Ali was also last year found by an independent investigator – hired by the council to examine complaints against him – to have broken the code of conduct.
The independent barrister concluded conduct rules were breached by Coun Ali in relation to his failures to register certain business interests, and by indirect threats he made during the investigation interview towards Conservative councillor Tim Mayer, who had brought the complaint.
Coun Ali had threatened to “stamp on” Coun Mayer, and “take him to the cleaners”.
But he escaped with a ‘ticking off’ Censure as the only sanction imposed by the Labour-dominated ethics committee.
The FoI request was for information concerning complaints about council officers and councillors.
The data released gives no evidence of the basis of any of the allegations, whether the complaints were upheld, or if allegations were substantiated and proven.
Conservative group leader Coun Ridley revealed last month his group has written a letter to Coventry council’s chief executive Martin Reeves – seen by the Observer – to call for a full barrister-led “open and transparent” independent inquiry into the allegations of bullying at the Labour-run council.
Coun Duggins responded last month by saying the proper mechanism was to raise any such allegation with the council’s monitoring officer.
But Coun Ridley said the public had a right to expect the council was functioning properly, without such distractions, and matters needed to be out in the open.
He added an open inquiry would give confidence to members and staff to come forward to report their concerns to the inquiry.
The data comes in response to a Freedom of Information request lodged to the authority by Coun Mayer.
COUN MAYER SAID:
“I am truly horrified to find this following on from the Conservative group asking the leader of the council to give the public and us a more credible explanation surrounding the allegations of Institutionalized bullying and following a letter signed by myself and group councillors on December 4, which was refused.
“This is at a time when we know our front-end services are struggling. The ruling Labour group has cut kids’ disability transport, failed in maintaining potholes and reduced bin collections.
“They turned down £650,000 of savings we found at the last budget meeting, but have found nearly £400,000 on what looks like protecting allegations of bullying within Coventry city Council.
“The public have a right to know what we are spending their money on. Yet the public may well believe that this is indicating some sort of cover up and I think it’s time that we have the clear answer.”
COUNCIL ON ITS NON-PUBLICATION OF FoI RESPONSES:
Coun Mayer also sought the council’s explanation for why it is no longer publishing FoI reponses.
A council officer responded: “The Information Governance function have temporarily stopped publishing FOI responses, for a number of reasons including prioritising resources and the preparation and implementation of GDPR (data legislation).
“Whilst we recognise that publishing our responses is not a requirement, (we) do consider being open and transparent regarding FOI is good practice.”
The officer added a review this year would “consider how we can continue to most effectively publish information and improve necessary transparency.”