From racism to a row over a hat - why nearly 40 council workers were suspended

Portsmouth civic offices
Portsmouth civic offices

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Nearly 40 council workers have been suspended over allegations of fighting, substance misuse, theft, racism and fraud.

In one incident an officer at Havant Borough Council hit an employee in a dispute over a hat – another used a racist term.

Cllr Michael Cheshire is the Tory leader of Havant’s council.

He said: ‘Racism is something we won’t tolerate, and fighting is a no-go.

‘It’s dreadful behaviour and will not be tolerated. We don’t want any of that behaviour in our offices.’

Another case saw a Fareham Borough Council bin lorry driver dismissed after tipping over a truck and crushing two cars.

It comes as a series of Freedom of Information requests put in by The News reveal 38 officers were suspended at Portsmouth City Council, Havant, Fareham and Gosport borough councils between 2010 and 2013.

Portsmouth, Fareham and Gosport councils suspended officers for 2,484 working days.

Havant council refused to say how long each officer was suspended for but said the longest was 93 days and the shortest 15.

In total the councils paid £179,194 in salary to employees while suspended from work.

Of those, nine were dismissed, seven resigned before any disciplinary hearing, two left after their notice period and one quit.

Others were given written warnings and received guidance. Just six officers faced no disciplinary action.

Havant council paid out £6,418 to three officers between 2010 and 2013.

One officer was alleged to have used a racist term to a colleague in an argument.

Another refused to take a member of the public’s extra rubbish after emptying a bin.

In a third incident, a worker allegedly hit another one after they had been messing about with their hat.

Two were given final written warnings and one was at first dismissed but was overturned to a final written warning on appeal.

Cllr Cheshire added: ‘Everything has been fully investigated. It’s innocent until proven guilty.’

He said the number of suspensions in the time period showed the majority of officers are well behaved.

The authority employed 407 people in 2010/11 but that has dwindled to 373 in 2013/14.

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‘Our councils need to tread a fine line on suspensions’ - read The News Comment on this issue

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Portsmouth’s council suspended nine officers over safeguarding concerns. The council has refused to give further details.

Other allegations at the council include substance misuse, breach of code of conduct, fraud, threatening and abusive language, violence and misuse of systems.

Michael Lawther, city solicitor at Portsmouth’s council, said: ‘The council takes its safeguarding responsibilities seriously.

‘It is not unusual for concerns of that number to be raised in an organisation of this size across a wide range of council services.’

He added the period of time covered by the requests covered around 8,000 staff.

At Fareham council, which employed 478 people in 2010 and 453 in 2013, allegations ranged from shouting, swearing and then being in a confrontation with a colleague, to falsifying records, arguing, excessive personal use of the internet and then hiding that time wasted by falsifying time sheets, and sending inappropriate images via email to colleagues.

At Gosport’s council just two people were suspended.

One was accused of accused of stealing scrap material and was given a final written warning.

That officer was paid £2,593 while suspended for 32 working days.

The News understands another officer was suspended for 23 days. It is believed the officer used council computers to look up details of an ex-partner’s new partner. That worker was paid £1,675 and then dismissed.

Gosport council employed 366 people in 2010 but that was been cut to 328 in 2013.

Cllr Mark Hook, leader of the council, said the council takes all suspensions seriously. A council spokeswoman added officers are interviewed when allegations emerge and suspended if gross misconduct is suspected.

The longest suspension – at 93 days – was at Havant council.

The second longest– at 88 days – was at Fareham over an allegation of making false statements for the worker’s own benefit and falsifying flexitime sheets.

The officer was paid £14,698 in salary and £3,404 in a compromise agreement when they left after a notice period.

Another officer at Fareham was given guidance after being suspended over allegations of emailing inappropriate images to a colleague. The worker was given £907 in pay while suspended for seven days.

Councillor Sean Woodward, leader of Fareham council, said: ‘The public would rightly expect action would be taken. We take it very seriously in Fareham, perhaps more so than others.’

He added the authority has more staff compared to other borough councils in the area as it directly employs some for work that Havant and Gosport outsource.

* Havant: Three officers over around 108 days at a cost of £6,418.

* Fareham: 12 officers over 515 days at a cost of £51,974.

* Portsmouth: 21 officers over 1,914 days at a cost of £126,400.

* Gosport: Two officers over 55 days at a cost of £4,268.

‘No option’

ALL local authorities said they have no option but to pay suspended staff during an investigation.

It comes as figures obtained by The News show borough and city councils suspended workers for a total of 2,484 days.

A Havant Borough Council spokeswoman said: ‘A fair, thorough and robust investigation is paramount and this would take precedence over speed.’

Each council said suspensions allow an investigation to take place, while Havant council pointed out other people pick up the work in the officer’s absence.

Michael Lawther is the city solicitor at Portsmouth’s council, which saw officers put on 1,914 days of leave.

In a statement he said: ‘The council has well-established procedures for dealing with disciplinary matters that are robust, fair and legally compliant — suspension must therefore be on full pay.’

‘Where we decide to suspend somebody, this is because we feel it is in the best interests of everybody involved for the employee to be away from work while the complaint is thoroughly investigated.

‘Suspension should never be regarded as an indication of guilt.’

Tory Cllr Donna Jones, city council leader, added: ‘It’s disappointing when you have staff members who breach their employment terms.

‘If you do find somebody has done this it’s important we immediately suspend them from their roles.

‘My biggest frustration is the cost to the public purse.’

She said managers at the city council are undergoing training to help deal with issues with employees.

John O’Connell, director of Taxpayers’ Alliance, said investigations should be done quickly.

He said: ‘It’s in everyone’s interests that investigations are done quickly, both for the employee to reduce stress levels and also to taxpayers.’

All employees have the right to appeal.

Jon Woods is chairman of Portsmouth City Unison branch, which represents workers at the council.

He said: ‘We do our utmost to represent them to make sure their side of the situation is heard.’

‘It’s a very unpleasant situation for the member to be in.’

More than 70 suspended by Hampshire County Council

MORE than 70 officers were suspended at Hampshire County Council while under investigation.

The authority, which employs 12,500 people, excluding teachers, paid out £590,052 to officers who were suspended.

Managers suspended 73 people between 2010/11 to half way through 2013/14. Allegations included safeguarding but the council refused to give reasons for any of the suspensions.

There were 13 summary dismissals and 10 written warnings, while nine people resigned.

Officers were suspended from departments including adult services, children’s services, culture, communities and rural affairs, environment and corporate services.

Cllr Stephen Reid is the executive cabinet member for human resources.

He said it is important to remove someone providing a service if there is an allegation.

‘It is normal to suspend someone or redeploy them while an investigation takes place,’ he said.

‘We’ve got a duty of care to the people we serve and also to the people we employ.’

A county spokeswoman added it is HR policy to keep suspensions to a minimum period.

She added: ‘In safeguarding situations, this can sometimes involve other agencies including the police.

‘The county council’s safeguarding responsibilities are taken seriously and investigated in accordance with the multi-agency procedure in operation across the county.

‘In the case of criminal investigations, the duration of any investigation will take legal precedent. Wherever possible, we will bring staff back into work and allocate other duties as appropriate.’

n Hampshire: 73 officers at a cost of £590,052.