‘Legal advice’ continues to block exposure of farmgate scandal  

Decision time looms for Cambridgeshire County Council

Where are they now: From left- disgraced former deputy leader Roger Hickford. Former chief internal auditor Duncan Wilkinson who oversaw the original inquiry. He's moved to Northampton. Former committee chairman Mike Shellens (right) who quit when his committee refused to publish the report. - Credit: Archant

Lawyers remain hovering over councillors who met again on Monday to consider the legal implications of exposing the farmgate scandal.  

Members of Cambridgeshire County Council audit and accounts committee heard “significant progress” has been made on actions arising from the Manor Farm Audit. 

But they remain uncertain what further information can be released. 

The new committee, following the May local elections, met for the first time on July 13. 

Council leader Lucy Nethsingha said: “As the person who pushed for this review in January 2019, I am pleased that many of the matters I raised are being or have already been addressed.  

“I am determined to ensure that nothing that happened in this case can be repeated in future.”  

But she added: “I am disappointed that due to the legal advice, we are constrained on what we can publish.” 

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She said her new administration “remains committed to publish as much as possible of the audit reports.” 

The issue is over ex councillor Roger Hickford, his behaviour before and after he acquired a council farms tenancy, will also be probed by the constitution and ethics committee.  

They have put the wheels in motion for a possible code of conduct hearing, even though it is thought unlikely he will give evidence to any such hearing.  

However, councillors feel that that by offering Mr Hickford the chance to give his side of things, it may allow more of the allegations against him to be aired publicly.  

What has happened as a consequence of the two-year investigation into his actions has been revisions to the ‘respect@work’ policy to tighten up on how officers and councillors interact.  

The council says it has updated its whistle blowing policy to strengthen workers ability to complain internally. 

It says its updated policy is more concise and provides clarity on the type of disclosures that are protected by law. 

It also specifies the type of concerns that can be raised under the whistleblowing policy; and contains clear signposting to other council policies that may be used to raise specific concerns.  

Part of the revelations from farmgate published by this newspaper came from whistleblowers within the council who felt that was the only way Mr Hickford’s behaviour could be exposed.  

And the council has made it clear to new councillors – elected after May – what conduct and ethical standards they are expected to abide by: a virtual training course has taken place.  

The council says that in addition policies in policies in relation to violence and aggression at work are currently being reviewed. 

A report to the audit committee says: “What has become apparent is that there is clear guidance in place for circumstances where serious incidents arise. 

“Realistically most people are more likely to experience something that falls short of what we might typically determine an act of violence or aggression, but which nevertheless can still have a significant impact on health and wellbeing.  

“In some cases, this might be discriminatory behaviour from service users or customers, or might be repetitive acts of harassment.”   

And a new conflict of interest policy for councillors has been drafted. 

In March the audit and accounts committee resolved to consider the remainder of the report concerning specific tenancy issues, code of conduct and disciplinary issues in private. 

“This information was considered to be exempt and the committee agreed, on the basis of the legal advice received, that these matters could not be considered in public,” said a council spokesperson. 

“The new committee is to consider what additional materials can now be released publicly – without prejudicing any further planned investigations.” 

Cllr Graham Wilson, chair of the audit and accounts committee, said: “I am please to hear about the good progress being made on many of the recommendations, particularly improving protection for staff.

"However, I am disappointed that we still cannot release more of the Manor Farm review before any investigation is commissioned or completed by the County Council’s Constitution and Ethics Committee concerning the Code of Conduct issues."