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Councillor Andrew Jarvie cleared for saying ex-council boss ‘lied’ over Avonlea children’s home

By Scott Maclennan

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Councillor Andrew Jarvie has been cleared after admitting he accused former Highland Council chief executive of lying over a care home.
Councillor Andrew Jarvie has been cleared after admitting he accused former Highland Council chief executive of lying over a care home.

Councillor Andrew Jarvie has been exonerated by the Standards Commission for a second time after he claimed he was left "feeling misled" by the then Highland Council chief executive Donna Manson.

That will spark serious questions about the behaviour and attitude of high-ranking council officials after the Provost of Thurso, Struan Mackie, accused them of “creating a culture of fear and intimidation” and “resisting legitimate scrutiny.”

When asked to address the issues raised by Cllr Mackie, the council dodged the question, a spokesperson said: “This is a matter for the Standards Commission and it is not appropriate for the council to comment.”

The bitter debate stems from August to December 2022 when the council said Avonlea children’s home in Wick would close and then Mrs Manson told members at a meeting in Wick the announcement was a mistake.

The council then claimed the home was under review, then that it would be improved – this was following a dire Care Inspectorate report – and in a final twist that it would close just before Christmas.

At the final full council meeting of the year, Cllr Jarvie asked whether or not he was “wrong in feeling that the chief executive came to Caithness and lied to us about what was happening?”

The Convener Bill Lobban demanded an apology from Cllr Jarvie which he offered while maintaining “I cannot help but feel that during this affair, I’ve been misled” but it ultimately led the hearing before the Standards Commission for Scotland.

The Standards Commissioner's report on the issue found that Cllr Jarvie had accused the former council chief executive Donna Manson of lying and that ultimately he had the right to do so but not without some justification.

That reason is that the commissioner “considers that a restriction” on Cllr Jarvie’s “right to freedom of expression under Article 10 of the European Convention on Human Rights (‘ECHR’) cannot be justified.”

That view was then upheld by the panel at the hearing yesterday, who sought to find out whether or not he intended to cause any “distress” or not. Multiple attempts were made by the commission to contact Mrs Manson without result.

Councillors in the same meeting substantially supported Cllr Jarvie’s version of events. While the chief social work officer said she could not recall what the chief executive had said.

The chair of the panel Helen Donaldson read out the verdict: “In this case, the panel accepted that the respondent’s [Cllr Jarvie] accusation that the former chief executive had lied was a value judgement but was made in good faith.

“In considering the statement was made in good faith, the panel accepted that it was motivated by concerns about the closure of the home rather than being an attempt to question the chief executive’s integrity in general.”

It marks the second time senior officers have submitted complaints about Cllr Jarvie and the second time they have failed to make their case and raises very serious questions about how senior council officers operate.

The evidence bundle for the panel contained a very significant criticism of operations by Cllr Mackie, generally considered one of the most respected members, who condemned the council as undemocratic, threatening, secretive and untrustworthy.

Cllr Mackie cited the “deliberate exclusion of members” and the “lack of transparency” on decision making as well as the punitive measures and mis-representing the role of an elected member.

In one of the most damning remarks he describes how “the local authority can be accused of creating a culture of fear and intimidation surrounding the Code of Conduct and their erroneous interpretation.”

With multiple accusations of bullying already levelled at the council, it appears that even elected members have had pressure applied to them because the structures that should allow “legitimate scrutiny of the local authority have repeatedly failed.”

Cllr Mackie referred to the establishment during Covid of the so-called Gold command group that left out Cllr Jarvie. He was then the leader of the Conservative group and was “deprived of strategically important information.”

The “sole member-led body” for candidates was not consulted when a consultant was brought in to lead on education at a cost of £936 a day – the equivalent of £244,296 a year – and “many attempts to seek justification were shot-down.”

The lack of transparency on decision-making saw Cllr Mackie refer to the closure of Avonlea children’s home too, which prompted the investigation by the standards commission.

He said: The “communication was neither clear, nor the justification/reasons for the closure being consistent,” adding: “Local members still do not know the truth regarding the closure.”

Finally, regarding what he calls punitive measures, Cllr Mackie said: “Legitimate scrutiny has been mis-represented by the local authority” and “when uncomfortable topics have been raised” referral to the standards commission is threatened.

“This includes but is not limited to the corporate performance, the performance of senior officers and their directorates, value for money and disclosures on pay, remuneration or settlements,” he said.

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