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Auditor Report on Former CEC Leader

27th January 2023 @ 6:06am – by Nantwich News
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This article is by courtesy of Belinda Ryan and Nantwich News

Damning auditor report into former CEC leader Michael Jones

in Human Interest / News / Politics -- January 19, 2023

Michael Jones, Cheshire East Council Leader, defends trip to China

An auditor's report into the culture of Cheshire East Council under the leadership of Michael Jones has revealed incidents of bullying and inappropriate behaviour, writes Belinda Ryan.

Mr Jones, the council's leader from 2012 until 2015, stepped down following controversy surrounding the awarding of contracts to Nantwich-based Core Fit – which was owned by his physiotherapist.

The former council leader said the report, published this week by the council's then auditors Grant Thornton, "is not accepted by me as being fair or accurate, not least as it is based on disputed issues and events".

And he described the auditor's conclusions as "regrettable".

The report was delayed because of a long police investigation which started in late 2015.

In 2020 the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) announced it had dropped a fraud investigation.

Other investigations into the council ended in 2021 with no prosecutions being brought against anyone.

The auditor's public interest report, published on the council's website, states: "During the political leadership of the former leader, Michael Jones, Cheshire East Council was not able to fulfil its governance responsibilities to the public.

"Whilst it did enjoy a number of successes, particularly regarding economic development, the way in which it was led and managed eventually resulted in a lengthy police investigation, resignation of the former council leader and various resignations and disciplinary investigations into other key officers, who also eventually resigned from the council."

It said during the two-year period (2014 – 2015) the council entered into a number of transactions where concerns have since been raised.

"In our view, there was a pattern of bullying and inappropriate behaviour on the part of the former leader which, whilst denied by him, led to distortions to good governance," states the report.

It continues: "In our view, the former leader's leadership style involved a range of unacceptable behaviours including bullying and subversion of normal processes, thereby negatively affecting the overall culture of the authority.

"As a result, and as one interviewee put it, 'it was not that the rules were wrong, it was that the rules were not followed. The attitude was that if the rules got into the way, they would be dropped, and you get on with the job you have been asked to do'."

The 33-page report does acknowledge a number of achievements of the former leader which, it said, shouldn't be overlooked, stating Mr Jones was known for developing a clear and effective focus on the economic advancement of the council area, High Speed 2 and turning the authority into a 'Northern powerhouse'.

It pointed out he also raised the focus on opportunities for young people 'Not in Education, Employment or Training' (NEETs) within the council.

The report also noted how difficult it is to remove a councillor from a local authority, other than through local elections.

In the summary, the auditors said: "The experience for Cheshire East and for those closely involved has been damaging, but it is clear that the council has done a great deal to move on from this period in its relatively short lifetime."

And they say lessons should be learned adding: "The inherent weaknesses identified here could create governance difficulties elsewhere in the future."

Mr Jones said in a statement to the BBC: "The report is not accepted by me as being fair or accurate, not least as it is based on disputed issues and events.

"Having been shown an earlier draft copy I withdrew from the process as I was concerned about the approach being taken during a second draft.

"The police thoroughly looked at the misconceived allegations made to them about myself and others and no further action was taken."

He continued: "The auditor's conclusions are regrettable. I acted during my time as council leader in good faith to address under-performance of the council, and the people of Cheshire may like to reflect on the performance as I drove up standards with the position before my tenure and since.

"If they do so, I'm sure they will recognise the forces massed against me by opponents to change and service improvements for the public."

He added he had withdrawn from public life "after a traumatic period in which I was vilified for trying to improve things" for people.

In a statement from Cheshire East, the council's current chief executive, Dr Lorraine O'Donnell, said: "In the years since the events set out in this report, there have been many changes to governance, leadership, processes and culture at the council.

"The report acknowledges these improvements and makes no recommendations for the council for any further remedial action to address the historical failings.

"It provides assurance that the council has done a great deal to move on from the period in question.

"The report focuses on the impact of an individual member's behaviour and influence, which then led to wider impacts on governance and decision making.

"The report provides further information about the events in 2015.

"It also provides reassurance regarding the significant improvements made by the council and our ongoing commitment to openness and transparency."

The full report can be viewed here

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