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.
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…
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.