Sunday, 9 March 2014
Other matters have been considered: Brian Coleman, and a missing laptop
The reason why Brian Coleman left the council chamber in such an undignified rush on Tuesday evening was that he was due to be formally censured by the full council - again - this time for his actions in regard to a council laptop which he claims to have 'disposed of' in the summer of 2012, with the knowledge of a council officer, who has contradicted his account.
Coleman pulled the same stunt at the time of his last reprimand, leaving the room just before the disciplinary measure, such as it is. By such a tactic he imagines the sanction is rendered entirely pointless, but in fact it serves to underline his now complete isolation from the political process he once sought to dominate. Now he spends his time on the margins, looking in from the outside. It's been a long time coming, this end to his career, and it's still got one last depth to reach, in May, when he attempts to retain a seat in Totteridge as an 'independent Tory'.
In truth, Pickles demolition of the Standards regime has shown the glaring contradiction in his approach to localism : residents will never be properly empowered until there is an effective system that deals with elected representatives like Brian Coleman, who continue to flout the rules, year on year, and behave in the most obnoxious way to the very people he is supposed to represent, but may now escape any punishment, unless a serious financial misdeameanour is proven.
The message from Tory Barnet's disciplinary process is this: a councillor like Coleman may attack a female resident, and be found guilty in court, and escape any censure at all - yet if he 'loses' a piece of council owned equipment, he is formerly sanctioned. And of course, thanks to Eric Pickles, he can only face legal proceedings if he is accused of a serious financial irregularity.
Property, and money, are of course, in the Tory agenda, always of more value than the safety of a woman on a public street.
And a criminal conviction for violence does not prevent the individual from continuing in public office, nor from standing again for election, or requiring that individual to make that conviction known to the electorate who may vote for him. This is quite clearly wrong, on so many levels.
Coleman's former colleagues, now that he has broken the spell he had cast over them, by the publishing of a list of embarrassing revelations in his scurrilous blog, are becoming awfully brave - and when he was not present in the chamber, were very daring, and said really bad things about him, behind his back.
Things got so out of hand, it was rather like a scene from Lord of the Flies - the usually submissive boys letting rip when the bully is out of the way.
Fellow Totteridge councillor Richard Cornelius launched into an oblique trashing of his former colleague. Let it be remembered, however, that during the Helen Michael saga, weeks after her assault in the street by Coleman, Cornelius continually refused to supend him, or condemn him, rejecting Helen Michael's claims, bleating 'I know and like Brian' ... Only now it has become personal, with Coleman's ire turned on him and his wife for failing to give unswerving loyalty to him after CCHQ had him thrown out of the Conservative party.
After the trial, Cornelius and his colleagues continued to defend him, and Coleman was only suspended and then removed from the party, in the face of their obstinate refusal to do so, after the intervention of Conservative Central Office.
The truth, the shameful truth, is that they cared nothing about their colleague's abuse of a woman especially a woman who had had the courage to stand up to them and organise opposition to their insane policies, specifically the parking madness, Coleman's idiotic scheme, which has so enraged residents, traders, and fatally, their own core voters.
Who is more worthy of contempt, a man who clearly has no control of his own behaviour, or his former colleagues who failed to stand up to him when it mattered, supported him in his policies, backed him up when he was convicted of assault, and never once uttered one word of criticism of his actions?
Councillor Kate Salinger had amused us all, earlier in the meeting, with her eulogy for Mayor Elect Hugh Rayner, complaining that some took gender equality too far, and that chivalry, and good manners, and opening doors for ladies were admirable qualities. Perhaps they are, in their eyes, at least: but beating up a woman in the street, for daring to record his boundless hypocrisy in ignoring his own hated parking policy, might also be said, in the absence of any equality in the ranks of our misogynistic Tory councillors, to fall marginally outside the limits of their chivalric code - yet it provoked no condemnation from any Barnet Conservative councillor, male or female.
Even after the court case in which the footage of the incident showed quite clearly the full impact of Coleman's thuggish attack on a slight, defenceless woman, in full daylight, on a public street, none of them spoke out, or apologised to Helen, whom many of them had said was making it all up. It was an abject failure in common decency.
The reason why they were all such a bunch of quivering cowards is that they feared he would dig up all their embarrassing secrets, and tell the world, in an act of petty revenge: and that is exactly what he did, in September, writing a truly shameful blogpost in which he outed two of his reportedly gay colleagues, and made allegations about several others: it was a calculated act of betrayal from someone who confuses loyalty with 'discipline', and withdraws his own support as soon as it fails to benefit his own purposes - as in his u-turn over One Barnet.
At the Full Council meeting, after he hurried out of the chamber, Tory leader Richard Cornelius stood up and made it clear, from his assumed expression, rather in the manner, as always, of the butler of a stately hom, in the twilight era of the Edwardian age, being asked to empty a chamber pot, that he was having to deal with a most distasteful matter, although it became apparent that he could not give the full background to the tale of how and why the loss of the laptop had come to light.
It was, he said, a very serious issue - and he was obliged to admit that when he and his collegues had drawn up the new 'disciplinary' arrangements they had overlooked the possibility that the need to censure an independent member would create difficulty, as the panel which carries out this function is comprised of party leaders, and clearly an independent member is likely to be his own leader.
In fact this failure was avoidable: Mrs Angry was present at meetings of the committee which discussed the new soft touch regime, and Libdem Jack Cohen and others had highlighted this potential risk. Nothing came of such considerations.
Tory Brian Salinger, who is the former leader once deposed by a coup organised by Coleman, in favour of Mike Freer, now MP for Finchley and Golders Green, stood up to speak to the motion to censure. He is a decent man, and genuinely appalled at aspects of the case which would appear, by implication, to raise questions that must, in the public interest, be addressed as soon as possible.
He spoke with contempt of the countless number of times Brian Coleman has been sanctioned by this council. This sudden sense of outrage amongst the previously silent Tories was all too much for Mrs Angry, who yelled:
Why didn't you all stand up to him then?
Coleman, said Salinger, had persistently flouted the Code of Conduct, and his behaviour over recent years has done nothing but harm to the interests of local government, not just in Barnet but across London and probably beyond.
One misdeameanour, he said, might justify a slap across the wrists, but there comes a point where anything short of suspension or removal from office altogether is the only way of dealing with persistent and unapologetic miscreants.
Councillor Salinger complained about the lack of detail in the report, and said there were a large number of questions that demanded answers before the point of censure.
One question that occurs is the matter of the risk to personal data.
Salinger was right to raise this - there is very little information on how Barnet is or is not acting to identify what level of risk there has been. This is simply inadequate: especially as it will not be the first time that the authority has lost this sort of personal information.
The Information Commissioner has itself censured Barnet for such losses: has the ICO been informed? What has Coleman said about the laptop: did he destroy the hard drive before 'disposing' of it? If so, why? And if not, why not?
All councillors are data controllers: is he therefore liable to proceedings for failing to ensure the security of the data on a council owned laptop? All these questions and more should and must be answered.
All these questions, and more.
Salinger's allotted time ran out before he finished his speech, but Mrs Angry has a copy, and has seen what else he intended to ask. They allude to deeply worrying concerns, which the council has failed to address.
He wanted to know if there are further enquiries that have been, or will be, taking place by any other bodies.
He wanted to know if this mysterious case raises any issues about such matters as safeguarding.
Councillor Danny Seal stood up to speak. He is a young Tory member who has recently been the butt of Coleman's needling, who tweets about his reportedly high absences from council meetings and trips abroad, sometimes taunting him with the tag #sealhunt.
Seal is not the brightest button in the box, or an articulate speaker, but he was clearly keen to vent his anger. Coleman should be censured, he thought, because ... 'we should respect the taxpayer' ....
That'll be a first, retorted Mrs Angry.
Councillor Seal wanted to tell us that it was the Tory group that removed 'the individual' who is, we must note, a convicted criminal ... Just staggeringly untrue - they backed him to the hilt right up until the very last moment, when central party threats forced their hand.
You didn't remove him, it was Conservative Central Office!
He is no longer a part of the of the Conservative Party, said Seal.
True: and no thanks to you, or your leader, or any of his gutless former colleagues.
It was pressure from outraged residents, bloggers and the press that brought that about, and the overwhelming fury of senior Conservative party officials.
Why, Seal continued, do people throw a laptop away, unless there is something on there they don't want people to see?
Quite. But it would have been better to see such comments coming not from two speakers with - understandably - personal grievances, but from some of those one-time apologists, some of whom have continued to associate with this man, even though he has been removed from the Tory party - and who have always refused to condemn his objectionable behaviour in public.
Cornelius stood up to speak again.
He spoke carefully. He told us he was being 'very cautious'. There were - there are... other matters that have been considered. 'Those matters' are not proven, and there was no case to censure him on those. Of course, he said, enigmatically: one's imagination can run riot about this kind of thing, but he ... was not being charged on the basis of innuendo and wild rumour.
I regret very much that I can't be more fulsome in my explanation tonight, but I think the law of the land has to be respected in this, and I am sorry in many ways that this report that this is an unsatisfactory report to the council.
The Mayor read out the formal censure, supported by 53 votes. Three less than the vote against Coleman's preposterous budget. Who abstained? It demonstrates that misplaced sympathies still linger, even now, in the heart of the Tory party in Barnet, as we saw from the slap on the back he got from Eva Greenspan, as he exited the chamber.
Remember all this, when you vote in May - do these people, who en masse, until their own reputations were at stake, were determined to defend a man like Coleman, really deserve your support?
Coleman has always acted as a totemic representation of the soul of the Barnet Tories: an embodiment of their darkest, worst impulses. Whatever he has done, whatever he has failed to do, he has done it because they allowed him to become what he was: he is what they are, in essence, and that is why, ultimately, they have never tried to stop him. Merciless, lacking in empathy, uncultured, uneducated, materialist, self indulgent: incapable of respect for the people they represent: he is out of their hands now, and out of control: and they have only themselves to blame, and so will you, if you vote them back into power in a few weeks time.