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Knight to Porn Too?

Knight to Porn Too?Continuing our (ever expanding) chess analogy on this matter, the saga continues. And the latest move certainly was a surprise!

In our last issue, we left readers thinking that Cllr Renwick's treatment at the hands of Fylde's 'Consideration and Hearing Sub - Committee' would probably be quite gentle, and he wouldn't have the allegation about pornography on his laptop sent to, and determined by, the National Standards Board.

We said, whilst in theory that was a possibility, we were pretty sure Fylde's own Standards Committee (whose powers are limited to suspending a Councillor for up to six months) would be dealing with it.

Regulars will know we don't believe that elected councillors should be 'set aside' by anyone (other than a Judge's sentence after a Jury has found them guilty of a crime), but as things stand for the moment, another set of rules prevail, and whilst the investigator appointed by Fylde had not found evidence that Cllr Renwick had personally downloaded or viewed the images - she did find he had been lax with his computer password (which had at least enabled others to view the images on the Council's laptop). She also said his behaviour in being so lax had, in her view, brought the Council into disrepute.

In common with others, we thought the result would be a six month suspension at the worst, and it would probably be significantly less than that.

We formed this view partly because the officer's report was slanted heavily in that direction, and partly because the members of the sub-committee selected to hear this first stage were, shall we say, not Cllr Renwick's greatest fans. This meant that, because they had been asked to serve on this sub-committee, they would be debarred from serving on the committee that decided his 'fate'. * SEE UPDATE AT END

That situation left what some might consider to be 'friendlier' councillors to decide the extent of any sanctions against him.

The Full Standards Committee at Fylde comprises (perhaps a rather unfortunate) 13 people. The sub committees are drawn from this number - and if you have served on an initial hearing sub-committee, you can't the sit on the subsequent committee that determines the matter.

So if, when an officer asks if you are free to sit on an initial hearing committee, you say you have another engagement and can't make the hearing one, the chances are that you'll get to be on the committee that determines the matter.

You don't have to be a genius to work out that it's feasible to pack a committee to be favourable or unfavourable using a selected-subset of the full committee.

We can't say that happened here of course, but it did seem to us that those on the first hearing stage were not Cllr Renwick's greatest fans. Apart from the chairman, there were no Independent Members, they were all councillors: Hayhurst, Eastham, Henshaw, and Parish Cllr Richard Nulty, so none of the 'Independent Persons' (ie Non-Councillor members)  had been assigned to the initial hearing.

At first sight, readers might think it would be to Cllr Renwick's detriment to have his colleagues (most of whom will have been on the receiving end of his occasionally sharp tongue in Council debates) sit on the initial hearing sub-committee. But of course if that then prevents them from later sitting in judgement on him, it may not be so detrimental as it seems at first.

The officer report to the hearing committee was unequivocal in leading them to the view that the only sensible course was to send it to the Fylde committee, not the National Tribunal.

Specifically, it said.....

"Where a report finds that there has been a breach of the code, the Consideration and Hearing Sub-Committee must (except as set out below) refer the report to another meeting of the sub-committee. This will be a formal hearing where the sub-committee will determine whether it agrees that the member breached the code of conduct. If it determines that there was a breach, the sub-committee will go on to decide what (if any) sanction to impose on the member.

In this case, the report has found that Councillor Renwick failed to comply with paragraphs 5 and 6.2.1 of the code. The sub-committee must therefore refer the report to a hearing as described above.

Today's sub-committee meeting may decide to seek to refer the matter to the First-tier Tribunal (Local Government Standards in England) instead of to a further meeting of the sub-committee for determination. It is up to the President of the tribunal whether to accept such a reference. The tribunal has published guidance that indicates that the President will only be likely to accept a reference where a more severe sanction than six months' suspension form office would be appropriate."

That sort of statement leads you to the view that it's going to be referred to the local committee and not to the national one. It's one of those cleverly worded pieces that leaves you with the impression that's what will happen, even if that was not the intention of the writer.

Sadly, counterbalance was not able to go to this first hearing, but we have spoken to several people who did attend and we've built up something of a picture, albeit third hand. That being the case readers should treat the impressions we have gained, with caution.

The Chairman opened the meeting and suggested they probably wouldn't take much time on the matter because it was more of less an open and shut case, and they would have to send it to Fylde's Standards Committee for determination because there wasn't enough of a transgression on Cllr Renwick's part to warrant anything more than six months suspension. (And only cases that warrant a sanction greater than 6 months suspension can be sent to the National Standards Board).

Gossip circulating after the meeting alleged that officers had briefed the Chairman and at least one other member of the hearing committee on what was, and was not, appropriate treatment, before the meeting started. This could have created an expectation - as the report had done - that the matter was cut and dried, and that might be why the Chairman thought it was an open and shut case.

But he hadn't banked on any of the Sub Committee having done their homework..

And whilst some had not, and appeared to be ready to agree with him, one had done his homework, and didn't agree.

We understand that was a would-be 'White Knight' - none other than Saint Paul Hayhurst - (himself no stranger to being hauled up before the National Standards Board - see 'Paul Hayhurst's Tribunal') argued strongly that there was cause to send the matter to the National Tribunal.

When he sets his mind to something, Cllr Hayhurst of one of the most effective arguers you are likely to meet. He ranks as one of the top five we have ever heard. That's not to say we always agree with him. There have been times in the past - and no doubt will be in the future - when we have most strongly disagreed with what he was proposing, but agree or not, he is a very effective advocate.

His style is somewhat similar to that of Scottish MSP Alex Salmond. He is clever, his arguments are always well timed, he sees the bigger picture but has a full grasp of all the detail, he uses humour to devastating effect, he has an excellent eye for the soundbite, and a clear head for figures. You find yourself agreeing with the arguments he advances even when you know you disagree with him. In that sense, both he and the Commissar are quite well matched, but in a contest, we'd put our money on St Paul.

So it was that he waded in, and argued his case..
At one point in the meeting, we understand there was some criticism of officers because the background documents and transcripts of the investigator's interviews which were referred to and listed in her report had not been made available to the hearing committee.

So they couldn't see the actual answers to the investigators questions.

Some members said the investigation was incomplete and wanted to see the background documents to establish whether all avenues had been followed or not.

When Cllr Henshaw said he thought the committee should see all the evidence, we are told that Mr Curtis, the Council's Solicitor, replied that 'The report has all the information you need to make a decision' adding that they shouldn't refer it to the National Standards Board because it was not serious enough to do so.

Hmmmm. We recall a time in Fylde's history when an answer like that from an officer would have resulted in the officer being reminded of his place and probably finding a job somewhere else - in quite short order.

There were also complaints from members of the Committee about the length of time it had taken for the case to be brought before them. (The case has its roots in 2007, with the main action taking place in January / February 2009 - which is now 18 months ago). The officer explained that he had had difficulty finding dates when witnesses could be interviewed.

It also transpired that former Council employee 'Officer X' (who had been discredited for making a copy of the data on the laptop and thus possibly changing the last date at which some files had been viewed) had written to each member of the Committee before the meeting saying that at no time had he been asked to be a witness, and he would welcome the opportunity to give evidence. That sounds to us like an angry person who hasn't yet had their say.

But we're told that the chief arguments that carried an eventual decision to refer the matter to the National Standards Board came from St Paul Hayhurst.

He cited a case with many similarities where the person concerned had been lax with their password, and whilst they could not be shown to have viewed the images personally, their poor security had allowed their Council's system to be compromised with pornographic images.

He argued that computer security is very prominent in to-day's workplace and younger people especially are used to the rigours it imposes. We understand in some workplaces it is a disciplinary offence to be so lax, and some offices have personal ID cards as part of the logon process so you have to be personally identified as well as using your password.

So St Paul argued that whilst older councillors who were less experienced with today's office security, may not see a security breach in the same light, the issue of the password and the compromise of the Council's system was much more important that they might think, and it did warrant being viewed more seriously.

The clinching factor seems to have been the other case where the councillor ended up being suspended from being a Councillor for two years, (but, we understand, they had resigned as a councillor before the suspension verdict was delivered).

We understand it was largely Cllr Hayhurst's arguments that carried the day, and the sub-committee decided to send the matter to the National Standards Board for consideration.

We heard that Cllr Roger Small was in the public gallery making huffing and puffing noises about it being disgusting and the Sub-committee turning the process into a witch (maybe should have been warlock?) hunt, and he would have the matter referred to full Council

Clearly he had no idea how things work. Until a few weeks ago, this man was the deputy leader of the Council, and he ought to know its procedures inside out.

It is not possible for the matter to be sent to the Council, so it will now be sent to the First-tier Tribunal (Local Government Standards in England) instead of going to a further meeting of the sub-committee for determination.

There remains the hurdle of whether that Tribunal will judge the matter to be of sufficient importance to accept it as a case that could warrant more than a six month suspension, but if the case St Paul cited is precedental, there must be a prospect that it will be accepted.

So the situation is back in flux.

If the case is accepted by the national tribunal, we wonder if any further investigation will be carried out, and whether Officer X will be asked to give evidence. The appendix to the investigator's report refers to "CLT8 Copy of interview questions and answers provided by Officer X"

We understand the officer concerned has asked for a copy of this but doesn't expect to receive it. Officer X was not interviewed by the investigator, so we guess this can only be a copy of notes made by a third party in connection with another matter, and it is unlikely they should have much credibility in this investigation.

Unless 'Officer X' has agreed the content of any statement or interview record, that 'record' could contain whatever a third party wanted to write in it, let alone what interpretation they wanted to put on events. Our understanding is that Officer X has never been asked to sign a copy of any statement they made.

We also understand they are waiting ready with documentation on the matter in the hope they will be asked for further information, so there could be more to come on this, and we're aware that further revelations are a possibility.

We also wonder about the investigator. She 'added in' the charge of bringing the council into disrepute, and found Cllr Renwick wanting on that score. This is quite unusual. It also risks a more severe sanction than might otherwise be the case.

Perhaps she gained the impression during her investigation that information was being presented in a particular way and maybe she felt she was investigating in a manipulative atmosphere and we suppose it is possible she could have wanted to stake out her investigative independence.

We also know that after a Council meeting at the United Reformed Church Hall at around the time all this would have been happening, we recall seeing three people with the capacity for considerable influence in this matter go into conference mode in a big car on the car park for so long that the windows steamed up. They were all people who would have been involved in deciding how to handle this matter.

They could have been talking about anything of course, and their lengthy discussion may have been something not connected to this matter at all, but given they were the ones who would have had knowledge of this matter, we remember thinking - There's something going on, wonder what they're up to??

So where does this leave us?

Well, it leaves Cllr Renwick in a mess, and no doubt with more uncertainty in his future than he would have hoped for. It might produce some surprising results if there is more investigation, and for that reason we think there will be an effort to try and hush it all up.

If it all goes wrong, it might show some bad judgement on the part of officers advising the Council, and some less than good judgement on the part of those Conservative Members who decided to re-admit Cllr Renwick to the Conservative fold after his last suspension.

But for now it's 'wait and see'

Dated:  1 November 2010

UPDATE 22 November 2010
We have been advised that our premise with regard to arrangements 'if you have served on an initial hearing sub-committee, you can't the sit on the subsequent committee that determines the matter' are incorrect.

It seems that in the circumstances of Cllr Renwick's case it would be possible for the same people to sit on both sub-committees.  We have subsequently been advised there are circumstances that limit the ability of Cllrs to sit on two levels of 'sub-committees', but in this particular one, that ruling does not apply, and we apologise to readers for this factual error.


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