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SBE Kangaroo Court– a report on Councillor M.

The Standards Board for England, the local government police service, has proclaimed a local councillor guilty of trying to make himself happy. Or unhappy. And so it sentenced him to be suspended from office for one year.
   In August 2002, M., an Independent councillor on Macclesfield Borough Council, took part in a debate on a report which contained criticism of his conduct. He wanted to defend himself. He spoke but he did not vote. The Standards Board ruled that M. should have kept his trap shut as the outcome of the debate would affect his ‘well-being’.
   “What exactly is ‘well-being’?” M. wanted to know.
   The short answer is that the Board refused to provide a definition of the term until November 2003, long after all sorts of charges had been laid against M. The definition offered in a special report was "anything that could be said to affect a person's quality of life, either positively or negatively, is likely to affect their wellbeing". It added that the 'wellbeing' is not restricted to a person's financial position.
   Curiously, this report was heralded as a first of a series offering clarification of matters arising from the SBfE's operation rather than a tidying up operation made necessary by M.'s persistent requests for an official definition.
   Even more curiously, no further reports have been published.


The Danegate development in Macclesfield offered to provide industry, jobs and improvements to inadequate sports facilities. M. supported the plan until he found out that it wasn't going to deliver the promised benefits. Danegate foundered on planning grounds in November 2001 but one of the disappointed potential beneficiaries was persuaded to complain about M.'s role in the final planning meeting to the Local Government Ombudsman, who ruled that there had been no injustice.
   She did, however, criticise M., saying he should not have spoken because, in her opinion, he had entered the meeting with his mind already made up. She also named M. in her report as the councillor about whom the complaint had been made.
   The Ombudsman's report was sent to Macclesfield council on an 'information only' basis, and there was the inevitable debate.

All the council could do with the report was 'note' it. The council could neither change the content nor refuse to accept the report.
   M. was told he should not comment on the Ombudsman's report during the debate because he might have a personal and prejudicial interest in it. If he spoke, he risked breaching the council's Code of Conduct. M. asked the council's chief executive for clarification. All he received was confusion: on the one hand this - on the other hand that and, as the bottom line: "It's up to you yourself to decide if you have an interest."
   In the light of such clear-cut advice, M. concluded he did not have an 'interest' (in the sense of personal benefit) to declare and he asssumed that it would be okay to exercise his natural right to defend/explain himself.
   As part of an on-going political vendetta led by council leader Peter Burns, M. was 'shopped' to the Standards Board for England for conduct unbecoming a councillor.

The Tribunal's Ruling

The Tribunal found that M. had a personal interest in the debate on the Ombudsman's report and he should not have addressed the meeting. This 'personal interest' was not financial and there was no suggestion that he stood to make any personal gain or advantage. As M. explained to the Tribunal, he was just trying to look after the interests of Macclefield’s local taxpayers when the council’s leaders seemed to be following a different agenda. But the tribunal ruled that the state of his personal happiness or unhappiness was at stake and that was why he should not have taken part in the debate.

Curiously, the degree of happiness/unhappiness experienced by a group of Tory councillors who had been waging a vendetta against M. for four years was not called into question. Nobody in officialdom cared about the happiness of the leader of that clique (and then leader of the council) Peter Burns. Only M.’s personal happiness or unhappiness has ever been a matter of consequence.
   The Tribunal also said that M.'s integrity had been brought into question. Which is strange as most Macclesfield councillors, including Lib-Dem and Labour opponents, agree that M.’s integrity has never ever been in question and he found himself up before the Tribunal entirely as a consequence of a political vendetta waged by Burns and his buddies.

Mechanics of the System

A Standards Board Tribunal makes judgements based on ‘what the man in the street would think if he were in full possession of the facts’. Fine and dandy – except that the Standards Board is highly selective in its ‘evidence’ gathering, it does not allow its ‘investigators’ to be questioned as to the accuracy or completeness of their ‘evidence’ and it objects when ‘the accused’ wants to call witnesses in his/her defence.
   Everything is decided ‘on the balance of probabilities’ and the Tribunal does its balancing act unburdened with the full facts. Thus M. might well have been thinking of all the facts which he was unable to present to the kangaroo court while waiting for its decision.

  • The fact that the leadership of Macclesfield council's Tory group had made changes to the Danegate development plan without reference to the full council
  • The transparent lies told to councillors and a gradual change from private developers financing benefits for the people of Macclesfield to local taxpayers having to pay for roads and railway bridges to the benefit of private developers.
  • Tory group leader Peter Burns riding roughshod over the local party’s rules and having M. expelled from the party for daring to oppose him.
  • Burns then parachuting a Conservative candidate of questioned legality into M.’s ward for the 2002 local elections; only to be frustrated even more when M. retained his seat as an Independent Conservative.
  • The Local Government Ombudsman's investigation of M. following the collapse of the development plan.
  • The Ombudsman's conclusion that M. had entered a planning meeting with his mind already made up and he should not have addressed the meeting (although how she knew he had his mind made up remains unclear).
  • The Ombudsman's opinion that the planning application would probably have been rejected even if M. had taken no part in the meeting.
  • The Ombudsman's opinion that the complainant had suffered no injustice resulting from maladministration by the Council.
  • The vague information supplied by the council’s chief executive officer and Burns ally, David Parr, when M. sought advice on whether he should speak in a council debate on the Ombudsman's report.
  • The fact that Parr's vagueness led M. to concluded that he did not have an interest to declare.
  • Parr's admission during the Tribunal hearing that he had withheld from M., advice on the personal interest issue from the Standards Board for England, which had included the view that maybe M. should be allowed to speak on Human Rights grounds.
  • And the fact that M. had nothing at all to gain, financially or emotionally, from an insignificant council debate on a report on a long-dead issue.

The Verdict

The outcome of the Tribunal was a travesty of natural justice. The Tribunal ruled that because he was identified in the Ombudsman's report, the outcome of the debate would affect M.’s state of personal happiness or unhappiness – which amounted to a personal interest. It apparently ignored the fact that the report had received full coverage in the local paper some weeks before and that it was no longer a ‘live issue’.
   M. was suspended from acting as a member of his council for one year. And as a direct consequence of the actions of this kangaroo court, the local taxpayers of Macclesfield have lost the services of the only councillor prepared to stand up to the machinations of the leadership of the ruling Tory group.

The Danegate Three – Companions In Exile?

As M. heads into undefined political exile for a year (the Standards Board was unable to explain to him exactly what his suspension means in practice when he asked after receiving his sentence), his opponents in the Danegate affair were not destined to remain in place to gloat. Cllr. Burns, the leader of the council, crashed and burned right away – a couple of weeks before he was due to appear in court on charges of threatening behaviour in a local hospital's Accident & Emergency Depapartment and, according to the local paper, a charge of dangerous driving. Four further allegations of physical violence and intimidation have not, as yet, led to court proceedings.
   Cllr. Burns announced that he would not be standing for re-election in the June 2004 local council elections for ‘health reasons’ and he did his local Conservative party the parting favour of failing to withdraw his nomination until it was too late to field another Tory candidate for his Prestbury ward. When the Express, Macclesfield’s local paper, approached the council for a tribute to Cllr. Burns’ efforts in public life, neither the chief executive nor another officer felt able to contribute. And a council spokeswoman announced that she was unable to give out information of any sort on Cllr. Burns; even the length of his service as a local councillor.
   The coyness on the part of the council's then chief executive, David Parr, is all the more curious because he has been seen as a staunch ally through Cllr. Burns' four-year vendetta against M. Indeed, Parr was forced to admit during the Tribunal hearing that he had chosen to withhold from M., relevant information from the Standards Board for England. Parr has now quit Macclesfield for less attractive surroundings.

M. told his Tribunal that he felt he had a right to defend himself under the terms of the European Convention on Human Rights and he also had a right to receive the full advice obtained by the council's officers. As a parting shot, the Tribunal recommended that Macclesfield Council examine its procedures on these issues.
   [Cynics are now saying that nothing will happen because the people controlling Macclesfield council believe its members don't have human rights and the chief executive is perfectly entitled to withhold advice from the leader's enemies. Ed.]

Stooge or Snake-In-The-Grass?

G. MarshallThe only winner of the affair appears to be Cllr. George Marshall, deputy leader of Macclesfield council, who will now carry out the responsibilities of the leader for the rest of the municipal year. There is a certain feeling that the ousted Peter Burns was led astray by his supporters, who knuckled under to his slightest whim. If they had stood up to him occasionally, it is felt, he would not have been encouraged to his political (and physical) excesses and he might have slipped into retirement with his reputation somewhat less tarnished.
   Marshall was always quick to do his leader’s bidding and he was perceived by many to be nothing more than Burns’ bag-carrier. But as the 'last man standing', there is a suspicion now that his role in the downfall of Cllr. Burns had a certain Machiavellian quality and that he might not be as harmless as he looks.
   On the other hand, there is some evidence that Marshall feels uncomfortable in the spotlight and he is more at home firing off rambling and deliberately misleading emails, and hoping the recipients believe that the messages come from a member of the public rather than the leader of the controlling group on a local council.
stop pressMacclesfield's Tories have elected a new leader. Despite receiving a ringing 'deathbed' endorsement from former leader Peter Burns (in which Burns described himself as an 'ex-president' and showered himself with praise), the former bag-carrier soon found himself at the heart of an Anyone but Marshall for Leader campaign. So he is now on the sidelines with the Danegate Three.
Sue Kippling   Cllr. Sue Kippling, who has been described as a former hockey-stick mistress, has now taken control of Macclesfield's squabbling Tories, and she immediately piled her desktop high with goodies for her favoured chums. Everyone who counts is on the payroll as the chairman of one committee or another.
   So nothing much has changed.

Political Criminals and their Punishment
– penalties applied to disgraced MPs and others

May 2004

M. was suspended from active membership of Macclesfield Borough Council for 1 year for addressing the council on an issue which, it was ruled, could have affected the state of his personal happiness or unhappiness.

Here are examples of the sort of penalties applied to Members of Parliament, and others, for much more serious acts of political misconduct.
UPDATE Ken Livingstone's fate has been added to the end of the list.

September, 2003

Sheffield Attercliffe Labour MP Clive Betts was banned from the Commons for 7 days over his part in a bogus immigration bid by a former male escort who worked as his assistant

February, 2003

Conservative MP Michael Trend was suspended from the House of Commons for 2 weeks after he wrongly claimed more than £90,000 worth of expenses

February, 2002

Former Europe minister Labour MP Keith Vaz was banned from the House of Commons for 1 month after a conviction by the Commons standards and privileges committee for 'a contempt' of the Commons and serious breaches of the MPs' code of conduct. Mr Vaz was found to have given 'misleading information' about his financial links to the Hinduja brothers, whose passport applications caused Peter Mandelson to resign from government. Mr Vaz said at the time that the punishment, one of the toughest ever handed down to an MP, was 'disproportionate' to his alleged misdemeanours and against natural justice.

October, 2001

Former paymaster general Labour MP Geoffrey Robinson was suspended from the House of Commons for 3 weeks for failing to register a contract that he entered into in 1990 involving a £200,000 payment from a company belonging to former Labour MP and all-round criminal Robert Maxwell.

March, 2000

Conservative MP Teresa Gorman was suspended from the House of Commons for 1 month for failure to register two properties in Portugal rented out to tenants, giving "seriously misleading" information about her connections with some offshore companies; introducing a Bill to change the Rent Act without registering and declaring her financial interest; and giving misleading information about her interests in offshore companies.

October, 1999

Labour MP Don Touhig was suspended from the Commons for 3 days over the leak of a select committee report on child benefit.
Labour MP Kali Mountford, former member of the Social Security Committee, was suspended from the Commons for 5 days for letting Mr Touhig see a photocopy of the draft document. She denied leaking the document at first but admitted it after an investigation had been completed.

July, 1999

Labour MP Ernie Ross was suspended from the Commons for 2 weeks without pay for leaking a Foreign Affairs Select Committee report to the Foreign Secretary Robin Cook.

April, 1999

Labour MP Fiona Jones was disqualified from parliament after being convicted in the courts of falsely declaring expenses for the 1997 general election. She won an appeal against sentence on the grounds that the rules on election expenses were unclear and the High Court in London ruled that she could take up her seat again in April 1999.

March 1998

Labour MP Ronnie Campbell was ordered out of the House of Commons for the rest of the day for calling the Conservative Shadow Agriculture Minister, Michael Jack, a 'hypocrite'.

stop pressJune 2004

In Israel, Prime Minister Ariel Sharon was cleared of corruption charges. He accepted a bung of £300,000 for using his influence in a deal involving a development on a Greek island and his son was put in charge of marketing the project even though he had no experience of the job. But Israel's new attorney general reached the Huttonesque conclusion that there was no question of corruption because, wait for it: the Sharons are too dim to know when they are being bribed!

stop pressFebruary 2005

Conservative MP Jonathan Sayeed is looking at suspension from the Commons for 2 weeks for hosting Parliamentary lunches and tours of American tourists on behalf of a company in which he had a 30% stake, although there was no evidence of direct payments. He was convicted because his conduct 'fell well below the standards the House expects and risked damage to its reputation'.
[If that is still possible after 8 years of New Labour cronyism & corruption. Ed.]

stop pressApril 2005

Labour councillors Muhammad Afzal, Mohammed Islam, Mohammed Kazi (of Aston, Birmingham), Shafaq Ahmed, Shah Jahan and Ayaz Khan (of Bordesley Green, Birmingham) were all convicted of rigging postal votes in the 2004 council elections. They were all stripped of office and banned from standing again as candidates.
Labour councillor Mohammed Hussain was arrested in June 2003 for rigging postal votes in May 2002 but it took until April 2005 to send him to gaol for 3 years and 7 months.

February, 2006

London's mayor Ken Livingstone was suspended from his office, with full pay, for 4 weeks for being rude to a Jewish journalist.
   In effect, the Standards Board's Adjudication Panel gave him a 4-week holiday with pay!
UPDATE Mr. Livingstone's suspension was suspended pending an appeal. When the case came to court in September 2006, the judge quashed the suspension. So no holiday with pay for Red Ken. And when the judge released his full decision, he concluded that Mr. Livingstone was off duty 'at the time of the crime' and the matter was nothing to do with the Standards Board, so it had had no right to suspend him in the first place.

Anyone still think M.'s treatment by the Standards Board (over a nothing offence with only emotional 'wellbeing' at stake) was remotely fair?

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