‘I’m not viewed as an equal’, Greenwich councillor says in new bullying row

Dawn Butler MP and Ann-Marie Cousins
Ann-Marie Cousins (right) with Labour MP Dawn Butler (photo: twitter.com/AMCo1)

A Greenwich councillor told a standards hearing that she is “not viewed as an equal” after a complaint was made about her conduct at a training session with young people who had been in council care.

Ann-Marie Cousins, a Labour representative for Abbey Wood and deputy chief whip, complained that she was being victimised at the hearing, which centred on hotly-disputed allegations that she had told a council officer to “pipe down” during the session, which she strongly denied.

The officer had complained about the conduct of four councillors, but the case against Cousins was the only one to progress to a standards hearing, with two others apologising and a charge against another dropped. Her solicitor, Frances Randle, said that the charge against Cousins was only a small element of what happened that evening.

A panel including three councillors found that on the balance of probabilities, she had used those words, or words to that effect, and that this was a breach of the councillors’ code of conduct. However, after commissioning an outside investigation and then sitting for over eight and a half hours last Thursday, the panel decided that it was a breach of “the lowest possible level”, and that they “did not accept that the action was calculated to put officers in their place”. They said she should undergo further training on the council’s code of conduct and complaints procedures, and on protocols for dealing with officers. She was not asked to apologise.

But the committee also saw evidence that the council’s ruling Labour group commissioned outside to help resolve its divisions – which included concerns that black and minority ethnic Labour councillors were not being treated fairly. David Weaver, a mediator, told investigator Simon Goacher, who was hired by the council to look into the allegation against Cousins, that one aspect of his work was that black and minority ethnic councillors felt “they were disproportionately on the wrong end of hearings and inquiries and before the whips”.

Parts of the day-long hearing, held on Thursday, were streamed on YouTube. Bundles of redacted evidence were posted to the council website the following day.

Cousins herself tweeted during a break in proceedings – referring in the hashtag to the last words of George Floyd, the black American killed by a white police officer in Minneapolis last month: “See the ‘shackles’ around this Councillor. What happens when you stand-up for yourself or is not welcomed! #icantbreathe”.

The hearing came as Greenwich Council leader Danny Thorpe prepared to unveil the words “Black Lives Matter”, which were painted on the pavement of General Gordon Square in Woolwich by council contractors on Saturday morning.

Cousins’ accusations have reignited years of complaints of bullying within the council’s fractious Labour group; in 2014, two councillors stepped down complaining of a “toxic” atmosphere inside the group under long-serving leader Chris Roberts, who later resigned. Fellow councillors Ivis Williams and Averil Lekau tweeted their support for Cousins.

Ann Marie Cousins tweet
Cousins tweeted her anger at the proceedings

Young people ‘upset by councillors’

The alleged incident is said to have taken place in April 2019, when eight councillors were summoned to a training event involving young people leaving care. There were accusations that some of the councillors present acted in a rude and disrespectful way towards the care leavers. One of the facilitators was Josh Harsant, whose employer Participation People works with the council’s children’s services department. Harsant is also Thorpe’s partner, and was a one of a number of people questioned after a complaint was made by Henrietta Quartano, a senior council officer.

The training session was about “corporate parenting” – every councillor and employee of Greenwich Council has legal responsibilities to children in care. But the young people were said to have become “increasingly anxious” during the session – councillors were “looking at their watches and making it clear they did not really want to be there”, according to Quartano. Some of the young people are said to have been upset by councillors telling them they should be paying council tax.

One councillor there, Eltham North representative Linda Bird – the current mayor – said “some councillors chose to use their position to give the impression of power”, according to a report into the incident. A colleague of Harsant, Omotara Aladegbamigbe, said some councillors mistook her for a care leaver.

However, others who attended the meeting disagreed over what happened. Quartano said she was told to “pipe down”. Harsant said a councillor made a comment about adults “piping up”. Bird said Cousins said “‘shut up’ or something like that”. But Greenwich West councillor Mehboob Khan said he heard nothing, while Ivis Williams said she found the allegations “shocking”. Neither of the care leavers quoted in the published report recalled the incident, although one said they would not have been surprised if it happened.

The former council leader Denise Hyland, who said she believed Cousins said “‘pipe down’ or something like that”, added that while she may have appeared brusque, “that Cllr Cousins was simply saying let’s move on”, according to the report. Hyland also criticised the format of the session, saying that “that if the event had been better organised or comments had been challenged at the time then they would not be in this position”.

‘All hell broke loose’

The day after the session, “all hell broke loose”, according to Hyland, with Thorpe apologising by email to senior council officers and telling Quartano that the council’s chief executive, Debbie Warren, would be in touch to advise on how to make a complaint about the alleged “pipe down” comment.

Hyland said in the report that the incident should have been brought to the attention of the council’s chief executive, Debbie Warren, rather than Thorpe, pointing out that the presence of the leader’s partner complicated issues.

Cousins told the investigator that because of her previous history with Thorpe, he “was trying to get me for something I haven’t done”. “She queried how Cllr Thorpe had obtained information about what was said during the training, and queried whether Mr Harsant had related the information to Cllr Thorpe,” the report says. Town hall sources insist that Harsant had no role in making the complaint and say that he was one of a large number of people questioned in the investigation.

Cousins said she was confused as to why she was being accused of having given “unsolicited feedback” to the care leavers after the course. “It’s what you normally do at the end of a course,” she said.

“Ask yourselves, where does that put me, how I am viewed as a councillor in this council? I’m certainly not viewed as an equal. ‘How dare I’ – that’s how it comes across to me.”

She said the fact that Thorpe was not interviewed meant the investigation was “clearly biased”.

“This process is being done to me and against me with the clear purpose of trying to discredit me. I know that I did not do anything to disrespect those young people. In terms of this trumped-up charge – it is worrying.”

She said that “something had happened” before the charge had been put to her.

“I am frightened for my life and my reputation here. It’s very important. Any councillor who dares to stand up for themselves will be trampled on. And this can’t be allowed to happen like this. This is not the first incident and there’s another two [hearings] following this.

“How many complaints can one councillor, who tries to do the right thing, who asks questions in committees, how many things can I take? This has been going on for much too long.”

Cousins said she believed that Weaver was asked to contribute to the report to prove that “cultural differences did not play a role in this scenario”. “And that is because of what has gone on before. Fair enough, I can’t go into it, but that is because of what has gone on before.”

Pressed by the standards committee’s chair, Susan Blackall, to stick to the substance of the complaint, Cousins said: “The context is important – what can I say?”

‘Nefarious reasons’

Randle said there was doubt over what happened that evening. “Nobody has given us firm enough evidence of what the facts actually were.”

Cousins said she was “mystified” as to why the panel had found she had said “pipe down”, and added: “I believe a lot of money has been wasted on a very poor investigation.

“This is not the first breach I have been accused of, and there is more to come. This is the environment I am working in, in Greenwich. There’s nothing I can do about it.”

She said the phrase had been attributed to her “for nefarious reasons”.

Simon Goacher, the investigator, said he found “on the balance of probabilities” that Cousins had told Quartano to “pipe down”.

Four councillors were the subject of complaints. Warren told the hearing that the four councillors had been offered the chance to sign a letter apologising for the incident but without accepting responsibility. Two agreed to sign a letter apologising for how badly the evening had gone: one was identified during the hearing as Peninsula councillor Chris Lloyd, the other was Mehboob Khan. A complaint against Ivis Williams was eventually dropped after she refused to sign.

But Cousins said that she was not told exactly what she would be apologising for, and her solicitor, Frances Randle, said the process for settling the complaint was “unfair”.

“There were obstacles put in her path when she wanted to resolve this amicably,” Randle, said. “Partly to blame are your procedures – there were obstacles put in her path when she wanted to resolve this amicably.”

It was “grossly unfair” to portray Cousins as awkward, she added.

‘Fair to all parties’

Woolwich Town Hall
The hearing has been greeted with incredulity among councillors

The standards committee is comprised of Susan Blackall, a non-voting independent chair, Conservative leader Nigel Fletcher, deputy council leader Denise Scott-McDonald and chief whip Angela Cornforth. An “independent person” – Professor Jim Emerson of Queen Mary, University of London – also sits in on the committee. It said Cousins should undergo further training on the council’s code of conduct and complaints procedures, and on protocols for dealing with officers; while separate training sessions would be offered to all councillors.

Cousins, who is also a magistrate, has not responded to a request for comment. Last year, 853 reported that she had sat on cases involving the council without declaring an interest – a case yet to be heard by the standards committee. In March, this website also reported that she had shared a petition about 5G telecom masts based on discredited theories that they are harmful. She did not respond to a request for comment then, but later said on social media that she “did not engage with the blog site” [sic].

The hearing has been greeted with a mixture of bemusement and incredulity by councillors, with astonishment that an off-the-cuff comment could trigger a complex and expensive investigation. “Such an expense over something so trivial,” said one.

“It looks awful and could have been stopped by both sides,” another commented.

A council spokesperson said: “To ensure impartiality, the standards committee listens to the views of an independent person with no connection to the council. It is also chaired by a person who is not a councillor.

“The committee is satisfied that the complaint was considered in a way that followed the council’s procedures and was fair to all parties. In the interests of fairness to all involved, the council will not be making any further comment about this matter.”

The council also emphasised that the committee did not accept that the action was calculated to put Quartano or council officers generally “in their place”.

Story updated at 12.20pm to make clear the standards committee found on the balance of probabilities that Cousins used those words or words to that effect.

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