Councillors to rule if leader should be investigated over boundary changes plot
- Credit: Archant
A councillor, who will decide whether an alleged gerrymandering plot should be investigated, was at a private meeting where the scheme was discussed, critics have complained.
This Thursday, three councillors will decide whether Havering council leader Damian White should face further investigation over allegations that he attempted to influence the borough’s electoral boundary changes for political gain.
The complaints were filed after Cllr White was secretly recorded talking about the plan in a Conservative group meeting in February.
But the three-member panel appointed to decide his fate this week includes two Conservative colleagues, one of whom - Timothy Ryan – was a participant in the secretly recorded meeting.
Labour MP Jon Cruddas and Havering’s Residents Associations (HRA) have both raised concerns about the panel.
Mr Cruddas called the panel’s composition “incredible”, saying: “If this stands it shows a complete disregard of what should be an independent process.”
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He and the HRA filed formal complaints in July after the secret recording was leaked to the Romford Recorder.
It captured Cllr White claiming council chief executive Andrew Blake-Herbert had allowed him to influence the authority’s proposals.
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He told colleagues, including Cllr Ryan: “We’ve come up with a set of proposals that I think are really politically advantageous for us.”
The council said it “utterly refuted” Cllr White’s recorded comments, insisting Mr Blake-Herbert had always remained impartial.
Investigator Daniel Fenwick said his preliminary work had found Cllr White was eligible for further investigation over potential breaches of the code of conduct.
He wrote in a report: “An investigation is a proportionate response in my view as the allegations in this complaint are serious in nature, involve the leader of the council and have a significant public profile in the local newspapers.”
A three-member panel will consider Mr Fenwick’s report this Thursday and decide whether to order an investigation or drop the case.
If the panel votes to drop the case, there is no right of appeal.
A Havering Council spokesperson said: “The complaints of the HRA have been noted. However, the panel considering this matter has been properly set up in accordance with legislative requirements and reflects Havering’s political make up.”
The council added that as with any committee, councillors must act without bias and are obliged not to participate if they have an interest.
Documents say the panel will be invited to ban the press and public from the meeting, which the Romford Recorder has requested permission to challenge.
The HRA claims its attempts to put forward alternative boundary proposals were hampered by civil servants, according to a document published by the council as part of the evidence in the case.
They claim council officers failed to provide important data, then provided inaccurate data – events which were then used by Conservatives to undermine their proposal.
The group argues that this corroborates suggestions made on the February secret recording that civil servants were aiding the Conservatives.
On the February recording, Cllr White claimed Mr Blake-Herbert had agreed that a Tory-controlled committee could “filter” officers’ four proposed boundary changes.
Conservatives could “pick which one we like”, said Cllr White, change it to make it more politically advantageous and then put it forward as the sole option.
In March, Conservatives did exactly as Cllr White had outlined in the February recording, amending officers’ Option 4 and sending it to full council as “Option 4A”.
In February, the HRA had drawn up its own proposed boundary changes, which it believed complied with rules on ward populations. It called the proposal Option 1A.
But, says the document, officers twice refused to confirm the HRA’s figures were accurate and compliant. An officer claimed they would not check figures for any party’s proposals, to avoid any allegations of preferential treatment.
On the day of the vote, less than two hours before the meeting was due to begin, an officer did provide figures after all – but they were found to be incorrect.
At the vote, says the HRA document, “Much was made by Cllr Damian White of the fact that there were no calculated figures for Option 1A and that it could therefore not be relied upon.”
A week later, the correct figures were provided, showing the submission had been compliant all along – but by then it was too late.
But Havering Council said complaints about officers would not form part of the hearing on Thursday.