A troublesome councillor or two are accused of bullying staff. The evidence doesn't stand up. But the ensuing kangaroo court organised by their hostile political adversaries convicts them anyway. Then they are banned from councillor duties and paraded in public as pariahs, the better to be eliminated at the next election.
It's not meant to happen this way in law, but for an increasing number of first-tier councillors caught in such witch-hunts, parish and town councils are being run like minor post-Soviet dictatorships. The Herefordshire town of Ledbury is just the latest where common decency and political conciliation have dissolved into an acrid micro-civil war.
In the latest phase, an anticipated high court hearing in February 2018 may affect the constitutional position of every town and parish councillor in England. Local council tax payers are also bracing for a six figure legal bill, if as seems probable the Town Council loses. At stake is the right of councillors to scrutinise incompetence and maladministration. The judicial review will consider how far parish and town councils are allowed to sanction or punish their elected members without first involving the Monitoring Officer of the local county or district authority.
Around England, a growing number of ‘first-tier’ councillors are being unfairly banned, sanctioned or otherwise penalised by their councillor peers for bullying or harassing staff. The problem is that these locally organised tribunals run counter to local government legislation which says that Monitoring Officers must adjudicate on such matters.
It might seem obvious that groups of politically or personally hostile councillor ‘rivals’, should not sit in judgement on their immediate peers. And yet this is becoming the norm, seemingly under the cover of legal advice from the controversial industry body, NALC (National Association of Local Councils) and many of the county associations for parish councils, including Herefordshire’s.
In quaint Ledbury, two blameless councillors, Liz Harvey and Andrew Harrison, have been wrongly 'banned' by their fellow councillors for bullying and harassing staff. There was an independent investigation into their conduct carried out by Herefordshire Council (initiated by the two accused councillors) which found them innocent of all accusations.
Even so, a highly prejudiced ‘grievance process’ was rolled out - in defiance of the County Council Monitoring Officer and in contravention of the Localism Act 2011 – which predictably found them guilty, and then unlawfully applied draconian sanctions against them.
What town councillors didn’t like were concerns Harvey and Harrison had raised about governance failures, financial irregularities and potential corruption. Yes, it was strong stuff – but in the public interest, the questions needed to be investigated. As committee chairmen, they had also been working hard to make the Council more transparent and forward-looking, but their efforts were detested by the ‘old guard’ who ruthlessly guard their imagined community influence and prestige.
Ledbury Town Council – or rather a small authoritarian subset of councillors - claim they are allowed to circumvent local government law by invoking employment legislation to 'protect' their staff - yet have not provided a jot of legal evidence to justify their position.
Eighteen months later, the two are still debarred from sitting on committees or working groups, and forbidden from having any contact with Council staff, entering the Council office, or being involved with ‘outside bodies’. The Council also wrote to every local organisation and the press to denounce them. As a result, they have been subject to hate behaviour in the street and on social media, and their reputations have been trashed.
In their latest legal swerve, the Council cynically now claim they haven’t imposed ‘sanctions’ after all, but ‘protective measures’ to look after staff welfare. Neither they, nor their swanky London lawyers, Winckworth Sherwood, have yet explained how the public denunciations and ban on community involvement might be construed as ‘protective’.
Who, except the hard-hearted, the stupid, or the wilfully idealistic, would want to become a town or parish councillor and risk such strictures? The sight of disgraced councillors being traduced in their communities sends out a powerful signal to would-be candidates that only conformists need apply.
And yet, without new blood and ideas, younger and plural voices, the parish council sector will continue to atrophy, an enfeebled vehicle for narcissists, reactionaries and pompous time-wasters. Let’s face it, all that expensive flummery and brown-nosing with the county squire-archy has got to be done by somebody.
This judicial review matters to local democracy, to the ability of councillors to scrutinise and call to account, to act with conscience and integrity, in short to fulfill their duties as elected representatives of their communities. Devoid of external oversight since the Audit Commission and Standards Boards were abolished in 2011, parish councils are acting as laws unto themselves and are running out of control. Beyond the police or the courts, there is no higher authority that can look into institutional wrongdoing.
As in Ledbury, the dissident purges are recurring with unsettling frequency in town and parish councils around Britain. Innocent councillors are being denounced and banned on the pretext of staff bullying because they have variously blown the whistle on wrongdoing, asked awkward questions or simply found themselves on the wrong side of the political tracks, left, right or centre. The only recourse for an aggrieved councillor is to seek judicial review in which the upfront costs are huge - about £60 thousand.
In the longer term, there has to be a change in the law. Parish councils must be brought under the supervision of an ombudsman-type regulator, like all other tiers of local government and public service. The laissez-faire Tory policy of ‘localism’ is just a licence for bad political behaviour. It cannot be right that the parishes spend more than half a billion pounds annually of public money, and yet are accountable to nobody.
More pressingly, the judicial review will test Ledbury Town Council’s and NALC’s de facto rewriting of the Localism Act, specifically their contention that alleged misdeeds by elected councillors need not be determined under the Code of Conduct framework by an independent legal practitioner (ie the monitoring officer).
The stakes couldn’t be higher. If the Council wins, there will be a chilling effect on local democracy everywhere. It will be open season on dissident councillors: unwelcome scrutiny will be labelled bullying; whistle-blowers will be subject to personal ruin; decent candidates for election will run for the hills.
Liz Harvey’s supporters expect her to win as the legal case seems compelling. They also hope that those hard-line authoritarians around England’s 9 thousand parishes may be more reluctant about chancing £150 thousand on a pointless legal battle. Case law and precedent should matter – even though down in the parish political undergrowth it often doesn’t feel like that.
‘When we win,’ says a battle-weary Liz Harvey, ‘the power-plays and purges won’t magically stop, nor the politically motivated accusations, but at least the industry body NALC will be forced to stop peddling inaccurate and dangerous advice to its members. And we can begin the long campaign to get the law changed in favour of democratic accountability’.
The timing could be perfect. A review into local government standards has just been announced by Dr Jane Martin of the Parliamentary Committee into Standards in Public Life. In her keynote address to parish council delegates at the recent NALC conference, it was good that she pointedly reminded the audience that ‘an absence of ethical standards erodes [public] trust.’
There is an undeniable crisis of confidence in the so-called ‘elites’ that have been running our lives. But it’s not just in the Westminster and the media bubble that there is sleeze, unfairness and rule-bending. Parish politics are not sexy or high profile, but they matter to the 16 million people who pay into their coffers and enjoy their modest benefits.