‘Cover-up’ council puts up the shutters yet again

Screenshot 2022-12-02 at 20.26.44

A local council that repeatedly, and falsely, claims to be open and transparent has been caught out, yet again, in a familiar sequence of ineptitude, poor decision-making, deception and cover-up.

As is often the case, what started out as a relatively minor matter escalates out of all proportion simply because very highly paid senior officers at Oldham Metropolitan Borough Council are unable, seemingly, to carry out simple tasks efficiently and effectively – or hold up their hands when they have made a mistake and put matters right with due speed.

It is much too reminiscent of Greater Manchester Police under the recent Ian Hopkins regime where the senior officer teams were a cosy club, absolutely hopeless at running a vital public service and regarded as one of their main functions the protection of one another from public or press scrutiny. The end result, much too late, was GMP found itself placed in ‘Special Measures’ by the Home Office and too many disgraced assistant, deputy and chief constables were allowed to retire or move on without sanction.

That number included Hopkins himself, argued elsewhere as being the worst chief constable in the near 200 year history of the police service, who ‘retired early’ with a handsome pay-off. But not before he had foisted one of his damaged assistant chief constables onto an all too willing Oldham Council.

Amazingly, Rebekah Sutcliffe survived a disciplinary hearing following a national scandal that became known in short form as ‘Boobgate’ (read more here) and OMBC obligingly created a new role for her at Director level on £120,000 per annum. A rise of £12,000 over her police pay and a much shorter commute to work from her Saddleworth home for what too many regarded as ‘a non-job’.

Fortunately, for the hard-pressed taxpayers in the Borough, following relentless pressure here at Neil Wilby Media where her management shortcomings, and undeclared conflicts of interest, were repeatedly exposed, Ms Sutcliffe resigned her post in October 2021. But not before her colleagues had tried, repeatedly, to protect and cover-up for her. Particularly over her inclusion in the Gold Command Group of Operation Hexagon, a controversial investigation into allegations of historic child sexual exploitation (CSE) in Oldham in which she was hopelessly conflicted (read more here).

By a quite astonishing quirk of fate, the innocent protagonist in the Boobgate farrago, Superintendent Sarah Jackson (as she was then), and now promoted to assistant chief constable, heads the successor investigation to Hexagon, which is codenamed Operation Sherwood and specifically charged with locating CSE victims in Oldham and bringing perpetrators to justice.

Returning to more immediate, if much less important, matters than CSE, this enquiry was put to the OMBC press office on Thursday 1st December, 2022 with a requested, and one might say generous, deadline for response of 4pm the following day:

Does the Council consider it acceptable that its ICT systems are used by elected Members to send out abusive, derogatory and defamatory messages unchallenged by the very officer [Borough Solicitor and Monitoring Officer, Paul Entwistle] charged with the responsibility for maintaining high standards of Member conduct?”

That question wasn’t new to the Council or the Borough Solicitor: It had been asked in identical terms, along with two other related issues, via email, on 17th November, 2022. In three hopelessly misconceived attempts to respond to that email from Neil Wilby, the author of this article, it is true to say that Paul Entwistle had signally failed to address the issue.

A forensic analysis of those exchanges between journalist and lawyer form part of a separate article that will be published on Neil Wilby Media in the coming days. It does not make pretty reading for the Council, its paid officers, elected Members and, most crucially, those who vote for and fund them.  The calls for change are becoming irresistible.

After the second failed attempt, a decision was taken to seek a statement, via the press office, from either the Council Leader, Cllr Amanda Chadderton, or its chief executive, Harry Catherall (or simply a Council spokesperson) on what is, on any independent view, a matter of very significant public interest.

The Friday 4pm deadline came and went. Surprisingly, given what is in issue and the good relations that are maintained between journalist and press officers. The request was acknowledged early on that day but there was no request for a deadline extension. A signal, normally, that either no response may be forthcoming or a ‘decline to comment’ would be its out-turn. That is how these things work, not just in Oldham but in many other public authority press offices.

At the very heart of this matter is an earlier email exchange, on 6th and 7th November, 2022 between Cllr Brian Hobin, Group Leader of the Failsworth Independent Party, and Neil Wilby. The latter had offered the former the right to reply to an article published on the 6th and headlined ‘Holier than thou councillor transgresses – yet again‘. It can be read in full here.

In short, it carried whistleblower allegations of the councillor using his mobile phone whilst driving and a subsidiary and lesser issue of photographs of his vehicle parked on double yellow lines outside Failsworth Town Hall.

Cllr Hobin’s response, from his Oldham Council email address, to the right of reply request was, in its entirety, abusive, derogatory and defamatory. Moreover, it did not address the core issue of the mobile phone allegation or the secondary issue of whether he was on council business at the Town Hall whilst illegally parked. He copied in Paul Entwistle (and Head of Communications, Jeni Harvey) to that email. In effect, making the Monitoring Officer a first hand witness.

Added to which, he made this invitation: ‘Quite what the Borough Solicitor or any other council officer wants to make of your request is up to them’.

It spawned a widely read and shared article published on Neil Wilby Media on 8th November, 2022, headlined ‘Investigative journalist my arse’ (read in full here). The further damage to Oldham Council’s reputation, already blackened regionally and nationally over a succession of other scandals, is incalculable.

The fact that Cllr Hobin has, since, escaped any sanction whatsoever over his grotesque misuse of the Council’s ICT systems, public property let no-one forget and with stringent rules attached to its use for everyone else, simply adds to taxpayers’ and commentators’ pain. Aggravated by local and anecdotal reports that the errant Member laughingly mocks any attempt to bring him to book.

Paul Entwistle claims he had ‘a confidential conversation’ with Cllr Hobin but has declined to say where or when or under what circumstances. The question of who, and at what point, asked for their discussion to be protected by a cloak of secrecy is, as yet, unanswered.

The Borough Solicitor has also belatedly confirmed, under duress, that he has not made a Standards complaint against Cllr Hobin, in the face of overwhelming evidence and despite it meeting the ‘exceptional’ threshold that would allow him to do so under the appropriate Constitutional framework.

In his tandem role as Monitoring Officer, a statutory appointment, it was, and still is, absolutely fundamental to public confidence in Oldham Council – and morale amongst the rest of the paid officer complement at the Civic Centre – that Paul Entwistle files that complaint without further prevarication.

The only feasible alternative is to make way for someone who is.

Page last updated Saturday 3rd December, 2022 at 0950hrs

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© Neil Wilby 2015-2022. Unauthorised use, or reproduction, of the material contained in this article, without permission from the author, is strictly prohibited. Extracts from, and links to, the article (or blog) may be used, provided that credit is given to Neil Wilby Media, with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

Published by Neil Wilby

Former Johnston Press area managing director. Justice campaigner. Freelance investigative journalist.

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