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Cambridgeshire mayor Dr Nik Johnson failed to act amid ‘allegations of a bullying and toxic culture’, report reveals

Cambridgeshire’s mayor failed to take action amid allegations of bullying and a toxic culture in what independent investigators say “amounted to him condoning such behaviour”.

In a damning statement, investigators said Dr Nik Johnson’s lack of action was a “significant failure” of leadership, something that a directly elected mayor is “specifically elected to deliver”.

Mayor Dr Nik Johnson. Picture: Keith Heppell
Mayor Dr Nik Johnson. Picture: Keith Heppell

The revelations come in a formal decision notice, published today (Wednesday), which sets out the outcome of the Labour mayor’s code of conduct hearing.

It follows a hearing panel which unanimously resolved that the mayor, who leads the Cambridgeshire and Peterborough Combined Authority, had breached the code in relation to civility and disrepute.

The panel decided on four sanctions, of which two related directly to the mayor, and Dr Johnson was told to apologise in writing and undergo training.

“As that single strong point of leadership, as the political leader of the Cambridgeshire and Peterborough Combined Authority, the mayor should have set an example,” the report states.

“Instead of that, his failure to act effectively was a significant failure of leadership, something that a directly elected mayor is specifically elected to deliver.”

A report, published as part of the notice, reveals the mayor was investigated for multiple breaches after three separate complaints were made between October 2021 to May 2022.

The allegations include bullying behaviour and toxic culture - specifically bullying of the former CEO, not treating employees of the Combined Authority with civility, disclosing information to a journalist with intention to undermine the reputation of officers, and calling into question the integrity of staff/officers.

“The independent investigator considered that much of what was complained about in relation to the allegation of a bullying and toxic culture, which was also relevant to considering civility, emanated from an ex-employee,” the report states.

It continues: “Whilst the independent investigator was not investigating this ex-employee, their actions and the mayor’s awareness and response to the ex-employee’s conduct was relevant, when taking into account the principle of leadership.

“The mayor’s evidence is that, with the exception of an incident between a senior officer and an ex-employee in which he surmised they were equally at fault, he did not personally witness any inappropriate behaviour on an ex-employee’s part.

“On review of the evidence the independent investigator found this implausible. The mayor must have been aware of various and serious issues regarding the ex-employee’s conduct. The issue was specifically drawn to his attention in September 2021.

“Those involved at the time or who witnessed, were party to or later became aware of such interactions were quite entitled - in the absence of the mayor’s obvious intervention - to conclude that the mayor was aware of and potentially even supportive of or directing the ex-employee’s behaviour, or was behaving in such a way himself.

“The independent investigator received different accounts and views as to the extent of the mayor’s knowledge of the ex-employee’s behaviour; ie whether the mayor actively encouraged their conduct for his own purposes, or whether the ex-employee acted of his own instigation and the mayor failed to address it.”

The investigator concluded that, as a result, the mayor had breached the code in regards to civility.

An anonymous complaint against the mayor was received by the Combined Authority in October 2021.

As the first complaint was a whistleblower it was dealt with under that policy and an independent investigation was carried out. In April 2022, it was then decided that the first complaint should be formally investigated as a potential breach of Code of Conduct.

Two further complaints relating to the actions of the mayor were received on May 9 and May 11. It was agreed that these should also be investigated as a possible breach.

The investigation concluded on September 27 this year and it was decided the matter should be referred to a panel for determination.

The mayor was found to have breached the Combined Authority’s Code of Conduct in regard to disrepute and civility. Now, the background to those breaches can be reported for the first time.

Dr Johnson’s failure to intervene or call out bad behaviour was also a reason for the investigator to conclude he had brought the role of mayor into disrepute.

The report states that investigators saw messages between two former employees of the Combined Authority where one ex-employee “was extremely critical of CPCA and the key players, including making extremely derogatory and potentially even threatening and defamatory remarks about them”.

It states that although the mayor was “not party to these messages”, there was a “small number of WhatsApp messages” in which the mayor did participate that included reference to a “human resources activity and outcome”.

“The mayor was aware such discussions were inappropriate. He should have intervened to end such discussions but did not. He did not instigate or post the information but was fully aware from the briefings he had had that this was confidential and not to be bandied about. He should certainly have shut down the ex-employee when they made reference to the matter to the mayor and another ex-employee, but the mayor failed to do so,” according to the report.

The report states: “In the independent investigator’s view, the failure of the mayor to intervene/call out the bad behaviour showed a lack of respect and leadership that was essential to his office and as a result damaged the reputation of the role of mayor.

“On balance, the independent investigator concluded that the mayor was aware of the ex-employee’s unacceptable behaviour towards others, and did not call out that behaviour; nor did the mayor take sufficient and appropriate steps to stop it.”

Investigators found that in view of the “seriousness of the conduct” the mayor should have engaged with HR “in the event that the ex-employee failed to take heed of any instructions from the mayor”.

“His failure to intervene amounted to him condoning such behaviour. It was particularly surprising that the mayor did not take suitable steps (including seeking support from HR) on receipt of the stark warning regarding the ex-employees conduct (in which the ex-employee was referred to as a ‘henchman’) in an email to the mayor in September 2021,” the report states.

The notice states the mayor was alleged to have tried to overturn the findings of a whistleblower report “for political reasons” and “ran a campaign to undermine officer decision making”.

“His methods may not always have been appropriate, but the independent investigator did not consider that the evidence supported the allegation,” the report states.

The independent investigator also concluded that he did not breach the bullying and harassment standard nor was there evidence to support an allegation that he had supplied confidential information to a journalist.

An investigation into the mayor’s expenses found the Combined Authority’s control systems were “not robust” and investigators concluded that the mayor did not misuse resources.

Following the panel’s decision on November 13, the mayor said he was sorry and had considered quitting the role when his health deteriorated last year.

Dr Johnson, who sat alongside his solicitor, read a prepared statement following the decision. It was the first time he had spoken publicly about the investigation.

He said: “I’ve had a lot of time to reflect on what happened in those early days, and have long since realised that much of it needn’t have.

“I regret having been a cause of upset and apologise unreservedly to those for whom I gave reason to complain. I am sorry. And I’ve actually wanted to say so for ages. I wish I knew then what I know now. I’m a better person for everything that’s gone on and I’d argue better mayor.

“I wish the organisation we were part of then was the one that is now and as it is so much better in every conceivable way. I say that because I genuinely believe all of these improvements began back then. And I can only hope that the very real, very public progress made since provides something in the way of solace.”

Dr Johnson was elected mayor in 2021 after he won a shock victory over previous Conservative mayor James Palmer.

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