Thursday 4 September 2014

A blurred line, or - a bucket of whitewash? The Mayor faces his peers, and is cleared on all charges

*Breaking - Updated:  new information released the day after hearing - see below

The Heritage Room in Hendon Town Hall was of course the perfect setting for the hearing of the allegations regarding the current Mayor of Barnet, Hugh Rayner. 

Heritage, in Broken Barnet, is not, and cannot ever be, an abstract concept, an undefined inheritance of history, and culture. It is not even a collective legacy of listed buildings, or artefacts with local significance.

Heritage, in Broken Barnet, is a collection of corporate tat, municipal bling, souvenirs and gifts kept in dusty glass display cases, safe from any light fingered members of the public who might be allowed into the plushly carpeted inner sanctum of our Tory masters.

After successful protests at the proposal to hold this hearing in secret, in defiance of the principles of transparency, a handful of local bloggers and reporters took their places for last night's hearing in this sacred room, accompanied by only one member of the public, the man whose absence makes any council meeting inquorate: yes, Mr David Shepherd - Councillor Lord Shepherd, the People's Mayor, here to witness the trial by Group Panel of his official counterpart, Tory member Hugh Rayner.

In front of us at the table were the group panel, lawyers and officers. Ex Squadron Leader (Warehouse Division, mentioned in dispatches, and probably in the stockroom too) Hugh Rayner slipped into the room, in Martin Bell style cream blazer and pale tie: man in a white suit - always does the trick, doesn't it?

The Mayor sat quietly next but one to Mrs Angry. Behind him, in the old fireplace, was a large plaster representation of the Hendon coat of arms, bearing the motto 'Endeavour'. The council's website helpfully explains, possibly for the sake of our empty headed councillors: The motto “Endeavour” means to try hard to get things done. (Like make your declarations of interest, if you are a member of the council, as soon as you are elected?)

At one point in the proceedings, Mrs Angry caught sight of Rayner's face, and his doleful eyes seemed moist with emotion. For one moment she almost felt sorry for him. But then the moment passed, and having read some of his comments in the papers submitted to the hearing, and witnessed his behaviour at the end of the evening - any sympathy was swiftly abandoned.

For someone who so badly wanted to be Mayor, and spent his inaugural meeting shouting demands that the impertinent residents in the public gallery show respect for the office he has waited so long to attain - the events of the last few months have come as a crashing blow, and clearly spoilt what he imagined would be a reign of splendour, a year of pomp and pomposity, the first citizen of Broken Barnet, admired and photographed in his pantomime dress at an endless sequence of  buffets, receptions and civic ceremonies.  

And instead here he was, called to account to his fellow members in response to serious allegations made by local Labour Assembly member Andrew Dismore about his activities both as a local landlord, and elected member, accusations that he had abused his position as a councillor, and failed to make declarations of interest in council meetings.

The panel which would decide whether these allegations had any merit consisted of five councillors: three Tories - Chairwoman and Tory leader Richard Cornelius, deputy leader Daniel Thomas, and substitute member John Marshall. Labour was represented by leader Alison Moore, and deputy leader Barry Rawlings. There was an independent member, Tanya Ossack, but her role is advisory only, and she has no vote - one of the changes from the old Standards Committee, another being that of course we now only have two groups with leaders that may take part in the proceedings, and this means the panel is dominated by Tory influence, three against two.

If all members were to take their roles in the decision making process on a basis of strict objectivity, and in relation to the evidence presented to them, this would of course mean there might be a chance of justice, and fairness in the new system. There isn't, and there wasn't, as we shall see. In fact what happened was pretty squalid, and proved beyond any doubt that the Tories have no interest in any real or effective process of accountability for their own members.

Conspicuous by his absence, but through no fault of his own, was the complainant himself, ie local AM Andrew Dismore. As the background papers here show, he naturally expected to be present at the hearing, and should have been. But the hearing was held, despite all protest, on a date set despite knowing he was away, and could not attend. He says he was available on other dates before the relevant deadline, but this was not agreed.

The meeting began with an agreement, hard won after lobbying by local press and bloggers, that it should be held in public. Councillor Rayner stated that he was in agreement with this decision.

Another decision that was less than agreeable was announced next: that the Tory Leader would take his place as Chair, despite having made remarks about the case in the local papers. Objections had been raised about this, but he said he saw no reason to step aside. 

The Labour leader said she thought he had been quite dismissive of the case. She failed to quote any of the relevant remarks, which was a tactical mistake, but let us repeat them here.

Take this example, from an article in the local Times on the 16th June, headed:

Barnet council leader defends Barnet Mayor Hugh Rayner's 'illegal' behaviour

... When questioned about Cllr Rayner’s behaviour by the Times Series, Cllr Cornelius appeared to dodge the question. 

He said: “I don’t know, it doesn’t sound illegal. I don’t know the details of it so I can’t make a judgement.

If it’s something that’s illegal it’s something that shouldn’t be done. It depends on what you mean by illegal?

Leases should be in line with a statute. If it wasn’t, it would be a civil matter.” 

It might be reasonably thought that Cornelius was indeed seeking to defend his colleague, and minimise the allegations made about his actions. Last night, however, he said he thought that nothing he had said was wrong, in terms of legality, meaning in terms of his position on the panel.

Alison Moore said merely that it was a question of how the public might view his position.

How the public might view anything they do is generally of little interest to Barnet Tories, of course. Labour members kept repeating the significance of public perception, of the importance of their confidence in the integrity of the council - but this idea simply fell on deaf ears.

One of the two lawyers from HBPublic Law began to sum up the allegations regarding the Mayor, giving details of each instance, and the date on which it occurred. This is not as straightforward as it might sound, as there are two different codes of conduct which apply to the various examples. If you want more detail: see the background papers here .

The background papers make for interesting reading, in fact, and should be read by anyone who really wants to know the full context of the complaints.

The Mayor's excuse, for example, for his actions in not making declarations: in regard to the Annual Council Budget, or the Housing Revenue Account he said: 

How far does one go ...? I drive a car and therefore, if the complainant's logic is to be accepted, should not be able to have an opinion on parking ...
An extraordinarily disingenuous attitude, by any standard - if not by group panel - it is quite clearly not in the interests of transparency, or accountability, or open government, for councillors to take part in decisions which directly affect the means by which they derive their income - a pecuniary interest. Barnet Tories may choose to interpret this matter as of no importance, but this is now a legal requirement. As it turned out, some members still think the local code of conduct has entirely different requirements.

Time for the 'independent person' to speak. She seemed a little unsure of her brief, but made the point quite clearly that there had been, in her view, 'a blurring' of the line by Councillor Rayner between his activities as landlord, and as councillor, when dealing with his tenants. and most importantly, she could not understand why anyone would fail to declare a pecuniary interest.

Case over, you might think.

Well, no. It was up to the panel to decide if the code was breached, she thought. 

And Richard Cornelius ventured the opinion that it was a matter of perception ... 

No, thought Mrs Angry, it is a question of legality, if a pecuniary interest was found not to have been declared. 

The panel members left to consider their verdicts on the separate instances alleged to represent behaviour in breach of the code of conduct. Rayner left to sit alone with his thoughts in the Mayor's Parlour. A lone lawyer remained,and waited, in a somewhat bemused state, with the assortment of reporters, bloggers, Barnet's spin doctor, the Tooting Twister - and Mr Shepherd.

Councillor Lord Shepherd, The People's Mayor, sat himself in one of the civic ceremonial chairs, below an old portrait of the Queen. Looks more like Thatcher, he observed. 

He confessed that like his official counterpart, he had been in trouble, from time to time, even from his early childhood.  

I was thrown out of the Courtesy Guild, when I was four, he announced, with his usual grin.  

And asked to leave kindergarten ...

Hard to believe, Mr Shepherd, said Mrs Angry. 

Two long empty glass cabinets stood on either side of the fireplace. Someone suggested they looked like the box that contains the mummified body of Jeremy Bentham, at UCL. 

Mrs Angry had a horrible vision of a wax headed, embalmed figure of Brian Coleman, dressed in his former mayoral robes, and adorned with his swimming medal, stuffed inside, exhibited there, on display, to frighten foreign dignatories from our many twin towns, strewn around the world. 

There's Heritage for you.

And speaking of our twin towns, there at the back of the room was a lovely collection of beautiful gifts from our friends around the world: of course we only bother with one or two of them, the towns in nice places with charming hotels and generous hospitality, like Morphou, where our local politicians go every year for a - erm ... to, what was it ... to protest about the invasion of Cyprus  ... 

Another twin town of Barnet, of course, is Ramat Gan, whose gift is so enormous, it simply wouldn't fit into the Heritage room, and sits coyly outside the Town Hall, behind a bush, which seems appropriate. Mrs Angry is not entirely sure what it is, being very innocent, and educated by nuns, you know,  but imagines it must be awfully hard to find a battery to fit.

Behind the committee table there was a glass cabinet displaying a number of mayoral chains of office, from the various former boroughs which were incorporated into the present London Borough of Broken Barnet. 

Gold chains with enamelled heraldic details, undoubtedly valuable, and utterly pointless, yet a heritage that our Toytown councillors would never dream of flogging off, as they have our listed Museum, and its local history collection. For them, the trappings of office are precious, and a mark of their status. Status for the sake of it, the pomp and pomposity of taking buggins' turn to be Mayor, rather than serve their community for the good of that community, demanding respect for the office they fight for, rather than show respect to the people whom they represent.

And after an hour and a quarter, here returned our present Mayor, and the panel, to deliver their verdict, or rather leaving the verdict to be announced by an officer. 

The outcome was predictable: Rayner was cleared of all charges. The votes were as follows:

2:2 chair casting vote 
2:2 chair casting vote 
4-0 cllr Marshall left the room 
4-0 cllr Marshall left the room 
2:2  chair casting vote 
The outcome was predictable, as we must assume the Tories would vote to support their colleague. Should a panel deciding a matter of serious allegation regarding a member be politically weighted? Is that fair, just or credible?

What was not predictable, perhaps, was the fact that in four instances, the verdict of no breach was unanimous, that is to say, supported by the Labour leader and her deputy.

Of course it must be that there were valid reasons to acquit the Mayor in these instances, and one might expect Labour to abide by the standard of proof, rather than party politics. 

What is questionable is why the Labour leadership endorse the illegitimacy of these proceedings, by taking part, in the first place?

Why is the Labour leadership endorsing the illegitimacy of the Full Council meeting moved to the week of the Labour conference, insisting Labour members travel from Manchester and back in order to attend a pointless meeting?

What is behind the story in tonight's Barnet Press in which it is revealed the council has been holding private meetings, not in the public domain, and which some Labour members are being expected to attend? Why cooperate with such undemocratic processes?

Back to the panel meeting.

The Mayor immediately asked to address the room: an audience comprising a handful of reporters, bloggers, Mr Shepherd, one Labour councillor, and the Tooting Twister. 

He turned to the Barnet Bugle, who had been filming the meeting: Am I in focus, he demanded, like Norma Desmond, in Sunset Boulevard?

Ready when you are, Councillor Rayner.

Rayner then stood in front of Mrs Angry and made a prepared speech: a short but impassioned address, on a scale of extended martyrdom reminiscent, perhaps, of the impeachment of Warren Hastings, declaring :

" I thank my peers for deliberating on this at length,  and coming to the conclusions they did ..."

Unfortunately Rayner then threw away his moment of vindication - as he saw it - by launching into a bizarre attack on the probity of Andrew Dismore. With all the evangelical zeal of a born again convert he announced that he was now a proud member of the very scheme he had eschewed, until the complaints about his activities had been made, in the chamber of the London Assembly - that is to say the London Landlord Accreditation Scheme. He then urged other landlords to join - including, he added, in a rather infantile jibe, Andrew Dismore, should he ever become a landlord.

A cheap remark, remarked Mrs Angry, in the circumstances: and Tory leader Cornelius, it was apparent, was looking on in fury, his cheeks blazing: he immediately objected to Rayner's remark, and told him instantly to withdraw it. He apologised, and then withdrew it, but lost the opportunity, if there had been one, of leaving the room with some dignity intact. It was a pretty shameful performance.

Outside the Heritage Room, Mrs Angry collared the Tory leader. 

Do you think the public is going to be reassured by that, she asked? 

His face reddened even more deeply, and he stuck his chin out: 

Absolutely, he said.

I think you are deluded, Councillor Cornelius, replied Mrs Angry.


Andrew Dismore has released a statement about the findings of the panel:

In response to last night's decision on his complaint against Conservative mayor Cllr Rayner, Andrew Dismore, Labour London Assembly Member for Barnet and Camden said:

'I am disappointed but not surprised that the Conservatives voted to clear their own mayor - their large bucket of whitewash has no bottom when complaints against their own members are concerned.

After all, Cllr Cornelius who chaired the meeting and used his casting vote to clear Cllr Rayner had already expressed his opinion to the local papers before he had seen any of the evidence.

It is an important fact that the independent member of the Panel, (a senior barrister who did not have a vote) agreed and supported the key arguments of my case against Cllr Rayner.

It is also relevant that the factual basis of my complaint was not challenged by anyone at the meeting.

It was appropriate that the Panel agreed with my request that the hearing should be in public, as this now means that most of the arguments and evidence are in the public domain.

The people of Barnet can now form their own view as to the rights and wrongs in this matter.

This, however, is not the end of the story. I am looking to pursue other avenues about the issue and I will make a further announcement about this in due course.'

Here is footage of the meeting, courtesy of the Barnet Bugle. And you can expect more on this story later today ...



Update Friday morning:

In a truly astonishing twist to this story it was revealed this morning that within 24 hours of the hearing that cleared Rayner of any breaches, new evidence was released in response to a FOI request which has direct relevance to the case, and quite clearly presents an entirely new perspective on some of the decisions made by the Monitoring Officer in regard to the investigation. See Andrew Dismore's statement, just published here:

Andrew Dismore, Labour London Assembly Member for Barnet and Camden has just received the attached email exchange from the council in response to his freedom of information request concerning the Rayner case.

These emails reveal that Ms Salter, the Council's monitoring officer was advised by Stephen Ross, the 'independent person' who is required by the Code of Conduct to be consulted, that the whole of Mr Dismore's complaint against Cllr Rayner should go ahead for formal investigation, which included the key allegations which Ms Salter disallowed- against his advice- at the first stage. Ms Salter did not follow this advice nor Mr Ross's advice that Mr Dismore's complaint against Cllr Hart should also proceed.

Mr Dismore said:

"This is absolutely outrageous. This information should have been made available to me and the public before, not after, the hearing.

The dissallowed parts of my complaint should have gone for full formal investigation as Mr Ross recommended.

As is now public knowledge as my submission to the Leader's panel has been published, I considered the explanation given by Ms Salter for the disallowance  to be woefully inadequate and I submitted detailed arguments as to why she was wrong. Ms Salter refused to even look at what I submitted, saying her decision was final.

These revelations add yet a new twist to the Rayner scandal and cast further opprobrium on the whole disciplinary process operated by this shameful Conservative council."

This witholding of information is quite simply utterly unacceptable, and further undermines the already dubious integrity of the panel process as a fair and just system of investigation.

It seemed odd that Mr Ross, who is the Independent Person mentioned in this new information, was not present at the panel hearing - and this would seem to be a most regrettable omission.

The FOI request was made on the 6th August, and the response sent at the maximum limit of the 20 day statutory period. The limit is not supposed to be the general point of response, the expectation is that the information should be supplied only at the last moment if there is a genuine reason for delay. Quite clearly in this case, with the hearing being scheduled, despite the inability of the complainant to attend, for the previous day, it should have been supplied before the panel hearing.

In my view not only should the Labour group refuse to take part in the panel process, and indeed should never had engaged with it in the first place, there should now be an independent investigation into the authority's handling of the complaint from Mr Dismore.


Anonymous said...

Well Lets see the Expectations of a Fair & I hasten to Add Legal process in Barnet are Long Dead . Let me ask a Q would you Get away with an omit ion of Earnings if you were filling in a Housing Benifit form in Barnet ! Would you Get Away with a parking Ticket on the Lamest of Excuse,s & in Regards to Not Knowing About what he should or shouldn't Declare an interest in . I would have thought that at Best there is a Question as to his competence to Even serve as a councillor !!! Not Good Enough !!!!!!!!

Mrs Angry said...

It worries me, Anon, that you are going to run out of exclamation marks soon. And an exclamation mark is a necessary part of any comment on events here, in Broken Barnet ...

But yes: you are quite right. I think we know perfectly well that Councillor Cornelius and his colleagues would not extend the same leniency to someone who failed to supply information in regard to benefits, or council tax. But then there is one rule for the rich, and one for the poor, on a national as well as a local level.

The most astonishing thing to me is the fact that our Tory friends declare themselves to be so averse to the notion of a dependency on housing benefits, and yet many are happy to be landlords accepting rent from those in receipt of such support, directly benefiting themselves from the very thing they say they despise.

Anonymous said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Mrs Angry said...

Sorry, Anon: Mrs Angry had to wield her blue pencil. Must be self regulating, don't you know.

Mrs Angry said...

Sorry, Anon: Mrs Angry had to wield her blue pencil. Must be self regulating, don't you know.

Mrs Angry said...

I give up. Trigger happy.

Anonymous said...

Reading your Later Blog regarding the Late FIO , I would suggest that the opposition make it very clear to ms . Salter & any other officer that should they interfere with the clear process of Democracy in the Borough that they will be Dismissed & in Regard to Raynor he has for Ever tainted the office of mayor in this Borough & it was always clear that he was Going to Get Off !!! had to put them in ( sorry ) But we Do Have a General Election coming up with 3 sitting Tory MPs Let's see if we can make it ZERO & take Every opportunity to talk about the corruption within this Party

Mrs Angry said...

Thank you Anon !!!!

Ms Salter is in a very precarious position. We understand that many Tory councillors were unhappy at the appointment of someone whose background is in Audit (previously worked in internal audit, and before that with Grant Thornton)rather than someone with legal qualifications. Admittedly the previous post holder, Mr Lustig, was a hard act to follow, but since his retirement, as predicted by Mrs Angry, the whole system of governance appears to have collapsed: the fiasco over the new committee system being one example - which reminds me: what has happened to the investigation into that?

At the moment there is in Barnet an as yet undeclared, small but not entirely unpleasing cull of senior officers: Mrs Angry is particularly sad to hear of the rumoured impending loss of one whose, oh dear, pass me a hankie, might be thought to represent the cycle of karma, come to its logical conclusion. But no officer is safe in their post, and that thought must be a pressing concern for all of our most generously employed senior managers. Who will be next?

The opposition should of course make strong protest about the revelations contained within the FOI in question. I am not entirely confident that the opposition is capable of doing so, but other sources of more robust challenge will be less complacent.

Although cleared by the panel of his peers of all wrongdoing, the Mayor did admit at the time the allegations were first raised that he had made errors in regard to some of his activities as landlord, including the matter of certain clauses in his contracts and the 'witness' signature by a fellow Tory councillor. In itself these admissions might be argued to have tainted the office of Mayor, and certainly the whole issue has reflected badly on the position he demanded others should respect. It would be interesting to know if he has at any point considered resigning.

The lack of transparency in Barnet runs counter to every principle of accountability and open government, and the shabby adoption of the dispensation from declaring interests is the worse possible response to what has happened in regard to the recent allegations.

Residents will not be able to have any faith in the integrity of their local councillors, and as a result, along with the absolute inadequacy of a politically biased panel that is supposed to oversee standards of probity, we will be obliged to continue to witness a deliberate defiance of everything the Nolan Principles are supposed to represent.

Yes, we have a general election coming, and we must make the threat of corruption in local and national government a key issue for debate. Only an administration with a genuine commitment to standards of ethics and probity should be in place, in Barnet, or in Westminster, and in my view, only a change of administration will achieve that.

Anonymous said...

Well Everybody is to Blame Except those that make the Decisions , & everything . We Had a committee system here in this borough for over a Hundred years ! & still they Balls it up ! It was Labours fault Because they passed the Bill for change & of course we know that the Local Tory Group do everything they are told by Labour ! So in Brief they F up the Reintroduction of the committee system , we have a monitoring officer that would be hard pushed to Recognise Her own Reflection ! Great but Here is a suggestion how to sort out the problems ! Bring Back Roy Goddard as a consultant to over see committee & standards ! He has more knowledge than the whole of the executive & especially the the shame Executive Board under Nick Walkley !!