Council housing boss paid £340,000 exit package - then gets new job
- Credit: Archant
A senior civil servant who worked on a controversial scheme to privatise council housing was given an exit package worth almost £340,000 - before promptly moving to another job.
Helen Fisher, Haringey Council’s former head of regeneration, was paid almost £90,000 redundancy, plus almost £250,000 into her pension pot.
She was employed by Haringey in April 2016 and made redundant in summer 2019, a report leaked to this newspaper shows.
But councillors were so concerned by her redundancy that an independent investigator was called in, who found shortcomings in the council’s Human Resources (HR) department and suggested changes to redundancy policies.
Mrs Fisher worked on the Haringey Development Vehicle (HDV) - a proposal to give £2billion of council houses and land to a private company on a long lease, in return for the company regenerating the areas.
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In 2017, she apologised to residents in Edmonton after an error in the HDV business plan meant their homes were accidentally marked for demolition.
By the time the HDV was scrapped in summer 2018, Mrs Fisher had been promoted to temporary director of housing, regeneration and planning.
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She was asked to act up into the role in February 2018.
But in early 2019, when it came time to fill the role permanently, another officer – Dan Hawthorn, director of housing and growth, who Mrs Fisher had been managing for a year – was given the job.
He quickly announced a restructure of the department which made his former boss redundant.
According to the investigation report, seen by the Ham&High, councillors expressed “frustration and surprise” when the proposed redundancy was announced, as they had been assured both applicants would have jobs to return to.
Concerns grew when officers “identified that the cost to the council of Fisher’s severance would be very significant.”
Mrs Fisher’s annual salary was £135,660 and her age, of 57, entitled her to start claiming her pension.
Within months of leaving Haringey, she got a £75,000-a-year job at Watford Council.
Dan Hawthorn left a year later for a new job at Kensington Council.
After the Ham&High uncovered the payment, Luke Cawley-Harrison - leader of the Lib Dem opposition at Haringey Council - called for change.
He said: “The budgets of local councils are currently under extreme strain. Therefore, big payouts like this will make it harder to fund key services... We need alternatives to taxpayers money being used for 6 figure redundancy payments”.
The Ham&High discovered that Mike Cooke – a former HR director and one-time chief executive of Camden Council – was called in by Haringey Council last year to independently investigate what had happened.
His report was shared with the council’s Staffing and Remuneration Committee in June 2019.
He found the council “did not have the benefit of advice from a strategic, experienced, single focussed chief officer level HR director.”
He said the council should: “commit to reviewing chief officer level HR policies and practices” and “commit to learning lessons from what has happened”.
It was the second report in a matter of months which had found problems with the authority’s HR department.
A 2019 “corporate peer challenge” by the Local Government Association (LGA) - the national membership body for local councils – said it was “essential” that the authority set up a HR service which was “fit for purpose”.
A council spokesperson said it had since developed a new structure for HR and appointed a new HR director.
Mike Cooke’s report on Helen Fisher’s redundancy also proposed changes to redundancy policies.
He said Mrs Fisher had benefitted from a council policy of topping up employees’ redundancy payments, but suggested this should be scrapped for over-55s, who are entitled to claim their pension.
“In effect, early release of pension is already making the necessary compensatory act,” he said.
He also suggested the council lobby the LGA to change the age at which civil servants facing redundancy can claim their pension. He called permitting it at 55 an “anachronism” and suggested it could be upped to between 57 and 59.
A council spokesperson said: “Redundancy payments are often based not only on an individual’s employment with their current council, but also their previous local government employers, where continuity of service is maintained. This is set out by the government and the council has no discretion.
“We await new regulations from the government which will cap exit payments at £95,000, including any pension strain payment.”
Helen Fisher did not respond to requests for comment.
Still no cap
In 2015, the then chancellor George Osborne, said the government wanted to introduce a cap of £95,000 on public sector payoffs. However, that has still not happened.
Last year, the government ran a consultation on the proposed cap and published draft regulations.
Then in July 2020 it published its response to that consultation. It said it would make changes to the proposals before taking them forward, but it is unclear when that will happen.