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 have repeatedly described Argyll and Bute council officers in similar language. “I’ve never seen anything like it in my professional life” has been repeated again and again.

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”, explained one source who dealt with Hendry at meetings.

The source described Hendry as “basically a thug” in his council role.

Another source – who has met with Hendry across his decades at the council – 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.

The source described a second meeting where another council employee was repeatedly lambasted and treated “very roughly” by Hendry.

On a third occasion a staff member transmitted a conversation of Hendry shouting at another employee to a CommonSpace source.

Other sources described how Hendry uses his physicality to dominate individuals, which they blamed for creating a bullying culture across the organisation.

One former employee was told not to challenge the chief executive’s behaviour for fear of losing their job. The source was eventually sacked before winning an employment tribunal settlement from the council for false dismissal.

This third source 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.”

An employee of the council told CommonSpace: “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.”

A fifth source, who also won a pay out for false dismissal, blamed management at the council for a culture of bullying and intimidation.

“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.”

Douglas Hendry declined a request to speak to CommonSpace about the allegations.

The problems in Argyll and Bute have been a running saga for several years, which lead to a prolonged investigtion by council watchdog Audit Scotland. Despite the numerous criticism of council management, Douglas has kept his job.

A council insider explained Hendry’s background. He gained his legal apprenticeship as a council employee decades ago before moving across “almost every department”, according to a source. This experience gives him an authority across many council domains and wide influence as chief executive for 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 a council source.

The relationship between Hendry and the council leader Dick Walsh has also been a running theme of council power relations. Walsh, who was call Dick-tator 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. Their actions were crucial in the rejection of a community offer for the estate this year, according to reports on the buyout project.

Lynda Henderson, an editor at the For Argyll blog, has investigated council activities closely for fifteen years and spoke to CommonSpace about these allegations: “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. If people make things difficult he just threatens them.”

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 council

Audit Scotland has received a series of complaints, including a case regarding improper conduct by Douglas Hendry. Yet despite damning reports, Audit Scotland has been powerless to change the management culture in Argyll and Bute.

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

Campaigners will meet cabinet member Alex Neil MSP tomorrow [Tuesday 24 March] to their express concerns, in what may be the latest step towards a full Audit Scotland public hearing.

A public hearing was held into Shetland Islands council in 2010 and in 2006 into a “culture of bullying” at West Dunbartonshire council. (Click here to read more)

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 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 story given 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 the chief executive 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.

What it is that motives Hendry in his role? Attempts to interview Douglas Hendry were rebuffed. Lynda Henderson claims the council operates on a basis of “patronage and open threats”. Despite following council activities for years, she remains in the dark as to why this culture hasn’t been openly challenged.

Henderson is convinced that the local press have been pressured into a tame reporting style: “I think the press are tame. The local press are patsies. They defend the council to be welcomed inside. We don’t [the For Argyll website] but everyone else does – some cravenly so.”

One of the sources who won an employment settlement agreed: “They don’t seem to step out of line too often. They don’t question too much. There is a council agenda filtering through. What goes in the paper is what they want to go in the paper and that’s it.”

Previous allegations against the communications department suggested that the council threatens journalists to play down stories in return for inside information. (Click here to read more)

Even in the circumstances that political leaders fail to intervene, there are a number of other looming 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 already 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 concern 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 Josie Maria Cuellar