A colleague in Canada used to start her editorials “What the hell is wrong with…” – just to get in the mood – and then later amend this to something more diplomatic.
But sometimes it’s the only intro you need, as in: “What the hell is wrong with Congleton Town Council”? As we reported last week, at a meeting of the town’s Personnel Committee, Coun Peter Broom made an astounding series of allegations against fellow councillor Dawn Allen, who was not present.
Coun Broom said in his statement (my italics) that “Coun Allen has in my opinion brought this body into disrepute” and that “I have given a statement to the police and benefits department.”
No-one is independently investigating Coun Allen: the only complaint that’s been made is by the councillor making the accusation and reading the statement – and he only “believes” that something has happened. Despite this, he is making an accusation that could – and may – ruin Mrs Allen’s standing in the town.
A number of questions are raised, to put it mildly.
• Why was the statement read to the Personnel Committee? This committee has nothing to do with standards. Its remit is agreeing the pay and conditions of staff, approving personnel policies, appointing staff and so on. It is not the place to bring forward serious allegations against councillors.
• Why was the statement ever allowed to be read out? It is not in the remit of the committee, so should not have been introduced. It was not on the agenda. There is even a protocol for ejecting the Press, so items can be discussed in private.
The chairman of the committee was Coun Paul Bates, and he should have not allowed an item to be introduced without knowing what it was. Once Coun Broom started, he should have stopped it. The second paragraph of his statement: “Coun Allen has in my opinion brought this body into disrepute,” should have set off alarm bells. Coun Bates is no shrinking violet, afraid to interrupt a speaker.
The leader of the council, Coun Bob Edwards was present. He should have lead, and stopped it when the chairman failed.
Clerk Brian Hogan is an expert on procedure and protocol, and he could and should have stopped it. We have seen Mr Hogan in action and he can be a very determined man and act quickly. Again, no shrinking violet he.
• Do the codes of conduct at the council count for nothing? This latest incident is another example of the council failing to abide by its own codes. In this case: “You must not disclose confidential information or information to which public access is restricted” and: “You should engage with colleagues and staff in a manner that underpins mutual respect and courtesy.”
If the police are investigating a serious allegation, those early investigations must and should be confidential. No charges have been brought and none may ever arise. Coun Broom only knew of the allegations because he had made them.
Councillors should also be impartial. Coun Allen was not there to put her case and there were no police present to comment.
• Where is the natural justice? When the same town council managed to lose £20,000 of tax payers’ money by failing to follow its own guidelines, we all bent over backwards not to make accusations that implied guilt. It was all just a serious of unfortunate events.
When Coun Larry Barker failed to declare an interest in a company making a planning application to the committee of which he was chairman, this was also just a mistake, and he was merely advised verbally to complete his declaration more carefully.
Was Coun Allen accorded the same privilege, that the accusations were possibly down to errors and mistakes? No. She had mud thrown at her, and mud sticks.
Councillors who have expected us to accept all their explanations as reasonable gave Coun Allen no chance of reply.
• As has come to light this week, the original minutes of the committee were published complete with Coun Broom’s statement, but then taken down, so which minutes are going to be approved by the council as the correct ones? The real ones or the doctored ones that do not reflect the events of the meeting?
If the statement was correctly delivered, why is not recorded on the minutes? Leaving aside codes of conduct and ethics, there is nothing legally wrong – in the strictest “can anyone be prosecuted?” sense – so why take it off? Unless all concerned know they have made a terrible mistake.
If this was an isolated incident at the town council, we could put it down to human error. But it’s not.
The waste of money on the digital display unit was because councillors did not follow their own guidelines. The row over declarations of interest was because councillors did not follow statutory guidelines.
Now we have this. As UKIP deputy chairman Paul Nuttall complained in a letter to MP Fiona Bruce: “Coun Allen rightly feels that there is a vendetta against her merely on the grounds of the political party she represents, and we agree. It is extraordinary that a councillor of any political persuasion should be allowed to use qualified privilege (the law that allows the Chronicle to report accusations made at a public meeting) to launch an unfounded attack on another elected member.”
UKIP’s modus operandi may be that “everyone picks on us” but in this case they’re correct.
At the very least, the Tories on Congleton Town Council should apologise personally and profusely to Coun Allen for the way the statement was made.
The code for councillors also says they are accountable to the public for their decisions and must “co-operate fully with whatever scrutiny is appropriate to your office, including by local residents”.
Perhaps the only honourable option for the councillors on that committee is to resign their seats and seek re-election — then they can explain their actions under the scrutiny of local residents.