Greenwich Labour has been told to stop raffling off tea with the mayor or lunch with the council leader by the town hall’s top anti-fraud officer.
The instruction came after an inquiry into allegations that council staff were told to help organise a Labour fundraising event exonerated Averil Lekau, the deputy leader, and found that staff willingly helped out with the event.
But the inquiry found that council officers did help organise the event in working hours and used a council email account to promote the fundraiser in December, when tea with the mayor, Leo Fletcher, and lunch with council leader Anthony Okereke were among the prizes in a raffle.
It also found that a member of council staff had been in charge of the Labour group’s bank account for many years. Greenwich has been run by Labour since 1971 and the party now has an overwhelming majority in the town hall, with 52 out of 55 councillors.
“Historic practices have built up over the years resulting in the inadvertent blurring of the boundaries between Labour Group or Labour Party activities and that of Royal Borough of Greenwich business,” a report by Brendan Costello, the assistant director of financial governance and audit, found.
The report found no wrongdoing by Lekau, Fletcher or Okereke, while there was “no suggestion” that any of the officers spoken to by Costello’s team “acted in an inappropriate manner”.
Costello led the internal team that secured the conviction of Tonia Ashikodi, the Labour councillor who was given a suspended jail sentence in 2020 for taking a council home while owning three other properties in the borough.
The inquiry followed a story on this website last month and questions raised by Matt Hartley, the council’s opposition Conservative leader.
Greenwich released a statement on March 15, which said there had been “no intentional wrongdoing” by council staff, but only released the full report this morning, 12 days later, and two days before Hartley was likely to demand its publication at a council meeting.
The fundraising dinner for Greenwich Labour Women, on December 6, featured the party’s national deputy leader, Angela Rayner, as a special guest, and councillors posted pictures on social media. However, council officers could also be seen in the photos.
There is no prohibition on all but the most senior council officers being members of political parties when they are away from work, but staff are not allowed to use council facilities for party political purposes.
“Officers volunteered to assist at a private event, organised by the Labour group,” the report says. “The event was outside office hours and the officers were not remunerated for their attendance or indeed for any ‘duties’ they carried out on the evening. Internal Audit are mindful that the role of the officers involves providing support to the leader / deputy leader of the council.
“However, given the nature of the role and the office functionality there is perhaps the potential for an inadvertent ‘blurring of the lines’ of demarcation between what represents Royal Borough of Greenwich business and that of the labour group.”
The report found that there was no evidence to support claims that Lekau asked staff to help organise the event, but said while officers had attended the event in their own time, pictures of them on social media meant there was “clearly the potential risk of the perception that the council has used taxpayers’ money to aid a political party”.
Costello’s investigation found that “tea with the mayor” and “lunch with the leader” were also on offer as raffle prizes. While Greenwich has only had Labour mayors since 1971, the role as the borough’s “first citizen” is supposed to be strictly neutral.
The report says: “It is not uncommon for mayors to hold an afternoon tea and for tickets to be sold to the general public for the event in aid of charity. However, in this instance, this was not a public event, tickets to the event were restricted via invitation only.
“Again, one might argue it is a matter of perception, but in this instance, it appears the Labour group were raffling prizes that grant the winner access to the Royal Borough Greenwich mayor or leader. Internal Audit understand that the prizes were advertised as tea/lunch with the mayor or leader, rather than tea with Cllr Fletcher or lunch with Cllr Okereke.
“There is a risk that it could be perceived that the prize winner would be getting private / exclusive access to the mayor or leader. Indeed, it could also be perceived that the prizes themselves represent council resources.
“Internal Audit find that the Labour group marketing access to Royal Borough of Greenwich positions to be inappropriate and is another example of the inadvertent blurring of the boundaries between what represents Greenwich Labour group activities and the Royal Borough of Greenwich.”
The report found “that historic practices have built up over the years resulting in the inadvertent blurring of the boundaries” between Greenwich Labour and the council.
It recommended that “consideration is given to the roles of the officers or indeed the office functions to avoid actual, potential or perceived breaches of the boundaries”.
Hartley said this morning: “These findings are damning. Not only was there an inappropriate use of council resources in promoting this specific Labour fundraising event – but the investigation also discovered wider and more serious examples of the blurred boundaries between Labour Party and council activity.
“After years of opposition councillors raising this issue, the council has finally and for the first time acknowledged that these blurred boundaries exist. This isn’t about the actions of individuals, but rather a deeper cultural problem that goes back many years. These problems may not have started under this new Labour leadership – but it now falls to them to fix these blurred boundaries once and for all. We need to hear from Cllr Okereke exactly what steps he intends to take to act on these findings.”
A council spokesperson said: “The council’s internal audit team have found no intentional wrongdoing by council staff or members following a fact-finding exercise into a Labour group event.
“Staff volunteered their time outside of work-hours to attend the meeting, and they were in no way renumerated or granted time off in lieu to do so. It is wrong to suggest that any officers intentionally acted inappropriately, or that the deputy leader – or any other elected member – asked them to do so.
“Internal audit has however recommended that consideration be given to the roles of officers and office functions in this area of the Council to avoid inadvertent blurring of the boundaries between Labour Group or Labour Party activities and that of Royal Borough of Greenwich business.”
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