Following the responses to my letter of the 01/11/17 from both the Chief Executive and the Council Leader I wish to make my position abundantly clear to all of you in this open letter.
I raised the issue of sexual harassment within the Council because I’d hoped that it would serve as a catalyst and starting point for some open dialogue at a strategic level around the issues that we face in the Council and also currently see highlighted at a national level. There is, without any doubt in my mind, a seismic shift required within the current culture that we find ourselves part of.
Unfortunately the latest internal developments mean that I now find myself forced into a position of having to assert my position and clarify a number of points.
1. At no time when highlighting this broad issue did I instigate a complaint against any other elected member of this Council. In fact my initial correspondence quite clearly stated, “This letter is not designed to be a witch-hunt or an exercise in pointing the finger at anyone”. So to be very clear, despite what you’ve been advised by the Chief Executive, I will NOT be pursuing any complaints against any other elected member in reference to this issue.
2. It therefore came as a complete shock to me after being asked by the Chief Executive if I was available, for what I wrongly assumed to be a brief informal call to discuss the issues raised, what I actually received was an official conference call yesterday evening from the Chief Executive and the Monitoring Officer. I am deeply concerned by both the content and tone of this call. I was given no warning that this was to be a formal call in which I’d be pressurised into invoking disciplinary procedure. During the call I quite clearly stated that I did not want to pursue a complaints process, however my wishes were completely disregarded. The call lasted 18 minutes and during this time I felt intimidated, threatened and effectively silenced. The only way I was able to speak was through interruption. After reading the content of the email sent out to all of you and senior officers by the Chief Executive shortly after the call finished, the content of which is almost identical to the officer’s dialogue in the actual phone call, it’s clear to me that all of this was contrived and prepared beforehand. Had I known this was going to be the route taken by our most senior officials, I would have absolutely not have taken this call alone.
3. During the call The Chief Executive made clear his disappointment with me over the route that I have taken in raising this issue. He was quite clear in his disapproval of my use of open letter and social media and suggested that “because of the good relationship that I share with him, I should have taken this to him quietly or given him a heads up about what I was about to do”. I find it incredibly ironic that I found myself having to explain to the most senior male in our Council, why I, as a female Councillor would have felt incredibly uncomfortable having quiet conversations with male officers, or indeed male Councillors about this issue. It is unacceptable that any woman should ever be placed in this position. It is completely up to me, as it should be with any other woman, to decide how I wish to speak out on this issue and for any man to criticise that and attempt to silence me in this way is inherently wrong.
4. The officious approach and lack of empathy shown by our most senior male officers in their attempt to deal with me simply serves to highlight the very issue that I am attempting to shine a light on. This episode is symptomatic of the whole culture within the Council that I despise and wish to see change. If I do as I’m told and pursue the complaints process as instructed, I have no doubt of the outcome – A number of complaints against elected members will be investigated internally, behind closed doors, by the book and it will become a case of my word against a collective of male administration councillors and ex councillors (as some of this is historic). They will close ranks against me and I will be scapegoated and victimised and that is the last anyone would hear of this. How can I be so sure? Because recently I took forward a complaint internally about the behaviour of a male councillor and it was investigated by the Monitoring Officer. The outcome was that the Councillor involved wrote to me saying he was “sorry that I took any offence” to his behaviour. Pause and think about that for a second; instead of apologising for the fact that he’d made me feel intimidated; he put the onus for how his behaviour affected me, directly onto me! It was then a case of trivialisation, drop this now Julie, move on, nothing to see here. You simply couldn’t make this stuff up!
5. I would like to make it clear that I have treated the testimony of the Council staff that contacted me in the strictest confidence and with the utmost respect and will continue to do so. On this there will be absolutely no compromise.
6. I have to say that amid the gut wrenching feelings I’m experiencing right now, there is one positive at present, which is I sincerely hope is a light at the end of this tunnel;
I am extremely heartened by the response of our Council Leader to this issue. Cllr Aileen Morton has sent me a comprehensive email in which she states “we need men to step up and take ownership of these issues; it’s not acceptable to put the burden for solutions on women”. This is a stance that I wholeheartedly welcome and fully support. Already Cllr Morton has put wheels in motion to address the issues raised via the political groupings within the Council and for this approach I absolutely applaud her efforts and look forward to working with her and all of you so that we can move this issue forward in a proactive and hopefully collegiate cross chamber manner.
Whilst it is now clear to me that we as a Council do have policy in place to support workplace harassment in all its forms; it’s also very clear that if this policy worked effectively we wouldn’t find ourselves at this point now. I’m in no way convinced that the support and signposting required by those of us who wish to bring these issues forward actually exists for staff or Councillors. I was told recently by a member of staff that “I have now crossed the Rubicon” and I after my experience last night I totally understand what that meant. This hasn’t been an easy one to stick my head above the parapet on. There has been much soul searching and advice sought. However that’s the whole point. This is not an easy subject matter. It makes everyone uncomfortable. There is a whole spectrum of harassment and yes my experiences are at the lower end of that spectrum. That is not the issue.
The bigger issue is the culture and that is what needs to be addressed here. For far too long in an attempt to deviate from the real issue, the political establishment has got away with making the whistle-blower the focus. I steadfastly refuse to be press-ganged into making complaints so that attention is turned on me rather than focused on the bigger picture. I also refuse to be threatened, bullied or silenced on this issue. Yes I’m challenging the Council and again I make no apology for that. Challenge is an enormous part of my job; it is what the people of Oban North and Lorn and indeed Argyll and Bute expect of me as an elected member of this Council.
I hope that this is line in the sand time for all of us. We have a choice. We can do what we always do as a Council and take the usual bunker style defensive approach or we can be brave and bold; positioning ourselves at the forefront of this issue in order to seek ground breaking ways to address it. With that in mind I appeal to all of you as my colleagues and as leaders of your own communities to support me in calling for a review of Argyll and Bute Council policy and procedure on sexual harassment in the workplace, for both staff and Councillors as a matter of urgency.
Together we are in a unique position to challenge the very real issues that face us. It’s my hope that by doing this together; taking party politics out of the equation, we can ultimately play our part in changing the endemic culture of entitlement and misogyny that prevails throughout our local authorities.
SNP Councillor – Oban North and Lorn