“A Christmas Carol(e)” – with Lisa & Jeremy
– an ‘In My View’ article – by Nigel Ward
IN THE PUBLIC INTEREST
- “Weeks turn into years; how quick they pass. And all the stars that never were are parking cars and pumping gas”. (“Do You Know the Way to San Jose?” – Burt Bacharach & Hal David)
On Christmas Eve, my mind went back to a lengthy and wide-ranging telephone conversation with the Leader of North Yorkshire County Council, Councillor John WEIGHELL (Con.), in the summer of 2009.
John conceded to me that he, too, was deeply concerned about democratic representation and governance in Whitby and the rest of the Borough of Scarborough – which he described as the ‘most troubling’ of the District/Borough/City Councils within his North Yorkshire purview. Try as I would, I was unable to draw him into elaborating on his quite obviously well-informed and decidedly adverse opinion.
I believe I now know why.
It is always difficult, in local politics, to point a finger at fellow Councillors or paid public servants; there is the future to consider. What goes around may all too easily come around; and a week, as they say, is along time in politics. So it was always clear that Cllr John WEIGHELL would steer well clear of allegations of corruption – particularly if they involved fellow Conservatives; which they do, though not exclusively.
As regular readers will know, the Corruption Busters have been making a very careful study of the Public Record in relation to Declarations of Interest, Allowances/Expenses, Company Directorships and other forms of vested interests.
There are others whose remit it is to examine such matter; the Monitoring Officers.
The Monitoring Officers have an advantage over members of the public when it comes to examining the Public Record; they have absolute ease of access. They do not need, as we do, to invoke the Freedom of Information Act 2000 in order to identify evidence of Malfeasance and Misconduct in Public Office – an offence at Common Law, defined as follows:
- noun. improper and/or illegal acts by a public official which violate his/her duty to follow the law and act on behalf of the public good. Often such conduct is under the guise or “colour” of official authority.
Details of the offence are set out in November 2007 guidance from the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS):
The elements of misconduct in public office are:
- a) A public officer acting as such.
- b) Wilfully neglects to perform his duty and/or wilfully misconducts himself.
- c) To such a degree as to amount to an abuse of the public’s trust in the office holder.
- d) Without reasonable excuse or justification.
- (Councillors and Officers of Councils, like members of the Police Force, are ‘office holders’).
This offence is far from trivial; upon conviction, it may attract a penalty of an indefinite period of imprisonment and an indefinite fine.
How are we to reconcile these requirements of the law with the conduct evinced by the Monitoring Officers of NYCC, SBC and the NYPA in recent times?
Clearly, with some difficulty – because all three seem to have acted ‘beyond authority’* in their handling of complaint and requests for information during the past year.[* – the legal term for acting beyond one’s authority is ‘ultra vires’, and ultra vires actions are addressable by the courts. Surprisingly, training to go ‘beyond authority’ is frequently provided by Local Authorities to their Officers, through Common Purpose, at the taxpayers’ expense].
On 1st July 2012, all of our Local Authorities assumed responsibility for conducting Standards Complaint investigations in accordance with the terms of the Localism Act 2012. This introduced a number of measures; notably:
- The abolition of Standards for England (previously Standards Board for England)
- A requirement to promote and maintain high standards of conduct
- Local codes of conduct
- A requirement to register pecuniary and other interests
- The creation of a new criminal offence of failing to register relevant interests
The Act requires Local Authorities to have in place mechanisms to investigate allegations that a member has not complied with the Code of Conduct, and arrangements under which decisions on allegations may be made.
On the face of it, this would appear to be a step towards the enforcement of higher ethical standards amongst Councillors, Council Officers and Police Officers.
It is a mirage.
In the immediate aftermath of these new requirements, Monitoring Officers Carole DUNN (NYCC), Lisa DIXON (SBC) and Jeremy HOLDERNESS would all appear to have evaded their respective duties and exceeded their respective authority – with apparent impunity. (Carole DUNN featured in the second of three Private Eye articles about corruption in North Yorkshire Councils within her purview – all three in the last half year).
One or all of them (or their minions) has withheld information; ignored formal Complaints; colluded with Defendants and with one another in the preparation of Defence Statements; failed to report crimes, and breached the terms of employment contracts.
What is not yet clear is whether they have done so at their own prerogative, or in compliance with, and obedience to, orders ‘from above’. This makes it difficult to determine against whom charges of Malfeasance and/or Misconduct in Public Office should be brought.
An interesting aspect of the revised Code of Conduct is that Councillors and Police Officers are now required to declare membership of the Ancient & Accepted Masons – the Freemasons – within their respective Registers of Interests.
This is perhaps because the very first of the Three Great Principles of Freemasonry may all too easily stand in conflict with the duty to report crime:
- “BROTHERLY LOVE – means that every true Freemason will show tolerance and respect for the opinions of others and will behave with compassion and understanding to his fellows.”
Historically, this ‘compassion and understanding to his fellows’ has extended to the injunction to bring ‘no harm or woe’ upon fellow Freemasons. Clearly, the prospect of ‘whistle-blowing’ on fellow Councillors who happen also to be Brother Freemasons presents a serious dilemma for the would-be ‘whistleblower’.
The Third Great Principle is also a potential cause of conflict:
- “TRUTH – Freemasons strive for truth both in their view of themselves and in their dealings with others. Masonry requires high moral standards and its members endeavour to uphold these principles in their public and private lives.”
At SBC, only one of the Councillor has, to his credit, declared membership of the Freemasons; relative new-comer Councillor David CHANCE, Conservative member for Mayfield Ward in Whitby, (where he is joined by Councillor Jane KENYON).
Unfortunately, if membership lists passed to me are genuine – and there is no reason to believe otherwise – Councillor David CHANCE is not alone amongst Councillors in his membership of the Freemasons; which means that the Code of Conduct has been breached yet again. We can only hope that membership will be declared very soon . . .
So how frequent and serious have been the various breaches of the Code of Conduct in recent times?
That rather depends upon how seriously one views such breaches as:
- writing aggressive and deeply insulting emails and/or internet postings about members of the public,
- failing to declare business interests (in some case related to the exploitation of confidential information in respect of procurement opportunities),
- profiteering by double-dipping Allowances (in an anlogous manner to the former-Leader of Leicestershire County Council, Councillor David PARSONS, who accepted Allowances from both his Council and the EU in respect of a single expenditure – for which he has lost his membership of the Conservative Party, thereby forfeiting the Leadership of the Council, and is now under investigation by the Leicestershire Police. It will be interesting to see how the Scarborough & Whitby Conservative Association reacts to this timely parallel).
All this would be disgraceful enough. What is even more despicable is that some of the offenders have been heard to gloat about the way that the Monitoring Officers have exculpated them, about how they have no fear of the new Standards regime, and about how they have ‘done nothing wrong, really’ – they have, after all, done only what Councillors have been doing unhindered for years and years; availed themselves of the privilege of Office, without regard to their responsibilities as bearers of the public trust.
In my view, that is unforgivable.
I wish you all a Happy and Healthy New Year.
“Bear in mind that Brag is a good dog, but Holdfast is better. Bear that in mind, will you?” repeated Mr Jaggers, shutting his eyes and nodding his head at Joe, as if he were forgiving him something. (“Great Expectations” – Charles Dickens)
Post Scriptum – “A Christmas Cracker” – Following the usual felicitations, one of my Christmas cards included in its message this question; “Did you ever get a response from Tom Fox on that question you posed on 1st July?”
The answer is NO.
The question was:
- “Are you currently satisfied with your appointment of the present Portfolio Holder for Finance, Procurement and Legal?”