Official who probed Covid breaches by councillors fears for job
- Credit: FDC
Clare Darnes, the wife of Fenland Council’s senior environmental health officer, fears husband Trevor could be fired over his battle to bring a code of conduct complaint against three councillors.
“Trev’s job, career and health is on the line; he feels incredibly let down,” she said.
Mr Darnes was the principal council investigator into breaches of Covid-19 regulations at the Angel public house, Wisbech on Christmas Eve last year.
Evidence gathered by police, the fire service and the council resulted in publican and then mayor Aigars Balsevics coming within a hair’s breadth of losing his tenancy.
Cllr Balsevics was fined £1,000, faced a licensing committee hearing of Fenland Council, and only escaped losing the tenancy after a successful appeal to Peterborough magistrates.
Magistrates retained the sanction of a temporary closure of the pub and permanent removal of Cllr Balsevics as the designated premises supervisor (DPS).
Mr Darnes felt Fenland Council should have taken action against other councillors drinking in the pub that night.
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Fenland Council decided otherwise.
And, according to Mrs Darnes, her husband has been hung out to dry.
“I am really angry at the way Trev has been treated and the frustration of being gagged has had a significant impact on his mental health,” she said.
Police revealed all three had been sent a letter but no further action was taken.
The three councillors were identified on CCTV as councillors Steve Tierney, Samantha Hoy and Dave Topgood.
Mrs Darnes says her husband tried to bring an internal conduct hearing against them.
“Clearly some councillors at FDC still do not believe Covid is serious,” she said.
“I think 150,000 deaths, NHS at breaking point and the economy devastated is evidence that it is as serious as it gets.”
She said: “I am proud of what Trev has done but do worry what the future holds. Now is the time for some honesty and action at FDC.”
Mrs Darnes says her husband worked from home during most of the pandemic.
“I witnessed conversations between him and senior management regarding the licensing case against Aigars Balsevics.
“Trevor had seen the councillors breaching Covid rules whilst he was reviewing the CCTV footage and reported this to FDC senior management.
“He was told that nothing could be done as they were in the pub in their own time and not acting as councillors.
“As elected members whose top priority should be public protection it was completely unacceptable not to take action,” she said.
“Once Trevor told senior management of his intention to make a formal conduct complaint their attitude towards him became very frosty and defensive towards the councillors.
“I heard on more than one occasion them tell him that he would be taken off the licensing case if made a conduct complaint against the councillors.
“That is despite them clearly being shocked when they first saw the footage and making sarcastic remarks.
“It seemed to be that Trevor was suddenly seen as a trouble maker just for doing what he believed was professionally and morally the right thing.
“He is not a trouble maker; the truth is quite the opposite.
“He has worked in environmental health for well over 30 years and has, I think, a good reputation amongst his colleagues, other councillors and the businesses and public he serves.
“He was awarded FDC employee of the year in 2019 and like his colleagues has worked extremely hard during the pandemic; working many weekends, late nights and even Christmas Day.”
“He knows very well the risk of Covid and what was required of businesses so was very disappointed at the goings on at the Angel.”
Mrs Darnes added: “I heard many strained and difficult conversations with senior managers.
“Despite all the compelling evidence and arguments Trev put forward they dismissed his complaint.
“He cannot appeal this decision as there is no mechanism for doing so.
“From the very start we could see there was no appetite or desire by senior managers to tackle this wrongdoing.”
Mrs Darnes said her husband does not regret his actions but the way he has been treated has affected him.
“I can assure all your readers that if Trev says there was serious non-compliance in the pub, then there was.
“The licensing hearing committee and magistrates clearly agree with him and so did the assistant director of public health and the police.
“The three councillors not only breached the rules themselves but witnessed and turned a blind eye to the mayhem occurring right in front of their eyes.
“This was probably the worst time in the pandemic for such an incident to occur.
“It was not just their own health they risked but that of the wider community. That is just shocking.”
Mrs Darnes says her husband remains disappointed that council lawyers prevented magistrates seeing the unedited CCTV footage from Christmas Eve.
Mrs Darnes added: “Trev has the utmost respect for the role of councillors and how hard most of them work for their communities.
“But those that choose to breach covid rules and turn a blind eye to a potential super spreader event goes completely against the standards expected of councillors.
“Now is the time for honesty and action at FDC”
Cambridgeshire Police says three Wisbech councillors received a letter after events at the Angel.
But police felt it was unfair to single out known councillors when members of the public, not known, also featured in the CCTV.
A spokesperson for Cambridgeshire Police said: “The designated premises supervisor (the person in charge at that time) was issued with a £1000 fine under health protection regulations.
“No other person was fined for the reasons given, but primarily because our approach at the time was to engage and explain before moving to enforcement. “
Police confirmed that one member of the public also received a letter,
The letter – dated February 26 – was signed by PC Justin Bielawski.
He told all four that on Christmas Eve last year, Wisbech was subject to Tier 2 restrictions.
Having reviewed CCTV footage, the evidence “appears to support the allegation” of Covid-19 breaches.
PC Bielawski said police “on this occasion will not be taking any formal action against you for this breach.
“The decision not to take further action has been made after a thorough consideration of all the facts, including time passed between event and allegation”.
He wrote: “A large number of persons also seen on CCTV suspected to have been breaching regulations, it would not be possible to identity all persons and issue tickets to everyone.”
PC Bielawski said police direction at the time was to “engage and explain, using enforcement as a last resort”.
A police spokesperson added: “I can confirm it was not a written warning or a caution, simply a letter written with the aim of preventing further offences of the same nature.”
Cllr Hoy denies receiving a letter from police.
Cllr Tierney responded: “My quote, which is a personal one and not speaking on behalf of any organisation or in any official capacity, is I have done nothing wrong.
“I have nothing further to say to you or to your nasty little biased, propaganda publication.”
Cllr Topgood, vice chair of the conduct committee, declined to comment
RESPONSE FROM FDC LEADER CHRIS BODEN
Fenland Council leader Chris Boden has responded to claims by Carol Darnes that her husband Trevor has been blocked from bringing conduct complaints about three councillors,
Trevor Darnes is an environmental health officer and led the licensing hearing into Covid-19 breaches at the Angel public house Wisbech, on Christmas Eve 2020.
This is the full text of the letter sent to Mrs Darnes, who has been campaigning on her husband’s behalf since he is prevented from doing so as a council employee.
Cllr Boden wrote:
May I first of all express my concern about your husband's health.
When I read your comments about your husband's mental health my first thought was about his immediate current well-being.
FDC takes mental health issues extremely seriously, and I trust that your husband has received and is continuing to receive sympathetic and appropriate support from the council's HR department.
As you will appreciate, because of confidentiality requirements, the HR department cannot discuss any aspect of your husband's health with me.
But if you have any concerns that the council is not offering appropriate assistance and support in relation to your husband's mental health, please do contact Paul Medd as FDC's Head of Paid Service.
You raised several issues which I will seek to respond to in turn.
Complaints relating to councillors' conduct are dealt with through the council's conduct procedure.
I note that you say that your husband has already made such a complaint, and that that complaint has been determined in accordance with that procedure.
Any person may at any time make a formal complaint to FDC about the conduct of any member, and that complaint will be processed in accordance with the conduct procedure.
It is not appropriate for the leader of the council to seek to influence or overturn the determination under the conduct procedure of such a complaint.
If any person has a complaint about the conduct of an employee (including an officer) of the council, that complaint should be put in writing to the Head of Paid Service, Paul Medd, and to the Head of HR, Sam Anthony.
Similarly, FDC is unable to interfere in operational policing decisions.
I see from your email this morning that your husband has already been in contact with the police.
If the police choose not to investigate any allegations they receive, or choose not to proceed with any allegations made, that is a matter which should be taken up directly with the police rather than with the council.
The events at the Angel Inn on December 24, 2020 were the subject of a thorough and detailed five and a half hour hearing at FDC earlier this year.
I understand that the hearing's conclusions were then subject to some amendment following an appeal to the magistrates' court. It would be quite wrong for me to challenge the scope or decision of the hearing, as amended by the magistrates' court.
I am not able to respond to matters raised in your emails which relate to your husband's employment or to data legally restricted under the General Data Protection Regulations (GDPR).
Matters relating to a council employee's employment must be taken up with HR and/or the Head of Paid Service.
Matters relating to GDPR should be addressed in the first instance to the council's monitoring officer, Amy Brown, and if necessary be referred to the Information Commissioner's Office.
In summary there are appropriate routes for you to take up the issues you raised, and I hope that this email has been helpful in detailing who is responsible for dealing with the several different matters that you mentioned in your emails sent yesterday evening and this morning.
If I can be of further assistance, please don’t hesitate to contact me again.
With kind regards,
Leader, Fenland District Council