A Letter to the Editor from long-standing Enquirer contributor TIM HICKS, commenting on the performance of Scarborough Borough Council in relation to whistleblowing and whitewash.
I have followed the articles published in the Scarborough News and North Yorks Enquirer on Scarborough Borough Council (SBC) whistle blower Ben Marriott with alarm, sadness and admiration.
Mr Marriott is obviously a tough and principled man of character and integrity; I have great sadness over the way he has been treated and the price he has had to pay for standing up for his principles. I hope his public vindication will give him a degree of well-deserved satisfaction. The treatment he received was a disgrace and despicable.
It is obviously in the public interest that this matter is brought out into the open. The fact that it has emerged is largely because:
- Mr Marriott had the strength of character and determination to take the case to Court, where his case was investigated fairly.
- The North Yorks Enquirer has stuck with this story and kept it in the public eye since August 2013.
However, there is a wider issue here.
- On the 28th of March 2013, SBC’s Lisa Dixon wrote to Glenn Kilpatrick, Tim Thorne, Nigel Ward and me alleging we were liars and criminals. It went on to threaten us with legal action. When asked to give an example of any falsehood, inaccuracy, libellous or defamatory comment in any article, SBC was unable to do so. Neither was any Councillor or Officer, although they had every opportunity to do so.
- SBC also wrote to the Real Whitby Internet Service Provider (ISP) demanding that it “terminate” Real Whitby by withdrawing its ISP service. When this was discussed by Whitby Town Council, SBC issued a press release denying that the Council had tried to close down Real Whitby, thereby attempting to destroy the only Internet News Magazine in Whitby and asserting – laughably – that it was not trying to curtail free speech.
- When the BBC investigated SBCs allegations, it refused to give an interview and no one from the Council had the courage to appear in the program to answer the allegations put by the BBC. The Council again denied that it had tried to close down Real Whitby, and was shown to have lied on BBC regional television (see from 10.20 onwards).
- The Legal & Democratic Services department has routinely whitewashed complaints about Councillors. A classic case being the “Double Dipping”, where SBC Councillors that served on two Councils accepted an allowance for broadband from both SBC and the NYCC at the same time.
- In 2014, long time NYE and Real Whitby contributor Nigel Ward was the subject of an allegation of benefit fraud, which it has been alleged (by the DWP) was initiated by SBC.
- SBC has been ridiculed in Private Eye four times, for harassment of whistleblowers, which I believe is a record for any Council and was awarded the very well deserved accolade of the Private Eye 2013 Legal Bullies of the Year Award. It now has a national reputation for aggressively attacking and bullying anyone that speaks out publicly against it.
- In January 2015, evidence was submitted through the North Yorkshire Police Solicitor Jane Wintermeyer in the High Court, asserting that proceedings were “quite likely”, against “one or more of the Defendants” (which included Nigel Ward and me) in a civil action in the High Court, by un-named “SBC Councillors and Staff”. Needless to say, nothing transpired.
- In February 2015, the then-Leader of SBC, Councillor Tom Fox, stated in response to a question from the then-Councillor Mike Ward about the Council commencing legal action against Nigel Ward and me: “If you actually think people can say what they like, when they like, without threat or retaliation, when considered appropriate, then I think you are very naïve, sir. I think you are very naïve.” This was said formally at Full Council in the Council chamber, perfectly confirming that the Council follows a policy of retaliation for those that speak out and criticize it in public.
- Now the Council has been castigated by a Judge in an Employment Tribunal for whitewashing a whistleblowing complaint. Full story and the damning judgment here.
The very clear implication is that brave Ben Marriott’s case is not an isolated incident, but that Scarborough Borough Council routinely pursues an unlawful policy of whitewashing complaints and of ignoring whistleblowers, as hinted at by Councillor Fox.
Local Labour Councillors Steve Siddons and Tony Randerson have very properly demanded an independent enquiry. Their statement is here: SBC Labour group demands action and does them both great credit. The Council has now acceded to it and I understand there is to be an external investigation, not one conducted by the Council into itself.
Retired Councillor Mike Ward, whom I respect and know to be a man of integrity, and good judgment has also spoken out. I write in support of his views, expressed in the North Yorks Enquirer: Letter from former Councillor Mike Ward and those of Councillor Siddons and Councillor Randall above. I would make the following points:
- Very serious allegations, of fraud and corruption that have been made. Without going into detail of the allegations, I would make a general point that corruption is taken very seriously by the courts. Consider the case of Mr Ronald Harper (64), from Suffolk, who was convicted of taking payments or gifts from companies who were then given large contracts and was jailed for five years. BBC report on the case here.
- Council officers misled Councillors as to the procedures and to the facts of the case. Thereby deliberately whitewashing a complaint about misuse of Council resources. As a result, a loyal council worker was forced out of his job. All of the Council’s control functions (HR, Legal and Finance Departments) have been criticised in the report, as was the Asset Recovery Manager. The Irregularity Response Team (the Chief Executive, Section 151 Officer, Monitoring Officer, HR Manager, Audit and Fraud Manager) failed to execute its functions properly and the investigation was inadequate from any perspective. The Tribunal described it as a whitewash – the implication being that SBCs corporate governance has failed catastrophically and is currently unfit for purpose, as are some of those that were tasked with implementing it.
- Having a strong whistleblowing policy is an important financial control. The Auditors have signed off that SBC had satisfactory financial controls, when in fact it did not. Consequently the auditors have a conflict of interest and cannot now be involved in any investigation, because they themselves will be under scrutiny.
- No-one has as yet been held accountable for this scandal or had any sanction or disciplinary action taken against them for these failings. The Fraud Act 2006 has an offence “Fraud by failing to disclose information”, which may be relevant. CPS guidance on this offence is here.
- Predictably, the only person to be punished for anything is the whistle blower, Mr Marriott
Clearly this will be a complex and long-running investigation and it will have to be conducted by impartial specialists, with no dealings with SBC or any of its Councillors or staff. If it is to be the police, it should be conducted by a force other than North Yorkshire, which apparently stone-walled any investigation by ignoring correspondence on the case for nine months, as shown in this North Yorks Enquirer report. It also facilitated the threatened legal action by un-named “Councillors and staff” against North Yorks Enquirer contributor Nigel Ward, which may possibly include (amongst other things) his coverage of this scandal. Although the “Councillors and Staff” are un-named, I consider it likely that one of them was criticised in the judgment – hardly conducive to confidence in the intention or ability of North Yorkshire Police to investigate the matter impartially.
Tim Thorne and Nigel Ward have done an excellent job of pursuing this story – particularly commendable given the pressure they have had from SBC to back off. Their coverage was entirely in the public interest and demonstrates the importance of having Councils subject to scrutiny by a free press, no matter how embarrassing it is for SBC.
Finally, I would like to close on a positive note by expressing once more my admiration for Mr Marriott and endorse Mike Ward’s view that he should receive a public apology from the Council.
Tim HICKS, Luxembourg. 1st November, 2016.