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Commissioners sack chief executive of troubled council for gross misconduct but she vows to “robustly” defend her reputation

The Best Value Intervention Commissioners at Slough Borough Council have summarily dismissed its chief executive, Josie Wragg. for gross misconduct amid a range of claims including that she had failed to provide effective corporate leadership and been reckless in proceeding with a reorganisation.

Following the decision, taken at a meeting of the Commissioners yesterday (9 March), Ms Wragg criticised what she said were “baseless claims” and added that she was prepared to robustly defend her reputation.

The background to the dismissal was that Slough BC’s Investigating & Disciplinary Committee (IDC) had met in October 2021 to consider concerns about the chief executive, in accordance with the employment protections which apply to local authority statutory officers.

The IDC concluded that the concerns should be independently investigated, with local government solicitor Alison Lowton, ex-Head of Governance and Legal at the General Social Care Council and former Director of Law at Camden Council, appointed to undertake the role.

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In December 2021 the Secretary of State for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities, Michael Gove, sent commissioners into Slough “to address serious financial and management failures”.

The Commissioners are led by Max Caller CBE, who led the best value inspections at Northamptonshire and Liverpool Councils and was a commissioner at Tower Hamlets.

Ms Lowton reported to the IDC in February 2022. In a statement Mr Caller said Ms Lowton had concluded that the chief executive had:

  • Failed to provide effective corporate leadership, or to build a stable and effective corporate management team
  • Failed to ensure adequate corporate capacity, resulting in inadequate internal processes and insufficient capacity to achieve the changes required
  • Failed to put in place effective council governance
  • Failed to ensure that posts at all levels including statutory officer posts were appropriately filled, for example the s151 Officer
  • Failed to monitor, challenge or manage the Council’s revenue budget, borrowing or capital programme
  • Failed to identify, manage or mitigate key risks facing the Council
  • Demonstrated a lack of awareness and acceptance of the need for improvement
  • Failed to ensure recommendations from audit and peer reviews were implemented in a timely manner
  • Failed to develop an adequate or credible response to the s114 Notice
  • Not demonstrated or given confidence to external partners that she was capable of leading the Council through its current difficulties.

The Lead Commissioner said the Lowton report concluded that there were many longstanding problems in the council, but the chief executive did not address them as she should have done. It also claimed that instead of building up corporate capacity to address these problems, capacity was removed as part of a whole council restructure.

That restructure, Ms Lowton reported, was undertaken without adequate costings, HR data, risk assessments, change management procedures or understanding of its potential impact, and then without review following the onset of the pandemic.

It was also suggested that, given that the council’s accounts had not been signed off, the restructure was undertaken when it was ’financially blind’.

The chief executive’s decision to proceed in these circumstances was, Ms Lowton advised, ‘reckless’.

The IDC subsequently concluded that:

  • the chief executive’s failure to address the issues facing Slough when she joined and the failures itemised above were seriously negligent, and
  • her pursuit of the ‘Our Futures’ programme with the consequences now apparent to all was reckless;
  • this constituted gross misconduct.

Having considered all the circumstances including a detailed statement by the chief executive, the IDC unanimously proposed that she should be dismissed, Mr Caller revealed.

The matter was then referred to Slough’s Independent Panel, which unanimously agreed to support the proposal to dismiss but advised the Commissioners to give consideration to the fact that no concerns about performance had been raised in appraisals.

The proposal was considered by Slough’s Best Value Intervention Commissioners (acting in the place of full Council) yesterday (9 March). Both Ms Wragg, her representatives and the Chair of the IDC were given the opportunity to make their respective points to Commissioners.

Mr Caller said: “In reaching its decision, Commissioners gave regard to the advice of the Independent Panel, which was a long-standing committee including people from outside of Slough Borough Council. It was common ground that Josie Wragg had had no concerns about her performance raised in her appraisals, which was cited in the Independent Panel’s advice, but the Independent Panel had supported recommendations of IDC.

“Commissioners noted there had been a number of attempts to settle the matter before it came to them. The council was prepared to settle before Christmas but the agreement could not be finalised. Whilst we heard proposals that there might still be a chance to reach agreement at this late stage no proposal was actually on the table.”

Mr Caller said it was also common ground that Slough needed to move on and the Commissioners therefore felt it was important to reach a conclusion in the interests of all parties.

“Commissioners recognised that the CEO could not and should not be held accountable for decisions taken prior to her appointment, but that the decisions she did take and was responsible for had been tested by the IDC and the allegations had been upheld through proper process,” he said, adding that no new evidence was provided to Commissioners against the decision of the IDC and advice of the Independent Panel.

The Lead Commissioner said: “We particularly noted that the IDC concluded it was reckless of the Chief Executive to proceed with reorganising the council during pandemic without the necessary financial and operational knowledge. The Independent Panel had supported the conclusion of the IDC.”

The decision to summarily dismiss Ms Wragg as Slough BC’s chief executive, head of paid service and returning officer took effect from 9 March 2022 without notice or pay in lieu of notice. However, she will paid for accrued leave.

In a post on LinkedIn, Ms Wragg said: “I wholly refute the decision taken today by Slough Borough Council. I am prepared to robustly defend my reputation, which has been established following 30 plus years of otherwise unblemished service in local government, in the face of these baseless claims.”

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