Chris Roberts

So, get this through your f***ing thick skulls – Greenwich Council leader Chris Roberts has been let off a telling-off for threatening and abusing one of his cabinet members in a sweary voicemail.

A standards committee meeting on Friday decided Roberts should face no further action over the voicemail, in which he threatened to strip health cabinet member John Fahy of his responsibilities in a row over the Run to the Beat half-marathon, which donates places to a charity which the council leader chairs.

The committee decided that the incident did not amount to bullying, but was to be treated as a breach of a rule which states councillors must “treat others with respect”.

It decided “no further investigation was warranted” because:

  • “The facts and evidence of the matter were clear and, moreover, were self-referred and admitted. Therefore, it was not considered a further investigation would be justfied or warranted.”
  • “The matter had been investigated by the Labour Group who had applied a sanction of a written warning.”
  • “Councillor Roberts had apologised to the councillor via voice-message, via letter and in person and had made his apology public in a statement to the News Shopper.”

Now, it should be emphasised that the committee could only look at the voicemail incident in isolation – so it could well be seen as a one-off incident of poor behaviour – rather than the tip of an iceberg of questionable behaviour towards councillors and officers.

Or throwing keys at cleaners, an incident first featured on television some years after Roberts told his Labour councillors “not to believe the rumours”.

Nor could it formally look at the conflict of interest surrounding Run to the Beat which the voicemail indicates, since chief executive Mary Ney has refused an investigation.

Instead, its role was to accept or reject a report from chief executive Mary Ney into the situation – there wasn’t much more it could do. So this has ensured the stink goes on, five months ahead of the next council election.

At least pushing for a public apology might have drawn a line under the affair – and it’s curious that in a council which funnels all its publicity through its own weekly newspaper, a statement to the News Shopper is fine, even though the council believes the Shopper’s distribution isn’t sufficient for its public announcements.

Greenwich Time, November 2013

Where’s the apology in Greenwich Time? That hasn’t carried a word about the affair. Indeed, the paper which Roberts has the last word on has carried pictures of him hob-nobbing with Princess Anne instead.

The other curious thing about the decision is that it seems to emphasise that Roberts is only answerable to the Labour Party for his behaviour, rather than the council which pays him (and the electorate which pays for that council).

Of course, this then puts the responsibility onto the Labour Party to ensure its councillors behave properly. But as we are aware, in Greenwich at least, the real problem as far as those who run the local parties see it is not with the leader’s behaviour, but those who speak out against him. This is not a place for whistleblowers.

With the loss of two talented councillors, you would hope that Labour would act – even though refusing to even concede any weaknesses in public seems to be its overriding aim right now.

That said, this website is aware that complaints about Roberts’ behaviour have been passed to Labour’s national general secretary Ian McNicol, the party’s most senior employee, and London regional director Alan Olive – so as far as Labour is concerned, the process actually isn’t over yet. Hopefully they will take a serious look at the issues which have been raised.

As for the council itself, it’s clear that its standards structure has no definition of bullying to work with. In fact, it decided at its last meeting, in October, that it did not need a definition of bullying…

Standards committee minutes, October 2013

But who is on this standards committee, anyway? It’s chaired by Dr Susan Blackall, a financial and customer services consultant who is also the assistant chaplain at the Old Royal Naval College chapel. The vice-chair is former diplomat Sir Michael Pike, the associate member is banking compliance director Sandra Mottoh. There’s also an independent advisor, James Emmerson, professor of astrophysics at Queen Mary, University of London.

From the council’s side, opposition leader Spencer Drury was there, as was deputy leader Peter Brooks and a Labour whip, Janet Gillman.

An aside: Peter Brooks is an interesting figure in relation to all this. Two nights before, at a full council meeting, there was a heated row between him and former councillor Paul Webbewood, when the latter suggested from the public gallery Brooks was “too scared” to reveal how much he gets paid for chairing council subsidiary firm GS Plus – this isn’t disclosed in the firm’s accounts – and was too scared to do a number of other things too.

While calmer figures would have turned the other cheek, Brooks was visibly angry and suggested Webbewood discuss matters outside, to murmurs of approval from the men of Greenwich Labour.

Later in the meeting, when Webbewood stepped up to go to the toilet, Brooks moved as if to get up and follow him, before sitting back down. Whether this was a joke, a genuine attempt to go after him, or an attempt to intimidate or wind up Webbewood, wasn’t clear. Neither man came out of this incident well, and the issue goes beyond the ruling benches in the council chamber, but it showed Greenwich Council’s political culture at its petulant “how dare you criticise us” worst.

While a change of leader at Greenwich Council wouldn’t necessarily mean a change of culture, whether Roberts is allowed to stand for the council in May’s election will signal if this affair has had any impact on the party at all.

Finally, it’s worth noting that one of the biggest losers out of all this has been Chris Roberts himself.

Earlier this year, he announced he planned to stand down as leader – but a welter of bullying claims doesn’t look on your CV when you’re looking for a job. Try Googling “chris roberts greenwich”, and see what I mean. Counter-intuitively, the bullying claims may mean he stays in a high-ranking role at the council in 2014 because he’d have nowhere else to go.

It’s long been suspected that Roberts could go to work for an outfit such as Berkeley Homes, which he has worked with closely as council leader. Perhaps now the stink would be too much.

But interestingly, Labour’s former Greenwich borough organiser – and Roberts ally – Michael Stanworth, recently quit his paid party role to take up a new position with Curtin & Co, a public relations firm which helps property companies smooth their way to getting planning applications accepted. One of Curtin’s clients? Berkeley Homes.

Whatever happens with the bullying accusations, you never know, the keys to a new job might still be flung Roberts’ way in the new year. Get that into your thick skull…

9pm update: I’ve rearranged a couple of paragraphs to make this read a bit better, and added a line to emphasise that the standards committee had very little room to manoeuvre.

10 replies on “Greenwich’s whitewash Christmas – council leader gets off”

  1. The other things regarding which I used the word “scared” were

    * Not attending when Overview & Scrutiny Committee discussed GS Plus a few weeks ago;

    * Deciding to stand down from the Council when it looked he may be at risk of deselection in his ward.

    I stand by my use of the word relating to the two GS Plus issues but concede that I was over the top bringing in the Thamesmead selection. All I can say in mitigation is that I was annoyed by Cllr Brooks’s contemptuous dismissal of my legitimate question. My comments were in a permitted supplementary to a tabled public question, not an unauthorised interjection.

    I may not think much of Peter Brooks but he’s unlikely to threaten violence or assault anyone in the Town Hall. I took his earlier comments as a genuine offer to give me the answer in private, not as a challenge to “come outside”, especially as he’d just claimed that the information was already publicly available.. A little after I had asked my question I became aware of him staring intently at me. I returned his gaze at which he beckoned me outside with his head. I therefore went and briefly hovered outside the open door of the Chamber near his seat so that he saw me and then sat for a bit on the bench at the top of the stairs, expecting to hold a tense but productive conversation with him. When he failed to appear I went back to the public gallery,

    As an aside Cllr Brooks also gave a poor answer to Spencer Drury in saying that the Cabinet had no role over Run to the Beat. I understand that where the Council is the highways authority only it can make an order to close a road for a special event. It is true that where it wants to make a second such order in one year it has to get the Secretary of State’s consent first. So Charlton Rd which had already been closed for the Marathon could only close again for RttB on the say so of both the RBG Cabinet and the Secretary of State.

  2. Roberts in PR would be the ultimate joke…he might even laugh himself, something few have seen.
    However, now is the time for goodwill to all men. To him and them? Of course. Always. Jesus rules.
    But it’s fine for battle to recommence by about Friday.
    Think we should all applaud Darryl at this time for his selfless defence of local democracy and Mark Chandler at the Shopper for his own courageous interventions. Good lads!!

  3. They look more of a PA (lobbying) firm. Though Roberts seems such damaged goods he’s hardly gonna be an asset in buttering up Labour politicians.

    Most agencies actually care about staff as well, so can’t see Roberts being all that welcome. Us PRs do have SOME standards you know.

  4. Roberts has the grace and public appeal of Charles Saatchi when all’s said and done (I’m sure Nigella could be persuaded to do some ribbon-cutting by the Thames at some point…)

    I see that Curtin also do a nice line in ‘crisis communications’. So if Chris ‘Unlucky Alf’ Roberts (“Bugger!”) does get on the phone to them it’s less likely to be in the hope of a job and more probably to commission their much-needed services on that score.

    In previous blog comments there’s been the usual rebuttal from the party die-hards saying that none of this ‘internet chatter’ ever filters through to voters’ concerns on the doorstep etc. Yet at the 2014 local elections (same day as the Euro polls) it’ll be a lower turnout than 2010’s and most likely with new UKIP supporters being more likely to vote than stay-at-home Labour. I can’t imagine the opposition parties won’t make use of the past year and it’s not likely to motivate Labour activists to campaign either (when they are allowed to hold an opinion on the need for ‘change’ that is).

    Perhaps this Michael Stanworth will be needed back in the borough from Curtin to try and attempt to stave off a drubbing?

  5. @ Bert. I entirely agree with you about voting in May 2014. UKIP will be making much of the murder of Pvte Rigby and the racial divisions which I see every day in this Borough and it will swing votes. It strikes me that the shenanigans in the Council will do the majority party no good and thats bad for democracy. Its bad for residents too as we could well end up with a hung council or one with no overall majority. My preference would be a council that puts the people before personal interest – perhaps I should remove the rose tinted specs now, as I see no conceivable chance of that happening. Reminded of John Lawrie in ‘Dad’s Army’ – Aye, Captain Mannering, we’re doomed, we’re doomed! he was the undertaker – of course!

  6. @ Amanda. There’s no mention of the Woolwich incident on the local UKIP’s website ( but I don’t doubt that the opportunistic far right won’t try to make it an emotive issue somehow. I was more thinking of the mainstream parties capitalising on “Labour disarray” and Labour not being able to get their act together. It would take a serious drop in support for Labour to lose control of the borough, but that’s not to say turnout/resources could impact on some wards and see less than all three Labour candidates elected and a smaller Labour group still in control. The irony is then Roberts would be blamed by most for this, but surrounded by people more likely to support his retention in some kind of senior (remunerated) role.

  7. My kids go to 3 different local authority schools. Each school is required to have an anti bullying policy. Unless things have changed recently there is no way kids can be classed as employees who operate outside HR policies. Councillors receive remuneration via allowances and get a pension from it. Which sounds rather like employment to me. How the hell did this committee reach its conclusions, that seem to defy logic? Perhaps these people are so elevated in status they are too high up to see what is under our noses here on the ground.

  8. What really gets to me is this. Victims cannot stick up for themselves. Councillors are there to stick up for their wards. If councillors are bullied and not able to look after themselves how can they do right by their wards? But there seems to be a lot of them quite happy to take the money and tough luck on local issues. They should be bloody ashamed of themselves for letting the public down like this. The whole lot of them should resign. Will it happen? What do you think?

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