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Councillor reported to Ombudsman for helping whistleblower and talking to Nation.Cymru

25 Apr 2024 5 minute read
Elwyn Vaughan

Martin Shipton

A councillor who spoke to Nation.Cymru in support of a whistleblower who revealed wrongdoing by a headteacher has himself been reported to the Ombudsman for allegedly bringing the local authority on which he sits into disrepute.

Cllr Elwyn Vaughan, who leads the Plaid Cymru group on Powys County Council, said he found it “unjust” and “back to front” that he could face suspension for helping to reveal damaging information that the authority was trying to cover up.

Nation.Cymru revealed how Nick Ratcliffe, head of a PRU (pupil referral unit) at Newtown, made irregular payments with taxpayers’ money for a barn he was converting into Airbnb accommodation.

A whistleblower who reported the matter was initially told by the authority’s head of legal services, Clive Pinney, that there was no evidence of any irregularities. It was only when the whistleblower contacted Audit Wales that any action was taken.

The whistleblower was also present when another senior council official instructed an administrative worker in the unit to delete the school’s Amazon account, thus eliminating evidence of the unauthorised purchases. Unknown to the senior official, another administrator had copied details of the transactions, so the relevant information was retrievable.

Work tools

The whistleblower sent an email detailing her concerns to a council official. It included a section which said: “Having had and overheard conversations with [a colleague] who like me was worried about whistleblowing on a headteacher, it appears that during the summer holidays of 2021 and thereafter, [the headteacher] had purchased a number of work tools such as spades, shovels, pickaxes, post hole diggers, driveway fabric etc that have never been seen at the PRU unit where we work. It should be noted that those are only a few items that I have personally been aware of, so can only comment on those.”

On September 16 2022 Mr Pinney wrote to the whistleblower stating: “Your whistleblowing complaint was investigated by the council’s fraud investigation team. Copies of all purchase cards transactions and accompanying detailed invoices were obtained and the PRU was visited for a stocktake.

“The detailed investigation has provided no supporting evidence in respect of the allegations made within the whistleblowing referral and therefore the case has been closed with no further investigation or action being taken.”

Investigation

The whistleblower then contacted Audit Wales, which was in touch with the council. Subsequently, the whistleblower received a letter from Mr Pinney on June 30 2023 which stated: “I can advise you that as a result of your whistleblowing complaint, a disciplinary investigation has been undertaken which has resulted in Mr Ratcliffe leaving the employment of the council. Please accept our apologies for the length of time it has taken to reach an outcome to your complaint.”

The whistleblower was supported by Cllr Vaughan, who said: “This matter has been handled extremely badly and is another example of the council’s cover-up culture. Things must change.”

Cllr Vaughan emailed Cllr Pete Roberts, the council’s cabinet member for a learning Powys this series of questions:

* Can you please confirm why the head of the Newtown PRU unit has left his post suddenly this Summer without the knowledge of the management governors?

* Is it correct that he was buying a substantial number of items on the school credit card?

* What was the total value of these purchases?

* Has anyone checked back on the monthly card bills?

* Have all the items been recovered?

* Has the matter been referred to the police? If not, why not?

* Has an NDA [Non Disclosure Agreement] been done with him? If one has, why?

The information was not forthcoming.

Nation.Cymru asked the council for a statement. A spokesperson told us: “The headteacher of the North PRU left his position in the last academic year before an investigation could be concluded. The Management Committee were made aware of the situation. An internal investigation has also been concluded in regard to the situation.”

We asked whether the investigation report was publicly available but did not receive a response.

Review

Later, Cllr Vaughan criticised a decision by the council’s governance and audit committee to undertake a review of the authority’s whistleblowing policy, but not to look at the case involving the misuse of funds by the headteacher. Both Mr Pinney and the council’s chief executive Emma Palmer said it would be wrong to look at the case raised by the whistleblower, which should remain confidential.

Cllr Vaughan told Nation.Cymru: “I think it is ludicrous that instead of looking at this scandal, which the council tried to cover up, the review will be looking at some fictional case study. This is hardly likely to inspire confidence in the council’s approach to dealing with cases of fraud or encourage whistleblowers to come forward when they know something is wrong.”

Now Ms Palmer has referred Cllr Vaughan for investigation to the Public Services Ombudsman for Wales, alleging that he has brought the authority into disrepute by disclosing confidential information.

Cllr Vaughan said: “All I have done is support a whistleblower and raise concerns about the misuse of public funds. Surely that is what a councillor should be doing. What is happening is unjust and back to front.”

We left a detailed message for the council’s Liberal Democrat leader Cllr James Gibson-Watt, asking him to explain why the authority had reported Cllr Vaughan to the Ombudsman for supporting a whistleblower and speaking to Nation.Cymru. He has not responded.


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Another Richard
Another Richard
28 days ago

It seems to me that the people bringing the Council into disrepute are those who reported Cllr Vaughan to the Ombudsman. I hope Nation.Cymru will report the outcome of the complaint.

Richard
Richard
28 days ago

When I sat on the ombudsman’s Advisory Committee that set up the standards rules – this is what we feared and did NOT want ! Officers might be tempted to hide behind the “ councils reputation “ as a shield against light being shone in dark corners . Elwyn Mosley who was in post as the time agreed and assured us that the public interest and public good were the priority. The Partnership Council of the then Welsh Assembly Gvt under Peter Law AM agreed with our report that was meant to produce high standards and expectations not a shield… Read more »

Last edited 28 days ago by Richard
Owain Glyndŵr
Owain Glyndŵr
28 days ago

Whether in Cymru or England all I’m coming across in Local Government is a lack of funding for public services and misuse of public money at the same time. To say I’m fed up would be an understatement. I am disappointed, but at all surprised 🙄

hdavies15
hdavies15
28 days ago
Reply to  Owain Glyndŵr

Corruption in high places ….. and now corruption in low places ! May have been like that for ever but it seems more endemic nowadays. The sense of entitlement is gross, pigs at a trough doesn’t adequately describe it.

Linda Jones
Linda Jones
28 days ago
Reply to  hdavies15

I agree. There has probably always been corruption in politics but today it seems normalised and endemic. It seems they are all at it, lining their own pockets or covering up malpractice, all at our expense. There doesn’t seem to be any consequences its always ‘… ok you found out now lets move on’.

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