A FRESH storm has broken out at Portsmouth City Council after the new administration was compared to a ‘Soviet state’ and accused of creating a culture of fear among its workforce.
Former authority leader, Lib Dem councillor Gerald Vernon-Jackson, says it is now being run like a dictatorship by the Tories because employees are scared they will lose their jobs under future budget cuts if they are seen talking to him.
It comes in the same year the council, when it was led by the Lib Dems, faced criticism over its handling of the Mike Hancock scandal, launched a probe into allegations of bullying and saw a senior female Lib Dem quit over the behaviour of group members.
But party leaders have blasted Cllr Vernon-Jackson for his ‘disgraceful’ allegations and say his portrayal of the council applies to when he was in power.
Cllr Vernon-Jackson, the Lib Dem parliamentary candidate for Portsmouth South in next year’s general election, insists he has never seen workers feel so uncomfortable.
‘It’s almost like people are living in a Soviet state where they are frightened being seen talking to the opposition,’ he said. ‘It’s appalling. In the 10 years we ran the council, that never happened.
‘We did not make decisions about whether people would keep their jobs based on their political preferences.
‘People are frightened to talk to me or be seen talking to me, and have to phone me in the evenings if they do want to talk to me because they are frightened about losing their jobs.
‘That’s not a good place for the council to be in, that’s a really worrying culture.’
As reported, a drop in funding from central government means the council has to save £37m over the next three years. But Cllr Donna Jones, Tory leader of the council, is demanding an apology from Cllr Vernon-Jackson as she says she has had up to 40 employees tell her how their work is now more enjoyable.
‘This is pure electioneering,’ she said.
‘Every year when the council undertakes its budget procedure, there is always a general feeling that people may lose their jobs. Gerald has stooped to an all-time low.’
Cllr Luke Stubbs, deputy leader, said: ‘Gerald is running for parliament and is prepared to say or do absolutely anything to help him get there.
‘He is making disgraceful allegations about the new administration because he thinks it will buy him some short-term political advantage.
‘The reality is, we are making decisions in a professional manner and it’s shocking that he thinks we will be making decisions on personnel on the basis of their political views.’
Cllr Vernon-Jackson said concerns have come from council officers as well as charities and voluntary organisations scared about having their funding slashed.
He has wrote to the council’s chief executive David Williams and either wants an inquiry held or have his concerns looked at as part of the ongoing bullying investigation.
Mr Williams said: ‘I have received a letter from Cllr Vernon Jackson and will be looking into his request for an external investigation.
‘I appreciate that the current discussions around service reviews and cuts as part of the budget process are worrying for staff. We’ll do what we can to mitigate the need for job losses by redeploying staff, not filling current vacancies and providing support and training.’
As reported, Guildford solicitor Richard Lingard is leading the investigation into council bullying, which was called for by independent councillor Eleanor Scott.
It came after Portsmouth MP Penny Mordaunt compiled a thick file of complaints about council members.
Cllr Eleanor Scott quit the Lib Dems earlier this year as she was concerned about the inappropriate behaviour of members and its handling over claims that then-party member Mr Hancock acted inappropriately towards a female constituent.
‘I think he is apprehensive about the outcomes over the inquiry by Richard Lingard, and the outstanding investigation the Lib Dem party is doing over the dossier I gave to them in March,’ she said.
Cllr John Ferrett, Labour group leader, said: ‘The picture Gerald is painting would be more applicable when the Lib Dems were running the council.’
Former MP pleads for unity in light of cuts
FORMER MP Syd Rapson has pleaded for unity in the council at a time when it is faced with millions of pounds worth of cuts.
Mr Rapson, who represented Portsmouth North for the Labour Party from 1997 to 2005, said parties need to work together for the sake of the public.
And he blamed the Lib Dems for introducing aggressive politics into the council to begin with.
It comes as the Lib Dems recently refused to participate with other parties in next year’s budget and come up with their own solution to government cutbacks.
Mr Rapson, who also served as a councillor for 29 years, said: ‘The Lib Dems have got to stop being isolated and participate in trying to overcome the difficulties we have with the budget.
‘We have got to work together.
‘Until the government changes its policies, we are going to be facing more and more cuts on a regular basis – £37m needs to be saved over the next three years.
‘Whatever happens, Portsmouth as a city organisation has got to work through these problems and that’s very difficult.’
Councillor Steve Hastings, deputy leader of Portsmouth’s Ukip group, agreed that collaboration was needed.
‘I absolutely agree that parties should be working together and that’s why we turning up at budget meetings,’ he said.
‘If there is a culture of fear, it would be detected by all, and I have not detected anything around the council building, there would be a particular atmosphere.’
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