Paul Turner whitewashing the Essex County Council Facebook Scandal

So on the 15th April 2024 there was the big meeting of t he Audit. Governance and Standards Committee to talk about Simon Harris, Kirsty O’Callaghan, and Essex is United/Essex Coronavirus Action.

A report was discussed, the report was written by Gavin Jones, CEO of Essex County Council. Gavin Jones is one of those people that feels that anyone can approach him and relate to him. Plot twist, they can’t. He tries to portray himself as a fun uncle, and that he can be approached by those around him to give him critical analysis. In reality he’s like one of those people who used to appear on the X-Factor singing badly, who then argued with the judges because they had always been told they could sing.

Literally that is Gavin Jones, his songs absolutely suck and the overwhelming majority of people won’t be able to listen to them without feeling second-hand embarrassment and the utmost cringe. I’m using it however as a metaphor for the other aspects of his personality. He is in the top 1% of earners in the UK yet still feels he can relate to all of the staff that work at ECC. Some of those staff members are having to use foodbanks to feed their family. He lacks the capacity to be able to relate to lower down staff and also to the residents of Essex. He has no self awareness regarding how he is perceived by others. He is a one percenter, he cannot relate to anyone struggling with the cost of living crisis, whether that is staff members or residents.

It’s why he doesn’t care about any residents in Essex, he cannot relate to poverty, he cannot relate to those of us who are unpaid carers who do not get the help that we should under the law. As i’ve stated in previous blogs I have suicidal thoughts sometimes because I just cannot cope with my caring role. I care for 3 of my children with autism and my ex who has Huntington’s Disease. Nobody at ECC cares, nobody. The worst thing about it all is that i’ve spoken to a lot of carers and read a lot of carers stories. I have things easy compared to many, and i’ve reached crisis point. Some stories i’ve heard are so terrible and upsetting that i’ve wept, both at what the family is going through and that anyone could be so cold hearted as to let it continue.

So the man who wrote the report is someone who walks around truly believing that everyone feels he’s just one of the team and that he is just the same as they are. Meanwhile, what really happens is staff roll their eyes and feel he is so far out of touch that he cannot understand what lower paid staff are going through. Nobody is going to criticise him publicly or even to his face because he is the big boss and that would be career suicide. That includes his music.

I needed to get that off my chest. Gavin Jones also knew about the Facebook/strengthing communites thing back at the beginning of the Pandemic. This is part of an interview he did with the LGC. Also worth noting is that the guitars on his office wall are likely worth more than a years wages for a lot of the staff at ECC.

The evidence of this is there to see for anyone who visits him at County Hall in Chelmsford. This was the only time in more than five years on LGC I have encountered guitars on display in a chief executive’s office. And, radical or not, Essex has a reputation as one of the councils most actively seeking to innovate using new technology.

LGC recently featured the work of Essex’s strengthening communities team which has harnessed the power of the administrators of the county’s 300-odd Facebook groups to deliver public health interventions. Mr Jones says the council is also “putting a lot of effort” into exploring the potential of data analytics and “building capability”.

This blog post however is mostly about Paul Turner, head of legal and assurance and monitoring officer for Essex County Council.

This blog is to do with the meeting on the 15th. Firstly I need to state that a few years ago I had a 90 minute online meeting with Paul Turner, I found him professional, well spoken, clear spoken, and free of any stuttering. He never stumbled over his words, and was in fact an ideal speaker for a meeting. I suffered from a speech impediment as a child, as did one of my own children. I know what a speech impediment looks like, Paul Turner does not have one.

I wanted to make that very clear due to the way he spoke at the meeting, stuttering, stumbling over his words, not being able to find the right words, like he had a light shone in his face and was being interrogated by the police.

We definitely are not getting the full truth from Simon Harris, he recently released a second statement on Facebook which is here:

Here is the part of his Facebook post where he tells us that the main Facebook groups in the project were actually someone else’s responsibility. So telling us that he took charge of the pages, but the groups were someone else’s responsibility. He’s actually the creator of all of the Facebook groups that cover the whole fiasco, but we shall ignore that.

The following screenshot is from the metrics that Simon Harris gave to the committee

I assumed when I read that paragraph that it meant that Simon had been answering questions on the group and that was what had necessitated him to be on call seven days a week and 24 hours a day. In his own words he’s now stated that the groups were someone else’s responsibility.

Also the intense question asking part of the pandemic wasn’t for that long. We were all suddenly hit with the lockdown and we had questions. That lasted a few months, then things eased, and then things got bad again winter 2020 and we ended up in Lockdown again.

It doesn’t make sense, he’s hardly going to get woken up at 3am by someone from ECC saying it’s super urgent that he posts something on the Essex Coronavirus action page. The same with weekends, nothing important happened at weekends, advice changed during working weeks, not at the weekends. There were no emergency out of hours anything that needed to be posted on a Facebook page.

Even on the Facebook group there was not the necessity to monitor the group 24/7. Posts by the public have to be authorised by an admin so no chance of anything that shouldn’t be posted being posted. Nobody is going to need to know something they could only ask on the group art 3am. If someone needed to know something covid related it was all posted elsewhere, a Google search would help immensely as well.

So out of all the Facebook work that was happening, Simon Harris appears to have done the least, yet got paid multiple times more than anyone else. I fully understand why Simon is trying to say that he did a lot of work because clearly he does not want it to appear that he was handed almost £400k for not doing much.

I am also wondering if he is trying to pretend he is broke, he has recently stopped, but he was recently putting his Octopus referral code in the comments of every single Facebook post he made under his Man Behaving Dadly Facebook account. Each time someone signs up both him, and whoever used the code, gets £50. Not going to lie, I reported them all as spam to Facebook. He kept on going on about how he’s a content creator and thus it is not too much to ask to be paid for being one. Even though he doesn’t actually count as a content creator, and there is zero effort made with anything he posts. It’s all shared memes from elsewhere, or very old jokes.

Given that up until a month ago he was still getting paid from contracts with ECC. This time last year he got paid £65,000 for the year up until April 30th 2024, plus the rest of the money from 2020 onwards.

There was also whatever he got from the work he did on Together for Suffolk Facebook page. The contract was given to a company called SocialKind. Socialkind was owned by Kirsty O’Callaghan, the same Kirsty O’Callaghan who was the head of supporting communities who okayed all of the ECC Facebook pages, and the extortiante payments to Simon Harris. Simon Harris was listed on the website as content director for the company. Suffolk County Council first awarded Socialkind a contract for £35k for a period covering May to October 2021. A second contract for £95k covered the period October 2022 to March 2024. So the contract with Socialkind started while Kirsty O’Callaghan was still head of strengthing communities at ECC, so she was getting paid by both ECC and SCC at the same time.

Given that Simon Harris was listed as content director on the Socialkind website, he was clearly being employed by Kirsty who would have been paying him a wage for whatever work he did on the together for Suffolk page at the same time she was signing the contracts for him to receive the huge amounts of money from ECC.

Meanwhile, the only thing that ECC were concerned about at the time was showing off because another local authority had taken their idea onboard.

So I don’t know how much Kirsty O’Callaghan was paying Simon Harris for the work he was doing for Social Kind, but that would be in addition to any money he was getting paid by ECC. Even if Kirsty gave him ‘only’ £20k for his work at SCC for the past year, that would be a total of £85k Simon earned in the past year. Which put’s him as a high earner. There is no way he is now broke and needs the odd £50 from Octopus. I guess he could just be greedy.

How was that even allowed? Kirsty O’Callaghan was employed by ECC and overseeing the ECC Facebook spamming malarky, while also getting paid by Suffolk County Council because they were giving the company that she outright owns contracts to do the same thing she was getting paid to do at ECC.

I’ve posted all of this and I still haven’t gotten to Paul Turner, but wanted to add a few background details.

Paul Turner was the one answering questions during the meeting, on the basis that he had done all of the research necessitated by the report that Gavin ‘posh boy’ Jones had compiled.

One of the things that really irritated me, and I felt he was very rude to Cllr McGurran. Cllr McGurran had been asking questions regarding all of the other sites that were set up, including payments before the pandemic. Cllr McGurran stated that Kirsty O’Callaghan had been working at ECC since 2017. At 20:10 on the ECC Democracy video of the meeting, Paul Turner stated (incorrectly) “So Kirsty O’Callaghan didn’t start working here until 2018 so I don’t, i’m not sure she did anything in 2017”. The way he says it is so rude and it sounds like he’s trying to highlight that Cllr McGurran is wrong, even though Cllr McGurran was correct

Kirsty O’Callaghan started working at Essex County Council on secondment in 2017, she then became a permanent member of staff in December 2017. It is extremely concerning that someone tasked with finding out information about, and investigating Kirsty O’Callaghan not only doesn’t know when she started, but that he was so certain she started the year after she did in fact start. I have no idea how long she was on secondment for before they made her position ‘substantive’ which was the word she used in the in the Essex County Council meeting of the Corporate Policy and Scrutiny Committee on the 26th June 2018. It must have been at least 3 months, so it would be fair to say she must have been working at ECC from at least September 2017, if not earlier. To be fair, Paul Turner only has access to everything about her on the records that ECC hold, including her employment history, and I have access to so much more, if so much more is typing “when did Kirsty O’Callaghan start working at Essex County Council” into Google and pressing enter.

It may seem like a small thing, but it’s a small thing that he absolutely shouldn’t have gotten wrong. The evidence that she was working at ECC in 2017 is online via a committee meeting, so it’s definitely not hearsay. If Paul Turner did not know this then that does not bode well for the whole investigation and report being thorough and a detailed account of what went on, either part 1 of the report, or part 2, which the public weren’t allowed to see. Her employment record should have been easy to find and see, also her secondment. Paul should also have been talking to her colleagues, including those who were above her and looking at all the work she had done since she had been at ECC. That the man who should have done that didn’t even know the year in which her employment started is incredibly worrisome.

A lot has been said about the Facebook pages and groups being a way that the local authority could give messages to the public at arms length. Paul Turner stated that people who might not listen to Essex County Council might listen to those who weren’t ECC. He said about Barry the seagull, claimed he remembered it from being shared in his own local group and that ECC couldn’t have put that out there on their official channels.

During the pandemic misinformation was everywhere, especially on social media. We were warned from multiple sources, including Facebook itself, to only listen to advice from trusted sources. Central Government told us that, Essex County Council told us. Yet here we are with Essex County Council spending £500k on attempting to tell us vital information “at arms length”. I don’t trust Essex County Council for a lot of things, I have no faith they have investigated this Facebook affair properly, I have no faith they will do anything but present things in a way that makes them look as good as they can. That said, we aren’t talking about the behaviour and morals of members and officers when it comes to public health announcements. They were just reporting the facts. For the monitoring officer to say that people who may not listen to officaial guidance from either central government or ECC would listen to an internet prankster employed by ECC instead is utterly ridiculous. This was a time when following the rules was saving lives, we aren’t talking about putting the correct bin out on the correct day, this was life and death information.

Now let’s talk about the much lauded Barry the seagull. Here is the post that first included Barry.

This is the post that got over 1 million views in a weekend or whatever it was. 17k shares, so the post was a hit, but did it help keep people safe? If someone was going to break the law and go visit an Essex seaside, a post from Barry the seagull would not have changed their mind. If you are intelligent enough to read this post, you are intelligent enough to know that this post would not have changed any minds. It’s also too lengthy. It’s a childish sense of humour and it is funny, but that is it.

The video of the Lawyer Cat from the USA, where a lawyer was in court via zoom and he had a filter of a cat on got eleventy billion views. Solely because it was funny, very very funny. It could also be said that it was more educational than Barry the seagull as the Lawyer cat video was it’s own warning on why you shouldn’t let anyone else mess with your zoom settings.

It was not a success because it got a million views, to be honest, that is actually pretty low considering the amount of shares it had, so I suspect most of those shares were to profiles that are private. A lot of the comments on the posts are regarding people laughing about seagulls who have attacked them or messed on their cars. It is a funny meme which people shared, it held no impact on behaviour other than that.

The whole project was about quantity over quality. Barry the seagull got praised because he got a million views, but there is no substance to the message. The whole project was just spamming as many groups as possible with content, it always has been.

Yet I noticed Paul Turner, Director of Legal and Assurance and also ECC’s Monitoring Officer, using Barry as an example of how he served to tell people not to go to clacton and that ECC themselves couldn’t have done so in that tone and that people might listen to it more than if ECC were saying it. It was posted 12 days after lockdown started. Daily reports of those who had died and reports of those who were in hospital were being published. Paul Turner clearly thinks that the residents of Essex are too stupid to take all of that information on board and not break the law, and we need a meme with a seagull on it before we will listen.

I also find it strange that Barry the seagull was in the title of the LSBU research piece they did on Essex Coronavirus action, so Paul definitely would have read that as part of his research. Strange because it’s the one thing he remembers being in his local Facebook group during the Pandemic. Speaking personally, I may have been exposed to Barry the seagull during the pandemic through either a shared post, or a sponsored post that ended up in my feed, I don’t know, I don’t remember. Given how many shares it got, it’s possible I did get exposed. If for some reason pretending to remember one of the posts from Essex Coronavirus Action that I may have been exposed to would make me look good, I would have picked Barry the Seagull. Solely because all the information I’d need to pretend I remembered it from 4 years ago is easily found. I am guessing it would be very unlikely to remember a post you briefly saw 4 years ago during a time when you were most interested in viewing solid information.

Whenever I put down times these refer to timestamps of the youtube recording of the meeting.

Paul Turner tells Cllr McGurran at 21:11 that it’s not the case that all of the spend was not properly authorised, some of it wasn’t but not all of it. Does it matter? Even if just one payment was made that wasn’t properly authorised that is a huge deal. Not just because it’s public money, but because it shows a huge weakness in whatever systems ECC have, or don’t have considering how many payments weren’t properly authorised.

At 22:50 Cllr McGurran states that from the start the governance was appaling. The Chairperson, then says “that’s your opinion”. Cllr McGurran then argues it’s fact, and said that Cllr Bentley even alluded to the governance as being woeful.

Paul Turner then talks about the United in Kind work and how it was procured differently and run by the comms team.

At 34:00 Cllr McGurran states that in some instances there weren’t any contracts. Paul Turner then says that isn’t the case, there may not have been a written contract but there was always a contract. Cllr McGurran is so shocked at hearing that, he asks Paul Turner to repeat himself. Paul Turner then states that in law a contract is formed when an offer is accepted and so it is not the case that there was no contract. Cllr McGurran then argues that the information that Paul put out in January stated there were no contracts for some of the work. Paul Turner then states that it doesn’t say that, it says “grant agreement located? No”. Cllr McGurran then argues back, because to be fair it doesn’t make any sense. Then Paul Turner came out with the line that confirmed to me that Essex County Council are going to whitewash the whole thing “The contract exists but it’s an oral contract”.

Paul Turner then goes on to say, and these are his exact words “The law of contract is that a contract is formed by an offer and acceptance, so it’s not the case, it’s just simply not the case that there is no contract, it cannot be the case”

Paul Turner says more about this at 36:25 when asked by the chair. He states that it would have been better if they had all been written contracts but some of them were small sums of money. He then took between 3-5 business days to sputter out his next line “it would have been much better if they had been written contracts so we have put, so so, the contracts have all been published in as far as they are in writing”. He then say that they have had to rely on how they were described by other people.

He carries on blabbing. He also states that where there are written contracts that neither the inputs or outputs are very good. He then goes on to try and justify this by saying “but they would have been written at some speed in the pandemic”.

That doesn’t really matter as it would have only taken a few minutes to add in inputs and outputs.

The Chairman then says “A recommendation needs to go forward that there needs to be tighter procurement and a written contract” Cllr’s King and Shaw then say that there also needs to be clear inputs and outputs.

Gavin Jones then says that he is sure that everyone agrees that there should be clarity on where taxpayers money is spent and what you expect for that money. He then says that is what he expects from all officers.

If he expects that from all officers then he is absolutely failing in his role given what has happened. Given that this has gone undetected for so long and only came to attention because members of the public asked questions, i’d expect for there to be other instances of similar situations that have not come to light.

Paul Turner is clearly trying to whitewash the whole thing. His insistent that there was a contract for everything even if it was an oral contract proves this. I imagine you would be hard pressed to find any resident in Essex who would think that an oral contract for huge amounts of money is acceptable. You’d be hard pressed to find anyone who would call an oral contract a proper contract with regards to giving public money to someone.

An oral contract isn’t worth the paper it’s written on.

I’ll post Paul Turners own words here again:

“The law of contract is that a contract is formed by an offer and acceptance, so it’s not the case, it’s just simply not the case that there is no contract, it cannot be the case”

On the 25th October 2023 I was invited to, and attended, a ‘Recognising carer’s voices’ event at Essex County County.

The blog post I made about it is here:

I was sat at a table with other unpaid carers. Nick Presmeg, Executive Director of Adult Social care came and sat with us, i’m guessing he was expecting praise, but what actually happened was we all ended up crying because of the total lack of support we all had from ECC as unpaid carers. He seemed genuinely emphatic at the time. John Spence totally ignored us and ran away so fast that I am fully expecting to see him compete at the Paralympics, he’d break records as long as there was a group of unpaid carers at the start line, though he’d use his gold medal as proof that he is the best, most generous person to unpaid carers EVER!

Someone, I can’t remember her name, she is an officer and quite high up, told me she would look into my carers assessment and contact me. Given what Paul Turner has stated about oral contracts, does that mean it counts as an oral contract? I am going to take a guess that Paul Turner would suddenly find a loophole that means it doesn’t. Given that it’s 5 months later and no email, it looks like verbal contracts made by ECC are useless. I had a carers assessment, the results of which were delivered by a student social worker, I had no idea she was a student at the time, who shook her head when I asked and said there isn’t enough money. That is how ECC treat carers assessment, which have all manner of legal frameworks surrounding them, yet Paul Turner is all about oral contracts being okay.

The oral contracts between Simon Harris and Kirsty O’Callaghan could have been for anything, £10 could have been for his work on the Facebook groups and the rest could have been for him to rescue ants, or for him to have a tattoo of Kirsty on his left butt cheek, or even something like he keeps some of the money but the rest he gives to Kirsty and she will keep giving him these overpaid oral contracts. All perfectly legal as a result of the oral contract. I’m guessing that any of the options i’ve given above would probably break Kirsty’s employment contract, but the actual oral contract between her and SImon would still be legal.

I’ve got more to write, and this has already taken me long enough due to just not having the time to write, and my poor mental health, so i’m going to go ahead and publish this, I will write a part two, though given how things are going it might take me until 2027 to do.

As you can see from the little i’ve covered from the meeting, Paul Turner is attempting to whitewash what happened. No contracts? Not a problem, they were oral contracts.

Paul also argued that people would listen more to an ‘at arms length’ message from ECC more than they would from a trusted source, and indicated that Barry the seagull would keep people away from going to Clacton. As a resident of Essex I find that insulting, it definitely has a them vs us feel, with the them being the stupid residents of Essex who are too dumb to follow lifesaving public health rules so need a fictional seagull to tell us.

To be fair Barry the Seagull would be a much better logo for Essex County Council than the three seaxes it currently displays. Much like a seagull, ECC poops on it’s residents, attacks them and will happily steal from the public and not care.

Though in defence of seagull’s they probably support carers more than ECC does, though that isn’t a hard thing to do.