Argyll & Bute council bullying goes straight to the top of organisation, whistleblowers tell CommonSpace


6 weeks ago CommonSpace revealed bullying and intimidation of journalists, and attempts to shut down public opposition by Argyll and Bute council. The story led to a wave of testimony from concerned residents who came to CommonSpace with their stories of council sackings, mismanagement, and allegations of bullying against Douglas Hendry, executive director of customer services. Here we tell the second chapter of this troubling story.

“IT’S a bit like dealing with the mafia in Sicily. It’s that bad.” Hyperbole? A Scottish council like the mafia? Yet CommonSpace sources with longstanding experience of council affairs have repeatedly described Argyll and Bute officers in similar language. “I’ve never seen anything like it in my professional life” has been repeated again and again.

Sources claim that:

– Allegations of bullying behaviour by Douglas Hendry, executive director of customer services, are responsible for problems with the culture of the council.

– Staff who won payouts against the council were told proceeding with complaints against senior management would be “a career ending move”.

– Dossiers of fresh complaints, including criticism of Douglas Hendry, have been given to council watchdog Audit Scotland and Scottish Government Ministers.

– Calls are being made for a full public hearing to investigate ongoing problems at the council.- Douglas Hendry and leader of the council Dick Walsh colluded over three decades to maintain control of Castle Toward estate.

Those who have spoken out against the management practices of the council include figures with senior legal, political and administrative experience, many over several decades in Argyll and elsewhere in the UK.

Alongside personal testimony of the behaviour of management towards fellow staff, CommonSpace has also received information on employment tribunal cases against the council, several legal cases against the council and ongoing investigations by Audit Scotland into the council leadership.

The revelations are particularly significant as Douglas Hendry is a senior employee of the council with influence over governance and legal practice. This includes interactions with council employees and councillors.

Former staff and sources who have worked closely with the council have made direct accusations of bullying against Douglas Hendry, executive director of customer services, who is described as a “dominating force” within council activities.

“He’s chief executive, solicitor, and director of services. Whatever picture you have of an individual like that is wrong”, explains an experienced legal source who dealt with Hendry at meetings.

The source, who has a longstanding role representing clients in serious legal disputes, describes Hendry as “basically a thug”.

Another source with both elected and administrative experience in local government committees, explained his dealings with Hendry across several decades. As a representative of another council authority, he took part in private sessions with Hendry in relation to inter-council corporate affairs and described three incidents of inappropriate behaviour.

“I’ve seen him operating on a number of occasions. Extraordinary man, not in a good way. The other councillor [at the meeting] was told what to do and shut up by Douglas Hendry. He was there to bully everybody. We sat in stunned silence”, the source explained.

A second private meeting occurred where another council employee was repeatedly lambasted and treated “very roughly” by Hendry, according to the former councillor.

On a third occasion a staff member managed to transmit a private altercation of Hendry shouting at a council employee to the CommonSpace source.

Other sources with management experience inside the council describe how Hendry uses his physicality to dominate individuals, which they blamed for creating a bullying culture across the organisation.

One former employee, who held responsibilities for council operations, was told not to challenge management behaviour for fear of losing their job. The source is one of several staff to win an employment tribunal settlement of thousands of pounds from the council for false dismissal.

They described the pressure applied at work as “verbal, suggestive, keep you job, pressures were applied…I was asked “do you want to work here anymore?”

“I thought of raising a complaint about the chief executive. The human resources representative told me that was a career ending move. So I didn’t do it.”

Confirming previous reports by CommonSpace into council activities, the source’s inside experience of Argyll and Bute management was that “At every turn they wanted things to be quiet, secret, they wanted everything sat on”.

Another ex-employee, who dealt with social services provision and treatment of vulnerable individuals, also won a pay out for false dismissal: “The bullying and intimidation filters right down through the third sector. They tried to smear me and I took them to tribunal. I was then intimidated out of it and settled before the final hearing”, the source said.

“If you try and do your job properly and speak up against cliques and bad management they get rid of you by whatever means they can. The only people who survive are the ones who dance to their tune.”

The source’s explanation for staying anonymous was familiar: “I couldn’t be name because they would sue me for having a confidential agreement.”

A request put to Douglas Hendry to discuss the allegations was declined.

It may become increasingly untenable for Argyll and Bute management to ignore such concerns.

Audit Scotland have led a prolonged investigation into the leadership at the council and campaigners are now calling for an escalation towards a full public hearing.

Tomorrow members of the Save Castle Toward campaign will meet cabinet member Alex Neil MSP [Tuesday 24 March] to their express concerns about the recent handling of a community buyout bid and the wider problem of council management.

Criticism from the campaign shone a light directly onto the three central figures at the council: Douglas Hendry, Dick Walsh and Sally Loudon.

A council insider explained the relationship between the three. Hendry gained his legal apprenticeship as a council employee decades ago before moving across “almost every department”. This experience gives him an authority across many council domains and wide influence as executive director of services.

Sally Loudon became formal chief executive around 7 years ago. According to CommonSpace sources, Hendry had expected to be granted the promotion. However, despite having a technically lower position “Loudon is under the control of Douglas. She won’t do anything until Douglas okays it”, according to those inside the council that have spoken to CommonSpace.

The relationship between Hendry and the council leader Dick Walsh has also been a running theme of council power relations. Walsh, who was referred to as “Dick-tator” by The Herald during a previous term in charge, has been a key ally of Hendry.

At three separate junctures – 1996, 2009 and 2015 – Hendry and Walsh colluded in maintaining council control over Castle Toward estate, according to several sources with firsthand experience of the events. The actions of the duo were crucial in the rejection of a community offer for the estate this year, according to reports on the buyout project.

It is this network that is a cause for concern in Argyll and Bute. A current employee of the council alleged to CommonSpace that: “All freedom of information requests and all press enquiries go through to Douglas Hendry. Douglas Hendry is at the heart of the corruption in this council.”

In 2013 the website For Argyll published an internal email from councillor James Robb which expressed concern that Hendry was getting “so directly involved in the politics of the council”. (Click here to read more)

Further evidence released under freedom of information legislation suggested that Loudon, Walsh and Hendry were the driving force behind the Argyll school closures dispute. (Click here to read more)

Editor of the For Argyll site Lynda Henderson has investigated council activities closely for fifteen years and spoke to CommonSpace about allegations against the council management: “I think that there’s a core – one is Dick Walsh and the other is Douglas Hendry. They are very much a twin act – one on the elected side, the other on the official side.”

Hendry, according to Henderson, “uses his own body as a force for intimidation. That’s a good metaphor for the way that he works.”

What, then, can be done to bring transparency and accountability to out of control councils?

Audit Scotland is supposed to act as a watchdog for council activities, but those spoken to by CommonSpace have lost trust in its ability to hold the council to account after two years of slow investigation into the councilDespite publishing two damning reports, Audit Scotland has so far been powerless to change the management culture in Argyll and Bute.

CommonSpace has been told that a further dossier of evidence was prepared for Scottish Government Ministers – who in extreme cases have the power to intervene directly in council management.

Public hearings, as held into Shetland Islands council in 2010 and over a “culture of bullying” at West Dunbartonshire council in 2006, is touted as the possible next step. (Click here to read more)

Yet there remains suspicion over whether necessary action is forthcoming. “Why when we have told Audit Scotland about these instances, why have they done nothing at all? They decided not to investigate. Audit Scotland let them get away with it”, told one frustrated source who personally confronted the organisation with evidence of council mismanagement.

So until Audit Scotland, the Scottish Government or the council blink there is stalemate and stagnation. The Scottish Government are wary of accusations of centralisation and stepping on council autonomy.

The repercussions of inaction are serious. One case presented to CommonSpace related to a interim manager official, who started work for the council during the most significant security event of the year – nuclear emergency preparation around the Faslane naval base site.

The manager’s relationship with council management led to his resignation half way through the nuclear safety training. Council sources say other staff have quit in similar circumstances. Those who have spoken to CommonSpace are convinced that management failings have an impact on the standard of council services – including education, social care and economic development.

Yet even in the circumstances that political leaders fail to intervene, there are a number of other challenges for Hendry and the council leadership.

CommonSpace is aware of at least one legal challenge that is likely to go to the Court of Session, potentially costing the council tens of thousands of pounds and creating another publicity disaster.

Activists in Dunoon and across the district are already preparing an election push to reform the council at the 2017 election. They have an eye on unseating Dick Walsh, the leader who blocked community plans to buy Castle Toward.

Even in the event that government and campaigners fail, Hendry is nearing the end of his career. But what culture will he leave behind?

There remains serious concerns across Argyll and Bute that the council is failing its residents, and many remain too fearful to act publicly.

“I cant stand lies, bad behaviour, deceit. I’ve seen it all. This in 21st century Scotland?”, a source told CommonSpace. Will anyone act to stop it?

An interview and comment was requested from Douglas Hendry, Dick Walsh and Sally Louden to discuss the allegations of bullying, the employment tribunal settlements and Audit Scotland investigations ahead of publication.

Instead the communications department, which itself has been plagued with a number of scandals, issued a response on their behalf.

It read: “Suggestions of bullying and mismanagement are nothing more than an attempt to distract from the important work that needs to be done for Argyll and Bute. The council puts Argyll and Bute first and welcomes opportunities to work with others who share that commitment, from the public, private and third sectors as well as people in our communities.”

Picture courtesy of Adam Foster