Wigan’s Donna Hall is among chiefs to speak out as calls grow for councils to gain greater powers to sanction members who bully officers or residents
One of the country’s most prominent council chief executives has spoken about the level of abuse, including death threats, she has received from councillors and members of the public.
In an LGC interview, Wigan MBC’s Donna Hall, who retires this month, told how she and her fellow staff had been subjected to “a culture of bullying” from a small number of people, which included the online circulation of pornographic films which had been manipulated to falsely feature her photograph.
Ms Hall’s disclosure coincides with a series of senior local government figures speaking out to urge greater recognition of the problem, with the head of the council chief executives’ union stating: “Misogyny is a significant issue.”
And it also comes as the Committee on Standards in Public Life has recommended councils – which have found it difficult to censure councillors since former communities secretary Eric Pickles abolished the Standards Board for England in 2012 – be empowered to suspend members for as much as six months.
We’ve sanctioned them, censured them as much as we possibly can but there’s very little we can actually do since Eric Pickles stopped the ability to suspend them
Donna Hall, chief executive, Wigan MBC
In a letter to the prime minister published last month, committee chair Lord Evans of Weardale (Crossbench) cited “a minority of councillors engag[ing] in bullying or harassment, or other highly disruptive behaviour” as being a “specific area of concern”.
Ms Hall said she had experienced a small number of councillors, past and present, who “bully staff” and that a “culture of bullying” had previously been accepted on the authority.
“I just said ‘no, I’m sorry, this is not the way we work – we treat each other with mutual respect’. I stood my ground with them and I don’t apologise for standing my ground up against bullies.”
She said standards complaints against certain members were frequent, and often came from members of the public. Ms Hall said of the councillors in question: “We’ve sanctioned them, censured them as much as we possibly can but there’s very little we can actually do since Eric Pickles stopped the ability to suspend them.”
diana terris and donna hall
Recounting the abuse she had experienced, Ms Hall said: “A former councillor called me a bitch online. I’ve been called a Nazi, a traitor, I’ve had somebody put on Facebook… that they wanted to see me hanging from a rope, they’d like to see my face as I died, they’d like to slit my throat.”
She continued: “One Wigan individual [not a councillor] made a sex tape with my head on it and put it out there on the internet. There’s a name for it – it’s called sexualised disinformation.
“It’s a craze that’s come over from Russia. Lots of Russian female politicians have these videos made of them with their head on a porn actress’s body but I never thought it would come to Wigan. Maybe the Kremlin, not Wigan.”
Ms Hall said she wanted to speak out against the treatment she and her staff had faced, adding: “It’s tough for strong leaders to stand the abuse.”
Speaking more broadly, she added: “I think it has got worse for a lot of female public figures generally. I do think it’s bad in the north.”
This latter point was supported by Barnsley MBC chief executive Diana Terris. Asked about whether misogyny was widespread in council chambers, she replied: “Across the north, I would say yes.”
Ms Terris continued: “I do have a worry in terms of members across the north [and] there are very few female mayors. Particularly in the north we need to find a way of encouraging more women to be councillors and more women councillors to be on cabinets.”
Another female chief, who did not wish to be identified, told LGC that she had been subjected to a “campaign of hate” via email by a male councillor.
She told LGC misogyny was “not widespread” in council chambers, but “it does happen more regularly than you would anticipate”.
“It does get you down. A more inexperienced and less confident chief executive who did not have the support of the leader could have buckled,” the chief executive added.
She said that when male councillors subjected female members to misogyny, “it’s perceived within the [local] standards regime to be political challenge and banter and referred to party standards [procedures]. In my experience they take a long, long time to deal with it and often not deal with it adequately”.
Tracey Lee, chair of the Association of Local Authority Chief Executives, which supports top officers involved in conflicts, especially with councillors, said: “We are aware of concerns that some fairly senior [people in leadership roles] have around the way that they are treated.”
She said the union had noticed a “spike… in relationship issues” in 2016-17, “particularly involving female Alace members”, although last year it returned to a “more consistent level”.
“Some of these relationship issues are around people not getting on, people not agreeing and speaking truth to power,” she said. “I wouldn’t say that these relationships are necessarily [characterised by] misogyny but misogyny is a significant issue.”
Ms Lee urged members to approach Alace soon after experiencing difficulties because “these things do need to be nipped in the bud”. She said meetings should take place featuring the authority’s monitoring officer in an attempt to resolve the issue.
“The standards function is not working in the way in which I think anybody hoped that it would. A review fundamentally looking at how that happens and how councillors are held to account for behaviour is something we’d advocate.”
Graeme McDonald, director of the Society of Local Authority Chief Executives & Senior Managers, said his organisation’s women’s network had “from time to time… had discussions about incidents”, which he described as “hugely worrying”.
“We need to take it more seriously,” he said.
Bullying in Wigan prompts standards committee censure
Wigan MBC’s standards committee has met to discuss councillor Robert Brierley (Ind) more than 10 times, with a series of complaints being upheld against him.
In a 2016 council standards committee report concluded: “Having particular regard to the nature and pattern of bullying behaviour consistently shown by Councillor Brierley, any contact by him with council officers should be restricted to emails, except for urgent matters requiring an immediate response.”
His emails would be “managed” and only forwarded to members or officers “if they are respectful and courteous and do not contain abuse, rudeness or ridicule…”.
There were also hearings against Robert Bleakley (Ind) who stepped down as a councillor in 2014 after it emerged that he “used his council issued mobile phone to make premium rate calls and sent inappropriate text messages”.
A report said: “Having particular regard to the discriminatory and sexist nature of the text messages he has sent on his council supplied mobile telephone, female officers should be made aware that if they receive a telephone call from Councillor Bleakley they should transfer the call to the said named officer(s) of the council…”
A string of complaints was also upheld against former councillor Gareth Fairhurst (Ind), who subsequently lost his seat. In 2014 the committee decided he could only email council employees, including senior managers, “through a designated area… to ensure staff are protected from inappropriate allegations or abuse”.