Claims of '˜toxic culture' of bullying and intimidation at scandal-hit council

SOUTH Ribble Council has been plunged into a fresh crisis over claims of bullying and harassment in its ruling Conservative group.
South Ribble Council Civic Centre, LeylandSouth Ribble Council Civic Centre, Leyland
South Ribble Council Civic Centre, Leyland

Accusations have been reported to the police and one councillor has handed in a resignation letter, but claims she was talked out of walking away by council leader Coun Margaret Smith.

Although the councillor said she now finds herself in a “very, very difficult position”, she says she is determined to see her job “through to the end”.

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Other councillors say they are seriously considering quitting amid the row.

Council leader Coun Smith said she was aware of the allegations but was unable to discuss them without breaking party rules and losing trust of members.

The council is already in the spotlight over a taxi driver abuse scandal, which senior members have been accused of covering up.

One of the councillors accused of inappropriate behaviour, who the Evening Post has chosen not to named, refuted the claims. He said: “We have a bit of a laugh and a joke, a bit of banter, but that’s all it is.”

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The resignation letter handed to Coun Smith, which the Evening Post has seen, reads: “I cannot and will not work with people who bully, intimidate and sexually harass their way through life.”

It adds: “I have watched the treatment of councillors steadily get worse. I have on many occasions been targeted with such behaviour and this continues; this treatment is not just by the men in the party but worse the women.

“I have reached my saturation point, and do not want to be part of such an organisation that puts itself first in front of staff and colleagues.”

Coun Smith said: “That letter was confidentially sent to me as group leader. I receive a lot of confidential information, and if I started talking about it, nobody would trust me.

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“It’s a confidential matter, and the people who are releasing this letter don’t know how I dealt with it. The people who are leaking information are breaking every group rule.

“I think it’s quite deplorable to send private comments and thoughts. It was dealt with afterwards by me.”

Allegations have been made by a number of female councillors of a inappropriate sexual comments and behaviour.

The councillor, who wrote the resignation letter in February before being talked out of quitting, said: “They treat women councillors like bimbos and when they realise you’re not, they feel intimidated and so the bullying starts.

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“There’s no support from the leadership - they’ve known about this from day one.”

Another councillor said they had made complaints to the leader about “systematic bullying” within the party but have not been offered adequate support.

A third councillor, who also asked not to be named, said: “I have not been able to do anything for my residents. I have been shouted down and bullied, there’s been snide remarks and sexual innuendo. It’s just a horrible place.”

Coun Paul Wharton, the Conservative Councillor for Farington East who stepped down as deputy chief whip over his concerns on the taxi licensing investigation, said he was willing to speak out.

He said: “I have nothing to lose by speaking out.

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“I have been subjected to all kinds of pressure since speaking out about the leadership of the group and the handling of the taxi licensing issue.

“I have also been there when female councillors have left meetings in tears because of the degrading actions they are subjected to.

“There is a lot of pressure placed on various people, such as constant text messages and phone calls and it’s not acceptable.

“But this behaviour is seen as acceptable by a select group of people in this party and it’s entrenched.

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“It’s a shame, because there a lot of good councillors in the group too.”

But Coun Smith denied there was a problem within the party. She said: “The group at the moment has never been more united and the group is going forward. We have a lot of positive things to get through, though I am aware there is a situation, a campaign against me.

“We are a group of 29 with 29 different personalities and everybody has a different perspective. We have to take people’s ideas all together and have a budget consider.

“How people perceive the job of being a councillor is not necessarily how things are going to be.

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“People have different ways of thinking and people do get cross with one another. Sometimes one person’s way of speaking is not the way of other people.”

A spokesman for Lancashire Police said they were aware of the claims but no action has been taken.

The council is also not involved in any investigation into these claims. A spokesman for the council said it was a matter for the Conservative party locally.

Coun Phil Smith, the chairman of South Ribble Conservative Association and Coun Margaret Smith’s husband, has not replied to calls from the Evening Post.

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Sir Robert Atkins, chairman of the North West Conservatives, said he had not been made aware of the allegations and it would not be protocol for him to intervene in South Ribble group issues such as these, unless there was police action.

The latest accusations come six weeks after a secret report into child sexual exploitation by two taxi drivers was leaked to the press.

In it the council was criticised for failing to carry out proper background checks. Since then a new probe has been launched into how a cabbie who tied up a disabled boy had his licence renewed.

The council and its leader have been criticised for failing to make the report public. Senior members of the Labour Party and some within the Conservative Party have called for Coun Smith to release the report or resign.

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Tory Councillor Paul Wharton launched a motion calling for a special meeting to remove Coun Margaret Smith as leader. The motion was signed by two other Tories - Councillors Mike and Barbara Nathan - but the couple withdrew their support only days later.

Coun Margaret Smith said she has acted properly and retains the support of the people of South Ribble.

She said the council is following protocol that the report will the scrutiny committee first.

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