13 July 2010

The High Peak One

For most of society, obeying the law is a normal thing, indeed a necessity.

However, where some denizens of the New Mills town hall are concerned, the statutory rights of electors and members of the public under the law are merely seen as 'an added complication'.

That is the actual description - 'an added complication' - in the latest legal advice just sent to New Mills councillors about their unlawful ban on a local elector. This ban on the elector from attending public meetings is meant to apply if a particular member of council staff has also come along to that meeting.

This news is so hot off the press that even some councillors will not have seen it before its publication on High Peak Transparency.  They have therefore not yet had a chance to decide between doing the right thing and promptly making a gracious apology over this aspect, or trying to continue with the attempt at a ban.

In line with the virtually identical North Tyneside case, we'll call our wronged local elector Tim Burgess 'Mr B' from now on.  Or possibly 'The High Peak One'.

Here is the current advice in this matter from the town council lawyers to the good Burghers of New Mills:

If Tim Burgess, oops ' Mr B', comes to a statutory public meeting at which 'Mr L' happens to also have come along, then (in summary):

- Mr B's presence there should be noted and he should be reminded of the letter that he signed;

- Mr B should be formally invited to leave the public meeting;

- If Mr B refuses to leave the public meeting then he should be informed that his breach of the undertakings in the letter will be notified to the town council's solicitors with a request that further legal action be taken against Mr B.

The town council's solicitor is then described as acknowledging that the elector's right to attend public town council meetings as being 'an added complication' (!)

It is not 'an added complication'.  It is the law.

10 July 2010

The Town Hall Law Breakers - Part Three

An important legal authority has been published which is relevant to the current local case in which some High Peak councillors believe they can prevent an elector from attending public meetings if a particular town hall employee has come along to the meeting.

It is headed 'North Tyneside guilty of maladministration after barring resident from meetings'.

The report was carried by Local Government Lawyer on 27 May 2010.  Here are the relevant extracts:

The Local Government Ombudsman has found North Tyneside Council guilty of maladministration after it barred a man from council meetings.

The Ombudsman, Anne Seex, recommended that the local authority train staff on the public’s right to attend meetings and established public law principles in relation to administrative decision-making.

Mr H’s relationship with various representatives of the council was described as “fractious”. He had written frequently to officers using aggressive and personally offensive language, and his written communications – both with the council and with the Ombudsman – were “characterised by extravagantly unpleasant allegations of improper motives and conspiracies”.

In June 2007, the council’s former head of legal and democratic services decided that staff should not engage with him in telephone conversations due to his behaviour and that he should write only to two, named officers.

Further incidents between Mr H and council officers followed, including an altercation with a caretaker at a council meeting in March 2008 that saw both sides accuse the other of assault.

In October 2008, the council’s Strategic Director of Organisational Improvement reviewed the documentation and decided to bar Mr H from attending meetings of the council, its committees, sub-committees and panels. This was recorded as being on the basis that the council “has an overriding duty to protect the health and safety of its staff”.

Mr H was also informed that if he attempted to attend any meetings, council staff would call the police to have him removed and would begin proceedings to get an injunction against him.

In November 2009, the council rescinded the restrictions on Mr H.  Mr H had, however, already complained about the matter to the Ombudsman.

The law says that council meetings must be open to the public unless confidential or certain other information is to be discussed. Councils do, though, have the power to exclude someone from a meeting to suppress or prevent disorderly conduct.

The Ombudsman’s investigation found that the Strategic Director for Organisational Improvement did not have the delegated authority to make the decision.

Seex also pointed out that the legal department’s advice was written several days after the decision, strongly indicating that all relevant information was not properly considered at the time, including Mr H’s statutory right to attend meetings, the case law on excluding someone to prevent disorder and whether barring Mr H was a reasonable and proportionate response to the circumstances.

Ruling that North Tyneside was guilty of maladministration, the Ombudsman said the council’s threat to call the police and begin legal proceedings caused Mr H stress and anxiety.

Seex said: “The maladministration would not have occurred if the officers involved had considered and applied the established public law principles for administrative decision making and I recommend that these should be brought to the attention of all appropriate officers.”

She said the council should issue an apology to Mr H, including for any anxiety caused to him.

A spokeswoman for North Tyneside Council said it accepted that appropriate procedures were not followed.

She said: “The law says the council must be open to the public unless confidential or certain other information is to be discussed. We actively aim to do that and only in exceptional cases would we seek to limit a person’s access to the council.

“All appropriate officers of the council will be reminded of the public’s right to attend open meetings and of the legal requirements that must be considered to prevent this being repeated in the future. However, when the public do attend meetings, it is their responsibility to behave appropriately.”

The link to the case reported in Local Government Lawyer is here

09 July 2010

The Town Hall Law Breakers - Part Two

It seems there is nothing new under the sun.
In a very spooky prequel to the recent Transparency article about the statutory right of members of the public to attend meetings of public bodies, a council has been ordered to apologise to a member of the public and immediately lift the same kind of attempted ban.

Here is the relevant link:  http://menmedia.co.uk/news/s/1128801_sorry_council_lifts_oaps_ban

For those who can't be bothered with links, here is the text.  The report is from the Manchester Evening News of 29 July 2009:

OLDHAM Council has been made to apologise to a ‘disruptive’ pensioner for banning him from public meetings.

Warren Bates was accused of intimidating behaviour at Failsworth Area Committee meetings, and of continually refusing to respect requests to control himself.

He was banned from the meetings for six months, in what is believed to be the first order of its kind in the country.

The council even hired bouncers to keep the 71-year-old out.

Mr Bates, from Stanhope Way, Failsworth, complained to the Local Government Ombudsman, and an investigation has found that the council unfairly banned him and failed to allow him to respond to the allegations.

Investigator Anthony Wall has ordered the council to apologise and revoke the ban, and keep an accurate record of public meetings. Mr Bates said he was pleased with the outcome.

"Speaking as a pensioner I am surprised that the council, with a policy of openness and transparency and listening to the public, behaved in this way," he said.

"I tried to follow the processes available to me but they ignored me.

"I feel they have really let me down."

Mr Bates was banned on March 6 following a meeting between councillors, the acting borough solicitor for the council, and the neighbourhood manager, who also considered imposing an injunction or anti-social behaviour order.

Mr Bates, who has stood in past elections for the Green Party, wrote back to the council accepting the decision, but questioned why he wasn’t allowed to defend himself against the claims.

Emma Alexander, Oldham Council’s executive director for performance, services and capacity said the council accepted the recommendations.

"We have already contacted Mr Bates confirming that he can now attend public meetings," she said.

"We will also be responding soon with a written apology, as recommended by the ombudsman."

04 July 2010

High Peak Borough Councillors

This is the latest update covering honesty and probity issues raised in two earlier High Peak Transparency articles.  To get the picture question out of the way first, the above is High Peak Borough Council's civic heraldry.  Motto translation: 'Ever in the public interest'.

Here are the links to the earlier articles:


At this year's statutory annual town meeting in New Mills, the outgoing chair of the town council, Huggy Hawley (LibDem), made a promise. He said that the town council would discuss the various serious outstanding matters in a town council meeting, and that it would do so in public.

However the town clerk of New Mills, Mrs Susan Stevens, has - to date - put the matters in the part of the agenda that is dealt with behind closed doors. The particular town council meeting at which she did this was on 28 June 2010. The public were excluded from the council chamber when this matter came up.  For the moment, while very specific legal billing etc questions are under live discussion and consideration, the town council is entitled to do this.  Later on, it will be a different story.

Mrs Stevens is the central figure so far as two current elements of the wrong-doing are concerned. These are: using town council stationery to write a letter to mislead the councillors of New Mills; and offering to use public money to pay legal bills for third parties.

The third parties include a person who is a member of the town council and at least one person who is not a member of the council.

There are additional areas of serious concern inside this town hall, but the above two are the ones that are the subject of this article.

This week, the town clerk has sent out a letter that appears to be trying to distinguish between the standards of conduct in her personal life, and her standards of conduct when she is doing things as the town clerk of New Mills. One obvious implication of such a statement is that honesty, when dealing with other people, has an on/off switch.

Here is how the various High Peak Borough Councillors currently involved with this matter have performed so far:

The Liberal Democrat group on the town council is chaired by Cllr Ray Atkins. He wants all of the facts to be obtained and the position fully understood. This is so obviously the correct approach that it should not be in any way controversial.

Cllr Tony Ashton represents the Conservative Party, which was dragged into the matter by being asked, in effect, to approve a spending fait accompli during the secret part of the town council meeting in April. Along with Cllr Huggy Hawley (LibDem) he wanted the legal time sheet sending back, to try to get the billing reduced.

Cllr Ashton has had at least one conversation with a central figure in these matters, Labour’s Ian Huddlestone, to try to get further details. Whether Borough Cllr Huddlestone attempts to pull the wool over his eyes is another matter, and whether Cllr Ashton on behalf of the Conservative Party does anything about the state of affairs that is revealed remains to be seen, but for the moment it can at least be said that Cllr Ashton has taken the trouble and the time to ask questions.

At the moment, the above two seem to represent the mainstream.  Next, two other councillors. Like in Life Of Brian, it seems there is a risk of 'splitters':

High Peak Borough Councillor Janet Carter, in an email seen by High Peak Transparency, gave her view of the dishonesty in public life that has been revealed:

“I suggest we just ignore it.”
Finally, not a councillor at Borough level but one at town council level. Cllr Alistair Stevens has finally revealed his true colours. When this politician was asked by another councillor whether he had had time to digest the issues that have been raised, his email reply was:

“Digested and excreted

Why would we do anything about this?????

Done and dusted via court case a few years ago, why would we get involved with this dispute other than protect staff and previous council members???”

Cllr Alistair Stevens is a politician who stood for election as the High Peak’s Member of Parliament. In his election literature he said he was ‘a man of principle’. In a conversation with Transparency’s editor he said he was ‘an honest man’. Judging from the facts known so far about this matter, it is fair comment to say that it seems the constituency may have had a narrow escape.

Cllr Alistair Stevens is closely connected to one of the council staff that he refers to in his email.  He is married to Susan Stevens, whose activities while occupying public office - in the name of the town of New Mills - are now starting to come under proper scrutiny.

Note to those who have been very concerned to discover ‘a mole’ or similar. There is more than one public interest whistleblower in this matter. There are several people who have become extremely concerned and who have access to the various elements of this unfolding story.

01 July 2010

Parking Nonsense In High Peak, Derbyshire, England

A video just uploaded to YouTube shows a very long and very empty street in a semi-rural market town. No traffic. No people. No activity. 

But what's this? A man employed by a private parking enforcement company has seen an opportunity to boost income. He has just put tickets onto four cars, despite there being empty space for about fifty more cars. The reason it looks ridiculous? It IS ridiculous!

Many local traders are struggling because people no longer dare venture into the town in their cars.

Date of the event: 1st July 2010. Location: High Street, New Mills, High Peak, Derbyshire.  The inaudible question on the soundtrack from the Parking Enforcement Officer as he approaches the camera is "Why are you videoing this?"

The whole sorry spectacle is on YouTube.  Here is the current link: