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Farmgate: Whistleblowing policy to be reviewed at Cambridgeshire County Council

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Cambridgeshire County Council will change its whistleblowing policy following the farmgate saga.

The move is a response to the findings of an audit investigation into its farms estate and the awarding of a tenancy at Girton to its former deputy leader, Conservative Roger Hickford.

Shire Hall, home of Cambridgeshire County Council
Shire Hall, home of Cambridgeshire County Council

The report of the investigation is being withheld from the public after councillors on the audit committee voted against releasing the report.

But an update by the council’s chief executive, Gillian Beasley, was published on Friday (March 26).

In it, she says the report made 11 recommendations for further action “in relation to financial, transparency and conduct issues”, which the audit committee has agreed to refer on “for further consideration under processes including the members’ code of conduct and officer disciplinary issues”.

The matters relate to whether “transparency rules were always followed”, “an inappropriate advantage accrued as a result of the tenant’s position”, “behaviour towards staff was inappropriate” and whether “staff took appropriate steps in relation to a number of matters outlined in the reports”.

According to the council, eight of the recommendations relate to “potential code of conduct issues”, and two relate to “potential employee disciplinary issues”. The other related to a “financial transactional issue”.

The council claims the audit concluded that “correct procedures were followed in relation to the tenancy award process and also the approval of the additional extension works” for the property occupied by the former deputy leader.

Mr Hickford resigned from the council last month. In a statement earlier this month, he said he was “at all times upfront and transparent about my role as a county councillor” when applying for the tenancy.

He also said he has “at all times, and when requested to do so, participated in the long-drawn out audit investigation”, and added “I have serious concerns about the fairness and transparency of that procedure, which have been raised on numerous occasions”.

Cllr Lucy Nethsingha, leader of the Liberal Democrat opposition group on the Tory-run council, said: “I am glad that a tiny bit more information has crept out on the issues surrounding Roger Hickford’s tenancy at Manor Farm, but this very slim report again only covers a tiny number of the issues which were raised by in the full 430 pages of the full Audit report. It is shocking that so little of that original report has been made available to the public.

“The public will be rightly concerned at what the implications are from what has been released.

“There are huge issues here for the management of the council. Let us not forget that until February 26, Roger Hickford remained the deputy leader of the Conservative group.”

The council said its monitoring officer is “taking forward the code of conduct issues” and the chief executive has amended the council’s “respect at work policy” to “make reference to how officers can make a complaint under the Code of Conduct for members and what support informal or otherwise is available to officers in this situation”.

The council will also be reviewing its training of staff and its whistleblowing procedures, which the audit committee will consider after May’s elections.

External training will also be provided to councillors in relation to the code of conduct and their relations with officers.

And the council said its monitoring officer is drafting a new “conflict of interest policy for members”.

Under the members code of conduct, if a decision is made to proceed with an independent conduct investigation, and that investigation concludes there has been a breach, the parts of the audit report relating to the code of conduct issues could be released as part of a public hearing.

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