Andy Clarke: Why Welcome to Yorkshire must heeds lessons of MPs’ expenses scandal in wake of Sir Gary Verity resignation

IT has been a testing time for this county, with the One Yorkshire devolution bid being rejected again by the Government with no clear reason – and then Sir Gary Verity resigning from Welcome to Yorkshire a fortnight ago under a cloud of gathering allegations around bullying and expenses misuse.

Saturday, 6th April 2019, 3:49 am
Sir Gary Verity's resignation as Welcome to Yorkshire chief executive is mired in allegations about an expenses scandal and bullying.

This all a poses a question of how Yorkshire should respond to one of its best-known leaders leaving unceremoniously. After all, Sir Gary was being touted as a potential mayor for the region when devolution eventually comes. The legacy of the Tour de France coming here in 2014 was enough to elevate him to an almost untouchable level in the eyes of the public.

Reports in this newspaper (incidentally named the most trusted in the country) now show that this extended beyond the public and to the very board which should have been holding its leader to account.

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Sir Gary Verity was the public face of Welcome to Yorkshire - and the county's £9bn a year tourism industry.

The potential for a police investigation following expenses claims, and allegations of bullying, reminds me of 10 years ago when we first heard about MPs claiming for toilet seats and duck houses.

Having worked in Parliament, I can say that every MP’s individual expenses are rightfully now scrutinised by an independent body and published for all to see.

For more on this, Emily Maitlis’s excellent BBC documentary last month on the erosion of trust in our political institutions following the expenses scandal is well worth a watch.

We are at a point where it is not hyperbole to say our current political system is not working.

The uncertainty created by Parliament over the last few weeks, as we try to spell out our departure from the European Union, has raised real questions around whether a general election and the potential for European Parliament elections could result in an even worse political climate. As if it could get much worse.

Reports around Sir Gary’s behaviour do now mean that this lack of trust in leaders will unfortunately tarnish Welcome to Yorkshire’s brand for a while. Already, Sheffield City Council is withholding funding while investigations take place – a sensible move that others should consider.

No-one doubts that Welcome to Yorkshire should continue – the immense efforts and excellent work of employees should not be diminished by the acts of one man.

That said, reports show that allegations of bullying from Sir Gary were not investigated effectively – and their seriousness means that these cannot, and must not, be ignored,

The board now needs to seriously reflect and ask probing questions on the role it played in creating a culture where allegations of bullying and impropriety were ignored.

Former employees have now come forward following Sir Gary’s departure to say they suffered immensely because of his poor behaviour. It is said that he had as many as 20 personal assistants over his tenure. This should have set alarm bells ringing.

Unfortunately, far too many people responded to the news of Sir Gary’s departure by confirming that they had heard rumours of poor behaviour.

When allegations of this type are levelled against public institutions, they are rightfully investigated and reported on.

If a hospital has failed a patient on the operating table or social services fails a child, we expect to understand what went wrong and how we can learn from it.

While Welcome to Yorkshire is a private organisation, a substantial amount of its funding comes from the public purse. It should be held to the same standards we expect from public bodies.

How the board responds to this scandal is going to be key in securing the long-term future of the organisation that is integral to the county’s £9bn-a-year tourism industry.

One way to begin would be to create an entirely new board and a clear acknowledgment that WTY previously failed to investigate all allegations.

At the organisation’s Y19 conference this week, which was also intended to celebrate its 10th anniversary, there was discussion of an entirely new strategy. Both of these actions would show a clean break with the past and a focus on the future of the organisation.

The current lack of transparency means boards can get away with not holding themselves and their leaders to account. It is absolutely vital that publicly-funded bodies do not just commit to transparency in a values statement on their website, but actively encourage it, act on it and make it an intrinsic part of their DNA.

A new Welcome to Yorkshire board could begin with a commitment to regularly publishing expenses claims online. After all, if a centuries-old institution like Parliament can manage it, they can.

We have a lot of work to do in creating our future, whether it is improved education, transport or employment. All of this requires a lot of public money. Unless you are involved directly in an organisation or attend various meetings, it can be hard to understand where this money is being spent or how decisions are made.

As we define this new kind of devolved society, we should expect all publicly-funded bodies to be ready for increased scrutiny of how they are spending our money and where their funding comes from. We cannot replace an ineffective Whitehall system with a replica whose only difference is being based in Yorkshire.

These allegations are truly sad and action needs to be taken, but it should not be seen as the end of Welcome to Yorkshire. It is a chance to reflect, renew and recreate that immense pride and trust we all felt in the organisation during the Grand Départ five years ago. We all have a role to play in this and are all behind them, but Welcome to Yorkshire needs to take the lead.

Andy Clarke is a political consultant based in Leeds and a board member of the Policy Yorkshire think-tank.