16th Nov, 2018

EXCLUSIVE: Coventry council pays damages to charitable housing firm after 'witch-hunt'

Les Reid 21st Feb, 2017

COVENTRY City Council has agreed to pay damages to a charitable housing firm and one of its directors following a damning ombudsman’s ruling the council had conducted a long ‘unreasonable campaign’ against it.

The payments to Coventry-based Open Doors Housing and Support Limited – which provides disabled people with homes – and its director John Kavanagh, settles their High Court action against the council.

It followed the Local Government Ombudsman’s ruling the council had conducted a long-running ‘unreasonable campaign’ against it – in holding multiple inappropriate safeguarding investigations.

The ombudsman had delivered three damning findings of ‘maladministration with injustice’ against the council.

Open Doors had further alleged harassment by the council and Misfeasance in Public Office.

The council denied the claims and says the payment of damages was without admission of liability in defending itself in court at an estimated six-figure cost to taxpayers – amid ‘austerity’ cuts to services.

Mr Kavanagh says the prolonged ‘witch hunt’ which abused safeguarding powers caused immense stress to him and the company, and was being conducted amid council failures to safeguard murdered schoolboy Daniel Pelka.

He added: “The council managers were ready and willing to throw unlimited resources to pursue non-valid safeguarding issues whilst social workers were under severe pressure with case load.

“On January 5, 2011, the day Daniel had his arm broken by his parent, 12 council officials were holding their thirteenth safeguarding meeting into Open Doors, mostly held in secret, to review and plan the next phase of their campaign against us, an organisation they had previously given a glowing inspection report to, and who a neighbouring authority had described as ‘exemplary’.

“I now invite the council to make a full and open public apology for their mistreatment and a commitment to re-establish a positive working relationship with Open Doors in its important work supporting vulnerable people in the city.”

A private apology was issued by chief executive Martin Reeves in 2014 on the council’s behalf, following the ombudsman’s advice it should do so.

The company and Mr Kavanagh are seeking a public apology for matters which led to the three damning ombudsman’s findings.

Open Doors was founded by Mr Kavanagh in 2003 after he had arranged housing and support for his disabled sister to enable her to live independently. The not-for-profit company was inundated with council requests to provide similar support for disabled adults.

But the company claims it was ‘ostracised’ in 2006 after it raised concerns at alleged poor treatment of vulnerable people by the council. It has not received a single referral since.

It alleged this escalated into a full-blown ‘witch hunt’ in 2009 after the company introduced a new charging structure in accordance with approved guidelines and increased rents via housing benefit paid by the council, which also grant-funded the firm to provide services. The council restricted the rents on grounds it later

admitted it did not have.

As a result of the council’s misconduct, the company says it has been unable to source new contracts for five years.

Former council assistant director Simon Brake, now the director of primary care for Coventry & Rugby NHS and Coventry City Council, who was given responsibility to deal with the company’s grievances, initially dismissed the company’s complaints as mere “goading”.

He was also given responsibility for responding to the ombudsman under Mr Reeves’ directorate.

The allegations before the High Court partly concerned how the council responded to the ombudsman during its investigations.

Open Doors believes further matters could now be taken up by the ombudsman, who has requested to see further evidence.

COUNCIL RESPONSE

“The Council confirms that it has settled Mr Kavanagh’s and Open Doors Housing and Support Limited’s claims. None of the allegations made against it were accepted or proven (* by the court as opposed to the ombudsman) and there was no admission of liability by the council.

“The sums paid to Open Doors and Mr Kavanagh are a small fraction of the sums they claimed, and settlement is on terms that some of the legal costs of the council have to be paid by Open Doors. When deciding to settle, the council was keen to end the drain on management time and resources caused by this litigation.

“Where the ombudsman recommended that Coventry gave apologies, it did so promptly and fully, and this happened some years ago.”

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