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Conservatives dismiss expert’s advice and throw out investigation into leader

PUBLISHED: 12:00 16 October 2020 | UPDATED: 12:07 16 October 2020

Two Conservative councillors (Ray Best, left, and Matt Sutton, right) have blocked an investigation into allegations that their leader Damian White (centre) tried to manipulate future election results by altering the borough's electoral boundaries.

Two Conservative councillors (Ray Best, left, and Matt Sutton, right) have blocked an investigation into allegations that their leader Damian White (centre) tried to manipulate future election results by altering the borough's electoral boundaries.

Archant

Havering Tories Matt Sutton and Ray Best defied officer advice on yesterday, October 15, and voted to block an investigation into their group leader Damian White.

Havering Council leader Damian White will not face investigation over gerrymandering allegations because Tory colleagues decided complaints about his alleged actions were filed out of time. Picture: Mark Sepple/Havering CouncilHavering Council leader Damian White will not face investigation over gerrymandering allegations because Tory colleagues decided complaints about his alleged actions were filed out of time. Picture: Mark Sepple/Havering Council

The duo made up two-thirds of a panel set up to decide whether Cllr White should be investigated over an alleged attempt to gerrymander electoral boundaries for political gain.

Councillors voted to ban the press and public from the meeting. Chairman Cllr Sutton also banned the Romford Recorder from challenging this decision.

Rainham MP Jon Cruddas, who filed one of the complaints against Cllr White, said: “This absolutely beggars belief on every level. I was given every assurance that the hearing to consider the charges against Cllr White would be in public and that the process would be impartial and transparent. What has transpired this week is anything but.”

Cllr White was secretly recorded in February claiming council chief executive Andrew Blake-Herbert had allowed him to “influence” the authority’s boundary proposals, so they were “really politically advantageous” - a claim the council strenuously denied.

Cllr Matt Sutton banned the Romford Recorder from challenging plans to hold yesterday's meeting in secret. Picture: Havering Council.Cllr Matt Sutton banned the Romford Recorder from challenging plans to hold yesterday's meeting in secret. Picture: Havering Council.

He proposed cutting traditionally non-Conservative areas into large wards with higher than the optimum number of voters, but chopping Tory heartlands into more wards with lower populations and giving them more council seats.

After the recording was leaked to the Recorder, Mr Cruddas and Havering’s Residents Associations filed formal complaints with the council.

But the Recorder has seen evidence that Cllrs Sutton and Best threw those complaints out last night, claiming they were filed too late.

Cllr Sutton declined to hear expert legal advice from the council’s director of law and governance, Daniel Fenwick.

Rainham Labour MP Jon Cruddas said Cllr White had been let off on Rainham Labour MP Jon Cruddas said Cllr White had been let off on "a technicality" and that the outcome was an insult to Havering residents. Picture: HM Government.

He instead accepted and backed a motion from Cllr Best to throw out the complaints because they had been filed more than 90 days after Cllr White was recorded making the comments.

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Mr Fenwick had advised in a report that an investigation was “proportionate” and that the 90-day time limit was debatable because the complainants could not have filed their complaints any earlier. They filed them soon after the recording of the meeting came to light.

He wrote: “It is my assessment that the allegations are sufficiently serious to justify an investigation notwithstanding the delay and it is in the wider interests of the council and its legal duty to uphold the Nolan Principles that an investigation takes place.

Cllr Ray Best proposed a motion to throw out the complaints before the panel had even begun discussing them. Picture: Ken Mears.Cllr Ray Best proposed a motion to throw out the complaints before the panel had even begun discussing them. Picture: Ken Mears.

“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.”

Abdus Choudhury, deputy director of legal and governance, told Cllr Sutton in yesterday evening’s meeting: “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, if not on the substantive report.”

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.”

He and Cllr Best then threw out the complaint, despite objections by the third panellist, independent Linda Van der Hende.

Councillor Bob Perry secretly recorded Cllr White's comments weeks before quitting the Tory group, citing Councillor Bob Perry secretly recorded Cllr White's comments weeks before quitting the Tory group, citing "dictatorial behaviour". Picture: Havering Council.

Council rules mean the complainants have no right of appeal.

Bob Perry, the former Tory councillor who recorded Cllr White’s comments, then quit the party and leaked the recording, said he attended the virtual panel meeting but was banned from speaking.

He said: “The whole thing is a stitch-up, in my opinion. It’s absolutely obscene that this has happened. It’s just so wrong.”

Mr Cruddas alleged Cllrs Sutton and Best had “decided to sweep their leader’s transgressions under the carpet.”

He said: “The panel dismissed the allegations based on a technicality. This opens the floodgates for all manner of abuses of power, setting a precedent that if you can avoid a complaint for three months, you can get away with anything – an almost unbelievable position for a public figure to take, and a snub to open, democratic process.”

Both Havering Council and Cllr White have been approached for comment.


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