Mystery remains over investigation into former Breckland Council chief

IAN CLARKE A veil of mystery still hangs over an investigation into a former Norfolk council chief and the implications for taxpayers.

IAN CLARKE

A veil of mystery still hangs over an investigation into a former Norfolk council chief and the implications for taxpayers.

Breckland Council has refused to reveal a range of information requested by the EDP under the Freedom of Information Act surrounding ex-chief executive Becky Hellard.

She was under investigation for a month into undisclosed “issues surrounding her” and resigned on December 8.

As revealed in the EDP, Ms Hellard, 40, has now been appointed director for corporate services at Bradford Council, earning up to £125,000.

Breckland has disclosed Ms Hellard was at no time suspended and remained on full pay and benefits and continued to undertake “key council duties and responsibilities outside of Breckland Council offices” while she was under investigation.

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It has emerged that it was her decision to stay away from Breckland Council's Dereham HQ while the allegations were being probed rather than her being forced to.

But Breckland has rejected the EDP's request for any information on what the allegations were about and who made them, who investigated them and whether they involved any other staff, councillors, outside companies, individuals or council property or assets. Breckland said it would be “inappropriate” to answer those questions.

The council said Ms Hellard fully co-operated with the investigation and the “case is closed”.

But questions still remain about whether taxpayers' money was involved. There is also confusion about the cost of the investigation. When asked what it cost, Breckland answered “officer time”. It added: “Much of the investigation was conducted outside council time with no cost to the council.”

The EDP has been told several councillors were on an investigation panel - and they would normally be paid allowances/expenses for meetings. And several Breckland senior roles are filled by outside consultants who are paid on a piece rate basis - so it remains unclear whether extra payments had to be made to them.

The EDP understands from sources that there is a “gagging clause” in place following Ms Hellard's resignation, designed to prevent either party revealing details following her departure.

Breckland said a “standard payment made to a departing employee” was given and “normal formalities” were followed in the agreement - but the council has refused to disclose its policies or what that “standard payment” is.

The EDP asked for relevant documents, correspondence and minutes relating to the investigation, but all we got were the answers we print today.

The EDP intends to pursue the matter further and contact the Information Commissioner, who is in charge of Freedom of Information Act issues for the whole country.

Bradford Council has said Ms Hellard's reasons for leaving Breckland Council were “discussed in detail prior to her applying for the post in Bradford” and the authority was “entirely satisfied with the answers received from both parties.”

The EDP has tried to contact Ms Hellard for her comments but she has not replied.

WHAT WE ASKED

The questions posed by the EDP to Breckland Council under the Freedom of Information Act and the council's answers.

Q1. What were the allegations made against Ms Hellard and who was involved in carrying out the investigation?

Q2. Were allegations made by or did they involve other members of staff at Breckland Council or elected members or involve council property or other assets? If so, who/what were they?

Q3. Were allegations made by or did they involve any outside companies, individuals or organisations? If so, who were they and what were the allegations?

A. Breckland's answer to each was: It would not be appropriate for the council to respond to these questions.

Q4. What did the investigation find? Was any action taken against Ms Hellard or other members of staff or councillors?

A. As the council previously stated, Ms Hellard co-operated fully in the process and defended all the allegations made against her. No action has been or will be taken against her. No action has been or will be taken against any other members of staff or councillors.

Q5. How much did the investigation cost?

A. Officer time. Much of the investigation was conducted outside council time with no cost to the council.

Q6. What are the specific details of payments to Ms Hellard on her departure from Breckland Council?

A. Standard payments made to a departing employee.

Q7. Did she remain on full pay and enjoy other benefits from the authority while she was being investigated? At any stage was she suspended?

A. Ms Hellard was at no time suspended. The nature of the allegations was such that they did not require consideration of suspension. Ms. Hellard continued to undertake her key council duties and responsibilities outside of Breckland Council offices (in line with her wishes, which the council respected, rather than at the council's insistence) with the full support and co-operation of council leaders and officers. She accordingly received her normal remuneration for the work which she continued to carry out on the council's behalf.

Q8. Did she volunteer not to work at Elizabeth House while the investigation was being carried out or was she forced to stay away?

A. Please see the council's response to question 7 above.

Q9. Was there a legal agreement between Breckland and Ms Hellard for no other statements to be made by either party on her departure or was it an informal agreement?

A. The normal formalities were followed.

Q10. What is Breckland Council's policy on giving notice to leave, specifically relating to the chief executive's post? Did Ms Hellard give notice? If not, was that reflected in the termination package agreed for her?

A. There is no formal policy: each case is dealt with on its individual circumstances and merits. Please note that Ms Hellard resigned from her position. She was not given notice to leave. Please refer also to the council's response to question 6 above.

Q11. What projects was Ms Hellard heading up when she left the council and who has now taken leadership of them?

A. The deputy chief executive has taken overall responsibility for all current projects following an appropriate handover from Ms Hellard. Ms Hellard left the council with a strong management team in place.