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Havering Council’s chief executive among four facing new complaints in ‘gerrymandering’ row

PUBLISHED: 07:00 28 October 2020

Havering's Resident Associations have filed a formal complaint against council chief executive Andrew Blake-Herbert, based on secretly recorded comments made by council leader Damian White. Picture: Steve Poston.

Havering's Resident Associations have filed a formal complaint against council chief executive Andrew Blake-Herbert, based on secretly recorded comments made by council leader Damian White. Picture: Steve Poston.

Archant

Havering’s top civil servant is now the subject of a formal complaint, as allegations that the Conservatives tried to manipulate future election results refuse to die down.

Havering council leader Damian White has also embraced this government funding, but stressed that this injection doesn't allay the council's financial concerns. Picture: Havering CouncilHavering council leader Damian White has also embraced this government funding, but stressed that this injection doesn't allay the council's financial concerns. Picture: Havering Council

Havering’s Resident Associations (HRA) filed complaints on Monday against two Conservative councillors and two council officers, including chief executive Andrew Blake-Herbert.

Council leader Damian White was secretly recorded in February claiming Mr Blake-Herbert had allowed him to “influence” and “filter” the council’s electoral boundary change proposals so they were “really politically advantageous”.

Havering Council said it “utterly refuted” Cllr White’s claims, insisting Mr Blake-Herbert had remained impartial.

On October 15, Tory councillors Matt Sutton and Ray Best blocked an investigation into Cllr White, ending a three-month standards process.

Formal complaints have been filed against Conservative councillors Ray Best (left) and Matt Sutton (right). Pictures: Vickie Flores and Havering Council.Formal complaints have been filed against Conservative councillors Ray Best (left) and Matt Sutton (right). Pictures: Vickie Flores and Havering Council.

While that process was live, complaints against officers were “stayed”. Now it has ended, the HRA has filed a complaint against Mr Blake-Herbert.

It has also filed official complaints against Cllrs Sutton and Best.

The group says it has obtained a legal opinion from a barrister that both councillors should have declared an interest but failed to do so.

It further alleges that they refused to hear from a report or listen to expert officer advice before blocking the investigation, indicating “pre-determination”.

HRA chairman Gillian Ford said the opposition felt it had HRA chairman Gillian Ford said the opposition felt it had "no choice" but to file the complaints. Picture: Arnaud Stephenson.

Cllrs Sutton and Best did not respond to requests for comment.

The HRA has also complained about monitoring officer Abdus Choudhury.

It says the council’s former monitoring officer told the group that a QC would be asked to investigate and their findings would go before a standards panel.

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But after that officer left, the case instead went to a Conservative-controlled panel before any investigation could begin.

HRA chairman Gillian Ford said the complaints against Cllrs Sutton and Best would come before a Conservative-controlled adjudication panel, but she felt the opposition had “no choice” other than to file them.

“On principle, we’ve got to do it because that’s what we’re here for – to make sure everything is open and transparent,” she said.

Havering Council did not comment on the complaints against Mr Blake-Herbert and Mr Choudhury.

It said the standards panel had been conducted “in accordance with the general rules”.

MP asks external body to investigate

Rainham MP Jon Cruddas has also filed a fresh complaint against Havering Council.

The Labour MP’s previous complaint against Cllr White was among those thrown out by Cllrs Sutton and Best earlier this month, on grounds that it was filed too late.

Mr Cruddas has now asked the Local Government Ombudsman to investigate the alleged “gerrymandering” attempt.

In a letter to the ombudsman, he wrote: “I contact you now following the inappropriate dismissal of this complaint behind closed doors... The situation demands proper impartial and independent scrutiny and as such I would urge you to take this up.”

He said the dropping of the prior complaints “brings Havering Council into disrepute and causes harm to local democracy. If this is allowed to stand it opens the floodgates for all manner of abuses of power, setting a precedent that if you can avoid complaint for three months you can get away with anything.”

The ombudsman said it could not comment on specific complaints.

*For more, click here: How a secret recording damaged Havering Council - and what it now means for residents


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