Peacehaven council bullying probe uncovers 'wide-ranging' issues

By Ben Weisz
Political reporter, BBC Sussex

Image caption,
Peacehaven is a town and civil parish in the Lewes district of East Sussex

An investigation into allegations of bullying at a council in East Sussex has uncovered "wide-ranging problems" that require action, a report has said.

Peacehaven town manager Claire Lacey has claimed the actions of three members of the town's council had undermined her position at work.

Two of those at the centre of the allegations have since resigned and all three have disputed Ms Lacey's claims.

The BBC understands Ms Lacey has been signed off work with stress until 2019.

An investigation by ch&i associates for Lewes District Council has recommended action to tackle "long-standing personal conflict and poor working relations" at the council.

But it said "the decision to take informal action should in no way lessen the gravity of the serious conduct issues".

'Slagged off'

Among other things, Ms Lacey has alleged that:

  • Councillor Brian Gosling bullied her during an altercation in her office and hired a human resources company to investigate a complaint against her without authority
  • Councillor Jean Farmiloe "slagged her off" and discussed confidential business in public as part of a conspiracy to force Ms Lacey out of her job
  • Councillor Jackie Harrison-Hicks, the current mayor, sent her inappropriate e-mails
  • Councillors refused to sign cheques, which prevented Ms Lacey from doing her job

Mr Gosling and Mrs Farmiloe no longer sit on the town council.

Mrs Farmiloe - who was mayor between May 2016 and April 2017 - has said her resignation was due to her husband's ill health, not the investigation.

She has denied making some of the comments and told investigators Ms Lacey was herself "a bully with a venomous nature".

'Unacceptable conduct'

Mr Gosling and Ms Harrison-Hicks have also disputed Ms Lacey's accusations and said she was difficult to work with.

But the investigators found it was more likely than not that Ms Lacey had been subject to "unacceptable conduct".

The report concluded that the councillors' actions amounted to "a collective effort to undermine [Ms Lacey's] position with a view to removing her from post".

It said: "Claire Lacey cannot be seen as entirely blameless for the current difficulties the town council faces."

However, the report said it was not within the scope of the investigation to detail the councillors' concerns about Ms Lacey.

Training urged

The report has recommended consultants review how the council deals with complaints.

It also said there should be training for councillors and officers, plus guidance on dealing with disagreements.

Lewes District Council, which oversees complaints about parish and town councils, will decide whether to request this action plan on 19 November.

Beyond that, there would only be a "very limited range of sanctions" available, the district's monitoring officer Catherine Knight told councillors.

After a law change in 2011, monitoring officers can no longer suspend town or parish councillors who break the rules.

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