Cheshire East Council bullying and misconduct allegations
Bullying within the Cheshire East Council has been a matter of concern since its inception. Previous scandals at the council led to the resignation of former leader Michael Jones and the departure of suspended senior officers, including former chief executive Mike Suarez.
A review by Sarah Messenger for the Local Government Association in January 2018 found that of the 1,500 Cheshire East council staff who were questioned about bullying behaviour in the workplace, 218 said they had experienced bullying in the past six months, 366 said they had witnessed bullying in the past six months, and 350 said that the council did not take bullying seriously.
... the history of Cheshire East since its inception in 2009, suggests that an opportunity was missed at that time to define and establish a positive and respectful organisational culture enjoyed by all. This created a vacuum which was filled by the behaviours of some individuals with power which has resulted in organisational confusion and very different experiences across the workforce some of which can be described as bullying or inappropriate behaviour.
The review found that the "bullying or bad treatment" described by staff had been perpetrated by some councillors, senior managers and line managers, "predominantly people who have power within the organisation". Messenger noted: "some people are so scarred by what's happened to them or others that they remain afraid to put their head above the parapet". However, she notes that it is not a problem unique to Cheshire East, saying the level of bullying was "not out of kilter" in comparison to other councils, the civil service, or the NHS.
In September 2017 two senior staff, the CEO and the director of legal services, received suspensions from the council prompted by allegations of misconduct. That year, UNISON set up a helpline following allegations that a council worker held a knife to his throat in the office in front of colleagues before being taken to hospital. A 2018 review found that staff had taken sick days, sought for help from trade unions, filed grievances, or left the organisation as a result of behavioural and cultural issues within the authority.
In 2020, an external review of Cheshire East council found "significant progress" had been made in addressing issues of misconduct and bullying.
Handforth Parish Council
In 2017, residents complained about the conduct of parish councillors as they believed meetings were becoming unproductive. One parish councillor, Michael Thompson, described members of the general public as the "rent-a-mob". The Independent described council meetings as "full of petty arguments about points of order and whether items had been agreed for the agenda – with the battle of ideas entirely absent."
A letter from David Brown, director of governance and compliance at Cheshire District Council, made references to councillors' behaviour in the past and alleged misconduct, including suggestions by unnamed councillors that elections should not be held:
As Monitoring Officer in Cheshire East I have received a multiplicity of complaints and referrals. These range from multiple complaints about councillors' behaviour; to fundamental issues of governance and member/officer engagement. The most recent referrals relate to suggestions that some members of Handforth Parish Council have purported to take decisions that are plainly unlawful, and these decisions have resulted in expenditure of public funds.
At an employment committee meeting held on 4 November 2020, three councillors – Brian Tolver, Aled Brewerton and Barry Burkhill – suspended the clerk Ashley Comiskey Dawson. The clerk was reinstated at a meeting in January as the decision to suspend him can only be made by the full council.
In a Zoom meeting of the Handforth Parish Council Planning and Environment Committee on 10 December 2020, two camps formed over a bureaucratic dispute. Jackie Weaver, chief officer of the Cheshire Association of Local Councils (ChALC), was brought into the meeting to moderate and provide guidance on the running of the council.
She is recorded as clerk to the meeting in the official minutes, but is not the official clerk of Handforth Parish Council. For this reason, council chairman Brian Tolver refused to accept the legality or legitimacy of the meeting, called by two other councillors, as no proper officer was present, saying that she had "no authority here", sentiments echoed by vice chair Aled Brewerton. (Weaver said there was no need for a proper officer to be involved while she was acting as clerk.) This led to Tolver being moved from the meeting into a virtual waiting room. In response to Weaver initiating a vote for a proxy chair in Tolver's absence, Brewerton angrily insisted that he should assume control as vice chair. Brewerton was consequently removed from the conference by Weaver, along with councillor Barry Burkhill. Councillor John Smith was nominated as proxy chair, and allowed a vote to confirm the removals.
In March 2022, a series of six reports commissioned by Cheshire East Council into the conduct of councillors of the then Handforth Parish Council was published. One concluded that during the 10 December 2020 meeting, Weaver did not "have the authority" to mute councillors and move them into the virtual waiting room, but that "Faced with what were unusual and difficult circumstances, and the deep-seated issues underpinning those circumstances, we can understand why Jackie Weaver acted as she did, despite her action being without any formal footing in terms of appropriate process and procedure". The six reports cost a total of £85,000.
Viral clips and legacy
The Zoom meeting went viral, because most parish council meetings have a reputation for being sedate and well-mannered. The event spawned memes, merchandise, and international media coverage. It was described as "like an absurdist British play" by The Washington Post, who noted that Weaver "was hailed for her fortitude and stoicism — two revered British traits". After gaining online traction on the evening of 4 February 2021, Weaver's name was the highest trending topic on Twitter in the United Kingdom that night and the following day. On 5 February, Weaver appeared on Woman's Hour on BBC Radio 4, followed by an appearance on The Last Leg. Among the various tributes that have been paid to Weaver is a song titled "An Ode to Jackie Weaver", with music composed by Andrew Lloyd Webber and lyrics penned by Don Black. In the song, Weaver is affectionately hailed as "Britain’s answer to the American dream" and "the role model we all strive to be. She doesn't want a medal, just a nice cup of tea". On 10 February, Lloyd Webber appeared on Good Morning Britain to explain his composition; Carrie Hope Fletcher sang the new lyrics, with Lloyd Webber accompanying her at the piano.
Weaver said of the incident that she has had "nothing but positive support" for her behaviour and actions in the Zoom call, adding: "There is an element of bullying and bad behaviour in local councils, and a lot of us are working very hard, and that includes central government, to try to do something about that. Because we're passionate about the fact that local government is the mechanism by which people can really engage with their communities." Weaver has also said that the aggressive and bullying attitudes of the councillors had "gone on in Handforth for some period of time", adding that she believed sexism played a part of the reason as to why Tolver and others acted in such an aggressive and confrontational manner, saying "maybe an underlying part of it was they just didn't like being told no by a woman".
During the now-viral meeting, councillor John Smith described the events as "a very good example of bullying within Cheshire East and the environs".
Tolver maintained that he was in the right, calling Weaver "an unqualified member of the public" and adding: "Removing half the councillors from the meeting denied half of the voters of the village from being represented – it was an appalling attack on their democratic rights." He has also called the clips being shared on YouTube and social media – which were found by a 17-year-old local government enthusiast and politics A-Level student from East London – "corrupt copies" and "hooky videos".
Following the viral video, councillors received an unprecedented number of complaints from parishioners arguing the council was not fit for purpose. In February 2021 Burkhill faced a vote of no confidence from Conservative councillor Liz Wardlaw:
The mayor's participation in that meeting has led us to believe he has brought this council and his role within this council into disrepute. He made no attempt to intervene as it became clear participants in that meeting were being bullied. The inaction of the mayor could be seen as a demonstration of his complicity in the bullying that occurred and this cannot be ignored. In light of the above [we propose] this council resolves it has no confidence in the mayor and his term of office as mayor and chairman of the council will cease immediately.
The motion was referred to the council’s standard committee but was not debated at the full council meeting. Burkhill served out his term of office as mayor, staying in post until May 2021 and then continued as a councillor, but he quit the parish council the same month saying, "I have decided to concentrate on my Handforth Ratepayer Independent role at CEC, as too much of my time has been taken up in trying to deal with HPC's enduring problems."
Robert Jenrick, the communities and local government secretary, had been considering legislation which would make parish council Zoom meetings permanent as a result of the "Jackie Weaver phenomenon" which has increased interest in the meetings.
The February meeting on Zoom had over 1,000 people watching the live stream and large numbers watched the March and April live stream. In the April live stream, the chair of Handforth Parish Council, Brian Tolver, resigned (as chair, but not from his position as councillor) during the meeting.
In August 2021, Weaver was the celebrity invited to open the annual Ambridge village fete in BBC Radio 4's long-running soap opera The Archers. The following February she was a contestant on BBC's Celebrity Mastermind, with a specialist subject of The Chronicles of Riddick, and a chosen charity of Cheshire Community Action. She scored 15 points and finished in second place. Her appearance was met with some media comment.
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One of the meeting's participants, Jackie Weaver, trended throughout Thursday evening.
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Jackie Weaver, who hosted the call, became an internet celebrity whose name was the first in Twitter’s list of trending topics this morning.
- BBC Woman's Hour [@BBCWomansHour] (February 5, 2021). "BBC Woman's Hour on Twitter: "Today on Woman's Hour: We speak to the one and only Jackie Weaver to find out what actually happened at *that* viral #HandforthParishCouncil meeting bbc.in/3cHGKUY"" (Tweet) – via Twitter.
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