31 January 2014

Publish And Be Damned


When Arthur Wellesley, Lord Wellington, received an offer to 'buy off' with silence a person who was threatening him, his response to the threat has passed into history: "Publish and be damned."

A possible shakedown would appear to be being attempted in New Mills in the High Peak.  Two former office staff employees at New Mills town hall - the dishonest former town clerk Susan Stevens, and Marie Dudley who was a clerical assistant - have filed documents at the Employment Tribunal.

The documents firstly claim that they want their jobs back and secondly that they want money compensation as well.

Employment Tribunals are public courts, open to the public and with full reporting facilities for the press etc.

Some public bodies, in particular some NHS trusts and some larger local authorities, have come under serious criticism for allowing secrecy agreements following disputes.

In the last few days several town councillors in New Mills have made it clear to whoever will listen to them that they will not agree to any settlement where a condition of that settlement is a confidentiality clause or 'gagging order'.

Let us all see if this highly commendable policy is carried through at the first town council meeting that is able to discuss it: next Monday night at 7:30 pm at the town hall in New Mills.





29 January 2014

Date With Fate



The agenda for the next New Mills town council meeting has just been published. The meeting will be held on Monday evening, 3 February.

From the agenda it would appear that the ex-town clerk has decided to take her case - some might say "what case?" - to the Employment Tribunal.

So the clamour in comments to this site for full openness should now be answered: all of the remaining gory details (if there are any) should now come out in open court.

27 January 2014

Secrecy or Transparency: Make Your Feelings Known


If you are a council taxpayer in New Mills in the High Peak you should know about an upcoming important decision that will shortly be faced by councillors.

It now seems clear that the dishonest ex-town clerk, together with husband New Mills town councillor Alistair Stevens, are going to try for a large compensation payout from New Mills town council. The method they will use is the threat of Employment Tribunal proceedings.

If that is attempted, then councillors will be faced with deciding whether to agree to a gagging order as part of any such settlement.

If a gagging order is agreed to then the terms of any deal will be secret.

The money - which we understand Mr and Mrs Stevens hope will be substantial - would be taken from the pockets of New Mills council taxpayers, but said taxpayers won't be told how much it is or what it's for.

Now is the time for concerned citizens to lobby all councillors to keep this matter fully in the public domain. The reasons are twofold: firstly it is the public's money; secondly, it would be unhealthy for the public's business to be done behind closed doors.

There has recently been a long, hard battle to end the culture of corruption in New Mills politics that took deep, unhealthy, unpleasant root in the Labour-run town hall in the summer of 2002.

It is to be hoped that councillors will stay brave - the good councillors have done tremendously well so far - and not fail at this last hurdle.

26 January 2014

Council Reform Progress Report: Dishonest Town Clerk Aftermath


This is the third in a short series of articles setting out where the various New Mills town hall issues are up to, or how they have been completed.

This article concerns the latest developments in the matter of the dishonest ex-town clerk of New Mills, Mrs Susan Stevens.

After the dismissal of former town clerk Mrs Susan Stevens for gross misconduct recently, three areas of dispute needed resolution.

These were:
1) Mrs Stevens’ purported grievance against New Mills town council;
2) Disciplinary action by NMTC against Mrs Stevens;
3) Any Employment Tribunal proceedings started by Mrs Stevens.

The grievances claim is now settled (see below). So one down, two to go.

The following is a summary of the New Mills town council statement, published on the town council website today, regarding the Susan Stevens Grievance procedure and outcome:

On 19 July 2013 Susan Stevens' Trade Union Representative, Mr Paul Barry of Unison, submitted a grievance document on behalf of Ms Stevens.  This contained allegations of bullying, victimisation, harassment, intimidation and undermining behaviour by all the then 12 councillors at New Mills Town Council.  Six councillors were explicitly named as responsible and six were claimed to be accountable by their inability or unwillingness to intervene.

Cllrs named in the 'explicitly responsible' list:
Cllr A Bowers
Cllr L Dowson (Vice Chair)
Cllr J Gadd (Chair of Personnel & Finance Sub Committee)
Cllr M Gadd
Cllr I Huddlestone
Cllr D Lamb

Cllrs named as 'accountable by their inability or willingness to intervene':
Cllr T Ashton
Cllr R Atkins
Cllr A Barrow
Cllr G Bowers (Chairman)
Cllr J Carter
Cllr A Stevens

Following receipt of the Grievance document Mrs Stevens was suspended.  This is in line with ACAS best codes of practice and also the Employment Rights Act.  Suspension is a neutral act, in order for an impartial and independent investigation to be completed.

This investigation led to a Grievance Hearing.  This was heard by councillors at New Mills Town Council. After reviewing all the evidence they found the allegations could not be substantiated and therefore Ms Stevens' Grievance was not upheld.  The decision of the Grievance Hearing Panel was unanimous. This was on 16 September 2013.

Ms Stevens appealed this decision. A Grievance Appeal Hearing was arranged in line with ACAS best codes of practice and the Employment Rights Act.  An independent panel of Councillors and Clerk from within the Derbyshire area heard the appeal.

The Grievance Appeal Hearing was heard by this panel who, after receiving all the evidence, were left with no alternative but to find that the allegations made could not be substantiated. Mrs Stevens' claims therefore failed at appeal.

The Grievance Appeal panel outcome stated that they were unable to find any evidence which proved, beyond all reasonable doubt, that actions of councillors could be determined as detrimental towards Ms Stevens during her tenure as Town Clerk.

The panel further rejected any allegations made by Ms Stevens against any of the individual councillors named within Ms Stevens' Grievance. They could find no evidence of any bullying, victimisation, harassment, intimidation or undermining behaviour directed towards Ms Stevens.

The panel did find evidence that four councillors had acted unprofessionally in incidents unrelated to the circumstances of the Grievance. The panel therefore recommended informing the High Peak Borough Council monitoring officer with a view to progressing code of conduct complaints against these councillors. This was on Thursday 24 October 2013.

------------------------------

High Peak Transparency understands that the councillors named by the independent panel as 'acting unprofessionally' are the same councillors who have been named and shamed on this site as Bad Councillors.

The other two outstanding areas of dispute regarding the dishonest former town clerk - the disciplinary action and the Employment Tribunal - will be reported here as soon as the information is available.

----------------------------------

Friends of Councillor Alistair Stevens and Mrs Susan Stevens report that Mrs Stevens is 'going to tribunal' and one or both of them are expecting 'big compo'.

Whose pocket would that compensation come out of, if any were to be awarded?


19 January 2014

Birthdaygate: MP's First Response



Andrew Bingham MP has commented on the Birthdaygate scandal, first exposed locally by High Peak Transparency.

Regular readers will recall that Mr Bingham, Conservative MP for the High Peak, took public money to buy birthday cards so he could send them to new voters.

When his predecessor Labour MP Tom Levitt was at it on expenses, the sternest critic about taking money from the public purse for inappropriate items was... you've guessed it, Andrew Bingham.

So it is a strange phenomenon that when otherwise decent people get sent to Westminster as MPs, they seem to lose the ability to see their actions as ordinary voters see them.  This is why Mr Bingham has landed in this Birthdaygate bother with voters in his constituency.

If Mr Bingham or the local Conservatives were employing a good media-aware adviser, the response from Mr Bingham would have been along the following lines:

"I think it's right to engage young people in politics. A birthday card from their MP, when they reach voting age, with contact details to get in touch if they want to, is my way of engaging with young people.  However, from the fuss that my use of public money to do this has caused, I can see that I have touched on sensitivities that are still raw from the MPs' expenses scandal. After very careful consideration, I have therefore decided to pay for the birthday cards myself.  I have taken this decision at the earliest possible opportunity, I happily do it, and I am happy to apologise to my constituents for this slight error of judgement on my part."

That way, the Birthdaygate matter would have been closed down.

The alternative way of dealing with Birthdaygate would be to try to ignore it, or try to fob off questions on Mr Bingham's use of public money to buy the birthday cards.  This is the strategy that appears to have been chosen by Mr Bingham and the High Peak Conservatives.

When Lester Forbes of Glossop Community Radio bowled Mr Bingham a very soft question on the subject (more This Morning sofa than Newsnight) you can hear the MP's answer below. It comes about halfway through the interview, and indeed took up a full half of the interview time, including hesitations, repetition and deviations:
http://www.myglossop.com/podcast/2014/01/andrew-bingham-interview-jan-2014/



17 January 2014

Original Report Discovering Missing Charity Money Published



A contributor has written in to point out that New Mills town council's Acting Responsible Financial Officer uncovered the charity scandal (see previous HPT articles for details) and that his initial report which first exposed the problem is now available on the town council's website.

Should any interested party wish to look, the place on the town council website to find it is within the minutes for the town council meeting of 9 December 2013.

It is quite short, so HPT reprints the relevant section here:

New Mills Higher Education Trust

An area of concern is the status of this Charity as it has been taken off the Register at the Charity Commission as "no longer operating" and there are substantial funds being held at CCLA Investment Management.

I contacted the Charity Commission and had to submit a Freedom of Information to determine who the Trustees of this charity are as the Commission would not give me any information.

I was then informed that the Trustees are Cllr A Stevens and Mr S Sharp.  I have written to them requesting them to contact the Charity Commission and ascertain the situation regarding the charity. I have not received any information to date.

Report prepared by K Bradshaw for the meeting of New Mills Town Council on 9th December 2013.

16 January 2014

Party Seeks Candidates


Get your name in.

The local LibDem website has a couple of recent postings on it for imminent selection of Parliamentary Candidates for nearby constituencies. Here is the relevant text:

"Want to put the world to rights in 2015?
Christmas is over and you have a few minutes to spare so don't forget your applications for PPC in 2015
In order to be eligible to apply, applicants need to make sure they are on the Party's list of Approved Candidates at the closing date for applications. If you are interested in applying and would like to speak to a more experienced candidate about the process, please let us know.
Applicants not on the Party's list of Approved Candidates at the closing date for applications will not be guaranteed consideration by the Selection Committee. It is the responsibility of applicants to check that their applications have been received by the Returning Officer by the closing date."

Here is the link for the High Peak Liberal Democrats website:
http://highpeaklibdems.org.uk/en/page/high-peak-constituency

Recent developments have seen the last LibDem Parliamentary Candidate - Alistair Stevens from New Mills - go from being a decent bet to ending up as a liability for the party. His antics as a local councillor, including but not limited to criminal law-breaking in the council chamber, have brought the Liberal Democrat Party into serious disrepute.

The coalition government came up with the idea of a fixed-term parliament.  This is an idea that is long overdue and should be made permanent.  Because of this, everybody now knows exactly when the general election will be.  No messing about.

Labour has already selected its candidate: Caitlin Bisknell.  The Conservatives have theirs: Andrew Bingham.

The next general election in this constituency will be harder than usual to predict: a UKIP candidate will take votes away from the incumbent conservative MP, leaving it all to play for.

So if you are honest, intelligent, etc why not get in touch with the local LibDems and contribute towards making the 2015 general election a good contest in this area.  They will soon be selecting their next Parliamentary Candidate.

15 January 2014

Council Reform Progress Report: New Councillors To Be Appointed



At the New Mills town council meeting on 13 January 2013 it became clear that the process of selecting three new councillors will shortly get under way.

There are three vacancies on the town council.  The correct term for these is 'Casual Vacancy'; hence the title of JK Rowling's recent book for adults.  That best-seller concerned politics in a small town.  And some bonking.

The town council has a membership of twelve councillors, and because three councillors bottled out as the dishonest town clerk crisis was reaching its climax, there are now the current vacancies.

The gang of three disgraced New Mills councillors* had been trying to protect the dishonest former town clerk of New Mills. One of them asked the town clerk to deliberately lie to the rest of the members of the council, which she then did.  The other two disgraced councillors thought that this was an acceptable way to behave in public office.

The formal timing of the process will be decided by the Returning Officer for the High Peak.

If no election has been demanded by 10 local electors, then subject to the town council's decision the process is likely to be that the town council or a dedicated committee sift the applications from members of the public and arrive at a short list; candidates are interviewed and then three are selected as co-opted councillors.

It came out at the last town council meeting that there are already some applications in.

Some comments have been received by this website - and Cllr Alistair Stevens made the same point at the town council meeting - that there appears to have been a delay in starting this process. By way of explanation some councillors have pointed out that it didn't seem fair to try to bring three new people in while the town hall crisis was at its most disruptive and problematic.  Also, the new staff had to be given time to get established in their roles.  Most reasonable people would agree that is a fair position in the circumstances.

The new councillors will serve until 7 May 2015, when the next local elections will be held.

If you are reading this, then you are most likely interested in politics.  If you are a genuine, honest person, over 18, and would like to improve local governance in New Mills, then you can apply by writing to: Town Clerk, New Mills Town Council, Town Hall, Spring Bank SK22 4AT. Dishonest or malicious people need not apply.


* Current High Peak Borough councillors  Tony ASHTON;  Alan BARROW;  Ian HUDDLESTONE.



Council Reform Progress Report: The Missing Charity Money

This is the second in a short series of articles setting out where the various outstanding issues are now up to, or how they have been resolved.

This article concerns the latest developments in the matter of the missing or inaccessible £25,000 entrusted to some councillors and intended for the beneficiaries of a local charity (see previous articles on HPT).


At the New Mills town council meeting of 13 January 2014 there were two main developments in this matter.

Progress report

Cllr David Lamb gave a progress report on the investigations so far.

We now know that the charity was formed in 1908 (as the Godward Trust).

It was registered at the newly-created Charity Commission on 13 July 1964.  Its registered number was 527167.

The end came on 9 June 2013, when the charity (now called New Mills Higher Education Trust) was deleted at the Charity Commission.

Interesting new fact

The postcode given for this charity on Google searches is SK22 3BR.  This is extraordinary, as it is not the town hall postcode.

How the council meeting dealt with the case

When the matter came up for discussion by the council on 13 January 2014, Cllr Alistair Stevens left the room before the council discussion could start. However, he needs to honestly explain to the town council meeting exactly what his involvement is, and what he is doing (if anything) to rectify the situation and recover the missing money.

An invitation should be urgently sent to Cllr Stevens, from either the Chair of NMTC or its Responsible Financial Officer or the Acting Town Clerk, inviting him to address the next full town council meeting with a view to honestly explaining matters concerning this charity as above.

The council meeting would have to be suspended so that Cllr Stevens could address the meeting on this subject. (He has a prejudicial interest in how this matter develops).  He can then leave the meeting, so the council can discuss the matter.

All the above is assuming the police are not even now being asked to examine the matter.

Background information

There should be about £25,000 awaiting local good causes as soon as this outstanding matter is rectified.

The charity's trustees at the time it was removed from the Charity Commission were Cllr Alistair Stevens and former local councillor Steve Sharp.  The secretary of the charity was Mrs Susan Stevens.





Coming soon: The inside story of the ex-town clerk's grievance process, and bad councillors named and shamed


14 January 2014

Council Reform Progress Report: Meetings and Transparency


This is the first in a short series of articles setting out where the various outstanding issues are now up to, or how they have been resolved.

This article concerns council transparency and meetings procedures.


Bulletin

At the latest New Mills town council meeting, which took place on Monday evening the 13th of January, several long-standing serious problems were either cleared up completely or satisfactorily progressed.

This public body demonstrated its continuing return to good corporate health, from the long dark night of corruption and serious deliberate dishonesty inside the New Mills town hall offices.

This recovery was impossible whilst a dishonest person occupied the role of Town Clerk of New Mills, and some bad councillors protected her.

Open Government

The law governing the public's right of access to council meetings is very simple.

Meetings of councils and their committees must be open to the public, and held in public. If a council tries to conduct business in secret, with the public excluded, there are the following consequences.  Firstly, in most cases it would be against the law.  Secondly, it leads to suspicion and bad reputation.

Where councils meet in secret, with no valid legal reason to do so, it is a legitimate question to ask "What have they got to hide?"

Local council meetings being held in public rather than in secret is a key foundation of democracy.

New changes in procedure

When the agenda for this latest meeting was originally published, there were ten agenda items in the section to be discussed with the public excluded.  When one considers that this is only a modest town/parish council, ten items is a lot of secrecy.

When the meeting started, a councillor proposed removing most of the 'secret' items into the public section of the council meeting.  This was accepted by the meeting, and the order of agenda items was rejigged.  A new sheet was handed around, which showed the new 'open' order of business to be transacted.  Only four items were retained in the 'private' section.

History of this town hall secrecy problem


A Magistrates' Courthouse earlier today
The biggest scandal to hit the town of New Mills, before the good versus bad battle of the town hall that has just taken place, was when a tiny cabal of local Labour Party councillors decided that a whopping new Magistrates Courthouse would be built in the small town of New Mills.

This large development decision was made in Party meetings in the councillors' homes.  Because they had majority control of the council chamber at the time, the town council was used as a rubber stamp for the secret decision.

This is when bad governance and secrecy took hold in New Mills town hall.

A sufficient number of the public of New Mills was so outraged that when the local LibDem Party campaigned in the town on openness and transparency in the local council chamber (among other things) they swept in at the 2007 local elections.  The Labour Party was humiliated in New Mills. From a position of majority control, they were beaten 12 - 0 and at long last were thrown out of the town hall.

The LibDems started off very well, so far as open decisions and meetings were concerned. Local Labour was gone. Unfortunately, the New Mills town clerk - Mrs Susan Stevens - did not seize this glorious opportunity she was given to make a clean break with the dishonest past.

Eventually, over time, the secrecy and downright dishonesty returned.

By May 2013, there were enough councillors who were not prepared to accept dishonesty in the New Mills town hall offices.  More importantly, they were prepared to do something about it. The battle was on, between bad councillors who saw their priority as protecting a dishonest town clerk, and good councillors who required there to be a clean, honest town council.


Up to date: the remaining issues regarding council meetings

Vigilance is still needed.  The remaining outstanding issues so far as town council meetings in New Mills are concerned are as follows:

Agenda descriptions are sometimes used that are too vague to be lawful 

Two examples of how to do an agenda correctly are on the agenda for this latest meeting: "Increase in Acting Clerk's hours" and "Outcome of Mrs Stevens Grievance".  Both of these concern staff issues that had to be decided on by councillors.

By way of contrast, an example of how not to do a council agenda is contained in the agenda for the Extraordinary meeting of 6 January 2014: The agenda item simply says "Staff Matters".

This wording is too vague.  It falls foul of the transparency principle and would also appear to fall foul of the law on this subject: the Local Government Act 1972, Schedule 12, Part II, Para 10 (2) (b). This reads:
...a summons to attend the meeting, specifying the business proposed to be transacted at the meeting and signed by the proper officer of the council, shall be left at or sent by post to the usual place of residence of every member of the council.
The critical wording is "specifying the business proposed to be transacted at the meeting".  Clearly, just putting the vague expression "staff matters" is far from specific. It does not allow a councillor to make his/her preparations for a good decision, or to do the relevant research, or make diligent enquiries.

It is interesting to note that the above law is why the similarly vague agenda item "any other business" is not used by councils, and any decision made under that agenda heading is unlawful.

Some councillors don't know their rights

It is every councillor's right to ask that a particular issue is placed on a council meeting agenda.

If the Chair and/or town clerk refuse or fail to do so for a period of seven days, then any two councillors have the right to convene a full council meeting. They must both sign the summons and agenda for the forthcoming meeting, specifying the business to be transacted at the meeting. The relevant law is the Local Government Act 1972, Schedule 12, Part II, Para 9.

The reason this is relevant at the the moment is that last night it appeared a de-facto decision was in place to wait until some of the town hall mess was fully cleared up before decisions etc were made to co-opt new councillors to replace the three who recently resigned in disgrace.

That is a reasonable position to take, given all of the present circumstances. However Cllr Alistair Stevens correctly said to the Chair "I don't think that is your decision to make."

This matter is likely to be resolved shortly and the new councillor selection process will get under way.

Essential financial information missing from the agenda

As the emergency situation in the town hall is coming to an end, there is another agenda issue that will need to be addressed in due course.

This is the recent habit of not sending vital financial information out to councillors with the agenda and summons.

The latest agenda had three items that failed in this respect: Items 15, 16 and 17 were all finance-related, and all contained the words "details to follow".  It seems clear that this contravenes the relevant law, reprinted above.

As the office staffing complement is brought back to proper levels, and the necessary in-depth and time-consuming investigations into the past wrong-doing draw to a conclusion, this agenda area will presumably be rectified. Councillors cannot make decisions if they are not presented with the timely information.





Next article: Update on the phantom trustees and the missing charity money


10 January 2014

The Man Who Sends Birthday Cards To Strangers


The most explosive political story of recent years was the parliamentary expenses fraud.

This financial scandal gave a big impetus to public transparency campaigns up and down the country. The High Peak constituency was blessed with a star performer in this regard: Tom Levitt, the former Labour MP who lost his seat at the 2010 election.

Mr Levitt became famous for having an electric hairdryer on expenses.  He used public money to buy the hairdryer.  'Hairdryer' is a compound word.  One component is 'dryer'.  The other component of the word, 'hair', had long since vacated the head of Mr Levitt.

So "Why does a bald MP need a hairdryer?" became one of the questions of the scandal.
Mr Levitt (centre) promoting trespassing

If Mr Levitt wants to buy an electric hairdryer out of his own money, that is entirely his business. However, Mr Levitt spent OUR money: he took public money - parliamentary expenses - to buy it.  So the bald MP's hairdryer, along with all the other things MPs use our money for, became our business.

One of the consequences of the MPs' expenses scandal is that all expenses claimed by MPs from public money are now available for public scrutiny.

The most recent batch of payments shows that our current MP, Andrew Bingham, used £217 of our money to send birthday cards to complete strangers.

Mr Bingham is the Conservative who beat Tom Levitt at the last general election, the election immediately following the expenses scandal.

Today's Sun newspaper describes it as follows: "Andrew Bingham claimed £217 for birthday cards for 18-year-olds in his constituency"  The paper put Mr Bingham's payment as third highest in its latest "Potty Payments" list.

If the Conservative Party wants to woo new voters in a constituency, then clearly they should pay for it. The money should not be taken from the public purse.


The Sun Newspaper, 10 January 2014

09 January 2014

Missing Charity Money Latest


Here at HPT we have extensive records of New Mills town council meetings going back many years.  Also, in the town hall is the comprehensive archive of all town council meetings going back to the formation of the New Mills Town Council in 1974.

Every town and parish council is required by law to hold an Annual Meeting in May of every year. The New Mills town council has chosen its Annual Meeting as the occasion to appoint trustees every year to the various charities that it controls.

The records of each Annual Meeting therefore make interesting reading when a mystery involving missing charity money needs solving (see previous HPT articles).

In 1974, at the town council's first ever Annual Meeting, the council's first trustees were appointed to New Mills Higher Education Trust ("the Trust"), formerly known as the Godward Trust.

Every year afterwards, the council diligently appointed fresh trustees, to supervise the money held in the Trust and its income, both of which may only be used for charitable purposes in accordance with the original Trust instrument.

As this Trust always had a decent amount of cash at the bank, the council always appointed three separate trustees.

The record of Trustee appointments over the years can be seen in the minutes of each Annual Meeting.  That is, until a certain councillor became Mayor of New Mills and Chair of the town council.

The last year that all the council's Charity matters were in order was 2007.  At the council's Annual Meeting in that year, the Chair was Cllr Beth Atkins.  The council representatives appointed to the Trust at this meeting were Cllrs Lance Dowson, Huggy Hawley, and Steven Sharp, at least two of whom were made Trustees.

At the town council's Annual Meeting in May 2008, two things happened: Alistair Stevens was appointed Chair of New Mills town council, and New Mills Higher Educational Trust disappeared from the meeting's record.

The New Mills town clerk at the time of the above events was Mrs Susan Stevens.

We now await the latest developments in this matter of the missing charity money.  A formal public announcement by New Mills town council should be made as soon as possible.