Second councillor in gerrymandering case has alleged conflict of interest
PUBLISHED: 17:00 12 October 2020 | UPDATED: 10:53 14 October 2020
Havering Council has been accused of wasting time and public money, after the impartiality of a standards committee was once again called into question.
Earlier this month, a hearing into whether the council’s leader, Damian White, should face an investigation was abandoned after a councillor declared an interest at the last minute and withdrew, leaving only two members on the panel.
But he has now been replaced by another councillor who seemingly shares the same conflict of interest.
Gillian Ford, chairman of Havering’s Residents Associations, has now filed a complaint alleging “inappropriate” appointments to the panel are “wasting public funds” and “bringing the council into disrepute”.
A panel is due to decide on Thursday, October 15, if Cllr White should be investigated after he was secretly recorded claiming the council’s chief executive had allowed him to “influence” electoral boundary changes for political gain.
The council denied his claims, insisting the chief executive was always impartial.
The recording was made by Cllr Bob Perry in a Conservative group meeting on February 3. He then quit and became an independent.
On October 1, a panel met to decide whether the complaints should be investigated or dropped. It comprised two Conservatives – Matt Sutton and Timothy Ryan – and an independent.
But as the meeting began, Cllr Ryan declared an interest and pulled out after a transcript, published as evidence by the council, revealed he had been involved in the secretly recorded February meeting.
His replacement on next week’s panel is Tory councillor Ray Best. But according to the same transcript, Cllr Best was also involved in the February meeting.
Rainham MP Jon Cruddas, who filed one of the complaints against Cllr White, called Cllr Best’s appointment “staggering”.
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Cllr Ford, who filed the other, said: “It’s a game they are playing – but we will keep playing the game as long as they do.”
Cllr Perry said: “It’s either absolute stupidity, or this is being done as a delaying tactic. Clearly, the only Conservatives who should be considered for this panel are the ones marked in the minutes as absent from the February meeting.”
The HRA has questioned whether Cllr Sutton shares the same conflict as Cllrs Ryan and Best, as minutes do not record him as absent from the February meeting.
Neither Cllr Sutton, Cllr Best nor Havering Council responded to the Recorder’s questions.
Meanwhile, the Romford Recorder has been banned from challenging a proposal to shut the public out of the standards meeting.
We requested permission to address councillors, after the agenda proposed deciding Cllr White’s fate behind closed doors because “exempt information” may be discussed.
The Recorder argued that all of the evidence councillors were due to consider had been published on the council website with no exemptions or redactions, so questioned why councillors would be discussing “exempt information”.
The Recorder also cited the strong public interest acknowledged by the council’s own report, which said: “The allegations... are serious in nature, involve the leader of the council and have a significant public profile in the local newspapers.”
But a civil servant told the Recorder that Conservative chairman Matt Sutton had denied its request.
Mr Cruddas said he had been “assured” that the process would be “transparent and open for public scrutiny, as it should be”.
He said excluding the public “would be an insult to the people of Havering”.
Update - 13th October: A Havering Council spokesperson said, “It is for councillors sitting on the panel, to determine Code of Conduct complaints. Therefore, panel members in Thursday’s meeting will individually consider whether they have an interest that prevents them from being able to determine the issue before them, just as the first panel did. It will also be for the panel to consider whether it should go into a private session for some, or all of the substantive sections of their meeting on Thursday.”
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