Sunday 26 October 2014

A show trial in Broken Barnet: Labour's Kath McGuirk vindicated - again

Despite the publication of a damning independent report by lawyer Claer Lloyd-Jones into the state of Barnet's legal and governance services, and the departure 'by mutual consent' of the former Monitoring Officer, Maryellen Salter, Tory leader Richard Cornelius has stated there will be no review of any decisions made during her time in office, or as a result of advice taken from Barnet's outsourced legal service venture with Harrow's HB Public Law.

So many decisions taken, so many actions sanctioned, without the assurance of an acceptable standard of legal oversight - such complacency, Mrs Angry would suggest, may well prove to be ill founded.

One of the more controversial issues which was handled by the former Monitoring Officer was the curious matter of an allegation made, in April this year, that a Labour councillor had acted improperly in taking part in a meeting when in arrears with her council tax payments.

This member was West Finchley councillor Kath McGuirk, a long serving member known and admired for her outspoken opposition to the Tory administration. She was treated appallingly, in fact: the baseless allegations were made public, and she was vilified by local Tories, portrayed as a 'taxdodger', and her reputation irredeemably damaged. Worse still, immediately after an interview with the Monitoring Officer, her case was referred to the police, and this was also publicised by the council.

That there was no substance to the allegations, and was, in fact, in credit with her payments, and an error made in the course of a typical cockup by the council, and Crapita; and that the police did not pursue the case, must have come as a great disappointment to Councillor McGuirk's political enemies. 

But this was not the end of the matter.

In June local Labour AM Andrew Dismore submitted a complaint to Barnet's Monitoring Officer in the form of allegations about his business activities as a landlord, and  the declaration of pecuniary interests at council meetings. Rayner admitted in an article in the local press here that he had earlier acted incorrectly in regard to contracts that tenants had been obliged to sign, and it later emerged that another Tory councillor had 'pre-signed' a document for him as a witness. He denied that he had acted wrongly in regard to the other allegations.

It might be considered appropriate that if Labour's councillor McGuirk was instantly referred to the police for a relatively minor alleged offence, any serious allegations concerning the Tory Mayor should have been referred to the police too, as a matter of routine. But they were not.

Rayner's case was sent to the leaders' panel, a body that replaced the previous standards' committee, an emasculated, impotent process which not only has no powers of sanction, but is politically weighted, so that Tory members ultimately decide the outcome of any case under consideration.

Rayner was cleared of all charges.

Shortly before he had been due to appear before the panel, Councillor McGuirk was informed that a complaint had been received about her in regard to the matter of the council tax payment, and would be referred to the group leaders' panel.

The complaint, we discovered from a letter sent to a local paper, was from one Myles Longfield, a sometime Conservative Future and local activist from Finchley & Golders Green Conservative Association, who had stood - unsuccessfully - no less than three times against Kath Mc Guirk in local elections, here in Mrs Angry's home ward of West Finchley.

Here is naughty Myles getting into trouble with local MP Mike Freer, who for some reason became rather peeved when his fellow Finchley Tory had his picture taken with William Hague: 

Interesting Freudian slip, 'absolved from seeing other people' ...absolved?  And amusing that any local  Tory would think the firmly Labour voting ward of West Finchley could be a target for them ...

By some extraordinary coincidence, this complaint against the Labour councillor by a political rival, which had already been proven to be based on a totally false premise, was going to be referred to the very same meeting at which the Tory Mayor's charges would be heard - a meeting, incidentally, which Andrew Dismore had clearly stated he could not attend as he was abroad. 

It was pretty evident that local Tories hoped the sideshow of false allegations against the Labour councillor would detract from the enormously damaging publicity engendered by the allegations faced by the Tory Mayor.

Fortunately Kath Mc Guirk by now was supported by the best possible legal representation, Frances Randle, from Steel and Shamash, the Labour party solicitors, and was therefore able to defend herself, and avoid being exploited as a distraction from the main event of the farcical Rayner hearing - the outcome of which was predictable, seeing him cleared of all charges, with a speech ready prepared in his pocket to perform at the end of the proceedings. 

After strong objections and a robust response from her legal advisors, Kath's case did not go to the same hearing as the Tory Mayor.

To be falsely accused of 'taxdodging', and subjected to a police referral on a spurious basis is bad enough; even when cleared of the charge, and proving the mistake is due to the council's own incompetence is bad enough - to find yourself the subject of another process of investigation by the same people, as a result of well timed complaint from a political activist, and to find that complaint deemed not to be vexatious by the unqualified Monitoring Officer who had so enthusiastically discharged some of the serious allegations raised in a dossier of evidence by the (legally qualified) complainant and Assembly Member Andrew Dismore ... is a curious thing, is it not?

Perhaps some of these decisions, and others, in the light of the Lloyd-Jones report, will now be challenged: but in the meanwhile, last Monday night Kath Mc Guirk found herself facing the kangaroo court that is the group leaders' panel, to answer the allegations submitted by a complainant who did not even have the grace to show up at the proceedings. 

Complainant Myles Longfield, photobombed by a former Finchley MP
Young Master Longfield may have chosen to stay away, but the seats were packed with supporters who had come to show solidarity with Kath: her mother and daughter, fellow councillors, activists and friends.

When Rayner attended his panel hearing, he was completely on his own.

Councillor McGuirk could very well have decided not to recognise the validity of the panel, and refuse to co-operate, but in contrast to the complainant, she showed great courage in attending the hearing,  and robustly rebutting - yet again - the charges against her.

In keeping with the soviet style show trial traditions of justice, in Broken Barnet, the Group Leaders' Panel has made two significant changes in format from the previous standards committee it replaces. Replacing the right to legal representation, and the right of independent members to vote. 

This masterly disregard for the demands of natural justice, and a fair trial, is of course the mark of everything we have come to know about our Tory members, and their attitude of contempt for the Nolan principles, or the policy and principles of localism.

Councillor McGuirk was denied the right to legal representation, while of course the case for the prosecution had the 'benefit' of advice and direction from our outsourced legal services at HB Public Law, the joint venture with Harrow, whose failings were identified in the Lloyd-Jones report this month.

At the table on Monday night, therefore, were Jessica Farmer, who heads HB Public Law, and her colleague Linda Cohen. 

Not sitting at the table, for some reason, was the new (interim) Monitoring Officer, Mr Large, whom we have borrowed, on request, like an out of print library book, from Westminster City Council.

Also not sitting at the table, but sitting between Kath Mc Guirk and Mrs Angry, was Frances Randle, from Steel and Shamash, keeping her Steely eye firmly focused on the proceedings.

Also present were Tory leader (interim) Richard Cornelius, the aspirational, but currently deputy leader Daniel Thomas, a rather bewildered looking Joan Scannell, and from Labour leader Alison Moore, deputy leader Barry Rawlings and a token Independent Person, Tanya Ossack, also rather bewildered, as she had been at the previous panel hearing.

When the Tory Mayor had faced his own show trial, Ms Ossack raised some good questions, but it became clear that she was not perfectly familiar with the case, as she had not been the Independent Person consulted originally by the Monitoring Officer in regard to the charges. 

It was then discovered by Andrew Dismore that correspondence with the original Independent Person, Stephen Ross, whose views are supposed to be sought by the MO, had not been included in the dossier of papers published for the meeting.

Was that because of the view by Stephen Ross - that was disregarded - that all, and not some, of the allegations levelled at the Mayor should be investigated? The (legally unqualified) Monitoring Officer ignored this view, despite the objections of the (legally qualified) complainant, Andrew Dismore.

On with the hearing, then. 

Or maybe not a hearing so much as an attempted lynching, as it was clear the entire process, so far,  was not only politically motivated, but run with as much regard for the law and natural justice as any random act of reprisal as you might find in the outlaw territory of Broken Barnet. 

Thankfully, help was at hand from the stranger just arrived in town, fresh from the city: Ms Randle, armed with not so much a trusty six-shooter, as a copy of the Localism Act, 2011.

The panel began with some observations by the Labour leader. She objected strongly to the refusal of the Monitoring Officer to consider Myles Longfield's complaint as vexatious, 'a political tit for tat', as she put it, from a known political opponent, and over an issue already referred to and dismissed by the police. Where was the public interest in pursuing this still further?

Linda Cohen thought that the MO would have investigated this matter. The involvement of the Independent Person would have acted as a 'filter'. 

Mmm, thought Mrs Angry, all very well, as long as the 'filter' is not cast aside, as in the previous panel hearing ...

The process, we heard, did not go as far as a public interest test, at this stage, and it was up to the MO to decide whether or not the complaint was frivolous, or vexatious, and should go forward. Mmm, once again: should that decision be in the hands of a legally unqualified MO, do you think?

The Labour leader pointed out that it was clear the issue concerning Cllr McGuirk's situation regarding her student daughter's status was entirely 'a paper exercise', and that it was the case that in fact the council owed her money, and not the other way round.

A fairly absurd debate now took place between deputy Labour leader Barry Rawlings, and Jessica Farmer, on the referral by the MO to the police of complaints regarding allegations made against councillors. 

Barry thought it might be the case that in the final stage, a complaint might be referred. 

Ms Farmer said So ... it might be the police, then the panel procedure. 

Erm, thought Mrs Angry: really? What happened in the case of the serious allegations regarding the Mayor, which were not referred at all?

Alison Moore reminded the meeting that this course had already been pursued, in the case of the Labour member. She also asked how much the proceedings and pursuit of this complaint had cost. 

Richard Cornelius pointed out that the panel could not refer any matter to the police. In truth, thought Mrs Angry, the panel can do f*ck all about anything any councillor does, and it is a complete waste of time, but still ...

The deputy Tory leader, Dan Thomas, tried arguing, half heartedly, that it might be said the previous case, ie the charges against Hugh Rayner, were 'vexatious'.

Tanya Ossack's turn to speak. She did not know the 'ins and outs' of the politics, but she didn't really see that the code was breached in this case.


Barry Rawlings suggested that the panel, in that case, should voted as to whether or not to proceed with the hearing?

Even the Tory leader was, by this point, reading the writing on the wall: he said he would like to have 'a quiet word outside'.

'A Quiet Word' is of course the favoured remedy in all awkward situations, in Broken Barnet, when it becomes apparent that some sort of cockup by the Tories has been revealed, in all its naked ugliness, and they think Labour will be open to their indecent suggestions. Sometimes, to be fair, this remedy is all it takes to bring an end to the matter, and move on. 

Councillor McGuirk, however, had something to say, and sat at the table to make her contribution. 

As briefed by her legal advisor, Frances Randle, she pointed out a statutory requirement, according to the Localism Act, that access should be extended, at a certain point in the proceedings, to the Independent Person, in regard to the member facing such charges. 

This right had not been extended to her, in defiance of the Act, and clearly invalidated the whole process to which she had been subjected, quite apart from the flagrant injustice of the pursuit of what was clearly a vexatious request of no substance.

Time for that Quiet Word, then. 

The panel slipped out of the room, and unlike the case of the Mayor, were absent for only a matter of minutes.

It was clear that they knew there was no case to answer. 

They dressed it up in the guise of a two point resolution - that members should 'sort out' their council taxes, in good time (no mention of crapita being obliged to do the same) and although there had been a technical breach ( caused by the council/crapita cocking up the bill) this could be dealt with by referring it back to the party leader (who has already dealt with the issue that isn't an issue anyway). 

A face-saving announcement for the Tories or so they fondly wished, but a total vindication for Kath McGuirk, met with jubilation by all of her comrades, friends and supporters. 

Despite the celebrations, the truth remains that as a result of this persecution, someone who had committed no wrongdoing had had to go through the distress and embarrassment of two protracted public investigations, apparently on the basis of a process promoted by political enemies, and overseen by an unqualified Monitoring Officer.

The Tories sat at the table, deflated, then slipped out of the room, unnoticed. 

A shabby affair, from beginning to end, and one which has predictably backfired. 

The other significant question that it raises, however, is this: what does the handling of the two Group Leaders' Panel hearings say about the decision making of the now departed Monitoring Officer, and the quality of legal advice supplied to her by HB Public Law? 

We return to the catalogue of problems highlighted by Claer Lloyd-Jones in her report, and must ask: how can the Tory leader state, as he did to Mrs Angry last week, with such glib assurance, that there was no need to review any of the decisions and actions authorised on behalf of the council, since the time Jeff Lustig left, and the new arrangements and Monitoring Officer were in place? 

What degree of risk of legal challenge has this created, and from whom, and at what cost to us, the residents and taxpayers of Broken Barnet? 

What will happen, for example, in the case of the curious decision by the former MO to allow our Tory councillors 'dispensations' from the restrictions that should restrict their involvement in meetings where they may have a pecuniary interest? 

This was based on an 'assumption' that these waivers are constitutionally permissable. No one seems to know if they are in fact lawful, and in the wake of the Lloyd-Jones report, it would seem clear that this is another action that was not supported by an adequate standard of legal advice - or risk assessment.

Richard Cornelius has sought to minimise the implications of the report, however, and boasted that the only outcome of any significance is that there are now more Tory councillors on the new committees. 

In response to Mrs Angry's question, he was happy to confirm that he has full confidence in the Chief Executive, as Head of Paid Service, and at the next Full Council meeting, he tells us with gleeful enthusiasm that he intends to vote for himself, in defiance of the opposition's motion of no confidence in his abilities. 

At the same time Cornelius and Travers exhibit an apparent lack of concern for the almighty cockups identified in the Lloyd-Jones report,  the blame has been dumped on the head of suitable scapegoats, while they, who are paid so generously to bear the responsibility for what went wrong, clearly think they can carry on as if nothing has happened.

But something did happen, as the events behind the decisions taken in regard to the two panel hearings clearly demonstrates, and the consequences, Mrs Angry cheerfully predicts, will continue to haunt our Tory friends, whether they like it, or not.

Mrs Angry also cheerfully predicts that this time next year, neither the Tory leader, nor his Chief Executive is likely to be in office.

And that may not be the only major change in the order of things here, in the political landscape of Broken Barnet, where nothing is ever quite what it seems, and the direction of travel, as our senior officers would put it, may sometimes take us very far from our intended destination ...


Red Sonia said...

So, the innocent get a show trial and the (perceived) guilty get no trial at all. Says it all really in the Rotten Borough of Barnet.

Oh, how the Tories must laugh at the golf club.

Anonymous said...

It's just a Discrace , the Leader for Life & he who must be obeyed of the capita Borough of London ( IS STICKING TWO FINGERS UP ) to us all . There is a total disregard for any rule of Law . A constant bending of the Rules !!! & there Getting Away with it . The Labour group should not involve themselves in any of the Kangaroo crap that the Tories can subject them to . The Labour group should stop any & all participation ? If kathy didn't participate What were they going to Do (Nothing) Because she had already Been Cleard . Labour What do you think the Tories would have done in the same position ( TWO FiNGERS) to Labour come on GROW SOME , NOW would be a GOOD time for you to carry out a public survey on political standards !! & just to make it fair use the same criteria as the CONS

Mrs Angry said...

Yes, Red Sonia: justice, Broken Barnet style - impressive, is it not?

Anon: I think in the end Kath decided she wanted her 'day in court', and indeed insisted on the hearing being held in public as she wanted to show what a farce the whole proceedings were.

I do agree with you that the Labour group, with the exception of those in the process of working for a change of direction, needs to 'grow some' and stop endorsing, by default, the work of the Tories. Less conciliation and co-operation: more confrontation - the duty of an opposition is to fight for what is right, and not to facilitate the morally bankrupt agenda of this loathsome administration.

Red Sonis said...

Good coverage in Private Eye Rotten Boroughs this week

Mrs Angry said...

Yes, and particularly well written, I thought, Red Sonia.