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MACLEOD OPENS HIS NORTH LANARKSHIRE INQUIRY PUBLIC HEARING

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Mr Ian MacLeod WS, who is conducting the statutory inquiry into complaints against the North Lanarkshire Council re...
Mr Ian MacLeod WS, who is conducting the statutory inquiry into complaints against the North Lanarkshire Council relating to staff appointments today began taking evidence from witnesses in public.

The hearing began in the Council Chamber at Motherwell District Council, Civic Centre, Motherwell and will continue probably until January 16. It is expected that about 80 people including council officials and councillors will give evidence. In his opening statement, Mr MacLeod said:

'As you know, I am Ian MacLeod, an Edinburgh solicitor. I have been appointed by the secretary of state for Scotland under the powers conferred on him by section 211 of the Local Government (Scotland) Act 1973 to conduct this local Inquiry. My terms of reference are

'To inquire into the question as to whether North Lanarkshire District Council have in relation to the appointment of Chief Officers failed to comply with the duty imposed on them by section 7 of the Local Government and Housing Act 1989 to make appointments to paid office or employment on merit, and to report thereon.'

'In case there is any doubt as to the extent of that remit I should clarify that what I have to consider are the appointments of the chief executive and the nine other senior employees who hold an appointment under the title of director.

'I stated at the press conference which was held on December 8 that I envisaged a two-stage process, firstly information gathering and secondly a more formal stage for taking evidence in public. The first stage has now reached the point where I am ready to start on the second stage. The gathering of information was undertaken partly by me, and partly, under my direction, by Carol Johnston one of my own staff. She along with my Secretary Kathy Moir is here to assist me at this Public Hearing. I have also been assisted by other staff provided by The Scottish Office. I should like to acknowledge in addition the assistance which Motherwell District Council has given to me in making available this Council Chamber and other rooms and facilities.

'At this public hearing I shall be calling witnesses who appear to me, as a result of my preliminary investigation, to be able to give evidence which may be relevant to my terms of reference. It is my decision whom to call as witnesses. I have required witnesses to attend, in exercise of my powers under section 210 of the 1973 Act. Every witness will be required to give evidence on oath or affirmation, which I have power to administer under the same section.

'There are a number of points which I wish to emphasise. This is an inquiry, and it is therefore essentially inquisitorial in nature. Its purpose is to provide an answer to the question contained in my terms of reference, on the basis of the evidence which I obtain. An inquiry of this kind should not be confused with a criminal prosecution or a civil litigation. I am not here to make a case against the local authority, or against the persons who have beenappointed, or against any of the witnesses, or against anyone else for that matter. I am here simply to obtain relevant evidence.

'I am not assisted by counsel or solicitors and I shall examine witnesses myself. They will be required to answer my questions, subject only to the exception provided by section 210 that a witness may decline to answer any question which he would be entitled on the ground of privilege or confidentiality to refuse to answer if this Inquiry were a proceeding in a court of law. I have no reason to expect this to arise in the case of any witness. Just as it is my decision whom to call as a witness, it is my decision what questions to put to each witness. There will be no cross-examination of any witness.

'I shall however permit witnesses to have an adviser to accompany and, where appropriate, advise them while they are being examined. I do not however intend to allow requests for advice to impede the course of the hearing, and I expect that they will be made seldom, if at all. Each witness will be subject to recall if necessary.

'In an Inquiry of this nature there is no burden of proof to be discharged, one way or the other. The question for me is however whether the council has complied with a statutory duty, that is to say whether it has obeyed the law. I therefore think it fair to the council to proceed on the basis that I shall only find that it has failed to do so if my inquiry discloses evidence which I accept and which I regard as sufficient to lead me to that conclusion. I intend to pay particular attention to each of the individual appointments, in order to see whether in any particular case any factor other than merit has had any material part to play in the appointment.

'To return to the question of fairness, I shall endeavour to be as fair as circumstances permit to individuals who may be the subject of adverse evidence, and I have planned the running order of witnesses accordingly. This should make it possible to give witnesses an opportunity to respond to evidence adverse to them. If necessary I shall recall witnesses for that purpose.

'But the position of individuals must be seen in the light of the central question, which relates to the council itself rather than to any individual, and which raises a matter of overriding public concern.

'It hardly needs to be said that although I have been appointed by the secretary of state I am entirely independent of him and everybody else in the conduct of this Inquiry. I have been appointed as a lawyer with some experience of employment law and I regard my terms of reference as raising a legal issue.

'My preliminary investigation suggests that I shall have to examine not only political relationships but also some family and religious matters, but I approach these questions from a neutral standpoint. I believe this is already well understood by those organisations which have an interest in my Inquiry.

'The proceedings are being tape-recorded, using facilities in this chamber which have been provided by the Council. In addition the press will no doubt make their own written records with a view to reporting the proceedings. It is for them to obtain their own legal advice about the content of press reports, which are not a matter for me so long as they are accurate. But I do have a request to the press. It has already been borne in on me that my investigation requires me to explore matters which might generally be regarded as private or confidential. So far as possible I should like that to be respected, even though this is a public hearing, and I trust that the press will use restraint in reporting on personal matters which may incidentally be disclosed in the course of the evidence.

'I shall sit each day this week and Monday and Tuesday of next by which time I would hope the evidence would be completed. The position will however be kept under constant review. The normal hours will be from 0930 hours to 1300 hours with a brief break at around 1100 hours and from 1400 to about 1630 hours, the only exception being on Wednesday, January 10 when the afternoon session will start at about 1515 hours to permit a Motherwell District Council meeting to be held in the Chamber.

'On conclusion of the Public Hearing I have to prepare my report and deliver it to the Secretary of State by the end of the month. I shall make a public announcement when I have done so. Publication of the report will be a matter for the Secretary of State.

'I shall now start my examination of witnesses.'

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