An ‘In My View’ article by Nigel Ward – first in a series of reports on the extraordinary reluctance of Parish Councils in the Borough of Scarborough (and, no doubt, across the land) to embrace public scrutiny, as urged by Communities & Local Government Secretary Eric PICKLES MP.
IN THE PUBLIC INTEREST All Fools’ Day 2014 will mark the 40th Anniversary of the implementation of the Local Government Act 1972. Progressively, throughout those forty years, elected members and paid public servants have entrenched themselves in a position of perceived invulnerability to scrutiny, exposure or even criticism. Even at Parish level, petty martinets have ensconced themselves in positions of imagined power which they now defend – even when their only strategy is to disregard the law. In my view, it is high time that the Children of Scarborough (the Parishes) escaped these forty years in the wilderness and came at last to the promised land of genuine democracy. Let is begin with Seamer & Crossgates Parish Council (S&CPC), whose present members are: Cllr Harry SMITH (Chair) Cllr Hayley PICKLES (Vice Chair) [Lab] Cllr David RAINE Cllr Dorothy MORRISON Cllr Kate MALLINDER Cllr Tony INGHAM* Cllr Roxanne MURPHY* (also a Scarborough Borough Councillor) [IndGp] Cllr Helen MALLORY* (also a Scarborough Borough Councillor) [Con] The Clerk is Mr Antony SPENCER. (Those marked with an asterisk (*) were not present at the Meeting of Tuesday 12th November 2013). Background Notable amongst the absentees, was Cllr Helen MALLORY (attending an SBC event elsewhere). Cllr Helen MALLORY took a real hammering from Chair Cllr Harry SMITH at the previous meeting (8th October 2013). She wished to access her own personal (as opposed to SBC-provided) i-Pad to consult documentation necessary to the meeting but not available in hard-copy on the night. It is worth a moment to digest the transcript of that exchange: Chair Cllr Harry SMITH: “Just a minute, Councillor. Standing Orders say that no electronic devices can be used in the meeting and that is what I am going on, so there we are. The other point is, would it be okay? It would be fine if we all had i-Pads provided, but we haven’t. So if you want to make a proposition later on to purchase i-Pads for the council, that’s fine!” Cllr Helen MALLORY: “No. I was not proposing that. I was proposing that if members have there own i-Pads, they would be allowed to use them in the meeting.” Chair: “Yes, that’s fine – but disadvantaging to other people, and it’s more distracting to other people, and we are not having that topic debate now, Councillor.” Cllr HM: “Can I have it put on the agenda for the next meeting, please?” Chair: “Just let me tell you. The Standing Orders say ‘No electronic devices’, so therefore we follow the Standing Orders.” Cllr HM: “I am sorry I wasn’t aware that that was the case.” Chair: “That’s what I quoted to you in the first place.” Cllr HM: “What you said to me was . . . “ Chair: (interrupting) “Months ago.” Cllr HM: “With respect, what you said in an email was that Parish Councils are not fortunate to have been given free i-Pads by the Borough Council – and I have still got the email.” Chair: “I sent you that email?” Cllr HM: “Yes.” Chair: “Yeah?” Cllr HM: “So it was nothing to do with Standing Orders?” Chair: “I reported to you. I am not arguing with you anymore. I quoted to you the Standing Orders of the Parish Council previously . . . Cllr HM: (interrupting) “Well, I’m sorry.” Chair: “. . . about i-Pads, and it says ‘No electronic devices’. That is it. We will move on.” Cllr HM: “Yes. Thank you for that. But if I can ask, with respect, that the item can be put on the Agenda for the next meeting, then Standing Orders can be looked at again, in order that the Parish Council, for those that do have an i-Pad, will be allowed to use them at meetings. They can come to the meeting with the information that we are going to discuss at . . .” Cllr. David RAINE: (interrupting) “The reason why every Borough Councillor was provided with an i-Pad was so that they were all treated equally.” Cllr HM: “. . . no . . .” Chair: (slamming the gavel down violently, in the middle of Cllr DR and Cllr HM speaking, and with loudly raised voice, causing one of the female members to shriek) “I have heard enough of this! We have talked about it long enough, right, with Councillor making a proposition for the next meeting. We will discuss it then.” Cllr HM: “Thank you, Chairman.” Chair: “Can we get back to normality now, then?” Now this segment of low drama – albeit enlivened by the Chair’s acidly sarcastic tone – would be trivial enough, were it not for the events of the following month’s Meeting . . . Tuesday 12th November 2013 When I arrived – just in time for the 7:00pm start – a member of the public (one of only three) was busily setting up a video-camera on a tripod directed towards the Councillors and Clerk, who were visibly agitated at the prospect of having their deliberations recorded. Why? Chairman Councillor Harry SMITH then rapped his gavel (a vital instrument of his ‘authority’) and instructed that all electronic devices must be turned off. He then (correctly) deduced that the video-camera was still running. The Chair asked for the video-camera to be switched off. The member of the public with the video-camera – in fact, Nick HENDERSON – declined, instead providing the Chair with a copy of a letter from Eleanor SMYLLIE, assistant to the Rt.Hon. Eric PICKLES, Secretary of State for Communities & Local Government (reproduced in full in our earlier article “Pickles: Go Forth & Scrutinise”), and patiently explained that the Secretary of State has made clear on several occasions that members of the public may record, film/video, ‘live-stream’ and even ‘Tweet’ Council meetings – in fact, he encourages us to do so, in the name of transparency and accountability. Who could take issue with that? But the Chair, supported by his Clerk, was adamant in his view that his Council’s out-of-date Standing Orders (prohibiting SBC Councillor Helen MALLORY and the public at large from using electronic devices) actually ‘prevail’ over any and every Act of Parliament. It would seem that the arrogance of some public servants is exceeded only by their crass stupidity. So infatuated are they with their titles of ‘Councillor’ or ‘Clerk’ – which, in their minds only, set them ‘above’ their fellow citizens and ‘above’ the law – that they are blissful in their obdurate ignorance of the duties and responsibilities that Parliament has seen fit to impose upon them. The upshot was that the Chair instructed his Vice-Chair to call the Police – to uphold the omnipotence of his Council’s Standing Orders. During the few minutes that elapsed before the arrival of the ‘riot’ squad (I speak figuratively; the inordinately large team of Officers responding to the call were very discreet indeed, waiting in the lobby, with the exception of one very pleasant and reasonable Officer who conducted himself in an exemplary manner), I asked the Chair’s leave to broach another legal matter, which, mistakenly anticipating some respite from the video-camera ‘issue’, he graciously granted. The matter that I then raised was the matter of s.29 (7) of Chapter 7 of the Localism Act 2011 (which came into effect on 1st July 2012 – sixteen months ago), stating:
- (7) A parish council must, if it has a website, secure that its register is published on its website.
Seamer & Crossgates Parish Council does maintain a web-site. As readers will already have surmised, it does not display the Registers of Interests; nor does the SBC website display the S&CPC Registers (with the exception of those recorded for Councillors MALLORY and MURPHY, and – curiously, Parish Councillor Tony INGHAM). My exchange with the Chair and the Clerk can be heard here. When pressed for a date when the Registers might be expected to appear on the web-site, the Clerk told me, “I would say, within the next six months”. At this point, Chair Councillor Harry SMITH can be heard slamming down his trusty gavel (a mason’s maul). Harry is not entirely amenable to negative criticism. Enter The ‘Riot’ Squad Further discussion was curtailed by the arrival of the Police – in force. The lead Officer asked us to join him in the corridor, where he invited us to offer him our perception of events thus far, which we duly did. We showed him the documentation mentioned above. He immediately stood down the other Officers (“Sarge? Can you cancel 792?”) and asked us to wait for a few moments while he stepped outside to check the legalities with his ‘Super’, by radio. Presently, he returned to tell us that we were absolutely in order and that, provided that we were not causing an affray, which we most certainly were not, he had no power and no wish to prevent us from attending the meeting and video-ing/recording events, as we wished. I then asked him to be so good as to make that information known to the Chair and the Clerk. This, the Officer was more than willing to do – not, perhaps, anticipating the hostile response his information would evoke. The Chair and the Clerk (encouraged by Councillor David RAINE, who had falsely asserted that the Seamer & Crossgates Councillors’ Registers of Interests are, in fact, on the SBC web-site) asked for the Officer’s name and collar-number, with a view to lodging a complaint. I kid you not. Thereafter, the Chair (once again resorting to his trusty gavel) declared the meeting closed – with no attempt to address even a single Item on the Agenda. This was rather unfortunate for the (absent) Councillor Helen MALLORY, who (a little bird relates) had arranged for a colleague (Councillor Kate MALLINDER, perhaps?) to ask the Chair for the precise Article in the Standing Orders that the Chair has construed as forbidding her the use of her own i-Pad. As the meeting broke up, one Councillor (I believe it was Councillor Dorothy MORRISON, but I cannot be certain, since she vehemently refused to identify herself) took photographs of the public without their consent. Presumably, she wished to be able to identify those members of the public who had responded positively (and lawfully) to the urgings of the Secretary of State to scrutinise Council activities. The following day, word came to me along ‘the grapevine’ that Councillor Hayley PICKLES (I have no reason to believe that she is related to the Rt.Hon. Eric PICKLES – although readers may form their own opinions regarding any hint of family resemblance) had been reporting to colleagues that the Parish Council meeting had been ruined by the arrival of a group of three ‘thugs’ – ‘anarchists’ no less – who had acted aggressively, terrorising two old ladies in their nineties and frightening them half to death. Not only is this totally untrue and deroatory (and therefore slanderous), it is a repetition of remarks caught on the video (which continued to roll while we were out in the corridor with the nice Police Officer). So I emailed Councillor Hayley PICKLES inviting an apology. Shortly afterwards, she responded with the following one-liner:
An email address that does not even function; the word ‘Clerk’ is mis-spelt. So much for the Seven Nolan Principles of Public Life. I replied, asking her to explain herself. She responded, informing me that she could not recall using the words ‘thugs’ and ‘anarchists’ and was therefore unable to apologise; she would be taking legal advice. I think she should. She later sent me another email, referring me to SBC Monitoring Officer Lisa DIXON. I guess she thinks that that is where the buck stops. So I responded to Councillor Hayley PICKLES; for transparency, here is the email:
From: Nigel Sent: 13 November 2013 18:38 To: ‘hpickles’ Cc: ‘Lisa Dixon’ Subject: IN THE PUBLIC INTEREST  Importance: High Councillor Hayley PICKLES – Seamer Parish Council Cc: Mrs Lisa DIXON – Monitoring Officer – Scarborough Borough Council IN THE PUBLIC INTEREST Hayley, Thank you for your emails. I note that you have not explained the matter of the erroneous information in your email of 16:24 today. Once again; please do so. Regarding your most recent email (of 17:14 today), I was hoping that it would not be necessary to lodge a Formal Complaint against you with the Monitoring Officer. Aside from the unnecessary burden on the public purse, it must involve bringing other (innocent) parties into the matter for the provision of statements, etc. You are perhaps by now aware that other complaints may be pending, the pursuit of which will inevitably raise issues including bringing the Council into disrepute. A full report will be prepared and forwarded to Eleanor Smyllie, assistant to the Rt.Hon. Eric PICKLES, Secretary of State for Local Government & Communities, who has urged members of the public to exercise the right to utilise all available technologies to scrutinise Councils. It is not acceptable to abandon a meeting rather than comply with the law in respect of the foregoing. It is not acceptable to castigate members of the public with pejorative language for pursuing their legal democratic rights. When word comes to me from an independent and unbiased source regarding the tone and language of your volunteered version of events, and includes reference to “thugs”, “anarchists”, “terrorising two old ladies, one in her nineties” and “frightening everybody with their aggressive behaviour”, I am reminded of certain passages in the recordings from yestereve, in which a female voice can clearly be heard describing some of those in the public gallery as “anarchists”. Each of these characterizations is completely unfounded. The recordings prove that I was courteous, patient and utterly unconfrontational. I hope you will not take issue with that, and I look forward to your confirmation that such was the case. It may be that, having heard such forms of words from the mouths of others, you have incautiously allowed them to appear in your own utterings, rather than any witting and/or intentional characterization on your part. That much I could forgive, if such were the case. Quite irrespective of any Formal Complaints or civil action, the matter is rather likely to be resolved in the court of public opinion, in virtue of the probable publication of the entirety of the unedited recorded material on the internet. This would leave the viewer/listener in little doubt regarding the degree of respect evinced by some of the Councillors and/or the Clerk. Those who are uncomfortable at the prospect of appearing in video clips on the internet have perhaps failed to fully appreciate that, given modern technology and the policy of the Government on transparency and accountability, it is an inevitable concomitant of public life. In this sense, each of us is free to decide for ourselves whether or not a place in public life is desirable or appropriate. I have complied with your request to apprise Lisa DIXON of these matters – by copying her into this email. Yours, with very kind regards, Nigel
I need not have bothered; Councillor Hayley PICKLES has gone to ground. I invite readers to listen for themselves. Can you hear the word ‘anarchists’? I can. Have a guess who used it. There are 39 Parish and Town Councils in the Borough of Scarborough. I wonder how they will measure up to Seamer & Crossgates. Perhaps it is time to for us to find out?