Explained: How a secret recording damaged Havering Council - and what it now means for residents
- Credit: Archant
On Thursday afternoon, in a meeting over Zoom, Havering Council tried to end months of bad headlines and in-fighting.
A panel had been assembled to determine whether the council’s leader, Damian White, should face an investigation over an alleged attempt to manipulate the borough’s electoral boundaries for political gain.
The Romford Recorder was banned from addressing the meeting. Opposition members found their cameras and microphones had been switched off remotely by council officers, to prevent them from interjecting.
A few minutes into the meeting, the panel voted to eject all press and public. The live feed was cut.
Around half an hour later, it would become clear that Conservative councillors had voted behind closed doors to ignore expert advice and block any further investigation into their leader.
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In February, Havering councillor Bob Perry announced that he was quitting the Conservative group. A Tory stalwart who had worked behind the scenes on general election campaigns, he claimed he had left due to “dictatorial behaviour” (which the Conservatives denied), but it was unclear what he was referring to.
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In July, it became clearer. The Recorder learned that Havering Council was the subject of a formal complaint to the Local Government Boundaries Commission (LGBC).
The LGBC was in the middle of redrawing the borough’s electoral boundaries. The complaint centred on a secret recording Cllr Perry had made in a Conservative group meeting weeks before his resignation in February.
On the recording, council leader Damian White could be heard claiming that he had been permitted to “influence” the council’s submission to the LGBC.
According to Cllr White, traditionally non-Conservative communities could be grouped into large wards with populations as high as the rules would permit, whereas reliably Conservative-voting communities could be spread across more wards with lower populations and awarded more council seats.
Boundaries might also be used to split unpopular developments in Romford between different wards, minimising their impact on future elections.
One MP – Andrew Rosindell - had been consulted, Cllr White said - but not the other two MPs in the borough
“Andrew Rosindell has come in and looked at them (the proposals),” he claimed on the recording. “We’ve come up with a set of proposals that I think are really politically advantageous for us.”
“Out of time”
The act of manipulating populations to try to influence the outcomes of future elections is known as “gerrymandering”.
When the Recorder revealed the existence of Bob Perry’s tape recording, it sparked multiple complaints to Havering Council about Cllr White’s conduct.
One complainant was Rainham Labour MP Jon Cruddas, who demanded an independent and transparent investigation – but he got neither. Instead, the case was referred to a panel of Havering councillors, two-thirds of whom were Conservatives who answered to Cllr White.
Last week, the panel threw out the public and then threw out the complaints, on grounds that they had not been filed within 90 days of Cllr White making the comments. Council rules meant the complainants had no right to an appeal.
The outcome leaves no winners.
For Cllr White, he has been neither cleared of the allegation nor found culpable. His colleagues blocked an investigation on what Mr Cruddas called “a technicality”.
For rivals, there is a similar lack of closure. Their months of evidence-gathering has amounted to nothing.
And for the public, it raises important questions about Havering Council. Among them: Can it be trusted to hold itself to account?
A tale of two leaders
The saga has effectively pitted the two most powerful people at Havering Council against each other – its political leader, Cllr White, and its professional leader, chief executive Andrew Blake-Herbert.
On the tape recording, Cllr White is heard telling colleagues that Mr Blake-Herbert has allowed him to “influence” the council’s boundary change proposals.
“For these four walls,” he says, “I’ve been able to – only recently, he (Mr Blake-Herbert) has agreed for some reason to allow me to influence the proposals and, erm, I’ve been able to.”
He is also heard claiming Mr Blake-Herbert has sanctioned a plan to let a Conservative-controlled committee whittle civil servants’ ideas down to one, to better suit the party, and then take it to full council as the sole option to be voted on.
“Andrew has now agreed that we can have a Governance Committee meeting to discuss the four options, pick which one we like, make any recommendations and changes to it and then that goes to full council,” Cllr White says on the recording.
When that option is then sent to the Boundaries Commission, he continues, “apparently, they will only look at what was discussed and debated at a full council meeting. So there will only be one option from the council.”
When the Romford Recorder published these comments, they elicited an uncommon reaction in the world of local government communications: the council released a statement forcefully denying comments by its own leader.
In its statement, the council said it “utterly refuted” any suggestion that Mr Blake-Herbert had colluded with the Conservatives, and insisted that he had always been impartial.
This leaves Havering residents in something of a quandary. Only one of these accounts can be correct: either Mr Blake-Herbert did allow Cllr White to “influence” the proposals, or he did not. With a full investigation having been blocked by Conservatives, residents are now left to wonder which of these two high-powered individuals, who control their borough, was correct.
When Cllr White was approached for comment, he responded that it was “entirely normal” for political parties to respond to local boundary consultations.
Andrew Rosindell adopted the same line. Dismissing the Recorder’s reporting as “fake news”, he said in an interview with Time FM: “I’m afraid this is all complete and utter nonsense... There is nothing untoward that has taken place whatsoever... Of course political parties put forward ideas that they think would be beneficial to them. That’s what happens in every boundary review with every political party.”
But the complainants claimed this was a disingenuous defence. What Cllr Perry had captured in his secret recording was not a proposal to respond to the consultation as a political party, but a plan to turn a formal council submission into a party-political advantage. The two are very different.
Cllr White was heard on the tape claiming that council processes would be used to “filter” and “amend” impartial civil servants’ options, to ensure the outcome sent to the LGBC by Havering Council was “politically advantageous” for his group.
Cllr Perry published an open letter challenging Cllr White to a live radio debate about the issue, “for the public to hear the truth, not the spin put out by himself and Mr Rosindell.” But Cllr White dismissed the challenge as a political stunt and said he was too busy tackling coronavirus.
By the end of July, Havering Council had confirmed an investigation would be opened into the complaints about Cllr White. Jon Cruddas welcomed that news, but added: “This must be a totally independent process and I will be making sure the person tasked with conducting the review has no ties to Havering Council or the Tories.”
That was a pledge Mr Cruddas could not deliver on. It soon emerged that Cllr White’s fate would lie with members of his own council and that the officer advising those councillors would be Daniel Fenwick, who worked for the council and had been hired by Cllr White.
But despite initial concerns over Mr Fenwick’s impartiality, when he turned in his report last month, he recommended that Cllr White be investigated.
He noted in his report that the complaints had been filed more than 90 days after Cllr White made the comments in question, and that council rules said the panel could refuse to hear complaints filed more than 90 days out of time.
But he added that Mr Cruddas in particular had filed his complaint at the earliest possible opportunity, as there was no way he could have known about Cllr White’s comments until the Romford Recorder reported on them.
“It is my assessment that the allegations are sufficiently serious to justify an investigation notwithstanding the delay,” wrote Mr Fenwick.
“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.”
The first panel meeting to determine Cllr White’s fate was aborted because one of the two Conservative councillors who had been chosen to sit on it – Cllr Timothy Ryan – appeared in the transcript of Cllr Perry’s recording. He had actively participated in the meeting at the heart of the complaint he was now expected to deliberate over. Cllr Ryan declared an interest and withdrew.
A week later, it was announced that Cllr Ray Best would replace Cllr Ryan. Complainants immediately wrote to the council raising concerns over this decision, as Cllr Ray Best also appeared in the transcript of the recording.
Cllr Matt Sutton, the other Conservative on the panel, has refused to say whether he too was present at the February meeting. Minutes show there was no apology for absence recorded, suggesting he was there.
Yet when last Thursday’s meeting commenced, neither man followed Cllr Ryan’s precedent. Each failed to declare an interest and then voted to ban the press and public.
Once in secret, Cllr Best tabled a motion to throw out the complaints before the panel had even begun discussing them. His reasoning was that the complaints had been filed out of time. Cllr Sutton seconded the motion.
Mr Fenwick’s deputy, Abdus Choudhury, urged Cllr Matt Sutton to hear Mr Fenwick’s reasoning as to why the case could proceed despite the 90-day cap.
“That particular issue is covered by Mr Fenwick’s report and before you determine that matter, I would invite you to at least hear from Mr Fenwick on that sole issue,” he said.
But Cllr Sutton declined, saying: “I would move to decline Mr Fenwick’s request to speak and I would actually be looking to close this complaint down and not go any further.”
The decision by last week’s panel snuffed out any prospect of an investigation into Cllr White or any other Conservative councillor who participated in the February meeting. So what next for those who remain aggrieved?
The LGBC said in a statement to this newspaper that whilst its rules precluded the setting of boundaries for political gain, its remit also banned it from investigating or taking action over the “motive” behind any submission it received. The LGBC was powerless to act on the February tape recording and had simply advised anybody with concerns to complain to Havering Council.
Whilst councillors are in the clear, it remains to be seen whether complaints will be made against any council officers. In addition to Cllr White alleging involvement by Mr Blake-Herbert, documents published by the council show the Havering Residents Association (HRA) has alleged that it was frustrated by other officers.
The HRA claims it drew up an alternative to the Conservatives’ proposal, but officers refused to run the numbers and check it was compliant, claiming they did not want to be seen as giving special treatment to anybody. With hours to go before the final vote was taken, officers did finally provide some figures, but it was quickly established that they were wrong.
At the meeting where the vote was held, the Conservatives made repeated mention of the fact that the HRA’s proposal was not supported by data, and the Tory option was chosen. Afterwards, officers eventually confirmed the HRA’s proposal had been viable all along.
Havering Council made clear in September that complaints about officers would not be considered by the panel set up to decide Cllr White’s fate. It remains to be seen whether the HRA will pursue complaints against any civil servants. It also remains to be seen whether fresh complaints will be filed over Cllr Best and Cllr Sutton not declaring any interests before they blocked an investigation into Cllr White.
The LGBC kept parts of Havering Council’s proposal, but changed others. The public consultation over that proposal ended in early October, with the final recommendations due in January. The outcome will impact future election results for years, perhaps decades, to come.
But, said HRA chairman Gillian Ford, “The outcome is a totally separate conversation from what these complaints were about, which is the process. Our complaint is about the alleged conspiracy and lack of governance and transparency in the way the decision was made.
“The way a council should work is that officers are impartial and draw up plans for councillors to consider. But what is alleged on the recording is that the Conservatives had input prior to the point at which councillors should have had an input. The focus should be on that. Because it raises the question of what else is taking place like this? What else is happening behind the scenes to take openness and transparency away from our residents?”
She added that the HRA was considering its options and would announce its next steps shortly.
For more, click here: Conservatives dismiss expert’s advice and throw out investigation into leader