Becky Hellard - new report

PUBLISHED: 15:17 25 June 2008 | UPDATED: 14:36 07 July 2010

COUNCIL taxpayers will be denied the right to know exactly why former chief executive Becky Hellard left Breckland Council so abruptly - because of a gagging clause signed by her and the authority and because it “would cause unwarranted distress to her and be an invasion of her privacy”.

COUNCIL taxpayers will be denied the right to know exactly why former chief executive Becky Hellard left Breckland Council so abruptly - because of a gagging clause signed by her and the authority and because it “would cause unwarranted distress to her and be an invasion of her privacy”.

That is at the heart of a ruling which has finally been made by the national information watchdog after a long investigation following complaints by the Times.

But we have managed to prove that Breckland should have been more open about aspects of the case, and we have had it confirmed that Ms Hellard walked away from the council with a pay-off of around £65,000.

The saga - dubbed by some disgruntled council staff as “Hellardgate” - has been rumbling on since late 2006.

Various allegations were made against Ms Hellard - who was 40 years old at the time and one of the youngest senior women council officials in the country - by staff at Breckland.

The allegations were “undisclosed issues surrounding her”, and in November 2006 she “took a step back” from her role as chief executive and was no longer working at the council offices. She then resigned on December 8.

In the weeks leading up to her resignation, the Times received a huge number of phone calls, e-mails and letters about the allegations.

An internal investigation was launched by Breckland and a group of officers and councillors given the job of probing the complaints. When she resigned, the inquiry was ended.

Ms Hellard had not been suspended and remained on full pay.

Within two weeks, she had secured a job with Bradford Council on up to £125,000. A few months afterwards, she secured the role of chief finance officer which would have seen her get another pay rise.

The height of the saga came at the start of the 2007 local council elections and there was genuine concern from some politicians that the shroud of mystery could impact on their getting re-elected.

Breckland declined our requests

for full disclosure on two occasions,

so we went to the Information Commissioner's Office. It took nearly a year to start its investigation due to the huge backlog of cases across the country.

The ICO has agreed Breckland did not have to reveal the allegations against Ms Hellard and specific details of payments to her.

The so-called compromise agreement signed by the council and Ms Hellard allowed the information to be kept private.

However, the ICO said Breckland had not complied fully or partly with eight parts of our complaints, including the fact that allegations were made against Ms Hellard by other members of staff at Breckland.

There were no allegations by elected members or outside companies, individuals or organisations.

Breckland has also admitted that the so-called Strategic Alliance - a pioneering “marriage” between Breckland and private companies which has now been sidelined - was referred to in one allegation.

But the company itself was not involved and allegations did not relate to council property or other assets.

Breckland said Ms Hellard gave formal written notice of resignation “early on in the investigatory process” and her termination package was “related specifically to her contractural period of notice of six months”.

The Times knows from senior sources that she got a package amounting to around £65,000 when she left. She had been earning £100,000 a year and was in control of an £18m budget and about 200 staff.

The council has had to reveal the investigating officers, who were interim head of human resources Peter Jermy and council solicitor

John Chinnery, as well as a

panel of the councillors, who

were chairman Sheila Childerhouse, Paul Claussen, Ray Key and Ann Steward.

But the ICO agrees that Breckland does not have to reveal the nature of the allegations against Ms Hellard as the investigation into them was not completed and she has not been able fully to defend herself.

The ICO has supported the basis of compromise agreements as they “avoid the time, expense and stress of litigation in an employment tribunal where an employer/employee relationship has broken down”.

Complaints officer Elizabeth Woodworth said: “While the commissioner does recognise the legitimate interest of the public in understanding the reasons why Ms Hellard left the council and that senior officials should expect to be more accountable in relation to some information (particularly information concerning their professional lives), the commissioner believes that the information carries a very strong expectation of privacy which outweighs the arguments for disclosure in this case.

“ ...the commissioner is satisfied that general disclosure would not be fair as it would cause unwarranted distress to Ms Hellard.”

Ms Hellard did not respond to the Times' request to comment on the outcome of the case.

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