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Claims of ‘truly dreadful things’ at ‘broken’ Combined Authority made at meeting to discuss Cambridgeshire and Peterborough mayor Dr Nik Johnson’s future

Allegations that “truly dreadful things” have happened at the “broken” and “catastrophically” failing Cambridgeshire and Peterborough Combined Authority were made at a meeting to discuss the mayor's future today (Friday, May 20).

Dr Nik Johnson the new Mayor of Cambridgeshire and Peterborough Combined Authority seen in Ely where the mayor's office is based. Picture: Keith Heppell. (56814521)
Dr Nik Johnson the new Mayor of Cambridgeshire and Peterborough Combined Authority seen in Ely where the mayor's office is based. Picture: Keith Heppell. (56814521)

But claims that a motion calling for the mayor to resign was brought for the “protection of staff” have been rejected and branded political by some members of the Combined Authority board.

The extraordinary meeting of the Combined Authority is being held today (Friday, May 20) following a motion calling for mayor Dr Nik Johnson to resign or suspend himself amid a probe into his conduct

It follows a whistleblowing inquiry and comes amid the resignation of chief executive Eileen Milner who quit her £203,000-a-year role last month, and the news this week that the chair of the Combined Authority Business Board, Austen Adams, has also stepped down.

The motion was signed by the then Conservative leaders of East Cambridgeshire District Council, Fenland District Council, Huntingdonshire District Council, Peterborough City Council as well as the chair of Combined Authority Business Board on April 19.

Cllr Lewis Herbert, former Labour leader of Cambridge City Council, chaired today’s meeting after replacing Conservative Cllr Wayne Fitzgerald as deputy mayor. The mayor was not in attendance.

He opened the meeting by saying: “It’s certainly my aim that we conduct as much of the business as we reasonably can in public. The reason for that is that obviously the public interest is that we are an open and transparent organisation.

“Nevertheless, there are issues under discussion which affect individuals, including members of staff of the Combined Authority, and it’s appropriate that on matters that are confidential, including on the whistleblowing investigation, that the rights of those staff is honoured and respected.”

Cllr Herbert explained that later in the meeting there would be discussion on an ‘improvement plan’ for the Combined Authority.

Leader of the council Lewis Herbet. Picture: Keith Heppell. (56814526)
Leader of the council Lewis Herbet. Picture: Keith Heppell. (56814526)

Setting out an amendment to the motion, which removed the call for the mayor to resign or suspend himself amid a probe into his conduct and instead ask that Dr Johnson “consider his position as mayor”, Conservative leader of Fenland District Council, Cllr Chris Boden, said: “We are in a very serious situation as far as the Combined Authority is concerned.”

He continued: “We know that the business of the Combined Authority has almost come close to grinding to a halt.

“We are also all aware around this table - and I’ll be careful not to be specific here - of some truly dreadful things which are either alleged to have happened or, which have been found in an investigation which has been completed to have happened, which are absolutely outrageous and unacceptable, so far as any constituted democratic body in this country is concerned.”

Cllr Boden said there were things that were said to have taken place in an unedited version of a report, which are “quite astonishing”.

“I can’t be specific about them, but truly astonishing things,” he said.

He added: “Now, all of this has been on the mayor’s watch. I’m not accusing the mayor of personally doing anything, but it’s been happening on the mayor’s watch.”

“Only the mayor actually knows the extent to which he has responsibility or not for the various things which have taken place. And it’s my personal opinion that he’s not been personally directly responsible for the overwhelming majority of the most serious items. But the point is that the mayor's position is not a good one at the moment.”

Cllr Boden went on to say that the position of the Combined Authority was now so bad that “apparently £133m” will now be “refunded to central government or are not coming to us in the first place”.

This follows the £22m returned to the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy as the Combined Authority had been unable to “deliver the Green Homes grant programme”.

He concluded that: “Given the situation that we’re in, I hope that what I’m proposing is a reasonable compromise.

“We as a board under the constitution and under the legislation, we actually can’t do anything to the mayor. We can’t tell him to suspend himself. We can’t even pass a motion of no confidence in it which actually has any effect. We have no right to do that whatsoever. What we can do is just ask him to consider his position, which I think is a perfectly reasonable thing for us to do.”

Anna Bailey, leader of East Cambridgeshire District Council (56814539)
Anna Bailey, leader of East Cambridgeshire District Council (56814539)

Cllr Anna Bailey, Conservative leader of East Cambridgeshire District Council, seconded the amended motion.

She said: “Mayor Dr Nik Johnson is the leader of our organisation. It is an organisation that is failing the people and businesses of Cambridgeshire and Peterborough catastrophically, but today absolutely isn’t about that. And today is not about politics.

“Today is about the staff of our organisation for whom we have a collective responsibility and a collective duty of care. Today is about personal integrity and leadership that each and every one of us, including our mayor, is required to uphold as part of our duty to abide by the code of conduct and the underpinning Nolan principles that we’re all signed up to.

“I signed the requisition there because I believe it is absolutely necessary, and in the fullness of time, I do believe people will come to understand why my personal integrity will be intact, having signed the requisition order.”

She refuted claims that the requisition was as a matter of politics, citing former business board chairman Austen Adams signature who she said had not signed the requisition for political purposes.

Cllr Bailey went on: “We know some of what was taking place on this board and we know every single member of this board has read the paperwork and been involved in this situation, knows that it is completely and utterly unacceptable and cannot be tolerated.”

She said 26 members of staff had left the organisation since mayor Dr Johnson had joined it.

“More resignations have happened and more people are due to leave. Many if not most senior members of staff who have left or are leaving. That tells you every single thing that you need to know that this is a broken organisation.”

She added: “There are matters that took place during the first investigation that make it necessary to protect staff from this continuing.”

Cllr Bailey continued but was warned by monitoring officer Richard Parkin that members needed to be “super cautious” to enable people to be “free to speak” but also “respect highly sensitive matters”.

She added: “This organisation is failing, it’s broken…” and was again stopped.

Councillor Chris Boden, leader of Fenland District Council
Councillor Chris Boden, leader of Fenland District Council

Mr Parkin said: “I think this is demonstrating how difficult it is to separate matters off and I would strongly encourage that you consider either a very different style presentation on this or that we move into private session so that it can be as robust as possible.”

Cllr Herbert then moved an amended motion, which states that the “fully supports that investigation process and does not support or welcome any interference or prejudgement by board members during that process, or see any justification to cause the mayor himself to prejudge the outcome”.

It adds: “[The board] supports, on its conclusion, consideration of any recommendations by the Combined Authority and its audit and governance committee and that any such recommendations are published, according to the clear and proper review processes defined in the constitution”.

Cllr Herbert told the meeting that “considering all of the issues including what is actually happening and the nature of the whistleblowing events. I was concerned that along with the leaking there was a prejudging of the mayor in the knowledge that there was going to be a formal code of conduct investigation”.

He confirmed: “There is a whistleblowing investigation. It does concern the mayor’s office, but the actual actions of the mayor are still to be judged.

“The mayor isn’t able to be here today. And various statements can be made without his ability to rebut them and the proper time for the motion is when that investigation is completed. Nothing in the motion respects the fact that there is a process under way. So the mayor will be asked questions, there will be an independent process and then there’s the time for this board to judge it. That process also involves the audit and governance committee, which has the benefit that it doesn’t look like a political slanging match. I do want this Combined Authority to overcome yet further hurdles and bumps and it will be for the mayor to respond to that investigation.”

He continued: “I did see the motion’s language in suggesting that the mayor resigns as being something to say, ‘well, you’ve been found guilty’. Well, we’re not at that stage and I haven't seen any evidence even in the leaks that suggests that should be the case. I know Nik Johnson as an honourable individual and I don’t believe that he has anything to hide. And I think he’ll be completely open at that stage. So we support the conclusion of that investigation by the Combined Authority, a full and open debate and full publication.”

Cambridgeshire County Council leader, Liberal Democrat Lucy Nethsingha seconded Cllr Herbert’s amendment.

She said: “ I am quite shocked by what's happened at this meeting so far, I have to say, in a whole range of different ways and I have also been pretty shocked by the way in which this whole process has been overtaken in the last few months.

“The process itself is not pleasant, having to have these kinds of investigations at any institution or any organisation is not pleasant. And there are very clear processes in place to make sure that individuals are protected. We’ve been told by members opposite, that this meeting is not about politics but is about protection of staff. But I’m afraid I find that a very difficult position for them to justify. “The board members have been told on numerous occasions that the content of the investigation was confidential. But shortly before a crucial election, particular members of the board chose to put forward a motion which brought these matters into the public view.

Cambridgeshire County Council leader Cllr Lucy Nethsingha at the Cambridge City Council election count at the University Sports Centre Picture: Keith Heppell
Cambridgeshire County Council leader Cllr Lucy Nethsingha at the Cambridge City Council election count at the University Sports Centre Picture: Keith Heppell

“The idea that this was in the interests of staff is extremely difficult to understand, given the very, very clear request that had been made to all members of the board, that all of these matters be kept confidential in order to protect the individuals involved. And it was made very clear to us when we were given this information, that the reason for confidentiality was to protect the individuals involved. And the fact that that confidentiality has since been broken in numerous different ways, puts those members of staff in an incredibly difficult position and that position is much more difficult than it would have been if that confidentiality had been kept. I’ve been a councillor for over 20 years now and during that time, I’ve seen some pretty extraordinary behaviour but I have to say that the behaviour around this investigation and in fact during this meeting is some of the most shocking that I’ve seen.”

She added: “The one final thing I want to say is that having had code of conduct investigations and complaints brought against me on several occasions in the past. It's never been suggested that as soon as a code of conduct investigation is launched against an individual, they should step aside.

“Now, there may be some circumstances where that may be necessary. But it hasn't actually been suggested by anybody other than the members opposite that those have been met in this case. And therefore I think we should let the process take its course.”

The meeting has moved into private session to debate the amended motion and the amendment before making a decision.

The initial amended motion was defeated and Cllr Herbert’s amendment was passed.

The meeting had been expected to become public again later this evening, but has since been adjourned for later date.

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