South Ribble Council chief executive is sacked - even though she had already resigned

The chief executive of South Ribble Borough Council has been sacked – in spite of the fact that she had already resigned from her post.
South Ribble Borough Council's former chief executive Heather McManus was put on special leave shortly after the authority's leader Paul Foster was elected in May 2019South Ribble Borough Council's former chief executive Heather McManus was put on special leave shortly after the authority's leader Paul Foster was elected in May 2019
South Ribble Borough Council's former chief executive Heather McManus was put on special leave shortly after the authority's leader Paul Foster was elected in May 2019

Heather McManus quit the top job at the authority around six weeks ago. She had been on ‘special leave’ for just over a year, but was not due to formally depart until the expiry of her notice period at the end of August.

However, her contract has now been terminated with immediate effect, after a majority of the borough’s councillors backed the move at a behind-closed-doors meeting of the full council last week.

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Ms. McManus had already lodged two employment tribunal cases before her sacking – one for constructive dismissal, filed shortly after her resignation, and a separate whistleblowing claim brought last year. A preliminary hearing is scheduled for September.

Last month, an internal audit report detailed how rules and procedures at the district council had been “consistently breached” – often by its most senior employees.

However, the Local Democracy Reporting Service (LDRS) can reveal that the reasons for Ms. McManus’s dismissal relate to the findings of a separate independent investigation, which found that she had made “significant errors of judgement” and raised concerns over the treatment of staff.

That investigation recommended that she should be issued with more than half a dozen written and final written warnings, but the council’s own cross-party internal disciplinary committee suggested that she should be instantly dismissed for “serious misconduct” – a step subsequently endorsed by the full council.

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Council leader Paul Foster said that the verdict of the independent investigator was “significant and serious”.

“The chief executive is crucial to any local authority and just one or two of these issues would have led to serious challenges about Heather McManus’s ability to undertake the role – but their number and significance is quite shocking.

“We will robustly defend the allegations [to be] made at the employment tribunal and I am 100 percent confident in our ability to do that. We believe we have no case to answer,” Cllr Foster added.

Ms. McManus was placed on special leave within weeks of a new Labour administration taking control at the authority in May 2019. That sparked the independent investigation which has only recently concluded.

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However, the LDRS understands that a third body involved in the complex procedure for dismissing a chief executive – known as the “independent panel” – did not support the conclusions of the internal disciplinary committee that Ms. McManus had committed serious misconduct. The panel did still back her dismissal – but not without notice or pay.

Ian Miller, honorary secretary of the Association of Local Authority Chief Executives and Senior Managers (ALACE), which represented Ms. McManus during the disciplinary proceedings, said: “This is the first occasion the independent panel process has been used – and South Ribble has shown it counts for nothing.

“The severity of the penalty is both greater than anything recommended by the independent investigator and entirely against the unanimous views of members of the independent panel. ALACE will approach the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government to explore how the so-called statutory protection can actually offer protection for its members in light of this case.”

South Ribble’s annual governance statement, published last month, acknowledged that there had been a “significant breakdown in governance arrangements” at the authority – but set out an action plan designed to put the council back on the right path.

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The damning internal audit report that lays out a litany of governance failures ...
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Chorley Council’s chief executive, Gary Hall, has been fulfilling the same role at South Ribble while the authority has been without its most senior officer. Following Ms. McManus’ dismissal, the process of recruiting a permanent replacement can now begin.

Cllr Foster paid tribute to the “hard work and dedication” of staff for continuing to deliver services during a time of such turbulence – including the ongoing coronavirus crisis.

“The failings have been in the governance of the organisation and we’ve got a plan in place to put that right, with many improvements already having been made.

“I know people may be wondering why we continued the investigation process after the chief executive resigned, but we felt it was right to complete the process so everyone could understand what had happened and why things had gone wrong.

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“Ultimately, the chief executive had lost the trust and confidence of staff and had not followed policies and procedures properly and these are critical to the role.

“It’s up to me and my fellow councillors to ensure we move on, put this sorry saga behind us – and start to focus on what matters most for our residents and businesses,” he said.

UPDATE

Following publication of this story, Heather McManus issued this statement:

“I am saddened by the actions of Cllr Foster and his acolytes since the change in leadership at South Ribble.

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"As chief executive, I worked hard to lead a team of dedicated and professional staff to serve the borough’s taxpayers and I’m proud of our efforts and the successes we achieved. It was always important to me to do what was right, not simply what might be popular.

"Unfortunately, following a breakdown of trust with the leader, an independent investigation ensued. Unsurprisingly, it dismissed any suggestion of gross or serious misconduct on my part. Thereafter I did not take lightly the decision to resign and litigate but, in light of events, I saw little alternative.

"The proper process of governance at district councils must be honoured, no matter the political persuasion of its leaders. With the benefit of all the facts it will be for the court to determine the outcome of this unfortunate dispute. I have every confidence in the process. Meantime, I would like to thank the Association of Local Authority Chief Executives and my hard-working and supportive former colleagues - I wish them well.”

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