Sheffield Council secrecy over suspended ‘partygate’ CEO Kate Josephs is shameful and insults taxpayers paying her £190,000 salary – Tom Richmond

THERE are Tory MPs who contend that Downing Street’s ‘‘partygate’’ scandal is now immaterial following Russia’s illegal invasion of Ukraine.

Try telling that, however, to the taxpayers of Sheffield paying the price – literally – for lockdown breaches that took place in Downing Street and Whitehall during the Covid pandemic.

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This comes after Sheffield City Council’s £190,000 a year chief executive Kate Josephs was placed on ‘‘gardening leave’ two months ago until the Metropolitan Police concludes its inquiry.

Sheffield City Council chief executive Kate Josephs has been on gardening leave since January due to the ongoing 'partygate' scandal.

Yet, while the delays to the ‘‘partygate’’ probe are out of Sheffield’s hands, the secrecy of the council is disingenuous.

The facts are clear. Josephs was head of the Covid task force responsible for lockdown enforcement. She personally attended a leaving do at the Cabinet Office that was held in her honour in December 2020 that breached the Government’s own rules at the time on social gatherings. Alcohol was consumed.

Time will tell if the Met issues her with a fixed penalty notice – the criminal equivalent of a parking ticket. Yet the questions facing Sheffield Council do not justify its wall of silence after it admitted – following a Freedom of Information request by this newspaper – that it had exchanged correspondence with the Cabinet Office on this matter.

First, what is the council’s verdict on the behaviour of its chief executive? It does not need to wait for the Met.

Sheffield City Council chief executive Kate Josephs has been on gardening leave since January due to the ongoing 'partygate' scandal.

Second, how does the council assess the decision of Josephs to obfuscate – and not issue a statement about her party until January 14 as revelations emerged in a national newspaper – when the ‘‘partygate’ scandal had been dominating the news agenda for weeks? Again, this is not a Met matter.

Third, can Josephs still command the confidence of the residents of Sheffield when it comes to public health and possibility that a chief executive might, in future, have to impose (and enforce) new lockdown restrictions? Again, this isn’t for the police.

By all accounts, there are conflicting views. Some local government insiders view Josephs as an innovative chief executive who was bringing national leadership to Sheffield. Others contend that her failure to ‘‘come clean’’ at the outset was unforgivable.

That might be so. What I, and others, do find unforgivable is the council – two months on – being unable to name the independent investigator supposedly overseeing this matter.

Equally its view that Cabinet Office correspondence should remain secret because “the balance of the public interest lies in withholding this information”. Who decided this – and on what basis? They’ve clearly forgotten the families who pay council tax.

And finally the local authority’s view that Josephs deserves “a fair and unbiased hearing in the confidentiality of a councillor-led process” when the work of the Covid task force was supposed to be transparent and when ‘‘partygate’’ hasn’t stopped Boris Johnson – and others – from continuing their duties.

As such, Sheffield Council’s delay and dither doesn’t just make a mockery of the public purse as it protects its own ‘‘chief executive in name only’’. It’s also a betrayal of the public interest from an authority that promised greater openness when Kate Josephs was hired to restore the damage caused by its mishandling of the tree-felling scandal. The irony...

AS Yorkshire’s rail services continue to be afflicted by industrial action, compare and contrast the ethos of the jobsworths here with the work ethic of Ukrainians.

Here, train staff need no excuse to down tools. In Ukraine, Russia’s invasion is redefining the meaning of ‘‘public service’’ as families flee besieged cities.

And in a country of heroes, the example of train driver Andriy Bobrovsky puts this country to shame. He’s one of the drivers at Ukrzaliznytsia – the state-owned Ukrainian railways – who has been transporting passengers to safety.

Two million people have been transported to the Ukrainian border by train – fares have been suspended – and the speed limit reduced from 100mph to 37mph in the war zone to lessen the risks to safety if, God forbid, the railway infrastructure is damaged.

Bobrovsky is very matter of fact about his responsibilities and 20-hour shifts. Here the RMT and others would be refusing to work until risk assessments had been carried out and pay re-negotiated.

Meanwhile the bombs and bullets do not deter Ukrainian rail chiefs. They say they’re looking forward to the return of peace so they can continue to electrify their rail network.

It wouldn’t surprise me, in time, that Ukraine has a fully electrified rail network before the North. And that brings me to a final point about the Government’s pedantic approach over refugees – why are Ministers being so cold-hearted when Ukrainians also have a work ethic that would also benefit this country?

EVEN though the Ukraine war – and energy crisis – has prompted a clamour of calls for Britain to scale back its Net Zero ambitions, this should not come at the expense of green skills.

This point was made by veteran Huddersfield MP Barry Sheerman in Parliament. “For a net zero economy, we need to do far more training for green skills. Too often I find that young people, at age 16, 18 or 21, do not know the pathway,” he reported.

I’m pleased to report that Schools Minister Robin Walker accepted the offer to work on a cross-party basis. I’d go further. Let’s see Yorkshire – a county leading the green energy revolution – be the trial for a new careers policy that puts green skills first. For, long after the Ukraine and Covid wars, climate change is still the defining issue of these times.

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