“The Persistence of Mummery” – NYCC Hunkers Down
- an “In My View” article by Nigel Ward – reporting on a rather naïve and futile attempt by the North Yorkshire County Council Standards Committee to hinder the further investigation of wrong-doing within County Hall.
. . . . . after Salvador Dali’s – “The Persistence of Memory”
IN THE PUBLIC INTEREST
On 16th December 2013, the Standards Committee of North Yorkshire County Council met to hear a complaint against me which, according to Standards Committee Chair, County Councillor Caroline PATMORE, was instigated by NYCC Chief Executive Officer Richard FLINTON, whose interests would be well served by shutting me up. (Should he have declared that personal and prejudicial interest and withdrawn from the case?)
This, in itself, is a curious abuse of the Standards Committee, which is constituted for the sole purpose of considering complaints against elected members. (For clarity, I am not an elected member of North Yorkshire County Council).
Be that as it may; Richard FLINTON is Chief Exec, and what Richard says goes – at least amongst the 24,000 people employed by NYCC.
It has taken over a month for the outcome of this bizarre hearing to be communicated to me.
Amongst the heinous charges laid at my door were that I have (allegedly):
a) made complaints against the Council, Council Officer and County Councillors (examples included),
b) published articles on the Real Whitby web-site (examples included),
c) used a certain tone in my correspondence (examples included),
d) wasted in excess of £28K of Officer-time (accounting not included; this figure appears to have been pulled out of thin air),
e) made sixty requests for information since 2009 (examples included).
Those examples, incidentally, occupy 391 of the 453 pages of Monitoring Officer Carole DUNN’s Report to the Standards Committee. Do you imagine that the members actually read them all? Did they grasp all that is therein contained? (Committee Member County Council David JEFFELS, remember, was witnessed to nod off at the Northern Area Committee Meeting last Wednesday, no doubt sleeping off his sumptuous free lunch).
Personally, I do not believe that they read them. But I did. I wrote them – having researched them all to the bone.
It is noteworthy that Carole DUNN is reportedly incandescent with personal rage against me for having exposed her cover-up machinations. (Should she have declared that personal and prejudicial interest and withdrawn from the case?)
Of course, it goes without saying that I was not permitted to be present at the hearing. I was not invited to submit a written rebuttal. I was not invited to appoint a representative to attend on my behalf, to safeguard my interests. Effectively, I was ‘tried’ in absentia by members of the Standards Committee who themselves may be subjects of investigation.
Indeed, as mentioned above, one member of the Standards Committee is County Councillor David JEFFELS – who has already been exposed by Real Whitby, both as a ‘double-dipper’ and as a Mileage Expenses ‘masseur’. It takes some chutzpah for a guilty man to take part in trying his accuser, even in absentia. Then again, David JEFFELS has made it known, amongst friends, that he will not be standing again – either at the next SBC elections (next year) or for County in 2017, on account of his bitter resentment of the disclosures published on the Real Whitby Magazine. In cash terms (our cash), his resentment against Real Whitby will add up to £26,166.77 per annum in lost revenue when David JEFFELS no longer holds his present positions at NYCC and SBC. (Should he have declared that personal and prejudicial interest and withdrawn from the case?)
In fairness, though, I did attend a meeting at County Hall on 4th December 2013, in company with Mike WARD (no relation – Mike is an Independent and unilaterally-respected Scarborough Borough Councillor), and Nick HENDERSON (the highly-experienced anti-corruption activist), with County Councillor Caroline PATMORE and the two Independent Persons for Standards, Mrs Hilary Gilbertson MBE and Ms Louise Holroyd.
I was offered an opportunity to summarise my dealings with the Council, but only in general terms – no names, no pack-drill. Mike WARD pointed out that many of the embarrassing disclosures of wrongdoing that have arisen in recent times (some of which I shall return to, presently) had been first made public on Real Whitby, and these disclosure had done the Council a great service. Nick HENDERSON enquired why it was that I had been singled-out for attention, when he also has conducted rigorous examinations of the Council’s documentation (both published and disclosed under FOIA and in copious correspondence), yet was not ‘before the beak’ as I was. The three Council ladies did not contest the view that the distinction between Nick’s dealings with the Council and mine is simply this; I have published mine extensively – Nick has not. It is not Nick whom they are attempting to silence. Yet.
I concluded the meeting by formally appealing to the Chair and the two Independent Persons to collaborate with the Real Whitby investigations and root out corruption – to the greater good of the Council and the general public. Stony silence.
Recently, two County Councillors have been pressing for a significant reduction in the amount of Allowances paid to elected members. One of them was upbraided at County Hall recently by a senior County Councillor (of another party) with the words, “You bloody fool. Don’t you know we’re all in the same club?”
Yes, Councillor. We do know that. And we are not bloody fools.
Before proceeding to the details of the ‘verdict’ against me (it has been determined that my complaints “could be viewed as being unreasonably persistent”), let me offer a little of my own perspective. But first, note that that all-important caveat – “could be viewed as“ – a clear and significant step short of directly asserting that my complaints actually were “unreasonably persistent”. As ever, much is concealed within the carefully chosen form of words; straight talking is not the forte of Council Legal Departments.
But Council Legal Departments are habitually insistent on availing themselves of their ‘right to reply’ and that their pronunciamenti be published into the public domain. So I know that the members of the Standards Committee will welcome this opportunity to read my opinion (for I, too, have a right to express my opinion; a right conferred upon me under Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights 1948, to which this country is a co-signatory) on the matter through any medium and regardless of frontiers, in fact, here in today’s edition of the ‘In My View’ column.
Here follow the allegations:
a) made complaints against the Council, Council Officer and County Councillors
Guilty, m’lord. I did that.
I made Formal Complaints, on many occasions, about County Councillors failing to disclose required information on their Registers of Interests.
I made Formal Complaints about County Councillors failing to renounce c.£500 per annum IT/Broadband Allowances when they were already in receipt of IT/Broadband Allowances from the District/Borough Councils on which they simultaneously sat – “double-dipping”. Thirty-seven of them. Over up to eight years. (Incidentally, only one of them has evinced the integrity and decency to re-pay these utterly immoral superfluous payments – County Councillor John McCARTNEY, from Selby. Salute, John!).
I made Formal Complaints, too, about the mismanagement (and ensuing corruption) associated with the roll-out of the £1.7M Extended Schools “Me Too!” Voucher Scheme, overseen by County Councillor Joe PLANT, from which certain well-informed businesses were able to more or less print money. Vouchers were forged – and vouchers were redeemable for cash at NYCC. One outfit picked up £113K through a ‘negotiated’ pay-out.
I made those Formal Complaints, yes. And in doing so, I complied rigorously with the Council’s adopted procedures.
Did I make those Formal Complaints “unreasonably persistently”?
On the contrary. Perhaps I have not been persistent enough. How persistent must one be to winkle the whole truth out of NYCC? Why is it that, having failed to deter me with obfuscation, prevarication and sheer stonewall non-responsiveness, they now resort to spurious allegations of “unreasonable persistence”? Richard FLINTON (at least) knows the answer to that question: he does not want to see the results of my investigations featuring prominently on his curriculum vitae. A very personal interest – undeclared. But any black marks on his curriculum vitae are a consequence of his actions and omissions – not mine.
Should the wrong-doers be allowed to continue to exploit their privileged positions with impunity – doubling-up on their IT/Broadband Allowances, exploiting their Stamp Allowances, exaggerating their Travel Expenses, ‘leaking’ invaluable privileged information to family and friends – or the highest bidder?
No. It is in every citizens interests to stop them.
b) published articles on the Real Whitby web-site
Guilty, m’lord. I did. And many of ‘em.
I have published dozens of meticulously documented exposés of several County Councillors, drawing upon public domain Council records, Freedom of Information responses, Court records (both here and in the United States), recorded witness statements, ‘leaked’ correspondence, informants within the Councils, other news sources and so on and so forth.
This is not the first attempt to silence me. On 28th March 2013, Scarborough Borough Council‘s Head of Legal & Democratic Services Loisa DIXON demanded, under threat of civil and criminal legal action, that all of my articles (and those of Real Whitby contributors Tim HICKS and Tim THORNE) be removed from the Real Whitby web-site forthwith (and the site closed down), on the entirely spurious grounds that they contain libellous and defamatory statements. They do not. So we called her bluff. And bluff it was. Because every word we publish is backed by hard evidence. When asked to provide examples of any defamatory comments, Lisa DIXON was unable to produce even one – thereby attracting national ridicule by being declared ‘Runner-up’ in the coveted “Legal Bully of the Year” Award from Private Eye – her second appearance the Eye in less than a year.
But that was the Borough Council and here we are discussing the County Council (though several of the Councillors named here sit – or sat – on both).
c) used a certain tone in my correspondence
Guilty, m’lord. I did use a certain tone. Formal, precise, courteous – but leavened with a degree of irony and (I hope) wry humour. My prose is quite deliberately rather old-fashioned (too much Trollope, perhaps); one correspondent described it as ‘Pepysian’.
I try, when I write, to remind Councillors and Officers that they are fellow human beings first, and public servants only second to that. In some cases, they seem to have forgotten both – and certainly the latter. Councillors are elected public servants and Officers are paid public servants. Servants, remember. Should I grovel before them?
I have conducted my correspondence always mindful that others may read it. I have not written flagrantly offensive emails (like Councillor Bill CHATT), nor posted embarrassing outbursts on the web at 4:40am (like Councillor Joe PLANT). So, yes. I have used a certain tone. A measured one. Sharp and firm.
And I have hitherto refrained from making reference to episodes from the private lives of Councillors and Officers, since I am concerned only with the functions that they are duty-bound to perform in their respective positions as public servants. Hitherto.
I am reviewing that constraint at the present moment. Is it in the wider public interest to expose the sexual peccadilloes, substance-abuse issues or domestic-violence incidents of public servants – as do the tabloids? Perhaps only if legitimate complaints are perpetually stone-walled . . . or perhaps I should keep those secrets to myself.
d) wasted in excess of £28K of Officer-time
Aside from the fact that no break-down of that figure has been evidenced (and, therefore, I can enter no plea – though I would nevertheless dispute the use of the verb “wasted”), I wonder why the Standards Committee did not see fit to off-set it against the money that could have been saved, courtesy of Real Whitby, by stopping payment of the double-dipping, recovering the Mileage over-claims or the forged “Me Too!” Voucher disbursements? A vital purpose of exposing corruption is to prevent (or at least minimise) the plunder of the public purse. Speaking of which, Carmarthen County Council Chief Exec Mark JAMES has just found himself in very hot water for using the public purse to underwrite legal action against his denouncer. According to inside information, Scarborough Bully Council set aside £100,000 of our money to close down Real Whitby and to threaten three local investigative-journalists with civil action and/or arrest.
NYCC, having performed poorly in the courts (remember the ‘Irton Tree’ incident? – and keep an eye on the Tariq Mamood case), is unlikely to repeat Lisa DIXON’s crass stupidity (though some Councillors believe Lisa DIXON is now in line for a career-advance to Carole DUNN’s post as Head of Legal at County; no blunder is necessarily career-terminal in local government – though now and then inadequate or otherwise embarrassing Officers quietly transfer to another ‘authority’).
e) made sixty requests for information since 2009
Guilty. m’lord. I have not counted them, but the record will show that many of those 60 requests (over 5 years – one per month, on average) were requests for clarification of such information as was (grudgingly) provided in response to earlier requests. Extracting information from NYCC (or indeed every Council with whom I have dealt) is like attempting to draw horse-teeth with plastic tweezers. It required, for example, a lengthy thread of correspondence to extract the telling information that there have been a total of 37 (out of a possible 72) County Councillors ‘double-dipping’ their IT/Broadband Allowances in recent years.
Coincidentally, there have been 37 Formal Complaints against County Councillors in the past 5 years – only one of which was fully upheld, with the ‘guilty’ Councillor sentenced to a 15-minute ‘retraining’ session with the Monitoring Officer ["A biscuit with your coffee, Councillor?" - "Thank you, no, Monitoring Officer. My word! Is it that time already?"], no doubt claiming the Mileage to attend. With the prospect of such Draconian sentencing hanging over them, one can only wonder that County Councillors muster the courage even to round-up their Mileage claims to the nearest quid – much less fictionalise a series of ‘impossible journeys’.
Summing up, then, I cannot be surprised by the ‘verdict’: that my complaints “could be viewed as being unreasonably persistent”. I am sure they could – by County Councillor David JEFFELS, for example – he with the grudges to bear.
And what of my ‘sentence’?
Apparently, it has been determined that future complaints from me “should be considered, evaluated and dealt with in that light”. And subsequently – one might anticipate – be long-windedly dismissed. No change there, then.
Furthermore, “in all cases the Council’s Policy in relation to the handling of unreasonably persistent complaints should be followed”. No point in reporting anything serious, then. Allegations of a series of serious sexual assaults on three separate victims on 3rd September 1983 and the days shortly thereafter (more to follow soon on this one – it’s a corker!). Reports of that nature, from an “unreasonably persistent complainant” can be dismissed out-of-hand – just as they were in the case of the late Jimmy SAVILE (and former Conservative County Councillor Peter JACONNELLI, for half a century a prolific predatory paedophile).
And, finally, future Freedom of Information requests from me (if any) are to be “evaluated” in order to determine whether or not they are “vexatious”. What if they are? How would that de-legitimise the? And how will they decide? Or have they, perhaps, already decided? How will they know that particular requests come from me? What if they come from others, writing under a pseudonym? What if someone uses my name as a pseudonym? What if someone wishes to lodge an FOIA request and seeks my guidance on the form of words to use? Will it be mistakenly identified, by the writing-style, as being from me – and summarily declared “vexatious”?
How very simple it will be fpr NYCC to deftly evade providing incriminating answers to searching questions in the public interest – simply by declaring the questioner to be me, and me to be “vexatious”. Freedom of Information? Licensed secrecy, more like.
The ‘verdict’ was finally imparted to me this Thursday by Moira BEIGHTON, Senior Lawyer (Governance), on behalf of none other than Assistant Chief Executive (Legal & Democratic Services) and Monitoring Officer Carole DUNN, who (according to several County Councillors) may have already left her position (under something of a cloud; she has been ridiculed in Private Eye, too) without ever facing investigation over my complaints against her (contrary to the terms of the NYCC Constitution).
That these public servants, cloistered within the opaque and impenetrable walls of County Hall, can be so hopelessly out of touch with modern life and evolving technology comes as no surprise. But that these public servants can seriously imagine that they have now expertly and effectively slammed the door in the face of legitimate investigation – in the public interest – is really quite extraordinary. They must be delusional.
All they have achieved is to broaden the beam of scrutiny to include a wider range of subjects and a wider spectrum of conduct who are likely to bring unwelcome attention upon themselves – and irreparable disrepute upon the Council. The tabloids reach a lot of readers with tales of alcoholism, drug abuse, sexual deviance and domestic violence. In the past, when public servants fell prey to temptation (or temper – or lust), they could rely on the Council to smother allegations and bury the truth under a mountain of legalistic documentation – and threats.
In my view, it is they who have “wasted in excess of £28K” (if there is any truth in that unsubstantiated figure) of the NYCC Legal Department‘s time – not I. The members of the Standards Committee could keep up to speed simply by reading Real Whitby.
Real Whitby is evolving a ‘real-time’ sub-text to the practices and policies of local government – a historical record, written ‘in the now’. The Whitby Gazette does not do that, nor does the Scarborough News, nor the Northern Echo, nor even the Yorkshire Post. Only Real Whitby. And, of course, Private Eye.
Real Whitby alone provides an emergent archive of detailed analyses of North Yorkshire political events -not buried in the remote Minutes of obscure Committee Meetings, or on the files of the rapidly-collapsing Council auditors, Veritau Ltd, where the general reader seldom ventures – but in an accessible real-time narrative that traces the machinations of some of the most self-serving élitists in the County, who see themselves as masters, not servants – their true position.
They are not supermen and superwomen. They are fellow humans. They are fallible, as we are. They are greedy, as some of us can be greedy. They are egotistical, as some of us can be egotistical – and they are not especially clever. They differ from us fundamentally in that they see themselves as masters, with an “entitlement” to a bigger piece of the action. Goes with the territory. But they are mistaken. They are public servants who have forgotten their duty to their true masters – the public. They have even forgotten already about the double-dippers amongst their ranks who failed to gain re-election last year.
But Google has not forgotten them. Oh, no.
Google has not forgotten County Councillor John BLACKBURN, or County Councillor Joe PLANT. Or County Councillor Derek BASTIMAN, or County Councillor Andy BACKHOUSE (big story breaking soon), or County Councillor Carl LES, or County Councillor David JEFFELS (and member of the Standards Committee), or former County Councillors Bill CHATT, Mike COCKERILL, or Brian SIMPSON. Or former County Councillor Jane KENYON.
Their names stand forever ineradicable in the on-line public-access annals of the Real Whitby Magazine – and on countless other blogs, web-sites and social media pages around the English-speaking world who have shared the Real Whitby articles – in the public interest. That’s the truth.
How persistent is that?