Thomson direct

From sleaze-busting to dealing with local unrest over the proposed expansion of Stansted, Essex County Council’s Philip Thomson takes it all in his stride. Naomi Rovnick reports

Unusually for an in-house lawyer, Philip Thomson spends 70 per cent of his time policing local politicians. He was appointed head of legal at Essex County Council (winner of this year’s Public Sector Team of the Year award at The Lawyer Awards) in April this year, but also took on the newly-created post of ‘monitoring officer’. It is his job to bust sleaze and seek out corruption; or more likely, to intervene in squabbles between party politicians at Conservative-controlled Essex. This role is more crucial
than it seems.

“The cabinet may want meetings in private, but the opposition may not agree. I make the decision,” he explains. In effect, Thomson has the power to decide whether discussions over issues are party-confidential, which could have far-reaching effects on long-term policy development in Essex.

Thomson’s monitoring role has been created in line with the Local Government Act 2000, which requires all county councils to have monitoring officers, whereas previously they were run on a committee model. Thomson is also charged with ensuring that the corporate governance of the county council is up to scratch. Although this is the public sector, he says that issues arising from the Enron collapse, such as the independence of auditors, are now a huge concern. “We’re a billion-pound business. What affects the private sector must affect us,” he says.

Essex’s main auditor is Pricewaterhouse-Coopers (PwC). Thomson has to make sure that when the council is running a tender to outsource services, it does not create conflicts. The council is close to awarding a £100m education contract to a private sector company. Neither of the two final bidders is being advised by PwC’s law firm Landwell, but if Thomson had found out that they were, he says, Landwell would have had to go. “If we had this situation, we’d ask the bidder to change lawyers. If it meant everyone rebidding, we’d do that,” he states.

Providing legal advice on the education contract is Essex’s preferred legal adviser Nabarro Nathanson. Nabarros entered into an exclusive partnership with the council in April this year. The partnership involves both organisations sharing information and experience, including specialist legal expertise, training and IT. Crucially, it also gives Nabarros preferred supplier status on all the council’s external legal work. In line with Government ‘best value’ requirements, Nabarros must still tender for work and demonstrate that it is as competitive as the other bidders. “Providing the firm is as competitive as the other bidder, it will get the work,” Thomson says.

Thomson’s annual legal spend is £3.3m. Most of the legal department’s budget is spent on running the sizeable in-house function. Thomson is responsible for 50 lawyers and another 60 paralegals. Of the £3.3m, Essex Council spent only £70,000 on external solicitors in the last financial year, although Thomson says that figure will be higher this year. However, he spent £260,000 on counsel last year, which highlights the confidence he has in his own lawyers to run their own cases.

While Thomson manages the whole group, his new post as monitoring officer has forced him to delegate a lot of his responsibilities to two deputies. The legal department is split into two broad sections, each run by one of the deputies. One manages the environmental lawyers as well as a commercial team and a property team; the other runs the social care, education and employment team, the childcare team and the insurance and civil litigation team.

As Thomson’s team is so vast, it is only the most serious legal matters that are allowed near his in-tray. At the moment his desk has been hit by a flurry of paperwork on the three extra runways that the Government wants to have built at Stansted Airport. The county council’s cabinet is supporting a ‘no, no, no’ campaign against the Stansted expansion, mounted by residents of Essex villages who could see their homes flattened if the plans go ahead.

Earlier this month Lord Hanningfield, the leader of Essex County Council, said in the Essex Chronicle that the cabinet was outraged at the proposals, but its attack would be considered carefully. This is where Thomson’s legal department will be forced to seek external advice. Thomson is not planning to use a law firm, but he does need a QC.

“Stansted is huge in terms of legal issues,” says Thomson. “We’ll be appointing a QC shortly to advise the in-house team and the politicians who want to take soundings.”

The last political furore to hit Essex (and which was dealt with by Thomson) was the case of Sarah Cook. The Essex girl met a local man on a family holiday in Turkey when she was 12 years old; she stayed there to marry him at 13 and had his child at 14. The story, which broke in late 1997 and continued into 1998, ran in all the major English and Turkish newspapers. The English Government responded to the story by trying to get Cook back to England, but a large swathe of public opinion in Turkey said the couple’s marriage was in line with local customs. Thomson’s job was to help Westminster get Cook and the child back to England by making them wards of court. It was felt this would also restrict newspapers’ access to Cook. As the case was so politically charged, Thomson admits it was pushed through the High Court at breakneck speed.

“The English Government was naturally concerned. The Turkish Embassy was also very concerned the story would have a negative impact on Western interests in Turkey. I was told to get the legal process sorted out as quickly as possible. We made the girl and her child wards of court to get the story out of the press as quickly as possible. Let’s just say we did it very quickly in a way that was not normal,” he explains, adding that there was a lot more to this case that will have to remain a state secret.

Being involved in cases of national importance, as well as acting as a corporate watchdog for a £1bn organisation, is something most in-house lawyers can only dream of. This is probably why Thomson has been at Essex Council since he did his articles there in 1978. But he possesses more than just a passion for his job – he is also practically evangelical about the importance of county councils.

“I still don’t think enough people understand the importance of county councils. But we’re doing a lot to change that. Essex is active in the national network of youth councils, which allows young people to learn how county councils are run,” he says, adding that a lot of lawyers in private practice also do not have much knowledge of how county councils are run. Which is a shame, really, as Essex makes them seem like such interesting places to work.
Philip Thomson
Head of legal
Essex County Council

Organisation Essex County Council
Sector Public Sector
Employees 40,000
Legal capability 110 (50 lawyers, 60 paralegals)
Turnover Over £1bn
Annual legal spend £3.3m
Head of legal Philip Thomson
Reporting to Chief executive Stuart Ashurst
Main law firms Nabarro Nathanson