Monday 20th August 2018,
North Yorks Enquirer

£4k/hour Councillor’s Non-Declaration of Interests?

My Open Letter to SBC Portfolio Holder for Legal & Governance, Councillor John NOCK [Con.], seeking answers to serious questions regarding the acts and/or omissions of Standards Committee Chair, Councillor Heather PHILLIPS [Con.], following revelations made public in my article entitled “SBC Cllr Paid £1.3K to Chair ONE Meeting” published on 13th January 2018, to which no response has been forthcoming – though it is known that Councillor PHILLIPS received and read my email; she has since discussed the content with other Conservative Councillors.

Councillor PHILLIPS has elected to ignore public interest questions addressed directly to her, so it is proper, now, to escalate the matter to the Portfolio Holder for Legal & Governance.

In consequence of Scarborough Borough Council’s unlawful email interception policy, it is also proper that I address public interest questions to the Portfolio Holder for Legal & Governance in the public domain. In this way, full transparency is preserved and Councillors can be confident that no anonymous Council Officer has prevented a full and uncensored rendition of my public interest questions, to which answers are now due.

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Councillor John NOCK – Portfolio Holder for Legal & Governance – Scarborough Borough Council

IN THE PUBLIC INTEREST

John,

I write to you in your capacity as Portfolio Holder for Legal & Governance, within which (I am informed by another Cabinet Portfolio Holder) responsibility for Standards is subsumed.

If I am in error in my tentative view that you are the appropriate Portfolio Holder to address in regard to Standards concerns, I look to you to correct me. Please forward this email to the appropriate person. Thank you.

Perhaps you could also direct me to a URL-link on the Council’s web-site where a clear and current schedule of Portfolio Holders’ respective responsibilities may be located? That would be very helpful. Thank you.

Following an extraordinary level of public interest in my recent article “SBC Cllr Paid £1.3K to Chair ONE Meeting”, I have now learned that the meeting of the Standards Committee meeting of Tuesday 19th September 2017 lasted just 20 to 25 minutes.

Councillors, colleagues and Enquirer readers have commented to the effect that, in the context of eight years of austerity, there is something highly inappropriate in doling out public money to the tune of £1,333.56 per annum for chairing one meeting, most especially when Council Tax is about to soar – on top of other increases in household expenditure, across the board, such as utilities ‘price hikes’ of up to 12.5% – and when the Council is prevaricating on the issue of paying its own staff the Living Wage).

The 20 to 25 minutes duration of that September 2017 Standards Committee meeting equates to remuneration at an obscene rate of approximately £3,200 – £4,000 per hour – to an elected member whose own grasp of the unsatisfactoriness of that circumstance, given her position as Vice Chair of the Yorkshire Local Councils Association Scarborough Branch and a member of the Institute of Legal Finance & Management, with many years service in a local solicitor’s practice, should have been comprehensively clear. She should have known better.

Having attended, as Deputy Chair, the 22nd March 2016 meeting of the Audit Committee, at which it was Resolved that the Committee embrace the Recommendation to annex the Standards Committee, Councillor Heather PHILLIPS [Con.] has wittingly accepted a Special Responsibility Allowance of over thirteen hundred pounds per annum – for chairing a Committee which she knew (from her own experience in attending the meeting of the Audit Committee eighteen months previously) need not and should never have taken place. Nor should one overlook other costs contingent upon holding that meeting – e.g. Officer time, staffing, stationery, mileage claims, etc.

As I recall, you yourself have railed against unnecessary meetings (see below).

Over recent years, the Standards regime has fallen into a state of acute dysfunctionality, having been unable, for legal reasons, to provide any meaningful remedy to Complainants, resulting in such travesties as the feeble scolding of Councillor Phil TRUMPER [Con.], whose highly inappropriate re-Tweets of tasteless and pejorative remarks apropos the victims of the Grenfell Tower inferno undoubtedly brought himself and his Council into disrepute.

Similarly, the Standards Committee found itself unable to apply any meanigful sanction to Whitby Town Mayor Councillor  Noreen WILSON for her disrespectful remarks to a member of the public, thereby effectively granting de facto dispensation to all Councillors permitting them to address members of the public by the appellation “Knob!” – with total impunity. Farcical.

To suggest that Councillor WILSON did not breach the Code of Conduct because she was not acting in her capacity as a Councillor when she called a member of the public a “knob” (twice, and to his face) is as unacceptable as attempting to assert that Peter JACONELLI did not breach the Code of Conduct because he was not acting in his capacity as a Councillor when he committed his lewd acts on generations of minors. Farcical – yet deeply offensive.

I will spare you a detailed reiteration of your own smoothed passage through the Complaints Procedure.

In fact, the Standards Committee has established only that, in its present form, it is a waste of public money, and some of that money has found its way into the hands of the very Councillor who knew, far better than most, that it was dead (but not buried) – emphatically not a conduit through which to accept Special Responsibility Allowances at the astounding rate of £3,200 – £4,000 per hour.

The Standards Committee has, notwithstanding, continued in its existence for approaching two years after the Resolution of the Audit Committee  to proceed with the merger – at who knows what unnecessary expense? Perhaps you could provide an answer to that question, too, please?

With reference to that 22nd March 2016 Audit Committee meeting, some very serious questions now arise:

1) Sitting as Deputy Chair on the Committee that day, Councillor Heather PHILLIPS clearly had a disclosable pecuniary interest (a DPI) in the decision to approve the merger with Standards, in respect of her Special Responsibility Allowance as Chair of the Standards Committee, which would be lost to her in direct consequence of the merger, should it go ahead.

a) Did Councillor PHILLIPS seek advice from the Monitoring Officer about any requirement to declare a pecuniary interest (DPI)?

b) Did Councillor PHILLIPS apply for a Dispensation (to attend and vote) from the Monitoring Officer and, if so, on what grounds was it granted or denied?

2) As Chair of the Standards Committee, whose business, specifically, is to oversee the promotion of ethical and legal standards of conduct, it was incumbent upon Councillor PHILLIPS to be informed in the highest degree about the provisions of s.30 and s.31 (and, particularly, s.34) of the Localism Act 2011. It cannot be said that Councillor PHILLIPS was entitled to believe it unnecessary to declare a DPI amounting to £1,300+ per annum.

a) Should it be found, upon investigation, that Councillor PHILLIPS (perhaps wittingly) failed to declare her disclosable pecuniary interest (DPI) in the continued existence of the Standards Committee, will this be referred to the North Yorkshire Police to determine whether or not a prosecution is merited?

b) Is it not the case that the Councillor PHILLIPS’ failure to declare a DPI merits, in the public interest and in the interest of the Council’s (and the Conservative Party’s) public repute, summary disqualification from her position as Chair of the Standards Committee and any other positions of enhanced responsibility for the remainder of the Council cycle?

3) Following the Resolution of the Audit Committee to approve the mooted merger, what processes were followed (or disregarded), as a result of which the merger never became finalised – and what part did Councillor PHILLIPS play in that process?

Clearly, any credible investigation into Councillor Heather PHILLIPS’ actions and omissions carried out by her own seemingly derelict Standards Committee cannot be relied upon to effect a just outcome. One might say the same of the Scarborough & Whitby Conservative Association, where she presently serves as Deputy Chairman.

One way or another, there would appear to be no credible avenue of complaint, bar commissioning an external body.

Amongst the many suggestions posited on social media, some have been frankly ridiculous. One wag suggested that Councillor PHILLIPS should be stripped to the corsettes and pursued through the woods by the hounds of the Staintondale Hunt  (a suggestion that began to make sense to me only when I discovered that Councillor PHILLIPS is a member of the Staintondale Hunt Supporters Club).

Others called for the re-introduction of the public stocks.

More seriously; what assurances are you, as Portfolio Holder, able to offer to me – and to the wider public – that Councillor Heather PHILLIPS [Con.] will be prevailed upon to:

  • a) undergo a diligent and impartial investigation,
  • b) resign,
  • c) return the money,
  • d) forego her Chairship (with its concomitant elegibility for Special Responsibility Allowances),
  • e) publish an apology to electors via the North Yorks Enquirer, the Scarborough News and the Whitby Gazette.

Or has ‘the Council’ deemed that Councillor PHILLIPS’ lapses will go, like so many before them, completely unaddressed?

Does the Council’s Code of Conduct not apply to the Chair of the Standards Committee?

It should be obvious that Councillor PHILLIPS’ conduct is flagrantly disrespectful (insulting, even) to members of the public, many of whom work for a whole month to earn the kind of money picked up by her in a rather undemanding 20-25 minute session.

How is she to be held to account?

In a word; what is to be done?

Finally, on a more personal note, some of your colleagues inform me that you are exceptionally resentful of close scrutiny.

Scrutiny is an inevitable consequence of achieving election to positions of public representation – though it can be minimised in either of two ways. Think about it.

No doubt the Enquirer will publish your response. If any.

Yours, with kind regards,

Nigel



 

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