'No witch-hunt' over sacking of South Ribble Council chief, tribunal told
The leader and deputy leader of South Ribble Borough Council have both denied that they sought to remove the authority’s chief executive because of what they believed was political bias in the run-up to local elections two years ago.
Cllrs Paul Foster and Mick Titherington told an employment tribunal considering a claim brought by former council boss Heather McManus that they were frustrated and angered at the actions of some senior officers, including her, just 48 hours before the district vote in May 2019.
However, they rejected the suggestion that it had motivated them in their own actions when their Labour group - which was in opposition prior to the poll - subsequently secured power at the authority.
The tribunal heard that a decision by the council to issue a statement to clarify its legal obligations regarding planning applications - in response to an email Cllr Foster sent to a campaigner against the proposed Pickering’s Farm development in Penwortham, which was later published on a local Facebook page - had prompted fury in the Labour group.
Cllr Foster wrote in an email to the then monitoring officer, Dave Whelan, that officers had made “a huge error of judgement” by doing something which he said was “clearly interfering in the democratic process”.
“It is nothing short of a political statement looking to disrupt our campaign,” the tribunal was told Cllr Foster had written, with the soon-to-be council leader questioning why the clarification had not explained the options open to the authority to amend local planning policies if it chose to do so.
However, under cross-examination from Mrs. McManus’s legal representative Ronnie Dennis, Cllr Foster refuted the claim that a phrase he used in a subsequent email to her - that these were “serious issues” of which “many more” would be found - indicated an intention on his part to “use these issues and a load more to get [her] out of the council’.
“No, that’s not true at all,” Cllr Foster told the hearing.
He added: “I was frustrated not with Mrs. McManus - I was frustrated with all the statutory officers and I was frustrated with the council for intervening during purdah [the pre-election period when official council communications are restricted].”
Cllr Foster also rejected the suggestion that he had “made it clear” to his own Labour group and the Liberal Democrats on the authority - who have supported the minority Labour administration on an issue-by-issue basis since 2019 - how he wanted them to vote in a motion which considered the outcome of an investigation into grievances raised against Mrs. McManus, including bullying allegations, and a recommendation for her to be sacked without notice.
That motion was carried at a meeting in July 2020 and resulted in Mrs. McManus' instant dismissal - even though she had resigned several weeks earlier and was still within her notice period. Cllr Foster said that Labour and Liberal Democrat group members were “independently-minded” - and that there had been no party whip ordering them to support the motion.
The Conservative opposition group - which controlled the council for almost all of Mrs. McManus’ tenure prior to her suspension in May 2019 - also voted for her to be sacked, but with notice and pay in lieu.
Meanwhile, Cllr Titherington said that the heated emails exchanged between leading Labour group members - including himself - and senior officers just before the 2019 poll had to be “put into context”.
“This was...two days before the election at South Ribble...so it was a very...emotive time.”
He added: “We were in the middle of a campaign and we’d moved on [afterwards]. To be honest with you, I’ve never looked at these emails or referred to them or considered them ever since the election.”
However, when asked by Mr. Dennis about attempts by Mrs. McManus to justify issuing the pre-election statement about Cllr Foster’s email to the Pickering’s Farm campaigner, Cllr Titherington accepted that it had made him “angry”. But he insisted that he was able to act impartially as one of three people, drawn from each of the political parties on the council, who sits on its investigations and disciplinary committee (IDC).
That body voted in July 2019 to appoint an independent investigator to look into grievance and whistleblowing complaints made against Mrs. McManus by two of the authority's directors, which had resulted in Cllr Foster suspending her in May.
The tribunal heard details of the grievances, which were also brought against the authority's two deputy chief executives, Tim Povall and Gregg Stott. They, too, were put on what was described at the time as ”special leave” in the wake of allegations, but left the council of their own accord around six weeks later and were offered its thanks for their work.
This week’s hearing was told that the authority’s then director of planning and property, Jonathan Node - who is now director of planning and development across both South Ribble and Chorley councils - and Jennifer Mullin - then South Ribble’s director of neighbourhoods and development, now director of communities at South Ribble and Chorley - had each made allegations of bullying against the trio of top officers in South Ribble in mid-May 2019.
The tribunal heard Mr. Noad’s grievance letter, which was read out by Mr. Dennis, in which the planning boss stated that his complaint related to “more than one issue, the combination of which has made me feel bullied, intimidated, not respected, unsupported and my position and professional standing undermined”.
In her grievance, Ms. Mullin complained about the behaviour of “both the chief executive and deputies”.
The tribunal was read a letter in which she said: “Since the chief executive returned to work following a period of sickness in October 2018, which myself and [Mr. Noad] covered in her absence, I have been subject to bullying in the workplace.
“In deliberate acts, I have been made to feel powerless, humiliated, denigrated and [had] my professional judgement questioned,” Ms. Mullin wrote, adding that she had been “removed...from projects without explanation”
During cross-examination of Cllr Foster, Mr. Dennis suggested, variously, that it was often unclear as to which individuals specific complaints were being made about and that, where Mrs. McManus was specifically identified, it was in relation to matters which “don't come anywhere near bullying” allegations.
He also put it to Cllr Foster that it must have been “obvious” to him that “this was a case of two employees who were facing a potential capability process making spurious allegations to try and derail that process”.
However, Cllr Foster rejected the suggestion, telling the inquiry: “It was absolutely not obvious to me at all. They were two senior directors of the authority who had made some very serious and wide-ranging allegations.”
Mr. Noad and Ms. Mullin also jointly made a whistleblowing complaint, raising concerns about “a number of issues within the council”.
Mr. Dennis put it to several witnesses that the grievances that had been lodged against the chief executive and her two deputies should have been pursued under the council’s procedure specifically designed to deal with such matters - and not by launching a disciplinary investigation. He said that the union UNISON had wanted the issues to be investigated via the grievance route.
However, Dave Whelan, South Ribble’s interim monitoring officer in 2019, said that the seriousness of the allegations meant that it was “inevitable” that they would be passed to the IDC for consideration “in accordance with the disciplinary procedure”.
Mr. Dennis suggested that, in interviewing witnesses to be put forward to the independent investigator, Mr. Whelan “asked them generally to outline any concerns they held personally in relation to the chief executive's conduct” - rather than limiting himself to the “specific allegations within the terms of reference”.
In doing so, it was put to Mr. Whelan that he had mounted a “witch-hunt” against Mrs. McManus - but the legal officer refuted the suggestion.
“The only people I spoke to were people who I knew had concerns about the chief executive...I wasn’t banging on doors or anything,” Mr. Whelan said.
He had earlier told the tribunal that he had not in any way tried to “put pressure” on people.
“I wasn’t looking for evidence - these are people who had spoken to me previously and raised concerns [and] who I thought could assist the investigator.”
The hearing was told by Mr. Dennis that the independent investigator made nine findings that were critical of Mrs. McManus, but that they were in relation to “performance - perhaps one in relation to conduct and the sending of a single email” - but that none of them “came anywhere close to a finding of misconduct”.
Cllr Foster said he disagreed with that and backed the conclusion of the IDC that Mrs. McManus was guilty of “serious misconduct” - a decision subsequently endorsed by the full council. The independent investigator had recommended a series of warnings for the chief executive ranging from final written to oral.
During cross-examination of Liberal Democrat group leader David Howarth, Mr. Dennis said that the independent investigator had concluded that “a significant number of the SLT [senior leadership team] would find it at least very difficult and probably impossible to work effectively with the chief executive, should she return".
However, he stressed that the investigator did not state that Ms. McManus was herself “to blame for that situation”.
Cllr Howarth, who chaired the IDC during the disciplinary process, said that taking the report as a whole, “I think you could conclude that was the outcome”.
The tribunal is hearing a claim of unfair dismissal brought by Mrs. McManus against South Ribble Borough Council and Cllrs Foster and Titherington, which she claims was fuelled by her actions as a whistleblower - a status confirmed by a tribunal judgement on preliminary issues earlier this year.
That was in relation to an email she sent to several senior members of the Labour group regarding Cllr Foster’s message to the Pickering’s Farm campaigner, with the former now judged to have been a “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.
The tribunal proceedings - being held before employment judge Neil Buzzard - are expected to conclude on Friday afternoon, with a decision due at a later date.
Many thanks for reading. Please consider subscribing to the Lancashire Post to support local journalism and help secure its vital role across Central Lancashire - thank you.