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ISLINGTON 5 CLEARED IN STANDARDS BOARD CASE

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After three and a half years the Standards Board for England has cleared Islington LBC leader Steve Hitchins and co...
After three and a half years the Standards Board for England has cleared Islington LBC leader Steve Hitchins and councillors Bridget Fox, Jyoti Vaja, Margot Dunn and Dorrie Valery of any wrong doing in the appointment of Helen Bailey as chief executive.

An Adjudication panel tribunal has ruled that there had been 'no breach of the code whatsoever' in the Standards Board case against five members of Islington LBC.

Mr Hitchins and four Liberal Democrat colleagues were cleared of all charges made against them by the Labour party relating to the appointment of Helen Bailey as chief executive of Islington LBC.

The case brought by the local government watchdog the Standards Board for England, against five Lib Dem councillors finally reached it's conclusion yesterday, three years and six months after the original complaint. Lib Dem MP Edward Davey and local councillor Terry Stacy have both commented on the out come (see below).

The tribunal report concluded that 'We can see no basis upon which it would be open to us to conclude anything other than an entirely appropriate decision was taken on 22 July' 'and said of Labour's conspiracy theory 'We do not accept that such a plan existed. No criticism can be made of the decision to appoint Helen Bailey'

Islington Liberal Democrats have always denied that there was anything improper about the appointment, and today those claims were supported as all five Councillors were acquitted of any wrong doing.

Mr Hitchins said: 'I am grateful that even though it was delayed, justice has finally been served. The hard work of our lawyers and the fairness and good sense of the Adjudication Panel have finally won the day. I am delighted that I can now get on with the job I was elected to do, providing better services for the people of Islington.'

Rejecting Labour claims that Steve Hitchins was a bully the report praised his commitment to Islington saying 'that Councillor Hitchins' strong leadership style is based on his strong focus and his overriding objective in life, namely securing the improvement of performance of the London Borough of Islington. This is close to an obsession' It also commented that 'The Tribunal is not satisfied from what is has seen of the Liberal Democrat Group members that they would allow themselves to be bullied.'

Liberal Democrat councillor Terry Stacy said

'Local Labour councillors have wasted an estimated£2million for political reasons making accusations for which they had no evidence.

'This was just one of many groundless complaints that local Labour councillors have made to the Standards Board, not a single one of which has been upheld.

'They made this complaint hoping to discredit their opponents but instead the case has discredited both the Standards Board and Mary Creagh MP. The Tribunal was damming about both the abilities of Labour councillors and the way the Standards Board carried out their investigation. Justice has finally been done and Islington's councillors can go back to concentrating on serving the people of Islington.

'Mary Creagh and Islington Labour councillors should be ashamed of themselves.'

The Tribunal's report describes Mary Creagh as 'an insensitive witness, lacking in balance, judgement and one who was prepared to make assumptions about the honesty and integrity of others without proper basis.' The report was also damning about the other Labour councillors who were involved in the case. (See document attached)

Liberal Democrat MP Edward Davey said of the Standards Board:

'The Standards Board was supposed to salvage the reputation of local government but the Board itself has been discredited. It is scandalous that this investigation has taken over three years and has cost so much both to the tax payer and the accused. There was never any evidence to support this case and the government, or chief Executive of the standards board should have intervened in what was always a ridiculous investigation into the fastest improving council in the country.

'Questions should be asked at the highest levels in government.

'It is now time for the Standards Board to be abolished and for councillors to be subject to the same checks and balances as MPs, and MSPs.'

Notes

1. The original complaint was made by then Labour Islington councillor Mary Creagh, in August 2002, immediately after the appointment of Helen Bailey as Islington's Chief Executive, by the council's appointments sub-committee, and then full council, in July 2002.

2. The original complaint was made against Cllr Steve Hitchins (Council Leader) and Cllr Margot Dunn. It has since been expanded by the Standards Board to include also Cllr Bridget Fox, Cllr Jyoti Vaja and Cllr Dorrie Valery. The charge against Cllr Hitchins is that he 'brought his office or authority into disrepute, failed to act in accordance with the authority's requirements when using or authorising the use of its resources, failed to withdraw from meetings when matters in which he had a prejudicial interest were discussed and sought to improperly to influence decisions'. The charge against the other councillors is that they 'unlawfully discriminated against others, brought their office or authority into disrepute, and improperly secured an advantage or a disadvantage for others'.

FINDINGS

We can see no basis upon which it would be open to us to conclude anything other than an entirely appropriate decision was taken on 22 July 2002.

Para 461

What the Tribunal Panel said about the participants:-

First the Liberal Democrats accused

Councillor Hitchins was generally an impressive witness. To the extent that he was able to recall events, the Tribunal is satisfied that for the most part his answers were truthful. (18)

The Case Tribunal rejects the evidence that Councillor Hitchins style of leader is dictatorial and bullying.... such terms are a distortion of the facts. Whilst Councillor Hitchins is a strong, focussed, hands on leader with a forceful style he did not strike the Tribunal as a bully.(44)

The Tribunal further finds that Councillor Hitchins' strong leadership style is based on his strong focus and his overriding objective in life, namely securing the improvement of performance of the London Borough of Islington. This is close to an obsession. (46)

Councillor Fox was a patently honest and truthful witness. The tribunal gives her evidence substantial weight. (20)

Councillors Vaja and Dunn were considered to be 'generally truthful' (21), and 'her evidence was truthful' (19)

Councillor Valery 'Events have shown that her judgement was absolutely correct.' (389)

And then the Labour witnesses making the complaint

Councillor Creagh was not an impressive witness. The Tribunal agrees with the Respondents' assessment of her as an insensitive witness, lacking in balance, judgement and one who was prepared to make assumptions about the honesty and integrity of others without any proper basis. Speculation, suspicion, and surmise were advanced as fact irrespective of whether there was any proper foundation for them. The Tribunal considers that her evidence was heavily influenced by her political motives and ... gives it little weight (12)

Councillor Coupland was an unreliable witness. Her recollection of events even significant ones was poor, her witness statement was materially inaccurate and misleading and the Tribunal notes it was made only after her recent decision to join the Labour Party.(15)

The Tribunal is not satisfied from what is has seen of the Liberal Democrat Group members that they would allow themselves to bullied in the way suggested by Councillor Coupland. Her tempering of that evidence before the Tribunal persuades us that she exaggerated the position in her witness statement and that, combined with her lack of knowledge of how the Executive operates indicates to us that little weight should be attached to her evidence on this issue (44)

Of Councillor Sawyer's evidence the Tribunal reports 'As to the interpretation he chose to give to those facts, the Tribunal considers he was influenced by his political motives and has taken into account in assessing the weight to be given to his interpretation.' (14)

Councillor Greening who attended the selection meetings as an observer: 'He was interviewed in December 2002 but plainly had a limited recollection of what had happened independent of the note he had taken. We approach Councillor Greening's note with some caution because it is only a partial note and because he approached the meeting with a mindset which would have coloured his note taking. It was taken to note anything which might indicate impropriety.' XX

Then of the Ethical Standards Officer who conducted the case:

The Tribunal has looked at each of the interviews with care and we have some sympathy with the concerns expressed by the Respondents about them. The Respondents were interviewed a year after the selection process for the post of Chief Executive when recollectionsof events would be declining. The documentation they were provided with in advance of the interview was limited and did not include a full exposition of the allegations which by the time of the interview the ESO was investigating. The content of the interviews themselves also trouble the Tribunal. They strike the Tribunal as being directed to obtaining evidence to support conclusions, which the ESO had already reached, rather than being investigatory in nature. This affected the questions that were asked and importantly not asked. In addition, where evidence was obtained after the initial interviews, for example the telephone records, no attempt was made to re-interview the relevant respondents to ask them about any inconsistency with their original interviews. (17)

On the relationship between the Leader and the Chief Executive

The Tribunal is satisfied that both Councillor Hitchins and Helen Bailey are workaholics and from 2000 onwards they shared the objective of achieving a step change in performance of Islington. That is an objective that has driven them. The tribunal is satisfied that the friendship had no life beyond the work environment.

The outcome

Recruitment is a highly subjective process. (And of the respondents) ...'their selective judgement in the case was entirely right. (368)

The ESO contends that this was the carefully implemented plan to secure Helen Bailey's appointment as Chief Executive regardless of merit and effectively her appointment was a foregone conclusion. We do not accept that such a plan existed. No criticism can be made of the decision ... to appoint Helen Bailey. (458)

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