NOTEBOOK: BILL HEANEY INVESTIGATES HOW COUNCIL MADE EMPLOYEE’S LIFE HELL

NOTEBOOK by BILL HEANEY

Flitting to a new office and creating a new council chamber down the road in Church Street, Dumbarton, especially when the old offices at Garshake were no longer wind and water-tight and not fit for purpose, was something that most of us would consider a welcome and straightforward turn of events.

On the surface, the perception amongst the employees of West Dunbartonshire Council, was that things could only get better and their time at work would be more comfortable than it had been since they first took up working for the council.

However, for one man, health and safety officer Brian Gourlay, it made his life Hell on Earth and it has taken TEN YEARS for his employment appeal case to come even close to a conclusion.

Bureaucratic bumbledom were two words used by a QC at Dumbarton back in the 1960s to describe the way public servants in town halls often do their business.

The court had been asked to resolve a bureaucratic bourach which involved the ownership of the towpath of the River Leven in Balloch.  That row was eventually resolved to the satisfaction of the aggrieved party.

For the council, what followed the red tape was red faces all round. One would have thought that they would have resolved never again to get into that mess.

Especially since red tape is what elected representatives and officials so frequently hang themselves with.

The fact that they appear to have learned little over the past half century has always astonished and dismayed me.

Incompetence and hubris abound in the public services since some people who work there have been promoted to positions above and beyond their capabilities. Not all of them though.

West Dunbartonshire Council offices in Church Street and the now demolished building at Garshake which was replaced at a cost of nearly £17 million.

Mediocrity is the word that comes to mind when you look around West Dunbartonshire and view what consecutive councils of all shades of political opinion have achieved … and what they have failed to achieve.

Wrecks in the River Leven and Dumbarton and Alexandria town centres come immediately to mind, but there is more. So much more.

Millions of pounds have been squandered on policies and practices which no doubt have been adopted with good intentions, although there has been from time to time fraud and corruption, involving both councillors and officials.

Some people feel that recent accusations of that nature have not been pursued vigorously enough by the police, however.

Indeed, one councillor was sanctioned for insisting that this should happen, but it hasn’t.

This week we have been looking at the case of Brian Gourlay v West Dunbartonshire Council and have reported in The Democrat on the findings of an Employment Tribunal which heard it.

However, we felt that our coverage was insufficient to convey to the public – the electorate in this area – how badly they are being served by their local council, who have a questionable habit of patting themselves on the back even when things go wrong, which they do often.

They have an expensive team of spin doctors to aid them with obfuscation and cover-ups, however.

Three top council officials – Joyce White, Angela Wilson and Vicki Rogers.

For example, they had a reception to celebrate the opening of the old Burgh Hall for offices and a new council chamber, which is not fit for purpose, at a cost of a cool £16 million going on £17 million.

And another celebration to mark the opening of Our Lady and St Patrick’s Secondary school in Bellsmyre, which was flagged up when the idea was mooted that it was going to be too small and too remote from the town. It is.

This criticism has been proved right by the council’s ill-considered plans to cut free travel for pupils from the West End and other outlying areas and the scholars being late because the buses are overcrowded.

To justify taking their bus passes away, the chief education officer says walking, cycling and scootering to school will be good for the pupils’ health. Dear, dear.

Families who are deprived and on low incomes and additionally faced with cost of living increases and huge energy bills simply can’t afford to pay for their children to travel to school by public transport.

Then there was the question of buying a fleet of electrically powered vehicles which have been lying abandoned and unused in a council car park at Clydebank. They may rust and rot until they are taken to the tip. We could go on.

However, let’s return to Brian Gourlay’ s case which is steeped in town hall arrogance and hubris fronted up by chief executive Joyce White who has now retired with a golden goodbye.

It begins with Mr Gourlay talking about the Office of the Future plan, the move from Garshake to Church Street.

He advised his bosses that a criminal offence was being committed at West Dunbartonshire Council; that certain persons in line management positions of authority had failed to comply with the legal obligations to which they were subject.

And that the health and safety of employees was being endangered. Remember, Mr Gourlay himself is a highly qualified health and safety officer. It wasn’t a story they wanted to hear.

He may have shaken the management tree, as happens in so many cases involving local government and even the Scottish government itself, but nothing fell out. He was ignored and victimised for being a whistle-blower.

This was confirmation once more that we live in Secret Scotland where, even for information for a picture caption, journalists like me, just doing their job in a democracy such as ours is supposed to be, are required to submit a Freedom of Information request, which can take months to process. For a caption. That is another scandal.

Mr Gourlay was of the opinion that his complaints were being deliberately concealed – or covered up.

A cover-up, lest we forget, is an attempt, whether successful or not, to conceal evidence of wrongdoing, error, incompetence or other embarrassing information.

The expression is usually applied to people in positions of authority who abuse their power to avoid or silence criticism or to deflect guilt of wrongdoing.

Mr Gourlay suffers from multiple sclerosis and has done so since the illness was diagnosed in 1996.

His complaints about being moved upstairs from the third floor to the fourth at Garshake around the time of the office move may look on the face of it to be minor.

But the new working environment to which he was banished resulted in big changes in his working conditions and procedures which impacted negatively on his health and how he did his job.

His problem was that he was considered a pain in the backside and was being investigated for making complaints about the equipment and work station he had been allocated by the council management.

The investigation into all this was ordered by Angela Wilson, Executive Director of Corporate Services at West Dunbartonshire Council, for an alleged breach of the council Code of Conduct for Employees.

According to documents we have seen, she wrote to Mr Gourlay: “‘I (Angela Wilson) wish to respond to the numerous unfounded and disparaging comments you have made and circulated to others regarding your colleagues within this Council.

“Use of language such as “bias, incompetent and unprofessional content, unreserved bias, unprofessional, inexperience, telling untruths, covering up the facts demonstrates an inappropriate manner towards your Council colleagues.

“I (Angela Wilson) am particularly concerned with your statements in relation to the “Professional Competence and Behaviour, Ethical Standards and Integrity, Representation of the Profession and Stewardship” of Vicki Rogers, which could be viewed as a personal attack towards her.”

Angela Wilson asked for Brian Gourlay to be investigated with potential for dismissal, which she believed would lead to him being sacked on the spot. Gross misconduct was being spoken of.

Mr Gourlay said the process was flawed. There were matters for concern, one of which, he told the an employment tribunal judge, E J McPherson, was that Angela Wilson had not objectively managed his concerns.

Or, alternatively, not appointed a competent person in a position of authority to objectively manage his concerns.

The fact that Angela Wilson (left) and Vicki Rogers were good friends led to allegations of cronyism and the possibility of bias in Brian Gourlay’s appeal against dismissal.

He then claimed in a Twitter message accompanied by a photograph to support his case this that there was evidence of potential cronyism.

The fact that Angela Wilson, who was dealing with the matter, and Vicky Rogers on whom he was accused of making a personal attack, were close friends would go against him.

According to observers, the council’s internal appeals committee, chaired by the now retired Labour councillor Tommy Rainey, appeared to prioritise  Twitter aspect of the case.

The picture was of Angela Wilson and Vicki Rogers, Head of Service, People and Transformation, which is Head of HR. The information, had been obtained from publicly available Twitter site.

Much was made of the fact that Mr Gourlay’s publication of the picture in his message to the tribunal and it was suggested that this on its own was something which could lead to the sender being summarily dismissed on the spot.  However that turned out not to be the case. 

Then it was suggested a question that maybe should be asked was what does WDC Chief Executive Joyce White, pictured right,  know of these matters? 

A Dignity at Work complaint was suggested to accompany Mr Gourlay’ s already in place other claims ranging from harassment to victimisation.

The council’s Dignity at Work policy states: “Allegations of offensive behaviour at work will be treated seriously. It is a fundamental principle of this policy that no employee shall suffer any form of detriment for bringing forward an allegation of discrimination, harassment, victimisation, or bullying, unless that allegation is found to be malicious/vexatious and unfounded.”

The tribunal did not want this to happen if its introduction at this point in the proceedings would interfere with the dates already set down for future employment tribunal hearings. 

A request from Stephen West, the now retired Chief Financial Officer, whose job it was to dismiss people, was turned down.

It would have revealed details of  whistle-blowing allegations.

Mr Gourlay advised the Employment Tribunal that the council’s whistle-blowing Policy had not been followed in this case and that his whistle-blowing concerns had been proven to be correct.

What he had done by drawing attention to what was happening was judged to be a public service.

He said: “I am of the professional consideration that project re the fourth floor Office of the Future has been hastened on with little cognisance taken of employee concerns.

“This project is being made to work (be successful) irrespective of, among other things, any employee difficulties.  I believe Office of the Future project is being driven with less than praiseworthy intentions.”

“There had been little or no consultation about the effect the move would have on some staff – ‘for me personally (and some others) it perhaps could have been better’.”

He added: “I do not believe I have been meaningfully consulted. I anticipated difficulties. I advised WDC managers accordingly i.e. I could do what they had described, but it would be akin to hammering a square peg into a round hole.”

When he took the matter to Joyce White, the then CEO, her response was “indicative of a dismissive and bullying culture.

“In the fullness of time my anticipations have proven to have been underestimated, that is the work situation is worse than I expected.”

He lists “some factors associated with bullying” as when he complained that his desk and IT equipment were not suitable.

Mr Gourlay said he was ignored again when he complained that statutory breaches of H&S rules were being ignored.

He then said he was elected by colleagues as their GMB union rep and advised the management that WDC Corporate Health and Safety Policies were not being complied with,  but when he wrote to them his correspondence went unanswered.

A manager instructed him verbally, “thereafter instructing me in writing, to attend my place of work at the 4th floor Office of the Future – and not take cognisance of,  or raise any H&S issues, that I was aware of.  I had to remain silent”

Mr Gourlay said: “[I had] no desk at which to satisfactorily work to a professional standard with papers and no docking station for laptop.

“I was unable to source an available desk at which to sit and lay out papers. I had to make do with a wee round table – divided to accommodate three persons’.

“And whilst [I was] sitting there for circa 3½ hours I exacerbated a current issue of sore shoulders and neck.

“My attendance record has been fairly good with four days’ absence (respiratory infection) in 5½ years – but I am now finding things hard at work.

“A range of WDC managers have perhaps been involved with this demonstrable subterfuge of, what is considered, a cultural downplaying of Health and Safety within WDC.”

He began, he said, to learn from the misfortunes of others about workplace inspections by UNISON safety reps that revealed serious flaws in screen work risk assessments and led to official enforcement action.

Mr Gourlay continues to this day to suffer from multiple sclerosis and stress which he claims was down to the way he was being treated by the council management.

He told The Democrat: “The Vicki Rogers’ Twitter photo was, in fact, highlighting the close relationship that demonstrably existed between Rogers and Angela Wilson.

“That was justification to me why Angela Wilson was not dealing with my concerns AND why she wasn’t dealing with Rogers, but  I was suspended the next day. The suspension has been Judged to be an act of victimisation.”

Part of the case, which is still to be heard by the Employment Tribunal, will deal with his application for compensation from the council.

Maybe it’s time the Scottish government brought in special measures to run this council? It’s time to end this ongoing misery.

Top picture: Council employee Brian Gourlay walking his dogs in Dumbarton Common.

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