Former Greenwich Council chief executive Mary Ney has been handed a new job trying to turn scandal-hit Rotherham Council around, despite trying to stop allegations of bullying in her old borough from being revealed.
Ney, who retired from Greenwich in October 2014, worked on Louise Casey’s report into child sexual exploitation in the South Yorkshire borough, which was published a month ago.
The report damned “a pervading culture of sexism, bullying and silencing debate” in Rotherham – a description that raised eyebrows in Greenwich, embroiled in its own accusations of bullying towards the end of former leader Chris Roberts’ spell in charge.
Two weeks ago, it was announced Ney would be a “supporting commissioner” at Rotherham, working as part of a five-strong team led by former Kensington & Chelsea Council boss Sir Derek Myers.
During Ney’s time as Greenwich’s senior council officer:
- Two councillors – Alex Grant and Hayley Fletcher – stepped down, citing bullying in the ruling Labour group among their reasons.
- Ney blocked an attempt by this website to obtain a document detailing allegations of bullying in the council.
- Former leader Chris Roberts, who left the council in June 2014, was let off with a slap on the wrist after a threatening voicemail to a cabinet member was made public.
- Ney refused to investigate a conflict of interest that arose from the voicemail concerning the council’s handling of the Run to the Beat half-marathon, which benefited a charity that Roberts chaired.
- Roberts also escaped any discplinary procedure over an incident where he is alleged to have thrown a set of keys at a cleaner who woke him up early one morning when he was asleep in his office. This incident was highlighted by the BBC’s Sunday Politics London in December 2013.
Many councillors and figures within Greenwich politics remain privately angry that the council’s standards structure meant incidents of bullying were easy to get away with, and are questioning how Ney managed to get the job trying to clear up Rotherham.
Councillors ‘routinely threatened’
The loss of two talented councillors in Alex Grant and Hayley Fletcher was a blow to the borough’s Labour group. Both have now moved out of the borough, but Grant – who now lives in France – has been particularly outspoken on the issue.
In a lengthy blog post paying farewell to the borough in December, he said the stories about Greenwich were just “the tip of an iceberg”.
He wrote: “Councillors and council staff were routinely shouted at, threatened with disciplinary action for speaking their minds at internal meetings, or quite literally airbrushed out of [the council’s weekly paper] Greenwich Time like victims of a Stalinist purge.
“Those who raised concerns found that their confidential correspondence was hacked into without their knowledge or consent; they were then accused of “issuing publications critical of the party” and told to shut up or else. In my case, a ‘colleague’ once yelled at me aggressively in front of my daughter, then aged 7.
“On another occasion I was officially ‘warned’ to stop asking awkward questions about why council properties in my ward were standing empty for several months – or even years – before being sold off at auction for less than their real value (a ‘warning’ that was later found to be unlawful). Many, many other councillors and council employees had similar experiences.”
How Greenwich Council’s bullying dossier was successfully covered up
Grant also wrote a document for the council in May 2013 detailing some of the accusations, and proposing solutions to help rid the council of the problem.
I tried to obtain this via the Freedom of Information Act, originally without knowledge of who the author was. But my request was refused by Ney in December 2013 – just as further accusations about Roberts were emerging – on the grounds that it had been sent as an email attachment and it had no use for it.
I kept on challenging the decision, until a “first tier tribunal” last year, which upheld Ney’s decision as it had “no use for it” – a loophole which means that if the council decides it wants nothing to do with a document, it doesn’t have to release it (presumably to stop you submitting your shopping list to the council and then trying to get it through FOI).
Worringly, Judge Shanks claimed there “may have been an abuse of the process” because Grant – who was a serving councillor at the time the original FOI request was made – could have leaked the document himself, despite the risk of being intimidated and harassed himself.
Effectively, Ney’s rationale for the council having no use for the document was that accusations of bullying should be dealt within the Labour Group, and so wasn’t applicable to the council as an authority.
The Greenwich dossier revealed – ‘staff were also bullied’But once the tribunal was over, Grant quietly released the document on his own blog. Titled Forward, Together – Recommendations for a new anti-bullying strategy in the Royal Borough of Greenwich, it openly states council staff were also being bullied.
It states: “Those who feel they are at the receiving end of bullying are not always threatened directly – sometimes they are warned verbally that they should “watch their back” as they [are] out of favour and may be victimised next.
“Councillors – and council staff – who do voice concerns about their treatment have from time to time been labelled as troublemakers, criticised for being over-sensitive, or even accused of bringing the council, and/or their political party, into disrepute.
“In some cases such behaviour has not lead to formal complaints – often because complainants do not feel their complaints will be listened to – but when complaints are made, these are rarely taken seriously, and in some cases complainants have felt intimidated or stigmatised for speaking out.
“There have been several cases of… complaints of bullying being investigated (and dismissed) by the very person who is accused of bullying.”
Greenwich Council’s argument for refusing to release the document was that it was solely applicable to the council’s Labour group, and was of no interest to the council as a whole.
Yet Grant’s allegations that staff were being bullied show this argument to be untrue. Furthermore, the council’s constitution states that councillors have a role in “ensuring standards are properly established and monitored”.
Despite this, Ney still chose to prevent the release of the document.
The parallels with Rotherham
Nobody is pretending that what happened Greenwich is in any way comparable with the tragedy of Rotherham, which ignored widespread organised sexual abuse of children.
But Louise Casey’s report into Rotherham details a culture of bullying that chimes with experiences in Greenwich. Bullying and sexism had “cemented its failures”, Casey wrote.
“This was a culture where bullying and fear of repercussions if you spoke out was not met by any concerted challenge,” she continued.
Rotherham leader Roger Stone refused to take part in Casey’s report, but sent a statement outlining a his priorities for the borough, centring on regeneration projects – an echo of the emphasis of Roberts’ administration.
Whether Ney is the right person to assist in cleaning up Rotherham Council is a matter for Eric Pickles, whose Department of Communities and Local Government chose her for the role. I’ve asked the DCLG for a response. It has not replied.
Yet it is easy to understand why, considering past events under her watch in Greenwich – and attempts to block exposure of these incidents – many in south-east London are bemused by her new appointment.
After the Dear Leader – what’s happening now?Since Denise Hyland became leader of the council in June 2014, “Dear Leader” Chris Roberts has kept a low profile, although he’s understood to still be in regular touch with Hyland.
After 20 years of working with them as a councillor and council leader, Roberts is now working as a consultant to property developers. Companies House records reveal he has set up his own company, PSL Solutions Ltd, based at his home address in Woolwich’s Royal Arsenal.
Roberts’ chief whip, Ray Walker, who denied there ever was a bullying culture in the council, was deposed in a Labour group vote by newly-elected Peninsula councillor Stephen Brain.
But Walker, who accused those complaining of bullying of “jumping on a bandwagon”, remains the chair of the council’s planning board – the key hold-out for Roberts’ old guard of councillors.
Keeping it in the party
More recent events have had more to do with the Labour Party itself than the council – though clearly there is some overlap.
Just as the London Labour Party turned a blind eye to bullying among councillors in Greenwich, it also ignored the bizarre attempt to stitch up cabinet member John Fahy, where someone sent emails purporting to be him routed via Portugal.
Another allegation was spotted by the News Shopper last month, where new councillor Ambreen Hisbani – who is close to the old council leadership – accused Eltham MP Clive Efford of abusing her Portuguese husband Rui Dias after drinking five pints of beer in small-hours tweets sent to Ed Miliband, shadow London minister Sadiq Khan and London Labour regional director Alan Olive.
Neither party has commented on the allegation, although it should be noted that Hisbani’s tweeting puts her at risk of disciplinary action.
The fractious relations within the Labour Party also have consequences outside it.
This website also understands that Labour councillors in the south of the borough were threatened with deselection by a senior party figure if they voted against the party’s support for the Silvertown Tunnel.
While Roberts has gone and there is a new chief whip in charge, it remains tough for many councillors to operate openly and honestly – with the council still at risk of passing bad policy because of Labour figures throwing their weight around.
Troubles with non-politicians
It’s not just those inside the Labour party that can feel a backlash for speaking their minds.
The nascent campaign for a community council in Charlton ended up being put on hold after a whispering campaign against individuals who supported it was promoted by figures within the party. This is despite community councils being Labour policy.
And even Denise Hyland – who as leader has aimed to strike a more emollient tone than her predecessor – betrayed impatience with residents who were impertinent enough to complain at a recent council meeting.
Last November, a delegation of people who live near the Rochester Way Social Club in Eltham presented a petition showing their unhappiness about the club’s closure. Here’s their impressive speech – “[you] are made up of a majority of Labour councillors – councillors we voted for” – and new cabinet member Chris Kirby’s conciliatory response. You can hear this up to the point where mayor Mick Hayes gives the residents a cue to leave.
Once the residents had gone, Conservative leader Spencer Drury raised the issue. With the petitioners safely on their way back to Eltham, Denise Hyland’s response was less cautious. “If the 600 people that put their names on the petition drank there, socialised there and paid a membership there, it wouldn’t be unviable, would it?”
Whether it’s harsh truth or an over-simplification of a complex situation, it’s not very nice to have a go at people once their backs are turned.
And the future?
Despite these issues, Greenwich’s current leadership knows it has a problem with the way the council relates to the people who it is set up to serve. With Roberts and Ney gone, it can start to fix them.
As an attempt to make the place more transparent, webcasting council meetings is promised soon, as are new proposals to get people more closely involved in decision-making.
But the council remains on the naughty step regarding its handling of freedom of information requests, a legacy left behind by Ney.
Returning to what Alex Grant wrote, things have certainly improved under the new regime.
Dropping the absurd way it continually refers to itself as “the Royal Borough” (what’s wrong with “we” or “us”?) would be a clearer sign of change, along with weaning itself off its dependency on Greenwich Time. But it’ll take a long time for the ship to be turned around.
Of course, local politics tends to be much a game of egos and power as it is serving the population. Especially as under the current electoral system, it’s always bound to be a slightly crap miniature version of Westminster.
But if members of the Labour party in Greenwich treated each other with a bit more kindness and a bit more respect – the rest of it might come a little bit more easily, and they might find all kinds of things become better for them. Just a thought.