Shaun Bailey, MP for West Bromwich West, has called for an investigation after details emerged of a new review into complaints about the way the controversial Wragge inquiry was conducted.
The review, led by council officers, alleged there were ‘deep concerns’ about the ‘conduct and circumstances’ behind the two-year ‘Wragge’ probe into misconduct by councillors and interference in property deals at the authority.
Citing examples of alleged ‘bias’, breaches in procedures and claims of ‘racially motivated language’ used by an investigator, the review authors claim that what they found “undermines the credibility and objectivity of the Wragge Report that was eventually published.”
The lead investigator behind the original probe, Mark Greenburgh, a solicitor, stands by the original conclusions of the Wragge report. He vehemently denies the allegations and points out he was given no opportunity to respond to the new report.
Leaked this week, the review is a new twist in a long-running saga into alleged impropriety at the Labour-led council.
Shaun Bailey, MP, West Bromwich West, said: “There are serious allegations that need to be investigated – not just from the council itself, but from the lawyers, particularly the most senior lawyers who have a duty, under the professional code of conduct, to ensure they behave in a way that upholds the administration of justice.”
The new review, led by the council’s regulatory services boss Neil Cox and supported by a retired police detective and two senior trading standards officers, was triggered by new complaints in 2019 and 2020 from Mr Hussain, fellow councillor Ian Jones and a council whistleblower over the way the Wragge investigation was run.
What they allege they found, “established a number of deep concerns particularly in respect of Mr Greenburgh’s conduct throughout the investigation due to his perceived prejudice, determination to prove the guilt of Mr Hussain in particular and a string of racially motivated comments he made to witnesses and officers.”
He added: “[If the new reports allegations are correct] As someone that has been legally trained, I think a lot [of people] would be aghast as to what they’ve seen and the processes put in place.”
Mr Bailey has called for Sandwell Council to conduct an open and public investigation into the matter to keep it ‘open out in the air’ so people can ‘know the crack’.
He has spoken out after the review – dated June 2020 – was leaked.
Mr Bailey added: “The best thing the council can do, and what we [Conservatives] have been calling for is a full blown investigation. Open it out in the air so people can see what’s going on. The fact [the council] are not doing this absolutely blows my mind, because it would just solve all this, and we can move on.
“People in this community right now need their council to focus on collecting their bins, providing social services, making sure vulnerable kids in the borough are protected, and ensuring education standards.
“They seem to be spending more time covering their own backsides than they do focusing on the issues of the 14th most deprived borough in the country.”
Former councillors Maboob Hussain and Ian Jones complained in late 2019 and early 2020 about the conduct of the Wragge investigation.
Separately, a council whistleblower involved in the original Wragge inquiry came forward to alleged concerns about the nature of their interview conducted with them during the original investigation.
As a result, a review was carried out, including revisiting original evidence, overseen by then chief executive David Stevens, who quit in August. A retired police detective and two senior trading standards officers supported the investigation.
The review, dated June 2020, was shared with a panel of the borough council’s audit and risk assurance committee in March this year, meeting in private.
They were recommended to “consider the matters detailed…and determine what action, if any, is taken.”
The report to the panel says its aim is “to enable a historic, long standing matter to be considered with a view to bringing closure to the same.”
Mahboob Hussain, who was at the centre of the explosive Wragge report, has always denied wrongdoing and had pressed the council to re-examine his claims.
Today he claimed a ‘political witch hunt’ triggered the inquiry and had left him depressed, his confidence destroyed and his good name gone.
The Wragge Report, published five years ago, uncovered how Sandwell’s then deputy leader, Mahboob Hussain, breached conduct rules over his involvement in a sale of council land and disused public toilets that sold for £35,000 to a friend – after being valued at £130,000.
But Mr Hussain, who represented Oldbury and later quit the council, has always protested his innocence and claimed he was the victim of ‘a biased investigation’ and a political witch-hunt.
On Friday, the disgraced ex-councillor welcomed the new review and urged the council to formally publish it.
Mr Hussain, 61, called it ‘a breakthrough’ in his battle to clear his name. He said the Wragge findings and misconduct hearing that followed have had a lasting impact on his life.
“I am not the same person I was five years ago. This destroyed my confidence and my good name. This was a political witch hunt,” he claimed.
“The police have made it clear I was never arrested.”
The new review is not the first to examine in detail the investigation behind the Wragge Report and to look at claims of bias and what were referred to by one judge as “racist overtones” by its lead investigator Mark Greenburgh.
In 2017, Mr Hussain attempted to prevent further investigation of the allegations against him on the grounds of bias and political motivation, citing particularly a comment made by Mr Greenburgh to a senior officer about disability in the Hussain family being linked to ‘inbreeding’.
But judge Mr Justice Green, sitting in the High Court, while referring to the comment as ‘troubling’, ruled against Mr Hussain’s application for a judicial review on the grounds of bias.
In a 60 page judgement, he rejected claims that the overall investigation was “biased”. He ruled there was a ‘serious case to answer’ against Mr Hussain and gave the green light to an independent standards inquiry.
The main allegations made in the new review were put to the Wragge Report’s lead investigator, Mr Greenburgh.
He expressed ‘surprise and disappointment’ that Sandwell council was devoting resources to going back over the evidence that led to the Wragge Report, when it had already been heavily reviewed and scrutinised by legal experts.
He said he was neither invited to contribute to the review, nor has seen its outcome, but pointed out that a lengthy High Court hearing, a QC-led independent analysis of his investigation and findings, and a further probe by the Solicitors Regulation Authority had all been done already into the investigation.
“I am satisfied that the conclusions reached in the Sandwell investigation were broadly accurate, as affirmed by Mr Goudie QC and (judge) Mr Justice Green (in his deliberations over whether there should be a judicial review). I note that the Judge held that my report contained “ allegations that are serious and that there is a pressing public interest in those allegations being thoroughly and fairly tested and adjudicated upon”.
“It is both surprising and disappointing that even after so many years, the council appears to continue to focus its resources on examining the investigatory process, rather than the underlying issues it uncovered.”