Lord Nolan’s Standards in Public Life came in the aftermath of the Stephen Lawrence tragedy. Not just police, but especially them, were thereafter bound by a strict ethical code centring on honesty, integrity and transparency.
Looking out on the despoiled landscape of Ledbury’s civic life, it seems that here at least, the Code is honoured more in the breach than the observance. And as with Hamlet, there also appears to be crippling lack of action in bringing justice forward, of holding the guilty to account, of the craven scruple of thinking too precisely on the event.
Of omission or commission, the errors have been innumerable and the true costs incalculable. People's reputations and home lives have been blighted. Confidence in local democracy is shredded. Perpetrators of heinous behaviour have laughingly walked away scot-free. Hardly anybody, apart from Liz Harvey herself, comes out of the scandal looking like they did the right thing.
'Diligence and Impartiality'
It’s not just ex-town councillors and staff that are mired in suspicion and mistrust, but now the police also seem to be dallying in Ledbury’s unweeded garden.
Let’s be clear about this: at the least, there is a serious problem of accountability by our local police force, West Mercia Police. Just like the old guard in the Council, they give the strong impression of acting with both impunity and insouciance, hardly shining exemplars of Nolan probity.
Despite compelling evidence being proffered, senior officers simply refuse to engage with the credible and serious allegations about the (mis)conduct of public servants in Ledbury. These include criminal maladministration, data offences, the unlawful expenditure of two hundred thousand pounds, theft and conspiracy to skew the course of justice by ex-members, and possibly staff, of Ledbury Town Council. Despite a mountain of testimony and paper evidence, the police won't even look at it.
This case centres on the recent High Court judgement (Harvey v Ledbury Town Council 2018) in which local town and county councillor Liz Harvey was unlawfully banned by fellow town councillors for unfounded allegations of bullying. After two years of being publicly abused, Liz finally sought to challenge the Council’s unjust ‘sanctions’ at judicial review. She won, comprehensively, but only after undergoing a gruelling legal battle, at great personal cost.
Liz’s case has attracted much interest nationally because it clarified how allegations of misconduct by locally elected members should be investigated, and dealt with (not like Ledbury Town Council did). Crime and punishment around the parishes is suddenly a very hot topic.
Here in Ledbury, a small group of politically motivated town councillors quite obviously conspired to destroy Liz’s personal and political reputation. In so doing, they systematically broke the town council’s financial and governance regulations, failed to disclose three adverse barrister’s opinions which said they couldn’t win the JR, told lies to the Council and flouted its standing orders, and then systematically destroyed all the records and documentation relating to the failed legal action, in skips, bonfires and secure disposal.
Upon the High Court judgement, some of the individuals in charge of the fiasco resigned as councillors but allegedly continued to raid the town council offices until it was cleaned of all material that might incriminate them personally. The police maintain there was nothing malicious in this; it was all a case of ‘incompetence’.
In a spectacular example of the recursive logic fallacy, Inspector James Ashton of Ledbury police says (without having looked at any of the evidence) that 'No criminal activity has been established [within Ledbury Town Council] for which the parish council may wish to hide / destroy documents'.
The officer's starting point is that he does not believe any criminal activity has taken place. He declines to look at any evidence which might say otherwise. Because he does not believe any criminal activity has taken place, he says that there could be no motive for anyone to remove or destroy evidence, a cover-up. This also means that no cover-up has taken place. QED.
In short, the reason he won't investigate is because he won't investigate.
I wrote to the Police and Crime Commissioner, John Campion (copied to the Chief Constable Bangham) on 2 July 2018 expressing my concerns about the lack of police responsiveness to these serious allegations bearing on local democracy and public administration. Despite chasing Campion’s office several times, I had no response, so I then wrote to Anthony Bangham. Belatedly, this was raised as an official complaint on 2 September. Since then, it has been passed round West Mercia like a lump of irradiated waste material.
After seven increasingly frustrating telephone calls to its Professional Standards Department throughout September and October, I finally received a communication from Herefordshire's police commander, Superintendent Sue Thomas. In explaining the police's inaction, she leant heavily on Inspector Ashton's extraordinary account which is both factually incorrect and mind-bogglingly illogical in its argumentation. The case has now, as far as I know, bounced back to West Mercia's 'professional standards department' for more weeks of wearying delay and obfuscation if past experience is gone by.
That there has been a cover-up of dazzling proportions by ex-Ledbury Town Councillors and staff is undeniable: you only have to read the local newspaper or attend council meetings to know this.
What is truly unfathomable is why the police are refusing, point blank, to engage with Liz Harvey or me over this affair. Their inability even to enact their own internal complaints procedure is Kafkaesque: the way the matter has been offloaded from Detective Chief Inspector to Detective Chief Inspector, three up to now, not including Supt Thomas's intervention and that of the Chief Constable’s personal team is surreally comic. No barge-pole is too long.
It would of course be an 'appalling vista', as the late Lord Denning said, were it to emerge that there had been direct or indirect collusion between Ledbury’s ex-councillors, or staff, or other interested parties and the police in this matter. Could there be a Masonic connection? We may never know, such is the secrecy surrounding membership of the brotherhood, particularly within police circles, particularly it must be said, within West Mercia police circles.
Let’s consider the involvement of Cllr Brian Wilcox, chairman of Herefordshire Council, senior freemason, and whose wife is Lynda Wilcox. Mrs Wilcox was the de facto town clerk who prosecuted the investigation and banning of Liz Harvey and Andrew Harrison which led to the judicial review. Brian Wilcox has a finger in many local pies including the Police and Crime Commissioner steering group, which legally 'holds to account' the Police Commissioner, his Conservative Party colleague, John Campion. The Police Commissioner in turn directs and oversees the activities of West Mercia Police, and its chief constable, Anthony Bangham.
The PCC steering group comprises nominated local county and district councillors of which until June 2018, Wilcox had been chairman for several years: an influential position for a run of the mill local councillor from a small, poorly regarded local authority. Except Brian isn't. He is very well connected via his Brotherhood chums.
So let’s recap. Lynda Wilcox, CEO of the local parish/town council association (HALC) participates in a behind the scenes campaign to destroy one of her husband Brian’s, main political opponents on Herefordshire Council, Liz Harvey (now co-leader of the It’s Our County independent party).
Lynda provides legal cover and moral encouragement to ban the two councillors (Harvey and Harrison, my civil partner), and then administers the council’s hopeless defence at judicial review, knowing it to be hopeless. Three barristers’ opinions predicting the Council would lose are known to her, and suppressed, even from fellow town councillors.
The Council loses and the legal costs spiral over two hundred thousand pounds. Sacrosanct legal paperwork and council documentation is burned and shredded, files are trashed, hard discs are erased, email accounts purged and the CCTV system hacked.
Somebody was very keen to see all that material destroyed - about as keen as the police are to block an investigation. The implications of this are now assuming menacing proportions.
The offences against democracy by some former Ledbury town councillors are ruinous: the dispute has spanned four years, paralysed the town council at a time of environmental peril, and cost upwards of £220 thousand, not including staff and member time. The town council administration was, and remains in disarray. The brazenness of the subsequent cover-up is shocking. It was an organised conspiracy to mislead the public, and thwart the new Council from obtaining financial redress. Public records have been destroyed. Money has been spent unlawfully. Lives have been damaged.
Worse even than these infractions, is the disquieting possibility that the police have got themselves mixed up in the conspiracy. I have consistently stressed to John Campion and Anthony Bangham that I did not believe this could possibly be the case, but given the comprehensiveness of the police's seeming unconcern, I am beginning now to wonder.
At the very least, the police are being obstinately stupid in refusing to face up to the facts of this scandal. The alternative is that corrupt elements within their ranks are actively participating to cover it up. Either way, the situation is untenable, nor will it go away. Have they learned nothing?
All that we ask is that the due process of justice be followed, that officers and all public servants involved in this follow the rules, and aspire to Lord Nolan's guiding principles, in letter and spirit.
As it stands, we are a long way from that happy place. The police's indifferent silence, its inaction, and its crude attempts to discredit the motives of legitimate complainants, is chilling.
If you are concerned about this affair, and believe that we deserve better from our police, I ask you to write to West Mercia's Police and Crime Commissioner John Campion: firstname.lastname@example.org
and Chief Constable Anthony Bangham:
Feel free to copy your letter to this blog.