Council investigated over Lothian Buses row

Ian Craig, pictured with Lesley Hinds. Picture: Esme Allen
Ian Craig, pictured with Lesley Hinds. Picture: Esme Allen
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AN independent inquiry has been ordered into council’s handling of the management crisis at Lothian Buses – a saga that has already claimed five top directors at the firm.

Councillors have agreed to commission an “independently led” report that will examine the city’s role in the row that has plagued the company since August.

The outcome of the investigation will be published within three months and is expected to lay bare the council’s approach to the series of grievances filed against chief executive Ian Craig by three directors. The move to launch a probe came during a dramatic council meeting in which union chiefs at Lothian Buses demanded transport leader Councillor Lesley Hinds was removed from her post.

Rab Fraser, chairman of the Lothian Buses Joint Trade Union Committee, said the boardroom soap opera had been a “disaster” and presented a petition to councillors signed by 1740 staff at the firm – approximately three-quarters of the workforce. He told the meeting: “The union position was clear then and is clearer now – Ian Craig should no longer be CEO of Lothian Buses.”

Following a plea from union leaders to “get the facts”, councillors from the ruling Labour-SNP administration – and city Conservatives – backed calls for an independent investigation.

The bus company has been dogged by infighting for months with the three deputies – operations director Bill Campbell, engineering director Bill Devlin and finance director Norman Strachan – lodging formal grievances against Mr Craig in October amid claims he undermined them and failed to consult on major decisions.

The four have also faced controversy in recent years over their wages of between £200,000 and £250,000, including bonuses.

They had all now been put on notice and will leave the company over the next two years.

Details of how long they will remain or what pay-off they may receive have not been released, but company chairman Tony Depledge has insisted his proposal involved proper “succession planning” to ensure the company remains stable.

An internal investigation in Mr Craig’s conduct upheld five of the eight complaints lodged against him. However, when then-chairwoman Ann Faulds recommended his dismissal, the council withheld its support and she resigned.

At City Chambers yesterday, union officials said the council, which owns 91 per cent of the bus service, “forced” the former chairwoman to resign when she called for Mr Craig’s dismissal, giving her hours to sign off on her own departure before a press release was dispatched.

Cllr Hinds failed to address the chamber despite facing fierce criticism from union chiefs and opposition

councillors over her role in the row.

A motion to launch an internal investigation into the saga was escalated to an independent inquiry following a speech by Mr Fraser. He told the meeting that Lothian Buses staff had been left “in tears” by the lack of information.

Asked by councillors why the situation demanded an independent probe rather than an internal council report, Mr Fraser replied: “An independent inquiry would be transparent.

“It needs to be transparent and it needs to be away from the council.

“As a trade union we are struggling to inform our members about what is going on here.”

The union boss hit out at leaks to the media throughout the six-month boardroom battle, particularly ahead of the announcement on January 21 that all four warring executives involved would be leaving.

He said: “I was at that board meeting, I was in attendance as employee director. Over the years I’ve attended a number of dodgy union meetings. This is the dodgiest meeting ever, where the result was in the paper before the meeting was even under way. I find that totally astounding.

“The employees of Lothian Buses have read this story through the Evening News, because there has been no communication from management for basically the last six months because you can’t talk to anyone about it. The situation at Lothian Buses is an absolute disaster.”

Mr Fraser revealed that concerns over the leadership of the company were first raised in November 2013, when union leaders sought a meeting with Cllr Hinds to discuss concerns over Mr Craig.

Speaking after the meeting, councillor Jason Rust, who first proposed a report into the council’s handling of the saga, welcomed the administration’s decision to launch an independent probe.

He said: “I am pleased by this last-minute climbdown. The council administration has been so defensive on this issue for so long and have until now failed to realise or more likely acknowledge that people have questions.

“By eventually caving in to the demands of the people of Edinburgh and performing a complete volte face we will get an independent-led report and hopefully some satisfactory answers which will clarify the situation.”

It is not yet clear who will take the lead in preparing the report but unions have previously called for employment dispute resolution organisation Acas to step in.

According to the motion passed by councillors, the report should be presented within three months of the investigation starting.

A Unite spokesman said: “Unite members in Lothian Buses welcome the news that there will be a full independent inquiry into the situation following the crisis which resulted in all five directors being placed on notice of dismissal. Throughout this process all Unite members at Lothian Buses

were seeking was transparency and assurances on the future stability of the service. This inquiry should get to the facts.”

Council Leader Andrew Burns said the council has always acted properly in line with governance procedures.

He said: “It is in everyone’s interests that the facts around recent events at Lothian Buses are laid out clearly and conclusively and I welcome unanimous council support for an independent report commissioned by the council.”

SEVEN KEY QUESTIONS

WHILE the terms of the investigation have yet to be determined, it is likely to consider some of the following questions:

• Why did the council reject Ann Faulds’ call for Ian Craig to be dismissed, only to accept Tony Depledge’s recommendation that he leave just a couple of months later?

• How did the council reach the decision to reject her call if key figures such as transport leader Lesley Hinds had not read the full grievance investigation report?

• Was Ms Faulds forced to resign, and if so, why?

• Was confidentiality around mediation between the executives broken?

• Why did Cllr Hinds join the board as an observer, only to leave a few weeks later?

• Has the council respected legislation requiring Lothian Buses to be run on an arms-length basis?

• What role has council chief executive Sue Bruce played in decision-making around Lothian Buses?