Former chief ‘failed’ to create ‘necessary governance culture’ report finds
Former Cheshire East Council chief executive Mike Suarez “failed to ensure the necessary governance culture” to address bullying by the council leader, a public interest report has revealed.
Prepared by Grant Thornton, the report sheds light on the culture within the Council over the two years between 2014 and 2015.
It notes that Mr Suarez, alongside Peter Bates, the council’s chief operating officer, had the “most important responsibility” of addressing the behavior of former council leader Michael Jones.
In late 2015, a police investigation into several historical issues was launched at the Council. Police dropped the investigation in 2020 and did not press charges because there was “insufficient evidence to provide a realistic prospect of a conviction.”
In his report, Grant Thornton said an example of the “dysfunctional environment” in the council and an issue that “first shed light on governance issues” was from “piloting and re-piloting after a failed procurement of children’s exercise services.” ” developed “.
In 2014, a community-funded pilot of physical activity services for children was launched for the first time, to be provided by a local company, Core Fit.
Core Fit’s director provided physiotherapy services to Mr Jones under a separate private arrangement and the council chairman described the director as a ‘trusted friend’.
Grant Thornton’s report states that Mr Jones “unreasonably favored Core Fit” and notes that “among the incidents examined for this report there were numerous instances where the former leader was aimed, directly or indirectly, at gaining an advantage for that company To provide”.
The report says that Cheshire East’s former chief operating officer, Peter Bates, acted improperly “at the request or apparent desires of the former chief in relation to this company”.
It also said former chief executive Mr Suarez had failed to “ensure the necessary governance culture to address the former leader’s style of work”.
This is attributed by Grant Thornton to the “relative inexperience of these senior officers” but taken together “this played a large part in creating the circumstances in which the former leader believed he could act as he wished”.
Mr Suarez and Mr Bates were both suspended from the council in 2017. Mr. Bates resigned as chief operating officer later that year, and Mr. Suarez retired as chief executive in July 2018.
Grant Thornton said the issues identified in his report were relevant to the Council’s Code of Conduct for Members and its Protocol on Officer-Member Relations.
“It is of great concern to us that the mechanisms of these standards played only a minor role in overcoming the problems,” says the report.
It suggests that the lack of a national body to oversee the standards “also contributed to a situation where officials and members felt exposed”.
A peer review conducted by the Local Government Association in 2018 found that over 200 people in Cheshire East had experienced bullying, with over 360 people reporting witnessing bullying.
Cheshire East considered the report at a full council meeting on February 1. A Council report prepared for the session recommended that it should now determine whether further steps needed to be taken in the light of the report.
It will also now liaise with Grant Thornton about any issues that arise which should be dealt with as part of the Council’s external audit process.