John Clayton, a ‘recently retired chief council officer and former Senior Audit Manager with Audit Scotland’, has been retained by Argyll and Bute Council to conduct an ‘independent’ investigation into – well, we don’t really know what, since the remit of the investigation has not been announced.
Moreover, we only know of the most limited ‘by whom’ – for the single reason that Argyll and Bute Council’s Communications Manager has been suspended. The CEO has, in her statement on the investigation, on no given grounds and ‘as a result of preliminary enquiries’, already exonerated chief officers (presumably including herself?) from knowledge of or involvement in Ms Smith’s activities.
Mr Clayton has no known expertise in Information Technology or in online covert surveillance of the sort that the ‘Spy Accounts’ of which the Communications Manager had boasted; nor is their any indication that he being supported by an external team expert in these areas.
This has all the appearances of a token and not a thoroughgoing investigation.
When we heard of his appointment we expressed concerns at how far a local authority creature like Mr Clayton, as his career demonstrates him to be, could possibly be ‘independent’. Public sector servants are fully tribal, bred in a very specific culture with very specific values, procedures, perspectives – and loyalties.
The values of this culture are not the values of straightforward ordinary people. The classic example of this was delivered by the Whitehall mandarin, Sir Robert Armstrong – ironically during the three year ‘Spycatcher’ trial of Peter Wright in Australia in 1986.
Under pressure in the witness box from Aussie barrister, Malcolm Turnbull, Armstrong admitted to lying in the languid private language of his cadre: ‘I suppose it could be said that I was being economical with the truth’.
A casual search on Clayton produced some interesting – and not entirely encouraging insights.
Leading an investigation at East Ayrshire Council in 2008-09, into what the Kilmarnock Standard of 1st May 2009 described as: ‘the activities of building and works boss John Walker when a sub-contractor alleged he had enjoyed “inappropriate use of council workers, resources and materials.” The contractor, whose company receives £1m a year from the council, claimed that 48-year-old Walker had been using his own employees to improve his farmhouse on the outskirts of Stewarton.’
Clayton was so vigorous in this investigation that he is said to have earned the local nickname of ‘The Rottweiler’.
This rigour could superficially be seen as reassuring – but note that it was exercised in the interests of a local authority.
There is also information here that makes the Argyll and Bute CEO seem disingenuous in her description of Mr Clayton as ‘recently retired’.
The Kilmarnock Standard article in question, of 1st May 2009, refers to the investigation into the alleged wrongdoing as having begun in September 2008, led by ‘retired Audit Scotland head John Clayton’.
One would not normally describe someone retired for at least three and a half years as ‘recently retired’.
Added to this history is a discouraging incident involving Clayton, documented in ‘Common Good Land in Scotland: A Review and Critique’ by the renowned popular rights campaigner Andy Wightman with Chartered Accountant. James Perman.
Common Good includes physical and financial assets. Control of Common Good Trusts historically shifted over time to local authorities, seeing elected councillors simultaneously playing dual and often competing roles, as Trustees of the Common Good devolving from earlier Burghs.
Wightman makes the sharp point that the statutory obligations laid upon Trustees of the Common Good are far in advance in onerousness from those laid upon elected councillors.
Trustees are legally charged with managing the Common Good with an enduring eye to its legitimate increase.
The documented episode involving Clayton related to Cunninghame District Council/North Ayrshire Council’s financial mismanagement and illegal manipulation of the funds of Largs Common Good in the interests of the council and to the marked disadvantage of the Common Good.
In this case, in the early to mid 1990s – The Rottweiler was positively Poodle, making it hard not to come to the conclusion that the Common Good was far less dominant in his worldview than was the interest of the local authority to whom his tribal loyalties belonged.
The alleged disregard for propriety shown by Clayton – as Audit Manager – took place against a background of James Perman’s persistent and determined raising of questions on the handling of the Largs Common Good by the council. It cannot be said that Clayton was or remained unaware.
This sample of elements of Mr Clayton’s career does not signal a man with an interest in upholding or even understanding the straightforward honesty and trust of normal folk around which the matter of his investigation in Argyll and Bute revolves.
Let us be clear about one matter. The Communications Manager, Jo Smith should not be described as ‘subject to allegations’.
Mrs Smith herself declared as an achievement – in a documented presentation at a public conference before her professional peers - that she had deployed online ‘spy accounts’ against critics and campaigners in the interests of the council.
So, self- charged, what happens if during the investigation, Ms Smith withdraws the charges against herself, as she has already tried to do? We predict the reappearance of the Poodle and not the Rottweiler.
Note: Common Good Land in Scotland: A Review and Critique by Andy Wightman and James Perman – carries the story of The Largs Common Good, starting of page 57 of the document. The references to Clayton start in the right hand column of Page 62.