AN INVESTIGATION following sexism claims made by a former Stratford District Council boss will see two district councillors forced to apologise.
Welford ward councillor Peter Barnes and Red Horse ward councillor John Feilding were found to have breached the authority’s code of conduct following allegations from former chief executive Isabel Edgar Briancon who resigned in June after just six months.
In a Facebook post – which she later removed – Ms Edgar Briancon said a councillor had said ‘good breeding hips’.
The former boss – who earned more than £80,000 a year – also claimed she was told to be more ‘chatty’ at an appraisal, and that she needed to ‘throw her opinions around a bit more’ and it would help if she was 6’2 tall.
The district council immediately said there would be an independent investigation as the story made national headlines.
While Coun Feilding was not found to be included among those referred to in the Facebook post, witnesses at the council raised a number of concerns over the councillor including comments to female staff that included sexual innuendo, the use of derogatory, sexist language, invading personal space and when uninvited, informing a female officer about a sensitive issue affecting his sexual health and stroking a female officer’s neck.
In response Coun Feilding said he may have leant on the back of the officer’s chair to see the computer, but did not touch her. He added the complaint regarding sexual health occurred outside the office.
He also pointed out no one had raised issues about his behaviour or language previously and described himself as ‘old-school’, being taught to respect women.
The investigating officer concluded while his response might ‘mitigate his behaviour to some extent’, it did not excuse the overwhelming evidence of a pattern of unacceptable behaviour.
The comment about ‘good breeding hips’ and a suggestion to perform a pagan ritual for fertility support, for Ms Edgar Briancon, were thought to be made by Coun Barnes – a claim which, according to the investigating officer, was ‘not disputed’. Other complaints included comments to female staff including sexual innuendo, using derogatory, sexist language and behaving in a way which made female staff feel uncomfortable.
Coun Barnes said he was unable to recall saying many of the things claimed by witnesses and that he had been in poor health. He added a prescription for the wrong type of tablets had affected his behaviour.
The investigating officer said while he was in no doubt the councillor – who has been elected a number of times – was hardworking, ‘old school’ behaviour was no excuse, and there were plenty of councillors of his generation who were able to perform their role without such complaints made against them.
He added: “Facebook comments about good breeding hips are hardly likely to enhance the profile of the council.”
Coun Barnes and Coun Feilding have accepted the findings and agreed to make a full written apology to all staff and undergo further training on the Code of Conduct in relation to respect and reputation.
One other councillor – and another who was no longer serving – have been cleared of any wrong-doing. An investigation into the conduct of a fifth is ongoing.
An external investigator is set to produce a further report into the wider culture of the district council, following the comments in the Facebook post.
The report will be discussed at a meeting on November 18.