Thursday, 7 August 2014

Paint it White: Dismore trashes Barnet Council's laughable in house 'investigation' of the Mayor

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

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.


Anonymous said...

This is why we should have refered the case directly to the Police and Director of Public Prosecutions, not messed around with the Labour Party.

Mr Reasonable said...

Mr Dismore is a lawyer and an elected representative of Barnet residents on the GLA. If he can't get the monitoring officer to act in a manner which appears open and fair what hope it there for ordinary residents. Well we all know the answer to that one - absolutely none. On this matter I think the only recourse is a call to the boys in blue.

Mrs Angry said...

I agree with both of you. There is now clearly no chance of a fair process of assessment within the current internal 'investigation' and the matter must be dealt with by the relevant authorities.

The process of governance in Barnet is the subject of an investigation itself by a QC in regard to the failure over the new committee structure: this in itself raises serious doubt about the ability of the authority to conduct its procedures with integrity and efficiency.

There are two cases involving serious allegations regarding councillors and potentially unlawful actions: residents and taxpayers are entitled to feel confident these matters are being dealt with fairly, honestly, and openly, without political influence or any other consideration being brought to bear.

Anonymous said...

How I wish the government could put the council in 'Special Measures' like an errant and failing school. This is far worse!

Anonymous said...

Clearly there are a Number of issues here ! That Tories are stalling for Time ! that given the serious nature of the complaint mr Raynor , should have stepped Down as mayor while the investigation took place ! That the position of the monitoring officer has Been compromised
! That the Leaders standards panel is without Doubt a waste of time !! As proven with Brian Coleman ! For the sake of public standards & probity , this must be investigated by the Police !! If there is to be any kind of Trust Between politicians & the public this must be done in a fair & transparent manner !!!

Jaybird said...

When I brought a complaint against Coleman for, amongst other things, calling me an old hag from the floor of the council chamber, the independent panel decided that there was no evidence that he was referring specifically to me. This is despite the fact that I gave a clear witness statement of the fact he was looking at me and Mrs Angry (who sitting next to me) when he said the words; Councillor Alison Moore gave evidence that she was sitting directly in front of me and was aware that the comment was directed at us; the phrase used "mad, sad and a couple of old hags" is a personalised version of an aphorism, and therefore was clearly meant to be directed personally; there is video of Coleman gesturing with his hand as he spoke, indicating to the place I was sitting in the gallery. Coleman did not appear before the panel and therefore his evidence was not subject to any cross-examination or questioning, unlike mine. Nor did he deny that he was referring to me in his formal response. His only statement was that the complaint was frivolous and political in nature.

When I asked for the reasoning behind how the evidence was weighed I was told I had no right to that, either at the time or in correspondence afterwards.

In what way is this a trustworthy procedure?

Red Sonia said...

Monitoring Officers are nowadays literally a law unto themselves - in matters of standards they can make the rules up as they go along and there is no right of appeal. So, basically, a Minitoring Officer is NEVER wrong.

However, they have an obligation to report any suspected abuse of pecuniary interest to the police as that is a criminal matter.

Mrs Angry said...

Anon 11.54, I believe councils can be put in special measures for failings in functions like planning, not sure about governance.

Anon 13.15: I agree with every point you make.

Jaybird: if I may, as one old hag to another - the idiotic Coleman's behaviour was not seen as in any way unacceptable by the Tories as they are themselves deeply misogynist and see nothing objectionable about his insulting remarks, Indeed they thought it was amusing. But the fact that the panel was so impotent when dealing with his infantile behaviour only serves to underline the complete inability of the new regime to address even more serious incidents and breaches.

Today we hear that the council's 'investigation' of Dean Cohen's disproportionate allocation of highways funding has - surprise, surprise,found no real wrongdoing.

Pickles has to face up to the fact that what happens in Barnet proves the point that there is a fatal flaw in his localism policy, in that councils can now elect to remain firmly out of the scope of any effective system of scrutiny or sanction. This is a very dangerous mistake and will lead to, has already led to not just a democratic deficit, but something much, much worse. I don't think I have to spell it out, do I?

Mrs Angry said...

Sorry, Red Sonia, found you in the spam box again. Yes: you might think the role of the Monitoring Officer is pretty clear, but here in Barnet ... things are not quite that straightforward, are they?

Red Sonia said...

Same here: Monitoring Officet chosen by CEO - no interview, shared with another council (same shared CEO). In a family it would be incest!

Anonymous said...

We can only Hope that we have change & very soon ! When the Torys Loose there majority , that's the time to Remove incompetent Officers from post ! The very integrety & possibly existence of the council is at stake !! If the historic party's Labour , Torie , Do not start taking notice of the Electorate , There will be change !!! They are Being stalked by UKIP , They Have Been warned !! & yet they just convince themselves that Nothing has changed !! Good Luck with that !!!