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Wednesday, 18 December 2013

Thanet Council's Food Safety Service in Meltdown


Thanet Council’s Food Safety Service is in meltdown, placing the public at elevated risk of food poisoning or worse. The service was audited 2 years ago by the Government’s Food Standard Authority (FSA) which is responsible for the regulation of  local authority  food safety teams  across the country. The Audit was a disaster. The service was found to be failing miserably in virtually every aspect of its work (you can see the audit report here ). An action plan was approved by the FSA and Thanet Council was given 12-18 months to put things right. In July of this year the FSA carried out a re-visit  to check on progress, only to discover that things had become much worse. So concerned were FSA bosses that they took the unusual step of calling senior Thanet Council officers to an escalation meeting with their Head of Audit.

Exactly what was said at the re-visit and the escalation meeting remains a secret. Both Thanet Council and the FSA have refused to let me have copies of any reports, letters or e-mails related to these events. However, I have submitted Freedom of Information requests which should hopefully reveal what went on. In the meantime an insider has told me that the FSA was so angry about Thanet’s Council’s failure to

get is Food Safety Service in order, that they threatened to take direct control of the service themselves – a very rare step reserved only for the terminally dysfunctional.

On Monday the FSA published a revised Action Plan for Thanet’s Food Safety Service (you can view the plan here  ) which catalogues  a whole series of extremely serious service failures and demonstrates that even now, 2 years after the original Audit, the Thanet Food Safety Service is unfit for purpose and, I would argue, putting the health and safety of Thanet residents at elevated risk of food poising or worse.


According to the Action Plan, there is a massive backlog of food safety  premise inspections; the complaints process which allows the public to alert officers about unfit or dodgy food premises is in a state of near collapse; there has been no routine pro-active food sampling for over a year;   there is no accurate database of food premises in Thanet; records  of food outlet inspections and enforcements are incomplete and of poor quality;   food safety officers are not fully trained and several are unable to carry out a full range of duties; the documentation used by the service is incomplete and out of date; there is no effective system of internal quality monitoring resulting in  serious inconsistencies in the quality of inspections and enforcements; there is even doubt as to whether inspections and enforcements are being carried out in line with legal requirements. Quite frankly this is a service which rather than protecting the public from poor food hygiene and food crime is actually exposing the public to greater risk because it is not doing its job!

What makes me angry is the fact that until last week, Thanet Councillors and the Thanet residents had been kept in dark about this extremely serious failure. The FSA re-visit took place almost 6 months ago and it was not until last week that anything was reported to Councillors. In my opinion this matter is so serious that is should have been reported to the first available meeting of the Council after the re-visit. It was not. Like Pleasurama and the TransEuropa debt scandal before, Thanet Council and the Labour Party Political bosses in the Cabinet  did what they do best and hid the truth about this matter from most of its elected councillors and all of the public. This is particularly shameful and disgusting because this scandal involves public health, especially youngsters and older people who are most susceptible to food borne illness.
 What also makes me angry is the pathetic  lack of action by the FSA. They knew that Thanet Food Safety Services had been in a  state of more or less total failure  since 2011. When they revisited in 2013 they said themselves that things had actually become worse – that’s why they had an escalation meeting. But instead of taking decisive action against a service which has been failing for more than 2 years and compromising the safety of residents and visitors, they have given Thanet Food Safety Services another  4 months to improve.

I have now written to the Chief Executive of the FSA expressing my dissatisfaction about their handling of the situation and have asked that they assume the management of Thanet Food Safety Services with immediate effect. I have also written to the Secretary of State for Health asking that he intervenes. Although I am sure that the overwhelming majority of food outlets in Thanet are excellent, its simply not right that our food safety is left to a service which has been unfit for purpose for more than 2 years and which is placing the health and safety of residents at risk
I will keep you updated as the situation develops. But  please don’t be scared off going out for a celebratory meal over Xmas. I might even see you in one Thanet’s excellent curry houses as I did with a reader of this blog just last week!

12 comments:

  1. Stinks of brown paper envelopes again, or plain incompetence perhaps. Well done Ian for highlighting such a serious failure.

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  3. Again this illustrated that a Chief Executive that is also wearing the hat for Finance is not capable of doing the two jobs together. It may save £90k in pay and perks but has costs the council millions. Another one of the previous administrations grand schemes so that they could justify giving the previous Chief Exec a £100k pay off. 3 month before he was due to retire.

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  4. It smacks to me of a Council with a culture such that all the good staff leave and take jobs elsewhere, aren't replaced either because of a recruitment freeze or because it's not possible to recruit quality officers to work for a council with such a poisonous atmosphere. I wouldn't work for TDC at the moment if you paid me four times the going rate. It would blight my CV, and I bet that most quality Local Government Officers looking for a job would give Thanet a wide berth.

    And, I totally agree with Anon at 17:06 - a Chief Executive should be just that, a leader, someone able and willing to challenge some of the more bonkers decisions made by the politicians, and with enough confidence to try to re-start TDC and get the idiots on the front benches of the council chamber to play nicely. This is such an important role it really mustn't be combined with the Head of Finance job which is totally antithetical to a decent CEx job.

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    1. Doesn't surprise me in the least.

      But, as anyone who's done any management studies knows, the regime of institutionalised bullying starts from the top, or in this case, in the council chamber. Any casual observer who's seen the behaviour in there has seen a prime example of bullying - of each other, of members of the opposition, of members of the public who have the temerity to try and hold them to account, and indeed the press - there is outright hostility from some of the cabinet towards the press. Cllr Poole, for example, in his comments about the electorate is nothing more than a bully, and I wouldn't be at all surprised if cabinet members, and ex-cabinet members, have put undue pressure on senior council officers in order to cover for their own inadequacy. That kind of behaviour will trickle down to each and every member of staff leaving us with the calamity that we now have.

      I agree, that in Thanet's case, the cabinet system is flawed - but would it be possible to go back to the committee system? Isn't the cabinet system one of the changes made by the Local Government Act? If it is, then we're stuffed, and we can only hope that the current cabinet implodes (as I think that it might), and that we get some of the backbenchers who have been woefully underused thus far (probably because the front bench are intimidated by them) to step up to the plate.

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    2. I wonder if you'd be able to do it. It would be well worth a try, and I think that it might depend if you can build on the publicity regarding the Council's fitness for purpose that there has been recently with the Standards report.

      It would need to be carefully planned, and just as carefully executed. I look forward to seeing what you do with it!

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  5. I'm a bit bemused. On the South East news tonight TDC was quoted as claiming that they hadn't been able to maintain inspections of premises in Thanet because they had been given responsibility for checking imports at Manston and had had to divert staff to do this. This raises a few questions. How many staff were diverted and how many man-hours have been spent inspecting imports? Who is paying for these checks and, if the importer is supposed to pay, have they been billed and have they paid? If money has been paid, why hasn't it been used to employ more staff? Manston was supposed to be helping our economy, not damaging it.

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    1. One FTE at Manston to check certain incoming foodstuffs under EU regulations. The Council knew the change was coming and had sufficient time to recruit. But even before the Manston change the Food Safety Service was still failing. Manston is a diversion to cover up for systemic management failure over more than 2 years.. The people of Thanet deserve much better than this. As they did with TransEuropa, Pleasurama etc.

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    2. Yes, but does the taxpayer have to foot the bill for this employee? If so, that's one FTE that we should subtract from the job figures issued by the airport. I'm willing to bet there are others.

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  6. Barry they refuse to divulge the size of the backlog. I have submitted an FOI to find out the truth

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  7. we should not be surprised. TDC are crap. we need a clearout.

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  8. Is your idea of a clearout is voting Ukip?. Because if it is, a clearout is the last thing you'll get as many of the old councillors from the other parties are taking up Ukip's colours just to get elected. Zita Wiltshire and Roger Latchford are two exemples. They use to serve on ex-leader Sandy Ezekiel top table committee

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