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WORK LIFE - THE COST OF CARING

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Bedford BC claims its decision to fund libel suits on behalf of three of its officers is part of its duty of care. ...
Bedford BC claims its decision to fund libel suits on behalf of three of its officers is part of its duty of care. Margaret Kubiceck finds the council has upset a few of its residents

One of the thorniest issues facing councillors elected in Bedford BC yesterday will be the fallout from the borough elections held two years ago.

Reporting of the way the count was handled in 2000 sparked defamation writs from three officers. The council's decision to financially back its officers has left it facing a potential legal bill of more than£400,000 - prompting inevitable local anger which has now reached the floor of the Commons and seems set to result in new government guidelines on indemnity for councillors and officers.

Labour MP Patrick Hall - himself a former member of staff at Bedford BC - has been the most high-profile critic of the council's financial backing of the individual libel actions.

They were launched by three of its officers against the Bedford on Sunday and local Tory agent Stewart Lister. The lawsuits stemmed from allegations made by Mr Lister and the newspaper about the handling of postal votes in the May 2000 local election, and the council has cited duty of care responsibilities as the reason for its support.

Criticism of the council has been building since early March when the High Court ruling in favour of the defendants meant the borough was likely to face a pay-out of at least£400,000 in costs. Borough solicitor Michael Gough and his assistant Andy Darkoh lost all their claims, while chief executive Shaun Field lost one and won two at trial, winning£52,000 plus costs.

But when Mr Hall spoke up in the House on 16 April, he went beyond criticising the libel action itself: 'The chief executive has developed a very powerful influence among councillors; and personalities rather than politics have become predominant.'

As part of the Local Government

Act 2000, the government intends to consult this summer on the issue of councils indemnifying members and officers. But local government minister

Dr Alan Whitehead was unequivocal in stating the government is 'not minded'

to allow councils to indemnify individuals for the cost of lawsuits for libel or

slander.

Mr Hall's intervention in the controversy has placed him at odds with many of his local party colleagues.

Shan Hunt, Labour group leader, rejects her MP's claim that officers dominate the council.

'It is absolutely, grossly untrue to say that the chief executive has undue influence,' she says, dismissing claims of public outrage.

But other canvassers - some from within Ms Hunt's own party - tell a different story. There is evidence that a sense of 'democracy in action' has informed what the local newspaper describes as 'one of the strangest

local election campaigns in Bedford's history'.

In little over a month an organisation which began as a campaign to galvanise public opinion against the council's possible funding of further legal action by the respondents turned into a fully-fledged party fielding 13 candidates.

In addition to fielding its own candidates, Better Bedford has publicly backed a number of candidates from other parties.

Ian Johnson, secretary of the campaign, says: 'I hate the term cross party because we're trying to be 'no party'. We're not knocking the other parties, we're knocking the council.'

About one third of councils in England are hung, and if they are to operate successfully the biggest party needs to 'build issue by issue coalitions', according to Dr Colin Copus, lecturer in local politics at Inlogov.

'It's often the behaviour of the politicians that's the problem, not the

fact that the council is hung,' says Dr Copus.

That Bedfordians have opted for an elected mayor is no surprise, and the rise of an Independent party is likely to make the mayoral race one of the most interesting in the country.

The message for councils may well be to forget the statutory plans, performance indicators and service delivery requirements - it is old-fashioned

moral indignation that pulls punters to the polls.

But as the Bedford case illustrates, the challenge for councils is to make sure they are not the cause of it.

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