Now it emerges that all the important paperwork about the judicial review and the grievance process which led to it, is gone. There are also reports that tranches of email messages have been deleted from the Council’s server. Take a moment to process this information. Are you shocked? Or are you, like the local police, blithely untroubled and think we should all now 'move on'?
As it stands, a substantial part of the legal documentation base is missing; all the professional advice and opinions; correspondence and emails; records from early 2016 pertaining to the ‘grievance and appeal panels’ that led to Liz Harvey’s and Andrew Harrison’s bannings. Most damningly, the original ‘advice’ is missing which Lynda Wilcox used to design a net in which to snare Harvey and Harrison; this was the ‘advice’ that in the end launched Ledbury’s doomed adventure in the courts. The town council has been raided. Who took it and why? Where is it now? Why aren't the police interested?
This much I have established by a formal request under Freedom of Information to Cllr Shields. As it stands, the Council, at its own expense, is having to commission a duplicate pack of the judicial review paperwork from the London solicitors, Winkworth Sherwood. This will cost somewhere between one pound and twelve hundred pounds: the Council has not established how much exactly, since to do so will apparently incur even further costs. Winkworth Sherwood attach great value to their services it seems, even when they have dismally failed their client in the high court.
During the legal proceedings, August 2017 to March 2018, councillors and members of the public made multiple requests for details of the Council’s spending with solicitors and the legal opinions which underpinned it. These requests were refused. The entire process was managed in closed session by the Standing Committee consisting of Mayor Elaine Fieldhouse, Deputy Mayor, Keith Francis, and the three committee chairs, Tony Bradford, Bob Barnes and Annette Crowe.
Earlier, councillors had asked to review the supposedly compelling legal guidance that supported the ‘grievance process’ during 2016 from Lynda Wilcox of HALC, who in turn had been advised by NALC’s chief legal officer. This too was refused as it was claimed to be legally privileged.
When Nina Shields was elected chairman of the town council in May 2018, I asked formally whether this particular piece of evidence upon which the entire judicial review process was founded, could be revealed. With Keith Francis sitting at her side, she said she would try to find it. Cllr Francis claimed ignorance, even though he was intimately involved in every serpentine aspect of the three year imbroglio.
‘No, I have never seen the legal advice from Mrs Wilcox, but I was told it existed, and I always trust people to tell the truth,’ he said virtuously. It's a pity that his fidelity didn't extend to the Monitoring Officer's entreaties to the Town Council to cease its unlawful actions, nor to the findings of Herefordshire Council's independent investigation which established that Harvey and Harrison did not bully staff.
Following the court judgement, the National Association of Local Councils (NALC) has petitioned the government to address the ‘concerns’ arising from the ‘Ledbury Case’. They say that ‘the judgement will make it more difficult for local councils to resolve disputes between councillors and their employees... [This] will impact on the corporate well-being of councils’. How touching. Is that what you call it now?
So it seems after all that NALC may have been propagating advice to parish and town councils that they are free to investigate and punish councillors outwith the provisions of the Localism Act. We shall be seeking clarification on this.
The NALC intervention with the Local Government Minister is encouraging because it means that Ledbury Town Council may indeed have a case to reclaim the legal costs from the body's professional indemnity insurance. This may be some consolation for Ledbury tax-payers who are currently staring at a two hundred thousand pounds legal bill.
Though welcome, the insurance payment will do nothing to redress the years of paralysis in the Council while the bannings have been in force. Nor will the process be straightforward given the presumed destruction of the relevant paperwork.
And so to the present. The scorched earth campaign by resigned councillors (and possibly staff) has robbed Ledbury of the evidence to go after the perpetrators of this reckless episode.
It looks likely that as they resigned one by one in an orderly sequence, councillors and staff of the 'ancien regime' systematically trashed their records, deliberately left payments and important deadlines to fizzle and smoulder, possibly deleted swathes of emails, burned files and records, and denuded the offices of usable resources. The Council's administration is in ruins. To their beloved council, these guardians of civic pride and historical tradition, have taken a match and a can of petrol. If we can’t have it,
say the wreckers, then neither shall you.
Just like Iago unmasked at the end of his murderous spree, Barnes, Crowe, Fieldhouse, Eager, Francis and Bradford are silent, hoping the jetstream of fury will pass over: 'Demand me nothing. What you know, you know. From this time forth I never will speak word.'
The Council pays Herefordshire Council of Local Councils a fee to provide ‘emergency cover’ for temporary ‘clerking’ purposes. Just before the judicial review judgement was announced, the stand-in town clerk, Eva Thomas, provided by HALC, suddenly called in sick, then disappeared completely. Whether coincidence or not, Ledbury’s new Deputy Clerk, resigned a week later. It now emerges that HALC’s boss, Lynda Wilcox says that she is unable to find any temporary staff to work in Ledbury Town Council.
All that is left are two clerical assistants, a chaotic mess of sifted files, and a heap of half-completed tasks. The attrition has been going on for months it seems.
Of most concern have been the evening incursions into the offices by several, now-resigned, councillors who have been watched foraging through paperwork in the town council offices. Being trusted council insiders, the gentlemen held office keys, security passwords and knew their way adeptly around the filing system. On one occasion, they arrived three quarters of an hour early for a ‘working party’ meeting and spent all that time in the warren of back offices going through filing cabinets and laying out piles of paperwork on the meeting table before tidying up for the meeting. Challenged to explain what they were doing and why they were there alone, one of these ex-councillors denies having attended the meeting at all, a typically brazen gesture.
Deeply troubling too is the behaviour of the two ex-mayors at the centre of the maelstrom that has engulfed the council, Elaine Fieldhouse and Annette Crowe. Why would they enter and exit meetings by the back door of the Council offices? Why would they gather in this gloomy spot and be handed bundles of paperwork from within by an unseen third party? To what end have been the clandestine meetings of ex-councillors Clive Jupp, Allen Conway, Rob Yeoman and Mary Cooper with their recently departed colleagues Barnes, Crowe and Fieldhouse? There has been frenetic shuttling in recent weeks between Crowe’s and Fieldhouse’s shops, visits by all the resigned councillors and allegedly by council staff, as well as goodwill visits by the newly elected town councillor, the irrepressible Philip Howells standing for the Lib Dems. So much for Ledbury Town Council being a politics-free zone. At least we can retire that old trope.
To Protect and Serve?
Of most concern perhaps, is the attitude of the Police. While incoming committee chairs have expressed alarm at the potential tampering of criminal evidence by resigned councillors and staff, the police have conspicuously stood by and refused to investigate complaints of maladministration, corruption, theft, and misconduct in office that were put before them: ‘he (Sgt A-B) decided that at the time the matter did not require further police attention’, according to an officer in writing.
The police also said that they could not intervene in the business of securing the council premises and CCTV footage, even though potential suspect parties were able to come and go from the offices with impunity for several days before adequate security could be established. This was because ‘there was no police investigation running that [required] us to consider securing and preserving anything that might be viewed as evidence’. QED. After several years of observing town council affairs, I’m sorry to say that this type of recursive logic is becoming tiresomely familiar.
What the police should have done was take seriously the concerns and allegations put before them, opened an investigation, helped to preserve evidence and to interview interested parties, the new council chairman Nina Shields, councillors Liz Harvey and Andrew Harrison. Not a bit of it.
Jump to Attention
This passive attitude is in contrast to previous behaviour. In November 2015, ex-mayor Elaine Fieldhouse and ex-deputy clerk Maria Bradman made a serious complaint to the police about my having harassed and abused them in the street. The police snapped to an investigation of this fabricated incident.
Over the Christmas and New Year period an enquiry took place involving many witness statements, sound recordings, CCTV records and two months of detective work. So seriously was the matter taken that it was overseen by a police inspector. Of course, having trawled the evidence, the only corroboration for Fieldhouse’s and Bradman’s lies, was their own maliciously fictional account. I was summoned to the station and told I had no case to answer, and that graciously, I was never ‘regarded as a suspect’. Thanks a lot; and a merry christmas to you too. The two liars meanwhile walked out of their meeting scot-free (despite obviously wasting much police time), albeit most disappointed that I had not been charged.
Later, when it was established that Elaine’s bankrupt husband David Fieldhouse was the perpetrator of a threatening telephone call to my home, I was asked whether I’d prefer him to be cautioned or to apologise. I opted for the latter, which he refused. So then I said he could take the caution. At some point before he was collared, the police attitude changed. Now they didn’t want to caution him after all. I endured a series of bruising phone calls with the well-meaning inspector who it seemed had been instructed to let Fieldhouse off - and get me to shut up and accept a private apology. I insisted he be given the caution, not out of vindictiveness, but on principle. Having prevaricated for weeks, told lies about me to the police, generally wheedled his way through denials and half-hearted admissions, Fieldhouse finally got his comeuppance. The Inspector was then swiftly and unexpectedly transferred out of the county.
Liz Harvey has also received two sexually threatening telephone calls. Neither of them has been adequately investigated.
The force won’t be pleased for me to say this but who is pulling the strings here?
We know that members of the freemasons have been centrally involved in the ‘get Harvey’ campaign and have been driving forward the council’s legal action. At the centre of the web sits Lynda Wilcox, wife of Brian, something very high up in the Masons and Chairman of Herefordshire Council. She is the lady who unlawfully falsified crucial committee minutes of the Council, and has to this day, refused to set the record correctly. She wrote a ‘witness statement’ for the Council in its legal defense; it was a perversion of the truth, shot through with falsehoods and distortions. She was the person who designed and managed the unlawful grievance procedure against Harvey and Harrison which was emphatically rejected by the Court. This is the source of the much-vaunted legal opinion from the National Association of Local Councils, the document that just dares not show its face. Having been exposed, Lynda Wilcox has now graciously withdrawn her professional services from Ledbury Town Council.
It feels very much like somebody is protecting Wilcox: could it be high-placed friends, or masonic brothers of her husband? In normal times, this lady would be dancing a bullet-dodging tarantella for her sins, but curiously now, as with the ex-Town Clerk, Karen Mitchell, she is serene and untroubled. Why could that be?
I don't go in for conspiracy theories, but there are palpable suspicions that an establishment cover-up of ludicrous audacity is in process.
In the Feathers over drinks, ex-staff and ex-councillors are busy planning their come-back tour in next year's town elections. Upstairs the 'brethren' whisper about the left-wing plot to take over Ledbury. On Facebook's Voice of Ledbury, the fascist tendency fulminate against Liz Harvey and say that since she kicked off the legal action, she should pay (even though she won); logic is not abundant in that forum. The losers are spinning the high court judgement as simply a procedural nicety: all the Council did wrong was to use the wrong process to ban her. The local media colludes in suppressing ex-councillors' delinquent behaviour, reducing the bitter three year clash over transparency and ethics to school playground 'bickering'. The slanted coverage is frankly absurd, and obvious to anyone with an ounce of brain.
Look the other way
Most troubling of all however is the police's apparent nonchalence over the misuse of a fortune in public money, the publication of fraudulent official minutes, and now the disappearance of a hoard of crucial - presumably incriminating - documentation. The 'bickering' is rapidly metastasizing into a chilling political scandal.
To the Chief Constable of West Mercia Police, Anthony Bangham, and the Police and Crime Commissioner (conservative), John Campion, I humbly say to you (and on behalf of hundreds of like-minded people in Ledbury), we won't be browbeaten into silence and we won't allow the debris of a shattered Ledbury establishment to be swept under the carpet. Be aware, that this corrosive affair will run and run, until the truth has been told. Then there can be reconciliation.
I may be wrong, but it looks like there has been an attempt at cover-up. The destruction of official records is profoundly serious. We have to ask, what else has been concealed or destroyed. We wonder why everybody seems to be rallying to Lynda Wilcox's distress. We expect the Nolan Principles to be upheld.
'Throughout history,' said Haile Selassie, 'it has been the inaction of those who could have acted; the indifference of those who should have known better; the silence of the voice of justice when it mattered most; that has made it possible for evil to triumph.'