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Independent report finds it would be unfair to say council had "sexist culture"

An independent report into Stratford-on-Avon District Council carried out by a leading local government lawyer has found that it would be "unfair" to brand the local authority as having a ‘sexist culture’.

Olwen Brown, a partner at Anthony Collins Solicitors, was commissioned by the council’s monitoring officer to produce the report into the wider culture at the local authority after a former head of paid service, Isabel Briançon, made a series of allegations on Facebook to friends and family members about sexism. The comments were subsequently leaked to the press.

In her report, which can be found here, Ms Brown’s findings included that:

  • Whilst there was a split between those officers who felt that matters could be raised easily there was also some concern, particularly amongst some junior staff about how they should raise issues of unacceptable and inappropriate behaviour, particularly from members.
  • Most of the concerns raised were about the behaviour of two members, Cllrs Barnes and Feilding, who had been the subject of findings in breach of the Code of Conduct where the council had, in her view, taken the appropriate action possible under the provisions of the legislation in respect of them. “Without the behaviour of these two members, the evidence of an inappropriate and sexist culture is much reduced, and I think it would be unfortunate if the whole council was to be stigmatised largely because of their behaviour." Both councillors had apologised and were undergoing training.
  • There was an issue of why this behaviour, which had been known about for a considerable amount of time, had not been effectively tackled previously. “Whilst there is some evidence of these two members being spoken to about their behaviour in part, it clearly had little effect; and yet the evidence is of longstanding, inappropriate and unacceptable conduct which would have justified a Code of Conduct investigation much earlier. Some of this, as some of the witness evidence says, is because officers did not feel confident that they would be supported [if] they did raise this behaviour, and believed, whether or not this was true, that it had to be tolerated, even though it was widely known and regarded as unacceptable.”
  • The council needed to demonstrate that it not only tolerated but positively expected officers to raise issues of unacceptable behaviours, whether or not these were committed by councillors and that if they did so their concerns would be taken seriously. “I also think that it is important that officers can be confident that should they raise matters of concern they will not be treated unfairly for doing so; that there is that ‘safe mechanism’.”
  • Both Mr Buckland and Cllr Jefferson, as the new Chief Executive and Leader respectively, were "genuine in their commitment to do what they can to make sure that the council does not have and is not seen as having a sexist culture”.
  • It was important the council considered how it communicated to all officers, particularly junior ones, that raising matters which concerned them was the right thing to do and that they would be given support if they chose to do so. “Making a complaint against a member is quite a step for officers, especially younger officers to take and the evidence from a notable proportion of the witnesses shows that officers often felt that they had to put up with behaviour which they found inappropriate and offensive.”
  • In concluding that it would be unfair to brand Stratford-upon-Avon as having a “sexist culture”, she had borne in mind that Ms Briançon was extremely upset about her appraisal process and the results of that, particularly some of the comments that she reported in her evidence. “She clearly was genuinely sensitive to what she saw and heard and quite clearly the behaviour of Cllr Barnes towards her was unacceptable. My instructions do not extend to examining the assessment process.” Ms Briançon said on Facebook that she had been told she "needed to “chat “more, do more “corridor “conversations. The feedback was that elected members wanted me to be more informal. That was it. Nothing else. Taking this feedback on board I spoke to other elected members to find out where they felt my leadership needed to grow. This is what I got back, and I quote verbatim... “it would help if you were six foot two; “you need to throw your opinions around a bit more”; and “be more dominant”. Ms Briançon had also reported that she "went on a ward walk with a councillor and he told me unashamedly (being the farmer type that he is) that I had good breeding hips and if I wanted fertility support he would do a pagan ritual for me. I did not want to tell him that I did not have a womb! When I sat down with another councillor he told me thought it was a disgrace to have to enforce gender equality on a public board”.
  • It was true that there were presently very few women in the most senior positions at Stratford-upon-Avon although Ms Brown said she had been told, and had no reason to doubt, that the council hoped to change this following the recruitment to new posts at the top of the organisation once the new management structure was in place; “provided of course that these are suitable candidates who are appointed on merit.”

Ms Brown recommended that:

  • The council demonstrates that it positively expects officers to raise issues of unacceptable behaviours, whether these are committed by councillors or not, and for officers to be confident that if they do so their concerns will be taken seriously, and they will not be treated unfairly for doing so.
  • The further training for both officers and members on equality and diversity is put in place promptly.
  • The council considers how it communicates to all officers that raising matters which concern them is the right thing to do and that they will be given support if they choose to do so.
  • Where officers and members have experience of other workplaces their views about how the council operates are sought to consider if they have useful suggestions from their previous roles.
  • The council assess its current arrangements whereby officers can raise concerns and consider if and how they need to be improved.

Ms Brown’s report will now go to the council's Audit and Standards Committee on 18 November for consideration. A detailed action plan to address the recommendations will also be considered at the meeting.

Chief executive David Buckland said: "The District Council takes any allegations involving any form of discrimination extremely seriously and when we were aware the Monitoring Officer instigated an independent review immediately. I would like to thank all the staff and members that contributed to the review and also to the investigator for such a thorough report.

"Whilst I am obviously very pleased that the investigator has concluded we are not a 'sexist' organisation. Staff can be fully assured that the recommendations arising from the report will be implemented in full, and I would encourage anybody who has any such concerns to come forward. They will be taken seriously and they will be supported."