Bury MBC’s former chief executive and director of children’s services acted with “ulterior” motives and failed to put their responsibility to children first, previously confidential reports reveal.
An independent investigation by Malcolm Newsam, a children’s services commissioner at Sandwell MBC, was published by the council this morning. The report says chief executive Mike Owen demonstrated 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”.
Mr Owen, who resigned as chief executive ahead of a disciplinary hearing last month, was found not to have passed on information to the council’s director of children’s services relating to serious safeguarding concerns about a councillor who was an approved adopter and school governor. The councillor pleaded guilty at Bolton Crown Court to making indecent images of children in July 2015, according to local reports.
The report concluded then director of children’s services Mark Carriline was “overly compliant to the wishes of the former chief executive and became inadvertently tainted by Mr Owen’s ulterior motive, and in doing so Mr Carriline lost sight of his statutory duties”.
Mr Carriline also resigned earlier this month after the council’s HR & appeals panel concluded he was guilty of “serious misconduct” and recommended he should be dismissed with immediate effect.
The report said: “Having carefully considered the evidence the panel concluded that Mr Owen and to a lesser extent, Mr Carriline, had been influenced in their actions by ulterior motives.”
A report prepared for the panel by Charles Bourne QC reports Mr Owen was first made aware of concerns about backbench Labour councillor Simon Carter on 1 April 2015, his first day as Bury’s interim chief executive. Mr Owen, who first joined Bury in 1986 and had previously been section 151 officer, was made permanent chief executive in July that year following an external recruitment process.
On 1 April 2015 he was contacted by a senior police officer to enquire if he was aware that in 2011 Cllr Carter had been dismissed by another council in whose library service he had worked after being caught accessing pornographic material on a work computer.
The report said when Mr Owen inquired as to the nature of the images he received a “vague answer mentioning images of pre-teen children and given an example of a girl in a plaid skirt”.
Mr Owen told investigators the police had told him not to inform anyone else at this stage. As a result he did not tell Mr Carriline, however he did inform the then council leader Mike Connolly (Lab) about the allegation.
Mr Bourne concluded that failing to tell Mr Carriline “was an over-reaction to the police’s ‘leave it with us’ instruction and was an error of judgement” and “inconsistent” with Mr Owen briefing Cllr Connolly and “allowing him to share the information with a regional party official”.
Mr Owen told Mr Bourne his discussion with the leader was motivated by the fact the leader was also his line manager and pointed to Society of Local Authority Chief Executives & Senior Managers guidance promoting close working relationships between chief executives and their leaders.
Mr Bourne concluded that “over the years” Mr Owen had developed a close working relationship with Cllr Connolly, particularly during his time as executive director of resources “and this was at least one factor in his decision to confide inappropriately in [Cllr Connolly] on this occasion”.
Mr Carriline became aware of the concerns a week later when he was contacted by the director of safeguarding from the council that had previously employed Cllr Carter. He immediately discussed them with Mr Owen. However, he failed to formally inform the local authority designated officer, which national guidance states should take place within 24 hours, or the senior responsible manager for safeguarding and adoption. An investigation, under section 47 of the Children Act 1989, was not begun until 13 April.
Mr Bourne was also critical of Mr Carriline for failing to follow procedure in informing the chairs of governors at the two schools where Cllr Carter was a governor. Mr Carriline instead informed the headteachers.
Mr Bourne concludes: “Officers at all times regarded the involvement of councillors as one of the factors making the case particularly sensitive. On some occasions they reacted in an exaggerated way to the need for confidentiality. The decision not to tell the chair of governors was an example of this.”
Mr Bourne and Mr Newsam both point out one of the other governors at the school was at the time the leader of the Conservative group on the council.
In contrast to the council’s HR and appeals panel’s conclusion, Mr Bourne said a verdict of gross misconduct would have been at the “harsh” end of possible judgements in relation to Mr Carraline’s actions.
At a meeting of the panel last night, members agreed to appoint another independent investigator to consider whether any councillors or other officers had breached codes of conduct or brought the council into disrepute.
Cllr Connolly, who was replaced as leader by Rishi Shori (Lab) in 2016, has today been suspended by the Labour party.