Carry On, Cowboy Council
- an “In My View” article by NIGEL WARD, examining local government at the nethermost level.
IN THE PUBLIC INTEREST
Feudal Doodle Do
I scarcely know how to begin this article, so extraordinary were the events that I now report. It concerns the antics of a humble Parish Council in the shadow of the motorway as it passes between Northallerton and Bedale, North Yorkshire – Exelby, Leeming & Newton Parish Council; the broken Parish Council. The links lead to publications about the council which the Council has not sought to refute.
All this may seem too trivial to pursue. But it exemplifies much of what is wrong with British politics today – the widening gulf between government at every level, and the governed. Something of an eye-opener, I promise you.
When I attended an Extraordinary Meeting of Exelby, Leeming and Newton Parish Council on Monday 21st July 2014 – at the written invitation of the Council – I was astonished to see a public attendance – normally in the order of three to eight members of the public – of well over forty parishioners.
The Councillors had erected their table not in the usual location – central in the rectangular room – but at the end of the room. The Councillors’ desks were not arranged in the usual open U-form, with the open end towards the public seating; rather, in a straight line forming a barrier across the room, separating the Council from the throng.
They had clearly anticipated unprecedented public interest. Whilst not for one moment suggesting that money had changed hands, I must say that my first and abiding impression was “Hello, Rent-a-Mob“. I was not mistaken.
But to go back, I was invited to the Extraordinary Meeting in the following cordial terms:
From: Exelby Leeming Newton Parish Council [firstname.lastname@example.org] Sent: 18 July 2014 12:43
Subject: PARISH COUNCIL EXTRAORDINARY MEETING
The agenda for Monday’s meeting is as follows:
1. To accept apologies for absence.
2. To receive any declarations of interest.
3. To discuss correspondence received from members of the public and clerk.
Parish Councillors would like to invite you to attend the meeting to discuss a way forward.
Invited – “to discuss a way forward”. Let us now examine the Parish Council’s approach to its duties. Let us see how the Council executed its intention “to discuss a way forward” regarding its persistent failure to fulfil FOIA requests, address Formal Complaints, or report the criminal breaches of the Localism Act 2011 by its own Councillors to the North Yorkshire Police.
Nothing on this Agenda could have been of the slightest interest to anyone other than the Council and its correspondents, and members of the public other than those correspondents would have had to be excluded during Agenda Item 3. However, we are expected to believe that all those people attended to hear apologies for absence (Agenda Item 2) and declarations of interst in Agenda Item 3. What a shabby little sham of a local government Meeting this was.
The fairest and most comprehensible approach may be to present a transcript of one of the several audio-recordings of the Extraordinary Meeting – extraordinary indeed – which I will interpolate with explicatory comments, as necessary:
EXTRAORDINARY MEETING OF EXELBY, LEEMING AND NEWTON PARISH COUNCIL
21st July 2014 – 7.30pm – Village Hall
Present and actively engaged:
- Cllr. JK (Ch.): Councillor J. KETTLEWELL (Chair)
- Cllr. DD (V.Ch.): Councillor D. DIXON (Vice Chair)
- Cllr. RW: Councillor R. WRIGGLESWORTH
- UMotP: Unidentified Member(s) of the Public
- C.Cllr. AB: NYCC and HDC Councillor A. BARKER
- Mrs MD: Mrs M D
Present, but mute:
- Councillor Brian SHUTTLEWORTH
- Parish Clerk Margaret STEAD
- Councillor Louis ROBINSON
- Councillor John PEIRSON
- Councillor Frank HERBERT
Cllr. JK (Ch.): Quiet, Ladies and Gentlemen. Welcome to this . . . er . . . extraordinary meeting . . . er . . . first of all, I would like to ask if anybody is taking any films or doing a recording.
Cllr. JK (Ch.): Right. Could I ask the Parish Councillors (glancing left and right)? No, No, No. That’s a ‘no’ then.
NIGEL: I beg your pardon.
Cllr. JK (Ch.): No.
NIGEL: No, what?
Cllr. JK (Ch.): We’ve agreed not to record.
Already, the Chair is out of order. He did not formally open the meeting. He did not accept apologies for absence (Agenda Item 1), so we will never know why Councillor Louis ROBINSON (the Council’s ‘in-house’ grass-cutting contractor), Councillor John PEIRSON and Councillor Frank HERBERT chose to be absent. He did not call for any Declarations of Interest (Agenda Item 2) for Agenda Item 3 – though both he and Councillor Ray WRIGGLESWORTH have a personal and prejudicial interest in Item 3, being subjects of the correspondence to be discussed. But then Declarations of Interests have never been properly observed here for twenty years or more.
Nor did the Chair suspend the Council’s Standing Orders, which is necessary for members of the public to be permitted to address the Council, through the Chair. Even if the Standing Orders had been suspended, any Councillor wishing to address members of the public should have done so through the Chair. As we shall see, certain Councillors proceeded to ignore the protocol, addressing members of the public directly.
No Motion to prohibit filming was proposed, or seconded; the Chair solicited an informal vote (I say ‘informal’ because there was no formal Motion) and deemed the informal non-Motion to have been carried – ‘on the nod’.
The Chair is clearly unaware that the Council’s Standing Orders – a copy of which I requested under the FOIA but which has been repeatedly withheld (though which I now possess, from a source within the Council) – which do not prohibit filming (videoing) or recording in any way:
NICK: We’re not required to . . .
Cllr. JK (Ch.): (interrupting) Sorry?
NICK: We’re not required to have your permission to film.
Cllr. JK (Ch.): It does not come law until the 6th August.
Cllr. JK (Ch.): It does not come law till the 6th August.
NIGEL: It’s been law since 1960.
Cllr. JK (Ch.): It does not become law until the 6th August.
NIGEL: You are mistaken, sir.
The Public Bodies (Admission to Meetings) Act 1960 makes clear that Councils are not required to grant permission for “the taking of photographs of any proceedings, or the use of any means to enable persons not present to see or hear any proceedings (whether at the time or later)”. More recently, new legislation defines these rights more specifically to include technological advanceser (including Tweeting) unavailable at the time of the 1960 Act. There exists no prohibition against filming (videoing), nor is it required for would-be videographers to notify the Council of their intention to exercise their right to film. The Chair acted ‘ultra vires’ – beyond authority – an offence addressable by the Courts. Ignorance of the law provides no defence.
For the avoidance of any doubt, nothing in statute requires members of the public to give notice to the Council of an intention to film; nor anything in the Council’s Standing Orders. The Chair affects to imagine otherwise – or he is making it up as he goes along:
Cllr. JK (Ch.): And last time you recorded and never told us beforehand, which you should do.
NICK: I think you’ll find you’re in error, sir.
UMotP: I think you’re in error.
NIGEL: Would you mind speaking through the Chair, sir? In the correct manner?
Cllr. JK (Ch.): I’m Chair of meeting.
NIGEL: I understand that.
Cllr. JK (Ch.): Yes, Robert? (addressing the UMP)
UMotP: I think that this gentleman should take his camera out.
Cllr. JK (Ch.): Thank you. (Hear, hear. Hear, hear – collective Councillors).
It is interesting to witness the Chair and his Council expressing their collective appreciation of a member of the public who is proffering a suggestion to Nick about what he should do with his camera. Or perhaps they were applauding his temperate choice of words. Regular readers will perhaps remember when Councillor Noreen WILSON of Whitby Town (Parish) Council told Nick, “You can shove your camera up your arse!”. By that standard, our friend in Leeming has demonstrated that it is possible to be both forthright and courteous, if irrelevant.
Moving on, Councillor Ray WRIGGLESWORTH, already the subject of a Formal Complaint for his conduct at the previous Meeting (total attendance 6 – including Nick, me and another member of the public, plus two further members of the public whose issues with the Council remain unaddressed and without acknowledgement or response). So attendance 1, in real terms. What was I saying about ‘Rent-a-Mob’?
Next, Councillor Ray WRIGGLESWORTH, who is a director of specialist employment law consultancy firm EmpLaw Ltd and who, therefore, might be expected to have a rudimentary grasp of the libel laws, proceeds to publicly defame me, accusing me of having committed an offence. This is the same man who has previously repeatedly implied, to a member of the public, in a Council Meeting, that he is “legally qualified”, whatever that should mean. An enquiry to the Law Society, and thence to the Solicitors Regulatory Authority, shows no registration for Ray WRIGGLESWORTH (or Raymond Andrew WRIGGLESWORTH), with or without qualifications. An artist of the bovine ordure variety:
Cllr. RW: And recording device, you recorded and broke the law last time you were here. You didn’t have permission.
NICK: Are you legally trained?
Cllr. RW: Would you mind removing all of your equipment?
NICK: Are you legally trained?
Cllr. RW: Would you like to remove all your equipment?
NICK: No, would you like to answer my question?
Cllr. RW: What has that relevance?
NICK: It’s relevant because I’m concerned that . . .
At this point, Councillor Dot DIXON (Vice Chair ) hurriedly interrupts. She may not know that it is an offence falsely to hold forth to be a lawyer. She may also know that the Fraud & Confidential Intelligence Bureau of the Solicitors Regulatory Authority investigates and, when necessary, prosecutes cases of impersonating a lawyer – nor that convictions often result in custodial sentences in the order of two years. Interestingly, the rather volatile Councillor Ray WRIGGLESWORTH took no further part, except once (to snap “Turn it off!” – later in the Meeting, when I stated that I was indeed still recording). We shall come to that after Councillor Dot DIXON’s foray:
Cllr. DD (V.Ch.): (Interrupting) we don’t have to be legally trained. We’re asking you . . .
NICK: . . . (continuing) as a Council . . .
Cllr. DD (V.Ch.): (Interrupting again) . . . as a Council, we have the right to tell you we don’t want you to film.
NIGEL: You’re mistaken.
Cllr. DD (V.Ch.): That is not because we have had advice.
NIGEL: You’ve had wrong advice.
Chair Councillor John KETTLEWELL came to her rescue.
Cllr. JK (Ch.): We’re not obliged to say so. Now are you doing it, or am I going to close this meeting?
NIGEL: You can close the meeting if you wish. You don’t need to do that.
Cllr. JK (Ch.): Right, thank you.
NIGEL: Just go about your business, sir.
At this point, there seemed little doubt that the Meeting would be closed immediately. But perhaps the Chair felt that his audience – the ‘Rent-a-Mob’ crew – would see this as a defeat, a failed ambush. Or perhaps he was afraid that it must appear frivolous to have invited me to his Meeting, then promptly to seize on any opportunity not to engage with me.
Perhaps he even imagined that we would relinquish our right to film. “Once more unto the breach, dear friends . . .”:
Cllr. JK (Ch.): Well, are you still going to record the meeting?
Cllr. JK (Ch.): Where do we stand?
UMotP: Excuse me. We’re all here. Can we not vote on whether we want it on?
Cllr. JK (Ch.): Yes, you can . . . (inaudible)
Councillor John KETTLEWELL (Chair) is apparently unaware that Council decisions must properly be resolved by Councillors, through formal Motions – not by ad hoc gatherings of village rowdies, whose ignorance of due process exceeds even his own.
Cllr. DD (V.Ch.): Have you got your recorder on now?
Cllr. DD (V.Ch.): Well you came in without telling us last time and you’ve done the same this time you should have come and told us that you were going to record or film.
NIGEL: We have an absolute right to film a Council Meeting.
Cllr. DD (V.Ch.): You should do so. That is what we know and that is what we are going to abide by.
NIGEL: You must do as you see fit.
The Council had previously been provided with a link to the BBC ‘Inside Out’ documentary that featured Seamer & Crossgates Parish Council wasting Police time and abandoning a Meeting for no lawful reason. Private Eye was quite scathing:
Clearly, Exelby, Leeming & Newton Parish Council is aware of the law at least to that degree. In his desperation, Councillor John KETTLEWELL (Chair) proceeded next to cite documentation which seems not to exist:
Cllr. JK (Ch.): It says here the person making the recording must inform those present before commencement of . . . (tails off)
NIGEL: It says where?
Cllr. JK (Ch.): Sorry?
NIGEL: It says where? What is that document?
Cllr. JK (Ch.): Rules for public . . . [inaudible].
NIGEL: Of what?
The primary function of a Parish CLERK is to provide legal and regulatory advice to the Chair and to minute the Meetings. With all this talk of legalities, it is curious indeed that neither the Chair nor any other Councillor sought the Clerk’s advice. Nor did the Clerk offer advice. In fact, the Clerk sat transfixed throughout the entire Meeting.
UMotP: Can we ask who these people are?
Cllr. JK (Ch.): Yes, will you introduce yourselves, please?
NIGEL: There’s no reason why I should.
Cllr. RW: Who are you and where do you come from?
NICK: Am I obliged to answer that?
Cllr. RW: I’m asking you a question.
NICK: Am I obliged to answer that?
Cllr. DD (V.Ch.): Why are you being so difficult?
NIGEL: We’re not being difficult. We were invited here.
NICK: We’re simply here to observe a public meeting which the public were invited to attend, with free will, what I’m concerned about here is that we have a Council that’s busy going about its business in dark corners where . . .
UMotP: (indecipherable interruption)
NICK: Can we possibly have the comments put through the Chair?
Cllr. DD (V.Ch.): (indecipherable interruption)
NIGEL: Then they must address themselves to you.
UMotP: Does this gentleman belong to our Parish? – No! Then why are they here?
NIGEL: Because we’re members of the public and we’re entitled to be here. I’m afraid you’re wrong about that. Any member of the public may attend a Parish Council meeting. We don’t have to tell you that. I’m happy to tell you, but we don’t have to.
Councillor Dot DIXON apparently believes that when a Parish Councillor demands to know a member of the public’s name, he (or she) should leap to obey. It is difficult to believe, since even a Police Constable (or any other rank) cannot demand a name, unless reporting one for an offence. Councillor Dot DIXON really does seem to think that her ‘powers’ as a Parish Councillor – a public servant – go beyond the powers of the Police.
Cllr. DD (V.Ch.): So what objection do you have to telling your name.
NIGEL: I have no compulsion to tell you that.
Cllr. DD (V.Ch.): Why not?
NIGEL: Why not? Because you can’t make me tell you that. You don’t have the authority to make me tell you that.
In fact, Councillor Dot DIXON knows very well who I am and what my name is. Of that we can be very sure.
Tag-partner Councillor John KETTLEWELL swiftly to the rescue – or perhaps he felt that his superior ‘power’, as Chair, was being usurped by his Vice Chair – who, properly, should have been addressing all her remarks through him:
Cllr. JK (Ch.): The lady at the back there . . .
UMotP: I wonder what the Police would say about this.
NIGEL: Call the Police, by all means. Please do.
UMotP: (indecipherable interruption)
NIGEL: Absolutely. We were invited here, you might like to explain that.
Cllr. DD (V.Ch.): (interrupting) Can I talk, please?
NIGEL: Well, can I?
NICK: Could you not be aggressive?
Cllr. DD (V.Ch.): We’re not being aggressive. We’re trying to get this issue sorted out once and for all.
This is pure poppycock. In the first place, the Council could not discuss Agenda Item 3 – “To discuss correspondence received from members of the public and clerk” – with members of the public or press present, other than those whose personal correspondence with the Council was to be discussed, because to do so would breach their rights to privacy under the terms of the Data Protection Act 1998. For the nitty-gritty, ‘Rent-a-Mob’ would have been forced to leave, as we were forced to leave two weeks previously, when our correspondence was discussed in our enforced absence.
UMotP: (indecipherable interruption)
Cllr. DD (V.Ch.): I don’t see the reason why. You know all of us.
NIGEL: You’re in public life
Cllr. DD (V.Ch.): I realise that.
NIGEL: We’re just members of the public. We have no compulsion to disclose our identity.
UMotP: Are you recording at the moment?
NIGEL: (addressing the Chair) I am indeed.
Cllr. RW: Turn it off.
NIGEL: No. I will not. I don’t take orders from you under any circumstances.
UMP: The gentleman is recording at the moment.
Cllr. JK (Ch.): I understand that
NIGEL: That’s right. I don’t need your permission.
UMotP: Either close the meeting or ask him to leave.
NIGEL: (with heavy irony) Is that a motion?
The Meeting was descending into farce. But forty years of Council experience has taught County & District Councillor Arthur BARKER the proper way of conducting oneself in a Council Meeting. Addressing the Chair, he now ventured an opinion, albeit incorrect:
C.Cllr. AB: I’m not an expert, John (the Chair), as you know. Whether public meetings should be recorded or not but it does seem as there is some discretion for you to make that decision as Parliament are introducing legislation to make Councils open and freely recorded, so I don’t think it’s unreasonable for the Chairman of the Council and the Councillors, if they agree, to ask you to not record this meeting. I don’t think it’s unreasonable at all if they’ve discussed it and they’ve taken a vote amongst their membership and arrived at that conclusion. That’s my opinion, as I say John, I’m not legally trained I’m not qualified but it does seem a reasonable.
Cllr. JK (Ch.): That’s what we’ve been advised.
NIGEL: Mr. Chair, may I respond to Councillor Barker? Would that be permissible?
Cllr. JK (Ch.): Go on then.
NIGEL: Councillor Barker, you are in fact in error about that. The public has a right to record meetings and we choose to exercise that right. We’re not here in an adversarial capacity and we are not here to be interrupted. We are just here to put a reasonable point of view; the law permits us to record, the law does not require that the Council gives us permission to record. We may record if we so wish, that is our right as electors. If the Council feels differently, it is free to adjourn its meeting. Or you can call the Police if you like. But the Police will tell you what the Police have told me on many Parish Council meetings; they have no right to intervene.
That’s a fact
Cllr. JK (Ch.): Go on, Arthur
C.Cllr. AB: It would seem to me though that the Council have taken advice and knowing the Council I suspect they will have taken it from a responsible body and they can make this decision if they wish
NIGEL: Then they have been misinformed.
C.Cllr. AB: You say they have been misinformed. I don’t know.
NICK: Well, according to the Association of Chief Police Officers in England Wales and Northern Ireland . . .
C.Cllr. AB: (interrupting) Are they experts in Local Government?
NIGEL: Let the man speak, Arthur.
NICK: They’re experts in the Law that . . .
(Inaudible comments from audience at the rear)
NICK: . . . makes it very clear that the public may not be stopped from filming or recording in a public place and if this Council is aware of the law they will be aware of the Criminal Justice Act of 1972 where a public place is defined . . .
Cllr. JK (Ch.): (interrupting) You’re baffling with words. We’re quite simple Parish Councillors trying to do our job as well as we can.
NICK: Nobody’s baffling with words.
Cllr. JK (Ch.): And with all this paperwork and this interruptions we’re finding it difficult to do our day to day work.
Cllr. JK (Ch.): Yes. The lady at the back. (pointing)
UMotP: We seem to have an issue where you have taken advice and some of the advice you have been given is that if the Parish Councillors decide that they do not wish to be filmed during a Parish Council meeting, then you can close the meeting and I guess we are at an impasse now. So if you know you have the right to close the meeting, then go ahead and close it.
Cllr. JK (Ch.): We’ve had advice (inaudible) . . .
UMP: If that’s what you have been advised, then I suggest you close the meeting – ‘cos this tit for tat arguing . . . (inaudible).
Cllr. JK (Ch.): (name redacted), have you something to say?
UMotP: No, no.
Cllr. JK (Ch.): So you’ve heard what they have to say. Are you still adamant to record?
Cllr. JK (Ch.): Yes.
UMotP: Can I just say it’s a bad job when people who belong to this village with land and houses, or whatever, are unable to hold a meeting for our benefit?
Cllr. JK (Ch.): Yes.
NIGEL: (in response to an indecipherable comment from the rear) There’s no truth in that, madam. You are able to hold a meeting, but the law requires that members of the public . .
UMP: (interrupting) . . . no! Because I don’t want you to video!
NIGEL: But you don’t have a say in that. That is a matter of law. I’m sorry about that. I didn’t make the law, but that is the law. Pardon?
UMotP: (inaudible) . . . quote the law? Just him saying that it’s the law . . . ?
NIGEL: That’s very true.
NICK: The very fact that nobody here seems to know the law themselves . . . (interrupted) . . . The Association . . . (interrupted) . . . if I may finish, thank you . . .
Cllr. DD (V.Ch.): DD: (interrupting) We came here tonight to sort out all the other issues, right? We didn’t want . . . we didn’t expect all this bull whatever right? We came here in good faith to sort out the problems with Mr and Mrs Dolan and Mr Ward, right? So can we cut out the crap, please, and get on with it?
Mrs MD: Very professional! Really professional!
Disregarding, for the moment, Councillor Dot DIXON’s descent into the vernacular, there is an important issue here. Councillor Dot DIXON has breached the rights, under the data Protection Act 1998, by disclosing the personal data of three members of the public.
Properly, she should have referred to “X”, “Y” and “Z” – without using titles that would disclose the gender or marital status of the people. It is astonishing to witness public servants not only evincing extreme hostility to members of the public, but to be doing so with apparent contempt for their rights. Arrogance personified.
NIGEL: Are you aware that you’ve just broken the law? You’ve broken my Data Protection rights by identifying me in public.
Cllr. JK (Ch.): Say again?
UMotP: Where’s the information going to be displayed, whatever they’re filming? Because I’m not giving my permission to be on internet Facebook.
NIGEL: Nobody’s filming the public. We’re only allowed to film the Council and that’s exactly what we’re doing – nobody in the audience.
UMP: (indecipherable interruption)
NIGEL: Well then, you’re free to leave if you don’t want your voice recorded. Well, you don’t have any say in that. I’m sorry about that.
Cllr. JK (Ch.): Excuse me?
UMotP: (inaudible) Microphones on Councillors (inaudible) . . . other people in the room?
NIGEL: No. What’s the point of that?
NICK: We’re in a public place. I don’t need permission. According to the Association of Chief Police Officers, there are no powers prohibiting the taking of photographs, film or digital images in a public place. Therefore, members of the public and press should not be prevented from doing so.
Cllr. JK (Ch.): Right! Come on (banging gavel). Come on! Order!
Finally, Councillor John KETTLEWELL embraces his duty, as Chair, to take proper charge of the Meeting.
NIGEL: Mr. Chair, are you adjourning the meeting or are we carrying on, please?
Cllr. JK (Ch.): If you are still adamant that you are going to record it, we are adjourning the meeting.
NIGEL: Then go ahead, because . . . [uproar] . . .
In the ensuing melée, one member of the public was physically assaulted from behind (the pusillanimous assailant was quickly swallowed into the crowd). Another was insulted by a woman who declined to identify herself (thus evading a Police complaint for abusive behaviour). Not one Councillor, with the exception of County & District Councillor Arthur BARKER, even attempted to engage with us in an informal chat – though sevral Councillors were seen in indignant exchanges woth the ‘Rent-a-Mob’ crowd.
What can one say about such people? They cling, limpet-like, to an imagined ‘power’, the discharging of the statutory duties of which is almost entirely beyond their own comprehension. It is almost as though the title of ‘Parish Councillor’ has aggrandised them, in their own minds at least, to exalted positions as public masters, while their true function – as public servants – has entirely evaporated in a self-satisfied glow of hauteur. How much more lofty are our Members of Parliament – unrepentant and unapologetic about their expenses swindles?
But can it really be that they are so disconnected from reality? Are they really as ignorant as they seem? Or is this is a guileful affectation of stupidity, carefully contrived to mask the actions of a Council whose members evaded declarations for their respective Registers of Interests (a criminal offence under the terms of the Localism Act 2011) for years on end – years during which many developments requiring Planning consent have been approved. Residents of Leeming, Exelby, Newton and Londonderry may know them better than I. But not for very long.
As the throng dispersed, one bewildered villager asked, “Why are you picking on these poor folk?”.
I replied, “From Parish to Parliament, sir, we would like them to operate within the law”.
“Oh,” came the reply, “is that all?” – then wandered off, no less bewildered.
Nick and I would like to extend our best wishes for a full recovery to Parish Clerk Margaret STEAD, who, sadly, has apparently taken a month off due to ill-health. It is unclear who will advise the Council during her absence.