Standards Sub-Committee Minutes

Date:
Wednesday, 2nd December, 2015
Time:
2.00pm
Place:
Committee Room 1, District Council Offices, Gernon Road, Letchworth Garden City
 
 

Attendance Details

Present:
Councillor Mike Rice (Chairman), Councillor Steve Hemingway and Councillor Alan Millard.
Mr Nicholas Moss (Independent Person) - non-voting advisory role.
Councillor David Leal-Bennett
In attendance:
Jeanette Thompson (Legal Advisor)
Ian Gourlay (Committee & Members Services Manager)
Also Present:
5 Members of the public.
Item Description/Decision
PART I
1 ELECTION OF CHAIRMAN
RESOLVED: That Councillor Mike Rice be elected as Chairman of the Sub-Committee.
2 APOLOGIES FOR ABSENCE
Apologies for absence were submitted on behalf of Gavin Miles (the Deputy External Monitoring Officer); Mr David Widdowson (Councillor Leal-Bennett’s Legal representative) and Ms Olwen Dutton (Investigating Officer).
3 NOTIFICATION OF OTHER BUSINESS
No other items were presented for consideration.
4 CHAIRMAN'S ANNOUNCEMENTS
The Chairman reminded Members that, in line with the Code of Conduct, any Declarations of Interest should be declared immediately prior to the item in question.
5 COMPLAINTS PROCEDURE FOR MATTERS RELATING TO THE COUNCILLORS’ CODE OF CONDUCT
The Sub-Committee considered the Complaints Procedure for matters relating to the Councillors’ Code of Conduct.

RESOLVED: That the Complaints Procedure for matters relating to the Councillors’ Code of Conduct be noted.
6 TO DETERMINE EVIDENTIAL AND ADMINISTRATIVE MATTERS - COMPLAINTS OF FAILURE TO OBSERVE THE CODE OF CONDUCT, COUNCILLOR DAVID LEAL-BENNETT
The Legal Advisor introduced the report of the Deputy (External) Monitoring Officer, inviting all parties to consider and resolve evidential and administrative matters relating to the preparation for a final determination hearing in respect of complaints of failure by Councillor Leal-Bennett to observe the Councillors’ Code of Conduct.

The Legal Advisor referred to some amended recommendations, which had been provided by the Deputy (External) Monitoring Officer, following consultation with Councillor Leal-Bennett’s Legal Representative. The revised recommendations, as tabled at the meeting, were as follows:

2.1 That the Sub-Committee hearing is fixed for a 3 days hearing in February - between 8th and 29th;

2.2 That Cllr Leal-Bennett/his representative serve details of his witnesses by midday on Friday 4th December 2015;

2.3 That Cllr Leal-Bennett/his representative serve any witness evidence and documents that he intends to rely upon, and identify areas of what evidence or areas of the Investigator’s report are disputed by midday Monday 4th January 2016;

2.4 That Cllr Leal-Bennett/his representative serve any legal argument they intend to rely upon by midday on Monday 4th January 2016;

2.5 That the Investigator/external Deputy Monitoring Officer serve any response as to the relevance of Cllr Leal-Bennett evidence and documents to the complaints, and any response to legal argument by midday Monday 18th January 2016;

2.6 That all evidence served either as part of the Investigator’s Report or in compliance with the resolutions 2.3 and 2.5 to stand as ‘evidence in chief’ at the Sub-Committee Hearing;

[Such resolutions do not imply relevance or weight to be given to such evidence].

2.7 That the cover report and appendices bundle to be finalised by 22 January 2016. In the absence of agreement between the parties, this shall be delegated to the external Deputy Monitoring/Deputy Monitoring Officers to finalise; and

2.8 That consideration and a direction given as to whether the final hearing be held in public or private session.

[The Sub-Committee may seek the views of the Independent Person and take these into account before making its decision on the resolutions above in accordance with Section 28(7)(b)(i) Localism Act 2011.]

The Chairman invited the Sub-Committee and other parties present to consider each of the amended recommendations in turn.

In respect of Recommendation 2.1, it was agreed that the Sub-Committee hearing would take place on Wednesday, 24 February 2016, Thursday, 25 February 2016 and Friday, 26 February 2016.

In relation to Recommendations 2.2 and 2.3, Councillor Leal-Bennett stated that he would have preferred later deadline dates (particularly as the hearing was now scheduled for late February 2016). It was pointed out that the quoted dates of 4 December 2015 and 4 January 2016 respectively, had been agreed by his Legal Representative as part of his discussions with the Deputy Monitoring Officer. The Legal Advisor added that should the dates be put back then this would result in further slippage on the rest of the timetable. She considered that, regardless of the fact that the hearing was now scheduled for late February 2016, both parties should now be in a position to provide all their evidence in good time in advance of the hearing, thereby precluding the need to deal with such issues at the last minute. The Sub-Committee therefore agreed that the deadline dates would remain as stated.

Recommendations 2.4 and 2.5 were agreed by all parties present.

In respect of Recommendation 2.6, the Legal Advisor pointed out that this recommendation should refer to “Recommendations 2.3 to 2.5” and not “Recommendations 2.3 and 2.5”.

Debate ensued with regard to Recommendation 2.6. The Chairman cautioned both sides in respect of the examination of witnesses at the hearing. He expected that the examination of witnesses would be restricted to the relevant complaint issues, where there was dispute of the facts alone.

Councillor Leal-Bennett stated that this could be difficult, as there were several areas that moulded/merged into different areas. He was not prepared to accept this recommendation.

The Chairman stressed that neither he nor his fellow Sub-Committee Members were aware of the content of the complaints. This was in the interests of fairness, and to provide Councillor Leal-Bennett with an opportunity to respond to the complaints. No pre-determination had occurred, and the Sub-Committee would not be provided with all relevant information until at least 5 clear days before the hearing in late February 2016.

The Chairman continued by stating that the intention was to ensure that all matters were pertinent to the complaints. The Sub-Committee would not be interested in information outside of the complaints, and would only listen to evidence in reference to the complaints.

The Legal Advisor added that both parties had the ability to present their evidence, but urged them to make it specific to the complaints. The narrower the issues, the more effective the Sub-Committee would be in determining the matter.

Upon being invited to address the Sub-Committee, the Independent Person commented that it was important that fairness worked in both ways, both in respect of the Member complained of and those who hade made the complaints. It was therefore important for both sides that the matter be dealt with efficiently. In his view, the Independent Person considered that efficiency required great clarity and focus at the hearing on those matters in dispute. He accepted that the Member complained of had mentioned some of the difficulties, but the matter had been going on for some considerable time. He was aware of this as he had received, as Independent Person, the Investigating Officer’s report in case the member complained of had wished to contact him, as he was entitled to do under legislation.

The Independent Person had therefore seen the content of the complaints and he considered that it should be perfectly possible, given the time that has elapsed, for all parties to focus their minds precisely on what the complaints were about, and therefore to what aspects the Member complained of had to respond. He did not think it satisfactory, for reasons previously expressed, on the day of the hearing for either party to be floundering and trying to understand what was in contention when that should have been done well in advance of the hearing.

The Independent Person stated that, having seen the Investigating Officer’s report, he felt that on the face of it there appeared to be some discrepancies in the report. In the start of the report, 7 alleged breaches of the Code of Conduct were identified, but later on it identified 10 alleged breaches, some of which overlapped. He considered that there were 5 principal differences between the complaints referred to at the beginning of the report and the complaints referred to at the end. He felt that it would be important to ascertain at an early date what aspects were the subject of the complaints, so that the Member complained of could not, on the day of the hearing, suggest that there was unclarity.

The Independent Person summarised the essence of his comments by advising that there was some work to be done now, and that there was time for it to be done, to ensure that the alleged breaches were focussed on, to enable the Member complained of to respond to them, and to ensure that the parties making the complaints had their arguments expressed clearly and succinctly.

The Chairman re-iterated the fact that the Sub-Committee was only interested in the complaints, and would not be prepared to discuss anything outside of the complaints.

Councillor Leal-Bennett acknowledged the Chairman’s remarks. He found it somewhat difficult, having received 477 pages of documentation. This contained a dozen or more witness statements, some of which included evidence to demonstrate a trend going back a long time. Councillor Leal-Bennett stated that he would wish to challenge at the hearing every statement of complaint made by individuals in their witness statements. He would wish to amplify and explain certain statements because, in some instances, he considered that it was clear that there had been some misinformation and items had been missed out to give a slant in favour of one side. He would wish to clarify to the Sub-Committee his interpretation of what had happened on some of those occasions, and he felt that it was very important that he was given that opportunity.

The Chairman replied that, in the interest of fairness, Councillor Leal-Bennett would be given that opportunity. He continued by commenting that what he was intending was that the Sub-Committee only wished to hear evidence in reference to the complaints. The Sub-Committee did not wish to hear a lot of oratory on things that had nothing to do with the complaints, but would listen to all arguments put forward by Councillor Leal-Bennett that were relevant to the allegations. The Chairman was attempting to keep everything centred and down the line of the complaints, without going off on any tangents. That was the primary purpose of the Sub-Committee, to look at both sides of the complaints, before coming to a proper decision.

Councillor Leal-Bennett acknowledged the Chairman’s remarks.

The Sub-Committee agreed that Recommendation 2.6 would also contain the following wording: “That examination of witnesses at the Sub-Committee hearing shall be restricted to the relevant disputed evidence/facts alone related to the complaints.

In respect of Recommendation 2.7, Councillor Leal-Bennett sought clarification about the situation should there be disagreement between both parties. The Legal Advisor replied that the idea behind this recommendation for the external Deputy Monitoring/Deputy Monitoring Officer to be the arbiter(s) of any disagreement was to try and mitigate against the submission of late evidence by either party. The Independent Person offered to assist in this matter, in case there was any disagreement, and hence the recommendation was amended with the addition of the words “in consultation with the Independent Person, if necessary”. The Sub-Committee and Councillor Leal-Bennett supported this addition to Recommendation 2.7.

In relation to Recommendation 2.8, Councillor Leal-Bennett commented that he had no problem with the hearing being held in public. However, he advised that there would be a considerable amount of evidence in respect of his personal circumstances, as he was at one point a Director and Trustee of Hitchin Town Hall Limited, and that a number of the complaints merged/melded issues in respect of him acting in that capacity. The problem would be that a considerable amount of evidence would be the submission of documentation which the Council may not wish to have in the public domain. This was particularly in the light of any future potential litigation between the Council and Hitchin Town Hall Limited. He made it clear that he was no longer a Director or Trustee of Hitchin Town Hall Limited.

The Legal Advisor explained that neither the Sub-Committee nor the external Deputy Monitoring Officer knew at this stage what would be contained in the documents referred to by Councillor Leal-Bennett. It would seem prudent, therefore, to work on the basis that the hearing would be in public, subject to any recommendations in the covering report requesting the Sub-Committee to give consideration to certain issues being considered in private session, if relevant.

The Sub-Committee therefore agreed that the final hearing be held in public, subject to any recommendation that parts of the hearing be held in private session under the provisions of Section 12A of the Local Government Act 1972 following service of the evidence/documents.

RESOLVED:

(1) That the Sub-Committee hearing be fixed for Wednesday, 24 February 2016, Thursday, 25 February 2016 and Friday, 26 February 2016;

(2) That Cllr Leal-Bennett/his representative serve details of his witnesses by midday on Friday, 4 December 2015;

(3) That Cllr Leal-Bennett/his representative serve any witness evidence and documents that he intends to rely upon, and identify areas of what evidence or areas of the Investigator’s report are disputed by midday on Monday, 4 January 2016;

(4) That Cllr Leal-Bennett/his representative serve any legal argument they intend to rely upon by midday on Monday, 4 January 2016;

(5) That the Investigator/external Deputy Monitoring Officer serve any response as to the relevance of Cllr Leal-Bennett evidence and documents to the complaints, and any response to legal argument by midday on Monday, 18 January 2016;

(6) That all evidence served either as part of the Investigator’s Report or in compliance with the resolutions 2.3 to 2.5 to stand as ‘evidence in chief’ at the Sub-Committee Hearing. That examination of witnesses at the Sub-Committee hearing shall be restricted to the relevant disputed evidence/facts alone related to the complaints;

[Such resolutions do not imply relevance or weight to be given to such evidence];

(7) That the cover report and appendices bundle be finalised by 22 January 2016. In the absence of agreement between the parties, this shall be delegated to the external Deputy Monitoring/Deputy Monitoring Officers to finalise, in consultation with the Independent Person, if necessary; and

(8) That the final hearing be held in public, subject to any recommendation that parts of the hearing be held in private session under the provisions of Section 12A of the Local Government Act 1972 following service of the evidence/documents.

REASON FOR DECISION: To agree evidential and administrative matters relating to the preparation for a final determination hearing in respect of complaints of failure by Councillor Leal-Bennett to observe the Councillors’ Code of Conduct.
Published on Wednesday, 16th December, 2015
2.37pm