'I loved my job and I was doing a good job', sacked South Ribble Council chief tells tribunal

The former chief executive of South Ribble Borough Council, who was sacked from her job last year, has told an employment tribunal that she was the victim of “a vendetta” by the leader of the authority.

Thursday, 14th October 2021, 8:26 am
Updated Friday, 15th October 2021, 6:42 pm

Heather McManus was suspended in May 2019, just weeks after Labour group leader Paul Foster took control of the council following local elections.

She resigned from her post 12 months later, but was dismissed by the council shortly afterwards in July 2020 for “serious misconduct” - at which point she was serving her notice period while still on what was described at the time as "special leave".

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Heather McManus arrived at South Ribble Borough Council in the summer of 2017

That followed a behind-closed-doors vote of the full council which endorsed a recommendation by the authority’s investigations and disciplinary committee (IDC) that Mrs. McManus should be sacked with immediate effect.

She has brought a complaint of unfair dismissal against the council itself, as well as Cllr Foster and his deputy Mick Titherington - treatment which she claims was fuelled by her actions as a whistleblower over concerns she expressed that the authority was at risk of being seen to be willing to breach its legal duties regarding proposals to build over 1,000 homes in Penwortham.

During a day-and-a-half under cross-examination at a tribunal centre in Liverpool on Tuesday and Wednesday, Mrs. McManus claimed that complaints made against her by senior colleagues, which led to her suspension, were “spurious”.

The hearing was told that Mrs. McManus - who became visibly distressed on several occasions while giving her evidence - claimed she had been subject to bullying and harassment by Cllr Foster during her two years in the role prior to being put on leave. In a witness statement to the tribunal, she alleged that she had been left in tears by his actions on one occasion.

Mrs. McManus said that after a positive first meeting with Cllr Foster shortly after she joined the authority in July 2017 - at which the tribunal was told he had been “complimentary” about her ideas - his attitude towards her later altered.

“It was as soon as I started to implement changes that I was constantly personally challenged,” Mrs. McManus said, suggesting that the shift began during the autumn of 2017.

She claimed that at the initial meeting between the pair, Cllr Foster had asked her not to “make too many changes” before the borough elections, which were over 18 months off.

Representing South Ribble Borough Council, barrister Kirsten Barry said that Cllr Foster denied that - and she put it to Mrs. McManus that it would have been “quite a bizarre thing" for him to have said given that the district poll was such a distant prospect.

Ms. Barry also asked her whether she was “confusing political challenge with bullying”. However, the former chief rejected the suggestion, telling the hearing: “It wasn't political challenge, it wasn't aimed at the political agenda - it was aimed at officers. And it happened...quite a lot.”

However, Mrs. McManus accepted that the first time she registered any formal complaint about Cllr Foster was a month after her suspension.

Meanwhile, Ms. Barry told Heather McManus that “the only recorded complaints of bullying or [about] conduct relate to you”.

The tribunal heard that the then interim section 151 officer Susan Guinness brought one such complaint in the summer of 2018. While the council's filter panel did not recommend taking any action against Mrs. McManus, it was suggested that she undergo training in what Ms. Barry characterised as “how to be a better leader” - a process with which Mrs. McManus said she engaged and received a peer mentor.

The hearing was also told that two grievances were raised against Mrs. McManus in mid-May 2019 by Jonathan Node - whose then title was director of planning and property - and Jennifer Mullin, the director of neighbourhoods and development at that time.

Coming shortly before Cllr Foster took the decision to suspend Mrs McManus, Ms. Barry said the grievances raised issues including “bullying and undermining of staff [and] poor treatment of staff”.

However, Mrs. McManus suggested in her evidence that the complaints had been fabricated, because the two recently-promoted senior officers - who remain in equivalent high-level posts today, but now across both South Ribble and Chorley councils under the authorities' shared services arrangement - were facing the possibility of “capability proceedings” at that point.

Ms. Barry posited that a further suggestion that Cllrs Foster and Titherington had engaged in “active collusion” with Mr. Noad and Ms. Mullin over their complaints was “very far-fetched” - and that there was no evidence to support it.

She added that a subsequent independent investigator’s report found that Mrs. McManus’ conduct in regards to capability proceedings had “helped to fuel a culture of fear”.

However, Mrs. McManus said that her deputies at the time - Tim Povall and Gregg Stott - were responsible for the capability process. She told the hearing that she “felt very guilty” that they, too, were suspended after less than six months in their jobs and subsequently departed the authority of their own accord to pursue opportunities elsewhere.

“My belief is that [Cllr Foster] suspended all three [of us], because if the two deputies had remained in position, they would have made it very clear very quickly that the allegations against me were not correct - and my belief is he took out all three so he could then continue his vendetta against me personally,” Mrs. McManus said.

Ms. Barry said that the allegation did not make “a lot of sense” - because it was the resignation of the two deputies that prevented them from speaking up on their boss’s behalf, not their suspension.

The tribunal also heard that an issue had arisen shortly before the local elections in 2019 when the campaign group Keep Bee Lane Rural - which was opposed to proposals to build up to 1,300 homes on the Pickering’s Farm site in Penwortham - posted an email from Cllr Foster on its Facebook page.

The message saw the leader of what was then the Labour opposition group state that the party was “absolutely committed to halting the development for a detailed review to take place”.

At that stage, no planning application had been lodged and Cllr Foster stressed that his group was “certainly not anti-development”. However, he pledged that if a developer tried to “push the application through prior to the review being concluded, then we will be refusing it” - and he also wrote that the party would be making changes to the local plan, which guides where development takes place in the borough

The appearance of the message online had prompted concern from Mrs. McManus, which culminated in the authority’s monitoring officer issuing a Facebook message from the council to clarify that it did not predetermine planning applications - that is, to make a decision about them before they go through the proper process.

However, the move sparked disquiet amongst senior figures in the Labour group, coming just 48 hours before the local elections and during the period known as “purdah” when local authorities are required to refrain from issuing communications on matters that could be deemed politically controversial.

An email chain formed during the evening of 30th April, 2019, included a message from Cllr Titherington in which he said that it was “not the first time we have expressed our concerns over suspected impartiality of officers, but rarely has it been so blatant”.

Later that evening, Mrs. McManus emailed Cllrs Foster, Titherington and their fellow shadow cabinet member Matthew Tomlinson - copying in some senior officers - stating that council officers always operated in an “apolitical” way. The message explained that the authority's earlier statement had “sought to provide legal clarity around the council’s non-political planning process…i.e. the council cannot and does not make predetermined decisions on planning applications”.

In a tribunal judgement on preliminary issues given in February this year, that email was ruled to be a so-called “protected disclosure” under whistleblowing legislation because Mrs. McManus believed that Cllr Foster “may have given the impression that the Labour group, if successful in becoming the largest political party in the council, would fail to comply with the planning requirement” within a section of the Town and Country Planning Act.

Asked directly at this week’s hearing why she believed she had been suspended by Cllr Foster, Mrs. McManus said that it was because she had “raised issues legitimately with him.”

“He was not happy about that and he made a promise that he would deal with me and find more,” she added.

That was a reference to the final line of an email sent to Mrs. McManus by Cllr Foster the morning after what has now been acknowledged to be her protected disclosure, in which he expressed his concerns about the council's actions in the pre-election period: “These are serious issues and will not go away - and we will of course find many more.”

However, Ms. Barry accused her of “twisting an innocuous, throwaway line to suit your narrative...that he was out to get you”.

She said it was clear that Cllr Foster was less concerned with the council clarifying its position on planning matters than about the “breach of impartiality” in the run-up to the elections and the fact that the council's statement did not “provide balance” by explaining what local authorities could do in relation to local planning policies.

Ms. Barry also pointed to the fact that Cllr Foster had raised in an email before Mrs. McManus’ whistleblowing disclosure multiple issues that he said he would taking up post-election.

“So the fact that, on 1st May, he refers to these serious issues again, has got nothing to do with your protected disclosure,” she said.

The tribunal heard that an independent investigator assessing the complaints against Mrs. McManus had recommended a raft of warnings - from final written to oral.

Like the IDC, a separate independent panel involved in the process had also recommended her dismissal, but with notice - and disagreed that she was guilty of serious misconduct.

Mrs. McManus’ representative had sought a “mutual termination” of her employment, but that was declined.

Asked why she did not resign earlier if, as she claimed, she had been concerned about the length of her suspension, Mrs. McManus said she “needed to clear my name” , which she believed had been “blackened” in press articles.

When Ms. Barry suggested that she had actually been happy to remain suspended and to continue getting paid, Mrs. McManus - who repeatedly described having been left "on the floor" by events - said: “That could not be further from the truth - I loved that job and I was doing a good job.

“I’d just got a good team in place...and it was all just coming together.”

Later in the hearing, she added: “I wanted to come back, I wanted to prove my innocence, but I found myself in an impossible situation, where, clearly, I couldn't go on and I had to resign - and there clearly was no way back as result of everything that happened over..the year and a half.”

The tribunal continues before employment judge Neil Buzzard, with further witnesses set to appear through until Friday. Cllr Foster began giving his evidence on Wednesday afternoon and his testimony will continue on Thursday morning (report to follow).

Employment judge Buzzard declared on Monday that it would not be open to the tribunal to find that Mrs. McManus had been constructively dismissed, because an actual dismissal had occurred.

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