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Culture of bullying uncovered at police probe unitary

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A review of the culture at Cheshire East Council, which is currently the subject of two police investigations and an internal probe into its suspended chief executive, has found a significant proportion of staff have either experienced or witnessed bullying.

The results of the review carried out by the Local Government Association, published yesterday, reveal bullying or bad treatment of some council staff comes from “a range of sources”, but predominantly from some elected members, senior managers and line managers.

The review, conducted by consultant Sarah Messenger who was formerly the LGA’s head of workforce, considered evidence gathered from interviews with councillors, union representatives and staff, as well as council data and whistleblowing cases. A staff survey was also carried out during the review.

This found that while the majority of those who completed the survey said they consider Cheshire East to be a good place to work, 14% of respondents said they had experienced bullying, and 24% had witnessed bullying in the past six months.

The report added: “There are clearly issues to be addressed when over 200 people say they have personally experienced bullying in the past 6 months and over 360 people have personally witnessed bullying.”

Chief executive Mike Suarez, chief operating officer Peter Bates and director of legal services Bill Norman were all suspended last year pending an investigation by council’s disciplinary panel. Mr Norman has subsequently resigned.

Cheshire Constabulary launched an investigation into allegations that the council manipulated air quality data after the council alerted police officers to concerns in July. Police are also investigating the allocation of public funds to Berkeley Academy and concerns about land purchases after the council referred the matters to them.

The review said some people were “so scarred” by bullying “that they remain afraid to put their head above the parapet”, while others said they would prefer to leave the council than raise a grievance.

It adds many staff see “robust management” as a euphemism for poor behaviour and described a “macho culture”.

Ms Messenger said some staff felt the organisational culture is particularly impacting on “emotional jobs” such as housing, domestic violence and social work.

The report adds that due to the absence of a “clearly defined organisational culture”, practices had been shaped by the behaviour of individuals.

It adds: “This is predominantly true of individuals with power and many people I spoke to referred to the negative impact of the previous council Leader [Mike Jones (Con)].”

Cllr Jones resigned in 2016 in relation to an independent investigation into a procurement contract.

Despite these findings, Ms Messenger said there was evidence that many staff are happy working for the council.

She added: “There is a clear sense that whilst challenges remain, the council now has the right political and managerial leadership to continue to steer the organisation in the direction it wishes to go.”

Responding to the report, acting chief executive Kath O’Dwyer said she was “saddened” by some of the review’s findings but added she is determined “to take all necessary action” to address concerns.

She added: “We have fantastic and talented staff working on behalf of our communities and they have a right to work without fear and in an organisation with a positive culture.

“We are fully committed to building upon our strengths and addressing any concerns that our staff may have shared.”

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