York Outer MP Julian Sturdy has called for City of York Council leader Keith Aspden to resign – following a damning report into the handling of a £400,000 payout to the former council chief executive.
Conservative MP Mr Sturdy said the findings in the independent report are “shocking” – adding “York deserves better”.
Labour York Central MP Rachael Maskell called the episode a scandal and shared Labour councillors calls for Cllr Aspden to step down.
Mr Sturdy tweeted: “I completely agree with the [York Conservative] councillors that York deserves better and Keith Aspden should stand down to draw a line under this sad affair.
“The independent report is shocking and makes his position untenable.”
Ms Maskell tweeted: “People across York, struggling at this time, will not understand why their money was used this way.
“The Public Interest Report is independent. The extent of this [scandal] cannot be dismissed.”
York Labour group leader Cllr Danny Myers and York Conservative group leader Cllr Paul Doughty have also called for Cllr Aspden to step down.
‘A witch hunt’
The Liberal Democrats, who lead the council in coalition with the York Green Party, have already hit back at calls from Labour for Cllr Aspden to resign and accused Labour of a “politically-motivated witch hunt”.
In a statement following publication of the report, Cllr Aspden said he had taken advice from council officers about declaring a personal interest when he chaired a secret meeting to decide on the payout for the former chief executive, Mary Weastell.
At the time of the meeting Ms Weastell had already lodged an employment tribunal claim against the council and Cllr Aspden personally. Cllr Aspden did not declare an interest at the meeting.
Cllr Aspden says the council will now develop an action plan to respond to the recommendations in the independent report.
Independent auditors took the unusual step of issuing a Public Interest Report into the council’s handling of the payment, in which they say former chief executive Mary Weastell had filed an employment tribunal claim against Cllr Aspden over accusations of bullying and intimidation. Cllr Aspden denies the accusations.
The auditors say Cllr Aspden should have left the room during the secret meeting at which the payout for the former chief executive was agreed as it “presented a clear ethical threat”. They say he was advised he had no direct pecuniary interest as insurance arrangements were in place, but was advised to consider his position in declaring an interest.
The report warns of “recurring themes of conflicts of interest and standards of member behaviour that have led to audit action or media coverage in recent years” and makes recommendations.
The Lib Dems’ response
Lib Dem councillor Paula Widdowson said: “We know that there is certainly more that can be done at City of York Council to improve upon governance arrangements and, more widely, bolster existing processes.
“This is why we welcome the auditor’s recommendations and officers have been asked to set out an action plan based on the recommendations, which will be published soon. We will focus on delivering the needed changes to provide further assurances to councillors and residents.
“Unfortunately, opposition groups continue to misrepresent an HR issue and use it for political gain, which we view to be highly inappropriate, given the employment legislation in place which guides these processes.
“In regards to accusations presented in the media, the report makes it clear that both Cllr Aspden and the council deny the allegations. Cllr Aspden is clear that bullying is unacceptable and has no place at the workplace and as such the council has robust and clear policies on such matters.
“By delivering on our manifesto promise to streamline management structures at the council, this administration has saved taxpayers more than £200,000, every year, moving forward. This money will be invested back into taxpayers’ priorities, not just as a one-off, but annually.
“We will continue to focus on residents’ priorities – delivering the housing our city needs, tackling the climate emergency, improving frontline services and investing in communities, rather than spending money on senior management salaries or spending time on political mudslinging in the middle of a pandemic.”