‘Absolution’ of conduct by Leader and Deputy Leader is indefensible
Labour councillors Judith Blakeman and Emma Dent Coad are seeking a review of the Borough Standards Committee’s decision to exonerate Council Leader Sir Merrick Cockell and his Deputy Cllr. Nick Paget-Brown over their handling of the resignation of former councillor Andrew Lamont. Lamont, who is to be tried in March for allegedly possessing child pornography, was permitted to remain as a non-functioning councillor for eleven months before standing down from the Council.
Councillors Blakeman and Dent Coad, Leader and Deputy Leader of the Opposition Labour Group, had asked the Standards Committee to investigate concerns that the Council had been brought into disrepute by not immediately requesting Lamont’s resignation when the police investigation was first reported in October 2010. They argued that Councillors Cockell and Paget-Brown did not act in compliance with the Member’s Code of Conduct nor with the Council’s Constitution and that this had damaged the public’s perception of the Council.
The Standards Sub-Committee met in November and decided that there was nothing the Council’s leadership could have done to require Mr. Lamont to resign and that their behaviour was entirely consistent with both the Member’s Code of Conduct and the Council’s Constitution. However, the two Labour councillors claim that this decision is riddled with faulty reasoning and inconsistencies.
Cllr. Blakeman disputes the Standards view that agreeing that former councillor Lamont could forgo his allowance and not attend meetings during the police investigation was purely a matter for the Council’s leadership. She said: “This was pre-eminently a matter for the residents of Norland ward, whom Cllr. Lamont was elected to represent. During the by-election to replace him we met a number of people who had asked him for assistance and got no reply. Leaving vulnerable residents in limbo like this is unacceptable. At the very least the Council should have put a message on Cllr. Lamont’s e-mail referring residents to the other two ward councillors.”
The fact that the matter took eleven months to resolve without any intervention by the Council’s leadership was also unacceptable.
Cllr. Dent Coad was baffled by the Standard’s Committee view that how a councillor chooses to represent his constituents is “up to him” and legally only requires that he attend one meeting every six months. She said: “all political parties have clear policies governing the way they expect their councillors to carry out their duties; the Member’s Code of Conduct similarly expects a high commitment from all councillors. Without surgeries, casework, support on planning or housing or schooling or police issues, whatever are councillors for? Former Cllr. Lamont clearly fell far short of these expectations, yet his Chief Whip appeared content to allow this to continue over a very long period of time.”
Both Labour councillors are particularly concerned at a statement in the Standards decision that their complaints could have “given rise to what some might construe as a politically-motivated complaint.” Both complaints were deliberately withheld until after the by-election precisely to avoid this allegation. Once the by-election was over, however, it was entirely proper for the Leader and Deputy Leader of the Labour Group formally to ask the Standards Committee to investigate objections raised by many residents about the way the Council’s Conservative Leadership had handled the matter. Cllr. Blakeman said: “sadly, if the Sub-Committee’s logic is followed, it is difficult to imagine any circumstance under which a councillor could turn to the Standards Committee when a councillor from another political party is felt to have violated the Member’s Code of Conduct”.
The Standards Committee now has three months to answer the request to review its original decision.