Who is Monitoring the Monitoring Officer of NYMNPA & SBC?
- – an “In My View” article by Nigel Ward.
Following the publication of Private Eye recently, in particular Tim MINOGUE’s “Rotten Borough” article “They Cannot Be Sirius”, there has been much speculation as to how these allegations of impropriety, and, indeed, possible criminality, are likely to impact upon the York Potash Ltd Planning Application.
I have no crystal ball, but I have been engaging in close correspondence with the NYMNPA during the course of the week, and have been copied into the correspondence of others, so I have therefore been reaching the parts that other local media outlets don’t reach.
Readers will recall that Tim THORNE has published a couple of articles, “From York Potash, With Love” and “From Scarborough Town Hall, With Hate”, and in between, Tim also published “Whitby Potash Mine: Another resignation from SBC”.
Next came the astonishing saga of the “Solicitor’s Letter” from SBC’s Head of Legal Lisa DIXON and her attempt to close down Real Whitby – if you are reading this, she failed.
Before expressing an opinion on the actions of Ms Lisa DIXON, I intend to take a moment to elaborate on a very important point that many readers seem to have not yet considered.
When we speak of ‘Public Life’, in the political sense, we speak of people who occupy certain position of ‘authority’ – positions like Parish Clerk, candidate for election, Parish Councillor, Borough Portfolio-Holder, County Councillor, Chief Exec of a Council, Member of Parliament and so on.
These are all positions in public life. Each of the positions (unless vacant) is entrusted by the public, through the elctoral process, to a human being.
Within the meaning of the Transparency International definition of the word ‘corruption” (“the abuse of entrusted power for private gain”), only people in positions such as those listed above are answerable to the term, since it does not apply to the actions of those of us who do not occupy positions.
Our efforts to reveal corruption in public life are intended, in the public interest, to eradicate (some hope) or at least minimise misconduct by those who subvert the functions of their positions. Away from their positions, they are human beings. By entering into public life, they agree to public scrutiny for this purpose.
For example, I am willing to grant that ‘Fred Bloggs’, say, may be a grand chap – a loving, caring husband and father of adoring children; patient, temperate, compassionate, unswervingly loyal to friends and kind to dumb animals. It may be that I like ‘Fred’; very much.
But if ‘Fred’ occupies a position – which, in the present discussion, means a position of trust – and he performs corrupt actions – that is to say, he abuses the privileges of his position in order to make a private gain for himself or his family, friends and business associates (which may not necessarily be pecuniary in nature) – then, in my view, there should be no place for ‘Fred’; in public life.
‘Fred’ may perhaps disagree. But I will not be giving my vote to ‘Fred’ on Election day – 2nd May 2013.
So let us, with all that at the forefront of our minds, examine recent events as they relate to the performance of the functions of the position of Monitoring Officer at both Scarborough Borough Council and the North York Moors National Park Authority.
Now, it has to be said that there has been an unprecedented amount of publicity surrounding the Monitoring Officer, most prominent being the succession of five articles in the much-read and ever-popular “Rotten Boroughs” column of Private Eye. Despite the highly provocative allegations against County Councillor Jane KENYON and the Dales Timber Ltd forgery; despite the contemptuous ‘outing’ of the Scarborough double-dippers; despite the ignominy of receiving the “Expenses Fiddlers of the Year 2012 Award”, the Monitoring Officer – the position charged with maintaining the highest possible standards in public life – has made no public rebuttal of the allegations.
No threats of libel action against Private Eye – with its national readership (few of whom may vote in the up-coming County election).
At the far end of the country, the report entitled “DEPLORABLE” on the Cornwall Community News web-site is scathing in its criticism of the Monitoring Officers conduct. It remains free from legal attack.
On the other hand, and on a more local level, Real Whitby has reported on a wide range of Standards issues heavily supported by the public record – the non-declaration of Disclosable Interests; the pregnant mystery of the “Me Too!” scandal; the threatening and abusive behaviour on the part of a Borough Councillor Cabinet Portfolio-Holder and a County Councillor swept under the carpet; and the by-now infamous and continuing saga of the three categories of double-dippers (County/Borough, husband/wife and double-telephone expenses).
These matters, too, fall under the purview of the Monitoring Officer, who appears to have singled me and my co-contributors to Real Whitby as well as the site itself. Personal animus? Who knows?
But this list of exposures of the shortcomings in the professional performance of the Monitoring Officer pales into insignificance besides the criticism of one of the leading Councillors – Councillor Colin CHALLEN – who has intimated that he believes there was collusion between Monitoring staff and Defendants in the double-dippers Standards investigation.
This is very serious indeed, because it highlights the point that the function of the Monitoring Officer has not merely been carried out inadequately – as has been so widely reported – but has actually been reversed. To express it in a metaphorical way, “de kopz done helped de robbers”. If that does not amount to a breach of the public trust, I will have to trust the Monitoring Officer to explain to me why not.
The timing of the Monitoring Officer’s letter is also of considerable significance. Real Whitby has been investigating many of these issues for well over a year, yet the Monitoring Officer acted only last week against her critics at Real Whitby (though nowhere else), apparently with a view to stifling further revelations, as the SBC double-dippers hit the pavements canvassing for the County Council elections starts.
The Scarborough News and Whitby Gazette do not provide investigative journalism to their respective readerships. More is the pity. Only Real Whitby provides this essential service in the Borough and the County at large. Apparently, the intended effect of the Monitoring Officer’s letter was to stop all incisive, informed, critical investigative journalism in our electoral area for the duration of the elections.
Could it be that the Monitoring Officer and Head of Legal & Democratic Services Ms Lisa DIXON has allowed the partisan political aspirations of some of the Borough’s County Councillors –now reportedly horrified at the prospect of fielding questions about CORRUPTION as they canvass door-to-door – to influence her actions? Could it be that she has taken this action to prevent any further critical comment in respect of the York Potash Ltd (Sirius) Planning Application or of the financial affairs and possible conflicts of interests of any of the NYMNPA Planning Committee Members?
Inhabiting the position of the Monitoring Officer is a human being. Her name is Ms Lisa DIXON. I do not recall having met her. I have only seen two pictures of her, the better of the two shown above, in which Ms DIXON appears second from the right, next to her predecessor in the rôle, Mr Ian George ANDERSON, who departed in unseemly haste a year ago, thus necessitating Lisa DIXON’s promotion to the position. The group are pictured after receiving the “Yorkshire Lawyers of the Year Award 2010”.
The position of Monitoring Officer can be very demanding. It is almost invariably held by the Head of Legal Services, who is generally a qualified solicitor and/or barrister. Her predecessor, Mr Ian ANDERSON, whom I know quite well, is a barrister. (Hi. Ian! I sincerely hope I do not defame you!).
The position of Head of Legal is extremely demanding, most especially during periods of transition, and especially with the demands of more than one Authority to fulfil; a daunting task for one who has been barely a year in the job.
The positions of Monitoring Officer for SBC and the NYMNPA is occupied by a human being, Lisa DIXON. Lisa is also a solicitor and Head of Legal Services for SBC.
As a human being, Lisa may be permitted to smart under criticism, as we all do. It is a feeling that starts in our stomachs and forces its way as a hot flush into our faces. It is deeply unpleasant and feels primordially unjust – however justified.
I can sympathise. I face criticism myself. I am human being.
And so, I have no issue with Lisa DIXON. I will readily believe that she is a loving wife and mother, in every way as commendable as our old pal ‘Fred Bloggs’.
I do not criticize Lisa DIXON for smarting under the very public criticism of the media coverage locally and nationally. She has a right to defend her own interests, including her livelihood.
But not with the resources of the Head of Legal and the Borough Councillor solicitors, all paid from the public purse. Not only do I believe that she must fight (and pay for) her own battles – as must we all – but that the law, and Council policy she is duty-bound to uphold, supports me in this view.
So the following very clear situation arises, and I refer you now to the SBC Code of Conduct for Officers.
- “Employees, whether or not politically restricted, must follow every lawful expressed policy of the Council and must not allow their own personal or political opinions to interfere with their work.”
”Not allow their own personal or political opinions . . .”
. . . and . . .
- “Employees should always remember their responsibilities to the community they serve and ensure courteous, efficient and impartial service delivery to all groups and individuals within that community, as defined by the policies of the Council.”
“. . . impartial service delivery to all groups and individuals . . . ”
This cannot be possible for Lisa DIXON, whose personal interest in attempting to rehabilitate her own reputation is manifestly in conflict with the terms of the Code of Conduct, because, suffering as she does under the burden of escalating adverse media criticism, she is no longer able to bear impartially the paramount burden of her Council duties and the public trust.
She is quite clearly the subject of a personal conflict of interest and is therefore not able to provide impartial advice.
The Officers Code of Conduct is very clear on this point:
- 4.0 CONFLICTS OF INTEREST
- 4.1 The best interests of the Council should always be the paramount consideration and employees must not allow any private interest to influence their decisions.
- 4.4 In other cases, it is possible that the nature of the conflict of interests is such that you cannot reasonably continue to perform any or a substantial part of the duties of your job. In such cases, the authority will have to consider whether it is reasonable to pursue one of the following courses of action:
“The best interest of the Council should always be the paramount consideration”.
Irrespective of who gave the directive to issue those extraordinarily sloppy solicitor’s letters, a Legal Officer acting impartially had a duty to advise upon the precarious legal tight-rope facing the Council in making a libel claim. It is far from clear that to do so is not in itself illegal.
The premier legal precedent in the matter is known as the Derbyshire case of 1993, in which Lord Keith of Kinkel ruled (and his four colleagues unanimously agreed):
- “It is of the highest public importance that a democratically elected governmental body, or indeed any governmental body, should be open to uninhibited public criticism.”
“Uninhibited public criticism”.
It is clearly contrary to the public interest and to the best interests of Scarborough Council for the only existing organ of “Uninhibited public criticism” to be closed down during the run-up to the elections. This should have been the “paramount consideration” – emphatically not the personal best interests of some Councillors and/or the Monitoring Officer herself.
Since it is to be assumed that Scarborough Borough Council will not wish to fall foul of the law, and of its own Constitution and/or Codes of Conduct, binding it at all times to its duty to provide “. . . impartial service delivery to all groups and individuals . . . ”, the personal interest evidenced by the Monitoring Officer’s personal perspective is diametrically opposed to the interests of the Council – and of the public, whose right to offer uninhibited criticism has been declared sacrosanct in law.
Worse, as an Executive Officer of Scarborough Borough Council, she has a duty to set the appropriate personal example. This duty of leadership by example, especially in ethical considerations, falls most heavily upon the shoulders of the Monitoring Officer – whose specific duty it is to maintain the highest standards of moral probity in the Council. Lisa DIXON has failed in that duty.
- What sort of Council is it, where the Monitoring Officer breaches the Code of Conduct to pursue her own interests and goes uncensured by that Council?
In accordance with Council policy, this would appear to leave only one course of action that satisfies the demands of the highest order of ethical standards to which the Council is legally bound to aspire, if Ms Lisa DIXON declines to resign.
- (iv) Termination of employment
- In some cases the nature of the private interest may be incompatible with continued employment in your present capacity and the authority may not be able to arrange a re-arrangement of duties or a re-deployment, or the private interest may simply be incompatible with any employment with the authority.
- In such cases, the authority may terminate your employment.
But do not hold your breath. The greatest corruption arises from the cronyism that has engendered a cover-up-happy clique of self-publicists and self-seekers who, abusing the public trust, have consistently covered up scandals and protected those responsible for them, as specified in the linked article.
“Corruption hurts everyone who depends on the integrity of people in a position of authority”.
In the interests of complete transparency; shortly before publication of this article, I sent an email to SBC’s Chief Executive Officer Mr Jim DILLON, lodging a Formal Complaint against his Head of Legal & Support Services and Monitoring Officer.