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Farmgate: Former deputy leader of Cambridgeshire County Council ‘bullied’ staff, inquiry finds

The outcome of the misconduct inquiry into the ‘Farmgate’ controversy concerning Roger Hickford, former deputy leader of Cambridgeshire County Council, has been published today (Friday, February 25).

The independent investigation found that Mr Hickford breached the council’s code of conduct in six area, including by bullying staff, improper use of his position and by bringing the council into disrepute.

The investigation was the outcome of last year’s audit into the process that led to the award of the tenancy of the council’s Manor Farm in Girton, the subsequent decisions and the processes and practices of the county’s farms estate.

Former deputy leader of Cambridgeshire County Council Roger Hickford
Former deputy leader of Cambridgeshire County Council Roger Hickford

According to the report, one officer said his own mental health “was severely impacted” after dealing with Mr Hickford “to the extent that he remained on anti-depressants and that he felt it prudent to store shotguns, rather than have them at home in a suitable cabinet as he had not felt secure enough to have the weapons at home for 12 months”.

The report also revealed Mr Hickford’s behaviour towards the chief internal audit officer. It said: “We consider that Mr Hickford’s conduct towards the chief internal auditor was bullying and was further evidence of a pattern of behaviour which is detrimental to the role of councillor and to the council.”

An officer commented in the report: “Roger Hickford was widely known to be a bully and that was known by members and senior officers.”

One opposition councillor said in the report: “Over the years I personally found Hickford very difficult to work with … it was an aggressive culture not just against officers but also other (opposition) members.”

The report, considered by the council’s constitution and ethics committee today, made an initial finding that Roger Hickford was acting in his official capacity when dealing with officers in respect of the tenancy at Manor Farm.

Lucy Nethsingha (55127690)
Lucy Nethsingha (55127690)

The full list of breaches relate to:

  • Respect– he failed to treat officers and others acting on behalf of the council with respect;
  • Bullying – he used a bullying manner in order for the council to pay for works that would otherwise be the responsibility of the tenant. He also used a bullying manner in order to set the terms of the lease for Manor Farm;
  • Impartiality – he compromised officers and others’ impartiality in his dealings with regard to Manor Farm;
  • Disrepute – his conduct towards officers and others and his conflict of interest would have reduced the public’s confidence in him being able to fulfil his role or the council being able to discharge its functions;
  • Improper use of position – he used his position as deputy leader to receive concessions that the council would not otherwise have agreed to;
  • Interests - he failed to register a disclosable pecuniary interest (the tenancy of Manor Farm) within 28 days and he failed to declare a non-statutory disclosable interest in meetings with regard to county farms matters.

However, the investigation found he did not breach paragraph 5.1(a) of the code, relating to misuse of council resources.

Stephen Moir, the new chief executive of Cambridgeshire County Council, said in a statement: “It is a matter of deep regret that anyone has had to experience the type of behaviours outlined in this report. As chief executive I want to offer an apology both personally and on behalf of the organisation to colleagues past and present that may have been affected.

“The people who work for the council have the right to feel safe and supported in their work. They should be able to raise concerns about the conduct of officers or elected members, no matter how senior they are, and know that they will be heard. However, it is not enough to know that concerns will be heard, it is just as important that any issues are then properly dealt with.

“Having joined the authority this week, it is a priority for me to ensure this is clearly understood by everyone the council employs.

“I want to assure myself that the protection and support arrangements which already exist, such as our Respect at Work policy and whistleblowing procedures, go far enough. I understand these have been recently revised and strengthened, nevertheless I will personally review these and ensure that all colleagues, whether elected or employed, are fully aware of them.”

Mr Hickford was a member of Cambridgeshire County Council between May 2013 and February 2021. He was a Conservative councillor representing Linton ward, then Sawston ward and was deputy leader of the council, while it was under Conservative control, from May 2016 until his resignation on February 26, 2021.

Liberal Democrat Cllr Lucy Nethsingha, who is now the leader of the council, said: “As leader of Cambridgeshire County Council since May I am determined that we will root out disrespectful or bullying behaviour, whoever is responsible, and with that in mind will be asking our new chief executive to undertake a wider review of member - officer behaviour, and our support for council officers at all levels across the council.”

Having accepted the report in full the committee unanimously agreed a recommendation proposed by Cllr Lorna Dupre and seconded by Cllr David Ambrose Smith that it should be a cross council priority to address the issues raised in the report, that it be referred to strategy and resources committee with a request they establish programme of action to resolve and prevent an occurrence, and to full council if appropriate.

The recommendation also included taking up the issue with colleagues in councils across Cambridgeshire to improve standards of behaviour in public life more widely.

The audit concluded correct procedures were followed in relation to the tenancy award process for Manor Farm and approval process for potential additional extension works. But 11 further serious concerns were raised in relation to financial, transparency and conduct issues which the audit and accounts committee agreed should be referred on for further consideration under other processes, which included the members’ code of conduct procedures.

Cllr Sebastian Kindersley (Lib Dem, Gamlingay), chairman of constitution and ethics committee, said: “It gives me no pleasure receive this full and very detailed independent report into the conduct of a former councillor of this authority – however it is right and proper to have commissioned it, and to put it fully into the public domain today.

“Former councillor and deputy leader of this authority Roger Hickford has been found to have breached the council’s code of conduct in seven different areas. In doing so he has not only damaged his own reputation but has cast doubt on the integrity of elected members in general, which is inexcusable. Residents have a right to expect those who stand for election to public office do so out of a desire to serve others, not to serve themselves.

“This investigation found Mr Hickford’s behaviour fell far below the standards expected for those in public life.

“One of the first actions of this council took last July, was for our audit and accounts committee to receive and approve a strengthened whistleblowing procedure, new conflict of interest guidance for Members having interactions with council services, and an update on enhanced member training.

“In addition the council’s Respect @Work policy was revised with the support of our equality and diversity group and recognised trade unions, and agreed by our staffing and appeals committee in September. Much work has been undertaken to publicise it including workshops for staff.

“It is essential that the council keeps all these measures under regular review in the light of this report to ensure that they go far enough to offer the necessary safeguards to guard against this situation ever happening again.

“I would like to pay tribute to those officers who have worked so diligently to bring this report together in a legal and proper way, and to those councillors at whose insistence it was begun.”

Cllr Steve Count (Con).
Cllr Steve Count (Con).

The Labour group at the county council has demanded that Cllr Steve Count, Conservative group leader on the county council, resign from his leadership role if he knew about Cllr Hickford's behaviour.

Cllr Elisa Meschini (Lab, King’s Hedges), deputy leader of the county council, said: “I am astounded by what has been published today. The report uncovers a culture of aggression and intimidation that is shown to have gone right up to the top. I will work to ensure that under our leadership nothing like that can ever happen again.”

Cllr Count (Con, March North and Waldersey) has issued this statement: "“I am glad that the committee have decided to publish in full the report, concerning the standards of behaviour by the former deputy Leader and councillor Roger Hickford.

"It is important that the committee commissioned this intense and independent investigation and was allowed to come to their conclusions, unfettered by political intervention.

"It’s conclusion that amongst other breaches, officers were bullied, goes to the heart of why we need such investigations, to give confidence to the public and County employees that the County Council can, and will, expose inappropriate breaches of Councillor conduct, and take steps to stop them happening again.

"Now that the report has been published and these conclusion have been reached, it allows me to formally offer up a sincere personal apology as the previous leader, and on behalf of the County Council as an organisation that I led at that time, for those that suffered as a result of his actions and for what must now be recognised as failures to sufficiently protect officers at those points in time.

"I had already spoken to our new chief executive Stephen Moir prior to the meeting of the committee, to personally look into this case. I have asked him to check, with a fresh pair of eyes, if he believes the measures taken since the opening of the enquiry, are sufficient to afford adequate and appropriate protection to those who work for the County Council. Whilst my request and concerns now carry little formal weight, I understand the standards committee have also formalised a similar request.

"For those that wish to know what actions I took as leader I refer you back to my statement issued February 26th 2021, when I was first issued with and read the confidential Mazars report. Which can be found at https://www.cambridgeshire.gov.uk/news/cllr-roger-hickford-resignation

"The pertinent element I believe to be “But having read the report I had two meetings with Cllr. Hickford to consider implications for the Council, outside of the remit of the (Audit and Accounts) committee. Subsequent to those meetings Cllr Hickford has asked me to accept his resignation as my Deputy leader and as a member of the Council with immediate effect.”

The report published by the County Council Friday February 25th 2022 can be found at https://t.co/ioSjAhNoIY"

Mr Hickford was given a right to reply but declined to comment.

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