Barnet Mayor, Tory councillor Hugh Rayner
Here is a press release from Andrew Dismore, Labour GLA member for Barnet and Camden, expressing in the strongest terms his anger over the handling by Barnet Council of the allegations put to the Monitoring Officer regarding Tory Mayor Hugh Rayner:
Rayner investigation: fears of ‘whitewash’ at ‘hearing’ on 3rd September
Andrew Dismore AM, Labour London Assembly member for Barnet and Camden, and the complainant concerning the conduct of Conservative Cllr Rayner, Mayor of Barnet, has today expressed his fears that the investigation may turn out to be a whitewash.
Mr Dismore said:
“My concerns began when the Monitoring Officer (MO) disallowed a large part of the complaint. She has disallowed those parts of my complaint not on the grounds of inadequate evidence to support them, but on what to me seems to be a pedantic, very technical interpretation of the councillors’ Code of Conduct. She has done so with minimal explanation, followed by an absolute refusal to even consider very detailed and closely argued representations as to why this interpretation was wrong and in my view was clearly against the spirit of the Nolan principles of conduct in public life, which set out requirements relating to openness and accountability of politicians.
“Officers have played the strict definition card before and it really restricted what the Panel could do in relation to former Cllr Coleman.
“ Because of the MO’s ruling, the Leaders’ Panel will therefore not be able to consider my complaint concerning Cllr Rayner’s conduct as a landlord, nor his non registration of interests concerning his receipt of housing benefit, even though thousands of pounds of public money was involved. The MO has taken the view that Cllr Rayner’s dealings with Barnet Homes are not relevant because Barnet Homes is separate from the Council, even though I argue that Barnet Homes is wholly owned by the Council and funded by them.
“The Council have also refused to respond to these freedom of information requests of mine, on the grounds that it would take more than 18 hours to find the answers:
Please disclose all email correspondence on his council email address passing between Cllr Hugh Rayner and a) Barnet Council and b) Barnet Homes that mention the following properties: (list as on his register of interests entry)
Please disclose all correspondence passing between Barnet Council and Hugh Rayner in his capacity as a landlord for each of the last 3 years
· Please disclose details of all payments made by the Council to Hugh Rayner in his capacity as a landlord including any Housing Benefit payments in each of the last 3 financial years.
“However, these problems will not prevent the public forming their own view as to the Mayor’s conduct on these matters, bearing in mind his own admissions to the local press.
“Nevertheless the Leaders’ Panel will consider the two most serious allegations, concerning Cllr Rayner’s non-disclosure of interests at council and committee meetings; and improper use of his position as a councillor in dealings with council officers.
“That though, is not the end of the story.
“The Leaders’ Panel hearing date has been set for a date ( 3rd September) when it was known in advance that I was on holiday and not able to attend to present the complaint, which would be the normal procedure; and the MO has refused to countenance a rescheduling of the date even though I am available for a number of dates before her deadline for the hearing.
“LBB’s published “Process for complaints” states “ procedures would have an emphasis on flexibility and informality ( insofar as possible and consistent with the principles of natural justice ) and dispute resolution”. The MO seems to be overlooking this requirement in her approach to the listing of the case. Although the Code states there should be a report submitted to the Panel within 3 months of the complaint, the rules do not state that the meeting has to be convened to decide it within 3 months and this could await my return. The MO says that I could send a representative in my absence, but with over 300 pages of evidence in this very complex and detailed case of such public importance it is not fair, just or practical for me to send someone else to do this. This would not happen in the law courts and it should not happen here.
“The MO will not confirm if Cllr Rayner was consulted on the date before it was set or not, as the officer involved is ‘on holiday’ , and so this raises the question of whether there has been a level playing field, concerning the setting of the date. It looks like the ‘defendant’ will be there, but there will be no ‘prosecution’.
“Membership of the Panel includes Cllr Cornelius as chair. He has not so far recused himself, even though he has already publically expressed support for Cllr Rayner in the local papers, in response to press reports of the allegations:
In these circumstances Cllr Cornelius cannot therefore be seen to be impartial, so far as I can see. There is also a de facto Conservative majority on the Panel. Conservative legislation removed the compulsory requirement for an independent chair, but the Council could have an independent chair if it so wanted, and that seems to me what should happen.
“The MO cannot confirm the hearing will be held in public, so justice such as it is, may not be seen to be done.
“The MO will not confirm she will copy to the members of the Panel my correspondence dealing with all the above procedural issues and including my detailed submissions as to why I consider her rulings to be wrong.
“The only way these problems can be resolved is if, at the Leaders’ Panel:
1. The hearing is adjourned to a date when both I and Cllr Rayner can attend;
2. Cllr Cornelius relinquishes the chair, stands down from the Panel, and an independent chair is appointed;
3. A Conservative member agrees in advance to abstain, so no one party has a majority, as used to be the case before the Conservatives changed the rules;
4. the Panel requires the MO to provide the full correspondence and submissions passing between myself and the MO;
5. the Panel resolves to hear the case in public, given the public importance of the issues involved
“Against this sorry background, it is inevitable that there have to be fears of a whitewash. If the Leaders’ Panel do not deal with this case appropriately, then I will have to explore other avenues to establish the truth for the people of Barnet and achieve an appropriate outcome.
Monitoring Officer Maryellen Salter, left, watched by Tory leader Richard Cornelius
As Mrs Angry predicted, it is now clear that there is absolutely no hope of a fair and objective assessment of the allegations directed at Councillor Rayner through the process of the in house Leaders' Panel.
It is also quite evident that this never was or could be the case, and that the gravity of the charges against him, involving allegations of a potentially criminal offence, mean that the matter cannot and should not be referred to any internal process, but investigated by the police, and forwarded then, if necessary, to the CPS.
In my view, rather than take part in a discredited procedure, and one which is clearly subject to political influence, Labour councillors should refuse to attend the Group Panel, and refer the matter to the police.
It should not be forgotten that not so long ago, the Monitoring Officer referred, with some urgency, what was proven to be a false allegation, on a far less serious charge, about a Labour member to the police and CPS. Quite extraordinary, is it not, that the same stringent standard was not applied to a Tory councillor accused of a number of deeply concerning allegations?
A test of the Labour leadership now, then. Comply with the Tory agenda, or do the right thing, and boycott a process whose rules you know to be ill defined, untested, unfair, and politically weighted.
The Leaders Panel cannot deliver an objective assessment of the charges against the Mayor: and they are allegations of a nature that make an internal investigation redundant. It must be repeated too that some of these allegations have been discounted by the Monitoring Officer - a former auditor with Grant Thornton, who has no legal background -on the clearly spurious grounds that Barnet Homes has nothing to do with Barnet Council.
Barnet Homes' own website states quite clearly:
In February 2012 we became part of The Barnet Group, a local authority
trading company owned by Barnet Council.
Owned by Barnet Council. Got that?
Andrew Dismore is quite right to allude to the clear conflict here between the position taken by the council on this matter, and the requirements demanded by the Nolan Principles.
Alllied with the Barnet Tories' recent outrageous move to require the same Monitoring Officer to issue them with a dispensation that allows them to take part in committee meetings without the obligation to declare their interests, it is absolutely, inarguably the case, that this council is demonstrably and fundamentally opposed to the principles of transparency and accountability, and refuses to adhere to the spirit of their own government's policy on localism, let alone the principles of democracy, or natural justice.
The behaviour of the Tory party in Barnet continues in the same squalid course as it has pursued over the last four years, in other words.
The members of this administration, in truth, are incapable of acting in any other way: and the current failure in standards of governance serves only to enforce the regime of decadence, incompetence, and abject betrayal of the best interests of the residents and taxpayers of this benighted borough.
It is time for the central Conservative party, once more, to step in, and force this maverick council to comply with the obligations of all public bodies: to be open and honest in its transactions, and to demonstrate an understanding of the need of the highest levels of probity from its elected members, its senior officers, and in the processes of the administration itself.