Investigation into the toxic culture at City Clean

The interim report by Aileen McColgan KC into allegations of bullying and harassment within Brighton and Hove City Council’s City Clean team has finally been published, and it’s deeply shocking.    

The underlying message is that staff have not only been subjected to appalling abuse, but that when they have spoken out, the disciplinary processes which should be in place to protect them have failed.   

The report identifies key dates, in particular issues arising during a 2019 dispute, when opportunities to set things right were missed – and cites direct political interference. For the sake of the staff at City Clean and the wider city, it’s critical that the next steps are fully independent and that any recommendations are carried forward.    

With Greens running the Council as a minority administration during the pandemic from July 2020 until May this year, and with Labour running the Council for five years before that, key documents and information relating to systemic failures of processes should be open to public scrutiny – so that residents can see for themselves what has gone so badly wrong in the past and left City Clean staff without adequate protection, and residents with such a dysfunctional service for far too long.       

Since earlier this year, when I heard significant concerns about historical incidents of bullying, harassment, misogyny, racism, homophobia and other unacceptable behaviours, I have been raising these concerns with councillors, and members of the Executive Leadership Team at the City Council about the urgent need for action. I sought assurances that, irrespective of the outcome of the local elections in May, that whoever formed the new administration, officers would ensure that issues were addressed.    

I made it clear that the problems had to be investigated, that any investigation needed to be independently led, and that the outcomes of the report need to be open to public scrutiny and published in full. This is all the more important when previous investigations did not lead to action, reportedly resulting in staff leaving the local authority because of the poor handling of the situation.     

I welcome the fact that the new administration at Brighton and Hove City Council has recognised the importance and need for an investigation into the toxic culture at City Clean, which Greens have long been pushing for – and discussed with Labour ahead of the local elections in May. 

It is right that Brighton and Hove City Council apologises to staff. Yet more than an apology is needed - it needs to be backed up by root and branch process change too. I hope that Aileen McColgan’s report leads to this. Anything less would be to let down staff who have suffered abuse in the workplace, and to residents in the city who have experienced the knock-on impact of dysfunction within City Clean for many years.       

It’s clear that problems are long standing: the report states that by 2017 “bullying behaviours had become normalised at City Clean”. Any criticisms of councillors or political parties in the full report when it is made public should be fully owned by them.   

Alarmingly, when attempts were made to tackle the toxic culture at City Clean these attempts appear to have been blocked or stalled by politicians. The interim report notes that “panels of councillors reinstated staff dismissed by CityClean for gross misconduct.” I hope that it’s made clear who these councillors were, going forward, so that individuals are held to account and that conflicts of interest are exposed.     

The local authority has clear safeguarding responsibilities to its staff, so if it is confirmed that councillors made dangerous decisions which allowed perpetrators of bullying and harassment to remain in the workplace, this needs to be addressed.     

Trade unions are an incredible force for good defending workers’ rights. This good work should not be muddied by conflicts of interest when donations are made to politicians who may have final say in disciplinary processes about trade union members.    

From Brighton and Hove UNISON's statement I’m aware that they have lobbied for a new confidential disclosure tool alongside a new bullying and harassment policy. It is essential that when people experience workplace harassment, they are not let down by processes, and left with fear of retaliation or not being believed.

With the full report not yet being published, and with concerns back in 2019 about a “secret meeting” being aired behind closed doors and not open to public scrutiny, it is essential that Brighton and Hove City Council allows cross-party and public scrutiny of the historical issues within City Clean.   

When it comes to the next steps, there must be no political interference, which it’s alleged has been a factor in the ability of officers to take appropriate disciplinary action in the past. Furthermore, politicians need to take ownership of any previous missed opportunities to tackle the problems sooner –  and come clean about admitting responsibility.  

The interim report goes on to note that:     

 “After a period of 6 years in which the Labour Party was in control of the Council there was a 20 year period of no overall political control, the Council moving between Labour, Conservative and Green minority leaderships between 2003 and 2023. Further, the Council operated a committee system throughout its existence with the exception of the period from 2008-2012, which meant that Council leaders of minority administrations had limited powers.”     

This reinforces the long running nature of issues at City Clean, and the political ping pong there has been at the local authority – where nearly six of the last eight years we’ve seen the administration being Labour-led.      

I have made my strength of feeling clear to the Executive Leadership Team at the City Council about the need for public scrutiny of the next steps. Furthermore, I have expressed my concerns about the immediate and pressing need to safeguard workers who have bravely spoken out.     

I welcome Councillor Sankey’s commitment to publish the full report and recommendations, and I hope that councillors from all parties will work together positively on this important issue for the good of the city.