Even by Ledbury Town Council's poor standards of honesty and probity lately, the latest scandal brewing up around falsified meeting minutes threatens to engulf it in a legal firestorm.
It is possible, theoretically, to go to prison for ten years if you try to pass off an official document as genuine, when you know it to be false.
The Forgery and Counterfeiting Act 1981 does not just cover fake passports or share certificates and the like, but any official paperwork that purports to be legitimate but which you know is bogus and liable to mislead or prejudice a third party. It is called passing off a False Instrument. The offence is fraud.
At a recent Ledbury Town Council meeting, the Mayor presented a set of Committee minutes to Full Council which purported to be an accurate record of proceedings when she knew them to be false.
While there are some legal and confidentiality issues surrounding this case which preclude detailed discussion, enough is known in the public domain to allow consideration of the legal principles involved.
The Standing Committee consists of the chairs of the three council committee (planning, leisure and finance) plus the Mayor (Annette Crowe) and Deputy Mayor (Keith Francis). It is effectively the HR committee, and is tasked with considering complaints, grievances, and governance matters.
Standing Committee met in December 2015 to consider a confidential personnel matter. A substitute for the Town Clerk was drafted in to administer the process. Her name is Lynda Wilcox, the chief executive of the Herefordshire Association of Local Councils to which Ledbury Town Council subscribes as a member for legal advice and practical support in such situations.
At the Committee it was decided by vote, that it would not be appropriate for Mrs Wilcox to be involved in this case, and that an alternative clerking arrangement should be sought in future.
Two things then occurred. The minutes (produced by Lynda Wilcox herself) left out any reference to this resolution of the Committee (ie that Mrs Wilcox would not be used in future).
At the next Full Council meeting, Ledbury’s Mayor, Annette Crowe, presented these minutes as a true and accurate record of the proceedings of the Standing Committee. The effect of this was to set in train a course of action relating to the personnel issue in direct opposition to the decision of the Standing Committee. Mrs Lynda Wilcox continued to administer the matter, (it is assumed at some financial cost to the Council). Nor were any of the Standing Committee members consulted about the significant change in procedure, which could, it is understood, have far-reaching consequences for Ledbury Town Council.
Minutes of meetings are the single most important documentation that a local council produces. They are the quasi-legal record of proceedings and can be produced in court as evidence of decisions and resolutions made. Falsifying such a record, for whatever reason, is therefore comparable to committing perjury. Knowingly producing and then passing off minutes as accurate and true, when you know them to be demonstrably false, is not simply a matter of maladministration, but is potentially a criminally fraudulent act.
The matter came to light at last week’s LTC Full Council meeting (25 February), when Cllr Maria Mackness asked the Mayor:
“On the 22 December 2015, as vice chair of the Economic Development and Planning Committee, I attended the Standing Committee meeting, where it was agreed that because of the level of animosity between the two parties, it would not be appropriate for Ledbury Town Council to use the services of HALC [Lynda Wilcox]. We voted on this and the vote was carried. This vote was omitted from the formal notes prepared by HALC. As a legitimate member of the Standing Committee I want to ask the mayor why the vote was not upheld.”
Cllr Mackness refused to be silenced by Mayor Annette Crowe on the grounds of confidentiality and said that ‘It is a process matter that everybody in the town should know about. It is not private or confidential or a secret matter. It is a public matter.’
When the Mayor continued to prevaricate, Cllr Andrew Warmington, also a member of the Standing Committee that night, said:
“How has it come about that when the chief executive of HALC, who is meant to be impartial in this ongoing process, minuted the meeting, a significant fact was omitted that the Standing Committee voted not to accept the clerking services in a future meeting of the SC to discuss this issue? When it was minuted, it was that we accept her services that same evening. That is a significant omission which calls her impartiality, and possibly her competence into question.”
The best that Cllr Crowe could say was: “Erm… I’m not prepared to go into that at this point as we have already stated that there were circumstances after the meeting which led to the change of procedure which have been discussed at previous meetings.”
While this may be the case, the presentation of minutes which are deliberately inaccurate cannot be easily excused. Not only does it appear that both Cllr Crowe and Mrs Wilcox (acting in the role of Clerk of LTC) have contravened their code of conduct for honesty, integrity and transparency, but they may also have broken the law.
Reference: a transcript of the exchange between Annette Crowe, Maria Mackness and Andrew Warmington can be read here.