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Events in Bury underline the need for clear boundaries

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Reflections on today’s news from Bury MBC 

The reports published by Bury MBC today detailing the events surrounding the emergence of allegations that a backbench councillor had accessed indecent images of children are a cautionary tale.

Investigations conducted for the council by Malcolm Newsam, a children’s services commissioner at Sandwell MBC, and Charles Bourne QC both describe an undue focus on the “confidentiality” of the allegations rather than ensuring the safety of children.

LGC’s full report of the case can be read here but away from the specific details the reports do raise a couple of interesting points for reflection.

Of course no one would envy Mike Owen, hours into his first day as interim chief executive on 1 April 2015, being presented with the information that one of Bury’s backbench councillors was being investigated for accessing indecent images.

Chief among the errors of judgement laid at Mr Owen’s door are that despite the councillor in question being a school governor and an approved adopter, he failed to inform the director of children’s services or anyone else in the department of the allegations.

Mr Owen says he was told by the police not to tell anyone. The report prepared by Charles Bourne QC for the council’s HR and appeals panel is more sympathetic to Mr Owen’s claims than Mr Newsam, concluding it was likely he was left with the message by the police to “leave it with us”.

However, both question Mr Owen’s judgement in subsequently choosing to tell the council leader and approving him telling a regional party official.

Mr Bourne notes that Mr Owen, a former president of the Chartered Institute of Public Finance & Accountancy, says one of the reasons he told the leader was that he was his line manager. He apparently pointed to guidance from the Society of Local Authority Chief Executives & Senior Managers which says chief executives should commit to their leader “unconditionally”. But can a leader really be regarded as a line manager in the sense most of us would understand? And should any relationship between two adults, personal or professional, ever be unconditional?

Mr Newsam suggested, and the council’s HR and appeals panel agreed, that Mr Owen had an “ulterior motive” and acted out of a “misguided desire to ‘help’ the former [council] leader” and “protect the former administration and its leader from public scrutiny in the run up to the 2015 elections”.

It must also be noted that an external recruitment process was underway that culminated in Mr Owen’s permanent appointment in July 2015. He insisted to Mr Bourne that this was not a factor is his decision making.

Mr Bourne concludes there is an “accumulation of errors for which officers must be criticised” and regrets that the council had not brought in an organisation or individual outside of the council to conduct its initial investigation into the allegations.

This is another useful point of reflection from what happened in Bury. While Mr Owen could not have anticipated how events would escalate and ultimately engulf his time as chief executive, independent support on such a sensitive issue could never be a bad thing.

Mr Bourne says the “unfortunate consequences of the council not having outsourced the investigation” are that “each failure or mistake may attract the suspicion of an improper motivation”. He continues: “It is regrettably impossible to rule out such improper motivation. However, in relation to each specific event, there is evidence pointing away from such a conclusion.”

The importance of clear boundaries in chief and leader relationships is underlined by this case.

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